Einar heard it first, that soft shuffling and snuffling, the occasional crackle of brush as something large and not altogether graceful pushed its way through the bit of chokecherry scrub over there on the other side of the cabin, and it was that thin tangle of vegetation that gave them their only real warning, for the timber over on that side was floored with feet of soft, springy needles which made for nearly silent travel for man and beast alike. Unless that beast happened to be particularly large and awkward, which this one sounded to be. Einar was on his feet, spear in hand and a wild look in his eyes as he dashed shouting out into the clearing, certain the sounds weren’t of human origin and determined not to lose those pots of newly separated honey, which he was sure must be the target of the raider’s interest. The bear, a medium-sized black, was determined, too, or had been, the smell of that honey having proven nearly irresistible to a creature which, the snowy time fast approaching, was spending twenty or more hours out of each day eating and putting on fat for the winter, but the wild-haired human, bellowing and snarling and waving its arms as he charged, gave it pause.
Stopping just shy of the clearing the bruin tested the air, rose halfway up on its haunches, still drawn by the scent of that honey, the sheep carcass and days’ worth of cooking odors from the outdoor firepit, but alarmed by Einar’s crashing and shouting, too alarmed to risk it, and the bear turned and began lumbering off into the timber just as Einar braced himself, heedless of his injuries, and threw the spear. He missed. No surprise, but still he was disappointed, determined to have another try, snatched up the atlatl and fitted a dart as he pursued the creature as quickly as he could into the timber, but the bear was long gone, didn’t even allow him a shot. Einar, hearing the receding crash and lumber of the bear’s hasty retreat only faintly over the pounding in his own head, sank to his knees in the bear’s trail when he realized immediate pursuit was destined to prove fruitless, examining a bear-foot sized scuff in the forest floor and holding his ribs as he struggled to get his breath after the exertion, sick and pale with the hurt of it. Liz soon caught up to him there.
“I guess we can’t be leaving that honey unattended! Good thing you heard it coming before it was out in the clearing…”
“I’m gonna track him.”
“The sun will be down pretty soon.”
“You stay here and get the honey poured off into the baskets, hang them in trees so they’ll be safe for the night, get a good fire going and don’t wait up for me.”
“The bear will be back.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. He’ll be back after the honey, what’s left of the sheep, will be trying to shove the cabin door down to get at the stuff we’ve got stashed in there, if he happens upon the place while both of us are away sometime. We sure can’t afford for that to be happening right now, and besides, we need his meat, his fat and hide. Really need them.”
“Please, not tonight… Can’t we wait until he comes back, or at least wait for morning and track him together? If you go after him right now with that spear…”
Einar laughed strangely, a soft, strained sound that got choked off somewhere in his throat, tried to stand but fell back to the ground, wincing and pressing his side. “I’d get….” had to stop and take a few careful breaths, tried again to get to his feet and this time made it, stood there with his spine perfectly straight, trying to take the strain off his ribs but only partially succeeding, “get the job done, if it was the last thing I ever did do. Now you take care of the honey, and I’ll…”
“I know you’d get it done. I have no doubt at all about that, but I don’t want it to be the last thing you ever do. We don’t need the bear that badly. Need you more, little Hildegard and I do, and don’t you dare say anything about the bear having more meat, or fat, or a more useful hide, because you know good and well that’s not at all what I mean. Now come on and help me get the honey into these baskets, alright?”
Nodding, he kicked at the bear sign in the duff underfoot, scuffing it out. It hurt, hurt worse than the awful burn and tear in his side--seemed to have done something to it, charging out into the clearing like that--to admit that she was right on this particular matter, but she was, and he knew it. Bear would kill him if he went hand-to-hand against it right then with his legs still barely working and a full breath--let alone two in a row--nearly impossible to get, and if it didn’t, he’d do the job himself, running after it like that. Later. He’d have to do it later, and in the meantime, there was a good bit of work ahead of them in securing the camp against the coming night. The honey, especially. Couldn’t risk losing that honey. Or the racks of jerky that still sat--mostly dry by then--out in the fading sun in front of the cabin. Liz tried to help him across the clearing, but he insisted on making the walk unaided.
Having successfully if not entirely without mess got the separated honey poured off into its respective baskets they pounded the wide aspen branch-slice corks into place--good and secure, would be somewhat of a hassle to remove, but that was better than risking one of them falling out as they carried the honey, someday--and suspended the baskets high in a spruce, securing them near the middle of a long branch well out beyond the grasp of any bear that might take a notion to secure himself a good supply of honey without raiding a bee tree. Thinking about it, Einar was somewhat surprised that a bear had not yet raided “their” bee tree, but he didn’t remember seeing claw marks in its bark, and supposed that the relative shortage of bears up in the basin--a little high, compared to their normal range in the area--must account for the lack of disturbance to the tree. Their visitor, though, would certainly be back--unless he had simply been passing through on his way up and over the red ridge in search of the chokecherry and oak thickets that lined the slope down below--and when he didn’t find a way to get at the honey that had initially caught his attention, there seemed a pretty good chance he’d go on to find the tree. Well. They’d harvested a good bit of that honey already. Wouldn’t hurt for the bear to have some of what remained. Just as long as he doesn’t wipe out the colony altogether. We might stay, and if we stay, I’d like to be able to harvest more in the future. Finished with the honey-hanging, he turned to Liz, who had been watching him with concern in her eyes, but trying not to say anything because she knew it would aggravate him.
“I’ll get you that first raised cache built pretty soon here. Will be good when we have at least one of them all done and secure and bear-proof, will be easier than hoisting everything up into the trees every night before bed.”
“Yes, it sure will, but for now, this works. Speaking of bed, it’s starting to get cold out here. What do you say we head in and try out that new stove, fix some supper and start thinking about bed?”
“Stove’s not finished. I didn’t get the plaster done on the lower part of it.”
He nodded. “Ought to work alright anyway, not leak much smoke once we get a draft going. I still need to make a door for it so it’ll be more efficient, but it’ll draw the smoke out, warm the place. Yeah, I’ll come in for the night.”
Liz, relieved and surprised, hurried to cut some fresh sheep meat for their supper. The stove performed admirably once they got enough heat going to establish a draft up the chimney, reminding Liz very much of the one they’d had back at the bear cave, and before long the cabin was comfortably warm in contrast to the rapidly chilling air of the clearing, warmth departing with the sinking sun as the sky, crystal clear and still, filled up with countless unblinking pinpoints of light. It was going to frost again that night. Liz could smell it. Could smell the soup, also, which sat simmering in its pot on the stove’s flat top, and she tested it, found it ready.
Einar was too tired to eat--too badly nauseated, too, between the ribs and the lingering effects of the bee-poison--but, slouched back against the wall beside the stove with his eyes half open, pressing his ribs and trying hard to keep breathing, he watched Liz with great enjoyment as she wolfed down another pot of soup, a quart of her honey-sweetened raspberry leaf tea, shaking his head and giving her a faint smile when she offered him a sip, but she was insistent, wouldn’t leave him alone, and finally he drank. More time passed, then, a pleasant hour during which Liz spoke softly of her plans for collecting and drying what sounded like somewhere near half a ton of chokecherries over the coming weeks and Einar half-dozed while struggling at the same time not to lose his place in the conversation, increasingly losing the fight until at last Liz announced that it was time for bed, fluffed up the fir branches beneath their bed and helped him into it, in under the bear hide. Warm it was, unbelievably warm and soft and secure-feeling after that past night spent unclothed, shivering and caked with drying mud beside the spring, and he was asleep almost instantly.
That morning Einar, awakened by the distant but unmistakable sound of gunfire--three shots following closely one upon the other, and he was sure they hadn’t been part of a dream, for he’d had none, that night--quickly rolled out of bed to make certain the fire was out, was emitting no smoke.