Liz didn’t care about the bad thing, had no interest whatsoever in hearing Einar’s confession as he stood there shivering and clearly well past the beginning stages of hypothermia in the sharp, damp wind that had been buffeting the cabin with increasing force since sundown, and she grabbed him, led him inside over his protests--can’t go in yet, got to tell you, afraid I’ll fall asleep once I get in where it’s warm, and I’ve got to tell you, first--and helped him out of the sodden flannel shirt which, tied as tightly as he had been able to manage around his middle, had served as makeshift sling to hold his arm in place and minimize movement of his ribs on the climb.
“You’re back, that’s all I care about. You can tell me about this bad thing later. Now. I know we can’t have a fire because of those hunters, but I figured a candle would be safe, and I’ll have you some tea heated up pretty soon here. In the meantime, eat this.”
Einar shook his head, gently pushed aside her hand with its offering of honey, the sweet, sticky stuff filling the bowl of a coal-burnt spoon. Exactly what he needed, but not yet. “Took a horse. Shouldn’t have done it and I got no excuse. Should have found another way to make things work down there…”
“What do you mean you took a horse? Where is it?”
“Back with the hunter by now, I’m sure. He stayed behind when the others left, surprised me this morning when I was trying to leave the place where I’d watched them all night and…it’s a shameful thing, Lizzie, and I don’t like having to tell you, but the truth is I was getting pretty desperate down there about sunrise this morning. Dizzy. Seeing things. Couldn’t stand up for long, and when that hunter left his horse and went into the tent after some gear…” He shrugged, hung his head, and she put a hand on his shoulder. Alright. It’s alright. But she didn’t say it out loud, because she knew he wouldn’t want her to.
“He didn’t see me. I was quick. Gone out of there before he could hear the horse and duck his head back out of that tent, but you know he had to wonder why his horse would just take off like that… I should have waited. Just lay there and waited ‘till he left. Would have been Ok. I’m sorry.”
“Einar, you…” She stopped herself, had been about to say you don’t need to be sorry, dear, dear Einar, you’re so strong all the time, please don’t be sorry if your humanness shows through just a little, every now and then, but she knew he did need it, had not lived up to his own standards, was ashamed of himself and had, in fact done a pretty foolish thing in taking that horse, and her assurance to the contrary would do little to convince him otherwise. “You’re all worn out. Please take the honey. It’ll help.”
His confession made and the world beginning to fade fast around him--sleep beckoning, and oh, how he wanted it, a black velvet nothingness that spoke to him in soft whispers, persistent, calling, calling, but he knew he must resist, for the time--Einar finally accepted the honey, choked it down with sips from the pot of barely lukewarm but still incredibly welcome tea Liz had been heating over the candle, amazed at the instant surge of energy it brought him, able to sit up a bit straighter and look at Liz with clear eyes for the first time since finishing his climb. She looked worn, tired, concerned, and the sight made him sad. Knew he’d caused it, or part of it, and he was about to say something, to try in some way to make it better, but she was speaking, and he had to make a conscious effort to focus on her words, to decipher them and get them into the proper order in his brain. Not as wide awake as he had thought, apparently…
“Do you think he’ll track you? From the place where you left the horse, I mean? Do you think he’d be able?”
“No. He’s not following me. Thought of spending another night down there to make sure, but I am sure. Didn’t leave anything he could follow, not unless he’d brought tracking dogs…”
“Dogs? You think this man is up here looking for us?”
“I think…I sure thought so, at the time. Don’t know, now. He seemed to be behaving pretty strangely, staying behind like that when everyone else left in the morning to hunt, leaving his horse separate from the others all night so I couldn’t see it, didn’t know it was there…but he might have had his own reasons, I guess. Was trying to find out when I…I panicked a little because I couldn’t stay on my feet and he was coming, and I took the horse…”
Liz nodded sadly, wanted to say something about being human, how we’re all human and sometimes make those sorts of mistakes, especially when we go for months without enough to eat and stay up all night freezing in the rain watching hunters’ camps, but she could hear his answer already, so refrained. “Have some more honey. You look awfully cold still. Do you want to get warm?”
“Yeah, guess so. Kinda like to…stop shaking. Hurts the ribs.”
“Well, come on then, get in under this bear hide and you’ll soon be warm, even without a fire.”
Sounded like a good idea to Einar, either that, or talking Liz into packing up all of their essentials and fleeing the place that night before the fake “hunter” could find it and radio for air support, land a team there and take them in their sleep…but he didn’t expect he’d have much luck talking her into the second option, and wasn’t even sure he believed it the best one, himself. To bed, then, and Liz crawled in with him, wrapping her arms around him--he was amazed at her warmth, grateful--and gently feeling for the spot where the tenderness was worst--it was obvious, from his involuntary reaction--firmly pressing with the palms of both hands, hoping to give him some relief. It hurt him at first and he stiffened up, felt as though he must try and get away from her, but forced himself to keep still, and after several minutes of it he relaxed, his breathing evening out just a bit as the compression eased the sharp, gnawing hurt in his side and the warmth of Liz’s body began to thaw him some. Shivering got worse as he warmed, that was the way it always worked when he became as thoroughly chilled as he had on the last leg of that climb, cold blood from the extremities circulating once again to mix with the warmer stuff at the core, and the shivering pulled and twisted at his ribs, but Liz just pressed more firmly, holding the ribs in place, and it helped.
“Thanks, Liz…feels real good. Can breathe again.”
“Breathe, then. Breathe. Come on, deep breaths. I know it hurts to do it, but you’ve got to clean your lungs out, or you’re going to end up in trouble again. And don’t keep yourself from coughing. I can feel you straining not to cough, but you’d better just go ahead and let yourself do it.”
Which he did, was getting too tired to keep on resisting the coughs, anyway, and he knew she was right, knew also that it was going to hurt, but at least with Liz pressing his ribs like that, the coughing was more or less bearable. Good. It was a lot easier to breathe after the coughing, and he wanted to relax, to sleep, but fought it, wanting first to discuss with Liz what he had seen down near the valley, make a plan for the following day.