Having finished cutting the softened hide from its frame, Einar handed it to Liz to inspect and admire, temporarily delaying her intended attempts at persuading him to come with her in a search for whatever the hunters might have left behind from their kill that morning. Taking a seat on one of the aspen logs upon which they had propped the stretching frame, he took the opportunity to loosen the wrap around his ribs, remove it as he knew he’d better be doing regularly and force himself to take a series of deep breaths, expanding his lungs more fully than he was able while wearing the wrap. Slowly, deliberately, two breaths, three--doggone ribs feel like they’re cutting me up, tearing something in my side every time I do this, hope that’s not really what’s going on--finally stopping at six, hoping it would be enough. Figured so, just as long as he made a regular habit of it. Liz wanted to ask him something. He could see it in her eyes when he looked up, hoped it wasn’t about the ribs or any of the other troubles he was having, because he was not in any mood to discuss such things, just then. He was relieved when she started talking about elk, but the relief was to be short lived.
“Elk hides are bigger than sheep hides,” she started out, “and a couple of them sure would put us a lot closer to having what we need for the parkas, the other winter gear…”
Einar nodded a bit wearily. An obvious fact. Guessed he’d better try and get her a couple elk, before too long. Was about to assure her of his intentions in that direction, but she wasn’t done.
“Well, the hunters are probably back down at camp by now, and that first hide sure isn’t going to be as easy to work with once the coyotes have had time to chew and tear at it for a few hours, and if it stays overnight…”
“Oh, no Lizzie, I see where this is going!”
“Just down there to where their gut pile probably is, no further. To see if they left the hide. We’ll go together, keep close together to help each other make sure no one is still in the area, and if they’re not, we’ll bring the hide back with us. How about it?”
“Good way to walk right into a trap, that’s what I think about it. Walk into a trap and get ourselves killed.”
“You don’t think they’d have gone from the spot by now?”
“I don’t know. If they’re just up here to hunt elk…sure. Probably. But I’m not convinced of it. Not after seeing that guy down at camp this morning, the one who had stayed behind…never did get that figured out, but it was strange.”
“The one whose horse you took?”
He narrowed his eyes, still not at all proud of his actions down there at the camp, nodded. “Yeah. That one. Fifth hunter. Figure since he wasn’t going around with the other hunters, wasn’t acting like them, maybe he’s up here for some other purpose. And we don’t know who it was shot that elk. If they even hit an elk. May all be a setup designed to lure us in, let them get a look at us, get us on camera, maybe, give them a place to start from in tracking us back up here so they can surprise us in the night, send in a team, hit this place with a rocket, something like that. Doubt they’d chance that, come to think of it. Chance having us figure out their game, get away into the timber. Probably take us right then and there, soon as we step out into the open to take a look at the gut pile, hide, whatever they’ve left to bait us. Especially if we both show up down there together. No reason to wait and follow one of us back to camp, if we both show up together.”
Liz just shook her head, looked away. Now that sounds a lot like the old Einar, the one who was hanging around here from time to time before that last visit with Bud Kilgore and who kept seeing threats in every shadow and wanting to pack up and move on at the slightest provocation…I’d really hoped you were past that, at least for a while, but who, after all, is to say you aren’t right in this case? And I haven’t forgotten that it was the “old Einar” who kept us from capture for so long, even if he was taking things a little far in recent months, and causing us just about as much trouble as he was saving us from… All that aside, she wanted to point out to him that he had no evidence whatsoever to support the nefarious intentions he was attributing to that fifth hunter; most likely seemed that the man had simply preferred to go out hunting a bit later in the morning, and alone, so had remained behind when the others left, but she could no more prove that there was no reason for suspicion than Einar could that there was, and as he did tend, most of the time, to have a better sense for such things, she supposed she ought to simply count the hides as a loss. Which--the matter already resolved in her head, no more questions, no arguing, settled; they’d get their hides the old fashioned way-led to her reacting with perhaps a good deal more surprise than she might have intended to Einar’s next question.
“You be able to guide me down there? I didn’t hear that shot.”
“Guide you down…what? Down to the…oh, no! What are you planning to do? Go in there and ambush them, or something?”
“Just planning on retrieving that hide, if there is a hide. Don’t figure anyone’s really down there, just have to go over all the possibilities, you know, expect the worst, but the more I think about it, the less I expect anyone’s really down there. Too wide a net to cast. If they knew to within so close a distance where we were holed up, they’d already have us. Wouldn’t mess around leaving hides and gut piles as bait, sending in fake hunters to risk spooking us and having us take off before they could put an operation together…nope, don’t figure there’s too much real danger in fetching that hide, as long as we take reasonable precautions, keep in mind that folks may still be in the area and make doggone sure we see them a real long while before they see us.”
“You don’t? But you said…”
“I said we got to consider all the possibilities. We ever quit doing that, and they’ll have us pretty quick, or ought to. So, I considered them. Happened to do my considering out loud this time, so you could consider along with me. Ha! You should hear some of the considering that goes on in here in my head, from time to time…it’d turn your hair grey, some of it!”
“Oh! I think it already has! Lucky for you I don’t have my rabbit stick within reach, right now… You’re serious about looking for that hide, then?”
“Yep. And you were right about doing it before dark, if we’re gonna do it, because while I’ve certainly seen hides in fine shape a day, two, even longer after being dumped like that, I’ve just as often seen ‘em seriously chewed up by one critter or another, and that just gives one of us more sewing to do, and a real rough tanning job, if we let the thing get torn up when we don’t have to. Guess we ought to get things cleaned up some out here, gather all of the scraps where I cut the hide out of the frame and get everything inside, since it’s looking more and more like rain again and we don’t have the hide smoked yet to protect it from moisture, and then we can head down there.”
Liz was already busy with the scraps, freeing them from the cordage that had bound them to the frame, rolling them up to save for later use, anxious to get started before Einar changed his mind about going after the elk hide.