29 June, 2011

29 June 2011

I'm heading out for a few days of wandering today, so this will be the last chapter for a while, probably until the weekend.

Thank you all for reading!


Heavy and awkward, it was quite a task getting the bear hide spread over the leaning aspen trunk for fleshing, Einar hanging onto one end while Liz struggled with the other until finally they got it, ending up with only minimal spruce needles and other debris stuck to the flesh side. Having stayed folded and rolled up overnight, the hide was still quite moist, a definite advantage when it came to scraping and freeing it of its remaining bits of flesh and fat. The morning was cool and crisp, but with a fairly stiff breeze sweeping up from the basin, Einar knew they would need to sprinkle the hide occasionally with water as they worked to prevent its drying too much and making their job a good deal more difficult. Though doing his best to help with the strenuous work of scraping the hide Einar was inevitably limited by his injury, the repeated pressing, scraping and twisting motions required by the job causing him a good deal of pain even with the ribs wrapped, and though Liz knew better than to ask him if he wanted to stop, she hoped he might soon come to the conclusion that such would be the wisest course of action. Looked like he was going to have the decision made for him pretty soon, anyway, as it appeared that he was finding himself increasingly unable to get enough breath to remain upright, face and fingers beginning to take on a faint grey-blue tinge. Einar was indeed struggling, trying his best to concentrate fully on the task at hand--scraping the hide while avoiding leaving behind any major nicks or scrapes that would prove troublesome later in the tanning process and when using the hide that winter--while really needing to devote all of his energy to simply continuing to breathe. The conflict was exhausting. He needed to stop, but had set for himself the goal of scraping from the bear’s neck area down to the middle of its stomach--roughly half the area of the hide--before leaving the remainder to Liz, if she had not already finished ahead of him, and he was determined to do it, blinked away the sweat that was trickling down to try and interfere with his vision and kept himself on task, one regular stroke after the other, scraping clean the hide.

Finished. Finally. A sense of triumph at having managed the thing despite his difficulties, the job done as well as ever, flesh side of the hide smooth and white and without blemish, aside from the spot where Liz’s arrow had entered the animal’s shoulder, and his knife wound to its neck, and Liz was done with her portion, too, having finished at nearly the same time as he. Together they stepped back and surveyed their work, Liz speaking while Einar fought for breath, trying very hard to slow his respirations, breathe more deeply, but having little success. Things seemed to be getting away from him, his body refusing to cooperate.

“What’s next? Do we stretch it like we did the elk, or just leave it down like this for the braining?”

Good question. The hide was massive, heavy, and the thought of wrestling it into the frame, lashing and stretching it and then reaching up above his head to smear on the brains and work the thing as they dried…several times…made him want to crawl under a tree and curl up in a little ball. Large as the hide was, though, he knew trying any method other than frame-stretching would only lead to more work and a hide that did not come out nearly as soft and supple as it otherwise might have. He nodded. “Yep, need to stretch it. Frame we used for the elk ought to be big enough. Close, anyway. Close enough. We’ll just trim out parts of the legs if they don’t fit, use them for other projects. I got to…find a drink of water real quick and then…help you get it into the frame.”

Liz handed him his water carrier, which had been sitting apparently unnoticed by his side. “Here. Drink. And then how about we get you set up to render the fat, before it gets any warmer this morning and the stuff starts going rancid? I’ve helped you lash and stretch hides. I can do this part.”

“You sure can. But I want to…I’ll stick around and help you punch the holes, get the thing lashed to the frame. Big job. Go faster with two. And you’ll need help standing the frame up. Then…rest of the day…rendering fat.” He was out of breath, had to stop. Wasn’t getting enough air, and the sensation of it was leaving him increasingly agitated, nervous now that the intense focus which had carried him through the scraping had eased, feeling all of a sudden as though he was going to die--soon--which of course he wasn’t, not from this, you’re fine, gonna be fine in a minute, and he told himself so, but it didn’t seem to be helping much. Liz saw his distress, didn’t say anything but took his arm and led him into the cabin, helped him onto the bed just as he began to lose consciousness. She got him propped up, loosened the wrappings around his torso and covered him with the ewe hide, sitting beside him and watching for any sign that his breathing was continuing to grow worse. In all probability, she told herself, he had just worn himself out working too hard on the hide, allowed his need for oxygen to get ahead of his ability to acquire it, but she was somewhat concerned that all the activity might have led to further injury, a sharp fragment of one of the broken ribs shifting as he moved and puncturing a lung. All she could do was to watch and wait, keep a close eye on him and hope his breathing improved with rest. If he ended up with a pocket of air trapped in in his chest, compressing the lung--pneumothorax, collapsed lung--she knew the options would be quite limited as far as what she could do for him out there without the proper equipment. He seemed not to be getting worse, though, his color actually improving a bit as he rested, which she took as a very good sign. You just did too much out there, wore yourself out. Which was inevitable. I hate to leave you right now, but it looks like I’d better get back to work out there, get that hide all laced up and stretched before it dries and shrinks too much, and you wake up thinking you’ve got to fix it yourself, haul it up to the spring on your back and soak it, or something, before lugging it back down here to stretch! Sleep well, Einar.

Retrieving Einar’s little bag of punches and awls from the spot where it hung in the cabin, Liz made fairly quick work of punching and lacing the hide, trimming off sections of both front legs in order to get it to fit in the frame. Those bits could be tanned separately, she supposed, or even left raw for projects such as boot soles or winter gaiters. They would certainly be put to one good use or another, valuable as they were. Finished lacing the hide, Liz knew the time had come for the more difficult part, tightening the laces and getting the hide stretched tight and even in the frame. Sometimes getting the tension just right could be a major challenge, and she’d even seen Einar struggle with it from time to time. The task would go a good bit smoother with his participation or at least active advice, but she certainly had no intention of waking him, asking him to come out there again and end up once more unable to breathe. There has to be a first time for everything. Guess I’m doing this one myself. But I probably ought to at least look in on him before I start, make sure he’s still getting enough air and isn’t awake needing water, or something. Though if he was awake, I’m afraid I’d probably know right away, because he’d be out here…

Einar wasn’t out for long, the pain of breathing soon brining him round to lie staring at the ceiling-logs, dizzy and sick and not remembering exactly how he’d come to be back in bed. However he’d got there it definitely wasn’t the place to be, not with daylight streaming in through the open door and an entire bear to prepare for the winter, and he sat up, tried to swing his legs to the side to stand up off the pallet of fir boughs, and immediately passed out again. Woke seconds later angry, frustrated at himself for giving in to such absurdity but with a new respect for the consequences of too-quick movement, and the next time he tried to rise, he took it a good bit more slowly. Never made it past a sitting position, which is how Liz found him when she hurried in to check before stretching the hide. His face bore the pale, strained look of a man who is fighting for air, and with limited success, but he wasn’t purple anymore, which Liz found encouraging, under the circumstances. Now to convince him that she had the hide under control, leaving him free to spend the remainder of the day in the cabin rendering bear fat…

28 June, 2011

28 June 2011

A moment of confusion when Einar woke, the incongruity of Liz’s sudden presence nearly convincing him that she was the dream and the other--the place in which he’d struggled through the night--the reality, but she didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and when he tried to move his arms he could do it, reached for her and she took his hand. Einar let out a great sigh that hurt his ribs but he didn’t even care, gave Liz a big lopsided smile and let his head rest back on the elk hide pillow, flooded with relief and a great, wordless joy that seemed to more than compensate for the ongoing hurt of breathing. Been home all along

Liz did not understand, but returned the smile, stretched out beside him so they could converse without his feeling that he must get up right away. “Did you get any sleep? I couldn’t tell. How was your night?”

Einar just shook his head and laughed, rested his forehead against hers and said nothing for a long time, marveling at the amazingly, entirely undeserved gift of her presence, words quite failing him. “Night is over. Morning is good. Good.”

“Yes, it is good. A sunny day coming up, it looks like, we’re back at home with nowhere to go and we’ve got a whole bear sitting here waiting for us to take care of. That’s what I call a good day! How are your ribs, though? It looks like you’re still having a pretty hard time breathing…”

“No, no…” He sat up just to show her that he really was doing fine, the plan only marginally successful when he had to clamp his jaw shut to keep from crying out at the hurt of flexing his torso. “I know what it is to have…hard time breathing, and this…I can do this. No problem.”

You had quite a night, didn’t you? I can see it in your face, that shadow in your eyes, though there doesn’t seem much chance of your telling me about it, and maybe that’s for the best, anyway. The sun’s up, no need to dwell on those things… “How about you sit here for a few minutes and try to get some good deep breaths while I fix breakfast, and then I’ll wrap your ribs for the morning so you can be a little more comfortable when you have to move around.”

A good plan, and Einar acted on it, leaning forward and concentrating on filling his lungs fully, four breaths as he had done the previous day, a series of four repeated several times, followed by a rest and more of the same. Didn’t seem to hurt any less than it had last afternoon--was worse, if anything, the entire area bruised purple and badly inflamed after all the untimely movement he had required of himself--but he was somehow finding the entire thing a good bit easier to take after the horror of the night. Had somehow put things in perspective, left him so glad to be where he was instead of in that other place that everything else was quite incidental. Except that they really did have an entire bear sitting out there, meat and hide hanging in in a tree and fat piled there against the cabin wall, and he had to plan how best to involve himself with the processing of the thing without causing catastrophic injury to one vital system or another. A real possibility, he had to admit, if he wasn’t wise about the way he moved. Free floating rib sections were nothing to be trifled with, no matter how ready one might be feeling to take on the day. Had better let Liz wrap things in place for a while, once he’d finished his breathing. Back to work, then. What happened to your sets of four? Worn out already? That sure won’t do, and you know Liz isn’t gonna want to let you help her with the hide if she sees that you can’t even breathe without a major struggle…not that she probably hasn’t already noticed…but you can do better than this. Giving it his best effort he managed to get a dozen an a half more full breaths--he was keeping count--before stopping, worn out and feeling a bit dizzy at the effort of it. Would certainly help, and for the moment, would have to do. Liz had finished adding meat to the simmering broth--that past night’s leftovers--that was to become their breakfast stew, sitting down beside him with a pile of cloth strips and a pot of slightly warmed berberine water that she had prepared, washing the bear-claw wounds on his back and carefully wrapping his ribs for the day. Einar thanked her, got to his feet and waited for his breathing to slow a bit after the strain of having his ribs pulled on and compressed by the wrapping process. He’d managed to keep still through it, but just barely.

“Ready to help me flesh out that bear hide, now before it gets too dried out and a lot more difficult to handle? I’m gonna spend most of the day rendering down the fat like we talked about, but need to get that done first…”

“What about breakfast

“Ah, you go ahead and eat while I lower the hide and get started. Not really hungry this morning.”

“No, I imagine not, but you don’t really have a choice. Come sit back down and have some stew. You’ve got a lot of things that need healing right now, and how can you expect your body to do that very well if you don’t give it something to work with on a regular basis? If nothing else, you need the calcium. For your ribs. They shouldn’t have broken like that, not unless you’d been in a pretty serious fall or got slammed against something an awful lot harder than I expect you did by the bear in such a small, confined space as that, and you have to know it. I don’t like to get after you about this but I just hate to see you hurting so badly when it isn’t necessary and especially with winter coming so quickly and these injuries making you less able to…”

Einar was on his feet, back to the door, calm demeanor belied by a frightening intensity in his eyes. “I’m able to…”

She stopped him. “That’s not the point. Not what I’m trying to say. I know that you’re able to do what has to be done and you have a tremendous commitment to making sure it happens, no matter what it costs you. I would never question that. It’s just that we have plenty to eat now, have had for a couple of months but especially now with this second bear, yet I still see you shorting yourself at every opportunity, refusing to give yourself what you need to keep going, to get strong again, and I do know you must have your reasons and I care about them, but right now what matters most is that you be here for this child, and I don’t see you making as much effort as you could to let that happen. Now. Before I use this rabbit stick on you. Eat!” And she practically dragged him off his feet and down onto the log they’d been using as a bench, pushed the too-hot soup pot into his hands and sat down beside him with a determined finality that left him just as certain that she meant to carry through on her threat to use the rabbit stick as he was baffled about the possible reasons behind her outburst. Well. He could puzzle over that later. Figured he’d better eat.

Breakfast finished--Einar had done pretty well with his portion of the stew, despite a persistent nausea that resulted from the constant strain of breathing through the hurt of his ribs and his resulting shortage of oxygen--the two of them moved out into the sunny clearing in front of the cabin, lowering the bear hide to begin the demanding task of scraping from it every bit of flesh, fat and membrane in preparation for the braining that would render it a soft and supple source of warmth for the winter.

27 June, 2011

27 June 2011

One of Liz’s loads that evening had consisted almost entirely of the thick white layers of fat which were to have supported the bear through his long hibernation, and the forty or so pounds of the stuff that now lay piled neatly on clean rock slabs along one wall of the cabin represented arguably the most valuable portion of the entire animal, when it came to their survival that winter. The fat would provide their bodies a tremendous amount of warmth and energy when added to their otherwise lean and potentially meager winter fare of dried meat, berries and the occasional fresh rabbit or other small mammal, and could, in addition, be used to condition and waterproof buckskin garments and boots, protect their own skin from the ravages of the sub-zero winds that would be all too common at that elevation through the winter months and be burned for light and heat in the cabin, if need be. For the fat to last through the remaining warm weather of the fall without becoming rancid--would still make fine lamp fuel and utility oil at that point, but would be very difficult and not terribly healthy to eat--it would need to be rendered down, heated over the fire or in pans of warm water to stabilize it and poured off into vessels of one sort or another for storage. The job seemed to Liz an ideal one for Einar to tackle that following morning, as it would both keep him busy with a necessary and productive task, and keep him relatively still there in the cabin so his ribs could begin healing, or at least avoid further damage, and as she put the finishing touches on her modifications to the bed and helped him into it, she began working to convince him of the wisdom of her plan.

Einar did not take much convincing, nodding as he rolled over, got with some difficulty to his hands and knees--would have been able to move a good bit more freely if he’d let her wrap his ribs for the night, but he had insisted they be left free so he could concentrate on taking some deep breaths; he’d have little choice but to wrap them for the activities of the coming day, and knew his lungs needed all the opportunity they could get to fully inflate, during the stillness of the night--and joined Liz in the bed.

“Got to be done, so guess I’d might as well do it. The fat rendering. Want to…be able to help you flesh out that hide too, but as long as you won’t object to me coming out there to…do some scraping in the morning, I’ll spend…rest of the day taking care of the fat. Get it done.” With which, exhausted and out of breath, he checked one final time to make sure his spear and knife were where they belonged right beside the bed, lowered himself into it and closed his eyes. Through for the day. A good day. More tomorrow…

That night Liz lay watching him try to sleep, breaths shallow, face pinched white with pain and seemingly no relief in sight for him--every breath appeared to be agony, even though he seemed some time ago to have given up on taking deep ones and lapsed back into the pattern of rapid, shallow breaths that hurt him least--and after a while she could hardly stand seeing him like that anymore, just wished she could make it stop, give him some rest one way or another. Perhaps give him a solid blow in the head with the rabbit stick and knock him out for a while, and she might have tried it had she not been so afraid that he might stop breathing altogether if he lost consciousness that way. So she stuck to watching, occasionally dabbing away the sweat that stood out on his face and offering him water whenever he seemed awake enough to take it, but for the most part he looked to be off in his own world somewhere, not quite asleep--hurt too much to sleep--but definitely not existing in the present, either, eyes strange and distant as he stared up at the flickering firelight shadows on the ceiling. She just hoped the dream world that appeared to have such a firm hold on him would not prove the sort that had so often in the past sent him jumping to his feet in pursuit of some imaginary foe or other, as sudden movement of any type seemed a very bad idea for him that night.

Fortunately for Liz--and Einar too, though he certainly would not have thought so at the time--his dreams were such that he believed himself quite securely bound, might have fought it, struggled to get free, had not the entirety of his energy and focus been consumed by the struggle to go on breathing, but it was, and he kept still, staring at the ceiling and plotting his escape. Finally, believing there was little more she could do for him that night, Liz slept, one hand on Einar’s chest so she could feel his breathing as she slept, make sure nothing changed dramatically for him in the night. She would have liked to hold him, both for warmth--hard as he tried to hide it, she could tell that he had never quite warmed up from his long time of stillness guarding the meat while she ran back and forth to the cabin--and to give herself a better way to monitor his condition, but couldn’t figure out a way to do it without hurting his ribs further, and wasn’t sure it would have been safe, anyway, not with the dreams he appeared to be having. She could only imagine that they mustn’t be pleasant ones…

Too long. They’d left him too long hanging there, body contorted and tied into an impossible position that severely restricted respiration and left him feeling as though he was literally fighting for his life with every breath…had kept him that way for hours at a time in the past, he had no idea how many hours, time loses all meaning after a few minutes of that and becomes a very fluid, slippery thing, difficult to track even for a tracker such as himself, even if one is looking for signs, searching desperately for some way to measure and mark its passage in a last-ditch attempt to hang onto what is left of one’s sanity, give one’s self some hope--any hope--that the thing would come to an end…eventually…but he knew without doubt that never before had they left him through an entire night. Not until now. He could make out through the closely-placed slats of his enclosure the faint grey of approaching morning, and he strained his ears for any sign that people might be stirring in the camp outside, might be about to come and make some change in his situation--any change at all would have been welcome, then--but hearing nothing. Nothing but the wind in the trees. Nothing changing. Perhaps they intended to leave him like that all day. See how long it would take to finish him off. At what point he would finally stop breathing. He doubted it. Knew they weren’t through with him, yet. Wouldn’t be through until he gave them what they wanted. This will end. Just keep breathing

No relief in sight as the light strengthened outside--was dark there in his little cage, far darker than he remembered it being, as if the walls had somehow grown thicker, and he wondered if perhaps his keepers had thrown something over them in an attempt to deprive him of all contact with the outside world, bring him more quickly to the place of despair and brokenness that was surely their goal for him--he wanted to allow himself to pass out, had been very close to doing it a few times during the night, but sensing that he might not have the strength to go on breathing if he managed to detach his conscious mind from the process--not deeply enough to allow himself to wake again, anyway, which for some reason he did still very much want to do--he’d fought the blackness whenever it tried to well up and take him, managed to stay awake, and as he watched daylight brighten outside, he struggled once more to keep himself aware. Long night. Glad it was over. More than once during the dark hours he’d got to feeling as though he couldn’t take it anymore, not for another second, the white-hot, splintering hurt of it in his wrists, ankles, shoulders, in his lungs whenever he struggled to take in air, the near-panic at feeling himself growing too weak to be certain of his ability to force another such breath--it was all very nearly too much for him. He might have tried to bargain with them, offer them something, but they never did show up, left him there alone all night long, and though he wanted to call for them--wanted it so badly that morning that the words were right there at the tip of his tongue, ready to come out--he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Was able to resist taking that step, so knew that he must. And did. One more time. Closed his eyes again so as to devote his entire concentration once more to his breathing, and the next time he opened them, it was to the sight of Liz’s face.

26 June, 2011

26 June 2011

Liz transported those last two loads of bear meat in record time, used to carrying the weight, doing well with it and concerned that Einar might change his mind and insist on doing half, should she take too long at it. Though he did not change his mind, Einar was by no means idle during her absences, moving the remaining portions of meat onto moss patches and rocks where they would remain clean and putting his energy into preparing the hide, folding it flesh side in, rolling and tying until it was a nice, neat package and ready to be slung over his shoulders and tied in front for the trip down. They had only one pack frame, and though he contemplated lashing together another during Liz’s last absence, it seemed to him the weight of the hide would be better distributed though the over-the-shoulders method, ought to put less strain on his damaged ribs.

After that, everything ready for their final trip down the hill, he allowed himself to rest once more, rolling painfully onto his stomach and holding his breath as he lowered his torso onto a knee-high bounder, moss-covered and relatively flat-topped, letting his arms hang down the front of it and breathing slightly more easily as the pressure of the rock held the loose segment of ribs in place, allowing his lung to inflate a bit more fully. Far better than simply wrapping the ribs, and he didn’t want to move, would have gladly stayed the night draped over that rock without moving a muscle, but for the fact that he had to help Liz carry down that last load and prepare everything for the night down at the cabin. That, and the fact that the cold of the rock was already beginning to find its way up through the thin layer of moss and into his unprotected core, chilling him, and he knew the agony of the shivering that was inevitably about to begin would far outweigh the relief provided by his position against the rock. Tested the theory by remaining still for several more minutes and very nearly falling asleep, head resting on the rock and arms dangling until his body began resisting the growing chill by attempting to produce its own heat. That first big shiver had him seeing stars.

Yep. Real bad idea, and he eased himself up off the rock, rolled away from it and back onto the ground. Not much better. Sun was down, a cool evening breeze blowing and he couldn’t seem to quit shaking, each tremor adding to the agony that gripped his left side and leaving his breaths even more shallow than before, ragged, barely giving him enough air to prevent him blacking out. Not good at all. Liz would be back in a few minutes, and how was he supposed to carry the bear hide in his current state? She wouldn’t want to let him, would try and talk him into giving her the entire load, all hundred pounds of it, and she’d hurt herself, and the baby, and he couldn’t allow that… Had to get warm, rubbed his arms in an attempt to generate enough heat to convince his body that it really was alright to quit shivering, but it wasn’t enough; he needed to move, that, or to cover his top half with something more than the strips of cloth that were serving as rib wraps, protect himself from the wind, and he knew the bear hide would do the job, despite being quite damp from the dripping water in that crevice, but he couldn’t stand the thought of unrolling it and then having to start all over in folding and preparing it for transport. Had been enough work the first time around. Eat. Didn’t feel hungry but supposed he had to be, snatched up a few slices from the supply of liver Liz had left him when she carried the rest of it down to be kept fresh in a pot of cold water and managed to get them down despite the vague and pressing nausea that had come over him somewhere along the way in his struggle for breath and the bit of nourishment did the job, got him warmer and allowed him to get himself pretty well composed by the time Liz returned for the last load. The one that they were to carry together.

It was almost dark, and Liz wanted to stay the night right where they were, get a big fire going, fix Einar some soup and let him rest for the night, avoid further injuring his ribs by making that descent but when she suggested it he shook his head, began lashing the last load of meat to her pack board. “Not good to…have stuff in two places like that. Have to worry about the cabin all night, wonder if…bear might come along, another bear, break in after those berries… Need to get down there. Not much of a walk. I can do it.”

“Yes. I know you can. You’re planning on carrying the bear hide?”

He nodded, saving breath, having seriously overestimated his supply of air, worn himself out with his last attempt at talking.

“How about if we just hang it from one of the trees here, come back for it in the morning?”

“Nah. Might as well…we’re already here. Might as well get it done.” She helped him, then, to get the heavy hide draped over his shoulders as he wanted it, helped him to his feet in a way that best seemed to minimize the twisting and bending of his torso that so badly aggravated his ribs--pretty pointless, she knew, as the steep descent would inevitably consist of one such movement after another, but it was a small thing she could do for him, so she did it--and together the two of them started down the slope.

Einar did pretty well as long as he was moving. Always had, and probably always would, as long as he had the life and breath in him to take that next step. Some very efficient mechanism in the way his mind and body communicated seemed to take over to keep him upright, moving and in tune with the terrain around him once he’d taken the notion that he needed to get somewhere, a long-practiced thing that operated somewhere just below the level of conscious thought and well knew that there are times during which to stop is to die, to lose the wary edge of one’s alertness is to set one’s self up for worse than death, and it got him there, got him down that hill and to the cabin at a pace which rather surprised Liz, even though she had more than once before seen it in action. And then he collapsed, flopped down on the cabin floor and passed out as soon as he’d freed himself of his burden, which did not surprise her at all, and she covered him with the ewe hide before hurrying outside to hang the last of the meat. He woke some time later to the crackling of a fire, Liz silhouetted in the soft glow of the open stove door, looking all shimmery and indistinct but perhaps more beautiful than he’d ever seen her, and then he breathed, had to breathe, for one can only hold one’s breath for so long before automatic processes take over to ensure the intake of air, and with the breath came the shattering of that soft and beautiful image, a mass of white hot hurt engulfing him. He groaned, rolled over in search of relief, but did not find it.

Liz was at his side, leaving the stew she had just started to offer him water, prop his head up on a rolled up hide and help him find a more comfortable position. She had something in her hand, some sort of sharp-smelling liquid in a pot, was trying to get him to drink but he held up a hand to ward it off.

“Drink some. It’s willow, just a little willow to help with the pain, maybe make it a little easier for you to breathe…”

He shook his head, gave her a smile to let her know he was grateful for the effort, even if not willing to partake. “Nah, not necessary. I’ve seen worse.”

“Oh, I’m sure you have, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about this tonight, make yourself a little more comfortable, maybe…”

“Sure it does.”


He shrugged. “Hard to explain. Not enough…breath right now. Tell you some time…”

She stood, set the pot aside near the stove and fussed over the stew for a minute to keep him from seeing how upset she was. You are impossible, Einar Asmundson. Sometimes I just don’t understand what goes on in that head of yours, don’t have a clue

He bore it in silence, the ongoing trial of the evening, not complaining, not speaking at all, actually, but whenever Liz caught his eye she saw there something that she though could almost have been taken as pleading, as if he very much wished to say something, to ask something, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Which indeed he could not. Could not, must not even allow his thoughts to go down that road. Must get through this. Must go on. And he did.

Tired. They were both bone tired after the long miles and heavy work of the day, and while the stew bubbled--bear liver and heart and some savory little bits of kidney in a rich broth of bear’s blood, not the first thing she would have thought to fix after a similar kill a year or two prior, but it sounded better to her that night than a pan-fried steak with mashed potatoes and all the trimmings--Liz worked on their bed of fir boughs and critter furs, bolstering one side with the rolled up elk hide so that Einar could sleep propped up, as it seemed he was having the most trouble breathing while lying flat on his back, and could not maintain such a position for long. Einar wasn’t hungry but did his best with the stew for the simple fact that Liz, who had worked so hard to create it after a day of continuously hard work, wanted him to eat it. Even with such motivation he was able to consume no more than half the portion she served him before he found himself too tired to continue. The act of breathing was exhausting, the effort and the unrelenting hurt of it, and to try and add anything on top of it just then…well, it was suddenly more than he could seem to manage, and he turned his head away at Liz’s gentle attempts to talk him into finishing his supper. Couldn’t do it. Wasn’t sure how he was supposed to go on breathing, even, if things continued as they were. Not the way the effort was wearing him down. Silly thought, and he dismissed it as such. Of course he would go on breathing. Though it did not at all feel so that evening, breathing was, thankfully, a fairly automatic process, not something he could voluntarily stop doing just because he was tired. Or he might have. Just for a few minutes. Just so he could rest.

Quickly cleaning up after supper and setting the leftovers over in the corner farthest from the fire to keep them fresh for morning, Liz took one final look outside before bolting the door for the night, allowing the light of the open-doored stove to spill out and give her a dim but reassuring view of the hanging hide and meat sections that would spend a secure night in the trees around them, and when she turned back it was to see that Einar had propped himself on his elbows, and was looking, too.

“Real good work today, Lizzie. You…shot us a bear, tracked it and hauled almost all the meat down here. Hardly even…need me for…”

“Oh, yes I do! Don’t you talk like that. And don’t talk so much, either. You need to save your breath for…breathing. How is it going, the breathing?”

“Still…I’m still here, so…”

25 June, 2011

24 June, 2011

24 June 2011

As soon as Liz had disappeared into the timber, Einar began unwrapping the tight bindings of cloth that were serving both to hold the usnea pads in place on his back and compress his ribs, knowing he needed to take advantage of the temporary stillness to focus on getting some good full breaths and figuring out just what was going on with his ribs. Needed to be working on the bear, too, but Liz had got so much done in his absence that she already had the next several loads portioned out and ready to go, so that seemed the less pressing task.

Ribs all unwrapped and his breathing a bit freer if rather more painful, Einar tried to lie down but felt as though he couldn’t breathe until he propped head and shoulders back up against the tree, reclined there for a while just breathing, counting the breaths--sets of four, that was the pattern into which he settled for no particular reason other than that five somehow seemed far, far too many--to help himself keep at it, knowing he had to keep his lungs clear, despite the way it hurt… After a time he let it go, exhausted, allowed himself to slip back into the pattern of shallow, rapid breathing that seemed best to minimize the pain while still affording him enough oxygen to remain conscious. He needed a rest. Closed his eyes for a minute, but soon opened them again, remembering that he was supposed to have been trying to figure things out, deciding what had happened to him, and what its implications might be. Didn’t even need to look to know that, not really, as he could feel what was going on, now that more time had passed and the muscles around the damaged area were no longer locked up tight and holding everything in place; he possessed little doubt as to the nature of his injury.

One look confirmed his suspicions. A portion of the left side of his chest, in addition to being heavily bruised, appeared to be moving independently of the rest of him with each breath. Sinking as the other side rose. The movement wasn’t dramatic, but was definitely noticeable. Einar closed his eyes again, felt a momentary surge of panic but let it pass. Unnecessary, and certainly wouldn’t do him any good. Focus on the situation. Flail chest, that’s what they called it. Two or three ribs broken in more than one place, preventing the lung on the injured side from inflating and deflating normally and making breathing incredibly painful and a lot of work. Well. That explained why he’d had such a rough time hauling the bear quarter… His was not a particularly severe example of the injury from what he could tell. He’d seen it worse, had seen…well, never mind what he’d seen, had seen a lot of things but most of them weren’t especially relevant at the moment; most of those guys he’d observed with similar injuries had got them by being too near an explosion or impact of one sort or another, sustaining blast injuries or crush injuries to the chest area that often as not significantly bruised a lung and caused other internal injuries as well as breaking the section of ribs, and a lot of them had died in the end, despite everyone’s best efforts.

But he hadn’t been blown up, or even thrown against a tree. He was just a half-starved old mountain critter whose hunger-weakened bones had apparently cracked when he’d been mashed down against the rocks by a bear, and it seemed unlikely to him that his lung would have sustained any significant injury. The slight flail chest, distressing as it was, wouldn’t kill him. Would reduce his lung capacity for a while on that side, for sure, which might give him some real difficulties up there in the oxygen-starved environment of the basin, but it wouldn’t kill him. Didn’t kill people. It was the underlying lung trauma often associated with such injuries that did people in, and he’d already decided he probably didn’t have that. Sure wasn’t getting enough air, but that was almost certainly due to the simple fact that it hurt like the dickens to breathe very deeply at all, leaving his body to automatically keep his respirations shallow in an attempt to minimize the hurt of it. He’d have to get past that. If he could take charge of the situation and make a very conscious effort to breathe in a more normal way, give himself enough oxygen and prevent further problems from developing, he’d get through it.

Glancing up at the sky for the first time in a good while, he saw that the sun was close to going down. Liz would be returning soon, and he figured he’d better get himself put back together so he could be of some use. Would have to wrap the ribs. Current treatment for injuries such as his, he knew, no longer involved the tight wrapping that had been standard in the past, as it had been rightly judged to cause too much interference with normal expansion of the lungs, leading to restricted breathing and sometimes lung infections that could have been otherwise prevented, but then, current treatment also relied on having some way to locally reduce the pain to the extent that the patient would be willing and able to take deeper breaths, in the first place. He could do it, could make himself do it, but the effort, as he had learned earlier, required all the concentration he could muster and left him exhausted and sweating after a dozen breaths, and he couldn’t realistically see himself breathing that way while trying to accomplish other tasks at the same time. Like walking. Or carrying bear meat. “Current treatment,” even if he’d had a way to carry it out, did not make allowances for any such things, he was pretty sure. It seemed to assume one could keep still quite indefinitely, which simply was not possible in his situation. In order to allow himself a bit of mobility and reduce the hurt some, he’d have to keep the ribs wrapped, at least part of the time. Wasn’t easy for him to move in the ways required to get himself wrapped back up but he did it, counting his efforts as a temporary solution and supposing he could see if Liz might be willing to do a more thorough job, when she got back.

Liz. She’d be cresting that hill any moment now, stepping out of the timber, and what was he going to tell her? That he was finished, broken, couldn’t get up and was leaving the rest of the work to her? To her, and the baby? No. On your feet. You hauled the bear out of that crevice, butchered it and carried a quarter down there with this injury, and if you did that, you can help finish the job before quitting. At which he promptly sat back down on the aspen log, holding his ribs and staring at the sectioned pile of bear segments, here a load, there a load, four or five more of them, plus one more trip for the hide, if they were going to keep the loads at or under fifty pounds as he had hoped, not wanting to ask Liz to carry any more than that along with her ever-present burden and knowing that he would himself be doing very well to manage anywhere near that much, a second time. Ha! Way things are looking, you’ll be doing well just to get yourself back down to the cabin before dark tonight, let alone any more of this bear. Not a useful thought, and he shoved it aside, stepped over to the neatly arranged piles of bear parts and knelt beside them, contemplating, trying to choose what he ought to carry but he found himself a bit indecisive, contemplating, generally taking a good while longer than he found acceptable to make his decision. Don’t want to leave her to do all the work tonight, but at the same time you’d better watch out that you don’t puncture a lung or something moving and twisting and carrying things with these busted ribs, or you’re gonna end up leaving her with a lot more than this bear to handle on her own

Liz found him still crouched there over the bear carcass when she returned several minutes later, hand pressed to his side, breathing too quickly as he had been when she left, but still seeming unable to get enough air. At first she wasn’t even sure whether he was aware of her return, as he went on staring at the bear for a few moments, eyes glassy and distant-looking. He’d heard her though, had been listening to her climb up through the timber for the past several minutes, hand on his knife until he’d recognized her walk, and as soon as he managed to slow his breathing adequately, he spoke.

“Go…Ok down there?”

“Yes, it went just fine, got the meat hung and checked the cabin, but it didn’t look like anything had been trying to…hey, look at me for a second. Are you alright? Can’t you get your breath, still?”

Einar didn’t want to look at her but she insisted, got down beside him and put a hand to his face until he glanced up, checked his pulse again and looked worried. “It’s just the ribs. Broke a couple, looks like. Making it a little hard to breathe. If you could just…wrap them for me…did it myself but…needs to be tighter.”

“I’ll wrap them, but not until you let me have a look. I need to know what’s going on. Can you lie down? I won’t be able to get a look with you all hunched over like this, and won’t be able to do any wrapping, either. Come on, let me help you.”

Einar shook his head, wouldn’t move. Didn’t want her to see how much it hurt him to move, not until she’d helped him into that pack board and loaded it down--and wasn’t entirely confident in his ability to conceal the fact. “I’ll tell you…tell what’s going on. Got a section of…ribs busted loose in the middle. Making my breathing…less efficient but…be Ok. This…isn’t gonna kill me. I can still…”

“Ok, Ok, just slow down and try to get your breath.”

“Yeah. This is…about as good as it gets. May need a little help…getting that pack on.”

Pack? No, you don’t! Didn’t you just get done telling me that a section of your ribs has broken loose? The only place you’re going today is straight down to the cabin and to bed. I’d use the rabbit stick before I’d let you… Wrong. It was all wrong, would only strengthen his determination to carry the next load. Try something different. “I can help you get the pack on if you want me to, but look at it this way. Night is coming pretty fast, and we still have over half a bear to haul down there and get secured for the night. You’re not going to be moving very fast with your ribs injured like that--it’s just a fact. You can’t breathe well enough to move quickly. Since one of us has to be here to guard the meat, anyway, doesn’t it make most sense to let me do the hauling this time, and you be the guard? Just as a simple matter of how best to use the daylight we’ve got left?”

He couldn’t refute her logic. Didn’t like it one bit, but had no answer. She was right. He’d only slow them down if he insisted on making half the remaining trips. Her last one had only taken fifteen minutes or so, in total, while his…well, he hardly even wanted to know how long it had taken him to cover the same distance. Felt like half a day. He looked up at her. “You doing alright with the weight? You and little Snorri?”

“Oh, we’re doing just fine with it! It’s all downhill. No problem at all.”

“Yeah, then. I guess since it’s getting so late…if you can take two more loads, and then on the last one, I’ll come along and take one too since there won’t be anything left to guard, up here. And we’ll be done.”

23 June, 2011

23 June 2011

Pausing for occasional bites of liver as they skinned the bear, Einar and Liz accomplished the strenuous task with as much speed as they could manage while still being careful to preserve the hide’s integrity, knowing how valuable it would be to them as the weather continued growing colder. Hide off and the bear rolled back onto the flesh side of it to help keep things clean as they worked to prepare the meat for transport back down to the cabin, Einar debated separating the rather thick layer of white fat from the meat right then to reduce the weight of each section that they would have to carry, but decided that moving the animal would be simpler and require less steps--and less containers--if they left everything as intact as possible until back down at the cabin. The fat would insulate the meat and slow its cooling and would significantly degrade the quality of the meat if it began to go rancid in the heat while still on the carcass, but they’d got the carcass opened up in pretty good time, and the evening was breezy and increasingly cool. Would soon, he realized quite keenly every time he paused in the heavy labor of butchering the bear, be downright cold, might even end up freezing lightly during the night, which would help chill and preserve the meat, even if they did leave the fat in place for the time being. Had its disadvantages, but seemed the most efficient decision at the time, considering that they were going to find themselves seriously pressed for time in getting the entire bear back down to the home place before night, as was Einar’s intention. Looked like they’d be working in the dark, as it was, since only one of them at a time would be making trips down to the cabin with the meat.

He’d considered suspending the remaining portions of the bear from trees and both going down together to double their carrying capacity, but most of the trees in the immediate area were small and spindly and quite inadequate to the task, and it seemed they would only be losing time by going to the trouble to hang everything before each trip. And certainly couldn’t leave any of it lying unprotected on the ground, not with the distinct possibility that other bears could be in the area, and the certainty that coyotes were. Einar knew what three or four coyotes could do to that bear carcass in the time it took the two of them to make a run down to the cabin with a load of meat, and couldn’t stand the thought of coming back to find that they had almost nothing left. Had fought too hard for this bear, both of them had. So. One person to carry meat, the other to stay behind and guard what was left while continuing with the butchering. Einar volunteered for the first trip down, at which Liz of course immediately objected. But kept the objection to herself, seeing that Einar was just about putting out maximum effort at the moment simply keeping himself on his feet and on task, and certainly didn’t have any energy to waste on arguing with her.

Still, I wish you’d let me go, because I really can’t see how you’re going to carry fifty pounds of bear with your back and ribs all torn up like that. You’re just going to end up hurting yourself worse, and then I’ll be the one who has to carry the rest of this bear down! You ought to at least think about taking a lighter load this first time, until you see how it’s going to go… But Einar had already settled on one of the creature’s hind quarters for his first descent, was in the process of lashing aspen branches together to form a rough pack board, and she helped him lash the meat into place, padding his shoulders with the remnants of his torn up shirt before tying the pack straps into place and grabbing his hands to help him to his feet. She tried to get him to meet her eye so she could see how he was doing with the weight--knew he’d never tell her--but he seemed to be quite deliberately avoiding all such contact, not wanting anything to distract him from the mission at hand.

It wasn’t too far back down to the cabin, a good thing indeed for Einar, who after traveling several yards down into the timber found himself barely able to breathe under the weight of that bear quarter, ribs feeling unstable in some not-quite definable way that he found oddly unsettling. The pain he could deal with--though he was grateful to be dealing with it alone, instead of in Liz’s presence, as he felt himself dangerously near the edge of his endurance each time he was required to take a breath--but the very definite feeling that if he moved wrong something in his chest or back might snap irreparably out of place…that was difficult to know what to do with, and had him maneuvering himself with a caution that slowed his pace unacceptably. No way you’ll get this job done before night, creeping along like you are. Now Liz has got your ribs tied up good and tight, and despite the way things feel, I seriously doubt anything’s to break or snap or lose its position in a disastrous way, so I suggest you pick up a little speed here, try to focus on the trail and on finishing this descent, getting the meat hung so you can go back for the next load. This bear represents an awful lot of meat for us, lot of fat that we didn’t necessarily even expect to have, going into the winter, and a hide every bit as thick and warm and good as the one we’ve already got--more so, I’d say, since we took him later in the season--so after you get it all secured and taken care of, you ought to be able to lie low and rest some, if you’ve got to. Let the ribs heal up. But tonight’s sure not the time for that.

Thoroughly convinced by his own arguments Einar gritted his teeth and managed to very nearly double the pace of his descent, arriving at the clearing badly winded and ready to crawl into the cabin and not move again for a very long time, but forcing himself instead to keep on his feet long enough to hang the meat securely in a spruce before leaning for a weary moment against the tree’s trunk, breathing, but something wasn’t right with his breathing, the process somehow not seeming as efficient as it ought to have--must have broken a couple more ribs, he figured, when that bear mashed him into the rocky floor of the crevice, maybe even fractured them in multiple places, leading to the wall of his chest moving in unusual ways when he breathed, preventing the lung on that side from filling completely--and he did the only thing he could think to do while still keeping himself mobile, which was to tighten the bindings around his chest. Dangerous if he kept them that way for too long, as his breaths were already shallow and putting him in some danger of being unable to keep his lungs adequately cleaned out, but the wrapping seemed a good temporary solution. Helped a little, enough, at least, to allow him to start back up the hill, which he did without any further delay, feeling that if he allowed himself to sit just then, he might never be getting back up. Which would lead to Liz eventually coming in search of him, abandoning and possibly losing the remainder of the meat. Which simply wouldn’t do.

In Einar’s absence Liz had made quick work of the remainder of the bear, preparing neat packages for transport and already having chosen her first load by the time Einar re-appeared, moving quickly but relying a good bit on his spear for support as he emerged from the timber. Liz rose in greeting, didn’t like the look of him, face pale and seeming almost to have taken on a bluish tinge in places, and she made him sit down against the aspen trunk where they’d shared their earlier snack of liver, checked his pulse and breathing--too fast, both of them, breaths shallow--and examined the color of the skin beneath his fingernails. Not looking good. Definitely not getting enough oxygen.

“Are your ribs bothering you?”

He nodded, struggled to slow his breathing so he could speak. “Some. Bear got me pretty good. Crunched my…ribs pretty good. Don’t think they’re quite as sturdy as they ought to be, right now. Gonna feel it for a while.”

A major understatement as far as Liz was concerned, and perhaps a dangerous one, but she wouldn’t have expected anything less from him. “Will you let me have another look? I need to see if…”

“When the bear’s done.”

With which he helped her into the pack board, began securing her load of bear meat--the other hind quarter--to its crosspieces for the downhill journey.

22 June, 2011

22 June 2011

Einar made no objection when Liz went at the little fir with the axe, wanted to do it himself and spare her the work but in reality could hardly take a breath without having to clamp his jaw to keep from crying out, and he knew the motion of swinging that axe might well finish him for the day. Couldn’t have that, as he had decided they must one way or another get the bear hauled down to the cabin before nightfall, so he helped as well as he could, bending the fir as far down away from the bear as he could and holding it in place, hanging from its bowed trunk to create tension that would expedite Liz’s chopping efforts. She worked so quickly that the tree’s snapping came as a surprise, left him toppled over on the ground beneath the little tree, limbs entangled amongst its boughs and Liz scrambling to pull it off of him. He hadn’t been hurt--tree was too small for that--but did attempt a joke about how he knew Liz had intentionally dropped that tree on him so she could have the bear’s liver all to herself, and it might have struck her as somewhat funny had she not been so worried about having further injured him. Einar found the entire thing pretty funny, started laughing as she lifted and rolled the little fir off of him and might have kept it up for a good long while had it not hurt his ribs so badly, but it did, so he stopped, got to hands and knees and crawled over to the bear.

The tree, it seemed, had been the only thing preventing the creature from backing right on out of the crevice when he went in after it, and with its removal, the carcass had shifted some, flattened out a bit and bulged out the opening in the rock. Good. If they could reach a hind leg or two and manipulate it out through the opening, they’d have something to pull on, and some hope of hauling the bear whole and entire out into the wide open daylight--downhill, it was all downhill once the bear cleared those rocks, and gravity ought to help them if they could just get it started out--where the process of gutting and skinning would go much more smoothly. Down on hands and knees, reaching, he found one of the bear’s feet, began pulling and twisting in an attempt to get it out behind the creature but he wasn’t making much headway and then Liz was beside him with a loop of cordage, passed it to him, and he slipped it over the foot, pulled to tighten.

“Good idea. Now all we need is a stick to wrap this thing around for a handle, and we’ll…” He glanced up at the feeling of someone tugging at the cord, saw that Liz had already thought of the handle, attached it, and he joined her, the two of them pulling until the foot was out where they needed it to be. The second was more difficult as the bear had collapsed almost directly on top of it, but finally they got that one, also, lashed the two feet to a stout length of spruce branch and began braiding together three lengths of cordage into a the rope that they hoped to use to begin freeing the bear from his rocky grave. It was going to be heavy work--if it worked at all--and Einar used the rope--preparing time to rest as well as he could, pressing out the worst of the pain in his ribs with a firmly-placed elbow and doing his best to breathe, get some oxygen in him for the big effort. The bear, he estimated, probably weighed somewhere between three hundred and fifty and four hundred pounds, being a fairly large male and all fattened up for hibernation, and while they might be able to simply hook him up to a hauling handle of spruce branch, each take an end and pull him out by brute force, he wanted to give them the additional leverage of passing the rope around an aspen trunk before pulling. Turned out there was one quite nearby, mere feet from the remaining stump of the fir Liz had taken down, and Einar passed the rope around it, tying it securely to the branch Liz handed him, a good stout one that looked as though it ought to support a good bit of tugging and pushing. Positioning themselves slightly in front of the tree and facing the bear, Einar and Liz braced the two ends of the branch against their hips, starting forward at Einar’s signal. Nothing. Too heavy.

The creature showed no sign of being willing to move, and they tried again with the same result, resting afterwards, leaning forward in the traces. Three, four hundred pounds…they ought to be able to move that bear. He knew the source of their troubles. It’s you, Einar. May not be intentional, but you’re unwilling to put out the effort needed to get this thing done, aren’t you? Know what it’ll do to those ribs. Body’s saying “no,” and your mind’s going along with it. Well that’s not gonna do. Not now, not ever. You’re gonna die if you start letting yourself think that way, if you let yourself give in like that, gonna end up flat on your face on the ground one of these days without the will to get up again, and that just won’t do… Shook his head, took a breath and fought to stay on his feet, straining so hard against the rope that he nearly blacked out, but still making no progress. He was struggling for breath, panting. Lord, give me the strength for this…can’t leave Liz to do it all, and…hate to admit it, but I just don’t seem to have the means to pull this off, right now.

Liz had stopped trying to move the bear, was watching him, urging him to take a rest, sit down, but he shook his head. One more time, we’ll get it this time, and they did, Einar straining and pushing and digging his feet into the ground as the bear began to move, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, but it was moving, and he did not stop--dared not stop--until the animal’s hindquarters were out and gravity was beginning to do its job, bear slouching towards them with increasing ease, and then they were up even with its tail, saw its nose emerged and they stopped, Einar sinking to his knees, hands braced against the massive animal’s side. They’d done it. First step in what was looking to him at the moment to be a rather monumental task, but it was one he’d done before, and could do again. Ok. Best get started.

Together they worked to gut the bear, setting aside heart, liver, lungs and everything else that might prove useful in the near future, Einar propping the carcass open with the branch segment they had used as a handle to drag the animal free of the rocks, knowing that the quicker they could cool it down, the better. They had been working silently and with an intensity spurred on by Einar’s realization that if ever once he allowed himself to stop working, moving, he would likely be in for a terrible time getting himself to start again, and though it had been working, he could tell that he would not be able to maintain such a pace for a good deal longer. Not without some fuel. Wasn’t feeling hungry, not with the hurt of those ribs and the fresh bear-gouges on his back, but when Liz suggested stopping for a taste of liver, he had to admit it sounded like a pretty good idea, agreed to join her. She’d found a good clean slab of shale, was preparing to slice up a portion of the liver.

“Should I take the time to make a fire, or do you want to just go ahead and eat it as-is, this time? I was thinking that if I went ahead and got a place all prepared for a fire, that would save time tonight when we…”

“Whoa now, who said anything about our staying here tonight?”

“Well, with all the work we’ve still got to do, I expected that we’d…”

“Too much risk in staying away from the cabin for that long, right now. Could be another bear would come along, smell those berries and finish off the door, leave us with a terrible mess and a real strong wish that we hadn’t abandoned the place. Held off this bear for a while, but it took some pretty heavy damage, best as I could tell, and might not be up for another major assault like that.”

“Guess you’re saying we need to get the bear down there pretty quickly…”

“Yep. Tonight. I want him hanging in the trees out front of the cabin before we sleep tonight.”

“That is quickly. Wow. Alright. I guess I’ll get started skinning and then quartering, just as soon as we’ve had our snack.”

Einar nodded, accepted the slice of liver Liz was holding out to him. Good. The stuff was awfully good, and he closed his eyes as he chewed, giving thanks as only a man who has known true hunger--and more than once nearly lost his life to it--can give. Liz was hungry too after the long day of near-constant motion and the work of moving that bear, and they shared slice after slice of the liver, reclining there in the sun and gradually--Einar especially, for he had been wet and on the verge of hypothermia for hours--growing warm for the first time since they’d left the bed that morning to track the bear. As he grew full of liver and increasingly sleepy under the sun’s gentle warming Einar eased himself to the ground and leaned back against the fallen aspen that had served as their bench, head pillowed on it and the rest of him sprawled out looking so relaxed that it appeared he might have been sleeping there for hours, content and indeed very nearly asleep as his body worked to absorb the liver’s much-needed nutrients. Liz did not want to disturb him, left him to fall asleep there in the warm, dappled sunlight that was finding its way down through the spruces, not at all sure how he was managing to lie on his torn up back like that, but supposing the beneficial effects of having eaten the liver must be outweighing nearly everything for him else just then. After a time she lay down beside him, stretching out in the sun and watching the wind dance in the spruce tops overhead. It looked like they just might be spending the night there, after all…

Or not. Several minutes later Einar woke as an especially strong gust of wind caused a tree-shadow to pass across his face, held himself perfectly still for one full startled second, only his eyes moving as he took in the scene around him and then--no threat detected, aside from his own inexcusable laziness and Liz’s apparent decision not to wake him--he was on his feet, reeling a bit at the catch and burn of his ribs with that first big breath and heading over to the cooling carcass of the bear.

21 June, 2011

21 June 2011

Liz had a terrible time talking Einar into leaving his determined crouch against the rocks and shifting his position in such a way that she could get a look at his back, where she had seen the bear-claw slashes in the cloth of his shirt, seemed he didn’t quite understand what she was asking of him and when he did understand he didn’t want to do it--ribs were hurting so sharply that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to breathe if he moved, wanted to remain exactly as he was, elbow pressed against them, until things settled down, some, but didn’t want to let on to her that they had incurred further injury, lest she try and delay the bear-skinning--she spent the first few minutes cleaning up some of the blood on his face and making sure none of it was his, which it wasn’t, and she was relieved. Einar needn’t have tried to conceal from her the trouble with his ribs, for she had already guessed at it by the way he held himself, took several long cloth strips out of her pack--bandage material; she had taken to always carrying them--and offered to bind his ribs for him, glad when he nodded and leaned forward so she could get the cloth around behind his back. Which was when she saw the extent of the bear slashes there, took hold of his arms and gently but forcefully turned him around so she could get a better look.

“Bear got you?”

“Yeah. Just once. He didn’t like being trapped in there any better than I did”

“I guess not! But I’m glad you’re the one who came back out again, and he stayed in. Looks like you got him.”

“Nah, you got him. Your arrow. It was a good hit. He wasn’t going anywhere. Wasn’t leaving that crevice. Just didn’t want little Snorri to be the one to have to crawl in there and finish him off.”

Liz nodded, went on cleaning his face and arms in silence, but had to admit he had a point, there. She wouldn’t have wanted that, either--to endanger the baby--if it could be avoided, but wished very much the entire thing might have been avoided in some way, perhaps by simply giving the bear another hour or so to expire before either of them crawled in there after it, knew Einar had his own ways of doing things, but was worried about what seemed to be additional damage to his ribs. Concerned he might end up with a punctured lung from one of the broken pieces, if he wasn’t careful, that, or some other injury that would be unsustainable and beyond the scope of their ability to fix, out there. Well. He was still breathing for the moment, and she needed to get him cleaned up so they could get started on the bear, because he needed rest and she knew he wouldn’t even contemplate getting any until that task was completed to his satisfaction. Starting to speak she stopped herself, saw that she just might have been wrong on that last bit about getting rest. Einar appeared to have very nearly fallen asleep while she worked, crouching there with eyes closed and head drooping forward. He certainly wouldn’t voluntarily rest with that bear waiting to be processed--she knew him better than that--but it appeared his body was trying very hard to force the matter. Almost as if he’d heard her thoughts Einar startled, got himself into a more or less upright position and asked if she was done.

“No, not quite. I’m going to have to get this shirt off so I can take care of the scratches on your back. It’s soaking wet, anyway, just making you colder. Come on, I know your ribs are bad, but I’ll bind them again for you afterwards. Don’t fight me, Einar. I’m just trying to help.”

He knew, struggled to keep still and hold off a rather strong urge to turn on her as she eased the shirt off and began cleaning out the wounds, guessed a bit of the tunnel-strangeness must still be with him, the powerful sense that someone was out there, just about to grab him and smash him in the side of the head so they could render him unconscious and haul him off again, leave him to wake in that little bamboo cage, and--the feeling of it was so real it was making him sick, leaving him with a desperate need to take off into the timber and away from her--he really didn’t want her back there behind him where he couldn’t see, didn’t want her touching him just then. Managed to keep still somehow despite the trouble, and Liz--he was rather proud of the fact, later, glad he’d been able to keep her from knowing the extent of it, the potential danger--thought his shallow, irregular breathing simply a result of the ribs and the hurt of having the bear-wounds cleaned out. One of the claw-trenches was rather deep, bleeding persistently, and she wanted to go in search of some yarrow to help halt the bleeding, but Einar was ready to be done with the whole thing, ready to stop worrying that he might be about to whirl around and pin her to the ground if she touched him again--a concern of his, if not of hers; she seemed to trust him, and he very desperately didn’t want that trust to prove misplaced--shook his head.

“No. Not necessary. You’ve got more cloth strips in your pack. Just…here, just grab some of this usnea out of the trees right here, pack it in the bad spots, wrap them with cloths and we’ll deal with the rest of it back at the cabin tonight. May ooze for a while, but I’m not gonna lose a dangerous amount of blood.”

She nodded, gave him a drink of water and rose to go. I’m afraid you already have lost a significant amount, between this and your arms where the bear got you, but I can see that you’re ready to move on, and I guess you’re right that you’re not going to lose too much more if I wrap things tightly, which will only help your ribs, anyway, so alright, I’ll go round up some usnea, and we can be done…

Hurriedly stripping hands full of trailing, hair-like usnea lichen from the branches of nearby spruces, Liz noticed a concentration of the stuff on one particular tree over behind the smaller rock slabs which, leaning on the larger mother boulder, created the bear’s sheltering tunnel, went to collect it and made a rather stunning discovery. Grinning, trying hard to suppress her glee--didn’t want him jumping up before she could finish the bandaging--she returned to Einar.

“You’ll never guess what I just found!”

“Big wad of usnea, looks like. Hope I’m not bleeding that badly.”

“No, you’re not. I just brought extra for later. And no, that’s not it! Well yes, that--here, let me finish fixing you up--but something else, too. I found a bear!

Einar blinked at her slowly, not quite understanding, but reaching for his spear, as he had absolutely no intention of allowing this new arrival to drive them away from their hard-won quarry. “Another bear? Where is…”

She pulled him to his feet, began leading him towards the back of the rock formation, slowing the pace a bit when he seemed to be having trouble keeping up. “Come see!”

There on the backside of the rock structure, partially hidden by a small fir and looking quite dark in contrast to the sunlit afternoon, stood a wide, angular opening in the rock where two slabs had fallen against each other and been prevented from finishing their collapse--moss-hung and dripping with rainwater that filtered down from above, and in the opening was the unmistakable backside of a rather large black bear. Einar understood at once what he was looking at, turned to Liz with a weary grin.

“You found a back door! Means we won’t have to chop the critter up in that tunnel and haul him out piece by piece…ha! Bear must’ve been blocking this opening so completely that I didn’t even see it, from inside. Just saw a bit of light, but thought it was all coming down from above. This is gonna save us so much time…though it does look like we’ll have to take down this little fir, if we want to be bringing the bear out through here.”

Liz had already made note of the tree, was opening up her pack to take out the axe, whose handle stuck up out of the top, and which she’d brought on the chance that it might help in chopping through bone or sinew when butchering the bear. Einar, she hoped, would let her do a good bit of the tree-chopping, save himself for the heavy work of skinning and hauling the bear.

20 June, 2011

20 June 2011

Einar never got to use the spear. Wasn’t room in there, wedged and tight as everything was between the bulk of the main boulder and the angled pieces that had fallen from it, wished, when he began hearing the breathing, that he might have had more room to maneuver, but knew he’d have to make do with what he’d been given. Could do it, had done it before, and the knife was already in his hand as he left the spear behind, crawling towards the sound--labored, clearly distressed; the bear was not doing well--of that breathing. Couldn’t be far back; from the looks of things on the outside, the opening didn’t go too many feet back, not nearly as far as some of the other dark and dripping tunnels into which he’d crawled blindly in search of the enemy over the years, and besides, he told himself, very deliberately pausing, breathing, working to slow his heart, which seemed to be threatening at the moment to come right through his aching ribs, this is not the enemy, this is just a wounded and probably dying bear who is almost certainly gonna be your supper tonight. He may be able to hurt you, alright, but he sure can’t whack you in the side of the head with a weapon, capture you and haul you off to a little cage somewhere, nope, not happening, so you can just put all that other stuff out of your mind and focus on the bear

Up ahead the breathing had stopped momentarily, changed, sped up and grown irregular; the animal was aware of his presence. Einar resumed his slow and deliberate progress towards the source of the sound, struggling to sort and separate it from the dripping and gurgling of leftover rainwater as it made its way down through the channels of rock overhead, dragging himself with his elbows and then he saw light, just a hint of light filtering down from above, and as he worked his way forward the light grew stronger, until at last he could just make out the massive form of the bear bulking there between the two walls, wedged, entirely filling the space, head on the ground and body oddly raised as if it had been unsuccessfully seeking a comfortable position from which to take its last few breaths. Did indeed seem to be on its last few breaths, as Einar could hear a distinctive gurgle and hiss to its respirations that told him it was not doing too well at all, likely had only a short time left. Which meant that the wise course of action for him probably would be to wait, fall back and wait for the great creature to stop breathing on its own, rather than rush in and risk injury to finish it off prematurely, and he had almost talked himself into doing so when the bear, seeming to gain a second--and probably last--wind, came at him, head up and ears back as it moved in his direction, letting out an angry, airy sound and swatting at him with a great paw.

Missed, but barely, leaving Einar to press himself quickly into the ground in avoidance of motion that was more scrape than swing there in the narrow confines of the rock cleft, but still would have been potentially quite damaging had it made contact. The bear tried again, hurting, struggling for air and apparently enraged at having missed him, and this time its aim was better, catching Einar hard across the back before he could worm his way back out of reach, raking him with its claws, and it would have torn his scalp wide open had he not been protecting the back of his head with crossed arms, a hasty and instinctive action that saved him from worse injury. A good thing. The initial injuries were bad enough. Felt like all the air had been crushed out of him, ribs shattered and backbone snapped in half, but he knew it couldn’t be nearly that bad, must not be that bad, he must not let it, fought to ignore the crushing hurt of it and concentrate on the lunge he was attempting at that bear, time slowed down to a crawl to give him the opportunity to do it, catching the creature in the neck and driving the knife up and in with all the force he could muster, which was considerable, even allowing for the tight squeeze of the place and his injuries.

Freeing the knife as quickly as it had gone in he felt a warm surge of blood over his hand, scooted himself back in a hurry in the hopes that he would be out of range if that bear decided to take another scrape at him. Wasn’t much room to maneuver but he made it, listened as claws struck rock, sliding harmlessly across it, and then the bear was down again, throat rattling for breath, and he was down, too, resting his forehead on the rock beneath him and beginning to realize for the first time that he was soaking wet, muddy and terribly cold… Must have passed out for a moment, then, perhaps a good number of moments, fallen asleep, something, for his next awareness was of lying with his face in a warm ooze of bear’s blood and wishing he could crawl further into it, for he was freezing. Couldn’t, though, for Liz was calling to him from somewhere out there in the brightness of day, out beyond the dark confines of his little tunnel-world, voice sounding urgent and somewhat distressed, and he knew he must go to her, let her know that it was finished, bear was finished and they would be eating fresh liver that night…tried to rise, passed out again, woke fighting and kicking to the feeling that someone had him by the ankles, had grabbed him and was pulling, trying to drag him out and he fought his way free--weren’t supposed to be any enemy in here, just a bear, but you must have been dreaming of home again, because there aren’t any bears in this part of the world, and those were definitely human hands around your ankles, so you’d better keep sharp, here, or they’re gonna have you--dragged himself forward and pressed his body up against that of the bear, end of the line, nowhere else to go, turned to meet his assailant…

Liz--who had waited faithfully at her post outside, arrow at the ready, through the many terribly long minutes of his crawl into the tunnel, had heard the sounds of his struggle and then, worst of all, silence, too many minutes of complete silence before finally deciding that she must go in after him--saw Einar in the faint and filtered light of the crevice, wild-eyed, face, hair, beard smeared and crusty with blood which at first she took to be his own. She spoke to him, held out a hand, but did not recognize the eyes staring back at her and could tell he did not know her, either, not as a friend, anyway, had a good firm grip on that knife and appeared more than ready to use it so she retreated to a respectful distance, speaking all the while, saying his name, her name, talking about the cabin, the child, anything, everything in the hopes of jarring him out of whatever Very Bad Place he’d managed to slip into and get himself stranded. Very slowly it began to work, a bit of the tension leaving his face, body sagging with exhaustion as once again he began to feel his injuries, and when once more he looked up after scrubbing a sleeve across his eyes, struggling to free them from some of the sticky and drying bear’s blood that was beginning to interfere with his vision, it was to see Liz crouching there in the tunnel, face appearing white and strained in the shadows. She did not look to be injured, and that was good. He put out a hand, touched her arm.

“What…why…thought you were gonna wait outside…”

“Well,” she spoke up, suppressing as thoroughly as she could the trembling of her voice, attempting to sound cheerful and perhaps overdoing it just a bit, “I heard things get quiet in here, and figured I’d better come in and help you skin out this bear!”

“Bear…?” Einar turned, glanced behind him at the massive creature whose head has become his seat as he fought to distance himself from the “enemy,” looked it over as if seeing it for the first time. “Yes. Bear’s dead. This…this’d be the time to skin it, looks like. Be mighty rough trying to haul the critter out of here in one piece, so we’d better skin it out and do some chopping, lug it out in quarters.”

With which Einar wiped his knife on his pants, still shaky from his injuries, the mistaken but at the time very real belief that he’d been cornered in there by an enemy, about to be captured, and the cold of having lain so long on that wet, rocky ground--he’d been out a good while longer than he realized--but trying his best to keep his hands steady, turning to the bear and studying it in an attempt to find the best way to get started with the skinning and gutting, and he motioned to Liz to join him. She was not so sure.

“Hey, how about you come out with me for a few minutes first into the daylight, maybe have some water and let me get some of that blood washed off of you. It’s not yours, is it? I’m assuming it belongs to the bear…”

Einar really wasn’t certain, made the mistake of telling her so in a very matter of fact way which she did not find the least bit reassuring, and after that she redoubled her efforts to try and talk him outside for a break before they began the work of dismantling the bear. He didn’t want to do it, knew he was, indeed, hurt but was pretty sure also that his injuries weren’t life-threatening, and preferred not to have her fussing over him just then when they had so much work to do, but she was persistent, terribly persistent and he so weary that finally he relented, followed her out into the daylight, never even knowing that she had other, perhaps even more powerful reasons--more powerful, that was, than making certain he wasn’t badly wounded and bleeding out--for wanting to get him out there, out of the dim confines of that tunnel. She had not quite trusted the wary glint remaining in his eye, had feared his slipping back into a shadowy world in which she was the enemy, was intent on capturing him rather than simply assisting with the task at hand, and it seemed to her a very wise thing indeed to settle any question that might remain surrounding that matter before the two of them set about working together with knives in that rather small and confined space.

Blinking as he crawled out into the sunlight, Einar crouched against the boulder heap beneath which he had spent the past half hour, allowing Liz to begin looking over his injuries and not yet knowing just how fortunate a thing that little break would prove to be.

19 June, 2011

19 June 2011

Tracking the bear that afternoon was, indeed, an easier proposal than had been their failed trek across timbered slope and boulder field earlier in the day, and they followed him without difficulty up around their rocky overlook, Liz out in the lead, at Einar’s insistence. It was, after all, her bear, as he’d told her, and she needed to be the one to follow its trail to the end, but that fact did not keep him from matching her pace quite precisely as he walked close behind her, ready to step in at a moment’s notice should the situation turn dangerous. Einar was glad of the climb, both because it meant that their hauling of the meat, hide and fat would all be a downhill affair--a rather significant advantage, considering the impressive heft of the creature--and because the work served to warm them, much needed after their long cold morning moving slowly through the wet brush in search of a trail that proved not to exist. Not for their eyes to find, at least. Good as it was, the welcome warmth generated by that climb, Einar knew that he had again worked himself into a position where he was only one more misstep or two away from finding himself dangerously exhausted and of little use to either of them, and with the days of hard work that lay ahead of them in hauling that bear back to the cabin and processing it, he knew he’d best manage his resources carefully. Well, carefully as he was able. Circumstances had a way of making their demands on a person, and quite often those demands must be met and answered immediately, with little regard to considerations such as the last time one has slept or had a full meal. He’d be fine. Just needed a few ounces of fresh bear liver, and he’d be good as new. Now, enough of that. Got to pick up the pace here, can’t let Liz get too far ahead, or she may end up stumbling on a not-quite-dead bear critter without you there to back her up! Which was more than enough to get his mind off of his own lack of resources, and back on the current situation.

Just over a quarter mile above the cabin, the bear had left the rocky spine of the ridge and made its way into the deeper timber of the adjoining slope where, Einar figured, it had probably been instinctively drawn to seek out a sheltered, hidden spot where it could crawl in, hole up and wait unseen and unmolested for the end to come. That was the way of so many wild creatures, and Einar could not help but admit that he himself had more than once felt the urge to find just such a spot, curl up and dig his hands into the good soft welcoming earth as he waited for nature to take its course with him. Hadn’t done it, though, had resisted that call as well as he was able and often a good bit more strongly than had probably been reasonable, considering the dire nature of his circumstances, and in so refusing to heed its words had learned to know the bitter joy--gift and curse, all entangled inextricably together as one--that is man’s ability to rise above the sort of instinct that had driven the bear to ground in that jumble of boulders off to the left, to make the decision to keep going when every fiber of one’s being testifies to the utter futility of continued action, and--sometimes--to prevail.

The bear had faced no such quandary. He’d holed up in the rocks. Blood trail led straight to him. Straight into the black shadows where the larger half of a massive boulder--thing must have been a good twenty feet high, and as big around as a small house--had calved off and ended up in two pieces, both leaning rather solidly against the remainder of the original rock. Great spruces grew up around the rock formation--great for that elevation, which meant that they just reached up past its top--giving the entire place a rather close, dark sort of feel, water dripping still from branches after the past day’s rainfall, a soft padding of moss growing soft and vibrantly green on rock and ground alike and short grey curtains of usnea hanging like hair from the evergreen boughs to dampen and absorb sound, leaving the place almost eerily silent. A fitting spot, Einar decided, to meet and challenge the great beast, though he dared not speak the thought aloud, lest Liz make some objection… Einar couldn’t see a thing as he approached the giant wreck of a boulder, was reminded of the first time he’d ever crawled blindly into a cave--though it had been a mine, that time--after a wounded bear, back during his first autumn on the run when injured, closely pursued and desperate for food he’d gone in like Beowulf after the dragon, spear-armed and sure he was about to die, but without the luxury of caring. Bear had proven to be dead, that time, shot as it had been by hunters down in the valley and left to its fate when they had been unable to quickly locate it, but the minute and a half it had taken him to find that out had been one of the longest in his life. This would be different. The space was less confined, far less deep and in addition, he was in the fortunate position of knowing approximately how badly the bear had been wounded in the first place, and exactly how long ago. Creature ought to be dead by then, or rapidly approaching it, but he knew that to take such for granted would be to put both of them in grave danger. He motioned to Liz to get an arrow ready, and she did it. Crouching, face within inches of her own, he spoke in a whisper.

“Good tracking, Lizzie. You found him. My turn now. Have to go in after it. May be dead in there, may not, quite, so you keep well back from the opening here, up in these rocks where you’ll have places to hide yourself if something goes wrong. Don’t hesitate to do that if he seems to be coming for you, understand? Just wedge yourself way back in between some of these rocks, and he won’t be able to get at you, big and fat and ready for hibernation as he is. Better just wait here for now where you can see the opening, and be ready with an arrow in case he’s more lively than I think and comes charging out overtop of me. Don’t intend to let that happen, but the reality is we’ve got to be ready for it. Unless I’m mashed into the ground real bad I’ll be very close on his tail if anything like that does happen, so you can count on some help real quick if that first shot doesn’t end him. Got it?”

She didn’t get it. “Mashed into the ground? No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea! How about we throw a rock in there or something and see if there’s any response, before you go crawling in with the spear and maybe getting mashed into the ground? See if we can get him to come out, if he’s still lively.”

“Nope. Better to let him stay in there where he can’t get a good swat in at us or take off running again, finish him off in there, if he needs finishing. I’ll be Ok. Done this before. Anyway, ground’s real soft here, so no big problem if I do get mashed into it.” With that--last statement accented by a wild-eyed, mischievous grin that seemed to Liz rather too casual considering the situation--he left her, creeping silently towards the dark mouth of the bear’s final refuge, spear in one hand and the other ready to grab for his knife.

17 June, 2011

17 June 2011

Never did find that bear. By the time Einar, wet, cold and discouraged, finally decided to call off the hunt for the morning, he could hardly look Liz in the eye to tell her so. She’d been counting on that bear, had been confident in his ability to track it down for them so she could have a go at it with her bow, and he had failed to do so. Had given it his best, slogging through timber and half collapsed chokecherry thickets until his clothes were soaked with the lingering wetness of the rain, crawling over a good portion of that boulder field on hands and knees searching for sign he might have missed the first time through, or the second, and finding, once, a small spattering of blood where it had fallen on the rock above and dripped down into a crevice where the rain had not been able to reach and obliterate it. But the trail hadn’t gone anywhere. Bear was gone. Liz saw the sorrow in his eyes when he told her of his decision to return to the cabin, wanted to tell him that it was alright, that there would be other bears, but knew her words probably wouldn’t help matters any. She’d tried to help with the tracking, but it had been far beyond her skill to do so, and she didn’t blame Einar in the least if it was beyond his, as well, especially after that storm dumped rain all over everything all night long while the wind scattered falling leaves and in some cases even branches. Certainly wasn’t going to tell him so, though, for she knew how highly he valued his ability to follow even the most obscure trail to its conclusion, and could see that he was feeling terribly lost and dejected at the realization that he’d not been able to decipher the path of that bear.

Pride, he told himself, moving his body unwillingly up the slope from boulder field, following Liz, step by step, forcing it to keep moving, to maintain the momentum that he knew he’d not be able to regain if once he allowed himself to lose it, this is pride, and it’s wrong. You’re just upset at yourself for losing the trail, and it’s happened before, happened more times than you could count, I’m sure, and this time is no different, really, except that maybe more’s at stake… It was a difficult trail. Rained all night. Come on, you need to let it go. Tried his best to do so, but could not seem to shake the feeling that this ran deeper than simply failing to find a fleeing black bear in a boulder field the morning after a major rainstorm, which in and of itself might have almost been a forgivable failing. Seemed he was losing his skills, his sharpness, the ability not only to effectively provide for them up there, as evidenced by his missing the bear that past evening, but the means to keep them safe, as well, to keep them from the hands of the enemy, and for a moment--stopping still in his tracks, staring at his hands in near despair; help me, God, help me, I don’t know what to do--he couldn’t bear the thought of it, did not know how he could continue to exist without those things, didn’t know if he even wanted to. Liz pulled him out of it without even knowing she was doing so, stopping to wait for him and holding out a hand to help him up an especially steep portion of the slope, having herself reached the slightly more level ground above it. He took her hand, a definite departure from his usual way of doing things, made it up to her little shelf in one big stride, realizing as he did so that his prayer, for the moment at least, had definitely been answered: he might not know what to do, but she did, was showing him by her actions, and apparently the answer was to climb. Good. He could climb. Would climb.

As they neared the cabin-clearing, something told Einar to slow down, to wait, and he did, hand on Liz’s shoulder to make sure she waited, too, and after a moment of listening--didn’t hear anything, but his danger-sense told him more strongly than ever that caution was in order--he slipped past her and took the lead, easing his way silently up the remaining slope, and then there they were, peering out of the timber at the cabin, and directly at the wide black rump of a bear. Their bear. Einar could see the wide whitish streak across its back where his dart had done its work. The creature had come back, had waited until they were safely away from the area, and returned to make another try at obtaining the wealth of berried boxed up behind those walls. Probably would have succeeded eventually, had they the two humans not returned and objected to the process, front paws braced against the top of the door as the great bear rocked back and forth, determinedly wearing away at the cabin’s defenses.

Liz, afraid of the damage that appeared about to be done their dwelling, wanted to dash screaming and shouting out into the clearing to draw the bear’s attention away from breaking down their door, but Einar restrained her, eyes glowing and a barely suppressed grin trying its best to split his face. He didn’t speak--bear hadn’t yet heard them, was not aware of their presence, and he intended to keep it that way--but motioned her to follow him, stalking back into the timber and around the clearing to the right, keeping hidden and paying close attention to the direction of the wind, which was slight but definitely enough to carry their scent to the bruin, if they didn’t keep on top of it. Needed a better position from which to take their shot--Liz’s shot, and he put a hand on her bow, making sure she knew to be ready with it, but already she had an arrow in place, nodded in understanding--and he led them around until they were looking straight on at the bear’s side as it continued battering away at the front of their house, driven to distraction by the overwhelming odor of the gallons upon gallons of chokecherries contained inside. Liz glanced at Einar and he gave her a little nod, freed himself of his pack and stood off to the side, spear at the ready should the bear end up charging in their direction after getting hit. Not likely--at least not intentionally, on the bear’s part; he was pretty sure it would be wanting to get away from there in a hurry, from his past experience with black bears--but he had to be ready.

Liz knew what was at stake, and she had been practicing, training by sinking arrows into a large bundle of cut, dried grass that she had set up on a stump to act as a target, and as soon as he saw her arrow sink into that bear’s shoulder, Einar knew she had done well. The bear, who had until that point seemed to have no inkling of their presence, whirled around with a speed most uncharacteristic of such a large animal, snapping at the arrow with its teeth but unable to reach, quickly taking off around behind the cabin, up into the mix of rock and timber that led up to their overlook. Liz had fitted a second arrow but never got the chance to use it, fast as the bear had taken off, but she relaxed her hold only when Einar looked at her and nodded.

“Good. You did good, Liz. Your first bear.”

“Do you think I got him? Did I aim well enough? He took off so fast that I thought maybe…”

Einar was hurrying across the clearing as she spoke, making for the spot where the bear had been standing when he was hit. Liz caught up to him at the cabin door, which was slashed and crossed now with the claw-marks of the hibernation-hunger frenzied bear. “Oh, you got him, alright. Expect we’re gonna find him dead not too far up there. Looks like you probably hit a lung, and… Whoa, hey, hang on! Don’t take off running after him just yet. No sense driving him any further from the cabin than we have to, since we just got to haul him back down here when this is all over. We’ll give him a little while to run and tire out, then go up there and see. Here. See this blood? Pink and frothy like this it’s a pretty sure sign you got him in the lung, and he won’t be getting real far. And he’ll be easy to track, unlike this morning…”

Liz touched the small spot of blood left behind by the fleeing animal, rubbed a bit of it between thumb and forefinger as if only half believing that she’d really hit the massive creature. “But you did track him this morning, Einar! Don’t you see? You tracked him all the way down the hill and right back up here to where he was waiting for us, and it’s much better this way than if we’d shot him down near that boulder field and had to carry that heavy hide and meat…what? Two miles, probably, back up to the house here?”

A grunt and a nod from Einar--she was giving him way too much credit; he’d lost that bear in the boulder field, slogged up the hill with little hope of seeing further sign of it and not found the critter’s trail again until they were just about ready to step out into the clearing, and she had to know that, all of it--as he rose, unbarred the door and swung it open to check for damage. Still worked, and the fact that it now hung a bit crooked could easily be remedied once they’d taken care of the bear, and the chokecherry harvest that had twice lured it to their doorstep.