Liz wanted very badly to be up on that roof with Einar, wanted to be there to help him if anything went wrong, but he’d already told her it was out of the question, and she would have had a very difficult time getting up there, in any case. The hole Einar had gone through was a good bit too narrow for her, roof beams preventing her from widening it sufficiently, and she couldn’t exactly use the door as an exit, with the bear leaning and snuffling against it the way he was. Seemed she was simply destined to wait inside, wait, listen, and hope Einar would stay safe up there. While she wanted that bear every bit as badly as he did--its fur, especially, could make a tremendous difference that winter when they found themselves blizzard-bound in the cabin for days on end in sub-zero conditions, its fat sustaining and warming them from within--her greatest hope at the moment was simply that Einar would come through the encounter without having to get too close to that bear. With a couple of ribs already cracked and his hands and arms still not fully functional yet after his visit with Kilgore--he would have denied having any such trouble, but she had seen it--she was afraid any wrestling match with the bear that evening might well prove to be his last. Puncture a lung, or something, an injury she would be powerless to repair, and she…stop it, Liz. Stop thinking this way. He knows what he’s doing up there, and what would he say if he knew what you were thinking, right now? You just be patient, wait, and in a few minutes, hopefully you’ll be out there either helping to skin the bear, or track it down.
Einar--just as occasionally when everything is going well, mind, body and weapon all working in concert, one somehow knows the shot is right, is perfect, even before the bullet leaves the bore--knew something was wrong as soon as that dart cleared the atlatl, so it was no surprise to him when he saw it strike a glancing blow across the fur of the bear’s shoulder, grazing the animal’s flesh and eliciting from it an angry, startled roar, but doing no real harm. Sometimes, you just know. He got off a second shot right away, crouching there against the chimney and flinging with all his might as the startled bear made for the timber as fast as a fall-fattened bear could be expected to move, but this time he missed altogether, the dart dropping harmlessly at the fleeing animal’s heels. Well. He slammed the atlatl down on the roof, worked hard to restrain himself from charging after his fast-departing quarry with the spear--never would have caught up to it, under those circumstances--snarled at his own half-useless arms, at the burning arc of pain that radiated out from his ribs after those throws to nearly cripple him, to crush the breath out of him, and it would have, if he’d let it. Failure. And a stark look at the reality of living life as a large predator in the wild, dependent entirely on one’s own skill and speed to come by the next meal, to hold off starvation and keep body and soul together through the winter, a predator which, statistically speaking, would fail at taking his prey some two thirds of the time, even after having expended a good deal of time and energy in the attempt to bring it down. A delicate balance, but one in whose context he had lived for a number of years, and he could go on doing so, despite that evening’s loss.
No, he told himself, it’s worse than that. You’re an injured predator, injured, starved, and with people depending on you. Statistics or not, you got to take that bear. Not happening tonight, but in the morning, you’re gonna track the critter, find where it’s spending the day stuffing itself with chokecherries--not too far from here, most likely, and that’s almost certainly what it’s doing--and work in close until you’ve got a good angle for taking it. Yep, that’ll be your job for the morning. With that, he was about to climb down, finally answer Liz’s pleas that he come back inside, but the thought occurred to him that the bear might well come back that night, if the urge to eat became more powerful in its little bear mind than the fear of another, a distinct possibility that time of year, when the creatures, in their frenzied attempts to put on those last few pounds of vital fat before hibernation-time, practically became eating machines. Good. Gave him a reason to stay out there. He really wanted to be alone just then, alone with the softly whispering spruces, stars whirling slowly overhead through their undulating boughs, a few clouds beginning to creep in from the horizon to partially obscure the Milky Way, alone with the descending cold of the night that increasingly bit into his body, squeezed him around the middle and set his jaw to aching with the effort of keeping still, until finally he gave in and allowed himself to tremble in concert with the icy little breezes found their way in around him, in between his ribs, his movements adding to the hurt of them. No worries. It would stop, soon enough. The shivering, not the wind. Was a pretty cold night, and he was pretty sure he didn’t have the energy to keep it up for too long.
Liz was standing down there below the opening, asking him once again if he was ready to come in, and this time, he answered.
“Nope, not coming in. Gonna stay out here for a while, see if …bear comes back. May come back, and I’ll get another chance.”
“Do you want the deer hide? I can hand it up through your little trap door, here…”
“No.” He shook his head, though it was too dark for her to see him up there, sitting off to the side where the faint glow of the candle did not reach. “Don’t need it.”
“Sure you need it. How do you expect to hit a bear, if you’re shaking like that?”
“You can’t see me, how do you know I’m…”
“Oh, I don’t need to see you. I can hear it in your breath. Your talking. If you want to freeze yourself, you’re going to have to do it some other time. Tonight, you need to be ready for the bear. I’m bringing you the deer hide, and I’m going to wait up there with you, too, because I’ve got my bow, and four hands have to be better than two, right…?”
Einar didn’t answer, didn’t really have an answer, was becoming too cold to really trust his speech, anyway, and didn’t want her to know it.. Sure, she was probably right about four hands being better than two, especially when two of them were his, and weren’t, apparently, good for much… Might as well let her join him. Except that he really didn’t want her involved in hand-to-hand combat with a bear, not while she was carrying little Snorri, so he’d have to ask her to be sure and stay on the roof, leave the spear work to him, if it came to that. Liz, not waiting for his response, as she had a feeling there wasn’t likely to be one, was already out of the cabin, barring the door and climbing up the roof towards him. She had her bow, the deer hide and something that might have been the ewe hide all rolled up; he could just make them out in the faint after-light of the faded evening. Faded and gone, just like that bear. Liz had made it up onto the roof by that time, was sitting down beside him, draping the deer hide over his shoulders, and he took hold of it, thanked her. She offered him a strip of jerky and a bit of honey in a wood-burned spoon, and he took the food, ate in silence, feeling a bit warmer when he’d got done, but no less frustrated at himself for losing the bear. For a long time they waited, last light fading, listening through the growing wind and relying on ears to herald the creature’s return, but he never did make a return, and after nearly three hours of fruitless waiting, the clouds that had had begun as a few scattered streamers that evening had gathered to almost entirely block out the stars, eliminating their last small source of light. Still Einar did not want to go in, and Liz, determined to wait with him, did not insist, but when at last a cold, wind-driven drizzle began sweeping down on them from the red ridge, it was the last straw for her. There was going to be no bear, not that night. Rising, helping Einar stiffly to his feet, she led him down from the roof.
“In the morning, I will track him with you.”