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.