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…”