Before noon that day the snow was all gone, all but a few wind-piled bits and banks lingering on the shadowy sides of tree trunks and rock outcroppings, and Einar and Liz were out taking full advantage of the change. Einar, moving somewhat slowly, ribs wrapped with a fresh hound’s tongue poultice that Liz had insisted on preparing for him before he left the cabin that morning, was hard at work on the elk hide, punching holes with a nail they had long ago salvaged from a tumbled down mine bunkhouse as he prepared to lace the thing to the stretching frame. Covering a good bit more area than the sheep hide they had last stretched, their recent acquisition was very nearly too large for the frame, but Einar made it work by un-lashing the top piece and raising it by the foot and a half for which the long timbers allowed. Good news, as he had not especially wanted to start all over on making a new frame, not when he had so many other tasks awaiting his attention. Intent on his work as he punched hole after hole around the margins of the elk hide, Einar very nearly jumped out of his skin when Liz approached from behind, moving quietly over the saturated spruce duff, and spoke.
“I’m just heading out to…whoa, hey, what’s the matter? It’s just me. Wanted to see if you need anything more to eat before I head out to check on the chokecherry thicket down near the tarn. We’ve got a little left from breakfast, and I have some serviceberry pudding soaking in the sun, too, which ought to be ready pretty soon…”
No answer from Einar, unless one wanted to count the little nod he gave her before retreating back to his position crouched against an aspen trunk, branch-club in one hand and nail in the other, positioned to strike, and Liz--not sure whether to interpret the nod as yes, I’m starving and of course I need more to eat, but can’t let you see just how badly I want it so I’m trying to appear nonchalant and let you figure it out, or perhaps simply, I heard you, acknowledged you, now go away and leave me alone--sat down next to him, tried to catch his eye. No such luck. He was already back at work, though keeping a careful watch on her out of the corner of his eye as he pounded hole after hole into that elk hide, carefully, precisely, not wanting any of them to tear out during stretching. She decided to try again.
“Chokecherries. I’m going scouting for them, taking a basket and maybe bringing some back if they’re tasting sweet enough after all this snow. Are you hungry?”
“Sure! Chokecherry soup, chokecherry pudding, chokecherry conserve on fresh elk tenderloin, served on a bed of lightly steamed nettles and wild onions, yeah, I’m hungry alright! Maybe I’d better come along and help you gather these things! Or go do something about the elk bit…”
“You big goof! That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but yes, it sure does sound good, doesn’t it? Especially the elk tenderloin part. You certainly have a vivid imagination when it comes to food. I wasn’t asking you to come with me, though. Looks like you’ve got your hands quite full with that elk hide, and I’m just doing some scouting this morning, anyway, maybe a little gathering, but I figure most of that can come a little later. And then yes, we’ll have pudding and soup and jam and all the rest of it, but I was mostly just asking whether you wanted me to bring you a snack before I left. As focused as you seem to be on food of all sorts, I think I have my answer…”
“Nah, I’m not really hungry. Just my imagination getting away with me, I guess. You’re right though, I’d better stick around here and get the hide stretched, maybe do the first braining if that plane keeps not showing up and I decide we can have a fire…I’m real tempted to enact a fire ban until the end of hunting season, but I don’t guess you’d be too happy about that, would you?”
“The end of hunting season? In November? We’d freeze! We’d absolutely freeze in there, coming home to that ice cold cabin every night after a hard day’s work and sitting there without anything hot to eat or drink…ever…with outside temperatures probably getting well below zero, but if you think it’s necessary, we’ll find ways to manage…”
Einar looked her in the eye, then, alright, stared at her for a good minute until she almost had to look away--those ice-blue eyes of his could be awfully spooky when he chose to show them to a person, which wasn’t often, awfully intense--but just in time she saw the slight softening in his face, that hint of a smile starting to twist the corner of his mouth. “You’re quite a woman, Lizzie. You really would find ways to make that work, wouldn’t you? Three months without fire. May be necessary at some point, was necessary for me from time to time, though never for so long at once, but I sure hope and pray that won’t be the situation for us this fall. You being willing to do it though…well, that sure does put my mind at ease in a way I can’t even describe to you. Thanks. No fire ban, though. Not now. We ought to be able to have one by this evening, if we’re wise about it.”
Liz was relieved. Tremendously relieved. Einar was just the sort, when he got a thing like that set in his mind, to be able and willing to stick to it with a rigid tenacity that could hardly be believed--a good trait, one without which he almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to maintain his freedom and his life for so long under the at times tremendously adverse conditions imposed on him…on them…by the search, but it could at times make him rather difficult to live with, even for himself--and the thought of facing the next several months without the benefit of even the occasional fire…well, she’d meant what she said about making it work if that was his decision, but their chances of actually making it through those months in reasonably good shape to welcome a child and live through the winter seemed infinitely better without such a restriction. Now I’d better hurry on out of here before I get into any more trouble. He seems to be in a pretty weird mood this morning, and who knows what may happen if we keep on with this conversation. Sometimes he just needs to be alone… Which conclusion would have somewhat surprised Einar, had he been able to hear her thoughts just then--sometimes he almost could, but not then; he was too wrapped up in his work with the elk hide and, quite frankly, too hungry to think of much besides those elk steaks with chokecherry conserve, even though he really was trying his best to conceal the fact from Liz--as he thought himself to be in rather a good mood, feeling great to be out of the confinement of the cabin and back at work.
With Liz gone scouting for chokecherries Einar finished punching the lacing-holes around the edges of their massive new elk hide, struggled the thing into the frame--stiff already, it was starting to dry and get awfully stiff, difficult to manage, and he was glad he had not been delayed any further in beginning the tanning process; too many more days, and they would have had to find a way to soak the thing before it would have been flexible enough to work with--and laced it up tight. Tired, then, and he was greatly tempted to stretch out in the sun that shone down warm and dancing through the cover of golden, wind-rippled aspen leaves overhead, right there on the still-damp ground and sleep for an hour or two, but he made himself keep on his feet, wrestle the stretching frame into an upright position and gather his scraping tools so they would be at the ready when the time came to take the next step with the hide. Which, he realized, it already had, for he needed to do a good bit of scraping in the neck area of the hide before it would be ready for braining, thin it down and make it a bit more closely resemble the rest of the hide in thickness, so it would be more accepting of the brain solution and he wouldn’t end up with hard, inflexible spots on the finished hide. He nodded, took a gulp of water from his canteen and began the scraping.
Liz, meanwhile, had just experienced a rather nasty surprise when it came to the much-anticipated chokecherry harvest