With several hours of sunlight left, Liz thought it best to leave the chokecherries out for the time, allow them to dry as much as possible before being heaped together and brought in for the night. They had made significant progress, the direct high-altitude sunlight drawing water from them at a swift and steady rate and the raven having eaten only a few, so far as she could determine… The bird had not gone anywhere, remaining on its high perch in the half-dead fir and watching their every move, too cautious to fly down and investigate the masses of berries as they flipped them over for further drying, but not so perturbed by the human presence as to fly away. Every so often the raven would let out a grating, guttural little sound, Einar looking up when it did so, nodding, acknowledging its presence. Seemed the bird intended to stick around for the moment and, though its presence meant he’d have to keep a closer watch on the drying chokecherries, Einar did not mind. Liz wanted him to stay out and guard the berries while she started preparing their supper of grouse--wanted him to stay out in the sun where he could go on warming, though of course she didn’t say it like that, expecting he would have gone to sit in the shade out of pure orneriness, had she done so--and he did it, the last of the afternoon sun soaking into him and his shivering soon slacking off to the point where he could again take up work on Liz’s parka.
With the disappearance of the sun Einar joined Liz in the cabin, bringing with him the chokecherry mash, which seemed to have lost nearly half of its volume in that one day of drying, and a good bit of its weight, too. Was a lot easier to handle and transport, and he figured that given one more day of intense, breezy sunshine, the drying process ought to be pretty near complete. Berries all safely stowed out of reach of hungry ravens and bears, Einar crouched wearily against the back wall of the cabin, hands occupied with stitching yet another rabbit hide to the growing parka liner as he watched Liz prepare the grouse stew. She saw the look in his eye as the wonderful aroma began to fill the cabin, that stubborn, stony gaze lurking behind the obvious hunger, a quiet thing but immensely strong, and she knew he didn’t intend to eat that night. Well, she wasn’t going to have it. Not after all he’d been though that day, and with a cold night shaping up. Adding another small handful of nettles to the pot, she rose to face him.
“Do you need another visit with Bud Kilgore?”
Einar looked confused. “Is he here?”
“No, but I’ll go track him down for you, if you think it would help!”
“Only help if he brings an elk or two with him.”
“Help you, I mean.”
“I don’t need help, I need more elk hides.”
“You need both.”
“Well then, how about you help me get more elk hides? Soon as we’ve got the bear far enough along that we’re not in danger of losing any of it--fat all rendered down and most of the meat dried--I want to go hunting for elk, and it’d be real helpful if you were willing to come with me.”
“It’ll be a while before I’m all done with the meat. This is a lot of meat to turn into jerky.” And besides, you don’t need to be doing any hunting for a week or two at minimum, regardless of the time of year. So I’m going to make good and sure this meat takes a while to finish…
“Well, I have a solution for that. I know what a lot of work it is to have to slice everything up for jerky, but I’ve been figuring we could save a lot of time and trouble by smoking some of the larger pieces. Not something I’d want to do during the day where that smoke would billow out and fill the basin and make it look like we’ve got a wildfire going up here, but if we take turns keeping the smoker going overnight, we ought to be able to get a lot of meat taken care of over the course of two days, or so. Then we hang those smoked bear hams and all from the rafters in here, and work on them all winter.. Doesn’t that sound good? Add a little variety to the taste of things, too.”
“Smoked bear…yum! But I thought you needed hardwood to smoke meat, and all we have up here is pine, fir and spruce…”
“And willow. Along with chokecherry and aspen. We may want to peel off the bark if we use willow so the meat doesn’t end up tasting like the willow solution we’ve sometimes made for medicine, but the wood itself will do just fine. Not nearly as ideal as something like oak or hickory, but it’s what we’ve got, and I’ve done it before. Green, peeled willow. Cherry wood is a good one for smoking, too, but again we’ll want to take the bark off since that’s where a lot of the cyanide is. Aspen, being a real soft wood and pretty fast burning, isn’t ideal for smoking but it will work. We can cut some fresh aspen branches from right around the clearing here if we want to, but we’ll have to haul quite a heap of either willow or cherry up here and chop it up pretty fine for this to work. It’ll be worth the effort though I think, save us time in the end. And get us ready to go after those elk sooner, which could end up being pretty important, because as soon as the snow sets in for good, they’ll be heading down lower pretty quick.”
Liz nodded, agreeing that the plan made sense though not terribly eager to have Einar out hunting and hauling elk any sooner than he would have been able to do it if they’d been turning all of the meat into jerky. That concern aside--she might as well put it aside, as chances seemed very slim that Einar would be willing to cooperate with any plan to keep him still and quiet for more than hours at a time--the time savings allowed by smoking large portions of the bear meat, and future game they hoped to take, could prove immensely valuable as they raced against the coming of winter.
“I’ll start gathering an armload of willow or chokecherry whenever I’m down there where they grow, and piling it up in the shady spot behind the cabin. I’m assuming we don’t want the wood drying too much, or it wouldn’t produce enough smoke?”
“Right. Wood needs to be pretty green, but it ought to be fine for a day or two in that damp shade back there. I’ll get started right away building the smoker, and hopefully by tomorrow at dark, we’ll have our first load of bear in there.”
Einar had been staring at the bubbling stew pot as he spoke, arm pressed firmly across his stomach as if to keep from feeling the hunger its aroma was obviously inspiring in him, and Liz saw her chance--he could easily finish half that bird without even realizing what he was doing, if she could get him eating as they talked; she had more than once seen him get that absorbed in telling the details of a thing--scooping out a large portion of the good rich broth and handing it to him in one of the other pots, sending nearly half the grouse meat along with it. Einar accepted the pot, pressing it between his palms to warm them and taking a deep breath of the rising steam.
“How do you intend to make the smoker? We don’t exactly have any lumber, and I can’t picture any hollow trees here in the immediate area, either…”
“Hollow tree would be a good thing, save us some work, but my plan was just to build a log tepee to support the weight of the meat, maybe just a tripod, even, then cover it with hides. We still need to smoke one of the sheep hides and the elk, anyway, and this would be a good opportunity to get them taken care of while smoking the meat, at the same time.” By the time he finished describing the meat-smoking setup--complete with a long discussion on how they must be careful not to allow the fire to get too hot, lest the meat release steam and cause water damage to the hides before they were fully smoked--Einar had finished his meat and broth, Liz was happy and both of them were ready for bed.