Finished with breakfast--Liz’s thinly sliced bear steaks, well done on the outside and served with chokecherry sauce had, indeed, been good--Einar rummaged through the supplies in the cabin until he located a good quantity of pitch they'd saved, most of it melted, cleaned of bark particles and re-solidified into large chunks on curved sections of aspen bark, but some still in its unrefined state, lumps and nodules removed from the bark of spruces and pines whenever either of them had stumbled across the valuable resource. Sorting through the pile Einar chose one of the smooth, shiny-topped refined chunks--it looked very much like dark-colored toffee, and he was half tempted to take a bite, but knew it was quite bitter--slightly bent its bark holder to snap it loose, and returned to the fire, and Liz. Knowing what he was about she had already set a slab of granite to heat, leaning it beside the fire and Einar placed a second rock beneath it--another flat chunk of granite but with a slightly dished-out center--to catch the drips as the pitch began to liquefy. Pitch coating the basket would require the use of most of the pitch lump Einar had set to melt, perhaps all of it, for he wanted to be very sure that every crack was thoroughly sealed. Bear fat--like most other fats and oils--when warm, had an insidious way of finding its way though the slightest opening and saturating anything that might be in contact with its containment vessel, and he knew that this loss could be prevented by applying enough layers of pitch.
Hurriedly swiping up the pitch as it melted and using a wad of shredded inner aspen bark as his paintbrush, Einar had soon managed to coat the entire inside of the tightly-woven willow basket with hardening, waterproof pitch, and this process he continued until all of the pitch had been used and the basket displayed a thick, shiny layer on all of its inner surfaces. With two fingers he worked quickly to smooth out any irregularities that remained, leaving the basket’s interior burnished smooth and silky. Protrusions left in the pitch would, he knew, tend to catch on things--a stick, spoon or other tool they were using to scoop out a bit of the fat, for instance--and chip loose part of the coating. Leaving the basket to cool and harden, Einar hurried into the cabin to check on the stove, adding a few sticks to the fire and plopping several fresh lumps of bearfat into the two water-filled pots that were ready for use. Pitch having had time to harden he retrieved the newly-coated basket, transferring the already-rendered bearfat into it, half filling the pot with water and setting it with the others to heat.
Alright, guess I'd better get busy now helping Liz make some more baskets, so we'll have someplace to put this fat as I it get rendered. With the two of us working, we ought to be able to get a couple of pretty large ones turned out within the space of an hour. Aim for making them deep rather than wide, and it'll go even quicker, seeing as the willows we've got to work with are pretty short ones. Do that, coat the pair of them with pitch and then maybe wait to render any more fat until tonight after I've got that log burned out. Shouldn't take but a couple hours of darkness for me to get it finished, as much wood as I've already carved out of it with the axe and adze. It's a good start. Hopefully between the two of us, we can manage to get most of the fat rendered tonight, the hides and a good bit of the meat smoked, too. Should be ready to go out after elk in a couple of days, at most. He hoped. Would be a struggle for sure, the way his ribs were hurting him. Had done his best to push the matter aside as he worked and had managed it pretty well, but now, alone and unmoving for a moment in the stillness of the cabin, he suddenly found himself struggling for breath, wishing he might be able to stop for a minute or two just for the relief it would bring him, tried holding his breath but it didn’t prove helpful--he’d known it wouldn’t, but tried anyway--as it left him gasping for air at the end of it and hurting worse than before. At that moment, the prospect of stalking and shooting an elk, let alone packing it home to the cabin, seemed almost more than he could face.
Good. That’s good, Einar, because having it be a challenge like that will pretty near guarantee that you get one, won’t it? Just to make sure you can. Now quit moping around the house here and go build the smoking tent. Which he did, taking the three small aspens he’s previously set aside against the woodshed and lashing them firmly together near their tops, but not so near as to be placing weight on any too-narrow sections that might break under the weight of the meat they intended to hang from the tripod. A good start, and, scratching away at the ground cover of spruce needles and aspen leaves with the deer-scapula shovel that often served such purposes and a number of others, he created the shallow pit in which the smoking fire would burn. Ground damp, he lined the pit with small granite slabs and chunks to prevent the fire’s putting itself out before it really got established. Liz, pausing in her weaving of a second willow basket for fat storage, retrieved for him the bundles of still-damp green willow and cherry wood she had earlier gathered, piling them beneath a shady tree a few feet distant from the firepit.
“Would you like me to start peeling these for you? Assuming we don’t want the meat tasting bitter like willow bark…”
“Yep, they’ll need to be peeled. The cherry too, because of the cyanide in the bark. Don’t know that we’d get enough to do any harm just in using it to smoke meat, but it doesn’t seem a good thing to experiment with. We’ll need to peel all of them, and chop them into short little sections so they’ll burn well, despite being so wet. Then this evening when we’re ready to start the smoking, we’ll get things going with a quick, hot fire of aspen and spruce before we start throwing those little pieces of green smoking wood on there. Want to keep things real cool and smoky in there during the process, and of course not use any spruce or fir except to get things started, unless we want black, pitchy meat…”
“No, that doesn’t sound so good, but I was thinking maybe I ought to leave the willow bark on, and then this winter when you’re eating that meat, you’d be getting a little aspirin with every bite! Since you’ll likely as not still be dealing with one injury or another then, and you won’t drink my willow solution anymore…”
“Oh, don’t you dare try anything like that! You’re sneaky.”
“Thanks. I’m learning from an expert, after all…”
Which got her a playful swat with a willow wand from Einar as he rose to go to the cabin after the hides, ready to build the smoking tent.