Though Einar had been very clear about wanting to manage the smoking himself so Liz could get some sleep, she found it difficult to do so with the knowledge that he was sitting out there in the cold, kept going out to check on him and take him things, a bit of chokecherry pudding sweetened with honey, some of the supper stew that had been left over from his portion, and once, her sweater in the hopes that he would wear it if he wasn’t warm. Which he wasn’t, and he wouldn’t, and she was not the least bit surprised about any of it. At least he had the smoking fire to keep him somewhat warm if he chose to use it, and the small one he had going in their outdoor firepit to produce the coals he was using to burn out the log, the fires to warm him, and his work. The way he was going at it she certainly expected the work ought to be keeping him at least somewhat warm; already the log was showing significant progress, Einar having kept it continually supplied with fresh coals, blowing on them and then scraping to remove the charred wood before adding fresh embers. She crouched beside him, waiting until he looked up, face appearing strange and haggard in the glow of the coals, but he gave her a big grin, clearing the soot and sweat from his face with the swipe of a sleeve and sitting back on his heels. Would have said something, but he was, despite his delight at having got so much done, too winded to speak. Liz just shook her head and offered him some water, which he took.
“Looks like you’ve got this thing well over half way done! How about if I take over for a few minutes, let you go lie down for a little while?”
Einar shook his head. “Slept all…afternoon, so now it’s my turn to…”
“It takes a lot of breath to keep blowing on those coals though, doesn’t it?”
A nod of acknowledgement as he scraped the now-dead remains of the last batch of coals from the growing depression in the log, gently chipping and scraping at the charred wood with the adze, and, in places, with his knife until he reached bare, white wood. A coughing fit got hold of him then and Liz, seeing how much it hurt him, got herself positioned behind his back and held him, pressing his ribs in an attempt to ease the hurt as he cleared his lungs, long overdue and very much needed if tremendously uncomfortable. Sinking to the ground when he was through Einar rested his forehead on its cool dampness, Liz still holding his ribs and draping her sweater over him, as he appeared not too far from sleep. Had no intention of sleeping, though, and was back at his post as soon as he’d managed to get enough air to allow himself upright again, choosing new coals and placing them in the log. Liz wanted to get after him, try again to talk him into switching places for the night but she knew there would be little point. The closer he was to being dead, the more steadfastly stubborn he seemed to become. Somewhat senseless, Liz was still inclined to say, but she was coming to understand it a bit at the same time. And figuring out how to work with it, too--and with him.
“That cough sounds worse. How about if I make you a pot of tea with some of the chokecherry bark we took off of the smoking wood? Cherry bark can really help settle a cough…”
“Yeah, it can, but I…need this cough. Been too long since I really cleared my lungs, with the shallow little breaths these ribs have made me inclined to take, and that’s half my problem right now. Sludgy lungs. Need to cough it out.”
Which he seemed well on his way to doing, doubled over with another coughing fit that left him curled up on the ground beside the firepit by the time it was over, sobbing for breath and near passing out from the pain in his side and chest. Had felt as though each cough was tearing something in there, grinding sharp edges of fractured bone into flesh and organs and ripping him up inside, and he could not help but think that must not be too far from the reality of it. Was fortunate he hadn’t punctured a lung. Yet. Wished Liz would go away, stop staring at him and leave him in peace to face whatever fate awaited him that night but she wouldn’t go, stayed there unspeaking beside him, pressing his ribs in exactly the way that most minimized the pain and offering him water whenever he seemed to have enough oxygen to allow him that long a pause in his ongoing fight for air, and after a time he came to realize that he truly didn’t want her gone at all, just wished he might be able to better control himself in her presence. Which was a matter of pride, and he knew it, tried his hardest to set it aside. Why shouldn’t she see you like this? It’s how you are, at the moment. Now you get back to work. Enough of this coughing and drooping and curling up on the ground. More than enough.
That fact notwithstanding, he found it all but impossible to carry on with the coal-burning of the bearfat vessel, as each attempt to blow on the coals quickly dissolved into yet another coughing fit, and when Liz squeezed his shoulder and gently pushed him aside, he did not resist. They took turns, then, working on the log, Einar placing the coals and then Liz gently but steadily fanning them to a living, glowing orange with a carefully directed stream of breath, working until the last living ember had gone black, after which Einar would scrape them out, carve away the blackened wood and the whole process would be begun again. Working together they finished the project within the space of three hours, Einar doing the final smoothing of the inside of the vessel with a rough chunk of sandstone. During this time they had paused on several occasions to check the status of the smoking fire--smoky, cool and still going; it seemed to be working well--Einar once adding a small pile of peeled willow sticks to help keep it going.
Seeing that Einar had no intention of either leaving the smoking meat to join her in the cabin for the rest of the night or allowing her to relieve him at the task of guarding it and feeding the fire, she retrieved the heavy, warm bear hide from their bed inside, scraping together a good pile of spruce needles and creating a makeshift bed right there beside the smoker, on which she hoped Einar might see fit to lie down for occasional rests throughout the night. Which of course he did not, being quite certain that if he ever allowed himself such a luxury, he might not be moving again for a very long time, but Liz put the bed to good use, dozing there for stretches of time between making batches of bear broth and doing her best to keep Einar drinking it regularly.
The first hint of grey was just beginning to show along the high, spruce-studded contour of the horizon when the two of them made one final check on the smoker, added a few sticks and crawled onto the bear hide, curling up together there beside the smoke tent, and sleeping.