Though a bit leery about leaving Einar to his own devices for the night after seeing how cold he’d deliberately allowed himself to become during his earlier nap in the shade, Liz knew that she really did need her sleep ahead of the long day of hiking that most likely awaited them in the morning. As she would be most unlikely, looking at the matter realistically, to be able to prevail on him to give her a turn at watching the smoker so he could get some sleep, she might as well get a full night of it, herself. Better that one of them should be rested than that neither should, but she knew there would be little chance of her getting sleep unless she had done all she could to make sure, at least, that Einar had available to him the means necessary to keep warm and fed throughout his nighttime vigil. What he chose to do with them would be another matter, but at least she would have done her part. To this end she used the remaining daylight to haul the larger of the two bear hides out by the smoking tent--immensely thankful once more that they were now in possession of two such hides-- recreating the spruce needle pallet that had served her well as a bed that past night and placing beside it on a low granite slab several wrapped portions of the special pemmican-type mixture she had made them for traveling food, hoping the ready availability might encourage Einar to eat when he started getting cold. Einar was himself absorbed in peeling more willow and cherry sticks, chopping the peeled shoots into sections of no more than several inches long to increase their chance of burning and smoldering reliably, despite their being so green and wet, and when he glanced up and saw the results of Liz’s work, he met her with a somewhat confused smile.
“You camping out?”
“No, you are. This is so you can stay warm while you’re out here watching the fire. You can wrap up in the bear hide between times checking on it, sit here and work on one of your projects, whatever you need to do. And I made lots of extra pemmican, so I hope you’ll eat some of this I left out here for you, because if you don’t, the bears and coyotes probably will!”
“Bears and coyotes’ll probably eat me, if I end up lying down in that good soft bed you’ve made and going to sleep next to all this food! They’ll start on the pemmican, and just keep on going…”
“I’m not too worried about that. They wouldn’t get past the first bite before they realized they’d made a terrible mistake. Winter’s almost here. They’re looking for things that will help fatten them up…”
“Well,” he growled, “that certainly isn’t me, is it? See? This is a survival strategy, designed to render myself unappetizing to bears and coyotes.”
“Not a very good long term survival strategy, I wouldn’t think, but you ought to make it through the night just fine. If you eat up a good bit of that pemmican I left you.”
“Ha! If…” Probably because you’re gonna do me in with your war club if I don’t, that’s why! But he knew she was right, put one of the carefully wrapped food bricks into his pocket for later use. “Guess we’d better save most of this for tomorrow, and especially considering that we may be away from here for more than a day, if we find elk but have to follow them for a while to get in a good shot. May end up a good distance away before we end up taking one. After that, of course, we’ll be feasting on fresh liver, but these bars will be great until then! Also need to think about how we’re gonna close this place up. Got to do our best to make sure it won’t be an easy target for bears, since it’s sure going to be a tempting one with all the smells that are wafting out of there…” He closed his eyes then, taking in a great breath as if testing those odors himself, which Liz had no doubt he might well be; even with the increased sharpness the pregnancy had brought to her sense of smell--in the early months, certain routine odors of their daily life out there were simply too much, putting her over the edge of nausea--Einar’s remained markedly sharper, especially when he was hungry. Which he definitely looked to be at the moment, despite having participated at least nominally in testing out the supper stew. Finished sampling the plethora of food smells emanating from the open cabin door--sharp tang of dried chokecherries mingling with the light mustiness of dried mullein, yarrow, hound’s tongue, a hint of honey and the faint but distinguishable odors of sheep, deer and bear jerky--Einar shook his head, shivered in the thin and sharpening evening breeze, and continued.
“Figure we’ll hang the smoked meat and a lot of the other large pieces from the cabin, which should keep them pretty safe, and of course a lot of the jerky is still hanging in its baskets, so that’ll leave mainly the fat in the logs that’s somewhat unprotected should something get into the cabin. Well, lots of stuff in there we don’t want a big hungry old bear rifling through, actually. The dried berries, bulbs, medicinal herbs we’ve set aside, the hides…especially the hides…so barring that door needs to be one of our top priorities before we head out tomorrow. Do a good job of that, make it real difficult to tamper with, and I figure we ought to be fine for a few days. Still wouldn’t want to be away for too long and let them get the idea that the place is abandoned, fair game, but for a couple days…no problem.” He had to stop there, the unaccustomedly long speech leaving him fighting for breath, hand and elbow pressed urgently to his side in an barely-successful attempt to mitigate the movement of his ribs and reduce the hurt as he was seized by a fit of uncontrollable coughing that left him pale and wheezing in its wake, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a shaking hand and staring at the ground until the worst of the pain had passed. Liz wanted to help him, did it in the only way she knew how, by keeping on as if nothing was wrong.
“Where are you thinking we should go? Where to start?”
“Up!” He rasped a bit breathlessly, untangling his arms and sitting up a bit straighter. “We need to go up, so when we get our elk, most of the hauling is downhill. I’ll do whatever needs to be done to get us the extra meat and hides, and I know that you will too, but if we can save ourselves a little work, it seems a good idea to do so. Probably end up with a good draw or two to cross, no matter how we do it, but a generally downhill route would be helpful. Was figuring we’d go up to the red ridge, then out along it and take a look down into some of the other basins, see if we can find one where the elk seem to be spending a lot of time, maybe look for a watering hole or at least a place with good grassy meadows that are still giving them some forage, get in as close as we can and wait for our opportunity. Gonna have to watch real carefully for other hunters, too, because we’re probably not the only ones who know where the elk can be found. There’s a good chance that some of them will still be up high, since the snow hasn’t really set in yet and the elk’ll still be up here.”
“I haven’t heard any gunshots recently. Not since that last batch…a week or so ago, wasn’t it?”
“Think so. Nope, me either, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been folks hunting few basins over from us where the terrain would muffle the sound. We’re gonna have to keep a real sharp watch out, maybe avoid fire altogether if we end up doing a night up high where there isn’t much cover. We’ll see.”
Einar had, as he spoke, been arranging the smoking fire, using a mixture of spruce and aspen to get the blaze going and then carefully adding a few peeled willow sticks, his head in the tent as he worked, and when he emerged in another coughing fit from the smoke and the strain of using extra breath to get the fire going, it was to find Liz missing, gone inside, he supposed, to go to bed, but he was too wrapped up in trying to get his breath to wonder much about it for a while.