When Einar looked up and saw the angry flash in Liz’s eye, the determined stiffness of her stride as she approached, he glanced up at Muninn sitting safe in the topmost branches of the dead fir and wondered if he might not have been wise to join the bird. She didn’t have the rabbit stick, though, didn’t seem inclined, in fact, to take any action at all against him just then, despite her demeanor. Which he found most alarming. A good beating he would have understood, but what she had in mind…well, what did she have in mind? Guessed he’d be finding out soon enough, sat silent, waiting, as she glanced over the dismantled smoking tent, peering up into the trees at the work he’d done in hanging the bear chunks, and when she spoke, it was without a hint of the fury he’d ascribed to her movements. Well. Perhaps he’d misunderstood. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
“You made a fire. Thanks! And got all the meat hung up. How did the hides turn out, after all that smoking?”
He handed her the sheep hide, which he’d folded and set on their aspen log bench after taking down the tent. “Real good. Turned them a real good subdued brown color, and now they’ll keep their softness even after getting wet. Won’t have to stretch them to get them pliable every time it rains, now.”
She sat with him, feeling and inspecting the freshly smoked hides and trying to work up the courage to start in on the thing she knew she must say, looking for guidance and wisdom in how to present the matter. Best that she simply start right in, it seemed. He never had much cared for pretense. “About this hunting trip. Before we go, lets consider the possibility that we have enough food…a good start, anyway, especially since we’ll be taking rabbits and squirrels on the trapline to supplement it through the winter. I know another elk or two would be a good thing, but here’s the problem. You (forgive me, Einar, for saying it this way, but this is the way it is…) are hurt pretty badly right now with those ribs, and despite the way you’ve been able to keep going and getting so much done, it’s a severe and life-threatening injury, and to look at it any other way just isn’t being realistic. Combining that with the fact that you’re still not getting anywhere near enough to eat…which so far as I can see is entirely your choice, since we now have plenty…well, I really don’t think climbing around on the ridge for a day or two and then lugging half an elk down on your back is the best way either to help your ribs heal, or to let you conserve your strength and start putting on the weight you’ll need just to make it past the end of November. So. I’ve said it.”
“Ah Lizzie…” he looked at her sadly, tone a good bit more gentle and subdued than usual, but firm. “I know you’re right on this one. Don’t like to admit it, but I’ve been having a mighty rough time with these ribs. Fact is though that we don’t have time right now to give that sort of thing too much consideration. Winter comes on mighty sudden out here, comes whether we’re ready for it or not, and right now the time is real short. We really are doing pretty well on food, especially with this last bear and all the fat we’ve got set aside, but the problem comes in when you look at the hides we’ve got. And what we haven’t got. We can make it through a winter without adequate clothing, but it limits when and where we can be out and about, puts us in a position where we’re either looking at skipping the trap line a lot of times and so eating through our stored food too fast, or risking frostbite or worse every time we stray too far from the cabin. You’ve done winters like that with me--parts of two of them--and you know I’m willing and can make it work, but it seems the benefits of having those extra couple of elk hides--and the materials for snow pants, mukluks, a parka for each of us--outweigh the risks of you going hunting right now with an ornery, crippled up old mountain critter who has trouble getting his breath now and then. Don’t you think?”
“I’m not worried about the risks of going hunting with you. That’s not what I said. I’m mostly just worried about you not coming back with me. We’re way up high here in the basin, the ridge is a couple thousand feet higher, and if you puncture a lung up there with one of those broken ribs, or end up with pneumonia--again--because you can’t breathe deeply enough and your lungs get congested…you do realize that you’re mortal, don’t you? You can die. Push yourself too far, and die. Sometimes I wonder.”
He smiled strangely, eyes distant, and she knew even before he spoke that she’d made a bit of a mistake. “Learned that one real early on in life. That I’m gonna die, that we all are. And that it can happen at any moment, and probably will… Been living on borrowed time for most of my life, and I never forget it. Never really had a problem living with that knowledge.”
“Right, but I’m not sure you’re making the connection between that knowledge, and your current situation.”
Einar shrugged. Current situation? I’ve been in worse… “All I can do it to keep going, doing my best to get us ready for this winter, make sure things go as well as they can for you and this baby.”
“But that’s just my point--you’re not. To watch you day after day, it would appear that you’re doing your best to make sure you’re going to leave us, one way or another. You sit out in the cold every chance you get until you’re hypothermic--I know it’s part of your training and that you know how to handle it, but surely you’re aware of what that sort of thing can do to your judgment, and what if you miscalculate one day, just once, and don’t stop in time? And I’m not here to see it happening and haul you in by the fire?--and you don’t eat. Like it’s some sort of personal challenge to see how long you can go without. You say you want to make it through the winter and be here for us but as far as I can tell you don’t eat at all unless I’m sitting right there with you and reminding you to do it, and you know what happens to starved rabbits and deer when the cold weather comes. You’ve seen it, found their carcasses. Winterkill. What makes you think you can’t end up that way? You’re flesh and blood just like they are, and the same physical laws apply to you, like it or not. It’s a deadly combination, cold and starvation, and you seem determined to keep after yourself until you finally perfect the mixture! Why? Why do you have to go on hurting yourself? What’s so important in that challenge that it’s worth leaving your family over? Because that’s exactly what you’re going to do, if you can’t get this figured out…”
He was angry, tried not to be, because he knew he had no right, not with her. Lizzie, if only I could answer those questions, could tell you…and when he spoke his voice was quiet, carefully controlled and with a hint of sadness which Liz had not expected to hear there. “I have no intention of leaving you. Either of you. I just want to go get us an elk or two, and looking at how quickly the weather’s changed just over the last week or so, this seems the time to do it. May be one of our last chances. Will you come with me?”
“I will come with you. But we’re going to have to some serious thinking about how to pack our elk, when we get him. Will you do that, at least? Try to come up with a solution that doesn’t have you carrying seventy five pounds on your back and doing more damage to the ribs? Please?”
“Well now I can certainly carry…yes. Yes, I’ll do that.”
At which she took him by surprise--and nearly knocked him off balance, too--with a big hug, a kiss on the cheek. “I love you, Einar. Now let’s close up the cabin and hang the baskets of fat and the rest of the meat so we can start up that ridge! If we make it up there before dark, who knows? Maybe we’ll even take that elk tonight…”
Together they worked to secure the cabin, barring the door as they always did before leaving the clearing, but taking it a step further as Einar began hauling over the small dead aspens they’d used for their smoking frame, Liz joining the effort when she saw what he appeared to have in mind. Crossing two of the small aspens in front of the door Einar secured them to the house logs first with cordage and then with rocks, stacking flat slabs of granite across the bottom third of the door before he ran out of rocks. Stepping back to take a look--and to catch his breath, for it was coming hard and ragged with effort, ribs not liking the lifting of so many rocks--he was satisfied with the effort. A bear could, given time and enough motivation, still perhaps gain entry, but he believed the fortified door ought to hold off all such assaults at least for the time they intended to be away. Cabin secure, meat and fat hung from high branches and their packs ready, the two of them took one final look back at the place before starting up the trail to the spring, meaning to drink their fill and top off water containers there before tackling the first of several steep, timbered slopes that stood between them and their ridge top goal. Muninn the raven, watching them go and sensing, somehow, the finality in their actions, glided after them on great silent wings, shimmering black and iridescent green in the sunlight as he skimmed the aspen tops.