Liz was halfway through her second rack of jerky since the coming of the helicopter when Einar made his appearance to give her the good news, and she at first mistook the look of triumph on his face--twisted grin, a bit crimped around the edges by the hurt of his ribs and not looking to Liz particularly like the expression of joy which it was meant to be--for an increased difficulty in breathing that might well constitute an emergency, hurried to him and took his arm when he appeared a bit less than steady on his feet.
“Einar, sit. What is it? Can’t you get your breath?”
“No more than…usual but…listen to this! I’ve been figuring up our supplies, and between the two sheep, two bears, the…various rabbits we’ve dried, fifty or so pounds of dried spring beauty and avalanche lily corms, nearly eighty pounds of bearfat, counting this second bear, all that honey, dried serviceberries and all those chokecherries in the cabin, if we can get to them before they ferment…we’re doing pretty well, you know?”
“Yes. Yes, I do know. I think after these last couple of weeks we’re doing pretty well on the food end of things, but we’re still way behind when it comes to the warm clothes we’re going to need if we intend to do anything this winter other than huddle in front of the stove most of the time wrapped in the bear hide. The clothes we do have are well on their way to being worn out with all the hard use they get, and even wearing both layers of them, it seems you’re spending most of your time half frozen or worse, even now in the fall. And our boots. They’re being held together with pitch and cordage, and won’t do much to keep up from losing toes when the snow sets in for good. We’ve got some hides now, so it’s just a matter of turning them into parkas and boots and things, but we’d better not forget to do it.”
Einar shook his head, gave her another grin, this one looking a bit less like the horrible, pained grimace of a dying hyena, now that he’d got his breath a bit. “Won’t forget. Just because I…end up going out in the weather half the time without much protection doesn’t mean I’d expect you to do it, and sure don’t expect the little one to. You’ve got that…rabbitskin blanket almost done for him, and I have plans to make you a parka that he can be carried in, like the Inuit mothers use, and I’ll coat the hood of it with a beeswax mixture to make it somewhat waterproof, give him some extra protection when you’re carrying him. Just let me…finish rendering the fat, and I’ll get started with the sewing.”
“Speaking of the fat…do you think we’ll be able to have a fire again pretty soon? Because it’s going to be hard to do much rendering without one, and once it cools down out here for the evening, I’d like to be able to put these jerky racks in near the stove to keep them drying for a few more hours…”
“Soon. Want to give that chopper more time to come back, if it’s gonna do that, and then maybe by evening if it hasn’t shown back up…” He stopped, shaking his head as if unsure of his decision, considering the fire a concession and perhaps even an unacceptable one.
“If you were here by yourself, you probably wouldn’t have a fire for days after an incident like that one with the chopper, would you?”
“Ha! When it was just me and myself, I went for whole months sometimes without a fire, didn’t eat for nearly as long on occasion, slept under fallen trees and about froze to death every night once it started getting cooler for the year, even though I did my best to stay out of the wind and burrow down under the spruce needles.”
“Yes, I remember that. Things weren’t much different from that when I found you over at the Bulwarks that time… I’m glad to see that you’ve changed your habits at least a little now, because really, how long can a person keep on like that?”
“Oh, you might be surprised… We can conduct a series of controlled experiments if you’d like--on me, of course, not on you and the little one--to try and quantify more exactly just how long a person can keep on like that, because really, that’s something I’ve always wondered, myself, and obviously I’ve never come up with a definitive answer, seeing as I’m still here…”
“Oh don’t you dare! This isn’t the time for experimentation of that sort, especially now when it’s finally looking like we have a bit better chance of making it through the winter without each day being such a struggle, such an uncertain thing…so you just get that idea out of your head, or I may have to do it for you! I’ve still got that rabbit stick. You don’t want a busted skull to go with those ribs, do you?”
Einar shrugged, ducked when she dived at him and, surprisingly agile for his present difficulties, caught her by the wrists. “Maybe.”
“You stubborn, stubborn man…”
“What am I going to do when this child comes out just like you, and I’m hopelessly outnumbered?”
“Oh, maybe he’ll…” Einar released his grip on her, sagging forward and pressing his ribs, suddenly hurting and rather breathless. “Maybe he’ll end up being sensible, steady and wise, just like his mother, instead.”
“I sure hope not! I mean, I hope he gets good things from both of us, but I’d be disappointed if he didn’t inherit at least some of the absolutely intractable stubbornness that you seem to have been born with a double dose of, and some of your…I don’t know…will, I guess you’d call it, because I have a feeling he’s going to need it, in the life that’s in store for him out here…”
“He’ll learn it. Won’t have a choice. Sometimes a person just doesn’t have a choice, becomes what they have to become...”
“Yes, and sometimes a person doesn’t give themselves a choice, even when there otherwise might be one…”
Einar shrugged, rose, guessed she was right but knew the tone her voice had taken on, gentle but insistent as if she was about to ask him something he knew he wouldn’t want to answer, start prying again at his thoughts and motivations--he’d had enough of that the last time Kilgore had been there--and lacking the breath to get into a serious discussion with her just then, he figured he’d be better off getting back to work. Which meant more hacking and carving on the fat container in preparation for the potential return of fire that night, not easy on his ribs but certainly an easier thing to face than the line of questioning he believed Liz about to embark upon. Might have stuck around and waited to see--the more difficult path usually being the better one--except that he truly did not have the breath to argue, and didn’t want Liz’s conversation to be a one-sided one, him sitting there and listening in silence. Well. Some other time. Right now I’ve got some more preparations to make on the bearfat barrel, and then if Liz is still working outside, I ought to spread out the hide we have and see about starting on that parka for her and the little one.