Clear, sunny and cold dawned the following day, Einar up early once more to run the trapline and this time returning with a rabbit and two ermine, their sleek coats patchy with the lingering brown of summer, but mostly white, like the ground. By the time he made it back up to the cabin clearing after resetting those snares, Einar’s fingers were going rather white at the tips, too, not at all a good sign, and he swung his arms in an attempt to get some circulation going, beat hands against his legs until they ached and pressed numbed fingers to his stomach, but couldn’t seem to get them warm. Guessed perhaps his morning soak in the frigid black water of the tarn--ice had lain thicker on it that day than he had yet seen, requiring some work with the axe before he could chop himself an opening large enough to be useful--had a good bit to do with getting him into his current trouble. As did his action afterwards.
Hadn’t been able to feel his fingers since he came out of the water, and though he did not at all like to admit such, it was beginning to appear that the training sessions were exceeding his body’s current ability to compensate, and were--a fact which had been lurking at the back of his mind for the past several days--putting him at serious risk of frostbite, or worse. Which of course only made him want to try harder, stay in longer and work through the trouble, bring his body back in line with what his mind was demanding of it, and he’d half considered turning around and going back, starting all over again with the morning’s soaking and probably would have done it, too, but for the fact that he knew Liz would be concerned if he was so late in returning. Kept going, instead, but couldn’t stand the thought of returning to the warm cabin without finding some resolution to what he perceived as a growing weakness in him, an unacceptable slipping that would surely lead to his demise, or worse, if not immediately corrected. In search of a solution he shrugged off the hides in which he’d wrapped himself for the journey, stretching out full length in the snow beneath some willows and lying there still as a stone--but for the shivering, which had been entirely out of his control since leaving the water--staring up at the sky until the deep, throbbing pain eased and his back went entirely numb. Breathing through the pain and the numbness both, he attempted to breathe himself warm again and succeeded in that he did not lie there and sleep the final sleep that he probably ought to have, in his condition, maintaining awareness and working very deliberately against the drowsiness that tried to creep in and take him, keeping it up for a very long time as he watched the sun creep lower and lower on the opposite ridge and finally touch the willows beneath which he lay, sending their heavy coating of frost floating like golden mist to the heavens. Only then did he allow himself to rise, stiff and still and purple-cold all over as he struggled to his feet, but satisfied that he could, when circumstances demanded, still do a fine job of muddling through. Hadn’t much helped his fingers though, and he hurried as well as he was able to cover the remainder of the slope up to the cabin.
Liz was delighted at the sight of the plump, sleek-furred rabbit and the two lithe little ermines when Einar handed them to her, because a nice rabbit stew was sounding good for that day’s lunch, but most especially for what the catch said about the potential of the trapline they had so carefully laid. Appeared it was going to produce. Less delighted about Einar’s half frozen and silent condition--he hardly dared attempt speech, knowing the results would only worry her, stood there instead with glazed eyes and unsteady legs, hoping she would hurry outside to clean the fresh game and leave him alone to thaw his fingers; it was going to hurt--she sat him down on the rocks beside the stove and pressed a pot of hot broth into his hands. Big mistake, and he had to clamp his jaw to keep from crying out--no difficulty, as he was already clamping it to prevent his teeth rattling--quickly depositing the pot on the rock beside him.
“Fingers…little frostbit I think. Better do some warm water real quick, thaw them out. Pot’s too hot.”
“Oh, I’m sorry! I hadn’t seen. We’ve got to make some mittens for the two of us before we do much of anything else, so this won’t happen again. Here. Give me your hands, let me see. Yes, your fingertips are pretty white, but they’re not frozen hard, so that’s good news. They look a lot like mine did a couple times last winter, so I really think they’ll be alright in a day or two. Don’t look like they’ll blister. You did this setting the snares? Re-setting them, I mean?”
“Yeah, I did.” Which while not untrue certainly did not represent the entire story, and Liz suspected as much, wanted to get after him for visiting that icy tarn once again--looked like he’s stayed in far too long, this time--but figured the thawing fingers would serve to reinforce the point far more effectively than she could ever hope to. She let the matter go, turning her attention to the stove and gently heating a pot of water until barely lukewarm, perfect for bringing the fingers back to life. Helping Einar get himself situated near the stove with a bear hide about his shoulders and the warm water close at hand she left him alone to do the soaking, heading outside to clean the recently snared ermines and rabbit.
The soaking hurt as Einar had known it would do, felt like millions of tiny red-hot needles piercing his flesh and reminded him of all the times he’d had to soak his toes in the desperate weeks-long attempt to save them that past winter. The thought of it made him sick, smell of those rotting, gangrenous toes heavy in his nostrils until he snorted and shook his head, pressing his stomach against the nausea and finding himself quite glad he hadn’t yet eaten any breakfast. Better have something pretty soon though from the feel of things. Had it not been for the hurt of the reawakening fingers--good that they hurt, it’s always good when they hurt, means they’re still alive--he was quite certain he would have been asleep by then, having spent all his energy contending with the cold. Barely even officially winter yet--not that it matters up here, winter starts when it starts--and here you are nearly frozen to death for…what? The third or fourth time? How long do you really think you’re gonna last if you keep this up, Einar? One of these days you’re gonna miscalculate, run out of energy and crash before you make it back to the cabin and then what? You leave your lady and the little one to fend for themselves out here, that’s what. And that’s something you got no right to do, not if you have any choice in the matter. Better find a different solution, different way to do this, better…
Better try and wake up I guess, the way Liz is shouting at you. Seems you ended up on the floor somehow, must’ve fallen asleep somewhere along the line, and she doesn’t sound too happy. Not happy at all. Maybe you managed to spill the broth, and that’s what’s got her so agitated. Come on, open your eyes. That’s all she wants you to do, sounds like, and how hard can that really be? Too hard, apparently, because the next thing he knew Liz was lifting his head and pressing a spoonful of honey--he knew it by the smell--against his clenched teeth and his eyes were still closed and she still didn’t sound happy. Not good, and he didn’t want to sleep again but couldn’t seem to help it despite a clumsy-handed attempt to press his injured ribs and jar himself to full alertness, woke several minutes later to Liz shoving a stick between his clenched teeth and after it a spoon of honey and that seemed to help somehow even before he’d swallowed it, let him get his eyes open again, and he sat up.
“Sorry about that. Guess all this heat just made me a little sleepy…you’ve got it real warm in here.”
“It was more than the heat, I think. Here. Finish this honey, and then when you’ve had some more time to wake up we can split the broth.”
“I’m awake. How’re this morning’s critters? Rabbit looked like it had a nice thick pelt.”
“They’re great! Both the rabbit and ermines are very nice and healthy-looking, and I was thinking we ought to have rabbit stew today for a change, since it’s been a while.”
Einar agreed, told her so and tried to muster some excitement at the proposal, seeing that she was quite pleased to have the option of including some rabbit in their diet but something was bothering him, something out there on the edge of memory, pushed aside, it seemed, by his brief but intense period of sleepiness and then he remembered, sat up straighter and took her arm. Had to tell her.