With Einar’s fingers looking all white and waxy and the reality plain to everyone but himself, Liz insisted upon thawing them for him before he went on with his breakfast preparations or did much of anything else, Susan concurring that such sounded like a very wise idea and Bud offering to hold him down while the two of them took care of it. Einar didn’t like the sound of that, still did not understand what the fuss could be all about--sure, his fingers were a little cold, all of him seemed to be more than a bit chilly, when it came to that, but he hadn’t been out there that long, few minutes, at the most, and he’d be fine--but the three of them were so persistent and he beginning to feel so terribly dizzy and confused as the warmth of the stove crept over him that at last he ceased protesting, sat still and allowed Liz to submerge one of his hands in a pot of lukewarm water that felt as if it might as well be scalding the flesh from his fingers. He showed no reaction to the pain, which Liz, having herself gone through a similar experience the winter before, knew had to be quite significant, but did rise as soon as she turned her back--Will was demanding his breakfast--shake his hand dry and return to his breakfast preparations. Kilgore was having none of it, wanted to knock him in the head and shove his hand back into the water but Einar insisted he was fine, had done his best to try and keep his hands warm while out fetching the breakfast.
“Didn’t work too well, did it,” the tracker snorted, nodding at the pot of warm water in a very strong suggestion that Einar get back over there and continue the warming.
“Pressed…hands against my stomach now and then, usually works, you know, but couldn’t seem to…get much benefit from it today. Stomach…not much warmer than anything else.”
“Well, it’s no wonder. Surely you got to realize, man, that your core temperature’s got to be chronically low right now, real, real low, so your body just don’t have anything to spare on warming your hands or feet--or your skin, for that matter. Draws everything into the core in a desperate attempt to keep you from freezing solid, and it’s a wonder you’re warm at all, everything considered. A wonder you’re alive. Now get over here and let your lady finish fixing your fingers for you, so you don’t end up losing any of ’em. One thing to have that happen when a batch of home-made mercury fulminate goes horribly wrong somewhere along the line in the cooking stage, but another entirely to lose them to preventable frostbite. Come on, man. Use your head.”
Einar glowered at the tracker, pointing out that “never have I lost one to any such accident, if you haven’t noticed. Never been so careless, and you see, I’ve still got them all.”
“So keep it that way.” And without any warning Kilgore brought Einar to his knees with a vicious kick to the ribs, Liz--having handed the baby over to Susan after a quick feeding--hurrying in and planting herself firmly beside him as he struggled for breath, both hands on one arm as she held his hand once more beneath the water. This time, Einar made no protest. Did keep working on breakfast, though, fairly cheerful as soon as he’d got his breath back from Kilgore’s blow. Ribs still ached pretty badly at times, and Bud had managed to nearly overwhelm the hurt of Einar’s thawing hands with their renewed burning, and the distraction seemed to help, Einar using one hand or another, whichever Liz wasn’t holding under the water at the moment, chopping the rabbits and getting them simmering with bear fat and flour to make the gravy he had imagined. After a time the hurt of his thawing fingers began to get to him a bit despite his cheerful attitude and willingness to work, eyes glazing over and taking on that far-away look and face showing the strain, Liz taking him firmly by the arm and leading him over to the bed where she continued warming his fingers--and the rest of him, for he remained seriously chilled from his time in the snow and wind--drying them, dressing the two that looked inclined to blister in balm of Gilead ointment and gauze from Kilgore’s medical kit while Susan laid little Will, fast asleep, in his basket, tending to the breakfast as she continued the work which Einar had started.
Susan had brought a hair brush up amongst the other gifts she had included for Liz, and Liz had been using it to great advantage on her own somewhat matted hair, finding it a good bit easier to use than the roughly improvised comb she had some time ago created for herself. Sitting there with Einar as he finished warming from his time out in the storm, she saw a good opportunity to try the device on him--had been a good long while since he’d encountered any such, and it was showing, he barely had the energy to keep up with his day-to-day tasks, let alone extras like that--but despite the daze in which he remained, cold and exhausted and hurting, Einar objected, scooting off the bed and away from Liz as soon as she began the attempt. She went after him, tried to talk him back up onto the bed but he eluded her grasp, pressing himself up against the wall where he made an almost comical sight, arms crossed in front of his face and bandaged hands held out as if to defend himself from the onslaught of the brush.
“Whoa, hey, hair’s fine the way it is, and if you do that, it’s like as not to all fall out, anyway.”
“Aw come on Asmundson,” Kilgore spoke up, “you look like a doggone hippie or something the way you are right now. What’ve you got going there, anyway? Dreadlocks? You could have owls and mice and such living in that mess, and never even know about it.”
Einar growled at the tracker, scooted further away and glowered at the two of them, sparing a suspicious glance for Susan when she joined the conspiracy by suggesting that a bath might be in order, as well.
“Oh, don’t even suggest it!” Liz insisted. “His idea of a bath is to chop a hole in the ice and freeze himself half to death in the tarn or the spring, and spend the rest of the day shivering. He’s cold enough as it is. We’d better skip the bath, for now.”
“Well, I did mean a hot bath,” Susan clarified, “but you’ve got a good point…”
“Last time he had a hot bath, I do believe, was in your basement after we smuggled him into the garage in a wheelbarrow full of dirt! They’ve all been cold, since then.”
“You did what?” Kilgore bellowed, feigning outrage. “Never told me about any such incident.”
“No, I never figured you needed to know. You’re the one who’s always talking about ‘need to know,’ and how if a person doesn’t need to know it, you don’t need to be telling it, putting everyone at risk…”
“A strange man taking a bath in my wife’s basement sounds like something I need to know, now don’t you think?”
“Oh, he’s strange alright, but not much stranger than you. And his wife was with him at the time, if you must know…”
“Yeah, I figured. Just giving you a hard time.”
Liz let the entire matter drop and so did Kilgore, wandering over to the baby where he was sleeping and examining the single wolverine claw Einar had tied around his neck on the day of his birth.
“Kid’s killed his frist wolverine already, has he?”
Einar looked up sharply. “Not yet, but he will.”
“Might want to try waiting a year or two on that one, Asmundson. Till the critter’s big enough to stand some chance of making it through the encounter.”
“Oh, I figure we’ll wait ‘till he’s three or four, maybe.”
“Ah, three or four. Time to become a man, huh? Well, most primitive cultures had their customs, trials and ordeals to initiate the young into manhood, and I guess I ought to have figured it wouldn’t be too much different here in your little mountain tribe.”
“They may have been primitive, some of those cultures, but seems to me a lot more civilized than what we do nowadays, just throwing folks out there without any preparation, any hardening, and let come what may. World is what it is, and it’s not all pretty. Best start young, I figure, in giving them legs to stand on when it comes to meeting that reality.”
Kilgore nodded--sounded good to him, only merciful thing to do, only way to go--cast a furtive glance at Liz, who appeared slightly disturbed at the thought of potentially sending her little son off on his own to slay a wolverine in a few short years, but only slightly. The life had rubbed off on her, he supposed, the reality of what it took to make and maintain a life up in a hard, harsh environment such as they one they had chosen, and to do so under the constant pressure of knowing one is hunted, the subject of a massive search which might or might not eventually end…yeah, that’s enough to give anyone a pretty different outlook on life, for sure.