Bud Kilgore’s leg was broken. Susan, inspecting it, had little doubt and neither did Bud once she started poking, prodding and gently manipulating the limb. It was the same leg he’d injured more than a year previously, and though the break seemed to be fairly minor and uncomplicated--not even needing to be set, really; Susan believed the break to be only in one of the bones, the smaller one, his biggest problem at the moment being the swelling--they both knew that it presented a major challenge when it came to the two of them walking out of there. Which left Bud a good bit more ornery than his usually-ornery self, grumbling and groaning as he finished warming by the fire. The process took him a while, body temperature having begun to dip somewhat dangerously during the last half of the long haul up from the basin, but he was strong, well-fed and had been protected not only by his layers of warm, waterproof clothing but by the reasonably generous layer of fat which his body always packed on at the start of the winter months, and he would, given time, be just fine.
Einar was a different matter, remaining cold and unresponsive even after Liz had spent the better part of an hour working to get him warm again, and she worried that the dehydration which was evident in his sunken features and in the white, slack look of his skin might prove a bigger problem for him this time than the cold. Not much she could do about that until he woke, but after a few half-hearted efforts to rouse him she gave up on that idea for the moment, left him to sleep in the knowledge that he likely needed rest nearly as badly as he did water. Susan was, in the meantime, tending to Bud’s leg, splinting it with willow wands leftover from Einar’s earlier snowshoe project, several of the straight, round sticks on each side and wrapping them in place with elastic bandages from their medical kit. Kilgore sat silent through the entire process, sipping nettle tea and chewing on the end of a willow stick in the hopes that its salicin would serve to bolster the anti-inflammatory tablets Susan had given him, which might be helping the swelling just a bit but didn’t seem to be doing a whole lot for the pain. Pain he could take, but it wasn’t just his leg that hurt him that morning; all over, his body seemed bruised and battered, as he supposed it very well ought to be, after his being dragged all the way up from the basin over fallen trees, rocks and other obstacles. Scraping with his teeth at a shred of willow bark, freeing and wadding it into a ball in one cheek, he glanced at Einar. Poor devil. I really worked him to the bone last night, right to the brink and then to go and ask him to carry out a rescue like that one…well, kinda hope the crazy buzzard wakes up long enough for me to let him know it wasn’t intentional, at least. Wasn’t intentional. Went a bit too far with this one.
A good two hours later Einar woke, rolled with some difficulty to his side and began the slow and laborious process of exchanging Liz’s last batch of hot rocks, which had by then begun to cool, for warmer ones from beside the stove, barely able to lift the things but making some progress, nonetheless. Liz saw, hurried to him--baby in her arms--and began helping, surprised and overjoyed to see him taking an active interest in the warming process, rather than simply dragging himself out into the tunnel to lie in the snow, as he’d seemed rather more inclined to do at such times, lately. He stopped, laid a hand on little Will’s sleeping form and smiled up at Liz, wanted to take the child but he was still shaking too hard, a bit unsure of himself.
“Still…just a little chilly for...some reason. Could use one more batch of these rocks I think, and then I’ll be ready to...”
“A little chilly? My goodness, you understate things! Yes, I bet you are a little chilly! Here, let me help you with the rocks. Your fingers ended up just slightly frostbitten again even with your mittens, and it’s going to be hard for you to grip things for a day or two.”
He nodded, allowed her to help with the rocks. Couldn’t seem to remember much about the past night but an enormous weariness was on him, weighing him down like a huge, heavy bear or buffalo hide and preventing him from rising or even thinking too seriously about attempting it, but for once the feeling wasn’t a terribly bad one, and he felt little need to resist, lying back down with eyes half closed and a bit of a smile on his face. Which delightful repose did not last long, Liz propping him up and insisting that he drink something that seemed at once scaldingly hot and sickeningly sweet and he wanted to let her know that he was fine, absolutely, entirely fine and without a need in the world but she was terribly persistent, hurting his side and shoulder the way she was lifting him and he took the pot--fingers were, indeed, frostbitten, pained him terribly as they contacted the hot metal--and choked down a few sips of its contents. After which Liz was happy, and he, exhausted, sank back to the floor and closed his eyes.
Having been up all night waiting on the men to return Liz was, herself, badly in need of lying down and closing her eyes for a while, and Susan, seeing the trouble, offered to stay awake with everyone for a while so she could lie down with little Will for a nap. Grateful and exhausted, Liz pressed Einar to take one final drink of the honey-sweetened broth she’d made him, checked to make sure the bear hide was well tucked in around him, and curled up in the bed. Which--Bud napping, himself, after the medications given him by Susan finally began to have the desired effect--left only Einar and Susan with their eyes open, and Einar’s were barely open. At least, that was, until the smell of Susan’s midday soup reached him. Gritting his teeth to avoid crying out at the hurt of moving he got himself to his hands and knees, shakily rising, falling again and catching himself against the wall. Susan saw where he was headed, took the soup pot.
An eager nod. “Would you mind?”
“No, of course I wouldn’t mind! Here, let me get you a bowl.”
Watching Einar as he started on the stew, Susan took a risk, decided to try speaking to him again as she had shortly after their arrival nearly a week prior.
“You’ve got a long way to go, haven’t you? Coming back from the edge of that abyss…”
Another three bites before he could stop long enough to give an answer. “Yeah, guess so. Guess I better get busy. Spring’ll be coming in a couple months, and I got to get out on the trapline before then, take some good furs before they start losing quality with the warmer weather.”
She took his nearly empty soup pot, ladled out another serving. “I know you told me before that you were troubled by the swelling in your legs when you tried to start eating again, and if that happens this time, you can make things a little easier on yourself by…”
“Oh, I’ve done this before. Come back from it. This isn’t the first time, so I know what to expect.”
“Have you? I know you’ve been in some pretty tight situations before, both in the distant past and more recently since you’ve been on the run, but somehow I doubt any of those situations were just like this one. You’ve very efficiently--and intentionally, I would have to say, which is the real difference--worked your body down until there’s almost literally nothing left, and that may be somewhat different than what you’ve experienced before, when you were on short rations or even no rations for a time, but trying your best to get ahold of more to eat. Don’t you think?”
Einar shrugged, pinched his collarbone and ran a hand over the painfully protruding bones at the back of his neck. “Yeah, guess it’s a little different. Don’t believe I was down this low in weight, even after my unfortunate little experience in the jungle, though would have been pretty close….if I’d been out there for another two or three weeks with no time to stop and look for stuff to eat…”
“Right. I thought so. This is new territory for you, then.”
“Only as a matter of degree. I can…”
“You can stop trying to downplay how serious it is, that’s what you can do, for starters. The sooner you allow yourself to recognize that, the sooner you’ll really be ready to do what you need to start turning things in the other direction, and I’d say you had better start doing that pretty soon here, if you don’t want it to be too late.”
“Aw, it’s not…”
“Yes, it is. Look at yourself. I don’t know what you weigh, and can’t really measure that up here, of course, but I can say that you don’t have anything left to lose. You’re living off of what little is left of your muscles and organs right now, your brain is shriveling up, your kidneys and liver aren’t functioning correctly, your heart is shrinking and it’s going to give out on you one of these days…come on, you know the facts.”
Einar nodded. Sure, he knew the facts. No denying the facts, nor did he especially want to try, just then. And Susan could see it.
“Alright then, if you’re through arguing with me, let’s get back to business, here. Before Bud wakes up and you two start in on each other, because I imagine you may have some things to say to one another, too, after last night…