“Look at his back,” Juni interjected. “It was dark last night. You may have missed something.”
Liz gave her a skeptical sideways glance, not sure what should prompt her to say such a thing, but wanting very badly to discover and remedy whatever was happening with Einar, she did check. He did need dry clothes anyway after having all that water poured over him, and as she helped him into a dry shirt, the source of his trouble became obvious. The entire lower portion of his spine was raw, red, skin rubbed away so that he was nearly bleeding in some places and definitely inflamed to a degree which might be expected to bring on a fever. Liz wanted to get after him for it--for not telling her, at least--but refrained, knowing that likely as not, he wasn’t even fully aware of the problem, himself. He seemed to have adapted to a pretty high level of discomfort over the past months, seldom even acknowledging things which fell inside its somewhat flexible and apparently ever-expanding parameters. Which surely made daily life somewhat easier for him, but also tended to lead to troubles which might otherwise have otherwise been preventable.
“What happened here? You do this last night?”
“Your back. Backbone is practically sticking through in a few places. That’s not normal, you know…”
“For me it can be. Happened before. Not that unusual.”
“Oh, I know. I’ve seen. But it’s still not normal, and I do think it’s the cause of your trouble right now, and I’d like to try and fix it for you. Ok?”
“Yeah. Need berberine. Boil up some Oregon grape roots and get a good strong yellow batch of berberine. Should have a little root section here in the pouch I carry…” with which he struggled to loosen the small leather pouch which was always around his neck, fumbling unsuccessfully with hands grown strange and clumsy, and when finally he managed, it was only to drop the precious root section into the spruce needles where it might have been lost, had not Liz seen, and hurried to retrieve it.
“Yes, this is a good start, and I’ve got some more in my pack. It’s been so useful to us that I try to always have some along, especially when there’s any chance that someone might end up with frostbit… But it’s so good for all sorts of injuries. I’d better get a fire going, and we’ll simmer some up.”
Einar shook his head. “Back’s not so bad. Fire can wait. Don’t want to risk having us seen.”
“Yes, it is ‘so bad,’ I’m afraid, and I don’t like to think what may happen if we wait until dark to start doing something about it. Your body is trying as hard as it’s able to fight this thing, but what if the fever isn’t enough? Sometimes, it isn’t enough, and I don’t want you getting any sicker. You’ve got hides to stretch, remember? Work to do.”
A faint smile from Einar, “work will get done either way, don’t worry.”
“I’m trying not to worry, but your attitude about this is scaring me some.” Scaring her quit a bit, actually. Though glad to see the apparent change in him wrought by the events of the past night, shadow lifted significantly, eating no longer such a difficult proposition and his outlook on life generally a good deal more hopeful-seeming, she could not help but be concerned by the fact that he seemed not in the least aware of the precariousness of his current physical situation. Had to try and let him know, somehow. “This is serious. You know how serious infections can be, and as worn out as you’ve been lately… Well, we need to take care of it.”
He was indeed tired, fever making another stand and the world shrinking around him, receding, darkness rising in great billows and bulges. No way he could match her logic, mount a successful argument; all he could really do was to stand his ground. “Sure. When it gets dark. No fire until it gets dark.”
“Alright, we’ll wait on the fire, but I don’t think we have to wait quite that long on the berberine. Didn’t you show me once how to make the solution without need of a fire, by just breaking up the roots and setting them in water in the sun?”
“Berberine sun tea…yeah, works, we’ve done it a time or two but…probably gonna be awful slow to work unless the water is at least warm. Which it won’t be on a day like this, even in the sun. I’m fine. Just need some time in the river to clean things up and let the…you know, if I can get myself cold enough it ought to kill off…whatever bacteria and all are in there causing this thing. Those critters can only live within a few degrees’ tolerance, and if conditions stop being favorable… So the river’s the same principle as the fever, only using cold instead of hot. Just got to get yourself cold enough.”
“Get yourself that cold and your heart will stop, you big goof! I think the berberine is a much better idea.”
“Not nearly as much fun, though…”
“I ought to take the rabbit stick to you head! You are absolutely impossible!”
All the while the two of them had been conversing Juni had been busy, herself, filling her water bottle and tucking it inside her coat to begin warming, hoping the degrees added to the water might be enough to make a difference. Oregon grape. That was the plant the bright yellow roots were taken from, and though she had never experimented with its roots for medicinal purposes, she did know the plant and had eaten its tart purple berries in the fall. Not so easy to find beneath the snow, she supposed, being a low, creeping thing at that elevation, but taking quiet leave of the camp where Einar and Liz went on discussing cold water, bacteria and the wisdom of using one in an attempt to do away with the other, she began her search. Kicking through the crusty layer of snow at the base of one spruce after another she hunted for the familiar, holly-shaped leaves, finding nothing at first but then, up near the cliffs where conditions were apparently more favorable, she spotted a few spiky reddish leaves through the snow. Wrong color, but she was pretty sure there was only one plant with such leaves in the area, and when after much digging and scraping at the frozen soil she was able to free a short section of bright yellow, bitter-scented root, she was certain. The red color, she supposed, must be a function of the lack of daylight down there beneath the snow. Though an evergreen, the plant still reacted to the cold and dark, and now that she was sure she had the right thing Juni redoubled her efforts, chipping and hacking at the cold earth with a pointy chunk of granite until she’d freed nearly eight inches of root and stowed it in her pocket. Enough, surely, and she returned to camp, where Liz and Einar appeared engaged in a serious discussion of some sort or another.