Chopping up the moose proved no simple task with the limited tools available to Einar and Liz, Einar pausing frequently to sharpen the hatchet after going at bones and joints and repeatedly telling himself that it was “just like an elk, just the biggest elk you’ve ever dealt with…” But by the time they’d freed and roped up the two hind quarters, dragged them over to the timber and lifted them—wrapping the ropes around the smooth trunk of a nearby aspen for leverage and pulling for all they worth—up out of reach of passing scavengers, the sun was already climbing high into the sky.
Out of breath, Einar paused, wiping bloody hands on already-caked and blackened pants and leaning heavily on the cool flank of a nearby boulder. Somewhere in the distance he heard the sound of water trickling over rocks, and beside the water was Liz, speaking to Will in a voice that sounded happy if inevitably a bit weary, telling him about the moose and how it used to eat the willows, about rocks and water and how snow melts in the spring.
Einar never meant to doze there in the sunny shelter of that boulder, never meant to go on listening—smile on his face and eyes drifting closed—to Liz’s education of Will while the little one was allowed some time out the parka, but he did both, and before he knew what was happening Liz was no longer at the creek but was beside him, his own knees buckling as he sagged towards the ground in sleep and the surface of grey limestone on which he had been leaning all streaked red with blood.
Somewhat alarmed, Liz helped him to a seat against the boulder, started looking him over. “Is that your blood, or the moose’s?”
He looked down, shrugged. “Little of each, I guess.”
She looked away, bit her tongue to keep from tearing into him as she wanted to do, going on about the risk of infection, of dying, if he went on that way in his current state. “I wish you could find some way not to do that…”
“It’s not really intentional, the bleeding. Not what I set out to do when I visit with the ropes... Not the intended outcome.”
“But you don’t mind it, do you?”
He looked at her strangely. “Most times, no. It can be…useful. Guess I don’t mind much.”
I mind much, though, when you can’t catch your breath walking up a little hill, let alone manhandling this moose like we both have to do, you’re freezing all the time and can never get warm because there’s just not enough iron in your blood, and it’s all more or less preventable... I mind! “Getting this moose up a tree before the coyotes, lynx and bobcats start swarming around it would be ‘useful,’ too!”
“At least the bears aren’t awake…”
“Right. The cold buys us some time, lets us freeze these quarters and keep them while we work on making more jerky than we’ve ever made in our lives…but that’s all it does. Buys us time. Got to keep on top of it, or we lose everything when the thaw starts and the flies come out.”
Together they worked, then, to hack the ribcage down to manageable portions and get these carried over to the timber, as well, Liz wanting to pause and make some attempt at fixing the bandages on Einar’s arms, but he insisting this would be all but pointless, until they had finished with the moose. Things wouldn’t stay in place, not while they were doing that sort of work, and Einar insisted he would head over to the creek when they were done, and give everything a good scrubbing, after which the bandages could be fixed. While not particularly happy with this arrangement, Liz could not see much way around it.
After spending the entire day simply getting the moose down to chunks whose size and weight they could struggle up into trees and away from scavengers, Einar and Liz were at last left with nothing but the gut pile—mostly frozen, thankfully, before it could begin to stink too badly, and a good deal smaller than it had been at first, as everything reasonably useable had been salvaged and stored either in the creek or a nearby snowbank—the hide and the creature’s massive head, which they knew ought to be dealt with promptly, if they were going to use it. The difficulty which presented itself in making use of the head came primarily as a result of its enormous size; while Susan had thoughtfully included two cooking pots for them in the drop bag, she certainly had not packed one large enough to hold that entire moose head! Hacking the thing into smaller pieces seemed an option—until Einar tried to do it.
Skull was too tough, at least for the tools currently available to him, the strength left after such a hard day’s work—or perhaps both. He didn’t know for sure, but was beginning to wonder if they would have to abandon the head. Didn’t want to do it, needed the brain for eventually tanning the hide, hated to waste the meat remaining on the head and began carving away at this, adding the pieces to the stewpot Liz already had sitting on a flat rock near the fire. Liz, returning from the creek where she’d been washing her work-soiled clothes, sat down beside him, weary but triumphant at all they had managed to accomplish that day.
“What are you going to do with it? Mount it and put it over the fireplace, someday when we build a fireplace?”
Einar laughed, set down his knife and briefly rested his chin on his knees, quickly shifting to a less comfortable position when his eyes began drifting immediately shut. Not time for sleep, not yet. “Yeah, stuff and mount it, hang it over the fireplace. Only problem is that this thing would probably take up most of the house, when we get around to building a house. Or finding a cave. Would crowd us right out. No, was thinking I’d take off as much meat as possible, then maybe roast the whole thing over the fire and see if we can’t get a little more when it cooks and shrinks up, some. Already cut out the tongue and put it in with the stew. Good stuff, nice and tender if you cook it a while. Intend to get the brain out of there and save it, but maybe that can wait for tomorrow. Which means the roasting of the head ought to wait, too, because cooked brains probably wouldn’t work so well for tanning this hide…”
“Sure, we can wait. Let’s go hang the head in one of those trees like we’ve done with everything else, and I’ll help you deal with it tomorrow. Almost dark now. How about we call it a day?”
“Still got too much stuff on the ground. Coyotes and such are bound to find this place pretty soon, and I’d hate to have them tear up the hide, or something. Had that happen with an elk hide once, that first winter. Awful thing to have happen. Had dropped the thing down a steep embankment while I was climbing, couldn’t go after it because a chopper was really checking out the area, so I just had to sit there all night under some rocks and listen to the coyotes quarrel over that hide and tear it up. Was the only thing I really had to keep warm just then, too.”
He shivered, held out work-wearied hands to the flames, starting to doze again, getting lost in the memories. Hard times, for sure, but not necessarily bad ones. Liz brought him back to wakefulness.
“Well, let’s go see if we can find a way to protect this hide, and then we’d better get you into some fresh clothes so I can wash these, and tend to your arms. How does that sound? And then supper ought to be ready.”