The better part of two hours had passed before they got the moose gutted, skinned and cooling inside, longer than Einar would have liked, but with gravity not working in their favor for the gutting and no way to raise or suspend the creature, it seemed the best they could do. Liz had kept Will on her back the entire time—nowhere else for him to be, really, as they had no safe, contained shelter at that place and it was too cold to simply turn him loose to crawl about in the willows—so it had been Einar who crawled partway up inside the carcass to finish freeing and removing the internal organs of the great beast—the pile now lay where it had oozed and slid upon removal, deep, thick and slimy with blood, already beginning to smell, and Einar breathed a silent prayer of thanks that it was, of yet, still too cold for flies to be about—and he, also, who had done a good bit of the heavy work of freeing the hide.
At least the creature had not yet entirely cooled down, or the latter task might have proven all but impossible in his current state of physical weariness; as it was, the hide separated fairly easily from the layers of membrane and muscle beneath, Liz helping to pull and provide some tension, and, when Einar did not need assistance, working on other areas with her knife. Twice they had to roll the creature, Einar taking a bottom leg and Liz, who could as the heavier of the pair at the moment provide more leverage, grabbing a top one, the two of them struggling until they’d got the moose flipped over to its other side to allow them access to the rest of the hide.
Einar was exhausted at the end of it when finally they worked together to roll the moose off of its finally-free hide, roughly folded the thing and set it aside, not wanting Liz to know—their work, after all, was really just beginning—but hard-pressed to conceal the fact when every move was now threatening to bring an inky blackness welling up around him, breath coming with a struggle and an insidious dizziness unsteadying his steps. Cold, too, as the warmth of the hard work began to fade; he’d never warmed properly from the hunt that morning, had spent all his energy and more in the gutting and skinning, and when Liz suggested they take a break and have something to eat, he made no protest.
Using dry-dead willows Liz kindled a little fire, almost smokeless, over which they could warm themselves and cook up a bit of the bounty, and though Einar wanted nothing more than to curl up beside it and sleep for a week, he instead dragged himself to his feet and began sorting through the gut pile, finding the kidneys and setting them, large, still fresh and surrounded by some of the only fat they could hope to find on the creature that time of year, beside the liver, which he had earlier cleaned and stashed in a shady snowbank. To this pile he added globby, slimy bits of fat which he carefully cut from around the intestines, not terribly appetizing, perhaps, to one who is used to plenty, but he knew they would be needing it, and in fact found himself struggling to keep from gobbling a share of the stuff as he worked.
Liz wouldn’t have minded if he had started eating right then and there like a hungry wolf, would have counted it progress, but Einar kept himself determinedly focused on his work, stopping only long enough to let Liz cut a portion from the liver—had to have something to cook over her fire, and that seemed the perfect choice—before wrapping it, along with the fat and other organs they were saving, in a piece of plastic cut from a groundcloth left them by Bud and Susan. Slinging this heavy bundle over a shoulder Einar made his way to the creek and used a length of parachute cord to tie the whole thing up and lower it into the ice-skimmed water where it would hopefully stay not only fresh, but protected, at least for a time, from the scavengers who would surely be soon arriving.
While at the creek Einar did his best to scrub from hands and arms some of the accumulated grime and gore of his task, layers of the stuff all dried and cemented in place so that he had to take fists-full of sand from the creek’s bottom and scour himself with that before he could make much headway, kept at it until hands and arms had gone entirely numb and white with the icy water, Liz joining him and doing the same until both were more or less clean, if rather chilled for their efforts. Clothes were another matter, caked with drying blood, hair and bits of membrane from the skinning, and would have to be dealt with when the job was all finished.
Liz's little fire was still burning when they returned to the moose, Einar wanting to return immediately to work but Liz reminding him that they had been intending to take a break and, when he did not respond, taking him by the arm and guiding him over to a seat by the fire. Einar remained where he had been seated, watching as Liz cut slices of liver and set them to cook over the fire, odor of frying liver soon blending with the sweet scent of burning willow and leaving Einar to startle upright from what had been an entirely unintentional sleep, stomach cramping up with hunger at the smell of the cooking liver.
Einar ate his portion half-raw, chewing slowly where he sat sprawled out by the fire, elbows on his knees, head bowed in exhaustion and face looking oddly more gaunt and hollow than usual where the snow-reflected sunlight cast shadows on a blood-smeared cheek that had been neglected when he’d scrubbed his hands and arms. Liz had to wake him twice so he could finish his liver, wished there was some way they could delay the rest of the work on the moose, let him spend the day resting, eating and gaining a little strength, but there was no way, and no one knew that better than Einar, who was now on his feet and scrubbing his face with a double handful of snow in an attempt to keep himself from dozing off again.
“Time we get this thing quartered, I guess. Nice and cold out, so not too much risk of spoilage now that we’ve got air circulating in there in the cavity, but if it’s still lying on the ground at dark we’re gonna have one heck of a fight keeping the scavengers off of it. Surprised we’re not seeing ravens and jays, already. I’m sure they’ll be coming.”
“Too bad Muninn isn’t here. He’d let those other ravens know not to mess with his territory or eat his moose! And he’d warn us about the larger critters too, when they come…”
“Yeah, I kinda miss that old vulture. Not so easy following a plane, so I guess we’re not going to be seeing him out here. He’s probably got a good home at Bud and Susan’s, though.”
“Yes. He’ll be there waiting for you, no doubt, hoping you’ll come back some day.”
“Well. Figure if we can just get this critter quartered or otherwise chopped up and the pieces hung in the timber we should be ok for the night, and then we can figure out where we’re going from here. Got to get it up off the ground, that’s the main thing.”