Step, step, one after the other, moving as carefully as he could to avoid leaving sign, trying but failing to spare the ribs, because really, how can one climb through steep, dark timber without moving one’s torso…and before long he had to stop again, take off his shirt and tie it as well as he could around his middle, compressing things, holding them together so he could breathe again without being in danger of crying out at every breath, and while the wrap further reduced his flexibility and restricted his breathing a bit--have to be real careful about that, not liking that sludgy feeling in the lungs these past few days--it did seem to make his movements a bit less strained, faster. Good.
Doubts. Long way up to the cabin, and he wondered--each step costing rather dearly, the frequent high steps to navigate over fallen trees and those during which he had to duck under some obstacle or other coming with the highest cost, damaged ribs seeming to cut into him, then, tear at his side until he wanted to slam himself into a tree to make it stop--could he make himself do it? Dismissed that particular doubt pretty quickly, because he’d been through worse, lots worse over the years, so of course he could do it. The second doubt was far more persistent, troubling, and that was, should I do it? Should I even try to go back, today? Seemed it might be wisest to spend another night away, perhaps even backtrack himself some to make certain he wasn’t being tracked before risking leading someone up to the cabin, their Refuge. Didn’t think he was, but recognized that there existed at least a small chance that the horseman, once re-united with his animal, would be curious enough about its strange behavior that he would follow its tracks in an attempt to puzzle things out, might, in doing so, come upon the place where he had tumbled from the animal’s back and end up on his trail. Not a project to which he would expect the average hunter to devote too much time or energy, but he did not know for certain that he was dealing with an average hunter, and not a man who was there for the purpose of hunting him. Had seen things there at camp in the man’s behavior which definitely made him wonder, though he’d since found no confirmation for his suspicions.
And how could you, running off like that on his horse before you had a chance to see what he really was up to? Bad idea, that one. You’re getting desperate, man, making mistakes and you know you can’t afford to be doing that. Now. Slow down, give this next move of yours some consideration and…well, I think you’d better try and eat a little something, too, because it seems straight-out lack of energy has to be half your problem here, or pretty close to it, and Liz did send you with some jerky and such… Crouching there against a tree with his left elbow and arm pressed firmly against his damaged ribs Einar picked at a piece of jerky, tried to get some of it down but it wouldn’t soften in his mouth, nearly choked him when he tried to swallow until finally he took it back out again and stared at the half-chewed mess there in his hand, shaking his head and wondering briefly how he’d come to let himself slip so far that he couldn’t even physically manage to do the one thing that might make an improvement in his situation. Disgusted. You’re a fool, Einar, and you’re gonna eat this stuff now, one way or another. Stuck a small lump of the half mashed jerky back into his mouth, forced it down with a gulp of water and though he gagged on it--swallowing seemed to be a problem that day, even if it was mostly water--the stuff stayed where he’d put it, and he kept going until the entire mass had been consumed. Good. That’s got to help. Now you get yourself up and moving again, either towards the cabin or along your back trail if you’re determined to wait around and make sure the Fifth Hunter isn’t a manhunter, after all, but whatever you do, you absolutely cannot go on sitting here all day.
Which of course he didn’t, hauling himself to his feet and staring down through the timber behind him as if hoping to see his pursuer so the problem could be taken care of right then and there, but he saw no one, heard nothing but the wind in the trees and the too-loud rasp of his own breathing. No one back there. He’d been careful of his trail. It was time to go home.
Hours later, near darkness, Liz in the cabin preparing supper, Einar at the end of his rope, or past it, after that climb--he’d quite ceased keeping track--and he stood at the door, swaying, bracing himself against the logs to keep from falling, but would not go in, despite her rather urgent urging. Not just yet. Not before he told her.
“Done a bad thing, Liz. Real bad thing, and I ought to have known better.”