Too late for the atlatl, knife in hand he came uncoiled and sprung in the direction from which he’d been able to determine the breathing was coming, one man only, and he intended to take him, but the man was ready, dodged and whirled and caught Einar in the back of the head with a hard blow from a stout spruce branch, knocking him to the ground and quickly kicking the knife out of his reach. Blackness, it was welling up all around him, trying to take him, an ice cold finger tracing up the back of his neck and he fought it, flipped himself over and tried to engage once more a shadowy foe who danced to the side and was about to give him another solid knock with the branch but this time Einar caught it in both hands before contact could be made, forced it back at the man, several quick moves sending him off balance until he was on the ground, pinned beneath that stick with Einar doing his best to crush the air out of him, crush his throat but the man was strong, had Einar by both wrists and then he got a knee bent and up onto Einar’s ribs, was shoving, trying to free himself and it was all Einar could do to keep from crying out at the white-hot sear of pain that shot through his injured ribs at the pressure, crushing them, crushing out his breath but he knew he must not make a sound with the others still around somewhere, no way he could take both of them at once, so he remained silent, struggling, but he was losing ground. Fast. Strength just wasn’t there, body betraying him. And then the man spoke, voice barely more than a raspy whisper.
“Hey kid, you were…sleeping on duty, here. Didn’t anyone ever tell you what happens when you sleep on duty? Quicker man than myself would have had ya dead to rights, no doubt about it.”
Einar released his grip on the stick, fell back away from his opponent, away from the crushing pressure that seemed to have been caving in his ribs and keeping him from breathing, air returning in a rush; felt like he was inhaling fire, teeth gritted against the hurt.
“Man, you busted my lip. Now I’m gonna have a busted lip for the wedding…”
“Well, you mashed in my ribs. Doggone things were just starting to heal. Wedding?”
“Yeah, I figured if a mangy old coyote like yourself could pull it off…the married life, that is…well, maybe I could do it too. Lifelong bachelor that I’ve been. And besides, the lady wouldn’t quit having me over to the house for them home-cooked meals of hers, you know, and boy, can she cook!”
Einar thumped him on the back, still doubled over in an effort to catch his breath, face pinched and white with the renewed pain of his ribs. “Good deal.”
“Yeah it is. Real doggone good deal. Hey now, better sit down before you fall, man. Come on, let me help you. You look like hell, Asmundson. Rough time this fall? Trouble finding enough to eat? Your bones are all stickin’ out, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Einar shook his head, coughed, wiped a bit of blood from the corner of his mouth and studied it for a moment there on the back of his hand, not a good sign, not looking good at all but he was still upright, still breathing after a fashion, figured he’d be fine in a while. So long as he didn’t have to take on the other two men, as well. That might mean trouble. “No, we got plenty to eat. Cabin full of good things to eat. We’re ready for the winter.”
“Well you sure don’t look it. You been sick or something, or are you just starving yourself for the fun of it? Because you need the challenge?”
“What’re you doing here? Thought I told you to keep away from my place.” Ignoring the question, changing the subject.
“This isn’t your place, Asmundson! This is as many miles as I could reasonably keep these fellas from your place. Took some doing, but I showed ‘em on the map how this spot in the creek just had to be the one you’d come to for water--and fish!--if you were anywhere at all in the area, and now they’re so thoroughly convinced there’d be no talking them out of it if I tried, and we’re covering the whole entire area with cameras and such, as I’m sure you’ve seen. Though I hear…” He let out a big laugh, loud enough to make Einar wince and cast a hasty glance down the slope at the still-sleeping forms of the two men Kilgore had somehow got himself the job of guiding through the back country, “I hear that some big old bear or other’s going along and ripping them things out, too, just about as fast as we can place ‘em. Not difficult to do, since he’s seen where each and every one’s been put…”
Einar smiled, a tight, tense sort of thing, but a smile nonetheless. “Yeah, some bear… But what about the others? They’re gonna hear us. Probably already heard us.”
“Aw, don’t worry about them. They’re taking a real good long nap, from the looks of things. Gonna be out for a couple more hours I’m pretty sure.”
“You and your…poisons again? Sure don’t think I’ll ever eat or drink anything in your presence, the way you like to play around with those poisons…”
“Well now that’s funny, because I was just about to offer you a drink, and maybe some jerky and cheese and a bag of trail mix or something, because it looks like you’re in a pretty bad way when it comes to certain life-sustaining substances, but if you don’t want it…”
Couldn’t risk it. Ought to, but couldn’t, and he shook his head, held up a hand to fend off the offered canteen, Kilgore replacing the cap with an exasperated little flick of his hand, not in the least surprised at the fugitive’s reaction. Man didn’t have much choice, he knew. Real thin line between self-preservation and utter destruction in the life he’d been living, and habits like that could be mighty difficult to un-learn.
Studying the camp--Muninn had focused in on the sleeping men, was ever so carefully working at freeing the knife from the belt of one of them, and Einar hoped for all of their sakes Kilgore’s sleeping poison was good and strong--he turned to the tracker. “Who are they? Guys you’re with.”
“FBI. This is part of their big ‘winter push.’ Convinced they can have you this winter, if only they try hard enough, set up enough surveillance, follow every tip that comes in from locals and out of state hunters and cover areas they haven’t really looked at before.”
“Think they’re right?”
“Nope. Not if you kids’re careful up there. Real careful. Like no-tracks-and-trails-in-the-snow-unless-they’re-hidden-real-well-under-trees careful. They’ve got a new fella running things down there at Mountain Task Force--they sure do come and go, let me tell ya!--and he’s real smart and real serious about this thing. Better watch it this winter.”
Which sent Einar to his feet, ribs hurting him at the sudden movement, and Kilgore could not help but notice.
“Mind if I have a look? Least I can do, after crunching them for you like that.”
Einar pulled up his shirt, eyes quiet, distant at the pain of flexing his torso like that. He was used to it. Would get through it. Again.
“Gosh man,” Kilgore let out a low hiss, “you got nothing left. You’re all bones in there, and you’re gonna freeze when it starts getting a little colder. Just gonna freeze every moment of every day, and then you’re gonna die because a fella can’t produce enough heat without a little something to burn, to work with, and I’m telling ya, you haven’t got it. But I suppose you already know that, don’t you?”
A shrug from Einar. “I’ll get along.”
“Not unless you start eating again, you won’t. That woman of yours is gonna be burying you here before long, and then she’ll be burying the kid, too, because without anyone to provide for them, they’re gonna be in a mighty rough spot, this winter. Ok, the ribs. Let me have a look. Yeah, broken alright. Two…no, three of them. With healed breaks above where it looks like they been broken real recently, too. How’d you breathe like this? Looks like you had a section of ‘em floating there for a while, not attached to anything, and that can make it near impossible to breathe…”
Kilgore shook his head. “We got some talking to do.”