Einar did not go far up that slope, had no intention at all of quitting the area before he saw the searchers awake, satisfied with Kilgore’s explanation of why they’d slept the day away--hopefully they’d be too ashamed to question the matter, but he certainly couldn’t take that for granted--and headed down out of the area. Which probably meant waiting through the night, as he expected them to go ahead and make camp right there in the meadow. Not a good thing having to spend another night away from Liz, but he really couldn’t see any good way around it at that point. No sense in hurrying home, only to spend the next several days wondering just where the team had gone from that meadow, if perhaps they had been suspicious of Kilgore’s split lip and gone looking, found some trace of his presence and followed it… Doubted that would happen. Kilgore was a good talker, and he had been careful not to leave a trail as he retreated from their meeting place, but if the men doubted him and got to poking around, they might well stumble upon the spot where he and the tracker had engaged in their brief struggle, and go from there… No. Couldn’t leave until they had done so, themselves, not until he was sure they were headed down and out of the area. Best get that deer hide wrapped around you, pile up some of these fir needles for insulation because it looks like you’re here for the night, and the way this wind’s blowing, you’re gonna need all the insulation you can get.
With darkness beginning to descend on the mountainside and the men still having shown no sign of stirring, Kilgore busied himself with collecting firewood, knowing they would soon be growing badly chilled in their immobility if they weren’t already, would greatly appreciate a fire on waking. Also, he needed a way to explain his damaged lip, and as the injury had been inflicted by an aspen branch in the first place, the wood gathering seemed to provide a good cover. Dumping several armloads of roughly broken aspen and spruce branches between the slumbering searchers he scraped aside the short, dried meadow grasses with a boot, arranged a few rocks in a rough circle and began arranging hands full of tiny twigs and clumps of dry needles that he’d found still clinging to a small dead spruce, preparing to light the fire.
Not far above in the timber Einar, having settled himself in a well-hidden thicket of young firs and prepared as well as he could for a night of watching was feeling the evening chill as well, huddling against it with arms wrapped around his middle, pressing his re-injured ribs against the hurt of his own shivering--his entire left side seemed to be stiff and swollen where the tracker’s knee had mashed it, and he hoped very much that most of the pain might prove a result of the swelling and bruising, rather than re-broken ribs. Wasn’t sure he had the strength or stamina to breathe himself through another five or six weeks of rib healing just then, take the deep breaths that would be required if he hoped to avoid a potentially fatal lung infection, but knew he’d give it his best shot, should circumstances require--and thinking that it was shaping up to be an awfully long night. Down in the meadow the men were shivering too where they lay all sprawled out on the ground, Einar could see it even from his somewhat distant hiding place and wondered at what point Kilgore might deem it time to try and wake them, give them the chance to warm up a bit before the real cold of night set in. Somehow he was finding the entire thing tremendously humorous, was having a hard time all of a sudden not laughing aloud, and it hurt, the straining not to laugh, but didn’t last long as he was quickly reminded of his situation--and Kilgore’s words--by a particularly powerful gust of wind that tore up the slope and through his hiding place.
Cold. Had nothing left with which to slow the loss of heat from his body, nothing much to live on when things didn’t go exactly as planned and he knew the tracker had been right about his chances of leaving Liz and the baby sometime during the cold, snowy months--not through any direct choice of his own, but through the simple and ultimately irrefutable laws of nature--if he didn’t find it within him to make a change. Already he was struggling to feel his fingers, deer hide doing little to shield him from the advancing chill of the evening, and it wasn’t even dark yet. His lack of water would only compound the problem, he knew, and for a moment he found himself wishing he’d managed to talk himself into accepting Kilgore’s earlier offer of food and drink. Well, too late now, and seeing how long those two searchers seemed to be sleeping, he supposed he was glad he hadn’t risked it. Kilgore was trustworthy, had proven himself so numerous times but he was also a very strong-willed individual with his own ideas of how things ought to go, and Einar had found himself not entirely confident that the tracker, given a chance, might not attempt to take matters into his own hands in a way that might prove disastrous to them all. Best not to eat his food, only to wake up on a plane to Arizona or something, Liz all tied up and fast asleep beside me. He’s threatened something like that before, and seemed none too happy with the situation up here or with my lack of answers when he questioned me about it, either.
The snapping of branches; Kilgore adding to the fire, which he had started some minutes prior, smoke and occasionally a swell of warmth swept up and over him as the wind shifted, and Einar stared somewhat longingly at the clear orange flames where they showed above Kilgore’s hastily constructed fire ring. Perhaps the men wouldn’t wake, would never wake and he could head down there and share the fire, or at least have one of his own. Sounded good. And immensely unlikely. Kilgore knew what he was doing. The men would wake. It would be disastrous for everyone if they managed not to, Kilgore coming under suspicion and the entire area perhaps receiving more scrutiny as a result, and it was with some relief that Einar several minutes later observed the first of the searchers stir, roll over and groggily sit up, shaking, crawling closer to the fire. With the wind having calmed some as dusk progressed, Einar was able to clearly make out every word of the exchange that followed.
“What…what happened? Don’t remember…lying down but here we are and…”
“Aw, hey, you’re freezing, aren’t you? Come on, get closer to the fire here, and in a minute I’ll have supper going. You went to sleep, that’s what. Good long nap.”
“No, I uh…”
“It’s the altitude. Lack of oxygen’ll do that to you the first time or two. This is you fellas’ first time up this high since getting into town, isn’t it? Well then, I’m not surprised ya dozed off. You’re fortunate you didn’t end up with full blown mountain sickness, headache, dizziness, the whole works. You don’t have headaches, do you? No? Good. Probably good to take it a little easier for a day or two anyhow until your bodies become more accustomed to operating on less oxygen, maybe even call this operation good and head back to base for the time, walk out in the morning and come back up early next week.”
By that time the second man was awake and huddling over the flames, gratefully accepting Kilgore’s pots of steaming hot instant coffee and discussing somewhat groggily amongst themselves the unwanted and rather unpleasant effects of the early stages of mountain sickness, Einar shaking his head and grinning up at Muninn when he realized that they were not only fully accepting Kilgore’s explanation, but adding their own details to the account. Seemed the second man had, indeed, wakened with a bit of a headache, which only served to further confirm the diagnosis, and though he was all for starting down that night--didn’t want to end up with cerebral edema if things got worse, and seemed genuinely frightened of sleeping up high lest he never wake--the first had no intention whatsoever of moving from that fire until daylight, and made his opinion known in a most emphatic manner. Kilgore and the second searcher yielded to his insistence, Kilgore reassuring them that rest and water would likely assist greatly in reducing the symptoms of their mountain sickness, with cerebral edema being highly unlikely at their relatively low elevation. They would though, he insisted, be wise to start down in the morning, cutting their mission short by a day and a half, and neither man made an effort to disagree.
Smiling to himself there in his tangled nest of young firs--got to admit the man’s good at what he does, real persuasive--Einar drew the deer hide closer around his shoulders, tucked already numbed hands beneath his arms and rested his chin on his knees, prepared to watch and wait through the night, make certain the team’s plans in no way changed with morning.