The dark hours crept by for Einar, stretching on slow and at times seemingly endless as he huddled against the aching cold of the night under a billion clear, unblinking stars, holding his ribs and occasionally dozing for a few fitful minutes here and there. Dozing, dreaming, one minute running for his life on half-crippled limbs through the dark, dripping jungle, endless rain blending its sound with the hushed, high-pitched, excited voices behind him, mostly blotting them out but not quite, and he knew he had to move faster or they’d have him again, soon…and then through some trick of the mind he was the next minute safe and dry at home, someone’s home but apparently not his own, for he didn’t know the place but an enormous feast lay before him spread on a great table, heaping plates of steaming, freshly-sliced bread, its top golden brown and butter melting in such plenty on some of the slices that it was beginning to run over the sides, ham and turkey and some sort of very thinly sliced, highly seasoned beef, all steaming hot and blending its wonderful aroma with those of what appeared to be nearly a dozen casserole-type dishes, all covered with cheese, of course, melted, oozing, and then there were the pies…but he couldn’t get to any of it, could only stand there and stare, and then it was gone. All gone.
Einar woke cold with an unshakable chill that seemed to come as much from inside him as it did from the night, keeping himself perfectly still and staring intently into the darkness, unsure for a time just what had been dream, and what reality. By the time he finally reached out a hand and felt the familiar soft-needled limbs of his fir enclosure, he’d very nearly convinced himself that the part about the jungle had been real. Had seemed real enough, for sure, and it certainly wouldn’t have been the first dark, nearly sleepless night he’d spent huddling beneath a low canopy of leaves with the rain dripping all round him and the humidity so thick it seemed one must push it aside before being able to take a full breath as he dreamt of great bounties of food that he so badly needed but was nowhere near being able to access.
He’d come, in those dark, rainy days after taking leave of his captors, to greatly look forward to such dreams (hallucinations? He’d never been quite sure, and really, it hadn’t mattered much in the end which they’d been) for the brief reprieve they provided him from the constant agony of moving his broken and starving body through that rough and endlessly jumbled terrain, seeking safety, escape, but knowing that they remained terribly distant, almost beyond his reach, the strain of knowing that his enemy was always out there, hunting him, moving about silently in the rainy dimness and at times drawing so near that he could smell them, a fishy, garlicy pungency that meant they were near, too near, and would soon have him again if he made the slightest mistake, let his guard down in the least…which meant of course that he shouldn’t have been sleeping at all, shouldn’t have allowed himself to indulge in those mental flights of fancy but really, for how many weeks can a man be expected to go entirely without sleep? At some point it will happen, little snatches here and there no matter how hard a body tries to hold it off, to resist it, and at least when he was immersed in the food dreams with all of their brilliant, too-good-to-be-true intensity, he wasn’t hearing Andy’s screams or smelling the awful, choking stench that had risen up through the bamboo slats of the little cage where he’d spent so many days bound in impossible positions just waiting for his captors to return for the next round of questioning, that odor rising to blend with the fetor of his own rotting wounds as they slowly poisoned him. Those dreams had come too, but the hungrier he’d got--wasn’t much to eat out there in the first place, and he’d possessed little time or opportunity during those desperate weeks of flight and evasion to stop and procure for himself what might have been had--the more the food-visions had come to dominate his sleeping moments.
Shifting on the cold ground Einar scrubbed a sleeve roughly across his face, blinking into the darkness and seeing out of the corner of his eye the faint and dying glow of Kilgore’s evening fire. It wasn’t raining, wasn’t even humid, the only smell that rose around him was the good sharp tang of the firs in which he’d taken refuge for the night, and he knew where he was. Wished he had some idea of what time it was, too, how much of the night might be left because he had during his sleep grown terribly cold, stiff almost to the point of immobility and he very much wanted to get up and move a bit if morning should be more than an hour or two out. Difficult to tell though, his view of the night sky almost entirely obscured by the timber overhead so that he couldn’t use the position of the stars to judge the time, and he squirmed in his improvised nest of fir needles, craning his neck for a better view. Still pretty early in the night far as he could tell, and competing with the cold for the bulk of his attention was a growing thirst that left his throat parched and dry and, worst of all, made him want to cough, which he knew might well prove disastrous, near as he was to the searchers’ camp. Thinking back on the previous day he tried to recall when last he’d had something to drink, couldn’t quite come up with a time but knew it had been before his discovery of the camp that morning, as he remembered already being quite thirsty as he lay waiting for the men to finish their breakfast. Had wanted to visit the creek at that point, but concern over the sensors and cameras they’d already placed near it had dissuaded him. Shaking his head and trying without success to swallow the dryness in his mouth he felt around for a fir needle, chewing it, glad at the bit of relief its tangy sharpness brought him. A very temporary solution, but with it, he could go on waiting for a time. For morning, he supposed, when everyone moved on and he was sure they were heading down, and could himself leave the area and find water.
Time passed, stars wheeling overhead and the camp quiet below as Einar half dozed, ribs aching with every breath and far too cold to sleep, waiting, and he could have done it, made himself remain there unmoving, watching, until daylight came and the camp emptied and was still, had it not been for a persistent and worsening scratchiness in his paper-dry throat, each breath coming at the danger of instigating a cough. The fir needles had worked for a while but they weren’t enough, mouth so dry by that time that they were simply sticking to its roof and refusing to budge, and finally he stirred, shifted, rolled stiffly to his side and lay there for a time rubbing numbed limbs, trying to pound enough circulation back into them that he might have some hope of making it down to the creek without stumbling about too loudly. Still the danger remained that he might pass too near one of the cameras placed along the creek by the search team, but by traveling a good distance upstream he believed the risk might be almost entirely eliminated, as they had, according to Kilgore, not yet covered that area. His other concern was that they might rise very early and take their leave of the place, lose him so he’d have to waste precious time waiting for daylight and tracking them down to make sure they were going the right way, but as quiet as the camp had been all night so far, he decided it reasonably certain that they would go on sleeping until morning. Were probably still feeling the effects of the “mountain sickness” they’d obtained as a result of the tracker’s tampering with their water supply, and Einar moved as quickly as he could while still keeping quiet, heading uphill as he skirted around the camp in search of water. Some five or six hundred yards above the camp he began descending, guided by the sound of water whispering over the rocks and carefully approaching the creek through a dense stand of willow that he hoped would be enough to shield him from the cameras whose presence he had already decided would be extremely unlikely that far up the valley.
There it was; he could see the soft glint of starlight on the water just ahead through the thinning screen of willows, and it was all he could do to restrain himself from making a headlong dive for that water but he kept still for a full two minutes, listening, scanning what he could see of the surrounding woods for any movement, anything unusual, and seeing nothing. Carefully, quietly he allowed himself at last to creep the final few yards to the water, hands and knees, slithering through the willows and lying on his stomach in the rocks, cupped hands full of the icy, life-giving water as he sipped and then gulped until the water was sloshing around in his stomach, and he could hold no more. Freezing. The water had been a necessity, something he’d desperately needed both to prevent a coughing fit that would have given him away and to begin replacing the fluids he’d lost through the day but it had left him even colder than before, trembling uncontrollably as he crept backwards over the rocks and into the willow thicket, wanting to either get to his feet and take off running up the mountainside to generate some heat, or curl up in a ball right there where he was and not move until the sun came up. Couldn’t do either, of course, and he got slowly to his feet, ribs aching fiercely where he’d lain in the rocks, and began working his way back to the well-concealed spot where he’d determined to wait out the night. All was quiet in the camp down below, both searchers asleep and Kilgore, near as he could determine, deep in slumber as well, and he drew his knees up to his chest, scraped together as many fir needles as were within reach and prepared himself for more hours of waiting. Not too many now, for he could see the faintest hint of grey beginning to grow through the straight-trunked ranks of spruces on the high eastern horizon.
Up at the cabin Liz was wrapping up a rather long night of her own, wishing very much for the coming of morning.