With Kilgore and the searchers well on their way out of the area Einar started back up away from the creek, skirting around the small meadow in which they had camped and shaking his head--hopeless old vulture--when he saw Muninn picking through the remains of their previous evening’s fire. Finding some, too, by the looks of it, and Einar stopped behind the sheltering safety of a stand of firs--seemed likely to him that they might have protected their camp with cameras or other sensors, though he certainly hadn’t seen them do so, and had been watching the entire time, with the exception of his brief nighttime foray to the creek for water--watching as the raven gobbled down what appeared to be scraps of tortilla and meat of some sort. His stomach twisted painfully at the sight, but he ignored it. Not a good idea. Leave it for the bird. Then something else caught his eye. Hanging by its strap from the broken-off branch of a dead spruce--it’s leaving appeared an accidental oversight, but Einar knew better; Kilgore would never miss that sort of thing in the final sweep he always did before leaving a campsite--was a camouflaged bag approximately the right size and shape for carrying binoculars, but appearing a good bit lumpier than it would have, in that case. Einar was curious. Almost certainly the tracker had left that bag with the intention that he find it, but to what end? Further intelligence, including a detailed summary of the enemy’s winter search strategy? Supplies for Liz and the new baby? A rigged grenade? (Put the fella out of his misery, he’s not listening to me, can’t get his head on straight and it’d be best for everyone; he could almost hear Kilgore mumbling it to himself as he pulled the pin) Or perhaps just a snack…
The possibilities were endless. And awfully risky. Figured he’d better go have a look. But didn’t want to expose himself by venturing out into the meadow, wished there might be some way to communicate to Muninn that he needed the thing to be fetched there to him in the safety of the dark timber, but the bird hadn’t yet been around long enough to follow such complex commands, even had he been willing. Einar didn’t want the bird to be the first one to handle the unknown package, anyway. On the chance that it was something dangerous, he’d prefer to do that himself, stand some chance of keeping it from detonating if it was… Are you seriously thinking Kilgore would be looking to splatter your guts all over this clearing? Yeah, guess I am. He was a little weird last afternoon while we were talking, seemed pretty disgruntled, in his real quiet sort of way, that I didn’t seem to be listening to him. I was listening, just couldn’t figure out how to respond, couldn’t make myself speak after listening to all that stuff about…the past, and all. Not real sure what he wanted from me. Or why he thinks he has any business trying to interfere in things up here, when it comes to how I conduct my life. Guess Susan might have put him up to it, out of concern for Liz. And with those two getting hitched, guess he’s probably pretty keen to keep her happy one way or another, so I guess the question comes down to whether or not she wants me dead, so Liz and the little one can go down there with the two of them, as they’ve both offered numerous times…
Einar shook his head, crouched down lower in his timbered hiding place. Nonsense, all of it. Kilgore might have strong opinions and no hesitation in expressing them, and Susan cared a great deal for Liz, he’d seen it, but both of them were honorable and sensible people, and would not, so far as he could see, betray the two of them in that way.
So then. The bag. The tracker had hung the object of Einar’s interest in a spot where it could be easily accessed from the timber, obtained without exposing more than a bit of one’s hand to any cameras that might have been placed in the meadow, and Einar was appreciative. Wouldn’t have found a trip out into the open area of the meadow to be a reasonable risk, even with the fair certainty he had that no cameras had been placed to cover the area, and Kilgore had clearly known how he would be thinking, and placed the item accordingly. Einar approached it on his belly, that scraggly dead tree, creeping up like a fox on the stalk and lying there behind it for a good five minutes immobile and growing dreadfully cold, but not noticing in the least, before he dared rise and reach for the strap. But not with his hand; a stout spruce stick with a forked end served as a tool to allow him to free the thing from its spot on the branch, lifting, lowering--thing seemed awfully heavy--and depositing it on the ground in front of him.
A careful poking and prodding with a stick, Einar shielded behind a fallen aspen and reaching over it as well as he could, put to rest any lingering concern over grenades and such, and he dragged the bag closer, opened it. Kilgore, you scoundrel. What do you think you’re doing, here? After reading the tracker’s brief note, things became a good bit more clear, but Einar still didn’t like it. Emptying the bag to ensure that nothing more sinister lurked beneath its sinister-enough cargo he inspected it to his satisfaction, loaded everything back in and made his careful retreat from the area around the meadow. Morning was well underway by thetime Einar got himself away from the camp, to his feet and stretched the chill out of his muscles so that he could manage something closely approximating a normal walk, and he was growing increasingly anxious about having been away from Liz for so long, wanting to get home. First had to decide what to do about Kilgore’s dubious gift and--not wanting to leave it too near the camp but very hesitant to carry it too much closer to the cabin, either, lest he have misinterpreted the situation and the item prove to contain an active tracking device--he made a quick decision to stash it somewhere significantly upslope from the camp, off in the direction opposite the one he’d be taking on his return home.
Making that climb quickly as he was able and deciding on a spot where he would be certain of finding the item once again should he ever choose to take Kilgore up on its use--highly doubted it, but life was such a changeable, uncertain thing, and one is wise to leave all options open--Einar cached it safely inside a hollow-trunked aspen, took one final look around at the place to fix it in his memory and turned to start the long, convoluted traverse across acres of steep, heavily timbered gulley-riven mountainside that lay between him and the approach to the basin. Exhausted. Hadn’t noticed it until that moment, but in addition to driving some of the chill from his bones and leaving him--parts of him, anyway, but that was about the best he could hope for, those days--warm for the first time in what seemed like a week he was weary to the point of wanting badly to curl up right there on the ground and sleep but knew he must do nothing of the sort, dare not allow himself so much as a brief stop before he was well on his way to being back to the cabin, lest he have a terribly difficult time getting himself going again. Wasn’t far from the point where rest would become mandatory--he could feel it--the choice taken from his hands as his body shut down in an attempt to conserve its last resources and keep him alive just a bit longer, but he couldn’t have it, couldn’t allow it. Must keep moving, and he did, hours passing unmarked as he made his way up through the timber, taking special care to avoid leaving sign with the possibility that the two searchers--or someone associated with them--might in the future be back in the area, and might not have Bud Kilgore with them to provide direction. Distraction. It was a dangerous game, and one in which his obvious advantage was diminished somewhat by the fact that he could, at the moment, hardly remain awake and on his feet, and he was glad not to be the object of direct pursuit at the moment, for it would have been all he could do to summon the required speed and cunning to slip out of that net, and perhaps more.
Dizzy. Couldn’t get his breath, wasn’t at all sure where he was and was beginning not to trust his eyes, either, the trees appearing strange and dark before him, faceless, no variation, no matter where he looked. Lost. Things weren’t making much sense, and he wished desperately to be able to shake the cobwebs from his head, but couldn’t think how that might be accomplished. Move faster. Might help. Left him slamming headlong into a tree he hadn’t seen, instead, and he stood there for a minute or so driving back the blackness that was trying so hard to take him, heart feeling all thready and fast in his throat as he struggled for air. Haven’t got much left here, and I sure would like to get back to Lizzie before this thing’s all over, if You’re willing. She needs me to…I’ve still got to…and with the baby coming… Couldn’t think what he’d been trying to say, wanted to sit down, close his eyes and stay that way a very, very long time, might have done so, and with rather unfortunate consequences, had it not been for Muninn. The bird had been following him all day, moving from tree to tree or circling overhead as Einar made his slow progress up the mountain, but now, curious at the first pause in many hours, he swooped in and landed hard on Einar’s shoulder, completely upsetting his balance and sending him tumbling to the ground where he lay clutching his ribs and laughing silently until the tears nearly came. He knew that skyline, the narrow band of willows inhabiting their damp little seep where for a brief space the slope grew less steep and allowed a bit of moisture to accumulate, and beyond them a stand of firs so dense one couldn’t see five feet into it, concealing the place he’d very nearly given up hope of seeing, after such a long day of seemingly fruitless wandering. He was almost home.