Early morning, Einar wakened from a sleep so sound that Liz, stirring in the night to change the baby’s position where he lay nestled in the crook of her arm, adjust things so he could more easily go on eating, had feared for him, feeling compelled to lean close to be certain he was still breathing--which he had been, if barely--and the plane was low, circling, not going away. Wide awake, on his feet, stumbling out of bed and diving at the stove on hands and knees when his legs went out from under him and refused to cooperate, fire out, coals mostly dead and he was glad, but feared it might not be enough. Might not have been enough. Already spotted, they had to have been, or why was the thing circling like that? Higher now, but still circling, and he was shaking as he grabbed packs--already packed, he kept them packed with what essentials they could spare in daily living, fat, honey, jerky, a few tools, sleeping bag that had been left some time ago by Bud Kilgore--snowshoes, weapons, laid out parkas and boots and felt about for the soup pot, hoping something might have been left after Liz’s supper the night before, couldn’t remember, seemed to have no memory whatsoever from that past afternoon and evening, after his sitting in the sun with the baby and afterwards lying down by the stove, but he was sure he’d have made more soup, always made soup, tea, chlorophyll for her to drink and then he found the pot, not empty, good, she can eat real quick before we have to leave.
Dark in the cabin, nearly completely dark despite the predawn greying he could see through the one small crack which remained above the door and he wanted to open the door to let in some light, let him see what he was doing--seemed terribly clumsy that morning, dizzy, bumbling about and bumping into everything as if he’d never been in the place before and didn’t know where anything was, despite the adrenalin of being awakened in such a way, which he knew ought to have steadied him--but didn’t dare allow the warmer air of the cabin out there to mingle with the frigid stuff that would have settled over the little plateau for the night, lest that plane return and see it. With its infrared sensors. Didn’t fit the pattern, this plane coming at dawn, when most of those which had obviously been related to the search in recent days had come in the night, the dark of night when contrasts would be the highest and spotting any heat source below somewhat more likely, but as temperatures did tend to drop to their lowest in the hour just before dawn--and even the one just after it, sometimes--the flight did make some sense, and did not, he realized with the sick shock of a man caught sleeping on duty, preclude earlier flights having been made during the night. He might have slept right through them, exhausted as he’d been. Should not have slept. Should never have slept, and now it might be too late, for any path they took in escaping from the cabin before the inevitable ground teams could be sent in would be marked indelibly until the next storm by their tracks, minimize them though they would by using snowshoes and sticking to the heaviest timber they could find, and even if they did somehow manage to get away undetected--slim chance, but always possible--that still left them fleeing into the snowy winter wilderness with a newborn, Liz still recovering from her blood loss at birth and he…well, he’d seen better days, for sure, might not find himself capable of maintaining the pace they would need to set, especially as he’d need to be carrying both packs and all of their gear, so Liz could focus on the baby…
Better wake Liz, give her the news and he did, lighting a candle--couldn’t have her tripping all over things while she carried the baby, and the extra heat put out by that tiny flame would, he knew, be minimal--and setting it on the floor beside the bed, hand on her shoulder until she woke.
Something wrong. She could see it in his eyes, those huge wild wary eyes as they met hers--he was quite a sight, actually, hair sticking out in all directions after his hours of sleep and body shaking almost convulsively in the morning chill, but he didn’t seem aware of the fact in the slightest--and she sat up in bed, afraid he might be having another of his “incidents,” or about to, and needing help in some way.
“What is it? What’s the matter? You’re freezing. Can you come back to bed?”
“A plane. We have to get going. I’m sorry.”
“What? What plane?”
“A few minutes ago it came through, circling and circling and sticking around way too long not to have seen us, may not have been the first plane of the night but if there were earlier ones I slept through them…”
“We’ve had planes come over before. The fire’s out, right? And it’s too dark for them to have seen tracks, even if we’ve been leaving them out there since the storm, so we ought to be Ok…”
“It was lower than that, and circling right over the basin. Directly over. Had to have some reason.”
“Circling the basin? Then the reason probably can’t have been us. We’re not in the basin, and haven’t been there since the storm, so there’s no sign of us down there for them to be seeing. Maybe it was just the Division of Wildlife checking out the winter habitat of the bighorns, or mountain goats, and seeing if a herd happened to be staying up this high for the winter…”
“Or it could be that the chopper we had come over a couple mornings ago while you were in labor spotted our heat signature, sent this plane back to confirm and dropped in a ground team to come and take us. I know you don’t want to go, but we can’t wait here for them to come and take little Will. Got to do this,” and he pushed the pot of cold soup into her hands, began getting into his boots.
“Whoa, Einar, slow down. We’ll leave tracks! They’ll be able to follow us, and if it turns out that there’s no one down there, then we’ll be leaving unnecessary tracks for future aircraft to discover. You’ve said it yourself in the past--we’re safer staying put and not leaving sign.”
Einar nodded, knew she was right about the tracks and knew also that neither she nor the newborn needed to be out there in the elements just then unless it was absolutely necessary. Baby would be fine nestled in against her skin all warm and protected from the wind, but it would be difficult for Liz to move through the deep snow on snowshoes, to put out the amount of effort required by such travel, so soon after losing a significant amount of blood. It would tire her greatly, slow her healing and recovery from the tear she had sustained and perhaps worst of all, might interfere with milk production if her body decided it didn’t have enough resources to spare, in which case the child would be in real and immediate trouble. How to judge a thing like that? How to weigh such matters in one’s hands and find the proper course when both alternatives held so much peril, going and staying each offering their own set of dire risks? How indeed, and Einar--feeling his strength ebb, indecision begin to creep in, and he knew it would kill them all if once he let it take hold, you hesitate, you die--did the only thing he knew to do, on his knees, silent cry for help and then--time distorted, perhaps in was minutes instead of seconds; he couldn’t tell--he knew, course clear as he hurried into his parka, stowed atlatl and darts at the side of his pack and took up his spear, kneeling before the bed where Liz had left the baby wrapped snugly in his rabbitskin covering, touching his nose lightly to the child’s forehead and smiling as he inhaled the sweet smell of new life, watching him for a moment in the flickering light of the candle. My son…they will not come near you. No doubts anymore. Knew what he had to do.
“You and little Will sit tight right here, don’t use the stove or make any unnecessary tracks outside, and keep yourselves ready to go on short notice, just in case. I’ll go have a look at things, make sure the basin’s all clear and we got no unwanted guests. If that plane didn’t drop anybody then you were probably right, and it was just the wildlife officials or somebody checking for elk, bighorns…we’ll hope that was it. Got some soup in the pot still, so that ought to get you started and then there’s lots of jerky and fat and stuff in here if you get hungry again before I’m back…think you can manage?”
Liz was certain she could manage, hated to see him go, especially after the way he’d looked that previous day, the exhausted, almost death-like quality of his sleep in the night and the frightening incidents he’d been having, dreaded the thought of him ending up unconscious and freezing out there on the snow but his exploratory journey sounded so greatly preferable at the moment to the three of them fleeing the cabin forever with all their material possessions strapped to their backs that she was more relieved than anything to hear of his plan, praying that he would find himself quickly satisfied with the safety of the situation, hurrying home where she could get him warm and--hopefully--fed once more, headed in the right direction. Which--seeing the strangeness in his face as he stood for a long moment, hand on her cheek and eyes meeting hers; looked like he wanted to say something but couldn’t quite bring himself to do it--seemed somehow dreadfully unlikely just then, and she helped him on with his pack, tucked a bag of their travel pemmican into his pocket and bid him a brief farewell, holding back the tears until after he’d disappeared into the tunnel.