Immediately after Bud got through stowing the parachute and Susan freeing their snowshoes from the weapons case he insisted that they be off, pausing only briefly to check on the duffle bag containing their additional cargo--seemed to be in fine shape after its landing--roll it beneath a small fir there at the edge of the tarn and stow its chute beneath it for later recovery. Susan, barely able to see Bud in his white coveralls when he put a bit of distance between the two of them and knowing that she was herself similarly camouflaged could not understand his tremendous hurry to get beneath cover, wanted to ask him about it but sensed from his demeanor the urgency of the matter, remaining silent until they had well and thoroughly concealed themselves in the black timber.
Panting for breath, Susan finally caught up to Bud where he was leaning against a tree, catching his own breath. She was amazed at the speed with which he’d covered the open expanse of the basin, his greater height making him more speedy on snowshoes than she, but knowing that she was generally a bit fitter and leaner than he, the pace still impressed her.
“Do you think they’re going to be looking for us? Flying over? Have they got some idea of where we went?”
“Huh? Who? Them jokers down at Mountain Task Farce? Nah, they got no idea where we gone. Not concerned about them, at all. Though we do need to be careful with out tracks, leave as few as possible in the open and keep ourselves to the timber so we don’t make trouble should an aircraft come over between now and the next storm, just causally looking as they’ve been doing from time to time. No, it’s Asmundson that’s got me spooked. Back of my neck was itching the whole time out there in the open, just waiting for an atlatl dart! Now. About our route. I know we could head right up here through the timber and reach the little spot where their cabin sits, most direct route to get there, too, but we can’t do that. He’d anticipate that. We got to handle this like we’re hunting him…it’s the only way we’re gonna make it through the approach to that cabin. Get around behind him, above him, and hunt. Approach from a direction he doesn’t expect, and take him by surprise because you can be sure he knows we’re coming, knows someone's coming, and that’s a real dangerous spot to be in. For us.”
“Einar’s a pretty intense fellow for sure, and can get to doubting a person’s intentions pretty easily, but he wouldn’t really do anything to us, surely… Not as long as we somehow let him know who we are, from a distance.”
“Oh, yes he would! Last time I saw that rascal he told me in no uncertain terms that he’d kill me if he ever saw me up here again encroaching on his territory, and that was before his kid was born. Assuming that’s taken place, by now. He’s gonna be one mighty dangerous critter this time around, and he’s probably already stalking us, too.”
“Well what do you plan on doing about it? I hope you’re not going to hurt him.”
“Yeah, I’m probably gonna have to hurt him some, but it’ll be for his own good. And ours, and that new little baby, too.”
· · · ·
It was with a certainty and sure-footedness greater than he’d been able to muster in a number of days that Einar moved up into the timber through the strengthening light of dawn that morning, long, firm strides in his snowshoes, fog of the previous days lifted in its entirety from his mind and the world crystal-sharp around him, crackling with unseen life, his purpose single, clear, direct, resolve unwavering. At the same time he could not shake a dark premonition, a certainty, almost, that he was heading into danger, that they were no longer alone there in the basin and that, in all likelihood, this was one fight from which he wouldn’t be returning. Which meant that he really had to make this count. Going to find them, and going to make them die. They’d never reach the cabin, none of them, never touch Liz or his son, and if at all possible--odds certainly against him, body failing and brain not too far behind, though he certainly couldn’t feel it at the moment--he would himself find some way to make it back there and warn them, get them moving to safety ahead of whoever was inevitably to come in next when contact was lost with that first team, remain behind at the cabin to further delay the search. For days, hopefully, before it was all over. Unless they blasted the place from the air, he ought to be able to hold them off for days and--as such things went--it wouldn’t be such a bad way to go, in the end. Make it count, Einar…
Enthusiasm, determination and a wholehearted willingness to meet one’s fate head-on and with eyes afire can only carry a person so far, and by the time Einar reached the timber just above the spring--the overlook, he had decided, would provide him a far better vantage when studying the basin than would the steep, brushy territory just below the plateau, overgrown mixture of willow, chokecherry and aspen--he found himself badly winded, fighting for breath and struggling to keep his feet beneath him, legs wanting to give out and the snowshoes which were so essential in keeping him from sinking hopelessly deep in the feet of fresh powder feeling as they weighed half a ton each, slowing his movements and causing his legs to cramp up terribly. Didn’t matter. He had to keep going, had to get to an overlook point before the team in the basin had time to make their way up out of its depths and begin heading for the cabin, had to seek out their tracks, for surely they would have had to leave such, see which way they were heading and intercept them.
Spring was frozen. They hadn’t visited it in a good while, and he had hoped to perhaps find a little seep escaping still from beneath the frozen bits, but there was nothing, all a mass of solid, blue-clear ice when he fell to his knees beside it and brushed away some of the accumulated snow. Too bad. Could have used a drink. And maybe a dunk. Wash away the cobwebs. Bring back the hard-edged clarity with which he’d started the journey. Head was feeling all foggy again, and he couldn’t have that. Ice too thick to chip through with his spear, Einar settled for quickly scrubbing his face with a double handful of snow and sticking a chunk of ice into his cheek so its moisture could trickle down his throat--big help, wide awake now--hauling himself back to his feet and almost toppling over onto his face in the snow at the wave of dizziness that hit him, but despite the initial uneasiness which gripped him at the prospect of going into another of the spells that had been so troubling the previous day--can’t do it, not now, don’t you dare--the dizziness proved to be merely the ordinary variety, slightly troublesome but fairly easily dealt with, and he did, starting off into the timber that lay between spring and overlook.
There it was, burnt, bare-branched evergreen standing its lonesome vigil in the snowy, windswept clearing to his right--he took strength from the sight, from the memory of the hours he’d spent there with his back to that tree, facing the weather, letting the wind scour him inside and out--land dropping away sharply before him and the basin lying like a sea of blue in the depths below, still in shadow, sun late to reach it that time of year. Light was flat down there in the shadowy basin, made it hard to see details but the sun would soon be reaching its floor, and then everything would stand out sharp and contrasting… No time. Couldn’t wait. Needed to know now, give himself some time to make ready. Pulled out the binoculars, settling himself stomach-first in the snow and taking a few slow breaths in an attempt to steady a tremor in his hands, managed it, searching, studying, seeing. Tracks. Two sets. Strange. He’s fifured they would send more. But was glad they hadn’t. Two, he could take. Would have taken more, would have made a way, but this, he actually had a reasonable chance of surviving. Got to get down lower, anticipate their path--fairly easy to do; weren’t too many ways up onto that plateau--and place himself somewhere along it, good high position from which he could watch them come, get himself all set up with atlatl and darts, stop them.
Worked his way down lower, cautiously, snowshoes on his back now due to the density of the timber, moving with a measured, catlike ease despite the clawing, crushing weakness he felt grabbing at his middle, trying its best to squeeze out the life, drop him to the ground. It would have him, perhaps, but not yet. Kept moving, seeking, found, at last, the spot from which he wanted to watch. Good spot. Good view but little chance of being seen, clear shot just as soon as he stood to clear the thin screen of small firs which concealed him, and it would work well. He knew it.
Dizzy. Had felt it coming for some time but had been trying his best to breathe through it, make it go away but the thing was stronger than his ability to resist; he could feel it. Was going to have its way with him. Alright, then. Let it come. Wedged himself tightly in between two trees, body trapped, held upright in a weird, twisted sitting position as he went rigid, lost his grip on spear and atlatl, jaw clamped painfully shut and his only thought being, move. You’ve got to move. They’re coming.
Took a good deal longer than before but the episode passed, Einar reclining weak and shaky against the trees that had held him, willing himself to move, reach out, at least, and get a hand around his spear where it lay abandoned in the snow, find the atlatl and prepare a dart, but it seemed a very long time before, fighting sleep all the way, he was able to force his body to respond.