Kilgore didn’t say much, just stood waiting for Einar to settle down and get his breath back before moving a bit closer. Einar was breathing hard, already shivering in the late evening chill as he leaned on a spruce for balance--ribs and shoulder blades showing sharply through the wool of his shirt; no wonder he was freezing--and it appeared to Kilgore all the man could do to keep on his feet. Better be real straight with him. The tracker never had been one to beat around the bush, anyway, and at the moment he had a mission--and a history of ruthlessly pursuing his objectives, whatever they might be.
“Asmundson, if you were a dog, I’d have no choice but to just put you out of your misery right here and now, man. Only merciful thing to do. Can’t you see what you’re doing to yourself?”
“I’m not your dog, Kilgore.”
“Nope, and you don’t want to be put out of your misery, either. Do you? And I don’t mean, ‘you don’t want to die like a dog, do you,’ because of course you don’t, but I mean that you want the misery. Need it. You don’t want it to end.”
“Well I know where you’re coming from with that. Kinda. There’s places you been where I haven’t, so I can’t say I entirely understand your need to keep on pushing so hard in that direction, but for the most part, yeah, I get the idea. And if you want to live your life that way--and lose it that way, too--that’s your business, but don’t you think the kid ought to be given a chance? Better one than he’ll have up here trying to live out the winter with his father dead and gone like you’re about to be and mama struggling just to keep the two of them going, after a while? I was dead serious about Arizona. Think we can do it safely if we’re wise about it, let you finish out the winter there, get some of your strength back, you know, take a few steps back from death’s door…you ought to jump at the chance, really, the kid and your lady and all aside, because the stronger you get, the more punishment you’ll be able to dish out to yourself before ending up mostly dead again, and I know good and well the attraction that seems to hold for you. And then you can be right back out here whenever you want to be. Whenever you’re ready. We’ll drop the three of you right back in that basin or on the ridge, or wherever you see fit. And you can take up right where you left off, only with a much better chance of being around for the long haul. Will ya at least give it some consideration?”
No answer from Einar; Bud had certainly not expected the proposal to be met with much acceptance, but had wanted to get it out there, anyway, so it could be under consideration for the remainder of the visit. Things can take an awfully long time to sink their way through a skull as thick as Asmundson’s, especially when a fella’s actively trying to prevent their doing so. I ought to know. Done plenty of that myself, in my lifetime, but this fella’s got a wall a mile thick built around that head of his, and I don’t know if there’s any way in, besides talking him into opening the doggone door. Which probably takes more skill than I got. So we’d best give this one plenty of time. Doubt he’ll ever come around to thinking my idea a good option or even a remotely feasible one, and he might even be right, but I got to try because it really don’t look to me like he got much time left, the way things are going. And that would be a shame. Mighty shame for a fella to reach the end just as he’s starting a family and taking on all these responsibilities, yeah, kinda hope he may listen to me, this time. And in one last effort to get the fugitive’s attention, force him, perhaps, to pay a bit more heed to his words, Kilgore grabbed Einar hard by the shoulder and gave him a hard shake as he turned to go back in.
“I oughta just knock you to the ground here and now and give you a good stomping, pound some sense into that numb skull of yours one way or another and I sure would do it, but you know what? I don’t think you’d survive it right now. Really don’t. Wouldn’t be anything close to a fair fight, and then I’d be crawling in there with my head all bowed and having to explain to your bride and mine why that little boy didn’t have a father, anymore. You’ve really let yourself go, Asmundson, to get to that point. Pitiful.”
Which dismissal angered Einar far worse than any physical stomping possibly could have done, left him whirling about on the tracker with the intention of challenging him to put his money where his mouth was without further delay, right there in the snow, but Kilgore had already gone in and Einar followed, stomping and stalking in a silent rage, beginning his bedtime preparations, angry and sullen and barely saying a word to Liz or their guests as the evening wound down. No need to do so, anyway. Liz had plenty of company with Susan there, and probably preferred her conversation, anyway.
Couldn’t sleep. Despite the initial sense of immense physical relief and relaxation that had been brought him by the evening meal--had felt as though a spring was slowly uncoiling, tension easing as he began absorbing a bit of that food and the desperate conflict that seemed always in the forefront of his mind those days quieting--Einar’s body didn’t know what to do with such a sudden influx of food, and he spent a good portion of the first hours of the night out behind the cabin dreadfully sick as he crouched in the snow beneath a spruce. Finally, seeing that the difficulty showed no sign of easing and concerned about disturbing Liz and the others with his frequent need to hurry out the door, he hauled an unused deer hide out into the tunnel and spent the remainder of the night huddled weary, shivering and increasingly dehydrated against one of its walls, scattered snatches of sleep interrupted by his need to dash out under the trees.
All the while--during the wakeful periods, the ones in which he was conscious, and they were growing fewer and farther between--his mind churned over Kilgore’s words, wondering just what Liz had thought of the proposal, whether she would want to go, make an effort to convince him. Twice in the past she had roundly rejected such suggestions before he’d even had the chance to comment on them, himself, but that had been before the birth of the baby, and things were different, now. She was different. He could see it. No telling how her perception might have changed, her priorities. And then--inevitably; it happened every time he returned to the tunnel weak and shaky and near passing out from exhaustion and lack of fluids--his mind would return to Kilgore and his absurd dismissal out there in the snow, his flat-out refusal to deliver the beating that seemed his usual means of communication and which Einar had come, on some level, to almost expect when the two of them met, and the remembering would set off a fresh wave of fury--of course I’d survive it, what’s the fool think he’s talking about? He’s just trying to scare me. It’s not so bad as all that, and I think he’s using some pretty lowdown tactics here, trying to tell me I’m not up to the challenge, not ready to face him on my own two feet and take what’s coming. Without that ability I’m worse than dead, and he knows it--which left him sitting bolt upright in the chill air of the tunnel, hide cast aside and his limbs trembling convulsively as he tried to prove to himself that he was, indeed, still able to stand whatever the world might manage to throw at him. Had to be. But he wasn’t. Passed out sometime in the early morning hours when the cold was at its deepest and the sky still an inky black outside the tunnel, body having lost in those overnight hours more than it had gained through the evening meal, and unable to go on providing his brain with enough energy to remain conscious.
Susan found him there in the morning on her way outside, pale and cold and barely responsive beneath the terribly inadequate cover of the deer hide, and she did her best to warm purple hands and brush accumulated snow from his clothing, hurrying back inside to retrieve one of the bear hides from Liz’s bed and several hot rocks from beside the stove so he could begin thawing while she woke Bud to help her get him back inside.
Susan had an idea, a plan, waited until Bud had ducked into the tunnel to attend to Einar before sitting down on the bed to make her proposal to Liz.