Bud pushed the door open just as Liz was about to go out, dragging Einar in by the feet and depositing him in a lifeless-looking heap before the stove. “Tried real hard to wake him up, but he seems pretty resistant to the idea, which is no surprise. Fella’s pretty doggone resistant to everything, from what I seen of him.” And he gave Einar a tentative kick in the side as if still hoping to wake him, rolling him halfway over with his boot but getting no response. Sitting heavily on a rock near the stove and warming chilled hands over its heat, he nodded to Liz as she hurried over to crouch beside the crumpled form. “Was afraid it’d have to come to this, but sorry I couldn’t do anything about it, Ma’am. Gave it my best try, out there. His vitals aren’t too…vital, right now. Figure he must’ve got pretty cold overnight.”
“I should have gone to check on him sooner! He needs something to eat. Hand me that pot on the stove. The one with the broth in it.”
Kilgore gave her the pot, Liz setting it aside to cool a bit as she straightened Einar’s tangled limbs and got a bear hide over him, blinking back tears at the sight of his face so colorless and cold and nearly translucent in the firelight, impressions of his teeth showing through tightly-stretched lips. He wouldn’t wake for her, either, though she tried very hard to coax him to do so, even to the point of hoping a helicopter or plane might come over at that moment to stir him from his stupor but none came, and when the broth had cooled sufficiently so as not to burn she raised his head and gave him a bit of it in a spoon, allowing the life-giving substance to dribble down his throat and glad when she saw him swallow. More, she’d better give him more from the looks of him, give him some energy with which to begin getting warm again, return to wakefulness so he could hopefully take the pot and drain it, himself.
Just then little Will, waking and discovering his food source to be nowhere within reach, sight or smell, and apparently finding the fact tremendously disturbing, set up a high, thin wailing which immediately demanded Liz’s response, and she hurried back over to the bed, scooped him up. “You do know how to make sure your needs are met, don’t you little one? It’s too bad your father doesn’t have some of the same instinct left…not that we’d want two of you wailing and crying like this all at once, but he could at least say something! Here. Yes, I know you’re hungry. It’s been fifteen minutes since your last meal, so of course you’re hungry…”
Susan, seeing that Liz intended to attempt feeding the baby and caring for Einar all at once and knowing her capable of both but certain also that the baby would be better off with her full attention, steered her back to the bed. “Let me do part of this. You just concentrate on the little one, I’ll see that he gets plenty of broth. He ought to be coming around in no time.”
For a full minute Kilgore crouched beside the stove silent, observing as Susan slowly worked to get a bit more of that broth into Einar--not exactly the way I’d be inclined to go about this; fella needs a good pounding if you ask me, pound this foolishness right out of him, but he knew he would do no such thing, not in this particular case--finally rose and turned to the stove, figuring someone had better be tending to Susan’s pot of oatmeal, and since she wasn’t doing it and Liz seemed pretty busy feeding the baby, that only left him. And I’m mighty hungry, too. Can’t hardly wait for this stuff to be ready! Sure for the life of me cannot figure how Asmundson manages to go day after day up here with next to nothing to eat, when he’s got plenty of stuff all around him. Done it myself more than once in the jungle and the bundu and even in my own home from time to time, just to keep in practice, but out here in this cold? Whew! No way! Fella must be mad to try a thing like that. Me, I’ll stick with the oatmeal and then maybe in an hour or so, a nice thick elk steak or some such! Smothered in bear grease and fried up with wild onions. Utter perfection! And if Asmundson’s still alive and kickin’ by that point, maybe I can even talk him into joining me. Fella’s got to be alive. He’s too doggone sturdy and stubborn to go like this, lying all sprawled out on the floor with a bunch of uninvited guests standing over him. He wouldn’t care for it. Not one bit. Not a lot of dignity to an end like that, not for an old warrior like him. Maybe I ought to at least drag him back outside and hand him a grenade or a satchel charge, or something. Kilgore didn’t have any grenades, though, having left all such destructive devices down in the well-hidden white duffel in the basin, so he did the next best thing, which was to try once more to wake Einar so the man could have some chance at the kind of end he surely would want.
Kneeling on the floor beside the unconscious man, Kilgore motioned Susan aside. She handed him the pot of broth, thinking he wanted to take a turn at trying to get some of it into Einar but he set the pot back on the stove, bent and whispered something in his ear. Einar moved, stirring and grimacing, not waking but it was the most activity Susan and Liz had seen from him all morning, a sign of life, and they found it encouraging, watched intently as Bud repeated his words, delivering Einar a sharp blow to the shoulder at the same time. More movement, a groan and a toss from Einar and when Susan returned and again tried to give him broth, he opened his eyes--wide, staring, strange--and began to cough. Seeing that Einar appeared distressed, confused, liable to scramble up and leave the cabin at a run or a crawl or whatever he could manage, Susan quickly took the baby from Liz so she could go to him, speaking softly and encouraging him to take a sip of the broth.
Bud was sitting back on his heels, looking satisfied. Susan sat beside him, baby in her arms.
“What did you say to him?”
“Best not speak of it. Was a cruel thing I did just now, and there’ll be consequences later if he remembers it, but seemed not fitting to just leave him lying there like that, slipping deeper into a place where we can’t follow. Had to try and bring him back if I could.”
“I’m glad you could. I know the longer he stays like that, the less likely it is that he’ll come back…like we last saw him. Or that he’ll come back at all. You did a good thing.”
For the next while Liz sat with Einar, the two of them talking quietly as she worked to get him to finish the broth--it was a slow process, the stuff threatening to make him sick if he took it too fast--and then he went on sitting, alone now and rather in a haze while everyone ate their big, steaming bowls of cinnamon and peanut butter-laced oatmeal, shaking his head and smiling when Liz offered to fix him a bowl. Not yet. Not ready. Perhaps he would try later. Had things to do that morning, wood to gather, wanted to make a quick trip up to the cliffs above the cabin and observe what he could see of the basin, the valley below, make sure everything looked alright, but none of it happened, the morning passing as if part of a dream and Liz opening the door to let in a bit of fresh air and early afternoon sunlight, shadows moving and shifting, unconsciousness trying its best to reclaim him and it might have won out, had it not been for the baby.
Little Will found his voice that day, crying, it seemed, whenever he wasn’t eating, and Einar, barely able to stand, himself, but quite unwilling to lie still like everyone seemed to want him to do--goofy people, they were looking at him so strangely, watching him out of the corners of their eyes as if he was some odd, fantastic creature that they’d never seen before, and he neither understood nor cared for the attention--comforted him by walking, pacing the length of the cabin with the child cradled carefully in his arms, back and forth, back and forth, resting, at times, his forehead against the wall, nose on the baby’s head, the contact seeming to do them both some good, and when the time came for the midday meal, he was ready to sit with everyone and attempt to work on his share.