Liz tending to the baby and Susan cleaning up after breakfast, Bud and Einar prepared themselves for the day’s travels, laying out snowshoes and cold weather gear and nearly emptying packs to give themselves the means to more easily carry back the cargo which was their objective. Skies clear and no sign of additional snow imminent, the idea of leaving tracks all over the new snowfall struck Einar that morning as far less wise than it had seemed in their discussions the night before, and it was only because of Kilgore’s keen tracking--and anti-tracking--ability and willingness to avoid leaving sign out in the open whenever possible that he found himself reluctantly agreeable to going ahead with the expedition. No flyover had disturbed their night, the first time in a good number of weeks that such activity had not followed the lifting of a major storm and Einar was suspicious, thinking at first that he might simply have slept through the intrusion but Liz and the others assured him that they hadn’t heard anything, either.
Strange. Perhaps it was some indication that the search, having found nothing of interest in their immediate area after several well-timed scourings, had shifted its focus a bit, simply moving on to another series of ridges and basins. He certainly hoped so, had considered encouraging Liz to put the fire out for the day just in case something ended up coming over while they were gone, but had refrained. Couldn’t see why they would have missed the opportunity to take advantage of the sub-zero night only to make a pass by daylight, and in the absence of any strong reason to anticipate trouble during the day, those staying at the cabin really did need the fire. Temperatures remained well below zero as they made their final preparations, and he knew that if the fire was allowed to go out, the cabin’s interior would slowly begin to assume outside temperatures, the water barrel would freeze up and life would generally become more difficult for a mother with a new baby. Something they could live with if they had to, but not a hardship he wished to impose on Liz in the absence of any real evidence of its necessity.
Liz, blissfully unaware that any such had been under consideration but working hard, indeed, to keep the place warm that morning, had tucked little Will in amongst his rabbit skins for a few minutes of unaccustomed solo slumber--seldom was he willing to remain asleep for more than seconds if set down, that morning seeming an exception--and was busily laying out all of Einar’s cold weather clothing and some articles which didn’t strictly belong to him, too, insisting that he wrap himself in as many layers as she could round up. Which insistence fell mostly on deaf ears, Einar having already decided just what he did and didn’t intend to wear, but he did make a concession in the form of accepting a wool scarf Susan had brought--she’d intended to leave it with the two of them--and allowing Liz to wrap it about his neck as a seal to help keep the cold air from seeping down into his parka as he traveled.
Even dressed fairly lightly as he was, Einar felt somewhat weighed down and cumbersome as they made their final preparations to leave, but reminded rather sharply of the potential consequences every time he had to use his still sore and tender frost-nipped fingertips, he made no effort to further trim down his load. He was pretty sure Liz would have knocked him flat on his face with the rabbitstick, anyway, had he tried. She seemed to be watching him like a hawk that morning, urging additional broth and meat gelatin slices on him every time he turned around and refusing to be satisfied until he’d made at least some effort to consume the offerings, and he really couldn’t figure what might have got into her, but tried his best to be accommodating. It wasn’t too difficult. He really was terribly hungry that morning, wanting more than his body seemed willing to allow, in fact, but having to content himself on frequent slivers of Susan’s gelled broth and the occasional taste of roast elk, as the larger chunks still seemed liable to choke him. Which was not a productive use of time, tended to interfere with preparations for the day and besides, he could see that it upset Liz.
No matter. He’d be able to eat more later, hopefully, when they returned to the cabin and the smell of a supper which he was sure, if the past several days were any indication, would be absolutely superb, and supposing there proved to be any time for such things while on the expedition, Liz had certainly packed a good bit of food for him to take. He’d even heard her instructing Kilgore when she thought he wasn’t listening--rather adamantly; seemed there might have even been a threat in there somewhere--to be sure he took regular breaks and finished most of the food she was sending before the two of them returned, to which the tracker had responded that, Ma’am, no offense to you or the fact that this here is your house and your territory and all, but there’s no way on this good green snow-covered earth I’d ever agree to be responsible for such a thing. Rather pole vault through a minefield in a lightning storm, thank you very much. While herding cats. Blindfolded. On a doggone unicycle. Liz hadn’t seemed to find it too funny but the remark had left Einar doubled over in a fit of silent laughter, turning his back and continuing his preparations so they wouldn’t know he had heard. Wise man, that one…
Ready at last they took their leave, both men on snowshoes as they pushed their way through the heavy drifts around the cabin and into the timber, Einar leading the way as he kept them carefully to the trees. New snow deep and powdery, the going was not easy even in snowshoes, fallen trees and the low-sweeping branches of the evergreens conspiring to trap and entangle them, slowing Kilgore’s progress and leaving him to grumble under his breath but spilling Einar several times onto his face, floundering, struggling, finally managing each time to right himself, progressively more exhausted but trying hard not to let it show. Despite his difficulties Einar set a pace which surprised Kilgore and which, at times, he found himself working very hard to maintain, zigzagging down through the timber and pausing at irregular intervals to still his breathing, slow the pounding of his heart and tilt his head, listening, hearing only the small sounds of the chickadees and juncos in the trees, and the occasional soft whump of snow falling from their boughs.
The more closely they approached the basin and the spot where Kilgore had concealed the cache the more spooked and jumpy Einar became--sure he was hearing something but not quite able to identify it, and the ambiguity was really getting to him--until finally the tracker pulled up beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. Big mistake. Einar whirled about and nearly ran him through with his spear. A near thing.
“Hey, want me to take point for a while, man? Hard work breaking trail through all this snow.”
Einar shook his head, staring at the sky and signaling for Kilgore to be quiet.