Briefly Einar debated the merits of going back by a different route than the one on which they had come, but quickly decided that there was little sense in making a second trail through the snow, thus effectively doubling the chances that the enemy, should he return, might get a glimpse of their sign. Kilgore agreed with Einar’s decision, following close behind as he led them along their back trail, every sense alert for the possibility that they might not be alone, that there might somehow already be people on the ground, lying in ambush along their trail. Or waiting for them up at the cabin. Didn’t make a lot of sense, the dreadful foreboding which clenched at his breathing and hurried his steps up through the snow-choked timber; the chopper had not hovered over the cabin, hadn’t doubled back or given any indication that the area had drawn its attention but still he worried that there might have been a wisp of smoke, some signal to draw the attention of the chopper crew and tell them here, take a closer look, get boots on the ground and make a closer inspection…
The thought of it lent him a swiftness quite beyond the ability of his battered and exhausted body and very nearly beyond Kilgore’s ability, too, the tracker huffing and puffing and struggling to keep up. In the willows some distance below the cabin Einar paused, went to the ground in the snow, eyes white and wild when Kilgore flopped down beside him and gave him a cursory inspection, wanting to make sure he was doing reasonably well, likely to keep on breathing for the immediate future, at least. Figured he could do at least that much for Liz, after having so adamantly refused her request that he make sure Einar got plenty to eat on the expedition. Breathing he was--mighty hard, actually--but didn’t look too good otherwise. No matter. They were, near as he could recollect, almost back to the cabin. He’d make it on his own two feet.
“Almost there, aren’t we?”
No answer from Einar, who crouched with head tilted, hardly appearing to breathe at all anymore as he listened, straining ears and squinting eyes and seeming to peer right beyond the limits of normal hearing and sight as he scoured the landscape for any sign of the intruder, trying to place the nearly frantic feeling of warning and of doom that had come over him. Couldn’t do it. The world was snowbound, silent, yielding nothing but the softest sigh of the wind in the evergreens, a scattered flitting and trilling of the tiny feathered creatures who called the willow grove their home. Nothing. Let out his breath, gasping for air after the extended breath-holding, mouth gaping and eyes looking more wild than before as his body struggled for oxygen. Maybe he’d been wrong, brain playing tricks on him. Wouldn’t be the first time lately, but could by no means afford to assume so. Leaving their earlier trail he cut up into the timber beside it, climbing, leading Kilgore up onto one of the high slopes that stretched away above the cabin-plateau, pausing at frequent if irregular intervals to listen once again, study and scour for clues, but always his answer was the same. Silence. Nothing but the pounding of his own heart in his head, so loud it would nearly have drowned out any aircraft that might have been making its rounds of the area, but Einar was sure no such was happening. He still would have felt the vibrations, even if cut off from hearing them. Time to approach.
Keeping still to the heaviest timber he could find--wouldn’t do to start leaving highly noticeable tracks now, wouldn’t do at all--he worked his way back down closer to the cabin, coming out at last in the trees just above the rocky overlook on which he would sometimes sit and watch the valley. No smoke coming from the clump of evergreens which shielded the cabin, and he supposed that was a good sign, meant Liz had got things got put out when she heard the chopper but did not, of course, tell him whether she had done so in a timely and efficient enough manner to have prevented detection. Edging his way closer to the dropoff itself Einar inched forward on hands and knees, not wanting to disturb the billowy, wind-carved cornice that had formed where the rock sheered off but needing to get a look at the area outside the tunnel, give himself some idea of who had come and gone from the cabin in their absence. Sheltered by trees all the way to the edge, a narrow shelf of rock on which had accumulated no cornice allowed him the best look yet but it was slippery, angled, and he struggled to keep from losing ground on the snowy granite. Still couldn’t see what he needed to see, tunnel mouth blocked by a low-growing stand of firs but he knew he’d been able to make it out from that high vantage in the past, edged a bit further forward, ignoring Kilgore’s growled warning and freeing himself with a quick kick and a twist when the tracker attempted to get a grip on one of his ankles.
There. Could see around the trees now, tracks in the snow appearing no more numerous than they had when he and Kilgore had made their exit, certainly not plentiful or chaotic enough to indicate that any unwelcome guests might have made their presence known in his absence and Einar found the sight reassuring, something uncoiling just a bit inside him at the realization that the cabin--and its occupants--appeared unharmed. Whether due to the slight relaxation of his tense sinews or simply the inevitable and inexorable pull of gravity Einar would never quite be sure, but one way or another he found himself slipping, body sliding forward at an alarming rate as he lost contact with the icy granite surface beneath him and made one desperate scrabbling attempt to prevent his going over the edge, failed, tumbling, head down, no time even to try and right himself before reaching the bottom some thirty feet below and disappearing in a great puff of fresh powder. Muttering, cursing and quite unwilling to follow Einar down the way he’d gone--See now? “Don’t leave sign,” he keeps telling me, “stay in the trees so we don’t leave sign,” and far be it from me to step one foot out of the timber and leave sign, lest I risk being run through with that doggone spear of his. Thought you were trying to keep from leaving sign, Asmundson! What the blue blazes do you call that giant sinkhole you’ve just gone and made?--Kilgore turned and quickly retraced their trail into the timber and down the steep slope that paralleled the dropoff, arriving at Einar’s side some eight minutes later.
At least--maybe a good thing, maybe not, depending on the extent of his injuries--the durn fool was still alive, had to be, for the snow around him had been disturbed as if someone were making an effort to dig out, and using one of Einar’s snowshoes--which the fugitive had left on the ledge when he fell, having removed them before making his fateful approach to the edge--he began digging, finding first a shoulder and then an arm and resisting his first impulse, which was to pull. Mustn’t do that, as any untimely movement would risk further damage to a potentially already-damaged neck and back, so instead he got down on hands and knees and began carefully following the shoulder sideways, looking for the attached head so he could clear a breathing space. Einar saved him the trouble, bursting up out of the snow with a great gasp, face all purple and blotchy with cold, eyes wild, hair and beard plastered with snow and blood streaming from a gash on his left cheekbone, but appearing otherwise unharmed.
“Well you sure took the fastest way to the bottom, didn’t you? I know you’re mighty fond of that lady of yours and haven’t seen her all day, but couldn’t you maybe wait ten more minutes, and take the more sensible way down?”
Unable to speak for the moment Einar just shook his head, coughed and snorted to clear a bit of the packed snow from nose and mouth and sat there with head bowed, shivering, wheezing, taking in air and fighting the blackness that seemed to be trying so hard to take grab hold, an icy chill creeping up the back of his neck to squeeze his brain in its iron grasp. Might have won, too, had he not taken it upon himself--glancing about and realizing with a great deal of alarm that he was sitting right there in the open, exactly where he did not want to be--to try and rise just then, but he did, making it halfway to his feet before collapsing sideways in the deep snow, out cold. Terribly cold and getting colder fast, Kilgore could see, and he figured he’d better take matters into his own hands at that point, get Einar inside.
“Alright, Asmundson,” the tracker growled, freeing Einar from his pack, laying it--along with his snowshoes--atop his body for the ride and taking hold of both his legs, “might as well stay the way you are for a while here, ’cause you know, you’re an awful lot easier to deal with when you’re not awake.”