Darkness was nearly complete under a bank of very low, wind-tossed clouds by the time Einar and the tracker reached the willow grove below the cabin, their sharp pungency beneath his snowshoes giving Einar pause and jarring him for just a moment out of the near-trance in which he had been traveling for the past half hour, head down and legs seeming at times barely able to support him against the blasting, chilling power of the wind. Willows. They were all around him, under, beside, their sweet fragrance enveloping him even as it was snatched away by the wind and he stopped walking, sank to his knees there amongst them, a brief smile passing across the weary lines of his strained face. Would be a good place to stay for a while, dig a pit, perhaps, in order to get out of the biting force of the wind, for he could feel already its chill in his very core, in his bones, knew he was near passing the point where his body could go on resisting its force. Would soon, if he kept on as he had been, fail even to realize anymore that it needed to be resisted, and then things would in all likelihood be over. Unless Liz managed to pull him out of it, somehow. Hit him a good one with the rabbit stick and force a lump of pemmican into his mouth, or some such. Seemed she’d done it before, but it was so dark and he hadn’t been able to see her there ahead of him for a good while now, doubted she’d be doubling back in that storm to find him. She’d go on to shelter, get a fire started and wait for him, only he’d never make it unless he took a break and got out of that wind for a minute. Yes, a good place to stop. Right here, right now. And he fumbled with half frozen hands at the straps of one snowshoe, finally managed to get it off and began halfheartedly digging at the snow beneath him, but stopped before he’d excavated more than a foot into the hard, crusty layer below the fresh powder, weary, unmoving, aside from his body’s rapidly weakening efforts to produce some additional heat and not at all sure what he had been doing, or why.
Kilgore, turning and twisting his head in the wind as he led by several yards, realized that he could no longer hear the crunch and squeak of Einar’s snowshoes behind him in the fresh layer of dry, Styrofoam-like snow that had already fallen since the beginning of the new storm and he stopped, began backtracking. While the tracker was carrying a headlamp he hadn’t yet used it and did not intend to do so unless absolutely essential, so he found his way more by feel than anything, reaching Einar after several minutes of searching and quickly assessing the situation--aw, man. Why’ve you got your snowshoe off? Something wrong with it, or has your mind gone, already?--before giving him a hard swat to the shoulder with a stout aspen staff he’d been carrying for balance. Caught off guard Einar grunted, nearly sprawled face first in the snow but caught himself, glad of the blow despite the way it hurt, feeling as though it might well have cracked his shoulder blade, for it meant that Liz was back, had come for him, and they were not separated as he had feared. Things would be alright now, and he spoke to her, soft words, something about the baby, shelter for the night and a roaring fire to drive away the storm.
Another hard blow from the tracker, this one better aimed so that it had him spitting snow from his mouth. “I ain’t your Lizzie. On your feet, Asmundson. We’re not there yet.”
Not where? Right. The cache. Should have been there, though. Long ago. Something was wrong. Perhaps Kilgore had lost his way, and either didn’t yet know it, or was hesitant to mention the fact. Not likely. The man was a tracker, possessed of a sense of direction--partially innate, partially learned, perhaps--appearing at times nearly as powerful as whatever it was led the geese to migrate and displaced dogs to walk five hundred miles finding their way home, and there was little chance he would have become befuddled on a simple jaunt down to the basin, a trip he’d made multiple times in the past. Something else must be up. Leading him astray. Leading…
Einar shook his head, kept plodding along, one halting but firm step after another, knowing the entire problem likely lay with himself. Within him. Sense of time all messed up, span of a few seconds seeming like an eternity and at other times the hours speeding by with such alarming rapidity that he could get to the end of an entire day and hardly know what had become of it, and he supposed that must be how it goes, when a person is…dying, Einar. That’s what you’re doing, and a pretty good thorough job of it, too. Couldn’t hardly do better if you were trying, and sometimes I wonder if that’s not exactly the case. It isn’t is it? Which of course it wasn’t; he wasn’t trying, and wasn’t dying, either, couldn’t be, must not allow it, for he had a mission to complete that night--recovery of the cache, now he remembered!--and a family that was counting on his return after that. So he could be drifting, had undeniably been drifting, but could not, must not be dying. Only you’re gonna be doing just that before too long here, if you don’t pick up the pace some and pretty soon find a way to get out of this wind for a while. Stuff’s fearsome powerful, and the way you can feel it blowing right through you like that, stiffening up legs and arms and slowing your movements…well, you’re just not gonna be long for this world if you don’t find some rocks or something pretty soon and take a break. Have something to eat. Maybe even a fire for a few minutes. Fire’d be safe in this storm, nobody watching in this storm, no one up in the air tonight… Which meant catching up to Kilgore and informing him of the plan, of the need to stop, and he redoubled his efforts, throwing every ounce of his failing strength into pushing through that snow in the tracker’s trail, intent on finding and stopping him.
Einar’s push lasted exactly one minute and twenty seven seconds, after which he lapsed back into the half-lucid wanderings which had so far marked more of his journey than not that night, silent sometimes as he gritted his teeth into the wind and struggled hard just to maintain his balance and keep moving, other times--believing her beside him and a few times even sensing her there, her presence--talking to Liz and carrying on sometimes extensive conversations with her when he found that she replied. Once, knowing that she must be growing tired, he offered to take a turn carrying little Will but when he turned back for her answer she was gone, leaving him quite utterly alone there firmly gripped in the teeth of a storm that he knew would kill him if he did not soon find some shelter, but there was to be no shelter for him that night, not until he’d reached his objective, and done what he had come to do.
There came then a long period of dreaming--seemed long, at least, but time does do some mighty strange things under such circumstances; it might have lasted mere minutes--during which Einar stumbled forward blindly into the storm, and sometimes it was summer, whispering green of the aspens surrounding him, surrounding all three of them as Liz dug the bulbs of spring beauty near the softly chortling waters of a tiny creek and little Will--the child was walking, new, unsure, teetering at times on the edge of falling, but walking, buckskin clad and barefoot in the soft meadow grass--played nearby, sending tiny atlatl darts flying from a miniature weapon with surprising accuracy in the direction of grasshoppers and butterflies and occasionally letting out a squeal of delight when he came close to hitting something, but then there came another kind of squeal, one of sheer terror and when Einar looked again in Liz’s direction it was to find that her features had become those of that Montagnard woman from so long ago, Will--beautiful child, nearly a year old now--her son and not his own, and he knew how it was going to end for both of them, how it had to end and he wanted to warn them, to take them away where it could not reach them, the thing that was coming, but they were already gone, out of reach if not out of sight and suddenly the stench of charred flesh and burning bamboo rose up to overwhelm him so that he was brought to his knees in the snow, retching.
It cleared his mind somehow, the terrible nausea that had come over him, swept from it just enough of the cold-haze to allow him to realize that he knew the place where they were, recognized it by the dimly visible treeline over there to his right, by the feeling of a vast openness down below, and just as surely he knew that they’d gone well past the cache location and up the opposite slope towards the high, windswept barrenness of the red ridge itself, and seeing a light coming towards him he stopped, waited. Kilgore. Staring into the tracker’s eyes there in the dispersed glow of the headlamp-light off of the heavily falling snow, Einar could see that he knew it, as well. Knew exactly where they were, and intended that they be there. The long detour had been no mistake. Beyond exhaustion, he sank to his knees in the snow. Only to receive from the tracker a kick so hard that it made his teeth jar together and sent an electric surge of white-hot pain all the way from knee to shoulder blade on his right side, the hurt seeming oddly warming to his numbed extremities.
“On your feet. Now. We’re not done yet.”
Einar coughed, hesitated--felt that he couldn’t do it, not one more time, not if his life and his honor and all that he held most dear should depend upon it, simply couldn’t bring his exhausted sinews to carry out the motion--but then he was up, leaning nearly doubled over as he fought to regain his breath, and then the tracker knocked him back down again into the snow, a brutal blow that took his breath and turned his entire world into a void, a place of blackness and shattered, falling shards, glass falling around and on and through him as it went, down, down into depths unknown, and then he knew. Trying to break me, that’s what you’re trying to do. Drive me beyond what I’m capable of sustaining, and break me, and, feeling his own weakness, the nearness of the thing and his own lack of ability to hold it off much longer, Einar was afraid. Terrified at the blackness that rose within him at contemplating the thing, and he met the fear with a response so conditioned into him as to be nearly automatic, one which would have been very hard to overcome had he been trying, which he certainly wasn’t, and that consisted of responding to terror and weakness with resistance--courage shall grow keener, clearer the will, the heart fiercer, as our force faileth--the words came to him out of nowhere, unbidden, a thing remembered, sustaining, one which he had lived, and more than once; a line with many translations…will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens…but the meaning was the same, and it gave him strength--renewed resolve welling up within him and with it a grim determination not only to hang on to the end and right through it, but to go down fighting, if down was indeed where he should prove irreparably headed.
Kilgore saw that fire in his eyes--a thing of greatness, or at least one out of which greatness could be born, and often was, but in this case it was going to kill him--determined to crush it out. Easier said than done, as the mission would only be a success should he return the fugitive alive to his little family up there in the cabin, which was looking a rather tenuous matter even without further aggravation on his part.