Up. They were climbing again, had been for some time and up there where the timber thinned out and rocks grew closer to the surface the wind only gusted more fiercely, tearing through the gnarled forms of subalpine fir and limber pine but hardly broken by their presence, blasting, scouring, and Einar, fighting the wind, could barely stand. At least the snow was not quite as deep, travel in some respects slightly easier than it had been down in the heavy timber and deep powder of the basin, and a good thing, too, for Kilgore was setting a pace which would have been a stretch for him even in the daylight and without snow the way things had been going those past few weeks, and straining to keep up, Einar was angry. Had forgotten again what might be the meaning of such a quest as theirs, the purpose of pushing on through that storm when really they ought to have been seeking shelter without delay if they wanted to make it through the night, but didn’t imagine the reason could be great enough to warrant the risks they presently found themselves taking. Surely in that case, he would be able to recall something about its nature.
Then, mind clearing a bit as he rested, he did recall, recalled also that the tracker had led them far, far off course and determined to call the man on what appeared to be an intentional and major deviation from their original plan he picked up his pace, closing the distance and approaching the bobbing, blinking, snow-dimmed light that was Kilgore’s headlamp. Too winded to speak he simply kept pace for a while, shivering, stumbling, struggling to keep on his feet. At last, wind slacking off for a moment, the tracker heard him, turned, waited for him to gather the words that seemed just beyond the ability of his chilled and failing mind to collect.
“Passed the…cache long ago, Kilgore.”
“What do you want? Why are we doing this?”
“Doing it ’cause you’re intractable, Asmundson. Absolutely incorrigible, that’s why. And it’s killing you. You know I’d rather be back at the cabin with my bride, listening to the storm through them good stout walls of yours and anticipating a big breakfast of flapjacks, honey and fresh elk steak all eaten while sitting warm and cozy by the stove, but here we are, and here we’re gonna stay for a good while, it’s looking like. Just us and your spooks. What’s it gonna take, Asmundson, for you to kinda let all that go just a little and live? Live just a little. However you want to put it. Works out the same, either way.”
Einar shrugged, shivered, beat numbed hands on his legs in an attempt to restore some circulation. “What’d it take you?”
“Me? Well that’s got nothing to do with it. And besides, you know I don’t believe in examining a thing too closely…unldss it’s critter tracks or human ones, of course, but not a thing like this…so I can’t really say. Just kept going, that’s all I did. Will admit there were times every now and then when I didn’t want to, but I did, and here I am.”
“If you don’t believe in examining it too closely, then why are you trying so hard to get me to do just that?”
“’Cause you need it, man. That thing’s still got a stranglehold on you, more and more every time I see you, it seems, and it’s dragging you down. Sapping the life out of you, and you can’t even see it.”
Tired. Brain not working too well or particularly quickly, either. Knew he’d lose the argument, if he chose to engage. So he chose not to do it. “Heard it before, Kilgore. Heard it all before.”
And he took off walking, slow, stumbling gait replaced by firmer steps, his backbone straight and determination in every move but Kilgore knew it wouldn’t last; the man was dying. Which was all well and good, just as long as he’d reach the end of his strength and finally let go, stop resisting, while he was still salvageable. Before he went so far that his body finally gave out and it would be quite beyond Kilgore’s power to bring him back. Was going to be a mighty delicate balance, especially under such uncontrolled conditions out there in the snow and the dark and the fearsome, killing power of that wind. Better keep close tabs on him, the tracker figured, check in every few minutes to see how things were coming along. The man was holding out a lot better than he’d anticipated, as weary and starved and close to the edge as he’d appeared at the start of the thing, and Kilgore had to allow for the possibility that it wasn’t working, this thing he’d been trying to do, that after a lifetime of training, conditioning, self-imposed torture, deprivation and regrets, Asmundson really might be more than capable of marching himself to death in that storm before he gave an inch. Might well be the easiest thing in the world for him. In which case it was just about time Kilgore recognized the fact and started trying something else--like shelter, a fire and some food--before it was too late. But he never got the chance.
Einar--perfectly capable indeed of marching himself to death in the snow, had he wanted to do so, but he didn’t, not that night; needed to go on living, though sometime in the past hour or so he’d managed to quite thoroughly forget the why of it--had finally reached the end of his rather limited strength, collapsing on his knees in the snow with tears of pain and frustration trickling down his half frozen face, ready to do it, give them whatever it was they wanted--or some carefully modified version of it, should he find himself still capable of that level of thought and deliberation--just to get them to stop, give him a few minutes of peace and respite. He’d tell them. Just as soon as they returned to level the next blow and force him up again for another stint of near-impossible marching, he’d tell them. But they did not return--had got lost out there, perhaps, in the storm--Einar sinking lower in the snow, head bowed, nearly sobbing in relief and exhaustion and shame at what he’d been willing to do, what he had very nearly done.
Meanwhile Kilgore, blinded by blowing snow despite the weak beam of his headlamp, made a critical misstep there on the steep, eroded edge of a rather substantial rock outcropping that he hadn’t even quite realized he was leading them up, snowshoe catching on a snow-hidden rock protrusion, twisting his lower leg with a sickening crunch and pitching him forward. Falling, the tracker was left with just enough time to be sorry he’d pushed Einar quite so far, forced him quite so close to the edge of his endurance and rendered him all but useless when it came to rescue and retrieval, before his head struck exposed granite and all went dark.