Liz, tired after having her sleep disturbed several times in the night by little Will’s restlessness and sleeping warm and comfortable that morning beneath the bear hides, had not heard Einar’s stirring as he prepared to leave the cabin, but Susan had heard, had watched out of the corner of one half-open eye as he prepared to head out into the storm and had been pleased, at first, at the energy with which he seemed to be going about his tasks, that morning. Gave her some hope for him. Now, though, some half hour later and with no sign of his returning, she was beginning to grow terribly concerned that something might have happened to him out there. The wind sounded bad, worse than it had at bedtime, even, and judging from the air that seeped in here and there where a crack had been slightly less thoroughly chinked and insulated--weren’t many of them; the couple had done an admirable job of preparing the place for winter--it had grown terribly cold outside, in the night. She rolled over, carefully sought to wake Kilgore. One had to be somewhat careful about such things, she had quickly learned. Despite Bud’s typical gruff good cheer and the fact that he seemed to have come to terms, somewhat, with the world and his place in it, found some peace over the years, there were still times when he woke all scary and sudden-like with that look in his eyes, that thing she’d seen so many times in her husband, Bill, and Susan knew enough to be very watchful in its presence, very cautious. So she whispered, talking to him until he stirred, grunted, eased into wakefulness and smiled at her, success!
“Einar’s gone, and I’m starting to get worried. Do you think one of us ought to go after him?”
“Gone?” Bud tried to keep his voice to a whisper, not wanting to disturb Liz. “What do you mean, gone? Maybe he’s just curled up in a heap on the floor where we can’t see him. Fella don’t take up too much space, these days.”
“No, I saw him leave. He seemed to have a mission, really be after something. But he hasn’t come back, and it’s so windy out there…”
“Aw, he’ll be alright. If he’s conscious, anyway….” and he pulled the sleeping bag back up around his neck, settled contentedly in on the stuff sack full of spare clothing he was using for a pillow--nice stormy morning, awful pleasant to be here out of the wind, with you, and nowhere to go--and looked ready to go back to sleep but something was bothering him, and before Susan even had a chance to object, he was back up on one elbow, yawning and stretching and preparing to rise. “Yeah, maybe I better go after him. If he’s ended up having another one of his fits or something out there, this wind’ll drift him over so fast that we might not be able to find him at all, later. Not until spring. And that’d be an awful lot of uncertainty for…” he nodded in Liz’s direction, rolled out of the sleeping bag.
Moving carefully so as to hopefully remain on his feet as much as possible and conserve energy--that’s what he told himself, anyway; in reality he was trying very hard not to panic, take off blindly in one direction or another and keep moving until he was too exhausted to go on, thus almost certainly eliminating any chance he had of actually finding the place before he became too slow and stupefied from the cold to remember what he was looking for--Einar made a wide circle around the cache-tree, looking for any sign of his trail but finding nothing, making the next circle wider, still. He was reasonably confident that he knew approximately from which direction he’d come, could determine that by the positioning of the cord which had held the rabbits up in the tree--he’d pulled the thing down, coiled it up and stuck it in a pocket to take back with him, but could remember, he was pretty sure, where it had been--so found himself surprised and somewhat unsettled when finally, after much searching, he found a small section of his trail, sheltered by a series of large boulders and left untouched by the wind. Opposite where he’d expected to find it.
Wow, you’re really turned around, Einar. Hadn’t figured you could get so badly mixed up right out here in your own front yard, but that snow is coming down awfully hard, blowing sideways… Had it happen before up on a high, desolate ridge for sure, whiteout conditions and not a landmark anywhere to see or even feel, but here in the woods…not doing so well, are you? No matter. You’ve got it, now. Best get moving. Starting to get mighty cold, again. Move he did, body bent low into the wind and free hand groping forward in his earlier trail, seeking its continuance but not terribly surprised when once again the depression ended up entirely drifted over with blown snow. No matter. Knew where he was now, abandoning the uncertain trail and walking straight ahead towards a shadowy shape which he was convinced must be the cabin, only to find himself running headlong into a jutting outcrop of solid, icy rock. He pounded on the thing, trying, perhaps, to restore some feeling to his hand. Wasn’t working, and he sat down in the snow with his back to the wall--a bit of shelter, at least, from the angry, tearing force of the wind--and stuck both hands under his parka, pressing them, wooden, insensible, to stomach and ribs in an attempt to find some warmth.
Well. Didn’t expect this. But if I’m up against the cliff, then that must mean the cabin’s behind me. Guess I passed it, somehow. So if I walk straight that way…straight out from the cliff, well, looks like I’ve got to run straight into the back of the cabin, and pretty soon. Good thing. Think I’m starting to get a little chilly, here… On his feet again, movements slow and stumbling as he tried his best to walk straight, hoping to come up against the cabin but it had been too long, too far, and there was nothing but snow, deep, drifted snow and the occasional fallen tree to trip him up.
Einar was beginning to grow a bit concerned, knowing somewhere in the back of his mind that he was getting into some serious trouble with the cold and not liking the fact that it was happening right there so near the cabin that he would almost certainly be able to see the thing, had the snow not been blowing so furiously. Ridiculous. Didn’t want to die this way, not with the breakfast rabbits slung over his back and so much still left to do, and the anger warmed him just a bit, sped up his movements--hadn’t really got that far since leaving the cliff, it had only seemed so due to the painful slowness of his steps, time twisted and distorted around him--and then he felt a presence over to his left, couldn’t see anything but groped in its direction, making contact with something solid. Wood. Not a tree trunk but something larger, and in sweeping his arms over the thing in a clumsy effort to brush from it part of its snow cover and reveal its shape, he found it to be the back of the woodshed, unbelievably welcome sight, and he followed it, leaning heavily on the series of upright timbers, afraid to break contact and certain that he would fall without that support as he worked his way around to the back of the cabin, dropping to hands and knees there in front of the tunnel mouth.
Inside the wind was gone, blessed, blessed relief and Einar wanted to lie down right then and there, and sleep, and might have, had it not been for breakfast. Meal needed to be made, and he had the rabbits. Had to get them inside, thawing, gravy simmering, crawled a foot or two but things were growing awfully uncertain around him, world narrowing and then the door opened, Kilgore’s bulky frame appearing in the glow of the firelight inside.
“What’re you doing out here, Asmundson? Starting to wonder if you were coming back, man, wondering if that storm might have swallowed you up out there!”
Einar grinned, relieved laughter getting itself all tangled up in his shaky words and rendering them rather less than clear. “Just…getting breakfast.” With which he shoved the rabbits in Kilgore’s direction and promptly collapsed on the tunnel floor, the tracker grabbing him by both arms and hauling him towards the open door.
“Getting breakfast, you call it? What’d you do, climb up the ridge and down again going after these…what are they, giant snowballs? Squirrels? Rabbits, maybe, that you brought back? Figure it was worth it?”
Einar wanted to answer, intended to do so but the words didn’t seem to be coming too easily at the moment, body all stiff and uncooperative as Kilgore tried to help him to his feet there before the stove, both of them making an effort to keep the commotion to a minimum in an attempt to allow Liz to go on sleeping. Didn’t work; she was awake, out of the bed and at his side, checking his fingers, hurrying him out of snow-encrusted clothes and insisting he soak his hands in a pot of warm water, but Einar just shook his head, grinning, mumbling something about needing to make breakfast for everyone.