Once down out of the avalanche chute into which Kilgore had unfortuitously led them Einar stopped, lowered his burden--he’d hauled the tracker all that way by getting his arms beneath the man’s shoulders and linking hands on his chest, walking in an uncomfortable and rather inefficient backwards crouch and somehow scraping together the energy, after his small snack, to move the much heavier man that far through two feet of fresh powder, but his arms were giving out again and he knew he’d have to find another way--and tried to force his cold brain to function well enough to reassess their situation.
What they rather desperately needed was shelter from the wind and a fire and he knew he would be able to manage building and lighting one despite the numbed and awkward condition of his hands, had done it numerous times in the past under conditions occasionally worse than the present ones but still he hesitated, knowing that if he got the fire going, Kilgore secured under some sort of shelter and made as comfortable as possible and subsequently allowed himself to sit down near the warmth and rest for a moment, he’d soon be asleep or very nearly so, a nap which would have perhaps disastrous results. Especially if Kilgore failed to wake pretty promptly and get him back on his feet, and moving again. The fire would burn up its fuel supply and go out, himself too far gone at that point to realize or do anything about it, and they might very well both be dead by morning. Which was why, despite immediate fire and shelter being the best choice and the one he would have almost always made under similar circumstances, Einar decided to keep walking. Cabin wasn’t too far, really, and he intended to get them both back up there before he stopped for the night. Which left only the matter of how best to transport Kilgore, who was at that moment a dead weight with possible neck and back injuries whose nature and extent Einar really had no way to assess. Just gonna have to go for it, really. No way I’m building a backboard out here and strapping him to it, not in this storm and with the time I’ve got, realistically, before I end up in a state where I’m no good to either of us…
There were some things, though, that he could do to help protect Kilgore’s neck during the transport, reduce the chances of aggravating any injury he might have sustained and fumbling about in the tracker’s pack he took out an extra fleece shirt Susan had packed, rolling it up and curving it up and around Kilgore’s head and neck. Into the gaps left at either side between the injured man’s chin and his shoulders he stuffed spare pairs of socks--sure hope these don’t fall off and get lost--to further reduce movement, sliding Kilgore’s snowshoes in beneath his head to provide some sort of rigid support. Between the snowshoes and Kilgore’s head he slid his own sweater and a few hastily-broken fir branches to provide some padding and insulation from the cold of metal and snow beneath, finishing by lashing Kilgore to the improvised support with multiple wraps of parachute cord around his shoulders and forehead. The tracker’s down parka was a good one, ought to keep him warm enough to survive the journey even if he didn’t end up waking up and walking most of the way himself as Einar still hoped he might, and the hauling setup--with the exception of some sort of straps by which to do the actual hauling, which Einar still had to arrange--appeared functional. Would have to do. And the snowshoes, sticking out by several inches in the front, would theoretically even serve to shield the tracker’s head from direct impact with any fallen trees or rocks over which he might end up being dragged in the dark and storm on the long journey back to the cabin.
Time to get moving. Straps. He needed some sort of straps which he could hopefully wrap around his body to help him pull the tracker’s weight and again he returned to the man’s pack, finding more parachute cord and wrapping it six or eight times around his waist, making another such belt and securing it just below Kilgore’s armpits before tying the two together with additional cord. An awkward system and not destined to be particularly comfortable for either user, but Kilgore remained unconscious and Einar didn’t care. He just needed it to work. Knew he really had his work cut out for him if he was to drag that dead weight through the snowy basin and up the slope to the cabin, in the dark and through the ongoing storm, all without the aid of skis or sled or so much as a large slab of tree bark on which to lash his load, but he had no idea just how difficult the task was to be until, making sure everything was well secured, Kilgore’s pack tied to his chest and his hands tucked safely through its straps to prevent his arms flailing, catching on passing vegetation and perhaps being broken, he leaned into the traces and set off. Or tried to set off. Pulling, straining, bracing himself, nothing happened. The load was far more significant than Einar had anticipated it being--he, perhaps, gauging the limits of his strength more on memory than present reality--and he could see right off that no headway would be made so long as he was wearing his snowshoes. Too bad. Was going to be an awful lot of work, post-holing in several feet of fresh powder all that way, but he saw no alternative, removed the shoes and lashed them to Kilgore’s pack.
Better. Making progress. Terribly slow, exhausting progress, but they were moving, Einar panting for breath after the first ten or fifteen yards, needing a rest, needing to breathe but hardly daring to stop lest he be able to regain the lost momentum and then they were brought up short when Kilgore’s lashed-snowshoe head shield hit a buried tree trunk, and stuck fast. Flat on his face in the snow at the suddenness of the thing Einar lay there for a moment still, unwilling to move and not at all sure that he was capable of doing it should he try, but then he did try, made it to his feet and freed the snowshoes. Kilgore looked alright, wool balaclava and cinched down parka hood protecting his face reasonably well from the still-falling snow, and Einar was glad to see that the wound on his head had very nearly stopped bleeding. Now just wake up, why don’t you? But he did not.
Twenty steps. That was the rhythm into which Einar eventually settled, reaching at last a place he knew, bottom of the basin, and turning off the headlamp to conserve battery. The entire journey he could not do, dared not even contemplate, but twenty steps were possible, and that interval became his entire world, the thing which he strived for, the goal towards which he put every ounce of his prayed-for but badly failing strength, and each time he completed another set of twenty he would allow himself a brief respite, occasionally sinking to his knees and chewing on a bit of snow in an attempt to keep himself somewhat hydrated but more often simply leaning forward in the traces, Kilgore’s weight keeping him more or less upright until once more he summoned up the strength to do it all over again. Losing all sense of time Einar had no idea how long he kept at this routine, mind largely blank as he devoted all his energy to the motion of pulling, steering his awkward cargo through the timber and seeking out the most advantageous and least overgrown paths, but after a while he ceased to have the wherewithal to do even that, having to stop with increasing frequency and free the tracker from a tree or bush in which he had become entangled. At those times, struggling just to keep on his feet and wanting dreadfully badly to lie down in the snow and never move again, he would find himself enraged at the tracker, the snow, the timber that slowed their progress and he would want to shout, curse, cut the lines and march off up the hill by himself, forget the rest of it, but he never did, anger quickly passing and in its place remaining only a quiet resolve that said yes, you will continue. You will get him up this hill, him and yourself, both. Which he proceeded to do, tightening the lines around his hips--even through the thick parka the parachute cord wrappings had bruised and abraded them terribly; he could occasionally feel a warm trickle of blood as it traced its way down one leg or another, odd sensation when he was so numbed and cold all over--and crossing them on his chest, running them up and over his shoulders to additionally distribute the weight.
It was sometime shortly after they had left the basin floor and begun the steep climb which would eventually lead them to the cabin-plateau that Einar began having increased difficulty getting enough air. Trying his best to ignore the trouble and keep moving he was after a time beset by a crushing heaviness that started in his chest and seemed to radiate outwards, pressing the breath out of him and leaving his body covered in a cold sweat, vision going all strange and the darkened timber swimming maddeningly before his eyes in the unsteady beam of the headlamp as all the strength seemed to go out of his legs, leaving him to hang limply forward in the traces, most of his weight supported by them and forehead resting on the cool, snow-plastered trunk of the nearest fir. The moment passed and he could breathe once more, chest still aching and legs trembling, unsteady, but he was moving again, determined not to stop until his appointed twenty steps had been accomplished.
At times, mind increasingly wandering, disconnected, it seemed that Kilgore spoke to him, go, leave me, you can move faster without me and you’ve got to save yourself, got to be gone by the time they figure out what we’re up to and come after us, and it’s never going to happen like this, but Einar would just shake his head, grit his teeth and lean into the traces until they cut his shoulders, hips, pulling, pulling.
“I’m not leaving you here. You hang on, man. We’re gonna get out of this,” and he was grinning as he said it, a fierce thing, grim and terrible to behold but the joy that accompanied the pronouncement was real, a leaping, bounding thing that buoyed his spirits and lent strength to failing limbs, propelling him forward.
By the time Einar reached the willows the twenty step pushes by which he had organized his movements and tried to maintain momentum had been reduced to sets of five, steps sometimes so slow as to appear those of a man moving in his sleep, dazed, dreaming, and indeed he was, more of the time than not, but the sharp tang of the willows woke him, was real, he knew it, knew where they were and slumped forward for his brief rest, tears in his eyes at the realization that they just might make it…