Bud Kilgore had known it was not going to be easy. What he had not known--might have altered plans somewhat, had he possessed an awareness of the level of difficulty that awaited him on those snowy slopes--was that for nearly every step he took in that deep, steep snow he would end up sliding backwards by nearly the distance he had covered, leaving progress an incurably slow and awkward thing. Painful, too, as his leg, though perhaps not broken as he had initially feared, certainly didn’t want to support his weight, twisting and collapsing beneath him often as not and soon leaving his knee, hip and indeed his entire injured side an agony of strained, sprained muscles, ligaments and joints. Not his idea of a good day on the mountain, but he kept moving, trying not to grumble but not entirely succeeding. Susan helped how she could, getting him to his feet again when he ended up floundering in the snow and wishing she could walk beside him in order to hopefully prevent some of the falls, in the first place, but dense as the timber remained along their chosen route, there was no way for her to do so. They would, she was beginning to see, be extremely fortunate to reach their rendezvous point ahead of the following morning when Roger was supposed to show up and pluck them off the mountain. It was looking more and more like they would either have to risk radioing him to change plans--a minimal risk, the way Bud had planned and equipped, but a risk, nonetheless, and one both of them really wanted to avoid taking, not only for their own sake but for that of the little family in the basin--or simply miss the meeting, and plan to camp out up there until his next scheduled flyover. Time would tell. For the moment they must continue with the climb, see what kind of time they could make, and they did.
· · · ·
As the day went on, Liz caring for the baby and working on a stew with some of the leftovers from their last big meals with the Kilgores and Einar bit by bit working to renew their firewood supply in the cabin and tunnel, the thought of that cache down in the basin grew in his mind until it became a great shadow over the day, a threatening presence whose grasp could only be loosened by bringing the thing out into the daylight. Which would require a trip to the basin, and he had promised Liz he would wait a few days on any such journey. Would have probably found a way to justify the expedition, anyway, explain it to her, discuss the matter until she came, perhaps, to see his point of view and hurry down there despite his near-inability to stay conscious for more than a few minutes at a time while on his feet, had it not been for the weather. Clear weather, to be exact, no storm on the horizon and no snow-smell in the wind when he stood shivering in front of the cabin and tested it, nothing but the sublime sun-on-firs smell that so marked clear days in the high country, summer or winter, and though he dearly loved that smell, its joys being second in his mind only to those of willow-scent, he wished the wind was bringing him something else, just then. Most welcome would have been that sharp, damp scent, reminiscent somehow of wood smoke even if there was no fire in the area, which meant a change in the weather, snow on the way and, for him, a certain sense of security descending on the basin, too.
Already he and Bud had left tracks all over the basin in their ill-fated quest to retrieve that cache, and hard as it had been snowing and blowing when they did so, there were bound to be areas where by some intricacy of terrain and timber, their trail had been protected from the bulk of the wind-drifted snow, and would remain visible, even if only as a deep, trenched-out depression in the snow which could just as easily have been left by a small herd of passing elk as by men. There were no elk in the basin that time of year, though, a fact which he had to assume his pursuers would know when they flew over and wondered at the origins of that trench, and though they would be unable to follow it far either from air or ground, its very presence would serve to renew their interest in the place, sharpen observation and increase patrols. Which was why he absolutely could not afford to be leaving fresh tracks down there, not unless a storm was literally at their doorstep when he did it. Bad enough that Bud and Susan were leaving their own judicious but perhaps not careful enough trail up towards the ridge.
So, he would wait. The cache would wait, and that shadow, if it must, could hang over him for a day or two or three, as he speculated on the meaning of the tracker’s words and wondered just what he had dug up from the dim, distant past, and why he’d seen fit to include it in the cache. Would be a long few days. Better try and keep busy. So out he went for another load of wood. Had to stop after that. Tunnel was getting full, and he must leave room for them to crawl in and out. Well. At least Liz would be well stocked on firewood ahead of any storm that did happen to come, wouldn’t have to venture out too many times with little Will on her back in search of more. Not that carrying him on her back, even in the wind and weather, seemed to pose either of them too much difficulty. Seemed, in fact, to have gone tremendously well when they were out there bidding farewell to their guests, and curious, he slipped into Liz’s parka, which hung unused near the stove. Thing didn’t fit him, had not been designed to fit him and left his arms sticking out by several inches, shoulders crowded a bit, but not too much, considering how scrawny he’d managed to become. Would work, at least for a test.
He approached Liz, walking somewhat stiffly in the too-small parka. “Mind if I take the little one for a while? Want to see if this works as well for me as it did for you, and if it does, I may modify my parka just a bit to allow me to carry him in a similar way. He looked so cozy and content when you pulled him out of there a while ago. Figured the two of us could take a little walk, give you your hands and some peace and quiet to finish putting together that wonderful-smelling meal…”
Liz looked doubtful, took a quick step towards him and shoved him hard in the shoulder. Einar winced at the hurt of it--doggone ribs--tried to catch himself but was already too badly off balance, and fell hard to the floor. Didn’t know whether to laugh, or growl. Odd, unpredictable woman. What’s got into her, now?
“What was that?”
“The wind. Big gust. What if you’d been outside with little Will on your back, and a gust like that had come along, as unexpectedly as my hand did just now and probably more forcefully, too? You would have fallen, that’s what, and him with you, and he might have been crushed.”
“Aw now, I’m not heavy enough to crush him, and besides, the snow’s real soft. We would have been alright. Now come on, help me get him situated.”
“I’d like you to eat first, so you’ll be a little steadier on your feet before you take him.”
“Did eat, and not too long ago. I don’t need to be…”
“Ah, you know that’s not true. Don’t go getting all stubborn on me already. Just a little snack of broth and elk jerky, and then you can go for your walk with him. How about it?”
Einar nodded, sat down beside the stove and accepted the pot of broth she was pushing his way. Shook his head, began to eat. She sure isn’t gonna give me an easy time of it, is she? Doggone persistence of hers. And I was just starting to get really hungry again, too. Wanted to save it for later so I could really enjoy the supper. Which, as he knew, was simply an excuse, his brain’s attempt to return him to the pattern in which he’d lived so many of the past months and he knew Liz was right to try and jar him out of it, knew there was only one place such a path would ultimately lead him, and he finished the broth. Liz, nodding her approval, helped him get little Will situated in the back of the parka, and he crawled carefully out through the tunnel, muttering all the way about what a strong, insistent woman your mother is, you know that little one? Incredibly strong and persistent, and there are no two ways about it.