Despite the exhaustion that had begun seriously dragging at his movements as he unearthed the cache, Einar had little trouble making it up the slope, moving swiftly, automatically and having to stop several times early on and wait for Liz to catch up. Each time she tried to speak with him, get some sense of how he was doing with the climb but always, waiting only to see that she appeared not to be having too much of a struggle, herself, he would be moving again before she quite reached him. Climbing, hauling, heavy load a comfort, somehow, Einar was quite oblivious to the painful abrasion of the straps as they dug into his already raw and injured hips, to the progressive weakness in his legs and the chill that was once more making serious inroads on his body and to nearly everything else, too, as he plowed ahead up the hill, breaking trail for Liz. Storm continuing, the wind obliterated their tracks minutes after they were made whenever they crossed a more open area, the process taking place more slowly beneath the timber but still providing them assurance that they wouldn’t be leaving sign which would later be picked up. At the willows Einar stopped again, waiting once more for Liz to make up the distance between them, but this time he didn’t hurry off right away, seeing in her face something that looked like distress and concerned for the baby.
Relieved that she didn’t have to take off immediately chasing Einar again--she was growing greatly concerned for him, knowing that it had been all he’d been able to manage simply staying on his feet and awake not too long ago as they retrieved the cache, and not wanting him to run himself into the ground, drop unconscious in the snow and leave her with a real dilemma on her hands, which she knew he was perfectly capable of doing, even under more normal circumstances--Liz crouched against a snow-covered boulder took hold of one of his hauling lines lest he change his mind and start moving again. “Will’s getting pretty restless. I need to stop and feed him for just a minute, but if you need to go on ahead to the cabin…”
“I’ll wait.” And then, because Liz was staring at him in the strangest way and beginning to make him rather uncomfortable, he added, “those chutes giving you any trouble?”
Liz, in the process of loosening the wide buckskin strap that sat beneath Will and kept him in his pouch, did not answer right away, first pulling one of her arms in beneath the parka and sliding the little one around to her front so he could enjoy the meal he’d been so anxiously awaiting. “No, they’re pretty easy to haul, except when the timber gets thick and they hang up. That’s why I keep getting behind. I have to stop and free them. How are you managing? With your bag being so much bigger and heavier, I don’t see how you’re keeping up that speed!”
“Don’t know. Think I’m just pulling down anything the load gets hung up on. Thought it would help if I broke trail but I can go behind if you like, help free the chutes when they catch on things.”
“I’m getting along just fine. This is working. And whatever you’re doing must be working, too, because we’re making really, really good time and we should be back home pretty soon where we can get a fire going, dry out and get a better look at the other things in that bag… Einar! Are you Ok? Can you hear me?” Which it seemed he couldn’t, having slumped stiffly forward against a tree, knees locked and arms drawn in against his sides, looking strange enough that Liz might well have burst out laughing, had she not been so concerned. Unable to get a response from him she eased Will--full and satisfied after his little snack--onto her back again and went to him, but by that time he had fallen on his side in the snow, jaw clamped, eyes wide and staring and body so stiff that when she took one of his arms, she couldn’t raise it. Not wanting to hurt him she backed off then, scared, knowing he was likely experiencing an incident similar to those which had grabbed hold of him previously in the tunnel and hoping it would be over as quickly as those had seemed to be, for she didn’t like to see him lying there in the snow, but knew of no way to safely move him. When the thing seemed to her to be going on a bit longer than she had remembered she did for him the only thing she knew to do, fishing a container of honey out of the small pack he carried and--his jaw still clamped shut--getting some of it onto his teeth where she could only hope some might work its way in where it could do some good.
Some minutes passed before Einar began coming back to full awareness and could move his limbs again, rubbing sore arms and getting groggily to his feet, turning on Liz with wild eyes when she touched him and then trying, situation coming fuzzily into focus, to cover his confusion with an apologetic grin.
“Sorry about…delay. Ready to get moving?”
She wasn’t sure. Knew what had happened, limits of his physical endurance long ago reached and passed on the haul up from the basin but his mind overriding any recognition he might otherwise have possessed of the fact, driving him to continue until he could propel himself no farther and she debated, silently, seeking guidance, whether she ought to urge him to go on at that point, continue the climb and see if hopefully they could reach the cabin before his strength gave out entirely, or if they would be better off recognizing that such time had already come and gone, and making camp right where they were for the night. Camping would be risky business, lightly-equipped as they had come. Liz was certain of being able to see herself and Will through even so stormy a night as the coming one promised to be with little difficulty, but she was less sure about Einar, especially should he take a notion to go wandering off in the storm to read more of Kilgore’s file or ponder its contents alone in the snow, as she knew he would very likely feel compelled to do. Not good odds. Not looking good either way.
Einar wasn’t waiting for her answer, though, already moving though the snow but then he came up short against his burden, and the thing was heavy. Didn’t want to move, and hauling with his hands at the traces, he couldn’t fathom how he’d been managing to lug it up the steep, snowy slope of rock and timber which lay behind him. No matter. He would manage it, one way or another. Would have to. Leaned forward, letting his weight come up against that of the bag but it weighed more than he did, wouldn’t budge. Einar found himself frustrated, puzzled, couldn’t remember too much about the past hours since leaving the basin but knew he had somehow been managing to move that bag, and must find somewhere within him the ability to do so once more. Seeing his struggle, Liz had her answer. They needed to stop, if not for the entire night, at least long enough to get a good fire going, warm up and have a meal. Perhaps that short respite would give him the strength he needed to complete the walk, so they could face the night secure in the cabin. She had to hope.
· · · ·
Susan leading, breaking trail as Bud struggled with his injured leg, the honeymooning couple picked their way gingerly down the steep, storm-swept slope, relief showing in both their faces as finally their descent took them to a spot where the timber became a bit taller, heavier, providing some shelter once more from the crushing, killing force of that wind. All plans for meeting Roger and his plane delayed indefinitely by the weather, a silent consensus developed between the pair as they hiked, steps taking them in the direction of the cabin.