Einar really did not want to stop. Could feel himself slipping, close to losing contact again with the world around him and because of this possessed a single-minded and rather intense determination to get himself, his burden and his little family up that hill before anything else could happen. Liz wouldn’t have it, was already freeing herself from the straps by which she’d been hauling the parachutes, was casting about for a sheltered spot in which to build a fire, and once again he put aside his own first inclination for what he perceived to be the needs of the child. Little one must need a break, a fire, or Liz would never be insisting so strongly that they stop now, near the willows and so close to home. Fumbling with the straps, hands numb and clumsy and mind seeming to have quite forgotten how to go about untying knots, he struggled to free himself, also, from the traces, join her in the hunt for wood.
Didn’t get very far. The weight of the burden he’d been dragging had been the only thing keeping him on his feet; he’d been leaning against it. Freed, he fell to his knees in the snow, head bowed in exhaustion and the world going dim around him. Did not long remain thus. Seeing Liz busy with her firewood collecting and wanting to help her he was soon on his feet, using counter-pressure with the heels of his hands to grasp and break small dead branches, piling them beneath the spreading canopy of the spruce she had chosen to shelter their fire from the ongoing fury of the storm. Another big blank spot then, Einar coming to with his back against the spruce and a lively little fire crackling not a foot and a half from his boots, and he supposed he must have walked there and sat down, but had no memory of doing so. Liz sat beside him, arms drawn into her parka, feeding the baby. She had been busy. Near the fire sat the pot they’d brought along, its batch of half-melted snow already starting to simmer along the flame-exposed side. Einar rubbed cold hands together, leaned forward to stretch them over the flames. His hips hurt. Stung him whenever he tried to move in the slightest and puzzled, he pressed them, trying to figure out what he might have done to himself. Beneath his parka they were raw and painful where the bone came near the surface, sticky with half-dried blood. Hauling straps had, apparently, chafed and cut the already-injured area; he hadn’t even felt it happening.
No matter, really. The pain was a steadying thing, almost, a point on which he could focus as he struggled to keep himself moving, something solid with which he could contend, and sometimes a person really needed such a thing. Wouldn’t prevent him from carrying out his appointed task, and could be dealt with once they were at the cabin again, and had got the cache contents all sorted out. Cache contents. The thought of it reminded him with a start of the envelope which he had tucked so carefully back into its waterproof bag and then into the duffel, and--thought without reasonable origin, but no less real to him at the moment than it would have been had he possessed solid evidence to support it--he was seized with a sudden terror that Liz might have, must have used the documents to start her fire, as he hadn’t seen her collect anything which would have made good tinder. Instead of asking her about it--for surely she would offer a denial-- he struggled to his feet, sick at the thought of the thing, nearly fell into the fire before catching himself against one of the low-swept boughs of the evergreen, remaining upright and picking his way carefully, stumbling, dizzy, out from beneath the tree and to the spot where they’d left their burdens.
Couldn’t get into the duffel. Its straps were caked with snow and ice, frozen fast. In somewhat of a panic he kicked at the thing, wanting to free the straps of their snow but succeeding only in dumping himself face-first in the snow, panting for air and hooking an elbow over the partially buried bag like a drowning man seeking to stay afloat, pulling himself up, face out of the snow and resting exhaustedly on the bag. Figured he’d better get back to the fire but he didn’t want to go, not until he’d devised some way to get into the icy duffel and check on that envelope. Had to make sure it was still there. Should have kept it on his person, where it would have been safer. Liz came then, talked him back to his feet and led him--unwilling, quest unfulfilled, but too weary and numbed to put up much resistance--once more into the fire’s circle of warmth, made him drink some honey-sweetened tea and tried to impress upon him the importance of sharing the small meal she had prepared, but the message didn’t seem to be reaching him.
“Eat, Einar. It’s what you need. Will had his snack, I’m having mine…it’s time for you to do the same, and then we can go on up the hill, if that’s what you’re so anxious to do. Come on. I brought some of the Nutella from Bud and Susan, and you can just have that, if you’d like…”
Einar still didn’t seem to hear her. “Did you burn it? I wasn’t through reading and I didn’t want you to burn it.”
“Burn…what? What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. You know.”
“The papers Kilgore left for you?”
“I knew you did. Why’d you do it?”
“No! I didn’t say that. I didn’t do anything. Why would I burn your papers? I would never. I haven’t touched them.”
A skeptical look from Einar as he shook his head, stared in the direction of the ice-crusted duffel and tried again to make sense of the thing, skepticism slowly replaced by abashment as he realized that yes, of course she was telling the truth, would have no more been able to access those documents just then than he was and surely wouldn’t destroy them in that way, even had she been able to gain access, and he mumbled an apology, accepted the food she was trying so hard to push on him. Meal finished, everyone warmer after their time beside the fire and out of the wind Einar was ready to complete the climb up to the cabin but no sooner had he risen and got himself hitched back up to the duffel than it became clear to Liz, if not immediately to him, that they were going no further that day.
Struggling, straining, he finally managed to get the thing moving, covered five or six feet before falling forward in the snow, unconscious. Had Liz been the one needing hauling, her life in danger or that of the little one, he would no doubt have found somewhere within him the resources to make the thing work as he had done with Kilgore, but that was not the situation, and with the extreme exertion of that last rescue mission only days behind him, he was all through. Liz let him be for the moment, built up the fire. It would be a difficult night, but not an impossible one, and in the morning, they would head home.