Worried about the papers, Einar sat there staring into the fire as he rubbed numbed, aching feet--the things were hurting something terrible as they warmed by the fire, bleeding a bit, and he hoped he hadn’t frostbitten them too badly in his earlier wanderings--and wondered if perhaps some of them had blown away before Liz came along and gathered them up, wished to go search for them before the still-falling snow should cover them over but Liz seemed to very much want him to stay there with her and had, of course, secured from him his word that he had no intention of running off again unclothed into the snow, which he would to some extent be doing, should he leave just then. Which quandary presented an obvious solution, and struggling to free himself of the last few wraps of paracord with which Liz had bound his parka in place he stood carefully so as not to fall into the fire, got back into the layer of wool that was supposed to go beneath everything, followed by his snow pants, parka and mittens. Better. Felt better, even, as he was just warm enough by then to realize how very cold he had become, spending the early morning hours out in that wind and snow, and the wool, in combination with the retained heat kept in place by the parka, felt good against his numbed skin. Allowed him to move just a bit more freely, or would, as soon as the shivering subsided some.
Liz, stirring the stew, was glad to see him getting dressed without any threats or encouragement on her part, but somewhat doubted his motives. Didn’t want him running off somewhere and skipping breakfast, as she knew he might be likely to do after a morning like the one he’d just had. Who would want to eat, after a thing like that? She doubted that she would, herself. But he had to. Couldn’t afford to be skipping meals just then, especially after the long, hard haul up form the basin with the cache the evening before, and his night and morning spent half frozen in the shelter and then in the snow. Without a good solid breakfast, she didn’t see how he would ever make the rest of the walk, that morning. Knew he’d probably find a way if there was one out there to be found, but hated to think what it would cost him. So it was with great relief that she saw him sit back down by the fire once in his warm clothes, checking on Will and holding his face over the simmering stew to inhale a big breath of its rising steam. Looked like he intended to stay, at least for the moment.
In silence they shared the hot breakfast, looking out past the wind-billowed form of the suspended parachute to watch as snow continued to fall in huge, lazy flakes, clusters of flakes, their downward course undisturbed now by the wind, as it had all but died out, and the sight was a beautiful one indeed. Liz wished they might be seeing it from the window of their cabin--if it had a window--while sitting in front of the stove safe and secure at home, but she knew they weren’t far from being there, not too far at all, once they packed up and got moving. Einar, too, was watching the snowflakes wind their lazy paths to the ground, but his thoughts were far away, very far and he could not seem to bring them back, despite his really wanting to find the words to ask Liz if she was absolutely certain she’d found all of the wind-scattered pages, back there behind the firs. Well, he didn’t have to ask. Could go look for himself, now that he’d got into his clothes and eaten something--not very much; the stuff seemed to want to choke him on the way down, but it had been something--like she wanted, and placing a hand on her shoulder by way of thanks for the meal he wandered over behind the trees, squinting through the falling snow as he scanned the area for anything that might appear out of place, hoping very much to encounter any lost pages, should they exist.
Found no pages, but what he did find captured the interest of the tracker in him, strange marks in the snow that he knew must be his own, and they told a story of struggle and anguish, the absurd movements of a mad and dying animal as it contended with some shadow foe in its last moments, on the way out. Einar studied the signs dispassionately, much as he might have done marks left by the death-throes of a floundering, failing winterkill elk, only this creature had been no elk and it had not died, not quite. Nor had it been alone in its struggles, as he saw where it had been pursued up into the timber, boot tracks urgently following bare, bloody feet and then evidence of yet another struggle, this one not solitary as had been the first and ending with a larger smear of red on the ground, mostly obscured by that time beneath freshly fallen snow. He shivered, put a hand to his head where a fresh wound was just beginning to crust over--hadn’t even noticed it, before--turned away from the mess in the snow and continued his search for lost pages. Found nothing. Could only hope Liz had got all of it, and he turned, went back to camp to help her pack up.
Already Liz had Will fed, changed and stowed comfortably in her parka, and Einar helped her take down the chute that had served as their windbreak through the night, packing it with the second into a tight bundle which he believed she could hope to haul behind her with minimal difficulty through the snowy timber which remained to separate them from the cabin. That was it, not too much to pack up, as they hadn’t brought much with them in the first place, Einar’s duffel having remained in fine hauling condition, with the exception of his having loosened the straps to get at the documents. Cinching everything down, he began the process of hitching himself for hauling, wrapping the wide buckskin straps several times around his hips and leaning foreard, hands braced on a spruce for balance, while Liz checked the knots and then insisted on redoing everything.
“Let me get some padding in here to protect your hips, Ok? You’d just going to tear them up worse hauling it like that. Here. I’ve got several dry diapers still that I brought for Will. I’ve mostly been using the usnea bundles since we left the cabin, so these really are extra and I think they’d be perfect as pads for your hips.”
Nodding, Einar allowed her to modify his hauling system. Hoped she wouldn’t be too long about it. Couldn’t have cared less about his hips, and could tell that he was working on borrowed time when it came to remaining on his feet and useful, just then. Really wanted to use that time to get the three of them back up to the cabin. Good. Seemed she was done, and he still standing. Time to be on their way. Windy. Snow scouring his face, and he liked the feel of it but once more Liz was beside him, parachutes in tow--apparently, they were going to work the way he had packed them--as she raised his hood, tied it tightly in place.
“You’re going to get frostbitten ears if you don’t keep that hood up! Just what you need, to go with your shoulder and toes…”
Shoulder? He didn’t know what she was talking about. Toes made sense, he supposed, after seeing those bare, bloody tracks all over the fir grove where he had apparently spent a good portion of the early morning wandering and flopping about in the snow and doing goodness only knew what else…only, that wasn’t quite true. About goodness only knowing. The tracks knew. Tracks always knew, and could always tell a person, if he took the time to really look. Well--he shivered again, seemed he really couldn’t stop shivering that morning, never had warmed up from his long, cold night and the morning’s romp in the snow--hunched his shoulders into the wind and began pulling--perhaps she was right about the hood. So he left it in place. Two hours later, deep snow and heavy loads inhibiting their progress, the pair were finally nearing the clearing. Einar found himself filled with a growing and not quite definable sense of unease as they closed the distance, steps slowing, squinting through the snow and testing the wind in the hopes of finding some clue, but not quite prepared for what he was to discover.