Smoke. Einar smelled smoke. Just a hint of it carried past on the wind and then gone but the scent had been sharp, unmistakable, and definitely out of place. They’d banked the fire well upon leaving but had been gone all day and through the night, and he’d never known their stove to so much as hold coals for that long with the sorts of wood they had available to burn, let alone still be putting off smoke when they’d been away for so long. Someone was there. Was nearby, at least, and had a fire. Holding up a hand, he stopped Liz in her tracks just behind him, motioned for silence. Tested the air. Wind was wrong. Couldn’t catch the scent again, but knew it must be there. Close. Either at the cabin, or above it, and either way, it wasn’t good news. Had to get in nearer where he could check, observe, figure it out, but didn’t want Liz and little Will that close to danger, to the potential action and he put a hand on her arm, spoke in the barest whisper. “Wait here. Wait for me.” She waited.
Closer. Smell of smoke pervasive now, undeniable. Moving slowly, inches at a time, listening as he went; minutes slid by with inexorable slowness. Cabin almost in sight, and he was shivering uncontrollably. Losing the feeling in his hands, aching feet going numb. Had to stop shaking. Held his breath but it did no good. Teeth rattling in his head, knees going like a sewing machine until he locked them, arms close at his sides, breathing, struggling to steady himself; had to be able to throw true, get a dart to its target. Wished he had the rifle. FAL. Would feel good to have the thing in his hands, give him more options, greater range. Almost went back for it, but changed his mind. Would be louder, too, and if the enemy was not alone, would alert the others and they’d be on him before he could do anything about it. Best to take these first ones in silence, if he could. Time for the rifle would come later. Several steps nearer and slicing through the snow came a black shadow, Muninn the raven, silent, gliding through the storm to land on his shoulder. Without a sound--not like him; a warning--the bird twisted a bit of his hair, sat there with head tilted, piercing black eyes staring into the storm. Einar nodded. Understood. Tightened the straps of his snowshoes, fitted a dart and stalked forward, ready.
· · · ·
Bud and Susan had traveled all day in that storm, Bud’s leg making it difficult for him to break trail through the deep snow but still he took his turns, snowshoes proving tremendously helpful when the timber allowed for their use. At times, it was simply too close and tangled to make the shoes practical, and the couple would stop, knock accumulated snow from buckles and shed the things, strapping them to packs until things once more opened up a bit. Cold, weary and battered by the wind they reached the cabin just after dusk, approaching eagerly, relieved, only to find its occupants gone, no answer when they shouted and pounded on the door and when finally they sought shelter in the tunnel and let themselves in, the stove was cold, place empty and looking as though it had been for some time. There had been no tracks leading away into the timber, snow and wind having thoroughly obscured any such, but there was little doubt in Kilgore’s mind as to where the couple would have gone, and why. He’d seen the way Einar looked at him when he mentioned the envelope that awaited him down at that cache, had known the fugitive would be finding or making a way to go retrieve the package just as soon as the next storm arrived to cover his tracks. What he couldn’t really understand was why, exactly, Asmundson would have allowed his new family to go with him out into that storm when they had a perfectly good cabin that could have sheltered them, instead, and he mentioned the fact to Susan as the two of them busied around the cabin, preparing and lighting a fire and dipping water out of the well-insulated barrel, setting it to heat.
Susan knew Liz better than Bud did, and knowing her, knew why she and the baby had ended up going along. Knew Liz likely would have left Einar little choice, new baby or not, wouldn’t have been willing to hear of his making that trip alone, as much difficulty as he’d been having of late. and now they were out there somewhere together, perhaps nearing home but likely as not about to hole up for the night in the storm. Helping Bud out of his snow-encrusted coat, hat and gloves and easing his snow pants over his injured leg, she could not help but be glad the two of them were not looking at doing the same, up there on the treeless, wind-scoured heights of that open and desolate red ridge. Selfish thought, perhaps, but she thought it anyway, holding chilled hands over the warming stove as she listened to the wind howl outside. Bud, too, was taking full advantage of the stove’s warmth; even with more-than-adequate clothing, the wind had really taken a lot out of him on the descent, and he hoped Asmundson was being sensible out there, at least staying conscious and sheltered and giving himself some chance of making it through the night.
Susan was watching him, thoughtful. “You know where they are, don’t you?”
“Sure. They’re down at the cache, or somewhere between here and there. Fella couldn’t wait to get at those papers once I told him about ’em, and I could see in his eyes that he intended to try again just as soon as it started snowing again. Heck of a night to be out there, isn’t it?”
“What if something happened? You saw the sort of shape Einar was in when we left, and Liz is strong, but if she ends up having to try and haul both him and the baby…do you think we should go after them?”
“Nah, give it some time. Those kids know what they’re doing out there. If they don’t show up in the morning…well, I’m figuring Asmundson probably lit out of here just as soon as the snow started falling and he was reasonably certain it would continue, which would mean sometime this past morning, and there’s no telling how long it would have taken them to get down there to the site. Fella’s got the ability to put out some real serious speed still, even beat all to heck and teetering on the edge of irreversible starvation…I saw it on our little trek together both on the way down and when he went and hauled my carcass back up here, too, but I’ve also seen what happens when reality finally catches up to him as it always does in the end, and he ends up flat on his face for a while. So depending on how things went for them, they might have made it down there in a couple of hours, or may just be reaching the spot, now. Then add to that the time it’ll take him to open up the duffel and clear it for bugs and transponders and doggone twelve-legged cooties and whatever all else he may be concerned about, and it’s almost a given that they’ll be spending a night out there, even if nothing at all goes awry. Which it probably will, if he gets into that envelope down there. In which case, and if they don’t show up sometime in the morning, I’ll head down there and scrape him up off whatever tree he ended up all wrapped around and, assuming he ain’t frozen too solid by that point to bother thawing out, I’ll get him back up here.”
“Well that’s a pretty dismal outlook on it! The part about him ending up frozen to a tree, at least. Hopefully Liz will be able to prevent that and keep him headed in the right direction, papers or no papers.”
“Yeah.” Right. Good luck with that. You haven’t seen that file… But he did not speak the second part aloud. Time. He’d give them time, let them have the night to finish their mission and make it back up the hill, and then he’d go after them. In the meantime the cabin was warming and so was he, Susan had supper going and the swelling was beginning to come down just a bit in his injured leg as he sat with it raised; all very good developments.