The helicopter did finally take off again, faint hum and then a louder popping and pounding reaching Einar and Liz where they sat listening, and though not wholly reassured as to the straightforwardness of their mission in the basin, he certainly was glad to see them go. Hear them go, at least, for they never did circle back over the cabin, opting instead to follow, near as Einar could determine, the contours of the valley as they headed down. Confirmation, perhaps, that their intentions had been benign, related only to the rescue of the injured man and his companion, or simply a diversion meant to lull the two of them into letting their guard down while the strike team hiked quickly up from the basin to surround the cabin, wait for dusk and then…strike? Probably the first, but a person can’t be too sure, or too cautious, either, and as they sat together listening to the receding echoes from the valley, Einar ran a hand over his pack, half-consciously counting the atlatl darts that bristled sharp and ready from their special carrying pouch at the back.
“I should go check, make sure everyone left. Look for tracks heading up into the timber where they might circle round on us. You and Will…I don’t want to leave you behind, this time. Don’t want to get there and find a problem that makes it a bad idea to come back to the cabin, only to have the two of you waiting for me here. What do you say to packing up and coming along, just hanging back at a certain point while I go forward to check on things down in the basin?”
“If you go, I think it’s a good idea that we come with you. But what about the tracks we’ll leave? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to stay in here for a day or two and make sure they’re not coming back, before tracking up that new snow? As it is, our trail’s been completely eliminated by the storm without a trace left for them to see, and it seems a shame to change that…”
“Sure, unless they’re out there and coming for us! In which case we got to know, rather than sitting here while they surround us and get ready to make their move.”
“Einar, seriously. What are the chances that they were here for any purpose other than the rescue? You were there, saw it happen from beginning to end, the slide, the skier leaving to get help…it’s pretty clear, at least to me, that it was Mountain Rescue in that chopper, just doing what they do in responding to a backcountry injury. While I don’t doubt that they’ve been instructed to watch for unusual sights on the ground and to report anything they might see, well, there weren’t any tracks for them to see and you said yourself that based on how quickly they seemed to find their landing spot and go down that they probably weren’t using FLIR to try and find warm bodies, so I just don’t understand the source of your concern. It seems to me you’re over-thinking this and letting your mind run away with you when it comes to the threat level, here. Unless you have a more solid reason to the contrary, I think we should stay put.”
Einar didn’t answer right away, looking somewhat taken aback at her forthrightness in challenging him, nodding slowly. “Yeah, makes sense what you’re saying, but only if the whole incident with the skiers wasn’t just a way to entrap us, from the very start. Slide like that can be induced or at least encouraged if you know where to step, where to make a turn, and I wouldn’t put it past them at all to carry out something this extensive if they thought it would mean an ‘easy’ way to get close to us. They know conventional means don’t work too well against us, haven’t worked so far, at least, have only lost them men and equipment, so you know they’d just jump at the chance to take us through deception, and this is looking to me like the perfect setup.”
Liz let out a silent sigh, turned her attention for a moment to the feeding child, not immediately sure what to say to a man who had every right to be suspicious of the entire world and its motives, whose perhaps overactive sense of caution in that regard had been responsible in the past not only for saving his own life and preserving his freedom on more than one occasion, but hers, as well, but who was in this particular case so clearly and obviously mistaken. Was imagining it. Had to be. The slide, the long night spent out in the open by two of its victims with the third going for help in the face of an oncoming storm…it was all so obvious and straightforward to her, little chance for ulterior motives, grand conspiracies or anything other than three individuals fighting hard to stay alive after a serious accident in some of the roughest and most remote country in the lower 48, but how to go about convincing Einar of this? Very directly, that was how.
“No. Think about it. It’s too complicated, too real to have been a setup. This was a simple, straight-forward backcountry skiing accident, and it’s been resolved. They’re gone, and any tracks we leave right now will only serve to mark our location on the chance that they do need to come back, for some reason. I can’t think why that would be, but you probably can, so it seems the only thing to do this time is to stay right here where we are and lie low for a few days until we’re sure they’re through with the area, then you can go check and see the story in the snow, if you need to. See what they did, and how, and where all their tracks go. But wherever that is, I don’t believe it’s up here or anywhere close to it, and we’d only be asking for trouble for ourselves by going looking too soon.”
Angry. Starting to look at her as the enemy, and he didn’t want to do that, knew logically that she wouldn’t be making any deliberate attempt to play into the hands of the enemy but obviously she had been fooled by the ruse, herself. No wonder; he had to admit that it was a good one. Well planned, flawlessly executed, so flawlessly as to entirely conceal all evidence of its own existence, which of course was the best kind, the most insidious, for there was never any way of disproving them, not until it was too late and he figured that time had probably come and gone already, sometime just after that chopper set down. Even if they took off just then--which would require his somehow getting Liz on board in a hurry, for he was in no shape to be taking her anywhere just then without her full and entire cooperation--their tracks in the snow would give them away, and the enemy would be on them within the hour, realistically, and he was trapped, they were, couldn’t see a way out and when he thought about the possibility of them getting their hands on Liz and little Will--oh, she’d fight beside him, of that he had no doubt, but things can happen, things like the tranquilizer darts which had nearly led to his being captured alive when he had no intention whatsoever of allowing such, and he knew it could happen again--he couldn’t breathe at the horror of it, was shadowed suddenly by an overwhelmingly strong realization that there was truly only one thing he could do, one thing to ensure that they all lived and died as free men and women, and when he put his hand on Liz’s cheek and met her eyes, she found herself for one of the first times in her life really afraid of him. She could read what he was thinking, that oddly terrifying mixture of mourning and resolve and kindness and regret all tangled up in his eyes and taking on a life of its own, leaving her with little doubt, and she knew she must act before he had the chance to do so, first.
Measuring the situation with a quick dart of her eyes, she took in the fact that he was not armed, aside from the knife that he always carried, was room’s length away from anything else that would readily lend itself to use as a weapon while she, in a strange and fortunate twist of fate, had easy access to both rabbit stick and rock griddle, and she meant to use one of them on him, and would have, had not little Will woke just then and started crying, the high-pitched keening somehow reaching Einar through the single-minded intensity that had seized hold of him, jarring him back to his senses so that he could perhaps begin thinking the whole thing through on a slightly more logical level.
Tension in the room easing considerably, Einar slumped back against the water barrel looking pale and exhausted as Liz comforted Will, holding trembling hands out before him and staring at them as if at something alien, frightening, something he did not recognize.
“You’re right,” he said quietly, simply, staring at the child’s sleeping form, “we better not be making any tracks right now.”