By the time Juni returned with her load of firewood, Einar and Liz were all packed up and ready to go, Will hastily fed and tucked into Liz’s parka and the fire not only extinguished, but its former location thoroughly concealed beneath a small and artificially created bank of snow. Juni was impressed, couldn’t help but wonder if their intent might have been to abandon her there, make their break and disappear into the morning. It probably would have worked, for the snow was hard-frozen as cement after the relative warmth of the past day followed by a night far below freezing, and it was with relative ease that she moved across its surface, leaving hardly a mark. Though she supposed a much heavier creature--elk, for instance--might have broken through with every footstep, Liz appeared to be very close to her own size and Einar--she winced at the realization, couldn’t see how he kept going the way he did, in that condition--surely must weigh a good deal less than either of them, despite his height. They easily could have abandoned her, lost her, likely as not, yet they hadn’t tried. Why? Well, she guessed she would be finding the answer to that, as she fully intended to go with them. Which meant that she’d better hurry and stow her things, but when she stacked the newly acquired firewood against the tree’s trunk and went to do so, it was to the discovery that it had already been done, whether by Einar or Liz she did not know, but she did have her suspicions as to why, thinking they would still be suspecting her motives and wanting a final look at everything before allowing her any deeper into their territory; a reasonable precaution, and seeing that Einar closely scrutinized her every move through half-open, unconcerned-looking eyes from the spot where he crouched against a tree clearly attempting to save energy for the climb, she made no attempt to re-arrange anything, slipping into her pack and joining the trio.
“I guess you decided to move on!”
A nod from Einar. “Easier travel if you go early in the morning like this. Spring snow’s pretty tricky stuff. A good friend if you use it wisely, but if not, you’re gonna bog down awful badly, leave all sorts of tracks and wear yourself out for no reason at all. Best keep up with us, and don’t stray from the trail. We move pretty fast.”
With which he took off at a pace whose speed thoroughly baffled Liz, seeing as he had been clearly struggling with the simple task of staying upright while sitting not too many minutes prior, and she supposed the breakfast meal must have done him some good, despite his difficulty with eating it. His apparent energy notwithstanding she wanted to keep close to him on the climb, monitor his progress and hopefully catch things before they got critical so she could arrange for a break and prevent his passing out in the snow, if it came to that. She didn’t want their uninvited guest seeing such a thing, and was sure he wouldn’t care for it, either. Einar did not pass out though, did not slow in the least as he picked a winding, indirect route up through some of the heaviest timber he could find, Liz on one side and Juni just behind until, with a special effort, she pulled ahead and was beside him, too.
Running out of breath but pushing himself harder despite the fact, not wanting Juni to see any vulnerability on his part and operating, somehow, under the delusion that she had not already observed his struggle, Einar only pushed himself harder when she drew up beside him, not wanting to have to speak but knowing that she was probably about to start asking questions. Doggone reporters. Well. If there were to be questions, let her do the talking. Better that way. And he didn’t wait for her to speak.
“Tell me…about these boxes. White boxes. How’d you see those papers? How’d you get access?”
“Oh, the white boxes… Well you see, the feds don’t like me much, not after what I wrote before and especially after my refusal to answer certain of their questions in what they felt was a….wow, the air’s thin up here! How do you do it? In a reasonably thorough manner. So there was no way I was getting in there to that Mountain Task Force building to do a story. But my friend Annie did. That’s Juni with a really good quality blond wig, southern accent, no nose ring and a pants suit. They like Annie. She follows all the rules, and is duly horrified at the hardships they have to endure in carrying on this search. They seemed to enjoy talking about it. So I let them talk, recorded a lot of things and prepared a story that was sure to please them, making them all out to be a bunch of heroes sacrificing their personal lives, careers and certainly their safety in an attempt to bring in the most dangerous wild man in America, scourge of the backcountry and an all-around horrible guy who definitely needs bringing it. They liked the article, so they let me come back. Even took me out on an aerial hunt or two, let me stay in the barracks for a week one time, sort of an “embedded reporter” type situation, and sometimes when they weren’t paying as much attention…I got to look at things.”
“Up at our cabin…got maps. You show me these white boxes. Think you can do it?”
“Oh, yes I can do it. Got them committed to memory. Had already looked in a bunch of them, before coming here.”
“Because they weren’t doing it, and…I don’t know. Guess I just wanted to confirm that you guys were still alive out here. Still going. I believed it, lots of people believe it--there’s a whole legend by now, you know, sort of like the Robin Hood legends, or something--but nobody really knows, and I had to know.”
“Anybody knows…we’re dead. My little boy…dead.”
“Nobody will know. This isn’t one I’m doing a story on. You have my word. And you’d really better sit down for a minute, don’t you think, or you’re going to be dead before we reach the top of this hill, and then who’ll help support your wife and little boy? What keeps your heart going, anyway? Other than sheer orneriness, of course. Is that really enough?”
“Too many…questions. Done with…” Done with all of it, apparently, and Liz reached his side just in time to help Juni ease him down to the snow before he fell. Yeah, sitting was looking like a pretty decent idea, at least for a minute. Just until the world cleared some, and quit spinning. Would be able to ask more questions of his own, if they were all sitting.