It only went on for a second or two, that ill-timed cry, but that was enough, and the intruder had clearly heard. Might, Einar could only hope, mistake the sound for that of an animal, baby porcupine or dying rabbit or some such, but instead the fur-clad interloper stopped stalk-still right out there in the open, and had he started out in the direction from which the cry had come, Einar was prepared to put a dart through his neck before he could get any closer. But, he did not turn. Kept still for a long moment right where he was, head up and gloved hand cupped behind an ear, and then he was moving again, previous course unaltered as he headed almost squarely for Einar’s position. Einar could handle that, knew he had the advantage, being the one in the heavy concealment of the timber and he was about to slip away into the shadows, find a higher and even more secure spot from which to watch the intruder, when Will let out another cry, this one unmistakably human.
The man stopped, turned, took off in the direction of the sound, simultaneously throwing back the hood of his coat and it was not a man at all, but a woman, and Einar knew that tangled hair, almost dreadlocks, held back by a faded red bandana and going every which way once freed from the hood. Had seen it before, and it took him a moment to remember where, but he remembered in time, lowered the atlatl. The reporter. One who had come up early on in the search, before Liz had been out there with him to stay, brought her photographer friend up to the abandoned mine where he was staying at the time, and interviewed him… Kilgore had told him about the resulting articles. Not typical media stuff, at all. She’d let him tell his side of things, more or less, and had taken a lot of heat from the feds over it. But what could she possibly be doing up in their basin, and what--the big question--was he to do about it? Sure couldn’t let her walk up on Liz and Will like that, but neither did he particularly want to run her through with a dart and bury her in the snow, for surely others knew her location, and would come looking. The other possibility, of course, was that she wasn’t alone at all, was there with the feds--not at all likely, after the way she’d skewered them in the press--or with a cameraman or other associate, and Einar knew he must proceed very carefully indeed, until all these things were determined. First and most importantly though, she must be kept away from his family. Getting quickly to his feet, he purposefully snapped a good-sized stick, drawing her attention. When he spoke, it was just barely loud enough for her to hear.
“Stop right where you are, and get your hands up. Right. Good. Now come towards me, real slow, hands on top of your head. Keep moving. Don’t you stop, not until I say.”
She was close now, close enough for Einar to plainly make out her face and confirm that the intruder was, indeed, none other than he had thought, and for some reason she had a big grin on her face, as if she did not at all recognize the danger. Or perhaps she simply knew more than he about the situation, knew that he was about to fall victim to a dart or rocket or…. “Now stop.” She did.
“I knew it! You’re still out here, in ‘the wild!’ It’s me, Juni Melton.”
“I know who you are. And you came to this particular spot because…”
“Because I wanted to experience winter in the high country. See what it takes to live up here, day to day. You could call it an experiment, of sorts. And…” no sense withholding the truth, or any part of it, not the way he was staring at her, seeing right through her with those spooky, ice-blue eyes… “because it’s one place they never really thoroughly searched. I got access to some confidential search documents…and this whole place was a big white box. Unknown territory, Indian country, so to speak, and I figured if you were still out here, it would have to be in a place like this one. I’ve already been to six of the seven other ‘white box’ areas around here. This was the last one.”
Einar’s eyes narrowed, appraising, measuring her words. Seemed to be telling the truth. Which meant they were--and had been--in far greater danger than he’d known. If a fledgling journalist from the city could figure out to map and search the areas that had been neglected over the course of many prior attempts, then so could the feds, and probably had, patterns discerned and noted, danger on the way. Seemed Bud Kilgore might have, in his largely successful attempts to keep the focus of the search away from the basin and cabin, painted a large if partially invisible target on the place. All it waited for was the right agent to come along and connect the dots, and things would get hot for them in a real hurry. Kilgore had, in creating so many false leads, other areas from which he’d kept the focus of the search, done them a major favor, intending their home place to blend in and clearly succeeding--until now. Well. She wasn’t, so far as he knew, a fed, and did appear to have come alone, but her presence still warranted a tremendous amount of caution--and almost certainly spelled the end to their long months of peaceful existence at the cabin, too.
“You up here alone?”
“Yes, alone.” She seemed to be telling the truth. Had certainly been acting like someone who was on their own, never--not even when he’d ordered her forward with her hands raised--glancing around out of the corner of her eye for the companions who would be coming to rescue her, and he knew from experience and observation that a person will almost always do so, if in a similar situation with support nearby. He believed her, but must be extremely cautious. And must search her.
“What’s this?” He indicated her coat, warm-looking and sleek with the white pets of several dozen small animals which he took to be ermine, but appearing quite home-made in design.
“Ermine. I trapped them last winter, and I sewed the jacket.”
“You trapped them? City-girl-journalism-major from San Francisco?”
“People can change. And learn.”
“Huh. Some can, I guess.”
“I spent last year traveling the country, going to one primitive skills gathering after another, and picking up skills. I can even use an atlatl, now. Took a deer with one, last year. Here. I’ll show you.” She held out a hand for his atlatl, but Einar kept at a safe distance.
“No way, not now. This isn’t gonna work at all, having you up here and me not knowing for sure if you’re really alone, or if maybe you’re working with the feds, them listening to all of this over the radio and just waiting to sweep in and pounce when you give the signal. Now seeing as I’m the one with the atlatl at the moment, and I’ve got it aimed right at your ermine fur jacket and would just about as soon use it as not, how about you move real slow and steady over to that first bunch of trees, and around behind them.”
“What are you going to do?”
He glared, silent, and she went, Einar keeping a wary eye on the surrounding timbered ridges as he hurried across the open area after her. Liz was waiting for them, Will asleep once more on her back after a quick meal and her bow ready for action as she crouched, mostly concealed behind a snow-topped boulder that rose black and icy amongst the little trees. Einar nodded to her, I’ve got it, you can relax a little, and she lowered the bow, but did not entirely release its tension.