Nothing happened, no further motion, no dark patch presenting itself a target against the faintly starlit snow, and Einar, waiting, quickly beginning to grow cold and lose feeling in fingers, hands, knew he must act soon or risk finding himself incapable when the time came. Not a good situation. Ought to have been able to lie there all night if need be, waiting out the enemy until at last some untimely movement or sound gave away their position, but at the moment he could not do that, and had to look at things realistically. The only chance, it appeared, lay in his moving again, working his way in behind the spot where he was pretty sure he’d got a fleeting glimpse of someone, and hoping to take the man by surprise and with enough silence that the action did not attract the attention of any others who might be stationed nearby. Stretching, flexing already-numbed fingers, he started out crawling low through the snow, knife in hand and dragging the rifle as he eased his way through the tangle of trees, pausing frequently to listen to the night. Several times he thought he heard stirring in the timber just the other side of the cliffs, the faintest rustle as if someone were shifting position before settling in again, and guided by these tiny clues he made his way over across the base of the cliff band, nearing at last the spot where he believed he’d originally seen the that faint, tenuous flash of movement.
There! Another rustle, and with it this time came an exhalation of breath, soft but distinct, and not ten feet from his present position. Keeping his gaze to the timber and allowing eyes to adjust, as well as they were able, to the darker darkness of the shadows there he was able to slowly begin making out a form, human, well-camouflaged in white coveralls as it sat hunched over on what appeared to be a foam camping pad, watching the cabin. Easy enough to deal with this one; though knowing he was no longer as strong as he was used to being, Einar knew also that his reflexes remained sharp, motions quick and sure enough to take the man silently and definitively. But it would only work if he was alone, or supposing he had no companions near enough to hear the inevitable crunch and scrape in the dry, cold snow which would mark the struggle, short as it would hopefully be. Had to be. Well, he had to risk it. Sure couldn’t use either of the firearms and risk drawing the attention—and the fire—of what might well be a dozen or more men; better to seek them out one by one and thus improve his chances if and when it did come to an all-out fight.
Good, cold logic, a plan of action, and it might have served him well had not his intended target just then shifted position again—getting cold, it seemed, needing to move—slipping off the edge of his mat, tipping backwards into the new snow and swearing softly as he did so in a voice Einar could not possibly have mistaken for any but that of its owner.
“Doggone you, Kilgore. What’re you doing up here right now?”
The greeting, suddenly as it had come and from so close a quarter, proved to thoroughly startle the tracker, who came up with a pistol in his hand but already Einar’s was jammed against the back of his neck.
“Whoa there, Asmundson. Take it easy man. Had just been planning to watch the place through the night, make sure everything looked Ok, then come in closer and ‘haloo’ at you guys come daylight, but you beat me to it. How’d you know I was out here, anyway? Some kinda early warning system, or what?”
Einar relaxed a bit but did not put away the pistol, gave a humorless grin and thumped himself in the side of the head. “Yeah, in here. Early Warning System Version 4.0—it automatically upgrades for every decade it’s in operation, seems like—set to ‘super fine, continuous operation,’ and the off switch went missing somewhere years back, haven’t found it again since. Heard you crunching through the snow.”
“Crunching! I’ll have you know I was doing nothing of the sort. Barely making a noise at all. Man, you got it bad, don’t you?”
“Keeps me alive, Kilgore.”
“Yep. If it don’t kill you, first.”
Einar glanced at the surrounding timber, letting his eyes cover the area nearest the clearing before sweeping out into the darker recesses, lingering here and there as he sought anything that might be out of place. “You alone up here? Where’s your bride?”
“Yep, all by my lonesome. Sue stayed down behind this time, had to keep things under control with the business and make excuses for why I’m not down there. Supposed to be out on a three week long desert course down in New Mexico, that’s where I’m supposed to be, teaching, but looks like I must’ve took an awfully wrong turn, somewhere between here and there. Never seen this much snow in the desert, before.”
“High desert. You can just say it’s high desert. Almost might as well be, this time of year.”
In the beam of his headlamp, Kilgore cast a critical glance over Einar’s features, face more hollow and pinched than ever, eyes sunken, wide, white and staring with a hint of desperation which could not be entirely concealed even when the man gave it some effort, hands like the claws of some great bird and all the veins and tendons standing out in sharp relief on the near-fleshless bit of lower arm that protruded from his sleeve. A man, Kilgore thought to himself, clearly in the last stages of starvation, and though it was not the first time he’d seen the fugitive in a similar condition, the obvious deterioration since his last visit was a bit shocking. “Game getting scarce as the winter goes on? You folks finding enough to eat?”
“No, we’re fine. Had a lot put away from the fall, frozen and hung in trees, and there’ve been occasional rabbits, squirrels…stew pot is never empty. Might as well come in for a bowl, since you’re up here anyway.”
“Sure. But first, I got news. Some that concerns you immediately, some not so immediate but probably a lot more concerning—for all of us—in the long run.”
“Yeah? Let’s have the immediate stuff.”
“Girl’s gone missing, and it’s the talk of the town down below there. Young reporter, name of Melton. You’ll remember her, as one of the very few folks who’ve met you and lived, since this whole thing began…”
“I know her.”
“Well, she apparently took off on a solo snowshoeing trip here a few weeks back, didn’t leave a timeline with anyone far as when she was to be expected back and apparently has a pretty solid history of taking off on her own like this, at least over the last couple years, but finally a few of her acquaintances managed to get themselves all worked up about it, anyway. And now a search is on, so I wanted to warn you that you may start to see searcher-types in the air soon, maybe on the ground even, but probably not this time of year, unless they get a solid lead. You’ll start to see ‘em, but best not go shooting too many of them down or anything, because they’re not out here for you, but sure enough would be, if they started losing aircraft to steel-tipped crossbow bolts and the like! So just wanted to caution you to behave yourself, soldier, and to watch where you leave tracks and trails, too, ‘cause they’ll be on the lookout for things like that.”
The slight smile that had softened his features at mention of the crossbow now faded. “What about your trail, coming here?”
“Storm covered it. That’s why I had to travel in the storm. Was real careful. Gonna have to wait for the next one before I leave out of here, though.”
Einar gritted his teeth, grimacing slightly at the thought of another guest, but figured if it had to happen, Kilgore was more or less alright.
“My suspicion,” the tracker continued, “is that she’s out here looking for you, this missing girl.”
“Probably wants to do another story or something, though I wouldn’t put it past her to want to come out here solely for the sake of living a month or so in your territory, getting a feel for what it’s really like stuff like that. Back six months or so ago she attended one of my survival courses when I was still running them, after she’d got that interview with you published, the one with the wild-looking photo of you as a mountain man all scrawny and sinewy and wrapped in tattered furs carrying the bloody haunch of a young mountain goat…yeah, she came to one of my week-long courses and I got to say was one of the more serious-minded and dedicated civilian students I’ve ever had go through there, seemed hell-bent on pushing herself just as far as she could and getting as much as possible out of that week, and she did it, too. Heard later from other guys on the circuit that mine wasn’t the only course she attended. So if she’s out here somewhere, I’d say she actually has a fair chance of still being alive and maybe even just fine. Good a chance as anyone who isn’t you, I’d have to say.”
“Sounds like it. Now. Let’s get inside. I got news for you, too, and a real big mess to sort out unless you want to turn around right now and head back down the hill.”
“Can’t. The tracks.”
“And besides, you haven’t heard the half of what I came up here to tell you, either. The big news.”
Which big news ended up all but forgotten for the moment when Einar led Kilgore in through the tunnel to a startled reception by the two women, who had just recently wakened wondering where Einar had gone…