The look on Bud Kilgore’s face when he emerged into the cabin and saw Juni standing there beside the stove with Liz, warm clothes halfway on as the two of them prepared to go out searching for Einar, was absolutely priceless. The complete and utter bafflement that seized hold of his features as he glanced from Liz to Juni and back behind him at Einar nearly set the latter to laughing despite being a good deal more than half frozen after his long stalk through the snow, Liz appearing ready to join him, but Juni wasn’t laughing, having recognized Kilgore and appearing nearly as confused as he.
Quick to regain his composure though still quite baffled about the details, Bud stepped forward and laid a gloved hand on the young reporter’s shoulder.
“Asmundson, Ma’am, I’ve come to reclaim my student. Young lady, you’ve created quite a stir down there. Got folks out looking for you, and though they’re not headed this way yet, it may come to that.”
Juni just stared, half expecting Einar to do something sudden, restrain his prisoner, run the man through with an atlatl dart, something, but he just stood there, looking more relaxed than he’d done in days.
“Oh, yeah, we’re acquainted,” Einar responded to her unspoken question.
She nodded slowly. “I see. How did you know…you’re really here looking for me?”
“Found you, didn’t I?”
Juni could’t deny that, wisely kept quiet for the moment but Kilgore seemed to have moved on, his focus once more on Einar.
“What you got going here, anyway? Never figured you for the sort, Asmundson…”
“What sort, Kilgore?”
“Sort as could make a thing like this work out.”
Einar just shook his head, gave another humorless grin and told the tracker he’d better watch himself before the lady of the house took offense and found him with her rabbit stick—a credible threat if Kilgore had ever heard one, and he was relieved when in the next moment, Einar saved him from having to further explain himself.
“What about this big news you said you had?”
“Right. Looking like things are about to go hot down there.”
“With the search? Right now in the middle of winter?”
“Oh, spring’s almost here, that’s for sure. And no, not with the search. Lot of rumors flying around down there right now about upcoming executive action by the President to go around Congress and dictate a bunch of gun control measures he’d never be able to get them to approve, just ram the stuff down everyone’s throats, and the consequences be hanged…I’m telling you, that’s not the only thing gonna end up getting hanged, if he’s bold enough—and stupid enough—to try anything like that.”
“Nope, I imagine not. Who is the President down there these days, anyway?”
“No, I mean it. We don’t exactly get the daily news up here, other than superb up-to-the-minute weather and a vague idea of what next spring’s elk calving season might be like…”
“You lucky dog. Yeah, guess it would be that way up here, wouldn’t it? Well, as for the election, it’s the same clown as we got in there last time, all over again. Guess we’ve finally reached a point in this country where there are more takers than producers, and they voted him in again thinking they’re gonna get more free stuff, is all I can figure. Like that stuff just comes out of thin air, from the ‘government.’ That’s the tipping point, I’d have to say. When the voting majority starts believing that. Doggone point of no return, politically. We’re through. All gonna fall down, fall apart, and it’s got to, I’m afraid, before anything can really start to change. Gonna be one heck of a mess, but it’s got to come, sooner or later. And that imposter in the Big House seems pretty intent on seeing it come sooner. Really pushing the issue, not waiting for the slow dominoes of the collapsing economy to finish doing their bit. Seems bent on stirring up open conflict, sometime here in the next year or two. Sounds like fun, don’t it?”
“Sounds like hell. We’ve both been there. We know how ugly this thing can get. Will get.”
“Yep. Can’t dispute that. And most folks don’t know. Had too many years of peace and stability here on the home front, and people forget. Send a few guys from every community off to war in faraway places every decade or two, see some horrible images on TV, some flag-draped caskets coming home, lose a relative here or there, the others come back with stories most of ‘em will never tell except to other guys who were ‘over there,’ and, the average civilian—well, he’s got no idea what it’s like to be in the middle of it. To have it come sweeping through your town, past your doorstep…you know, peace and stability and all are great things, they’re what we want for our country, for our neighbors and kids, part of why we fight, really, but too much of a good thing can be awful doggone corrosive, in this case. Especially over time. Leave people all soft and self-indulgent, whole generations of them just going about their neat, comfortable little lives and taking peace for granted! It’s gonna be one incredible mess down there if this thing actually comes to the sort of open conflict it’s starting to appear we might be headed for.”
“You really think it’ll go that far?”
The tracker shrugged. “Anybody’s guess, but mine is that there’s a good probability. We got a whole class of ignorant, arrogant, manure-for-brains politicians down there right now who seem to have no clue what may come of their tinkering and tampering and trampling, no idea the level of commitment some folks have to seeing that their rights aren’t stomped into the ground and lost for future generations, and worst of all is this joker in the Big House who thinks he’s got a mandate to take unilateral action of some sort, should Congress not be able to muster the votes to pass his bill. It comes to that—and they try to enforce it—I can tell you this thing’s on. Gonna go hot.”
Einar nodded, not so sure, himself, of the prospects of any such thing—the complacency of the masses could not, in his experience, be underestimated, the desire to preserve the status quo almost always preventing talk from spilling over into action, even as the dominoes fell and one liberty after another was snuffed out, sometimes irreparably, at least so long as the present system remained in operation—but contemplating it, figuring that there really might be a tipping point out there, a conglomeration of circumstances under which a certain segment of the population really might be stirred to action, to resistance, and this—well, who was to say this might not be it? Kilgore was talking again, and he shook himself, focused on the man’s words.
“So that’s the other part of it. Of why I came up here this time. Wanted to see if you’d consider coming down for a while should this thing really get started, maybe helping to train folks, boost morale on our side, lead folks…”
“I’m not a leader.”
“Not how I remember it. Not in the ‘Nam and certainly not out in the Bundu, a few years later. And besides, people respect you.”
“For this. What you done up here. Defiance, escape victory. It’s the stuff of legend, by now. You’re the stuff of legend, and folks look up to you. Would follow you.”
At that Einar laughed, a hollow, derisive sound. Dismissive. “You’re kidding. Look at me. Some legend…”
“Ugly as a mangy, hairless three-legged dog with half his face chewed off in a fight, that’s for doggone sure. But this ain’t about looks, Asmundson. It’s about guts, resolve, determination, and folks know you got ‘em. You could bring that to them, all of it. Inspire it in them, bring ‘em up a few levels and help turn this into something cohesive, something with a chance of…some sort of success.”
“Barely keeping myself alive right now, Kilgore. Lousy example I’d be.”
“That could change.”
He shrugged. “Best head outside. Looks like we’re getting a little low on firewood…”