27 February, 2013

27 February 2013

Bud and Liz thoroughly enjoyed Susan’s big home-cooked meal after their long, cold days on the trail, Einar doing his best with a few bites of ham and some sips of the thick green juice she’d made from ­­broccoli sprouts, pineapple and banana, wonderfully refreshing, and though it made him want more, he knew he must be cautious.  Unlike with the largely meat diet on which they had all subsisted in the high country, there was enough starchy food there on the table—on his own plate, even, for Susan had served him—to send him right into a bad episode of the same unfortunate trouble he’d encountered that winter at Liz’s when he’d eaten the entire loaf of bread after weeks of very scant rations.  Body unable to compensate for such a rapid change from subsisting on its own protein to largely burning carbohydrates again for fuel, things had got all unbalanced, resulting in a crippling and progressive muscle weakness which had affected his legs, respiratory system, even his ability to swallow, and had nearly done him in before he’d managed to get it turned around.

Sure didn’t need that again, especially not just then when he must be more alert and ready than ever to meet the dangers which were all but certain to arise with such close contact with civilization.  Would be better off, he could not help but think, simply staying as he was, getting by on next to nothing and—he now had to admit—doing an increasingly poor job of it, than risking such paralysis, which would surely be worse this time than it had been the last.  Liz, while having no intention of letting him go on as he had been, also knew the dangers of his having too much of the wrong things too soon, so did not too strongly push the issue, simply urging him to keep at drinking the juice and having a bite of ham here and there.  Will, for his part, seemed perfectly contented to sit on Liz’s lap and sample bits of everything that came his way, delightedly remarking at the newness and wonder of it all.

Full darkness outside, blinds drawn, and though Einar wanted to have a look outside, he dared not frame himself in one of those windows.  Needed to get outside, have a look around the place, and when Kilgore tried hard to dissuade him—the less exposure the better, sit tight her for a while, especially with me having just brought Juni down—he immediately took that as a sign that the tracker was working for the other side, seeking to entrap them.  Of course he’d want them to sit complacently inside, not risk the possibility that they might discover the teams which were likely even now being put into place…  Einar shook his head, scrutinized the tracker for any sign of guilt.  Not that he would give any.  He was too good for that.

You’re being ridiculous, Einar.  Can trust these folks, and had better start giving it a real honest try, or these are gonna be some mighty long days, while you’re down here.  Look at Liz.  He doesn’t’ have any doubts, or no way would she let Will crawl about like that, nearly out of her sight and definitely beyond arms’ reach…  She feels safe here.  Yeah.  But she hasn’t been all the places you been, is just glad to be amongst friends and may not be looking at the whole picture.  You’re anything but safe here, even if Kilgore doesn’t have anything but the best of intentions.  If the feds don’t yet know you’re here, they soon will, I should think, and then it may be too late.  Can’t stay here.  Not much beyond the night, anyhow.  But Bud’s right about tonight.  Can’t be out and moving, when he’s just returned with Juni.  If they suspect him of anything, they’ll really be watching the place now, the approaches, waiting for people to come or go, so all you can really do now is to lie real low and wait.

He didn’t like it, but saw no immediate way around the situation.  Best let Liz relax then, catch up on her rest and introduce Will to the civilized world of the valley for a couple of days, the bit of it, at least, contained in Bud and Susan’s good sturdy log house…  Stove was warm, Einar beginning to be warm, as well, now that he’d been near it for a while and got some food in him, if still rather less than the others might have liked, and next thing he knew he was dozing, head nodding and a sudden terror seizing him when he woke, certain he must have missed some important event, some clue as to the particular precariousness of their situation.  A glance at Liz reassured him that either there had been no such event while he dozed, or that she had missed it, too, no great reassurance, and he scrambled to his feet, taking up a position against one of the great upright beams that supported the half loft above.  Liz left Will to his play and joined him, whispering something about sleep, but that was just about all he got out of it, words reaching him all muffled and confusing, and sleep sounded like a very bad idea, indeed.  She insisted.

“Bud says he’ll keep watch for a few hours so we can get some sleep.  There’s a place all ready for us.  Come on now, I think Will’s getting tired.”

Einar saw no sign of this, the little one presently on the gallop from Susan to another of her quilts which she’d laid out for his inspection, moving almost as quickly on hands and knees as he could have done had he been upright, and it appeared that sleep must be the last thing on his mind.  Liz insisted though, and after his third time dozing off in as many minutes—just seemed to have lost the ability to stay awake, somehow, and though sleep still seemed like a terrible idea in this strange and threatening place, he knew he’d not be good for much until he’d got some—Einar consented, following Liz as she scooped up the loudly protesting Will and headed up the stairs.  Susan followed, bringing the quilt that had so interested Will.

The loft consisted of a large open space where Susan did her quilting, baskets of cloth squares and bolts of material proving an almost irresistible temptation for Will, who also stared in wonder at the black-shiny surface of an old Singer treadle sewing machine that had belonged to Susan’s grandmother and which still saw occasional use in her quilt making.  Over to one side was a good sized room enclosed in yellow pine paneling, top open to the slant of the roof but a door giving it some privacy, and into this Susan led Liz and Einar.  The room, cheery with the glow of a single lamp on rough walls of yellow pine, was equipped with a bed, table and two chairs, as well as a bookcase as high as the top of the wall, heavy laden with volumes on everything from gardening to military history, one of many such scattered about the house.  Opposite the bed stood a dormer window, and beneath this, back to the wall and front to the door, and the stairs, Einar took up his position, rifle resting on his knees and eyes wide open against the possibility of further sleep.  Liz deposited Will on the bed to start his exploration of this new place and hopefully begin settling in for sleep, joined Einar on the floor.

“Come sleep for a while.  You have to sleep.”

“Yes,” Susan chimed in.  We’ll keep an eye on things while you’re out.”

But for a long time he did not leave his post at the window as Susan and Liz watched Will and caught up on various things, curling up now and then for a brief rest on the floor—cold, always just on the edge of shivering, but he liked that, for he knew the shivering would wake him if he dozed for too long—but never in the bed.

“Can’t sleep in a bed,” he explained to Susan when she kept pressing him.  “Keeps me from hearing things, feeling…vibrations that come up through the ground, and might alert me to trouble coming.  Haven’t slept in a proper bed for several decades, and sure can’t be doing it here, in a house, where layers of wood and carpet and such already separate me from the ground and the mattress and bed frame would only serve to further distance me from any hope I might have of hearing the approach of danger…but I do thank you for the offer, and maybe Lizzie…”

“Oh, this is why you wouldn’t sleep on the air mattress when you were here before, I guess.  Down in the basement.  Why I found you jammed under the storage shelves in the basement, sleeping on bare concrete, instead.”


She left, then, assuring them once more that she and Bud would take care of the place for the night so they could get some rest.  Liz, who did like the idea of a night spent in a proper bed but knew Einar was telling the truth about his need to have some contact with the ground, the floor, decided not to insist that he join her there for the night, hoping instead that he might relent only for a little while, if he could, just long enough to thaw some of the remaining ice from his bones.  And if he fell asleep in the process and didn’t wake until morning…well, no harm done. 

“Looks like Will’s asleep for a while, so why don’t you just come in for a little bit, to get warm and to visit before sleep time.  It might be a good thing.  And besides, I miss your company…”  And she all but pulled him into the bed, Einar laughing and making a show of resisting as she pulled the covers up over him and helped him off with his clothes.

“Miss my company, do you?  I’m nothing but a sack of bones, Lizzie.  Can’t imagine you find me particularly good company in this sort of way, at the moment.”

“Oh,” she traced his collarbone, the sharp, hollow contours of one shoulder, everything sparse, scooped out, skeletal, “you have no idea.  You are…beautiful.  Your bones are beautiful, the way I can see how everything’s assembled, how it works, fearfully and wonderfully made…”

“Ha!  You’re crazy.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“Everything’s messed up.  Nothing but scars.  Scars over bone.”

“They’re beautiful, too.  They mean you lived through it, all of it…” and she took his hands, pressed them to her lips, his wrists where they were crisscrossed with angry purple-white scars, rope burns, some faded, old and nearly invisible, some less so; he closed his eyes, turned away.

26 February, 2013

Comments from 25 February

RF said...
I recall the photos of NAZI death camp survivors.
Even if he does get caught during the very unwise visit to Susan's he would not have made it much longer in the cabin.
His pack must have weighed half or more of his body weight before they made that last cache.

Looks like even Einar is not good enough to survive long term under these conditions.

I don’t think it’s the wilderness Einar is having a hard time surviving.  Liz and the baby are and have been doing well; there’s been plenty of food around.  Einar might well have ended up in similar shape down in civilization.

But no, without some change probably wouldn’t have made it much longer.  And may have a pretty tough time of it now.   

No chapter for tonight, been busy and not at the house much, but will have one for tomorrow.

24 February, 2013

24 February 2013

Little point in refusing, Einar realized, though this was exactly what he wanted to do.  It wasn’t as if Susan—and Liz, for that matter—were not already aware of his situation, so there was little to conceal, to protect in making a strong objection to the thing Susan was asking and Liz so strongly urging.  So, why not assent, if it would make her happy?  He could name plenty of reasons, actually, not least amongst them the utter intrusiveness of the entire thing, the fact that it made him feel trapped, angry, made him want to flee without further delay from this place where the lights were too bright, the warmth made him dizzy and there was too much to look at, back to the good clean frigid silence of the basin…

But he could not flee, not with Liz and the little one down here and the storm ended, nothing to cover their tracks, so he nodded, got to his feet.  And saw himself in the mirror for the first time.  Dead man walking, sunken spaces between all his ribs, lumps and bumps and bones showing clearly through skin that appeared stretched tightly and then shrunken into place by heat, desication or maybe both, entire torso a strange, mottled mix of purple, yellow and grey from bruises in various stages of coming or going, legs looking much the same—chronic anemia will do that to a fellow…as will avalanches; the two are not a particularly good combination—upper arms withered and worked away to nothing, shoulders sharp, hollow and eyes al sunkenl into his head…  He blinked, but the image did not go anywhere.  Couldn’t actually be himself that he was seeing.  He wasn’t that far gone.  No way.  The man in the mirror ought not even be able to keep on his feet by the looks of him, yet he, himself had just descended miles of rough, steep timber, survived an avalanche and…  World swimming around him, and he had to catch himself, bracing both hands on the edge of the counter lest he fall.

Liz knew he’d agreed to the check simply to make her happy, but she was happy nonetheless, figured he needed a good solid dose of reality to help him get started in the right direction—assuming he would pay it any mind, which was a big assumption—but she could that he would clearly rather be anywhere but there, in Bud and Susan’s big bathroom, bare feet strange and uncomfortable on the unfamiliar softness of the forest green rug in front of the sink before he stepped onto the scale at Susan’s urging, 66, not a good number, not for a living man of six-foot-one who wished to stay very long amongst the living, and when she guided him over to a chair to check his blood pressure, he did not put up much of an objection.  Didn't have the energy for it.

Teeth chattering.  Couldn’t stop them.  Susan put a towel around his shoulders, but it didn’t help.  The cuff wouldn’t fit.  Wouldn’t go small enough on his arm to get an accurate reading, so she said, and eventually she gave up trying.  He was relieved.  Didn’t really want to be further inspected, life struggle reduced to a series of numbers which Susan and Kilgore and to some extent even Liz, though all likely doing so respectfully and without giving him too much grief about it, would scrutinize and analyze and from which they would draw conclusions about him…

It wasn’t that simple and he didn’t like it, didn’t want it, wanted very badly, in fact, to be back in the vast and wild world of the high country refuge which had shielded him for the past years and in which he felt himself safe, protected…wanted to go home, where none of this really mattered.  Where a man kept going simply because he must, because he had no other choice, because his family was depending on him.  Instead, after a quick check of his temperature—low enough that Susan wondered how he was actually managing to function even as well as he appeared to be, figured that the human body must be more adaptable than she had realized—and heart rate, he was led out into Susan’s kitchen.  There, he was given a seat near the stove and plied, all dazed-eyed and droopy, with food that he could not quite have figured out how to eat even had that really been his intention, baked ham, mashed potatoes, fresh-from-the-oven bread and some sort of green juice that he really did want to try, because it smelled so good, clean, alive….

Next thing he knew he was waking up on the floor all tangled up with a fallen kitchen chair, Liz kneeling over him and Susan crouched beside her, trying without success to jam a spoonful of something sticky and sweet in between his clenched teeth, and he fought them, turning away, attempting to rise and glancing about frantically for some sight of little Will, wanting to make sure he was alright, but he couldn't see much of anything and dizziness prevented him getting very far and then Kilgore was there, too, a flurry of words he couldn’t quite interpret, and the man’s knee was on his chest, heavy, pressing, crushing the ribs that had been bruised in the slide, couldn’t get a breath.

“Cool it, man.  We’re all friends here.  These gals’re just trying to keep you among the living, Ok?  Keep you conscious.  Need a little sugar, that’s all.  Something to keep your brain going.”

Einar stopped struggling, mumbled something about why didn’t they just tell me, took the spoon and ate the honey as he worked to disentangle his legs from those of the chair that had fallen with him.  Grinning sheepishly as he got to his feet and set the chair aright, Einar nodded at the tracker, at Susan.

"There's a reason, ma'am, why it's best I remain as an outdoor critter.  Just not civilized enough to be in the house, looks like.  Hope I haven't caused any harm to your chair..."

"Oh, forget the chair!  It'll be just fine.  What about you?  Did it do any harm to you?"

"Me?  Oh, no, not me.  Take a lot more than a little chair to..."  Dizzy again, legs collapsing under him, but he wouldn't give in, must not, remained rigidly standing until Susan took him by the arm and steered him over to the couch where Liz was sitting.

"You're plenty civilized to be here in the house, so far as I'm concerned.  You just need something to eat.  Sit here for a minute until you get your balance again, and then we'll all have supper."

22 February, 2013

22 February 2013

The garage was more or less alright, basement might have been acceptable, even—though Susan seemed little inclined to invite them down there, leaving the door shut—but Einar would not enter the house.  Didn’t want Liz or Will to go either, but when he tried communicating this to Liz, his words came out all scrambled and barely intelligible.  She thought he was saying something about not yet being ready to go in there where the lights were brighter, draped a wool blanket around his shoulders and told him it was alright, she’d be right back for him as soon as she’d got Will settled.  Frustrated but not blaming her, he let them go.  Quiet in there.  Clamped his jaw in an attempt to silence the occasional rattling of his own teeth, have a better listen.  Couldn’t hear much of anything for the loudness of his own shivering breaths, and for a time he devoted his entire attention to breathing himself still.  It worked.  Still awfully cold, but the shivering had, for the time, ceased.  He knew it would come back.  Had better come back…  Footsteps in the hall, door to the garage opening, and this time it was Kilgore.

“What’s your trouble, Asmundson?  Lived in a cave for so long that you can’t stand the light?  Come on now, your kid’s already got the house explored up and down, Sue’s got supper in the oven and your lady’s wondering where you are.”

“Didn’t live in a cave.  Light’s not a problem.  More concerned about who might be listening in there, watching, even…”

“Oh now of all the ridiculous and insulting things…are you kidding, man?  With me living her at this place now, you better believe it gets swept real regularly for anything they might be using to watch, listen or otherwise pry, including just a few hours ago when I stopped home before heading back up the hill for you folks.  Place is clean.  Now come on in, before you finish freezing.  Don’t know if your Lizzie happened to bring her war club or not, but I figure she’d find one of Sue’s iron skillets a real suitable substitute, if it came down to it.  So I got to at least get you in there alive.  What happens after…well, that’s up to you.”

Einar rose, went with the tracker.  Had already trusted him with the truck ride, why not go all the way?  Liz was already in there, the little one…if anything was to happen, he wanted to be beside them to meet it.  Susan greeted him as he went through the kitchen—making her best effort not to let it show, the alarm, the horror, almost, with which she met his greatly altered appearance, extent of his emaciation rather more visible than it had been in the dimness of the cabin upon her last visit—wonderful, warm smells of baking bread and something involving ham, cheese and mustard meeting him at the same time.

The smells made Einar dizzy.  Or maybe it was the warmth, but either way, he had to blink hard and squint at the floor in order to keep his bearings.  Carefully looking up, he saw that Will was, indeed, wasting no time taking in his new surroundings, presently exploring with great fascination the many-hued patterns of one of Susan’s patchwork quilts, which she’d spread on the floor for him.  Winter child, yet to live through the brilliantly-flowering ecstasies of his first high country spring, he’d never seen so much color.  Seeing that her guest was swaying, appearing ready to fall, Susan quickly guided him to a chair near Liz and the little one.

“Welcome, Einar.  After all the times we’ve visited your home, it’s a great honor to have you here in ours.” 

“Yours is bigger.”

“Maybe, but your little place is no less a home.  Now get warm, make yourself at home, and supper will be ready in a bit.”

Liz looked different in the lamplight, Will a good deal larger, somehow, as if he’d done some growing on the descent from the basin, which having observed the way he was eating, sleeping and changing lately, Einar did not really doubt…  Watching them, Liz pointing out different cloth-patterns and observing in delight as Will studied each new discovery with a rapt fascination equal to that which he’d bestowed on the golden radiance of the beaver hide that time back at the cabin, it was difficult not to feel somewhat at home, even in these unfamiliar surroundings.  Getting warm was another matter.  Cold though he knew he must be, the warmth was making him sleepy, and he did not like the feeling.  Wanted it to stop.

The stove, centrally located in the living room, kept the place cozy, but it wasn’t overly warm, and as in most houses heated with wood, one could escape a good deal of the warmth by moving farther from the stove, which Einar did, finding himself a corner against an outside wall and taking a position there on a dining room chair, bolt upright, back to the wall, rifle propped between his knees, entire room spread before him, appearing patient, resigned, in it for the long haul.  He couldn’t quit shivering, which bothered him not in the least, but to the others it seemed a lot worse there in the glowing lamplight than it had in the dimness of the cabin, a lot more like something that had to be dealt with, stopped, and Susan, who had joined them as she waited for the supper to finish baking, was sure she knew just the thing.

Will, curious about the lively designs on Susan’s apron—watermelons, tomatoes and pumpkins, dancing in a riotous display of color all about its edges—had temporarily pulled himself away from the quilt and was crawling for her almost at a gallop.  She waited for him to close the distance, picked him up, happy when he seemed little disturbed at her presence, almost as if he remembered her. “How about I keep the little guy for a while so you two can go have a shower?  Get cleaned up a little before the meal, warm up a little better.”

Liz thought that sounded like a splendid idea but Einar—amongst other reservations—was very reluctant to leave little Will, as he couldn’t help but think someone might well come while they were away, take their boy and they’d never see him again…  But finally Liz’s quiet assurances won out—Susan and Bud were there, would protect him as if he was their own, and besides, they would only be in the next room, would hear if there was any trouble—and he followed her.  Insisted on taking the rifle, leaning it in the corner nearest the tub.

The warm water made Einar dizzy.  He didn’t like it.  Liz, thinking at first that he was simply being stubborn and probably would have liked to stand beneath a stream of ice water, instead, insisted that he stay as she cleaned from him some of the accumulated grime of the journey, gentle as possible with the avalanche-bruises and lamenting over the raw, angry spots where his un-cushioned vertebra had worn ragged sores in the skin wherever his pack had touched his back—or his back contacted the ground in sleep.  Wanting to keep Einar in there until he was well and thoroughly warm, Liz relented after his nearly passing out a third time from the effects of the warm water, deciding stubbornness wasn’t his only problem or perhaps even his most pressing one at the moment, and helping him out of the tub.   A good deal cleaner than he’d been upon entering the shower, if nowhere near warm, Einar huddled shivering in a towel on the bathroom rug while she finished washing her hair.

They changed into the clean clothes Susan had set out for them, Einar stringing a length of paracord through the belt loops on the jeans, sliding his sheath knife into place and cinching the cord down tight in an attempt to hold the pants up, mostly succeeding and hurrying well as he could with bruised ribs and shoulder to get into the tightly woven olive drab wool sweater that had been left for him..  Stopped halfway through, set it aside.  Too complicated.  Couldn’t figure it out  His buckskin vest he kept, though waiting to put it on until he’d got the sweater squared away. refusing to put it aside with the rest of the laundry.  Had to hang onto a little piece of home.  Real dizzy.  Struggling to keep his place in the world, he focused on Liz, who was combing out her freshly washed hair.  Didn’t help much, face and hands beginning to prickle, go numb, blackness welling up before him, and he would have fallen had it not been for Liz’s quick action, lowering him to the floor.  Just then Susan knocked, carrying little Will on her hip as she entered to Liz’s invitation.  Seeing Einar there on the floor, chin on his knees and arms drooping at his sides, Susan gave Liz a glance of questioning and concern.

“Not going so well?”  She released Will, who immediately began exploring the large, slate-tiled bathroom, went to a cupboard and took out a black zippered case.

“Einar, I’d like to check your blood pressure, temperature, things like that real quick if you don’t mind.  Will you let me do that?”

That got him back to his feet in a hurry, back against the wall and an angry, trapped animal look in his eyes, and he wanted to adamantly refuse, probably would have, but for Liz’s restraining hand on his arm.  “Please.  Let her do it…”

21 February, 2013

21 February 2013

No chapter for tonight, but back with another tomorrow--if Einar doesn't flee the house and take off back up into the timber, again...

Thank you all for reading, and for the discussion.

20 February, 2013

20 February 2013

I realized today that I've been neglectful in sharing pictures from my wanderings in the hills, so here are a few recent ones for you to enjoy, from my area in the FREE STATE of Colorado, where we still hold the majority of the ground, if not of the votes…  I guess the petty tyrants in the state capitol would do well to remember that the ground we hold is—quite literally—the high ground.

Frozen creek...

Distant ridges...

Life between a rock and a hard place...in the avalanche zone

Definitely Einar's kind of tree...


Einar insisted on going first, leaving Liz strict instructions to remain hidden in the timber and watch as he stepped out into the open.  There might, he hoped, be at least some chance that she could still escape with Will should the thing prove to be a trap.  In the chaos he would create as they tried to take him, she must slip away, start back up the slope and not stop to look back.  Which chaos, he knew, would prove to be very short-lived indeed, should Kilgore stick him with another of those horrid bear tranquilizer darts—or a federal sniper hidden up on the opposite hill vaporize his head with a single well-placed shot…   Despite such possibilities, which seemed quite real to him at the moment—though Muninn, he believed, would have alerted him to the presence of the sniper; if there was to be hostile action, it would initiate with Kilgore, the others sweeping in to finish the job only after he’d made his move—one must have contingency plans.  Must try.  Must give the little one some chance.  They’d not really had time to discuss it, but Liz would, he believed, act to protect Will above everything else, would not hesitate to turn and leave him to his fate, should it come to that and she see some chance of escaping with the little one.  It was the way things had to be.

Cautiously, rifle at the ready and ears as sharp as they’d been at any time in his life, Einar advanced out of the timber and made his way step by step to the spot where Kilgore was standing.  No shot rang out, no telltale dart-sting serving as precursor to the complete loss of all feeling in his legs, loss of control, flopping uselessly about on the ground—shuddered at the memory—but it might still be coming, and he watched the tracker with a wariness and an intensity which the other man well knew might spell a quick end to his life should he make the wrong move.  Kilgore did not move at all, simply lounging against the tailgate of the truck appearing entirely relaxed, both hands clearly visible, waiting.  Einar stopped some eight feet from him, scanning the surrounding timber in light that was quickly fading.

“You’re alone?”

“Get in, Asmundson.  No trouble on the road on the way up here, but you’ll want to be under the tarp, just in case.  Where’s that bride of yours, and the kid?  Change their minds at the last minute and head back up the mountain?  Surprised she didn’t drag you along with her, that one.  Knock you in the head with that rabbit stick of hers and drag you right on back up there, if that’s what she decided…”

“They’re coming.”

Kilgore lowered the tailgate, offered Einar a hand but he wouldn’t go anywhere until he saw Liz safely over to the truck, covering her approach with the rifle and relaxing only slightly when she and Will were safely stowed inside.  No more putting it off, then, stab of despair as he hoisted himself into the truck, a wild glance back up at what he was leaving behind, suppressing an almost overpowering urge to run, escape, and then Kilgore was slamming the tailgate behind them.  His last glimpse was of the rapidly dimming timber, and in the branches of a small dead aspen, Muninn perched, watching, tilting his head in confusion.  Dark.  Trapped.  Keep still.  Don’t panic.  One of the hardest things he’d ever done, but he managed it, breathing, focusing on the rifle, on having it ready.

There were blankets, wool blankets thrown in by Kilgore before leaving the house to come back for them and Liz made sure one was draped over him but it seemed to have little effect as Einar lay there on his back freezing against the cold metal of the truck bed, rifle resting on one of his bent knees against the possibility of attack and a final prayer—defense against the plots of the foe, against the snares he’d surely laid for them—silent but fervent on his lips and then they were moving, bouncing down the roughly rutted Forest Service road, through the trenches plowed in eight inches of new snow by Kilgore’s truck and those of the searchers.

Fifteen jarring minutes later they reached the highway, ride smoothing out, speed increasing and Einar unconsciously bracing himself, ever more certain that he was about to be suddenly and violently thrown against the front of the truck bed as Kilgore skidded to a halt ahead of a federal roadblock…  The possibility of escape would, in that case, probably depend on the terrain at the roadside wherever they were stopped, and he played in his mind what he remembered of the highway, trying to figure where they would be just then and what opportunities might be offered for cover, concealment, wasn’t looking good, but if he acted quickly enough, if both of them did… 

Truck slowing.  He half sat up, ready to shoot through the back window.  Told Liz to keep low.  Saw nothing but darkness, no headlights closing in behind them, no flood lights from above, and then they were turning, climbing, road rocky and rough, Liz recognizing Susan’s driveway, and telling him so.  Einar did not relax, raised himself a bit further in an attempt to solidify his shooting position—cover Will’s head, protect his ears, gonna be loud in here—while still keeping mostly below the level of the solid tailgate, hoping thus to gain a moment’s advantage as his opponents debated whether the bed of the truck was actually occupied or not.  Foolish thought.  They’d already know, of course, night vision and infrared telling them not only that their target was occupied but who and where its occupants were, not that it would do any good, not that they had ever been much for sparing mothers with infants in their arms, when the action started…  That made him mad, which kept him conscious.  A good thing.  Had to stay awake.  Having a hard time breathing, getting enough air, and it had nothing at all to do with the tension of the situation.  Hadn’t much noticed the ribs so long as he’d been moving under his own power, but he hadn’t been doing that for some time now.  Too much time.  Getting awful cold.  Not that it mattered.  So long as he could keep his grip on that rifle, aim true and give them a chance, his little family.

Several more bumpy, steeply inclined minutes, and they rolled to a stop.  No one came, nothing happened, silence, stillness for several minutes, Einar waiting, staring into the darkness as he grew increasingly cold and stiff, almost wishing the action would start, if there was to be any, so he could be sure of his hands when the time came.  There.  Voices outside, soft, barely audible, a sustained metallic clanking whose meaning he could not quite decipher and then they were moving again, rolling forward.  Einar tightened his grip.  Not long now, couldn’t be long at all.

When finally they eased into their destination and heard the door roll closed behind them, Susan’s voice coming low and reassuring where she stood framed in the soft light of the door that led to the house, Liz had to pry Einar’s fingers from around the rifle—he didn’t want to release it, wouldn’t go anywhere before he had it back firmly in hand—before she could help him out of the truck and stiffly to his feet in the dark, windless silence of Bud and Susan’s garage.

19 February, 2013

19 February 2013

No chapter for tonight, but I'll be back with another tomorrow.

Thank you all for reading!

18 February, 2013

18 February 2013

Ready with the rifle, Liz crouching low behind him, Einar watched as the three men approached Bud Kilgore, words indiscernible but his view relatively unobstructed, and the nature of their conversation was clear.  They had seen Juni, were inspecting her, helping Kilgore drag the improvised travois out into the parking area and stopping beside one of the trucks.  The men were on the radio then, Kilgore standing by as they talked to someone on the other end and amongst themselves, and he cupped hand to his ear, hoping somewhat desperately to be able to make out their words, but without success. 

Much as he had come to trust the tracker, large in Einar’s mind loomed the possibility that the man had, after all, turned on them, had perhaps been pressured in some way to do his best to bring them in, and was now fulfilling his end of the bargain.  In which case things were pretty much over for him and for his little family, everything done but the fighting, and while they might manage to die free, they would not win, could not escape with the snow falling so lightly now, and nothing to cover their tracks…  But would have to try.  Wished he knew for sure, as they ought already to be moving if movement was called for, must not wait to allow the adversary to better organize themselves, yet a premature move could prove almost equally disastrous, as they made tracks that might have been left undone…  So he waited, watching, straining ears for any snatch of conversation, keeping still until in the distance he heard the grind and hum of motors, low gear, moving slowly through six inches of fresh snow, and then into sight came a maroon fire department pickup truck stenciled on the side with “Mountain Rescue,” and an SUV bearing the emblem of the county Sheriff.

At sight of the latter Einar’s heart went into his throat and he tightened his grip on the rifle, drew it into his shoulder, but tried to remind himself to breathe, it wasn’t over yet, for surely they would have summoned the feds, if Kilgore had…  Action down there, men loading Juni’s body into the back of the truck and covering it for the ride down into town, and then the two new vehicles were moving, one of the original trucks following so that there were only two others beside Kilgore’s white Dodge.  They, too, were soon gone, Kilgore taking a brief but very direct stare up at the trio’s position and raising his hand in a barely-noticeable salute as he opened his own truck door, and then he followed them, and was gone, leaving the place abandoned, quiet.  Einar did not trust it, kept a tight hold on the rifle as he waited for men to burst forth from the bushes, to make a move or reveal with flash of light upon rifle scope or binocular lens their hidden positions amongst the boulders which dotted the sparsely timbered terrain around the parking area, but never saw anything. 

Muninn had no such doubts about the situation, sailing down to pick at a pile of sunflower seed hulls left in the snow by one of the searchers, sorting and tossing in his search for edible kernels and never so much as looking up in alarm, let alone taking to wing and scolding as Einar knew he would have done should other men have been about.  There was no fooling the raven, and the bird’s confidence and ease were enough for Einar.  They were well and truly alone, and he at last let out a sigh of relief, relaxing his body and letting the rifle rest on the ground, entire body trembling with cold and with the release of the strain.  Fingers were frozen, without feeling where he’d been grasping the weapon, and he pressed them to his stomach in an attempt to bring about some thawing, beating them on his sides when that seemed to have no effect. 

Alone, but still in quite a fix, for the snow had stopped entirely, meaning that they could go nowhere without leaving tracks, and so they waited, Einar hoping for the resumption of the storm from a still heavily overcast sky so they could make good their escape and Liz hoping, praying for the hasty return of Bud Kilgore.

Neither came to pass, sky clearing as dusk approached and a few stars came out, parking area remaining quiet, empty.  Cold.  It had descended like a blanket of lead with the breakup of the overcast, settling in the valley and piercing the bones of the ones who waited in the snow—Will excepted, warm on his mother’s back and fast asleep—so that after a while Liz pulled herself over and lay nearly atop Einar in an attempt to keep him warm.  The raven had returned to perch above them , taking up a watchful post in a nearby fir, and Einar, staring up at the bird as he lay there very nearly too cold and exhausted to shiver anymore, did not resist Liz’s ministrations.  He wanted to be able to use the rifle if it came to that, and could feel that his chances of maintaining such dexterity on his own were small and rapidly diminishing.  He’d so worn himself out on the descent, it seemed, that now his body had nothing left with which to warm itself, and he was fading fast, needed to move, needed a fire, but of course neither were possible at the moment, unless they were to abandon all thought of meeting up with Kilgore and retreat back into the timber…  An idea which was beginning to appeal more and more even to Liz, and surely they would have done it but for Einar’s reluctance to leave sign so near an established trailhead.

They would never know for sure, he told her, that they hadn’t been followed if they did it that way, if they left while the weather was clear, and she nodded, agreeing, but pointed out at the same time that there was no way they could stay there until the next snow came, either, for they would all end up badly dehydrated after a day or two and then frozen quite solid, not the way she wanted it to end for little Will, for sure…  Which led to them being just about to set off back up the ridge despite the danger of tracks and being followed, when Einar caught wind of a distant motor-hum, pressed himself into the ground to listen.  It seemed many long minutes before they again heard the sound, but this time it was closer, far more distinct, and then into sight rolled Kilgore’s pickup.  He was alone, stepping out across the beam of his headlights in the gathering dusk, stepping back to the vehicle and shutting them off.  He scanned the area with a critical eye, studying the ground, the surrounding timber for any sign that the place had hosted human visitors since his departure, finding none and beckoning heartily at the spot where he had last seen Einar and Liz. 

In the dimness they stared at each other, a question in Einar’s eyes, but in Liz’s no doubt about what they must do, and then she was helping him to his feet, handing him the rifle, waiting for him to take the lead.

17 February, 2013

17 February 2013

No chapter for tonight, but I will have another ready for tomorrow.

Thank you all for your patience, and for what you've had to say.

16 February, 2013

16 February 2013

She was right.  It was rather late to change their course now, with the snow beginning to taper off and civilization in sight, might simply leave a trail for their adversaries to follow, should they head back now.  Here they were, and though he would have perhaps liked a chance to reconsider, they must work with what they had.  Which just then meant one final descent, a ride in Bud Kilgore’s Dodge, and then an uncertainty which would demand of him as much diligence and concentration as he had ever been able to muster in the name of any cause.  More, actually, for this time his son’s life and freedom were at stake as well as his own and Liz’s.

Best get ready.  He rose—limbs heavy, not wanting to respond, world trying to go black around him, but he willed himself to move, stay on his feet—cast about until his eyes settled on the ancient, burnt out carcass of a lightning struck limber pine, Muninn seeing him heading that direction and perching high up in its blackened branches.

They have prepared a net for my steps; My soul is bowed down; They have dug a pit before me…  The proud have hidden a snare for me, and cords; They have spread a net by the wayside; They have set traps for me. 

He broke off a piece of charred wood, pressed it between his palms, watching the road below as it became increasingly visible through the lessening snowfall.

Lead me in a smooth path, because of my enemies, do not deliver me to the will of my adversaries…

He took the charcoal, rubbed it between his hands until he had a fine powder and smeared some on one cheekbone, the other, wished he had clay and green paint to mix together for the green portions, as he’d used to show his students how to do when he was instructing…

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…

A stripe of black angle-wise across his nose, no need for any under the eyes, they were already sunken and deeply shadowed…

O my God, I trust in You; Let me not be ashamed; Let not my enemies triumph over me.

Checked the rifle, ready to go, made sure his knife was close to hand, chambered a round in the pistol before tucking it back into his belt.

Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.  Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid.

Kilgore saw him smearing charcoal on his face like war paint, asked him, “what’s next, Asmundson? You gonna wrap yourself in a wolverine hide and do a spirit dance, too, maybe sing your death song before we go down there?”

Long, cold stare, quiet words.  “You know that is not my way.  But if it was, yeah, I’d probably be doing that about now.  This would be the time for it.”

“Have a little faith, man.”

“I am not afraid to die.”

“Faith in me, I mean.  In a fellow human being, for once.”


Charcoal on the backs of his hands, neck, and he was ready.

Blessed be the LORD my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, And my fingers for battle…   Though an army may encamp against me, My heart shall not fear; Though war may rise against me…

“Let’s head on down, before this snow quits.  Where’s your truck?   What’s the plan?”

“Truck’s down at the trailhead, right where they’d expect it to be if I was out searching for Juni, as I was supposed to be.  Good popular trailhead up into the area, but far, far from you folks, which is why we had to come so doggone far to reach it.  Plan is just to head on down, do a little recon to make sure nothing too weird’s going on down there, and then I’ll just walk out into the open pulling the travois, mess around for a few minutes to make sure nobody’s around who wants to approach me, then I’ll signal for you folks.  You’ll come on down to the edge of the timber—which is about five feet from the tailgate of the truck—and hustle on in under the camper shell.  I’ll then throw a tarp over you, pull the travois all around the clearing to wipe out the tracks you two left in the open, load Juni, and we’ll be out of there.”

Liz, who had been feeding Will, one last meal to help him keep quiet and sleep as they approached danger,  looked worried.  “Won’t they find it suspicious that you didn’t call in about finding her?”

“No way to call from there.  I’ll take her by the Sheriff’s, or Mountain Rescue, but only after you folks are safely up there with Susan.  Sound Ok?’

No it didn’t sound Ok to Einar, who would have much preferred to spend three days camped on a desolate ridge above the trailhead with a pair of binoculars and a good rifle before venturing anywhere near it, but that wasn’t an option, especially with the snowfall continuing to grow more sparse, and Kilgore’s plan didn’t sound too terribly ill-conceived, all things considered.  He nodded.  “Ought to work.”

Slowly, hampered on the steep terrain by the travois and by Einar’s injured hip, which had been growing increasingly stiff and painful to a degree that not even he could wholly push aside, they made their final descent.  Rocks underfoot, slick snow, and Einar had to work his way up behind the travois and hang on from the back so it did not slide forward and try to get away from the tracker, clinging to Juni’s boots as slowly they lowered it step by step.  Kilgore wished for a rope to ease the task, but Einar found its difficulty a fitting tribute to the one whose remains they were assisting on their final journey.

A lessening of the slope, heavier timber, lighter snow.  Better hurry.  Had to make sure their tracks would be covered, and then there it was, the trailhead, parking area spreading out white and wide before them, separated only by two hundred yards of timber, glimpses of vehicles showing through its gaps.  Kilgore’s truck, and beside it two more, a red Jeep and a smaller car of some sort.  They stopped, squinting, staring, straining ears for any sign of voices, any hint that others might be around, but could hear nothing.  Einar eased his way over to an area overlooking the trail itself, saw what appeared to be four sets of tracks, mostly filled in by the falling snow, heading up from the parking area.  So, perhaps the vehicles were abandoned.  But he didn’t like the odds.  Hair stood up on the back of his neck, hand resting on the pistol.  Kilgore was beside him, speaking in a barely-audible whisper.

“Ok, you think?”

“Can’t say for sure.  Lots of tracks heading up there, probably no more than half an hour ago the way this snow’s coming down.”

“You folks stay up here.  I’ll go on down and see if I can stir anything up.”

Einar nodded, and the tracker went.  He returned to Liz, her hand slipping into his, but only for a moment, for he wanted both of his hands free.  Stalking closer, moving carefully through the snowy timber, they watched Kilgore join the trail, struggling with the travois, and step out into the open, snowy flatness of the parking area.

Voices.  Men down there, and he had been seen.

15 February, 2013

15 February 2013

No chapter for tonight, but I will be back tomorrow with another.

Thank you all for reading.

14 February, 2013

14 February 2013

Kilgore kept them moving across another open slide area, carefully probing the snow ahead of them in the hopes of being able to detect slide danger ahead of time and perhaps find a way around the area, but he had no great experience with such travel, and the feel of the snow meant little to him.  Needed Einar up there—and besides, Einar needed it, appeared to be fading fast, and Kilgore knew a little time on the sharp end of things ought to go a long way towards waking him up, keeping him engaged—stopped and waited for the man to catch up, pressed into his hand the long pole he’d been using to test the snow. 

“Need you to go on ahead, man.  This stuff’s feeling pretty sketchy, and I don’t want to lead us through another bad spot, if we can help it.”

Einar nodded, took the pole and limped painfully to the front of the little group, hop, lean, probe, start all over again, and though the going was quite slow despite his moving as quickly as he could in an attempt to get them past the worst of the dangerous terrain in a hurry, they did indeed make it safely across the open area, and back onto a rocky spine scattered with enough trees to provide some reassurance that it was not a regular slide zone.  Kilgore could see that breaking trail through several feet of fresh powder was taking quite a toll on Einar, his pace slowing to little more than a crawl and now that the worst of the danger seemed past and he pulled ahead, took over the lead.  Not easy pulling Juni’s travois through all that fresh snow, either, but at least it helped create a good trail for the others, and he knew Liz—and even Einar—would insist on taking the lead again at some point, giving him a break.

They did not make it far before Einar began seriously lagging again, falling further and further behind until at last Liz, wearing Juni’s headlamp, turned back for him.  She found him standing beside a little aspen, clinging to its narrow trunk with one hand and shaking so hard that he appeared to be having a difficult time keeping on his feet.  Face set, grim, he silently shook his head when she suggested that he sit down for a moment, insisted he would be just find but his speech said otherwise, hollow, breathless, indistinct.  Again she tried to ease him to the ground for a rest, but he resisted most steadfastly, knowing that chances were very slim he’d be able to rise again anytime soon should he allow himself such a respite, and he couldn’t stop where he was.  Had no idea what the terrain might be like, how much cover, and the storm could be ending at any time.  Needed to get moving again, but no matter how his brain screamed at his body to do it, the thing wouldn’t seem to respond.  Just stood there shaking, disconnected, and in frustration he shoved himself away from the aspen that had been serving as his support, lunged forward in an attempt to follow Liz…and promptly ended up face down in the snow.  She pulled him up out of the powder, did a hasty job of cleaning it from face and neck, and quickly retrieved a bit of honey from her pack, insisting that he eat it and all but shoving it into his mouth when he didn’t see to get the idea.

“Come on, you’re out of energy, all out, that’s got to be part of the trouble here.  What about your breathing?  Are you getting enough air?  Doesn’t really look like it…”

He ate the honey, but didn’t seem to understand the rest of her questions.  Kilgore had freed himself from the travois and was beside them at that point, shining his light into Einar’s face and not liking the lack of response.

“Give him some more of that honey real quick, bunch of water if he’ll take it, and let’s get moving.  It’s about all we can do.  Sure can’t stop here.”

“Can’t we?  Even just for a few hours, if not for the night…  Let him rest, get him warmed up for a while?  I think he’s going into shock.”

“No, best not do that.  We don’t know how long this storm might last, what sort of spot we’d find ourselves stranded in if clear skies and a bunch of planes found us right here in the morning, and besides ma’am,”  dropped his voice so that only Liz could hear, “I’m not sure how long he’s got, quite frankly, without a little more help than we can give up here, so I think our best bet is to keep him moving.”

“He needs to lie down.  He’s not getting enough air.  And what if he’s bleeding?  Internally, I mean…”

“Not yet, he doesn’t need to lie down, and if he’s bleeding like that…well, you know what it means.  Now get yourself together and let’s finish this thing.”

She was going to protest some more, try and fight for even a short stop and a little fire, but Einar had got to his feet and was silently plodding into the lead, straps of Juni’s travois over his shoulders, and they hurried to catch up with him.  The honey had finally begun to do its job, and he was ready to move.

Through the night the little group pressed on, Einar managing to keep himself moving and even from time to time insisting that he take the lead, take his turn pulling the travois.  Though Kilgore objected, he did not prevent Einar from doing his part, knowing this sense of duty might well be the only thing keeping the man going, at the moment.  Going well enough that he insisted on doing his share of the pulling, in fact, the three of them taking turns in the lead and Einar, despite a hip injury which appeared to Liz and Kilgore very nearly incapacitating, maintaining a pace only slightly slower than their own.

Daylight.  It came slowly, softly through the heavy cloudcover and ongoing snow, a flat, grey light that left everything but the nearest objects colorless and indistinct, and Bud Kilgore paused for a moment to take a quick gulp of water, shake some of the accumulated snow from the hood of his parka.  Einar walking some fifteen feet ahead at that time, made quite a figure against the brightening daylight, tall and appearing quite stick-like even in his parka and furs, looking, the tracker could not help but think, something like the Otzi the ice man heading up the pass for his final brush with destiny…but for the slung rifle.  And the fact that before perishing in the cold and becoming slowly mummified in the depths of a glacier all those thousands of years ago, Otzi had certainly been a good deal better fed.  Seemed Einar was intent on doing things in the reverse order, doing a pretty good job of it, too, and the thought of it gave Kilgore a grim chuckle as he resumed his walk and plodded along behind the man.

When finally the valley came into sight, the last valley, the one that held the highway, civilization, all that Einar had been striving so hard to avoid for the past years, he stopped still in his tracks beneath a small cluster of limber pines near the rocky summit of the ridge over which they had just climbed, dropped to his knees and would go no further.  It had been enough, the sight of that long grey snake of a highway, to jar him out of the haze of hurt and oxygen deprivation that had come over him after his emergence from the snow, and now that he realized where they were, and what seemed to be Kilgore’s plan—taking them all the way to the valley, to civilization—he wanted no further part in it.  Should have stopped this thing hours ago.  Should have insisted they turn back, use the storm to cover their tracks as they made their way back to the cabin and…

Liz was beside him, crouching in the snow and taking his arm in a steadying grip, and he looked at her, met her eyes, saw her nod.  “We’re almost there.  Let’s do this.”

Comments from 13 February

Philip said…
And once again, Chris, ... you bring in a completely UN-considered method of demise, Natural Death? The Mountain Refuge is safe, still... giving that Einar listens th his brain, err I mean Liz, and see that she does have validity... in her point...
It is not just every old any sort of day, that a fellow gets pulled out of an avalanche... And somebody give that Raven an extra bite of Jerky, he deserves it !!!!
Feeling a bit better BTW, no whiplash... just stiff sore 62.8 YO body

Glad you’re feeling better Philip, with no permanent harm done. 

Yep, I believe Muninn the Avalanche Rescue Raven does deserve some extra jerky, after that!

Mike said…
Bummer! I was getting to like Juniper a lot. The kind of woman a man could run the river with. At least she died following her passion; that is an uncommon blessing. Rest in peace little girl.
Thanks ffor not letting us hang too long on that one FOTH.

Yes, Juni was really becoming part of the group, here lately.  It is too bad.

RF said…
Einer is not out of the woods yet.
He is stunned and hurting so bad that he meekly walks on down the hill?
Coughing up blood is a rather bad sign.
Makes my knee hurt just thinking about his new limp. That hip did not heal correctly, hope he did not get his hip tweaked too hard. Might end up with a serious plan "B" and they got no shovel.

Sad about Juni. Walking point is dangerous. I am surprised that two seasoned combat vets allowed her to do that in such a dangerous looking area.

You’ve got to switch out leaders from time to time when breaking trail like that through heavy snow.  Einar realized the danger only too late, tried to get to her but by that time the slide had already started.

Yes, you know he’s probably in some pretty serious trouble when he allows himself to be steered one direction or another without a fight!  Hopefully the injuries won’t prove too serious, but if they do, the others won’t need a shovel.  Just find another slide path that hasn’t let go yet, toss him out into it, get to a safe spot and take a couple shots at the top of the slope!  No shovel required…

Thank you all for reading.

13 February, 2013

13 February 2013

No chapter for tonight, but I will be back with another tomorrow.

Thank you all for reading, and for your comments.

12 February, 2013

12 February 2013

Liz would not believe it.  Had seen him emerge from worse, her love, father of her son, man at whose side she had fought through so many difficulties over the past years, and prevailed, and but for Kilgore’s strong hand grasping her arm she would have been down there already, digging, searching, sure he had somehow escaped, or was about to do it, more or less unscathed from the melee…

The tracker wouldn’t let go.  Not yet.  “Hold on now, got to take a look…”  Light on the terrain above, Kilgore trying to make sure it had all come down, nothing more to slide and this did indeed appear the case, near as they could see in the darkness and the ongoing snow, slope swept clear, and he released Liz, followed her down across the path of the slide.  They didn’t know where to start looking, neither having much experience with avalanches, and it was difficult going down there, both of them stumbling and tripping on the hard snow, the irregularity of the surface, Kilgore once catching her to prevent a fall.  It all looked the same, no limbs sticking out of the snow, no telltale backpack or section or parka to tell them where to start digging, and for a time they moved about somewhat frantically over the path of the slide, search fruitless, hearts sinking, knowing anyone who might have managed to survive a ride through all those tons of roaring snow and destruction would even then be rapidly suffocating beneath them, air running low and unconsciousness creeping in, unable to signal for help and likely as not entirely pinned by the solidifying mass around them, prevented from assisting in their own rescue.

They didn’t know where to look but the raven knew, blot of black in the beam of Kilgore’s headlamp as he sailed down and came to rest beside the upturned roots of a little spruce and then Liz saw that amongst the roots was a hand, Einar’s hand, and it was moving, grasping, attempting without much success to dig at the hardening snow.  They rushed to that little tree, pulled at it, Liz and Kilgore, managed between them to move it a few inches to one side, loosen up and shift a large, compressed mass of icy snow which had come to rest against it and that was all he needed, emerging in a great rush as some of the pressing burden of snow was knocked free, rolling to his back in the open air, hair and beard matted with snow, struggling for breath, but alive, conscious, and Liz went to him but already he was attempting to rise.

Staggering to his feet, Einar still had the rifle, had somehow miraculously managed to hang onto it through the ride, but had lost one mitten.  Liz quickly pressed that hand to her stomach, thawed it; Kilgore gave him a spare glove.  He wasn’t breathing right, gasping and pale, eyes wide, staring, and Liz made him sit down, dabbed at the blood that was trickling from one corner of his mouth.  Be still, be still and get your breath, let me check you over…  But he was on his feet again, stumbling, swaying, then somehow steadying himself, coughing, spitting blood—Kilgore hoped it was from his having bit his tongue as he went down; not much they could do for him if he was bleeding internally—seeming at last to reach some sort of balance where things were no longer getting worse and he could stay on his feet.

“Juni,” he croaked.

“She’s gone.”

“So was I.”

“We’ll look.”

Bruised, aching, hip wrenched so that he could barely walk and breath coming with a strange, rattling urgency that did not seem to be improving with time, Einar might have done well to sit and rest for a bit but he hardly noticed these things as he joined them at their digging, probing, focusing the search first on the area near where he had himself been buried.  When they found her, bit of her backpack sticking up above the snow as a marker, it was obvious that she had not survived the initial violence of the impact, wrapped around a granite boulder some distance above Einar’s final resting place by the force of the slide.  They dug her out, did their best to straighten bent, lifeless limbs and clean the congealing blood from the side of her head where it had impacted the rock, checked for pulse, respiration and even performed chest compressions for a time, though from the beginning all knew there was no need.  Kilgore finally called it off, physically lifting Einar from his station over the dead reporter and easing him to a seat on a snow clod beside Liz.  They all stared, silent.  Somewhat comforting, perhaps, to know that it had been quick.  Sudden.  She had not suffocated.

Einar dropped to his knees, put a hand on her head, closed his eyes, silent sorrow, lost another one, and Liz knew he would blame himself…

Already the rapidly falling snow was beginning to spread a blanket over the destruction when they turned to leave, easing its sharp, fractured edges, blending it with the surrounding terrain.  Kilgore had used Juni’s pack to rig up a crude travois of sorts, head and torso lashed to it, lower body dragging behind and a rope tied to its external frame, loop around his waist for pulling.  They had to take the body down, Kilgore had decided, was the right thing to do for her family, if she had any, and would, besides, mean an end to the search which had brought such chaos to the high country in recent days.  Einar, helping prepare the travois, thought that sounded like a good idea.  Wanted it to be the end, their opportunity to return to the basin now that there no longer existed the threat posed by a third party being aware of the place, but when he proposed it to Liz she shook her head, gently but resolutely.

“We still need to go down.  Just for a little while.  We’re way more than halfway there.  We’ll come back.  Can do that now, now that she’s…  But we still need a change, like we talked about.  Break our pattern for a while.”  And besides, look at you.  Might make it back up to the cabin, probably would, judging from past events, but it’s going to be a dreadfully long climb with your leg all messed up, your hip, whatever it is causing you to limp like that, and your breathing doesn’t sound too good, either…  You’ll freeze in this storm, use up whatever incredibly limited resources your body’s somehow managing to live on at the moment, and what’s the sense of making it back home if you just die a few days later?  You don’t think this way, I know you don’t, and that’s why I’m not saying this part out loud, but please see it, the thing I’m trying to tell you. Just this once…

Einar made no response, but when she gently steered him after Kilgore, he went.

11 February, 2013

11 February 2013

Silent, huddling, the little group rested out of the wind, Liz taking advantage of the momentary respite to feed Will, who had over the past hour or so become increasingly insistent about his needs and who, she hoped, would sleep for several hours after his meal, allowing her to complete the descent without further need to stop.  She wanted to be out of that gully, its fearsome black rock rising around her in the darkness, slick snow and at times even ice underfoot; she found them a good deal more alarming with Will on her back than they would have been under other circumstances, but every time she wanted to protest the route, she reminded herself where they were going, and why, and that it was worth the hardship…

Kilgore had a few bars of trioxane fuel in his pack and he lit one on the rocky surface beneath them, heating over its low flame a small pot of water and throwing in a bit of orange drink mix he had been carefully saving for just such an occasion, everyone enjoying a gulp of the warm, syrupy stuff that resulted.  Instant energy and a bit of warmth, and they were certainly going to need it.  Back onto the trail, then, into the gulley and down, and when at last they emerged from its rocks embrace and out into a wider valley through which ran an ice-choked creek, everyone, Einar included, breathed a huge sigh of relief.  They gully had been a mistake, and one that could easily have cost them their lives.  Must be more careful about route choice in the future, since little Will was with them.  Had to take him into consideration, limit the risk where possible.  Which was absurd, really.  Whole thing was one giant risk, ending, if successful, in the valley, where…  Quit it, Einar. Onward.

It was difficult to find cache locations in the dark and the swirling snow, locations, that is, which they would have some chance of remembering and being able to find again upon their return, but glancing back up at the gully in the beam of Kilgore’s headlamp, a dark, nearly vertical-appearing slash down the mountainside, he figured it was a place they would not be forgetting anytime soon.  Best leave something near its base.  The others nearly bumped into him when he stopped.  Liz was at his side.

“What is is?”

“Good place to leave some of this stuff, I think.”

“Yes.  Let me help you.  Where are you thinking?  Up against the rocks, where the snow isn’t so deep?”

“Looks good.  Got to try and…would be good if we can get it up off the ground, out of reach of critters but also keep it from human sight.  If humans happen along here.  Which doesn’t seem too likely.”

Liz agreed, not too likely at all, but one could never be too careful, helped him toss a length of weighted nettle cordage up and over a spruce bough some eight or nine feet from the ground, aided by the beam of Kilgore’s powerful headlamp.  Cargo tied off and the job finished, Liz asked Einar to check on Will, which he did, finding the little one warm and sleeping peacefully.  He told her as much, and she nodded, ready to carry on.

Out across a narrow opening they traveled, then, high meadow which would have sheltered deer and provided a fitting bed for elk, had the snow been gone and grass green, but to the weary travelers it proved an obstacle, sinking them up to their hips in freshly drifted snow and leaving Einar, still in the lead, gasping for breath and tasting iron as he pushed himself forward, breaking trail.  Watching, Kilgore could see that he’d had enough, was just about to pull ahead and demand a turn in the lead when the snow suddenly became less deep, rocks pushing up from beneath, windswept, nearly bare.  They were topping out on a ridge of sorts, land falling away sharply beneath them.  They could not see far for the intensity of the snow, but it did appear that by keeping far to the right they could skirt the dropoff, traverse a steeply-angled slope and, after several hundred yards of exposed chute, regain the trees, and easier travel.  Sounded to everyone like the best idea, and, Juni this time taking the lead, they started out.

That slope made Einar nervous, spooky feel to the snow that made the hair stand on end on his neck and left him glancing apprehensively upwards in the darkness, wishing he could see what sort of terrain lay above them.  He had the impression of vastness, a great slope rising up above their position, and the thought of this expanse of almost certainly unstable snow, likely as not topped by cornices and ready to let go with all the new weight added to it by the storm, left him wishing they were moving faster as they crossed.  Still, he saw no good way around, and Juni was doing pretty well in the lead, so he kept moving, Liz immediately behind him and Kilgore taking up the rear.

No one saw it coming, but Einar heard it, instantly recognized the sound and shouted at Liz to stay where she was, knowing the jutting spur of rock he had just crossed beneath would protect her, made a flying leap at Juni in an attempt to knock her out of the path of the barreling onslaught of countless tons of snow and broken trees that he could hear quickly overtaking them, but it was too late, and they both went down, full force of the thing catching them, taking them, gone in a battering, tumbling fury of destruction …

Suddenly as it had started the thing was over, and before the great echoing hollowness Liz stood in horror, shaking, staring out into the silence and clinging to the little fir beside her on the rock outcropping which had shielded them from the fury of the slide, and to Kilgore, who still had a firm hand on her arm, restraining, preventing her from following Einar as she otherwise would have done.

Silence.  Powder in the air, beginning to settle.  Kilgore swept the wreckage with his light.  Nothing, they saw nothing but a landscape of weird shadows cast by broken, cement-like chunks of snow where they had been tossed and left, whole ground solidified in the path of the slide, and amongst that chaos of surreal snow hillocks, the ruined carcasses of trees, splintered, tossed, jumbled, no sign of life.  They were gone, those two.  On her back,Will began to whimper, and she turned to him.

10 February, 2013

10 February 2013

Not yet ready to go in, Einar, past being concerned about planes, the way the wind was blasting and gusting off the ridges, left the tunnel and made his way to a nearby spruce, kneeling in the sheltered, nearly snowless area beneath its wide-spreading boughs.  Driving his spear point-first into the snow and the hard-frozen ground beneath, he leaned on it, head bowed, silent for a long moment.

 Long trail we got ahead of us, and the way is dark to me, real dark once we leave this country and start getting down into the world…  Pretty sure I’m making the right decision here for Liz and Will and Juni, too, since things would have to go real different for her if we stayed, but Lord, I’m about to go down onto the enemy’s territory, here, walk right in at the gates, and I’m not ashamed to admit a little trepidation when it comes to doing that.  Strengthen me for the fight that’s likely as not coming, give me the sharpness and wisdom to see trouble coming so I can shield my family from the worst of it, if You’re willing, shelter them in your hand and keep us from the talons of the enemy, for the net he’s surely got laid for us down there.  Our times are in Your hands.  Keep us, please, from theirs, and give us the strength to prevail.  

That was it, the simple, direct request of a warrior on the eve of battle, and he rose, pulled the spear from its snowy resting place and walked with it back to the tunnel, head high and eyes clear, ready.

Quiet, resolute as he returned to the cabin, Einar met the expectant faces turned upon him, for all had by then heard the wind, guessed at its meaning.  “Snow’s starting, quite a wind up high.  Won’t be any more planes for a while.”

They all nodded at his announcement, knowing the meaning both of the change in weather and his acknowledgement of it, knowing the time had come.  Kilgore, in a major departure from his usual way of being, was quiet, respectful as Einar and Liz went about the place making their final preparations, Juni even holding Will and doing her best to entertain him with a raven feather, a bit of cordage and an interesting flake of granite so the two of them could concentrate, have some time to themselves.  At last it was finished, this final inspection, cache baskets and bags given one final glance and then they were ready, no sense delaying it too much further, for who knew how long the storm might stay?

Quite some time, Einar suspected, for the look of the sky had spoken to him of a great deal of snow waiting to fall, and though knowing it would increase the difficulty and dangers they faced on the trail—avalanches, especially after such a long stretch of clear, warmer weather to glaze and harden the existing snowpack, would be a very real danger as the new snow piled up and formed in places poor bonds with the lower layers—he welcomed the snow, hoped it might last several days at the least, covering all signs of their departure.

Leaving at last, Einar did not look back, but Liz, eyes hazy and throat suddenly closing up, did.  It had been a good shelter, this cabin, the hidden little plateau, a home to them and the place where their son had been born, and she would for that reason always remember it with fondness though their lives there had at times been anything but easy.  Hoping they might someday make their way back she turned, followed her husband out into the storm, Will chortling and singing happily beneath the shelter of her hood. 

Einar, now that he had agreed to the trip and set his mind on its successful completion—whatever that might mean; he still wasn’t sure—wanted to lead, consulting frequently with Kilgore about the tracker’s intended route but always after these conferences pulling ahead once more to break trail and keep watch, a task requiring so much effort and stamina in the deep snow that Liz soon began to worry for him, knowing how exhausted he had seemed of late when simply carrying out regular daily activities, how near the edge the severity and deprivation of his life had left him.  She said nothing of it though, still hardly believing that he had agreed to the trip in the first place and supposing that if he needed to take the lead in their travels in order to make it all work out, that would be a small price to pay.  She hoped.  Already there was in his gait a bit of the dazed stumble that she knew would increasingly creep in as his exhaustion advanced and the cold settled more firmly in his bones, and she could only hope that he might see the wisdom in letting someone else take over for a while, before it knocked him flat on his back in the snow and left him able to continue only at a crawl.  She had seen him like that in the past, and the trouble was, he saw nothing at all wrong with crawling, if that was what it took.  An admirable quality, to be sure, but one which would likely as not get him killed out there in that storm.

Muninn was not interested in staying behind.  They had, of course, taken him out of the cabin with them, said their good byes and, with a flick of Einar’s wrist, sent him sailing off into the storm where they had hoped he would find a nice, sheltering tree to wait the thing out as any other bird would have done, but the raven had other ideas, and they kept catching glimpses of him through the increasingly heavy snow, keeping pace, following.  Not too much they could do about it.  Einar still hoped he might get tired of the travel and return to his own familiar territory, guard the place while they were gone, but Muninn knew his place, never straying more than a few dozen yards from Einar’s side, and after a time he gave up trying to send the creature back.

Nightfall, and the snow continued unabated, as did Einar as he led the little band up the high ridge opposite the basin and down the slope beyond.  Duration of the storm uncertain and search planes likely to resume their flights with its passing, he had no intention of stopping, and was, besides, far too cold to think of pausing to make camp, even if the others were not.  Wind seemed to be blowing right through him, chattering his teeth and leaving a dreadful ache in back and legs as they seemed always tense with resisting it, body numbed and always on the edge of shivering despite the good pace.  Did not matter, none of it mattered, time would come later to rest, might come, at least, if they managed to successfully carry out the present mission and conceal the signs of their departure, so he kept moving, pressing forward and stopping only to squint into the howling dimness in search of landmarks by which he might judge their progress and position.

Terrain growing rougher on the ridge’s steep, rocky backside Kilgore and Juni resorted to headlamps to see the terrain ahead of them, much of it as was visible through the swirling, sweeping melee of blowing snow, and seeing as the chances of anything being up in the air just then looking for them were slim to none, Einar made no objection to the light.  Used it, in fact, blinking and flashing from rock and tree as it shone from behind, to help navigate as he led them between two low walls of broken rock and down into the steep, icy confines of a narrow little snow-choked gully that seemed to him the quickest and most secure means of leaving the area of the basin.  Wanted to use routes that few would suspect harbored paths capable of providing passage for humans, and in choosing the gully, he had certainly found one such, the going nearly impossible at times and Liz trying her hardest to focus on the task at hand—keeping her footing and avoiding spills—instead of giving in to worry over Will’s safety on the steepness.  When, just over halfway down and all nearing exhaustion from the wind and the intense concentration needed to traverse the rugged descent, Kilgore called a halt beneath a sheltering overhang of rock, no one objected, Liz and Juni because they were more than ready for the break and Einar, though wanting to push on ahead, silent because he found himself too numbed and stiff with the wind to utter a sound.

09 February, 2013

9 February 2013

I haven't got a chapter for tonight, but ought to for tomorrow.

Hope everyone is having a good weekend, and enjoying the snow, if you're getting any!  I know the East Coast had seen quiet a bit, and here in the central Rockies we've had a pretty good storm too, which is supposed to stick around through tomorrow.  Lots of plowing and shoveling to do, but we really needed the snow and I'm glad to get it!  

Thank you all for reading.

08 February, 2013

8 February 2013

In attempting to plan for their trip to the valley several things proved problematic, chief among these the difficulty posed by the ongoing threat of scrutiny from the air.  Einar wanted to get busy caching things, not only dried meat and other foodstuffs but weapons, tools, raw materials, all the things which would so greatly ease the process of starting life anew in the timber whenever they managed to find their way back, but because of the clear weather and the possibility of further flights, he could not.  Would, it was appearing, have to take care of these things on the way down; Juni would never remember where they had placed things along a course so unfamiliar to her, so no particular danger there, but still he did not at all like the circumstances.  Needed several weeks to plan and execute this series of events, if they were to happen at all.  A month, maybe, and he could almost be ready.  The thing needed thought, planning, rehearsal, several weeks’ surveillance of Susan’s house or wherever it was they were going, to make sure the feds weren’t doing the same…but it wasn’t going to happen.  Better set aside all thoughts of attempting to manage every little detail as he would have so preferred to do and treat it as he would any other evacuation, speed and flexibility nearly as important as having a plan, if not more so.  Seemed all wrong under the circumstances, situation not quite rising to the level of emergency, but with search for Juni threatening to escalate things to that level with little warning and perhaps little time to come up with an alternate plan, what else could he really do?

Alright then.  Priorities.  Had to make sure at least some of the remaining bear fat—not a tremendous amount, after the long, cold winter months—was stored in a way which protected it as well as possible from both elements and scavengers, leaving it available for use upon their return.  Had few containers to use in storing the stuff, some portions already stashed in tight-seamed rawhide containers and hung in trees along what had seemed one of the likely routes they might take if forced to leave the place in a hurry, so that was a good start, but he hated to lose the remainder of the stuff, valuable as it was in ensuring both their ability to come up with enough calories on a day to day basis during the high-country winter, and to heat and light whatever space in which they ended up sheltering.  Some, at least, could go into the zippered plastic bags he’d seen in Kilgore’s pack, brought, no doubt, with the intention of keeping gear dry and organized, but surely put to much better use holding some of the bear fat for placement on their way down.  Weapons would be hidden as well, raised up into trees to await their return, and with them some of the tools that made daily life a bit easier up in the high country, and with this in mind Einar began loading one of Liz’s larger pitch-coated baskets with such items, granite flakes used for carving, half-finished bone dart and arrow points, lengths of coiled nettle and dogbane cordage, the stuff and substance of their life. 

The others largely left Einar alone as he worked, giving him the space he clearly needed as they made their own preparations, Liz largely filling her pack with necessity for Will, diapers, the clumps of dry usnea lichen with which she stuffed them to cut down on washing, warm clothes and—experimentally; she took it back out again for daily use until they should actually depart—the woven rabbit fur blanket which had served to keep him warm through so many icy nights that winter.  By the time midday arrived, not only were Liz, Kilgore and Juni packed, but Einar had prepared a series of baskets, bags and pouches which he intended to cache on their way down, and they were nearly ready to go.  Einar, though, still needed to load his own pack, a matter of which Liz reminded him after taking a careful look at the stack of cargo he’d been amassing between the tunnel door and the bed.

“What about your stuff?  When are you packing that?”

“It’s already in my pockets, most of it.  Sling the rifle when we leave, but other than that…pretty much ready to go.  Got to leave room to carry the cache stuff.”

“We can help some with that,” Kilgore spoke up.  “Hang a basket on my pack frame maybe, couple pouches on Juni’s, distribute the load…”

Wanting to object but unable to think of a good reason—other than that the entire thing was madness, pure madness and certain to get them all killed or worse, but that was beside the point now—Einar nodded his thanks.

“What about Muninn?”  Liz asked.

Einar glanced at the bird where he sat tilting his head curiously on his perch beside the water barrel, overseeing the goings-on.  The bird had become part of their family over the past months, watchdog, hunting companion, guardian, friend to little Will and to himself, companion through some pretty difficult times, but he saw for the bird no future with them.  “Time to say good bye to our old friend, I guess.  Can’t take him with us.  No way.  He’ll probably hang around here, and when we come back…”

He didn’t finish it, and Liz remained quiet also, for both of them knew their chances of coming back to the place that had sheltered them for so long were looking pretty slim indeed, future uncertain and the way ahead a dark, hidden one.  But they had to have the hope, leave open the possibility, or they wouldn’t have been able to stand it, this decision they were making, the thing they were planning to do.

Einar waited until the others appeared thoroughly occupied with their own matters, Kilgore and Juni poring over a map and Liz feeding Will as she sorted one more time through a basket of items she was leaving, and when he made his move it was furtively, not wanting to be seen as he fetched down from the rafters the envelope left him on Kilgore’s last visit.  Through the day as he’d prepared the caches, Einar had debated off and on with himself about the fate of the documents, whether he ought unceremoniously to toss them into the fire before heading out—if they had another fire—simply leave them where they lay, for time and dust and eventually, should they not return, moisture to claim…but in the end, he had not been able to let go.  Hastily, as if afraid he might at the last moment change his mind, the envelope went into the pocket of his buckskin vest, concealed beneath the parka where no one would see or know.  Perhaps later, he might find a way to dispose of the thing, but it was not yet time.  Was time to take a look at the weather, however, for over the past hour or so there had been a faint but growing sigh of wind outside, portent, he believed, of a coming change, and he left the little group to their preparations, crept out through the tunnel, resisted a suddenly strong urge to take out the transcripts and do some reading, and stuck his head out into the early afternoon light.

No sunshine greeted Einar, sky a flat, leaden grey, snow already beginning to conceal the tops of the highest peaks where they were visible through the black teeth of the timber, blurring their sharp outlines and promising to descend to the lower ridges, rises, to the basin itself as night descended.  He sighed, turned, crept back through the tunnel.

It was coming, the storm, the time, the end, and he must go to meet it.