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.
“So was I.”
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.