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.”