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.