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.