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…”