By the time Einar and Liz left the tunnel and returned to the cabin, Kilgore and Juni had given up on sleep and were stirring about, also, Bud seeking a candle and Juni quietly trying to persuade him that they’d better not try and light it without Einar’s permission, unless they both wanted a lot of trouble. Being his ordinary, ornery self, Kilgore wasn’t sure he cared about the trouble, especially in the midst of a largely sleepless night and after having been repeatedly wakened by passing aircraft, but he was saved the decision by Einar’s return.
“What were you two doing out there, middle of the night in that tunnel in the cold?”
“None of your doggone business, you trespassing old buzzard
“No, don’t suppose it is but I just hope them planes didn’t see you. Would be a shame if we all end up getting caught just because you two had to go spend some time out in the tunnel.”
“They didn’t see us.”
“Figure they’d see a candle? Sure would like to have a little light, if we’re gonna be
“Candle’s safe. Just keep it to one.”
“What would I want with more than one, anyway? Just want enough light to see
whether you’re creeping up on me with one of them atlatl darts, or not. No more. Not
trying to read a book, here.”
“Got no reason to go creeping up on you with a dart, and if I did, you’d never have any warning, in the first place. Candle wouldn’t do you any good.”
“Nope.” Bud lit the candle using a lighter from his pocket, and they all stood around blinking at one another in its unaccustomed light, clouds of their breath rising in a fog that only made the place seem colder than it already was. Einar shivered, suddenly feeling the chill that had so thoroughly seeped into his bones during his time in the tunnel, glancing around at the other faces that appeared dimly in the orange glow of the candle and saw that they, also, were feeling the cold. Juni had not entirely left her sleeping bag, crouching with it up around her and only head and shoulders out in the chill air, Kilgore using his like a puffy, oversized scarf around neck and shoulders. No one appeared too excited to be up, but neither were they feeling particularly sleepy, with the frequent aerial reminders of their tenuous situation. Only for Will, worn out from a day of the sort of exploration and excitement that he could find even when cooped up in the cabin, was sleep possible. Silent, moving a bit stiffly in the chill, Liz hung the smallest cooking pot over Kilgore’s candle, knowing it would not come to a boil with the single flame but figuring slightly warm water would have to be better for drinking than the already ice-skimmed stuff in the water barrel. Too many days of this and it would freeze up entirely—though she knew from experience that this time could be delayed for a good while by frequent stirring of the barrel, moving water far slower to freeze—leaving them in a somewhat desperate struggle against dehydration and the hypothermia whose likelihood would become ever greater as their blood thickened and slowed. Well. That was days off, and hopefully—surely—the search would have moved on by that time.
Crouched around the candle almost as if hoping warmth might be absorbed from its very glow as much as from the meager flame, no one had much to say, all ears remaining sharp for the sound of approaching aircraft outside and twice being rewarded, if one could call it that, with the distant but fast-gaining hum of a small plane over the basin. An hour later, eyes drooping and everyone thoroughly chilled and beginning to feel rather grumpy about it—all but Einar, who though suffering worst of any bore the cold with a resigned patience that Liz found particularly frustrating, under the circumstances—a silent but unanimous decision was made to go back to bed. Planes could be heard and their positions monitored just as well from sleeping bags and bear hides, and though sleeplessness seemed likely, there seemed no sense everyone freezing themselves, as well.
Long after Liz had gone back to sleep Einar lay wide awake beside her, body trembling with a deep chill he could not seem to shake despite the warmth of the bed and mind busy with the possibilities and the perils of the journey that increasingly seemed to lie ahead of them, looking for some way around it, some way out, but finding none that seemed a particularly good alternative. Supposing Juni made it back to civilization alive, the place—cabin, basin, all of it—was hopelessly and forever compromised, and if she did not… Well, he supposed the search would continue, for one thing, but the bigger problem involved the moral issues which would surround his ensuring that she would not make it back down that mountain, for certainly the deed would be his to do, if it must be done. Not an easy thing to puzzle out, but he’d already gone over the bit about Juni, both in his own mine and with Liz, and there was no reason that his conclusions should have changed, since that time. She would be allowed to live, to return to the valley when the time was right, and though he’d seriously considered keeping her there with them until the fading of the snow when their escape and relocation would be more easily accomplished, the fact that she was now subject of a search of her own had rather put a damper on that idea.
Which left them with only two options as he saw it, either to allow Juni and Kilgore to leave together, with specific instructions to the tracker to draw out their return to civilization for as long as he could to give them a good head start as they made their move—risky in the winter for the trail they would inevitably leave—or to take Kilgore up on the offer he’d been making for months, follow him down to the valley and trust him to conceal them for a while. Break the trail, allow them a fresh start. The more he thought about, the less real choice there seemed to be, and when after a period of restless dozing he woke again with a start and felt Liz, also awake, turn towards him, he found her hand in the darkness, took it.