Einar’s rest did not last long, remaining in the bed only until Liz had drifted off into the exhausted sleep of one who has not for many nights had occasion to take advantage of such rest, her breathing deep, regular, relieved. Carefully disentangling himself he left the bed—couldn’t help but smile in the darkness at the memory of Liz and her eagerness to have him join her there—feeling his way with his feet across the polished aspen floor until he stood at an oblique angle to the window, where he squinted out into the darkness. Couldn’t see much, besides the tall, graceful shapes of a number of the spruces which surrounded the house, softly silhouetted in the light of a waning quarter moon and appearing utterly still on that calm, windless night. Was strange to be seeing them while standing in the warmth of that room, separated by walls of wood and glass. The warmth was strange to him, unsettling. Has been an awful long time since he was in a house, and never did summer come so quickly in the high country…
He shivered, chilled and shaky despite the unaccustomed warmth, once more focused his whole attention on the world outside. Wanted to be out there, free in the night air where he could move about, patrol the place and make as certain as possible that they were truly alone, but supposed Kilgore might have something to say about another fellow wandering randomly about his place in the dark, without first informing him. And he might well say it with a three round burst. Best not push that one too far. But he couldn’t keep still, either, couldn’t stand the confinement of the little room—it was different, somehow, than his time spent in the cabin where he knew he was surrounded by thousands of acres of untouched wilderness, though the place itself had been a good deal smaller than their current quarters—and feeling suddenly as though he was hardly able to breathe in that confined space he took the rifle and slipped out the door. Had forgotten his clothes. Went back for them, feeling about in the darkness, somehow managing not to knock anything over and wake Liz.
Quiet darkness out there in the loft, and from below, a rising warmth from the last of the fire in the woodstove. He could feel it on his face as he leaned out over the railing, sampling the air and pressing an elbow sharply into his stomach in an attempt to counteract the gnawing, twisting hints of hunger that began arising at the lingering odor of that baked ham. Hadn’t been particularly hungry earlier, had been too weary and bleary and near unconsciousness to do much eating, in any case, but now he wanted that ham, wanted awfully badly to scurry down the spiral staircase like a furtive wild ermine and raid the refrigerator—or wherever Susan had stashed the stuff—but instead he sat down on the top step, silent, watching, keeping vigil as an hour passed and the warmth from the stove nearly ceased rising. Teeth were chattering again, which wouldn’t do. Not at all. Not when one was keeping watch, listening for the faintest sound which might suggest danger. He shifted position, leaning the rifle on one knee as briefly he wrapped both arms about his torso, trying to find a little warmth. None to be found, and after a long minute he gave up, resigned to letting the shivering do its work for a while. Which it did, but he hadn’t the energy to sustain it, nearly falling asleep with forehead resting on the uprights of the staircase rail, startling awake only at the last minute. None of that. Strange place, couldn’t be sleeping.
A faint light coming from somewhere downstairs, and moving with all the silent grace and poise of a creature of the forest long used to nighttime maneuvers—most of it, anyhow, for he was rather more clumsy and stiff than he would have liked admitting at the moment, and a bit dizzy—he descended the stairs, rifle slung over his shoulder, at the ready.
Quiet down there, no one about, and he slunk quickly from one window to the next, passing them at a low crouch, back to the room as he did his best to spot any threat that might be lurking out there, but seeing nothing. A sigh of relief as he made it past the last of the windows and crouched against a the good solid logs of the wall, scanning the room and seeing—apart from the faint green glow of the clock on the kitchen stove—only darkness. Somewhat reassuring, but he did not want to go back to bed. No way. Had to get outside, but first needed to know where Bud might be, make sure the two of them didn’t end up entangled in a rather unfortunate case of mistaken identity. A sound from down the hall, soft, almost inaudible, and Einar froze, finger on the trigger, ready.
Susan found him that way—eyes wide, wild, and she wasn’t sure he was really seeing her—when the muted beam of the flashlight fell on him; she, too, had heard a sound in the night, had gone to investigate. Fortunately for everyone Einar was seeing her, knew who he was seeing and lowered the rifle as soon as he was absolutely certain that there had been no mistake. Still he did not want to move from his position on the wall, took a good deal longer to respond to Susan’s soft inquiry—is everything alright? Did you hear something?—than he’d intended, and she began to grow a bit worried, turned on a light.
Finally getting to his feet Einar blinked hard in the dimly diffused light from the bulb over the stove, shook his head. “Didn’t hear anything particular. Just checking on things. Sorry if I disturbed you.”
“No, not at all. I was just coming to make a cup of tea. How about if you sit down here and join me?”
Einar shook his head, taking a step back as she opened a cupboard and began taking out Mason jars filled with various dried herbs. No way he was going to fall for that, and as if hearing his thoughts—are they that obvious?—she pulled a fresh, unopened box of teabags from the cupboard, showed it to him. “The herbal stuff I grow is a good bit better, if I do say so myself, but here. This way you’ll know exactly what’s in it. How about that?”
He scrutinized the box, inspecting the plastic and finding it still intact, shoved aside a nagging little voice which told him that of course they would have a special box all prepared, it would be part of the plan to get him to sleep so they could… Nope. Not listening. Not at the moment, anyway. Wasn’t true and he wasn’t listening. Needed something, for sure, if he was going to have any sort of continued success fighting off the dizziness and being ready to defend Liz and the little one, should trouble come.
“Sure, sounds pretty good. Thanks.”
Susan smiled, all the little crinkles at the corners of her eyes smiling with her and seeming further accented by the wreath of tight, silver-dusted dark curls that framed her wise and gentle face so that even Einar was able to recognize that here was somebody who meant it, who was genuinely delighted and who meant no harm. He smiled back, though his came out looking more like a grimace. She forgave him. “Good! Now how about a little of that leftover ham from supper, with it? I could make you a sandwich…”
That was his limit. Had to refuse, and he did, though graciously and gratefully as he was able. Just then there were a series of sounds from the area of the front door that send Einar to his feet again and the rifle to his shoulder, but it was only Bud, returning from his rounds of the property. Einar stayed on his feet as the tracker slid off his boots, lowering himself heavily into one of the kitchen chairs.
“How about we switch places for a while, Kilgore. Got to get some air.”
“Sure, why don’t you take the next watch outside. Just put on this hat…” as he handed him a worn black Stetson, “and my coat so you don’t look so doggone much like yourself, and go for it. Can I have your word though that you won’t go wandering off anywhere too far? And you’ll come back in an hour or two and let me take over, again? This is my place now, mine and Sue’s, and I don’t like the idea of coming out there looking for you later because you been gone too long, and shooting you by accident as an intruder. Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it, and you got my word, too. No wandering too far, and I’ll be back.”
“But your tea…” Susan reminded him. “Why don’t you stay long enough to have your tea, at least? I’ve got it almost ready.”
“Thanks. I’ll have it when I get back.”
With that he was gone, finally breathing a bit easier once he was out in the crisp, cold night air—already on the verge of shivering in Bud’s sheepskin jacket, which he’d left unbuttoned—away from the house and up in the timber where he could look back at things, get some distance and perspective.
Inside, Susan gave Einar’s tea to Bud, offering him a slab of cold apple pie, which he began voraciously devouring. “What are we going to do with him?” she asked. “He has to get some sleep, eventually… And he has to eat.”
“I’ve still got some of them bear darts, if you want me to…”
“Bud! Don’t you dare even think about it!”
“Hey now, just joking. You know I’m joking.”
“Sometimes, I’m not so sure! And besides, that’s not something to be joking about. What if he heard you, and thought…”
“Fella never could take a joke. That’d be the end of me, for doggone sure. Ok. No more joking about that. Don’t know what we can do, in that case. Just got to wait for him to drop from exhaustion, looks like. He’s bound to do it sooner or later, though stubborn and contrary as that fella is, I’m half afraid he might just up and die on us, first. Might actually be able to hold out that long, and if he can, he probably will. I’d like to just catch him as he comes in, knock him in the head and toss him in the bed for the rest of the night. That’d solve it.”
“That would probably kill him.”
“Nah, guy’s way too tough and hard headed for that.”
“Just about anything could kill him right now, from the looks of him. Only sixty six pounds, Bud. A man can’t possibly survive that for long. I didn’t know a man could survive that at all, really. And especially the way I’m sure he’s been working and traveling, and out in the cold like that...”
Kilgore shrugged. “That’s the stuff keeping him alive, I’m pretty sure. Would have croaked long ago, without that constant challenge to be met. But he’ll run up against the end here sooner or later, run up against it real hard, and I’m just hopin’ he and the family are still here with us when he does it. Well,” he polished off the last bite of pie, washed it down with a gulp of tea, “guess I’d better go see what that old wolverine’s up to, out there.”
“Don’t get yourself shot.”