It did not take Bud long to find Einar, tracks in the snow—barely visible in the as-yet moonless darkness—and a pretty good sense of where the man would go to keep watch on the place leading him up the ridge that paralleled the driveway, where he slowed his pace considerably, wanting to give the man some time to see him, realize who he was and refrain from taking any violent action. The strategy worked, Einar recognizing him in plenty of time and lowering his rifle as the tracker approached, crouching in the snow beside him.
“Everything good out here?”
“Near as I can tell. Quiet, no movement, unless they had guys in place before we got here and they’re lying real low, there’s nobody here now.”
“Aw, we’ve got provisions against that. Lots of provisions, and I checked everything out after you guys went to bed. Nothing going on. They got no reason to suspect. I think we’re in the clear, on this one.”
Einar nodded, not entirely convinced but knowing how seriously Kilgore would have been taking the security of the place, both before their arrival and certainly after. He’d done a good job.
“Back on down to the house then, how about?” Kilgore suggested, rising. “Spend too much time out here and somebody might end up spotting you, realizing you’re not one of us and wondering who we’ve got around the place… Could lead to trouble.”
“I’ll stay low. Not really ready to come in yet.”
“Got something on your mind?”
A low chuckle, and Kilgore joined him. How could he not have things on his mind? A great number of things. But Bud figured this was bound to be something more specific.
A long silence. “Yeah.”
“You got to let it go, man. This one isn’t on you. That fool kid was up there entirely on her own initiative, taking chances at every turn and knowing full well that one of ‘em might turn out to be the last she ever took. Was worth it to her. You saw that. Livin’ the life she wanted to live, and loving every bit of it.”
“I should have been out front.”
“You’d had your turn out front. Each of us had, Liz and the little one excepted, and you know as well as I do things like that have to be done on a rotating basis. Any one of us would have worn himself—or herself—to a frazzle trying to break trail constantly through deep snow like that, and cut out travel speed in half before too long. Just common sense. And besides, close as you were traveling and the way you jumped after her when that hillside let go, you pretty nearly were out front. Just a couple feet from it. Still limping mighty bad from the looks of things, and hardly an inch of you not banged up and bruised. Likely as not she’d be gone too, even if she had been behind you. Not many could come through what you did up there. You’re just too doggone stubborn to die.”
Einar shook his head, kicked at a clump of snow that had fallen from a nearby spruce during the warmer sunlit hours. “Should have been out front. For that section at least.”
“Would have been a mighty big problem for us all, had she made it down and gone back to her life with full knowledge of your little hiding place, the habits you and your family had developed, the kinds of caches you had out there, all those things you know the intel guys would be just chomping at the bit to get ahold of, in their search for you. You’d have always had to wonder, was this the day she might decide to spill the beans, the day they picked her up and…yeah, you know how it can go. Would have always been out there, hanging over you. So yeah, a tragedy, vibrant young girl like that, and coming to be a real good hand in the wilderness, too, but sometimes these things are just beyond us to quite understand, and we got to take a break where we can get it. You been spared just a little in this thing, you and your family. You’re just a little safer again, little more secure, can go home if you want to. In a while. Got to stick it out a while down here, for everyone’s sake. Look at it that way.”
“Not buying it, are you?”
“Didn’t figure. Forget about it, then. All of that. Never did hold too much weight with me, either, not when I’d been in a position where the guys were under my command, or otherwise in my charge, and I wasn’t able to bring them home safe. So forget about if it you got to, carry that load for a while but you just keep in mind the folks inside that house waiting for you, Ok? Because they’re in your charge, too. In fact they’re the only ones who are just now, and they’re counting on you to be here to make decisions and lead them to your next home, whether that means back to the old one in a while, or on to a new spot, and you let yourself get lost in this thing and all the stuff it brings to mind—don’t tell me that’s not going on, I can see it in them dead-flat eyes of yours, even in this darkness—well, you’re not gonna be good for much when it comes to making such decisions.”
“Get out of my head, Kilgore. You’re the bane of my existence.”
“Why, thanks very much. That’s a real compliment coming from the likes of you. Now on your feet if you can---hip’s bothering you some, isn’t it?—and come on with me to the house. It’s time sensible folk had a break from this cold, since such is available. Now you know Sue’s gonna pester you some, gonna keep throwing them numbers at you and maybe your lady is gonna do the same, but don’t take it personal. I ain’t into that kind of thing especially, but will tell you she’s right, and what’s more, you know she’s right, just like your Liz has been right in telling you them same things, so you’d better listen to the lot of ‘em, eat their food and get yourself ready for whatever it is comes next.”
Einar was on his feet then with a growl—whether because of his injured hip or by way of protest at Kilgore’s words, the tracker could not tell—and following the man as he headed down the ridge, taking the roundabout route back to the house.