If Bud Kilgore had hoped to guide a few agents on a fruitless day hike or two through the high country before returning fairly promptly to his contraband houseguests, he was in for a bit of a rude awakening at the scope of the apparent mobilization when he arrived at Mountain Task Force headquarters that evening. Buoyed by an increasing conviction that the young reporter had met with their fugitive before her death in the avalanche—where else does a lone individual come into contact with not only several types of big game meat not usually available up so high that time of year, but the hair of said animals, as well?—agents were preparing to take full advantage of the fact before time and the weather could intervene to render their new bit of intelligence worthless. Wishing very much that they could interrogate the young woman, they had done the next best thing in sending off all of her clothing and possessions for a full forensic analysis the likes of which no locally was equipped to conduct, and the results had been quite telling, if perhaps not as informative as they might have liked.
In addition to hairs from bear, deer, elk and wolverine, there had been found on her garments bits of bark from scrub oak, chokecherry and aspen, as well as a strange green substance which with some effort was identified as a lichen which grew in evergreen trees. These things, they surmised, could have been picked up at just about any point along the way on her hike up into the area or her descent before the slide hit, but the fact that all had appeared on inner garments which would not likely be exposed while trekking through the snowy high country had seemed to further confirm her presence in some type of shelter where the hides of all those animals had been present. Which shelter, it seemed to all involved, must surely represent the object of their search. It was to this end that they called in Bud Kilgore, experienced tracker, backcountry guide and the man who had found and recovered the young reporter’s body, wishing him not only to lead them up to the place where last the woman had been alive, but hopefully to be able to puzzle out from that spot here back trail, leading the all the way to the fugitive’s lair.
Reviewing maps with the searchers and listening as they solidified their plans to increase surveillance of the entire area—drones, not helicopters, were to be used for the most part; no sense unnecessarily spooking the fugitive and sending him out on the run again—Kilgore silently bemoaned the implications of this latest development in the search. Though he could more likely than not keep the men from locating Einar’s cabin, what he could not change was fact that with the entire area suddenly crawling with searchers, both land and air, he and Susan could expect to have houseguests for some time to come. No way would it be safe for the little family to venture out again until things began settling down some, storm or no storm, and he knew Einar wouldn’t like it. Would feel—and with some justification—even more trapped than he already did. Bud just hoped the man would be able to find the patience to wait it out, rather than obliging him, for the safety of them all, to employ another bear dart and close him up in the basement for a while with no avenue of escape. Could come to that, and Kilgore dreaded the day he might be called on to take such action, knowing it would probably be the end for Einar, try as he might to do it the right way. Just hang in there, fella. This will pass, and meanwhile, you’re pretty safe there at the house so long as you don’t do anything foolish.
Foolish actions of the sort feared by Kilgore were the last thing on Einar’s mind just then, besieged as he was by both Liz and Susan, one leading him to the table while the other brought food, and in keeping with the concessions he’d just made to Liz, he sat with them, prepared to eat. Much as he would have preferred to go his own way, watch at the windows or, even better, disguise himself in some way and head outside to patrol the place while the women enjoyed their meal, he knew it was time. Was accustomed to ignoring the signs and pushing onward, but knew that there were limits even to this familiar endeavor, and he’d been running up against them for days. Admitting this, as he’d learned in the past, always led to a feeling of exhaustion as he ceased struggling with his usual intensity, a sensation which this time brought with it an almost irresistible urge to sleep. Which he must not do, not now with Kilgore so recently departed and their danger growing, and he blinked hard, sat up straight in the chair and focused his attention on the rather humorous interaction between Will and the raven, who were contending over a piece of buttered toast. Will, never having owned such a treasure before and liking the way it felt on gums itching from the imminent emergence of his first tooth, had no intention of giving it up to the raven, but Muninn had other ideas. Not quite bold enough to brazenly hop in and seize the toast while being watched by three mature humans—including Susan, who held Will on her lap—who he knew to be rather protective of the little one, the raven edged closer inch by inch, tilting his head and watching with shining black eyes as the little one gnawed and drooled all over his prize.
Muninn was making headway and might have seized the toast before anyone could move to stop him, had he not been distracted just as he approached his target, stopping, tilting his head the other way and flying to a side window, where he set up a cry of alarm. Echoing far more loudly in the enclosed space of the house than it had ever done in the somewhat more poorly sealed and insulated cabin, the raven’s sharp rasping got the attention of all, Einar rising in sudden alarm and motioning for Susan and Liz to get down. Hurrying to the window at a low crawl, Einar carefully peered through the curtains, letting his field of vision go wide, focus loose, looking for movement but detecting nothing. By that time the raven had calmed down, flapping over to perch on the back of a dining room chair and stare critically at Will’s toast, dropped and abandoned in the hurry. Slowly Einar stood, back to the wall, breathing hard from the effort.
“Something’s got that bird riled up. He can hear things way before we can a lot of times, sense things…you know how he would sometimes warn us up at the cabin? Figure I’d better get out there and have a look at things.”
Liz nodded. The raven had indeed warned them more than once of the threatening presence of both animal and human, and she knew it would be foolishness to dismiss his cry of alarm, under present circumstances. “Yes, I know there’s probably something to all of this, but wouldn’t it be better to stay in here where no one can see you, in case there really is someone out there?”
“Hard to say. Not if they’re out there quietly surrounding the place. In that case, I’d much rather make first contact when they’re not expecting it! Not let them get things fully in place, maybe give us a chance to escape. If I’m careful and go out through the back door on the garage where that brush kind of shields it, hopefully I’ll get to spot them before they spot me.”
“We have the driveway alarm,” Susan reminded him, “so I don’t think anyone’s driven up here…”
“Don’t figure they’d come by the road, if they were really wanting to keep an eye on the place. Wouldn’t want to tip us off. You’re right though Liz, can’t have them seeing me out there. But they could see someone else, someone who looks more like Bud, or one of his friends who might be staying up here...”
“You’re going to have to wear an awful lot of layers to come close to looking like Bud, or anyone who isn’t yourself, really!” Susan laughed. “How about you let me do it. They’d expect to see me here, because it’s my house.”
“This is one I need to do. Just got more experience in certain areas, and need to get my eyes and ears out there on that ridge. You stay here and watch the place from inside, Ok?”
Neither of them liked it, but had to admit that Einar was, for once, at least making some sense and seeming to be realistically assessing the situation—except, perhaps, for his physical capacity to meet potential invaders in any sort of hand-to-hand contact… But with there seeming little chance of dissuading him, both women began helping prepare Einar for the expedition.
Ten minutes later, clad in one of Bud’s Stetson hats, a bulky canvas jacket and two pairs of ski pants, Einar wrapped a scarf around his neck to further conceal face and beard, and headed out through the garage, armed with pistol and knife and accompanied by the raven.