Einar alone in the library as he heard Susan and Liz go about their day elsewhere in the house, muted sounds of conversation, plates clinking together as they were washed, the sing-song voice of Will trying out a few new sounds which, it seemed, would soon lead inevitably but no less amazingly to the miracle of speech, and in the quiet he seized hold of the two weights with which he had spent so much time earlier that morning, standing, staying, staring at arms which could not be made to raise them. Might have got angry then, rage lending him a temporary ability to complete the task at hand, far as it might have been beyond his reasonable physical boundaries at the moment, but instead he sat, letting the weights thump to the floor and staring at his own withered hands, arms no bigger around than those of a child, turning them over and inspecting them as if they were foreign objects, wholly unknown to him.
The strength that had brought him through those days in the jungle...the same that had got him alive if not entirely unscathed from one end to the other of that terribly difficult first winter in the high country, the loss of his toes and the numerous other injuries and trials this life had brought him over the years…where was it now? Where had it gone? Why could he not call upon it again, to get him through the present difficulty—which, one had to admit, was nothing, really, in comparison to some of the others—so that he could once again be useful to his family, have some chance of making it through the coming month, let alone evading and, in his own way, defeating his enemies?
Had he really lost his way so badly as that? Yes, seemed he had, but surely he could make the choice to reclaim that strength, just as he had every day chosen to keep going a week, ten days into his jungle evasion, when he was so dehydrated and weak from fever, blood loss and the other results of his captors’ treatment that he couldn’t keep his legs beneath him half the time and was spending more of his hours lost in a world of hallucination and waking nightmare than he was in the real one…yet somehow he’d managed to keep himself going, win his way to freedom.
Ought, he told himself, to be able to apply that resolve to the present situation, call on that strength—built and increased by a lifetime of deliberate challenge—to keep himself eating, gaining strength, weight, rebuilding his physical being and taking himself a bit further from the edge of the abyss on whose dark, precarious rim he seemed always to be dancing of late, balancing, black empty space yawning up from beneath him and a dizzying lightness in his head, movements, which told him without doubt that the fall could easily come at any time, claim him with the next step, and though something in him thrived on the possibility, on the challenge of going on despite its nearness, he did not want the end. Not really. Not with little Will growing and changing so, every day. But instead of helping, the remnants of his old strength seemed always to be working against him. Telling him that he must push himself farther, always a bit farther, that it was the only way.
Which it wasn’t. Must not be, though after a lifetime of experience telling him so, it was difficult to bring himself to see that there might be other options. To want to see them, even, for he knew that the sort of strength he needed this time would be the kind that allowed a man to be weak, to admit his weakness, both physical and otherwise, work on it, look—which perhaps he dreaded more than anything, though he denied the fact, even in the quiet of his own thoughts—at the things which had brought him to this point, and which would doubtlessly do so again in the future if he did not find some better way to address them… Not the sort of thing he’d ever tried to do, before. Or wanted to do. And he did not know whether he was capable. Or even willing.
* * *
Whiteout conditions on the mountain, and in the timber, the agents huddled ill-prepared and inadequately protected against the force of the wind, having been caught out on that inhospitable slope after the overzealous Shirley, unwilling to abandon the newfound and potentially very valuable evidence presented by the trail beneath the timber, had ordered everyone to stay and go on investigating as the storm swept down on them from the jagged white teeth of the peaks above. This he had done against the advice of Bud Kilgore and the good judgment of all, any with even minimal experience in the mountains knowing that avalanche danger in the area, already high, would grow exponentially with the weight of the additional snow on already highly unstable slopes. A major concern, but one which the party would only concern the party if they managed to live through the night…
Wind increasing, no dry wood for a fire and temperatures plummeting towards zero, not even taking the wind chill into account, Bud knew they needed a snow cave if they were to see morning. Trouble was, the scouring force of the wind had left their little pocket of stunted timber nearly devoid of the fresh, soft snow that would have made such a task slightly easier, little remaining atop the hard, icy crust left after so many days of high-altitude sunlight.
The very conditions which so greatly increased their chances of avalanche seemed to be conspiring to tremendously reduce their chances of sticking around long enough to find themselves in danger from a slide, and Kilgore, gritting his teeth against the wind, kicked at the slick, icy surface with the heel of his boot, making little headway. Needed a shovel, an ice ax, something with which to dig, and he wished the agents had not abandoned all such devices back at the slide site when they’d begun following the fugitives’ trail up the slope. Now the tools were drifted over or in the process of being so. Bud couldn’t tell, the way the snow was blowing. Couldn’t see much of anything, entire world beyond the nearest trees a maelstrom of icy whiteness. Had to have one of those shovels, and in a hurry; darkness was coming.
Rising from the chilled huddle into which each of them had settled, he braced himself, started off in search of the abandoned tools. Shirley stopped him with a shout, voice just bit too high, sounding near panic.
“Where’re you going, Kilgore?”
“Get a shovel.” Bud had to shout his answer in order to be heard over the wind. “Got to dig in, here. Get out of the wind. Wind’s gonna kill us. Need a shovel.”
Shirley was on his feet, arm all wrapped up in the flexible twists of a fir branch as if to prevent himself being torn away by the wind and sent tumbling down the slope below; a real danger. “You’ll stay with the group. Not having the group split up.”
“Then you’re all coming with me, because we’ve got to have that shovel. Snow’s all icy. Too hard to dig by hand.”
“We don’t have to dig. Can shelter under these emergency blankets until the wind slows. Now sit back down. Nobody is going anywhere.”
Shaking his head and turning his back on the shouting agent, Bud started off down the slope, bending his head into the wind. A sudden metallic clanking stopped him in his tracks, and when he whirled around in search of its source, it was to find Shirley no more than two feet behind him, still clinging with one hand to his anchor-tree, service pistol in the other, and it was aimed directly at Bud’s head.
“Sit back down, Kilgore. I don’t know what you’re up to, but don’t trust your intentions. You’ll stay with us, until this storm clears.”
“You’ll all freeze in this wind and die…”
But Shirley clearly did not believe him, gesturing impatiently with the pistol.