A reluctant guide, seeking, as he broke trail, some means by which he might throw the search off Einar and Liz’s tracks—and his own—Kilgore found his answer as the day drew to a close. At some point in the little group’s descent—three quarters of the way down to the trailhead, Bud noted with nearly as much consternation as relief—the storm had apparently grown in its intensity, wiping out nearly every trace of the trail they had up until then been following only with difficulty. Might have gone on following it anyway with Bud’s help, tracker that he was, piecing together little clues from beneath trees and guessing at the routes the little party had taken, only Bud seemed to lose the trail fairly quickly, leading them down a rough gully and into a nearly impassible section of steep, icy rock where he said all sign of the fugitives seemed to have vanished…
The agents spent the following hour and half struggling to get themselves and the gear they were carrying back up out of that cliffy, dead end gully, two of them losing their footing in the attempt and nearly cascading down over the ice to what would have been certain death waiting below. By the time they regained safe ground it was nearly dark and very windy, and with snow being whipped up from the ground and hurled sideways with a fury strong enough to entirely prevent anyone seeing where they were going in that steep, dangerous terrain, a hasty camp had to be made in the meager shelter of an island of stunted firs, only their tops protruding through the snow.
Rolling up in his sleeping bag and bivy sack as the others huddled somewhat miserably behind the crinkly, wind-whipped cacophony of half a dozen metalized emergency blankets, the bulk of their supplies remaining up at the base camp, Bud had to suppress a chuckle at the ironic justice in these men having to spend a cold and fireless night away from their tents, when Einar and his family had spent so many that way. Wished Asmundson could be there to see it in person, crouching behind a tree and grinning fiercely into the night at the misfortune of his pursuers, as surely he’d done more than once since the beginning of the search. Just as well he wasn’t there, though, Bud told himself. Scrawny old fool would like as not freeze himself solid in that wind, enjoying every moment of it, of course, but probably not waking in the morning. And then he’d have a lot of explaining to do, both to Liz and to his own bride. Be lucky to come out of that one alive, I would!
The way the wind was blowing, Kilgore knew that little ought to remain of the fugitive group’s trail come morning, and what signs might linger would not likely be noticeable to any but the most experienced tracker in the group, who happened to be none other than himself. Helpful details, helpful weather, but he and those in his charge were still in one heck of a mess, now that the mystery tracks had been discovered, the mitten, cloth scrap, blood evidence…wouldn’t be too long before they had that back to the lab, tested and confirmed as Asmundson’s, and then the search would really go hot again.
Good thing you’re not out here right now, fella. Gonna be my job to try real hard and keep them up here looking, rather than focusing on their suspicion that you may have skipped the area in the car of some mystery guy who may have been up here with Juni…though that could have its advantages, too. Send them off to California, stir things up and draw them away from here once and for all, and we’ll all more or less be in the clear. Huh. Not real likely, but there’s your assignment, Kilgore. Supposing they don’t find one scrap of evidence too many, and shift the focus of this whole thing onto you, and the fact that it appears you were traveling with them disreputable characters. At that point, things get real interesting, real fast…
* * *
Finally managing to talk Einar up out of the hard kitchen chair and onto the couch with her—seemed such a simple thing, and reasonable, too, when one is dealing with an injured hip and tending to get pressure sores just about anywhere he came into contact with a hard surface for more than a few minutes, with all his bones so near the surface, yet Einar seemed intent on resisting the more comfortable seating arrangement—Liz settled herself with Will on her lap, content for the moment to eat while she sat with his father.
Quiet for a while, pondering, Liz could not help but be glad Einar was finally eating, but she expected it would all start over again, the pattern that had got him into this trouble in the first place, wanted very badly to interrupt it, end it, and knew that the only way to do that likely lay in his past, in his allowing himself to let it go, as much as was possible… She’d tried that before, tried talking it through with him and it hadn’t seemed to get them anywhere, had perhaps caused a temporary easing in whatever sequence of dreams and rememberings seemed most to be troubling him at the time, but always the difficulty returned.
A fact of life for him, she supposed, something that would never really go away. Some things are like that. But somehow or other he’d got to make his peace with it, even if that peace consisted of nothing more than an uneasy truce. Had to find ways to live with the thing, before it finished killing him. She didn’t know how to help him with that. Had tried patience, and though he seemed greatly to appreciate the patience, and sometimes was even able to let her know this was the case…well, here they were, just a day or two away from his very nearly having died as a direct result of the sort of life he’d resorted to living in an attempt—admirable, if perhaps misguided—to manage the memories, and the rest of it. Just wasn’t working, but she was at a loss as to what else she could do about it. Nothing, really, as he had to be the one to decide that something needed to be done, and so far as she could tell, he had yet to really make that decision. Back to the patience, then, and with it the hope and prayer that for the time at least, he would continue on his present path, drinking, starting to eat again and allowing his body to grow a bit stronger for the next round. Whenever it would come. She sighed, glanced up to find him watching her curiously, as if wondering what could be on her mind. A good opportunity, perhaps, to try and bring the subject up, see if they could make some sort of progress, but she stopped herself. Not now. He’s eating, trying to work his way through this difficult spot. Better that we should keep it that way for a day or two if we can.
To which end she eased the sleeping Will down onto the end of the couch, rose and went into the kitchen, beckoning for Einar to follow, which he did, rising with some difficulty and moving quickly on the theory that he might thus sooner reach his destination and have less chance of falling on the way there. Liz had taken eggs from the refrigerator, retrieved an onion, a sweet pepper and some ham that was left over from the making of one of Susan’s recent casseroles, wanting to make Einar feel useful and also hoping that he’d be more inclined to eat, if he’d helped prepare the meal. “Help me fix some lunch?”
Einar shrugged, took the knife she was offering him, and began chopping onions. “Sure.”
“It’s not exactly the half-thawed wolverine steak, bear fat and avalanche lily bulbs you’re used to, but it’s good stuff nonetheless! And ought to make a fine lunch.”
A chuckle from Einar.
“You’d probably like to live this way, wouldn’t you? All the time, I mean.”
“Oh, I won’t deny that I’m enjoying the change right now, but no, I like our little cabin, the life we’d made up there, even the wolverine steaks and bear fat. Though I do definitely prefer elk to wolverine! Yeah…I want to get back home! When we can.”
A slow smile from Einar, who could tell she meant it, found himself once more amazed at her existence.