Gingerly over snow that tended to sink suddenly underfoot in places with a muted thump and could only be described as wind slab, the little group of investigators retraced their steps to the site of the slide, stopping with increasing frequency to stare up-slope as they neared the area, consternation evident on the faces of all. Except for Bud, who followed at a distance, slight gleam of something that might almost have been mistaken for mischief showing behind his goggles. A majority of his temporary colleagues had wanted him to take the lead, insisting he knew the country better than they, and wanting, without saying it, to have someone not of their number out front should the ground prove anywhere near as unstable as it was feeling. Bud, however, had very diplomatically deferred to the senior agent of the bunch, a gentleman by the name of Shirley who was fresh off the plane from San Francisco and not doing too well with the thin air of the mountains even after two nights spent up at altitude, a man far more adept at forensic analysis than the safe and successful navigation of rotten, avalanche-prone snow slopes.
Picking his way across the ruined, cement-solid debris that lay jumbled about in the path of the slide, the lead agent would go no further upon reaching the relatively untouched snow on its far side. Which presented a problem, as he—and all the rest—could clearly see the trail of three, perhaps even four people emerging from the timber seventy-five yards upslope, drifted some by the force of the wind but left largely untouched. That trail, he was as determined to have the little group follow as he was not to be in the lead when it happened, and he turned with rather more anger than the situation might have required on Bud, summoning him to the front of the line.
“You’re the tracker, Kilgore, and I need you to track!”
Bud nodded, stalked his way stoically to the head of the column. “What’s the matter, Shirley? That thing stands out as plain as a white Persian cat in a sea of hot fudge sauce, at least from where I’m standing. Not a hard one to follow. Unless you’re all out of breath or something, you go on and break trail for a while, let me take over if it starts getting rough to find the next bit of sign. Would hate to trample all over something of forensic value with my big clumsy boots, and spoil a potential clue for you fellas. Yeah, best you stay in the lead as long as you can, here.
Which points Shirley could not reasonably dispute, besides which his pride was beginning to suffer slightly at the implication that he might be having some trouble pulling his own weight, so he said no more about it, resuming his slow, plodding ascent as the snow popped and cracked ominously beneath his feet.
* * *
When bedtime came and Einar did not want to quit his exercises to get some sleep, pausing only to say good night to a very sleepy little Will before returning to Bud’s weight bench, Liz knew she had a problem. He had, it seemed, simply replaced one thing with another, using relentless exercise of a nature which might soon have tired the fittest of men to wear himself out and keep himself in line as he’d previously been doing with the starvation. While it represented perhaps a less detrimental option in the long run, trouble was that for the time, the strenuous nature of the work would almost certainly prevent him from putting on any of the fat he so desperately needed or even the muscle he appeared determined to rebuild. All the food he was managing to take in would be consumed almost instantly, simply to meet his body’s immediate energy needs. Watching him in frustration from the doorway—arms trembling with the strain, eyes glazed and a look of fixed determination on his face—Liz finally shook her head, turned away.
Though wanting very badly to go physically pull Einar away from his endeavor, drag him to bed and hope to find some way to convince or compel him to stay there—several yards of two-inch webbing and some good strong Velcro seemed appropriate, and she was of half a mind to try it—Liz opted instead to give him a bit of space, let him wear himself out, if that was what he wanted. He’d made so many concessions already, to his way of seeing things. Simply being there at the house was the biggest concession, and one which most times she could tell he regretted to some degree, and then there had been his willingness to allow Susan to provide him intravenous hydration, his subsequent efforts to get himself hydrated and even to eat as she could not remember him doing for many months…if he needed to spend half the night wearing himself out in order to sustain such changes, then so be it.
The early part of the night was restless for Liz, listening, though she’d told herself not to, for any small sound which might give her a clue as to how Einar was doing down there, if he’d run into trouble or was nearing the end of his endurance for the night, about ready to call it quits and get some of the sleep that he needed nearly as bad as he did food and drink, if his body was to really begin repairing itself. Finally, unable to sleep and prevented by the good stout interior log walls of the house from hearing anything that might be going on in the library room, she eased Will away from her side and crept down the winding contours of the spiral staircase, lingering warmth of the stove rising to meet her as she went.
Silence from the library, and for a moment her heart leapt into her throat at the thought that something might have happened to him in there, something final and irreversible, but she was reassured the next moment when, stepping into the room, she found him there curled up on the floor beneath the weight bench—he did have a way of getting himself into the strangest, tightest spots around, especially if wanting a bit of sleep in an unfamiliar place—clearly still breathing and by all appearances resting quite peacefully. Sliding the ever-present rifle a bit further from his reach she moved carefully to ease him from beneath the bench, retrieving an afghan from the living room couch and curling up with him on the floor. A compromise of sorts, even if not perhaps an entirely voluntary one on his part. Perhaps such could be reached in the morning.