Einar did not know exactly what she meant, but figured sure, if she had even some slight inkling of knowing her way through this current quagmire, that was more than he’d got, and it seemed he might as well follow her. His ideas were all either hopelessly impractical or downright dangerous to their continued freedom under present circumstances, or fairly certain to bring about the eventual end of his life in their successful execution. So he agreed, nodding, allowing her to take his hands as she wanted to do, a cold knot of anxiety gripping him around the middle, but not showing on his face.
The first place she led him, having to help him up off the weight bench on legs that did not want to bear even his own meager weight, was to the table. He’d been afraid of that. Would have liked to be able to hang onto some of his own notions while following her, high on that list being the one that through a rigorous routine of self-discipline—including greatly limited amounts of food—he could not only continue to make himself more ready to leave the house and face again the hardships of the high country, but could manage at the same time to help himself maintain the tenuous grip which seemed all he was able to gain of late on reality, keep himself in this world and avoid slipping quite so readily into the dark, distant haze of the jungle.
Deprived of his usual tools, he didn’t know how he would do it. Guessed that was where she was asking him to trust her…and for a moment, following, sitting down at the table when she pulled out a chair, he felt all the blind terror that must have been hers as she took his hand and followed him, snowblind and baffled, up the echoing, unseen heights of that vertical tunnel up out of the mine.
Lizzie, my love, I do believe you must be a good deal braver than I…
Somewhat to Einar’s surprise Liz did not immediately begin pushing food in his direction, instead retreating up the stairs to retrieve a thoroughly wakeful and somewhat indignant Will, who had managed to exit the bed without enough injury to set him to wailing, and crawl precariously close to the edge of the spiral staircase, where he stood rocking back and forth on hands and knees as if preparing for a launch. Which he probably had been, and she scooped him up, softly scolding that “you really are just like your father, aren’t you? Have to learn everything the hard way. Well, it’s good to learn a lot of things like that, because the lessons stick, but some with some things you just don’t get a second chance, and this might be one of them. We’ll have to see about some sort of a gate, won’t we? If you’re going to be sleeping up there. Only then you’d just find some way to climb the gate, and have farther to fall… Maybe not so good! But I’ll think of something.”
With which she eased the little one into Einar’s lap. “Contain your son for a little while, won’t you, while I go fix breakfast?”
* * *
Clearly preserved beneath the timber, virtually untouched by the aging influences of wind or sun, Shirley and the other agents had come upon a windfall of new tracks unlike any they had previously discovered. Crisp and undisturbed, they were quickly able to identify one set as belonging to Juniper Melton, the reporter who had perished in the avalanche, another set likely having been made by their fugitive, Asmundson. While they had strongly suspected his presence with the party before, a final conclusion had been waiting on the DNA tests which would be made on fragments of clothing found amongst the slide debris, but now, they were all but certain. The man’s walk had changed some over the years they’d been seeking him, a result, they’d concluded, of various injuries sustained and healed, or partially so, but it retained a certain set of characteristics which they had identified, and with which Shirley had made himself familiar before setting out on this latest escapade. Kilgore, when confronted with the evidence, could not disagree that the tracks might belong to Asmundson, though he cautioned that it was difficult to be absolutely certain. Shirley gave him a strange look, at that.
“Is it? How difficult, then, is it to be absolutely certain about this other set of tracks?” He asked Kilgore, pointing to a set of the tracker’s own size 11s.
Kilgore shrugged. “That fella’s unidentified as yet. Friend of the reporter’s, most likely.” Which seemed to satisfy the agent for the time, but Bud doubted he’d heard the last of the matter. The man was shrewd, observant, and though not trained in the art of tracking to the degree that he, himself had been, the man’s eyes and brain worked just fine, and were appearing to present more and more of a threat.
“Excluding the unidentified male,” Shirley continued, “it looks like we can probably be safe in saying that the other set of female tracks ought to belong to Elizabeth Riddle, known at one point to be traveling with Asmundson. Apparently she still is. Last contact we had with her she was expecting a baby, and that baby ought to have come several months ago. Looks like she survived the birth, but I guess there’s nothing here to indicate whether or not the child survived, is there? What do you say, Kilgore? Was this woman carrying a baby on her back when she made these tracks?”
Bud suppressed a glimmer that was wanting to creep into his eyes, survived? Of course she survived, and so did the little one, and the pair area lot healthier and more robust than a lot of new mothers and their children who I’ve seen down in civilization, if you must know. That’s gonna be one tough kid, and if you’re still around in ten, fifteen years, Shirley, he’s gonna be the bane of your existence same as his father is now, I’m guessing. Yep, it’ll be the two of them against the world. Three of them. Maybe more, if Asmundson actually makes it through these next few days, weeks, and gets back out here where he belongs. Poor old buzzard. Mountain couldn’t kill him, but Sue’s comfortable house just may do it. Huh. That’s not what Shirley was asking about though, was it? “Carrying a baby, you said?”
“Yeah. On her back. Can’t you tell from her tracks, how far they sink in on one side or the other, something like that? I thought you were supposed to be that good.”
“Well, she was carrying something on her back. Baby don’t carry a whole lot differently than a backpack full of venison or some such, I wouldn’t figure. But she had something on there.”
“I guess that’ll have to be good enough for now. I’d like to find some evidence of the child, if it survived. Living out here on the run is one thing, doing it with an infant something else, entirely. That would be useful intelligence for us, knowing if they were traveling with a child. So. Two questions to answer. The matter of the child, and the identity of this second man. Let’s get to work.”