30 June, 2013

30 June 2013

The old mine had many passages, more than one level, and Liz had no map.  Before, Einar had been in possession of the maps previously owned and annotated by Susan’s late husband, Bill, their details serving to guide the pair along the treacherous corridors and, at last, up again to safety through a long abandoned vertical passage high up on the timbered slope.  Liz did not have these maps, had, in fact, no visual memory of her previous trip through the tunnels at all, that adventure having come while she was suffering the lingering effects of snow blindness aggravated by the bright lights so cruelly misused during her federal interrogation.  Relying entirely on Einar’s hand and his voice to guide her, she had seen nothing.   Though the urgency this time was not nearly as great, the mission being only to find a warmer, less drafty place to conceal herself and Will as they awaited Einar’s return, she did not want to go stumbling aimlessly about in what could prove a very dangerous environment indeed, possibly slipping, falling, taking a wrong turn and not being able to find her way back… 

And how was Einar to find them, when he did return?  He might himself become bewildered in searching, especially in the daze of cold and exhaustion which was certain to have seized hold of him after his additional time out in the weather…  She tried not to think too much about those details.  Knew very well that she might very well not see him again, weather and his weakened state conspiring to do him in, even if the feds never laid a hand on him, and she shook her head, grabbed for Will, who had worked his way out of the afghan and was taking off on hands and knees for the shaft of dim, storm-muted light coming in through the rocks of the nearby entrance.

“Oh no, you don’t!  I’m not going to have two of you out wandering in the snow, and that’s final.  You’re staying right here with me and wait for your father.  And you can’t just be crawling all willy-nilly around in a mine, either!  You have to be at least eight years old before you can do that, according to federal child miner safety regulations, you know?”

Will did not know, but he laughed anyway, squealing his delight as he kicked and struggled, still wanting to head down that inviting shaft of dusty light, seeking out the adventure that surely lay concealed just around the corner in the wind-tossed shadows of a dozen skinny little spruces…  She wouldn’t let go, though, put him up on her shoulder and wrapped the folded afghan around the two of them, tying it and shifting the knot so that it was just behind her shoulder, thus creating a carrying sling in which he could ride as she explored the mine.

Still there remained the problem of letting Einar know where they had gone, Einar, who would arrive half frozen and almost certainly without a source of light, and she wanted to wait right there to welcome him, warm him as soon as possible after his trek through the snow, but he had told her to seek shelter further inside the mine, and she knew he was right.  There near the entrance where the outside air flowed freely and eddies of wind sought out the hidden spaces, she would have a real struggle simply keeping herself and the child warm and connected to life, let alone being ready to bring Einar back to it, should he reach them.  When he reaches us.  So.  I’ve got to find one of these little side-chambers where there won’t be any wind, where the warmth of the earth will help keep us from freezing, and so that he’ll be able to follow us…  Charcoal wouldn’t work, the signs she might smudge onto the walls of hewn rock surely passing unnoticed by a man with no light by which to find his way, and lacking a long string to pay out behind her as she went—briefly considered undoing a few dozen yards of yarn from the afghan and trailing them out behind her, but knew they could hardly afford to lose part of the only real layer of warmth they currently possessed—she used rocks instead, placing her arrows in the center of the path and making them large enough that Einar would all but trip over them, and be forced to pay them mind, no matter how weary and cold. 

Liz did not have to go far, following a gently sloping passage off to the left, before the influence of wind and outside temperature were so greatly reduced that she saw little purpose in continuing further, and here she stopped, keeping Will on her hip as she carefully explored her new surroundings, feeling with feet and hands for any dropoff, any hole that might be looming to swallow the unwary.  She found nothing, save a few scattered timbers which seemed to have been dragged there and left in some long-past time, covered as they were with a layer of thick fine dust when with careful fingers she explored their contours.  A decent place, and though she would have liked to have a better look at it, any look at all, she could not quite justify using up any of the precious tinder pellets Einar had so carefully stashed away in the leather pouch he’d always kept around his neck.  Especially when she knew they’d be needing a quick fire upon his return.  Must save the tinder, so she remained in the dark, dragging several of the old timbers out into the approximate center of the little chamber and sitting on them with Will, afghan wrapped about the two of them for warmth.

For a time this arrangement worked quite well, neither intolerably cold, though Will was becoming somewhat bored with the limitations of his current arrangement, wanting very much to get down and explore, even if all about him was darkness.  Though admiring the tenacity displayed by the little guy in his insistence that he be allowed down to go his own way—your father must have been something like this as a little boy, mustn’t he?—she could not, of course, allow him to wander about in the dark mine, finally convincing him to settle for a quick snack and some sleep, aiding him off into his slumber with a soft rendition of the old ballad Greensleeves, and several others. 

Will sleeping quietly, Liz was left to her own thoughts there in the silence, mind retracing the route they had taken between house and mine, what paths he might have taken on the return trip and where he would be, just then.  The images brought to mind by this question were not pleasant ones at all, a figure slumped over in a snowbank, breath of life barely disturbing the unhealthy stillness of his cold-pinched features, and she shook her head to rid it of this specter, praying for Einar’s life, for a safe return to his family, and after a time of this she turned her mind to the more immediate problem of the water that had somehow in the past several minutes begun finding its way through some crack in the ceiling, and dripping directly on her sitting spot.

Einar was indeed propped up in a snowbank at that moment, having departed the house some minutes before with the intention of making something of a wide loop in his return to the mine, circling around behind the house as he worked his way up higher and higher on the slope and pausing here and there where his increasing elevation would give him some view of the house, driveway, a means by which to confirm, perhaps, that the vehicles had not returned.  A fine idea, but he hadn’t made it very far at all up through the timber before his legs began giving out with increasing frequency, spilling him into the snow and leaving him to worry lest he leave a far more defined trail than he had hoped to do.   Could not be leaving tracks, not if he wanted to return to his family.  Had he been entirely on his own, the inclination might have been strong just then to forget about the tracks, find a spot where he could hole up, back to the cliffs and with a good vantage of the land below him, conserve what strength he had left and prepare for a final stand, if that’s what they wanted to bring him.  But with two people awaiting his return in the darkness and solitude of the mine, uncertain as to events up top and almost entirely without supplies, every ounce of his remaining energy had to go towards regaining their presence, and without leaving a trail the enemy could follow.

On his feet again he squinted back through the snow, trying for a last glimpse of the house and surroundings before losing himself in the especially thick timber just below the ridge’s crest and fighting all the while a hollow, hurting emptiness far beyond hunger that seemed to well up from within him whenever he stopped moving, brain and body seeking desperately for any scrap of fat or muscle that might be left behind, and could now be accessed and burned for fuel to meet the demands he was placing upon them.  Nothing there, and the process hurt, left him all alone in the snow with the undeniable physical despair of a body far past its reasonable limits beginning to creep over and invade his mind, and he if he allowed that to go too far, he was done.

Well, you’re not done yet, you big wimp, so keep on your feet.  Enough with all this moping and tottering.  You’ve got a ridge to climb.  So, decision made and body somehow brought into at least momentary compliance, Einar started once more on his path, steps chosen carefully so as to avoid the deeper areas where tracks might survive the storm.  

Silence, occasional thin sing-song of wind gusting through the spruces, rasp and crackle of his own breath loud in his ears, body battered by branches, snow-hidden snags, too numbed to feel their impact, and before long the entire thing took on a sense of unreality for Einar, time a fluid, changeable thing whose passage he had no way to mark, grasp. 

Lost in the whiteness, he soon became content to allow his mind free to sing along with the spruce-song, breath-song, death-song, and indeed it might have been, but for the soft sound of wings descending, black shape emerging from the storm, and Muninn was beside him, circling once, lighting on his shoulder and rasping words of encouragement—or perhaps of mockery, but Einar did not really care which—into his ear, Einar grinning, shaking the accumulated snow from his hair and pressing forward with renewed determination.  Time to get the family all together again.

28 June, 2013

28 June 2013

Heavy as the storm remained, it would not have been difficult for Einar to remain hidden while retracing the path he and Liz had taken in escaping from the house, but he did not want to do that.  Could not risk going over and deepening their previous trail on the chance that the snow might not last long enough to thoroughly obliterate it, and while their route had been a good, quick direct one, the heavier timber up behind the area of the house and workshop offered the prospect of better concealment.

It seemed a very long way back, the half mile that lay between the mines and the area of the house, slow going through the snow and fighting a growing weariness which he was still able to recognize at that point as being largely tied to the first stages of the hypothermia that would end up taking his life before the expedition was over, if he allowed himself to grow complacent in its presence.  Long way, but at last he made it.

Crouching in the trees near the edge of an overhanging little rock escarpment, Einar hugged his knees and shivered, trying to get a better view of the house and outbuildings down below and fighting the increasing grip of the cold as he did his best to restore some feeling to his extremities.  Liz, knowing it would provide some desperately needed protection from the cold and wind, had tried to send with him the large trash bag they’d snatched during their escape—had tried to stop him, actually, from leaving the mine in the first place—but he had left it with her, knowing how it would have crinkled and flapped in the wind.  He probably would have had to abandon it under a rock by then for fear of making too much noise and giving himself away had he brought it, and the plastic, with its water-shedding and wind-turning abilities, was a resource they really couldn’t afford to be without, just then.  Still, he could not help but think of the shelter which would have been provided him by the presence of that simple item.  Could have cut a hole in the top and worn it like a poncho to break the chilling, killing force of the wind which he now fought so fiercely but whose teeth he could feel working their way through his sparse flesh, getting a grip on the bones, could have even stuffed the thing with mounds of relatively dry spruce needles from beneath one of his present shelter-trees, curled up in it and slept. 

Which makes it a real good thing you don’t have the bag along, for that reason among a lot of others.  You’d never wake up, you went trying a thing like thatCan sleep later, and I’m sure you will be, one way or the other.  Now.  You’re down here for one reason only, and you got to work your way in closer where you can have a better look, try to figure out why the feds needed three big black Suburbans, or whatever those are, to pay a friendly little visit on their official tracking contractor…

Before moving on he checked the pistol, wanting to make sure it was ready to go should the need suddenly arise and also needing to test his ability to grip and fire the weapon, no easy task, he could see, with hands so stiff and clumsy, but with a little concentration, it would be possible.  Probably the most efficient way to employ the pistol—a cold smile as he weighed the weapon in his hand, everything hanging in the balance—would be to step out there into the open in front of Bud and Susan’s house where the feds’ vehicles were arrayed, and use it on himself.  That, it appeared, would simultaneously solve several major problems at once…but it wasn’t on the agenda.

Up, then, and moving again, had to get closer if he wanted any sort of a view, and as he went, he prayed that the snow would hold out, go on covering him, and his tracks, for he knew the risk he was taking in coming in so close to the house.  All the while, moving stealthily from tree to tree and pausing more frequently than a spooked elk to listen for approaching sounds, Einar was troubled by the pressing feeling that he was not alone out there in the snowy woods, that some presence was stalking him even as he stalked the house and the visiting agents, but if there was any truth to this perception, he never was able to confirm it. 

Closer, struggling now simply to keep his eyes open whenever he paused for a minute to listen, once waking with a start at the sound of voices not far at all in front of him and realizing that he had managed to work his way in a good deal nearer the parked vehicles than he had intended to do.  Four men out there, all standing around between two of the vehicles and looking at something on a clipboard, trying their best to shield it from the falling snow and finally getting into the vehicle, sitting for a minute and driving off.  So.  One down.  That left only…well, could be as many as sixteen men, if the remaining two vehicles had been packed to capacity, but he expected the number to be somewhere closer to seven or eight.  They would have had to leave room for Bud and Susan in those vehicles, if they intended on taking them away.  And for himself, and Liz, if their capture had been anticipated, as well. 

So.  They would all come out as a group, the agents who would be taking Bud, would want to get him secured first in one vehicle and then others would exit with Susan before everyone drove away together…at least that was how he expected it would go.  Which put him in a very tight spot if he wanted to free them both, as Susan’s captors would be alerted by his rescue of Bud, and even if that should by some incredibly slight chance prove a success and both he and Bud end up with the fallen agents’ weapons…Susan would still be in the custody of the others, and they would all be in a rather sticky situation from which he could see no clear escape, no good outcome.  Sure would have liked time to rehearse the whole thing, would have liked another good man or two on his side—like Bill; where is that scoundrel? He still in the area, or does he only show up when I’m up in the timber and he figures I need some good quality time with an old dead spruce?—but there was no one, and surely not much time, either, so he again checked the pistol, pressed freezing hands to his stomach in a last attempt to restore some usefulness, and hunkered down to wait.

He did not have long, for the rest of the men soon exited the house, six in all, and with them, laughing, joking, booming voice carrying with great clarity across the snow, was Bud.  Free.  No handcuffs, no rifles trained to prevent his making a dash for it, and Einar watched in near-disbelief as he stood with the little knot of men behind one of the vehicles, hatch open and a map spread out, Bud pointing and talking in seeming answer to a series of questions on their part.  Einar craned his neck, wishing he was a bit closer so he might be able to make out the map, wishing for binoculars, but as it was, entirely unable to determine the area of their discussion.  Was Bud sending them to the mines?  The question, and the realization that he did not know its answer, sent a surge of near-panic through him at the thought that they might be able to get there before he could return and warn Liz, get her out of there or at the very least make a final stand at her side…and the possibility nearly led to his making a decision which no doubt would have ended in complete disaster, and charging the group before they had a chance to act on the map, to make their move.

Instead he remained still, watching, listening, at least to Bud’s side of the conversation.  In what almost seemed to him a deliberate effort to project his voice farther than might have been strictly necessary even for so typically boisterous a man as himself, the tracker described in detail an area of terrain somewhat below the basin where he and Liz had made their home for the past months, the spot, he knew, being the same one where the slide had ended Juni’s life and more recently those of a number of the agents who had been up investigating the incident and looking for evidence of his own presence.  These men were, it seemed, intending to return to the spot, and were seeking Bud’s advice on which approaches might prove least dangerous, and which they ought at all cost to avoid.  Not at all the scene he had expected to find there, no handcuffs, no desperate struggle as the tracker attempted to prevent his own capture, and though something in Einar’s mind told him the entire thing might be a charade conducted for his own benefit and designed to draw him out of hiding as soon as the vehicles departed and secure his capture, reason insisted that the entire thing was more likely to be exactly what it appeared. 

The situation had, perhaps, been prevented from turning bad, Bud and Susan having quickly concealed any evidence of their houseguests and the agents, perhaps not having shown up with such suspicion in mind in the first place, having failed to investigate thoroughly to discover the ample evidence that surely would have been left behind.  Just no good way to know for sure, and then Susan came out onto the porch with a thermos and a tray of mugs, coffee, chocolate, maybe a combination of the two.   The sight of it tripped something in his memory, so that suddenly clear before him was the scene in the kitchen when he’d last awakened there to find himself tied to that board and that feeding tube and can of nutritional drink on the table beside him… 

Hadn’t had time to think about the event or its implications before, in the midst of their hasty escape, and he tried very hard to put it out of his mind for the moment.  Could not afford such distractions just then.  That could come later.   Which left him right where he’d been before he’d started thinking about it, and it seemed he could smell the drink as she began pouring, wondered whether within that friendly gesture might be contained some poison which would incapacitate the unsuspecting agents.  Probably not.  Probably just Susan being herself, being kind to guests, and Einar half wished he had a Task Force coat he could don—yeah, would stand a lot better chance in this storm if I had a few inches of down wrapped around me, that’s for sure—so he might walk down there and claim his own mug of whatever that hot liquid might be.   Which would never work, for his ability to blend into a crowd had probably never been at a lower ebb than it was just then.  Well.  Whatever was going on, it was clear to him that no immediate danger existed to the physical safety or freedom of either Bud or Susan, no need for him to violently intervene and attempt a rescue. 

Good thing, and for the first time since leaving the mine, he allowed himself to relax just a bit, resting his forehead momentarily against the nearest tree.  His feet were cold.  Bud’s boots didn’t fit, were pinching his toes, on the foot where he still had toes, and he did his best to wiggle them, keep them moving for a while, hoping to maintain some circulation.  All of him was cold, actually, body nearly too chilled and worn out to shiver anymore, and he knew if he allowed himself to pass that point, he would be hard pressed to make the return to Liz and Will, and perhaps even less likely to survive the coming night without fire, even if he’d managed to gain the shelter of the mine.  Better get moving.

26 June, 2013

26 June 2013

This time, knowing the place even through wind-blown snow, Einar did not long hesitate upon reaching the mine entrance.  Did not have time to hesitate, with the storm swirling so about them and Liz already showing signs of being fairly seriously affected by the wind and cold.  If he was, himself, showing the same signs he didn’t feel it, entire being engaged in guiding his little family up through the timber and over to spot where he knew shelter could be had, keeping alert all the while for signs that the enemy might have got there first.  Which they seemed not to have done, no disturbance in the snow around the small, well-concealed side-entrance to which Einar led them and nothing, when briefly he left Liz in the shelter of a cluster of small firs and circled around, at the main entrance, either. 

They ran for it, then, Einar taking Liz’s hand and leading her across the narrow open area before the timber which sheltered the entrance, running, stumbling, leaning hard on one another and gasping for breath in the still, windless silence of that underground place as the storm raged on outside and they began shivering as some of the heat of their quick escape started to leave them.  Will was whimpering in his blanket and Liz brushed the snow from it best that she could, unwrapped him and put him to her breast for the meal that he surely needed after their run through the cold, child growing calm as he warmed against her.

Einar, meanwhile, was doing his best to shake the remaining snow from the blanket, wanting to keep it as dry as possible and seeing—could not feel, fingers numbed with cold—in the diffused light finding its way in through the low opening through which they had entered, that already it was damp in places with melted snow.  They had no light, and no means, save the fire flint and bits of tinder in the pouch round his neck, to produce it, and he knew that soon they must be moving even deeper into the mine, both to prevent their heat signature being picked up by anyone outside and—more urgent at the moment—to reach a spot where less of the outside air was finding itself in and temperatures were a bit higher in order to keep them from freezing and ensure that those heat signatures went on existing, in the first place.

It would have to wait a minute though, all of it, for at that moment Einar found himself feeling terribly ill, heart racing, erratic, chest hurting and breath coming only with difficulty so that he had lean hard against the rocky wall and lower his head simply to remain conscious, all the while fighting to keep his eyes open and ears sharp so he might listen for sounds of pursuit from outside.   Seemed a near impossible task, against the howl of the wind and the hollow, roaring blackness that rushed up at him from all around, assailing his senses, and he sank to his knees, upper body held rigid as he gripped the pistol for all he was worth, still guarding the mine entrance, waiting for any pursuit that might be coming.  It had been too much, that desperate dash up through the timber, and if ordinarily he would not have liked to admit as much, there was no concealing it now.   Liz was at his side, one hand on his shoulder as she cradled Will with the other and her eyes showing white in the dim light seeping in through the entrance.  She was saying something, telling him to lie down, but he didn’t want to do it.  Could not leave his post, not yet.  She tried to insist, but he shook her off.

“No, no…I’m ok.  Happens sometimes.  Just got to…” he went silent, face drawn and grey in the dimness as he strained his abdominal muscles, pressing, attempting to gain some renewed control over the chaos in his chest and restore something like a normal heart rhythm.  The exercise worked, more or less, allowing him to stand up straight once more, sight and hearing slowly returning.  Even as his senses returned he found himself feeling dreadfully cold all of a sudden, drained of the energy that had allowed him to guide them with such speed up to that spot, but still he fought the urge to sit down, to let his legs collapse under him and to close his eyes for a while.  Still had work to do.

Liz was beside him, looking into his face with concern as she took his pulse.  “What was it?  Are you Ok?”

“It was nothing.  Better get Will in a little further where it’ll be less cold and drafty.  Looks like you may be here for a while.”

I may be?  What about you?  What are you saying?”

“Got to go back and see what’s happening at the house.  Storm’s still blowing real good, should cover me.”

She had hold of his arm then, could feel how hard he was trying not to shiver and she wanted to give him a coat, another layer for warmth, but had nothing to give.  “You’re not leaving us…”

“Not for long.  Be back as soon as I can.  Hour or so, I hope.  And if not…here.  Take this.”  He handed her the pouch from around his neck.  “Flint, tinder, some elk jerky…ought to keep you for a few days.”

“What are you talking about?  Stay with us.  Stay with your son.”

“I’ll be back, Lizzie.  Have to see what’s happening.  Useless as I am right now, I’m real sure you can make it that long without me.  Probably better than you could with me.”

“They’re probably just talking.  We weren’t there, so there’s nothing for them to find.  Nothing to hold him on.  And suppose for some reason they’re not just talking…what are you going to do?  I don’t agree that you’re useless, but if that’s what you think, what could you possibly do?”

He checked the pistol, stuffed a spare magazine into his pants pocket and slipped the knife onto his belt.  “I don’t know.  But I’ve got it to do.”

“What if you leave tracks, and lead them back to us?”

“If that happens…won’t be leading them here.”

“Einar…let me come with you.  They’re my friends too, and I don’t want…”


She nodded, in tears, brought the child to her shoulder so he could see his father, see him off, and Einar wrapped his arms around them both, feeling their warmth, not wanting to take too much of it.  “You go deeper into the mine.  Been there before, kinda know your way around.  You’ll be alright.  Way above freezing in there, once you get in far enough.  Mid fifties, just like a cave.  Stay in that blanket with Will.  You’ll both be Ok.”

25 June, 2013

25 June 2013

No chapter today, but I will have another ready for tomorrow.

It has been pointed out to me that I have been somewhat lax of late in posting regular chapters, so will do my best to post one every two days, if not daily.

Thank you all for reading, and for your comments/discussion.   That is always appreciated.

24 June, 2013

24 June 2013

Knowing it would do little good to cut Einar free so long as he was unconscious and unable to move for himself, Liz waited, watching Kilgore and he watching her, her ears sharp for the sound of a vehicle in the driveway, a low plane overhead, something which might demand the attention of all and halt the current flow of things, but no interruption came, and Liz kept her silent vigil, Will watching with grave grey eyes and the raven unmoving at his post.  Then the time had come, Susan returning and Bud sliding a pillow under the end of Einar’s board, elevating his head.  Liz glanced up at Susan, shaking her head, hoping, perhaps, that she might there find an ally, a way to stop events which seemed to be moving far too quickly, but Susan looked away, began preparing the bag that was to hold the thick liquid with which they would feed him, shrugging as if to say, it’s the only way, right now.  It’s for the best.  Let it be. 

Which meant that it was looking a bit late for Liz to take any definitive action, even if in this late hour she might have decided to do so, for now she would need to take on the two of them, the united front which was Bud and Susan.  She wished Einar would wake up.  Wished her own mind was a bit clearer on the matter, not wavering as it was with doubt, with the possibility that, despite her deepest instincts and Einar’s voice in her head, the things she knew he would say, perhaps Bud and Susan were right, and the time had come for a step such as this, to give Einar the chance he couldn’t quite bring himself to admit—or perhaps even to recognize—that he needed.  To get him to a place where he could really be himself again, strong and sure and able to make rational, considered decisions…

Which doesn’t justify it, doesn’t even come close.  Listen to yourself, actually considering this.  Trying to make it right in your mind.  This is no better than the things his captors did to him, even if the intent is very, very different.  Now you take that knife and you cut him loose.    

In that moment after the last of Liz’s hesitation dissipated but before she could act on her new resolve, several things happened.  Will, momentarily allowed to leave her sight as she struggled over her immediate course of action, brought something heavy to the ground with a great heavy clatter and the shattering of glass, sending her bolting to her feet and dashing after him to make sure he was alright, Susan close on her heels.  At very nearly the same moment and the driveway alarm went off, bringing Bud with equal swiftness out of the kitchen and to his duties.

Meantime Einar—who was not this time a victim of a stealthy dart as Liz had feared, but only of some quick pressure point work on Bud’s part—woke with a strangled howl, stock still for a moment as he assessed his situation, eyes darting from the bonds which held him firmly in place at shoulders, ankles and a number of critical spots in between, to the tubing and can of nutritional drink on the counter nearby.  Lent a wild strength by the rage rising in him at the story he quickly pieced together from the sum of his hasty observations, Einar managed to get himself flipped over onto his stomach, bruised by the weight of the board atop him and near immobile because of the thoroughness of Bud’s work with the webbing but gaining a surge of almost superhuman strength at the feeling of being thus restrained, the potent conglomeration of memory, dread and anticipation it awakened in him.

Without hesitating he made a grab for his knife, which Liz had left on the floor not far from him when she’d gone running.  Couldn’t move his hand very far but did manage to scoot himself over within reach of the weapon after some effort, work the knife up under the strap which held his right wrist, give it some tension by straining with all the strength he could summon, and slice cleanly through the strap. Right hand free, he was allowed enough movement that the rest was fairly quick work.

By the time Liz—carrying a chagrinned but largely uninjured Will, who had used a lamp cord to boost himself to his feet and pulled the lamp down on himself—got back into the room Einar had managed to get himself free, squirming out of his sweater in the struggle and leaving it behind, tangled in the mess of straps which had been intended to hold him.  Dizzy from all the sudden movement and slipping fairly rapidly towards the pressing humidity of the jungle, stench of the water beneath his bamboo enclosure already strong in his nostrils, things became crystal clear for Einar when Liz mentioned the driveway, and the three vehicles which were then making their way up its long, winding distance at a speed which did not bespeak a friendly visit.  Without a word he headed for the door to the garage, knowing any attempted escape out one of the main doors would surely result in their tracks being seen before the snow had any chance to cover them—and before they could put much distance between themselves and the house.

In the garage, working by the faint, storm-filtered light coming in through its one small window, Einar jammed his feet into a pair of Bud’s slightly too-small rubber muck boots and dove out through the firewood door, Liz close behind him with Will wrapped in a small afghan from the couch, the only thing she’d been able to grab.  Out into the snow they went, Einar running hard and never easing his grip on Liz’s hand as three unmarked but very official-looking black SUVs sped up the snowy driveway, the trio never even slowing their pace until, rasping for breath and coughing up blood, Einar was brought to his knees somewhere on the heavily timbered ridge far to the west of the house. 

Crouching there for no more than the brief seconds it took to drive back a bit of the darkness that was trying to rise up before his eyes he was on his feet again, subconsciously placing himself between his little family and the danger below them, shielding them with his arms as he squinted through the myriad layers of wind-swayed evergreen boughs that lay behind them, shielding them from whatever might be going on back at the house by then.  He had nothing but his knife, the clothes that had been on his back—minus the sweater he’d lost in his struggle to escape the straps—and Bud’s confining and un-insulated muck boots, but Liz had done slightly better in obtaining not only the blanket to shield Will against the fury of the storm, but a large, unused trash sack over which she had stumbled in the dark garage.  That double sheet of plastic was, though they could at that time only guess at the fact, to prove perhaps their most important physical possession over the following hours.  Liz had done another good thing in grabbing Einar’s pistol on the way out the door, and she now showed it to him…not much, but it was a start, gave them some chance, and when he motioned for the pistol, she handed it to him.

Eianr wished very badly that they might have some knowledge of what was going on back at the cabin, how serious the visit might prove and how thoroughly Bud and Susan had been able to conceal evidence of their hastily departed guests…but they had no way to know.

Out into the blinding whiteness of a storm which had descended with renewed fury Einar led them, heading blindly for the only nearby refuge he knew, the only one with any chance of shielding them should the storm ease and the enemy manage to get choppers in the air, heading for the mines.

21 June, 2013

21 June 2013

The break in the snowstorm which had allowed Bud and the others to walk out was ending, flakes again starting to swirl heavily outside the windows late that morning as Susan made her case.  The situation.  Einar’s condition and the fact, despite his recent willingness and effort in that direction, that he didn’t seem to be improving.  Seemed, in fact, to be going the other direction, and pretty rapidly.  Liz, predictably, would hear nothing of it, arguing that after several days of eating both his mind and body were, she knew, struggling to adapt to regularly receiving larger amounts of nutrients again, but he was sticking with it, making progress and would be just fine if they had to take off sometime over the next few days.  Susan laid a hand on her arm, waited until Liz met her eyes.

“You really believe that?  That he’d be just fine out in this storm covering ground at the pace you know you guys would have to keep up…”

Liz looked away.  “No.  He’d say he was, carry all our gear and lead the way, but it would probably kill him, wouldn’t it?  At some point he’d know he was slowing us down and he’d stop, send us ahead and make his stand there, do something that couldn’t be undone…”

“Yes, almost certainly.  Let us do this for him, Liz.  So it doesn’t have to go that way.”

“But what about the practical considerations?  I mean, unless you’re going to keep him restrained somehow around the clock so you can keep feeding him on some regular basis for the next few days…well, he’ll fight you every time.  He’ll kill himself fighting.  Or kill you, or Bud.  You’ll have to…  Oh, what am I saying?  Can’t believe I’m even considering this!  No.  No way.  He won’t consider it justified.  In his mind, nothing would justify someone doing a thing like that to another person without their consent.  Forcing it on them.  Nothing.  And I don’t know that I disagree with him.”

“I’m not sure I do, either, in principle, in most cases.  But maybe when a person wants to live, really wants to, but just can’t quite get there, get to doing the things required to go on living because their condition is getting in the way of keeping up with those things…just maybe that is an exception.”

“Maybe there can be things that have more value to a person than going on living at any cost.”

“Of course there can.  But he wants to live.  I’ve overheard some of your conversations.  Wants to be there to help raise his son.  I’ve heard him say it in so many words, but his mind keeps getting in the way, just because he’s too malnourished right now to make the connections and keep himself moving in the right direction, and each time he tries, it seems something comes up and he stops eating again.  You know that.  You’ve watched the pattern, over and over again.  Either way, this isn’t the time to debate philosophy.­ ­ Or even ethics.  It’s time to think of Will and what will give him the best chance in all of this.”

“Yes.  But even if it were justified for that reason, if it would help Einar be more physically ready to face conditions out there and make a successful escape with us, I know it will remind him of…things probably better not remembered.  Make him think he’s right back in some of those really bad situations he was in before, and that really won’t be helpful at all when it comes to evading the enemy.  He needs to be present.  Here.”

“He already remembers those things though, doesn’t he?  Thinks about them almost every day, gets lost in them a lot of times…”

She nodded.

“Lack of nutrition is making it worse, lessening his ability to tell the difference and making it more likely that he’ll get stuck in that world of unreality, all the more often.  If we can just give him what he needs for a few days, hopefully he’ll be a lot more able to stay in reality and not slip back into that state quite so easily.  Bud says there may not be much time before things get serious and we have to figure something else out to keep the three of you hidden.  Once that time comes, it’ll be too late for any of this.  Let us do it.”

“It’s not my decision to make.”

“No, maybe not.  But he’s in no shape to make the decision, right now…”

“He’d certainly say he is.  Just ask him.  He’d say he’s sharper than ever.”

“He’s barely conscious.”

“If I allow this, he’ll never trust me again.”

“That will be his choice, of course, but I think with his brain working a little better and allowing him to think more clearly—he may even be appreciative.”

“Oh, no.  You don’t know him like I do.  He would never.”

“It’s a risk you’ve got to take, I think.”

Liz turned away, scooped Will up as he zoomed by in animated pursuit of Susan’s cat and went to stand at the window.  She couldn’t do it, couldn’t participate.  Susan had an argument, but her first loyalty was to Einar—and to his son, but how can protect the son by assaulting the integrity and autonomy of his father?—and she knew what he would say to all of this.

Bud, however, being a good deal less troubled by philosophical concerns, had not waited for an answer from anyone else and was already working over an apparently unconscious Einar when Liz and Susan returned to the kitchen—Liz hoping he’d be awake so she could have a minute alone with him to discuss the matter, see what he would have to say about the suggestion on the chance that he might voluntarily agree and if not to warn him of Bud’s intentions—leaving both of them to wonder exactly how he might have come to be in that state.  Liz was worried about a dart, but Susan assured her that Bud had promised not to resort to that.  Einar never even stirred as Bud strapped him down to a board which he had cushioned with a foam camping pad, lengths of two inch wide webbing padded with folded towels in the hopes that this might prevent him injuring himself too badly when he did wake and almost inevitably begin struggling…

Everything ready, Bud nodding to Susan—Liz realized then that she must have already agreed to help—who left the room to retrieve the necessary supplies.  Bud stayed with Einar, allowed Liz to sit beside him, where she held his hand and hoped desperately that he might wake before things could be carried any further, Will watching her in confusion and Muninn the raven presiding rather skeptically over everything from his perch on a nearby chair rail. 

Concealed beneath her on the floor Liz could feel the solid contours of Einar’s knife, retrieved from the kitchen counter and hidden there when Bud had momentarily glanced away.  She was of half a mind to use it without further delay, free him from those straps, and she probably would have done it, had he been awake…

18 June, 2013

18 June 2013

Bud was released from Headquarters early the following morning, free to go after a long night of debriefings, but admonished not to leave the area, told that his further statements might be needed.  He was under no illusions as to what that meant.  Shirley needed a scapegoat for the results of his unwise insistence on returning to base camp under such hazardous conditions, and Bud, to whom the agent had taken a disliking from the start, was to be the man.  And that even without the evidence that had been collected, some of which potentially implicating Kilgore, should it be recovered from that snowbound basecamp and thoroughly analyzed.  Which, in the absence of a second and most fortuitous slide that might come in the meantime and obliterate the abandoned camp, would almost certainly be happening sometime over the next few days.  It was thus a sullen and silent Bud who returned to the house just before breakfast time the following morning.

*   *   *
Perhaps it was the fairly sudden introduction of reasonable quantities of food and the difficulty a person’s body—any person’s body, but particularly one so long used to extremes of deprivation—can have in adapting to such a change, or perhaps, as Einar believed, it was the lack of challenge presented by an easy life in Susan’s warm kitchen, but he was not doing particularly well as time went on, seeming to have increasing trouble getting his food down and not making it very far without stumbling when he rose to go somewhere in the house.  Couldn’t keep warm, either.  Even when—during one of the brief times early that morning when he was forced by sheer exhaustion to curl up for a while on the makeshift bed in the kitchen instead of pacing the floor as he had taken to doing—Liz piled him with quilts he still shivered, and when she let Susan keep an eye on the still-sleeping Will for a time and held him, his body felt strange and cold and stiff.  Perhaps he was just a little short on water, still.  At least, that’s what she told herself.  What she wanted to believe, and covering him back up behind her she left to prepare him some tea.

It was then that Kilgore arrived home, blustering into the kitchen, tossing his pack against a wall and slouching into one of the dining chairs, looking tired and somewhat dejected.  With Einar disturbed by the tracker’s entry and looking a good bit more lively than he had for a while, Liz gave the tea to Kilgore, instead, returning to Einar so as to give Susan some space to greet him.

Because Susan had been nearly ready to put breakfast on the table when Bud arrived home and because Bud was nearly always hungry, even when he hadn’t just walked out of an avalanche, they all sat down together to eat, Bud still having said nothing other than a few weary words of greeting.  Finally, finished with a stack of three pancakes and starting on a second pile, he spoke.

“Lot of new snow up there.  Good thing, too, ‘cause they were starting to find a lot of tracks, piece of cloth with some blood on it…” he looked directly at Einar, and his meaning was clear, “and found my tracks, too, though all Shirley could do was guess about why the gait looked so similar to mine.  He lacks the skill to be real certain, but it’s not a good situation.”

Susan served him another pancake, took a seat beside him.  “We’d heard there was a slide…”

“Yeah, there was a slide.  Doggone snowpack’s so unstable, and Shirley insisted on going places we had no business going, and it went…lost some guys.”

Einar listened intently as Kilgore gave his account, tried to eat what Liz gave him but after a bite or two he just sat there staring, too weary to continue.  Things not sounding good.  Sounded like they were suspecting Kilgore’s role in the whole thing, or starting to, and he knew where that could lead. 

Breakfast done, Liz went to take care of the dishes so Susan could have some time alone with Bud, and Einar went with her.  Kilgore watched them go, lowering his voice.

“Things not going much better with Asmundson, are they?”

“Oh, he’s mostly holding his own.  But it’s a struggle.  Maybe slipping a little, the last day or so.”

Kilgore snorted in disgust, shook his head.  “How about we shove a tube down his nose and pour stuff in?  Just like a newborn calf that can’t nurse.  Done that dozens of times, growing up on the ranch.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be exactly like a calf…”

“You know how then, on a human critter?  You can do it?”

“I could, but I won’t.  Not this, not without his consent.”

“Look, Sue, here’s what I didn’t say at breakfast.  Shirley’s set on pinning the blame for this debacle squarely on me, and between that and the way he was looking at some of them tracks up there…well, I’d be surprised if we’ve got more than a week or so before they pull off a surprise raid on this place, just looking for evidence.  And for our guests.  We got to have them out of here by then, and while we could just dump Asmundson in the woods in his current condition, well, you know what that would mean.  I see him today.  Not making a lot of progress, is he?  He might make it a day or two out there, just because he’s extra special stubborn, before he collapses for good, and then Liz would be in an awful position.  Have to decide between staying with him or real quick leaving and covering ground to keep ahead of any pursuit, and you know what she’d probably choose…  Yep, we got to get him in better shape, and in a hurry.”

“Things like that don’t happen quickly.  He needs months before he’ll…”

“We don’t have months.  Got to do the best we can do, in a real hurry.”

“Can we take them down to Arizona?  Give them some time?”

“We’ll talk about all that, but for now let’s focus on getting that stubborn old buzzard fixed up so he don’t go passing out on us every ten minutes, whatever it is we end up doing.  Figure he’ll be a lot more capable of helping us reason through this, too, once he’s just a little further from starving to death.  Now, the logistics of it.  Looks to me like he’s barely conscious right now, so it wouldn’t take much for me to sit on him while you strap him down.  Either that, or I can knock him out for you, either a blow to the head or one of them tranquilizer darts I still got left…  Dart would probably be easier on him, in the long run, if I only use a little bit of one so we don’t stop his breathing.”

“Oh, no, those things give him terrible dreams and leave him not knowing where he is, who’s a friend and who’s not…”

“It won’t much matter, not the way we’ll have him restrained.”

“It matters.  Please don’t use the dart.”

“Well I was figuring we’d have to use one somewhere along the line, or he’s just gonna struggle the whole time and probably do himself in fighting the restraints.”

“I’m not going to help with this if you plan to use a dart.”

“Well now how do you figure we’re gonna get him back into the restraints each time once he knows what’s going on, especially as he starts getting a little stronger?  He’s gonna fight us, you know.  I was figuring on keeping him all sleepy and content with the darts, to help with that.”

“Those darts make him anything but content.  You might save his body that way, but you’ll destroy him.  Don’t do it.  I won’t participate, Bud.”

Ok, ok, no dart.  We’ll just have to hope Liz can keep him calm.  Or I can, with a pistol to his head or some such.  Doggone it, you’re as intractable and stubborn as a wolverine sometimes, woman.”

“Thank you.”

“Ha!  Now.  What about Liz?  She gonna cave our heads in with that war club of hers, or can you convince her to go along with this?”

“Oh, that’s not going to be an easy one.  Let me go see what I can do.”

15 June, 2013

15 June 2013

They made it nearly halfway back to base camp, the young agent from Montana leading, before the slope finally let go.  Each lost in his own little world of weariness, cold and lack of sleep, a haze only deepened by the white sameness of the terrain before them and the still-falling snow, most of the men had no inkling of the coming trouble until Bud began shouting.  By then, it was nearly too late to do anything, a few attempting to throw themselves to the side and one man, panicked by the fast-approaching roar, inexplicably taking off running and sliding down the steep slope below. 

Bud, having been required by Shirley to travel near the center of the close-knit group of agents, barely had time to do more than shout a brief warning before the slide hit him and then he was swimming, flailing with arms and legs in a desperate struggle to remain somewhere near the surface.  His efforts more or less paid off, head out in the open air when finally the roaring stopped, and freeing himself with a grunt and a shove from the load of snow that had pinned him almost up to the waist in a very uncomfortable position he rose, took a tentative step to make sure everything would hold weight—which, though sore and quickly stiffening, it would—and went looking for the others. 

The slide had been wide, snowpack fracturing some twenty yards above the spot where the group had been crossing it and sweeping down across their position, and as Kilgore squinted out across the broken whiteness , he saw no sign of life.  Not, that was, until he’d walked nearly to the far edge of the slide path.  There, crouched beneath a tree and struggling to catch his breath, was the young agent from Montana who had helped collect firewood and keep snow melting for water through the night, slightly dazed but, upon quick inspection, largely uninjured.  Seeing that the man was capable of physical effort but having a difficult time motivating himself to anything more than the effort required to go on clinging to the tree that had apparently sheltered him from being swept away by the edge of the slide, Bud took him firmly by the arm, raised him to his feet.

“Ok Montana, looks like it’s you and me, here.  We got to start digging.”

“Right.  Digging…  Where?”

“Where the people are, that’s where.  You see anything?  See where anybody ended up?”


“Me either.  So we got to probe around, find some sticks and start…hey!  You listening to me?  What’s the matter with you, Montana?  You bleeding somewhere?  Bleeding out, and I missed it?  What’s going on?”

“Nothing sir, I just…”  The young agent was shaking, starting to look pretty pale, and once again Kilgore checked him over to make sure there was no obvious physical cause.  Which there was not.

“Get it together, kid.  Slide’s over.  Most guys tend to go a bit green around the gills when they see their first action, but you got to pull it together now and help me dig.”

Already Bud was wandering the slide debris, long spruce stick in hand, stabbing it into the snow at regular intervals and stopping to investigate further when he hit something that seemed potentially promising.  The young agent soon joined him, and it was not long before they had their first success, though a dismal one.  The man was already dead by the time they pulled him out, done in, it seemed, more by the force of all that tumbling, solidifying snow than by any subsequent lack of oxygen.  It was shortly after the recovery of that first body that Bud began hearing something, an odd sort of rasping, scraping sound coming from behind a mound of snow-covered boulders against the upper edge of which the slide had impacted, but been largely diverted.  

There in the semi-sheltered spot immediately downhill of the rocks he found Shirley, conscious, wild-eyed, right arm hanging uselessly as he scraped at the rock with a fragment of granite gripped tightly in his left hand in an apparent attempt to attract the attention of anyone else who might have survived the avalanche.  He did not stop when he saw Bud, not quite believing, perhaps, that the tracker was real—until the man approached him and took the rock fragment, sitting down beside him and beginning to check for additional injuries.

Shirley had a badly dislocated right shoulder which Bud quickly and successfully reduced before Shirley could have time to think about the procedure, but in handling the arm Bud discovered that the shoulder was the least of his problems. Bent at an odd angle and already turning purple with bruise beneath his coat sleeve, the agent’s lower arm appeared to be badly broken, bone fragment pressing hard against the skin from the inside and appearing about to break it. Shirley screamed when Bud tried to straighten the arm, swung at him with his good hand but Montana (whose actual name was Paul, but Bud never thought to ask) caught it before it could do any damage, helped as Bud did his best to set the arm, splint it with Shirley’s scarf and several lengths broken from his avalanche probe and get it into a makeshift sling.  Shirley clearly wasn’t going to be of much help, so the two of them went on alone, probing, digging, finding nothing…

Hours of fruitless digging, Bud doing most of the work after a time while Montana tried to raise someone on the radio and Shirley sat groaning against a spruce, no more bodies, no more living victims; the others, it seemed, had been so thoroughly buried that their discovery, let alone recovery, was beyond the skill and ability of the trio on the surface.

Montana couldn’t get anyone on the radio.  One of the others had been carrying a satellite phone, but now he, along with the phone, were buried somewhere beneath the snow.  Not that it really mattered.  No helicopter would be flying in that storm, anyway.  No evacuation coming.  They were going to have to walk out.  Bud was the one to finally state the obvious.  That no one else was alive.  The others, especially Shirley, did not want to believe it, did not want to leave, but everyone knew Shirley was in no shape to help with the recovery effort, would be hard pressed simply to get himself down off the mountain, and finally, at the urging of Montana, who had worked hard at the digging and was looking absolutely exhausted, he agreed to head down.   But not before angrily accusing Kilgore of intentionally orchestrating the entire thing...

12 June, 2013

12 June 2013

Up and out of the makeshift shelter long before the others with the return of daylight, Bud did a quick assessment of the area, snow still falling, though not as heavily as before, and all around ominous signs as to the stability of the newly burdened snowpack.  The stuff sunk under him as he walked, lower layers settling with a hollow, sickening whump whenever he stepped too far from one of the trees, and after a few such incidents he stuck carefully to the more heavily timbered areas, few as they were up so high. 

Everyone, so far as he could tell, had made it through the night without too much damage, though he had little doubt there would be some frostbitten fingers and toes amongst the men.  Shirley, after taking inventory, was even more sure of the thing Bud had only supposed.  Two of the men had fairly serious finger damage, and though it did not appear anyone was likely to lose toes, the situation was sure to worsen should they have to spend another night ­out there with minimal shelter, no dry socks and only a couple of granola bars left between them. 

Water they did have, but only because of the efforts of Shirley and one of the other agents, a first-year recruit from Montana, who had stayed up a good portion of the night tending one of only two water vessels that had not been left down at the bottom of the slide area when the storm set in—a stainless steel bottle belonging to Bud—and passing its slightly warmed contents around in turns as they painstakingly converted dry, high-altitude snow to water over the little fire.  Bud had to admit a grudging respect for the man and his persistence, even after their little disagreement that past day which had ended up with Shirley pointing a pistol at his face…  This was a man who would go places, a natural leader.  Which places—a grim chuckle from Bud—and exactly how quickly, and on what sort of trajectory, were yet to be determined.

It was clear to Bud, and to Shirley, joining him beneath his chosen shelter-tree and watching a somber grey light creep across slopes of flat, unbroken white, that they needed to go down.  Any tracks they might have hoped to follow, any further evidence they may have been hoping to collect on the fugitive party’s backtrail—it was all gone beneath the snow, as they might well end up themselves, if prompt action was not taken.

The difficulty came in deciding exactly what sort of action to take.  Bud, though he did not say so at first, waiting instead to see what Shirley’s plan would be, was all for taking the straightest safe line down the mountain—if such could be found—and waking out to the nearest spot where either choppers or snow machines could come and haul them down the rest of the way.  Chopper evacuation from anywhere near their current elevation was out of the question, unless they were to wait until the weather broke a bit, and neither he nor Shirley believed they had that much time.  Not all of them, anyway.  Not the men already suffering frostbitten fingers, and with toes heading in the same direction. 

Shirley shared Bud’s concerns, was intelligent enough, though far less experienced in the mountains, to see that they were all heading for disaster if they tried to stick out for another night up on that high slope, but he had other priorities in addition to the welfare and safe return of the men in his charge.  Shirley was thinking of the evidence, of the numerous samples they risked losing irretrievably should they fail to stop back by their base camp before evacuating.  When he expressed to Kilgore his desire to make a pass by base camp before heading down, the tracker remained silent for a long moment, mentally debating his best course of action.  The return to base camp—any return, by any possible route—that day meant to place themselves at serious risk of getting caught in an avalanche or two, which, he could not deny, might well prove just the opportunity he had been looking for.  Lead them into a trap.  Return alone.  Or, just as likely, not at all, not being the most experienced winter mountaineer, himself.  Hadn’t even been skiing since sometime in his 20s, and knew he might easily misjudge the danger, miss the signs and go down with them.  He opted, then, to try and keep everyone alive, at least for the moment.  Which meant challenging Shirley on his desire to return to base camp.

“Awful open in that direction, you know.  Pretty good chance for slides.  Best if we head straight down from here, follow this spur of timber and hope it leads us down into a lower basin where things aren’t so steep, open, unstable…”

“Not happening.  No way I’m leaving all that evidence there to be drifted under by the wind, swept away by another slide or even tampered with by Asmundson and his lot, if by some chance they’re still up here. We’ve got to recover it.  Should only take a few hours, and then we can head down the way you’re describing.  Or some better way, if we see one between now and then.”

Bud shrugged.  “Go if you got to, but how about I stay here with most of the men?  Cut down on disturbance to the slopes you got to cross, maybe reduce the chances of a slide, and leave somebody uninjured to come dig you out when the mountain lets go.”

“You know what I think about breaking up the group.  We’ll stay together.  Now I know you kept us alive through the night, Kilgore, you and your mountain man skill, but I have to wonder what else you’ve been doing with those skills.  Where you’ve been, and with whom.  You’re on my radar, tracker, and no whiteout is going to change that.  We’re going together, and you’ll travel in the center of the group.  I’ll lead this time.”

A blank stare from Bud, who had plenty of responses he would have liked to use, but decided it best to remain silent at the moment, seeing as several others had emerged from the shelter and were watching them.  Later.  The time would come.  For now…  “Surely, Shirley.  Middle of the group it is.  Better get them men moving, if you don’t want them to sit there and freeze their toes off now that the fire’s gone out and no one else is collecting sticks to keep it going.”

“No one’s going to freeze.  Half an hour out to base camp, then straight down the mountain.  We didn’t get that much snow.  I know how you operate, overestimating the dangers, trying to manipulate this operation.  Not falling for it, tracker.  The game is up.  Now you’re going to wait right here while I go pry the men out of that shelter for the day.

Bud waited, considering, hacking idly at the nearby snow with a spruce stick, digging, inspecting, weighing the odds…

10 June, 2013

10 June 2013

No one felt much like talking that night as they huddled cold and weary around Kilgore’s little fire, jostling and occasionally shoving for position as each sought a place nearer the flames.  No one seemed interested in venturing out into the still-howling storm to gather more sticks when the pile began growing short, so the task was left to Bud, with the eventual help of Shirley, who he all but dragged out of the shelter with him and set to work snapping off the mostly dry, snow-free dead branches that tended to linger beneath the narrow canopies of each stunted little subalpine fir.  Bud knew it would be a long night of such trips, trying to keep a fire going with such small stuff, but the terrain presented no other options, so far as he could see.  No large fallen trees from which they could hack or saw pieces, even had they possessed the tools.  Which they did not, having left everything of the sort back at a base camp rendered entirely unreachable just then by the fury of the storm. 

Bad planning, to be sure, and the sort of situation in which Bud would have liked to leave a group of students—had they been his students—entirely on their own for a few hours to fade the consequences and learn their lesson about the seriousness of travel in the winter backcountry, only in this case, said students had appeared unlikely to make it through the night had he abandoned them to the natural results of their poor choices.  A situation not wholly objectionable to him under the circumstances, except that he was known to be along, and as the only survivor of such a night, would face far too much scrutiny back in town.  Didn’t need that just then, not considering the sort of houseguests he and his wife were currently hosting. 

If he was to come back alone—which you’d doggone well be considering, seeing the sort of evidence them fellas were managing to collect, and the sort of suspicion you saw in that snake Shirley’s eyes as he inspected those “mystery tracks”—he would need a plausible explanation.  Breaking another handful of sticks he tucked them under his arm, shuffled back towards the crowded little shelter, grumbling under his breath, stopping, a slow grin spreading through several days’ worth of salt-and-pepper stubble that he wished was a bit further advanced so it might offer him more protection against the cold.  Had an idea…

*   *   *
Liz felt trapped, frustrated, at a loss.  Seemed she’s been here before, right here in the very same place with Einar, and more than once.  Every time it appeared something might be changing just a bit, that he’d had some small revelation or resolved that things must, for one reason or another, change, they ended up right in this very spot together before the change had been given time to have much of an impact.  To do anything beyond giving him the energy his battered body needed to somehow hang on for a few more days.  Which was something, but it wasn’t enough, and could not go on forever, despite what he might think, despite the fact that already it had been doing so for months on end.  Even his agreeing to let her lead him, to trust, follow and not question for a while—she could see him struggling to stick to it, working hard to carry out the motions, but even that, she feared, was temporary.  He’d be back to his standard mode of existence just as soon as she stopped insisting, demanding.  Which made the entire thing somewhat of an exercise in futility.  Except that it was keeping her son’s father alive for the moment, which meant that it was not entirely futile.

He was staring at her—or through her—waiting, she supposed, for her to say something.  Or maybe he was simply in a daze, too weary to do anything else.  Or listening intently for sounds coming from outside.  Anymore, it was difficult for her to tell the difference.  He startled when she put a hand on his arm, sat up straighter.

“This argument you’re having with yourself…I can see that it would be really difficult to come to a conclusion, the way you keep going back and forth on it.  And I know it’s got to be absolutely exhausting, having to go through this repeated debate in your mind before doing even a little thing like finishing a glass of banana milkshake.  Or even starting it.  What would seem to us like a little thing, but it isn’t to you.  I know that.  But you need to try and put all that aside for now, and just eat.  Things probably aren’t going to make complete sense to you until you really take some time and give your brain and body adequate fuel for a while.  The argument may never reach a conclusion, and you’ll just stay stuck here, going round and round in circles until it ends.  Can you do that?  Set it all aside, focus on eating, just let the rest of it come later?”

Susan was nodding, not leaving him time to object.  “You know she’s right.  It’s what you need to do.  A person’s brain can’t work right without a certain amount of nutrition, energy…things really would be so much easier for you if you could just do like Liz is saying and focus on getting plenty to eat every day for a week or two.  Things would start looking clearer, and think what you could do with all that extra energy!”

Exasperated but trying not to let it show, Einar crossed his arms—cold, and he started shivering, pressed hard against his middle with his crossed arms in an attempt to get it to stop—head bowed, staring at the mug in front of him, white with an intricate little pattern of blue flowers and leafy tree limbs, feeling rather nauseous at the thought of consuming its contents.  Things were getting too complicated, and all he wanted was to flee to the timber, push himself up a good fifteen hundred feet of treacherous, snowy slope, find a good dense thicket of firs and hunker down in the snow.  Where no one would be able to find him.  Instead—coward.  What are you really afraid of?  Not the enemy, apparently, because they’d find you pretty quick, leaving that sort of trail…  You’re afraid of a houseful of women, then?  Is that it?  One of them your wife and the other her friend, a fine lady and really not a threat of any sort.  Is this what it’s come to?—he grabbed the mug, drained it in three big gulps, nearly choking as a result.  “Doing it.” 

While encouraged at Einar’s apparent willingness, the glance exchanged by Susan and Liz said that both knew this was not the end of it, not a real solution.  That, it seemed, would have to wait until he was really ready.  Whenever—if ever—such time might come.

07 June, 2013

7 June 2013

Finally rejoining the others in the kitchen at Liz’s invitation—she wanted him to eat again if he could, and figured, though she knew he’d disagree, that he might benefit from the added warmth of the stove—Einar sat watching as Susan rinsed and drained a batch of barley and wheat sprouts, lightly roasting them the oven before grinding them, now dry, into flour for the sprouted bread for which she was semi-famous in the community.  The process fascinated him, captured his imagination as anything and everything related to the preparation of food tended to do those days, and the watching helped him keep still, occupied if not content.  Contentment would have come only in pitting himself against the fury of the storm which still raged on outside, leaning into the sharp bite of that wind as he pressed forward up a timbered slope, scouted out conditions on the ridge and planned for their departure, but as such activities were unwise if not inaccessible at the moment—maybe both, with Susan carrying that .45 and he not too quick on his feet—he did his best to focus on the bread-making, gladly nodding and joining in when Susan asked if he’d like a turn at the kneading.

Though glad to be part of the work, Einar did not join in the conversation, remaining silent, withdrawn, lost in his own thoughts even as his senses remained alert for any hint that things might be going amiss outside, danger approaching.  He did not expect it in this storm, but one can never be sure, especially down near civilization where aircraft of various descriptions did not always play a vital role in such a raid; the enemy could just as easily come by land down here as by air.  Staring out the window as he thought, Einar whirled around with a start when Susan spoke.

“I think it’s had enough kneading, now.  Time to put it in the oven.”

A sheepish grin from Einar as he handed over the dough.  “Yep, guess it’s more than ready, isn’t it?”

“I would say so!  Now have a seat while I get this in the oven, because it looks like Liz has something ready for you.”

Which she did, having prepared a big mug of the banana, peanut butter and milk mixture which had seemed to be agreeing pretty well with Einar when he could bring himself to try it, this time replacing most of the peanut butter with Nutella and giving Will—riding on her stomach in a sling, where he could, to his great delight, be right in the center of the action at all times—little tastes when he grabbed for the spoon.  In addition to the mug, Liz had laid out various little measuring cups at Einar’s place at the table, and remembering his agreement to let her lead him for a while—and where, exactly, are we going?  Not sure I like this—he made no objection when she told him to drink what he assumed were portions of the various minerals and supplements with which Susan had the previous day returned from town. 

Had Susan prepared the repast, he might not have been able to bring himself to partake.  Certainly not without first carefully inspecting the bottle from which each substance was taken, reading the labels and making sure no tampering had occurred before he tasted anything, but only Liz had been involved in the preparation, and taking what was for him a giant leap of faith in her he sat, gulped down the contents of the little cups, one by one. 

No immediate consequences as he sat there holding his breath, half expecting, despite himself—she wouldn’t do that to you, and you know it—to begin feeling irresistibly groggy, holding onto consciousness just long enough to see the two women coming at him with the webbing straps with which they intended to restrain him, tie him down until he’d been compelled to take in an amount of nutrients they saw fit, a process which would doubtless be repeated several times daily for a week or two, at the least…  Shook his head, took a big breath, beginning to feel the lack of oxygen and not wanting to get it mixed up with any other effect that might be beginning to creep in.  Sure, they might be wanting to do something like that, might have thought about it, but they hadn’t done it yet and he did not believe it was part of the plan.  Certainly not for Liz.  She sure was looking at him strangely though, and he glanced away, not knowing what to make of it and supposing perhaps she wasn’t looking at him at all, but at some object beyond him in the room.  Not the case.

“What’s the matter with you?  Can’t you breathe?  Did something go down the wrong pipe, or what?”

Realized that he’d been holding his breath again, quit it.  “Can breathe.  Nothing wrong.  Stuff just tastes weird, that’s all.”

“Says the guy who happily snacks on wolverine liver and the fermented contents of elk stomachs…” she laughed.  “I didn’t know anything tasted weird to you!”  Einar didn’t answer, and she could see that he wasn’t finding nearly so much humor in the situation as she had been.  Scooting Will over onto her hip, she sat down next to him.

“It’s hard.  I know.  You’d rather not be doing any of this.  But you’re doing fine.  Just keep it up, and things will get better.  Easier.  You’re already feeling a little better, aren’t you?  A little more energy?”

He shrugged.  “Guess so.  Can really feel the iron, when I take it.  More alert all of a sudden, and a little less tired.  Helping, I think.  And of course there’s energy in the food, and I can feel that, but…”

“You’d rather quit again, is that it?”

“Don’t like to say it, but yeah.  Really like to do that.”

“You know where that leads, though.  Right?”

“Yeah.  Guess I know the facts.  Even if I would like very much to challenge them at times, prove them wrong…  But you see, my mind just keeps going round and round about it.  On the one hand, I know now without too much doubt that I can keep going, push my body further and further, live on less and less until it finally gives out, and what’s more I can perform useful work along the way the entire time, until the very end.  I know that because I’ve almost been there so many times, and I like that fact, like knowing that I can keep myself on my feet and active until everything’s gone and I lie down for the last time, but really, what’s the point?  That doesn’t prove anything, does it?  If I keep going and things end that way.  Only proves that I’m too stubborn once on a set course of action to stop and consider whether or not it makes sense to continue in that direction…”

She nodded.  “I think that’s a good way to look at it.”

“Yeah, maybe.  Guess some things would change pretty fast with me if I could really see it that way, but it doesn’t stop there.  I start debating with myself, the other half of my brain coming right back and saying that actually, yes, it does prove something.  Proves that I have the will and the strength to do it, to endure anything that comes, and that has value.  Is worth the cost.  Any cost.  And I really believe that, and if it was just me, I think there would probably be no question, no reason to take a second look at what I’ve been doing.  But then I think of you, and of this little guy here, and it starts all over again, the argument...

05 June, 2013

5 June 2013

Back from the hills now, here are a few images from Einar's country...


By the time Bud had succeeded in locating and digging out two of the abandoned avalanche shovels down near the edge of the slide site, Shirley had noticed his absence and nearly got himself talked into following the man out into the howling whiteness, but not quite.  If the tracker was abandoning them as the agent suspected, let him go.  He wouldn’t make it far in the storm, would be back perhaps would be a bit less reticent when he did return, less difficult to handle.  Shirley had taken a distinct dislike to the man, and would have sent him away long before that time, had he not known how seriously they needed his services.

Bud was indeed contemplating, as he probed the windswept contours of the new snow with a long aspen stick in search of some hard object which might prove to be a shovel, whether the situation might be best served at that point by his departure.  The men would make it through the night, some of them, regardless of his decision, might make it down off the mountain, too, if a slide didn’t take them, and then he’d have some explaining to do.  Which could be done, a claim that he’d become disoriented and lost in the whiteout hardly an easy thing to dispute, and he had for some time not liked the direction in which the investigation was heading, the suspicion in Shirley’s eyes as he’d inspected tracks which were clearly Bud’s own, if made by different boots, and the tracker knew that the time to separate himself from the situation had long since come and gone.  Yet there was definitely something to recommend keeping one’s enemies close, especially with the evidence they’d so far collected and its implications should agents succeed at getting it back to the lab, and where better to keep his eye on the progress of the search than from squarely in its center? 

Digging, freeing one shovel and then another, the tracker shook his head, shivered against the wind and tucked the tools under an arm, heading back up the slope.  Not time to leave, not just yet, with the outcome of the party’s night so uncertain.  Needed to stick around and observe—if not heavily influence—that outcome.  Would just have to hope that the opportunity would still exist to separate himself from the group if that necessity did present itself in an urgent fashion, sooner or later.  There were things Shirley did not know, both about himself and the manner in which he had come equipped on that particular expedition and, so long as he kept himself alert to the changing mood amongst the men and to Shirley’s intentions, these things gave him a definite advantage, even should the situation sour.

Rousing himself to some semblance of alertness as the tracker trudged back up the last few yards of steep, snowy slope, Shirley stumbled to his feet and greeted Bud with a scowl, pistol gripped uncertainly in a hand too numbed even beneath its glove to be particularly reliable, and Bud knew it.

“Said to stick with the group, Kilgore.”

“Group’s dying.  Gonna end up with a dozen casualties come morning, if you don’t do something about this wind.  Want to help me dig?”  With which he thrust a shovel in the man’s general direction, Shirley unable to both keep his hold on the pistol and prevent the tool from falling to the snow where he feared, only slightly irrationally, that it would become hopelessly lost to them.  This momentary hesitation led to a fumbling struggle in which Shirley dropped pistol and shovel both, Bud diving for the former and tucking it into his own belt before the cold and half stupefied agent could come to grips with what was happening.  Digging and scraping at the snow, Shirley finally succeeded in locating the second shovel but not his pistol, giving up after a time and joining Bud where already he had dug a fair distance into the nearest snowdrift, doing his best to create the windbreak that might give them all a chance to make it through the night.

Even with the windbreak—dished-out cleft in the snowdrift, too shallow to be called a cave as its diggers had run out of energy before quite getting it to that point, though serving some of the same purpose—the night was no easy thing for those faced with its fury.  With Shirley and the others now firmly on board and more than a little apprehensive about their own survival, Bud did his best with what they had available to them, cutting branches from the few stunted, snow-plastered firs that were within easy distance and leaning them up against the open end of the cleft-like shelter which had been the end result of an hours’ digging, weaving and crisscrossing them as well as he could do in the darkness and the gale to help break the force of the wind when it swirled around on them as mountain winds are wont to do, several of the men taking turns helping him with the collection and weaving of the boughs. 

Though with shouted encouragement, threats and finally curses, Bud did his utmost to motivate each of the men to do his share in the shelter enhancements and simply to keep moving, this effort met with limited success, several of them already having slipped far enough into a hypothermic near-slumber that they remained crouched against the hollowed out back of the snowbank, all but oblivious to their surroundings.  Shirley was not among these and, arrogant and misguided as his behavior may have been earlier in the day, he possessed enough intelligence to comprehend, even with his limited experience in the mountains, the dire state of their situation, and a level of humility which had been quite beyond the grasp of several of his predecessors who had headed up Mountain Task Force, Toland Jimson chief amongst them.  Soon he was giving Kilgore all the help he could offer, cutting, at the tracker’s shouted suggestion, limber evergreen boughs, shaking from them as much snow as he could manage and herding the less able-bodied of his men to one corner of the shelter while he lined the floor of the other end with these insulating branches. 

Though most of the men would, Bud knew, do quite well if simply removed from the wind and kept from sitting directly on the vast heat sink of the cold ground, several of them appeared to have rather passed the point where these measures would prove sufficient, and for these he knew they would need some source of heat, some way to replace a bit of the energy their bodies had already spent in trying to stay warm.   Had they been able to dig a true snow cave, a single candle might have done it, warmed the air by a number of degrees and made a real difference, but such a small heat source would be inadequate in the open-fronted shelter which they’d ended up creating.  This meant a regular fire was in order, and once more braving the windstorm outside, Kilgore felt his way up to the bent bodies of the little firs, seeking anything which might resemble dry wood.  Little remained untouched by the snow, but cold as it was, this had not begun to melt, and he was able to collect and shake dry a fair-sized heap of little sticks, the foundation for the small fire which he subsequently built in a pit near the front wall of the shelter, up against the green boughs which formed its wind-screen, not wanting to bring down the ledge of snow which remained above to shelter them.  They had to keep it small, but the fire did its job.

Separated from the cold surface of the snow, warmed by Bud’s fire and shielded more or less from the wind, a number of them were soon faring better or at least no longer losing ground, much to Shirley’s relief and Bud’s silent half-dismay.  Was looking as though the storm wasn’t going to do his job for him, at least not that night.  Time, when morning came, for another strategy.  Looked like he’d have a long night to think it through, to plan.