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.”
“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.”