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 that. Can 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.