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.