Liz was all for it, Einar’s resolve to make things better in this life, but before that could start to happen, she knew, they had to find a way to sustain life in the first place, for all of them. She and Will would be alright for a while even if forced to stay hidden in the depths of the mine without more than a regular supply of fairly fresh water to sustain them; Will would not be happy, might not be getting as much as he would like, but she was confident in her ability to go on making the milk needed to keep him going, at least for a while. Einar, though, had been far too close to the edge for too long to have any reserves left, and without food, reality was that he would soon succumb to the cold, and would no longer be with them.
Already the cold was taking its toll; Einar had never properly warmed from his trek through the snow, even after a night spent curled up with her in the blanket, and Liz knew that without the timely introduction of some significant source of energy, he was increasingly risking a hypothermic slumber that might well prove irreversible, under their present circumstances. He had stopped shivering in the minutes that had passed since the end of their conversation, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t because the topic, however inflammatory, had provided him with a sustained source of warmth. Suddenly very concerned at his stillness, she jabbed him with an elbow, letting out a silent sigh of relief when he stirred, reached for his knife and sat up a bit straighter.
“I think it’s time to go back up to the entrance for more snow to melt. So we don’t run too low on water. Want to come with me?”
Silence again, knife slipping to the floor, and she could feel him sagging, probably drifting back towards sleep. “Einar?”
“Yeah, I’ll go. Where’s the…the plastic stuff that we’re…”
“Let’s both go. I’ve got it right here. Why don’t you drink this little bit that’s left from the last batch, so we don’t spill it while we’re walking.”
Long way to the brilliant, snow-reflected daylight of the outside world, long walk, Einar insisting upon leading, checking the place as they went, fighting hard to stay on his feet, stay alert. Only after a thorough if squintily-viewed survey of the wide world beyond the mine entrance—was mighty bright out there, sunlight hurting his eyes, but he knew he’d have an advantage if required to face anyone in the darkness—did he beckon to Liz, who quickly joined him in the patch of sunlight falling golden and deliciously warm some five feet into the tunnel. Afternoon sunlight, and she soon had Will all stripped down to his diaper and sitting on her lap in that sheltered, wind-free spot, laughing delightedly at the feel of the sunlight on his skin.
Diligently gathering clean snow, wrapping it in the scrap of plastic and setting this in the sun to begin its melting Einar joined them, eyes soon closed, head leaned back against the rock, shivering again after a while, and Liz was glad, knew it meant the sun was doing its work, buying him some time.
* * *
Susan had told Bud about the mines before, but now she got out the maps, spread them on the kitchen table and showed him, told him the details of Einar and Liz’s previous sojourn through the recesses of their long-forgotten tunnels. A good place to lose one’s self and escape discovery, but with the ending of the storm, both she and Bud knew they had nowhere to go, no way to safely leave the darkness of that underground world and move to a place where they might be better able to provide for themselves the necessities of life.
“They’re going to be freezing in there, running out of food, if they managed to take any at all. Which I’m not sure they did. We’ve got to do something.”
“Aw, Asmundson’s a mighty resourceful fellow, you know. He will have taken them in deep where it isn’t nearly so cold as out here, and he’ll be feeding them on blind cave fish, barbecued bats and crickets, likely as not. Man’s practically a wild critter. They’ll be alright.”
“For a while, but he’s dying. Resourcefulness can only take a person so far when their physical resources are all used up like that, wild critter or not.”
“That old buzzard functions best when he’s all used up and backed into a corner with nowhere to go. He don’t know any other way to live. It does him good. Keeps him going.”
“Bud, I want you to go find them.”
“Whoa now, you’re asking me to go track Asmundson through a series of tunnels, and not just any tunnels, but ones that he’s been in before and knows well…that’s pretty nearly tantamount to a death sentence! You trying to get rid of me, or what?”
“Oh, you can handle him. Just let him know you’re there. And that it’s you, and not someone else.”
“Yeah, and if he don’t want to see me? If he happens to have taken a notion that it was me who invited the feds up to the house in the first place, in some terribly misguided attempt to collect that big reward, or to ingratiate myself with my sometimes-employers? He might be thinking that way, you know. It would sort of be like him.”
“He’ll be alright. Liz is with him.”
“Right, that’s what I’m afraid of. Dangerous as that fella is when he’s fighting for his own life, his freedom, he’s gonna be five times as bad when you’ve got him trapped in a tunnel with his family to defend. I know how that goes.”
“I know how it goes, too, and I’m telling you that I think this will be alright. You’ll be alright. You’ll be able to talk with him.”
“And just how do you know that, my lady?”
She smiled, rose to begin preparing the food she intended to send with him. “I’ve had my fair share of dealings with his kind. Your kind. You’re more like him than you might want to admit, after all... So, I just know.”
A grumble from Kilgore, oh, so we have a “kind” now, do we? Huh. “Trouble is, I’ll leave tracks if I do that, just like they would if they were leaving. Which kind of defeats the whole purpose of them hiding there.”
“Yes, you will, but I’ve got a solution for that. Some winters, I’ve set up a cross-country ski track all around this place in the less-steep areas, dragged an old pallet with several concrete blocks behind one of the snowmobiles to flatten and pack it a little, and gone out nearly every day on that for exercise. My neighbors know it, and I’m sure the feds know it, too, from past satellite images. So it shouldn’t be any surprise to them. I know it’s almost spring, but the snow’s still good, and I think it’s time to do that track again. It will go right past the mine. Always used to go right past the mine, and the spruces will cover the fact that we occasionally leave the track for a few minutes to head over to it.”
“Mighty bold plan, my lady. But it might work. Might just provide the cover we need. If Asmundson don’t hear the snowmobile, figure they’ve been found and take off, that is. But deep down in there, they really shouldn’t hear a thing. I’ll head out now and start grooming the trail.”
“I’ll come help!”
“How do you help? I can run a snowmobile!”
“Sit on the pallet for some extra weight, that’s how. It’ll be fun! I’ll bring a picnic…”