Sitting together in the little bubble of warm, still air beneath the parachute canopy and passing around a pot of Liz’s spruce-needle tea, everyone began relaxing after their long climb, Susan holding Will and delighting in becoming reacquainted with the little one as Bud began explaining their presence in the canyon.
“Knew you wouldn’t be too happy to see us here, Asmundson, and had a heck of a time actually figuring out how to start looking for you, but there’s stuff we figured you ought to know.”
Einar was skeptical, but silent. Bud couldn’t contain himself any longer.
“It’s springtime in the valley, man, and they’re not lookin’ for you anymore! Packed up and gone home, all of them, after so many months of hearing nothing from you. Rumor is they figure an avalanche must’ve got you. All but declared you dead—a third time!”
“They’ve done that before, and it hasn’t stuck. Shouldn’t have risked leaving a trail just to come and tell us that.”
“Nah, they got lots of other irons in the fire this time That’s the other thing I came to tell you. History going on, down there. It’s been quite a year. The tax protests up in New York and New Jersey—never thought we’d see those folks stand up, but guess some of them finally had enough of their Bolshevik rulers—folks up in Washington State refusing en masse to follow some really onerous new gun laws that went into effect this year, and showing up by the thousands on the grounds of the State Capitol to commit newly-illegal acts, right in front of the State Troopers. Troopers just watched. Were none too pleased with the laws themselves, most of them, and sure weren’t gonna be the ones to deliberately spark some sort of armed conflict right there on the Governor’s front lawn. Ha! And the big one…guess you would have had no way to hear about the Ranch Rebellion, as folks’re calling it now, but the feds got tangled up with a couple of old ranchers and their families over property disputes, went in with guns and tried to seize land, round up cattle—and failed.”
“Was there shooting?”
“Nah, but there would have been, if they hadn’t decided to stand down. Couple thousand citizens showed up, armed and ready. Moms and dads with a couple of their half-grown kids ready to be a part of history, local folks, out of state, vets from half a dozen wars, snipers up on the Interstate overpass... Remarkable restraint on both sides, I would say. All it would have taken was one jumpy trigger finger on either side, and this thing would have got started. Feds thought they’d be able to strong-arm everybody, had the Hostage Rescue Team on standby a few miles away, but there came a point, a very particular point when they saw that folks were going to stand, and they knew they had to either back down, or commit to a real shooting war. And they backed down, and they went home. It was a beautiful thing. Beautiful.”
“You were there?”
“Yes sir, I was there. Proud to say it. Me and my bride, both. Roger flew us down. We didn’t jump this time, but maybe in the future, if circumstances require…”
“Yep,” Roger finished off the pot of spruce tea, passed the empty vessel back to Liz for a re-fill, “me and my little green-and-white will definitely have a job to do, as things progress down there. Did some aerial surveillance after dropping Bud and Sue off at the rally, got some real good photos of the crowd facing off the feds, and almost tangled with a little FBI chopper that figured I was in its airspace. Fun times!”
“Yeah, Roger, I know you miss the action,” the tracker boomed. “Don’t we all, sometimes? Kinda surprised you weren’t dropping stuff on the feds’ camp down there, just for the fun of it! Sheriff Watts was there too, with his wife and two grown sons. Remember him? Always knew he was a fine man, but now I’ve got no doubts.”
Susan nodded. “They camped with us. There was a whole Culver Falls/Clear Springs contingent that showed up. People who used to come to our weekly meetings when Bill was living…some that I hadn’t seen for years.”
“Right,” Bud added, “that’s for sure! Half expected to see you there, Asmundson.”
“I was a little busy.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s the last sort of place you need to be showing up right now. I’m sure the feds had eyes and ears in that crowd, looking out for just such appearances. But later, if things get a little hotter…well, let me just say that you’re already no longer anywhere near their top priority, and I can certainly conceive of a time when you could probably come out into the World again, if you wanted to. I still say we could use you down there. Train folks, give them young guys a little of the grit-in-your-gut or whatever it is has kept you going, over the years. Only a little of it, though. Too much of it’ll kill a fella.”
“I’m still here, Kilgore.”
Uncomfortable silence, Liz passing out elk jerky to everyone, including the raven, who had not left Einar’s shoulder the entire time. Sun was still shining on the top foot or so of the chute, and it was providing enough warmth that both Bud and Susan had shed their down coats, Will having squirmed about in his furs until Liz had freed him of their excessive insulation. The warmth didn’t seem to be having much effect on Einar, who, Liz knew from long experience, ought to be shaking quite noticeably as he thawed out. Instead he sat, cross-legged and still, arms folded against his stomach and the ice barely beginning to melt in his beard as he listened intently to Bud’s narrative with huge, quiet eyes and the occasional hint of a faraway smile. Liz wished he’d move around, make some noise, get mad, even. His stillness was scaring her.
The conversation turned, then, to events in the valley, Susan’s work to prepare for the spring season at the greenhouse and other news of the outside world, another pleasant half hour passing as the sun finally sank behind the spruces and everyone—with the exception of Einar, who seemed unwilling or unable to move from the position he had held since sitting down—enjoyed generous helpings of Liz’s elk stew, which had been simmering by the fire in the shelter since shortly after their return.
Despite the relative warmth of the little tent, which had increased rather beyond that provided by the sinking sun due to the number of people it currently enclosed, Einar was still an unfortunate shade of purple by the time the sun went down, struggling now to stay aware and part of the conversation, though doing a remarkably good job, Liz thought, of concealing the fact. The only best answer seemed to be to head to bed and hope he would follow, which proved no problem, as their guests were quite weary after their long climb, ready to head to their improvised tents. Einar, though, proved less ready to settle in for the night, quietly insisting that he first had to make one final circuit of the little ridge above the basin, satisfy himself that the tracker had not been followed up from the canyon.
Einar finally slid into bed sometime after dark, still not entirely reasonably well assured that no trouble was coming that night, at least, and knowing that without a bit of sleep he would be too weary to do much about such an eventuality, should it come. Liz moved close, tried to start warming him, and Einar held himself rigid against the shivers that were trying to come, in awe at the contrast in temperature, at her existence.
“You’re so warm…”
“No, it’s just that you’re frozen, still. You feel like a block of ice.”
He moved away. “I’m sorry. Can go back outside and…”
“No, don’t you dare! That’s not what I meant.” She got her arms around him, clasping her hands where they crossed the deeply furrowed ridges of the ribs just above his sternum, trapping him. He could have escaped with enough effort, but he was tired, and did not want to go anywhere. Liz could feel his relenting, his acceptance, and was glad. “You stay right here until you’re something like a normal human temperature, again. I don’t know how you survive being so cold all the time.”
He smiled in the darkness, stopped struggling, relaxed against her and allowed the shivering to take over. “Practice.”