Dusk having fallen and a small fire well concealed inside the shelter, Liz and Will enjoyed the rabbit, Liz savoring the meat and Will having little tastes of the broth in which it had been boiled. He was old enough, she had decided, for an introduction to such things, now that he had begun sprouting teeth. Will could not have been more delighted—unless she’d given him the entire rabbit on which to gnaw.
“Later, little guy. Give it some time. You need a few more teeth before you’re ready to tackle a whole rabbit, don’t you think?”
Will shrieked in reply, a happy sound if perhaps not one of complete agreement, turned his attention from the rabbit, which was by that time largely reduced to bones, to the fire. Fi, fi, he repeated, watching with fascination the dancing, changing light of its flames. The fire, Liz was not certain Einar would have approved. The decision had not been made lightly or without some trepidation, as she knew the planes—quiet now for a day and a half—might return in the night and possibly see the heat signature, but in the end she had decided the risk worth taking.
Not only would the fire provide them some much-appreciated relief from the cold which still held the high country fairly firmly in its grasp, it would allow her to prepare a good broth from the rabbit bones, which could be saved in a cooler part of the shelter for another day. For Einar’s return, she hoped. Soon. Stretching her palms over the flames she felt a bit badly for wanting the fire’s warmth, for enjoying it, when Einar was without doubt spending another cold night under a tree somewhere. Silly, she knew. He would want her to enjoy the fire, if she was to have it in the first place, would want her to take full advantage of its flames for cooking, heat and any other tasks that needed doing. Like heating water to wash Will’s diapers, and filling the second, smaller pot with snow and adding a bit of water to get it started melting, she began doing just that. The task had been difficult at times, especially when they’d been on the move, but she’d got the routine down reasonably well and no longer found it overwhelming. It paid to keep everything very simple in the kind of life they were living, and so long as she made sure to always have a couple diapers drying on the outside of her parka or Einar’s pack, she found that she could keep up with the job, even while traveling. Good to know. If she could do that, she figured she could do most anything, really.
* * * *
Einar’s doubt about his ability to continue with the trek was not long-lived. He had never sat down and refused to continue with a journey once started, and this was to be no exception, no matter the apparent weakness of limb and exhaustion of body which were stalking him, aggravating as those things might be, and much as they might push a man towards a sense of despair, even if he consciously rejected any such surrender.
Just have to deal with this stuff. Shouldn’t come as any surprise. It’s the natural result of…starving one’s self to the degree you’ve done. Body has been forced to consume a lot of its skeletal muscle for energy just to stay alive, and now you don’t have a whole lot left. You knew that, have watched it happen. Where did you think that would lead, in the end?
This, he said silently but with great vehemence, refuting himself, is not the end. Doesn’t get to be the end, because you’ve got a watch to keep and then when your real sure you’re not being followed, a lot of miles to cover. Situation is what it is. Might have hoped it would be a little better after all those meals you were having before leaving on this little adventure, but fact is they just weren’t enough to really get you headed in the right direction, and now you’ve been traveling and climbing and living out in the cold pretty much non-stop for the last…what is it? Three days? And so here you are, and you’re just going to have to find a way to keep moving, keep going.
A rabbit would help, he figured. If he had time to stop and try to take one. So would a few pounds of that moose meat. Too bad he’d been in such a hurry to leave the canyon that morning, with no time to stop at the cache site and fill his pack. Or even hack off more of the quarter he’d had by his sleeping spot the night before. Had barely dared return for pack and pistol with those men close on his heels as he’d thought they might be, and the moose quarter would have slowed him down and perhaps meant his capture, had he insisted on trying to pack it out. Wished he’d at least had the foresight to carve off some of the meat and stow it in his pack before falling asleep that past evening, but seemed such tasks—let alone the planning required to carry them out—had been rather beyond him at that time.
He shivered, caught himself against a nearby aspen. Had been about to fall. Must not fall. Must not stand there lost in thought any longer, either. What he needed was movement. Needed to take another look at the canyon floor first though, and keeping to the evergreens he approached the rim, lowered himself to a crouch which—considering the rising ground behind him—would keep his silhouette well below the skyline without his having to lie down and struggle for the next several minutes to rise again.
No movement in the canyon, nothing amiss either to the naked eye or through binoculars, and hoping he was right in taking this as a sign that he was not presently being pursued. Seemed reasonably safe to move on, so long as he paused frequently to survey the valley and his own back trail. Which was another matter he’d better be watching very closely. Mustn’t leave a trail at all, with the possibility that men might, sooner or later, be looking for one. Was doing pretty well so far, he believed, having been able to keep mostly to the resilient, needle-covered ground beneath the evergreens and leaving little mark as he passed. Once he worked his way up higher into the still-snowy country, this task would take on additional difficulty. Well. One step at a time. Was about all he could seem to manage just then, anyhow.
Stumbling. Stopping. Losing momentum. What you need, he told himself, is a goal. Landmark. Pick one. Now. That scraggly, sideways-leaning spruce perched on a rocky outcropping some two hundred yards beyond his current position looked like a good landmark, so he chose it, glancing up every few steps to make sure it was still in his field of view. Helped, having that solid object as his destination, and when he reached it, placed his hands on its rough trunk and rested for a moment, it was with a great sense of gratitude, and of hope.
Almost dusk. Time to stop soon, lest he risk leaving tracks and not even knowing it, traveling in the dark. Not quite that dark yet. Give it a few minutes. Next landmark, then. That tower up there, with all the antennas. That was distinctive. That was… Einar started as if wakened from a dream. That was a problem, that’s what it was!