“Enemy’s not following us,” Kilgore bellowed, lowering himself onto a fallen aspen and hoping Einar would join him, as the man appeared about to fall over. “We made real sure of that. I’m returning your bird, that’s what I’m doing up here. Critter can be a real nuisance, you know? Blamed me for your disappearance I’m pretty sure, and never would let me forget it.”
Einar remained standing, balanced precariously between his two sticks but growing increasingly steady. He had no response for Kilgore, knew the tracker would not make such a journey simply to return the raven, but knew just as well that he wouldn’t be getting the true answer just then. It would come, with time. Right now, he needed to be getting back to Liz, and as the intruders had already found his trail and would have followed it even had he not shown himself, the best option seemed to involve taking them all along. Not wanting to try and articulate all of this—now that he’d stopped moving, his exhaustion was catching up with him, making itself difficult to ignore—he started off up his trail without another word.
Kilgore was having none of it. “Where are you taking us, you old wolverine? Up to some cliffs where you can lure us out to the edge, push us over and no one will ever be the wiser?”
“Not a bad idea. But no. I’m going home. You folks might as well come along, so I can keep an eye on you. Anybody flies over, they’ll see your tents down on the canyon floor and think you’re still down there, fishing, or whatever you were doing.”
“See our tents? Who do you think you’re dealing with here, Asmundson? Nobody’s gonna see our doggone tents, not the way we’ve got the all tucked in under the timber like that.”
“I saw them.”
“Oh, you don’t count. And besides, I meant nobody would see them from the air. And they won’t.”
Einar shrugged, turned to continue his climb, and this time, Kilgore followed. Visiting, it was clear, would have to wait. The fugitive was in no mood for conversation. Or perhaps simply lacked the breath for it. He suspected the latter, but still found himself struggling to keep pace as the man stalked up through the steepening timber.
Base of the rocky chute by which Einar had two days prior come to reach the edge of the rim, and here he paused for a minute, waiting for the others to catch up. Not used to the elevation, he supposed, after a winter spent down in the valley. They soon caught up, Roger leading and Bud traveling with Susan, who was a few yards behind the pilot. The tracker slogged up beside Einar, bracing hands on his knees and puffing for air.
“Trying to kill us all with this breakneck pace, or what, Asmundson?”
“I didn’t invite you. This is my speed. Only one I’ve got.”
“No, it’s not. Pretend you’re stalking something. Or someone. I know you can take three days to cover a quarter of a mile, if you need to.”
“I don’t need to right now. Need to get back up there to Liz. I was only supposed to be going to get some willows. Two days ago. She’ll be wondering.”
“Yeah, she’ll be wondering. But a short break here at the bottom of this steep stuff won’t delay us much at all, and will probably really increase our speed, especially if we have a quick fire and brew up some tea for everybody.”
“Come on man, it’s just us here. Nobody else in the entire canyon, or we would have seen sign of ‘em. Let’s stop for a little bit and make a fire, warm you up some for the rest of the climb.”
“No, I’m fine. And you’re fine too, because you’re wearing expedition-quality down all over your bodies. Like geese.”
“Yeah, we’re fine, but you’re frozen,” the tracker responded, grabbing Einar’s arm and pressing two fingers against the exposed portion near the wrist, nodding as the resulting white marks stayed stark and unchanging on the purple-mottled canvas of his flesh. “Look at that. Barely got any blood moving through there, at all. Gonna start losing fingers and toes here before too long, if this keeps up. You haven’t got too many toes left to lose, if I’m remembering correctly. And looks like you’re only on your feet because your legs are too stiff to let you fall down, too.”
Einar laughed. “Maybe. Kind of works.”
“Yeah, it works great. I can tell. Now you have a seat right here while I build a fire, or I’ll knock you down and have Roger sit on you, ya big dunderhead.”
Einar did not stop moving, and neither Kilgore nor Roger appeared inclined to carry out the threat. Susan half wished they would. Quickly catching up to Einar, she offered him some tea from her thermos, still warm from the morning’s brew, and he drank, first a sip and then a series of gulps by which he would have quickly drained the vessel, had he not restrained himself. She looked away so as not to embarrass him, wondering when he’d last remembered to consume any fluids. Looking him over, she wouldn’t have been too surprised to learn that it had been days. Reclaiming the thermos from Einar she stowed it back in her pack, continued without a word. He’d been finding his own way for a long time, and certainly didn’t need her help to do it now, no matter how things might look.
At Einar’s insistence everyone stayed close in the steep chute, falling rocks dislodged by the lead climber being a real danger to those following behind, should they allow distance for said rocks to begin bounding and bouncing. The day being a good deal colder than the one on which Einar had descended this same chute and he having so recently—if not intentionally—cleaned it of its loose rocks, they all made it to the top without major incident, catching their breath amongst the spruces before following Einar over the first of several acres of deadfall that lay between the spot and the little basin which held the shelter—and his family.