Liz had heard them coming. Finally convinced that Einar must lack the ability to return on his own she had set out once more to search for him, Will on her back and the shelter closed up tight with the expectation that she might not return for many days. Einar had given her no reason for his leaving, no clue in speech or action, in the days leading up to his disappearance, as to where he might have gone. Which lead her to believe that he had likely met with some accident or other misfortune out there, and would be, by now, almost certainly gone. She tried not to think it, tried to remind herself that he had many times come through circumstances that ought to have ended his life, and surely would be capable of doing so again, whatever had happened out there, but she was having a difficult time believing.
More likely, he had been lying face-down in a snowdrift somewhere out there for the past two days, finally having well and truly reached the end of his strength and died on his feet as he had always wanted. Doing her best to banish such thoughts she had set out for one final search, winding her way down through deadfall timber and around the remains of the winter’s snow, melting, seeping, the sound of spring, of new life, and some quarter of the way through the band of deadfall, she began hearing another sound, too.
Footsteps, and then voices, and Liz froze. Concealing herself behind the nearest cluster of still-bare serviceberry scrub she crouched, listening, praying that Will would make no sound, for the voice was not Einar’s. Her hand went to the pistol Einar had left for her, body low against the ground and Will beginning a silent, squirming protest. Had they taken him, some intruder, some federal search party, captured him and followed his trail up through the deadfall? Could be. Anything could be, but her mind told her this was a very unlikely scenario, seeing as she had, herself, been unable to find more than a few feet of discernable trail in her entire time of searching. What, then? He was showing them the way? He would never. Then, she heard another voice, a female voice, and this one she recognized. Susan! Still, she did not rise from her hiding place, wanting to be more than certain as to the identity of their guests before she risked exposing Will to any danger. Squirming so that she had a better view through the tangle of serviceberry trunks near the ground she found Susan, Bud beside her. Other footsteps then, nearer ones, and she scrambled to her feet just in time to avoid tripping Einar as he stepped around the cluster of brush which had concealed her.
Einar barely even had time to be startled before Liz grabbed him, he recognizing her at once and little Will squealing in delight at the sight of his father. For a moment no one spoke, Bud and his little group hanging back to allow the family a bit of time together. Liz didn’t know what to say first, whether to question Einar about his long absence or try to figure out where he’d managed to acquire Bud and Susan, so she ended up saying nothing at all, simply pressing him to her, overjoyed that they were all together again.
“Saw their smoke,” he tried to explain. “Down in the canyon. Was just going for some willows but had to find out who was down there. Ended up stalking them for two days before being sure. Had no way to let you know…”
“I know now. It’s ok. I know now.” She let him go then, Einar quickly reclaiming the sticks he’d been using to keep himself upright during the climb and she waving to Bud and Susan, who hurried to join the family there beneath the serviceberry scrub, Roger a few paces behind. Returning from some scouting mission of his own above the timbered slopes to the east, Muninn the raven circled once, dived in through the trees and settled himself on Einar’s shoulder. Will lost all interest in the human visitors, then, remembering the bird and reaching for the iridescent sheen of his feathers with both hands, nearly succeeding in escaping from the hood of Liz’s parka before she could stop him.
“You brought Muninn!” Liz greeted Susan. “How did you do that?”
“Oh, he follows Bud everywhere. Has since you left. I think he believes Bud knew where Einar went, and intended to find him.”
“How did you find us?”
“Oh, it wasn’t easy,” Bud bellowed, “the way this man of yours heads for the highest, roughest country like a wounded bull elk and hunkers down to wait for spring, or death, or whatever comes first. Not easy at all, and in the end it was him found us, anyway. Closest we came was the bottom of the canyon.”
Einar cast a dark look at the tracker, wishing, Liz was certain, that they had never come at all, but she was more than glad to see them—so long as their coming did not bring with it too much risk of discovery and of having to run, again. Afternoon well underway and temperatures already beginning to drop on that north-facing slope, everyone seemed in favor when Liz suggested they head for the shelter.
After a good hour’s additional travel the party reached the little basin which concealed Einar and Liz’s winter home, the visitors looking relieved to be through all the deadfall and able to rest, at last. Einar showed everyone around the clearing, pointing out here and there spots where overhanging evergreens had kept snow accumulation to a minimum thorough the winter, and which thus presented dry and good locations to set up a tent. Or to sleep under the stars, as the case might be, for everyone, as Bud pointed out, had left their tents down in the canyon…
“You’d be welcome in the shelter,” Einar allowed, “but it’s no cabin, like we had before. We’d be sleeping stacked on top of each other in there. You folks have any tarps or plastic of any sort in your packs?”
Tarps they did have, and an ample supply of cordage, and the three of them went to see what could be done to secure nighttime lodging.
While their guests set up camp Liz brought water and elk jerky for Einar, wanted him to sit with her on the fallen aspen that served as bench in front of the shelter, but he remained doggedly standing, balanced between his two walking sticks as he smiled tiredly at Will, answering the little one’s babbling inquiries as seriously and attentively as if they had come from an adult and were not composed of at least as many unintelligible words as they were intelligible. Liz liked that about him, the way he seemed to regard their son as a little person with a fully-formed mind and the ability to understand far more than he could communicate. Already she could see that the two of them were developing a special understanding of one another, and supposed the very things that made Einar so different and her interactions with him at times so very difficult must be an advantage when it came to his ability to understand and communicate with the child.
Einar wasn’t eating, and she insisted, trying to press a piece of jerky into his hand. He looked hungrily at the food and appeared anxious enough to eat it, but seemed unwilling to loose his iron grip on the two sticks he’d brought with him, and she Liz was pretty sure she knew why.
While thoroughly convinced that he had succeeded at concealing his condition from Bud, Susan and the pilot—lots of people used sticks to improve balance while getting around in the mountains, after all, and they had been working too hard, themselves, to give him much notice—there was no hiding it from Liz. She knew he didn’t use a stick for balance, not unless it was a spear that he happened to be carrying, anyway, and never had she known him to use two of them. No sense delaying the matter. Perhaps there would be some way she could improve things, for him.
“What’s wrong with your legs? Did you fall…?”
Einar looked away. “Fell plenty, but I always got back up. Don’t know what’s wrong. It will pass.”
Despite Einar’s easy confidence, Liz could see from the hard lines on his face and the distance in his eyes that he was in pain, struggling to stay on his feet and afraid to sit down lest he find himself unable to rise again. She gently pulled him down beside her on the log.
“Maybe it won’t pass. Maybe your body is just done. The muscles. They’ve all been consumed just to keep you alive and going.”
He wished she wouldn’t talk about that, not now, with the possibility that their guests might hear. “Been that way for a long time,” he quietly replied, fidgeting on the bench and wishing to be back on his feet, “and I’ve been getting by.”
“Well, now you’re not. It seems like you’d better think about eating more, or maybe next time it won’t be your legs that are wanting to give out, but your heart. It’s a muscle, too, you know….”
He did know, easy as he found it most times to ignore the fact. “Yeah. I am eating, though.”
“Barely enough to keep you alive, and certainly not enough so that you can start gaining a little weight. You’re still losing. I can see it. You need more. Need to get really serious about it.”
Einar just shrugged, got painfully back to his feet, but she wouldn’t let it go.
“I would hate to lose you now, you know. When we’ve just about got through the winter and spring is here, Will’s first spring, and he’s about to start walking…”
“Oh, I have no intention of dying in the springtime”—he grinned, a mischievous glint returning to his eyes and a bit of a spring to his step as he headed to the shelter to put away his pack—“if I have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t want that. Would much rather go in the fall, in the first big snowstorm of the season, maybe climb up to the top of a peak and stand there where the wind breaks over the rocks, become part of a cornice or something, or better still find a big, windswept saddle up near the divide where the Jetstream is sweeping across smelling like broken granite and eternity and endless distance, snow coming down sideways, and just…”
“Stop it! I don’t want to hear that.”
He was silent—she had brought it up, and he’d only been trying to answer her; the woman really puzzled him, at times—and Liz let it go.
Guests finished setting up their improvised camp and perhaps an hour of angled sunlight remaining before the cold of evening really set in, Liz invited everyone to join her in the parachute-tent eventually destined to hold the jerky-smoking rack, remembering the pleasant afternoon she, Einar and Will had several days prior enjoyed in the pocket of warm, still air trapped beneath its fabric and thinking perhaps there everyone could rest, Einar could finally warm up a bit and Bud and Susan might hopefully explain the purpose of their visit.