A clear night up in the little basin, stars wheeling slowly overhead and no gust of wind coming to disturb the improvised tents beneath which Roger, Bud and Susan had taken shelter for the night. Though the night air was chilly at that high elevation, cold enough, certainly, to form on the sun-softened snow the rock-hard crust which made spring travel so easy and so trackless on spring mornings in the high country. But even through the frigid night hours rose the warm, living smells of thawing ground and awakening vegetation which heralded spring as surely as did the lengthening hours of daylight. Susan smiled in her sleep as these living and life-giving smells rode the slightest whisper of wind as it passed down the spruce-laden slopes and through her open-sided tent, dreaming of Will, walking, exploring a meadow of Indian paintbrush rimmed with skunk cabbages while the aspens, leaves still the new, brilliant yellow-green of spring, rustled their water-song overhead.
Too tired to dream after his days out on the canyon rim and the long climb back to the basin, Einar lay enfolded in the welcome blackness of sleep, more than ready for a few hours without movement. Despite his willingness to stay in the bed and leave further frozen wanderings for the morning, he did not seem to be getting much warmer after an hour or so in the sleeping bag, and Liz was starting to shiver, herself, after being there with him for a while. His body seemed to be radiating the cold, and she was doubtful of her ability to produce enough heat for both of them.
Will, at least, was warm in his own little nest of furs off to the side, and was sleeping, so she waited, hoping things would improve so she could join him in sleep. Not happening, and not a particularly useful situation for anyone, she finally decided, though Einar himself seemed perfectly content with the arrangement. Content, or perhaps simply too exhausted to notice, and it was the latter which had her a bit worried. Creeping over to the smoldering coals of the previous evening’s fire she fanned them to life, choosing a few smooth granite stones and rolling them into the resulting bed of living, glowing orange. Crouching there and warming herself over the coals Liz waited as the rocks heated, quickly wrapping several of them in bits of flannel when she decided they were ready, and hurrying back to bed.
Einar had curled up into a little ball during her absence, still not fully awake—good thing, she could only assume, or he might well have decided that his best course of action involved leaving the bed, and the shelter, and lying in the snow for the remainder of the night to increase his cold tolerance, or some such—and she had some difficulty in persuading him to change his position. Succeeding at last, she rolled one of the hot rocks down to the foot of the sleeping bag and nestled the others in the hollow of Einar’s stomach where he lay curled up on his side. He only shook harder at the introduction of this new heat source, but Liz was hopeful that the rocks would do the job. Already they seemed to be countering the chill that had pervaded the place since his coming to bed, and after a time Einar stirred, seemed to be waking, stirring, trying once more to leave the bed, so that she had to hold him in place over his objections.
“I’ll keep you up all night with this. Going to…take a while before I can…”
“It’s ok. I’ve been up at night anyway these past few nights, wondering where you were, and at least now I know. I’m sure we’ll both get some sleep.” Which seemed to suit Einar just fine, he far too weary to mind the continued chill in his body, and drifting quickly back towards sleep. Liz, though, found herself less ready.
“Einar, you have to stop this.”
“Uh…trying. May take a while. Said I’d…I’d go outside so I wouldn’t…be bothering you so much, but you…”
“No, you big goof, I don’t mean you’ve got to stop shivering. Don’t stop that! You have to finish getting warm. I mean you’ve got to stop freezing yourself like this all the time, in the first place. It’s spring. No sense freezing to death in the springtime, and don’t say you can’t help it because of where we live…you could always wear more clothes. Or eat more, or both. It’s a choice. Isn’t it?”
There seemed little more to say, so she did her best to go to sleep
Liz woke at daylight to the sound of conversation outside, momentarily disoriented and thinking Einar must be carrying on a lively discussion with himself, before remembering the happenings of the past day and realizing that he and Bud must be taking a look at the meat-smoking tent.
“What is this thing, Asmundson? A sauna? Radar dome? Snow camouflage so planes won’t spot you folks when you’re lounging around out here in your brightly-colored Hawaiian shirts?”
Einar laughed at that, a relief to Liz after his strained silence the night before and the long, cold night, and she pulled Will into the bag with her, wanting to feed him before she got up.
“Yeah, camouflage, Einar retorted, “so we can spend some time outside without being spotted by every lost tourist that wanders by looking for a place to camp.”
“You calling us lost tourists? We’re not lost. Took a lot of effort to find you folks, you know.”
“How did you do it?”
“Roger had a starting point, because he knew where he’d dropped you. We flew over that, took a look, then I spent some time with maps and tried to figure what made the most sense. What you would do. I’m a tracker, and you know real well that a tracker doesn’t just follow marks in the snow or dirt. His job is to get inside the head of his quarry, strip everything away and take a good long look at his soul. That’s the only way to know a human-critter’s intentions, or his likely path. Came pretty doggone close this time, I’d have to say.”
“For a lost tourist…”
Bud took a playful swing at Einar with the stout spruce stick he was using that morning to alleviate the soreness of knee and hip left behind by the previous day’s climb, surprised at the speed of the man’s reaction as he dodged, dropped to one knee and seized the stick in both hands. Kilgore could have pressed the matter, thrown the fugitive to the ground with his greater weight, but instead loosed his hold and took a step back, not liking the dead-calm, faraway look in the man’s eye.
“Whoa, take it easy there Asmundson. Just checking your response time, making sure you were still on top of things.”
Einar didn’t answer, right away, crouching against the trunk of a spruce and watching the tracker with wary eyes until after a space of several minutes he grinned, relaxed and handed the stick back to Bud. “Yeah, I know it.”
Roger, Susan and Liz were up by that time, joining them beside the white canopy of the jerky-smoking tent as they waited somewhat anxiously for the sun to come up over the ridge. Cold that morning, and Einar, still not entirely trusting that their guests had not been observed somewhere along their journey, did not want a fire just yet.
At Susan’s suggestion they all moved beneath the canopy, taking with them sections of the remaining frozen elk to slice for jerky.