Einar looked confused at Bud’s suggestion, tried to rise, fell to his knees, gave it another go and this time succeeded, hoisting himself up and over one of the evergreen trunks. Wasn’t sure how long he could stay on his feet, and movement seemed a rather unlikely thing with his body seizing up on him, all the major muscles cramping or on the verge of it, but he was willing to try. Did seem about time to be getting back to camp. He did not want Liz to worry, and besides—squinting up at the sun, which was close to disappearing behind the heavily timbered ridge— he’d lost nearly an entire day’s work to the jungle.
Movement hurt, result of the ropes and of the cramping brought on by electrolyte levels skewed by blood loss; his body did not want to move, but he took a certain satisfaction from pulling himself together and causing it to move, anyway. Bud was surprised, though perhaps he shouldn’t have been, to find that Einar easily kept up with him when he set out for home.
By the time the two of them reached the ridge just above camp, however, Einar was really struggling for breath, not getting enough oxygen, gasping and panting, even travelling downhill. Bud stopped, waited for him to catch up.
“How about we take a break for just a minute, let you catch your breath and maybe get cleaned up a little before we go down there. You know, to keep the womenfolk from carrying on, the way they can do…”
A good idea, Einar thought, though he couldn’t really see too much wrong, a little blood on his hands, maybe, and he picked up a lump of crusty snow and did his best to scrub it away. His shirt and jacket, set aside during the ordeal, had remained mostly clean, looked just fine where he carried them now, draped over one arm, and he rose to go, but Kilgore stopped him, suggested he might want to consider putting them on. Seeing as it is still early in the spring, and cold and all, and that would be what most folks expect you to do… Einar nodded, began struggling into the garments but couldn’t get too far, fumbling with fingers crusty with blood. Another problem. Thought he’d solved that one. Got some more snow, tried again to clean his hands and then to manage the shirt, Kilgore finally buttoning it for him when his fingers proved unable. Einar then wanted to check everything over again and make sure he’d got all the blood off so Liz would not be bothered, crouched, began again to scrub his hands with snow. Kilgore, who could see that he was swaying and fading, starting to lose his balance and probably not too far from passing out, pulled him to his feet and continued down the slope.
Nearing dusk by the time they finished the descent, Susan stirring stew over the fire, Roger out collecting wood and Liz in the shelter feeding Will after his most recent nap. Susan took one look at Einar, steered him over to a fallen aspen and pressed a cup of water into his hands, taking Bud aside while Liz hurried out and sat down beside him.
“This man looks like he needs a blood transfusion, Bud. He’s white as a sheet.”
Einar heard despite Susan’s hushed tone, grinned, eyes flashing with a brief fire that told Liz he had a fair chance of being alright, appearances notwithstanding. “Nah, I’m ok. This is nothing that hasn’t happened before. It’s normal. Works itself out. Just kinda takes a while, sometimes.” Out of breath after those few words he sat with head down and elbows braced on his knees, hoping to drive away the gathering blackness. Muninn, who had been watching the entire scene rather skeptically from a nearby tree—too many people for him, too many strangers, or semi-strangers, for him to be comfortable on the ground in camp—glided down to perch on his shoulder, rasping quietly and twisting a bit of hair above his ear.
“Well,” Susan gently scolded, “things might work out a lot better if you didn’t let this happen so often. It shouldn’t be ‘normal.’ Liz, better see if you can get some soup in him.”
Soup did not sound very good to Einar, he finding himself nauseated at the smell of it and suddenly wishing very much to curl up on the crusty snow of the nearest remaining bank and sleep, but Liz was insistent, and he gave it his best effort.
Susan motioned Bud over behind their tent, lowered her voice further to prevent Einar's sharp ears from again picking up her words. “Seriously, Bud, how much did he lose up there? Do you know?”
“Not really. Pint or three, I’d say, though it’s always a little tough to say when it’s all over the rocks and leaves and all, like that. Always looks like more than it is.”
“He can’t afford that much even, I’m afraid. I really think if we can’t talk him going lower where there’s a little more oxygen for a while, he may not pull through this.”
“Aw, you heard him. Nothing too much out of the ordinary, bad as it looks. Ornery old critter knows what he’s doing. More or less.”
“You don’t sound terribly confident.”
“Yeah, this time I’m not. He didn’t look so good up there. Was really out of it, all grey and dazed and didn’t even realize what he’d done to himself. Seemed surprised when I pointed out he was bleeding.”
“It’s the dreams, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I figure. Fella can get trapped in that stuff sometimes.”
“I know. I remember. With Bill. We had a few really rough years there, after he got back. But then somehow it seemed to fade, go into the background and only come up from time to time, for the rest of his life. I wish it could fade like that for Einar.”
Bud shrugged, felt strange, somehow, speaking of the matter, but Susan wanted him to speak, and it wasn’t as if he usually had any trouble whatsoever finding plenty of words… “Thing is with Asmundson, you know, I’m not sure he ever let himself have any of those ‘tough years’ after he came back. Old buzzard never quit moving long enough to let any of it catch up to him. But now it has, with the search, and being on the run, and his having to face some of these memories finally. Maybe it will fade some, with time, maybe it won’t. For some guys it never does. Just got to give him time.”
“I’m not sure how much more of it he can survive, Bud. Not like this. Not with it getting worse every time, or seeming to.”
“Yeah, I know it. Don’t know that he’s going to have to do that, though. I’ve got an idea.”