When Einar scrambled up into the rocks behind the cabin Bud followed, knowing he was doing so at his own peril but hardly considering it a just thing to abandon the man to the thoughts he had himself stirred up by forcing certain matters into the conversation. The company irritated Einar, left him--not even entirely certain that it was Kilgore he heard ascending the scree behind him, though his logical mind told him it had to be--desperately wanting more space, wanting to respond with force as he watched the slouched form of the tracker’s faded boonie hat make its appearance above the last of the shielding slope-rocks, but he did not, remained still there where he sat, elbows on his knees and legs hanging down over the edge of the dropoff. Bud moved warily towards him, stopping at a respectful distance and sitting down. They were alone up there, just Einar, himself, the cliffs and that spear…not the most reassuring situation in the world when it came to ensuring his continued existence, but Bud Kilgore had been in worse, and it didn’t much bother him.
“Been runnin’ too long, Asmundson.”
No answer from Einar, so Bud went on. “That’s why you came to Rhodesia all those years ago, isn’t it? I mean besides the fact that it was a good cause and you really believed you could have an impact and all, have a clear objective and some chance of winning, just like we all did, maybe finally hand a good solid defeat to the Communist scum…but you were looking to get away from that other place, weren’t you? Hopin’ you’d never have to look back, but it followed ya, didn’t it? Followed you out into the bundu and stalked around the edges of your camp at night like a she-lion waiting for the kill, always out there, always ready to pounce if ya slowed down for more than a minute and let yourself think about it, so you just stayed busy, threw yourself into that fight for all you were worth--which was quite a lot, if I’m remembering correctly--and then you did the same with that job of yours once the war was over and you finally had to go home, that fast-paced intel job they gave ya--what were they thinking?--until you used that up, too, got yourself in trouble for doing what we all had to agree was the right thing, but of course they didn’t see it that way, and you were out… And now what? Now all these years later you’re still running, aren’t you? Through the jungle, or from it, or maybe a little of both, but the thing is you can’t stop. Courageous as you are about most everything in life--I’ve seen it, man, both over there and here with some of the conditions you’ve had to face, that foot, all of it, and couldn’t hope to match it, myself--this is the one thing you just can’t face, isn’t it? Can’t stop running ‘cause it’d catch up to you and then there you’d be, face to face and forced to look at it, and you’re just not sure you’d have the means to make it through that one, are you? Kinda worried that if all this stuff you’ve built up around yourself comes tumbling down, you won’t know how to get by anymore. How to be.”
Einar wouldn’t look at him, was, in fact, trying hard not to hear his words at all, to keep himself occupied by studying the intricacies of a thin granite flake that he was gripping so tightly it dug into the flesh of his hand, but it wasn’t working too well.
“You know, your lady sees more than you may think she does, I do believe, and even if she doesn’t know what this is all about, I do. This starvin’ yourself to within an inch of your life, over and over again…and don’t try to pretend that’s not what it is, because I know better, know you’ve got food around and this is about more than you just trying to make sure there’s plenty for her and the kid, or having trouble eating because the foot’s hurting…man, you’d be doing this if you were down there in civilization living right next door to the grocery store, wouldn’t you? Just to prove to yourself that you can. Just to make sure…you’re trying to make sure they can’t break ya, aren’t you? Make sure they can never do it again, and the only way you can see to manage that is to do worse to yourself than they could ever do, and learn to endure. Over and over, you got to keep going a little farther each time, proving it to yourself until…what? What’s the end game, here? When will it be enough? When you finally manage to hold out long enough that your body gives up on you and you die? ’Cause you don’t look all that far from it at the moment, let me tell you. Body can only take so much, and no matter how you’ve trained and hardened yourself--that training’s served you real well out here, hasn’t it? Lots to admire in what you’ve done, I’ll give you that--you’re gonna come up against that limit at some point, and find yourself just physically unable to go on. So is that it? Will that be enough for you? When you reach the point of not being able to go on anymore, and pass it, and are able to stand there--ha! Lie there, more like it--and say with certainty that you still haven’t given in? And then you get to die a happy man, cleansed, redeemed, absolved at last? I’m beginning to think maybe nothing less will be enough, and man let me tell you, that’s just not a choice you got any right to make, as a family man. Besides, I thought that’s what the Cross was for. Absolution. Redemption. Once and for all. Didn’t you tell me that, once? Thought you believed that. Those just aren’t things you can do for yourself, no matter how hard you try. You’ll never get there.”
Angry. Trapped. Violated. The tracker had gone where no one had the right to go, had sought out the inner workings of his soul and in so doing had left him with little to cling to, little to call his own, and Einar did not know how to make it right again. Throwing the man over the cliff would have been a fine start. But he kept still. “That’s not…guess you’re right about some of it, but you’re talking about things you don’t know…can’t know, you weren’t there so you can’t possibly know…”
A shake of his head, silence, Einar staring blindly into the abyss below and wishing he could plunge into it, disappear, only he couldn’t, because Liz would be coming back, might find him down there in the rocks, what a mess, and he couldn’t do that to her. Kilgore wasn’t going away, and finally, feeling the man’s eyes boring into the side of his head as he awaited his answer, Einar spoke.
“They were in a hurry when they got me, they…didn’t have time to mess around like they did earlier in the war, wear us down over time, things were moving fast out there, they needed that intel right away, and…”
“And they got it?”
“Tried real hard, but no! Not from me. Nothing they could use. Stuff I told them was…well, I made most of it up right there on the spot, and only after four or five days of…their finest hospitality. Don’t believe I could have made much sense then, even if I’d wanted to. But I shouldn’t have said anything at all, should have been able to go on resisting until…the end.”
“There’s no dishonor in what you did, Asmundson. You’re human. We all are. And the fact that you went on and escaped after all that, just days after it, made that long trek through the jungle in the kind of shape you were in trying to get help for your friend, let the rest of us know where he was so we could go in after him--well, you clearly hadn’t given up. Were still resisting every step of the way.”
Sullen, silent, Einar studied the shard of granite in his hand, snapped it in half, tossed the fragments down over the dropoff. Andy. Andy was another matter, and not one he intended to discuss with the tracker just then. “No dishonor. I know. That’s what I…what they told me later and what I’ve told others since, back when I was running SERE courses for a few years, you know--those kids never did realize their instructor was speaking from experience on so many of those things, I guess--so I understand the principle but when it comes to me and what I did…and didn’t do…just can’t make myself believe that. Always have to wonder if I could’ve held out longer, if I really gave it my best at the time and how things might have turned out differently if I’d just been able to…” He stopped, head bowed, fists clenched white and trembling in front of his face, further words stifled in his throat.
Kilgore moved closer, put his hand on Einar’s shoulder and hung on with a solid grip intended as much to prevent him edging his way any closer to that dropoff as it was to provide a bit of friendly human contact. “Give it your best now, Asmundson.”