Cache dragged the rest of the way and stashed safely in the snow-free confines of the tunnel for later perusal the two men joined Liz and Susan inside, Bud hobbling over to the seat Susan had prepared for him near the stove and Einar crouching with his back to the door, dazed, exhausted, half wanting to go back outside but seemingly unable to convince his body to cooperate in the effort until Liz rather insistently pulled him to his feet and led him over to the fire.
“Sit. Get warm. Food will be ready soon.” He nodded, sat down, made no move to leave but he wasn’t really there, either, eyes straying to the tunnel door as he sat by the stove warming; Liz’s idea, not his own, as he could hardly have cared less about being warm, wanting only to be back out in the bracing, scouring fury of that storm--knew he would find comfort, actually, in its harsh but familiar touch, the way it drew every ounce of his focus and narrowed the entire world down to a single point of intensity as he contended with the elements--file in hand, where he could finish reading. Couldn’t do it in there, not around all those people and especially not in the presence of his dear Lizzie; he had to be alone.
They wouldn’t let him leave though, not then. He was sure of it, the way they were all hovering over him--no good reason for them to be doing so, to be making such a fuss, really ought to leave him alone, but sometimes people were like that--and besides, now that he was beginning to thaw a little his hands were shaking so that he greatly doubted his ability to get into the duffel to retrieve the documents, in the first place. He would have to wait. Perhaps even eat, as Liz had been urging him to do, pressing upon him hot broth and tea with honey until finally he’d taken a swallow of something--couldn’t remember which, and the realization disturbed him slightly; must be awfully cold not to remember a thing like that--just to satisfy her. Susan had some sort of soup ready, something she must have had in her pack, for it smelled unfamiliar to him and would have been very appetizing, he could not help but think, had he been at all inclined to be hungry. Something with noodles, and onions. He could smell the starch. Strange to be able to smell starch, but he could. Probably a packet of instant noodles of some sort, and he watched in cold-dazed fascination as she chopped a chunk of sheep meat into tiny fragments and added them to the pot, aroma changing somewhat with the addition. He pressed an arm across the hollow of his stomach, stared at the floor.
Will was crying. Liz went to him, the soft, contented sounds of a feeding baby soon replacing that high-pitched wail, and Einar was glad. Seemed the little one had fared just fine on their excursion to the basin, and it was good to know that they were equipped to travel with him if need be, even through a storm and bring him safely through the long, cold nights. Well, Liz was able to do it, anyway. She was the one with all the food and warmth, but that was as it ought to be. Yes. Good trial run. Though it would no doubt pose a severe challenge should they have to leave their warm, secure little home for good during the winter months, abandoning all they had hunted, harvested and put aside there, it appeared Will’s chances of surviving such an endeavor ought to be nearly as good as their own, and he found the thought greatly reassuring.
Also reassuring was the fact that everyone seemed to have moved on a bit, stopped standing around him in a circle wanting to do this and that and speculating as if he wasn’t even there, which, though seemingly not able to answer their questions at the moment--that must have been what got them concerned; always seemed to disturb folks some when a fellow couldn’t communicate with them, even if only temporarily ,and he would have given it more effort had the things they’d been saying made any sense in the first place, but they had not--he definitely was, and didn’t like the attention one bit. So. Good that they were on to other things now, Liz sitting with the baby and listening as Kilgore gave a rather lively account of their adventures up on the high, red ridge, winds that had nearly ripped them off the side and left them grasping at partially exposed tree roots just to save themselves, perilous, one-legged glissades down avalanche-prone slopes in the still-howling wind and an evening during which, darkness approaching and the two of them nearing the end of their strength, they had increasingly come to believe they had missed the cabin altogether, and would be spending a night out in the gale… All of it at least half true, Einar imagined, but no doubt also greatly embellished by Kilgore’s active and occasionally overbearing sense of drama, and flexing his hands as he chuckled silently at the tracker’s antics--things were starting to function again, fingers once more mobile--Einar figured the time was as good as any to make his escape.
If Einar had thought--which, brain still numbed somewhat from the thorough chilling he’d received on the ascent that morning, he really might have--his departure would escape notice he was seriously mistaken, the conversation ceasing shortly after his exit into the tunnel and Liz half rising to go after him, but thinking better of it. She knew how he hated to have her hovering, and she had, of necessity, already done too much of it since their return to the cabin, tending to lightly frostbitten fingers and feet which had ended up in slightly worse condition after his time in the snow that past night; the injuries had needed to be dealt with in a prompt manner, as had the matter of getting him headed in the right direction again, taking in fluids and beginning to warm, but she doubted he would take too kindly to her following him just then and hovering some more. Best give him some time, enough to do whatever he might need to do out there and hopefully return on his own, but not enough to freeze himself. She--or perhaps Bud, if he offered--would go after him before that.
Too much time. Supper was ready, and still Einar had not come back. For some time the tunnel had been silent, and it did not take too much speculation for Liz, pacing with Will, to guess what had happened. He’d retrieved those papers, and had left with them. Good enough; she knew he would have to finish reading them sometime and had not been under any illusions as to the urgency with which he must regard the matter, but she had no intention of allowing him to sit out there in the storm and freeze, and die, as he did it. Could do his reading inside by the stove, if he must do it right them. Leaving Will with Susan and declining Kilgore’s offer of assistance--I need to do this by myself, I’ll holler if I need you out there--she went to look for him.
Outside the snow had stopped, but still the wind sighed and shrieked relentlessly through the timber, driving spin-drift into the air and creating at times near-whiteout conditions in the little clearing in front of the cabin, and through this whiteness, clinging to the woodshed for balance, Liz got her first glimpse of Einar, all hunched up on a snowy boulder just inside the trees. At least, she saw as she neared, he’d kept his clothes on this time, parka plastered with wind-blown snow, but even so the elements were taking their toll on him, leaving him already to shiver so that he was having a difficult time holding onto the bag into which, finished reading for the time, he had placed the documents for safe-keeping. Liz took them from him, tucked them beneath her own parka and sat down beside him, back to the wind. For a long time he didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence, staring stone-faced into the storm but she could see that he wanted to say something, took his hands in hers and asked what it might be. At which--had to reclaim his hands, couldn’t stand the contact just then--the words came, broken, halting at first but then they were tripping over themselves.
“We…we were communicating, early on in our captivity. Andy and I. While he still had the strength to do it and we weren’t being watched so closely, every moment of the day. Talking back and forth between enclosures when none of the guards seemed to be around…goodness knows we ought to have been able to hear each other well enough, because I could certainly hear…the other noises from over there…his screams and groans and the sounds of them…doing what they did, and I’m sure he could hear the same. But I hadn’t remembered that we spoke. Or what he said. It’s all here, fresh from whatever memory I had left after those two weeks of E&E through the jungle, all written out in detail and he…that kid kept telling me I had to go, get out of there before they decided to move us or dispose of us as we were pretty sure they intended to do whenever they were through…extracting whatever information they thought we might have, and for days I told him no, wouldn’t even try because I wanted to… I was sure I could get us both out. Find a way. And he kept telling me no, because he’d been hurt pretty bad when they captured him, didn’t think he could even walk. I didn’t care. Was still sure I could make it work somehow, if he’d just work with me and try to make a way out of that cage so he’d be ready when I took the guard. Wasn’t time to do it any other way, but he didn’t seem interested.”
“I was still gonna make a way, get myself out and come for him but then one morning, the last I was able to get in touch with him, he told me he wasn’t coming, wasn’t leaving there no matter what, said he’d found another way out and was going home soon…that part I do remember now, had thought at the time he was just rambling, losing touch with reality as we’d both been doing from time to time and with increasing frequency, but this was different, he really was going home, knew it and was so happy about it, peaceful…and he begged me to go while I still could, get out of there because he’d heard the guards talking and they were going to be moving camp in the morning…and probably not taking us with them. I…uh…” He stopped, face in his hands and shoulders shaking with silent sobs as he struggled for breath.
“For all the things that did stick in my mind there’s so much I didn’t remember, but it’s all still in there in my head, every detail even after all these years and as I read this it just…”
Arms around him and forehead resting on his own she held him then, and he--rather unlike him--allowed it. Kept still. “I know. It’s a lot. Lot to look at all at once like this, but Einar, don’t you see what Andy was doing? He wanted you to go. Knew he wasn’t getting out, was at peace with where he was going--home--and wanted you to get out while you still could, and go on with life.”
Silence, shaking his head, raw, undiluted misery in his eyes as he stared up at the snowy trees. “No…. Even if that was what he wanted, I should have found a way to get us both out of there. Should never have left him. That wasn’t…”
“Listen to me. He wanted you to live, and it sounds like there was only one way for that to happen. He wasn’t getting out. Was dying. Going home. He just wanted to make sure you wouldn’t stay and needlessly die with him. Wanted to give you a chance. You would have done that for him, wouldn’t you? Without a second thought? I know you. You’re the man who stepped between me and three armed agents with nothing but your knife when you could have kept hidden in the trees, walked away, and I’ve seen you do the same more than once, including when Bud hit his head down in the basin the other day and you nearly lost your life hauling him back up here to safety. I know you would have done that for Andy, too, had circumstances been reversed. Would have stepped between him and danger without a second thought.” A nod. Sure, he would have done that. Would have done it at the time, and had wished on countless occasions since that there was some way to go back and switch places so he could do it, still. But Liz wasn’t finished.
“If that was something you would have done for him, and would have considered it the right thing to do had circumstances been reversed, why can’t you accept that he did it for you? Ransom. One man giving his life for another. You know the concept. Christ did it for you, willingly, a willing sacrifice, and I know you accept that, and Andy, in his own small way, did it too. He wanted you to live, and I want you to live and your son…he needs you to live! Live for them. All of them.”
He took the packet of papers from beneath Liz’s parka, set it in the snow, stone-faced for a moment more, but only a moment. Ransom. And he wept.