For what seemed a good full minute they listened in strained silence as the footsteps drew nearer, Einar—remembering the first time he’d been surprised in a tunnel and not liking the way things had gone, after—wary of a trap and Liz and Susan knowing the danger that faced them all should he become convinced that this was the case. Bud was the only one who appeared thoroughly relaxed as he stepped out away from the wall, switching on his headlamp and beckoning to the as-yet unseen presence that lurked somewhere out there beyond the circle of light.
“Asmundson, meet my good friend and partner in crime—ha! By which I mean lots of federal felonies, here lately!—Roger Kiesl. While you haven’t met since the search has been on, I do believe you two fellas will remember one another from the Bundu.”
A bit of the battle-ready harshness left Einar’s eyes at the memory of some long-past merriment, pistol still raised as he strained his ears for the sound of further movement in the tunnel behind the spot where Kiesl had emerged, but there was nothing. Slightly lowering the weapon he crouched against the wall, appraising the interloper in the white halogen beam of Kilgore’s headlamp.
“Oh yeah, I remember. You were a sanctions-buster, and a pretty doggone good one too, seems like. Helped keep us supplied, down there.
Kiesl grinned. “Was a specialty of mine for a while there.”
“You two know each other in the jungle?” Kilgore inquired. “Back before Africa, where ‘ol Roger came to be known as ‘The Ferret,’ and for good reason?”
“Never did. But if I’m not mistaken, we’ve seen your plane come over here more than once since this search has been on, and it’s always improved things for us here on the ground. Appreciate it.”
Roger stood, the two of them shaking hands, a gesture which Liz seldom ever remember seeing from Einar. “It’s been an honor, sir. Lots of fun, too. Sometimes I really do miss the old days.”
Einar nodded, faraway look in his eyes for a moment, but he quickly brought himself back to the present. “What’re you doing here, Kiesl? Kilgore and his bride already managed to bust this embargo, brought us supplies yesterday…”
“Came to get you folks out of here, Asmundson. Clean out of this country, before the feds can draw the noose any tighter around you. Bud can explain.”
Kilgore crouched against the wall, arms crossed. “Here’s how it’s gonna go, if you’re agreeable. Sue and I have been taking the snowmobile out and putting in track for skiing, dragging a pallet behind to flatten and groom things, like a lot of folks do who don’t have access to fancy grooming equipment. That’s how we ended up coming by your place here, without it looking odd. Well, we need to put in some more track, a back loop down through the timber and almost to the highway on an old logging road that cuts down the back of the property, behind the area of this mine. When you’re doing that sort of grooming you got to have some weight on the pallet, or the trail won’t be much good. Figured we’d load you folks up in the duffel bags we’ve been using to hold sand and rocks and stuff to weigh down the pallet, take you down to the highway and load you into Roger’s truck. A truck which Roger has borrowed, I should say. No known connection either to him or to me, so you don’t need to worry about that.”
“At which time,” Roger picked up, “you folks ride out with me to the airport, not this airport, of course, but another one, and little Will gets to make his first flight.”
Einar was quiet, thoughtful, knew he ought to dismiss the offer outright but knew also that they were stuck, currently, no good way out. Kiesl, he trusted, as far as he could trust any man under present conditions. The pilot had participated before in bringing Bud and Susan to see them, in creating diversions when the search had been hot, and had never betrayed them. Still, it couldn’t work.
“They’d be waiting for us on landing, likely as not. Wherever we might go…”
“Who said anything about you landing? You’re not gonna be landing! Think I’d risk having my plane shot all full of holes and then whatever remained of it seized and auctioned off, like that?”
Liz thought she saw a bit of a sparkle begin creeping into Einar’s eye at that, corner of his mouth twisting up. “Ok then. Tell me more.”
“Not a lot more to tell,” Roger shrugged. Just meaning to deviate by a few hundred miles from my flight plan, toss you folks out of the plane and be done with it, really.”
Liz, who had been listening quietly and with a growing excitement, cut in at that point. “What about Will, though? I’d jump out of a plane, but he’s so little…”
“Aw, don’t worry about it ma’am,” Kiesl assured her. “My little guy was just six months old when he made his first jump, strapped to my chest with a tiny pair of goggles and wearing his snowsuit for warmth. “
“His first jump? You mean out of an airplane?”
“Well no, it was more like paragliding, but as far as the experience for the child, well…probably not a lot of difference. We’re not talking HALO stuff, here. He should do ok with the thin air, for the short time you’ll be up in it, especially since he’s a kid who’s lived his entire life up on the high ridges so far, and we’ll find ways to keep him warm. Strap him to your chest, maybe even zip him in under your coat, and it’ll go just fine.”
“Sure, why not?”
“I’ve never done it before. Never jumped out of anything.” She turned to Einar. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you? In the Army?”
“Been a while, but yeah, between the Rangers and the RLI, I’ve done a few jumps…”
Kilgore laughed, clapped Einar so hard on the back that he would have bowled the lighter man over had he not braced himself. “A few jumps? Let me tell you ma’am, this boy sure can understate things when he’s got a mind to do it. Why, by the time it was all over in Rhodesia, he had more jumps than most any of the troopies I knew over there, which is saying a lot. And of course that’s not counting the ones he’d done before, in the jungle—both sides of several borders, though you probably can’t get him to talk about it. Bet he’s never talked about any of that, has he? Ha! And what about the ones after those two little conflicts, in addition? If you want someone who can jump, he’s your man. He’s probably got more jumps than most of the jumpmasters at Benning, by now.”
Einar shrugged, looked away, and Kiesl stepped in. “Brilliant record aside, he’s likely as not to break a leg landing, this time. Literally. Got to have some pretty brittle bones there Asmundson, the way you’re looking, and the long ones in your legs are liable to snap if you don’t come in real smooth and controlled. Just a reality of the malnutrition or whatever it is you’ve got going on, there. Surprised you haven’t been breaking bones already. Something to keep in mind, when deciding who ought to carry the kid.”
Not the sort of thing Einar liked to hear, but he knew the pilot was right. Sure didn’t want the little one to be riding on his chest if his legs gave out and he went for a good tumble upon hitting the ground, much less if he should be unconscious when he reached it, which he knew was a real possibility, the way things had been going of late. Yet the idea of Liz carrying such cargo on her very first jump...
Enough, Einar. Not particularly relevant, any of this. You know you can’t do it. Mustn’t do it. Must find some other way out of here…