There were three of them, flying low and in formation, appearing so suddenly over the ridge as to entirely disrupt Einar’s pondering and send all five adults diving for the ground despite the fact that they were already safely inside the tunnel, no hovering or circling, clearly hadn’t seen anything…yet. That was enough for Einar. With no sign of a coming storm, feds starting to take increased interest in the area and no solid plan for leaving the mines…he knew where it was leading.
“When do you want to do this?”
“Now. Soon as we can get back here with the snowmobiles, anyway. No waiting. This trail needs grooming, and we’re anxious to open up the new section, too. Real anxious, aren’t we, Sue? I’ve got the duffel bags at the house right now. We’ll come load you up here in the tunnel, stick you on the pallets under the timber where no one can see, then we’ll all go together down to the highway. Sue can bring Roger’s snowmobile back.”
Einar looked questioningly at Liz and she, shocked that he should be considering it at all, quickly nodded, yes, let’s do it! before he could talk himself out of the whole idea. Wished, in fact, that they could do it right then so as not to give him the hours of wandering in the mine with the shadows she knew gathered around him when he went alone through the passages. Already he was having his doubts.
“And when they see you coming back with empty duffels?”
“Oh, got that all taken care of. Will have ‘em full of snow on the trip up here, full of snow again after we dump you down at the truck. The look won’t change.”
Einar nodded. Time to do it. Staying would lead quickly and fairly inevitably to disaster; already they had been far too long in the mines, and far too long at the house before that.
“Right. Glad to hear it. I’ve already packed your chutes, got them in the truck so you can take a look at them as we drive if you need to do that, and you’re gonna have to give your wife a quick lesson or two on the basics of jumping, because we’re not going to be sticking around the airstrip long enough to do any of that when we get there. Sound good”
A nod from Einar, the two shook hands again and then Roger shook Liz’s as well, grinning at Will and getting a chortled laugh in response.
“Looks like it’s all set then,” Bud declared, rising. “We’ll ski on down to the house, get the snowmobiles and be up her as quick as we can. Don’t know what those boys are doing rumbling so low through here, but guess we’d better not stick around to find out, if we can help it…”
They were gone then, Einar, Liz and Will alone in the silence of the tunnel, no one speaking for some time. Finally Liz, concerned where Einar’s mind might be straying as he stared into the shadows, broke the silence.
“I didn’t know you had jumped so many times…”
“Oh, yeah, we did a lot of jumps. Some of them from real high up, best way to get in on the wrong side of a border without being detected…we went some pretty sketchy places, that’s for sure.”
“That’s how you ended up wherever you were when they captured you down in that tunnel, isn’t it?”
A long silence. “Yeah. Yeah, it is. You know, first time I jumped after that…what was it? Nearly three whole years later, it would have been. Well, I was looking forward to it, was real confident in my skills and was ready to go, but once we got up in that plane, I just couldn’t quit shaking. Rhodesian bush down there was all hazy with smoke from the wildfires they had so often, looked real distinctive, real different from anything I’d seen before but as we got ready to jump it turned to double canopy jungle right before my eyes, and I just about couldn’t go through with it. Did, though. Couldn’t let the other guys know anything was going on, and with time it got better. I made it get better, made it work.”
“Yes, I have no doubt you did. You always make it work. Is that what you’re thinking about right now, though? How it’s going to be to jump after so long, and whether it will…remind you of that other time, and what came after?”
He smiled, took her in his arms, resting his chin on Will’s head, which was blossoming of late with white-blond curls that inevitably reminded him of a dandelion going to seed.
“No. No, I am not. Just thinking about getting you guys home.”
The duffel bags were a bit damp inside even after being emptied of the snow with which they had been packed for the trip up from Bud and Susan’s, and Einar helped pad Liz’s with a blanket so she and Will could stay dry. There beneath the heavy, sheltering timber he helped her into the bag, slid Will in beside her and took a last look around before climbing into the second bag where it sat lashed to the pallet, pistol tucked up under his chin where it would be handy, eyes big and white as Bud cinched down the top of the bag and closed its flap.
Long, cold and jarring was the ride through the timber, Liz a bit more comfortable with the blanket padding her and Will mostly sleeping at her side, but Einar found himself having to brace against every shift and bump in the trail which seemed to slam him against the pallet with enough force to break bone, leaving him bruised and thoroughly exhausted before they were halfway down the back of the mountain. Nothing broke, however, and at last the movement ceased. Clamping his jaw in the silence and fighting to still a tremor that had seized his hands somewhere along the way Einar inched the pistol into a better position, straining his ears to hear through the canvas and figure out what might be going on out there. Hated not being able to see, to order and direct the situation to the best of his ability. Nothing for it. Had to allow Bud and Roger to be his eyes, for a short time.
Down at the highway Roger made a quick reconnaissance of the truck and the area where he’d hidden it beneath some heavy timber, all clear, it appeared, and skidding the pallet over beside the bed he took one end of Liz and Will’s duffel and Kilgore the other, the two of them carefully loading it. “You Ok in there?” Kiesl checked, easing the bag over to one side to prepare room for Einar, loosening its drawstring so Liz could wriggle out and return the bag to Kilgore.
“Yes, fine. Where’s Einar?”
The pilot laughed as he lifted Einar, not even stopping to wait for Kilgore’s help. “Wow, I’ve tossed sacks of chicken feed that weighed more than you do, Asmundson.”
“Right,” Einar’s voice coming muffled through the canvas as he struggled all cold-stiff and cramping to free himself and return the bag to the pair on the snowmobiles, “don’t amount to a hill of beans anymore, but that’s the way I like it. Harder for them to spot me that way, and I can squeeze through cracks and passages where no one can follow!”
“Yeah, you look like you’re about to go where no one can follow, alright! Never were a man to do a thing halfway. Ok, we’re out of here Bud. Can you and Sue handle loading the snow and finishing the grooming run, here?’
“We’ve got it, Rog.” He slammed a fist into Einar’s shoulder, laid a gentler hand on Liz’s. See you folks around. Take care of that little one, ma’am, raise him up tough like his daddy. He’s gonna need it.”
With which they were gone, Susan too choked up to speak, half glad she couldn’t see Liz or Will there at the last moment, holding herself together as she took Roger’s snowmobile and followed Bud back up the hill, knowing that there were too many trees in their path to safely allow her eyes to fill with the tears that wanted to come.
Roger was not waiting around, truck already bumping down the snowpacked track as Liz wriggled free from the blanket which concealed her, found Einar’s hand, and he gave hers a reassuring squeeze as the miles rolled away below them.
Some five hours later and with dusk approaching they finally reached the airstrip, Einar blinking in confusion at the sight that met his eyes when Roger lowered the tailgate, rolling brown winter grasslands spreading out in all directions, not a peak in sight. Before he could ask questions Roger was gone, quickly inspecting his plane before herding his passengers inside and briefly leaving again to conceal the truck inside the other end of open hangar which sheltered the plane—the only structure on the place. They were off, then, quickly airborne, Einar busy with final instructions for Liz, last inspection of the rigging and of Will’s hastily improvised but satisfactorily secure harness—Susan had even brought a little pair of infant-sized wrap-around sunglasses for the occasion—and before they knew it Roger was circling, telling them to get ready.
The following minutes passed in a blur, Liz stoic but clearly unsettled, Einar silently reassuring her and then the time had come and they were falling, plane arcing away above them.
When Einar got his bearings and looked up it was to see Liz and Will already drifting safely beneath their canopy as the cold air rushed up at him, thin, spruce-scented, the smell of freedom, high, timbered world growing rapidly larger and more defined beneath his feet, familiar, and Einar knew he was going home…