Before he could go searching for the plane which he was sure must have remained somewhere in the meadow, Einar knew he must do his best to try and identify the locations of the people who must surely be associated with this large, sprawling camp. One mystery, at least, had been solved for him, a strip of old roofing tin secured somewhat precariously to a frame of two-by-fours and old pallets providing explanation for the metallic flexing and popping sounds which had earlier caught his attention. The entire ramshackle structure appeared from a different time to the crisp new tents and tarps which made up the remainder of the structures, some old hunting camp, perhaps, that these new people had used as the base of their operation until they could get something better set up. But, to what purpose? Surely not hunting, not this time of year. The only thing that would be in season, so far as he could remember, would be big cats, and no one set up expansive camps at the edge of hundred acre meadows to go in search of mountain lions… Terrain wasn’t right, and neither were the tactics. Everything looked too new, too fresh-out-of-the-box, to be associated with a hunting trip. Besides which, he saw no sign of horses. Smelled none, either. Something very odd about the entire setup, and he intended to discover its nature.
Squirming carefully through the heavy brush just inside the treeline, Einar worked his way around camp to the right, reaching an area where the brush was interspersed with large, lichen-spotted boulders of yellow-grey limestone, their surfaces pockmarked with myriad craters ranging from the size of tiny pinpricks all the way up to depressions in which Einar could have curled up and hidden himself for the night, had he been of a mind to do it. Between and beneath these rocks he concealed himself as he crept along, ground muddy now beneath him, snow all but gone. It was largely gone out in the meadow, entire swaths bare and—for he now saw the improvised landing strip—apparently solid enough in some places to support tundra tires. Looked, from the series of muddy streaks and tracks worn into the thick grass of the meadow, that the strip had seen a fair amount of use in recent days, which would be in line with the numbers of trips they’d been seeing from the aircraft that had passed over their shelter.
A few more cautious feet, then, and he saw it, not too far from a group of jutting limestone escarpments—wings, he would have called them, sticking right out of the ground as if to announce that yes, of course, here one must land and leave one’s plane—which closely adjoined his own group of boulders. So near that he could have crept up and touched its tail, had he wished.
Would have been a good way to begin gathering more information about the group that—somewhere out of sight—was making itself at home in this meadow far too close for comfort to his home and his family’s, element of surprise on his side, but he knew that to go out in the open was to risk possible face-to-face confrontation with whoever might be up there, and that was something he wanted to avoid for the time, if at all possible. Such a meeting would almost surely result in someone not coming away alive, Einar, through necessity, forced to protect himself and by extension his family from discovery and the renewed search that would follow, and though reasonably confident both in his ability to come out ahead in any such conflict and to prevent the others from knowing what had become of their missing companion…he wished if at all possible to avoid such potential loss of life.
He had certainly killed before, both in the jungle and after, firearms—faces through the scope, watched for days, sometimes, until the time was right—explosives, a knife once, his own hands, that sharp sliver of bamboo that had been the only weapon available when he’d slipped out of his cage in the swamp…but it wasn’t their faces he saw when he closed his eyes, not the memory of those men that troubled his conscience. He had, in those situations, done what he had to do to go on living, or to protect his unit, and he did not regret his actions. The faces that plagued his dreams were, instead, those of the young man he had left behind in the adjoining bamboo cage to die a horrible and prolonged death at the hands of the enemy, his, and that of the little Montagnard girl at whose birth he had been present and who he had later been powerless to save after an NVA raid on her village.
He had tried when, returning from a patrol on which the girl’s father had somewhat reluctantly acted as local guide, they had found among the smoking ruins of his and several other huts the bodies of mother and child. The mother was clearly gone, shot several times in the neck before the place had been torched, but that little girl…Einar shuddered, wished the images were not so very vivid before his eyes, even after all those years. The father had come running out of the smoking remains of his hut with little Hyon, barely a year old, stiff and dreadfully disfigured in his arms, had brought her to Einar who, as semi-official medic in his very small unit, had helped out at the child’s somewhat complicated birth, had laid her across his lap and insisted that he do something. The girl had been beyond help, Einar nearly gagging, even now in memory, at the smell of charred hair and human flesh…not the first time he’d experienced them, or the last, but it was different, somehow, in battle, the horror mitigated by action…
No breath left in the little body but the father had kept insisting and Einar did try, gentle compressions on the tiny chest even as the horribly blackened flesh came away on his hands, exposing ribs… When it became clear that there was no hope the father had taken her and sat with her beside her mother, eyes on the ground, unwilling or unable to leave with Einar and his team when the time had come for them to go. It was Hyon’s face, and Andy’s, that Einar saw at night when the sleepless hours grew long, theirs that appeared, at times, when he looked on those he loved, Liz, Will, especially Will, as he began approaching the age at which that little girl had been lost, those memories, he was sure, the source of the cold, sick dread he felt at times behind the smile he tried to wear when his son’s eyes met his own. The ones he had not been able to save.
Einar shut his eyes and pressed a fist to his forehead, burying his face in the moist, half frozen leaf mold—scrub oak, and he guessed the leaves must have blown in from somewhere and become trapped under the rocks—beneath him in an attempt to close out the lingering smell of charred flesh, swallowed the nausea that threatened to well up in his throat and tried to return his attention to the present. To the plane. Still no activity around the aircraft, and once more he swallowed a wild urge to dash out there and take the thing, head up and find a landing spot in a meadow near the shelter and quickly transport Liz and Will far from this place before any danger could come to them… Not the way. Not that day. Hidden, he possessed the advantage, and needed to keep it that way. So instead of dashing for the plane he retreated back beneath the rocks, searching until he found a spot from which he had a commanding view of nearly the entire area around the camp, and prepared to watch, and to wait.