Six. That was the number of plane-passes Einar counted, and that before daylight grew full in its strength. Wasn’t all the same plane, either. He could tell them apart by the sound of their engines, keeping tally on his fingers as he stared up at the dark ceiling, three in, three out for each plane, and something in the way they banked each time and the changing engine sounds told him they were not simply making overflights, but were landing.
The plane first had come while he was still sound asleep, having managed only in the dark hours of the early morning to slip into slumber, and in his dreams it had been not a single plane, but a convoy of heavy transport planes, and he knew exactly where they were going, and what their cargo would be… The thought had awakened him, left him lying there covered in sweat and ready for the action that he knew would soon and inevitably come, but so silent and unmoving that Liz had never even been aware of the situation, and it had taken him some time to realize where he really was, and the true nature of the planes. Only that did not help too much, for their real mission was still a mystery to him, some very focused and intensive thing which apparently involved repeated trips over to the big meadows on the far side of the canyon rim. Who or what were the delivering to their chosen spot, and with what purpose in mind? Now there was no question. He had to know, had to make that reconnaissance trip and, if the sudden activity presented a threat, to deal with it in one way or another. Even if that simply involved knowing which direction to move his family so they would not be in the path of whatever plans the enemy—if indeed these planes represented the enemy; they certainly represented a threat— might have in store.
Up and moving, then, Einar slipping quietly and with a speed and grace of movement possible for him those days only when inspired by the direst of circumstances, and he was out the door and into the timber before Liz became aware of his having stirred. Snow hard-crusted in the cold, he skimmed lightly over its surface, stopping beneath a cluster of firs and stilling his breath so he might hear any plane that was then approaching. Heard nothing, letting his breath out in a sigh of relief, tempered by the knowledge that the quiet was almost certain to be short-lived. Wasn’t sure what he had hoped to gain by leaving the shelter. Some better perspective, perhaps, on where the planes were going or what might be their intention. Not finding it, but the sharp, frigid air was a relief after feeling so stifled and breathless beneath those layers of log and parachute cloth, and he stood still for a full minute, breathing, slowing his mind and trying to discern which direction he needed to go. Not much question in his mind, really. Not after the activity of that morning. But he couldn’t just go. Had to discuss it with Liz. Which meant returning to the shelter, if only for a short time.
Liz was up when he got there, fire judiciously left cold and already a hasty breakfast prepared, broth from the night before, slightly icy but nourishing, and as Einar crouched beside the quiet firepit she draped his parka around his shoulders, offering him a bowl of the stuff. “You’d better eat. It’s going to be a busy day, isn’t it?”
Silence from Einar, face grim and angular in the uncertain light that crept in beneath the door. She hadn’t even lit a candle. Good move. Couldn’t risk it. “You heard them?”
“I heard four of them. How many were there?”
“Six. Six passes, two planes, I’m pretty sure. Lots of return trips, and just enough time in between to land and drop something, or someone, off on the canyon rim.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Was going to wait, but I’ve got got make a trip over there now. We have to know whether this has anything to do with us or not, whether it presents a threat beyond having the planes fly over and maybe casually spot something we’d rather not have them see… Got to know.”
She nodded. “Yes. I know we do. Will and I would should come with you.”
“You’re safer here.”
“I could help you carry some moose, on the way back…”
“Not going after moose. Not this time. This is a quick trip over to the rim and along it in the trees, reconnaissance only, nothing more. Two days, maybe three, and I’ll be back here with you and Will, running the trapline.”
“Or packing to get out of here…”
“I sure hope not, but if it has to happen, it has to happen. Better to know that than to get caught off guard. If the planes quit coming, maybe you could run my trapline while I’m away? The tracks aren’t very deep with how crusty the snow has been, but they’re there. You’ll be able to follow them.”
“Yes, of course I can do that. Would still rather come, though.”
“It’s Will. Quiet as he tends to be when it really matters, we can’t count on that at his age, and the last thing we need is to have some camp full of wildlife guys or Forest Service men wonder why a baby is crying in the timber…”
“We could come most of the way and then hang back if it gets to the point where we actually find them and you need to get in close for a good look.”
“It’d be better for you to just stay here, where you’ve got good solid shelter, food, everything you need. For Will’s sake. I’m coming back. Not leaving you. Just need to go check this out.”
He had been working as he spoke, slipping into parka and hat and stowing a few things in the light day pack Bud had included in the drop bag, packing very lightly, Liz noted, in every category save weapons and ammunition… She sorter through their food supplies, added to the few items he had already packed.
“Yes, I know that will be best. Just don’t forget to eat, ok? Please. Don’t let yourself get back into those habits. You’re going to need your strength if you want to make it there and back, especially with all that downed timber you’ve got to cross.”
He smiled, gently laid a hand on her cheek, an unusual gesture for him. “I won’t forget. Serious business out there. Got to be ready for it.”
“What about your leg, though? It really hasn’t been right since the jump. I see how you limp, still.”
“Well, guess if they end up spotting any of my tracks, it should give them an interesting puzzle, make ‘em wonder if they got the right guy. Could be an advantage!”
“Einar! That’s not what I meant.”
“I know it. Leg’s fine. Won’t slow me down hardly at all.”
She wasn’t so sure about that, but saw no purpose in belaboring the point. “When do you plan to leave?”
“Right now. No sense delaying it. Think you’ll be ok here without a fire for two, three days?”
“We’ll manage just fine. I’ve got a lot of peanut butter and jerky and other things that don’t need cooking, and we have plenty of warm clothes, and the sleeping bag. Though I was hoping you might take it…”
Einar shook his head, briefly laid one hand on the still-sleeping Will, the other on her shoulder, and was out the door.