She was right; the morning’s icy rain had turned to snow. It was past noon and darkness fell early this far north. He didn’t relish the idea of hiking that snowy, slippery track in the dark. He’d be lucky if he made it.
“What about your feet?” He pulled the socks onto his good foot first. He couldn’t reach the foot on his broken leg. The one that still ached like a wild thing from his fall. Thank goodness Fila had splinted it tightly, otherwise he’d probably have busted it all over again.
“I’m looking.” She searched through both bags and found his shaving kit. She dumped its contents into his duffel bag and held the small vinyl fabric case up to her foot. “That’s one.” A further search revealed nothing else of consequence. She shrugged. “I’ll have to use my extra shirts. If I keep switching them I’ll keep fairly dry. I have a few pairs of socks. It’ll have to do.”
“Take one of my bags.”
“No. You’re on crutches. You have to stay dry and warm. I’ll be fine.”
Before he could protest further, she grabbed up the extra socks, slipper and bag and did up his other foot, catching the ends of his torn sweat pant leg in the wrapping in an attempt to keep his leg as warm as possible. Ned wanted to argue, but he was too busy fighting back more oaths at the pain as she gently manipulated his leg.
After Fila rigged up her own feet, she quickly emptied the contents of her duffel bag into Ned’s, zipped it up and hooked the strap over her shoulder. “Let’s get you on your feet,” she said, handing him his crutches. It was harder this time than it had been back in the living room. The ground was slick with icy snow, his leg ached from the fall, and the cold air was quickly leeching away his strength. Once he was up, she helped him turn in the right direction. “Lead the way. If you slip I’ll try to catch you.”
Ned grimaced at the thought of falling on Fila again. He was surprised he hadn’t hurt her the first time. With one last look over his shoulder at the devastated cabin, he set off through the snow, choosing his way carefully through the drifts and ruts, setting down first the crutches, then swinging his feet, testing his footing and doing it all over again. They picked their way around the upside-down truck and up the driveway to the dirt lane. The climb nearly drained Ned of all his strength. The main track was little better than the driveway, but at least it wasn’t as steep. It was still knee deep in snow, however, and Ned had to lift the crutches up like wings between steps to place them down again ahead of him. It was slow going, and hard work. Soon he was sweating under his layers. When he thought he couldn’t go any farther, he looked back the way they’d come. He could still see the truck and the destroyed cabin. His heart was pounding from the exertion. His thigh was on fire with pain.
They’d made it a quarter of a mile.
Fila was all too familiar with frostbite. She’d seen many cases during her winters in the Hindu Kush mountains. The white spots that indicated the first signs of damage. The blackened fingertips and noses. Its effects were devastating. Fila pressed her lips together and slogged on. She didn’t have frostbite. Yet. When the cold in her toes on her right foot got unbearable, she swapped out the current garment wrapped around it for a new one, using hair ties to secure it. As long as they kept moving, she’d be fine.
Her left foot was faring better in its nylon shaving kit bag. It too was secured with hair ties looped around her foot. She thanked goodness she’d packed a whole new package of them.
Ned’s crutch skidded, he wavered and she rushed to brace him up before he fell. His weight landed heavily against her shoulder and she strained to keep upright, barely staying on her own feet.
“Thanks,” he grunted, the pain all too evident in his voice.
“Do you need to stop?”
“No.” He kept moving, but slowly. Fila had begun to fear they’d never make it before the sun went down. When they’d set out she’d been sure they’d make it easily—they had hours before they had to worry about darkness, but as their progress slowed, the sun’s inexorable descent toward the horizon seemed to speed up.
As they trudged on, the quietness began to wear on Fila’s nerves. The weight of the gray sky and burdened trees pressed down upon her heart until she wanted to give up. She knew this feeling all too well from her time in Afghanistan. The urge to lie down and never get up again. The urge to give in.
She fought against it, not just for herself but for Ned, who had to be in a world of pain. He didn’t complain, didn’t lie down and give up. He kept going and going, long past what any normal man could bear. If he could be so brave, she could too.
“It’s a shame about that lunch you were cooking.”
Fila smiled and was shocked to find she still could. “Are you hungry?”
“Will there be food at your neighbor’s house?”
“I hope so. Should be. Fitzgerald would have stocked up for an entire winter.” They slogged on. Fila reflected that the snow was preferable to the morning’s freezing rain.
“I’m sorry,” Ned said after a long pause broken only by the crunch of their feet and his crutches in the snow. “I shouldn’t have asked you to come. You could be safe and warm at Autumn’s house right now.”
It was hard to picture the great room at the Cruz ranch. There would be a roaring fire in the fireplace. Food on the table. Friends gathered around, like usual. Fila sighed—she’d put up with as large a crowd as could squeeze in the place if only it meant they’d be out of the cold. “If I wasn’t here, you’d probably still be lying in that truck. Dead.”
“I know. I appreciate all you’ve done. You’re a hell of a woman.”
She didn’t know about that, but she liked hearing it. A hell of a woman.
“I mean it, Fila. How many people could do what you’ve done? Survive ten years as a captive. Figure out a way to escape. Stand up to a bunch of killers. And now this. Most women would have given up. But you’re not most women.”
“We should rest.” His praise made her uncomfortable. If she was such a brave person, why did she spend her days holed up in an empty cabin? Why didn’t she jump at the chance to run a restaurant? “I need to switch my foot wrap again.” Ned made his way over to a large tree near the side of the track and leaned heavily against it.
“If I sit, I’ll never stand up again,” he said and rested while she worked. “You know, it used to be when you went to Fourth of July get-togethers there’d be a set of old guys sitting around talking shit about the War—World War II,” he explained when Fila shot him a questioning look. “There were a few old geezers who actually went, and others who’d grown up listening to all the men talk about it back in their day. One thing always came up. Courage.”