December 2001, Volume 136, Issue 6

By Tom Junod

What's it like to be kidnapped and held for ransom, not as a political prisoner but as an economic one? What's it like to live in the Ecuadoran jungle for 141 days? What's it like not to sleep, to be bound in chains, to have your body invaded by living things, to waste away to the point of death? What's it like to have one of your fellow hostages killed when the negotiators fail at negotiation? What's it like? This is what it's like.

The first American they met when they came out of the jungle? That's easy. It was a shrink. Of course it was. They spent 141 days with guns stuck up their asses. They were in dire and sweltering and abject captivity. They ate practically nothing but cat food and rice unless the occasional rat or snake happened by. They all lost significant percentages of their own precious mass, starting with body fat and eating into muscle. They all grew these huge, luxuriant beards. They had pieces of their flesh rotting away. They itched to the point of insanity. They all stunk to high heaven. Who else is going to meet them but the fellow dispatched to make them feel better about themselves? Who else is going to meet them—in Ecuador, of all places!—but the American hired to preach what they, as Americans, presumably were dying to hear, which was that healing and closure were just around the corner? Luckily, they didn't have to talk to him if they didn't want to. Luckily, they got to go home, to the little town of Gold Hill, Oregon, before they met with the counseling profession. When they got there, they couldn't tie their shoes; they found themselves getting lost on streets they had known most of their lives; they had to go to doctors because of the weird microbial shit that was still crawlingly alive inside of them; they found themselves crying when they looked at the sky and crying when they watched television and crying for no good reason at all; they were scared to be alone in the woods; and finally they looked around at the homes whose memory had sustained them against the punishing vagaries of time and distance and said to themselves the dread, unspeakable words: I don't even belong here. And you know what? The shrinks weren't too bad, once you got to know them. They tried hard. But you know what else? You know the shrinks' own secret? They were just like everybody else. They just wanted to know what happened, because they hadn't been there. They just wanted to hear the story. They just wanted to know what it was like.

BUT WHAT WAS IT LIKE? WELL, THE THING WAS, they were all from the same town, the same company—Erickson Air-Crane Inc., of Central Point, Oregon—and they all went through the same basic experience, but it was very different for all three of them. Arnie Alford was very emotional about it. Jason Weber was very angry. And Steve Derry—well, Steve was like someone who looks into the terrible teeming heart of all existence and then has to behold that image whenever he looks at anything else.

What was it like for Arnie? The short answer is that it was like the episode with the gusano, because the episode with the gusano was when they all realized not only that they were in the jungle but that the jungle was somehow in them. Gusano means "worm," by the way. They were nine days in, nine days of the eventual 141. They were kidnapped on October 12, 2000, plucked in the wee hours from the clearing in the Ecuadoran jungle where they worked on Erickson's helicopters. They had been marched through the jungle at gunpoint. They slept on the ground until nine days in, when they were given some material for hammocks. That first night in his hammock, Arnie felt something nail him in the back of the neck, more like a slap than a bite. He figured he got stung and that whatever stung him left its stinger in. He tried to squeeze it out, but it wasn't going anywhere. Then it began swelling up. Then it grew into a lump on his neck. Then, after about a month, the lump began to move. He showed it to his captors, this band of self-styled guerrillas who called themselves "the ninjas of the jungle." Ah, gusano, they said. The head ninja, the commandant, who was nothing but a freaking witch doctor, tried to fashion some sort of jungle remedy by blowing the smoke of his constant cigarette into a piece of gauze, then applying the gauze to Arnie's neck. When that didn't work, he just blew smoke directly into the lump, and when that didn't work, well, the commandant just squeezed as hard as he could, until finally this creature popped out, writhing on his finger, two knuckles long and alive. And that's what the kidnapping was like for Arnie Alford, if only because out of all the hostages—all eight of them—Arnie had, shall we say, the most symbiotic relationship with the jungle, and because it was through Arnie's poor trespassed person that the whole terrible situation revealed an almost miraculous capacity for getting worse.

Steve Derry? What was it like for Steve? Well, Steve is the quietest of all the guys from Gold Hill—he rarely greets the most outrageous or unexpected turn of fortune with anything more than "I'll be darned"—but also the funniest, so when you ask him, say, what monkey tastes like, he'll pause a few beats, and then answer in his Oregon deadpan, "Monkey," and then start laughing, a laugh so infectiously bitter and sardonic that it sounds almost sinister. But that's what captivity was like for Steve: It was like the taste of monkey. It was nonpareil. It was sui generis. He's an outdoorsman, Steve is, a hunter and fisherman, and he was used to spending long stretches of time alone in the splendor of nature, but he saw and heard shit in that jungle that he had never heard or seen before, and hopes never to hear or see again. A sloth, for example: He had the chance to see it close up, because the ninjas shook it down from its branch, then beat it to death, right in front of the hostages, as a display of their power. Then they ate it for dinner. It tasted like . . . sloth.

And Jason Weber? What was it like for Jason Weber? At twenty-nine, he was the youngest, the angriest, the most impatient and reckless and conflicted, but it's easy to figure out what it was like for him because he wrote it down. He took a notebook with him and a pen, and the second night of his captivity, when they stopped in the jungle and set up an impromptu camp, he started writing: "Day Two. Heard helos [helicopters] again this morning. Bugs are everywhere. We are camping in the same spot again tonight; tomorrow they told us we will go to another camp. They told us everyone knows we are gone and they are talking about money to get us back. So I guess we'll finally see how much we're worth. The worst thing about this whole ordeal is that I worry about my wife and kids. I know my wife is probably worried to death, I just wish I could tell her that I am fine. You never realize how much you need them until you can't have them. My little girl will probably forget who I am but as long as I get to see her again I will be sure to make up for it. Getting sad, time to change the subject."

And yet . . . it's still hard for any of them to say what it was like in a single anecdote, in a single story or image or diary entry. It's hard for them to say what it was like because of what they learned on their first day of freedom, which was that for all of them to live, one of them had to die.

THE MOON WAS FULL OCTOBER 12 in the year 2000. None of them knew that at the time, or maybe they knew but didn't care. Who cares about a full moon? Who cares that rainstorms organize themselves around its waxing and waning; that in the absolute enclosure of jungle darkness, the night of the full moon is the only night that permits even a tingle of light; and that the full moon allows the movement of human traffic along jungle trails? Later, they would learn this by heart, but for now they cared no more for the significance of the full moon than they did for the cacophony of frogs that welled up at night out of the darkness. They had not come to Ecuador to commune with nature. They were workers; they'd come to work, but not so much for money—no one's getting rich working for Erickson—as for freedom. Three weeks on, three weeks off: That was the deal with Erickson. Three weeks working anywhere from twelve to eighteen hours every day on the giant Erickson helicopters that hoisted heavy equipment to an oil platform seventeen miles away in the jungle in exchange for three weeks with their families or three weeks hunting and fishing. Arnie Alford had seventeen years with the company, Steve Derry eleven, and Jason Weber almost six. They worked in a seven-acre clearing, a nasty cut in the jungle cauterized against intrusion by a flimsy chain-link fence. Inside the fence was something like civilization—a few barracks-style buildings, some campers, an office, a mess hall, a shack housing computers and radio equipment. Outside the fence was the jungle, and on some days they worked and slept so hard that the only reason they knew it was there at all was that it got so freaking loud.

Arnie was the first to wake up, or the first to be awakened. It was four in the morning. He was fifteen days into his tour, which meant he was six days away from home. He was forty-one years old, with a wife, Mindy, and a ten-year-old daughter, Kaitlin. He was in one of the campers. He was rooming with an Ecuadoran named John, who was in charge of the radio shack. He heard some banging, thought it was the cooks in the kitchen. Then the banging came to his door. John opened it; there was a guy standing in front of him wearing a ski mask and combat fatigues and carrying an AK-47. They followed him out into the clearing, where more guys with guns were rousting more people, and where everybody who worked in the compound was being herded together in the dust and the gravel. Arnie was the only American at first. The rest were Ecuadorans, locals. The guy who seemed to be leading the guys with guns demanded that John give him the key to the radio shack. John said he didn't have it, so the guy broke down the door and then began smashing everything in sight, the computers, the radios, everything shattering and popping and making sounds like gunshots. Then the guy came out and said something in Spanish to one of the Ecuadorans, who said in response, "Oh, shit." "What did he say?" Arnie asked. "What did he say?" Now, you have to understand: Arnie weighed 230 pounds, on a frame of about five eight. He lifted weights, he came from a logging family, he worked on a fishing boat, he was extremely emotional, he was a sweet guy with a bad temper, he was someone you absolutely wanted for you and not against you—but he has a high voice, especially when he's excited, and he was excited now. "What did he say, what did he say?" Arnie said, and the Ecuadoran looked at him and said, "He wants all the gringos."

Jason was rooming with Steve in one of the barracks. He heard the banging, and he, like Arnie, thought it was coming from the kitchen, but unlike Arnie he was going to get up and tell them to shut the hell up. Then he heard what he thought were gunshots and someone knocking on his door, shouting, weirdly, inexplicably, "Taxi, taxi." He opened the door and saw a guy with a bandanna covering his face. He looked at Steve, who was his boss, and said, "Um, there's a guy here with a machine gun, and he says we should go with him." By the time they saw Arnie out in the clearing, another Erickson employee, Dennis Corrin, a fifty-two-year-old pilot from New Zealand, was standing next to him, and the men with the guns were in the process of herding the locals onto the porch of the office building, until the four gringos were standing together at gunpoint—standing revealed under the moon. Were they scared? Well, of course they were, but more than that, they were lonely. They were homesick instantly, cosmically. They were gringos, and they all thought they were going to die right there.

They never shook it, that feeling of loneliness. They didn't shake it when the men with the guns, much to Arnie's and Jason's and Steve's queasy relief, led them back to their bunks and had them pack bags—some clothes, some socks and underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste, boots instead of tennis shoes—for the long march. They didn't shake it when they were herded into the back of a stolen pickup, along with a French pilot and a mechanic the gunmen had found in the camp, and the pickup zoomed out of the compound. There was silence in the truck as it banged and raced down a raddled jungle road trying to beat the dawn. Arnie and Steve and Jason didn't talk. What could they say? They didn't know anything. They didn't even know who had captured them, for although their captors called themselves guerrillas, they boasted no cause or affiliation. There were two of them in the back of the pickup guarding the six hostages. One pressed his gun hard into Steve's ribs, and when Steve finally complained, said, "Oh, excuse me," in English. The other stole their watches, threatening by universal gesture to cut their throats. The hostages didn't even think of trying to escape . . . or rather, they thought of it, they made plans for it, especially when the pickup took a turn on two wheels and nearly turned over, but that's all they did. And do you know why? Because they wanted to live. That was the first thing that they found out at gunpoint. That was the first of their discoveries. Hell, in the back of the pickup, that's all they knew, and all they needed to know: They just wanted to live. . . .

The truck stopped at a heliport and met other trucks. By the light of the moon, the kidnappers had scoured other camps in the jungle and stolen four other men who worked for the oil companies. There was German Scholz from Chile. There was Jorge Rodriguez from Argentina. There was Dave Bradley from Wyoming. And there was Ron Sander from Missouri. They didn't say anything, either. They were all stuffed into a Puma helicopter that the French pilot knew how to handle and the French mechanic knew how to service. Along with about thirteen kidnappers, eight hostages sat in the hold. They had no idea where they were going. They had no idea how long they would be gone. All they knew was that the sun was coming up over the jungle as the helicopter rose over the trees and that what they saw below them was endless and unintelligible and unimaginable and five thousand miles from home.

BUT WHAT WAS IT LIKE? You see, Lisa Weber hears it, too. They all do—the wives, the families—because it became their story when it became Jason's and Arnie's and Steve's. People want to know what they were doing, what they were thinking, when they found out. Well, this is what Lisa thought: that she was getting flowers. Jason liked to send them to her when he went away for Erickson, because he was away a lot. Of course, Lisa knew he had that in him, that restlessness, from the moment she met him. He was a marine. He courted her from a ship somewhere out at sea. They'd met at a country bar in southern California. Anaheim. Jason walked up to her and asked her to dance. He was from Oklahoma, so he knew what he was doing out on that dance floor. And he was cute—oh, boy, was he cute—dark, with short hair, not too big, but strong, with a presence about him, an energy. When he walked her out to her car, he just started talking, and Lisa was like, Will you just ask me for my number already? He did and then he was gone. He shipped out in three months, but then his letters began to arrive, from all over the world. Jason had grown up without a father. He felt he'd never gotten a good chance, and now he wanted to have a family so he could give a good chance to his kids. When he came home, he asked her to marry him. They were married in 1994. Jason started at Erickson in 1995. They had baby girl Jessica in 1996, and baby girl Kaitlyn in 1999. Jessica was Daddy's little girl. Not that she could keep Jason home any more than Lisa could. Sometimes Lisa's girlfriends would ask her, Don't you miss Jason? And she was like, Sure, I miss him . . . but she was independent. Just as long as he loved her and loved his girls—and that's why, when she started getting those phone calls on October 12, she got it into her head about flowers. She had gotten a message that Connie called, from Erickson. Jason was friends with Buck, and Connie was Buck's wife. So Lisa called Connie and said, "What's wrong?" and when Connie said, Oh, nothing, she just wanted to talk, that's when Lisa started thinking something was up, because although she liked Connie, they just didn't have that kind of relationship. And when Connie said, Oh, by the way, can I have your new work address? Lisa was like, Okay, I get it. And when the receptionist phoned her, saying that a fellow named Buck was waiting for her in the lobby, Lisa was like, Isn't that sweet—Jason asked Buck to deliver them in person. And when Buck met her and began hugging her, Lisa was like, well, she was like, Whaaat?—because she saw the other Erickson people waiting there and figured that's an awful lot of manpower for a dozen roses.

A MAN GOES TO TAKE A DUMP in the woods. He's been out in the woods for days now, on a hunting trip with his friends, and after some initial reluctance he has taken quite a liking to voiding his bowels in the great out of doors. Indeed, he has come to make a show of his gusto in this department, so much so that his hunting buddies decide to teach him a lesson. They gut a rabbit and pile the entrails in the hole over which their friend reliably squats. Sure enough, he repairs to his place in the woods, and some time later he returns, moving slowly, with a chastened waddle. "You wouldn't believe what happened," he says. "I shit my guts out, out there. Luckily, though, with a sharp stick and the grace of God, I got it all back in."

That was Dennis Corrin's. Dennis, the pilot from New Zealand, had a joke about everything, even the shit sticks, and by the time he told it, on the fourth night of their captivity—Day 4—well, they needed to hear a joke about shit sticks. They were forced to use them, you see. During the day, they beat the trail for hours at a time in rotten socks, drinking sugar water for strength, and during the night, they had to ask the ninjas to go with them when it came time to piss or shit in the woods. They had to ask for permission. They had to take their sticks and dig their holes and squat trembling while some asshole with a machine gun stood there smoking a cigarette. Back in the tent, they weren't allowed to talk; every time one of them spoke in a full voice, a ninja would shine a flashlight in his face and bark, "Silencio!" They learned to speak in a continual whisper, and so, when Dennis told the one about the shit stick and they all just started freaking howling in the middle of the jungle, they all figured they were going to get shot. . . .

They didn't, and the joke became the beginning of their . . . well, it's hard to know what to call it. Their resistance? Their rebellion? All those words sound so grand, when what really happened was so . . . incremental. They just began talking. They could tell one another what they had learned. They could start to figure things out. They could get their bearings.

Once the helicopter had disgorged the hostages, the ninjas had directed the Frenchmen to go back in the air and dump it a mile away in an effort to put the army off their trail. Nobody ever saw the Frenchmen again. They had gotten away. The ninjas never talked about them. There were eight of them now: the New Zealander, the Chilean, the Argentine, and the five Americans. During the day, they could hear planes and helicopters flying overhead, looking for them. From the ground, they couldn't see the sky through the canopy of trees; from the sky, they couldn't be seen. At first, of course, they wanted to be found; then they didn't. The ninjas had said that in any encounter with the army, they were under orders to shoot the hostages before they defended themselves. It was the first lesson in the mutability of hope: The planes and helicopters that they thought represented hope came to stand for throbbing terror. They decided that their only chance for survival was to preserve themselves, physically and psychologically, for the long haul. One of the ninjas told Jorge, the Argentine, that the last time they did this the negotiations had lasted six months. They could already sense the wasting of their flesh, and so on the morning of Day 6—two days after they mustered the courage to laugh at Dennis's joke—the guys from Gold Hill started doing sit-ups and push-ups. They wanted to see what they could get away with. The ninjas looked at them suspiciously, and then one of them tried doing exercises of his own, in both emulation and opposition. . . .

That's the one they called G. I. Jane. The one who'd shouted "Taxi" at Steve and Jason's door, they called him Taxi. The one who wore the ski mask was Ski Mask. The grizzled hard case with the red beard and the gold teeth always armed with a shotgun was Shotgun. There was also Wing Nut, who had big ears and was sometimes kind to them, and the Girl, who looked like a girl. There was Scarneck. The bandit who stole their watches was Watchstealer, though later he morphed into Mini-Me because of his shameless adulation of the commandant, Qaddafi. Qaddafi was the one who made speeches about Ronald Reagan's criminality in Nicaragua and read revolutionary texts while the rest of them read self-help books in Spanish. The other commandant was Fernando, who was in charge of the radio. They packed a radio around, with a motorcycle battery. They had left a message behind, with the frequency the radio would be tuned to, they said. Someone from the oil companies would contact them, they said. . . .

The ninjas of the jungle. What a joke. They were stupid, they were dirty, they were venal, they were cruel, they were greedy, they stunk, and they lied. Without their guns, they were nothing. Without their guns, they were the fucking Girl Scouts. That's what Jason thought, anyway. That's what he obsessed about; that's what he wrote in his journal: I've been kidnapped by the Girl Scouts. Jason was a goddamn marine, a highly trained soldier from the U. S. of A. He had been to Somalia and Sudan. When the ninjas gave each of them their bowls—the bowls they were supposed to eat from and bathe with—Jason wrote LICK ME on his where his name was supposed to be. When he went to piss or squat, two ninjas went to guard him because he had no respect for them, and they knew it. But that was Jason's problem—he had no respect for anybody, early on. Oh, sure, he had respect for Steve and Arnie and Dennis, but the other guys? The guys from Schlumberger and from Helmerich & Payne? Jorge was a scaredy-cat. German was old—he was sixty—and he was lazy. Dave Bradley was forty-one years old, smart as hell, but he'd been to college and had nothing to show for it. Jason had no time for him.

As for the other guy, Ron Sander—well, Jason didn't know what to make of him. He was the oldest of the Americans, fifty-four, with silver hair and a little potbelly and bad legs. He was too quiet, too peaceful. When he talked, he talked about fishing with his wife back home on the Lake of the Ozarks, in Missouri. When Jason went off on German for pissing near the tarp—when German burned a hole in the tarp with his incessant cigarette and Jason said that if German's cigarette ever affected him again, he would stick it up his ass—Ron pulled him aside and told him to calm down, that they were all in this together. It was as if he'd decided to go through life without an enemy, and once he even asked Jason why he hated the ninjas so much. "They haven't done anything to you," he said. Oh, well, Jason thought: Maybe Ron was just scared.

Was Jason scared? No, never. The ninjas didn't deserve his fear. In fact, what bothered him, what ate him up, was something like the opposite of fear: the knowledge that he was better than his captors; the knowledge that he could get away from them if it weren't for Steve and Arnie and Ron and all the rest. It was something they all knew: that there was a hole in the jungle big enough for one man. One man could get away, if he was careless of the retribution that would surely be visited on those he left behind, and so early on, when Jason was hiking up a muddy trail and his guard fell facedown in the mud with a pack on his back and was helpless and all Jason had to do was break the guy's neck with a forearm and run into the trees—what Jason did instead, what he had to do, for the other seven, was help him up.

THEY WERE ALL BROUGHT UP TO BELIEVE. The girls. The ladies. The wives. Mindy Alford and Lisa Weber—they were all brought up to be well-mannered and very . . . well, nice. Lee Ramage seemed to appreciate that. Lee Ramage was the chief operating officer of Erickson Air-Crane Inc. He had a weekly meeting for the families of the hostages. Mindy Alford and Lisa Weber always went. So did Mike Derry and his wife, Edna. Mike wasn't like his brother Steve—he wasn't quiet. And he wasn't like Lisa and Mindy, either—he wasn't nice. He always got in Lee's face. He always wanted to know when Erickson was going to do something, and that made Lee nervous. He started twisting his ring when Mike Derry was around. You see, they were all supposed to be calm and patient; they were all supposed to be playing by the rules. At least, that's what the guy Lee brought in from Control Risks Group said. Each of the three companies whose employees had been kidnapped had hired a company to negotiate their release, and CRG was the company hired by Erickson, or rather by Erickson's insurance company. On October 27, a CRG negotiator spoke at the family meeting. There had not yet been any radio contact with the kidnappers, but he was very confident, very reassuring; he had done this before. Indeed, what he wanted to stress to Mindy and Lisa and Mike was that kidnapping had become a business in countries like Ecuador and that, like any business, it followed certain rules and conventions. The first was that the hostages were the kidnappers' only assets, and so they would not be harmed. They were too valuable. The second was that the kidnappers would try to use time against them—so the families had to be patient. They were not to contact the media—that would only make the kidnappers hold out for more. They were not to ask about money, for negotiations were almost like a game, and only companies with experience in the field—companies like CRG—knew how to play. The families just had to have faith in CRG, because CRG had never lost a hostage. They just had to believe.

Did Lisa and Mindy believe? Of course they did. Even Mike Derry believed at first. They had to. Their loved ones were hostages in a foreign land. How could they not believe in a company—an entire industry—built on the faith that all hostages come home alive?

TO LOOK AT THEIR CALENDARS, to look at their notes and journals, you'd think that things started moving quickly for them once they got settled in the jungle. You'd think that there was improvement once the ninjas and the negotiators started, well, negotiating. On Day 9—October 20—they reached what they all called Camp One, which means that they didn't have to sleep on the ground anymore. They received some supplies, some fresh underwear, and some rope and black canvas for hammocks. On Day 21, the first day of November, the ninjas had German Scholz write a letter that included their VHF radio frequency and sent the letter to the Ecuadoran capital of Quito. On Day 23, negotiators made radio contact after one of the ninjas had scurried up a tree to hang the antenna. On Day 26, negotiations started. On Day 27, the ninjas asked "proof of life" questions—questions devised by the hostages' families requesting intimate information only they would know—and the answers were transmitted back home. On Day 29, the ninjas made their demand for ransom, and when the negotiators responded with laughter, literal laughter, they threatened to show their power by blowing up sections of Ecuador's oil pipeline. On Day 30, they all went to Camp Two, which had more food and more supplies than anything they had known so far in the jungle. On Day 32, the bomb squad was chosen, and on Day 37—November 17, 2000—the bomb squad was dispatched to do its work.

But the fact was, once they were settled into camps of provisional permanence, their hammocks became their prisons, and time itself—the saturation of time—became their enemy. They were sentenced to their hammocks. They had to be in them by sunset and couldn't leave them—except for relief, by request—until dawn. The night came, and they . . . oh, they would do anything to delay the coming of the night. They would have topics of discussion. They would have lectures. They would discuss the English monarchy with Dennis and trapshooting with Ron. They would discuss the universe with Dave Bradley. They would try to remember the speed of light and the distance between the earth and the sun and try to calculate how long it took for the sun's light to reach the earth. They'd do the calculations in their heads or on little scraps of paper. The answers were important to them because they hadn't seen the sun since they were kidnapped. The answers were important because they were starting to forget what they knew, they were starting to age in jungle time. Then the night would come anyway, so black under the seal of the jungle that they couldn't see the hands in front of their faces. They couldn't see the guards, and the guards couldn't see them. Everybody was jittery at night. The guards would shine flashlights in their faces to make sure they were there. They would tug the ropes of the hammocks. It didn't matter, because sleep was difficult anyway. Well, Steve couldn't sleep especially. He was trying to figure out ways to stop counting the days and wound up counting the minutes instead. He would listen to the rest of the guys fall asleep, one by one, and wonder how, night after night, Ron Sander would be the first to start snoring. He would listen to the changing of the guards. They changed every two hours, and sometimes he would make it through three changes before drifting off in his caul. He would just lay there thinking until he was thinking about thinking itself—thinking that thinking's not good. Thinking that men weren't meant to think so much when they have nothing good to think about—when the thoughts are unleavened by hope. And Steve had lost hope. They all had. They'd had to lose the conventional form of hope in order to survive, and so the hopes that started flowering in hope's absence became more and more exotic.

They pinned a lot of hopes on the bomb squad, for instance; they rooted for the bomb squad to bring Ecuador to a standstill, because maybe then someone would take the ninjas seriously and negotiate. And on Day 31, their first night in Camp Two, when Steve was trying to sleep with the blessing of the full moon, he heard something in the jungle, something coming from a long way off, the roar of the most pissed-off creature in the entire world. The next morning, he asked one of the ninjas what it was. "Tigre," the ninja said, and showed him its paw print, nine inches across, and the tree it had used as a scratching post, stripped of bark twelve feet from the ground. What's it like, being held captive in the jungle? This is what it's like: Hope starts to look like the tiger that stalks the camp, investing each dread night with the hope that there will be one fewer ninja in the morning.

THEY RECEIVED PROOF OF LIFE on November 7. Day 27. That's what Mindy Alford wrote that day in her journal: "2:52, Kurt [from Erickson] called with proof of life." Mindy had asked for the name of one of Arnie's legendary dogs (Jagger) and the kind of car Arnie was restoring in the garage (‘55 Chevy). Lisa Weber had asked . . . well, Lisa'd had a tough time with the proof-of-life questions. The negotiator from CRG had asked for ten, and Lisa's first involuntary reaction was that she didn't know ten. Mindy, of course, knew ten; she and Arnie were so close. They cooked together and canned vegetables they grew together in the garden. Lisa and Jason weren't like that, and so when Lisa was asked for personal questions—and wound up coming up with one about a baby gift they had sent Jason's friend Steve—she began to wonder if she knew her husband at all.

It was almost like being in the woods herself. It was almost like being in the jungle. She was in the dark all the time. Well, once the proof of life came back, she knew Jason was alive, but that was it. Everything else she had to ask for, beg for, plead for, from CRG or Erickson. She even had to beg and plead when she heard rumors that the kidnappers had made their demand. Finally, she was like, "You've asked me to trust you; you have to trust me. What is it?"

On November 17, Day 37, she found out. The ransom for her husband and seven other hostages was $80 million.

And that's when she knew that Jason wasn't coming home for the holidays.

THE JUNGLE WAS FULL OF WONDERS. It was alive, and they were in the middle of it. There was a bird that sounded exactly human—that laughed in human tones. There was an insect that perched on their lips at night, breathing their breath. There were leaf-cutter ants whose jaws cut holes in their T-shirts. There was an animal they ate that had the tail of a rat, the body of a rabbit, the face of a pig. They also ate snake, turtle, jungle pig, jungle turkey, armadillo, tapir, and caiman, which is a kind of alligator, and which, Jason wrote in his journal, is "all white meat." They ate what they figured was piranha, scant and bony and toothsome. They ate monkey and sloth, and one morning, when they went to bathe, they saw, grinning at them, the head of the monkey they had eaten the night before.

They had been in Camp Two eighteen days when Arnie started to itch. Camp Two was dirty. They were dirty. Two days before, Qaddafi had squeezed the gusano out of Arnie's neck, but now it was Arnie's belly button that itched. The next day, it began to emit some oil. The day after that, it began to hurt. The pain spread to his stomach. He was racked by contractions and could not get out of his hammock to take a piss. The next day—Day 51, the first day of December—Arnie passed into delirium with the pain. By nightfall, he was writhing and sweating and jabbering in his hammock, begging to go home. Ron asked one of the guards for a flashlight and used it to look into Arnie's navel. "Oh, God," he said. What it was, it was fucking maggots. They were deep in Arnie's belly button, thirty or forty of them, scurrying around. They were eating him alive, as though his flesh were rotten, as though he were already dead. Qaddafi began yelling at them, asking why they had let this go so far. He tried to pick out the maggots with his fingers, but they were in too deep. He tried flushing Arnie's navel with mouthwash, then whiskey, then gasoline, and then went back in with the point of his knife. Weight-lifting Arnie, tenor-voiced Arnie: Arnie was bucking in his hammock, crying, "Just let me go home, just let me go home," while the ninjas held him by the legs and Jason and Steve held his hands. "Mi amigo necesita ayuda," Jason said to Qaddafi— trying to tell him that Arnie needed to go to the hospital—but Qaddafi kept saying, "One more day, one more day." In the morning, a ninja went to a local farm and came back with some veterinary medicine. Qaddafi put some in Arnie's navel, then took out a syringe from the first-aid kit and shot him up with an antibiotic as thick as peanut butter. Five days later, when he gave Arnie a second injection and evicted the last of the maggots with his fingernails, Jason and Steve figured that he had never intended to take Arnie to the hospital at all— that all along he'd been giving Arnie one more day, either to get better or to be killed for convenience.

That was December 5: Day 55. Two days later, the bomb squad blew up a section of the oil pipeline. There was another bomb on December 9—"We are very happy they finally blew something up," Jason wrote in his journal—and another on the twelfth, with a full moon in between. The last explosion killed eight Ecuadorans on a bus, but what Jason recorded the next day was a kind of celebration among his captors: "Day 63. They are giving each other wacky haircuts. The Watchstealer has only got the top of his head cut and has hair all around the sides, while [another] has all the hair but the back shaved off. Juta [another ninja] cut his hair today and has a V on the top coming down the front. I guess it is some kind of jungle fashion statement. Heard they blew up pipeline again. Dream last night of escape."

ON CHRISTMAS MORNING 2000, Jessica Weber, four years old, found a letter delivered by Santa. It was signed "Daddy," and, oh, you should have seen her face light up. Of course, her father didn't write it; Lisa did. She had to—Jessica was getting accustomed to her father's absence. She had stopped asking Lisa where he was and why he wasn't home. She didn't talk about him anymore.

DAY 75. CHRISTMAS. Arnie so depressed he can't talk—thoughts of home like maggots of the mind. Steve's hand starting to rot with fungus. Dave Bradley starts to say what day it is, starts in with season's greetings, but who wants to hear that shit? When Jason hands out the candy he's been saving, he does so without a celebratory word. The ninjas are drunk and singing. The night before, they selected the new bomb squad; then half of them got drunk and shot their guns. Today, it's the other half. Festive breakfast drink of crushed banana, tree bark, and cloves.

Day 76. Jorge goes out with a guard and a shit stick into the jungle, and suddenly the ninjas are shouting and running toward the creek that serves as the boundary of the latrine. When they bring him back, he's shaking like a leaf, trembling all over—the guard says he tried to escape. Aw, he didn't try to escape—he doesn't have it in him. But the young captain who organizes the bomb squad orders him put in chains. Then night comes, and everybody else gets put in chains, except for Ron and German, who are too old to run. You want to know how low you can go? This is the lowest. They've taken everything now, not just freedom but also dignity. You're in chains. You're a captive, and that's all you are.

Day 77. Something's up. The bomb squad that went out last night comes back. Must have seen something they didn't like.

Day 78. Forty-eight days in Camp Two. The place is fetid, crawling with vermin, swarming with flies. Arnie goes out to the creek with his shit stick, with Mini-Me as his guard. Does his thing, then looks around—nobody's there. Mini-Me's disappeared—no sight of him, and when Arnie listens, no sound. Just the jungle, wide-open in front of him. It's the biggest temptation out here—the temptation to just go, and get yourself shot. So Arnie doesn't run. He comes back and says, "No guardia" to the ninjas. That's when Mini-Me materializes behind him, smiling. He set up Jorge the other day, and now he wants to do the same to Arnie. Didn't make the bomb squad; figures he'll make his bones shooting a gringo in the back.

Day 79. Broke camp in the morning; ninjas say the next will be better, though it's five to fifteen days' hard hiking away. Everyone forced to carry his own chains, the lucky ones in their own backpacks, Dave and Jorge in homemade packs strapped to their shoulders with loops of tree bark. Everyone has to wade through creeks and marshes—and Ron's not built for this. His legs hurt him; he dreads the trail. At night ninjas pass hostages a bottle of booze, everyone's first taste of whiskey in three months.

Day 80. A clearing on the trail. First sight of the sky without trees in the way for eighty days. A half hour in the sun, and yet when you look around and see the jungle—the endlessness of it—that feeling of loneliness again.

Day 81. The seeds of incremental resistance. You save everything you can: pieces of rope, syringes from Arnie's sickness. On the trail, when there's a garish mushroom, you ask a ninja, "Comida?"; if he says, No, no, you scoop it up and save it in a water bottle, hoping to brew poison. Maybe these assholes will drink from it and get sick. Still in chains, but the ninja locking up drops the key, and Jason snags it, sleeps with it in his mouth.

Day 82. Happy New Year from near the Colombian border. The air heavy with herbicides from Plan Colombia.

Day 83. Ambush. In the morning, Ron and German leave early, with their own guards, because they've been lagging behind. Everybody else with heavy packs; Jason and Arnie and Steve all beasts of burden. They reach the river where they're supposed to wait for Ron and German, and a scouting party is sent out ahead. Seven shots from an AK-47, and utter chaos, utter confusion, utter terror, with Arnie and Steve and Jason and Dennis and Jorge and Dave ordered to lie down behind a log, guns pointed at their heads. So it's true, what they've said all along: They'd shoot the hostages before they'd defend themselves. Luckily, there is no army and no fight. What happened is that Ron and German made it to the meeting place early with their party. They surprised the scouting party, and the scouting party opened fire. G. I. Jane shot one of his own, and the bloodthirsty motherfucker is grousing that he only hit him in the leg. The wounded ninja is packed out on a horse commandeered from a local farm while the rest hightail it on the trail till after dark. No food. Little sleep.

Day 84. A hard day on the trail and sardines for dinner—"the best meal I've ever had in my life," Jason writes. That evening, he looks at Ron's face and sees something he can't get out of his head: The man is white. Not like he's tired—like he's seen a ghost. Like he knows something about either himself or his captors. He has tried to foster nothing but goodwill in the camp, and now Arnie asks him if with all the talk of poisoning the ninjas and planning an escape, he's afraid he's going to get left behind. Don't worry, Arnie tells him. We won't leave you behind. We won't forget you.

SHEILA SANDER DIDN'T GET MUCH information from Helmerich & Payne—not nearly as much as Lisa Weber and Mindy Alford got from Erickson, and they didn't get very much at all. She wasn't even told how much the guerrillas had demanded for ransom—she found out on her own, from reporters. You don't need to know that, is what she remembers H&P people saying when she asked questions. How much had the negotiators offered in response to the $80 million demand? She didn't need to know that. Had the hostages been threatened? Well, hostages are always threatened; it's part of the game. Of course, she didn't know—nobody knew except those with direct access to the negotiations—that the negotiators had decided to show the kidnappers the folly of their demands and had offered just $500,000, total, for all eight hostages. She didn't know that the negotiators had not increased the offer one penny, even when the kidnappers had broken off radio contact in the beginning of January, even when they came back on the radio on January 15 to issue a very specific threat, vowing that if the negotiators didn't come up with real money by January 30, a hostage would be killed. She'd heard rumors of the threat from a reporter, but she couldn't know how the negotiators had responded: with a counteroffer of $1 million, extended right before the deadline. All she knew, on the morning of January 31, was that Ron Sander, her husband, her fishing partner, the quiet man who shared her dream house on the Lake of the Ozarks—her man—was dead. He was the only man who had ever bothered to make her happy, and now he was gone. She didn't have to be told; she just knew. She didn't bother to comb out her hair that morning, didn't bother changing out of her housedress. She lit a cigarette, poured a cup of coffee, and waited.

Before too long, a car ferrying three executives from Helmerich & Payne—the company where Ron Sander worked for twenty-six years—pulled up in front of her house.

DAY 105. JANUARY 24. It was odd who the ninjas decided to send as messenger, who acted as herald. This was supposed to be good news, right? For most of January, they didn't know what was going on. They were either packing hard through the bush, climbing to higher elevations, or else they were sitting around waiting. They went to one camp and then another; and although the ninjas reported no progress in the negotiations, they seemed weirdly calm—"better water, relaxed guerrillas," Jason wrote on January 10, Day 91. Of the negotiations, the hostages were told only that the negotiators had asked for one of them to be released, as a show of good faith, and the ninjas had refused. Then nine days later, on January 19, Qaddafi told them that he had changed his mind—that they should start preparing for one of them to go home. He asked them each another proof-of-life question and said that the hostage who was to be released would convey the answers to the negotiators in Quito. Not only that—he said that they should write letters to their families so that the freed hostage could deliver them. So they wrote letters to their wives and children and mothers and fathers and brothers. And they decided what they wanted said on their behalf when whoever got out talked to the press and the negotiators and the diplomats. And then, on the twenty-fourth of January, Shotgun came around, all smiles, and told Ron Sander that he had been selected, that he should get ready to leave. And they were all like, Shotgun? Not Qaddafi? Not Fernando? Not even the Young Captain of the bomb squads? But they didn't think too much of it because they were too busy priming Ron to be their representative. The last thing anyone remembers him saying was what he told German before he left—"I wish you were going instead of me. Your knees are worse than mine." Then he was gone, in the company of Fernando, the ninjas called Sota and Canario, and G. I. Jane. And the rest of them, seven men now smarting with the sense of being left behind—well, the next day, they were gone, too, bushwhacking through creeks and streams as fast as they could, humping for days for higher ground, moving so fast they didn't realize they walked right over a coral snake until they saw Shotgun beating it to death, with his goblin's grin.

LEE RAMAGE ASKED THEM where they stood. Mindy and Lisa—he needed them now, to show their support. Mike Derry had been excommunicated from the family meetings. Mike Derry flipped when Ron Sander's body was found near the Colombian border. Well, so did Lisa and Mindy—Lisa especially. Lee had called her on the thirty-first, saying that a body had been found—but it wasn't one of their guys. That's what he kept saying. It wasn't Jason or Steve or Arnie. It wasn't Erickson. Lisa figured, Okay, one of them had a heart attack. She called Mindy, and they agreed: natural causes. He was old. Their husbands were young. She was at work the next day when she got a call from the U. S. ambassador to Ecuador. Autopsy report, she heard. Executed, she heard. Five bullets in the back. He was found dead by the side of a road with a sheet draped over him bearing the words, I AM A GRINGO. FOR NONPAYMENT OF RANSOM. HP COMPANY. She doesn't remember much after that—well, she remembers screaming. She remembers seeing the negotiator that night at Erickson and hearing him say, with tears in his eyes, "They never kill the hostages, they never kill the hostages," and she remembers telling him, "Don't tell that to me ever again! Don't tell that to anyone ever again! Because obviously they do!" Now, though, she was being asked to make a decision. Mike Derry had called a press conference. He had started a fund for the release of the hostages from Gold Hill. He had organized a demonstration in front of Erickson. Were Lisa and Mindy standing with Mike Derry or with Lee and Erickson? Of course, it was no choice at all. What power did Mike Derry have—or Lisa or Mindy—to get Steve and Arnie and Jason home? What connections? What money? "I'll stand with you, Lee, but you better get my husband home," Lisa said. "I promise," Lee said.

She flew in the Erickson jet to Ron Sander's funeral in Oklahoma on Tuesday, February 6. Just a flat-ass town in Oklahoma, like the one Jason had come from, with a closed casket, a burial in the winter wind, and a reception at a hall. Lisa introduced herself when people were leaving. Sheila Sander had figured her for one of Ron's distant relatives, but now Lisa came up to her and said, "My husband's Jason Weber. He was with your husband. He's still down there. He's one of the hostages." And Sheila Sander? She remembered, as she always did, that Ron didn't like to see her cry. She remembered how he calmed her and directed her to a purpose. So she hugged Lisa and introduced Lisa to Ron's family and comforted Lisa, and then took her aside and said: "You go back home and get your husband back. Because they say they're going to kill another one every two weeks until they get their money."

* * *

THEY DID NOT TELL their hostages, of course, that they had killed Ron Sander. They did not tell them the letters they wrote had gone undelivered, that the proof-of-life questions were simply part of their deception. They did not tell them that they had threatened to keep killing them until their demands were met. No, on February 10—Day 122—Fernando sat by the radio and flashed Arnie the thumbs-up. On February 12, Qaddafi told them the deal was 95 percent done—that the negotiators had offered 10.5 million, and the ninjas were deciding whether to hold out for 20. On February 14, Valentine's Day, the Young Captain broke the news that the negotiations were over, that the ninjas were just waiting for the money. A week later, on Day 133, a helicopter dropped seven bags filled with $13 million worth of $100 bills into a clearing near a river, the ninjas started slowly disbanding, and Jorge got on the radio to announce that the seven of them were still alive.

And yet . . . it wasn't good, February. They had no supplies in February. Food was rationed in February, and they were starving. They were wasting away, quickly now, as though they were in the end stages of a disease. Steve's hand was open and rotten and stinking—he was watching himself turn into meat. A few of them, Steve and Arnie included, began itching so badly that all they wanted to do was run. And Jason had stopped talking. Back in October, he had begun, for the first time in his life, to pray to God, but now he had not only stopped praying, he wrote that God, if there is a God, must be laughing at him. What sustained him now—his only prayer—was what he did every night before sleep, something he'd read about in a novel by Dean Koontz, oh, he couldn't remember the name, but it was about this retarded kid who had psychic ability, who imagined his thoughts as a string fed out into the world, and if anyone touched the string, he could talk to them, and so every night Jason would visualize his thoughts as a string floating through the air, and whoever touched it, well, it would always be Jessica. Kaitlyn was too young, but Jason figured that if he could just get Jessica to touch the string, she could always tell Kaitlyn that they once had a daddy, even if he never made it home. . . .

They broke camp on the twenty-fourth of February—Day 136—and began the last of their long marches, circling, walking back over the archaeology of their own buried garbage, on the way to the place where they were to be released. "Somebody better make a decision because I am tired of shitty sardine soup," Jason wrote. "I fucking want to go home. I AM DONE." They were eating the nuts that fell off a certain kind of tree; they were drinking the water from the blisters that bulged from a certain kind of vine. Then, suddenly, there were more of them than there were ninjas. The ninjas had dwindled down to four—Young Captain, Taxi, G. I. Jane, and Mini-Me—and on Day 138 Young Captain was asking permission to come under their tarp so that he could show them his stack of $100 bills and find out if they were real. On Day 139 they pissed and shat and then slept outside the shadow of a gun for the first time in nearly five months, and so when the storm came through on their last night in the jungle and lightning speared the camp and for an instant their world was once again split in two, Arnie said that it was God's judgment on the ninjas, but Jason knew it was the last rattling echo of divine laughter.

March 1, 2001. Day 141. Up early, hike for about an hour. YC's orders are changed, he says: He doesn't have to shoot them if they encounter the army. Then, at a trailhead, he stops and gives directions to the town of Santa Rosa, where a chopper from the Ecuadoran army is supposed to be waiting. And then, all at once: alone and free and scared to death. An empty farm with a field of pineapples: breakfast. A long, aching walk, through muddy fields churned up by pigs and cows . . . and then the walk seems to be taking too long, and at the next farmhouse Jorge asks a woman standing alone if they are going the right way. She is terrified by what she sees—seven bearded white men, gaunt and hungry-eyed, in filthy clothes—but manages to say no, they missed a turn, they have to go back to where they came from. Then behind them they hear gunshots—to this day they don't know where they came from—and it's off to the races. German is failing; they take turns carrying his pack, and after an hour on the open road, they come upon the blessed vision of a mother and a daughter scrubbing laundry on a washboard in front of their little house. The revelation of Santa Rosa. A man comes outside and the hostages tell him who they are, and he takes them to a house where they are served soda and a meal of bread and lemons. There is no helicopter waiting, but there is a local bus scheduled to come at 2:30, and Steve still has sixty dollars that he stashed away on October 12 and kept hidden on his person for 141 days, and they decide that if the bus comes, they will be on it no matter where it goes. Then a pickup comes barreling up the road and men jump out of it with television cameras, and another pickup comes and men in plainclothes identify themselves as Ecuadoran military and tell them all to get in. They do as they are told, and yet cars are coming at them from all directions, and they begin to think that maybe they're being kidnapped again, and it's all they can do not to choke the life out of the men who have taken them, but they hold on by the threads of their hope and their trust, and they're on the road to the military base when they hear that Ron Sander is not fishing with his good wife Sheila in Lake of the Ozarks but already one month dead.

IT'S HARD, YOU KNOW, waiting for that first phone call. It's sort of like the anxiety that went with the proof-of-life questions—because this is your one chance to say something and you haven't seen your husband in five months and what do you say? What does he say? And so Lisa waited and waited, and it was very late when the phone finally rang and she picked it up and there was Jason offering no preamble, no introduction, no hello, just saying, "I love you," instantly, immediately, before she had a chance to say a word.

* * *

THE WORLD IS FULL of wonders. Gold Hill, Oregon, is full of wonders. Home is full of wonders, because, to be frank, when you come home you are fucked up. You can't believe how fucked up you are. You can't remember anything, so you have to write down the details of your life, exactly as you did in the jungle. The world is loud but your voice is soft, your vocal cords atrophied by 141 days of whispering. You're paranoid and dim-witted and ghostly. You can't bear to look at what you wore in the jungle, and you can't bear to throw it away. You're hungry, but when you eat you feel sick. You go to the bar to talk, but when you do, you don't say a goddamn word. Arnie? Arnie still itches. Arnie is crazy with guilt; he's certain he's done something to his family, no matter how often Mindy and Kaitlin insist that they are just happy to have him home. Steve? Steve's overwhelmed by how many people love him: the family members who suffered nearly as he suffered; the total strangers who say that he was never out of their prayers. For some reason, it kills him; it breaks his heart even as his heart is bolstered, for he is still captive to all those tears.

As for Jason: He wrote his last journal entry on March 30, 2001, twenty-eight days after coming home to Lisa and Jessica and Kaitlyn. "I wish I felt I was done with this nightmare," he wrote. "I'm starting to get back to a somewhat normal state of mind but it seems the more I try to find out what happened when we were gone the more pissed I get. All I want to get is a few answers and everything I want to know that is semi-important to me they can't talk about or won't tell the truth on. Sometimes I feel the negotiators really screwed up and they don't want us to know about that. All I want is to be healthy again and a little compensation and to be a helicopter mechanic. . . . I have worked my ass off for this company for six years and will continue to do so as long as they are fair and don't try to screw us. . . .

Now is such a crazy time and I can't think straight. My concentration is horrible and everything I need to do I have to write down. The only good thing so far is how strong my wife is and what great kids I have. In that sense I am truly blessed."

But what was it like? Well, that's what it was like: They got screwed. They rejected Erickson's offer of compensation as an insult and wound up being paid with five months' time off in return for the time they spent in the jungle. Because of laws regarding workmen's compensation, they can't sue Erickson, although to a man they all say that if they could they would do so not for money but for answers. The negotiators had warned Lisa and Mindy that the kidnappers would try to use time as a weapon; as it turned out, it was the negotiators who tried to use time to bring down the ransom, but the time didn't belong to them: It belonged to Arnie and Steve and Jason, and now it's gone forever. In June, the Colombian government, acting in concert with the FBI's office in Bogotá, announced that it had arrested fifty-seven people allegedly involved not only with the October 12 kidnapping but with kidnappings dating back several years. Reporters called and asked Jason and Steve and Arnie if the arrests promised closure. Closure? Hell, no—Ron Sander was dead. The gentle man who had gotten them home was dead. Sheila Sander was selling their dream house on the Lake of the Ozarks because she had no more dreams, no more plans; all her dreams and plans were with Ron. Ask her about closure. Ask Sheila if she has come to accept her husband's death, and this is what she says: "I could accept it if Ron had died of a heart attack. I could accept it if Ron had died of cancer. I cannot accept that he was executed. I cannot accept that his body was found by the side of the road. Because he didn't have to die. He didn't have to die. They just didn't want to pay the ransom. . . ."

So she is moving to Oklahoma to be close to her daughter, who two days before what would have been Ron's fifty-fifth birthday gave birth to a baby boy; she is moving to Oklahoma to be close to Ron's grave. There she gets to talk to the only man she could ever talk to, although he was so quiet; there she gets to see a gravestone already inscribed with her name and gets to read all about closure, in the language of stone.

* * *

SEPTEMBER 6, 2001. Steve Derry slides his fishing boat out into the Rogue River, near Gold Hill; drops anchor; throws out a line. Cheeks pink as clouds at the end of the day; eyes like broken pieces of sky. He has done this all his life, but it's all different now. He's different. The river's different. The woods are different. The sun and the moon and the stars are different and so are the pleasures he takes from them. It's hard to explain, but everything has been ever so slightly rearranged and will never go back. That's why when he hears that Jason Weber is itching to return to Ecuador, to prove that the ninjas didn't beat him—when he hears that Jason would go back to Ecuador if not for the judgment of Lisa and the kids—Steve says quickly, "But they did beat him. They beat all of us. They beat the shit out of us. And now it's hard coming to terms with that. But you've got to. You have no choice. . . ." For five hours, he's out on the water, burning in the sun, in his slide; all day long, his line goes out and back in; and although his patience is endless, almost defiant, even he seems aware of the absurdity of casting his line one last time after he has said it's time to go home. Who catches a fish on the last cast of the day? But sure enough, his line snaps taut, and his rod doubles over, and he pulls a steelhead out of the water, green and silver and already dying as it tries to breathe in human hands.

"Well, I'll be darned," is all Steve Derry has to say before he sets free his prey in the cold, clear water.