It was a few hours later when Frank looked up at the sound of footsteps. Juan stood there, offering him a bowl of rice. “Gracias,” he said quickly, not feeling hungry at all, but knowing he had to eat something. The rice was sticky and tasteless.
Juan was looking curiously at the mess of squiggles in the dirt. “Are we going to attack the jail, free your partner?”
“Sí,” Frank said shortly, staring fiercely down at the ground like if he glared at it hard enough, the lines in the dirt might come together to form a coherent battle plan that might actually be successful.
“You should rest, señor.” Juan sounded concerned.
One swift jerk of his wrist, and he jammed the knife violently into the dirt, driving the point down several inches. “The next guy tells me I should rest, I swear to God I’ll strangle the son of a bitch.” He said that in English, but Juan apparently understood his tone and backed off.
He let his eyes close for a moment, breathing in slowly and trying to ignore the burning pain that seized him with even that slight movement. As the day grew hotter he was starting to feel a little light-headed, and he knew he was probably running a fever. More good news. His head throbbed dully in time with the beating of his heart.
When he opened his eyes, Charlie was kneeling in front of him.
The boy was holding out a piece of fruit. It looked like a mango, but all he could think of was that it was almost the same shape as the green coconut Jack had carved a face on back in Honduras. Was it only a week ago? He took it, surprising a small smile from Charlie as he bit into it and the juice ran down his chin. The taste was sweet, and he nodded once in thanks.
Charlie sat down a few feet away from him, tilting his head curiously at the drawings in the dirt. When he spoke, his voice was quiet but sincere. “I am sorry about your friend.”
Frank looked up sharply, and for the first time he could see the pain in his young face. For a moment he looked older than he was, empathy and loss clearly visible in his expression. And Frank swallowed hard, looking away and reaching again for his knife. “Quit talkin’ about him like he’s already dead!” Charlie drew back a little, and he sighed. “Sorry, kid,” he said finally. “Not your fault.”
The boy clasped his arms around his knees, watching him again with the old guarded look, but he didn’t get up and leave. And for some strange reason, Frank was glad. Not like he could do anything, or say anything, that would help them find a way out of this. But he was grateful for a sympathetic presence.
They had a man on the inside. Okay, so start with that, he told himself for the fiftieth time. If Alvaro could slip something into Jack’s food to knock him out, he could do the same to at least one or two of the guards. After that… it would be a risky proposition, depending on how bad Jack was injured and if they’d have to carry him, across the open field in back of the jail and out of town into the jungle. But they’d have at least a fighting chance, if they took the Sandinistas by surprise…
“Comandante!” At Juan’s voice, Frank stood up, letting himself lean on Charlie’s shoulder for a second this time as he looked around. Joaquin dropped his pack by a tree, giving Frank a look that was half resigned as he approached. He looked like he was trying to decide whether he should try to avoid the American or not. After a moment he beckoned sharply, waving Frank to follow him a little ways into the forest.
When they were out of earshot of the rest, he demanded bluntly, “You are a soldier for how long, señor?”
“Do you know a way we can save your friend, that will not kill many of my men?”
“I can’t guarantee success, comandante,” he admitted. This was his one chance, he realized with a shiver. Joaquin was giving him this one chance to plead his case, to offer other options. He wondered idly if it was out of some very well hidden compassion, or just ‘cause he was being so damn annoying. “But we’d have a good chance if we take them by surprise…”
“They know you are here, señor.” Joaquin folded his arms. “You think they will not be expecting a rescue?”
“They don’t know about Alvaro.”
“And they will find out about him, if we do as you would have us do,” he shot back. “I am a soldier, and these men — and Alvaro, as well — are my responsibility. You are asking me to risk fourteen lives for one man. And more than that — Alvaro has two young sisters. What do you think will happen to them if the soldiers learn of his involvement?” Suddenly he looked very tired. “My brother, he was a prisoner of the Sandinistas for five years, before he died. Believe me, I know what these men can do. Your friend is better off dead. I am truly sorry.”
“You’re sorry.” The words were flat, disbelieving. “You tell me you’re gonna murder my best friend, and you’re fucking sorry?”
He knew this wasn’t helping any. Think, dammit. Diplomacy, Cromwell, insulting the man’s not going to get you anywhere.
“This is war, Señor Valentine.” Joaquin wasn’t impressed. “How long have you been in this country? Three days? Four days? You Americans, you think you can come in here, look around for a week and then tell us how to win our war, how to ‘fix’ our country. You know nothing about my country.”
Considering he would’ve been hard put to find Nicaragua on a map only a few months before this mission, Frank wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. But the man was missing the point, he thought, opening his mouth to speak just before Joaquin rounded on him again. “The past six years, I have fought against the Sandinistas. I fought with them before that. These men—“ he waved a hand back toward the camp” — “they came to me three months ago. Before that I fought in many battles. Killed many men. Tried hard to survive, and to keep those under me alive. And every now and then, when they remember that we exist, and that we are slowly bleeding to death out here, the Americans decide to send us some food. A few new guns. An ‘advisor’ or two, to tell me how to run my own unit.” He spat the last words. “We are nothing to you, pawns in your little game with the Russians. Why should you mean anything more to us?”
“Because we’re on the same side, dammit!”
Joaquin was unmoved, turning away and walking back toward the camp. Because you’re supposed to be the good guys. Because he’s my best friend and I won’t leave this goddamn shithole of a country without him. Because his wife’s gonna have a baby in two months. Because nobody gets left behind.
“Where’d you get that gun you’re carrying?” Frank yelled after him, catching hold of a nearby branch, feeling suddenly dizzy. “Where did all your weapons come from?” The situation was sliding rapidly out of control, and all he could think was that he had failed. Failed his best friend, in the worst possible way. “Where the hell would you be without us?”
The look the comandante gave him was one of disbelieving scorn. “We will not speak of this again,” he snapped. “You are not in command here, señor. I am, and it will happen as I say.”
Frank closed his eyes. Seeing Jack’s bruised face again, hearing his voice as he’d yelled after him. It couldn’t end like this.
He remembered Charlie’s face in the dark, watching him after Alvaro had left. Looking for an explanation, something that would justify this. And in the back of his mind something fell together, and then dissolved in a white rage.
“You don’t know jack shit about command.” The words shot from his mouth almost before he was aware of them. Joaquin stopped, half turning, his face blank now. “You know what?” He closed the distance between them in two unsteady steps. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right.” Joaquin held up his rifle in a silent warning, as he made to grab him by the collar, stopping just as the muzzle brushed his chest. “Uncle Sam doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you people. If Mr. Reagan didn’t have to look tough against the Commies to win the next election, you can bet he wouldn’t send you an old shoe.” One dark eyebrow rose, impassive in the face of Frank’s fury. “You think your big shots back in Honduras care about you? Hell, as long as they can pocket half of what the CIA sends ‘em, they don’t give a shit about the grunts in the jungles, either.”
He waved a hand toward the camp. “And the only fucking reason your guys are still here is ‘cause they haven’t figured that out yet.” Striking one hand against a tree, he let out a shuddering breath, and prayed Joaquin couldn’t see how his hands were shaking. “What do you think is gonna keep them here, once they realize this war ain’t gonna be over in a month?”
“They will learn discipline.” Slowly Joaquin lowered the rifle, ignoring Frank’s skeptical look. “They are not soldiers yet, but they will be.”
“For cryin’ out loud! They’re farmers. What are you gonna do, point that gun at them, tell ‘em you’ll shoot ‘em if they don’t fight?” Joaquin made a sharp, angry gesture with one hand, jerking his head toward the camp, and he lowered his voice. The next words were softer, but no less intense. “They’ll be gone the instant you turn your back, if you try to run this unit like that. Hell, if you scare ‘em bad enough, they just might slip a knife in your back before they go. But if you want to lead these men—if you want ‘em to follow you even when you’ve got no allies and the CIA fucks you over like you know they will—then you better make damn sure they know they can trust you.” He folded his arms, meeting the other’s icy stare. “’Cause they sure as hell can’t trust anybody else. You said it yourself.”
“I will do what I must to protect my own men,” Joaquin said. “This is why I cannot allow your partner’s information to fall into enemy hands. And I will not risk their lives in a hopeless attempt to save him. Or do you think that I enjoy killing my allies?”
You’ve got the right idea, pal, but you’re runnin’ in the wrong direction with it. “You know, these guys think we’re goin’ on a rescue mission tomorrow,” he said finally. Remembering Charlie’s eyes, and the silent question there. “You go ahead with what you’re planning, and you’re gonna tell ‘em two things. First, you think they’re incompetent, and you don’t trust them to be able to handle themselves in combat. And second, that you’re the kinda guy who’ll stab your own man in the back as soon as he becomes a liability.” Frank let his hands fall to his sides, a note of scorn creeping into his voice. “They’re gonna believe you’d do the same thing to them, if it was one of them in prison right now. You won’t get their trust or their loyalty this way. Only way they’re gonna put their lives on the line, willingly, at your orders is if they know you’ll take care of them, and you’ll risk everything for them.”
He swung around, then looked back for a moment. “I’m not sayin’ nobody’s gonna get hurt. This is war.” There was a calculating look on Joaquin’s face, and he tried not to hope. Maybe he’d given the bastard something to think about, at least. “They came out here to fight, comandante,” he said. “Why don’t you let ‘em?”
Stumbling away toward the clearing, he thought he heard Joaquin say something, but he wasn’t listening anymore. He barely registered the curious looks on the faces of the other men as he leaned heavily against a tree. There was nothing left for him to do, he realized. Nothing but hope, and pray that somehow he’d managed to sway the comandante to see his point of view.
The wrenching ache in his side made breathing itself painful, and his head was pounding. He’d never been much of a diplomat, and words had never been the weapons he preferred to use. He was a soldier, and he was used to having his orders obeyed. He wasn’t used to having to justify them.
He leaned his head back, feeling light-headed once again, gray sparkles dancing at the edges of his sight. Pull yourself together, dammit.
It was a couple seconds before he realized the others weren’t looking at him, before he heard the sound of rustling bushes stop abruptly. And when his vision cleared he saw that all the contras were slowly lowering their guns.
Joaquin was shouting. “What has happened? What are you doing here?” What the hell’s going on? Then he saw Alvaro, standing near the edge of the clearing, his hat clutched in his shaking hands.
And it was like all the air had been sucked out of his lungs, leaving him cold and barely breathing. God, no. Please, no…
“Comandante, forgive me,” Alvaro was saying. “I overheard el capitán, he ordered two guards to get a truck ready. Tomorrow morning Coronel Vicente is taking the American prisoner away from here. They will take him to Managua.”
“And you came here in broad daylight to tell me this?” Joaquin was furious, Frank could tell, walking over to join them as quickly as he could. “Do you know what will happen if you were seen —?”
“I am sorry, but I wanted you to know right away.” Alvaro looked right at Frank then. “They will drive out of town along the south road just after dawn tomorrow.”
“Do you know the route they’re taking?” Frank asked, before Joaquin could say anything. Alvaro nodded, his hands clenching tighter around the hat, looking terrified and excited at the same time. “The south road, that goes through the jungle, right? For a little ways at least… enough for an ambush?” The kid was nodding quickly. All right, it’s about time something worked out in our favor here, Frank was thinking, glancing at Joaquin. The comandante wasn’t looking happy, but he hadn’t interrupted yet. “How long will it take them to get into the trees?”
“Noon, maybe an hour before.” The rest of the contras were clustering around them now, curious.
“That is more than twenty-four hours from now.” Joaquin folded his arms, giving Frank a piercing look.
“We can do this, comandante.” He knew he sounded desperate, but he didn’t care. “We’ll have perfect cover. If we can hit ’em on the road— ”
“Twenty-four hours,” Joaquin interrupted him, coldly. “If your friend betrays us between now and then, we are all dead.”
“He won’t.” One eyebrow went up at the swift reply, his eyes holding Frank’s. He didn’t like it, that was obvious. But he hadn’t said no, not yet. There was no way Frank could explain it, the kind of faith that ran deeper than the marrow of his bones, that would never be questioned. Jack would not betray them. He could only hold Joaquin’s eyes, refusing to look away. He said quietly, “He won’t break.”
Joaquin spun away, beckoning Frank and Alvaro sharply after him. “You are supposed to be an advisor,” he said curtly, pulling a wrinkled map out of his pack. “So advise me. If — if — I were to agree to this — this insane idea — how would we plan an ambush?”