They were going to leave before dawn.
Alvaro had wanted to stay, to help them make plans, but Joaquin had been adamant that he return before he was missed. Then he and Frank had spent the next few hours poring over a wrinkled map of the region.
The best place for an ambush was several miles from the camp, where the main road to the capital passed through a thick forest. According to the comandante there was a stretch of road halfway through the trees that was falling into disrepair, with the kind of ruts and potholes that would make it difficult for a truck to make a fast getaway. Once he was committed to an operation, Frank admitted to himself, he had a good grasp of strategy and tactics. Along with a much greater knowledge of the terrain and the nature of the opposition. It didn’t take the two of them long to hammer out a basic plan of attack.
After which Joaquin informed Frank, in a tone that reminded him of some of his old drill instructors, that he was going to get a few hours sleep before the op or he wasn’t going along.
Knowing when not to push his luck, he hadn’t argued. He’d tried to sleep, honestly he’d tried. Drifting in and out of a light doze all afternoon, he’d been dreaming of his wife when the sound of footsteps nearby woke him.
It was almost sundown. Lying on the ground with his pack as a makeshift pillow, he eased his eyes open a fraction, trying to ignore the pounding in his head. The pain in his side wasn’t nearly so easy to push aside, radiating fiercely out from the wound, burning with every breath he took. He’d looked at it a few hours before, and found that the area around the wound was red and swollen, fluid leaking between the stitches. Hot needles stabbed into him when he’d tried to sit up, and he’d quickly pulled his shirt back down and hoped Joaquin hadn’t seen. The comandante, he was sure, was already this close to ordering him to stay behind on this mission.
No way in hell was that going to happen.
His head had that fuzzy feeling, like he had cotton stuffed in his ears, that told him he was definitely running a fever. All in all he felt like shit, but there was no way he was going to let that keep him from joining this mission. He was going to personally see that Jack got out of that jail to someplace safe if he had to damn well crawl all the way there and crawl back dragging Jack with him.
Okay, he thought. So I’m a little paranoid. But after the last twenty-four hours, he wasn’t exactly inclined to trust his only allies here out of his sight anywhere near his friend.
He quickly closed his eyes when he saw Joaquin glance in his direction, opening them again cautiously after a minute or so when a soft voice spoke.
“We are going to fight tomorrow.” It was Charlie. The kid was sitting next to him, rifle cradled across his lap. He looked more comfortable with it now than he had a few days ago, holding the weapon more like he was used to carrying it. Frank wasn’t sure he liked that thought.
“Sí.” Opening his canteen, he swallowed a few mouthfuls of warm water, tilting his head to look at Charlie. His face was half hidden behind the hair falling in his eyes, but his expression was apprehensive. And Frank wondered why he was coming to him for reassurance. The kid wasn’t the demonstrative sort, and while he seemed to be accepted and generally liked by the older men he’d never seemed particularly friendly with anyone. He was shy, and he didn’t like to talk much, especially not about himself. Which, from the little Frank knew about his past, wasn’t much of a surprise.
The baffling part was why Charlie seemed to trust him, as much as or more than anyone else he’d seen the kid interact with. So much that on the eve of his very first combat engagement, he sought out the American outsider.
Frank supposed maybe that had something to do with it. They were both outsiders, in a way. Charlie was the youngest in the unit, and the only one, as far as he knew, who had no living family waiting for him to come safely home after the war was over. That in itself set him apart from the rest of the contras, most of whom had relatives they spoke of frequently. Some had family in other parts of the country, and worried constantly if they were near any fighting. Some had relatives living in Honduras, struggling to survive until the war was over or until they could get visas to the States. Charlie sat aloof from these conversations, and most of the time it was hard to tell what he was thinking.
Whatever the reason, he was watching Frank now like he was hoping for some kind of reassurance. Asking for some words that would help calm his fears, or maybe just permission to sit with him, and know he wasn’t alone.
“You’ll do fine, kid.” He hoped it was the company the kid was looking for, ‘cause he’d never been very good with words. “Remember, aim low. And keep your head down.” Charlie nodded, his hair falling over his face again as he looked away, toward where Joaquin was watching them.
He wasn’t going to be able to see to aim properly, with his hair like that, Frank thought. Taking a cautious breath, he pushed himself into a sitting position, squeezing his eyes tight shut for a moment as a fresh wave of agony slowly faded to the usual dull pain. “Look at me.” His voice sounded breathless, and when Charlie turned he looked worried. “I’m all right,” he said impatiently, pulling his knife and testing the edge with one finger. “Listen, you’re not gonna be able to see with your hair in your eyes like that.” If he’d expected a protest, he didn’t get one. Charlie only looked at him curiously, pushing his bangs behind one ear, where they stayed for a moment until he turned his head. Frank sighed heavily. “Come here.”
He was no barber, and he didn’t even have a pair of scissors, but Charlie didn’t even flinch when he took a handful of dark hair in his hand and started sawing at it with his knife. He had no idea what he was doing, but he wasn’t trying to make the kid look like a friggin’ supermodel, for cryin’ out loud. It was a simple fact that your odds of survival in a firefight are much better if you can see what you’re shooting at, so he made do with what he had.
When he was done, Charlie reached up with one hand, touching the ragged ends of his hair. Frank wasn’t sure he liked the result at all.
And it wasn’t because of what the kid’s hair looked like. He was sure Jack would have a sarcastic metaphor for what it looked like, but all he could think was that it looked like he’d let a badly wounded soldier hack at it with a knife.
Looking him straight in the eye, Frank couldn’t help feeling like he’d destroyed something he couldn’t replace. Without his long hair half screening his face, Charlie looked somehow older and more vulnerable at the same time. But he just nodded, as Frank sheathed his knife, and said simply, “Gracias.”
Cut the sentimental crap, Cromwell, he told himself firmly. Now is so not the time.