It was simple, really. Or at least, it should have been.
They’d scavenged all the old rusty nails they had lying around, and any sharp bits of scrap metal they could find. Pounding them through a thin strip of wood, a few inches apart, was the work of half an hour, and then under cover of night they’d set their trap, and disguised it as well as they could with palm fronds.
And it worked. Oh, it worked beautifully. After five hours of lying in the undergrowth, sights trained on that one patch of road, the faraway buzz of the truck’s engine first broke the humid stillness.
Frank was sweating already, just lying there, and he was having trouble focusing past the burning pain in his side and the haze clouding his mind. In training he’d done this countless times, lying in ambush, perfectly still for hours on end. Maintaining perfect concentration for endless stretches of inactivity, knowing that at any second he could be under attack. It wasn’t something that came naturally to him, and it was hard as hell to keep that level of alertness for so long when nothing was happening. With a rising fever and less than three hours’ sleep in the past two days, it was damn near impossible.
He found his mind drifting, the same images replaying over and over and over. His last words with Jack. Any of a million things he might have done differently that morning, any options he might not have considered, that might’ve gotten his friend out of there before all this.
Where was Jack right now? Had they put him in the truck yet? How had he spent the last few days? Had Alvaro been able to get his message through? He prayed Jack had gotten the message, and that he knew they were coming for him. He tried not to think that their chances against a truck filled with trained soldiers didn’t look very good.
They would get out of here. Both of them. They had to. He wasn’t leaving this piece of shit country without his best friend, not if he had to follow those sorry sons of bitches on his hands and knees all the way to fucking Managua …
Stop thinking like that, dammit. It’ll work. It has to.
The rumbling growl grew louder as the truck appeared around a bend in the road. He could hear Charlie’s breathing next to him, quick and fearful, but the kid made no sound beyond a whispered, “Madre de Dios!” Then there was a sharp pop! as the tires hit sharp metal, and the hiss of air escaping as the truck came to a halt.
Surprise, that was the key element of this plan, the only shred of an advantage they had. They had to hit hard and fast, and be gone, before the Sandinistas realized that all they were facing were barely trained farmers …
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Charlie glance in his direction. He didn’t return the look, glancing instead at Joaquin, a single nod. And they both locked their sights on the back of the truck as the tailgate went down.
Four men climbed out. They were close enough that Frank could see a young face and a dark mustache as he aimed the gun. He followed the man up to the ruptured front tires, letting out a long breath before he squeezed the trigger.
A surge of adrenaline gave him the focus he needed, and his man was down. The man next to him, too, crumpling on top of his comrade. Joaquin fired a second time, with the calm of a trained sharpshooter. So far, so good. The fourth man barely had time to register their presence before Frank’s second shot caught him in the chest.
And then …
… all hell broke loose.
The contras opened up as soon as the next soldiers appeared, pouring from the back of the truck, moving quickly to take cover under the truck and behind the tires to return fire. Two of them fell in the dust, but Frank’s rough count said there were about a dozen left. And no sign of Jack.
He didn’t stop to think. Reaching out to either side, he clapped Charlie and Juan on the shoulders, snapped “Cover me!” and ran out into the road.
For a single fierce moment the pain was gone, adrenaline burning through him as the bullets whirred past, slamming into the dust around his feet. He was aware of the little things with an aching clarity. The faces of the enemy half-hidden behind mud-streaked tires. The shapes of the holes in the side of the truck where the contra bullets hit, the sharp sound when they struck the metal. A ragged yell, almost a scream, tearing through the morning air. It was a few seconds before he realized the voice was his own.
He threw his rifle into the bed of the truck, grabbed onto the side with both hands and pulled, jumping up with the last of his strength and collapsing against the wooden slats. Landing on his right side, sensation returning in a blaze of agony, he curled into a ball, biting down savagely on his lower lip and struggling to breathe. Seconds ticked by, and there was only pain, punctuated by the faint sound of more bullets pinging against the truck, and voices shouting in Spanish. And an acrid smell, one that had all his instincts screaming an incoherent warning, though his brain as yet refused to process what it might be.
Next thing he was aware of, Charlie was shaking his shoulder, his eyes round. “Señor,” he was whispering, urgently. “Señor Joe!”
Shaking his head to clear it, trying to ignore the steady pounding behind his eyes, he pushed himself up, crouching so his head was below the sides of the truck bed, gritting his teeth. You can collapse later, Cromwell. Now is not the time. He waved Charlie’s concern aside, noticing for the first time that Juan had also followed him, and was now kneeling by the end of the truck bed to shoot anyone who tried to climb in after them.
Two other men lay prone on the wooden slats beside him. One dressed in rumpled camouflage, a surprised expression frozen on his face and a neat hole through his forehead. And the other …
Jack’s lips moved as their eyes met, forming his name, but no sound came out.
His eyes held a dazed disbelief that Frank didn’t like. One eye was almost swollen shut, and dried blood mingled with the dirt and bruises on his face as he struggled just to lift his head. Even that movement made him squeeze his eyes shut in obvious pain, and Frank reached out automatically to grip his shoulder, checking him quickly for any immediately dangerous wounds.
He didn’t like the way Jack was staring at him. Like he couldn’t quite believe it, like he was half convinced the man leaning over him was no more than a hallucination, the hand on his shoulder a wish out of a fever dream.
But now was not the time to grab his hand, and hold on tight for as long as he had to, until Jack could accept that this was real, that he was safe. Now was not the time to start talking to him, telling him it was over, just talking about anything and nothing and letting the familiar sound of his voice reach his friend, and comfort him with his presence. Now was certainly not the time to imagine what Jack had gone through, to decipher the cruel story those cuts and those bruises and those burn marks on his chest might tell. Jack’s safety was the first priority now. They had to get out of here.
His friend’s feelings — and his own — he would deal with later.
Sliding one arm under Jack’s shoulders, he shoved aside the sick rage building inside him, grabbing his rifle with one hand and pulling him toward the back of the truck bed.
Only to stop at Jack’s strangled gasp, as he met resistance. Noticing for the first time Jack’s arms stretched above his head, manacled to the wooden floor, and one elbow swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
His arm was twisted at an angle that looked wrong, and there were tears of pain shining in his eyes. “Shit!” Frank drew his knife, prying desperately at the keyhole on the handcuffs. “Oh shit, Jack, I’m sorry… ” He didn’t think Jack even heard him, squeezing his eyes shut again now. Dislocated, absolutely. Maybe broken. Fuck, Cromwell, next time look more closely before you try to drag him off somewhere…
The lock was not coming open. And his knife wasn’t having much luck chewing through the wood where the handcuffs were anchored into the floor, either. A stream of curses in several different languages running through his mind, he pushed past Juan and poked his head up over the side of the truck to assess their situation.
A few more dead Sandinistas than there had been a couple minutes ago, but there was still a lively exchange of lead going on between the truck and the treeline. And then he saw it.
That smell he’d noticed before, sharp, bitter, growing stronger now.
Smoke. Billowing out from under the hood of the truck, a black plume rising straight up in the still air.
It seemed to happen all of a sudden. A bullet splintered the glass of the cab window, and there was a great whooshing sound. And then there were flames shooting from the inside of the cab, pouring from the broken window.
Shouts, and then the remaining Sandinistas abandoned the cover of the burning truck, soldierly order flung aside as they fled for the trees on the other side of the road.
“We are so fucked.” He shoved the knife back into its sheath, looking around for Charlie and waving a hand at Jack’s bound wrists. For the life of him he couldn’t remember the Spanish word for keys.
Of all the idiotic things to forget at a time like this… but Charlie seemed to get the picture, scrambling down out of the truck bed. Frank lowered Jack as gently as he could, dragging himself to sit beside Juan as they both fired steadily into the trees where the enemy had taken cover. The contra rifles on the other side of the road had fallen suspiciously silent, and he prayed they were holding their fire so they didn’t accidentally hit Charlie, and not because they’d already exhausted their limited supplies of ammo.
The boy was kneeling beside a young guard who’d had his whole face blown off, hesitating, his back to the truck. “Come on, kid, come on,” Frank whispered, willing him to put aside the shock long enough to find those keys before the fire reached the gas tank and they were all dead.
Now Charlie’s hands were moving, waving toward the contras in the trees, some kind of signal? Then going to the guard’s belt, and Frank was suddenly glad he couldn’t see the kid’s face. Searching the pockets of his pants, and then his jacket, finding nothing. A few shots rang out from the enemy side, and Frank squeezed off an answering burst in that direction. Fuck it, he should be the one down there exposed, in the open. But he knew damn well he couldn’t move fast enough like this, and if the truck blew up it wouldn’t matter. None of them would be far enough away to survive.
Charlie moved quickly away to the next corpse, and Frank slapped a new magazine into his rifle, firing blindly into the trees. It wasn’t like he could see any targets, but at least if he and Juan kept shooting, the Sandinistas would keep their heads down.
A light breeze stirred the air, blowing the smoke into the back of the truck. The reek of burning diesel fuel was overpowering, and he couldn’t stop coughing, couldn’t see through the tears stinging his eyes. He kept shooting, his gun pointed in the direction of the other side of the road, ignoring the surge of agony through his right side. Sweat was pouring down his face now, and he could feel the heat of the flames a few yards away.
When the breeze died down and he could see again, Charlie was sitting beside him, holding up a ring of keys. His eyes were ringed with white, his face smeared with soot, and the keys jangled as his hand shook. Frank pulled him down toward the floor, squeezing his arm briefly before dragging himself back toward Jack.
The third key opened the lock, after much frantic twisting and swearing. Breathing a silent prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening that he seemed to be unconscious, Frank helped Charlie and Juan drag Jack toward the end of the truck bed. Somehow by that time Joaquin was there, looking impatient, along with the Snake.
Joaquin grabbed Jack’s shoulders, and Frank took his ankles, jumping down from the truck, swaying a little. A rattling volley rocked the truck as Juan and Charlie jumped down, and then they were running for the trees. Gunfire behind them, but no shots came close. Before they reached safety two more contras, he didn’t bother to look at their faces, relieved them of their burden.
He was hardly aware of Joaquin’s hand on his shoulder, shoving him down to lie in the dirt as the men carrying Jack disappeared into the jungle. His head was spinning dizzily, and his eyes still burned from the smoke.
Then he saw Charlie.
Crouching behind the back tire of the truck, still firing resolutely at the enemy. Two dead guards lay behind him, and against the front wheel to his right a man sat slumped, his head bowed, blood staining the silver colonel’s insignia on his collar.
Joaquin was shouting at him. Beckoning sharply, get your ass back here, dammit! Frank was stunned. What the fuck did the kid think he was doing? They’d won the fight, they’d got Jack out safely, and here Charlie wanted to keep going, kill some more of the bastards, so much that he’d sit next to a burning truck to do it? For a moment he wondered if something inside him had suddenly snapped, if this was some kind of delayed reaction to his family’s death, a need for revenge or simply an attempt at suicide, who could say?
“Come on!” he yelled, yanking an empty magazine out of his rifle and loading his last full one. He could see the Sandinistas moving at the edge of the road. He could hear the stutter of machine gun fire again, see the bullets hitting the trees, spraying splinters behind them. They were regrouping. Counterattacking. Time’s up, we gotta get the hell out. “It’s over, let’s go! Let’s go!”
The kid glanced back then, and Frank knew.
Charlie could see the soldiers moving in the trees, too. And he was afraid. Afraid to leave the cover of the truck, to cross the few yards of open road between that shelter and the trees. Somehow he’d convinced himself that he’d be safe as long as he had the solid bulk of the truck between him and the enemy’s rifles.
And when the flames reached that gas tank, he’d be right next to a fireball.
Glancing once back toward the woods where Jack had disappeared, he looked at Joaquin and Juan. “Cover me.”
He crawled forward on his elbows, dragging himself painfully through the dust, focusing on his objective and ignoring the bullets plowing the road beside him. There was a burst of fire from behind him, and then silence, and he imagined the enemy drawing back a bit.
“Charlie.” He repeated it again, louder, and the boy turned. Staring at him, cradling his gun against his chest now, paralyzed. And no sign at all of the trust he had shown Frank a few hours before.
“Come on.” Frank felt a sudden tightness in his chest, a surge of pity and horror and shame, looking into those round eyes. “Come on, kid, it’s over,” he said, quietly. “Let’s go.”
He shouldn’t be here. No fourteen-year-old should have to go through this. After this he’ll never be the same again. No wonder he doesn’t trust you …
Even if he could get to him in time, he doubted he had the strength to drag the kid back to the trees.
But, dammit, he was not about to leave him out here.
Slowly, he stretched out his hand. “We have to get to the trees,” he said, trying to sound normal and reassuring. Meeting his eyes, Frank wasn’t even sure Charlie recognized him. He jerked his head back toward Joaquin and Juan, lying with their rifles ready to fire. “We got you covered. It’s not that far.”
Joaquin yelled something, and Charlie started, seeming to actually focus on Frank’s face for the first time. “Hey.” Frank tried a faint smile, and a shadow of recognition flickered in the kid’s face. “It’s me.” Charlie’s eyes fastened on his, like he was trying to draw strength from him, and he felt an inexplicable lump in his throat as the kid began to crawl toward him.
“That’s it.” He tried to sound reassuring, raising himself onto his hands and knees, holding out his hand. The air above the truck was shimmering, wavering in the heat. They had only seconds, a minute at most. “It’s okay, you’re gonna be okay …”
Their hands clasped, Charlie’s trembling fingers locking around his, and he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Starting to crawl backwards, he stopped when the kid froze, staring back at the truck.
Joaquin’s gun fired again. “Charlie, we don’t have time for — ”
“Señor Joe!” It was a sharp cry, and Frank turned to look just in time to see the man he’d noticed before. Slumped against the front wheel of the truck, staring in their direction, not dead after all. Not yet… and struggling to raise a pistol in his shaking hands.
Frank had a brief impression of silver hair, a lined face with blood trickling from his mouth. It was the eyes, though, that would stay with him. Eyes like a shark’s, even as he spat blood onto the ground.
He would never know who the man had been aiming at, or if he’d been aiming at all. He tried to raise his rifle, heard a sharp crack, and felt Charlie’s hand go limp in his. For a moment he was too stunned to react, staring into the shark’s eyes. Then there was a deep, concussive boom that shook the air, a wave of heat slamming into him, lifting him off the ground.
Agony exploded through his side as he hit the road again. Somewhere in the fuzzy gray world of pain he felt hands grasping his shoulders, and he knew he had to get up. Blinking, he saw Juan’s face above him. The gunshots had stopped. There was smoke everywhere, and he was coughing.
Turning his head, Frank could see him lying a few feet away. Moving weakly, trying to lift his head, one hand pressed over a gaping hole in his stomach. Even as Juan was pulling him away, he could see the blood staining the boy’s shirt, covering his fingers.
“Charlie!” It was a breathless sound, all he could manage right now, and he was shaking his head, trying to twist away from Juan, but he had no strength left. “Stop!” he choked out, but Juan didn’t hear him, or ignored him. “We can’t leave… ”
It was Joaquin who ran past him, discarding his empty rifle and firing a pistol toward the other side of the road. Hunched over, completely in the open, he slid to a halt on his knees. He didn’t glance once at the Sandinistas, moving toward the road again, recovering from the shock of the explosion. He only knelt beside Charlie, pistol dangling at his side, gently moving Charlie’s bloody hand away from the wound.
Frank couldn’t see his face clearly, as Juan dragged him away. All he saw was the movement of his hand, coming to rest against the side of Charlie’s face with a sort of tenderness he’d never thought to see from this man. Just before he set the pistol’s muzzle against Charlie’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.
The report echoed through the jungle, as Frank was swallowed by green, dragged off the road and into the shelter of the trees. The Sandinistas opened up seconds later, a deafening volley, but he could still hear that one shot louder than all of them. Reverberating endlessly past the pounding in his head, past the hurried footsteps ahead of them and the ragged sound of his breathing.
Joaquin came running at them, blood streaming from his arm, shoving the pistol in the waistband of his pants. Reaching down, he grabbed Frank’s arm without a word and hauled him to his feet, pulling his left arm over his shoulders as Juan supported him on his right side. Not a word was spoken as they set off at a stumbling run, heading deeper into the thick jungle.
They didn’t head back toward their old camp. The contras evidently knew these jungles and their twisting pathways well enough to vanish into them, to places where these soldiers from the city couldn’t find them. To Frank, the trip was a blur. He hardly knew what direction they were going in. It was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other, half dragged and half supported by the two contras.
He barely noticed the branches whipping his face, the roots and rocks under his feet, the twists and turns of the faint trail they followed. Each jolting step sent excruciating waves of pain radiating out from his side, growing steadily more intense as they continued. He could hardly see, gray blurring into green at the edges of his vision. He was practically sobbing with every breath, struggling to lift his feet, hearing nothing but a steady ringing in his ears and the echo of a gunshot.