Half an hour later they stopped, in a little clearing by a stream. Frank collapsed to his knees as the others stepped away, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain and the flood of images crowding his mind. Charlie’s eyes, paralyzed with fear, and the shadow of trust reemerging as he crawled toward him. Eyes like a shark, in a face like Death himself. And Joaquin’s hand holding the pistol, as neat an execution as he’d ever seen. Calm, quick, one shot to the head and they’d left him behind.
Fourteen years old. Oh God, they’d left him behind… He felt bile rising in his throat, choking him as he hunched over, retching, dry heaves racking him long after his stomach was empty. When he finally raised his head Juan had gone, and only Joaquin stood against a tree, watching him.
The comandante had one hand clasped against his arm, blood seeping through his fingers, and in his face there was something almost like concern. Letting go of the wound, he held out his hand.
Frank recoiled, pushing himself to his feet, swaying drunkenly as he stared at the other man’s bloody hand. “You… ” he said thickly, unable to form any more coherent thoughts. Joaquin simply looked at him, dark eyes calm and a little sad, as his hand fell to his side. “You… ” Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he struggled to find words for what he had seen. “You shot him.”
“He would not have survived to reach a hospital.” Joaquin folded his arms, his eyes never leaving Frank’s. “He might have lasted until tomorrow morning, if he was strong enough. And he would have been in terrible pain. Is that what you want?”
Frank shook his head, anger mixing with horrified disbelief. “He was a child,” he finally managed, throwing the words out like they might change what was already done. “He was only fucking fourteen years old! What the fuck was he doing here at all?” He was shouting now, not caring who heard him. “We could’ve brought him back! You could have tried—“
“I did what had to be done.” Joaquin’s voice was firm, but not angry. “If you are a soldier long enough, you will learn that sometimes you cannot save them all.” He shook his head slowly, and when he spoke again it was almost to himself. “I pray that day is far off… ”
“Fuck you.” Frank’s voice was flat. “Where’s Jack?”
Joaquin pointed, his expression unchanging. On the other side of the clearing, five of the men were clustered around a sixth, lying on the ground. Turning away, staggering toward them, Frank saw two of them fussing over Jack’s arm, gingerly trying to move it as he let out a strangled moan.
“Get away from him!” he yelled, sinking to the ground beside his friend just in time to see Jack’s eyes close and his head loll to one side. The contras, apparently startled by his anger, retreated.
He glared after them, feeling his hands start to shake as the realization crashed over him that these men could have killed his best friend. That it had almost been Jack who was the liability, to be neatly executed and left behind. That he’d almost been too late.
There was concern in the faces watching them, now at a respectful distance. And it occurred to him, briefly, that they’d only been trying to help. That these men, these farmers, had just put their own lives on the line to save two strangers. Even so, there were no words to explain the sheer terror that gripped him, at the thought of letting Jack out of his sight around any one of them.
Looking down at Jack’s bruised face, he forced himself to breathe evenly, his relief at his friend’s presence struggling with horror at his appearance. What did they do to you? he demanded silently, clenching his fists in a futile effort to stop his hands from shaking. When that didn’t work, he probed gently at Jack’s swollen elbow, forcing himself to concentrate on that and only that. Only dislocated, he thought. But it’s not going to just pop back in. God, it looks like that was done deliberately…
Jack moaned softly as he carefully straightened the arm as best he could. God, buddy, I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re out for this part, you’d hate me otherwise, I know. A nearby stick worked to splint it, and he ripped a few strips of cloth from the hem of his shirt to tie it in place. After that there wasn’t much else anyone could do for him.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he whispered, knowing Jack couldn’t hear him. “I’m not gonna let anybody hurt you. No way in hell. We don’t leave our people behind, right? I said I wasn’t leaving the country without you, and I’m not.” Ripping another piece from his shirt, he opened his canteen and soaked the cloth with water. “No way in hell.”
Reaching across, he took Jack’s other hand, looking at the swollen, grimy fingers. There was a deep cut across the base of his index finger, dirt and dried blood and pus caked inside. Gently, he rubbed the wet cloth over the gash, working carefully to clean it out. He needed to be doing something, helping Jack somehow. Even if it was only cleaning up the relatively minor cuts.
Anything not to feel helpless anymore.