The growl of the truck’s engine was the first sound to wake him, pulling him out of unconsciousness with a jerk as he was lowered to the ground. It wasn’t the same road, but it was similar enough, rutted and unpaved, with trees on either side, that he shivered in spite of the heat.
The sky overhead was fading to gray, as two unfamiliar men got out of the truck. Frank watched them lift Jack’s stretcher, turning his head with an effort as they laid him in the bed of a vehicle not unlike the one he’d left only a few hours before. Then it was his turn, and as he sank into the straw covering the wooden slats he saw the faces of the contras clustered above him. “Adios, señor,” they said, and other Spanish words he couldn’t translate. Some of them clasped his hand, some touched his shoulder, and he wished he could say something, anything to them. But he couldn’t find the words, even in English, so he only murmured “Gracias, gracias amigos,” over and over again. Until they disappeared, leaving only one man standing over them.
“I misjudged you,” Joaquin said simply, holding his eyes for a brief moment. There was something different in those eyes, something behind the fierce, watchful look he always had. Concern, and more than a little regret, both carefully hidden. And something else. Frank might have seen a glimmer of respect in the comandante’s face, if he’d cared to look for it.
Frank only stared at him, all the words he wanted to say tripping over each other in his mind, and tangling in a snarled knot of confusion and guilt, betrayal and the memory of fear. This man had come so close to killing his best friend. Without his help neither he nor Jack would ever have left this country alive.
But looking at him now, Frank could only see him as he’d looked kneeling beside Charlie, the image burned into his mind. Blood had dried, dark rust brown, on his sleeve, and the same pistol hung on his belt. There was regret in his eyes, surely, but also the sure knowledge that he had done what he saw as his duty.
If you are a soldier long enough, you will learn that sometimes you cannot save them all.
Joaquin didn’t say anything else, but Frank heard the words even so. And if he’d had the strength he would’ve hit him.
It’s your job to save them all, dammit! That’s what being in command means. Nobody gets left behind. You don’t just decide somebody’s a liability and shoot him like an animal and leave his body in the road to rot.
You son of a bitch. He was only a child.
Joaquin didn’t offer his hand. Maybe he knew Frank wouldn’t take it. He only held Frank’s eyes a moment longer, accepting his naked pain and fury, not trying anymore to explain what couldn’t be explained. At last he said, “Goodbye.”
The canvas was flung over the top of the truck bed, and they were plunged in darkness. Frank could hear doors slamming, the pitch of the truck’s engine changing as the floor vibrated under them.
Jack’s hand brushed his arm, fingers curling briefly around his wrist, trembling a little. In the tiny space he could hear his friend’s breathing, faster than normal, rasping. He had to be in a lot of pain, and being trapped in a small dark place would only bring back memories that were too close to the surface. Was it only this morning that he was back in that cell, believing he was going to die there?
“You okay?” It was only a whisper, but it was enough. Jack squeezed his wrist once and then relaxed.
“I should be askin’ you that.” There was a worried edge in Jack’s voice. “You scared the shit out of me back there.”
Frank let out a soft sigh, turning to a pained grunt as the truck hit a bump. I’m all right, he thought, but he didn’t have the will to say it. It was a lie, and Jack knew it was a lie, and he could probably hear Frank thinking it anyway.
He tried to brace himself against the wooden floor as the truck bounced over a rut in the road, but couldn’t help sliding over to slam not at all gently into the side of the truck bed. Pain blazing through his gut told him this was not going to be a fun trip…
“At least… ” He had to stop to catch his breath. “We’ll be home for the baby.”
Was it less than a week ago, that they’d been thinking of the baby and whether they’d be home in time? “Sara’s gonna kill us,” Jack said finally, with a note of longing in his voice that only Frank would have heard. “We haven’t thought of a name yet.”
Frank’s lips twisted, thinking of a time when their biggest problem was trying to come up with a name for the baby. “We had… other things on our minds.”
There was a long silence. Then, in a breathless whisper, “I still don’t get what’s so bad about ‘the Great and Powerful Oz’… ”
Frank rolled his eyes. It still hurt too bad to laugh. The air under the canvas was still and stifling, and no light penetrated into the back of the truck. At this point, he knew, there was nothing more for him to do but lie there, and when the truck stopped there would be American soldiers there to carry them to a hospital. He could feel his head starting to spin, couldn’t guess if it was really as dark as it looked or if he was going to pass out again.
Reaching out, he managed a faint whisper. “Jack?”
“Yeah?” The response was worried. He didn’t know what else to say, hadn’t really any energy left to talk. He only wanted to hear Jack’s voice. One final reassurance that his friend was here, and they were safe.
Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes, unspeakably grateful just for Jack’s presence. Knowing that in spite of everything, they would be all right. How, he didn’t know yet.
“Go to sleep, Jack.”