The jungle proved cruelly deceptive to the weary men, teasing them with the illusion of freedom as they continued to catch glimpses of breaks in the trees. But like a mirage in the desert disappears and disappoints the thirst-starved traveler, the hope of escaping the thick jungle seemed to evaporate as the hours passed. Long before they reached the edge of the tangle of trees darkness had enveloped them.
“Guess we better settle in for the night.” Jack said it like he was hoping Frank would argue the point.
Letting out a sigh which was no doubt lost in the rain, Frank nodded. “Yeah, doesn’t look like we’re going to get much further tonight.”
They looked at each other, knowing without saying that they were in for a long miserable night. The rain had at last let up, but the saturated state of the forest floor left no doubt that they would not even have the comfort of a dry place to sit, much less lie while they garnered a little sack time.
“No fire,” Jack said, stating the obvious.
“Too risky,” Frank nodded, “even if we could find something dry to burn.”
“Ah shit,” Jack grumbled under his breath. “Next assignment, let’s ask for Hawaii. Sand and surf. Now that’s my kind of mission. Get some rest. I’ll take first watch.”
Frank gave a soft snort, “Right, wonder what Sara would say if she caught one of the island beauties giving you a lei?”
His muted laugh was cut off abruptly as a soggy cap hit him directly in the face from the thickening darkness.
“Shut the fuck up, you idiot, and get some shuteye,” Jack snapped as he stalked over and retrieved his cap. Pulling it down over his wet hair he hoped it would provide some sort of protection. Fat chance of that, he thought morosely. Settling into the deepest of the shadows, he rifled through his backpack for a granola bar, and began to munch silently.
“Wake me in two,” Frank’s voice broke through the dark.
Jack didn’t answer. There was no need. He knew Frank would be awake before it was time for his turn on watch. He listened as Frank shifted trying to find a comfortable position. A Hawaiian lei, hell, he’d stepped into that one with both feet. They both knew the innuendo itself was a load of crap. Frank was just jerking his chain with that locker room macho bullshit. He had never been unfaithful to Sara in any way, shape, or form, any more than Frank had his wife. Not that they hadn’t had plenty of opportunities in their travels. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Picking up the thread of their earlier conversation to help pass the time, Jack leaned back and attempted in vain to search out the stars while he thought of Sara and the baby. The thick canopy easily thwarted his effort. With a sigh he leaned against a tree ready to sell his soul for a cup of coffee, but settling for a drink of lukewarm water from his canteen.
‘I wonder what the heck Ethelred does mean?’ he thought.
The night passed uneventfully, with one exception when a three inch long cockroach crawled down Jack’s collar as he caught a little sleep in the pre-dawn hours. Apparently the bug had sought to find a new home in the relative warmth between his shirt and skin. It had taken Frank several minutes to stop laughing long enough to help Jack evict the trespasser.
In a wild strip tease that had Frank gasping with laughter, Jack soon stood bare-chested, whipping his tee-shirt back and forth, unable to convince himself that the huge roach had been on a solitary mission. His over stimulated imagination was strengthened by Frank’s sadistic help.
“There’s one, Jack. No, sorry buddy, it’s just a shadow. Thought it was a damn big bug crawling up your neck. God, I hope that thing didn’t lay eggs in your hair or anything.”
When Jack stopped his wild impromptu dance, he glared at his partner and muttered, “God, I hate bugs. And of course I get sent to a country with ten thousand bugs on steroids. This mission just gets better and better. Monsoons, dumped in the middle of the damn jungle, and now freakin’ giant bugs. Shit, what next?”
They found the answer to that question a few miles up the road.
Slogging through the tangled overgrowth, Jack suddenly stopped, signaling Frank with a quick gesture. The men immediately dropped to a squat, Frank edging his way silently forward to crouch next to Jack. An abandoned truck sat a few hundred feet ahead. It appeared to have run head-on into a tree. There was no sign of the driver or any passengers.
“Ours?” Frank’s whisper was barely audible above the breeze moving through the leaves.
His eyes steely, Jack simply nodded.
“Damn, I guess we better go check then.”
Again Jack nodded. Mouthing the words, “Cover me,” he slipped the safety off his gun and moved stealthily forward, still crouched close to the ground. He didn’t even glance back. He knew without looking that Frank was prepped and ready, watching his every movement.
Reaching the truck, he cautiously stood to look in the cab of the ancient vehicle.
Ah shit, he thought with disgust.
The driver who had so callously ordered them from his truck stared sightlessly at him, a bullet hole in his forehead, blood pooling on the ripped ancient seat. Fat black flies crawled on the man’s face. Judging that the man had been dead for some time, Jack realized that in all probability the Sandinista soldiers had moved on. Deciding it was relatively safe, Jack stepped clear of the truck and gave a sharp whistle.
Waiting for Frank to join him, Jack walked around the truck and stopped.
Frank found him there standing silently, staring at the bullet riddled corpses of the two teenage boys they’d been traveling with only yesterday. Fear was frozen on the young faces and sealed forever in death.
Walking up beside his friend, Frank laid a firm hand on his shoulder, purposely ignoring the way Jack flinched at his touch.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered looking at the grisly scene.
Swallowing the bile that threatened to make a sudden appearance, Jack nodded. “They were just kids,” he said quietly.
“Yeah,” Frank finally agreed. “But they were kids with guns. Remember that, Jack.” His voice was sad. “Let’s get it done.”
They searched the area hoping to find a survivor. Frank found the final passenger of the truck lying in the thick mud near the road. The man had obviously tried to escape into the safety of the jungle. A machine gun blast had nearly cut him in two as he fled.
They had no way of burying the victims. At best, all they could have done was to cover the bodies with leaf litter. But as frustrating as it was in the end, practicality won out over a humanitarian gesture and they left the bodies untouched rather than reveal the presence of contra supporters in the area should the Sandinista return to the carnage.
Their grim task of searching the area complete, they headed back into the jungle even more alert to the dangers, having had a graphic reminder of their fate should they relax their guard. Each hoping their trek would soon be behind them.
They hiked on, Jack uncharacteristically quiet, until Frank broke the silence. “When do you figure it happened?”
“Had to be within a few hours after he threw us out,” Jack answered. “We didn’t hear the gunfire, so it didn’t happen immediately after we got out and it probably didn’t happen this morning or we would have heard something. I’m guessing within a couple hours after they left us yesterday.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much what I figured, too,” Frank agreed. “Hell of a waste.”
Jack’s only answer was to walk quicker towards their goal.