Authors: Dana Marton
“Maybe Mochi recognized something when we set camp. Maybe he knows of a village around here.”
The native tribes often walked long distances in search of fruit and game, and they took their children with them on these trips so they would learn the trails that led through the jungle, would learn the locations of certain fruit trees and creeks. Mochi might have passed this way before and had remembered the way to a village he was familiar with.
He helped Melanie off the platform and offered her some coffee.
“No thanks. I quit when I found out I was pregnant.” She pulled out her canteen instead and took a long drink of water. “Are you sure Mochi is going to be okay on his own?”
“Is there any way we could go after him?”
He’d considered that already. He shook his head, annoyed that he couldn’t do more. “We have no idea when he left. And we don’t know in which direction he is headed.”
Her shoulders slumped as she struggled to accept that. “How long before we make our move?” she whispered after a long minute.
Despite his own worries about the boy, he smiled. She was beginning to sound like a true adventurer. “At the first opportunity.”
“Are you sure about Mochi? Once we break free—”
“A lost hiker, I could track. I could even track a soldier. But forget about tracking natives, especially a kid who weighs nothing and wouldn’t leave marks behind him.”
He was a sharp little boy, agile and industrious. He had to trust that the kid knew what he was doing, no matter how much it went against his instincts.
One of the men trotted over with a metal bowl and tossed it onto their sleeping platform, then walked away.
amigo,” Jase called after him, making a point to be cordial.
The soldiers had cooked tapioca for breakfast. He pulled the bowl closer, set it between them. But they didn’t spend much time on their meal or with their morning toiletries. They were all on the trail in about twenty minutes.
He stayed close to Melanie. Then, after an hour or so, when she looked like she was tiring, he asked the men to stop. They did. They understood that she was an asset, and they wanted to make sure she reached the Don in good shape.
He watched them closely, but they didn’t seem to pay him or the pregnant woman too much attention. They looked sullen. They didn’t appreciate being ordered out of their comfortable garrison and being sent on a trek through the jungle.
They talked amongst each other, smoked. One broke into a whistle now and again. They seemed less than fully alert, apparently expecting no trouble. They didn’t seem too wary of the jungle, either, trusting that the size of the group and the noise they made would scare off any predators.
“Next time we stop,” he whispered to Melanie once they were walking again, “you ask to go relieve yourself. Just keep walking. When you can’t walk any farther, hide. I’ll come and get you after I deal with them.”
He thought of the knife hidden in his boot. He would play the concerned escort, suggesting that maybe she’d passed out or something, giving the men no reason to mistrust him, so he could pick them off one by one as they searched for her. Then once he had his gun back, he shouldn’t have too much trouble finishing off whoever was left.
He flashed her a reassuring smile, but it didn’t erase the worried expression from her face.
He raised his eyebrows. “You wouldn’t be doubting my superb fighting capabilities again, would you?” He puffed his chest out.
She did seem to relax a little at his light tone, and rolled her eyes. “Never.”
They kept walking, keeping the pace, careful not to draw any attention to themselves.
The next section of the trail turned out to be relatively easy, so the team leader didn’t call for a break until another hour had passed. As planned, Melanie asked and received permission to walk into the bushes.
But she came right back in a couple of minutes, pale and anguished.
“What is it?” Jase rushed up to her.
“I’m spotting,” she said under her breath, her eyes wide with fear.
What in hell did that mean? He shot her a questioning look.
“There is blood,” she whispered. “Maybe there’s something wrong with the baby.”
A sudden cold spread through him, despite the heat that surrounded them. He reached to brace her elbow on instinct. “Are you in pain?”
She shook her head.
“Sit.” He helped her, then went to talk to the leader. “She’s having trouble. There’s a Jesuit mission not far from here. She needs help. We have to make a stretcher and carry her there.”
“We’re going to Don Pedro’s camp.”
“If anything happens to her and the kid, Don Pedro will have your head on a plate,” Jase threatened, hot anger coursing through him as he stepped forward, coming nose to nose with the man.
But the guy didn’t seem threatened. And the next second Jase found out why. A half-dozen bandits came into view on the trail, heading toward them from the direction of the Don’s camp. They greeted the soldiers like old friends.
They weren’t Don Pedro’s men. Jase didn’t recognize a single one. Which could only mean one thing.
“You work for Cristobal?” he confronted the leader, dread stiffening his spine.
The man shrugged. “You go where you get the best pay.”
How in hell did Cristobal have more money than Don Pedro? A question for another day.
He held his hands up in a defensive, submissive gesture. “Look, she has nothing to do with whatever power struggle is going on. She’s just a woman, trying to have her baby. Let me take her to the mission. She’s nothing but a complication to you, anyway.”
But the hard look on the man’s face didn’t change at Jase’s entreaty. “If she’s important to Don Pedro, then she could be useful to Cristobal. I’m thinking she’s worth something, eh?”
“She needs help!” He charged at the man, but others pulled him back and shoved him aside.
And, despite the rage that pumped through him, he walked away. He needed to keep a cool head, dammit. If he got shot, then she wouldn’t have anybody to protect her. He did his best to walk off his fury as he strode back to her.
“How do you feel?”
“None. Thank God. Who are those people?” She nodded toward the newcomers.
He sat down next to her and explained the developments, his jaw still clenched.
Dismay filled her big brown eyes, which had fully recovered from the hornet stings. “But the soldiers said they were here to help Don Pedro.”
“Not really. They said they were going to Don Pedro, which isn’t the same thing. This way we went with them willingly and didn’t put up a fight.” The leader had simply done whatever was easiest for him. He wasn’t as stupid as he looked. Go figure.
He watched the men. The leader was looking at him and Melanie, explaining something to Cristobal’s lackeys. Then he called out to two of his own soldiers and ordered a stretcher made.
All right. Good. The guy was smart enough to know that she was worth more alive than dead.
“What will Cristobal do with us?” she asked, a hand on her belly in that protective gesture he’d seen so often.
“Depends on how well the battle is going. If he still hasn’t taken the compound, he might use you as a bargaining chip.”
“And if he did?”
“We’ll figure something out.”
Not that he could think of a single thing just now that might save them. If Cristobal had already taken the compound, then he had no need for them. Most likely, they’d be summarily executed.
Not that he was about to share that with her.
“You know what they say,” he said instead, keeping his tone light.
“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings?”
Her spunk had to be appreciated.
“My lips are sealed.” She straightened her spine, putting a look of determination on her face.
“That’s my girl.” He made sure the smile he gave her was reassuring and full of confidence.
They’d been closer to the camp than she’d thought, and the trip went faster with her on the stretcher and not slowing everyone down. They reached Cristobal’s troops midafternoon, by the river. He was too busy to pay much attention to them, directing the ongoing offensive, so his lackeys settled her and Jase in until the man had time to decide their fate.
Melanie lay on a platform under a makeshift roof of bamboo and banana leaves, close enough to the battle to hear the gunfire but far enough away to be safe. Cristobal’s command tent stood to her right, the man coming and going, a permanent scowl on his scarred face. He had cold, cruel eyes and a crooked nose that had obviously been broken in the past and never set straight.
The heavyset drug boss didn’t look like a man given to vanity. He looked power-hungry and ruthless, ordering his men around with the self-confidence of a third-world dictator. He also looked frustrated, and ready to blame anyone and everyone for the protracted battle.
Other than worry about her baby, Melanie could do little else but observe everything around her and speculate.
Cristobal hadn’t been able to take the compound in five days. But things were looking up for him now. His army backup should be here soon. They hadn’t been that far off when she and Jase had sneaked around them. Odd that they weren’t here already. Seemed that they were marching awfully slowly if they covered less ground than a pregnant woman.
Maybe the general Cristobal had bought was hoping the two factions would kill each other before he got here, then he could just gather up the loot and get through all this the easy way.
She wished she could ask Jase what he thought, but he was tethered to a tree about twenty feet from her.
She watched as two men walked up to him and roughly yanked him to his feet, then untied him. Another two came for her. She slid off the platform before they could have manhandled her. She hadn’t bled any more since that first incident, and she wanted to keep it that way.
“Where are you taking us?” Jase demanded.
“To your lord and master,” one of the men sneered.
“She shouldn’t walk.” Jase’s voice was cold, thunder flashing across his face, the muscles in his arms flexing.
But the man just shrugged at him. “She looks fine to me. Move it.”
Jase stepped toward her. The two men holding him pulled him back.
“Let me carry her.” He switched to a more reasonable tone, trying another tactic. “Don’t you have a wife at home?”
He received another shrug in response, but then he was released.
He immediately reached for her.
“You don’t have to.” She tried to step away from him.
She weighed a million pounds, and he’d been roughed up by a couple of thugs when they’d first arrived here. He’d demanded to be kept right next to her and had fought for it. Hadn’t backed down until they’d tied him and beat him, then practically shoved a gun barrel up his nose.
“Jase, I can—”
She was in his arms before she could finish, and he stepped forward, carrying her as if she weighed nothing.
The weird thing was that, after about the first second, she didn’t feel awkward. She put her arm around his neck and felt safe, grateful that he was here with her. If she and her baby survived this ordeal it would be thanks to God and Jase Campbell.
The men led him to the road that led to Pedro’s camp. Some sort of signal was passed, and Cristobal’s men surrounding the place stopped shooting. A few minutes passed before the enemy, too, fell silent.
“We have something that belongs to the Don,” one of Cristobal’s men shouted toward the closed gate, and shoved Jase out into plain sight. “Throw down your weapons and open the gate.”
No response came.
The man nudged Jase forward. Melanie clung to his neck for dear life. The two of them against everyone else.
The silence stretched on.
Then the Don’s men opened fire, obviously rejecting Cristobal’s offer.
Jase dove into the bushes with her and kept going until they were safe. Their escort ran right behind them.
“Why didn’t he want me back?” Her heartbeat galloped wildly. Pedro had told her a hundred times how important her child was to him. This didn’t make any sense.
“Not what I expected either. But…” He shrugged. “Maybe he knows Cristobal’s men would push through if he opened that gate. He knows Cristobal would execute him the second he had him. You and the baby are lost to him either way. His only chance for survival is to defend the compound to the last man.” Jase carried her back to the camp and her platform, and laid her down.
A drizzle began to fall.
She rolled to her side to ease the pain in her lower back.
“Do you think Pedro knows the army is coming?” she asked.
“He might. But he might have something up his sleeve, too. He has many allies. Reinforcements could be on their way to him, just hours or minutes away.”
She took a second to process that, then another few seconds passed before she could voice the question looming in her mind. “Will Cristobal kill us now?”
“I don’t know,” he called back as the men led him away.
He grabbed a faded green tarp from the ground as he walked, and they didn’t take it away from him. He let them tie him up again, then lay down and covered himself against the slight drizzle. Only his legs and boots protruded. He shifted around a couple of times, probably trying to find a comfortable spot, but then stopped moving after a minute.
She couldn’t comprehend how anyone could sleep in this melee with the threat of death hanging over his head.
She did her best to breathe deeply and evenly, trying to relax. She rubbed her belly. Beyond Cristobal, stress was the biggest threat to her and her baby at the moment. She couldn’t do anything about Cristobal, but she could keep herself calm. She was still alive. Jase was still alive. A miracle could still happen.
She glanced over at him from time to time, finding his presence comforting. He’d walked next to her stretcher, as much as the narrow trail had allowed, all the way here. He’d kept her spirits up. He made sure the men took good care of her.
She was pretty sure he could have escaped a number of times, but he hadn’t. She couldn’t really understand why. She was nobody to him. He owed her nothing. His rescue complex couldn’t be this strong—not stronger than the instinct for self-preservation.