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William A. Ward

 
 
 
 
 
Tác giả: Sandra Brown
Thể loại: Tiểu Thuyết
Biên tập: Bach Ly Bang
Upload bìa: Duy Phuc Nguyen
Language: English
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Chapter 7
t was almost daybreak before Linc and Joe returned. Ksrry, who had been dozing, was so relieved to see them unharmed that she didn’t immediately comprehend their defeated expressions.
Their postures heralded the failure of their mission. Both went directly to the stream and scooped up generous handfuls of water, washing off the camouflaging mud as they drank. When Linc finally turned around, he stared at Kerry through dejected eyes.
"What happened?" she asked.
"We didn’t get anything," Linc told her, keeping his voice low, "Couldn’t even get close. They were on alert and didn’t relax their guard for a single minute. We circled the camp all night, hoping to find a goldbricker asleep at the switch. There was no such soldier in that whole outfit."
He backed against a tree and slid down its trunk, bending his knees as he went, until his bottom touched the ground. Then he rested his head against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. "Anything happen here?"
"No. The children slept. A few of them woke up saying they were hungry, but I managed to lull them back to sleep."
Joe, in a poignant imitation of Linc, sat leaning against another tree and closed his eyes. He was a man now, having done a man’s job. He might resent Linc, but he held a grudging admiration for him, too. Kerry touched Joe’s knee and, when his eyes opened, gave him a smile that said, "I’m proud of you." The boy smiled back.
She left him to rest and sat down beside Linc. "How much farther to the border?" she asked.
"About a mile."
"We won’t have any trouble making it there by the deadline."
The plan was to meet the plane at noon, in hopes that if any troops were nearby they would be sleeping off their midday meal and the afternoon heat.
"I just wish to hell I knew what we were going to do once we get there."
Linc’s weary sigh had a frightfully pessimistic sound to it. Kerry clutched at straws. "If we can’t board the plane without risking the children’s lives, we’ll just slip across the border."
"And then what?" Linc asked impatiently. His red-rimmed eyes opened and focused on her. "It’s just more of the same over there." He indicated their jungle surroundings with a flip of his hand.
"For miles there’s nothing but jungle. God knows how far it is to the nearest outpost of civilization. And the neighboring country doesn’t want Montenegran refugees adding more of a strain to their struggling economy. You’ll find them inhospitable if not downright hostile. If we could convince them to give the kids political asylum, what do we do in the meantime? Where are we going to get food for supper tonight? Water? Shelter?"
His negativity sparked Kerry’s temper. "Well then you think – " "Shh!"
Joe sprang to his feet, poised to listen. He cocked his head to one side. After a moment, he shot them a warning glance and silently crept forward. Kerry made a move to detain him, but Linc’s fingers encircled her wrist like a manacle and jerked her back down beside him. He shook his head vigorously when she opened her mouth to speak.
Joe disappeared into the deep green shadows of the jungle. The waiting seemed interminable. Linc eased himself up to his haunches and scanned the area with piercing eyes. Kerry felt useless. She only hoped that none of the children woke up making noises.
No more than a minute had elapsed before Joe stepped through the trees, closely followed by a guerrilla fighter. Recognizing him instantly, Kerry stood and rushed toward him, avoiding Linc’s precautionary restraint.
"Hola, Juan," she whispered.
"Hermana," he responded with a respectful inclination of his head.
Linc joined them. His guard was relaxed now that he recognized the soldier as the one Kerry had pointed out to him the day before. He looked like all the others, except that he was younger than most, sixteen maybe. His features hadn’t hardened into a cold mask yet, though he already had the alert bearing of a trained guerrilla fighter. He and Kerry carried on a low, rapid conversation. When he gave Linc a suspicious once-over, she explained who he was.
"He’s brought us two guns," she told Linc. "He says they’re all he could smuggle out of the camp."
She shied away from the machine guns as Juan handed one to Linc and the other to Joe. Linc checked them both out. "Perfect working condition. Ammo?" The rebel handed him several clips of ammunition.
"Thanks."
"De nada."
"Ask him if his group knows who we are and what we’re up to?" Linc told Kerry.
"No, he says," she told Linc after translating his question and hearing Juan’s answer. "Since we were in the government truck, they think we’re inexperienced stragglers or possible deserters looking for a band of rebels to join. They intend to follow us until they find out."
"That5 s what I was afraid of." Linc gnawed on his lip for a moment. "Ask him what would happen if he explained to his commander who we were. Would he let us go?"
The soldier listened, then shook his head vehemently. Kerry translated his quick response. "He says that they probably wouldn’t kill us, but that they would try to take the airplane for their own use. Our only hope, he says, is to get to the plane as quickly as possible. He’ll try to divert his squadron away from the designated landing place."
"Does he realize that some of his own men might get shot if they try to stop us?"
Kerry smiled ruefully at Juan’s answer. "He says that some deserve to be shot."
Linc stuck out his hand and the young man shook it solemnly. "Anything you can do to help, buddy, I’ll appreciate." Linc’s tone didn’t need any translation.
Kerry suggested that Juan wake up his sisters and tell them goodbye. He crept over to where they were sleeping. His face softened as he gazed down at them, but he motioned for Kerry to let them sleep.
He murmured something to her. His face and voice were earnest, his eyes shimmering with tears. Then, after one last glance down at the sleeping girls, he silently nodded farewell and melted into the jungle.
"What did he say?"
Kerry brushed the tears from her eyes. "He didn’t want his sisters’ last memory of him to be a goodbye. He knows it’s doubtful that they’ll ever see each other again. He wants them to start a new life in the United States. He said to tell them that he is willing to die for the freedom of his country. If they never hear from him again, they’re to find comfort in the fact that he died happy, knowing that they were safe and free in America."
They fell silent, and for a long moment none of them moved. Any commentary on the young soldier’s sacrifice would be superfluous. Words, no matter how poetic, wouldn’t do it justice and would only sound banal.
Linc forced himself out of the reflective mood and asked Joe, "Do you know how to use that?" He nodded down toward the Uzi the boy held in his hands.
While Linc was instructing him, Kerry moved among the children, rousing them, but telling them to remain as quiet as possible. She gave them fresh water to drink and promised that there would be food for them on the airplane. Surely Jenny and Cage had thought of that.
When they had gathered what pathetically few possessions they had left, they began the final leg of their journey to the border. Kerry insisted on carrying Lisa so Linc would have more freedom of movement. Not only was he carrying the machete now, but the blunt-nosed machine gun, too.
It was almost eleven o’clock before they reached the edge of the jungle. A wide strip had been bulldozed out of it so that the border between Montenegro and its neighbor could be easily distinguished. Between the two green walls of solid jungle, there was a swath of open territory about as wide as a football field.
"There, that’s where he’s supposed to land," Kerry said, pointing toward the open space. They remained behind the shelter of the trees, but could easily see the clearing. "See that old watchtower? He’ll taxi up to that and turn around."
Linc, squinting against the brightness of the sun, studied the area. "All right, let’s move as close to it as possible. Tell the kids to stay together and well behind the tree line."
"Do you see anything?"
"No, but I’ve got the feeling that we’re not the only ones taking cover in the jungle this morning. Let’s go."
They moved laterally, always keeping several yards of jungle growth between the clearing and their parallel path. When they came even with the abandoned watchtower, Linc halted them. "We’ll wait here." He consulted his wrist-watch. "It shouldn’t be long now."
Linc told Kerry to make sure all the children understood the need to run in a crouching position should they be fired upon. "Tell them not to stop running for any reason. Any reason, Kerry. Make certain they understand that."
They prepared the children as well as they could, then Linc drew Kerry aside, out of earshot, and sat down to wait. "He’s got fifteen minutes," he said, glancing at his wrist-watch again.
She said confidently, "Cage will be here."
Linc’s eyes, as sharp as a gold-plated razor, sliced down to her. "Who is this Cage Hendren anyway?"
"I told you. He’s a Texan whose missionary brother was shot by one of El Presidente’s firing squads a couple of years ago."
"I know all that. But who – or what – is he to you?"
If she didn’t know better, she would think Linc was jealous. "My good friend’s husband."
He stared deeply into her eyes as though looking for signs of duplicity. "What was he to you before he married your good friend?"
"Nothing! I didn’t even know him. I met Jenny first, through the Hendren Foundation."
He looked away, staring straight ahead. He didn’t comment on the information she had imparted, but the tension in his jaw had relaxed noticeably.
"You and I will escort the children out," he said to her, abruptly changing the subject. "Can you carry Lisa?"
"Of course."
"Even at a run?"
"I’ll manage."
"Okay, I’ll hold back and cover our rear. Joe will stay here until you are all on board."
"Why?" she asked, alarmed.
"To provide cover should anybody start shooting."
"Oh."
"Once you’re on the plane, I’ll come back for Joe."
What had been left unsaid was that Linc would be exposed to gunfire longer than anybody. His tall frame not only provided the largest target, but he would have to make the hazardous trip across the clearing twice.
"Here," he said.
She gazed down at the packages of film he had laid in her hands. "What’s this for?"
"If anything happens to me, at least the film will get out." She paled drastically. "I’ve been in some pretty tight squeezes, but never quite this tight before. I’m just taking precautions."
"But this film hasn’t even been opened," she said, puzzled.
"Yes it has. The boxes contain the film I’ve used. I replaced it in the cellophane wrappings so it would look like new, unexposed film. That, at least, might protect you if… if anyone caught you with it."
"I don’t want to be entrusted with your film, Linc. I might – "
"Look, if target practice for one of those guerrillas pays off, just make sure the film gets processed and the pictures published."
"Don’t talk like that!"
He pulled the handkerchief he’d often used as a sweat-band from around his head and slipped it over hers, working it down until it hung around her neck. "Didn’t knights of old give a lady they admired a token before they went into battle?"
"Don’t," she said tearfully. "I can’t stand this. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t even want to think about it. And you don’t admire me."
He chuckled. "Yes, I do. Oh, I’ll admit that I could have throttled you when I woke up and found myself shanghaied into a job I didn’t want." His face lost all trace of teasing then. "But I do admire you, Kerry. You’ve been a trooper when you could have been a real pain in the butt. If I don’t have an opportunity to tell you later – "
"Stop it! You can tell me anything you want to when we get to Texas."
"Kerry," he said gently, realizing that her distress could jeopardize her courage when she needed it the most, "I don’t have any intention of dying in Montenegro. I don’t want my third Pulitzer to be awarded posthumously. I’ve never considered that there was much prestige in winning prizes if you’re dead. Besides, I want to collect my fifty grand from you."
He flashed her a brief smile. He had beautiful teeth, she noticed for the first time. They looked startlingly white in contrast to his deeply tanned and bewhiskered face. She didn’t know whether to slap him or kiss him.
But she didn’t dare let her affection for him show. They couldn’t afford to become maudlin now. So she glowered at him. "Any other last requests?" she asked sarcastically.
"If you make it and I don’t, smoke a cigarette for me and have a glass or two of straight whiskey."
"Bourbon or Scotch?"
"I’m not particular."
"Anything else?"
"Yeah. Don’t take those final vows."
He moved so fast her mind couldn’t register it before he had hooked his hand around the back of her head and pulled her face beneath his. Close. "I’d just as well die a sinner as a saint."
He kissed her.
His mouth came down hard on hers. Her lips parted. His tongue made one sweet, piercing stab into her mouth. The suddenness of it, the masculine claim it symbolized, made her weak. Her hands clutched the front of his tank top and her head fell back. His whiskers scraped her face, but she didn’t mind. His tongue, as smooth as velvet and as nimble as a candle’s flame, mated with hers and provocatively stroked the inside of her mouth.
An emptiness deep inside Kerry yawned wide, wider, yearning to be filled. Her breasts felt full, as with milk. The nipples tingled with a desperate need to be touched, kissed, sucked. Her womanhood ached deliriously. Reflexively, her hungry body arched against him. Her arms folded around his neck.
Her response drove him a little mad; he deepened the kiss. His broad hand opened wide over her back and pressed her as close to him as possible. The fervency mounted until he made a strangled cry and lifted his head. He stared down into her bewildered eyes. He gazed at her mouth, now full and red and moist from their kiss.
"Godamighty, Kerry," he rasped.
Involuntarily, she ran her tongue over her throbbing lips.
He groaned. "Oh, God, you’re sweet." He kissed her again, his tongue thrusting deeply. "And I swear to you that if we had the time – " he kissed her again " – I’d see you, all of you. And touch you. Your breasts, God, your breasts." He passed his hand over them fleetingly. It was a sizzling sensation and she moaned. "And I’d kiss you. Get inside you. Even if it meant being denied heaven."
She wanted him. Yes. But… she loved him. She loved him! And, God forbid, should anything happen to him, he would die thinking –
"Linc, there’s something – "
His head popped up. "Shh!"
"But I have to tell you – "
"Not now. Be quiet." He pushed her away and stood up, craning his head to see above the trees. He motioned her to silence. Seconds later, her ears picked up the drone of an airplane’s engine.
"We’ve got a lot to talk about, sweetheart, but now’s not the time. Get the children ready." He was spurred into action, every muscle of his body tense, but executing movements with amazing calm and agility. "Joe, get into place."
"I’m ready," Joe said, taking cover behind a tree.
The airplane didn’t circle the area in reconnaissance. It made one approach. The children were restless with anticipation. Their dreams were coming true. While they all kept their eyes trained on the landing airplane, Linc’s were busily scanning the area for any sign of troop movement.
The pilot made a faultless landing and the airplane taxied to a stop directly in front of the old watchtower, in perfect accordance with the plan.
"Go." Linc gave Kerry a gentle push.
Tightly clasping Lisa against her chest, she took several hesitant steps into the clearing.
"Go!" This time Linc roared his command.
Kerry broke into a dead ran, yelling for the children to do the same. She could hear the heavy thud of Linc’s boots close behind them. They had closed almost half the dis tance between them and the airplane when the first shots were fired. Kerry froze; the children screamed.
"Go on, don’t stop," Linc shouted.
He spun around and sprayed the air with machine gun bullets, aiming in the general direction of their as yet unseen attackers. He saw answering gunfire. The trees seemed to spit flames no larger than those of a cigarette lighter, but [ he could hear bullets peppering the ground all around him. He rattled off another round and turned to chase after Kerry and the children, who had almost reached the plane. Miraculously none of them had been hit, though some of them | were screaming in terror.
The door of the plane was already open. Linc turned again. The wall of the jungle now seemed to be alive with troops firing weapons. Apparently Juan hadn’t been successful in diverting them. Linc only hoped that the boy hadn’t been found out.
From the corner of his eye he saw Joe leave his cover and fire his machine gun. He shredded jungle plants and sent a few soldiers scampering for cover, before he jumped back behind his tree.
"Good boy," Linc muttered. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that the children were being pulled into the plane. Running backward and firing from the hip, he went to assist them on board.
It was when he glanced behind him again, that he saw Jeeps loaded with troops moving out of the line of trees on the other side of the border. Montenegro’s neighboring nation was impartial, but they were coming out to investigate. An officer in the first Jeep, holding a bullhorn to his mouth, shouted an order at him. Linc didn’t understand it, but he got the general meaning when the soldiers began firing warning shots.
"Shit!"
Now they had armies shooting at them from both sides.
One of the children stumbled and went down. Linc raced over to him, scooped him up, and ran at a crouch toward the door of the plane.
"Was Mike shot?" Kerry shouted over the whine of the plane’s engine and the persistent gunfire.
"Just fell I think. Get in the damn airplane!"
Lisa was being lifted out of Kerry’s arms and swung up into the fuselage. Linc shoved Mike toward the pair of reaching hands. The terrified little boy, tears making muddy tracks down his dusty face, was hauled inside to safety. All the children were now inside, except Joe, who was doing enough damage to frustrate the guerrillas and keep them under cover. But bis ammunition would run out soon.
"Get in the plane!" Linc repeated to Kerry.
"But you and Joe – "
"For god’s sake, don’t argue with me now!"
Apparently the man in the plane was of the same mind as Linc. Still protesting, Kerry was pulled inside. "If anything happens to me, get them the hell out of here," Linc shouted to the blond-headed man.
"No! "Kerry screamed.
Linc looked directly at her. The briefest but most puissant look passed between them, then Linc turned abruptly and began running back toward the line of trees, firing the machine gun as he ran.
"What’s he doing?" Cage Hendren asked. "Why didn’t he get in?"
"He’s gone back to get one of the boys. He stayed behind to give us cover."
Cage nodded his understanding as he watched the man run in a zigzag pattern across the clearing. He didn’t know who he was, but he considered him a hero. Or a fool.
"Cage, we’ve got to go," the pilot of the airplane shouted from the open door of the cockpit.
Kerry grabbed Cage’s sleeve. "No. This plane doesn’t take off without them."
Cage saw the determination on her face. "Not yet," he yelled to the pilot.
"One of these lunatics might hit us. And the other bunch is moving jeeps – "
"Thirty seconds more," Cage bargained, knowing that the veteran pilot was right. "We’ve got two more passengers."
Kerry screamed when she saw Linc fall to the ground. "He’s all right," Cage reassured her. "He’s just reducing the size of their target."
From his battle position, Linc shouted for Joe to run toward the plane while he provided cover by firing at the guerrillas. Joe emerged from the jungle with his machine gun blasting. Rotating as he ran, he fired in all directions. He had almost reached the point where Linc lay when his left leg buckled and he went down.
"No!" Kerry cried. She tried to jump from the door of the airplane, but Cage caught her shoulders from behind and gripped them hard to keep her inside.
Just then several bullets struck the exterior of the plane. They did no serious damage, but increased Cage’s anxiety. The success of the mission depended on getting the children to safety. Could it be sacrificed for two who were apparently willing to give their lives?
He watched Linc belly crawl to where the boy lay sprawled face down in the dirt. He saw them exchange words. "He’s alive," Cage told Kerry.
"Oh, God, please don’t let them die." Tears were streaming down her face.
"Cage, they’re blocking off this makeshift runway with jeeps," the pilot yelled.
The children were all crying in terror.
"Kerry, we’ve got to go," Cage said.
"No. We can’t leave them."
"We might all die if-"
"No, no." She struggled to get away from his restraining hands. "You can take off but leave me."
"You know I can’t do that. The children need you."
She sobbed wretchedly as she saw Linc come up on one knee. He gripped Joe under the arm and slowly heaved him to his feet. Joe couldn’t support himself. His left leg dangled uselessly. Linc struggled to get one of Joe’s arms around his shoulders, then he began backing toward the plane with the boy in tow.
They were pelleted with gunfire. Kerry saw little puffs of dust rising from the ground where bullets struck. Smelling victory, the guerrillas left the cover of the trees and began running across the clearing, firing steadily.
"Kerry-"
"No, Cage! Don’t you move this plane a single inch!"
"But-"
She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Linc! Linc! Hurry!"
Linc fired the machine gun at the pursuing enemy until it ran out of ammunition. Then, with a vicious curse, he threw it down and, in a single motion, swept Joe up into his arms like a baby and ran toward the airplane.
"They’re coming!" Kerry shouted.
"Start rolling," Cage shouted over his shoulder to the pilot. He leaned as far out the door of the airplane as he could, hand extended.
Kerry saw Linc’s grimace of agony a second before she saw the front of his shirt bloom red. She was too hoarse by now to make a sound, but she opened her mouth and screamed silently.
Wounded, Linc kept running, his teeth bared with exertion. He stumbled toward the door of the plane, making a Herculean effort to hand Joe up to Cage.
Cage gripped Joe’s shirt collar and pulled him inside. Under his own strength and despite the pain, the boy crawled out of the way. The plane had gained momentum now and Linc was having to run to stay abreast of the door.
"Give me your hand," Cage shouted.
Linc reached as far as he could, stumbled, but miraculously stayed on his feet. Then, with one last burst of energy, he grasped Cage’s hand and held on. His feet went out from under him. He was dragged a considerable distance before Cage, with Kerry’s clawing assistance, managed to pull him inside. He fell in, rolled to his back and lay there gasping while Cage secured the door and shouted to the pilot, "Get the hell out of here!"
"Roger!"
They weren’t out of danger yet. The airplane was fired upon from all directions before the pilot finally taxied his way clear, and the aircraft became airborne only a few feet above the jeeps trying to block their takeoff.
The children were huddled together. Most of their tears had dried, but they were wide-eyed and apprehensive over their first airplane ride. They stared at the tall, blond norteamericano who was speaking to them in their native language and smiling at them kindly.
Kerry’s hands fluttered over Linc’s chest. "Oh, Lord. Where are you hit? Are you in pain?"
He pried his eyes open. "I’m fine. Check on Joe."
She crawled over to where the boy lay. His face was ashen, his lips white with pain. Cage shouldered her aside. He swabbed Joe’s arm with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball and gave him an injection.
"A pain killer," he said in answer to Kerry’s unasked question.
"I didn’t know you could do that."
"I didn’t know I could either," he said wryly. "One of our local doctors gave me a crash course in nursing last night."
He cut away Joe’s pants leg and examined the nasty bullet wound in his thigh. "I don’t think it shattered his femur, but it tore up the muscle a bit."
Kerry swallowed the bile that flooded her throat. "Will he be all right?"
"I think so." Cage smiled at her and pressed her hand. "I’ll do what I can to clean the wound and keep him comfortable. When we get closer, the pilot will radio Jenny. She’ll see to it that an ambulance is waiting for us when we land. And by the way," he said with the smile that had made him a legend with women throughout West Texas, "I’m glad you made it."
"We wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for Linc." Now that Joe seemed to have lapsed into painless oblivion, she moved toward the man still lying prone on the floor of the fuselage.
"Who?" Cage asked.
"Linc. Lincoln O’Neal."
"You’re kidding!" Cage exclaimed. "The photographer?"
"Somebody call my name?" Linc opened his eyes and struggled to sit up. The two men grinned at each other with the ease of old friends.
"Welcome aboard and pleased to meet you," Cage said, shaking hands with Linc.
"Thanks."
Linc looked at Kerry. She looked back. Cage realized immediately that something was going on there and that whatever it was, he was a fifth wheel. "I, uh, I’ll see to the kids. Kerry, maybe you’d better check on Linc’s wound. Medical supplies are in here," he said, sliding a first-aid kit toward her. Diplomatically he left them alone.
"What in the hell were you trying to prove back there?" Linc demanded angrily. "I told you to leave without us if anything happened. I ought to bust your butt for disobeying me."
Kerry’s encroaching tears were swept away by fury. "Well pardon me," she snapped. "I wasn’t waiting for you. I was waiting for Joe. Are you in pain or not?"
"It’s a Band-Aid wound," he said, negligently glancing at his bleeding shoulder.
"Cage can give you a shot to stop the pain."
"Forget it. I hate shots."
They glowered at each other. Her lips were the first to quirk with the beginning of a smile. Then his. They surprised all the passengers in the small aircraft by suddenly bursting into laughter.
"We made it!" Linc cried exuberantly. "We actually made it. Hotdamn! You’re home free, ferry."
"Home." She whispered the word like a benediction.
Then her emotions made another swift about-face. She launched herself against Linc’s blood-stained chest. And while they hugged each other fiercely, she wept with relief.
The Devil's Own The Devil's Own - Sandra Brown The Devil