Henry barely waited for Xavier’s Jeep to stop in the tourist parking lot at the archaeological site of El Pilar before opening the side door. He swung his pack over his shoulders and clipped the chest strap in place. Joab’s Highlander pulled up beside the Jeep and Aaron, Felicia, and Joab climbed out. They headed into the woods past a no-trespassing sign.
The trail was barely evident until they were upon the unmarked trailhead and only if a person knew what to look for. Felicia had mentioned that the tribe was well hidden. At least from this direction, she was correct.
An Hispanic woman in her late twenties hurried toward them up the path. “Thank goodness. I thought you’d never get here.” Without introductions, the woman kissed Joab, hugged Felicia and hurried back the way she had come.
Felicia turned to Henry and explained the woman was her aunt Kisa. They all followed Kisa another few hundred feet until the forest opened into a small clearing not much larger than a basketball court.
All around the clearing, homes had been built in such a way that they were almost hidden in plain sight. The forest shrouded a village that seemed much larger than Henry expected. Now that he knew what to look for, he realized there were homes dotted throughout the woods as far as he could see.
Several tribal women approached and spoke hurried Spanish intermingled with another language Henry didn’t recognize. Again, with no introductions, Henry and the rescue party followed the women. The paths through the forest were more pronounced here as if worn down by countless feet.
Finally, they arrived at an area that was bustling with activity. Dozens of teenage boys seemed to be arguing with their parents and tribal leaders in that same garbled mix of Spanish and a native language Henry didn’t recognize. He tried to pick out Spanish words in an attempt to understand. Sister. Going. Do nothing. Fight. Retaliate. None of it made sense.
Felicia seemed to understand the language and spoke with several of the tribe members. She turned toward them and her eyes searched for Whitney. “You need to come talk to the girls,” Felicia said in Spanish.
Whitney stepped forward without hesitation and followed Felicia and several other women into a nearby home.
Henry and Xavier approached Aaron and Joab where they spoke with several men.
“What’s going on?” Henry asked.
“The boys want to retaliate,” Aaron said, turning to a man who must have been a tribal leader. “They want to break the treaty and go after the kidnappers.”
Most of the teenagers stopped arguing and turned their attention to the newcomers.
Henry spoke directly to the tribal leader. “I am Captain Henry Stephenson with the United States Army. How can we help you rescue your daughters?”
“Tell our boys not to fight!” The man spoke in impassioned Spanish, pointing behind him with exasperation. “We took an oath. We will not break the treaty.”
One of the young men stepped forward. “Kids in our generation were babies when you made that agreement. We did not take an oath, father. We will not be violating your treaty.”
“Besides, those are our sisters out there,” another boy said.
“My girlfriend.” Another young man lifted his chin with tears fighting to surface. “We were to be married next month.”
Henry’s heart broke for these boys. He understood the need to help, to do something, to rescue the girls. This was inherent in men to be protectors. “Do we know how many kidnappers there were?”
“Fewer than ten, the girls said.” The tribal leader’s shoulders sagged in defeat or exhaustion. “They weren’t sure exactly how many.”
“Do you know how the girls escaped?” Xavier asked.
“They… got the men drunk… and…” The tribal leader lowered his voice. “You can probably figure out the rest.”
All the boys and men within earshot quieted or grumbled or shuffled their feet. No one wanted to voice what they all knew happened.
“They snuck out of the men’s tent and ran through the night”—the tribal leader continued— “And all through the following day.”
“They must be exhausted,” Henry said.
“We have insisted they rest tonight, and a search party can leave at first light, allowing the girls to lead the way.”
“Who all is going on the search party?” Henry raised his hand to encourage others to volunteer, inadvertently offering himself as a volunteer also. He looked around at the men and boys.
Every one of the teenage boys raised their hands, lifted their chins and stepped forward. Some called out affirmations.
“We’re not afraid to fight.”
“My mother’s been crying for days since my sister was kidnapped.”
“My mother also.”
“Our fathers have been obedient to their oath. We need to defend them.”
“What kind of supplies do you have?” Henry asked. “You each need food and water, and basic necessities, enough for three days. Plus, we need to bring enough provisions for the women, our guides and the girls we plan to rescue. Do you have any weapons?”
“We have hunting rifles, compound bows and hunting knives.” The boy who was planning the wedding stepped forward, then turned and took on a leadership role to his younger friends. “Guys, bring all weapons here to the community center along with all ammunition, and start packing supplies. Let’s take inventory of what we have and figure out what else we need.”
As if accustomed to taking orders from this young man, the teenagers scattered, already on task. Impressive.
“What’s your name, son?” Henry asked the boy. “And how old are you?”
“My name is Machudo, and I am nineteen.”
“Consider yourself my second in command.”
“Yes, sir, Captain Henry. I won’t let you down.”
“Let’s go rescue your future bride.” Henry placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder and they looked one another in the eye. Henry had never seen such courage in all his years in the Army. He vowed in that moment he would put his life on the line for these boys.