The makeshift company had a total of twelve cell phones between the thirty-eight of them. Not enough. But each team of four had a cell, plus one for each of the leaders, Henry, Whitney, Xavier, and Machudo.
All twelve cell phones were linked with coms and GPS tracking, and Prince Aaron acted as ground control at the reservation. He had clear instructions about who to call if anything should go wrong with the mission.
The plan was to have Xavier and Whitney lead one platoon back to the reservation along with the kidnapped girls, once they’d been liberated.
Henry planned to keep Machudo and an entire platoon with him to suppress and take the criminals into custody. The kidnappers needed to be kept alive in order to conduct a full interrogation and learn the location of the remaining human trafficking ring.
Although twenty-three girls had been kidnapped from the tribe, they were unaware how many girls were still in the area, and how many of them had already been trafficked to another location.
Henry’s superior officers would eventually be notified of his involvement, but he hoped to get a slap on the wrist and demotion rather than a direct order to stand down.
Coming home having rescued twenty-three kidnapped Mayan girls would go a long way to receiving forgiveness for subordination. Coming home with dozens of wounded or slain teenage boys would not. He needed this mission to be a success. Failure was not an option.
A real concern was losing their path back to the kidnappers’ basecamp. Thankfully, the two young guides remembered how to traverse the woods leading to the makeshift footpath cut by their abductors. Less than a mile from the reservation, they arrived at an actual trail that the kidnappers had been using to brazenly sneak close enough to skirt the unmarked boundaries of the reservation. From that point on, all the company needed was to keep marching and follow that path.
Another challenge was the unknown timeframe between leaving that morning and arriving at the basecamp. The two girls who escaped ran as fast as they could to get away from the kidnappers. Even with a head start of several hours, they knew their captors could easily overtake them if they stopped to rest. They had arrived at the reservation exhausted, dehydrated, filthy, and terrified, yet less than twenty-four hours later they were trekking back to the very place from which they’d fled.
Adrenalin only lasted an hour into the trek and the teenagers dragged for a few hours. To their credit, they never stopped marching. They barely paused long enough to step behind a tree and relieve themselves, and they marched through lunchtime, satisfied with protein bars and sips of water.
At one point in the afternoon, the youngest and smallest of the two teenage girls climbed on the back of her older brother and clung to him like a monkey. Henry wondered if the connection was almost a relief for the brother as well as his little sister. The physical aspect of holding a person in your arms after losing them is powerful and healing. The move even seemed to boost morale for others in the group, especially those young men whose sisters and girlfriends had been ripped from their lives. They were motivated by the desire to hold their loved ones as well.
When evening fell and darkness shrouded the trail, Henry ordered a much-needed break. Most of the kids sat on the ground to eat and rest their legs, and some even rested their heads on each other’s laps, closing their eyes for a quick nap. Henry and Machudo each took a protein bar with them and kept walking. They promised not to engage the enemy until the full company arrived as backup, but at least they could give a heads-up to the other leaders how many more hours were left to travel.
Machudo showed a determination unlike anyone Henry had seen. He loved this girl he was trying to rescue and nothing else in the world mattered other than finding her.
Henry wondered how that would feel to love a woman so strongly. His mind played back to the moment twenty-seven hours ago when he’d first clasped hands with Whitney. Could he someday fall in love with a woman like her? Could she ever love a man like him? The possibility was worth pursuing. She seemed interested. And he was definitely interested in her.
After two more hours of walking, Henry and Machudo seemed to sense a change at the same time and their footfalls paused. Listening to the sounds of the night, they held perfectly still. Hearing nothing but insects and the occasional soft coo of a night bird, they continued forward slowly and with softer strides, keeping to one side of the trail.
Within ten minutes, Henry smelled the unmistakable whiff of a campfire and he led Machudo off the path and into the cover of the forest. Creeping forward with controlled footing, they climbed a rise and lowered to their bellies, gaining a vantage point over a makeshift campsite that closely resembled the one their girls had described.
Henry sent a quick text to Whitney relaying the time and GPS location of their whereabouts. She and Xavier would pass along the message to Aaron and the tribal leaders back on the reservation. Communication was the key to their survival.
For almost an hour, they waited and watched, taking inventory of the number of tents, the number of visible men, the number of campfires, the number of weapons. There was no evidence of any girls but that didn’t mean the girls weren’t hidden in the tents. There was one SUV designed for off-roading and covered in fresh mud.
The men didn’t seem to be prepared for, or expecting, an ambush. They sat around the fires, talking, eating, drinking, smoking cigarettes, relaxed, not a care in the world. Good. Henry and his company would have the element of surprise to their advantage. But only if the rest of the company could approach the campsite without making any noise.
From texts he’d received from Whitney, he knew that Xavier and one squad of eight had taken off at a full run from their last position in an attempt to provide immediate backup for Henry and Machudo.
Almost exactly one hour from when Henry and Machudo had called in their location, Henry received word from Aaron that the GPS signal from Xavier’s squad was approaching Henry’s position and that Aaron had already notified Xavier to halt progression and wait for Henry to meet them.
He and Machudo crept back down the rise and cautiously approached the trail where they came upon Xavier’s squad. Without preamble, all eleven guys slipped into the woods and gathered close to share intel.
“There’s a stone ridge to the right of the path where we have a vantage point.” Henry spoke low and fast. “The ridge must have been a structure at one time, because the four corners are symmetrical. We haven’t seen any girls, but we’ve seen six men, all armed, none on high alert. They seem to be winding down for the night and if we wait another half hour or so, they will mostly be in their tents and we’ll have the element of surprise on our sides. Let’s lay low on the ridge, watching until more backup arrives. We don’t want to go in unprepared. Machudo, take one team back to the ridge where we just were. Xavier and I will climb the ridge on the opposite side with the other team. We can talk strategy as we watch. Do not engage the enemy without my command. Is that clear?”
The eight teenagers nodded with wide eyes and terror that they’d come this far and were within sight of the targets.
“Once the rest of the company arrives, we’ll skirt the campsite and take up position around the tents and near the road leading out of the campsite. There’s a large SUV over there with fresh mud on the tires. We don’t want them to get away, but we also need them alive. We have to find a way to get eyes on the location of the girls and the rescue needs to be fast in-and-out.”
“There was a clearing back there about half a mile,” Xavier said. “The young guides and one team will wait there while Whitney and the rest of the company join us here. She wants to be on the ground immediately when we get the girls into our custody. She and one team will help with the rescue so that the girls can see their brothers immediately rather than you and I. As white men, we are still the enemy in their eyes. We don’t want the girls fleeing from us.”
“Yeah, that would be bad.” Henry nodded, then looked around. “Okay, everyone understand their orders? Let’s move.”