Farther away, Kowalski and the SRR woman, Major Jain, had returned to the last switchback, blocked the road with their two buggies, and turned away any vehicles trying to use the road to get into the mountains. Jain knew the native dialects well enough to persuade them to take a different route, though Gray suspected Jain’s pistol and Kowalski’s rifle did most of the persuading for them.
Gray had to admit the British major was an asset and, considering how she handled Kowalski, matching him toe-to-toe, she was one tough soldier.
They would need that ahead.
Gray returned his attention forward. The best chance for Gray’s small team was to slip past that enemy line unseen. They didn’t have the manpower for a full frontal assault.
But once past that roadblock, Gray needed to know where to go—and fast. The clock was ticking down for Amanda. He was sure of it.
He leaned closer to Baashi and coaxed those large dark eyes to face him again. “We won’t let anyone harm you, I promise.”
The boy’s face hardened, offended. “I no afraid.”
“Of course you’re not. I know Captain Alden is very proud of you. So then why don’t you show me on the map where the secret camp is located?”
Baashi sagged, crestfallen, and admitted the reason for his reluctance. “I no have the map.”
Gray hid his shock, not wanting to scare the boy. He had given Baashi the topographic map back in the hut, so he could study it. “Where is it?”
Baashi’s eyes looked wet with pending tears. He waved toward the way they’d come. “I no have it. Blow away.”
Gray realized the boy must have lost it during the rough trek here.
“It’s not his fault,” Seichan said. “If the rattling had gotten any worse, I might’ve lost a filling or two myself.”
She was right, and Gray knew where the true blame lay. He’d not been thinking when he’d trusted the map to the boy. Baashi looked so much older than his few years, aged by his rough treatment. But Gray also knew this wasn’t his first mistake during this mission.
The hard glint to Seichan’s icy eyes suggested those errors hadn’t gone unnoted.
“But I show you,” Baashi said, brightening. He tapped a thumb against his skinny breastbone. “No map—but I map. I take you there.”
Seichan fixed Gray with a resolute stare. “We can’t put the boy in such danger. We don’t even know what lies ahead.”
He nodded and glanced to Tucker and Kane. “We’ll wait to see what they discover. We’ll only move forward if there’s a safe path around this ambush.”
Tucker knelt in front of Kane. He pointed into the forest and touched a finger to his lips. From here, they needed the utmost stealth.
He roughed up the fur of the shepherd’s neck and stared Kane in the eyes. “Who’s a good boy?”
The dog touched his nose to Tucker’s.
That’s right—you are.
Tucker felt the others’ eyes upon him. He didn’t care, unabashed by the display of affection.
“Let’s go,” Tucker commanded and held up five fingers, instructing Kane to keep five meters ahead of him.
Together, they moved into the deeper shadows of the forest. Kane slipped away, vanishing with the barest rustle of leaf. Tucker followed, stepping carefully, letting his dog take the lead, becoming an extension of his senses.
In his earpiece, he heard Kane’s quiet breath, along with the whisper of birdsong and creak of branches. He kept one eye on the shielded screen of his phone that gave him a survey of the upcoming terrain from a dog’s point of view.
They slowly but steadily paralleled the road through the forest.
Kane’s night-vision camera stripped away shadows, making sure they didn’t stumble upon any sentries hidden in the forest. But more than the night vision, Tucker trusted his partner’s nose.
When Kane slowed, so did Tucker. When the dog circled wide, Tucker kept the same wide berth. Though separated by several yards, they moved in tandem, like a choreographed ballet.
All the while, Tucker radioed soft instructions via Kane’s earpiece, keeping the dog following the rough turn of the gravel road.
Through the sensitive microphone on Kane’s camera, harsh voices suddenly reached Tucker’s ear.
“Slow,” he subvocalized to his partner. “Creep. Left.”
The view through the camera dropped low; forward movement became a step-by-step approach back to the road.
The trees grew thinner.
Three trucks—all Land Rovers—appeared ahead, blocking a choke point where the roadway had been blasted through a steep ridgeline. Soldiers paced in front; more stood on the hoods. Other men rolled vehicles to the side of the road or dragged bodies, leaving bloody trails.
The entire force wore black vests, helmets, and carried assault rifles.
Same as the crew who had assassinated Amur Mahdi.
Tucker counted at least fifteen men.
“Down,” he instructed Kane. “Stay.”
He touched his throat mike and reported to Gray. “Commander, do you see this?”
“Affirmative. We aren’t getting through that logjam without a major firefight. Can you find another path around them?”
“Do my best.”
He left Kane to guard his back, to maintain his post by the road. Earlier, while en route here, he had heard the faint tinkling of water through his dog’s microphone. He crept through the woods slowly, heading away from the road, searching for the source. It did not take long to discover a thin stream of water trailing along a sandy gully.
It flowed only a foot wide and a few inches deep, runoff from the highlands, the last vestiges of the rainy season trickling away, so small it would never reach the arid plains below.
Still, he dipped his finger into it, remembering an old adage of his survival-training instructor: Where there’s water, there’s a way.
He headed upstream, hoping for that to be true.
Within fifty yards, the feeble wash reached the steep ridgeline that blocked the way forward. There he bore witness to the power of water, even a flow as anemic as this one. Centuries of wet seasons had slowly eroded a cut through the sandy rock. It was narrow, dropping through a series of short falls, and easily climbable, giving them ready access to the highlands above.
Focused upward, he failed to note the figure kneeling by the pool at the base of the cataracts, filling a canteen, a rifle resting beside him.
Tucker had forgotten his other survival-training instruction.
Never let your guard down.