Within minutes of leaving the hangar, Hannibal and Harry were driving along the dirt road that led away from the airfield on their ATVs. They kicked up a dust as they drove side by side down the road. The trees canopied the road in several locations. Dense underbrush grew alongside the road, reducing visibility into the woods to ten feet. Harry looked over at Hannibal and yelled out over the noise of the ATVs, “I’ll race you to the bottom of the hill yonder.”
Hannibal scanned the area ahead while driving. They had just come out into a small field about the size of a football field on the side of a long hill. The road ran back into the woods at the far side, making a slight turn to the right at the bottom where there it vanished from view. Hannibal smiled and sped up, leaving Harry in the dust. Harry grinned as he opened the ATV up, easily catching Hannibal. The pair raced down the hill, neck in neck, having a great time briefly being children. As they approached the bottom, Hannibal sensed something amiss and slowed down as they approached the tree line. Harry sped on ahead of him. As he came around the turn, Harry saw a log lying across the road and slammed on the brakes, swerving to dodge the log but unable to. Oh, shit! he thought as the ATV crashed into the log, throwing him some thirty feet and completely demolishing the vehicle while it flipped several times.
Harry sailed through the air toward the edge of the road where he saw a significant mud hole and swampy area. He landed with a splash in the deep muck of the mud hole that was part of the swamp bordering the edge of the road. The mud hole itself spanned twenty feet across and Harry fell right in the middle. He struggled to right himself from lying on his back in the middle of the muck. By time he did, Harry stood waist deep in the mud, which then had a great suction on him. He wiped his face and cursed as Hannibal drove up with a great deal of concern on his face. “Are you all right?” Hannibal asked.
Harry cursed and said, “Yeah…how in the hell did you know there was a log down here?”
“I didn’t,” Hannibal replied as he got off the ATV, sprinting to the edge of the mud hole. “Something just told me to slow down and I did. Now that you’ve had your mud bath, can we please get on with the reconnaissance?”
“Ha, ha…very funny,” Harry sneered as he tried to make his way to the edge of the hole. He managed to move a couple of feet toward Hannibal and noticed that he was now nearly chest deep in the mud. He struggled to move farther, but only made progress in the downward direction. “Uh…I think I have a problem here, not that I’m happy to land in here rather than on solid ground with that ATV on top of me,” Harry said with rising concern on his voice.
“I’ll say you have,” Hannibal agreed. “You’re chest deep in that muck. It’s almost like quicksand. Don’t move, maybe you won’t sink any deeper.”
“I don’t plan to,” Harry said, trying to remain calm.
“Let me check the edge here. If there’s solid ground underneath, I might be able to reach you,” Hannibal said as he went to his ATV, pulling a machete out of his pack. Returned to the edge of the mud hole, he noticed Harry stood two-thirds submerged in the muck. Kneeling down and using the machete as a probe, he ran the machete and his arm down into the muck almost up to his shoulder and did not find any kind of solid bottom. He went to pull his arm out and the mud had grabbed it with its suction. Only with some effort did Hannibal pull his arm out of the sticky muck. “That is some thick mud and there’s no bottom that I can find,” he announced. “I’m going to have to pull you out with a rope.”
“Don’t dally with it. This muck means to eat me,” Harry urged as he slip deeper into the mud.
Hannibal returned to his pack, retrieving some rope out. He fashioned a lasso on one end and tossed the loop to him. “Put this around you. I’ll see if I can pull you out,” he ordered. Harry managed to get the loop underneath his arms just before he sank up to his armpits in the mud. Hannibal began to heave on the rope as Harry hung on to it, but it was a fruitless endeavor. He was unable to move Harry. “I need more power to do this,” Hannibal said. “Hold on a minute.” He pulled the ATV up to the rope, tied it to the front of the vehicle, and then got on. “Let’s see if this works,” he said, slowly backing up with the ATV. Gunning the engine, the ATV slow began pulling Harry out of the muck. The mud slurped as Harry began to rise out of the mud as he held on to the rope. Hannibal managed to pull him out up to his waist and about five feet closer to the edge of the hole when the rope broke. “Shit!” Hannibal cursed, getting off the ATV and looking at the broken rope. ’What the hell is going on here?” he cursed again. “This rope has been cut.” Harry was speechless, unable to give a reason why. Hannibal looked around intensely and pulled his pistol. “We’re not alone here,” he declared sternly. Then to the underbrush he called out, “Come on out! I know you’re there!”
Hannibal looked around with growing unease. The bushes rustled as a concussion grenade flew out of the bushes, landing next to the ATV. “Get down!” he barked at Harry, who ducked face first into the mud. Hannibal dove away from the grenade as it went off, destroying the ATV and flinging him ten feet up aside a tree like a rag doll. He fell from the tree and banged his head on a rock, knocking him out cold.
At the same moment, back at the hangar, Nathanael and Selina were preparing to scout the terrain some more when Selina cried out in pain. She arched her back as if it was being hit, and then grabbed her head, collapsing to the floor. “What is it?” Nathanael asked, greatly concerned as he knelt down, sitting her up.
“Hannibal’s been hurt. Someone threw a grenade at him and the explosion threw him aside a tree, knocking him out,” Selina hissed, grimacing through the pain.
“Are you all right?” Nathanael asked her deliberately.
“No, dad…not really; we have to go to him!” she replied in blazing pain.
“No, princess…we must wait here. If Harry’s still alive, he’ll come for us. We can’t go after him yet. Hannibal’s a tough old cat. He’ll be all right,” Nathanael reassured.
“I know,” Selina moaned as her head throbbed. “His mind is still there and it’s all right. Just give me a few minutes. I still can’t get over how we are actually sharing each other’s physical pain. It’s totally bizarre.”
“I know it is. I can only guess at how it must be,” Nathanael answered as he helped her to one of the chairs around the fire.
Harry lifted his head and chest up out of the mud, looking around after clearing his eyes. He saw the smoldering wreckage of the ATV, and Hannibal lying just out of the road at the base of a huge tree with some large rocks around it. He lay sprawled over the rocks, knocked out cold. “Hannibal!” he cried out and struggled against the mud to get to his friend, to no avail. All he succeeded in doing was sinking deeper in the muck. Once chest deep again, he stopped his movement and called out again, “Hannibal! Wake up!” Hannibal did not respond.
Just then, the bushes rustled where the grenade had originated, attracting Harry’s attention. Fear rose in Harry as a moderate-size Caucasian man wearing jungle fatigues carrying an AK-47, a knife, and several grenades cautiously stepped out of the bushes. Harry stayed perfectly still while the man surveyed his handiwork. The man sprinted over to Hannibal and rolled him over, checking his pulse. “Hmpt…still alive. You must be one tough old bird,” the man said. “Well, I can solve that problem.” He stood up and trained his weapon on Hannibal’s head.
“Don’t do it!” Harry shouted urgently. “We’ve done nothing to you!”
The man abruptly turned to the source of the call and saw Harry up to his chest in the muck of the mud hole. He sprinted over to Harry and trained his gun on him. “You’d better make it quick. Who are you!” he demanded.
“I’m Harry Clint and the man you just blew up is Hannibal Smith. I don’t know who you think we’re with but I can assure you that we’re not the enemy,” Harry pleaded. The man looked at Harry crossly as he lowered his weapon.
“What’re you doing here?” the man demanded again.
“We were going to town until I crashed into that log and ended up in this mud trap. We were just going to scout the town to see if there was any danger to our expedition,” Harry replied.
The man raised an eyebrow, lowering his weapon while squatting down on the edge of the mud hole. “What kind of expedition? You don’t look like locals,” he asked, looking Harry in the eye.
“We’re on an archaeological expedition to Aconcagua. Hannibal is an archaeologist and I’m just along for the ride,” Harry returned.
The man scratched the side of his face. “How’d you get here then without anyone knowing,” he asked bluntly. “It’s pretty obvious that you’re Americans…probably CIA or something. We don’t need your kind around here helping the General.” The man trained his gun on Harry again.
“We’re definitely not CIA or any of those other alphabet soup agencies trying to help this General you talking about. For one thing, Hannibal and I are on top of their hit list. They’ve been trying to kill us for months,” Harry answered, trying to stifle his fear. “And how we got here, you wouldn’t believe it if I told you. But whoever you are, we’re not the enemy. We have base camp at the old airstrip just up the road and a couple of our colleagues are manning the camp until our return. Now, you can either believe me or just shoot us and be done with it, whoever you are.”
The man considered Harry’s words for a moment, and then lowered his weapon as Harry sank up to his armpits in the cold muck. “You have courage,” the man said. “And I respect that. I’m Captain John Morrison. It’s obvious now that you aren’t part of General’s troops. I’m sorry I tossed that grenade at your friend. But he’ll pull through. He’s got a nasty bump on his head and took a little bit of shrapnel, but he’s still alive for the moment.”
“Why did you attack us?” Harry asked. “Wasn’t it obvious that we were not the enemy?”
“I’m sorry about that. You stumbled into an ambush that I had set for the General’s patrol,” Morrison stated. “Apparently, you didn’t know that there’s a quiet civil war going on here in Argentina the rest of the world doesn’t know about. I’m part of the rebel forces in this area. In fact, now I am the rebel forces in this area because the General wipe out my squad about a week ago. This whole area is under martial law and General Gulez is the martial. I set this ambush for one of his patrols that comes this way every day about this time of day going to the airfield. He has to pay for what he’s done to these people.”
“Just out of curiosity, which direction do the patrols come from?” Harry asked, the mud chilling him to the bone.
“There’s been much activity on this road going out to the airfield recently. This seemed like a logical place to hit him,” John Morrison said. “A lot of heavy equipment and trucks have been going to the airfield. I believe they’ve been stockpiling weapons out there. You two just happened along at the wrong time. I’m sorry I mistook you for troops.”
“Maybe next time you could investigate a little before lobbing grenades at people you’ve never seen around here before?” Harry scolded.
“Yeah…I try and remember that,” Morrison agreed.
“Now, if it isn’t too much of a problem, make sure Hannibal’s all right, and then get me the hell out of this fucking muck. I’m going numb in here,” Harry pleaded.
“All right,” Morrison said, going to Hannibal. He checked Hannibal over closely and administered some first aid. As he helped Hannibal, a rumble of jeeps and heavy trucks began to echo through the trees coming from down the road toward the town. Morrison heard it and cursed. He immediately dragged Hannibal into the underbrush to conceal him, and then ran back to Harry, who sat almost neck deep in the muck. “It’s the patrol! You just stay put,” Morrison ordered as he jumped into the underbrush. “And keep quiet. They’ll kill you both if they see you because this road is off-limits to all civilians. The last civilians they caught on this road were executed on the spot and thrown into the swamp behind you.”
Harry’s face paled as he managed to turn and look toward town. Three jeeps with mounted fifty caliber machine guns and four soldiers each came over the hill as he looked. Two heavy six-by-six military transports with tarp covers over the backs followed right behind the jeeps. Behind the heavy trucks trailed two more machine-gun jeeps with four soldiers apiece. “Oh, shit,” Harry cursed quietly. The leading jeep saw the smoke from Hannibal’s burning ATV and pulled away from the pack, racing down the hill toward Harry. The hill was a long one that ran through a meadow for two hundred yards before going back into the trees a mere sixty yards from Harry’s position. About two-thirds of the way down the hill, the jeep struck a land mine, blowing it and its passengers to pieces. The other two jeeps immediately pulled ahead of the trucks to investigate what happened and one struck another land mine, scattering pieces of jeep and soldiers everywhere while the second jeep exploded from a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the edge of the woods. Two of the soldiers managed to jump out of the jeep and flee the resulting explosion. Both were severely wounded by shrapnel from the jeep while the other two were killed instantly. The convoy promptly stopped and the jeeps around the rear moved in front to protect the trucks.
Six soldiers poured out of each truck, guns ready. They scanned the meadow for the enemy, and then opened fire with the fifty caliber machine guns and their AK-47s, spraying the bushes indiscriminately for nearly thirty seconds. Once they ceased fire, two rockets fired within fifteen seconds of each other flew from the bushes at their right flank, reducing the jeeps to burning wreckage. A few seconds later, a hail of bullets rained from the tree line, tearing six more soldiers to shreds. One of the soldiers ran toward the cover of the trees in the bottom while the rest of them took up positions under the trucks, firing back into the woods. A few moments passed without any fire from the right flank and they ceased fire. Without warning from the tree line behind the trucks flew one rocket, and then another. The soldiers saw the rockets coming and abandoned their positions before the rockets struck the trucks, reducing them to smoldering wrecks. Eight soldiers perished in the blast, leaving six marginally wounded. The wounded soldiers began to run back toward town and a hail of gunfire mowed them down.
While the firefight was going on in the meadow, the soldier that had run toward the bottom of the hill to the tree line came upon Harry in the mud hole. He sat neck deep in the muck with only his head and hands sticking out. The soldier turned, looking up the hill at the slaughter of his comrades before turning toward Harry with vengeance. He cursed in Portuguese at Harry, leveling the AK-47 at his head. Harry, helpless to do anything, closed his eyes, waiting for the shot. A shot rang out and Harry flinched. Opening his eyes, Harry realized he was not hit. He looked up at the soldier, who remained standing on the edge of the mud hole with his gun leveled at him. Harry noticed a gaping fist-sized hole in the soldier’s forehead with blood oozing from the cavity as bits of brain hung out. The dead soldier stood there for nearly thirty seconds before falling face first into the mud hole. Harry looked the other way and saw Hannibal standing there with blood running down the side of his face and his pistol up; smoke curling from the pistol’s barrel. Hannibal had a glazed look in his eyes as he let the pistol come down. Staggering forward a few steps out of the bushes, he collapsed on the road. Harry abruptly realized what had just occurred. Hannibal gunned the soldier down, saving his life.
A few minutes later, after the gunfire and explosions had ceased, Morrison staggered down the road toward Harry and Hannibal. At this point, Harry had ceased to sink. He sat up to his chin in the mud and the coldness of the mud began sending him into hypothermia in addition to restricting his breathing. As Morrison walked up to the mud hole, Harry noticed that he was bleeding from the left arm, right leg, and shoulder. “What happened?” Morrison asked as he came around to the side nearest to Harry, referring to the dead soldier in the mud hole beside him.
“Hannibal killed him,” Harry said in a labored voice. “Now, could you please get me out of here? I’m so cold that I’m going completely numb and it’s getting hard to breathe in this shit.”
“All right; give me a minute,” Morrison said wearily. “I’ll have to get my four-wheeler and a rope.”
“Hurry up,” Harry insisted as Morrison disappeared into the underbrush.
A couple of minutes later, Morrison reappeared on an ATV just up the road toward the airstrip. He drove down to the edge of the mud hole and got off. The rope that was around Harry’s chest from earlier still lay at the edge of the pit. Morrison retrieved his rope and tied one end to his ATV and the other end to the cut end of the rope that was still around Harry. “Hold on to the rope,” he ordered Harry as he mounted the ATV and slowly began backing up, pulling Harry from his cold sticky grave. In less than a minute, Harry reached solid ground. Morrison then turned to deal with Hannibal. Harry laid there watching, his arms barely functional and his legs completely useless from the cold. “I’m going to have to make a stretcher to carry you and your friend,” Morrison informed as he set about making a stretcher from materials nearby.
While he did that, Harry dragged himself with his arms to Hannibal. Once he reached him, he shook Hannibal. At first, he did not respond. After the third shake, Hannibal opened his eyes and saw Harry’s muddy face. “How did you get out?” he whispered.
“Our buddy who grenaded you,” Harry answered. “He didn’t know we were friendlies. He just wiped out a patrol convoy single-handedly. How’re you?”
Hannibal clamped his eyes shut as a great surge of pain raced up his back into his head, and then replied after the pain subsided, “How do you think I feel? I feel like a grenade has shredded me. Do you trust him?”
“Yes, I think I do,” Harry answered. “He didn’t kill us when we were at his mercy. He’s making a stretcher for us. I’ve been in that mud so long that my arms and legs are no longer working properly and I feel very woozy.”
Hannibal smiled slightly, and then slipped into unconsciousness again. Harry noticed Hannibal’s shredded bloody back. Harry lay there next to his friend as Morrison worked on the stretcher, despite his own wounds. Within ten minutes, Morrison had finished the stretcher, attached it to the ATV, and loaded Hannibal on the stretcher, tying him down to it. Harry managed to drag himself on the stretcher with Morrison’s help. “Where are you going to take us?” Harry asked as Morrison painfully mounted the ATV.
“You were going to town, right?” Morrison asked.
“Yeah,” Harry answered.
“Well, that’s where I’m taking you. I have a doctor friend in the edge of town I’m going to take you to. It appears that all of us are in sore need of a doctor,” Morrison informed. “I’m sure you don’t have a doctor at your camp, do you?”
Harry shook his head no and consented to go to Morrison’s doctor, not that he could refuse in his present condition. Morrison drove up the road, through the battle zone. Harry gazed at the terrible scene, with pieces of equipment and people everywhere.