Book: Scorched Earth



Scorched Earth

Dick Stivers

Scorched Earth

1

Acrid smoke drifted up from the scorched earth.

Where the farm belonging to the three Yaqui families had marked the dusty, gray slopes of the Sierra Madres with arid fields of corn and squash and beans, only fire-blackened stones remained.

A man's scream, the voice made animal by pain, came from a smoking tangle of mud-plastered sticks. The man choked, his scream dying to a gasp, then nothing.

From a ruin that had been a lean-to ramada for sleeping and cooking, a child cried. Lost in blind shock, alone in her seared flesh, she wailed for her dead mother and father.

The child's pleading pierced the haunting silence that enveloped the scene of devastation like a cloak of death.

Two army colonels stalked through the ashes.

Colonel Alfredo Gonzalez of the army of the Republic of Mexico wore the red beret of the elite International Group. The eagle insignia on the collar of his tailored and pressed camo fatigues identified him as a commander.

The second officer, six-foot-six Colonel Jon Gunther, stood head and shoulders above the Mexican officer. Unlike the Mexican, Colonel Gunther did not need insignia to identify him as an officer. His stride, his straight back, his massive build carried the message of his career as a paramilitary officer.

Surrounded by ashes, Gonzalez and Gunther evaluated the effects of the splash of flaming avgas-styrene gel.

In a helicopter a hundred meters away, a soldier laughed. Soldiers in camouflage fatigues and helmets sat at the door of the troopship, smoking cigarettes and tossing rocks. One soldier, his M-16 rifle slung over his back, scanned the nearby mountainsides with binoculars.

The Sierra Madre Occidentals extended into the distance, a vast wasteland of mesquite and rocks and dust. Rains came twice a year to the range of high jagged mountains paralleling the Pacific coast of Mexico. But the Alaskan storms, after sweeping across the Pacific states of North America, brought only light rain. After a few weeks of green grass and wild flowers, the sun scorched the land dry. Blistering winds tore away soil, darkening the sky with dust. Only cacti and mesquite and sturdy desert trees flourished. Later in this month of August, torrential rains would sweep north from the equator, bringing flash floods and erosion. Every year dry riverbeds suddenly became bottomless channels of churning mud and debris.

The families of this ejido— a small cooperative farm — had attempted to scratch a living from the rocky soil of the Sierra Madres. After clearing a tiny valley of mesquite and cacti with their machetes, they had made a plow out of a mesquite tree and a piece of scrap iron. The men took turns pulling the plow. They had no money for a mule. Though the Yaqui tribes had lived and died in these valleys and mountains for a thousand years, Yaqui families did not — according to Mexican law — own this land, therefore they could not borrow money from the Mexican banks to rent mules.

Working in teams, they had pulled the improvised plow through the hard-packed earth. Their skin baked under a hostile sun, and their hands gnarled and calloused from their labor. They put in their crops of corn and beans. The women and children walked a kilometer up the rocky mountainside overlooking the valley to return with buckets of water while the men dug a well. One man sweated in the pit, sometimes digging, sometimes loading the rocks and sand into a bucket on a rope. The other men hauled the bucket to the surface. Two ten-year-old boys dragged the bucket to the edge of the clearing and dumped out the rocks.

In December, when they would harvest their corn and beans and sell the crop in the markets of the pueblos, the three families hoped to buy a mechanical water pump and the pipe to bring the deep water to a reservoir. With water, they could grow more crops. Though they would never be as rich as the Mexicans who had seized the ancestral lands of their people to make the vast corporate farms of Los Mochis and Ciudad Obregon, they hoped to feed their children and perhaps save money for books and radios.

Then the strangers in business suits came.

The two Mexican strangers walked through the lines of corn and beans without regard for the seedlings they crushed with every step. They spurned the children in ragged clothes who gathered around to see the outsiders.

Looking down at the Yaqui campesinos who worked in teams in the deep pit that would be the well, the strangers introduced themselves.

They had come from Culiacan to offer the campesinos wealth, more money than the campesinos could ever earn farming or picking cotton, enough money to buy motorcycles and mescal, even Japanese televisions.

In return for this wealth, the Mexicans from Culiacan wanted the ejidoto plant red amapola poppies. And to razor the poppies for their white gold: opium. Opium from which the chemists of Culiacan and Hermosillo would make heroin to feed the hungry veins of the needle addicts in the cities of North America.

The three families refused. As Yaquis, they distrusted Mexicans. They did not know these two Mexicans from Culiacan, who wore the suits of rich men and who drove the expensive four-wheel-drive Silverado.

The smooth-talking Mexicans repeated their slick promises of easy money. Much easy money. More than the families could earn in a lifetime of selling corn and beans and squash. No more poverty.

The Yaqui families of the ejidorefused again. One man, a father of five children, said he could not risk prison. The police, or federales, would come, and then he would be in the prison at Mazatlan. Who would feed his children while he rotted in the prison? Who would work with his brother and cousin?

The families agreed they would not risk their freedom, even if it meant living in poverty.

Laughing at the ignorance of the campesinos, one of the Mexicans pulled out a wallet thick with American greenbacks. He took out a card and showed it to the men.

Though they could not read, the men recognized the seal of the Republic of Mexico, the photo of the man who held the card and the dreaded words, Director General de la Policia de Transito.

This man from Culiacan who demanded they grow the illegal flowers held a card identifying him as a federale. He said the campesinos need never fear arrest. He himself would protect them with all the power of his office.

The Yaquis spoke for a moment in their own language. They had heard stories of Mexicans who made false papers for workers who went across the border to the cities of the north. If a Mexican could make identity papers that fooled the American Immigration, why not a card to fool campesinos?

Again, the families refused.

Finally, in anger, the man took out one of the American greenbacks. He threw it on the dusty earth in front of the Yaqui families.

One hundred dollars. Cornmeal and beans and milk for months. And clothes for the children. And kerosene for the lantern so they could work at night in the cool air.

If they grew the blood-red poppies.

One of the men answered for all of them. Without a word, he took the American greenback with the portrait of Benjamin Franklin from the dust and handed it back to the federale.

"We'll make an example of you," the federalethreatened.

The two men from Culiacan took their American greenback and left in their American truck.

The families did not forget the threat. They feared the corrupt federales. At dawn the next day, instead of going to work in the fields, one man put on his best clothes and walked all morning to the road, then spent a few pesos on a bus ride to Ciudad Obregon. He went to the garrison of the army of the Republic of Mexico and spoke with a lieutenant. The lieutenant, speaking in university Castilian, assured the campesino that the army would investigate the matter.

Three days later, the plane roared from the sky and dropped the bombs. In the instant before his cremation, the man who had spoken to the lieutenant saw the markings of the Republic of Mexico on the wings of the plane. Then he died in the fire storm of flaming aviation fuel and molten plastic.

Colonel Gonzalez and Colonel Gunther observed the effectiveness of the superhigh-octane napalm. A campesino working in the fields had died before he could drop a hoe. The blackened, brittle hands of the man still held the seared hardwood handle of the crude implement.

Across the field, the child continued to cry. From a place beyond pain, the girl shrieked out for her parents. Over and over, she pleaded out for her mother to come to her.

Snapping his cavalry crop against his leg, Colonel Gonzalez turned to Colonel Gunther. "One moment. Let me shut up that little bitch."

Gonzalez pointed to the suffering child and shouted in the direction of the helicopter. "Tronatela luego vos con la ametralladora!"

The helicopter doorgunner snapped back the cocking handle of an M-60 machine gun. The auto-weapon hammered away the quiet. The slugs raked the tangle of sticks and burning plastic where the child suffered, throwing cans into the air, chopping the blackened wood, spraying ashes. He fired three long bursts. The heavy 7.62mm slugs stopped the screams.

"Finally..." Gonzalez muttered.

Colonel Gunther nodded. "It is the speed of combustion. The fuel burns so quickly it does not disrupt the circulation or penetrate the internal organs. The chemical companies make standard military napalm using less volatile fuel and a greater percentage of plastic in the solution. Military napalm burns deep into the body."

"I will do as you suggest, Colonel Gunther. The technicians will change the formula again."

Smiling, Gunther shook his head. "That is not necessary. I believe this compound better serves our purpose. Military napalm must incapacitate soldiers inside of vehicles, and under protective cover. But these peons?"

With a sweep of his arm, the foreign colonel directed Gonzalez's gaze to the blackened ejidoin the desert. The blond, blue-eyed East German continued in his excellent Spanish.

"This was no military operation. Our purpose here was to make an example of peons who will not work. The present formula serves the purpose of our organization."

2

Sweat dripped onto the steel and plastic of the M-79 grenade launcher Carl Lyons held. Sweat ran from his hair and down his face. He shifted in the seat and felt sweat flow down his back.

Under his short-sleeved shirt, Lyons wore Kevlar body armor. The rectangle of a steel trauma plate shielding his heart and central chest showed through his shirt. Hours before, when the summer sun had risen to its zenith and begun to beat down on the roof of the Drug Enforcement Agency surveillance van, the first streams of sweat had flowed from under the Kevlar. Now, sweat soaked the waist and pockets of his slacks.

Gadgets Schwarz set down his Uzi submachine gun. He pulled off his sunglasses and wiped sweat off the lenses for the tenth time in an hour. He also wore body armor. As he pushed the sunglasses back on, a drop of sweat hit the right lens. He wiped his sunglasses for the eleventh time in that hour.

"Can't the government afford an air conditioner?" Schwarz asked heatedly. "Summertime in Kevlar is cruel and unusual."

The young DEA agent who had volunteered to drive the van answered Gadgets in a bored monotone. "We've got one. It's in the director's car."

"Then let the director take over this fucking watch," Gadgets answered impatiently.

"Can't do it. He's in D.C., romancing Congress for funding. Money for the air conditioner."

Lyons didn't take his eyes off the long lines of cars and trucks waiting to cross the United States-Mexico border. Beyond the multicolored ribbons of autos, the sprawl of Tijuana faded into the gray distance. With Gadgets and the DEA driver, he watched from a van parked on the San Ysidro side of the border, less than a hundred feet from Mexico.

"Think your main man will get enough money," Gadgets continued, "so maybe next time we'll have an air conditioner?"

"No problem with a cooler next time..." the DEA agent replied.

"Far out. Feels good already."

"But next time," the agent said with a laugh, "we'll need a heater."

Twenty steps away, at the San Ysidro port of entry, U.S. Customs officers in inspection booths processed sixteen lanes of incoming traffic. The officers took stock of every driver, looking for nervousness, sweating, forced expressions, then checked the license plate of every vehicle with the aid of federal computers. Each officer — at the rate of one examination every ten to fifteen seconds — waved cars past. Then the vehicles entered the promised land, the United States, accelerating past the van in an unending, monotonous blur of color and glass and faces.

Auto exhaust and diesel soot hazed the crossing, and heat rose from the asphalt in an undulating, vision-distorting curtain. Motionless on the bench seat of the surveillance van, the tinted windows concealing him from the traffic, Lyons watched the thousands of cars and trucks shimmer in the heat and engine fumes. On the Mexican side, peddlers went from car to car, offering painted plaster figures of Jesus and Montezuma and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Other peddlers offered sandals and black flocked bulls and tropical fruit-flavored sherbets.

Lyons glanced to his partner. "Check with the Politician."

Slipping out his hand radio, Gadgets keyed the transmit button. "Hot Box calling Mr. Cool. Qui pasa? Donde esta Senor Pistolero?"

A customs officer in a booth signaled a driver to stop for a search. The driver, a middle-aged Hispanic man with two young Mexican girls in his Mercedes, argued. Lyons watched as other customs officers motioned the driver toward a parking place. Finally the driver steered the Mercedes under the awnings. Officers on each side of the expensive sedan thumped the fender panels while a third officer waited for the big Hispanic to open the trunk. Another customs official walked a drug-sniffing German shepherd around the Mercedes.

"Hey, Politico!" Gadgets keyed his hand radio again. "Digame. What's going on?"

"Relax," Rosario Blancanales answered, his voice coming without tone or inflection through the National Security Agency encoding-decoding circuits of the hand radio. "Nothing's going on."

"Any word from Fantasyland East? What's the D.C. scam on our man?"

"The teletype printed out quite a biography." Blancanales spoke from the DEA offices only a few steps away. The windows of the office overlooked the thousands of cars crawling into the United States. "Our man is most definitely a killer. I'll give you a copy of the bio when I bring down some food."

"Forget the food. I want ice."

"Hot down there?"

"I'm the incredible melting man."

"You might be down there all night again."

"Yeah, I'm a regular owl," Gadgets said, and then he signed off.

Able Team had received the directive the day before: Go to the San Ysidro port of entry. Wait for Miguel Coral. Suspect known to kill without hesitation. Capture for interrogation.

The directive included — courtesy of a DEA informer in Culiacan — the license number of the truck and the name appearing on his valid California driver's license. But the informer did not supply the time Coral would cross the border. Able Team had waited through the night, watching the endless stream of traffic. Perhaps Coral would come today, perhaps tonight. Perhaps tomorrow.

But they knew he would come.

Miguel Coral had fought on the losing side of a gang war. A few days ago, the informant said, Coral deserted the defeated gang. With a hundred kilos of Mexican heroin, Coral intended to start a new dope gang in Los Angeles.

He could never return to Mexico. His desertion from the Ochoa gang meant his death if his former compatriots ever found him. And his murders of innumerable gunmen and captains of other gangs marked him as the target of a hundred vendettas.

The files of the Drug Enforcement Agency held hundreds of pages of information on the career of Miguel Coral Valencia. According to the DEA, Coral started as an independent operator smuggling marijuana and heroin from Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora, north to Tucson, Arizona. After murdering two Mexican policemen, he sought the protection of the Ochoa gang.

Like the other gangs, the Ochoa organization operated in alliance with the politicians and police departments of the remote Mexican towns. The drug gangs supported the ambitions of the politicians, financing their campaigns for mayor or governor or senator.

The mayors of cities learned to take bids on the position of police chief. Then, like the regional director of a high-profit enterprise, the police chief managed the income and disbursed the profits, distributing wads of cash to each patrolman and suitcases of American dollars to the politicians in higher government posts.

Gang money maintained the life-styles of the police, augmenting their small monthly salaries with thousands of American dollars a week. Police chiefs drove Corvettes and Cadillacs. Policemen who received salaries of only a hundred dollars a month drove Mustangs. Families of police officers enjoyed backyard pools and spending sprees in San Diego, Tucson and El Paso.

The integration of the drug gangs into the municipal and political structures of the western states of Mexico ensured hassle-free operations for the gangs and uninterrupted income for their protectors, despite unending assaults by the American DEA and the federal police of Mexico.

The Ochoa gang controlled the greatest share of the drugs flowing from Sonora north to the U.S. border. The old Ochoa, the patriarch of the gang, the don, managed the gang with the expertise of a corporate president. He directed an army composed of farmers, mule drivers, police and municipal employees. He also employed gunmen. Though he rarely initiated violence — he preferred to be generous with his people and to be reasonable with competitors — when a threat came, his trigger men struck with cold, calculated violence.

In 1977, if he had openly declared his organization's profits, Ochoa, S.A., would have won a position on the Fortune500.

Throughout the late seventies, smaller gangs and the syndicates of Mexico, North America and Europe continually challenged Don Ochoa. The don paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits to the families of his slain soldiers. He supported the hospitals of small towns with the continual flow of bleeding and maimed gunmen. He also felt duty bound to contribute when assassinations and wild firefights caught townspeople in the crossfire.

But Ochoa marketed a substance more precious than gold, something he would fight like a cornered lion to maintain control over. Despite hundreds of assassination attempts on his life, and those of his sons and his gang captains, he never surrendered his market share.

In this endless war without quarter, Miguel Coral rose from truck driver, to gang soldier, to captain, then finally to the most trusted and esteemed position in the entire organization — second, of course, to the don — the position of personal bodyguard to Don Ochoa and his family.

Coral stood always at the side of Don Ochoa. He commanded the subordinate soldiers who protected the patriarch's sons and daughters and grandchildren. When the doctors came to examine Don Ochoa's twisted spine — arthritis had made him a hunchback — Coral searched the doctors and minutely examined every instrument in their bags.

As part of his duties, Coral had also attended every meeting with allied gang leaders. And when politicians and police negotiated payoffs, Coral watched over the transactions.

As a result, Coral knew the name and face of every criminal associate of the gang and the identity of every corrupt public official who served the gang. He was a dangerous and powerful man.

In the instructions to Able Team, the DEA had stressed the capture of Miguel Coral would represent the single most important move against the drug trade in western Mexico. If Able Team took Coral alive and the DEA could persuade Coral to cooperate, the DEA could halt the multibillion-dollar river of heroin flooding the tidal basin of American society.

Though Able Team expected Coral to react with autoweapon fire when they closed the trap on him, they would not return the fire. Gadgets held an Uzi submachine gun loaded with special-purpose slugs for punching holes in tires. Lyons had loaded his 40mm M-79 grenade launcher with a plastic grenade of CS/CN gas. The DEA needed a prisoner. The interrogators could not question a dead man.

Sweating, breathing the fumes of thousands of cars and trucks, the men of Able Team waited for another hour. When it came, the alert was sudden.

"He's in line!" Blancanales's voice crackled over the radio's speaker.

"Which line?" Lyons asked, sweat making the radio slick in his hand. "How far until the gate?"

"We have at least three minutes. I'm on the way down to the other cars."

Gadgets wiped the sweat off his hands and checked the canvas tape holding down the Uzi's grip safety. "Ready to bop," he said.

Looking forward to the driver, Lyons felt the van vibrate as the high-performance engine roared into life. The DEA man called back: "I heard it."

Under the huge, striped awning of the inspection shed, other undercover DEA men got into an assortment of cars and pickup trucks.

Gadgets keyed the DEA frequency radio. All the radios had been tested in the morning, but Gadgets called another test.

"Mr. Wizard to the Apprentices. Roll call before we roll."

"Unit one, ready."

"Unit two, warming up."

"Numero tres. Todos es preparado."

"Four here. Ready and willing."

"Supercool, dudes," Gadgets said, and then signed off. "We're gonna do it," he muttered to Lyons.

Lyons laughed. "If we see that doper abandon his truck, we know he had the frequency."

"Calculated risk," Gadgets admitted. "Some day, the Agency will get hep. Spend money on good stuff." He tapped the NSA-designed hand radio in the pocket of his sports coat.

Able Team did not fear the interception of their radio transmissions. They used hand radios designed and manufactured to the specifications of the National Security Agency. Micro electronic circuits coded and decoded every transmission. Without one of the three radios Able Team carried, a technician scanning the bands would intercept only bursts of static.

Blancanales checked in. "We're ready to go. Loading up a tear-gas round."

Lyons took Gadgets's radio. "What's his car look like?"

"Red Chevrolet pickup with a white camper shell. I didn't see the license plate, but the vehicle's exactly as the informer indicated."

"The Agency seems to have got it's money worth. We'll know for sure in about..."

Gadgets interrupted the talk. "Red Chevy!"

"Get ready, Politico." Lyons clicked off and passed the radio back to Gadgets.

Their driver eased into traffic. Lyons sat in the van's third seat, over the rear wheels. Gadgets scrambled into the second seat. Lyons watched cars through an oversized viewing port. Gadgets looked out through smaller standard windows. They watched for the red pickup as their driver maintained a very gradual acceleration away from the Customs and Immigration Center.

Cars blocked their line of sight for a few seconds, then they saw the red pickup accelerate through traffic. Their driver moved the van over two lanes and accelerated to follow the truck.

"It's the truck!" he called back to the two men of Able Team. "License plate matches exactly."

Gadgets relayed the information to the other five cars. Smoothly, inconspicuously, the DEA units slipped through the traffic on the northbound 805 Interstate.

The red Chevy pickup maintained a steady speed in the middle of the three northbound lanes. Lyons saw DEA cars move into blocking positions in the inside lane. Other cars eased past the pickup and took positions in front of it. Behind the van, Lyons saw the DEA car that carried Blancanales.

Three sides of the rat trap were in place.

Lyons nodded to Gadgets, and the Wizard spoke into his DEA-frequency radio. "This is it."

Their driver slid easily into the express lane. Slowly the van gained on the driver's window of the Chevy truck. Lyons peered through the side window of the camper shell. He saw someone move inside.

Instinctively Lyons's hand moved to the Velcro closures of his body armor. He adjusted the trauma plate.

"This could be a point-blank," Gadgets said, laughing.

"That's not the mission. Prisoners for information."

"How could they miss your head? You need a Kevlar and steel-plate face mask. With bulletproof shades."

Lyons only nodded to Gadgets. Gadgets activated the DEA radio and shouted out two words, "Lights! Sirens!"

Gadgets slammed back the van's sliding cargo door. Lyons released the catch holding the van's oversized viewing window in the frame. The window fell away to shatter into thousands of tiny cubes of tempered glass on the freeway's concrete pavement, and a chorus of sirens wailed from the DEA vehicles.

As Lyons and Gadgets aimed their weapons, a sudden impact threw the van into a side skid.

With smashed steel screaming and tires smoking, a DEA sedan pushed in the back doors of the van. Able Team's driver struggled with the wheel and accelerated.

A four-wheel-drive pickup rammed the sedan again, sending it out of control. Hauling himself upright, Lyons saw three Mexicans in the front seat of the four-wheeler.

Gunmen from the Ochoa gang, Lyons thought. Battling the DEA while the gang leader Miguel Coral accelerated away. They were buying their leader time to escape the law-enforcement trap.

The Mexican driver pulled his steering wheel to the side and the oversized steel bumper of the four-by-four rammed into the van.

Bracing himself against the sheet-metal body panel, Lyons pointed the M-79. The Mexican in the four-wheeler attacked again. Lyons wasn't about to give him another chance.

A low-velocity plastic canister streaked across the arm's distance of space between the two vehicles and shattered inside the cab. CS/CN gas sprayed the Mexicans, instantly incapacitating the gunmen with tear and nausea gas.

The four-wheeler drifted into the freeway's express lane. Behind the careering truck, other motorists slowed. Traffic jammed.

Sheet steel shrieked against concrete as the four-wheeler creased its skin along the center divider. Lyons and Gadgets raced ahead in the van.

"Catch the pickup truck!" Lyons shouted to the driver as he broke open the breech of the M-79 and flipped out the spent 40mm casing. He pushed in another plastic CS/CN grenade.

With the engine whining with RPM's, the van came up beside the red Chevy pickup.

Simultaneously Gadgets pointed his Uzi at the front left tire of the pickup truck and Lyons aimed the gaping muzzle of the grenade launcher at the face of Miguel Coral.

"Alto! Policia!" Lyons shouted out in his bad Spanish.

Only then did Lyons see who rode in the cab of the truck with the middle-aged, square-faced gang captain.

A woman and two young children clung desperately to each other. Fear haunted their faces. Then a teenage boy leaned from the camper shell to the cab of the truck.

A family. A middle-aged man, his wife and their three children.

The wrong truck? The right truck but the wrong man? How could they explain terrorizing this family on their way home from a visit with friends?

The man driving the Chevy truck closed his eyes for a moment, perhaps for an instant of prayer, perhaps to admit defeat. Then he moved both hands high on the steering wheel. He called out through the open window to the hard-faced North American with the grenade launcher. "I surrender! I surrender! For the love of God, don't shoot. My family is innocent."



3

"The White Warriors? In Sonora, Mexico?"

Gadgets looked out the window of the office. He stared at the lights of San Diego as if he expected the explanation to the mystery to rise from the darkness in flashing neon script.

Four floors beneath the men of Able Team, cars sped through the warm summer night. Strollers walked arm in arm on the sidewalks, passing the high-rise federal prison without a thought.

After capturing the Ochoa gunmen and the Coral family, Able Team and the officers of the Drug Enforcement Agency had escorted the group of prisoners a few miles north to San Diego. They questioned them in the high-security interrogation room of the prison.

The truck belonging to the Mexicans went to the federal impound garage to be searched. Only minutes later, DEA technicians had found heroin concealed in the frame of the four-wheel-drive truck driven by the gunmen. They quickly weighed and tested the Mexican white death, then telephoned the interrogating officers with the results: two hundred kilos, seventy-five-percent purity.

"And in Coral's truck we found toolboxes full of Mexican fifty-peso gold pieces. Each coin is ounces. We counted five hundred, four hundred pounds by weight. Over two hundred thousand dollars in 99.95-percent gold."

Even before the call had come, Coral knew he faced a lifetime in the concrete hell of a penitentiary. Only through complete cooperation could he ever hope to be a father to his children again, to sleep with his wife, to know the simple pleasures of freedom.

Coral had answered all their questions. Throughout the afternoon and into the night, Coral talked. He told his story, the story of the Ochoas family, and the story of the destruction of the Ochoa empire.

Now Able Team attempted to make sense of the interrogations. Overwhelmed by thousands of names and places, Gadgets stared into space, thinking. Finally the Wizard snapped out of his trance. He shook his head as if trying to wake himself from a dream, a bad dream.

"Everything clicked until he mentioned the White Warriors. I can believe that a gang of ultrahard-core psycho killers with military weapons and high-tech commando gear totally demoralized and wasted the Ochoa gang. But the White Warriors taking over the Mexican heroin trade? Mucho muy loco..."

Contrary to the report of the informer, Coral did not desert Don Ochoa in a time of crisis. He remained loyal to the end. He left only after Don Ochoa admitted defeat.

In the first weeks of the war, the White Warriors disrupted the Ochoa empire with terrorism. In that time of assassination and atrocity, no Ochoa employee worked without fear. Assassins murdered entire families of opium farmers. Couriers disappeared. Chemists found all their laboratory technicians executed. On isolated stretches of Mexican highway, drivers died in their flaming trucks. The bloodletting was unceasing and unrelenting.

When the Ochoa mobilized their army of gang soldiers to protect the growing, refining, and transport operations, the Warriors escalated to the second phase of their campaign. The loyalty and bravery of the Ochoa soldiers were like sand in the wind against the military weapons and lightning-strike tactics of the White Warriors.

Utilizing massive fire superiority, including machine guns, rockets and radio-triggered claymore mines, the Warriors annihilated squads of Ochoa soldiers in bloody ambushes. Light planes dropped canisters of napalm on strongholds.

To shock and demoralize the faithful soldiers of Don Ochoa, Warrior assassins infiltrated family compounds and hacked defenseless children and women apart, leaving grotesque puzzles of limbs and heads for the fathers to reassemble for burial.

Finally, the aged patriarch released all the surviving soldiers and employees of the gang from their oaths of loyalty. A chartered jetliner carried Don Ochoa into exile in the South Pacific with what remained of his family and his wealth.

After the victory, the White Warriors granted amnesty to the soldiers and employees of their former opponent. The new gang lords needed the farmers and soldiers and technicians to maintain the flow of heroin to the hungry north. Many were eager to march to the drumbeat of the new commanders.

Even though the Warriors offered him a high post in their organization, Coral refused.

"I will not torture. I will not murder campesinos. I will not murder children," he had said.

Coral took his family and drove for the United States border. But the DEA captured him before he could gain the sanctuary of the world's second largest Mexican city, Los Angeles.

"What about the rest of his story?" Lyons asked his partners.

Gadgets continued talking. "I can believe that the new gang had military weapons and high-class communication equipment. Money can buy anything."

"What about his refusing to work for the new gang?" Lyons asked.

Blancanales nodded. "It checks out against the information on file. He's a killer. He admits it. But none of the information in the DEA files mentions a civilian murder. He never killed anyone but gangsters. He never committed atrocities."

"Cops don't count?" Lyons snapped. As an ex-LAPD detective, he had gut-level hatred of cop killers. Coral had started his career as a gang gunman after killing two Mexican officers.

"I don't know if he's telling the truth," Blancanales added, "but he said those two hijacked his load of marijuana. They pistol-whipped him and dragged him off the highway to shoot him. He fought, and they got killed."

"I was in there," Lyons said, pointing toward the interrogation room. "I didn't hear that."

"This was one of the stories he told me in Spanish on the way from San Ysidro. Coral said, 'It's finally over,' and we started talking..."

"You informed him of his rights?" Lyons demanded.

"They read him his rights while they had him spread-eagled against the truck. But what does that matter? You think the Feds will subpoena my testimony?"

"Totally impossible," Gadgets said with a laugh. "You weren't even there."

"We never are," Lyons added with a smile.

Blancanales laughed with his partners. "Coral told me that all he ever wanted out of the smuggling operation was money for a ranch. But after he killed the two cops, it was down, down, down. Only the Ochoas could protect him from prosecution. Only the Ochoas paid him enough money so that he could send his kids to school and have a better life. He made the best of a bad situation."

"Pass out the handkerchiefs, Politician. This scum is a cop-killing dope soldier who got paid in gold," Lyons snapped. "Why didn't he come north and make a better life for himself in the land of opportunity? Half the Mexicans in the U.S. are illegal. They get phony papers and presto, a new life. Nobody held a gun to his head and told him he had to work in the dope business."

"It wasn't the gold. Not at first," Blancanales continued. "Think of it from his viewpoint. One, if he gets deported and the federalesrecognize him, he goes straight into a Mexican prison, for life. Two, if he works in the United States, what does an illegal alien fugitive with a grade-three education do for a living? He digs ditches, he washes dishes. All the time watching for la migra— the Immigration and Naturalization Service — at the door. Or he could be a bodyguard for a gangster. Did you know that he's got two teenage daughters at the University of California? He never could have done that digging ditches."

"You make the shit sound like a working man's hero," Lyons grunted.

"He's bad from the hair down, all right," Blancanales conceded. "But I think he'll cooperate with the Agency."

"Cooperate?" Gadgets asked, incredulous. "El Pistolero in there's a one-man data bank. Too bad the printout's all past tense."

"Past tense?" Lyons asked.

"Yeah, the Ochoa gang is history. From what he says."

Lyons laughed cynically. "Forget the Ochoas! Now we have the White Warriors organizing a billion-dollar dope operation in Sonora. That's only driving distance from the border."

Blancanales shook his head. "Only a name. Doesn't mean there's any connection with the White Warriors down in El Salvador and Guatemala."

Gadgets laughed. "They own Central America. Why do they want Sonora? It's a desert."

"Heroin," Lyons insisted. "Sonora and Sinaloa and Chihuahua ship billions of dollars of heroin into the U.S. every year. A billion dollars buys armies and helicopters and jets."

"Man, give it up!" Gadgets refused to accept Lyons's reasoning. "Some local gang thought they'd be bad and take a bad-ass name they read in the papers all the time. Doesn't mean a thing. Besides..." Gadgets laughed "... the scenario you're painting is so scary, I don't even want to think about it."

Lyons pressed his argument. "But what if it is them? What if the Fascist International isn't satisfied with a few hundred million a year in foreign aid? Heroin means billions a year, without having to endure Congressional debates or worry about human rights."

"A paranoid nightmare!"

"Remember the army of Unomundo?" Lyons continued.

"I don't want to hear it!" Gadgets told his partner. "If that crazy had a billion dollars, he'd buy an armored division. He'd buy an air force. He'd open up a Dachau franchise. High tech S.S. Just talking about it makes me shake."

Lyons turned to Blancanales. "You trust Coral enough to take him south?"

"You want to investigate the new gang?"

Lyons nodded. "If it's local scum, we'll leave it for the DEA and the Mexican federales. If it's the same White Warriors we already know about, we'll do them."

Gadgets laughed. "Now, that's confidence. Us three go up against a gang that's just wasted the biggest, most organized dope syndicate in Mexico. How about if I put in a call for the 101st Airborne to even up the odds? Maybe we can park the U.S.S. Missourioffshore for fire support."

"Nothing serious," Lyons suggested. "Just a look-see. Try to make an identification. If it's them, we come back and plan our next move. If we take Coral south, with his contacts, we can get it done quickly. If you trust him, Pol."

"If the Agency will go along with this," Blancanales began, thinking as he spoke. "They want information from him. To get his long-term cooperation, they plan to offer him a new identity under the Protected Witness Program. If we take him south for a safe and discreet investigation, that goes along with their plans. That's more information for the Agency. If they keep his family and his gold, we can trust him. That's all he cares about."

"And revenge," Lyons added. "This will be a chance..."

"Yeah," Gadgets agreed. "Pay-back on the psycho killers. He'll be hep to that."

"Agency cooperation," Blancanales added. "That will be the central point. Coral will go along. He doesn't have a choice. But the Agency will need persuasion."

Lyons shook his head. "I don't want them to know anything about what we're doing."

Blancanales sighed. "Lyons, he's their prisoner. If we want him to escort us on a reconnaissance mission south, we'll need their agreement."

"Once we get there, we're on our own," Lyons stressed. "Free agents."

"Standard operating procedure," Gadgets agreed. "We need no shadows."

Lyons gave Blancanales the nod. "Go to it, Mr. Politician. Promise them anything. But get us what we want."

"Might take a few days." Blancanales glanced at his watch. "It's after midnight in Washington. Might have to talk about it all day tomorrow."

"And maybe we'll have to get an Act of Congress," Lyons added. "Just get it."

With a quick salute, Blancanales left the office.

His partners heard him speak with agents in the corridor. Then they heard Blancanales enter another office. Gadgets turned to Lyons.

"Just a look-see? Easy to say, but if we go, I'm taking everything I got and two or three nukes, too."

Lyons nodded. "Standard operating procedure. Places we go, we always seem..."

"To kill people," Gadgets finished.

"It's kill or be killed. We've got enemies out there, Wiz."

Gadgets smiled nervously. "We've got enemies out there we've never even met. Hell, we've got enemies out there we don't even know about yet."

"We know about Los Blancos."

"And they know about us. So I'm packing up. I'm checking my list. I'm checking it twice... because..."

The office door flew open. Blancanales rushed in. "I didn't even ask them. They asked me if we'd go south. To confirm Coral's statements. At dawn, with Senor Coral in an Agency Lear jet!"

Gadgets finished his jingle: "Able Team is going... downsouth."

4

An unmarked panel van ferried Able Team across the sun-baked asphalt of Lindberg Field.

In the first red glow of the day, rows of parked executive jets remained shadows in the morning darkness. Miguel Coral stared straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with the three North Americans riding in the closed van with him. Lyons watched him, trying to read the Mexican's thoughts.

By the light of a penlight, Blancanales studied an operational navigation chart prepared from satellite photographs by the Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center. He focused the tiny spot of illumination on the colors and mazes of lines representing the topography of the Sierra Madre Occidentals. He folded and refolded the oversized chart, searching the relief portrayals for elevations and the symbols of airfields and towns.

"There's our plane," Gadgets told his partners. "This is unbelievable. We're traveling like congressmen. A real for-live Lear."

"Confiscated from a dope smuggler," the driver told his passengers.

"Who'd he steal it from?" Gadgets asked. "Why didn't the Agency return it?"

"Steal it?" The driver laughed. "He paid for it, cash. We seized it under the Rico Act."

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act allowed the U.S. government to seize the wealth and property of millionaire drug dealers. Passed in 1978, the Act presented a greater threat to the gangs than prison. Gangsters could avoid prison through endless appeals of their convictions. However, the initial judgment of guilt — and not the eventual state or U.S. Supreme Court findings — allowed the DEA or IRS to attack the illicit gains of the gang lords. The U.S. government took their mansions and Cadillacs and private jets, even if the gangsters eventually won reversals of their convictions on technicalities.

The driver braked the van only steps from the Lear. Lyons jerked the sliding door open and pulled out his oversized luggage. He carried his heavy cases — one the size of a shipping trunk, the other long and flat like a guitar case — to the jet's steps. Not waiting for his partners, he went up in a run. He had to crouch to enter the luxurious interior of the Lear.

Sitting on one of the leather passenger seats, the pilot eyed the cases. "Thought this was a day trip. Looks like you're taking up residence in Mexico."

Lyons gave the pilot a wide grin. "Just gifts for my Mexican friends."

"Oh, yeah. Good idea. We won't be going through Customs inspection. I guess there's going to be some people down there who'll be glad to see you."

"And then again," Gadgets added as he set down identical oversized cases, "maybe not."

"Why do you say that?" the pilot asked, not understanding.

Blancanales and Coral came up the stairs and crowded into the cabin. The pilot extended a hand and introduced himself to his passengers. "I'm Pete Davis. I'll be taking you down to Culiacan and bringing you back. Once we're down there, I'll stand by in case you want to go sightseeing in a helicopter. You know, view the beauty of poppy fields in bloom, the romantic charm of mule caravans carrying opium through the mysterious mountains, maybe a sinister gang fortress."

"We won't want any doper tours," Lyons told him.

"Hey, man," Gadgets jived. "We're straight. We don't work for the government or anybody. We're businessmen. We're going down there on business."

"Right!" Davis nodded. "Businessmen. Glad I got that straight. Businessmen on a business trip to the heroin capitol of the Western Hemisphere."

Blancanales and Gadgets laughed. Lyons looked irritated by the joking.

"Just fly the damn plane, will you?" Lyons said to Davis. "If I want entertainment, I'll take a taxi."

Davis glanced briefly at Blancanales and Gadgets and then started toward the pilot's cabin. "On our way! By the way, you gentlemen got names?"

"No," Lyons told him.

"Right," said Davis as he closed the cabin door behind him.

Blancanales spread out the navigation chart on the cabin table. Miguel Coral watched from a corner seat as the Puerto Rican ex-Green Beret traced his team's route along the coast of Mexico, bordering the Gulf of California.

"We'll do a certain amount of sightseeing," Blancanales stated. "This flight will parallel the coast and mountains and give us a chance for an overview of the region."

As the jet's engines whined to life and the plane taxied to take off, Blancanales briefed his partners from memory.

"Last night I read through the history of western Mexico's dope trade, and the only way I can summarize it is, Wild, Wild West. In 1971 the U.S. decided to shut down the Turkish opium trade and the French Connection that refined the opium and shipped the heroin into the United States.

"Turkey has grown poppies for thousands of years. It took the Corsicans and French most of the twentieth century to create the market for morphine and heroin. But Mexico charged into the horse trade in only two years.

"By 1974, after arrests broke the French Connection and Turkey banned the growing of amapola poppies, it didn't matter anymore. Mexico supplied almost all the heroin the needle heads of the United States needed."

The jet accelerated down the runway and soared into the dawn sky. The lights of the city and the shimmering blue mirror of San Diego harbor appeared below them. The Lear banked to the southeast.

"We'll be flying over territory you won't believe," Blancanales continued. "The heroin organizations grow their poppies in mountains and valleys so isolated and removed from the rest of the world that the Mexicans, with the largest fleet of aircraft in Latin America — prop planes, jet planes, bombers, helicopters — can't patrol it. The lands where the poppies grow might as well still be in the sixteenth century."

Lyons had stopped listening. He stared out the port window to the lights and shadows of the city to see into his own memory.

In the few minutes of flight, their Lear jet had already flown the length of the San Diego Bay. Below the jet, streaking lights of traffic speeding north and south marked Interstate 5 and Interstate 805, the freeway where Able Team had arrested the Mexican assassin now returning to Culiacan with them.

Beyond the Interstates, the lights of the suburbs become individual and random as the urban monster sprawled into the desert. There, in the vague folds and shadows of the undeveloped lands, a blinking strobe light marked Brown Airport.

Flor had died there.

Less than a year before, during a helicopter pursuit of a truck loaded with a Soviet-made synthetic drug intended to create panic and flame a racial war in American society, the woman Lyons loved died.

While he watched from another helicopter, her chopper took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade. After the eighty-mile-per-hour crash and the explosion of the helicopter's aviation fuel, the coroner's aides had not even found enough of Flor to bury.

The horror and the sorrow of her death had wounded him in a way he still did not completely understand.

Some nights, he would wake and find himself bathed in sweat, his pulse beating in his ears, his throat hoarse and knotted. His neighbors in the condominium complex where he lived complained to the condo management of noises coming from his unit. He received citations for loud parties, for loud television, for loud stereo — he never argued, he paid the twenty-five-dollar fines immediately. He didn't attempt to deny or explain the noises.

Some nights when he woke, his body drenched with sweat, images remained in the darkness: a desert flowing with blood, bones in the sand, blood flaming, his hands reaching into flames to touch her and coming away bloody.

He did not understand the injury to his soul. But there was one thing he did know: Flor died to stop a shipment of Soviet-synthesized terror drugs, and the truck carrying the shipment of chemical horror had left Culiacan the day before.

The truck left Culiacan a day after a Soviet freighter docked in the port of Mazatlan, a city that was three hours south of Culiacan by truck.

The White Warriors had begun their takeover of the Culiacan drug industry a year before. The beginning of the takeover coincided with Flor's death.

He had read the official reports. He had the documents and the black-and-white photographs taken by surveillance teams. He knew the secondhand stories told by informers and interrogated suspects — like the stories told by Miguel Coral. He knew the rumors and he knew how psychopathic killers operated.

Questions screamed through his mind as he attempted to rationally analyze impossible contradictions.

Why did white gunmen work for Black Nationalist terrorists?

Did the White Warriors somehow play a role in the death of Flor?

Did the black racist gang bringing Soviet-synthesized terror drugs into the United States use a gang of Fascist International drug smugglers as couriers?

Did the strange politics of the Soviets and the Fascist International interweave?

Did an alliance of Stalinists and Nazis prepare a terror assault against their common enemy, the United States, the world's strongest democracy?

Tons of heroin, billions of dollars, the gang wars of Culiacan — those things diminished to nothing when he thought of Flor destroyed in that desert outside San Diego.

The image of his woman falling flaming from the sky was burned into his mind forever.

Lyons went south with only one thought: revenge.

A half hour into the flight, their briefing was interrupted when a voice came over the intercom.

"Businessmen, this is your pilot. The Culiacan office requests an overflight of the mountains east of Ciudad Obregon. Mexican officials report a significant antidrug operation in progress in the Sierra Madres on the border of Sonora and Chihuahua. The office requests that I overfly the area and report — just a second..."

The door to the pilot's den slid open, and Davis leaned into the passenger cabin.

"What the office wants is a confirmation of the action. They want us to count the trucks, count helicopters, get the actual coordinates. You mind if we take the detour?"

"Is this sightseeing or what?" Lyons demanded.

"It's official sightseeing. The office ordered me to sightsee, even if it delays your arrival time."

"There will be no problem with fuel?" Blancanales asked.

Davis shook his head. "No problem. It's only a few flying minutes out of the way. And it will give you a chance to see the Condors — that's the Mexican army antidrug task force — in action. If they are in fact in action."

"If?" Blancanales refolded the navigation chart to look at the Sonora-Chihuahuan sector east of the coastal city. "Is there some doubt..."

"Man," Davis said with a laugh. "Don't you know what goes on with the Mexicans? The U.S. of A. pays for the truck and helicopter fuel, and sometimes underwrites the salaries of the federalesand the expenses of the army. So the Mexicans tell us about such-and-such operation and present the bill for the expenses. But sometimes, they're..."

Gadgets smirked. "Invisible!" he said.

Davis nodded agreement. "It has happened. The new administration in Mexico City is different from the last one. They threw out most of the criminals and changed the laws, but laws don't mean anything when there's money to be made. La Mordidais forever. Everyone wants their bite of the action."

"You mean the people the DEA works with are corrupt?" Lyons asked the pilot.

"If they're Mexican," the pilot told him.

Lyons turned and commented to his partners, "We don't want any liaison, right?"

Blancanales looked to Miguel Coral. "We brought our liaison."

Their pilot laughed. "You can't even worry about it. Down south here, you buy your friends. It's a tradition."

"No!" Coral shouted at the pilot. "It is a crime. You know nothing of my country or its traditions."

"I know corruption is a Mexican tradition that will never change."

"North American, you misunderstand..."

5

"You misunderstand..."

The words summarized the history of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency alliance with the Mexican federal authorities in the war against heroin. From the first years, when the DEA established and guided the war, the North Americans ignored the beliefs and traditions of Mexico.

Mexicans believed only the lowest, most vile subclass of criminals dealt in drugs. Therefore Mexican investigators and prosecutors did not believe North Americans with their wealth and opportunities would waste their lives in the drug subculture. They considered the heroin trade and American addicts beneath their concern.

Nationalism also played a part. When the DEA traced heroin seized in the tenements of Los Angeles and Detroit and San Antonio to the western states of Mexico, the drug-enforcement officers expected the same cooperation they demanded and received from state officials in the United States. The officers reasoned that heroin represented a threat to both the U.S. and Mexico.

The demands of the DEA officers offended the national pride of the Mexicans. The Americans did not speak Spanish. The Americans presented documents in English and expected immediate comprehension. When Mexican prosecutors and field agents with no experience whatsoever with drug syndicates required detailed briefings, in Spanish, to understand the complex networks of heroin transport and distribution operating in the United States, the DEA presented only cursory and incomplete overviews.

Finally, Mexico had a fundamentally different justice system. In the United States, courts presume innocence until the proof of guilt. In Mexico the police prove guilt to a prosecutor who then orders the arrest. To win release, the Mexican suspect must then prove innocence. DEA officers went to Mexican prosecutors with stacks of files on suspects who had fled to Mexico. When the Mexican prosecutors expressed disbelief at the American system of justice that arrested criminals, released them, allowed the criminals to flee the country, then expected other countries to arrest them, the Americans called the Mexicans corrupt, in the pay of the gangs.

In most cases the accusations proved to be untrue. But the charges and countercharges disrupted the cooperation between the two governments. The atmosphere of distrust and misunderstanding provided camouflage for the truly corrupt. Those public officials and police on the secret payrolls of the syndicates explained the failed investigations and continuing drug trade on the "gringos brutos."

Despite continuing problems between the DEA and the federal officials of Mexico, the Mexicans continued the program. Mexico needed the foreign aid. The United States sent millions of dollars south in equipment and cash. American dollars bought aircraft for the Mexican army. Mexican antigang agents trained in the FBI academy. Mexican police chemists received specialized instruction in the laboratories of the DEA. As many as fifty DEA field agents operated in liaison with Mexican law enforcement.

But in the first five years of the antidrug campaign, the production of Mexican heroin and its transport to the cities of the United States multiplied by a factor of ten. Narcotic agents in the United States succeeded in capturing hundreds of couriers and middle-level gang captains, but the arrests did not break the syndicates. The Mexican federalesreported the imprisonment of thousands of farmers and couriers and gangsters, but the syndicates remained intact and operating.

Then a series of crimes alarmed then-President Escheverria. At the time when he initiated the most progressive land-reform program in the history of the Republic, Mexican officers found Colt M-16 assault rifles, stolen from Army installations in the United States, in warehouses around Mexico City, only miles from the National Palace. Elsewhere in Mexico, gang leaders broke out of police cordons using LAW rockets and Uzi submachine guns. The hired gunmen of landowners executed campesinos with silenced MAC-10 special-purpose machine pistols.

Federaleslearned from DEA informants that the drug syndicates wanted military weapons in payment for heroin. When the minister of the interior reported this detail to President Escheverria, the president sensed a link between the weapons and the increasing opposition he faced to his land reforms from the wealthy elite of the nation. He could not prove an association between the right-wing opposition denouncing him as a Communist and the drug syndicates importing thousands of military weapons. He ordered a secret investigation but did not wait for the findings.

President Escheverria ordered the Mexican army to break the drug trade.

Operation Condor assaulted the heroin empire of the syndicates. Two thousand elite soldiers entered the vast wilderness of the Sierra Madre Occidentals. They patrolled on foot, they launched airborne assaults against gang strongholds, they employed short-takeoff-and-landing planes in their effort to seize the hidden airstrips of smugglers. The DEA provided vehicles, communications and a hundred field agents. With the aid of American satellites, Mexican planes sprayed poppy fields with defoliant.

Before the end of President Escheverria's term of office, Mexico forced the syndicates into retreat. Mexican heroin disappeared from the United States. No more military weapons came south to threaten the Mexican democracy.

Then President Lopez Portillo took office. Lopez Portillo governed a Mexico exuberant with the flush of sudden wealth.



Mexico had oil.

The federal government of Mexico no longer needed foreign aid. The administration of President Lopez Portillo had no time for cooperating with the North Americans.

President Lopez Portillo initiated the most ambitious program of economic development in the history of Mexico. He financed multibillion-dollar industrial— and agricultural-development programs with the petro dollars flooding the Mexican treasury.

Americans played no part in these programs. However, the DEA reasoned that the rural programs, as the developments reduced rural unemployment and poverty, would undercut the heroin subclass. Fanners with irrigation systems and fertilizers would not need the illicit money earned by the red poppies. Teenagers with good jobs would no longer risk their freedom to earn a few hundred dollars carrying kilograms of heroin north.

But the next six years became a period of corruption and theft unparalleled in the history of crime. Dollars and gold surged into foreign bank accounts at the rate of millions of dollars a day as the leaders and upper-class elite of Mexico looted their nation of petroleum wealth.

The construction of mansions became a major new industry. The elite competed with one another in extravagance. The suddenly wealthy joined in the displays.

The chief of police of Mexico City, appointed to his post by his friend Lopez Portillo, built mansions in Mexico, the United States and Canada. His official salary of sixty dollars a week also bought race horses, discotheques and Cadillacs.

The government salary paid to President Lopez

Portillo reportedly paid for a mansion of thirty-two hundred square meters, containing theaters and libraries and swimming pools, valued at fifty million U.S. dollars.

In the last year of the Lopez Portillo administration, Mexico collapsed under the burden of international debts. Inflation robbed the Mexican people of their savings. Millions of unemployed and underemployed Mexicans fell into desperate poverty. Hunger and malnutrition became common.

As President Lopez Portillo left office, he stated, "I have nothing to be ashamed of."

Starving poor seized towns. Wage earners, working double shifts for pesos that could not buy food for their families, organized strikes, seizing factories and closing down the cities. The destitute farmers, the workers, the hungry middle classes threatened class warfare. The wealthy fled to their estates in Spain.

The new president of Mexico, Harvard trained and receptive to the guidance of economic advisors — Mexican and American — saved Mexico from chaos. He asked the people of his nation for patience and courage. The forces calling out for revolution granted the new president time to purge the criminals and renegotiate the foreign loans.

But poverty and hunger remained.

Soon Mexican heroin returned to the United States.

6

Leaving the blue mirror of the Gulf of California behind, the jet passed over the agricultural projects spread around Ciudad Obregon. Black ribbons of asphalt roads and silver lines of irrigation canals divided hundreds of square miles of green into rectangles. Company installations — worker dormitories, equipment sheds and warehouses — clustered at the intersections of roads. Trucks and worker buses marked fields where lines of laborers hunched over the rows, harvesting cotton and vegetables. To the north, a dirty smear of smoke marked Ciudad Obregon.

Throughout the flight, Miguel Coral had remained silent except when asked a question. He responded in monosyllables and short sentences, speaking Spanish if Blancanales questioned him, answering Lyons and Gadgets in English. Now he stared down at the fertile lands.

"That is why I became a drugerro," he told the North Americans.

Lyons looked down on the fields. He saw only endless rows of crops glittering with water. "What are you talking about?"

"Water and land," the gang soldier explained. His words came slowly, with resignation. "The rich and the foreigners get the land and the water. Mexicans only work."

"So you killed some cops. Did that get you the land you wanted?"

Coral looked at Lyons, not with anger, but studying him, as if attempting to understand the blond man who sneered at him. Before Lyons could speak again, Blancanales spoke to the Mexican. "Yesterday you told me you wanted to buy a rancho outside Hermosillo. Is the land there like this?"

"There is the land of the companies. That land is always green. Then there is the desert. My father had twenty acres of sand and cacti. He drilled for water, but they did not find water. He borrowed money from the bank for a deeper well, but he did not find water. The bank took his land. The bank and the government brought water, and now a foreign company grows tomatoes there. I wanted green land, so I ran the drugs to the border. I made money, but never enough to buy land with water. Then the police wanted to take my marijuana for their own gang, and then my dreams were over."

Blancanales nodded, then said, "But I thought foreigners couldn't own land in Mexico."

"They make corporations with the banks. Sociedades anonima. Anonymous societies. The campesinos have no hope."

"The socialist explanation of the dope gangs!" Lyons said with a laugh. "The heroin gangs are poor down-trodden peasants trying to improve their lives. Explains everything. Dead cops, all the murders, the corruption, a million addicts."

"Be cool, will you?" Gadgets interrupted.

"When we make it to the City of Dope, our continued existence might depend on Senor Coral. So be cool, all right? Until you know what you're talking about."

Gadgets stared at Lyons, and the Ironman turned away and looked out the window. The Wizard knew that something had been eating away at his friend's mind like a cancer since the beginning of the Coral bust. He knew of only one thing that could be driving the load of anger Lyons was carrying. Flor.

Coral continued quietly, without anger. "It is different here. It is not like North America. If you had walked with me through my life, through the lives of my people, you would know. Do not judge me until you know."

The intercom blared. "Mountains coming up. That's the River Mayo down there, if you want to check your map. Three or four minutes to the scene of the action."

Looking down, they saw brush and trash heaps smoking from a hundred fires. The jet passed over a highway and railroad. To the south, villages and small farms lined the banks of a muddy stream winding through rocky flood plains and tangles of cane. Cottonwood trees and cornfields identified the farms that had year-round water. But they left the green oases behind in only another minute of flight.

Their jet traveled over mesquite and cacti. Cattle paths and motorcycle tracks scarred the flatlands. The plane banked slightly to follow a dirt road into the foothills.

They saw the undulating folds of the dry mesquite-pocked hills. Beyond the hills, mountains rose against the horizon like an unforgiving wall of gray stone, range after range fading into the distance and glare.

"Here's where we are." Blancanales pointed out their approximate position on his chart.

"But where are we going?" Gadgets wondered out loud. "All I see is nadaland."

"I'll ask the driver," Lyons said, going to the pilot's cabin. He slid the door open. "You spot the action?"

"Not yet." Davis motioned Lyons to the copilot's seat. He took binoculars from a map compartment and passed them to Lyons. "Look for dust. This time of year, if a truck's on a road or they're using helicopters or planes, you can see the dust plumes from miles away."

With the high-powered optics, Lyons searched the wasteland. To the east, directly ahead, he saw rock and sand and desert brush, but no roads or farms. Several miles to the south, he saw a village — a patchwork of green cut by the straight khaki line of a dirt road.

Davis scanned the Mexican army radio frequencies. A burst of static indicated a distant transmission. A squawk answered. Davis fine-tuned the frequency and listened to the Spanish words.

"That could be them," Davis said.

"You going to radio for their location?" Lyons asked.

"Not if I can avoid it."

"Is this checkout secret?"

"Not really. But it might offend them if they thought..."

"They're spending U.S. taxpayer's money and you're worried about offending them?" Lyons challenged.

Davis laughed. "You're one guy who won't make friends and influence people in Mexico."

"We could be up here all day looking for them." Lyons pointed to the vast expanse of the desert and mountains. "If they are out here, and we miss them, you'll be taking back a report that could make for some problems. Unjust accusations and all that."

"You talked me into it." Davis took the transceiver microphone and spoke in Spanish, identifying himself and mentioning the magic initials, DEA.

A voice answered immediately, and Davis spoke with an operator. After a further few seconds of static, a man identifying himself as an officer came on the frequency. Davis talked with the officer, exchanging numbers and compass headings, then signed off.

"That's them. They're in trucks, busting a mule train loaded with opium. They want us to overfly and try to spot any other mules in the hills. It'll take a few minutes, then we'll be back on track to Culacan."

Following the coordinates, Davis veered to the northeast. Lyons kept the binoculars focused on the wasteland. He saw only eroded gullies and cattle tracks. There were no roads, no farms, nothing green but the mesquite.

After three or four more minutes, they spotted the OD trucks. Tire tracks led from the west.

Soldiers milled about in the mesquite trees and rock spurs. Tarps covered the cargo beds of the stake-sided trucks.

But Lyons saw no mules.

"You said they busted a mule train?" he asked Davis.

"Yeah, that's what he told me." Davis leaned to the compartment door and spoke to the others. "Take a look. Condor Group commandos down there. Searching the unmapped wilderness of the Sierra Madres for doper desperados."

Davis put the jet into a wide turn to circle the trucks. Lyons kept the binoculars on the soldiers. He saw a soldier snap back the cocking handle of an FN-FAL rifle. Suddenly the tarps on the backs of the trucks flew open.

"Get us out of here!" Lyons screamed. "It's an ambush!"

Davis recoiled from Lyons's shout in his ear. Lyons shoved the control yoke and the jet lurched. Something slammed the fuselage and then wind shrieked through the interior of the passenger cabin, sending papers swirling. Gadgets and Blancanales shouted to Lyons.

As Davis drove the plane into a hard turn, Lyons strained against the G-force to jam the binoculars to his eyes. He saw a flame streak from the back of a truck, then another, then another. His gut knotting, he recognized the launchers they shouldered. Soviet SAM-7 antiaircraft rockets.

* * *

Following the DEA jet through his field glasses, Lieutenant Colomo saw the flash of impact. His soldiers cheered, their rifle fire dying away as they saw the rocket slam into the plane of the gringo assassins. The sound of the exploding warhead came an instant later. Lieutenant Colomo kept his binoculars focused on the plane.

Bits of metal fell from the fuselage. Smoke came from the right engine, the line of black tracing the descent of the plane toward the mountains. The wings of the plane wobbled as the doomed pilot struggled for control. Only when the plane fell behind a distant ridgeline did the lieutenant lower his binoculars.

The radio man called out to him. "Colonel Gonzalez wants the coordinates. He has the helicopters ready."

Lieutenant Colomo ordered his soldiers to the trucks, and they scrambled up the bumpers to congratulate the men who had launched the rockets. He allowed them their few minutes of celebration as he spoke with the colonel on the secure-frequency radio. The radio had been provided by their Argentine advisors to prevent the monitoring of communications between units on "special assignments."

"Sir! The plane is down."

Through the coding and decoding circuits of the radio, the colonel's voice sounded electronic, inhuman. "What are the map coordinates?"

"I do not have the exact coordinates yet. The plane crashed in the mountains."

"Are they all dead?"

"I do not know. One missile hit the plane and it went down burning. I will report again when we locate the wreckage."

"I am dispatching the helicopters immediately. What was the compass heading of the crash from your location?"

Lieutenant Colomo plotted the direction on his map and gave his commander the bearing.

"Is there any possibility," Colonel Gonzalez asked, "of a crash landing? Are there landing strips in that area?"

"No, sir! They went into the mountains. There is no hope for them."

"And you saw no parachutes?"

"No, sir!"

"And no radio calls, no distress calls?"

"They had no time for that. One moment they were flying, and the next moment they fell from the sky. They died alone and lost. Perhaps they will never be found. Planes disappear in those mountains."

The colonel laughed, the sound electronic and strange. "We will find them. Or what remains of them. We will burn what is left and bury the ashes. Then they will truly be the lost, the disappeared."

7

Fuselage shuddering, an out-of-balance turbine disintegrating in a continuous screaming, shattering roar, the Lear lost altitude. Automatic alarms whined from the instrument panel. Davis struggled with the yoke in one hand while he threw switches in a desperate effort to somehow compensate and maintain control for a few more seconds. The sky disappeared, a rocky mountainside loomed ahead. Lyons turned in the copilot's seat to shout back to his partners, "Strap yourselves in! We're going down!"

"No shit!" Gadgets shouted back. "Glad you told me! Put out a Mayday! A Mayday!"

As Lyons fastened his own safety harness, the disintegrating turbine died. The drone of the other engine continued, but with the damaged engine shut down, the plane seemed suddenly quiet. Lyons heard wind rushing through the plane. He felt the descent slow.

"Where's the radio?"

Davis didn't answer, didn't take his eyes from the desert and mountains. The mountainside went horizontal as Davis managed to bank the jet through a slow left turn. He jerked an emergency lever and leaned against the windshield to look back. Lyons looked back and saw jet fuel stream from a wing, the fuel instantly becoming a mist, then vaporizing.

Flipping a switch, Davis jerked the microphone from the instrument panel and passed it to Lyons.

"Just say 'Mayday, one hundred miles east of Obregon.' Keep repeating until we hit."

The plane maintained a slow controlled descent parallel to the mountain. They flashed over a ridge-line and Lyons saw the mountain curving away into the distance. Ahead lay a wide, flat plateau covered with mesquite and yucca and dry brush.

But beyond the plateau a range of cliffs and steep mountainsides walled the horizon. The plane did not have the power to gain altitude. They had only a few more seconds of flight.

Lyons chanted into the microphone, "Mayday, one hundred miles east of Obregon. DEA plane going down one hundred miles east of Obregon. We were hit by rockets fired by the Mexican army. One hundred miles east of Obregon. Repeat, we were shot down by Mexican army. Repeat, Mexican army."

In a gorge below, centuries of flash floods raging down from the mountains had formed an alluvial fan of sand and tangled brush. Davis eased the yoke slightly to his left, aiming the nose of the jet for a flat expanse of sand. To the right, a gully cut straight down from the gorge to the desert floor.

"This is it!"

"DEA plane going down one hundred miles east of Obregon. Shot down by Mexican army using SAM-7 missiles. We're going down..."

Davis reversed the power of the remaining engine, jamming the throttle past maximum. The plane lurched and shuddered with the deceleration. The sand and mesquite of the alluvial flat became a blur.

Metal shrieked. Lyons saw mesquite branches flashing past the nose of the jet at a hundred miles an hour and then he pulled his legs up and shielded his head in his arms. The plane jumped and slammed over the flat for an eternity of noise and shocks.

Finally it ground to a halt. Silence.

"Move it!" Davis shouted. "Get everyone out. We've still got fuel in the tanks. Get out!"

Lyons saw swirling dust beyond the spider-webbed windshield. He took a deep calming breath and checked himself for injuries. No blood, no broken bones. His joints moved. He found hair and bits of bloody skin under his fingernails. His own.

Davis crowded past him. Lyons unbuckled his straps and followed the pilot into the passenger cabin. Davis leaned over Gadgets and helped him with his seat belt. The Able Team communications and high-tech specialist had blood on his face.

"I'm okay, I can do it. Why didn't you radio those army guys that we were good guys?"

"He did," Lyons told his partner. "They knew this was an American DEA plane. They were waiting with SAM-7s. It was an ambush."

"What a world. Where's my gear?"

"Don't worry about it!" Davis shoved him toward the door. "Get out of this plane before it burns."

"Don't panic!" Gadgets said, trying to calm the pilot. "You did great. You're an ace. We lived through it. Now get all the gear out."

Blancanales and Coral struggled with the door release. Blancanales jerked the handle around, then Coral kicked the door until it swung open. Dust swirled into the cabin. Coral stepped out.

"No hay fuego!" the Mexican called in to Blancanales. "Alli esta la gasolina pero no prende."

"Bring everything to me," Blancanales called out to his partners. He passed one of the shipping cases to Coral outside. "Pilot. You go out there. Help Miguel get the equipment away from the plane."

Working together, Able Team emptied the plane of their gear in less than a minute. Davis shouted from outside, "The wing's leaking fuel! Get out of there! You could burn any second!"

Gadgets, his face caked with blood and dust, slipped on his aviator-style sunglasses and stepped out into the desert brilliance. He snapped a salute to Davis.

"Be cool, Mr. Wizard's on the scene."

Blancanales, then Lyons followed their partner out. They ran with their cases through the tangles of mesquite and desert weeds. Stepping into the gully, they slid down the sand walls and assembled at the bottom.

"Shot down by the damn Mexican army!" Lyons cursed. The ex-cop turned to Miguel Coral. "Pardon me for what I said to you. I think I just got my first lesson in Mexican reality."

"Shades of gray," Blancanales told Lyons. Then he spoke with Coral in Spanish.

Gadgets joked with Davis. "See, man? In moments of crisis, you got to keep your cool. Did you see any smoke? Did you see any fire? Save your adrenaline for when things get serious."

"Serious? Those wings've got two-hundred-plus gallons of jet fuel in their tanks. One short, one spark and it could've been instant cremation."

"Pol, you got that map?" Lyons asked, cutting the argument. "Looks like it's time to hike."

"With all that crap?" Davis pointed to the shipping cases they sat on. "You won't get a mile. While you're dragging your precious luggage through the desert, those Mexicans will be looking for the plane. And all we've got to defend ourselves with is my .38."

Gadgets exchanged glances with his partners. Lyons gave a quick cynical laugh. Blancanales pulled the wadded navigation chart from his sports coat. As Coral and the ex-Green Beret searched for the correct sector of the chart, Blancanales suggested, "Give our pilot friend a demonstration."

"Observe, my friend, and you will learn the way of the Wizard."

Throwing open the lid of the trunk, Gadgets revealed several plastic boxes. He took out box after box, stacking them on the gravel of the dry stream-bed. A step away, Lyons emptied his trunk. Through the thin translucent plastic, the pilot saw tools and equipment in some boxes, cartridge magazines in another, clothing in one. Stenciled words identified the contents: Electronic, Survival, 5.56MM/9MM/EXP, Armr, Socks and Underwear, Money, Junk Food. The last box had a red cross and First Aid stenciled on the lid.

Gadgets pushed up the sleeves of his bloody sports coat and showed the pilot his empty hands. Then he reached to the bottom of the trunk. He pulled out an OD internal-frame backpack, complete with shoulder and hip straps, compression straps and Velcro seals. Gadgets zipped open the compartments. He pulled out green-and-black splotched camo fatigues. Then he slipped the plastic boxes inside the pack. Each plastic box fit perfectly.

"I mean, do we got our act together? El perfecto..." He pointed to his OD pack and his green-and-black camo suit. "Except that I've got the wrong color camouflage."

To the side, Lyons stripped off his sports coat, shoulder-holstered Colt Python and white shirt. He threw the street clothes into the empty trunk and put on a black long-sleeved fatigue shirt and black fatigue pants. He slipped into the shoulder holster and pulled the strap tight. He left on his gray slacks but changed from his neoprene-soled street shoes into black canvas-and-nylon boots. Like his clothes and boots, he also preferred black nylon for his backpack.

Then they opened their "guitar cases." Lyons strapped on a black web belt and a bandolier. He took out his Atchisson full-auto assault shotgun. He checked the weapon, then snapped in a magazine. An extra barrel for the Atchisson — a fourteen-inch "urban environment" barrel — and a Colt Government Model .45 automatic disappeared into the backpack.

From his case, Gadgets took almost identical web gear, but his belt carried a Beretta 93-R fitted with a silencer. He slung a Colt Automatic Rifle, with a short barrel and telescoping stock over his shoulder.

"Presto chango!" Gadgets exclaimed. "Convertible luggage for convertible dudes. From businessmen to hardcore tourists. Let those Mexicans come. They find us, it's their problem."

Davis stared. "What exactly were you going to do in Culiacan?"

"It's not whatwe were going to do," Lyons said laughing. "It's whowe were going to do."

Gadgets laughed also. "We always carry this, maybe more. Boy Scout motto..." Gadgets looked to Lyons.

They spoke simultaneously, "Always be prepared."

Blancanales pointed to a position on the map. "We're here. The Mexicans are between us and the nearest road back to the coast. Senor Coral suggests we walk to here..." He pointed to a line cutting through the mountains. "That's the Chihuahua al Pacifico. We'll walk there, then ride the train down to Los Mochis."

"How far?"

"A day. Two days."

Lyons shook his head. "Forget it. I only packed a liter of water. Let's kill those soldiers and take a truck."

"It's a one-day walk the other way," Blancanales countered. "And if we don't get a truck, we'll be walking through their territory. If we take the train back, our return will be a complete surprise."

"All right, we take the long walk. Time to move." Lyons glanced at his watch. "We've been on the ground seven minutes. We burn the jet?"

"Why?" Davis asked. "There's a chance it can be salvaged."

"That plane's a wreck. And when the Mexicans get here, they'll know we got out. I want to throw all this luggage..." he pointed to the empty shipping trunks and the guitar cases "...inside the plane and torch it."

"What a waste," Davis said, shaking his head.

"Waste or be wasted," Lyons told him.

Blancanales emptied his equipment cases. As he assembled his gear, Lyons returned to the shattered Lear. The area stank of spilled jet fuel. He threw the cases inside, one by one.

With Gadgets's blood-ruined sports coat, Lyons ran a few hundred meters from the plane. He dropped the bloody coat on the sand. He ran another hundred meters to a gully where insects buzzed around a stagnant pool of water seeping out of the sandbanks. Sliding down the side of the gully, Lyons ran downstream, through swarms of horseflies and turquoise-blue dragonflies. A hundred meters to the south, he scrambled up a rock slope.

He broke off a mesquite branch and swept away his bootprints as he returned to the plane. When he neared the wreck, he walked backward. The Mexicans would find two different false tracks leading away from the plane. Then he swept away his tracks to and from the gully where the others waited.

"Wizard!" Lyons called out as he slid down the embankment.

Gadgets Schwarz braced his CAR on the lip of the gully. "Ready?"

"Light it," Lyons barked.

The CAR popped once in the emptiness of the high desert. A rifle flare arced across the hundred meters of sand and mesquite, the magnesium charge an intense white for an instant. Then the fuel flashed and a ball of flame churned into the sky.

Leaving the column of flame and black acrid smoke behind, the survivors marched north, following the gully through the alluvial fan. A kilometer ahead, the sheer volcanic stone walls of the gorge towered above the desert.

* * *

From the mountains, three men watched the strangers and the burning jet. They sprawled in the rocks and windblown sand of a ridgeline. Their clothes matched the dust: simple hand-sewn cotton pants and shirts, colored first with dye, then stained again every day with sweat and dust and sometimes blood. They also wore boots taken from the Mexican army. Rags had been wrapped around the soles and secured with strings.

All of the young men carried rifles. Two wore Mexican army-issue M-16 rifles slung over their backs. The third carried an antique Springfield 1903-A3 bolt-action rifle with a stock carved from wood.

The young men had skin the color of the old rifle's stock, dark like rich walnut or mahogany. Their dark hair fell to their collars. Knives had cut their hair square at their shoulders.

The man with the Springfield watched the foreigners through Mexican army-issue binoculars. The other two waited for his instructions.

A rotor throb came from the south, distant and faint, heard, then gone, then heard again. The men searched the horizon for the helicopters. One man shielded his eyes from the glare and stared into the distance. He pointed.

Raising the binoculars, the third man found two OD Bell UD-1D military helicopters. The three young men watched for the next few minutes as the helicopters circled the burning jet.

One helicopter landed on the sandy flat while the other continued circling overhead. Like shadows in a storm of rotor-thrown dust, a skirmish line of soldiers in the green uniforms of the Mexican army searched the alluvial fan for survivors of the crash.

A soldier signaled to an officer. The officer and a radioman went to where the soldier stood. The three Mexicans thrashed through the mesquite to the gully cutting through the alluvial fan.

Above the search group, the command helicopter broke off its orbit of the wreck. The helicopter spiraled down to an altitude of a hundred meters from the desert, then followed the streambed south, in the direction of the road to the Pacific coast.

The Mexican soldiers re-formed into a skirmish line and swept south through the mesquite. In a rotor storm of sand, the second helicopter lifted away from the crash site and took a slow, hovering course parallel to the streambed.

The command helicopter flew to the south, the direction from which it had come, as if returning to base.

On the high ridgeline, the three young men watched the search. The watcher with the binoculars looked down to the base of the mountain. Through the high-powered optics, he saw the five foreigners, three in fatigues and carrying weapons, quick-marching to the north.

The watcher lost sight of the foreigners when they gained the concealment of the shadows and rocks of the gorge.

"Brujo, mira aquello," one of the young men said, pointing to the southwest.

El Brujo, the young man with the old Springfield rifle and the binoculars, scanned the horizon. He saw the speck of the command helicopter returning. But the helicopter came by a circuitous route, staying far in the distance. From time to time, El Brujo lost sight of the helicopter behind the mountains, but he continued to track the helicopter as it completed a half circle around the plateau where the private jet had crashed.

Finally, the helicopter disappeared into the mountain ranges in the north.

The young man the others called El Brujo returned his binoculars to their case. He issued quick instructions to one of the others. The young man nodded. He cinched the sling of his M-16 tight, then ran north along the ridgeline, his rag-wrapped feet kicking up puffs of dust as he ran, but leaving no tracks.

El Brujo and the other young man took a trail leading down the mountainside. For the next hour, on trails and ledges several hundred meters above the rocky riverbed of the gorge, they paralleled the foreigners who were attempting to escape into the mountains.

8

As the pilot held the Huey troopship in a hover, Mexican soldiers stepped down to therocks of a mountain ridgeline. The NCO leading the ambush squad turned and saluted Colonel Gonzalez. The colonel returned the salute, then the helicopter sideslipped away and descended into the canyon. The helicopter stayed low in the canyon, the pilot weaving the million-dollar ship between the cliffs and mountainsides, using the topography to conceal its rotor throb from the North Americans somewhere in the mountains.

Sergeant Mendoza called his men together, and briefed them quickly, touching the map to indicate the location of the gorge.

At the site of the wreck the searchers had found the false tracks leading south. Colonel Gonzalez believed the North American drug agents who survived the wreck had fled north, into the mountain gorge. The colonel's helicopter had placed Sergeant Mendoza and his squad more than ten kilometers north of the crash site. Now, only a mountain ridge and a march of a few kilometers separated the soldiers from the North Americans.

"We think four escaped the crash and ran into the mountains. Some are bleeding. The colonel will send the other squad into the gorge. The gringos will run from them..."

His blunt calloused finger traced the path. The squad would go uphill to the first ridge, proceed north to a second, then travel east along a third. "We will take positions here, above them, and kill them. Or force them to surrender to the others. It should all be over before nightfall."

He led his men west up to the first ridge. They grunted against the weight of the weapons and munitions they carried. In addition to their heavy FN-FAL folding-stock paratroop rifles and two hundred rounds of 7.62mm cartridges in magazines, each man carried rifle grenades and mortar rounds. The mortar crew, burdened with the components of the 81mm mortar, carried lightweight Uzi submachine guns. Every soldier carried four one-liter canteens of water.

At the mountain ridge, as the soldiers caught their breath, their rasping throats and coughs loud in the silence of the mountains, Sergeant Mendoza surveyed the terrain.

To the south, he saw the foothills and desert. A smear of gray smudged the sky, but smoke no longer rose from the crash site. To the other points of the compass, Mendoza saw only the Sierra Madres, the thousands of canyons and ridgelines and peaks continuing into the distance.

With his binoculars he searched the mountainsides for signs of Indian bandits. His brigade had lost men in these mountains before. Though soldiers with dogs searched for the lost squads, they never found the missing men. The dogs found the scent of blood and a few cartridge casings buried in the sand, but nothing else.

Legends told of Indians who still fought in the Sierra Madres. Sergeant Mendoza searched every rock and shadow and form of the mountains, focusing his binoculars on scrub brush and wind-gnarled trees. He did not want his death to contribute to the legends.

The sergeant ordered his squad to move. Leading the way, he followed the ridge to the north, his men behind him groaning and complaining about the weight of their weapons. Automatically his eyes searched the sand for signs of Indian bandits.

Mendoza consulted his map at every turn of the ridgeline. Prepared from satellite photos, the topographical map had been provided to the Condor Group by the DEA for use in operations against the opium farmers.

In the recent months, Mendoza had used the map to find and force the cooperation of the farmers in the mountains. Now he used it to find and kill American DEA officers.

The squad followed the ridgeline, slipping and scrambling across the steep slope until they came to a sheer drop. Hundreds of meters of void separated the squad from the opposite mountain. A hawk floated in the updrafts, watching the canyon and mountainsides for prey.

Mendoza crawled to the edge and looked down into the cleft between the mountains. Two hundred meters below, stagnant water pooled in the sand of the streambed. A thin stream snaked around slabs of fallen stone. Twisted cottonwood and mesquite trees grew from the walls of the gorge, but at the bottom, where countless flash floods had scoured the stones, only brush and grasses would provide cover for the Americans.

He scrambled up to the knob of stone where the ridge ended. From there, he looked down into a section of the gorge.

Perfect. Here, his riflemen and mortar crew would command the entire canyon. Without cover the Americans could not pass him. They would be trapped between his squad and the squad pursuing them.

Between death and death.

* * *

Able Team maintained a quick pace north. In the streambed at the bottom of the gorge, they walked in cool early-morning shadow. Above them, the intense sunlight burned white on the cliffs and near-vertical mountainsides. They constantly scanned the slash of sky overhead for helicopters, but none appeared. They heard no rotor throb.

Midges and blue-bodied dragonflies buzzed around them as they walked. When they stepped through the stagnant pools, every splash of their boots raised swarms of tiny flies. Ropes of moss alive with flies clung to their boots.

Davis and Coral, walking in street shoes, kept up with Able Team. Blancanales carried Coral's overnight bag on his backpack. Though both the DEA pilot and the Mexican gang soldier maintained the pace, they did not have the boots and physical conditioning necessary for comfortable long-distance hiking.

Lyons called a stop. "Let's tape their feet. Otherwise, they won't last the day. And we've got distance to make."

"Right," Blancanales agreed. "You go on ahead, Carl, and scout the terrain. Wizard, watch our back."

Davis sat on a rock and pulled off his shoes. He wore thin nylon dress socks. "Got an extra pair of socks? I didn't come prepared for a forced march."

"Sure." Blancanales found heavy socks and a roll of OD adhesive tape in the compartments of his backpack. "Got to keep you two moving. A platoon's only as fast as the slowest man."

"When I was a boy," Coral said, surveying the cliffs and peaks above them, "I hunted deer in these mountains with my grandfather. These mountains are a world without end. When we are in the mountains, there will be no problem from the soldiers. They will never find us."

A hundred meters ahead of the others, Lyons scanned the ridgelines. A point of light flashed, sunlight reflecting from glass on a rocky peak overlooking the canyon. Lyons backed into a dark crevice between two fallen slabs of rock. The dark rock and shadows concealed his gray uniform and black gear. He raised his binoculars.

The extreme distance defeated the optics. He could see only the crags and the windswept mountainside. Gnarled brush clung to the slopes, splotches of green against the rocks and sand.

Lyons eased himself into a comfortable slouch against the slabs and braced his elbows. He held the field of view on the ridgeline, where the ragged edge of the rock outcrops met the pure blue of the sky. Relaxing, he held his eyes still, almost unfocused, letting his eyes see everything at once.

One of the rocks moved.

He watched that one spot. The rock moved again. Then from the side, sunlight flashed again. Lyons shifted the field of view. A point of white light flashed, then disappeared as an observer lifted, then lowered binoculars.

His hand radio buzzed. Lyons maintained his watch of the ridge while Blancanales and Gadgets talked.

"We've got soldiers on our back," Gadgets said.

"How many?" the Politician asked.

"I've seen two. Pointmen, one man on each side of the gulch. Wait a minute. There's another man... Looks like we got a platoon tracking us."

"They see you?"

"No."

"Davis and Miguel are ready to go. We'll try to outrun the Mexicans."

Keying his hand radio, Lyons interrupted the others. "Negative. We've got a lookout ahead."

"What?" Gadgets asked. "In front of us?"

"That's what I said, Wiz. I've seen movement and reflections from binoculars."

"What's the distance?" Blancanales asked.

"Extreme. Maybe a half mile away, and three or four hundred feet above us. They're up on a ridge-line overlooking the canyon. I say we ambush the ones behind us, then leapfrog up the canyon."

"Through the lookout's field of fire?" Blancanales asked.

"Only chance we've got to get out..."

Gadgets interrupted them with a whispered warning. "Dudes! Make up your minds. Those Mexicans are only a hundred yards away."

Blancanales spoke calmly. "Could they be a rescue party? Searching for survivors?"

"Yeah, that's it," Gadgets snapped back. "You got it. First they shoot us down, and when we survive, they try to find us. Problem is, when they find us, we ain't going to be survivors. You got thirty seconds to get back here, Pol."

"On my way. Ironman, I'm sending Davis and Miguel forward."

"Hit those Mexicans and leapfrog retreat," Lyons answered. "Try to capture some rifles and ammunition."

Lyons changed his position, working his way through a maze of chest-high blocks of rock that had fallen from the sheer wall of the gorge. When he came to the canyon wall, Lyons crabbed up a ledge until he found a position concealed by mesquite from which he could fire into the streambed.

A minute later, he saw Davis and Miguel Coral jog up from the south. They glanced around, looking for Lyons. He hissed to them, catching their attention, and pointed to the ridgeline where he had seen the light-flashes. They nodded, and took cover in the rock maze.

Lyons waited, monitoring his partners through his hand radio, listening for the firefight.

* * *

Blancanales crept back through the rocks and stagnant pools. He saw Gadgets concealed in the crevice of a multiton flake of stone, watching the approaching Mexicans through a tangle of mesquite. Before continuing, Blancanales whispered into his hand radio, "Where are they?"

Two clicks, a pause, then two clicks answered, the signal that the enemy was too close for Gadgets to speak.

"You got your earphone in?"

Two clicks, yes.

"I'll take cover here. Let the pointmen pass you. We need their weapons and gear. Understand?"

Two clicks, yes.

Crouching in the shadowed crevice, Gadgets slipped out his silenced Beretta 93-R. Representing the cutting edge of Beretta technology, the Parkerized black autopistol featured semiauto or 3-shot bursts. An oversized trigger guard and a fold-down grip provided for a two-handed hold. Fitted with a sound suppressor and firing custom-loaded 9mm cartridges with steel-cored slugs for enhanced penetration, it killed without a sound. A positive safety allowed the single-action pistol to be carried cocked and locked.

Gadgets folded down the Beretta's left-hand grip. He eased the fire-selector to the one-shot mode.

He heard the Mexican before he saw him. Rocks turned under a boot. Water sloshed inside a canteen. Then boots squeaked through the streambed's sand. The Mexican soldier passed, his head swiveling to the right and left, scanning the rocks for movement. He looked directly at Gadgets, and Gadgets put a slug between his eyes, then a 3-round burst into his heart as he fell back.

There had only been the sound of the pistol's slide functioning and the four slaps of the slugs hitting flesh.

Nothing moved. Gadgets listened as the insects continued buzzing around the stagnant pools of the streambed. Holding the autopistol ready, he raised the hand radio to his lips. "I hit the first one," he whispered. "Where's the other pointman?"

Blancanales answered in a whisper. "He's coming up on the other side of the canyon. About twenty yards back."

"What's the line of sight? Can you pull the dead one into cover?"

"Doing it."

Gadgets watched Blancanales snake from cover. He grabbed the dead soldier's M-16 rifle, checking the safety. Then, slinging the M-16 over his shoulder, he grabbed the collar of the Mexican soldier and dragged him back. The dead man's gear clanked on the rocks.

A burst of a thousand-meter-per-second slugs screamed through the silence, the full-auto muzzle reports coming an instant later as impacting full-jacketed slugs exploded on the rocks around Blancanales. A last jerk pulled the dead man behind cover. The autofire continued.

Boots splashed through the stream. The second soldier changed magazines on the run and sprayed M-16 fire at the rocks concealing Blancanales.

A burst of silent 9mm staggered the Mexican, the three steel-cored bullets punching through the back of his head. He died before he fell.

"Strip them!" Gadgets shouted. He set the Beretta's safety and holstered the weapon, then unslung his CAR and peered through the mesquite for targets.

A soldier appeared a hundred meters downstream. He held an FN-FAL rifle with a grenade fitted to the muzzle. Gadgets set his CAR's fire-selector to semi-auto and sighted on the soldier's face. As the soldier aimed the rifle-grenade, Gadgets squeezed off his shot.

The grenade went wild as the dead man fell back. An explosion against a cliff face sprayed stone and shrapnel into the air.

Autorifles hammered. Slugs and ricochets zipped through the canyon as the soldiers reconned by fire. Gadgets saw an officer with a radioman advancing to the front, dashing from cover to cover as the soldiers kept up the fire.

A 3-round burst from Gadgets's CAR spun the officer. Gadgets snapped off a second burst as the radioman dived for cover. The autofire slowed as several riflemen went to the aid of their dead or dying leader.

"Wizard!" Blancanales called out. "Ready?"

Gadgets ran to his partner. Slugs tore through the air and whined off rocks as the unaimed fire continued.

The dead Mexicans lay in the sand, stripped of their weapons, web gear and boots. Blancanales had strapped on a bandolier and Mexican web gear. A pair of boots hung around his neck. He wore two soft-brimmed OD hats, one on top of the other. He passed other equipment to Gadgets.

"You work fast."

Blancanales nodded. He put one of the hats on Gadgets. "Off-load the rifles and gear with the others. I'll fall back and slow them down."

"I'll be back."

Blancanales shifted position. He didn't chance crossing to the opposite side of the canyon. Instead he watched for movement, and when he saw none, crawled and sprinted upstream. The volume of fire continued. A rifle grenade blasted the rocks where Gadgets had crouched.

Ahead, he saw Gadgets carrying the captured weapons and gear to the others. Blancanales scrambled up a rockfall and took cover behind a slab of stone. He loaded a high-explosive shell into his M-16/M-203 over-and-under assault rifle/grenade launcher. He set the M-203's sights at a hundred meters and waited.

The Mexicans advanced. Blancanales held his fire. The Mexicans killed brush and shadows with bursts of autofire. Rifle grenades maimed mesquite. He saw a soldier rush from rock to rock. The soldier found the bodies of the pointmen. He called out to the platoon. Other soldiers crowded around the dead men. They turned over a body.

A blast threw the men back. Blancanales had pulled the pin from one of the pointmen's grenades, slipped the grenade under a dead man's shirt, then lowered the corpse to hold down the grenade's safety lever.

Screams came from the wounded. Men shouted desperately for help. Blancanales waited until several soldiers of the platoon went to the aid of the wounded.

The 40mm grenade hit the rock behind the group, ripping the men with hundreds of steel fragments. Riflemen fired at Blancanales as their comrades screamed in agony. The flesh-shredder had done its grisly work.

Blancanales slid down the rockfall and dodged from cover to cover to rejoin the others.

* * *

Lyons saw Gadgets pass below him. Gadgets crouched with Davis and Coral in the rock maze and passed the captured rifles and equipment to them. Coral slung the boots over his neck to try on later. Then Lyons turned to the action downstream. He had heard the flat clang of the 40mm launcher, then the pop of the grenade. Now he saw Blancanales retreating upstream. Lyons waited.

Fewer rifles fired. His partners had killed or wounded several of the platoon pursuing them. Now the Mexicans feared advancing. If Able Team and the DEA man and the Mexican gunslinger-turned-guide could keep the pace, they could leave their pursuers far behind.

A high-pitched whistle shrieked in the sky. Shock slammed Lyons's ears as an explosion across the canyon threw stone and steel shrapnel through the air.

In the moment of ringing silence after the blast, Lyons heard a distant pop. Then slugs ripped through the air, sparking off the flat slabs, slapping into the wet sand of the streambed. But Lyons did not hear the firing of rifles.

Another blast sent shrapnel and stone tearing through the narrow gorge. Blancanales shouted to him, "Get down! Mortars!"

9

"We're taking fire from there!" Lyons shouted to the others in the maze of rock slabs below him. He pointed to the distant ridge overlooking the canyon.

Blancanales and Gadgets looked in different directions, Blancanales to the west side of the canyon, Gadgets to the east. Another mortar round whistled down, the explosion spraying mud and putrid moss. The air of the narrow canyon stank of TNT and decay.

High-velocity bullets ripped through the air and sang from the rocks. Still another mortar round howled its approach. An instant later, an explosion sent thousands of steel fragments rocketing through the gorge looking for flesh. Shrapnel laced the sides of the canyon. Sand and rocks fell.

Lyons looked downstream. A hundred meters to the south, a Mexican soldier with an FN-FAL rifle scrambled up a steep mountainside to gain height. Aiming above the soldier, Lyons squeezed off one blast, then a second, then a third from his assault shotgun. Steel shot threw dust around the soldier, he stumbled, but he recovered and struggled to gain cover.

The distance had defeated the Ironman's Atchisson. He jerked the magazine out of his autoshotgun and jammed in a magazine of one-ounce slugs. He flipped up the slug sight and aimed at the Mexican. Lyons waited until he had a full-length target, then aimed above the soldier's head to compensate for the distance and squeezed the trigger.

Blood sprayed the rocks as the soldier's body exploded. The dead man slid down, his opened chest leaving a smear of gore on the canyon wall.

Blancanales crawled through the network of spaces and passages of the broken slabs of rock to where he could look up to the ridge over five hundred meters away. From that height, more than two hundred meters above the streambed, the mortar and heavy-caliber rifles on the ridge could fire on Able Team without exposing themselves to return fire.

Blancanales knew firing back would be pointless, even if he saw a target. His M-16/M-203 hybrid and Gadgets's CAR both had the enhanced ballistics of the newest 5.56mm NATO round and the SS-109, and the M-16A3 quick-twist rifling. The combination of the 65-grain SS-109 slug and l-in-7 twist barrels gave their rifles improved accuracy compared to standard M-16A1 or M-16A2 rifles, but five hundred meters was a formidable distance. Blancanales decided to save his ammunition for the soldiers only a hundred meters away. He crouched down to wait.

Lyons scanned the streambed and slopes of the gorge. He saw Mexican soldiers maneuvering for position. Another rifleman, more than two hundred meters away, climbed through slabs of rock to gain a sniping position. High on the wall of the gorge, the soldier would aim down at Lyons and his partners. Lyons didn't even point his Atchisson at the man.

"I need a rifle!" Lyons shouted to the others.

A mortar blast ripped the air, sending up a steel spray of death. Slugs rained down without a pause. Retreat meant attacking the army platoon, but without the advantage of surprise. Continuing to the north meant braving high explosives and the rain of high-velocity slugs.

"I need a skyhook!" Gadgets shouted back.

Rifle grenades came from the Mexican platoon. One exploded on the rock slabs. A second and a third plopped into the streambed. Green filth and mud sprayed Gadgets. Coughing and retching at the stink, he scrambled away, crawling into the shelter of the rock maze.

He found Davis crouched there. Wearing Mexican web gear and a floppy OD hat, he gripped a captured M-16. A pair of Mexican boots, tied together by the laces, hung around his neck. He greeted Gadgets with a left-handed salute.

"How's your cool, Mr. Wizard? Is it okay to panic now?"

"Not yet, man. Save it for later."

"I don't care what you say. This is a bad situation! What the fuck are we going to do?"

"You got it, this situation stinks."

A mortar explosion threw rocks and mud over them. Waves of nauseating odor came from the ooze.

"We could definitely get killed by this stink." Gadgets tapped the boots hanging around Davis's neck. "Try those on. That's what you do. When we break out of here, it won't be no jog in the park."

"Pass me a rifle!" Lyons shouted from his position above them.

Slugs danced forward from the Mexican platoon. Riflemen aimed at Lyons's voice, pocking the rocks shielding him with 7.62mm NATO. Gadgets took the floppy hat from Davis and raised it on the end of a stick.

A high-velocity slug perforated the hat.

Gadgets shouted up to Lyons, "You want a rifle, come get it."

Lyons slid down the slope. A rifle grenade arced into his position of an instant before and exploded in a blast of steel and chopped mesquite. A churning ball of dust hid Lyons for a few seconds as he gained cover in the rocks. He crawled to Gadgets.

"We've got to get out of here."

"Yeah, it's cool and shady but I guess we gotta get moving. You got a smoke canister?"

"One orange."

Gadgets keyed his hand radio. "Pol, you got smoke grenades?"

"One yellow. Found a white phosphorous on the Mexicans."

"All the colors! I've got a red smoke, Lyons has an orange one. This retreat's gonna be psychedelic! Those boots fit Miguel?"

"He's got them on," Lyons said.

"All right. The mortar and the rifles on the mountain are too far away to really zero down on us. It's that gang behind us that's dangerous. I say we lay down some smoke and exit north."

A high-velocity slug, coming down from the distant ridgeline, impacted only inches from Gadgets's hand. Sand sprayed the hand radio. He casually turned the radio over to dump off the sand before keying the transmit button again.

"What do you say?"

"There's nothing else," Blancanales answered.

In front of Gadgets, Lyons nodded. He pulled off his backpack and found his one smoke grenade. Gadgets turned to Davis.

"The boots fit?" he asked.

"Too small. Maybe they'll fit if I cut the leather."

"Forget it. We'll look for a Mexican with bigger feet. It's time to move."

"Where? How can we goddamn well move anywhere? They'll blow us to pieces."

"Be cool, man. We've got a chance. Could be a lot worse. What the hell! That's a helicopter!"

Rotor throb increased in intensity. The mortar rounds stopped as a Huey troopship descended into the canyon. A gunner at the door pointed an M-60 machine gun. The muzzle flashed and the slugs exploded in lines across the slabs of stone sheltering them.

"Panic time!" Gadgets shouted to Davis. He keyed his hand radio. "Get ready to pop the grenades. Buzz me back when you're ready to run for it."

Wedging his body against a rock, Lyons looked over to Gadgets. "What do you think?"

Slugs poured down on the streambed from the rifles on the ridge, from the helicopter's gunner, from the riflemen pursuing them. Gadgets forced a smile.

"Maybe they'll run out of ammunition," he said.

The rotor throb changed. They looked up to see glittering sheets of Plexiglas falling through space. The helicopter spun in the air, out of control for an instant, the machine-gun fire punching a line of slugs across the canyon wall, then the pilot regained control and took the troopship straight up.

The rip-shriek sound of a high-velocity, heavy-caliber slug pierced the air. The noise came from above them, crossing the canyon from the southeast to the northwest. A rifle's report carried to them. They heard another velocity shriek. Then another and another.

"What the hell's going on?" Gadgets wondered aloud.

Lyons watched the ridge through his binoculars.

In the gorge, the Mexican army platoon resumed its autofire and aimed rifle fire. But no rifle fire came down from the ridge.

Through the binoculars, Lyons saw specks scrambling along the ridge. Then he saw something else, on the ridge but in a different place.

A mirror flashed. In code.

"Wizard, up there on the ridge." Lyons passed the binoculars to Gadgets. "There's a signal mirror."

"It's Morse," Schwarz declared. "It's saying... esperen... alli... nosotros... los... ayudaremos. Hey, we've got friends up there. They're telling us to lay cool."

Lyons laughed. "I'm cool, you're cool. It's those Mexicans who're..."

High-velocity slugs whined over them. A barrage of rifle grenades fell in a continuous roar of explosions. Then a storm of M-16 fire ripped the area, the Mexicans firing out their magazines in continuous full-auto.

"Here they come!" Davis shouted.

The Mexicans rushed.

* * *

On the high ridge above the canyon, Sergeant Mendoza watched the helicopter break off the attack. He signaled to his mortar crew to resume fire, and the riflemen continued blasting the North Americans in the canyon.

Mendoza turned to his radioman. He switched the radio to the helicopter's frequency and took the handset. Behind him, a man shouted.

A soldier rolled down the slope. The sergeant saw the two remaining men of the mortar crew staring wide-eyed at the falling man.

The firing of the other men died away. They all turned to watch the soldier as he came to a flopping stop in the rocks. He did not move. No one spoke. The firefight continued in the canyon below them, distance reducing the reports of the rifles and the explosions of the grenades to pops and sputters.

In the near-silence, the shriek of a heavy-caliber bullet and unnerving slap of the bullet hitting flesh startled the squad. Blood misted in the air as another soldier flew backward from the mortar. He spun and hit the rocks face first. Blood fountained from a hole in his back. Gasping, vomiting blood, the soldier tried to stand. He rolled to the side and sat up. His eyes stared around him. Then he fell back, dead.

Scrambling through the rocks, the squad took cover. Ordering two men to take the places of the dead men at the mortar, Mendoza lifted the handset to hear the pilot of the helicopter calling.

"Sergeant! Sergeant Mendoza..."

The handset was ripped from his hand as the radioman fell backward. Pieces of metal and plastic tinkled on the stones as radio components rained down. A bullet had killed the radioman, then exited through his back to shatter the circuitry of the radio into a thousand pieces.

A man shouted to the other soldiers, and frantically pointed across the canyon to the far mountain. The sergeant raised his field glasses and scanned the mountainsides.

He saw only mesquite and dust and rocks. Nothing moved. Then a semicircle of dust suddenly stirred.

An instant later, a bullet shrieked into the ridge and exploded in the rocks. A man screamed. A near-miss had ricocheted from the rock protecting him, and the smashed, misshapen slug entered his shoulder and erupted through his knee. Two soldiers dragged him below the edge of the ridge and attempted to stop the gushing blood. One glance told Mendoza the man had no hope.

The squad abandoned the ridge and scrambled to the safety of the mountainside, leaving the mortar in place, the 81mm rounds piled on a plastic tarp.

Sergeant Mendoza unslung his FN-FAL para-rifle and swung out the metal-tubing stock. Laying low on the ridge, he braced the long-range kill machine and sighted on the dust thrown up by the rifle on the opposite mountainside.

But in the glare, he could not see the dust. He raised his field glasses to locate the sniper. A bullet exploded against the rocks a step away as the sniper searched for targets.

Squinting through his rifle's peep sight, Mendoza could only adjust for the range by guess. The FN-FAL did not have a click adjustment for extreme ranges. He fired single shots, attempting to find the sniper.

Then he heard the rifle fire behind him.

* * *

Lyons switched magazines as the Mexicans rushed the last hundred meters. He returned the load of one-ounce slugs to his bandolier and snapped in the partially empty mag of number-two and double-ought steel shot mix. He took out a second mag of mixed-shot rounds and tucked it into the front pocket of his gray fatigue shirt.

The Mexicans, expecting to find a group of dead and wounded North Americans hiding in the rocks, attempted to finish the foreigners in one rush of sprayed full-auto fire. The men of Able Team waited. Mexican riflemen in concealment overlooking the streambed continued aiming fire into the rocks. The riflemen stopped shooting only when the soldiers closed on the North Americans.

Able Team waited until the Mexicans ran into the maze of rocks. Lyons saw a green uniform rushing toward him. He fired, and the blast lifted the Mexican off his feet and slammed him down. Gadgets triggered a 3-shot burst through another Mexican.

Another soldier spun at the sound of shooting to his side and took a steel storm of number two and double ought in the face. He fell, and Davis put the muzzle of his M-16 against the dead man's chest and killed him again.

A Mexican saw Davis and fired as Lyons fired. High-velocity slugs tore past Davis and exploded on the rocks and the Mexican died, his chest blasted open, one arm and his rifle spinning wildly through the air.

Miguel Coral popped up, fired a burst through a soldier, then dropped down as a rifleman two hundred meters to the south squeezed off a shot. Coral scrambled to another rock and fired at a running soldier, hitting him in one leg. The wounded soldier staggered past Blancanales, who shot him in the back. Then the Politician delivered a mandate of full-auto fire at another Mexican. Slugs from his M-16/M-203 tore the soldier to pieces.

Lyons snatched a glance, then quickly dropped down as a slug from an FN-FAL whined off the rock. But he had seen no other soldier still standing. He took an M-16 from a dead man, changed mags, then called out to his partners: "Anyone hit?"

"I'm bleeding," Davis answered.

"Is it serious?" Lyons called out.

"I don't know. But I'm bleeding like crazy."

Blancanales crawled to Davis. "It's not a bullet wound. He hit his head on a rock."

"Any of the soldiers alive?" Lyons asked.

The others all answered, no.

Lyons shouted out again. "We've got riflemen downstream. One on each side, with heavy rifles. We can't move until we get them. Everyone shift positions and on three, pop up and fire. Got it? Answer me, Davis!"

"I can handle it."

"No hay problema," Coral answered. "I have seen them."

"Shift and fire, shift and fire," Blancanales repeated.

"One... two... three!"

The five men lurched up and fired in a tearing burst. Dropping down, they heard a rifle firing back. They shifted positions in the rocks. One by one, they fired bursts, then dodged down before the rifleman could find them in his sight.

Staying flat on the sand and exposing only one eye, Lyons peered up at the canyon wall. He saw a rifleman pressing a field dressing against a bloody arm. Sighting on the wounded man, Lyons squeezed off a burst. The rifleman's body rolled down the slope.

A second rifleman broke for the safety of the streambed, running a few steps, then sliding down the steep canyon wall. Blancanales and Gadgets and Coral fired simultaneously, the slugs from three rifles tearing through the man's head and chest.

"That's it," Gadgets announced.

"Stay down!" Lyons shouted. "Gather up whatever equipment we can use and then crawl out. There could be another one out there."

"Ironman, put the binocs on that ridge," Gadgets told him. "Something's going on up there."

Focusing on the mountain overlooking the can-yon, Lyons saw figures moving. They did not wear the green uniforms of the Mexican army. Light flashes came from mirrors.

"Wizard, what's their code say?" Lyons called out.

"F-i-n-i...fini..."

10

In the last hour of morning, they met the Yaquis.

After the firefight Able Team had bandaged Davis, then outfitted themselves with weapons and gear from the dead Mexican soldiers. Lyons and Davis and Coral found folding-stock FN-FAL paratrooper rifles. Davis and Coral stripped the dead of knives and packs and clothing. They had marched for the rest of the morning and afternoon, watching signal mirrors flash from the cliffs and mountainsides above them.

Following the streambed north, they left the gorge and climbed trails cutting across the sides of mountains. Animal prints marked the trails, but they saw no human footprints. Yet they knew others walked in these mountains. The others watched them from ridgelines, signal mirrors flashing from mountain to mountain.

The introduction came abruptly. Lyons, sweating under his load of gear and weapons, had walked point for the preceding hour. He looked down to check the trail for tracks, then looked up to see the three young men.

Two of the young men carried M-16 rifles. The third carried what looked like a .30-06 Springfield rifle with a custom stock featuring a pistol grip.

Lyons knew that rifle, or a rifle like it, had saved them from the trap in the gorge.

Lyons let the FN-FAL rifle in his hands hang by the strap over his shoulder. He crossed his hands over the top of the receiver. He stood without moving as the others caught up with him.

Blancanales spoke first in Spanish. "Buenas tardes."

"We will speak English," the young man with the Springfield told the foreigners.

"Thanks for helping us," Lyons said. "Without you, we'd be dead now."

"Why are you in our mountains?"

"The Mexican army," Lyons explained, "or a gang dressed in the uniforms of the Mexican army, shot down our plane. We're walking to the railroad. We'll take the train down to the coast. Who are you?"

"Are you with the Ochoa family?"

Behind Lyons, Blancanales whispered quickly with Miguel Coral.

"Don't talk about it," the young man with the Springfield told them. "Answer."

Coral stepped forward. "I served Don Ochoa. But he is gone now."

"Do you serve now with Los Guerreros Blancos?"

"Those assassins!" Coral spat on the trail. "They killed my friends, they killed the children of my friends, they mutilated one of the sons of mi Padrino Ochoa. Juntarme con esos? Jamas primero muerto!"

"Who are you?" Lyons asked again. "Why are you asking about Los Blancos?"

The young man answered. "We are Yoeme. The Mexicans call us Yaquis. We also fight the White gang. Come."

"Yaquis?" Blancanales asked, incredulous. "Yaqui Indians?"

"I said, Yoeme. Yaquis. The Yoeme do not come from India. We are the people of this land."

The three Yaquis led the way.

"Broncos..."Miguel Coral told the North Americans. "Wild ones. The old men used to talk about Yaquis and Mayos and Tarahumaras who still fought in the Sierras, but that was when I was a boy. Even then no one believed it and that was thirty years ago."

"We go?" Lyons asked.

"Why not?" Gadgets answered. "We're here, let's make the scene."

Blancanales looked to the Yaquis striding away. "They said they're fighting the White gang, Los Guerreros Blancos. I think we have a lot to talk over with them."

"We came for information," Lyons said, nodding. He started after the young men. "And they've got it."

* * *

To keep pace with the Yaquis, Lyons forced himself to jog. He realized why he had not seen tracks. The Yaquis wore rags over the soles of their boots. Their footsteps were only vague smears on the sand. His boots, stamping into the trail with the combined weight of his body and the equipment and weapons, left deep imprints.

They walked for kilometers, over the crest of a ridge, through a canyon. The Yaquis led them through the zigzags of a switchback trail weaving up the slope of a mountain. Sweat soaked Lyons's fatigues and rained into the dust of the trail.

On the last switchback before the top, the young Yaquis disappeared. Lyons looked up to the ridge. He did not see them.

Lyons stopped and studied the mountainside. Thoughts raced through his mind. Ambush? No. The Yaquis had saved them. Had the Yaquis abandoned them? He followed the vague smears of the Yaquis's tracks to a rock formation of vertical slabs. He found a shoulder-wide space in the rocks. The tracks led through the space. Inside the mountain, he saw what appeared to be the interior of a cave, highlighted by late-afternoon sunlight that came through the ceiling.

Taking a step back, Lyons studied a patchwork that stretched over the mountainside. The color of the cloth matched the sand. Splotches and patterns of gray matched the rocks and stone formations. Green plastic created the illusion of weeds. Planes or helicopters — or photo-recon satellites orbiting the earth — would see this mountain as no different from all the others in the Sierra Madres.

Lyons looked back. His partners and Davis and Coral struggled to catch up with him. Behind them, Yaqui children ran along the trail with mesquite branches, sweeping away the boot prints of the foreigners. A child laughed at a question from Blancanales, answering with a point to where Lyons stood.

Stepping through the gateway of stone, Lyons entered the shadowy interior. A fissure cut through the stone of the mountain. Along the sides of the fissure, three levels of caves had been cut into the stone. Stone steps led to the entrances of the caves. In addition to screening the interior of the mountain from airborne observation, the tent of camouflage, reinforced with spider works of rope inside, protected the village of caves from the sun and the wind.

Inside, Yaquis waited for the foreigners. Lyons saw young men and women, a few children, a few older people. Perhaps fifty people. Their faces showed neither welcome nor hatred, only interest. As Gadgets, Blancanales, Coral and Davis filed into the hidden village, Lyons noted details.

Like the three young men who had led them to the village, the men and most of the young women wore dust-colored cotton clothes. Many carried holstered revolvers and autopistols. Some of the men had dirt and bloodstains on their clothes. Sweat had streaked the crust of dust on their faces.

The interior smelled of cooking, but not of wood burning. Long ago, wood fires had blackened the tops of the caves with soot. But in a cave on the first level, Lyons saw pots bubbling on the gas burners of a clay stove. The cooking fire made no smoke.

In the same communal kitchen, white plastic pipe carried water to a sink made of fired clay. He saw a drainpipe under the sink. A woman making a meal from a stack of captured Mexican army rations looked directly into Lyons's eyes.

Above the crowd, people looked down from the second and third levels of caves. Clotheslines with pulleys ran from one side of the crevice to the other. High above the others, from above the third level of caves, a young woman in dust-colored clothes and web gear looked down. She wore binoculars around her neck, and held an M-16. Only the rise of her breasts under her shirt and the khaki scarf over her hair distinguished her from the males.

To one side of him, Lyons saw captured Mexican army equipment and weapons on a plastic tarp. Uniforms, web gear, boots, binoculars, a mortar and rounds, a few Uzi submachine guns, a stack of M-16 and FN-FAL rifles were all arranged and ordered like a quartermaster's display.

A stripped M-16 lay on a cloth. The Yaqui cleaning the assault rifle finished his task with a last flourish of an oily rag, then snapped the weapon together. He stood to watch the strangers arriving.

"These people have got their act together," Gadgets said behind Lyons.

Blancanales noted the weapons. "The mortar, the rifles. The food. They captured all that today."

"It's an invisible town," Lyons commented.

"Not a town," Blancanales corrected. "Almost all these people are fighters."

The young man with the Springfield rifle stepped out of a second-level cave, and an old man followed him. The old man paused to study the five strangers, then came down the stone steps.

The young man spoke to the elder in the Yaqui language. The old man nodded and smiled to the foreigners as he listened. Finally, the old man grasped the youth's shoulder and spoke quietly to him. Then the old man spoke to the foreigners. "He tells me you are friends of Senor Ochoa. Come to my room, tell us of the war in Culiacan. And I will tell you of the war in our mountains."

"Leave your weapons," the young man ordered.

The old man dismissed the order with a wave of his gnarled hand. "If you want, leave your packs here. The children will not touch them."

"Achai!" the young man protested. "Ellos no son de aqui. No son de confiar."

"Yes," the old man said, smiling. "Speak Spanish. Your Spanish is much better than your Yaqui. Come, boy. Come, my guests."

In the cave the old man found a lamp by touch. He flicked a disposable lighter and lit the gas lamp. A pale-yellow light illuminated the interior. He turned to his guests.

"You please call me, achai. It means grandfather. I apologize for the boy. El Brujo is mucho macho, but very clever."

"Why do you call him El Brujo?" Blancanales asked.

"A joke, my friend."

The young man entered and answered, "Because I am educated in the ways of my people and in technology. I can do what no one else can do."

The achaipointed to the light. "He made that lantern. We shit and a machine makes gas for the lanterns."

"Biogas," the proud young man declared. "I read about it in a book from China and then I made the machine. Now the children and the women do not search for wood. They are safe when the helicopters and planes look for us. And no one coughs from smoke in their lungs."

Gadgets nodded. "Anaerobic decomposition of waste to liberate methane which can then be used as heating or lighting gas. Odorless, smokeless. That's natural."

"He is a very smart boy," the achaisaid, nodding. "And he kills many of the Blancos. But call him 'Vato.' He is too young to have earned the title of El Brujo — the Sorcerer. Maybe in a few more years. Sit, my guests. I do not have chairs for my cave. But there are no scorpions. I think I killed them all. Sit."

Davis, exhausted from the all-day hike, took a place where he could doze against the cool stone of the cave wall. Gadgets studied the stone floor with a penlight before he sat down.

Lyons sat near the cave mouth. While he watched the faces of the old man and Vato, he listened to the people outside, their shouts, their laughter and the singsong of the children's voices. The scraping of a bore-rod continued as a Yaqui cleaned the captured rifles. Then he noticed Miguel Coral intently studying Vato. Blancanales resumed questioning the old man.

"Why is there fighting?" the Politician asked.

"We fight for the rights of the Yaqui people," Vato declared. "To free..."

The achaiheld up a hand to stop the young man's speech. "We fight because the army and the White Warriors gang terrorize our people. They burn our farms. They will not let us live in peace."

"Does the army work with the White Warriors?" Blancanales asked.

"These soldiers are not of the army of Mexico. We knew the soldiers before. But they are gone. And these men in uniforms come. We think the soldiers and the White Warriors are the same."

"Just who are the White Warriors?" Gadgets interrupted.

"You ask us?" the achaiexclaimed, amazed. "But you fought them in Culiacan, why..."

Vato interrupted. "He said that he worked for Senor Ochoa." The young man pointed to Coral. "But you others, who are you?"

Coral answered. "Ellos solo buscan a Los Guerreros Blancos, no les importan ni sus propiedades, ni su dinero."

"Who are you?" Vato repeated.

"He is a pilot for the American DEA," Coral said, pointing to Davis. The Mexican's arm motioned to Able Team. "They are different than the DEA. I think they are secret agents."

"Spies?" the achaiasked, confused, incredulous. "Why do you come to spy on us? What do you want to know, Americans? How to be hungry? How to suffer injustice? How to be with sorrow? How to be without hope? Spies!" The old man laughed. "If you are lucky, you will never know what we know."

"Grandfather," Coral explained. "They will not interfere with you. They want Los Guerreros Blancos — the White Warriors. Only the White Warriors. And I am here to help them. I trust them." Coral turned to the young man. "You, you know who I am. I stood at the side of Don Ochoa. I know you saw..."

Vato sneered back an answer. "But now you are with the Americans. Did they offer you a deal? Turn informer, send others to prison, so you do not go?"

Coral laughed, his eyes narrowing to slits, his hands closing. In the soft yellow light and shadows of the cave, the men of Able Team saw the face of Miguel Coral the hardcore killer, no longer the family man negotiating for the safety and future of his family and his freedom. Now they saw the cold, calculating assassin who had survived twenty years of gang wars, ten years as the personal protector of the most hated, feared and respected gang patriarch on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

"Boy," Coral said, smiling like death. "Be quiet." Then he turned to the achai. "They do not care about your farms. If you help us, we will attack Los Guerreros Blancos. These men are a law unto themselves. And behind them, they have all the money and the weapons of America. If you want your enemies, who are also my enemies, destroyed, then we will fight together. It is agreed?"

Coral turned to Able Team.

"You see, these people... the soil of their mountains is very poor. There is no water. The corn does not grow. They could never feed their children. So on their farms, they grow opium."

11

In the red light of sunset, vultures feasted on the bodies of the soldiers who had died on the high ridge. The squat black creatures, their heads and necks glistening red with gore, paused in their feeding to look up at the helicopter. One vulture pulled its head out of the chest cavity of a naked corpse, a torn mass of lung tissue flopping in its beak. The vultures flapped their blood-splashed wings to drive off the huge mechanical insect descending onto the ridge.

Dust gusted. The rotor storm swirled red in the sunset as the chopper settled on its skids. Inside, Colonel Gonzalez, Lieutenant Colomo and a squad of soldiers looked through the Plexiglas of the sliding doors as the mountain wind carried away the dust. Without speaking, they watched as the dust-grayed vultures returned to the dead men.

The lieutenant threw open the door. Jerking out his autopistol, he fired at the vultures, the rapid-fire popping of the 9mm cartridges insignificant in the vast expanse of shadowy mountains and red sky.

Awkward, their gullets heavy with Mexican flesh, the vultures flapped away, squawking into the canyon.

Except one. The lieutenant's wild shooting had broken the wing of one vulture. Flailing the disjointed wing, the crippled carrion bird screeched and waddled away, its good wing fanning swirls of dust. The lieutenant rushed the vulture and executed it with three point-blank shots to the head, then launched a vicious kick at the gore-splashed headless creature.

Cursing, muttering prayers to their Catholic saints and God, the soldiers jumped out of the helicopter. They moved through the dead, groaning at the sight of vulture-mutilated faces with empty eyesockets and torn-away noses and lips. Soldiers shouted out to one another as they found dead friends.

Men forgot their machismo, their curses and obscenities becoming sobs.

Snapping his riding crop against his jackboot, the colonel finally took command. "Search the area! Perhaps someone survived and is hiding. Look for the bodies of the ones who did this. Look for weapons. Anything. We cannot take revenge until we know who committed this massacre and find them. Now! Soon it will be dark."

"The gringos did this!" the lieutenant declared. "We will search the mountains and make them pay. They will wish they were never born."

"It could not have been them," the colonel told his junior officer. "Sergeant Mendoza reported the gringos in the canyon, down there..."

Walking to where the ridge ended, Colonel Gonzalez pointed with his leather crop into the darkness of the gorge. "The ambush trapped the DEA men there. Sergeant Mendoza reported fighting between the gringos and Sergeant Orlando's platoon. Then Mendoza opened fire. The helicopter went down to make the kill. That is when the others attacked here."

The two officers looked at the twisted, gory bodies scattered around them on the ridge. The colonel continued his analysis. "The gringos could not have done this. Someone else. A force that came down from there..."

Like a professor lecturing, the colonel pointed to the mountain engulfed in shadows behind them. "They came from there. That would also explain how the pilot was wounded. Perhaps another group helped the gringos in the canyon."

"But how is that possible?" the lieutenant asked. "After we shot them down, they had no time to send for help."

Colonel Gonzalez surveyed the range of mountains. In the east, the night already held the Sierra Madres in its dark, cool grip. In the west, patches of red sunlight glowed from peaks.

"We have enemies here. Enemies of our organization and of our New Order. But they will not survive. Nothing will be allowed to resist the International. We have the helicopters, we have the soldiers, we have the bombs, the napalm, we have the satellites of our allies in Washington. They cannot escape. We will find them and exterminate them!"

* * *

An hour later, the helicopter returned to the asphalt airfield of Rancho Cortez, the temporary garrison facility commanded by Colonel Gonzalez. While his superiors in the capital completed the ouster of the army and federal officials who refused to swear allegiance to the New Order, the elite International Group occupied the sprawling ranch on the Pacific coast. The complex of dormities, warehouses and air-craft hangars that dotted the ranch had been used throughout the century for a succession of causes. First came the free enterprise of the Yankee sugarcane processors, then the revolutionary forces of General Emilio Flores. Mafia bootleggers followed during Prohibition and, decades later, the airborne commandos of Operation Condor found a hospitable home. Every user had contributed improvements to the facilities of the Rancho.

Generators powered electric lights and machines and air conditioners. Wells pumped water. Concrete roads linked the Rancho to the highway and railroad. Docks provided for the transfer of cargo to and from ships. The paved airfields offered the convenience of year-round air travel, regardless of weather or politics or international laws. The dormitories could house thousands of soldiers or campesinos.

Now Rancho Cortez housed the hundreds of soldiers and officers and technicians of the International Group. Every man had been screened for racial purity and political beliefs. Every man had sworn an oath of loyalty to the New Order. Though still serving in the army of the Republic of Mexico, they had been assigned from their original units to create the elite International Group.

Advisors from El Salvador, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay instructed the Group in the ideology of the New Order. They taught organization and counter-insurgency. The advisors also served as liaison with the special units restructuring the heroin trade in the states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Chihuahua.

When the special units in Culiacan or Hermosillo or the Sierra Madres required military assistance, the group provided reinforcements and aircraft. Sometimes the soldiers went to battle in the street clothes of gangsters. Sometimes they wore the uniform of the army of Mexico. But they always served the International Group.

The Group and the special units had succeeded in destroying or defeating every drug gang in western Mexico. All state and federal opposition had been bribed, liquidated or politically neutralized.

Los Guerreros Blancos now controlled all heroin flowing north from the western states of Mexico. Every American dollar from the addicts and the drug enchanted of the United States went into the transnational banks of the International.

However, difficulties still arose from time to time. The escape of the North American DEA agents and the annihilation of two Group units represented the single most alarming incident since Colonel Gonzalez had assumed command. If he did not counter the threat presented by organized and deadly resistance in the mountains, his promotion to general would be uncertain.

From the landing field, Colonel Gonzalez went first to the hangar where technicians repaired the damaged helicopter. A worker scrubbed crusted blood from the cockpit as others replaced the Plexiglas windshield. The staff sergeant in charge of the technicians immediately reported to the colonel.

"It appears to be a bullet from a thirty-caliber weapon."

He gave the colonel a misshapen lump of copper-jacketed lead. The nose had been smashed flat by impact, but the base remained circular. Rifling marked the diameter.

"A machine gun fired this?"

"I don't know, sir. Perhaps an expert with a microscope would be able to tell."

The colonel hurried directly from the airfield to the communications room of Rancho Cortez. He dismissed the technician on duty and unlocked the sophisticated radio linking the Group to his superiors in Mexico City.

The radio had been manufactured by the United States National Security Agency and donated to the International by associates in Washington, D.C. The computerized unit not only encoded messages entered by keyboard or microphone, but also transmitted them in high-speed screeches. Even if the American NSA or the Soviet KGB or the Mexican federalesmonitored the frequency, the communications might be mistaken for bursts of electronic disturbance from space.

At the keyboard, Gonzalez typed in his identification number and a sequence of acronyms requesting the immediate attention of Colonel Jon Gunther. Three keystrokes transmitted the request to Mexico City.

Seconds later, the video monitor displayed the computer code acknowledging the reception of the transmission. More than a thousand miles away, in an office somewhere in the world's largest city, the technician on duty summoned Colonel Gunther of the International.

Colonel Gonzalez waited. In the phosphor-green glow of the radio unit's video screen, he lit a Marlboro and sucked down drag after drag. Minutes passed.

Another message flashed onto the screen. Colonel Gunther would respond soon. The message requested that the Mexican colonel please stand by.

As Gonzalez lit his third cigarette, the electronically disembodied voice of Colonel Gunther spoke from the audio monitor.

"Are they dead?"

Gonzalez choked on his smoke. Colonel Gunther's question surprised him. But then the Mexican colonel realized that the International headquarters would know everything concerning the DEA flight south. Information from the United States went first to Mexico City, then to Culiacan and Rancho Cortez. His superiors in Mexico City had issued the order for the destruction of the jet and its passengers late the previous night. Though he had received instructions from Los Guerreros Blancos headquarters in Culiacan, the orders would have come from Mexico City. Of course they would now expect a report. He carefully considered his words before he spoke into the microphone.

"Their jet was shot down. Some North Americans killed in crash. But survivors joined unknown gang in mountains. Request information on gang allies of North Americans."

After a pause, in which circuits of the radios encoded and decoded the messages flashing between the two units, Colonel Gunther's voice answered. "What? What allies? Repeat."

"Gang unknown. We have no information. A gang ambushed soldiers searching for the North American survivors of the crash. Request information from sources in United States before we mount search-and-destroy operation."

Seconds passed. In his imagination, he saw the blond barrel-chested Gunther conferring with an aide. He hoped he had correctly phrased his request to imply criticism of his superiors in the International command for exposing his soldiers to a devastating surprise in the Sierra Madres. Finally Gunther replied. "All opposition in region has been liquidated. No gangs are now opposing the organization. We know nothing of any gang in the mountains. What do your officers report?"

"No survivors of ambushes found. Night stopped search of area of combat. We will resume the search for our soldiers in the morning. Will immediately launch search and destroy of North Americans and gang. We request headquarters consult with sources in United States for information on gang in mountains."

A minute passed. The disembodied voice spoke. "Please wait a moment."

Now Colonel Gonzalez knew Gunther consulted with others in Mexico City. The Mexican lit another cigarette with the one he'd been smoking, now an inch long stub.

After Gonzalez had a few more cigarettes, the voice came from Mexico City. "Command cancels secondary missions in support of organization. All Group soldiers will prepare and stand by for operation in mountains. All liaison staff will stand by to participate in operation. Command Headquarters will provide additional aircraft, weapons and troops. I will fly to Cortez to join you in operation named Scorched Earth. We must find and destroy all opposition."

"I understand."

An acronym on the video screen cut the voice exchange. Colonel Gonzalez switched off the radio's power and locked the console.

Excitement and nicotine made his hands tremble. Not only had he not been blamed for the slaughter of his soldiers and the escape of the gringos, he had also gained the full support of the International.

Now he would command a combined force of Mexicans and International soldiers. His Group would be joined by troops from all the allied nations: Argentine patriots expelled by the Alfonsin Communists, Chilean veterans of the Pinochet victory, Salvadorians and Guatemalans hardened by generations of war against socialism.

Images came of when he had met the White Warriors at receptions given by the glorious ex-president of Mexico. In the splendor and pomp of the past president's mansion, the White Warriors of the International had told him of their long-range reconnaissance and patrol training in the Andes by privately employed American ex-Green Berets. They had talked of the wars against the Tupamaros cadres in Buenos Aires, the never-ending campaigns against the savages of the Amazon and the pursuit of the Sendero Luminoso in Peru.

Now Colonel Gonzalez of the International Group of Mexico would command those warriors.

The glory of this victory would be his.

12

"I cannot stomach the idea of helping poppy farmers," Lyons told his partners. "I've seen too many people destroyed by heroin. My first thought is to call in an air strike on these farmers and..."

Miguel Coral interrupted the ex-cop. "The opium is not their crime. They have no choice!"

They talked in a third-level cave in the mountain of the Yaquis. Below them, they heard the voices and sounds of the hidden village. The tent of camouflage cloth glowed with early-morning light.

Able Team made a meal of freeze-dried beef and vegetables. Lyons gulped his share so that Davis could use the mess kit and spoon. Gadgets set another pot of water boiling over a fuel tablet. Instant coffee cooled in another aluminum pot. The pleasant odor of the village cooking drifted up to them where they ate, the air rich with the smells of frying food and bread baking.

"Here, in these mountains," Coral continued, "they cannot live if they do not grow opium. There is nothing else."

"Then why do they stay?" Lyons demanded. "There's work on the coast. There's jobs in the cities. Instead they grow and sell opium. And opium is the raw material of living death. Heroin has killed more people than Vietnam. Just consider the addicts, the teenage whores, the victims of dopers, the millions of dollars a day ripped off from honest people, the wasted dreams. You're asking me to compromise too much."

Lyons pointed a hard finger at Miguel Coral. "You're helping us, therefore I'll help you. But you're out of the horse trade. By helping these people, I'm helping their gang. I'm not going to work for poppy farmers. I won't. That's it."

"I think you should go and try working on the coast," Coral suggested. "Not as an American technician or as a manager, but as a campesino."

Gadgets laughed. "Yeah, Ironman the bracero. Uh-huh, I can see it now. 'Don't like those weeds? Call in an air strike.'"

"You are right," Coral agreed, laughing with the North Americans. "That is impossible." But he went on. "It is not the work; it is hard, but it is honest and it pays. It is the sickness and death from the chemicals. While the campesinos work in the fields, the planes come to spray the fields. The men die young. The women have babies that cannot live. The children who work in the fields shake and tremble as if they are cold, and their fingers cannot hold pencils. And in the cities? Ten workers for every job. It is hopeless. The sadness kills the people.

"Here..." Coral gestured to the village outside "...in their mountains, they have their land and they have their traditions..."

"Yeah, yeah. And their dope," Lyons muttered.

"It is the only way they can live. Without the money paid by the gangs, there is no food."

Blancanales interrupted. "I listen to you men argue and you are both right. The argument is a circle. The poverty creates the crime, and the crime cannot stop without the return of the poverty. All this shit about opium and gangs and the wars started in Mexico when Turkey outlawed poppies. If I remember correctly, the United States and Turkey cooperated to encourage alternatives to opium. They funded programs to develop crops the people could grow and support themselves. Why not here? The DEA must spend millions a year on destroying the opium. Why not fund the alternatives?"

"Uncle Sugar to the rescue," Lyons sneered.

Coral laughed. "More money for the rich! The money from your government, the foreign aid, do you think it goes to the people? It goes to the rich. Then to the banks of Houston and Miami and Switzerland. Mexico makes billions of dollars from selling oil. Enough to help all the poor of Mexico. But there is no help. I tell you something, Americans. I am a criminal. I am a killer. But there are things I will not do. I have a conscience. I am not like they who steal from people of Mexico to build palaces in Zihuatanejo and Miami and Los Angeles."

A voice came from the entrance. "You still talk?" The old achaistood silhouetted against the light.

Blancanales motioned for the old man to enter. "Achai, por favor, pase adelante. Tenemos cafe para usted?"

"Did he call himself El Chicano when he first came here?" Coral asked the achai.

The old man laughed. "You know much. Do not remind the boy. He gets angry."

"El Chicano?" Gadgets asked. "What are you talking about?"

"When the boy first had business with the Ochoas," Coral explained, "he thought he was El Chicano, from 'Zoot Suit.' He comes from Tucson and he sells opium, and he struts in his fancy clothes. Now he is an idigena. But I like him. I think you North Americans should give your foreign aid to him. He is an idealist. He is too proud to steal."

"Yes, very idealist," the achaiagreed. "Look at what he did here. With money he could make a city. But I thought you wanted a war."

Blancanales turned to Lyons. "We could get a DEA appropriation for a war. We'll list these people as mercenaries. That's a start on a foreign-aid program. There's always money for war. What do you say?"

Lyons nodded. "They earned some money yesterday."

"No doubt about it!" Gadgets told the others. "We were on the killing floor and the boot was coming down."

"You admit it!" Davis interrupted. The DEA pilot pointed at Gadgets with a mess-kit spoon. "Mr. Cool freaked out. You just said it."

"I did not freak out," Gadgets stated solemnly. "I remembered to say my prayers."

"Cut the jokes!" Lyons told them. "We're here to work, and we're not working. We're here for information. Either we grab some Blancos in the mountains here or we go to Culiacan to get some."

"There it is," Gadgets agreed. "We've got to get some. But where are they?" Gadgets looked inside the pot of freeze-dried beef stroganoff and shrugged. "None in there."

"I'll go with the mercenary idea," Lyons told the others. "That's honest work. Maybe they can buy good land with the money. And the money will go straight to the people. Not to the army of the politicos. Yeah, make meres out of a dope gang. I can live with that."

"Go to Vato," the achaitold Lyons. "He is the wi'koijaut. The war chief. I came only for coffee. We have no coffee in mountains since war."

"Going." Lyons gulped down the last of his coffee and left the cave. As he scanned the village for Vato, he glanced up and saw the sentries at the uppermost point of the camouflage tent watching him.

"Vato? Dinde es?" Lyons called out in his bad Spanish.

"Alla," a young woman with an M-16 told him, pointing with her left hand. Her right hand did not leave the grip of the assault rifle.

Vato sat with a group of young men and women in the center of the village. As Lyons went down the steps, he saw Vato reading aloud from a book, speaking in Spanish and Yaqui, then the group discussed what he had read. Some nodded agreement, others differed.

Putting down the book as Lyons approached, Vato asked, "When do we go?"

Only when he squatted down in the group did Lyons see the title of the book. He laughed. "Whenever you're done reading your paperback, we can talk the next move."

"Why do you laugh? Is it this book?"

Lyons pointed to the worn paperback, The Art of War. "There is no art to it," he said. "Only fear and blood and suffering."

Now Vato laughed. "True and not true. You are describing defeat. Even though Sun Tzu wrote more than two thousand years ago, he guides us to victories. Like yesterday."

"What do you read in the book about tomorrow?"

"To learn the future, I must go to other books. But what you want to know is not the future but the past. Who organized the White Warriors and where did they come from. Correct?"

"And what they intend to do with the money from the dope trade. To get that information, we need to get to the leaders."

"The leaders do not come into the Sierra Madres. The highest ranking we have seen are Mexican officers and one foreign officer."

"Who was the foreigner?"

"We saw them. We got no names. He was blond, his hair lighter than yours. Almost white. Our people saw him with a Mexican colonel."

"What uniform did he wear? What country?"

"The distance was too great. The scout could only describe it as gray."

"With black boots? A black pistol belt?"

"And a black beret. You know who we saw?"

"I know, but I don't want to believe. The only way to answer our questions is to take those officers and interrogate them. We've got to get those Mexicans and the foreigners."

"But is this for the DEA?"

"You'll be paid as mercenaries with Agency money..."

"I do not fight for the Drug Enforcement Agency. I fight for my people."

"So they can grow opium?"

"So they can be free of the opium and the gangs and the Mexicans. So they can live in these mountains like free people again."

"Sounds good. Our money will help."

"But we will not be mercenaries."

"We'll tell the DEA we hired you as soldiers. You can tell your people the money's a gift for helping us against the Blancos."

"No. We do not fight for you. It is our war. You came to our mountains and joined us. I will tell my people you fight for us."

"Forget the semantics!" Exasperated, Lyons cut off the argument with a salute. "Anything you want. You're the boss, yes, sir."

"It is agreed. I ask you again. This information, will it go to the DEA?"

"Depends. If the Blancos are only another dope gang, the information goes to the Agency. But no matter what, no information goes to the Agency until we're finished. We made the mistake of taking a DEA jet south, and they sent us into an ambush."

"Oh," Vato said, nodding. "That is why the trucks waited. They knew your plane would come."

"They waited?" shouted Lyons. "How long?"

"A lookout saw their headlights before dawn. They waited until your plane came. That is why we were ready. We thought they would come into the mountains, and they did. But what if the Blancos are not only a drug gang? I tell you they are not. Yes, they move the heroin to the United States, but they operate with the army. The army and the DEA never cooperated with the Ochoa Family. What if the Blancos are not a drug gang? What do you do?"

Lyons almost hated to think how far into the DEA gutter he was going to have to crawl to get to the slime who had set up the ambush.

"If they are who I think they are," the Ironman said, "we destroy them."

"Four North Americans and a Mexican against Los Guerreros Blancos and the army?"

Lyons gestured to the fighters in the mountain village. "The five of us and all your fighters. We can do it."

"I will not waste the lives of my fighters in stupid attacks." Vato passed Lyons The Art of War. "Look in the index. You will not find Courage or Heroism. But you will find Recklessness."

Lyons examined the worn paperback. It was translated from the Chinese by a U.S. Marine Corps general. The pages showed the wear of hundreds of readings. Sweat and oil and blood had stained pages. Then he looked through the index. He found an entry and turned to a page.

As Lyons silently read the pages, Vato opened a bottle of pills. He took one and passed the bottle to the circle of men. Every man took a pill, swallowing it dry. A boy took the bottle to other men in the area. Every man or woman who carried a weapon got a pill.

Lyons looked up from the book. "What're those?"

"Megavitamins. So that the fighters will have night vision."

"You are a leader," Lyons said, nodding with admiration. He returned his eyes to the book and read aloud.

"Here, I read from the section on the use of guides. 'We should select the bravest officers and those who are most intelligent and keen, and using local guides, secretly traverse mountain and forest noiselessly, concealing our traces... we listen carefully for distant sounds and screw up our eyes to see clearly. We concentrate our wits so that we may snatch an opportunity...'"

Vato translated the reading to the others. When all the men understood, Lyons looked at them.

"That is what we will do," he said.

13

Carrying only weapons and water, they ran the mountain trails. Vato set the pace for the main group, his custom Springfield rifle slung muzzle-down over his back, the sling drawn tight to hold the heavy rifle against his body. Yaquis and the men of Able Team followed. Miguel Coral, physically fit but unaccustomed to long-distance running, slowed them. Vato stopped the group from time to time to allow the Mexican to catch his breath. Davis had stayed behind.

Able Team and Coral wore dust-colored cloaks over their fatigues. Wads of rags masked their boot-prints as they ran, and the lightweight cotton cloth of their desert camouflage flagged behind them.

Two formations of scouts preceded and followed the group. When the main group jogged through a valley, the scouts ran along the ridges to both sides, watching for ambushes or distant helicopters. When the group approached a mountainside, Vato waited for the flash of a forward scout's signal mirror before starting to the top. As they zigzagged up mountains, mirrors flashed behind them.

Despite the rest stops, they covered kilometer after kilometer in the clear, cool morning air. The long shadows of the mountains shielded them from the blinding desert sun. But as the sun rose higher, the oppressive heat slowed them to a quick march.

In one canyon, they passed a black scene of horror. Where several families had attempted to farm, using water from a hillside spring to irrigate the deep sand of a streambed, only ashes and scorched poles remained. An adobe wall showed bullet pocks. Blackened rows of corn stood in the fields. The people had been buried under a pile of stones marked with crosses.

"The army. Or Los Guerreros Blancos," Vato spat out. "A plane came with napalm. Without warning, they all died."

"Why?" Lyons asked.

"Who knows?" Vato answered.

As he surveyed the grim scene that lay before him, Lyons began to understand what motivated Vato and his Yaqui warriors.

After three hours of running and walking, following an animal trail through shoulder-high mesquite, a signal mirror flashed a coded message from the ridgeline. Vato turned to Lyons. "We go to there..." the young man pointed to the ridge "...and stop. Tell the others."

Lyons passed the word back to his partners. When they reached the mountainside, Vato turned again. "Very quickly now. We are close to the army."

The Yaquis ran up the trails. Coral and Gadgets straggled behind. Lyons slowed to keep the Yaquis ahead of him in sight while watching Blancanales behind him. Lyons also watched the scouts on the ridgelines for signals.

A shrill whistle alerted them. Lyons saw the mirror on the ridge behind the group flashing. His hand going to the radio clipped to his web belt, he tapped the transmit key quickly as he crouched down. Clicks answered him, then Gadgets's voice came on. "Que pasa?" asked the Wizard.

"Get down!" Lyons suddenly yelled.

The unmistakable pulse of a helicopter pounded out its tattoo as it thundered over the ridge. Lyons pressed himself flat in the brush of the mountainside. He arranged his dust-colored camouflage, pulling the hood over his head, flicking the cloak over his legs. Only the bottom of his faded black fatigue pants and his boots remained uncovered.

A hundred feet above them, the chopper chewed its way across the desert sky. The noise of the rotors faded as the helicopter continued far into the distance. Then the rotor noise died down as the Huey troopship disappeared over a ridge in the east. Lyons searched the infinite blue dome of the sky for other aircraft.

"Just a commuter flight," Gadgets's voice whispered from the hand radio Lyons held.

"Can spy cameras work in Hueys?" Lyons asked his tech-specialist partner.

Gadgets gave it a moment's thought. "I've seen video cameras in helicopters. But the vibrations degrade the image."

"What about the super-close-ups at football games? They shoot from helicopters."

"Are you talking about Monday-night football or high-altitude ultraresolution surveillance? They ain't the same. Putting a spy camera in a chopper is a waste of time. But if they have a spy plane up there, we won't even see it before it snaps fifteen different close-ups of us."

Vato called out to the North Americans. "Quick! To the top!"

Lyons sprinted to the top and crouched. He had to study the ground to spot the Yaquis, flat on their bellies in the rocks and sand, their clothing the color of the dust. Behind him, he heard the others gasping and cursing as they crawled the last few meters to the crest. Lyons crept forward to join the Yaqui warriors.

They watched a scene over a thousand meters away. On the rocky ridgeline overlooking the gorge, the same ridge from where the Mexican riflemen and mortar team had fired down on Able Team the day before, dust swirled around the speck of a helicopter. Vato surveyed the scene through binoculars.

Snaking up beside Vato, Lyons opened his binocular case. A Yaqui stayed his arm, and Vato passed his own binoculars to Lyons.

"These will not reflect the sun," he said.

Lyons glanced at the front of the binoculars. Tubular extensions hooded the objective lenses. Like a sunshade on a camera lens, the extensions allowed only straight-line light to strike the front elements. The tin sheet and plastic tape extensions increased the length of the binoculars, but prevented the lenses from betraying their position with glints of sunlight.

Focusing on the distant scene, Lyons saw the vultures first. The black specks circled and swooped high over the ridge. Then he saw the helicopter rising from the dust of its rotor storm. A cargo net hung under the Huey troopship.

Though the binoculars could not define the image, Lyons knew dead soldiers filled that net. He gave the ridge a last scan. No soldiers remained behind to patrol the area. He saw only the returning vultures. He passed the binoculars to Blancanales.

The troopship and its load of corpses flew to the southwest. Lyons mentally calculated the direction of the Huey that had passed over them a few minutes before. That helicopter had gone to the east.

"All that running for nothing," Gadgets called out to his partners. "Too late to do anything here but get a suntan!"

"Brujo!" one of the Yaquis interrupted. The man pointed to a ridgeline behind them.

A signal mirror flashed the rapid code of an alert. Vato read the message.

"A helicopter comes. Be ready," he warned.

"Could it have seen us?" Lyons asked as he un-slung his FN-FAL paratrooper rifle.

"Who knows?" Vato replied as he slipped off his Springfield.

Around them, the Yaqui soldiers dispersed on the barren ridge. Some pressed themselves against rocks. Others flattened themselves in erosion cracks. One crawled into a tangle of mesquite. Everyone covered the distinctive lines and gleaming metal of their weapons with their bodies.

The four outsiders — Able Team and Coral — strained their ears to hear the helicopter. They heard nothing. But following the example of the Yaquis, they became parts of the ridge, arranging their camouflage cloaks, concealing their weapons.

Seconds later, the chopper soared over the eastern ridge, its skids seeming to touch the rocks. Rotor throb came as suddenly as an explosion. The Huey followed the contour of the slopes down the mountain, skimming over the mesquite.

Gadgets laughed. "That guy's getting tricky."

Blancanales and Lyons nodded agreement. Unlike the pilot of a spotter plane, who could shut off the engine and glide silently, or fly so high that people on the ground could not hear the motor, a helicopter pilot could not eliminate or diminish the noise of the rotors. However, if the pilot rode the contours of the terrain, using mountains and ridge-lines to block the rotor noise, enemies in a valley would not hear the approaching helicopter until it was too late. The pilot of the approaching helicopter had attempted exactly that.

They watched as the troopship rose to a hundred feet. The pilot circled once in the valley, then continued directly for the ridge where the group of Yaquis and North Americans lay in the dust and rocks.

Rotor throb exploded past them, dust swirling, as the Huey pilot tried to surprise his enemies on the other side of the ridge. The pilot circled the area once, then veered to the north.

"They're looking for action," Gadgets said. "No doubt about it."

"Vato," Lyons called out.

The young man rose from the rocks, brushing sand from his hair. He duck-walked over to the North Americans.

"Do they use light planes for surveillance and spotting?" Lyons asked.

"Usually. That helicopter, it is nothing. The many dead from yesterday makes the Blancos crazy, so they fly around thinking they will take revenge."

"Crazy for payback," Gadgets agreed. "We know what they want. Us."

Vato nodded. "I know my enemy. It is the planes we must be wary of. That is why I take the precaution of many lookouts. When the lookouts are alone, there is no sound. They listen for the planes, they watch the sky as we move. We have seen planes, but the planes have never seen us."

"They didn't leave a patrol down there," Lyons said, pointing to the ridge where the Mexican army squad had been annihilated. "And we need to take prisoners. What now?"

Slipping the sling of his Springfield rifle over his shoulder, Vato looked around to the vast expanse of the Sierra Madres. He glanced to the western horizon. Then he said, "Be patient. We know they will come. Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow. But they will come."

* * *

For the return to the concealed Yaqui village, Vato reorganized the scouts and main group into a skirmish line several kilometers wide. Scratching a straight line and a curved line in the sand, Vato explained to the foreigners that the skirmish line would sweep the mountains in a wide arc. The slowest foreigner, acting as the line's pivot point, would return directly to the cave village by the easiest trails. At the opposite end of the line, the fastest Yaquis, who could run at twice the speed of the foreigners, would range through the mountains, searching for patrolling Blancos.

Vato matched Yaquis to the foreigners. Coral — who as a Mexican counted as a foreigner in the Sierra Madres — would be the pivot, walking with a middle-aged Yaqui who still limped from a bullet wound. A young man who spoke some English would walk and jog with Gadgets. A young woman who spoke excellent Spanish would guide Blancanales.

After mentally totaling the weight of his weapons, Lyons decided to run with the Yaquis.

"Can you run for six more hours?" Vato asked.

"I've done it."

"Then you'll run with me in the center."

Staying close to Vato, Lyons observed the Yaqui chieftain's techniques of command. When Vato spoke with other Yaquis, he took the time to carefully explain details — as he had with the foreigners — by sketching maps and formations in the sand to illustrate his instructions and by pointing to landmarks. The Yaquis nodded and followed his orders. Vato never lost patience.

As they ran, Vato watched the horizons for aircraft and flashing signal mirrors. The Yaquis who ran from the valleys to the ridgelines to the mountaintops maintained contact with one another using their mirrors. Points of light flashed from mountain to mountain as the line moved across a wide swath of the Sierra Madres. Vato acknowledged the flash codes from time to time, breaking pace for a moment to flash back with his own mirror, then continuing.

On a mountainside, Lyons saw why the Yaqui patrol maintained their continuous observation of the sky. They ran through a forest of tall mesquite trees, many over thirty feet high. Then suddenly, as they went over the ridge, all life disappeared.

Black mesquite stood like grotesque sculptures. Ashes made the earth black. Lyons scanned the spot of devastation for an explanation of the fire. He noticed nothing extraordinary.

"What happened here? Napalm?" he called out to Vato.

"We saw the plane drop the bomb. But there was no one here. Maybe it was a coyote they saw. Or a coludo."

"A what?"

"A magic coyote. A spirit coyote."

Lyons knew the Yaqui jived him. "Who knows?"

For hours, Lyons and Vato ran without a break. The heat became intolerable at midday. To protect himself from sunstroke, Lyons stripped off his black long-sleeved fatigue shirt and fashioned a turban, folding and rolling and knotting the shirt to create a visor to shadow his eyes. As Lyons squatted in the cool shade of rock overhang to make his hat, Vato watched.

"You should have brought a sombrero, americano."

"Should've brought a lot of things," Lyons answered. "But I didn't plan on getting shot down in the desert."

"You entered the territory of the enemy without calculation. You were very lucky to live."

"Sun Tzu?"

Vato nodded.

"What would Sun Tzu say about the DEA promising my team full cooperation in investigating the dope war, then sending us into an ambush?"

"All war is based on deception."

In the next hours, as they ran through the mountains of the Sierra Madres, Lyons, the ex-cop from Los Angeles, considered the concept of war as deception expressed by the ancient Chinese philosopher-warrior. In crime, deception concealed and confused.

War required other deceptions. Lyons thought of his missions with Able Team. He realized he had never systematically analyzed the role of deception in the actions. From Able Team's first counterstrike on terrorism in Manhattan to the Mexican army's rocket strike on their DEA Lear jet, deception — not weapons, not personnel, not information, not opportunity — created each action.

Deception created threats: the explosives packed into a passenger car, the silent pistol in the purse of the teenage girl, the trusted diplomat, the plutonium generator deep in the Amazon jungle.

Deception created responses: counterterrorist groups masquerading as taxi drivers and drunks and beggars, elite soldiers as diplomats, Able Team as international businessmen or tourists or mercenaries.

Running through the Sonora desert, sweat salt crusting his face, Lyons accepted the truth of the ancient precept of Sun Tzu.

The principle of deception applied to every military action or terrorist attack in Lyons's personal experience. Even now, he had told the DEA he would investigate the dope gang known as Los Guerreros Blancos; in truth, he wanted only revenge. The DEA had promised full cooperation; in truth, they prepared to murder him.

Thinking of these things, Lyons ran throughout the day, following the young Yaqui from Tucson who read ancient Chinese philosopher-warriors. At dusk, a signal mirror flashing from a mountain stopped Vato.

Vato stood in the trail, watching the point of sunset-red brilliance blink in code. Lyons disentangled his sweat-soaked shirt from his head and slipped it on, the wet shirt cold on his overheated body. The temperature of the desert air dropped sharply with the approach of night.

"What is it?" Lyons asked.

Without looking at the American, Vato motioned him to wait. The message continued. Lyons drank the last of his water with a few salt tablets. Soon he would have the comfort of taking off his boots. Soon he would have the comfort of a cold-water bath. Only another few minutes, he thought to himself, over and over again as he waited. Finally Vato turned to him.

"A plane spotted a pueblo, a village of many families. They think the Guerreros will return with soldiers," he said

"They're positive the plane saw the village? It wasn't just an overflight?"

"The plane circled. The messenger fears that the soldiers will already be there."

"Then let's go." Lyons reached for his hand radio. If the distances permitted, he would brief his partners immediately.

"It is another five hours running."

14

Beneath the dome of stars, mountains floated in the moonlight. The sand of the trails shimmered pale blue. Lyons no longer felt his boots striking the earth as he ran. He floated over the trail, unaware of his body, his breathing or the pain of the hours of running without rest.

After learning about the spotter plane, Able Team had lightened themselves by passing their weapons to Yaqui warriors. Yaquis from the cave village carried their packs and ammunition and back-up weapons, including Lyons's Atchisson and the 40mm grenades for Blancanales's M-16/M-203.

Able Team only carried themselves. Miguel Coral had surrendered to his fatigue and remained behind in the caves with Davis.

Blancanales and Gadgets had agreed to the crosscountry race on one condition: runners would go ahead to check the pueblo. They did not want to run all night for nothing.

On the trail, Lyons left his partners behind. He lagged only a few hundred meters behind Vato, keeping up with the line of Yaquis. He ran without thinking, oblivious to the slopes and the landscape floating past. His eyes focused only on the trail, luminous with moonlight, and the forms of the runners ahead.

Two hours after dark, a teenage messenger confirmed the alarm. A young boy, his eyes wild with desperation, talked with Vato. When Lyons appeared, the boy startled away. Vato stopped him and reassured him.

Lyons stood outside the group as the Yaquis questioned the boy. He closed his eyes and slept on his feet, the language of the indigenasaround him strange and incomprehensible, like voices in a dream. Finally he heard Vato's voice speaking English.

"Helicopters came with soldiers. He escaped by hiding. When he ran, he had heard rifles and explosions."

Without opening his eyes, Lyons concentrated on his questions. He tried to visualize the distant mountain village.

"Is the town on a hill or in a valley?" he asked Vato.

"In a canyon. Steep mountainsides to the north and south."

"Cliffs?"

"Impossible to walk at night."

"How many helicopters and where did they land?"

"Three helicopters." Vato turned to the boy, asked more questions and translated the boy's replies. "He says they landed on the hills. That way they could fire down into the pueblo."

"How many people in the village?"

"Only a few families. Perhaps a hundred campesinos and Yoeme. Perhaps more."

"Fighters?"

"The fighters are with us. Only a few stayed there."

"Do they know where the hidden caves are?"

"They will not betray us!"

Lyons opened his eyes. He had his plan. He forced himself not to simply issue instructions to the proud young Yaqui leader. He put his hand on Vato's shoulder, as if to steady himself.

"My friend, it would be reckless not to alert the others to the..."

"True," Vato interrupted. "But they are already on alert."

"Have you sent your fastest runners ahead to recon the scene? Then they can tell us what to expect. Warn them of trip wires, booby traps."

"Yes," Vato said with a nod. "If the soldiers are still there, they will fear attack in the night."

"And send the boy back to the caves. Tell him to tell Davis, the pilot, to come. We will attempt to capture not only soldiers and officers, but a helicopter too. Tell him to also tell my partners."

Vato laughed. "Yes! Very good! You have a pilot, we will have a helicopter. Amigo, you can continue now. I will instruct the boy and the runners."

Lyons ran again.

Mesquite branches shattered the distant scene with web works of blue lines. Keeping their bodies pressed flat, they moved slowly through the desert brush, snaking past mesquite, pushing aside branches and dry weeds. Lyons and Vato crawled to the ridgeline's drop-off to gain an unobstructed view of the pueblo below.

Hundreds of meters to the south, lanterns and flashlights illuminated a single street and two rows of adobe houses. The lights silhouetted soldiers and projected giant forms onto the near-vertical mountainside beyond the village. A fire burned between two houses, flames leaping up.

Voices carried to the warriors watching the scene. Laughter, shouts. Sometimes a woman shrieked.

Below Lyons and Vato the ridge fell straight into the rocks of a gully. Moonlight gleamed off water. From the stream, one switchback trail led to the west, to the ridgeline overlooking the pueblo. From the other side of the stream, other trails cut east, zigzagging up an embankment to the houses. The two rows of adobe houses, scattered on both sides of a north-south road, occupied the flat area in the narrow canyon.

Another woman screamed, but this time from the ridgeline. Helicopters were parked not more than a hundred meters from where the North American and the Yaqui sprawled in the brush.

Despite his mind-numbing exhaustion, Lyons felt a surge of rage. He suppressed his loathing and urge to kill, returning his attention to the problem of the infiltration and recapture of the village. He could do nothing for the people now.

But later, he resolved, he would give the soldiers over to the village. Let the families of the murdered and raped judge the raiders.

Shoulder to shoulder with Vato, Lyons sketched his plan in whispers. "The ones in the town can't see the helicopters. The ones at the helicopters can't watch the town. I believe we can take all of them at once. My team has radios. My team knows booby traps, and we have silenced pistols."

"Our knives are silent," Vato told him.

"But they cannot kill from a distance. When my partners come, I believe we should divide into three groups. One group for the helicopters. The second will enter the village from the south, the third from the north. Once we have closed on the soldiers, even if there is an alarm, we will take them."

Vato nodded in the moonlight. "Silenced pistols and walkie-talkies. Tonight we have the luxury of technology."

"Remember, your fighters must understand that we will take the officers alive. And the helicopter radios must be controlled. We cannot allow any of the soldiers to send a panic message."

"No one radios for help. No one escapes. No one lives."

"Only the officers."

They crawled back through the brush. Pausing at the rocky crest of the ridge, Lyons rose to a crouch. He looked downhill to where the three Huey troopships were parked on a wide, flat plateau like huge somnambulant insects. He watched for a minute as silhouettes crossed the glaring lights. Other forms stood around fires.

From the height of the crest, he searched the ridge for an avenue of infiltration. Directly in front of him, to the north of the helicopters, open ground denied access. To the east, any soldier looking up from the pueblo could have spotted Lyons and the Yaquis on the cliff face below the helicopters.

He saw a crease in the ridgeline. A shallow gully, erosion-carved during the torrential tropical rains of the summer, cut through the center of the camp, running southwest from the helicopters to the darkness of the mountainside. That erosion ditch would be his avenue through the perimeter.

Squinting against the lights and the leaping fire, Lyons searched for sentries. He saw one form pacing in the darkness.

Then a uniform took his attention. A soldier was squatted at the door of a Huey. Unlike the other soldiers, who wore the camouflage greens of the Mexican army, he wore a gray uniform. Silver insignia flashed like sequins from his collar. Lyons saw the gray-uniformed soldier raise a bottle and drink.

Lyons noted the soldier's helicopter, then followed Vato through the moonlit darkness. They scrambled down the mountainside to a trail that paralleled the ridgeline. In minutes they rejoined the group of Yaquis.

As Lyons cleaned and checked his silenced Colt Government Model, more Yaquis led in Gadgets and Blancanales.

For minutes the two ex-Green Berets walked in circles and stretched as their muscles cooled. With the arrival of the foreigners, Vato divided the Yaqui fighters into three groups. He began the detailed explanations of the upcoming action and the role of each of the three groups, sketching the action in the sand.

Gadgets found his backpack and sprawled against it, only one hand moving slowly to pull open the Velcro closures. His words came in a dry rattle from his throat. "Twinkies... I must have Twinkies..."

"What are you talking about?" Lyons demanded.

Gadgets pulled out a plastic box and eased off the lid. "Been thinking about this good stuff all day long. How long we been running today?"

"It's already tomorrow." Blancanales gasped. "I'm getting too old for this..."

Cellophane crinkled. Lyons heard the tear of a pop top and the soft hiss of escaping pressure as his partner opened a can.

"Orange soda and some Twinkies, man. This is it. I am now ready. Mr. Wizard reporting for duty. Here, here's some quick energy for you dudes."

Lyons shook his head. "I don't want any of that junk-food shit."

"This ain't food. These are bennies. And aspirin. If you feel like me, you could pass out on your feet any second now."

"Benzedrine? Forget that! I'm good for another hour or so."

Blancanales accepted a tablet of each. He gulped them down with water. "Take it, Ironman. Dr. Politician says so. You've been running for sixteen hours straight. Consciousness at this moment is a medical impossibility. Take it."

Gadgets laughed. "Proven effective in highway tests by two million truck drivers."

"It could affect my judgement," Lyons said as he swallowed a tablet of the Benzedrine with two tablets of aspirin. If Blancanales, the ex-Green Beret medic, thought the stimulant necessary, Lyons would take it. But he didn't like any drugs, for any reason.

Gadgets laughed as he dug through his pack. "Maybe it'll make you extremo dien cai dau loco. Me, boppin' along packed with bennies and Twinkies... there's no hope for those goons, I'm gonna be one totally murderous dude."

"They deserve it." Lyons briefed them on the situation and the positions of the soldiers. As he detailed the infiltration, Blancanales and Gadgets checked their silenced Beretta 93-R autopistols.

Then Gadgets prepared his CAR for the silent attack. Popping open his munitions kit, he took out a Parkerized black silencer tube and two Colt magazines. He dropped the 30-round magazine out of the CAR and snapped in one of the replacement mags of twenty Interdynamic 5.56mm cartridges. The Interdynamic cartridges contained reduced powder charges that propelled 85-grain slugs at the subsonic velocity of two hundred and ninety-five meters per second. The silencer slipped down over the flash suppressor and locked. The reduced charges of the cartridges did not generate the chamber pressure to cycle the bolt, therefore totally eliminating mechanical noise. Together, the Interdynamic cartridges and the Maxim multibaffle silencer converted the CAR to a silent rifle with deadly accuracy out to two hundred meters. Gadgets slapped the base of the magazine to check its seating.

"Ready to go," he rasped.

The North Americans joined the groups of Yaquis. With modern weapons and knives, they went to liberate the pueblo.

15

Wiping the blood of the young girl off his fatigue pants, Lieutenant Colomo pushed his way out of the crowd of soldiers. The men of the International Group already cheered on the next man who took his turn in the gang rape.

Flashlights illuminated the atrocity on the packed-dirt floor. The circles of light played on the naked blood-smeared leg of the girl, then on her breast and her face. The dim lights glowed on the polished boots of the soldiers. From time to time, a beam wavered over the crowd, the leering, openmouthed faces of the soldiers leaping from the shack's darkness like disembodied masks in a nightmare. The young girl cried without end, her voice hoarse and cracking from screaming.

Lieutenant Colomo crossed the dirt floor of the shack and stood in front of the girl's father.

Ropes bound the campesino to the rough-hewn wood of a chair. Though he looked sixty, he might have been only thirty years old — decades of searing mountain sun had weathered his face to leather, malnutrition and poverty had taken most of his teeth. He stared at the floor, groaning with shame and sorrow as his daughter cried. Jerking the man's head back by the hair, the lieutenant shouted down into the face of the campesino.

"Who killed the soldiers?" he demanded.

The waving beams of the flashlights, the only lights in the adobe shack, gleamed on the blood and tears streaking the man's face.

"We know nothing of it, please leave us alone, we did nothing to the army..."

The lieutenant slammed his fist into the man's face.

"We have no guns, we have nothing to fight with, we do not kill," the helpless figure went on.

Colomo drove his knee into the man's solar plexus. Choking, gasping, the campesino struggled to breathe. He dragged down a shuddering breath and rattled out the words, "We did nothing..."

Pulling his partner upright, the lieutenant sneered into his face. "Hear me, you half-breed filth. We want the information. You tell us or we will throw what's left of your daughter to the vultures. You understand?"

"Please... for the love of God, we did nothing to you..."

The words enraged the Lieutenant. How dared this half-human, indigenacreature, this ignorant Yaqui, this thing that lived in filth and bred offspring in filth, evoke the holy grace of a white God? Trembling, his Castilian features red with rage, Colomo snatched at the Colt pistol in his belt holster.

His thumb on the safety, the hammer standing at full-cock, the lieutenant stopped. The man headed the village. If anyone knew, he did. The trash must live until he answered the questions. Colomo reholstered his pistol and rushed outside.

Other tied-and-gagged captives lay in the dirt out-side the shack. A kerosene lantern flickered over the prisoners. He saw the sobbing mother of the girl inside, a bleeding man who kept his face pressed to the earth, a woman who held a blood-clotted rag to her child's arm, several other Yaqui campesinos, and a young boy with smooth, fine features.

The lieutenant dragged the boy inside the shack. Dropping the boy on the floor, Colomo taunted the campesino.

"Tell us, peon. Or we rape the boy next."

* * *

North of the pueblo, Gadgets followed the Yaquis down the stone face of a mountain. Despite the aspirin, he suffered a thousand aching muscles. Despite the Benzedrine, every movement required concentration and effort. His hands slipped, his boots slipped, pebbles clattered down into the gully below. The Yaquis watched him. He knew they expected him to fall.

But fortunately the Yaquis had anticipated his exhaustion. From the assembly area, they had walked north until a ridge and the curve of the canyon blocked the group from observation by the soldiers. No soldiers at the helicopters or in the pueblo would see the group as they moved through the moonlight. No one would hear the rocks he kicked down the mountainside.

Somehow, he didn't fall. Finally he came to the loose rock with sand at the base. Moving slowly, he stepped through the few inches of water in the streambed. Mosquitoes buzzed around his head. Gadgets did not have the energy to flick them away.

Single file in the moon shadows, the Yaquis moved south. Handfuls of ashes had blackened their clothes and faces. Gadgets stayed close to the Yaqui who spoke English. Without the translator, he would be useless in the infiltration.

Walking quickly for the first few hundred meters, they slowed when they saw the lights. Gadgets heard screams in the village. He looked up to the ridge. Though he could not see the helicopters or the soldiers from where he crouched in the canyon, he heard their voices. And above him, on the opposite mountainside, lights and shadows flashed across the rocks.

He took a deep breath. He checked the earphone plugged into his left ear and the wire leading to his hand radio. Then he clicked the transmit key with his identification code and whispered, "This is the Wizard. We're going in."

Clicks answered. He heard the code for Blancanales. Then Lyons answered. But no voices. They had already closed the distance to the sentries.

Good, the ex-Green Beret, veteran of a hundred "special actions," told himself. The sooner we kill these goons, the sooner I get to sleep.

Drawing back his autrorifle's actuator, he chambered the first subsonic round.

* * *

On the west side of the ridge, Lyons clawed up the steep slope. He moved carefully, testing each handhold on brush or rock before pulling himself up. Vato climbed an arm's distance to his left. To both sides, the other Yaquis clung to the mountainside and moved slowly, silently toward the top. Above them drunken soldiers celebrated their victory over the defenseless people of the mountain village. Lyons heard shouts, sometimes the screams of women. With every scream, rage surged through his mind. The fatigue of his body did not numb the anger. His stomach knotted with hatred. The muscles of his jaws ached as he gritted his teeth with frustration.

Only a few more minutes...

His hand radio clicked, then he heard Gadgets's voice in his earphone. Lyons paused to click an acknowledgment with his transmit key. He did not risk a voice response.

The slope rounded as they neared the ridgeline. Moving faster, the infiltrators snaked through the short brush. Moonlight lit their way. Pausing for a moment, Lyons raised his grease-blackened face to check their position.

Over the brush and rocks, he saw only the rotor-stabilizer assemblies of the helicopters. Light reflected from the undersides of the rotor blades. Smoke from a bonfire wisped into the moonlight.

The fire confirmed his position.

Ahead of them and to the left, he would find the shallow gully cutting through the perimeter. Lyons hissed quietly to the others, then started toward the erosion ditch.

Boots crashing through the mesquite stopped him. Motionless, Lyons waited, hearing breaking sticks, rocks kicked. The boots walked through the weeds a few more steps, then stopped.

Had a sentry spotted them?

Lyons heard a zipper, then a stream of water splashing. Keeping his head low, he looked up to see a soldier only a few steps away. Urinating. Lyons watched the drunken soldier sway. Finally, the soldier staggered away.

Another hiss from Lyons signaled the Yaquis. They continued forward, inching closer to the perimeter.

* * *

South of the pueblo, twenty-five meters from the last house, Blancanales saw the pale-blue line scratched across the darkness. He turned to the Yaquis behind him and hissed a warning. The soft, almost inaudible scratching of dry grass on hands and cloth stopped. They lay motionless in the weeds beside the pathway as Blancanales continued forward.

The ex-Green Beret paused to snap off about eighteen inches of dry, rigid stem from the wild grasses around him. As he continued, he waved the stem ahead of him like an insect's antenna.

When he came to the blue line stretched across the pathway, he paused. At waist height, the line of clear monofilament extended from the rocks of the mountainside to a thicket of cacti at the edge of the gully. He touched the line with the grass stem and found it taut.

In the moonlight, he scanned the grasses and brush of the area. He saw a path of crushed grass to the cacti. Another path led to the rocks. Blancanales peered at the hard packed earth of the path. He saw no turned dirt, no erect trigger prongs, nothing to indicate a mine or booby trap buried in the path.

Blancanales crawled under the monofilament line. He went to the crushed weeds leading from the pathway toward the rocks. Snaking through the brush and dry grasses, he felt the dirt ahead of him with his left hand. He waved the long grass stem in front of him to check for other trip lines.

He stopped at the rocks and watched the pueblo. Cries and voices came from the shacks. Through a window he saw soldiers. At the last house of the village, its whitewashed adobe blue in the moonlight, a man leaned against the wall. Blancanales saw the line of a rifle.

With his hands, Blancanales felt through the gravel at the base of the mountainside. He crawled closer to where the nylon trip line disappeared into the shadow under an overhang. With the grass stem, he checked for other lines. Finally, the stem scratched plastic.

Blancanales eased into the shadow. Waiting for his eyes to adjust to the near-total darkness, he looked for the end of the monofilament. But his eyes could not distinguish details within the darkness.

Turning his body, he sat up. He knew the mono-filament line passed over his right shoulder. He knew the line ended at the detonator. That placed the detonator and the explosive charge of the bomb directly in front of his face.

He would have to defuse the bomb by touch.

He reached out and touched rock. Lightly, slowly, he moved his fingertips over the boulder. He found something slick, the width of a belt. The slick band covered the texture of the rock. He traced the band to the center. It flexed under his fingertips. He touched the edge, felt his fingertip stick.

Tape. They had looped tape around a rock. He continued to the center. He came to a shape. He traced the outline of the shape, a rectangle. He found raised letters: Front — Toward Enemy.

It was a claymore mine. Face to face with the kilogram of high explosive and the thousands of steel ball bearings, Blancanales closed his eyes. It made no difference in the darkness. And if he triggered the claymore, his life would be gone before he saw the flash.

His fingers traced the upper edge of the claymore. A length of det-cord entered the detonator well. Tape secured the det-cord and a pull-firing striker to the rock.

The safety pin hung by a length of cord. Touching the striker assembly with the small finger of his right hand to maintain the position of his hand, he searched for the safety pin's hole. The tip of the pin scratched on the firing device's tube, then slipped home.

Taking a moment to breathe, Blancanales calmed his mind, then pushed the pin through the striker housing.

He put his left index finger through the pull ring and held the spring-driven striker shaft. Then he pulled the monofilament, releasing the striker shaft, and eased the striker down. It stopped against the safety pin.

Blancanales did not cut the monofilament. If the' soldier who placed the mine specialized in anti-infiltration devices, there would be a second claymore at the opposite end of the line. If intruders stumbled into the trip line, the double explosion would rake the kill zone with thousands of high-velocity steel balls from both sides.

But the second claymore mine would have a release-type striker. A release firing device detonated a mine when the trip line went slack. If an intruder spotted the trip line and cut the taut line, the release of the tension allowed the second striker to fall, detonating the claymore.

The Special Forces instructors at Fort Bragg had taught Blancanales to never underestimate the intelligence and professionalism of his enemy. He had survived Vietnam, Laos, Los Angeles, New York, and a hundred other hellgrounds because he remembered his training.

Wiping sweat off his face, Blancanales left the darkness and crawled through the dry weeds. Now he would check for that second claymore.

A sudden explosion shattered the night. Autorifles fired wild. Looking up to the ridgeline where the helicopters were parked, Blancanales saw dust and smoke billowing upward. Tracers streaked in all directions. In the pueblo, he heard shouts and men running.

The group infiltrating the helicopters had tripped a mine.

Disregarding the risk, Blancanales put his hand radio to his lips.

"Lyons! Lyons!" he hissed.

No answer came.

16

A storm of high-velocity bullets shrieked over Lyons. Flat in the shallow gully, he kept his face down and waited, hoping none of the unaimed, undisciplined fire killed him. The boots of running soldiers thudded across the ridgeline. He heard a grenade pop somewhere down the mountainside.

Behind Lyons, Vato and the other Yaquis watched. When Lyons did not reach for the automatic shotgun strapped across his back, they did not move to unsling the rifles they carried. Staying low, not daring to look above the sides of the erosion ditch, they listened to the chaos all around them and waited.

The shooting continued as officers shouted again and again, "Alto dejen de disparar alla afuera no hay nadie. Paren o los mato a todos."

The firing finally died away. Soldiers laughed. Others shouted to their officers.

"Juan Cordova se golpeo. Mierda!"

"Aqui! Hay una pierna... "

"Como sabes esto, Cordova?"

"Yo vi lo que paso. El fue a orinar y se perdiera."

Now the Yaquis knew what had happened. Lyons had seen the drunken soldier urinating outside the perimeter. The soldier had wandered into a claymore mine's trip line.

Shooting continued in the canyon. Lyons whispered into his hand radio, "Wizard, Political. You okay?"

"No problem here," Blancanales answered. "What happened up there?"

Gadgets clicked his code. An almost inaudible whisper came through Lyons's earphone. "We're cool... laying low..."

"These clowns," Lyons whispered in the ditch. "They're up here drunk. One of them wandered into a booby trap."

Lyons chanced a look at the soldiers. He saw a young girl fall from a troopship door. Clutching a rag around her nakedness, she stared into the night, stunned. Lyons saw no one else at the helicopters. He scanned the open area. Around the bonfire, he saw the packs and rifles of the airborne soldiers.

A crowd of soldiers gathered a hundred meters away. Most of them carried flashlights instead of rifles. Soldiers searched through the brush, waving their lights everywhere. Two men pointed flashlights at something on the dirt.

"Fue Cordova."

"Aqui esta su cabeza... El fue una estupida mierda!"

"Asquad of goons are running up the trail to the hill!" Gadgets whispered.

"This is it!" Lyons told his partners. "We're going in."

Returning his hand radio to his web belt, Lyons slipped out his silenced Colt Government Model.

He confirmed the safety, then turned to the Yaquis. He saw them unsheathing their knives.

"Vamos," Lyons whispered.

Lyons crawled for a few more meters, scrambling through the sand and rocks, feeling the hard packed clay and stones scraping his arms, gouging his thighs and knees. He looked up, saw the bonfire blocking the view of the crowd of soldiers.

Sprinting from the ditch, he raced for the nearest helicopter, the second Huey troopship in the line of three. The girl stood in his way, her eyes unseeing, blood flowing from cuts on her face. Lyons couldn't stop to help her or drag her out of the line of fire. He straight-armed her with his left hand, sending her sprawling in the dirt. He hoped she stayed down during the firefight.

Two more steps took him to the Huey and he jumped inside. A soldier in camo green looked at him. Lyons jammed the Colt's silencer into the man's left eye and fired once, the 185-grain hollow-point exploding through the eye and the skull and brain to spray gore on the Plexiglas of the other door. Lyons searched the interior in one sweeping glance, then looked forward. No one.

Through the windshield, he saw a Yaqui throw a dead soldier from the first helicopter. Another Yaqui rushed a soldier from behind. One slash of his knife sliced open the Mexican's throat. The soldier died on his feet, his mouth moving, but the silent red scream spraying out of the yawning wound.

Lyons ran to the last helicopter. He saw the gray fatigue pants of someone sitting at the door. A blond man wearing the gray uniform of the Fascist International watched as the crowd of soldiers reassembled the corpse of the drunk.

The Fascist officer turned as Lyons brought down the heavy Colt autopistol like an ax on the Nazi's skull.

In seconds the loops of plastic handcuffs secured the Nazi's wrists and ankles. Tape covered his mouth and eyes.

Lyons kept moving. Voices came from the trail leading up from the pueblo. With a hand signal, Lyons directed a Yaqui to accompany him. They went to the head of the trail. Throwing themselves flat on the hard earth, they waited. Lyons pointed to the silenced Colt autopistol he held, then pointed to the knife in the hand of the Yaqui. The Yaqui nodded his understanding.

Tailored fatigues and a holstered pistol identified the officer. In the moonlight, Lyons also saw silver insignia of rank flashing from the officer's collar. The officer carried a walkie-talkie. His soldiers carried flashlights and rifles.

Several of the newcomers ran ahead to the crowd on the far side of the ridgeline. Two soldiers remained beside their officer. They lit the path with flashlights. Striding as if on parade, his beret cocked at the perfect angle on his head, the officer maintained his military decorum.

Lyons waited until the officer and soldiers passed. Rising from the ground, he rushed up behind the three men and braced the silenced Colt as he fired once into the head of each soldier. He didn't pause in his rush.

The bodies of the soldiers fell as if their legs had been cut out from under them. The officer stood motionless for a moment of shock as the spray of brains and blood hung in the moonlight. Lyons smashed him in the back of the head.

The Yaqui watched for other soldiers as Lyons wrapped tape around the officer's head, covering his eyes and mouth. Then Lyons jerked plastic loops tight around the officer's wrists and ankles. Seconds later, the army officer joined the Fascist prisoner in the helicopter.

At the troopship's door, Lyons holstered the Colt and unslung his Atchisson. Looking to the other helicopters, he saw Vato rushing to him. One Yaqui guided the raped and beaten young woman to safety. The other Yaquis slipped behind the troopships and waited.

"You want us to kill them?" Vato asked.

"I have my prisoners. Those..." Lyons looked at the soldiers. He could not think of an obscenity to voice his loathing. "Take them, kill them, whatever."

"We will take them alive." Vato dashed back to his men.

Only the shouts of the soldiers broke the silence of the ridge. Lyons waited.

* * *

Gadgets heard the Interdynamic slug punch into the sentry's skull. The soldier fell back. Snapping back the autorifle's actuator to chamber the next silent cartridge, Gadgets sprinted to the thrashing soldier and fired a coup de grace directly into the dying soldier's temple. He crouched by the dead man and slung the CAR over his shoulder. Slipping out his Beretta 93-R, he continued to the row of shacks, holding the selective-fire autopistol in both hands.

He heard voices coming from a house. Looking inside, he saw the single room packed shoulder to shoulder with the captured townspeople. They saw his blackened face in the window. Then a Yaqui appeared beside the North American and whispered urgently to the prisoners.

Moving on, Gadgets looked between every adobe house, glanced in windows, listened for the authoritarian voices of soldiers. He came to a group of local people tied together. They lay on the dirt outside one house. A woman cried, a wounded man groaned. Yaqui fighters went to them.

A form moved in Gadgets's peripheral vision. He spun, the Beretta's glowing tritium night sights streaking the darkness. As the autopistol went on line, a hiss stopped him.

"Wizard! Don't!" Blancanales whispered hoarsely. "Any here?"

"Most of them went up the trail." Gadgets pointed to the group of soldiers rushing up a switchback trail to the ridge overlooking the village.

"Any others?"

"Maybe in there." Gadgets pointed to the house. Inside, they heard crying. "I'll check..."

"Give me your rifle. Is there a round in the chamber?"

Gadgets unslung the silenced Colt autorifle in one motion. "An empty shell."

Blancanales jerked back the actuator.

Gadgets went to the door of the house. The door stood open an inch. Peering inside, he saw a man lashed to a chair. A flashlight on the floor lit the interior. Gadgets pushed open the door.

On the floor, in the light of the flashlight beam, a soldier grunted on the body of a girl. Totally involved in the rape, he did not see Gadgets step up to him with the Beretta.

Yaquis pushed past Gadgets. Tearing the soldier away from the crying semiconscious girl, the Yaquis threw the soldier against the adobe wall. One fighter pushed a hand over the panicked rapist's mouth. Another fighter grabbed a torn scrap of the girl's clothing from the floor and jammed it into the mouth of the soldier to stop his screams as they put their scalpel-sharp knives to his body.

Staggering back two steps, Gadgets did not turn away in time. He saw what he could never forget.

* * *

On the ridge, the Mexican soldiers of the International Group tired of the gruesome puzzle of the drunk's body. They drifted back to the bonfire. Lyons and the Yaquis waited.

Lyons heard his hand radio click. The pistol grip of the selective-fire shotgun in his right hand, he keyed his radio with his left.

"This is the Ironman. I'm still here."

"What's the situation up there?" Blancanales asked.

"We're ready to hit them. You got the town?"

"It's secure."

"Then come up here. They outnumber us three to one."

"On our way."

Soldiers joked and laughed around the roaring fire. One of the soldiers went to a Huey and climbed inside.

"Puta... puta... Donde esta mi pequena puta?"

Instead of finding the young girl, he found death. A blade slashed his throat. Hands pulled him to the shadowed side of the helicopter and held him down as he thrashed, his blood draining into the dirt.

Another soldier went to the first troopship. As the soldier approached, Lyons slipped out his silent Colt. Lining up the tritium night sights on the man's head, Lyons waited for him.

"Capitan. Donde esta el Teniente Colomo?" the soldier called out.

The soldier saw Blancanales and a line of Yaquis running behind the line of helicopters. Turning suddenly, a silent .45-caliber hollowpoint whisked by his head.

"Yaquis! Ellos atacan! Ellos..." he shouted out.

Breath and blood exploded from the soldier's mouth as a slug shattered his spine and tore through his right lung. As the dying man flopped on the earth, Lyons fired a third time, tearing away the top of the soldier's head.

Soldiers ran for the helicopters. Yaquis butt-stroked them with the stocks of their heavy FN-FAL rifles.

In the open, illuminated by a leaping bonfire, soldiers turned and looked. One jerked his rifle to his shoulder. M-16 and FN-FAL rifles fired from the line of helicopters. The impact of high-velocity bullets threw the soldier back, spinning him through the air. Single accurate shots killed the other soldiers before they could unsling their rifles.

Around the bonfire, soldiers died almost before they could scramble for their rifles. A soldier jerked a pistol from a shoulder holster and fell flat on the rocks and hard earth. His revolver popped twice, and slugs shattered the Plexiglas windscreen in the helicopter. Full-auto fire from several rifles answered, and the earth around the soldier exploded. Hits in his shoulders, head and arms arched the soldier backward. He knelt there for an instant, already dead, until another burst threw him to his god.

Soldiers ran from the ridge, seeking escape in the darkness. Two claymore mines boomed as scurrying soldiers fell over trip lines. Dust and shredded mesquite rose in a wave as thousands of lethal steel balls tore into the slope, shredding flesh and pulping bone.

A few survived to surrender. Vato shouted out to halt the rifle fire. Silence came. Somewhere in the darkness of the mountainside, a soldier maimed by a claymore screamed in agony.

Standing at the first helicopter, Lyons watched the Yaquis herd the soldiers together.

Defeat had come quickly to the airborne commandos of the International Group.

Lyons analyzed the action by the doctrines of Sun Tzu. He realized Able Team and the Yaquis owed this victory to deception: the self-deception of undisciplined criminals who thought automatic rifles and helicopters made them an elite airborne force.

Arrogant with easy victory, the International Group had deceived themselves. They thought that the murder of defenseless people proved power. They thought that gang rape proved them invincible.

But a group of brave people — with captured rifles, with ashes for camouflage, with a paperback book of Chinese philosophy for guidance — had destroyed the gang of murderers.

17

The rotor throb of an approaching helicopter thundered above the pueblo. The three men of Able Team startled awake in one of the adobe houses.

In thanks for the liberation of the pueblo, the people had provided the North Americans with a room and beds made of dry cornstalks covered with woven mats. Now, the soft blue light of morning came through the branches roofing the house.

Cornstalks crackled as Gadgets sat up and reached for his CAR. Lyons opened his eyes, but did not lift his head from the pack he used as a pillow. Staring up at the hundreds of points of predawn blue shining through the thatched ceiling, their eyes followed the noise of the helicopter from the west to east. As the ear-shattering noise of the rotors faded, Gadgets turned to his partners.

"The army? "he asked.

Lyons yawned and shook his head. "There's no alarm," Blancanales answered. "The people would come to alert us."

"Must be Davis," Lyons said. "Unless one of the army pilots escaped. Time to get organized."

Standing, Lyons slapped dust and bits of cornstalk from his sweat-stiffened, filthy fatigues. Powdery earth from the ridge had shaded his fatigues a two-tone — the back of his shirt and pants faded black, the fronts, especially his knees and elbows, dirt brown. He unscrewed the cap of his canteen, poured water into one of his cupped hands, and washed his face.

"I don't think any of those goons are going to escape," Gadgets told his partners as they assembled their equipment and weapons. "Pol, you see what happened to that rapist shit, the one the Yaquis caught in the act?"

Blancanales didn't reply. Lyons laughed, the sound sharp and cynical. "Didn't live through it, did he?"

"You had to see it to believe it." Gadgets shook his head, as if attempting to clear his mind of the images. "I have seen some bad shit, but it's always been what's already happened, after the fact. But this, man oh man, right there in front of me, in living color..."

"What? They castrate him?" Lyons didn't pause as he broke down his silenced Colt and checked the mechanism. "Makes sense to me."

"More than just that. They took his skin off like a shirt. They unzipped him with their knives. His shirt and pants and... his skin... they just stripped it off him. If it hadn't been so horrible, it would've been flat out amazing."

Through the small window they heard crying and voices. Blancanales pushed aside a burlap curtain and looked outside. He watched for a moment, then spoke to his partners. "The people are preparing their dead. And it looks like everyone's leaving. They're all packed."

"Any minute the army could show up with napalm. You packed?" Lyons asked. "We're going, too."

"Where?" Gadgets asked.

"Wherever the goon squad came from," Lyons told him. "Now we've got transportation."

Shouldering their packs, they left the adobe house and walked into a crowd of townspeople gathering on the road. Men and women carrying bundles of possessions on their backs trudged north, followed by lines of children. Older children pulled goats along by ropes. Other children carried baskets of chickens. A few families shouldered heavier burdens: cloth-wrapped dead.

Townspeople gathered around the three North Americans, thanking them for their help. Blancanales acknowledged in Spanish; Gadgets and Lyons nodded. Children stared at the strangers. Finally, Able Team marched away to find the fighters.

Walking to the ridge trail, they saw that only furniture remained in the houses of the pueblo. The walls had been stripped of photos, shelves and tables were bare of utensils, the windows denuded of curtains. Before the sun rose over the eastern hill, the pueblo would be deserted.

"Think these people are opium farmers?" Lyons asked his partners.

"If they are, it doesn't look like they got rich," Gadgets said.

Blancanales indicated the pueblo with a sweep of his arm, taking in the mud-plastered adobe houses, the pole and tree-branch ramadas, the people with ragged clothes and bundles of possessions.

"Do you begin to understand why they would grow opium?" he asked Lyons. "Someone comes out here and promises them a few dollars. It's the difference between food or no food, shoes or no shoes..."

"But what they got was a gang war..." Lyons replied as he looked up. Vultures circled the village.

"Opium and death," Lyons said. "Heroin and gang wars. Billions of dope dollars and international fascism. Hell, it's time to move. We've got questions to put to those prisoners."

Bent under the unwelcome weight of their packs and weapons, they climbed up the steep trail to the ridge. Only two of the Huey troopships remained. Soldiers worked inside the helicopters. On the north end of the ridge, where Lyons and Vato had hidden and plotted the infiltration, soldiers dug ditches.

Vato, standing in the center of the ridgetop plateau, directed the soldiers. The old achaistood beside him. As Able Team approached the helicopters, the North Americans recognized Yaquis in the green camouflage fatigues. The Yaquis wore the fatigues, berets and boots of the Mexican army. They all wore army web gear. With the M-16 and FN-FAL rifles they had captured from the Mexicans, they looked like soldiers.

"What's going on?" Gadgets wondered out loud.

They saw that nothing remained of the killing the night before. No blood or flesh marked the spots where Mexican soldiers had died. Yaquis swept the earth clean with branches.

In one of the troopships, Miguel Coral worked with Yaquis to secure a chain of three claymore mines to the engine housing of a troopship. Taped together in a band, linked by a line of det-cord, the claymores faced them.

"I wouldn't stand in front of amateurs playing with claymores," Gadgets advised from a distance.

Lyons and Blancanales stepped back ten paces.

"What are they doing?" Blancanales asked.

"Vato!" Lyons called out.

The achaiand the young leader walked to them. Of all the Yaquis, only they wore dust-colored clothing. Vato had his Springfield rifle slung over his back.

"What's happening over there?" Gadgets pointed to the troopship where Coral had set up the claymore mines.

"The army is coming. With their officers. When they come, we kill them."

"How do you know?" Lyons demanded.

"This will be known as the Hill of Death," the achaiadded. With a salute to the foreigners, the old man walked away. "The boy will instruct you en su trabajo aqui."

"In the other helicopter, the one that Davis took away, there is a special radio..."

"Where's he now?" Lyons continued.

"My men hide the helicopter. He will wait with it."

"What kind of special radio?" Gadgets asked. He shrugged off his pack and set it on the earth.

Blancanales stopped the interruptions. "Gentlemen! The man's trying to brief us."

Vato continued. "I told the Mexican lieutenant to report that he had trapped the Yaquis and North Americans, but he needed more soldiers and weapons. The Mexican colonel immediately took command. I know the vanity of my enemy. He flies here now to lead the final assault. And we will kill them.

"There..." Vato pointed to the first helicopter "...we have the bombs in place. Claymore mines. In front of the bombs are barrels of gasoline from the helicopters. Senor Coral told me the arrangement would be very terrible..."

"Oh, yeah..." Gadgets agreed. "If the blast and shrapnel don't get them, the flash will toast them righteously."

"And now Senor Coral prepares the second bomb. When the helicopters land, my soldiers will go down the trail, then explode the bombs."

"But what a waste of helicopters," Gadgets interrupted again. "Those Hueys cost a million each."

"There is only one pilot," Vato countered. "The men there..." he pointed to the soldiers digging ditches on the hill overlooking the plateau "...they have the machine guns from the helicopters. They will fire down. And there on that mountain..."

Across the canyon, three hundred fifty meters away, Yaquis wearing their dust-colored uniforms dug more ditches. "From there, we will shoot with rifles and machine guns. When they come, they die."

Blancanales nodded. "A classic 'X' ambush."

"We will need one of you here," Vato continued. He looked to Blancanales. "You, you speak Castilian. You will be here with your radio. And you..." he looked to Lyons "...you will be with me on the other mountain."

"How will you trigger the claymores?" Gadgets asked. "Maybe I can work out something slick. And that other helicopter's got radios. I can monitor the frequencies."

Vato pointed to the helicopter. "I know nothing of that. Talk to Senor Coral. When he is done, he will take you to where the other helicopter is hidden."

"What happened to our prisoners?" Lyons demanded.

"The officers?" Vato asked. "Nothing."

"And the other soldiers?" Blancanales asked.

Not taking his eyes from Lyons, Vato ignored the question, as if Blancanales had not spoken. "Come. I go now to the other hill to wait. I will take you to the officers. You can question them. But we must hurry. We talk too much and the Mexicans come."

"We want in on this?" Lyons asked his partners.

Gadgets nodded. "The man's got it down. No doubt about it."

"If the Mexicans come down here," Blancanales added. The ex-Green Beret surveyed the landscape, the ridge, the canyon, the near-vertical mountainsides, the expanse of desert and hills and gullies continuing into the distance.

Only the plateau where they stood offered the advantages of high, defensible ground and open area for the landing and takeoffs of helicopters. To the north, where the Yaqui machine gunners concealed their firing positions, rocks and sheer drop-offs made landing impossible. To the east, where Vato would place his riflemen and backup machine gun, a hilltop offered only a few square meters of level area. With the uniformed soldiers and the decoy troopships, the plateau looked like a secured landing zone. Blancanales finally nodded his approval.

"And I think they will," he said.

"This means we can't raid the army base," Lyons told his partners. "If they lose the colonel, they'll be on full alert."

"Ironman, get smart. We've got a helicopter. Are they going to expect us to come out of the sky in one of their own troopships? You're just making noise because this ain't your idea."

"I want to get the number-one Nazi, the Mexican traitor who's working for the goons."

Gadgets laughed. "Well, hey, maybe he's coming to you!"

"All right..." Lyons looked across to the other hilltop. "I'll be over there."

And he jogged after Vato.

"Notice Vato didn't answer your question about the soldiers?" Gadgets asked Blancanales.

"Had to ask. I know the answer."

"Yeah. Me, too. Zipppp. Zipppp."

* * *

On the trail, Lyons saw the last of the families leaving the pueblo. The houses stood empty. Nothing moved on the dirt road but swirls of dust.

Vato waited for him in the streambed. Lyons splashed through the shallows, his overweight backpack lurching from side to side.

"Where are they?" he asked.

In response, Vato led him up the embankment to a shack made of interwoven branches and plastered with mud. A Yaqui fighter guarding the door nodded to Vato and Lyons.

"We did nothing to them. But I think they will speak."

Lyons looked at the sleeves of the guard's dust-colored shirt. Clotted blood crusted the cloth as high as his elbows. Blood had splattered his shirt and pants. Then Lyons pushed aside the woven-stick door.

Plastic loops still secured the prisoners' wrists and ankles. Tape covered their mouths. But the tape over their eyes had been replaced with blood-clotted strips of green camouflage cloth. The shack stank of the blood.

And shit. The officers had emptied their bowels and bladders into their tailored fatigues.

As Lyons pushed aside the door, the Fascist and the Mexican traitor convulsed, arching their bodies, kicking with their legs in an attempt to push themselves backward through the wall. Animal groans came from their throats. Stepping back, Lyons spoke to Vato in a whisper, "What did you do? Tell me..."

"We put all of the Mexicans in a line. We put these two at the end. To be last. And as all the others went to the gods, they watched. When there was only the two, we went to them and said they were the prisoners of the North Americans. If the North Americans wanted them to live, they would live. And if not, then they would be offered, like all the other soldiers."

Lyons laughed. Vato spoke to the Yaqui guard and they laughed also. In the shack, the prisoners thrashed and groaned, beating their bodies against the mud-plastered sticks.

"Very effective," Lyons told the Yaquis, then he went to the prisoners. To play on their fears, he slipped out his double-edged boot knife. He squatted in front of the gray-uniformed Nazi and tore off the man's blindfold.

The man shook with fear. Blinking against the light, his eyes rolling in their sockets, the blond European-featured Fascist cringed. Lyons grabbed the Fascist's hair and immobilized his head. With the tip of the knife, he cut the tape over the prisoner's mouth.

"Who are you?" Lyons demanded. "Where do you come from? Who is your commander?"

The Fascist stared at Lyons. His voice trembled with panic. "You're a white man... why are you with them? These animals... why do you betray your country? Your race?"

Lyons repeated. "Who are you? Where do you come from? Who is your commander? Answer or die."

The prisoner summoned up his arrogance. "I am an officer of the International. All the power of the International stands behind me. Free me, and as a white man, you can expect mercy... and a position in the New Reich."

Lyons watched and listened as the Fascist spoke.

"You cannot hope to withstand the onslaught of the Reich. The elite of the hemisphere stand united. Even your government, your leaders stand with us, united!"

The knife blade pressed against his mouth stopped his words. "Just answer the questions, filth." Lyons's anger raged through his words.

"I am Captain Graefe of the International, advisor to the International Group of the army of the Republic of Mexico," the Fascist proudly trumpeted.

"Americano!" the Yaqui guard called to Lyons.

"Que?" Lyonsrushed outside.

The Yaqui pointed to a mirror flashing with the dawn light from the eastern hilltop. Lyons saw Vato already running for his position across the canyon.

"Ellos vienen. Vayase! El Brujo lo necesita."

Lyons dashed back into the shack. He replaced the blindfold on the Fascist. As Lyons unrolled fresh tape to blind and gag Graefe, the Fascist said to him, "Now is your chance to save yourself! You face overwhelming force. Nothing can withstand the armies of the New Reich. Take this chance to..."

Tape stopped his words. Lyons looped the tape over the prisoner's mouth, then put a wrap around the man's head to hold the blindfold in place.

"I'll be back," was all he said, a cold fury in his voice.

Lyons ran.

18

Dawn seared the eastern horizon. Weaving through the dark mountains, the formation of three helicopters searched for a nameless pueblo of indigenasin a canyon without a name. Soldiers stared through the Plexiglas doors of the UH-1 troopships to the shadowed canyons and mountains of the Sierra Madres. Colonel Gonzalez swept the distant ridges with the optics of his binoculars.

Cursing into the intercom, Gonzalez demanded, "Give me the frequency of the plane again!"

"Yes, Colonel," the helicopter copilot answered.

Static hissed in the colonel's headset, then the pilot of the light plane accompanying the troopships answered. "I have not yet seen the village, Colonel."

"Why this problem? You found the filthy place! You have the coordinates!"

"Sir, it was another pilot who flew for that operation. The coordinates recorded in the flight book are approximate. I am rising to a greater altitude now. I am sure I will spot the helicopters of Lieutenant Colomo immediately. Only another moment of patience, please."

"Copilot!" Gonzalez shouted. "Get me the liaison unit."

More static erupted from the speaker as the frequency changed to the UHF band, linking Colonel Gonzalez's troopship with the troopship carrying Colonel Jon Gunther and his squad of elite International commandos.

Colonel Gunther watched the landscape pass below him. Red dawn light illuminated the eastern ridges; the canyons and western slopes remained draped in night. He attempted to match the mountain ridges to his topographic map. The voice of Colonel Gonzalez interrupted him.

"Colonel Gunther, forgive the delay. I ordered the pilot of the plane to rise to an observation altitude. We will have our landing zone in only another moment."

Scanning the dawn sky, Gunther saw red light reflect from the wings of the observation plane. The aluminum napalm canister under the plane flashed like a beacon as the sun glanced off it.

"This confusion wastes fuel," Colonel Gunther spoke into his intercom.

"True," Colonel Gonzalez answered. "I will discipline the pilot who failed to record the correct coordinates. There is a message now. One moment..."

Static ended the transmission. Colonel Gunther thanked Jehovah he had never accepted a Mexican in his liaison unit. His pilots and soldiers all came from the other nations of the International. To serve him, he accepted only elite of the death squads of Argentina and El Salvador, the bravest of the Chilean and expatriate Bolivian soldiers, the strongest Americans, the most technically adept French. He would not trust his security to the paramilitary scum collected by their Mexican allies.

For too many generations, the blue-eyed Mexicans of Castilian heritage had enjoyed the luxury of easy dominion over the indigenasand mestizos. Vain with the glory of a revolution fought by armies of destitute soldiers promised land and equality, the Castilian Mexicans rode to power on a wave of blood and rhetoric. Since their independence from Spain, the Mexican elite had squandered uncounted thousands of soldiers in pointless wars with the United States, Guatemala and El Salvador. Defeat never silenced the ranting Castilians. Though only wealth and privilege separated the Castilians from the mestizos, they declared racial distinction.

The International needed Mexican allies. Gunther did not. If the International did not require the billions of American dollars earned by the heroin trade, Colonel Gunther would have never encountered the petty, pompous, blue-eyed Gonzalez.

Now, the repeated failures of the Mexicans to liquidate the American antidrug operatives required Colonel Gunther to commit his men. The restraints of secrecy and time forced the Fascist colonel to limit his commitment today to liaison. But he had mobilized other International units. They would arrive at Rancho Cortez the next day. The Mexican colonel had only one more day to kill the Americans.

"The pilot has sighted the landing zone!" Colonel Gonzalez declared.

"Where is the fighting?" Gunther looked out to see the two Mexican helicopters veering away to the east.

"There is a problem with the radio link. After I establish command, we will join the attack. Lieutenant Colomo will brief us on the ground."

"I want an overflight of the fighting, Colonel!" Gunther demanded.

"It is not possible now!"

"Do as I say, Gonzalez! I am in command here!"

Static cut the link.

"The fool!" Gunther shouted. "That posturing playboy. That..."

"Colonel Gunther," his pilot's voice interrupted his anger. "I heard him. I also monitored the other transmissions. Allow me to suggest we avoid landing with the other helicopters."

Calmed by the intelligent and professional manner of his trusted pilot, Gunther said, "Please explain."

"The Mexican said there was a problem with the radio link. The truth is, there is no radio link."

"What? He has no contact with the force on the ground?"

"The pilot in the plane sees Mexican soldiers and helicopters. But there is no communication with the ground. For what reason, we do not know."

Gunther consulted his topographical map. "If these coordinates are correct, there is a second hill to the east of where the little colonel will land. However, my map does not indicate flat area. If it is possible..."

"My Colonel," the pilot interrupted. "I have the same map. If there is an area three meters by three meters, I can land this aircraft."

* * *

Lyons sprinted up a path, his muscles laboring against the weight of his weapons and equipment. At the top, he found himself alone in the brush and weeds. He scanned the horizon. No helicopters, no planes. He waited as the pulse thundering in his ears slowed. He heard no helicopters. He looked down the trail and called out, "Vato! Yaquis!"

"Norteamericano!" a voice answered. "Aqui!"

Faces appeared. Vato and a group of Yaquis already waited. Lyons crawled into the dense matting of stubby brush. The Yaquis lay camouflaged in fighting holes. Domes of lashed-together brush, dry weeds and dust-colored cloth concealed them as they waited for the helicopters. The only openings in the camouflage faced across the canyon, toward the death trap.

Snaking under the camouflage, Lyons took a fighting hole next to Vato and his spotter, where he could serve to relay Vato's instructions to the groups across the canyon. The teenager who would spot the targets for Vato's rifle passed Lyons his FN-FAL para-rifle.

Minute after minute passed. But the helicopters did not come. Lyons and the Yaquis waited, every tension-filled minute an hour.

Through the high-powered optics of his binoculars, Lyons searched the opposite ridge for any discordant element or image — as the Mexicans in the helicopters would do before they landed. He saw the uniformed Yaquis in their places. A hundred meters to the north, where brush and dust-colored cloth camouflaged Blancanales and the machine gunners, Lyons saw nothing.

Lyons put down the binoculars and prepared his weapons. Though the Atchisson would be useless at this extreme range, he checked the selective-fire assault shotgun and loaded it. He laid the weapon at the side of his fighting hole, the bandolier of 12-gauge magazines ready. Then he swung out the stock of the NATO-caliber FN-FAL rifle and peered through the sight. Snapping out the magazine, he looked at the top cartridge. He saw a Winchester soft-point hunting round, with the tip hollowed out and filled with some dark substance.

"Que es?" Lyons asked the spotter. He pointed to the tip of the bullet.

"Huvacvena," the teenager told him.

"A poison made from huvacvena," Vato explained. "It causes flesh to die."

His hand radio clicked. Lyons reloaded the rifle and keyed a response. "What goes? Where are the helicopters?"

Through the electronics, he heard Gadgets reply. "The goons are lost! I'm monitoring their frequency. They can't find the landing zone. They keep calling for Lieutenant Colomo to guide them in."

"Don't do it! Don't chance it!"

"Don't sweat it, I won't risk an impersonation. I thought of running over to the village and getting him, but it's a quarter mile each way. And I did a year's worth of running yesterday. Davis parked the helicopter over on the other side of the ridge. It's all camouflaged with cloth and branches and stuff. And guess what I found? Remember the black box radio in the jeep we took from the Popular Liberation Forces? In el ano del mundo!"

"What?"

"You know, Salvador."

Months before, in the mountains of El Salvador's Morazon province, Able Team had decimated a Communist assassination squad. They had captured two jeeps used by the rebel force. One of the jeeps contained a secure-band radio designed and manufactured by the National Security Agency.

"You're jiving me."

"Noooo, not me." Gadgets repeated, "They've got a black box. Just like el numero-uno Nazado Quesada. And us. Hey, wait... they've got a plane up there, I'm monitoring..."

Whistles came from Yaquis. Voices shouted out, "Aeroplano!"

"He's spotted us. Stand by for action. Over and out."

Lyons called into his radio. "Political. You ready?"

"I'm ready," Blancanales answered. "But are you ready for that plane?"

"Ready if you are."

"We're not the ones they'll bomb, Ironman. We're too close to the kill zone. They'd hit their own soldiers. It's you. If that pilot spots you, he'll do a fire-suppression run. If he's got the bombs..."

"Hey, Pol," Gadgets interrupted. "Why else would he be here? They think we're surrounded, right? Watch out, Ironman. If that wing wipe packs napalm... a little dab'll do ya."

Rotor throb thudded through the air.

Looking to the west, Lyons saw two helicopters. A third troopship followed. Lyons turned on his back and scanned the sky. High above them, a light plane spiraled down.

"They are ready?" Vato asked Lyons.

"No problems."

Vato looked up at the plane. Both of them saw the aluminum canister mounted under the plane's belly. Vato's eyes met Lyons's. They knew what the canister contained: napalm. In Nam they'd called it the devil's cocktail.

As the plane orbited at a thousand feet, two helicopters descended to the plateau. The Yaquis in Mexican uniforms waved the pilots down. Dust obscured the ridge as the troopships touched down.

In the dust storm kicked up by the landing choppers, the Yaquis left the ridge, walking slowly and naturally down the trail to the pueblo. Lyons counted the fighters on the trail. His hand radio clicked.

"What about the other helicopter?" Blancanales asked. "Wizard. Any communications?"

"Nothing," Gadgets answered. "I didn't catch everything they said back and forth, but they're not saying anything now. Nothing."

"Ironman, what does Vato say?" Blancanales asked.

Lyons turned to the young man. He saw Vato aiming his Springfield. The spotter spoke to Vato. Vato nodded. He spoke to Lyons.

"There is an officer. A colonel. See him? When I shoot him, tell them to fire the..."

Rotor throb obliterated his words. The third helicopter descended from the sky like a dark-green dragonfly. Vato and the spotter grabbed the cloth and brush and branches concealing them, holding the camouflage before the rotor storm tore it away.

Vato shouted to Lyons, "Tell them to fire the bombs!"

Blinded by dust, the roar of the descending helicopter slamming his ears with mind-shattering decibels, Lyons screamed into the hand radio.

"Fire! Fire! Fire it!"

Across the canyon, the helicopters cut their engines. Dust drifted. Mexican soldiers left the helicopters.

Lyons screamed into the radio again, "Fire it!"

Looking out the Plexiglas windows of the third helicopter, the soldiers of the Fascist International could not have seen their North American and indigenaenemies.

Steel skids crushing their camouflage, the troopship came down directly on top of the fighting holes dug into the hilltop, trapping Lyons and the Yaquis.

The shrieking roar of the rotors above Lyons died as the pilot cut the engines.

Doors slammed open. Boots came down.

19

Blancanales put his face to the earth and clicked the electrical trigger.

Nothing.

Looking at the firing device in his hand, the ex-Green Beret checked the possible problems: the handle, the shorting plug, the safety bail under the firing handle, the wires.

Shouts and rotor roar came from his radio. Blancanales looked up. Across the canyon, the third helicopter descended from the sky to land directly on the tiny hilltop where camouflage concealed Lyons and the Yaquis.

Blancanales clicked his radio's transmit key. "Lyons! They're..."

Thunder overwhelmed his voice.

Flame swept the ridge. A hundred meters away, four helicopters disappeared in a maelstrom of fire, the soldiers dying in one instant of superheated gases and high-velocity steel shrapnel. Flash heat burning his face, Blancanales ducked down again and shouted into his hand radio.

"Wizard! A helicopter came down on the Ironman. They're off-loading soldiers."

Gadgets interrupted. "Forget it! That's their problem. The goons are calling down the napalm."

An instant after the flame destroyed the Mexican army unit, the claymore thunder hit Lyons and Vato and the spotter. Looking past the polished boots and gray fatigue pants of the Fascist soldiers, they saw a churning ball of orange-and-black flame mushrooming into the sky. Small secondary explosions popped as the heat ignited the munitions of the soldiers and the fuel tanks of their troopships.

Shouted commands came from the helicopter. The Fascist soldiers fired their autorifles. Cartridge casings showered Lyons and Vato where they hid.

Across the canyon, the Yaquis in Mexican army uniforms ran down the trail from the ridge. Dust puffed around them as the Fascists aimed bullets at the escaping decoy squad.

Dragging his Atchisson and bandolier out of the collapsed camouflage, Lyons buckled the bandolier around his body. He pulled out a second magazine of 12-gauge shells and jerked back the actuator.

Lyons looked to Vato. The Yaqui leader attempted to free his Springfield from under the troopship's skid. The spotter pulled a .38-caliber revolver. Lyons cautioned them both and shook his head.

"They're killing my men!" Vato argued.

"Shout to the others to drop down, then I fire. Ready?"

Vato nodded.

"Now..."

"Yaquis, abajo!"

Lyons sprayed full-auto shotgun fire. Double-ought and number-two steel shot tore through the screen of branches and weeds.

High-velocity steel tore away the leg of a soldier, spinning the maimed Fascist down the steep hillside. Another lost a hand. One startled, his nerves throwing him into a reflexive dive for safety as steel balls severed his spine and exploded from his chest.

Seven full-auto 12-gauge blasts scythed the elite unit of International soldiers before the soldiers realized the murderous fire came from behind them. Trained to react first and think later, they dropped to their bellies.

The pilot started the engine.

Rotors swirling above him, a Salvadorian soldier looked for the source of the fire. He raised his head to look to the other side of the troopship and died, the first blast of the next seven rounds taking off the top of his forehead.

Again, the hilltop exploded as Lyons fired out the Atchisson's magazine. The .38-caliber revolver popped. Rotor storm fanned dust and chopped brush.

The steel skid shifted. Vato jerked free his Springfield. He pointed the .30-06 rifle straight up and pulled the trigger. Then his spotter had his FN-FAL punching the belly of the troopship with point-blank 7.62mm NATO.

* * *

Only five seconds had passed since the helicopter landed on the hilltop.

Colonel Gunther had lost six of his men.

As the troopship lifted away, a Chilean soldier clawed his way back aboard only to leap upward suddenly, a slug tearing straight up through the floor panels and continuing through his chest. Blood, pumping from the Chilean's through-and-through death wounds, poured over Colonel Gunther. Another slug careened through the troopship. The colonel grabbed the dying man's M-16.

The helicopter's gunner fired his pedestal-mounted M-60 machine gun. The heavy-caliber autofire tore the hillside. But the weapon could not point under the helicopter.

Lyons jammed in another Atchisson magazine. This one contained one-ounce slugs. He hit the bolt release to chamber the first of the seven rounds.

Standing up in the fighting hole, throwing aside the screen of camouflage, Lyons faced the belly of the troopship. He pointed the weapon at the engine area and fired.

Sheet metal crumpled. Each slug slammed the Huey's belly with thousands of foot-pounds of force. Through the Plexiglas nose window of the helicopter, Lyons saw the feet of the pilot operating the directional control pedals.

The Yaqui with the machine gun fired from his fighting hole, tracers sparking off a steel skid, tearing holes through the aluminum body of the helicopter.

Left hand gripping the airframe, his right hand holding the M-16 like a pistol, Colonel Gunther leaned from the cargo door and fired a burst into the Yaqui's face, killing him instantly. Then Gunther aimed under the skids, to execute the hidden enemy who had slaughtered the men of his squad.

A one-ounce slug smashed up through the Plexiglas nose window, the pilot's left leg exploding and spraying pulped flesh and bone. He convulsed with the shock and pain, losing control of the aircraft controls. The fuselage rotated violently counterclockwise.

G-force broke Gunther's grip. The Fascist International colonel fell out of the doorway.

"Colonel!" the doorgunner called out.

The helicopter spun out of control, the tail rotor roaring over Lyons as he dropped for safety. He saw a Fascist with a rifle crash into the brush.

Thrown from side to side in his safety harness, the gunner clutched his M-60. Then the copilot took the controls and the troopship sideslipped away.

Now the gunner had a straight line of fire on the enemy hidden on the hilltop. He aimed his M-60 at the black-clad commando. Then the commando dived across the dead and dying soldiers of the International and locked an arm around the throat of Colonel Gunther.

"Colonel!" the gunner shouted again. The copilot heard the gunner through the intercom.

"What has happened to the colonel?"

"He's out there! He's on the hill, fighting with..."

"Fire, kill the ones you can," the copilot ordered. "I'll circle. Who's left from the squad?"

The doorgunner glanced to the benches. Two soldiers, strapped into their seats remained. They attempted to aim their M-16 rifles at the enemy on the hill. But the colonel blocked their aim.

"Only two."

"We must get the colonel."

On the hilltop, Lyons smashed the Fascist colonel again and again in the side of the head with his fist. But Gunther slammed an elbow into Lyons's gut, doubling him over.

Lyons fell back. He heard the rotor throb fading as the helicopter banked away. Then a fist smashed him. Stunned, Lyons kicked. A hand clamped around his throat and the fist smashed into his face again.

A Yaqui drove the steel butt of FN-FAL para-rifle into the Fascist's head, once, twice, then the Fascist tore the rifle out of the Yaqui's hands. Lyons slammed his knee into the colonel's groin.

Foul breath exploded into Lyons's face. He grabbed the colonel's uniform shirt and threw him to the side. A Yaqui clamped an arm around the throat of the colonel and choked him. Lyons struggled to pin Gunther's wrists.

The helicopter returned. From the opposite ridge, Blancanales and a Yaqui tracked the troopship with M-60 machine guns. Tracers arced over the canyon.

Lyons heard his Atchisson boom. Vato held the full-auto weapon at his shoulder and squeezed off another shot, the recoil jarring his slight body back. Then he brought the sights down and aimed again.

At a range of twenty meters, he did not miss. A one-ounce slug shattered the windshield of the helicopter and killed the wounded pilot. Vato aimed again, but the Atchisson did not fire. Empty.

Colonel Gunther threw the Yaqui away from him. He broke Lyons's grip and ran for the helicopter. The doorgunner leaned out to rescue his commander.

"Vato!" Lyons yelled as he tossed a 7-round mag of 12-gauge shells to the Yaqui leader.

Autofire tore past Lyons's head. Throwing him-self sideways, Lyons snatched the Colt Python from the hideout holster at the small of his back and snap-fired into the door of the helicopter. Another burst of 5.56mm tore past him, then he saw a face, and he fired and saw the head explode with the impact of the hollowpoint. On a dead run, he tackled Gunther, pushed him down and smashed the Python against the Fascist's head again and again, blood spraying, hammering the man into unconsciousness.

The Atchisson fired in wild full-auto, Vato losing control of the recoiling assault shotgun. But the spray of steel projectiles swept the troopship's interior, punching aluminum and flesh. Blasts threw a soldier back. A headless man flailed the air. The doorgunner thrashed in his safety harness, blood spurting from a hundred death wounds. The helicopter turned away.

Unaware that he carried only dead soldiers, the copilot banked the helicopter to circle around again. The maneuver exposed the top of the troopship.

The Yaqui spotter shouldered his FN-FAL para-rifle. Taking careful aim, he fired at the center of the spinning rotors. The .308 Winchester hollow-points punched into the engine cowling. The Yaqui emptied the para-rifle.

Metal shrieked. The helicopter lost power, the banking turn becoming a dead fall into the mountain. Missing the ridgeline, the troopship skipped off a steep slope. As the fuselage disintegrated into metal and Plexiglas and plastic tumbling down the mountainside, the fuel tanks exploded into an intense fireball. Burning wreckage drifted, as if in slow motion, into the canyon.

Lyons pulled the loops of plastic handcuffs tight around the ankles and wrists of the unconscious colonel. As a precaution he put two loops around the huge man's wrists.

On the hilltop a dying Fascist groaned, his breath bubbling blood. Vato dropped the Atchisson and went to the Yaqui machine gunner. He found the teenager dead, his weapon still in his hands.

Machine guns continued spraying out a river of lead death.

Lyons looked to the rocks where Blancanales and his Yaqui gunners hid. Drifting smoke from the burning hulks of the helicopters obscured rocks, but two lines of tracers emerged from the pall to streak up into the sky.

The light plane circled, its napalm canister flashing with the morning light.

"The machine gun!" Lyons called out to Vato.

They heard the engine pitch change. The plane lined up with the hilltop and gained speed as it dived.

Lyons scrambled across the litter of corpses. He took the M-60 out of the dead Yaqui's hands. Vato untangled the cartridge belt from the bloody camouflage.

Shouldering the heavy weapon, Lyons sighted on the pilot and pulled the trigger. Tracers hurtled past the cockpit. Struggling to hold the bucking M-60 on line, Lyons did not release the trigger. A windshield shattered.

The pilot pulled back as he released the napalm. Lyons saw the canister tumbling through the air directly at him. But he didn't stop firing. Resolved to kill the man who would kill him, Lyons followed the plane with the M-60.

Tracers touched a wing, then the line of 7.62mm NATO slugs found the engine. Black smoke and bright-orange flames erupted from the cowling vents.

A hand pulled Lyons down to cover. Lyons and Vato watched the bomb come. Flashing as it fell end over end, the canister of napalm came down at their faces.

Vato screamed out a prayer in the last instant of his life. "Huitzil!"

The aluminum of the canister almost grazed Lyons's hair as it hurtled past and continued into the void of the canyon. Lyons turned to see the canister fall into the pueblo, the splash of avgas and styrene engulfing the few houses in a holocaust of flame.

"The prisoners..." Vato pointed into the fires. The mud-plastered hut holding the Mexican and European officers was a raging inferno.

"Lost them," Lyons answered as he left the fighting hole. He stood over the unconscious Fascist officer. He saw the eagles and SS insignia on the gray fatigues. "But we got a colonel."

Lyons scanned the area. No weapons fired. He saw Blancanales and the Yaquis leaving their positions. They waved across the distance to the hilltop. Lyons turned to Vato.

"What's Huitzil?" he asked.

"Huitzilopochtli. The god of war. I offered myself so that I could fight in the next world. To kill as a spirit warrior."

"You want to keep fighting?"

"Until all of them are dead."

"Then come with us."

* * *

Before the fires on the Hill of the Dead cooled to ashes, Able Team and the Yaqui warriors flew south in the captured troopship. Guided by the defeated colonel, armed with the weapons of the Mexican army, they would enter a maze of treason and conspiracy to strike at the heart of the Reich of the Americas.


home | my bookshelf | | Scorched Earth |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу