Shadow Men

PROLOGUE

They picked a moonlit night to make their escape because it was the only way. And now it was killing them. The first shot sizzled through the humid air as if it were underwater, and he heard it a millisecond before it found the muscled flesh of his son’s shoulder blade and made the ugly sound of a wet, dull punch.

The boy gasped and stumbled, and his father caught him under the arm before he went down.

“Papa?” his other son said from a few steps ahead the fear in his young voice like an uncharacteristic cry. The father could see the pale glow of the younger boy’s face in the moonlight and the outline of his body against the sky above the horizon, and he realized he had made targets of his sons.

“Down, Steven!” he called out. “Down in the ditch!”

All three scrambled off the piled hump of Everglades muck and limestone marl and slid down the embankment to the edge of the water below. Two of them were breathing hard; the third was bubbling wet air and blood through the new hole in his lung. They did not need to speak. They had known instantly from the sound of the report who was hunting them, and they knew the odds of surviving.

“Robert?” the father whispered, holding his seventeen-year-old son to him, now pressing his hand over the exit wound in the boy’s chest to stop the ragged sound of death coming through his sweat-soaked shirt. “Oh, God Robert, forgive me for what I have brought you to.”

The other boy moved across the dirt to them, his face so close he could feel his father’s breath on his cheek.

“Papa? Is Robert OK, Papa?” he said and the father could feel the tears in his son’s voice but could not answer. He had never lied to his children, and he did not want to break that vow this close to the end.

The father looked up to the high edge of the earthen berm they had all helped build, the foundation of the road they had all worked to create. Beyond it was a canvas of stars that had stunned them their first few nights out here in the wild Glades and then comforted them far weeks with a seeming physical closeness to God himself. But the clear crescent moon had betrayed them. The elevated roadbed was the only way back through the swamp to civilization. On a cloud-locked night it would have melded into the darkness and been impossible to follow to freedom. So they picked this night, planning to use the glint of moonlight on the canal water to guide them and the ribbon of black dirt to walk upon.

“We need to move, now, Steven,” the father said. “Across the water. You are the strongest swimmer. Take your brother’s good arm and I will get his belt and we will sidestroke together. If we can get to the mangroves on the other side, God will give us cover.”

He could feel his son’s head nod. He was the determined one, the one who thought all things possible, the one with the optimism and strength of youth. He would believe. The father took his shirt off, knotted it in the middle and put the lump of fabric over his son’s exit wound then tied the ends over the entrance hole on the boy’s back. His own tears were running now.

“Get ready, Steven, we have to move quietly,” the father said, and then hesitated once more, feeling in his pocket for the gold watch of his own father and then slipping the thick disk