CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO


February 3, 1971

Hannibal wanted Wiley to take him to the bodies. He wanted to see for himself. Not because he didn't believe him, but there was always a chance. Wiley had said himself he couldn't get down to the bodies, so maybe they weren't dead. Maybe it just looked that way.

He couldn't be dead. Not like that.

Wiley and BA both tried to talk him out of it. Wiley said they'd dropped at least forty feet, maybe more. No way they could've survived that. In the end, he had no choice. He was about to order Wiley when they heard the snap of a branch off in the distance. Then more rustling and snaps. Some distance yet, but getting closer.

Fast.

They weren't surprised by it. Dimitri had made enough noise to bring the whole country down on them, and Face and Wiley had only added to it. Hannibal knew it was only the terrain that had given them as much time as they'd had. And now they had to move.

The three of them.

They were finally able to take cover in an area of thick, dense growth, waiting and hoping that the gooks would go by, not notice them. Hannibal felt a chill of dread when he finally realized who their pursuers were.

The Pathet Lao.

Hannibal had wondered how long their luck would hold. How long before they ran into these bastards. It was one thing to have the NVA or the VC grab you; like Chow, most of them would send you north eventually. They would try to convert you, try to break you, but you stood a chance, even though it might be small, of surviving.

The Pathet Lao had no such compunctions. Especially since, officially, there were no Americans in Laos. Downed pilots, 'advisors', civilians - whatever happened to them became the stuff of ghost stories, rumors and lies. Hannibal had only heard of two men who had escaped from these bastards. Then again, that was "officially".

At the moment, his only concern was making sure he and his guys didn't become one of those rumors. Knowing what they were up against helped, of course. The NVA in Laos were tough and smart; these guys were real guerillas. Different mindset, different methods of operating.

The three men crouched in the brush for almost an hour, watching as the PL searched. Hannibal figured they were far enough into the undergrowth to be safe, but they had their knives out, just in case a stray showed up. Suddenly one of the PL came running up to another toward the front of the group. They conferred for a few moments before the runner took off again, and the second man called to his troops.

Within moments, they had disappeared back up the slope.

Hannibal waited another ten minutes before he had them move out. He looked once, back up the hill where they had come from. BA touched his shoulder, his eyes gentle but sober.

"C'mon, man. You know what they found, same's I do." He smiled gently. "Face bought us some time. Don't waste it."

They turned and resumed their journey to Quang Tri.


*****

After sending Wiley back for Hannibal, Face worked fast, finding branches to splint Dimitri's legs. He wasn't sure about the left one, but decided there was no point in taking any chances. He was sweating, trying to get Dimitri ready while at the same time glancing around him, looking for any sign of unfriendlies. He agreed with Wiley - they would be on the way. But he couldn't leave someone out here, helpless. If they could just get him out of this gully, they could leave him where he'd be found; that would not only increase his chances of survival, but the team's as well. The more time the NVA spent on Dimitri, the farther the guys could get.

He stopped suddenly, listening. Nothing. Yet. He wiped the sweat off his face and continued to tie the splints.

The sooner Hannibal got here, the quicker they would all be safer.

He tied the last splint, looked up, frowning. He hadn't noticed the time until now, but...They should've been back by now.

Where the hell were they?


*****

Wiley was on watch, not that it mattered much now. They were all close enough to touch each other, hidden under the low branches of a tree, brush piled up carefully to hide any tell tale signs. BA was on his back, head resting on his arms, staring straight up. Not sleeping. Just staring.

Hannibal was looking through the branches, ostensibly watching their back door. Wiley had just looked at him when he told him that, and then looked quickly away. Hannibal figured Wiley was probably having some pretty dark thoughts himself. He'd been the one that Dimitri got away from; he'd been the one following the two men. Hannibal would have to have a talk with him. No putting off this one. He wouldn't let another man walk around with undeserved guilt on his shoulders. What happened today could've happened to any one of them.

Hannibal reached up, carefully, moving the branches just enough to see the stars far above. He set that picture in his head. A reference.

Who knew how long it would take to come back for the body.


*****

Face heard them coming. Confident bastards. Calling back and forth. He tightened his grip on the rifle, sending a hopeful prayer at the same time. He'd feel guilty about the hypocrisy later. Right now, he just wanted those guys to stop before they got to the cliff.

Long before.

"They'll be here soon, you know."

Face whipped around, glaring at Dimitri. The guy picked a great time to come to.

Dimitri smiled, then winced as he tried to move his legs. He painfully raised his head up enough to look before lowering it quickly down again.

"You did that?" His voice was barely audible, but to Face, he might as well have been shouting.

"Yes. Now quiet." He looked up at the top of the cliff, wondering if those voices were the reason Hannibal hadn't come back. No. There was only one reason he wouldn't have come, and Face refused to believe they were dead. He hadn't heard any shooting. None. Maybe they were coming around from the flank...

"You did me a favor."

Face ignored him, still watching the cliff, glancing now and then to the sides. Hoping...

"I will do one in return."

"What?" Face looked down at him, frowning. What could a guy in his condition possibly do?

"I will give you to the count of five to get away. After that, I will have to identify myself to our visitors." Dimitri chuckled dryly. "As you told me the other day, I would not want them to think I am just another American, yes?"

Face looked up, the voices getting closer. He glanced to the sides, but there was still no sign of the guys. He stood, hesitating.

"One."

One more glance at Dimitri and the cliff, and he was into the jungle. He didn't know how far he'd get, or which direction he was going.

He just prayed Hannibal was out there. Somewhere.


*****


February 9, 1971


Six Days

Hannibal sat on the edge of the trees, watching, listening. For the last six days they had been twisting and turning their way across the plains, dodging up into the hills, sloshing through marshland, all the while trying desperately to evade the combination of NVA and Pathet Lao patrols. Hannibal knew something had to be going on. Something big. Yesterday afternoon they'd heard the distant thundering of bombs, and a lot of it. The closer they moved to the border, and what they had thought was safety, the louder the noise and the more enemy they had to hide from. They were all stretched near the end of their rope; Hannibal was only glad it kept their minds from other things.

Now as he sat watching, saw the helicopters and bombers in the air just ahead, saw the smoke and flashes on the ground, he knew they'd walked into one major operation.

BA crouched down beside him, staring in the same direction.

"Wiley?"

" He's got the rear. Clear so far." BA frowned, the sweat already streaking his face. "Whadda we got, Hannibal?"

"Well, BA, I think we just found the war."


*****

The rifle butt in the square of his back knocked him suddenly to the ground. He scrambled up, half-turning, and got another one from the other side. He lay there, breathing hard, trying not to listen to the laughing around him. Slowly, he stood, waiting. Another hit? Or just a shove to get moving?

A shove. Fine. He stepped forward, head up, eyes straight. Trying to watch where he stepped. Hard enough walking through here; harder still when one of the bastards had taken his boots. Son of a bitch couldn't even wear them, but he took them anyway. Along with the rifle, ammo, canteen. Right down to the damn can opener and his dog tags. One had made a grab for his crucifix. Big mistake. For both of them. Son of a bitch had just tossed it in the river. After he could stand up again.

It took Face a little longer to get up.


*****

"Damn, Hannibal!" BA peeked up from the hollow they'd just dived into. "We gonna get killed by our own bombs, man!"

Hannibal thought it was a damn good possibility, but he wisely didn't say so. Instead, he crawled up next to BA and looked over the edge. Wiley crept up on the other side of BA. They all had their knives out, just in case. They'd run out of ammo a couple days ago, and smashed their weapons against the rocks to keep them out of enemy hands.

Hannibal could hear a familiar thrum in the air, and knew they were all looking for it. Then he saw it - the most beautiful Huey he'd ever seen in his life, dropping down just beyond the tree line. Maybe half a mile, give or take.

That could be the longest half-mile of their lives.


*****

They were moving north. North and west. That's all he knew. That, and he had to keep up. Couldn't trip, couldn't slow down. Don't look around. Don't do anything to piss these guys off.

Hope they didn't get bored.

He no longer felt his feet. Maybe they were getting calloused. He hoped so. He didn't look at them. No point. Nothing he could do about it anyway. He just kept walking.

North.


*****

Corey was bringing the bird down fast, automatically ducking every time he heard a ping against the metal. He shook his head, grimacing, at the so-called Intel that said there weren't that many enemy in the area. No, only twice what they'd figured on. He shouldn't bitch, though. From what he'd heard from the other guys, the LZs further south were really getting hammered.

His door gunner had been shooting like hell for the last few minutes, giving the ARVNs time to jump out, and Corey was surprised when the firing suddenly stopped. He looked to the side, and his jaw damn near fell out of the chopper. He squinted, quite sure he was seeing things.

Three Americans, running like hell out of the jungle, waving and hollering. Skinny buggers, and so covered in muck he wouldn't have known they were US if they weren't a good head taller than the NVA.

"See 'em, Corey? I got 'em covered!" The gunner started firing again, this time just to their side. The running men never slowed one iota; if anything, they started running faster. It seemed like it took hours for them to cover those few last yards to the chopper, and then the gunner was yanking them in, yelling at Corey to take off.

Nobody even tried to talk those first few minutes; the crew was too busy and the team too exhausted. Hannibal finally sat up, looking over at BA and Wiley. The three men smiled at each other, then started laughing.

The gunner, Gus by name, finally quit shooting and sat back, staring at them.

"Who the hell are you guys? And where did you come from?"

"I'm Colonel John Smith, Sergeants Baracus and Parish. We were on a recon, got lost."

"Shit, sir, I'll say. There's not supposed to be any American infantry this side of the border. But," he grinned and shook his head, "welcome home!"

He moved up to the front, letting Corey know who the men were, and quickly moved back to his position. Hannibal frowned when he saw the pilot talking into the radio, wondering what kind of reaction there would be on down in Nha Trang when the word came through. Morrison had probably given them up for dead by now.

Hannibal suddenly looked down at the trees passing underneath.

He would be almost right.


*****


February 10, 1971


Seven Days

He woke that morning, stiff, sore, feeling sick. Without thinking, he started to move, and the sudden bolt of pain through his shoulders reminded him. His arms were pulled back around the tree, not quite tight enough to pull his shoulders out of joint, hands tied too tightly behind it. He wasn't looking forward to the burning in his muscles he knew would hurt like hell when he was finally released.

He heard the guerillas talking among themselves, smelled the cooking. In that, they were no different than Chow's little group. He might get some breakfast; he might not. He hoped he would. It was the only meal he did get. It all depended on their mood, but they were usually fairly mellow in the mornings.

He looked around, trying to get his bearings. He was trying very hard to remember the route they were taking. Futile, he knew, but it gave him something to think about.

Something other than where Hannibal and the others were.

Why they hadn't come back for him...


*****

Hannibal climbed stiffly out of the chopper. They'd had a bumpy ride to Khe Sahn, and surprisingly, within thirty minutes were on another bird on it's way directly to Nha Trang. Wiley and BA were too tired, too happy, to worry about it, but Hannibal knew it wasn't usual. They should've been taken immediately to Quang Tri and checked out, then sent down south. Then again, nothing about this whole damn mission had been usual.

He watched BA and Wiley sleep on the two-plus hour ride. Like everybody else over here, they learned to sleep whenever they had the opportunity. Didn't take much this time. He was glad to see Wiley was finally letting himself relax. Hannibal had had his talk with him, but for some reason, it seemed to have just the opposite affect of what he'd intended. If anything, Wiley seemed more guilt-ridden.

Then again, they'd all been wired, unable to sleep well.

He shifted, looking out at the coast as it slid by underneath them. He was glad to be back, almost home, but there was, of course, that...regret. Hell, sorrow. Face had done more harm to the unit, and yet done more good for it, than any ten men he'd ever had under his command. Goddamn, there was so much potential in that kid...

Had been.

He roused himself as the chopper started down to the tarmac. He'd fallen asleep without even realizing it. He woke BA with a nudge, and he in turn woke Wiley. They all stretched as the chopper landed, and climbed out. Hannibal immediately noticed the three Jeeps racing up.

MPs.

He frowned as the guards scrambled out and hurried over to them. Before they had a chance to react, their hands were cuffed behind them, and each one was placed in a Jeep. BA started to fight, cuffs notwithstanding, until Hannibal barked at him. He tried to ask the MPs what the hell was going on, but they ignored him. The small caravan immediately started away, heading, not for headquarters, but for the highway, going south like bats out of hell.

They drove fast and furious all the way to the airfield at Cam Ranh Bay, and directly into a hangar at the end of the field. The MPs got out, surrounding each Jeep, solemn, silent. Hannibal looked at the others, shaking his head. Keep quiet, don't cause any trouble. Someone would be coming who would explain what was going on. He couldn't help but wonder where Morrison was. He should've been there at Nha Trang, waiting.

They'd waited in silence for maybe twenty minutes when three officers came striding into the hangar. Hannibal noticed immediately they wore CID insignia.

That was not good.

They were pulled from the Jeeps and lined up. Hannibal noted proudly that, regardless of their condition, their confusion and anger, BA and Wiley stood straight and proud.

"Colonel John Smith, Sergeant Bosco Baracus, Sergeant Wiley Parish. You are hereby charged with the following..."

Hannibal couldn't believe it. He'd known they would try to cover this up, but...he stared in horror as the CID officer read off the list of charges - absent without leave, robbery, aiding and abetting the enemy...

It took all of three minutes, and then they were being marched out of the hangar and into transport. Shackled and separated, they sat, numb, as the plane slowly rumbled down the runway.


*****

"Hey, Murdock! Murdock!"

He turned and looked for the voice calling him. There, across the mess, was Julio, one the Commo guys. He looked pretty excited. Murdock stood up, quickly striding toward him. Julio saw him and ran to meet him.

"Hey, man, you'll never guess! They found your guys! They're on the way back to Nha Trang right now!"

Murdock could feel the blood dropping into his feet. "They're alive?"

"Yeah, guess so. I didn't get all the details, but..."

Murdock ignored whatever else he was going to say, and ran out of the mess. The airfield was close, but not close enough. He ran through the gate and headed for the radio shack. They'd know before anyone when the guys would arrive.

"Hey, Beamer, have you heard anything? About Colonel Smith, I mean? When are they getting here?"

Beamer put his coffee down on the table, frowning. Everybody knew Murdock, and everybody knew how he felt about Smith and his team.

"I'm sorry, man. They've been and gone already. You missed 'em by maybe half an hour."

"Gone?" Murdock took a step back. "What...what do you mean, gone? Where?"

"Don't know, Murdock. Craziest thing I ever saw. They touched down and three Jeeps full of MPs came, hauled 'em away. Headed down Cam Ranh way."

"All of them?"

Beamer looked down. "Well, there were, uh, only three of them, Murdock."

"Three? You mean they only took three. What about the fourth guy?"

"That's what I'm saying, Murdock. There were only three. Smith, BA, and Wiley." He looked sadly at the pilot, who'd gone white as a sheet. "I'm sorry, man. Guess they were the only ones made it out of the boonies."

Murdock nodded slowly, and stumbled out of the shack. He stared over the airfield. Watched the people scurrying around, doing their jobs. Pilots shuffling between hangars and planes, choppers. Mechanics standing around smoking, laughing.

Everything looked just the same. Like nothing had changed. Nothing at all.

He couldn't think. He wanted to scream. He wanted...Face...here. Not...not gone.

He straightened suddenly. Not now. Had to think. Had to focus.

Hannibal and the others, hauled away. He knew what that meant.

And he knew what he had to do. He had to tell someone what had happened. He wasn't sure who, not Wrenn, but someone. Somebody. He had to tell what Morrison and Curtis had planned.

And what he'd done...