CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

April 16, 1972

1 Year, 2 Months, 14 Days

They waited until the light from the fire had nearly disappeared. They hadn't heard anything from outside for a long time before that, but they were taking no chances. Kyle and Arnie quickly snapped the padlocks open, and the three gathered under the vent's opening.

Arnie laced his fingers together, and Kyle put his foot in the 'stirrup'. It didn't take a huge boost to reach the opening, but it took more effort than he'd assumed to pull himself up into the vent itself. Or he was weaker than he'd thought. He pulled himself up a couple of feet, and waited for Face. It took a bit more for him to climb up, but he made it without help. Now came the tricky part.

Face found a large rock protruding from the side, and gripped it tightly. Bracing himself with one foot, he reached up. Kyle, in turn, reached down and grabbed Face's wrist. Then Face let his other leg dangle down in the opening. Both braced themselves, as Arnie jumped, grabbing Face's leg and pulling himself up until he, too, could grab hold of the rocks in the vent and climb the rest of the way.

For several minutes, the men waited, not only trying to catch their breath, but listening for any signs their activities had been heard. There wasn't a lot of room in the vent, and they themselves were so close, Kyle could feel the heat from Face's body. He berated himself for not having Face go first; it had to have taken every bit of strength he had left to help Arnie up. But there was no going back now. He waited a little longer than he had planned before starting the long climb upwards.

They tried to move as quickly as they could, but between feeling for loose rocks, almost total darkness, and the actual physical effort, it was taking much longer than any of them had expected. There were several places where there was barely room to move at all. And with every minute, every second, they expected to hear the guards yelling below.

And then Kyle saw it.

The moon.

He wanted to shout and scream, but instead he just kept climbing. A little faster now, though still cautiously; he knew the others realized they were getting close.

It seemed to take hours, but suddenly he was climbing out of the hole, and the warm breeze was blowing over his face, and crawled away from the hole, and fell flat on the ground, breathing deeply. He heard the others climbing out, but he didn't move. He just wanted to lay there, taking in the wonderful, glorious and pure air in freedom.


*****

April 17, 1972

1 year, 2 Months, 15 Days

"Just what the hell are those, Major?"

Ray smiled, sheepishly. "Those are what they call 'love beads', Colonel Lynch. I know it's not exactly kosher, especially here, but my niece, well, she's really a sweet kid, just a little...odd. And she's known Colonel Smith for a long, long time. She just wanted to send him something...personal, y'know? I didn't think there'd be any harm..."

Colonel Lynch fingered the chain of beads, glaring at Ray. He didn't like Smith, and he didn't like Parish or Baracus any better. But Brenner had always treated him with the respect due his position here. He looked down at the beads - nine large, and rather ugly, black and brown beads, interspersed between smaller blue and green ones. He rubbed his fingers over them. Smooth, like polished wood.

He sighed. Damn hippies. He'd had more than a few of those outside the gates over the past few years. Peace and love. Bullshit. Rabble-rousers. That's all.

But what the hell. A bunch of wooden beads couldn't hurt anything. He tossed them back to Brenner.

"All right. Sergeant, let the major give Smith the beads. But that's the last time, got it?"

"Rest assured, Colonel. I will never do this again." Ray saluted smartly and headed for the visitor's lounge.


*****

They were hiding under a large outcropping of rock, deep in the shadows. Kyle had taken the lead at first, simply because he had been the first one out of the hole. There was no discussion of it later; Arnie was helping Face, who was having more and more problems as they moved along the rough terrain.

They had traveled steadily to the south that first night, and stopped to rest just after dawn. Kyle had no idea how far they had actually gotten; he was more concerned with direction. The last thing he wanted to do was lead them in a circle back to the camp. He wanted to check Face's injuries, but was refused. Abruptly. Face just wanted to sleep.

They waited at that first stop for less than three hours, then started moving again. It was dangerous, traveling during the day, but one they all had agreed to. They'd rather take a chance on escaping some random patrol while on the move than be cornered by the camp guards.

They kept moving south until well into the afternoon. Kyle kept looking at Arnie for his cues to stop; Face kept pushing at first, but as the day wore on he only concentrated on moving. At some point during their trek, Kyle looked back to see Arnie had draped Face's arm over his shoulder in order to keep them moving. That's when Kyle decided they would find a place to stay overnight. Three left that camp, and three were going to make it to freedom.

The outcropping had seemed perfect. Kyle had tossed a few rocks into the shadows to make sure there wasn't anything in there they wouldn't want, and then the three had crawled and slid deep into the recess. It was close quarters, but they were completely hidden from the outside. They could relax.

Face fell asleep almost immediately. Arnie nodded at Kyle, and they slid a little ways over so they could talk.

"He's not doing so good, Kyle. I don't know what those bastards did to him, but I don't think he's gonna make it all the way."

"We'll just take it a little slower, take a few more breaks. You and I can take turns, help him out..."

"Kyle, listen, man. Neither one of us is in the greatest of shape either. And we got a long way to go yet. I don't want this any more than you do, but if we slow down, we're gonna end up right back at that camp. That happens, he's dead, and you know it."

"So what are you saying? He's dead either way so let's just leave him?"

"I'm not saying just walk away. But this is a good spot, easy to see from the air, protected from the ground. We gather up some food for him, some water, leave him here while you and I find a friendly village, maybe another Hmong patrol, then send help back for him. It's the only way we all have a chance, him included."

Kyle closed his eyes, thinking. He knew Arnie was right. The longer it took to get out of here, the better the chance of getting picked up by the wrong people. But if they tried to keep up the same pace...

No. He couldn't just walk away from him. But he couldn't put Arnie at risk either. That wasn't right.

Hell.

What was right about any of this?


*****

"Hippie love beads?" Hannibal stared down at the strand in his hand, mouth open. "What the..."

"Yeah, well, you know my niece, Hannibal. She was always a little strange - but she loves you guys, you know."

Hannibal looked up, confused but trying to catch on. "Yeah, she...she was a sweetie."

"She wanted to send BA and Wiley one, too, but she didn't have time. But hell, you could break this one up. Use the beads for good luck. Especially those big ones."

"The big ones. Yeah. They'd have the most luck, right?"

"Yeah. You could each have three that way. Divvy them up evenly."

"Okay. Yeah." Hannibal looked at the beads again. "Good luck's always easy to swallow, right?"

"Well, you might want to chew it over, too - send your luck in the right direction."

"Yeah? Chew it over, huh? Yeah, that's a good idea. So how long do you think the luck will last?"

"I can guarantee it for two, three days." Ray winked, then sobered. "But you know, there's hard luck, too. Sometimes you have to go through that before the good luck comes. Sometimes it's really hard luck. Something to think about."

"Yeah. I think we've already thought about that, Ray. Sometimes you have to have faith - go for the gold."

"Or die trying?"

Hannibal's eyes squinted, and there was no mistaking the spark of anger in them.

"Yeah, Ray. Or die trying."


*****

April 18, 1972

1 Year, 2 Months, 16 Days

Arnie was not happy about the decision, but there was no talking Kyle out of it. Face wasn't happy about it either; he would much prefer to go with Arnie's plan. He really wanted nothing more than to stay put, not move.

He should've insisted. Should've been stronger.

Dawn was just showing it's light when Arnie started out. He would make his way south, heading for Thailand, hoping to find a friendly village long before that. Kyle and Face would follow, at a much slower pace, and when Arnie reached safety, he would send a search party for them. He looked back once, before disappearing over a knoll.

Face did insist on pulling his own weight, as least at first. He didn't mind Kyle staying close, but he walked on his own. That lasted maybe an hour. Then the dizziness hit once again, and he couldn't walk a straight line to save his life. They stopped for a few minutes, until his head stopped spinning, and when they started again, he was supported by Kyle.

How far they actually walked that day, Face had no idea. It seemed like a hundred miles, but he doubted if they made more than four or five. That was probably wishful thinking. He only knew that he had to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and try not to lean to heavily on his partner.

It was mid afternoon. They were making their way over a rocky section, trying to hurry, afraid they were too exposed there. Too much of a hurry. Neither one of them saw it until it was too late. Suddenly, Kyle shouted, grabbing his ankle. The two men fell to the ground, Kyle rolling in pain. Face only caught a glimpse of something slithering away into the brush.

There was nothing they could do. Face tore off part of Kyle's pant leg and tied off the leg above the bite, pulled him off the rocks and into the shade. He looked for water, but there were no streams or springs close by.

He didn't even know what kind of snake it had been.


*****

Hannibal walked slowly down the hall toward the 'game room'. That's what the guards called it. In reality, it was a stripped down room at the end of their corridor, devoid of anything other than an old television set, two couches, and a table with three chairs. Hannibal, BA and Wiley were allowed to be together all they wanted there, and provided with magazines and books. Wiley even talked a guard into giving them a deck of cards. There were no other prisoners in that entire section. Other than Ray and their attorney, they saw only guards.

The isolation was their saving grace.

BA was watching the Atlanta Braves playing the LA Dodgers, forcing his full concentration on the game. He wasn't a baseball fan, but they could only get a couple stations on the set. Wiley was playing a half-hearted game of solitaire. He looked up as Hannibal came in, waiting patiently while the guards undid his cuffs.

BA came over to the table and sat down with the others, and Wiley started dealing out cards. No one said anything for several minutes, waiting for the guards outside the door to relax. BA finally broke the silence, though he kept his voice low.

"So?"

"So, Ray's niece, who is very fond of us, sent along a very nice necklace of beads."

"Beads?"

"Yep. Ray suggested I divide them among us, to be fair. The big ones, especially."

Wiley looked at the necklace as Hannibal placed it carefully on the table, in full view of the guards. He frowned.

"You know what those are?"

Hannibal shook his head. "Not sure I want to."

"Hannibal, those damn things could kill us."

"Ray did say something to the effect that it wouldn't be pleasant. I don't think he'd give us anything lethal. At least, not enough to be lethal."

"We spose to eat them things?"

"That's right, BA. And then we're going to get sicker than dogs. But," he glanced over to the door and back, "it's guaranteed to get us into the hospital."

"Or the morgue." Wiley shook his head.

"Bound for that anyway, Sergeant. I think we stand a better chance with these, don't you?"

Hannibal carefully pulled the delicate necklace apart, and divided up all the beads. The three men sat for a while, staring at them. Somehow, knowing what those large brown beans could do made the bright red and green plastic beads look...silly.

"Take them with your noon meal. Chew them, don't just swallow them whole. And then get ready for a few days of hell."

"And after that?"

"We'll have to wait and see what else Ray's niece has in mind."


*****

April 19, 1972

1 Year, 2 Months, 17 Days

The evening wore into night, and Face held on tightly to Kyle, holding him up so he could breathe more easily. He was in a great deal of pain yet, and the swelling that had been around the ankle was now up to his knee. His whole body was hot to the touch; he hadn't spoken for a long time.

Face, however, was talking a mile a minute. Encouraging, threatening, promising. Praying. He kept looking through the trees, hoping he would see a search party, whether it was the guys sent by Arnie or the guys from the camp, he didn't care. Anybody that could help, anybody. He didn't care what he had to do.

The moon was high above them, peeking through the branches, when Kyle started convulsing. It lasted several minutes before stopping. A few minutes later, he had another. Then another. And then he got quiet. Still.

Face held him tightly, rocking him gently, crying softly.

He was still holding him when the hunting party from the camp found them the next morning.