CHAPTER THIRTY

May 3, 1973

2 Years, 3 Months, 3 Days

He stared down at the village. He'd been watching them for a long time.

It wasn't the first time. He'd stopped at several villages, farms, along his way. But never made contact. Never gotten too close. He'd wanted to. God knows he wanted to. But he remembered how Hannibal steered clear of them before. Never knew who was friend, who was enemy.

Never.

He forced his thoughts away from Hannibal, back to the village. It was getting late, the last vestiges of sunlight disappearing over the far mountains. He didn't like being down in the plains. Too open, too easy to be seen. But this time, he'd decided to chance it. He had to. The fruit in the woods were nearly non-existent now, and he didn't seem to be as quick catching the lizards and snakes. Small animals were completely out of the question.

He moved down the hillside, moving cautiously into the rice paddies. They were only now starting to plant, and he had to slide down into the muck of the paddies so he wouldn't be seen. He slithered his way across the paddy, slowly so as not to make any noise. By the time he reached the edge of the field, it was nearly pitch dark, and the villagers were inside, lanterns gradually lighting up the windows. He slid out of the water, and scurried to a small shed, taking shelter on the far side. He sat and began the process of methodically removing the leeches, concentrating on that to calm himself. He could feel them on his back, and rubbed his back against the shed. Not the best way to remove the bastards, but he didn't care.

By the time he was finished, the last outside activity around the village had ceased, and he stood, looking cautiously around the corner of the shed. His first destination was the large storage shed at the far end of the village. That's where the food stores were. If he accomplished nothing more before having to leave, he was going to eat.

He crept through the dark, going along the back of the houses. The shed had only a simple wooden latch, and lop-sided hinges; he made sure it held in its partially open position. It offered an opportunity of being discovered, but better that than getting shut in.

He felt around in the semi-darkness, glancing frequently and nervously at the door, and again at the ceiling. He found several baskets of dried vegetables, although he had no idea what they were. He grabbed two large handfuls, and scurried out the door and around to the side. Taking one more glance into the village, he sat down and began his feast. The food was tough and without a lot of taste, but after what he had been eating, it didn't matter.

Finally satiated, he wiped his hands on his thighs and stood once more. He'd noticed various items of clothing hanging on ropes between the houses. With the heat of the season, he hadn't cared much about that, but the rainy season was coming. If he was lucky, he'd find something that would come close to fitting him.

It also meant getting right up next to the houses.

He moved along, again going behind the houses, moving to the front only when he saw something hanging on the lines that might fit him. Finally, he found a pair of trousers that could work, if he could find a rope of some sort to act as a belt. He started to move again to the back of the house, when he caught a glimpse inside the house through an open window.

The man was seated with his back to the window, smoking some kind of long pipe. The woman sat across from him, sewing. In the far corner, he could make out two small children sleeping. The familiy was illuminated by the soft glow of an old lamp. Face stood by the side of the window, mesmerized by the scene.

He never heard the man come up behind him.

He felt the first blow across his back, and dropped like a rock to the ground. Instinctively, he rolled to the side, scrambling to his knees as the second swing just missed his head. His attacker started yelling and swung a third time, catching Face in the hip as he tried to get to his feet.

By now the entire village was aroused, and Face half-crawled, half-ran to regain his footing. The precious trousers fell from his hand as he grabbed a railing by the house and hauled himself completely up. The villager got one more hit, a glancing blow off his shoulder, before he was able to turn the corner. He raced behind the houses, heading for the rice paddies and the safety of the hills beyond.

His feet struck the water, and he sank into the muck up to his ankles. He forced his way across, listening as the villagers trailed closely behind him. They stopped at the edge of the paddies, apparently unwilling to cause further damage to their fledgling crops. That didn't stop them from throwing rocks and sticks at the intruder, stopping only when it was obvious he was beyond reach.

Face, on the other hand, didn't stop. He slogged through the water and mud, up the bank and into the woods, up the hillside. Only when he was hidden in the deep woods did he fall to the ground. He crawled under some low-hanging branches, where he could see anyone coming after him, and promptly lost the precious meal. Exhausted, he nevertheless forced himself to sit up, waiting until he was sure no one was following. He slept badly, and was up long before the sun the next morning, ignoring the pain in his hip and back, the bruises from the thrown rocks, and moving higher up into the mountains.

He would never again go near a village or farm.


*****

July 5, 1973

2 Years, 5 Months, 3 Days

Murdock was rocking back and forth on the arm of the couch, feet planted firmly on the seat, one hand holding his belt and the other arm raised above his head. He told the nurses and orderlies he was practicing for the next rodeo, but mainly he was doing it because it pissed them off. He'd lost his grounds privileges yet again, and figured if he was annoying enough, they'd give them back.

Childish, but then he was being treated like a child, so why not?

He stopped when one of the nurses came into the day room and told him he had a visitor. He dropped his arm and frowned. He'd just talked to the damn MPs yesterday. And no one else visited. Despite Wiley's promise. Hannibal had only come three times, BA once, and Wiley twice more, in the three plus months since that first visit.

But then, it was probably just as well they didn't come any more often. Hannibal kept talking like the damn doctors, wanting to know what meds he was on, was he talking about 'things'. BA just kept telling him to quit fucking around and do what he was told, so he could get out sooner. Wiley was at least entertaining, telling Murdock about the jobs they were going on. Murdock wasn't sure about them getting involved with those mercenary types. He'd tried to talk to both Hannibal and BA about it, but Hannibal just got that Colonel look on his face and said not to worry about it, and BA...BA just stormed out and hadn't been back since.

Well, Murdock had gotten a little preachy about it.

"Captain? Your guest is waiting."

Murdock glared at her, but got off the couch and followed her to the front desk. Another one of those things they'd started doing, making him meet people in a special visitor's room. He had a damn good suspicion it was because of the MPs, and probably another reason the guys hadn't been around the last couple of weeks.

But even he was surprised when he got to the lobby and found a priest waiting for him.

"Uh, sorry, Father, but...do I know you?"

The priest, looking to be somewhere in his late fifties, smiled softly.

"No, Captain Murdock, we've never met. I'm Father O'Malley. I'm here about a mutual acquaintance. Do you remember Templeton Peck?"

Murdock couldn't help himself. "I'm nuts, Padre, not senile."

"Captain..." The nurse frowned.

"Sorry, Father. Uh, maybe we should talk in here." He moved to the small room reserved for visits from the clergy. They wouldn't be disturbed there, and Murdock knew he wanted this to be completely private.

Murdock closed the door firmly behind them, glaring through the small window at the nurse, who blushed and headed back to the desk. Turning, he looked the priest over, noting that he didn't seem particularly worried about being alone in the room with a nutcase.

"So how do you know...Templeton?"

"I'm from Angel Guardians Orphanage."

"Okay..."

Father O'Malley looked a bit surprised. "That doesn't mean anything to you?"

"Should it?" Murdock was getting a little impatient. Who was this guy, anyway?

"Oh, dear." O'Malley sat down, and for the first time Murdock noticed he was carrying a thin briefcase. "I'm afraid I've made an error." He looked up at Murdock, frowning. "You did serve with Templeton? He said you were the pilot for the, uh, team?"

"That's right. Face was the XO."

"Face? Ah, yes, yes. He mentioned the use of nicknames." O'Malley smiled softly, looking at the table, and then abruptly straightened. "I'm sorry, I do tend to...well, never mind. I was confused, because, in his letters, Templeton mentioned you many times. I got the impression that you were good friends."

Murdock swallowed. "Uh, yeah, yeah, I guess you could say that."

O'Malley looked puzzled. "He never mentioned the orphanage?"

"No, sir, he didn't." Suddenly Murdock was suspicious. Did this guy expect to play on this friendship bit to get money out of Murdock? Wouldn't be the first time someone tried to scam a patient. "What did he do? Sponsor somebody there?"

"Oh, no, no. He grew up there."

Murdock stood up suddenly and walked to the window, looking out at the front yard. Face had never talked about his family. And, ashamed, Murdock realized he'd never really asked, either.

"I'm sorry, Captain. I seem to have made assumptions that perhaps I shouldn't have. But I thought...well, as I said, his letters..."

"No, Father, that's okay. Neither of us talked a lot about our families." Murdock returned to the table, and sat. "So he wrote about me, huh?"

"Yes, you, and Colonel Smith and the others. He seemed very happy in this team. Well, as happy as one can be in those circumstances." O'Malley looked uncomfortable for the first time.

"Hey, don't worry, Padre. I'm not prone to suddenly flying off the wall at the mention of Nam." Not strictly the truth, but close enough. "So, uh, was there any special reason you decided to come visit?"

"Oh, yes. Well, I received a letter from the Army a few weeks ago. I'm afraid they've, uh, officially declared him deceased."

Murdock swallowed again. It wasn't unexpected, of course. He'd known Face was dead. Having it made official, though...

"I received his effects the other day, and there were some things I thought he'd like you to have. Just some books, and a few pictures."

"I'd love to have them, Father, if you don't mind."

"Not at all. I, uh, I'd also like to ask a favor. I know about Colonel Smith, and so, obviously, I can't contact him, but...I'd really like to talk to someone about Templeton. What it was really like for him over there. I got the feeling that there were things he, well, glossed over in his letters." O'Malley once again stared at the table. "I guess I'm just trying to reassure myself."

Murdock hesitated. The priest wouldn't want to know how Face had really lived over there. He wanted a fairy tale, to know that Face had been taken care of. That he'd been okay. Murdock smiled softly. "Sure, Father. I'll tell you all about our Faceman..."

And start paying my debts.


*****

August 30, 1973

2 Years, 6 Months, 28 Days

At the gunshot, he scrambled up the bank, rushing for the safety of the thicker woods. He left the knife he had shaped from a stone by the river, and dropped the spear, fish still stuck on the tip, as he wrestled his way up the hill. He couldn't hope to outrun them; his only chance was finding a place to hide. He was getting damn good at that.

Minutes later, he was wedged under an overhanging rock, barely room enough to lift his head and watch for the soldiers. He concentrated on the view in front of him, forcing himself not to think about the close confines. He would be here for a while, knowing these guys never gave up easily. But if he kept his head, he could out-wait them, and then it wouldn't matter that he felt the rock slowly squeezing the breath out of him.

He finally saw them, working their way up the hill. He slid back a little further, easy to do in the mud. It was one of the drawbacks of the rainy season's return. Fruit and other edible vegetation became bountiful, and fish were abundant, if he wasn't spotted, like today. At the same time, he spent a good deal of time cold and wet, and completely dry shelter was becoming a luxury he could rarely find. He slept in caves if he could find them, under thick underbrush if not.

With the increasing boldness of the Pathet Lao and their compatriots from Hanoi, he found himself constantly on the move, constantly on guard. He stayed away from villages, farms, roads - being seen not only meant almost guaranteed attack by the residents, but more often than not, a hunting party of soldiers soon after. He never made a camp, never built a fire, killed what he could when he could and ate on the spot.

He no longer thought about Dao Quy. He'd long ago forgotten what she looked like, and knew she'd moved on to someone else. He no longer tried to reason out why Hannibal hadn't come back for him, or why he'd told the Army that Face was dead. He no longer thought about Murdock, Wiley, BA, or Ray. His life before Kyle and Harry was foggy at best. Now and again memories would surface, but he was never sure if they were real or imagined, and mainly they folded over into nightmarish combinations of the camp. He could control that, to some extent, except when the malaria kicked up. He was used to that. They'd all suffered with it in the camp. As long as he could find a safe place to hide while it ran its course, it made life only slightly more difficult than usual.

He no longer knew or cared where he was, where he was going. He knew he'd wandered across the border into Cambodia a few times. He'd seen soldiers with a different uniform, wearing some kind of bluish scarf around their necks. He steered clear of them as well. In the end, wherever he ended up didn't matter. The Americans were long gone, and with them, any hope of salvation.

He was alone, and he found he had developed a liking for it, and the way of life he now had.

After all, it wouldn't last forever. Only until Harry found him again.


*****

September 9, 1973

2 Years, 7 Months, 7 Days

"Murdock..." Hannibal shook his head, mouth in a firm, straight line.

"I know, Colonel. I don't try to get into trouble, y'know. They just have so damn many rules. Stupid rules."

"I don't think not slugging the orderlies is a stupid rule, Murdock. You know what that would've gotten you in Nam."

"They had orderlies in Nam?"

"Murdock."

"Okay, okay. But the guy was pissing me off. Kept saying stuff about you guys."

"Sticks and stones, Captain. And I'm quite sure the satisfaction you got from slugging that slimeball doesn't quite make up for a lockdown. Not to mention getting Wiley all riled up when they wouldn't let him see you. That kind of thing can bring attention we don't need. And that makes it harder for us to get in here to see you. Why we had to stay away for a while."

Murdock sighed. He really hadn't intended to slug the guy. Murdock wasn't going to tell Hannibal what had really been said. He knew it didn't bother the guys when they got all the bad publicity, but Face wasn't there to not care. Someone had to.

"I had a visitor a couple months ago."

"Not an MP?"

"No. A priest."

"Priest? What the hell for?"

"Hannibal, did you know about Face and that orphanage?"

Hannibal sat slowly back on the bench. "Yeah, it was in his file. Why?"

"You never said anything."

"It was his business, Murdock. So, what did this priest have to say?"

"He said the Army had made it official. Brought me some stuff from his 'effects' that the Army sent him."

"I see." Hannibal sat forward, stared down at the picnic table. Just like O'Malley had in the office.

"Hannibal?"

"Yeah, Murdock."

"Why didn't you go back for him?"

"Jesus, Murdock..." Hannibal stood suddenly, started pacing. "You think I don't ask myself that every day? But he was gone, and we had the PL on our tail. I would've if I could, but..."

"How did you know he was dead?"

"He went off a cliff, Murdock. Wiley saw him and that Russian guy go over. The kind of terrain we were in there's no way he could've made it."

Murdock watched as Hannibal continued to pace, hesitant. Should he tell him? What good would that do? None. Just put Hannibal and the others through the same hell Murdock was in, thinking all the time, "if only", thinking about him being in that camp, the kind of shit he probably went through there, then dying trying to escape...and all the time, wondering why.

"So, you guys been working again?" Not exactly a pleasant subject to change to, but the only one he could think of.

"No, we're trying to steer clear of those knotheads for a while. Soldiers for hire aren't exactly the most trustworthy when there's a big reward in the offing, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah, there's that."

"No, we're branching out. Not disappearing so much as making ourselves less visible. Wiley got a gig as a late night DJ."

"Really? Cool!"

"And BA..." Hannibal laughed out loud. "BA's working for a day care center in East LA. I couldn't believe that."

"Well, he was always good with the kids. Remember when we'd go into town, they'd be following him all over?"

"Yeah, and he'd be threatening to feed you your head for singing those lullabies."

Murdock grinned. Those were the times he liked to remember.

"And what about you?"

"Well, I got a bit part in B movie. Just a couple days shooting, but some agent came up after and gave me his card. Said he might be able to get me a few more gigs like that."

"Gigs? You're already sounding like seasoned pro." Murdock chuckled.

"Yeah, well, it keeps a roof over our heads." Hannibal smiled softly and returned to his seat. "Who knows? Maybe one day we'll be able to work our way out of this mess, and then I can have my name up in the spotlights."

"I really wish I could do something, Hannibal."

"You've got your own...issues right now. Worry about that."

"You, uh, you know it was all a set up."

"Oh, yeah. We kinda figured something was up when we were left high and dry after the robbery. Never thought they would go this route, though. If only Morrison was still around."

Murdock swallowed. He'd thought long and hard about this, and he knew he had to come clean, at least with Hannibal. He'd never get better if he didn't.

"About that, Colonel. I really, really feel bad about that."

"Well, can't be helped."

"No, I mean, Morrison dying. 'Cause, y'see, I was there that night."

Hannibal frowned. "Murdock, you're a great pilot, but even you can't stop bombs from hitting the ground."

"No, but I mean...it...it shouldn't have happened the way it did. And Morrison, well, he wasn't..."

"Murdock, what are you saying?"

Murdock bent his head, holding it tightly in his hands. "I was there, Hannibal. With him, when he died, and..."

"My God, Murdock." Hannibal sat ramrod straight. "Why didn't you say something? Jesus, you were with him? You're lucky you weren't killed as well!"

"That's not it, Colonel. Please, I..."

"Hey, it's all right, Murdock. I think I understand now. I mean, why you ended up in here. That's a hell of a thing to witness. Especially a guy like Morrison."

"Hannibal, he wasn't the guy you thought he was. That's why..." Murdock stopped. This was so hard.

"Murdock, what do you mean?"

"Hannibal, I was only trying to help. That's why I went to see Morrison that night. I just...I just wanted to help."

"Murdock...?"

"I didn't mean for it to happen. I just..."

"Excuse me, gentlemen, but I'm afraid it's time for the captain's session with his doctor. You can come back tomorrow, if you'd like."

"Okay, nurse. Just give us a moment, please."

The nurse frowned, but stepped away. Not too far.

Hannibal turned back to the pilot, who sat silent, pale and sweating. Damn. He should know better than to bring up any of that stuff. No telling what effect it could have on the man. Especially now that he knew...

"It's okay, Murdock. Whatever Morrison was, it doesn't matter now. Nobody was perfect back then. You just forget all that. It's over and done."

"Right, Hannibal. Right..."

Hannibal watched as Murdock walked slowly away with the nurse. Something wasn't right.

Something he was missing.