CHAPTER FORTY

September 27, 1976

5 Years, 7 Months, 25 Days

Ralph never asked questions. When Face stayed in the doorway of the cabin instead of coming inside for coffee, looking at the tiny room with two small windows, Ralph only nodded, as if to himself, and handed Face a cup where he stood. That first night, when Face sat again on the edge of the old couch on the porch, drumming his fingers lightly, quickly, on his knees, Ralph came out with a light blanket and a pillow, and said, "See you in the morning." And in the morning, Ralph came out with a basin of hot water, hung a small mirror on the post, and left a towel, bar of soap and razor on the couch's arm. Breakfast was a picnic on the rickety table at the other end of the porch.

Ralph was patient. He explained how to run the tractor and how to line up the digger with the rows. And then explained again, in the same even tone, when he realized Face had 'wandered'. Never raised his voice, never lost his temper. Just smiled, cocked an eyebrow, and made sure Face was back with him before he'd move on.

Everything Ralph did - or maybe, didn't do - made Face try harder to stay on track. It was almost like with Jenny. No. No, different. He used Jenny, let her lead him out of those...things. And, whether she realized what she was doing or not, she liked to lead him out. She...felt sorry for him. Ralph didn't. Ralph didn't lead. He made Face feel like he could do it himself, maybe with just a little boost now and then. And Ralph would just be there, waiting for him.

Yeah. Ralph would wait for him.

"Hey, boy..."

He looked up, startled. Embarrassed. Ralph smiled, shook his head.

"Hard, ain't it? One little thought leads to another, then another. Next thing y'know, train's left the station and you ain't on it."

"Sorry."

"No reason. You'll git there, 'ventually. That's all that counts, boy. That you git there."

Face looked at him, and for the first time, in the eye. "Will I?"

Ralph looked right back at him. "Yeah, boy, you will. When you ready, you will."

Gathering his courage, Face had to ask. "How long did it..." He stopped, unsure now.

Ralph sighed, leaned back against the tractor, fiddling with the distributor cap. "A long time. And some things...some things just can't be fixed. S'why I live out here, by myself."

Face blushed. "I'm sorry. I..."

"Hey, if I didn't want you here...'nuff said on that shit." He straightened then, set the distributor cap on the tractor seat. "How long you been here, boy?"

Face had to stop and think a minute. "This is the third day. Three days."

"God Almighty! Almost blew it. C'mon." Ralph started back toward the cabin. Face stared after him, confused. Ralph looked back, grinned. "Din't I tell you? On the third day, I rest. So we goin fishin."


*****

September 28, 1976

5 Years, 7 Months, 26 Days

"I don't like this, Hannibal."

"You haven't liked any of it, BA. Why should this be different?"

"It ain't that I don't like any of it, Hannibal. I just..." BA sighed. "He was my friend, y'know?"

"Yeah, I know. I also know what he did. I don't care why. Not any more. Not after reading that...report." He glared over at BA. "You might want to read it yourself, BA. See what your friend put another man through."

BA gripped the steering wheel, and for a moment, Hannibal thought he'd gone too far.

"I ain't about to excuse what he did. Only I'm sayin he was my friend, and yours, too, and he did what he thought was best. That's all."

"Tell that to Face. Oh, that's right, you can't. He's dead."

"So's Wiley, okay? Nothin we can do about either one."

Hannibal's turn to sigh. Ripping each other to shreds wasn't going to accomplish anything, either, but it seemed like that's all they did any more. It had to stop somewhere.

"I'm sorry, BA. I guess we're all having problems with this whole thing. Maybe that's why I want to help Murdock. We find this Hanson, get his story, then we'll know all the facts, and we can just...put them both to rest. Move on."

"You really think that'll happen? I mean, if this guy is like Murdock, or worse..."

"We'll find out when we get there. Right now, I just want to find him. Maybe that'll be enough. Who knows? Maybe they'll have fixed him by now, and we'll find him selling insurance in some backwater town."

"Yeah. And Murdock's fit to run for governor."

"Speaking of whom, there he is now." Hannibal nodded across the street, where Murdock was sauntering along as if he hadn't a care in the world - except for the glances up and down the street. Hannibal wondered if anyone else noticed he'd suddenly gained a potbelly. Shaking his head, he looked at BA.

"Let's go get him. Discreetly."

BA nodded, and pulled slowly out onto the street, moving up to park just a few yards ahead of Murdock's path, leaving the engine running. Hannibal slipped into the back and slid the side door open.

"Get ready."

Murdock didn't look at them, merely nodded his head in an exaggerated fashion. Anyone watching would assume it was just another crazy, talking to himself. He came up parallel with the back end of the van, stopped, took a quick glance behind him and sprinted across the street and around the van. Immediately, there were shouts from the orderlies.

"Go, BA!"

Murdock flopped down in the back seat, pulling spare clothes out from under his T-shirt. BA tore down the street, hospital orderlies chasing after the van on foot. Hannibal grinned.

"Guess your poor old uncle won't be visiting again, Murdock."

Murdock grinned right back. "Poor man. Crazy really does run in the family, after all."

BA just growled. "You both nuts, all right. And I'm crazy for going along with it."

Murdock stuck out his tongue, but immediately sobered, looking at Hannibal. "So we really are going to find him, right? You know where he is, right?"

"I know where he was, Murdock. We're going to find out if he still is, and then you can talk to him."

"What if he's gone?"

Hannibal glanced at BA, who looked back, scowled, then nodded.

"Then we find out where he went, and go there. I gave you my word we would do our best to find this guy, Murdock, and I meant it. I think we all need to talk to him. But then it's finished. Understood? We put the ghosts back in the past, where they belong."

Murdock didn't say anything. He hadn't even thought about after. He only knew he had to find Kyle. The sudden incursion of "after" seemed somehow...unsettling.

"Murdock?"

"Yeah, Colonel. I know..."

"You know - but...?"

"Nothing. You're right. When we find Hanson, it's over and done."


*****

October 1, 1976

5 Years, 7 Months, 29 Days

Face woke that morning to see Ralph sitting at the top of the porch steps, rolling dough balls and dropping them softly into the bait can. He sat up, pushing the light blanket away, and smiled.

"Third day again?"

Ralph smiled, nodding his head. "Sorta. What them fancy folks call a 'half holiday'. We do gotta keep at them goobers after all. Some things wait for nobody." He tossed the last dough ball in the can and stood. "But we catch us a right hardy breakfast first, eh?"

Within minutes they were walking through the fields toward the river. Face immediately noticed they were going in a different direction than the other day, and glanced nervously at Ralph, who, characteristically, just smiled calmly.

"We goin someplace closer today. Less time walkin, more time fishin. Bigger fish, too, mostly. 'Sides, I wanna see you really got an eye for the sweet spot, or if that was jus luck the other day." Ralph looked at Face, who smiled softly. "Good skill to have, when you don't have a lot of time. Eatin on the run..."

The smile disappeared. "Yeah."

Ralph nodded, kept walking. He did that a lot, knocked at the door, let Face decide if it would open or not. Some days it did, other days...

Today was one of those other days. He'd felt good, when he first woke up. But then, something changed. Just in the time it took to clean up. That's when it started. He wondered, as he shaved, why the hell he bothered. The moment he thought it, he knew it was coming. He tried to ignore it. He really did. Focused on what Ralph was saying, focused on walking. Focused on the here and now. Nothing else.

He wished Ralph hadn't said that...

They moved silently through the woods now, starting to move into the marshland. Ralph said there was a good place for catfish ahead, just across the county line. The river meandered through the area about a mile and a half from the cabin, but the marsh spread out a lot further. Lots of good places for catfish to hide. Face let him keep talking. The more Ralph talked, the less Face felt the buzzing.

They finally found a place, Ralph looking at him to see if he 'approved'. That soft smile again. It irritated Face today. Always smiling. Always. Just like...

He nodded abruptly. He'd lost his enthusiasm for that "right hardy breakfast". Just catch a couple fish and go back. He looked around, noting the thick trees, branches rolling over the sky, blocking it in many places. No trees in the peanut fields. Nothing but drying up plants, plants that he could rip up in seconds when he drove through with the tractor. Leaving nothing but carnage in his wake.

He jumped a little when Ralph handed him the pole. He took it with less hesitancy than he had at first. Ralph believed the best fishing poles were bamboo.

There were a lot of things you could do with bamboo.

And he didn't miss the look Ralph gave him, either.

He stepped up on a half-submerged log and cast his line. Catch the damn fish and get out of here.

Ralph didn't say anything for a while. Both men just concentrated on the water, their lines, waiting for the strike. Several yards up the stream another man was fishing. He waved; Ralph waved back. The sun started filtering through the trees. Face could feel it on his back. It felt good. Energizing.

He was watching his line, watching as it drifted a little with the sluggish water, when he saw it. Stared at it.

If you didn't move, they didn't strike.

But this one was moving straight for him. Coming through the water, slowly, staring at him. Targeting him.

He stepped back off the log, eyes glued to the snake as it pulled its full four-foot length from the water. His pole fell to the ground, startling the snake. It reared up, mouth open, hissing, and Face stopped short.

He saw, out of the corner of his eye, Ralph moving toward them. Fast. Ralph hadn't seen the snake. He couldn't have. He was heading right for it. Talking. Saying something, but Face only saw him walking right into the path of those fangs.

Just like Kyle.

Not again.

Not again.

He spun towards Ralph, shoving with all his might. The two men fell into the mud, Ralph yelling out in surprise, trying to get up. Face couldn't allow that. Couldn't let Ralph get near that snake. He wouldn't lose another one. He wouldn't. He ignored Ralph's voice, holding him down while he looked for the snake. He had to know where it was. Where it was hiding, ready to strike again.

And then someone was grabbing him, pulling at his shoulders, shouting angrily. He was yanked off Ralph, dragged back away from him. He saw Ralph starting to get up. Looked wildly for the snake. Couldn't see it. Lying in wait. Those arms around his shoulders, holding him back, stopping him from saving Ralph.

He fought back.


*****

"I'll do it, Hannibal. The Army doesn't want me for anything. Now, the VA - that's a different story..."

Hannibal smiled. "I appreciate it, Murdock, but I don't think you're old enough to be Hanson's father. He was only a year older than Face."

"I could be his brother. I do brothers good."

"Except this Hanson was a true Nordic type, Murdock. Blond and blue. You couldn't exactly claim family resemblance. And..." he continued as Murdock began to argue, "I need to ask the right questions, not go off on some tangent."

"Tangent? Colonel..."

"I mean, Murdock, the conversation has to stay focused on Kyle Hanson, not swerve over to Templeton Peck. I'm sorry, but..."

Murdock sighed. "It's okay, Hannibal. You're right." He looked through the window, swallowed. "I guess I should feel guilty about this. I mean, I don't really care about Kyle. And he must've gone through the same hell as..." Murdock swallowed again.

Hannibal frowned. "I know we talked about this before leaving, Captain, but I need to know how it is now, before it goes any further. It's going to be hard for me and BA, but it's also going to be hard on you. More importantly, we're asking this guy to tell us about things he's obviously had a hard time dealing with. This isn't just about Face, Murdock. If, at any point - any point - this guy decides to shut us down, that's it. I'm not going to screw him up any more just to satisfy our curiosity."

"Understood, Colonel. I...I want to know, but...I wouldn't want somebody else pushing Face like that, either." Murdock drew a deep breath, nodded. "Whatever happens, Hannibal, I trust your judgment."

Hannibal nodded, then looked at BA. The sergeant glared at him.

"I still think your nuts. Walking onto an Army base, going into an Army hospital, talking to an Army doctor - and you worried about this Hanson guy." BA shook his head. "Nuts. The both of you."

Hannibal just grinned. "Well, this doc is a psychologist, so I guess I'll be in good hands."

He stepped out of the van, smoothing back his still-dark hair, and strode toward the base entrance.

BA wasn't the only one who thought he was nuts.

The guard at the gate barely gave him a second look, just checked his roster, issued a pass, and gave Hannibal directions to the hospital. It was only about three blocks from the gate, so Hannibal felt a little more comfortable, knowing he wouldn't be "out in the open" for long. He was curious about this Dr Cleary. He sounded young on the phone, but eager to talk to Hanson's long-lost father. Almost made Hannibal feel bad for the subterfuge. The only thing that really bothered him was Cleary's reluctance to say anything about Kyle over the phone.

The psych ward was on the third floor, separated from the rest of the hospital by a set of heavy doors, screen clearly visible in the glass. A buzzer to one side brought an attendant to the door, and within a few minutes, Hannibal was seated in a small office, reminiscent of Father O'Malley's, the only real difference being the choice of materials scattered about.

That, and the chair was actually comfortable.

He didn't have to wait long, either. One of the advantages of Army regimentation - everything ran according to schedule. Dr Cleary, a youngish man as Hannibal had thought, came brusquely into the office, just as the small clock on the wall chimed softly.

"Mr Hanson?"

Hannibal smiled briefly, nodding.

"I'm afraid I will have to ask for some identification. Patient privacy and all that."

"Certainly." Hannibal pulled out his wallet, hoping like hell that buddy of his in the props department wasn't just bragging. He turned over the driver's license, with Hannibal's new look, the name Ronald Hanson, and the year of birth slightly scratched. No point in tempting fate. Cleary glanced at it and handed it back, smiling apologetically, before getting immediately to the point.

"Mr Hanson, I have to tell you upfront - your son is no longer at our hospital. In fact, I'm not sure where he is. I can't even guarantee that he's still alive."


*****

They'd sat, both of them staring off into space, for some time now. Neither one talking. Face didn't want to talk.

What would it accomplish? What had it ever accomplished?

It had taken him by complete surprise. One moment he was straddling that bastard, ready to finish him off, the next he was in the mud, Ralph standing over him, yelling. Ralph, silhouetted in the early sunlight, so Face couldn't really see him, just that dark outline, standing over him. Yelling.

And Face had been afraid.

Scared shitless.

By a shadow man.

He didn't hear what Ralph was saying. Didn't care. He scrambled to his feet, finally moving so he could see Ralph. So he was eye to eye with him. Brought the anger back, shoving the fear away.

Took back the control. The power.

And walked away.

He could do that. Just like he could've taken Ralph out. If he'd chosen to.

It had been his choice.

Nobody else's.

Why he hadn't kept going was something he still didn't understand. He'd gotten to the cabin, grabbed his few belongings, stuffing them into the pockets of his coat, and started for the road. Gotten as far as the tractor, parked by the shed.

Ralph had been working on the engine last night. Showing Face what was wrong, how to fix it. Adjusting some little valve.

Face stepped over to the tractor, reaching in, running his finger over that valve. By the time he and Ralph were through with it, that tractor had practically begged to go out in the field and show off its new power.

When Ralph had finally shown up, having gotten that other guy back to his truck, hauled him into the local hospital, Face had finished one field, started the next. He'd seen Ralph, standing on the edge of the field. And just kept driving, listening only to the pulse of the tractor, the rhythm of the digger, the rasp of the plants being flipped, dead, to the earth.

Concentrating only on the job at hand.

Ralph had been waiting, sitting on a stump by the shed, when Face finally brought the tractor back. Seeing him sitting there, solemn and maybe angry still, brought a little of Face's own anger back.

But only a little. Enough to remind him.

He parked the tractor, started walking toward the cabin, past Ralph. Ralph had gotten up then, and Face turned, watched as Ralph suddenly took a step back. Damn right.

"Don't ever touch me, Ralph. Not ever again."

Never again.

Ralph had gone into the cabin, and Face had lain on the couch on the porch. He could hear Ralph inside, fixing supper. It startled him, to realize the whole day was gone. Surprised him, as well, to realize how tired he was.

So very tired.

Ralph had brought out the plates, and silently they'd eaten.

And then sat at the small table, on the far end of the porch, staring out at nothing.

Ralph cleared his throat. Hesitant. Not looking at Face, he finally spoke.

"I know what you were tryin to do, boy. But that snake...he was just scared. That's why he reared up like that. Tryin to scare away what scared him. Warn't poisonous or nothin. Just...scared."

Face looked down at the ground.

"But that wasn't what you saw, was it, boy? No, guess you saw somethin real different. And I 'preciate what you tried to do. Didn't think of it, myself, back then. Guess I saw somethin different, too. Shoulda known better. Sometimes, my thinkin gets a bit...fuzzy.

"That other guy, name's Perris. Alton Perris. Doc said he'd be okay; ain't gonna be movin around much for a few days. Don't spose that matters to you, though. You did what come natural, I 'spect. What you had to. But there's bound to be some return fire on that.

"I give Mr B a call, back there at the hospital. He gonna see what he can do, but that Alton Perris, well, his daddy ain't real big on his little boy gettin the shit kicked out of him. So I don't know what's gonna happen.

"Might mean some jail time. And I know bein locked up ain't gonna go down too good with you. But y'know, back here it's different. Back here, they tell ya, okay, boy, that's thirty days. And you behave yourself, thirty days or less and you walk out the door. It's done with.

"Now, I know you could jus take off. Ain't no way I could keep you, and I wouldn't try. Wouldn't want to, if you chose to go. But I'm askin you to stay, and work this out. And I'll stick with you, if you do."

"Like this morning?" He couldn't keep the irony out of his voice.

"This mornin especially. You did what you had to, to protect me. And I did what I had to, to protect you. That's what friends do for each other, boy."

Ralph had gone in then, taking the supper dishes with him, and a short while later the lamp inside went dark. Face sat at the table. Thinking.

Ralph was right about a lot of things. But he was wrong about being locked up. Face tossed a small stone from the porch.

It's never done with.


*****

"I'd like to be able to fully discuss this with you, Mr Hanson, but unfortunately, I've been informed that I can't. While you are his father, Kyle is an adult, and thus, the Army has stated - very firmly, I might add - that I can't divulge his personal information. I feel badly about that, because I had already made a copy of his file for you." Dr Cleary placed his hand on a folder lying on his desk. "All I can tell you is that he was discharged from the hospital, and sent to a halfway house until a spot opened with the VA. Unfortunately, he left there without telling anyone where he was going."

Dr Cleary was obviously not happy. Nor was Hannibal. What little Cleary had told him about Kyle Hanson made it clear they wouldn't be able to glean much, if any, information from him. If they could even find him.

Hannibal frowned. "I don't understand. Why a halfway house? You made it sound like he was barely functional. What about a private hospital? Or one of the state's?"

"His veteran's benefits wouldn't have covered anywhere near the costs of a private placement. And quite frankly, Mr Hanson, the last place you'd want your son is one of the state's facilities. I wouldn't send my dog there."

Cleary glanced at his watch. "I'm afraid I have a patient to see, Mr Hanson. Again, I'm very sorry I couldn't be of more help." He once again laid his hand on the folder. "I'll send an orderly to show you out." He nodded abruptly, and left.

The moment the door closed, Hannibal was up, grabbing the folder. He didn't bother to look through it. Instead, he quickly tucked it into the back of his waistband, neatly hidden by his jacket. When the orderly arrive moments later, Hannibal was standing by the window, appropriately somber.

There was a brief moment, as he walked out of the gate and casually strolled toward the van, when he realized exactly what he had done. When he suddenly felt himself relax. He shook his head, grinning. Maybe he really was crazy.

Then he saw Murdock, looking out of the van window. Thought about the file, digging into his back.

Maybe crazy wasn't so funny, after all.

Not until the van was moving did he reach back and pull the file from its hiding place. He barely listened to Murdock's rapid-fire questions as he started reading. He skimmed the report; he would read it more thoroughly later, although he was already feeling queasy about it. It wasn't as if any of it was really his business. For the time being, he was merely looking for any clues as to where Kyle Hanson might be.

It was stuck on a page near the back of the file. Just a notation, handwritten. Hannibal realized Dr Cleary had still been trying to trace Hanson.

August of last year, an inquiry to the Army from a sheriff in Madoc County.

"Head west, BA. We're going to pay a visit."