Hannibal knew they had to make their move, and soon. They'd been moving steadily, if slowly, to the north, and though he wasn't sure of their exact location, he had no doubts about their final destination. He wasn't about to let that happen. Unfortunately, he wasn't quite sure how he could prevent it. Not yet.
They'd been close, very close, a couple of days ago. Just before they got to this new camp. The guards, like the prisoners, hadn't eaten much. Uncle Sam's flyboys had turned their nearest cache of supplies into a barbecue, and there wasn't much left. The rainy season had started with a vengeance, so game was scarce, and the river too swollen to fish. Hungry guards are careless guards, and as they moved further up the rain-soaked paths into the mountains, the gaps between them and their prisoners got longer.
They were skirting the edge of a defoliated area, and the narrow path they were following turned in a long, slow curve. Hannibal had a nice view of the area coming up, and it took him all of two seconds to see the spot. He looked up ahead, where BA and Ray were moving as slowly as allowed. He knew Murdock and Peck were a few yards behind him, with Wiley bringing up the rear.
Hannibal sneezed. Loud.
The guards looked at him, suspicious, but the rest of the team seemed to ignore him. He dodged his head, apologetically, and the guards moved on.
BA and Ray started slipping in the mud, and Hannibal gradually moved up on them. Moments later, Hannibal could hear Murdock, Peck, and Wiley closing in behind him.
He allowed himself a quick smile.
As they neared the spot, he knew BA and Ray had spotted it as well. It was damn near perfect. The path took a bit of a jog to one side - just enough to offer a moment or two of obscurity. Enough to take out any guards that might be close enough to cause problems and then slither down into the deep ravine. Hannibal glanced up at the rain coming down in a soft but steady wash. He was actually thankful for it today. The guards had taken the ankle ropes off when the prisoners kept falling in the slippery mud. Even with their hands still tied, they could at least run.
They were almost there, almost ready to make their break. Ray and BA were just moving into the turn, Hannibal right behind them. He turned his head to see where the others were, just in time to see Peck drop and slide off the path, dragging Murdock with him.
Unfortunately, it was in the wrong direction.
Afraid the others would follow, equally afraid the guards would start shooting, Hannibal started yelling.
"Błn! Błn! Mud! Mud!"
The guards were swarming over them now, pushing the remaining men into a tight group, rifle muzzles inches from their heads. A half dozen or more scrambled down the slope to the fallen men. Hannibal could hear both Peck and Murdock yelling in Vietnamese.
They'd been lucky, overall. No one got shot. Murdock's ribs obviously took another beating. Wiley had to take over helping him along; Peck was mobile but limping. Unfortunately, the guards had gotten the wake-up call. Hungry or not, they maintained a very close watch on the prisoners after that.
So here they were, back in their separated tiger cages, waiting for the new group to arrive, and Hannibal's options were fast going down the drain. Lin had let him know, via Murdock, about this General Chow. A proclaimed Communist, but apparently only out of ambition. The supposed collaborator was another big problem. He had to hand it to Peck; the ruse with Murdock was a smart idea, if the rumors about that American were true. Nobody would care who talked to a madman.
Hannibal sighed. Murdock's ribs were as bad as after the crash, if not worse, but Hannibal also worried that the pilot was getting into his role with a little too much enjoyment. And then there was Peck. By the time they'd gotten to the camp, his knee had started swelling; now he couldn't straighten it at all, and barely moved in his cage.
BA was getting more surly, if that was possible. He knew a few choice words in Vietnamese and had started using them. Even Ray was starting to resist the orders from the guards. Many times Hannibal couldn't even see them, let alone talk to them, and knew he was starting to lose control. So far they'd gotten a few cuffs, nothing major, but with supplies low and this general coming, it wasn't the time to aggravate the guards.
But the most troubling to him was Wiley, and what Wiley had told him, back in the jungle after that disastrous fall. He didn't know if it were true, or if Wiley was just getting paranoid. But it was something he had to consider.
"He did it on purpose, Hannibal. Peck didn't just slip."
He was tired. God, was he tired. Tired of being in this goddam bamboo cage. Tired of nothing to eat except soup and bugs and an occasional snake. Tired of walking through that damn jungle. Tired of everything.
He opened his eyes, staring up. He wanted to see sky. Real sky, not just a glimpse now and then when the wind blew. Now he didn't even have that. Just clouds and rain and mud.
He shifted, knowing it wouldn't do any good. He swore those damn gooks deliberately stuck them in muddiest spots. He looked around, trying to see Hannibal, but there was a hut between the two men. He had a clear view of Ray, though, and also Peck.
He smiled a little at that. Peck. Nearly six months he'd been with the team, and everyone still called him Peck. Or Lieutenant. Even Hannibal. He wondered if anyone besides Hannibal even knew his first name.
So maybe they weren't as taken in by him as he'd thought.
He looked over at BA, who was watching Peck. Both he and Ray had heard what Wiley told Hannibal, about how Peck had deliberately stepped off the path. Taken away their first, and maybe only, opportunity to escape. It confirmed everything Wiley had seen since their capture. He knew now that all that chatter with Lin had nothing to do with an escape plan.
Peck was doing what he always did, what he'd always done - taking care of himself. Making them think Lin was sneaking them extra food. Nobody saw what Peck was getting to eat. Just like nobody heard what he was saying to Lin. Or what Lin was really telling him.
BA looked over at Wiley now, and they nodded, ever so slightly. BA knew what Peck was, had shared Wiley's suspicions right from the first. Neither of them really wanted him on the team. If only Hannibal hadn't been so...stubborn. So what if Harris had been a little slow about getting stuff? At least they could trust him.
He turned his attention to one of the guards, sauntering past Peck's cage. The guard looked up, saw Wiley looking at him, and surprisingly, smiled. He then jammed the butt of his gun between the bars and into Peck's knee. Peck yelled, grabbed it. The guard laughed and walked on, ignoring BA's invectives.
Wiley scowled. He didn't like Peck, but he didn't deserve that.
He closed his eyes. He had to think. Peck couldn't be trusted; he knew that for sure. But if he were really working a deal with the NVA, why the rough treatment?
He heard more laughter. That same guard, talking to Lin. Both were laughing. Then the guard moved on and Lin made a beeline for Peck. They talked, ever so briefly, before Lin hurried off.
Wiley sighed. Peck couldn't have made a deal with every damn gook in the place. But Lin...yeah, he definitely had something going there. Maybe with a few others.
He glanced over at Peck, who was now sitting up, holding his knee, massaging it.
Now, if the rumors about that collaborator were true...that would be interesting. Maybe that was why Peck had talked Murdock into being the go-between for Lin and Hannibal. Putting the onus on somebody else until he figured the new guy out.
Well, they'd find out tomorrow...
"I wish you'd reconsider, LT. With your connections here and mine back home, we could come out of this whole thing looking real good. And ol' Chow, he's got the goods, just waiting to work out a decent distribution system."
"How many times do I have to tell you, Tommy? You don't hear very well."
Tommy straightened up, resting his arm on the top of the cage. He shook it slightly, and Peck couldn't help a small grimace.
"Now, see there, LT? You hook up with me and the general, we'd get that leg all taken care of. And no more bamboo, either. Nice bed, good food. And the rest of your guys get a lot better than what they've got now. What more could you ask for?"
"How about my self-respect?"
Tommy laughed and walked away. Peck stared after him, jaw tightening. What he wouldn't give to have that bastard back in Nha Trang right now. He'd introduce Tommy Angel to some of his connections, all right.
He turned slightly, trying to see Hannibal or Murdock, but he could only make out a corner of one cage. He leaned back, trying to ease the pull on his knee. The last few days had been a fucking nightmare. Peck's worries about the general had proven correct - security had been a lot tighter, and there were no more conversations with Lin. A quick nod when delivering meals, to let him know things were moving along; that was about it. Every now and then he'd hear Murdock, singing some cowboy song. He could swear he heard Lin, too, but decided it must be some kind of hallucination from lack of sleep, or food, or just pain.
And there was a lot of pain. He knew he'd done some serious damage, and he couldn't do a damn thing about it. But he wasn't the only one. Whereas the captain who'd been in charge before was happy just to keep his prisoners alive until they got to Hanoi, Chow wanted any and all information long before that. Peck figured he thought it would make him look good to his superiors.
Or maybe he figured he better get it while he could.
He'd watched as the guys were taken, one by one, to see Chow. And as they were returned. None of them looked very good going in, and a hell of a lot worse coming out. That was the only time he regretted turning Tommy down. Maybe if he'd actually believed Tommy...
He turned his head slightly to look over at BA. He'd thought, before they got captured, that he was actually getting through to the guy. A little, anyway. But not now. He wasn't dumb; he knew what the rest of them thought. He was the only one of the prisoners Tommy would talk to. And the only one who hadn't gotten hauled in to see Chow. Didn't take a rocket scientist to know what they were all thinking. They wouldn't even look at him as they went by.
Not even the colonel.
He sighed. He'd broken the Golden Rule. His Golden Rule. When he first joined the team, it was supposed to be just like Wrenn's group. All business. When they were out in the boonies, or in training, he did what he was supposed to, and did it well. That's what kept him alive. That was all that mattered. But when they came back from the boonies, he went his way and the other guys went theirs. It had worked fine. But Wrenn's bunch weren't anything like Hannibal's team.
Hannibal. He smiled. He still hadn't gotten the nerve to call the colonel by his nickname, like the rest of them. Hell, it'd only been in the month or so before Hawaii that he'd called any of them by their nicknames. Yeah, he'd just been getting to the point where he almost thought of himself as one of them, instead of just 'them'. Almost to the point of using "Hannibal".
Guess he didn't have to worry about that any more.
He wasn't even sure they'd take him along when they left.
That night, Lin delivered the meals to each of the prisoners, as usual. As he handed out the bowls, he told each one to be careful and sip slowly, as the soup was hot. Too hot, he said, emphasizing the too. As each man finished their meal, they understood. At the bottom of each bowl was a cut off spoon, sharpened along the edges.
As the men hid their new weapons in the soft mud, their thoughts were identical.
In two days, they'd escape.
Or die trying.