CHAPTER THREE

Rick Spiro watched the plane fly overhead, unconcerned. In this country, it wasn't unusual. More and more tourists were coming to the newly opened national park north of them. As long as they kept going north, he didn't care.

He turned and watched as his men finished gutting the bear. By the time they finished, there wouldn't be much left. Everything would then be carefully loaded onto the packhorses and moved to their camp. The next morning they would hand it over to the bush pilot, who would take it to their distributor. Within a few days, another nice little sum would be deposited into his account. Another few months and they would pack up for good. Head somewhere else. Spend their money and start all over again.

"Hurry up, guys, we haven't got all day. And be careful with that shit. Customers don't pay for damaged goods." He lit a cigar, suddenly thinking of the man who had first turned him onto the things.

Spiro had learned a lot from the Old Man. He'd admired him. Too bad the feeling hadn't been mutual. They just hadn't agreed on methods. Spiro didn't worry about civilians. Didn't worry about right and wrong, really. HQ wanted a bridge blown, he didn't care who was around when they blew it. Funny. He'd come back to the States with a 'rep', so he'd changed his name, brought together his old outfit, and set up shop, so to speak. Never been caught, never done time, thumbed his nose at the authorities. Nothing more than suspicions ever connected to him. And his old commander, "Colonel Conscience", was on the run for something everyone knew he hadn't done. Go figure.

Spiro puffed again on the cigar, wondering where Smith was now.


*****

Face was behind BA, which typically was not a good place to be on a hike like this. BA had a habit of pushing back branches and expecting the guy behind to automatically catch them as they flew back. Since they all knew that's how it worked, they usually watched out for it. But Face had turned back to help Murdock with his pack, and, hurrying to catch up, caught one full force in the chest. He pulled himself up, catching his breath, and lit into BA, which should have told them something right there. But instead they all gave him a hard time about being out of shape, letting a little twig like that knock him down.

Flustered, Face took over point and pushed like hell. Forging a trail, he pulled them ahead at a hard pace, taking the brunt of the heavy brush cover, stubbornly refusing to slow down. After nearly two hours, Face really needed a breather.

Hannibal called a welcome relief. They were all feeling the effects of the altitude, not to mention the up and down climbing, sometimes in thick woods, sometimes on rocky hills. Hannibal sat heavily, glad to have the weight of his pack off. He sat straight, though, and calmly pulled out a cigar, watching the others. He liked to keep an eye on them. Not that he'd say anything.

Sometimes it was Murdock that needed time out. The man used way too much energy talking when he should be worrying about breathing. BA wouldn't say anything even if he was having a heart attack, just keep going, but Hannibal had learned how to read the signs. Like when he quit paying any attention whatever to Murdock, not even a scowl in his direction. And then there was Face. He would grumble and moan and carry on like he was dying until one of the others faltered, and then he'd be right there with a helping hand. Or, like now, he'd decide he had something to prove and only a direct order would stop him.

He watched as Face leaned back against his pack, flushed with exertion. Hannibal knew they shouldn't have harassed him like they had. Face always thought there was more than a bit of seriousness behind it. But hell, after all these years he should know better.


*****

This was just stupid. Feeling like this when he was over thirty years old. Well, okay, not quite thirty, but still...He glanced over at Hannibal. He was watching him. Great. Hannibal probably called this break because of him. Okay, so he wasn't at his peak. He hadn't been running like usual the last few weeks, hadn't been getting the sleep he should have. Sherrie had been occupying him a little more than he'd expected. If he'd known sooner they were going to be scrambling through the freaking Canadian mountains, he'd have been in better shape for it. Didn't matter anyway. No one was going to be able to say Templeton Peck had held them back.

He looked over at Murdock and BA. Murdock was looking a little rough himself. Of course, he spent most of his time wandering around the VA, without the opportunities for exercise the rest of them had. Not to mention it wasn't that long ago he'd been a complete basket case. But he was keeping up. Face felt a little twinge of guilt. Sure, he was pushing himself, but that meant the rest of them were being pushed, too. He sighed. Okay. Time to grow up and quit trying to prove something...stupid...to people who probably didn't care anyway.

God, he really was tired...


*****

Hannibal stretched one last time. "Okay, gang, let's hit the road. A couple more hours and we can stop for the night. Murdock, how 'bout you take point for a while?"

Murdock looked up, surprised. Hannibal was a bit surprised at himself. But then, why not? Sure, Murdock had crashed the plane, and he had his little 'problems', but that didn't mean he was really incompetent, or less than a good soldier. Time to remind him of that. Time to remind himself of that.

He smiled as Murdock snapped an elaborate salute, slightly nudging the Mountie hat still perched on his head.

"Semper fidelis!" Murdock grabbed his pack and slung it up over his shoulders as he headed out. Face and BA grabbed their packs and started after him.

"Oh, no, BA - you follow me this time!" Face grinned as BA growled at him but fell in behind.

Hannibal hesitated just for a moment. Something about that grin hadn't seemed quite right. But what the hell, as long as Face wasn't all riled up any more. Hannibal had started having doubts about this job. It was pretty ambitious, compared to the small time street hoods they'd dealt with so far. This was more of a throwback to Nam. And the team hadn't really been keeping in shape the way they should either. Had gotten complacent. Too used to easy city life. The tempers and sniping that had gone on today were probably just the wear and tear showing itself. A couple more days and they'd be used to the physical demands again. Used to spending all their time together again. And then they'd be ready to take on the bad guys. Which is really what they needed.

Hoisting his pack, Hannibal started out after his men. Things would work out just fine. As soon as they found the bad guys.


*****

The campfire was down to a glow, the tents were up, and the food hung high between two trees, away from the campsite itself, the last due to advice from their Mountie in residence. BA was checking the gear for the last time that night, making sure everything was ready for the next day. Murdock was patrolling the perimeter. Face had already crawled into his tent.

They'd found the place they were looking for with little problem. A scattered collection of gnawed bones and some scraps of fur were all that were left of the bear the poachers had taken a week ago. The team had taken one look at the remains and then made camp several yards away, upwind. Not that there was anything left to stink; it was just the idea. If anything had hardened their resolve, the sight of those bones had done it. Murdock had taken it the hardest, of course. He'd been murmuring to himself about the "Mesdames Flora and Fauna" ever since.

By the light of the camp lantern, Hannibal was pouring over the map Benford had given him before they'd headed for the lake. On the map were all the locations their client had found, where the poachers had either camped or slaughtered. There was a pattern there. Somewhere. The slaughter points - Hannibal just couldn't think of them in any other terms - were obviously around areas where the bears would feed, or had water sources. The camps, on the other hand, seemed to be scattered almost randomly. And yet they weren't. There was something...

Some place. Some place the camps steered clear of. The camps were scattered around all the feeding areas and water sources except for one area. A lake, somewhat smaller than the one the team had landed on.

Hannibal sat back, thinking. The poachers were obviously using that lake to get their spoils out. That's why they kept their camps away from it. And that's why the team would be making a beeline for it. It would mean they would have to wait for the poachers, and chance more bears being killed, but it also meant they wouldn't be wandering around the wilderness hoping to find some fresh sign of them.

Hannibal looked at the map again and sighed. About twenty-five more miles. At least they wouldn't have to backtrack, but it meant another two days hard hiking. Well, nothing he could do about that. He looked back to where the bones rested. He thought about the bears he'd seen on television or at the zoos. About the bear he'd 'co-starred' with in one movie. Turning back to the map, he studied the area around the lake more closely. And started planning.