CHAPTER FOUR

When Hannibal stepped out of the tent, Face was already up and looking intently at the map. Hannibal grabbed a cup and poured himself some coffee before settling down beside him. He waited patiently, wanting Face to give him his own assessment of the situation.

"You thinking that lake, Hannibal?"

"Possibly." Hannibal intended to stay neutral. "What's your idea?"

"I think the lake. Possibly this area over here," he pointed to another area, further south. "It's quite a ways from the known camps, but the terrain's flatter, easier access to this road over here." Face pulled out the topographical map they'd used the day before, and pointed to the same area. "But I don't think they'd want to mess with a truck going cross-country. Too many things can go wrong, and I don't think they'd want to chance losing their cargo. Planes seem to be the normal way of traveling around here. And their camps and hunting areas seem to steer clear of that particular lake. Gotta be a reason."

"I agree, Face. I figure a couple days' hike, get an idea of what the land around there is like, set a trap of our own."

"Okay, talk to Murdock, though. He can tell us where their plane would most likely come in through the mountains, just from the topo map. Might save us a little time and energy if we go to the most likely loading area to start with."

"Good idea. Okay, let's get breakfast and get ready to move. The sooner we get over there and set up, the faster we can put these slimeballs away."


*****

Spiro was the first one up in the camp. He moved from tent to tent, kicking feet. He wasn't a morning person, but they had a lot to do today. Their bush pilot was due at the lake at noon, and the jerk wasn't above taking off if they weren't there ready for him. Then he wouldn't be back for another week. Spiro had already lost one load that way. He'd damn near shot the guy when he came back the next week; only knowing how much trouble it would be to find a new pilot kept him from it.

George came crawling out of his tent and started breakfast. Zach saw to the two packhorses, and Pete started taking down the tents and packing up. Roger went with Spiro to dig up yesterday's carnage. They would have four more stops to make on the way, digging up the packed animal remains they had buried to keep them cool. Once the plane arrived, everything would be packed quickly in the ice-filled coolers the pilot carried. The cargo would arrive at their distributor's in nearly fresh condition. It was a source of pride to Spiro that his customers were always satisfied.

The men said little to each other. They each had their jobs to do and that seemed to be the only thing they thought about. Spiro liked it that way. His people were well trained. He'd made sure of that when he'd handpicked them back in Nam. After their discharges he'd searched them out. Most of them hadn't been able to cope with the real world and were glad to be back in Spiro's fold. He liked that kind of loyalty - he knew they had no place else to go. That and their greed gave him the kind of team he needed to succeed. The Mounties didn't stand a chance.

They arrived at the lake and started unpacking the horses. Within a few minutes they could hear the drone of the plane. An hour later, their new provisions were unloaded, the cargo stashed carefully, and the plane was taxiing across the lake. Spiro smiled. Smooth. Just the way he liked it.

"Okay guys, let's head out. I want as much distance as possible between us and the lake before dark."

"Where to, Rick?"

"Northwest section, I think. Haven't been there for about a week. Should be some prime product waiting by now."


*****

Face had been restless. They'd moved into an area of dense woods, the canopy so thick they hadn't even seen the sky most of the day. And Face didn't like that. Reminded him of places he'd just barely put away. Being around the guys, in their camouflage fatigues, wasn't helping. He just wanted some time to himself. Just for a little while. So, with BA and Murdock setting up camp, he told Hannibal he was going to scout ahead a little. He really hadn't needed the colonel's reminder that it was getting dark and he should watch where he stepped.

He'd walked further than he had intended. But there was a reason. Shortly after leaving the camp, he'd come across hoof prints, horses', heading in the general direction of the lake that was the team's destination. They looked old, probably from the same time frame as those bones. Well, it was confirmation of sorts. He'd kept following them, hoping to get a firmer idea of the direction they were going. So intent was he in finding the now-faint trail, he didn't realize the dim sunlight was swiftly disappearing.

Damn. That's all he needed, to get stuck out here in the dark. Sure, he carried a flashlight but he wasn't sure he'd be able to see those hoof prints well enough to backtrack. He was about to turn around when he saw it. And he definitely didn't like it.


*****

Hannibal was reviewing the maps with Murdock, looking at the hills surrounding the lake, trying to determine which direction they should be heading the next day. Murdock was explaining all kinds of things about updrafts and mountain waves and finally Hannibal had had enough.

"Murdock, just tell me what part of the lake the plane would most likely go to, okay?"

"Oh! That's easy - right down here. See, then he's got this little notch between the hills to get out of."

Hannibal sighed in relief. "Thanks, Murdock. I really appreciate your help."

Murdock grinned, snapped another salute and wandered off to find BA, proclaiming to the world at large, "Mounties are trustworthy, loyal, helpful..."

Hannibal sat and studied the maps for a little while longer, until the sun started setting. It was then he realized he hadn't seen Face for a while.

He knew Face was uncomfortable with the deep woods. It wasn't just that he was city-born and bred. Hannibal had noticed a bit of edginess in all of them, including himself, as they'd hiked deeper and deeper into the forest. It was hard to see ahead of them, the sky all but vanished, there were noises in the brush around them as they disturbed various wildlife...too many reminders of another time, another place, combined with not knowing exactly what the hell was out there now. Murdock had gotten a little more 'abstract' as they'd hiked, his discourses moving from the Mounties to explanations of the various plant life and then on to the origin of the species. But none of it had taken on a manic flavor, so Hannibal hadn't worried that much. BA was watching the treetops a little too often, and checked behind them more than he had been in the beginning. And Hannibal had realized, after they made camp, that, though he'd chewed on them, he hadn't lit a single cigar at their breaks. No, Face wasn't the only one this place had spooked.

Face deciding all of sudden to 'check things out' had bothered Hannibal, just a little. He had half an idea that Face was just trying to reassure himself, that the kid was letting it get to him. Of course, he couldn't tell Face he had to stay in camp. He'd never issued arbitrary orders, always had a reason. And he wasn't going to tell Face he had to stay just because they all had the willies. So he'd just 'reminded' him that it would be dark soon and to watch his step. Dumb. Face, of course, had immediately gotten his back up at being treated like a kid.

Now it was different. He should have been back already. God only knew what he might have run into out there. Hannibal stood, checked his flashlight. He wasn't sure he should use it, not knowing where the hell the poachers were. They could be ten feet away or ten miles. Not that he had much choice, if he was going to find Face.

He stepped casually over to BA and Murdock, said he was going to check the perimeter. No sense getting everybody, especially Murdock, all uptight. He'd take a quick look around. If he didn't find Face stumbling back to camp, then they'd have to mount a real search.

He headed out into the woods, flashlight flicking from side to side, back to the front. He found himself checking the trees overhead as well. Damn kid.