CHAPTER FIVE

Face crouched down, torn between moving ahead, checking it out, and going back to the camp, letting Hannibal know what he'd seen. What he thought he'd seen. He tried to think. How far had he actually traveled? He couldn't remember what time he'd left camp, but it had to have been at least an hour, maybe more. Hannibal would be having a fit. Shit, maybe they were all out looking for him. Regretfully, he turned back, trying to make his eyes adjust to the near pitch-blackness, failing miserably. He didn't want to use his flashlight until he absolutely had to, but it was suicide to try and move through this mess without it. Glancing back, he carefully pulled his jacket off, shoving the flashlight into one sleeve. Keeping it just inside the cuff, he turned it on. Okay. He could make out the ground in front of him, but the glow from the bulb was shielded. Stooped low, he slowly made his way back.

A twig snapped off to his right and he jumped like he'd been shot. Shaken, he pulled his pistol and waited, not daring to shine his light toward the noise. He heard more movement from that direction, a muffled puffing noise, and whatever it was moved slowly away. He stayed put for another few minutes, willing his heart to slow, his breathing to even out. He was disgusted with himself for letting this damn place get to him like that. Fucking Green Beret, scared of his own shadow. Finally he forced himself to move out. Enough of this shit. Get back to camp. Back to the campfire, the light. The guys. Safety.

Shit. He should've stayed in LA.


*****

Hannibal had been moving through the dense growth for almost fifteen minutes. He knew he should go back; the guys would certainly have noticed his extended absence. That's all he needed, for the other two to start wandering around this place. Damn it, Face. Hannibal had thought he'd broken him of this sort of thing long ago. Just like a damn bloodhound. Get the scent of something off-kilter and away he'd go, forgetting everything except finding whatever it was that caught his attention. Damn near got the kid killed, more than once. Face had become an expert on cleaning latrines before he'd finally learned. But now he'd done it again.

What worried Hannibal most was that he didn't know why Face hadn't come back. Had he actually found something and was following up on it? Or had he run into trouble? Was he hurt or lost or just trailing something? He knew Face hadn't intended to be gone long, or to go too far, because he'd left his radio behind. That would be the last time that happened. They'd all keep their radios on them from now on; he didn't care if they just stepped off the trail to take a leak. And Face was going to hit the obstacle course heavy duty when they got back to LA.

He was just about to turn around when he caught a flash of light, just ahead. He stopped, watching. The light stayed on a pretty straight route, heading almost directly toward him.

"Hannibal?"

Hannibal didn't know whether to yell at him or hug him. Instead, he spoke in a hushed voice. "Goddamn it, Face, where the hell were you?"

"Later, Hannibal. I just...let's get back to camp, okay?"

Hannibal recognized the tone in that voice. They needed to get back. Face was damn close to losing it.

"Okay, kid. Follow me."

They stumbled back into the camp a few minutes later to find BA and Murdock in a heated argument. The absence had indeed been noted, and the two were disagreeing sharply on whether or not they should go out looking for the missing men. When they saw Hannibal and Face, the reaction was almost comical. Murdock fell all over himself making sure his teammates were okay, pushing them toward the fire, practically dumping hot coffee on them while handing them their cups, babbling questions right and left. BA just stood there, glaring at them, arms crossed angrily across his chest. Hannibal almost flinched when he caught BA's eye.

Murdock finally started calming down and sat tensely near the fire. Hannibal looked at BA, who, with a disgusted shake of his head, also sat.

"Well, Lieutenant? Care to explain yourself?"

Face, also seeming calmer now, although he looked a little pale in the firelight, took a deep breath.

"I was just going to check around the camp, honest to God, Colonel. Then I saw some tracks - horses - heading toward the lake. I was only going to follow them long enough to see if they turned off, went another direction, and I...I lost track of the time. But then, maybe two miles from here, I saw a light up ahead of me. I think it was another campfire, Hannibal."

"You think or you know?"

"I know. It was a campfire. I think the poachers are no more than two, two and half miles from us."


*****

Face and Hannibal stared at the map. Face was desperately trying to figure out precisely where he had gone, where the other encampment was.

"Okay, I walked for...yeah, up this little rise...okay. Okay. I've got it. I was right about here, the campfire maybe here...possibly a little further, but not much. Close enough to catch it through the trees."

"You're sure?"

"As sure as I can be, Hannibal. Close enough that we'll be able to see it before we walk into it."

"Okay. BA, armaments?"

"Ready to go, Colonel."

"Murdock, got the goggles?"

The pilot held up four pair of expensive night vision goggles, one of the benefits of Face having girlfriends in the right places.

"Okay, remember two things. One, these guys are used to living out here, they're used to hearing things in their sleep. So keep it quiet. Two, if any of you has to take off after one of them, follow their path exactly. They'll either steer you clear of any hazards or take them for you. Okay. Face, you lead the way. BA, you take the rear. Murdock, ahead of BA. Stick together. Face is with me. When we get up close, you two go left, we'll go right. Then wait for my order. Got it?"

His men nodded. They'd been through this many times before. They were ready. BA doused the fire as the others adjusted their weapons.

Hannibal nodded to Face, who led the way out of camp and into the woods. The goggles went on almost immediately. They were better suited for use with moonlight rather than total darkness, but at least they could see where they were going without falling over everything.

Hannibal never had gotten used to wearing these things. Sometimes he thought he was getting too old for military technology. He concentrated on watching Face's feet.

They seemed to be moving much faster than they should; Hannibal quit finding familiar landmarks within a few minutes. Now it was all new territory to him. He had to rely on the man ahead of him knowing where the hell they were going. Face stopped once, pointing to the ground, and Hannibal saw the old tracks that had first attracted the lieutenant's attention. Then they were on the move yet again.

Just over an hour later, Face came to an abrupt stop, whipping off the goggles. Hannibal was momentarily blinded by the distant light of the campfire blazing through the goggles before he, too, pulled them off. He got a fix on the campfire, then tapped Face on the shoulder. The goggles went back on, and they moved forward again.

Forty-five minutes later they were in position.