CHAPTER SEVEN

They had not seen any signs that the poachers had gone near their camp, but Hannibal insisted they approach with extreme caution. After making sure it was safe, he then insisted on cold rations for breakfast, not wanting the smell of a campfire or food wafting through the forest. Immediately after breakfast, the men made a fast change of clothes and packed up. They were tired, sore, tense and angry. The fact that they needed to backtrack and pick up the trail of the poachers did nothing to alleviate the situation.

Hannibal had given an abbreviated history of the connection between himself and his former lieutenant, with BA adding a few terse comments about the other men. Now they all knew what they were facing - men who were as well trained as themselves, who had the distinct advantage of having been living in this wilderness for some time, and who were willing to leave four people helpless to the elements.

Hannibal had taken point on the way back. He knew how angry Face was, and wanted to keep the pace reasonable. His men were already worn down and he didn't want to aggravate it. He intended to get close enough to keep an eye on the poachers, but no closer. He would not engage them again until the team had at least one night of rest.

After a lunch of more cold rations, the team was again on the march. They picked up the trail easily; it was hard to miss the horses. BA had taken point mid-morning, then Hannibal put Murdock up front again. He knew Face was getting more and more upset with what he considered the slow pace, but that couldn't be helped. He shook his head. Face could hold onto his anger longer than any two men, and then, in the blink of an eye, forget all about it. Sometimes Hannibal thought Face kept the anger only as long as he needed the energy. Or, in this case, the diversion. Anything was better than thinking about their surroundings. He wished he had a diversion like that. Something to keep his mind off the trees, the smells, the sounds. Something to keep his mind on the job and the job alone. But he couldn't. Not in this place, not with those men.

It wasn't that he couldn't put aside the memories. He was perfectly capable of doing that. When he did think about it, it was in a detached, clinical way. Much the same way he'd studied ancient military history. That's all it was. Mainly. Even after they'd started this soldier-for-hire scheme, the similarities between their new life and the old hadn't bothered him. Instead he'd had...fun. But they'd been in LA, sometimes the outlying areas, mainly hit and run jobs. Over in a day or two. Then back to a normal life. Or at least, as normal as they could get. But this job...

It wasn't even memories that were surfacing, causing problems. Even with Richie, it was the man that bothered him, not the memories. No, it was the feeling. Being here, being on patrol, camping out, tracking these guys, even the clothing. It brought back the feelings from Nam. The feelings of not being safe. Which was stupid. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that in LA, they'd felt safe. There were rules there, even if they didn't always apply to the team or the guys they went after. But the rules applied to everything and everyone else, even the MP's. Everything was 'known'. They didn't have to worry about anything except the job.

Here, like in Nam, it was all different. There was wildlife to worry about. The elements to worry about. Hell, a sprained ankle could mean disaster. Not knowing what was around the bend, over the hill. Not knowing the rules. Because there weren't any. Not any 'civilized' ones. Here, if you didn't think about what you were doing all the time, you could end up dead from stupidity. That was the difference. That constantly being on guard. Never being able to really relax.

He shook himself. Introspection was not his strong point. He didn't like it. Take care of today, of now, let the future take care of itself, let the past lie. He'd learned to live that way a long time ago, and he saw no reason to change now. He brought himself back to the present, as Murdock came to a halt up ahead and signaled to him. About time.

Grinning, he moved forward.


*****

Spiro moved at a fast pace after leaving Smith and his men. He wanted to get his own men away from the area and back into the routine, back on the job, before they had time to think about what would be happening back there. He wanted them busy, so by the time they could think about it, it would be too late, and they would be just as guilty as he. He'd have no problem with them then.

They stopped only long enough for a short, cold lunch, and then moved on through the afternoon. It was late in the day when Spiro finally called a halt and they started setting up camp. The men were tired, which was good. They would all call it a day early, sleep hard, and by morning would have come to terms with what had happened. That chapter would be over and done with, and they could get back to their normal routine.

They sat up for some time after dark, going over the plans for the next day. They already knew the places they would set the bait, and each man had his own preference. Spiro just liked to make sure. He sent Roger up the tree for first watch. He'd started using that position early on, when they'd almost had a cat come into one of the tents while George had been on the opposite side of the perimeter. That's how he'd known Smith was coming. You could see all around the camp from up there, and much sooner, too. Roger wasn't given to thinking about things, either; he just did what he was told. As long as he got paid, he didn't really worry about what they were doing. He would concentrate on his watch, not on Smith.

Spiro smiled, satisfied with his plans. Tomorrow would be a new day.


*****

Hannibal stood just to the side of the tree, watching the moving figures ahead. He could just make them out, but it was obvious they were making camp. He was relieved about that. His own men were nearing the end of their rope. Unfortunately, it would be another cold camp tonight. They were too close for a fire, but no way they were backtracking. Turning back, he issued low orders and BA and Murdock quickly made up their own camp.

Hannibal and Face moved forward to do a recon of the area. About halfway between the two camps, they split up, Hannibal moving to the left, Face to the right. They met back at camp less than an hour later, and began making their plans. As darkness fell, BA took his position for first watch, while the others crawled wearily into their tents and let exhaustion take them.

Hannibal had taken last watch, taking the time to go over the details of the raid. They would move out as soon as it was light enough to see, and be in position as the sun broke over the hills. He thought about Face's reaction to the plan. It wasn't unexpected. He'd come up to Hannibal afterward, wanting to know why he was in the 'safe' position. Hannibal had given him a bunch of bullshit about being his 'trump card', but he knew the lieutenant hadn't been totally satisfied. Hannibal himself wasn't sure why he hadn't given that job to Murdock. He usually wanted Face in a key position. It was just that Face had not been acting like himself. The whole time they'd been up here, he'd been tense and irritable. For some reason, Hannibal didn't want him on the attack in the morning. Instead he'd be lying in wait, at the opening Hannibal was deliberately giving the poachers. It was his way of getting back at Richie. Unfortunately, he knew Face hadn't quite seen it that way. More of the those insecurities coming out.

Well, the kid would get over it. He looked up at the sky, realizing it was almost time to move. He started waking the team.


*****

Face moved quickly and quietly toward the stream. It was down in a gully, surrounded by steep banks. Once in the gully, he ran carefully along the water's edge, slipping a bit in the soft ground. He slowed when he figured he was parallel with the poacher's camp, listening for any movement toward the stream, looking for a place to position himself for the assault. Or rather, the non-assault on his part. He frowned, thinking of that pathetic explanation Hannibal had given him last night. When the colonel had lost confidence in him, he didn't know, but he'd damn well show Hannibal he could do the job as well as the rest of them.

There, just up ahead. A cleft in the bank, providing a perfect three-sided foxhole. He could slide up into that and have perfect cover for firing on the camp. He looked at the surrounding bank critically. Maybe an eight-foot climb, but it looked fairly solid. He took one last look up and down the gully.

He saw the chain first. Big. Rusty. His eyes followed the chain and widened in shock when he saw the bear trap. Huge. From end to end, longer than a shotgun. Two heavy metal jaws yawning open, with crocodile-sized teeth on the underside. He looked about for a stick or branch to trigger it, then thought better of it. The noise from something that monstrous slamming shut would have the poachers on his ass in seconds. Shit. Well, no reason to go anywhere near it now. Once they had these guys in tow, he'd come back and set it off. No way he would leave that for an animal to step in.

He turned his attention back to the task at hand. Hannibal and BA should be just about in position now. Slinging the rifle strap over his shoulder, he began the short climb up the bank and into the cleft. His feet slid a couple times on the mud, but he managed to get into position without a lot of hassle. Cautiously he peeked over the edge of the bank. He grinned. He was almost perfectly centered on the camp, able to see everything going on.

He settled back down, finding a good foothold on a large rock, and waited for Hannibal's signal.


*****

"Ready?" Hannibal spoke low to Murdock, still watching the camp ahead of them. The men in it were just getting up, starting to move around. Hannibal had to get moving.

Murdock nodded, his Mountie hat hanging by its straps behind his head. Hannibal took a close look at him. Okay, he was ready for this. He hadn't cracked one odd remark since the morning ritual of irritating BA.

Murdock scowled and took the safety off. "This one's for Yogi."

Hannibal sighed and moved up with BA. They had to circle the camp, BA taking the 9:00 position, Hannibal noon. They quickly but quietly moved through the woods, circling wide.

Luck was running with them almost from the start. As they approached BA's position, they saw one guy tending to the horses. Hannibal glanced at BA, who winked back. As Hannibal moved on toward his own position, BA moved silently up behind the poacher. Hannibal continued on his way, always in awe at how stealthy a man like BA could be. One down, four to go. Piece of cake.

It took only a few more minutes before he was in position behind a large tree. He checked his watch. Face should be settled by now. He took another look at the camp. The four remaining men were now seated around the campfire, eating breakfast, not a care in the world. Hannibal grinned in anticipation of the shock Richie was in for. Still he waited. Not until he noticed Richie glancing over toward the horses did he make his move.

"Hey, Richie! This is the ghost of yesterday past! Drop 'em!"


*****

Face heard Hannibal's shouting, listened as the first volleys began. He rose up into position, aiming his automatic toward the camp. He still didn't like it, but orders were orders. Don't fire until they came right at him. He was Hannibal's coup de grace. His reply to Richie's tree act. The poachers would think they had an escape route via the stream, and then Face would open up, stopping them in their tracks. So he waited for them to come, keeping out of sight but ready.

It took only a couple of minutes, and the men started running for his position. He waited, letting them get closer, his own angry humor letting them gain confidence before he started firing, his body almost vibrating, in sync with the rifle as it fired round after round. It was almost comical, watching them come to a skidding halt as the bullets ravaged the ground around them. Face grinned. It was over in seconds. The poachers threw down their weapons, and slowly turned back to the camp. He saw Hannibal, Murdock and BA walking calmly into the camp, rifles trained on the defeated men.

Still grinning, he again slung his rifle over his shoulder, and, grabbing the edge of the bank to pull himself up, pushed off on the rock. He wasn't expecting the rock, loosened by his activities, to break away from the earth. He suddenly found himself sliding down the bank toward the stream. He immediately started quick stepping, trying to gain some control over his fall.

He landed upright at the bottom, momentum pushing him back further toward the stream. As his right foot came down, he heard a click and the iron jaws seized his leg. An icy fire raced through his body, his vision blurred with a red-orange glow before going black. He hit the ground, out cold, before he even had time to cry out.