CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The next morning BA looked around as they were breaking camp, and knew that the hell he'd been dreading was getting close. Spiro and his men were acting more confident, more cocky. And Hannibal and Murdock looked like hell itself. He knew both men had been up and down throughout the night, taking care of Face when they weren't on watch. He didn't even want to think about Face. He'd looked in on him when everyone was first getting up and that told him the whole story.

There was one change he was going to make. When they finally got started, Spiro was behind the second packhorse, alone. He would have no more contact with his men. None. BA knew a few things about military tactics, too. Like divide and conquer.

Hannibal wanted to push hard now, move everyone forward at an increased pace. The sooner they reached the lake, the less bouncing and jarring Face would have to endure. If they were lucky, they'd reach the lake by end of day. If they were lucky. But luck seemed to be something they hadn't had much of this trip...


*****

Spiro had figured he would be separated from his men at some point. Didn't matter. They couldn't watch him all the time. When they made the first stop, and he realized they were building a quick campfire, he knew then he'd have plenty of chances. He stepped as far to the side as he could, so he could see better what was going on. Ah, the old pot of boiling water. The guy must have an infection in that leg. Too bad for him, but it sure as hell would work well for Spiro. The Old Man and Crazy were all involved with their preparations, BA was up front with them, bringing the litter bearers back with the others - man, this was great.

Yes, it would work. The wounded man had taken precedence now, the prisoners given secondary importance, way down on the totem pole. BA was the only one really paying attention to them, and he couldn't watch three different groups.

Spiro started thinking. Looked at his men, BA glaring a warning at him. Looked at the Old Man. Looked at the horses.

Started smiling again.


*****

Hannibal thought the leg looked a little better. He was sure of it. Not quite so red. Still too warm, but the color looked better. He smiled at Face, trying to be encouraging, but it didn't work. Face just looked at him and closed his eyes. Hannibal was starting to worry about the kid's attitude. Yes, it had been a rough night. And yes, it wasn't going to get any easier. But he didn't want him to just give up. Maybe he was just worn out.

Hannibal stood up, looked over at Murdock, who was finishing up piling dirt over the fire. They could move out now. One last look at Face. At the leg. Yes. The color was better.

He was sure of it.


*****

Murdock stuck the camp shovel back on the packsaddle, and turned to watch as Roger and Zach picked up the litter. They seemed careful, but Murdock cringed as Zach adjusted his hold and the whole thing bounced, just a little. A little too much? How could he tell? What was he supposed to do, tell the guy not to adjust his hold and then have the whole thing dropped?

Murdock moved up past them, giving Zach a pronounced frown. At least he could let them know that he had seen it. Unintentional or not, it was a reminder to them. He headed up to point position, and moved forward at a brisk pace. Hannibal wanted them at the lake by nightfall. A pretty big order, in Murdock's mind. Especially with having to stop and take time to clean up the leg every three hours.

Man, he was tired. They all were. Well, except the prisoners. At least they were getting a good night's sleep. And BA, too. Not that he begrudged him that. After all, he was basically handling Spiro's men on his own. Murdock was taking point almost all of the time now. Whether it was because Hannibal had suddenly changed his mind about Murdock's abilities or because he didn't want him hovering around Face, he didn't know. But Hannibal was spreading himself way too thin - worrying over Face, keeping track of where they were and where they were going, helping guard the poachers. And Spiro. Man, that guy was taking real pleasure in pushing Hannibal as far as he could.

Once they got to the lake, the first thing Murdock was going to do was shove a gag in that guy's mouth. Fuck the Mounties.


*****

Face gritted his teeth once more as they laid the fire on his leg. No, no it wasn't fire; not fire. Hot packs. Hot packs. That's all. Keep it together, Peck...

He wished they would stop. Stop putting the fire - the packs - on...stop moving. He could get better...if they would just...stop...moving...honest, Hannibal...I'll get better...just...give me a chance...only...stop...


*****

Spiro had his first opportunity to sneak a chat with his men when they stopped for a cold lunch break. BA was moving Roger and Zach over to a log to sit on, Smith and Crazy were checking on Gimpy. Spiro stepped around the packhorse and whispered a few quick words to Kollman and McCaleb. By the time BA came over, Spiro was back in place, casually checking out the surroundings. He smiled innocently when BA took him to a far tree stump to eat.

Spiro and his people were on their best behavior after they started out again. Roger and Zach were now walking between the horses. Spiro hadn't had a chance to talk to them, but he noticed Kollman mumble something to Roger. Good.

He'd had a little talk with the men last night, before BA had decided to separate everyone. A little reminder about what they were looking at, should Smith be successful. Another little reminder of who was in charge. Followed by some joking around, easy kidding. Mention of how much money was just sitting in that bank account, waiting for them.

Spiro wasn't a stupid man. And he understood and could manipulate two things very easily - fear and greed.


*****

"It's not good, Hannibal. I think it's spreading."

"I know, Murdock, I know. I hate to do it, but I'm going to give him an extra shot of antibiotics. Hopefully it won't be too much for him. And once we make camp for the night, we're going to keep putting hot packs on it, not just every couple hours."

"What if it doesn't help, Hannibal? What if it gets worse?"

"Damn it, we're not going to let it get worse."

"And how are you going to stop it, Hannibal? If the drugs and the hot packs don't work, how are you going to stop it?" Spell it out, Hannibal. Say it so it's out there.

Hannibal looked Murdock straight in the eye, and his voice was as cold and as hard as the pilot had ever heard it.

"He'll lose the leg, Captain. It's as simple as that."


*****

Spiro had again stepped to the side to watch the proceedings. He was waiting for just the right moment. His men would know what was happening, and react accordingly. If it worked the way he wanted it to, they'd lose at least the rest of this day, possibly tomorrow as well. And put a hell of a lot more pressure on the Old Man and his men. It'd be bad for Gimpy, but he was as good as dead anyway.

Okay. They were starting to move now. Crazy was taking point, Kollman and Pete picking up the litter. Spiro looked out for Smith and BA. Smith was walking alongside the litter; not the greatest, but it would still work. BA was beside Roger and Zach. Yeah, there was the look - BA checking on him. Okay. Okay. Everybody occupied now.

Spiro moved up on the packhorse. Stepped slightly to the side. Brought his foot back and kicked at the flank with all his might.

Even as he was jerked off his feet and yanked forward by the spooked horse, he was grinning.