CHAPTER FIFTY FIVE

Hannibal had called Hank as soon as they got back to the farm. He'd had to do some fast thinking on the way, not wanting to say it was a kidnapping. He didn't want Carla mentioned. She belonged to him. It took some persuasion to convince Father Magill it would be better just to say there had been an accident and Face had apparently wandered away in a daze. Within an hour of the call they had nearly 50 volunteers, including some with dogs, gathered at the road side. Hannibal had one of Face's shirts for the scent. He noticed more than one man had a rifle with him.

"What's with the guns, Hank?" He was a bit concerned that the men knew the team wasn't wanted any more.

"Oh, mountain lions. They're night hunters, you know."

"Mountain lions?" Murdock gulped. "Are you kidding?"

"No, we've got quite a glut of them around here. We can't hunt them any more, but if they get after the livestock we can shoot them."

"What are the chances of actually running into one of them?"

"Oh, not bad. They usually shy away from people." Hannibal started to relax. "I'm more concerned about one of them finding Peck. If he's hurt, well, they might mistake him for prey." Hank started directing the searchers to their areas. The team stared after him.

The men started out, high beam flashlights darting here and there, following the dogs, who appeared to be having some difficulty finding a scent. They weren't bloodhounds, just the usual gaggle of hunting dogs. They weren't really trained or equipped to follow a human scent. Hannibal got the impression the men mainly wanted the dogs in case there were a blood trail to follow.

It was rough country to travel over at night. The going was very slow and laborious. Some areas the ground rose up sharply only to fall again almost immediately. Other areas had so much scrub growth it was nearly impossible to push through. For every yard gained, they'd probably walked five.

The team was getting more and more nervous. Thinking about Face out here, maybe tied up, maybe just left somewhere unable to walk out. The hunters had agreed that only the team members would actually call Face, thinking it would make it easier to hear any response, and because he might not respond to anyone else. So the team was spread out among the other searchers, calling out, hoping to hear any kind of response, and wishing they were closer to each other.


*****

He was cold. He knew that if you were lost, you were supposed to stay put until found. Easier said than done. He wanted desperately to get to the road, but he didn't know which direction it was, or how he'd get there anyway. He wanted desperately to build a fire, but had nothing to start one with. His SF training didn't account for only having one hand to work with. What he really wanted was to see Hannibal or Murdock or BA. Any of them, all of them.

He knew he was stressed out. He hadn't come back. But the images had been coming at him constantly. One after the other, over and over. He tried pushing them back. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. He was getting so worn out from it, he started thinking...no, don't go there. Literally. He had to stay focused. The images weren't real. They had degenerated into pure fantasy - no, pure horror, far from the reality of what had actually happened. Knowing that didn't help. He still saw them, still couldn't stop them.

There were a lot of night noises. Normally he wouldn't think anything about them. Tonight he kept thinking about the lions. What would happen if one of them came around? He couldn't run; he wasn't sure he'd be able to defend himself at all. To go through all this hell and then get eaten by a damn mountain lion...damn.

Easy. That's what he wanted. To freak you out. Force you back inside. All or nothing for him, remember? It would be nothing. Had to be.

It got colder. A heavy dew was coming on. He was getting so tired. He didn't have that much energy in reserve to begin with. He'd been nearly wiped out when they left the church, how long ago? Then Carla. And the...hell...he slumped against a tree.

I should just give it up. I'm not going to get out of this damn woods. I'm not going to get well. I keep trying and it never goes right. Just never ever goes right...


*****

"Face!"

He jerked awake.

"Face!"

Someone was calling him. Off in the distance. Way off. He tried to call back, but nothing came but a hoarse croak.

"Face!"

They were going away! No, no, I'm here! He gathered all the little strength he had left.

"BA!"

Silence.

"Face? Where are you?"

He hung his head. He didn't know if he could muster up another shout. He had to try.

"Here!" To his own ears it sounded like a mere whisper.

"Comin, Face! We're comin!"

He heard crashing in the brush. Voices coming closer. Arms wrapped around him, picking him up, carrying him away. Warmth from the man carrying him.

"BA?"

"Gotcha, Face. Relax. We'll have ya home in no time."

"Ok." Whether he fell asleep or slipped back inside, he didn't know or care. He just knew everything went black and he felt at peace.


*****

Father Magill came over first thing in the morning. He was stiff and sore himself but more concerned about Templeton than himself. Mama assured the priest that he was being well taken care of. He went into the sun room and sat beside the bed, taking the hand that lay there, murmuring a soft prayer, and settling in.

Hannibal was not so content. He was livid. He hadn't been able to sleep that night, even after Face was safely in bed. He'd paced the floor of his room; then he'd paced the floor in the living room. He ended up pacing up and down the lawn behind the sun room, stopping only now and then to stare at the bed through the window, assuring himself that Face was still breathing. He was going to get that bitch. If it was the last thing he did. She was not going to come after Face or any other member of his team again. Ever.

But he had to be careful. He couldn't involve Face. No way. Frankly he had doubts if Face would ever be a full member of the team again. No, he knew he couldn't be. Hannibal would never, could never let Face handle a firearm again. Nor did he want Face anywhere near Carla. That was out. But as to the rest of the team, she had just become their number one priority.

He knew now that Carla was watching their every move. Which meant she and/or her people had to be staying somewhere close by. There weren't that many motels around; she wouldn't be that hard to find. She must know that, of course. The question was, did she expect them to come after her, or did she think she'd scared them off? If the former, she was more brazen than he thought. If the latter, more stupid. Either way, they'd be paying her a visit. Soon.


*****

Murdock was hovering again. He wouldn't go into Face's room while the priest was with him, but he wanted to be as close as he could without being noticed. Which meant the kitchen. Which meant under Mama's feet. She was already worried about the slight fever Face had developed; Murdock's constant movement between the kitchen table and the kitchen door was enough to drive her wild.

"For heaven's sake, Murdock, settle someplace and stay put! Either sit at that table and be still or go in and sit with 'em, but quit runnin back and forth."

Murdock slunk over to the table. "Sorry, Mama, but I'm worried about him. He was so cold when we found him last night..."

"I know, sugar, but you're not helpin any. I'm keeping a close eye on him, and if that little fever he's got gets any worse I'll give Maggie a call. Okay?"

"Yeah." Murdock wasn't really satisfied with that. He wanted to 'fix' it. He wanted to...okay, admit it. He wanted to be the hero. Everyone had expected him to work miracles with Face and so far he hadn't done much of anything. Face hadn't acted like, well, like he was supposed to. Murdock would just figure out what was going on with him and boom! Something would happen and push him off in some other direction. The guy had been like an emotional pinball machine.

And now, having admitted his frustration with Face, Murdock felt guilty. It sure wasn't Face's fault. He hadn't known which end was up for months. Crap. He knew who he was really angry at. Carla. But there wasn't anything he could do about her. Hannibal kept saying they would take care of her, but they never did anything! Okay, in fairness, they hadn't had a chance to 'cause of Face. Damn.

Murdock banged his fist on the table in frustration. That was enough for Mama. She shooed him out so fast he didn't know what hit him.

"Go find Hannibal and tell him to do somethin with you, I have had it!" and the door slammed on his backside.

Mumbling and grumbling, Murdock went in search of Hannibal. No matter what you wanted to do, you did what Mama said...


*****

BA was working on the van. He wasn't just working off his anger at Carla, or his worry over Face. He wanted the van in top condition for one very good reason. They were going after Carla. No one had said anything yet, but he knew Hannibal had been up all night. Under the circumstances, it was easy to see what was coming.

The only thing he didn't know was what Hannibal planned on doin to stop her. A little over a year ago, he woulda figured on some dumb plan that should never work but somehow would anyway. Now, it wasn't that simple. Things had changed. Things had gotten too complicated. Everythin and everybody was out of whack. They weren't the same team they had been. It was more like they had been in Nam. When more often than not the plans were ugly. They had to be. It wasn't until they got back to the states and out of Bragg, that things got cleaned up, where they didn't set out to kill the enemy, just put 'em out of commission. BA wasn't sure that was gonna be the way things were any more. And that bothered him.

If Face was himself, he woulda been talkin Hannibal down. But if Face was himself, he wouldn't need to talk to Hannibal 'cause none of this woulda happened. Man, he was startin to sound like the Fool. BA tossed down the wrench and walked wearily toward the kitchen. He didn't want to bother his Mama with his troubles. He just wanted to sit with her for a bit. Just sit and not think about what could happen.


*****

Father Magill had long since left; Murdock had cleaned every weapon they had with them; the van was running better than it ever had. Hannibal had taken Maggie's car and done his reconnaissance of the various motels. Then he had pulled BA and Murdock into the library for a long talk. They were still in there when Face woke up early in the afternoon.

Mama had been sitting with him. His fever had spiked a bit and she almost called Maggie, but then it dropped again. It still wasn't gone completely so she kept checking it. She figured he'd just caught a bit of a chill last night, but considering he wasn't in the best of shape to begin with, she wasn't going to be too casual about it.

Face didn't move when he first woke. He stared up at the ceiling for a long time, lost in thought. Finally he spoke.

"I'm tired, Mama."

"Why, you just woke up, baby. How can you be tired?"

"I'm tired of fighting. Tired of trying to make things like they used to be. They aren't ever going to be that way again. Are they?"

Mama didn't know how to answer him. She thought it was maybe the fever talking, or maybe he was still shook up from last night.

"He's going to go after Carla. He shouldn't do that, Mama. He should just let things be. Leave her alone. Will you tell him that? Please?"

"Sure I will, Face. I'll go tell him right now if you want."

"Please."

As Mama headed toward the library, she knew it was a fool's mission. The three of them were bound and determined to make sure that woman never came after them again. What worried her was how they were going to do it. Face was right about that. Things were never going to be the same again.

She knocked at the door and stepped in. She knew things weren't going well with her boys. Hannibal was standing at the window, a cold look in his eyes. Murdock was curled up in the big lounge, staring at his shoes. Her Scooter was standing opposite Hannibal, a deeper scowl on his face than usual, arms crossed defiantly as he glared at his colonel.

"Face just woke up. He wanted me to tell you to leave that woman alone. He doesn't want you going after her."

"Face doesn't realize what's happening."

"Oh, I think he does, Hannibal. Better'n you think. He told me, not for you but jus' tellin me, that he was tired of fightin, that things would never be like they were. He's really feelin bad, and I don't think you all should be plannin anythin that could make things worse. If anything happened to any of you, it would kill him. If he thought you were going after that woman like he did Stockwell, it would drive him right back inside hisself." She looked at them sadly. "I know you want to keep her from hurtin any of you again, especially him. But if you go off doin somethin you know ain't right, you're jus gonna hurt yourselves more'n she ever could. It's gotta stop somewhere. You think about that."

Mama quietly closed the door and went back to Face. They had done all they could.


*****

Hannibal stepped into Face's room. Mama looked at him for a moment before leaving him alone. He nodded at her, not quite reassuringly, but not coldly either.

"Hey, kid. Feeling better?"

"Not really, Hannibal. I'm just...I don't know."

"Mama told us what you said, about leaving Carla alone. You know we can't do that, Face. She'll be dogging us worse than Decker if we don't put a stop to it. But BA and Murdock and I had a long talk. I promise you, Face, whatever we do, Carla will walk away from it. Not unscathed, but she will walk away. Okay?"

"Sure, Hannibal."

"Okay. Now I want you to listen to me for just another minute. I don't want you thinking about Carla any more. I don't want you thinking about anything to do with Carla, or Stockwell, or any of that shit. I want you to think about how good it is just to be alive. I want you to sit out in that meadow and smell the sweet grass, and listen to the wind, and watch the birds flying. And while you sit out there doing all that, you keep in the back of your mind all the people you have around you that care about you and want you to be happy. Okay?"

In all the past year, Hannibal had seen Face go through a full range of emotions except one. He had never cried.

He did now.