CHAPTER FIFTY SEVEN

The first thing they saw as they pulled up to the house was Maggie's car. That wasn't good. The first thing they heard when they got out of the car was yelling from the back of the house. That was worse.

BA was the first through Face's door, followed immediately by Murdock and Hannibal. Face was out of bed, leaning heavily against the windows in the corner by the bed. He was deathly pale, red splotches on his cheeks, sweat running off him. He was breathing hard, almost panting. Mama was standing, shocked, by the outside door, still holding a wet cloth, tears running down her face. Maggie was on the floor at her feet, struggling to get up. A large bruise was darkening on her cheek, a trickle of blood coming from it.

"What the hell..." Hannibal was stunned.

BA was not so hesitant. In two strides he was at Maggie's side, helping her up. He pulled both women past Hannibal and Murdock, into the next room, away from Face.

Face was glaring at the two remaining men. Actually, glaring was not the word that came to Hannibal's mind. It was more the look that a trapped animal would give its tormentors. Fury and fear mixed into a dangerous warning. Don't come near me.

BA stepped cautiously back into the room, speaking softly so Face couldn't hear. "He's bad, Hannibal. The fever got him; shoved Mama when she tried to cool him off, wouldn't let Maggie give him nothin. He kept gettin worse and when Maggie tried to give him a shot again, he went wild. Slugged her when she tried to stop him gettin out of bed."

"They okay? For now?"

"Yeah. Maggie said we gotta get him down, so's she can give him that shot. Otherwise he's jus gonna get worse. Fever's way too high."

"Let me try to talk to him, Hannibal. Please." Murdock was beside himself. He didn't want Face hurt, and he knew from looking at him that he would not go down easily.

"Okay, Captain. Give it a try."

Murdock stepped away from the other two, drawing Face's immediate attention. Looking closer, he could see he was barely standing at all, legs trembling with the effort of holding him upright.

"Hey, Face. What's going on?"

No response. Face shifted slightly, trying to gain support from the wall.

"Face, we aren't going to hurt you. That shot Maggie wants to give you, that's just to help you feel better. So we can get the fever down. You're sick, muchacho. We just want to get you well again."

Still no response.

"Face, will you let me help you back into bed at least? You look like you're about ready to keel over."

"No." The voice was almost inaudible, raspy and rough sounding.

Murdock made his voice soft, soothing. Mesmerizing. "I think you're getting pretty tired, Face. Hard work standing up like that when you're sick. Real hard work. And you look like you're pretty hot, too. Fever's not a good thing, is it? Makes you sweaty and tired and you can't really think straight, can you? Everything's kinda fuzzy, huh, muchacho? If it were me, I'd want to lay down on a soft bed, nice cool sheets, soft pillow, yeah, I'd sure like to lay down like that, don't you think that would feel good right about now, Face, just lay down and let the world just float away, not have to work so hard to stand up, not have to worry about anything, just lay on that soft cool bed and drift off to sleep, rest, not hurt any more..."

Face was sagging. The more Murdock droned on, the harder it was for him to keep his eyes open, the harder it was to stand, the harder it was to watch them.

Hannibal and BA were watching, enthralled, as Murdock talked. He was damn near hypnotizing them all with his soft monotone. They watched as Face's eyes calmed, got dull, and finally closed. BA caught him before he hit the floor.

"Man, he's burnin, Hannibal."

"Maggie!"

The doctor came rushing in, a small bandage on her cheek. Quickly she administered the sedative, followed by another syringe of antibiotics.

"Okay, give him a little while now, we'll see if the fever starts dropping."

"Shouldn't we do something to cool him off, or..."

"No, the shots I gave him should take care of it. We'll watch him to make sure." She sighed heavily, and sat down in Mama's rocking chair.

"Are you okay, Maggie?" Hannibal knelt down in front of her, looking closely at her swollen cheek.

"Yeah, I'll be a sight for a while, but I'm okay." She looked anxiously at Hannibal. "He didn't do it, Hannibal. Not really. It was the fever. Don't be angry at him."

"I'm not, Maggie, not really. I just...worry about you."

"I know." She smiled at him. "Now I have a patient to attend to. Out. All of you."


*****

He groaned. Felt someone wipe off his face again.

Solicitous, isn't she? Doesn't bear a grudge.

Stay away from her.

Sure, bud.

I mean it.

The blood started rising again.

It's a nice shade, really, don't you think? Such a nice deep red.

No.

I can make it go away, you know. No more blood. Never.

I don't believe you.

Oh yeah, I can. I've got the power, remember. I've got the strength. The will. I can do what you can't.

I can do it. I can.

I know better, bud. We know better. You can't do this alone.

I'm not alone.

Oh, what, Hannibal? BA or Murdock? They can't help you, bud. They don't even know what's going on.

They'll help me. They always do.

You haven't told them, bud. They can't help if you don't tell them. And you won't, will you?

I...I don't know.

You won't. You don't want them to know about the others. You're afraid to tell them. Those three, they could accept that. That was for them. The others were for you. Save your own skin. They won't accept that.

You did that.

Yeah, yeah, I did, bud. Killed them for you. You should be grateful.

No. You killed them for yourself. You wanted to live.

And you didn't.

I didn't care.

But now you do. 'I want to get well.' You don't want to get well - you just want to forget...I can help you do that.

...How?

Let me out.

No.

Yeah, bud. Let me out and you can forget it. 'Cause it doesn't bother me. It never bothers me. You're the weak link, bud. You're the one that always feels bad about that shit. Your whole fuckin life, the hard stuff always bothered you.

No.

Hey, you owe me, bud. I got you out of Nam, didn't I? Kept you alive over there. And how many times did I save those buddies of yours? Got them the stuff they needed? That wasn't you, bud. That was me. Me. You couldn't scam a diaper off a baby. You used me every time the hard stuff came along. And then shut me back up again. Now it's pay off time.

No. You're wrong. I did my job. I did. Not you.

Right. Okay, if that's the way you feel about it. I'll go away - for a while. You can handle your own shit. In spades, bud. I'll make sure of that. You'll have it all. Everything I've been keeping from you. Everything. See how that works for you.

I can handle it.

Sure you can, bud. Sure you can.

The voice receded. The blood rose.


*****

They were sitting around the kitchen table, not wanting to talk about Face. It was too fragile yet.

"You think we've heard the last of Carla, Colonel?" Murdock was sipping slowly at the hot chocolate. The marshmallow was slowly dissolving, and he watched the white rings swirl around the cup.

"I don't know. It depends on whether she'll let her pride get in the way of common sense."

"So?"

"I think she thinks she's better than she is. The overconfidence of the uninitiated. She's always been the follower - a damn good assistant but without enough experience as a leader. She's gonna make mistakes. And we're gonna be one of them."

"So what do we do, Hannibal?" BA didn't like this whole conversation.

"We try to honor the promise we made, especially the one we made to Face. Until she backs off or until she pushes the envelope too far. No one on this team gets hurt again. Promise or not."

"We stayin here then? Or moving on?"

"We're staying. Face is comfortable here. He gets over this infection, it'll be the best place for him to get better. We've got the security system. We'll be all right here. I'm not running from her. She wants to come here, we're ready for her."

Silence enveloped the room. Mama had not said a word. She knew when her thoughts would be welcomed, when they would not. Old fashioned as it may seem, this was the men's domain. It had been different before. Face's request had given her the 'right' to speak. Now she was just BA's mama. If they wanted her input, they would ask for it.

She refilled their cups and wandered into Face's room. Maggie was dozing in the rocker. Face was still sleeping, but restless. She touched his forehead. It was still warm, but cooler, she thought. Good. He'd be okay now. They wouldn't let it get out of hand again. Any of it.

Maggie stirred, looked at Mama. Smiled wanly.

"You gonna tell Hannibal what really happened?"

Maggie frowned. "No, I don't think it would serve any purpose."

"Up to you, Maggie. Just promise me one thing."

"What?"

"If he stirs at all, you call someone. And don't be alone with him any more."

"That wasn't Face, Mama. He won't do it again. He won't even remember it."

"Jus the same, I'd feel better if you was mindful of him. He's not right yet, y'know. Don't know what he might be thinkin."

Maggie sighed. "Okay, Mama. You're right, of course. Until he's completely back, I'll be careful."

Mama nodded and went off to bed.

Maggie sighed again. One more person that would look at Face differently from now on. He'd lost more than anyone would ever know.