CHAPTER FIFTY EIGHT

Marucchi's men were out of practice, just as Clifton had expected. All who had not left on the search raced to the scene, leaving no one guarding the remainder of the compound. Clifton could have walked out.

As it was, the only people he had to worry about were the men in the jeeps. Most had heard the gunfire echoing through the hills, and were tearing back, expecting to find a full fledged assault on Marucchi. Clifton had to dodge under cover a couple of times, but otherwise was able to return to his own hidden jeep without a problem.

He drove leisurely into the village of La Venata and booked a room in an obvious tourist trap. Overpriced and ill-kept, but with enough people coming and going that another stranger was just, another stranger.

He sat in the nearby bar, sipping a stale but cold beer, musing on all he had accomplished in such a short time. Smiled. Began planning his next move.

Which one this time?


*****

Maggie softly closed the door to Face's new room, leaving BA dozing on the cot that had been brought in. The two men would be sharing the 'sick room' for a while. Maggie had been moved into the room next to them, and Dr. Perea had left a nurse in charge of all three victims. Hannibal took Maggie's arm, although she protested that she was just fine. She also noted his anxious glance at the room she'd just left.

"He'll be okay, John. We'll just have to watch him for a few days."

Hannibal and Mick had rushed to the yard outside the bedroom at the sound of gunfire, surrounded by Mick's bodyguards. Mick had immediately gone to his slain men, cursing a mile a minute. Hannibal, assured by a nod from BA that he and Maggie were relatively unharmed, had moved to Face. Face wasn't breathing. Hannibal's turn to swear as he quickly tilted his lieutenant's head back and blew into his mouth. Nothing. He continued forcing air into his friend, barely hearing Mick shouting for his medics. It seemed like seconds later he was being pulled aside so Mick's people could work on Face. It seemed like hours later they finally got him breathing again.

Dr. Perea had come quickly, and examined them all. He was confident they would all recover, although Hannibal wasn't reassured when the nurse was brought in to watch for complications. Dr. Perea had not been happy about the havoc wreaked on Face's shoulder. The healing had suffered a serious setback. He had gone, muttering about the lack of proper care of 'his' patient.

Hannibal was now convinced they had to get Face off the sedatives as quickly as possible. Not being conscious enough to hold his breath, he had inhaled more of the smoke than either BA or Maggie. Paranoid or not, Hannibal needed him conscious and at least somewhat able to help defend himself.

He and Mick had also sent the men to search the immediate area again, not only for the assailant but for Kurt as well. The men were ordered to search every inch of the yard and buildings, no matter how unlikely it seemed. After checking out the roof, they were convinced there had been only one man, and he had obviously not had time to take Kurt off into the hills. It had taken time to gather and carry the green wood up to the roof, fashion it into a bundle and drop it down the chimney. Hannibal had angrily tossed away the piece of metal that had been placed over the chimney, effectively acting as a damper and forcing the smoke into the room below.

Only one man could have carried out something like that, unseen and unheard.


*****

Kurt slowly opened his eyes. He wasn't sure what he was looking at, at first. Then he realized it was straw. Lots of straw. The gag in his mouth, coupled with the dust, was making it hard to breathe, and he had to fight down the panic. He blew out through his nose. Gross, but effective. He could breathe a little easier. He couldn't swallow very well, and the saliva building up from the gag made him feel like he was drowning. Carefully he made himself work it down. He'd be damned if he was going to choke to death under a pile of hay.

Okay. Take inventory now. Besides the gag, his arms were bound to his sides, hands uselessly separated from each other, the rope between them running across his backside. Legs tied, tightly, at the knees and ankles. He could try rolling, if he knew which direction to go. He could end up just further back, wasting effort and air. He tilted his head, wincing at the sharp stab of pain when he moved it. Damn. There was barely enough light filtering through the loose straw to let him see a couple inches around him. Okay. Slowly, he made himself roll over onto his back, and painfully turned his head the other way. Hard to tell for sure, but it looked like it was darker that way.

He closed his eyes, realized it was harder to breathe on his back, rolled back over. The effort was almost too much. He blew out of his nose again, but it didn't seem to help as much as it had before. Any physical effort at all made his lungs yell for more air, and he couldn't get enough.

Looking into the straw, Kurt decided. If he just stayed here, he would suffocate. Choke. Die. At the least, he could die trying to live. He took as deep a breath as he could, he closed his eyes and began rolling.


*****

Randy was staring out the window, watching the search parties. He hadn't gone with them this time; there was no reason to. Hannibal was still insisting they work in groups, and with BA out of the picture, Murdock had paired with Santana. One more pair of eyes under those circumstances wouldn't matter. Either they would find Kurt this time, alive, or they would find him later, dead.

What mattered now was finding Clifton. Randy was quite sure he'd left the ranch. Two strikes, two very bold strikes, was pushing the envelope far enough, even for the best. No, Clifton was either hiding out in the hills, or in La Venata. Considering the man's lifestyle, Randy figured he was in town. He wouldn't rough it unless absolutely necessary. That, however, would be as far as the soft life would go. He would find someplace to stay out of the way, where he would be overlooked, wouldn't attract too much attention from anyone. No fancy hotel with fawning clerks. Someplace where he would just pay his money and then be ignored along with all the other penny-pinching tourists.

Randy glanced behind him, through the bedroom door, seeing Smith marching into the library, where Mick and Daryl were already closeted, going over plans. For a moment, the Three Stooges danced across Randy's mind. But only for a moment. He knew that those in the library were three of the most experienced and determined men in this part of the country. Unfortunately, they each had their deficiencies. Smith, brilliant and unconventional, was too involved in the welfare of his men. He had too many worries, clouding his judgment, unfocusing his mind. Mick was too used to gang warfare. He didn't have the experience of dealing with just one man. Daryl was probably the one most likely to deal effectively with Clifton, with his experiences under Stockwell. But, like Smith, he was too concerned with his partner.

So it would be up to Randy. Randy would have to track down Clifton and dispose of him, one way or the other. So the others would be safe. Randy was used to this kind of game. And Randy had no distractions. Not any more.

He looked to his side, at Baracus, dozing on his cot. On the other side, Sam, not quite sleeping, not quite awake, oxygen mask obscuring most of his face. Except his eyes. And even through the haze, Randy could see the suspicion in them. Randy had tried to talk to him earlier, tried to reassure him. The reaction was startling, although Maggie had warned him. He just hadn't believed it would happen. Not with him. And that's when he'd known.

He knew Sam was never coming back.


*****

Kurt was on his side. He was suffocating, slowly. He couldn't draw in enough air, no matter how hard he tried. He wasn't sure how far he'd managed to roll along the rough floor, fighting through straw, the sharp ends cutting into his face. He'd finally had to stop, running into a bale. Defeated, he'd rested his forehead against the rough side, exhausted.

He was quite sure he was hallucinating, when he heard the sound of men scuffling around, somewhere ahead of him. But then the darkness started diminishing and he heard grumbling and mutterings in Spanish. With one last effort, he screamed through the gag, coughing and retching.

A few minutes later, he felt hands on his body, a knife cutting through the ropes, freeing him. He breathed in deeply as the gag was removed, coughing out the dryness. He looked up long enough to see Mick's men frowning down at him, and then gave himself up to restful unconsciousness.


*****

Maggie had insisted she was well enough to take care of the newest casualty. She realized that Dr. Perea was quite competent, but frankly, the fewer men associated with Mick she saw, the better she felt. And as soon as she had all three injured men in condition to travel, they were all out of here.

BA was already up and grumbling about the restrictions she'd put on him. It was good that she was feeling better; the nurse was scared to death of the man, and he would have bulled his way right through her. Maggie laid down the law, and BA meekly consented to sitting on the main patio, nursing his pride.

Kurt was recovering quickly, his main complaint being very stiff and sore muscles. A long hot shower, lots of tea, and a comfortable bed were all he really needed, or wanted. He slept now in the bedroom Maggie had occupied, Daryl pretending to read in the chair not far from the bed.

The nurse sat up nervously as Maggie opened the door to Face's room. She looked at the bed and stood, speaking quickly in Spanish. Maggie shook her head; she spoke it well enough to help her patients, but she wasn't fluent enough to keep up with this.

"Por favor, señorita, reducir la velocidad. No puedo entenderle." Maggie reached out with her hand, trying to calm the woman.

"El doctor dijo que este hombre fue perjudicado. Nadie dijo que él era loco. No quiero que nada haga con él. ¡Me marcho! ¡Ahora!" The nurse pushed past Maggie, practically slamming the door behind her.

Maggie sighed. She'd caught enough of that to know what was wrong. She moved quietly over to the bed, wondering what had happened now.

"Face?"

He was staring up at her, eyes struggling to focus. With his right hand, he was pulling the quilt into a tight bundle.

"Face?"

He mumbled something, pulling the quilt up toward his chest.

"What did you say?"

"...find them...can't...find them..."

"Can't find who, Face? Who can't you find?"

"...all gone...all...dead..."

Maggie closed her eyes, sighing deeply. They had to get him out of here. Had to take him somewhere that he would get help. And she thought she knew exactly where.


*****

Murdock watched, silently, as Randy meandered around the yard. Only Murdock had noticed that he was moving further and further from the house, closer and closer to the hills beyond the yard. He knew what Randy was doing, and why. He knew he should stop him. Or go with him. Or tell Hannibal. But he also knew it was something Randy had to do, and that the team couldn't have anything to do with it. Knew Randy understood that. So he did nothing. Just watched, silently, as Randy moved further and further from the house, until he disappeared into the landscape.

Murdock wondered if they would ever see him again.