CHAPTER FORTY FIVE

These guys were good, damn good. Hannibal had managed to wound one guy, more by accident than anything. The other one was more elusive, dodging here and there, firing on the run, much too accurately for Hannibal's taste. He could feel something running down his face, and knew from the stinging that he'd caught some of the shrapnel from the rocks around him. He glanced down, toward Murdock's position. Saw him take one guy out, and then freeze.

He fired another quick round at his own targets, forcing them to take cover. Swiveling, he looked down the barrel and saw a man standing where Face had been, gun pointed down, big grin on his face. Hannibal's jaw tensed, and he sighted carefully, ignoring the bullets once again ricocheting around him. He didn't want to hit Murdock or Face, but he had to at least give Murdock an opening. He fired off two quick shots, and saw the man jump back before swinging back and resuming his own battle.

The man he'd hit was moving slowly through the grass, and Hannibal kept a close eye on him. If he raised his weapon, Hannibal would take him out. In the meantime, he concentrated on the other one, who was becoming more and more aggressive. Either he was gaining confidence, or getting desperate. Hannibal could work either to his advantage.

"Come to Papa, you son of a bitch."


*****

BA had his two men pinned down between the van and the jeep. He was glad they hadn't parked closer to the van; the gap was large enough so he could keep them between the two, never allowing them to move close enough to either vehicle to get behind them. It didn't seem to faze them though. They kept low, pressing into the shallow ditch beside the road, alternately firing and ducking. BA was just trying to keep them too busy to turn on Murdock. They'd have a clear shot at him if he didn't.

He glanced over to Hannibal's position. Caught a glimpse of the blood, wondering how bad it was. The colonel seemed to ignore it, so it couldn't be too bad. Probably about like his own, dozens of cuts and grazes from ricochets. A bullet whizzed by his head, and BA brought his focus back on the guys below him, letting them know who was boss.

He did a quick check of his ammo belt. Sighed, and settled his rifle more securely.

"Okay, suckers, we gotta finish this..."


*****

Murdock hadn't dropped his rifle, just lowered it. He slumped a little, taking an attitude of defeat, but kept his finger on the trigger. He didn't dare look at Face, kept his eyes on the man in front of him. Watched his eyes, waiting for that little flicker, watching for his chance...

And then the ground in front of the guy exploded and they both jumped, Murdock automatically swinging his rifle up, finger squeezing, several rounds slamming into the body in front of him, the man jerking with each one, dropping like a rock, finally, when Murdock relaxed his hand, finally, and for a few short seconds, there was no sound, no movement, no air, no gravity.

Murdock jerked back to reality, scurrying over to make sure the guy stayed down. Ignoring the bile in his throat as he checked the pulse. The pulse that wasn't there. A quick glance at Face, making sure he hadn't been hit. Noting, then ignoring, the look on his face. Turning quickly away, seeing the two men between the vehicles, firing up at BA's position. Scrambling over the hot sand, angling his way to a better vantage point, hoping they were too intent on killing BA to notice his approach.

Praying these guys would surrender.


*****

Hannibal shook his hand, swearing under his breath. That last shot had been way too close. That guy was way too close. The other one hadn't moved for a long time; Hannibal had a pretty good idea why. He didn't like it, but he knew damn well what would happen if they got their hands on Face and no way in hell he was going to let that happen.

Unfortunately, he was running low on ammo and the second man seemed to live a very charmed life. He couldn't get a bead on the bastard no matter how hard he tried, and now he had a stone chip buried in his firing hand. Damn! That hurt. Didn't help his aim any, either.

Frustrated, and knowing he was running out of time, he looked down to Murdock's area. No Murdock. He quelled the split-second of panic. He couldn't afford that now. He looked over at BA's position. He could see the rifle, pointing down at the Jeep, firing almost sporadically. Great. BA must be getting low, too.

Wishing for the thousandth time he could take time to light a cigar, he turned back to his nemesis. Closer again. Dammit! He aimed carefully, trying to anticipate the son of a bitch's next move, painfully tightening his finger on the trigger.

What he wouldn't give to have Face next to him right now...


*****

BA fired more carefully, shooting to contain them only when absolutely necessary. He was waiting for his chance, hating the idea, but prepared nevertheless. Every time one of them showed their head above the top of the ditch, he aimed and fired. So far, they had been lucky enough and fast enough to fire and duck before he could get a clean shot.

He could hear Hannibal firing rapidly, and then suddenly it stopped. He'd heard some shots from Murdock, too, a few minutes before, but nothing since. He was about ready to make a run for Hannibal when the shooting started up again. He didn't know if he should be relieved or not. He didn't know if Hannibal was in real trouble or just reloading.

He didn't know a damn thing. Nobody had time to use their radios. Nobody had time to do anything except watch their heads and pull the trigger.

One of the men had reached up to fire again, and BA once again took aim. But instead of firing and ducking, the man just stayed there, half out of the ditch, rifle silent. BA waited. What the hell?

And then the rifle was shoved up onto the lane, and a moment later the other man's rifle followed. And then BA saw a sight he never thought he'd be so happy to see.

Murdock stepped out from behind the van, covering the men with his rifle. BA saw him glance up in his direction and then nod toward Hannibal. BA nodded back and crawled out from the rocks, hurrying as much as possible over the rough terrain to take a position parallel and above the colonel.

About damn time...


*****

It puzzled Hannibal at first. He knew he wasn't firing that fast, but the number of bullets flying toward the man below seemed extraordinary. It wasn't until he stopped to flex his hand, and the bullets kept coming, that he realized he had help. He looked around quickly, caught BA looking back at him from higher up, and he grinned.

Take that, scuzzball!

It didn't take the guy long to realize he was now outnumbered and outgunned. He stopped shooting, and tossed his gun far to his side. Slowly, he stood, hands held high in the air, head down in defeat.

For a few seconds, Hannibal sat, breathing hard, eyes closed, heart racing. He hadn't felt this way for a long time. A long time. These guys had meant business, all right. Then he grinned.

Well, so had he.

He stood, waiting until BA had gotten down the hill and taken control of the prisoner. Then he headed for the van. His grin got even wider when he saw Murdock standing over the remaining two men, who were now tightly bound beside the van.

"Great job, Captain!"

Murdock looked at him, almost surly. "Sure, Colonel, sure. How many notches do we add this time? Three? Four?"

Hannibal immediately sobered. "You know it was necessary, Murdock. If they'd gotten hold of Face..."

BA came up behind Hannibal, shoving his prisoner over to the Jeep with his comrades. "Yeah, man, these guys woulda..."

"Would have what, Sergeant? Made him pay for his interference?"

The three men jerked around to the new voice. Shocked, they watched as a man dressed in jeans and tan shirt, dusty and dirty, stood almost exactly where Murdock's second thug had stood. He held a pistol casually in his hand, pointing down toward Face. He wore a grim smile.

"Well, well. Seems we have a bit of a dilemma here."

"Not really." Hannibal raised his rifle slightly, as did BA and Murdock. "Three against one, doesn't seem much of a dilemma to me, dirtbag. So why don't you put the gun down, nice and easy?"

"Oh, I'm afraid my employers wouldn't take very kindly to that, Colonel Smith. They want Mr. Mordake here very badly. He's caused them no end of trouble and embarrassment, not to mention the international repercussions. I'm afraid they feel he needs to be taught a lesson. Or rather, they need him to teach others."

"The old object lesson, huh? Well, I'm afraid our friend is going to be staying with us. And you fellas are going to be talking with some government types of our own."

Still smiling, the man cocked the pistol. "What is it you Americans call this? A 'Mexican standstill'?"

"Standoff, dirtbag. And we've still got you outnumbered." Hannibal stepped back, and pointed his rifle at one of the trussed up men. "Our three to your one."

"They're not my three, Smith. They knew the risks, and accepted them. Now, unless you want another body to bury, I suggest you move away from the Jeep." Still keeping his eye on the three men, he reached down and grabbed Face's arm, jerking hard.

Hannibal stepped forward, bringing his rifle back to bear. He felt, rather than saw, BA and Murdock step up with him.

"You're not taking him anywhere."

"Let me put it this way, Colonel. This pistol is going to stay on Mr. Mordake. I will give you to the count of five. If you haven't put down your weapons by then, and moved away from my Jeep, I will pull the trigger. You will then have another count of five. This pistol holds eight rounds. That's, let's see, two per limb, isn't it?"

"And what if we just fill you with some holes?"

"Then I'm afraid Mr. Mordake would go right along with me on that journey. One..."

"You wouldn't...what would your employers say about that?"

"I think it would suit their purpose. And I think my friends there would add enough embellishments to make it quite satisfactory to them. Two..."

Hannibal glanced at BA and Murdock. Both still held their weapons up, pointing at Face's captor. They were watching him like hawks. Hannibal looked back, and then down at Face.

"Three..."

Hannibal snapped his eyes back up at the man.

"Don't do it, mister."

"Four..."

"I'm telling you, guy, don't..."

"Five..."

The shot echoed across the meadow..