CHAPTER SIXTY THREE

The sun was finally coming over the horizon. He had been watching the little conclave below for a little over an hour, watching through the eerie false dawn. Long enough to see the first van race away into the desert. Long enough to see the second one follow.

Decker smiled.

He neither knew nor cared why the first van had taken off like that, or why the team was following it. All he cared about was making sure he kept track of the black van and its occupants. Which, considering the dust they were raising, shouldn't be too difficult.

He settled back into the driver's seat of the Jeep, lit a cigarette, and started the engine. He drove around the village, cross-country. Someone might see his own dust, but he didn't have to make his presence obvious. Particularly since this group of miscreants appeared to be harboring his fugitives. Civilians usually didn't bother him, but this bunch had an ex-CIA agent as their apparent 'leader', and Decker had seen more than enough of those types.

The dust trail was slowly evaporating, but it didn't take long to catch up with it. Decker stopped long enough to put a neckerchief over his nose and mouth, and slowly moved up until he was actually in the last remnants of the dust. Unless a wind came up, he should be able to coat-tail the team until he knew where they were going. And then he'd call in reinforcements. Including air support.

Under his mask, he smiled grimly. In the open desert, they would have no place to hide.


*****

The van was a bit crowded, but the men inside were too concentrated on their pursuit to really notice. Hannibal, Murdock and BA were in their usual places; Charlie sat in Face's old seat, while Nick and Dr. Feist had settled in the rear. Nick held Petey by his collar, for his own protection. Both Hannibal and BA had made it clear they would have no patience with the dog right now, and at first, Hannibal hadn't even wanted to bring him along. Charlie and Murdock had prevailed. They had some idea it would help in dealing with Ed, and Hannibal wasn't about to dismiss anything.

BA was trying to keep up with the old van without overtaking it. They didn't want to spook him, but they needed to be close when he finally stopped. Charlie had warned them that Ed knew this part of the desert like the back of his hand, and they weren't going to take any chances on losing him.

Hannibal didn't think any of them were under any illusions as to what Ed had in mind. Nor did he imagine Ed wasn't expecting them to follow. He would do his damndest to lose any followers, but so far, he seemed to be more interested in putting distance between himself and the village.

They had driven maybe ten miles across rough desert when BA started glancing in the side mirror, scowling.

"Problem, Sergeant?" Hannibal looked into the mirror on his side. All he could see behind them was dust.

"I don't know, Colonel. Thought I saw somethin back there. Hang on." BA made a sudden turn to the left, and almost immediately swung back on course. Both he and Hannibal watched the mirrors.

"Nothing." Hannibal looked over at BA, frowning.

"Yeah, there was somethin. There's too much dust. We just keepin in sight of Ed's. Ours is trailin way back. Ain't right. Someone's followin us, Hannibal."

"Damn. Charlie, would anyone in the village..."

"No, I can't think of anyone who would even be up this early, let alone want to follow us." Charlie looked angry. "The Jeep. They traced the Jeep and made the connection. I should've taken care of that last night. Damn it!"

Hannibal stared into the mirror. "FBI? Decker?"

"The FBI would've called me."

"So it's Decker. Alone?"

"Makes sense. He's been burned by you guys so often, if he was playing a hunch, he wouldn't drag anyone else out here. He's probably got backup waiting, though."

"So now what, Hannibal?" BA was now glaring at the dust cloud ahead, his priorities back on Ed.

"I might be able to help, Colonel."

Hannibal looked back at Nick. "You have a plan?"

"Yeah." Nick abruptly handed Petey to Feist, and opened one of the storage lockers. "Can you get a little more lead on the guy?"

"Yeah." BA looked doubtfully at Hannibal.

"What do you have in mind, Nick? We don't want any permanent damage done."

Nick smiled bitterly. He could well understand Ed's frustrations. Smith got an idea in his head and it never quite left, no matter what he said.

"Just a little diversion, nothing more."

"What about you? We can't swing back and pick you up. We have to keep up with Ed."

"Don't worry about it. The only one who'll have to be picked up is Decker."

Hannibal looked at Nick, then at BA and nodded.

The black van began picking up speed.


*****

He wasn't paying much attention to his surroundings. He knew where he was going. He also knew they were behind him. How far, he didn't know, didn't care. When he got to the arroyo he'd be able to lose them. Easily.

He'd thought, for a brief moment, that he should take Murdock up on his offer. He might have been a further diversion for the colonel, somewhere along the way. But Murdock confused him way too easily. He was almost as bad as his friends, always talking him into doing things he didn't really want to do.

Someone was always talking him into doing what he didn't want to do. Always expecting him to do something. Fix something. Get something.

Always demanding that he prove his worth. Waiting for him to fail.

He'd thought Charlie was different. He'd seemed to be, at first. Seemed content to let him be Ed. Just Ed. But then Charlie had started talking about the people in the village. The problems they were having. Little hints, at first. And he'd done what he could to fix them. Because he knew that's what Charlie wanted from him. In return for letting him stay. For pretending to like him.

It was a fair exchange. Nothing unusual. He hadn't even thought about it. Until Charlie had come to get him in Glendale. Made him leave the dog behind. Until Charlie had started telling him what to do, taking charge. Getting angry. He could see it. Hear it in his voice.

And then he'd realized what had happened. He was no longer able to help Charlie, no longer able to help the people in the village. He had become a problem. And then his friends...his friends had started telling him he had to do what Charlie said, that it was the only way to get home, that he couldn't make it on his own.

And that's when he'd started shutting them out. When he realized that they, like Charlie, thought he was incompetent, worthless. That he couldn't save himself.

A burden. A problem.

No longer able to do things for them. No longer able to perform miracles.

Useless.

And nobody wanted useless people around. Nobody wanted problems.

Nobody.

The arroyo was coming up. He drove up on a rise, looking in the mirror for the first time. There they were, just as expected. He waited a moment, making sure they were following. Then he drove down the sloped, into the dry riverbed. Another mile and he would come to the place where it forked.

Where he would leave the van and proceed on foot.

Where he would finally be free of all of them and all their damn expectations...


*****

Decker thought he'd been made when the van suddenly swerved off to the side and back again, but when the van continued on its way with no further maneuverings, he relaxed. Baracus probably just swerved to avoid some animal. He concentrated an maintaining his position, fighting at times to see through the dust and debris, no noticing that they were slowly drawing away from him.

It was getting harder to follow them. A breeze was picking up, and his cover was diminishing. He would either have to drop way back and hope he could still keep them in sight, or move up and try to stay in their dust. He glanced at his watch. They'd been driving for some time, at a pretty damn good clip. A little further out, and he could call in the troops regardless. This far out, it wouldn't matter if Smith saw them coming. They'd have no way of getting away.

Decker noticed he was having to turn the Jeep in a slow arc now, heading further north. Heading more into the hill country. Decker frowned. There still wasn't any cover to speak of, but he didn't like the idea that they were moving out of the flat lands. He reached for the radio.

He never saw the thick wire stretched across his path. He only felt the heavy jolt as it hit the grill of the Jeep, slamming him into the steering wheel. He struggled to control the vehicle as it careened around in a circle, caught on the wire. There was a sudden convulsion as the side of the Jeep slammed into the wire. Decker tumbled out, landing hard on the hot sand. He lay there, dazed, struggling for breath, wondering what the hell had happened.

He looked up as someone came to stand near, but not too close. He couldn't see the man's face, as the sun created a silhouette. He did see the barrel of the rifle.

"Colonel Decker. How nice to see you again."


*****

BA waited impatiently as Murdock trotted cautiously to the top of the small hill where Ed's van had stopped a few minutes ago. BA wasn't sure if they'd been seen or not, and quite frankly wasn't sure he cared. His only concern was that they didn't lose him.

Murdock came running back to the van, breathing excitedly.

"There's some kind of dry riverbed he's gone into. Looks kinda rocky, but I could make out some tracks."

Hannibal turned to Charlie. "You know this place at all?"

Charlie shook his head. "I've never been out this far. Ed must know where he's going, though. These things have a habit of dead-ending. He wouldn't drive into it if he didn't know where it went."

Hannibal nodded. "Okay, BA, let's go."

As they topped the hill, BA looked dubiously at the riverbed. It was, indeed, rocky. He had no doubt his van could take it if that other thing could, but he didn't like it. He pulled cautiously down the sloped bank and followed the tracks, barely visible among the rocks and dead branches.

Several minutes later, BA pulled the van to a stop. The riverbed, which had slowly gotten deeper and deeper, forked now, one branch going north, the other meandering to the east. This time, everyone save Dr. Feist got out of the van.

"Tracks go north, Hannibal." BA looked down that branch, noting uneasily the steep banks, strangely feeling claustrophobic. He shook his head. "I got a bad feelin bout this."

"I'm not thrilled with it, either, but we don't have much choice. If he went this way, so do we."

"Think he's seen us yet?" Charlie was also looking the steep banks ahead.

"Yeah, he's known we were there for some time." Hannibal pulled out a cigar, but didn't light it. "I don't think he cares any more, if he ever did."

Without another word, the men climbed back in the van and started following the tracks. The riverbed was smoother here, and BA sped up just a bit, anxious to catch sight of their quarry once more. They had gone maybe a half mile when they had to make a sharp turn to the right. BA slammed on the brakes as they rounded the bend.

Ed's van was parked across the riverbed, thirty, maybe forty yards ahead, effectively blocking their way.

Hannibal stepped out of the van, squinting as he checked out the barricade from a distance. Something wasn't right. If Face wanted to block their way, this wasn't the way to do it. He would've known it would take only a few minutes for them to roll the van out of the way and be on his trail again. And he'd be on foot now. An easy target.

BA had come around the front of the van and now stood beside Hannibal. Murdock and Charlie stood just behind him. Dr. Feist had moved to the front seat, was watching the men from the window.

"Hannibal?" Murdock was almost whispering.

Hannibal shook his head. Motioning the others to wait, he moved cautiously toward the van. He stopped halfway between the two vehicles. He could smell something. Something burning.

A cigar.

A cigar?

He stepped closer, saw what had bothered him. The side door was open, just a hair. He moved closer, looking hard.

The cigar was there, placed carefully in the opening. Smoldering.

What the...

He looked at the van. Was Ed still in there? Waiting for them? Then it hit him.

The van. Dr. Feist's van. Dr. Feist's ambulance.

Hannibal turned, started running, waving frantically at the others.

"Get back! Get back!"

He watched as the men scrambled into the black van, BA turning it around. Waiting for him, door open...

He felt as if his heart was going to burst but he made himself run even harder. He grabbed the door, pulling himself in. BA didn't wait for him to get seated, gunning the engine, pulling away from the ambulance.

Seconds later the interior of the ambulance exploded, as the cigar's fire and the leaking oxygen tank did their duty. A second explosion followed almost immediately, as the gas tank erupted in a fireball. Fire and shrapnel rained down on the riverbed, coming perilously close to the retreating van.

It took nearly twenty minutes before the flames died down enough for the team to approach the smoldering wreck. Hannibal and Charlie moved close, almost simoultaneously breathing out a sigh of relief when no body parts were seen, and no smell of burning flesh discerned. But the huge crater in the riverbed mocked them. No way they could take their van over that.

"Get the gear, guys. And bring plenty of water. We might have a long walk ahead of us."

Hannibal glared at the terrain ahead.

He could swear he could hear Face laughing in the distance.