CHAPTER SIXTY FOUR

He heard the explosions echo across the desert. He stopped, looking back with a wild grin at the plume of smoke rising from the riverbed, watching as the wind caught it, swirling it through the air. Followed it with his eyes across the desert landscape, where far in the distance the mountains waited. He smiled at them, nodding, thinking. Not his ultimate destination, only a beacon, a guidepost. He would never reach them, but it didn't matter.

He looked up at the desert sun, now starting to flex its muscles. It was hot, getting hotter. He automatically reached for his canteen, then remembered he didn't have it with him. He smiled, almost sheepishly. That didn't matter, either, and rather than feeling worried, upset, he was filled with a sense of freedom.

Freedom. Soon.

Finally.

Final.

As he'd been setting up his booby-trap, his mind had only partially been on the job at hand. He didn't need to think for that. Nor was he worrying about anyone getting hurt; he knew Smith better than that. Not after...Instead, he'd been thinking of what was coming. He knew it wouldn't be pleasant, but in the end, he wouldn't really know what was happening to his body. He'd smiled bitterly, reminding himself that he'd already gone through much worse.

Funny. What had been decided in despair had been transformed into relief, then hope, and finally understanding. After all, he had never been meant to be. He was an accident. An unguarded moment. A problem to be disposed of. No wonder he'd never felt like he belonged anywhere.

Except...

No. No, that hadn't been him. He hadn't belonged to them. Never.

But that didn't matter now. Nothing mattered now, except getting where he needed to be. And that really wasn't even a real place. Well, Father Magill would probably disagree.

Father Magill. What would the good Father say about this? He didn't want to think about it. It made him uneasy. He didn't like the thought that he may spend eternity in the fires of hell, instead of in peace. He shook his head. No, he couldn't go to hell. He'd already done his time there.

He looked again at the mountains, and then at the sun, surprised it had moved so far.

Wool-gathering. Wasting time.

He chuckled. No. Not wasting time. He couldn't waste time when he had all of eternity.

He looked back, where the cloud of smoke had almost disappeared. Chuckled again. And then laughed out loud.

It felt good to laugh again.


*****

Decker's ribs ached like fire, and the pain wasn't helped a bit by his arms being tied tightly behind his back. It was hard to breathe, not that his captor seemed to care. So far the man hadn't said one word, just gestured when he wanted Decker to move. Decker had recognized him as he moved about, checking the Jeep. The so-called FBI agent from Glendale.

Decker, while angry at the current situation, was also curious about his captor. How this man was connected to the team was important to know. A client? Unlikely. He didn't appear to be the kind of person who would need help solving his problems. Decker knew Smith, knew he didn't normally take on 'associates'. The team was the team was the team. So was he merely a convenience? Or did he have an agenda of his own, helping the team to reach his own goal?

Who the hell was he?

The man had finished his inspection of the Jeep, apparently satisfied it was still in working order. Decker was glad to see the radio hadn't been tampered with; he would need that when he escaped. Decker watched as the 'agent' walked casually over, stood looking down at him.

"So, Colonel, now that I've got you, what do I do with you? Leave you here, let the desert do its thing, or..."

"You're not going to do that. Smith may be a lot of things, but he wouldn't go along with murder."

"You're sure of that, are you?"

"Dead sure."

"Well, that does limit my options, then, doesn't it?" He continued to look down at Decker, a small smile on his face. "What do you think I should do?"

"We could strike a bargain."

"A bargain? What did you have in mind?"

"Turn in the team, you walk away. With, of course, a nice reward in your pocket, and no one on your trail."

The man looked at him for a long time before squatting down in front of him. He picked up a small stone, played with it, casually. Looked up at Decker.

Smiled.


*****

Hannibal moved quickly, packing some ammunition and plenty of water. Murdock, BA and Charlie were doing the same. It made their small packs burdensome, but Hannibal had no idea how long they might have to be out here, and it was understood they would stay until Ed was found.

Dr. Feist was double-checking the team's first aid kit, pulling out that which wouldn't be needed. He'd checked through every small pile of debris left of his ambulance, hoping to find anything that might be of use, but other than some scattered bandages and a couple bent syringes, he'd come up empty. Hannibal didn't really want the older man coming along, after noting that he wasn't exactly in shape for this kind of trek, but the doctor insisted. After all, he had a patient out there.

The team members fanned out on the far side of the demolition site, looking for some sign of Ed's trail. Dr. Feist stood by, waiting patiently for orders. Charlie also stood to the side, holding Petey by a rope tied to his collar. Petey was pulling hard, jerking Charlie's arm almost continuously. Charlie looked down at the dog, and nodded. He and Petey started forward, Petey trying to run, Charlie quick-stepping. He didn't have to say anything to Hannibal, who immediately straightened from his task to watch them.

"Guys, c'mon." He may not like the mutt, but he wasn't stupid.

They walked. And walked. And walked some more. The sun crept to its zenith, and still they walked. They stopped frequently, on Dr. Feist's orders, taking small sips of water, trying to find what little shade they could.

At first, Ed seemed to be moving in nearly a straight line, regardless of terrain. They stumbled over rocky slopes, scratched their way through thorny scrub brush, climbed in and out of ravines and dry stream beds. Dr. Feist was getting worried. They had found increasing signs that Ed was getting into trouble. Petey stopped at several places where it appeared Ed had stumbled or fallen before scrambling on. The trail began wandering, first in one direction, then another. At one point, it even appeared he had backtracked before resuming his original direction.

The dog was becoming more and more agitated, and it became difficult to make him settle down even long enough to drink. The men increased their pace, trying to find a balance between speed and safety. It was frustrating to all of them, knowing they were closing in, and yet not wanting to put themselves, and thus the rescue, in jeopardy as well.

It was nearly five hours after they left the bombed out ambulance. Murdock, restlessly looking around the area as the men took another break, spotted something off in the distance, something that contrasted oddly with the desert floor. It was hard to tell what it was through the shimmering heat waves, but Murdock knew it didn't belong.

All caution abandoned, the group hurried toward the object.


*****

He moved almost automatically, not thinking of where he walked. Not really thinking at all. He watched the mountains ahead, noting as the shadows slowly started moving, changing with the sun. He felt calm, relaxed.

Ready.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been walking when the first bit of dizziness hit. He kept walking, closing his eye, concentrating on taking the next step, and the next, until it passed. It bothered him a bit. He had wanted to be further along before it started. Resolutely, he picked up his pace.

The first cramp hit him sometime later. He went down hard as his thigh muscle tied itself in knots. He grabbed hold, massaging roughly, trying to work it out. Finally it subsided, leaving a dull ache. He slowly stood, heart pounding. He took a deep breath, and moved on.

It wasn't long before he began having stomach cramps. At first, he had to stop, doubling over in pain. Eventually, he forced himself to ignore them, keeping his eye on the mountains, walking bent over, but walking.

No way he was going to stop now.

No way.

He noticed the mountains were moving. One minute they were straight ahead of him, the next they had moved to his side. He stopped now and then, wiping the sweat from his face, trying to get his bearings. It was harder and harder to get started again; he felt his strength ebbing away.

God, he was so thirsty. He walked with his eye closed, picturing a huge fountain of icy cold water. He walked toward it, faster and faster. He had almost reached it when he suddenly felt his stomach heave.

How long he'd been on the ground, he had no idea. He sat up slowly, trying to push himself up, but his arms and legs didn't seem to want to go where he needed them to. Finally, he staggered to his feet, and another wave of dizziness and nausea struck. He fell back on his knees, unmindful of the stones cutting into them.

He looked once more at his mountains, beckoning, calling.

Heard the voices once more, no longer willing, or able, to shut them out. Voices telling him to hold on, not let go. Not yet. Not yet.

He felt the rest of his body slowly sink to the ground, the hot, hard ground. He closed his eye again, made himself think of the softest bed he'd ever slept on, with the icy cold water fountain sending a cool breeze of moisture over his body, the soft sounds of its waterfall singing him to sleep...

Singing him home.