CHAPTER SIXTY FIVE

Nick drove as quickly as he could, considering the terrain. The tracks from the two vans were pretty obvious at first, but now and then he'd have to watch more closely as they drove over rockier areas. He had no idea how far ahead the guys were. Setting up the ambush, taking care of Decker - all of that had taken over an hour. He hadn't even looked at his watch when they finally started trailing them again. All he knew was he was getting more and more anxious to catch up with Smith and the others.

He glanced over at Decker, sitting very straight in the passenger seat. He had to smile. Decker's posture had more to do with the ropes holding him in his seat than his military bearing. At least he wasn't complaining. Of course, that would be hard to do, considering he had a couple rounds of duct tape covering his mouth.

He'd let Decker think he was seriously considering his offer. He'd re-tied Decker's hands in front, apologizing while explaining that, after all, he still had to be careful. Decker wasn't happy, but he accepted the practicalities. Then, after driving for a mile or so, Nick had said they had to make it look good, or Smith would smell a setup, so he'd have to make it appear that Decker was tied securely. He didn't think Decker was quite as willing to accept that, but he didn't have much choice.

The tape had come after they'd driven over too much rough ground for Decker's comfort. All pretenses was lost then, but, of course, it didn't matter at that point.

The Jeep bounced over a small hill, and Nick brought it to a grinding halt, eliciting a grunt from his captive. Ignoring him, Nick stepped out of the Jeep, and looked around. It was easy to see where the two vehicles had gone; Nick just didn't want to believe it. He stepped over to the embankment. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it looked. It couldn't be, if two cumbersome vans had gotten down it without destroying themselves. He shook his head, stepping quickly back to the Jeep.

"Hang on, Colonel. We're about to go on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." He put the Jeep in gear and rolled forward, hoping the previous vehicles hadn't loosened things up too badly.


*****

He was in the mountains now. He wasn't sure how he'd gotten there, exactly, but it didn't matter. That he was there was the important thing.

He'd made it.

He'd been worried for a while, thinking his body had given up on him. He should have known better. This was too important, and he'd always been able to push himself when it was really, really important...

Of course, it had always been important for him only because it was important to others. Because they needed something and he had to provide it, had to prove himself or be cast out. No more. Now it was important only because this was what he wanted. More than anything. And his body had fought for him to come through. So he could win.

For him.

He walked along the trail, feeling the cool mountain breeze blow across his face. He could hear the waterfall up ahead. A deer stepped out of the dense forest, looked at him for a moment, startled, before bounding away.

He smiled.

This was where he belonged.

He came to the cold, cold river that fed into the waterfall. He slowly sank down on the bank, watching the water rush by, listening to the gentle roar as it cascaded over the edge. He closed his eyes, felt himself relaxing, resting, casting off the shadows and scars...

He heard something. Off in the distance. Somehow it didn't belong here. He decided to ignore it.

Smiled. Sister Magdellan's favorite warning. "No discordance allowed." He decided it would be his first rule for here.

He felt a wet tongue on his cheek, licking joyfully at his face, a whine of pure love. He opened his eyes, surprised, happily so, to see Petey. He pulled him close, letting him wiggle happily in his arms. He'd missed the little dog, but hadn't thought it right to take him along on this trip. He didn't know how Petey had found him, but it made everything just a little more perfect. He laughed as Petey washed his face.

There was that sound again. Louder. Much louder. He tried to ignore it again, but something was wrong.

He frowned. The voices were back. Faint, but they were there. He didn't like that. He didn't need them any more. He concentrated, forced them out of his head. Hugged Petey a little closer, tried to relax once again, listening to the waterfall.

The waterfall. He couldn't hear it any more. He opened his eyes, looked at the river. It had changed. It was drying up, drying up before his very eyes. He watched, dismayed, as it got smaller and smaller, until it was nothing more than a sluggish stream.

What was happening? He looked around the forest, but the forest was gone, only stark poles of trunks left, dried and withered in the heat.

Heat. Heat so intense he could feel it burning into his very soul. The heat of hell? Had he been cast out of heaven as well?

The voices came back, persistent now. Persuading. Demanding. But not his voices. Not the voices that had kept him safe, that had loved him and encouraged him, had been his constant companions in the desert, keeping the shadows away at night in that tiny tiny trailer...

Murdock.

It sounded like Murdock. He couldn't talk to Murdock. Didn't want to talk to Murdock. Not now. Not here.

He closed off the voice, forced himself back to the forest, to the mountains. Left Murdock. Left the voice that threatened...but he couldn't. Not all the way. Because the other voices were there now, calling him, making him come back, insisting he come back...but this was his time. This was his place. This was where he belonged.

It had to be.

He tried to get up, move away from them, away from their voices. Hannibal's voice. Charlie's voice. He didn't want those voices here, didn't want any voices here, didn't want anything but what had been. He pushed away the hands that tried to hold him, capture him. He crawled to the stream, and with relief felt the water, still cool, trickling over his body. Felt the heat withering away, felt the cool breeze again, felt the water rising, the soft rumble of the waterfall growing once more...


*****

"That's right, Ed, you stay with us now, you don't wanna go away now, we're here for ya, whatever you want, Ed, we gonna do it your way this time, don't you go away..."

BA spoke softly, holding Face's head in his lap, gently bathing the hot skin with his water-soaked handkerchief. Murdock and Hannibal were wiping down his arms and chest, Charlie and Dr. Feist doing the same with his legs, dribbling the lukewarm water from their canteens, desperate to cool him down, calm him down.

They'd moved swiftly when Murdock had called to them, when they, too, had seen that something, out there in the desert heat. The closer they came, the faster they moved, recognizing at last that it was a body, hoping and praying silently as they eventually broke into a run, Murdock reaching him first, rolling him over and calling to him, desperate for any response.

He had gotten that response, finally, as Petey broke away from Charlie at last, and raced to his master, overjoyed. Face had moved as if to reach for the dog, failing miserably, but mumbling his name. Petey was obviously puzzled by the actions, and began licking frantically at his face. Hannibal and the others reached him almost simultaneously, and the confusion that ensued as they tried to bring him around nearly thwarted Dr. Feist's attempts to examine him. It was only when Face struggled to push them all away that BA took charge, telling them all to shut up, and immediately starting to talk to Face, his voice low and comforting. As Face began to relax once more, Dr. Feist told them what to do, and the water began its cool healing.

The men worked in silence, only BA's voice going on and on in a near cadence. A few times one or the other would start to say something, and Face would immediately tense up, or try to push away their hands. They learned their lesson quickly, and it was only the worried looks that passed between them that told of their concern.

Now that they had found him, how could they, five men on foot in the desert, save him?


*****

When Nick came up on the still smoldering wreckage, he felt physically ill. The team's van sat a safe distance from it, but empty of life. Leaving Decker, staring in confusion in the Jeep, he walked carefully past the black van, gingerly moving around the debris, some of it still hot from the explosion.

What the hell had happened here?

He moved past the destroyed ambulance, began slowly circling around the back of it. He searched the ground for some sign, a footprint, blood, cloth...anything. It was some distance away that he first found what he sought. Two separate sets of footprints, soon joined by others, until they mixed together and formed a trail.

He followed the trail with his eyes, seeing that it followed the riverbed for some distance. It told him a world of information.

Ed was alive. They were all alive, and Smith and Charlie and the others were following Ed. And Ed was obviously going to do whatever necessary to stop them.

Nick hurried back to the Jeep. He paused long enough to pull the tape from Decker's mouth and let him drink. As soon as Decker started telling him what he was going to do to him and the team, the tape went back on. Moments later, Nick was maneuvering the Jeep along the slope of the river bank. He was thankful he had the Jeep; it could take terrain the van never would.

As soon as they were safely past the ambulance and the possibility of having a tire punctured by the shrapnel surrounding it, Nick stepped on the gas. The footprints were so close together, it made a track a blind man could follow. He had to make a few small detours, when the tracks moved up the steep bank, when it disappeared in a stand of boulders, reappearing on the other side. He drove over the brush and smaller cacti, concentration bouncing from the footprints to the desert ahead, searching for any glimpse of the men themselves.

He grew more and more concerned as the trail began wandering. Here and there he could tell that Charlie and the others had stopped to rest. He worried about Ed. Did he have enough water for wherever he was going? And where the hell was he going? What if Smith lost his trail? What if Nick lost Smith's trail?

Nick glanced up at the sun above, moving slowly and determinedly toward the west.

He stepped on the gas.