CHAPTER SIXTY NINE

Charlie woke just as the sun was coming up. It streamed into his bedroom, mother nature's alarm clock. He stayed in bed for a few minutes longer, savoring the soft glow and gentle warmth coming in the window. Sighing, he thought of the things waiting for him today, and forced himself stiffly out of bed.

He wandered through the cabin, intent on making the strongest coffee he could manage. He glanced idly around, wondering what time Nick had finally gone home. He smiled softly. Nick had been so full of energy last night...despite the seriousness of the situation, the once-reserved woodworker had been as excited as a school kid at his 'adventure'.

Charlie stopped, his hand reaching for the coffeemaker. Smith and his crew seemed to have cast a spell of some sort over Nick. Was that good, or bad? Charlie liked to see his younger friend finally excited about something; it had been years since he'd allowed himself to get involved in anything other than chunks of wood. Almost like he was doing penance. But this sort of activity? Charlie shook his head, and started making the coffee. He would have to have a long talk with Nick, and soon.

Once the coffeemaker started its gurgling brew, Charlie moved to the front of the house, his habit to look out on the village before the people started their daily routines, to think about how lucky he was. It always gave him a positive start to the day, reminding himself of his good fortune. Today, however, his view was disrupted.

Colonel Smith was asleep in the hammock on his porch.

For a moment, Charlie's heart almost stopped, thinking something had happened to Ed. No, Feist would've called him if that were the case. He'd felt terribly guilty, leaving last night. But Nick had convinced him that somebody had to get a good night's sleep if they were to deal rationally with the myriad of problems facing them this day. Charlie, seeing the frown on Smith's sleeping face, was glad now he had listened.

A few minutes later, he carried two steaming cups of coffee out to the porch. Placing them carefully on the table, he shook the hammock gently. Smith opened his eyes immediately, saw Charlie, and struggled out of the hammock.

"Good morning, Colonel. I take it we have things to discuss?"

Hannibal rubbed his face, accepting the coffee gratefully.

"Yeah, Charlie. I need a favor from you. A big favor."

Charlie shrugged. "After all you've done for us, just ask, Colonel."

"I want you to let Murdock stay here, with Face...Ed. And I want you to make sure that if he needs help, he'll get it."

Charlie stared at Smith. "That implies a few things, Colonel. One, obviously, that you're willing to let Ed stay here."

"It's where he's happy, Charlie. Where he belongs. I was...selfish, not to accept that before."

Charlie nodded. He would not gloat; obviously it was a painful decision for Smith to make.

"And you don't want to take the captain with you and Baracus? I find that surprising."

Hannibal shook his head. "We couldn't take care of him when he needed it. I can't take a chance on losing him because we were on the run when he needed counseling, or medications." Hannibal set the coffee cup down on the table, staring at it. "And I won't be taking BA with me, either. I'm afraid he's going to have to find his own way from here on out. I imagine he'll head back to Chicago, where his family is."

Charlie frowned. "Have you talked to him about this? He's agreed?"

"No, he doesn't know about it yet. That's another part of the favor. I need you and Nick to provide a diversion for me. Something to get BA out of here for a couple of days. After Ed's recovered, of course. I know he won't go anywhere until then, but..."

"Just a minute, Hannibal. What do you have in mind here? Ed, I can understand. Even Murdock, now that the VA's out of the question. But the sergeant?"

Hannibal moved to the edge of the porch. Pulling a cigar, he stood for a moment before answering.

"I talked to Decker last night. He's got me by the short hairs, Charlie. I think I've come up with something that will keep my men safe, relatively speaking. A compromise I think he'll take. But the only way it will work is if BA is out of the picture."

"What sort of compromise?" Charlie wasn't liking the direction this conversation was going. Not one bit.

"Decker wants the team behind bars. He knows, of course, that we wouldn't go quietly. But I know what he really wants. And that's what I'm going to give him." Hannibal turned and faced Charlie. "In exchange for leaving my men alone, he gets me. No tricks, no escapes. He gets to see the 'great' Hannibal Smith behind bars, and he'll get all the credit for putting him there."

"Hannibal, you can't..."

"Yeah, I can, Charlie. After everything these guys have gone through, following my lead, it's time. Time they were all given some peace of mind. Time they can quit running. Besides...," Hannibal chuckled ruefully, "there's no way I'll be behind bars for twenty years."

"They won't stand for it."

"They won't know. Not until it's too late. BA's the only one left who could even consider breaking me out, and without Face and Murdock, he won't be able to try."

"He wouldn't try to involve them?"

"No way. As much as he cares about his colonel, he'd never jeopardize them. And he knows I'd never want him to." Hannibal finally lit his cigar, puffing slowly on it. "So, what do you say, Charlie? Will you take care of my boys for me?"

Charlie swallowed. All the negative thoughts he'd had about Colonel John Smith now shamed him.

"I'd be proud to, Colonel. I'd be proud to."


*****

Murdock woke when he heard BA moving about in the kitchen. For just a moment, he couldn't remember where he was, thinking it odd that BA was at the VA so early. Then everything came back, and he jerked up to a sitting position, making his head spin.

"Shit..."

"You okay, Fool?" BA stood in the doorway, scowling.

"Yeah. Just a little dizzy." He closed his eyes, willing the swimming in his head to go away. "We gotta go see Ed."

"Yeah, yeah, after breakfast. I ain't havin you get sick cause you didn't eat."

"BA..."

"I said, after breakfast."

Murdock glared at his retreating back, then quickly got dressed and hurried out to the kitchen. He looked around, noting only two places set at the table. "Hannibal?"

"Didn't come back last night. Prob'ly slept at the doc's place." BA glanced over at him. "If anythin happened, he'd'a let us know."

"Yeah..." Murdock wasn't entirely convinced, but, knowing BA, he sat and ate without wolfing down the food. BA would let him go when BA was damn good and ready, and not before. Murdock did notice, however, that BA ate just a tad faster than normal...

The two men hurried down toward Dr. Feist's cabin a few minutes later. The village was already wide awake and active, but it seemed as though every person they saw had to stop them and ask after Ed. It was humbling as well as frustrating.

As they made their way past the last group of well-wishers, Murdock couldn't help but think how great it was that Ed had found this place. Now, if only Hannibal would let him stay here...

BA knocked at the doctor's door, and it was opened almost immediately by Feist himself. He smiled, although he looked tired.

"Welcome, gentlemen. Ed's doing much better this morning, but, I must caution you, he's still weak. His temperature is stable, only slightly elevated..."

The two men followed him in, listening to the litany with relief. Murdock liked Dr. Feist. Liked the fact that he'd ask how Murdock was doing without that look on his face.

Kinda like Dr. Richter.

A lot like Dr. Richter...


*****

Charlie watched as Colonel Smith came out of the cabin where Decker was being held. He had a grim look on his face, but satisfied. Apparently Decker had agreed to Smith's compromise.

Charlie squinted in the afternoon sun. He couldn't let Smith go through with this wild-ass scheme, but he didn't know how to stop him, either. And he had given his word to take care of Ed and Murdock. It would be hard to do that if Decker put them in jail.

Shit.

He looked up and down the village path. Nick was supposed to be coming to meet him. While Charlie had promised not to say anything about Smith's plan to the team, he fudged a bit when it came to not telling "anyone". He didn't consider Nick just anyone, after all. And Nick was the only one who could possibly help him come up with a solution.

Charlie sighed. A few years ago, he wouldn't have needed anybody's help. He had the energy and the clarity to handle whatever came his way. Too many complacent years out here. Hell, too many years running from the kind of trouble Smith and his people had brought with them. He'd hated the intrigue and the politics and the violence, wanted nothing more to do with it all, and here he was, stuck right damn in the middle of it.

"Hey, Charlie! Doc says Ed's going to be fine. He's really making progress. Great news, huh? Have you talked to Smith? God, I hope he'll let Ed stay on here without any more trouble. Though I have to admit, I'm kinda getting to like the guy. He's not as gung-ho as I thought at first. Guy's a thinker, not just a fighter. Yeah, I think..."

"Nick! Nick, slow down, will you? I have something to talk to you about. I need your help. Colonel Smith needs our help."