Murdock dropped into a dried up creek bed and froze in place. Listening. Watching.
The birds that his passing had quieted started chirping again. Rustling in the grass told of small animals moving around. Bugs buzzed around him and one landed on his ear. He didn’t brush it off.
There! A voice. Not that close; perhaps carried on a change in the wind. But close enough. They were still on his trail. He thought he’d lost them in that ravine when he followed the riverbed a ways, then climbed up out of it. But no. They must have figured out what he was doing.
They were good.
Well, he was good. He had to be the best here. If he didn’t make the rendezvous in time… Well, he just had to. For the team. Gotta make it. The team need him.
He glanced at his watch. Less than fifteen minutes to go.
His small movement caused a quick rustle and then a hush in the undergrowth around him. Just like the old days, back in the jungle, his senses were finely attuned to everything going on around him. Better senses back then though. Sharper ones. Younger eyes and ears.
Even at base, he’d always had an awareness of the terrain outside. Nothing unusual escaped his notice. Back then unusual usually meant, “coming to kill you.” So it tended to concentrate the mind.
Time to move. He couldn’t see his pursuers yet, but every second brought them closer. Stuck hard to his tracks. Watch out for the one with a white straw hat. Who are those guys? No! Focus. Anyway, you know how that movie ends. And you know who these guys are.
Like that made him feel better.
Okay – move and keep your mind on the job.
He climbed out of the creek bed and glanced back, wincing at the marks his feet had left on the soft ground. Rocks. Should have stood on the rocks. Some lay scattered around the dried up watercourse.
They can’t track us over rocks.
Tell them that.
He considered trying to cover the boot marks, but had no time and would likely just make it worse. They might walk right past here and not spot them. But if he started ripping up grass, drawing attention…
He had to keep his head down. The trees had started to thin out and he could be seen too easily, head well above the undergrowth. Damn, sometimes he wanted to be shorter. The girls like a tall man, they said. Fat lot of good that did him here.
Make best use of all available cover, he’d been taught. But how do you do that without trampling it and leaving a trail? How did you just sort of insinuate yourself through it without snapping and dislodging stuff?
Well, maybe the time to worry about that had passed. Speed now. He must be far enough ahead of them to get to the rendezvous before they did. If he did that, then everything was okay. Safe.
Press on. Faster. Faster.
Shit, not making quite that much noise, fool. Birds in a tree above him took off in a squawking cloud when he stepped on a branch that snapped with a bone-breaking crack. Murdock glared up at the birds. Thanks a bunch, guys, and screw you. See if your fellow feathered friends get any more of my bread crusts.
Knowing his pursuers would head straight for the tree the birds had just left so noisily, Murdock headed away from it fast.
The trees and the undergrowth grew sparser with every yard. That let him move faster, but it gave them the same advantage. He glanced back and felt sure he saw movement. Hard to say how far away among the trees. He looked from side to side. Anything there? They’d surely try to cut him off. Could they move fast enough to catch up and flank him?
Who was he kidding? Of course they could.
Screwed. Totally screwed. They’d catch him. All over then. Murdock gave up subtlety and started to run. Forget caring about the noise. Just maintain the distance. Downhill now and thank God, in sight of the rendezvous. Could actually see it, right there down a slope, in a clearing.
His feet slipped and slid away from him on the now precipitous slope and loose rock rattled down ahead of him. Desperation drove him on. He didn’t dare look back. If they reached the top of the slope before he reached the bottom, if they had a clear shot at him, it was over. Couldn’t stand that. Not this close. Couldn’t let the team down that way.
Somehow, he kept his feet and stumbled onto the level ground at the bottom of the slope, grabbing a skinny young tree to slow himself, wrenching his arm. He ran across the shorter grass and flopped down beside a large boulder.
For a minute, he stayed on his hands and knees, panting – okay, need to get fitter – his head down and his hair damp with sweat. He heard movement on the slope behind him, but it didn’t matter. He’d made it. Home plate. Safe.
Recovering his breath after a moment, he sat up, his back against the rock. He affected a casual pose, legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles. Hands behind the head? Oh, no, even better idea. He took his penknife from his pocket and started using its largest blade to clean his quite filthy nails.
Three men moved down the slope and walked into the clearing.
“Hi, fellas,” Murdock said to the rest of the A-Team. “What took you so long?”
“You been here two minutes, fool,” BA said. Still he gave Murdock a nod and a small smile. Face was more demonstrative about it. He approached Murdock and offered his hand, palm out, for a slap. The two grinned at each other.
“Get a fire lit and put the coffee on,” Hannibal said. When Murdock raised an eyebrow at the grouchy tone, Hannibal continued. “Consider it part of the test.”
Murdock jumped up, still smirking in triumph and gave Hannibal a salute. “Yes, Colonel. Coffee on the way, sir!”
He hurried over to what looked like a drift of leaves near more rocks and swept them aside to retrieve the backpacks the team had hidden there earlier. While he pulled out the cooking gear, he glanced back to see Hannibal beckon Face and BA away to the edge of the clearing.
Too far away for Murdock to hear. But he had a good idea what they were talking about.
“You owe me twenty bucks.” Face grinned at Hannibal.
“I never said he wouldn’t make it.”
“Yeah you did,” BA said. “And you said, even if we didn’t catch him, we’d have a clear shot at him.” He rolled his eyes. “Man, talk about temptation.”
“Either of you two hold back?” Hannibal watched their faces carefully for a reaction. “Ignored his tracks? Ignored what would have been a shot at him?”
“No!” Face protested at once. “Of course not.”
“I didn’t do the fool no favours.” BA looked outraged at the suggestion he would.
“You wouldn’t be doing him a favour,” Hannibal said. “If we start taking him on missions and he’s not ready…”
“He’s ready!” Face snapped. “We’ve been doing this for months now. Training. Testing. He passed this test, didn’t he?” He glared at Hannibal. “You’d rather he failed?”
“No. I just need to be sure. He doesn’t have the same training as us, and he’s years out of practice. Remember how rusty and out of shape he was?”
“That was six months ago.”
True. Murdock had worked hard, Hannibal would admit that. BA had drawn him up an exercise program to work on at the hospital and every time they got him out he looked leaner and harder.
“Yeah, he’s done great,” Hannibal said. “But he can’t stay in practice the way we can. Especially not with weapons.”
“Then the more we get him out to practice, the better,” Face said.
“Yeah,” BA agreed.
“I know you guys miss him.” Hannibal waited for a moment until BA finished the vehement denials that he missed that fool. “Guys, don’t get me wrong; I want him back on the team. A pilot has to come in useful – for emergencies only, BA, of course. And yeah, it’s Murdock. I miss him too. I just have to be certain. For all of us. If we get this wrong, someone could wind up dead. Him. Us. A client.” He let that sink in for a moment and went on. “So no holding back on any of the tests. We clear?”
Face and BA nodded quietly, their faces sober.
“Let’s get some dinner.” Hannibal signalled the end of the discussion and they all trooped over to the campfire Murdock had built.
Twilight had set in by the time they finished their food, and were lounging around drinking coffee. Murdock kept topping off their cups from the pot like an attentive waitress, a slightly anxious look on his face.
“Are we going to get some sleep now?” Face asked. He stretched and yawned. “Been on my feet since dawn.”
“Well, you’re going to get to lie down at least,” Hannibal said. “Meanwhile, BA and I will get into position.” Groans came from the other three, making Hannibal grin around his cigar. “Murdock, you’ll be heading to rendezvous Delta. With Face and full pack and weapons. We’ll be after you.”
“Well at least I’ll have Face to help me out this time,” Murdock said.
“Yeah, not exactly. That’s what I meant about Face lying down. Lieutenant, you have two broken legs. You stand up and Murdock fails the test.”
“Oh, Hannibal, no!” Face cried. “I hate playing the casualty.”
“But you look so cute on a travois, Face.”
BA sniggered and Face tossed a handful of the dry, gravely earth in his direction.
“Okay, okay.” Face gave a heavy sigh. “So I’m the casualty. Am I conscious?”
Hannibal shrugged. “Yeah, okay.”
“Good.” Face grinned. “That means I can teach Murdock how to set traps for you guys.”