Their hiking days passed without incident, nothing worse than a blister or two, and after the last night of it, they arrived early, barely nine o’clock in the morning, at a lodge by a trailhead. A sign hung from the wooden arch over the gate. Wilson’s Outfitters and Tours. A few healthy looking horses grazed in a paddock out front and Madari nodded approval of them as he and Hannibal walked up to the lodge.
“Fine looking animals,” he said.
“Friend of mine recommended this place,” Hannibal said. “Good horses, good guides and good food.”
Madari adjusted his hat that he’d grown quite attached to now. “I trust the judgement of any friend of yours, Hannibal.”
“Well, um, there could be exceptions.”
They both laughed at that, arriving at the door of the lodge. Hannibal pulled a cord and a bell sounded somewhere inside. In a moment an older woman, deeply tanned opened the door.
“Morning, ma’am.” Hannibal said, taking off his hat. “Tour party booked under the name of Hannibal Smith.”
“Oh come in, Mr Smith and Mr…?”
“Madari,” he said, taking off his hat too. “Faris Madari.” A small flicker crossed her face, perhaps wishing for people with more straightforward names and then smiled again.
“Mr Madari. I’m Peggy Wilson, call me Peggy.” She led them inside, showed them where to drop their packs and hiking poles and took them through to a large, homey sitting room.
“Sorry we’re so early,” Hannibal said. “Can’t seem to sleep past dawn, either of us.”
“Oh, that’s fine, Mr Smith. I’ll bring you some coffee and you can just relax here, while we wait for the other parties. We’ll be serving lunch here, at noon and you’ll start out after that. My son, Jake will be taking you out. He’s busy with the horses at the moment.”
Hannibal sat, with a magazine, but Madari wandered around the room for a while. A sideboard held cups, saucers, and spoons for the coffee. Sugar came in paper packets, denting the homey feel of the place, reminding him it was a business, and they were customers, not guests.
More customers arrived over the next couple of hours. A family, the Sandersons, with two children, boy and girl, aged about ten and twelve, Madari thought, and the last of the group, a couple of older men. Seeing the numerous colourful fishing flies pinned into their floppy and sun-bleached hats, it was clear what they’d come on the trip for.
“Geoff Bell,” the shorter of the two said, introducing himself to Hannibal and Madari after talking to the Sanderson family for a while. He indicated the other man, taller and slimmer than him, but with a strong resemblance in his deeply tanned face. “My brother, Tom.”
Geoff gave Madari a frankly curious stare after the introductions. Name, appearance, accent, perhaps all had intrigued him. Hannibal cleared his throat.
“Faris is a friend of mine visiting from the Middle East.”
“Well now, there’s a thing,” Geoff said. “I never met an Arab before. Not one of the wild ones that is. From the desert.”
Madari saw the brother, Tom, roll his eyes, then mutter, “Coffee over here, Geoff.” That distracted Geoff and he hurried off. Tom followed him.
“Wild ones?” Madari said to Hannibal, his eyebrows raised, but more amused than offended.
“I think he probably just means someone from the region, rather than an Arab-American,” Hannibal said. He shrugged. “Well, looks like those two will be spending lots of the time on the trail fishing, anyway, so if there’s a problem…”
“I’m sure there won’t be a problem. Everyone seems very friendly. The Sandersons seem very nice.” They glanced over to where the children, Andrew and Claire, sat at a table with their father, looking over maps of the tour. He remembered the youngster of the church group they’d shared a meal with a few nights ago. “I think the stories I hear about how American youngsters run wild and talk back to their elders must be exaggerated.”
“Yeah…” Hannibal said, slowly. “You’ve never visited BA’s youth centre, have you?” He grinned. “We must arrange a little visit before you go home.”
Peggy served lunch, the party split between two tables, the family on one, and Hannibal and Madari seated with the Bell brothers. Geoff and Hannibal dominated the conversation. Madari tried to engage Tom in conversation a few times, but the man had a morose manner and they ended up just drinking coffee in silence, while Geoff and Hannibal bantered.
After lunch, Jake Wilson, a tanned and husky man in his thirties, took them outside to the yard to meet the horses. He came over to Hannibal and Madari last, after spending time with the Sandersons and the Bells. While they waited, Hannibal and Madari brushed and saddled the animals they’d been allocated. Madari had a fine bay mare, called Honey, which Hannibal was already teasing him about.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, gentlemen,” Jake said. “But Mr Smith’s booking said you were both experienced riders, so I thought I’d let you get on with saddling your mounts and getting to know them.”
“Yeah, we’re fine,” Hannibal said, patting the nose of his horse, named Blaze, for the white streak down its face. “Best friends already.” He heaved his saddlebags onto the horse.
Jake checked out the saddles and bridles and declared himself happy with their efforts. He called out across the yard.
“Alright then, if everyone is set. Mount up when ready and we’ll get going.”
The two children were on full sized horses, rather than ponies, Madari noticed as they headed slowly out of the yard, though their horses were on the smaller side. Both looked comfortable and confident in the saddle.
That took him back. His grandfather had first sat Madari on a horse when he was barely a toddler, though the photographs of that day showed Ahmed hanging on tight to the boy. Madari couldn’t remember that far back, but he could remember his first riding lessons, while still small enough to be afraid of the distance to the ground even from a small pony. But he remembered soon growing bolder and beginning to enjoy himself. With his head full of stirring tales of battle, he’d made charges on that patient pony, riding down the enemy – cunningly disguised as bushes, or tall weeds – thwacking them with a stick that his imagination turned into a sword. Grandfather’s little hussar.
He shook his head at the memories, as Jake Wilson led the party out of the lodge’s grounds and onto the trail. So Hannibal felt out of place in this world? Sometimes Madari felt about two hundred years out of place.
That first night, they camped around 5pm and ate an early dinner. After clear up, the Bell brothers spent the evening fishing in a nearby lake, their shadows lengthening in the twilight. The others sat around the lanterns after the camp was set up for the night and talked. About horses, a lot of it, comparing experiences.
Mr Sanderson – Matt – it turned out had been raised on a cattle ranch, although his family sold up and moved away when he was twelve. Now he got to ride only a couple of times a year, and sounded as if he missed it very much. He talked about opening an Outfitter himself, though everyone else around the lanterns could tell it was really only fantasy.
Mrs Sanderson – Jilly – took the children off to bed around nine and the brothers came back, with a couple of fish, which the party cooked up for a late supper. After that, the men sat around in the lantern light, some smoking, chatting of this and that. Until Geoff Bell asked a question that Madari saw Jake and Matt both wince at.
“No,” Madari had told him. “I don’t own any camels.” He caught Hannibal’s eye then, and gave the smallest of winks. “My grandfather owned a racing camel though, when I was a boy.”
“A racing camel?” Geoff said. “You people race on camels?”
“Oh yes. I prefer horse racing myself, but camel racing is very popular too.”
“Did your grandfather’s camel win many races?” Matt Sanderson asked.
“Actually, I never saw it race anywhere except to its food,” Madari said. “I’ve known cats that slept less than that beast.” He smiled at fond memories. “I think it was a disappointment to Ahmed.”
“What did he do with it then?” Geoff asked. Madari wondered if he expected Madari to say that they’d eaten it.
“In the end my grandmother made him sell it, after it tried to kick me.”
He could still feel the breeze of that dinner plate sized hoof as it whistled past, missing his leg by inches. His grandmother saw it happen and he heard words from her that he’d never even heard Ahmed say. If she’d had a gun, the camel would have been dead before it put its foot back on the ground. Ahmed took a breath to argue when she told him to get rid of it, saw the look in her eyes and thought better of it. The next day the camel was gone.
“Well, there’s a thing,” Geoff said. “But you don’t have any yourself?”
“No.” Did he think Madari rode a camel to work? “I have a car.”
“And the horses,” Hannibal put in.
“Yes, the horses.” Madari gave him a small frown. “But they’re for recreation, not transport.” Hannibal just grinned back and Madari imagined riding one of his horses or indeed a camel to barracks. The gate guards would call ahead to advise the medical team that Colonel Madari had gone insane, please be waiting with a straightjacket.
“Oh, tell us about your horses,” Jake said, sounding genuinely interested.
Theirs was the only party on the campsite, and the evening wound down to a peaceful conclusion talking about horses they had known. Those who indulged took a nip of brandy after supper, to keep out the chill as the night cooled off. At ten-thirty Jake sent them all to bed, ready to make an early start in the morning.
Madari lay awake in the tent for a while, listening. So many sounds. Hannibal’s quiet breathing or movements. A whinny from the horses sounded now and again, the animal sounds from the wooded areas that surrounded them. Nocturnal animals and birds went about their business of living. The wind rustled the trees nearby and made the water lap against the lakeshore.
This place teemed with life. So different from home, from the silence of the desert. At home, when he lay down to sleep, any sound at all woke him, just because of its rarity.
He sighed and snuggled down in his sleeping bag. Somehow, despite the racket outside, he fell asleep.
They didn’t leave until nearly eight in the morning, leaving Hannibal and Madari giving each other looks that said “civilians”. However, it meant they had time to stroll by the lake, finishing mugs of coffee, while the others were still packing their gear.
“Is Yellowstone living up to your expectations then, Faris?” Hannibal asked after they’d walked in silence for a while.
“Oh, yes, it’s beautiful. And it’s nice to meet more of your countrymen too.”
“Even if they ask you about camels?”
Madari laughed. Yes, the more talkative Mr Bell had asked some foolish questions of Madari last night. But there seemed no real harm in the man, only ignorance.
“Even if they ask about camels.”
“Well,” Hannibal said. “Good for you to meet some more normal folks. More, hah, representative.”
“Your team are fine representatives of Americans too, Hannibal.”
“Of course,” he agreed at once, with a smile. “Just rather eccentric ones.”
“Well, yes, but all of you Americans seem quite eccentric to me.” He tried to keep the laugh out of his voice.
Hannibal looked at him sharply, looking for the teasing expression in his eyes. Madari gave him an innocent look in return.
“Eccentric?” Hannibal snorted. “I have to take this from an Arab wearing a cowboy hat?”
Madari gave in to the laughter then and raised his hand to adjust the hat in question. The morning sun caught his wristband as his cuff fell back, making the amber beads glow. That gave him a pang. As much as he was enjoying this trip, and enjoying the time with Hannibal, he could never quite lose that emptiness at his side. He missed Kahil. It had been barely a week. He’d be home in another week. And yet… He missed Kahil.
“Come on,” Hannibal said. He drank from his mug, but grimaced, at cold coffee and tossed the dregs into the lake. “Let’s get those horses saddled.”
They stopped for lunch at a backcountry campsite, that had several tents up and a party of young men there. They were somewhat raucous, playing a radio loudly and drinking beer. Jake kept his party well away from them.
After lunch, Madari walked back to where the horses were tethered, in the shade of a stand of trees, to fetch cigars. Honey was cropping the grass peacefully, but raised her head when he began to search the saddlebags on her back. He stroked her neck and said some soothing words to her. The words made him smile, when he realised he’d spoken in Arabic, purely from habit. The horse probably wasn’t bi-lingual.
“Horse doesn’t know your foreign lingo.”
Madari looked around, startled. He’d been aware some of the young men from the other party on the site were nearby, but hadn’t expected them to call out to him.
There were three of them. They walked closer and the spokesman repeated himself.
“I said the horse doesn’t know your language. It’s American.”
Madari smiled, amused at the notion of a horse having a nationality. He patted Honey’s neck again.
“Just habit,” he said, ignoring the belligerence in the young man’s voice. “And it’s really all about tone of voice.”
“Oh, ya hear that, guys?” He smirked at his two friends, who were both drinking beer from cans. When he spoke again he imitated Madari’s accent. “It’s all about tone of voice.”
“Well, excuse me,” Madari said, turning to go and rejoin his group. The men stepped in his way.
“What you doing here anyway?” the same one asked. “You an immigrant or something?”
“No.” His voice became cold, though still polite. “Let me pass, please.” He didn’t want this. He didn’t want any trouble.
“So why are you here then? There’s no sand here.” The other two laughed.
“Let me pass.” This time the tone was that of the commander and one of them almost obeyed instinctively, then shook himself and just grinned.
“Hey, no need to get all riled up, pal,” the one in the middle said. “We’re just being friendly. Here,” he said, holding out an unopened beer can. “Why don’t you have a drink with us?”
“No, thank you,” he said, but knew the offer wasn’t genuine. He’d seen the man shaking the can behind his back, knew what was coming.
The man’s finger curled through the ring pull, like a trigger, and Madari struck. His right hand shoved the man’s arm upwards, so the spurting beer blasted into his own face. This startled him so much, he fell backwards and hit the ground, the foaming beer spilling onto him. The other two stared, as their friend went from upright, to on his behind and covered in beer in the space of a half second, then they advanced on Madari.
Hannibal was suddenly there, appearing from nowhere, and placing himself between Madari and the men. Jake, Matt and Geoff all appeared a moment later, not as fast as Hannibal.
“What’s going on?” Hannibal demanded.
“This guy threw a beer on me!” The beer soaked man stood up. “I offered him a friendly drink and he threw it at me and knocked me down. Damn crazy raghead.”
“That’s not the way it happened.”
The voice surprised all of them, making them turn to where the horses still stood, to see Tom Bell emerge from the shadows of the trees.
“You tried to spray the beer on him,” Tom said. “But he was much too quick for you.” He grinned, had apparently enjoyed the show. Madari nodded his thanks to him.
Hannibal unleashed a scowl that he must once have terrified green recruits. One of the men took a step backwards before Hannibal even spoke.
“This man is my guest, so I’d appreciate it if you stopped making the country look bad.”
Remarkable, Madari thought. All about tone again. The words were polite, yet the tone of appreciate implied big trouble for anyone who didn’t earn Hannibal’s appreciation.
And he thinks he’s losing his edge?
“We need to move on now,” Jake Wilson spoke up, in a voice with more authority in it than Madari had heard him use so far. A good voice, one Madari would be happy to hear one of his officers use. He must have to defuse some tense moments, Madari supposed, leading the horse packing groups. “Let’s end this before it goes too far.”
The ringleader looked for a moment as if he wanted to continue it, but then he turned away with a snorting noise, and flung his beer can away, before striding off to join his friends. The other two followed him, with a relieved look, perhaps recalling how quickly and easily Madari had dealt with their friend and not wanting the same themselves, especially now he had reinforcements.
Madari sighed and shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Not for you to apologise,” Jake said. “Troublemakers. I’m sure they started it. Excuse me.” He went off, looking for something on he ground. Geoff and Matt headed for the horses to prepare to move out. Madari turned to Tom.
“Thank you for backing me up, Mr Bell. I didn’t even know you were there.”
Tom shrugged. “Yeah, I was always good as being invisible. And I used to have reflexes like yours, when I was in training. Nice move you pulled on him. You’re military, right?” He nodded at Hannibal. “Him too of course, already know that.”
“Pair of full birds,” Hannibal said. “Fifth Special forces myself, as you probably know. You?”
“Sergeant in the Marines.”
Hannibal chuckled. “We do keep running into Marines on this trip don’t we, Faris?”
“And it’s an honour to do so,” Madari said, offering Tom his hand. “My regiment is Royal Guard.”
“Pleased to meet you, Colonel. Both of you.” He looked at Hannibal. “I was there from ’65 to ’71.” He didn’t have to clarify where “there” was.
“We’ll have a talk about the old days tonight, maybe,” Hannibal said. “Time to move out now I think.”
Jake came back from where he’d retrieved the tossed beer can. When they looked at him he said, “Pack it in; pack it out. This place is my livelihood.” He glanced at the group of boisterous and drunk men and clearly thought better of going to give them back their trash. Instead, he crushed the can with his foot and put it in the trash bag their luggage horse carried.
In a few minutes, the group had mounted and headed out on the trail again. A few shouts came from the men at the campsite, but only once the Wilson group were almost out of earshot and not likely to turn around and come back to ask them to repeat it.
They reached the night’s campsite early and the Bell brothers set up at a nearby river to fish. Meanwhile the others left most of their gear behind and took the side trip, to a small and nearly hidden valley, to explore the remains of an ancient Native American settlement.
Their voices and laughter floated across the valley, carried on a warm, flower-scented breeze. Near perfect happiness filled Madari, easing away any lingering anger from the incident at lunchtime. He still felt the ache for the man who belonged at his right hand, but the simple pleasures of nature, of the enjoyable company masked even that pain. A man could surely never have pure happiness until he reached Paradise. Nevertheless, some days, it felt as if he could come close.
Of course, it couldn’t last.
Madari woke with a start, aware of Hannibal also sitting bolt upright. A scream. The girl, Claire. And then yelling, men’s voices and sometimes the higher pitched sounds of Jilly and the children.
Hannibal turned on the lantern and started to scramble in his saddlebag while Madari got free of his sleeping bag and headed for the tent flap. But noise – raucous laughter – came from right outside before he reached it. A hand through the canvas grabbed the tent pole, pulling it from the ground and the tent collapsed on top of the two men.
Hannibal swore colourfully, Madari the same, each in his native language, as the canvas engulfed them. The tent poles got in the way as they tried to scramble out. The lantern rolled around, making strange shadows and glows by turn, then went out. A second before it did, Madari saw Hannibal’s hand, holding a pistol. A Browning Hi-Power, he recognised easily, the same as his own standard issue pistol. Of course, his was several thousand miles away right now.
The canvas began to feel smothering and Madari scrambled with near desperation to find the opening. However, he retained enough control when he found it not to just poke his head straight out, in case there was someone there waiting to bash it in. Hannibal, followed him, saw the gap and spoke grimly.
Before Madari could protest, Hannibal was out, and rolling away from the tent, in case of waiting attack, before coming to one knee pointing the pistol in both hands. Madari scrambled out after him, seeing nobody about to attack. The campsite was in chaos, the tents collapsed, the food bags, hung up from a pole, had been cut down and scattered. The horses were neighing frantically and Madari could see dark figures moving among them.
Forgetting the horses for a moment, they looked around for their fellow packers. Some of the collapsed tent thrashed around, yells coming from them.
“Check the civilians,” Hannibal ordered. “I’ll check the horses.”
“Hannibal, wait…” He might be armed, but he’d be outnumbered. But Hannibal ran off, the pistol ready.
Madari ran, feet clad only in socks, and hoped he’d avoid stepping on anything nasty. Even in the darkness, he headed directly for the position of the tent the Sanderson children slept in. A soldier’s instinct, to memorise the surroundings, never knowing when he’d need to found your way around in the dark. He found the tent, shouts and squeals came from inside.
“Keep still!” He called, knowing they were getting themselves more tangled up in it in their panic. In a moment he’d found the tent flap and snapped the fastenings. When he held the tent up, as high as the collapsed pole would normally take it, the opening showed the dark interior and the two struggling youngsters.
“Andrew! Claire! This way. Come on.” They heard him, saw the gap, and in a moment, Claire crawled out, her brother following a second later. Andrew started shouting for their parents, but his sister stayed quiet and terrified looking. Madari grabbed both their hands, to stop them from either running or wandering off in shock.
“Are you hurt?” Madari asked them and both shook their heads, eyes wide and frightened. He looked over to see Geoff and Jake wrestling the tent off the parents and they emerged a moment later, wild-eyed too, Jilly yelling her children’s names. “Here!” Madari called. “They’re safe.”
Jilly moved so fast Madari thought he might have heard a sonic boom. She rushed over, Matt following and Jake and Geoff behind him.
“Where’s Hannibal?” Jake asked.
“He’s around,” Madari said. “Where’s Tom?”
Geoff grinned. “Like you say… around.”
“I need to…” Madari began, when they all heard yells from where the horses were tethered. Or rather, were no longer tethered. The yells were followed a second later by the thunder of hooves, whinnying, and dark shapes galloping towards them.
“Oh shit!” Jake called.
“Run!” Madari ordered. “Into the trees, now! Climb the trees!”
They ran, the four men lifting the children right off their feet. The tree line stood only a few yards away from the tents and they reached it in seconds and started to climb. Andrew went up fast, but the girl needed a bit of a boost, to reach the lower branches. Their parents followed them up, while Geoff and Jake ran for another couple of trees. Seeing the family safe, Madari turned to find his own refuge.
The panicked horses burst into the trees, huge bodies making the space on the ground seem so much smaller suddenly. A heavy, dark shape passed so close that Madari had to flatten himself against the tree, and still felt the horse’s mane brush his face.
“Come on! Come on!” Multiple voices. Madari looked up to see the Sandersons all reaching down for him and he grabbed for the first branch. Tree climbing wasn’t a natural skill for a man from a desert country, but he caught on fast. Hands grabbed at him when he got within reach and all four Sandersons heaved on his hands, arms, and shoulders, until he reached a branch high enough to be out of danger and grabbed on tight to other branches to hold on.
“You okay?” Matt asked, from a branch a little higher, looking down at him. Madari could only nod, panting now, as much from the adrenaline rush as the exertion. After a moment, he got his breath back enough to call out.
“Jake? Geoff? Sound off!”
“We’re safe!” Jake’s voice came back from the darkness. “Both safe.”
Madari sighed with relief. Then he started to worry about Hannibal and Tom.
Hannibal was furious. He’d circled around to try to sneak up on the guys from behind, but he hadn’t been quick enough to stop them stampeding the horses. Yells came from the campsite and he hoped to God that Madari managed to figure something out. Because if anyone got hurt – if those kids got hurt – then Hannibal would get really mad. These guys did not want to see him mad.
“Smith,” a low voice nearby said. Hannibal didn’t jump. He looked up, to see a face just visible in the tree above him. A second later Tom Bell landed lightly on his feet beside Hannibal, and straightened up. Still pretty spry for his age. He wore a grim look and carried a big fish-gutting knife.
“Got plans for that?” Hannibal said, nodding at the weapon.
“Persuasion,” Tom said, his voice as grim as his face.
Hannibal looked out from between the trees where they stood concealed, and saw the thugs had run back into the campsite, knocking over anything that still stood after their first attack and the stampede. They yelled and whooped, sounding very drunk. Hannibal saw no sign of the rest of his party. That had to be good, Madari had pulled them back some place, must have. The horses had all passed through now and were out of sight among the trees opposite. He heard neighing and crashing of undergrowth. Any of the horses got hurt either, he’d take it out of the hides of these morons. The rage flared in him again.
“Watch my back, stay in cover,” he told Tom and stepped out of the trees, his Browning levelled at the rampaging thugs. At that very moment, the moon sailed from behind a cloud and bathed the camp in enough light to let a couple of them see him. They started yelling, distracting the others from their continuing rampage, to turn to Hannibal.
“Hands up, all of you!” Hannibal demanded. “Any weapons, drop them. Do it now.”
“Hey, you aren’t allowed to have a gun in the Park,” one of them shouted. The aggrieved tone in his voice made Hannibal smirk.
“And you aren’t allowed to wreck a camp and try to trample people to death in the Park either, so let’s say, you started it. Get your hands up. I have a full clip in this thing, more than enough to go around.”
A couple of them raised their hands slowly, followed by a couple more. But one yelled.
“Hey, there’s only one of him, he can’t shoot us all before we grab him.”
“Okay, Biff,” Hannibal called. “You wanna go first?” ‘Biff’ apparently did not, but a couple of the others responded by taking a step forward. Hannibal at once loosed off a round into the air, making them leap back. “I really hate having to repeat myself.”
“Look out, Smith!”
It was Tom’s voice from behind him, and Hannibal heard the thunder of hooves. One of the horses must have gone a different direction in the first stampede and now, spurred by Hannibal’s shot it made a belated run to join its friends. It sideswiped Hannibal, as it ran between him and the thugs.
It felt like being hit by a truck. Hannibal went over backwards and crashed onto one of the wrecked tents. Though he tried hard to hang onto it, the pistol flew from his hand, jarred from his fingers by the impact. Hearing the voices, seeing the shapes of men coming at him, he scrambled for the gun, but didn’t have enough time. They were on him.
“Find the other one!”
A couple of them set off to search for Tom, and the rest dragged Hannibal up, and dumped him in the middle of the camp, by the fire pit, forcing him to his knees. Now I could die, Hannibal thought. Things escalate. Nobody intends it, but it gets out of hand, and ends with death.
Well, death was a hell of a hint about retiring.
They have Hannibal.
Madari saw him dragged to the middle of the campsite and shoved to his knees. One of the thugs backhanded him across the face and Madari made his choice. It had grown quieter on the ground now, the horses had either gone further on, or stopped and wandered, confused and distressed. Madari began to climb down.
“Stay here,” he told the Sandersons. “You’ll be safe from the horses.” They nodded, wide eyed.
On the ground, he had just enough light to search and find a fallen tree limb, rather dried out and likely to break soon, but all he had. He gripped that tight, and then followed whinnying sounds, until he found one of the horses, recognising Blaze, Hannibal’s own mount. The horse seemed quite calm now, recovered from its panic. It let Madari approach, making soothing noises as he did, and didn’t object when Madari slowly raised a hand to pat its nose, and then take hold of the rope still attached to the halter it wore.
“Good boy,” Madari said, softly, remembering to say it in English. “Good boy.” Now he had to get on its back. Tricky, with no stirrups, but he spotted a fallen tree, and led Blaze there, using the moss covered dead trunk as a mounting block to climb onto the horse’s back. Blaze didn’t like that much, with no saddle, but Madari went on soothing him, until he calmed. Madari didn’t like it much either. No saddle, no bridle, nothing but a halter to hang onto and try to control the animal with. He’d probably be thrown and break his neck. Nevertheless, he had to try.
Gripping especially tight with his knees, he urged Blaze forward, and the horse picked its way slowly over the forest floor, back towards the open ground of the campsite. Madari smiled. All the childhood fantasies of Grandfather’s little hussar were about to come true.
Hannibal heard the sound of fighting in the trees behind him and hoped Tom really was still as sprightly as he appeared. Seven men surrounded Hannibal. They had no weapons, but still, seven of them. Even BA would find that a bit problematic. Numbers got you in the end. Too many of them, just too many.
“Hey, what the hell?” One of the thugs pointed. “What the hell’s that?”
The moon still had a sense of drama tonight, Hannibal noticed. It came out of cloud cover again and shone on the mounted figure just emerging from the trees. The horse came slowly until it cleared the tree trunks, then the rider urged it into a gallop, straight at the invaders.
As Madari – it had to be him – raised something long and thin, over his head, Hannibal’s first thought was “where did he get the sword?” His next thought was to get the hell out of the way, as the horse charged at them, full pelt, Madari yelling in Arabic.
Hannibal reacted faster than any of his captors and ran for it. The horse caught up to the scattering men and what Hannibal now saw was a tree limb slammed into the shoulders of one man knocking him flying. It caught another one on the back, with the horse still at full tilt, and shattered in Madari’s hand.
Seeing the odds starting to even out, as those two men fell and didn’t get back up, Hannibal grinned fiercely and ran. Not away this time, but after the fleeing thugs. He dove into a flying tackle, taking down a man crossing his path, and too busy looking for the horse, to see Hannibal coming at him.
They landed in a heap and Hannibal’s elbow rammed into his gut, forcing the last of his breath from his lungs and leaving him in a gasping huddle. Hannibal sprang up, looking around. Next one for the chop?
Madari had wheeled the horse now – Hannibal felt irrationally proud to see it was Blaze – and started riding down on one man, the stump of the tree branch still in his hand. Just enough of a weapon to bash down on the man’s shoulder, leaving him tottering. Hannibal raced over and finished the guy with a punch. Madari waved to him. Or maybe a salute. Hannibal returned it as that anyway.
The branch stump had shattered entirely now and Madari tossed it aside. Instead, he played out some of the halter rope. Long enough for a good long reach, short enough to damn well hurt if you were thwacked with it. He turned Blaze around, searching for more enemies.
Four down, Hannibal looked around for the other three, breathing hard, and berating himself for that. He’d let himself go. That had to stop. Then he heard the sound from back where Tom had been fighting.
“Could use a hand here, Smith!”
Hannibal ran, while Madari turned off in the other direction, spotting a man running away toward the trees. A yell a moment later told Hannibal he’d caught up, but Hannibal didn’t have time to look back. He reached the cover of the trees and found Tom backed up against a tree and holding off two guys, using his knife. Hannibal saw a nice handy tree stump between him and the fighting men. Perfect. He ran, jumped onto the stump and launched himself off it, onto the backs of the two thugs.
A moment of pure madness followed, as Tom piled onto the melee and everyone seemed to be hitting everyone else. Only a moment, then the two old soldiers were kneeling over a couple of stunned thugs. Still breathing hard, both of them, but grinning. The grin faded when they heard Madari’s voice. A yell, and not a charge, or battle cry this time.
“Tie these two up,” Hannibal said, and ran back into the camp.
Madari yelled as one of the men darted in front of him, just trying to run away, but startling Blaze and making him rear. With no saddle or bridle, Madari stood no chance of staying on. A second later, he slammed to the ground on his back. Get up, get up, his instincts told him, but his body insisted it wanted to lie here for a while. His mind argued fiercely, pointing out that there was a loose, panicky horse in the vicinity and a couple of panicky thugs too and, incidentally, it added, you have no weapons.
Two men, mere dark shapes came at him and he couldn’t rise fast enough, winded from the fall. One of them actually landed a kick, before another man flew into the fray, tackling the kicker. A flash of white hair told him it was Hannibal. That left one.
Not for long.
Even as Madari reached around on the ground for a makeshift weapon, he heard yells, and knew it was the civilians. They gave the slightly hesitant yells of men not used to rushing into battle, screaming at the enemy.
They didn’t hesitate in their attack though. Three men fell on the man standing over Madari and dragged him off. Madari sat up to see Hannibal knocking out the one he’d tackled. Jake finished the other one with a rather good punch. Had a lot of physical confidence that man, Madari thought. Used to dealing with rambunctious horses of course. He’d have made a fine soldier. Hannibal knelt at Madari’s side.
“Are you hurt?”
“Just a bit winded. Blaze threw me.”
“I’ll have a stern word with him,” Hannibal said, patting Madari’s shoulder, than helping him up. “I think we got all of them. Anyone else must have run away.”
“We’d better secure them, before the rest do the same. We can use guy ropes from the tents.”
“Good idea. Tom has a knife. Get him to cut some off for you. I have to go find my Browning before someone else gets their paws on it,” Hannibal turned to go, and then turned back. “Faris… tie ’em tight. These guys were maybe a little too persistent.” He ran off without elaborating. But Madari understood. They were probably just drunken thugs, but they could be more than that. As Hannibal had said, he had enemies. Take no chances.
“Tom!” Madari called. “Tom! We need your knife.”
Dawn found Hannibal and Madari standing guard over the invaders, who sat in a circle, expertly secured. Between horsemen, fishermen and soldiers, Hannibal’s party had a lot of knot tying expertise to call on. The battered thugs were either dozing or sulking.
Jake had taken the fastest of the horses and set off for the nearest Ranger station, to fetch back the Park Police. Meanwhile, Matt and Tom were retrieving the horses and bringing them back to camp. That left Jilly, the children, and Geoff to salvage what supplies they could to make breakfast, and to find clothes and shoes for everyone. Madari had already found his new hat, miraculously unharmed, and wore it now.
Hannibal yawned a jaw-cracking yawn, making Madari look at him and smile.
“Long night,” Hannibal remarked, rubbing his eyes.
“Very.” Madari agreed. However, he hurt too much to sleep right now. “Kahil is going to be sorry he didn’t join us after all.”
“He’d have been useful to have last night, that’s for sure,” Hannibal agreed. “We’d have finished them off in half the time.” He looked at Madari and gave a smirk. “So, that charge last night. That battle cry.”
Madari flushed. Hannibal couldn’t possibly have understood it. Could he?
“I thought you guys shouted Allahu Akhbar when going into battle.”
“Ahmed taught me some old fashioned battle cries. He said they were rather more… colourful.”
“Yeah? Any particular colour?”
“Never mind.” Hannibal grinned. “So that one last night, what does it mean?”
“It’s sort of hard to translate,” Madari said. But Hannibal wasn’t buying the evasion.
“Sounded like something about cutting something off. Sounded like -”
“Head,” Madari said quickly. “Cutting your head off.”
“Really?” Hannibal said, apparent surprise in his voice. “Because it sounded to me a lot like… oh, hi, kiddo. Is that for us?” Claire approached, carrying food for them, on a couple of battered tin plates.
“Yes, sir. Mom’s trying to find some coffee too, she said to tell you.”
“Great,” Hannibal said.
“Thank you for helping us last night, Mr Madari, Mr Smith,” she said as she gave them the plates. They both smiled up at the girl.
“You’re quite welcome, my dear,” Madari said. “Thank you for the breakfast.”
She hurried off and they settled down to eat. Their prisoners gave them dirty looks. Hannibal had ordered the be given water, but the food supplies were so scattered and smashed it was hard enough to rustle up enough for the Wilson party’s own breakfast, so they’d have to wait. The Park Police cops could feed them. Madari sighed, looking around at the wreckage.
“Why can’t men like us ever just have time to relax?” The words came out bitter. “A vacation, a week, even just an afternoon, without some kind of trouble. I couldn’t even take a damn sauna without being stabbed!”
“It’s those enemies we keep accumulating,”
“Well, I’m the one who made an enemy of those men and they came after us and innocent people – innocent children – could have been hurt, even killed.”
“And you think you should have just let them insult you?”
“No buts.” Hannibal put an arm around Madari. “Don’t carry the weight of the world on these shoulders, Faris. You just do what you can to make a difference. Hell, you’ve done more than your fair share.” He let go and went on eating his breakfast. His calm tone cooled the anger rising in Madari. “Anyway, things turned out okay. Maybe I’m still lucky the way I used to be. Was starting to think it ran out.”
“Luck?” Madari frowned. “Hannibal, surely you know that if a commander relies on luck, the only type he’ll reliably get is bad.”
Hannibal grinned. “Let me guess, that’s a nugget from a tall guy with a fierce beard who’s related to you through your father.”
“It’s one of Ahmed’s sayings, yes,” Madari admitted, with a quirky smile.
“It’s a good one.” Hannibal puffed on his cigar for a while. “We could test out my luck. Since we’re going to be out of here early, why don’t we drop in to Vegas on the way home?”
“I don’t think Las Vegas is ‘on the way’ from here to LA.”
“Sure it is, if you take the scenic route. Come on, I promise you, I won’t let you get drunk and marry a showgirl.”
Madari stared at him. “Er, good, because that would be… not good. In the sense that I wouldn’t dare to go home.” Of course, Jahni and Sophia would come and track him down…
“Yeah, I can imagine the explanations would be a bit difficult.” He imitated Madari’s accent, quite well. “Colonel Rahama, may I present my new bride, Trixie Madari.”
Somewhat unfortunate that Madari had taken a bite of cornbread at that moment. After he finished choking, he wiped his watering eyes and spoke feebly. “Hannibal Smith, you will be the death of me.” At least it hadn’t happened in front of the king this time.
“Well, every man should see Las Vegas before he dies. Anyway, you’ll love Vegas. After all…” He chuckled, Madari wasn’t sure why. “It’s in the desert.”
Madari smiled at that. The desert, yes. A man could find peace in the desert – though probably not actually in Las Vegas. Madari had found his soul in the desert. He glanced at Hannibal, who had that look in his eyes. A look Madari hadn’t realised had been missing until now.
Hannibal didn’t need the desert. He was a different type of man. He found his soul here, in this place that buzzed and teemed with life. Madari found his soul through love. Hannibal found his through… battle? No, that wasn’t it, not quite. Ah, yes, he knew the word now. It had no real translation into any other language. However, it described Hannibal’s soul to perfection.