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Beginnings 3: Pretty Little Horses
by HannibalFan'52 and Jullian Gray

Rating: PG-13

Summary: The Team is on the run from Lynch at the start of their career.

Warnings: Slash - H/F

Notes: 1. The title comes from a lullaby called 'All the Pretty Little Horses'. Tradition says it was written by a black slave woman who was caring for her master's baby, and couldn't pay attention to her own child.

2. Cartagena: The Latin name for Carthage, home of the original Hannibal

3. Gelding: a stallion that has been neutered

Spoilers: Summer of 1973 and Safe and Secure, by Jullian Gray; Sequel to 'Heritage' and 'Three's a Crowd' by HannibalFan'52 and Jullian Gray

Disclaimer: The canon characters are, of course, the product of Stephen J. Cannell's fertile imagination. I can only hope I've done justice to his creation.

 

**********

 

Prologue

Floyd Watson stared at the headline:

ESCAPED TRIO ELUDES OHIO POLICE

The article below went on to describe how three prisoners, all convicted of multiple murders, had broken out of a penitentiary near Cincinnati. The trail had gone cold at the border, but they were believed to be headed for Missouri.

He nodded, pressing his thin lips together. He knew where they were heading. If they continued to elude the police, it wouldn't be long, now.

He looked up at a knock on the study door.

'Come!' he called.

A heavy-set thug opened the door and leaned in.

'Dey're here, Mr. W.,' he rasped. Watson nodded.

'Send them in,' he said, rising from his padded leather chair.

Almost immediately, three men entered the room. They were conservatively dressed, and could have passed for bankers but for the cruel look in their eyes. Fierce grins appeared on their faces when they spied their host, waiting for them with open arms.

 

 

 

'Ayyyy…' Watson said, smiling himself. 'It took you long enough to get back here!'

'Yeah, well,' Patterson said, 'we wound up taking a very roundabout route. Those Ohio cops were pretty smart…for cops.'

'You're looking good, I must say,' Floyd told them. 'Come in and have a seat,' he added, waving them towards a well-stocked bar. 'Help yourselves to drinks. So, how are my three favorite enforcers?'

'We'd be better if we hadn't just done five years in stir,' replied Ryan Townsend, a tall, almost skeletal man with deep, burning eyes. 'But we're all right.'

'We're doing better'n that screw who tried to stop us leavin',' snickered Lawrence Patterson. 'He won't be walkin' again any time soon…if ever!'

McKnight just nodded as he sipped his whiskey.

'Well,' said Watson, 'I'm glad you made it without too many problems. A situation has come up, and I need you to take care of it for me.

'There's a guy by the name of Sinclair who owns a small stud farm not too far from here. He's been doing all right lately - so much so that he wants to expand and upgrade his facilities. The problem is he wants to use the scrub acreage on the other side of the dirt trail that runs behind the land he's currently using. I think you can figure out what it would mean if anyone tried to use that land.'

His guests nodded soberly.

'I've made a fair offer for the land, even offered to buy him a new site,' Watson continued, 'but he's a stubborn son-of-a-gun. Even threatened to call the cops on me for harassment. I need you to convince him that expanding into that lot is a bad idea - a very bad idea. I don't care how you do it. Just get it done.'

'Don't worry, boss,' Townsend assured him. 'We'll look into it.' Patterson and McKnight snickered. 'That guy'll never know what hit him!'

 

**********

 

Act I

Having narrowly avoided a blizzard on the way out of Minnesota, the occupants of a second-hand Chevy Malibu slowly made their way vaguely southeast. As planned, they traveled for several days at a stretch, taking a breather whenever the chance of some work came their way.

*****

Face watched as the scenery passed before his eyes. He could see that some of the trees were starting to bloom and the grass was becoming greener. On the sides of the road and in some of the medians, he could see yellow flowers just starting to open. Though the sight before him gave him hope that the cold weather would soon be behind them, his mind was on other things. As he stared out the window, he was running their finances through his head.

At the rate they were going through their funds, they would only make it another week, or if they were lucky, a week and a half if they cut back. Face sighed softly. Not that they could cut back much more - the car had to have fuel to run, and they had to eat.

'Face, please stop kicking the back o' my seat,' B.A. requested

Hannibal, being awake this time, looked back and noticed that his young lover was once again lost in his own world, his right leg crossed over his left, the foot occasionally bouncing and brushing up across the front seat.

'I got it, B.A.'  Leaning over the seat, Hannibal reached back and gently touched the younger man's ankle, causing the blond to jump back, his body tensing for a fight.

 

'Easy, kid.' Hannibal used a soft, soothing voice, as if he was dealing with a frightened child. Which, if he'd thought about it, he might have realized was exactly what he was doing. 'You're all right.'

'Sorry; you startled me.'

'Lost in your own world again?' Hannibal asked as he gave the younger man's ankle a gentle squeeze before sliding it off the left leg.

Face gave him a puzzled look for a moment, then blushed as he looked up into the rearview mirror.

'Sorry, B.A.'

'No problem, little brother.'  BA nodded before he looked back at the road.

Hannibal liked Face sitting behind B.A., because he could look back and see him. However, with the younger man phasing in and out, and the errant foot bouncing being a sign of it, he began to consider  moving him.

'Care to tell me what you are thinking about?'

'Just running some numbers through my head.' Face frowned at Hannibal. 'And we're going to need some cash pretty soon.'

'We can't be out of money yet, can we?' BA asked as he looked at Face in the rearview.

'We're not out, but our funds are getting low.' Face glanced at B.A. again, then at Hannibal. 'If we could find a pool…'

'Don't even think it.' Hannibal pointed at the younger man, and then shook his head as he caught the hint of a smile pulling at Face's lips. 'That just earned you some twenty-five push-ups, Lieutenant.'

 

'It was worth it to see the look on your face.' The blond chuckled. 'But seriously, we need to find something.'

'Might be able to find jobs as day laborers,' B.A. suggested. 'Don't pay much, but they pay in cash and don't ask questions. Used to do it all the time during summer vacation to get money for the movies.'

Hannibal nodded.

'Good idea, we'll start looking as we pass through the next couple of towns. It might not be too bad an idea to come off the road for a few days anyway.'

*****

'B.A., pull over here,' Hannibal said as they approached the outskirts of the next town. He turned toward the back seat. 'Face, where's the camera you picked up at that yard sale? '

'In my bag. Why?'

Hannibal grinned and pointed to a big, colorful sign surrounded by an equally colorful collection of daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths, bracketed by two forsythia bushes, all just coming into bloom. It read:

 

Welcome to Hannibal, Missouri!

 

'I want you to take my picture in front of that,' he said.

Face groaned, and B.A. just shook his head, but they got out of the car anyway. B.A. leaned back against the fender, his arms crossed, while Face lined up the shot with Hannibal standing underneath the town's name on the sign, an impudent grin on his face and his ice-blue eyes lit by the Jazz.

'You know, Hannibal, we ain't gone very far,' B.A. called over to his CO.

'No problem, guys,' Hannibal said, gesturing as if he had a cigar in his hand. 'Lynch'll never think to look for us here. He hasn't got the brains.'

''What do you mean?' asked Face as B.A. groaned.

'You remember Big Willy?'

'The trucker who dropped us off in Ohio?' B.A. asked. 'What about 'im?'

'Well,' Hannibal said, leading the way back to the car, 'with his help, I sent Lynch on a wild-goose chase. Before we parted company, I gave him two letters to mail for me. One was a farewell note to Lynch.'

'So?' asked Face, narrowing his eyes as he remembered sensing what his lover had wanted to do during their escape two months before.

'So,' Hannibal's smile grew, 'he mailed them from Alabama. I'll bet Lynch is tearing his hair out right now, searching the Gulf Coast for us!' He chuckled, and the others joined in.

'What about the other letter, Colonel?' B.A. asked, still grinning.

'I'm glad you asked that, Sergeant,' Hannibal replied, placing a hand on the younger man's shoulder. 'That one was to my sister Elizabeth and her husband, in Michigan. In it, I asked her to call your mother, to let her know you're safe with us. I'll keep her updated as best I can.'

'Thanks, Hannibal,' B.A. said softly. He was deeply touched by this further proof of his commanding officer's concern for his men, and his heart swelled as he realized he was not as much an outsider as he'd sometimes feared.

As B.A. got behind the wheel again, Face looked at his lover.

'And Father Magill?' he asked quietly.

Hannibal had the grace to look ashamed.

'I'm sorry, Tem, but I didn't have time to write a third letter, and with all that's happened since, there hasn't been a chance to practice the same kind of misdirection.'

Face nodded sadly, and sighed as he felt Hannibal's arm slip around his shoulders.

'Don't worry, baby. I'm sure he's heard of the escape by now. And I'm planning to call the Westwood VA before long, to check on Murdock. I'll do my best to call Father Magill at the same time.'

'Thanks, John,' Face whispered. 'Until I met you, he was just about the only positive male role model I had. It hurts to think how much I've disappointed him.'

Hannibal pulled his young lover close.

'You're not a disappointment to anyone, Tem,' he said firmly. 'I'm sure he'll understand once you explain everything to him.'

Face pulled back and looked at Hannibal quizzically.

'Remember, baby,' Hannibal told him, 'we're headed back to your old stomping grounds. If all goes as planned, you should be able to see the good Father in a few months' time. That's a lot sooner than B.A. or I will be able to see our families again.'

Face nodded.

'I'm sorry, John. I was being selfish.'

'Never, Tem; never!' Hannibal gave him another strong hug. 'You're just concerned about someone you love, and that's only right.

'But it's getting late now. It's time to find some food and a place to stay for the night.'

'All right, John.'

Hannibal opened the door for Face, and they set off to see what the city had to offer.

**********

Tina Sinclair turned her car into the lot behind a bank on the outskirts of Hannibal, Missouri, and parked it. The bank was closed, but there was a drop box for after-hours deposits. Picking up the heavy canvas bag with the locked zipper, she made her way over to the side of the building.

She was only a few feet from her goal when three men in ski masks and waving pistols accosted her.

'We'll take that, lady,' said the tallest, reaching for the deposit bag.

Tina stepped back, shaking her head as she did. There was too much at stake to let them have it. She turned and ran for her car, the muggers hot on her heels.

She had just reached it when they caught up with her. She was slammed into the side of the car as they collided with her, but she managed to drop the bag and kick it under the car as she struggled to get away.

'Let go of me!' she screamed as she was turned around, her hair grabbed by one goon, who flicked open a switchblade and pressed the point up under her chin.

'Hand it over, girly,' the leader said, 'or I'll just have to let Larry here have a little fun.'

When Tina tried to push her way past the men instead, he signaled the man with the knife to convince her to be more cooperative.

Larry had just started cutting when he was pulled away from Tina, a big black fist connecting with his jaw. He went sprawling, while two other figures took on his companions. An older man with brownish hair tackled the leader; a right cross and a left uppercut sent him to the ground. Meanwhile, a younger man with dirty blond hair tackled the third goon, rolling with him until he was able to get in a solid blow to the guy's jaw. Finding themselves outclassed, the three thugs scrambled to their feet and beat a hasty retreat.

Tina looked around wildly as the leader of her rescuers handed her a clean handkerchief and motioned for her to use it on the blood that trickled towards her neck.

'Thank you,' she said nervously. 'I thought I was never going to get away from them in one piece. I didn't think there was anyone around to help.'

'Well,' said the oldest of the men, 'we never can resist rescuing a damsel in distress.'

Tina giggled when she saw the two younger men's reaction to their leader's explanation. The by-play between the three men helped put her at ease after her harrowing experience. She wasn't in the least apprehensive when the older man put an arm around her shoulders, but excused herself and turned to fish the deposit bag out from under the car, only to have the young blond hand it to her. She smiled her thanks before letting the older man guide her towards a nearby coffee shop. As they all took seats at one of the outdoor tables, he broached the question uppermost in his mind.

'Now,' said the mysterious brown-haired stranger, 'would you like to tell me what that was all about?'

Tina held up the locked canvas bag.

'It's all about this, the money I have to deposit in the bank. If those guys had gotten this away from me, we'd've missed our mortgage payment. If we default on our mortgage, my father could lose his stud farm. We're having enough trouble keeping it going as it is'

'Hannibal,' said the young man with dark blond hair, 'it sounds like we could take care of two problems at the same time here.'

Tina looked at the older man.

'Hannibal?' she asked. 'What kind of name is that? Are you from around here?'

'No, I was born in Michigan, actually,' Hannibal smiled. 'But when I was in the Army in Korea, the upper brass thought I was a pretty good tactician, so I was nicknamed after the Carthaginian general.

'But my nephew's right. We happen to be looking for some work right about now. If you'd like a few hands to help out around the stables, I'm sure Templeton, Bosco, and I can help with any problems you might have.' He signaled a waiter, who stopped to take their orders.

'Well, I'll let Dad tell you most of it,' Tina said as the waiter left, 'but this jerk Floyd Watson wants to buy our farm. Don't know why; he's a wealthy man, and has enough money-making enterprises that make our little place look like peanuts in comparison. It's all we've got, and Dad has no interest in selling, but Watson's not taking “no” for an answer.'

'Sounds like our kind of sleaze-ball,' Hannibal said, looking around the table. 'Whaddya say, guys? Sound like fun?'

Face shook his head and sighed.

'Whatever you say, Hannibal.'

'Make a nice change from camping out,' B.A. growled. 'I say we do it.'

Hannibal looked at Tina.

'Looks like you just hired yourself some protection, Miss…'

'Sinclair, Tina Sinclair,' she replied, taking his proffered hand. She stood up. 'Where's your car?'

'Over there,' B.A. said, pointing proudly to the multicolored vehicle in question. It didn't look like much, but he'd been working on it whenever possible, and could get a fine turn of speed out of it when necessary.

'Fine,' Tina said, glancing at Face. 'Would one of you please walk me to my car? I still have to make this deposit, and I'm a little nervous. If the rest of you meet us there, you can follow me out to the farm, okay?'

'Umm…,' said Face, flashing her a brilliant smile. 'I don't mind escorting you. Is that all right with you, Uncle?'

Hannibal raised an eyebrow at his lover, his ice-blue eyes alight with amusement.

'Yeah, sure, Templeton,' he said, smiling. 'You go on. We'll catch up with you in a few minutes.' He looked at B.A. as they paired off and moved in opposite directions. 'You know, I'm kinda looking forward to this.'

'Yeah, me, too,' the sergeant replied, his soft brown eyes twinkling.

**********

Eddie Sinclair was just putting a beautiful chestnut stallion into his loose-box when he heard the sound of car engines. Looking out the wide barn doors, he saw his daughter's white sedan moving down the long driveway, followed by a battered station wagon he'd never seen before. Alarmed, he raced to meet the newcomers.

***

Tina smiled as she saw her father running towards her car as she parked in front of the farmhouse. Shaking her head, she got out as the other car pulled up behind her.

'Tina!' Eddie yelled, grabbing her by the arms. 'Are you okay?' He looked at the three men getting out of the other car. 'Who are these guys?' he demanded, putting himself between his daughter and the strangers, especially the black man with the strange haircut.

'It's all right, Dad,' Tina laughed, patting him on the shoulder as she moved out from behind him. 'These guys are friends. I want you to meet John Smith, also known as Hannibal…'

'Pleased to meet you, sir,' Hannibal said, shaking hands with the stocky man.

'…his nephew, Templeton Peck…and Bosco Baracus…'

Face followed suit, as did B.A.

'Dad, these men saved me from three guys who tried to rob me of the mortgage money.'

Eddie looked at the three men with interest.

'Then I owe you my thanks,' he said. 'Come on in the house. I'm sure you could do with something to drink. Will iced tea do?

'That'll be fine, thank you,' Hannibal said.

Eddie led the way into the spacious kitchen and motioned them to sit down at the large table, while he headed for the refrigerator, but Tina got there before him.

'You sit down and talk, Dad,' she said with a smile. 'I know you're bursting with questions.'

'Yeah, I guess you're right,' he answered, grabbing a chair. 'Like I said, I owe you a great deal of thanks, especially for rescuing my daughter. As sad as I'd be to lose this place, Tina is everything to me,' he said, looking up with a smile as she placed a pitcher of home-made iced tea and five glasses on the table before taking a seat herself.

'Well,' said Face, 'we happened to be in the neighborhood. We're just glad we could help.'

'Yeah,' added B.A. 'We don't take kindly to people messing with good, hard-working folks.'

'My nephew and his friend are right,' Hannibal said, smiling as he accepted a tall glass of tea. 'We're happy to be of assistance. But Tina implied that this might not be a chance occurrence.'

Eddie snorted.

'It's not,' he said. 'At first, I thought it was just coincidence when several of my workers left within days of each other. I mean, day laborers come and go at the drop of a hat sometimes. Mickey's the only hand who's been with me for more that a couple years.

'Then this guy Floyd Watson shows up, offering to buy me out. When I said no, he even offered to set me up somewhere else. But I still said no. This farm's been in my family since the early 1800's, and there's no way I'm giving it up.'

'Yeah, I know what you mean,' Hannibal said, looking at Face with a twinkle in his eye. 'My family's the same way.'

'Well, it wasn't long afterwards that the harassment began. My well was fouled, equipment destroyed, and so on. Nuisance stuff, really, but the cost of setting things to rights adds up. I've just got a small place, Mr. Smith, and I can't for the life of me figure out what Watson wants with it.'

'But the funny thing is,' Tina added,' Watson had absolutely no interest in this place until we filed for permits to upgrade our facilities and build a new, more modern barn on the scrubland behind the present stable.'

Face nodded.

'That certainly does sound fishy,' he said. 'I wonder what could have sparked his interest.'

'No idea,' Eddie said, shrugging. 'Lord knows we're not making money hand over fist here. Some months we can barely make ends meet!'

'Well, we'll certainly be happy to give you any assistance we can,' Hannibal told his hosts. 'Right, guys?'

Face and B.A. agreed enthusiastically.

'By the way, Dad, Hannibal and his friends are looking for work.' said Tina, smiling at Face as she spoke. 'Since we're shorthanded, I thought we could hire them to help around the stables and such, if that's all right with you.'

'It's a thought, Tina,' Eddie said, considering. 'But how do you feel about it, Mr. Smith?'

'Call me Hannibal,' the Colonel said. 'And I think it's a great idea. This way, we'll learn the lay of the land, while we have a chance to dig into Watson's background a bit, and see if we can get a handle on why he's so interested in this place all of a sudden. Besides, we've been on the road for a couple of months now, and it would be nice to stay in one place for a little while.'

'Then you've got yourself a deal!' Eddie said, smiling. 'Come on outside; I'll give you a tour of the place.'

As the men left, Tina called after them.

'Don't be too long, Dad,' she said. 'I'll have some dinner ready in about an hour, and I expect you all to be back in time to eat it!'

Eddie ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair and chuckled as he led the way out the back door and through the kitchen garden with its orderly rows of lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, and beans just beginning to show through the loose soil.

'Sometimes I think she worries too much,' he said with a smile. 'Takes after her mother, God rest her soul - her looks, her caring, and her cooking!'

Looking around, Hannibal could tell that the Sinclairs liked to be as self-sufficient as possible, like farm families of any description.

As they approached the main stable, they passed a large, almost-closed ring of iron suspended from a wooden crossbar supported by a couple of six-by-six-inch posts. From one post hung a large steel-headed mallet.

'What's this?' asked Face, running a hand over the five-inch-wide, half-inch-thick ring

'Believe it or not,' Eddie smiled, 'it's a fire alarm. Before electricity, these were set in front of fire houses to let volunteer firemen know when they were needed, much like sirens to today. I got this one at an auction, 'cause it's a good way to warn people, even with electricity, because a fire can wreak havoc on phone and electrical cables. When it's quiet, these things can be heard quite a long way.' With that, he turned back to the open stable doors.

'Hey, Mickey!' he yelled to a short, wiry man at the other end of the stables. 'C'mere and meet some folks!'

Mickey hurried over to see what his boss wanted.

'Mickey,' Eddie said, putting an arm around the other man's shoulders, 'I want you to meet John Smith, Templeton Peck, and Bosco Baracus. They're gonna be helping us out for a while.'

'Pleased to meet you all,' Mickey said as he wiped his palms on his jeans and shook hands all around.

'Mickey here is a retired jockey,' Mickey told them. 'He retired about five years ago after a bad accident on the track.' Hannibal raised an eyebrow questioningly.

'Yeah,' Mickey laughed. 'Another horse knocked into mine, and we both went down. The horse was okay, but he landed on me. Broke my leg in three places. I could still ride afterwards, but I decided enough was enough, so I came to work for Mooch.'

'Mooch?' Face said, curious.

It was Eddie's turn to laugh.

'I've loved horses all my life,' he said. 'As a teen, I used to hang around the racetrack stables whenever I could – “mooching“, some of the old-timers called it. So, some of them started to call me “Mooch”, and the moniker stuck.'

'We met at Eagle Flight Stables, when I was still riding,' Mickey said. 'Mooch was the best damn trainer they ever had. Trained more winners than anyone else, and I got to ride most of 'em!'

'And you rode 'em real well, too!' Eddie stated. He turned and led the way into the stables, stopping in front of a stall. 'When I retired about seven years ago, the owners gave me the choice of a huge bonus, or my choice of several stallions they were retiring to stud. I chose two of the horses, 'cause I'd always wanted to have my own stud farm. They weren't the biggest winners at Eagle Flight, but they were my favorites of all the horses I trained for them.

'This,' he continued, opening the stall and introducing them to the proud chestnut within, 'is Prince of Serendip. He placed in the Kentucky Derby some years ago, and went on to win several big purses. He's a real go-getter on the track, but just a big softie when the pressure's off.' As if to prove him right, Prince turned his head and nuzzled Eddie, who stroked his neck in return.

'Serendip, huh? That's where the word “serendipity” comes from, isn't it?' Face asked. He looked at his companions. 'We've certainly been experiencing a lot of that lately.'

Hannibal smirked, and B.A. giggled.

'Now, Templeton,' Hannibal said, 'we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, y'know.' Face rolled his eyes, and B.A. giggled even harder.

Crossing the aisle, Eddie opened the box opposite, revealing a dapple-grey horse with jet-black mane and tail.

'Here we have Sentimental Value,' he told his listeners. 'Like Prince, he's sired his share of winners, both large and small. He's the clown of the outfit.'

'Yeah, and sneaky, too,' Mickey said, grinning. 'Be careful when you groom him. He may seem to be staring straight ahead, but all of a sudden his hoof'll find your foot, and then he'll just leeeean on it. Takes a big shove to get him off again, and you'll be limpin' for the next couple hours.'

Closing up the box, Eddie and Mickey continued the tour, providing treats for the mares

'All our horses are retired race-horses,' Eddie explained as they went. 'Even my ladies. Maybe they weren't the biggest winners in racing history, but they did all right.' He led the way out of the barn and over to the corral.

'And these youngsters,' he continued, showing off the few two-year-olds within, 'show a lot of promise. They're saddle-broke, and ready for further training. They've recently been sold, and are being picked up in the next couple days.'

'Saddle-broke?' B.A. asked dangerously. 'Don't like the sound o' that, man!'

Eddie laughed.

'Don't worry,' he said. 'I may use an old-fashioned term, but I don't use old-fashioned methods. Our horses are trained with love and gentleness. You get a whole lot further a lot faster that way.

'Say!' Eddie continued, his eyes lighting up as a thought struck him, 'you fellas want to try your hand at riding? Mickey, go get a couple o' saddles!'

Smiling, Mickey trotted off obediently, accompanied by Hannibal, much to the dismay of the two younger men. It wasn't long before they returned with three saddles, blankets, and bridles. Mickey gave a shrill whistle, and the half-grown foals immediately stopped their cavorting and trotted over to him, whinnying and nickering as he held out lumps for sugar for them.

With Hannibal's help, the horses were quickly saddled and bridled.

'You guys ever ride before?' Mickey asked. Hannibal and Face nodded, but B.A. shook his head.

'I grew up on a farm,' Hannibal said, 'so there was plenty of opportunity.'

'There were bridle trails in L.A. when I was in college,' Face said, 'but that's the limit of my experience.'

'Nah, man,' B.A. admitted. 'Waren't no horses where I grew up. Too dangerous.'

'Well, then,' Mickey grinned, 'we'll just have to teach you!'

'I don't know 'bout this, man,' B.A. murmured, noting that the look in Mickey's eyes matched Hannibal's when the older man was on the Jazz.

'There's nothin' to it, Bosco,' Hannibal encouraged him. 'C'mere.' Reluctantly, B.A. crossed to where Hannibal stood at the left shoulder of a grey colt. 'Okay, now place your left hand on the pommel,' he said, indicating the raised center of the saddle's front, 'and your right hand on the cantle. Good!' B.A. gave him a dirty look, but did as he was told. 'Now bend your left leg back.' The Sergeant did as he was told, and Hannibal bent his own knees, placing one hand under B.A.'s knee, the other under his ankle. 'When I count “three”, push off with your right foot, and I'll give you a leg-up. Then swing your right foot over the cantle like you would get on a bicycle.'

B.A. wasn't too sure about this, but he knew he trusted his team-mates as he trusted no one else except his Momma. Following his Colonel's instructions, he found himself settled on the horse's back almost before he realized what was happening.

'Hey, man!! I'm on a horse!' he crowed, his eyes bright with happy disbelief, as Mickey brought the reins up over the horse's head and showed him how to hold them. At the same time, Hannibal put B.A.'s feet in the stirrups, manipulating them so that the heels were pointing down.

Mickey gripped the reins near the bit, and led B.A.'s horse around the outside of the ring, talking as he went.

'When I let go, Bosco,' he said, 'the horse will keep going in pretty much a straight line. If you want to turn left, gently pull the left rein back towards your body. That'll pull on his mouth, and make him want to turn his head, so his body will follow. To turn right, just do the opposite.' B.A. nodded, trying to take in all this new information.

By the time Hannibal and Face had saddled up, Mickey had B.A. doing solo figure-eights in the middle of the corral.

**********

B.A. walked gingerly into the kitchen at dinnertime that night. Tina recognized the look on his face, and hurried from the room, returning a few minutes later with a pillow, which she placed on his chair at the table.

'So, how was your first experience on horseback, Bosco?' Face asked, his eyes twinkling with mischief. Hannibal, already guessing the answer, grinned conspiratorially.

'Man, my butt hurts!' B.A. told them. 'And the inside of my thighs! I got muscles hurtin' I didn't even know I had!'

'It's called being saddle-sore, my friend,' Hannibal said jovially. 'A soak in a hot tub and some horse liniment, and you should be right as rain by morning.'

B.A. gave his CO a dirty look at the mention of 'horse liniment', but then his face brightened.

'But I liked it,' he added. 'It was fun, and excitin'. And now I know why they use the term “horse power” when they talk about engines.' His eyes shone with appreciation of the power and grace of the animal he had ridden.

He had just eased himself into his seat, as Tina set out a platter of southern-fried chicken and mashed potatoes, when the sound of a car pulling up outside reached them. Eddie frowned as doors slammed, and a voice called out:

'Sinclair! This is Watson! I want to talk to you!'

There was a scraping of chairs as everyone moved to the front door. Eddie stepped out onto the porch, followed by his new-found friends.

Hannibal looked over the newcomers, noting the expensive tailor-made suit on the leader, but at the same time realizing that he didn't wear it well, looking for all the world like a bum in a tuxedo. The cheap suits on the others didn't look very good, either.

Patterson did a double-take.

'That's them, Boss!' he said. 'Those're the guys who showed up at the bank!'

'So, you ran off my guys at the bank, huh?' Watson asked, swaggering up to Hannibal. 'I guess you think you're pretty big, don't you? Well, let me tell you something, pal – you're not going to win here. I want this farm, and nobody's going to stop me from getting it, come Hell or high water.'

'You can go to Hell, Watson!' Eddie yelled, jabbing a finger wildly in his direction. 'There's no way I'm gonna give up my farm to you!'

'Yeah,' growled B.A. 'An' we're here to make sure he don't have to!'

'And what are you gonna do about it, boy?' sneered Patterson. 'You think you're so tough? All you're good for is shoveling muck!' He looked at his companions, who laughed with him.

Patterson's smile quickly disappeared when his shirt was grabbed and he found himself looking into a pair of furious blue eyes.

'Don't you dare,' Hannibal said quietly, 'talk about my friend that way. He may be my subordinate as an employee, but he's my equal as a man. And you don't even begin to measure up to my standards!'

With that, Hannibal shoved Patterson away, as if he were something to disgusting to touch.

Patterson started to launch himself at Hannibal, but Watson stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Undeterred by the thunderous looks from B.A. and Face, Watson turned again to Sinclair.

'Oh, you'll sell, all right,' he said dangerously. 'You've turned down an offer that's more than fair, but if you wait too long, you'll sell at whatever price I set.' He looked around. 'It would be a shame if anything happened to all those pretty little horses.'

'Why, you…!' Eddie growled, rushing at Watson.

'Dad, no!!' Tina yelled, but it was too late. Eddie had already landed a punch to Watson's gut.

Instantly, Floyd's goons attacked Hannibal and his men.

Hannibal went for Watson as he regained his senses and punched Eddie in the side of the head. B.A. made a move for Patterson, but McKnight stepped in front of him, blocking his way. Seeing the big black man was occupied did not stop Patterson; he headed straight for B.A., intent on sucker-punching him. Just as he was about to strike, he was knocked off his feet by Face, who broadsided him in a flying tackle. Both men crashed to the ground. Face tried to keep their momentum going so that he would be on top, but Patterson managed to use his longer legs and stopped them cold, leaving Face on his back under him. The thug took a swing at Face, but the younger man managed to block it, and countered with his own, which knocked the other man's head back. But Patterson wasn't deterred. Instead of trying to punch Face again, he grabbed him by the front of the shirt and slammed him into the ground, the force of the blow knocking the air out of his lungs. To the other man's surprise, Face didn't give up; he took another swing and caught the other man in the side of the head. This angered Patterson further, and he slammed Face down harder, causing the blond's head to bounce off the ground. 

B.A. had just knocked out McKnight when he noticed Patterson had Face pinned and had slammed him onto the ground. He ran toward his downed friend, and his anger flared as he watched Face's head hit the pavement.

Ignoring his screaming muscles, B.A. pulled Patterson off Face, spinning him around to meet a savage punch to the jaw. Patterson went down, dazed. He shook his head, and climbed awkwardly to his feet, in no condition to re-enter the fray.

A few feet away, Hannibal was giving Townsend the beating of a lifetime. The Colonel had the crook by the front of the shirt and was alternating between hitting him in the gut and head. Finally, with one last punch, Hannibal knocked the man backwards into Watson, so that both men fell to the ground, where he lay for a few moments, stunned. Seeing all his men on the ground, Watson stood up, winded, and motioned his men back to the car.

'You haven't heard the last of this, old man!' he threatened, shaking a finger in Sinclair's face. 'Not by a long shot. We'll be back, and you'll leave – either on your own, or in a box!'

Turning, he got back in the car. He nodded to Townsend, who backed the car up, then sped up the drive and out the gate. Eddie and his new hands watched them leave.

'This isn't over, you know,' Hannibal said quietly. Eddie nodded. 'We've got a lot of planning to do if we're going to keep this place safe.'

'I'm ready when you are, Mr. Smith,' Eddie said.

'But not right now, Dad,' Tina declared, furious. 'Dinner's getting cold, and I'm not having all my hard work wasted.'

'All right, Tina,' Eddie laughed. 'I guess I'm hungry after all. A little dust-up like that is just the thing to whet the appetite.'

Hannibal turned to look over a B.A. and Face; his smile instantly dissolved when he saw B.A. kneeling by his lover.

'Mr. Smith…' Eddie stopped as he followed the other man's gaze.

 'Jesus.' Tina and Eddie started to take a step forward, but Hannibal stopped both of them. He noted the deep concern in the young woman's eyes.

 'We'll be inside in just a moment.' Hannibal stated as he started toward his men.

 'Are you sure?' Eddie asked, staring at the other man.

 'Yes,' Hannibal stated as he moved to his downed lover and friend. He knew that Eddie and Tina just wanted to help, but Hannibal knew that if they were around, Face would completely close himself off, insisting that he was fine when he could be seriously injured. It was hard enough to get information from the younger man as it was; he didn't need any more complications.

'What's wrong?' Hannibal asked as he dropped down beside the two, his eyes going from B.A. to Face. 'How bad are you hurt?'

 'I'm all right,' Face smiled 'I just got the wind knocked out of me, that's all.'

'Got his head bounced off the pavement, too,' BA growled.

Hannibal reached up and touched the back of Face's head, which earned him a quick smack on his arm from his lover.

'Stop, would you?!'

'Not until I'm sure that you don't need medical treatment.' Hannibal motioned to B.A., who grabbed Face's hands.

'I'm fine; there's just a bump.' Face sighed dramatically as Hannibal ran his fingers over the bruised scalp. 'It's no worse than the cuts and scrapes that you two have.'

Hannibal ignored Face's comment, and only stopped when he was sure that the injury wasn't serious.

'How about you, B.A.; you all right?'

 'Man, I'm more sore from riding that horse than fighting with them fools,' BA answered as he let go of Face.

 Hannibal chuckled and rose to his feet. As B.A. stood, both men reached down and helped their younger companion up.

'Did I hear someone say that dinner was getting cold?' BA asked as they moved toward the Sinclairs

Chuckling, Eddie led the way back to the kitchen.

*****

As they sat around the dinner table, Hannibal and Eddie talked about what it would take to keep Watson from getting his hands on their stables. It soon became apparent to both of them that each had something to offer the other. By the end of the meal, they had reached an agreement: the three of them would help around the stable and offer the Sinclairs protection, and a chance to put Watson in jail. In return, they would receive free meals, lodging, and a decent wage.   

*****

Later that evening, Hannibal looked out the window of the bedroom he and his men had been assigned. He had just finished unpacking what he needed for the night and was about to take a shower when movement outside caught his eye. He knew Face had been planning to take a walk to familiarize himself with the layout of the farm What he hadn't counted on was Tina appointing herself his guide. And when she laid her hand on his arm…

He shook his head. It was just a harmless flirtation, he told himself. He loved Face with all his heart, and he knew the younger man loved him in return. He sighed, and made his way to the bathroom.

Staring at his reflection in the mirror, Hannibal thought over what he had seen. Yes, Face loved him, but what if the younger man had a chance to make a real life for himself? Would they remain together? He'd often wondered how things would be after they got out of Viet Nam. Hannibal had planned on remaining in the service; it was the career that he had chosen. But what about Face? Would he have stayed with him, or would he have gone back home to make a new life for himself with a wife and kids?  Had he denied his lover the chance for a normal life by taking him over the wall?     

Hannibal shook his head again, getting rid of his thoughts. He couldn't afford to think that way. It could get one of them killed if he began to doubt himself. Moving to the shower, he started to adjust the water temperature. Though he had put the unsettling thoughts from him, part of his subconscious mind began playing back what he had seen over and over again.

 

**********

 

Act II

Floyd Watson led the way into his office. He was fuming, and his men knew it. Getting a drink from the bar, he sat at his desk and downed it in one go before addressing them.

'What the hell happened out there?' he yelled. 'Townsend, I thought you said you'd run off Sinclair's hands. That only that worn-out jockey Mickey was left. Where the hell did these guys come from?!'

'I dunno, Floyd,' Townsend replied, trying to calm his boss. 'McKnight's been watching the place, and they weren't there as of yesterday.'

'They must be from out-of-town, Boss,' McKnight added. 'All the local guys know better than to work for Sinclair, and I've never seen these guys before.'

'Yeah, and they really know how to handle themselves,' Patterson groaned. 'That black boy has a mean right hook.'

'Well, I don't care how good they are!' Watson hissed. 'You go back there tomorrow, and you don't come back until you've run those bastards off. I don't care how you do it! Just make sure they're gone before you show your faces here again!'

With muttered assurances, Townsend, Patterson, and McKnight slunk out of Watson's office, their anger with both their boss and Hannibal's men simmering hotly.

**********

The next morning, Hannibal woke to find his team-mates already gone. He chuckled, considering how Face usually whined about getting up this early. He sensed Eddie had let them sleep in their first day on the job, thinking that they weren't used to rising at the crack of dawn. Little did he know!

As he headed downstairs, he remembered what Tina had said when she'd shown them to their rooms. Usually, the stable-hands lived in the bunk-house out back, but since they were the only ones at the moment, they were staying in the farmhouse. Mickey had his own little apartment in the hayloft, partly because he preferred it, and partly because he could be right at hand if something went wrong with the horses in the middle of the night.

He found Face in a studious mood when he came down to breakfast. After greeting B.A., and finding out from Tina that Eddie and Mickey had already begun the daily chores, he turned his attention to his lover.

'What's the matter, Sunshine?' he asked quietly.

Face shook his head.

'Nothing's wrong, Hannibal,' he said. 'I just can't shake the feeling that I know those guys from somewhere.'

'Where're you going?' Hannibal asked as the young man stood.

'I'll be right back,' Face said over his shoulder.

Hannibal heard the front screen-door slam, and the Chevy's door open. He could only imagine what Face was after, rooting around in the car like this. Not that there was much to sort through, as they kept everything pretty neat.

'You know Face got a photographic memory,' B.A. reminded him. 'It won't be long before he figures it out.'

A few minutes later, the screen-door slammed again, and Face returned, staring at a month-old newspaper, his mouth set in a grim line.

'I thought so,' he said, placing the paper on the table so that Hannibal could see the headline. It was the one he'd picked up the day they'd left Maysville, Kentucky, with the front-page article on the three escaped murderers. B.A. growled when he recognized the pictures.

'The plot thickens,' murmured the older man. 'Well, it's good to know what we're up against. Perhaps you should go to the office of the local newspaper and see what you can find out about our friends here. I'm convinced Watson's dirty somehow, but proving it could be a problem.'

'Okay. I'll do that this afternoon. Mickey wants to teach me how to groom the horses this morning, and it's only right I do that first.'

'They come 'round here again, I'm gonna pound them into the ground,' B.A. said, reiterating the promise he'd made in Minnesota.

'I'm sure you'll get your chance, B.A.,' Hannibal chuckled. 'Goons like these don't give up easily, especially when they've got a boss like Watson. But it looks like we're going to have to set up nightly patrols, just to be on the safe side.'

***

After a hearty breakfast provided by Tina, the team made their way out to the stables to find Eddie and Mickey talking.

'Morning, gentlemen' Eddie called out as they approached. 'Hope you slept well.'

'Sure did! It was nice not having to worry about lying on rocks under my sleeping bag,' Face yawned.

'I should imagine that it would be,' Mickey chuckled.

'Well, you folks about ready?' Eddie asked with a smile a mile wide 'Cartagena doesn't run itself, y'know! There's stalls to be mucked out, horses to be groomed and exercised, tack to be saddle-soaped…' He laughed when Face just groaned.

'My nephew's not a morning person, Eddie,' Hannibal explained, placing his hands on Face's shoulders. 'But we're ready when you are.'

'So, what do you need us to do?' BA asked as he looked around the stable.

'Mickey and I have already fed the horses. We generally groom them next, then turn them out in the corral while the stalls are mucked out, and fresh hay put in. After lunch is when we exercise them, then they're put back in the corral until evening. After dinner, they're returned to their stalls, and given a good oat feed to last them until morning, when we start all over again.'

'Let's get to it, then.' Hannibal threw his arm over Face's shoulder. 'Nothing like shoveling out stalls as a work-out for the ol' muscles.' He chuckled as Face moaned at the thought of dealing with fresh horse manure.

'Don't mind that,' B.A. opined. 'It's honest stink.'

'Actually, I was wondering if we might use Templeton out on the track.'

'Doing what?' Face instantly perked up at the thought of doing something other than shoveling horse dung.

'That all depends,' Eddie smiled. 'How much do you weigh?'

Hannibal couldn't help but notice the nervous glance that Face cast in his direction before answering.

'Around one-fifty-five.'

Mickey shook his head as he looked at Face's lean frame.

'More like one-forty-five.'

'I agree, but we can put an end to this debate real quick.' Eddie motioned to the tack room, which held a professional scale for weighing jockeys before racing.

'On it, Mooch.' Mickey grabbed Face by the elbow as he led the younger man to the tack room.

'Care to tell me what is going on?' Hannibal asked as he watched Face get up on the scale.

'I was watching him ride yesterday, and he has pretty good form.'  Both men watched as Mickey started handing Face various pieces of riding equipment. 'I was thinking that, if he's in the right weight range, I could use him to exercise some of the horses.'

As Face left the tack room with Mickey, Hannibal couldn't help but ask.

'So, were you right?'

'Close,' Mickey laughed. 'One-forty-one.'

Hannibal and BA both turned to look at Face. They knew that he had been eating more over the last few weeks, but to still weigh that little, Hannibal couldn't help but wonder how low his weight had actually gotten.

Hannibal started to open his mouth, but Face beat him to it.

'I'm trying, Uncle John; I promise I'm trying.'

Hannibal closed his eyes for a second, then nodded as he looked at his nervous lover. Now was not the time or the place to get into something like this.

'That's all I can ask, kid.'  Turning back to Eddie, he asked. 'What do you have for the rest of us?'

'I'm glad you asked. Now, like I said, I've sold off all my two-year-olds. The last ones, the ones you rode last night, are being picked up this afternoon. Hannibal, since you're familiar with handling stock., I'd appreciate your help getting them loaded when the buyers arrive with their horse trailers…'

 

**********

Late that afternoon, Watson's men crouched on a slight rise in the field across the road from Cartagena Horse Farm.  They could see Mickey and Face exercising two of the mares on the track, while the other men busied themselves in the barn.

Townsend raised a pair of binoculars as a couple with a teen-aged daughter pulled a fancy horse trailer up to the stable area, to be met by Eddie Sinclair.  He watched the dumb-show as the family was greeted and the amenities observed before Hannibal led out a jet-black gelding with a brilliant white blaze.  Once the horse was re-examined and approved, they got down to the business of signing papers and bills of sale, then loaded him into the trailer.  More conversation and a round of good-byes preceded the departure of the happy family.

When Eddie and Hannibal turned towards the house, Townsend and his men climbed over the post-and-rail fence and headed for the track.  In spite of the previous evening's fiasco, they were sure they could terrorize the small jockey and skinny young man enough to convince Sinclair to give in to Watson's demands.


*****

Face could feel the powerful mare moving under him as he took her nice and easy around the track. Mickey had shown him a few pointers, then turned him loose on the track to exercise the mares. Though he kept the horse from running full-out, he had brought her up to a decent gallop before cooling her back down. Face couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to run a horse in its prime. What would it be like to be in the middle of the Kentucky Derby with all those horses galloping as hard as they could?

'It's a great feeling, isn't it?' Mickey called out as he pulled his mount alongside Face.

'Sure is.' Face smiled back.

'We need to cool them out. Just slow them down to a walk and we'll circle the track another time, then bring 'em in.'

Face nodded as he pulled his horse up and the two began to ride side-by-side. The two men talked about different things, neither of them noticing the thugs who were sneaking around the back side of the track.

 

*****

Patterson smiled as he saw the two men on the track by themselves. While he knew the blond could throw a punch or two, he figured that of all the men that Sinclair had hired, he and the former jockey would be the easiest to intimidate.

'I like that smile.' Townsend grinned as he watched Patterson study the two men on the track. 'I'm betting there's a plan that goes along with it.'

'Damn right.' Patterson beamed. 'The way I figure it, we put a hurting on those two, and the others will leave Sinclair's place like rats from a sinking ship.'

'What makes you think that?' one of Watson's hired goons asked.

'Easy.' Patterson looked at him and the other assembled men. 'If we hurt one of them bad enough, they will leave. They may be hired on, but I guarantee that if we maim or kill that blond, they'll pack up as quick as they can. We put a hurting on Mickey, and no other jockey will come near this place. By the time word gets out, Sinclair won't be able to hire anyone. No workers means no farm.'

'So, how do you want to do it?'

'Easy - wait 'til they pass, and beat the hell out of them.' Patterson smile widened as he moved around the edge of the track. His four companions followed him. As quietly as possible, they made their way to a set of stalls that Face and Mickey would have to pass as they came off the track.

 

*****

'You ready to take these two in and get them cleaned up?' Mickey asked Face as they came to the track opening.

'Sure, but I've never groomed a horse before.'

'It's not hard. You just have to remember to be careful about standing behind them. You spook one, and he could kick you.'

'I'll remember tha…'

Anything else Face was going to say was cut off when a shovel came out of nowhere and knocked him off the horse. Face fell to the ground, stunned and winded, the entire left side of his chest in pain. Only his riding helmet saved him from cracking his skull. Mickey watched the blond fall, but before he could say a word, he was pulled off of his own horse.

Patterson advanced toward the blond lying on the ground, gasping for breath.

'You were warned to get off this ranch while you had the chance, but did you take it?'

Patterson reached down to pull Face to his feet, and was rewarded with a kick to the knee that sent him down, writhing in pain. Face staggered to his feet and tried to make his way over to help Mickey, but he was grabbed from behind by one of Patterson's goons. As he was being spun around, Face swung with his fist, catching the other man in the side of the head, making him stagger backwards. However, before Face could turn back around, he was tackled from behind, driving him to the ground and knocking off the helmet. Face was struggling to get to his feet when he was punched again in the side.  Face grunted in pain, but refused to stop. He continued to throw punches, kick out, and bite anytime he got a chance, but in the end he was subdued.

Patterson walked over to Face, who was down on his knees, panting for breath, while Mickey continued to struggle against the two men who were holding him.

'You and your friends have been a major thorn in my side since the first time I saw you.'  Patterson stood over Face and kicked him in the thigh, but the young man didn't bother to look up at him. The lack of response angered Patterson even further. He grabbed a handful of blond hair and jerked Face's head up. 'I should just kill you right now.'

'Better men have tried.' Face smiled right before he spat in the other man's face.

'You're dead!' Patterson snarled as he grabbed Face by the front of the shirt and hauled him to his feet.

'Leave the boy alone.' Mickey struggled with the men holding him as he watched the young blond being dragged across the stable area toward a horse trough.

Realizing what was about to happen, Face began to struggle as hard as he could. One of the Viet Cong's favorite torture techniques was to hold a man's head under water until he almost drowned, and Face had been through the process on more than one occasion. Despite his best attempts, Patterson forced Face's head under the water. However, unlike his previous tormenters, Patterson had no intention of letting him up to catch his breath.

***

B.A. didn't think much of the horse that trotted by him as he finished mucking out the stable until he recognized it as the one that Face had been riding on the track earlier.

'Fool probably fell off.' B.A. shook his head as he pushed the wheelbarrow out of the stall and headed toward the muck pile. A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth as he turned the wheelbarrow toward the track; he was going to have fun teasing Face about falling off. He had just made it onto the track and was about to call out to Face when he heard Mickey yell.

'Stop, you're going to kill him!' Mickey struggled against the men holding him. 'Damn it, you're going to drown him!! Let him up!!'

B.A. followed the jockey's gaze and his heart stopped in his chest when he saw Patterson and another goon holding Face's upper body under the water of the horse trough.  Grabbing the shovel he had been using to muck out the stall, he headed toward the people hurting his friend. 

B.A. yelled at the top of his lungs as he swung the shovel as hard as he could. The thug next to Patterson managed to turn just enough to keep from getting hit in the back of the head and got caught in the side of the shoulder. He tried to move toward B.A., but the big sergeant swung again, forcing him back from the trough.

Patterson, seeing that he was the next one on B.A.'s list, let go of Face and backed away.

Face felt the pressure on the back of his head let up and he managed to push himself back enough to get his head up out of the water. He tried to stand, but his legs gave out from underneath him and he fell to the ground, gasping for breath.  B.A. wanted to stop and check on him, but he knew that if he didn't protect the three of them, they could all be hurt or killed.

'What the you going to do, boy?' Patterson smiled as he looked over at Townsend, who had moved over to stand next to the struggling Mickey. 'You can't fight us all off.'

'Bet me,' BA growled, taking a couple of swings of the shovel as two of Patterson's goons approached him. 

No, B.A. thought. He couldn't protect them all, but he would damn well make sure that they didn't touch his little brother.

'Face?' B.A. called out as he moved to step in front of the man on the ground. 'This may get ugly, but I promise they won't hurt you again.'

Face tried to tell BA that he could fight, but all that came out was a choked gasp for breath.  When he tried to stand again, his legs still refused to support his weight, and he collapsed back in a heap.

'Get him, boys!' Townsend smiled as he started toward B.A. However, the forward advance was cut short by the sound of rifle fire.

The goons turned quickly to see Hannibal and Eddie holding a rifles pointed right at them.

'I'm going only giving you one chance to get away from them and let Mickey go,' Hannibal ordered as he leveled the rifle at the goons advancing on his men. 

'You going to shoot us all?' Patterson asked, turning the same question on Hannibal that he did on BA.

'No, but I'm going to start with you,' Hannibal stated in a voice that BA recognized from their time in 'Nam.

'You wouldn't…' The thug started to say, but stopped when the rifle fired, kicking up the dirt at his feet.

'My next one is going to be through your skull.'

Patterson studied his opponent for a moment, and decided it was best if they left before his brains ended up on the dirt track.

'Let's go, men,' he snapped as he started to back away.

'You're not moving fast enough,' Hannibal growled as he sent a volley of bullets into the track around the goons, sending them scurrying in all directions. Perhaps the most satisfying moment came when Townsend turned back to look at Hannibal and tripped over his own feet, sending him straight into the wheelbarrow full of horse manure, which tipped over on him. It took him several seconds to find his footing again in the slippery mess.

Hannibal sent a few more shots at the fleeing men's heels before he turned to his men.  Eddie, he noted, was already moving toward Mickey, who was headed toward Face and B.A. Hannibal quickly crossed the short distance and moved to kneel down beside his men.

'B.A.?' Hannibal asked as he put his hand on his lover's shoulder, and felt him trembling in the chilly evening air. He would have asked Face, but the younger man was too busy trying to cough up the water in his lungs. 

'I don't know, man. I was mucking out the stalls. Face's horse came by, and I decided to go have a look,' BA answered as he continued rubbing Face's back while he choked up another mouthful. 'Found them goons holding Mickey and forcing Face's head under the water.'

'They tried to kill him is what they tried to do,' Mickey went on to explain what happened while BA and Hannibal got Face to his feet.

'That was Watson's goons, wasn't it?' Eddie asked as he moved to stand beside Mickey, even though he already knew the answer.

'Yeah,' BA confirmed.

'All right, let's get inside. I feel like we're sitting ducks out here in the open.' Hannibal looked around the track to make sure that they were still alone.

Face tried to take a step forward and would have fallen if Hannibal and BA hadn't caught him.

'Whoa there, partner.' Eddie moved to help, but BA moved so that he couldn't come to close to the young man.

'Let's move.' Hannibal slipped his arm around Face's waist as BA did the same thing. Together, they helped him to the front porch.

What is it about you, kid, that people just feel the need to hurt you? Hannibal thought as he and BA helped Face up the steps to the farmhouse.  They were just about to open the door when Tina walked out.

'I just about to call you to dinner…' She gasped at the sight of Face. 'Is he all right?' Her hands automatically tried to touch his trembling shoulder, but Hannibal, like B.A. before, moved to intervene.

'He'll be fine.' Hannibal his tightened his grip on his shivering Lieutenant.

'Looks like I won't be making that trip to the newspaper office today, after all,' Face croaked.

'It's okay, Templeton,' Hannibal reassured him. 'It's nothing that can't keep until tomorrow. C'mon, kid,' he said quietly as they moved into the house. 'Let's get you inside. Bosco?'

'Yeah, Hannibal?'

'You go eat before your dinner gets cold. We'll be down in a little while.'

'You got it, ' B.A. replied, nodding. Tina picked up their plates and put them in the oven to stay warm.

***

Hannibal helped Face up the stairs and into the room that they were sharing. He sat the younger man down on the edge of the bed and looked at him. Face's hands were clenched into fists so tight that his knuckles were white.

'Face, talk to me.' Hannibal knelt down in front of his lover and took his hands into his own and tried to loosen his grip. 'Tell me what's going on?'

Face opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out; he closed his mouth and opened it again.

'Relax.' Hannibal soothed this lover as he continued to rub his still-tight fists.

Face nodded and took several deep breaths before he tried to speak again.

'I'm okay.'

Despite his words, Hannibal could tell that Face was far from it, but he decided to let Face believe that he thought he was all right. He just needed to make sure that he was there for the younger man when he needed him. 

'All right, kid.' He gave Face's hands a gentle squeeze. 'Let's get you in a warm shower and some dry clothes.'

Face nodded, but made no move to stand up until Hannibal took him by the elbows. A few minutes later, he was standing under the hot spray while Hannibal went back into the bedroom. Reaching into his pack, he pulled out the wrapped package that contained the sweater he had bought in Maysville. He had been hoping to save it for a special occasion, but something told him that now would be a good time to give it to his lover.

When Face came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his thin waist, Hannibal was waiting for him.

'Feel any better?'

'Yeah.' Face nodded as he moved into the bed room.  'A lot'

Hannibal walked over to him and ran his hand over the dark bruise that had formed on Face's upper abdomen when he had been knocked off the horse.

'How's the pain?'

'Controllable as long as you keep your hands off it,' Face grunted as Hannibal applied pressure to the bruise trying to feel for anything out of the normal. 

'If it starts to bother you…'

'I'll be sure to tell you,' Face finished as he made his way toward his bag.

'I have your stuff laid out on the bed for you.'

'Thanks.' Face smiled at him. He hadn't really wanted to bend over and pick his clothes up off the floor. When he got to the bed, he noticed his underwear, jeans, socks, and a wrapped package. Sitting down on the bed, he picked up the package and looked up at Hannibal. 'What's this?'

'I saw it and I thought of you.' Hannibal said as he sat down next to Face, who was turning the box around in his hands. 'I was going to save it for our anniversary, but you need it now. Go on; open it.'

Hannibal watched as Face slowly and carefully unwrapped the gift. It always amazed him how careful the younger man was with the paper. Any other man would have torn it to open in a heartbeat, determined to find out what was inside, but not his lover. His lover was meticulous, almost cautious. Though it drove him nuts to watch, Hannibal sat patiently and waited for Face to fold the paper and place it beside him. 

A few moments later, Face had the box open and was holding the sweater in his hands, his fingers absently playing with the soft wool as he stared at it in stunned awe.

'Why?' Face asked so softly that Hannibal almost missed it.

'What do you mean, "why"?' Hannibal asked as he turned so that he could see his lover better.

Face swallowed hard as he fought back his emotions.

'Why did you get this for me?' Face shook his head. 'We could have used the money for something else.'

'I'm not going to deny that,' Hannibal smiled, 'but we've made do just fine.'

'I'm not worth this.'

'Stop it right now.' Hannibal took Face by the shoulders and squeezed them before pulling him into a tight hug. 'You are worth more than this, so much more.' Hannibal forced Face's head to his shoulder and his fingers began to card through the damp hair. 'You are worth everything to me, Tem, and I wish I could give you so much more. I love you so much, kid.'

Face closed his eyes as he took a deep breath, taking in the smell of his lover.

'I love you, too.'

**********

Needing a place to lick their wounds, Townsend pulled up outside a cheap motel. He sent McKnight in to rent a room, since they all knew Watson would not be happy with the results of today's confrontation. Besides, they needed the privacy – and a bathroom.

Once they had the key, they pulled around to their assigned room and, while Patterson unlocked the door, McKnight got each of them a Coke from the machine nearby.

'Well, that was a disaster,' he sighed, handing out the drinks before dropping onto the bed.

'No kidding!' Townsend retorted, taking a swig. 'I stink to high heaven, and that's all you have to say?!'

'Calm down, Ryan,' Patterson said placatingly. 'Go take a shower, and change into the clothes we picked up. We'll figure something out while you get cleaned up.' Townsend just grunted as he left the room.

Patterson sighed as he sat back in the armchair, looking at his remaining colleague.

'Any ideas, Tom?' McKnight just shook his head.

'Other than staying out of Watson's way for the time being,' he said, 'no. And we'd better come up with something fast, or Watson'll have our guts for garters.'

Patterson sighed. Pulling out a packet of cigarettes, he tapped one out, lit it with the complementary matches, then sat back with a sigh. Taking a drag, he contemplated the smoke rings as they dissipated in the air.

McKnight followed his gaze, then looked at his empty Coke bottle, a sly smile creeping to his lips just as Townsend rejoined them.

'What was it Watson said about “pretty little horses”? He looked at his companions. 'I'll need a few more of these,' he held up the bottle, 'some rags, and half a gallon of kerosene…'

 

**********

 

Act III

Face was leaning on the rail of the corral, watching the breeze rustle the coarse shrubs in the field across the road, and the birds flitting from bush to bush in search of the bedtime snack. It was far from dark, but it wouldn't be long now. Hannibal and B.A. were putting the last of the horses back in their stalls, so he had a few minutes to relax and contemplate.

He turned his head at the sound of footsteps to see Tina coming up beside him. Looking at her, he guessed that she was about six or so years older than he was, which explained the veterinarian's license he'd seen hanging on the wall in the Sinclairs' parlor. He felt a twinge of regret at not having finished college himself, but reminded himself that, if he had, he'd never have met Hannibal and the rest of the Team.

'How're you doing?' she asked quietly.

'All right,' Face replied. 'Just doing some thinking.'

'About this afternoon?'

'That, and some other stuff.'

Tina looked at him, as if trying to figure out what made him tick.

'Do you do this sort of thing for a living?' she asked, curious. 'You seem awfully good at it.'

Face shook his head.

'No,' he replied. 'We know how to handle ourselves because Uncle John, Bosco, and I - well, we served in Viet Nam together. Right now, we're just traveling around, trying to find a place we like enough to settle down. Working our way across the country, you might say.'

Tina laid a hand on his arm.

'Look, I really don't know how to say this,' she said, 'but I'm real sorry you nearly got drowned today. If Patterson'd held you under much longer…' She sobbed, realizing that she'd have been devastated if the younger man had died in defense of her home and family.

'Hey!' Face said, reaching over to lift her chin, 'I went through much worse than that in 'Nam. There's no way a little water is gonna keep me down for long.' He flashed her a brilliant smile. 'Besides, my friends would never let it happen.'

Without warning, Tina leaned forward and, sliding her hands up his arms, kissed Face full on the mouth. Nonplussed for a moment, he pulled her close and returned it with equal passion. But the soft caress of the sweater he wore reinforced his memories of other soft caresses, those of the only person he could ever truly love.

Quickly, he pulled away.

'Tina…' he began gently.

'I – I'm sorry,' she interrupted, flustered. 'I guess I shouldn't have done that. But I was so scared when I realized what had happened. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you putting your life on the line for us that way. Not many people would do that.'

Face chuckled.

'You have no idea how many times I've spit in Death's eye,' he said gently. 'This was nothing by comparison. But you know I can't get involved with anyone at the moment. We're only going to be here for a week or so, before we have to get back on the road. You're a nice lady, and you deserve someone who can be with you all the time.'

'I know,' Tina said, smiling as she sniffed. 'It's silly. But I've never known anyone like you before. Everyone around here is too scared to stand up to Floyd Watson. Thank you so very much. You don't know how much this means to us.'

'It's okay,' Face said.

Turning to look across the field again, he pulled her to his side, and together they watched the sun go down.

*****

Hannibal sat down heavily on a bale of hay. He'd caught Tina's flirtatious glances at Face when they'd first met the young woman, but had put it down to the usual reaction girls had when first meeting the teenager. To see his lover give her a peck on the cheek would have been harmless enough, but to see him respond so intensely when she kissed him full on the mouth was harder to accept.

He swallowed hard. Had he been a fool to give his heart to the young blond? If so, that was the end of all the hopes he'd had for the future – not only for his personal life, but for the Team as well. They'd been together so long, there was no way he could be near Face and not be able to love him. He sighed, his heart on the verge of breaking.

He was startled when a hand landed heavily on his shoulder. He looked up to see B.A. staring down at him.

'What's the matter, Hannibal?' he said softly.

'It's Face,' he sighed. 'I just saw him kissing Tina.'

'You what?!' B.A. said, shocked. Hannibal nodded sadly.

'You saw her flirting with him over the past couple of days,' he reminded his Sergeant. 'I don't blame him. I don't think he lied to me, B.A.; not intentionally. But with the war, he may have felt that a relationship with me was his only chance for love. And the difference in our ages…'

'Don't be a fool, man,' B.A. snapped. 'I done tol' you: Face don't love no one but you. Not now, not ever. But remember how he was in 'Nam, with all them pretty girls? He wouldn't hurt 'em if they flirted with 'im. Besides, it was a smoke-screen for the brass. An' that's all it is now.'

'I'm not so sure, B.A.,' Hannibal sighed. 'We've only been together for a couple of years, and we got together in a war zone. He's never had another loving relationship. Maybe it's time he spread his wings.'

'You crazier'n Murdock if you think he gonna leave you. I don't care how many girls he kiss. There's only one person he loves, an' that's you.'

'Thanks, B.A.,' Hannibal said, reaching up to pat the hand that still rested on his shoulder. He stood. 'I'm going to turn in now. I'll have a talk with Face later. I only hope you're right. If not, I won't stand in the way of his happiness.'

'I'm right, Hannibal; I know I am,' the younger man said. 'You'll see.'

Hannibal nodded noncommittally as he walked away towards the farmhouse. B.A. shook his head sadly as he watched his commander go.

'I'm right, Hannibal,' he repeated in a whisper. 'I know I am.'

*****

A couple hours later, Hannibal was lying on his bed, unable to sleep. He was still staring at the ceiling when the door opened.

Face was as quiet as he could be when he went entered the room he was sharing with Hannibal and B.A. He knew that B.A. was still awake since he had just seen him downstairs, but he knew that the Colonel had gone to bed some time ago. When he looked over at Hannibal, he was surprised to see that the older man was awake.

“Sorry, Hannibal. I didn't mean to wake you.”

  “You didn't. I wasn't asleep.”

Puzzled by Hannibal's response, he crossed to sit on the edge of his CO's bed.

'What's wrong, John?' he asked.

'Tem,' Hannibal asked carefully, 'do you like Tina?'

Face gave Hannibal a puzzled frown.

'Uh…yeah,' he said slowly. 'She's a nice young woman.'

Hannibal sighed and nodded, then pulled himself into a sitting position. He reached out and touched the younger man's cheek.

'You know I've always wanted the best for you, right, Tem?' Face nodded. 'Your happiness means more to me than anything else in this world. And if you decide you'd be happier with someone else, I won't deny your right to make that decision.'

Face shook his head and smiled fondly, realizing what must have happened. He covered Hannibal's hand with his own.

'Oh, John,' he said, 'I've never denied that I've always been attracted to women. I've always been honest with you – in that respect, at least,' he amended, seeing his lover's eyebrows rise in skepticism. 'I'll admit that Tina is a sweet lady, and yes, my body did respond to her advances. Rather strongly, I must admit. But you are the one who taught me the difference between love and lust. I gave you my heart that night in Saigon, and I will never ask for it back. You are the only one I've ever loved, John, and you're the only one I ever will love.'

So saying, he leaned forward and kissed Hannibal with all the passion he could muster. As he did, he felt himself pulled into his lover's tight embrace.

'Thank you, Tem,' Hannibal whispered into the blond hair. 'You've made an old man very happy.'

Face pulled back with a laugh.

'Hannibal,' he said, 'you'll never be old. Not if you live to be a hundred!'

'I hope so, kid,' the Colonel replied, drawing the younger man in for another kiss. 'God, I hope so!'

'I'm sorry if I gave you any reason for doubt, Hannibal,' Face said, sitting back at last. 'It was just Tina's way of apologizing for me getting soaked this afternoon. Trust me; I'm not interested in her that way. I was just trying to make her feel good.'

'All right, Tem,' Hannibal said, relieved. 'I understand. But if we're going to do this for a living, we're going to have to develop some rules about employee/client relations during missions.'

'Fair enough, John,' Face agreed. 'And I guess not mixing business with pleasure is as good a place as any to start.'

**********

The moon was hiding behind scudding clouds as a car, its headlights dimmed, crept along the dirt road that ran behind the main stable at Cartagena Horse Farms. McKnight checked the dashboard clock as he pulled up just out of sight of the main house. It was 1:39 AM.

Easing out of the car, he grabbed his binoculars and made his way to the side of the road, to a point where he could see the main house clearly. Hidden by some bushes, he trained the binoculars on the house, verifying that all the lights were dimmed. A cold smile curled his lips as the sole person abroad disappeared behind the farmhouse on his rounds.

Reaching into a padded bag on the floor of the passenger seat, he pulled out a glass soda bottle filled with kerosene and stoppered with a long rag. From his pocket, he took a disposable lighter. Flint ground against steel, igniting the escaping butane, and he held the flame to the kerosene-soaked rag. His eyes lit up, and his cruel smile widened as the flame surged up the fabric. When he was satisfied it had taken sufficiently, he hurled it towards the barn.

The bottle spun in mid-air as it traveled in a high arc towards its destination. Landing on the concrete ramp to the barred double doors, it shattered, kerosene fanning out in front of them, setting stray wisps of straw alight. The flame crept and grew, until it finally reached the bales of hay stacked nearby.

McKnight pitched a few more bottles, then nodded in satisfaction as the orange glow began to build, and the flames licked their way up the dry wooden doors…

**********

 

Act IV

Coughing and the smell of smoke woke Mickey from a light sleep. With the screams of panicky horses, it took him only a moment to realize what was happening. He was down the ladder in a flash, unbarring the double doors and carefully pushing them open. Once outside, he grabbed the hammer and beat on the ancient fire alarm until the lights went on in the house, then ran to open the corral gate.

By the time he had returned to the barn and was leading the first horse out, Eddie and the guys were racing to join him.

'I've opened the corral!' he yelled. 'Get the horses in there! They'll be safe there!'

'Good thinking!' Eddie yelled back as he ran. He could see that the burning doors were open wide enough to allow safe access, but the walls were starting to burn. Soon the flames would be creeping along the beams, and that would endanger the whole building.

B.A. and Face ran to the nearest stalls. Grabbing the halters of the horses inside, they led them towards safety. At the sight of the burning doors, however, the horses reared and plunged, trying to get back to the supposed safety of their stalls.

'Get a rag!' Hannibal yelled, suiting the action to the word. 'A towel – anything! Wrap it around their eyes! If they can't see the danger, they'll feel safe!'

B.A. pulled off his shirt, while Face snagged a saddle blanket. Following Hannibal's instructions, they led their charges out to the corral.

Tina ran up to her father as they raced back for more horses.

'I've called the fire department, Dad!' she called as she put a lead-rope on Prince of Serendip and headed out of the barn. 'They're on their way.'

'Thank God!' Eddie yelled back, leading Sentimental Value to safety. They could hear sirens approaching as they raced to the barn one last time.

Fire engines pulled up as Mickey was closing the corral gate after the last of the rescued horses. They all watched, catching their breath, as the fire-fighters went to work.

***

It took less than an hour to put out the fire. Fire Chief Amos Ward and Eddie walked through the smoldering remnants of the gutted barn.

'I'm afraid it's a-goner, Eddie,' Ward told him. He pointed to the smashed glass on the ramp. 'This was deliberate – probably kerosene, from the looks of it. I'll have to call the arson squad.' Looking up, he indicated the charred beams of the roof. 'Those are too badly burned to support the weight. You're lucky you didn't lose any of your horses.'

'Lucky is right!' Eddie told him. 'I just sold a bunch of 'em last week. Down to my two stallions and the brood mares. Even so, if I hadn't had help, I'd be in a world of trouble right now.' He turned to his long-time friend. 'Thanks, Amos. You and your men did a fine job. Once this is settled, I'll have you all 'round for dinner.'

'All part of the service, Eddie,' Amos replied, signaling to his men to finish packing up. 'And if you need help rebuilding, we'll see what we can do.' With that, he climbed into his official car, and led the way back to the station.

A rustling in the scrub attracted Face's attention. Looking around, he was berating himself for being spooked by nothing when he saw a figure break from cover.

'Hannibal!' he yelled.

Instantly, Hannibal and B.A. sprinted after the figure, circling left and right respectively, while Face followed straight. When Hannibal managed to get between him and his car, the figure tried to maneuver his way past Face, only to be snagged by B.A.

The figure struggled in the black man's iron grip, but to no avail.

'Let go of me!' he yelled, trying to get loose as his head was pulled back, his face illuminated in the moonlight.

'Well, well, well,' Hannibal said with a grin. 'If it isn't Mr. McKnight! To what do we owe the honor of your presence?'

McKnight pulled at the hands holding him, but their grip was too tight.

'I ain't telling you nothing!' he spat.

Eddie stepped forward, ready to bash the mobster, but Hannibal restrained him.

'Gee, that's too bad,' he sighed. 'B.A., would you give this gentleman a sample of the Sinclair hospitality?'

'Sure thing, Hannibal!' The smile on B.A.'s face made McKnight shudder.

***

Thomas McKnight shifted uncomfortably. First of all, the concrete floor on which he was sitting was wet. Second, the ropes securing his arms and legs were a little too tight for comfort. Third, the lingering smoke was making him cough and his eyes water. Last, and most important, the roof above him was creaking ominously, as if it was about to fall in on him. Which it probably was.

A long, low groan from the beam directly above him broke his nerve.

'All right!! All right!!,' he screamed. 'I'll tell you! Just get me out of here!'

Two pairs of strong hands grabbed him and pulled him outside the smoldering barn. Once he was safe, he collapsed to his knees.

'Well?' Hannibal asked quietly,

'It's Watson!' McKnight gasped. 'He doesn't want anyone using that land across the road. I don't know why. He just told us to keep Sinclair from building on it. He didn't care how!'

'All right, guys,' Hannibal said, 'let's put this guy on ice, and grab some shut-eye. I don't for a minute believe he's ignorant of why Watson's so adamant about that field, so we've got to search it in the morning.'

'Colonel?' B.A. asked, puzzled.

'If Watson wants to keep Eddie from building on that land, it means there's something out there he doesn't want found. And if he wants to keep it hidden so badly that he's willing to kill, maybe it's time it was brought to light, don'tcha think?'

'Why am I getting a bad feeling about this?' moaned Face.

*****

The next morning, Hannibal made sure that everyone only had a light breakfast. He couldn't be sure, but if his suspicions proved to be correct, the reactions would be bad enough.

Leaving Mickey to tend the horses, the others headed out to the field. They quartered the area, covering small sections at a time, looking carefully under and around the scrubby plant life that covered the soil.

A call from Tina brought everyone running. She pointed under a small bush, where the soil had been disturbed.

'Eddie,' said Face tightly, 'get Tina out of here. If this is what we think it is, it's not going to be pleasant.'

Eddie nodded, and guided Tina away, sending her to the house before returning himself. Hannibal looked at him.

'Eddie, I don't think you want to see this.'

'Hannibal,' Sinclair returned calmly, 'I was in World War II. I saw things I hoped never to see again, but I think I'll be all right.' The Colonel nodded, understanding.

After twenty minutes of careful digging, B.A.'s shovel hit something soft. He waved the others off, then knelt to scoop the soil out with his hands.

'It's a body, Hannibal,' he said at last, brushing dirt away from a dark blue pinstripe sleeve. Eddie gasped.

'I think I recognize that shirt!'

B.A. worked carefully, brushing the dirt away from the corpse in the grave.

'My God!' Eddie breathed when the face was finally revealed. 'That's Anthony Driscoll, the district attorney! He was investigating Watson when he disappeared a couple weeks ago!'

'And you saw nothing unusual out here?'

'We-ell,' Eddie said as he thought back, 'I did see lights out here a couple nights later, when I got up to use the toilet, but never thought much of it. Put it down to campers lookin' at the stars. It's dark enough out here to make a real spectacular show.'

'Which also made it ideal for midnight burial details,' said Face. 'No wonder he didn't want you building over here. His secret graveyard would have come to light.'

'Well, we've found it anyway, in spite of all his efforts,' said Hannibal. 'Looks like your trip to the newspaper is off, kid! Instead, we're going to pay a little visit to Mr. Watson.'

**********

Floyd Watson was just putting the stopper back on a crystal brandy decanter when the door to his office was kicked in. He whirled, only to find himself confronted with two pistols and a shotgun.

'What's the meaning of this?' he demanded.

Hannibal strolled up to him, snagged the glass from his hand, and sniffed at the contents.

'Hmmmmm, not bad,' he said, handing the glass to Face as he placed the barrel of his pistol against Watson's shoulder. 'What do you think, kid?'

Face swirled the contents in the glass before inhaling the bouquet himself.

'I've known better,' he said dismissively. 'But then, I wouldn't expect a cheap punk like our friend here to have much of a palate for the good stuff.' With that, he tossed the glass into the fireplace.

'Now, to answer your question, scuzz-ball,' Hannibal said, turning back to Watson, 'what this means is that we've found your dirty little secret, and we're here to shut you down.'

'Oh, really?' Watson sneered, then raised his voice. 'Townsend! Patterson!'

'Never mind 'bout them, sucker!' B.A. growled, cocking the hammers on the shotgun. 'They won't be hearin' nothin' any time soon.'

Pushed by Hannibal, Watson stumbled backwards, a stunned look on his face, and landed in his fancy leather desk chair.

'Thank you,' Hannibal said politely, pulling out a length of rope. 'You just saved us a lot of trouble. Face?'

'On it!' the young man replied, searching the room while his commander tied Watson securely to the chair. It wasn't long before the contents of Watson's safe were neatly laid out on the desk, waiting to be used as evidence against him.

*****

Two hours later, Hannibal, Face, and B.A. watched from the hayloft as forensics personnel swarmed all over the field that bordered Cartagena Horse Farms, and police questioned Eddie and Tina about what had happened.

'I tell you, they're long gone!' Eddie insisted as Tina concurred. 'You know what day laborers are like: here today, gone tomorrow.'

B.A. snickered quietly as the officer nodded resignedly. He knew their car was safely hidden in the gutted barn, behind a barrier of hay bales. The yellow-and-black police tape across the barn doors further discouraged any investigation of the blackened interior.

A yell from one of the forensics men signaled the discovery of yet another body, and the officer put away his notebook with a sigh. The interview was far from over, but he had enough for now.

*****

That evening, once the excitement had died down and supper was over, the residents of the stud farm gathered in the parlor to relax over coffee and home-made pecan pie.

'News around here spreads like wildfire,' Eddie said, hanging up the phone yet again. 'As soon as the word hit the streets that Watson and his crew were in jail, offers to work and help rebuild started flooding in. We'll be in good shape before too long. And, of course, your presence is welcome for as long as you care to stay.'

'That's generous of you, Eddie,' said Hannibal, 'but we can only stay long enough to replenish our reserves. We'll be moving on in a week or so. By then, from what you say, you'll have more than enough hands to keep this place going.'

'Without you, though,' said Tina, 'there wouldn't be a Cartagena Farms to offer employment to those who need it. You've done much more than we can ever repay.'

'Which brings me to my next point,' said Sinclair. 'You're damn good workers, and you earn top dollar from me. But that isn't anywhere near enough for what you've done. So, I've got a proposition for you. What do you say to 10% of all sales, stud fees, and winnings from my horses for, say, the next fifty years?'

Stunned, Hannibal and his men looked at each other.

'Well, ummmm…' Hannibal stammered. 'We don't even have a permanent address yet.'

'And that's an awful lot of money,' added Face. 'Not that we couldn't use it, mind.'

'To answer your first objection, it's no trouble to set up an escrow account. Just tell us when you get settled, and we'll have the money transferred to whatever account you name,' Eddie told them. 'As for your point, young man, big money can be made in the world of horses, and 10% is little enough in return for what you've done for us. Now that Watson and his like are out of the picture, we should have no problem making a go of it.'

'Then, sir,' Hannibal said on behalf of his men, 'you have a deal.'

**********

A Week Later

'There hasn't been much in the line of horse-racing in Missouri since the early twentieth century,' Eddie was explaining as he and the team were relaxing after dinner. 'I had inherited this place from my folks after they passed away in the 50's, and looked after it as best I could, but I was so busy working for racing stables out of state that I really couldn't give it the attention it deserved. So, when I decided to retire, I came back here, hoping to realize my dream of having my own stud farm. That dream very nearly didn't come true, but thanks to you guys, we've got a shot at being one of the top names in the business someday.'

'Hey, man,' B.A. said, 'everyone is entitled to dream, and no one has the right to take that dream away.'

'And we were only too glad to help,' Hannibal added. 'We have our own dreams, and if we can put away a few slime-balls on the way to realizing them, we're happy to do so.'

Face was about to chime in, but anything he had to say was cut off by the sound of the fire alarm - a rapid series of 'dots' and 'dashes'.

In an instant, everyone was on his feet, ready to go, but Eddie held them back a moment.

'Let's go,' he said as he sauntered out the front door, grinning.

'What's this all about?' asked Face, who had been running the Morse through his head. 'I got the “attention” signal, but what was the rest? Some sort of code?'

Eddie chuckled.

'That was just Tina letting us know that One Crazy Lady is about to foal. She must be down, so it shouldn't be more'n twenty minutes or so before we have a new mouth to feed.'

Hannibal chuckled at the look that passed between the two younger men.

Tina was at the gate of the corral by the time they got there. She led the way to the enclosure they'd built earlier in the week, knowing that the new barn would not be ready in time.

'She's doing well, Dad,' she said, kneeling and brushing back the strands of mane that had gotten in the mare's eyes. 'Nearly there, Lady' she encouraged the straining mare. 'C'mon, girl; almost there…'

They could see the front hooves begin to exit the mare's body.

Face looked at B.A., and saw that the black man looked as queasy as he himself felt. Nonetheless, they both grinned manically as, with one more great heave, the dark, mucous-covered foal slid from its mother's body. They watched in awed disbelief as mother and child snuffled each other, and the colt jerkily got to its feet, swaying slightly on wobbly legs.

Out of habit, Hannibal grabbed a big fistful of straw and started cleaning the newborn, encouraging his men to do the same. He could tell that, once dry, the colt would have a deep bay coat. Though he was a scrawny little thing now, the Colonel could see the power in the hindquarters, and judged that, trained properly, the youngster would give any competitors a run for their money.

'Y'know,' Eddie said quietly, 'without your help, this little guy would never have made it into this world. You should have the chance to name him.'

'It would be an honor, Eddie,' Hannibal said. He looked at his men.

Face reached out a hand, and the little colt danced backwards, almost sitting on his rump, a wild look in his soft brown eyes.

'Hannibal,' he said softly. 'I want to name him for Murdock.'

Hannibal and B.A. nodded in agreement.

'Murdock?' Eddie asked. 'It's up to you, of course, but that doesn't seem to be a very inspiring name.' He was mystified when the other three burst into laughter.

'Oh, if you only knew!' chuckled Hannibal. 'We were thinking of our friend's nickname.'

'Nickname?'

'Howlin' Mad,' grinned Face.

'Yeah,' groused B.A. 'An' the sucker lives up to it, too!'

'”Howlin' Mad” it is, then!' Eddie agreed. 'With a name like that, he oughtta be a real go-getter!'

 

**********

 

Epilogue

The sign for Cartagena Horse Farms was shrinking in the distance as B.A. headed down the road. Face and Hannibal could barely see Eddie, Tina, and Mickey as they stood on the front porch, still waving. When they were out of sight, Hannibal looked at his men.

'Well, guys,' he said, 'what do you think? Is it time to make a run due west? Even if Lynch is there ahead of us, we should have plenty of advance warning.'

'All right, Hannibal,' Face. said, 'but I think we should keep on the way we've been going. Heading there too directly could put us right in Lynch's path.' Hannibal nodded in agreement.

'Before we do anythin' else,' B.A. put in, 'this buggy needs gas.'

'Then pull in at the first station you see, Sergeant,' Hannibal told him. 'We need to pick up a few supplies, anyway.'

*****

Several miles down the road, B.A. pulled into a gas station.  While he filled the tank, Hannibal and Face explored the little grocery store nearby.

        Getting a fistful of change from the cashier, Hannibal went to the phone booth outside.  Closing the door behind him, he dialed the number Face had given him, inserting quarters, nickels, and dimes to make up the amount requested by the automated operator.

'Saint Bartholomew's Orphanage,' said a business-like voice.

'Sure, and I'd like to speak with Bishop David Magill, if ye don't mind,' said Hannibal, putting on his best brogue.

'And who should I say is calling?'

      'Father Duddleswell of Saint Jude's Parish,' replied Hannibal with a grin.

'I'll get him for you, Father.'

'Thank you, Sister.'

As he waited, Hannibal drummed his fingers on top of the pay-phone, squinting through the glass of the booth to see where his lover was.

        'This is Bishop Magill,' came a strongly-accented voice.  'How can I help ye, Father?'

Hannibal smiled at the hint of suspicion in the bishop's tone.

'I have a message for ye, Bishop Magill,' Hannibal said apologetically.  'I don't understand it meself, but the person who asked me to call insisted you would.'

'And what might that message be, Father?'

'He said “Templeton is safe”.  Just that.  “Templeton is safe.”'  A sharp intake of breath told Hannibal everything he needed to know.  'Ah!  Then I take it ye do understand it?'

'Yes…yes, I do,' the bishop replied in a bemused tone of voice.  'Thank you.  Thank you very much, Father!'

        'Ye're most welcome, Bishop.  And now, I'll bid you good day!' Hannibal said before breaking the connection.

*****

        In Los Angeles, David Magill slowly hung up the phone, a small smile playing around his lips.  He couldn't think of a Saint Jude's parish anywhere in the country with an incumbent named Duddleswell, but he was fairly sure his caller hadn't been a priest, either.

        'Saint Jude, eh?' he mused quietly.  'Patron saint of desperate situations, eh?  Well, Templeton, me lad, a word or two into the good Saint's ear wouldn't come amiss, now would it?'

      Magill chuckled as he rose, intent on bringing Mother Katherine the good news.

*****

Hannibal stepped out of the phone booth just as Face left the grocery, a paper sack in one hand, and a bag of ice in the other.  He joined the younger man as he was putting the ice in the cooler.

'I just called Father Magill, Face,' he said, 'just to let him know you're safe.'

'And?'  Though the tone of voice was light, Face's stiff posture told Hannibal how worried he was.

'And he seemed genuinely relieved to hear it, baby,' he said, turning his lover so they were eye-to-eye.  'I told you, didn't I, kid?  I said you hadn't disappointed him.'

Bright blue-grey eyes brimmed with happiness.

'Thank you, John,' Face said quietly.

'Anything for you, baby,' the older man replied.  'But we'd better get going.  No telling how long it's going to be before we find a place to stay for the night.'

*****


Hannibal sat back in the front passenger seat, shaking out the copy of the daily Racing Form his lover had picked up for him to peruse and decipher.  Glancing to his left, he could see B.A., contentedly humming along with the Motown classics playing quietly on the radio.  In the back seat, Face was pulling crumpled receipts out of his pockets, organizing them, and making meticulous notes in the spiral-bound notebook that rested on his raised knee.

Wishing he had a cigar, he sighed, settled more comfortably into his seat, and closed his eyes, satisfied with the way things were coming together.


 


END

 


Beginnings 1: Heritage by HannibalFan'52 and Jullian Gray
Beginnings 2: Three's a Crowd by HannibalFan'52 and Jullian Gray
Beginnings 3: Pretty Little Horses by HannibalFan'52 and Jullian Gray
Beginnings 4: Diversionary Tactics by HannibalFan'52 and Jullian Gray
Beginnings 5: Soldiers of Fortune by HannibalFan'52 and Jullian Gray

 

 


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