The three men hauled B.A. and Murdock out of the jail and into the deserted street. An old pickup was idling in front of the sheriff’s office, parked just in front of the team’s van.
If only we could make it to the van, B.A. thought, as he and Murdock were shoved roughly into the box of the pickup. With their hands tied behind them, there wasn’t much chance of a fair fight. Still, they might have managed it if the hick in the denim vest hadn’t been holding a shotgun wedged against Murdock’s ribs.
The man grinned at B.A. as they headed out of town and into the woods. B.A. knew what was waiting for them there. He kept turning the man’s threat over in his head: “Let’s see how much you remember with a noose around your skinny friend’s neck.” They were going to hang Murdock, and make him watch. Try to make him talk. Even though he didn’t know anything. And when it came down to it, even if he and Murdock had known something, there was nothing that would make them talk. The VC hadn’t been able to do it; three backwoods vigilantes certainly weren’t going to be able to do it. It was a matter of principle. A matter of pride.
The men they were dealing with obviously didn’t realize they didn’t really know anything about Jason Duke or what was going on in this town, although it was clear from the reception they’d gotten that something was going on. B.A. wouldn’t have come at all if it hadn’t been for Debra’s letter. And he certainly wouldn’t have dragged Murdock into it if he’d known what was waiting for anyone asking about Jason Duke.
B.A.’s thoughts were interrupted by Murdock rambling in that whiny, sniffling computer salesman voice he’d borrowed from one of Face’s cons. He was going on about how nice it was for the men to take them for a nightly constitution in the fresh mountain air. Even as he babbled, Murdock and B.A. locked eyes holding a silent conversation.
“We could go over the side of the truck. One quick motion. Just like diving.”
“No, fool, too dangerous. Break your crazy neck.”
“Ah, B.A., I didn’t know you cared.”
A glare from B.A. and a faint growl.
“Right, big guy. We’ll make a break for it when the truck stops.”
“Maybe. But they’ll have a gun on you the whole way.”
“I can dodge a bullet. Can’t dodge a noose.”
“Still too risky, but maybe. I wish…”
“They’re not here, big guy. They’re on the way, but they might not make it in time.”
“So, we try to run if we can. And if not…”
The pickup was pulling into a clearing in the woods. Murdock was still babbling about the possibility of seeing some of the forest creatures in their natural environments, but his eyes were focussed on B.A.. If the team didn’t come, if they couldn’t get free, then there were no regrets, no guilt. They had long ago accepted that this might be the outcome of their work, of their lives.
The men guarding them may have been hicks, but they weren’t stupid. They pulled B.A. from the back first, making sure that he saw the gun clearly aimed at Murdock. There would be no chance for escape. They tied the big man to the tree, hands still clasped behind him, then pulled the truck into position and, prodding Murdock with the shotgun barrel, forced him to stand on the hood while they fitted a noose around his neck. Murdock felt the rough twine of the rope grazing his skin.
“Now I’m gonna ask y’boys one more time. Who are ya, and what d’ya want with Jason Duke?”
“Hey, man, I told you. He owed us some money,” B.A. said angrily, straining against the rope that held him.
“A wise guy, huh? Well, that’s just what we need in Whispering Pine. Some more entertainment.” The man looked up at Murdock standing on the hood of the pickup. Silent for the first time that evening.
“Pull out, bro,” he said with a grin to the driver, watching as Murdock’s feet briefly scrabbled on the slick surface of the truck and finally grabbed nothing but air.
Without warning, the woods erupted with light and gunfire. A truck was bearing down on them, and the men ran for the pickup. Shotguns were no match against automatic weapons. The men saw their victim fall from the sky, his rope cut through by well-placed bullets. They didn’t want to stick around to find out who these new players were. Best to report back to the higher-ups and let them worry about it. With a spray of dirt, the pickup turned around, sped out of the clearing and disappeared into the darkness, hurtling down the back road at top speed.
Hannibal leapt from the truck and moved to release B.A. from the tree. As he cut the sergeant’s bonds, he could see where the ropes had rubbed B.A.’s skin raw around the wrists.
“Hannibal, is the fool, okay?” B.A.’s dark eyes shone with concern.
“Face is looking after him.” Hannibal finished sawing through the ropes. “Let me have a look at you.”
“I’m alright. How’s Murdock?” B.A. rubbed his wrists, slick with sweat. The big man winced as he moved his shoulder.
“Yeah, but it’s okay, man. Go check on the fool,” B.A. said gesturing to where Face was kneeling by Murdock in the grass about ten yards away. He saw that Face had slipped the hangman’s noose from around Murdock’s neck and was holding the pilot’s head gently in his lap. From where he stood B.A. couldn’t tell whether Murdock was conscious or not.
“Sergeant!” Hannibal’s voice took on a command quality. B.A. involuntarily stood a little straighter and looked his commander in the eye. “You’re going to stay here and let me fix that shoulder. The lieutenant is quite capable of checking on Murdock. You’ll be of no use to anyone in this condition. Do I make myself clear, sergeant?”
“Yessir,” B.A. said with a growl. Hannibal placed his hand firmly on B.A.’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze as he prepared to pop it back into place.
Murdock’s breathing was still ragged as Face slipped the noose from around his neck. The pilot struggled to sit up.
“Easy, Murdock,” Face said softly, kneeling down beside him and placing a hand on Murdock’s chest. The pilot’s heart was racing underneath Face’s palm. “Just breathe. The bad guys are gone.” Murdock took a deep breath and settled back with his head against Face’s lap.
“You scared me,” Face said softly.
Murdock looked up at him apologetically. “Sorry, muchacho. Didn’t mean to.”
Face brushed a few stray hairs off the pilot’s forehead. Let his fingers slip gently across Murdock’s cheek, down his neck to where the rope had pulled against skin, threatening to cut off his air. Break his neck. Permanently stop the pilot’s “jibber-jabber,” as B.A. would say. It was too dark to tell, but Face suspected that tomorrow there would be an ugly bruise around the breadth of Murdock’s neck.
A yelp of pain came from the edge of the trees. Murdock tensed and rolled off Face’s lap. “Big guy’s shoulder?”
“Looks like Hannibal had to reset it. Again.” Face stood up and bent to give Murdock a hand. Caught him around the waist as he staggered, still off-balance from the almost-hanging.
“Hey, I’ve got you,” Face whispered pulling Murdock back against him, arm still wrapped protectively around his waist. “Steady.”
“I’ll be your steady anytime, Faceman,” Murdock said quietly, grateful for Face’s solid warmth behind him. They stayed like that for a moment drawing strength from each other. Hannibal and B.A. approached, B.A. still tenderly rubbing his shoulder.
“Report,” Hannibal said.
“A little ring around the collar, Colonel, but that’s it,” Murdock said, standing upright. He swayed slightly, but stayed on his feet. Felt Face’s hand pressing against his lower back. There if he needed. Like always.
“You okay, big guy?” Murdock asked.
B.A. nodded, and raised an eyebrow. Murdock nodded in response. Yeah, they were both okay. They’d pulled another one out of the fire. But it’d been close. Too close and they were all feeling it. As if they’d used up another of those nine lives. Murdock had lost count how many lives he’d lost, but it seemed like he must be coming up on nine anytime now. One of these days the cavalry wasn’t going to show.
And Murdock’d thought this was the night. The truck disappearing underneath him, black dress shoes slipping on the metal. Wishing for his Converse high tops, his leather jacket back in the van. Didn’t feel right to die in a suit. And then his feet were dancing on air and his mouth was trying to squeeze out the words to say…what? He didn’t know. Good-bye. Thank you. Tell Face it’s okay. Twisting on the end of the rope, watching B.A.’s face contort with pain. Or emotion. B.A. straining against the ropes. Trying to get to him. His eyes shouting his name while his lips remained fixed in place.
And then there was a bright white light and he forgot how to breathe. Two white lights. Thought that heaven sounded a lot like machine gun fire and an engine in need of a tune-up. Then he was falling. Falling into darkness. And darkness was pretty damned hard and smelled like dirt and leaves. He breathed it in. Ignored the shouting and the bullets. Rolled himself out of the line of fire. Too many years of training that couldn’t be turned off. And then someone was near him and the darkness smelled like silk and aftershave. Smelled like Face. Smelled like Heaven.
“Murdock? Captain?” Hannibal’s voice cutting though the night. Murdock snapped back to reality, realized they were all looking at him. Trying to measure if he was okay. If his brain was still working. Murdock blinked, shaking his head as if to clear it, and they knew he was back from wherever he’d been. Somewhere that they couldn’t follow. Even if they’d wanted to.
“Face, let’s head back to where we stashed the van. I don’t think those goons’ll try anything more tonight, but it’s best if we move to a different location and put our wagons in a circle. That clearing we scouted two miles back should do.”
“You got my van?” B.A. said with pleasure.
“Of course, B.A.,” Hannibal said, lighting a fresh cigar. “We grabbed it from in front of the sheriff’s office on our way through town.”
“But how’d ya know where we were?” B.A. asked.
“We rousted the deputy that let those goons take you guys. Had to convince him to tell us where you’d gone, but he turned out to be a very cooperative fellow.”
“Especially with Hannibal’s gun pointed at his head. He got real cooperative,” Face said smiling.
“When we get there, Face you can help me set up a perimeter and then grab some sleep. B.A. and Murdock need some rest, and I need some time to think. You and Murdock take the van. BA can crash in the catering truck. It’ll be an early start in the morning.”
“But, Hannibal – ” Face started.
“Are you telling me that you’d rather pull guard duty all night, lieutenant?” Hannibal said between puffs on his cigar. B.A. was already heading over to check out the newly-acquired catering truck, and Murdock had started a slow, but steady amble after him.
“No, sir,” Face said. He looked at Hannibal carefully. One thing he’d never been able to figure out was how Hannibal managed on so little sleep and with twice the energy of men half his age. Face certainly didn’t want to pull guard duty; he wanted to be close to Murdock, to make sure he was really alright.
Hannibal reached out and put a gloved hand on Face’s shoulder. “Kid, I know my men and I know their limits. Murdock’s gonna need somebody tonight, and that somebody is you. B.A.’s always cranky after a dislocated shoulder and needs some rest, and we need a plan. We’ve all got our places to be, so just for once, don’t argue with me, okay, kid?”
“Yes, sir, colonel,” Face returned with a smile as the two of them headed for the truck.
It was after midnight by the time Face had helped Hannibal check out the clearing and set a few early-warning alarms. The small-town thugs from the sheriff’s department wouldn’t likely be up for another round so soon, but it never paid to underestimate the opposing force. With some triggers in place, maybe they could all get some sleep. As Face headed for the van, he could see Hannibal slowly pacing the clearing, the glow of his cigar fading in and out like a firefly. Face could almost see the wheels turning in the colonel’s brain as he looked ahead to what the next day would bring.
As quietly as he could, Face slipped into the front seat of the van and closed the door behind him.
“It’s okay, Face, I’m awake,” Murdock said from the back.
Before he’d gone out to help Hannibal, Face and Murdock had unrolled the emergency mattress stored in the back for those rare occasions when they had to sleep in the van. Face was grateful that all four of them didn’t need space to sleep there tonight, as that usually resulted in him trying to get some shut eye while uncomfortably stretched across two bucket seats with B.A. snoring in the back. Murdock, inexplicably, seemed to be able to sleep anywhere, cramming his lanky six foot two frame into impossibly small places or at contorted angles. When they did end up sharing a bed, the pilot inevitably sprawled across the entire space, the way a cat does when it feels at home. Not that Face minded sharing his space with Murdock, but sometimes it got a little awkward when the four of them were in such close quarters.
Face slipped out of the front seat and made his way to the back, kneeling down beside Murdock on the mattress.
“You’re supposed to be getting some sleep. That was a direct order from Hannibal, you know,” Face said gently, taking in the pilot’s haggard appearance.
Murdock had stripped out of the suit he’d been wearing, which to Face’s chagrin seemed to be what he was using for a make-shift pillow, and had put on a red t-shirt that boldly instructed “Remove Before Flight.” Face could see Murdock’s stocking feet sticking out the other end of the blanket that covered him.
“Hannibal said for you to sleep, too, Faceman,” Murdock said. “Besides, I was lonely.” Murdock lifted the blanket slightly and added: “There’s plenty of room for two.”
Face nodded and slipped off his own suit jacket and tie. Carefully folded them over the backseat. Undid the cuffs on his shirt. One, then the other. Undid each button. Methodically. Habitually. Folded the shirt carefully and added it to the pile. Slipped out of his pants with practised ease. Removed his socks, one by one. Folded and laid aside. Murdock watched in fascination of this ritual that never varied. Face’s uncanny ability to maintain order and grace under any circumstance. He’d done the same thing in ‘Nam. Murdock often wondered if they’d taught him that at the orphanage, or if it came later. In college. With Leslie. A small pang of doubt quivered in his stomach.
“What?” Face said suddenly. His ritual was so ingrained, he didn’t need to think about it anymore. Could spend his time thinking about other things. Considering his surroundings. The man lying beside him. The brown eyes that were at once so intensely near, and yet so distant. A face darkened by the later stages of five o’clock shadow. The mark of a rope purpling his neck. And the exact moment that Murdock’s face flickered with something else. Fear. Doubt. Uncertainty. Face didn’t know which, but he knew what to do about it.
Murdock’s eyes were turned toward him. There was no answer to Face’s question there – just more questions. Face leaned on his side, facing Murdock, reached out a hand and cupped the curve of his chin. Hesitated only the briefest of moments before leaning in, brushing his lips against Murdock’s, feeling the tentative response. Kissed him more firmly, lips parting slightly, seeking the satisfaction of Murdock’s full response. Rolled his body closer. Lips hungry now. Desire sharpening his senses, warming his blood. He rolled gracefully on top of Murdock’s long form and kept kissing, deepening, body pressing down, wanting him to know how much he was wanted, how much he was loved.
“Face.” An almost whisper. Exciting him. Pushing him further. Kisses turning more passionate, tongue seeking entry through tense lips.
“Stop, Face.” Murdock’s heart racing beneath him, body reacting. Stop. Don’t stop. Part of the ritual. Part of the dance. Face could feel the heat building. The desire.
“Face! Stop!” And Murdock was pushing blindly at his chest. Turning his head from side to side. Trying to escape. Gasping for breath. Signs of panic.
Face pushed himself off, rolled to the side. Watched helpless as Murdock sat up, brought his knees to his chest and hugged them. Trying to hold himself together. Trying to remember how to breathe. Short, sharp painful gasps of air. All inhale. Like sobs being pulled inside.
Face waited. Sat. Knew that touch wouldn’t help right now. Cursed himself for loving too much. Thinking too little. Should’ve remembered how well Murdock hid everything. Except in the dark. Too much truth in the dark.
Face didn’t know how long they sat apart. Gradually, the music of Murdock’s breathing changed. Less staccato. Slower. An adagio of breath. Sliding in and out like the violin’s bow. Still trembling, still struggling, but it flowed both directions now. In and out. In and out.
“I’m sorry,” Face said. Murdock shaking his head in response. The gesture saying the things he couldn’t: it’s okay, you couldn’t know, I didn’t know it would be like this. I’m sorry too.
“I forgot how to breathe,” Murdock said simply. Arms still holding himself together, but beginning to let go. Beginning to relax. Eyes turned to meet Face’s. “I just forgot how to breathe.”
Face shifting position. Cross-legged across from Murdock. Reached out, touched an arm. Rubbed gently against the hair. Friend as much as lover. Friend who’d seen it all, heard it all, been through it all. Lover who would do anything to make it all go away. Murdock’s legs lowering, mirroring his partner. Both cross-legged on a make-shift mattress. Moonlight and shadows drifting across their bodies. Face reaching out to touch the other arm. Murdock reaching back. Holding on. Gently, firmly. Saying everything without stumbling over the words. As only men can do.
“I can teach you how to breathe,” Face said softly, a touch of a smile. Not quite a con. “It’s like looking in a mirror.”
Face taking a deep breath. Drawing it out of a long dark well. Holding it for a moment. Letting it fall back slowly into darkness. Murdock following his motions. One half-step behind. A heartbeat out of synch. Wavering slightly. Finding the rhythm. In. And out. In. And out.
Eyes closed, they sat like that as the shadows passed. Hands matching one another’s movements. Tracing the curve of face, an ear, knees. Following the angle of elbow and nose. Smoothing hair. Dark. Blonde. Feeling the echo of heartbeats sounding in unison. The rise and fall of breath. In. And out. In. And out. Steady. Strong. Together.
Face slipped down onto the mattress, and stretched his arms around Murdock. Gathered him close, held him. Felt the weight of his body in his arms, the smooth cotton of his t-shirt against his bare chest. Let Murdock lead the way. Didn’t resist the soft kisses that began to cover his chest. The slow stroke of fingers mapping his body. The moment when their lips met. A risk. A chance. A moment without breath.
“I can teach you how to breathe.”
Murdock’s “Remove Before Flight” t-shirt disappearing. “Are we going to fly?” Quiet laughter. The whispered response: “I can teach you how to fly.” The breathless leap into air. A leap of faith. Mouth to mouth. Breath to breath. Keeping each other alive.
And slowly, slower than ever before, they found each other in the dark. Held each other. Loved each other. Found the rhythm.
In. And out. In. And out.
Taught each other how to breathe again.