"We're lost, man." B.A. sat down stubbornly at the edge of the field and rang water from the bottoms of his pants. "You got us lost."
"Now, B.A, that's not true." Hannibal said placatingly. He paused deliberately, his grin undimmed by their trek. "Face was the one with the map."
"Hey!" Face turned in protest. He too was wet to the knees from their wade through the stream, which had proved a lot livelier and deeper than it had looked in the fading sunlight. He shifted the backpack on his shoulders. "Anyway I don't see why I should navigate and carry this lot."
Hannibal merely grinned again. "You're our supply officer, Face. That's our cut of the fee you've got there. You were looking at it fondly enough back at the panning camp."
B.A. interrupted before the debate could go any further.
"We got to get going. Those golddiggers are gonna be straight after us once they know we gone."
Face grimaced. "Yeah. You know, Hannibal, I really don't think they appreciate that their tactics could offend people."
Hannibal pretended to consider this seriously. "You could be right. I mean, threatening and intimidating people off their stake is clearly just standard procedure for them. Can't imagine why they were so surprised to be on the receiving end for once."
B.A snorted and climbed back to his feet.
"All right." Hannibal looked around. "Let's head for the higher ground, maybe we can get a radio signal up here and contact Murdock."
B.A. nodded. "Ain't getting nothing down here, that for certain."
Face surveyed the wooded hill ahead. "But that's a mountain! Not to mention a forest. You want us to hike up through that?"
Hannibal clapped him on the shoulder. "Look on the bright side, Lieutenant. All those fir trees--just right for Christmas.
Face muttered under his breath but didn't protest further and once they were in the woods he had to concede it wasn't so bad. As Hannibal had pointed out it was mainly coniferous and the fallen needles underfoot made for comfortable walking. It was almost entirely dark now though and Face frowned in worry. It was going to get cold tonight, and they still had no idea where Murdock was. Camping out with no kit was not going to be fun.
The trees thinned as they neared the top of the hill and gave way to rugged moorland. Hannibal came to a stop at the edge of the treeline.
"B.A, see if you can get the radio working. Face, start getting some firewood together. We may have to stop out tonight."
Relieved that Hannibal had already planned for this eventuality Face nodded, dumped the backpack beside B.A. and headed back into the forest to gather what fallen wood was there.
When he got back to the others B.A. was shaking his head. "It's busted man. Can't fix it in the dark."
Hanibal nodded and put a hand on his shoulder. "Then we camp here tonight. He looked up at Face and his bundle of branches. "Well done. That should see us through the night. I'll take the first watch, you get the fire lit."
Face nodded agreement and rummaged in his pack for matches. Inevitably they were buried right at the bottom and his search was not helped by B.A's commentary on the contents of the pack.
"What you carrying all this stuff for, Faceman? Ain't no wonder your pack weighs twice as much as the rest." He picked up a bottle and looked at it with an expression somewhere between disgust and amusement. "Mouthwash?"
Face snatched it back. "What? You expect me talk people into lending us jeeps and mining equipment and goodness knows what else, when my breath smells like last week's cat litter?"
B.A. giggled, an incongruous sound in the bleak surroundings, and shook his head.
Face finally located the matches and returned his attention to the fire, which before long, was flickering away merrily. The sweet scent of burning spruce drifted, like incense, in the evening sky.
Face stared into the firelight and didn't notice Hannibal behind him until he spoke.
Face looked up and followed where Hannibal was pointed. A shining point of light had appeared in the sky where the setting sun had left the sky a deep blue which had not yet faded to black.
"Too bright for a star," Hannibal continued.
"Planet?" Face suggested.
B.A.got up and moved from the light of the fire for a clearer view.
"Ain't no star, nor no planet," he said. "That's a plane."
A moment later the bright white point was joined by red and green ones to either side and it became obvious that B.A. was right. In another moments the sound of engine and propeller was audible and growing quickly louder.
Face grinned. "Looks like Murdock came looking for us."
No one contradicted him. It could only be Murdock--certainly no one else would have been likely to fly quite so low to the trees. Particularly not with the plane inverted so they could wave out of the canopy.
Face waved back and Murdock pulled up and banked steeply overhead to fly back the way he had come.
"Looks like we have a guide." Hannibal smiled and started gathering up the equipment they'd set down.
They headed off in the direction indicated with Murdock doing laps overhead to keep them on course.
After about an hour's walking and two more hills they glimpsed the first light from a town at the head of the valley.
As they approached the first houses, Murdock passed above them once more, waggled his wings in greeting and turned away towards the small airstrip where they'd landed the day before.
As the prop noise died away, Face could here distantly the sound of bellringers at the other end of the street breaking into the Hallelujah Chorus.
"Well, I guess should have brought a Christmas tree after all."
Hannibal grinned, B.A. just shook his head and smiled.
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