Thunder Of Hooves



"The herds seem to get smaller every time I look out across these lands." Heaving a sigh, and causing a small cloud of black smoke to drift from his throat, the blue-green dragon looked down at the man standing beside his foreleg. "They used to stretch for miles, Colonel Smith. Oh, I suppose they still do. There's certainly plenty left yet, but there won't be. Not the way that things are going with these... these 'settlers'." He pronounced the word with a certain degree of uncertainty, for the white man's notion of settling the land was still a strange concept to him - especially when it went hand in hand with the slaughter of his beloved bison. "What do they expect us to eat then, I'd like to know? These herds used to be enough for all of us. The local tribes, and all of the dragons, all share and share alike. Now, though..." He sighed again, and sent another black cloud drifting up into the sky. Hannibal nodded slowly.

"I understand your problem," he said. "I don't quite understand what you're hoping the A-Team can do for you, though. If it was just fighting off a few troublemakers, we'd do it. If you're wanting us to fight off all of the hunters in the country, though, and all of the settlers... I'm sorry, Alexander. I don't see how we can do it, even with a dragon to help."

"I'm not asking for miracles, colonel." Alexander puffed out one more cloud of black smoke, this time alongside a little flicker of flame. "I can see that this country is changing, however much I might wish it wasn't. Why, when I was a hatchling..." He glanced down, and seemed to smile. "But there's no use in talking like that, is there. What's done is done. No, Colonel Smith, I don't want you to fight off every white man in America - or every white man besides yourselves, anyway. I just want you to fight one particular group. Jed O'Reilly is the name of the leader. He owns a spread of land not far from here, and he's been hitting the herds harder than anyone. Several tribesmen have gone to him, to ask him to cut back on the killing, but they've not been seen since."

"Is he looking to get more grazing land?" asked Hannibal. Alexander shook his head.

"No. Not directly. He's hoping that if the animals are gone, then the tribes and the local dragon population will go too. It's nothing but wholesale slaughter, colonel. He doesn't even eat the meat. The funeral pyres would make you heartsick, even though those animals don't mean quite the same to you."

"I'm sure they would." Hannibal turned his head, looking out at the huge animals, as they grazed in their masses before him. "They're wonderful creatures. I'm no poet, but I can't deny they impress me. I don't like any pointless killing, man or beast, and when it's something like this..." He nodded slowly. "All right, Alexander. You've hired yourself the A-Team."

"Thank you, colonel." Alexander held out one huge claw for the human to shake. "I can draw you a map, so you can see where O'Reilly's territory is. He has quite a few men working for him, though. Between them they have a lot of muskets."

"His men and his firepower are my problem." Hannibal puffed thoughtfully on his cigar, although his own clouds of smoke were no match for the dragon's. "It'll just take a little planning, that's all. Something to make them realise that they don't have a free rein anymore."

"You already have an idea?" asked Alexander. Hannibal grinned.

"I always have one or two up my sleeve. I've been thinking about this since we first got your message. I think I was always planning to say yes, even before I saw these herds of yours."

"They're not mine, colonel." Alexander turned back towards the bison, huge eyes narrowing in reflection. "They belong to themselves, and to the future. They belong to the land, perhaps. Nobody else has any claim to them, just as nobody really has any claim to the land itself." He turned back to the human. "Climb up now, and I'll take you back to your friends."

"Hmm." Hannibal eyed the big dragon with an eyebrow raised. "No offence, Alexander, but the ride out here was kind of bumpy. I almost wish I'd brought my horse."

"Horses tend to get jittery when there are dragons around." Alexander sounded amused. "You wouldn't be a little nervous yourself, would you Colonel Smith?"

"Depends on who's around to notice." Hannibal smiled, then climbed onto the proffered foot, and allowed himself to be lifted up to the creature's back. "Quite a view up here, isn't there."

"It's better when we're far up in the sky." Alexander glanced back at him, lips twitching in what was clearly the dragon equivalent of a smile. "Don't worry. I didn't go up high when I brought you here. I won't when I take you back."

"I don't mind." It was rare that Hannibal Smith turned down the chance of an adrenalin rush. "It's just that there's not a lot to hold onto, and it'd be painfully ironic to meet my end falling off a client. Not exactly the epitaph that I'm looking for."

"I can see how it might be a little embarrassing, certainly." Alexander laughed quietly, then leaped up into the air, the movement scarcely seeming to cause him any effort. Hannibal felt the wind rush by, and looked down on the herds of bison as they grew smaller beneath him. It was a magnificent sight, and there was no denying it. He was determined not to allow some thug of a rancher to destroy such a legacy. All the same, it would not be an easy task. He had only a small group behind him, and their armaments were limited. The A-Team had a reputation for making the most of minimal resources, and he could adapt to suit most circumstances, but it would still not be easy. Nonetheless, this time he had a dragon on his side; and that, he had no doubt, would prove to count for a lot.


"Hey, colonel." Seated comfortably beside the camp fire, Face looked up as his commanding officer strode over. "Coffee?"

"Thanks." Hannibal sat down, gesturing for his team to join him. "I accepted the job."

"Never doubted it," growled BA, who sounded typically grumpy about it, even though coming out here had been his idea in the first place. "Can't go letting these settlers push people around, man. It ain't right. There's little kids could go hungry because of what's happening out here."

"I know that, BA." Hannibal took the tin mug of coffee that Face was offering to him, then stretched out his legs towards the fire. It was not a cold evening, but there was a chill wind when one was flying on a dragon's back, and he was glad of the chance to warm through. "The problem is that this man O'Reilly has a lot of people on his side. He's got himself a big gang of hunters who kill the buffalo for him, and he pays them well to do it. They're not going to take kindly to us trying to put him and them out of business. They're tough people, too. They've been fighting wild animals and hostile tribes in these lands for decades."

"You got a plan, Hannibal?" Seated opposite, hugging a small, soapstone dragon to his chest, Murdock was looking excited. "Can I fly on a dragon? Can I? Can I? Can I?"

"Damn fool, always wanting to stick his head up in the clouds." BA rolled his eyes. "I don't know what you see in it. Ain't nothing up there that isn't down here, except a whole lot of cold air."

"It isn't just about clouds, BA." Murdock lifted up his soapstone dragon, and swirled it around in the air. "It's incredible up there. You can fly for miles and miles, and there's nothing more free than that. Not anywhere." He turned wide, appealing eyes back to Hannibal. "Can I fly on a dragon? Pretty please with molasses on top?"

"Yeah, you can fly on a dragon, Murdock. I figure we could use air support on this one." Hannibal took a sip of coffee, frowning into the fire. "Alexander drew me a map, and it looks as though O'Reilly's got himself a good position. We can go in from the land, but that'll leave us pretty exposed. Air cover is the only way to handle it, I think." He looked around. "Where's Amy?"

"Interviewing Alexander's wife," said Face, leaning over to stoke up the flames. "She's hoping she can get one of the bigger papers back in the city to cover the story. The plight of the local tribes and dragons, and the effect of killing the buffalo. Figures people might be moved by it."

"You don't sound convinced, lieutenant," said Hannibal. His tone of voice suggested that he wasn't, either. Face shrugged.

"We'll see," he said, but BA was less circumspect.

"Those city folks don't care about what's happening out here," he said, in his usual gruff and no-nonsense way. "If they don't care about what's happening to the black folk, why would they care about the red ones?"

"Yeah, well. I guess we have to fight our battles where we find them, BA." Hannibal finished his coffee, and looked without enthusiasm at the pan of bacon and beans that was hanging just above the fire. Ever since going on the run, and taking to the wild trails outside civilisation, it seemed to him that they had been living on little else besides coffee and beans. It was almost enough to make a man reconsider the choices that he had made. Almost. He smiled.

"All right, everybody. Face, let's have this food served out. We've got a plan to discuss."


"That's the plan?" Face, as so often, was clearly not impressed. "That?"

"You see something wrong with it?" asked Hannibal, puffing contentedly on his cigar. Face looked down at the little map drawn in the dust at his feet.

"Gee, I don't know, colonel. Maybe when I can actually spot the plan, I can tell whether or not I've got a problem with it." He drew in a deep breath. "Seriously, Hannibal, this is crazy."

"He's right, man." BA was shaking his head from side to side with heavy emphasis. "Ain't a plan. It's foolhardly nonsense, that's what this is."

"I like it," said Murdock, who was sitting cross-legged on a nearby rock, trying to get his little soapstone dragon to drink some coffee. BA glared at him.

"You would. Hannibal, only thing this plan is going to get us is dead."

"Several times over," agreed Face. "Come on. You've basically got us walking up to this guy's front door, and asking him to please stop killing the buffalo."

"It's the direct approach," said Hannibal. Face nodded.

"And what have the locals been trying all this time?"

"Ah, but they weren't doing it right." Hannibal was grinning, in the way that Face knew so well. "It's not just about going over there and asking. It's about asking right."

"Please tell me that means asking with an entire platoon of heavily armed soldiers standing right alongside us," said Face, his expression showing that he knew full well that that was not Hannibal's plan at all. "Otherwise we're going to end up on top of the nearest buffalo pyre."

"Let me ask you something, Face." Smiling beautifically, Hannibal blew a smoke ring. Face rolled his eyes. "Try to think like O'Reilly. You've got a lot of men on your side. You've got muskets, and the locals don't. The most you've had ranged against you is bows and arrows, and a few dragons who keep their distance out of fear of causing a scare. What's going to make you back down?"

"Nothing," said Face, and Hannibal nodded.

"Precisely. Why would you give in? Nobody can stand up to you, and there's no law to tell you to stop. What you need is a short, sharp show of strength."

"And he's going to get that when we walk up to his front door and smile politely?"

"No." Hannibal leaned over, and patted his lieutenant cheerfully on the shoulder. "He's going to get that when you walk up to his front door and smile politely."

"Me?" asked Face, beginning to turn an unhealthy shade of grey. "Just me?"

"Just you. And meanwhile the rest of us will be on Alexander, flying overhead, and ready to shower O'Reilly and his men with a few little surprises. Things that the local folk don't know anything about." Hannibal blew another smoke ring, smiling happily around his cigar. "Things that go 'boom'."

"And you're going to be dropping these things that go 'boom' while I'm right underneath?" Face turned his eyes heavenward, in the manner of a man who knew from long experience that there was little point in arguing with Hannibal Smith. "You know, one of these days we're going to have a long talk about just why you love sticking me in the firing line so much."

"I only do it because I know you love it, kid." Hannibal chuckled, then clapped the younger man on the shoulder again, almost knocking him into the fire. "Get some sleep. We leave in the morning."

"My joy knows no limits." Face sighed heavily, and eyed the remains of his meal without relish. Nearby, BA was looking similarly unimpressed.

"Wanna swap?" he asked Face. Hannibal shook his head.

"Sorry, BA. I know how you feel about the idea of flying, but there's no way O'Reilly is going to listen to you."

"He's not going to listen to me either," pointed out Face. Hannibal seemed to consider this for a moment.

"Probably not," he conceded after a moment. "We need to get our message across somehow though, and this is the best way of doing it. We can't arrest the guy, so the best we can do is scare him off, and that's going to take persuading, preferably before the fireworks start. If there's one thing you're good at, Face, it's persuading."

"I ain't so bad at persuading," said BA meaningfully, and smacked a fist into his palm. Face nodded happily, but Hannibal shook his head.

"That's not exactly the sort I had in mind. O'Reilly needs to know why he's being targeted, and what will happen if he doesn't stop what he's doing."

"We could drop a message from up in the air," suggested Face. BA glowered.

"We ain't flying. Besides, I still reckon my kind of persuading is best. I'll knock the message into him."

"If he was alone, I might just consider that. He probably has dozens of men with him though, and not even you're a match for those odds." Hannibal leaned over to rest a hand on BA's shoulder. "This needs talking, BA. And with the best will in the world, he's not going to listen to what you have to say. I'm sorry, sergeant."

"Not your fault, man." BA shrugged his massive shoulders, and glowered into the fire. "But I still ain't getting on no dragon." Hannibal sighed.

"BA..." But whatever he had been about to say went unspoken, for with a shriek of delight, Murdock suddenly leapt to his feet, showering the three of them with the dregs of his coffee.

"Look!" he shouted, pointing skyward with both arms at once. "Dragons!"

"Alexander said that there were no other dragons nearby at the moment." Looking up, Hannibal frowned as two huge shapes began to blot out what was left of the sun. "Can you see any men with them?"

"Looks like each one's got a rider." Face was on his feet, staring up with his head thrown back. "They're big, colonel. You don't think that O'Reilly...?"

"I doubt it. He'd have a job finding a dragon who'd work for him." Hannibal looked around for Alexander, but their client had gone to spend the evening with his wife, who was tending to their egg. "You know what kind they are, Murdock?"

"The long thin one looks like a Kazilik." Murdock was practically bouncing up and down on the spot with excitement as the animals drew nearer. "See the spines? And the steam! It is, it's a Kazilik! A fire-breather! I don't know about the other one, though. It looks all black." He gasped. "Surely it can't be Chinese?" And with a grin that threatened to split his face in two, he held up his little dragon for a closer look, chattering to it in one of the local tribal dialects. Moments later the two dragons came in for a landing, peering about at the camp with obvious interest.

"Excuse me," said the black one, very politely. "But do those buffalo belong to you?"

"No, they don't." Hannibal strode over to meet his guests, nodding a welcome to the two humans in the party. "They don't belong to anybody."

"Then we can eat as many as we like!" shrieked the longer dragon, the one that Murdock had identified as a Kazilik. The man on her back swung down to the ground, and stroked her foreleg affectionately.

"All in good time, dear one. We don't want to cause a panic. If you were to stampede the herd, it could cause a catastrophe."

"Several catastrophes." Climbing down from the black dragon came a second man, of a rather more powerful build than the first. He went over to shake Hannibal's hand. "William Laurence, sir. Late of the British Royal Aerial Corps." He glanced around at the other members of Hannibal's camp. "I appreciate that relations have been a little strained between our two governments of late, but--"

"That's all right." Hannibal smiled somewhat ruefully. "Our own relations with our government haven't been all that great lately either. Coffee?"

"I should be very grateful." Laurence looked back to his own companions. "May I also present Captain John Granby, and Temeraire and Iskierka."

"Hannibal Smith," said Hannibal, and nodded around at his companions, introducing them all in turn. "That was quite an entrance you folks made."

"I smell food," said Iskierka, straining her neck towards the pot hanging over the fire. Murdock grabbed it immediately, and ran happily over to offer it to her.

"There's not much, I'm afraid," he said. "Not for a dragon, anyway."

"Hmm." She attempted to lick out the pot, clearly finding it hard to get satisfaction from the scraps. "I suppose it's quite nice, but it's not nearly as nice as buffalo. Granby, I'm hungry."

"I know you are, my dear." Granby shot an appealing look towards Laurence, who sighed, and nodded.

"Very well. The pair of you may take a beast each, but for goodness sakes do not cause a panic. I have no idea how many settlements there might be in the area, and we certainly don't want any casualties."

"The buffalo are pretty used to dragons," said Hannibal. "They've always lived alongside each other. Take them from the edge of the herd, and it should be fine."

"We shall be careful, Laurence," assured Temeraire, then leapt skyward with Iskierka on his tail. Granby looked rather rueful.

"Sometimes I wish that I could get food that easily," he said. Laurence smiled.

"If raw buffalo entrails appeal to you that much, John..."

"No, I can live without them, thank you." Granby went over towards the fire, and nodded his thanks when BA handed him a mug of coffee. "Much obliged. I tend to feel the cold rather, when I leave Iskierka's side."

"She's wonderful," gushed Murdock, running over with his little dragon held out in one hand, so that it could fly alongside him. "I haven't seen a Kazilik since I was a boy."

"Are you from the Corps?" asked Granby. Murdock shook his head.

"Army. We were all a unit together. I grew up near a covert, though. There were a lot more European dragons still around in those days, before the French and the English started backing off." He looked to Laurence. "I don't recognise Tememaire's breed. Is he Chinese?"

"He is." Laurence looked a little taller, his pride obvious. "He's a Celestial."

"A Celestial!" Murdock's mouth dropped open, his eyes widening likewise. Granby smiled.

"Careful, Mr Murdock. If you give him the chance, he'll sing Temeraire's praises for a twelvemonth."

"And you wouldn't, I suppose?" shot back his friend, with obvious warmth. "And that's nothing to how you'll talk about Iskierka."

"She really breathes fire?" asked Face. Granby nodded, his own pride clearly as strong as Laurence's.

"And how. She's a terror, I'll admit. I never could get her to do a blasted thing that I want, but that fire of hers..." He shook his head, smiling happily. "It's a sight."

"The dragon that we're working for can breathe a little." Face looked over to Murdock. "What did you say he was?"

"The settlers call them Pensylvanian Blues," supplied the captain. "They have other names, though. Different tribes call them different things, but a lot of them aren't too pronounceable."

"Either way, he breathes fire a little. Not much, though." Face sighed, staring woefully at the campfire. "It's a shame. Sure would help if he could do something a little more impressive." Laurence and Granby exchanged a glance.

"Have we come upon you at a difficult time?" asked Laurence discreetly. "If you would rather that we remove ourselves...?" Hannibal frowned, for wariness had become a way of life since going on the run.

"Maybe," he said. Murdock, however, was a good deal more chatty.

"Local people are killing the buffalo," he supplied, apparently oblivious to Hannibal's exasperated eye roll. "Hundreds of them. Trying to chase off the Indians and the dragons. We're going to stop them."

"We're going to try," said BA, not sounding as though he had much faith in the project. Granby frowned, looking over towards Laurence.

"Temeraire won't think a lot of that," he said. Laurence nodded ruefully.

"If he catches wind of a plot to do harm to dragons, he'll be ready to march to war. I could hardly refuse him, either. You say that you're working for a dragon?"

"Yes." Hannibal reached over for the coffee pot, refilling his mug with a slow and deliberate hand. "You'll have to forgive me, Captain Laurence, but I'm not a man who trusts easily, and you two came out of nowhere."

"I understand." Laurence set aside his own mug. "My apologies. We'll not dream of inconveniencing you any longer. We shall make our own camp, of course, and--"

"Laurence!" Dropping out of the sky like a stone, a dead half bison dangling from his claws and dripping grimly over much of the camp, Temeraire landed heavily nearby. "There are men, Laurence! They are killing the buffalo, big and small alike! What does it mean? Surely nobody can hope to eat that many?"

"Perhaps they have dragons?" asked Iskierka, swooping down to land nearby, and speaking around a mouthful of meat. "Perhaps there is to be a feast, and if we were to visit, we should be invited?"

"No feast," said Hannibal, moving carefully to one side, so as not to have too much gore dripped onto his ostrich skin boots. "It's a massacre, and it's what we were sent here to stop. Murdock, break camp. Face, time to get to work."

"Hannibal..." protested the lieutenant, but the colonel jerked a thumb at him, and he rose to his feet unhappily. "Fine. That air support plan of yours better work, though."

"Is there going to be a battle?" asked Iskierka immediately, sounding quite delighted. "With prizes?"

"I can't speak for prizes, ma'am." Hannibal nodded his head at her politely, in the absence of having a hat to tip. "O'Reilly's a rich man, though. He's probably got a lot of trinkets."

"Prizes!" Wolfing down the rest of her bison in one huge gulp, Iskierka lifted up Granby and stretched out her wings. "And a battle!"

"Wait!" Struggling hopelessly in her grip, Granby thumped at a claw to attract her attention. "If you would wait just a moment? We do not know who to fight, or where, or--"

"Oh, the who is obvious. The men who are killing the buffalo of course." Steam poured from her, rising up around them both in great clouds, and causing Granby's hair to wilt. "Oh. But they had no prizes."

"Kinda eager, isn't she," said Hannibal. Face smiled.

"If she'd like my job..." he offered, but Hannibal glared.

"Get moving, lieutenant."

"I'm gone." Face turned around, trudging off to where they had left the horses. Temeraire leaned over, clearly interested.

"Then there is going to be a battle?" he asked. Laurence sighed.

"Of sorts, it would seem. We have a knack, my dear, for falling into the thick of such things."

"You don't have to get involved," said Hannibal, but Laurence smiled back at him.

"I fear that we already are. Temeraire, it seems that the killing of the buffalo that you witnessed is part of a plot to cause trouble for the local dragons."

"And the Indians," said BA. "The settlers want to run off the Indians, and that includes women and children. Ain't right."

"They want to drive the local tribes and the dragons away, presumably to open up more land for ranching," explained Hannibal, and Temeraire's ruff flared out in obvious indignation.

"We cannot allow that, Laurence!" he protested. Laurence nodded slowly.

"I agree, my dear. It pains me to say it, as we've scarcely rested from our long flight, but it would be remiss of us not to do something. In a lawless land such as this, it is every man's duty to contribute in whatever way he can."

"And every dragon's duty," said Temeraire. Laurence nodded.

"Indeed. Very well, Mr Smith. If we can be of service then we shall."

"Much obliged." Hannibal looked the two dragons over. They both dwarfed Alexander considerably, and if the Kazilik was indeed a proper fire breather then their armaments had just been massively improved at a stroke. "Glad to have you folks along."

"Then let us begin!" said Iskierka impatiently. Still held in her grip, and beginning to look decidedly damp, Granby shook his head.

"My dear, it is not as simple as that. I'm sure that these people already have a plan, and you know what happens when you refuse to follow battle plans."

"Yes," said the dragon, with no apparent remorse. "I capture many prizes, and become very rich. I had thought this a dull country, with no ships worth the taking, but if we can get prizes inland as well, then I see no sense in sitting around with all of this talking."

"But we still do not know where the prizes are," said Temeraire. "Now stop prancing about like a hatchling, and listen to the plan sensibly. Anybody would think that you were a novice, who had never even seen a battlefield before."

"You are just jealous, because I am better at taking prizes than you," said Iskierka, and Temeraire's chest swelled in response. Laurence held up his hands for silence.

"That will be quite enough of that. Iskierka, please put Granby down. I appreciate your enthusiasm of course, but you are making a fine mess of his coat."

"Oh!" Setting her captain down immediately, the dragon eyed him up and down critically. "I am sorry, Granby. Have I spoilt your gold braid? I could dry it with just a little puff, you know. I am quite good at breathing only a very little fire."

"Thank you, dearest, but I have no desire to be roasted." He reached up to rub affectionately at her flank. "Now, if we could perhaps listen to the plan...?"

"There ain't no plan," said BA pouring out the dregs of the coffee onto the fire. "The Faceman goes in to give the bad guys a warning, and then we go in by the air to scare them into seeing things our way. Face probably gets shot, and we probably all fall off Alexander's back. Maybe you folks are used to it, but I ain't getting on no dragon."

"But these dragons have straps to hold onto, BA." Hannibal gestured towards the leather that both dragons wore. "You couldn't fall off if you tried. There'd be no need to involve Alexander. These two would get the message across much better anyway."

"You should call back your friend," said Temeraire, preening rather. "With one burst of my divine wind, I could stop all of this buffalo killing, and then there would be no more trouble."

"There would also be no more buffalo," said Laurence dryly. "Mr Smith, your man will be a little exposed, if there's to be a battle."

"Less a battle, more a sort of aerial assault. And don't worry about Face. He's very good at getting out of the way." Hannibal was looking up at the two big dragons, smiling happily. "Lady and gentlemen, I think we've got ourselves a plan."


"Let me get this perfectly straight." Jed O'Reilly folded his arms, looking Face up and down with an expression of rather amused-looking bafflement. "A dragon has hired you to come over here and ask us to leave? A dragon?"

"Yes." Face nodded, a little more enthusiastically than was entirely necessary. "A big sort of bluey-greeny one. Perhaps you've met?"

"A dragon. Hired you."

"He's called Alexander," offered Face, beginning to feel a bit of an idiot. Around him, the jumble of gathered buffalo hunters started to laugh.

"Dragons don't hire people, Mr Peck. Dragons eat people. They're beasts, just like those buffalo that you say they hired you to protect. Now, have you ever heard of a man being hired by a buffalo?"

"Well, no." It was rather like being spoken to as a small child, and Face's pride was starting to prickle. "But then a buffalo never spoke nicely to me, and offered me twenty thousand dollars in gold, either. If it did, I'd probably be willing to listen."

"And where did a dragon get twenty thousand in gold?" asked O'Reilly. "If they had that kind of money, you'd think they'd get something to eat besides buffalo."

"Maybe they find it a little difficult to get into the general store," said Face. O'Reilly smiled unpleasantly.

"And maybe you don't know when to keep your mouth shut. Look, I've had enough of this. None of your story makes sense. You say that if I don't listen to you, your friends are going to come here and make me listen, but I don't see hide nor hair of anyone excepting you. How exactly are you planning on signalling them? Because let me make one thing perfectly clear, Mr Peck." He raised his pistol. "If you lift so much as a finger, I'll blow your head off."

"Maybe he don't need to raise a finger, boss," said one of the hunters. "Maybe his friends will just come anyway, if he don't go back to them."

"Then let them come." O'Reilly shrugged, unconcerned. "A bunch of drifters, babbling about being hired by a dragon, and I'm supposed to be intimidated? A dozen men have been through here already, asking me to stop killing the buffalo. I see no reason why this latest batch shouldn't go the same way."

"The others who came didn't have a dragon to back them up," said Face, fervently hoping that he did, and that it wasn't very far away. "You should listen to me, Mr O'Reilly. I'm offering a good deal. Pack up, and you don't lose a thing. Carry on, and we'll destroy your operation, and maybe even you as well."

"I see no dragons, friend. All I see is one man with a big mouth." O'Reilly leered threateningly, then grabbed Face by the collar, hauling him close. "Dragons are nothing but beasts, and they're standing between me and a whole lot of prime grazing land. I can't fill this valley with cattle, or sell it to other men, when there's dragons roaming about, causing a panic and stampeding the herds; just like I can't do a damned thing when there's Indians all over the place, with all their confounded buffalo. Look at the size of those herds. They're eating grass that cattle could be eating instead. Simple business, that's all it is. So there'll be no hard feelings, Mr Peck, when I use you to fertilise my garden."

"Er, boss?" said somebody, looking skyward. O'Reilly glared at him.

"Shut up," he said. His employee was not to be dissuaded, however, and pointed up above them.

"Boss, you really ought to look at what's up there."

"What? A dragon? You've seen the local breeds. They're not all that big. Line up the men, and if this man really is telling the truth, we'll have a volley or two waiting. Let's see if a dragon can stand up to our muskets." O'Reilly smiled, his jutting teeth disturbingly close to Face, who could smell the powerful scent of cheap chewing tobacco with much more clarity than he would have liked.

"I don't think those are local dragons, boss," said the other man, and this time Face looked up as well. What he saw made him grin with sudden triumph. Temeraire and Iskierka were hurtling towards them at speed, the former's great, dark shape looking truly impressive, highlighted by the rising moon. Face, who would have known his friends anywhere, could see Hannibal on the black dragon's neck, the shape next to him presumably that of Will Laurence, whilst another shape further back was unmistakably BA. He was far too far away to see, but Face was quite sure that the unfortunate sergeant's knuckles had gone quite white, as he clung grimly on. Murdock was aboard Iskierka, half hidden by a great cloud of steam, and Face was positive that he could hear the captain whooping with glee. He rather pitied John Granby, for Face knew full well what it was like to sit alongside that whoop.

"Good Lord." O'Reilly raised his pistol, firing his shot uselessly into the air. If it reached either dragon, which was unlikely at such a range, they gave no sign of it, but Temeraire had apparently seen the flash. He swooped towards it, and cleared his throat loudly, making a good half of the buffalo hunters duck for cover.

"Are you quite all right down there, Mr Face?" he asked politely, and twisted in mid air so as to keep Face in sight as he turned. Face heard a yelp of protest that could only have come from BA.

"Call them off," hissed O'Reilly at Face, but he had fired his pistol, and could not reload whilst still holding onto his prisoner. With a grim smile, Face knocked the gun aside.

"They're nothing to do with me," he said, struggling to break the other man's grip. Even though Alexander had been replaced by the newcomers, he was certain that Hannibal's plan would still involve explosives, and he very much wanted to be gone before it got underway. Dragons were known for being careful around humans, but bombs were a different matter. O'Reilly, however, proved disconcertingly strong.

"They won't try anything while I've got you. I think I'll keep you just where you are." The fingers dug in deeply, causing unpleasant creases in Face's shirt. The lieutenant did his best not to wince. He was fond of that shirt.

"Agree, and you won't have to worry about them at all," he suggested, and fought to get his hand into his waistcoat pocket. "I have here a document that guarantees--"

"You expect me to sign something that says I won't kill buffalo? Where's that going to be considered legal? Dragons aren't citizens, any more than Indians are."

"The dragons will consider it legal, and that's all that matters. Why not--"

"I won't make a deal with animals!" With a powerful shove, O'Reilly sent Face tumbling to the ground, then turned around to grab a musket from one of his companions. "Those beasts can do what they like to my property, but it won't change my mind. And either way, you won't be alive to see what happens next."

Up upon Iskierka's back, however, Murdock had other ideas. His sharp eyes had been watching for Face all the time, and when he saw the musket, he let out a yell. Iskierka, as primed as any Corps dragon to react in a heartbeat, went into a steep dive. Whilst she lacked Temeraire's grace, she did not lack his enthusiasm, and with a tremendous effort, she pulled up at the last minute, snatching a terrified O'Reilly from the ground. The unfortunate man, struck dumb by the beast's descent upon him, lay rigid in her claws as she climbed again, wings beating rapidly. Face, lying where he had been pushed, blinked hard, and swallowed. He was still very much in the lion's den, but for now at least, the buffalo hunters showed no interest in him. They were far too busy taking potshots at the swooping dragons. He scrambled to his feet, taking a moment to try to sort out the unsightly wrinkles in his clothing, then ran for cover.

"Should I rescue your man, Mr Smith?" asked Temeraire, peering down at the little blue and white shape of the lieutenant. Hannibal craned his neck to see, but Face seemed fine. The other humans, however, seemed quite in disarray, their interest in the buffalo forgotten, and their ragged gunfire against the dragons a strong indication of a panic. It seemed a good opportunity to drive the message home a little further.

"Don't worry about Face," he said, although he kept one eye on the lieutenant, quite certain that Murdock was doing the same. "BA, are you ready back there with our supplies?"

"I've got them." BA, almost as stiff as a post, was crouched further back, holding tight to a large wooden box. It contained some of the last of the equipment that they had liberated alongside themselves from the army camp where they had been incarcerated; little grenades, the powder in them now somewhat unpredictable after their rough journey. Hannibal puffed a happy little plume of smoke, grinning around his cigar.

"Then let's get to it." He scrambled back to join his friend, apparently not in the least bothered about the altitude, and prised the lid off the box. BA swallowed hard. Unless he wanted to throw the bombs blindly, which was really not the A-Team's style, he was going to have to look over the edge, down towards the distant ground. It was not an inviting prospect. Clinging so tightly to the leather straps that it looked almost as though he was in danger of tearing through them, he picked up a bomb, and lit it on the end of Hannibal's cigar.

"I hate this!" he shouted above the wind, and Hannibal grinned at him.

"Think of the Jazz, BA," he offered cheerfully, but BA merely glared.

"You think of the Jazz, fool! I just want to get back to the ground in one piece!" He turned away, hurling the bomb down, with remarkable accuracy for a man who had never before engaged in warfare from atop a dragon. The little grenade exploded close to two hunters, who were both knocked off their feet by the force. They scrambled back up again in a shower of dust and earth, their rifles dropped and forgotten.

"Nice, BA." Still grinning, Hannibal sent another bomb after the first, and soon there was a veritable rain of the things falling out of the skies. The hunters, even more panicked now, began to run in every direction. One or two still attempted to fire their muskets, but there was little time for them to stop and reload. Eventually, clearly none too happy about shooting at targets that fired back, they gave up altogether, and were soon liberally scattered to the four winds. Hannibal tried to blow a smoke ring in celebration, but the wind whipped it away.

"I enjoyed that," he said. BA glared.

"You would, fool. We still got problems, though. Look." he pointed. Down below, the buffalo were looking extremely restless. Whilst they were used to dragons, they were not used to two of them engaging in some sort of aerial ballet, accompanied by the sound of explosions; and the sea of black and brown was now supremely twitchy. Hannibal scrambled back towards Laurence on Temeraire's neck.

"Is there anything you can do about the herd?" he asked. "If they run in the direction they're pointing in, they'll hit the Indian camp. Alexander and his wife have their egg there as well."

"An egg?" Temeraire's head jerked at this, and he pulled up in mid air, hovering neatly as he surveyed the herd. "Hmm. If you will hold on, Laurence - and the rest of you of course - I shall try to scare the creatures into running elsewhere instead. Is there any other direction that you would prefer them to avoid?

"There's a cliff to the north," said Hannibal. "It'd be a shame to see them run over that."

"Then we shall send them east," said Temeraire, as though it were the easiest thing in the world, and raising his voice, he called for Iskierka. She came, swooping over from where she had been harassing a number of the escaping hunters, O'Reilly still gripped in one foot.

"We are to herd the buffalo away from where an egg is positioned," Temeraire told her. "Turn them towards the east, if you can."

"That will be easy," said Iskierka, and swinging her long body away towards the west, she sent a huge burst of fire down to the ground. The buffalo twitched and yelped, and O'Reilly, seeing the stream, did likewise, trying to burrow his way into Iskierka's claws for protection. Temeraire, meanwhile, unleashed a roar, and dove down out of the sky. The great herd of animals reacted immediately, and turning as one, they raced away towards the east, huge clouds of dust billowing out in their wake. Laurence nodded in satisfaction.

"We should follow them," he said, "in case they need turning again." Hannibal nodded in agreement, and Temeraire turned obediently, flying away after the buffalo, as Iskierka performed playful acrobatic manoeuvres just above. Murdock's delight at her fire-breathing had swelled her pride, and she was showing off for his benefit, sending poor O'Reilly into an apoplexy at the same time.

Down on the ground, Face retrieved his horse, giving chase at a somewhat slower and more comfortable pace. The two dragons were so large that it was not hard to keep them in sight, and fortunately for his steed, the buffalo did not run any great distance. Indeed there proved to be something in their path that slowed them even more quickly than they might have slowed themselves - a huge ranch house, set in a beautiful garden, with a white-painted fence all around. By the time Face drew up at a safe distance, the garden and the fence were nothing but a memory. He swung down off his horse, and went to join Hannibal and BA.

"O'Reilly's place?" he asked, as he approached. Hannibal smiled happily.

"Alexander's map must have been off a little. I thought the house was further north. Still, it's poetic justice, wouldn't you say?"

"Huh," muttered BA, who was too glad to be back on the ground to give anything else a second's thought. He was still gripping one of the grenades, and Face prised it gently out of his hand, before chemistry could do anything unhelpful.

"Where is O'Reilly?" he asked, looking around the ruin of the garden. Several buffalo were grazing on what had once been a vegetable patch, but most of the rest seemed to have dispersed. Iskierka's head had disappeared into the house via a large picture window, and there was a woman leaning out of another window upstairs, bellowing for the army, the navy, and anything else likely to involve uniforms and weapons. Of her presumed husband, however, there was not a sign. "That fire-breathing dragon - the Kazilik - she grabbed him earlier, when he was about to shoot me. I've not seen him since."

"If Iskierka had him, then she probably still does," said Laurence, coming over from where he had been seeing to Temeraire. The huge black dragon had taken another buffalo, clearly feeling peckish after all of his exhertions, and was now laboriously licking blood from his claws. Laurence had apparently been helping in the clean-up operation, and was somewhat blood-daubed himself. "She's taken to raiding the house for her prizes, I'm afraid. That's apt to make her a little distracted."

"Look!" shrieked Iskierka immediately, as though she had heard, and emerged from the window with a jewellery box gripped carefully between her claws. She set it down on the ground, rummaging through it with as much grace as it was possible to rummage with talons. A moment later, triumphant, she held up a long diamond necklace, which she proceeded to hang around Granby's neck. That it was designed for a woman meant nothing to her, and it was all that he could do, a moment later, to avoid being similarly presented with a matching tiara.

"Dear one, please. They are your prizes. Keep them for yourself," he protested, only for a ruby necklace to land around his neck as well. His shoulders slumped.

"Iskierka?" Clambering down from the Kazilik's spiny back, Murdock headed towards the foreleg that was not burrowing through the jewellery box. "Do you still have O'Reilly in that other foot?"

"What?" Looking up, startled away from her perusal of her prizes, Iskierka blinked twice, then issued a great cloud of steam. "Oh yes. Of course." She let go of her prisoner, gently enough, although without any real consideration. "He is quite well, do not fear."

"Save me," croaked O'Reilly immediately, lying frozen upon the ground. Murdock and Granby hauled him to his feet. "I'll sign," the big man squeaked desperately. "I'll sign. Just... just just just..." It was all that he could manage of whatever the sentence had set out to be. Hannibal frowned.

"Sign what?" he asked. Face smiled, pulling a sheet of paper from his waistcoat pocket.

"My idea," he said, and held out the sheet for Hannibal to see. Written in a hurry, but neatly enough, it was a simple contract, stating that the undersigned promised, under pain of being eaten, not to bother dragons, Indians or buffalo ever again. "Well, like you said, we can't arrest the guy."

"Just give it to me!" babbled O'Reilly, and Face handed it over. A broken fence post made a serviceable temporary writing desk, and Face produced ink and a quill from one of his saddle bags. O'Reilly signed with great speed, before running away inside his house as fast as his legs could carry him. He did not reappear.

"You do realise," said Hannibal, as he surveyed the hasty contract, "that no dragon would ever eat a human?"

"I know it," said Face, and produced a sheet of blotting paper as well. "And the dragons certainly know it. I don't think anybody has ever bothered telling O'Reilly, though. Besides, it's only a little psychological warfare. Your aerial show earlier was probably all that he needed."

"Nice work, Face. Alexander will appreciate this." Grinning around his cigar, Hannibal slung an arm around his lieutenant's neck. "See, this is why I keep giving you these assignments."

"Great," said Face, without enthusiasm. Hannibal laughed, and puffed happily on his cigar.

"Do I take it that you are happy with the situation?" asked Laurence. Hannibal nodded his head.

"I think so. We've scared O'Reilly so much that he'll think twice before he even looks at another buffalo. We've got you to thank for that, Captain Laurence. Couldn't have done it nearly so well without you and your dragons."

"They're not our dragons, Mr Smith. And please, I really should no longer be addressed by my rank." Looking rather stiff at this last statement, as though it were a subject of some discomfort to him, Laurence broke the tension by looking back towards the house. Temeraire had joined Iskierka, and had just pulled from a window a large china serving tray, painted beautifully with pictures of local wildlife. He looked as happy with it as Iskierka was with the jewellery, and Laurence sighed.

"I should probably attempt to tear them away," he said. "They really shouldn't be ransacking private property in such a manner."

"Let them," said Hannibal. "That man in there deserves it. If he'd got away with what he was planning, there'd have been turmoil, and a whole lot of pain." He smiled at the sight of John Granby, now sporting an emerald necklace as well as the diamonds and rubies. "Besides, they're enjoying themselves."

"I suspect that Granby is enjoying himself rather less." Laurence smiled as well. "Can we give you a lift back to your camp, sir?"

"Thanks, but we'll ride. I don't want to spoil the dragons' fun. There's sure to be horses enough around here." Hannibal gave the man a rough salute. "Thank your friends for us. We'd best be off."

"The best of luck to you, Mr Smith." Laurence saluted as well, then went to join Granby. A moment later, Murdock came bouncing over, looking utterly delighted by his madcap dragon ride.

"Can we get a dragon, Hannibal?" he asked, his little soapstone one still gripped tightly in his hand. "Can we can we can we?"

"Captain..." Draping an arm around his shoulders, Hannibal began to guide Murdock away towards the stables. "Hiding the four of us from the authorities is hard enough. How would we hide a dragon?"

"It could be an invisible dragon," suggested Murdock. Hannibal frowned at that.

"Are there any invisible dragons?" he asked. Murdock paused.

"Well... not that we know of," he admitted, and then shrugged. "But then they'd be invisible, wouldn't they, so how would we know?"

"A fair point. Probably." Hannibal smiled. "Come on, everyone. Let's mount up."

"You really think the job's done, Hannibal?" asked BA, as they began to saddle up some extra horses. Hannibal frowned, looking back towards the ranch house. O'Reilly had disappeared, and was unlikely to be emerging again for some time to come. He had had a bad fright, and it seemed a fair assumption that he would not risk incurring a dragon's wrath again.

"For now," he said, and tightened the strap of his saddle. "There'll be other men like O'Reilly, though. Maybe not this year, or even the next, but there will be others. The buffalo are being killed everywhere for their hides, and as the number of settlers grows..." He shrugged. "I don't know. Even the big muskets that those men back there had aren't really up to the job. Maybe we don't have to worry. Times are changing, though."

"Then we'll have to come back," said BA, and Hannibal smiled.

"And take on the whole country? Maybe. Still, that's for another day. In the meantime, we should get back to camp and pick up Amy. She's going to be a little annoyed that she missed all of this."

"Next time she can have my seat," said BA, and climbed up onto his horse. "I ain't never getting on no dragon ever again, Hannibal."

"Why, BA. Anybody would think that I was in the habit of making you do things that you don't like." Hannibal grinned at him. "Come on. It was fun."

"I nearly got shot," said Face. "And some of those bombs came horribly close."

"And I was way up in the air on a damn dragon!" growled BA. Murdock smiled dreamily.

"It was wonderful," he said, and bounced happily in the saddle. Hannibal laughed.

"There you are," he said, as though Murdock's answer were evidence of some greater plan. "Come on guys. Don't tell me you don't love it when a plan comes together?" Riding alongside, BA could do nothing but glare.



Inasmuch as there can be an historical note about a story set in an alternate history... I've rather lost track of where we are now in the series, time wise, so I've made a rough stab in the dark, and set this in 1811, probably shortly after the events of the upcoming seventh book, Crucible Of Gold. That puts this after the recent book six, Tongues Of Serpents, but no direct spoilers are included.

Also, I appreciate that BA would not have been in a unit with the others in (the real) 1811, and probably not in Naomi Novik's alternate one either, but needs must. Besides, Hannibal always was a law unto himself, even in the army.