The Hunt

by Heather F.

Disclaimers: Not mine, no money made etc

Warnings: Language, grammar etc

Acknowledgements: Mitzi, because she has been reading this since before Jan.’04, and kept the story moving instead of letting it stall and sit forgotten on my computer. MegT. Who’s incredibly busy yet still has time to do favors for others. Thanks guys you’re awesome.

Mog’s ATF AU thanks for letting us play in it.

Challenges: January Challenge 04 …two guys at least get into a competition (that occurs at the very end of the story…and it does not involve the whole story… I hope that is okay, Helen) October Challenge ’03 …the boys are involved in chase using 3 different forms of transport. Running and walking don’t count. Snow shoeing isn’t really running (I hope that is okay Violette), barefoot, pillow and tree were used. (and the chase in some parts were really more of races against time…I hope that counts too), July ’03 Challenge (by Twy) Mother Nature at her worst.

Main Characters: The guys, Ezra

This story has been in the works since Halloween of 03, it was suppose to be a Thanksgiving story…then a Christmas story, then a New Years story…and then it just dragged on, but the darn thing is done. Any similarities to other stories is coincidence. Any similarities to Jin’s story Tell Me Your Thoughts on God (ATF) was coincidence (we’ve emailed). Her story is fantastic

Size: Approx 215K

Part 1 - 4 | Part 5 - 9 | Part 10 - 14

Part 1

Short twisted pine trees struggled between mounds of undisturbed sparkling snow. Fat snow flakes fluttered and drifted toward the ground in their own unhurried pace. A slate grey sky stretched for as far as the eye could see from the boulder strewn summit. Saw-toothed glacial mountain tops lined the northwestern horizon mirroring the craggy ridge line. The valley below lay hidden beneath a heavy low cloud cover.

The silence and tranquility of the scene was marred by the invasion of man.

The orange, red and white flashing of emergency vehicles in the afternoon weak winter sun seemed almost surreal in the high rocky mountain terrain. Broncos, Suburbans and an assorted number of pickup trucks dotted the narrow snow and ice encrusted dirt road that snaked and crawled its way from the base of the mountain range to a small clearing just a few thin yards below the treeless granite ridge line.

The emergency vehicles brought a harsh reality to the tiny high mountain glade. Men and women moved slowly through the small area . Thick parkas with yellow block letters indicated the different federal branches that converged on the grizzly scene.

Chris Larabee and his five men poked and prodded around the bodies that littered the tiny clearing which lay blanketed in heavy snows and dotted with corpses. The glade sat nestled amongst a thick Alpine forest. The grey ridge line loomed just overhead casting a shadow over the area.

The men stepped carefully around snow which had turned reddish orange. They avoided these small patches of discolored snow where blood had created holes as it had melted its way down through the frost toward the ground. Spilled blood had burrowed its way through the frosty covering until the multiple feet of high elevation snow eventually froze the thick liquid halting its passage, never allowing it to reach the hidden dirt and sparse grass. The ground would lay hidden from the sun until late spring or early summer.

Amongst the bullet riddled bodies, lay a cache of spent and unspent weapons in lifeless hands.

Chris took it all in, registered it, noted it and continued to squat down and lift sunken, buried, frozen shoulders from the partially melted snow to peer at the blue, grey features of the dead.

He recognized most if not all the faces but there was one in particular he was searching for at the moment and praying not to find.

In the background, he could hear Buck giving orders in his own manner, getting people to do his bidding without really ordering them as such. The man had a talent that not many appreciated. Not even Chris himself.

Larabee noted that Tanner had slipped off through the leisurely falling snow into the knotted pine forest. The trees were stunted in their growth due to the high elevation and lack of oxygen and dearth of adequate nutrition in the soil.

Movement to Chris’s left had the team leader turning his attention to Josiah. Sanchez, like Chris, searched the faces of the dead praying they did not find the face they so desperately searched for.

JD sat apart from the grizzly scene, kept to the periphery for as long as possible. Larabee watched as the younger agent tapped wildly on his computer. Using satellite hook up, the young computer wizard had access to the world. The soft click of laptop keys was lost under the rumble of the multiple vehicles but Chris could see the kid’s half gloved hands fly across the keys, almost like a concert pianist playing for his life. Except it was not his life that was at stake; Chris ground his teeth and let his eyes roam the area, finding no hint of his missing man.

White puffs of exhaled breath plumed from the milling crowd of emergency people. They each had their jobs to do but in the end their resolve was the same.

Hopefully one body, one face, would remain missing from this carnage.

Chris peered into another bluish, grey face. The features were frozen in a silent, macabre cry of anguish, snow settled on the lashes without melting. The blue lips were pulled back in a grimace of death while frothy, bloody saliva had frozen to the sides of the whiskered chin.

Mathew Soldan was no longer a threat to the civilized world. Someone, or more likely someones had ambushed Soldan and his cadre of cutthroats and gunrunners. Ambushed them with automatic weapons and an endless supply of bullets.

No one apparently had survived. Except they were one body short. One man was missing. Their man.

Chris scanned the small clearing, counting bodies, checking to see if they had missed one, had someone lived just long enough to crawl off into the woods to bleed out or be executed?

There were no more bodies to check.

Someone had to have survived…Perhaps…

Chris searched the surrounding forest with a piercing gaze, hoping to peer through the dark knotted depths, to see through the veil of softly falling snow. He hoped to lay glimpse on luck…a slim chance.

The ten bodies that dotted the landscape in amongst bullet splintered saplings and trees offered only a taste of the brutality that had occurred hours before. Some had died quicker than others, some had clearly tried to drag themselves into the surrounding forest only to be cut down with bullets buried deep in their backs.

The white stuffing of winter jackets stood frozen in blood lined holes, marking the passage of too many bullets.

The body was not made to withstand the passage of such explosive projectiles, whether it be one or many.

Whoever did this, enjoyed it.

The amount of death and destruction nearly matched the amount of discolored snow.

Scavengers would find this place and eat the snow, scrape for any taste of protein and glimmer a flavor of those who had died here.

Larabee silently watched as a team of men and women marked the bodies, labeled them 1-10, cataloguing their positions in death.

Chris stared down at the last corpse, stared at Soldan and cursed the bedeviled man. Even in death Soldan mocked Larabee. Even with frozen saliva glued to his chin, white snow flakes laying un-melted on his corneas, it seemed as if Soldan ridiculed Larabee.

Chris gave the body a nudge with his foot. It was akin to trying to nudge a boulder. Soldan’s stare never altered, his body never moved. The winter jacket crinkled and cracked but held its position.

Soldan, the bastard, had met his end in the same brutal manner that he had lived his life.

Larabee felt no loss or pang of sympathy.

Instead, Larabee felt anger and frustration boil to the forefront. This was only supposed to have been an outing. Tracking Elk. That was what Ezra had complained about only last night when he had made contact with Larabee. Chris had chuckled at his undercover agent’s obvious disgust at having to be subjected to the great outdoors for hours at a time.

There was no meeting to be set up, no exchange of goods. Soldan had planned to go tracking, try his skill at playing ‘mountain man’ as Ezra had harrumphed the night before. Close surveillance and back up hadn’t been needed. Would have been near impossible.

Apparently they were wrong.

Where the Hell was his undercover agent? Larabee straightened up and turned in a small circle staring at the surrounding forest which stood covered in a thick blanket of snow whose depth could be measured in yards and meters, not inches and feet.

“I’ve got a trail,” Tanner’s voice sounded out from within the depths of the forest.

Larabee and his team stopped what they were doing, turned toward Tanner’s voice and then moved as a unit. JD slid the laptop off his lap onto the passenger seat of a Bronco. Buck patted someone on the shoulder in dismissal and Nathan stopped going through the ID’s of some of the victims. Josiah stood from his squatted position next to a body, his soft mumbling came to a halt as he made to followed the others.

The five converged from all different directions in the small clearing and quickly congealed into a moving herd. The five headed toward their sharpshooter as a group.

Team Seven sidestepped the living and the dead and headed into the trees.

Vin Tanner squatted down next to an obvious foot trail.

“He hid here, waited a bit, circled around to over there,” Vin pointed out with a mittened hand to an area scattered with large boulders and young saplings which struggled to grow from the crevices in the stones. “He stayed down there for a bit, then circled back into there,” Vin pointed back into the small clearing where the dead lay frozen to the ground. “Figure he must have grabbed some gear before headin’ back out…Noticed the back of the Durango was open and stuff’s been rifled through…hopin’ it was Ezra that did it.”

“Why didn’t he jist hop in the truck and go?” JD asked surveying the group of boulders Vin had pointed out, then back to the group of corpses and then over to the abandoned black Dodge Durango. The rocky ridge line towered sharply over the vehicles, stretching only a few meters toward the sky while skirting west and east for as far as the eye could see.

“He ain’t alone JD,” Tanner spoke as he pushed himself into a standing position. “He’s got people shootin’ at him….Probably didn’t have time to turn the engine over, get the truck turned around and then try and head back down the mountain,” Vin stared at the bodies in the snow, “not when whoever did this carried automatic weapons,” Vin did not bother to look at the faces of his team mates, instead the sharpshooter stared into the darkening forest feeling the wind pick up and buffet his coat.

“He’s out there somewhere and someone’s still houndin’ his heels.” Tanner pulled his coat tighter to himself and stared at the collection of tracks that disappeared into the trees.

Nathan turned and peered into the forest. The snow was deep. The small high alpines did little to offer much protection from the incessantly falling snow. The wind slowly made itself known as it tossed and played with the falling snow. Jackson fixed his hat more securely on his head, protecting his ears.

Chris gazed out through the forest to the rugged, glacial peaks that clawed the darkening horizon. Grey clouds hung low in the sky, and the weak light of the late afternoon sun threatened to set even earlier.

“God help our brother,” Josiah muttered. He let his eyes travel to the rushed path through snow that allowed a man to sink to his knees if not deeper. If he could see the path so readily then it would be clear to the men that hunted the sole survivor of this massacre.

“Alright, Vin, start following the trail. Buck, JD, grab whatever gear you think you’re going to need out there to keep in contact with our people,” Chris directed with a nod of his head toward the vast sea of pine, rocks and steep inclines. “Josiah, Nathan grab us supplies and some way to haul them. See if you can’t get a search and rescue unit up here with a helicopter….We don’t have much time.”

With that Chris turned on his heel and headed back through the scant line of pine, through the area of the dead, back to the vehicles.

Vin searched the forest with a critical eye. Gawd damn city raised southern boy fled into the wilds of the Colorado Rockies in the dead of winter.

+ + + + + + +

Vin lead the way, his snow shoes making the work of blazing the trail that much easier. His breath rolled from his mouth in clouds of white crystalline plumes. Sweat dotted his hair and forehead and dampened his shirt under the multiple layers he wore.

They all wore packs and each carried their weapons tucked in close but within easy reach. Vin’s rifle lay slung over his shoulder under his own back pack. No one spoke as they walked single file through the trees.

Chris had had them strung out, with large distances between each man, making them less of a target. As with the uninitiated, the group continued to close ranks, congeal back together.

Larabee had met Josiah’s grey stare and understood the small sad smile and minute shake of the head. The big ex-sergeant understood the concerns but saw no way to enforce the safety. JD would forever close the gap to Buck, and Nathan would constantly keep JD within reach. They knew better, had practiced it routinely in the urban environment in which they lived and understood the necessity, but somehow out here, in the foreign environment of the darkening high altitude wilderness, JD instinctually fought to keep close to Buck, and Nathan’s protective streak wouldn’t allow JD to get too far ahead.

The old adage of Safety in numbers, worked in some instances, unless you hunted a prey that could in turn destroy you from the protection of cover. Around every bend, behind every tree, they felt the fear of meeting the distinctive bark of automatic weapons, they tensed with the knowledge that they could walk into an ambush at any time or worse yet turn a bend and find their seventh face down, frozen in the snow.

Though Chris considered fanning the team out, he kept them in closer. If they separated then it would force them all to break trail. Worse yet, the new fallen snow and the heavy snows that preceded it hallmarked an avalanche danger. No one needed to speak about it. Even the novices understood the risk, recognized it, feared it and ignored it. That alone made Larabee marvel at the dedication of his men to one another while at the same time he feared the intensity of that devotion which lead six men into blatant known danger and could easily lead to their deaths, either by the men they hunted or the fickle ferocity of mother nature herself.

Larabee kept his men single file. He sacrificed their safety for speed.

With fear tightening their spines and worry clenching their guts, the six men snow shoed their way deeper into the Rockies. The craggy spiny ridge line ran to their rights, shaded by the incessantly falling snow. It loomed over them like an imposing wall, forcing their direction to run parallel to its ominous side.

Tanner kept his eyes on the trail. It was easy to follow. Too easy.

Part 2

There were at least four other sets of prints that Tanner could discern other than Standish’s. Vin lead them deeper and deeper into the mountains, running parallel to the ridge line.

After a few hundred yards into the forest, Ezra’s stride through the snow had shortened. A mile or less later, the tracks created by the undercover agent became haphazard. He was getting tired. He no longer picked up his feet, instead he appeared as if he had dragged each foot through the snow. A few places it had appeared as if he had fallen and lain still. Gathering strength, eating snow.

The other four sets of prints followed relentlessly. Apparently never tiring.

An hour into their search, Tanner stopped mimicking the movements of the four sets of tracks he followed. Standish’s tracks had continued on, twisting and turning through the trees that dwelled in the shadow of the granite wall to the right.

The four prints of the pursuers had stopped. They had congealed in one spot. They had moved around one of their own and then three moved off to the side and stood still.

Vin paused and read the signs. His eyes searched the sparkling crystal-like surface of snow. The others waited behind him, trying to be patient, trying to hold their tongues, curious as to why they had stopped. Daylight was dwindling as quickly as snow was falling. Shadows were lengthening, threatening the early fall of darkness.

JD stood impatiently and was about to ask questions when Vin quietly cursed.

Tanner pulled a mitten off with his teeth and squatted down and reached into the snow. JD cringed thinking of how cold his fingers would be and instinctively curled them within his mittens.

The young ATF agent caught his breath when Vin pulled his reddened fingers back from the depths of the snow. He held a shell casing. The pale golden color reflected the waning afternoon light.

JD heard Nathan take a quick breath, Josiah mumbled out a prayer and Buck simply captured all their fears with a single utterance of: “Shit.”

Larabee took the shell casing from Vin flipped it over and read the caliber. A .223. Different from the automatics that had been used on the men in the clearing. This was a high powered rifle, something with a little more accuracy and range than the simple brutality of an automatic pistol or gun.

Someone was gunning for his undercover agent…might have even gunned him downed by now.

Larabee felt his worry and apprehension flash to fury.

“Let’s go.” His curt order was not truly needed. There was no body in sight. Standish was not dead until they found his body.

In the shadows of early twilight, they could not see as far as a bullet could travel.

The greyish blue hues of the dead haunted JD. He did not want to find his friend, his teammate who was so full of life and bullshit as Buck constantly pointed out, to be the same stiffened, bluish grey shade of death like those in the clearing.

Ezra deserved better than that. JD couldn’t quite picture what Ezra would look like frozen and dead in partially melted snow but at the same time he couldn’t keep himself from trying. It turned his stomach.

The young computer wizard found his anger and self loathing building in synch with his frustration. A heavy gloved hand landed on his shoulder. JD peered over his shoulder and found Josiah staring at him from over the collar of his winter jacket.

“He’s alive Brother Dunne.”

The confidence and conviction with which Josiah spoke almost had JD believing him.


As they walked, Buck kept his eyes up and peeled, away from the hypnotic tendency of watching the foot falls of those immediately before him. He scanned the mountainside, above and below their trail. Searching. Searching for Standish. Searching for signs of an ambush.

Whoever followed Standish skimmed through the snow without the worry of being tracked themselves. They appeared to have no idea that they too were hunted. Their trail was as brazen as the automatic weapons they used to gun down Soldan and his band of cut throats. Perhaps the predators who hunted Standish failed to recognized that they did not stand at the top of the pyramid of survival.

Buck followed Chris who in turned followed Vin. Tanner led them fast and furious through what should have been thigh deep snow. The Texan seemed to skim across the land, his snow shoes spitting up small clouds of displaced snow, preventing him from sinking to his thighs or waist in the soft powder. The Texan’s natural dexterity and nimble movements through the deep snow were proof that he had spent some of his life away from Texas.

The others followed. The harsh breaths of six men laboring over the rough terrain of the Rocky Mountains was muffled by the winter gear they wore.

Sweat trickled in an irritating fashion over taxed muscles.

And always to their right, hemming them in, rose the grey granite rugged cliffs of the ridge line.

Sweat dotted torsos and rolled unseen across heaving chests and down the small of muscular backs. The six men carried on in silence, the skiff of their snow shoes and the soft wisps of white clouds of breath, were the only sounds they made.

The crunch of booted feet in snow shoes was muffled by the deep snow itself. The low slung grey clouds threatened them at every turn. They shuffled and marched single file across the mountain ridge, sticking to the line of twisted trees, circumventing boulders and scurrying over wind falls. Nervous, anxious eyes darted down slope, through the trees into the encroaching darkness searching for their friend and unseen enemies.

Tanner led them unerringly, never faltering, never hesitating, stopping only to search the snow and then replay the same routine over and over. Three times now they had stopped and three times Vin had removed his mitten with his teeth only to squat down and search the lone pit mark in nearly unmarred snow. Each time he retrieved another spent shell casing.

Three times they had replayed this routine and three times they had yet to find a blood trail or even a body.

Three times….

The sun paused over the distant mountain peaks. Long shadows stretched from the trees and curved over the six men from the towering ridge line. Temperatures plummeted in the dark recesses of the stretching shadows. The pale sun seemed to waver slightly and lift minutely before settling behind the glacier scarred tops on the horizon. With the setting of the sun came wind with its razor edge.

The wind hit with brutal intensity, forcing tears to unprotected eyes. It snaked its icy fingers between zippers and buttons, it slithered through seams, biting the sweating flesh beneath layers of clothes. It stabbed at foreheads and gnarled muscles, cracking chapped lips and brutally drying skin into cracking. Eyes watered and tears froze.

The wind moaned through the trees, as dark grey shadows lengthened across the land.

Within the hour, all was dark save the glistening, sparkle of dried frozen snow. Its white glittering surface reflected the soft light of the moon, giving the forest and the snow covered ground a glow unseen within city limits. The trail wound before them marked by its shadowed appearance in undisturbed reflective snow, highlighting it in a reverse manner, its dark impressions standing out within a pristine snow covered ground.

The six men kept on, legs burned with exertion, chests heaved fighting for oxygen in an atmosphere that nearly lacked it, while trembling muscles wanted nothing more than to relax.

Shoulders slumped and heads hung down as the six men skimmed and limped across the frozen mountainside of the Rockies.

The clouds rushed past the moon, casting undulating shadows over the white landscape. Single file the six men followed the haphazard trail. The wind howled mournfully flaying its way between trees and men only to hammer itself into the rising stone cliff of the ridge. Snow swirled at its base.

Finally Tanner stopped.

JD bent over, resting his mittened hands on his knees trying frantically to catch his breath, wishing desperately that he could squelch the unquenchable desire to stop for the night, to just rest. He did not want to be the weak link.

If Ezra could make it this far than so could he.

JD would not ask for respite though nausea rolled through him like a brewing storm off the coast. He would not ask to sit down, though his legs shook with minute tremors, as muscles twitched and fired with a will all their own.

The young ATF agent fought for breath, tried to protect his teeth with his tongue from the biting cold as he heaved in great gulps of brittle thin air.

A solid hand rested on his back.

JD slowly cranked his head to the side while in his bent over posture. He found Josiah in the same position, he too fighting for breath, for a respite.

And JD hoped his own dark hazel eyes reflected the fight and determination he found in the grey eyes of his older friend.

Josiah was exhausted too, his muscles ached no more or no less than young JD’s but the ex-anthropologist turned profiler would not give up. He would not quit until they found their missing teammate.

JD found a grin cracking his own features. His lip split oozing serum and a little blood. JD wouldn’t quit either. Not for anything.

Vin knelt down in the snow. He kept his mitten on. With a steady hand the tracker reached out and gently touched the sharp delineating lines of the tracks they followed.

The setting of the sun and the unpredictable glow of the moon, created sharp shadows. The furrowed trail became a hollow of dark amongst a white background.

It surprised Larabee how easy it was to track at night, in the snow without the use of lanterns. The trail they followed appeared as a linear shadow cut through the glistening snow when moonlight illuminated the night.

They could keep moving, if they could withstand the cold. They would not have to worry about losing the trail if the cloud cover remained broken and patchy.

“That squirrelly son of a bitch,” Tanner chuckled out. The tracker side stepped down the trail, keeping his attention down on the disturbed line of snow. “I’ll be damned, the cheating bastard.” Tanner chuckled out loud and shook his head.

Buck leaned against a nearby tree, trying to take the weight of the pack off his shoulders and back. He simply lifted his head in question, meeting Tanner’s grinning face.

“He’s keeping to the game trail,” Vin’s teeth gleamed in the moonlight.

“Huh?” Nathan asked pausing in adjusting the straps of his own pack. He let his eyes wander the surrounding forest trying to glean the silhouette of their missing friend from the blackened trunks of the small knotted pines. The fear of simply walking past their friend’s body kept Nathan searching the sides of the trail.

“He’s following the game trail,” Vin pointed down to the trampled snow at his feet. Hundreds of cloven hoof marks marred the snow. “Elk, he’s taken the elk trail….they pass by here twice a day most times…he’s covering his tracks.”

“Shit,” Larabee breathed out. How the Hell would Standish know that? Chances were the slippery bastard wouldn’t have known. The man had a tendency to just fall into luck.

Vin smiled as he looked through the trees following the snaking dark line of the elk trail. Ezra was tired, exhausted, had to be, following the trail only made sense. The undercover agent wouldn’t have to work as hard, wouldn’t have to break trail.

“What about the others?” Chris breathed out scanning the tree tops on a whim.

“Can’t say for sure, might be followin’ this too…can’t see nuthin’ that says otherwise,” Vin said as he stared into the thick blanket of darkness that draped the forest.

An ambush could be behind any tree.

Larabee followed Vin’s gaze and felt the same fear and tension, “What do ya think?”

“We follow’em,” Vin shrugged his shoulders slightly re-adjusting his own pack. He felt quick relief of tingling muscles before the pack settled heavily back across his shoulders and settling once more on protesting muscles.

The Texan picked up the trail and started following it.

Nathan stood to the side waiting his turn as the men slowly fell into step stringing themselves out, following the single deeply furrowed haphazard trail into the depths of the forest.

Would the killers know to follow the trail? Had Standish simply lost them?

+ + + + + + +

The bombardment of snow hit suddenly and violently.

It whipped across the land almost horizontally. The little white flakes nicked at skin like BB’s. They burned and hurt like a thousand little shards of glass biting at ones face. JD kept his eyes down and tried to focus on putting one foot in front of another.

The trees stretched up and over the trail like dark specters, reaching out to them, surrounding them, waiting for the travelers to fall. With each dreary step, JD silently wished they could stop for the night. His feet felt swollen, painfully club-like within his lined boots. Flashes of light danced on the periphery of his vision. If they could only take a rest, just stop for a bit and catch their breath, sit and perhaps allow him to shut his eyes for only a few minutes, allow him time to regain his strength and work flexibility back into his hands, then he would be ready to continue.

JD begged with himself to stop those thoughts, fought with himself to keep the images of resting under a tree from boiling to the surface. It was Ezra who was out here somewhere running for his life.

With each step, JD’s legs burned, his back muscles twitched with painful spasms. The sweat had long ago dried, chilling him to his core. His head hurt and he felt so tired.

His eyelashes were laden with snow, heavy enough to threaten to close. His face hurt.

Still he concentrated on lifting one foot at a time and placing it in the spot just vacated by Buck.

It was this narrow focal view and deep concentration that had JD bumping into the back of Wilmington. Dunne nearly crumpled to the snow, but Josiah must have kept on walking because JD suddenly found himself sandwiched between Josiah and Buck.

“We’ll stop here for a few hours, rest up, then get moving again,” Larabee spoke with a confidence and strength that made JD marvel.

Dunne fought to raise his head. He winced as his neck ached with the movement. His eyes were slow to focus on the rocky cliff just to their right. Giant boulders dotted the area. Some were covered in snow and others bare, exposed to the relentless wind.

Larabee straightened, his sharp gaze and determined posture infused his men with just enough energy to take those few steps up slope and into the shelter of a narrow cave.

Six packs were dropped. JD fell with them into a heap. “Come on kid,” Buck tiredly hauled the young man to weary feet. “Gonna need to find some wood,” Wilmington pointed out quietly and directed his young friend back out into the storm. JD was too exhausted to argue and too tired to think for himself. He followed out of habit.

JD thought the exercise would be futile. The amount of snow already on the ground added to the amount that furiously flew from the sky amidst the punishing wind, made it seem all too clear to the Bostonian that there would not be a speck of dry wood for miles and miles.

He followed Buck’s lead, however, out of blind faith and loyalty. JD knew this group of men would never leave him, would never let him be hurt or destroyed if they could prevent it. It was a strange feeling, not a feeling he had ever recognized until after he had lost his mother. With her passing, JD had come to realize that he was all alone in the world. Though, his mother had been sick and dying, he recognized later that she would have gone to her grave protecting him, keeping him safe. When she had passed and he had truly found himself alone, the young man had learned, through his loss, just how isolated and vulnerable he truly was. That had slowly come to an end when he had joined Team 7. That sense of solitude, of exposure, and vulnerability had slowly seeped away from him, as he gained footing with the six agents of team seven. Six agents who became six friends, who eventually became like brothers to him.

The loneliness, the vulnerability had dissolved as he came under the protection of the others, and in reciprocity the other six had come under his protection. Though JD realized there was not much that he could do to protect the other six he knew he would give it his best efforts. Out here in a blustering snow storm, JD realized that he could indeed come to aid and protect the others. One didn’t have to be the biggest, or strongest or even the smartest…one just had to try and try diligently.

Following Buck’s lead, JD dug through the snow at the foot of a pine and when he was well past his shoulder’s length. He dropped into the hole to scratch and gather pine needles, moss, and pine cones. He shoved them in his pockets, gathered them in his arms and traipsed his way back to their cave, only to return out into the night, into the storm and gather more fuel, more sticks and even larger branches. He would do his part. He would add his devotion and dedication to the other six in their fight and struggle to survive this night and come to the aid of one of their missing teammates.

JD was tired, he was exhausted, but no more so than the others of his team. Like the others he pulled his weight, followed their leads and worked within their midst.

With each arm load of wood he and Buck hauled into the small cave, Josiah remained squatted next to the smoldering spiraling grey smoke of a newborn fire that lacked any visible flame.

“Lay that big stuff right over the top of this,” Josiah directed. JD hesitated. It seemed wrong to lay the big wet branches over the small, fragile pile of pine needles, pinecones and twigs. It felt wrong to smother the weak, near invisible hint of smoke. He paused waiting to hear if he understood Josiah correctly.

“It’s alright son,” Josiah intoned, looking up from his work of building and coaxing the fire, “as this small kindling burns it’ll dry that bigger stuff you have and then eventually burn it.” Josiah offered a smile and added, “just toss those big branches on board.”

And JD did. He placed his arm load of branches, which he had dragged somewhat up hill, over the small wisp of smoke that silently heralded the birth of a yet unseen delicate flame.

JD couldn’t hide his skepticism but turned and headed back out into the storm to gather more wood.

Vin and Chris had disappeared into the white curtain of the storm, fading into its dark midst. They marked the trail the best they could for as far as they could, knowing that they would lose it in the blowing snow. The two men tied strips of cloth to low hung branches as trees whipped and scratched in the wind.

“Least it’s snowing,” Vin said turning his back to the wind, letting the back of his jacket take the force of the gale and spare his midsection the harsh bite of bitter cold that ate through the protected zipper.

Chris merely gazed at the younger Texan waiting for an explanation. Chris cursed the wind and the snow, detested it, for making him and his men stop, despised it for hiding the trail of one of his missing men and mentally lashed out at it for the hardship it would bring down upon his missing man.

“Iffen it were rain, Ez, would be in a world of hurt,” Tanner clarified. The sharpshooter nodded his agreement when he saw the understanding light Chris’s feral eyes.

Getting wet in this type of cold would almost guarantee a death sentence. Standish stood a chance with snow, a very slim one, but still a glimmer of hope sparkled. The other six would latch onto it until it was either taken away or fulfilled as truth.

The two men struggled and climbed back toward the cave entrance. The fire Josiah had nursed into existence had sprung to life. The light of the fire was hidden from the brutality of whipping snow by the small bend in the cave that gave added shelter from the raging weather.

The two men entered just as JD and Buck dropped their last arm load of wood. Small dead trees were piled over the steady flame. Pine needle laded branches tented and curled over the small fire pit. As the fire stretched and grew it built its strength while it dried the heavier and larger branches and logs that criss-crossed over its top.

The fire would last all night without someone having to tend to it.

A wall of heat had already begun to beat back the deadly cold. Chris and Vin silently began stripping off their wet gear. Wilmington soon followed in their footsteps, persuading JD to do the same. Soon coats, sweat shirts, socks and wet long johns were laid out while the men donned dry gear.

Nathan rummaged through the packs pooling food and supplies. He tossed candy bars to the men. Three each. Snickers, Three Musketeers, and Milky Ways, flew from one end of the small cave the next. The six men greedily peeled the wrappers and wolfed them down. Stomachs tight with hunger, and clenched with cold were slow to welcome the onslaught of solid food. Heart rates increased and blood flowed under the onslaught of calories.

No one spoke as they ate. Reddened eyes constantly swept from the blazing fire to the darkened entrance of the cave curtained by the of relentlessly falling snow.

JD lay against his pack, his feet as close to the fire as Josiah would let him. As the temperature in the cave rose, the young man cautiously starting relaxing tense muscles.

Nathan broke large sticks and worked to force one end of them into the ground with Buck’s help. Soon outer gear was hung over the impromptu stakes allowing clothes to dry out.

JD slowly pushed himself to his feet, groaning at the sudden sharp intensity of the ache in his muscles. He ventured outside and grabbed a handful of snow and ate it.

“JD don’t,” Chris ordered softly from across the fire.

Dunne paused and lifted dry eyes up to meet the steady gaze of his boss. The question shown clearly in the young face.

“Snow’ll only dehydrate you quicker, make you thirstier,” Vin answered the unasked question.

Josiah tossed the kid a water bottle. JD missed it. The plastic container bounced off the cave floor and rolled a few feet before JD could gather it back up.

It was a testament to the younger man’s exhaustion…to all of their fatigue.

Chris moved to the mouth of the cave, the heat of the fire already too hot for him, unaccustomed to the immediate intense warmth after spending the day out in the bitter elements. He felt his face burn and tingle with the penetration of heat, beating back the numb created by the cold.

Larabee stared out into the storm. Whipping white bullets of snow razed the land, smashing into trees, skimming along the snow covered ground. Trees bent and snapped under the uneven, relentless gust of wind. Visibility was almost nil. Chris ventured outside the cave for a moment. The snapping bite of the weather had him stepping back into the warmth and protection of the cave.

Larabee stared into the night, into the curtain of flying snow and wondered if Ezra had found a place to hole up. He wondered if they would find their fellow agent with the blue,grey mask of death. Would they find him in the Spring?

Chris cursed and turned his back on the storm.

Part 3

In the bitter chill of predawn, the cave stirred slowly to life. The fire crackled and snapped casting dancing shadows on the granite walls.

No wind or snow whipped past the entrance of the cave. The world outside was still, as if it were burrowed deep down within the snow. Hidden or buried. Hibernating perhaps.

The six men slowly came to life. Weary bodies shifted and moved as soft groans vocalized the ache of over-worked muscles. Hunger sat like an impatient mistress waiting for attention.

Chris, Vin and Buck shucked off their sleeping gear and moved about the cave with forced alacrity. Within moments the other three followed their example without a word being uttered.

The six were up and packing their gear before the sun had fully risen. The fire still crackled and popped. Canteens were shared as the six men ate two more candy bars each.

Buck’s stomach growled. His belly felt tight, tense, as if it were eating its own lining. Muscles remained contracted over his midsection, even though he fought to get them to relax, but hunger fought back. Wilmington rubbed at his belly. Even after two candy bars he felt the vicious bite of starvation.

He wondered if Standish had anything to eat in the last 36hrs. He wondered if Standish was even alive. Buck immediately cursed himself for doubting.

Six sets of boots and socks had dried by the fire, resting soles up, having been spitted on sticks to dry out the insides. Wet footwear would get them nowhere but dead.

The agents dressed quietly in the warm confines of the cave. The fire offered warmth and comfort from the snapping bitter cold that sat just outside the cave entrance waiting to engulf them with their first steps from their shelter.

One by one the men had braved the early morning chill to answer nature’s call. And one by one they had hurried back inside to the warmth of the cave.

In the light cast by the flames, no one spoke. They each gathered their gear, carefully shucking their packs onto their backs and into comfortable positions on their shoulders. Straps were pulled tight, mittens were pulled on with teeth and hats readjusted.

With a heavy sigh, JD turned to face the startling crisp scene that lay just outside the entrance of the cave.

The unmarred snow glimmered and sparkled in the weak morning light, forcing him to squint his eyes and raise a hand to block the glare.

Vin boldly stepped from the mouth of their shelter. He took the lead with Chris following. The six men filed out, their fire crackling and snapping in the background.

“Shouldn’t we try and put it out?” JD turned to ask Josiah, worry clearly etched his features.

“There’s no risk of fire up here brother, not this time a year,” Josiah reassured.

“But…” JD protested thinking back on the television coverage of wildfires consuming thousands if not millions of acres of land the last few summers.

“There’s over 35 feet of snow up here JD; that fire ‘s gunna burn itself out long before any of this stuff melts, which’ll be about mid-summer up this high,” Buck reassured with a tired smile. “Besides, it’s in a cave, I doubt it’ll crawl those 15 yards through this dirt and snow to find some brush.”

Dunne merely nodded his head and fell back into line and headed out of the cave.

The cold hit JD with enough force to take his breath away. It wrapped around him like tentacles, cinching tight around his chest, threatening to steal the breath from him. The young ATF agent paused, instinct screamed at him to turn around and go back to the warm haven he had just abandoned.

A reassuring hand to his shoulder encouraged him to take another step forward.

JD complied. The cold air stabbed at his cheeks and nose. His lips dried out and his head hurt. Dunne tried to ignore his discomfort and forced aching, stiff legs to move forward, to follow, literally in the footsteps of Buck Wilmington. He curled his toes in anticipation of the painful discomfort that would surely creep through to bite his feet and fingers.

JD kept his eyes on the glistening snow, as it glittered and twinkled within the light of a new day.

He wondered if Ezra had survived the night. Wondered if they would find him with the same grey, blue frozen features of Soldan and his henchmen.

JD shuddered.

Vin skimmed along, leading the single file group. The ties he and Chris had laid out the night before, marking the trail, seemed terribly lacking. Tanner had thought they had made it further than they actually had last night.

After only a few hundred yards, their markers had ended.

Vin stood quietly in the forest. Trees stretched over head as far as the eye could see, emerging from a blanket of undisturbed snow. Crisp blue skies were dotted with stationary thick white clouds.

Nothing moved.

The other five stood behind Tanner single file, waiting for him to make a decision, to decide which way to go, which way would Ezra have gone.

Had they been in a city, Vin would have found that type of intuition easier to follow. Ezra was a creature of certain habits. He followed certain rules that he had learned under the tutelage of Maude and under the simple learning curve of survival. But survival on city streets was different than survival out here in the wilds. The predators were different, though the cold and rain and snow were the same and the desire to keep dry the same, the different environments herald different avenues of escape and respite.

Vin stood in four feet of fresh snow trying to discern what a city bred, gambling undercover agent would do to survive. He stood trying to figure it out, with five other men with faith in him that frightened him to the core of his being, what Ezra would do, if Standish was still alive.

Tanner stared into the forest remembering Ezra’s cocky statement saying he abhorred gambling and as such left nothing to chance… Where was the gambler’s ace in the hole? Where was his cheat?

“You hear a stream?” Chris asked. He stood still, trying to hear over his own heartbeat.

Tanner held his breath and cocked his head to the side, listening.

“Yeah,” Vin breathed out with relief. He knew what Ezra would do now, if Ezra had heard the stream too.

Tanner started walking down slope.

JD was relieved.

It was the first time they had angled down since they started this search. His relief was short lived. Within just a few steps tired thigh muscles burned with protest, knees cracked and his back ached. Walking down a mountain side in snow shoes with a pack, though quicker than walking up hill, was exhausting and painful.

JD pressed onward, like his teammates. Dunne put his foot in every print Buck created. The young agent would help find Ezra, and find him alive. Not greyish blue.

Within a few hundred yards they found a trickling stream as it meandered and bubbled over small rocks and around large boulders, timidly staying within its tiny snow covered banks.

Tanner allowed an uneasy grin to crease his face. He started following the stream.

“Vin?” Nathan asked, his hesitancy and fear clearly audible.

“Ez would’ve followed the stream downhill.” Vin explained as if it were as clear as reading a highway sign.

Nathan turned and stared past Buck and over JD to Josiah. Sanchez let a toothy grin split his face. He simply nodded. Jackson sighed and without further question followed after Chris. His doubt remained, but it was held secure by his faith in Vin and the reassurance he saw in Josiah and Chris’s actions to follow Vin.

Within a few hours the small stream slowly grew bolder, plowing into river rocks, cutting out gouges from its river banks and threatening trees that encroached too close to its borders. The stream had matured into a fledgling river.

Vin paused again.

“Gawd damn he’s been payin’ attention,” Tanner whispered as he rounded a small mound of snow. It was the small shadow that had caught his attention. A small circle had been dug into a plump burm of snow.

It faced away from the prevailing winds of last night. Vin squatted down and inspected the small hole. He stretched out onto his belly and inched forward into the hole, his head and shoulders all but disappearing. The others gathered around and waited.

Nervous eyes searched the forest for any signs of the hunters, the unseen predators with a high powered rifle and automatic weapons.

Vin lay on his belly and stared at the tiny cavern that had been dug by mittened hands. Heavy pine boughs still layered the floor of the impromptu shelter. Vin closed his eyes and laid his head in the snow offering up a quiet ‘thanks’.

The sharpshooter shucked out of the narrow tunnel, out through the hole and sat back into the bright daylight. He gazed up at the others with a smile on his face.

“Vin?” Buck asked trying to find a reason for the cocky grin on the Texan’s face.

“Can’t believe he actually listened,” Tanner said shaking his head. Chris reached down offering his hand and hauled the sharpshooter to his feet.

Buck broke out into a smile, his chapped cheeks cracked and furrowed with lines as a small smile creased his face, “Slimy little bastard ain’t he.”

JD couldn’t hide his relief, “Yup.”

This earned him questioning looks from the others. JD simply cocked his head in agitation, “Well he is.”

“I’ll tell’im you said so when we catch up to him,” Nathan joked. Ezra had survived the night. Thank God for small miracles.

“He’ll continue to follow the stream down,” Vin remarked.

”What make’s you so sure?” Buck asked.

Tanner chuckled, “Because one time he told me all great civilizations start near water,” Vin paused and chuckled, “Though I ain’t thinkin’ Cairo is at the foot of this river or even New Orleans, I’m bettin’ Ezra’s thinkin’ there’s maybe a one horse town at the bottom of this river with a mom and pop restaurant and a phone.”

“We should catch up to him fairly quickly,” Chris said as he searched the opposite side of the wooded river bank.

“How come?” JD asked.

“Cuz he’s gonna be cold n’ hungry and stiff as Hell,” Nathan answered, hoping they found Standish well before whoever hunted him did. Jackson paused and a small smile lit his face as he met Chris’s eyes, “and I’d guess he wasn’t too keen on starting out before the sun rose.”

Larabee cracked a small smile in agreement.

“Think they’re still after’im?” JD asked searching the surrounding woods for men with automatic weapons and a .223.

Chris and the others paused. “Yeah, kid I do,” Larabee answered with anger sharpening his words. The others nodded their agreement while hands automatically checked the whereabouts of their guns.

“Think they know to head down stream?”

“Don’t know JD, but I’m figurin’ they’re as cold and tired as we are, and there’s no way in Hell they’re gonna be plannin’ on going up over that ridge line. That leaves them with traveling parallel like we did yesterday or headin’ down like we’ve been doin’.” Vin paused and searched the woods with wary eyes. “I’m thinkin’ they’re headin’ down stream too.”

“If they survived last night,” JD pointed out.

“They did kid,” Buck answered with unsettling certainty.

“How’d you know Buck?” JD queried back, unhappy with Wilmington’s confidence.

“Cuz we did and so did Ezra, ain’t no reason to think they didn’t,” Buck replied.

Vin nodded silently and started following the river. The six men filed out, heading down stream away from the small snow cave that had provided shelter for their team mate.

Within a few minutes, Vin picked up a single set of boot prints, they appeared to shuffle laboriously through the snow. Within a couple hundred yards, Tanner found and recognized four more tracks that tucked in behind Standish’s.

The race was on.

Part 4

The gurgling sound of a the river had become familiar. The water was sharp in its clarity and brutal in its temperature. They had paused to fill their canteens and JD had risked a quick drink from the stream itself. It stung his teeth and shot spears of pain to his head. Dunne shivered and backed from the water’s edge.

The men walked and jogged for what seemed like hours, Chris, Vin, Buck and Nathan switching point. In his heart, JD wanted to take point, take his share of the responsibility of following the trail and help break more of a trail, but his legs and back and shoulders were thankful that that responsibility did not fall to him. Though he felt a spark of shame, he realized that Josiah had also been spared that trial. Perhaps Chris wanted two men ‘fresh’ to garner speed or quick reflexes if need be. Whatever the reason, Josiah and JD had been spared taking point, taking on the added work of breaking through a trail that five men had traveled earlier in the day. As the hours slowly passed the men fell into a rhythm, a routine.

Buck followed Chris’s steps much the same way JD followed his own. Buck looked to the sky. It had to be nearing noon.

It seemed Ezra was making better time than any of them had given him credit for after spending the night outside without a fire.

Running for one’s life seemed ample motivation for the southerner.

Wilmington skiffed his snow shoes following Vin, Chris and Nathan. They moved with short quick steps, the anxiety of being behind the hunters pulled nerves taut.

Ezra couldn’t be too far in front of them. That meant the men pursuing him had to be even closer.

Vin had not had to stop since finding the small den Ezra had carved out of the snow. It seemed their undercover agent was keeping out of the gun sights of those that hunted him.

It unnerved Wilmington, and he could tell it bothered Chris and the others that they had not caught up to the men they tracked. Buck scanned their surroundings, checking the shadows of the trees and rocks just like Josiah and Nathan did behind him.

The sharp bark of a rifle shot pulled Wilmington from his musings.

The six men stopped and dropped to the ground as the echo of the rifle bounced its way through the forest.

The six men pulled off mittens and gloves and uncovered their Sigs. They lay in the snow and listened intently. The soft individual plumes of whitened breath puffed into the air, rolling forth in tiny clouds.

Another shot pierced the afternoon. The high whine of a spiraling bullet as it passed down a rifle barrel sang out somewhere in front of them and to their left.

Chris waited, watching. They weren’t being shot at; the shooter was aiming at another target.

Vin turned to Chris and Larabee merely nodded.

The six men started skimming down hill, angling away from the bank of the river in amongst the straightening pines that grew taller than their relatives of higher altitudes.

The six men skimmed over the snow like ghosts. They snaked in and out of trees, five men easily reaching six feet with a smaller figure keeping pace within their midst.

Vin brought them to a halt just at the rim of a high mountain meadow. The river rolled a hundred yards or more behind them cutting its own path down the mountain range.

A third rifle shot exploded.

Tanner saw the muzzle flash across the small field. It lay at 9 o’clock if he sat at the 6 o’clock position.

Vin shook off his pack, holstered his side arm and removed the rifle. He raised it to his shoulder with easy elegance.

It made JD sweat. Tanner was efficiently graceful when it came to his weapons, or so Ezra had once said to JD.

Larabee saw a dark figure laying at the rim of the meadow at the 12 o’clock position. Chris watched as the figure slowly moved, apparently trying to roll over. A fourth shot blasted the area, kicking up snow next to the lone figure.

“Take that shooting son -of - a - bitch out.” Chris whispered harshly to his sniper.

Vin merely nodded and brought his cheek closer to the stock, taking aim at the dark silhouette that lay just within the protection of the forest at the nine o’clock position.

Chris shucked out of his pack and grabbed his sig. He signaled Buck and JD to shadow him, and took off through the trees to the figure lying in the snow a few hundred yards from them.

“Hurry up Chris,” Nathan muttered beside Vin. The healer watched for movement on the right hand side of Tanner allowing the sharpshooter to concentrate solely on his target. Josiah watched their backs and their left.

Chris sprinted for all he was worth circumventing the edge of the meadow keeping three to four trees deep within the forest. His snow shoes kicked up snow in his wake. Buck and JD followed closely behind. The three men ran with their guns down, their backs hunched as they cut through the forest.

Their breath crystallized in the air, as they ducked under branches and sidestepped downed trees. They moved as a unit, as a single minded creature intent on the hunt.

JD kept his eyes on Buck’s back.

Wilmington kept his eyes on the form in the snow that lay just outside the protection of the trees and just out of their reach.

Once again the dark shape moved.

A fifth shot split the afternoon air.

A sixth shot of a different pitch immediately followed. A cry of distress and then nothing.

Buck grinned. Vin was a hell of a shot.

The lone figure in the meadow bolted upright and crab crawled for the tree line.

Revolver fire shot snow into the air on either side of the struggling form. The solitary figure fell to the side and lay still.

The distinctive bark of Vin’s rifle stifled any more shots.

From the corner of his eye, Buck watched as three forms retreated back into the dark protection of the forest, fearing the deadly bite of Vin’s rifle. A sharp smile lanced his face.

Wilmington turned his attention back to their unmoving target which laid bare in the snow just a few yards from them.

Chris burst through the trees, all the while signaling Buck and JD to stay under cover, to watch his six.

Larabee slid to his knees, sending up a small cloud of powder as he dropped next to the inert tan jacketed form lying face down. Chris hesitated. Closing his eyes and steeling his resolve, he reached down and lifted one of the shoulders of the body up out of the snow.

He opened his eyes when he heard the hoarse drawl.

“Ah Mr. Larabee what an unusually pleasant surprise.” Standish smiled up at his boss, rosy cheeks dimpled and the gold tooth shimmered as snow melted and ran down his face.

“Ezra, what the Hell are you doing?” Larabee grabbed Standish’s coated shoulder and tried to haul his agent onto his feet. His undercover agent fumbled feebly in the snow trying to assist Larabee, but tired muscles were slow to respond.

“Waiting for you.” Ezra paused, “Mr. Tanner does have impeccable timing…don’t you think?” He slowly latched onto Larabee’s arm with a mittened hand and struggled to make it to his feet. Larabee coordinated his movements a little, slowing them down giving the sluggish agent a chance to gain his equilibrium.

Chris swore under his breath, lost his patience, then heaved his agent up and shoved him toward the trees.

Rifle shots pierced the afternoon. Snow danced into the air on either side of Chris and Ezra. Damn but they were bad shots - no wonder they depended on automatic or semiautomatic weapons, Chris thought with relief.

Another rifle shot split the afternoon. Standish stammered in his step.

The bark of Vin’s rifle answered in kind giving the two struggling men a slight reprieve.

+ + + + + + +

Buck’s relieved smile faltered when Standish took a stuttering step, catching the small puff of white coat insulation and billow of fine red mist that exploded off Ezra’s upper arm. Just as quickly Standish’s opposite hand snapped up and clamped over the area.

Wilmington cursed and squeezed a shot off across the clearing.

Larabee pushed his agent forward again, nearly sending him back to his knees. The two men crashed through the trees with Chris still hauling his undercover agent forward by his left arm.

Wilmington reached out and pulled them down behind a group of ponderosa pines.

“’Ey Ez, ya havin’ fun out here playin’ mountain man?”

Wilmington had his Sig out and continued firing at the shadows across the small clearing, forcing the shooters to keep their heads down even further; just for good measure. JD mirrored his actions.

“It is entirely overrated Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra huffed out leaning against the trunk of a tree with his eyes closed, “much too overrated.”

JD swung his gaze quickly to Standish and smiled, “Hey Ez.” JD frowned when he took in Ezra’s appearance, “Man, you look like shit.”

Ezra skewered up his face in distaste, “Why thank you JD; it’s good to see you too.” Ezra paused, trying to catch his breath and ease the dizziness that came on with the sudden changes in position. He rested his head back on the pine he sat against, “Carhart brown isn’t my best color.”

Larabee remained kneeling beside his agent and faced into the clearing searching for the men that shot at them. His gun arm remained extended and steady as his gun tracked with the movement of his eye. “You hit?” Chris asked without changing his glance.

Ezra closed his eyes and listened to his pulse beat just behind his ear drums. It felt good to let someone else take charge.

“Ezra? Are you hit?” Chris bit out again snapping his attention from the unseen men across the small meadow to his agent and then back to the clearing.

Buck and JD both quickly turned their attention to their Southern friend.

Ezra leaned against the tree with his eyes closed. They both watched as Ezra slowly nodded his head in affirmative.


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