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. Whos incredibly busy
yet still has time to do favors for others. Thanks guys youre
Mogs 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
it does not involve the whole story
I hope that is okay, Helen) October
the boys are involved in chase using 3 different
forms of transport. Running and walking dont count. Snow shoeing
isnt 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
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 Jins story Tell Me Your Thoughts
on God (ATF) was coincidence (weve emailed). Her story is fantastic
Size: Approx 215K
Part 1 - 4 | Part 5 - 9 | Part
10 - 14
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 Chriss 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 kids 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
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
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
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
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. Soldans 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 agents 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 hadnt
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.
Ive got a trail, Tanners voice sounded out from within
the depths of the forest.
Larabee and his team stopped what they were doing, turned toward Tanners
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 IDs 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
Noticed the back of the Durango was open and stuffs been rifled
hopin it was Ezra that did it.
Why didnt 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 aint alone JD, Tanner spoke as he pushed himself into
a standing position. Hes got people shootin at
.Probably didnt 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.
Hes out there somewhere and someones 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
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 youre 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 cant get a search and rescue unit
up here with a helicopter
.We dont 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. Vins 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 Josiahs 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 Nathans protective streak wouldnt allow JD to get too far
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.
There were at least four other sets of prints that Tanner could discern other
than Standishs. Vin lead them deeper and deeper into the mountains,
running parallel to the ridge line.
After a few hundred yards into the forest, Ezras 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. Standishs 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.
Lets 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
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 couldnt quite picture what Ezra
would look like frozen and dead in partially melted snow but at the same
time he couldnt 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.
Hes alive Brother Dunne.
The confidence and conviction with which Josiah spoke almost had JD believing
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
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 Texans 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.
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
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
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
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
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
JDs 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 wouldnt 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
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. Ill 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
Tanners grinning face.
Hes keeping to the game trail, Vins 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 friends body kept
Nathan searching the sides of the trail.
Hes following the game trail, Vin pointed down to the trampled
snow at his feet. Hundreds of cloven hoof marks marred the snow. Elk,
hes taken the elk trail
.they pass by here twice a day most
hes covering his tracks.
Shit, Larabee breathed out. How the Hell would Standish know
that? Chances were the slippery bastard wouldnt 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 wouldnt have to work as hard,
wouldnt have to break trail.
What about the others? Chris breathed out scanning the tree tops
on a whim.
Cant say for sure, might be followin this too
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 Vins gaze and felt the same fear and tension, What
do ya think?
We followem, 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 BBs. 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, JDs 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
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.
Well 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 Bucks 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 didnt have to be the biggest, or strongest or even the
one just had to try and try diligently.
Following Bucks lead, JD dug through the snow at the foot of a pine
and when he was well past his shoulders 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
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
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.
Its alright son, Josiah intoned, looking up from his work
of building and coaxing the fire, as this small kindling burns itll
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 couldnt 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 its 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 Chriss 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
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 Bucks 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 dont, 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.
Snowll 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
It was a testament to the younger mans exhaustion
to all of their
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
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
Chris cursed and turned his back on the storm.
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.
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.
Bucks 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 natures
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.
Shouldnt we try and put it out? JD turned to ask Josiah,
worry clearly etched his features.
Theres no risk of fire up here brother, not this time a year,
JD protested thinking back on the television coverage
of wildfires consuming thousands if not millions of acres of land the last
Theres over 35 feet of snow up here JD; that fire s gunna
burn itself out long before any of this stuff melts, whichll be about
mid-summer up this high, Buck reassured with a tired smile. Besides,
its in a cave, I doubt itll 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
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.
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.
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 Ezras cocky statement saying
he abhorred gambling and as such left nothing to chance
Where was the
gamblers 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
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
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
Vin? Nathan asked, his hesitancy and fear clearly audible.
Ez wouldve 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 Chriss
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
Vin paused again.
Gawd damn hes 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
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 Texans face.
Cant 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 aint
JD couldnt hide his relief, Yup.
This earned him questioning looks from the others. JD simply cocked his head
in agitation, Well he is.
Ill tellim you said so when we catch up to him, Nathan
joked. Ezra had survived the night. Thank God for small miracles.
Hell continue to follow the stream down, Vin remarked.
What makes 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 aint
thinkin Cairo is at the foot of this river or even New Orleans, Im
bettin Ezras thinkin theres 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 hes 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 Chriss
eyes, and Id guess he wasnt too keen on starting out before
the sun rose.
Larabee cracked a small smile in agreement.
Think theyre still afterim? 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?
Dont know JD, but Im figurin theyre as cold
and tired as we are, and theres no way in Hell theyre gonna be
plannin on going up over that ridge line. That leaves them with traveling
parallel like we did yesterday or headin down like weve been
doin. Vin paused and searched the woods with wary eyes.
Im thinkin theyre headin down stream too.
If they survived last night, JD pointed out.
They did kid, Buck answered with unsettling certainty.
Howd you know Buck? JD queried back, unhappy with
Cuz we did and so did Ezra, aint no reason to think they
didnt, 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 Standishs.
The race was on.
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 waters 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 Chriss 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 ones 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
Ezra couldnt 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 werent 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 oclock
if he sat at the 6 oclock 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 oclock
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
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 oclock 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 Bucks 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
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 Vins 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 Vins
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 Standishs
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
dont you think? He slowly latched onto Larabees
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 Vins rifle answered in kind giving the two struggling men
a slight reprieve.
+ + + + + + +
Bucks 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 Ezras upper arm. Just as quickly Standishs
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
JD swung his gaze quickly to Standish and smiled, Hey Ez. JD
frowned when he took in Ezras appearance, Man, you look like
Ezra skewered up his face in distaste, Why thank you JD; its
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 isnt
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
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.
Feedback would be great