An Innocent Man

by Angie

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Josiah wet his handkerchief and gently wiped Chris’s face. From the movement of his eyes under the closed lids, he knew it would only be a few minutes before he began to stir. He covered Larabee lightly with the blanket from the top bunk before going in search of the deputy. He found them on the floor of the interrogation room.

“What happened?”

Perry looked up from the prone body. “Seth was kicking him when I looked in. I called the doctor and he’s on his way. How is your friend?”

“Still unconscious. Do you want to move him out of here? We can pull the mattress off of the bunk in Chris’s cell and put him on that. You go pull the mattress and I’ll bring him out to you.”

The young deputy looked once more at the sheriff before moving to do as he had been told. He glanced at the ATF agent as he pulled the mattress down and out of the cell. The three young ruffians were huddled together on the bunk in the other cell and Seth was sitting on the floor glaring at him.

Josiah carried the sheriff out and gently placed him on the mattress. He carefully opened the collar button of the shirt and straightened Wilhelm’s arms at his sides. A soft moan from Chris caused Sanchez to hurry back into the cell. He eased Larabee to a sitting position and studied his face intently.

“How do you feel?”

Chris blinked hard at the sight of his friend in the cell with him. He glanced over at the kids in the next cell. They looked a little scared as he glared at them. The door to the jail opened and Ezra rushed in with another man. The other man dropped to his knees beside the sheriff while Standish slipped into the cell with Josiah and Chris.

“What happened?” Ezra’s green eyes were wide with concern as he took in the situation.

“They attacked me. That’s all I know.”

“The other guy attacked the sheriff in the interrogation room and kicked the crap out of him. They probably would have killed them both if I hadn’t come in here. The deputy was outnumbered and frozen in fear when I arrived.”

Josiah kept his voice low. He didn’t want to alienate the deputy since he had been kind to Chris while he was here.

The sheriff began to waken and demanded to be gotten up from the floor. As soon as he saw the two ATF agents in the cell with the prisoner, he became angry.

“Get them out of there, Perry. This is still a jail and he’s still a prisoner.”

Josiah clasped Chris on the shoulder before getting to his feet. Ezra offered out his hand and shook Larabee’s hand firmly before leaving the cell. Perry looked apologetically at both of them as he closed the cell door behind them.

The sheriff was tougher than he looked. After several minutes, he was standing and walking around the jail as if nothing had happened. The doctor checked Chris and gave him something for pain before moving to the group in the other cell.

Gill immediately began to complain about his arm and the doctor roughly adjusted the dislocated shoulder. He used a roll of gauze to secure the arm to the kid’s chest. Randy complained about the knot on his head and the doctor told him it wasn’t bad enough to warrant concern. He gave both boys something for pain before turning to the boy outside of the cell.

Seth hissed at him and pulled away so the doctor left him alone.

“Well, sheriff, I have another patient to attend to at the motel so I will be on my way.”

Chris came to his feet, concern filling his face. “Who got hurt? Josiah? Ezra? Tell me!”

“Vin and Buck got into it with yonder cretins at the bar. Our sharpshooter seems to have taken the worst of the damage. Nathan was tending him when we left. We’ll let you know how they are in the morning.”

Ezra’s expression belied the concern he felt for Vin but he didn’t want Chris to spend the night worrying about them. The southerner tossed a two-fingered salute as he and Josiah left the jail for the motel.

They were immediately cautioned to be quiet when they entered the room. Vin had finally gone to sleep on one bed and JD was asleep on the floor between the beds. Buck was nearly asleep sitting against the headboard of the other bed. Nathan had been watching over them, mostly because he was afraid the ladies man would fall out of bed and hurt himself more.

Dr. Flowers gently examined Vin before giving Nathan a prescription for pain pills. He had a few to get them thru the night and he left them as well. Buck growled at the doctor when he prodded the bruised ribs and stomach. It was apparent to the doctor that Jackson knew what he was doing.

“If they have any other problems, call me and I’ll come down and see what I can do to help. The pharmacy opens at nine in the morning and you can get that filled. And now, as it is well past my bedtime, I’m going home.”

After updating Nathan and Buck on what had happened at the jail, Josiah and Ezra headed for the other room to get some sleep. They knew that Jackson would stay with the injured men thru the night. The extra blankets and pillows were carried from the other room so he could make himself comfortable.

+ + + + + + +

Jamison Fielder charged into the jail with a full head of steam. His eyes narrowed as he saw three of his son’s friends crowded into one cell while the murdering ATF agent had a cell to himself. He approached the deputy and looked down haughtily at the young man.

“Where are Sheriff Wilhelm and my son?”

“The sheriff is laying down in the back room and your son is in the interrogation room, Mr. Fielder. Is there something I can do for you?”

“You can start by bringing me my boy. Then you can cut those other kids loose. I’ll pay whatever bail the judge orders in the morning.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Fielder, but your son assaulted someone and he will have to stay here until he is arraigned in the morning.”

“I spoke to the bartender. There won’t be any charges pressed. It was a simple bar fight, they happen occasionally. It’s just high spirits. Surely you remember your younger days and had a few youthful indiscretions.”

“Your son assaulted Sheriff Wilhelm. He knocked him down and kicked him until he was unconscious. I’m afraid he will not be going home to sleep in his nice, soft bed tonight.”

“You don’t have the authority to keep him here. Judge Cross is a personal friend. If I have to call and wake him in the middle of the night to get my boy out of here, you won’t have a badge for very much longer.”

“Then for as long as I have it, I will uphold the law I was hired to serve. Your son is not a minor and neither are the others. You may see your son in the morning after he is arraigned.”

Seething with rage, Mr. Fielder left the jail and drove home. He didn’t call the judge because he remembered what he had been told the last time he had bought his son out of trouble. Seth was getting too old for him to be paying everyone off to get him out of whatever situation he got himself into.

+ + + + + + +

It was a busy morning for the tiny town. The funeral for Wynsome Lightner was set for eleven in the morning. The arraignment for the four young men involved in the bar fight started at nine. The members of Team 7 awoke early in spite of their late night. They were just getting their food when Deputy Davis came into the restaurant.

He was hesitant to approach the group. All night, Perry had suffered thru his guilt. He should have stopped Randy Rogers from beating the helpless man a lot sooner. He also felt badly for the way the sheriff had spoken to them in the cell. Finally he made up his mind to do as much as he could. He approached the table.

“Gentlemen, I’d like to apologize for the way you’ve been treated. I thought you’d like to know that the judge is arraigning the kids from the bar at nine this morning. I don’t know if it will make any difference to him if you all show up but you should know.”

“Thank you, Deputy Davis. We appreciate the information.” Josiah offered his hand to the younger man and shook it firmly. After Perry left, he opened the paper that had been pressed into his hand. ‘Judge Cross is Seth Fielder’s Godfather’ was printed on it.

The members of Team 7 filled the bench immediately behind the prosecutor as the four young men were brought into the courtroom. Three pairs of parents occupied the bench behind the defense table. Two of the pairs looked ashamed but the third man looked angry and arrogantly glared at the ATF agents. The woman at his side was poker faced except for the occasional twitch along her cheek that betrayed the tension she was hiding.

The judge came in and took the bench. Josiah leaned forward and tapped the prosecutor on the shoulder. He whispered the information he had and made his request. The attorney actually paled as he studied the graying man.

“Your honor, I would like to approach the bench.”

Judge Cross glared at the man before nodding brusquely. He motioned for the other attorney to come up as well.

“Your honor, I respectfully request that you transfer this to Judge Hornbeck.”

“May I ask why you would make such a request at this point in time?”

“Because, your honor, they know you are Fielder’s Godfather.”

“And you feel that I cannot be impartial in this instance?”

“Not me, your honor, no. They will contact the State Attorney General if you don’t transfer the case. I have no problem with you ruling on the charges.”

“Fine, step back.”

As the attorneys returned to the tables, the judge studied the men who sat together in his courtroom. ‘They think they are so smart.’

“It seems that our visitors from out of town object to my hearing these charges since one of the defendants is my Godson. Allow me to clarify the situation for them. This is my town! This is my courtroom! If you don’t like the way I run my court, feel free to contact the State Attorney General. I will dispense with the arraignment and go straight to sentencing. The four of you will do 100 hours of community service. And just so there is no misunderstanding, in my town, community service is picking up trash along the roads and highway and keeping the town looking like the picture-postcard little hamlet it is. We’re adjourned.”

Only the firm hands of Josiah, Nathan and Ezra kept Vin and Buck from coming to their feet in protest. They stood respectfully as the judge left the courtroom before they turned to leave. Mr. Fielder glared triumphantly at them as they passed him.

They went to the jail to inform Chris of the travesty in the courtroom. He only shook his head in disbelief. The conversation was stilted between the men as there was little else they could talk about that wouldn’t upset them. They finally settled for listening as Ezra read the Denver paper that Mary was sending to him by Fed-Ex.

+ + + + + + +

Judge Travis reread the E-mail before sending it to the printer and picking up the phone. A bank had been robbed in Knoxville and one of the robbers was killed. The gun he was using was registered to Chris Larabee. He phoned the FBI agent who had sent him the E-mail.

Agent Kinder picked up the phone on the first ring.

“FBI, Kinder.”

“Agent Kinder, this is Orin Travis in Denver. I just got your E-mail. Is there anything you can tell me about the man who had my agent’s gun?”

“I have been assembling information on him for the past 12 hours. I’ll E-mail you everything I have so far. We’re still looking for his three friends. We think we know who one of them is but he’s a recluse living up in the hills. We got all kinds of weird around here.”

“I’d appreciate anything you can send me. Would you be interested in some help searching? I can probably get you three or four of my men. They are chomping at the bit to clear up another situation and it’s directly connected to your dead bank robber.”

“I can always use help. Especially if they know anything about tracking in the woods.”

Orin couldn’t contain the smile. “Agent Kinder, have I got the man for you. I hear tell he can follow the wind across the water. And he’s a hell of a sharpshooter to boot.”

“I’ll take him!”

+ + + + + + +

The gloomy team was having lunch when Josiah’s cell phone rang.

“Sanchez. Yes, sir, we’re all here. They did? That’s too bad. Knoxville? Hold on, judge, let me catch everybody up. A bank was robbed in Knoxville. One of the men was killed. He was carrying Chris’s gun. The judge wants some of us to go there and help them run down leads. If we can find the other robbers, we might find out who killed the girl.”

Josiah watched as nods went around the table, except for Vin, he looked saddened.

“He wants you to go, Vin. One of the guys is a recluse, lives in the hills, they don’t think they can find him without help.”

“I don’t want to leave Chris.”

“You’ll be helping Chris if you find this guy and we can prove that someone else killed that girl! Vin, you’re the best man for the job.” Josiah could hear the judge calling his name. “Sir? Yes sir. He wants to talk to you, Vin?”

A trembling hand took the cell phone. “Yes sir? Yes sir. But I … Yes sir. No sir.”

Vin returned the cell phone to Josiah after closing it. “I guess I’m going to Knoxville. He said two of you should stay. They’ll bring us another rental car this afternoon.”

JD asked the next most obvious question. “Who stays?”

They looked at each other, considering their strengths and weaknesses. Vin had to go, the judge ordered it but the rest of them had to decide. Ezra finally made a suggestion.

“Perhaps we should treat this like any other assignment, let Mr. Larabee make the call.”

A slight chuckle jumped from Josiah’s mouth. “Sometimes, Ezra, you can be almost prophetic in your thinking.”

A couple of hours later, the new rental car arrived. Shortly afterward, the team drove to the jail to receive their assignment. Josiah explained the situation to Chris and they waited for him to make the call.

“If four of you have to go, Nathan needs to go. Buck, you need to go, to keep an eye on Vin. After that, it’s either JD or Ezra. If this guy is a recluse, I don’t know how much good your computer skills will be, kid. It might come down to an undercover situation.”

Ezra nodded. “Then I shall go and Mr. Dunne will stay here. The judge can send him a laptop computer so we can keep in touch. We’ll leave after breakfast in the morning.”

They spent the rest of their visit discussing the investigation. It energized the group to have something to do, a direction to go in. JD was already eagerly planning for the computer so he could begin looking for the gossamer threads that connected the man with the gun to someone in this town. His mouth fairly watered at the prospect of being able to do something.

Vin was miserable. He was being sent away and Chris was going to have to stay in this, he hoped Josiah would forgive him for thinking, God forsaken town. He didn’t want to go. It was his fault that his friend was there in the first place. No matter how many times they said it wasn’t his fault, it didn’t help assuage his guilt.

After supper, they packed their bags and loaded them into the suburban. Ezra had picked up another deck of cards and some plastic chips and he organized a card game in their room. Buck brought a twelve pack of beer and some snacks and they tried to make a pleasant evening of it. It sort of worked. They all put on the façade of a good time while they played.

Breakfast the next morning was a dismal affair. Libby picked up immediately that something was wrong and slid a bowl of peach compote in front of Vin in an attempt to draw a smile from the handsome young man. It had the opposite effect, Tanner’s tears escaped before Nathan pressed a napkin into his hand.

As they were leaving the diner, Josiah explained to the waitress that they were going to Knoxville to follow up on some leads and that Vin was upset to be leaving Chris behind. She nodded knowingly.

“Tell him I’ll make sure that Chris gets plenty of comfort food. I know you’ll straighten this out really soon.”

“From your mouth to God’s ear, Ma’am. Thank you. JD and I will be staying, so I’ll let you know how things are going.”

Perry relented on the sheriff’s orders and let Vin in the cell for a few minutes with Chris before they left. They didn’t say anything as they stood facing each other. Finally, they clasped their forearms together. It was an understanding between them and a promise that they would be together again.

+ + + + + + +

The drive to Knoxville was thru some of the most ruggedly beautiful areas outside of Rocky Mountains. The two-lane blacktop roads were not made for speed and it took several hours to reach their destination. The judge had arranged a suite for them that had a kitchen at one of the better hotels in town so that they could fix meals if they desired. He had also had a laptop computer delivered for them.

+ + + + + + +

Since it was only the two of them that evening, Perry allowed them to play cards with Chris thru the bars. They played three handed poker and gin for a while. It was better than sitting and staring at each other. JD had already begun doing his research on the computer and was explaining to Chris about the possible leads he was already investigating. Josiah’s quiet countenance was a good balance for the kid’s bristling enthusiasm.

+ + + + + + +

After finding a place to get something to eat, the four men settled into their new quarters. Vin was still feeling poorly and out of sorts and retired to bed almost immediately. Buck took the other bed in that room and went to bed just to be supportive of the Texan. Ezra spent a couple of hours on the computer familiarizing himself with the information that the FBI had already gathered on the case. Nathan picked up a newspaper and read for a while before retiring to bed.

+ + + + + + +

The next couple of days passed slowly for the three men in the small town. Except for the couple of hours each day they spent with Chris, there was little for the two men to do. JD spent hours pouring over the computer information. He was hacking into some databases to get information on people who bridged the gaps between the people in the town and the dead man in Knoxville. Josiah left the room and drove out to the town cemetery to pay respects at the grave of the young woman.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Ezra studied the plat maps of the surrounding areas and made note of the last known locations of the man they were looking for. Buck and Nathan were working with Agent Kinder on running down other leads. They got regular E-mails from JD to keep them up to date on what was happening in town. They also got a daily menu courtesy of Libby so that Vin could be assured that Chris was at least eating well. The news that they had relaxed some of the strict rules in the jail was also good for all of them.

Vin and Buck rode out on horseback with Agent Piasecki to check some of the deserted shacks in the hills. The man they were looking for, Ernie Miller, was middle aged and had grown up in the hills and hollows of this area and he knew the place like the back of his hand. It was going to be a tracking challenge because they first had to figure out what track to follow.

They had started out early in the morning. The sturdy horses they rode were eager to be moving and climbed easily among the rough paths in the hills. The first few places where they stopped had been abandoned for a long time. Around noon, they came upon a cabin that had been used recently. As the three agents surveyed the area, Vin called a question to the FBI agent.

“Is there a woman connected with this Miller fellow?”

“No, he’s a real loner. We were really surprised that he came into town with those three men. Why do you ask?”

Vin gestured toward the trash. A tampon wrapper lay in the pile of trash that had not completely burned in the ash can. It wasn’t something a casual observer would notice and the FBI agent shook his head in amazement.

“That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a woman with one of the others though, right?” Buck suggested as he poked thru the other trash.

“It’s possible. I only know about Miller.”

After a few minutes, they mounted and went on to the next site on the map. They had a lot of ground to cover and they were coming up quickly on the court date for the trial.

+ + + + + + +

JD had been staring at the computer screen for several hours and his head was starting to hurt. He shut it down and reached for his tennis shoes. Maybe a jog would clear his mind. Josiah was sleeping on the other bed and he didn’t want to disturb him so he slipped out quietly. After some simple stretches, he set out up the blacktop road that passed the doctor’s house that Ezra had pointed out to him earlier in the week.

Chris had read and reread all of the newspapers he had and was tired of playing solitaire. He glanced over at the sheriff and sighed. He hadn’t exchanged more than a handful of words with the man that didn’t have to do with his incarceration.

“So, I take it that you aren’t married.”

Wilhelm looked up at the man in the cell. “Was married once, didn’t work out.”


“Yeah, she said she was tired of waking up alone at night and worrying about whether I was coming home or not. Finally took up with some traveling preacher. Got the papers in the mail a couple of months later. What about you?”

“Widowed. Three years ago. Lost my wife and son on the same night. Arson. Some thug with an ax to grind. I locked up his brother or something.”

“That’s rough. We got a few bad apples here but I try not to antagonize them.”

“Like the kid that kicked the shit out of you last week?”

“He’s just a dumb kid. Never had to work for anything a day in his life. He’s just mean as hell most of the time.”

“Your deputy seems like a good kid.”

The sheriff chuckled. “He’s funny. This is all he ever wanted to do. Even in high school, Perry wanted to be in law enforcement. I kept hoping the FBI or something’d pick him up, he’s really dedicated. He’d lay down his life in the line of duty.”

“Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to. Too many lives have been lost in this line of work.”

“What about that crew of yours? How’d you ever end up with that odd lot?”

“Hand picked every one except the kid. He came to me. Wanted to do something important with his life. God, there’s more information in that kid’s head than I could ever hope to know. He’s so eager that he makes my ass hurt sometimes but I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”

“What’s with you and the longhaired kid? If you don’t mind my asking, I never saw anyone so protective of anybody as he was that first morning.”

“Vin? He’s what Ezra calls a paradox. Vin’s an old soul on the outside over nine kinds of little kid inside. I wish I could explain it but I can’t. He brought back the joy I lost when I lost my family. He reduces things to their simplest form and deals with them. He used to be a bounty hunter. Saw a lot of evil in a lot of places. I don’t know how he did it.”

“A bounty hunter? Like, bring them back dead or alive? Wow? I would never have figured, he seems too quiet.”

“It was his idea to come out here. He booked a hiking trip in the mountains. He loves nature and being outdoors. He’d go nuts in a cell like this. He can’t take being confined.”

+ + + + + + +

JD was enjoying his run. Even though he was drenched in sweat, it was good for getting rid of the toxins that built up in the body when it was stressed. The sun was shining on his back and it felt good. The even rhythm of his pace was soothing to his nerves and the math problems he worked in his head kept his mind off of the present situation.

Gill and Jeff were cruising along the blacktop on their way to pick up Randy. They were going out to Seth’s for a party. Gill squinted at the smallish figure jogging along the road coming toward them. He yelled at his brother.

“Isn’t that one of those ATF guys? I thought they left town.”

“Nah, dad said only some of them left. A couple stayed to keep an eye on the one in the jail. I guess he’s one that stayed.”

They passed the jogging young man and went on down the road. Gill swung around and looked back at the ATF agent.

“Pull over at the Nielson’s and lets pick up some tomatoes or something.”

“You know dad said to leave those men alone! You want to take a hiding again?”

“You’re a coward, Jeff. I saw it at the jail. You didn’t even help. I got my arm dislocated and you just stood there. Wyn was your friend too, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah, but that kid didn’t kill her!”

Seeing the determined look in Gill’s eyes, Jeff slowed the car. They grabbed a couple of tomatoes apiece and jumped back into the car. Jeff eased the car back onto the road and approached the jogging ATF agent.

JD was working one of the more complicated math problems in his head as he reached the edge of what would be designated as the town. He heard a car slow behind him and he moved as far to the right as he could without having to worry about stepping off of the blacktop. The car didn’t pass him as the others had. Suddenly, he felt something hit the center of his back, knocking him off stride and causing him to fall directly into the path of the car!

Jeff saw the young man start to fall and swerved away as he passed him. The left front tire of the car dropped off of the blacktop on the other side of the road and the wheel jerked wildly in his hands. He overcompensated, pulling the wheel back sharply to the right and the car careened across the road. In his fear-driven response, Jeff stomped on the accelerator instead of applying the brake. The car left the roadway on the right side of the road and rolled over, into the ditch. The culvert in the ditch brought the car to a sudden stop and both boys were flung thru the windshield.

+ + + + + + +

As Vin slid from the saddle that evening, his knees folded. Buck caught him and held him up until his knees stopped wobbling. Nathan had warned him not to overdo but the stubborn Texan wouldn’t listen. He knew there were precious few days to find the killer before Chris went on trial and he was determined to do just that.

When they arrived back at the hotel, Buck sent Vin straight to the bathtub. The suite had a Jacuzzi system in the tub and it was just what the Texan needed. Nathan briefed him on what they had managed to piece together so far on the man who was killed. It appeared that he might have been in the area of the town where Wyn was killed. They were still running down leads.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah awoke with a start when his cell phone rang. He looked across the room and was concerned that JD wasn’t there. He opened the phone as he looked around the corner and into the dark, empty bathroom. The kid was definitely not in the room.


“Josiah, it’s JD. I need help!”

“JD, where are you? What happened?”

“There was an accident. A car accident. I’m about a mile from the hotel on that little blacktop. I fell and I can’t make it back but the kids in the car are in bad shape.”

“Ok, I’ll be right there.”

“Josiah, bring help. Please?”

As soon as the line went dead in his hand, Josiah snatched up the motel phone.

“There’s been an accident on the road behind the hotel about a mile out of town. Can you get the Sheriff or someone to get out there? There are at least two people hurt and possibly three.”

The man at the desk said he would call the Sheriff and hung up the phone.

Josiah jumped into the rental car and drove up the road looking for JD. He spotted the kid kneeling over a body on the edge of the road. He pulled over and turned the flashers on as he jumped from the car. The boy lying on the road was familiar. It took him a moment to figure out who he was.

“This is one of the boys from the jail. The ones who were beating Chris in his cell.”

JD looked up from the boy with tears in his eyes. “I know. The other one is over there, he’s dead. This one is still alive but I don’t know how long he can hold out. He asked me to forgive him for what they did to the others.”

The whine of the police siren and the flashing lights approached them. Another car also screeched to a halt behind the rental car and Dr. Flowers leapt out. He fell to his knees and gently touched the boy’s neck. He looked to Josiah as he reached out to try to turn the boy onto his back.

“In my trunk is a backboard, can you bring it over here?” He handed his keys to Josiah as he continued to gently examine the boy. When the board was placed on the ground, they transferred the boy onto it and carefully placed him in the car.

The sheriff stood over the body of Gill Franklin. “What happened?”

JD looked down at the sheriff from the edge of the blacktop. He could see that the man was deeply shaken by the sight of the broken body.

“I was jogging along the road. One of them hit me with something and I fell. The car went to the left and then to the right before it rolled over and struck that pipe.”

“I went to my senior prom with his mother. How am I going to tell her?”

Josiah stood behind JD. “You can start with ‘your other son is still alive.’ The doctor is taking Jeff to the hospital.”

Pulling the kid to his feet, Josiah practically carried him to the car. The sheriff turned in time to see the stain left by the tomato that had hit the young man causing him to stumble. He realized that they might as easily have killed the young ATF agent. Keying his radio, he called for Perry to send the coroner.

+ + + + + + +

Johnny pulled into the gas station in Oakdale and eyed the pretty clerk. He had robbed a liquor store earlier in the day and was looking to let off some steam. Parking the car, he went in and struck up a conversation with the girl. Ten minutes later, he dragged her, kicking and screaming into the bathroom. He beat and raped the girl before he strangled her to death.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Buck went out with Piasecki again the next day. They continued out from the last place they had left off the day before. They found no signs of occupation in any of the places they checked that day.

Ernie sat in the cave mouth and watched the three men on the horses. They were looking for something or someone. He pointed his rifle at the men and watched them. The longhaired man lifted his head and scanned the horizon. Miller faded into the shadow of the cave and laughed to himself.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah carried JD into the room and eased him onto the bed. He unlaced the tennis shoes and pulled them off. The kid’s right ankle was swollen and beginning to color. He brought one of the pain pills that the doctor had left the night he saw Vin.

“Where else are you hurt?”

“Mostly my ankle. My knee is skinned and I think my elbow.”

“Will you be okay while I run to the pharmacy and pick up a few things?”

“Yeah, go on.”

Josiah left the motel and stopped at the pharmacy. He picked up a chemical ice pack and an ace bandage. He also picked up an antiseptic spray and some band-aids. After he paid for everything, he returned to the room. JD had pulled off the sweat suit and put on a tee shirt and the shorts he slept in.

“You ready for the ice pack?”

“Just be careful. It hurts really bad, Josiah.”

After activating the ice pack, he gently rested it on the top of JD’s foot. He lifted the kid’s foot and stuck a folded pillow under it. He pressed the pack a little more firmly against the bruised limb and held it as JD hissed and groaned.

The doctor knocked on the door several hours later.

“I wanted to check on your friend. Is he doing okay?”

“His ankle is badly bummed up. Will you take a look at it? I gave him one of the pain pills you left for Vin and he’s asleep. I bought an ace bandage but I was afraid to wrap it.”

Dr. Flowers gently probed the bruised and swollen ankle. The kid moaned and tossed in his sleep as the doctor rotated the ankle while feeling for damage. He took up the ace bandage and wrapped the ankle.

“He’ll be okay. It’s just badly sprained. You can keep giving him the pain pills. He’ll need to take it easy for a while.”

“Thanks. How is the other kid?”

“He’s in a coma. If he comes out of it, he’ll never walk again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’ll be back in the morning to check on him.”

+ + + + + + +

Nathan offered to ride with Vin and Piasecki the next day. Buck and Ezra were headed for the town of Maryville to investigate a lead. The dead robber, Joel Fanger, had a gas station receipt in his wallet. They were going down to see if they could find anyone who remembered the man.

The landscape was rugged and the three agents were exhausted by noon. The sun beat down on man and horse alike. Vin called a halt for a couple of hours to rest the horses. They sat in a clearing, eating the sandwiches they had brought along. A slight breeze stirred the air and the soft boughs of the evergreen trees waved gently.

A continuous ache had set up in Tanner’s ribs. He stretched out, leaning against a small boulder. The sun felt good as it soaked into his body. This was what he’d had in mind when he signed up for the hiking trip. Even in his relaxed state, he was keenly aware of every move around him. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Nathan as he moved into the woods to relieve himself.

Ernie watched the men in the clearing. He frowned when he noticed the black man in the woods. The other two were the ones he had followed the day before. He reached down and caressed the handle of the big bowie knife. As the black man moved away from the other two, Miller made his move.


+ + + + + + +

Josiah awoke to the sounds of his young roommate hopping across the room to the bathroom. He rolled over and checked the time on the clock. Rolling out of bed, he scrubbed at his face as he finished waking. A roll of thunder announced the weather for the day. He jumped up as JD hissed and cussed after trying to put weight on his sore ankle.

“Hey, how’s the ankle?” He took the kid by the upper arm and supported him as he moved back over to the bed.

“Hurts like hell. I hurt all over, Josiah. Will you hand me the laptop? I want to check our E-mail, see what the other guys have got.”

Josiah left the kid tapping on the computer while he showered and shaved. When he came out, JD was perusing headlines in local newspapers. He had a search program running that would bring him any stories with certain key words and phrases in them. The older man shook his head in awe at the ease with which the young man navigated the information superhighway.

“You hungry? I’ll bet Libby will have something nice this morning.”

They had breakfast at the diner before heading over to the jail to see Chris. Wayman was already there. He had several folders lying on the table pushed up to the bars of the cell. The look on Chris’s face was not pleasant.

“Gentlemen, I was just explaining to Chris that we were turned down for a rehearing of the bail situation. We were also turned down for a change of venue. Apparently, this Judge Cross has friends in high places. They ruled that we don’t have enough reason for the change.”

“What happened to JD?”

“The Franklin boys tried to run him down yesterday. It’s just a twisted ankle. He’ll be okay in a day or two. One of the boys, Gill, was killed. The other one is in the hospital in a coma, Doc Flowers says he won’t walk again.”

“This just keeps getting better and better.” Chris murmured as he drew his hands thru his hair. He stood and paced back and forth in the cell.

“Vin said to tell you that they’re on the trail of the friend of the guy they caught with your gun. The other guys send their best wishes.”

“Tell them I said to hurry up. I want to get out of here. Just kidding, JD, tell them I said to watch their backs. I don’t want anybody else to be hurt because of me.” His look was pointedly directed at the thick wrap on the young agent’s ankle.

“This wasn’t your fault, Chris.”

“What have you got, Mr. Wayman? Are they still digging up skeletons?”

“Yes, and they’re finding a lot of them. Mr. Larabee did a good job of providing them with mud to sling in the courtroom. We don’t have much of a defense. He doesn’t remember what happened. We have no witnesses.”

“What about clues on the body? Did they check her for DNA or any proof that anyone else might have done it?” Josiah asked as he pulled up a chair.

“They didn’t find much, a couple of hairs. We sent them out to the lab in Washington. There was only one DNA type inside of her, Chris’s. Losing the rental car hurt us badly. If they could have dusted the car we might have gotten a lead.”

The rest of the hour was spent reviewing the files that the prosecutor had gotten from the Denver area. It was a very sobering meeting. They had only a week until the trial and still had no defense.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan never saw what hit him. He felt a burst of pain across the back of his head and then darkness. Ernie caught him and lifted him into a fireman’s carry. He rushed into the woods with his burden and slipped back into one of the caves he used as a hideout. Slipping back out of the cave, Miller ran back to the tree where he had grabbed the man and created another trail leading away. He doubled back around to the cave and brushed thru the leaves to obliterate his trail. The vines and bushes concealed the opening of his shelter. He bound and gagged his captive.

Vin sat up quickly and looked around the clearing. Something was definitely wrong! He glanced toward the horses and then back at the shack they had searched. Piasecki was replacing his canteen on his saddle horn. Nathan was missing!

“Where is Nathan? Piasecki, where is Nathan? Did you see which way he went?”

The FBI agent whirled and scanned the woods as he pulled his gun from his holster and dropped into a protective crouch. He looked across the clearing to see that the ATF agent was doing the same thing. They peered into the trees as they stealthily crept toward the shack. There was very little cover in the clearing.

Nathan opened his eyes in the near darkness of the cave. He was lying on the cold ground with his hands tied behind his back. He rolled over and looked around to see if he was alone. In the dappled light, he could just make out the profile of a man squatting a few feet away. The slight breeze that blew into the cave carried the odor of the man’s body to his nose.

The two men searched for Nathan for over an hour before Vin began to panic. They found three places where it looked like someone had urinated on the ground but the tracks were crossed and confused. Piasecki tried his cell phone only to discover that they had no signal in the low recess of the valley.

“You’re going to have to ride out for help. Bring in some more agents and maybe a helicopter to search. I’ll stay here and continue to try to find him.”

The FBI agent studied the intense face of the ATF agent. He had gotten the sense that the young man was carrying a burden almost too large for his shoulders when he arrived in Knoxville. He feared the additional loss of Nathan would push him over the edge and make him do something irrational. It would take over an hour to get to a place where he could use the cell phone to call for help.

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