An Innocent Man

by Angie

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Buck and Ezra entered the gas station in Maryville and approached the cashier. The young man examined the receipt and shook his head.

“I wasn’t on duty at that time. That would have been Sam or Amy; they alternate on Saturday’s. They already took down the schedule from that week or I could tell you which one was working for sure. The manager will be here in a couple of hours and you can ask him.”

“Does the video camera work and do you keep the tapes?” Ezra asked hopefully.

“I dunno. You’d have to ask the manager.” The kid shrugged apologetically.

The two agents left the station and sought the sheriff. They were hopeful that the man they were looking for had been noticed while he was in town.

“If the constabulary of this hamlet are as diligent as the ones in Spencer, I doubt that they will have anything meaningful to tell us.”

“I can dream, can’t I?” Wilmington said with an exasperated sigh.

Arriving at the tiny building that held the jail and sheriff’s department, the two agents climbed out of the suburban. The cinderblock building was set back from the road and had only four parking spaces allotted to it. There didn’t appear to be anyone inside. The sign on the door said ‘back in an hour’ with no indication of when that would be.

Buck stomped around in aggravation for a minute before kicking at the gravel along the side of the parking lot. The universe seemed out to piss him off today for some reason.

“Perhaps the local diner? If we don’t find the constabulary there, maybe there is a kind soul like Libby who would be of service.”

Arriving at the only diner on the main road, they went inside. The waitresses were a couple of decades younger than Libby. Ezra could almost hear the telltale ‘click’ as the Wilmington charm was kicked into high gear.

The women in the diner didn’t recognize the picture of the man but they were entirely fascinated with Buck. By the time they left, he had their phone numbers and an invitation to come back anytime.

They returned to the jail and noticed that the sign was gone from the door.

“Hello? Is anyone here?” Buck called as he looked around the room. A single desk sat in the corner of the space and two, tiny cells lined the back wall. A wobbly, metal rolling table held a Mr. Coffee machine that had obviously seen better days.

“Can I help you with something?” A voice called as the sound of a toilet flushing announced his presence. The man had the same Smokey the Bear look that the lawmen in Spencer had and it caused Buck to smile.

“We’re from the FBI office in Knoxville, investigating a man who was killed during the commission of a bank robbery. The man had a receipt from your local gas station in his wallet and we were hoping that maybe you would recognize him.” Wilmington’s voice had a good-old-boy tone and his smile was easy as he offered the sheriff the picture of Fanger.

“Yeah, he was with a couple of other guys. Had a little run in at the tavern a couple of weeks ago. I ran them off.”

“Did you, by any chance, get the names of his compatriots?”

The sheriff turned his gaze on the green-eyed man and raised his eyebrows. He took in the expensive, tailored suit and fancy shoes the man wore.

“Yeah, I got their names. Let me see if I can find the report. Have a seat; I’ll be right back. Help yourselves to the coffee, it’s fresh.”

It took an hour for the sheriff to find the report. He made a copy for them. One of the names was Ernie Miller and the other was a young man named Taylor Cottman. The car was registered to Cottman. It was the first good, solid lead they had gotten in a while.

They had just decided to forgo the gas station when Ezra’s cell phone rang. He tossed a worried look at Buck before answering the phone.

“Standish. When? You just left him up there alone? It will take us a couple of hours to get back to Knoxville. No, I’ll call him. You get every man you can up there to help with the search!”

Buck’s face was lined with dread. “What happened?”

“Nathan disappeared while they were searching around an abandoned shack. Piasecki had to ride out to get to a place where he could make a call and he left Vin up there alone to search. We have to get back to Knoxville. I told him I would call the judge and let him know.”

“Are you going to call Josiah?”

“I don’t think I have any choice.”

The drive back to Knoxville was as fast as safely possible. Buck guided the big vehicle at speeds that left the southerner thankful that he hadn’t eaten anything in Maryville. Ezra had stopped counting the number of times that his seatbelt had locked, holding him in place as the suburban accelerated or decelerated around the cars that did not get out of the way.

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Josiah hung up the phone after talking to Ezra and looked across the room at JD. The kid was still hard at work, scrolling thru the information his search program had yielded for the day. At hearing the weary sigh from the older man, Dunne looked up expectantly.


“Nathan is missing. He rode into the hills with Vin and just disappeared. The FBI is going to mobilize a search party and Ezra and Buck are racing back from some place called Maryville. They did get a lead, though, one of the guys with Miller was named Taylor Cottman and the car they were driving was registered to him. Why don’t you see if you can dig anything up on him?”

JD’s eyes were almost impossibly large as he stared across the room. “Are you going to go tell Chris about Nathan?”

“Not until I know something more or in the morning, which ever comes first.”

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Vin castigated himself again and again. He wasn’t paying enough attention and Nathan was missing. He had left the horses at the clearing and was searching in an ever-widening circle around the shack. Piasecki said he would ride out and call for help but he knew that he couldn’t afford to wait for that help to arrive.

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Ernie crept back to his prisoner and studied the man for a minute. He had already taken the man’s gun from the shoulder holster. It was a fancy gun, one like the other kid had at the robbery. He ejected the clip and checked the ammunition. It had a full clip.

“What are you doing up here anyway, fed? Who are you and your little friends looking for? They’ll never find me. I been in these hills all my life. You gonna wish you had never come up here, boy.”

Nathan avoided a direct gaze, not wanting to provoke the man. He had heard Vin calling for him several times in the past couple of hours. The desperation in the Texan’s voice was heart breaking. Miller seemed not at all concerned about the search, confident that he was safe in his little hiding spot. He had been working steadily on the rope that bound his hands, hoping to free himself. The rope was damnably tight and his fingers were going numb from the effort.

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There was a group assembling on the parking lot of the FBI building when Buck peeled into a parking space. Two trailers of horses stood ready to go and an assortment of motorcycles and ATV’s were gathered at the far end of the lot. Agent Kinder recognized the vehicle and ran to meet them as they got out.

“We were just getting ready to go out. Do either of you want to change clothes before you go?” He assumed they would want to be part of the search party. “You can take your pick of horse or wheels.”

Neither man was willing to waste the time to drive back to the hotel to change clothes and took the Kevlar vests that Kinder held and put them on. They followed the FBI agent to the dual cab Ford dually that was pulling the first trailer of horses. Following quick introductions, the truck pulled out of the lot.

Kinder updated them with all the information he had as they rode. Piasecki had headed back up to find Vin after calling for help. They assumed that Miller had grabbed the ATF agent, although they had no idea why.

The truck came to a stop at the end of a rutted gravel road. The agents spilled out of the truck and began to unload the horses. Buck and Ezra surveyed the animals as they were saddled and singled out the two they wanted.

Agent Perez looked up in surprise as the mustached man took hold of the reins of the big roan. The animal was high spirited and difficult to control sometimes. One look at the hard, blue-eyed glare caused him to release the grip he had maintained on the horse. The ATF agent swung into the saddle and quickly halted the sidestepping and head tossing. Perez nodded in approval, he saw that the man could handle the irascible animal.

Ezra approached the man saddling the animal he had selected. The FBI agent watched as the well-dressed ATF agent adjusted the length of the stirrups. The horse he had chosen was well mannered and had a pleasant disposition. Standish ran a knowledgeable hand over the horse’s withers and checked his legs and feet before mounting.

Agent Kinder shook his head in amazement. He would not have guessed that the southerner would have known anything about horses from the way he dressed. ‘Looks can be deceiving’ his wife’s voice sang in his head. The two displaced FBI agents indicated that they would grab wheels when the other trailers arrived. They moved out quickly because they knew they only had a few hours of daylight left.

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Piasecki arrived back at the shack and began to search for the ATF agent. Both horses were still tethered where they had been when he left. He called for the younger man.

Vin heard the FBI agent yelling his name and detoured back to the shack. As he was climbing up a steep gorge, he heard a gunshot. Fear coursed thru him as he flattened himself on the ground and looked around. He couldn’t pull his gun because he needed both hands to climb. Easing up to the top of the narrow slot, he peered around.

The FBI agent panted in between bouts of coughing. The bullet had entered under his arm in an area not protected by his vest. He lay on the ground with his gun clenched in both hands as he waited for death.

Ernie laughed. It had been too easy. The FBI agent went down after his first shot and didn’t get up again. He had seen the blood spray when the man coughed and knew he had blown a lung. Climbing down from the tree, Miller quickly trotted back to the cave. Now that the longhaired agent had an injured man to look after, he would not be able to roam around in the woods looking for the hideout.

Vin was forced to creep around the clearing to find cover. He didn’t want to put himself into the line of fire. The FBI agent was still moving and coughing, so he knew he wasn’t dead. Coming up behind the cabin, Tanner called to the other man.

“Piasecki, can you hear me?” He saw the gun move and the head turned weakly. Gathering his courage, Vin dashed out to the downed man and grabbed him by the arm. Dragging the injured man into the shelter of the cabin, Tanner examined his wound.

“Did you see where the shot came from?”

“No, I was just tethering the horse when I got hit. Is it bad?”

“Probably got your lung. Hold still while I check for an exit wound.”

The FBI agent groaned as the vest was loosened and pulled away from his chest. A stabbing pain in his side announced the broken rib that had punctured his lung. He pulled against the ATF agent as he panted thru the waves of pain that rolled over him.

Vin pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and folded it into a small, square pad. Pressing it against the hole, he refastened the Velcro straps on the side of the vest to hold it in place. He eased the man onto his back and looked around the clearing again.

“No exit wound. Do you think you could ride if I put you up on the horse?”

Piasecki shook his head. He was already weak and dizzy from shock and blood loss.

“Kinder is sending up a search party. Horses and wheels, the whole cavalry. Did you find anything at all?”

“No, not a thing. This guy Miller is good. In the leaf litter, it’s really hard to find a trail. He must be dragging a branch or something to cover his trail. Keep still, I’m going to get the canteen for you.”

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Buck and Ezra rode point. The FBI agents were hard pressed to keep up with them. Neither man spoke as they rode. Their mood quickly communicated itself to the rest of the search party and the whole group moved with quiet determination. They reached the first of the markers that Piasecki had left and picked up the pace.

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Ernie snuck back into the cave. His captive was sitting up against the back wall of the cave. The dark skinned man was glistening with sweat even in the cool air of the hideout. Miller knew that could only mean one thing, the man was struggling to free himself from his bonds. Pulling the captive from the wall, he saw the blood that soaked the ropes.

“You keep that up and I’ll use steel. We’ll be moving out of here after dark so just settle down there and take it easy. You want a drink of water?”

Nathan nodded, he was fiercely thirsty. The man moved close and released the gag. Hefting the canteen, Ernie poured the water down Jackson’s throat. After a couple of swallows, the canteen was withdrawn.

“Why have you taken me?”

“You’re trespassing in my valley.”

“We were only trying to find a man that killed a young girl over in Spencer.”

“Spencer is a long way from here.”

“That would make it a good place to hide out. They will send more men up here to look for me. Wouldn’t it make more sense to let me go and I’ll just take my friends and go.”

“I let the air out of one of your friends. It’ll keep that longhaired kid from looking too hard for us. Until he dies at least.”

Nathan opened his mouth to protest and was knocked unconscious by the hard left that slammed the back of his head into the stone of the wall behind him. Ernie laughed as the black man slumped over.

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Josiah and JD spent the evening staring at the television without seeing anything that was on it. The kid had tried reading the information on the laptop but found that he couldn’t concentrate from one screen to the next. The doctor had stopped by after supper and rewrapped his ankle pronouncing it much improved. It was going to be a long night.

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Vin dragged Piasecki into the shack as darkness approached. He had pulled Nathan’s saddlebags and carried them inside to tend to the FBI agent’s injury. The man was fading fast. He had lost a lot of blood and was struggling against the pain of the collapsed lung.

“Stay with me, man. You can’t die on me out here!” The Texan was almost afraid to be left alone in this strange, isolated place with a man he couldn’t trail.

Dusk was casting long shadows on the clearing when Buck and Ezra crested the top of the trail. They saw the three horses tethered near the shack. As the other agents rode into the clearing, Ezra called out to his missing friend.

“Vin? Where are you?”

Tanner bolted up from the floor of the shack. He jerked the door open and stepped out.

“Ezra? Buck? Thank God! Piasecki is hurt! I need help!”

Grabbing their bags, several of the FBI agents ran into the ramshackle building. Vin watched as the rescue party flooded the clearing. He stared at his two friends, despair shining brightly in his blue eyes.

“I couldn’t find him. I searched and searched. I can’t trail the man! He faded into the underbrush with Nathan!”

“We’ll find him, Vin. Calm down!” Buck’s voice was even and level as he steadied the Texan. Now that the three of them were together, they would find their friend. “We’ll make camp here tonight and start searching again at daylight.”

Ernie slung the black man across his shoulder and carried him thru the woods. In spite of the darkness, he could make his way to the bigger hideout that he favored. After dropping his captive in the deep crater at the back of the cave, he covered the opening with brush and settled in for a good night’s sleep.

Ezra, Vin and Buck were up at the first hint of daylight, saddling their horses. Agent Piasecki died during the night. Tanner’s guilt was almost overwhelming. Kinder mounted up and rode out with them along with two other FBI agents.

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When they hadn’t heard from the rest of the team by the time they were to visit Chris, Josiah knew that he had to give their leader the bad news. He sat down outside of the cell and looked thru the bars.

“You never could bluff, Josiah. What happened? Did Ezra get hurt again?”

“Chris, Nathan’s missing. He disappeared while they were searching for that Miller fellow. Vin’s still up there searching for him. Buck and Ezra returned from Maryville to join the search party. We haven’t heard from any of them yet.”

Larabee slumped in the cell. He knew that Vin must be going thru hell. First he blamed himself for them being in Spencer. Now he had lost Nathan.

‘If only I had gone to sleep that night! If only I hadn’t gone back to the bar! It’s all my fault and Vin is blaming himself! Why!’

“Chris! Don’t go shutting down on us! They’ll find him. Buck and Ezra will be with him and Vin will find Nathan. You have to keep the faith!”

“Faith was always more your suit than mine, Josiah. My faith was always in my gun and my friends at my back. Now my friends are in trouble and I’m stuck here in this God forsaken town!”

A slight smile crossed Josiah’s face. “You know, Vin said that same thing to me when we first got here. I’ll tell you the same thing I told him. No place is God forsaken, Chris. You just have to hold on to your faith.” Pulling the cross from around his neck, he passed it thru the bars. He smiled to see Larabee clutch if firmly in his hand.

“What about you, JD. Are you still running down leads? Anything promising?”

The kid looked up at the forced smile on the blonds face.

“I’m still running them down. Ezra gave us another name to run down. If there’s a connection, I’ll find it. I promise you that.”

“I believe you, JD. If it’s there, you’ll find it. I have faith in you.”

When the visit was over, they returned to the motel. JD pulled up the results of his search program and began to review the files. Josiah called the Knoxville office to see if they had any more information on his friends. As he was listening to the agent relay the number of men now searching for the missing agent, Dunne began to waive his hand and demand attention.

“Look at this, look at this, Josiah. A woman was beaten and strangled to death in a little town called Oakdale. That’s only a couple of hours from here! It says that she was strangled and left in the bathroom of the place where she worked.”

Josiah asked the FBI agent to contact the authorities in Oakdale and try to get hold of any evidence left on the girl’s body. It wasn’t much but it might be enough to create reasonable doubt and one juror was all they would need.

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Vin slid from his horse and pulled aside some of the leaves on the ground. There, in the topsoil, was a single footprint. For the first time in two days, hope surged in Tanner’s veins. He picked up a stick and began to gently move the leaves aside. The man they were searching for had finally left a trail he could follow.

“He has an uneven gait. See here, the longer stride and then the shorter one? I’ll bet he was injured at some time and he has a permanent limp. He’s carrying Nathan. See how deep the tracks are?”

The excitement in Vin’s voice caused his friends to smile. That was the Tanner they knew and loved. He remained on the ground following the trail so Buck and Ezra climbed down to walk behind him with their guns drawn.

Nathan groaned as he awoke. The darkness was nearly absolute. His arms and shoulders ached from the ropes that bound him. The ground was moist and he shivered with the cold. He began to work again to free his hands.

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Johnny rolled over and nudged the woman lying beside him. He had picked her up at a bar the night before. She’d had some good pot and they had smoked and drank and partied well into the night. Now she was still passed out and it made him angry. Wrapping his hands around her throat, he choked the life out of her. He rolled her body into the lake and drove off.

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Josiah spoke to the sheriff of Oakdale.

“Any physical evidence you get from the body should be sent to the lab in Washington. They will put it thru all the tests and hopefully match it to the evidence from the girl killed here in Spencer.”

“There wasn’t much, apparently he used a condom when he raped her. They may have gotten something from under her nails. I’ll have everything sent off to the lab. Good luck, Agent Sanchez.”

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Ezra and Buck handed their reins to Kinder and motioned them to stay where they were. Vin was approaching a hole in the rocks and they didn’t want the sound of the horses warning anyone who might be inside.

The Texan lay on his stomach and crawled toward the dark opening. He motioned Buck around to the right and Ezra to the left as he moved up the center of the slight incline. The bushes that concealed the opening were dead, that had been the first clue to the tracker. His sensitive nose had also picked up the scent of human waste.

The other two ATF agents were pressed along either side of the opening when Vin pulled the brush aside and peeked into the hole. It sloped downward sharply and disappeared into darkness. Questioning expressions covered all three faces before Buck slipped into the opening.

Ernie awoke and reached for the gun he had taken from the ATF agent. In the darkness of the cave, the muzzle flash of the 9mm was bright and the noise loud. Ezra and Vin rolled into the opening and came up in a crouch. Another shot rang out and three shots answered. The agents did not hear the dull thud of a body hitting the ground over the ringing in their ears.

Agent Kinder leapt from his saddle and ran to the opening of the cave, shouting.

“Vin! Buck! Ezra! Answer me!”

Buck slid down the wall of the cave as he called out. “We’re all right! We need some light down here!”

The beam of a flashlight cut thru the darkness and revealed the body of Ernie Miller where it had fallen. Kinder slipped on the sticky, slick ground and landed hard on his backside. The flashlight rolled free and fell into a hole, plunging them into darkness again.

“Excellent move Agent Kinder. I do hope one of your compatriots brought another flashlight. Assuming, of course, that you haven’t injured yourself in your fall.”

Another light was passed into the hole and Kinder took it and shined it on the place where the other light had disappeared. Vin crawled over and peeked into the hole.

“It’s Nathan! We need a rope! Hurry!”

Ezra scrambled out past Kinder and grabbed the rope from his saddle horn. He pulled the slipknot around the horn and unrolled the rope as he ran back into the cave. Vin grabbed at the rope and lowered himself over the edge. He dropped into the hole and dropped to his knees at Nathan’s side. Fumbling with his pocketknife, he cut the ropes from Jackson’s hands and then removed the gag from his mouth.

Nathan felt himself being pulled into a sitting up position. In the light from the flashlight, he looked into a most welcome sight. He felt his hands being massaged and rubbed vigorously between warm hands.

“Mr. Tanner, what is Mr. Jackson’s condition?”

“I’ll have him up in a minute Ezra. He’s just cold and stiff.”

After a couple of minutes, Vin urged Nathan to his feet and tried to boost him up out of the hole. Ezra reached over the edge and pulled him up. Between the two of them, they managed to get Jackson out of the hole. Tanner grabbed the rope and pulled himself out of the hole. Standish had already lead Nathan out of the cave.

Kinder crawled out, his behind was bruised and it hurt to stand. Vin knelt next to Buck. The ladies man was clutching his chest and gasping for breath. Tanner ran his hands quickly over the vest and found no wet spot on it anywhere.

“Vest stopped it, Vin. Just knocked the air out of me. Help me up.”

Vin pulled Buck’s arm across his shoulder and brought him to his feet. The other two FBI agents reached in and pulled them out of the cave. The six men collapsed to the ground and looked around at each other. Ezra was massaging Nathan’s shoulders after having draped his jacket over them. Kinder was standing and working out a limp.

After a couple of minutes had passed, Kinder and the FBI agents went into the cave and brought out the body of Ernie Miller. One of them handed Nathan his gun before walking away. The rescue party had brought different radios with them and they called for extra horses. Vin was eager to get out of the hills so he insisted that they put Jackson on his horse and he would walk until they encountered the other agents. Kinder offered his horse and agreed to wait with his men and the body.

The four agents rode out of the hills, following Vin’s unerring sense of direction. Buck tried his cell phone at the top of each hill to see if he could get a signal. After half an hour, he was able to dial out and he called Josiah.

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JD looked up from the computer when he heard the cell phone on the nightstand ring. Josiah grabbed it quickly and flipped it open.


“Josiah, Buck, we found Nathan and he’s fine. We should be back in Knoxville in a couple of hours and I’ll call you back. How is Chris?”

“Worried. We’re running out of time here, Buck. Were you able to get any information from him? Did you find out who they got the gun from?”

“I’m sorry, Josiah, he was shooting at us and he’s dead. We’ll bring the body back and have them go over it for clues or evidence but I don’t think we’ll have much luck.”

The big shoulders slumped in resignation as he ended the conversation.

“What?” JD’s eyes were intent on the blue eyes.

“Miller was killed. They didn’t get any information from him.”

With an exasperated sigh, the kid went back to the laptop.

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Ezra insisted that they go to the local hospital to be checked out before returning to the hotel. The local hospital was a friendly place and they went out of their way to tend to the injured men. Buck was sent to X-ray and returned with a bevy of nurses and candy stripers in tow.

“It’s nice to see that the Wilmington charm hasn’t suffered any ill effects from your injury. I trust that nothing is broken or otherwise seriously damaged on your person?”

“Jealous, Ezra? They’re just making sure that I’m not uncomfortable. I didn’t ask for them to fawn over me like this, it just happens!”

The southerner shook his head as he smiled before going to check on Nathan.

“Mr. Jackson, I trust that no permanent damage has been done?”

“Nothing that won’t heal in a few days. Did you get in touch with Josiah again?”

“I thought perhaps to wait until we return to the hotel. I am hopeful that Mr. Dunne will have made use of the information we gathered in Maryville and we can link up on the computers. Are you soon to be discharged?”

A nurse entered the room with a clipboard and a plastic bag and answered his question.

“As soon as I get his signature on this paper, he’ll be ready to go.”

The four men gathered around the laptop computer as Buck dialed Josiah on his cell phone. Ezra opened the files that JD had sent and began to review them. It seemed that Taylor Cottman had been arrested in Spencer a couple of times for fights at the local bar and for DUI. The kid was still trying to track down whether or not the man was related to anyone in the town or had some connection to the town.

The second file was the story about the girl who was killed in Oakdale. There was a note on the end of the file that Josiah had spoken to the sheriff in the town and that any physical evidence on the body would be sent to the lab in Washington for comparison to Wyn Lightner.

Out of the corner of his mind, Ezra heard Buck updating Josiah on the health of the team members, bragging about the nurses at the hospital. A third file was from the lab, the only evidence on the body on Wynsome Lightner were a few hairs from a male relative and hair from Chris Larabee. He massaged the bridge of his nose as he slowly exhaled.

Seeing the normally impassive face of the undercover agent looking so stressed, Nathan turned the computer and read the report on the screen. He too sighed in frustration before lifting his eyes to Buck as he was still talking to Josiah.

“Tell Chris that we’re still hard at work. We’ll find the bastard that killed that girl if we have to turn over every rock from here to Denver and back. What does the lawyer say?”

“It isn’t good. They’re going to paint Chris as an out-of-control, binge drinking, blackout murderer. If we don’t find the guy who did this, I don’t know if we can even build reasonable doubt out of what we’ve scraped together. We only have two more days, Buck.”

“I know, Josiah. I feel the clock ticking too. We just have to keep digging. The clues are here, we’ll find him. Tell Chris that we won’t give up.”

At least they had some good news to pass along to Chris that evening when they visited. JD went over the information he was amassing on the few leads that they had on the case. Judge Travis had sent an E-mail that he and Mary were coming the next day for the trial.

+ + + + + + +

Dr. Flowers stopped to check on JD again that evening.

“How is the Franklin kid doing?” Josiah asked as the doctor unwrapped JD’s ankle.

“The same. Still in a coma. His mother is a mess, poor thing. They approached her today about donating Jeff’s organs if he doesn’t make it. They had to sedate her afterwards.”

“I can’t imagine anything harder to think about. Is there any hope at all?”

“He still has brain activity so there’s hope but it’s slim.”

After flexing and rotating the injured ankle while JD hissed and whimpered, the doctor wrapped the ankle again.

“I hate to dash off but I’m exhausted. I’ll look in on you again tomorrow evening.”

+ + + + + + +

Johnny emptied the beer can and chucked it into the haystack behind him. He pulled the gun from his belt and aimed it at the dark figure that passed thru the shaft of moonlight shining thru the cracks in the dilapidated barn.

“Easy man! Damn, but you’re jumpy tonight. I brought you some sandwiches and some more beer. How is your leg? Still bleeding?” Seth glanced at the nasty wound on his cousin’s calf and blanched slightly.

“Nah, it stopped bleeding. Give me one of them sandwiches, I’m starving.”

“So, tell me how you got yourself winged.”

“You know that little greasy spoon out on the highway coming from Maryville? The cook keeps a gun in the kitchen. I tried to stick them up and the fat bastard shot me!”

“I spoke to Perry Davis this afternoon. They’re putting up an APB on Taylor and his car so you’ll have to ditch it. You better be more careful, man.”

Johnny threw a ‘duh’ look at his cousin as he popped the top on another can of beer. The two young men sat drinking and smoking joint after joint until they both passed out.

+ + + + + + +

Buck slammed the desk drawer on the desk he had been using as Kinder broke the news to them. They hadn’t found a single scrap of paper on Miller’s body or in the cave where he was killed. Any information they might have been able to use was lost when the recluse died. They redoubled the search for Cottman.

+ + + + + + +

The diner was nearly empty when the two ATF agents arrived that morning. Libby put coffee and a large glass of milk on the table as she went to pick up the food that the cook set on the counter for the only other people in the place. When she came back around to take their order, she looked pensively at the young agent.

“I haven’t seen a face that long since the last horse show was in town. What’s wrong kiddo? Things not going well?”

“Sorry, Libby, I don’t mean to be a sourpuss. Every lead I have is unraveling into a dead end. Chris is counting on us and I feel like I’m letting him down.”

Josiah draped his arm around JD’s shoulder. “I told you not to feel like that. Keep the faith kid. Right will prevail.”

With a derisive snort, the kid bolted from the table and out of the diner. Josiah and Libby watched just long enough to see that he was headed up the road toward the town cemetery. His limp became more pronounced as he punished the injured ankle.

Every other step was painful. At least the pain gave him something to concentrate on as he fled the diner. He expected that any moment now Josiah would pull up beside him and order him into the car. When it didn’t happen, he began to try to jog.

Josiah looked at the kindly waitress and sighed.

“I’ll fix you up something to take with you. It’ll just be a minute; he won’t get far on that sore ankle. Poor kid, he sure takes on more than his share.”

“That he does, Ma’am.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra snapped the newspaper and folded back the section he wasn’t reading from. He was scanning the headlines for anything that might give them another lead. He almost skipped over the article about the attempted robbery at the eatery on the outskirts of Maryville, not far from where the gas station attendant had been killed. The description of the car leapt off the page and he jumped up to show it to the others.

+ + + + + + +

Judge Cross noticed that the gate on one of the little gravel roads crossing his property had been broken down and walked down to investigate. It pissed him off that the kids broke onto his place to use the old barn for their parties. They had almost burned the barn down one time with a carelessly thrown cigarette.

He saw the old, cream-colored dodge sticking out from behind the barn. Slowly, carefully, he crept to the door and pulled it open. The report of the pistol startled the birds from the trees all around the building as his body fell away from the door.

Johnny struggled to his feet and hurried to the door. He began to curse when he saw the body he had shot moving weakly. A gasp slipped from his mouth as he realized the identity of the prone form. The wound did not appear to be a fatal one; his aim was too high. The old man was gripping his shoulder as he tried to turn over. He didn’t dare risk another shot. A grin lit his face as he knelt and began to choke the life out of the judge. The man’s eyes were wild and filled with fear before they fluttered and went blank.

+ + + + + + +

The sign said Spencer Cemetery and the arrow pointed up a gravel road. JD limped across the blacktop and into the shade of the trees that lined the road. Several minutes later, he found himself standing over the grave of Wynsome Lightner. The flowers had wilted and the ribbons lay, water spotted from the rain, stuck to the raw ground.

Sinking to his knees, the youngest member of Team 7 allowed the tears to fall. His vision blurred as he focused on the marker the funeral home had placed at the head of the grave. The stone hadn’t been set; it was still being engraved somewhere. The little bronze letters spelled out her name and the year of her birth and death.

“Who did this to you? It wasn’t Chris; he wouldn’t do something like this! Why did you have to be there that night?”

The crunch of tires on the gravel didn’t even cause JD to look up. He was too lost in his rage and despair to notice that Josiah had moved to kneel beside him. The ribbon said Beloved Daughter and the color of the letters had bled, creating pale streaks. As his hands slowly relaxed from the fists he had made, he heard the soft bass voice beside him.

“It isn’t her fault, John Dunne. She’s as innocent of this as Chris.” The older man hadn’t missed the signs of the rage that had driven the young man to bludgeon the ground along the side of the grave. “Come on, let’s get you back to the hotel so you can get cleaned up before we go see Chris.”

“I don’t think I can stand, Josiah. My ankle is really hurting now.”

The older man lifted his young friend and supported him back to the car. The insulated cup sat in the console between the seats and the car was filled with the smell of the breakfast that Libby had sent for them. JD picked up the cup and pried off the lid to take a drink of the milk as the car smoothly turned around at the parking lot.

After eating and changing out of his muddied clothes, JD was ready to go see Chris. He hadn’t seen the E-mail that Ezra sent regarding the description of the car seen fleeing the attempted robbery at the little diner outside of Oakdale. If he had, he surely would have noticed the car that passed them as they were waiting to turn into the parking lot of the jail.

+ + + + + + +

The Oakdale sheriff looked up from his breakfast at the four men who stood over him. He lowered the coffee cup and shifted slightly in his chair. They were a diverse looking group, ranging in age from late twenties to perhaps early forties. He tried to hide his disdain for the youngest looking one of the group with his shoulder length hair. The man with the mustache finally addressed him.

“Sheriff, may we have a word with you?” Buck asked as he offered his badge and ID.

“Certainly Agent Wilmington. Pull up some chairs and make yourselves comfortable. What is this about?”

“We understand that there was an attempted robbery at a restaurant not far from here and we were hoping to talk to you about the description of the car and driver.”

The sheriff raised an eyebrow. “You all are a long way from home to be looking into a little old robbery up here in the sticks aren’t you?”

“The car used in the attempted robbery fits the description of a vehicle whose driver we have been following in connection with a murder in Spencer and possibly with a murder in Maryville.” Buck explained.

“Well, we didn’t get a plate number or anything like that, but I might be able to make up for it in a big way. The cook winged the robber and we have an evidence bag with the blood we mopped up from the floor.”

After collecting the evidence bag, the four men returned to Knoxville to send it off to the lab. Their spirits were high as they hoped that they would be able to connect all the dots in time to prove Chris innocent.

+ + + + + + +

As Josiah and JD were preparing to leave the jail after their visit, Judge Travis and Mary arrived. While the judge exchanged pleasantries with the sheriff, his daughter in law rushed to the cell to take hold of Chris’s hands thru the bars.

The phone on the sheriff’s desk rang and he picked it up. “Sheriff Wilhelm. How long ago? I’m on my way!”

“You’ll have to excuse me Judge Travis, there is a fire outside of town and I have to get out there. I’m going to trust that you won’t do anything you shouldn’t while I’m gone. Your men have earned my trust and I will extend it to you.”

“I appreciate that sheriff, thank you. We will be right here when you get back.”

Josiah moved toward the door. “Could you use a hand?”

“Thanks, come on.”

+ + + + + + +

Johnny and Seth pushed the car after putting it in neutral. It rolled slowly at first and then faster and faster as the incline of the hill increased. It hit the edge of the excavated area and sailed into the air before making a nose-dive into the landfill. The two young men watched as the car came to rest on its roof on top of the pile of trash. They laughed and gave each other high fives as they walked back to Seth’s car.

+ + + + + + +

The barn was fully engulfed by the time the sheriff and Josiah arrived. Several other men were trying to prevent the fire from spreading to the dry grass of the field and to the nearby trees. They had only a single water truck and they were using the water to soak the branches and ground. The sheriff grabbed a shovel and ran to join the others who were cutting a firebreak around the barn. Josiah also grabbed a shovel and ran to help.

When the sheriff and Josiah didn’t get back by lunchtime, Mary and JD drove over to the diner and got lunch for the four of them. Libby enquired after the young agent’s health while the food was being prepared. She also enquired of Vin and the others. JD told her all that he knew about their adventure in the hills around Knoxville. He promised to pass along her good wishes and told her that they would all be back tomorrow for the trial.

The barn was a total loss but they were able to prevent it from spreading to the field and trees. They used the last of the water in the truck to soak down the embers, as they raked thru the charcoal remains. Sheriff Wilhelm caught the ATF agent and nudged him toward the car. Both men were filthy and exhausted as they collapsed into the car for the ride back to the jail.

Perry, the sheriff and Josiah arrived back at the jail and Mary returned to the diner to get food for them while the Judge drove JD to the motel to get clean clothes for Sanchez. The three men took turns showering in the tiny locker room behind the cells. Both the sheriff and deputy thanked Mary repeatedly for bringing them lunch.

After supper, Mary and the Judge returned with Josiah and JD to the motel for the night. The kid sent an E-mail to the others telling them about the fire and that the Travis’s had arrived. He read over the file that Ezra had sent about the robbery at the diner.

+ + + + + + +

The funeral for Agent Piasecki was scheduled for 10 in the morning at the Presbyterian Church. Buck decided that the team would head back to Spencer after the funeral so they could see Chris before the trial. They had done all they could in Knoxville; it was up to the lab to find the connection between the events.

The Church was packed when they arrived. Vin had to be physically forced into the building after seeing the crowds standing outside. Agent Kinder had assured the four ATF agents that they would have seats for them. Buck had taken the crowd-hating Texan by the arm and dragged him into the building. After paying respects to the family on their way out of the church, they climbed into the suburban for the long drive back to Spencer.

+ + + + + + +

Judge Cross was reported missing the next morning. His wife called Sheriff Wilhelm to tell him that her husband had not come home at all the day before. With an uneasy feeling in his stomach, the sheriff sent men to go thru the burned out barn to check for human remains.

+ + + + + + +

Wayman arrived around midday and spent a few hours going over the case with Chris before retreating to the motel to go over his opening statement. He had gotten the information on the potential jurors and had made some notes as to people he wanted excluded.

Chris collapsed on the bunk and wished he could sleep. As the designated hour for the trial to begin drew closer, his dreams became more troubling. He had bolted upright several times during the night as the images of Sarah and Adams deaths had merged with the garish black and white photos of Wyn’s body.

He closed his eyes and immediately sank into a deep sleep. The images began almost at once as he saw her at the jukebox again. He could almost taste the cigarette smoke in the air and smell the beer. The blurred images of the pool balls floated into his mind and he saw Vin smiling as he stood at the far end of the table holding the cue stick.

The image shifted and he felt her kissing him again. Her hands were cool as she tugged his shirt out of his jeans and undid his belt. His mind noticed for the first time the tiny belly button ring she had been sporting. The moonlight glistened off of it and flashed in his eye. He could smell her perfume as she pulled off her sweater and pressed her bare chest against his while her lips captured his.

“No!” He jerked himself into a sitting position and scrubbed at his chest as the aching feeling of profound loss slammed into him again. “No.” He whispered as he clasped his fists against his temples. ‘Why can’t I remember what happened?’

+ + + + + + +

The beat up Ford Escort was burning oil and Johnny stopped at the truck stop to buy another quart. He picked up a six-pack of beer and some cigarettes and paid for them with the oil. As he was walking back to the car, he passed the big suburban. He tossed a dirty look at the well-dressed men who got out of the vehicle and made for the restroom while the driver put gas in the tank.

The southerner noticed the malevolent expression on the face of the man on the other side of the pump and wondered benignly who peed in the man’s cheerios. He absentmindedly reached into his jacket pocket for his wallet and the noticed that the man caught sight of the 9mm sitting comfortably in its holster under his arm. Ezra smiled and tipped his head at the man before turning his back to watch him in the reflection on the window.

Johnny’s heart pounded as he hurried to pour the oil into the engine. He had thought that the dark haired man at the suburban looked familiar but it wasn’t until he saw the gun that he placed the man. Those were the ATF agents who were looking for the person who killed Wyn. He quickly disposed of the oil bottle and jumped into the car.

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