Warnings: death of minor character
Features: Buck, Ezra, and Vin
Disclaimer: Don't own the Seven and I'm not making money off of them.
ATF Thanks to Mog for this setting.
I've always heard you should write about what you personally know. Well, this story is it. It's dedicated to all those who suffered or are still suffering because of the monsters, Katrina and Rita. Thanks go out to Heidi, she did a fabulous job with the beta. Thanks also to Lynn and Katy. Hope you all enjoy.
"Vin, you' re breaking up."
"It's the damn storm, Chris. It's comin' in a lot faster than we thought it would. I said, Ezra and Buck are meeting with the guy right now. We should have it all wrapped up by tomorrow at the latest."
Chris ran a hand through his short blonde hair. He hated this, his men working for someone else. He had tried to get them out of this undercover assignment , but Travis owed somebody a favor and his men had been served up on a silver platter. It didn' t matter to Chris that Travis had assured him that Ben Mueller was an old and trusted friend of the Judge's. It didn't matter one fig that Mueller had promised to supervise the whole mission himself. Dammit, his men were right in the path of a giant hurricane and still working to finish the assignment. "They say that monster is gonna hit tomorrow night and everyone is supposed to evacuate! Vin, you guys get out of there by noon tomorrow or I'm gonna do a lot more damage to your sorry hides than any hurricane could do. You got me? No later! "
"I got it, Chris. We know we're runnin' against the clock. If we weren't so close to an arrest, believe me, we'd be long gone. Noon tomorrow, we'll be outta here one way or another." Vin glanced out the window. Rain was already beginning to fall and the wind was gusting, smacking a branch against the glass. "They say this is gonna be a big one, maybe even a Cat 5."
"I know, I've been listenin' to the weather channel myself. Vin, get their asses out of there, he's not worth your lives." Sometimes, his men, no, his friends, went a bit too far for his liking. He knew his men and their determination to see a job through to the end, especially when the mark was a million dollar a year arms dealer. As much as he, himself, would like to see an arms dealer behind bars, their lives were far more important.
"I promise, Cowboy, I'll git 'em out tomorrow. Be sure and tell the kid that, okay. I'm sure he' s freakin' with Buck down here." Vin grinned to himself, picturing the youngest of Larabee's men pacing the office, wearing a bare spot in the carpet, pleading with their boss to get his friends home.
"Yeah, he's worrying himself sick , wanted to ride down there and pull them out himself. So we sent him home with Josiah tonight. Josiah promised him they could watch the weather all night if JD wanted." Larabee stopped, his voice betraying his attempted stoicism . "Vin, call me in the morning, let me know how things are going."
"Will do Chris. See ya soon." Vin laid the phone back in its cradle and walked to the window. He was up on the eighth floor of the beachfront hotel that connected to the casino.\f1 \f0 The Coast Guard had closed all the casinos along the beach a few hours ago. Most of the lights were off out in the parking lot, whether that was due to the lights being struck by flying debris or the casinos shutting them off to prevent anyone from thinking they were open. Despite the darkness, he strained to see what he could of the parking lot. He leaned his forehead against the cool pane of glass. He had promised his best friend that the three of them would be on the way home before the hurricane hit. He hated to lie to Chris. Truth be told, Vin wasn't sure where Ezra and Buck were at this exact moment in time. His friends should have been back in the room by now. He glanced at this watch and took in a deep breath. "Come on guys, don't do this to me!"
+ + + + + + +
"C'mon Ez, keep up. That danged umbrella is useless in this wind. Drop it and let' s git inside." Buck fervently urged his fellow ATF agent to hurry. It was almost two AM and he was tired and just a bit ill at ease. Ezra had been stellar in his performance this evening but there was something in the air besides an oncoming hurricane. He couldn't put his finger on it but the hairs on the back of his neck had been standing on end all evening. At first, Kyle Boudreaux presented himself as a good ol'country boy, with deep roots to the Southern coast, who just happened to be smuggling guns, hand-held rockets, and other deadly paraphernalia into the country on banana boats. Ezra had met and courted the smuggler and tonight, he had set the trap. Tomorrow at nine AM, they were to finalize the deal. All Buck and Ezra had to do was inform the ATF team they were assigned to, sit back, and wait.
That's what was supposed to happen. However, Mother Nature wasn't cooperating with them, and neither was Kyle Boudreaux. Throughout the last two weeks, both ATF agents had come to realize that the six foot, dark haired, Southerner had a lot more on the ball than they were led to believe. The Southern regional office of the ATF was led by Ben Mueller, an old friend of Director Orrin Travis. Orrin had been more than happy to "loan" three of his men to assist in taking Boudreaux down when Ben had asked for an agent with a Southern accent who was familiar with the area. That meant Standish, Wilmington, and Tanner. Ezra was from Atlanta, Buck could pass for Southern and Vin, with his Texas accent, fit right in with Standish and Wilmington. What was suppose to be a one week assignment had drug on for almost a month now.
Kyle had seemed to take to Standish right away. Buck, as Ezra's right hand man, had also been accepted, but Vin had never been able to get in tight with the underlings like they had wanted. Despite the Southerner's seemingly open acceptance of both Ezra and Buck, Kyle had led the agents on a merry chase for about a week before finally letting Ezra in. However, Boudreaux had promised four times now to show the federal agent his "collection," and Ezra still hadn't seen anything other than a handgun. Tonight, Boudreaux had promised them a sale. He claimed that with the hurricane making everyone crazy, the cops would be busy. Thus, the trap was set and the conclusion should be tomorrow morning with plenty of time to get "the hell out of Dodge" before the hurricane came ashore.
Arriving back at the casino, Kyle' s right hand man, Roger Altman, stopped out on the street instead of pulling into the parking lot. "Too much debris without lights to pull in there," he proclaimed. Sensing he wasn't about to move, Buck crawled out into the wind and rain. Ezra followed him, but turned to complain to the man. He changed his mind when Altman muttered something about his family getting stuck in town. As soon as the two agents were out of the vehicle, Roger zoomed off down the street. Ezra, trying to keep his eight hundred dollar suit dry, attempted to unfold his new umbrella.
"Dammit, Ez, c'mon!" Buck urged as he stood, facing the undercover specialist. Buck never heard the guns fire. The first he knew of the set up was when he saw his good friend and fellow agent go down.
"EZ!" He yelled and moved towards his friend who was already down on the concrete. Just as he reached Standish, he felt the bite of a bullet and realized Ezra had been shot also. He barely had time to register the bullet crease on Ezra's forehead before the fierce pain made itself known. He fell to his knees, still reaching for his friend, but someone jerked his arms behind him and roughly tied them. A hood was quickly placed over his head and he was pushed and pulled into a box truck. Something heavy but pliable hit his legs. He recognized the feel of a body and knew it was his fellow agent.
"Eddie, you all right Boss?" Buck would try to maintain Ezra's cover as long as possible, suspecting the culprit was Boudreaux.
A voice as cool as a mountain lake in spring softly said, "Shut your mouth now or we will close it for you, ya got me, Fed?" The voice belonged to Kyle Boudreaux.
The jig was up. Buck tried once more to convince Kyle that he had the notion. "I don't know who you think we are, but you're wrong."
"Oh, I don't think so, Agent Wilmington." The smooth Southern accent grated on his every nerve and Buck sagged back against the floor of the truck.
Kaboom! Kaboom! Kaboom! With every beat of his heart, his head throbbed like a big bass drum. He tried to go back to the black, to the place where he could simply float and not have to endure the pain that was to be his constant foe. What had happened, and where was he now? Ezra only knew three things: his head hurt something fierce, he was wet and cold, and he was pressed up against something hard, which made his back vie for pain receptors with his aching skull. \'85
It was then that he heard the voice, close but hard to make out. He knew the voice and knew he would have to answer soon, but he wasn't ready to let go of the desire to sink into the dark void once again.
"C'mon Ez, I could really use your help here. Ez? Shit! I don't really want to die tied to a fuckin' tree with a hurricane bearin' down on us. EZ!" Buck was so frustrated, he was choking on it. His head was still covered with a burlap bag, his face had been punched repeatedly when he attempted escape and his side was aching where the bullet had gone through. Knowing it was their only chance, he had tried to fight when his abductors had finally stopped the van. The hood had come off during the struggle and Kyle had taken particular delight in hitting Buck near the left eye with the butt of his .357. They had put the sack back over his head when they handcuffed him opposite Ezra, their backs on either side of a large pine tree.
Buck had no way of telling the exact time , but he figured they had been out in the wind and rain for almost seven hours now. It had been almost two when they were abducted, it had taken approximately an hour to get to wherever this was, and it had been daylight for a couple hours now. And still Ezra was unconscious. For all Buck knew, Ezra could be.... no, he wouldn't go there. His friend was just still suffering the effects of the graze to his forehead. The short time he had been without the hood, Buck had seen the damage to the undercover agent's head. The bleeding had stopped, but the wound looked red and deep.
"Son of a bitch!" the big man screamed to the world at large. Then passionately, once again, he implored, "Please Ez, wake up. I need your help, Slick."
The tone more than the words finally got through the thick haze and Ezra opened his eyes, or at least he thought he did. The world was dark brown and fuzzy. He blinked several times but nothing changed. He tried his voice. "Buck? Where are you?"
Buck couldn't believe his sense of hearing. Was it just the wind, which was blowing harder with each passing hour? The rain was now hitting Buck's body perpendicular, stinging as it hit the bare skin of his hands and neck. Or could it be the pines which moaned and creaked as they fought the wind? Then he heard it again and he almost cried with relief. "Ezra, talk to me! Are you alright?"
"Actually, no, but I am alert for the time being. Where are we?" Ezra let out a heavy sigh as the effort to communicate with his fellow agent drained his strength.
"No idea. We got snatched just outside our hotel. You got yourself a nasty bullet wound on your forehead, been out of it for about seven hours now. Imagine you got yourself quite a headache." The sound of Ezra's voice had bolstered the rogue's resolve to get free and out of there, quickly.
"You are very astute, Mr. Wilmington. And how did you fair?" Ezra tried to scrape the burlap bag off of his head as he talked but the motion only made his headache worse. He would have to leave it on for the time being.
Buck had lost quite a bit of blood himself , but the wound to his side had stopped bleeding and the pain had receded to a manageable level. There was no sense worrying his friend at this point. "I'm good. Ez, I need your handcuff key. We've got to get out of here before the storm gets any worse."
The con man blinked rapidly, trying to clear his mind. Of course, he always had a lock pick and handcuff key with him, hidden in the sleeve of his jacket. He shook his hand as much as he could and finally got a hold of the coat sleeve. He twisted it around and finally found the minute opening in the lining. Holding on tight, he took several deep breaths, trying to make the headache fade. It was so hard to focus on what he was doing! He felt stiff and clumsy, something he worked hard to avoid, but the handcuffs were tight and his pounding head made it hard to concentrate.
Buck seemed to read the undercover agent's mind. "Breathe through it, Slick. You can do it, I know you can. Slow and steady, that's it. Just get us out of these cuffs."
Buck was counting on him and so, Standish let out a deep breath and worked the small piece of metal from its resting place. Now, it was in his hand but that didn't get it to the lock. Frustratingly slow, he worked the key to his fingertips and once it was secure, he worked at getting the key into the small hole. When the cuff finally opened, he breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Jerking the hood off, Ezra blinked rapidly. His vision was blurred, especially around the fringes. He turned slightly and released his other hand, then released Buck from the cuffs that were now dangling from the ladies man's wrists.
Pulling the hood off, Buck smiled tiredly. "I knew you could do it, Ez. Now, where are we?" He turned slowly, trying to locate the trail that his abductors must have driven in on when they brought them to this point. The wind whipped the salty ocean rain into his eyes and he put a hand over them to try to shield out the water. Debris from the trees surrounding them covered the ground and he couldn't make out any sort of path or track. "Sure could use Vin right now."
"Buck, I am truly sorry but the wound to my head seems to have affected my vision. I can make out light and dark, but I cannot seem to clear it. I take it you find nothing to tell us in which direction we should proceed ." Ezra leaned heavily against the trunk of the pine where he and Buck had been handcuffed. His head spun, and his stomach threatened to dispatch its contents at any moment.
Buck stopped looking for the invisible route out of the wooded area . He walked back to where his friend was attempting to gather himself for a treacherous trek. Putting a comforting hand on the smaller man's shoulder, he said, "I' ll get us out of here, Ezra. Come on." Despite the bullet wound in his left side, he put his left arm around Ezra and eased him away from the tree and toward what he hoped was a way out of the desolate woodland. He prayed he could get them to shelter before the storm got worse.
"Sir, please, calm down. We are evacuating everyone from the hotels along the beach. You don't have an option." The deputy could empathize with the federal agent but he wasn't going to back down.
"Dammit, I've told you, I'm not going anywhere until we find my friends. They were supposed to be back last night and I haven't seen or heard from them. You've got to help me search for them!" Vin was half out of his mind with worry. He was supposed to be watching out for the other two. He had stayed up all night, trying their cell phones, trying to get the local sheriff's department to assist him in locating Standish and Wilmington. He had gotten nowhere with either. Now, not only weren't they going to assist him in a search, they wanted him to abandon their base of operation. It was unthinkable!
"Agent Tanner, look around you. The hurricane will be on us in an hour or so. This is only the beginning salvo." Deputy Jimmy Dawson waved his arm about, forcing the ATF agent to look out of the window. The wind had picked up considerably in the last hour. The storm raged already and was only bound to get worse as the full force of the hurricane came ashore. Flood water already covered the parking lot and smaller items, such as trash can lids and street signs, were being thrown about like lethal frisbees.
"I... sonofabitch, we can't just leave them! We've got ta do somethin'." Vin hated to admit it even to himself but there was very little anyone could do at this point. "I gotta do somethin'," he muttered mostly to himself.
Dawson understood how the agent felt. His own brother was out in the storm somewhere, but he had a duty to perform. "I'll take you to our station. It's really too dangerous at this point to try to evacuate. Is there anybody you could call to ride this out?"
Vin shook his head, his mind a thousand miles away trying to explain to his boss and best friend that he had lost both Standish and Wilmington. When he realized what the deputy had asked, he mumbled, "Yeah, I guess. Man's name is Ben Mueller, he's in charge of this area. He was suppose to be handling this assignment."
"Good." Jimmy hoped that Mueller was far away from the beach. "Where does he live?"
"Over by the bay, Evergreen I think. I got his number here in my phone." He tried to get a tower but the system seemed to be down already. Disgusted and frustrated, he threw the cell phone across the lobby where it smashed against the wall.
Jimmy smiled slightly and then lifted the mic to his radio. "Dispatch, see if you can find a Ben Mueller on Evergreen and contact him. Let me know if there's an answer." He put his mic back and said softly, "Let's get out of here, okay?"
Vin nodded disconsolately. Dragging his feet and a large duffle bag full of reconnaissance equipment, Vin followed the deputy out of the hotel and to his car. Once both were in and the car was running, Jimmy again radioed his dispatcher. She reported that Mr. Mueller was still at his abode and would be waiting for Agent Tanner. Jimmy nodded grimly and thanked her for her assistance. He headed toward the next town along the coast and Evergreen Street.
+ + + + + + +
JD paced the living room of the big ranch house that Larabee owned. It had become a second home to all of them over the past three years. They all looked forward to the weekends they could spend together, cooking steaks on the bar-be-que or riding their horses up into the mountains or doing the chores that a spread of this size always needed doing. However, today, it felt like a prison to the youngest member of the ATF team known as the Magnificent Seven.
"Chris, there has to be some way to get in touch with them! There has to be!" He turned on his boss, his face reflecting the fear he felt for his 'brothers'that were battling a Category 4 hurricane.
Chris knew just how the kid was feeling. He, too, was scared. And there was absolutely nothing that either of them could do to help their three friends. The last communication from Vin had been extremely short, Vin's connection broken in mid-sentence. All Chris had gotten, before the phone went dead, was "They never got back last night. I can't get any help from the local..." Chris had cursed the telephone company, Judge Travis, and the unknown criminals that had his men held hostage. He refused to believe anything else. He tried calling Ben Mueller but the phone system between Denver and the Coast was down. Now, all he could do was wait, along with JD, Nathan, and Josiah.
Josiah joined the rest of the agents in the living room, having been on the phone in the kitchen, trying to get a flight to New Orleans. "Nothing flying that way until further notice. By the time the airlines are flying again, we probably could be there by car. We should take your Ram or my Suburban, don't know how bad things will be down there."
Chris was uncertain of his voice at the moment so he simply nodded.
Nathan, who had been sitting on the couch, stood and joined the other three. "We need to gather together some supplies, like first aid kits and water. Josiah and I will get on that while you make arrangements for the stock. JD, why don't you get away from that TV and come with us. It's not doing you any good to see that storm getting closer to shore."
Tears filled JD's eyes. "They'll be okay as long as they're inside, right?" He searched each face for confirmation.
Chris put an arm over the young man's shoulders. "Sure, kid. You know Buck ain't gonna let nothin' happen to Ezra or himself. I'm sure they're somewhere high and dry, just waiting out the storm."
They could only see the ground right in front of them. The two ATF agents kept their heads down, buried as deep into their thin suit coats as possible. Pine needles, being blown by one hundred mile per hour winds, pierced skin whenever they hit.
Ezra, his vision still foggy, could do little to aid his companion. They stumbled their way through ankle deep water, making very little headway as the wind pushed hard against them. From tree to tree, Buck held tight to Ezra's arm while grabbing tree trunks and limbs. At times, they were blown backwards and down. At these times, the two men would crawl , trying to catch their breath.
CRACK! A pine to their left gave up its fight to the howling forces of nature. Buck looked up just in time to see the tree break halfway up its trunk. Unable to make himself heard, he moved as quickly as possible and pushed the Southerner away from the danger. As Ezra's face sank into brackish water, Buck pressed him further into the mud by landing hard on the smaller man's legs and lower back. Fortunately, the trunk missed them both but branches of the pine fell on top of the human pile, pinning them to the muddy ground.
Sputtering, Ezra tried to rise up but with Buck across his legs and a large branch across his shoulders, it was impossible. After yelling to his friend, "Buck, get off of me before I drown," he felt movement and then the pressure was off his legs. He gathered his knees beneath him and tried to wiggle his way out from under the tree limb. He stopped when he felt a hand on his back.
Buck had been hit hard in the lower back by a knotted branch when the tree fell. The limb had hit him with great force but the tree had then bounced slightly and rolled. Thankfully, he could move his legs and, biting his lip against the severe pain in his back that now matched the pain in his side, he got up. He saw the predicament that Standish was in and knew he had to lever the tree off his fellow agent. Then he had to try to get Ezra moving again. They simply couldn't stop or the hurricane would wash over them, destroying not only them, but Chris and JD and Team Seven as well. He wouldn't let that happen as long as he had breath in his body. He made his way to where Ezra was struggling to get out from under the limb that pinned him in the water and he quickly placed a hand on his friend's back to stop his fruitless efforts.
His mouth not more than a foot from Ezra's ear, he shouted, "Hold on, Ezra. Give me a minute." He moved as far into the limbs and needles as he could and grabbed hold of the one that was across Ezra's back. "On three, Ez. One, two, three," he shouted out and lifted, trying to ignore the fiery pain in his lower back. He moved the limb just enough so that Ezra could squirm free.
Standish sat and ran a hand over his mud-streaked face, being careful to avoid the deep bullet graze on his forehead. His suit coat was soaked with rain and mud and it felt heavy but he decided not to remove it as it protected his arms and torso from the projectiles the wind constantly threw at them . He looked at his partner and noticed blood flowing from a jagged cut on his cheek. There was absolutely nothing he could do for the man. He realized then that his eyesight was clearing slightly. A plus amidst a thousand negatives.
"We've got to keep movin', Ezra. We' ve got to find some shelter from this wind. It's only gonna get worse." Buck strained to be understood, the wind grabbing his words and tossing them away, unheard. However, he nodded when he saw a purposeful look cross the Southerner's face. Grabbing Ezra's arm, he headed out, head down, not knowing where he was going but determined to keep his comrade alive.
Ezra sighed, stumbled as he was forced up onto his feet, and then tried to keep up with the long legs of the tall agent he thought of as a brother. He knew Buck was hurting, but the scoundrel had yet to say a thing or show his pain in any way. He was not about to let Buck down. Somehow, they would find shelter... or die trying.
The light was fading and the hurricane was just off shore.
'I can't deal with this!' he thought as he sat by the kitchen table, listening to Mrs. Mueller drone on and on about her kids and grandkids and how they had all evacuated. Vin had problems with claustrophobia and sitting in the small two story house with all the windows boarded up wasn't helping the situation. The fear he felt for his two friends, who could be anywhere, maybe even out in the fury of the storm, overrode the closed in feeling. Ben Mueller had been sympathetic, had even made offial notice to the local police stations to put out a BOLO for the two missing agents. Beyond that, there literally was nothing he could do for Standish and Wilmington. He and his wife had welcomed Vin into their home, had attempted to contact his own men, had even attempted to contact a few snitches that might have had information, but the telephones were out as was the electricity. Basically, sitting in the closed up house, the three of them were deaf, dumb, and blind.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Mueller, I need to get some air." He rose from the kitchen chair and made his way to the sunroom which hadn't been boarded up. He opened the door and leaned out into the blowing rain. He didn't care if he got wet; he needed to see for himself that the hurricane raged on . What he saw made him feel impotent. He hadn't slept in about 36 hours, but he reminded himself once again that Buck and Ezra probably hadn't slept either and might be out in the inclement weather still. In another hour it would be totally dark and the hurricane would be upon them. After he got to the Muellers' home, Vin had helped Ben finish his preparations for the upcoming storm but, having never experienced a hurricane, he wasn't ready for the force of the wind. And Ben had assured him that the one hundred mile per hour winds they were now experiencing weren't the worst of the storm.
"It's the water, not the wind, that'll get ya. The storm surge takes out everything in its path. And dammit, the surge is set to come in at high tide, which will only make it worse." Ben had informed him as they worked hammering up the second set of plywood so the windows wouldn't break. Vin listened and decided he really didn't need to hear that things were going to get much, much, worse for thousands of people along the Gulf coast. And for his friends.
Vin lifted his face to the sky and sent a silent prayer up to God. 'Please, they are good men and good friends. I know it's selfish, God, but I sure would be beholden to ya if you could look after them.' Closing the door behind him, he returned to the dark interior of the shelter that he felt would keep him safe and dry.
+ + + + + + +
Buck stopped, exhaustion finally subduing the tall agent. Ezra, his head down, eyes only slits, shuffled right into the back of the ladies man. He raised his head to see what had stopped his friend in his tracks. There, before them, lay eight large pine trees, right in their path, such as it was. Ezra waited for a few seconds, anticipating Buck moving either right or left to get them around the obstacles. When he didn't move, Ezra placed a hand on his companion's shoulder.
"Which way?" he shouted into Buck' s ear. There was no response. "Buck?"
The Southerner watched as the man's shoulders slumped and his head shook in the negative. Ezra moved as quickly as he could to stand in front of Wilmington. What he saw brought tears to his eyes, though no one would have noticed as his whole face was covered with mud, tree debris, and rain. Buck's eyes were closed, blood still smeared across his face from the numerous cuts and scrapes he had accumulated during their trek. He was breathing hard, his right hand holding his left side. His whole body seemed to be shaking and sagging at the same time. The man was at the end of his rope and there was nothing Ezra could do for him.
"We can't stop. We have to find shelter." Ezra shouted up at the emotionally and physically drained man, hoping to spur him on a little further.
Buck simply shook his head. He had failed. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do that would keep them safe from the full blast of the hurricane. He had never experienced a hurricane but, while waiting for "his boss" at the gaming tables, he had listened to people's stories. His fellow gamblers had regaled him with tales of how they had survived Camille, or Georges, or Ivan, names that meant nothing to him but evidently were important to the locals. He had taken the survivors' word for it that hurricanes were treacherous, fickle monsters that no weatherman could predict with any certainty. He knew the wind would only continue to intensify and the rain would continue to bombard them. Darkness was descending about them and when all light was gone, so were they.
Ezra grabbed the man by the chin and forced him to look at him. "Don't you dare give up now! We can do it, Hoss, I have every faith in you!" Ezra's green eyes blazed into Buck's blue ones. Buck blinked as if awaking from a dream. The big man took a deep breath and drew strength from the determined glare. It reminded him of Chris and with his old friend's memory in mind, he gathered the little bit of strength he had left and nodded.
Ezra blew out a sigh of relief and struck out to the left, making his way through the brambles and mud to try to get around the downed trees. Buck followed, determined to stay with his friend and keep him safe for as long as possible.
Only ten minutes later, Buck stumbled and fell into the smaller man that had taken the lead. Both men went down in a tangle of arms, legs, and tree debris. They lay still, panting heavily, both knowing it was futile to continue. Darkness had dropped like a curtain at the end of a play, signaling the finale of their trek through the bayou. It was over!
Two oil lamps lit the living room of Ben and Marie Mueller. The rest of the house was in total darkness. The house, built in 1946, had withstood a dozen hurricanes, including a Category 5 in 1969. But tonight, as the three humans sat in the inner sanctum, the house creaked and groaned as the wind forced its way in and around the wooden structure. Shingles began to fly off the roof and rain started to seep into the walls and through the ceilings. Another loud crash out in the yard signaled the falling of yet another tree.
Vin wanted out , but there was no escaping the storm or the dark confines of the house. He started to pace again but it took him nowhere and, giving in, he sank heavily into the arm chair by the fireplace. His thoughts bounced between the danger they were in, sitting benignly in the house, and the horrible damage that the entire area was experiencing. He tried as hard as he could to keep his thoughts away from Buck and Ezra, for there was nothing but heartache and frustration on that path.
The sharpshooter looked up as Ben arose to once again check the doors of the house. They had placed towels under each door but they knew that would not keep out the floodwaters. Vin stood and followed the older man around the interior of the house.
"How much longer until this thing blows over?" he asked, the worry and anguish evident in his voice.
Ben, taking off his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose, shook his head. "Can't rightly say. At this point, we just have to sit and wait... and pray for a miracle or two." Ben, at age sixty-four, had seen many storms come and go. This time both he and Marie had decided to stay and help out anyone that needed a hand. They were more than happy to take Vin in, especially considering that it was Ben's request of Orrin Travis that had brought the three agents down to the coast. He felt terrible that two of the three were missing when his men were supposed to be watching their backs. He had been able to contact his team members who were assigned back up the previous night and they both were contrite when they explained they had seen them get out of a car around two AM and start walking towards the hotel. They had driven on, not wanting to be spotted by the driver of the vehicle. They hadn't seen the ambush and abduction. All Ben could do at that point was to apologize to the longhaired young man who was fuming at the loss of his friends and fellow agents. "Vin, I..."
"Don't say it again, Ben. It doesn't help. They' re out there somewhere, in this fucking storm , and I can't do a blasted thing about it!" His voice rose with the injustice of the situation. He slumped against the wall, frustration showing plainly on his face.
Ben felt the weight of guilt on his shoulders. There was nothing any of them could do at this point but hold on and search for the missing men when the storm was over. "Vin, I swear, we'll search every warehouse, doghouse, garage and bayou once this storm passes. We'll find them."
Vin looked into the tired eyes of the old man. "Yeah, too late."
+ + + + + + +
The night had closed in around them and now, they huddled by the root ball of a tall pine that had reached the end of its life. There was no hope left. The storm would do with them as it wanted.
Buck' s head rested against the soggy bark of the fallen oak that gave them some shelter from the horrific wind and rain. He had given his all but it wasn't enough. All he could do now was pray. He was in pain and exhausted beyond, far beyond, what he thought his body was capable of taking . He was soaked through to the skin and the rain continued to pelt them. The trees groaned and creaked as the wind pushed them to their limits. Both men grimaced each time they heard the resounding crack and crash of another tree giving up its grasp on life. The only thought now that ran through Buck's mind was 'Would the water drown them or would a falling tree get them first?'
Ezra stared into the blackness, trembling slightly with each gust of wind that came through their meager shelter. He raised his head as the trees around him creaked and groaned. He must be hallucinating, he thought, as the sound of a man's voice carried to him on the wind. He shifted his eyes to his friend and knew Buck was in more pain than the big man could hide. He had seen men shot, blown up, torn apart, killed in almost every way known to man. That pain he could deal with. Buck's worst pain was deep in his soul and Ezra knew it came from failure, failure to protect him, failure to stay alive for JD and Chris, failure to save the team. The big heart that ruled Buck's world was causing him the of defeat.
Then, carried on the wind, he heard the voice again. Buck didn't seem to be aware of it, but it had been there. He was sure of it. If he could hear a voice, it had to be coming with the wind. "Buck, I need to stand," he had to shout at his comrade when the man was only inches away. The scoundrel shifted and turned his head away, figuring the man beside him needed to relieve himself. Ezra stood and his head cleared the tree. The wind almost blew him over backwards as it caught the upper part of his chest and head. Ezra held on to the tree and searched the darkness for the source of the sound. There it was again and this time, for one brief second, Ezra saw a light. They had to head straight into the wind but he was sure shelter awaited them.
"Buck, come on. We have to forge ahead just a little further." The big man didn't respond so Ezra pulled on his arm. "NOW!"
Buck stood without thinking and, with Ezra tugging at his sleeve, he managed to climb over the tree and into nothing but blackness, saltwater and wind. He fell, got up, and fell again. What in the hell was Ezra thinking? He didn't know but he knew he had to stay with the younger man, to keep him alive. He could barely make out the form beside him, both of them on hands and knees now. Together, they crept forward, pine needles, small branches and pine cones jabbing into the flesh of their hands and knees.
Ezra felt the change under his hands first. It was grass, soggy, muddy grass but grass all the same. He turned to make sure Buck was still with him and then he cautiously moved forward again. The voice was louder this time, coming from straight ahead of them. The Southerner could tell that this time Buck had heard it too. They increased their speed and headed toward what they perceived as shelter. A movement to Buck' s left startled them both but they couldn't make out what had moved. They kept inching forward.
Buck's hand hit the steps that led up to the house first. He moaned his relief and then grabbed for the smaller man at his side. Together, they stumbled their way up the stairs and across the porch, falling a mere yard away from the door. The movement flashed in front of them and, this time, they could tell it was a black cat with white feet. Seconds later, a dim light glowed in front of them and they grasped for it with all they had left.
+ + + + + + +
Carl Dedeaux was relieved when his beloved cat finally came flying through the open door. He had been searching for the feline for hours before the storm and he had continued checking the front porch through the first bands of the storm. He was just turning to go back inside when he sensed the hand reaching for him. He was stunned for a full twenty seconds and then he moved forward to open the door further. He shone the flashlight, that was still in his hand, down onto the porch and was bowled over to discover not just one but two men lying face down on the boards just outside his door. Putting the flashlight on the floor, he reached out and pulled the smaller of the two men into the house. He then went back for the bigger man. He pulled but the man was dead weight. He tugged again and suddenly, there was another pair of hands aiding him. Together, they got the mustached man into the house.
Carl leaned into the door and got it closed. He turned and saw two men in tattered suits, lying exhausted in puddles of their own creation on his linoleum. Who would have been outside at this point in the storm? The word idiot came to mind and then looters settled in his brain. 'Looters in suits? Nah, must be some other explanation.'
"Who are you? What the Hell are you doing out in this storm?" He reached for the umbrella in the stand by the door. He wasn't taking chances.
Ezra turned over and tried to smile at the weathered old man before him. It came out as a grimace. "We are federal agents, sir. Believe me, you do not need that weapon."
"Federal agents, you mean CIA?" Carl was stymied. Nobody came around his place, that's how he liked it and that's why he lived there. It was miles from any town, just on the border of NASA land. In fact, the government had tried to buy his land back in the sixties when they were sucking up all the land around for their test facility. He had refused to sell and he had been glad about the decision ever since. The only thing around his property was woods and water, the shore being just two hundred yards to the south.
Tiredly, Standish shook his head no. "ATF, we got ambushed and kidnapped last night. The perpetrators left us tied to a tree. We managed to get loose but the storm.... We could use your aid."
Carl's eyes narrowed in suspicion. He poked Buck's still form with the umbrella that he still held at the ready. "Don't know no ATF but you' re welcome to stay 'til the storm lets up. He alive?"
"Thank you sir. Yes, he's just exhausted. We could use a first aid kit, if you have one." Ez sat up and pulled off his own suit coat. He smiled tiredly at the eight hundred dollar rag as he dropped it on the floor.
The old man thought it over and came to the decision that the soaking wet man sitting on his floor couldn't make something like that up. He moved as quickly as he could at seventy-nine years old and brought back towels and blankets for the two strangers now sharing his home. "Name's Carl Dedeaux. And who might you be?"
Ezra stopped wiping his hair and looked up at the owner of the house. "Ezra Standish. And this is my fellow agent, Buck Wilmington. We really are ATF agents from Denver, loaned out to the local authorities for an undercover operation in Gulfport. We owe you our lives, kind sir. Could I possibly use your telephone?"
"No phone, it and the electric been out for hours now. And I ain't kind, just doin' what's right. Denver, ya say? Ya got a nice Southern drawl fer a Northerner." He bent down and started to pull Buck's coat off. The big man began to stir when he felt the hands on him.
Ezra reached over and together, they got the soaking wet suit coat off of Buck. Ezra then leaned over his friend and gently said, "Buck, we have found sanctuary. Wake up and meet our savior."
Buck opened his eyes, still believing he was hallucinating the warmth and dryness around him. It took several seconds for him to focus on the grey haired man before him. "Thanks," he croaked out. He struggled up to a sitting position and grabbed the towel Ezra held out to him. Drying his face with one hand, he stuck the other one out to grasp Carl's hand.
"Buck, this is Carl Dedeaux and this is his home. He has graciously offered shelter from the hurricane." Ezra stood and offered a hand to the tall man still sitting on the floor.
Truth be told, Buck didn't think he had the energy to get up on his feet right now. "I think this is just fine for now, Ez. I know this might sound strange, but could I get some water from you, Carl?" Buck continued to dry himself off.
Carl nodded and left to get two bottles of water. He returned a minute later and gave each man his own bottle. "Never answered my question."
Ezra gave the man a questioning look and then it dawned on him. "I am so dreadfully sorry, Mr. Dedeaux. I was born and raised in the south, Georgia mostly, but I have spent time in the Big Easy. I only relocated to the freezing northern territory about three years ago, when I began working with Mr. Wilmington and the others on our team."
"You sure talk funny, Ezra. Why don't I git ya'll some dry clothes. Should 'ave somethin' ya could put on." He left the room again, leaving the two agents to contemplate their good fortune.
"We made it, Slick. We snuck around the devil and came out whole." Buck smiled broadly at his friend. He couldn't believe that they were out of that hell and safe and sound in a real house.
"That we did, Buck, that we did." Ezra smiled back. They had made it!
Shortly after nine, the hurricane's storm surge came hurtling in. The water took down everything in its path. It didn't matter if it was wood, concrete, or brick. Every building in its path crumbled beneath the power of Mother Nature and her minions, wind and water.
+ + + + + + +
Vin sat in the living room, half asleep, trying to tune out the ever-present wind and pounding rain. Marie had been ordered by her husband to go upstairs and get some sleep. After a brief discussion about her husband giving her orders, Marie decided it was probably a good idea. Ben was stretched out on the couch, softly snoring. Vin, although extremely tired, couldn't quite turn off his thoughts, thoughts that were totally overwhelmed by his two friends. He ran over and over in his mind what he could have done to protect his friends. He came up empty.
He leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes. He stretched out his legs and tried to sleep. His mind had just given up the battle when he moved a foot and heard the squish. He looked down and saw the brown water, already an inch deep. He got up and went into the kitchen. Shining his flashlight at the back door, he found water pouring in through the door, the seams of the boarded windows, even the electrical sockets. By the time he got back into the living room to wake up Ben, the water was above his ankles.
"Ben," he implored, "Ben, wake up! The water' s comin' in. We've gotta move!"
The older man awoke with a start but quickly gathered himself. "There is an axe and a cooler in the kitchen. Grab them while I grab some files off my desk. Then get upstairs." He headed to the den while Vin returned to the kitchen. They met at the base of the stairs and climbed to the second floor and, hopefully, to safety. Vin looked back and the water was now even with the couch that Ben had just been sleeping on.
"Do you think it'll get much deeper?" Vin inquired of the hurricane savvy man. He had seen flash floods in Texas when he was growing up, had even been caught in one while with the U.S. Marshals. They were scary but nothing like this. He really wanted this storm to blow over!
"Can't say. Let's get upstairs with Marie. And Vin, if it gets any worse, we go into the attic and you start chopping a hole. It might be our only way out." Ben continued up the stairs, leaving Tanner to look back at the rising water on his own.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was sound asleep on the couch, Ezra dozing fitfully in a recliner beside him. Both men were wiped out from their fight with Mother Nature. Carl sat opposite Ezra, his beloved cat, Boots, in his lap. He would keep a watch over these two men who had dropped into his life from out of the blue. He had put on his hip boots about an hour ago and, glancing down, he found the water was up to his ankles. 'Nothing to fear so far,'he thought to himself.
Boots'head came up and the black and white cat began to growl. "It' s all right, Bootsy boy, its just the wind. This one will blow over just like all the rest of 'em have. We just have to wait it out." The old man ran a loving hand over the sleek cat's back. The cat had been his only companion since his beloved Bernice had died. She had been his rock, the one that made him open up and appreciate those around him. "Bernice would have taken these two in, wouldn't she have, Boots?"
Suddenly, with claws flaring, the cat screamed and took off to the back of the house. Carl stood, watching the streaking cat until he disappeared and then he turned towards the picture window that looked out over the Gulf. "Oh my God," he spoke softly to himself. Turning, he ran the few steps to where his houseguests rested.
"Guys, get up now. This is it!" Carl yelled and then ran as quickly as he could toward the back door. "COME ON!"
Buck, his back still hurting so bad he could hardly get off the couch, was up first. He moved to Ezra's side and pulled the younger man to his feet. Ezra, still half - asleep, looked into the dark blue eyes of his friend and found mortal fear there.
"What' s going on? Where's Carl?" Ezra was moving, following Buck once again, but he had no idea why. They were inside, out of the wind, warm and dry. Why were they headed toward the back door of the single story home?
Buck didn't take time to answer his friend. He had caught up with the old man and was pushing him out the door. He grabbed at Ezra' s arm and caught it just as they heard the sound of a freight train rolling straight at the house. Both men instinctively turned towards where they had just come from and saw the front window blow inwards as the thirty-foot wave surged towards them. Almost throwing the lighter man out the door, Buck made sure that Ezra was free of the house before the water reached them. As the house exploded around him, the ladies man felt the sea water hit him in the back. He felt the water crush him downward as it took the wooden house down to its foundation, throwing the pieces of wood and furniture back, back into the forest. Buck's body was part of the debris the hurricane tossed at will. Glass, wood, and salt water assailed his body but he was determined to survive the horrific act of Nature. He struggled with all he had left in him to find air, kicking as hard as possible towards what he hoped was the surface.
Ezra beat the worst of the water and debris, thanks to Buck. When the wave hit him, it pushed him down but he seemed to immediately pop to the top of the surge. Sputtering, he searched for something, anything to hold onto. And there it was, an old oak tree that stood tall and sturdy and in his path. As the water pushed him past the tree, he swam for all he was worth and grabbed the nearest branch. Floodwater pulled at him, unwilling to leave even one witness to its horrible wave of destruction. Ezra was just as persistent and, struggling hand over hand, he pulled himself towards the trunk. Finding a broken limb just below the surface, he managed to gain a foothold and he climbed his way into the tree and above the water which was trying its hardest to pulverize the ancient oak. As soon as Ezra got his bearings, he began to look around for Buck and Carl.
The water began to recede as quickly as it had come ashore, pulling all matter of wreckage along with it, to be buried in the depths of the sea. Wood, metal, life, death, the surge didn't care. It was going to take as much as it could when it went back from whence it came.
Buck felt the pull of the sea and knew if he didn't grab hold of something substantial, he would die in the black murkiness of the powerful tidewater. With his last ounce of strength, he kicked his legs and reached his arm out as his last chance for survival came into view. He felt the heartwood hit his hand and he quickly seized the limb. Holding on for dear life, he felt the terrible force of the water as it tugged ferociously at him, tearing the clothes from his body. His whole concentration was on the limb he grasped with both hands and the prayer he sent up to God above. He didn't feel the hand that grabbed his arm, didn't hear the voice of a friend who was just as determined as he was to hold onto life. Buck's world had narrowed down to blackness, water, and a desperate fight to survive.
"Hold on, Buck! Don't give in to it!" Ezra recognized the miracle that had brought Buck to the same tree that wrapped the undercover agent in its solid embrace. Holding onto his limb, he reached down and gripped his friend's upper arm in a resolute restraint.
It seemed such a long, long time but in reality, it was mere minutes until the surge released its tug on Buck's body. The tall agent's body fell free of the melee that had been surrounding it and it was then, that he realized that he wasn't the only one hanging on. When he didn't fall, he scrambled to grab onto the tree, his life preserver, once again. As he reached, one excruciating handful at a time, making his way toward the trunk, he discovered that his hands were shredded from the rough bark of the tree. When he finally managed to hug the solid wood of the trunk, he looked up and into the smiling face of his partner. Even as dark as the night still was, Buck knew the green eyes of Ezra Standish were sparkling. They had defeated the Grim Reaper once again!
Together, they climbed higher into the tree. The ferocious wind still tore at them but it was not going to vanquish them. They were together, alive, and they were determined to stay that way.
Four men traveled through the night, taking turns behind the wheel, the others trying to rest. The thought that kept all of them awake was that three of their own were trapped in the path of a Category 4 hurricane. They hadn't heard from any of them since Vin's call early the morning before. They couldn't get in touch with anyone from that area. They were getting really exasperated from listening to busy signals and "All circuits are busy. Please try your call again."
In the back of the large Suburban, they had stashed six cases of bottled water, four huge coolers packed with ice, a dozen boxes of granola bars, six loaves of bread, and enough peanut butter and jelly to feed seven men for a week. Josiah had even bought a self-pitching tent and seven sleeping bags. On top of the Suburban, they had strapped eight ten gallon gas cans, full of gasoline, and two spare tires. Nathan, ever on the alert for possible injuries, had gathered as much medical periphenalia as possible. As soon as they found their missing brethren, they planned to assist those less fortunate.
JD was behind the wheel when they passed into Arkansas. They had been on the road since noon and it was now almost two AM. He had been too upset to sleep, constantly thinking about his three good friends and where they might be. He had been raised in Boston and had never experienced a hurricane first hand, but from the way the weathermen spoke, the hurricane that was now making landfall near Gulfport was a mammoth. He had watched the weather channel right up until the minute they had left. He knew the storm was going to be buffeting the coast with one hundred and sixty mile per hour winds, but it was all just words, facts and figures, to the men of Team 7 who raced to Mississippi. What would they find when they got to the coast? He prayed that they would quickly find their lost friends and move on from there. He didn't think he could handle losing any one of them.
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat in the back, his eyes closed. Sleep eluded him, as it did the others. He thought of the phone call that had been abruptly cut off. "They didn't come back." Vin had sounded as distressed as Chris had ever heard the coolheaded sharpshooter. Where were they? What had gone wrong? Whose fault was it that his oldest friend and his newest friend were missing? It certainly wasn't Vin's fault but by the sound of his voice, Chris knew Vin was blaming himself. He could only hope that Vin was at least safe from the killer storm. It was going to be a long night.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah turned his head and studied the youngest member of his adopted family. He knew the boy was in turmoil, trying to hold onto the idea that Buck and Ezra were going to miraculously appear, whole and unharmed. Josiah couldn't be that optimistic. He had experienced a typhoon when he was in Japan during his stint in the Marines. He had seen the damage that both wind and sea could inflict on homes and businesses, let alone lives. He had never wanted to be involved in that kind of natural disaster again. Now he was headed right into the teeth of one. He prayed that he had the strength required to assist the victims when he got there.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan squirmed in his rear seat. He once again went over the medical supplies he had managed to accumulate before they took off. He had seen the kind of damage that wind could do when he had helped tornado victims in Kansas about ten years back. And that was one twister and one community. He had seen the projected path of the hurricane and was well aware that this storm would affect the lives of people over almost two hundred miles of the coastline. His friends'lives were just three among the other thousands in the area. He wanted desperately to be able to help those that survived.
+ + + + + + +
Vin hefted the cooler full of water and sport drink up to the balding man that had taken him in. It helped him stay calm, seeing how steady and matter of fact both Ben and Marie were. Vin swallowed back the claustrophobia that threatened to smother him. He looked up into the dark attic where Ben and Marie waited for him. Then, he looked down at his legs which were already ankle deep in slimy salt water. It was then the horrible reality hit home. The water was still rising! It had only been thirty minutes since the water had first found its way into the house. It was now over nine feet deep.
Taking a deep breath, Vin agilely climbed the wooden ladder and made his way to the corner where the Muellers had set up camp. He picked up the axe, feeling its weight in his hands.
"Where do you want me to chop?" Vin had thought it a strange request when Ben had brought up the idea of cutting a hole in the roof. After all, wasn't the object of climbing higher in the house to stay dry? He had never thought that the water could reach them in the attic. He had never imagined that the wind could actually tear the house from its foundation. The wind had already found its way into the attic he realized. Rain was pouring down from several holes where trees had impacted the roof or where the wind had torn off shingles and tarpaper. He could now see the need for an escape route.
"Looks like we already got a hole right over here by the chimney. See if you can make it any bigger." Ben stood by the brick chimney. His hand roamed over the rough surface. "I grew up in this house. We used to play up here. Never thought I'd see the day when we might lose it."
His wife of thirty-seven years stood on her arthritic feet and made her way over to her beloved husband. She stood before him and placed her hands on his shoulders. "We're together and still breathin', Ben. Our kids are safe and so are the grandkids. We got a sweet boy here with us to help out. What more could we ask from the Lord, huh?"
Ben placed a kiss on the top of his wife's grey haired head. "You're right, as usual, dear. Vin, let's start choppin'."
Vin sighed and grinned briefly. Taking aim, he reached up and began to enlarge the hole in the roof. It took several swings between which he had to wipe salt water out of his eyes, but he finally had a hole large enough for the slightly rotund wife and mother to make it through. Now, all they could do was wait.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra pulled Buck' s hand toward a large limb, showing him where he could hold on. Buck had run out of gas shortly after they began their climb. Even through the howling wind, the undercover specialist could hear his partner struggling to catch his breath. They hopefully wouldn't need to climb any higher. After all, the water hadn't gotten as high as the lower limb Ezra had been on. They should be safe at this level.
He could just make out Buck settling himself on the limb, close to the trunk of the tree. The ladies man sat slumped over the limb in front of him. His hands were rubbed raw from holding on to the rough bark while the water tore at his body. He had cuts and bruises all over his body from being hit by floating and flying debris. The bullet hole in his side was bleeding again and his back hurt so bad, it almost brought tears to his eyes. 'Hell,'he thought, 'go ahead, cry like a baby. No one will be able to see what with the blackness crowding in around us and the rain beating our brains out. Go ahead, ya big wus.' Then he looked across at his companion. 'Do ya see Ez cryin' his eyes out? So, cut out the self pity party and grit it out.'He straightened his back and stifled the curse that came with the fiery pain.
Ezra didn't need the lanky agent to confirm that he was in a great deal of pain. He didn't even need to see the weary look on his face. He knew Buck must be hurting because he, himself, was and he hadn't fought the current as his friend had. Ezra yelled at the top of his voice, "How abusive has the storm been to you, Buck? Can you maintain your position with this horrific wind battering us still?"
Buck swallowed the moan that threatened to escape his throat and turned his head in the direction of the voice. He could barely make out Ezra's form on the limb above him. "Lost my pants," he hollered to the man above him.
Ezra almost laughed out loud. "You What? How in the world did you lose your pants? I realize that most hurricanes are named after women but.... You lost your pants?"
"Still got my belt and underwear. Think I got a sock too. That water just wouldn't let go a'me. Kept pullin' and tuggin' 'til it got somethin' I reckon. Better my pants than me." Buck found himself smiling at the way he must look. Lord, what will the rescuers think.
"Other than your pants, did you lose anything important, such as a body part?" The brief moment of humor was gone. Reality made its point when a branch broke loose and slammed backwards, striking Ezra in the outer left calf. He had to grab the trunk with both arms to keep from being knocked into the mud and muck below them.
Buck's endurance was running out. His strength was gone and he knew he wouldn't be able to hold on much longer. His voice husky from yelling, Buck admitted the facts of life to his friend. "Ez, I don't think I got much left in me. My hands just won't grip and I'm whipped."
"Don't you dare give up now!" Ezra yelled as loudly as he could. He could see the man was exhausted just by the slump of his body, which had gone from sitting up straight to leaning to the left. "Buck, you can't give up and have me tell Chris and JD how you could have survived but you gave up, you QUIT!"
Buck shook his head. No, he didn't want to give up, he was simply facing the facts of the situation. He could not hang on and the next big thing that hit him would be his undoing. "Not giving up, Pard. My hands are shredded and I can't grab the branch with any sort of grip at all. Not my choice, Ez."
Feeling like a heel for yelling at his comrade, Ezra took a minute to think. He still had on his tie, loosened but still tied around his neck. He quickly undid it and moved down a limb to where Buck sat. A sudden gust came up and the Southerner held tightly to Buck, his body blocking the big man, his hands grabbing the trunk. When it died down some, he showed the tie to Buck.
Shouting at his friend even though he was only a foot away, Ezra shared his plan. "I'm going to tie your right hand to the limb in front of you. Then you don't have to worry about holding on. Just lean into the trunk and you'll make it through this night from hell." Ezra waited for Buck to approve his plan. He saw the dark haired head nod and he proceeded to tie Buck's wrist and hand to the limb. When done, he moved to the limb above and got himself situated.
He had just settled in when they heard the inbound deluge, thundering towards them from the sea once again. Ezra could see Buck looking up at him but couldn't make out what he was saying. He gave a thumbs up sign to the ladies man, hoping he could see his hand, and then he put both arms around the trunk of the giant oak and began to pray.
The surge pounded towards them, a huge black wave almost forty feet high. It struck the tree with the force of a locomotive and both men felt the tree shift. The wind seemed to pick up, wanting to match its compadre, the water. The tree shuddered, groaned, and then screamed as half of it started splitting from the main trunk. The roar of the water was deafening but the loud explosion of the mighty tree as it surrendered half of its mass took all of the two men's focus. Ezra's limb bent severely to the right as the half of the tree that Buck's limb was attached to went left and downward. As the wooden anchor tied to Buck's right arm fell below the water, Buck heard the voice of his good friend and then nothing as his head smashed into the hard oak battering ram.
Ezra could do nothing to save his 'brother'. He watched in complete horror as Buck' s portion of the oak fell away from his and disappeared in the black water of the massive surge. The Southerner almost let go of the trunk but he held tight, realizing that he wouuld become another victim if he foolishly rushed to save Buck's life.. As he clung to the quivering tree, he screamed at the Herculean storm, "NNNOOOOOOO!"
Vin sat on the roof of the two-story house, his grip tight on Marie Mueller's arm. They had been forced out of the attic by the continually rising water. The three of them had scurried to the highest place they could about three hours ago. The rain still continued to pelt them, the wind driven saltwater drops painful to the skin and eyes. The roofing tiles were slick and treacherous. Marie had slipped twice, turning her ankle the second time. For now, however, they were fairly secure, huddled around the chimney pipe, the bricks having been thrown off before they even got to the roof. Ben had his arm around his wife, fear evident in the way he gripped her so tight. Vin was sure it had to be hurting the terrified woman but she didn't seem to notice.
Vin picked up the powerful flashlight that Ben had bought for just such an occasion. He directed the beam down at the water and calculated the depth by where it reached the roofline of the neighboring house. The foul-smelling water seemed to be receding and for that, Vin gave a silent thank you to the man above. He hadn't said a word to Ben, but he had actually been relieved when they had to evacuate the house. The steep pitched walls of the attic had closed in around him and the stifling heat had brought on nausea. He had willed himself to keep what he had in his stomach but it was a harrowing feeling. At least, on the roof, he could see what was going on. Most of his life, he had been at one with nature. He had seen its power in the form of twisters and thunderstorms. However, he had never experienced anything like this. It simply confirmed in his mind that Mother Earth was omnipotent, free to do as she pleased.
"What was that? Ben, is the house going to fall around us?" Marie screamed in sheer terror. Unlike Vin, she had no desire to be outside during the heart of a hurricane. She had clung to the chimney pipe for so long, she felt her fingers might never unclench. She had whispered prayers for the safety of all she loved. She had sung all of her favorite hymns. She had stared into the face of her husband, the man she depended on to keep her safe. None of it took the primeval fear away.
"Shhh, dear, somethingstruck the house, but we've got a solid building it's going to keep us alive, trust me." He tried smiling at his wife but it was contrived and she could see right through him. He was just as terrified as his wife was.
Vin got his feet up under him as edged away from the couple. He was curious as to what had caused the house to shake on its foundation. He searched the edges of the roof with the flashlight and discovered to his dismay a large fishing boat floating level with the roof, now about fifteen feet away.
The house, as sturdily built as any on the coast, was leaning with the wind and waves that continuously buffeted it. The three on the roof had no way of knowing but the water had started to wash away the foundation. The house trembled as another wave washed up against it.
Vin had felt the tremors before but this time it seemed to forewarn him of the danger they were suddenly in. He quickly flashed the light out at the boat again and saw that it was slowly floating away. Turning back towards Ben and Marie, he made a decision. Like a spider across its web, he skittered back to where the couple was clinging onto the chimney.
Getting as close as decency allowed, he shouted into Ben's ear. "It ain't gonna make it, Ben. Another wave like that and the house is gonna fall." He stopped as the older man turned a dispirited face towards him. "There's a boat right at the edge of the roof. We need to get Marie in it. We'll ride out the rest of the storm that way."
Ben fought the certainty in Vin's words. He had been raised in this house, his home. It had been the only home his children had ever known growing up. Marie had added her personal touches to the place and it had been his palace where he was king. He didn't want to believe that he could lose it to this storm. However, he knew the young man was right. Sighing deeply, he nodded.
"Marie, Vin and I are going to get you into the boat that's right beside the house. We'll be safer there and you can get out of the wind." He pointed towards the edge of the roof as he shouted, "We've got to do it, dear. It's our best hope."
Slowly unclenching her fingers, Marie released her grip on the pipe and took her husband's hand. She was overweight, but it had never bothered her before. She loved to cook and she enjoyed eating what she made as did the rest of her family. Now, however, her weight was a problem. He ankle still hurt but she was determined to not slip on the rain soaked tiles of the roof. Hesitantly, she shuffled her feet, slowly making her way across the roof. On her right was her husband, holding tight to her arm. On her left, the young man from Denver had her other arm. He shouted encouragement to her as they got closer to the edge.
Vin pointed his flashlight again at the damaged fishing boat, now about twenty feet away. He looked back at the elderly couple and knew he had to be the one. He handed the light to Ben and took a deep breath. He jumped, preying to God that there wasn't anything right below the surface of the water. He splashed into the muddy salt water, his legs apart, trying to keep his head above the filthy water. As soon as he could, he began swimming for his and the Muellers'lives. It only took a minute to get to the boat, but it took another four minutes to circle the boat and find a way to climb into the forty-foot boat. He took a moment to cough out the noxious water and then he began to search for something to help him make his way back to the house and the frightened couple. His hand found a long piece of rope and he stood facing Ben. Knowing his voice wouldn't travel across the twenty-five foot span, he pantomimed throwing the rope into the beam of light from the flashlight that Ben had shone on him. He kept it up until the older man bobbed the light up and down. He instinctively knew time was running short and he had to do this with one throw. He twisted back and then, like a discus thrower, he came around and threw the coiled rope with all his remaining strength. The rope sailed into the blackness of the night. He held his breath until he saw Marie flash the light on her husband who had the rope in his hands. Smiles broke out on three weary faces.
With both men pulling on their end of the rope, the boat gradually made its way to the edge of the roof. Vin tied his end of the rope to the boat and leaned over the bow, his hand out to assist Marie. Ben trusted Vin to take care of his loving wife. He moved forward, the woman he loved more than life itself gripping tightly to his hand. Smiling his encouragement to Marie, he pushed her to the edge of the roof. Vin caught her by the arm and together, the two men got the frightened woman aboard. Ben crawled in next just as the solid brick house groaned one last time. Ben assisted Marie into the small forward cabin and then came back to stand with Vin. The two men stood and watched as the house that Ben Mueller treasured gave up its fight and disappeared from sight.