A/N: Something a little different this time. I will be posting in parts, but the whole story is done. I am just catching up on the edits. ;)
The young eagle beat its wings twice, then coasted fluidly on the breeze, eyes searching its surroundings. It soared high over the treetops, surveying the ponds and forest below. Even though it was young and still carried much of the brown and white plumage of youth, it was in its third year of life. Its wings beat again, feather fingers reaching out to the clear sky, threatening to tickle the wisps of clouds.
The bird's sharp eyes saw light glint off of some unknown object below, and with a gentle tip of an outstretched wing, its course altered to investigate. Flying over the clearing once, searching the scene below, it looked for the best vantage point: one where it could see and not be seen.
The loudness and the shouting should have driven it away, and had it been any other bird it would have taken flight away from the smell of gunpowder and the noise. But it was an opportunistic creature; one who could use its youthful plumage to hide amongst the canopy and observe the scene. It also was not above scavenging a free meal, should the opportunity present itself.
Down below, laying flat on his back and looking up at the sky, Ezra couldn't help but think what a nice day it was. The sky was blue and the clouds were fluffy and bright white. The green treetops swayed in the gentle breeze of the day, carrying with it a sweet smell of the summer that would be here in only a few months. Had he been afforded the opportunity, he would have taken a deep breath, smelling, tasting the sweetness of the air. This was the type of day that was best spent laying around in a hammock, or sprawled out in the cool grass… just enjoying life.
So how did the day go to hell so fast?
He rolled his head and looked towards Buck. He was less than ten feet away from him, looking at him worriedly. Hell, it might as well have been a mile. He tried to move, resulting in a pain racing through his chest and fire erupting from his leg.
Jesus, I'm gonna die here.
Ezra glanced at his passenger, his eyes shooting daggers.
Buck stared back unflinchingly, a huge shit-eating grin on his face that made the ends of his mustache twitch. When he got no answer, he started to croon, "I'll…"
"Kill you if you sing that song again…"
"I mean it Buck."
For a split second, it looked like the warning was going to be heeded. Buck squared around in his seat and stared out the window, seemingly deflated. He sighed audibly. Then, as loud as he could without actually shouting, started singing again. "Twenty margaritas for your moonshine… Cuz I like to have a party all the time… OW!" Buck's singing was interrupted as the southerner smacked him on the arm.
"Next time it will be a bullet, and most likely a gut shot." Ezra punctuated his threat with an unwavering finger pointed directly in Buck's face. His eyes, however, relayed that it was in fact an empty threat at best. Ezra was just in no mood to be on the receiving end of this game. Buck had been singing that song ever since Chris had told them that this raid was on a moonshiner. The first time, the song had been funny because it had irritated Chris. The second time, it was still funny, because it still irritated Chris. This latest bellowing had been number twenty three. Twenty three, and that was just today. Ezra had been counting. He and Buck were partnered up for this raid, driving to the rendezvous point together in one of the bureau cars. On chorus number ten of today's performance, Ezra had removed the tape from the car's player and flung it out the window. Buck barely batted an eyelash. And worst of all, he continued to sing.
"Have I told you that you're no fun?" Buck asked around a smirk, rubbing his arm for good measure.
"Seven times so far today," Ezra deadpanned. "Twice in the past," Ezra looked at his watch, "ten minutes."
"Just so long as it's covered then," Buck asked, trying valiantly to stifle a smile.
Ezra had to concede that it wasn't entirely Buck's fault… the excitement that the explosives expert must be feeling was probably killing him. Today, if all went right and they found the huge still rumored to be running at this location, Buck might be allowed to blow it up. It would be Chris's call at the scene whether or not to dismantle the still versus blowing it up, but that didn't stop Buck from almost bouncing in place. Ezra thought the look on the big man's face was akin to a kid on Christmas morning. He couldn't help but smile along with him.
"Come on baby, we have to go," Jenna instructed her daughter, rushing to pack the few things they were taking with them. "Jerry isn't very happy with us right now…"
Jerry Tripp was always a decent man. He was a fair man, a good uncle, and a hell of a moonshiner. Recently though, since the death of his only brother Hank, he had become a different man. Scary, deranged even. He had taken to stockpiling weapons on their little compound. Hank's death hadn't been anyone's fault really, just an accident. One of the larger stills had tipped and landed on Hank, causing serious internal damage. He died on the way to the hospital. Jerry had told the authorities that it had been a farming accident, which had been believable enough.
Jenna had been married to Hank for seven years. Hank's first wife, Martha, had died of cancer two years after their daughter Shannon had been born. Hank had sought comfort in the arms of another woman, Jenna, and the two fell in love with each other and were married a year later. Jenna had always been 'Mom' to Shan, even though it wasn't a true blood relation.
After Hank had been buried, Jenna had become more and more uncomfortable with Jerry's new erratic behavior. Especially the gun hoarding. What was he up to? Brewing hooch was one thing, but guns? That put things in a whole other realm. Their little compound, which had been so peaceful and quaint, was now more militia-like than ever, and Jenna had decided it had to stop. She had informed the ATF in the hopes of alerting them to the operation, and hoping to bring about the end of the gun stockpiling. This also meant pulling the plug on the hooch, but maybe it was time.
The ATF had planned the raid for this week, hoping to catch Jerry Tripp with all of his illegal toys red handed. As an informant, Jenna was made aware of the date of the raid so she could get her daughter out of harm's way. It had been a part of the deal she had made when giving the information to the ATF. Jerry had been suspicious of everything since Hank's death, since the beginning of his foray into the arms market. Jenna had caught his attention several times with her actions, and he had taken to having someone keeping an eye on her at all times.
Jenna knew that Jerry suspected something of her. That's why she was determined to be gone by the time the ATF got here. She was supposed to wait for the ATF raid and be "arrested" like the other people on the compound, but she was afraid to wait any longer. She would take Shan and start a new life. She hoped to be on the road in less than a half hour, never to see this place again.
Hearing footsteps on the outside porch leading up to her cabin, Jenna grabbed Shan and hid her under the bed. "Shannon honey, I need you to be as quiet as possible. Don't come out for anything, do you understand me? You have to be as quiet as a mouse."
Scared blue eyes looked back at her mom. "Ok." Her tiny voice quivered as someone knocked harshly on the door.
"Be my good girl. I love you so much." Jenna kissed her daughter's head and helped her wiggle under the bed and out of sight, and she replaced the bedskirt hiding all traces of the child.
"Jenna, open this damn door or I'll break it down!" Jerry's voice boomed through the door.
Jenna went t the door and opened it, meeting the angry stare or her brother in law. With him was Darren, or was it Darryl? There were several new faces at the compound as of late.
"Sorry Jerry, I was in the other room."
Jerry slowly brushed past her and looked around the room. He noticed the bag sitting on the bed with things packed hastily within it. Darryl followed him, ushering Jenna back into the tiny cabin and closing the door behind him.
"Planning on a trip, Jenna?"
"I thought Shan and I would go away for a few days. She hasn't been doing so well since Hank's death," Jenna half lied. While it was true that Shan had almost stopped talking since her father's death, and Jenna knew that the girl wasn't doing well, she was planning on never returning to this place.
Jerry nodded slowly as he continued his stroll around the room. "You know, funny thing Jenna. Darryl here has been keeping an eye on you for me."
Jenna turned defiant eyes on the man who leaned against the wall watching her every move. His dark eyes were almost black, and he grinned at her.
"He says," Jerry continued, pointing at his brother's wife, "that you've been making a lot of phone calls as of late. I know you don't have any family. Who you been chatting with?"
"A friend," she said worriedly.
"See, I also know you don't have many friends. Hell, I bet you don't have any. I only ever see you with Shannon." He looked around the room again. "Where is that niece of mine? I would like to see her."
"She's not here. She's outside somewhere."
"I see," he said calmly. He smiled as he walked slowly up to her. With a move quicker than anyone would give a man his age credit for, he grabbed Jenna's neck with both hands and slammed her up against the wall, dazing her. Jenna's hand instinctively went to her own throat to try to ward off the attack. Jerry applied pressure.
Her face a mask of panic, she mouthed 'Jerry' and 'No'.
He slammed her against the wall again. "Now, Jenna," he seethed, "who were you chatting with?"
He let up slightly on her throat so she could answer. "No one Jerry, I swear."
"You called 'no one' four times last week. How many this week Darryl?" he asked without breaking his gaze from Jenna's eyes.
"Three that I've seen," the man replied nonchalantly.
"That's seven phone calls to 'no one' Jenna. See why I'm having a hard time following this?"
A tear escaped the corner of Jenna's eye. She whispered "Please".
"Do you have a new little boyfriend, you little slut?" he asked in a menacing whisper. "I would be very upset if you did. My brother hasn't been dead a month."
"No!" she wanted to scream in his face, but it came out as a strangled rasp.
He slammed her against the wall again. "Don't lie to me!" he yelled in her face.
"It's nothing like that I swear!"
"Who's this 'no one' you're so incredibly chatty with?" he pushed as he squeezed her neck to make his point.
Tears streamed down her face as she tried to keep her composure. She was scared for herself, but also scared for her little girl hiding under the bed. Oh god! What would Jerry do to her if Jenna wasn't around? That thought panicked her more than the thought of her own imminent death at this man's hands.
A radio squelched, breaking the silence. "Darryl, come in."
Jerry looked at Darryl, who apologized for the disruption with his eyes. "Answer it," Jerry barked.
"Go for Darryl."
"We got company coming. Unmarked suburbans and sedans."
"Fuck," Darryl said to the room at large. He looked into Jerry's questioning eyes. Then he asked on the radio, "How long?"
"Fifteen, twenty minutes tops."
"You little bitch," Jerry seethed, blowing his angry breath in Jenna's face. "You ratted us out?" His hands began tightening.
Jenna shook her head No. She clawed at his bigger hands, trying to free them from her throat.
Jerry nodded at Darryl, who started barking orders into the radio.
"You FUCKING BITCH!!" Jerry squeezed for all his worth, while Jenna tried to kick and scratch him, trying to gain another breath. Jerry held her against the wall, watching as the blood vessels burst within her sclera and the soft brown eyes bulged from their sockets in shock and fear. Her red face twisted and contorted as her hands and feet made a last ditch effort to free herself from her attacker.
Jerry smiled as limp arms fell to her sides, twitching one last time. The life drained out of her eyes, and Jerry cast Jenna's body to the ground as though a rag doll. She landed face down, head turned away from the bed where her daughter still hid.
Leaving the cabin behind them, Darryl and Jerry started towards the main building of the compound, which at one time had been used as a meeting hall and place of worship, but now housed their small armory. Darryl continued to bark into the radio at anyone who was still listening.
"Did anyone else think that was a little easy?" Vin asked quietly as they congregated around their prisoners. "These people gave up awful easy." He gestured towards the group of people kneeling on the ground near the vehicles. They mainly looked like family people—fathers, mothers, some older children.
Chris met the sharpshooter's gaze, and glanced at the kneeling captives. "Maybe they weren't as militant as the information made it out to be."
"That's another thing Chris," Vin said as he came up close to the blond. In hushed tones, he asked, "Where's the woman?"
Chris's eyes jumped to the kneeling captives again. They had all been given a picture of the informant in the briefing, knowing that they would need to protect her and her daughter during the raid… that was the deal. "Maybe she took off."
Vin shook his head. "You know that ain't true."
"I know. Just hoping I guess."
"If she ain't here… what if they figured out what was up?"
"Jesus Vin. Then we could be in the middle of a war."
"She had said there were more men than this," he nodded to the captives, "and if they're as heavily armored as she said they were…" he let his comment hang.
Vin shrugged and walked away, leaving Chris to organize the next wave of searching. Although now, he had to add the instructions to be careful… not all of the hostiles were accounted for.
Buck and Ezra had branched off with other members of their search team, but as their search progressed they realized that there were many more buildings than the satellite photos had shown. Part of that could have been due to the extensive foliage of the trees blocking out a lot, but why didn't that woman let them know better? In fact, where was the woman? What was her name? Jen? Something like that. Hell, most of the reconnaissance had proved to be inadequate at best. The 'woods' were far more than that, consisting of more and more outbuildings as the search went on. They hadn't planned for such an extensive compound. Some of the buildings were only the size of a standard shed, while others were cabin size.
Two stills had been discovered so far and their locations reported. The woman had told them that there were booby traps and extra protection around the stills – things like bear traps and pits - which were almost impossible to see with the naked eye. They would deal with the stills later; they wouldn't be going anywhere. More backup was ordered as the scope of the operation grew, but in the meantime those already on scene had to continue the search. Jerry Tripp was still unaccounted for.
"Ezra?" Buck asked from beside him, eyes continuing to scan of the surroundings as they advanced.
Ezra nodded his head towards Buck in a manner that said What?
"This feel off to you?"
Ezra nodded, saying quietly so only Buck could hear, "Yeah."
"Me too. Like a bad horror movie or something… I keep waiting for someone to jump out and go 'Boo' or something."
Ezra absentmindedly nodded. Buck could tell that the Southerner was nervous.
With their search team number dwindling, another building came into sight. Cueing his mic, Buck spoke quietly, "Chris? You there?"
"Go Buck," came the static-filled reply.
"Another outbuilding. Looks like another residence."
"Check it. Be careful."
"Always am," he answered through a smile.
Ezra turned and snorted, cocking an eyebrow in disbelief.
"What?" Buck asked defensively.
"Always am?" Ezra parroted mockingly.
"Shut up Ezra."
"You're starting to sound like Vin," Ezra said as he smiled and waved on the last two members of their search party, signaling for them to continue on. Time was of the essence—they had to find Tripp before he managed to slip away.
He and Buck approached the outbuilding carefully.
Sliding up on either side of the door to the cabin, both men spoke with their hands. Ezra tried the door, finding it unlocked. He nodded at Buck, and on a count of three, they entered, Ezra going to the right and Buck to the left. Sweeping the small room with their weapons out in front of them, they stepped over and around the body laying face down on the floor. Buck went into the adjoining room while Ezra checked the sole closet of the dwelling. After a moment, Buck re-entered the main room, shaking his head 'no'.
Ezra squatted down next to the body on the floor, feeling for a pulse but not looking to see the face of the woman. He met Buck's sad eyes and shook his head. "She's gone."
Buck cued his comm as Ezra stood back up. "Chris?" he asked.
Crackling static answered him.
"I got nothing," he said to the southerner. "You?"
Ezra cued his comm and tried to raise their leader. "Chris? You there?" He was met with the same static and shook his head at Buck.
"It's God's country," Ezra supplied.
Buck squatted down next to the body on the floor. Lying as it was, it was impossible to see her face. Buck tenderly turned her to her back, noticing the dark bruising around her neck and the set of her eyes, staring at nothing in a mask of horror and fear. He gently shut her eyes and stroked his face.
Ezra walked the distance to the bag on the bed and looked inside, then paced back towards the door. Something was eating at him. He was checking out the nearby window when he turned to face Buck, and stopped dead in his tracks as he looked at the woman's face.
Buck had watched him walk back and forth, and now stared at the Southerner, a question on his face. "What's the matter?"
"Damn. Buck, it's the woman," he said and instantly brought his gun up from his side, turning towards the door like he expected someone to come marching through it at that exact moment.
"What?" Buck asked as he looked down on the body.
"The informant," Ezra said over his shoulder, still on alert.
Buck, so caring in nature, hadn't seen it at first. All he saw was a woman who had met her death in an untimely manner, and he mourned for her. But if this were her… "Fuck!" Realization dawned on him. If this woman was the informant, then they knew. They fucking knew! So why did Tripp's people give up so easy? Why kill her?
"Buck, the people who gave up weren't Tripp's guys," the Southerner said. "Tripp and whoever else are still out there. We got the innocents."
Buck shot to his feet and tried his comm again. "Chris. Dammit!"
"Try outside. Maybe we'll get lucky and these damn things will work."
"Right." Buck started for the door, but both he and Ezra spun on their feet and took aim back towards the body when they heard a scraping sound like someone sliding on the wood floor.
Both men looked down their sights at the cause of the noise.
A small face peeked out from under the bed, hand snaking towards the still hand of the woman.
"Well," Ezra said, lowering his weapon first as he slowed his rapid heartbeat. "This just got a little more complicated."