This story follows on from events in Home Brew and Past Recall. Thanks to Scribbler for the beta.

Tailspin

Sunlight falling across Jake’s eyes brought him awake. For a moment, he didn’t know where he was: too many strange beds—or no bed at all—over the last few weeks. Then he remembered he was staying out at the ranch. Throwing back the blankets, he pushed away the memory of Emily back at the town house, her face crumpling as he’d told her he was leaving. That he couldn’t be around her right now.

Pulling on some clothes and padding downstairs, he breakfasted on stale cereal. His mom must have left it behind when she’d last stayed out at the ranch, after Dad died. The night before, he’d scraped together dinner from cans: tuna and potatoes and carrots, and bottled peaches afterward. He’d briefly wondered what Emily had cooked for him, but his mind had shied away from thinking too much about that. At least his mom had left behind coffee, and the power was on.

Draining his second cup, he headed outside to the barn. When he’d checked around last night, he’d seen there were four horses at the ranch: two in stalls in the barn, that he guessed needed some kind of stable rest, and a couple in the paddock. The others must be out being used by the Rangers.

The two horses in the paddock—Whisper and Abby—came crowding at the gate when he approached, looking for treats. He caught them easily and brought them into the barn with the other two. Fetching water and feed—there was a sack of concentrate in one of the mice-proof bins—and grooming them was soothing. It reminded him of when he’d spent weekends and summers out here as a kid, helping Grandpa with the horses and the small herd of beef cattle he raised. Jake guessed his parents had gotten rid of the cattle after Grandpa passed.

As he worked on Whisper and Abby, he tried to make some kind of plan for the day. He supposed he should go into town and find out what was happening. See about food. Pay a visit to Darcy Hawkins, too. Chavez had told him, while they’d been at Heather’s, the evening they’d arrived back in Jericho, that he’d headed over there briefly to give her the latest news about her husband, but Jake reckoned he owed her a visit too. Should’ve done it yesterday, but yesterday—.

A scuffed footstep behind him broke into his thoughts. In a flash, Jake had his Beretta out of his shoulder holster and pointed at the newcomer: a square-set kid of maybe fifteen, who hovered in the patch of sunlight falling into the barn through the open doors, his eyes wide with alarm and his hands raised nervously.

Puffing out a sharp breath, Jake relaxed a little and pulled the gun up.

“I’m supposed to do that.” The boy gestured slightly at the horses with one of his hands as he lowered them.

Jake put the gun away and picked up the brush he’d dropped. “I haven’t done Christmas or Sunny yet.” He tilted his head at the two horses that had been in the barn overnight.

The boy hesitated for a moment, and then went and fetched another brush from the rack and ducked into Sunny’s stall. Jake glanced across as he went back to grooming Abby. “What’s your name?”

“Dan Hendricks.”

Jake nodded. He could see the resemblance now to Dan’s father Mike, one of the Rangers Jake had trained last winter. Wasn’t he the one who’d been a travel agent before the attacks? Something like that, anyway. Trying hard, but starting from scratch. Jake saw Sunny was nuzzling the boy’s neck affectionately, which was a bit of a surprise, because she could be pretty damn temperamental. Given him more than a few nips over the winter….

Dan began working on brushing Sunny. “You’re Jake Green, right?”

“Uh-huh.” Jake ducked under Abby’s neck and started on her other side.

“You gonna be stayin’ here?” Dan sounded a little anxious.

“For a while, maybe.” Jake glanced across and saw Dan was frowning. He suddenly realized what was bothering the kid. He laughed and shook his head. “It’s okay. I’m not gonna take your job away from you. I just—.” He waved a hand a little helplessly, indicating the barn. “I’ve missed being around horses.”

Dan nodded, still looking a bit puzzled, but didn’t comment further, just went on working on Sunny.

Jake was finishing checking Abby’s hooves when he heard the scrunch of tires outside. He dropped Abby’s leg and headed toward the barn doors to find his brother climbing out of one of the two new cars J&R had provided for the sheriff’s department.

“Jake.” Eric crossed the yard towards him. “I stopped by the house and Mom said I’d find you out here.” He looked past Jake into the gloom of the barn. “Hey, Dan”.

“Hey, Sheriff Green.” Dan, now working on Christmas, raised his brush briefly.

Jake couldn’t suppress a smile at how weird it was to hear his brother called that. Even weirder than being called it himself for a while.

Eric tilted his head at Jake, and the two of them walked a little way from the barn. The sun had climbed higher and it had gotten much hotter while Jake had been working.

Eric stopped and looked at his brother. “We could use you in town. We heard from Hoffman. He’s threatening to shut down lights and power, and stop us bringing in more food, if we don’t cooperate.”

Jake laughed bitterly. “Guess he’s got the same playbook as Beck.”

Eric nodded. “We need to make some plans. I’d like you to be there.”

Jake stared out across the paddock. “Will Beck be there too?”

“Yes.” When Jake frowned, Eric added. “He’s in this with us too, you know. And he’s the only thing stopping Hoffman from rolling over us and putting us right back where we were with Beck a month ago. And carting you off to Loomer Ridge.”

“I know.” Jake scuffed his toe in the dirt. “I promised Heather I’d try and work with him and not kill him.” He gave Eric a weak smile. “Let me clean up and you can run me into town.”

oOo

Eric waited until Jake had climbed into the passenger seat of the squad car before starting the engine and easing the car out of the yard. He wasn’t totally surprised when Jake nodded at the dash. “How are we off for gas?”

Eric shrugged. “Better than last winter. Trish Merrick helped us get a load of supplies out of J&R before they discovered Beck’d defected.” Peering in both directions to check for traffic before turning onto Route 6—not that it was likely there’d be anything else on the road—Eric noticed Jake’s raised eyebrows and added, “I told you she was okay. Most of the J&R people took Beck up on his offer of an escort back to Cheyenne, but a few of them stuck around.”

“But the Rangers are back to patrolling with horses?” Jake was tapping his fingers restlessly on his knee.

Eric nodded. “Beck’s getting the lion’s share of the gas.”

He wasn’t too surprised when Jake snorted. Despite what Jake had said about his promise to Heather, Eric didn’t expect his brother to forgive or forget any time soon. And he couldn’t really blame him. But it wasn’t as if Beck hadn’t as good as admitted he’d screwed up, apologized where he could, and been scrupulous about respecting Jericho’s independence. Not to mention doing what he could to help them stay that way.

Eric tilted his head and added, trying not to sound too defensive, “Actually, he was pretty insistent we had enough for our needs. The Med Center and so on. But we all of us need to be careful. God knows how long this thing will last.”

“Uh-huh. Even with Texas siding with Columbus….” Jake cleared his throat. “So, you need me to take a patrol shift? Or…?” He laughed and looked across at his brother. “You guys seem to have everything pretty well covered. Maybe I should’ve stayed in Texas.”

“Nah.” Eric took a hand off the wheel for a moment and punched him in the shoulder. “We can always find something boneheaded and suicidally dangerous for you to do.”

Jake laughed again. “I’ll bet.” He lapsed into silence as they rolled another mile towards town. “So, am I gonna be able to get gas for the Roadrunner?”

Eric shrugged. “I don’t know. We’re kinda tight as it is.” He kept his tone carefully neutral as he added. “Would be easier if you were staying in town.”

Jake didn’t answer. Glancing across as they turned into the parking lot behind City Hall, Eric saw he’d hunched down in his seat. He finally let out a sigh as Eric pulled the car into one of the reserved spaces. “I know, but… things aren’t working out too good with me and Em.”

“I heard.”

Jake’s lips quirked in a faint smile. “Mom tell you?”

“Uh-huh.” Eric killed the engine and reached for the door.

“Eric?”

Eric paused and looked back at Jake.

“When you and April…. When you fell out of love with her, what did it feel like?”

Eric tried to hide his astonishment. Both that Jake would ask him for advice and because, well, Jake being in love with Emily was like gravity or the sun rising in the east. It just was.

Jake was still huddled his seat, looking more lost than Eric had seen him look since just after Dad died. Though Eric didn’t much want to think about the question, the look on his brother’s face stopped him from simply brushing him off. Instead, he considered his answer carefully. At last, he said slowly, “I don’t know. It wasn’t like I hated her, or couldn’t stand to be around her. I just didn’t know why we were together any more. And I think it happened long before Mary and I….” He made a helpless gesture, and then shook himself. “Come on. They’ll be waiting for us.”

oOo

Beck wasn’t completely unprepared when Jake followed Eric into Gray’s office. He’d had a whole minute since the mayor had told him Eric was fetching his brother to get used to the idea. Which wasn’t so crazy when Beck thought about it: Jake might have been out of town for two weeks, and in Beck’s custody for most of the week before that, but he was still “The Guy”. Even though Gray was mayor, it was Jake they all looked to.

And Beck was the first person Jake looked to when he entered the room. The atmosphere wasn’t quite as tense as the last time they’d met, but there was still plenty of animosity in Jake’s expression. Beck glanced away first, allowing the other man the satisfaction of winning the battle this time. They didn’t need to get into a pissing contest when they had more pressing concerns.

Still observing Jake from lowered eyes, Beck saw how his gaze flicked to Heather, and how he made a visible effort to relax as he smiled at her. A moment later, he’d nodded at Gray, and at Harry Carmichael—who was supposedly the chief engineer up at the mine but seemed to Beck more like deputy mayor most of the time—and had taken up a place on the far side of the room.

“So.” Gray leaned forward in his seat and nervously shuffled some papers around on his desk. “I think you all already know I spoke to Colonel Hoffman on the video link this morning, and he gave us a deadline. We’re to surrender and cooperate with Cheyenne by six tonight, or he’ll cut off power and lights, and ensure no supplies get through.”

“We’ve lived without that stuff before.” Jake was looking straight at Beck when he said it and Beck knew he’d deliberately used the same words he’d used in the hog farm basement. This time, Beck stared him out.

“Yes, well, I’d rather we didn’t,” Gray snapped testily, dragging Jake’s attention away from Beck.

“You’re going to surrender?” Jake took a step forward.

“No, of course not.” Gray glared at Jake. “I’m just saying that I’m sure we’d all rather not do without lights and power again.”

Jake retreated back and folded his arms, a mulish expression on his face.

Heather cleared her throat. “What happened to the wind turbines? I heard from Russell that you got the first one up and working outside City Hall.”

Beck remembered there’d been some odd contraption rigged up on Main Street when he’d first arrived. He thought the J&R infrastructure people had taken it down.

Gray nodded. “New Bern brought us another four and got them working before….” He glanced up at Harry.

Beck sensed there was some history here he didn’t understand. Looking around, he saw Jake, Eric and Heather were also all exchanging glances with each other—but not with Gray or Harry. He suddenly felt an outsider again, in a way he hadn’t the past two weeks. Despite the months he’d spent here, they were knit together by experiences that had happened long before he arrived.

Heather licked her lips, before she gave herself a little shake and turned back to Gray and Harry. “So, do we still have them?” She looked from Gray to Harry and back again.

“I think J&R stashed them in a warehouse on the west side when they took them down.” Gray sounded uncertain.

“Then we can put them back up.” Heather looked around the group, her face alight with enthusiasm. “It’s not going to power everything, but we can keep essential services running.”

“Even if they’re still there, didn’t the guys from New Bern put them up last time?” Jake threw the question in Harry’s direction.

“Yeah.” Harry frowned. “They had a couple my guys helping, but—.”

Heather folded her arms and let out a loud and disgusted sigh that cut right across what Harry was saying. When she had the attention of everyone in the room, she gave them a look of weary contempt. “Hello? I designed them. Maybe, just maybe, I know how they work?”

Gray and Harry looked taken aback, Jake looked a little embarrassed, while Eric looked like he was doing his best not to laugh. Beck was still trying to process what Heather had just said.

For once, his mouth got the better of his brain. “You designed them?”

Now it was his turn to get the look for a moment. He was sharply reminded of his wife, and that it was probably best to just shut up at this point. Then Heather’s expression shifted to something darker. She pressed her lips together for a moment. “It’s why I went to New Bern.”

She turned back to the others. Again, Beck had a sense of being excluded, although he didn’t think it was deliberate. He also noticed that Jake was now smirking, and guessed he was taking pleasure in Beck finding himself on the wrong end of Heather’s disdain.

He pulled his attention back to Heather, who was talking to Gray again. “If we can get even a couple working, we can put one up here and one at the Med Center….”

Gray nodded. “You and Harry should get right on that as soon as we’re done here.”

Beck wondered if they could spare one for Camp Delaware too. It would help with the way they were burning through their stocks of gas right now. But he wouldn’t ask until he knew how many turbines they could get working, and that the town had enough power for its needs. Gray had already been more than generous with supplies.

Which was the other half of Hoffman’s plan. “How’s Dale coming along with finding a way past Hoffman’s lines?” Beck knew from a report from one of the checkpoints that Dale had arrived back from his first foray to the outside world in the middle of the night.

Eric shrugged. “He says it’s pretty much what we expected: Hoffman’s got even the minor roads sewn up tight now, and he’s running humvee and helicopter patrols in between. It’s going to be harder than when we were running stuff past your guys, but he thinks it should still be possible.” Eric switched his attention from Beck to Jake. “The main problem is finding routes that can take a truck. Jake, you used to know the back roads better than any of us. You and Dale should get together.”

Jake nodded. Beck cleared his throat. When Eric turned back to him, he said, “I’d like Dale to talk to my guys about what he’s seen as well. There’s only so much my scouts can find out about what’s happening out there.”

“You need some help with that?” Jake’s tone and the slight sneer on his face suggested he was more interested in making Beck feel inadequate than actually helping.

Beck met his gaze evenly. “Thank you, but not at the moment, no.” He dipped his head a little. “I’ll be sure let you know if we do.”

At his side, Heather cleared her throat. Jake’s gaze flicked to her for a moment, before coming back to Beck. Beck wasn’t sure what had passed between the two of them, but whatever it was, it apparently made Jake back off a little: he gave Beck a curt nod and relaxed his stance into something less challenging.

“I’ll have Dale talk to Trish as well.” Gray once more shuffled the papers on his desk. “She’s been reviewing our stocks, so she can tell him what our priorities are.”

Listening to Jericho’s leaders making plans, Beck found he was almost starting to feel sorry for Colonel Hoffman. The town would run rings round him, just like they had around Beck. The question was, how would Hoffman respond when he worked out what they were up to?

oOo

Jake leaned back against the bookcase behind him and crossed his arms, resisting the urge to curl his hands into fists. The look Heather had given him had reminded him he’d promised to play nice with Beck, but he couldn’t believe the way everyone was treating the guy like nothing had happened. Forcing down his anger, Jake focused on Eric, who was asking Gray whether there was any news from Texas. That was something Jake wanted to hear the answer to as well, because they sure could—.

“Wait a minute.” Beck half held up his hand, interrupting Gray before the mayor could begin to answer Eric.

Jake glowered at him, wondering what he wanted now.

“Those wind turbines you were talking about.” Beck glanced sideways at Heather and then looked across at Harry. “How close do you have to site them to where you want to use the power?”

Harry shrugged. “Closer’s easier, and we’ll get a bit of power drop off if we’re running cables any distance, but I guess we could figure something out. Why?”

Beck took a moment before he answered—Probably enjoying being the center of attention, Jake thought sourly—and then gave a brisk nod. “Hoffman’s going to find out eventually. When he does, he’ll likely look to take the turbines out. Even if that maybe means reducing Main Street and the Med Center to rubble.” He gestured upwards. “He’s watching, remember?”

“What’s this?” Jake straightened from his slouch and turned to Eric.

Eric lifted his hand and scrubbed it across the back of his neck, like it ached and he was trying to ease it. “We think Hoffman has satellite surveillance of the area. He let slip to Gray while we were stalling him that he knew Beck was visiting City Hall every day. Could be he’s got a mole inside Beck’s camp, or in town, of course, but we know Cheyenne’s got control of at least some of the military hardware up there.”

Jake frowned. “Won’t he see us putting the turbines up in the first place, then?”

“He’s probably not looking that hard at Jericho.” It was Beck who answered. Jake turned and met his gaze, and Beck hesitated for a moment, as if he wasn’t sure if he should continue. Then he went on, “There’s only so much data he can gather and process. We think he’s maybe following me—” Jake snorted; Beck would think that. “—and concentrating on where my men are. With a sweep of the whole area every few days to see if anything’s changed.”

Jake spread his hands, wondering why Beck was making such a big deal out of this when the answer was obvious. “So we hide them. The turbines. Put them close to where we need them, but somewhere he can’t see.”

“We can’t do that.” Heather tilted her head and gave him an apologetic half-smile. “They need clean air. If we put them too close to anything else, they won’t work half the time.”

“Yeah.” Harry shoved his hands into his pockets. “We never got as much power as we should’ve out of the first one because we put it in the middle of all those buildings on Main Street. But we were more concerned at the time about just being able to hook it up into the grid through the switching station in City Hall basement….”

Eric cleared his throat. Looking back at him, Jake saw he was frowning. “Isn’t Hoffman less likely to attack if they’re in the middle of town? I mean, it seems like he doesn’t want to hurt us if he can help it.”

“He doesn’t.” Beck had crossed his arms. “But I’m not so sure about the people giving him orders.”

Jake’s jaw twitched. Beck should know: he’d been the one taking their orders not so long ago. Jake didn’t know a lot about what Beck had been up to in town while he’d had Jake tied up out at the hog farm. But from the sketchy outline that Eric had provided after his rescue, Jake reckoned that Hoffman—like Beck—would be prepared after a certain point to move on to using violence against civilians to end the insurrection.

At Beck’s side, Heather stirred. Jake transferred her attention back to her as she coughed nervously. “Maybe we need to hide them another way.” She glanced up at Beck. “Hoffman must know you’re flying the Stars and Stripes out at the camp, right?” She turned back to address the rest of the room. “If we fly flags from the turbines, low enough they won’t foul the blades, he might think we’re just putting up more flagpoles. An act of defiance. And that way, we can put the turbines exactly where we need them: outside the Med Center or the school….”

Eric chuckled. “That could work.”

Heather returning Eric’s approving grin with a shy smile, before her gaze slid on to Jake. He gave her a nod, his own mouth quirking at the thought of them hiding their resistance in plain sight.

“Is that possible?” Beck’s question dragged Heather’s attention away from Jake and back to him. When she raised a questioning eyebrow, the major shrugged. “I thought—well, that flag you gave me: wasn’t that the only one you could find? The rest had been shipped out.”

“It was.” Heather smiled at Beck, like she didn’t regret giving him the flag.

God, she really does think he’s the town savior, doesn’t she? Jake thought crossly. One US flag and he’s the one who gets it? He was so busy glaring at Beck, that he almost missed Heather’s next remark.

“But we still have the ASA flags somewhere, don’t we?” Her smile turned mischievous. “They have stars and stripes too. We just need to… do a little cutting and sewing….”

There was a moment’s silence, broken by a gruff bark of laughter from Gray. “Well, I’ll be damned. There’s an idea! Kinda seems like just desserts, doesn’t it? Using their own flags?”

There was a general ripple of laughter around the room. Jake caught Heather’s eye and grinned at her. “It does add a certain something to the plan, yes.” He thought for a moment and then turned to Eric. “I think Mom still has that old hand sewing machine somewhere? The one that used to belong to grandma?”

Eric nodded. He dipped his head in Heather’s direction. “I’ll drop by the clinic and talk to Mom and let you know.” He turned back toward Gray. “So, you were going to tell us the news from Texas?”

“Yes. Yes, I was.” Gray shuffled the papers around on his desk again, looking for the one he wanted. Watching him, Jake wondered who was really in charge in Jericho these days, given the way Eric, Beck and Heather almost seemed to be holding their own meeting and deciding things between the three of them. Gray cleared his throat. “So, I spoke to Colonel Davies again this morning.”

Mack Davies was the Texan officer who’d traveled back to Jericho with Jake and Chavez in order to act as the town’s liaison with the San Antonio government. Jake hadn’t seen him since he’d left him in Gray’s office the afternoon they’d arrived. Jake wasn’t sure how much use Mack would be, given the lack of support Texas had provided so far, but he’d grown to like the man himself during the long miles driving across Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle and Western Kansas. Not least because Mack had gotten them all out of a jam when they ran into a road gang and then an ASA patrol in quick succession.

Mack had also spent a lot of the journey questioning Jake about the situation in Jericho—and asking about Beck. Jake had a suspicion the colonel knew half the answers before Jake gave them, but he’d seemed genuinely interested in Jericho’s plight, and Jake hadn’t missed the subtle signs of disapproval in the Texan’s face when Jake had talked about what Beck had done to the town in recent weeks. Though Davies had been careful not to openly criticize a fellow officer, it had been clear to Jake that he didn’t think much of Beck’s conduct.

Dragging his mind away from the memory of the trip back, Jake realized Gray had been talking the whole time: “He says he’s been able to successfully make contact with his superiors in Texas and updated them on the situation here. He also let me know how things stand in Texas. Apparently it’s pretty tense along the border with the ASA, but there’s no reports of any real fighting yet, while Texas and Columbus are still hammering out just how they’re going to co-operate.” Gray snorted. “Could take a while. Sounds like Texas wants to keep its independence for now. And they’re trying to get the word out to the international community about the bombs, but it’s slow going.”

“Are they going to be sending any help our way?” Jake thought it sounded like Texas still wasn’t likely to stick its neck out for Jericho any time soon. Probably the best they could hope for was a bit more in the way of “plausibly deniable” supplies.

Gray shook his head. “I showed the Colonel around yesterday and gave him a list of what we need, and he says he’s put a report in, but….”

Jake grimaced. It was what he’d half expected to hear, but he’d hoped the news would be different. He finished the sentence for Gray. “We’re on our own.”

oOo

Jake’s gloomy assessment of the situation was still weighing on him when the meeting broke up a few minutes later. He barely acknowledged Gray confirming they’d meet again same time tomorrow, too lost in wondering just how they were going to hold off the ASA without help from Texas. Only Eric clapping him on the shoulder brought him out of his thoughts.

“Hey, bro. Time to go.”

“Yeah.” Jake straightened and shook himself. “Guess I should go talk to Dale.”

Eric should his head. “I’d leave it a few hours. He was pretty wiped when I saw him. We should let him get some rest.”

“Okay.” Jake scratched the back of his neck. “You got a patrol slot for me, or something, then?”

“Nah, we’re covered for today. Why don’t you—?” Eric hesitated and gave him a slightly hopeless look, as if he couldn’t think of anything to suggest.

“Sheriff. May I have a moment?” Beck’s soft-spoken interruption made Jake jump; he’d thought the major was still talking to Gray and Harry.

“Sure.” Eric nodded at Beck, before turning back to Jake. “Umm, maybe Heather needs some help with the turbines?” He gestured toward where she stood near the door, arms crossed and head down, apparently waiting for Harry to finish up with Gray.

Jake nodded, but Eric had already transferred his attention toward Beck again. Feeling like everyone knew what they were doing but him, Jake made his way over to Heather.

“Hey.”

She looked up, her expression startled. He guessed she’d been lost in thought. She tried to smile at him, but he saw that, though her mouth made the right movements, the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Could you use some help with the turbines?”

“We sure could.” Harry, who’d finished with Gray and joined them as Jake was speaking, answered before Heather could reply. “It took quite a crew to get them up last time.”

Heather hesitated for a moment before pulling herself straighter and squaring her shoulders. She gave a quick nod and gestured toward the door. “Let’s go, then.”

“Just remember, Hoffman’s watching.” Beck was passing behind Harry on his way out of the office. He stopped and turned back and added, “I know you want to get the turbines up today, but it may be better to—.”

“Hoffman’s watching you.” Jake wasn’t looking at Beck as he spoke. He was still looking at Heather, and could see that she seemed to be having no problem smiling at Beck. Jake turned and glared at the major. “So maybe you should make yourself scarce.”

“Jake—.” Heather put a hand on Jake’s arm, reminding him a second time of the promise he’d made the day he’d arrived back.

He took a deep breath, trying to rein in his anger. Before he could say anything, Beck spoke again.

“You’re right.” The major dipped his head. “I guess I’d best go find something suitably distracting to do out of town.” With another nod in salute, he headed out of the office. Looking after him, Jake wondered why Beck’s mildly-spoken agreement was even more irritating than his opposition.

oOo

The wind turbines proved to be where Gray had thought, in a warehouse on the west side of town. Heather spotted them first, lying half hidden among a jumble of other items, and Jake and Harry did the heavy lifting, carrying the blade assemblies out one by one and lining them up on the concrete apron at the front of the building so Heather could check them.

Helping Harry with the second set of blades, Jake saw Heather had dragged out an empty crate from somewhere and was using it to prop up the first turbine.

“You need a hand?” He threw the question out at her as he and Harry put the second set of blades down.

“Hmm?” She glanced up at him, her expression distracted, before she gave a sharp shake of the head as she carefully let the back of the turbine rest against the crate. “No. I’m good.” As Jake followed Harry back into the dim interior of the warehouse, she crouched down beside the blades and began slowly rotating them, her head tilted sideways as she squinted at something in the central mechanism.

When Jake and Harry came out with the third turbine, she was giving the blades a sharp spin. Jake could hear the metal edges whistling eerily as they cut through the air, the sound diminishing as the blades slowed. There was a quiet clack as they came to a halt.

“Is it okay?” Harry let down his end of the turbine and, rubbing his hands anxiously together, took a few paces toward Heather and squinted down over her shoulder.

“I think so.” Heather ran her hand along the edges of the nearest blade, apparently checking it was in shape. “I can’t be sure the blades haven’t gotten damaged, but the governor seems to be functioning okay and that’s the important part.” She turned the blades so she could inspect the next one in the same way. “Worst case scenario, it’ll just mean they’re a little less efficient.”

“So I should get some guys…?” Harry hopped from one foot to the other.

“Yeah.” Heather glanced up at him, giving him the same kind of strained-looking smile she’d given Jake back at City Hall. “I’ll need to check the others, but this one should be good to go.”

“Great. Jake and I’ll just—.” Harry waved a hand at the warehouse, and the other two turbines still inside.

By the time they had all five turbines outside, and Harry had headed off to round up a work crew, Heather had moved on to checking over the second turbine. Jake found more empty crates and propped up the rest for her to inspect, before he went back inside to start bringing out the poles that would hoist the blade assemblies high into the air.

Coming out with a bundle of poles under his arm, he saw Heather was still hunkered down next to the second turbine. Her hand rested on one of the blades, as if she were in the process of testing its shape, but as Jake picked out a place to dump the poles, he noticed she wasn’t moving. Even the clatter of the poles as he let them go didn’t disturb her peculiar stillness, or alter the tense line of her hunched shoulders.

A suspicion formed in Jake’s mind. Without stopping to think, he took three quick strides toward her and knelt at her side. “Hey?”

A slight movement of her head told him she’d heard him and knew he was there, but that was all the acknowledgment he got. Dipping his head further so he could catch a glimpse of her face, he saw he’d guessed right: her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

“Heather?” He reached out and put his hand on hers, and discovered she was trembling.

“I—. Heh.… ” She puffed out a sharp breath and pulled her hand from under his, giving herself a little shake. “I’m okay. Just… seeing the turbines again.” She sat back, wriggling her shoulders, her head turned away from him so he couldn’t catch her eye. “Got me thinking about New Bern….”

Jake opened his mouth and then realized he didn’t know what to say. They’d never talked about what had happened: how she’d manage to escape after Constantino had caught her and Eric, and how she’d ended up with the Cheyenne army. Or even what it had been like before that, though he’d heard and seen enough from elsewhere to know things in New Bern had been even tougher than in Jericho. “I’m sorry,” he offered, touching her shoulder.

She shook her head. “It’s not your fault.” She gave a hiccupping laugh. “I was the one determined to do something dangerous.” Before he could find the words to reply, she drew in another deep breath and let it out. “Anyway, that’s all water under the bridge, right? We need to get on with checking the rest of these.” She gestured at the turbines and, pulling herself away from Jake, levered herself to her feet.

Jake, still squatting by the second turbine, felt his chest tighten as he watched her turn and transfer her attention to the next turbine in the row. Silently, he berated himself: I should’ve never let her go….

oOo

An hour or so later saw the two of them outside City Hall, among a crowd that was debating where to put the turbines that were now lined up on hand trucks in front of the steps. Heather had regained her composure, though Jake could tell—from sneaking glances at her while she talked to Gray and Harry—that the memories weren’t buried very deep.

“We put the first one up outside City Hall, but it was mostly powering the Med Center,” Harry was explaining. “When the other four came, we had another two over there. Partly because the Med Center takes a lot of juice, but mostly because we were hoping to keep a steadier supply with three.”

“You had problems?” Heather gave him a surprised look. “The governors…?”

Harry spread his hands. “Probably the location. Like I said before, we didn’t get as much out of the first one as we should’ve done. I think there was a lot of turbulence.”

“Right. We, uh,” Heather shoved her hands into her jeans pockets and hunched her shoulders, “we tested them on the factory roof. Tallest building for miles, nice clean air stream….”

“Yeah.” Harry nodded at her. “We got the best results out of the one we had out at the pumping station at Chapparal. Not that the water pumps were as sensitive as some of the equipment they were using at the Med Center, but I think that one gave us fewest problems the week we had it running.”

“They were up that long, huh?” Heather let out a choked laugh.

Harry shrugged. “The Army trucked in a load of gas for the generators within a few days. And the next week they brought in some engineers to start reconnecting us to the grid.”

Jake remembered how glad he’d been to have heat and light and hot water and, God, cold beers in Bailey’s again—and how he’d never thought about how much Heather had been through to give them the turbines compared with how little use they’d made of them in the end. He reached out and touched her arm. “A lot more people would’ve died if we hadn’t had the first one running the Med Center. You helped save a lot of lives.”

She half turned toward him, not really meeting his gaze. “I guess.” She didn’t sound convinced.

Jake gave her arm a squeeze, fumbling for the right words to tell her that what she’d done had mattered, did matter. She lifted her gaze to briefly meet his, giving him another of those tight smiles, and he knew she knew what he was trying to say.

She turned back to Harry. “And the last one?”

“We had that out back, powering things here.” Harry jerked his thumb toward the rear of City Hall. “Of course, we thought we’d be getting another six to power the rest of town.”

Heather puffed out her cheeks. “Well, I reckon if we site them carefully, we should be able to run the Med Center on two. Not as if we’re going to have anywhere near the power needed to run half the equipment there anyway, right? With City Hall and the pumping station, that gives us one spare.” She looked around at the group. “Any thoughts?”

“We could use it to power Dale’s?” someone from the crowd chipped in. “Keep the freezers running? Gotta look after the food….”

Harry shook his head. “We’re better off eating the frozen stuff now and saving the canned goods, rather than wasting energy keeping it frozen.”

Gray cleared his throat. “Could they use one of these things out at the camp?” He raised an eyebrow in Heather’s direction.

“Yes.” Heather’s answer was immediate. “Definitely. You heard what Major Beck said to Colonel Davies yesterday about needing more gas if Texas can get it to us. And it feels like half the conversations I’ve had have been about gas and what else they can—.”

“Wait!” Jake couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Everyone turned to look at Jake as he took a pace toward Gray. “You want to give one of them to Beck?”

Gray exchanged a surprised look with Heather before he turned back to Jake. “Yes. Why not? If he can make better use of it.”

He glanced at Heather and she nodded. “They could keep the command tent running with it. The radios. Save the gas for the humvees and—.”

Jake wasn’t really listening to Heather. He already knew she was on Beck’s side and that Beck would have given her a hundred reasons why he should have the turbines and that she would have believed all of them because—. He left the thought unfinished, not wanting to think about how close the two of them seemed to have gotten.

But Gray? Gray was supposed to be on Jericho’s side. Not cozying up to the man who’d torn the town apart and brutalized its citizens in defense of some concept of justice he clearly didn’t think applied to men like himself and John Goetz. Jake took another step closer to Gray. “After everything he did to us?” Jake stuck out an arm and gestured toward City Hall, but he meant the whole town. “After everything he let Goetz do?”

Gray’s face had taken on a faintly annoyed look, but he didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked Jake over. Jake guessed that, ever the politician, he was searching for the right words. He was right: when Gray finally spoke, it was in a patient tone clearly designed to appease. “Jake, I know there’s bad blood between the two of you. And I know I wasn’t here to see personally most of what Major Beck did. But he’s made it very clear that he understands he was wrong. And we’re all agreed,” he glanced around the crowd before looking back at Jake, “that the town needs to work with Beck and his troops if we want to keep our independence.”

Jake opened his mouth to object again—how could they trust themselves and their freedom to Beck?— but Gray didn’t let him interrupt. This time, though, his tone was considerably less patient as he snapped, “Or would you rather we don’t help him, let his troops get overrun because they can’t talk to each other on their radios, and let the ASA take control again?”

Jake pressed his mouth into a thin line. Of course he didn’t want that. He just—. Swallowing down his anger, he took a step back. Deep down, he knew Gray and Heather were probably right, but it still didn’t sit well with him, trusting Beck. Not after Jake had thought he’d be able to trust him to do the right thing when Jake had surrendered—and then Beck had pulled the rug from under him.

Gray seemed to take Jake’s silence as assent. He swept his gaze over the rest of the crowd, but no one else seemed to want to raise any objections. “That’s agreed then. One here, two at the Med Center, one at the pumping station and one for Camp Delaware.” He turned away and began dividing the crowd into work parties.

A touch on Jake’s arm startled him from half-memories of Beck’s men twisting his arms behind his back and a hood being pulled down over his head. Looking down, he saw Heather was smiling up at him, her expression strained but grateful. She didn’t say anything, but she gave a little dip of her head before she swung back to paying attention to what Gray was saying.

Some of Jake’s anger slipped away. At least Heather did understand, even if she was mostly on Beck’s side. Lifting his head, he took a deep breath, trying to let go the rest of his irritation.

Movement further down the street, some way beyond the edge of the crowd, caught his eye. A truck had drawn up in front of the store. Among the bustle of men unloading it, he saw Dale directing operations.

Shifting his attention back to the group outside City Hall, Jake realized it was splitting up. Gray had apparently finished giving orders; the hand trucks with the turbines were being wheeled away in various directions. Taking a step sideways, Jake intercepted Gray as he moved to head back into City Hall. There was a flash of irritation on the mayor’s face: the thought What now? hung in the air almost as clearly as if Gray had spoken it.

Jake nodded toward the store. “Looks like Dale’s woken up. I’m going to go talk to him about routes we can use to get in and out of town.”

Gray looked relieved. “That’s great. Good work, Jake. Don’t know what we’d do without you.” With another nod of the head, he scurried up the steps into City Hall. Watching him go, Jake quietly snorted at the platitude, before he turned and headed for the store.

oOo

An hour later, the sun was almost overhead, casting short shadows and striking fiercely up from the asphalt, as Heather knelt outside the Med Center, sorting through cables. Nearby, half a dozen guys under Harry’s direction were preparing to hoist one of the turbines into place. The second turbine lay ready at the other end of the parking lot.

The Med Center itself was still busy with the normal routine of clinics and appointments and emergencies, so Heather didn’t pay much attention to the latest set of footsteps approaching from behind until a voice broke into her thoughts. “Hey, Heather. Anything I can do to help?”

Heather looked up, shading her eyes against the sun so she could see more of the speaker than her silhouette. “Hey, Emily. Umm….” She looked back down at the cables for a moment and realized she’d, yet again, lost her place in what she was doing. She was having no trouble remembering how the turbines went together or how to connect them—when she put her mind to it. The trouble was, concentration was proving a scarce commodity: she didn’t seem to be able to keep her thoughts from repeatedly wandering back to what had happened in New Bern during the long, grim months she’d spent there. And now, once again, she’d have to start over. Suppressing a sigh, she got to her feet, dusting off her hands.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Emily flashed her a brief smile, even as her gaze continued to rove restlessly around the parking lot. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” There was a moment more of hesitation before she asked, a little too casually, “Is Jake around? I went by City Hall and Bill said he was helping with the turbines.”

“Umm, no.” Heather pushed her hair back off her face with the back of her hand. “He was around earlier, but I think he went off to talk to Dale about smuggling routes.”

If she were to be honest with herself, Heather had been rather glad when Jake had left: it had been hard work dealing with his constant animosity toward Edward on top of everything else. Not that she didn’t understand and sympathize, and she felt a little guilty to be so happy to have gotten rid of him, but it had been… kinda tiresome, and she felt she had enough on her plate to deal with already. At least Jake had been the only one to see her little outburst back at the warehouse; last thing she needed if she was to keep any of the credibility she’d managed to accrue with Harry and the rest of the guys was to burst into tears in front of them.

“Oh.” Emily’s face fell at the news about Jake and there was a tinge of disappointment in her voice. “Well, I guess they won’t want to be interrupted, then.”

“Probably not, no.” Heather, glancing down at the cables again, bit back her annoyance that apparently it was just fine to interrupt her. She looked back up at Emily, who was worrying her lower lip with her teeth as she rather absently stared across at where the group of men around Harry were now grunting and shouting as they heaved the turbine into position. “Did you want me to give Jake a message if I see him? Or will it wait till he gets home?”

Emily made a face. “Whenever that is.” She heaved a sigh. “He moved out. Last night. Went to stay at the ranch. He said,” she gave a little hiccupping laugh and made air quotes with her fingers, “everything’s changed. That he can’t be with me right now.”

“Oh, Em.” Heather reached out and touched her arm. Much as it had hurt her to see the two of them together, she knew how happy it had made Emily that she and Jake had hooked up again. “I’m sorry.”

She resolutely ignored the little flicker of excitement that had flared up at the thought that maybe, this time, it really was over for good. Because even if it was, there wasn’t any chance that she and Jake, that the two of them might, that he might—. No. He’d made that quite clear last fall. Besides, Em and Jake had always been splitting up and making up, hadn’t they? The whole time they’d been dating. Give them a few weeks, and they’d likely be back together again.

Em wrapped her arms around herself. “I made him dinner last night. Gail’s been teaching me.” Heather saw her swallow hard. “And he didn’t come home until really late. And then he just took off.”

Heather rubbed her hand up and down Emily’s arm, trying to comfort her, while suppressing a surge of guilt. Jake probably wouldn’t have been late for dinner if he hadn’t stopped to help her fix Charlotte.

Emily was still staring across at where the men were now stringing and tightening the cables that would hold the turbine in place. Sucking in a choked breath, she added, “He’s just not been the same since he came back from Texas.” Her voice had risen half an octave and Heather, with weary familiarity, recognized the signs: she was about to be in for a half hour or more of calming down a wound-up Emily and reassuring her that no, everything was going to work out just fine. She’d seen it happen a few times before, mostly when Emily and Roger had fought over staying in Jericho or moving to Chicago.

Following Emily’s gaze, Heather realized the men would be done soon and Harry would be over right after that to see if they were ready to hook the turbine up to the Med Center patch panel. The cables still weren’t quite ready, and it wasn’t going to do Heather’s cause any good if Harry caught her slacking off having some kind of emotional “girl talk”. But she couldn’t just brush Emily off, either, could she?

A moment of inspiration struck and she turned back to Emily. “Look, you wanted to help, right?” When Emily, giving her a tight little smile, nodded, she went on, “We’re going to fly flags from the turbines. Try and fool Hoffman into thinking they’re just flagpoles. But we’ve only got ASA flags. We need someone with a pair of scissors and Mrs Green’s sewing machine to turn them into real Stars and Stripes. Think you could handle that?”

“I guess.” Emily didn’t sound very enthusiastic.

“Great!” Heather tried to sound as encouraging as possible. “I’ll just let Harry know I’m getting you started on that while he gets the other turbine up. And then you can tell me all about Jake while we’re doing that, okay?” Not that Heather much wanted to listen, but taking a break might clear her own head a bit

“Okay.” Emily’s face had visibly brightened at the prospect of them being able to talk.

“Good.” Heather hurried across the parking lot toward Harry. Five minutes later, she was back and steering Emily toward the center of town. “You stored the ASA flags at City Hall?” she asked, as they headed for Main Street. She’d remembered that Emily had been in charge of the clean up squad after Edward had pulled his troops out.

Emily nodded. “We took them down during the clear up and then,” she shrugged, “we didn’t really know what to do with them. I mean, they’re not real flags, but it still seemed… wrong to just throw them away.”

Heather knew what she meant. The flags were similar enough that she’d felt a moment of shock herself when she’d seen the one that Gray had taken down from outside City Hall lying crumpled in the dirt. She’d had to remind herself it was just a piece of cloth masquerading as something else and that it didn’t deserve any respect. “Well, it’s a good thing we did keep them.”

Emily didn’t answer. They walked on in silence for a few more yards. Sneaking a look at Emily, Heather saw the other woman was lost in thought. She didn’t think Emily was pondering flags, real or invented, though, and her guess was proved correct a couple of minutes later when Emily heaved a sigh and said, “I just don’t see why Jake thinks everything’s changed now he’s back. Or why it makes a difference if it has. We weren’t exactly being model citizens of the ASA before he left.”

“No, but….” Heather hesitated. “You know, I’m not trying to defend Jake but, well, I think he’s having a hard time accepting that Edward… that Major Beck’s on our side now. He’s still pretty angry at him.”

“Yes, well, you can hardly blame him for that,” Emily snapped. She lengthened her stride, her arms swinging more forcefully, and Heather almost had to run to keep up as they turned onto Main Street and headed past the church.

“I’m not blaming him,” she pointed out, trying not to sound like she was accusing Emily either. “I’m just saying maybe you need to give him some time? Let him get used to the idea?”

“I know.” Emily huffed out a breath and let her pace slacken. “It’s just….” She stopped and swung round to face Heather. “All I want to do is help him, but he won’t let me. He just keeps pushing me away.”

Again, Heather reached out and put a comforting hand on Emily’s arm. “I know. It’s hard. But sometimes the people we love best aren’t the best people to help us.”

Something made her look over Emily’s shoulder. Fifty yards down Main Street, Jake was coming out of the City Hall, the double doors swinging closed behind him. He must have seen them too, because he checked halfway down the steps. Emily turned, following Heather’s gaze to see what had caught her attention.

“Oh!” Pulling herself out of Heather’s grasp, Emily took a step down the street toward Jake, her face suddenly alive with hope. For a moment, she and Jake looked at each other, and then Jake, bowing his head and shoving his hands into his pockets, hurried down the rest of the steps and headed away from them, past Bailey’s and out of sight.

Emily’s shoulders slumped and she put the back of her hand to her mouth, as if trying to stop herself from crying out. Heather stepped up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Just give him some time,” she said softly. “He’ll come around. You guys have been through this kind of thing before, right?”

“Yeah.” Emily drew in a deep breath and pulled herself straighter. “Yeah, we have.” She didn’t sound very convinced, but Heather couldn’t think of anything more encouraging to say. She was remembering how much it had hurt her when she’d gotten the same treatment from Jake after he and Eric had been to Rogue River to find meds for his father. And she’d only known him for a month back then. It must be a hundred times worse for Emily, with all the history they had.

“Come on,” Heather managed at last. With a wave of her hand, she urged Emily to carry on toward City Hall. As they reached the steps, she shot a black look in the direction Jake had disappeared. They had enough problems on their plate as it was without Jake Green acting like a sulky teenager.

oOo

Hurrying away from City Hall, Jake tried to convince himself, not very successfully, that Emily and Heather hadn’t seen him. Even if they had, though, it wasn’t as if he had anything more to say to Emily that he hadn’t said last night. How could he explain the sense of suffocation and rising panic he’d felt—that he was still feeling—without hurting her even more than he already had? He couldn’t even explain it to himself. No, he just needed to give it some time and everything would work out okay.

He let out a snort of bitter laughter as it struck him that Emily seemed to be the only person who wanted him around. With everyone else, he was just getting in the way of their well-oiled arrangements and their cozy alliance with Beck. Even his efforts over the past hour and a half or so to help Dale had proved less useful than he’d expected.

Taking themselves to the meeting room upstairs in City Hall, the two of them had pushed together a couple of tables and spread out maps they’d borrowed from the mayor’s office. Leaning forward, Dale had traced a line that along led along the edge of Stanley’s farm and then out into the neighboring property. “It wasn’t too hard to get out,” he explained.

Jake nodded, recognizing the route was the same one Dale had been using when Stanley had caught him on his land a few weeks earlier.

Dale tapped a couple of points on the main roads that ran out of town either side of the dirt road he’d indicated a moment before. “Hoffman had checkpoints here and here, about a mile further out than Beck’s. Lieutenant Goodman warned us about those before we left. Said Hoffman seemed to be mirroring the major’s set up, right down to the timing of the patrols. All we had to do was lay up until a patrol went past, wait ten minutes to make sure they were far enough away they wouldn’t hear our engine, and then sneak through.”

Jake frowned at the map. “Eric said this morning Hoffman had the place sewn up tight. That doesn’t sound—.”

“Yeah, he does now.” Glancing up, Jake saw Dale grimacing in frustration. “We had a hell of a time getting back in last night. By the time we got back from making the rounds of a few of the trading posts out east, seems like there were checkpoints on pretty much all the backroads as well. And when we started trying out the farm tracks, we found there were a hell of a lot more patrols, too. Nearly had us twice before we decided to hide the truck in a barn and hike in on foot.”

Jake rested his hands on the table and went on looking down at the map, running his gaze over the network of fine lines that criss-crossed the paper, pondering their options. Though it would be a rough ride, there were plenty of routes that would be passable even for a truck as long as the weather stayed dry. But a truck wouldn’t be able to outrun a humvee if it was spotted or—more likely—heard. Even something quieter and faster, like a car, likely wouldn’t stand much more chance of sneaking through if Hoffman had stepped up his patrols as much as Dale was claiming.

No, they needed silence more than speed. A sudden memory came back to him: telling Heather a horse is slower than that and her telling him a horse is less likely to explode. And then…. He shook his head, forcing away the memory of what had happened next. No good thinking about that now.

Clearing his throat, he looked up at Dale. “We could use horses. Won’t—?”

He stopped when one of the double doors at the end of the room opened and a soldier hesitantly stepped inside. Jake thought he recognized him as one of Beck’s staff officers who’d been based in City Hall during Jake’s brief tenure as Sheriff. His nametape identified him as Goodman; wasn’t that the name Dale had mentioned a few moments ago? Jake guessed that meant he was Beck’s intelligence officer.

“Mr Turner, sir?”

Dale straightened. “Yes?”

The soldier cleared his throat. “Sir, Major Beck wanted me to debrief you on your reconnaissance of Colonel Hoffman’s lines. If…?” The soldier glanced in Jake’s direction.

“Sure. Come in, Lieutenant.” Dale waved him further in before Jake had a chance to disagree. Not that he really had any real reason to object, except a slight feeling of resentment that, yet again, Beck seemed to somehow be managing to hijack the conversation.

Half-listening to Dale repeat to the lieutenant what he’d already said, Jake went on studying the map. He realized he and Mack and Chavez has been even luckier than he’d thought on their trip back into Jericho. If they’d left a day later or been delayed en route, they would have almost certainly run into one of Hoffman’s new checkpoints or extra patrols, and there was no way they would have been able to outrun the ASA once they’d been spotted. No way they would have been able to get back to Jericho….

“Would you be able to mark the new checkpoints on the map?” The lieutenant’s question broke into Jake’s memory of the way his heart had lifted as he’d driven the last mile into town. Not that he was so sure any more why he’d been keen to hurry back. Seemed like they’d been managing just fine without him.

“Only the couple we nearly ran into last night.” Dale pointed at the map again. “There was one about here and another one…” His finger hesitated before settling on a point to the south of the first. “…here, I think.”

Jake shook his head. “No, it’d be here.” He tapped a spot about a quarter mile further out. “Road runs over a bit of a ridge, plus closer to town there’s woods either side.” Much to his surprise, he found himself adding, “I could probably give you an idea where the checkpoints are likely to be on the other roads. If it would help.” He looked up at the lieutenant, eyebrows raised.

“Yes, sir, it would.” The lieutenant dipped his head gratefully. “Should help us scout them without exposing our own men.”

Almost an hour later, the map was ringed with crosses. Jake rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead—his head was starting to ache—and stared ruefully at the small gaps in between the marks he’d made. If Hoffman did have checkpoints on all the backroads, then they really were boxed in. “We’ll definitely have to use horses if we want to get in and out,” he warned Dale. “There’s no way we can get a truck past that lot.”

“Yes, sir. I think you’re right.” The lieutenant gave him a grim smile. His hand hovered over the edge of the map. “May I take this? To have it copied? We’ll let you have it back as soon as we can. And, of course, we’ll let you know when we’ve verified exactly where the checkpoints are.”

“I guess.” Jake watched the lieutenant begin to roll up the map, feeling a little resentful that Beck was about to benefit from the local knowledge that had kept him from taking complete control of the town while he’d still been in charge. He sucked in a deep breath, reminding himself that the reason he was sharing what he knew was in order to keep the ASA from taking over again, and that he and Beck were supposed to be on the same side now. It still wasn’t an idea that sat easily with him.

“Wait a minute.” He put his hand back on the map, to stop the lieutenant from finishing rolling it up. He turned his head in Dale’s direction. “Where did you say you left the truck?”

Dale leaned over the map, his hand resting lightly on the rolled-up part, and squinted at it for a moment. With a frown, he unrolled the sheet a few inches and took another look. Finally, he indicated a spot on the map to the south-west of town. “Place is abandoned. As long as Hoffman’s guys don’t go poking around too much, it should be OK. There’s nothing in it that won’t keep, either.” He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Plenty we could do with bringing in, though. Gas, food, a dozen boxes of stuff like Coleman lamps and camping stoves folks out there think they don’t need any more now the power’s back on….”

“Okay.” Jake peered at the spot Dale had marked, and then let his gaze track back in toward town, past where he’d thought Hoffman would have his new checkpoints. He reckoned they could probably stay out of sight of Hoffman’s patrols if they followed Shaw Creek west until they were past the ASA perimeter and then turned south and headed cross country. “We should get some horses, put together a team and see if we can pick up what’s out there and bring it back in.”

“Sir, I’ll need to run that past Major Beck first.” Lieutenant Goodman had pulled himself a little straighter. His posture wasn’t quite openly challenging, but it warned Jake against arguing.

Jake, also straightening, bit back the retort that he didn’t give a damn what Beck thought about it. Instead, he pretended to play dumb. “Isn’t this town business? I thought Major Beck wasn’t going to interfere.”

The lieutenant met his gaze steadily. “Yes, sir, but you’d be operating within our patrol lines. There’s standing orders anything like that needs to be cleared by both sides. To avoid misunderstandings.”

“Lieutenant Goodman’s right, Jake.” Dale flashed him an apologetic smile. “Mayor Anderson and Sheriff Green’ll want to know as well. We can’t just take off and do stuff, you know?”

“I’ll talk to Major Beck about it as soon as I get back to camp with this.” Goodman was once more rolling up the map.

“I’ll go find the sheriff and the mayor.” Dale gestured for Goodman to lead the way.

“I’ll—.” Jake watched them leave, realizing he had no idea what he was going to do—and that probably neither of them would have much cared to hear even if he had.

oOo

Jake still had no real plan as, a short while later, he marched away from City Hall. His only objective at first was to put as much distance as possible between himself and Emily. But after a few minutes, slackening his pace, he remembered he still hadn’t visited Darcy Hawkins to pass on the messages her husband had entrusted to him and to reassure her that, though his injuries had been serious, Hawkins was recovering just fine.

He redirected his steps toward the Hawkins’ house, reckoning Darcy would have moved herself and the kids back from the hunting cabin once Jericho declared its independence. He was right: Allison answered the door when he knocked.

“Hey.” He smiled awkwardly at her. “Is your mom home?”

She took a step back, inviting him in, while she yelled “Mom! We’ve got a visitor!” over her shoulder. As he hesitated on the threshold, she retreated further, hovering by the dining table.

A moment later, Darcy appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Jake. Come in.” She waved him further into the house and toward the couch. “What can I do for you?”

“I, uh, I promised your husband that I’d come see you when I got back. Make sure you were okay and that you knew he was okay.” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck and smiled at her apologetically as he settled himself on the edge of the couch.

Darcy perched on one of the other chairs and gave him a curt nod, her hands busy with carefully folding the dishtowel into quarters. “Chavez came to see us. He told us Robert was injured but said he’s going to be fine. That he’ll make a full recovery. And Major Beck paid a visit a few days ago, as well, to let us know Robert isn’t under investigation any more, and that he was sorry for all the trouble he’d caused us.”

Jake felt thoroughly pre-empted—and a little annoyed that Beck had been running around town, making out like he was the good guy in all of this, while he’d been stuck in Texas. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. “Yeah. Sorry it took me a while—.”

Darcy’s face softened a little. “No need to apologize, Jake. I’m sure you had a lot on your mind. And Chavez passed on Rob’s messages just fine.”

Jake nodded silently, still feeling he should have made more effort to get here sooner.

“Is Dad really going to be okay?” Allison had taken a step forward.

“Now, Allison. Don’t bother Mr Green—.” Darcy’s remonstration was cut short by a wail of “Mom!” from somewhere upstairs: Sam. She rolled her eyes and got up. “Would you excuse me for a moment?”

“Of course.” Jake got to his feet as well. As she headed for the stairs, he turned to Allison, who had a slightly sulky look on her face. Jake knew that look: he hadn’t much liked being told to keep his nose out of grownups’ business at her age either. He smiled at her and dipped his head. “Your dad’s going to be fine. He lost quite a lot of blood, but the doctors in Texas say he’ll be good as new in a few weeks.”

Allison pressed her lips together, her gaze boring into him, like she didn’t quite trust him to be telling the truth. For a moment, she looked so like her father it was startling. Then she smiled. In a sudden rush, she crossed to where her mom had been sitting and took her place. “And now everybody knows who the bad guys are, thanks to him?”

Jake laughed and took a seat again. “Well, the Governor of Texas is convinced that Tomarchio and his friends were behind the bombings, yes. And he’s talking to the government in Columbus. But it’ll take a while to get everyone on board. But yeah, your dad did what he set out to do.”

Allison was silent for a moment, her gaze resting on him. “And all that time, before the bombs, when he was away? He was undercover?”

Jake suddenly realized that apparently no one had really told Allison what her father was up to or what he did for a living, even now it didn’t matter that she knew. And for all his own father had often been distant and unavailable, at least Jake had known why. It sounded like Allison had been left completely in the dark. He gave her an encouraging nod. “Yeah. Pretty deep undercover. I know he even spent some time in prison so he could get close to the bad guys and get them to trust him. So I’m sure he wanted to see you and your brother, but it would have been too dangerous, for him and for you.”

Allison nodded slowly. “Mom was really mad at him, but I always knew he was one of the good guys. I—.” Whatever she’d been going to say was interrupted by another rap on the door. She shrugged a shoulder in apology and went to answer it.

Jake, relaxing back in his seat, was startled to hear his brother’s voice asking, “Is your mother in?”

Looking up, he caught Allison glancing in his direction, wry amusement on her face. “Yeah. Come in.” She turned away from the door and yelled up the stairs. “Mom! Another visitor!”

Eric stepped inside and then checked as he caught sight of Jake. “Hey, brother.” He grinned at him. “Guess it’s visiting day for the Greens.” He turned his attention to Darcy coming back down the stairs and dipped his head at her. “Mrs Hawkins.”

Darcy did a bit of a double take as well, looking from Eric to Jake and back again as if she suspected them of orchestrating some kind of tag-team sneak attack. Eric took another pace forward and lifted his hands defensively. “Pure coincidence, me and Jake being here at the same time, I promise,” he reassured her. “I just dropped by to ask you a favor.”

“Okay.” Darcy halted at the bottom of the stairs, looking apprehensive.

“Nothing bad.” Eric rested a hand on the back of a dining chair. “It’s just that now that the Army’s no longer running things, we could do with some more help in the Sheriff’s office. Jimmy said you did a great job over the winter, so I was hoping we could persuade you to come back.”

Darcy was already shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t think—.”

Eric tilted his head and gave her a persuasive smile. “Major Beck spoke very highly of you as well. And Margaret said she’d be happy to take care of Sam while you’re at work. Or you could just work school hours.” When she still seemed uncertain, he added, “We really would like you back.”

After a moment’s more hesitation, she nodded. “Okay, then.”

“Great!” Eric’s face broke into a broad smile. “If you can start tomorrow…?”

“I guess….” She sounded a bit like she still wasn’t quite sure how she’d found herself bounced into agreeing.

“Great! I’ll see you then.” Eric nodded and turned back toward the door.

“Wait up, Eric.” Jake got to his feet. “I’ll come with you. Unless,” he dipped his head in Darcy’s direction, “there’s anything else I can do?”

Darcy shook her head, still looking bemused. “No. I don’t think so. But thank you.”

Jake felt he hadn’t really done anything to be thanked for, but he let it go.

Once outside, he fell into step beside Eric as they headed back toward the center of town. “So, do you need a hand in the Sheriff’s department?”

“What?” Eric gave Jake a startled look and then shook his head as if clearing his thoughts. “No. It’s okay. Now Darcy’s agreed to come back, I think we’re covered.”

“Okay.” Jake huffed in a breath, wondering where he was needed.

“Anyway,” Eric glanced across at Jake with a raised eyebrow, “I thought you were busy with the turbines.”

“Yeah.” Jake shrugged. Not that Heather and Harry had seemed to need much help, once they’d rounded up a few other guys. “But then I went to talk to Dale about how we can get in and out of town. He said he had to leave most of the stuff he brought back this time on the other side of Hoffman’s lines. I thought we could put together a rescue party and bring it in on horseback. Scout around a bit at the same time.” Jake hesitated, still feeling resentful that they now had to clear everything with Beck. “He and that lieutenant, Goodman, they said they’d need to run it past you and Beck first, though.”

“Uh-huh. I’ll be sure to talk to Dale about it.” Eric sounded like his mind was still half somewhere else. Jake guessed he was a pretty busy man, with a lot to take care of. Unlike his brother. Sighing inwardly, he supposed he ought to see if Heather and Harry did need any more help. Just as long as he didn’t run the risk of bumping into Em again….

They carried on, not speaking, toward the center of town, until Eric once more shook himself. “Anyway, I got a couple meetings I need to get to. Catch you later, okay?” He gave Jake a slap on the back and strode away briskly. Jake stopped and looked after him, wishing he had that much purpose and sense of where he was supposed to go next.

oOo

Heather glanced across at Jake as they drove out toward Beck’s camp in one of the cars belonging to the Sheriff’s Department. They were on their way to connect the last of the four turbines they’d managed to get set up during the day. The fifth one, out at the pumping station, would have to wait until tomorrow: the sun was already dropping quickly in a fiery ball over her left shoulder.

She felt it was rather ungrateful of her to be wishing Jake wasn’t the one driving her out to the camp. She would have been much happier driving herself in Charlotte, but he’d pointed out that it would be dark by the time she set off home and that Charlotte had broken down just the previous day. Heather had tried to convince him she’d be fine, but Gray and Eric had both stepped in and sided with Jake, and she’d given up the fight as a lost cause. And she knew Jake was only trying to help, and that he was a bit frustrated no one else seemed to need him around. She just wasn’t particularly looking forward to him glowering at Edward the whole time they were out at the camp.

She also felt guilty that she was spending so much time with Jake now she’d found out from Emily—and seen the evidence with her own eyes—that he was avoiding her. He’d turned up again after lunch, when Harry and the rest of the crew had moved on to putting up the turbine at City Hall. She’d been on her own at the Med Center, finishing making the connections and testing them, though they hadn’t thrown the switch to start feeding power into the clinic until much later, after Hoffman had made good on his threat and the power had gone off at six o’clock. Jake had asked her how he could help, and listened to her instructions, and then gotten on with what needed doing without arguing or trying to change things. It had been such a refreshing change from dealing with Harry and the others that Heather had felt like hugging him.

Which was another reason the afternoon spent together had made her uncomfortable. Jake was with Em now, even if things were… complicated between them. So hanging around with him was only setting herself up for more heartbreak and humiliation. Especially as, despite her best efforts, there didn’t seem to be much she could do about her own feelings: the way her stomach fluttered when Jake gave her one of his crooked smiles, or how good it had felt when he’d held her and comforted her the other night after they’d argued. It didn’t feel right to spend time with Jake knowing she felt like that, however careful she was to maintain a purely friendly facade. At least he seemed blissfully unaware of the effect he was having on her, and she’d managed not to babble at him like she usually did when she got nervous. Or at least she thought she had.

No, it didn’t feel right. Particularly because she knew how badly she’d been hurt herself when Jake had ignored her for a month, when all they’d shared had been that one brief, impulsive kiss on Main Street. Jake and Emily had a lifetime together. Listening to Emily talk about Jake—about how he was pushing her away—while they’d collected the ASA flags from City Hall, taken them back to the Greens’ town house and gotten Emily started on converting them, Heather had squished down hard on the spark of disloyal hope that had flared inside her at the possibility Jake might soon be unattached.

Sneaking another glance at him as he drove them across the Tacoma bridge, she wrapped her arms around herself and said carefully, “Emily’s been doing a great job making the flags.”

Jake didn’t react for a moment. Then he huffed quietly and shot a cynical look in her direction that suggested he knew exactly what she was up to.

Suddenly Heather felt too tired to try and act as peacemaker between Jake and Emily. Today had been difficult enough as it was: messing about with the turbines had dredged up memories she’d worked hard to forget. So she wasn’t in much of a mood for talking Jake round when he clearly wasn’t ready to be talked round. Shaking her head and letting out a sigh, she turned and stared out of the window at the Richmond fields passing by outside.

Leaving the car at the camp gate, they made their way to the command tent. Edward, with Lieutenant Goodman at his side, was studying a map spread across the table when they were shown in. His face had lit up when he looked up and caught sight of her, only to darken a little a moment later as he spotted Jake following her inside. Not so much that Jake would have easily guessed how unwelcome his presence was, but enough that it was clear to Heather. She wondered when she’d learned to read Edward so well.

To her relief, Jake and Edward managed to both behave themselves in the short time before Edward handed them off to a Sergeant Tran from logistics. As they made their way through the rows of tents, to where the turbine had been set up near the perimeter, the sergeant explained they were planning to use it to charge a battery array, which would be able to provide a steady supply to the comms tower and the command tent even when the wind dropped. He’d already made the necessary connections, but didn’t seem to mind Heather checking everything over before they threw the switch. He was also happy to answer questions about how he’d connected the batteries, and whether they could rig up something similar using car batteries for the turbines in town. Glancing over her shoulder at one point as the two of them talked, Heather caught Jake stifling a yawn.

It was fully dark by the time they were ready to start the turbine. Heather manually set the blades to roughly the right angle to the breeze, now blowing steadily from the west, and then released the brake. Slowly, the blades began to spin. As the turbine head automatically swung round to catch the wind better, the blades sped up, until they settled into a steady rhythm, their ghostly whirr barely audible against the background noises of the camp.

At Heather’s side, Sergeant Tran let out a low, approving whistle. “That’s some damn fine work there, Miss Lisinski, if you don’t mind me saying. Especially given the resources you musta had.”

Heather blushed. “Well, we had the brake factory in New Bern to do the machining, of course. And, umm, a few different people helped with the design.”

“But you made it happen.” Jake’s hand on her shoulder made her jump. She’d almost forgotten he was there, watching from a few paces away. He was looking up at the turbine, but then he turned and smiled down at her, his eyes crinkling. She felt herself grow hot, suddenly very aware of him, and fought the urge to take a step back.

His smile faded a little. “Could you have done it in Jericho? If you’d—if you’d had a bit more support. From Gray and Harry and—?”

She shrugged slightly, biting her lip as she looked up at him. “Maybe. But Ted helped a lot. And we didn’t have the machining facilities….”

He nodded, not looking particularly reassured. She wondered if he was blaming himself for letting her go. Wondered, too, how things would have turned out if she hadn’t gone.

On her other side, Sergeant Tran cleared his throat. “Ma’am, I need to report back to Major Beck. And check—.”

“Yes, of course.” As Heather turned to nod at the sergeant, Jake dropped his hand from her shoulder. Following Sergeant Tran back to the center of the camp, with Jake at her side but no longer touching her, Heather felt both relief and a slight sense of loss. She sighed inwardly and decided that being around Jake was much too complicated.

When the sergeant showed them back inside the command tent a few moments later, they found it much more crowded. A corporal was hovering while Edward checked something on a clipboard, and Captain Clark had joined Lieutenant Goodman in studying the map on the table.

Edward glanced up at them as he marked something on the clipboard—his initials, Heather guessed—before handing it back to the corporal. “Sergeant?”

Tran saluted. “Turbine is operational, sir. I was just going to confirm with Corporal Harrell that the radio is operating correctly.”

“Very good, sergeant. Carry on.” Edward acknowledged the report with a nod of the head, before turning to Heather with a smile. “Thank you. And please pass on my thanks to Mayor Anderson. It was a very generous gesture by the town.”

Jake was close enough behind Heather that she could feel him bristling. Half-prepared if need be to step back and “accidentally” tread on his foot to shut him up, she returned Edward’s smile. Before any of them could say anything further, Harrell spoke up from his place in the corner by the radio set. “Sir?”

Edward turned toward him. “Corporal?”

“Sir, the Jericho salvage party reports they’ve passed ASA lines undetected and are proceeding to the barn.”

“Thank you, corporal.” Edward gave him a nod.

“What Jericho salvage party?” Jake took a half step around Heather and she instinctively put out a hand to stop him. She could feeling the tension thrumming through him as her fingers touched his arm.

Edward gave a slight shrug. “Mr Turner and some of the Rangers are attempting to retrieve the supplies he wasn’t able to bring in last night. Sheriff Green and I agreed that tonight was as good a time as any, since Colonel Hoffman may be expecting us to be too distracted with shutting off the power to try anything else.”

“Using the intelligence I gave you,” Jake spat, jerking his head in the direction of the map spread on the table.

Edward pressed his lips together for a moment, apparently taken aback by Jake’s tone. Then his face relaxed a little. He dipped his head. “My apologies, Jake. It was remiss of me not to thank you earlier. We’ve found the information extremely valuable. My scouts have already been able to confirm several of the checkpoints are where you suggested they would be, without risk of discovery themselves. I’m sure the information will be invaluable in ensuring Mr Turner and the rest of the party are able to return safely.”

“They’d be a lot safer if I was with them.” Jake took another half step forward, throwing off Heather’s hand.

Again, Edward hesitated for a fraction of a second, either unsure how to respond or weighing the possible responses to find the one that would best soothe Jake. Then he gave another quick dip of his head. “Perhaps that’s something you should take up with your brother. He chose the party, I believe.” Though he kept his tone level, there was a warning in it that Jake should drop the subject.

Which seemed like the last thing Jake was going to do. He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something else. Thinking quickly, Heather faked a loud yawn. “Sorry,” she apologized to the tent at large. “Long day. Jake, would you mind taking me home, please?”

Jake shot another black look in Edward’s direction but, as she’d hoped he would, gave her a curt nod of agreement. “Of course.” He gestured for her to lead the way.

oOo

An hour later, Jake was cutting through the quiet streets toward the edge of town, heading for a dirt track running parallel to Route 6 that would take him out to the ranch. He’d left the car back at City Hall once he’d dropped Heather at her house, knowing they couldn’t spare the gas for him to run himself in and out of town while Hoffman’s blockade was in place. Eric had been right when he’d said it would be easier for Jericho if Jake was still living in town. Just not easier for Jake.

Was that why Eric was leaving him out of things? To show him he needed to move back? Jake shook his head, dismissing the idea. He suspected his brother wasn’t putting that much thought into it. It was simply that Jake wasn’t needed; while he’d been in Texas—and before that, when Beck had him imprisoned out at the hog farm—everyone had learned to get along just fine without him.

Jake drew in a deep breath, trying not to feel aggrieved about that, and caught the cloying scents of roses from a nearby garden. It reminded him of another walk home, when the air had been filled with the sharp smell of earth freshly turned for spring planting. It was hard to believe that was less than three months ago. Since then, they’d fought a war and Dad had died; he’d gotten back with Em; thought Heather was dead and then discovered she was alive; and Beck had arrived, looking like their savior, only to become their nemesis. And now, apparently, was back to being their savior again….

Jake sucked in another deep breath, picking up his pace a little without noticing as his irritation propelled him forward. He knew they needed Beck and his troops: Cheyenne would have just sent someone else to crush the town if Beck had withdrawn. Yet the moment he got in Beck’s presence, it was like he couldn’t think straight. This evening, even though he’d known it was right to share the map with the likely positions of the checkpoints, he’d wanted to snatch it up from where it lay on the table in Beck’s command tent and march out of the camp with it. He huffed a laugh to himself. Probably while adding something about taking his ball home as he stormed off. He knew he was being childish, but seeing everyone else cozying up to Beck and deferring to him after what he’d done, like it had never happened, just made him see red. And it made it so damn hard to keep his promise to Heather.

That was the worst of it, maybe. She hadn’t said a word when they’d gotten back into the car at the camp gate and set off back toward town, but she hadn’t needed to. Her silence, the way she’d sat with her arms crossed, looking out the window, had been enough rebuke in itself.

His anger with Beck had fallen away, withering under Heather’s unspoken disapproval. Instead, he’d quietly cursed himself. Making the turn on to the highway at the end of the track from the camp, he’d cleared his throat and said quietly, “I’m sorry.” When Heather had turned her head and looked at him, eyebrows raised, he’d jerked his head back toward the camp. “For what happened back there. I know I promised—.”

She’d put a hand on his arm and given him a wan smile. “It’s okay. I know it’s hard. If things had worked out when Eric talked to Constantino and I was being asked to work with him, I’d…. That would be tough.”

“Yeah.” Jake had swallowed down the lump in his throat, doubly determined now to try and behave around Beck for Heather’s sake. He didn’t want to keep on having to ask for her forgiveness, even if she seemed ready to give it. After all she’d gone through for Jericho’s sake, and after she’d risked everything to help Hawkins, she deserved better.

Now, passing the last house on the edge of town, and striking out into the fields, he felt another flash of irritation as he admitted to himself that Beck had been right: if he was going to be mad at anyone for sidelining him, it should be Eric. He’d have to talk to his brother about that tomorrow. Once he’d managed to make it through the morning meeting without getting in Beck’s face again.

oOo

The mid-morning sun was hot on Beck’s back by the time he ducked back into the command tent the following day. After the morning meeting in town had finished, he’d met with Eric for a while, and then made a stop out at one of the checkpoints, partly to confirm with his own eyes the reports he was receiving and partly as an attempt to keep morale up by showing the troops that their commanding officer was taking an interest. The soldiers manning the checkpoint had seemed cheerful enough, but with everything that had happened over the past few months, and especially the past few weeks, they were probably all feeling a little at sea, himself included.

“Anything to report, Lieutenant?” Inside the tent, Beck acknowledged Posey’s salute before taking off his helmet. Laying it down on the table, he headed for the coffee pot. He’d drunk too much already today, but he suspected that it was all that was keeping him going. He couldn’t remember when he’d last had a decent night’s sleep. The coffee was making him jittery, though. Or maybe that was just dealing with Jake.

Posey had sat back down. “Yes sir. Lieutenant Goodman reports that the scouts have confirmed the position of Colonel Hoffman’s checkpoints nineteen through twenty two and twenty four. Twenty three is about a hundred yards further out than estimated.”

Beck nodded to show he’d heard and took a sip from his coffee. He couldn’t fault Jake’s knowledge of the area, at least, and it would have taken them a lot longer, and exposed his scouts to a lot more danger, if they’d had to determine the position of Hoffman’s troops without it. And Jake had spent this morning’s meeting merely glowering at Beck and not trying to argue with him, which had been an improvement on yesterday. But Beck had still been on edge the whole time, and he reckoned everyone else had been too. Right now, he wasn’t sure if having Jake back in Jericho was more trouble than it was worth.

Posey was speaking again. “Also, Lieutenant Serrano would like to schedule a meeting to discuss supplies—.”

He broke off as Corporal Harrell at the radio spoke up. “Sir? Corporal Adams is reporting an incursion. Two Apaches at low altitude approaching his position and heading for the center of town.” Harrell put a hand up to his headphones for a moment, clearly listening to another transmission, and then said. “Corporal, Major Beck is here. I’m going to put you on vox.” He reached out and flicked a switch. “Say again, Corporal.”

“Major Beck, sir.” Adams’ voice over the radio crackled with static as Beck strode toward Harrell. “We’ve targeted one of the birds with an M781, as per orders, but bogeys have not changed course. Repeat, bogeys have not changed course. The Apaches are still heading toward Jericho.”

Beck silently cursed as he reached for the handset. What the hell was Hoffman playing at? The last thing he wanted to do was to have to shoot down American pilots. That was why he’d issued orders to the patrols to fire an initial warning shot with a paint-filled practice shell unless there was an immediate threat to life. The impact would be enough to let the pilots know that they’d been hit—and that they could and would be hit with live rounds if they didn’t retreat—without doing any real damage. It would send a message to back off. Sounded like these two pilots didn’t want to hear it, though.

He pressed the switch on the handset. “Understood, corporal.” Handing the handset back to Harrell, he added brusquely. “Radio City Hall and let them know they’ve got incoming. And check if any of the other patrols are reporting activity.”

“Yes, sir.” Harrell turned back to the radio.

Beck swung round to face Posey, who was back on his feet. “Break out the Javelins. Tell the men I’ll be going with them. I’ll meet them by the main gate. I want to be in the center of town in twenty mikes.” He jammed his helmet back on and headed out of the tent, knowing that even if they did make it into town that quickly, they might already be too late to stop the Apaches from destroying half of Jericho.

oOo

Jake and Heather were up by the pumping station at the end of Chaparral, connecting up the final turbine, when they heard the helicopters approaching. They’d walked out there together, Jake carrying Heather’s toolbox. She’d refused when he’d first offered, but he’d put his hand next to hers on the handle anyway. “You could at least let me feel like I’m some use,” he’d pointed out. She’d held on to the tools a moment longer and then relinquished them with a bit of a smile.

He could tell his words had bothered her by the way she kept glancing at him as they walked along, but it wasn’t until they were nearly halfway to the pumping station that she said, “You are being useful, you know? You’ve been a real help getting the turbines up.”

“Maybe.” Jake shifted the toolbox to his other hand. Not that working with Heather was at all unpleasant, but it didn’t exactly feel like the best use of his talents. He was only out here right now because Eric still hadn’t rostered him for patrol or checkpoint duty. He’d given Jake a distracted look when Jake had caught him after the meeting to ask him about it and cursorily apologized—”Sorry, not had a chance to look at it yet.”—before dashing off to talk to Beck.

He was gone before Jake had any chance to bring up being left out of the party that had made Dale’s supply run the night before. Not that Eric would have cared about that either, Jake reckoned. Not after the way the meeting had gone. Trish Merrick had been there, to discuss what Dale had managed to bring in the previous night and how it matched up with what they were using up. According to Trish, they’d only brought in half the truckload, and nearly run into a patrol on the way back in, and she reckoned they’d need to be making a trip like that pretty much every other night to keep the town and the camp stocked. Jake had had a few ideas about how they could do things differently, but every time he’d opened his mouth to make a suggestion, it seemed like someone—Eric or Gray or Beck—talked over him. Eventually, he’d simply kept quiet and watched proceedings, thinking that maybe he could talk to Heather later. They seemed to listen to her, at least, and she seemed willing to listen to him.

He still hadn’t found a way to bring up the topic by the time he caught the unmistakable thump of rotor blades in the distance. There was nothing to mask the noise: the land around them—with the town spread out below, at the bottom of the low hill, and the flat fields stretching out either side of them—was almost silent. There was no far-off rumble of cars on the interstate, no minivans driven by busy soccer moms pulling up or away from outside Gracie’s, no tractors grinding through the crops.

Quickly scrambling to his feet, Jake shaded his eyes and searched the horizon to the east of them, trying to locate the source of the noise.

“What is it?” Heather, kneeling by the pumping station’s switch box a few feet away, peered up at him.

“Helicopters.” Jake had found them now, sunlight glittering off metal in the clear, pale blue of the sky.

“Hoffman?”

“Must be.” Jake’s gaze narrowed as he followed the helicopters’ track. “Looks like they’re heading for the center of town. I should get back there.” He threw the bag of cable ties he was still holding back in the toolbox.

“Me too.” Heather had gotten to her feet and was tucking the screwdriver she’d been using back into her toolroll and wrapping up the cloth as she moved toward him.

Jake shook his head. “No. You should stay here. It’ll be safer.” The words were out before he had a chance to think about them, but he didn’t regret them. Running into danger was all well and good for him, but Heather—.

The look she gave him as she dropped the toolroll into the box and closed it told him what she thought of that idea.

“No,” he repeated, remembering too late how they’d had this argument before, and he’d lost last time as well.

Heather was already turning away from him to put the toolbox next to the switch box and close the door to the pumping station. “What are you going to do? Tie me up?”

“I—.” Jake stopped. He didn’t have any good reason why she should stay behind except—she’d faced enough danger already, hadn’t she? And she was too important to the survival of the town to let anything happen to her.

She gave him another exasperated look and set off down the hill at a trot. After a moment, she glanced back over at her shoulder at him. “Well, come on then, if you’re coming.”

oOo

Jake quickly caught Heather up and slowed his pace to match hers as she settled into a steady jog. Much as he wanted to be in the middle of town as soon as possible, he didn’t want to leave her on her own, just in case the helicopters decided to turn their attention in this direction. He could see them—there only appeared to be two—as they split right and left and each made a circuit around the town, high enough to be out of the range of rifle fire but no doubt close enough to get a good look at what was going on below.

“Are they going to attack?” Heather’s question was a little breathless, but she gave him a nod to say she was okay when he looked across at her.

He peered back up at helicopters, losing sight of them for a moment behind the houses as he and Heather reached the edge of town. When the helicopters came into view again, he saw they were moving inward in tightening circles. “Hard to say. I think they’re just doing recon.”

Or looking for targets. He didn’t think it was worth worrying Heather by telling her they were Apaches and together they could carry enough rockets and missiles to take out half the town.

They were another hundred yards closer to the center of town when Jake saw one of the machines make a sharp turn sideways, and then halt and hover in place. Dropping his gaze down to pick out familiar landmarks—the church spire and the firestation tower—Jake decided it was over City Hall. He unconsciously picked up his pace a little. If Eric and Gray and Jimmy and Bill—.

Along the street, he saw people—mostly kids, with a few mothers—coming out onto their stoops and into their front yards, shading their eyes as they peered up disbelievingly into the sky. The second helicopter was still circling, now heading in their direction.

“Get back inside,” he yelled, flailing a hand toward the onlookers as he and Heather dashed past. Goddammit. They should be down in their basements, not gawking and turning themselves into targets. Why hadn’t anyone made any plans…?

He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or even more scared when, a moment later, he saw the helicopter that was coming toward them change direction again and turn away—only for it to come to a stop over another spot a few hundred yards from where the first still hung. Jake grimaced. He was pretty sure the second helicopter was now right over the top of the Med Center. He ran on.

The closer to the center of town they got, the harder it became to keep both helicopters in sight, so Jake heard before he saw that one of the helicopters was moving again. When he caught sight of them both, he realized that the one that had been over City Hall was now also heading toward the Med Center.

“Dammit!” He gestured to Heather to take the next left. “They’re over the clinic.” He swallowed hard. “Mom….”

Heather didn’t reply, just changed direction and began to run faster. Though God knows what they could do once they got there: Jake might be carrying his Beretta, but it wouldn’t be much use unless he got off an exceptionally lucky shot. Still, whatever the helicopters and Hoffman had planned, they were going to have to go through Jake to do it.

oOo

A mile away, Beck was tumbling out of the first of two humvees as they screeched to a halt in Main Street. Reports coming in from the other checkpoints as they’d raced into town indicated there was no activity from any other quarter. Beck, hearing the clatter of the Apaches somewhere to his right and behind him, supposed that was something to be grateful for.

Eric had been talking to Jimmy outside the front door of City Hall. Now he hurried down the steps and headed toward Beck. “They circled around town twice, then one of them came and took a look at City Hall and the other one headed for the Med Center. Now they’re both over that way.”

Beck nodded. “Let’s get over there. Get in. There’s room in the other humvee.” He caught Eric’s arm as the other man began to head toward the second vehicle. “Your guys know not to fire unless they’re fired on, right? We don’t want to start anything we don’t have to.” When Eric nodded, Beck let him go and climbed back into his own humvee. “Med Center. Go!” he ordered the driver.

As they raced through the streets, Beck weighed his options. Sounded like the Apaches were here for reconnaissance rather than to mount an attack, but he needed to send a message to Hoffman that the ASA didn’t own the skies over Jericho. “Corporal,” he twisted round to look at the gunner in the back seat. “I want you to set up out in the clear. I want those Apaches to know you’re there. But hold your fire unless they attack.”

The gunner swallowed hard and exchanged a look with the private next to him who’d act as his ammo bearer, before he nodded. “Yes, sir.”

As they drew to a halt in front of the Med Center, Beck hoped to hell his gamble would pay off and he’d have a chance to thank the two of them for letting him play Russian Roulette with their lives.

The other humvee drew to a halt next to them. Beck leaned through the window and called across to the driver, “Sergeant, I want you to get under cover across the street and lose yourselves. I don’t want those guys,” he pointed upward to where one of the Apaches was hovering three hundred feet above while the other made a slow circuit, “to know where you are. We’re gonna try and scare them away, but if anything happens to Team Alpha or the town, I want you to take those bastards out. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” The sergeant hauled on the wheel and swung the humvee round. A few feet away, the first team were quickly assembling their Javelin.

“Sir?” That was his own driver. “You should—.”

“I know, Corporal.” Beck waved to the driver to move off. Much as he wanted to get out and join the fight, he suspected he was the one target Hoffman would have authorized in advance. That was why he’d been careful not to tip his head too far back as he’d squinted up at the Apache hovering over the Med Center roof. It still didn’t sit well, though, to leave his men behind in the open while he scurried for safety.

By the time they’d reached the end of the street and his driver had turned the humvee round so they could watch, the Apache over the Med Center had swung to point its guns at the two men crouched in the middle of the parking lot. The gunner had hoisted the Javelin onto his shoulder and was pointing it right back at the helicopter. The second machine, meanwhile, had cut across toward the block that faced the Med Center, no doubt looking for the other team after they’d disappeared into one of the stores there. Beck hoped Eric knew his town well enough to be able to direct the group to a new location without being seen.

Resting his elbow on the window and peering up, Beck held his breath and waited.

oOo

Beretta in hand, Jake edged along the side of the drug store a block along and across the street from the Med Center, the sound of the hovering helicopters loud in his ears. Yet even as he cautiously peered around the corner, he saw the Apaches break off and climb steeply, heading back the way they’d come.

“They’re leaving?” Heather, behind him, sounded relieved.

“Looks like it.” Jake watched for a moment longer as the helicopters picked up speed, before he shoved his gun back in its holster and stepped around the corner. His gaze dropped to where, in the middle of the empty clinic parking lot, a couple of soldiers were starting to break down a rocket launcher. The sound of a humvee approaching from the other end of the street drew his attention; he wasn’t surprised to see Beck in the passenger seat. He wasn’t pleased, either.

He strode forward and reached the soldiers with the rocket launcher just as Beck climbed out of the humvee that had parked next to them. There was a wary expression on the major’s face—as there damn well ought to be. “What the hell are you doing here?” Jake snarled.

Beck pressed his lips together for a moment, before he said quietly and evenly, “Helping protect your town.”

“We don’t need your help.” Jake took a step closer, glaring down at the shorter man.

“Against Apaches?” Beck tipped his head back slightly and quirked an eyebrow. “Come on, Jake. You know better than that.”

“Those damn things,” Jake gestured upward, “wouldn’t even be here if you weren’t!”

“Jake….” Heather had a hand on his arm and he was dimly aware they’d had this conversation—or one very like it—before, and that he’d made her a promise….

Over Beck’s shoulder, he saw Eric approaching, three more of Beck’s men at his heels. “You knew about this?” he shot at his brother. “You authorized it?”

“Yes.” Eric spoke curtly, glaring at Jake for a second before turning to Beck, who’d swung away from Jake and taken a pace back as Eric approached. “Are your men okay?”

Beck glanced over at the soldiers with the launcher and exchanged nods with them. “Yes.” He looked back toward Eric. “Seems like Hoffman’s guys got the message. Hopefully it’ll stick and this won’t happen again.”

“It won’t if you get the hell away from Jericho.” Jake stepped forward again, shaking off Heather’s hand on his arm. People were coming out of the front door of the Med Center, gathering on the steps; he could see his mom among them. He was aware of more people arriving behind him, closing in on the group clustered in the middle of the parking lot.

“Jake!” It was Eric’s turn to grab Jake’s arm. “Just knock it off. Everybody knows you don’t like what’s going on here, but—this is the way things are, okay?”

Jake wrenched himself out of his brother’s grip, preparing to—he wasn’t quite sure what. Punch Eric, maybe; later he realized he’d clenched his hands into fists. But before he could do anything, a quiet voice at his shoulder said, “Jake?” A moment later, Mack Davies had stepped around him, blocking any attempt Jake might have made to hit Eric or Beck. Though the tall Texan didn’t touch him, something about his manner was enough to give Jake pause. Meeting Mack’s gaze, Jake saw the customary twinkle in his eyes was gone, replaced by something harder and colder that reminded him very much of Hawkins.

With the smallest of gestures, Mack shepherded Jake away from Eric and Beck. Jake let himself be herded, recognizing he was likely to end up face down on the floor with Mack’s knee in his back and no idea how he’d gotten there if he didn’t comply.

Mack steered him a few yards away, placing them so Jake couldn’t see what was going on in the group they’d just left. Beck giving orders to his men and Eric sending one of the Rangers to urge everyone back into the Med Center, now the show was over, by the sound of it. Jake focused his attention back on Mack.

The Texan looked at him for a moment and then said quietly, “What the major did to you…. That’s not going to be forgotten. He will be held accountable.” Mack reached up and gave the back of the patrol cap he wore a slight tug, as if settling it more comfortably. In truth, Jake realized, he was drawing Jake’s attention to the silver eagle it sported that marked Mack as a Colonel. “Just….”

“Not today.” Jake huffed a bitter laugh.

Mack’s mustache twitched. “No. Not today.” His gaze flicked over Jake’s shoulder for a moment, before returning to Jake’s face. “Look, whatever other… deficiencies there may be in his command style, Beck seems like a pretty good tactician. He was Hoffman’s S-3, the brigade’s operations officer, before Hoffman gave him a battalion. What he did today was… risky, but it was also pretty smart. Should keep Hoffman off your backs for a while.”

“And if it hadn’t worked?” Jake jerked his head in the direction of the Med Center. In the direction of his mom. He clenched his already balled fists tighter.

Again, Mack looked past Jake for a moment, before turning his attention back to him. “Then, yes, it would have gotten messy. Could’ve been a lot of casualties. But that would’ve probably happened anyway, sooner or later, if that’s how Hoffman’s looking to play this thing.”

“So you’re saying I should trust him?” Jake crossed his arms, only a little mollified by the fact Mack’s tone made it clear while he might respect Beck’s abilities, he didn’t much like him.

“In this, yes. I’ve talked to him and your brother and they seem to have things worked out pretty well between them to keep Hoffman at arms’ length.”

“And if Beck wasn’t here at all?” Hoffman was here for him, wasn’t he? And Jericho was just getting caught in the crossfire. Wasn’t it really the case that Jericho was protecting Beck?

Mack gave Jake a searching look, as if he knew exactly what Jake was thinking. “Then you’d have some other ASA officer in here who ain’t so fussy about who he’s takin’ orders from, finishin’ what Beck started. What Beck did to you and the town may have crossed a few lines, but it wasn’t anything his ASA commanders weren’t right behind. From what we’ve heard, there’s plenty other towns been through the same thing.”

Jake turned his head away and snorted. “In other words, we need each other.”

“Uh-huh.” Mack’s attention shifted again. Turning, Jake saw Eric approaching.

“Uh.” Eric lifted a hand and scratched the back of his neck. “We’re having a meeting in City Hall in ten minutes. To discuss what this means and… what we do next. Would be good if you were there. Both of you.”

Jake recognized the invitation for the peace offering it was. He puffed out a breath, trying to let go of the last of his anger. With only the briefest of glances in Beck’s direction, he nodded. “I’ll be there.”

oOo

Eric kept an eye on Jake as everyone filed into Gray’s office a few minutes later. Beck immediately crossed to stand next to Gray’s desk and began explaining to the mayor what had just happened. Gray had spent the attack in the bomb shelter in the basement, still grumbling as he emerged about being sent there, even though it had been one of the first things they’d all agreed on when putting together plans dealing with Hoffman. And for the same reason Jake had sent him back to town during New Bern’s attack: Jericho needed a leader if everything went wrong.

Jake installed himself on the far side of the room, the perfect position from which to glower across at Beck. Heather, after taking a look at the two men, stationed herself an equal distance between them. Colonel Davies joined her: the two peacemakers in the room. Suppressing a sigh, Eric took a place next to Jake, hoping it might appease his brother a little: he could still feel him thrumming with anger—or fear. Or anger because he was afraid: Eric hadn’t missed the way Jake had picked out their mom from among the staff and patients who’d come out of the Med Center. His own heart had been in his mouth while the helicopters hovered overhead, knowing she was in there.

He could understand, too, that his brother was frustrated by being at a loose end and apparently superfluous. The Devil makes work for idle hands had been how Dad had always put it, each time Jake had gotten himself into yet another scrape when they’d been kids. That was how he’d set fire to the carpet in Dad’s office and how Jake and Stanley had ended up stuck on the roof of City Hall when the fireworks were going off. How he’d gotten mixed up with a man like Jonah. So that made Eric partly to blame for Jake’s current mood: he should’ve made the time to rework the roster to give Jake something to do. Taken time, too, to explain to Jake what had been going on while he’d been in Texas, why they were working with Beck now, and just where Beck’s authority ended.

Eric transferred his attention back to Beck. Watching him talking to Gray, Eric reflected that until Jake had returned, things had been working out pretty well. Though Beck had been quick to make suggestions, he’d also seemed mindful of his changed position and the limits of his new authority—or lack of it. Enough that Eric had been willing to let him take charge a few minutes ago without a second thought, confident Beck would relinquish control once the crisis was over.

In fact, Eric realized, he’d never really hated Beck, even when he’d been the enemy during their little rebellion. Heather had been right: Beck was a good man who’d taken a very wrong turn out of blinkered loyalty. And who’d owned up to that once he’d understood his mistake, and done what he could to make things right.

It was different for Jake, of course. Eric suspected what Jake felt for Beck was something more like the visceral hate he himself felt for Constantino. Torture was apt to have that effect.

Beck seemed to have finished bringing Gray up to speed. With a nod, the mayor turned his attention to the rest of the room. “So, how does this change things?”

Eric exchanged a look with Beck. “I guess we know a little more about Hoffman’s intentions? That he’s not just going to level the town and be done with it?”

“Not this time, no.” Beck hesitated. “But I’d like to have some Javelins stationed permanently in town. Took us a damn sight longer to respond than I’d like. If those helicopters had been looking for targets…. And it might make Hoffman think twice about trying again.”

“Or make us an even bigger target and give him the excuse he’s looking for?” Jake was leaning back against a bookcase, his arms folded, but his words dripped with contempt.

Beck gave him a steady look, his expression unchanged. “That’s a possibility, yes.”

A uncomfortable silence hung over the room, no one apparently willing to venture an opinion on either side. Eric was inclined to agree with Beck: he’d feel a lot happier if the means to hit back was closer at hand, and it wasn’t as if they were actively threatening Hoffman. But Jake clearly already thought Eric was too much on Beck’s side, so he kept quiet.

“Seems to me—” It was Davies’ Texan drawl that broke the silence. “—that little display out there was about reminding you of Hoffman’s power. Givin’ you a taste of what you could be up against. Intimidation. Scare tactics.” He turned toward Beck. “You know the man better‘n any of us. Does that sound like him?”

Beck nodded. “Yes. If he really wanted to hit the town, he didn’t need to put his own troops at risk like that. He could call on air support or bring up some heavy artillery.”

Gray leaned forward. “So we show him we’re not intimidated. If Eric’s amenable and you’re willing, major, I’ll agree to your plan to have some of your men stationed in town. Put ‘em on the roof of City Hall.”

Eric heard Jake snort quietly. A glance sideways showed he had a mulish expression on his face. Trying to keep the peace, reminded strongly of how much he and Jake had been at loggerheads in those first weeks after the September attacks, Eric said carefully, “Why don’t we try it for a few days and see how it goes?” When Beck nodded at him, he added, “Do you have any idea what Hoffman will do next?”

Beck shook his head. “Depends what his orders are from Cheyenne. Are they willing to wait us out? Expecting us to surrender when we see how hopeless things are? Or do they need to crush us quickly? From what Colonel Davies has told us, they have to be gearing up for war with Texas, and for things to escalate with Columbus. How long can they spare the kind of resources they’ll need to tie us down in a long siege?”

“Best guess?” Davies raised an eyebrow.

Beck gave a slight shrug. “I wish I could give you one. If I had some idea what was going on out there,” he gestured toward the window, “then maybe I could. If I knew what kind of materiel he’s bringing in—if he’s bring up reinforcements or heavy armament. But at the moment, we’re blind. Best I can do is figure out the minimum number of troops he has based on the new checkpoints, but beyond that….”

“Can Texas help with any of that?” Gray dipped his head in Davies’ direction.

“’Fraid not.” The Texan’s mustache drooped. “We’d sure love to have access to satellite surveillance but things didn’t fall out that way. Could ask my guys if we can ask Columbus but… would take a few days. And by the time we get it, it could well be out of date.”

At his side, Eric felt Jake stir and straighten. “Wait a minute. Didn’t you end up with Hawkins’ laptop?” He was looking at Beck. “Heather told me that was why you finally got your head out of your ass.”

Eric saw Beck blink in surprise, while Heather heaved a weary-sounding sigh and said in a patient yet irritated tone that Eric suspected she used on fractious third-graders, “Jake, that wasn’t at all what I—.”

“It’s okay.” Beck put out a hand her in her direction, cutting her off. He gave her a smile and a nod of reassurance and added softly. “I know.” He turned back to Jake. “Hawkins’ laptop was part of why I changed my mind, yes. And yes, we have it.”

The two men locked gazes for a moment, Jake clearly expecting more from Beck—some further apology or admission of guilt, perhaps—that Beck equally clearly wasn’t willing to give. Then Jake snorted and shook his head. Turning to face Gray, he said, “Hawkins had access to a satellite. It was how he let us know what New Bern were up to when they were attacking us. Maybe we can use that.”

“I’m afraid not.” Beck had a genuinely rueful expression on his face. “I had Lieutenant Maris thoroughly investigate the laptop after I’d seen its contents. To ensure we preserved the evidence and to find out what else it held. Unfortunately, once Cheyenne realized Hawkins was still alive, they seem to have rescinded his access to everything. Including the satellite. The laptop still has value as a piece of evidence against Tomarchio and Valente, but I’m afraid it’s no help to us otherwise.”

Jake glared at Beck for a moment longer and then sniffed derisively, before slumping back against the wall. Eric breathed a sigh of relief that Jake had decided to let the issue of Beck’s change of heart drop.

“So,” Gray cleared his throat, “seems the best we can do for the moment is for Colonel Davies to see what he can do for us. Meanwhile—.”

“Wait. What about making use of our tame spook?” That was Jake again, apparently not interested in giving Gray much more respect than he’d given Beck. Turning his gaze toward Jake again, Eric recognized the look on his brother’s face from back when they were kids; it was the one that had always meant someone—though very rarely Jake himself—was about to land in a whole heap of trouble thanks to whatever scheme Jake was cooking up.

“Our what?” Gray was staring at Jake, a startled expression on his face.

“Chavez.” Jake grinned. “The two of us could sneak through Hoffman’s lines, steal a humvee, take a look around pretending to be part of Hoffman’s crew, sneak back in….”

“Get yourself caught?” Beck’s tone was crushing. “You really think you can fool them out there?”

Jake smirked. “Well, we managed to fool you.”

Time to step in before things got out of hand again between Jake and Beck, Eric decided. Time to end the meeting, too, before anyone agreed to one of Jake’s crazy schemes just to get him to shut him up. “Look, it’s a possibility, Jake.” Eric tried not sound like he already thought the idea was a bad one. “Talk to Chavez, come up with a plan and we’ll discuss it at the next meeting.” He suspected both Jake and Chavez were now marked men and the chances of them getting spotted and picked up if they ventured outside Jericho were pretty high. He was also hopeful that Chavez would know that and, if he was anything like Hawkins, was capable of talking Jake out of his wilder ideas. “Meanwhile, I think we’ve all got things we need to be getting on with.”

Not waiting for a reply, he nodded to the room at large before heading for the door. Walking down the stairs, he rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead, trying to ignore the slight headache that had developed over the course of the meeting. Unless Jake and Beck could sort things out between them, they were gonna need Dale to smuggle in a few truckloads of tylenol.

oOo

Two hours later, Jake found himself watching Heather disappear into City Hall, wishing she’d taken him up on his invitation for them to eat lunch together. After the meeting in Gray’s office had broken up, they’d walked back out to the pumping station to finish firing up the turbine. They’d been silent on the way out, though Heather had thrown him the occasional look that had suggested she wanted to say something but didn’t quite know what. He wasn’t quite sure what to say either. He certainly wasn’t going to apologize for disagreeing about how to protect Jericho: just because he’d promised to work with Beck didn’t mean he was going to roll over and accept everything the man said. But he didn’t want to find himself arguing with Heather about Beck yet again.

Luckily, once they got out to the pumping station, having to talk about the turbine helped break the ice. And by the time he walked her back into town, they were cheerfully discussing the battery array she was planning and what they might be able to do with any batteries they managed to charge, and Jake was making her laugh by telling her about the time he and Stanley had used car batteries to try to power a party they’d held out at a disused barn—except the juice wasn’t quite enough for the record player and everything had played a fraction too slow. So he’d been a little disappointed, once they reached Main Street, that she’d declined his suggestion to go to Bailey’s. She’d hesitated for a moment and then made a face and said she had to get back to her desk: Lots to catch up on. Sorry. Jake hadn’t offered to lend a hand; he’d doubted it was anything he could help with, and probably most of it involved Beck in some way, anyway. She was still his liaison, after all, and she’d been neglecting that for the turbines.

The doors had closed behind Heather, but he went on standing looking up at them, until a hail from further down Main Street made him turn. He felt his spirits lift a little as he saw Chavez approaching: finding him had been on Jake’s very short list of things to do that afternoon.

Reaching Jake, Chavez thumped him cheerfully on the shoulder. “Hear I missed all the excitement earlier.”

“You mean Beck waving his dick around to show us all just how he’s ‘defending’ the town?” Jake still wasn’t sure Mack had the right of it when it came to Beck’s tactics.

Chavez gave Jake a look, but didn’t say anything. Which only annoyed Jake even more. He snorted to himself as he realized he was spoiling for a fight with someone.

He didn’t want to get on Chavez’s wrong side, though. Not if he was going to get him to agree to a reconnaissance mission. So he simply dipped his head in Chavez’s direction. “Where’ve you been, anyway? I haven’t seen you since I left Bailey’s the night we got back.” Which was, he calculated with a start, nearly three days ago now.

“Catching up on my beauty sleep.” Chavez smirked at him. “Was out with Dale and the Rangers last night, seeing what we could smuggle back in.” He shrugged. “They need pack horses or mules or something. No way they’re going to be able to bring it all in on foot.”

“You think?” Jake tried to keep the bitterness out of his tone. That had been one of the suggestions he’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to make during the meeting that morning. Not to mention that Eric had let Chavez, who couldn’t have spent more than six weeks in Jericho all told, tag along on the expedition. Instead of taking along someone who actually knew the area like the back of his hand. Someone like Jake.

Again, Chavez gave him a look, but didn’t comment.

Jake cleared his throat. “So, are you up for another little trip?”

“What did you have in mind?” Though Chavez still seemed relaxed, Jake could tell he’d gotten his full attention.

“Beck’s been complaining he doesn’t have enough intelligence on what Hoffman’s up to. I was thinking we could maybe go get some.” Jake grinned at Chavez, sure the idea would appeal to him.

“Surveillance? Just the two of us?” Chavez raised his eyebrows. “Any particular target?”

“Umm, not really.” Jake shrugged and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Hoffman’s headquarters? Or his supply lines, maybe? We should be able to bring something back that Beck would find useful?”

“Could be pretty risky.” Chavez’s tone was light but held a warning note. “You can’t just run around out there like you’re playing paintball, you know.”

“I know.” Jake gritted his teeth. What did Chavez think he and the Rangers had been up to in the months before the ASA had arrived? Wiring up the Tacoma Bridge for the sheer hell of it? His conversation with Hawkins on the bridge came back to him: Would you even know when you’re in over your head? Pushing the memory aside, he gave Chavez an encouraging nod, trying to urge him into saying yes. “But useful, right?”

“Maybe.” Chavez still didn’t sound convinced. He regarded Jake thoughtfully. “Did you talk to Beck and your brother about this?”

Jake narrowed his eyes, feeling his temper rise again. It was becoming clear that Chavez had no intention of helping and was trying to palm Jake off, the way Eric and Beck had done already. At this rate, the three of them would just give him the permanent runaround between them. “They told me to talk to you. Come up with a plan. But if you’re not interested—.”

He started to swing away, but Chavez caught his arm. “I didn’t say that. But there’s no point running the risk of getting caught if we’re not likely to come back with anything useful.” He held Jake’s gaze for a moment and then gave a quick dip of the head. “Let me have a think about it, okay? Then we’ll sit down and have a proper talk.”

“Okay.” Jake nodded. It was something, he supposed. Even if he had the feeling, as he watched Chavez disappear into City Hall, that the other man was just humoring him and had no real intention of coming up with a workable plan.

oOo

Inside Bailey’s, Mary was swiping a cloth over the bar, even though it was already polished to a shine, and resisting the urge to go look for a second time at the rhubarb wine brewing in the closed kitchen or recount her dwindling stocks of booze for the third time that day. Not that they were dwindling very much at the moment; the bar was empty, as it had been most days at this time since they’d split from Cheyenne control. The majority of her customers were either out with the Rangers, were sleeping after being on the night patrols or were just trying to keep life going without the benefit of electricity or gas.

At least the place should be busy for a while this evening; Eric had stopped by after the morning meeting to tell her they wanted to use her satellite dish to see if they could pick up any news broadcasts from Texas—or further afield—that might give them an idea what was happening in the world beyond their patrol lines. He’d promised her there’d be a gas ration in it that would allow her to keep the coffee hotplate on, if not the lights. And it should bring in a few customers.

She drifted along the bar, wondering if she should use the peace and quiet to take down and polish the glasses hanging in the racks above her head. Stop them from gathering dust. It would at least be something to do, something to keep her from repeatedly wandering over to the front windows and checking yet again that City Hall was still in one piece, that Eric was probably still safe. She snorted to herself. Not as if she wouldn’t have noticed if something had happened; the helicopters mid-morning had been audible enough, drawing her outside, along with a couple of guys who’d stopped by for coffee.

The guys—they were both Rangers—had taken off toward the Sheriff’s Office once they’d realized what was going on, while she’d stood in the street, peering upward as the helicopters had circled and hovered. Lowering her gaze, she’d seen Eric emerge on to the front steps of City Hall, a rifle in his hand. He’d seen her a moment later and called to her to get back inside. She’d wanted to tell him the same. Hell, she’d wanted to go over there and drag him back with her. Instead, swallowing down her fear, she’d nodded at him and gone back into the bar, knowing enough to stay away from the windows.

Knowing, too, that he was as safe as anybody, and safer than most of the Rangers; as Sheriff, he spent most of his time behind the lines, coordinating the patrols and checkpoints, rather than in the firing line itself. Still didn’t stop her carrying around a constant seed of worry, though.

The sound of the door opening dragged her from her dark thoughts and she forced herself to plaster on a welcoming smile for a potential customer. A little to her surprise, it was Jake who made his way into the bar.

“Hey.” He peered around as he approached her, clearly wondering if the two of them were the only ones in the place. “You open? Was hoping I could get something to eat.”

Mary put down the cloth she was still holding. “Yeah, we’re open. Kitchen’s closed, though.” Both her chefs were out manning checkpoints. “But I could do you a sandwich.”

“That’d be great. Thanks.” Jake slid onto a stool. He swiveled round to watch her as she headed for the kitchen. “Need a short-order cook?”

“You?” She laughed as she reached for a loaf of bread. “Haven’t you got anything better to do?”

“Apparently not.” He scrubbed a hand across his face. “Been helping Heather hook up the turbine out at the pumping station this morning and she’s got me going round this afternoon trying to badger people into giving up their car batteries for some kinda energy storage thing she’s planning.”

“Sounds like an important job.” God knows, Mary had hoped she’d never have to go through anything like the last winter ever again once Beck and his men had restored power to the town. Still, she guessed it wasn’t the kind of thing Jake had expected to be doing after he returned to Jericho. Not after the hair-raising account he’d given his first evening back of his exploits on the way to and from Texas.

Slicing the sandwiches she’d made in half and piling them on a plate, she carried them over to Jake and set them down in front of him. He grabbed one and bit into it, making an appreciative noise as he chewed. “Thanks.” He waved the rest of the sandwich in her direction.

Mary rounded the bar and began taking down the glasses hanging over it; she’d decided to polish them after all. “I’m sure Heather appreciates the help.”

“Yeah.” Jake took another bite of his sandwich. “Guess it gives her more time to do Beck’s PR for him.” Though his words were muffled by the mouthful of food, there was no mistaking the disgust and anger in them.

Mary pursed her lips as she reached for the next set of glasses. Sounded like it wasn’t just being kept off the front line that was bothering Jake. She could understand that; she’d been a bit surprised herself how ready the town had been to welcome Beck back. After this morning’s display of strength by Hoffman, though, she was pretty glad they had. And she had to hand it to Beck: over the past week or so, he’d impressed her with the way he’d walked a careful line between meeting his own interests and not running roughshod over Jericho’s leaders as he supplied his military expertise and his men to defend Jericho.

She also knew he’d impressed Eric, and that Eric had been less than impressed by Jake upsetting the balance they’d achieved. He’d muttered something about it when he’d finally gotten home last night, just as she was closing up the bar, before dismissing it with a shake of the head and pulling her into a weary embrace.

Picking up a clean cloth, she began polishing the glasses. “You know,” she said carefully, “I’m going to be the first to say Beck got a lot of things wrong, but since he defected…. I really think he’s been trying.”

Jake snorted. “That’s what Heather said.”

Mary held up the glass and inspected it, before hanging it back in place. “Heather’s a smart woman.” Ignoring Jake’s disdainful sniff, she picked up another glass. “She kept promising us he’d come around, and she was right.”

“Yeah.” Jake crammed the last of the sandwiches into his mouth. “When he had the evidence handed to him on a plate.”

Mary didn’t bother trying to argue with him that it was the same for most people; Jake clearly wasn’t in the mood to listen to reason. Instead, she jerked her head toward the plate. “You want some coffee as well?”

“Please.” Jake pushed the plate aside.

Mary was just pouring the coffee into the cup she’d placed in front of him when she heard the door opening again. This time it was Bill.

“Mary. Jake.” He nodded at them both as he looked around. “Quiet in here.”

“Uh-huh.” Mary finished filling Jake’s cup. “Can I get you anything?”

“I’ll have one of those to go.” Bill nodded at the pot in Mary’s hand.

“Sure thing.” Mary busied herself filling a styrofoam cup and finding a lid. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Bill was leaning back against the bar next to Jake, resting on his elbows.

“So, that was quite some show Hoffman put on this morning.” Bill made it sound like they’d all been attending the local air display.

Mary shook her head as she pressed the lid onto the cup to seal it. Bill had a real knack for enjoying bad news, and for picking at other people’s scabs, didn’t he? Seemed Jake agreed with her, from the unimpressed noise he made in response.

She wasn’t much surprised when, as she turned back with the coffee, Bill added with a smirk, “Good thing the cavalry came rolling into town to save us, wasn’t it? Bet those flyboys weren’t expecting that, huh?”

Mary rolled her eyes. Way to pour oil on the flames, Bill.

“You mean Beck?” Jake had twisted in his seat and was staring at Bill with narrowed eyes.

Bill—being Bill; Mary shook her head again—didn’t seem to notice Jake’s anger. “Uh-huh. Nice having our own private army, isn’t it?” Taking the coffee from Mary with a quick thanks, he began to turn away—before he turned back, apparently having been struck by another thought. Reaching out, he thumped Jake on the arm and grinned at him. “’Course, if we had our own air force, you’d be just the guy, right?”

“Right.” Jake sounded a little bemused as he watched Bill leave, and he went on staring at the door long after it had closed, a distracted expression on his face.

Sometimes, Mary reflected, clearing away Jake’s plate and wiping up the crumbs he’d scattered, she didn’t know how Bill managed to get through the day without getting himself beaten up at least once.

oOo

A day later, Heather was kneeling on the pumping station floor, leaning over the battery array taking shape under her hands from a mismatched collection of batteries Jake had rounded up for her the previous day. When someone stepped into the doorway, blocking most of the light, she started. The intruder’s approach had been masked by the satisfying whirr of the turbine blades outside and the cheerful bubbling of the water as the pumps drew it from deep underground to refill the tank above her.

Instinctively, she rocked back into a crouch, her hand closing tightly around the pliers she’d been using: an inadequate weapon but the best available. Then she relaxed as the man spoke and she recognized Eric’s voice.

“Heather? Do you have a moment?”

Putting down the pliers, she he got to her feet and wiped her hands on a rag. “Sure” She gestured for Eric to lead them back outside. She could do with a break: the pumping station was surprisingly chilly and smelled of damp.

Outside, she turned her face up to the sun, enjoying its warmth for a moment, before she turned to face Eric. In the bright light, she couldn’t miss the worried expression on his face. “What is it?”

Eric lifted an arm and rubbed his palm across the back of his neck. “Have you seen Jake this morning?”

Heather’s hands tightened on the rag she still held. She shook her head. “No. Not since he gave me the batteries yesterday afternoon. When he didn’t turn up for the meeting this morning….” She gave a rueful laugh. “It was a bit of a relief, really.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Eric rolled his eyes. “But it wasn’t just the meeting he missed. Tried to find him afterward to tell him I’d put him on the roster for a patrol tonight and I can’t find him anywhere. He’s not out at the ranch, can’t find him anywhere in town, and no one’s seen him today. Looks like no one’s seen him since yesterday afternoon, in fact.”

Heather pushed her hair back behind her ear, a knot forming in her stomach. “Do you think he’s okay?”

“God knows.” Eric scuffed his toe in the dirt. “I know he’s… not been finding things easy since he got back to town. Beck….”

“Yeah.” Heather crossed her arms, feeling guilty. It was all her fault Beck was working with them. But it was the right thing to do; she was sure of it. Beck and the town needed each other. She just hadn’t anticipated how much it would hurt Jake, or how much it hurt her to see him hurting like that when she couldn’t do anything about it. “You think he’s going to do something… stupid?”

Eric looked up from contemplating his feet and snorted. “If I know my big brother….” He heaved a sigh. “How did he seem when you saw last him? Did he say anything?”

Heather shook her head. “He just apologized for not being able to get more batteries. Which was…,” she shrugged, “there was no need for that. He got me plenty enough for me to test things out with, and maybe when people see it working, they’ll be willing to give up more.”

“And you told him that?” Eric caught her eye, his brows lifting to emphasize the question.

“Yeah.” She bit her lip, her gaze sliding away. “But maybe he thought I was just humoring him….”

Jake certainly hadn’t looked very convinced when she’d thanked him, or like he’d felt it was a job well done. He’d looked miserable and frustrated, and like he had too much on his mind. She’d badly wanted to offer him some comfort, but the words wouldn’t come, just like they hadn’t come that morning on the way back out to the pumping station. It was okay when the two of them were talking about turbines or batteries, when they were keeping things professional, but she didn’t trust herself not to say or do something stupid if things got too personal between them. So she’d wrapped her arms around herself, aching with the urge to hug him.

“Hey,” Eric reached out and gave her arm a squeeze, bringing her back to the present. “Whatever’s going on with Jake, it’s not your fault, okay?”

Heather wasn’t sure Eric was right about that, but she forced herself to return his smile, though she suspected hers was as unconvincing as his. “I know.” She drew in a deep breath, trying to ease the knot in her stomach. “If I see him, I’ll let him know you’re looking for him. And if I think of anything else or anywhere he could be….”

Eric gave her arm another squeeze. “Thanks. And try not to worry. He’ll be fine.” He let out a humorless laugh. “He always is.”

With a final nod of his head, he turned back to the horse he’d tethered nearby. Watching him ride off, Heather wished she could share his confidence that Jake would be all right. But everything had changed in the past week, and the kind of things Jake could be getting up to…. They weren’t like playing Clyde to Emily’s Bonnie while they went on trick-or-treat expeditions any more, were they?

oOo

The afternoon sun beat down on Beck’s back as he made his away across the camp toward the wind turbine. Heather and Sergeant Tran were standing next to it, holding an animated discussion that seemed to involve much pointing and nodding. As Beck approached, Heather laughed at something the sergeant had said, her face lighting up. He realized how little he’d seen her laugh and how much it suited her. There’d been far too much to worry about over the last week for any of them to find much amusement in their situation.

Sergeant Tran saw him first and straightened and saluted. “Sir.”

Beck returned the salute. “At ease, sergeant. Heather.” He nodded at her, noting that her expression had dimmed a little as she caught sight of him, tension creeping into her face, though she was still smiling. He guessed he was one of the things worrying her. Or, at least, walking the tricky path, as his liaison, between his needs and the town’s—and Jake’s hostility.

“I wasn’t going to bother you.” Heather gave him an anxious look. “I know how busy you are. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay with the turbine.”

“It’s not a bother,” Beck reassured her, speaking almost before she’d finished, even though she was right that he had a dozen other tasks that should be claiming his attention. Except letting Heather know how much he appreciated the support and help she’d given him was important, and certainly more pleasurable than whatever awaited him back at his command tent. “I would have been sorry if you’d left without me seeing you.” Especially as he’d only discovered she was at the camp thanks to a chance remark from Lieutenant Posey.

Heather blushed and dipped her head. Clearing his throat, Beck turned toward Tran. “Anything to report, sergeant?”

“No, sir. Everything operating within spec.”

“Pleased to hear it.” He turned back toward Heather, intending to invite her back to the command tent for coffee. He was sure there was something that needed discussing, though he mostly just wanted to make sure she was all right. He’d barely had a chance to speak to her in days—and on most of those occasions, Jake had been looming disapprovingly in the background. Then he saw that she was no longer looking at him but at something over his shoulder. Turning, he saw Lieutenant Posey approaching at a trot, a radio in his left hand.

“Sir.” The lieutenant saluted, but didn’t wait for Beck’s acknowledgment before he carried on. “Two-Charlie patrol is reporting having just seen a plane. Checkpoint Three’s confirmed it.”

Beck’s stomach lurched. “One of Hoffman’s?”

Posey shook his head. “Don’t think so, sir. The patrol seems to think it may have taken off from the airstrip in Jericho. They say it was flying south, away from town, when they first spotted it, and then it turned east. No one else has reported seeing it yet, so it sounds like it didn’t fly over the town. Checkpoint Three thinks it may be making a circuit of the area. If they’re right, we should have visual contact ourselves from the east ridge in about ten minutes.” He gestured toward the slight rise that sheltered the camp on one side.

The radio in Posey’s hand crackled. “Lieutenant Posey? This is ops.”

Posey lifted the radio and pressed the transmit switch. “This is Posey. Go ahead, ops.”

“Sir,” The operator’s voice was slightly distorted, but his words were clear enough, “we’ve just had a message from Sheriff Green at City Hall about the plane. He thinks it may be his brother. He says one of the Rangers reckons the plane is their grandfather’s old cropduster.”

“Dammit!” Beck closed his eyes for a moment, praying for God to give him the strength to not just shoot Jake and be done with it next time he saw him. When he opened his eyes again, he met Heather’s gaze and saw she looked as worried as he felt. “Did you know about this?”

She shook her head. “No. Eric said he couldn’t find Jake this morning, but…. We had no idea he was up to anything like this.” She bit her lip.

That was the big question: what, exactly, was Jake up to? And what kind of response would he provoke from Hoffman’s troops that Beck would need to deal with? If the plane was headed this way, Beck decided, best he took a look for himself.

He turned back to Posey. “Have a humvee meet me by the main gate. I’ll be up on the east ridge. I want you back in the command tent and I want regular updates. Meanwhile, tell the checkpoints and patrols to hold their fire until we figure out what’s going on, but to stay alert in case Hoffman responds. And ask Sheriff Green to see if they can make radio contact with the plane.”

“Yes, sir.” Posey turned away, already talking into the radio as he headed back toward the center of the camp. Beck swung off in the opposite direction, making for the gate.

“Edward? Major?” Looking back over his shoulder, he saw Heather hurrying after him, hitching her bag higher on her shoulder. “I’d like to come with you.”

Surprise made him break his stride, letting her catch up with him. She fell into step alongside him while he tried to figure out what about her request bothered him, making an instinctive “No” spring to his lips. It was, he supposed, because he was heading out into the field, if not into actual combat, and taking civilian women along on an operation was… well, it just wasn’t something you did. He shook his head. “You should stay here. If you go to the command tent, Posey will take care of you. You’ll be safe there.”

She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t change direction. When he took another look at her, she had her lips pressed together. They carried on for another fifty yards and then she said, her words quiet but sounding like her patience was wearing thin, “Sitting in the one place Colonel Hoffman’s most likely to drop a bomb if he does decide to attack?”

Abruptly, she skipped a couple of paces ahead of him and turned, forcing him to stop. “Look, if that is Jake up there,” she pointed upwards, “he’s one of Jericho’s residents. Don’t you think it would help to have your liaison with you, in case you need to make some decisions in a hurry.”

He searched her face, trying to figure out how to convince her of the “No” that his gut was still telling him was the right answer. Her expression was earnest and worried, and he could tell she wasn’t oblivious to the different kinds of dangers that coming with him might expose her to, even if she maybe didn’t completely appreciate them all. Besides, there were times when civilian women got involved in ops; though he hadn’t worked directly with them himself, there’d been a couple of female interpreters attached to their battalion when he’d served in Kosovo. Still, they’d had the particular skills for the work and they’d been hired knowing the risks.

“This isn’t the kind of thing—,” he tried.

“No, it isn’t,” she admitted, nodding at him. “You’d be better off with Eric. But you’ve got me.” When he still hesitated, she sighed heavily. “Look, my truck’s right by the gate. If you don’t take me, I’m just going to follow you anyway.” With a shrug, she turned and carried on walking toward the gate.

Following after her, he couldn’t help wonder if what was driving her was concern for Jake. Well, of course it was. The two of them were obviously close: she’d told him a few days back that it had been Jake who’d brought her into Hawkins plot and asked her to steal from his office. Then there’d been those faxes with the secret codes they’d exchanged. Even before that, there’d been the way Jake had greeted her when she’d walked into the Sheriff’s office and Beck had laid eyes on her for the first time. Hadn’t that been part of the reason, along with Colonel Hoffman’s recommendation, that he’d asked her to be his liaison in the first place? That she seemed to have some influence over one of the men he needed to get on side?

Watching Heather walking briskly ahead of him, it hit Beck that his irritation with Jake was about more than just the other man disturbing the arrangements he’d managed to put in place with the town. It was also because of the way he’d thrown things out of kilter between Beck and Heather, when they’d been getting along so well. And because, ever since Jake had gotten back, Heather seemed to have done nothing but miserably excuse each of them to the other. As if her job as his liaison wasn’t hard enough. He also had to acknowledge that, irrespective of her personal feelings for Jake, it probably wasn’t just worry about him that had made her ask to tag along, but a genuine desire to help mitigate whatever damage Jake’s escapade might cause.

They were close to the gate now and he was only a stride or two behind her. He called her name softly and when she turned, he gestured toward the humvee that waited for him.

She gave him a strained smile as she changed direction and murmured a quiet “Thank you” as he opened the rear door for her to climb in. A moment later, he was settling himself in seat in front of her and they were bumping off around the perimeter of the camp toward the rise of ground to the east.

By the time they crested the ridge, Lieutenant Posey had reported over the radio that the plane had also been sighted by Checkpoint Two and did seem to be circling the town. The soldiers at the checkpoint had estimated it was probably somewhere just beyond Hoffman’s patrol lines and not particularly high. Posey had added that there were no reports yet of any response from Hoffman’s troops, although Beck knew they must have seen the plane as well.

Getting out of the humvee, Beck scanned the horizon to the south-east while he fished a pair of binoculars out of a pocket in his vest. Beside him, Heather had her hand raised, shading her eyes, as she peered southward as well.

He caught the sound of the plane a moment before he spotted the distant dot hanging against the clear blue sky, already almost due east of them. “There.” He pointed it out to Heather. Raising the binoculars, he fiddled with the focus until suddenly the plane jumped into view, still small but clear.

He blinked, pulling back from the eyepieces and wondering if the stress and lack of sleep over the past few days had gotten to him and he was hallucinating. But no, when he put the binoculars back to his eyes and found the plane again, there it was: a tiny biplane, its doubled wings painted red and its fuselage blue. He shook his head disbelievingly: the ASA was sending over Apaches and F16s, and Jake was up there flying a damn museum piece?

“Is it Jake?” At his side, Heather still had one hand over her eyes.

“I can’t tell for sure.” Beck lowered the binoculars and wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead. “Definitely not Hoffman, though. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have any biplanes.”

“It’s a—?” Heather gave him a surprised look and then held her hand out for the binoculars. “May I?”

Beck passed them across and carried on watching in silence as the plane continued to track roughly north-east, not getting any closer to their position. It seemed to be flying quite slowly, although Beck wasn’t sure how fast something like that could go. A suspicion formed in his mind as to what Jake might be up to. Not that it would make it any less idiotic if Beck was right, and not that it was likely to do them much good, but at least it would mean Jake wasn’t up there simply for a joyride.

“Sir?” The humvee driver was leaning across the passenger seat, radio in hand. “Checkpoint One reports a visual on the plane.”

Beck nodded to show he’d heard. “Thank you, corporal. Is Sheriff Green having any luck contacting the plane?”

“No, sir. Says he’s getting no response on any of the civilian frequencies.”

Beck huffed out a frustrated breath, but he wasn’t much surprised. It would be just like Jake to arrange things so it would be impossible for anyone to order him to turn back and land.

Swinging back round to watch the plane again for another minute, Beck was able to confirm for himself that the plane did seem to be making a circuit around the territory his troops held. Behind him, the driver was talking on the radio again.

Beck spared a glance for Heather and she must have caught the movement, because she lowered the binoculars and offered them back to him. He reached out to take them, intending to suggest they went back to camp, since there wasn’t much more they could do from here, when the driver spoke again.

“Sir. Checkpoint Two is reporting Apaches inbound. They think they’re on a course to intercept the plane.”

Beck closed his eyes for a moment, trying not to let the frustration he felt overwhelm him. It was pretty much the response he’d expected, and Jake should have anticipated it as well: he was far from stupid. Opening his eyes again, he saw Heather’s anxious gaze was fixed on him as she continued to offer him the binoculars.

“Hoffman?”

“Yes.” He took the binoculars back and once more focused them on the plane. “Come on, Jake,” he muttered under his breath, willing Jake to turn the plane around and head back to the airfield. But without a radio to warn him and with the sound of his own plane in his ears, Jake would likely have no idea the Apaches were on his tail until they were almost on him.

A moment later, Beck caught the clatter of the helicopters’ rotors, carrying clearly over the quiet fields. Swinging around, he quickly spotted them. They were closing fast on the plane, which was still progressing in a stately fashion when he looked back at it. When he spared a look in Heather’s direction, he saw she had her hands twisted together in front of her.

At last, much too late, when the Apaches already seemed to be almost on top of it, he saw the plane bank, turning and heading straight toward the town. The Apaches changed course as well, still moving to intercept. A moment later, Beck saw the plane bank again. He guessed Jake had realized he’d been leading the Apaches straight toward town and was now trying to steer around Jericho while he made his way back to the airfield to the south.

It only took a few seconds before one of the Apaches closed in on the plane, taking up station next to it on the town side, while the other settled into place at the rear. The three of them flew along in formation for a couple of minutes, growing every larger to the watches on the ridge. Then the helicopter alongside the plane shot forward some distance and positioned itself in the plane’s path, while the second replaced it alongside the biplane on the town side. Beck guessed the Apaches were trying to force the plane to turn and set down in ASA territory.

To his disbelief, the plane carried on along the same course for a few seconds, seeming, if anything, to increase its speed—for long enough that Beck began to wonder if Jake was crazy enough to try ramming the Apache. Then, suddenly, the plane began to climb. It went on climbing, more and more steeply, until it was heading almost vertically upwards—and then it still carried on climbing, going on and up and over, until it was almost upside down. At which point, it executed a tight roll and came out into level flight again—except it was now heading away from the Apaches and maybe two hundred feet higher.

The quiet “Oh my God!” that escaped from Heather as the plane sped away echoed his own mix of horror and admiration at the move. He guessed the Apache pilots were just as shocked by the time it took them to turn and follow.

It wasn’t long, though, before the helicopters had once more closed on the plane, clearly still trying to herd it away from Jericho but lining themselves up to prevent him from escaping with the same trick as before. A moment later, Beck’s heart leapt into his mouth again as he saw the plane drop like a stone for an instant. Then it steadied and shot forward, the loss in height allowing it to dive under the Apache that had been blocking its path. Almost at once, it began to make a tight turn, heading back toward them. Beck let out a breath, forcing himself to relax as he realized that whatever had just happened, it had been quite deliberate on Jake’s part and had once more allowed him to elude his pursuers.

His relief was short-lived. A few seconds later, he heard the distant rattle of gunfire and the plane lurched, first one wing dipping and then the other.

oOo

The shadows had been starting to lengthen but the light had still been bright and clear as, forty minutes earlier, Jake had taxied the cropduster to the end of the runway. It was the end of a long and busy twenty four hours since the seed that Bill had planted in Jake’s head in Bailey’s had finally blossomed into a fully formed plan while Jake had trudged around town trying to find the car batteries Heather wanted. A dangerous plan, maybe: Jake wouldn’t dispute that. But one that would give Beck some of the intelligence he was looking for about what Hoffman was up to. And—the thought had made Jake’s mouth curl up in a satisfied smile—show the rest of the town just why they needed Jake around.

The first order of business, once he’d managed to scrounge up a half dozen batteries and deliver them to Heather, had been to check the cropduster was still in the hangar and airworthy. When he’d gotten out to the airfield, the place had seemed deserted, silent in the late afternoon sun. He hadn’t been surprised: the airport itself hadn’t reopened while the ASA was in charge and he doubted there was much of any value left after the winter to draw anyone else out here. But though the doors to grandpa’s hangar had complained alarmingly as he’d slid them open, the light flooding in had lit up the familiar shape of the Stearman, her red, white and blue paintwork only a little dulled by a light coating of dust.

A quick duck around to the fuel tank at the back of the hangar had provided an equally satisfactory sight: the gauge indicated the tank was half full. Jake had guessed everyone—himself included—had forgotten about Grandpa’s stash when they’d been looking for fuel last winter, but Grandpa had always had his own fuel delivered. He’d said he didn’t have time to wait around for some spotty kid from Murthy’s to deign to answer the phone and come out from the gas station to pump fuel from the airfield’s supply. Jake had silently saluted his grandfather’s impatience as he turned back to the plane. Running a loving hand over the flaps on the nearest wing, he’d suddenly felt happier than he had in days.

Finding the plane had, of course, only been the first step. As he’d worked on her for the rest of the afternoon, until it grew too dark to see, making sure she could fly again, he’d considered the other items he’d need. The cameras had been easy enough: when he’d finally trudged wearily back to the ranch, he’d found Grandpa’s Kodaks—almost as old as Jake himself—stashed in the basement. But though the cameras and lenses, and even a supply of batteries for the winder, had been carefully packed away in their cases, alongside the enlarger and the pile of wartime blackout material that Grandpa used to rig up a temporary darkroom in the cellar, there was no sign of chemicals or paper; Jake reckoned his parents must have thrown anything like that out when they’d tidied the place after Grandpa’s death. No film either. And though Gracie’s had once sold film, along with pretty much else, Jake had reckoned asking Dale probably wouldn’t help; even if he did have a stash from before the bombs, it’d all be color. Jake could hardly ask Hoffman if he minded them taking a quick trip to the photo lab in Rogue River that, before the September attacks, had picked up film and dropped off prints weekly at Gracie’s.

But there was one person in Jericho that might have just what Jake needed. Bracing himself to have to listen to a long tirade about how President Tomarchio and the rest of the ASA government are all aliens, you know. That’s why they’re trying to take over the country. I said so all along and I was right, Jake had headed off the next morning to the warren of decrepit winnebagos and jacked-up trailers on the south side of town that Oliver Adams called home.

He did, indeed, have to listen to Oliver’s ramblings, but they’d secured him a half dozen rolls of black and white film, a box of all the chemicals he needed and several unopened packets of paper. He’d also had to promise, once the ASA ‘aliens’ had been defeated and sent packing back to their home planet, to take Oliver up in a plane to photograph a number of ‘UFO landing sites’ supposedly in the area. Jake had thought it would be a small price to pay once things were back to normal. Assuming things ever did get that way and they were both alive to see it.

Pleased with his stash, Jake had hurried back to the airfield and stowed the chemicals in a cool, dark corner, before turning his attention to finishing servicing the plane—and figuring where and how to fix the cameras in place, how to trigger the shutter release from the cockpit, and how high he’d need to fly, and how slowly, to be able to get a complete picture of the ground below, since he’d have just thirty six frames in each camera to play with.

With everything in place at last, Jake had pulled the chocks away, climbed into the cockpit, strapped himself in and fired up the engine. She’d chattered sweetly, if noisily, to him as he’d taxied out of the hangar and headed for the end of the runway. A rush of exhilaration had surged through him as he felt the familiar vibration of the engine through the stick.

Reaching the end of the runway, he halted, taking a moment to check the oil and temperature gauges again and test the flaps a final time. Pulling his goggles down and settling them over his eyes, he took a deep breath, relishing the knot of excitement in his stomach, and opened the throttle. A few seconds later, he was airborne, the airfield dropping away below and behind him.

He climbed quickly, wanting to be well out of range of anything Hoffman’s patrols could throw at him by the time he crossed their lines. He’d taken off heading south, and he decided to carry on in that direction. He’d start his circuit once he was a mile or so past where he reckoned Hoffman’s patrol lines and checkpoints were, and head east first: Hoffman seemed to have his main camp—and that meant probably most of his supply lines—to the north-east, toward New Bern; best to see if he could photograph that area first, in case he had to skedaddle back to town in a hurry.

He pushed away any thought of what Hoffman might send after him—he’d worry about that when it happened—and concentrated on checking the altimeter until he reached his planned cruising height and could level off. A quick glance over the side of the cockpit told him he probably had a couple more miles before he needed to make the turn. The sun was beating down on his neck and his shirt clung to his back with sweat, but he didn’t mind: the clear, bright light would help the photographs come out as well as they were going to. He was relying on the speed of the shutter and film to minimize any camera shake.

A couple of minutes later and several more glances downward to check his position and Jake had made the turn. Once the plane was leveled out again, he slowed her as much as he dared without the risk of stalling. Then, holding her steady with one hand on the stick, he groped with his other hand for one of the remote leads he’d fed into the cockpit and pressed the button.

He couldn’t hear the click of the shutter or the sound of the motor drive winding on over the noise of the engine and the air rushing past him, but he had to trust his jury-rigged system was working. With the button pressed, he began to count under his breath, even as he angled the plane slightly to take him in a wide circle around the town. Letting go of the remote for the camera attached to the right wing and transferring his grip on the stick, he reached for the remote on the other side of the cockpit. He’d decided to alternate between the cameras: more chance of getting something usable for the whole circuit than trusting first to one and then the other. Still counting, he went on checking the altimeter and airspeed indicator, in between quick peeks at the ground. When he estimated enough time had passed, he clicked the remote button for the other camera.

He was almost halfway round the circuit, keeping an eye out for the arrow-straight line of Route 6 heading north, when he finally noticed a new noise, barely audible at first. Twisting his neck, he caught sight of two small dots a little to one side of his six, growing rapidly larger as they sped toward him. Silently, he cursed. He’d been expecting it; he’d just hoped to have longer.

He wondered if he could manage another picture, but a second glance showed him that, damn, whatever Hoffman was sending to check him out, they were closing fast.

Dropping the camera lead he’d been holding, he put both hands on the stick and banked sharply, turning toward the center of town. Another look told him his pursuers had followed the move, angling to intercept him. They were close enough now for him to see they were Apaches, possibly the same two that had flown over the town the previous day. He wondered if they’d follow him in once he’d crossed Beck’s patrol lines. Probably.

He banked again, angling away from the town on the horizon so he could circle it and reach the airfield without flying over any of the more populated areas. The change in direction brought him closer to the Apaches, but it wasn’t as if he could outrun them anyway. Best he could hope for was to set down and grab the cameras before they decided to blast him to bits.

For a second he contemplated trying to set down quickly in the fields below, but he knew they weren’t nearly as flat and smooth as they looked. His best option was still to head back to the airfield.

Another glance over his shoulder showed him one of the Apaches was hanging back, but the other was closing fast, coming up on his right side. It slowed as it reached him, drawing alongside. He could see the pilot turning his head to look at him. After a moment, the pilot tapped his helmet, and Jake realized he was probably trying to hail him on the radio. Not that Jake would have wanted to respond anyway, but he couldn’t: he hadn’t bothered to dig out a radio headset before he took off. After all, who would he have needed to talk to, without a functioning tower at the airfield?

Jake shook his head. After a moment, the pilot gestured to their left and down. Jake guessed that meant he wanted Jake to set down on the far side of Hoffman’s lines. He shook his head again, and again when the pilot repeated the gesture more vigorously. Jake was reminded of the flight to Texas; he doubted Texas ANG would be turning up to save him this time, though. Taking another quick look down, he tried to figure how far he was from the airfield and how much longer it would take him to reach it.

Next to him, the Apache zoomed forward, outpacing him, before swinging around maybe half a mile ahead and hovering directly in front of the Stearman. A check on the other Apache showed it was steaming up behind him to take station where the first had been. Looked like they were planning on playing a game of Chicken and forcing him to change direction if he didn’t want to end up in a mid-air collision. Well, he was damned if he was going to let them push him around.

His hands and feet moved automatically, and the Stearman responded as he knew she would, climbing until she was vertical. And then on, ground and sky changing places, the straps digging into his shoulders as they took his weight, before he rolled and came out straight and level again. Drawing in a deep breath as he steadied the plane, he took the time to squint over his shoulder, to where the two Apaches were now scrambling to turn and climb to follow after him.

He let out a whoop of exhilaration—what he would’ve given to see those pilots’ faces—before he sobered, realizing he was now heading away from the airfield again. And it wasn’t as if he stood much chance of shaking the Apaches: they were faster and more maneuverable than the Stearman, and the old girl wasn’t capable of pulling too many stunts. The best he could do was hope to dodge and weave enough that he could keep heading roughly where he wanted to go and not where they wanted to herd him.

One of the Apache’s had taken up station above him, preventing him from doubling back with another Immelmann turn. The other was in front of him and a little to one side, clearly trying to herd him back out into ASA territory. Gritting his teeth, Jake pushed the plane into a slip, working the flaps one way and the rudder the other so that that plane abruptly lost height and he could dart under the Apache before it had a chance to react. Coming out of the slip as the shadow of the Apache passed over him, he began to turn back toward Jericho, losing even more height as he banked, his muscles bunching as he pushed on the stick and encouraged the old girl round.

The ground was a hell of a lot closer now, but he was still well above the tops of the trees that were sparsely scattered across the landscape, and he was heading back toward the airfield again. As for the Apaches—.

Something smacked into the fuselage a few feet behind him. What the—? The impact was followed by a half a dozen more blows in quick succession that shuddered through the Stearman’s frame. Jake barely had time to think, Oh, crap, they’re shooting at me, before the plane lurched and began to lose more height, no longer reacting to his touch the way she had been.

Instinctively, he worked the pedals, but there was no response and he knew the rudder was gone, though he didn’t have time to take a look and check. Probably one or both the elevators were damaged, too: the nose simply didn’t want to come up, no matter how hard he fought with the stick to level her out.

Still trying to gain height, he peered forward, knowing he now had next to no choice about where he was going to put down down. Best he could hope for was to avoid hitting anything, keep the wings as level as he could, and try not to come down too hard when he did crash.

As the ground rushed toward him, he comforted himself that at least he’d be putting down in Jericho territory. Things could be worse. If not by much….

oOo

A couple of miles away, Beck had jammed his binoculars back to his eyes, focusing on the plane. It was close enough that he could see the tail had been shredded.

At his side, he was aware Heather had wrapped her arms around herself. “Is he—?” She didn’t finish the question, maybe not wanting to give voice to her fears and make them real.

Beck watched for a moment longer and then let out the breath he’d been holding when he saw the wings steady and the nose come up a little, if too little: the plane was still on a shallow downward trajectory. It looked like Jake was probably okay, though the plane clearly wasn’t. “I think it’s just the plane,” he answered absently, sweeping the binoculars to the left and trying to figure out how much chance Jake had of putting down safely. The land ahead seemed to be mostly open farmland. He just hoped for Jake’s sake that his piloting skills when it came to unplanned landings were as good as his aerial acrobatics.

For Heather’s sake, too. Lowering the binoculars and turning toward the humvee, he took in the horrified look on her face as she stood frozen, staring out across the fields at the rapidly descending plane.

“Come on.” He took her by the elbow to hustle her back toward the humvee. If Jake didn’t make it out of the crash, and even if he did, it probably wasn’t something she needed to see.

She resisted the tug of his hand for a second and then seemed to come out of the trance she was in. Turning her head and meeting his gaze, she nodded and let him steer her toward the vehicle. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the plane was only a hundred feet or so above the ground now.

He still had his hand on her arm to make sure she got into the humvee when he heard the sound of the crash echoing across the fields: a loud bang followed by the grind and squeal of tearing metal. He felt her flinch and she started to try and get out again, but he said “Don’t” and pushed her back into place, slamming the door on her. Climbing into his own seat, he was relieved to see there was no sign of smoke above where the plane had crashed.

“Corporal.” He gestured ahead; there was no need to give the rest of the order. As the humvee lurched off, he reached for the radio. “Ops, this is Major Beck. Contact City Hall and tell them to send a fire truck and an ambulance out about two miles past the Tacoma Bridge. Exact location to follow. Possibility of one casualty, condition unknown.”

oOo

Jake, eyes closed, drew in a long deep breath and relished the silence that had descended once the cropduster finally came to a halt. Slowly, he unclenched his hands from their grip on the stick and wriggled his toes. Somewhat to his amazement, he appeared to be in one piece. He doubted the plane had been quite so lucky.

Opening his eyes confirmed what his body had told him: the plane was listing at a slight angle. Turning his head a little, he saw the end of the left wing had been been ripped away, the sheared off stump digging into the ground. He dragged off his goggles and fumbled to release the straps that held him in his seat so he could twist round further: behind him, a deep furrow marked one edge of a long curving swath of smashed corn shoots stretching to the rear of the plane. He guessed the landing gear must’ve caught on something a few yards after he touched down and then—.

He shrugged. It didn’t really matter. The old girl had stood up well enough. Easing himself out of the cockpit—God, he was gonna ache tomorrow—he chuckled at the memory of his grandfather proudly declaring that if you hit a barn in her, the barn’d come off worse. Though he knew he was going to eventually have time to regret smashing the plane up beyond repair, the important thing right now was whether the cameras had also survived the crash.

Slithering to the ground, he leaned against the fuselage for support and got a good look at the tail for the first time. The rudder was as mangled as he’d expected, while a scattering of bullet holes marked the fuselage. Raking his eyes over them, he cursed when he spotted fluid leaking from one of them. His brain finally acknowledged the frantic messages his nose had been sending for the past couple of minutes about being able to smell avgas. Looked like a bullet had caught the fuel tank.

Pushing himself away from the plane, he slapped at the fuselage in frustration but consoled himself with the thought that, as the plane hadn’t caught fire so far, there was a good chance he’d be okay for a few more minutes. He still needed to move quickly, though. Ignoring his complaining muscles, he ducked down so he could slide under the wing and reach the camera on that side. He was glad now that the length of the remote leads had forced him to fix the cameras close in to the body of the plane; the one on this wing hung just a few inches above the churned-up ground, but it seemed to have escaped any damage. Wriggling onto his side, he dug in the pocket of his hoodie for the spanner he’d stowed there before he took off and began to work on the nuts that held the camera in place. He tried not to think about the avgas still seeping from the plane and the possibility of it coming into contact with the hot metal of the engine.

He was half done with the fixings on the first camera when he noticed sirens, distant at first but getting closer. Tilting his head so he could peer toward where he knew a dirt road ran along the edge of the field, he saw a fire truck with an ambulance behind it approaching from one direction, while a humvee sped towards them from the other. Shaking his head at all the fuss, Jake turned his attention back to getting the camera free. He was just pulling it loose when he heard Eric calling his name.

“I’m here,” he yelled back. Holding the camera close to his chest, he shuffled out from under the wing and sat up. Eric, at the head of what seemed to be a small crowd, was jogging toward him. The smell of avgas suddenly seemed much stronger to Jake, making him feel a little dizzy. Holding tightly to the camera with one hand, he waved his other arm frantically. “Stay back!” he ordered. “There’s a fuel leak.”

“Jake!” Eric sounded both relieved and cross and, despite Jake’s warning, picked up his pace, stumbling a little on the rough ground as he ran toward the plane.

“I said keep back!” Jake scrambled to his feet. Behind Eric, most of the others had halted, but a couple of the fire truck’s crew, wearing yellow jackets and carrying extinguishers, were still heading toward him. Cursing silently, Jake hurried around to the far side of the plane, determined to rescue the second camera before the fire crew had a chance to spray it with god knows what and ruin the film.

When he reached the far side, he found the right wing was tilted up enough that he only had to kneel to be able to reach the second camera. He put the first camera down on the ground in front of him and began to work on the nuts that held the other camera in place.

“Jake!” Eric had followed him around the plane. “You need to—.”

“Not without the cameras.” Jake had gotten one nut loose and he let it fall into the grass. He jerked his head at the far side of the plane. “Fuel leak’s on the other side. They need CO2—”

“They know.” Eric cut him off, sounding irritated. “What cameras? What are you talking about? Come on, Jake. You need to get away from the plane. Now.” Jake could feel Eric hovering behind him and he suspected his brother was deciding whether to try and drag him away by brute force.

The second nut came loose. “I got pictures. Or at least I hope I did.” Oh god, he hoped he’d gotten something out of all of this.

“You—?” Eric was silent for a moment, and then he said, his voice rising in pitch. “Are you goddamn crazy?”

“Probably.” Jake shrugged slightly as the third nut came free. Eric had a point. Steadying the camera and taking its weight with his left hand, he worked on the final nut. At last the camera came away from the mount. Shoving the spanner back in his pocket, he reached down for the other camera. Holding them tightly, he got to his feet and turned back toward Eric. “Okay, let’s go.”

Eric nodded, looking relieved. He held out a hand to help Jake, but Jake waved it away. “I’m okay.” He rounded the front of the plane, where the other two fire crew—Gary and Carl; Jake recognized the anxious faces under the helmets—still waited. At a nod from Eric, they moved forward and began spraying foam over the plane and the grass around it.

Eric himself stuck by Jake’s side as Jake headed toward the group of vehicles at the side of the field. Making sure he got there, Jake supposed.

They were still a dozen yards from the road when Jake saw Beck detach himself from the crowd gathered around the vehicles and stride toward them. “What the hell did you think you were doing?” Jake didn’t think he’d ever seen Beck look so angry, not even the night he stopped Eric and the others from heading to New Bern.

Jake halted and smirked down at the shorter man, feeling the comforting weight of the cameras clutched to his chest. “Getting you the intelligence you wanted.”

Beck’s gaze fell to the cameras. His lips tightened and he was silent for a moment, before he looked back up at Jake’s face. Taking a step closer, he caught Jake’s eye and held it. “You do realize you could have provoked Hoffman into a response against the town?” He spoke more quietly than before, but it was evident he was still just as angry, and that Jake’s explanation hadn’t impressed him in the least. “That we’re all damn lucky he decided it didn’t merit anything more than a couple of Apaches?”

“Well, he didn’t, did he?” Jake shot back. “Everyone’s fine.”

Beck’s gaze narrowed. “This time. But you don’t get to make those decisions, Jake. You are not in charge here.”

“Neither are you,” Jake returned his glare.

Beck’s expression grew even grimmer. “No. That would be Mayor Anderson and your brother. So I’ll leave them to explain to you just how irresponsible your actions are and how your recklessness is endangering the lives of everyone in this town.” Wheeling on his heel, Beck strode back toward the humvee.

Jake snorted. “A thank you would be nice,” he muttered mulishly, before he turned at Eric’s touch on his elbow.

“Come on, Jake.” Eric gestured toward the ambulance. “Let’s get you to the Med Center and get you checked over. They’ll be plenty enough time for us to, uh, ‘discuss’ what you did later.”

oOo

Heather hovered in the doorway of the interview room, watching Edward for a moment as he examined one of the photographs Jake had taken. There’d been a whole group of them in there until a few minutes earlier: Edward and Jake, of course, and Eric and Lieutenant Goodman, along with Colonel Davies and Chavez. Jake had laid the photographs out on a map spread on the table and there’d been a lot of pointing and picking up individual photographs and asking questions and answering them. It had all seemed very amicable, even if Jake had worn a very smug expression the whole time.

Heather quietly rapped on the door. Edward looked up with a start and then smiled at her, laying down the photograph he’d been holding. “Heather. What can I do for you?”

She took a step into the room. “I wanted to let you know I spoke to Mrs Dawson at the Library this morning. She’d be happy to arrange a bookmobile for the camp. So if you could send someone to talk to her….”

“I’ll get Lieutenant McCoy on it.” Edward dipped his head at her. “Thank you.”

Heather smiled back at him, realizing how much she liked it when she could provide these small moments of support. He had so many problems weighing him down that she couldn’t do anything about at all—no one could. “And I brought you this.” She held out the book she was carrying.

He took it and turned it round. “Middlemarch?”

She blushed. “I thought, you know, if you liked Les Miserables, you’d like this. It’s sort of historical and has politics as well and, well, I didn’t know if you’d read it before, but—.”

“I have.” He gently interrupted her with a smile. “But not for a long time. I shall enjoy re-reading it. Thank you.”

He went on smiling at her, apparently in no hurry to get back to examining the photographs. But Heather needed to know—. “So, were they useful? The pictures?” She gestured toward them.

“Yes.” Edward perched on the edge of the table, putting down the book and picking up one of the prints. “Surprisingly so. Some of them don’t show much, but even that’s useful to know. And some of them are extremely useful.”

“Oh, that’s good!” Heather unconsciously took another step toward him, twisting her hands together. “I didn’t want to think that Jake had… you know, that he’d almost gotten himself killed for nothing.”

“Not at all.” Edward fiddled with the edge of the photo, looking down at it but, Heather suspected, not really seeing it. “It was still very foolish of him, but the results did justify running some risk. I just wish we could get more.”

“Oh, good.” Heather paused, thinking a little more about what Edward had just said. She frowned. “Umm, you didn’t tell Jake that, did you?” When Edward looked up at her, eyebrows raised questioningly, she elaborated, “I know he smashed up the cropduster, but it’s not the only plane at the airfield and if he thought….” She left the sentence unfinished, her mind shying away from the idea of Jake risking his life like that again. She doubted he’d be so lucky a second time.

Edward shook his head. “No. I didn’t tell him that. Just that these were extremely useful.” He gave a slight shrug. “I had the same thought myself. That he might try again. And for all I’d like more intelligence, it wouldn’t be a good way to go about it. It’s putting too many lives at risk.” He shook his head, his expression rueful. “I never fully appreciated before what kind of backing the rest of the Army gave me. How spoiled I was.”

“We’ll figure it out.” Heather gave him a nod of encouragement.

“Yes, we will.” He dipped his head at her. “But thank you for the book,” he put his hand on it, “and for the news from the library. I’ll talk to Lieutenant McCoy when I get back to camp.”

Heather recognized he was bringing the conversation to a close, though something about his manner told her he’d like to stay chatting as much as she would. But they were both busy: a pile of other tasks awaited her at her desk, and she still needed to go over to the High School and talk about the troops using the gym sometimes. With a nod, she left him and headed back out into the main office.

Later, on her way over to the school, she found herself thinking about how else the Army got its intelligence. She was, she realized, casting about for ways to prevent Jake taking Edward’s enthusiasm for the intelligence as a license to take another plane up. If he didn’t have to do that….

There were satellites, of course, and Colonel Davies had promised to see what he could do through his superiors in San Antonio. But didn’t the Army also have model planes that they took pictures with? Maybe she and Jake could build something like that between them?

Working with Jake would be hard, of course, for lots of reasons, some of which she didn’t want to think about too closely. She’d discovered that over the past few days. But if it kept him safe, it would be worth it, wouldn’t it? At the very least, it might keep him from taking up another plane for a while.

oOo

Jake ignored a faint knocking sound coming from somewhere above him in the house and transferred the photo from the fixer into wash tray. Enough of the pictures he’d taken had turned out sufficiently well for Beck to eventually admit grudgingly that they’d be very useful—and would Jake please be able to provide a second set of prints with increased contrast, as well as enlargements of parts of some of them? The photo he’d just blown up showed a group of soldiers clustered round some kind of heavy artillery.

As he swirled the print in the water, the knocking came again, this time accompanied by a woman nervously calling, “Jake?”

He recognized Heather’s voice. Turning his head while he went on rinsing the print, he called back “Hang on. I’m in the basement.”

By the time he’d hung the print up to dry, checked the packet of paper was tightly sealed and pulled back the blackout material that formed his temporary darkroom, Heather had found her way inside and made it halfway down the basement stairs.

“Hey.” She twisted her hands together as she gave him a shy smile.

He nodded at her, letting the blackout cloth fall back behind him. His still sore muscles protested the movement and he winced. Heather must have noticed because she said anxiously, “You’re still hurt?”

“Uh-huh.” He didn’t feel quite as rough as he had the day after the crash, but he still felt like someone had given him a good kicking all over. He crossed his arms and turned his head away. “You come to yell at me as well?”

She was about the only person so far who hadn’t expressed disapproval in some way of what he’d done. Eric had started in on the way to the Med Center and his mom after he’d gotten there, while Gray had weighed in once Kenchy had checked Jake over and pronounced no permanent damage. Then his mom had had another go at him when he’d refused to come back to the town house and insisted on returning to the ranch on his own. He might have given in if he hadn’t caught sight of Emily hovering at the other end of the hallway. He knew she’d be worrying about him and that she just wanted to take care of him, but the thought of being fussed over by her brought the same sense of panic clawing at his throat that he’d felt every time he’d seen her in the past few days. Coming back to the town house wouldn’t do either of them any favors.

He’d gone a second round with Eric the morning after. At least, in between the stern lectures about how Jake had to work with everyone else and not just do what he wanted, he’d told Jake he’d be rostering him onto a patrol—once Jake was fully recovered from the crash. Meanwhile, when Jake wasn’t printing photos, Dale could do with some more advice on figuring out how to bring in supplies.

But Jake had to admit that Beck, for one, had been as good as his word and not said anything following his initial outburst. He still couldn’t like the man, but he had to respect him a little for that.

“Actually, no.” Heather’s words drew Jake from his memories; she sounded faintly amused, as if she could tell what he’d been thinking. Looking back up at her, he saw she’d taken another step down the stairs, putting her hand on the rail. “I came to make a suggestion.”

“That I stay out of trouble?” He quirked an eyebrow at her

That made her chuckle. “I’m not sure that’s possible.” She tilted her head. “But if you could try not to get yourself killed, I… uh, we’d all be a lot happier.” She took another step down the stairs toward him and said with sudden intensity. “Jericho needs you, Jake. Just because we need Ed—uh, Major Beck right now doesn’t mean we don’t need you as well. Just as much as always.”

Jake snorted faintly. Despite Eric having finally involved him properly in what was going on in town, he wasn’t so sure about that as she seemed to be.

She took a deep breath. “Anyway, I was thinking. The photographs you took.” She gestured toward the makeshift darkroom. “Umm, while the way you went about it maybe… wasn’t the best, I do know Major Beck’s really grateful for what you managed to get. So I was thinking about how we could maybe get some more. But without the being shot at and crashing part, you know? So I was thinking… don’t the Army use some kind of remote control plane for that sort of stuff?”

“UAVs?” Jake took a step sideways and sat down on a nearby crate, scrubbing a hand across his face. “Yeah, but I’m guessing Beck’s not got any, or he’d have used them already.”

“Right.” Heather plopped down on the stairs, drawing her knees up and resting her arms on them. “But I thought maybe we could build one. Or two. Or, you know, lots!”

Jake blinked at her in surprise. She tilted her head, giving him an encouraging smile while he tried to absorb the idea. At last, slowly, trying not to squash her enthusiasm, he said, “That’s a pretty complicated bit of kit.”

“I know.” She nodded, her face still bright with excitement. “But I was thinking about how one of the kids in my class, Lucas, had a remote control helicopter. Which probably got fried by the bombs, but, you know, maybe we can figure out how to fix it? And how to fix a camera to it so we can take pictures. Your Colonel Davies might be able to help us get some of the parts we need from Texas….”

“I guess.” Jake wasn’t so sure Texas was going to be much help with anything. “So why are you telling me all this?”

Heather gave him one of those don’t-be-so-slow looks. “Well, I know a lot about engines and stuff like that, but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to planes. So I, umm, was kinda hoping you’d be willing to work with me on it. I mean,” she suddenly sat upright, wrapping her arms around her, her expression dimming, “you know, if you want to. If it wouldn’t be too much bother. When you haven’t got anything else better to—.”

“I’d like that.” Jake cut across her babbling. Now he’d had time to think about it, it wasn’t a bad idea to at least try. And he and Heather had made a good team, the past few days, with the turbines. Before that, too, right after the bombs, when they’d gotten gas and she’d nearly helped him fix the ventilation system for the Med Center fallout shelter. She was good to be around. He found himself smiling back her. “Yeah. I’d like that a lot.”

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  1. areyousirius
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    This story was so long :):):) Thank you so much. I am so glad to finally get to “see” Jake’s piloting skills used for something other than straight flying 🙂

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