Meet Jude Ryker!
Home for Jude Ryker is the rugged Ozark Mountains. When he returns as a Department of Justice agent to investigate a major moonshine operation, he doesn’t share his assignment with anyone. As far as the locals know, he’s back, like a bad penny. While he digs into the case for ATF, he puts in time as a handyman at a local inn. When he meets guest Nicole McAdoo, he wants more and before long, they in a relationship. He shares first with Nicole, then with his family his true purpose. When he uncovers the truth about the moonshiners, things get serious and could prove deadly – for them both.
In his natural element, Jude moved over the fallen autumn leaves with stealth, so quiet that his feet made little sound. The woods enveloped him as he blended with his surroundings. He belonged here and he knew it. Growing up as the youngest of the half wild Ryker clan, he’d spent many childhood hours beneath these trees. Jude knew where the deer grazed beneath the full moon, where the sweetest wild grapes grew, and how to track almost any forest creature with success. He’d hunted here, slept on this ground, and sought solace from nature as long as he could remember. This forest nurtured his spirit and often sustained his body when the cupboards at home were bare. When he left to join the Navy, he had grieved at losing this patch of woods almost as much as he regretted leaving his family behind.
Returning to the old Ryker place, more ramshackle than he remembered, hadn’t been easy. If he hadn’t been on assignment he wouldn’t be here now. In his fifteen years away, he’d learned to appreciate the sea and to let the never-ending waves provide a sense of comfort, but he’d never forgotten the rocky hills and secret glens of his native Ozark Mountains. Until now, he’d been back a handful of times, the most recent when his father died in May. After spending a week scrubbing away the grime of decades, cleaning until his back ached and fingers bled, he had managed to make the old house habitable.
Jude had burned most of the trash and debris he hauled out of the house. He purchased both a new mattress and sheets for the bedroom, then bought a couple of used recliners in town so he’d have a place to sit. No way in hell did Jude consider sitting on any of his dad’s aged and stained furniture. What he hadn’t burned, he’d stored in the barn.
On this October morning, he inhaled the loam of the woods and savored it. The wind brought a hint of wood smoke, a familiar fragrance. It reminded him he’d have to cut wood soon so he could heat the old house. The first frost of the season two weeks earlier had brought a chill to the long nights but he’d hunkered under a heavy-duty sleeping bag and one of his late mother’s old quilts found in a closet upstairs. Although she had died when he was six, he remembered the smell of the rose scent she favored, the soft timbre of her voice, and the loving contentment he’d known in her arms. Until she died, she’d rocked Jude, the youngest of the family, to sleep every night and sang to him. The maple rocker remained in the living room, although he hadn’t dared plant his muscular frame in the seat. Having it there was enough.
A yellow leaf fluttered to the ground, slow and lazy. Jude hoisted the rifle he carried higher on his left shoulder and scanned the treetops for squirrel. Fried squirrel sounded fine for supper or if he wanted to make the effort, so did squirrel and dumplings. He hadn’t had either for years but he remembered the taste. He’d grown up eating game--squirrel, rabbit, venison, and deer, sometimes coon or wild hog. The rest of the Ryker’s diet revolved around hamburger, hot dogs, and bologna. A pot of beans had simmered on the stove through the winter, seasoned with ham if they had it, bacon if they didn’t. His mom had made fried chicken, he recalled, but his father never did. Fried fish from the river, though, had been another favorite.
He sniffed the wind, hoping to catch the elusive aroma of cooking mash so he could track down the still he suspected wasn’t far, but all he caught was the river’s smell. Ten years in the Navy gave him an appreciation for saltwater[A1] but he’d never abandoned his original affection for a wild river. Five years spent working as a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives had brought him back to the United States. Jude had been assigned everywhere from the California coast and the urban sprawl of Washington D.C., to the Appalachian mountains, but when ATF got serious about busting a major moonshine operation in the Ozarks, they pegged him as the agent for the job.
No one but his supervisors knew why Jude Ryker returned home, not even his brothers. Everyone assumed he’d exited the military for whatever reason and being a Ryker, considered shiftless in the eyes of the community, he’d crawled home because he had no place else to go. His brothers had never left so his prodigal return had been long expected. Local gossip said no Ryker could make it long in the outside world and although he’d spent a decade in the Navy, on ship and later as a submariner, no one figured Jude to be an exception. None of the rest of his family had gone anywhere. They followed the expected pattern and even his brothers’ successes weren’t acknowledged by the locals.
Adam still worked at the feed mill, Noah as a supervisor at the poultry processing plant, and Elijah taught wood shop at the county high school. His two sisters, Abigail and Esther, were both married with children. His siblings welcomed him back with the devoted yet casual sense of family they’d always shared. When necessary, they were tight and connected. Adam remained closest to Jude, friend as well as brother, but he hadn’t even shared with Adam his real reason for return.
I should’ve asked Adam to come squirrel hunting with me, Jude thought, but he dismissed the idea as quickly as it came. He couldn’t, not when he scouted around for any evidence of a still nearby. He doubted anyone would dare to trespass enough to put their still on Ryker land but it wasn’t impossible either. With Daddy dead for more than five years and Jude absent until last spring, someone might think their presence might go unprotected. And if they had, Jude figured they’d pulled up stakes since he came back in May.
But he believed the still to be close, probably on one of the adjacent properties. If he could discover it, then he’d make major progress in identifying the participants, making the bust, and shutting down the illegal liquor operation in the county. He’d accepted the duty and he would carry it out.
Right now, though, he wanted to enjoy the morning in the woods, shoot a few squirrels, and just be Jude, not Special Agent Ryker. So he ambled through the woods along the familiar paths. He savored the minimal warmth of the late October sunshine filtering through the trees. His feet moved across the forest floor and when he came out of the woods to the riverbank[A2] , he paused to admire the water.
Sunlight danced across the surface and highlighted the ripples. The current moved fast here, always had. Across, on the opposite bank, Cockrell’s Country Inn stood as silent as a sentinel and cast a shadow over the water. The frame structure dated back to the early 1900s and although Jude remembered when it sat empty and almost derelict, the owners had refurbished it in recent years. Rick and Mary Cockrell had accomplished the near impossible by turning it into a viable inn with a good business. Since he came home, he’d worked for them as a handyman when needed. It made as good a cover as any.
He tilted his head up to gaze at the second story and when a curtain fluttered, Jude grinned. The room belonged, at the moment, to Nicole McAdoo. He knew little else about her but her name but she’d intrigued him from the day she arrived at the inn. He’d spoken to her, a polite good morning or an evening how-do-you-do but nothing more, although he wanted to very much. Jude ached to know why her eyes were shadowed with sadness and why she seldom smiled. He’d like to be the guy who made those eyes sparkle and those lips curve into a sweet smile.
Aware of her gaze, he lifted one hand in greeting. He hadn’t expected a response and thought she’d probably jump back from the window, startled. Instead, Nicole opened it and leaned out. “Hello, Jude Ryker!”
A grin spread across his face. Her boldness came as a surprise but it pleased him. She’d seemed too timid to hail him from across the river. “Hello, yourself, Nicole,” he shouted back with a wave. Then, before the encounter could turn into a calling match sure to attract attention, he turned back into the cover of the trees. Later, he vowed, he’d get better acquainted with the lady.
For now, though, he did as he’d planned and scouted the perimeter of the land in search of any clues or evidence. He found nothing out of the way and by the time the sun stood straight overhead, his empty stomach rumbled. Jude settled down at the base of a favorite tree, a broad oak so wide it had to be at least a century old. After resting his .22 rifle against the trunk, he dug out a bologna and cheese sandwich from his backpack. He ate it without haste, savoring each bite of the simple lunch with relish. The solitude rested easy on his soul as he ate. He washed the sandwich down with a bottle of strong, sweet iced tea he’d brewed that morning.
During moments like this he didn’t regret coming back. Sometimes he considered what it might be like if he’d come home without an assignment and could stay. After years aboard first battleships, then submarines, then time spent as a special agent pursuing a wide spectrum of criminals, life in the Ozarks offered possibilities he’d love to explore. As a single guy, he’d managed to save a fair amount of money over the years. When Daddy was alive, he’d sent money home each month but after his death, Jude had no other family obligations.
Leaning against the oak, he contemplated coming back on a permanent basis. A lazy lifestyle with no supervisors and no duties appealed to him. He could hunt and fish to his heart’s content, keep up his handyman duties at the inn, maybe even expand and offer odd jobs to the public. His choices would be his own, his decisions self-dictated, not career driven. Maybe, he thought, maybe after this assignment, I’ll think about it.
Comfortable, he heaved a contented sigh and shut his eyes. He slept little most nights, consumed with desire to find the moonshiners and shut down their operation. The past haunted him, too, sometimes. Although he didn’t believe in ghosts, at night he often thought he heard the floorboards creak or caught the smell of his mother’s perfume. Memories, the good and the ugly, assaulted him and kept him awake.
In the quiet forest, he let the bird songs lull him to sleep. A squirrel chattered overhead, fussing at Jude’s intrusion, and if he concentrated he could hear the quiet gurgle of the river. Distant highway sounds, an eighteen wheeler shifting gears, and the whine of steel-belted radials against the pavement filtered through the other sounds but they didn’t disturb. Completely relaxed, Jude drifted into a light sleep, aware that if anything happened, he’d wake. He’d been trained to rouse at the slightest interruption and he knew he would.
No dreams came and when he woke, Jude judged by the sun’s position that he’d slept about two hours. Time to bag a few squirrels and head home, he decided. He rose and stretched his tall, muscular frame. He marched through the woods, quiet and with cunning. Unless the tree rats had changed their habits, he knew where to find a large squirrel population. When he reached the site, the animals scampered overhead. He aimed and fired, bringing down the critter with a single head shot. Jude got two more and decided three would be enough for his solitary supper. He field-dressed them to save time and headed for home through the woods.
Jude washed them at the huge, old-fashioned kitchen sink and cut each into four pieces. He tossed them into a bowl, added water and a little salt, then stuck them into the ancient refrigerator. To pass the time, he sifted a little flour and cornmeal together, then added some seasonings from the cupboard. A little salt, a bit of pepper, some Cajun seasoning blend, a dash of onion powder, and a hint of garlic would do, he decided. On impulse, Jude shook a little cayenne pepper into the mixture, too.
As he glanced at the clock to see if he had time to split some wood, his cell phone on the counter buzzed. “Ryker,” he said as he answered, in case his supervisor phoned.
“Jude?” Mary Cockrell, who ran the inn with her husband, said. “Are you busy?”
Supper could wait. “No,” he drawled. “What’s up?”
“I’ve got an electrical outlet that fried,” she told him. “And the bar sink won’t drain again. Can you come fix them?”
“Sure, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Mary laughed with relief. “Oh, thank you. You know I love you, Jude?”
The woman had to be sixty, at least. He chuckled. “I know, Mary, like the son you never had.”
“Exactly right and I’ll see you when you get here.”
He changed out of his hunting camouflage into faded jeans and a snap-button Western shirt. As soon as he pulled on his oldest cowboy boots, Jude headed out to the truck, a beat-up forest green Ford, and drove to the inn. If he hadn’t had to cross the river, he could’ve been there in five minutes, not fifteen.
After he parked across the narrow two-lane old highway, Jude paused for a moment to look at the place. The grey clapboard structure dated to 1910 or 1915 with its high gables and full porch. It sprawled out in haphazard fashion, some sections added over the years to the original. Crisp white curtains covered each window and the vintage rocking chairs on the porch sent out an invitation to unwind. The place radiated homey charm and he liked it.
With toolbox in hand, he mounted the porch steps and entered the lobby. A fire crackled in the massive fieldstone fireplace to his left and the desk loomed empty. Jude rang the shop bell on the counter and waited for Mary or her husband Rick. When he heard footsteps on the stairs behind him, he didn’t turn around but he knew they didn’t belong to either of the Cockrell’s.
“Hello, Jude,” Nicole said. He would recognize her voice anywhere, a little deep for a woman with the rich, sweet sound of honey in her tone. “You made it back from the woods, I see.”
A grin stretched his lips as he faced her. “Oh, yeah, I did.”
Nicole’s perfume wafted across the lobby and he inhaled it with pleasure. The sweet aroma of summer roses filled his nose and his body prickled with anticipation. After he did the jobs, he thought maybe he’d linger at the inn awhile.
His planned fried squirrel supper could wait.
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