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Title: ATF-Team Retreat
Author: Heather

Rated: PG-13 (language)
Spoilers: (?) does have quotes from episodes.
Disclaimers: Not mine, no money made etc.
Thanks:  Mitzi’s idea,  Mitzi’s one liners and Mitzi’s constant encouragement  (“Thanks
Mitzi”--H)
******************************************************************************
part 1

Chris Larabee bit back his angry retort, but did nothing to disguise the disgust that seared his
haggard features.  Judge Orrin Travis ignored the deadly glare.  It might have intimidated most
people but not the Judge.  He had been around the block so to speak and had dealt with the scum
of humanity for most of his adult life.  A dirty look from Chris Larabee did nothing but ruffle his
feathers.  Instead the Judge just glared right back challenging the younger man to over step his
bounds.

 The two men sat in the conference room on the 12th floor of the ATF building.  Larabee’s
team occupied this corner of the floor.   The voices of the six other men could be heard through
the closed wooden door.  The Judge could easily make out the distinctive voices of the men at
their respective desks.  Since Chris and Travis entered the conference room they had heard
nothing but arguments from the other six.  The Judge sat in silence waiting for Chris to challenge
him, almost daring him too.  It would prove his point.  Team seven needed a break, more
importantly needed to learn to work together again.  There outlandish techniques had proven very
successful in the past but to many injuries had started to occur, to many arguments and just to
much discontent.   It permeated the area, everyone felt it from the simple mail delivery person to
the secretaries to even the other teams.  Infact it had been one of the other teams that brought the
trouble to the attention of the Judge.  Something had to be done about team seven or someone
was going to get seriously hurt or even killed.

 Chris stared hard at the Judge.  The man could not be serious.  They did not need a ‘Team
and Leadership Retreat’, they just needed a little down time, time away from each other but not
this.   There was no way he was going to subjugate his men much less himself to this kind of
asinine ideas.

 The vocal arguments outside the conference room grew in volume.  Nathan’s voice cut
above Buck and JD’s argument over who was suppose to do the dishes last night.  The ex-EMT’s
voice rang out with distinct clarity and frustration, “Why don’t cha just admit it Ezra ya got a
cold!”

“I do not have a cold.”  The scratchy, hoarse southern drawl shot back.  Some of its vehemence
muted by the stuffed nose and congestion.

“Ezra just let Nathan give ya something for it.”  Josiah’s baritone voice boomed out tiredly.
Even the ex anthropologist sounded on edge.

“Shut up Josiah!”  Nathan and Ezra rang out in unison.  Nathan did not need Sanchez’s help with
dealing with the calcifying undercover agent, and Ezra did not need someone else telling him
what to do.

Suddenly Vin’s sharp Texan drawl cut through the room, “Gawd d***n it JD you throw one
more thing and I’ll shove it down your neck!”

Chris shut his eyes and shook his head in defeat maybe they did need a break.   The Judge
watched subtle defeat wash over the leader of the seven.  The men were tired, and this just
proved it, Chris normally would never had given in so easily.

“Ahh shut ya trap Vin the kid meant no harm.”  Wilmington shot out.  Noone threatened JD but
himself.

Chris felt an impending explosion and opened the conference room door and quietly but
dangerously said, “Shut up all of you and get in here.”   It was like trying to rein in a bunch of six
year olds.

Everyone stopped and stared over at their leader in shock.  “What’s gotten into him?”  Buck
asked noone in particular.

“You best shut yer yapper and get your arse in here Buck.”  Chris seethed out, red faced.

Ezra ,feeling as if his head had been packed with cotton, and his back to Larabee muttered none
to quietly, “Yes, Buck when ‘Duster Boy’ speaks you best listen.”

Everyone froze.  Standish noticed it immediately and glanced at Vin who sat across from him at
his own desk, “he’s right behind me isn’t he?”

Tanner smiled and nodded.

“Aww hell.”  Standish uttered as the iron clasp of Larabee’s hand laid across the back of his
neck.  Ezra shut his eyes feeling the quiet threat of squeezing fingers on the back of his neck.

“Let’s go Ezra. Judge wants to see us now.”  Larabee bit back his anger and held back the urge to
lift the mouthy southerner from his chair by his neck.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Judge Travis listened to the gawffs, and complaints and flat out refusals.   “I can’t make you boys
go but I promise you this if you don’t you will not be working as a team when you get back.”
This stopped all arguments, for a brief second and then they started up again.   Travis ignored
most of the comments and actually enjoyed listening to the half hearted attempts the others made
to weasel out of the forced ‘vacation’.  Tanner and Standish came up with the most original, JD
and Buck relied on each other for excuses and failed miserably.  Jackson actually made sense to
the Judge, rectification for his EMT status was important but Travis promised to arrange a retest
when things settled down.  Josiah kept silent, a tight smile played on the big man’s lips.  This
made the Judge nervous, but he would let Larabee handle his men once they got to their ‘retreat’

“Judge Travis, sir, as much as I would enjoy accompanying my fellow teammates on such a
sojourn I must decline.”  Standish drawled out nolonger trying to hide his ailment, “I have an
unfortunate cold.”

“Haaa.  I told you, you were sick!”  Nathan shouted out in triumph.   Standish threw him a
withering stare.

“The fresh air will do you good.”  The Judge answered.  He nearly laughed out loud when the
look of pure dispair fell across the conman’s features.

“Judge, the kids in Purgatory are counting on me to help out with the three on three basket ball
competition this week”  Tanner pointed out softly.  Again the Judge almost gave in, but held his
ground.

“Sorry Mr. Tanner you go.”

Judge Travis stood up ignoring the groans and complaints.  He opened the conference room door
and started to leave then turned back and watched the seven most respected and feared ATF team
sit dejectedly in their chairs bemoaning their fates.  “Boy’s it’s only for one week.”  He smiled
seeing his words offered no comfort, not that they were suppose to, “I expect you all to be there
this evening.”  With that he shut the door and quickly vacated the office floor.  He never told
Chris that they had to be there that early but The Judge felt it was best to avoid any
sudden ‘emergencies’ that might develop.

******************************************************************************
part 2 Thursday night

“Geeezus, Ezra will you quit already?”  Buck cried out shoving the undercover agent by the
shoulder.  It knocked Standish into Nathan who pushed him back.  Wilmington had been
listening to the retched coughing for the last three hours and he was tired of it.

“I told ya you were coming down with something.”  Nathan snared under his breath.  ‘If the surly
southerner had listen to him Ezra might have avoided this whole cold thing, but no Mr. smart
mouth never gets sick doesn’t need advice.  Well ha, let him suffer.’ Jackson mused, shoving
Standish back.

“Cut it out back there!”  Chris bellowed turning around in the front seat.  Josiah drove the beat up
suburban.  It was the only vehicle that could fit all seven men and their gear.  They did not fit
comfortably. On numerous occasions,this fine day, the others had offered to take their own
vehicles.  Larabee squelched any ideas of people driving themselves, they would never show.
This way all seven men were trapped, misery loved company.  Josiah drove.

The beat up Chevy could not go over sixty, the airconditioner did not work and  the gas needle
seemed to always be buried in the red. The radio was stolen years ago. The three hour drive had
ground out to be four with another hour an a half to go.  The summer sun had already set.

“Boy those guys really pissed Chris off this time.”  JD pointed out to Vin.  The two smallest had
be delegated to the very back of the truck.  This did nothing for Tanner’s faint but growing sense
of claustrophobia.
“yup, when that vein pops out like that ya best be ware.”  the sharp shooter agreed.

Another small fit of coughing hit the gambler, he hunched over covering his mouth as Buck
shoved him again. Standish shoved him back, still coughing but no longer covering his mouth.

“Gawd Ezra cover ya mouth.”  Jackson complained, talk about poor manners.   Wilmington
shoved the smaller agent more forcefully again, Standish bumped into Nathan who pushed him
back.

“That’s it!  Josiah pull over I’m gonna shoot’em myself!”  Larabee yelled grabbing the nearest
body he could reach.  It happened to be the undercover agent.  Standish stared at the enraged
hazel eyes calmly until another pair of coughs hit.

“Promise to shoot me too?” Vin asked quietly in the back.  It was just loud enough for Larabee to
hear.  Chris released the southerner shoving him back into his seat and wiped his damp hand on
his pant leg.  He threw the tracker a warning.

Sanchez kept driving.

Two hours later the suburban bounced and jarred up a winding dirt road.  Sanchez offered up a
silent prayer that the truck held together, or at least the coat hanger jury rigging he had managed
to get on the truck stayed together.

The giant man gazed in the rearview mirror.  They had put the back window partially down for
Vin who now hung out it.  Must be slightly claustrophobic, Josiah pondered.  JD had finally
fallen asleep laying across the duffel bags.  Buck leaned his head against the door staring out into
the night.  Standish had slipped off to sleep soft coughs occasionally shook his shoulders.
Jackson stared out his window, watching the large ponderosa pines whip past.  He had waited
until the southerner had succumbed to sleep before he checked for fever.  Chris had seen this and
Nathan shook his head to the simple inquiring look.  No fever.   Larabee merely nodded.  One
less problem.

 Josiah stared at Larabee.  The man carried a great weight on his shoulders.  He not only lead one
of the best teams in the area but he also lead a group of misfits.  There was not a member of the
team that did not have their own ghosts or troublesome past, some worse than others.  JD was to
young to have to many , but the death of his mother left the boy all alone in the world, an
awesome sense of loneliness must have enveloped the poor boy.  Now he found family with six
other men, all surrogate brothers, sometimes fathers, and always friends.   Buck and Chris had
been together for most of their adult lives and shared many of the same demons.  Nathan fought
his pain by trying to heal the world.  Tanner never had a family orphaned by time he was five
shuttled from foster home to foster home amazing he never ended up on the wrong side of the
law.  Standish never an orphan, but shuffled from home to home, never really finding his own
until now, and of course Josiah himself, son of a preacher.  It seemed to say it all, fighting
conformation, finding faith in God only after the sorrowful loss of his father.  These seven men
faced the world alone, until Chris had pulled them into a group and forged them into a fearsome
working unit.  They had become brothers become families.  Chris lead the group but even he
needed a break.  Maybe the Judge was right.  This twisted surrogate family had hit a snag, they
needed to work out the knots.
 

******************************************************************************
part3

The dimming headlights illuminated the wood carved sign.  Sanchez cursed, the alternator was
going again, at least they made it.  He heard Chris groan as Larabee read the words, “Welcome to
the Alpine Ranch.”  Earlier in the day when Chris loaded them into the truck, Standish had
smirked and labeled it “The Alpine Insane Asylum”
The narrow wooded drive suddenly opened into a sprawling plateau with four large buildings.

The director of the “ranch” spotted the browning headlights, said his good byes to Judge Travis
and made his way outside.   Donald Cummings better known as DC gathered his people, three in
total, took a deep breath and briskly walked out to greet their new visitors.  Travis had warned
him these men were volatile and a little eccentric in their own rights.  DC had handled volatile
before and eccentric, well he liked a challenge.  He felt confident his councilors and himself
could handle these seven men.

Josiah did not have to stop the truck.  It died on its own clunking and banging to a halt the engine
going threw its death throws.  Chris raised his eyebrow at the preacher.  Sanchez smiled
reassuringly, this was nothing new.

Vin jumped up as the truck stalled to a stop, he scrambled over JD in a panicky haste, crawled
over Standish and pushed Wilmington who fumbled with the catching door latch. The latch
finally caught the door open just as Tanner hit Buck and both men fell from the truck.
Wilmington in a last ditch effort reached out and grabbed for anything that might slow his
descent.  He grabbed hold of Standish’s arm and all three men spilled from the truck onto the
gravel in a heap of legs and arms.  Tanner shoved ,the now coughing Standish off him, jumped to
his feet taking deep breaths and circling his arms.  Buck crawled to his hands and knees and then
his feet, he gave the southerner an accusing glare and muttered, “thanks for all the help.”
Standish unable to articulate anything at the moment flipped Wilmington off.

“Real graceful DC.”  Andrew Thomas whispered as they watched the men boil out of the truck.
“These are suppose to be protecting us from illegal arm dealers?”
DC merely nodded watching the rest of the men exit the truck.  He did as Judge Travis asked and
counted bodies. Seven total, at least they did as they were told.  They should not be that much
trouble.

DC collected himself, squared his shoulders and put on his best toothy smile.  He strode
confidently over to the sputtering truck and held his hand out to Josiah, “Ahh you must be Mr.
Larabee.”

“Nope.”  Josiah said ignoring the hand, darn alternator he just put one of those in a few thousand
miles ago.

“He’s Larabee”  Sanchez nudged his head in the direction of  the passenger side.  DC, his smile
dipping only slightly made his way over to the Chris.

“Mr. Larabee.”  He tried again, his smile back and hand out.  Chris nodded shook his hand “Yeah
I’m Chris.”

“Nice to meet you Chris. I’m Donald Cummings everyone calls me DC.”  Larabee merely
nodded not saying anything.  Cummings noticed he was not getting through quite the way he
liked to so he tried again. “ Lets have you boys come on into the lodge and we’ll get acquainted.”

DC addressed the rest of the men, “you can just leave your bags gentlemen Andy, Brenda and
Richard will gather them up for you.”

Vin immediately grabbed his own bag, “nobody touches my stuff.”  he whispered out none to
friendly.  Buck followed suit, he could carry his own bag.  JD mimicked Wilmington.  Josiah
helped Ezra to his feet, and though Ezra did not mind someone bell hopping his bags he did not
intend to let these wardens near his belongings.  Nathan seethed, God gave him the power and
health to take care of himself he was not going to let someone take that privilege from him.
Chris shrugged and stared at the man before him, “boys are a might particular about their stuff.”

Cummings wanting to avoid any confrontations nodded in agreement and lead the men into the
lodge.

The Lodge was a massive log structure.  The logs locked together white chinking bringing out the
natural color of the wood.  The floors were wood, with hand crafted rugs scattered throughout the
area.  Leather over stuffed furniture encircled a large stone fireplace.   Smaller less comfortable
looking chairs dotted the room.  Chris noticed right off there were no phones. JD scanned the
room hoping to find a video game machine or at least a TV.  Buck surveyed the area for the bar.
Josiah and Nathan appreciated the workmanship of the room.  Tanner hung back he did not want
to enter another structure just yet but Chris nudge him on ahead.  The room was spacious enough
for Vin to relax somewhat.  Standish sniffled muffled another cough and sat heavily in a chair.

“You sound like you have a nasty cold.”  Brenda smiled squatting down next to the undercover
agent.  She had dark brown hair braided but had it twisted up on the back of her head.  Her brown
eyes appeared concerned and her clean tanned features hinted only slightly of makeup.  “Mr....”
She oozed out, her tone too mothering for the southerner.

“Standish, and no I do not have a cold” His southerner drawl though not rude did not indicate he
wanted any attention.  Standish had learned to read people and cons from the day he could speak.
They would not fool him.

Brenda stood up slowly patted his forearm comfortingly, as if she understood and made her way
to DC.

“Don’t let him fool ya miss, he’s got a whopper of a cold.”   Jackson filled in, he did not miss the
malcontent in the southerner’s tone.  Ezra hated attention, of any kind when he was hurt.  He
would rather crawl away and lick his wounds in solitude than let someone help him.  It drove
Nathan nuts.  Jackson noticed Tanner and thought the tracker was not any better than the conman
when it came to needing help.  Fools.

DC clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.  This simple little gesture managed to annoy
everyone.  Buck ignored it and continued to search the area.  JD turned and watched for Buck’s
reaction, Dunne did not liked being summoned by anyone but one of the others, not outsiders.
He followed Buck’s lead and dallied by some books. Nathan leaned against the stone fire place.
Josiah marveled at the craftsmanship of the high heavy beamed ceiling.   Ezra leaned back in the
over stuffed chair tilting his head back sniffing closing his eyes.  Tanner sat on a window sill
across the room wishing desperately he was somewhere else.    Cummings knew he was getting
nowhere with these men so he clapped louder.  Again no acknowledgment.

Larabee leaned against the archway of the room and watched the director try and get the men’s
attention.  ‘Good luck’ Chris mused, ‘try leading these terrors.’  He took some pity on
Cummings, or was it Cunnings?

“Hey over here, now.”  Chris’s authoritative tone cut cleanly across the room with out raising his
voice.

JD immediately headed for the couch, Wilmington close behind.  Tanner pushed himself off the
window sill with a sigh and crossed the room.   He pushed Ezra’s forearm off the arm of the chair
and used it for a seat.  Josiah sat on the arm of the couch as Nathan pushed JD into the center of
the couch so the healer could have the end.  Buck already occupied the other arm.  Chris stood
behind the couch.  Standish never lifted his head or opened his eyes but obligingly moved his
arm for Vin.

“Ok gentlemen, first off welcome to The Alpine Ranch,” DC said the smile still on his clean
shaven face.  Buck already hated the man.  His khaki pleated shorts, dark green polo short sleeve
shirt, the braided leather belt, even his cotton socks and leather walking boots irritated
Wilmington.  The other three dressed identically.  The brunette was not bad looking especially if
he had to be here a week, but this measly guy already got on his nerves.  Buck was not as good as
picking up false fronts as Ezra and he did not have the instincts of Vin but Buck knew a false
forced cheerfulness when he saw it.  This guy oozed with over friendliness.

DC tried to make eye contact with all the men, but found it might have been a mistake.  “I’m
Donald Cummings, I’m the director of this ranch, my associates are, Brenda Katovich, Andrew
Thomas, and the big guy to your right is Richard Plaine.”

Cummings was about to continue when a soft southern voice spoke up in bewilderment, “Dick
Pain?”  This got the others snickering.  DC shut his eyes and tried again.  “No. Mr. Standish
Richard Plllaine.”  The director corrected stressing the L sound.  He watch Standish nod his head
but never lift it from the back of the couch or open his eyes, “my apologies I miss understood.”

“Quite alright, that cold of yours I’m sure is making things difficult for you.”  Cummings tried to
soothe things again.

“He don’t have a cold”  Tanner informed them, figuring he save Ezra the trouble.

This surprised Larabee some, the others had been on each others cases for the past week and a
half this was the first time one of spoke in defense of another.   Maybe the camp was a good idea,
Chris observed the identically dressed ‘counselors’ and decided maybe it was not such a good
idea.

DC stared briefly at the longhaired Texan and decided not to push the subject.  “Well gentlemen
you will be visiting with us for a week.  We normally start the day with calisthenics and a light
jog, breakfast afterward, then we’ll go over that day’s activity.”  DC paused waiting for some
kind of reaction.  He did not notice one and this bothered him.  He spoke on for a few more
minutes about the location of the bunk house and the cafeteria and some history behind the ranch
itself.  JD fell asleep.

******************************************************************************
part4

The seven men tossed their bags on bunks staking claim.  “Chris I ain’t sleeping in here.”  Tanner
spoke up quietly.

Larabee glanced up at the tracker asking silently for an explanation, “to much like a military
barrack, minus the foot lockers and painted cement floors.”  The sharpshooter explained.  “I’m
sleeping outside.”

“I know what ya mean suit yourself.”  Chris said.  The bunkroom was actually alot better than he
had imagined the only thing military about it was the long row of bunks and they were single
bunks not double.

Ezra tossed his black designer labeled duffel on a bunk in the middle of the row.

“’Ey Ezra move yer stuff down, I ain’t listening to yer coughing all night.”  Buck said settling
down on his bed next to Standish’s.

“Sorry Mr. Wilmington, I’m staying.”  Standish intoned in a scratchy voice.

“No yer ain’t”  Buck sat up on one elbow, “I had listen to your hacking all the way up here I’m
ain’t listening to it all night.”

“Fine don’t, move your belongings down toward the door.”  Ezra replied hotly.  He was tired of
being shoved around.

Wilmington started climbing to his feet in a threateningly manner.  Josiah and the others had
watched the growing tension silently Chris finally stepped in, “Buck leave’im alone.  Ezra, he’s
right you’ve been making more noise than a train, move your stuff.”  Larabee ordered.  He
watched Standish bristle at the command.  The southerner did not like anyone telling him what to
do, especially if he thought it were unfair.  Chris had to concede it might have been a little
unjustified to force the conman to move, but right now all Larabee wanted was quiet, to hell with
what was fair.

After a few minutes the room quieted down, as people took showers.  Larabee silently thanked
the Judge for the foresight of finding a place that provided enough showers for the group.  Chris
did not plan on policing his men for the whole week.  He had helped Cummings out tonight but
that was it.  Larabee was washing his hands of this mess let someone else get a feel for what it
was like handling these six men.  Hell, half the time they acted like eight year olds, and the other
half they did their jobs.  It was amazing they were as successful as they had been for the last two
years.

******************************************************************************
part5  Friday
 

Vin, Chris, Josiah and Nathan sat outside on the porch enjoying the early morning sun.  They
each sipped their steaming cups of coffee.   Tanner had awoken early and listened for life to stir
within the bunk house.  He did not have to wait long.  With in a few minutes Chris stepped out
onto the porch.  Tanner had extracted himself from his canvas bed roll and sleeping bag and
joined Larabee on the porch.  Soon Nathan and Josiah exited the building each silently greeting
the morning.  “I could use some coffee.”  Nathan had said.  The others nodded and the four men
headed over to the lodge.  There was no coffee, next they headed for the cafeteria, it was locked.
“How bad ya want that coffee?”  Vin asked them.

“Bad.”  Josiah gruffed out.  Sanchez enjoyed the early crisp mountain mornings but relished
them even more when he had a hot cup of Jo in his hands.

Chris smiled and wandered away nonchalantly, “If you boys happen to find some coffee bring me
some please.” The leader of the seven ignored Tanner, as the exbounty hunter produced his lock
picking tools and quickly went to work on the lock.

Twenty minutes later the four men sat on the uncovered wooden porch enjoying coffee.  A small
fire burned in the yard, with a tin coffee pot resting on the edge of the flame on a large flat rock.

Buck and JD could be heard waking, those two did nothing quietly.  They even argued about
who’s tooth brush was who’s.  Josiah eventually went inside and could be heard saying, “JD that
green Reach Toothbrush is mine so don’t even think about it.”  There was a pause and then,
“that’s Ezra’s so if you don’t want his cold I wouldn’t use his either.”

Nathan, Chris and Vin just cringed, how did Buck and JD survive this long.  A few moments
later Josiah came back out followed by Buck then JD.  Vin got up and poured them both a cup of
steaming coffee from the confiscated coffee pot.  “Here ya go boys.”  Tanner said.  Buck and JD
each gratefully took their cups and sat on the top step to the bunk house.   The sun had just
crested the tree tops.  It was nearly five thirty am.

A half hour later Richard and Andy came walking down the gravel path.  The smiles on their
faces dipped when they spied the small cooking fire and the coffee pot.  “Gentlemen what are
you doing?”

“You really at a loss?”  Buck asked.  The five men still lounged on the wooden porch, Vin had
disappeared to go find a river or something that might pass for fishing.

The one called Richard placed his hands authoritatively on his hips.  Chris quietly corrected the
man, wrong move, his men did not respond well to intimidation, especially Buck.  The others
would dig their heels in and balk but Buck, he would go on the offensive.  Chris had made his
decision last night, for one week he was just one of the boys, not their leader.

“Where are the other two?”  Andy asked, trying to diffuse the situation, he would talk to DC
about this later.

“Vin’s gone fishin’” Nathan answered, sipping his coffee, “and Ezra’s still sleeping.”

“Mr. Tanner does realize we start calisthenics at six am then go for a run. Doesn’t he?”  Plaine
asked, slightly peeved.  They had not had groups so resistant.

“Yup, guess he wanted to go fishin’ instead.”  Josiah answered.  He hid his smile behind his
apparent illegal coffee.

“Well, Richard go find Vincent while I wake Mr. Standish.”  Thomas said.  Apparently the others
were not going to be any help.

“I wouldn’t if  I were you.”  JD said sitting next to Buck.  Andy stared questionably at the kid,
even he had a wise guy attitude, “I mean wake Ezra.”  Dunne paused and then explained, “he
don’t like waking up before eight am.”

“Then how’s he get to work on time?”  Thomas countered figuring he would trip up the kid.

“He don’t Ezra’s always late.”  Sanchez added.  He did not like anyone trying to bully JD.  He
could read Thomas clearly.  Maybe Vin and Ezra were rubbing off on him.

“Well Mr. Standish will just have to comply for one week.”  Andy said entering the bunk room.

Buck and JD stood up and moved away from the front step which sat directly infront of the bunk
house door.

They could here the councilor trying to wake the southerner.  Then Ezra’s groggy sleep laden
gargled response, followed by even more rousting attempt from Thomas.  Chris shut his eyes as
he heard a southern laden curse, then a Midwestern yelp.  The sound of footsteps, more threats,
then the screen door flew open and Andy Thomas unceremoniously caught in an arm lock with
his neck in a choke hold was thrown off the porch into the green mowed lawn.  “Don’t ever wake
me again.”  Ezra hissed out with a croak in his voice.  The Standish stood on the porch dressed
only in boxer shorts, he dark brown hair stood up on end and his green eyes half hooded he held
a hand up to his eyes shielding them from the sudden light.  He found Josiah and the others
staring at him with bemusement,

“What the hell is that?”  He whispered out hoarsely out.

“It’s the morning sun, Ezra.”  Josiah answered smiling.

“Ohh Gawd what time is it?”  He asked rubbing his face, this triggered another short string of
coughs.  All the muscles in his torso tightened as he covered his mouth.

“Six” JD answered helpfully.

“Ohh gawd, that dog won’t hunt.” Standish moaned re-entered the bunk house and went back to
bed.

Thomas regained his feet and stood facing the other men.  The slight southerner proved looks
could be deceiving.  Andy would not make that mistake again.  Thomas decided to try another
tack, “would you men like to join us for calisthenics and a light jog?”

Nathan was the first to answer, he normally jogged every morning anyhow, “sure.”  He got up
entered the bunkhouse followed by the others.  JD hesitated for Buck, “Go ahead JD I’m gonna
hang here.  Keep an eye on Ezra.”

Dunne stared at his older friend.  Keep an eye on Ezra?  Last night Buck threw both his shoes,
JD’s shoes and both bags at the southerner trying to get him to shut up.  Standish slept oblivious
to the onslaught all the while softly coughing.  Josiah and Buck had eventually gotten up and
carried the conman’s bunk down to the furthest spot in the building hoping to at least get some
peace and quiet.  Standish never woke.  Buck wanted to put Ezra in the shower but Chris drew
the line there, they could move his bunk out of ear distance but not get him soaked.  Dunne
figured Chris had no intentions of putting up with a weeks worth of pranks and reprisals.

“Mr. Wilmington you won’t join us on our run?”

“What’s gunna be chasin’ me?”  Buck asked a little leery.

“Nothing Mr. Wilmington just a pleasure run.”  The blonde haired counselor answered slightly
confused.

“Well if nuthin chas’in me I don’t see why I need to be runnin’”  Buck answered matter of factly.

Andy Thomas shut his eyes, he had walked right into that one.

******************************************************************************
part 6

Vin Tanner entered the bunk house, carrying his sleeping roll, and a fishing pole.  “Good
morning Mr. Tanner.”  Ezra said coming out of the bathroom.  As usual the gambler’s
appearance was well kept.

Tanner dropped his gear on the closest bunk and looked up at the southerner, “more like
afternoon Ezra.”
 
Standish furrowed his brow, and read his watch again, “it’s only nine am.”

“I know feels like afternoon when ya greet the day before the sun does.”  Vin returned with a
smile.
“You want some coffee?”  the tracker asked leading the undercover agent outside.

“Yes please.”  Standish sighed and took a seat in one of the rockers.  His legs seemed to ache this
morning as well as his lower back.

Vin poured some coffee in the last remaining clean mug and refilled his cup.  He took the seat
next Standish handing him the coffee.  “How ya feelin?”  Tanner eyed him suspiciously,
watching for the lie.  He had a difficult time reading Standish, the man played you ,gave you a
tell ,only for you to discover it was a false lead.  He was sneaky, and deceiving probably why he
was so good at undercover work.

“Fine.”  The short reply.  Ezra hated it when Vin scrutinized him like that, it made his job of
misdirection even more difficult but it did keep him sharp.

“Huhuh.” Tanner could not say he was lying but he did not believe it anyhow.

“Where have the other got off to?”  Ezra asked trying to redirect the conversation.

“Most likely on that morning run.”  Tanner answered.  Whoever took the others out running had
better be in good shape.  Chris could run, but Nathan was the distance man, a marathoner at one
time.  Jackson nolonger actively ran marathons but once a week he made it a point to jog fifteen
miles, the rest of the week he settled for six.  JD was an athlete, though cross-country was not his
forte he could keep up, he had great lung capacity.   Josiah was no slouch either, in fact Vin had
made the mistake of inviting the older man out for a light jog one weekend and Vin actually had
to work to keep up.  Buck, heck Buck would not run unless something was chasing him or a skirt
was infront of him.

“Surprised you didn’t go yourself Ez,”  Tanner said.  Standish did distance like Nathan, but not
as far.  Vin figured Ezra ran to keep in shape, keep appearances up, it helped him look good in
his expensive suits.   Nathan ran because he loved to do it.

“I recall someone trying to encourage me to partake in the festivities but I felt it was much to
early.” Ezra answered.  Did he really toss someone out the door.  He could not discern if it were a
dream or real.

Tanner merely nodded.  Vin and Chris were early risers, faced the day head on first light.  Ezra
was definitely a creature of the night, he came alive when the sun went down.  They sat in
companionable silence, it occasionally broken by coughs that left Standish with watering eyes.
Vin watched but kept his comments to himself.

Within a short bit Nathan rounded the gravel drive, his long legs easily swallowing distances.  He
slowed to a stop infront of the porch a large smile covering his face.

“Hey guys.”  He said, not even fighting for breath.  “How ya feeling Ezra?”  Jackson asked
stretching out his legs.

“Fine Mr. Jackson, just fine.”  Ezra returned slightly annoyed.  How was he suppose to beat this
thing if everyone kept reminding him he had a little cold.

A few seconds later Chris appeared and stopped beside Nathan.  He patted the taller man on the
back in congratulations.  Larabee marveled at how smooth Jackson ran, effortlessly almost
elegant.  Chris nodded toward Vin and Ezra.  Vin nodded back in silent greeting and Ezra held
up his steaming coffee cup in a silent toast.  Larabee’s cheeks were flush and his breathing a little
ragged.  Next came Josiah and then JD right on his heels.  Dunne seemed to dig in trying to pass
the older man but Josiah merely lengthened his stride keeping ahead of the younger agent.
Sanchez stopped beside Nathan and JD close behind.  “Howdy boys.”  Vin said again a smile
etching itself clearly on his face.  He flipped a half dollar over to Ezra.  The runners had come in
the order the southerner said they would.  Vin had figured maybe JD would trail behind but the
one time Boston based agent proved his salt by finishing strong.  Larabee did not miss the
exchange of money and bit his tongue.  The southerner would bet on anything.  Instead Chris
returned the favor the best way he knew, “How’s the cold Ezra?”

“Don’t have a cold, Mr. Larabee.”  Standish returned.  The others mimicked satiric ‘ahhaha’s and
‘ya right’.   Unfortunately for Ezra a brief coughing fit hit him.  Nathan cocked an eyebrow up at
the hunched over undercover agent and fought the urge to strangle the damn fool.  If he just let
him treat the cold earlier they might hav been able to avoid all this.

“Where’s Buck?”  JD asked looking around.  The run felt good, he could not believe Josiah beat
him but at least he was able to out run that Andy fellow.

“ Oh he’s on a chase of his own.”  Vin said smiling.  Wilmington had very distinct ideas about
certain kind of races, “he’s trying to track down Brenda I think.”

Vin was cut off by the breathless arrival of Andy.  “Ahh Mr. Thomas you have made it back
alive. Congratulations.”  Standish quipped as the counselor bent over trying desperately to catch
his breath.  He ran everyday in this high altitude and never had trouble finishing before.  He
realized his mistake had been trying to keep up with the nimble Jackson for the first three miles.
It had sapped his strength and left him with nothing to finish with it. Even the kid had passed
him, how humiliating.  Thomas watched as Tanner handed the smart mouthed southerner some
money.  They had made a bet on his performance.  This rubbed Thomas the wrong way,
gambling was not allowed and he did not like to be made a fool of, who did.

“Mr. Standish why didn’t you join us for this morning’s run?”  Thomas asked, trying hard to
keep the snare out of his voice.  He almost succeeded but Vin and Ezra both recognized the
challenge.

“My dear sir I filled my exercise quota when I was forced to clean the bunk house of some rather
petulant trash.”  Ezra answered, a smooth unruffled smile creased his face.   The challenge lay in
his green blood shot eyes.

Josiah noticed the impending conflict, and realized Chris was going to let it go.  Sanchez had to
admit Larabee needed a break from being leader as much as the team needed a break from being
led.  The expreacher figured it would be the neighborly thing to prevent a fight.  “Andrew what
time is breakfast this morning.”  His natural soothing tones came across and Thomas switched
his withering glare to the preacher.  The false smile was back and he simply said, “Nine thirty at
the lodge.”  With that he jogged away toward his living quarters.

Nathan easily leaped over all three porch steps and walked passed Standish, “do you have to
antagonize everyone you meet?”

“I’m not the one who who showed off and left him a mile behind,”  The gambler quipped in
return.   Nathan bit back a retort and entered the bunkhouse.  Chris was the last to file past and
rested tired hazel eyes on his two smug agents, “why don’t you two do something useful and find
Buck.”

Nine thirty found five of the seven men in the cafeteria with plates filled with various types of
food.  JD devoured his second bowl of cereal, two orders of toast and was working on eggs when
DC stood at the head of the table.

“I see you are missing two of your group.  Mr. Larabee do you know where your missing men
are?”  Thomas and Plaine had reported the events of the morning to their boss.  Cummings was
not impressed.  He had met more than his fair share of hard cases and would not be bullied
around by the likes of these ATF agents.

“Nope.” Larabee answered between bites of his eggs.

“Aren’t you concerned?”  Cummings asked again.  The Judge had indicated this was tight knit
group of men as close as brothers.

“Nope, they’re big boy’s, know how to take care of themselves.”  Larabee answered again this
time taking a sip of coffee.  When he placed his mug down he peered over at Cummings.

“You will not help us find your two men?”  Cummings pushed again.  He missed the warning
glare in the hard hazel eyes.  JD watched the exchange with a down cast gaze.

“They’re your headache for the week not mine.”  Chris answered lounging back in his chair, the
food here was excellent.

“I see.  Well we will meet as a group at 10 am in the lodge.  Please make sure all your men
attend.”  Cummings added before he left the head of the table.  Chris shook his head silently.
Where the hell had Tanner and Standish gotten off to now.   Buck showed up at breakfast with an
insatiable appetite and devious smile.  The man was incorrigible.

******************************************************************************
part 7

Ten am found the five men lounging around in the lodge.  JD sat sideways in the over stuffed
leather chair Ezra had occupied last night.  Buck nonchalantly strode around the room whistling
out a tune happy about something.  Chris leaned with his back against the wall rolling a piece of
Timothy grass between his lips.  Josiah sat on the couch with his head back still studying the
architecture of the building’s ceiling.  Nathan sat in the other over stuffed leather chair wiggling
his feet.  He did not like being idle.

“Ahh Mr. Larabee I see you did not find your missing men.”  Cummings said as he strode
cheerfully into the room.

“I didn’t look, not my headache this week.”  Chris answered in his low dangerous tone.  This
brought the director up short.  He had heard these were dangerous men but until now they only
acted like spoiled children.  Larabee’s tone suddenly reminded Cummings that he did indeed
dealt with men who feared very little.

“Yes well we’ll just have to find them later.”  Cummings added as his councilors filtered into the
room.  Andy and Richard appeared a little peeved.  Donald knew that Andrew did not like getting
beat especially on his run but Mr. Jackson had defeated him soundly.  Richard bristled over the
fact Tanner had easily eluded him in the forest.  Plaine was after all one sixteenth  Navajo.
Brenda smiled warmly at the group a little disheveled but otherwise in a great mood, ready to
face the day’s challenges.  Cummings missed the quick smiles that passed between his female
counselor and Wilmington.

Suddenly aloud Texan drawl could be heard outside, “Com’on Ez ya makin us late again. Hurry
up.”

“Patience Mr. Tanner patience.”  The southern accent floated out soothingly.  The large front
door could be heard opening and then slamming shut.  The two wayward agents entered the Great
room of the lodge, juggling coffee and munching on pastries.

“Gentlemen you are late.”  Cummings pointed out.  Tanner merely shrugged and Standish
smiled.
“You two missed breakfast how did you get the pastries and coffee?”  Cummings asked his
temper beginning to boil.  The cafeteria was to remain opened only for meals this helped
facilitate punctuality.

Everyone in the room felt the tension.  The seven men had pushed the line from the moment they
showed up.  They had only been here one night and one morning and already, people were being
thrown from the bunk house, rules not followed, buildings broken into and a blatant disregard for
authority was openly displayed.

“Your tone indicates you already know so why ask the question?”  Ezra answered backed sipping
delicately from the fresh hot coffee.  Vin stood beside the conman.  The tracker did not like being
told what to do and where to be at this stage in his life.  He would take orders from Chris and
maybe even the Judge, he would take suggestions from his teammates and might even listen to
them, but he would not be dictated to by these four people.  Apparently Ezra felt the same way.

Chris watched the confrontation.  It was about time someone dealt with the egos and attitudes he
had to everyday.  Let them come to terms with the difficulty of controlling six very independent
aggressive personalities, he was going to sit back and enjoy the show.

Cummings bit his lip.  The Judge had sent them here because as a group they were beginning to
show cracks.  They were weary, and in house bantering had transformed into bickering.  They
were reported to be a formidable team but lately mistakes had begun to occur.  Travis in hopes to
prevent any irreversible damage to the team sent them out here.  Cummings knew a group of men
like these would not conform, but the Judge had insisted.  Team seven as he referred to them
were an important asset to the ATF organization.  If they folded and crumbled it would
demoralize the other ATF teams as well.  Travis had pulled strings and called many favors and as
a result Cummings ended up with a belligerent group of hostile men on his hands.  They were an
egotistical, unruly, petulant bunch but Travis wanted them here and Cummings had agreed.  They
needed help, whether they would admit it or not, so Cummings had been forced to baby-sit and
nurse seven grown men from whatever dark hole that tried to consume them.

Knowing that, Cummings recognized what these men needed. “ Ok I think it is time for a group
hug.”  It was the step in the right direction.   Get the seven back on the road to health, get them to
depend on one another again and more importantly get them out of here.

Shocked silence met his suggestion.  Then Buck Wilmington started laughing, JD turned red
embarassed he might actually have to follow through on such a suggestion and tried to melt into
the back of the couch.  Vin backed up, anyone got near him and he would shoot them with his
throw away piece.

Ezra grinning ear to ear held his hand out to Josiah who reached into his own pocket and slapped
a twenty into the open palm of the southener.  What kind of an idiot would suggest a group hug
to likes of these men? Sanchez mused furiously, he lost another twenty to the cocky gambler.

Nathan seethed, he was just sick and tired of patching people up as a result of foolish remarks.
Hell this morning they could all bleed to death for all he cared.

Chris Larabee’s anger boiled over.  A murderous glare raged unchecked in his hazel eyes just
daring anyone to make a move.  He would never forgive the Judge for this completely asinine
idea.

Ezra leaned over to Josiah, “Another twenty says Mr. Larabee kills Mr. Personality over there.”

Standish gave Chris something to act against.  He grabbed the southener by the back of the neck
hauled him to his feet throwing the smaller southener into an arm lock and dragged him out the
door.  “Shut yer gawd damn trap Ezra or I’ll shoot cha myself!”

Buck watched the proceedings laughing all the harder.  Larabee paced menacingly back into the
building, Standish following a discreet distance behind his dimpled smile easily discernible. He
did have a wager on this particulary volitile situation.

“Buck I’ll shoot you next.  Just shut up.”  Chris snared in low dangerous tone.  Wilmington
tried to muffle his laughter but only managed to grunt, snort and snicker.

“Mr. Larabee, Mr. Larabee,” Cummings tried to sooth.  He was just beginning to realize he might
have made a mistake.  The men might not be ready for the healing touch of a group hug just yet.
His counselors were still a little angry over this mornings difficulty they would cure that later this
morning with thier own hugs.  Standish’s cough echoed around Wilmington’s laughter.

Donald did not miss the irritable stances of his two men.  They wanted retribution for the poor
way they had been treated.  Cummings would deal with that later.  “That’s fine we can forgo the
group healing until a later time.” He smiled gently either ignoring or oblivious to the immediate
danger he faced.  He turned his attentiong to the undercover agent,  “Mr. Standish if you are
feeling that poorly you may sit out of today’s activities.”

Ezra was about to jump at the chance, when Chris paused in his angry stewing, “Oh no, the
exercise will do him good.”  Larabee stood behind the couch directly behind Standish,laying a
hand on the under cover agent’s shoulder.  Chris could feel him tense up, good the gesture made
Standish uncomfortable.  Chris still had to get retribution for the ‘Duster Boy’ comment and the
twenty dollars.

Nathan had a feral smile and stared right at the southerner and spoke, “best thing in the world for
a cold is a little outside activity.”  ‘Healing touch of a group hug my ass, Quickest way to get
someone killed the damn fool,’ Jackson chided the director silently.

Standish groaned and coughed closing his eyes.  Larabee leaned over the couch and whispered in
the undercover agents ear, “it isn’t going to work.”

“Can’t blame a man for trying.”  Ezra intone disappointment heavy on his features.

Cummings was not sure what was transpiring but it seemed the southerner would be joining them
in the days activities.  Good.  To heal the team they needed the team.
 

******************************************************************************
part 8

Chris and Vin walked side by side up the path.  The summer sun felt hot but the swaying aspens
and pines offered shade.  The cool summer breeze whispered through the trees offering respite
from the summer heat.   JD tore past them racing up the trail.  The kid wore cut off jeans and
Boston Bruins T-shirt, no socks just sneakers.  It was the third time JD had run past them only to
return and talk to them abit and run on ahead.  Josiah and Nathan were somewhere up ahead
gauging the first of the obstacles in their path.

Vin loved obstacle courses, no matter what kind, they challenged him both physically and
mentally.  He secretly looked forward to getting started.  Buck moseyed somewhere behind with
Ezra.  Neither man wanted any part of this for totally different reasons.   Buck figured he could
get more exercise from one on one instruction with a one miss Katovich, while Ezra balked at
any outside activity that involved him getting sweaty or dirty.  He would much rather practice his
mental and physical dexterity with at the gaming tables somewhere else.    Tanner had tried to
coax Chris into to conversation, but Larabee had been unnaturally silent.  The tracker soon gave
up, he figured conversations were over rated anyhow, almost as much as group hugs.

The seven men gathered at the base of a large 14 foot wood planked wall.  Two large braided
ropes hung down the face.  “Well brother’s it would seem we are suppose to scale over this.”
Sanchez said reading from the guide book Cummings had given them.

 “Like hell”  Standish replied to noone in general.  He was really beginning to feel lousy.  His
back and leg muscles complained insistently.  Larabee had to agree with the southerner for once.
 
“Looks like we could just walk around it.”  Chris said following the obvious path that
circumvented the wall.

“Where’s the fun in that?”  Vin responded.  This looked kind of fun.  JD was just bubbling to try
it, and Tanner had to admit he wanted a go at it too.

Chris stepped aside and swept his hand in a palm up motion down passed his waist indicating
Vin should go first.  Tanner rose to the challenge.  He grabbed the rope tested it and then started
scrambling up the face of the wall.

“He’s a damn monkey.”  Buck observed as Vin nimbly made it to the top and waved down at
them.

“Hey Vin wait for me.”  JD hollered up and he grabbed the second rope mimicked Vin’s testing
of it and he too scrambled up the face.  Dunne was not as agile or as graceful but he was young,
strong and quick and in no time sat beside the sharpshooter at the top.  “Come on Buck it’s fun.”
Wilmington swore muttered to himself grabbed a hold of the rope and started up.  Vin had
disappeared over the other side, as Buck made it to the top Vin now stood beside Chris again.
Josiah and Nathan raced each other to the top both men complimenting each others strengths and
weaknesses.   Jackson had speed and agility while Sanchez had bull determination and strength.
Both men made it to the top in an equal fashion.

“Come on Ezra.”  Chris said tiredly.  He did not want to do this anymore than Standish, but Chris
would be damned if he would let the others out do him.  He watched as Standish grabbed one of
the ropes let out a remorseful sigh and started scaling.  Chris gave him ahead start, and watched
the young undercover agent ascend the wall.  Larabee started up a when Standish hit the half way
point.  Both men reached the top at the same time.

“Ezra’s lagging abit.” Josiah pointed out Nathan.  Jackson nodded in silent agreement.

Once all seven were back on the ground they walked up the trail another couple of hundred yards
to the next obstacle.  A single thin rope was stretched across a white water gorge.  Above this
thin rope at chest height stretched a second rope, a guide rope.  “We cross here.”

“Cool” JD whispered out.   Vin agreed with Dunne’s assessment.

One by one the seven men shuffled across the roaring white water, no one looking down no one
hesitating.  So far so good.   Larabee watched amused as Standish appeared almost bored by the
whole proceedings.  He had even coughed when out in the middle, though they could not hear it
they recognized the body language.   Once everyone successfully crossed the rope they headed
onward again.

This went on for ten more obstacles, some basically easy others more of a challenge.  The second
to last one tested the group.  Another wall  but with climbing harnesses.  This time instead of
climbing back down they were suppose to let themselves go and depend on the others to slow
their descent with the ropes that fed through the rigging.  JD scrambled up first and without
hesitation leaned backward spread eagle and let himself fall knowing the others would not let
him fall those fifty two feet to the ground.  Chris marveled at the boy’s faith.

Vin was not so eager to do this obstacle but keeping with the unspoken order they had
established it was his turn.

“It’s awesome Vin, ya gunna love it.”  JD said as he stepped out of the harness.  Tanner nodded
his head neither agreeing nor disagreeing.   Scaling the wall he had no problem.  At the top he
hesitated.

 “Ok Vin just fall.”  Dunne shouted up unnecessarily.

  “Like hell.” Tanner muttered to himself.

“Come on Mr. Tanner don’t dawdle all day.”  Standish croaked out leaning against a tree. Tanner
flipped Standish off.

“Ezra get up your suppose to help guide him down.”  Nathan said a bit perturbed.  They were
suppose to be earning each other’s trust.  Standish struggled to his feet uttered something under
his breath and picked up an end to the rope.

 “You aint afraid are you Vin?”  Buck taunted.  Chris held his tongue, because it seemed to work.
Wilmington could egg anyone over the edge.

“Here goes nothing.”  Tanner muttered to himself.  He shut his eyes and stepped off the top of
the wall.  Instead of free falling the others lowered him gently to the ground.  Vin could not hide
his smile, JD was right it was awesome.  Josiah and Nathan went next respectfully.  It took all six
men to slow Sanchez’s descent to the ground and even then he landed a bit more solidly than the
others.  Chris went up next and again laid his faith in Vin and Buck and the others.  He landed
gently on the ground.

“Alright Ezra your next.”  Chris held the harness out to the southerner.  Standish took an
involuntary step backward. There was no way in hell he was doing that, he stepped right back
into Vin.  Damn sharpshooter was as silent as a cat.

“Come on Ez it aint that bad.”  Tanner gently but with underlying muscle persuasion led the
gambler over to the harness.  Standish did not face the other six men but peered up the face of the
wall.  He really did not want to do this.  He turned around to argue but Chris stopped him and
whispered, “do it now.”  Ezra did not know why he felt compelled to listen to Larabee. Heck
Ezra never listened to anyone unless he chose to, even then not without some kind of fight.
Standish sighed , sniffled once and then started up the wall.  Scaling it would have been easier
but his muscles ached and his chest had started to burn with the last round on coughs as did his
ear.  He never had a real bad cold before and if this was they were like he could without another
one.  He made it to the top.

Fifty-two feet is awful high.  He sat at the top trying to catch his breath.  He ignored the others
below him. How was he going to get down?

“Come on Ezra just jump off so we can go home.” Buck called out.

“Ez, just step off we got ya.”  Vin said, Ezra almost believed his sincerity.

“Brother we aren’t gonna let ya fall.”

Cuz I’m not gonna give you the chance, Ezra thought to himself.  He sat up at the top of the wall
trying to discern another route down.   No trees grew over head so he could not use tree branches
to climb down.

“Damn he ain’t gonna come down.”  Nathan said disgustedly.  Darn fool never trusted anybody,
how were they suppose to trust him then?   He kicked up some dirt in frustration.

Chris sighed and stepped into a second harness, he mused, probably for just this occasion.  “Ezra
I’m gonna climb up there and push your butt off, you hear me?”  Larabee shouted up toward the
stalling man.

“Oh that’s it Chris sweet talk him.”  Buck said annoyed.  He should have known Ezra wouldn’t
willingly put his life in someone else’s hands.  The job was different, that was the job, and
everyone had a role to play.  This was different, this was voluntary, even though it really was not,
Ezra been forced to purposely put his life on the line for the fool notion of trust.  The gambler
had about as much trust in his fellow man as he had in a rabid dog.

Chris shot Buck a silencing glare and started scaling the wall again.  Standish saw this and
started to panic.  He began furtively glancing left and right down the wall, behind the wall even
upward.  Searching for any means of escape.  His breath came in short quick gasps.  Chris was
more than half way up.

The others noticed the panic, “he’s gonna do something stupid.”  Jackson pointed out.  Standish
was acting no different than a cornered animal.

“Yup he is.”  Josiah agreed.  None of the men let go of the ropes, hoping Standish in a panic
would just blindly trust them and leap off before Chris pushed him.

******************************************************************************
part 9

Larabee was just about to the top when, Ezra shucked out of his harness and scrambled over the
back.

“No Ezra don’t...”  JD started.  But Standish disappeared over the backside.  The five men were
forced to hold on to the rope to lower Larabee down.  Chris descended faster this time.  When his
feet touched the ground the others dropped the ropes and started to make their way hurriedly
around the wall, but Ezra appeared smiling triumphantly.

“You crazy son of a...”  Jackson hissed out tackling the smaller southerner.  Ezra landed on his
back pinned to the ground under the furious form of Jackson.  The ex-EMT grabbed the front of
Standish’s shirt and was shaking him.  “What kind of fool stunt was that?  You wanna get
yourself kill huh?  That it?! You got a death wish or something?!”  Nathan did not hear the others
yelling at him to let Standish up, did not hear or feel the coughs that racked the southerners form,
instead all he saw was a friend who nearly got himself maimed simply because he did not want to
depend on anyone else for help.

Standish for his part did not understand what just happened.  They wanted him down he got
down.  So he did not take the traditional route, who cares?  Well apparently Mr. Jackson cared.
Ezra tried to shift Nathan off him, but tired muscles, and burning lungs would not cooperate.
Instead his body did the only thing it could, it started coughing.  Gawd that hurts.

“Nathan cut it out.” Buck and Vin both tried to haul the enraged chemist off the gambler.  With
Josiah’s help they peeled Nathan off and shoved him into Chris’s restraining hands.   Larabee felt
very much the same way Jackson did.

Standish rolled over onto his stomach bringing his knees up under him resting his forehead in the
dirt as he continued to cough.

“You ok Ez?”  Vin asked kneeling down next to the gambler resting a callused hand on the tense
curled back.

Standish shook it off violently.  “Fine.”  he hissed out forcefully between coughs.

“yeah you sound just fantastic.”  Josiah quipped.  He and Buck each grabbed an upper arm and
hauled the younger man to his feet.

Standish tried to free his arms from their grips but found his balance a bit precarious, so
remained restrained.

“Didn’t know you knew how to free style?”  Tanner observed from a safe distance away.

“me neither til a few seconds ago.”  Standish replied a weak smile on his face.  He coughed a few
more times and this time managed to free himself from the two holds.

Chris stood between the two men, Nathan glared at the gambler who inturned seemed unfazed or
disturbed by it.
“You two going to start playing nice or am I going to have to separate you?”

Jackson gave the undercover agent one last biting stare but simply nodded to Chris and stalked
off.   Standish was about to walk off as well but Larabee grabbed his upper arm none to gently,
“that was a fool stunt you pulled.”

“Depends on who’s perspective you’re taking.”  Standish returned coolly.

Josiah suddenly appeared, his physical presence halting any further disagreement.

The seven men headed down toward the last obstacle.  A balance beam of sorts over a mud pit.
They all would have made it fine except when Buck shoved JD off the beam, and Vin returned
the favor.  Buck in desperation to remain on the wood beam reached frantically for any kind of
support and inadvertently pulled Larabee into the mud with him.  Nathan and Josiah were
laughing so hard they did not notice the conman amble up behind them and easily shove them
into the mire below.  Standish victoriously strode to the other end of the bank.  Once there
Sanchez purposely draped a brotherly muddied arm around the conman and rubbed his clean cut
hair like a proud uncle.  The others followed his example and soon all seven were caked head to
toe in mud.

DC, Andy, Richard, and Brenda watched the seven men stroll down the path.  Cummings had
watched their progress on the obstacle course.  There had been some problems to say the least.
Well noone got themselves killed that was a positive sign , though it had been close on a couple
of occasions.  The director spoke with his people.  He had notified the Judge of the problems,
and asked for advice.  Travis had been surprised things had gone so smoothly.  Cummings closed
his eyes, if this was smooth he hated to see rough.  The Judge had suggested they not take such
an authoritative role, let the men make their own decisions, but rest assured if real difficulties
arose the Judge would step in the camps behalf.   This pacified the councilors to some extent.

The seven men entered the bunkhouse for showers and change of clothing.  Nathan exited one
shower stall and entered the sink area.  He had to admit the Aspen Ranch kept its facilities clean.
The porcelain showed no indication of stains and the tiles were spotless.  With a towel around his
waist he prepared to brush his teeth.
Jackson stopped at the entrance and watched Standish.  The undercover again leaned heavily
against a sink supporting his upper body weight with his left hand.  His right hand cupped his
right ear and he held his head cocked against his right shoulder.  Standish stood with both eyes
closed and therefore did not notice the scrutiny he was under.  A chill must have racked his body
because suddenly muscles tensed quivered for a second and then relaxed.  A small groan escaped
chapped lips.  JD brushed past Nathan oblivious to Jackson observations.

“Ey’ Ez how ya doin?”  Dunne asked.  He wore another pair of cut offs, torn and worn enough to
rival Tanner’s tattered jean shorts.

Standish suddenly stood squarely dropped his right hand and straightened his neck, “Just fine Mr.
Dunne.”  He answered quickly and smoothly, covering up any hint of discomfort.  The southerner
gathered his toothbrush and shaving gear and exited the room.

 Jackson purposely blocked his way, “You feeling ok Ezra?”   The chemist put on his best
friendly open smile.  He had not meant to lose his temper with the gambler earlier in the day but
sometimes the damn fool did not know what was best for him.  All he had to do was ask for help,
and six people would be there for him.  Why did Standish have such a hard time recognizing the
fact.  Hell Tanner was almost as bad, come to think of it so was Larabee.  Gawd forbid anyone
should need a helping hand.

“Fine Mr. Jackson, never better.”  Standish squeezed past the ex-EMT and headed toward his
bunk.

“’Ey Ez you got a shirt I can borrow for tonight?”  Wilmington asked as he rifled through his
own selection of Hawaiian print shirts.

“I hardly think we have the same taste in clothing.”  Standish pointed out trying to remember
where he put the motrin.

“Yeah well I’m going out tonight and thought maybe you could help me out?”  Buck returned.
Geez he’s a little testy, the Ladies man thought.

Standish carefully searched through his folded laundry and tossed a white button down shirt to
Wilmington.  “Please don’t get grass stains on it.”

“Grass stains?”  Buck asked with raised eyebrows.

“Brenda likes to play rough?”  Vin asked holding up the t-shirt Wilmington had worn to the
morning meeting at the lodge.  Large grass stains covered the shoulder area.   Buck merely
grinned and shrugged.

Wilmington struggled into the shirt.  Josiah started laughing, followed by JD.  Standish peered
over at the Ladies man to see what was so funny.  The borrowed shirt sleeves ended mid forearm
on Wilmington and if he sucked in his trim gut he might have even gotten the shirt to button.
Standish let out a silent prayer.

“Geez Ezra this ain’t gonna fit.”  Wilmington said with exasperation, shucking out of the shirt
and tossing it back.

“You don’t say.”  Standish fired back, catching the discarded article of clothing.  Larabee
wrinkled his brow the southerner had gotten even more surly.

The seven men having changed for dinner, entered the cafeteria.  It presented itself more of a
dinning room than a cafe.  The food was well prepared, the places were set with casual dinner
plates and silverware.  Cloth cotton napkins rested under the knife and spoons and wool place
mats padded the dinner sets.  The seven sat at one large oak table.  Vin immediately sat with his
back to the wall so he could see the whole room.  Larabee chose the head of the table again with
his back to the wall so he could watch the door.  Habit.  The other men picked and chose their
seats.  Buck to Chris’s left followed by JD, then Nathan.  Josiah settled at the other end of the
table facing Larabee, Ezra to the large man’s left then Tanner.  Two wicker baskets sat in the
middle covered by a cotton napkin.  JD uncovered it revealing steaming home made rolls.
Everyone dug in.  The days outdoor activities had left them hungry.

DC watched the men from the kitchen.  The team ate in companionable silence.  Underlying
stress seemed to exist but the director did not know these men well enough to be sure.  He gave
them a few minutes to settle in and then would approach them with the night activities.

The cold water was a shock to Standish’s aching right ear.  He nearly dropped his cup and
grabbed his ear as the cold liquid sent nerve endings firing.  His right eye squeezed shut.  Maude
has taught him well and instead he gently placed the cup back on the table and dabbed his mouth
with his napkin.  Gawd that hurt, he made a note to drink ice cold liquids for awhile.  The others
missed it, save Nathan.  He held his tongue, he did not want to fight with Standish again.  Ezra
would eventually realize he needs help and step forward.   JD reached for the last roll only to find
Buck’s hand already on it.

“Sorry kid, I need it more than you do?”  Wilmington said, a sly smile on his face.

“Your beer belly wouldn’t say so.” Dunne replied.  Vin mentally chalked one up to the kid.

DC timed his entrance perfectly, or so Nathan figured as he watched the director through the
glass window reflection, as he exited the kitchen.

******************************************************************************
part10
 

“Hello boys.”  He intoned pleasantly.  He dropped the cheerful facade.  The Judge had informed
him that two of the men could read people extremely well, the Judge just neglected to pinpoint
who those two might be.  He received various greetings from genuine ‘hellos’ to sarcastic grunts.
Cummings ignored it.  “Did you have an enjoyable day?”

He surveyed the group of men.  He knew Dunne did infact have fun on the obstacle course, that
much was evident through the binoculars.  Tanner seemed pleased with the turn of events as
well, though neither would openly admit it.  Standish leaned back in his chair a half smile on his
face.  DC watched Jackson through the window reflection.  The EMT kept himself in good shape
and handled the course easily, and he had faith in the others.  Well all except the southerner,
Cummings could not be sure of the reason for the unrest but saw that it existed.  Wilmington had
a one track mind and the day’s events only proved to be a distraction for his wandering mind.  He
watched out for the kid almost to protectively but Dunne did not appear to mind.  Larabee, as he
had said, washed his hands of leadership.  He had shown no interest in controlling his men,
except when he had scaled the wall for the second time after Standish.  Cummings did not know
what had been said but it must not have been to supportive because soon, the southerner was
scurrying like a mouse in maze until he slid over the back side and climbed down free of support
in a hasty manner.  DC had held his breath, until the gambler’s feet touch solid ground.  He had
grimaced when Jackson had tackled the unobliging man to the ground.  Things had gone steadily
down hill from there.  It would be amazing if they did not kill each other before the week was up.
This was the first day here and already a fight had broken out.  Not a good sign.  He would forge
ahead, do as the Judge asked and try to mend crumbling bridges.  It seemed futile at the moment.

“After dinner tonight the time is yours.  We do have a few rules that we would liked observed.”
He waited for the groans of discontent and worried none were forth coming.  “First we ask that
you not leave the premises, there is no alcohol, and no gambling.”  This last statement he nailed
the southerner with a warning stare.  Standish raised an innocent eyebrow.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Ok guys go ahead.”  JD whispered, leaning out the driver’s side door of the confiscated Bronco.
Josiah, Buck and Vin started pushing on the tailgate.  Within a few brief seconds the sound of
crunching gravel could be heard.  JD wrestled with the steering trying to keep the wheels straight.
As the three men pushed the truck gathered it’s own momentum making the task of moving it
forward easier.  Standish waited a few yards down the driveway keeping an eye out.  As the
Bronco hit the lip of the down hill drive it began to pick up speed, suddenly the sound of running
feet could be heard, doors opened and people silently scrambled into the truck.

Dunne manhandled the wheel as the Ford wove it’s way down the gravel tree lined drive.  “OK
JD you can turn her over.”  Buck said from the passenger seat.  His date with Brenda had become
a bust. DC had called a meeting of his associates.  Wilmington, one not to let a good time pass
by, planned with Tanner to pull of this charade.
It did not take much convincing to get the others to go along.  They invited Chris but Larabee
declined, instead he would rather enjoy the solitude of the evening.  Besides he had had enough
of the other six men.  They were headed for trouble and someone would have to bail them out.
As much as Chris did not want play leader he felt it a need to watch out for them.  Just as they
felt an overwhelming desire to get into trouble.

The plan had been simple.  Tanner picked the locks to the office, Dunne absconded with the keys
and the rest they say was history.  Chris was surprised Standish decided to go out.  The man was
obviously feeling under the weather.  The flush color to his cheeks and lack of appetite clearly
indicated he was not a hundred percent.  Chris chuckled as he picked up his book. When the
director had made a point to nail Standish with a warning stare, he had cinched the undercover
agents decision.  Like the rest of his men, Ezra would go to his grave defying authority he did not
recognize.  Larabee knew without a doubt had he given the declarations then all six men would
be here boisterously harumphing their cruel and undo punishment.  Chris smiled he would enjoy
the peace in quiet because it would not last.  Buck would inadvertently be attracted to a married
woman.  Tanner’s long hair would standout and label him as a bunny hugger, in this logging
community, and Ezra would swindle the biggest guy in the bar.
They were doomed from the beginning.  Maybe Nathan and Josiah would prove to be a
stabilizing force.  Chris chuckled again, not likely, Josiah could be more trouble than a room full
of badgers and Nathan well Nathan would detach himself and let the others go.  Chris just hoped
they kept JD safe.  He maybe in his twenties but he was still a little brother.

Four hours later, Buck draped his arm around a slender blonde.  In just one simple move he
claimed a minor stake in already claimed territory.  Ezra leaned nonchalantly against a pool cue
scanning for his next shot.  His opponent had yet to shoot during this game and had begun to
smell a con.  JD sat at the bar watching Standish play, Ezra learned the game pretty quick.  He
lost miserably the first few hours and now he cleaned house.  Tanner sat beside JD wondering
how long it would be before Buck or Ezra inadvertently started a fight.   Josiah and Nathan
shared a table, both men having already consumed more than their fair share of whiskey.

Two things happened simultaneously. First the blonde’s husband noticed the possessive arm
draping across his wife’s trim’s shoulders was not his.  Secondly the man being soundly whipped
at pool, not billiards as Ezra had informed JD, figured he was being cheated.  Who shouted first,
who swung the first punch the police reports still disagree.  The fact remains, Buck ended up on
the receiving end of a very angry sawyer’s haymaker.  Standish found himself being shoved
backward by an enraged mark.  Buck went down, but bounded right back up like a sand filled
punching bag.  Ezra allowed himself to be manipulated over toward Josiah and Nathan.  Standish
had finally admitted to himself he had a cold.  His endurance suffered.  His fellow pool player
took a swing at the smug southerner.  Standish ducked just as Sanchez climbed to his feet,sensing
trouble.  The fist landed solidly on the older man’s clenched jaw.  The brawl erupted in earnest.

Vin, JD and Nathan being marked as outsiders found themselves drawn into the fray.  The
combatants, who were just about all the occupants of the “Korner Klub”, did not hear the sirens
did not see the flashing lights.  Suddenly the “house” lights came up illuminating the floor.
Bodies struggled, and punched, fell and slipped.   Standish found himself hurtled threw the plate
glass window.  Thankfully the owner had the foresight to have ‘protective glass’ installed so it
broke in tiny rounded pieces and not long shards.  Standish regained his feet only to be knocked
back down by the flying body on a one JD Dunne.   Josiah stuck his head out the broken window,
no glass remained in the frame, “you boys alright?”  He appeared woozy and his speech slightly
slurred.   JD waved him off and hauled Ezra to his feet.

The boys in blue poured out of their cars.  County sheriffs cars, Standish happened to notice,
three in total, probably the whole force, he mused.  JD made to re-enter the fray but the
undercover agent stopped him and stepped aside as the sheriff deputies raced into the bar.
Suddenly Vin was unceremoniously deposited out the window onto the sidewalk.  Both JD and
Ezra helped him to his feet.  The tracker swayed unsteadily.  Neither ATF agent could be sure if
it were from the alcohol the long haired agent consumed or some unseen injury.  The lopsided
smile indicated it was the beverage.

“How nice of you to join us Mr. Tanner.”

“Whadda yer guys doin’ out here?”  Vin asked trying to maintain his balance on an apparently
rapidly rotating earth.

“Just needed some air.”  JD answered.  Soon Buck, followed by Nathan exited head first through
the window.  The others helped them up.  “’Ey pards’” Vin greeted cheerfully.  The Fivesome
leaned heavily on the hood of a patrol car awaiting Sanchez’s departure.  Josiah climbed through
the window like a lumbering giant trying to maintain some assemblage of balance.

“Ahh brothers’ there you are.”  Josiah staggered over to them and enveloped Vin and Ezra in a
giant embrace.
The six men pushed and pulled each other toward the white and green Bronco that had been
parked in the bank parking lot across the street.  They slowed their steps when they noticed an
overly large uniformed officer waiting for them with arms crossed leaning leisurely against the
passenger door of the truck.

“Howdy boys.” He droled out evenly.

******************************************************************************
part 11 Saturday early morning
 

Chris Larabee woke to the sound of a returning vehicle.  He checked his watch three am.  The
boys were out a little late.  The leader of team seven was about to roll over when the
unmistakable flash of police lights grabbed his attention.  Larabee let out a chuckle, his team
never disappointed him.

Chris stood on the porch of the bunk house dressed in jeans, untied hightops, t-shirt and his short
oil skin coat.  His short ‘duster’ as the others called it.  His blondish hair stood up on end and his
hazel eyes were blood shot.
The early morning was cold, and the sky was still black with stars starting to wink out with the
approach of dawn in an hour or more.   The grass and everything else had a thick coat of dew.

Larabee leaned against the porch railing as the two squad cars came to a rest just infront of him.
The back doors opened and men spilled out of them.  Vin, again in his haste to exit the enclosed
environment shoved Ezra out before he could get his legs out.  Josiah oblivious to the tangled
mess on the ground stepped out from the open back door onto Tanner and Standish tripped and
tumbled onto the downed men.   In the other car, Buck tried to untangle himself from the
confines of the car with JD shoving him.  Wilmington made it to his feet and stood unsteadily but
successfully until Dunne shoved him out of the way.  The triumphant smile disappeared from
Buck as he hit the gravel.  Nathan exited the vehicle with some decorum but soon disappeared as
he caught his coat on the door latch got hung up, uncharacteristically ripped it free.  He lost his
balance as the material gave and hit the ground dragging JD with him.

Chris pulled his eyes from the sorry array of bodies that made up his crack team and turned his
attention to the officer approaching him.  He was a large man, no stranger to working out.  He
stood well over six feet with a muscular build that easily filled his frame.  “Mr. Larabee?”

“That would be me.”  Chris answered descending the three short steps, holding his hand out in
greeting.  Both men matched amused glances and shook with firm grips.  Both had been down
this road before, though they had just met.  “I’m Sheriff Salisbury, Craig Salisbury.”  He
introduced himself turning to face the six men who struggled gamely to their feet.  “I believe
these boy’s are yours?”  The amusement in his voice was not disguised.

“They tell you that?”  Chris asked, eyeing his men and then the sheriff.

“Well the young one did, the others didn’t want you involved in this, so to speak.”  Salisbury
informed.

“I bet.”  Chris answered as the two imposing men made their way over the drunken mass that
made up Team 7.

“Alright, who started it?”  Chris asked his voice low but sharp.   He was prepared for the barrage
of voices that assaulted him.  “Shut up.”  He said.  Noone listened.  “Hey!” he raised his voice
bringing the others to a slow silence.

Standish leaned precariously over to a wobbling Tanner and whispered loudly but seriously , “It
would seem to me Mr. Sunshine, might need that group hug after all.”   Tanner and the others
tried to contain their mirth, few choked snorts escaped then full blown laughter as the men leaned
on one another for support.

The sheriff crossed his arms ,bowed his and tried to hide his smiled.  He had accessed the files on
the ATF team, they were not detailed but the record of the Team itself was impressive.  After
reading the slight condensed blurb on the team he wanted to meet the man that ran the unit,
especially after he met the unit in all it’s glory.

“Ezra shut your trap.”  Chris said stepping forward a bit threateningly.  Standish took a step back
and behind the hulking form of Josiah.

“Oh noo ya don’t.”  Sanchez drawled out and dragged the sulking gambler out from behind him
by the scruff of the neck.  There was noway Josiah was going to get caught in the cross fire.

“All I want to know is who started it, Buck or Ezra?”  Chris asked again, tightening the confines
of his question.

A chorus of Buck’s and Ezra’s rang out from different sources.   Chris stared up at the Sheriff.
Salisbury stepped forward.  “According to the witness.  That one over there” He pointed toward
Wilmington, “Buck?”

Chris nodded in confirmation.  The sheriff continued, “was giving undue attention to Marcelle
Sijohn, Mrs. Marcelle Sijohn.”  Craig stressed the Missus part.  Chris made a threatening sound,
but the sheriff stopped him when he continued, “and your southern friend over there, hustled half
the bar at the pool table, but unfortunately marked Frank Michaels.”

“I have been maliciously maligned.”  Standish said taking an unsteady,but defiant step forward.
Buck followed suit and said
“Yeah what Ezra just said, me too.”

“Shut up both of ya.”  Chris hissed out taking a minute step forward.  Both agents having a better
sense of self preservation took involuntary steps backward.

“What now Sheriff?”  Chris asked tiredly.

“Well damages have to be paid for at the Korner Klub.”  Salisbury said.  He hoped this would go
smoothly.

“Ezra how much you win tonight?”  Chris asked.

“Who me?”  Standish asked innocently taking another step backward but again Josiah placed a
large restraining hand on his neck.  “One must pay for the wages of sin,brother.”  The preacher’s
son  intoned.

“Why me?”  Ezra complained plaintively.

“Cuz ya always scammin’ someone.”  Vin droled out.

“Ezra?” Chris warned.

“I won nothing.  Really it was a deplorable night at the tables, my luck was down.  A very bad
showing, a colossal waste of time. Honestly”  Standish answered trying to squirm out from the
giant hand that held him.

Salisbury watched the fast talking southerner and spoke to Larabee, “Today was pay day for the
loggers and the mill workers.”

“Ezra I swear I’ll turn ya upside down and shake it out of ya.”  Chris took another step forward
and Standish tried to shrink back.

“Ok ok.”  Ezra reached into his pant pocket and removed a roll of bills.  He handed it to Chris.
Salisbury let out a low whistle.  Larabee was not impressed

“All of it Ezra.”  Chris said waiting with his hand out.

“This is really unfair you know.  I earned this.”  the gambler muttered reaching into his other
pocket and removing another roll of bills.  The sheriff merely raised his eye brows.

“Your boots Ezra, give me what’s in your boots.”  Chris said as he handed the rolls of money to
the sheriff while still watching his undercover agent.

“There’s nuthin in my boots.”  Standish complained still trying to back up.  Josiah merely
tightened his hold.

“Then you won’t mind if Sheriff Salisbury strip searches ya, right here.”  Chris stood his ground
with dog determination and did his best not to laugh at the pure look of horror that crossed the
clean shaven face.

“You wouldn’t dare.”  Ezra said, still trying to keep hold of his last remnants of his dignity and
winnings.

Salisbury saw his cue and took a threatening step forward.  All six men stepped back.

Standish tried to bend over and reach into this boot but a sudden wave of dizziness hit him and
he was forced to sit on the gravel.  He pulled up his pant leg and reached into the front of his
boot.  He pulled out a third tightly rolled wad of cash.  He handed it up to the sheriff with a
defiant glare, it would have worked except the alcohol induced nystagmus did not fool Salisbury.

“Thankyou.”

“Oh don’t thank me.”  Ezra sputtered regaining his feet with some ataxic difficulty, “Thank my
illustrious leader.”

Chris ignored Standish and took in the rest of his men.  Nathan leaned on Buck from one side,
and JD from the other and both inadvertently kept the lady’s man on his feet.  Josiah still firmly
held the gambler by the nape of the neck and Vin steadied himself by resting on Standish’s
shoulder with a forearm.

“Get inside.”  He ordered.  He stepped aside as the six men staggered and wove their way toward
the bunk house grumbling.  A sorrid remark was uttered and Chris warned, “Ezra!”

An annoyed southern drawl counted back, “It wasn’t me.”

Larabee turned his attention back to the amused sheriff. “Thankyou.”  He held out his hand again
and Salisbury gladly accepted it.

“Not a problem.”  He turned to go and then stopped, he held up the three rolls of money, “there is
probably more here than is needed.”

Chris paused on the porch steps and said, “Then donate the rest to a children’s fund or
something”

The sheriff nodded and both men returned to their duties.  One more willingly than the other.

******************************************************************************
part 12 Saturday am
 

JD wished for unconsciousness or at least the comfortable numbness of sleep.  Chris was yelling
and pulling blankets off bodies.  Moans and protests echoed softly from the others.  Dunne was
afraid to open his mouth, some how he believed it would not be words that shot from his film
covered mouth.  Gawd his stomach and head hurt.

“Let’s go girls.”  Larabee shouted as he walked up and down the row of bunks waking his
groaning men.  It was six am.  “Six am ladies, calisthenics time.  Don’t forget our morning run.”
The pillow Buck threw at him missed by a mile.  Larabee smiled and knocked his oldest friends
feet off the bunk.
“Up and at’em Buck.”  Chris watched bemused as Josiah and Nathan peeled themselves from
their bunks and wobbled into the bathroom.  Vin scowled at Larabee as he gingerly slid past his
boss.  Even with a hangover the sharpshooter moved with a fluid grace.  The only ones not
moving were Standish and Dunne.  “JD get your butt out of that bunk or I’ll drag you into the
shower.”  The unquestionable impatience was not missed on the youngest.
Larabee then turned his attention to the unmoving mound of blankets that made up Standish.  A
leer crossed his face.  He would enjoy this, payback.  Mr. Sunshine/ Duster boy was about to
wreak his revenge.  The cold pitcher of water hung conspicuously at his side.

Larabee glowered at the sleeping man.  His congestion was very audible, but Chris really did not
care.  The dark brown head was the only thing visible under the three blankets.  “Ezra get up.”
No response.  The leer slid back into place.  “Ezra get your arse out of bed.”  He punctuated this
by a sharp shove to the shoulder.  This earned a moan, shift in position, and then he settled back
down.  “Ezzzraa.”  Larabee singsonged out.  He held the pitcher over the sleeping man’s head.
He slowly up ended it spilling a few splashes of water on the exposed head. Nothing.  Damn,
Chris thought the man slept like the dead.  Chris poured more water on the sleeping form, taking
great pleasure in the discomfort to come.   Vin and Buck watched from the shower room
entrance.  Both men wore only towels and smirks.

Larabee watched with growing anticipation as the gambler rubbed the side of his head that had
started getting wet.  The water continued to drip persistently.  He let out a scratchy moan and
buried himself deeper under the blankets.
With pure vengeful delight Larabee pulled back the blankets and poured the ice cold contents
over the undercover agents head and shoulders.

Standish felt as if he had been hit with a live wire.  Suddenly his warm dark world, had become
overwhelmingly bright and freezing.  He did not realize he was soaked until he hit the floor with
a resounding thud.  His breath caught in his throat as he back peddled from the assault.

Chris did not bother hiding his joy, nor did Buck or Vin.  “Time to get up Ezra.”  Larabee
repeated, to the wide eyed opened mouth southerner.  Chris did not bother waiting for a remark
but removed the blankets and pillow preventing the obstinate gambler from climbing back into
bed, and headed back down to his bunk.

Standish growled and grumbled the whole way to the shower.  Buck and Vin stepped aside, not
daring to touch the fiendishly angry man.  “’Ey Ez how come your all wet?”  JD asked.  Standish
nailed him with a caustic stare and raised his index finger in warning.  Dunne stepped back
against the wall, giving the infuriated man his space.

The six men waited outside in various postures of discontent and lethargy.  Some leaning on the
railing, some leaning against the outside wall of the bunkhouse, and some just standing with
chins dropped.  Andy and Richard waited in the yard, well aware of the events from the night
before.  The bronco had been towed back just a few minutes ago.  Then the early morning was
shattered by a southern, “Who the hell used my tooth brush?!”
JD moved closer to Buck.

The morning calisthenics consisted mostly of five grown men laying on their backs in the grass
complaining.   Leg lifts and crunches did not mix with hangovers.   Nathan gamely pushed
himself and Chris sarcastically encouraged his ailing men.  Vin and Ezra had both dozed off
during the push-up segment.

The three mile run had been stretched to four at Larabee’s insistence.  JD vomited on mile
number two.  Ezra kept scanning for a car in hopes of a ride, and as usual Nathan was so far
ahead noone saw him.  Josiah plodded along beside Vin both contemplating ditching into the
woods for a shortcut home.  Chris kept a keen eye on them.  Buck lagged behind with JD in the
appearance of aiding his suffering friend but they all knew he had reached his limit of endurance.
Chris figured he would sweat the booze from their systems.

Breakfast was met with scowls and snares.  JD and Chris both dug into their meals.  Dunne was
surprised at how good he felt after his stomach emptied itself.  The others watched disgustedly as
the young man shoveled maple syrup laden pancakes into his mouth.  The other five sipped
delicately on coffee.  Standish leaned his head on his right hand rubbing his right ear absently.
He muffled a few coughs trying to prevent the burning in his chest and keep what little food and
coffee that found its way to his stomach down.

The ten am meeting at the lodge was a fiasco.  DC had intended on reprimanding the misguided
team but instead found six very capable men lying about the furniture in various states of dispair.
They would address the problem later.  Instead he would redirect their ailing forms on the twelve
mile hike into the surrounding mountains.  The more they groaned and balked the more he
smiled.

The forced march, as Ezra had come to label it, dragged on he began to feel worse.  At first he
marked it up to the combination of the incessant hangover and loss of his earnings from last
night.  As the day progressed and the others began to feel more human he slipped further up the
misery meter.   Not only did his muscles ache, and his throat burn but his ear ache had begun to
make itself known in earnest.  He would not succumb to a cold.

Chris brought up the rear making sure all his men kept going forward.  It would not be above one
of them to suddenly drop back and discreetly make their way back to the ranch.  He cleared his
throat a couple of times in warning when he noticed the tracker taking side glances off the trail
into the waiting forest.  Tanner merely turned his attention back to the task at hand.  The summer
sun hung heavily over head but the light cumulus cloud cover offered some respite.  He noticed
Standish dogged behind the others and kept his head tilted to his right shoulder.  Larabee had
originally figured it was the lingering effects of a hangover, he could not be so sure now.

JD and Nathan quickly recovered from last evenings festivities.  They actually enjoyed the hike.
Josiah climbed out of the dregs of malaise by noon and even pulled out a camera. Buck sidled up
next to Brenda coaxing her into a friendly banter.  Tanner shortened his stride and matched pace
with Chris.

A few hours into the hike they came to a rocky plateau that over looked a large open meadow
surrounded by trees.  A white water river ran behind and through the trees.  The nine hikers
stopped to enjoy the scenic view that lay a few hundred feet below them.  Cattle meandered
through out the hundred acre natural field.  Chris watched them for a moment Hereford Angus
cross from the looks of it.  Tanner surveyed the area with a practiced eye, it really was a box
canyon.  The cliff wall they stood on actually wrapped it’s way around the meadow on three
sides.  White capped mountains could be seen in the distance.

Josiah snapped off a few pictures standing back trying to get as many of the others in the photo as
he could.  Standish simply lay on the ground, curled slightly in a ball with his eyes closed.  JD
stepped as close to the edge as he dared, which was to close to Nathan who admonished him for
his foolhardiness.  Tanner pointed out two horse back riders to Chris and Buck as the riders rode
at a walk through the herd apparently checking them over.

Andy and Brenda felt they had a long enough rest and started the hike back up again.   Buck
softly nudged Standish with a knee to get him up and moving.  The southerner grumbled and
climbed slowly to his feet with Josiah’s aide.

******************************************************************************
part 13 Saturday night
 

Dinner was met with much more enthusiasm than breakfast.  Steaks, baked potatoes and mixed
vegetables were on the menu.  The men dug in heartily.  Nathan watched as once again Standish
pushed his meal around with a disinterested fork.  Jackson held his tongue, the gambler was not
in an agreeable mood.  His blood shot green eyes did not welcome any conversation.  Josiah
crossed broached the subject.  He had noticed throughout the day the slow but steady
deterioration of the gamblers normal proper posture.  “How’s ya cold Ezra?”

“Fine.”  The short raspy replied came out.  Standish took another tentative bite of his potato, why
could it not have been mashed?   Nathan and Chris exchanged glances.  Jackson would pin the
conman down later.

DC entered the dining room when dinner was just about complete.  He now would have his
chance to address last nights activities.  The others Ezra, Vin, Chris and Josiah saw him enter
through the kitchen.  Buck, Nathan and JD had to rely on the reflections from the windows
behind the tracker and the gambler.  “Here comes trouble.”  Buck whispered to JD.  Cummings
heard the comment and smiled briefly.

“Gentlemen, I just wanted to inform you that the vehicles are now under lock and key and the
location of the keys have changed, so please do not bother rifling my office searching for them
again.  As for last nights unscheduled festivities,”  He paused hoping to see looks of
apprehension.  There were none forth coming. They were a tough group of men that dealt with
deadlier people than himself on a monthly basis.  DC almost smiled.  He had informed the Judge
of the fiasco in town and Travis said he would look into it.  Larabee should be hearing from the
Judge sometime soon and Cummings was hoping to be there for it.

“Don’t worry Mr. Cummings, the boys will be staying with me tonight.”  Chris informed
everyone at the table.  He eyed everyone daring them to make a comment.

“That would be convient Mr. Larabee I’m sure Sheriff Salisbury will be very appreciative.”
Cummings turned his gaze to the pale southerner.  He must still be suffering from the lingering
effects of last nights binge.
“Mr. Standish there is a billiards table in the next room.”  He switched his gaze to Tanner, “I’ll
have Andy unlock the doors so you will not have to exert yourself Mr. Tanner.”

“There was no effort involved at all, I assure you, Mr. Cummings.”  Ezra said speaking up for the
quiet tracker.  Tanner merely grinned.

“’Ey Donald where’s the liquor kept in this place?”  Buck asked, more to irritate the man than
anything else. Larabee through Wilmington a warning glare.

“As I have said before there is no alcohol or gambling allowed while you are guests of the
ranch.”  Cummings reiterated with tried patience.  He wished Brenda and Andy had pushed them
a little harder on the hike they seven still had to much fight left in them.  Cummings sighed he
was suppose to make them the cohesive trusting unit again, and if he had to do it by making them
face a common enemy, namely himself, then he would.  He also knew that was not the way to get
things accomplished, because once the common enemy was gone the infighting would just
re-emerge.  Cummings did not know how else to reach them.  They were volatile men and
worked in a hostile environment,  quiet times were hard on them but it had started affecting their
performance on the job.  Travis wanted a miracle.  Donald began to think maybe The Judge
should have sent them to a religious retreat.
“Good night gentlemen.”  DC said bading the seven trials before them a quiet evening.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Buck leaned on his pole cue waiting for Vin to take his shot.  “Hey any one see Ezra?  I figured
he’d be here trying to recoup his loss from last night.”

“You mean this morning.”  Josiah corrected.  He leaned against a stool half standing half sitting.
He and Tanner verse Buck and Chris in eight ball ‘slap shot’ style.  They did not have to call the
pocket.

“He’s just a might ticked off all his hard work had to rebuild the bar.”  JD answered, he tried
juggling the spare playing balls that lined the ball holder on the wall.

“Who could blame him.  That was alot of cash Chris asked him to cough up.”  Jackson answered
from across the room waiting for his and JD’s turn to play the winners.

Chris smiled, “He still made out pretty good.”  This caused the others to glance up at their leader
in question.
Chris sighed, “He only emptied one boot, and never checked the inner pocket of his jacket.”
Knowing smiles graced the features of the team.  Larabee had figured Standish had earned some
of the winnings.  Besides the smart mouth southerner did not normally throw the first punch, he
might goad someone into doing it but he himself normally tried to avoid physical activity that
might get him marred or dirty.  Chris did not think that the whole burden of monetary retribution
should befall the gambler.  He was simply a product of his upbringing and environment.

Nature verses Nurture.  In the Ezra’s case he did not stand a chance ,gambling and conning were
in his gene pool, a variant chromosome probably found only in the Maude Standish lineage.
Chris could not completely blame him but would hold him answerable to a serious degree.

“Where is he anyhow?”  Buck asked as he took a shot at the one ball and missed knocking
Josiah’s fifteen ball into the side pocket.

“Nice shot”  JD remarked as he dropped two of the balls he tried to juggle.  Wilmington curled
his lip in a snare.

“I think he went to bed.”  Vin answered.  Buck and Chris were going to lose this game.  Tanner
smiled and shook his head, Ezra just won another five dollars and he was not even present.

******************************************************************************
part 14 Sunday early am

Chris bolted up right in bed.  He thought he heard gun shots.  He sat still for a moment listening
intently as his eyes focused.  The roar of his pulse faded and he took a shallow breath.  He heard
voices.  Larabee gazed down the line of bunks passed Nathan, JD and Buck and saw Josiah’s
empty bed.  Chris rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn,
it was two thirty am.  Where was Josiah?  Chris heard the voices again and realized Vin and
Josiah sat at the far end of the room near the door talking.  Standish’s bunk had been
unceremoniously transported down there by Buck and Josiah because they could not tolerate the
incessant cough the first night.  The second night the whole state could have blown up and none
of the other six would have noticed.  Now what?  Larabee gingerly gained his feet grimacing at
the uncomfortably cold floors.

“Damn Josiah he’s burning up.”  Vin whispered.  Tanner squatted down at the head of Standish’s
bunk.  The southerner slept uneasily on his right facing the sharpshooter.  Josiah sat on Ezra’s
bunk, the gambler’s back to him.  For his part Standish mumbled softly and coughed.  When this
happened he scrunched down and protected his right ear curling slightly tighter into himself.
Sanchez rested a hand on the gambler’s forehead, then cheek and then neck, mimicking Vin’s
earlier movements.  Josiah cursed softly.

Tanner seemed to read his mind, “You want me to get the truck?”  Sanchez hesitated thinking
and nodded silently.
His suburban still needed worked on, he planned on doing it later today.  At least now they had
the opportunity to get parts.  “’Ey Chris.”  Vin said noticing Larabee coming to the foot of the
bed.

“What’s going on?”  Larabee asked.  He already had a pretty good idea but he wanted
confirmation.  Standish coughed again, groaned and huddled his head deeper into the protective
nook created by his arm.

“He’s pretty bad off.”  Vin answered simply getting up, “I’m gonna get the bronco.”  Chris
stepped aside and let Vin past.  The quiet unquestionable tone did not leave room for discussion.
Larabee knew Tanner well enough to realize that when the sharpshooter thought something
needed done it got done.  No discussions, no interference, he set about the task and accomplished
it.  When it came to one of the other six, Chris knew Vin would go to hell and back, walk over or
through an obstacle in his way to help one of them.  With this knowledge, Chris did not rebuke
Tanner’s intention.  Instead just the opposite emotion flooded Larabee.  Standish had to be sick
for Vin to act so quickly and authoritatively.   Larabee took up Tanner’s position and squatted
infront of the southerner.  He too easily felt the high fever, and noticed the painful grimaces that
crossed the sleeping man’s face with each soft dry cough.

“Let’s get some socks and shoes on him.”  Chris said as he and Josiah prepared the gambler for
his trip back into town.

Within a few minutes, Buck, JD and Nathan were up and helping.  The lights had been turned on
making Josiah and Chris’s job easier.  For his part, Standish merely opened his red  sore eyes for
a moment grumbled holding his right ear and drifted back off to sleep.  JD volunteered his
hightops, they were easy on and off, and did not need lacing so to speak.  Buck tossed over a
clean pair of cotton blended socks, since they sat at the top of his bag.

“You want me to take him in?”  Nathan asked tossing sweat pants over to Sanchez ,to fit on the
curled southerner.

“Naw Vin and I can handle this.” Josiah smiled fiendishly, “cuz when he’s feeling better and still
has to take medicine then he’s all yours.”

“Oh thanks.” Nathan complained, unfortunately Sanchez spoke the truth.   They hauled Ezra to
his feet when the bronco pulled up right infront of the bunk house front porch.  Chris smiled, for
Vin no obstacle was to big to stand in his way when it came to helping a friend, not even the
manicured lawn of  “The Aspen Ranch”.  Chris and Josiah half carried and half dragged Standish
to the waiting truck.  Buck and Nathan jogged infront of them and put down the tailgate, and laid
out a few blankets and a pillow.  Together Josiah and Chris managed to wrestle the younger man
into the cargo hold of the truck.  Standish for his part talked incoherently his head bobbing to his
chest.

Chris slammed the tailgate up and relatched the spare tire.  “Thanks Chris.”  Josiah said.  The red
glow of the tail lights cast everyone one an eery hue.

“JD you want to see if you can contact the emergency room and let’em know we’re coming?”
Josiah asked before Vin put the back window up.

“Yeah sure, reservation for one not a problem.”  Dunne said confidently.  There was no doubt the
youngest of the seven would manage to take a ‘no service’ zone and make it very serviceable.

“Thanks.” Josiah turned back and faced front catching Tanner’s eye in the rear view mirror.
“Lets go.”

A half hour later, Vin Tanner rang the bell at the emergency entrance door.  He waited only a few
short seconds before a middle aged nurse opened the door.  She smiled kindly warming her face
and taking some of the edge off the situation,  “The Standish party?”  She asked sweetly as if
they were discussing dinner reservations.

“Yup.”  Vin looked back over at the truck, “bring him on in Josiah.”  Tanner held the door open
as the nurse stepped back.  Sanchez lumbered past with Standish draped like a rag doll in his
arms.

“Right over here.”  She said patting the empty gurney that graced the lime green linoleum
emergency room.  She wasted no time handing Vin the clipboard full of endless medical forms
and then pelted Josiah with questions.  Nurse Shea asked many of the same question that she had
asked the young man over the phone who called in informing them of his friends impending
arrival.

Tanner held the clip board and the bic pen that was secured to it by umbilical tape and adhesive
tape.  He paper work but especially hospital variety.  These things did not need to be this
complicated.  Vin reduced himself to sitting on the only other unoccupied gurney in the room.

Josiah stood protectively at that gambler’s head.   Sanchez watched as the nurse took the
conman’s pulse, respiration’s, blood pressure and then temperature.  Claire Shea made a face as
she read the ear thermometer digital read out.  She jotted it down.  As she efficiently performed
her tasks she constantly questioned the ex anthropologist.   Josiah recognized the some similar if
not same questions asked through out the process, the lady was a gifted interrogator.  Finally she
stopped her poking and prodding as Ezra would have labeled it had he been more coherent, and
smiled at Sanchez.  “I’ll go summon Dr. Sullivan”  Sanchez merely nodded.  He pulled a stool
over and sat at Standish’s head.  The conman lay oblivious to his environment.

The gambler had moved slightly during the whole process.  Instead he lay on his right side, with
eyes closed, his right hand protecting his right ear.  When the soft coughs hit, and he groaned
tensing muscles at the discomfort, Josiah smiled when Nurse Shea rubbed her patience back
speaking soothingly to him.  Now Josiah adjusted the white woven hospital blanket up around his
friends bare shivering shoulders.  He ignored the rest of the room and chuckled slightly watching
Tanner nibble on the anchored pen top contemplating the next question on the maze of forms in
his grasp.  Sanchez silently thanked God he was not handed the clip board.  He hated forms.

Dr. Mike Sullivan ambled into the ER reading the chart Shea handed him.  He had listened to her
synopsis of the patient with more vigor than he read the chart.  Claire liked the trio. Mike nodded
to himself that would make things easier.  In all his years of dealing with late night early morning
emergencies he disliked the ornery drunks the most.  The sick children got his heart racing but
cases like tonight’s were mild almost routine.  Helped his shift go by quicker.

******************************************************************************
part 15
 

Josiah and Vin both looked up when the Doctor entered the room.  He was maybe in his fifties,
walked slowly but confidently and carried an easy smile.  “Hi I’m Mike Sullivan, Doctor on call
this fine evening.”  He held out his hand and Josiah accepted it, surprised at the strength in the
grasp.  “So this is our sick boy?”

“Yup, Ezra Standish.”  Josiah said backing out of the way giving the doctor room to work.

“Ezra?”  Sullivan repeated as he went through his physical exam.  “Strange name indeed, don’t
think I’ve ever had one of those come through my door before.”   He noticed the large man nod
and stand quietly at the foot of the gurney.

Josiah soon found himself answering many of the same questions Shea had asked him.   After a
few minutes, and the stethoscope wrapped back around the doctor’s neck he said, “Ok lets get a
look at that ear.”  Together the two men managed to roll Standish onto his left side.  Ezra
immediately tried to roll back.  Josiah stood gain at the head of the bed opposite of Sullivan and
held his friend still.  “Just hold on Ez, he’s almost done.”  Standish mumbled and swiped at his
right ear trying to deflect any more outside insult to his ear.  Josiah easily grabbed the
haphazardly moving hand and held it down near it’s owner’s face.

“He always this resistant?”  Sullivan asked before he did an otoscopic exam.

“This?”  Josiah asked, as he kept Standish still, “this is nothing.”  Sanchez chuckled lightly.  “If
he were feeling any better we never would have gotten him into the truck.”  The preacher paused
for a moment and added, “he really doesn’t like doctors.”

Sullivan laughed softly as he peered down in to the inflamed ear canal.  He straightened up
shutting off the small instrument that clung to the wall, “well he sure has a funny way about
avoiding us.”  Sanchez agreed.

“Claire we’re going to swab the ear and the throat.” Sullivan directed his nurse.  Shea handed
him the swabs and agar dishes.   Josiah watched the two work as a team and knew they had
worked together for some time.
Sullivan turned his attention back to his lethargic patient, “Mr. Standish we’re going to swab
your ear and throat now this might hurt a little but just hold still and it’ll be over real quick.”
Ezra gave no indication he heard what was said or even understood where he was at the moment.
Tanner heard and understood.  He thankfully put down the clipboard and helped Josiah.  Standish
would not hold still for anyone.

Sullivan true to his word, quickly got the sample, and it hurt, because Ezra fought.  The green
blood shot eyes unrolled, legs bicycled, and both hands were trapped by another unseen set of
hands.  He gagged and tossed his head but again found it too was mercilessly restrained.  As
quick as the insult had begun it ended.  Standish’s glazed green eyes found Josiah’s for only a
brief second before they closed yet again.

“He gonna be ok?”  Vin asked as the nurse set up and established an IV in the back of Ezra’s left
hand.  Doctor Sullivan indicated the two men should step away from the gurney to give Claire
space to work.

“He’s going to be fine.  A high fever, 104.2, not pretty by any means.  Probably a strep infection
of the throat, definitely an acute middle ear infection,”  He paused and gauged the two men
infront of him.  He wondered if they were apart of the Donny Brook that had occurred at the
Korner Klub the night before.  Instead he continued with his plan, “We’re going to run some
antibiotics in IV over the next couple of hours and then send you boys home with the oral stuff.
When we get the culture sensitivity back we should know if we have to change them or not.”
Sullivan glanced on more time at his patient.  For being such a fighter his patient had lain pretty
still then again a high fever tended to do that to a person.  “He’s just going to need some rest and
finish out the meds.”  Sullivan shook both men’s hands and headed to the door which led to the
rest of the hospital, “I’ll see you boys before ya leave and review everything again.”

Tanner watched the orange labeled IV drip slowly down the extension set.  Standish had rolled
back onto his right side hiding his ear from any more abuse.  Vin sighed picked up the clip board
and settled back down on the empty gurney.  Sanchez sat back down on the stool and leaned back
against the cool tile wall watching Vin struggle with the forms.  Josiah checked his watch 415am.
Two nights in row he found himself still awake after midnight.  He really was getting to old for
this kind of thing.  He untangled the IV tubing from the blankets Ezra huddled under and
checked his forehead for a fever, not very precise, or scientific but it made him feel better and
hoped somewhere in the hazy fever, Ezra got some comfort from the simple gesture as well.

530 am the early morning quiet of the exam room was shattered.  The loud ringer out side the
door buzzed incessantly.   Josiah shot straight up in his chair blinking his eyes tiredly.  Vin
nimbly gained his feet searching left and right before his tired mind recognized the sound.
Standish continued to cough, sleeping uneasily on his side buried under blankets.

Nurse Shea briskly entered the room nodded hello’s to the groggy men and opened the outside
door.  “Meaghan, Tommy what happened?”  She asked, helping the tall brunette with her burden.

“Butch threw me.”  Tommy answered through gritted teeth.  He stood a few inches taller than the
young woman who supported him.  The matching freckled features, the same dark brown hair,
and matching blue eyes clearly indicated the were brother and sister.   Tanner made his way over
to the other side of the restless undercover agent and watched the newcomers.

“Let’s ease ya up here Tommy.” Claire said as she and Meaghan hefted the taller man onto the
gurney.  They struggled a little until Vin went over and lent a hand.  “Thanks Mr.”  Meaghan said
as she helped her brother inch back onto the temporary bed.  The Nurse supported the injured leg
while Vin helped.  The leg was obvious broken it hung at an awkward angle just below the knee.
The toe of the boot nearly pointed almost a ninety degree angle from the point of the knee.

Vin backed off watching as the nurse went about asking her questions of the brother and sister
before leaving to get the doctor.  A few minutes later Doc Sullivan entered the room nodded a
greeting to the two ATF agents.  He furrowed his brow when he heard the endless coughs
emanating from the curled form obscured by the blankets.  He would have to give him something
for that as well.

“Tommy my boy.  You get thrown from that horse of yours again?”  Sullivan inquired with tired
amusement.  Tanner figured it was not the first time the young man had been to the ER. under
similar conditions.  The kid must have been about the same age as JD, except a whole lot taller
and  formidable.  He had worked on a farm all his life from the looks of it.

“Ahh heck Doc they shot poor Butch right out from underneath me.  Didn’t have much choice
but to hit the ground.”  Tommy answered slightly peeved.  His leg was killing him.

Vin and Josiah shared curious looks, were they the same rifle shots they had heard earlier in the
morning back at the Ranch?

“Butch fell on his leg. It took a bit for me to get him out form under him,”  Meaghan answered
never leaving her brother’s side.

Doc nodded gazing at the older girl and then her brother, “Well ya did a good job on it this time.
We’re gonna have to put ya out to fix this one.”  Sullivan sighed as he heard the young man
curse.  “Claire’s already contacted Dave, he’ll be in x-ray by now. We’ll set ya up there.”

Sullivan turned and looked at the two ATF agents, “Could you boys help us get Tom onto a
stretcher.”
Josiah and Vin both nodded, of course.

******************************************************************************
part 16

Twenty minutes later, Meaghan returned to the emergency room.

“How’s your brother?”  Josiah asked softy his baritone voice vibrating off the walls.  The IV had
only a third of the way to go.  Standish had not changed position but instead mumbled
incoherently in his sleep.

“Doc had to call in Dr. Magnus to set the leg,  They’re taking him to surgery.”  She sat dejectedly
on the gurney next to Vin who still mindlessly wrestled with the forms.  “Those bite don’t they?”
she asked as Vin shifted over giving her room next to him.

“Yeah.” he drawled out.  Sanchez watched her cock her head.  She picked up the Texas accent.
“What’s the matter with him?”  She jutted her chin out indicating Ezra.

“Bad ear infection, and Strep. throat.”  Tanner answered.

She nodded and then her eyes brightened with recognition.  This puzzled Sanchez until she said,
“Hey aren’t you the guys that tore up the Korner Klub the other night?”  She smiled and then
giggled at their embarrassed faces.
“Ahh heck don’t worry about it happens all the time.”

In desperation to change the subject Josiah asked, “What’s this about your brother’s horse getting
shot out from underneath it?”

Her face clouded.  Josiah was afraid she was going to clam up but suddenly she spoke, her voice
low and cold with anger, “There’s rustlers up these parts, don’t want the cattle really just my
daddy’s land.  Figured if they could kill off enough of his stock and ruin our crops then we go
under and they get the land, or the bank does and it goes up for auction.   Either way we lose.”
She kneaded her knuckles in a nervous frustrating habit and continued, “My older brothers are all
out of town.”   She stared up at the two men meeting their gazes and with obvious pride said,
“they’re in the military.  Just me and Tommy helping Dad run the place.”

“You contact the sheriff?”  Josiah asked.  He had taken a liken to the young lady but was not as
smitten with her as Vin apparently had become.  The long haired tracker stared at her watching
her movements with wide blue eyes.  Josiah hoped Vin would blink soon or his corneas were
going to dry out.

Just then Sheriff Salisbury entered the ER from the hospital corridor.  He stopped short when he
saw the two ATF Agents and the form in the bed, “Ahh don’t tell me you guys got into another
fight?”  He smiled at the diverted glances.

“Naa”  Vin recovered quickly, “Ezra here got himself a cold.”

“The southerner?”  Salisbury nodded, he was afraid maybe Larabee wrung his wise neck.  He
switched his attention to the young lady, “Meg you want to tell me what happened this
morning?”  His voice and mannerisms had changed.  He nolonger spoke like the six foot four
two hundred and seventy pound force of intimidation that he normally portrayed.  Instead he
presented a caring older brother only wanting to help.  Tanner moved off the gurney letting them
have space.

Meg for her part, merely nodded and wiped her eyes.  The toughness and tomboy facade slipped
in the face of her apparent friend.  The sheriff inturned hugged her comfortingly, holding her for
a second and finally asked, “you ok?”  Again she only response was a nod.

Tanner and Sanchez sat with Standish out of the way listening to the chain of events that brought
Meaghan and her brother to the emergency room.   Fifiteen minutes later and after a few soft
questions from the sheriff he stood to go.  He lifted her bowed head delicately by the chin.  “You
hang in there Meg we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Meaghan for her part nodded and wiped her eyes.  The carefree smirk was back.

The sheriff pulled a well known diversion technique, “You know Meg these boy’s over here are
ATF agents. Members of an elite team, best record this side of the Mississippi.”  He smiled when
the young lady turned her thoughts outward, away from her brother and back to the three men.
She matched his smile and shook her head, she did not know.

“The big guy is Josiah Sanchez,”  Josiah for his part nodded a friendly open smile graces his
stubbled face.
“the long haired one is Vin Tanner.”  Vin and her quietly nodded at each other.  Josiah and Craig
locked eyes and raised eyebrows, apparently the two were interested in each other.  “You gonna
be ok?  Want a ride home?”

“Naw that’s ok Craig,”  she corrected herself , “Sheriff  I’ll wait for Tommy.”    He assented and
said his good byes to the ATF agents and headed out the doors.

Nurse Claire came back into the room and checked Standish’s vitals.  The gambler coughed and
moaned again.
She left silently smiling tightly to the young lady.

Doc Sullivan came in next.  “He still pretty uncomfortable?”   Josiah nodded, laying a massive
hand on the chestnut brown head that buried itself in the pillow.  Another round of coughs hit
and Ezra moaned tilting his head trying anything to alleviate the discomfort in his throat and ear.

Sullivan produced a syringe and needle, “Mr. Standish, I’m going to give you an injection in your
hip.  It’s going to help with the cough and make your throat and ear feel better.  Ok?”  As he
spoke Sullivan lifted the blankets revealing his patients back and hip.  He pulled down the waist
band to the borrowed sweat pants the undercover agent wore an injected the needle into the pale
skin.  Standish tossed his head slightly and moved away from the stinging pain.

“Easy there pard’ he’s almost done.”  Vin said holding onto the sliding blanketed lower legs.

“There ya go.”  The doc said replacing the sweat pants and the blankets.  The doctor turned his
attention to Josiah and Vin, “That’ll ease the coughing, and should knock him out for about six to
eight hours.”  Sullivan checked the IV bag again and said, “when this finishes out you’ll be free
to go.”  The doctor turned his attention to the young woman who sat quietly across the room.

“Meg, Bill is almost done with Tom.  Why don’t you get some breakfast and come on back.
We’ll have Tom settled in by then and you can sit with him.”

Vin could see the rejection in the young lady, and quickly piped up, “I’ll go with ya if ya don’t
mind.”  He looked over at Josiah to make sure the older man agreed to his idea.  “We’ve got
awhile to go yet, I’m starving and besides we need parts for Josiah’s bucket of rust.”

“’ey watch it.”  Sanchez warned.  He was very fond of his truck.

Meg allowed a small laugh, stared at Dr. Sullivan as if waiting for his approval, were these
trusted men or not?  Craig liked them but Doc’s opinion was important as well.  “Go ahead
Meg,”  Sullivan smiled, reading he questioning gaze correctly.

******************************************************************************
part17

Josiah slid the prescription meds in his pockets and waited for Vin to arrive.  Shea had pulled the
IV before her shift ended.  It was eight am. and he was tired.  Ezra slept comfortably beside him,
he had not coughed for the last hour and a half.   Sullivan had come back in with the meds,
saving the tired ATF agent from having to visit the pharmacy.  The fever had dropped two
degrees, that was a good sign.  Sullivan had reiterated all the instructions again, making sure the
giant man infront of him understood what had to be done.  Josiah nodded and asked for written
instructions, Nathan would want them.  Josiah looked up when Vin entered the ER from the
hospital corridor.  “You ready?”

“Yup, how’s he doing?”  Tanner asked stepping over to the bed.  His breakfast with Meaghan
had turned out to be quite enjoyable.

“Out.”  Sanchez answered gazing back down at the sleeping form.  Ezra was feeling better, his
breathing had leveled out, his legs uncurled and his features more relaxed.

“I’ll honk when I’m outside the door.”  Tanner said as he left through the outside emergency
entrance as Josiah wiggled sneakers back on the sleeping man’s feet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nathan, JD, Buck and Chris all looked up when they heard the Bronco climb the driveway.  They
had finished their morning run and were heading over for breakfast.  Josiah had called Chris’s
cell phone a few hours ago, letting them know how Ezra was doing and told them a little about
the gunshots.  Larabee still marveled at the youngest member of the ATF team.  JD was a wizard
with electronics and computers.  The darn cell phone worked better in this ‘no service’ zone than
it did in ‘service’ zones.  Chris just hoped JD could put the phone back together when this was
all through.

Tanner drove the Bronco across the lawn to the dining hall.  Buck chuckled, “Must be hungry.”
The others made their way over.  Nathan unlatched the back spare tire swinging it open and
dropping the tail gate.

“Howdy boy’s.  Miss us?”  Josiah boomed crawling over the back seat into the cargo area where
Standish slept and then crab crawled onto the tail gate.

“Oh yeah, been real peaceful.”  Buck said grinning.  JD had finally passed Andy on the run
finishing before the counselor.  It infuriated the man much to the amusement of the others.  Buck
of course finished last but he did not mind. He had laughed and waved as he passed the others on
the road, from the comfort of the front seat of a Ford pickup. A nice, caring lady picked him up
on the road and dropped him off at the bottom of the driveway.  The only one not enjoying his
antics, was of course Andy.

“How’s he doing?”  Chris asked.  Standish’s green eyes were open but he did not appear to
coherent.  He still lay curled on his side blinkly slowly, breathing lazily through slightly parted
lips.

“Doc said he’ll call tomorrow and let us know about the cultures, but right now he’s treating him
for an a pretty bad middle ear infection and Strep throat.”  Sanchez reached in and with Nathan’s
help, slid the groggy man from the back of the truck.  “Come on Ezra,”  Josiah said, easing his
younger friend into a sitting position on the tail gate with his legs dangling over the edge.
Standish for his part swayed and leaned heavily into the anthropologist.

“What’d they give’im?”  JD asked.  He had never seen Ezra so out of it.  Even when Standish
drank he did so in moderation.  Ezra had explained to JD he preferred to have his wits about him
when engaging in games of chance.

“Something for the cough, and ease the pain of the ear ache.”  Sanchez grabbed Ezra’s upper
arm, Nathan mimicked the action on the otherside,  “Ok you ready.”  Josiah asked Nathan
nodded,  “Ok Ezra lets get some breakfast in ya.”  The two men hauled the compliant southerner
to his sneakered feet.

Standish’s legs buckled somewhat before muddled reflexes kicked in and knees caught, and
muscles tightened.   He blinked owlishly trying to make sense of his surroundings.  Chris shook
his head a crooked smile creased his face.  He should enjoy the peace and quiet.  Larabee waited
until he was sure Jackson and Sanchez had a firm grip on their drugged friend and then led them
into the dining hall.

Chris listened as Josiah gave them the complete run down on Standish’s condition.  For his part
the undercover agent swayed slightly in his chair, his arms resting heavily by his sides.  Vin
placed a smoking muffin on the southerner’s plate and cut it for him.  Ezra just stared at it
blinking slowly with his head bowed.   “Gotta eat it Ez.” Vin spoke softly so not to interrupt
Josiah.   Tanner waited while Ezra lifted a seemingly impossibly heavy hand to the table and pick
up part of the blue berry muffin.  He took a small bite and dropped the muffin back on the plate
and then his arm fell back to his side.  The sharpshooter watched amused as the normally quick
witted gambler let his eyes flutter close.  Vin nudged his arm rousting him, “ya gotta chew the
muffin Ez, and then swallow.”
He waited patiently for the undercover agent to do as recommended.

Chris then asked about the gunshots.  Vin picked up the story from there telling them everything
Meaghan had told him.  It had not been much different from what she had told the sheriff but the
history she provided over breakfast was important.  When he had finished, the table fell silent.

Larabee rested his chin on closed fists as he leaned back in his armed dinning chair thinking.
After a moment he sat forward the others knew there was a plan.  “Ok JD I want you to dig up as
much info about the Working C ranch as you can find.  Buck find out who’s interested in the
land in this area, big developers etc.  Vin see if ya can’t find out what kind of slug hit the horse
and if it is happening to any other ranches in the area.  Nathan check the bank records and
archives dig up any other ranches that might have fallen by the wayside.”  He fixed the
anthropologist down the table from him with a hard stare, “ Josiah fix your truck.”  He said
tiredly.  Larabee was getting tired of the camp director coming to him about misappropriated
vehicles.  “And someone grab Ezra.”  He added calmly.  The gambler was listing seriously to his
right.  Josiah and Vin immediately grabbed for the leaning man and hauled him back into his
chair.

“Ahh Chris.”  JD’s soft hesitant voice sounded.  Larabee gazed down at the youngest member of
the team with a questioning look. JD sat between Nathan and Buck both men nearly a head taller
than the younger man, making the computer whiz appear alot younger than his years.   Dunne
continued, “ How are we suppose to do this?”  the kid asked then said, “I mean, here, we don’t
have a computer, and can’t leave....”

“That’s your problem JD, just get it done,”  Larabee answered.  He understood what the agent
was asking but could not suggest how to get it done.  He softened his words slightly with a smile,
“I’m sure you’ll be resourceful and beside I bet this place is computerized.”  JD matched his
knowing smile.

“Whoa whoa Ezra wait.”  Vin’s panicked voice rang out as Standish reached clumsily for
something and knocked over a glass of water.  Tanner quickly intercepted the falling glass before
it hit the table slopping contents over the rim.  Standish dropped his arm back on the table and
reached for the glass again with fingers that would not respond.  “You want some water?”  Vin
slid the glass closer to the lax hand.

“Here Vin put this in it.”  Sanchez dug out a small plastic pouch.  “It’s his antibiotic.  The Doc.
gave the first few dosages in powder form figured pill would be to hard to swallow.”  Tanner did
as told and soon Standish drank the water oblivious to the medication or even the staring eyes.

“Damn he must be sick. He ain’t even complained, Hell even said a word.”  Buck said watching
as Ezra took his medicine with out ire.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At ten o’clock they met in the lodge.  DC surveyed the group.  The Bronco had turned up missing
again early this morning, along with three members of the team, Mr. Wilmington hitched a ride
from a stranger instead of partaking in the run, and now only six members of the team were
present not seven.

“Richard will you please get Mr. Standish and bring him here.”  Cummings said his voice stern
and angry.  He had had it with these men.  It was Sunday.  They had been here only a few days
and still they flaunted their disrespect.

“Don’t.” The one simple contraction held enough threat and warning that it froze the large man
in his tracks.  Larabee’s hazel eyes matched his tone.  The other five men sat tense.  There were
few things Larabee simply did without question or explanation, one of them was protect his men.
Standish was sick and down, and needed protection.   Larabee granted it with vicious ferocity,
and would not tolerate any one or anything threatening that protective corona that now
surrounded Standish.

Nathan saw the boiling confrontation and quickly stepped in, “he spent the night in the
emergency room, Doc says he needs to sleep.”  Cummings looked at the chemist searching for
the lie.  He found none.  Just two days ago Jackson had tackled the southerner to the ground in
anger and now he protected him.  Larabee had thrown up his hands at leadership but now dared
anyone who questioned his orders.

Cummings sighed maybe this was working and he was just not seeing it.  This had to be the most
trying group he had ever had the displeasure of helping.

“Well, that would explain the missing vehicle.”  Cummings intoned staring pointedly at Tanner
and Sanchez.  Neither man seemed ruffled.  DC had begun to understand why.  Larabee was held
in high respect with his men, and he directed them as a result of that respect.  When he spoke
they listened, when he was angry they listened.  Larabee kept his men alive when most would or
should have perished.  There were few things that bothered these men but one of them was
disapproval from their leader.  Cummings realized his approval or disapproval mattered very
little to these men because DC had never saved their lives, had never protected or supported them
when death knocked on the door or tried to cross the threshold.  Larabee had, Larabee had put
these men together, and through their work, trials and tribulations had forged a bond of family.
Tanner and Sanchez had taken the bronco to help an ailing brother, they would do it again and
again with or without the threat of Cummings, they did not care.  Larabee would always grant his
approval because the fallen member was apart of their family.  Unconventional yes, dangerous
yes,.  Cummings realized to separate them would be even more dangerous.  He needed to speak
with Judge Travis.

Cummings was suppose to help patch the raw wound that had exposed itself in this group of
misfits.  Some how during these past few days when DC thought all was falling apart around
him, the healing had begun.  Now they just had to foster it, nurse it along and hope nothing else
presented itself to tear it back open.

“Being Sunday, you may have the afternoon to do as you see fit, but this morning, Brenda,
Richard, and Andy will take you on a cross country jog.”  He stared pointedly at Wilmington,
“And there will be no cars along the route to pick you up.”  Chris and the others laughed.

After the meeting was adjourned the others headed back to the bunkhouse.  Chris stopped to talk
to Cummings.
“I’d like Josiah to stay behind and keep an eye on Ezra.”

It was a simple request.  Cummings was surprised Josiah was picked over Nathan.  Jackson was
the EMT he would have been the logical choice.  DC held his tongue and granted the request.  He
figured it was easier to agree than be ignored.  Chris would leave a man behind to watch over the
southerner, no matter what Cummings had to say about it.  Chris and DC both knew it, Larabee
was being polite and DC offered an uneasy truce.

******************************************************************************
part  18

Chris entered the surprisingly quiet bunk house.  Standish slept oblivious to the world, in the
bunk Buck and JD had eased him into after breakfast.  Larabee rested a practiced hand on the
relaxed forehead.   There was still a fever but nothing like last night.  Chris left his undercover
agent and sought out the large older agent.  Josiah stood infront of the sink brushing his teeth.
Larabee had noticed nobody left their tooth brushes unattended anymore fearing that JD would
use it.  The boy had some questionable hygiene practices.  Chris should not have been surprised
because JD lived with Buck after all.

“Josiah, your staying behind with Ezra,”  Larabee said.

The large man peered sidewise still leaning over the sink, dressed only in a towel.  He nodded
without complaint.

“I need ya to get your truck up and running but if ya want I can have Nathan stay.”  Chris offered.
He watched as Josiah shook his head no.  Larabee went back to his bunk smiling.  Josiah did not
like anyone working on his truck but himself, could be why it ran so poorly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Josiah peered under the raised hood of his truck looking at the hodgepodge of spare parts and
alterations that made up the engine.  He had had this Chevy for over ten years, well over a
hundred thousand miles.  The others made fun of it, labeled it ‘the Tank’ , ‘bucket of rust’ etc.
Sure it was unreliable at times, and a case of motor oil sat in the back near the spare tire, and the
fully equipped tool box nestled next to the oil, but this truck and he had been through alot
together.  He knew every bump and ding in the body, could tell anyone how the tear in the seat
upholstery occurred and which mile the air conditioner had finally died.   He knew his truck and
more importantly he knew how to fix it.  His truck was his penance, his therapy, and he liked
it....most times.

Sanchez laid down the ratchet and glanced at his watch.  The others should be back in an hour or
more.  He had just checked in on Ezra and found him still sleeping.  Josiah was not surprised, the
guy was sick.  If he had just listened to Nathan they might have avoided this whole mess.  The
last few weeks had been tough on everyone. They had had a particularly heavy case load.  Vin
and Ezra had been working undercover for months, the others had been crammed into a
surveillance van for hours on end.  It was a miracle noone killed one another.   On top of that the
endless stream of paper work.  Chris had to oversee all of it, pull the reins and direct his men in a
cohesive manner.  The cracks of wear and tear had begun to show through, the constant banter
that bounced from man to man had become cutting jabs disguised thinly under the facade of
satire, soon even that failed and outright bickering had occurred.

 Sanchez slid under the truck with wrench in hand and paused.  Maybe the Judge had been right
after all maybe this was what they needed.  Lately the tension in the office was almost tangible
and noone safe.   Now however, the tension had begun to ease.  The camaraderie was slowly
returning, the faith and trust that had been peeled up began to lay back down.  Josiah wondered if
the others realized it as well, he hoped not.  If they had they would balk and fight it.  Most of
them felt that the seven did not need help, did not need outside interference.  Team seven had
faced impossible odds and came through time and time again, on their own.  They did not need
any help. Or so they figured but Josiah began to realize that, yes, they did need help.

 Ezra personified this very attitude.  Jackson cursed the Southerner for his foolish aloofness, and
cool independence, but the whole team acted in a similar manner, even Nathan and himself.
When Standish’s fever had climbed, and he no longer could disguise his illness the others
jumped in and aided him.  (Thankgod he was so out of it or it would not have gone so smoothly.)
Travis had done the same thing for the Team.  Again Josiah thanked the Almighty, that team
seven had been too wary to put up much of a struggle.  Now the group was getting the help they
required, begrudgingly, but getting it none the same.  Josiah allowed a content smile to cross his
stubbled chin and concentrated at the task at hand.

Nathan held back talking to JD.  The kid hung in there with pure grit and determination.  They
had jogged up the mountain side took in the gorgeous vista of the valley and surrounding snow
capped mountain tops that loomed as far as the eye could see.  Jackson felt good, the fresh
mountain air put a whole new perspective on things.  Gawd he loved to run.  Dunne was not sure
he shared the same sentiment but he trudged on, pumping legs and arms climbing the inclined
behind Larabee and the nimble tracker.  JD welcomed Nathan’s presence.  The chemist ran
without effort.  Dunne matched pace with the Jackson allowing the older man to see him up the
mountain.  Even through the roar of his pounding pulse and sucking lungs JD listened as Nathan
gave him subtle indirect suggestions not at all offending the young struggling man.  Dunne acted
on those suggestion and found his breathing came a little easier, shortened strides proved
tolerable to burning muscles.  So the two ascended through the Aspens to the summit.   JD
smiled in relief when they made it to the top and took in the astounding view.  It seemed so much
more breathtaking having had to earn the right to be at the top.

Chris and Vin waited as Buck doggedly trudged up the mountain with JD and Nathan a few yards
behind.  Neither man was surprised by the grit and determination that pushed the men onward.
Buck avoided running like Standish side stepped manual labor.  Dunne just never partook in
distance, like the rest of his lifestyle he was a whirl wind of activity.   A spitfire of activity, a
sprinter, short distance man, not the long haul type but like with everything else he adapted and
persevered.  “Good job JD.”  Chris said the with encouragement.  Despite his breathlessness JD
beamed with pride.  Any compliment from Chris was worth more than any amount of gold.
Dunne quietly thanked Nathan.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Josiah jerked up when someone kicked his feet.  “ey Josiah you sleeping under there?”   Buck’s
voice rang out.  Sanchez jumped awake nearly hitting his head on the underside of his truck.
Buck stepped back as the large extracted himself from under the truck.  “Brother Buck your
back.”  Josiah climbed to his feet wiping the sleep from his eyes.  “How was your run this
morning?”

“Nice view,” Buck answered and said, “almost wished I had your camera.”

“How’d the others do?”  Sanchez asked following the ATF agent toward the bunkhouse.

“Not bad, JD did real good, the kid has alot of heart.”  Wilmington said with a touch of pride.  It
was not lost on Josiah.

The atmosphere in the bunkhouse was quiet out of deference to the still sleeping conman.  He
had finally managed to shift position giving his right shoulder a break.  He now slept on his left
side.  The white cotton in his right ear clearly visible.  The others knew the minute Standish
recognized it, it would be gone.  Nathan was checking for a fever, he stood up relieved
apparently the temperature was staying down.

The afternoon passed by quietly the five men setting about the tasks set before them by Larabee.
Chris for his part over saw the works of the others, mostly helping Josiah with the truck.  Chris
had silently wondered if the Chevy had any of its original parts.

******************************************************************************
part 19

As dinner neared the six men converged on the bunkhouse porch comparing notes.  JD had found
two computers and tapped into each of them, allowing Nathan access to local bank branches. He
commandeered the second one.   Vin had used Chris’s new and improved cell phone though
Tanner thought it looked more like a gutted animal.  He hope JD knew how to put it back
together. The sharpshooter had conversed with the sheriff on the slugs found and what he thought
about the whole situation.   Buck had to share the computer and phone with both Jackson and
Tanner and between waiting he flirted shamelessy with Brenda.

Chris surveyed his team as they took leisurely positions around the porch.  Josiah and he both
occupied the two green wooden chairs.  Vin leaned against the porch railing.  JD sat on the top
rail kicking his feet, dispensing with some of his boundless energy.  Buck stood beside the kid
occasionally pretending to ‘save’ his life, as he pushed the kid over, but grabbing hold of the kid
just at the last minute.  Jackson stood leaning against the opend doorway, occasionly peeking
through the screen door at the still slumbering undercover agent.

“Ok what did ya find out?”  He asked expecting nothing less than sucess from these men.

JD started first.  His nervous energy would have him fidgiting through the whole impromtu
meeting.  “Ok The Working T ranch is owned by a Mr. Liam Delany.  The ‘T’ stands for timber.”
Dunne said before anyone could ask.  “Mr. Delany’s family has lived in this area for the past 79
years.  His father homesteaded the place.  The ranch is 986 acres timberland, meadow, fields with
the Hidden Creek running through it.  It’s the place we saw on the hike the other day before Ez
got sick.  Delany’s got 9 kids,  Josiah and Vin met the youngest two, Meaghan and Thomas, the
other seven are in various branches of the military, either Navy or Marines and the subsequent
special ops.  I did not access those files. ”   He gazed to Chris seeking understanding.  Larabee
merely nodded.  “Delany worked in the local lumber mill as head Saw Filer supporting the cattle
and logging his kids did on the ranch, until he retired 6 years ago. He managed to get all nine
through college.  They’ve been paying their bills and getting by, but recently over the last six
months, cattle have been dying, crops and timber burned.  Nothing concrete but all suspicious.”
Dunne wrapped up.  As he focused his energy into what he reported his legs had stopped moving
as did his hands.  Once he finished his oration his legs started again.  Chris smiled tightly.  JD
was proving to be a promising member of the team.

Vin then kicked in reporting what Salsibury had told him.  He discourse characteristically short
and to the point, “basically what JD said except the slug was probably from a 308 rifle.  Not
uncommon around here.”  Tanner went on to say that Craig suspected dirty play and figured it
had to be related to the sudden interest developers were showing in the area for a ski resort.

Buck picked up the thread and wove an interesting tale of propositions and refusals from
potential buyers and sellers, namely developer and farmer.  These were a proud people and took
their family heritage and way of life seriously.  The lure of money though attractive meant they
had to leave their homes and way of life.  Like the Delany’s most of these families had been here
for almost a hundred years or more, something not easily overlooked or forgotten.

Jackson started in without missing a beat stating so far no farms or ranches had gone under in the
past six months but afew like the Delany’s were heading toward foreclosure and would be on the
auction block so to speak in a matter of months.

“So it seems there has been alot of cattle deaths by lead poisoning.”  Chris said as he thought
about the information his men just dug up.

“Yeah the high power rifle kind.”  Vin added.

“So what do we do?”  JD asked.  The others waited.  Dunne always thought they should ride to
defend the helpless and down trodden, just like super heroes.  The others did not mind the
comparison.  Except Ezra of course, he did not relish donating his time selflessly, they still had to
make a living you know.

“I don’t know just yet JD?”  Chris said still lost in thought.  Finally he looked and addressed his
men.  “Got a call from the Judge today.”  The news was recieved with groans and sighs.

“What did Judge Travis have to say?”  Nathan asked as he gazed over his shoulder making sure
the gambler still slept undisturbed.

“He wants us to behave or we’ll be split up.”  Chris said quietly, not quite believing what he had
been told earlier.  Larabee raised his hands to stop the shocked exclamations and curses.  They
were a team a family noone should have the right to seperate them.  Apparently the Judge did, he
made them he could take them apart, or so he had informed Chris.

“Listen all we have to do is finish out this week, Buck no more hitching a ride, Vin I don’t want
you wandering off fishing anymore, no more wise remarks....”

“Ahh hell we’re gonna have to duct tape Ezra’s mouth shut.”  JD whined.  The others nodded in
agreement.

“We’ll worry about that when he decides to wake up.  Josiah your truck running?”  Larabee
asked.

“Like new.”  He said with obvious pride.

“Ahhuh.”  Chris answered not laying much faith in the older man’s mechanic skill, “if we have to
go to town we take The Tank.”  The others complained and shuffled feet.  Josiah felt slightly
insulted.  Larabee hid his amusement.  “No more ‘borrowing’ the bronco’s.”

“You did explain to him that we had to cuz Ez was sick, didn’t ya?”  Buck asked.

“Yeah Buck but I think it was the night before he that he had an issue with.”  Chris answered
tiredly.   The others conceded that might have been a sore spot.  “Listen just do what these guys
want with minimal argument and things will be fine.”  Chris sighed and added,  “I’ll take care of
Ezra, when the time comes.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
DC was worried.  The six men sat quietly at the dining table.  No wise comments, no banter, they
presented the picture of perfect gentlemen. Cummings did not like it, not one bit.  Something was
up.  He entered the dining area and was greeted with polite ‘hello’s and good evenings’  This
unnerved him.  What had the Judge threatened them with?  The director suddenly did not like the
congenial atmosphere that hung in the air, it was worse than the usual fighting and groans that
greeted him.

“How is Mr. Standish doing this evening?”  Cummings asked as he approached the table a bit
warily.

“Sleeping.”  Nathan answered, not elaborating.

Cummings nodded.  The temperature had suddenly dropped in the room since he entered.
Something had happened between Chris and the Judge.  What did Cummings expect though, he
had told Travis that he had not dealt with such a difficult trying group.  That had been two days
ago, before he realized that they were making head way.  Now it seemed they inadvertently took
a step backward.

“Did you have an enjoyable afternoon?”  He continued trying to ignore the polite but increasingly
charged feeling.  Various answers greeted him all very positive.  Not good, not good at all.
Cummings would have to ride this out.  “Well then I’ll see you tomorrow after breakfast.”  He
left the room closing the door smuthering the formal goodbyes, and salutations.  This was
disastrous.

******************************************************************************
part 20 monday am

Ezra woke feeling pretty good, refreshed actually.  He would have liked to have slept longer but
nature had more urgent plans for him and he felt obliged to answer.  The undercover agent
padded through the empty bunkhouse wondering where everyone had got off too.  The position
of the sun indicated early morning.  Standish went through his normal morning ritual, and while
brushing his teeth he noticed cotton in his right ear.  He wrinkled his brow and removed the
foreign body, trying to drag up hazy memories.  Flashes and images floated in his minds eyes but
they were out of time and place and just out of reach of recognition.  He puzzled over it for only
a minute and resumed with his duties.  Standish dressed and headed out to the front porch.
Tanner had not lit the regular morning camp fire for coffee.  Ezra had come to look forward to
the illicit coffee much to his amazement.  Without coffee, or companionship, Standish settled
down in one of the porch chairs and enjoyed the morning quiet.  He did not normally relish this
time of day but today he felt rather relaxed, his muslces no longer ached, and his ear had reneged
its painful grip on him.  Ezra leaned back on the chair and rested his heels on the bottom rung of
the porch railing.  He settled in and waited for the others.

Forty five minutes later that was how the others found him, dozing, leaning back in a porch chair
with his arms resting in his lap.  They finished their run as a group.  Buck climbed the porch
steps his cheeks pink and wind whipped.  “Well looky here Sleeping Beauty has finally decided
to wake up.”  Wilmington said good naturedly slapping the undercover agents out stretched legs,
jolting him awake.

“Welcome back Ez.  Have a nice nap?”  Tanner asked as he breezed pasted the confused wide
eyed southener, patting his shoulder good naturedly.

“’Ey Ez.” JD greeted bounding up the steps after Buck and Vin.  The run seemed to have
energized him even more.   Standish nodded a greeting in return.

“How ya feelin’ Ez?” Nathan paused on the top step scrutinizing the man sitting in the chair.  He
looked alot better but then again compared to yesterday morning just about anything would have
been an improvement.

“Fine, Mr. Jackson.”  Ezra answered cautiously not quite sure what to make of all the friendly
greetings.  Nathan seemed satisfied and headed indoors.

“Good to have you back Ezra.”  Josiah said as he gathered up his sweat shirt off the front lawn
and headed into the bunkhouse.

Chris read the confused almost bewildered expression on the normally impassive face.  “Mr.
Larabee did I go somewhere?”  Standish asked almost afraid to hear the answer.  The cloudly
images that whisped by did not bode well.

“Just the emergency room, yesterday morning.”  Chris answered enjoying the momentary
befuddlement of his normally sharp undercover agent.

“Yesterday?” Ezra asked, not liking the sounds of this at all.

“Yeah Ez yesterday, Sunday, today’s Monday.” Larabee clarified with mirky descriptions, patting
the confused man comfortingly on the shoulder as he followed his men into bunkhouse.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Cummings raised his eye brows at the presence of all seven men at the ten am meeting.  This was
a first.  “Mr. Standish it’s good to see you up and around.  I trust you are feeling better.”  His
smile was met with a skeptical look.

“Yes thankyou.”  Standish said settling down in an over stuffed chair.  Chris and the others had
filled him in on all the events of the last twenty-four hours,over breakfast.  Things had been busy.
Ezra felt pretty good and had started putting up a fight about taking his penicillin.  Chris had
quietly informed him he could drink the powder mixed water or Josiah and the others could force
it down him right then and there.  Larabee had actually started getting out of his chair and Josiah
had pinned Standish’s arm to the table.  Ezra decided the better part of valor was to drink his
medicine without further argument.

DC studied the men infront of him.  All were sitting quietly, waiting patiently for him to begin,
well except JD he still wiggled and squirmed.  Cummings tried to ignore the drastic change in
behavior.  “Gentlemen today is Monday, we are fast approaching your final day.”  No whistles or
sighs of relief, simple silence.  Cummings did not like this at all.  “Tomorrow you will have to go
through the obstacle course as a timed event and it will include a distance run to the river and
back.  You must complete it as a team.”  Again no reaction.  Buck leaned back resting his head
on the back of the couch.  JD mimicked him.  Nathan inspected the contures of his hands.  Josiah
found something interesting on the fireplace.  Chris stood behind his men with his arms crossed
as if warding over them.  Standish rested quietly in the chair absently rubbing the right side of his
neck as Tanner sat on the arm of the chair repeatedly swiping at the conman’s hand.

Cummings continued, “Today you’ll hike to the river it’s only approximately 15 miles round
trip.”
DC saw Jackson about to comment and figured it was about the health of the southener.  The
director held up his hand halting any rebuttal, “you go as team, you come back as a team.”  He
paused and stared at Larabee, “same goes with tomorrow.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The seven men walked down the wooded path.  Each carrying a day pack with packed lunches
and water.  No counselors lead them the trail was marked.  Vin had folded up his fishing pole,
where there was a river there had to be fish or at least the promise of fishing.   JD bounded out
ahead with Buck just behind him. The twosome continued to hit and wrestle one another until JD
swung up onto Buck’s back in a piggy back.  This lasted all of a few seconds before Wilmington
tossed the kid off.  Their laughter echoed down the trail as they badgered one another on ahead.

 Vin and Chris walked side by side in silence,watching the antics of the alleged grown men
infront of them.  Nathan and Josiah followed behind.  Sanchez sipped smuggled coffee from a
plastic ‘hot mug. He would not be denied his late morning Jo for anyone.   Ezra brought up the
rear enjoying the day.  They trudged along until just after one in the afternoon.  They hit the river.
It was only a few yards wide, but the current swift enought to make crossing difficult, and deep
enough forcing anyone trying to cross to swim.  The summer afternoon was hot and the sun beat
down from a bright blue sky.  A few white clouds dotted the horizon and offered very little
respite from the summer heat.

They dropped their gear under a large Ponderosa pine.  Tanner grabbed his lunch and fishing
pole,he was suppose to ignore, and hunted out a suitable place to drop his line.  JD dogged after
him talking the whole way.  The whole idea of being out in the wild west was mind boggling to
the Boston born and city raised native.

Standish settled down on the ground, normally this would have disgusted him but his legs were
tired as was the rest of him and so he would make the unsuitable ground suitable. He felt as if all
his energy had been sapped from him.  Nathan handed him a bottle of cloudy water, his meds,
silently.  Ezra glared up at the chemist but the sudden looming presence of Josiah and Chris had
him squelch any remark that might have been on his lips.  He drank the concotion without
comment handing the empty bottle back to the now smiling Nathan.  Ezra threw him a caustic
glare and then stretched out using his day pack and lunch within as a pillow.

Chris, Josiah and Nathan sat a little ways off eating quietly on their lunches.  Buck had
disappeared somewhere probably creating havoc with JD and Vin.  The threesome sat quietly
enjoying the sound of the river and the warm summer afternoon.  Then Josiah spoke, “Tomorrow
has me abit worried.”

Nathan and Chris both stared at him with questioning looks.  “It’s going to be a tough grueling
day.”  Nathan and Chris both nodded in agreement.  Larabee was beginning to understand where
Sanchez was going with this.

Nathan picked up the thread, “Ezra ain’t going to be up to it.”  They all looked over at the
southener who had quickly drifted off to sleep.  His fever might have broke, his ear no longer
ached but the body was still paying the dues on the fever.

“Nope.” Chris answered leaning back on his forearms.  He had been thinking the same thing all
morning.  They sat in silence enjoying the afternoon each trying to come up with a solution for
tomorrow’s dilemma. An hour passed by the heat of the day seemingly to creep up another
degree.

Their musings were interrupted with a yelp and a splash somewhere up stream.  In a few seconds
later a floundering JD swept passed them, swimming diagonally down stream with the current
making his way toward shore.  Buck trotted down the bank laughing.  Tanner followed him a sly
smirk on his face and when he paralleled the large ladies man the nimble tracker swiftly shifted
his weight and easily landed Wilmington in the river.  Buck splashed by as JD crawled ashore.
Tanner smiled triumphantly making a motion of chaulking a point upto himself.

“boys will be boys.”  Josiah said to noone in particular.  Chris merely agreed.  How did they
survive as long as they had?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Come on Ez, time to go.”  Nathan gently shook the shoulder of the sleeping agent.  Calling his
name had not been enough, a testament to his weariness.  Buck and Jackson hauled the groggy
man to his feet.  He swayed slightly then caught his balance.  “you with us?”  Nathan asked
staring at the sleep laddened eyes.  Standish blinked and nodded.  He and Buck did not relinquish
their grips right away and shadowed the undercover agent for a few yards making sure he truly
was aware of his surroundings.

The walk back was uneventful minus the antics between the dripping Wilmington and Dunne.
By the time they were half way to the ranch everyone had muddy hand prints on their backs as
result of‘encouraging pats’ from JD and Buck.  At one point Wilmington had chased Dunne on a
head only to hide amongst the trees and pelt the others with pine cones.  They might have gotten
away with it but Jackson and Tanner were both faster than thier attackers and dragged them down
to the forest ground like prey.  Josiah owed Ezra five dollars when they returned to their quarters.
When they finally reached the bunkhouse they had only an hour to get ready for dinner.  They
were dirty, hot and starving.  Dunne raced Wilmington the bunkhouse, the kid easily beating him.
The others followed at a distance and cringed when Buck yelled, “JD! That’s my toothbrush!”
The others made it to the bunkhouse cleaned up and got ready for dinner.  Standish merely
collapsed on his bunk and drifted off to sleep.
 

******************************************************************************
part 21 disclaimers p.1
 

The six men freshly showered and in moderately clean clothes sat on bunks and waited for Chris.
Standish slept down the row still in the sweat stained dirt covered clothes from the hike.
JD finally found voiced his concerns, “Ez ain’t gonna make it tomorrow.”
Chris stared at the young man and then let his gaze travel down to the southener.  Standish was
oblivious to world around him, lost in a healing slumber.

“Not to put him down or anything, Chris,” Buck added, “he’ll kill himself to keep up but they
shouldn’t push him into this he’s not up to it.”

Chris held his own counsel.  This was where he hated being team leader.  The others were
obviously correct.  Standish had the will and bull headed determination to go through the
obstacle course and hike, but he would never make it.  The stubborn southener would push
himself until he either collapsed or got seriously hurt.  If they wanted to remain as a team they
had to start and finish as a team.  Travis knew this and still he pushed.  If Chris refused then the
seven would be seperated and assigned to different teams.  Larabee hated politics.

“I know.” He spoke softly and then stared at each man, “we make sure he makes it and makes it
through without killing himself.”  The others nodded in silent agreement.  They would not
disappoint the southener and not let him shoulder the blame of being responsible for the
disbanding of the seven.

“Lets get something to eat.”  Chris stood up the others followed his lead.  On the way out he said,
“Vin you want to drag that sorry southern arse to dinner.  He needs to eat.”

Tanner detoured and headed for Standish’s bunk.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Their problems were inadvertantly solved by DC himself.   At dinner he handed Chris a manual
on the rules and regulations regarding the obstacle course.  Larabee leafed through it briefly and
placed it aside.  The small but condensed plastic spiral bound book had made it’s way down to
Standish who perused it with great interest.  In the end his dry sly chuckle got the notice of the
other men.  He shook his head, indicating they should discuss it later and renewed his interest in
his meal.  The undercover agent passed the book onto Josiah who flipped through it catching on
to the southeners train of thought.  Sanchez smiled and handed the book down to Nathan.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
tuesday am.

The morning run was not required, breakfast was eaten at seven am and the team got ready for
the obstacle course.  DC and his councelors watched pleased.  The men seemed content with the
challenge that faced them today.  Cummings met them as they came out of the bunk house ready
to start the obstacle course and run.

“Now gentlemen I want you to realize this has been developed to help facilitate you working as a
team. It is very challenging but if you work together and help one another I think persons such as
yourselves should persevere.”  Here he normally would suggest a group hug again, but these
seven men still seemed terribly resistant to the idea maybe even down right violent.  “We expect
you back here in time for dinner.”  He paused and added, “you will be monitered along the way
but you will not know when or where.”

He clapped his hands in excitment.  The team before him appeared ready.
“Get going gentlemen.”  He had expected them to rush right off like most teams had done in the
past.  Instead team seven lounged on the porch sipping coffee.  They were still billigerent.  “You
are on a time table, gentlemen.”  He reminded them.

Larabee sighed and scratched at the back of his neck.  He peered at his finger nail seemingly
interested in the small mosquito he just killed.  “Well boys I suggest we best get a move on.”

The others groaned and sighed but pushed themselves up from leaning positions and
nonchalantly walked off the porch and toward the wood trail that lead to the obstacle course.

Once under the cover of the forest Vin and Buck trotted on up a head.  The other five men
walked approximately a hundred yards up the trail before meeting their two grinning teammates.
Buck and Vin both sat on ATV four wheelers.  None of the others were surprised.  They had
hashed this plan out the night before under the auspices of a billiards game.  In worn leather
scabbards by both Vin and Buck’s lower legs sat two small Stihl chainsaws.  The bright orange
plastic motor coverings stood out against the camouflage paint job of the ATV’s.

“Lets go boys.”  Buck said.  Chris fit on the back of Buck’s seat, Josiah took the back cargo area.
Ezra sat behind Vin with both JD and Nathan sharing the flat cargo area in the back of the second
four wheeler.  Buck and Vin guided the vehicles up the path to the first obstacle.  Standish held
tightly to the manual, they did after all have to adhere to the rules.  They had all agreed to that the
night before.

The night before while playing billiards, Chris,Vin and Ezra sat down and went through the
guidelines for going through the obstacle course and subsequent cross country jaunt.  The more
they read and questioned it the more they found loop holes.  With each loop hole came a
plausible solution.  Soon a plan was formed and people designated tasks to preform and the
scheme was put into motion.  As the others filtered out to do what was required Standish made to
follow.  Chris had stopped him, his voice stern, “Not you Ezra you stay in and get a full nights
sleep.”  The undercover agent had argued all the way to the bunkhouse but his pleas had fallen on
deaf ears.  While the others gathered up their supplys and prepared for a little ‘misappropiation’
of equipment, the southener had actually fallen to sleep in his bunk.  It was late evening early
morning when the black clad six met again in the bunkhouse.  Silent smiles and knowing winks
confirmed they were ready for tomorrow.

Now the seven men on the back of ATV’s made their way recklessly up the trail.  JD and Buck
jousted with one another whenever the two off road vehicles got with in swinging distance. Chris
swore the next time he was going to tie those two up and drag them behind.  His thoughts were
interrupted as stick swung by Buck nearly knocked him in the head. Larabee silently promised
revenge.

 When they reached the first wall to be scaled, Josiah and Vin pulled out the orange chainsaws
and fired them up.  They choked to life humming loudly as triggers were depressed.  He and Vin
cut a wedges out of the back side of the support poles.  They then stood around front and cleanly
cut through both the right and left legs.  The,one time, verticle plank wall suddenly became
horizontal as it thudded against the ground.  The smell of diesel hung heavy in the air.  Sanchez
loved that odor it reminded him of home.  The kill switches were hit on the chainsaws and Josiah
swept his arms in mock greeting.  “You may proceed gentlemen.”  In pairs the members of Team
seven picked up the ropes and walked the face of the wall to the other end.  There was nothing in
the manual that said they had to scale a vertical face.  They remounted the ATV’s and continued
onto the next obstacle.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

DC and his counselors fumed at a discreet distant as they watched the slow but methodical
destruction of their obstacle course.  Judge Travis stood beside them chuckling.  Orrin Travis
held a pair of binoculars and watched as the team approached obstacle after obstacle.  He
watched as Larabee and Standish consulted the manual asked suggestions from the others and
then set about addressing the problem they faced with an alternative solution.  Typical Team
Seven style, they tended to knock things down, or go through things.  Travis held a copy of the
manual and followed the progress of the group below, soon  he found himself quietly making
proposals to himself as to how the men could accomplish the task at hand without taxing to much
of their energy.  They were working as a team again.  The Judge ignored the rantings of the
counselors and nodded a congratulations to DC.  The man did good work.  The director accepted
the thanks but cringed as the chainsaws fired up again and the fifty- two foot wall toppled to the
ground.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

JD picked up the rope and was about to trot over the face of the wall, “JD it says here ya need to
put the harness on.”  Standish read from the manual looking up at the young ATF agent.

“Yeah but Ez, it’s not like I’m gunna fall it’s already on the ground.”  Dunne explained.

“A rules a rule JD. Put the harness on.” Nathan said.  JD complied.  They others followed suit.

When they reached the white water expanse with the rope and subsequent guide line, Buck and
Vin dropped the others off and rode down the bank disappearing from sight.  One at a time the
others started crossing ,walking the rope.  JD jogged across, enjoying the relative ease and spark
of danger.  Nathan followed, then Josiah, Ezra and Chris.  Larabee stuck close to his undercover
agent, confident that the young southener was feeling fine but did not want a spell of dizziness to
hit him midway.  Ear infections could be tricky.  (Adam had gotten them time and again as an
infant and toddler.)  The sound of approaching fourwheelers hallmarked the approach of Vin and
Buck, they had crossed the river a half mile down on a small planked bridge.  The two men
hopped off the vehicles crossed the river using the rope and then reacrossed joining their
partners.

“Lets saddle up boys. We got four miles to the meadow and the river.”  Buck said revving the
engine in haste to get going.  They were well ahead of schedule.

The two passenger ladden fourwheelers bounced across the grassy plain.  The same wild field
they had seen the other day on the ridge.  The box canyon lay to their left and the river to their
right.  The forest skirted the large grassy plain about two hundred yards away.  Vin and Buck
paralleled one another then shots rang out.  Both Vin and Buck stared at each other.  The others
heard them too.  More gun shots echoed the area.  They slowed the ATV’s to a stop.  They killed
the engines.  The seven men stood and tried to follow the sound.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Meaghan pushed her gelding to his limits.  The dark bay crested the slight rise and headed for the
cover of trees.  The young impetous Delany girl saw the seven men standing in the meadow
watching her.  As she drew closer she recognized the Texan and large older man, Josiah.  With
simple leg pressure she guided the galloping animal toward the oasis of men.  Another gun shot
echoed behind her and she hunkered down closer to the horse’s shoulder.

“Hey isn’t that Meaghan?” Tanner asked.  Josiah merely nodded.   They watched as she reined
her blowing mount in their direction.  Behind her taking shape were more riders, on horse back.
They bared menacingly down on her.  “Come on Meg. Come on girl.” Tanner whispered to
himself but the others heard him.

Delany drew her horse up short,causing him to hop to a stop.  “It’s the rustler’s they’ve got the
cattle in the box canyon shoot’in’em.”  She was as breathless as her horse.  Chris
unceremoniously dragged her from the saddle and tossed her onto one of the fourwheelers.  Her
feet never hitting the ground.

“Go get help.”  He simply explained.  She appeared as if she would argue but Larabee warned her
with a simple look.  Meg bowed to the logic of the older man, besides she had seen the same look
in her father and knew she would not win this verbal fight.  Delany turned the engine over,
kicked it into gear and tore off across the meadow heading for help, heading for home.

“Spread out boys and watch your backs.”  Chris said as the other riders approached.  Larabee
glanced at his men and continued, “I’ll try and talk some sense into them.”

Buck grunted, Josiah raised his eyebrows, and JD out right laughed.  They all knew Chris was
about as accomplished at negotiations as Sanchez was at fixing his truck.

“Oh great Atilla the Hun is going to play diplomat.”  Standish muttered under his breath, or so he
thought until Chris hissed out.

“Shut up Ezra.”

******************************************************************************
part 22 disclaimers prt1

The eight riders pulled up and reined in just before the seven men.  They were not the brains
behind who was trying to run the ranchers and loggers off their homes.  Larabee was sure of that,
but at least these eight men offered a direct link to the master minds behind the whole scheme.
Get these men into custody and get them to talk and the rest would eventually fall into place.

“Nice day for a ride boys.”  Chris said laconically.

“Ya ain’t got no business in this so why don’t ya get out of the way cowboy.”  The apparent
leader snipped back.

Buck started laughing.  Vin shook his head in sorrow.  JD prepared for a fight. Ezra muttered an,
“ahhh Hell,” Josiah gazed heavenward and Jackson wondered who would need stitches before
this was all through.  Nobody call Chris Larabee cowboy.

“You just call me a Cowboy?”  Larabee stepped forward the feral smile on his face held no
humor.

“He don’t like that very much.” Josiah offered helpfully.  He wondered if help would arrive
before fists flew.  Not likely.

“Yeah I did, ya gut a problem with that COWboy?”  The leader taunted.  He no sooner got the
words out than he was yanked from his horse and found himself getting slammed to the ground.
The area erupted into a brawl.

Rustlers dove from their animals onto the ATF agents below.  Buck easily intercepted one
yanked his straw hat over his eyes and nailed him with a quick jab, cross combination, sending
the man reeling back.  Nathan side stepped another individual letting the would be flying tackler
go uninterrupted to the ground.  Jackson quickly followed him to the ground.  The chemist
preffered ground fighting or grappling.  Josiah enjoyed himself as he played cat and mouse with
his opponent.  Landing hard slaps to the man’s head and face, irritating the individual more than
hurting him.  Sanchez believed humility was an important lesson to learn.  Ezra found himself
facing a monstrosity of a man.  Fortunately he was overwheight and slow, and Standish’s
pugalistic training came in handy.  The quick gambler darted in and out landing solid punches all
the while bobbing and weaving avoiding the big meaty paws that swung at his head.  Vin nimbly
used both his hands and feet, confusing his taller adversary.  He would land a round house kick
to the lower leg forcing the man to drop his hands and then throw a jab at the new exposed facial
target. Tanner smiled he enjoyed physical activity.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Judge Travis and the others watched the melee from the ridge above the meadow.  Orrin smiled
as his team soundly took on the other eight.  He did not understand why the confrontation had
occured or what was the reason behind it, but he was thankful to see his men working as a unit.
“Turn around Josiah, Turn around, look at Standish.”  Travis muttered to himself as he watched
the southener go down after a large lumbering roundhouse punch landed on the right side of his
head.  Travis cringed, that had to hurt.  He watched as the overweight opponent hauled the
obviously dazed undercover agent to wobbly legs and landed a second and third punch.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Josiah turned around and noticed Ezra in trouble.  Sanchez quit playing with his man, landed one
solid punch knocking the individual soundly on his backside.  Josiah reached over and grabbed
Standish’s attacker twirling him around.  The larger man was in the midst of landing yet another
punch on the semi concious victim when a large fist connected with the corner of his jaw.
Standish quickly melted from his grasp.  The routund man back stepped trying to maintain his
balance and put distance between himself and whatever train just hit him. He did not succeed.  A
second blow connected solidly with the point of his jaw, his head snapped back and he collapsed
to the ground in a puddle of flesh and bones.  Josiah turned his attention to the southener who sat
on his butt swaying and staring dumbly at the ground.

“You alright brother?”  Sanchez breathed out.  His attention was quickly diverted as another
body slammed into him.  The giant anthropologist found himself back in the midst of the fray.

The fight only lasted a few more minutes.  Along time for the combatants.  Both sides heaved for
breath with leaden arms and legs.  More ATF agents stood than rustlers.  Vin let out a whoop,
and Buck slapped JD on the back in congratulations, for a job well done.  Chris asked Nathan to
release the figure four leg lock he had on his challenger. Jackson sighed, he never got a chance to
practice his moves on any of the others and now that he had someone to practice on he was not
allowed to.  The EMT let go of his potential victim and stood up slightly irritated.

 Noone had cuffs so they were reduced to tying the outlaws up with segments of rope they cut
from the lariats on the saddle.

“JD, Nathan, Buck bring these guys over to where Meaghan disappeared too. There has to be a
road or something over there.”  The threesome nodded and shoved the group toward the trees.
Chris watched them for a moment and then turned back to his other men.

“Vin, Josiah take the ATV and see if you can find some help.”  Larabee ordered as he held the
reins to Meaghan’s bay gelding.

  It was a beautiful Quarterhorse, if one did not look at the head.  It was a product of its
enviroment.  It had a deep chest, typical well muslced haunches, as well as a toned and fit barrel
but more importantly it had good feet.  Not only well trimmed and apparently well shod but it
had good size feet, not the tiny hooves that breeders and halter classes bred for now adays.  This
horse was bred to work and from the looks of it it was no stranger to laboring all day on the trail.

He patted the bowed neck.  “And where’s Ezra off to?”  Larabee asked as he watched his
undercover agent walk in the direction of the box canyon.  He had made it to the rise and slowly
disappeared on the otherside.  Chris watched him perplex.  Josiah and Vin sat on the ATV.  It
was out of gas.

 “He thought he heard something.”  Vin answered.  Sanchez figured it was just the ringing in his
ears he heard.

“Chris this is just about out of gas.  Buck filled up the other one but we left the gas tank on that
one.”  Vin said.  Larabee nodded still squinting in the direction the gambler had just disappeared.

“Get started I’ll follow once I get Ezra.”  Larabee said.

Then they felt a low rumble.  At first Josiah thought it was an earthquake but quickly dismissed
it.  He noticed JD and the others felt it as well because he could see Dunne questioning Buck.
The rumbling persisted and then a low thunder began to roll.  Chris and Vin exchanged confused
expressions.  There was not a cloud in the sky.

“ey here comes Ez now.”  Tanner said and more quietly added, “what’s got him so spooked?”
Larabee turned and watched as the Southener sprinted over the small rise bearing down on them
in a full out sprint waving his arms frantically.

The rumbling became more pronounce, the gelding began to dance and blow, the other horses
bolted.  Larabee had to fight just to hold onto the reins.  The thunder increased in volume to a
dull roar.  The three men watched as a rising cloud of dust began to develop behind the conman.
They could make out Ezra waving his arms at them, almost like telling them to run or something.

Chris did not like the feel of the situation at all and quickly mounted up.  The gelding settled
down some what under the authorative handling of his new rider.  Standish was well over three
hundred yards away when the mystery was suddenly solved.

“Oh shit” rang out across the meadow as Chris and the others spotted the source of the sound and
verbrating earth.  The first horned steer leapted over the rise running full out followed by a
couple hundred head.

“Stampede!”  Who yelled what and when, noone knows but everyone moved.  “Vin get out of
here!”  Larabee screamed over the sound of stampeding hooves.  Tanner needed no further
encouragement, he threw the ATV into gear and with Josiah behind him tore off for the shelter of
the forest.

Buck, JD and Nathan on seeing the enraged steers bolted for the trees as well, they were over
three quarters of the way there already.  The other eight men were on thier own.  They started this
they could live with the consequences.

The threesome piled onto the speeding ATV as it blew past.  The Vin gassed the fourwheeler to
with in a few yards of the trees before it died.  The men spilled off it sprinting into the forest.  It
then became a mad scramble to climb trees.  JD latched onto one trunk with no branches insight,
but with pure adreniline scampered up like a grey squirrel.  Buck jumped grabbed a low branch
and swung himself up.  He then hung down and reached for the leaping Tanner.  Vin latched onto
the outstretched hands and felt himself get pulled up just as the first steers bound passed.  A horn
caught his pants leg threatening to pull him back under the pounding hooves but Wilmington’s
grip prooved stronger and he hauled the sharpshooter into the tree.  Josiah and Nathan both sat
breathlessly in the tree next to Buck and Vin and watched as the violent sea of steers and heifers
raged passed down below.

Ezra ran for all his worth.  Terror was a great motivator.  Adrenaline pumped into his blood
stream.  Airway’s opened, allowing the passage of air to travel less turbulently, secretions dried
up.  Eyes dilated, enhancing sight for distances.  Blood vessels constricted in some parts of the
body while dilating in others.  Major muscle groups were fed rich oxygenated blood.  Any
reminders of the other nights sickness were disguised and hidden, conscious thought  dimmed
and the primative brain took over.  Survival became paramount.  Instinct ruled the body as well
as the brain.  Run!  Run he did.  Arms pumping, chest expanding and legs stretching to their
limits Standish ran.  He sprinted across the meadow, his mind ignoring the thundering hooves
behind him, compensating unconsciously for the uneven ground, the inner ear kept the bodies
balance as he raced on ahead.
 

******************************************************************************
part 23 disclaimers prt 1

Larabee kicked the gelding into a gallop.  Chris leaned low over the saddle keeping as much
wind resistance down as he could.  He kept leg pressure on the beast’s sides as he closed the
distance to his team member.  In less than a few second he was apon Standish.  Without slowing,
holding the reins in his bared teeth, hooking his right knee under the swell of the saddle and
wrapping his right arm around the horn he reached down with his left arm and grabbed for
Standish.

Ezra would not recall any of this would not beable to explain how one minute he was on the
ground sprinting for his life and the next reaching up with his left arm to Larabee.  Chris latched
onto the outstretched arm.  The forward momentum of the horse, swung the southener up onto
the back of the horse behind the saddle.

Chris reined the hores around.  The gelding offered no resistance.  The quarterhorse slid his
backlegs under him slowing his forward propulsion spun around on it’s hind feet squatted low
and leapted off in the direction of the trees.   Ezra kept a death grip on Larabee’s mid section all
the while looking over his shoulder at the encrouching wave of beefs.

The quarterhorse worked on basic instincts of survival as well.  It’s basic will to survive no
greater or no less than the men that sat on it’s back but it was geared better suited for such
dilemma’s.  Horses are a prey species, they are made to run, out run their predators.  The dark
bay stretched his neck out low and straight, decreasing any resistance in the air ways allowing for
maximum air passage.  It’s nostrils flared as ears laid back,  his caudal chest expanded dragging
in great gasps of air.  Its large eyes were wide and unblinking.  It’s massive legs stretched out one
foot pounding the ground at one time.  It covered the distance in great leaps heading for the
safety of the trees.

Chris stole a look around his upper arm.  It was going to be close.  He urged the gelding on.
They entered the forest.  Larabee nolonger directed the horse.  He let it tear through the trees on
it’s own.  A windfall lay across the trail a few yards up ahead.  The bay did not deviate, it sailed
over the obstacle hiking back hooves up to hits belly stretching out front legs.  It hit the ground
still in stride.  Ezra watched in horror as the first steers flanked them.  Then the ground
disappeared.

For a brief moment everything seemed to have stopped, no sound, no motion.  Then they started
falling.  Larabee shoved the southener from the back of the horse as he himself bailed from the
saddle.  Ezra felt himself free falling.  The threesome splashed into the deep raging river at the
same time.

Larabee burst to the surface fighting the current.  With every other desperate gasp he seemed to
take in more river water.  The current swung him around and he faced upstream.  The terrorized
horse beared down on him from only a few short feet away.  Then everything went dark.

Ezra broke the surface bewildered.  He faced shore one moment and the next he was sucked back
under.  He kicked to the surface again loosing a sneaker unbeknownst to him.  The southener saw
the shore and started for it.  Then he remembered something Vin had told him.  Always look for
the other shore line.  It maybe closer.  Standish was pulled back under but popped up again,
spitting water and gagging.  The closer shore was to his right.  He saw a log floating infront of
him and desperately reached for it.

His reaching fingers closed around the would be log and discovered it was soft and wore clothes.
Larabee.  The blonde floated face down tossed haplessly about by the turbulent current.  Standish
latched on to him, went under again, resurfaced and fought his way to shore.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Buck searched frantically for Chris and Ezra.  They had galloped right underneath them, amongst
the stampeding beefs.  The minute the cattle dispersed and slowed down the other ATF agents
dropped to the ground.  Vin did not even realize his left calf had been torn open and bleeding
until JD pointed it out to him.  “It can keep JD we have to find Chris and Ez.”  Noone argued.

The five men trotted in the direction they saw the gelding gallop.  They came to a twenty foot
cliff.  The river raged below.  The five men stood there fearing the worse searching the river and
its banks with furtive glances.

“There they are!”  JD hollered pointing about three hundred yards down stream.  The others
spotted them too.  It did not look good.  Apparently Standish was giving mouth to mouth to
Larabee.  The five men headed back into the woods searching for a way down to the river.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Judge Travis watched with terror as the stampeding beasts drew down on his men.  It infuriated
him.  He watched as the seven dug in and reached the shelter of the trees.  With fierce
determination he started jogging back toward the one ATV vehicle that his team had not
‘borrowed’ last night.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nathan watched holding his breath from across the river as Ezra repeatedly repositioned
Larabee’s head, pinched his nose off and gave breaths to the unconscious man.  This seemed to
go on forever, instead of less than two minutes.  Jackson was oblivious to the men around him.
“Come on Chris don’t you give up.  Come on you son of a bitch.”  Nathan repeated over and over
as Standish worked feverishly on his friend and boss.

Suddenly Ezra shot up spitting and wiping his mouth.  Larabee’s body jerked again in a retching
fashion.  Standish quickly rolled him over onto his side as Chris’s body violently rejected the
river water from his body.  Standish slumped down wearily beside him trying to rid himself of
the foul taste of Larabee’s vomit.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Both Chris and Ezra looked up as Buck, Josiah, JD, Vin and Nathan bore down on them. JD led
the dripping gelding. They were soaking wet from the respective waists or midsections down.
They must have found a shallow place to cross.  Neither Larabee or Standish were in a hurry to
gain their feet.

“Howdy pards.”  Vin smiled in relief as he drew closer slowing to a walk.

“You guys ok?” JD asked not stopping until he almost ran them over.

“You guys cut it kind of close don’t ya think?”  Buck asked trying to sound annoyed but not quite
pulling it off.

“Brothers you have just used a couple more of your nine lives.”  Josiah baritone laugh echoed
out.

“you ok Chris?”  Nathan asked the concern very evident in his tone.

Larabee gazed up at this five men and then at the southener.  They definately made a strange
team. “Yeah I’m fine but could definately use a whiskey.”  His devious smile was met with six
approving ones.   Nathan and Josiah reached down and hauled the two unsteady men to their feet.
As they walked down the river bank and nerves began to settle their gaits became more
confident.  A whiskey sounded good right about now.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dr. Sullivan looked up at the other men that lounged around his emergency room.  He finished
putting the final touches on his suture job for Tanner’s let.  Forty-eight in total.  The others booed
the Texan ,hell only forty-eight, a bandaid would have sufficed for that tiny scratch. Tanner threw
a pillow at JD and told him to shut up.  Dunne returned he cut himself worse when shaving.
Buck had countered, they knew that to be a lie since ya can’t really shave peach fuzz.   Sullivan
did his best to hide his laugh.  He had also taken a blood gas on Larabee and found it to be
adequate ninety-five percent.  For someone of his atheletic shape 99 to a hundred percent would
have been expected but after a near drowning it was acceptable.  The others appeared fine.  With
Josiah’s and Buck’s physical intimidation and down right hands on restraint they pinned the
southener to a gurny right ear up so the Doc could do an otoscope exam.  Ezra for his part moved
his head back in forth in an effort to avoid the offending instrument until Nathan forcefully
grabbed his forehead and held it still.  Sullivan shook his head in dismay, and tossed a bottle of
ear medicine to Jackson.  His simple explanation, the canal was inflamed again, probably a result
of the river.  Jackson for his part smiled wolfishly at the gambler, he would enjoy putting ear
drops in the obstinate southeners ear.  Ezra returned the foul look with a leer of his own, there
was no way in hell Nathan was getting close to him with ear meds.

Meaghan had visited them in the small emergency room with her dad and little brother.  Sheriff
Salsibury was not far behind entering the now overcrowded room with Judge Travis.  The seven
men immediately fell silent.  They had never finished the obstacle course and it was well past six
pm.  They had met their doom.  Travis noticed the looks of consternation on the men’s faces, and
downright fear on JD’s.  Though Orrin wanted to play with them a little he felt it would be better
for them if he refrained.  “Gentlemen I expect to see you all back at your desks Monday morning.
You have a busy case load ahead of you.”  He turned to leave the room as sighs of relief escaped
the seven men, hesitated and turned back around, “but until then you men have an obstacle
course to rebuild and a trampled ATV to replace.”  He left the room to the sounds of groans.

The sheriff and his men had rounded up the eight would be rustlers and hustled them off to jail.
They had already started singing a twisted tune about developers and ski resorts.  There was a
good chance with time they would get to the bottom of things.  The Delany’s offered their thanks
and even better yet to meet them back down at the Korner Klub.  Salsibury held up his hands and
said he did not want to hear anymore and backed out of the ER.

Josiah loaded the four other men into the suburban.  They would head down to the bar and meet
Chris and Ezra there.  Larabee wanted to talk to the undercover agent in private.  This made
Standish more than a little nervous and watched with apprehension as the other five left him
behind with their volitile leader.  Doc Sullivan hovered close by the emergency door just incase
the mouthy gambler needed stitches before the talk finished.

The two men headed outside and sat on the bumper of the beat up stock trailer.  Ezra wanted to
bolt.  Instead Chris patted the cagey tense Southener on the shoulder, “Just wanted to thank ya
Ezra for saving my life.”
 
Ezra for his part stared at him bewildered and answered, “Mr. Larabee I’m touched by your
sudden gratuity but must confess I was looking out for my own behalf.”  This caused Chris to
stare at the southener with a side long look.  Ezra continued, “There have been so few people in
this world that appreciate my given talents.”  Standish smiled when Larabee nodded in
agreement.  To hallmark the occasion the leader of Team Seven pulled out a stainless steel flask.
He unscrewed the cap and took a swig.  He handed it to the southener.  Ezra took it with raised
eyebrows and took a mouthful.  “My my Mr. Larabee you do have culture.  Where did you
abscond with such good whiskey?”

Chris smiled slyly and answered, “DC graciously left his liquor cabinet unattended.  Vin found
it.”   Both Ezra and Chris sat on the bumper of the trailer sharing the flask full of whiskey.  Soon
they had to dig into Ezra’s personal stock.  Before long that to threatened to run out.

Meaghan, her father and her brother headed for their old one ton flat bed with the gooseneck
trailer attatched.  Meaghan climbed up onto the wheel well to check on Dakota, her gelding, and
caught her breath the trailer was empty.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The door to the Korner Klub swung open and all activity in the bar ceased.  The bar was
moderately busy for the middle of the week.  All eyes stared as a dark bay gelding clopped into
the confines of the building with two riders.  Cheers went up, and people whistled.  Larabee
reined the horse over to the bar and ordered a whiskey.  Ezra capped his own now, empty flask
and accepted the double shot glass the barkeep handed him.  The other five ATF members held
up shot glasses of whiskey in toast to the two horse bound ATF agents.  The barmaid offered no
complaint.  Plywood still covered the area where the window used to be, these men were serious
about their down time.  Besides the riders apparently had already indulged in some spirits
elsewhere.

The Delany’s showed up a few minutes later to find the seven men either playing pool or sitting
at a table sharing a drink.  Dakota munched quietly on popcorn at Larabee’s table.

By the end of the night Buck was doing head stands on the table while drinking a beer much to
the amusement of a crowd.  Standish was taking bets collecting his winnings on Mr.
Wilmington’s hidden talents.  Tanner had started tossing darts over his shoulder using Meaghans
compact mirror as a guide.  Dunne attempted his hand at pool but gave up and resumed
practicing his juggling technique, which was none.  Josiah discussed the intricacies of fixing his
suburban with a mechanic.  He had ‘parked’ in the middle of the street.  Nathan had quipped that
Sanchez had a loose translation for the word ‘park’ considering the Tank had stopped on its own,
shut itself off while they were still in gear and the ignition in the ‘on’ position.  Sanchez merely
returned that it was all just details.

By closing time Salsibury turned up and poured the infamous ATF team into two of his squad
cars and shuttled them back to the Alpine Ranch.  The suburban would be towed to Jim’s auto
repair and worked on there for the duration of the week.  The sheriff did not want any excuse for
the seven men to linger in his town longer than necessary.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Monday morning in the ATF office, found JD in a headlock  as Buck made him smell his armpit.
Josiah and Nathan enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee.  Vin loosened the bolts on Ezra’s office chair
and Ezra showed up two hours late for work.  Chris smiled behind the closed door of his office.
He muffled a cough, must be getting a cold.  Larabee shook his head as he listened to the noise
outside his office.  It was good to be back, it was even better to have his team back.

the end.