Team Retreat

by Heather

ATF Alternate Universe


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," came 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 no longer 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 in front 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 in front 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 'yeah 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 have 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 ex-preacher 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.


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 counselors 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 yer 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 embarrassed 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 southerner. 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 southerner by the back of the neck hauled him to his feet throwing the smaller southerner into an arm lock and dragged him out the door. "Shut yer gawd damn trap Ezra or I'll shoot ya 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 particularly volatile situation.

"Buck I'll shoot you next. Just shut up," Chris snarled 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 their 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 attentions 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 intoned 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.


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 a bit 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 a bit," 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, yer 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 ain't 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.

"All right 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 ain't 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.


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 in turn 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 counselors 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 not 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.


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