ATF Alternate Universe
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 in front 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 sideways 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 a lot 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. (Thank God 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 a lot 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.
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 shamelessly 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 opened doorway, occasionally peeking through the screen door at the still slumbering undercover agent.
"Ok what did ya find out?" He asked expecting nothing less than success from these men.
JD started first. His nervous energy would have him fidgeting through the whole impromptu 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 Salisbury 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 a few 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 a lot 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 received 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 separate 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 smothering the formal goodbyes, and salutations. This was disastrous.
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 muscles 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 past the confused wide eyed southerner, 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 a lot 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 cloudy images that whisked 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 murky 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 thank you," 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 in front 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 contours 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 southerner. 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 in front 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 enough 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 concoction 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 a bit 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 southerner 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 chalking a point up to 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 laden 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.
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