Reality Check

by The Cohorts

Main characters: JD, Buck, Ezra but all the Seven and some other canon characters have a part to play in this story.

Summary: JD wakes up a stranger in a not-so-strange land. Buck and Ezra try to ease him back into the "real" world where there is no ATF Team Seven. Although this starts out in a hospital, H/C fans don't get your hopes up.

Note: Thanks to Whistle for the beta help, especially for slapping those improperly separated words back into their compound selves (and vice versa).

JD wouldn't open his eyes. He was vaguely aware of Buck's voice in the distance, coaxing him to wake up, but he liked that wall of cotton wool between the throbbing in his head and reality.

"How's he doin', Buck?"

Vin. That was Vin's voice. Last he remembered, Vin was on a gurney next to his. They'd loaded him on the first ambulance because the paramedics thought he was critical. At least that's the sense he'd gotten of all the shouting. JD chanced opening his eyes and the first thing he saw was what he'd expected, Buck sitting on a chair by the bed. But standing next to him, looking none the worse for wear, was Vin.

"Hey, kid. You had us worried. Glad yer back with the living." Vin didn't sound any the worse for wear either.

Buck turned in his chair at Vin's words. "Dammit, kid. I've been talkin' to you for the past two hours and you didn't blink. Four words from Vin and you're almost perky."

Now that his eyes were open, JD couldn't take them off Vin. The explosion had thrown him from the warehouse rafters. Before blacking out for the second or third time, JD had seen Vin's right leg and arm encased in some kind of inflatable thingies, a C-collar around his neck and blood oozing out from under a bandage on his forehead. Yet there he was, standing on his own, not a mark on him. No sling. No cast. No bandages. Wearing his own clothes. If Vin had healed up already, how much time had gone by? Had he been in a coma for weeks? Or months even?

"How many weeks was I out?"

Buck leaned over with a glass of water. "Kid, you ain't been out long enough to need a shave. Hell, you ain't even been out long enough for me to need a shave."

JD took his time sucking water through the straw, his eyes never leaving Vin. It must be some kind of miracle. Finally he closed his eyes and Buck took away the glass.

He felt Vin pat him on the shoulder. "You rest now. I'll go tell the others yer okay. We've been worried. Reckon you'll have more company tomorrow."

After Vin left, JD turned his head toward where he knew Buck was sitting but didn't make the effort to open his eyes again. "Vin was hurt real bad. How come he looks so good now and I feel so crummy?"

"Must be your head injury's got you all confused. Don't know where you got the idea Vin was hurt. The SWAT team was across the street when the timer went off and started the fire. They packed it in as soon as it was clear the bad guys were gone."

"You were the only one who was hurt when that floor gave out. Vin wasn't even there today. But you know who else is gonna get hurt? Chris gave holy hell to that structural engineer who cleared the second floor for you to check. That man ain't gonna see a promotion until his unborn child is applying for college and I don't think Chris is finished with him yet."

JD didn't have the slightest idea what Buck was talking about. He lay there for a long moment. Suddenly it came to him what must have happened. He'd seen it lots of times on TV. He opened his eyes and tried to sit up. "Buck, I know why I thought Vin should look hurt. I must have gotten amnesia when that warehouse explosion flipped the com van. If I hit my head again, it must have brought my memory back. So now I remember Vin getting hurt when the explosion blew him out of the rafters and I've forgotten all the stuff that happened after that."

Buck's face failed to reflect the expected signs of dawning comprehension. He gently pushed JD back onto the pillows. "You're not makin' sense, JD. I've seen it happen in TV shows, especially those soap operas I watched last year when I had the flu. But that ain't what happened to you. Don't you think we would've noticed if you'd been walking around with amnesia? And Vin ain't been injured in an explosion as long as I've known him. And what the heck would he be doing up in the rafters in some warehouse?"

"Watchin' out for Ezra and the rest of you, of course."

"Ezra? Why would a SWAT team be watchin' out for Ezra or any of us? None of us have ever been taken hostage."

"Not a SWAT team, just Vin. He's our sharpshooter. He always watches our backs." JD's thinking was getting clearer by the second. Why the heck was Buck acting so dense?

"What do you mean our sharpshooter?"

"Team Seven of course."

"What the hell is Team Seven?"

Buck seemed so serious that for a minute JD was truly afraid. But that was silly. Buck was just putting him on. He turned his head away from Buck and closed his eyes. "I'm not in the mood for fooling around, Buck. My head hurts. Just go away."

"Kid, I know you're hurtin'. Between the stitches in your head and those fractures in your wrist, being awake probably ain't no picnic. The doc will be back in a few minutes. Maybe he can give you something to ease the pain and clear up your thinking."

"My thinkin' is plenty clear. Okay, maybe a little chunk of my memory is missing but that don't mean I've forgotten we're part of Team Seven, the Magnificent Seven, the best ATF team in Denver, probably in the whole damn country."

Buck was silent for so long, JD thought maybe he'd left. Suddenly he didn't want to be alone and turned to call after him. But Buck was right there, still perched on that uncomfortable chair, a worried look on his face.

"Kid, you're pretty mixed up right now. Getting our real life jumbled with our OWPOG team. I know you're excited we voted you part of the Magnificent Seven. And I reckon us cleaning up in your first competition as an official part of the team instead of a backup went to your head. But you start spoutin' this stuff to some doctor and you're gonna be on medical leave for months. Why don't you tell me what you remember and maybe I can clear things up."

"Buck, I remember things fine." JD paused and replayed what Buck had just said. "What's ow pog?"

"Old West Posses and Outlaw Gangs. OWPOG. You've been practicing with us since you came here from New York. But we're the Magnificent Seven. Couldn't exactly let you on the team and change it to the Magnificent Eight. We let you sub though and after Kate Stokes's sister got sent to prison, she took up her bail bond agency's offer to run their Yuma office. We took you on as a regular and you did us proud in Denver."

"Why are you talking about Denver as though it was someplace else?"

Buck rested his hand lightly on JD's forehead just like his ma used to do when checking for fever. "Is that where you think you are, kid? In Denver? That competition was last weekend. We were all back in Phoenix by late Sunday night."

"Phoenix?" JD heard his voice squeak as he said it and took a deep breath. "Why would we be in Phoenix? Did we get transferred while I had amnesia?" He felt sick to his stomach and was afraid to ask any more questions. Afraid Buck would tell him his perfect job was just a product of a damaged brain. "We've always worked out of the big federal building in Denver. That's where we live." That had to be true, but why was Buck being so mean? While he was in the hospital for god's sake.

JD tried to sit up straighter but that made him dizzy. His head was spinning around like a roulette wheel. Had his brain just imagined the little ball dropping into the band-of-heroic-brothers-fighting-crime slot when actually it had been sitting all the time in some boring building inspector-just-getting-through-the-day slot? The one in which the best he could hope for was to dress up as a fantasy hero in a pretend Magnificent Seven.

Buck opened the drawer in the bedside table and withdrew an unfamiliar wallet. He pulled out a driver's license and held it out to JD. The photo was familiar; the one that made him look barely old enough to drive. But the format was different -- it was an Arizona license.

Finally JD had to ask the big question, sort of. "Do we work for . . . law enforcement?"

Buck gave a sigh that sounded like relief. "We sure do, kid." He pulled a little leather folder out of the drawer and showed JD a familiar badge and ATF identification. "I reckon you got the big things right. You're just a little off on the details. Soon as I fill you in, all the pieces will fall into place." Buck made a show of plumping up JD's pillows and making sure he was settled in with a glass of water.

"Okay, where to start? We do work out of a main division office - here in Phoenix. There ain't nothing but a branch office in Denver but there's a big OWPOG competition there so that's where you got mixed up. You, me and Chris, we're ATF arson investigators. Vin, he's on the SWAT team. Of course, arson investigators don't get their own sharpshooter. No one gets their own sharpshooter. But Vin is about the best damn sharpshooter in the ATF and OWPOG so I reckon that's why you got confused. He's our sharpshooter in competition. So now that's cleared up, what else are you confused about?"

JD hesitated but finally formulated another question. "But Nathan's our medic, right?"

"C'mon kid, the ATF don't work that way. We don't get medics. But Nathan's the intern who stitched up your head and he's part of the Magnificent Seven when we compete. See, you are getting the two things confused."

"Nathan's not in ATF? He doesn't work with us?"

"Hell, kid. The ATF don't have regular medical doctors, even interns who I reckon aren't quite doctors. I'm not exactly clear on where interns fit in. But he does work with us sometimes. We're not snobs like the FBI. The ATF works with the locals and Nathan's a reserve deputy. He's got an interest in forensics so he's come along with some of us on a few cases. And of course he always gets us team points when he wins the knife throwing side classes in the OWPOG competitions."

JD wasn't feeling any clearer so he got the rest out in a gush, afraid he already knew the answer. "Does that mean Josiah's not our profiler and Ezra's not our undercover agent?"

Buck looked a little perturbed as he sat back. "There ain't no 'our' about it, JD. Chris is our boss because he's a senior supervising arson investigator. Vin's on the SWAT team. The ATF ain't like the Easter Bunny, putting an egg of each color in every basket. Lots of investigators go undercover. Ezra's nothin' special that way except he seems to avoid having to go undercover as a lowlife. And Josiah's not exactly a profiler. His background got him onto the national task force on church arson and makes him valuable as an investigator in crimes motivated by religious fanaticism but he's not one of those guys who can look at a crime scene and tell you the perp is a mama's boy prone to sadistic fantasies about women with moles on their butts."

JD wanted to get his mind around something that would make sense. "But they're part of the Magnificent Seven?"

"Yep. Ezra's won the pocket pistol side class last five competitions and is usually our second score in the fast draw. Josiah holds his own in the shotgun class and is getting good as Nathan's second with knives. Of course, like the rest of us, they both compete in the main competition target shooting with revolvers and rifles."

"Do I do anything special?" As he said it, JD realized there were more important things to be worried about now but somehow he wanted to know that he was a valuable member of this team he hadn't even known existed

"Sure kid. You and I are on the way to being two of the best mounted shooters that OWPOG has ever seen. And Chris thinks you might even give him and Ezra competition in fast draw before the year is out."

"So I have Milagro?"

Buck nodded. "Look, kid. If you don't get your memory back, you might have to see a psych doc but what say we keep this thing between you and me for now. Once you get home, everything will probably start coming back and you can avoid having any psych notes in your record."

"I guess I'll have to go to Chris's ranch for a few days."

"Huh?" Buck looked taken aback more than confused. "JD, I don't know what you think you remember about Chris's ranch but his ranchhouse burned down long before you got assigned to this office. It's not something you want to bring up around Chris. You can't be thinking of that hunting cabin he's been working on. Don't think anyone but Vin and I have been there."

"Chris's ranch is gone? Where do we go to recuperate after we get hurt? Where's our horses?" Suddenly, the deeper meaning of Buck's words sank in. "That's where his family died."

"Damn it, kid. You can't keep anything else straight but you remember about Sarah and Adam dying in that fire? About how Chris and I joined the ATF to find their killers?"

JD nodded, seeing no need to tell Buck what he'd been told was they'd been killed in a car bomb meant for Chris. "Yeah, I know for the first year or so he was consumed with finding out who did it. That it makes him glare at everyone a lot."

"JD, I don't guess Chris has glared at you even once. He saves that for fools and bad guys. You can bet he was glaring plenty at the engineer who cleared that building for us to search."

JD decided he should just go along with this crazy story to humor Buck. Any minute the rest of the team would burst in and tell him Buck had just been playing some kind of elaborate prank. After all, he just had Buck's word for everything. It couldn't be too hard to make a convincing Arizona driver's license, especially since JD didn't really know what an Arizona license looked like. But there was Vin's miraculous recovery. He couldn't see any way to explain that. It would have been easy to make a healthy man look injured but how could they make a badly injured man look like he could jog a couple of miles? If it wasn't for Vin, he might think he was being Punk'd. But there was no way Ashton Kutcher could perform medical miracles or even hire a makeup artist to make Vin look unscathed. Maybe he should talk to a shrink after all, even if it would get on his record.

"I see our patient is back with us."

JD jerked out of his reverie. He hadn't even noticed the doctor come in but he was glad to see someone who wasn't likely to be in on a joke. "Buck, would you go get me a Snickers? I've got a real craving for one. There must be a vending machine out there some place."

"Sure, kid." Buck stood and stretched. "I reckon there's a pretty nurse out there who'd be happy to show me where to find a junk food machine. I'll be back before the doc here is finished poking and prodding."

As Buck reached the door, he turned around and nodded toward the doctor, whose back was to him, and shook his head slightly. JD didn't need the implied advice. He wasn't inclined to tell the doctor anything that would make him sound crazy but he wanted to get some answers from a stranger who couldn't be part of Buck's joke.

As the doctor went about checking all those things doctors always checked, he tried to figure out a question he could ask that wouldn't reveal his memory problems. Finally he resorted to, "Where exactly is this hospital anyway?" He figured he could pretend he meant the exact address, not the city.

The doctor, whose his name tag read Dr. Ryan, smiled. "I guess you haven't been here before. We're in Scottsdale."

Scottsdale? JD had hoped to hear Denver, had been afraid to hear Phoenix but it had never occurred to him he might get a third option. He wasn't sure what to do with the information. He had no idea what state Scottsdale was in. He asked as casually as he could, "Do you know how far we are from Phoenix?"

"Gee, I don't know for sure. I'm like most people around here. I don't really notice when I cross over from Phoenix into Scottsdale. If this place wasn't called Scottsdale Medical Center I probably wouldn't even know this wasn't Phoenix."

Damn. They must be sister cities like Dallas and Fort Worth.

Dr. Ryan wrote some things on his chart, and said cheerfully. "Everything looks good. We did a CAT scan while you were unconscious so we know there's no serious damage. I don't want you driving or going back to work, even desk duty, for week or so because you might get a little dizzy occasionally. The wrist isn't likely to give you any trouble if you keep it in a sling when you're walking around. I'd rather not give you any pain meds with a head injury but if the wrist really starts to hurt, I can prescribe something. You need to come back for a checkup day after tomorrow, sooner if you start vomiting or blacking out. If you have a friend you can go home with - maybe that big fellow who was just here — you don't have to spend the night."

JD wasn't sure how to take that news. Part him was eager to get out of the hospital, to see what was out there. But part of him dreaded seeing something he couldn't handle. The doctor seemed to be waiting for a response. "Sure, Buck's my roommate. He'll take me home."

Buck sauntered back into the room, waving a candy bar. It wasn't a Snickers but JD hadn't really wanted one anyway. "Here you go. Sweet Nurse Amy had this Twix in her purse and I didn't want to seem ungrateful and insist on a something different. It's got chocolate on it anyway." Buck tossed the candy bar onto JD's lap and resumed his seat by the bed.

Dr. Ryan turned his attention to Buck. "I understand you're Mr. Dunne's roommate. I can let him go home as long as you're going to be there in case something unexpected happens and he needs to come back to the hospital."

Buck nodded amiably. "Sure thing, doc. I can take tomorrow off and keep an eye on him. I'll be around all weekend too." He looked over at JD and winked. "The lovely Nurse Amy thinks my bedside vigil shows I'm a man of compassionate character. I told her I was concerned that you being an invalid and all, you might need some special meals but I wasn't much of a cook so she volunteered to come over and cook on Saturday."

A short time later the undeniably attractive Nurse Amy came in with a wheelchair and a couple of pill bottles. JD felt so much lighter after hearing Buck act like the womanizing Buck Wilmington in his memory that he didn't quibble about being wheeled out instead of walking. His good mood lasted until they were in the elevator alone.

"JD, I'm happy to take care of you, especially with Amy's help, but why did you tell the doc I was your roommate? We're not college kids. I don't want Amy to think I'm a 35-year-old man who doesn't make enough money to live on his own -- or that I'm a gay cradle robber."

"We aren't roommates?" JD could hear the wistfulness in his own voice but couldn't seem to make himself sound more independent. "Where do I live?"

Damn, he sounded pathetic now.

"Don't you worry. I found you and Betsy a great apartment next to mine. You can come visit me for the weekend or I'll hang out at your place."

Betsy? JD was sure he could feel his heart speed up. He didn't want to find out Casey was missing from this screwed up world he'd woken up in. He stayed silent when Buck parked his wheelchair under the entryway roof while he went to get his car. He looked around, hoping to see something that would tell him this was all a joke. But March in Denver was never this hot and the palm trees near the entry were surrounded by white rocks, not snow.

A few minutes later Buck drove up in a really cool '57 Chevy convertible. For just a moment JD wondered who he'd borrowed it from, then realized it was probably just something else he'd forgotten.

They'd been driving for five or ten minutes before JD found the courage to raise the subject of Casey indirectly. "Buck, I don't remember Betsy."

Buck immediately slowed the car to a speed that made talking easier in the open top convertible. "Don't you let her know. She worships the ground you walk on. When she greets you at the door, you act like you adore her. She's the best damn partner you could have and you can't be hurtin' her feelings."

JD sank back in the seat and almost whispered his next words. "But I love Casey. At least I think I do. How can I pretend to have feelings for this Betsy when I don't even know her?" He looked up at Buck, terrified to hear the answer to his next question. "Did I do something to make Casey mad at me?" Please don't tell me I made her up as part of my brain scramble.

"Not lately." Buck favored him with the big grin that was exactly as JD remembered. "Don't you worry JD. Casey is as crazy about you as you are about her."

"Then why don't I live with her?"

Buck grinned even more broadly. "'Cause Nettie Wells would skin you alive that's why. Casey's barely 20 and has two more years of college ahead of her. Nettie's not going to let some young man with raging hormones get in the way of that. You just be glad she didn't give Casey a curfew."

JD decided not to ask any more questions. He'd just wait to meet this Betsy and get the feel for what their relationship was. Maybe she was his ATF partner and they were just roommates. It wasn't unheard of for men and women to share housing, even if they weren't a couple. But then why had Buck told him to act like he adored her?

A few minutes later they turned into a small apartment complex in which the two-story units had the look of townhouses. Buck was out of the car and at JD's side before he'd gotten the car door open. "Okay, kid, you get woozy or something, you just grab onto old Buck."

"I ain't gonna get woozy." Actually JD was still feeling a little dizzy but he didn't think it was from his head wound. He was straining to find something familiar about the apartments but there was nothing. They were pretty nice - blue tile roof, deep porches, kind of a hacienda look but nothing like the CDC.

Buck grabbed him by the arm. "Come on. We'll go to my place first. I put Betsy in there to keep Blossom company."

"Put? You put Betsy in your place? And who's Blossom? If she's at your place what are you going to tell your nurse friend Saturday?"

Buck didn't answer, he just held onto JD's arm, both supporting him and dragging him along. Once he'd unlocked the door, Buck pushed JD in ahead of him. The place was lit only by the porch light shining in through the front windows. JD assumed the girls had gone out until two dark shapes threw themselves on him, knocking him backwards into Buck.

Buck laughed as he reached over and turned on the foyer light. He set JD on his feet and knelt down to fondle the ears of a madly wriggling black dog. JD found he couldn't resist doing the same to the other dog.

"Betsy." When he said her name, the dog in his arms somehow managed to wag her tail faster and lick his face harder. "Betsy, named for Daniel Boone's rifle." He looked over at Buck for confirmation; his friend was beaming.

"And this is her sister Blossom. I just knew seeing Betsy would bring everything back."

JD hated to disappoint Buck but if he was going to hide his memory loss from the world, he'd need Buck's help. He couldn't afford to lie to him. "Sorry, Buck. It wasn't that I remember her. It's just that she's such a nice dog and I can tell she loves me."

"So why do you think she was named for Daniel Boone's rifle?"

"'Cause when I was looking for a horse, if I'd gotten a mare I'd thought about calling her Betsy after the rifle."

Buck's disappointment was evident but short-lived. "Don't worry, it'll just take some time. Actually she and Blossom had their names before they were assigned to us. You picked Betsy 'cause of her name. Now you sit down on the sofa over there and I'll rustle us up some supper. I think they released you from the hospital early so they could save on feedin' you."

JD couldn't sit though. He had to see how Buck lived now that he didn't live with JD. Or since he'd never lived with JD. Or . . . whatever. The inside didn't look any more like the CDC than the outside had. It wasn't exactly spotless, but it was definitely on the clean side of the spectrum. As he walked around, he was excited to recognize some bits and pieces of Buck's past. In a place of honor on the mantel was a photo of Buck's mother, the same photo he had on his dresser back home. In the home he remembered, the home he had made up in his head.

There were other photos too, photos in which he recognized all the people but none of the times or places. There was a big one of Buck and him with the two dogs at some kind of graduation ceremony. It was flanked by two smaller photos - one with Chris in the middle with one arm around each of them, the dogs sitting in front. The third showed one dog, probably Blossom, sniffing for something in a building.

There were several photos showing a much younger Chris and Buck, one with them astride motorcycles, another with both in formal clothes with Chris's wife Sarah in the middle. Chris had a similar photo in his ranch house "back home" but this one had flowering cactus in the background instead of a rose arbor. There were photos of the team in western clothes posed with trophies or horses but with a blonde woman instead of him. He supposed that must be Kate Stokes. He was pleased to see he recognized all the horses except one, a palomino that must belong to her.

Buck appeared beside him. "Those photos bringing back memories?"

JD shugged. He pointed to the graduation photo. "I recognize us and that's Betsy and Blossom but where were we?"

"That's when we graduated from K-9 accelerant detection training in Virginia. I saw this green as grass kid and knew you'd need my help so you wouldn't waste that fine dog. I worked a patrol dog back when I was a cop in Tucson so I gave you the benefit of my wisdom and sure enough you managed to squeak through."

"Buck, there's one thing I remember now."

Buck gave him an encouraging smile.

"You are so full of crap."

Buck let loose a delighted laugh and gave JD a little punch on the shoulder. "Kid, you're gonna be okay. Come on, we'll eat in the kitchen. I have some of your favorites. I heard tell that tastes and smells can trigger memories better than most anything."

JD looked toward the front door. "I didn't hear the bell ring. When did the food get here?"

JD was hungrier than he thought he'd be, though with his unreliable memory could be he hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch. He wolfed down a slab of reheated lasagna - just the way he liked it, dripping with two layers of gooey cheese and a layer of spinach and ricotta in the middle. He followed that with a sandwich containing what Buck told him were habanero sausages. They were good but required two glasses of milk to wash down. That was followed by a bowl of cookie dough ice cream with a chocolate hard shell topping.

JD was working on his second bowl of ice cream by the time he admitted to himself that he was using the food as a stalling tactic. "Buck, can I stay here tonight?"

"Sure, kid. We'll get some of your stuff from your place and you can stay as long as you want." Buck must have seen something in JD's face at that suggestion because he added gently, "Are you afraid to go next door, afraid seeing your own place won't bring your memory back?"

JD nodded. "Your place is so different from what I remember. What if I find out I'm a different person than I think I am?"

"Am I a different person?"

"You seem just the same but this place is so, so . . . clean." JD looked around and pointed to the coffee table in the living room. "Like that table - it's all scuffed up from people putting their feet on it just like I remember but it's not covered with pizza boxes, Chinese food cartons and beer cans. And I remember a carpet that was - well sometimes it was dangerous to walk on with bare feet. You've got these nice tile floors with area rugs and they're clean."

Buck laughed and pointed to Blossom and Betsy who were both waiting by the kitchen table with hopeful faces. "A Labrador retriever is a walking vacuum cleaner when it comes to food. They've been trained not to take food off the counters or regular tables but the floor is theirs and the coffee table is sort of a no man's land so we have to keep them clean. Food is their pay for working, we can't just leave it lying around for scrounging. Anyway, I don't know why you think I'm a slob. The only kind of woman who's into slobs is one who wants to believe a guy desperately needs a wife. That's not the message I'm trying to put out there."

"Maybe it's me who's the slob. You know since I thought we were living together and all."

"Hell no. The only thing messy about you is that fuzz you sometimes try to grow on your face. You're no fusspot but your place is pretty much like mine. In fact, we have the same cleaning service."

"We've got maids?"

"Well, not buxom, long-legged lovelies wearing cute, little black outfits, waving feather dusters around. Believe me, I looked into that. It's just a couple of nice ladies with families to support who come in once a week to vacuum, dust, clean the fridge and the bathrooms, like that. Why not? We're well paid federal employees without families. Why shouldn't we help Mrs. Garza and her sister support theirs?"

Suddenly JD didn't want to wait; he had to see how he lived. He jumped to his feet and patted his pockets, finding them empty. "Where's my keys? I think I'd still like to spend the night here, but maybe if I look at my place now, everything will fall in place while I'm sleeping."

"Here you go." Buck tossed him a set of keys off the counter.

JD looked at them, trying to figure out what each of the five keys was for. He picked out one that caught his eye. Oh, that couldn't be. "I drive a Hyundai?"

"Well, you ain't that well paid a federal employee. You got a good deal on a 2005 Tucson. It's better than a motorcycle for carting around dogs, saddles and Casey."

"I sold my bike?"

"You traded it to Tiny for Millie."

"His name is Milagro." JD found it comforting that Buck's irritating habits hadn't changed even if his housekeeping had reformed.

As JD headed for the front door, both dogs leaped to attention, crowding the door. "They must need to go out." Poor dogs. Had they been locked up ever since the accident?

"They want to see if anything interesting is going on. They have dog doors into our little yard out back if they need to go out. Chris was over earlier to set up a couple of training exercises so they could have some supper."

JD had plenty of emotional backup as he approached his front door and inserted the key in the lock. As soon as he opened the door, the two dogs rushed in and he could feel Buck's comforting presence at his back. At first glance, the apartment itself wasn't much of a revelation. It was a mirror image of Buck's. The kitchens and bathrooms were back to back, probably to save on plumbing. It was just as clean too, though the furniture wasn't as nice. Buck's big leather couch had looked new and JD would bet it had replaced the long threadbare version in this apartment that sat opposite a flat screen TV - probably the most expensive thing in the room.

Buck stood by the door as JD slowly walked around the living room taking in every detail. On a bookcase was a copy of the same graduation photo he'd seen at Buck's place. There was a picture of Casey sitting on a horse and another of himself with Casey at a party. There was a big manila envelope propped up between them. He opened it and found an 8x10 photo of the Magnificent Seven. He was in the middle holding a big trophy. He held it up so Buck could see.

"That's from last weekend. They have professional photographers who sell photos to the contestants. We all got a copy of that one. Haven't had time to get a frame yet."

JD examined the photo closely. He was wearing a three-piece suit with a Bat Masterson bowler hat. He looked pretty damn fine though not as fancy as Ezra standing on his right dressed as a gambler in a dark green jacket, a shiny gold vest and a shirt with ruffles at the cuff. On his left was Vin, looking like a buffalo hunter in fringed buckskin and a slouch hat. Behind Vin was Chris looking dangerous in black with a silver-studded rig, the look of danger somewhat alleviated by the grin on his face. On Chris's right was Josiah in an outfit that looked vaguely Southwestern set off with a string of beads around his neck. Buck and Nathan finished the line-up, both wearing big hats and vests, Buck with a huge purple bandanna that almost covered his shirt. Although his memory didn't include the competition or even the outfit that must be hanging in his closet right now, he needed to believe that his memories of these men, of their hearts, minds and souls, were accurate. Buck seemed the same, just a little tidier. Vin too, just less busted up. He needed to see them all.

"Buck, can we invite all the guys over tomorrow? And Casey?"

"How about Sunday? We have practice Sunday. We can invite them all over for pizza or something afterwards. I reckon they'll all be stopping by before then to see how you are, just not all at one time. Except Casey. She went from Denver to Colorado Springs for a wedding. Nettie too. We wanted to know exactly what was happening with you before we called her. Now it seems you aren't hurt bad enough to disrupt their plans. She'll probably call tonight though - or expect you to call her."

"I guess we don't have barbecues on Sundays." Even if they were a figment of his imagination, he was going to miss those barbecues at Chris's ranch. The ranch Chris didn't have.

"We can have a barbecue if you want. If we bring the food, Tiny and Yosemite are always willing to fire up their big barbecue pit for the boarders."


"The Livery's where we all keep our horses and do our practicing. Tiny and Yosemite have a whole complex of arenas and shooting galleries. They host the OWPOG competition in this area."

That sounded okay. Maybe not as good as Chris's ranch but okay. And at least it was real. JD turned back to the photos and spotted another picture of Casey, this time in a group of women wearing Western clothes. The women held several trophies. He held the photo out to Buck. "Do they have a women's division or did they win all those trophies against men?"

"There's a women's division but those gals could compete against the men if they wanted to. If they get even one man they wouldn't have any choice; they'd be in the open division with the all-male and mixed teams. We'd better hope they stay in the women's division because Nettie's Gang is damn good."

"They have a social worker running a gang?" Actually Nettie looked pretty natural with a rifle in her hands.

"Wow, that clonk on the head sure gave you some strange memories. Nettie a social worker? She can shoot the wings off a fly with that Spencer carbine of hers. She's a rancher, though she herds free-range, organic chickens not cattle. She heads the best all-female outlaw gang in OWPOG. And that little girl of yours, well she's put her barrel racing skills to work in mounted shooting. You and I might just be in trouble if they ever compete in the open division against us."

"How come that Kate Stokes wasn't in Nettie's Gang if they had a women's team?"

Buck started to laugh and unsuccessfully tried to cover it up with a cough. "Well, let's just say Kate wasn't exactly welcome there. She was on an all-female team up in Montana but once she got to know us, especially me, she realized that all us ultra-manly types weren't as oppressive as the father and boyfriend she left behind."

JD could tell Buck was leaving something out. "So why didn't Nettie like her?"

"It wasn't so much Nettie as Casey. You know, sometimes people just don't get along."

"Okay, I'll just ask Casey about it later."

"Oh, I wouldn't do that."


"I just didn't want to stir up bad memories."

"Buck, any real memories would be welcome, even bad ones."

"Well, let's just say Casey was pretty unhappy when she caught you with Kate's sister Maddie under compromising circumstances."

"I cheated on Casey?"

"Just a little."

"What the heck does that mean?"

"Well, Maddie came on to you pretty strong. And it was before you and Casey had - well, indulged. You had needs and Maddie apparently did too. You were in one of the barns out at the Livery and Casey kind of interrupted before your needs were fully met."

It was bad enough that he'd cheated on her but he didn't even have the compensation of a memory of being with that other woman. "But Casey forgave me?"

"Sure, after she was unsuccessful at seducing Vin and Ezra, I guess she figured she couldn't do any better than you." The accompanying punch on the shoulder took the sting out of the words.

But JD finally had a memory. "Wait, didn't Kate's sister end up in prison?"

"Hey, you're starting to remember."

But then JD flashed on where the memory came from. "You just told me at the hospital."

"Oh, right." Buck shrugged. "Not to worry. At least we know your memory is working okay. It just needs a longer range."

JD continued the tour of his unfamiliar apartment. The bedroom was pretty nice, full of mementos of places he didn't remember except for a half dozen pictures of himself at various ages with his mother. The bed was full-sized and he guessed was also a memento of good times he didn't remember. He hoped sex with Casey was as good in reality as it was in his false memories.

He was just checking out the surprisingly clean bathroom when he heard the unmistakable strains of the theme from the Magnificent Seven. He was looking around for a clock radio when Buck handed him a cell phone and whispered, "Ezra."

"I just heard of your misfortune. I called the hospital but was told you'd been released. I assume your partner is there watching over you."


"Yes, of course. But I was actually referring to Buck. Is there anything I can get you that he hasn't thought of?"

The familiar cadence of Ezra's voice was strongly comforting and JD made a quick decision. Ezra could be trusted and his moral code wouldn't require him to tell anyone of his predicament. "Ezra, could you come by for breakfast tomorrow?"

There was a silence on the line until JD hurriedly amended, "I meant brunch."

"Of course, son. I'll not only come for brunch, I'll bring it. I assume you still have a taste for jalapeno quiche and mocha coffee, double cream."

JD did recall loving mocha coffee but in his mind his tastes in the way of breakfast steered more in the direction of donuts with chocolate sprinkles. But remembering the way his taste buds had sprung to life at the first taste of habanero sausages, he was pretty sure he wouldn't mind retiring donuts to the land of Homer Simpson, at least temporarily.

+ + + + + + +

JD wasn't ready to spend the night alone in this strange apartment - his strange apartment - so he gathered up some toiletries and a change of clothes to take back to Buck's. When he checked for a shirt in the closet, he noted the two brown, three-piece suits hanging there, one in a dry cleaning bag. On the shelf above was the bowler hat, next to it a wide brimmed Stetson. He started to reach for the cool bowler when Buck grabbed the Stetson and placed it firmly on JD's head.

"This is your OWPOG hat."

JD backed off and looked at himself in the mirrored closet door. Then he grabbed the bowler and checked himself out wearing that. He couldn't say he remembered either but he knew why he was wearing the bowler in the OWPOG photo. It gave him the genteel look of Bat Masterson rather than the more roughhewn look Buck apparently favored. The big Stetson made him look like a cross between Speedy Gonzales and Baba Looey.

He kept his hand firmly on the bowler as Buck tried to snatch it. "Can't believe you'd take advantage of my head injury to trick me into changing hats." He tipped his bowler at himself in the mirror. "Just 'cause I don't exactly remember this hat don't mean I can't tell it suits me. You probably gave me the other one."

Buck sighed. "Kid, you could take advantage of this memory loss thing and let me make a few improvements in your life."

JD was trying to come up with a witty retort when the doorbell rang. Betsy and Blossom raced for the living room and by the time JD emerged from the hallway, they were sitting side by side at attention by the front door.

"It's Chris," Buck announced. He then either anticipated JD's question or saw it in his expression. "They only sit at attention for Chris. They'd be leaping around if it was anyone else they liked and barking if it was a stranger."

As Buck started toward the door, JD grabbed his arm. "What do I tell him?"

Buck paused for just a moment. "As your friend you could tell him anything but as your supervisor, don't put him on the spot. Tell him enough that he won't expect you to go back to work right away but not so much he'll be obliged to send you to a psych."

JD's stomach clenched in anticipation as Buck opened the door. So far Buck acted the same, Ezra sounded the same and Vin looked the same. He wanted his memories of Chris to ring true even if he'd forgotten the details. These six men and Casey were the most important people he'd had in his life since his mother died and he didn't want any of them to seem like strangers.

After Buck opened the door, JD saw he'd gotten a two for one with this visit. Behind Chris in the doorway was Nathan carrying a big pizza box.

"I dropped by the hospital, found you'd already gone home and Nathan was just getting off. Thought we'd come check on you."

"Sure old pard, you needed to find out how bad he was hurt so you'd know if you could be satisfied with dropping paper on old Kendall or would need to punch him out." Buck dropped an arm around JD's shoulder. "The kid's still a little woozy but he's getting better. Maybe you could avoid getting suspended for kicking Kendall's butt."

Chris scowled. "No one gets careless with the lives of my men and stays around to do it again." Then he smiled and looked JD over. "You really okay, kid or you telling Buck that so he doesn't smother you with the old Wilmington 'don't just do what you can overdo'? How about we let Nathan check you out?"

"How about we get started on this pizza first?" Nathan shifted the box in his hands. "Just watching him will tell me something about how he's handling being home."

"Hey, I'm fine. What kind of pizza did you bring?" JD wished the two had caught them before they left Buck's place. How was he going to explain it if someone asked for a fork and he went to the drawer with spatulas in it? If he had spatulas.

Nathan headed for the kitchen where he laid the box on the table and fetched forks, napkins, oregano and crushed red peppers, saving JD from having to expose his ignorance. He was shocked when Nathan opened the box to expose an extra large carnivore's pizza dripping with the grease from pepperoni, sausage, linguini, bacon, beef and ham. Not a speck of green in sight, not even green peppers.

He must have failed to mask his surprise because Nathan found it necessary to explain. "Vin's team got called out. They were about two hours out when the situation was resolved so he isn't gonna be back until late. I figured without Vin, we could do without the veggie pizza."

JD hoped he hid his surprise better this time. Vin a vegetarian? That was weirder than finding out Buck wasn't a slob.

Chris took that moment to find out that JD was out of beer and Coke. When Buck volunteered to go next door to fetch some, JD went with him. He waited until they were in Buck's kitchen to ask, "There any other surprises you haven't told me about?"

"Well, how can I know what's gonna surprise you unless I know what you've forgotten?"

Buck was right of course; he'd have to spell it out. "For one, how could Vin be a vegetarian? Doesn't he go hunting? And since when does Nathan order a pizza without broccoli and fresh tomatoes on it - and a whole wheat crust? And how come Chris is wearing a green shirt and . . .?"

Buck shook a near six pack of Coke in JD's face, his finger hooked in the one empty plastic ring. "Hold on there. First thing, Vin's not a vegetarian. He just don't trust all those hormones and he don't like feed lots and slaughter houses. He eats plenty of Nettie's organic chickens and his freezer is full of stuff he's killed himself. Most times when we have a barbecue, he brings venison sausage. And don't let Nathan's being a doctor make you think he's some kind of health food addict. Haven't you noticed there are as many overweight doctors as waitresses or bus drivers? Nathan keeps himself pretty healthy but I know for a fact he surrenders to a Big Mac attack almost every Friday at lunch and smokes cigars on poker night. And what was that last thing? Oh yeah, Chris. Why shouldn't he wear a green shirt? Maybe he thinks it matches his eyes or something."

JD could feel the cold cans thumping against his shoulder blade as Buck clasped his shoulder. "The only thing you need to remember is we're all your friends and we'd all go to the wall for you and each other. Aside from silly little things like food and clothes, do you think Chris and Nathan are any different down deep?"

+ + + + + + +

And they hadn't been. So Chris smiled a little more and wore something other than black shirts with his black jeans. Nathan didn't badger him to eat health food or make him lie down on the couch with a quilt over him. But Chris was the same old Chris Larabee when it came to not suffering fools who hurt his friends. And after they'd eaten, Nathan had checked his stitches and his eyes and wouldn't let him drink any beer. He'd been worried about JD's lack of appetite until Buck told him what he'd eaten before they got there.

Lying awake on Buck's couch with Betsy a comforting presence curled up at his feet, he still felt a little guilty about not coming clean with his two friends, who were also his boss and his sort-of doctor. JD had skirted the edges of his memory loss with them, acting concerned only over the fact that he had no memory of his fall or even the bit of the search that had preceded it. Nathan assured him that was perfectly normal. Sometimes a person would remember a traumatic event with crystal clarity while other traumas sucked up the memories for minutes or even hours on either side of it. JD had been afraid to ask if it was normal to forget months or years.

He hadn't felt guilty about avoiding the subject of memory loss with Casey when she'd called his cell just after he'd settled on Buck's couch. As her first call had been to his home phone, she wanted to know why he wasn't home "on a school night" as she liked to put it. He'd had to tell her about his accident, emphasizing the broken wrist over the head injury. But when he had a few memory slips during their conversation, he'd had to use fuzziness resulting from the head injury to cover. Still, he managed to convince her there was no need to cut short her visit with all the cousins who had attended the wedding. All in all, his chat with her had been comforting. She was the same bossy, funny, loving, challenging and irritating companion he remembered. His memory loss hadn't made her any less complicated.

JD fell asleep wondering if he'd wake up with all his memories intact or if the tantalizing visions of the Easter basket ATF would still be dancing in his head.

+ + + + + + +


Ezra's latte sloshed in the jacketed paper cup as he slammed it on the table to punctuate his conclusion. "Confabulation."

JD had told Ezra everything he'd told Buck about his false memories of Denver and then Ezra managed to coax out details he'd felt were too silly to tell Buck. But in the face of Ezra's persuasive cajoling, out spilled stories about rubber chickens, morning doughnuts, coffee so strong it could peel paint, football games at Chris's nonexistent ranch, a saloon managed by a beautiful Mexican woman who rejected every bit of magic in Buck's book of charms, two cantankerous horses named Peso and Chaucer. He also told Ezra details of their cases - so many of which ended with Ezra fooling the bad guys up until the very last minute when Vin's sharpshooting skills saved their butts as things went south - the frustration of waiting in the com van while everyone else was in danger, the additional pain of emergency room vigils.

JD caught Buck and Ezra exchanging glances over some of the details but, to his relief, neither of them laughed or suggested an immediate call to a shrink.

Finally JD had run out of words and jalapeno quiche, something he was sure he'd never had before but that he was certain he'd want again. He drank his mocha while he waited for Ezra to explain confabulation.

"It's like this, JD. That head injury caused swelling or something that temporarily blocked out a lot of your memories. Your mind is filling the vacuum with false ones."

"Will the real ones come back?" Of course, Ezra wasn't a doctor so JD didn't expect anything but meaningless reassurance but right now the fact that he had two friends to give it, friends who were part of both his real life and his false memories, was really comforting.

"Well, son, I certainly won't advise you against seeking the services of a qualified expert if your memory doesn't start to come back in a few days. But I have to say, the false memories you've described are readily understandable."

"Understandable?" Ezra knew a lot of fancy words but didn't seem to know the meaning of some simple ones. "You mean because my brain is making up nice things about Denver and ranches and saloons, and not making me run all over Phoenix warning people not to go to sleep because the pod people will take over their bodies?"

Buck pounded the table and said gleefully, "See, it's coming back. We watched the black and white original together a few months ago. You said you watched it on TV with your ma when you were just a little kid and it was the last horror movie she let you watch until you were 15. You said she thought it would be safe because there were no giant insects or vampires."

JD sighed and shook his head. "That stuff about my ma is true but the way I remember it, I watched it with Casey the first time she spent the night."

Buck slapped him on the shoulder. "Good move, kid. The Body Snatchers is just the kind of bloodless horror movie that won't make a girl all squeamish but will be just unsettling enough to make her want to cuddle up with a protector and engage in bedtime activities not involving sleep."

"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra chided. "Perhaps you could remember that JD's problem is not one of seduction technique."

Buck sat back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest and wiggled his fingers at Ezra in a get-on-with-it motion.

"I mean the kinds of memories filling your vacated space are understandable in light of your present circumstances. Actually your false memories are relatively modest and close to the truth. Under similar circumstances I might have awakened with the belief I had won the grandest casino in Vegas in a poker game." He paused, then added with a grin, "From my mother."

"So where are my memories close to the truth? Arizona sure isn't much like Colorado and I don't remember having a dog since I was a kid."

"Help me out here, Buck."

"Let's see, you got all the horses right except Chaucer. Ezra's got a chestnut horse all right but his name is Chester because whoever named him had no imagination."

Ezra tapped a finger thoughtfully against the plastic top of his coffee cup. "You know, I've always thought a fine, spirited animal like Chester deserved something more stylish but he'd spent the first six years of his life with that lackluster sobriquet and I didn't want to confuse him. But you've come up with a fine solution - Chester, Chaucer. I don't think that will confuse him at all but it is certainly a more admirable name. But let's get back to your memories."

"The comely Inez does run the Tavern, one of our favorite hangouts. She has indeed proven totally oblivious to Buck's questionable charms. What you may have forgotten is that one of the likely reasons, aside from Buck's complete lack of subtlety, is she's torn between my sophisticated charisma and Mr. Tanner's more rustic but undeniably sincere persona."

"Hey, who's into seduction techniques now?" This was clearly not a matter Buck was going to take in stride. "I'll have you know Inez occasionally acts interested in one of you just to make me jealous."

"Sorry, Buck. You're right -- about me wandering off the topic at hand, not about Inez's intentions." Before Buck could do more than sputter, Ezra was back on track.

"JD, you clearly remember all the people who are important in your life, you just don't remember them playing exactly the same roles. Perhaps after losing the last of your family when your mother died, you'd like our Old West posse to be a family substitute. And to some extent it is; we train together, compete together, often recreate together. But your subconscious would like us to be even more important to each other, to face danger together, to risk our lives for each other. Certainly OWPOG rules take all the genuine danger out of the competition. But the manner in which ATF is organized doesn't lend itself to a single team with talents as disparate as we possess, especially for Nathan with his desire to help people through healing and his negative childhood experience with the ATF. And the geographic mobility contracts we all sign make keeping a team together impossible in any event. So your mind has taken our Old West posse and made up a single ATF team that would accommodate a medic, a sharpshooter, a profiler, an explosives expert, and a single undercover specialist. I'd hazard a guess that your mind might have turned us into an actual family of brothers except that the age and racial differences made that unrealistic, even for false memories."

Ezra nibbled on the less volatile quiche Lorraine he'd brought for himself before continuing. "Think of it this way, even if this were to be permanent, and there's no reason to think it will be, you haven't lost anything really important."

JD felt a wet nose nuzzling his elbow and looked down. "But I did. I lost maybe a year's worth of memories about my partner." He looked over at Buck. "One of my partners. And however it was I joined ATF and met all you guys, that must be a good memory but I don't have it any more."

Buck was never one to stay out of a conversation for long. "But it sounds like your false memories are pretty interesting. I bet however you remember meeting Ezra and me for instance is at least as entertaining as the real deal."

JD thought for a moment and his head started to throb. "That's a really spooky thing, Buck. I remember about a dozen different ways I joined Team Seven and met all you guys. If I try to pin it down, it gives me a headache. Sometimes I'm the last to join, but sometimes it's Vin and sometimes Ezra."

Ezra smiled. "I believe that's because the things your mind came up with to fill that gap don't ring true so it keeps coming up with alternatives. Now, if you weren't a K-9 handler in arson investigations what was the special talent you had that made you part of the special ATF team?"

"My computer skills, of course." He'd barely gotten the words out before Buck started laughing. And for the first time since he'd arrived, Ezra turned away as though to hide the fact that he was doing his best to conceal a chuckle.

"What's so funny? I'm a computer genius. Buck and Vin can barely remember their passwords when they change every 90 days and you only use it to type up those pretty reports you put in those fancy covers."

Buck stopped laughing and put on a serious face. "JD, didn't you notice when you looked around your place yesterday that there wasn't a computer anywhere? That old Gateway you brought from college gave up the ghost six months ago and you haven't even bothered to replace it. You've been accessing your email at the office or at my place all this time. You have a Play Station and I'm betting if it had crashed, you would have replaced it faster 'cause you use it more."

JD rose from the table. "All right. I know what I'm gonna do first. Buy a computer. I'll show you guys." He looked through his wallet and found two credit cards. "Buck, I don't suppose you know what my credit limit is."

Buck reached out and snatched the wallet. "Don't be in such a hurry. You'll have plenty of time to convince us you're a computer genius. But right now you're gonna have to prove to one damned fine arson dog and one very perceptive supervisor that you're a dog handler. Of course, you'll have to get your memory back before you get back to work, but the girls don't eat if they don't train. I can work both dogs and make sure they get fed in the emergency training spot in our little yard out back just like Chris did yesterday, but if you're feeling up to it, you should go with me to the official training area. We can always stop by the office so you can show off your computer skills."

JD stroked Betsy's silky head as she thumped her tail on the tile floor. "I don't remember anything about being a dog handler. If I had to go to a school to learn it, how can I relearn it in just a few hours?"

"Not to worry, this is just training. You can learn enough to have Betsy earn her food. That school was to teach you and Betsy how to work together. She hasn't forgotten how to work with you and she hasn't forgotten her target scents. You can just watch me and Blossom and you'll know what to do." Buck started clearing the table, something unusual in itself but JD was flabbergasted to see him actually rinsing the dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. Despite what he'd seen of Buck's place, he still vaguely expected Buck to just leave the dirty dishes on the counter for the as-yet-unseen Mrs. Garza.

Ezra sat back, making no move to help beyond handing his plate to Buck. At least that hadn't changed. "I take it you haven't shared your temporary incapacity with Mr. Larabee. What about Nathan, Vin or Josiah?"

JD squirmed a bit in his seat. "Well, we didn't want to put Chris on the spot to have to decide if it's worth having psych notes in my file to send me to a head doctor. And Buck was afraid one of the others might feel obligated to tell him."

"So you chose me as a confidant because of my lack of scruples?"

"Don't get insulted, Ezra," Buck said over his shoulder as he poured soap into the little cup in the dishwasher. "He told me first. It's not that we don't have scruples, it's just we know when to put them into play. Now ain't the time."

Ezra nodded. "Ah yes. How surprising to discover you and I share a similar mastery of discretion."

+ + + + + + +

The dog training turned out to be easier than JD expected, mostly because Betsy knew her job. First, they did a quick run through the doggy obstacle course. All JD had to do was point and occasionally remind Betsy to slow down. After that warm-up, they used what Buck called daisy wheels with containers at the end of each of four long spokes, only one of which contained accelerant. The others held various burned items that might have confused a lesser dog. When Betsy sat and stared at one container, then at JD, then back at the item at the end of one spoke, it was impossible to misread her signal. And she was always right, earning her handful of kibble. After an exercise with a wall of cement blocks holding similar containers, Buck declared that as the dogs had received their full day's food, they could call it quits.

"There's a binder with a bunch of our old training materials back at the office. We'll stop by there before we head out to the Livery. You can read up and ask me questions tonight."

Buck and Ezra had suggested JD check out the Livery before meeting the others there on Sunday. With his broken wrist, no one would expect him to participate but he didn't want to get tripped up about what was where.

JD didn't see Ezra's Jag in the parking lot when they arrived but he was already in the arena where JD got his first look at cowboy mounted shooting. Ezra rode through a pattern of barrels and balloons using a revolver with a load just strong enough to pop the balloons, leaving spectators unscathed. He cantered and galloped his way through the whole pattern without a miss, tipping his hat and giving a little yip of triumph after he raced across the finish line that tripped the timer.

"That was so cool." JD wondered if he could manage it with a cast so he could try it now. Shooting on horseback, what could be more like the Old West than that? "How can we be better than him? He didn't miss a single balloon."

Buck pointed to a scoreboard with an electric timer over the end fence. "'Cause we're faster. Ezra's a damn fine trick shooter and no one is deadlier with a revolver than Chris. 'Course we all know how accurate Vin is. But they hardly ever beat us because we can ride the patterns faster than any of them. We just have to make sure not to miss and get a time penalty. But that's why our team is so good; we've got depth. The team's score is based on our top two in every side category and the average of the whole team in the main categories. If we screw up in the mounted class, it's likely one of the others will pick up a good score."

"Because we all enjoy practicing with the horses," Ezra explained as he came up behind them, leading his horse. "We have very little depth in pocket pistols because you macho types seem to think derringers are a lady's weapon. I believe Mr. Tanner resents being tagged with expectations that he be our second in that particular category." Ezra gave JD a close look. "You know, JD. With that wrist you won't be able to practice on horseback for a few weeks and a rifle will be awkward. I think this is an opportune time to share with you the mastery of an easily hidden back-up weapon."

Actually, JD thought it might be fun. "Sure, Ezra. I don't think they're sissy guns." Remembering how Ezra was dressed in the team photo, he added. "No self-respecting gambler would be without one. You want to practice now?"

Buck snorted in derision. "You little guys with the dainty hands can practice with those peashooters. I'm gonna do some knife work. Last time Nathan got called out for an emergency shift, Josiah really needed a backup. Now that's a skill for a big, powerful man."

Ezra put his arm around JD's shoulder. "Come on, son. Ignore the buffoon who wants to play in the carnival sideshow class. What he really means is that he spotted Raphael's newest recruit heading for the practice area with her knives so he's developed a sudden interest in this new skill. We aren't likely to see him for a couple of hours. We'll put up Ches - Chaucer and you can visit with Milagro. Then we'll find you a pocket pistol that suits you. I have a fine collection."

"Got one with a pearl grip?"

Ezra chuckled. "Whatever you want, my boy: pearl, ivory, five kinds of intricately carved, exotic wood. We'll even find something that can be hidden in that fine bowler of yours."

"You like my hat?" JD snuck a look over at Buck who was rolling his eyes.

"A most distinguished example of 1800's headgear. You look quite in character when you wear it. Very Bat Mastersonish."

Buck made gagging noises. "Oh, I'm not staying around listening to this. It's bad enough the boy has a sissy hat without you giving him a sissy gun to go with it. When you two are ready to head over to the Tavern for some dinner, you'll find me in the knife gallery. Raphael's new teammate appears to be just my type and there's certainly no one on her team who's likely to intrigue her. I'll charm her into giving me some pointers."

It was JD's turn to roll his eyes. "As if any pretty girl isn't your type. Now you'll be sleeping with the enemy." He assumed this Raphael person headed a competing OWPOG team but he doubted the Magnificent Seven had any secrets Buck could be manipulated out of.

Buck responded with a shit-eating grin and a wave as he loped toward what JD assumed was the knife throwing practice area in a building next to an archery field. Ezra and JD headed in the opposite direction toward the stables. They were almost there when JD remembered what he had in his pocket.

"Hold up, Ezra. I brought something in honor of Chaucer's new name." He pulled three peppermints out of his pocket. "The receptionist at the office had a bowl on her desk." He held one out in the middle of his flattened palm toward the curious horse.

"Peppermints? Chester does not eat peppermints." Ezra pulled a small bag of baby carrots out of his pocket. "Chester gets sensible treats."

JD laughed as the chestnut horse sniffed the candy, snatched it from JD's hand and crunched happily. He immediately nudged JD looking for more. As JD fed him the other two, he solemnly informed Ezra. "Every horse eats carrots. Chester was an every-horse. Chaucer's new name makes him special so now he has higher expectations."

"Wonderful." Ezra lamented. "It isn't enough to have a mother with impossible expectations. Now I'm adding a horse with lofty goals to my life's burdens."

+ + + + + + +

Buck, Ezra and JD got to the Tavern while the dinner rush was in full swing. Buck had called Inez to save their table then called the rest of the team to meet them. However, as the three hadn't eaten since brunch, they didn't wait for the others before ordering enough appetizers to turn their table into a party buffet.

JD found the Tavern to be a great deal like the Saloon of his Denver fantasy except that "their table" was a long 12-seater that could accommodate additional chairs in a pinch. This suggested that their group often included others and JD wondered if that meant significant others, fellow OWPOG competitors or ATF comrades. He was about to ask his friends when Inez approached with a covered dish.

Although Buck started off with his usual routine, telling Inez she was more appetizing than anything on the menu, her attention was directed at JD.

"Pobrecito. Nathan told me of your accident. I hope your head is well enough to tolerate the constant, meaningless chatter of your foolish friend."

"Hey," Buck sputtered before regaining his composure and finishing, "Ezra's not that foolish."

Inez smiled and patted Ezra affectionately on the shoulder. "You are right, Señor Buck, Señor Ezra is not foolish at all." She then placed the covered dish in front of JD and lifted the cover with a flourish. "A man who is injured in the line of duty deserves a little, what do you call it, pampering."

JD instantly felt wonderfully pampered. Although the dish Inez had uncovered was totally unfamiliar to him, it smelled and looked like something that could have cured a broken leg or a broken heart. It sat in its own little casserole dish, covered in a cheesy crust. As he plunged in his fork, he found something that appeared to be a cross between lasagna and chiles rellenos. His first bite told him that the mildness of the long egg-battered, cheese-stuffed peppers found between two layers of corn tortillas was set off by the bite of little green, yellow and orange peppers in a cheesy sour cream sauce resting on a bed of black beans in the next layer. Remembering the sausages he'd eaten at Buck's the night before, he suspected these were a more recognizable incarnation of the fiery Habaneros. The bottom layer consisted of a spicy shredded pork with onions and cilantro. He sighed in satisfaction and looked up at Inez. "This could inspire a man to fall through floors more often."

Inez looked pleased but chided him as she kissed him lightly on the cheek. "No more falling through floors, chico. If you get the urge to do so, just come here and I will make you a JD special to take your mind off such foolishness. If you need anything else, just ask."

With that she left, pointedly ignoring the empty beer pitcher Buck waved in the air at her. Buck as always remained undiscouraged. "That woman is so crazy about me."

Ezra snagged a sope and before popping it in his mouth leaned over to JD. "If Inez is crazy about him, she's clearly a consummate actress. She's never given the slightest hint of her passion and she's never made a specialty dish invented, named and served just for him."

"Ha. That's because I eat normal food," Buck interjected. "I notice she hasn't put that concoction on the menu or tried to serve it to anyone but JD. I'm thinking it should be called Leftovers à la JD."

"But that would be English and French, not Mexican or Spanish," Ezra pointed out as he grabbed another sope.

"She makes this just for me? Wow." JD was pleased his memory of Inez's sisterly feelings for him were more than wishful thinking.

"Who makes what fer you, kid?" Vin slid into the seat next to JD. "Oh, a JD special," he answered himself as he fanned out three tortilla chips and scooped up a small mountain of guacamole. "Course, she makes that just fer you. No one else would eat it."

"Exactly what I was saying," Buck said as he speared two mini-chimichangas and dipped them in salsa and sour cream just as their waitress brought two more pitchers of beer and set them both down in front of him.

Inez must have noticed Buck's gesture with the empty pitcher and given the impression of ignoring him just for show. JD wondered if maybe Inez was interested in Buck.

JD watched Buck survey the room and, following his line of sight, saw he was checking on Inez's whereabouts. He realized why when Buck launched into a description of Raphael's new knife thrower.

"You should have seen her, Vin. The enchanting Jo Riley. That simple name doesn't do her justice though. She's a lovely senorita whose most recent Irish relative was her great grandfather, a Texas Ranger near the Mexican border in the 1870's. The knife throwing is a family skill handed down by Ranger Riley who spent time with the Comanches after his parents were killed. She's agreed to teach me her artistry with the blade in exchange for some lessons in mounted shooting."

"Don't suppose she could teach ya to shoot those damn little popguns too?" Vin asked hopefully.

JD rushed to assure Vin he was off the hook. However, before he could get beyond his newly found expertise in shooting the hearts and spades out of playing cards, Josiah come through the door and headed to their table. Josiah was the only one of the important people in his life he hadn't scoped out for differences between reality and false memories and he was anxious to see him close up. He'd talked to him briefly on his cell but they'd only exchanged a few pleasantries and reassurances before Casey called. Josiah looked the same of course, everyone did, but there could be differences as minor as Buck's unexpected neatness or as big as JD's transformation from computer genius to arson dog handler.

JD was gratified to find that as with everyone else, Josiah's first order of business was to ascertain that JD was okay.

"I'm glad to see you look as well as you sounded last night. Don't you let Chris put you back to work too soon though. And wait for those stitches to come out before you go falling through floors again."

"He won't be falling through any more floors because we're not doing anymore investigations in multi-story buildings without a competent structural engineer." Chris came up behind Josiah and pulled out a chair across from Buck. As he sat down, he reached for the guacamole and chips.

Buck pushed a beer pitcher across the table along with an empty mug. "I can buy that old pard. With you snarling behind the fence, we're a perfect unit, ten arson investigators and three canines - two labs and a junkyard dog."

JD's head snapped up. He hadn't even considered the fact that Chris couldn't be supervising just him and Buck. But the other eight apparently weren't dog handlers so maybe he didn't know them as well as he did Buck. Damn, this was getting complicated. He could only hope he'd get his memory back before he had to fake it with eight strangers who thought he was a friend or at least a co-worker. He kicked Buck under the table and tilted his head toward the sign that said "restrooms."

Once they were safely inside, JD checked the stalls, making sure they were alone before he launched into Buck. "Why didn't you tell me Chris supervised eight other men? How often do I work with them? How well do they know me? Are any of them likely to show up here? I'm never gonna keep all this straight." JD had felt safe when he was with Buck and Ezra and he'd started to relax in the familiar company of his other friends; now he was edging into panic for the first time. "It's just too much. I was going to get a ride to the Tavern with Ezra in case you were putting the moves on the knife lady but he doesn't even have his Jaguar. He's driving a Mustang for God's sake."

"Not just a Mustang, a classic Mustang. Chris and I put it back in mint condition. We sold it to Ezra when I found that '57 Chevy. Ezra's got class; he don't need something that screams money when he can drive a classic."

"Buck, I don't really care about Ezra's car."

"You brought it up."

"It was just an example. There're too many things I've forgotten. Too many things you haven't warned me about. I can't pull this off."

Buck put a steadying hand on JD's shoulder. "JD, you don't have to pull anything off. I just figure if you can make it through the first few days, your memory will come back without anyone the wiser. I didn't tell you about the other men in the unit - and by the way, four of them are women - because I figured you'd have everything straight by the time you had to go back to work. If you don't, then maybe it'll be time to see someone."

JD took a deep breath. "That sounds okay. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and remember everything. I'll give it until Monday at least. But Buck . . ."

The sound of the men's room door silenced them both but it was just Ezra come to check on them. "You looked a little green around the gills. Does your head hurt? I don't want you to take chances based on my amateur diagnosis."

"I'm okay, Ezra. I just got a little worried when Buck mentioned that Chris supervised eight other investigators. I was a little overwhelmed about all the people I was supposed to recognize."

"And it spooked him that you drove a Mustang instead of a Jaguar," Buck added helpfully.

Ezra rewarded that mix-up with a smile. "An intriguing idea. Had I not happened into this unfortunate career in law enforcement, I might just . . . "

"Come on. The others will start to wonder why we've moved the festivities to the men's room." Buck led the way out the door while JD stayed behind to splash some water on his face.

He felt Ezra behind him, watching him in the mirror.

"Are you really all right, son? Does nothing we've done today seem at all familiar?"

"That's just it. All you guys are pretty much just like I remember so I started to feel comfortable. But comfortable isn't the same as remembering. Like listening to Buck coming on to Inez like he always does. For a minute it made me feel like I was in a familiar place but then Vin comes in and recognizes a JD special, something I guess I've eaten lots of times but I don't remember at all."

By the time he and Ezra exited the restroom, the others had gotten their meals. JD figured between the JD special and the appetizers, he wouldn't need to order anything else, even if he had been hungry. However, he was disconcerted to see two unfamiliar Hispanic men at the far end of the table. Bless Ezra, he recognized the problem immediately and whispered in JD's ear.

"The handsome one is Raphael, whose new recruit Buck is courting. The pretty boy is Paulo. His father provides financial support for Raphael's team, undoubtedly so Paulo could get on it. I have it on good authority that he's trying to supplant Raphael as leader. If he does that by simple virtue of his father's money, I'll bet Raphael will leave and take the rest of the team with him."

"Why does Raphael put up with him?"

"I've heard Paulo's father saved his life years ago so Raphael feels obligated to do what he can to make a decent man of Paulo. No one, including Raphael, thinks he's succeeding. Buck can't stand him because he's always coming on to Inez."

"Same as Buck?"

"It might seem so to an outsider but Inez knows Buck has a good heart and not only presents no threat to her safety, but would defend her with his life, as would any of us. Paulo's persistence is more insidious. Buck has already given him the Mr. Intimidation, I'm-six-inches-taller-and-a-lot-stronger-than-you stare down. To which pretty boy responded with I-can-buy-you-and-sell-you posturing. Actually none of us tolerate him willingly but Chris hit it off with Raphael. We'll put up with Paulo on the rare occasions he dares come within arm's length of Buck until he takes that one step too far and one of us has to flatten him. Raphael is too polite to have brought him to our table and Paulo is too cowardly to have come alone so I can only surmise that Raphael was here first and Paulo took the opportunity to slither in next to him knowing that Inez spends time at our table and generally sends a male waiter to any table Paulo inhabits."

JD found it comforting that he wouldn't be expected to socialize with Paulo and he guessed Buck and Ezra would jump in to head off any questions from Raphael they didn't think he could answer.

As it turned out, he needn't have worried. He'd barely finished the JD special when three pagers went off. He was off the call-out list so he didn't expect to hear his own when he heard Buck's across the table. Chris and Josiah held up theirs. Josiah's was followed up by the sound of his cell phone. He took the call outside and was followed shortly thereafter by Chris and Buck punching the code for dispatch as they walked. JD momentarily expected pages for Vin and Ezra but quickly remembered it was only in his Denver dream that they were all on the same team and likely to be called out together. And of course, even if he'd been there, Nathan wasn't ATF at all.

Before the three had even returned, Ezra signaled their waitress to bring them some take-out boxes. Of course, the call-out could just be a heads up for tomorrow, but it didn't hurt to be prepared. Sure enough, when the three returned, Buck and Josiah started packing up their food. Chris looked at Ezra, JD and Vin as they sat in a row with a slight tilt of the head that even JD recognized as a signal. He stood when the other two did and they all left the Tavern together. It was only when they had gathered around Buck and Ezra's cars in the parking lot that they started talking, Josiah first.

"Any of you other than Vin and I know about Pottersville in New Mexico - southeast of Four Corners, east of the Navajo nation?"

Josiah continued after everyone shook his head except Chris who said he'd heard Vin speak of it. "The call was from Nathan. He left this morning to help his friend Jonah with the clinic they're setting up. Pottersville is a pleasant little town that borders the tribal land and the clinic will serve the town also. I've been there many times with Nathan, helping out with the construction. In fact, I've been thinking about retiring there, especially if Nathan makes the final decision to set up his practice at the clinic. Jonah's father Kojay is a fascinating man; I always look forward to exchanging views with him.

"They had a church arson tonight. Might be related to the resort/casino some of the townspeople and Kojay's Mountain Apaches are planning. There's a family connection to a federal judge up there and he has connections inside ATF so that's how we got assigned. Couldn't get Vin officially but Nathan thought maybe he could get some time off. Jonah's brother sends the message that if nothing else, the two of you can head up to the hills for some hunting."

Vin nodded. "Been up huntin' with Chanu around the tribal lands ever since I helped him out with a little law trouble while I was still bounty huntin'. Kojay's the chief and Jonah-Eh will likely be elected after him. "

"There's nothing that suggests a need for your response team. But if you can get the time off, he and Jonah would like your help in case the investigation goes beyond this weekend."

Vin nodded. "No problem. Keller told me last week I was accumulatin' too much vacation. I'll just leave a message on his voice mail lettin' him know I took his advice to heart. We drivin' or flyin'?"

Chris answered quickly. "It's only 350 miles or so. We head home, grab our emergency bags, throw in a few other things and we can drive there much faster than we can catch a plane to the Four Corners airport, rent cars and drive to Pottersville. Dispatch said we had the option to go either way, it's a wash timewise and expensewise. I know I'd rather be on the road than sitting around an airport on either end and they aren't going to pay for Vin's ticket anyway. We can all four of us go together in my truck."

As everyone headed for their vehicles, JD felt deserted. "Hey, what about me and Ezra?"

Chris looked back. "JD, you're on sick leave; they're not going to send you anywhere. And they're not going to send Ezra to investigate an arson."

"Don't care," JD said stubbornly. "We're a team. Nathan's down there and he's not ATF at all. Vin's going on his own. I'm going too."

"JD," Buck said gently. "We're not that kind of team."

JD folded his arms across his chest. "If I'm on sick leave then I don't have to go into the office. Wouldn't anyway on a weekend. It's a free country. I'll just follow you up there. Maybe Ezra will come with me."

Ezra looked indecisive for a moment then said, "You know, JD, that's a pleasant part of the country. I certainly can't let you go off on your own in light of your recent head injury. I'll be happy to drive you. Although I've never heard of the town Josiah mentioned, I have visited several of the Indian casinos in the general area. I'm sure I can find Pottersville."

Chris shook his head. "Ezra, I know damn well Whalen has never got after you for accumulating too much vacation. You can't just take off at a moment's notice when we don't even know if there's anything you and JD can do there or whether we can wrap it up this weekend. We can send for you if it looks like something you should be involved in and that will give you time to request the time off or maybe we can find some way to make it an official assignment."

"Never fear," Ezra said with a grin. "I've already cleared it to be off all next week. My mother is coming to town with a new boyfriend and expects me to squire them around. Although she generally disapproves of my career choice, in this case she feels having a son who is a federal law enforcement officer will lend her a certain air of respectability." He leaned over to JD and said in a stage whisper, "I suspect she's up to no good."

"Ezra," Buck said with a knowing grin on his face, "we couldn't ask you to disappoint your mother."

Ezra shrugged. "Sometimes, Mr. Wilmington, the need to help one's friends and aid in the search for justice in a violent world must trump one's obligations to aid one's mother in feathering her nest."

"Okay then." Buck looked over at Chris. "I'll take Ezra, JD and the dogs in my SUV. Let's meet at my place; we're closest to the freeway. We'll follow you up."

Before heading for his Mustang, Ezra caught JD by the arm and said in his ear. "I believe you owe me for this one. I expect you to ride in the back with the dogs - the whole trip."

JD had no problem with that. Even if he hadn't been so exhilarated at the idea of everyone acting as a team in response to a real-life crime, he would have chosen to ride with his new partner.

As it turned out, by the time Ezra arrived at Buck's place, the last to join them, he had come up with different plan.

"If the miscreants are staying in the area, perhaps to assess the effect of their handiwork, perhaps to stir the pot further, there's no point in JD and I letting them know we're part of the cavalry. If the town is as pleasant as Josiah suggests, then we should go undercover as a couple of vacationers."

Buck looked Ezra up and down skeptically. Ezra was wearing casual clothes but even JD could see they screamed expensive, fussy casual clothes. "You did hear Josiah say that they planned a casino, not that they had one. You don't exactly look like the kind of man looking to interact with nature anywhere less comfortable than a resort hotel. Especially this time of year. I think we're still in the off season."

Ezra flashed a smile and put his arm around JD's shoulders. "But I could easily pass for a man with a reputation to maintain who was looking for an out-of-the-way place to spend a passionate weekend with his new, young lover."

For a moment JD assumed Ezra meant a woman and wondered who he would get to play the part. But then he realized everyone was staring at him with a narrow range of expressions that varied only from slight smiles - Chris and Vin - to broad grins - Buck and Josiah. He ducked away from Ezra's arm and turned to face him, backing off a couple of steps as he did so. "Me?" He tried to keep that damn nervous squeak out of his voice but knew he'd only half succeeded.

"Of course, you. It's the perfect cover for both of us and it's always wise to have some reason for the bad guys to assume you have interests to protect that will maintain your silence without the need for violence. We don't have to give anyone details. I'll just play it like a man who either isn't out of the closet or who is cheating on his respectable male partner. You'll be my fresh-faced, college-student boyfriend."

Buck nudged JD in the ribs. "His boy toy."

JD backed further away from both of them and looked to the others for help. "No way. There's no way I can act gay and I sure as hell ain't gonna kiss you or hold hands."

Ezra grinned full on. "JD, I'm not asking you to act like some kind of flaming stereotype. Most gay men act just like the rest of us except in their choice of sexual partners. Hell, all of us could be gay and you'd never know it. And I'll have you know I'm very discreet and not given to public displays of affection. An occasional possessive hand on your shoulder will tell any observant person all he needs to know."

The idea still made JD nervous. "So do we have to get a room with one bed?" For a moment a picture from his favorite sitcom flashed before his eye - Earl and his not-so-bright brother Randy sharing a bed at a seedy hotel. But he couldn't imagine sharing trivia about the A-Team or tattoos with Ezra before drifting off to sleep like the two brothers did.

Ezra shook his head. "I contacted Nathan on the way over. He was having dinner with Jonah and a few townspeople, including that federal judge's daughter-in-law, Mary Travis. She's the editor of the local newspaper and has been running editorials in favor of the resort/casino. She and her young son have lived over the newspaper office ever since her husband was murdered. Their former family home is just outside town next to the big reservoir that figures prominently into their resort plans. As Buck noted, this is the off season so it's vacant and she kindly offered to open it up for us."

JD was so shocked to hear the name Mary Travis mentioned in a way that suggested Ezra didn't know her that he was silent until he realized everyone was waiting for his reaction. "And she's going to think we're a couple?" JD knew he sounded foolish and painfully unsophisticated, but he couldn't think of anything else to cover his confusion.

"She'll be in on the ruse. That way she won't wonder why we'll be using two bedrooms. You can have her little boy's old room."

Now this was the Ezra he was used to. "And you get the master bedroom, I suppose. Why don't we flip a coin for it?"

"Because I arranged the accommodations." Ezra appeared to consider the matter closed and in truth, JD didn't care. He was just happy there were two beds - in two rooms. And if he had his own room, Ezra wouldn't complain about Betsy sleeping on his bed.

Drat, Betsy. "Buck, if I'm going undercover I can't have an arson dog with me. What am I gonna do with Betsy?"

"No problem kid. You let Ezra see if you have any clothes he thinks are more suitable for his secret lover than the ones you already packed. I've got just the thing for your canine companion."

Ezra went through JD's entire wardrobe and picked out a few things he deemed acceptable. JD didn't even try to help since Ezra was more familiar with his clothes than he was. By the time JD had his duffle repacked, Buck had the two dogs loaded in the crates in the back of his SUV and his own bag tossed in the back seat with Josiah's. Since Vin and Josiah knew where they were going, Josiah was riding with Buck while Vin stayed with Chris. Having two vehicles in addition to Ezra's Mustang would give them more flexibility. As JD slammed Ezra's trunk shut, Buck came over waving a big cowboy bandanna. It was turquoise, not the purple one JD had seen in the photos but just as garish.

"Betsy's disguise." Buck handed him the bandana along with two Frisbees. "What says carefree college student better than tossing a Frisbee for a bandanna-wearing retriever?" He hooked a thumb in the direction of his SUV. "She's safer riding in the crate for most of the trip. We're going to stop at a coffee shop Josiah knows about just before we start up the two lane road to the town. Betsy can ride with you after that. It would break her cover to be seen with Blossom in town."

JD looked over at Ezra to get his reaction but Ezra just shrugged and pointed to the afghan he'd snagged from JD's couch on the way out the door. It would cover his back seat. Then he grinned and added, "Anything to keep my inexperienced college boy happy."

JD started to protest that he wasn't inexperienced until he remembered that his relationship with Casey hadn't given him any expertise in the flip side of the sexual equation.

The minute they were alone in Ezra's Mustang, JD started in on the Mary Travis question. "I know her. At least I remember a reporter for the Denver Clarion named Mary Travis. Her father-in-law was our boss, Orin Travis, and I think he was a federal judge before he joined ATF."

Ezra looked at him quizzically. "How did you know his first name is Orin? Josiah didn't mention his name and I'm reasonably sure he was never actually a part of ATF even if he has connections there. Josiah didn't mention the name of the newspaper either, but Nathan did on the phone - the Pottersville Clarion - along with the full name of the judge. Mrs. Travis is the editor, though I imagine in a paper as small as that her duties include reporting as well. I don't recall you ever going up there with Nathan and Josiah but maybe you heard them talking about her."

"You mean I'm starting to confabulate things about people I've never even met?" But maybe he had overheard Josiah or Nathan or even Vin mention the Travises. "Well, I can't remember what I might have heard, but I have a picture of her in my head - she's a real pretty blonde, great figure, beautiful green eyes, smart too. Just the type both Buck and Josiah go for. But she's probably too young for Josiah. Your mother is more his speed."

Ezra looked amused. "If you remember Josiah's wistful lusting after my mother, you should remember that his meager bank account doomed his courtship from the start."

JD realized he did remember that. He also remembered Mary Travis having an interest in Chris but Chris had said he'd heard Vin talk about Pottersville but he'd never been there. JD decided to keep any remaining memories of the Travises to himself for the time being. Ezra had seemed to accept his distorted memories of the team and Phoenix but if he had detailed memories of people he hadn't met, Ezra might start to think he was really nuts. Maybe Mary would turn out to be a dumpy brunette with brown eyes. So he decided to take on another topic, one he would have been reluctant to bring up with Buck.

"Do you know how Chris's wife and son were murdered?"

Ezra seemed a little taken aback by the question, but answered readily enough. "Of course, I know something about it, but Buck would be the best person to ask. It's not something Chris likes us to talk about."

"I don't want you to tell me anything I don't already know - you know, if I remembered what I already know."

They both smiled at the absurdity of JD's quandary.

"Buck said they joined the arson squad in Tucson and then the ATF to find the person responsible. But I don't think he wanted to talk about it so I didn't ask if they'd ever caught the guy."

Ezra paused for a moment before answering. "I don't know the details but I gather that Buck feels some responsibility for the murders because he had convinced Chris to stay out late celebrating with some of their fellow officers on the night of the fire. In any event, with the help of an informant trying to get a lighter sentence on a series of grand theft charges and the similarities between the M.O. in the Larabee murders and the M.O. used by a known arsonist, they caught Cletus Fowler, the man who actually set the fire. However, it was clear that he was just an arsonist for hire. According to Buck, Chris badly wanted to get the truth out of him, but Fowler forced his hand and ended up dead without giving up the name of the person who hired him."

"So they never caught the man behind the murders."

"Oh, but they did. Only it wasn't a he, it was a woman. And it's something you never want to ask Chris about. It was terribly humiliating for him. Ella Gaines was an old girlfriend with whom he had shared some wild times in his younger days, predating even his friendship with Buck. She apparently decided her life lacked excitement without Chris and she came up with an elaborate plot to get him back. Murdering his family was only the beginning. She also married and murdered a man in order to acquire a very prosperous horse breeding facility with space to build an OWPOG facility near Redfork. She invited the whole team to stay at her ranch on a competition weekend, even our youthful alternate."

It took JD a second to realize Ezra meant him. "So I was there when Chris . . . . You mean if I remembered what I knew, I'd know that she and Chris . . . ?"

Ezra nodded. "We all knew. The rest of us were relegated to a modest guesthouse while she entertained Chris lavishly in the main house. It was obvious to us that she wished to renew their previous relationship, and in fact to make it permanent. She almost succeeded too - she did succeed in seducing him into her bed - and that's why you can't mention her to him, even indirectly.

"She almost succeeded in killing the whole team by setting fire to the guesthouse. Our guess was that she realized Buck and Vin were suspicious and would eventually find her out. Vin's predilection for sleeping under the stars saved us. He managed to warn us in time to escape but the main house went up in flames with the guesthouse while we were contending with the armed men who had started the fire. In the end, Ella was only convicted of the murder of her husband - and attempted murder for trying to kill us off. Without Fowler or a paper trail, the prosecutor wouldn't go after her for killing Sarah and Adam."

"And Chris never suspected her?"

"I definitely got the impression that Chris had somehow caught on to her about the time Vin started shouting about the fire, but I don't know how - maybe something she said - and I'm not about to ask. No one but Vin or Buck would dare and if they know, they haven't shared it with us and it apparently wasn't something the prosecutor thought could be used as evidence against her. But you can bet Chris will be there the first time she comes up for parole - in 15 to 20 years. And I firmly believe that she is safer in prison than she would be if she was paroled."

"You think Chris would kill her?" JD wouldn't blame him if he did, but he had a hard time imagining Chris committing murder.

"Or Buck."

That JD really couldn't picture. But he did know - or thought he knew - that Buck had loved Sarah like a sister and had loved Adam like his own. Still - murder? He just hoped they were never put to the test.

JD decided to hold up on the questions so he took out the binder of training materials he and Buck had picked up at the office before heading for the Livery that afternoon. He took out a flashlight Buck had slipped into the briefcase with the binder and looked over at Ezra. "Will it bother you if I use this light? I guess I'd better brush up on this arson dog stuff so I'll at least sound like I know what I'm doing."

Ezra gave him a look that JD hoped was not pity but looked suspiciously like it nonetheless. JD cut off whatever Ezra was going to say with a raised hand. "I know, I know, I'm not going to get to work Betsy at the fire scene. But you know I have to do some training exercises every day or she doesn't get to eat. Buck's going to give me a few scent sources when we stop and switch Betsy over to this car. And even if I don't get to work, I don't want to let Chris know I don't even remember the training in Virginia."

Ezra just nodded. "Would it interfere with your reading if I put on a CD?"

"Heck no." Then he remembered Ezra's sophisticated tastes and added suspiciously, "It's not opera is it?"

"Heavens no. What makes you think I like opera? Is that one of the things your imaginary Denver Team 7 did - attend the opera?"

JD snickered. "Not hardly. Vin in a tux? I think Mary tried to get Chris to take her to one once but he . . . ." He stopped, hoping Ezra wouldn't pick up on his mistake.

But of course he did. "Mary as in Mary Travis?"

JD nodded.

Ezra merely watched the road for a few moments but JD could tell from the way his finger tapped the top of the steering wheel that he was mulling something over.

"Well, obviously you heard Nathan, Josiah or Vin mention her. I'll bet you overhead Vin describe her to Chris and maybe make some suggestion about how he should come with him next time and meet her."

That really didn't sound right to JD but he wasn't going to turn down any plausible explanation. "Must be. So if it isn't opera, what CD do you want to listen to? Jazz? Some symphony?"

Ezra unzipped a leather bag between the seats, pulled out a disc and popped it into the CD player on the dash. "Rocks of Ages."

"Gospel?" Of all the music JD would have matched to the Ezra he had in his head, gospel was not one of them. Then he remembered an album he had in his own collection. "Oh, you mean Rock of Ages by The Band." Another option quickly popped up. "Or by Def Leppard."

Ezra turned up the volume but JD heard only talking.

"Rocks of Ages not Rock. Josiah lent it to me. It's the audio version of a book by Stephen Jay Gould, the Darwinian biologist. I've enjoyed several of his collections of natural history essays but this one is about the relationship between science and religion."

Ezra taking book recommendations from Josiah? That was almost as odd as the taste for gospel music it turned out he didn't have. But somewhere in the back of his mind he could hear Ezra saying he always looked forward to interesting conversations with Josiah. That must be his mind downloading the real Ezra to blot out the imaginary one.

Ezra was on the last hour of his book and JD had gone through his training material twice by the time the Buck and Chris turned off the narrowing highway into a parking lot serving a small all-night diner that -- thank goodness for small blessings -- was not called Mom's and did not feature "good eats." However, there were no 18-wheelers in the parking lot either so JD could only trust that Vin and Josiah would not lead them astray, even if the Vin of the real world didn't eat meat he hadn't killed himself. Although it was dark, Buck parked out of the way under a tree that would have provided shade for the dogs on a sunny day. Ezra was about to park in the space closest to the entrance when JD realized that Buck had parked where he did so he could make the dog switch unbeknownst to anyone who might arrive after them.

In deference to the possible arrival of other customers on their way to Pottersville, JD and Ezra didn't join the other four at their big table but sat in a smaller booth that shared a divider with the other table. When JD slid into the seat opposite Ezra, Ezra leaned over and said softly, "Don't you want to come over and sit next to me?"

JD shook his head. "There's nobody here but that family with the three cranky teenagers. We don't have to start acting gay yet."

It was probably only JD's imagination that Ezra's grin looked salacious as he slanted a glance at Buck whose back was against the divider in back of Ezra's seat. "If you sit here, we can converse with our comrades without seeming to be part of their group. This may be our last opportunity before we reach our destination."

JD reached in his pocket and held up his cell phone. "If Buck needs to tell me something, he can just call." However, as though to belie JD's words, Buck stood up and gave JD the same subtle head gesture toward the restrooms that JD had given him earlier in the Tavern.

Entering the men's room, JD could see where they'd removed a second toilet from what was now a single occupant restroom to make the space wheelchair accessible. But while there should have been plenty of room for two people, somehow Buck made the area seem crowded.

"Hey, kid, we gotta stop meeting like this."

"Buck, you . . . ."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I just wondered if you'd read the training stuff. I couldn't exactly ask in front of Chris or even use the cell phone with Chris and Josiah in the car."

"Read it twice but it's a good thing I saw her work or I wouldn't have had a feel for it."

"Did you read the part about using the dog in the crowd watching the fire to find someone with accelerant on their shoes?"

JD remembered skimming a section like that but hadn't given it as much attention as the stuff about investigating a fire after the fact. He figured he'd have time to read it more closely before they got to Pottersville. "Do you think maybe they'll set another fire?"

Buck shook his head. "Hell, we're hoping with the four of us in town and everyone on alert, they won't go for any other targets, at least while we're around. But in a small town like that our investigation, especially using Blossom, is likely to draw a little crowd. The bad guys might be curious about the effect on the town and hang around to hear what people are saying. If they don't live around here maybe they won't have a spare pair of shoes. It's a long shot, but it can't hurt. You read up on it, then you can use the Frisbee ploy to get her close enough to sniff out some feet. She's done it before."

"With a Frisbee?"

Buck grinned and shrugged. "Can't hurt to expand her repertoire. We could use a few undercover dogs in the Bureau."


The Cohorts