Someone To Watch Over Me

by Firefox

Disclaimer: C’mon now… if they were mine, would I be doin’ this? They belong to others who, in their infinite wisdom, decided to deprive us of them <sigh>. If I ever win the lottery, I will buy them for us and we will all share nicely…promise, and I can’t believe anyone out there would wish to sue me and have three homeless cats on their conscience and a psychotic 11 year old car in their garage…

Thanks to my beta’s Paula and Margaret for their vastly superior knowledge of my mother tongue and invaluable objective input.

This little thing is a birthday fic dedicated to my friend and fellow Bucklin babe, Katy, who said something that gave me this idea - with my thanks for all her help with the ‘medical’ bits, and in memory of some hilarious emails!

Happy Birthday, Katy!

Author’s Notes: Yet another daft piece of PWP fluff – just for fun – nothing serious of any kind involved anywhere in this, I assure you. Still learning to speak American, Vin and Ezra, so apologies for any lapses. Feedback is like chocolate, very welcome, ‘specially if you’re nice….

Chris Larabee dragged a hand across his tired face, trying to massage some feeling back into his jaw muscles. He wasn’t properly awake and felt sluggish. Orrin Travis smiled and passed a steaming mug of coffee across the table to the Team Leader who he was responsible for dragging from his much-needed sleep at 1.30am.

"I’m sorry to call you into the office at this hour Chris, but this is an emergency…"

Larabee waved the apology aside and took a long pull at the strong black coffee, exhaling with an audible sigh of relief as the caffeine began to kick his reluctant body into responsiveness. "Don’t worry Orrin. I know you wouldn’t do this without a good reason. What’s going on?"

Assistant Director Travis grimaced. "We have a ‘situation’ on our hands Chris, and at the moment I think it’s going to take your boys to sort it out…"

+ + + + + + +

"EZRA!!!" Buck Wilmington was yelling at the top of his voice, and pounding the front door of Ezra Standish’s town house at the same time. "Up and at ‘em pard!! Come on Ezra! Rise and shine!"

Vin Tanner was leaning on the wall beside the front door, the porch light showing a delighted grin on his face, his cell phone held to one ear. When Buck paused for breath, the sound of a telephone ringing could be heard from inside the building.

"It ain’t gonna work Buck… I’m gonna have to pick the lock…" Vin waved the cell phone from side to side, the knowing smirk indicating that he knew Ezra was not going to answer his call. The telephone inside continued to ring.

It was dark – dawn was still about an hour away from making her debut, and it was bitterly cold. Buck and Vin had been roused from their beds (or in Buck’s case, someone else’s bed) by Chris’s calls to their cell phones, with instructions to ‘pack a bag, go get Ezra and get down here fast’. That was an order – direct from their Team Leader. Unfortunately it was an order that was a helluva lot easier to issue than it was to carry out. Ezra Standish slept like the dead and hated getting up early. Possibly the only thing he hated more than getting up early was being woken up. By anyone. Early morning and Ezra Standish were not on speaking terms. And this was early morning – too damn early to even be called morning. In Ezra’s terms this time of day still almost qualified as ‘last night’. Buck took a deep breath and tried again – his large fist pounding the door like a steam hammer. Across the street, one or two lights were snapping on as the noise began to wake Ezra’s neighbours. Vin grinned even wider. Any minute now windows would be opening and Buck would be showered with abuse and the nearest heavy object the roused and riled residents of this quiet street could lay their hands on. Vin could hardly wait.

"EZZZZRAAAA!!" Buck’s breath clouded in front of him in the cold air as he yelled and continued to pound on the door. Nothing. The house remained quiet as a tomb, except for the ringing telephone.

With a resigned sigh, Buck backed away, motioning Vin forward. Vin snapped off the cell phone and the ringing inside abruptly stopped. Stowing the phone safely in his jacket pocket, he held out his hand and Buck slapped ten dollars into it with a growl. Vin chuckled and crouched down to pick the lock. "You know me Bucklin – I only ever bet on certainties."

Two minutes later the door swung inwards and Ezra’s burglar alarm began wailing like a banshee. Vin slipped quickly into the dark hallway and raced to the alarm control panel, frantically punching in the code before the local police descended or the disturbed neighbours formed a lynching party.

"Don’ know why he bothers with the damn’ thing – he could sleep through a war." Buck grumbled as the house once again descended into silence.

The two agents made their way to Ezra’s bedroom door. "You gonna wake him?" Buck asked. Vin shook his head.

"No way! I ain’t got no death wish! He sleeps with his gun! Besides, you lost the bet."

Buck sighed again. This day was not starting out well at all.

+ + + + + + +

Orrin Travis surveyed the three agents across the table from him. Tanner looked wide awake – he was even smiling as he sipped his coffee – or perhaps smirking might be a closer description. Standish looked like death. His normally startling green eyes were heavy-lidded and unfocused, and he blinked – slowly and continuously. His normally faultless appearance was also a little awry, Travis noticed. The still damp chestnut hair looked a little unruly, and Standish definitely hadn’t shaved. The collar of the black polo-neck he wore was tucked in at one side and his jacket lapels weren’t properly turned out. Wilmington looked awake, but he also looked angry – a low scowl sat heavily across his forehead, and why the hell were his clothes all wet?

Vin knew the answer to that. He had been privy to Buck flinging a semi-comatose Ezra, still in his silk pyjama pants, into the shower, in a vain attempt to rouse the slumbering southerner. Ezra had reacted badly, throwing a well-aimed, if sleep-softened, punch into Buck’s midsection and trying to wrestle the larger agent to the floor. The result had been hilarious from where Vin was standing. Wet, but hilarious. This day was looking like it might turn out to be a good ‘un.

Chris handed Ezra a huge mug of very strong coffee. "Drink! Now!" He commanded. Responding instinctively to Chris’s voice, Ezra drank. The others waited patiently for a few minutes, watching the southerner begin to come around from the half-awake limbo he was barely aware of. It was actually quite an interesting spectacle. As the caffeine began powering through Ezra’s system his eyes began to open and his somewhat slack-jawed expression changed to one of slight consternation as he began to orientate himself. The bewilderment was obvious. Even Buck had to grin. Ezra waking up was truly a sight to behold.

"Good mornin’ gentlemen," he said at last, eyes now fully open and focused. "What in heaven’s name is goin’ on? Why was I subjected to the tender ministrations of this buffoon," his gaze zeroed in on Buck’s face, "at some ungodly hour? Mister Larabee? Director? Mister Tanner?" The green eyes swept from one to the other, a glint of barely restrained anger sharpening the stare.

"Sorry ‘bout that Ezra," Chris said levelly, trying to hide his amusement at the reaction he knew his next words would raise from his undercover agent, "but the FBI have screwed up and need us to get them outta the hole… it’s an emergency."

An expression that could only be labelled ‘smug’ settled across Ezra’s face. Whenever his former agency got themselves into trouble he couldn’t resist a small gloat; and if they needed the ATF to rescue the situation – well, that was almost worth being dragged kicking and screaming into the office in the middle of the night. Ezra glowed with satisfaction. "Oh dear! How terribly unfortunate! What, pray, have our fellow federal employees of the Facetious Bureau of Incompetence been up to now that they need our assistance?"

Seeing that Team 7’s very own sleeping beauty was now firing on all cylinders, Chris settled back in his chair to explain.

"The FBI have been guarding a witness who is due to testify in a high level court case in two day’s time. Their protection team have been compromised and they can’t source the leak. At the moment, it’s not safe for the witness to be held anywhere by the FBI – so they need us to look after the witness until she goes to court."

Buck sat up straight. "She? Did you say ‘she’?" Perhaps this day wasn’t going to be such a dead loss, after all.

Chris nodded, unable to resist a smile.

"What’s the case?" Vin asked.

"Gun runners." Orrin answered for Chris. "Our witness is a foreign national – English to be exact. She was accompanying a group of school children on a trip to Denver when one of the little darlin’s wandered off in the airport and got lost. She followed…"

Chris took up the story. "The kid was lost, and more than a bit scared. Somehow he found his way into a restricted area – luggage handling – and our witness tracked him – straight to a concealed cache of illegally imported weapons being passed through the airport as part of a highly successful, and highly lucrative, scam being run by the airport staff."

"Naturally the FBI had initial jurisdiction, and took the unfortunate woman into protective custody," Orrin continued, his eyes twinkling at Wilmington’s sudden burst of enthusiasm, "which was fine until someone tried to shoot one of her protecting agents and the FBI realised they had a leak – so they now need someone to take care of her until her court appearance. As ATF safe houses are entirely unknown to the FBI, and the court case is here in Denver, we were the obvious choice…"

"The problem is we have no idea who the rotten apple is," Chris said with a scowl, "therefore we have to operate under strict security. The only people that know about this are the five of us in this room. No-one else will be told anything. Even the other members of the team won’t know. They will simply be told you are on a case and won’t be back for a few days."

"Which safe house we gonna use?" Vin asked.

"One no-one else knows about…" Chris turned one of his feral grins on the agents, then on Travis. "Not even Orrin…"

Orrin Travis shrugged. "Chris says he knows of a perfect hiding place for our witness. It’s not an official safe house, but he seems to think it will suit the circumstances perfectly."

"Meaning what, exactly?" Ezra asked.

Chris’s grin widened. "Meanin’ you three will be taking care of a valuable witness for a coupla days somewhere where the bad guys can’t get at you…"

"Where you thinkin’ of, cowboy?" Vin asked.

Chris just grinned and Ezra felt a sudden chill of foreboding ripple through him. When Mr Larabee looked like that, something unfortunate for Ezra always seemed to follow.

"Fishin’" Chris said at last, still grinning.

Vin looked perplexed, then suddenly began to smile as realisation dawned. The team had spent what could only be termed an interesting weekend at a remote cabin tucked away in the woods far beyond Chris’s ranch. Chris had found the place by accident and decided it would be an ideal ‘retreat’ for a weekend of fishing and unwinding. Vin had loved the place. Buck had been drunk for most of it and could barely remember it. Ezra had loathed it. In his opinion, it was little more than a mosquito ridden, damp shack, buried miles from civilisation with questionable plumbing and absolutely no concessions to even the twentieth century, never mind the twenty first. He shuddered.

"You are joking, aren’t you Mr Larabee?" His voice was almost faltering.

Vin laughed. "Brilliant, cowboy! Perfect!"

Ezra closed his eyes. "Awww hell!"

Buck’s mind was somewhere else. "You did say ‘she’, didn’t you Chris?"

Chris looked at Orrin Travis, who slowly shook his head. "This could be interesting," the older man said with a smile.

+ + + + + + +

Less than an hour later, Vin, Buck and Ezra pulled up outside the Travis’s front door, Buck at the wheel of Chris’s Dodge Ram. The Team Leader had loaned them the big vehicle for the journey, not wishing to leave an unsuspecting witness to the tender mercies of Vin’s Jeep or Buck’s notoriously temperamental Chevy, and knowing that Ezra’s Jag was simply not designed for the off-road driving that would be needed to reach the isolated spot.

Vin and Ezra did a sweep of the entrance, just to be on the safe side, but the pearly grey dawn light seemed devoid of any danger. Under Vin’s watchful cover, Ezra rang the doorbell. Evie Travis, Orrin’s beautiful, warm-hearted wife, answered the door. "Hello Ezra – how are you?" she asked politely, admitting the southerner to the warm, light hallway. Ezra entered, neatly side-stepping a large backpack placed just inside the door.

"Fine, thank you ma’am."

Evie smiled. She had a decided soft spot for the well mannered undercover agent, whom she had always suspected, guarded a gentle heart under that well polished and sharp exterior. "You’ve come to collect our guest, I assume?"

Ezra nodded. "Yes Mrs Travis."

Evie nodded towards an open door on her right. "Mr Ezra Standish, this is Miss Catherine Marshall."

The pretty, bright-eyed young woman who faced Ezra from the doorway looked a little tired, but she smiled broadly as she walked forward and extended her hand. Ezra shook it warmly. "Hello Miss Marshall – I understand you’ve had a somewhat interestin’ vacation in our humble city."

"You could say that Mr Standish – though I hardly think ‘interesting’ quite covers it!"

Vin appeared around the doorway, re-holstering his gun. "And this…" Evie Travis said with a nod towards the sharpshooter, "is our very own Mr Vin Tanner – the second member of your trio of guardian angels… Vin, this is Catherine Marshall."

"Howdy Miss," Vin said with a smile. Catherine shook his hand, thinking how different these two seemed to the FBI agents who had been accompanying her until yesterday.

Evie deposited the large backpack at Ezra’s feet and gave Catherine a warm hug. "Don’t worry my dear – Orrin assures me that these young men are the very best of Denver’s finest – and they will be taking good care of you. Try not to be too concerned, I’m sure everything will be fine and you’ll be back home before you know it."

Catherine returned the hug. "Thank you so much Mrs Travis. I’m sure I’ll be okay…now," she added, smiling at Ezra and Vin.

Ezra picked up the backpack and extended his arm to Catherine. "Your chariot awaits!" He grinned, steering her gently out of the door towards the Ram.

Buck smiled as she approached and quickly jumped down to open the passenger door for her. This day was definitely looking up. Yes indeedy.

+ + + + + + +

"So you aren’t FBI then?" Catherine asked as the Ram bounced and swayed down the pot-holed obstacle course that barely justified the term ‘track’. It was light now, but they were deep in woodland, seemingly endless miles of trees on every side.

"Us? Fibbies? No way!" Buck smiled at her, fighting the steering to keep the Ram in something resembling a straight line.

"Whilst we are all federal agents in the service of our wonderful government, we have very little in common with the poorly suited clones of the FBI," Ezra said with a sneer.

Vin laughed. "Don’t take no notice of him Miss Marshall – our Ezra don’ think too much of the Fibbies."

"That’s an understatement! Those morons couldn’t find pork on a pig farm or a coherent sentence with both hands and a flashlight!" Ezra snorted.

"Even though he used to be one of ‘em!" Buck grinned.

Ezra sniffed. "Which is why I am now no longer attached to that particular agency, but instead have decided to use my talents for a more deserving cause, although there are some days when I question the judgement of that particular decision." He glared at Buck, but Catherine laughed, sensing that they were joking with one another.

There was an impression of closeness between these three that made her feel safe. It was a good feeling. The FBI agents had been well mannered, attentive and wholly professional, but had made little attempt to talk to her beyond official questions or simple statements. She had felt rather alienated. These three seemed very different. Their casual easiness around one another and her, their sense of humour and obvious knowledge of each other were reassuring. They didn’t look like agents, but then, in light of what had happened to her, that was probably a very good thing.

"So, you’re a teacher then, Miss Marshall?" Buck asked.

"Not exactly – no – and can we drop the ‘Miss Marshall’? I’m Catherine."

"But I thought Chris said you were accompanying a party of school children?" Buck was a little confused.

Catherine nodded. "I was – but I’m not a teacher – I’m a school matron."

"A what?" Buck asked. The term ‘matron’ to Buck conjured up images of elderly ladies swathed in whalebone corsetry and mothball-scented clothing staring disapprovingly at anything that could vaguely be interpreted as ‘fun’. It certainly did not fit the vibrant young woman sitting next to him. Ezra sighed.

"Excuse my ignorant colleagues Miss… Catherine," he turned to Buck. "A matron, Mr Wilmington, is the person who looks after the domestic arrangements for children in school. Her duties include acting in loco parentis…"

"Loco what?" Vin asked, now totally confused.

Catherine laughed. "I’m a sort of substitute parent – particularly for the younger ones. I make sure they are properly cared for, and that can mean anything from reading bedtime stories and sewing on buttons to supporting the sports teams or listening to choir practice. I’m not a teacher, I’m a sort of big sister/aunt who they can come to for help, advice or a little comfort when they need it."

"Sounds like a real good idea to me," Buck said, still grinning, "I’m all for givin’ out a little comfort when it’s needed!"

"I despair," Ezra said, raising his eyes.

"Well, I guess you can relax now Miss Catherine," Vin said, "’Cos we’ll be looking after you for the next coupla days – should make a nice change for ya!"

+ + + + + + +

Just as it seemed they would be driving through the seemingly never-ending wilderness forever, Buck steered the Ram down a short stretch of almost overgrown track and there was their destination. The cabin sat in a fairly large clearing in the trees, with a wide area of cleared ground around it. Through the tree trunks, Catherine could see the sunlight glinting off water. It was isolated, peaceful and, once Buck killed the engine of the Ram, completely silent. Catherine thought it was beautiful. Vin grinned. Ezra shuddered.

The cabin was larger than it looked at first glance, and though it could hardly be termed ‘luxurious’, it was comfortable, well constructed and had better views than Catherine had seen from any hotel room. There was a wide wooden porch running the full width of the building at the front, with a splendid view of a large lake. A small wooden jetty jutted out into the water, a row boat tied firmly to one of the uprights.

"Hey Ez! We can go fishin’!" Buck teased, knowing how much Ezra disliked that particular pastime. "You can catch us our supper!"

Ezra pulled a face. "I refuse to dignify that with a response," he said, pulling Catherine’s backpack from the back of the Ram, "and I propose to leave any hunting requirement to our illustrious sharpshooter – who, after all, specialises in shooting things that he can see, but that cannot see him!"

Vin bowed politely. "Well, we ain’t gonna starve Ezra – leastaways, not unless we make you responsible for providin’ our food!"

"In which case we most definitely will not starve Mister Tanner – I have several boxes of supplies in the vehicle which do not necessitate trapping, shooting, skinning or gutting, and will no doubt be more pleasurable to consume than the resident wildlife!"

"I knew we bought you along for some reason, Ez…" Buck laughed.

Catherine was pleasantly surprised at their efficiency. In a remarkably short space of time they had unloaded the Ram, made the place reasonably clean and tidy and unpacked enough supplies to more than cover their two-day stay.

Vin produced some delicious soup and rolls and they all sat around the rough wooden table to eat. "Welcome to the wilderness family," Ezra said with more than a hint of sarcasm as he spooned the soup into his mouth with an expression of acute disdain.

"Hell Ezra! It ain’t that bad!" Buck laughed. "We got shelter, food, running water, beautiful scenery...," at which point he looked directly at Catherine and gave her an enormous wink, "…and real good company. What more could you possibly want?"

Ezra pulled a face. "A stereo system, some decent French wine, my Jaguar, furniture that won’t rip my clothes to pieces, central heating, a power shower, a leather reclining chair, beds that don’t resemble medieval torture devices, the contents of my fridge, and a Starbucks in walking distance – how’s that for starters?"

"Our Ez has never been much of a one for ‘communin’ with nature’," Vin smiled at Catherine, "him an’ the wild outdoors ain’t exactly the best of friends."

"Unlike Grizzly Adams here," Ezra retorted with a nod of his head in Vin’s direction, "who would be deliriously happy if we all still lived in caves and wore the pieces of the animal we were unable to eat!"

"It ain’t your fault you can’t appreciate the finer side of the great American outdoors," Vin said sympathetically.

"Oh but I can Mr Tanner, as long as it is demonstrated by the Discovery Channel or Wonderful Wildlife. It’s rather like the surface of the Moon – I find it endlessly fascinating but have no desire to become intimately acquainted with it."

"Your loss, Ez…"

"Your opinion, Mr Tanner…"

"Are they always like this?" Catherine asked Buck. He nodded.

"Yep – sort of like chalk and cheese. Our Vin here, well he can trap anythin’ that crawls, walks or flies, and can damn near track a fish through water – Ez’s talents extend to more… sagacious pursuits – he can cheat the spots of dice and talk a dictionary salesman to death! Thas’ why I’m here – to keep the peace and keep these two in line!" His broad smile and twinkling blue eyes told Catherine he was joking.

+ + + + + + +

The afternoon sun was low over the mountains, casting long, slanting shadows across the lake. Catherine stood on the porch, gazing out at the breeze-rippled water. It was a beautiful spot. She breathed deeply, luxuriating in the heady, pine-scented air. It felt wonderful after being shut up in hotel rooms and anonymous houses for so long. Like being set free after being a prisoner.

From a few feet away where he sat on the porch cross-legged cleaning his gun, Vin watched her, concern registering in his blue eyes. He felt very sorry for her. None of this was her fault – hell, she had only been trying to do her job. What were the chances of some poor tourist stumbling onto a major operation like that? And now she was suffering for it. Didn’t seem fair, somehow. He rose to his feet, swiftly checking around to make sure that neither Ezra or Buck were in earshot.

"Errr… Miss? Catherine?" He took a couple of hesitant steps towards her.

She turned. "Yes?" To her surprise, he seemed to be blushing.

"Would um… would… well, I was jus’… I mean…" He stopped, swallowed, took an enormous breath in, and tried again. "I was wonderin’ iffen you might like to come for a walk… musta bin hard on ya bein’ shut up fer so long…" The words came out of his mouth in a rush. He looked distinctly uncomfortable and his bright blue eyes would not look at her.

Embarrassed young men were something Catherine was more than capable of dealing with. It was an everyday part of her job. She smiled warmly.

"Thank you Vin. I would love to go for a walk – as long as you feel it’s safe to do so."

"Oh yes! It’s quite safe. I checked out the area – an’ I’ll take proper care of ya…"

"Then let’s go!"

Vin stuck his head around the door, where Buck sat at the table, seemingly studying a sports magazine, singing loudly and tunelessly to himself.

"Buck?" No response. "BUCK!"

When the lanky agent glanced up, Vin could see the earphones from the Walkman. He motioned for Buck to remove them.

"What’s up, Junior?"

Vin smiled. "Jus’ so’s you know – me and Catherine are goin’ for a walk."

Buck grinned wolfishly. "Well, well… you be careful now – that’s a federal witness with an English passport – we don’ want the Ambassador bein’ called in!"

Vin sighed. "S’jist a walk… she’s bin shut in for days…"

"Course it is Vin, course it is…"

"Go ta hell Bucklin."

"Ain’t never bin much doubt about that, son."

The door closed with a bang and Buck grinned. One of the best things about teasing the normally unflappable sharpshooter was that he was like a big, greedy catfish ~ he always took the bait.

Catherine was enjoying the walk. They strolled peaceably through the trees along the edge of the lake, watching the reflections on the water and sharing a companionable silence. Sensing his shyness, Catherine avoided engaging Vin in any serious attempt at conversation, but she was comfortable in his company and it was huge relief to escape from the enclosed feeling of being guarded all the time. She knew she still was being guarded of course, but an easy trust and confidence had emerged between her and these three men, and she felt safer here, in the great outdoors, than she had whilst being ensconced in a hotel room with the FBI. She felt more relaxed than she had in days. They were well out of sight of the cabin when she noticed he was limping slightly.

"Have you hurt your foot Vin?"

He shook his head. "No… s’jist my boots are a bit tight…s’nuthin…"

She looked down at his well-worn cowboy boots. They certainly didn’t look tight. Perhaps he was tired and not willing to admit it. This seemed like a good time for a little feminine diplomacy. "Shall we head back? I could use a cup of coffee…"

He nodded. "Sure…"

They were walking steadily back in the fast-encroaching dusk. There was no path to follow, and Catherine was impressed with Vin’s effortless retracing of what appeared to be the exact route they had followed on their outward walk. Perhaps Buck hadn’t been exaggerating with his comment about Vin’s tracking ability. Two trees were growing close together across their path and Catherine and Vin fell into single file to pass between them. Vin’s normal sure-footedness deserted him and he thrust his left foot under a protruding tree root, causing a loud yelp of pain as he tripped heavily and fell into the undergrowth.

"SHIT! Owww!" He tried to stand, but the pain in his foot was like a hot knife, and he wobbled precariously.

"Vin! Here… easy…" Catherine bent down to him, helping him to stand. He couldn’t put any weight on his left foot. The same foot he had been trying to keep the weight off earlier, she noticed.

"Have you made your foot worse?"

He shook his head. Vehemently. "S’nuthin! S’jist a blister or somethin’… I’m fine…" He tried again to take some weight on the foot, but a white hot shaft of pain shot through from his toes to his knee. "Awww….hell!"

Taking his left arm firmly in both hands, Catherine pulled it around her shoulder, and wrapped her right arm around his waist, helping to support his weight. "Come on…" she said in her best matter-of-fact voice, "it’s not far back to the cabin, then we’ll sort out this ‘blister’ of yours…"

Vin was hurting too much to argue with her, his toes were throbbing like someone had hit them with a hammer. He leaned against her slight form and together they made unsteady progress toward the cabin.

Ezra and Buck sat on the porch, Buck with an open bottle of beer, Ezra with a glass of wine. It was Buck who spotted them first, two indistinct figures in the purplish light, moving very slowly, their arms seemingly wrapped around one another.

"Well, I’ll be damned!!" Buck’s voice was low, but almost awe-struck. "I know Junior’s in his element out here, but I never thought it’d give him that much extra encouragement! Phew! That kinda speed is worthy of the patented Wilmington technique…" Buck indicated with his head and Ezra followed the nod.

"Don’t be ridiculous Mr Wilmington, I know the ladies are unaccountably drawn to our young Mr Tanner, but…. Oh dear Lord!" Ezra said taking in the sight of Vin with his arm tightly around Catherine, who appeared to be hugging him around the waist.

"Makes me proud…" Buck said, "ta think I taught that young fella everythin’ he knows…"

Ezra frowned. It was almost dark, but he could make out enough to know that all was not as it appeared to be. "Errrr, Buck…," was as far as the southerner got.

Vin’s voice carried through the still air. "Will one of ya get off ya sorry ass and give us a hand here?"

A few moments later Buck had relieved Catherine of most of Vin’s weight, and between them, they half-carried the injured sharpshooter into the cabin, just as the first few drops of rain pattered onto the porch.

"Good timin’" Vin said, as he sank down gratefully into a chair.

A loud clanking started up outside, which gradually subsided into a steady throbbing, and the overhead lights came on. Ezra emerged from outside a few moments later, his shirt spotted with raindrops. "Generator seems to be in good order," he said.

Catherine was thankful for the extra light. "Let’s have a look at this foot," she said, kneeling on the floor in front of Vin. He looked over her head at Buck and Ezra.

"Remind you of anyone?" He said with a rueful grin.

"Nathan," they all chorused, to Catherine’s bewilderment.

"M’foot’s fine…" Vin moaned, "I only need ta rest it a bit…"

"What happened?" Buck asked.

"Tripped over a stupid root," Vin explained in mild disgust, "S’nuthin."

Catherine was sharply reminded of some of her young charges, who would do almost anything rather than admit to having an injury. "In which case this shouldn’t take any time at all," she said with a smile, easing Vin’s boot off carefully.

Vin bit his lip to stop the yelp forming in his throat. His foot hurt like hell and he was pretty sure that Catherine was going to be furious when she saw it. He was trapped. There was nothing he could do. Catherine gently rolled the grey wool sock down over Vin’s foot and Buck and Ezra each let out an almost identical gasp of amazement.

"How long has this been like this?" Catherine asked Vin, her voice sounding exactly like Nathan when he was about to launch into one of his tirades.

Vin’s left big toe was swollen and shiny, puffed up to twice its normal size, a vicious, angry shade of bright red and leaking some obnoxious greenish/yellow substance from one side of the big toenail.

"What the hell’s that?" Buck exclaimed.

" ‘S ma big toe…" Vin said, by way of explanation.

"Can someone get me a large bowl of very hot salt water and my first aid kit?" Catherine asked. Buck scurried off, eager to get away from the sight of Vin’s foot. Catherine eyed the sharpshooter. "How long, Vin?"

He reddened. "A while…."

"And what? You thought ignoring it would cure it?"

The blush deepened, and Catherine felt her anger evaporating. He looked exactly like one of her juniors. She didn’t know whether to comfort him or hit him. Vin thought she sounded exactly like Nathan.

"What is that?" Ezra asked, unable to hide his faint disgust at the sight, "trench foot? Laminitis? Gangrene?"

"Horses get laminitis, Ez," Vin sighed, but looked uneasily at Catherine.

"It’s an ingrowing toenail," Catherine replied. "And from the look of it, it’s been ignored for some considerable time. It might even need minor surgery to sort it out."

"I ain’t goin’ to no hospital! It’ll go down again! It always does…"

"Not this time Vin… I can ease it a little for you, but you need medical treatment. It’s a minor problem, but if you continue to ignore it, you will end up with serious problems – understand?"

God, Vin thought, she sounds exactly like Nathan. It was almost spooky.

Buck reappeared, carrying a large bowl of steaming water, two towels and Catherine’s first aid kit. Vin blanched. "What ya gonna do with that?"

She eyed him sternly. Hell, she even looked like Nathan. Well, a bit. "Soak your foot," she replied simply.

"In boilin’ water?"

"It isn’t boiling – well, not quite. You need the heat to draw out the infection and reduce the swelling – then we’ll dry it off and try and make you a bit more comfortable," she smiled at Vin’s stricken face, "I’ll bet it hurts like hell, doesn’t it?"

"S’not that bad," Vin lied.

"C’mon now Junior… Catherine obviously knows what she’s talkin’ ‘bout – jus’ do as yer told…" Buck tried to sound stern, but the underlying laughter in his voice threatened to surface at any second. "It’s only hot water… think of it as a nice hot bath."

"What I wouldn’t give…" Ezra mused quietly.

Catherine carefully supported Vin’s foot as he gingerly lowered it to within an inch or so of the water. His face took on a look of pure horror. "I’m gonna burn myself!"

Catherine plunged her hand into the water. It was hot, but not unbearable. "Look Vin – see? It’s not that bad – honestly! Come on now, it’ll make you feel better, promise…"

A thin sheen of sweat broke out on Vin’s face. "Be brave now," Catherine teased gently.

Vin pulled a face and plunged his foot into the bowl, only to shoot it back out again like the proverbial scalded cat, showering Buck with water. "Shit! Jeesus! You tryin’ ta kill me?" The sharpshooter cried out.

"Yow! Easy kid!" Buck yelped.

"Told ya it was hot! An’ it ain’t your foot goin’ in it!" Vin protested.

"Just grit your teeth – you’ll get used to the temperature in a minute," Catherine soothed, holding Vin’s leg firmly by the ankle.

Very gently, his face contorted with effort, Vin lowered his aching, throbbing foot into the steaming water. The burning pain shot up his leg, making his jaw clench, and he screwed his eyes shut, but the worst of the pain did pass off after a few moments.

"Hell, lady… you sure you ain’t part Comanche?" Vin asked. Catherine smiled.

"You shouldn’t have left it this long Vin – that’s badly infected. The hot soak will help…" She reached into the bowl and began massaging the part of Vin’s foot that wasn’t badly swollen. Now his skin was used to the temperature it actually felt quite good. He started to relax.

From her first aid kit, Catherine quickly retrieved magnesium sulphate paste, a packet of tubi-gauze bandage and a strange plastic instrument that reminded Ezra a little of sugar tongs. Vin’s face paled again.

"What you gonna do with that?" he asked, blue eyes like saucers.

"And whatever it is, c’n I go next?" Buck asked with a grin. Catherine shot a look at him, but she was still smiling.

"Why don’t you see if you can find the nurse a cup of coffee Buck?" She fluttered her eyelashes shamelessly at the lanky agent, who grinned like a buffoon.

"Sure thing little lady! Y’only have ta ask, an’ Bucklin’s on the case…"

"Which is something of a mixed blessing," Ezra said with a snort. "His coffee is only a tad better than Mr Tanner’s here, which has the distinction of being an, as yet, unidentified food group, closely related to swamp mud, but with marginally less nutritional value…"

A loud clap of thunder echoed from outside, making them all jump slightly, and the sound of rain pattering on the roof grew louder.

"S’rainin’," Vin said. Catherine and Ezra looked at each other and Ezra shrugged sympathetically at her.

A flash of lightning illuminated the cabin briefly, and another loud clap of thunder shook the wooden walls.

"Coffee comin’!" Buck shouted from the kitchen.

A noisy, grating clank echoed through the cabin, even louder than the rain, and then all the lights went out. For a moment or two, there was complete silence, punctuated by the drumming rain on the roof.

"What were you sayin’ ‘bout the generator, Ez?" Vin asked.

"Oh, outstandin’… jus’ perfect," Ezra’s voice came out of the darkness.


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