Cold Comfort

by WendyW

Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM and Trilogy. No infringment is intended. No profit is being made from this activity.

Vin Tanner stirred under his threadbare blanket as dawn crept in slowly. The night had been colder than expected, the temperature plummeting after the sun had dipped below the horizon. Spring seemed to have changed its mind as Vin untangled himself from the blanket, rising slowly and stretching out the overnight stiffness from his spine. He almost regretted not pushing harder for town. He wasn't late back so he knew he could linger without the additional time causing his friends to worry. The draw of the cold, crisp mountain air couldn't be ignored and far outweighed the grumbling complaints of his friends about his tardiness.

Vin had chosen a secluded campsite the night before. A small clearing on the banks of the river well protected from the main trail. The small fire from last night had burned to embers, so Vin reset it, preparing for morning coffee.

At this time of year hunting was sparse and it had left Vin eating dry tack and beans for the last two days. However, his supplies of coffee were plentiful so he left the circle of warmth to fill the coffee pot from the river. Snow melt had raised the river level to lap the upper edge of the banks and surrounding rocks, its current fast and turbulent as it cascaded over the boulders downstream. Vin paused, crouched down on a convenient rock as he bent to fill the pot. Sunrise was just cresting the mountains, throwing pinks and gold up though the clouds. Vin ignored the display over-head, instead his eyes were closed as he listened to the music. The low burbles near his feet as eddies washed, the light splashing over exposed rocks and the far distant thunder of a seasonal waterfall.

Vin hadn't realised how long he'd crouched there, the empty coffee pot still in his hand. His knees complained at being held in that position after so many days in the saddle so he slowly straightened up. Pain ripped through his left calf, the muscle snapping up in cramp and failing him. Unbalanced, Vin fell awkwardly to the side, his head smacking the rock as he landed. He lay on the ground for a moment, stunned by the sudden change of direction, cursing and rubbing the painful calf muscle.

Finally the cramp eased and he rolled onto his back. His forehead throbbed, but careful inspection with his fingertips revealed no blood. Now facing the sky he took a moment to appreciate nature's choice of colors for morning. Although no one had been there to witness it, he felt unaccountable embarrassed by his slip. A rueful chuckle escaped him as he recognised the teasing sound from the river. The rippling and tossing waters were laughing at him. Testing the sore calf carefully, he retrieved his coffee pot and finished filling it. It might be proving troublesome, but he wasn't breaking camp until he had his morning coffee.

Finally Vin was ready to move on and prepared Peso for the last part of the journey. Peso nipped and pushed at his master, not appeased by the warming rub down Tanner was giving him. He nipped as a hip or shoulder was exposed, making sure his feelings were made clear about standing around in the cold.

A fine drizzling rain began soon after he started moving. He could feel the water begin to trickle off the brim of his hat, dripping down beneath the collar of his coat and shirt, and shivered at the icy touch. It was only light and he was on his way home, so he decided not to seek shelter. The early morning wet soon cleared away but the fine misting rain had left his clothes damp. Unfortunately the end of the rain brought a sharp wind instead, cutting through his damp clothes. He shivered and tried to hunch down in the saddle for some protection. Urging Peso off the main trail, he turned in the direction of Nettie's instead of town. The Wells' homestead was closer and there would be a warm fire to welcome him.

The light rain had left the ground slick with patches of mud and wet exposed rock causing Peso to slip and jolt as he picked his footing out on the downhill grade. The jerking motion was causing Vin's head to ache worse. In a sign of tiredness from the long journey or the cold temperatures, the usually sure-footed Peso stumbled. It wasn't enough to dislodge his rider, but Vin dismounted to check his horse when he felt the slight unevenness in gait. He ran his hands down the foreleg gently, lifting it to check for a strain or something worse. There was no serious injury but he decided to walk for a while to be sure. Peso turned his head back, rubbing his forehead up and down Vin's hip and leg, unhappy at the turn of events. Vin returned the gesture, rubbing the strong neck affectionately as he took up the rains.

"Let's walk for a while mule, we're gonna be late anyway." Negotiating the slippery trail proved tiring and the constant head wind only made it more uncomfortable. It became barely discernible as to who was leaning on whom as the pair tried to make headway toward home. Vin shivered in the wind, futilely pulling at the damp collar of his coat.

As the progressed down the hill, Vin became frustrated with himself as he continued to stumble and slip on the slick ground. The reins dropped again from his cold fingers, but this time he didn't stoop to pick them up. Peso ignored the trailing ends and followed his master, content to wander along behind. Vin had ignored the growing cold, trying to move a little faster to keep warm and stop the shivers. Somewhere along the way, he'd failed to realise he was still walking although Peso had stopped limping some time ago. It hadn't seemed to be such a long way to Nettie's last time. Tired already, he decided to take a sort rest. Ignoring Peso's impatient snorting and shifting, he eased down by the trunk of a sturdy tree and closed his eyes for a moment.

+ + + + + + +

Casey and JD slowed their horses, not quite racing over the hard ground. The two had decided to spend the morning riding, but it had quickly turned into a furious and free run.

JD's horse suddenly threw up his head, snorting and giving a short whinny in greeting. JD was curious then quickly became cautious as another horse called in reply. JD signalled Casey to wait before moving carefully forward. It was certainly not someone trying to sneak up on them as the noisy movement ahead attracted him. A familiar white-blazed face came into view.


Peso still saddled with no sign of Vin was not good. JD moved to collect the horse, but as he stepped in amongst the trees the missing rider became apparent.


JD hurried to his friend who sat huddled close to a tree trunk. JD could scarcely believe how white he was. When he received no response, he placed his palm to the other man's cheek, but snatched it away quickly at the icy contact.

Disturbed by the touch, Vin forced his tired eyelids up. The blurry figure before him was dragged slowly into focus.

"Vin? Oh jeez, you're cold. Where've you been?" JD was getting no response from his friend, but neither was he pulling away. JD peeled his own gloves off and slipped them over the stiff icy fingers, rubbing quickly to try and warm them. JD checked Vin for injury, but only the bruise on his forehead and the icy clothes were visible. He was relieved that there was no blood.

Vin finally responded to the activity around him. "JD?"

"Yeah Vin. We're going to take you back to Nettie and get you warm. Casey!"

"I'm here JD." Casey had ignored JD's original request to stay, following JD at a distance. "What's happened?"

"I don't know. He hasn't been shot or anything." JD had lost Vin's attention again. "Vin, can you get up?" JD rarely laid hands on the tracker. Vin avoided strangers touching him and seemed to only barely tolerate the casual gestures from his friends. JD reached down slowly to take Vin's arm, encouraging him to his feet with words and a gentle tug. He was relieved when Vin seemed to take notice but he struggled to stand, slowly straightening his stiffened back and legs.

"Vin, why were you off the trail? Were you tracking something? Hiding? Vin?"

Vin wasn't really aware yet, but felt a hand on his arm and jerked it away sharply. JD let him go, not sure of the sudden change, the dazed look in the tracker's eyes not giving anything away.

"Vin we have to move."

"Why?" The question came slow and slurred.

"There's trouble Vin. You need to come with us and help," Casey pleaded.

JD gave Casey a startled look at the lie. She shrugged. If it would get Vin moving then where was the harm. JD led Peso over, not sure how they'd get Vin mounted if he wouldn't cooperate. He was tempted to go and get help, but Vin needed to get out of the weather soon.

Peso bumped his head hard against the man who'd ignored him for so long. Vin startled at the jostling but responded to the whuffling and nibbles that Peso applied to his shoulder. He appeared to be working on touch alone as he traced his hand under the soft chin, then up and along the strong black neck. When his hands reached the saddle he pulled himself up and onto the broad back.

It wasn't done with the tracker's usual grace, but it was enough for JD. JD waved Casey forward to lead so he could trail close to Vin in case the man slipped. Vin gave Peso no direction, so the gelding followed along, content for the moment to be among familiar creatures.

+ + + + + + +

"Aunt Nettie!" Casey yelled as they approached the house.

The widow came around from the side of the house at her niece's urgent call. She'd been expecting their return, but not so soon. Her heart lurched as she realised there was a third rider, slouched on a familiar dark horse.

JD stopped the trio close to the house. "Vin, we're getting off now." The struggle to get his friend mounted appeared to be repeating as his request was ignored.

"JD what's happened?"

"Don't know Ma'am. We found him out there, but he's really cold and not making much sense."

"Vin?" Nettie slapped at the knee nearest her to get his attention. She was concerned by the cold damp touch of the pants leg. "Vin? How long's he been like this?"

"We found him this way. He was just curled up near a tree."

Finally the shaggy head was raised, but he appeared confused as to where he was and began to pull at Peso to move him away from the group. Peso had had enough of this odd behavior and dug his hooves in, jerking his rider roughly. Vin, unprepared and achingly tired overbalanced and slid awkwardly to the ground.

JD jumped down to stop his friend's staggering escape. He was worried by Vin's weak attempts to pull away, obviously wanting to fight but without the strength.

"Naw, not 'nside." The slurring speech was barely understood, but his efforts to escape JD were obvious.

Nettie knew it was pointless to try to drag Vin Tanner somewhere, so she tried cajoling the cold, confused figure before her.

"There's a hot coffee inside waiting for you, and some fresh warm biscuits."

Vin didn't appear to even be listening, lost in his own version of events. He dug his heels in again as Nettie and JD tried again to move him forward.

"Hav'go…" the words barely audible, slipping together.

"No Vin. You don't have to go. You have to get warm."

"No." Vin shook his head in refusal, frowning at the headache that flared again. He reached for Peso only to have his own horse betray him, snorting and dancing away.

JD took up the reins of the recalcitrant horse before he escaped too far. "Peso wants to stay Vin."

"Just a few minutes Vin. I haven't seen you all week," Nettie encouraged him. She wanted him inside where he could get dry and warm.

Vin finally relented, easing slowly forward. JD and Casey went into the house first, no one wanting to crowd Vin now that he'd been convinced to come inside.

"Casey, go and bring me the quilts and blankets off my bed and we'll start warming him out here. JD, pull the rug straight in front of the fire. I don't want him getting cold from the floor."

Nettie settled Vin into the old rocker, all fight having drained from him. Vin took little interest in the flurry of activity around him, not responding as an old woolen throw was placed over his bowed shoulders.

Nettie slid a careful hand under Vin's shirt not wanting to startle him. The cold leeched through every inch of him. The only sign of injury was the darkening bruise on his forehead.

"JD, go get Nathan."


"Just to be sure," she tried to reassure him. Cold like this could be dangerous. "Casey and I will start to get him warmed up."

JD hurried for the door.

"Like it wasn't cold enough for you already," Nettie chided quietly.

"Sorry," he mumbled at what he thought was a reprimand.

Nettie was relieved that Vin appeared to be responding again. "Sorry won't get you warm, Vin."

Nettie started a quiet tirade at the carelessness of young men in cold weather, not to rebuke, but to distract Vin from the actions of her fingers. She unclipped his suspenders and undid the buttons of his shirt.

"Casey, stop gawking and go and get me Vin's saddlebags. See if he has any spare clothes with him."

Nettie pried his boots off and peeled off the socks. She frowned at the tattered items, recognising some of her own darning there. She put them aside to be washed and mended again. Casey had located Vin's extra clothes and returned with the longjohns and socks.

"Hang them near the fire for me Casey. I want them a little warm before he gets changed. You go and make some coffee and don't be coming back in here until I call you."

"Yes Ma'am," Casey agreed, looking worriedly at the quiet figure in the chair as she left.

Nettie slipped the warmed socks back onto the bare feet and urged the young man to his feet. She sorely missed the arguments she should have been getting from him as she loosened his trousers and let them fall. She'd hoped to save him some dignity but even his underwear felt cold and clammy. The warmth of the room hadn't seemed to penetrate him at all. As the damp clothes were slipped off, the icy white skin beneath was exposed and Nettie eyed the pink blotches on his stomach and lower back with worry. She coaxed him to step into the newly warmed underwear and slipped them up quickly, wrapping a blanket around his shoulders as she pushed him down on to the pile of bedding on the floor.


"Yes Ma'am." Casey returned, bringing a warm mug of coffee. Nettie accepted it gratefully and encouraged Vin to sip it. Vin had little interest barely responding to her words, but at least swallowing the warm liquid as she tipped it to his mouth. Nettie could see the struggle for Vin to keep his eyes open. She gave up on the coffee as the exhausted body continued to slump down, finally laying out on the quilt.

"Casey, take off you extra coat and lay down here with Vin."

"What!" Casey looked over, startled.

"Body warmth is the best thing for him. He's too cold to generate any himself. Go on girl, he's sick." Casey blushed a little but slid in under the quilt to lay stiff and awkward.

"No Casey, closer. You need to lay up against him," Nettie encouraged.

Casey rolled over and curled alongside Vin, gasping in surprise at how cold he was to her touch. Nettie covered the pair with the second quilt, laying extra blankets over and around Vin to seal in the warmth.

"Casey, you stay there. I'll start on warming your bed for him."

Casey had become quite comfortable with Vin's presence in the house after his many visits, but she had never been this close to him. Well, as long as she didn't count that awful scene she'd pulled on him when those lady bounty hunters were in town. Vin had never teased her about it, for which she was grateful. She soon relaxed and rested an arm across his chest and her head on his shoulder. Drowsy and over-warm from the extra blankets she drifted off to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had decided it was his duty to harass JD when the kid decided to go off gallivanting with Casey when there was work to do. It had slipped Buck's notice that he could have ridden to the Walsham's and back himself in the time it was taking to locate JD, but some jobs were meant to be given to the youngest in the pack. Buck was hardly about to admit that Peter Walsham had made it clear he would be greeted with both barrels of his 12 gage shotgun if Wilmington appeared anywhere on his property or around his wife Clare. Now there was a husband over-reacting to a little friendly greeting in town.

Buck approached the Wells' homestead surprised that no one was around to greet him. JD's horse wasn't out front so maybe he'd already gone out with Casey. Concerned that the house seemed too quiet, Buck peered through the front window. Buck smirked as he realised he'd nearly interrupted something with his arrival. The smile soon left his face as he saw that Casey Wells wasn't curled up on the hearth rug with JD but with Vin Tanner. Too surprised for words he stumbled back off the porch.

JD? What about JD? Buck knew this would break the kid's heart. He was torn between busting in there on the two or trying to find JD. He liked Casey and didn't want to hurt or embarrass her, so he decided to put off his confrontation with Tanner and went in search of his young friend.

+ + + + + + +

JD had ridden hard for town, ignoring the main trail and taking a straighter route across country. He only began to slow as he entered the main street and was forced to maneuver around wagons. He rode past the saloon and directly to Nathan's clinic, hoping the healer was in.

Larabee saw JD's hurried arrival and his intended destination. JD had mentioned going out to the Well' homestead which would mean that Nettie or Casey may be sick or injured. He strode over to the clinic to find out what was the problem.

JD was already running back down the stairs when Larabee arrived.

"JD what's happened?"

"Chris," JD gasped, still a little breathless. "Vin's out at Ms Nettie's. Casey and I found him this morning."

Chris stopped in surprise, not expecting those words. "What happened to him?" he asked, fearing the worst if his friend had been out alone and unable to help himself.

"Honest to God I don't know Chris. He wasn't shot or bleeding at all. He was really cold and not making any sense." JD hadn't wanted to be the one to deliver such news to Larabee.

Footsteps coming down the stairs attracted his attention.


"After I've seen him Chris." Nathan warded off their leader with a hand. He didn't bother to ask if the man would be accompanying him, just hurrying to the livery for his own horse.

"Everything JD," Chris ordered.

JD retold the events of this morning but could add little to explain what had actually happened to Vin.

"Vin was just out on his own by that tree. It wasn't a camp, he'd just stopped. Casey and I got him to Nettie's, but he got more confused and never really said what he'd been doing there."

"Any sign of bounty hunters?"

"No. I could backtrack him, but there's been rain in the area."

Larabee knew it would probably be a waste of time. Hopefully Vin could shed light on what had happened.

"I'll tell the others and stay on here to do the patrols," JD offered, knowing his leader wanted to go with Nathan.

Chris rested his hand on the younger man's shoulder for a moment as he passed. "Thanks JD."

+ + + + + + +

Nettie hustled in and out of the kitchen, warming bricks on the stove to get some heat into Casey's bed before they tried to move Vin. The floor in front of the fire wasn't the most comfortable place, but it was certainly the warmest in the house at the moment. She was distracted from her task by the sound of horses arriving. She met the two worried men at her door.

Casey awoke at the noise and started to scramble out from under the covers now that Mr Jackson and Mr Larabee had arrived.

Nathan quickly waved her back down. "No Casey, stay in there with him until I get a better idea of what's going on."

"I've been warming bricks and the bedding in Casey's room ready to move him there. It was too cold this morning," Nettie explained.

"I'll check him here Ms Wells." Nathan knelt down by the still figure carefully running his hands over Vin, checking for injuries. He inspected the bruised forehead, pressing lightly around the bluish mark. It didn't look too serious.

"How's he been acting?"

"He hasn't really woken since we got him settled. That's about two hours ago. When he arrived he was damp through. He argued a little when he first arrived, he didn't want to come inside but since then he's just kept slipping further away," Nettie explained.

"He wasn't really sure what was going on this morning when JD and I found him," Casey added.

"I didn't get a word of protest from him when I was getting him undressed and changed into dry clothes," Nettie added.

Chris knew how embarrassed his friend would have been and how hard he would have normally fought against such an intrusion. "He should have stayed in town in this weather."

Nathan ignored Larabee as easily as he knew Vin would have. Nathan knew that no amount of reasoning would keep Vin Tanner indoors and in town when he wanted to be gone. Nathan had only tried to force the issue once when he'd truly believed it was for Vin's own good. He had never intended anything other than to make a point but Vin's violent response to being restrained had caused him to quickly release his grip and apologise. Nathan had hated to see the flicker of distrust directed at him and he'd learned to be more careful in his handling of the younger man.

"Mr Jackson?" Nettie's concerned prompt brought him back from his reverie.

Chris didn't like the worried frown on Nathan's brow. Sure hands were sliding over Vin, testing his body temperature under his arms, his abdomen and groin. Nathan moved his hand back up and rubbed hard down the center of Vin's chest. He elicited the response he wanted when Vin groaned and stirred at the painful rub.

"Vin?" Nathan tapped the pale face gently, but Vin just turned his head away from the touch. Nathan pulled the quilt back into place, satisfied that the tracker hadn't drifted too far from them.

"You've been doing everything right Ma'am. It's just going to be a slow process to get him warmed up again," he reassured the fretting woman.

"Jesus! What was he thinking? He knows better than that." Larabee's worry had turned into anger at his friend's apparent carelessness with his life. Larabee knew the dangers of the cold and how quickly Vin could have succumbed, never to awaken from where JD and Casey had found him. Hell, no one had even been worried about him, assuming he was just dawdling his way home.

"Chris a lot of little things can pile up and he probably just missed the signs."

Larabee raked his fingers back through his hair, relieved and frustrated in one breath.

"He's tired, he's cold, he'll be fine Chris."

"Casey's room should be warm enough how," Nettie offered.

"Okay, lets move him Chris. Try to keep one of these blankets around him." Larabee slid an arm under his friend's knees as Nathan took an awkward grip of the wrapped shoulders. Nettie flipped back the covers on Casey's bed as Nathan and Chris lay down their burden.

"Is it enough?' Chris asked, looking at the warming bricks.

"Body heat would still be better and quicker." Larabee didn't hesitate, slipping off his boots and outer clothes then climbing in under the covers. Chris could now feel how cool Vin still was to touch, so he ignored their future embarrassment and gathered him in closer.

"I'll have you out before he wakes up," Nathan reassured him with a smile. Larabee sent a warning look but the healer was already moving out the door.

Nettie met the healer as he turned away from the bedroom door. "Come have something to eat Mr Jackson. I warmed it for Vin, but he hasn't been awake enough yet." She expected that Chris Larabee would stay close to Vin while he was ill. "I assume Mr Larabee is with Vin?"

Nathan grinned at the scene he'd just left. "He's taken over for Casey as the next Tanner teddy." Nettie peered around him to see for herself. Larabee looked up as someone entered the room and met the sparkle in the old woman's eyes. "You tell him about this and I'll tell him about his clothing change," he warned.

Nettie considered it for a moment before replying with a sharp nod. 'Deal."

Nathan joined Nettie and Casey at the dining table for a late lunch, both finally reassured that Vin would recover.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan returned later and after a quick check, he signaled to Chris that he could leave Vin to sleep alone now. Chris climbed out carefully and redressed, shivering himself at leaving the warm confines of the bed. He turned back to the bed as Vin groaned softly and rolled toward the now vacant warm spot.

"Hey!" Chris leaned over and gently tapped the still pale cheek. "Open your eyes for a while pard."

Vin groaned again at the disturbance, but finally pried his eyes open at Larabee's insistent calls. He ignored the familiar face in front of him and instead he scanned the unfamiliar room trying to identify his current location.

"Casey's bedroom," Chris supplied. "You got too cold out there in the woods."

"I'm always cold." Vin mumbled, turning his head back toward his pillow. He decided that the explanation wasn't worth staying awake for.

"Well trust me on this one. You were a lot colder than usual."

Vin could feel the sheets around him were warm to touch, but he still shivered at the cold he could feel inside. "Still cold," he grumbled, rolling over to curl up and try to hold in some of the warmth. He winced in surprise at his aching muscles.

Nettie heard the quiet voices and brought in another cloth wrapped brick, making sure that the bed warmers were replaced now that the original ones had cooled. Vin was too drowsy to pay attention to the new intrusion, only feeling a new source of warmth, sighing in contentment as he tugged it in to wrap it close to his chest. Nettie made sure the covers were still tucked close about his neck, smiling wryly at all the fussing that Vin was content to sleep through.

Nettie and Chris retreated from the room when Nathan decided to make on last check on his patient. Nathan had reassured them that Vin appeared to be responding, so he was planning to head back to town.

"Col', no…" Vin complained, trying to keep Nathan from pulling the blankets away. Vin still shivered at intervals, not willing to move off the warm section of sheets.

"I just need to check you temperature Vin."

"Jeez Nathan, get away from me. Yer lettin' in the cold," Vin complained, trying to pull back his warm covers.

"I need to check your temperature."

"What's wrong with m' forehead. Ow! Git ya hands out'a there!"

"Will you quit moving Vin. It's your own fault, so just stop squirming around. You're only making this harder."

Chris winced at the argument, watching Nettie start to rise from here chair to make sure Vin Tanner understood just who was the boss in this house.

"At least Ms Nettie leaves a man his clothes. First time I haven't woken up stripped to skin when ya turn up!" the aggrieved man complained.

Nettie moved to hurry, but couldn't make it in time. The words echoed clearly from the small room.

"You think you arrived here in dry clothes. Just 'cause you're dressed now doesn't mean a thing."

Silence reigned in the small bedroom. Nettie hadn't wanted Vin to find out about that particular part of his visit to her home.

"At least he quieted down," Chris remarked.

Nettie Wells frowned at the man opposite. She heard the smirk in the voice even if it wasn't evident on his face. "Unless you'd like him to be reminded of his bed partner, you'll mind your manners."

"Yes ma'am." It was funny from Larabee's point of view but not funny enough to risk the ire of Nettie Wells.

Vin's complaints and grumbles continue unabated. Nettie moved determinedly toward the bedroom as he drew a second wind and resorted to a few favored curses. "I'll settle that boy," she threatened as Chris moved to let her pass.

"Vin Tanner you'll lay still for Nathan. You…' but was quickly interrupted by an outraged cry.

"You shouldn'a taken m' clothes off!"

"What? I should have left you to ice up on the front porch and stacked my milk on you to get nicely cooled."

"Didn't have to take m' clothes."

"Don't take that tone with me Vin Tanner. I didn't take your clothes I changed them. If you keep going on like this I'll make sure I take them next time. Nathan, I don't know how you put up with the six of them," she complained in exasperation.

Chris let their continuing argument fade as he moved out onto the porch and settled himself on the top step. He was sure Vin would be determined to stay angry with both Nettie and Nathan in an effort to get past his embarrassment. Nathan had reassured him that Vin was fine and just needed to rest and stay warm until tomorrow to ensure there was no relapse. Chris leaned back against the hard edge of the post, tipping his head back a little to catch the pale rays of sunlight.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had gone to the jail only to find JD had gone out on patrol. Sitting around was eating at his nerves so he had returned to the Wells' homestead to confront Tanner. Buck approached slowly, not sure how he was going to handle this. He recognised the figure sitting on the front steps. How could he do this with Larabee here? Buck was startled to see both Chris and Nathan's horses tied out front.

A jumble of reasons for Nathan's presence, and none of them good, crashed down on him. He spurred his horse forward, rushing into the yard.

Chris looked over at his hurried arrival. "You heard?"

"What's Nathan doing here?"

"Checking Vin," Chris explained, surprised that Buck was here if it wasn't because of Vin.

"Vin? Vin's hurt?" Buck frowned at the thought. Could JD have found out? Could JD have been angry enough to do something drastic?

“He’ll be fine. Just a little rest and stay inside for a few days to be sure.”

Buck wasn’t really paying attention. “He knows,” he whispered softly, not realising he was speaking aloud. Chris heard the mutter, but didn’t understand the words.

Buck had to know for sure how bad things were. “JD knows?”

“Of course, he found him.”

Buck sunk down to the step beside Chris. He knew he should have tried to get to JD first, maybe tried to ease some of the pain.

“I think Vin’s pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. Nettie seeing him like that.”

“Jeez Chris, Nettie saw!”

“Well I imagine she did, even if she was trying to be as polite about it as she could. He’s just being too sensitive about the whole thing. I doubt he’s going to show his face around here for a while.”

“Not show his face!” Buck was already angry enough for JD, but no way was Vin going to treat Casey that way. “He’d better be coming back here.”

Chris was surprised at how angry Buck sounded. “I’m sure he’ll be back. He worries too much about her for a little embarrassment to put him off.”

“I can’t believe Tanner’d do a thing like that.”

“He got careless Buck. It happens to all of us at some time.”

“Careless! You call something like this careless! What about JD?”

“JD’s in town. I don’t think I’d realised how mature he’s become in handling situations.” JD had found Vin and brought him home and that counted for a lot with Chris.

Buck’s jaw fell open, too stunned to respond. Chris Larabee favored Tanner in a lot of things, but how could he sit there and coldly say that JD’s broken heart was a step in maturing.

“Tanner’ moves in on Casey when JD’s made it clear he’s interested, and you think it’s some sort of growing up stage?”

Chris rocked forward off the post, startled at Buck’s wild train of thought. “Vin! And Casey! What the hell are you on about?”

“I saw them!”

“Saw who?”

“Vin and Casey curled up together in front of the fire. Out in the open and in broad daylight! It’s no wonder Nettie saw ‘em.”

Chris was working hard to try to make sense of Buck’s side of the conversation. He recalled what he’d seen on Nettie’s floor when he and Nathan had arrived. Chris’s relief at the outcome of today’s events let him decide to torment Buck a little longer.

“I just don’t know what to say to JD. How am I gonna tell him a thing like this. He likes Vin. This’ll kill him.” Buck just shook his head in stunned disbelief that such a betrayal could occur between friends. “I just can’t believe Tanner would do a thing like this.”

Larabee could see his old friend was truly worried for JD, but he had to get a little retribution for Vin. Buck had thought the worst of him. Vin also deserved a little more punishment for causing his friends all the worry this morning as well. Larabee stood up, reaching down to grasp his friend supportively by the shoulder. “The only way you’re going to believe it is to confront it. They’re in Casey’s bedroom.”

It took a moment for Chris’s words to register and then Buck stormed off into the house. His eyes narrowed as he went though the front room and saw the male underwear lying out by the fire. He followed the voices to the cluster of bodies in Casey’s room.

Buck stopped at the threshold when he saw that Tanner was the only occupant of the bed.

“Where’s Casey and what the hell do you think you’re doing getting all cosy under the covers with that girl?”

“What?” Vin flopped back down on the pillows confused at the new entrant to the argument.

“You and Casey wrapped all over each other on the floor of the front room. Don’t deny it. I saw you both this morning.”

“Buck, no.” Nathan tried to save matters from getting worse. Larabee was standing by the door grinning, doing nothing to stop Buck. “Vin was caught out in the weather and got dangerously cold. JD and Casey brought him here. You saw Casey under the covers with Vin trying to get him warm. JD went into town to bring me out here.” Nathan hastily edited the morning’s events.

Buck turned back to the black dressed man beside him. “You let me think…what I was thinking!” Buck accused, not daring to repeat his original accusation.

“Buck, whatever you were thinking, it was wrong.” Nathan tried to calm things down. “Casey was the only one available at the time, but Chris took over once we got out here.”

This was more news to the occupant of the bed. “Chris! I’ve been sleepin’ with Chris! Who the hell else did ya invite into m’bed! I close m’eyes for a quick sleep and ya strip me down and stuff me bed with strange mmm…”

The rest of the tirade was lost as the small hand wrapped firmly across his mouth.

“Vincent Tanner you were not asleep, you were unconscious and they were friends helping you not strangers. If it happens again, then I’ll stuff you’re bed with polecats if it will keep you warm and save your life. Do you understand me?”

Nettie didn’t remove her hand so Vin could only nod meekly.

“Cold you say?” Buck laughed. “He looks a bit fevered with that red face.”

Vin pulled the covers over his head. “Leave me alone!” came the muffled cry.

“Outside, the lot of you.” Nettie herded the men out to the dining table. She stopped for a moment and turned back to make sure Vin had settled. Nettie turned down the covers he’d pulled up over his head. She knew Vin truly was embarrassed by all that had gone on.

“Vin, nothing is too embarrassing or too much trouble to make sure you don’t get ill,” she explained patiently.

“Sorry for fussin’ Nettie,” he apologised softly.

“Get some sleep Vin.” Nettie knew Vin had reached his limits today of being poked and prodded, but she couldn’t resist checking one more time. The back of her hand rested lightly on his forehead for a moment, finding he was definitely warmer.

Nettie returned to the main room to find the other three men preparing to leave.

“I’ll come by tomorrow to collect him if that’s all right.”

“That’s fine Chris. He’s no trouble.” Nettie received three looks of disbelief at her statement. “All right, he’s a little trouble, but he’s worth it,” she amended.

There was no argument from them on that.

The End

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