"Ez! Find a flashlight," Buck instructed from somewhere in the blackness.
"Why me, Mr Wilmington?"
"Cause Ive got a tray full of scalding coffee in my hands, Vin cant walk, and Catherines a lady!"
"Theres a flashlight in my backpack in the bedroom," Vin offered helpfully.
Ezra sighed again, but carefully began feeling his way around the unfamiliar furniture as he groped towards the general direction of the bedrooms.
He had forgotten just how dark it could get this far from civilisation. In the city, there was always some ambient light but out here, nothing. You could put your hand up to your nose and still not see it. Yet another reason he and such places had no desire to get to know one another intimately.
Feeling along the walls, he vaguely remembered there were two wooden steps up to a raised balcony. Using his toes to sense where the risers on the steps were, he was almost caught out when he realised there were actually three steps, and not the two he had originally thought, and his heart thudded against his chest when he stopped himself from tripping up the last step.
From here, it was an almost straight line to the bedroom containing Vins backpack. Feeling quite pleased with his progress so far and his prowess at negotiating an unfamiliar layout in complete blackness, he took a confident step forward, tripped over the raised wooden threshold he had forgotten was there, and lurched headlong through the bedroom door, wildly and instinctively clutching at something to break his fall.
His wrist hit something, then his hand grasped something rough and wooden, but he couldnt maintain his grip. With a noisy and undignified Oooofff! Ezra hit the wooden floor with a very loud and resounding thud, then everything went very, very quiet.
Once again, silence and blackness engulfed the cabin, broken only by the tattoo of raindrops on the roof.
"Oops," Vin said softly.
"Steady there, slick " Buck added.
A string of muffled but gloriously colourful curses could be heard emanating from the furthest reaches of the cabin.
"Well, he aint unconscious " Buck said.
"An were supposed tbe grateful for that?" Vin asked in a very quiet voice.
Catherine was quite glad it was dark that way they couldnt see the laugh she was trying desperately to smother.
"Buck," she said when she was sure her voice wouldnt give her away, "I noticed a couple of hurricane lanterns on the shelf in the kitchen earlier want to see if you can find them? Ill go and check on Ezra."
Vin started to rise from the chair. "Stay put, Junior," Buck instructed, "Three of us stumblin about in the dark is more than enough!"
Catherine made it to the bottom of the steps without incident, and could just make out a form heading towards her. "Are you okay Ezra?"
"Oh yes! Negotiatin this tumbledown relic of habitation in darkness blacker than one of our esteemed leaders famous moods is just bound to set ones good humour meter to overload " There was an audible click and a strong beam of torchlight speared the darkness.
"Way to go Ez! Ya found the flashlight!" Vin cheered.
"That I did Mr Tanner. The flashlight, the floorboards, and a whole new method of opening doors . With ones head "
Buck appeared carrying two lit lanterns, which he set down on the table beside Vin. They cast a golden circle of light in the centre of the room, which made up for in atmospherics what it lacked in practicality. Pretty as the lamplight undoubtedly was, it was not bright enough for Catherine to tend to Vins injured foot. "Buck, can you hold the flashlight here ," she indicated the correct angle with her hand, "so that I can bandage this foot properly?"
"Don need no bandage " Vin muttered.
"Yes you do unless you want to leave that festering sore open to God-only-knows-what germs from your socks and boots!"
Ezra shuddered, visualising the possible microscopic inhabitants of the inside of Vins footwear.
"Msocks are clean!" Tanner protested, looking affronted.
"Not clean enough!"
Once the stronger beam of the flashlight illuminated Catherines patient she carefully dried Vins foot and applied the magnesium sulphate paste around the open wound, then deftly unwrapped a length of tubi-guaze bandage which she slipped over the plastic sugar tong applicator. Buck was fascinated. Disgusted, but fascinated. Very dexterously, Catherine held the applicator over Vins toe, and with several pulls, pushes and twists, the bandage soon neatly wrapped the offending extremity. Carefully cutting the last small section into two tails she knotted these firmly to hold the dressing in place.
"There! Bet that feels a bit better, doesnt it?" She sat back on her haunches, regarding her handiwork, the new bandages glowing white in the torchlight.
Vin nodded. "Sure does ," he lowered his eyes, "thanks."
"Its nothing Ive lost count of the number of those Ive dealt with but promise me youll see a medic and get some antibiotic cream for it otherwise itll just get worse "
"Ill make sure we sort him out when we get back, Catherine even if I have to shoot him!" Buck promised.
Vin stretched out his foot and placed it on a spare chair, regarding the bandage with some pride.
"Mr Tanner!" Ezra protested, "kindly remove that rotting limb from our seating area " he waved his hand in an attitude of dismissal and Catherines sharp eyes noticed something.
"Ezra youre bleeding "
Ezras hand shot behind his back with the speed of light. Buck turned the flashlight beam to shine straight into Standishs face. "Cmon Ez fess up! Watcha done?"
"Its nothing merely a scratch not worthy of mention."
Buck chuckled throatily. "Now Ezra, are you gonna show us, or am I gonna be forced to sit on ya to hold ya down?"
Ezra glowered, but thrust his hand into the beam of the flashlight. Whatever he had attempted to grasp in the bedroom had obviously been very rough there seemed to be a prize winning collection of long splinters firmly embedded in Ezras palm and wrist, several of which were beading with small droplets of blood.
"Ouch!" Vin said sympathetically.
Bucks breath hissed. "Thats gotta hurt ," he turned twinkling blue eyes to Catherine and raised his eyebrows, "well, doc ~ we gonna operate?"
"Not as long as I have a breath to fight you with," Ezra said sharply.
"Cmon now Ezra, dont be a baby," Vin teased, "ifn you dont get them out, theyll get infected aint that right Catherine?" Vins huge grin shone white in the lamplight.
Catherine shrugged. "Its up to you Ezra. I can think of more comfortable things than walking around with half a tree embedded in my hand, but if youd rather "
"Thank you Miss Marshall, but I would rather gnaw my own hand off at the wrist than allow either of these miscreants anywhere near me with any of the contents of a first aid kit!"
"Chicken," Buck said.
"Oh very droll Mr Wilmington as usual your maturity astounds me "
Vin looked pensive. "How you gonna double deal at cards with a bum hand?" He asked.
Buck began to giggle. "Ezra might start dealin hisself bum hands with his bum hand!" Buck said in between sniggers, and Vin began to laugh. Soon they were both gasping for breath, tears streaming down their faces.
Ezra regarded them both with a look of complete disparagement. "Words fail me."
"Well, thats gotta be a first!" Buck groaned, laughing even harder, his shoulders shaking.
Catherine was trying hard not to give way to the laughter she could feel bubbling in her throat. They were exactly like her schoolboys albeit twice the size and definitely twice the trouble. "Would you let me look at your hand Ezra?" she asked, using the same tone she would with a very young schoolboy.
The southerner considered the alternatives. At the moment, his hand felt like two dozen needles were sticking into it and his wrist was stiffening horribly. There werent many alternatives to consider. He sighed. "Very well Miss Marshall, as long as Laurel and Hardy here are prevented from interferin."
Catherine smiled winningly at Buck. "Well Buck, as you seem to be the last remaining able body here could I trouble you for a fresh bowl of hot water?"
Buck collected the bowl and disappeared into the kitchen. Catherine spread one of the towels out on the table and indicated for Ezra to sit down. She sat next to him, giving Vin the flashlight to hold, and studied Ezras hand. There were several long, rough splinters embedded in the palm, a nasty deep scratch across the wrist, and the skin was already beginning to discolour from what promised to be a stunning bruise. "Not too bad I should be able to get these out fairly quickly " She carefully took Ezras wrist in her hand and turned it, very gently, noticing him wince at the rotation. "I think you may have sprained this Ezra its not broken, but youve got a beautiful bruise coming up and the muscles are very tight."
Taking a pair of long nosed tweezers from her first aid kit, she held Ezras upturned hand in her own and grasped the protruding end of one of the splinters. She felt him stiffen.
He nodded. With a careful sharp pull, the long splinter was withdrawn and placed on the towel. Vin held the light steady and watched, thoroughly absorbed.
Buck returned carrying the bowl, and stepped between Ezra and Vin to place it on the table in front of Catherine. In the poor light he didnt see Vins foot resting on the floor, and trod heavily on the bandaged toe, slopping hot water over Ezra. Vin shrieked. Ezra yelled. The flashlight fell to the floor and promptly went out.
"OWWW!! Shit Buck! Mtoe!! "
"OUCH!! That water is scalding!!"
"Hell! Sorry Junior sorry Ez .Oh Shit! The flashlight!"
Catherine froze in mid splinter-extraction.
"Thank you Mr Wilmington I now have third degree burns to add to my collection of injuries ," Ezra groaned, his uninjured hand feeling one side of his face and neck where the hot water had made his skin prickle, before rushing down the front of his shirt. "You have the grace and deportment of an inebriated elephant! What was I thinking? Allowing you anywhere near me when I am ill equipped to defend myself was a mistake of monumental proportions "
Vin grasped his sore foot, still wincing. "Quit bitchin Ezra you only got splashed I think Bucks broken mdamn foot "
"I said I was sorry "
"Oh well, that makes everything alright then, doesnt it? Mr Tanner is maimed for life, I shall probably be disfigured, but thats fine, because youre sorry "
"Hell Ezra! It was an accident! Whaddya want me to do?" Buck snapped.
"Emigrate?" came the suggestion.
"BOYS!" Catherines voice silenced the bickering agents instantly, using the same tone she always used to bring a herd of adolescent schoolboys to order in record time.
Three pairs of eyes ~ indigo, kingfisher and emerald, regarded her with something approaching awe. Hell, she couldnt just do Nathan now she was doing Chris!
"Vin, let me see " she bent down and lifted Vins foot, experimentally twisting it a little and gently pushing against the muscles. "Your foot is not broken put your sock and boot back on carefully Ezra ," she picked up one of the lanterns and squinted slightly as she held it alongside his face, examining him for any signs of scalds, " no serious damage your skins a little red, but its nothing to worry about." She turned to Buck, unable to hide a slight grin as he almost recoiled under her gaze, "Buck, why dont you see about getting the fire lit whilst I finish off Ezras hand? Itll give us a bit more light and might keep you out of mischief for a few minutes!"
"Assuming you arent concerned by the prospect of this excuse for an abode goin up in flames and us all bein burned alive " Standish muttered.
"Ezra enough!" She warned, carefully placing the lantern back down on the table and grabbing his injured hand again, "well just have to manage "
+ + + + + + +
"Not bad not bad at all!" Vin grinned widely, the bright flames from the fire reflecting warmly off his face. He was sitting in a rocking chair beside the hearth, his foot propped up on box topped with a cushion, holding a plate piled high with step shaped wedges of thickly buttered toast.
"Whilst the environment isnt exactly luxurious, I must confess the scene does possess a certain charm " Ezra admitted from his armchair on the opposite side of the fire, his newly strapped up wrist resting on the chair arm and a plate of toast on a small table within easy reach of his unaffected hand.
Buck and Catherine both sat cross-legged on cushions on the floor in front of the blaze, munching toast from a shared plate. An open bottle of wine and four glasses sat on the floor in front of them. Buck had lit the fire and made the toast in payment for his misdeeds, whilst Catherine tended to Ezra and mollified Vin.
Buck poured the wine and handed round the glasses. "To the wilderness family!" He raised his glass and the others joined him, all smiling.
"Welcome to the ATF version of the witness protection programme " Ezra said to Catherine, grinning broadly.
"Well all I know is, its a helluva lot more fun than the FBI!" She returned the grin. She hadnt had this much fun in ages.
Another bottle of wine, another round of toast and a lengthy debate on whether or not pre-packaged microwave tv dinners could be cooked over an open fire whilst still in their containers, the result of which was rather debatable but fortunately not tested, whiled away the evening. The accompaniment of a thunderstorm and a strong wind rattling the window panes gave the scene a somewhat surreal countenance and, as Catherine yawned and carried her lantern to bed with her, she realised she would be able to entertain the children for a very long time with this particular tale.
+ + + + + + +
Something woke Buck. He opened his eyes, instantly alert, his senses trying to locate whatever had disturbed his sleep. It was still pitch dark, although the rain had abated a little, he could still hear it on the roof, but much more softly than before, and the wind had lost some of its earlier force. He listened intently. Ezras snores echoed from the other side of the room, regular and almost melodious God forbid that Ezra Standish should be undignified, even in sleep. No, Buck thought, that wasnt what had woken him.
Buck stiffened, listening.
Thump, thump. Then nothing. What was that? Grabbing his sweatshirt from where he had flung it over the end of the bed, he pulled it on and clambered out from the warmth of the blankets, shivering a little when his bare feet made contact with the floor.
THUMP! Buck withdrew his gun from under the pillow and stealthily made his way through the dark cabin. The sound seemed to be emanating from outside the front door was someone trying to break in? It didnt take long for his eyes to become a little better adjusted to the darkness, and he could make out nothing suspicious inside the main room.
Thump, thump. It was definitely outside, he decided. Holding his gun carefully, he opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch.
The wind was stronger than he had realised and the rain was still falling, stinging his face like a slap. It was very dark, he couldnt see more than a foot or two in front of himself, but the noise was definitely closer, and seemed to be coming from straight in front of him. Swiping the rain out of his eyes with one hand, he took a couple of tentative steps towards the sound
Vin sat bolt upright in bed, the screeching yell instantly galvanising him into activity. Grabbing his gun, he was out of bed and across the room in a heartbeat, ignoring the protesting pain from his foot, gun drawn as he edged out of the door. He could make out a shape, close by, moving through the darkness towards him. He raised the weapon.
"Vin! Its me! The hissed whisper froze Vins trigger finger and he lowered the gun.
"Jeesh Ezra! I nearly shot ya!" He hissed back, his heart pounding.
"What on earth was that awful noise?" Standish asked as he crept closer to Vin, "and where is Mr Wilmington?"
"His bed is empty."
Vin could feel Ezras withering glare, even though he couldnt see it properly. "Is unaccompanied and sleeping, as I have just ascertained, and I feel that remark to be a little derogatory, even for you ."
"Hell, Ezra, I didnt mean that I thought that Buck ."
Suddenly the front door crashed back on its hinges, and a large, threatening, wet figure could be seen clearly in the frame. Ezra and Vin both raised their guns.
"FREEZE! Federal Agents!" Two voices yelled in unison.
"Oh, well, Hell, that makes me feel a whole lot better " Bucks unmistakably pissed-off voice retorted from the front door.
Vin and Ezra both stood up, lowering their weapons.
"Mr Wilmington?" Ezra peered through the darkness towards the figure, still framed in the doorway.
"Buck? Where the hellve you been?" Vin asked.
"Why, swimmin of course! Thats a helluva stupid frickin question!"
A circle of light appeared, followed by Catherine holding a lantern aloft, stifling a yawn and peering blearily around her. "Hi guys!" she said sleepily, "whats up?" Then, as she began to take in the scene, her eyes grew rounder and a smile spread across her face, igniting a giggle in her throat that simply would not be silenced.
Vin was clad in long grey wool socks and bright blue boxer shorts. Ezra seemed to be wearing blood red silk pyjama pants, his bright white bandage glaring in the lamplight. Despite the guns in their hands, they looked about as deadly and threatening as two puppies caught in the shoe cupboard.
She turned her attention to Buck. "Buck? Why are you all wet?" Walking towards him, she frowned as the light fell on him, "and what have you done to yourself? Youre bleeding!"
+ + + + + + +
"Yeow! It was the .ouch! careful there darlin the stupid ouch! boat bangin gainst the damn ow! jetty!" Bucks explanation was punctuated by cries as Catherine picked some of the larger pieces of gravel out of the wound with the tweezers. "I . easy there! .slipped down the ..ow! bank, and fell in the hell, that hurts! water "
Buck was laying face down on a towel laid across the table, a dry towel across his shoulders in place of the soaked sweatshirt, his remaining modesty, not that one really needed to worry about that with Buck, as Ezra had pointed out, covered by a torn pair of black boxers decorated with large red hearts, all of which had the word throb written beneath them.
"Just in case one fails to understand the joke, no doubt," Ezra had said, somewhat scornfully, eyeing the scoundrels underwear with disdain.
A long, gravel encrusted, dirt filled graze ran from the torn hem of Bucks boxers down the back of his right thigh almost to the back of his knee.
Ezra was holding the lantern as high as he could, in an attempt to give Catherine some light to work with. "Were it not for Mr Wilmingtons dubious taste in underwear, this scene could be reminiscent of some of the more unpleasant aspects of the Civil War " he sighed.
Buck snorted. "I never knew the Confederacy ouch! went in for red silk pants Ezra . Though that might explain .yeow! a few things like why yall lost "
"Almost done Buck," Catherine said at last, "Ill irrigate this properly, then cover it to keep it clean. Itll be very sore for a few days, but no lasting damage." She grinned as Buck waggled his eyebrows over his shoulder at her, "you will no doubt be relieved to hear.."
Vin appeared in the lamplight, carrying the ubiquitous bowl of warm water. Catherine squirted something into the water, then swirled it around with her hand, before lifting the bowl up ready to wash Bucks wound. A smell of lavender rose from the water as Catherine soaked a cloth and squeezed it out a few inches above Bucks leg, effectively flushing the dirt out of the wound.
"Your gonna smell real purty Bucklin," Vin grinned.
"Well Junior, thats gotta be bettern smellin like you!" Buck retorted.
"I dont smell!" He looked to Ezra for support. "Do I Ez?"
"I am the wrong person to ask, Mr Tanner. Ask Miss Marshall she has been in closer proximity to your feet than I have!"
Catherine laughed at their gentle teasing. "No Vin, you dont." She repeated the irrigation until the wound was a clean as she could make it, then ripped open two sealed foil sachets of antiseptic wipes. "Ready Buck? This may sting a bit," she warned.
"Don you worry none darlin, I cn take it " Buck grinned at her over his shoulder, then bit his teeth together as the antiseptic made his thigh feel as if it were on fire. His breath hissed out through clenched teeth.
Catherine sprayed the whole area with a dry iodine spray, covering Bucks leg, the boxers and the towel with the yellow aerosol and making Ezra cough slightly. "Good Lord! Chemical warfare ," he muttered.
"Kinda appropriate for Bucks rear .." Vin stopped suddenly, blushing furiously as he realised what he had almost said in front of Catherine, who diplomatically pretended she hadnt heard him.
Finally, Catherine applied two large size non-adhesive dressing pads, sealing them firmly in place with micropore tape. "There you go, Buck! All done!" She pulled off the third pair of disposable gloves shed used in the last few hours and helped the patient to his feet.
Vin appeared a few minutes later with a tray of coffee and the information that the rain had stopped and dawn was approaching. The four of them stepped outside onto the damp porch, watching the first streaks of pale silver begin to divide sky and land across the lake.
Catherine raised her coffee mug to the other three. "To the wilderness family," she said with a smile.
Three days later
Chris Larabee opened the passenger door of the Ram and helped Catherine out. The noise of the planes over the airport departure building made conversation almost impossible, but he was smiling at her as he hoisted her large backpack off the back seat. They walked into the terminal together.
"I want to thank you Miss Marshall," he said, green eyes glittering with ill-concealed laughter, "not only did you manage to give invaluable evidence in an important case, but you survived - firstly the ministrations of the FBI, then the even more horrendous ordeal of bein looked after by my agents and you still appear to be relatively sane and in one piece!"
"Comes from looking after a school full of boys, Mr Larabee. You learn a few things pretty quickly, or you dont survive for very long!"
"Well anyone who can withstand the ATFs version of the Marx Brothers must have something goin for em!"
They strode to the check-in desk and Catherine handed over her luggage and papers. The desk clerk indicated the direction of the customs and departure gates, and Chris walked alongside her. As they approached the gate, three very familiar figures came into view Vin still limping slightly, Buck walking with a rather strange, slightly stiff-legged gait, and Ezra still sporting a strapped wrist and bandaged hand. She was delighted to see them all.
Vin blushed as she kissed him lightly on the cheek, and handed her the bunch of flowers he had been clutching. "Have a safe journey home and thanks for tendin to me," he said quietly.
Buck swept her up into his arms, gave her an enormous hug and a thorough, warm kiss. "Thought you might like a pair to match mine!" he said, handing her a small, brightly wrapped package, then winked at her, and she laughed out loud.
Ezra hugged her and kissed her cheek, then produced his good hand from behind his back, revealing a large teddy bear, complete with bandaged foot, strapped leg and bound wrist, wearing a white t-shirt on which was written, in bright red marker from the wilderness family. They had all signed the tiny white shirt. "Just a little somethin to remind you of this misadventure, assumin of course, that you should ever wish to be reminded of it," he said, his eyes shining at her.
Catherine felt her eyes beginning to fill as she hugged the bear. "Oh, I promise you, I shall want to be reminded of this for a very, very long time."
Carrying her gifts, Catherine walked down the ramp towards the departure gate, turning and waving until they were out of sight. She felt strangely, suddenly, rather alone, without her guardian angels. Then she looked down at the goofy-faced bear in her arms and grinned.
~ Finis ~
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