Days of Fire

by Sarah B.

Webmaster Note: This fic was originally hosted at another
website and was moved to blackraptor in August 2004.

Size: Approx. 85K

Casey Wells sighed and shifted her body lazily in the hammock she was sharing with JD. It was late afternoon, a hot day, the latest in a string of hot days, and Casey sleepily pulled her summer shift away from her skin and thought how nice it would be when the weather cooled down again.

JD stirred next to her, and Casey turned her head to look at him. He was asleep, his shiny black hair falling carelessly over his pale face, which was a little flushed in the lingering heat. His hat, jacket, and vest sat in a heap some distance away, discarded as soon as JD had arrived at Nettie's early that morning to help her with some repairs. They had worked until it became too hot to bear; then they had all retired to the coolness of the house, and when the sun started its downward journey Casey asked if it would be all right if they went out and sat in the hammock. She knew Nettie trusted JD, and anyway it was way too hot to even think about mischief. So, they had gotten into the hammock - after a series of frustrating attempts that spilled one or both of them to the ground more than once - and dozed off the afternoon's heat.

And now the sun was setting. Casey licked her lips, looked toward the barn where JD's horse was stabled. The air was still, heavy with summer's perfumes, and Casey stretched luxuriantly and sighed. Young as she was, Casey realized there were things going on in that moment she didn't understand, but loved, like the feeling of JD's body pressing next to hers, or how she felt when she looked at his face, his lips, those black-lashed eyes that stood out in such contrast from his ivory skin. Casey lay in the hammock for a long time, just studying JD's quiet face, lightly stroking the hair out of his eyes, and thinking her thoughts as the sun turned from yellow to amber to a soft violet and the wind whispered through the summer trees.

Casey didn't know she'd dozed off again until she heard the door open, not loudly but loud enough to wake her up. Starting, she pulled her eyes open and saw her Aunt Nettie standing on the porch, a freshly filled canteen in her hand.

Aunt Nettie smiled and stepped close to the hammock. "Casey, it's time to wake Mr. Dunne up, if he's going to make it back to town before nightfall."

"Mm-hmm." Casey nodded blearily, looking down once again at JD, who still hadn't stirred. Gently she put her hand on his shoulder and shook him. "JD?"

"Hm." JD mumbled, then blinked open his hazel eyes. "Hm, what?"

"Sun's going down." Casey said quietly, "Time to go."

"Oh - " JD blinked wider, tried to sit up in the hammock. "Oh! Tarnation - "

Casey squealed as the hammock rocked to one side, and managed to land on her feet when it spilled her out.

JD was not so lucky, and was slung backwards as the hammock righted itself. He fell to the ground with a loud thud.

"You OK, son?" Nettie asked, trying to suppress a smile.

"Yeah." JD stood up and brushed himself off, then reached up and started rolling down his sleeves. "Huh, the sun really is going down - I better get going."

Casey went to the porch and picked up JD's belongings. As she brought them over, she noticed something gleaming on his jacket and said, "You put your star on."

"Oh - yeah." JD took his jacket and flipped over the left lapel to show off his most proud possession, his silver sheriff's badge. "Ain't it a beauty? I figured I 'd better have it on in case I run across any bandits on my way back."

"You mean like Rio Cortez?" Nettie asked lightly, handing JD the canteen and folding her arms.

JD nodded as he slipped his vest on. "He's around someplace, telegraph said so. Just want him to know if I run into him, I'm the law around here."

Smiling confidently, JD turned and walked to the stable, checking his guns as he went. Casey was right behind him and said, "Now, JD, you ain't gonna pick a fight with Cortez, are you? 'Cause I heard about him..."

"Oh, Casey," JD said in exasperation as they neared the barn, "You gotta stop worrying about me. I ain't gonna do nothin' without the other guys around, I ain't that stupid, but if he comes after me, I ain't gonna run."

"Well - " Casey watched JD pick up his saddle from the barn floor and begin cinching it onto his horse. She couldn't think of anything to say, so just watched him until he was finished.

After making sure everything was secure, JD looped the canteen over the saddle horn and turned around. He glanced up at Nettie, who was standing in the barn door, then down to Casey again. Giving her a smile and a shrug, he said shyly, "Well, see ya."

"See ya." Casey smiled back, suddenly aware of Nettie's gaze on the back of her neck. Her eyes flicked up to JD's, sending a whole heart's worth of adolescent longing, but she dropped her eyes again when she felt herself slipping into those hazel depths that met hers and answered, and simply stepped back so he could get his horse out of the stable.

"I'm mighty grateful to you, Mr. Dunne." Nettie said as JD guided his horse across the lawn to the main road that would lead back to Four Corners. "Tell everyone I said hello."

"I will." JD looked back, saw Casey standing next to her aunt on the lawn, the red rays of the setting sun casting a perfect halo in her auburn hair, and smiled unabashedly at the sight. He waved, Casey and Nettie waved back, and a few moments later he was gone into the hills.

"Supper's ready, Casey." Nettie said simply as she turned to go into the house.

"Yes, ma'am." Casey replied, and followed her aunt into the house. As she passed the hammock, Casey absently stroked her dress where the wrinkles from where JD had pressed against her were still crisp and warm, and felt a thrill of longing. And smiled.

Buck Wilmington hated everything.

Now this was a new thing, since normally the handsome gunslinger loved everything, the west, his friends, the ladies, life in general. But that was before the hot weather had come, and now Buck was sweaty and miserable and hated everything.

He tried hard not to, as he walked along the dusty boardwalk of Four Corners, a capped canteen of cool rainwater in his hand. He tried to smile at the people he saw, but it was too hot for many people to be about, so there weren't many opportunities for Buck to look for some fair damsel to lighten his mood. The streets were mostly deserted, dry and windblown and baked to a crisp by that damn desert sun. So Buck mopped his brow with his bandanna and sunk lower into his black mood.

Lifting up his hat to shake the sweat from his brown hair, Buck crossed the street to the large clapboard church that stood like a white-prowed ship among the humbler weatherbeaten dwellings around it. Josiah Sanchez had been fixing the church up, and it gleamed like a snow-capped mountain in the brutal sun. But Buck didn't really notice.

Rounding the side of the church, Buck came to the double cellar doors and lifted one, squinting his eyes to see better into the darkness below. After his eyes had adjusted a bit, he carefully maneuvered his way down the narrow steps to the blessed coolness of the church basement, and drank in the soft, relieving air.

It was dim in the basement, but that was good; Josiah and Nathan had set the room up for townsfolk who were being affected by the intensely hot weather, and Nathan had specifically asked that the room be kept as dark as possible, so the heat stricken could rest in the soothing quiet.

As his eyes adjusted further, Buck looked around and saw the arrangement of cots that had been set up; there were a few people reclining on them, including two pregnant women, who were being tended by their anxious husbands. A few other townspeople were down there as well, holding cold cloths to their foreheads and dozing in the cellar's cushioning air. Buck saw Nathan leaning over someone at the far end of the cellar, and wandered over.

"Hey, pard." He said wearily as Nathan straightened up, then started when he saw that the person Nathan had been leaning over was Ezra Standish, his dark green jacket crumpled next to the cot, his white ruffled shirt unbuttoned to the waist. He was apparently in the process of trying to rise, and Nathan still had one dark hand on the gambler's chest, pinning him down.

"Our newest patient." Nathan said in a slightly sarcastic tone as Buck approached. "I found him practically passed out in the saloon, still wearing that big heavy jacket. Had to practically drag him here."

"I'm fine." Ezra mumbled drowsily, and tried to get up, but in the dim light Buck could see that he was sweating profusely, and Nathan pushed him back down onto the cot with a grunt of impatience.

"Yeah, sure you're fine," Nathan groused as he took the canteen from Buck, "We'll see how fine you are when you start throwin' up all over that fancy jacket. Here, take a sip of this."

Ezra sat up a bit and did so, giving Nathan a dark glare. "Mr. Wilmington, will you please plead my case before this misguided individual? I know how to comport myself in this warm weather."

Buck shook his head earnestly, "I'm with the doc, Ezra. You look like hell."

"Thank you." Ezra sniped, and leaned back on the cot, closing his eyes.

Nathan sneaked a smile at Buck and said, "What do you want to wear that big ol' coat for, on a day like today?"

"A gentleman," Ezra tutored sleepily, "Does not go out in public half-naked."

"Glad I ain't a gentleman then." Buck said under his breath as he looked up to see Josiah approaching them through the cool gloom.

"Afternoon," The big preacher rumbled softly as he down at Ezra. "How's he doing?"

"He's down with the heat," Nathan said in an irked voice, "Even if he don't think so."

Ezra said something none of the other men could make out, then slipped into an uneasy doze.

Nathan shook his head as he tilted the canteen and dumped some water onto a cloth, looking up at Josiah as he did so. "How's everybody else?"

Josiah peered back over his shoulder. "Not too bad. Mrs. Patterson's still pretty dizzy, but she's gettin' some water, so she'll be fine."

"Good." Nathan pressed the cold cloth against Ezra's sweltering forehead and straightened up. "Sun'll be going down soon, so this is probably all we'll see today. I'm tellin' you, I'll be glad when this hot spell is done."

"You an' everyone in the territory." Buck grumbled as he took the canteen and drank from it. "Only one who don't seem to mind it is JD."

Josiah smiled. "His heart's wrapped around Casey Wells. Love conquers all, as the poet said. Even heat like this."

Buck gave his head a baleful shake as he passed the canteen to Josiah. "I got to have a talk with that boy. He's spendin' too much time with that girl."

"I thought you liked Miss Wells." Nathan said in mild alarm.

"I do," Buck said defensively, "Hell, I brought 'em together, didn't I? And nothin' would make me happier than to see those two little lovebirds nestin' together. Someday."

Nathan and Josiah grinned at each other.

"But JD don't realize that a man's got to enjoy his freedom before he gets hitched. That kid's way too young to sparkin' so serious. Ain't nothing wrong with gettin' your oats sowed before settlin' into domesticity."

"You told JD that?" Josiah asked incredulously.

"Tried to." Buck groused. "He lit out this mornin' before I got more than two words out. I told him we'd talk tonight, though. I got to get him straightened out before he goes and does something stupid."

"Like gets married?" Nathan asked with a grin, his dark eyes twinkling.

Buck took the canteen and gulped down another drink, and didn't reply.

I won't put the jacket on, JD decided as he studied the wide western sky over his head and prodded his mount along. It's still too hot.

Sighing, he wiped a light haze of sweat from his forehead and squinted at the horizon. The sun had just set, reluctantly he thought, and now the sky was a riot of reds and yellows, oranges and blues, as the last blazing rays caught off of the huge clouds that floated across the wide expanse. It was a brilliant sunset, like one out of a fairy tale, and JD smiled to himself and thought once again, this is why I came west.

Pulling his pocket watch out, JD checked the time and grimaced; it would be dark before he got home. Oh well, it wasn't like he had anything to rush home to. The recent hot weather had made everyone in Four Corners irritable and dull; even Buck was moving in slow-motion, sleeping most of the day, only a little livelier at night. Hm, probably they're up by now, JD thought, and Ezra's trying to interest someone in a game at the saloon. Poor Ezra, the hot spell has really hurt his business...

Puffing out his cheeks, JD picked his canteen out from behind him and took a swallow, grateful that Nettie had filled it for him before he left. Even with the sun down, it was still very warm, and JD could tell it wasn't going to cool off much before the sun rose again, and brought more heat. Too much heat. Did it ever get this hot back home?

Unexpectedly, Casey entered JD's thoughts, and he smiled to himself as he thought of how it felt, the two of them lying together in that hammock. How could he have ever thought she was just a child? She was a young woman, a young lady as Buck would say, and JD could feel it when they lay down together. Good Lord, he thought suddenly, and blushed for no other reason than the images that were rampaging through his mind. Damn Buck and his stories, JD thought, but the images continued, and he had to admit they were pleasant to reflect upon...

JD was still reflecting as he came to a low rise that marked the third-of-the-way point home. Straining his ears, JD picked up the sound of a group of men a short distance ahead of him, hidden by the short scrubby trees that dotted the landscape. At least two men, JD realized, and one of them was shouting and, it sounded like, kicking something. Frowning, JD pulled out one of his ivory-handled Colts and slowly trotted forward to where he could see.

It was a group of men, three of them, two on horseback. The third was standing on the ground next to a prostrate horse, screaming at it in Spanish and kicking at it with his steel-toed boots. The horse wasn't moving; it looked dead.

His eyes widening in alarm at the abuse, JD spurred his horse forward and said, "Hey, you! Stop that!"

The men all started, and JD found himself staring down five gun barrels. The man on the ground, a tall swarthy man with a black moustache, barked out, "Who the hell are you?"

"Leave that horse alone." JD answered, too upset at what he was seeing to be polite. Pulling up close, he dismounted and walked over to the animal, but it was clear the horse wasn't breathing; its tongue was lolling out of its mouth, which was smeared with white foam, and its eyes were rolled back in its head.

Shaking his head in anger, JD confronted the man in front of him, too irate to be frightened by the man's height, or his steely glare, or the large gun he held. "Don't you know how to take care of an animal? You've killed her."

The man looked JD up and down and scowled. "This worthless nag? Why should I waste water on a lazy brute who doesn't even have the good grace to die in town so's I don't have to walk?"

"Why, you - " JD stepped forward, but before he had a chance to say anything more the man whipped up his gun hand and hit JD full force on the side of his head. The youth tumbled into the sagebrush, unconscious.

The three men looked at him for a second, then one of them said, "Good shot, Rio. That ought to shut him up."

"Hmph." Rio stuffed his gun into his belt, regarding JD's still form with loathing. Then he cast one black eye on JD's horse, which was standing motionless a half-dozen yards away.

"Well, now here's a beautiful horse." Rio said appreciatively, approaching JD's horse cockily. "What do you think, Jake? Curt? Yes, he'll do just fine."

The other two men looked at each other and laughed as Rio took the horse's reins. The horse shied back, whinnying fretfully. Rio ignored it, and reaching to the saddle threw JD's jacket and hat into the brush.

"No money, damn." Rio breathed. The horse started pulling away harder, and Rio yanked on the reins angrily. "Stop that, or I'll give you what that one got." He jerked the reins toward where his other horse lay.

One of the other men looked to where JD's jacket had fallen and said, "Uh-oh, boss. Look at that."

"What?" Rio glared at the interruption.

"I said look." The man said, and pointed to where the jacket had fallen. The lapel was crumpled over, and JD's sheriff's star glittered in the fading light.

"So what," Rio growled as he tried to control JD's horse, which was dancing even more frantically, "He ain't the first lawman I killed. Damn, Jake, help me with this goddamn horse."

"Sure, boss." Jake dismounted and started to approach, but with a loud snort JD's horse reared back, slicing the reins out of Rio's hands. As the man gasped in pain, the horse jumped away and bolted, galloping through the brush and into the night.

"You goddamn son of a bitch!" Rio howled, and pulling out his gun fired a shot at the fleeing animal, then two.

"Don't waste your ammo, boss." Jake advised, turning back toward his own mount. "Come on, I'll take you on my saddle."

Rio grunted, cast a hateful glare toward JD's retreating horse, then nursing his sore hand walked to Jake's horse and waited for a hand up.

"What about him?" The other man said, pointing at JD, who was still unconscious, tangled in the bushes.

Rio looked at JD, shrugged. "Leave him. One less lawman to worry about."

"I don't know." Curt shook his head doubtfully. "I say we plug 'im. He'll get the law on us."

Rio laughed, studied the sky. "Come on, Curt. Gonna be another hot day tomorrow, and it's a long walk. How long do you think that little runt's gonna last once the sun comes up?"

Curt nodded in agreement, satisfied, and the three men rode away into the cooling darkness.

"Damn, it's hot."

Buck said these words for the tenth time as he sat with Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan in the saloon. The gambler had roused himself from the church cellar as soon as the sun went down, insisting he was fine. He did look better, so Nathan didn't argue. Despite the relative cool of the evening, the saloon was nearly empty, and the four men were playing poker and trying to ignore that the cards were sticking to their skin.

Ezra sighed and made a face. "Mr. Wilmington, first, it is four o' clock in the morning and it is not that warm, and second, if you do not start concentrating on the game I am going to have to ask you to leave."

Buck gave Ezra a sour look. "It is hot. And I don't care if you don't think so."

"Gentlemen." Josiah rumbled, raising his hands. "This warm weather has shortened all of our tempers. Let us have a little peace."

Buck frowned and wiped his forehead. He had to admit it wasn't really too warm anymore, even though yesterday's humidity had never gone away, so even though it was cooler it was still unpleasantly damp. Having shed the light-colored jacket he usually wore and rolled up his sleeves, Buck knew he was as comfortable as he could be, and probably a lot more comfortable than Ezra, who despite the clammy warmth of the night had ignored Nathan's advice was still wearing his gambler's jacket. But the hot weather had continued to dampen his usual rambunctious mood, and Buck felt he had to talk about something.

Josiah pulled out his pocket watch and checked it. "Dang, it is four o'clock. Shouldn't JD be back by now?"

"Aw, hell," Buck groused as he peeled his cards from one hand, then the other. "Prob'ly came home and went straight to bed. That's where I'd be if it weren't too hot to sleep."

"Or do anything else, for that matter." Ezra dead panned as he scanned his cards.

Josiah smiled, but he noticed Buck gave Ezra a dark look and thought, that's what he'd rather be doing, at that. And took a drink of whiskey. "Looks like you'll have to wait to give JD the benefits of your experiences, Buck."

"Hmph." Buck grunted as he put a card down, only to have it adhere to his hand.

Ezra eyed his companions in confusion. "Did I miss something?"

"Buck thinks JD and Miss Wells are gettin' too serious." Nathan commented around his cigar.

"Ah." Ezra said blankly. "And naturally, knowing all there is to know about such matters, you have seen fit to bestow your questionable wisdom on the boy?"

Buck glared at Ezra and scowled. "It ain't questionable. Done me a world of good."

"Say hello to your wife for me then." Ezra said in a low voice and put his eyes back on his cards.

Josiah glanced at Buck and saw thunderclouds forming, so attempted to change the subject, and asked, "Anybody seen Chris or Vin?"

"They're on watch." Buck said noncommittally to his cards. "Somethin' about a Mexican bandit on the loose. Reckon they want to jump him first."

"Hm." Josiah digested this and threw out a card. "I can't imagine anyone planning crime in weather like this."

"Chris can." Buck argued as he spread out his cards. "But then, that boy always did have a good imagination."

Chris Larabee stood on the top of the hill and watched the sun rise.

It was a gorgeous sunrise, full of color and promise, hinting only by the intensity of its yellows and reds that the day would be hot, heavy, and full of languid misery. Chris squinted at the dawning light, daring it almost, but he knew it was a futile challenge. The sun always won.

Next to him, Vin Tanner was looking through his spyglass at the horizon. Vin was not a large man, and he looked even more slight without his usual leather coat, which like everyone else's had been abandoned in the heat. Peering through the spyglass once more, Vin shook his head and lowered it in resignation.

"Nothin'." He said in his usual raspy voice. "When did we get that telegram from Yuma?"

"Day before yesterday." Chris answered.

"Hm. Well, if Cortez is headed this way, he's takin' his own sweet time about it." Vin turned tired eyes to Chris. "Heat'll be risin' soon. Reckon we ought to get back to town before it sets to cookin' us up."

Chris nodded, and the two men mounted their horses and headed back to Four Corners as the first rays of the sun touched the distant mountains.

With a grunt, JD woke up.

Ow, he thought as he tried to move. Ow, ow!

Moving seemed really painful, so JD stopped and thought. Oh yeah, the Mexican fellow and his two friends. He was kicking his horse, and then all of a sudden nothing.

Then JD thought: the Mexican fellow. Rio Cortez.

JD tried to move again, felt the same sharp sticks poking into them, and opened his eyes. How did I get stuck in these bushes? He thought, and despite their jabbing him managed to wrestle himself into a sitting position, and rubbed the side of his head. Ow, he thought again. Brushing his hair out of his eyes, JD blinked and looked around.

It was sunrise; he'd slept there the whole night. The dead horse was still nearby, attracting flies and giving off a powerful odor. Looking at the animal with a mixture of pity and nausea, JD worked his way out of the bushes and stood up.

Dang, he thought, my horse is gone. Cortez must have taken it. Taken it where? He realized that Cortez could have gone anywhere, but Nettie's was so close...what if he went there, and Casey and her aunt were in danger?

I've got to go for help, JD considered, but Four Corners was too far away, even on a mild day; on a day like today he'd never make it. JD cast another look at the dead animal and shuddered; what would that man do to Casey, if he got ahold of her?

JD saw his hat on the ground and scooped it up. He saw his jacket too, and detangled it from the bushes, but then thought: I'm not going to wear this, and I don't want to carry it around. Mentally marking the spot, he carefully lay the jacket back in the bushes, then had another thought and carefully removed his sheriff's badge from behind the lapel and tucked the metal star in his pants pocket. I'll pick the jacket up later, JD decided, and setting his hat on his head began the long walk back to Nettie's ranch, as fast as he could, with one eye on the steadily rising sun.

Four Corners sat still and languid as the sun climbed higher, baking the streets, glazing the buildings with a red-hot layer of fire. Nothing was moving; the whole town seemed in a daze, stunned by the intensity of the summer heat, content to yield to its pressure and lie quiet beneath its crushing force.

It was into this quiet that Rio Cortez rode.

"Look at this, Jake." He purred to the man seated behind him as he surveyed the dust blown streets. "This is perfect."

"Yeah, well, let me down." Jake requested. "Now that we're here I need a drink."

Rio chuckled and steered his horse toward the saloon. There was no one around the bright streets as the men dismounted; even the breeze seemed cowed by the heat.

"I got a thirst too." Curt admitted as he peered into the saloon. "How long we staying?"

"Long enough." Rio answered. "I need a new horse."

Jake and Curt nodded, then Jake said, "You s'pose that fella we ran into is the law here? It's close enough."

"Hm!" Rio responded brightly. "That would be lucky. We'll have to find out."

With that, the three men entered the saloon and started drinking.

JD sighed and wiped his forehead. Dang, he thought, it's really hot.

He peered up at the sun, now nearly directly overhead, and wiped his forehead again. He looked at the road, but the bright sunshine was reflecting off the sand, and his eyes were watering so badly he could hardly see. How far had he come?

Wish I had some water, JD thought wistfully, but it shouldn't be that far to Nettie's. Hope they're all right. Wait, I know that tree. Dang, that's all the farther I've come? Well, can't go back now...

The heat was oppressive, and made him dizzy and lightheaded, but the thought of Casey in danger spurred JD on, and he stumbled along the white-hot road with grim determination. Gingerly he touched his face; it felt hot, and he knew his skin was burning, and thought, damn. He couldn't decide if he should leave his hat on; it was hot with it on, but when he took it off he could feel the sun like a red-hot iron on the top of his head. So, the hat stayed on and JD sweated.

He came to a low rise and paused, breathing heavily in the hot air. Nothing, not even a rock for shade, and no water. JD was starting to feel dizzier, and hoped Nettie's wasn't as far away as he thought it was. I gotta get some water, he thought, and tried to remember if Vin ever told him about any streams around here. But thinking was getting difficult, it was so hot, and eventually JD decided to keep going, at least until he found some shelter from that damn awful sun. Some shelter, and then maybe a nap...

JD wiped his forehead again and moved on.

Casey finished up the last of the dishes and wiped her hands on the drying towel, then wiped them again on her shift. It was another hot day, oppressively hot,and she dreaded the long weary stretch of the afternoon with nothing to do.

She looked over at Nettie, who was putting away the dried dishes, and said, "Aunt Nettie, I'm going to lie down in the hammock."

Her aunt looked at her. "It's too hot to lay outside. Cooler in your room."

Casey nodded, disappointed; her aunt was right, but Casey liked lying in the hammock. It reminded her of JD -

Casey looked out toward the hammock and, for a split second, thought she saw JD's horse standing next to the hammock looking at her.

She blinked. Blinked again.

The horse was still there.

"Aunt Nettie..." Casey said in confusion, and a moment later she was outside, and the horse still stood there, its sides heaving in exhaustion, its look intent.

"There, there, girl," Casey said soothingly, approaching the animal with caution and petting her. She looked around for JD, but didn't see him. As she took the horse's bridle, Casey saw the foam at its mouth and said, "Aunt Nettie, this horse needs some water."

Nettie walked up, her eyes full of concern. "Where's Mr. Dunne?"

Casey started to walk the horse toward the stable, where the water trough was. "I don't know." She looked around and called, "JD? You playing a trick on me?"

Nettie followed her. "Awful hot day for a prank."

Casey eased the horse toward the trough, where it dipped its head and drank eagerly. She ran anxious eyes over the saddle, the rest of the gear. She spotted his canteen and her heart began to beat faster.

She grabbed it off the saddle and stared at it, then her eyes snapped to Nettie and she said, "I'm gonna look for him."

"You most certainly are not." Nettie said firmly as Casey walked around the horse. "It's the heat of the day. You'll be down with sunstroke in an hour."

Casey looked at her aunt piercingly. Then she looked at the horse, then the blazing sun. She gave her aunt a determined stare and said, "If it was me out there you'd go look."

Nettie paused, then leaned back and studied Casey with a smile. "You got your pa in you, that's for sure. Of all the things to inherit, you get his stubborn streak."

"Thank you." Casey said simply, and went inside to change her clothes.

After walking for awhile longer, JD decided he had to sit down.

Just for a minute, he thought as he flopped onto the hot sand. Just till the world stops spinning, and the pounding in my head goes away.

The sun was brutal, beating down on him as if he were the only thing in the world worth picking on. I need some shade, JD thought, but there wasn't any, scarcely even any bushes, and so his hat was the only thing between him and those searing rays.

JD gulped for air as he sat on ground, wincing at the cramps he'd been feeling for the last hour or so. They'd made it harder to walk, but the thought of Casey in danger made him willing to crawl there on his hands and knees, if he had to. All he needed was some water, and a little rest.

God, it's hot, JD thought, and almost laughed at the over simplicity of the statement. He could feel the heat baking into him, feel it settling on his cheeks, which felt like blazing fire , and the backs of his hands, which were now burned an angry red. Even breathing hurt, and he hated taking in that scorching air; it didn't seem to help, he still felt like he was suffocating, and the frightening image came through his mind of himself, one tiny little speck in the vast desert, slowly roasted by an indifferent sun, roasting, blazing, burning up...

JD shook his head; I'm getting delirious, he thought, and decided it was time to get up and get moving again.

Painfully JD heaved himself to his feet, wincing as the exertion flooded him with dizziness, but when he looked around he realized he was no longer on the road, but in the middle of a wide plain. Puzzled, he peered at the featureless sand around him, and took off his hat and scratched his head; how long had he been wandering off the main road? He didn't even notice...

A small swell of panic rose in him, and by sheer force of will JD pushed it back down again. So he was off the main road - it had to be around here somewhere, and as soon as the world stopped whirling around him he'd know which way to go. And then he'd find Nettie's ranch, Casey would be safe, and he could get some water...

But which way to go? They all looked the same in the baking hot sun, and as JD tried to figure it out his thoughts became jumbled, his mind numbed by the relentless, inescapable heat. JD looked about him blankly, but everything looked painfully bright and blurry, and the landscape was tilting weirdly. Heaving another breath into his protesting lungs, JD picked a direction and staggered into it, completely unaware as he stumbled through the blazing sunshine that he'd inadvertently let go of his hat, and left it in the white-hot dust.


In the Four Corners saloon, Chris sat in the table farthest from the door head in his folded arms, trying to sleep.

He'd discovered that he was actually more comfortable sleeping sitting up than lying down, especially lately. Why this was he didn't know, and didn't particularly care; it made getting drunk much more convenient when he didn't have to worry about how he was going to get home to bed...

So now he was scowling at the three rowdy strangers who had come into the saloon two hours before. They had started off being not-so-loud drunks, but now they were just plain obnoxious drunks, and they were getting on his nerves. If only it wasn't so damn hot, he'd get up and clean 'em out. But it was too hot, so Chris just thunked his head back onto the table and tried to go to sleep.

He was just about there when he heard boots walking toward him. Go away, he thought, but the boots stopped close to him and he heard Buck's voice say, "Hey, Chris?"

"Go away, Buck." Chris muffled from his crossed arms.

"Chris, you seen JD anywheres?"

Chris lifted his head, gave his friend a bleary but menacing glare. "You think I keep him in my pocket? Go away, Buck, I'm trying to sleep."

Then he noticed that Buck wasn't curious; that was a genuine look of concern on his normally ebullient face as he answered, "I checked his room, and he ain't been in. I checked the stable, and he ain't been back."

Chris shrugged and put his head back down. "He's probably still at Nettie's. Give it a rest, Buck. it's too hot."

"Hm." Buck thought on this, and realizing Chris was going to be no further help he backed away from Chris' table. "Well, all right then."

Buck turned around and walked by the table where the three rowdy drunks were sitting. Giving them a cursory glance, he got to the saloon doors and passed Vin going in. "Hey, Vin."

Vin abruptly grabbed Buck and backed quickly out of the bar, so fast Buck's head spun. His grip was still tight on the gunslinger's arm as Buck laughed and said, "What the hell - "

"Sh!" Vin's voice was tight and low as he peered over the doors into the saloon. "That's Rio Cortez in there."

"What?" Buck blinked his surprise. "That Mexican guy?"

Vin nodded, sweat from the day's heat damping his curls to his forehead. "What's Chris doin' in there?"

"Tryin' to sleep." Buck said as he backed away and drew his gun.

Vin shook his head and pulled out his sawed-off Winchester. "Surely do hate to do this. The man's a bear when he don't get his rest."

"Or even when he does." Buck said lightly, and with that the two men reentered the bar.

Rio had just finished telling a dirty joke and was swaggering around the table laughing drunkenly when Vin and Buck walked up behind him, guns aimed steadily.

"Rio Cortez?" Vin asked softly.

Chris looked up from his table.

Rio turned around, glared at Vin's rifle. "Who are you?"

"You Rio Cortez?" Vin asked again.

"Maybe," the man shrugged, smiling boozily at Vin, then turned to his companions and reached for his whiskey bottle. "What do you care if I am?"

"Fraid I'll have to ask for your gun." Vin said in the same quiet tones, his eyes never moving from Rio's face. "Seems you're a wanted man."

The two men who were sitting looked uneasily at Vin's gun, but Rio just laughed again and took a swig from the whiskey bottle. "Just try it, pretty boy, and I'll cut you in half."

Vin took a step forward, and instantly Rio went for his gun. Before his hand had gotten halfway there, however, two shots were fired, and Rio slumped to the floor holding his bleeding arm and cursing in Spanish.

Vin held up his smoking Winchester and shook his head. "Sorry, mister, but your mama should have taught you not to talk back to people."

Jake and Curt both stared, speechless. Jake started to rise, his hand on his gun belt, but stopped as he heard a loud click to his right. All heads turned to see Chris, who had stood up and was giving Jake and Curt his best soul-drilling glare from behind his cocked gun.

"You sonsabitches ruined my nap." Chris growled as he closed one eye and aimed. "Now I'm cranky. Please give me an excuse to shoot you."

Buck couldn't hide his grin when both men paled visibly and held their hands up. Uncocking his gun in a slow, theatrical manner, Chris holstered it and left the table, heading for the door.

"Throw 'em in the jail," He grumbled to Buck on his way out. "JD'll have to take care of 'em when he gets back."

"Where is that boy, anyhow?" Vin asked philosophically as he leaned down and pulled Cortez' gun out of his holster.

"Who knows." Buck groused as he wiped the sweat off his forehead and glanced at Chris, who had paused in the doorway to pull out his bandana and mop his face. "Sparkin' Miss Wells, I suspect. Said he'd be back last night. Must be having a real good time." Buck winked at Chris, who shook his head as he stuffed the sweaty bandana in his back pocket.

"Huh." Vin said, then heard an odd noise. He realized that it was Rio, who was laughing softly, and stood back. "Somethin' funny?"

"Your sheriff." Rio's eyes glittered maliciously as he grinned at Vin from his seat on the floor.

"What about him?" Vin asked, his calm tone belying the knot he suddenly felt in his stomach. He felt Buck come up behind him.

Rio continued to chuckle, and despite the blood oozing from his wounded arm looked almost exultant. "Let me walk out of here and I'll tell you."

Buck took another step forward, trying to push past Vin, but the buffalo hunter held him back as Chris left the doorway and slowly approached where Rio sat. He didn't look at Rio, however, but at the two men cowering behind the table, their hands still raised.

"You fellas know what he's talkin' about?" Chris asked conversationally.

Rio turned and glared at them, and both men shook their heads rapidly, apparently more frightened of their leader than Chris.

Chris tilted his head, his blue eyes shining like brittle glass. "All right." He said in the same kind, gentle tones, and mildly grabbed the table and turned it over with a horrific crash.

Jake jumped out of his chair and landed on the floor, covering his head at the sudden noise. Curt remained seated, but only because Chris had lunged forward and grabbed his collar. Buck leaped forward a second later, and gripped Jake by his hair to hold him still.

"It's too damn hot for this," Chris hissed as he pulled his gun out again, "So I'm gonna make it short because I'm tired, and I'm thirsty, and I got a goddamn short fuse today." He cocked the gun and jammed it into Curt's temple. "Talk or I'll blow your head off."

Curt's eyes widened. "It wasn't my idea! Rio wanted his horse!"

Chris throttled him a little. "You're not telling me anything. So long." He pressed the gun a little harder.

"He's out in the desert!" Curt yelped.

Chris blinked, and his gun hand jerked back reflexively.

Curt started talking very fast. "Rio was kicking his horse, and the kid wanted him to stop it - "

"So I knocked the little bastard out and tried to take his horse." Rio finished laconically from the floor. "It's a cruel world, isn't it?"

Chris let go of Curt, who slumped against the wall, and looked at Buck. Buck gave Jake a menacing glare and tightened the hold on his hair. "Where'd you leave him?" he asked in husky, urgent tones.

"Ow!" Curt grimaced. "Near the Junction Pass. But that was last night, he won't be there any more!"

Buck let go of Curt's hair and looked at Chris, alarm in his brown eyes.

Vin said what they were all thinking. "That's in the middle of nowhere. There ain't no shade out that way, and no water neither."

"Isn't that too bad?" Rio trilled. "Your little friend's probably been wandering around out there most of today, and it's such a hot, sunny day too. Reckon he'll be going down with the sunstroke soon, unless he's dead alread - "

Buck kicked him then, a swift vicious kick in the back, then another one, and Rio yelled out and rolled forward. Vin caught him and hauled him up as Buck almost ran past him to the saloon door.

"Get the others!" Chris called to Buck's back, "Fill every canteen you can find. We'll join you in five minutes."

Chris turned his eyes to the two men cringing behind him, and with an inarticulate snarl grabbed them both and along with Vin began pulling them all toward the jail.

"You better pray we find JD in time." Chris snarled as he dragged his prisoners out.

"Or you'll what?" Rio Cortez sneered mockingly as they reached the doors.

In a blur, Chris let go of Curt and Jake and jumped at Rio, ripping him out of Vin's grasp and slamming him against the saloon's doorway. Rio's bravado shattered in the harsh light of Chris' white-hot stare, and he looked at Chris with naked fear.

"Or I will skin you alive, mister." Chris spat venomously, his eyes murderous slits in the bright glare of the afternoon sun. "Or I will skin. You. Alive."

JD stumbled along the simmering landscape, fell, got up, and fell again.

His vest was gone; his sleeves were unbuttoned and dangled from his wrists; and somehow he'd lost his hat. His body screamed for water and shade, and as the universe whipped around him JD knew there wasn't going to be any, ever.

Panting, he rose to his knees, fighting against the overwhelming nausea that was racking his slight frame. He clutched his stomach as the nausea returned, worse this time, and looked in desperation around him, but nothing looked familiar anymore, just rocks and shrubs and heat, all-consuming, blazing heat that was burning him from the inside out.

His stomach lurched, and JD bent forward and retched weakly onto the desert floor, stars dancing in front of his eyes. He'd thrown up a few times, and now it was just hacking, and as his heart pounded in his ears JD screwed his eyes shut and curled into a tight ball, waiting for the awful spasms to subside.

They did, but then he realized he was too weak to get up. You've got to, he thought, what about Casey? But moving was so hard, everything was hard and hot and it hurt, his face felt as if was made of live coals, and his hands were so burnt he couldn't stand to touch anything. I'm going to die out here, JD thought, and fought against the panic that swelled through him and cramped his insides once again. It was hard to think at all; several times he'd blinked to find himself staggering aimlessly, unaware of how he'd gotten there, and now as he lay gasping on the fiery desert floor he felt himself falling, upward it seemed, and JD struggled to pull himself from the heaviness that was threatening to pin him to that spot forever. No, he thought, the only thing he could think as he slowly, painfully heaved himself off of the ground, I've got to keep going. And he took a few more jerking steps.