Days of Fire
by Sarah B.
But where was he going again? JD suddenly didn't remember. Surely nothing existed outside of this white-hot inferno; he couldn't remember having ever been cool, or it ever being night. There was only the day, this eternal, burning day, and he was alone, in the middle of it, and would be forever.
JD staggered a few more feet and stopped. He could hardly stand to look at the brilliant landscape around him; his eyes felt as if they were made of sandpaper. But he tried to see anyway, tried to squint through the nightmarishly bright world around him. But there was nothing but endless rocks and low bushes.
But there - far off in the distance - wasn't that a house or something? JD squinted again, shaking his head frantically to try and focus; it was a brown object of some sort, but it was so far away...he stumbled forward, and fell again.
The oppressive heat held him there for the longest time; JD could feel the last shreds of his energy seeping out of him, sucked into the dry desert rocks and evaporating into the heavy, unbreathable air. And suddenly he didn't care, began to detach and feel weightless. The world tipped, then flipped upside down, and he clutched at the baked earth under him weakly and thought crazily that his friends would kill him when they found him, out in the desert without his hat or jacket.
He felt something jabbing him in the leg, and without opening his eyes felt around that area. His sheriff's star was still in his pants pocket. Grunting, JD dug it out and flung it away without thinking, and pulled his throbbing hands into his chest to shield them from the relentless sun. At least they weren't hurting anymore...
The world was red, pulsating and surging, pulling him down, and this time JD didn't fight it, couldn't anymore, simply thought, I'm sorry, Casey, I'm really sorry -
And went to sleep.
Chris led the others out of Four Corners, and they paused at the edge of the wide expanse of land that lay between them and Junction Pass.
Chris looked around him; only Ezra had remained behind, to watch the prisoners; Ezra had protested, but Chris could tell the gambler was suffering from the heat himself, and decided not to sacrifice two of his men to the desert, despite Ezra's insistence that he was fine. Besides, someone had to stay behind in case something happened and they didn't come back.
"Everybody got what they need?" He asked quickly, glancing at everyone's saddles to make sure that each man had three canteens of the coldest water he could find. "Let's go," Chris said, gathering up his reins. "Remember, any of you find JD, fire off a few shots and the rest of us will come find you."
"And don't give him water right away if he ain't sweatin'," Nathan cautioned as the men split up, "That means he got heat stroke. You gotta get him cooled down first, otherwise it'll just come back up, and he might choke. Get his clothes off, and get some of that water on him quick as you can."
Everyone nodded, and without another word Chris spurred his horse forward, and the men began to fan out as fast as their unwilling mounts would let them.
Thinking for a moment, Josiah trotted his horse over to Buck, who was scanning the shimmering horizon with a look of hopeless fear. When he realized Josiah was next to him, Buck glanced at the preacher and whispered, "God damn, Josiah, look at all that out there. How we ever gonna find him?"
Josiah reached out and put a calming hand on Buck's shoulder. "We'll find him, Buck. If it takes us down to our last breath, we'll find him."
Buck nodded, but dropped his head and wiped his brow, sighing his frustration and worry.
Josiah's hand didn't move; he leaned closer to Buck and said in low tones, "I'm praying for whatever God JD believes in to keep him safe until we can get to him. If fervency counts for anything, I believe my prayers will be answered."
"Well, it's gonna take God's hand in this, Josiah," Buck muttered doubtfully as he surveyed the blasted, sun-drenched world that stretched endlessly before them. "I'm telling you what. It's gonna take a god-damned miracle."
And with that, Buck rode forward into the unforgiving heat, and began looking.
Casey rode her horse to the tallest hill she could find and stopped.
Her hat was falling low again,so she pushed it back from her forehead. The light-colored jacket she wore over her shift was hot, but she could feel the intensity of the sun and knew the bother of being uncomfortable was worth not having blistering rays pounding on her unprotected skin.
She scanned the landscape urgently, and then did it again. She had only paused at Aunt Nettie's long enough to fill some canteens and water sacks from the underground spring, gather some towels, and snap some aloe vera stalks from the plants that dotted their back yard. She knew she could take care of JD; she just had to find him.
Sighing, Casey nudged her horse from the the hill and kept going. Her mind was getting foggy with the heat, and Casey took another sip from her canteen and thought of the time she was with her father, watching him put up a barn for some friends of his. It had been a hot day, like this one, and one of the men had gone down with the heat; she had watched as the other men stripped him and poured water on him, and smiled as she remembered the argument her parents had had later about the event; it was the first time Casey had ever seen a man naked, and her mother was mortified.
Wiping her forehead, Casey approached another low rise and looked around.
"JD!" She called, wincing at the rasp in her throat; the air just seemed to be sucking the water right out of her. "JD!"
Nothing but the low hum of silence answered her. Casey pursed her lips, tried to stem the fear that had been gnawing at her. She was a mile from Nettie's ranch; how far into the desert had JD gotten? She tried not to think that she was looking for a needle in a haystack, but it was true; he could be anywhere, miles away, or -
Casey sat back in her saddle, determined not to panic. She spurred her horse forward, calling out JD's name as she did so.
She'd gone another dozen feet when she caught a flash of light from a short distance ahead on her left, on a small rise. Alert, she glanced that way, and saw something sparking on the desert floor, near a large broken boulder. Frowning, she walked the horse closer, then trotted, then nearly galloped as she spotted JD, curled up on his side on the gentle slope, his back to Casey, not moving.
"JD?" Casey breathed as she guided the horse to the boulder. The rock was huge, and broken on one side so an overhang gave the animal ample shade. But that was an afterthought, almost; as she threw herself from the horse, Casey's eyes were riveted on the still form lying on the desert floor, the hot wind stirring his limp black hair.
"JD!" Casey called again , fluttering panic rising in her throat. Get him in the shade, her mind screamed, and Casey ran to JD's side and gently but firmly grabbed him by the arms and turned him on his back.
"Oh my God." Casey moaned when she saw his face. His skin was reddened and blotched and terribly still; dried blood clung to his cracked, pale lips. She laid one trembling hand on his neck; she could feel his pulse, fast as a rabbit's, and then she noticed that his skin felt dry - he wasn't sweating anymore. Her heart leapt with fear, and then a sudden anger flared in her and she jumped to her feet and began to drag JD into the boulder's shade.
"God dammit, JD Dunne," Casey hissed through gritted teeth as she pulled, ignoring the protestations of her heat-weakened joints, "Don't you dare die on me."
The boulder wasn't far, and in a moment Casey had JD tucked underneath its protective bulk. But still he didn't wake up, didn't stir, and Casey yanked one of the towels from her saddlebag and, with the canteen of spring water, knelt by JD's side. She poured the cold water onto the towel and pressed it onto his forehead, then poured more water onto his burning face.
"Wake up," She commanded, blinking back hot tears of frustration, and pressed the cloth harder. His clothes, she thought suddenly, and furiously she grabbed his white shirt in both hands and yanked it open, sending the buttons ricocheting in all directions. In moments she had worked the shirt away from his limp arms, and still JD did not open his eyes.
Grunting at her helplessness, Casey noticed that under his shirt JD was wearing light cotton one-piece underdrawers which were plastered to his body with sweat. Casey poured more water on him, then stood up and without hesitation unbuttoned JD's trousers and pulled them off.
Aunt Nettie would kill me if she saw me doing this, Casey thought with grim humor, but didn't care. She knew she had to cool JD down, and getting his clothes off was the only way to do it.
His underdrawers were soaked through with sweat, almost transparent, and for one brief, intoxicating moment Casey stood there, panting and sweaty with exhaustion, and looked at his body. It was slender and muscular beneath the clinging fabric, and she felt a rush of heat that had nothing to do with the sun. Then Casey grabbed the canteen and poured the rest of the cooling water onto JD's body.
She heard a soft gasp, and saw JD's head move a bit. Quickly fetching the stalks of aloe from her saddle, Casey hurried to JD's side as he slowly, painfully opened his eyes.
"JD?" She said softly, cracking open one of the aloe stems and squeezing some of its pulp onto her fingers.
JD turned his head, winced in pain, tried to focus, and moved his cracked lips to say, Casey? But no sound came out, only a dry, rattling whisper.
"Shh." Casey smiled as she soothed the aloe onto JD's scorched face. JD let out a soft whimper and closed his eyes. "Just take it easy. You're gonna be all right."
JD moaned again as Casey continued to spread the healing aloe over his swollen eyelids, his parched lips, the angry vermilion on his cheeks. He mumbled something that Casey couldn't make out, and fell asleep again.
Biting her lip, Casey set the aloe down and fetched one of the water bags from her saddle, along with more towels. Carefully she tucked the towels around JD's form, then soaked them thoroughly with the spring water.
After she had done that, Casey sat down next to JD and gently lifted the cloth from his forehead. Tilting the water bag, she wet his hair, wincing at the deep redness of his scalp as she drenched it with the chilled water. JD sighed in his sleep, and impulsively Casey leaned forward and kissed his forehead.
"Damn it, JD Dunne," She murmured as her lips caressed his hair. "Don't you ever scare me like that again."
Casey sat up, then drenched the cloth with more water and began sponging his sunburnt face, tears of relief quietly slipping down her cheeks.
Vin guided his horse along the rocky plain, peering at the simmering landscape even though the effort made his eyes water from the brightness. He spotted something, reined in, and got down from his horse. Mopping his brow, he leaned down and peered into the bushes.
As he did so, he heard hoof beats and looked up to see Buck riding toward him.
"Find something?" Buck asked hopefully.
Vin nodded and studied his find, but when he turned back to Buck his expression was grim. "JD's been this way. Sun made him sick right here."
Buck's face dropped, and his eyes grew hot with impotent anger and distress. "Damn, Vin, where is he? JD!" He called out almost angrily, glancing around as his voice bounced around, echoed, faded. No reply.
Vin studied the broken branches of the low, scrubby trees around them and marked the trail they made. Nodding toward Buck he said simply, "This way."
Buck's eyes followed where Vin indicated, and without further prompting he spurred his horse ahead of Vin, calling JD's name and scanning the horizon, clinging stubbornly to his last shreds of hope.
JD swam lazily back toward consciousness, unsure if the wonderful, soothing coolness he was feeling meant that he was dead, and past all physical pain.
The sun wasn't torturing him anymore; he vaguely remembered passing out on the broiling desert floor, but now he was floating in a dark, soft world of quietness and peace, and JD settled into it, grateful that his blood wasn't pounding in his ears, and that the horrific nausea had settled into a simple queasiness.
Water, he thought, and realized that he was wet all over, something wet and cool was covering him, and his face and hands weren't burning anymore, He heard someone move next to him, felt a soft cool hand touching his cheek, spreading something there, and very slowly he opened his aching eyes and saw Casey bending over him, her face pink and glowing in the desert air, and at that moment JD decided she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Casey smiled at him, said softly, "Hey, JD. You want some water?"
Suddenly aware of his overwhelming thirst, JD tried to speak, but his tongue felt thick and strange, and his throat was raw and full of pain; so he simply nodded as vigorously as his weakened body would allow.
"Now don't gulp," Casey said as she hefted the canteen toward him, "And let me get you up so you don't choke yourself."
Water, JD thought again, and strained his head towards the canteen, but Casey pulled it away and said, "Ain't you listening to me? Let me get you propped up first."
Very gently she removed the cloth from JD's forehead and slid one arm beneath his neck, hefting him up a little. JD shot her a weary, impatient glance as she shifted the canteen toward his lips.
"Don't give me that look." She scolded as she tipped the canteen into his mouth. Water, glorious, beautiful water gushed into JD's mouth, and he gulped at the canteen eagerly.
"You don't pay me no mind at all, do you!" Casey said with a cross smile as she tilted the canteen back a bit. "You drink too fast and you're gonna be wearin' that water all over you. Just take it easy - "
JD kept drinking, mindful of Casey since the nausea he'd been struggling with was coming back, and he didn't want to prove her right by throwing up on her. He didn't notice that she had brought her head up, and was scanning the rocks around them intently.
She looked back down at him. "You hear that?"
JD shook his head, gasping as he felt the water coursing through him, seeping through his tissues and bones, refreshing him. His thirst gone, JD turned his attention to whatever Casey was listening for, and after a moment he heard it.
Voices, calling his name. Vin? And Buck.
Casey very carefully eased him back down, and replaced the cooling cloth to his forehead. "I'll be right here." She assured him, then stood up.
"JD!" Buck called out again, ignoring the hoarse ache that was growing in his throat. He was looking around almost wildly now, the sinking feeling he'd been having growing into a more ominous feeling that he didn't want to dwell upon unless he absolutely had to. "JD! Come on, buddy!"
"He's close," Vin said, but there was no reassurance in his tense words as he studied the scratchings of JD's shoes on the rocky desert floor. He didn't share his feelings with Buck, but Vin had been noticing the increasingly jagged, uneven path JD had taken, where he'd stumbled, fallen down, gotten up, stumbled again. He'd seen other trails like it, and was coming to the weary conclusion that if he'd been out in the desert this long, in this heat, JD was probably -
Buck's head shot up. "You hear somethin'?"
Both men looked toward a large boulder that was ahead of them. Someone was standing next to it and yelling...
Vin whipped out his spyglass, trained it on the figure.
"It's Casey Wells." He said in surprise, and before he could even put his spyglass away Buck had left his side and was galloping towards the boulder, and Vin followed him, scarcely daring to hope.
Buck urged his mount to the boulder as fast as he could, was dismounted before the horse had even come to a stop.
It was Casey Wells, and she was smiling at him, and Buck thought dang, even a sunburn looks good on her.
"I found JD." She said, and at the same time Buck looked beyond her and saw the slight figure lying beneath the protecting rock. He turned toward Casey for a moment, alarmed at how still JD was, how dark his face was burned, but she was smiling and saying, "I ain't no doctor, but I think he's gonna be all right."
Buck stepped quickly to JD's side and knelt down, overwhelming relief battling with anxiety as he saw the crimson face, the cracked lips, the reddened, scorched hands.
JD turned his head a little in Buck's direction and opened his eyes a bit, squinting at his friend woozily.
"Hey, Buck." JD whispered, his voice thin as paper. He tried to smile, winced, and gave up the effort.
"Well, hey there, kid." Buck said quietly, putting on his best reassuring grin. "You had an adventure today, I bet."
JD closed his eyes, and Buck was glad, because JD's eyes were swollen and red and pained, and it hurt Buck to look into them. Sighing deeply, Buck patted JD on the shoulder. "You get some rest, kid. We'll get you home safe."
He stood up and saw Vin standing at the edge of the boulder, his Winchester out, and the two men traded smiles of relief before Vin turned and shot his gun off once, then again, to alert the others.
"JD's horse came to my Aunt Nettie's." Casey explained as Buck looked at her." I been looking for him most of the afternoon."
"Damn." Buck breathed in admiration. Then he put both hands on Casey's shoulders, and she looked up at the gunslinger to see awestruck gratitiude in those brown eyes as he said softly, "Thank you."
Vin joined them, his eyes moving to JD anxiously as he asked, "How'd you find him?"
"I came up to this boulder," Casey explained as Vin crouched by JD's side. "Then I saw somethin' shining up here. I came closer and there he was."
Vin looked at JD in silence for a moment, then looked at Casey and repeated, "Somethin' shining?"
"Yeah. I never even looked to find out what it was." Casey turned her head as Chris, Nathan, and Josiah approached. Vin gave them a quick smile and exited the boulder's shelter.
"Is he all right?" Chris asked as he came beneath the boulder's shade. He gave JD a searching, concerned look.
Buck nodded, sighing hugely and mopping his forehead with his bandanna.
"Thank the Lord." Josiah said, moving to JD's side. Nathan moved quickly to the other side, feeling JD's pulse, then his forehead. "He wake up at all?"
"Uh-huh." Casey answered. "A few times. I gave him some water too."
Nathan nodded approvingly, then stood and looked at the bundled towels, the aloe that glistened on JD's face and hands, then the discarded clothes. Giving Casey a huge grin, he asked, "You did all this, miss?"
"Yeah." Casey said, a little defensively, then added sheepishly, "Did I do it right?"
Nathan gave her a gentle smile, laid a hand on her shoulder and looked her straight in the eye. "Miss Casey, you probably saved JD's life. I reckon all of us owe you a big thank you for that."
Casey smiled at him then, a big glittering smile, and looked down shyly.
"Well, look who's decided to rejoin the land of the living." Josiah said from the ground, and all eyes turned to see that JD had opened his eyes again, and was scanning them all curiously.
Casey hurried to his side, poured some fresh water onto a cloth and dabbed his forehead.
"How you feeling, son?" Chris asked lightly as he stepped to JD's side and bent down.
Buck laughed, a huge, happy laugh that was all Buck. "Shit, Chris, he's bein' tended to by a beautiful woman! How do you think he feels?"
Casey blushed, JD grinned a little, and everyone else chuckled, exhausted and hot and enormously grateful the ordeal was over.
Buck noticed Vin was absent and cast his eyes about for the buffalo hunter. He spotted him, a short distance away, kneeling in the dirt, and curiosity forced him to break from the group and go investigate.
"Vin?" He asked as he drew nearer.
Vin stood up and pointed at the ground. "The shinin' thing Miss Wells saw."
Buck looked down. There in the dirt sat JD's sheriff's star, half-buried in the rocky soil.
"Huh." Buck said as Josiah walked up behind them. He picked it up and studied it. "How do you suppose that got there?"
"Don't know." Vin replied with a small shrug. "But if it weren't there she probably wouldn't have come up here. And JD would be dead."
Buck shook his head, shuddering at the thought of how things might have turned out, then looked at Josiah.
The preacher gave him a gentle smile and patted his shoulder.
"You asked for a miracle." He said, and Buck smiled back at him as the three men turned and rejoined the party.
Nettie took another drink of spring water, set the glass down and continued sweeping her porch in the late afternoon sunlight. It was cooling down now, by inches, and she looked at the winding road that led out of her ranch with increasing worry. She knew she could hardly have stopped her niece from taking off, but she still felt a pang of anxiety that maybe now she was lost in the desert too.
Nettie was just about to set her broom aside and go put on her riding clothes when she heard hoof beats coming up the road. Looking up, she was surprised to see it was Vin Tanner.
"Miz Wells." Vin said cordially, dismounting and tipping his sweat-stained hat.
"Mr. Tanner." Nettie replied, setting aside her broom and approaching the front of the porch. "You haven't seen my niece by any chance?"
"In fact, we have." Vin said in respectful tones, walking up the porch steps. "And I'll tell you right now ma'am, she is one amazing young woman."
"Runs in the family." Nettie replied with a sly smile. "Did you find Mr. Dunne?"
"Your niece did, yes ma'am," Vin smiled his relief and took off his hat in the porch's shade, running one large hand through his damp curls. "She knew just what to do, too. Reckon I ought to thank you for that."
"Oh, don't thank me." Nettie said as she backed toward the door. "Her pa was the one taught her how to get on out here. Come on inside, I'll get you some water."
"Well, all the same," Vin allowed as he followed Nettie into the house. "Nathan says she saved JD's life. He was just about dead when she found him."
"And how is he doing now?" Nettie asked as she moved into the little house's kitchen area and picked a glass out of the cupboard.
Vin tilted his head. "He's burnt pretty bad, and wore out. Nathan sent me over here to ask to borrow your wagon so's JD don't have to ride."
"Well, you're welcome to it, son," Nettie said amiably as she poured Vin a glass of water. "I'm glad you found Mr. Dunne in time."
Vin accepted the proffered glass gratefully. "Thank you, ma'am. So are we. Like I said, if it hadn't been for your niece, we might not have found him at all."
"Well, she was determined." Nettie said succinctly, looking out the window as she spoke. "She's got her cap set for that young man, and she wasn't about to let a little thing like a hundred and twenty degree heat get in her way."
Vin took a long drink,wiped his lips. "Reckon we'll be dancin' at their weddin'."
Nettie smiled and looked at Vin meaningfully. "Don't you think we won't."
Vin eyed her as he took another drink.
Nettie folded her arms and looked out the window again. "I know my niece very well, Mr. Tanner. She may be young but she knows her own mind. She'll be marryin' age soon, and I think she's already made her choice."
Vin laughed softly. "Think she'll give JD a say in the matter?"
"Don't you think he's made his choice too?" Nettie asked in surprise. "Don't you think if she'd been the one stuck out there, that he'd have risked life and limb to make sure she was safe, even if it killed him?"
Vin pursed his lips thoughtfully.
Nettie cast certain eyes on the glowing light outside, and nodded her head confidently, "I been around enough to know when two people fit, and Mr. Dunne and Casey fit. He's got a head full of dreams and a heart as big as all outdoors, but there's a lot he don't know about getting along in the world."
"And Miss Wells?" Vin asked, and drained the last drop of water from the glass.
Nettie looked at her guest and smiled. "My niece is sharp as a tack, Mr. Tanner, and fierce as a mountain lion. But her life ain't been an easy one. She needs those dreams your Mr. Dunne lives in. She wants that reassurance that life don't need to be so real all the time."
Vin nodded again, thinking.
"So don't be surprised if you never see Mr. Dunne turn his eyes to another pretty face as long as Casey's there for him," Nettie concluded as she watched the afternoon landscape with a knowing smile. "And don't think we won't be dancin' at their wedding, 'cause we will be. I know it."
The bright, harsh daylight was softening into mellow tones by the time Nettie's wagon rolled into the outskirts of Four Corners, along with six tired, sunburnt escorts. JD had recovered enough to protest having to come back into town lying in the back of a wagon, but it a weak protest, and Nathan's insistence was much stronger than JD's pride at that point. And Nathan had proven right; As Chris trotted next to the wagon he noticed that JD had fallen asleep again, his head comfortably pillowed in Casey Well's lap.
The girl looked sunburnt too, and exhausted, but had insisted on coming along, unwilling to leave JD's side for a moment until he was back in his own room and out of any trace of danger. Chris watched Casey as she sat in the back of the wagon, stroking JD's hair and gazing at his racked, crimson face with unselfconscious affection. He thought of Sarah suddenly, and how she used to look at him, the same liquid, adoring gaze, and his insides lurched suddenly. Chris looked away from wagon and winced.
The wagon rolled to a stop in front of the church, and the men dismounted and tethered their mounts. As Nathan and Vin moved to the back of the wagon, the door of the jail opened and Ezra came out, his usually guarded expression replaced by one of open concern. Approaching the wagon quickly, Ezra asked, "You recovered Mr. Dunne?"
Nathan nodded, noting Ezra's nakedly horrified look when he saw JD's condition.
"Don't worry," Nathan assured him as Buck maneuvered his way around the gambler to the back of the wagon. "He's a little toasted, but he's gonna be fine."
"Thanks to Miss Wells." Buck added firmly, and gave the girl a broad smile, which she returned.
Ezra carefully arranged his face into more placid lines and said, "My, my. It seems we are in your debt then, ma'am. Please accept my fondest expression of gratitude." And he reached into the wagon, took Casey's hand, and kissed it.
She smiled at him, but shot Chris a confused look.
"He said thanks." Chris explained flatly.
Casey nodded in understanding, then looked down and gave JD a gentle shake. "JD? Wake up, we're home." JD stirred and pulled his eyes open, looked around in sleepy bewilderment for a moment. Then he said, "Oh," and struggled into a sitting position, with Casey's assistance.
"Take it slow now." Nathan advised, leaning into the wagon, and with Vin on the other side they each took one of JD's arms and helped him out of the wagon.
"I'm fine." JD said petulantly as his feet hit the ground, and teetered just a little bit, brushing wayward strands of black hair out of his eyes as he glanced about in embarrassment. He peered at the church and muttered, "I thought we were going to my room."
But Nathan was shaking his head as Josiah went to the cellar doors and opened them. "You been in the sun all day, last thing you need is a hot, stuffy room. You'll stay down here tonight, where it's nice and cool and you can get your strength back."
JD didn't seem to have the stamina to argue, and so didn't say anything else as Nathan and Vin herded him away from the wagon.
Casey scooted to the front of the wagon, accepting Buck's proffered hand down. Chris peered at the jail and asked, "Any trouble from Rio?"
Ezra glanced over his shoulder and snorted. "No, and I must say that as the perpetrator of this gross offense to Mr. Dunne's person, Mr. Cortez is fortunate to be in the jail. I've had five people come by to say that if Mr. Dunne did not return in a living state they would be happy to murder Mr. Cortez in a variety of gruesome ways. For a provincial town these people have very lively imaginations."
Chris grunted, then glanced at Buck, who had just finished helping Casey off the back of the wagon. Buck's face, a moment ago all gallant chivalry, had gone dark and menacing as his brown eyes glared at the jail, and letting go of Casey's hand the gunslinger pushed past Ezra, muttering, "Excuse me a minute," and stalked off toward the jail.
Ezra paused, then followed his friend. Chris was about to follow too, just to make sure Buck didn't get too much blood on the jailhouse walls, when he felt a small hand grip his arm. Turning, he saw it was Casey Wells, and her eyes were full of suspicious curiosity and mounting fury as she asked, "What's perpetrator mean?"
Rio was lounging in the back of his cell, giving his riding partners the dirtiest looks he could manage, when all of a sudden the jail door burst open and Buck strode in, Ezra hard on his heels.
Rio grinned insolently at him and stood, noting with satisfaction the bright burn marks on Buck's cheeks. "So, ja find the little runt?"
Buck gave Rio a hard grin as he plucked the keyring from its nail and selected the proper key. "Oh yeah."
"Was he dead?" Rio asked in hopeful tones.
Ignoring the question, Buck jammed the key in the lock and twisted it, then threw open the door of the cell and stood there for a second, fastening a white-hot glare on the outlaw. Then Buck pulled his right arm back and cracked Rio across the jaw as hard as he could.
Rio grunted and staggered against the back of his cell.
Buck backed out of the cell and gave a satisfied sigh. "I feel much better." He said, although his expression was still smoldering.
Ezra sighed and reached for the keys, which were still in the lock, but before he could remove them the jailhouse door slammed opened again and all heads turned to see Casey Wells standing in the doorway, her youthful face blazing with absolute rage.
"What the hell - " Rio spat around his bleeding lip, but before he got another word out Casey strode into his cell and balling up her left fist slugged him forcefully across the other side of his jaw. Rio fell back onto his cot and stayed there, stunned.
"If you ever touch JD again," Casey seethed as she loomed over him, "I'll kill you!"
Shocked, Rio just lay there and stared at her, and without another word Casey turned around and left the jail, shaking her left hand covertly as she walked out the door.
Buck blinked, then quietly stepped back and gave Ezra a bewildered look as the gambler closed the cell door and locked it.
"Damn." Buck breathed in admiration. "Ezra, be so good as to remind me never to tick that little girl off. Her left hook is better than mine."
Ezra smiled a little and nodded as he returned the keychain to its hook.
At last, the sun was going down.
Chris blew out a thin line of smoke and dropped his cheroot butt into the dirt, crushing it with his heel. He continued to lean against the post in front of the saloon, watching the town stir to drowsy life in the golden rays of the setting sun. His stinging cheeks reminded him that he needed some of Nathan's aloe vera. Or a stiff drink.
The wind blew then, a soft gentle breeze, and Chris noticed there was a cooling tinge to it, a bracing edge that signaled an end to the searing heat of the previous days. The hot spell was over.
He heard the saloon doors whap in unison behind him, and a moment later Vin appeared, ruffling his hair tiredly.
"It's cooling off," Vin explained in his usual quiet rasp, "Time to get the wagon back to Nettie's. Miss Wells too."
Chris nodded, cast an eye toward the church, where JD and Casey were lounging on the shaded church steps and talking in the violet-colored twilight. Despite his earlier exhaustion, after sleeping most of the afternoon JD had felt too restless to stay in the cellar, so Nathan had granted him a few minutes in the open night air. Even at that distance Chris could still see the rouge color of JD's face, the crimson mottling on his hands, and he thought about what they might have found in that merciless desert sun if Nettie's niece hadn't come along. He leaned away from the pillar and stretched. "Give 'em a few more minutes. I need a drink."
Vin smiled tightly and together the two men went back into the bar.
JD leaned back against the church steps, relishing the quiet twilight air, and felt the bone-deep weariness in him begin to seep away into the cool night. Nathan and Buck had gone to his room to get a few of his things - JD wanted to go himself, he hated that he still felt so dragged-out tired; but Nathan had made a joke about his room being up a flight of stairs, and not wanting to set a broken arm in addition to treating his sunburn, and well, JD couldn't argue. But he didn't mind, not really, because it bought him a few moments alone with Casey.
Casey - JD stole a glance at her as she sat beside him on the steps, the soft colors of the setting sun glowing in her face, the gentle breezes lifting her long brown curls away from her face as she stared absently into the distance. She saved my life, JD thought, and didn't quite understand it. He felt awkward, looked down at his shoes, didn't know what to say to her.
He felt her soft touch on his arm, looked up to see her gazing at him. "You gettin' tired, JD?" She asked, in a tone that would have irritated him if Buck had said it. But somehow, from Casey it was fine.
"No," He answered, shaking his head, bothered by the hair that kept falling into his eyes. Brushing at the strands nervously, he kept his eyes down and continued, "No, I'm okay, it's just..." He paused, sighed in frustration, finally looked at her, bewilderment in his hazel eyes. "You didn't have to come after me, Case. You could have gone down with the heat too, and your aunt would have killed me."
Casey's eyes flickered with good-humored anger. "Well, that's some thanks I get! You think I could have just sat at home, knowin' you mighta needed help? You ain't never lived out here before - "
"I know, I'm an greenhorn idiot, and everybody has to take care of me." JD hunkered down onto the steps in self-pity. "You might as well say it. Chris wouldn't have gotten lost in the desert. Or Vin."
Casey just looked at him quizzically.
JD noticed her look and shrugged in self-recrimination. "Well, it's true! Even Ezra has more sense than I do. I got stuck out there, and everybody had to come get me. I'm sorry, I just feel really stupid. I do, I feel like I'm just...stupid."
Casey gave JD a hot glare, then leaned in close and clutched his arm. "JD."
JD sighed mopily. "What?"
"Kiss me quick."
A little surprised, JD turned toward her and Casey leaned all the way in, planting a soft, lingering kiss on his healing lips. She drew back and stared him in the eyes.
"You ever talk like that again," She said in stern tones, "And I ain't never gonna kiss you again as long as you live."
JD blinked at her, unable to think at all when her eyes, her hair were so close. He nodded numbly, and she smiled.
"You're one in a million, Case." JD said softly as he gazed at her.
"And you," Casey replied as she leaned in again, until their foreheads were touching, "Are gonna be peeling for a week."
JD laughed then, touched his burning face gingerly, and winced.
At that moment Buck and Nathan returned, carrying some books and sheets from JD's room.
"I think we got everything," Buck said hopefully as JD and Casey rose from the steps. "But I'm telling you right now, kid, Nathan's got the right idea. Your place is hot as a damn oven."
JD grinned at his friend. "Why do you stay out west anyway, Buck? You hate the heat."
"Got to stay out here," Buck shrugged as he followed Nathan to the cellar. "Courted all the girls back East already."
JD and Casey looked at each other and smiled. As Casey helped JD down the church steps she looked up to see Vin and Chris wandering over from the saloon.
"Miss Wells," Vin said politely as he tipped his hat. "Reckon it's about time I took you back to your aunt's. She'll skin me if I don't see you get home proper."
Casey looked obviously disappointed, but nodded sadly.
Vin said, "I'll fetch the wagon." And walked away.
Ezra walked by, calmly ruffling his deck of cards and giving the assembled group a casual smile said, "Ah, Mr. Dunne, I'm glad to see you've seen fit to grace us with your presence a while longer."
JD smiled shyly. "Thanks, Ezra."
Ezra's smile grew slightly wider and his keen eyes scanned the faces about him. "Now that this crisis is behind us, might I interest anyone in a game of chance tonight?"
Chris and Vin looked at each other and stifled bemused grins. Nathan and Buck returned from the cellar, the former giving Ezra - and his coat - a dark look.
"You must really like sweatin'." Nathan said sarcastically.
"No sir," Ezra replied genially as the cards danced in his hands. "But if I remove my attire I shall perspire nevertheless, and also ruin my reputation. If any of you wish to join me, I shall be at my usual table." Tipping his hat to Casey, Ezra turned and strode over to the saloon.
"He sure talks funny." Casey commented with a confused look. She peered at JD, as if hoping for an explanation, but JD just shrugged and looked away.
Vin appeared from the direction of the livery, driving Nettie's wagon. He pulled it up beside the church and stopped.
"Miss Wells?" Buck said gallantly, offering Casey his hand.
Casey flashed him a quick smile, then turned to JD and planted a quick kiss into his hair. "I'll come back tomorrow night."
"'Kay." JD said with a tired smile.
Buck led Casey to the passenger side of the wagon, and was just about to help her up when Chris moved next to them and said, "Hold up there a minute, Buck."
Buck paused, and Casey turned to Chris in puzzlement. Chris was suddenly aware of how tiny she was next to him, but looked into her eyes and thought, maybe she is, but don't be fooled. This woman knows what she wants to fight for.
Smiling as gently as he could, Chris took Casey's small hand from Buck's and said in low tones, "Just wanted you to know, Miss Wells, that we're mighty grateful for what you did. You are one heck of a young lady."
Casey smiled at him, a dazzling smile. and squeezed Chris' hand for a moment before letting go and climbing into the wagon with Buck's assistance. Chris stepped back and ducked his head, remembering another's smile and eyes, and quietly walked away.
As Vin made sure Casey was settled in, Nathan moved next to JD and eyed him cautiously as the youth blinked his eyes and wobbled a bit.
"I think it's time we got you downstairs." Nathan said in a voice that didn't want to argue. JD nodded limply, but paused and waved to Casey as the wagon began to pull away. Casey had turned in the seat and waved back, her parting smile warming the parts of JD that hurt, and helping them.
Buck waved too, then as the wagon grew smaller turned to JD and said, "Come on, you heard the man. Don't dawdle, now."
"All right." JD said with a touch of weary irritation. Together, Buck, JD, and Nathan watched the wagon rumble out of town, and JD suddenly said, "Buck?"
"Yeah?" Buck answered.
"Wasn't there something you wanted to talk to me about? About Casey?"
Buck looked puzzled, scratched his moustache in thought.
Nathan grinned. "I think it mighta had to do with freedom?" He said helpfully.
"Oh!" Buck exclaimed, remembering. He looked at JD's sunburned face, his blistered hands, then at the dwindling wagon in which Casey was still turned and waving with a smile that Buck knew was for one man alone, and always would be.
"Well?" JD said impatiently as he returned the wave.
Buck traded glances with Nathan, then frowned and shook his head decisively. "Never mind, kid. Just forget I brought it up."