Note: Contains sexual situation
It began so innocently. Ezra was sitting outside of the jail, it was far too hot to sit indoors, and Casey Wells asked him if he knew where JD had gotten off to. After he told her that he thought her young beau had gone off with Buck to pick up a prisoner, she sat down next to him and struck up a conversation.
"You've been around a lot of really smart women, haven't you?" Casey asked.
"Well ... yes, in my travels ... I have had the opportunity to socialize with some of the better educated women ..." Ezra replied.
"Do you think that's what JD wants to see in me?"
Astonished and not wanting to get drawn into a possible lover's spat, Ezra hedged, "I'm sure that JD only wants the best for you."
Casey cocked her head and looked at him for a moment before she nodded. "Thanks, Ezra," she chirped happily. "See ya around."
Their next encounter happened almost a month later, while JD, Buck, Josiah, Chris and Vin were out delivering a rowdy gang of miscreants to Lyle's Crossing to stand trial. Ezra remained behind to keep an eye on the town and Nathan stayed in case someone needed doctoring. It was a good week's ride to get there and Travis asked them to stay and keep an eye on things until the trial was over.
Ezra was walking along the boardwalk when Miss Wells approached him.
"Hey, Ezra, could I talk to you about something?"
Ezra noticed that she seemed almost nervous, shifting her weight from foot to foot and looking around uneasily. Nodding, Ezra reached for her elbow and steered her to a bench in front of the seamstress' shop.
"I was just wondering. I heard tell how you was giving them ladies from Wickes town lessons on how to catch a husband," Casey said, rolling the brim of her leather hat between her fingers.
A warm, rosy blush colored Ezra's cheeks as he remembered the whole 'mail order bride' fiasco, the hideous purple dress and the ribbing he had taken from his compatriots that had only recently faded into the realm of bad memories.
"I did engage in 'charm school' lessons with those ladies in the hope of finding them suitable homes in the territory," he replied.
Casey's brown eyes locked on his and Ezra was stricken at how lost and vulnerable she looked. She continued to nervously work the sturdy leather between her fingers until he reached out and lifted it gently from her hands. She looked down, studying her hands as they lay on her lap.
"Would you be willing to ... uh ... teach me?"
Ezra exhaled slowly and shifted nervously, looking around at the people moving along the boardwalk near them. He desperately hoped that someone would catch his eye, to help him out of the suddenly awkward situation. Seeing no one he could call out to, he turned his attention back to Casey.
"You want m-me to teach you?" he asked.
"Oh yeah," Casey said with a big smile, "I'd like it a whole lot."
Thinking that he could spend a couple of hours with her and be done with it, Ezra agreed to meet her in the church that afternoon.
"Thanks, Ezra!" Casey said as she leapt up and took off for the Potter's store at a jog.
The awkwardness amplified when it was just the two of them all alone in the church. He had chosen the small, dilapidated building because it offered a hint of propriety to their rendezvous. Ezra knew that Casey was very sensitive about things and he didn't want to upset or offend her. He remembered how she had been after Buck got involved in trying to fix her up with JD.
"First of all, I think you would be more attractive to our young sheriff if you were to change your style of dress. It might help," Ezra said, trying not to cringe at her expected outburst. He remembered the fiasco that had occurred when Buck got her to wear a dress.
"Okay, so I gotta wear a dress, what else?" Casey asked.
The first lesson turned into Casey making a list of things she needed to prepare for before the next lesson. Ezra agreed to meet with her the next afternoon. He decided that if she was going to make the effort, he would give her the benefit of his knowledge and experience. To that end, he borrowed a large mirror from the seamstress for Casey's next lesson.
Making use of Josiah's personal quarters as a changing room, Casey put on the dress she had brought. Ezra stared, open mouthed, when she stepped out of the small room.
"What? Where did you get that dress?" he spluttered. It was the kind of dress that no self respecting young woman would be seen wearing, scandalously low cut with cap sleeves that showed off her very pale arms.
"What's wrong with it?" Casey asked.
Ezra brought his hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose as he tried to figure out how to phrase what he was about to say as delicately as possible. A brutal vision of what her venerable aunt would do to him if she thought he put Casey up to dressing like that eliminated any delicacy from his words.
"That is the style of clothing worn by saloon girls and women of loose virtue," he said.
Casey looked down at the dress and back at Ezra, shocked.
"If you will allow me, I will return with something much more appropriate." Ezra spun on his heel and hurried toward the seamstress' shop. He was back in a few minutes with several dresses draped across his arm.
Casey selected one of the dresses and returned to Josiah's quarters to change. When she reappeared, she was wearing a much more appropriate garment. The high collar accentuated her face and the shirtwaist emphasized her hourglass figure, giving her a decidedly more feminine appearance.
"Much better," Ezra complimented. "Now, if you would do me the favor of sitting here, I have one more change to suggest." He motioned for her to sit on the chair near the mirror and took up the brush he had brought with him. "While your braids are imminently practical for ranching, they are not the right style for this dress," he explained as he slipped the leather ties from the ends of her braids and began to drag his fingers through the light brown tresses.
Casey's breath caught in her chest when Ezra took the brush and began to draw it through her hair. His fingers touched her shoulders as he arranged the long, wavy locks around her face. She looked in the mirror, not at her reflection, but at the look on Ezra's face as he worked. Her view was obscured when he brushed her hair forward so he could straighten her part and she closed her eyes. When she opened them, she was looking right up at him ... and he was smiling.
Over the next few days, Ezra met with Casey every afternoon. He found himself looking forward to the lessons as he enjoyed seeing the changes in the young tomboy as she turned into a lovely example of womanhood before his very eyes. She had taken his advice about everything, even to wearing gloves to protect her hands when she worked or rode her horse. He had treated her to a manicure, to show her how a proper lady's hands should look. For her next lesson, he had brought out his most precious possession, his phonograph player. He had only a couple of records for it but they were waltzes, appropriate for teaching her to dance.
Excited about her lesson, Casey leapt off of her horse and ran for the church. The sky was filled with dark clouds that threatened rain. She remembered at the last second to slow down and carefully measured her step. It wouldn't be right for her to start her lesson with an admonishment for unladylike behavior. She knocked on the door and waited for him to open it, another of her lessons.
"Mr. Standish, how pleasant to see you this afternoon," she greeted when the door swung back. She extended her hand to him and he led her inside. Her eyes swept over the large, open space where the pews normally sat and turned to him with a questioning gaze.
"I thought perhaps you might like to learn to dance. It is the most appropriate way for a young couple to ... get close to one another," he explained.
Casey was shaking as she sat on the pew, waiting for Ezra to invite her to dance. He started the record and slowly crossed to stand before her. He bowed and she couldn't prevent herself from giggling.
"May I have this dance?" Ezra asked, as he offered her his hand.
"I'd be delighted," Casey replied, looking down quickly as her stomach fluttered.
They moved awkwardly around the floor, as Ezra gently corrected Casey's steps. She had the tendency to try to lead and he had to get her to allow him to instead. He restarted the record for the third time and Casey was beginning to relax when it happened.
A flash of lightning and a loud clap of thunder startled the dancers. By reflex, Ezra drew Casey to his chest when she cried out in alarm. Another flash and ominous roll of thunder sounded just before the building and the town were deluged with cold, fat raindrops. Ezra felt himself relax and he realized that Casey was clinging to him. Before he could bring himself to pull away, he also came to recognize that it felt rather pleasant to hold her.
When Casey felt the tension leave Ezra's body, she knew that she was safe. She also knew that she liked the feel of being held in his arms. Instead of pulling away, she let her cheek rest against his chest and inhaled deeply. Ezra smelled different from most of the other men she knew. His clothes smelled clean and, as she raised her chin slightly, she realized that he wore some kind of cologne.
Intending to comfort the girl, Ezra lowered his head, brushing his cheek against her forehead. His hand came up automatically to cradle the back of her neck. She chose that instant to turn her face upward and their lips brushed against each other.
She had been kissed before, but not on the lips, and not by a man who wasn't related to her. Casey was surprised at the tingle in her stomach at the gentle touch.
He knew that it was wrong but it had been so long since he had been with a woman, since Li Pong had shyly admitted that she did not feel 'obliged' to him. Ezra allowed Casey the opportunity to turn away before he slowly increased the pressure of his lips on hers. When he teased her upper lip with his tongue, she opened her mouth, allowing him to taste her.
It was an unusual sensation, the feel of Ezra's tongue touching hers, but one she was content to explore. When his tongue started to retreat, she pursued it with her tongue, whimpering slightly in protest of his withdrawal.
Reality shifted and Ezra remembered that he was kissing another man's paramour. He tried to pull away but Casey clung, whimpering in protest as her hands tightened on his shoulders. As much as he would have liked to continue, Ezra knew he had to stop before he got carried away. Hurt blazed from the brown eyes that looked up at him when he opened his eyes.
"Did I do it wrong?" Casey asked softly.
"Casey ... I ... this isn't right," Ezra said as he firmly put her away from him. "JD is my friend."
Without thinking about it, Casey launched herself at Ezra and clung to him. She blindly groped until her hand found the back of his head and she pulled him down to kiss again. He resisted, but only for a few moments. She felt his arms tighten around her before his hand came up to support her head again. For several minutes, they kissed. Casey liked the tingle that had spread to her breasts and between her legs. She shifted one hand, mapping the muscular back to his waist.
Good sense fled in the face of lustful desire. Ezra unwound one arm from around Casey to grope for the door to the small room at the rear of the church. Casey moved willingly, her hip rubbing against his groin and heightening his arousal. The rain drowned out the noises from outside, shutting out all thought of anything else.
Casey felt an instant of hesitation along with the slight pain of his entry. She knew that this was something that she was supposed to wait to do until her wedding night but she didn't care. Ezra's lips and his hands were like a drug, she couldn't get enough of him. She wrapped her legs around his waist, curling her hips to meet his thrusts.
Some sense of self preservation caused Ezra to pull out before he came, spending his seed on her belly as he found her mouth again. He felt a mild stinging sensation on his arms and realized that Casey had scratched him. Horror washed over him at what he had done and he pushed off of her, nearly falling out of the bed in his haste to get away.
Startled, Casey opened her eyes and sat up. "Ezra?" she asked.
With shaking hands, Ezra poured water from the pitcher into the basin and tossed in Josiah's washcloth. He hastily cleaned himself up, noting with dismay that there was blood mixed with the fluids on his groin. He rinsed the cloth and turned to Casey.
Following the direction of his gaze, Casey was terrified to see blood on her thighs and smeared on her stomach. She looked at Ezra as he extended the cloth and began to clean her up.
"Ezra?" she repeated.
"It's perfectly normal for this to happen your first time," he explained.
Realization washed over her and Casey snatched the cloth from his hand. Ezra hurriedly gathered up his clothes and pulled them on. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Casey pulled on her 'regular' clothes and braided her hair. Somehow, seeing her like that drove home for him just how young she really was and he began to consider leaving town. Hard on that thought came the realization that he would be hated and condemned for his actions, especially if Miss Wells found herself in a family way. That thought was like a dip in an icy lake for him.
"Casey," he began.
"I don't want to talk about it," she said as she stuffed her things into a saddlebag.
"But we have to discuss the possibility-"
"I don't want to talk about it!" she yelled, her eyes flashing with anger.
The brief deluge ended, leaving the street filled with puddles of red-brown water and turning the hard-packed dirt into a sticky mess. Ezra watched Casey mount her horse and gallop away, feeling something like a cold brick settling in his stomach. He knew he couldn't leave until the others came back, he owed the town that much at least. Gathering his belongings in the church, Ezra returned to his room and began to lay out the things that he would take with him. Everything else would be left behind, as usual.
It was two days before Casey returned to town and sought him out. Ezra was relieved that she hadn't brought her aunt with her. He escorted her to the church, where they sat on the steps to talk.
"I wanted to ask you if you'd keep what happened to yourself," Casey whispered.
"You would be within your rights to demand that I do the proper thing and marry you," Ezra replied in the same whispered tone.
"Marry you!" Casey squeaked. "I'm not ready to get married! 'Sides, I'm not old enough. Aunt Nettie says I can't get married until next year."
"You discussed it with her?" Ezra asked.
"Not about you and me, about me and JD, but it's the same difference. She won't let me get married until I'm eighteen."
"How will you explain your lack of ...?" Ezra paused, trying to come up with an appropriate word for the situation.
"Oh, Nettie says that riding astride causes lots of women not to bleed on their wedding night. She was telling me about a friend of hers whose husband tried to divorce her because she wasn't a virgin and Doc Robbins over in Eagle Bend set him straight."
Relief washed over Ezra, then he felt ashamed of being relieved.
"It was my fault anyway, I should have let go when you tried to pull away," Casey added.
"I should have been gentleman enough to stop," Ezra countered.
"Okay, we agree that it was equally our fault. I don't think we should have any more 'lessons' together."
Ezra agreed wholeheartedly. They remained there for a while longer, discussing the coming planting season and Nettie's plans for her spread, before Casey stood and got ready to head home. Ezra walked her to the hitching post and placed a chaste kiss on her hand before he helped her mount.
It was a quiet few days before the others returned around midday. Ezra found that he missed the afternoon 'lessons' with Casey. He was glad to see Chris and the others getting back from their trip. He bought them a round in the saloon as an excuse to hear about the trial. Buck and JD eagerly filled him in on everything over lunch, interrupting each other with additions and corrections until they had finished. JD excused himself from the table and headed for the doors.
"Where are you going? We just got in!" Buck protested.
"I'm gonna ride out and see Casey, tell her about the trial and all," JD replied before he left.
"I think he missed her," Vin drawled softly.
"It ain't like he's got a lot to choose from," Buck said. "Now, me, on the other hand, I had lots of ladies to miss and I think I'm gonna go start making up for lost time," he said, grinning like a loon before heading for one of the saloon girls. She squealed when he pinched her bottom, then burst out laughing as he tossed her over his shoulder and carried her up the steps.
"He certainly didn't waste any time," Josiah said.
"It's his 'animal magnetism' or something," Chris pronounced before tossing back his drink and exhaling deeply at the burn the alcohol caused.
Ezra related the boredom of his days, there hadn't even been any decent winnings at the poker table while they were gone. He carefully left out his 'lessons' with Casey. Nathan added about the few people he had treated. After a couple more drinks, they left the saloon for various places; Chris tossed his bags into his room and headed for the bath house, Josiah headed for the church and Vin dropped his things at his wagon before heading for the restaurant to see if the pie he smelled was done and if he could have a piece.
Looking out of his window to the street below, Ezra's heart felt heavy. He was leaving the one place where he had finally started to put down roots. The sheer volume of stuff he was going to leave behind was a show of how comfortable he had let himself become, how complacent. No wonder his mother was disappointed in him, he was disappointed in himself. He had let his guard down, let his baser instincts drive him into a shameful act with a friend's paramour, and now he had to go. Sadly, he changed out of his brightly colored jacket and into the tan coat he wore when traveling and not wanting to draw attention to himself.
It was dark and quiet in the livery when he slipped into Chaucer's stall. He hung his saddlebags over the side of the stall and started to brush the horse in preparation for saddling him. Ezra was so lost in thought that he didn't hear the two men approaching until a gun clicked and he felt the cold steel barrel pressed against his back.
"Well, well, long time no see, eh Jack? How long has it been since we saw Mr. Small? Two years, three? Long enough for him to have made himself quite at home in this quaint little town," a man's voice taunted. "I'm gonna ask you to turn around, nice and easy, so we can talk to each other like gentlemen. And if you go trying anything stupid, your little girlfriend is gonna be really, really sorry."
Turning quickly, Ezra's eyes widened in horror, "My g-girlfriend?"
"You know, the mousy little minx you were entertaining at the church all of last week," another voice supplied. The man stepped from the shadows and dropped Casey's well-worn hat in the straw at Ezra's feet. "She fought like a little hellcat when we caught up with her, she must be wild in bed," the man said with a leering grin that revealed tobacco stained teeth.
"Don't harm her, she's just a child!" Ezra protested.
"Always figgered you for an odd bird, all your fancy clothes and manners. Little girls all you can get around here?" the first man taunted.
"What do you want from me?" Ezra asked, hoping desperately that none of his compatriots came into the livery and started shooting. He recognized the men from a con he had run near Hannibal, Missouri a few years ago, a con that had gone bad.
Jack and Lester Pardee were a pair of grifters that Ezra encountered while he was waiting to meet up with his mother. There was a high-stakes poker game that was just ripe for the picking. Ezra caught the brothers planning how they were going to use signals to cheat. Since Ezra already had his sights set on the large pot, he decided to turn them in. But he wanted to wait until they had eliminated some of the competition, so it wasn't until the second day that he caught one of the men monitoring the gaming tables to share his suspicions. Sure enough, they caught the men cheating and ejected them from the room. As the brothers were being escorted away from the table, someone made a comment that let them know who had gotten them busted.
Ezra won but it was touch and go for a while because he was being closely watched. His victory was short-lived, as he was mugged on his way back to his hotel room and his money stolen. He had awakened in a small, private room in the home of the town doctor.
"We want you to help us rob the bank," Lester said.
At gunpoint, Ezra left the livery and accompanied the brothers to their room at the hotel. Once there, he was divested of his weapons, including the derringer in his sleeve. They then tied the gambler to a chair so that he didn't do anything to raise the alarm.
Casey awakened feeling decidedly sick to her stomach. She rolled over, opening her eyes to absolute darkness. Terror gripped her and she extended her arm until she touched the cold, slightly sticky stone wall.
"Is anybody there? Can you hear me?" she called out, wincing as the volume of her own voice caused her head to throb. "Somebody! Anybody!?!" she yelled. "Help me!"
She had been on her way into town when the two men rode out of the woods and blocked her way. When she turned back, there were three men behind her with their guns drawn.
"Settle down, little missy, and you'll be just fine," one of the men warned as he nudged his mount closer to hers.
Casey let the man think that she was going to go along with him until he reached for the reins of her horse, then she lashed out with her foot, yelling and startling her horse into a gallop. She rode past the other man, crying out as she felt his hand brush her sleeve. She hadn't been lying when she told JD that she could beat him in a race, she had been riding since she could walk. Curled low over the horse's withers, she urged the gelding on with her voice.
"Don't let her get away!" a man yelled. Immediately, all five of the horses were reacting to the spurs that dug into their sides as they chased the fleeing girl.
A spot in the road had been washed out by the recent rain and Casey's horse faltered when the ground crumbled beneath his hooves. The gelding tried to regain its balance but was unable to and fell, sending Casey tumbling into the woods. As soon as she regained her senses, she rolled to her hands and knees and looked around. Three of the men's horses crashed through the underbrush, causing her to leap to her feet and start running. She vaulted over a downed tree trunk, landing badly on the other side. A horse leapt over the same tree, his hooves only inches from her head. Casey screamed as she tried to decide which way to run.
"That wasn't very smart, missy," a voice warned.
Casey spun around to see another man standing right behind her. She screamed when he grabbed her, lashing out with her feet until he swept them out from under her. She went down under the man's greater weight, but managed to twist one of her hands free. Casey clawed at the man's face, causing him to release her other hand. She wiggled out from under the man and tried to run away again. Something connected with her head, rendering her unconscious.
Not hearing any response to her cries for help, Casey began to grope along the walls, hoping to find a way out. When she stretched out her arms, she could touch stone on both sides. It didn't take her long to figure out that she was in some kind of hole, possibly in an abandoned mine or cave. As determined as she was not to give in to hysteria, she eventually sat down against one of the walls and cried.
JD stood up in his stirrups when he saw the familiar gelding browsing on the bushes along the side of the road. He slowed his horse to a walk, keeping one hand on the butt of his gun as he scoured the trees for any hint of danger. When he got closer to Casey's horse, he noticed that the animal was favoring his left hind leg. Sliding from the saddle, he cautiously approached the gelding.
"Easy now, I'm not gonna hurt'cha," he soothed as he reached for the reins. Once he had the animal securely in his control, he cupped his hand to his cheek and shouted for Casey. He left the horses tied to a sapling and explored the woods, looking for any sign of his girlfriend. When he couldn't find her, he decided that he would check with Nettie.
Sitting there, tied to the straight-backed chair, Ezra tried to work his hands free of the rough rope that bound them together. The Pardee brothers had warned him of dire consequences for Casey if he didn't cooperate with them. He hadn't realized that anyone was watching him when he took the young woman into the church every afternoon. If anything happened to her, the fault would lay squarely on his shoulders.
After stopping at Nettie's place, JD headed back to town to get the others to help him look for Casey. He saw Buck getting ready to go into the boarding house with a woman and called out to him.
"Buck! Casey's gone missing!"
At his words, Wilmington excused himself from the woman and jogged down the boardwalk to where JD had pulled his horse to a stop near the saloon. He reached up to steady his young friend when it looked like he would fall from the saddle. Josiah, Nathan, Vin and Chris came out of the saloon, their faces showing their concern.
"What happened JD?" Chris asked.
"I don't know. Nettie said she was coming into town. I found her horse on the road, all alone. I looked and yelled for her but I couldn't find her," JD answered, a little breathless from the harried ride back to town.
"Josiah, go find Ezra. We'll get the horses," Chris said as he moved toward the livery.
"Sit down and catch your breath, Kid. I'll get you a fresh mount," Buck said, taking the reins from JD's hand and guiding him to a seat on the edge of the boardwalk. Nathan caught Buck's eye to let him know that he would stay with JD.
Josiah knocked on the door to Ezra's room several times before he tried the knob. The hair on the back of his neck stood up when the door opened. He immediately recognized that some things were missing, the small glass bowl that Ezra put his tie tack and cufflinks in, the book that always lay on the bedside table. Crossing to the closet, he pulled the door open and saw that a fair portion of Ezra's clothes were gone. Josiah chewed on his lower lip for a moment before he spotted the paper tucked into the frame of the mirror on the dressing table. He recognized the elegant cursive script. Scanning the words on the page, Josiah felt his anger begin to boil over.
The other five were checking their saddlebags when Josiah came out of the saloon. One look at the graying man's expression told them something was wrong. Chris drew a breath to ask but Josiah thrust the paper into his hand first.
"What's it say?" Vin asked.
Chris' jaw tightened as he read over the words one more time before crumpling the expensive, fine linen paper in his fist.
"He's run out on us. He sends his apologies but his mother requires his assistance," Chris said, his voice thick with anger and disgust. The paper fell from his hand, where it was whipped away by a sudden breeze. The gunslinger mounted his horse and backed it away from the cluster of other horses. Buck sighed heavily, his eyes following the paper to where it caught on a nail sticking out of the boardwalk.
About a quarter of a mile outside of town, the six peacekeepers happened upon the Pardee gang. Jack and Lester immediately assumed that Ezra had somehow gotten free and alerted the others so they pulled their guns and began to fire.
Vin's horse hopped sideways as the bullet grazed his hip. The rest of the horses shied away, nearly unseating their riders. Vin slid to the ground, giving his horse a slap on the rump to urge him out of the way as he ducked behind some bushes. He could see that Chris, Buck and JD had also leapt from their horses and were lying on their bellies in the shallow creek bed that ran alongside of the road. Nathan and Josiah had sought shelter on the other side of the road.
The two groups exchanged gunfire for several minutes. Chris managed to pick off one, Buck one, and Vin two while JD laid down cover fire with both of his guns. Nathan and Josiah were pinned in such a way that they couldn't get off a clear shot, so they were ducking through the shadows, trying to get around behind the men who were shooting at them.
Grunting in frustration, Ezra finally felt the rope slip over the knuckles of his left hand. It took him a few seconds more to shake the binding from his numb hands. With his hands free, he worked on the knots that bound him bodily to the chair. Cursing in a most un-gentlemanly manner, he pushed the ropes upwards until he could slip them over his head. He looked out of the window before creeping silently to the door and easing it open.
Five minutes later, Ezra was on his way out of town, headed toward the Wells place. His low crown hat barely stayed on his head as he bent over the saddle horn, urging the horse to go as fast as he could.
The gunfight was over when the last of the Pardee gang toppled to the ground, bleeding from a hole in his stomach. Josiah holstered his big Dragoon and moved to kick the weapons away from the injured and dying. JD leapt out of his hiding spot to pounce on the only one of the gang who was still moving.
"Where is she? Where's Casey?" JD screamed as he shook the gravely wounded man.
Buck looked at Chris in confusion. He didn't know how JD knew that these were the men who had taken Casey. It was Vin who nudged him and pointed to the familiar hat hanging from the saddle of one of the other horses.
"Tell me where she is!" JD shouted, giving the man another shake. The man's eyes were unfocused as he went limp.
"These two might make it, if we get them back to town," Nathan said from where he was kneeling beside the first two men who had been shot. One had fallen badly and was knocked out but blood loss was keeping him unconscious.
As Josiah and Buck moved to help Nathan throw the wounded men over their saddles, they all heard the sound of another horse approaching at a dead run. All six of them faded into the trees, guns drawn and alert.
Ezra saw the bloody aftermath of the gunfight and pulled his horse up sharply. He quickly dismounted and ran toward the one Josiah and Buck had dropped, who was beginning to come around.
"Where is she?" he demanded angrily. "Where is she?"
Jack Pardee smiled, "I told him those ropes wouldn't hold you. It's too bad, though. You'll never find your little girlfriend. The boys hid her real good."
It was the way Jack stared past his shoulder that caused Ezra to turn his head. He had been so engrossed in finding out where they had taken Casey that he didn't hear the others' approach.
"Nice of you to join us," Chris said acerbically.
Rising from where he had knelt on the ground, Ezra was unprepared for the fist that slammed into his jaw. He would have fallen if it hadn't been for Josiah catching him.
"How did you know Casey was missing?" Vin asked.
"I ... they ... those two approached me in the livery-" Ezra began.
"Where you were getting ready to run out on us again?" Chris added.
There was a tense moment of silence before JD spoke, "Why do they think Casey is your girl?"
Ezra had no answer for him. After another tension-filled silence, Nathan spoke up, "If we want to find the girl, we gotta get these two back to my place so's I can fix 'em up."
Alone in the cold and dark, Casey wrapped her arms around her ribs and drew her knees up, trying to conserve as much warmth as possible. She had tried to climb out of the hole, only to fall and skin her knees on the rocks. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she whimpered softly.
The question of why the bad guys thought Casey was Ezra's girl was put on hold for the time being. Vin, Chris and JD were going to try to track the gang back to where they had left her while the others went back to town to help Nathan with the wounded. Ezra wanted to go with the search party but Chris ordered him to pony the dead bodies back to town.
It was dark by the time he finished helping the undertaker with the bodies and Ezra contemplated his choices. From the horses in the livery, he knew that Vin and the others had already had to give up the search. He knew that he should come clean and tell Chris the truth but he knew that Casey didn't want anyone to know about what transpired between the two of them. He could tell Chris that Jack was mistaken but he didn't think the gunslinger would believe him. His bags were still packed and he briefly considered riding out again but he knew that he couldn't until Casey was found and safe.
In the clinic, Jack Pardee hissed and bucked as the bullet was dragged out of his shoulder. Josiah and Buck were none too gentle with him as they held him down so Nathan could work on him. Within a few seconds of the bullet being removed, the man's eyes rolled back in his head and he sank into the mattress. Nathan finished cleaning the wound and stitched it closed. It was approaching daylight when Jack began to stir again, fevered and moaning in pain.
"Can't you give me something? It hurts!" the wounded man begged.
"Tell us where Casey is and I'll consider it," Chris growled.
"Why do you care? She's Ezra's girlfriend, isn't she?"
"What makes you think she and Ezra are courting?" Buck asked.
"We watched 'em. All last week they were together in that beat up little church down the street. She rode in with her farmin' clothes on and changed into fancy duds for their time together. Hell, I even watched him brushin' her hair and prettying her up," Jack replied. "That's why we took her, we figured that we was gonna have to find something to persuade him to help us until we saw the two of them all cozied up in the church."
Before they could stop him, JD stormed out of the clinic and raced down the stairs. His cheeks were flushed from the anger he felt building in his chest. Casey had confessed to him that she had tried to get Ezra to mess around with her to get back at him for what she saw him doing with Maddie Stokes. She had been embarrassed and ashamed and she swore that there wasn't anything between them.
Ezra was up before dawn and had gathered some supplies. He was getting his mount ready to ride out in search of where they could have stashed Casey. He was so engrossed in what he was doing, he never heard or noticed the enraged sheriff closing in on him. Finished with securing his bedroll, he was turning to reach for the bridle when JD's fist struck his jaw. He stumbled backwards, flicking his derringer into his hand by instinct. Before he could bring the small gun into position, another blow connected with his face, barely missing the bridge of his nose.
JD's sudden departure caused the men in the clinic to look at each other for a moment before Buck leapt to his feet and raced after him. Vin also slid out of the clinic and hurried to catch up with Wilmington. Both of them reached the livery just as JD lit into Ezra.
"Why did you do it? Why? You could have any woman you wanted! Why did you have to pick Casey? Why, Ezra?" JD shouted.
Realizing that his life wasn't in immediate danger, Ezra lowered his gun and held his other hand out in a placating gesture. "It isn't what you think. I didn't plan for anything to happen between us," he said.
Buck's blood began to boil at the thought of young, innocent Casey with the older, world-wise gambler. He stepped past the horse in the cross ties and reached out, grabbing Ezra by the shoulder and spinning him around to plow his fist into Ezra's unprotected stomach. Vin, startled at the venomous reaction, leapt forward to prevent Buck from delivering another blow, parrying Ezra's derringer at the same time.
"Both of you stop!" Vin shouted. "Just stop! We need every able-bodied man to find Casey!"
"They left her in an abandoned mine shaft," Chris said from where he had just arrived in the doorway. "Get the horses ready. JD, bring an extra bedroll."
While the others were readying their mounts, Buck glared at Ezra. "We don't need your help anymore," he snarled angrily.
Ezra lowered his head in acquiescence and led his horse out of the livery. He glanced up at Josiah and Nathan as they stood on the landing outside of the clinic. The healer looked down at him, barely concealing the rage he felt. Josiah's eyes were not as angry but were filled with disappointment. The other four peacekeepers led their horses out and galloped away.
The mine wasn't far from town and they reached it quickly. JD leapt to the ground before his gelding had even stopped properly and he would have run right into the shaft opening if Buck had not shouted at him to wait for them.
"But she might be hurt!" JD protested as he shifted his weight from foot to foot.
"And you falling on her won't help her any," Chris scolded as he shook out the length of rope he'd had tied to his saddle.
A few feet into the mine, it was eerily dark. Vin's pupils dilated as he tried to gather more information from the black backdrop he was facing. Chris came in behind him, offering a torch to light their way. Buck and JD had stayed outside, with the ropes anchored to their horses in case they needed to pull their friends out.
"Casey?" Vin called. His voice echoed in the depths of the mine and he waited to see if he could hear anyone responding. He took a few more steps away from the opening and glanced around uneasily at the old, rotting timbers. "Casey? Can you hear me?" he called.
Cold and shaking so hard that her stomach hurt, Casey stirred from her slumber. She thought she heard someone calling her name. After a few seconds of straining to hear anything over the chattering of her teeth, she began to think she'd dreamed it. Just as her eyes drifted closed again, she heard her name being called and leapt to her feet.
"Help! I'm down here! Help!" she yelled. Her voice echoed in the dark and she forced herself to wait, to listen for a response.
"Stay where you are," Vin called, "We're comin' to get ya."
The two men made their way deeper into the mine until they came to the deep vertical shaft. The light from the torch didn't even reach the bottom.
"Casey?" Vin called again.
A soft, yellow light appeared above her and Casey shielded her tender eyes from it. "I'm here," she called back to him.
"I'm going to drop a rope down to you. Put it around your waist and holler so we can pull you up," Vin explained as he fed the lasso into the shaft.
"Got it!" Casey announced when she felt the rope brush against her hands. She threaded her arms through the lasso and pulled it snug around her waist. "I'm ready!"
Chris put Vin behind him since Tanner had untied his rope to lower to Casey. They took up the slack and slowly began to pull the young woman out of the depths of the shaft. Chris had stuck the torch in a convenient pile of rocks so they could use both hands on the rope. Finally, Casey's hand appeared, groping blindly along the edge. Chris looked back to see that Vin could hold her before he let go and grabbed her hands. As soon as her feet touched the ground, Vin dropped the rope and shrugged out of his coat.
Something heavy and warm settled on her shoulders and Casey pulled it around her. Vin slid an arm around her to steady her as Chris loosened the rope and lowered it to the ground.
"Step out of the rope and let's get the hell out of here," Chris said. As soon as Casey's feet were free of the rope, he grabbed the torch and led them out of the mine.
Casey balked at the bright sunlight shining into the mouth of the mine. Her eyes burned and watered profusely, causing her to resist Vin's guiding. Fortunately, Vin understood and drew her closer, shielding her face against his chest as he swept her from her feet and carried her out.
"What happened?" JD shouted when he saw Vin carrying Casey. "Is she alright?"
Vin moved into the shade and lowered Casey to the ground. He fumbled with his neckerchief and pressed it into her hand to wipe the tears from her face. Buck and JD knelt beside her, Buck holding out his canteen for her to take a drink.
Through the blur of tears, Casey tried to focus on the faces closest to her. When she recognized the canteen, she grabbed it eagerly and brought it to her lips. She'd taken only a few swallows when Vin's voice reminded her to slow down or she would make herself sick. After a few minutes, the tearing of her eyes slowed and she could see without squinting. Turning her head, she saw JD. It was his hand that had been gently stroking her head and squeezing her shoulder. Overcome with emotion, she reached for his shoulder and began to sob.
It took a while to get Casey calmed down enough to suggest that they return to town. She gave Vin his coat and wrapped the blanket JD offered around her shoulders. JD swung up on his horse and held out his hand to pull her up behind him. She wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her cheek against his back, soaking up the warmth of his body.
Ezra would have made good on his idea of leaving before the others returned if he hadn't spotted Nettie coming down the street in her wagon. She called out to him and he moved to help her down, trying to act like the gentleman his mother had raised him to be.
"Have you seen Casey?" Nettie asked as she shook her long skirts around her legs. She had spent all night worrying after her niece didn't come home by the time it got dark. JD had brought Casey's horse back, saying that maybe she was injured but he hadn't come back. She waited until first light to set out for town.
"I believe that Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner coaxed her location out of the miscreant that absconded with her and that they are retrieving her as we speak," he replied.
"Why on earth would they take Casey?"
"It was a misunderstanding, I'm sure," Ezra said. "Perhaps you could go over to the restaurant and have a cup of coffee while you wait for her to return?" He folded her hand over his forearm and began to urge her toward the boardwalk.
"What kind of misunderstanding?" Nettie asked, stopping so suddenly that Ezra took another step before he felt the drag on his arm. "What do you know about it?"
Unable to look into the woman's eyes and lie because of the guilt he was feeling, Ezra fidgeted. He was afraid that she would see through him and know what he had done with her young niece. His discomfiture was complicated by Mrs. Travis, who saw him and rushed over to ask questions about the injured men she had seen brought in the night before.
"Were those the men who took Casey?" Mary asked, "The ones in the clinic?"
Ezra stood there, offering answers as vaguely as possible and trying to encourage Ms. Wells to wait with Mrs. Travis for her niece to be returned to her. Mary, unwilling to give up her source until she had bled him dry of information, tucked her hand around Ezra's bicep and led him to the newspaper office.
JD covered Casey's cold fingers with his hand and felt her trembling against his back. He planned to take her straight to the restaurant for a cup of hot cocoa as soon as they got back. He would wait to see if she admitted the situation with Ezra or not. JD was certain, if anything did happen between Casey and Ezra, that it hadn't been Casey's fault.
Josiah was filling another bucket with fresh water for the clinic when he heard the approaching horses. He waited until they drew close enough for him to see Casey's arms around JD before he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thank you, Lord, for keeping that child safe in Your loving hand," he prayed softly.
Vin recognized the wagon at the hitching post and rode past the livery looking for Nettie. He figured that she must have been really worried to have come all the way into town.
As she was pouring another cup of coffee for Nettie, Mary glanced up and saw Vin riding past the window. "They're back!" she announced. Nettie rose immediately and headed for the door. The two women glanced down the street and saw Casey sliding down from behind JD. Nettie gathered up her skirts and rushed down the boardwalk, blinking back tears.
"Casey! Casey! Oh, thank God!" Nettie said as she threw her arms around her niece. "Land's sakes, child, you're as cold as the dead!" she exclaimed.
"I'm fine, Aunt Nettie," Casey assured her.
Heavy footfalls on the steps announced Nathan's arrival. The healer scoured each of the others, checking for injuries before he could calm himself. Vin handed his horse off to the stable boy and eased up behind the older woman.
"She's a little cold but she'll be alright," he said.
"Did they do anything to you?" Nettie asked as she cupped her warm hands to Casey's cheeks.
"They chased me through the woods and knocked me in the head. It hurt for a while but it feels fine now," she said. "How'd you know where to find me? Did you catch those men?"
For the first time, Mary noticed that Ezra hadn't accompanied them to welcome the others back. She rocked up on her toes and looked down the street in time to see Ezra's horse turning the corner at the other end of the street.
"Where is Ezra going?" Mary asked. Instead of an answer, she saw anger on Chris, Buck, Nathan and JD's faces and sadness on Josiah and Vin's. Nettie looked around, confused that the southerner hadn't followed them to see that Casey was safe and unharmed. Casey looked around, wondering at the anger she was seeing and remembered something one of her captors had said.
It was as just after she had been placed in the mine shaft. She had roused slightly to hear two of the men talking as they looked down on her.
"You think Ezra will cooperate with us once he knows we have his little girlfriend?"
"You didn't see them. They were going at each other like the world was gonna end in a few hours. He'll do exactly what we want to get her back."
The voices had faded, along with what little light there had been and Casey had slipped back into oblivion for another few hours.
"Aren't you going after him?" Casey asked of Vin. She grew angry when the tracker avoided her gaze and shifted uneasily. "Why aren't you? Did something happen while I was gone? He only did it to keep me safe!" she protested.
"Casey, let's get you home so you can get cleaned up," Nettie urged.
"No! Aunt Nettie, they're blaming Ezra for helping those men rob the bank and he only did it because of me!"
The peacekeepers exchanged puzzled glances. None of them wanted to be the one to reveal that they knew what Casey and Ezra had been doing, especially in front of Nettie. Vin finally took it upon himself to try to provide her with some kind of an answer.
"No one tried to rob the bank. JD was on his way out to see you when they took you. He rode back to tell us and we rode out after them. We met up with the gang on their way to town and got in a shootout with them. A couple of them survived and one of them told us where you were."
"They didn't rob-? Then why is Ezra leaving?" Casey asked.
"Nothing you need to worry about. Now, come along home with me," Nettie insisted, putting her arm around Casey and urging her toward the wagon.
"No! Aunt Nettie, wait! I need to know why they're angry with Ezra!" Seeing the hard set of Chris' jaw, Casey knew that none of them was going to tell her anything. Angrily, she shrugged off Nettie's arm and the blanket and pulled herself up onto JD's horse.
"Casey! Aw, hell!" Vin said as he rushed into the livery for his horse. Buck also rushed inside but his horse had already been untacked and placed in his stall. Nettie turned on those remaining, pinning them with a take-no-prisoners stare.
"Which one of you wants to tell me what's going on here?" she asked.
Ezra didn't look over when the familiar horse drew alongside of him, he just waited for the vitriol he was sure he had coming.
"You didn't tell 'em about us, did you?" Casey asked.
Looking up in surprise, Ezra drew his horse to a stop. "A gentleman never kisses and tells," he replied glibly. "I didn't have to tell them, the reprobate responsible for your kidnapping told them. He saw us in the church."
Vin spotted Ezra and Casey stopped in the road and he slowed his mount. He wanted to give them a chance to work it out one way or the other before he brought the girl back to town. He knew the moment that Ezra noticed him because of the sudden change in the gambler's posture.
Casey was agitated. "What did they see? So what if they saw us together. We're friends, we can spend time together if we want to, can't we? They didn't actually see us doing anything, did they?" Seeing indecision in Ezra's eyes, she reached out to lay her hand on his shoulder. "Please don't go. I would spend the rest of my life worrying and wondering if you left."
He knew he had to go back, if only to get Casey to go back. Vin's horse had been slowly drawing closer and he seemed more concerned than angry. As far as his friends knew, the Pardee brothers and their gang only said Casey was his girlfriend, maybe he and Casey could convince the others that they had just been spending time together. If not, he would take whatever beating they saw fit to lay on him and leave when he recovered. He might even spend some time with his mother.
They went back to town, with Vin leading and Casey following Ezra to make sure he didn't try to escape. Josiah and Buck had convinced Nettie to join them at the restaurant to wait for Casey to return, certain that Vin would bring the girl back shortly. JD spotted them first and stormed out onto the boardwalk.
"You'd best be on your way, Ezra," JD warned when the gambler stopped at the hitching post.
"Now JD, you don't-" Vin began, only to be cut off.
"Who are you to be telling anyone they aren't welcome, JD?" Casey exclaimed as she leapt down from his horse and pulled herself up onto the boardwalk.
"I'm the Sheriff here, in case you forgot!" JD replied, flipping his lapel over and dragging the material away from his chest to show her his badge.
"Ezra hasn't done anything against the law, has he Sheriff Dunne?" Casey asked, emphasizing the title as she got up in his face.
"Casey Jean Wells, you lower your voice this second!" Nettie scolded.
"I don't know what I ever saw in you, John Dunne. I was spendin' time with Ezra, trying to better myself for you, and you act like a jealous boy!" Casey exclaimed. She turned her glare on Buck and pointed her finger at him, "And you need to learn to stay out of things that don't concern you!"
Vin and Ezra glanced at each other when Casey spun on her heel and ran for the wagon at the other end of the street. Nettie looked around at the cluster of confused and contrite men and shook her head before walking off to join her niece.
An awkward silence settled in front of the restaurant. Buck and JD looked at each other, still heartily confused at what they had done wrong. Vin looked over at Ezra and reached out to clap his hand on the southerner's shoulder. Without another word, the two of them led their horses to the livery. Nettie and Casey were sitting side by side on the bench as Nettie snapped the reins on the back of her team and urged them to walk on. Casey was still the picture of righteous indignation. Only Ezra saw the wink she fired off as they passed.
Things settled awkwardly over the next several days. Ezra confessed to JD that he had given Casey 'charm school' lessons, similar to what he had tried to do for the ladies from Wickes town while he was away. His explanation of what the lessons entailed only served to make the young sheriff more confused.
"Why does she need to know how to waltz? I don't know how to dance!" JD protested. "And if she starts talking like you do, I'll never understand her! I just wish all of you would stay my love life! First I got Buck telling me what to do, then Josiah and his poetry, now I got Ezra teaching Casey how to dance! Sheesh!" he exclaimed as he stormed out of the saloon.
Buck and Nathan were also trying to express their contrition to Ezra, Buck more so than Nathan. The fun-loving ladies man felt badly for hitting Ezra in the livery and had apologized several times. His sincerity only made Ezra feel worse about the secret he was sharing with Casey.
But that was a topic for another day ...
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