Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Ezra and Vin PURSUIT, by Bonnie Pardoe Casey and JD

The front door of the jail eased open, admitting Ezra Standish's always dapper -- though on this particular occasion, a tad bit perspired -- presence. But the gambler was greeted only with the slamming of an iron door; even the two dirty men inside the cell took no notice of the Southerner.

Vin Tanner turned then, and Ezra could see the look of satisfaction in the former bounty hunter's blue eyes -- a look Ezra himself did not possess at the moment, and perhaps would not have even if he had matched the other man's feat of roping in two members of the horse-rustling Barton Gang. While it was now his job to see that the residents of this community were protected from the likes of such men, Ezra knew that all thought him equally capable of such dastardly exploits. Not that he ever in his life would steal another man's horse -- unless dire straits were to, of course, force his hand -- but many, including his six colleagues, would readily lump his entrepreneurial accomplishments into the same bowl, simply because they did not understand the difference between stealing from innocent people and accepting the monies of a knowing man who failed to successfully assess the situation at hand.

That aside, Ezra found it curious that his -- for lack of a better term -- friends did find Vin's skills so admirable and his own less desirable. And perhaps they were correct, the Southerner wondered as he glanced over at the two outlaws slumped against the cell wall in abject resignation.

Ezra's mother had raised him to look after himself, taught him the skills so that he might want for nothing. It was never in her nature to care about what others thought or needed. It was always a means to an end; any nicety was simply an angle, a way to get what you alone desired. But at the moment, Ezra really did want for nothing in this life, except, perhaps, that satisfaction of accomplishment which he saw so plainly in his companion's face. Ezra had been unable to apprehend a single horse thief that day, though not for a lack of trying. Failure simply wasn't something the gambler either liked or dealt with well, even if it were in a field at which he was less accomplished.

Vin silently acknowledged the gambler before checking his rifle and sitting down behind the vacant sheriff's desk. Though he still wore his slouch hat -- the one which hid his eyes so well when he wanted it to -- the tracker was without his coat, wearing only a plain blue shirt, and vaguely reminding the Southerner of a Union soldier, even though the other man's pants were closer to the pale color which once had been preferred by the Confederates. And Ezra suddenly wondered if Vin had ever been a scout for the army; he certainly possessed all the skills, as well as a general distrust of the military, making it a guess worth betting on.

"I see that you have beaten us all back, Mr. Tanner -- a good thing I didn't place a wager before we left this morning," Ezra said in way of a greeting as he swept the Panama hat off his dark head, for lack of anything better to do with his idle hands.

"Empty handed, Ezra?" Vin spoke in that tone that always left one wondering if he had spoken at all.

"Unfortunately, yes." The gambler pulled up a chair to sit opposite the only-slightly younger man. The silence returned between the pair, though only Ezra appeared to feel the awkwardness of it. How could this young man be so secure with himself, seem so immune to the doubts which constantly tugged at the corners of Ezra's own psyche? Vin Tanner was a man who did not care if he belonged, did not care what others thought of him, yet others wanted him around and did think highly of him. How complete of a foil to himself, Ezra thought, in a rare moment of reflective honesty. "Perhaps I might interest you in a barter sometime?"

Vin merely lifted his eyebrows in response to the question. It must have been the word "barter" which had piqued his curiosity; it was not a word Ezra often used, as it did not involve him accumulating any cash in the bargain.

"I might be persuaded to give you a few lessons in carterification." Ezra elucidated when Vin simply continued to stare askance at him: "The finer art of playing cards---"

"I don't need ta learn how ta cheat, Ezra," Vin quickly cut him off.

"Nor was I implying any such thing, my good man. A skilled cardsman" -- the brown-haired Southerner gestured gracefully at himself -- "has no need for cheap trickery, I can assure you."

Vin took an easy breath and remained silent, listening but not appearing to do so very intently.

Ezra, wondering how this man could not see the opportunity he was passing up, continued, "I was proposing we exchange a lesson in our particular areas of expertise -- my ability with the cards for your ability with . . . tracking."

Vin looked stunned. "You wanna learn ta track?"

It did seem to be a valuable skill in this new career path on which he had found himself, Ezra had reasoned, though perhaps the truth had more to do with his pride at being bested at something which seemed to come so easily to someone else. And who knew when such a skill might be turned to a more lucrative advantage? "Yes, actually, I do," the gambler replied.

"Well, why didn't ya just say so. I ain't never kept what I know how ta do a secret -- all ya had to do was ask."

Ezra smiled in surprise at his companion's unexpected generosity, realizing later that it was unexpected only because he himself would not have thought to give even his friends the same courtesy.

The other five hired guns -- some with criminals in hand, others alone -- meandered into the jail over the next hour. All but three of the members of the Barton Gang had been rounded up, which would be of some consolation to the citizens of the little western town, though only the return of their horses would truly satisfy them. Being a man about town himself, Ezra had never had occasion to consider how intricate a role horses played in the every day running of a ranch or farm and how the loss of even one of these animals could quickly throw some of these small homesteaders into dire straits.

The stolen horses must be found, they all knew that, but it was now getting too late in the afternoon to continue their search.

"I came back along the west road, and there were more horse tracks there than perhaps there oughta of been. Seems like a good place ta look again," Vin shared with his friends.

"Well, they gotta be corralling those horses out there somewhere and, unfortunately, that seems as likely a direction as any. We'll head out that way in the morning and see what we come up with," Chris Larabee directed. "Any volunteers to stay here and watch these men tomorrow?" He gestured at the motley crew of cowboys and desperadoes which now filled the town's only two jail cells.

There was silence among the men for a moment -- JD Dunne, the youngest of the group, looked down at the floor, and Ezra smiled, supposing the lad did not want to take the slightest chance of anyone thinking he did not want to ride out again. But the native Southerner was happy to speak up, "I shall be willing to remain here as warden -- anything to stay out of this humidity." He absently patted at the perspiration on his neck with his silk handkerchief. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say someone had picked up this entire community during the night and deposited it in the heart of the Bayou. It's why I left New Orleans in the first place," he said with a sigh.

"And all this time, we thought you'd been run outta town," Nathan quipped, causing the others to grin at Ezra's expense. But Ezra refused to dignify their pedestrian humor with even an altering of his expression, let alone a verbal retort.

"Anyone else?" Chris surveyed his group again. "We'll need more arms here than just Ezra, in case those other outlaws get the idea of breaking out their friends."

"And don't think they won't," one of the horse thieves touted from his cell. "You'll be lucky if we're even here fer breakfast!"

"What breakfast?" Buck asked the prisoner in all seriousness, though his friends saw the wry smile almost hidden by his thick mustache.

"Josiah, why don't you and Nathan stay here as well -- that arm of yours isn't quite mended yet," Chris decided.

"Teach you to climb rickety ladders," Nathan admonished his old friend, who rubbed his previously dislocated shoulder.

A sudden, distant rumble then caught the attention of the small band. "What the heck was that?" JD wondered, quickly making his way to the window.

"Thunder," Vin answered without even needing to look.

"Gosh, it sure is gettin' dark outside -- looks like a big storm's brewin'. Guess I better get my horse down to the livery. Josiah, want me to take yours as well?" the kid asked as he grabbed his coat off the chair he had previously occupied.

"That's mighty kind of you, son. I'd appreciate it."

JD smiled at the former preacher. His six companions all knew that the kid never minded brushing down the horses after a ride. Like building at the church for Josiah and playing at cards for himself, Ezra thought, it was the lad's way of winding down, of not letting the stresses of being a hired gun get to him.

As he stepped outside, JD shrugged his wool coat on, pulling the collar up against the increasing wind. Only two horses -- his and Josiah's -- were tethered in the street now, which suddenly seemed strange to the young man. Usually there were several hitched-up wagons here and there, and a few horses, at least, outside the saloon.

JD lead the two geldings down the street, noticing that not only were there no other horses, there were no other people. He began to look closer at the buildings themselves as the wind continued to whip around him; the shutters where closed on those windows which had them, and on those that didn't JD could not see anyone moving around inside. Not until he reached the Clarion Newspaper office. As he neared, Mary Travis hurried out.

"JD, you shouldn't be out in this," she admonished a good deal more motherly than usual.

"It's just a little wind, Mrs. Travis. I've been out in worse before." But just as he spoke, the darkened sky broke loose with a drenching rain.

Mary took cover under the awning of her office. "This isn't a little wind, JD," she shouted. "It's a thunderstorm, and you best get those animals inside!"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, quickening his pace to the stables. The dark hair which stuck out from beneath his bowler was plastered to his face by the time he reached the end of the street. JD struggled against the wind to pull the large barn door open, but when the wind caught the door, flinging it wide with a crash, it was all the young man could do to control the two horses he was leading.

From inside, Yosemite, the blacksmith, came running. He pulled the barn door closed behind JD, then took Josiah's horse from him. "Guess it's gonna be a big 'un, eh, son?"

"You sure?" The day had been so warm, and the wind had come up so quick that JD had a hard time believing this wasn't just a passing squall.

"Didn't you take a gander at them clouds?" the man asked in reply. "We don't get many in these parts, but I'd be surprised if this here day finished without at least one tornader touchin' down around here."

"Tornado?!" JD was born, bred, and raised on the northeastern seaboard and had managed to live his entire life without ever seeing a cyclone, but he'd heard the stories -- trees, roots and all, sucked right up into the sky, houses shattered into bit no bigger than kindling.... "Are- are you sure?"

"Wouldn't be a bit surprised -- it was so warm and muggy today, I think most people around here er half expectin' it."

JD made his way to the barn door, pushing it open just enough so that he could get a good look at the sky. It was dark, all right, the rain hadn't let up even a little, and the previously warm wind now had a distinct chill to it.

Yosemite lumbered up next to him and peered outside himself. He poked a stubby finger at the sky and explained, "See them clouds o'er yonder?" JD nodded, and the blacksmith continued, "Thunderhead. If a tornader's gonna form, that's where you should be lookin' fer it."

JD stared, his mouth agape, as his mind tried to comprehend this natural phenomenon.

"I remember when I lived up Kansas way" -- Yosemite reminisced, despite the volume of the wind whipping past them -- "used to see three er four e'ry spring. Big 'uns. Wiped out an entire crop a corn one year at my uncle's farm -- took out everythin' fer miles, but damned if that storm didn't leave a single outhouse standing, untouched, right there in the middle a the devastation. Took my cousin's best girl once -- there they were, running fer the cellar, and all a sudden she was gone. Weirdest thing about it, though, the twister took all a her 'cept her shoes -- left 'em right there on the ground where she'd been standin'. They never did find hide ner hair a her."

It suddenly occurred to JD exactly what direction the man had been pointing, where that thunderhead was forming: NORTH. Casey lived north of town. And then all he could think about was her house lying scattered in ruins across the property and her just gone. Without a word, he grabbed his horse, shoved the barn door wide, then mounted the beast at a gallop.

"Hey!" Stunned by JD's sudden action, the blacksmith called after the young man. "You can't go out in this! JD!!"

Ezra found the prospect of a decent meal at the hotel most appealing. Though the food was nothing to brag about, generally speaking, the hotel could easily be said to have the best chef in the territory, thanks to the former owner, his very own, dear mother, who had brought the man all the way down from Albuquerque.

Now, the gambler thought, if only this town had a decent bath house to its name. Fresh, hot water, on tap. Hmm, quite an idea, though he doubted these Saturday-night bathers would appreciate the concept. Still, even if it suited only himself, a tub filled with warm, rose water was perhaps a decadence this town had been without for far too long.

Too bad his mother had seen fit to give up the hotel. It would have been just the concept she might have thought appealing enough to carry out, even if it had been his idea.

Ezra smiled obsequiously, as if his mother had actually been there to see him. Why he put up with her he would never understand. If his ideas had the least bit of merit, she would invariably commandeer them, alter them a shade or two, then claim them as her very own; if his ideas were less than well thought out, she would dismiss them outright with denarrations designed to inform him, and any others present, of the weaker points of his scheme.

But, that was it, was it not? The reason. How could Ezra not admire such a strong, intelligent woman who had the presence of mind to analyze a project from every possible angle before it was even put into play? How indeed?

JD was nearly five miles from town when the lightning began. At first, it was only bright flashes in the sky and JD was easily able to control his horse, but when the lightning unexpectedly touched down across the field, sending a knotty, old tree into flames, the poor horse reared, throwing the young man hard to the ground.

The mud cushioned JD's fall, but he was still sore once he struggled back to his feet. Realizing that he'd lost his hat in the process, the young man squinted against the rain trying to find it, but could barely see the road, let alone a small, brown bowler. JD pulled the collar of his coat up close around his neck and, driven now by his annoyance with himself at losing both his hat and his mount, pushed ahead on foot into the growing wind.

Much to his relief, he made it to the fork in the road without any more lightning-bolts touching down, and he knew now that it wasn't much further to Casey's place. With practically numb hands, JD tried to keep his coat pulled tightly about him, but the cold rain managed to find every little fold and gap in the fabric; he was soaked to the bone and knew that he should just give up trying to stay either dry or warm, but some involuntary reflex refused to give up the fight

As JD struggled on, the wind seemed to tear the breath right out of him. His shoes, caked in thick mud, felt as heavy as lead and it was an effort of both strength and concentration to continue putting one foot ahead of the other.

"Can this get any worse?!" JD wanted to shout at the world, but had not the least bit of extra energy to do so. Nature, however, seemed to read his thoughts, and was more than willing to oblige the impetuous youth.

The rain drops, which JD had stopped feeling against his cold skin long ago, suddenly began to sting as the muddy brown road before him became speckled with white. JD held out his hand, for a moment uncomprehending this new twist of creation -- pea-sized bits of ice landed hard against his outstretched palm. Then he smiled at the wonder of it. This, the kid knew from past experience.


When he was just a small boy, and had witnessed his first hailstorm, JD was certain that someone was tossing gravel off the roof above him -- the concept of ice falling right out of the sky had never occurred to the four-year-old.

The ground all around JD was quickly turning white from the small pellets of ice, and he found his footing even more difficult as he pushed on up the road. He managed to get several more yards before his foot gave out beneath him, causing him a head-long tumble to the ground. Stunned for a moment, his face splattered with the clay mud, JD simply laid there, rationalizing that he couldn't possibly get any wetter than he already was and realizing that he really didn't have the will power to haul himself back up to his feet.

The young man then began to wonder where his horse had gotten to -- was there some sort of shelter near here towards which he himself should be heading, instead of blindly keeping on towards Casey's house? Then JD wondered what the others back in town were doing; had they even missed him yet? He hoped that they wouldn't come out in this after him, and yet he almost wished that they were already on their way.

It was then that something slammed into JD's shoulder. He turned on his side to find a chunk of ice the size of his fist laying in the mud next to him. He stared at it in complete amazement, as if it were a figment of his exhausted mind. Another rock of hail caught him in the leg and JD quickly realized that he had to get up and find some cover from this freakish storm. Hauling himself to his feet, the young man looked around but saw nothing except low scrubs. It was some distance to an outcropping to trees -- oaks, which JD remembered marked the border of Casey's family's property. They weren't far -- if he could just make it to those trees, he could hold out until the hail stopped, then he could easily make it the rest of the way.

Thankfully, the hail eased as JD struggled down the road. He allowed himself to stop for a moment, resting his hands on his knees to catch his breath, but when he moved on again, the hailstorm renewed, sending sharp, icy bullets pelting against his body. The young man held his hands up to protect his face, only then smelling the oddly-tinged odor he knew meant blood. JD looked and found his hands covered with small gashes and he watched, almost paralyzed by the realization, as the hail continued to tear at his flesh. He felt the stings on his face, on his head, and his neck. Something inside him snapped and JD found himself running with all his might towards the shelter of the oak trees.

A flash of light and a boom of thunder sent JD flying instinctively to the ground. He rolled, coming to a stop at the edge of the oak grove he'd been heading for. He scrambled under the cover of the sprawling branches only then seeing, in the distance, that another tree had been struck. JD's skin tingled as he watched the now-charred top branches fall to the ground, and he suddenly realized that maybe these trees weren't the shelter that he should have been seeking.

Desperate and scared, JD looked around for some other place to wait out the worst of this storm, but he could not think, his mind too filled with the image of that mangled tree. He peered helplessly out across the land, only now noticing that the hail had turned again to rain. In the distance, he could see the clouds beginning to thin, and he sank weakly against the tree trunk relieved that this sudden and terrible storm might finally be letting up.

JD was not sure how long he had been sitting beneath the tree before he noticed the pink tinge on the horizon. It was nearing sunset and he was still a good walk from Casey's house -- returning to town, even at this point, never occurred to the young man -- so he hauled himself to his feet and set off again.

"Can you believe that rain out there?" Ezra wondered aloud to Buck as he stepped into the dry jail house, shaking the water from his overcoat.

"It's somethin' all right -- not such a good night fer a cold beer, but definitely a good night fer a warm, soft body, if ya know what I mean." Buck smiled lasciviously, and Ezra knew precisely what the older man meant. And, despite the fact that there were no official working girls in town, Buck always seemed to find the ones who didn't mind being unofficial, at least with him.

Ezra smiled weakly at Buck. "Yes, well, besides ourselves, I've not seen another body about this town tonight."

"Well, maybe JD had the right idea after all -- brush down them horses, then straight ta bed. I'll have ta be sure ta wake him fer his trouble when I head upstairs," Buck grinned again, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief.

Ezra found Buck and JD's relationship quite odd: two grown men, one a good dozen years older than the other, and yet at times they both acted like two school-aged boys, pulling pranks and teasing one another near to death. And though it was not the sort of behavior toward which Ezra had ever found himself inclined, he envied the ease between them just the same.

In fact, it was the type of friendship he had never, as a child, be allowed to indulge in -- never let your guard down and never get too close to a potential mark, his mother had drilled into him from a very tender age, and Ezra quickly learned that his mother looked on everyone as a potential mark.

"So, would you be interested in playing a hand before you retire?" Ezra asked, fanning his second favorite deck of playing cards out across the desk, then inverting the row in a wave using the edge of the Joker.

It must have been nearly an hour before JD reached the steps of the ranch house. He climbed them slowly, then, with the last of his energy, raised his hand to knock on the door.

A moment later, the door opened and it was all JD could do to stop himself from improperly falling into Casey's arms. The girl called for her aunt as she helped him inside. Nettie came in from the back room with her hands full of darning which she dropped immediately on the table when she saw JD. The older woman pulled the rocking chair over next to the fireplace, as Casey guided her friend to it, then she fetched a large, warm quilt from the bedroom which she wrapped around him, despite his sodden clothes.

"Casey, get JD here a cup of that coffee," Nettie directed as she knelt down before the kid and began working at the laces of his boots.

Casey returned in a few moments, handing JD a tin cup, which he took and warmed his hands against the sides, almost forgetting to drink. But, once he'd gotten the cup to his lips, he drained the black liquid without even tasting the bitterness he so disliked about the mixture.

Nettie placed JD's muddy shoes and wet socks next to the fire to dry, before heading into the kitchen.

It was then that Casey spoke for the first time, "JD, what in tarnation were ya doin' out in this storm? And where's yer horse?"

He shook his head, not wanting to answer -- it all seemed so foolish now, as if he could have saved this ranch from the unpredictable wrath of a tornado. Casey would most certainly laugh at him, and Nettie . . . well, sensible Nettie Wells would most likely think he'd lost his mind -- like that old Spanish knight Josiah was reading to him about, the one who jousted at windmills.

"JD? What happened to ya out there?"

Before Casey thought he'd lost his mind, JD decided to tell her, something. "I was out lookin' for the Barton Gang. The storm came on pretty sudden."

"Yeah, but couldn't ya find any shelter? Anywhere?" Casey impatiently asked.

"Tried, but . . . well, I got thrown when my horse spooked at the lightnin'. At that point, your place was the closest I knew of." He smiled sheepishly at the girl -- why was it so hard for him to admit to her how he felt? Well, mostly he felt stupid, but he had a feeling she already knew that much.

"Then how come---" but Casey was interrupted by her aunt.

"Son, I've got some soup warmin' in here -- why don't ya get yerself outta those wet clothes." JD's eyes widened; he just wouldn't feel right sitting in this house with these two women dressed only in a quilted blanket. Nettie seemed to sense his discomfort and promptly gave directions to her niece: "Casey, rummage around in that old trunk of mine -- I think there might still be somethin' of yer uncle's in there. Will that be all right for ya, son?"

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you." The two women departed and JD immediately scooted the rocking chair just a little bit closer to the warm fire. He hated to admit to these strong, frontier women that he was chilled to the bone and really wanted nothing more than the comfort of his own bed back in town. He shivered at the thought, and pulled the now-damp quilt closer about himself.

It wasn't long before Casey returned, holding a pair of long johns and a towel. "I hope this'll be all right. I've got a shirt ya can borrow, too, if ya want."

JD stood up, silently fighting the stiffness of his cold muscles, and took the undergarment from Casey. The two stared awkwardly at each other for a moment before JD simply turned, entering the bedroom and closing the door behind him.

He discarded the quilt over the back of the only chair in the room, then began to struggle with the wet fabric of his clothing. JD shrugged the heavy coat off his shoulders, but then had to tug at the sleeves to remove his arms from the confines of the wet wool. He really liked that coat -- it was the one he had purchased specifically for his trip out west -- but at the moment he was unimaginably thankful to be rid of it. Next came the gun belt and the suspenders, which were hardly an effort, and his shirt which clung like wet plaster to his long johns. A chill shuttered through him as he tried to undo the tiny buttons with his clumsy, numb fingers. A wild thought ran through his mind -- ask Casey to help you -- but he quickly shook it away. That was the sort of thing Buck would do, and it wasn't the sort of thing he should be thinking -- leastwise, not about Casey.

Finally, the stubborn top button came free, and JD began working on the next, but the more he worked at it, the more his hands began to shake from the cold and the more frustrated he became. Soon the only thought in his mind was returning to that blazing fire in the front room, and he hardly even heard the knock on the bedroom door which then creaked slowly open, though no one entered.

Then came a small voice: "Ya okay, JD?" Casey asked sheepishly.

The effort of the day was fast wearing on him and it was all JD could do to keep the frustration from welling up in his eyes.

A moment later, her small, brown head poked around the jamb. "JD?"

He didn't look at her. He couldn't. It was wrong. Casey shouldn't be here with him while he was trying to undress. But when her warm, dry fingers touched his cold ones, JD could do nothing but look into her face. She smiled shyly and the warmth of the fire out front no longer called to him. His hands dropped forgotten to his sides as Casey deftly worked the small buttons. Once she was done with the placket, she undid the buttons on his cuffs, then she pulled the wet shirt off his shoulders and down his arms to toss it on top of the pile he'd begun with his coat.

Casey reached then for the top button on his trousers, but JD's cold hands stopped her. "Thanks," he said, and meant it, before turning his back. He waited until he heard the door close behind him, then looked over his shoulder, assuring himself that he was indeed alone again.

The kid managed the slightly larger buttons on his trousers with much less trouble than the ones on his shirt and soon he was struggling to pull the wet pants down over his hips. JD almost called Casey back to help him, but, before his mouth had a chance to open, quickly thought better of it. He struggled on, alone, with the wet cloth and was soon rewarded with another addition to the pile of discarded clothing. He started right in on the long johns, peeling them, like corn husks, off his pale shoulders, arms, and legs.

The coarse, dry towel felt wonderfully luxurious against his cold body as he scrubbed away the storm water. As the feeling and color quickly returned to his skin, JD stepped into the dry, borrowed long johns, their meager fabric lending more warmth than he could have imagined of them. He moved to do up the buttons on the front placket, but found every last one of them missing, so, wrapping up in the dry blanket Casey had left for him on the bed, he poked his head out and found the girl sitting in the rocking chair, staring expectantly at the doorway he now occupied.

"Did you say somethin' about a shirt I could borrow?" He hated the thought of wearing Casey's clothes -- they were girl's clothes after all, even if they did look just like anything any boy her age might wear -- but he couldn't very well go about the night, in this house, with these two women, with his long johns only half done up. It was bad enough that he had to go about in nothing but long johns.

Casey got up from her seat by the fire. "Yeah, I think I have a shirt that'll fit ya." As she stepped into the bedroom, she accidentally brushed against him. JD pulled the blanket closer about himself and blamed a draft across his still-damp hair for the shiver which ran down his spine. After a deep breath, he turned and watched, unblinking as Casey bent over the open, wooden chest. In a few moments, she stood and held out a red flannel shirt that not only looked too big for her, but too big for Josiah!

As he took the offered shirt from her, their fingers brushed, and JD found himself unable to move, unable to do anything but stare down at Casey as she stared back. When the moment grew awkward, Casey finally managed to speak, "Um, I- I'll just be out here." She pointed towards the front room, then followed her own directions out.

JD quickly unwrapped himself from the blanket and put on the shirt, which hung almost to his knees and was so incredibly warm that he closed his eyes with the pleasure of it.

He then took up the dry blanket and returned to the front room. The rocking chair was vacant this time, so he sat down in it again. Casey, who now occupied a small wooden stool across from him, smiled compassionately, and he returned the gesture. "Are my socks dry yet?" he asked, both for lack of anything better to say and because he finally noticed the two only really-cold parts left on his body.

The girl bent down to feel the socks Nettie had set in front of the fire. She then shook her head, no. "I'll get ya somethin' for yer feet," she offered as she got up and left the room.

"JD, feelin' a bit better?" Nettie asked as she entered from the kitchen. He nodded, then noticed the bowl and cloth in her hands. "Then let's tend to those cuts on your face, son."

Somehow he'd forgotten about the stinging blows the hail had dealt him. JD looked down at his hands and wasn't really surprised to find more cuts than intact skin.

"Yer horse throw ya into some brambles?" the old woman asked as she pulled the stool next to his rocking chair.

JD shook his head. "Got caught in that hail."

Nettie merely nodded understanding as she dipped the damp cloth into the yellowy paste inside the bowl.

Casey came out of the bedroom with a pair of knit socks in her hands -- they looked worn, and JD wondered if they, like the long johns, had belonged to her uncle -- then knelt down on the floor in front of him. As she took his foot, the young man thought how pleasant it would be just to have her warm his cold feet simply by holding them. But, the girl slipped the sock over his foot anyway, and JD realized for the first time that he could be both disappointed and relieved by the same act.

When Casey accidentally tickled his sole, JD squirmed, then noticed the trace of a mischievous grin on Casey's lips. He narrowed his eyes and smiled at her playfulness, but when Nettie began to dab the salve on JD's face, the smell quickly sobered his mood.

"What is that?" he asked, trying not to sound ungrateful for her aid, but still finding it difficult not to pull away.

"A poultice my grandmother used to make. It'll heal those cuts right up."

"It smells terrible, Nettie," Casey said what JD had been thinking. "Oh, but ya should smell it when she's boiling it, JD -- takes the whitewash right off the walls!" Casey laughed, but her aunt was not amused.

"Don't exaggerate, girl," Nettie corrected. "Ya weren't even here when I made up this batch."

JD met Casey's eyes and without a word exchanged between them, he knew that her not being there had not been a coincidence. Then the young man wondered if perhaps that had been the day Casey had invited him fishing, or if it was just one of the times he'd seen her in town alone.

Casey worked the last sock onto his other foot, taking a few moments longer than was proper to adjust the fabric around his ankle. Her touch stirred feelings which were uncomfortably pleasant, causing JD to shift awkwardly in his chair.

"Sit still, son, unless ya want more of this salve on ya than necessary," the older woman admonished.

Casey stifled a giggle as she got up and headed toward the bedroom. "I'll hang JD's clothes up to dry, Nettie."

She nodded, then told JD. "We'll be havin' supper soon. Then we'll fix ya up a bedroll here by the fire. That should do ya 'til mornin'."

"Oh, I couldn't---"

"Nonsense. Ya have no horse and yer clothes are hours away from bein' wearable again. You'll stay, and I'll not hear another word about it."

JD nodded, grateful for the woman's hospitality.

"So you see, Mr. Tanner," Ezra continued his instructions as he dealt sixteen hand-selected cards face down onto the old sheriff's desk. "Patience, a positive attitude, discipline, an understanding and application of the basics, and excellent concentration are the key. Master these, my friend, and you shall be one up on any opponent who should walk into that saloon."

Vin simply nodded as he stared at the back sides of the cards.

"Now, for your next lesson: in draw poker, knowing what cards are on the table is the most important thing -- regardless of who your opponents are." Ezra then pointed to one of the cards. "Tell me what card this is."

"How should I know, Ezra? It's face down," the tracker stated the obvious.

"It's the Ace of Spades," Ezra declared, then explained before Vin could falsely accuse him of using marked cards, or otherwise cheating. "You see, unless you are playing with a brand-new deck -- and how often in this God-forsaken territory does that happen? -- every card has a particular wear pattern. It varies slightly from deck to deck, but it is human nature to obsess over certain things more than others. The Ace of Spades, for instance, gets more man-handling than any card player will admit, and it shows this affection accordingly with its worn, soiled edges." Ezra turned over the card for Vin's benefit.

Vin nodded again and Ezra continued. "So, do you see another unrevealed Ace of Spades here on the desk?"

Vin carefully looked over the cards. Then he boldly brought a hand up and finally fingered a card in the bottom row.

"A good guess, Mr. Tanner, but I'm afraid that is the Queen of Hearts."

Vin turned over the card and was disappointed to prove the gambler correct.

"Love, who can resist her? You see, the wear pattern is slightly different: it's more worn along the left edge where men tend to unconsciously caress her." The gambler turn both cards face down. Then instructed, "Try again."

And again Vin studied the cards, finally turning over the one in the upper right-hand corner.

It was the Ace of Spades!

"Very good, Mr. Tanner. Now, can you find the first Ace of Spades we saw?"

The look of assured confidence on Vin's face faded for a moment as he tried to remember, then, smiling, he found it and turned it over.

"Very good. Now, find the match to the Queen of Hearts."

That night, JD slept well; the fire was warm, and he felt very secure inside the small ranch house. But something woke him -- it was a familiar feeling and, yet, he knew he shouldn't be feeling it here. He turned over and looked about the dark room. JD was used to people watching over him as he slept -- he and the other men always took turns when they were out on the trail -- but he never expected to find Casey on vigil, in the rocking chair, all bundled up in a quilt.

"Casey?" he asked quietly, not quite sure if she was awake.

"Hi," she replied in a soft, sleepy voice.

The young man sat up, then stared at Casey for the few moments it took for his mind to clear. Finally, he spoke, somehow feeling very at ease in the darkness, "You know, it's warmer over here by the fire."

As if it were the most practical thing in the world to do, Casey accepted his invitation. They both huddled in their own blankets against the chill of the night air at their backs. As Casey bent forward, her quilt fell from her shoulders and JD was transfixed for a moment like a moth would have been by the fire she stoked. All he saw was the back of her white nightgown -- really no different than seeing her in a plain ol' shirt, like when they had been out at the pond, but here the bright light of the fire made the fabric translucent and he could see the outline of her sides as she reached further forward to poke at the logs with the iron rod.

JD had to look away, though he didn't want to, and when she leaned back he was somehow able to muster the presence of mind to picked up the corners of the quilt to place it around her again. His hand lingered on her shoulder then, and -- whether he drew her to him or merely followed her lead, JD did not know -- her head came to rest against his chest.

"Now, Mr. Tanner," Ezra went on, well past the hours of his watch over the captured members of the Barton Gang and nearly to the end of Vin's, though he hardly noticed the time. "What cards do I have?" he asked, indicating the stud poker hand he held.

Vin squinted his blue eyes at the backs of the cards, studying them.

"Remember what cards you've seen laid out, what cards you yourself hold . . ." Ezra prompted after a few moments.

But before Vin could formulate his response, the door of the jail house banged open, and a sharp, cold gust of wind blew Buck inside. "Oo-wee, fellas, that there is some nasty weather, not fit fer fish ner fowl!"

"Why, Mr. Wilmington, I thought you had retired for the evening," Ezra stated by way of greeting, the man's interruption not really a welcome one.

"Well, I had -- I mean, I intended to -- but on my way ta the boardin' house, I ran inta that sweet Susanna Hawkins; her pa's away and she had this one shutter at the back of her house that just wouldn't stop bangin'. Well, I ask ya fellas, what was I ta do but help the little lady out? And I don't have ta tell ya how appreciative she was of my assistance." Buck grinned over his shoulder at Ezra and Vin as he warmed himself in front of the small, iron stove.

Ezra exchanged a look with Vin -- both men knew Buck's general thoughts on women, and neither particularly shared his gregarious nature, nor fully understood it. Ezra prompted Vin back to the task at hand, "The cards?"

Vin nodded. "Jack of---"

But Buck almost immediately interrupted. "You all haven't seen JD, have you?"

The men shook their heads, and Vin continued, "--- Hearts. Seven of Spades---"

"Well, he ain't in his room," Buck went on as if he was the center of their attention.

"Neither are you, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra pointed out, then motioned for Vin to continue.

"Seven of Spades," the tracker repeated. "Six of . . . ."

"I checked over at the saloon, but that place's as empty as Josiah's church come Monday mornin'," Buck went on. "So, I figured he'd be here. But, he ain't, huh?"

"No, Buck, he ain't," Vin almost snapped, completely losing his concentration on the cards.

"Have you checked the livery?" Ezra suggested, anything to get the man out of the jail so that he could continue his instruction of Vin.

"The stables, of course." Buck snapped his fingers together repeatedly, unbelieving that the idea had not occurred to him sooner. "Bet that lil' ol' horse of his got frightened by all the lightnin'. JD probably just bedded down right there in the hay loft ta keep him company."

Vin and Ezra both nodded in agreement, but remained silent.

"Well, I suppose I ought ta go check on him, just ta make sure." But as Buck reached for the handle of the door, a gust of wind rattled the windows and heavy drops of rain tattered against the glass. "Then again, I'm sure he's fine. No sense in wakin' the boy after the day we've had."

Buck strode over to the desk, finally noticing the card game which appeared to be happening between Vin and Ezra. He pulled up a chair and sat down, asking, "Why don't ya fellas just deal me inta the next hand?"

~ Continues With Part Two ~