Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four
PURSUIT, continued Ezra and Vin
There was sun just peeking in through the windows when he thought he heard a voice: "You best be gettin' about yer chores."

It took JD a few deep breaths to remember where he was, but the voice was forgotten as if it had only been a dream. He squinted his eyes against the growing light of the morning, then tried to sit up, but could not. A weight held him firmly in place.

JD's first instinct was to struggle against it, move it off of him, but instead he smiled, then shook Casey's shoulder until her eyes blinked open. She stretched against him, then snuggled her face against his chest as she fell back asleep. JD knew he should wake her, knew there was something not right about the way she felt in his arms, but he drifted back to sleep even as he willed himself to rouse her again.

"Cassandra Penelope!" a voice boomed through the small house, and Casey shot straight up to her feet. JD rolled to his knees, grabbing for the guns which should have been strapped to his hips, but were not.

Without a word, Casey dashed off into the back bedroom, closing the door behind her. JD tried, with difficulty, to remember how to breathe again; his heart was pounding so hard he thought for certain it would explode inside his chest and seep out his ears. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to get hold of himself, before he began gathering the bedding off the bare, wood floor. As he stood, the kid caught a flash of the fully-clothed backside of Casey as she dashed out of the bedroom, through the kitchen, and presumably outside to begin her chores. JD remained where he was, folding up the bedroll and the quilted blankets, which he then piled as neatly as he could onto the rocking chair.

A tad embarrassed, and maybe even a bit guilty -- though nothing more than a bit of spooning had happened betwixt him and Casey -- JD entered the kitchen where Nettie stood in front of the large cast-iron stove.

She turned, holding up a flour-covered hand to stop JD from speaking. "Son, I know you have feelin's for Casey -- heck, it's probably more obvious to everyone in this territory than it is to the two of you -- but I just want you to remember two things. . . ."

JD waited, finding it hard to face Nettie Wells. But at least it wasn't like standing up to a desperate outlaw, the kid thought.

"Casey's just sixteen. And I own a Spencer carbine."

Nope, it was worse.

JD swallowed hard before choking out, "Yes, ma'am," in a tone of infinite understanding.

The woman gave him a quick nod, then turned back to the stove. A moment later, she placed a plate heaped full of eggs, ham, biscuits, and gravy on the table in front of him. After her reprimand, the kid fully expected to go hungry until he got back to town -- that's how his punishments always went when he was growing up, and he was a mighty hungry child -- so now all he could do was stare at the mound of food and wait for her to snatch it away from him as soon as he picked up a fork.

Instead, she said, "Well, go on, son. Eat up 'fore it gets cold."

And he did. It was the best food he'd had in a good long while -- since coming west, actually -- and he had no further hesitations about cleaning his plate.

Halfway through his meal, however, a knock sounded firmly on the front door. Nettie wiped her hands on her apron as she went to open it.

JD continued to eat, pausing only when he heard the familiar voice: "Ma'am, I'm lookin' fer JD. Is he here?" It was Buck, and sounding none too happy.

A moment later, the tall man stepped into the kitchen and glared at JD, who looked up and smiled, still chewing his last forkful, before returning his concentration to the remaining breakfast.

"Kid, do you have any idea how worried sick we all were? I left first thing this mornin' to look fer you, and here you sit, happy as a hog, stuffin' yer face."

"Would you care fer a plate, Mr. Wilmington?" Nettie asked, handing him one.

"No, thank you, ma'am," Buck politely replied as he took the food from her, pulled out a chair, and sat down to eat. Between bites, he updated JD on the Barton situation: "Chris and Vin headed west at dawn. There ain't any tracks left after last night's storm, but they're gonna ask around, maybe someone's seen somethin'." Nettie poured the boys each a cup of coffee and Buck took a long gulp before continuing, "Horse thieves. Worse than bank robbers, worse than murderers, at least in these parts."

JD finished his last swallow, setting his fork down and wiping his mouth on the small cloth Nettie had provided him. Then he stared at Buck, wondering how the man could talk so much and still manage to put away so much food in such a short period of time.

Finally, Buck noticed the kid staring at him. "Well, don't just sit there," he gestured with his momentarily empty fork. "Git yerself dressed so we can get after these desperadoes."

JD smiled, eager to be back on the trail hunting outlaws. Standing, he handed his plate and utensil to Nettie, then made his way into the front room where his clothes had been hung to dry over every free knob and chair. He gathered up all the various articles then took them into the back bedroom to change. The kid had been in this room the night before, but had failed to notice the small window which looked out into the yard, where Casey was now standing, scattering grain for a few chickens. Suddenly he was grabbed from behind.

"Dang it, Buck!" JD nearly shouted at his friend.

"Ain't got time fer that now, boy," Buck said smiling as he moved to the window, blocking JD's view. "We gotta git a move on."

"Buck . . . I lost my horse last night," the kid admitted sheepishly as he began to dress, discarding the borrowed long johns onto the bed, then pulling on his own.

"And he had the sense to come back to town. The question is, why didn't you?"

"I was talkin' to Yosemite, and he got me all worked up about the storm with his talk of tornadoes. I- I just got worried for. . . . Never mind." JD looked away from Buck and tried to concentrate on doing up the buttons of his trousers.

"Tornadoes?!" Buck was stunned beyond laughing. "JD, how many times do I have to tell you those dime novels just ain't true? You know, I've met Pecos Bill and he couldn't rope a steer much less a cyclone."

JD sighed as he pulled on his brown shirt, doing up the buttons before tucking the shirt tails into his pants. "Is there anybody famous you haven't met, Buck?"

"Nobody worth talkin' about." The older man smiled so big, the kid thought for sure his mustache would just about pop right off. "Now, what the hell happened to yer face?"

But before JD could again explain about getting caught in the hailstorm, they heard it.

A rifle shot. Then another.

Both men moved without thought or hesitation. The kid grabbed his guns off the rocking chair as he ran out the front door after Buck, with Nettie close on their heels.

Outside they heard Casey yelling -- "You come back here!" -- then saw her running full tilt from around the side of the barn, a shotgun in her hands, which she threw to the ground before grabbing the reins of the tethered white horse. Using the rails of the fence, she climbed onto the saddle, then kicked the horse into a gallop, around the empty corral then across the field.

"Hey, that's my horse!" Buck shouted after her.

But JD didn't waste his breath as he ran across the yard and grabbed his own mount. In a moment, he was in the saddle and riding hard in pursuit of Casey and whomever the hell she was after.

Ezra had told himself that he would not, under any circumstances, dirty the knees of his trousers. He refused to get down on all fours to inspect the soil for indications of . . . well, of Vin Tanner. And yet, he could not allow himself to be bested by this man -- this man who had persevered through every menial card-exercise which had been laid in front of him the night before. Ezra would not give up. No, he would carry on this menial quest, but in a manner befitting his gentlemanly stature.

"Ezra, what in blue blazes are you doin'?" Nathan asked from the doorway of the jail house as the Southerner slowly crept around from the side of the building, with his pale green eyes focused keenly on the ground.

"Hmm?" Ezra responded, then recognized the voice and immediately corrected his posture. "Not thing. Why- why do you ask?"

"'Cuz I ain't never seen you that close to dirt before without havin' been thrown down into it."

"Well, if you must know," Ezra glared, feeling for some reason compelled to explain his odd behavior to the healer. "I've, ah, misplaced something."

"Want me to help ya look?"

"No. No, thank you. That's quite all right. It's nothing important. Really," he assured Nathan before quickly changing the subject. "How are our prisoners holding up?"

"'Bout the same as yesterday. Still grumbling that Barton's gonna break 'em out any time now. Well, somethin' tells me they're gonna have a long wait." The man smiled and Ezra found it contagious.

Ezra liked Nathan, he had to admit; he'd even come to respect the man. Maybe it was because, of the other men hired to protect this town, the former slave was the only one who still held firm to his reservations about the gambler. Never trust a man who trusts you more than you trust yourself, Ezra's mother had once told him, and, while he didn't often trust his mother, she did indeed know more than a thing or two about human nature -- it was, after all, her sole means of support.

Ezra put his fingers to the brim of his hat before casually moving off down the street, turning the nearest corner as soon as he was certain Nathan was no longer watching.

JD caught up with Casey at the river; Buck's horse had never been overly fond of water and it was all Casey could do to get the beast to even get his hooves wet.

"Dang it, Casey," JD shouted at her. "What the hell are you doin'?"

"Tryin'" -- she kicked at the horse -- "to get" -- she kicked again and was rewarded with a single step -- "this" -- she slapped the horse's neck with the reins -- "stupid" -- she kick a third time only to have the horse take two steps backward -- "horse" -- she gave up -- "to cross this blasted river!" Then she turned her frustration on JD, "Why, what's it look like I'm doin': fishin'?!"

"Casey---" His tone instinctively matched hers, but then he checked himself. "What's got into you? Who were you shootin' at?"

"They took our horses, JD. Stole 'em right outta the corral!" Casey was still extremely upset, even after nearly an hour's ride, so JD did his best to talk calmly, like Josiah did, to settle her down and try to get the answers he needed.

"Who? Who took the horses, Casey?"

"I don't know," she shook her head and nearly groaned in frustration. Then she added, "Three men."

"The Barton Gang." JD had suspected as much, but now he was certain -- there were only three of them still on the loose.

"The outlaws you were trackin' yesterday?"

"We've caught most of 'em," JD explained. "Chris and Vin are out searchin' right now."

"Well, they're obviously lookin' in the wrong spot because they're here. They took off up this river -- probably to hide their tracks. And we better get after 'em or we're gonna lose 'em fer sure."

"Ain't no 'WE' about this, Casey. YOU are gonna ride home and give Buck back his horse, and I'm gonna head on up this river after those men---" But Casey interrupted him before he could finish. She could be so dang frustrating at times, JD raged to himself. Why didn't she ever just do as he asked? Why couldn't she see he was right once in a while?

"JD, there are three of 'em -- you can't take 'em all on yourself."

"Oh, and wasn't that your brilliant plan when you came ridin' out here after 'em?"

"Fine, so it was a dumb thing fer me to do, but at least I didn't ride all the way out here without my boots!!"

JD glared at her for pointing out the fact; he'd just run right out after her without a single thought for himself. The kid just thanked God that at least he was wearing more than just his long johns! "I ain't gonna try and capture 'em all by myself," he assured her, though, he thought, she really ought to have more faith in him than that. "I'll wait for Buck to catch up, and between the two of us---"

"That's gonna take too much time, JD. By the time I get home and Buck gets back here, they're gonna be long gone -- 'sides, this poor horse'll be exhausted by then and not much use to anybody."

JD hesitated. She had a point. A good point. But he shook his head anyway. "Look, this ain't your job."

"No, but those are my horses." She kicked Buck's horse again, this time getting him to take a few steps into the cold water of the stream.

"Okay, okay," JD relented. "But, let's head this way." JD pointed to the path which ran parallel to the river. "The Barton Gang may not want to leave any tracks, but in case Buck or the others come lookin', I'd like for them to be able to find us."

Casey readily agreed, and Buck's horse happily responded to the opportunity to get back on dry land.

The two galloped along for some distance, keeping an eye on the river for any possible signs of the horse thieves. At any point the outlaws could have veered off back onto dry land -- especially with the varying depth of the river after last night's torrential storm -- but JD saw no indication of it -- not that he would ever be near the tracker that Vin was, but he had been trying to pay attention to what the man did when they'd been out together.

Soon, they ran out of dry land, or rather the path they were following curved west away from the river. "We're gonna have to ford here," JD explained, pulling his horse to a stop.

Casey didn't look in the least bit happy about that after the struggle she'd lost to Buck's horse downstream. "Are you gettin' tired, Casey? You can turn back if you want," he offered. He was glad for her company -- as always, she made a good riding companion -- but he really had no idea what sort of trouble they might be heading into, how desperate these horse thieves might be.

"I ain't goin' back, JD, so you can just stop askin'."

The kid gave in again, knowing there was no way to either convince her or force her to return home. She was as determined to prove herself as he was, and he found that he admired her for it -- where he had only age and inexperience to overcome, she also had her gender. Most men, no matter what a woman did, would never think of her as either capable or equal. It was a fact of life, but damn if Casey didn't just keep trying, as frustrating as that was sometimes.

JD directed his horse to the bank, sipping from his canteen as he allowed the horse to drink its fill from the river. Casey followed the kid's lead, sipping the water from Buck's canteen. If they weren't out after those bandits, JD was of a mind to just sit himself down in the sun and enjoy the remainder of the day here. Never in his life had he had as much fun in and around water as he did with Casey; maybe, once they caught these thieves, they could come back out this way, spend the day just messing around, digging for worms, fishing. . . . JD looked over at the far bank of the river and noticed a tree whose branches hung out over the water, just perfect for hitching a rope-swing to.

But they did have these thieves to catch, so JD motioned to Casey as he kicked his horse into the river.

"Hey!" Casey called, and JD turned to see her struggling with the gelding once again. "How does Buck get this stupid horse to go, anyway?"

JD smiled. "Well, like he does with women, Buck's got a way with horses." He circled back, took hold of one of the reins from Casey and began to lead them out into the rushing water.

They were only halfway across when a rifle shot rang out.

Buck's horse skittered wildly, causing JD's horse to rear, sending the kid right out of his saddle and into the river. The bay gelding bolted away as another shot was fired into the water beside JD, who quickly scrambled to his feet. Casey lent him her arm and a moment later he was behind her in the saddle, galloping downstream. A slight bend in the course was all the reason Buck's horse needed to get back on dry land. JD indicated an outcropping of shrubs, and Casey was able to pull the horse up behind it, asking, "Why are we stoppin'? Aren't we goin' after 'em?"

"No," he whispered in her ear, then quickly slid from the horse, instantly regretting his missing shoes as the twigs and dry leaves poked into his soles. But he fought down the pain as he explained the situation to Casey: "Look, we think there are three men out there, but there could be more, and we don't know how many guns they have. Plus, we're not gonna get far with just one horse." Casey seemed to agree with this and dismounted as well, but JD continued -- he needed to convince her that heading home was now the best thing. "Besides, you're not even armed---"

But the quick-witted girl promptly rectified the latter part of the situation by grabbing one of JD's ivory-handled revolvers. "Hey!" JD whispered harshly, then he frowned. "I need that, Casey."

"So do I. 'Sides, you've got another one," she smirked at him.

"That's not the point and you know it. Now give it back." The young woman shook her head defiantly. "Casey, we don't have time to argue about this."

"Then don't argue about it," she countered logically.

But JD was just as obstinate as she was, especially when he felt he was right and that Casey ought to be listening to him. He grabbed for the gun, but she turned as far away as the thick shrubbery would allow, which wasn't far enough to prevent JD from getting his hands around her waist. He pulled her back, spinning her around to face him, as Casey held her arm out to keep the gun out of his reach. JD pulled her close against himself, trying to hold the squirming girl with one arm so that he could reach the gun with his other, but the feeling of her small body against his brought memories of the night before flooding back into his mind: how they had laid together next to the fire, her slow breath against his neck as she slept, her arm resting gently on his chest, her soft hair beneath his hand.

JD had wanted to kiss her then -- last night -- and he wanted to kiss her now.

But the very thought, not to mention Nettie's earlier threat, scared the kid and he let her go. "Fine," JD managed to say as he cleared his throat and took a deep breath, trying to focus his thoughts back on the shooter up the river and what the heck they were going to do next. JD peered over the tops of the bushes, and watched for a long moment.

"Are they comin'?" Casey asked, nervously pressing in next to him to try and see whatever it was he was looking at.

He shook his head. "Come on." JD pointed down river as he pushed Casey ahead of him through the bushes, the white horse bringing up the rear. JD didn't know exactly how much time they had to find his horse, but he knew it wasn't a lot, even if the gunman had moved on -- they still either had to follow him or turn back, and they couldn't do either with just one horse. He prayed that his horse didn't have the sense this time to head back to town without him!

Without a word between them, the two walked through the bushes until they came upon a narrow dirt road which ran off east from the river. Thinking it quieter, easier, and faster to travel that way, JD directed Casey with a slight nod. He then took the opportunity to check the sky -- the sun was nearing noon, and, while he had had a huge breakfast, he was pretty sure Casey hadn't eaten anything. They walked on for a ways longer, until Casey's pace slowed just a bit. JD then found, at the edge of a field, a couple of trees for them to rest under. He dug into Buck's saddle bags, then handed Casey the canteen and some jerkied beef before sitting down next to her on the ground. His feet hurt so bad -- though he didn't want to admit it -- it would be hard for him to get up again and walk. He pulled one of his feet up and gingerly removed the now-filthy woolen sock, which Casey had loaned him the night before.

"Here, let me do that," Casey said, handing him the water and remaining pieces of food. She moved to sit in front of him, then pulled his one bare foot into her lap -- her small hands felt soft on the skin of his ankles, but when she touched his sole, he had to suck in air to keep from crying out in pain. "You've got a big ol' splinter, JD. How'd you even manage to walk on this?"

He shook his head, fearing the sound that might come out if he tried to speak. Casey reached for the water, which she then trickled over his dirty foot -- JD was surprised that it not only didn't hurt, but that it actually felt good.

She then pulled a small knife out of her pocket and said, "Maybe you outta not watch me do this." But he couldn't tear his eyes away as the knife came closer to his foot. The hand Casey still had on his ankle tightened slightly as she shoved his heel against the crook of her knee. Her eyes squinted and she bit down on the side of her lower lip in concentration. JD felt the sharp tip of the knife against his skin; he felt it, but, to his amazement, it didn't really hurt. She moved the knife around for a while, before she finally set it aside on her leg. Then he felt something soft -- her fingers -- which almost tickled. A moment later, she presented him with a thorn, a quarter inch long. He sighed heavily, finally allowing himself to lean back against the tree trunk.

"That should feel a lot better," Casey declared. "But you should get Nathan to look at it when we get back."

"Thanks," he smiled at her.

Casey nodded, then pulled his sock back onto his foot. Then she took his other foot in her hands and removed its sock. She poured a little bit of water from the canteen into her hand, then rubbed it over the bottom of his foot -- the slight pressure from her palm felt so soothing and JD suddenly realized how tense he still was. He allowed himself to relax for a moment, closing his eyes, as she gently washed his foot. He felt her fingers on the soft skin on the top of his foot, then on his ankle, again like the night before, and, despite the warmth and humidness of the day, a small shiver coursed over him.

"JD, you okay?" she asked, and he opened his eyes to see her staring concerned at him. He nodded, and she said, "This foot's not so bad -- just a few scratches." Then she laughed, "I still can't believe you came out here without your boots."

"Yeah, well, I'll try and remember 'em next time you set out by yourself after a bunch of horse thieves!"

Casey grimaced, tossed his sock at him, then returned to her place against the tree trunk. He offered her the jerky again, which she took without a thank you and began to chew on.

JD sat in silence for a moment, but then had to say something, so he told her his plan: "After we find my horse, we'll head back to your place." The girl frowned at him stubbornly. "Casey, think about it: there's just two of us and at least three of them, maybe more. They've got rifles and we've only got my two pistols. If we go back and get the others we'll have no trouble catching these men and recovering your horses."

"Yeah, if you can find 'em again. What makes you think you can?"

JD sighed. "We can. We know about where they left the river, Vin can easily pick up their trail from there."

Casey looked away -- she didn't want to go back, JD knew that, but he wasn't completely sure why. He knew she wanted her horses back, he knew she felt the need to prove herself, but this was the most sensible thing to do, and he always thought her a practical, if stubborn, girl. She was holding back about something. "Casey...?"

"What?" she said flatly, without turning to face him.

"Nothin'." JD dropped his chin to his chest, tired and frustrated, and not knowing what to say to get her to talk. When he glanced back up, he saw a patch of brown at the far side of the grassy field.

JD stood up, then nearly passed out from the sharp pain that shot up from the soles of his feet to the top of his head! Casey put a hand on his leg and asked, "Where you goin'?" Later, when he regained control of his senses, he was glad that she hadn't seen the look of anguish on his face.

"It's my horse." He mounted Buck's gelding, then looked down at Casey. "Wait here," JD ordered in a tone he hoped she wouldn't ignore, then jogged the horse across the field, wishing, just in case the thieves had followed them, that he didn't have to make himself such an easy target. The kid slowed when he neared his bay. JD had spent most of his years as a stable hand, so, unlike with Casey, he had confidence that the tone and the volume he used with the horse would get him his desired results. "Hey, fella," he said, just above a whisper. "There ya go. Good boy. Come on, it's okay."

The horse allowed JD to just walk right up to him. Then it was only a simple matter of grabbing hold of the loose reins.

Minutes later, he was back with Casey at the trees. He handed her the reins, but did not dismount himself, unable to bear the agony of any more pressure on the sole of his feet. As Casey led the horse a few steps away to begin checking him over, JD spotted something dark on his croup. "Casey," he pointed to alert her.

She ran her hand along the horse's side but when she neared the spot JD had indicated, the gelding began to grumble. "JD, he's bleedin'!"

JD eased Buck's horse up beside to take a closer look. "Damn. Bullet wound -- looks like it just grazed him, though. Guess that's why he took off like the Devil had his tail." JD checked Buck's saddle bags, but came up empty handed. "I never thought I'd say this, but I wish we had some of your Aunt Nettie's salve right now."

Casey smiled sadly. "Actually, you could use some more of that stuff yourself." She pointed, and when JD brushed his hand against his cheek, it came away spotted with blood -- the cuts he'd received during the hailstorm were far from healed, though they thankfully weren't giving him any pain.

Still, if Casey thinking that he was hurting was enough of a reason to get her to head home, then JD was more than willing to swallow his pride. And "All the more reason to head back."

And Casey didn't protest this time. Instead, she took another few minutes to finish checking the horse over -- and, other than a small pebble wedged in his hoof which she dislodged with her finger, she found nothing else wrong. The girl mounted JD's horse and headed west, back towards the river, without another word. JD wished there was another way for them to get home, but there wasn't: to the east were some canyons, and he had no idea what sort of trail wound through them; to the south was the field they had rested beside and heavy brush, too thick in places to easily pass through; to the north were the horse thieves, and he hoped that they stayed there, that those gunshots were only warnings to stop him and Casey from following.

As they trotted down the road, JD noticed a chilling in the air and a slight breeze. He looked up and realized that the clear, blue sky of the morning was beginning to be obscured by gray, storm clouds. He hoped they would make it home in time to avoid the worst of it. He thought about saying something to Casey. She'd lived in these parts for years, since her parents had died and Nettie took her in -- she might know of some shelter between here and her ranch, if worse came to worst.

But before he could speak, he saw a distant horseman on the road. These horse thieves were desperate if they thought it necessary to pursue him and Casey -- two kids who could have appeared nothing more than determined. Sure, JD knew that he could hold his own for a while against a few of them, and that there were six others who would be out here to clean up whatever he left undone, but did the horse thieves know that?

"Casey, turn your horse around."


"Do it," he ordered as he pointed up the road just as a single rifle shot was fired at them. Casey turned the horse but then hesitated when JD did not follow suit. He didn't have time to argue with her as he saw the lone horseman galloping towards them. He had to buy them a little time and he had to keep Casey safe, so JD slapped her horse with the end of his rein, confident that she would keep her seat. Then he drew his gun, checked it, and waited.

As the horseman neared, JD saw him raise his rifle, and the kid knew there wasn't a thing he could do at this range, so he did nothing. JD heard the rifle shot, and somewhere in the back of his mind he thought he felt the bullet brush past his sleeve.

JD watched the horseman approach, near enough that he could see the man cock his rifle then raise it again to aim. A shot rang out and he fell from his horse. JD quirked a smile, holstered his warm gun, then took off at full tilt after Casey.

It took him a couple of miles to catch Casey -- to her credit she never looked back once, never slowed her horse. He was pleased that she trusted him so much when it counted. JD, however, did look back, often. Aside from the fact that he couldn't be certain that he'd killed the horseman, the young man needed to know if any of the other thieves were in pursuit. He had no way of knowing if that was the only man who had stayed behind to deter -- or kill -- them.

When JD pulled up beside Casey, she looked over and he nodded. Relief washed over her features, but she didn't slow her horse any until he did.

"Thanks for loanin' me yer cards, Ezra," Vin had said as he was preparing to head out with Chris that morning, in search of the three remaining members of the Barton Gang. "I don't suppose you'll have any trouble findin' where I left 'em," the tracker grin with that mischievous smile Ezra always forgot the man possessed.

"Find?" Ezra questioned in disbelief. This wasn't exactly how he had hoped his tracking lessons would progress. He wanted advice, pointers, tricks of the trade, not a childish scavenger hunt!

But Vin just nodded at him before stepping off the boardwalk and directly into his stirrup to mount his horse. Chris rode up beside him with a simple, "Ready?"

"Nearly," Vin replied before turning back to Ezra. "Do me a favor?"

A favor? Ezra questioned silently with the simple raising a fine eyebrow. Unbelievable. After I spent half the night teaching him trade secrets, Ezra raved to himself, this man has the nerve to hide my cards -- one of my favorite decks, for that matter -- and now he has the unmitigated gall to ask me for a favor! Ezra was ready to turn away, to call off the entire barter -- just cut your losses while you still can, Standish, he told himself.

But Vin raised his left foot to the Southerner. "Tell me somethin' -- do I have mud on the bottom of my boot?"

Ezra stared as if Vin had lost his mind. But then he noticed, the tracker did have mud on his boot. And not the brown mud here in the main street -- this mud was grayish. He also noticed a large gouge in the center of Vin's boot heel.

Ezra looked up to meet the other man who was squinting his eyes in a smile, then Vin spurred his horse along side Chris's as they headed west out of town.

That had been hours ago, not long past dawn. Not long after JD's horse had come traipsing, riderless, into town, and his friends had finally realized that the lad had been missing all night. Not long after Buck had uncharacteristically forgone breakfast in search of JD.

Ezra smiled. It was not a job for a tracker, that. They all knew where JD had gone -- it wasn't something any of them needed to figure out or reason why, they just knew. But they did all hoped that the kid had made it safely to Casey's house before the worst of the storm had struck.

So, Ezra now found himself skulking about town, examining the color of the soil in various corners and alleyways. Looking for that grayish mud. Looking for signs of a boot print with a gouged heel. Looking for his precious, expensive deck of playing cards. And vowing that never again would he loan any of his personal possessions to anyone.

"Ah, hah!" Ezra exclaimed, much louder than he realized, as he snatched the deck of cards from beneath the wooden crate out behind the Grain Exchange and nearly danced a gig. It had taken him most of the day to find them, but find them he did. And he not only found them, he tracked them down, following Vin's uniquely defective boot-print through the slowly drying mud of the streets, deciphering the lay of a broken stalk of wild oats, noting the disturbed layer of dust on the stack of wooden crates, until the cards nearly jumped out and bit him like the pack of wily snakes that only he knew them to truly be.

The gambler slipped the cards happily into his pocket as he strode back toward the main street. And as he rounded the corner, he saw a lone figure walking wearily into town. Ezra stood in wonder, knowing the form of the man who approached. He moved to greet him. "Buck? Where's your horse?"

"I'd like to know that myself," he said a bit too harshly.

"You didn't run into the horse thieves, did you?" Ezra could only guess that the man had been ambushed, his horse stolen right out from under him.

"No, just one. Just one by the name of Miss Casey Wells!"

This revelation did indeed surprise the Southerner. How that little girl had gotten a hold of Buck's big ol' horse let alone up into the saddle was a tale he would indeed like to hear. But Buck didn't seem in the mood to talk about it just yet -- perhaps a few beers would do the trick, Ezra thought.

As they walked together toward the saloon, he changed the subject. "So, where's JD?"

But Buck just glared and Ezra instantly realized that the answer to his first question was the answer to his second. But why Casey and JD were out riding when there were outlaws to be caught he could not possibly fathom.

The pair rode on in silence for a long while, still east, still further from town, their only safe choice of direction. JD began to notice the wind again, which was getting much stronger, and the sky, which was now nearly void of any blue patches. For the first time, he realized not only had he taken off after Casey without his shoes, he had forgotten his coat as well. It would be as little protection against the rain today as it had been yesterday, but it had been something. He noticed Casey didn't have a coat either -- just her white shirt and overalls.

The plants were beginning to thin and JD realized how close they were, finally, to the canyons. "Casey, you been out this way before?"

She shook her head. "Not this far. Why?"

"Just wonderin', you know, in case we need some shelter from the rain."

"It ain't gonna rain, JD," she laughed. "Not much anyway. Look." She pointed north, to a patch of very dark clouds which seemed to touch the hills below them. "The wind's blowin' the storm past us, not towards us."

"Well, that's somethin' anyway," JD sighed in relief -- another storm was the last thing he needed right now. But as they continued to ride, a fine mist began. It wasn't enough to deter their progress, but in combination with his still river-damp trousers, JD felt a distinct chill set in, especially as the sun began to descend behind them.

And as the sky ahead grew darker, JD knew that the moon would not be visible tonight -- it would make it difficult for them to press on along this unfamiliar path, especially through the rugged canyon, but luckily it would also make them harder to find, if the thieves were indeed on their trail. "Casey, we do need to find some shelter before it gets dark."

She agreed and they kept on, hoping for an outcropping of trees, a nook, anything. "I doubt we're gonna find enough dry wood to make a fire, though."

"Doesn't matter. We can't risk the flames bein' spotted by anyone. We're just gonna have to use the bedrolls to keep warm, and hope it doesn't get too cold." In that sense, the clouds would work to their benefit, keeping some of the warmth of the day from escaping into the night sky.

Buck had related the unmitigated account to Ezra over the course of three beers and one hardy meal prepared by Inez, still the manager of the saloon, despite its change of management. Like his mother before, the new owners were quite happy to allow Senorita Recillos to collect their profits while they lounged elsewhere in, presumably, less-dusty surrounding; and leave it to all of them, including the beautiful barkeep, to forget that it was Ezra himself who had first seen fit to hire her into the establishment, when the place had been his for those three wonderfully precious, dream-fulfilling days last summer.

His first failed long-term business-venture. Would it be his last? Ezra wondered, as Buck droned on about his long, horseless, walk back from Nettie's ranch. Undoubtedly, if his mother had anything to do with it. A business was to be bought for a little and sold for a lot -- profit, it was the only thing that mattered. Those had been the bylaws of his upbringing. Those and one unspoken tenet: anything which ties you down, obligates you to anything or anyone, is to be avoided at all cost. It was the reason his mother had never stayed married, and the reason he was an only child. It was also the one thing he had never understood: he had been that obligation that she had always taught him to avoid. And how easy it had been to avoid him when Ezra had been young, fostering him off on some relative or other, or on a nanny when her current husband had been of both a prosperous and generous nature, yet now when he sought to make his own way in the world and would do best to av! oid her she would show up to teach him some new axiom to her age-old philosophy of life, a philosophy which inevitably ended in her being the one making the profit even if it were at her son's expense.

So, indeed, it did appear that the Standish Tavern would be both his first and last attempt at a long-term endeavor -- perhaps his mother was right, it is simply not in the Standish nature to settle for such menial things, when a new mark and a new challenge awaits around every corner.

Buck's drinking and eating had, naturally, taken longer than the telling of the tale even with his innate tendency to pontificate, elaborate, and digress. And by the time the two had arrived at the jail, it was sunset, and Chris and Vin were just arriving back in town.

"Gentlemen," Ezra greeted them with the tip of his hat as they dismounted. "I take it that your search was fruitless."

Chris nodded, "'Fraid so -- no one saw anyone suspicious and no one had any new reports of missin' horses."

"And what about you, Ezra?" Vin questioned as he and Chris both dismounted.

"My day was most fruitful, thank you," he reported, patting the pocket where he had placed the recovered deck of cards. "But, you really should hear about Buck's day, as its events are far more pertinent than my own to our problem at hand."

Chris stuck his head in through the doorway of the jail and a moment later both Nathan and Josiah joined them on the boardwalk. Buck told his story again -- far more succinctly this time, with the skilled prompting of his long-time-friend, Chris Larabee.

"We best head out to Nettie's tonight," Chris decided. "It has to have been the last three Barton's -- we're gonna need to get as much of a head start as we can."

The six looked at each other, but it was Vin who spoke what was on everyone's mind. "If the kid's not back at the ranch, it shouldn't be hard to track him. Either way, we'll find 'em all tomorrow."

"But what about our dear guests?" Ezra indicated the full jail-house which he leaned against.

Chris smiled that chilling grin which he usually reserved for cocky, fool-hardy men out to test his gun-fighting skills. "We'll give Mary the keys . . . and a rifle. Though I doubt she'll need either."

"Fer the sake of Judge Travis, let's hope not" -- Vin grinned from beneath the brim of his slouch hat -- "it'd be a shame fer him to come all this way to find an empty jail and a full cemetery."

As they entered the canyon, JD and Casey lost sight of the setting sun, leaving only its pale reflection on the gray clouds to illuminate the rough trail. JD had noticed a small grove of oaks some ways earlier, if worse came to worst, but he hated to have to backtrack and they really wouldn't offer them much cover. Still, he thought, they had better find some shelter soon, or they would lose all the light and not be able to find their way back out of the canyon, and camping right on the narrow trail was something he preferred not to do.

"JD, I---" Casey turned and looked back at him, then suddenly pointed with a good measure of triumph. "Hey, look: a cave!"

JD turned to where Casey was pointing. Across the canyon on the far wall, there was a good-sized cave which was only visible once it had been passed -- Casey'd had the good fortune of checking over her shoulder at just the right time. JD scanned the trail before them and the steep drop deeper into the canyon beside them, but he saw no way for them to cross to the other side, most especially with their horses, and they needed their horses.

"Nice try, but we can't get across."

She sighed, then resumed looking.

It was almost too dark to see by the time they came to it: a widening of the trail, a plateau, ending in a small cave. The pair dismounted and JD handed Casey his reins. He walked around checking, as best he could in the faint light, the far side of the canyon, the trail to the south, the rim above the plateau, and finally the walls of the cave, which felt almost as if someone had intentionally carved the small cavern into the sandstone.

Casey secured the horses to a small shrub just off the trail, then loosened the saddles, and unpacked the bedrolls before joining JD at the opening of the cave. "Your bedroll is soakin' wet -- it's not gonna do us any good tonight," she announced as she laid the useless article across some nearby rocks to dry.

"I guess Buck's will have to do then." JD reasoned, "We should be pretty well sheltered inside here, so hopefully it'll keep you warm enough."

"Me? What about you?"

"I'll be fine. I'll be up on watch anyway. I just wish I'd remembered my coat as well as my shoes!" He was able to laugh this time at his misfortune, and, this time, Casey smiled in sympathy.

"You should rest first," she said, unfurling Buck's dry bedroll inside the cave. "You've had a harder two days than I have."

"It don't feel right, you bein' on watch, Casey."

"Why? 'Cuz I'm a girl?" she asked, with a defiant tilt of her chin. The young man did not answer. "You can't stand watch all night, JD, then expect to be any use to us tomorrow. And if you're worried about me, don't be." Casey placed a reassuring hand on his arm.

"But I am, Casey. I can't help it. I- I care what happens to you. If anything did . . . ." He didn't know what he'd do, but he did know how he'd feel: torn apart. JD had told her he cared, sure, but had he ever showed her? Had he ever brought her flowers or . . . or held her hand . . . touched her hair . . . kissed her?

He hadn't. He'd been too scared. But now, well, now JD was more scared of not ever getting around to doing any of those things.

And here she was, just inches from him, her hand gently resting on his arm. How easy it would be, not to think, not to listen, but just to let it happen, finally.

And it was easy to just slip his arm around her waist, to draw her small body close against him, as she slid her arms around him. No effort at all. To simply lean in and press his lips against hers. To allow the rest of the world to fade from their minds; there were no horse thieves, there was no canyon, no rain nor wind. They were of one mind and had not a single thought for their friends or their family. They had only each other. And that was more than enough.

Once dressed again, JD wrapped the bedroll around Casey's shoulders, kissed her lips, then grabbed his gun belt and fastened it about his waist as he walked out onto the plateau. He first checked the horses and found them still secured where Casey had left them. The kid hated to leave them saddled, but the minutes they would save by only having to secure the cinches might make all the difference should they need to make a run for it. JD would not make the mistake again of risking Casey's life, no matter what her reasons or protests.

He then walked out to the trail, checking both north and south, but the darkness of the overcast night was complete and he could see nothing. Still, as he walked back to the cave JD glanced up at the rim of the canyon, looking and listening for any possible hint of movement, but finding none. Back inside the cave, he found Casey dozing against the side wall; she woke just long enough to allow him into the wrap of the bedroll. JD placed an arm behind her shoulders and drew her closer, as she slipped an arm around his waist, nestling her head against his chest.

JD fell asleep breathing in the comforting smell of her.

~ Continues With Part Three ~