Falls No Snow

"I sure do thank ya fer your help."

"It's my pleasure, ma'am," Vin Tanner said, tipping his hat to the only woman who had ever reminded him of his ma. He smiled at the small memory he still had of his mother and knew that this was a way to show her how helpful a son he would have been to her.

As they stepped out onto the porch, Nettie Wells grabbed a heavy, knit scarf off the peg just inside the door. "You take this, son. It hasn't been this cold in these parts since . . . I don't remember when."

A polite decline of the woman's kindness died on Vin's lips as he remembered just how bitter-cold the ride over to the ranch that morning had been. There was no snow and there was not a cloud in sight, but Vin was sure that was only making it feel colder. At least there was no wind . . . yet -- that would certainly make being outside unbearable, even for him.

With a smile and a sincere thank-you, he took the scarf and wrapped it once around his neck before tucking the frayed ends under the collar of his leather coat. If this cold kept up, he was gonna have to think about getting something a bit more suitable -- like that thick, wool coat JD had been sporting about town for the last week. It made him look even more out of place than usual, but he was the only one not complaining about the cold.


"So, you wanna come?" Casey asked JD, trying to sound like she didn't care if he said no, which he didn't say. Instead, he raised his eyebrows, making Casey realize that he had not been paying attention to what she'd been telling him for the last five minutes.

"Come? Where?"

"Skating! The pond's frozen over -- hasn't been all the way solid in years," Casey explained, again.

"Skating? Now that's somethin' I never thought I'd see done out here." JD tipped his bowler hat back on his head, finally looking at her -- and making her suddenly self-conscious. He did know, after all, Casey suddenly remembered, what she looked like in her bloomers.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she huffed, trying to hide the blush she could feel now warming her face. Why she ever let that Buck Wilmington talk her into dressing up fancy, pretending she was something she's not, Casey would never know.

"Just that ice skatin' isn't somethin' you think about when you think about the west. Sure people in New York and Philadelphia and St. Louie do it all winter long, but not way out here," he said, incredulously, shaking his head, obviously sure of his current view of the world.

"City folk go skatin'? Yeah? Where?" She didn't believe him anymore than he seemed to believe her.

"They got lakes -- right there in their city parks. Heck, there was a lake that froze over every winter right near where I grew up."

The smugness did not suit him, Casey thought. He thinks he's so smart; well, she was plenty smart, too! "I bet you don't even know how to skate."

"Course I do." JD Dunne sat up and looked her straight in the eye, and she couldn't help but notice how wonderful his eyes were -- not really brown at all, but a mix of green and brown and gold that only made them look dark from a distance. "But that don't mean I'm goin' skatin' with you," he finished, sitting back in the chair again, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Why? 'Fraid I'm better at it than you?"

"Hardly," he scoffed. "You just said you hadn't been skating in years, I used to go all the time, every winter. I bet I could show you a trick or two."

"Deal." Ha! She knew she could outsmart him!

"Oh, no. I didn't mean---"

"You go grab yer horse," Casey called over her shoulder as she hopped off the boardwalk and ran across the street. "I'll meet you back here. I gotta fetch the skates."

"Girls," JD said with a deep sigh.

Casey knew that he didn't think she'd heard him, but with the air so cold and still, sounds echoed much more than usual. And, she knew he would go with her. He might not horse race her or wanna play mumblety-peg with her, but skating was just skating. And maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that he was probably better at it than she was. Besides, she reasoned, maybe that Mr. Wilmington was actually right about one thing: it's no fun when one person is better at everything, all the time.

Casey reached the blacksmith's shop not too out of breath. He had kindly agreed to put aside his other jobs in order to tend to the honing of her skates so that she might use them that very afternoon. Casey had not told the man whom the other pair of skates were for, and he had not asked, but somehow she felt that it had made all the difference to him that she had brought in two pairs instead of just the one. She had also not mentioned that the skates had belong to her parents. For some reason her aunt had kept them, and the first icy winter Casey was old enough to remember, Aunt Nettie had dug them out and taught her how to use them. She remembered laughing so hard that she could barely stand up on the blades -- at least, that's the reason Casey insisted on telling herself -- when her aunt had told her what it had been like teaching Casey's father, Nettie's younger brother, how to skate when they were children. He had fallen so many times that he'd actually dented the ice! Then he'd had to eat standing up for the next week because of all the bruises on his backside. And, of course, after that he'd been a perfect angel, because his fear of a spanking had never been so great.

The blacksmith caught Casey grinning and smiled back at her. "You have a good time with these -- you haven't forgotten how to use 'em, have you?"

"No, sir. It's been a while, but I'm sure I remember. Aunt Nettie's a real good teacher. Thank you!" With the blades clutched tight in her gloved hands, Casey ran back towards the main street, wondering if JD had saddled his horse yet. As she came around the corner, she caught sight of the dark-bay gelding tethered to the hitching post outside the sheriff's office; however, she failed to see Vin Tanner turning the corner from the opposite direction. The two crashed hard into each other, but somehow Casey was the only one who ended up on the ground.

"Are you all right?" Vin said, trying to help up the poor girl, though Casey felt far more embarrassed than injured.

"'Sorry, Vin," she hastily apologized as she got to her feet and brushed the dirt from her clothes.

"What's yer hurry, anyways?"

"I'm goin' skatin'," Casey beamed, producing the one blade she had managed to hang onto.

Vin smiled and nodded, before bending over to retrieve the ice skate which had fallen at his feet. "Then this must belong to you."

"Thank you," Casey replied, still slightly winded. She quickly found the other pair of skates and was ready to rush off when Vin stopped her.

"Casey, would you return this scarf your aunt lent me?" The girl nodded absently but did not take the scarf -- her thoughts were again on JD's horse tethered across the street and her worries were directed at wondering how long JD might be willing to wait for her return. "Actually, if you're goin' skatin', maybe you better just wear this," Vin said, as he loosely wound the beige scarf around the girl's neck, being rewarded for his chivalry with another moment of her attention.

"I'll make sure Aunt Nettie gets this back," she said, rushing out of Vin's hands as soon as he finished speaking.


Nettie Wells had been kind enough to feed him before he'd left her ranch -- the first home-cooked, decent meal he'd had in ages -- so, after his stop at the blacksmith's to arrange for the re-shoeing of his horse, Vin by-passed the town's only restaurant on his way to the saloon.

The place was a good deal more crowded than he'd expected, but then, he reckoned, it was miserable cold outside and a good shot of whiskey, whether it actually warmed you or not, always seemed to at least make you not mind the weather quite so much. It was no surprise to Vin to find Chris Larabee occupying his usual table -- that man spent more time in the saloon than Ezra. But, it wasn't like he had a problem with the alcohol -- no, he could handle the rot-gut just fine -- it was his past that gave him troubles. Vin didn't know too much about Chris's past. Hell, they all had things they didn't want to talk about -- things that'd been done to them as well as things they'd done. Well, each one of them except, maybe, JD, and, as such, he probably knew more about them all now than anyone. And, it wasn't just because he asked questions. It was more like . . . like he was just so open to things; you could tell the kid anything and he believed you. You could just sit there and watch his view of the world shift slightly around him, but he never judged, never thought less of you once he'd formed that first impression. And, as noble a thing as that might sound, it was definitely high on his list of faults -- on the list Vin checked off and appended every now and again of the things that might eventually get the kid killed.

He didn't know why he'd started keeping the silent list, but he did know when: it was that day at the Seminole village they'd all first been hired to protect. The kid had been saying how much he looked up to and respected Chris Larabee -- a hired gunman, a man with a reputation that ran both hot and cold from here to his home state of Indiana. Now, it wasn't that Vin didn't respect Chris -- he did, but it had been earned. JD had only that one incident, Chris nearly shooting the kid's foot off for even thinking about gunning a man in the back. Vin would never forget the eager, excited expression that instantly began turning first to surprise, then to insolence, and finally to abject awe, all within a matter of seconds, as his mind had processed the entire event. And that day at the village -- despite Chris's warning of dying young -- JD had been more than eager to trade his life for a little adventure, a little excitement, a little taste of fear, and a chance to prove himself in the guise of helping anyone he could. And Vin knew better than anybody what a bad combination that was -- hell, he'd been there once himself, and sometimes that made it even harder for Vin to really accept JD. For most of the others, the kid was a breath of the youthful ideals they once held, but for Vin, JD was the painful truth of what he had been and a reminder of all the mistakes he'd made and all the things that could never be undone.

"Chris," Vin said as way of preamble before taking up a chair at the man's table. Larabee nodded with a small smile, obviously not upset by the intrusion. "I thought fer sure the others would be here -- hell, practically the entire town is here today."

"They're at the church . . . helping Josiah with . . . something," Chris replied between slow sips of his whiskey.

"Even Ezra?" It surprised Vin when Chris nodded. Ezra was not usually one for lending a hand -- unless that hand required the use of cards, a gun, or alcohol -- and Vin made a mental note to check out what was going on, after he'd warmed his gut some from the bottle Chris offered him.


"So, it snowed every winter where you grew up?" Casey asked, uncomfortable with the silence that had fallen between them.

"Yeah. It got pretty cold. Colder than this, actually, but I guess ya kinda get used to it."

Casey nodded and forced a smile. She thought for sure that they'd find something to talk about on the ride out -- something besides the state of her aunt's ranch and the weather. "Well, there's the pond." Casey pointed straight ahead of them, relieved that they'd finally arrived. At least once they were skating, things wouldn't be so awkward. Would they?

"Pond? That looks more like a puddle ta me."

"It's big enough to skate on, isn't it?" Casey's heart sunk to think that he was disappointed with the pond -- it obviously wasn't as big as the lake he grew up near. Suddenly she was afraid that he wouldn't want to skate with her anymore. "And in the summer, when the snow in the mountains melts, it's more than big enough to swim in! I nearly drowned one year, ya know -- got my foot caught on a root or something at the bottom---" Shut up, Casey, she told herself. He doesn't care . . . .

"Oh my gosh!"

Or does he? "It's okay -- I didn't die. I got loose before I swallowed too much water."

"Bet that scared ya somethin' fierce!"

"Takes more than that to scare me, mister!" Of course, Casey knew exactly what it took to scare her and scare her bad -- Guy Royal! She'd had a gun trained on him and everything when he came to threaten her aunt into giving up the ranch, but she'd been too terrified to even pull the trigger. She'd never been so scared in all her life as she'd been that day, but letting Aunt Nettie down had made her feel even worse. It would never happen again, she'd vowed, and she hoped she be able to keep her word.

"So, are you gonna get down off that horse or should I put the skates on him?" JD mocked, interrupting Casey's silent reverie.

She glared at him through a tight smile then slid from the horse to the hard, cold ground before fishing in her saddle bag for the skates. She handed the slightly longer blades to JD -- they'd belonged to her father and her feet had never gotten big enough to use them -- and kept the smaller pair for herself.

JD tethered the horses to the branch of a fallen log, then joined Casey who had already begun cinching the skates' leather straps across her boots -- the final strap, however, gave her difficulty. The leather had not weathered well, and Casey blamed herself for not adequately conditioning it before packing it away several winters ago -- she knew better now, and she probably should have known better then. In frustration, she began pulling her gloves off, to get a better grip on the strap, but JD knelt down before her and cinched the strap himself, then quickly checked the tension on the other straps before smiling up at her.

"I coulda done that," she protested, not wanting him to think that she was just some helpless girl.

"I know," was his only reply before he took a seat on the log beside her and began putting on his own blades.

She watched JD for a moment before becoming uncomfortable sitting so close to him. She fidgeted with her gloves before muttering, "Thanks," and getting up. The ground, soggy in the springtime, was hard and covered with small, icy patches, which Casey carefully tottered around on her way to the pond. At the edge, she eased herself out onto the ice, slipping and almost falling only twice before finding most of her balance on the glassy surface. She skated slowly around, testing the integrity of the ice as she waited for JD to join her, which he finally did, with a small tree branch in hand that he used to sweep nature's debris from the ice.

JD was only half finished when Casey became bored and, with an impish grin, she sped up beside him and stole the tree branch. Catching him completely off guard, she was able to skate right around him and head back to the near end of the pond. JD was fast on her heels and she almost didn't make the turn as she neared the shore; laughing, she barely eluded capture as she raced to the far end of the pond. But Casey quickly regretted her impetuous act as her blades began to catch on bits of gravel and twigs that JD had yet to sweep away with his make-shift broom. She stumbled twice before crashing down hard onto the ice.

She was no longer laughing, but JD was. "Serves you right for swiping my broom!" he called to her, but when she failed to respond or to stand up, he became concerned. "Casey? Are you okay?"

She wasn't. She'd bruised her hip in the fall, but worse, she was embarrassed that she'd fallen in front of JD; however, much to her relief, she reminded herself, this time he was the only member of her audience! As JD carefully made his way across the ice towards her, Casey tried to stand up. She did NOT want him helping her; she knew that she was just as tough as any man and she suddenly felt a great need to prove that to JD who was now looking at her like she was a kitten stranded in a tree.

"I'm okay. Really," she insisted, as she began to back away. But JD continued to approach her, still concerned. Barely to her feet again, she took a quick step back from him, only to trip over another unswept-away twig.

JD took a long stride, trying to reach her before she fell but failing and only managing to fall to the ice himself. As he landed, they both heard it: a sound that stopped their hearts. Neither moved, hoping that the sound would not repeat. It did not. Several seconds passed before either dared breathe again. Finally, JD looked over at Casey and smiled reassuringly. She smiled back as she struggled to her feet; JD moved to do the same. But instantly, the ice gave way beneath him and JD plunged into the frigid water!


Vin slowly opened the door to the church Josiah had set his mind to restoring. He wasn't sure what he expected to see, but whatever it was it was not the sight that greeted him. Josiah and Buck were hauling long planks of wood, Nathan was up on a stool pounding nails into the wall behind the podium, and Ezra looked to be . . . stoking the fire in the stove that stood in the corner.

Suddenly, the plank slipped out of Josiah's hand and landed with an echoing crash on the hardwood floor.

"Oh, great! That is just great!" Buck moaned at the top of his lungs.

"My apologies, Buck. It slipped," Josiah said with all sincerity.

"And now I'm bleedin'! Wonderful! Thank you!" Buck griped as he paced back and forth clutching at his wounded hand.

Vin watched as Nathan climbed down off his stool to inspect the injury. "Why, Buck, it ain't nothin' but a splinter," was Nathan's professional diagnosis.

"A splinter?! Feels more like half that damn plank is stuck in there!"

"Hold still while I pull it out. Buck, I said hold still!"

Buck sighed in deep frustration. "You know this never would have happened if JD had been here like he promised. It's not like that boy to skip out when there's work to be done, not like him at all. I can't imagine where he's got to," Buck grumbled again as he looked about the church, as if hoping to find JD sitting in one of the pews simply waiting patiently to be noticed. Instead, Buck's eyes fell on Vin. "Well, you'll do anyways. Would ya mind given us a hand here?"

Vin smiled to himself at the absurdity of the scene before closing the church door behind him, then making his way down the nave to where the other three were gathered.

"You haven't seen JD, have ya, Vin?" Buck asked, well on his way to recovery now that Nathan had tended to his wound.

"I do believe I saw him outside the jail not too long ago, conversing with that young Miss Wells," Ezra gratuitously offered, much to Vin's surprise. "I had no idea that she had even begun to show her face in town again after that spectacle you made of her, Buck."

"Me? I was just tryin' ta help. Little girl's got such a thing for JD, how could I just let the two of 'em go on like they were -- her moonin' her life way and JD just, well, just bein' JD." Buck defended himself with more pride in his voice than a dozen lions.

Ezra smiled and bowed low. "Oh, and I can see how much improved their circumstances are since your assistance in the matter. Gentlemen, had you not noticed that we are in the presence of a god? May I call you 'Cupid,' sir?"

"Very funny, Ezra. What happened, well, it was just a minor hitch. But it got JD's attention, that's for sure."

"His and half the town's. I don't think that could really be considered a successful intervention on your part, Buck," Josiah observed.

"Well, they're talkin', ain't they? You said you'd seen 'em yerself, Ezra. Am I right?"

Ezra acquiesced with a slight nod of his head. One point for Buck, Vin thought. To be won back at a future date, that was certain.

"So, you were just outside, Vin: are they still out there sparkin'?" Buck asked, grinnin' as if he was indeed Cupid, in the flesh.

"Naw, they ain't there now. I haven't seen JD, but I, uh, ran into Casey a while ago," Vin said, remembering his minor collision with her in the street. Casey was a good kid and Vin gave due credit to her aunt; it's gotta be difficult to raise a child way out here, with no husband or school to help. Nettie Wells was a remarkable woman. "Casey said she was goin' ice skatin'."

"Ice skatin'? 'Round here?"

"Have you been outside? It feels like . . . ." Ezra, a product of the balmy south, was having a bit more trouble with this cold-snap than the others, it seemed.

"Like Hell has finally frozen over?" Josiah drolly offered, which produced an unsolicited snigger from Ezra, still off in his corner by the warm, pot-bellied stove.

"An apt analogy, Mr. Sanchez."

"Now that I think about it," Vin continued, "Casey had two pairs of skates with her."

"Oh, ho, ho! This is lookin' better and better for ol' Cupid all the time -- wouldn't ya say so, Ezra?" Buck pronounced, rubbing his hands together, the splinter-wound long forgotten.

"Hardly. Skating does not constitute a wedding, nor is this miserable weather conducive to anything that might even resemble courting."

"Ah, but think how much fun those two would have warmin' each other up after their little romp on the ice?"

Vin didn't like the sound of that. Casey was a good girl, and Nettie trusted her with them. And while he didn't think that JD was that sort of a man, Vin had to admit that he was young, inexperienced, and over-eager. JD had acted without thinking things through in the past, it's likely that the consequences of his actions might not occur to him until it was too late. Besides, if his ma had lived to give him a baby sister, Vin would certainly do all he could to make sure she was always safe. "I gotta bad feeling about this, fellas. I think I'm just gonna ride out and check up on 'em."

"Then I'm comin' with ya -- if there are sparks flyin', I wanna revel in all that warm weather those two will be makin'!" Buck announced, hopping eagerly to his feet.

"Ah, but before you journey out, gentlemen, may I interest you in a medicinal dose of hot, buttered rum?" Ezra offered, finally leaving the comfort of the corner stove to join the rest of the group, a small tray of amber-filled glasses in hand.


Casey watched in horror as JD struggled for a moment before disappearing beneath the surface. She could not move, though her mind screamed for her to go to him, to help him! When he broke the surface again, his eyes were wide with shock and his mouth open in a scream that seemed to have frozen in his throat. Then she found herself crawling towards him, being careful not to get too close, lest the ice should begin to crumble beneath her as well. She unwound the scarf from her neck. "JD! Grab this!" she shouted as she tossed the scarf towards him, but he seemed oblivious to both her and her efforts. "JD!"

In a panic, she scrambled to the shore, then tore desperately at the straps of her blades, finally pulling them off her boots. Then she ran. She ran all the way back to where JD had tethered their horses. She dug through JD's saddle bag and was relieved to find a length of rope. Astride her own horse, she raced back to the far end of the pond, back to JD. She'd once bragged to Buck Wilmington that she could rope better than any man in these parts, and she prayed that her boast was true as she tossed the looped end out to JD. She barely missed him the first time, even though he was hardly struggling in the water anymore, but the second time she dropped the rope right over his head, around his shoulders. Somehow, with what seemed to be his last effort, he managed to pull his arms through the loop, so that the rope encircled his chest. As Casey secured the free end of the rope to the horn of her saddle, she saw JD slip beneath the surface of the water and knew that she'd run out of time. Without care, she urged her horse backwards over the ice-patched terrain. But she could not pull JD free of the water -- the ice merely cracked and broke around him as she dragged him closer to the shore. Finally, his head broke the surface again, but as much as her horse struggled, she could not yank his body over the last shelf of ice, forcing her to dismount and try to haul him out of the water herself. The icy shoreline was slippery from the water that had splashed upon it, but Casey managed to find a patch of secure footing before reaching out to JD.

"Come on, JD. Help me now. Help me get ya outta here!" she pleaded with him as she slipped her hands into the water and under his shoulders. The water immediately seeped through the leather of her gloves, burning her hands with the cold before she quickly lost all feeling in her fingers -- her mind reeled! JD must have experienced the same horrific feeling all over when he'd first plunged into the icy water. She struggled to lift JD, but he was too heavy -- soaked to the bone with the frigid water and limp in her arms -- and she could not move him enough to matter until she remembered her horse. She looped her arm around the rope that still encircled JD's chest, then scooped her hands back under his arms before calling over her shoulder to her horse, "Hya. Hyaa!" At first the horse did not budge and a wave of terror raced through Casey: JD was gonna die! She screamed at the horse, then she screamed at the world, and somehow JD's shoulders came free of the icy and Casey managed finally to pull him to shore.

Casey would never admit to it later, but she cried: she cried because JD was not drowned, because he was safely on land; she cried until the tears felt like ice on her cheeks; she cried until she realized that JD was not moving. His eyes were barely open and he seemed to be looking right through her; and though his clothes were drenched in freezing-cold water, he was not shivering. Only the small fog near his mouth told her that he was even still breathing, and Casey realized that JD was far from being safe.

"Oh, God! Please don't die, JD," she prayed as she struggled to drag him towards the shelter of a nearby tree. She knew that she would never be able to lift him onto his horse, but she also knew that they could not stay where they were -- neither of them would survive the cold of the night if they did -- but she could not think what to do. If only her Aunt Nettie were here, or Vin -- they would know what to do, but she didn't have them, she had only herself, and JD needed her to keep her head. So what could she do?

Ride for help? But that would leave JD alone.

Build a fire? But that wouldn't do anything to get them home.

She could not think!! What to do?!

And for some reason, through all of her anguish, Casey realized how cold her hands were -- that her gloves and cuffs were soaked through with icy water. She tore off the leather mittens, tossing them aside, then shoved her hands into the warmth of her coat pockets. And suddenly she realized that her discomfort could be nothing compared to JD's; she had to get him out of his wet clothes, but there was nothing to replace them with, and would nothing be better or worse than soaking wet clothes in this cold weather?

Somehow she decided. Casey quickly unsaddled her horse, then turned her attentions back to JD. She struggled to pull off the sodden, wool coat he wore until finally his arms came free of the sleeves. The coat was so heavy with water that she could barely lift it -- and she realized that the coat must have been draggin' JD down into the water and why she'd had such a hard time helping him. She removed his tweed jacket as well -- it, too, soaked through with cold water, must have hindered them. She placed the saddle pad on the ground and rolled JD onto it, then she covered him with the horse blanket and used the saddle itself for a pillow. Digging in her saddle bags, she found her spare gloves and socks -- and silently thanked her aunt for reminding her to take them. Unable to untie the wet laces of JD's boots, she used her pocket knife to slice through them; she tossed the boots aside and the wet socks soon after. Her own socks were a tight fit on his larger feet, but they would do, and the gloves were no better, but by slitting through the cuffs she managed to squeeze JD's hands into them.

JD was now shivering slightly, and Casey was glad -- it had to be good that he was feeling the cold again and reacting to it. It had to be. The thought of building a fire crossed her mind again. Maybe just a small one, to warm him up enough for the ride home. But then she remembered, even if she could find some twigs and branches dry enough, she didn't have any flint with which to start a fire. But, maybe JD did -- she'd have to check his saddle bags.... "Blast! Your horse!" She'd left him tethered at the other end of the pond. What was wrong with her? Why hadn't she thought to bring him back with her?

She shook her head with resignation. "JD, it's gonna be okay. Stay here. I'm just gonna fetch your horse, okay?" He did not answer her, but his eyes at least seemed to see her now and she took that as understanding on his part, so she ran back to retrieve his horse. She found no flint in the saddle bag, but they would have another saddle pad and blanket, and a bed roll -- the latter giving her a bit of inspiration.

When she returned to JD's side, he was shaking uncontrollably. "C-c-c-aase---" he barely managed to utter as she knelt beside him. She pulled off her own coat and laid it over him -- it wouldn't be enough, but at least it was something. Then she noticed how wet his hair still was. She pulled her flannel shirt out of her waistband and used the end to towel off his cold, stringy hair, then she removed her knit hat and pulled it down over his head.

"Is that better, JD?" He didn't answer, but his eyes closed slightly and she thought that she might have seen a whisper of a smile on his bluish lips. "JD, do you think you could get up?" she asked, trying one last time. "If you could get on your horse, we could get you back to Nettie's. It's warm there, and dry," she encouraged, but he made no indication that he could even try to rise. She placed her small hand on JD's cheek, her bare hand offering little warmth to him; the cold was getting to her, too, and she knew she had to get started home. "Okay, JD. I think I've got an idea. You just stay put."

Casey left JD again to unsaddle his horse, scavenging the saddle pad and blanket. She rolled JD onto his side before tossing out the bed roll, upon which she laid both saddle pads, edge to edge. She rolled JD onto the pads, then covered him with the horse blankets. She knelt beside him again, the rope she had used to pull him from the pond clenched tightly in her fist. "You're gonna be okay, JD," the young woman assured him, though she didn't feel very assured herself. "Unless you can think of something else, I'm . . . I'm gonna tie you to the back of my horse and . . . drag you home."

His eyes told her everything: wide with surprise, she knew that he'd heard and understood what she'd said. But then he nodded his head in a manner she could not mistake for a shiver. Casey's abilities and resources were limited, and JD seemed to comprehend this. Had she been the one who'd fallen into the pond -- and it so easily could have been her just as it had been him -- he may have had an easier time getting her home, but the simple fact was, neither had ever had to survive out in the wilderness and neither had been in the least bit prepared for anything like this.

Swaddling him in the bed roll and horse blankets, Casey secured the rope under his arms and around his chest. She then re-saddled her horse -- sorry that the beast would have to suffer this one trip without benefit of a pad or blanket -- and loosely tossed JD's saddle onto his gelding, then she mounted and secured the free end of the rope to the horn. With the reins of both horses in hand and JD in tow, Casey set off slowly toward home.


"So, if that's the pond, where are the two love-birds?" Buck grinned as the deserted ice came into view, obviously thinking . . . well, thinking something that Vin hoped for JD's future existence was not happening.

"Don't know. But, I got a bad feelin' about this."

"Bad feelin'? I don't think so, Vin. They've gotta be around here somewhere." Buck kicked his horse ahead just a bit, and Vin could see the thoughts spinning inside the older man's head -- now where would I take a girl if I were way out here and wanted some shelter from the cold?

"JD!" Vin called through the trees.

"Hush, now. You don't wanna be interrupting the boy. Lord knows he's had more than his fair share of that already."

Vin merely glared at Buck before shouting, "CASEY!"

Buck rolled his eyes as if realizing that no one was going to make this Cupid business easy on him.

As they reached the edge of the pond, Vin dismounted to take a closer look. "Well, someone's been here, that's for sure," he muttered almost to himself as he inspected the ground for soil disturbance and shoe prints.

"Hey, Vin, you see that? What is that?" Buck pointed to something out on the ice near the far end. It was too far away for Vin to make out and he shrugged in silent response. "Well, I'm gonna take a closer look," Buck said as he nudged his horse around the east side of the pond.

Vin found evidence of horses moving along the west edge of the pond and was just about to follow the trail when Buck hollered out to him: "Vin!! Dammit, Vin! Git over here!" Vin quickly mounted and caught up with Buck at the far end of the pond. Buck was a jumble of emotions, all painted across his features like a sunset after a storm: anger, frustration, confusion, fear. He followed Buck's line of sight out onto the ice. The object Buck had seen before turned out to be JD's brown, bowler hat. It was laying on its side near the edge of what looked to be a large fissure in the ice. And while that sight made Vin's heart sink, the thing he saw next made it stop all together.

"That's the scarf I gave Casey this morning," he told Buck, pointing to the beige object that lay on the far side of the break in the ice.

"Oh my god. That little girl musta fallen through!"

"It looks like the ice is broken all the way to the far shore. I'm gonna circle around and check it out." Vin mounted without waiting for Buck's response, though the other man nodded and quickly followed suit.

"Vin. Are you sure they aren't both still in that water?" Buck asked, though he sounded like he wished he hadn't voiced that particular fear.

"No, I ain't sure. But I doubt that water is all that deep."

On the far side of the pond, they both saw plainly the drag marks on the ground that led out of the pond. Buck grabbed a rope off his saddle and slowly made his way to the edge of the pond while Vin took a closer look around. He picked up the trail of horse prints leading up the west side of the pond, discovered the spot where the horses where tethered, and where someone had lain. Nearby, Vin found wet clothes -- a coat, jacket, and boots, which he knew belonged to JD. Buck was wrong! It was JD who had fallen through the ice. Vin continued to inspect the area. There were large patches of soil torn up -- Casey must have used the horse to drag JD's body out of the water, Vin reasoned. He must have still been alive at that point. Maybe. That pile of wet clothes . . . . Had Casey tried to get him dry and warm? But he could find no evidence of a fire. He did, however, find more tracks.

"Buck, they're headed for Nettie's place." JD must not have lasted long. Poor Casey. She tried to save him and he died anyway. Vin knew that feeling all too well. He wished that he'd been here for her. Wished that she never had to drag home a dead body, the body of someone she cared about. This was one thing he reckoned Nettie Wells couldn't much help her niece with, and Vin knew that Casey would need to talk about it with someone who understood. He dreaded the painful memories he knew it would dredge up, but he couldn't bear having Casey shoulder this alone, not like he had for all those years.

"Then let's ride," Buck said, with the rescued scarf and hat both in hand.


Once in sight of the ranch house, Casey had to fight the urge to spur on her horse. Even though she'd gone slow and tried to keep to the smoothest parts of the trail, she knew that JD had to be sore from the trip, and she cursed herself for not being able to think of a better way to help him. As she neared the house, her aunt swung wide the front door.

"Casey, where in tarnation have you been? And where's your coat---"

"It's JD! Ya gotta help him, Nettie!" Casey said as she slid down off her horse and ran to JD's side. "He fell through the ice! He's so cold . . . he couldn't even stand . . . I couldn't get him up on his horse . . . ." Casey struggled with the rope, but her numb fingers were just not responding quickly enough. "I had to drag him, Aunt Nettie! I had to. I couldn't think of anything else, and I just knew I had to get home." Tears of exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety now streamed down her face, as Nettie rushed to her side. "You can't let him die. He can't---"

"Hush now with that kind of talk, Casey. You go untether this rope from your horse," Nettie ordered as she began working to loosen the swaddling around the young man. As soon as his face was completely uncovered, she placed a hand on his cheek. "Can you hear me, son? Don't you worry none. We're gonna get you inside and have you warm and toasty in no time."

With the ropes now loose, Casey helped her aunt unwrap JD. Nettie shook her head as she pulled off the two horse blankets and then Casey's coat, which she immediately tossed in the pile with the other wet articles. "JD? Son, can you stand? Can you try?"

Both women watched as JD nodded, then struggled to get to his feet. With a tremendous amount of help from both Nettie and Casey, JD made it upright; walking, however, was another matter. It was only a few strides to the steps of the porch, but JD stumbled no less than a dozen times -- nearly taking Casey down in the process more than once -- and he threatened to collapse all together when they finally reached the stairs.

"JD, come on." Casey was far too determined to give up now, especially after those tears she'd uncontrollably shed. "I didn't get you this far just ta have ta leave ya out in the cold after all."

But JD shook his head. "I-- I can't feel . . . my feet."

"Casey, you reach down and grab that leg of his." And Casey did as she was told, lifting his left leg up onto the first step, then helping her aunt haul the man up until both his feet were on the same tread. She repeated the process three more times until they were, finally, all standing on the porch, JD's weight now almost completely supported between them.

With JD's arm over her shoulder, and her head pressed against his chest for support, Casey could hear the fast cadence of JD's heart -- what should have been no effort at all up the stairs must have taken up whatever energy he'd mustered. "It's not much farther, JD," she reassured him as she tightened her grip around his waist, praying that what little strength she herself had left would not fail them.

"Come on, son. We gotta get ya outta this chill air. There's a nice fire waiting inside and I've got soup simmerin'," Nettie added, trying to encourage the boy as well.

Somehow, the two women managed not only to get JD into the house but also into the back bedroom. He collapsed onto the bed, nearly burying Casey beneath him. She struggled and squirmed, finally freeing herself, then lifted JD's cold legs onto the feather bed. She was then exiled to the front room, to stoke the fire, while Nettie remained behind to tend to the still-shivering-cold JD.

Having wished only to get JD to safety, Casey had pushed her own thoughts of personal discomfort as far from her mind as she could, but now that she sat before the fire, she realized just how cold she was, chilled completely through till her muscles and bones ached from the pain of it. She wrapped herself in the quilt that hung over the back of the chair she occupied, thinking that she would never feel warm again, but then she remembered JD: even now, here in her aunt's home, he still suffered. She stood then and took the quilt into the bedroom.

"Thank you, Casey," was all her aunt said as she took the quilt and spread it over the blankets already covering JD. And all Casey could do was stare. She had almost gotten JD killed. She was the one who had gone to check the integrity of the ice cover. She was the one who had stolen his make-shift broom, causing him to fall in the first place. Heck, they were her skates and it had been her brilliant idea to go skating in the first place. She didn't want him to die. She-- she barely knew him yet. He had so many years more to be a hero -- and this isn't how a hero should die, after some stupid, childish game on a stupid pond, during some stupid, winter cold-snap.

"He's gonna be okay, isn't he?" she asked and the quiver of her own voice made her heart want to die in her chest.

"Time will tell, Casey." Then her aunt placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "You did right to get him back here. He's got a chance now."

A chance! her mind screamed. There wouldn't be a question of him having a chance if she'd just not bothered him back in town, if she'd just let him be.

"You sit with him, Casey, while I go fetch the bedwarmer."

And so she sat, her head hung as low as her heart felt. Why did she even bother? Why did she even try? All she ended up doing was making a fool of herself -- one way or another -- and JD obviously couldn't care less. And now, here he was, laying in her aunt's bed near frozen to death, and even if he lived, he'd probably never speak to her again. A cold shiver coursed through her and Casey thought that she ought to get up and get another coat to wear but she didn't move. She deserved to be cold. It should be her lying in that bed and JD should be back in town, sitting next to a warm stove doing . . . doing . . . what? Well, doing whatever it was that he normally did. Casey didn't even know what that might be. They'd talked a bit on the way out to the pond earlier that day -- and it was definitely the most they'd ever talked, but there was still so much she didn't know about him, and now she'd probably never find out. Could life be any more unfair? Could she feel any lower? Casey thought not, as she slumped down in the Hepplewhite chair that once belonged to a grandmother she had never known.

"Casey, have you warmed yourself up yet?" Nettie asked, returning with the bedwarmer in her hands and two hot-water bottles.

"Yes, ma'am," the girl lied.

"Then I think you oughta get those horses into the barn before they freeze their tails off."

"Yes, ma'am." Casey gave JD a side-long glance as she rose. His eyes were closed and he lay so still that he could already be dead from all she could tell. "Maybe I should fetch Mr. Jackson from town, Nettie?"

"No, child. T'ain't nothing that man can do for JD now that I can't. He just needs rest and warmth. And time. You git now, so you git back. And be sure to take my coat!"

Casey again did as she was bidden to do. Outside, the cold immediately seeped into her bones, almost as if she had never in her life been warm. She led her and JD's horses into the barn. The wind was beginning to pick up and the sky was becoming gray as the afternoon sun was dying on the horizon, and Casey was suddenly grateful for the shelter of the small barn.


The two men approached the ranch with heavy hearts; even Buck had noticed the oddness of the trail they followed: something had been dragged all the way from the pond, and the two could think only that it must have been a body. A dead body.

Buck still feared that it was Casey, but Vin knew that JD should have been strong enough to sling her over her horse's back, had she been the one who'd drowned; Casey, however, even if she had somehow managed to pull JD from the icy pond, could not possibly have had the strength or height needed to hoist JD's body up that high. He had never been real close to JD -- JD, despite his high-spirited, friendly nature, just always seemed to strike the rawest nerves inside Vin -- but he knew that he would miss the kid. JD had become a valued part of their group in the few months they'd been together: he'd begun learning the art of subtlety from Ezra, patience from Nathan, judgment from Josiah, weapon-handling techniques from Buck, intimidation from Chris, and even a bit of tracking from Vin. They had all come to rely on him in situations; even Vin himself, who still found it difficult to rely on anyone, found he had been relying on JD at times.

Buck would be devastated when he found out, as would Chris, who had found a place for JD somewhere in that heart he'd buried away so deep. Vin knew that he should tell Buck now, prepare him for what they would find when they reached Nettie's house, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it -- not that Buck would believe him anyway. That boy represented hope to Buck, hope for the future, and hope for people in general. He was both the son and the brother Buck had never had.

They did not slow their horses until they reached the house. Dismounting, they barely took the time to tether their horses before bolting up the front steps. They both feared, but desperately needed to know, the truth that awaited them behind the door upon which they now knocked.

It was a few moments before Nettie swung the door open, surprised by the presence of the two men. "What in tarnation? How'd you know to come all this way?"

Both men removed their hats out of respect for Nettie as well as for the dead body they knew must lay inside. "Ma'am," Vin began. "We followed JD and Casey out to the pond -- we know what happened. May we see them?"

Nettie nodded. "Your friend's in here. Casey's out in the barn."

Buck looked over his shoulder at the old structure, and Vin was certain that he saw a tear escape down the man's cheek. But Vin knew that tear was wasted, and what awaited them inside would dwarf whatever grief Buck was mistakenly feeling for Casey. Nettie led them inside to the back bedroom. The pair filled the doorway, both staring at the body which lay still beneath the bedcovers. The kid looked so peaceful.

Did you die a hero, JD? Vin wondered. Did you fall through that ice trying to save Casey's life? Don't let it be a pointless death, please, Vin prayed to whatever god would hear him.

Buck sat down in the chair next to the bed, then smoothed the damp hair off JD's forehead. "Hey, kid. We're here for you now. Ain't nothing more to worry about," the older man said softly.

And much to Vin's shock and joy, a small voice came from beneath the quilts: "Buck?"

"Yeah, I'm here, kid. Vin, too." Buck glanced over at Nettie who was now standing next to Vin in the doorway; she nodded at him with a reassuring smile. "You're gonna be okay, JD," his friend told him.

And as happy as the tracker was that the kid was alive, he was equally as devastated to realize that it was Casey who had died back in that icy pond. JD must have waded into the water to rescue Casey, the tracker reasoned. Maybe injured himself trying to save her and had no choice but to drag Casey's dead body all the way back home. Oh, JD. Vin leaned over, quietly saying to Nettie, "I'm truly sorry about what happened, ma'am."

"Don't be," she replied matter-of-factly. "Accidents happen -- you don't live as long as I do and expect anything diff'rent."

Vin could not believe his ears. He knew Nettie loved her niece -- knew that she'd give her life to protect that girl. How could she not be upset -- angry -- over what had happened? "But, Casey---"

"Oh, don't worry. It'll take awhile but the heart-ache'll ease with time. She's out in the barn if you wanna see her."

Vin nodded, slipping his hat back on his head in preparation to brave the few hundred feet of chill wind that was now whipping around outside. As he unconsciously hunched his shoulders against the cold, Vin's only thoughts were of Casey. She was so young, and he'd really begun to care for her, never having had a sister of his own. She was sweet and funny, and could keep up with him whenever he'd come out to the ranch to give Nettie a helping hand. What was he to do now, without her to give him nails when he mended Nettie's fence, or hold the ladder when he repaired the worn roof, or bring him water when he split their firewood? Could he ever come out here again and not long to see that quick smile of hers, not miss her running about the place?

But Nettie's reaction still bothered him. Not a tear from the woman, not a single one. Vin knew she was the practical kind, knew that she'd seen a lot, done a lot, and been through a lot. But Casey was her own niece she'd raised up from a child. How could she not be grieving right now? Unless . . . maybe Casey wasn't dead. Maybe. . . . But, then, what had been dragged all this way from the pond?

He eased open the barn door, then quickly fought to close it against the northern wind. Vin shut his eyes tight for a moment, to help them adjust to the dim light inside the barn, hoping with all his heart that he would see Casey standing in one of the stalls, brushing down a horse. But she was not. Stepping further inside, Vin finally noticed her body crumpled up in the hay near the furthest stall and he could not believe the sight. Damn. Buck had been right all along. But, how could they have just dumped her body like that? Obviously, JD was pretty bad off -- it must have taken a lot out of him trying to save the poor girl, but that was no excuse not to have some respect for the dead, not to have taken a moment to lay her body out proper!

He moved softly next to the girl, laying out a horse blanket he grabbed off a peg on the wall. He gently touched her shoulder, intent upon rolling her towards him, onto her back on the blanket, but the square of her fist connected with the side of his head and Vin lay flat on his back in the hay before he even realized what had struck him. Then Casey moved into view above him, one of JD's pearl-handled revolvers clenched tight in her hand.

Both stood frozen for a moment, shocked by the person before them. Finally, Casey lowered the gun.

"Sorry, Vin, but you oughtn'ta sneak up on a body like that."

"Casey, I . . . thought you were a body. I mean, a dead body. I-- I thought you were dead."

"No such luck," the girl said, slumping down into the hay next to Vin.

This Vin did not understand -- people who survived near-death accidents so very rarely wished for a different outcome. "Casey?" He tentatively placed an arm around the girl's shoulder, not quite knowing if she would allow him the liberty, hoping she understood his intent. When she leaned against his chest he knew that she did. "Tell me."

"We went skatin'. I didn't check the ice good enough and JD musta hit a thin spot that I missed. I thought I'd never be able to pull him outta that water...." Vin could hear the tears she was fighting getting caught in her throat, and he hugged her a little closer.

"Casey, yer aunt's right: accidents happen. And there ain't nothin' ya can do about 'em after, 'cept learn from 'em."

"But it's all my fault. JD nearly died because of me. Now he's never gonna-- he's never gonna forgive me."

"Casey, you saved his life. He oughta be beholden ta ya fer that. And, if he ain't, then he ain't the man ya think he is. And he ain't the sorta man ya wanna be thinkin' of."

She nodded her head against his chest, which actually caused Vin to smile and wonder if his ma might be looking down right then with approving eyes.

"Have ya talked ta JD yet?" Vin asked and Casey shook her head, no. "Buck's talkin' ta him right now, so we best git back up ta the house before he plumb tuckers the kid out." Vin helped Casey to her feet and they walked to the barn door, but before he opened it to the winter chill outside, Vin paused and turned toward Casey. "Say, what were ya doin' layin' out here in the hay anyways?"

"I was just so tired. After I brushed down the horses, well . . . I just wasn't ready to go back inside, so I sat down over there and . . . I guess I fell asleep."

Vin smiled to himself again, thankful that both he and Buck had been wrong about the outcome of the accident at the pond.


Vin brought Casey back into the warmth of the house, and when Buck saw her almost hiding behind his friend he clapped JD on the shoulder. "Now, you sit tight, son. I'll be right out here with Vin if you need me." Then he rose. "Little girl," he turned to Casey. "Didn't your aunt ever teach ya not to lurk in doorways?"

Vin glanced back at Casey and smiled. She returned it apprehensively before stepping into full view. "Howdy, Mr. Wilmington."

"It's Buck, sweetheart," he corrected as he squeezed past her out of the small room. "Now, you do me a favor and keep JD company for a mite, okay? Okay."

Casey sat down in the Hepplewhite chair, as she had done before, still nervous about facing JD, especially now that he was awake. But, she remembered what Vin had told her and thought that she ought to just get it over with.

"JD? I'm really sorry about what happened . . ." she began, but her voice died as the young man looked away. He did hate her. Why did she have to be right about that of all things? Suddenly Casey felt like crying again, like finally she wouldn't be able to hold back the gamut of emotions and frustrations of the day.

Not now, she pleaded with herself. Don't cry now, here, where he can see you. Not after all this.

She turned her head and gripped hard the arm rest of the chair, desperately trying to hold the tears at bay and only barely succeeding, until she felt something on her hand. When she turned to look, she found JD's cold fingers covering her own. Without thought, she dared to look over at him; he had been watching her with those dark eyes that she now knew held more than anyone else probably imagined. Then she noticed the tears on his cheeks.

"What you did . . . I can't ever . . . How could you . . ." JD faltered, as he sniffed back more tears, obviously trying just as hard as she had been not to show them. "Thank you . . . for saving my life."

Casey reached over to wipe the moisture off JD's cheeks, her vision only slightly blurred by the tears in her own eyes.


Vin glanced up from the cup of cider warming his hands and noticed white flakes gusting against the front windows of the small house. Crossing to them, he peered outside: the yard was covered with a faint dusting of white as more snow continued to fall. Vin knew that Casey and JD never would have survived this night had she not gotten them home, though how that little girl had managed it all he couldn't imagine. He turned back to Buck and Nettie who still stood warming near fire, and he smiled.

"Reckon tomorrow's gonna be a white Christmas after all."

~ The End ~

Muchas gracias to Nancy and Amy for their invaluable beta-reading assistance!
No copyright infringement is intended.
No permanent damage was done to any of these characters.
No ice was broken in the writing of this story.
Much thanks to Mr. Watson and associates for bringing these characters to life.

{ 1998 }