The six had spent the night in Nettie Wells's barn. At sunrise, Ezra found someone shaking his shoulder, and it annoyed him to no end. Why couldn't these associates of his understand that the most important hours of sleep were the three or four just past dawn?
The gambler tried to ignore the shaking -- knowing that if it were really important there would be shouting going on as well, waking them all and not just him -- and hoped the perpetrator of the sacrilege would just give up and go away. But Ezra should have known his companions better, even in his half-unconscious mind: the shaking did not cease.
Finally, he opened his eyes, and found Vin, unusually hatless, staring down at him. "Do you have any idea what hour it is?" Ezra grumbled quietly, giving the others who still slept the courtesy which he was not being afforded.
"Late, Ezra. It'll be full light soon, and you and me gotta get out there and do some scoutin'." In the pale, early light, Ezra could just make out the smile on Vin's face, as the man brushed his shoulder-length hair behind his ear, but wasn't sure if it was accompanied by a twinkling in his blue eyes. Either way, it was painfully obvious to the gambler that this man loved his job entirely too much.
Silently, though his mind and his muscles screamed for more sleep, Ezra got up, repositioning the black hat onto his head and putting on the coat he had been using as a make-shift blanket. Coffee -- and maybe even a shot of whiskey -- was more than called for, Ezra thought, but Vin didn't seem to agree as he headed out of the barn.
Ezra ungracefully stuffed his hands into his pockets, after pulling up the collar of his coat, though the early air was pleasant; the motions were made simply as a personal protest against the hour itself. He followed Vin along the fence, then turned the corner to head into the soft soil of the field. If he had known this was going to be part of his duties, Ezra certainly would have chosen a less expensive pair of boots before leaving town.
"Where, may I ask, are we going?"
Vin only pointed northeast, across the field, and kept on walking. After a long ways, the tracker finally stopped and knelt down on the ground. Ezra caught up to him and bent over his shoulder, not wishing to soil the knees of his own trousers.
Vin pointed to an indentation in the ground. "This here's JD's horse -- no shoes on the back hooves. And the impressions in the dirt overlay those of Buck's horse, which means the kid was still in sight of Casey at this point." Ezra made a mental note of all that Vin told him. The tracker then got up and took a few paces to the north before squatting down again. "And here're our horse thieves -- there's . . . yup, six horses: theirs, which left deeper prints, and the unridden ones they stole, whose print are a tad bit more shallow." Vin traced the outline of the shoes with his finger for Ezra's benefit.
The gambler frowned. He could see the differences now that they had been pointed out to him -- they were actually quite obvious once you knew what to look for. Just as it had been with the cards for Vin, no doubt, once the unique wear-patterns had been shown to him.
As the student studied the new tracks, Vin took a couple of steps forward. "Ezra, tell me what you make of this."
Ezra joined Vin, actually stooping down close to the ground to get a better look. "Well . . . I'd speculate this one had a rider?" Vin nodded. "And it's not JD's or Buck's because their tracks are to the south." Vin nodded again.
"Notice anything unusual?" Vin prompted, but Ezra took offense.
"Everything is unusual to me, Mr. Tanner. Looking at these tracks is like looking at grass -- every blade's more or less the same!"
"It's the 'less the same' that you need to focus on," the seasoned tracker patiently explained. "Here, see this?"
"What?" Ezra asked, actually getting on his hands and knees now.
Vin pointed to the upper rim of the shoe imprint. "There's a nick in this horse's shoe."
Then Ezra got it. "Like the gouge in the bottom of your boot heel! We can find the thieves just by following the horse with the nicked shoe."
"Right. Even if they split up, or this trail gets crossed by any other trails, we can still pick it up again by lookin' for this unique print."
Ezra and Vin smiled at each other, before the tracker got up and started to head back to Nettie's ranch. "But, Vin, aren't we going to look anymore?"
Vin shook his head. "I don't know about you, Ezra, but I'm gettin' kinda hungry." Then he glanced up at the fairly clear sky, "And these tracks ain't gonna disappear any time soon."
JD woke with the piercing sound of a scream echoing in his ears. For a moment, the entire canyon seemed to be filled with the sound. He forced his eyes open and looked around, but he could see nothing -- nothing except their two horses, tied where they had been left the night before.
The kid squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again, beginning to think the noise had been part of some bad dream he now had no recollection of. He saw the legs of Casey's brown overalls standing on the other side of the horses, and thought that she must be securing the saddles. It was then that he realized how far past dawn it actually was. JD moved to rise but the ache of his muscles almost prevented him.
Finally to his feet, he picked up the bedroll as he softly called to Casey, the sound of her name bringing back the incredible feelings of the night before. It had felt like a dream and JD hesitated for a moment, hoping against hope that it hadn't been. He closed his eyes trying to remember for sure. He couldn't remember how she looked in the darkness but he did know for certain how she had felt in his arms. It had been more than any dream the young man had ever had, and he smiled as the renewed want of her caused a growing ache in his soul.
Before JD even realized that Casey had not answered his call, a man in brown trousers stepped from behind the horse. JD silently cursed the bedroll in his hands, though he knew, even if his hands had been free, he still wouldn't have had time to draw on this man.
"You. You killed my brother," he growled at JD, confirming that the man was one of the horse thieves he and Casey had been in pursuit of yesterday. "Didn't you?!"
"If I did, it was self-defense," JD tried to say reasonably, calmly, but he heard his own voice quaver and knew that the bandit was not going to buy into it, even if it was true.
"I loved my brother! And you don't even have the decency to show remorse fer what you did?" the man shouted at JD, the final word echoing through the canyon like the wailing of the wind. "Well, I'll show you what it is to grieve." The man made a small motion with the gun he had pointed at JD and from behind the horses stepped Casey, tightly restrained by a larger man who had one hand pressed hard over her mouth and the other holding a gun beside her head.
JD ran two steps towards Casey, before her captor stopped him: "I'll shoot her if you come any closer," he shouted, pressing the gun hard into her cheek.
But JD had moved near enough to see that Casey was crying. And he knew he had to do something. He couldn't lose Casey. He couldn't!
The young man tried to think, but all he could do was worry his fingers on the edge of the bedroll. The bedroll -- he was still holding it! The bandits couldn't see that he was wearing his guns! He had to be able to use this to his advantage. What would Chris, or Buck, or the others do? He tried to think. They'd talk their way out of it -- they'd be calm, even flippant, an attitude which, when JD'd had occasion to copy it, had always managed to get him into tighter fixes, unfortunately.
But he did know that he had to stay calm, until he could think of something, and he knew Casey had to stay calm, too. JD met her eyes then and held them, try to convey hope to her, trying to will her to have faith and trust that he would be able to do something to save them. Surely, after what they had shared last night, after the ease of their wordless union, Casey would understand what his eyes were imploring of her.
But she did not.
The girl narrowed her wide eyes at JD, then bit down on the hand covering her mouth. The bandit jerked away from her in unexpected pain and the canyon was filled with the endless echoing of gunfire.
No one moved. No one could.
Casey's eyes grew wide again, and JD saw her mouth open as if to scream, but all he could hear was the report from the gun, still echoing, yet unlike any echo he had ever heard -- it grew louder and louder in his ears until it became more than a sound. The young man could feel it resonating through his body, vibrating each bone until he felt that they must certainly all shatter. And he could see, as the world oscillated around him, Casey's face suddenly inches from his own. JD wanted to touch her, to hold her, to tell her as he had meant to tell her last night that he loved her, but then she was so far away that he could barely see her for the looming sky. And her face was replaced by the twisted face of the first thief, as if the sound had opened a doorway into the outlaw's soul straight from the pits of Hell. The man's eyes blazed with the red flames of molten anger, so hot that his mortal flesh could not contain it; the anger pushed outward, into the world, heedless of! the devastation it would leave in its wake.
The floor of the plateau seemed to swallow JD whole as the walls spun inward until he was a child again, having been stuffed head first inside a barrel and pushed down a hill. Inside the dark vortex, the kid waited, somehow calmly, unlike the first time, wondering if the barrel would smash to a stop against the old apple tree as it had so many years before, wondering if the pain would be as bad, wondering if anyone would come this time to help him home.
But the impact with the tree never came. Still, when he opened his eyes, JD feared that he was alone again in the pain that seemed to radiate in waves through his body. But then he saw her face -- his mother's -- as she pressed a cloth to his head, her gentle hands stroking his hair, telling him that it was okay to be scared but if he were brave enough, too, everything would be all right.
"It'll be all right, Johnny," she said. "You're gonna be okay," her voice said, fading into another, then his mother was gone and he wanted to cry -- he missed her so much. But the new voice, the new face, he began to recognize as Casey's.
"I love you," JD thought, as he tried to reach up and touch her cheek, to wipe away the tears which poured from her eyes, but he couldn't move. All JD could do was keep looking at her: her warm brown eyes, the way her unkempt hair fell unheeded over her shoulders, the bits of red peel which stuck to her shirt. He really did need to teach her how to flay an apple into a single ribbon. And somehow he managed to smile.
"JD!" he heard Casey cry, and felt her kissing his cheeks, as he remembered where they were -- in the canyon, on the plateau, with the bandits, with not an apple, or even a tree, in sight.
"I have to stop the bleedin'," JD heard her say, but he couldn't figure out who she was talking to. Then he saw her wave a blue kerchief near his face before the pain exploded behind his eyes. "Hold this," Casey ordered as she pressed his hand against the cloth at his forehead. She removed her belt and wrapped it around JD's head, securing the crude bandage in place.
She then helped him sit up, propping him against the wall of the plateau. "Wait here." And then she was gone. JD's head seemed to spin without her to anchor his vision, and his whole body revolted against her absence and he found himself on the ground again, heaving up burning liquid until there was no more, and then heaving again.
But then Casey was beside him, stroking the side of his face. "It's okay, JD. Just rest. Don't move, just lay here and rest." And again Casey was gone. She was gone for so long that JD began to fear that he was indeed lying at the base of that apple tree, alone, and that him going west, becoming a gunslinger, and meeting Casey had all been a dream.
"A river," the gambler grumbled under his breath, but Vin still heard him. "What?" Ezra demanded as the other man smiled at him. "I know enough to know that you can't track anything through a river."
Vin shook his head at the gambler. "It's just water, Ezra, not the end of the world. Or the end of the trail." Vin dismounted then and motioned for Ezra to join him. The other four remained in their saddles, several paces behind, undoubtedly having figured out why Ezra was suddenly so friendly with Vin and why Vin was suddenly so chatty right back.
"See here?" Vin pointed down at the soggy soil along the bank. The grass which grew there was all flattened in one particular direction.
"That means . . . they headed up the river and not across it," Ezra speculated and Vin nodded in agreement. Then the tracker pointed to a faint hoof print nearby. "The nicked shoe!" the Southerner exclaimed, quite pleased that the irregularity of the print immediately stood out to him, and Vin smiled in affirmation.
Ezra stood up then and wandered along the bank, until he came to a place where the soil was disturbed quite a bit and the weeds were flattened in all directions. "Vin, what about this?"
Vin stepped to the man's side and looked down at what his dark-haired companion was gesturing at, then he nodded and explained: "That's Buck's horse."
But Ezra narrowed his eyes. A guess, at best, he thought of his tutor. "How can you know that?"
"He hates water, or hadn't you ever noticed? You can see here how the hoof prints are dug in at a different angle -- the horse was backing out of the water. And here, Casey must have been struggling, trying to get him to go at all, 'cuz the prints are much wider than normal and there are a lot clustered together, like he was dancing around trying anything to get her to give up asking him to cross the river."
Ezra nodded, suitably impressed by the other man's skills. He then noticed something to their left: "Here. These prints are from JD's horse, right -- no rear shoes? And these next to 'em must be Buck's horse again. They gave up on the river and kept heading up the trail."
Vin relayed their findings to Chris who pondered for a moment before deciding to have the entire group follow JD's tracks up the narrow dirt road. "If he'd lost them, the kid would have turned back, so he must still have had some idea where they're heading."
The blurry edge of the canyon rim bounced up and down in his peripheral vision, making JD's stomach uneasy, and, to make matters worse, ahead of him, Casey's loose hair, like the tail of Buck's horse, swayed side to side. JD couldn't quite understand why the whole world wouldn't just stop moving -- just long enough for his vision to clear, just long enough for him to catch his breath, just long enough for him to swallow the bile which kept rising in his throat.
Just for a minute.
The sun was warm on the side of his face, too warm. And yet a cold sweat seemed to cover his body, and his hands shivered as he tried to keep hold of the saddle horn.
Why couldn't they stop? the kid wondered. Where were they going? JD tried to remember. He was on a horse, he knew, though he couldn't recall how he'd gotten up there. He could see that Casey was leading his horse by the reins, but he didn't know where she was leading them to, or where they were coming from. JD tried to think, tried to remember, but couldn't, so he thought about her. But all he could recall was darkness. And a smell -- sweaty, yet sweet -- and JD smiled as a peace seemed to inexplicably wash over him.
When the trail veered west, they all figured that JD and Casey had been forced to cross the water, so Vin sent Ezra up river to the east bank, the most likely spot for anyone traveling north to have gained land again. "Well, I do declare," Ezra mumbled to himself as he found a grouping of hoof prints -- three sets deeper than the others and one with a nicked shoe, just like before, just like the ones Vin had deduced belonged to the horse thieves. The trail headed northeast, over the rise of the embankment and into a sparse grove of trees, but Ezra did not follow it. Instead, he began searching the bank for signs of JD's partially-shod horse, but found nothing.
As he crossed back to the group, Ezra spied Vin returning from downstream. "There's no sign of JD's or Buck's horse," he reported once Vin was within ear shot.
"Didn't think there would be," the tracker said as he held his hand out. The five men stared at his outstretched palm which held a single rifle slug. "Someone's been shootin', and I'm guessin' it weren't JD or Casey. I also found tracks on the shore near the bend -- only one set though."
"One?" Buck questioned anxiously and Vin nodded.
"Yeah, your horse -- carryin' two riders."
Relief washed over the older man's face but was quickly replaced by confusion. "So, where's JD's horse??"
Vin shook his head. "I'm guessin' the kid lost his mount. Maybe the bay spooked and took off down river."
"Well, at least we know the animal isn't dead. That's something," Ezra said, causing everyone to turn to him in questioning amazement.
"How do you figure?" Josiah was the first to ask.
"Um, well . . . the, ah, river isn't that deep here and, ah, the current isn't strong enough to carry off anything as heavy as a horse," Ezra managed to articulate, even though the original statement had just sort of fallen from his lips without any conscious thought behind it.
Vin just smiled as he mounted up again.
"So, our trail is now divided. The thieves went north. JD and Casey went south. Who do we follow?" the tracker asked, deferring to Chris.
"Good question. Let's split up. Ezra, you think you can follow the thieves' tracks north?" The gambler nodded fairly confidently, then looked to Vin who concurred. "All right, then. Vin, track JD and Casey; Nathan, go with him in case either of them is injured. The rest of us'll follow Ezra."
Now there was something the gambler never thought he would hear the great Chris Larabee say, and as much as he didn't think it would really mattered to him, it did.
When JD threw up, all down the side of his horse, Casey pulled them to a stop. She was quickly at his side, helping him out of the saddle. She sat him down on the ground and let him lean against a large boulder -- the walls of the canyon no longer high or steep enough to provide an adequate backrest.
Casey then poured a small amount of water from the canteen onto a kerchief and wiped away the offal from his mouth and chin. She tried to check the bandage at his head, but he flinched away. Instead, she offered the wounded young-man some water, which he took, and some jerky, which he put in his mouth and simply sucked on. The liquid and the jerky were like heaven to JD. The salt, especially, on his lips and tongue seemed to be the precise thing his body had been craving, though he had failed to realize it before this very moment.
The four followed the easy trail toward the foothills and finally found the stock of horses the thieves had manage to abscond with over the past week. But they found nothing -- rather, no one -- else. Suspicious, Buck, Chris, and Josiah immediately drew their guns. But as the others rode ahead to scout around the camp, Ezra hung back, his attention still focused on the trail they had been following.
The thieves must have ridden in and out of the camp a dozen times since they began preying on the local homesteaders, the apprentice tracker concluded, making it difficult to tell just which hoof prints had been made when. But as he was looking more closely -- heedless of the soiled condition of his pants now -- Ezra found what appeared to be newly trampled weeds. Their heads were still green and there was just the barest hint of browning at the point their stalks were broken. They were all lying in a southerly direction, though the river lay slightly more towards the west. And in a weedless patch of ground not much further on, Ezra found the hoof print he was searching for -- the one with the nicked shoe.
Chris and the others, satisfied it wasn't an ambush they were walking into, began roping together the stolen horses, so they could lead them back to town -- to be sorted through by their rightful owners later.
"I just can't understand why they would go to all this trouble to steal these magnificent animals and then just abandon them to starve, or worse," Josiah sighed at the wastefulness of it all. "A foolish hiding place, at the base of these hills -- too much chance of flash flood after all this rain!"
"Maybe they realized we were gettin' close, so they high-tailed it outta here, not wanting to be captured like the others," Chris reasoned.
"Or," Buck added, always capable of thinking the worst. "Maybe they knew we were after 'em, so they circled back around and are headin' toward town to break out their friends. I just hope Mary remembered to load that rifle you gave her!"
It was at this point that Ezra felt he could add something significant to the discussion. "While those are all plausible guesses, gentlemen, I don't believe any of them are actually correct." The three looked at Ezra, about ready to discount him as per usual, until he explained: "While they could have circled around to head back to town, they wouldn't have done so without taking horses for their friends in jail and they did not do that."
"But we don't know that -- we don't have an accurate count of how many horses they've stolen. There could be a few missin' more or less here and we'd never know," Buck pointed out.
"But there are fairly fresh tracks leading south out of these foothills but I can only find two sets of hoof prints. Which means, they either carried the horses for their friends or the two who left here had no intention of heading to town on a rescue mission"
The three agreed with the reasoning, but then Josiah pointed out. "So they did simply escape."
"No," Ezra disagreed. "The tracks aren't that fresh -- I'd guess from sometime yesterday. And if they weren't running from our immediate threat, then why didn't they take a few of these valuable horses with them? Why didn't the take their food and supplies?"
The three other men looked around and realized that Ezra was correct. The thieves had not broken camp. They had every intention of returning from wherever they went.
"Well, you're gettin' right good at this trackin' stuff, Ezra," Buck smiled in compliment.
"Simple observation and deductive reasoning; two innate abilities every successful entrepreneur such as myself must possess," Ezra assured them, for some reason still needing to prove that his original skills were just as valuable as his newly acquired tracking knowledge.
"Successful, ah huh," Chris muttered under his breath.
"So, Ezra, go on. Can you observe and deduce where these thieves were headed?" Josiah asked.
Ezra smiled almost smugly before replying. "Since we have three thieves on the loose still and an empty camp, but only two sets of tracks leading out, I can only conclude that the man who was shooting at JD and Casey did not return here, and that the other two must have become concerned enough to head out looking for him."
"Well, all right then. Looks like we've come to another fork in the road," Chris announced "Buck, Josiah -- round up these horses and get 'em back to town." The two tall men nodded understanding. Chris then turned to Ezra and smiled. "Come on, you and me are gonna go catch us some bad guys."
JD sat for a long time, chewing on the jerky and sipping at the water, as he watched Casey pace up and down the trail, agitated, looking for something from the direction in which they had come. One part of his mind wanted to know why, but another part, the part that could just watch her and not expend any extra energy doing so, didn't much care why.
Casey had blood on her clothing, JD suddenly noticed, though he didn't think to be concerned where it had come from since she didn't seem to be hurt. Her hair was wild, like she hadn't brushed it for days, and Casey kept pushing it out of her face, tucking it behind her ears, until she finally just stopped and began to braid it -- her fingers working deftly behind her head as she split her hair into sections, then drew one over another, alternating, until a long braid fell almost neatly down her back -- then she resumed her pacing.
JD liked the shirt she was wearing -- a light brown calico, which reminded him of one he thought he owned, though he couldn't recall ever buying such a shirt. And he finally noticed the gun belt strapped across her hips, which he was positive was his. JD checked his own waist and found it bare, confirming his suspicions, though he couldn't remember having given her his guns, or why he might have needed to. They didn't fit her right, he noted, sensing that Casey would have difficulty drawing them smoothly with the holsters hanging off her slightly wider hips at the angles they did.
JD didn't know if she knew his trick of pulling the guns straight up then rotating them over and using the momentum to initially cock the hammer -- a maneuver which seemed time consuming when explained but which actually minimized the movement of his shoulder and arm, increasing both his draw time and his aim, though he'd had little need for the developed skill, most shoot-outs being gun battles and not one-on-one, high-noon duels like in the dime novels he'd read. There just weren't that many fool-hardy men around needing to prove themselves by showing up the local gunfighting legend -- a lucky thing indeed for the likes of Chris Larabee.
Casey came over to him then. "Come on, JD. We have to go."
"Go where?" he asked without even moving to get up.
"Home, a course. Now come on." The girl took his arm and tried to help him to his feet.
JD liked the feeling of her hands on his arm, so he didn't resist, but he did ask, "Casey, what are we doin' out here?"
"You've already asked me that," she said, her brows furrowing in worry.
"Then why won't you tell me?"
"I did already," Casey said, then sighed and told him again. "There might still be some outlaws after us. We gotta keep movin'."
"Outlaws?" JD thought for sure that he'd remember being chased by outlaws, and yet Casey claimed that he didn't. Maybe she was mistaken, he thought, so he stood there and waited until she told him the whole story.
"We went after some horse thieves, you and me," she began, though JD had a hard time believing he would have allowed Casey to help him catch a bunch of desperadoes. "But, they started shootin' at us -- you killed one of 'em, but the other two jumped us this mornin'. The one who had me accidentally shot the other one whose gun went off, hittin' you in the head, which is why, I guess, you keep havin' trouble rememberin'."
"Rememberin' what?" JD was a little sketchy about the last part, but he did pretty much know the rest of it. What he couldn't figure out was why Casey was bothering to tell him what he already knew.
The young woman frowned again and bit at her lower lip as she uncorked the canteen then took a small sip before handing it to him. JD suddenly realized how thirsty he was, and without a thought he gulped the last of the water. "JD! That was all we had." Casey looked around for a minute -- checking nervously back up the trail -- before saying, "Stay here."
She walked off and JD promptly followed her as she stepped from the trail and headed down the slight decline into the canyon. The ground was rocky in some spots, soft in others, and JD watched Casey as she stepped and slipped her way down the slope. At the bottom, she turned to find him not far behind. "JD, I told you to wait fer me."
He walked right up to Casey, placing one hand behind her head and kissing her, before saying, "You were gone so long -- I missed you."
"JD, what the heck's the matter with you?" Casey sounded scared and worried.
"Nothin' now, darlin'," he grinned and winked at her, as he bent to kiss her again. The young scoundrel's hands slipped around her waist, pulling her close against him, the memory of their night together suddenly fresh in his mind. And all JD could think about was being with her again.
But Casey pushed him away. "Stop it! You sound like Buck!" She loosed his arms, then walked purposefully away.
"Who's Buck?" he asked, wondering if he should be jealous. But, then, as he watched her, a thought entered his head, and he couldn't help smiling again. "I love the taste of yer rosy red lips, the smell of yer hair, and the sway of yer hips," he mumbled to himself then wondered where he had ever heard such a lovely and appropriate poem.
Casey bent down at the small stream which ran through the canyon and filled their two canteens with water. JD walked after her, thinking only about holding her in his arms again. And when Casey stood, he was right there to embrace her. The scream which came from her nearly shattered his eardrum, and he was wholly unprepared for the elbow he received to his stomach. Casey then twisted out of his grasp, her action causing him to lose his footing on the dry, rocky riverbed. Without any recollection of actually falling, JD found himself sitting smack dab in the middle of the stream. Wet, yet again.
Casey was next to him in a heartbeat. "I'm so sorry! You- you scared me."
"Who else would be grabbin' you like that?" JD asked, wondering again about this Buck fellow and if he really did have a reason to be jealous.
"No one! But, well, it could have been that horse thief. I know I pushed him down that slope, but I was too worried 'bout you to look and see if he was all that hurt."
Horse thief? JD thought. What the heck would a horse thief want with us? But all these questions were starting to make his head hurt again, so the young man didn't ask. Instead, he accepted Casey's hand and allowed her to help him back to his feet. He smiled at her in thanks, then kissed her again.
This time, Casey returned the effort. But then began to giggle, before squirming free of his arms. "Come on. We best get goin' again, since you're feelin' so dang well!"
He stood there at the edge of the stream and watched Casey go -- he really did like the view a whole heck of a lot. As she climbed the rocky embankment, JD happened to notice the horses on the trail above -- they were stamping around, making small whinnying noises. As Casey neared, they became even more agitated, until finally they yanked their reins free and bolted.
"JD! The horses!" the girl shouted as she took off, running after them.
JD knew that he should run to help her, but he didn't. Instead he looked around the canyon, wondering where that odd sound was coming from; like before, it was an echo which became louder and louder until it physically hurt his head and he clamped his hands over his ears in hopes of stopping it. But the sound continued to grow until JD's own thoughts were completely drowned out. He sank weakly to the ground, but the floor of the canyon seemed to transmit the sound directly into his body. He couldn't think. He didn't know what to do. And somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered where Casey was.
It struck him then, what felt like a huge wall of water. As the flash flood carried him along with shrubs, trees, rocks, and other debris down the canyon, JD tumbled over and over, the brown water in his eyes, his ears, his mouth. He knew that he would drown, and no other thought could replace that one, until his body slammed into something very solid, and his head was forced up above the level of the rushing river, then all he could think about was breathing.
Their progress through the weeds and chaparral was far from easy, and more than once Ezra was certain that he had lost the trail, only to pick it up again after much effort. Cards had never been this difficult, though Ezra was suddenly unsure if they had been this rewarding either. His head fairly hurt from trying to remember everything Vin had shown and told him about tracking, and from trying to keep straight all the clues they'd gathered on their quest so far. His feet hurt, too, from walking in shoes that were meant for riding. And his pants were dirty and worn at the knees from his repeated kneeling to closely inspect the soil and plants for any telltale signs of their quarry.
After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, Chris and Ezra finally reached an actual road. Ezra followed the tracks west for a short ways before he came across the dried pool of blood, too much blood for anyone to have survived whatever wound had been the source. And it was easy enough for the pair to follow the grooves made in the dirt by boots as the body had been dragged off the road. Behind some shrubs they found a shallow grave. While they had suspected before, they now knew for certain that the body did not belong to either of their friends -- neither JD nor Casey would have left the other behind, knowing there were people back in town who cared. Nor would they have had time to dig a grave, even a shallow one, if they still had outlaws pursuing them.
Ezra bent down next to the mount to examine the soil -- it was still damp just below the surface, unlike the surrounding dirt and he knew that the grave couldn't have been dug, with the rain they'd been having, more than a day ago. "At least Vin knows he's only got two horse thieves to worry about now."
"You sure he knows?" Chris asked.
And Ezra nodded. He had seen Vin's gouged boot print in the soil beside the grave, and knew that a tracker of his skills would not have missed the two sets of hoof prints which joined JD and Casey's headed east on the road. And the more he learned about this tracking, the more respect he gained for Vin Tanner -- he doubted the same would hold true as the tracker learned to better himself at cards. Of course, respect didn't buy you a new pair of pants, his mother had always maintained. But, Ezra was slowing learning for himself that there were more valuable things in this world than fine clothes.
When his eyes came open again, JD found himself trapped in the branchwork of a tree. He thought he heard his name being called, but with the roar of the water in his ears he couldn't tell where the sound was coming from, or even if it has been real. JD tried to look around, to gain his bearings again, but his movements were almost completely restricted; the young man began working at untangling his clothes from the desperately clinging branches, finally freeing his shoulder enough to be able to turn part way around. That's when he saw her -- Casey -- her pale body floating face down in the river, trapped, as he was, by another tree not far down stream.
Instinctively JD reached out to her, calling her name, though he was too many yards upstream and his waterlogged voice barely escaped his throat. And when something struck him in the back of his head, JD paid it no mind -- his only thoughts were for reaching Casey. He struggled with his clothing again. He knew he had to get to her.
It couldn't be too late. If only he could reach her.
JD couldn't remember if he had told her, and he wanted her to know. He had to tell her. He had to save her.
But JD couldn't untangle himself quickly enough, and he watched as a log floated past his wooden constraints headed straight for where Casey's pale body lay. It struck her solid, breaking her free of the branches, then dragging her under the water and completely out of sight.
"CASEY!" JD screamed. "CASEY!" but the noise of the raging water drown out his voice, just as it had drowned her, and was trying to drown him.
"JD!" he then heard. "JD!" And he struggled to turn again in the confines of the branches. When he did, he saw Casey standing on the dry banks of the swollen river; there was a rope in her hands and, as she swung it out to him, she called, "Grab hold!"
The end of the rope struck him square in the forehead, causing the world around him to go white. JD felt himself slipping down, into the water, away from Casey, and he desperately began to fight until his vision cleared and he found himself still entangled in the tree branches.
The near-exhausted man grabbed hold of the rope as Casey began to pull, but even if his wet hands did not slip on the now-wet line, Casey simply wasn't strong enough to pull him out of the torrential current. So, JD tied the rope under his arms as Casey tied her end to the horn of the saddle, mounted, then used his own horse to pull him free and up onto the safety of the bank.
Casey came immediately to him, shoving him on his side as he began to cough, vomiting up muddy brown water. He lay there then, with her gently stroking his back, his lungs still feeling half-full of water, and tried to focus on breathing. But, soon, his concentration failed him, as his eyes grew too heavy to keep open, and, finally, he slept.
When they entered the canyon, the trail almost immediately narrowed to only one horse-width. Ezra had to dismount and study the ground yet again. At the very least, he calculated, six horses had used this trail in the past two days. Six horses traversing over one eight foot wide path. It was impossible for him, and probably even impossible for Vin, the gambler thought, to distinguish individual hoof prints in the dirt. But it was quite clear that the trail north into the canyon was unmarred, so Ezra knew they were both on the right track and heading in the right direction.
The light faded quickly in the canyon, and Ezra had no idea how long the trail kept on for. He could feel the tension from Chris, who liked even less than he did being so vulnerable. Eight feet between the canyon wall and the slope which fell off too quickly to the raging river below. No where to take cover should they need it, no where to hide or retreat. They were completely exposed.
Ezra looked back over his shoulder at Chris and saw the man checking his gun. It was a good idea, so the gambler followed suit, expelling the small derringer from beneath his right sleeve, then checking the gun he also wore on his hip. Their only advantages in this situation could also be counted as their disadvantages -- the noise of the river would hide any sounds and the fading light would conceal any obvious signs of approach.
At the same moment, they both heard the noise, that distinctive metallic-sound of a lever-action rifle. Chris and Ezra scanned the rim of the canyon above them as they pulled their guns, ready for anything.
"Howdy, boys," came a familiar voice, though they could see no face until Vin Tanner stood up into full view on the ridge, his rifle hanging at his side. The two men put away their weapons in relief. "Wasn't expectin' company. What are you two doin' way out here?"
"Oh, just needed a break from Buck for a while. You know how it is," Buck's oldest friend, Chris, joked.
"Actually, we're in pursuit of the last two horse thieves," Ezra explained. "Their camp was empty and we tracked them here. I presume they were trailing our two friends?"
"Yeah, we picked up the same trail. There's a plateau yonder. I'll meet ya down there and show ya what we found," Vin pointed south down the trail with the barrel of his rifle before disappearing from view.
JD woke to the sound of the river, but quickly realized it was too far away to be of any harm to him. He then noticed the comfort of a bedroll tucked about him, with a saddle for a pillow, and the warmth of a fire not too far away.
She sat on a rock near his feet, as she held a stick over the fire, roasting some sort of meat. He watched the flames for a while as they flicked up searing the dark flesh, and he watched the light reflecting off her face. After a while, JD moved his bare foot to touch her leg -- she looked over at him then and smiled, and he had a sudden need to hold her. JD sat up slowly, then, realizing he was completely naked, bundled the bedroll closer about himself. But after a moment he didn't care. He scooted the second bedroll, the one he was sitting on, closer to Casey and the fire, then he leaned his head against her thigh. She didn't look at him again, but he felt her hand in his hair, brushing the wayward strands of hair away from his forehead, and JD suddenly realized that if his hair was dry he must have been asleep for quite a while.
He looked around their small campsite and, despite his blurry vision, could tell that Casey had hung, on every spare spot, his clothing to dry, and he was thankful to her for it, among so many other things. Just two days ago, he'd have been embarrassed to have her save his life, but now he was just grateful to be with her. If those horse thieves had hurt her. . . .
"The horse thieves! Casey, douse that fire. We gotta get outta here!" he shouted, but a restraining arm around his shoulder stopped him from rising.
"JD, they're dead."
"All three of 'em. You don't remember?"
He didn't really, but he was ready to take her word for it. Casey explained anyway. "You shot the first one, right?" He nodded. "Then the other two jumped us back in the canyon. The one that shot you---" JD felt her fingers gently touch a painful spot on the side of his forehead, and he tried, unsuccessfully, not to flinch away.
Casey put down the skewered meat and turned to face him. She brush away his hair again and carefully examined his forehead. "It's not bleedin' anymore, which is good because I don't have anything else to bandage it up with." JD tried to remember having a bandage on his head before, but he couldn't. "So, the one that shot you got accidentally shot," she said, proceeding with the story.
"The man that was holdin' me . . . I bit him."
JD didn't remember this, though it was something had a hard time believing that he could forget. It was also something that didn't surprise him in the least.
"And when he jerked away," Casey continued, "his gun went off, shooting the other man in the back of the head."
A bizarre twist of fate -- something Ezra himself couldn't even have laid odds to -- and JD wondered for a moment if Casey was making this up, telling him what he needed to hear: that they were safe.
"Anyway, I accidentally knocked the man who was holding me down into the canyon and I guess he didn't get out in time."
JD wondered how she knew this, frowning up at her.
"He musta drowned in that flash flood -- didn't you see him get washed under?"
JD had seen a body -- he did remember that now. He hugged Casey then, so glad that it hadn't been her body in the river! He pulled her down on top of him, and kissed her. She giggled nervously, then began to struggle to get away. The young man smiled at her but wouldn't let her go. She tried to get her feet under herself, to gain some leverage, but instead her foot slipped in the dirt and her knee connected with JD's groin. He practically threw her off as he rolled away, doubled over in pain.
Casey kneeled behind him. "JD, are you okay? What happened? I didn't mean to hurt you."
The pain seemed worse than anything he had ever experienced -- it was so sudden, so sharp, and it seemed endless, chasing away all thoughts, all other feelings -- even the air seemed to flee from his lungs, never to return. In his life, the kid had been stabbed, beaten near unconscious, and shot, but he had a hard time recalling any of them ever hurting near as bad as this did. Casey placed her hand tenderly on his arm, but even that seemed to hurt and he pushed her away.
"So that's it, just one body?" Chris asked, trying to get the facts straight.
"Yup -- Barton. The entry wound is here in the back of the skull, makin' me think someone got the drop on him," Nathan explained as he pointed to the dead thief lying face down near the edge of the plateau.
So, who shot him? was Ezra's first thought: Casey or JD? He hated to think of Casey having to shoot someone -- it just wasn't something a girl ought to have to experience, especially not one her age. Ezra shook his head as he turned away from the scene. It was then that he noticed an odd shadow near the canyon wall, and he walked over to inspect it more closely.
Even in the dim light, he could tell that it was not a shadow after all, but a damp spot. And when he pressed his fingers to the soil they came away dark, prompting him to smell them to confirm his suspicions: blood. But to whom it belonged, the gambler couldn't even hazard a guess.
"Looks like it's from this mornin' -- about the same time that feller was shot," Vin spoke as he stepped up next to Ezra, then he moved several feet away and began examining the ground. The gambler couldn't tell what the tracker was looking at, so he knelt down beside him. Vin pointed. "These footprints -- what's different about 'em?"
"Ah," Ezra began, having difficulty seeing as evening crept on, the campfire a couple of yards behind them lending little useful light. "They're not very distinct."
"Right. No sharp outline of a sole, no heel print. And see how narrow this end is compared to this end?" he said tracing the faint outline. Ezra nodded. "No shoes, only socks."
Ezra looked at Vin in surprise and awe. "JD. He ran outta Nettie's without his shoes."
Vin nodded, cocking a half smile. "But there's not a whole lotta blood, so the kid's probably not hurt too badly So, what do you think happened here?"
Ezra thought for a moment before answering. "Well, I might speculate that since Barton was shot from the other direction that he first shot JD before Casey got him from behind."
Vin nodded again. "His gun *is* missin' a bullet. Course, it's possible that someone besides Casey shot him."
"What makes you say that?" Ezra asked curiously, his own mind not deducing what seemed obvious to the tracker.
"We still have one Barton Gang member unaccounted for, and there are scuff marks near the ledge, and just over it, which looks like someone went over into the canyon."
"The third outlaw," Ezra stated confidently. "But why would he shoot his own leader?"
"Mighta been an accident: say he had a hold a Casey -- there's several foot prints over there, none too distinct."
"Like there was a struggle?" Ezra asked, still trying to put the pieces together.
Vin nodded. "Maybe his gun accidentally went off, hittin' Barton. Mighta been enough of a surprise that Casey was able to struggle free."
"Maybe pushing him over the ledge in the process," Ezra reasoned, but then it occurred to him that one vital piece was still missing. "So, where are JD and Casey?"
Chris and Nathan had joined them, and they, too, wanted the answer to that question.
Vin shook his head. "They camped here without a fire, and JD's blood looks to be from this mornin'. There are prints leadin' south down the canyon trail -- one of the horses is definitely JD's."
"So, they're heading back to town and figured that's the shortest route?" Chris asked, taking off his hat for a moment and running his fingers through his sweaty hair.
"That would be my guess," Vin confirmed.
"We'll camp here tonight and move on in the morning," Chris decided and the others agreed.
JD laid beside the fire for a long time, doing nothing except willing the pain to go away until finally it did -- well, enough that he could straighten out his legs and venture sitting up. He immediately noticed that he was alone. He looked around but Casey was nowhere to be seen, not that the fire cast much of a circle of light. The young man did see both horses, tethered to a nearby tree, so he knew that she hadn't gone too far. He called her, his legs still feeling too weak to stand, but she did not answer. "Casey, please. Where are you?"
A moment later, he saw her walking towards him. She stopped on the opposite side of the fire. "You okay?"
He nodded. The pain had been incredible, but it was fading quickly and he didn't think there would be any permanent damage. JD motioned for her to return to the rock next to where he sat, and she did. She picked up the skewer again, and returned to cooking the meat. A few minutes later, Casey turned to him. "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
"I know. It's okay." She didn't seem to believe him. "Really, Casey, it's not as bad as I probably made it look. Just sort of a shock is all," JD assure her with a smile. He then took her hand in his and waited, the aroma of the cooking meat reminding him how very hungry he was.
They ate in silence, exchanging a few looks, a few smiles. JD thought how nice it would be to go walking with Casey, once he got his shoes back. He remembered their last fishing trip, how they hadn't caught a single fish, how they ended up in the river together -- he wished that he'd had the guts to kiss her then; he had certainly wanted to. Thinking back, he realized that was the first time he really took notice of her, really wanted to be near her. Now, after their last two days together, he wondered how things like that would change for them. He wondered if everyone would just know what had happened.
"Whatcha thinkin' 'bout, JD?"
"Hmm? Oh, just about our friends back in town. They must be worried sick about us."
"Yeah," she agreed. "Nettie is gonna kill me!"
"Me, too," JD realized, remembering the old woman's words to him just two mornings ago -- "She's only sixteen and I own a Spencer carbine."
"I'm the one who let our horses get stolen, then took off after the thieves," Casey explained, then asked, "but what's she got to be mad at you fer? You were the one who went after me, tried to get me to turn back."
"Casey, after what we did last night, your aunt isn't gonna just kill me, she's gonna flay and tan my hide!"
Casey was silent for a moment, her head hung, but then she looked up at him, all innocence as the light flickered off her deep eyes. "Was it wrong -- what we did, JD? Cuz, it didn't feel wrong."
"No, it didn't, did it?"
"And- and it's not like you forced me or anything. I mean, I- I wanted to. I didn't think that I would, but . . . well, it was awful nice." Despite the dim glow of the firelight, JD thought he saw Casey blush, and he loved her all the more for it.
"Yeah, it was awful nice," he agreed, under his breath. Too bad it could never happen again.
"So, we don't have to tell anyone about it, right?" Casey suddenly brightened. JD shook his head. "And if we don't tell, then no one'll know, then Nettie can't get mad at you."
Her logic made sense to him, so he nodded.
"So, you won't tell anyone? Not even Buck?"
"Especially not Buck!" Who knew what that man would do with this sort of information -- JD couldn't even imagine the tortures he would be forced to endure! Casey laughed at his response, and he laughed, too.
But JD was growing tired then, so he laid his head back down on the saddle, spreading the second bedroll over his bare legs. Casey got up, and JD watched her check his drying clothing. She brought over her white shirt, and he realized that she was wearing his brown one and that they must have inadvertently exchanged shirts when they dressed in the dark the night before -- a good thing some of the buttons were now missing on the white one, thanks to his impatience. "This is it, so far."
The young man nodded, but he didn't get up to put it on. He really was, suddenly, extremely tired. Casey drew the shirt over his chest, tucking it around his shoulders, then pulled the bedroll up over it. JD shivered a bit, but her fingers, which she placed against his cheek, felt pleasantly cool. He wanted to take her hand, to hold it in his, to never let her go, but he was so tired. JD could not help but close his eyes, but before he drifted off, he felt Casey lay beside him, felt the warmth of her small body along the length of his, felt her arm possessively across his waist.
Vin laid his saddle and bedroll down next to Ezra's and settled in for the night as Nathan took first watch. "So, how do you like trackin'?"
"I must say, I've found it quite rewarding so far. As a cardsman, I always knew logic, deduction, and observation were invaluable skills, but I never realized just how useful they can be in other occupations."
In the firelight, the gambler saw Vin nod agreement. "Yeah, I never really used what I knew fer cards till you pointed out what I oughta be lookin' fer."
Ezra never thought he would admit it, but he and Vin probably had more in common than anyone could have guessed. And yet Ezra knew that it would be futile to even try to convince this man, who normally slept in a wagon and didn't even own anything resembling a cravat, that an attempt at the semblance of being a gentleman would be a wise and desirable improvement. Just as he knew that to give up his comfortable feather bed in his warm room above the saloon would happen about as soon as the streets of their fair town were paved with gold. Still, and in contradiction to his upbringing and the devout teachings of his dear mother, Ezra was becoming aware of the fact that the clothes didn't necessarily make the man.
When JD woke, Casey was still there, nestled against him. He stared up into the night, not wanting to move, afraid to wake her. The sky was completely dark now, except for a blurry sliver of a moon in the east. JD looked at the stars, so thick in the heavens his unclear vision only seemed to make their light more intense; he was fascinated by how they twinkled, and wondered what made them do that. A bright streak of almost-yellowy light shot across the sky then, and JD knew instinctively what to do. "I wish, I wish," he began, as his mother had taught him when he was very small, but then he didn't know what to wish for.
He thought about the others, his friends, and knew what they would wish for: Ezra would wish for money, Josiah would wish for a lost soul to be found, Chris would wish to find the man responsible for the death of his wife and son, Nathan would wish for . . . well, not patients, but maybe a better way to help the patients he did get, Vin would wish for some way to clear his name back in Texas, and Buck would wish for a pretty girl with no notions of settling down. This last one made JD grin; for Buck it was all about the chase and the conquest, but JD couldn't imagine moving on to another girl now, not after he'd gotten the one he finally realized he wanted.
As he closed his eyes tightly, so the wish would come true, JD finished: ". . . I wish for me and Casey to get back home safe."
Casey stirred at his side then. And he hugged her with the arm he had around her shoulder. "Hi," she mumbled into his chest, then moved to reposition herself, leaning up on her elbow to look over at him. "How ya feelin'?" she asked, smiling like she was worried and was trying her best to hide it.
He took the girl's free hand in his and squeezed it slightly. "Better," which was mostly true JD didn't want her to fret over things she couldn't do anything about, like his head throbbing when he moved it too much, or his vision still being a bit fuzzy.
Casey nodded, then offered, "Want me to check on your clothes again?"
He said yes, but didn't release her hand. She struggled a little, but quickly gave up -- probably not wanting to risk hurting him like before -- allowing JD to take full advantage of the situation. He pulled her closer against him and kissed her.
"JD!" she admonished with a bit of embarrassment in her voice.
"Yes?" he replied as innocently as if it were last week and nothing had yet happened between them.
But her answer was only a smile, so he slipped his arm around her waist, pulling her closer. Aunt Nettie might kill him when they got back, but she could only kill him once and who knew if he'd ever get another opportunity to be alone with Casey.
"I love you," he said, then closed his eyes and kissed her before she could reply.