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The Casey Chronicles: Almost...

By JoMarie

This story is dedicated to all the people on the Magnificent Seven List.  In particular, Calamity Jane for posting this,  and Jordy for proofreading it and making sure I don't make a fool of myself!- JM


 
Casey Wells was roasting alive. The sun was beating down for the  likes she'd never seen before. She'd swear it was over a hundred degrees  in the shade from right there on the Sheriff's Office stoop where she sat  slouched in the coveted chair. She tipped the chair back until it hit the wall, balancing there and letting her legs dangle.

Casey was getting hotter by the minute, too. J.D. was supposed to meet her here over an  hour ago. He's probably forgotten again. She grabbed her droopy hat off  her head and fanned herself violently with it. I bet he's out adventurin'  while thinkin' good ol' Casey will wait. I can't believe I rushed through my chores, so Aunt Nettie'd let me come to town. She snorted and
slammed  her hat down on her knee after feeling only wave after wave of hot air.

Casey wiped her forehead with the back of her sleeve. God, it was  hot. Her hair was damp and clingy. She could feel the sweat trickling down her back between her shoulder blades making a damp spot in her  overalls. Casey Wells felt wilted. And it was all J.D. Dunne's fault! She  didn't know how the sweltering heat could be J.D.'s fault, but it looked  to her like she had time to figure that part out.

Casey squinted at the few people that walked Four Corner's so called main street. Where were any of the guys for that matter? The few people that she did see trudged wearily along trying to accomplish their chores while lingering at every possible moment in the shade. As if it helped. Casey did see one figure acting a little livelier then the rest at the other end of the street. She rolled her eyes in exasperation; it was a cheery Mary Travis handing out newspapers. Does that woman ever get  tired? J.D. was right about one thing; this chair did have a great view of both ends of the street. Oh, great. She was getting a headache from the sun. Chalk that one up to J.D, too, she thought sourly.

Casey shut her eyes and tipped her head back banging it three times against the wall of the Sheriff's Office. She groaned as the throbbing in her head became worse. Take ten deep breaths, she told herself, and if J.D. still isn't here, too bad for him, I'm skinnin' out and headin' for home. Keeping her head tilted back and eyes shut, she took a deep breath.

"One."

Deep breath.

"Two."

Deep breath.

"Three."

Suddenly, Casey heard a horse nicker. She jerked upright and the chair landed on all fours as she looked down the street. A fairly large dust cloud with seven figures in it was galloping down main street.

"It figures, they planned on a comin' when I planned on a goin'."  she muttered.
 
Casey stood up as the seven men approached and dismounted. She was about to lace into J.D. for bein' late, and yell hello to the rest of  them, when she saw Chris Larabee's face as he wordlessly walked by her into the office. Casey clamped her mouth shut and swallowed the words. She wondered how the air had gotten so chilly all of a sudden?
 
Chris Larabee was not in a good mood. Hell, that was putting it mildly. His face was taut and there was the beginning of a tic in his left eye. Three, he thought. Three farms, three distraught families, three stolen herds of cattle. Three livelihoods, gone. He walked over to  J.D.'s desk and yanked open one of the drawers. He pulled out a rolled up map and slammed the drawer shut again. He uncurled the map over the desk and shoved the chair away so quickly that it fell over. Chris ignored it.
 
"Take your time, fellas. I'm sure those people won't mind waitin' for their livelihoods!" he yelled.

Casey jumped a little as the frigid words flew by her. She'd never met Chris Larabee formally, and from what she had heard from the townsfolk, she didn't want to. She knew J.D. worshipped the ground Chris walked on and wanted to be just like him. Casey prayed he never got that  wish.

Buck walked by her quickly, but he still managed to reach out and tussle her hair and give her a tight lipped smile. Casey gave him a wan smile. She loved Buck. Not as woman does a man, but as a sister loves a brother. He reminded her of the type of brother that would risk getting into trouble just so long as they'd have fun.

Vin limped by her quickly and gave her a quick nod. She noticed he still favored his leg a lot since getting shot by a drunken idiot last week. Well, she thought, he's lucky he still has it I guess. Aunt Nettie had been ready to put another notch in her Spencer Carbine when she had found out he'd been shot. Vin was like a son to her. Casey cared for Vin,  too. He'd helped them out when they'd been in trouble. She thought of him as the older and more responsible brother figure. The one that always  watched out for the younger siblings and took care of them. Josiah and then Nathan quickly walked by each giving her a nod and a smile.

A flash of color almost blinded her as Ezra strolled by, but not  without tipping his hat and saying in his best southern drawl "Good morning, Miss Wells."

What a popinjay, she thought as she looked at his clothes. Aunt Nettie had said that he could talk fancy and use fancy words, but other than that she didn't know what he was good for. Except it was rumored that he kept a Derringer up his sleeve and was quite the shooter. Oh well. He had helped them get their stuff back from Guy Royal. Maybe he wasn't so bad. A flash of movement snapped her out of her reverie as J.D. hopped on the porch and spoke very rapidly.

"Hey, Casey. I'm sorry about not gettin' here when I was supposed to, but you will never guess what happened. Never mind, I can't talk to  you right now, cause I gotta, I mean, me and the guys gotta go catch us some cattle hustlers. Can you believe it? Cattle hustlers! This is why I  came west!" And with that last exclamation, he dashed inside leaving her alone.
 
She didn't move for a minute. Everything had happened so fast. It had only been a minute from the time they dismounted to them gathering in the office. Casey knew one thing. Whatever happened must have been bad to upset them all like that. Buck sure did look tense. Cattle rustlers were really no big deal; she'd heard stories of it happening all the time. Casey wondered why that would upset them so much. Why weren't they going  after the guys who did it, or for that matter, why weren't the thieves already in jail? Then a sly smile stole over her face. Well, she'd just  find out why.

Casey grabbed the chair she'd been sitting on and quietly dragged it over until it was almost directly under the window. The lower right corner of the window had been shattered from a bullet hole. She slid into the seat and tilted her head so she could hear better while trying to appear inconspicuous to passerbys. Casey knew she must of looked strange sitting there with her body and head tilted to the right when a couple of people glanced at her oddly. Oh well, she thought and shrugged, nobody
 ever accused me o' bein' the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Chris Larabee circled three places on the map.

"These are the farms where each herd was stolen." he said.

All of the men had gathered around the table except for Buck who
 had picked up the chair and was straddling it backwards next to the
desk.
 
 Vin leaned over and eyed the map.

"They sure ain't headed in a straight line either. From the tracks I saw at each of the farms, all the cattle were herded west." he  said. J.D.'s eyes scanned west on the map.

"But how can that be, Vin? There ain't nothin' but a couple canyons and steep cliffs out that way. No houses, no towns, or farms out  there. No place to even keep cows." he asked. Buck thought about what  J.D. said, and he had to agree; there wasn't a big enough place to care  for that many cows.

"Well, kid, they gotta be out there somewhere. I don't know much about where'd be best to keep cows, just women." he replied. A faint smile came over Buck's face when he remembered where he kept sweet  Annabelle last night-right inside his arms.

Chris glared at Buck until Buck coughed and sat up straight, trying for the world to appear to be thinking about cows and not Anna. Buck sighed. No competition. The smile slowly crept back over his face and he thought Oh, Anna. Nathan glanced over at Vin.

"Vin, you kept trackin' the herds after the rest of us went back to check on the families. How far west did they go?" he asked. Vin looked  uncomfortable for a minute.

"I tracked them into the canyon." he finally said.

"Oh, wait a minute, Vin. You tracked them into the canyon?" JD  asked.

"Yeah, J.D. That's right. At one end of the canyon, the hill is slanted just enough for people to walk down it." Chris glanced at Vin.

"Did you check the other side?" he asked him.
 
"Yup, can't get out that way." he answered.

"And there is no place to get out between?"
 
"Nope."

"Well then, looks like we got out cattle."

"It ain't that simple. I went down into the canyon. The thing is  three miles long. Halfway though, the tracks disappear. " Vin said.Chris  stared hard at Vin, so was everyone else.

"How?" Chris asked.

"Not sure, could be little whirlwinds erasin' the tracks, but that still don't explain the missin' cows."  J.D shook his head.

"That's impossible." he said.

"No, it ain't." a new voice said.

All seven men turned their heads to look at the figure standing  in the doorway.

"So good of you to join us, Miss Wells. Do you have a solution to the apparent enigma at hand?" Ezra replied. Casey glanced from Ezra to the rest of them. What was she doin'? She silently yelled at herself for  bein' so stupid. She had become so interested in the missing cows that she had moved from the window, to the door, to standing in the doorway. Casey blushed a bright red, because she realized that now they all knew she'd been eavesdropping.

"You got something to say, Casey, say it." Chris said. Casey looked at Chris, jutted out her chin, and shuffled up to the table. At Larabee's constant stare, she tried to speak.

"Y-you talkin' 'bout that place right there." She pointed at the canyon on the map. A curt nod from Larabee.
 
"W-well, um, there's this cave kinda like, um, a big cave too, that runs from this canyonà..to this one right here." Casey pointed to another place on the map.

"You sure about that Casey darlin'?" Casey nodded to Buck. She grew more confident staring at his friendly face.

"Oh hell yeah. I've been there twice before when I was eight. Me and some other kids used to play in it. It's where some of the guys and girls go to um.." Casey choked on the next words. Luckily, she didn't have to bear the silence and the amused grins for very long.

"Chris look." Vin cut in. Chris looked to where Vin was pointing.  "The other end of that opens out at Jay Haggers place."
 
Chris squinted and recalled what he knew about Hagger. He was a good thief who hadn't been caught yet, until now. They'd been aimin' to put that man away for awhile after a few missing property incidents, but never had enough proof. Hagger had figured out they were on to him, and he'd been coverin' his tracks mighty well. An evil smile played on Larabee's lips.

"Lets go." he said.

The seven men started walking out the door when Casey shouted after them.  "Be careful you don't miss the tunnel opening. If you don't know what you're lookin' for you'll miss it."

Chris Larabee stopped in the doorway. It had not been a good day for him, and he was impatient. He squinted at Casey for a long moment and then turned to J.D..

"Saddle another horse."
 



 

Casey tried to remain in a sour mood since they left Four Corners, but it was getting more and more difficult with Josiah rattling on beside her. She sighed and continued to stare straight ahead. Chris and Vin were riding abreast quietly discussing something. Probably a plan, she thought. Buck was leaning forward, arms thrown around his horse's neck, snoring softly. Behind Buck, J.D. and Nathan were discussing some of the more gruesome aspects of what kinds of guns did what kinds of damage to the human body. She quickly swallowed a few times after hearing a description of the effects of Vin's Winchester.
 
Casey looked around at her surroundings. They'd been traveling for about three hours now, and they were just about at the canyon's edge.  'Bout time, she thought grumpily. A deep rumble made her look up at the  sky. It had been light about twenty minutes back, but it now looked like a swollen bruise. Chris motioned for everybody to stop. He gestured frustratingly towards the sky and leaned towards Vin speaking in a heated murmur. After a moment, everyone started into the canyon. Casey glanced over at Josiah and suddenly grasped what he was saying.

"-and I thought to myself 'if that boy were any stupider he'd have to be watered twice a week.'" he was saying.

"Oh, Josiah!" Casey burst out laughing interrupting the conversations ahead of her; Buck just snorted and settled back down.  Josiah gave her a shy smile and tipped his hat.

"Well, the clouds have finally parted I see." Casey almost jumped right out of the saddle when she heard the soft southern drawl. The popinjay, as she now referred to him as, had been so quiet that she'd forgotten he was riding right behind her. Ezra looked up at the sky and heard a rumble of thunder.

"In your situation at least." Casey flashed a smile at him. She was in a good mood now, and was just about to deliver a snappy comeback when a huge blast interrupted her.

Startled, Casey jerked her head back to look at the sky. She thought it was thunder, but everyone elses reactions told her  differently. Chris and Vin were already off their horses. Chris whacked them out of the way, and they took off on a quick trot out of the canyon.

"Damn! It was an ambush; they got the high ground on that cliff up there. Damn!" Chris had to yell over the booming thunder; Vin nodded while yanking Buck off his horse. To Buck's credit, he had his gun drawn before he hit the ground. Vin smirked and thought, he's had practice at rough awakenings. Two more gunshots whizzed by them.

"Casey, get down!" Casey rolled her eyes at J.D.'s un-needed warning. That's just what she'd been trying to do for the past ten
 seconds, but her overall's right pant leg had gotten snagged on part of the saddle. Well, that's the result of getting rushed off somewhere on an improper saddle, she thought angrily. She clawed fervently at it, but the cloth held. Another shot whizzed by only a few inches away from her head.

Casey was scrambling to find her knife when two powerful arms encircled her waist and yanked so hard that her leg came free. She was thrown roughly to the ground where then something landed on her as a bullet hit the ground next to her left arm. After a moment, the weight was gone and she was looking into Josiah's blue eyes.

"Saw your trouble, thought you might need a hand." Casey nodded sharply as Josiah grabbed her arm and dragged her behind a huge rock. It didn't offer much protection, but it was better than huddling out in the open.

"Stay here." With that order Josiah was gone.

Casey felt sick. Her stomach felt numb, and her head was reeling. She could only breath in shaky gasps, and her heart was jumping out of her chest. She unbuckled her gun and looked at it. I can shoot, she thought, but I've never been in a fight before. She cocked the old Colt. Her fingers felt thick and her wrists felt weak. I'm gonna die, she thought to herself as she heard a bullet ricochet of the rock.

After a few seconds, Casey managed to get on her knees and peek over the rock. Chris, Vin, and Buck were behind a larger boulder opposite and up from her. Her eyes followed their path of shooting until she saw the figures on the cliff above them. She couldn't make out how many there were. It had gotten so dark they'd become blurred shadows.

Casey didn't think it could get worse. She was wrong. Lightning split the sky and rain started to pour down in sheets. She could barely make out the figures on the cliff, but she knew they were still there, still shooting.

Casey heard shouting coming from where Chris, Vin, and Buck were. It was Buck. Every time he stood up and took a shot, he yelled out something foul, usually directed at the men's' origin of birth. It must be working, she thought wryly as one of the men on the cliff fell. Vin stood up and aimed his Winchester and shot. Another one fell, but not before Vin took a bullet in the leg. It hit him in the upper leg knocking it out from underneath him. He fell on his stomach behind the rock where he began reloading his gun.

Casey heard shooting up the canyon from her. She recognized the style of shooting as J.D. rapidly firing his two six-shooters. Another bullet ricocheted off the rock, but Casey didn't get down. She stared wide-eyed at the scene unfolding before her. Buck stood up and shot twice, but he only got one insult out. He had been struck in the shoulder. His cry of pain echoed across the canyon snapping Casey out of her daze. These were her friends that were getting shot up!

Casey was still numb, but her hands had stopped shaking. She stood up quickly and aimed her gun. She couldn't think of an insult that would be as bad or worse than Buck's so she just said the first thing that came to her mind.

"Y-you, Varmints!" Bang!! Casey's arm reverberated with the jolt of her gun. She dove back behind the rock, but not before seeing one of the men on the cliff stiffen and fall. He hit the ground not five feet away from her. Peeking out, she saw the bullet hole had gone through the man's right eye. Casey glanced up and met Chris Larabee's gaze. His eyebrows were raised in surprise, but after a moment he nodded once, gave her a grim smile, and went back to shooting.

It felt like they'd been shooting forever, but Casey knew it had only been at most two minutes. She kept firing, and she hit two more people. It was becoming more and more difficult to aim her gun though,  because the rain had not let up and it had created a small river of water and mud slowly sliding down the mouth of the canyon. She had to keep repositioning her feet to keep her balance and when she did, she heard loud sucking noises. Casey glanced down. The mud was halfway to her  knees. A crack of thunder erupted from the sky. It was so loud it hurt Casey's ears.

Silence.

Casey reached up with her left hand and banged it on her ear. Then she heard another deep rumble, but no more gunshots. Everything was silent.

Did we get all of them? she thought while peeking over the boulder. Nothing moved on the cliff; no pinpoints of flashing light from a gun barrel. She glanced over to where Chris stood crouched behind the rock. Nathan was over there tying up Vin's leg. When did he get over there? Where was J.D.? She looked around frantically until she saw him with Josiah about twenty feet up from her. He saw her and gave a goofy grin and waved. Casey didn't wave back. The trembling had come back. It  hit her so hard she almost dropped her gun in the mud. I'm gonna throw up, she thought sickly.

Chris Larabee stood and slowly walked out into the open. He was tense and waiting for the sound of gunfire. Nothing. It could be a trap, he thought, but they were dead anyway if they didn't get out of this canyon; they'd be buried alive. The mud was picking up speed and he was having difficulty keeping his balance in the oozing mud. Chris slowly worked his way back over to the rock where Nathan was attending a now complaining Buck.

"I told you Nathan it's only a scra-" he was saying.

"Scratch my butt Buck; that just missed your shoulder blade. Now don't be a fool and let me see it." Nathan cut in. Chris met Vin's gaze.

"We got to get out of here." he said.

"I reckon' so, and quick. This mud's getting' thicker." Vin replied. Chris Larabee nodded.

"All right everyone. We need to get out of here and quick. Work your way up to the top and watch your hide up there." he said. Chris had to shout over the thunder and he couldn't see through the rain if anybody nodded, but with the next lightning flash, he saw that Josiah and J.D. were heading up.

Casey stood rooted to the ground. She saw that everyone was moving up, but she couldn't make her legs get going. I'll get left behind she thought frantically. Casey was just about to experience full-blown panic when she felt a light tap on her shoulder.

"May I escort you, Miss Wells?" a familiar voice said.

Ezra! He'd been behind her the whole time! She could have thrown her arms him. Never had she been so happy to hear that popinjay's southern drawl.

He must of saw the relief wash over her face, because he gently took her arm and helped her stand up from her crouched position behind the safety of the rock. It took them fifteen minutes to get up to the opening of the canyon. The mud was up to her knees now and she would have already fallen twice if it wasn't for Ezra's tight grip on her arm. They were the last ones to come out of the canyon. As they approached the opening of the cliff, Ezra turned to her; she saw his pale face in a flash of lightning.

"Stay behind me" He warned. Casey just nodded. She was too exhausted to argue or even care.

Ezra stepped out of the canyon where the rest of the guys were waiting. Nothing happened. After another moment, he turned to help Casey up.

"Hey, Cas-" J.D. started to say, but was cut off by the sound of six guns being shot off at once. Everyone dove for cover behind a couple of fallen trees except for Ezra and Casey. Ezra had been in the middle of helping her up when the six rounds had been shot off.

Casey heard the shots and looked up to see why Ezra's grip had gone slack. He had a bewildered expression on his face. She was about to ask him why he wasn't moving when she saw the blood. At first, only one thin line of red made its way down the right side of his face. Then, after a second, several more lines began to appear; they blended together to form a current of solid red.
 
"EZRA!" Casey screamed but Ezra didn'trespond. He looked dazed and blinked blood out of his eye. He was beginning to wobble. She saw him jerk again as a bullet pierced his left arm.

Everything began to happen in slow motion for Casey. She looked up at Ezra; he was silhouetted against the dark sky. She grabbed his limp hand and yanked. Little too late she realized that he was going to fall right on top of her and they were both going to end up in the canyon.

Casey heard J.D. scream her name, but it sounded far away. All she could think of was the immense weight that had crashed into her. She felt herself falling until her body hit the sludge with a huge plop.

Ezra's body had landed directly on top of hers pushing her head under the mud. Casey struggled with the weight while trying to claw her way to the surface. She finally managed to get out from underneath Ezra and into a sitting position. Scraping mud off her face and out of her eyes she yelled for help. Ezra had surprisingly landed face up in the muck. His eyes were closed and his hat was hopelessly lost somewhere underneath her. Casey blinked the rain out of her eyes and listened to the sounds coming from the top of the canyon.


"Let me go!" J.D. cried.

"J.D., listen to what I am saying" Vin grabbed J.D. by the shoulders and spun him around. "We can't help them right now. The storm has made it one huge mud trap. If we go down there, we'll be trapped just like them."

"But I got to get Casey... and Ezra!" J.D. said.

"Listen, even if you do make it over there, you'll get shot by them. What we need to do is skin out and get some cover. They probably think both of them are dead, and when they are gone, we'll come back and get them. I promise." Vin said.

J.D. shook his head and swallowed hard, but he didn't make an attempt to go near the canyon. Chris made a few motions, and they all started to slowly back up in to what appeared to be a retreat.
 



The gunshots stopped. Casey couldn't hear anything coming from outside the canyon.

"HELP!" Still nothing. Where they dead? Why isn't anybody coming? Casey reached over and lifted Ezra's head out of the mud. He had been resting on top of the mud, but he had started sinking. Crying, she tried to hold his head out of the mud without touching the blood.

"Ezra, wake up. Wake up, please. Please, Ezra." Casey kept repeating it over and over, but Ezra didn't respond. He felt like a
 ragdoll. Tears mixed with the raindrops on her pale cheeks. She didn't know what to do; she was out of her element. After a few moments, Casey tried to calm herself down.

"Ok. What would Aunt Nettie do? Probably box my ears for getting  into this in the first place." Casey grabbed Ezra underneath his arms and  tried to drag him up the side of the canyon. She slipped and they slid farther down into the canyon.

"Well, that didn't work." She looked around to see if she could find anything to grab hold of. Nothing. A flash of brilliant lightning lit up the sky. She wasn't sure, but she thought she saw a black hole in the side of the canyon. Slowly, she started to crawl her way over while still holding onto Ezra.

It was a cave! And it was sloped at a downward angle. The mud was sliding right on by it! Half laughing half crying, Casey pulled Ezra over to the mouth of the cave. Inside, the cave floor was slanted steeply uphill. It was full of dry sand and dirt. After a few moments of struggling, Casey managed to pull Ezra inside by wedging her legs against the sidewall. The cave was about five feet high and four feet across. It was the most beautiful thing Casey had ever seen. She laid back on the ground and took a deep breath.

"We're alive!" Then a thought struck Casey with the force of a train. Were they alive or was it just her?

"Ezra?" No answer. You know, she thought, I'm really getting sick of people not answerin' me. Casey crawled over to Ezra. The constant lightning outside was creating an eerie glow within the cave. If she was sitting right beside him she could just make out his face.

His eyes were closed and his lips were slightly parted. Casey wiped one hand off on her rain soaked shirt where the mud hadn't reached and then slowly brushed back Ezra's bangs. He groaned when she did so making her snap her hand back.

"Sorry." Casey licked her lips, built up her courage, and reached out to move his bangs back again. There, she was relieved to find that the bullet had only grazed the right corner of his forehead. Casey turned his head away from her so she could look at it better.

"Wow, for such a little cut, it sure does bleed a lot." she mumbled.

Below the cut, Ezra's hair was slick with blood. It covered part of his cheek, ear, neck, and had ran all the way down to the collar on his shirt. Well, she thought, at least the rain had kept it clean. Casey was about to lean a little closer to see if she could clean up his cheek and hair when she remembered that his arm had also been struck by a bullet. When she tried to peek through the hole in his jacket she couldn't see anything.

"Now what do I do?" Casey blushed a deep red when she realized the jacket would have to come off. Look, she told herself, this is no big deal; you've seen more than a white shirt before! Yes, she argued back at herself, but that was an accident and you yourself didn't take it off the guy! Oh, shut up!

Casey got up and squatted on her bare feet. She just realized that the mud had sucked off both of her shoes. Well, she thought as she grabbed Ezra's shoulder and roughly pulled him up into a sitting position, this whole awful day can be put squarely on J.D.'s shoulders, and I'm gonna tell him so when I get out of here.

She had gotten Ezra's jacket off and was about to throw it aside when something heavy fell out of it. Looking down she saw that it was his whiskey flask. She stared at it thinking. Aunt Nettie'd kill her, but what the hell. She opened it up and it was completely full. Tipping her head back she took a huge swig. Casey coughed and sputtered her eyes tearing and her throat burning. She'd never tasted whiskey that strong before!

After a moment, Casey felt more relaxed and was able to cut off Ezra's sleeve with her knife and tie it around the bullet hole. She then dumped the flask's remaining contents on the wound. This man certainly has luck, she thought how the bullet had gone clean through the upper part of his arm. Exhausted beyond imagination, Casey sat back down and leaned against the wall of the cave. Within two minutes she was asleep.
 



"Let's shake her."
 
"Let me do it!"

Casey awoke with a jerk; startled out of her deep sleep. She blinked a couple times and looked around. It was still dark inside the cave except for the faint glow being reflected from outside. Ezra was still asleep where'd she left him. She thought she'd heard voices. Maybe it was the rain.

"She's moving!"

Casey jumped and turned towards the entrance of the cave. She had the Colt in her hand although it was useless; it was out of bullets.

"W-who's there?"

Hushed laughing.

"Tell me dammit!"

More laughing.

Casey peeked out of the cave. There was nobody there. Glancing back up into the cave she only saw Ezra, and he was still as a grave. Casey shivered at the thought and sat down next to him.

"I'm gonna ruffle her up a bit!"

Casey whipped her head towards the back of the cave while snapping the gun up and aiming it at àa solid wall. It wasn't possible that anybody else could be in the cave. Casey's hands twitched as she lowered the gun. I'm going insane, she thought. She kept looking at the solid wall and then turned her head to look out the opening of the cave.  Where did it come from? She gasped when she heard the faint echo of laughter in the cave. Casey couldn't figure out where the voices were  coming from. She started to feel shaky all over and panicky when something grabbed her wrist.

Yelping, Casey looked down. It was Ezra. She could see his eyes reflecting in the dark. His grip was gentle but firm. He stared up at her and nodded once. Smiling weakly, she nodded back. Casey listened for the voices. She didn't hear them anymore. I must have been dreaming, she thought in relief. Unsure as to what to do, Casey let Ezra pull her over beside him. She layed down and snuggled up to him. Proper behavior be damned, she thought tiredly. Casey drifted back off to sleep, but not
 before realizing, with surprise, that she didn't think of Ezra as a popinjay anymore.
 
 



Morning came too quick for Casey. Groaning, she sat up. Her back was stiff and it protested when she slowly stood up. She looked down at the still figure next to her. Ezra was still sleeping. Her eyes rested on his face for a moment. He looked so sweet and innocent while he slept.

 Dang, she thought, he's even cute with all that blood over him.

 Shaking her head suddenly, Casey stomped down to the entrance of the  cave. What was she thinking? She should be thinking about J.D., and how his hair always fell into his beautiful brown eyes, and... and... and how he'd never even attempted to comfort her about anything before.

Casey stumbled back a few steps as soon as she reached the entrance. The sun was now bright and high in the sky and it had blinded her. After a moment, she tentatively stepped out of the cave onto a little stone ledge. Her feet sunk into the mud a few inches, but the ground held. Sighing, she knelt down and dipped her hands into a clean pool of water.
 



 "Quit your figetin', boy, we're movin' as fast as we can." Buck snapped at J.D.

"Not fast enough, Buck." J.D. snapped back. He prodded his horse into a faster trot. Thank Heaven they'd found all the horses in a field that morning grazing on grass. He looked back at the two riderless horses. He wasn't going to think about what they'd find when they got back to the canyon. J.D. prodded his horse again.

"Look, J.D., we all know how you feel. We're all worried too. Nobody wanted to leave them behind, but we didn't have a choice." Buck winced as the new pace jerked his wounded arm. We may find them, he
 thought, but this is going to kill me.

"If that's what you say, Buck." J.D. said. After that, they all silently rode around a bend in the trail. Just a little bit farther
 they'd be at the canyon.
 



 Casey cupped the water in her hands and lifted it to her face. It felt so good. She squatted there like that, face resting in her palms, just relaxing. She tried to think about nothing, but her mind kept wandering back to a certain person in a certain cave. She was confused.  Casey shook her hands free of the remaining water. She stood up and began turning around to head back to the cave.

She turned and came face to face with Ezra. Startled, she looked up into his sea green eyes. How did he get so close without her hearing him? Casey tried to ask Ezra how he was feeling, but she couldn't. Her mouth didn't work. All she could do was stare into his eyes. She saw something there, but she couldn't name it. Her heart began to thud loudly in her chest, and her breathing became faster. What's happening? I must be coming down with something, she lied to herself. Casey knew what was
 happening. It was an engrained feeling in the very fabric of human nature. She recognized the same in Ezra's eyes.

Ezra had awakened alone in the cave. He had been stunned by the memories that flooded him the instant his eyes opened. He hadn't thought about the gunfight or even getting shot; he remembered Casey. Last night, Ezra had looked up and saw Casey sitting next to him and realized that he'd never actually looked at her before. She was like nothing he'd ever encountered before. She hid nothing. She wasn't a fake. She didn't have pretensions about herself or anybody. She was innocent. Ezra didn't know
 what it was, but the feeling had come upon him suddenly making his heart feel like a bruise.
 
Ezra shook his head and berated himself, you're a grown man not some young Romeo; these feelings are just some sort of con! He had stumbled out of the cave angry, but when he saw her there, crouched by a small pool of water, he knew it wasn't a con. She was a rough and tumble doe-eyed fawn, and he wanted her. Before he realized what he was doing, he had walked over stopping inches from her.

Before he touched her he thought in a last ditch effort, I can't  betray J.D. like this. But when she had stood up and looked directly through his eyes and into his soul, he gave up and thought, damn it all.   In one motion, Ezra placed a hand on the back of her neck and kissed her.

It was a light kiss, but it shook Casey's world none the less. She rested both hands on his chest, because she feared that she might turn into a puddle any minute. Casey felt his arm slide around her waist, supporting her like nobody had ever done before. She let instinct take over, and she kissed him back.
 



 J.D. was the first to reach the canyon. He quickly ground tied his horse and started to jog over to the mouth of the canyon.

"J.D., be careful. We might not be the first to get back here."

J.D. ignored Vin's warning, and nobody could blame him. He ran up to the canyon's edge and looked down.

"Oh my God." he muttered.
 



 Ezra was lost in the kiss. He never would have guessed that someone so innocent could strip away all his defenses leaving his heart naked. He never wanted this to stop, but something in the back of his mind was prickling. Was he hearing voices? Be careful of what? Keeping his eyes closed, he managed to pull away from the kiss. He heard Casey gasp and take a deep breath. Stepping back, he looked up the canyon in time to see J.D.'s head peak over.
 


"They're alive!" J.D.'s excited exclamation brought a sigh of relief from the rest of the men. They had been just as worried as J.D.,  but they'd just dealt with it silently.

Chris leaned over the canyon and looked down. He had to admit, he was glad to see the gambler's face again.

"Vin, can I borrow some of your rope?" he asked.

Vin smiled and threw it to him.  "I reckin' so, it bein' for a good cause and all"
 



 it had taken over an hour to get both Casey and Ezra out of the canyon and on their way back to Four Corners. J.D. wouldn't budge from Casey's side. She looked flushed and he was worried that she'd taken sick from the cold night. He covered up his worry by chatting non-stop.

Casey sat on her horse exhausted. She didn't want to think about what had happened in the canyon and she certainly didn't want to think about what J.D. rambling on about. Casey didn't even bother to look up when everyone stopped their horses. She didn't care. She just sat there and waited.

"What's the matter, Vin?" Chris asked.

Vin had stopped his horse and was staring at the ground ahead of them. His eyes focused on something Chris couldn't discern.
 
"Fresh tracks that have been disguised." he said.

Chris glanced around. They were traveling on a dangerous part of  the trail. On their right was a field filled entirely with brush and thorns. On their left, a cliff with a 200 foot drop.

"I thought we got them all?" J.D. asked.

"We found eight bodies, but there were nine horses." Vin replied.

Chris turned around in his saddle and faced the group.  "Ever-" He never finished his warning. A huge and ugly man burst
 through the underbrush firing a revolver. Most of his shots went wild, but one struck Casey's horse in the thigh. The horse reared sending Casey flying off her horse in the direction of the cliff. Josiah pulled out his revolver and shot the man between the eyes.

Casey was flying through the air. She tried kicking her legs to straighten herself, but her hair was whipping about her and she couldn't tell which way was up. Casey managed to claw the hair out of her face and see where she was falling. Casey was falling 200 feet down. She reached out desperately and her hand touched the edge of the cliff. It wasn't enough; she couldn't grab hold. She felt the stone slip through her fingers.

"Casey!" It was J.D.'s agonizing scream, but it was Ezra who caught her hand after it scraped the cliff's edge.

Casey dangled by one arm. She looked up into a pair of beautiful sea green eyes. His eyes said mountains of things to her in the few seconds she dangled there.

"Ezra, I can't hold on!" Casey's arm were starting to spasm. She had pulled her muscles earlier getting Ezra into the cave, and she didn't have any strength left.

"You better hang on, because if you don't, I'm coming with you." Ezra's voice was strained. He had grabbed her with his wounded arm. She could feel his grip slipping. Her hand slowly slid down from his wrist into his hand.

Casey gazed into his eyes, willing him to understand... what?  That she loved him? Yes! She saw his body starting to slip over the edge. He wasn't going to let go of her. That is when Casey Wells did the bravest thing of her life.

She simply let go.

Casey felt her hand slip out of his, her fingertips brushed his for an instant, and then she felt nothing but air. The desperate scream that came from the cliff didn't come from J.D. that time.

A thousand thoughts and images filled Casey's mind as the air rushed by her. She pictured Aunt Nettie sitting on the cabin porch. The last time she'd seen her parents. The first time she'd seen J.D. The joke Josiah told on the way out here. Ezra's face. Ezra's kiss. Casey's last thoughts were of Ezra.
 



 Casey's head hurt. Was dead supposed to hurt this much? Casey slowly opened her eyes and saw a bright lightà.with a grinning Buck and  J.D right in the middle of it. What? Casey's eyes snapped open ignoring the pain from the setting sun.

"W-what?" she asked.

Buck roared with laughter and leaned back.  Casey struggled to move into a sitting position. She was sitting on the Sheriff's front stoop with a tipped over chair next to her.

"What?" she asked again.

This brought a new round of laughter from Buck and J.D..
 
"I told you we should of shaken her awake, Buck!" J.D. said.
 
Casey was confused. Shaking her head, she thought back to when she was at the cave. "Let's shake her." It had been them!
 
"Oh, J.D., there are better ways to wakin' a lady up than shakin'  her." Buck said.

"I was asleep?" Casey asked.

After a moment, J.D. managed to get his laughter under control. "Well, I hurried back 'cause I knew I was late and when Buck and I got back, you were sleepin' in the chair. I was gonna shake you and wake you up, but Buck said to let you sleep." J.D. said. Buck couldn't himself, he interrupted the explanation.

"And you were sleeping just as peaceful as a babe when you started kickin' about like you was fallin' and BAM the chair fell out from underneath you! You should of seen it!" he said. Buck unceremoniously grabbed her hand and yanked her to her feet.
 
Realization hit Casey like a punch. I never did make it past the count of three. It couldn't have been a dream! she thought. It was so real. Casey felt a sense of loss. She could still feel the sensation of Ezra's lips against her own.

Anger swelled within Casey. Her chest felt tight and her throat hurt. Well, she thought, I'm still going to tell him. With that, Casey looked J.D. right in the eye and yelled.

"It's all your fault, J.D. Dunne!" With that, she stomped away leaving a bewildered J.D. and a hysterical Buck. Casey felt like she'd been jumbled all up inside. Where did these new feelings belong now? She felt terrible. How could I have ever thought that somebody like that would love me?

Casey stomped around the corner of the General Store not looking where she was going. As she rounded the bend, she ran into something  hard.  Jerking back she looked up into a pair of the most beautiful sea green eyes.

"Pardon me, Miss Wells. In a hurry somewhere?" Casey could only nod. She kept staring into Ezra Standish's eyes. She looked for that spark she saw in her dream. She could almost see it, but Ezra looked away from her stare.

"Take care, Miss Wells." Ezra tipped his hat and turned away. He walked a few steps and stopped. He was surprised at himself. When he was looking into Miss Well's eyes, he felt odd. It almost felt like she saw his soul. He glanced back at her.

Casey began slowly walking away when she glanced back and saw that Ezra was looking at her strangely.

He winked.

Casey smiled and kept strolling down Four Corner's main street. Well, she thought, this wasn't such a bad day after all.
 
 Almost an Ending...
 

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