"J.D., calm down. Ain't like ya never been to Nettie's for dinner before." Vin Tanner laughed at his friend.
The invitation to join Nettie Wells and her niece Casey for Sunday dinner sent waves of joy and utter terror alternating through the young Easterner's heart. Still recovering from a near fatal gunshot wound, JD Dunne wanted nothing more than to prove to the other six men that he was whole. Thinking of seeing Casey again zapped his strength and melted his resolve. The young girl sat at his bed side until he awoke from his injuries. Setting aside his pain and exhaustion, JD confessed his true feelings for her and their friendship grew.
"Well, I ain't been to Nettie's since, well since, since before." JD stammered.
"Since before what? That bullet hit your gut, not your face. Ya don't look no different than ya did before that woman shot ya." Vin enjoyed seeing his youthful friend squirm.
"Yes, but that was before me and Casey "
Vin pulled his horse to a halt and blocked JD. "Before you and Casey did what?" He thought of the young tomboy-emerging woman as a kid sister ever since the feisty Widow Wells captured his heart and loyalty. He might laugh at the puppy love antics of the two teenagers but he'd fiercely protect the young girl's innocence, protect her from any reckless advances of the man beside him.
"It ain't what you think. Casey and me, well, she's a girl." JD looked up at the blue sky. Why was this man-woman stuff so complicated?
"I know she's a girl, JD, but don't you get any ideas about taking her to some haystack or the back stall in the livery."
Totally confused JD kicked his horse around Vin and galloped down the road. He needed some space and time to think straight. Vin accusing him a taking liberties with Casey Wells was ludicrous. They hadn't ever held hands and she already told him she'd rather go to a hanging than a haystack.
Vin watched the dust fly in JD's wake and smiled. Yep, those two deserved each other. He kneed his own horse on toward the Wells ranch. Nettie insisted on serving her meals on time.
"Hi Vin! You hungry?" Casey met the tracker on the shady side of the barn.
"Dinner ready?" He dismounted and loosened the cinch. As soon as the animal was tended and fed, he followed the young woman toward the house. In his hand he carried a heavy burlap bag, a surprise for Nettie. Casey walked ahead of him, her hair neatly plaited into two braids. She wore a pale blue blouse and a dark split skirt. Not wanting to crowd Vin, she walked a few steps away, nervous and flighty. An outside observer might think those two were headed for a shotgun wedding than a simple Sunday dinner.
Unable to respect the silence she blurted out "What's in the bag?"
"Something sweet for your aunt. She's done so much for me I wanted to give her something."
She frowned as she looked at him. "Where's JD? I figured he would ride out with you. He is coming, isn't he? You fellows didn't make him finish some sheriff business. Aunt Nettie won't stand for someone being late to her table."
Vin licked his lips, trying to hide his smile from her accusing glare. "We left town together. He'll show up soon, after he lets his horse get some exercise."
She stopped and squared off with the scruffy, long-haired man. "Did you tell him about us?"
"Yep, you know that day in the livery?"
Vin tried to remember what she meant, his mind reliving to past few week's events.
"I'm still planning on sowing them wild oats, just not with you or Ezra," she said with conviction and without a hint of embarrassment. "I just been waiting for JD to get better before I ask him. See if we can share them together."
Thankful his wide brim shaded his face and hid the rapidly rising blush he interrupted the girl before she said more than she should. "I'm sure your aunt's waiting on your help. Here, give her this," he added shoving the bag into her hands. I'll wait for JD and we'll be in shortly." The older woman would immediately see his embarrassment and try to fix the unknown problem. How could he even begin to share the short conversation? Better she sat down the law with her niece and JD than with him!
JD's horse walked up the lane toward the Wells' yard, its coat shiny. The rider dismounted near the other horse and began the task of untacking; a scowl firmly planted on his young face.
"Give you a hand?" said the voice behind him.
JD jerked and startled the animal, never sensing his friend's approach. "Don't need no more advice," JD spat.
"Wasn't offering any. Just was gonna help ya so we ain't late for dinner. Nettie will serve it whether we're set down or not." Vin winced as he saw JD's painful grimace pulling the saddle off the animal. He grabbed the blanket and began rubbing down the sweat slicked animal, wiping the hair before it dried in hard and itchy clumps. JD grabbed a second rag and the two men soon finished. Neither spoke as they walked to the small house.
They stopped at the wash bench and as JD washed his hands and face, Vin said quietly. "Just don't want to see her hurt. Remember she ain't had all the experience you've got. The first time's too special. Remember your first time."
JD stared at Vin, water dripping from his face and hands. "But I ain't never." A towel hit him in the face, stopping his confession as his friend nudged him away from the wash pan.
"Let's eat," he said effectively stopping the young man from revealing anything more.
Casey opened the door for the two men and said, "Just in time. We're putting the food on the table." She smiled coyly at JD and he returned the look.
His conversation with Vin didn't squelch his desire for the girl but added fuel to it. Watching her finish setting the table, he imagined of the two of them someday, setting the table for their family. His mind wandered back to his mother's attempts at a family time with just the two of them. More often than not they ate their meals at separate times and at different tables. Outside help, especially the men who tended the livestock weren't good enough to eat with the inside help at the estate.
"Get your head out of them clouds and sit down. Vin, you can sit at the other end; JD, you're across from Casey." Nettie's commanding voice interrupted his daydream.
Delicious odors enticed growls of empty stomachs and the boys were soon on their way to putting away the major share of the meal. Nettie smiled seeing the two young men devouring her cooking. Each of them, including her niece Casey, grew up outside the traditional family setting. Watching them eat and exchanging 'family' teasing gave her hope that sorrowful beginnings might still lead to joyous endings. She never would have selected either of the two men to sit at her table when she first heard about the peacekeepers hired by the territorial judge but now she couldn't imagine her and Casey's life without them as part of their 'family'.
Serving the still warm dried apple pie smothered in heavy cream she watched the looks exchanged between JD and Casey. Something was different than she'd seen a few weeks earlier, before he'd been shot by a troubled young woman. Casey's anger at the young sheriff dissolved and was replaced by a longing to be more than just a fishing buddy or riding pal.
As she set the cinnamon and cloves laced desert before Vin she patted his back. "Thanks for the sugar loaves."
"Didn't want you to run out. Mrs. Potter just got a new shipment and I didn't know when you'd be making a trip to town for supplies." He dug into the pie and a huge grin spread across his face. "Nettie, I think I died and went to heaven. This pie is pure opulence."
The other three looked at the uneducated man and stared. Casey's mouth fell open.
Vin's eyes darted around the room looking for the reason of the surprised looks. "Did I say something wrong?"
"Wrong?" JD shook his head. "Just never heard words like that coming out of your mouth before. Almost poetic."
"Just don't start sounding like that 'I don't do manual labor' cohort of yours. Never can figure out why that man can't speak clearly, throwing around all them fancy words. Normal folk can't make heads or tails of a word he says," Nettie added.
Nettie and Vin sat relaxing and enjoying their coffee as the teenagers cleared the table. When Casey pulled the enamel dishpan off the wall, Nettie said, "Vin and me'll take care of the dishes. You two need some fresh air. Just don't wander off too far. You still got some chores to finish later."
The old woman made no move to stand as JD grabbed his hat before following his girl out the door. Her smile faded as she contemplated the little girl's transformation into a woman before her eyes. "Won't be long, will it Vin?"
He watched the sad look fill Nettie's eyes and wondered what melancholy thought provoked such despair. "Won't be long before what?"
"Them two. So eager to grow up, to be adults. Not knowing the responsibilities that go with it. I was watching them through dinner. Usually the boy is spouting off on the rest of you fellows and your latest adventure. Today, at the table, I could have said the house was on fire and he wouldn't have heard me. All he could set his eyes on was my girl and I saw how much he wants her."
"You aren't worried, letting them be alone?"
"Better they go with my permission and hopefully remember I know where they are. That will slow down their need to grow up so fast. Can't say I blame them though. How's he doing? Still looks a might peeked."
"Nathan thinks he's healing considering everything. JD still feels he's got to prove he can handle anything though none of us ever doubted him. That crazy bounty hunter didn't know right from wrong, only saw hurting and killing as a way to get what she wanted, never thought about who might be hurt or killed by what she did. You talk to Casey about everything?"
Sighing, she nodded. "We talked but can't say as much made any difference. Like I said before, they want to grow up so fast. Later on they'll look back and wish they could have stayed children a mite longer."
JD and Casey walked through the grove of trees, the leaves shading them from the warm afternoon sun. Along the way she slipped her hand in his and pulled him toward her special glen. The feel of her small hand grasping his sent lighting bolts of something he couldn't describe coursing through his veins. Was she wanting him as much as he desired her?
A small hill shaded by three ancient oaks offered a view of the distant river where they enjoyed fishing. She kept a firm grip on his hand and gently rubbed her other hand on his brown calico shirt sleeve, pulling him down to sit beside her. "I love to come here. It's like I can see the whole world. I leave behind all the hard work and dream. What was it like coming here, leaving your home back east and coming here?"
He stared out at the beautiful view before the images bombarded his mind. Gently rubbing a small spot on the back of her hand he described the estate where he grew up, its beautiful pastures and paddocks, the purebred animals. He told her about the family and their celebrations.
"But what about you? How could you leave everything you knew to come west?"
Trying not to choke he said, "If I hadn't come, I'd never have met you." He leaned over and gave her a tender kiss on her cheek.
She touched her face with the other free hand, a wonderful feeling tickling her from head to toe. She didn't know what to say.
Insects hummed around them and birds chirped and called. Both felt their hearts racing and were sure the other could hear them pounding. Casey pulled her hand loose and wrapped her arms around her knees. JD took his now free arm and circled her shoulders, allowing her to rest against his chest. Full with a delicious meal, a girl in his embrace and wonderful weather filled him with a sense of peace he hadn't felt since before Mattie Stokes shot him in cold blood. Could life ever be more wonderful than it was right now?
A gunshot startled them and both jumped to their feet. "Aunt Nettie!" Casey exclaimed. The sound came from the direction of the Wells house. JD and Casey dashed through woods in a race to help protect the older woman.
JD listened for the report of Vin's mare's leg but other than the one gunshot the woods remained mute. The two ran at a breathtaking speed ignoring the brambles and bushes that grabbed their clothing. Several hundred yards before the woods opened into the cleared area of the farm, JD dropped to his knees as he grabbed his throbbing abdomen. His throat restricted his airflow and he gasped for a deep breath.
Casey dropped to his side, panic and worry marring her youthful looks. "You ok, JD?"
"Can't go on," he hissed through the pain. He tried to stand, ignoring the sharp stitch in his side, his lungs burning and his vision swimming from the all consuming run. He grabbed the fabric of Casey's sleeve, weakly holding her back. "Gotta know what we're headin' into first."
She reached around his waist as he caught his breath and helped steady him. The pain gradually lessened and they worked their way toward the back of the house. Silence hung heavy over the area. No one was in the yard but the corral gate stood open. Leaving JD leaning against the house she peeked around to the front porch and saw her aunt laying face down in the small flower bed and unmoving. Ignoring JD's warning, Casey ran to the older woman and gently wiped the blood soaked hair from the wrinkled face. "Nettie, you can't die. You can't die," she cried.
Clutching his aching side, JD shuffled to the end of the dirt path, searching for his companion. His breath caught in his throat as he saw Vin lying in the dirt, a large red stain covering his back. He glanced back at Casey and Nettie and then back at Vin. They needed Nathan.
Forming a plan and knowing Casey would instantly argue with him, he stripped off his shirt and used it to staunch the blood flow.
"JD, help me move Nettie into the house," Casey yelled. "I can't get her to wake up!"
"Vin's been shot." He peeked under the shirt and saw the blood flow had slowed. His side no longer sent knifelike jabs into his lungs but remained a dull ache. Pushing up from the ground he joined Casey and the two of them carried the older woman into her bedroom.
Both returned to their fallen friend and together they struggled to move him into the house to Casey's bed, laying him facedown after removing his blood soaked clothing. A nasty gash six inches in length crossed the tracker's left shoulder
Trying to hold back tears Casey sniffled. "Looks like they hit her in the head."
Holding her quaking shoulders, JD said, "They need Nathan. You've got to ride to town and get Nathan."
Shaking her head, her ratty braids flying around her face, she refused. "I'm not leaving her. She needs me. I can't leave her," she paused and her eyes grew large. "What if they come back?"
"That's why you have to go. I'll watch over them, stop anyone else from hurting them. You're a good rider; you can outride most anyone. You'll be safer on horseback. There's nothing more we can do for either one, till Nathan gets here. I'll guard them." Lying, he continued, "The way my side hurts I wouldn't be able to talk when I get there. You've got to do it. You're the only one who can." His hazel eyes seemed to melt as they filled with moisture.
Realizing JD's plan offered the help her aunt and Vin needed she relented and left to saddle her horse. JD continued to wipe the dried blood from Vin's back, praying for the man to awaken. He listened for the sounds of hoof beats but drew his gun when he heard steps on the porch.
"They stole my horse! They took our horses." Casey screamed.
"Did they take Vin's or mine? Use mine, he's friendlier to a new rider than Vin's. He's used to you, he'll let you ride him. Go on. Get going!"
A moan in the bedroom sent both teenagers flying into the room. The gray haired woman sat on the edge of her bed, her feet on the floor. She leaned on one arm and rubbed her face with the other.
"Ma'am, can you tell us what happened?"
Nettie looked up at the two people standing beside her, a look of uncertainty crossing her pale features. "Casey," she spoke hesitantly.
"I'm here. So is JD. Do you know who hurt you? Vin's been shot."
Hearing that the young man was injured sent the widow to her feet and into the arms of JD before she fell to the floor. Casey helped him return her to the bed and wiped her face with a wet cloth.
"You've been hit, too." She looked across the bed, worry marring her features. "I'm going to town to get Nathan. JD will stay here and protect you." Her heart a little lighter, seeing her aunt awake, she ran from the house and soon JD heard the hoof beats retreating in the distance.
"Boy, now I realize I'm not real steady but help me go to Vin. Though I can't do much I can sit beside him till the healer gets here." Seeing she was getting stronger by the minute JD helped her into the other room and got her settled beside the bed holding his friend, her adopted son. Together they checked the wound. Little blood seeped into the makeshift bandage but angry red puffy skin surrounded the gash. A large bruise spider-webbed out from the center of his back.
Knowing Casey would need more than an hour to ride to town and return with Nathan, the older woman started issuing orders to the young sheriff. He brought her hot water, more bandages and the blanket from her bed. She drank the cool water he brought her and he lit the room's lamp.
"Fore it gets any darker, you best tend to the chores. I'll keep an eye on Vin."
"Ma'am, they took your horses. What happened?"
"Poor folk came to the door while Vin and I were enjoying our coffee. Asked to water their rundown horse. I offered them some sandwiches and the girl followed me toward the house. Vin went down to show the fellow where to feed the poor beast. I remember falling and hearing a gun go off. Next thing I remember, I see two or three of you and Casey standing by my bed." Thunder rumbled in the distance and JD looked at the darkening sky, worry for Casey visible on his expressive face.
Nettie gently squeezed his hand. "Go get them chores finished before that storm gets here. You can keep an eye on the house from the barn in case them horse thieves decide to return or when Nathan and the rest get here."
Taking another look at his injured friend, JD left to do the woman's bidding. He'd feed the cattle, chickens and the other livestock, tend to Vin's horse and return to the house.
JD leaned against the support beam in the hay mow, holding his side; his breath wheezed as he willed away the pain. The throbbing in his gut constantly reminded him he wasn't healed. "I'm tired of feeling like an old lady," he said to the pigeons roosting in the rafters. "Nettie would outrun me in a foot race the way I feel."
Confessing to Casey that she could ride to town faster humiliated him, even if it was a lie at the time. The effort expended to do the few chores left him winded and exhausted.
Rain beat against the wooden structure and the lightening illuminated the yard. The trees whipped back and forth in the wind.
Fighting to close the hay mow door, he saw horses emerge from the storm, lifting his worry. Someone shouted orders and the group of five or six riders headed for the barn. Why wasn't Nathan going directly to the house? As the riders came closer JD realized these men were not his friends. Were they travelers looking for shelter from the summer thunderstorm?
"Can I help you?" he yelled holding the door in one hand and the other gripping the door frame?
The answer came in the form of gunfire aimed at the opening. He stumbled back as one of the lead missiles found its mark and pierced his leg. "Damn it!" he swore, feeling the all too familiar pain. He pulled out his gun and crawled to the opening. Keeping his head down he fired into the night, lucky to hit anything, and hoped to warn the two injured folks in the house of the trouble.
Voices yelled over the intermittent gunfire. "Thought you said you killed everyone earlier."
These were the same bandits that bushwhacked Vin and hurt Nettie. Empting one gun he laid it on the wooden floor. He tried to pull the other weapon from his left holster. Strange black spots danced in front of his eyes. More gunfire joined the fight and the young man sagged in relief. His friends arrived! They would help Vin and Nettie. The unfired Colt slipped from his limp fingers and fell to the muddy ground below the door but the young man didn't realize his loss. Exhaustion and blood loss overpowered him, leaving him unarmed and defenseless.
Sunday Dinner Part 2