Nettie sat in her mother's Hepplewhite chair, her Spencer carbine aimed at the door. No one uninvited would live after crossing her home's threshold. Hearing footsteps on the porch she cocked the rifle and waited. Before the doorknob turned a familiar baritone voice called out. "Ma'am, this is Nathan. May I come in?"
Not wanting to trust her unsteady, shaky legs, she answered while lowering the heavy weapon. "Get in here Nathan. Vin needs ya."
The dark skinned healer cautiously opened the door, visually examined the old woman and left the room to tend to his injured friend. The large, former preacher and Nettie's long-time friend knelt at her side. "Feeling a mite weak, Nettie?"
"Hello, Josiah. Casey alright?"
"Buck sent her on to town, to stay with Mary. That gang tried to rob the bank. We were on their trail when your girl showed up on JD's horse. Don't rightly know how she missed seeing them but then God works in mysterious ways. Let's get you back to bed before brother Nathan yells at us both."
Josiah helped her to her feet and held her arm as she shuffled to the bedroom. Both stopped when more footsteps stomped on the porch. Chris and Buck scraped mud off their boots before tracking into the widow's house. Opening the door, Chris asked, "How's Vin?" worry evident in his voice.
"Let me get Nettie settled and I'll check with Nathan. How many dead?"
Buck smiled at his older friend but the grin didn't reach his eyes. "Two got minor wounds. Another one seems pretty serious, doubt he'll make it. The other three are dead, including the girl. They had your horses with them, Ma'am."
"Then she's the one who clubbed me. If'n ones got a pocked face, he's who shot Vin in the back. How's the boy? He get the chores finished?"
At the mention of the youngest member, Buck lost his smile, replacing it with a frown. "He ain't in the house?"
Nettie shook her head.
"Chris, you wait on the news about Vin; I'll go round up the kid."
Ezra sat in the dry barn, keeping an eye on the prisoners, their piercing glares let him know they would run if the opportunity presented itself. The storm passed, letting the setting sun offer a muted light to the muddy farmyard. The criminal's horses, still saddled, stood outside, tied to the corral fence while Nettie's two animals chewed the hay waiting for them in their manger. The milk cow watched the strangers sharing her home and the chickens settled down for the night. Four blanket shrouded bodies lay on the clean dirt floor. The gambler's calm exterior hid the fierce rage he felt for the lowlifes still breathing before him. He harbored no mercy toward anyone who would back shoot a man and club an innocent, if obstinate, old woman. The pained, panic-filled face of Casey Wells reappeared over and over in his mind. Could it be possible she was the same young girl propositioning him at the saloon a few weeks earlier?
He aimed his pistol at the prisoners when he heard the barn door opened, lowering it only when he saw Wilmington. The mustached man looked around the barn silently and retreated into the twilight, asking as he left. "Standish, seen JD?"
Blood drained from the gambler's face when he realized the absence of the young lawman. What did Casey declare about him remaining at the women's residence to guard the injured pair? Did she mention he was still hurting from his previous injury?
The two prisoners sensed the charged atmosphere and cringed. The big man's question, just three words, caused the non-emotional face of their guard to transform into an angry scowl of a man who would rather kill then wait for the long arm of the legal system to end their lives at a hanging. "Where is he?" each word's diction a threat in its own right.
Looking at the pock faced man, the young bushwhacker spoke first. "We traded shots with someone here in the barn, before you fellows showed up."
"Shut up, Enos, or they'll lay you out like my woman over there!"
Ezra stood up and made a show of pushing the errant stems of hay from his jacket, his calm poker mask firmly in place. Never removing his eyes from the two prisoners he stepped backward using his peripheral vision to recheck each stall and the dark recesses of the small structure. The building was tidy, stalls recently cleaned and bedded. The tools and tack hung on the walls in an orderly fashion. His gun never waived from aiming at the other men while searching the walls for any clues. His eyes settled on the broken window. Glass shards littered the floor and window sill.
The older man tensed, ready to spring to his feet the moment the man in the purple coat turned his back. The sound of a gun being cocked froze him in place.
"It would be most rude for you to depart from this little soirée without proper introductions. Who would like to speak first?" Ezra returned to his seat, his gun aimed steady and true. "Where in the barn was the man you shot?" JD Dunne would reveal his location once the rest of the lawmen arrived unless he was unable to communicate with them. The only way to silence his exuberance was to physically gag him or to seriously wound the young Easterner. Standish feared the latter.
"Didn't see no one through the rain," add the younger man. "When bullets start coming our way, we returned the favor."
The mud filled yard silenced another horse's arrival. Casey ran into her home looking for anyone who would give her some answers. A quick glance revealed no one occupied the main room. She removed her mud covered shoes and silently padded to the larger bedroom where her aunt slept and a white bandage encircled her head. The small lamp softly lit the room. Casey smiled and backed away from the door, not wanting to disturb the woman's rest.
A solid object stopped her and a large hand covered her mouth, preventing a scream from startling everyone in the house.
"Casey, its Josiah. Didn't mean to scare you. Your aunt's alright, just sleeping." He removed his hand and turned her to face him.
Keeping her voice low she asked, her body still shaking, "Vin? Is he? I mean. Oh Josiah, there was so much blood!"
Josiah held the trembling girl in his arms as she sobbed against his chest. "It's alright, child. Vin's alright. He'll be stiff and sore for a while but he ain't hurt as bad as it looked."
"Then why is your face so sad?" Realization hit her and she started shaking again. "Someone else is hurt. They came here and, and No!" she wailed. "JD! I shouldn't have left him here. Something wasn't right. He was still hurting and then we ran when we heard the shot. He could barely talk let alone stand. Oh Josiah."
The gentle giant delicately held the distraught girl's shoulders, looked at her face and nodded. Speaking softly he said, "Ezra found him and Nate's tending him now." He didn't release her, anticipating her attempt to escape. "They'll move the boy up to the house to take better care of him."
"Tend to who, Josiah?"
"Vin Tanner, you do love to flirt with the devil." Josiah released Casey to assist the young tracker. "Set down before you undo Nathan's handiwork."
Casey looked at her friend's pale face and then looked back at the preacher, questions jumping from her pow.
"I'm fine, Casey," Vin explained settling onto the small settee.
"They shot you in the back!"
He smiled and his blue eyes danced in the dim lamp light. "Sanchez, you're right. Cheated death once again. The old man used a pea gun, like Ezra hides up his sleeve. When he shot me the bullet hit the leather patch on my suspenders, changed directions and carved a nice gully cross my shoulder. Won't be doing any hammering on the church for a while." Vin took the girl's hand. "Nate said the bullet bruised my back, numbed my legs for a while."
Casey returned a weak smile. "Aunt Nettie's too tough to stay down very long either." Footsteps on the porch signaled the arrival of the others. Buck opened the door, not surprised to see Casey sitting next to Vin. "Hey, little darlin'. JD's gonna need some more of your bedside nursing. Josiah, can you take the boy? Don't want Mrs. Wells thinking we don't appreciate her hospitality by tracking mud into the house. Since Vin ain't using it at the moment, take him to Casey's room."
A wet, dirty and pale face looked at the group in the room and said, "I ain't some old woman, Buck."
"Ya smell more like an old man who spent too much time in the barn. Passing his load to the other man, he continued, "Nathan'll be up shortly. Tending to them other two down in the barn. Once we get the kid settled, and Nathan's sure everyone's alright, Chris and Ezra will take them back to town and the jail.
The boy caught his good leg around the doorframe, pulling Josiah to a halt. "I can't go in there. It's Casey's room."
"JD, you went in there when you two dragged me into the house." Vin laughed remembering JD's earlier confession. "Most fellows would die for a chance to get to sleep in their girlfriend's bed for a few hours, smell her scent in the blankets and stare at the same ceiling she does when she's pining after you."
"Shut up, Vin," came in unison from opposite sides of the room.
JD continued, "Set me in the rocker. I ain't the one who was bleeding like a stuck pig, little while ago."
The preacher looked down at JD's stiff blood soaked pants but before he expressed a contrary opinion, Casey helped the boy to the large rocking chair, settling the matter. She ran to her room and returned with a clean quilt and tucked it lovingly around her boyfriend's shoulders.
A dirty bandana, tied over the bloody pants, substituted for a bandage. Knowing Nathan would need to clean the wound, Josiah took the opportunity to send the girl to check on her aunt.
"Seeing you don't want no privacy, son, ya best get them trousers off afore brother Nathan gets here and he has you strip with that young woman looking on."
JD knew he was trapped. He looked at the bedroom doorway and back at the two men With a sigh he unbuttoned his fly. Josiah helped him pull the stiff material over his hips.
"Works better to take your shoes off first, JD," Vin teased.
JD glared at the tracker and yelped when the preacher jarred his leg pulling off the pants. The moving and jostling left him weak and the black spots began dancing in front of his eyes. He squeezed them tight, willing away the lightheadedness.
The deep voice startled him. "Drawers too. Want to get in that bed before Nathan gets here?"
JD opened his eyes, wide in fear. "No way! I ain't laying naked in Casey's bed." He bent over to grab his pants and the large man caught him as he toppled to the floor.
"Ain't one of you got enough sense to know when to give in." He carried the limp body into the small room and settled him on the narrow bed. Swiftly the blood soaked cotton drawers were peeled off and the injured man discreetly covered leaving only the bloody thigh exposed. Sanchez gathered the bloody rags used to clean Vin's wound into a bundle and stacked them in the corner. Hoping the resourceful old woman keep more towels for such emergencies he returned to the kitchen. Vin slumped onto the armrest and slept. "Dang fool boys," mumbled the preacher.
"He gonna be alright, Josiah?" Casey's voice trembled, her stubborn veneer crumbled as the day's events overwhelmed her emotions.
The giant of a man pulled the petite woman into an encompassing embrace, letting her cry against his chest. "You're safe now, child. You're safe. JD's gonna be alright, just need a little longer to heal. He needs your caring to help him deal with everything."
Her sobbing subsided but she remained in his comforting arms, gaining strength from his presence. "Does your aunt need anything?"
He felt the negative shake of her head before she pushed herself away from his chest sniffling back more tears. "She's sleeping. Since you were here she wasn't going to worry about anything. Said we'd clean up the yard tomorrow."
"Sound like a good plan. The boys will be coming in to patch JD's leg. You have any more clean rags? Or some towels to keep the sheets clean?"
Pulling her emotions under control she retrieved towels and bandages. Being busy helped her push the day's horror to a dark corner in her mind.
A fresh pot of coffee and a kettle of boiling water waited the healer and the injured man's self-appointed big brother. A plate of sandwiches sat next to empty coffee cups. Casey wrapped herself up in the abandoned quilt and settled into her aunt's rocking chair. Within minutes she slept, knowing no evil would attack the ranch nor anyone in the house as long as Josiah and Nathan and Buck stood watch.
"He looks awfully pale, Nathan. You sure he's alright?" Buck hovered over the healer's ministrations to their injured partner.
"Buck, like I already told you, the bullet went straight through his leg. He'll be sore and tired. He'll need to stay off it for a while, won't be riding his horse for a few days."
The ladies man laughed, twitching his eyebrows. "Sleeping in your girl's bed, unable to ride back to town, can't get much better than that."
Josiah pushed him towards the door. "Don't give the kid ideas. He's upset already, laying here in the girl's room. He'll know when he's ready. Go get the horses ready."
"You spending the night here?" Nathan asked, packing his bag.
Nodding his head, the preacher tucked the blanket around his young friend. "One of us needs to stay here, with both the boys less than whole. Chris knows Vin'll be alright; he'll be back to check on him in the morning. Leaving Buck here, we both know he'll smother the boy. You need to be in town, case someone needs you. Nettie trusts me, the girl needs to know she is safe. I promised her we'd watch her tonight. Think the boys can come back to town in the morning?"
Taking one last look at JD, Nathan picked up his bag and hat. "Knowing Vin'll he'll be riding before the sun comes up. This one," he pointed at the sleeping patient shaking his head, "needs to rest, but he'd relax more in town. Give Nettie more peace, not having him underfoot."
Nathan pulled JD's missing Colt from his coat pocket and laid it on the chair next to the gun belt. "Ezra found it outside the barn. That's how he knew to look up in the haymow for him. The man has an eye for details."
"Guess that's how he remembers the cards." The two men turned down the lamps and met Buck on the porch. "ping a wagon in the morning. The womenfolk don't need to deal with the dead."
"Now wait a moment. Someone better stay here to help with Junior and the Kid. Figure'd I sit with him."
"Not tonight. This house's seen enough excitement for a while. I promised Casey I'd stay. Come back in the morning, boys."
Reluctantly Buck joined the healer. Josiah watched them ride down the lane until the darkness swallowed them. In stocking feet he checked on the sleeping JD. The young man hadn't moved since Nathan finished tending his leg. Remembering the earlier discussion, the large man picked up the bloody and torn drawers, intending to wash them. 'The boy would need something to wear in the morning,' he thought, laughing quietly.
"Hand them over, Josiah."
"Ma'am, you need to be resting."
The stubborn woman stood in the middle of her kitchen, a cup of hot coffee in her hand. She handed him the cup and took the pants. "Done enough resting. Need to do something constructive, than lying in bed, worrying about these three." She waved her hand around the room, her eyes resting on the sleeping pair before staring at the closed door. "They'll be alright?"
The grey haired man nodded, "May take a while longer for JD," He saw the quick look of panic on Nettie's face. "Buck will haul him back to town in the morning."
"Then I'd better get these washed so he's got something to wear." She took the bloody clothing and added them to the growing pile of dirty laundry.
Josiah left the house in her capable hands and returned to the barn for a few hours rest before another day dawned.
Nate walked into Casey's small bedroom next morning and watched JD unconsciously rubbing the scar on his shoulder from the knife wound he received searching for a little girl and staring out the curtainless window. The multi-colored patchwork quilt covered the lower half of his body. Several pillows propped him into a semi-upright position.
"Daydreaming about a future, JD?"
Startled the boy jumped and grabbed the quilt. Seeing the healer standing in the doorway and no women in sight he offered a small smirk and released the death grip on the fabric. His eyes returned to the window.
"Just thinkin', thinking how everything is so different than I figured it would be."
"Never expected to have a knife wound and couple of bullet holes in you by now?"
Shaking his head negatively, JD looked back at the taller man. "Didn't expect getting shot would hurt so much, neither. Came west for adventure, be a gunslinger or Texas Ranger. Never expected to get shot by a girl or wake up in another one's bed after getting shot again."
"Josiah said you were hurtin'."
"I'm fine," he replied too quickly to convince Nathan of the truth.
The healer pushed the bedcovers to the side and exposed the wounded limb. His patient's eyes shut, his face tight with tension. The dark fingers quickly removed the saturated fibers from the seeping opening.
"Can I ride?" the boy asked through clenched teeth in a feeble attempt to mask the throbbing pain shooting up his spine.
"Not today, son. That'd tear this wide open and get ya bleeding all the way to town. Best ya rest awhile. 'Sides, figured you'd like getting all the attention from Miss Wells." Nathan cleaned the crusty seepage from the strong thigh and rewrapped the wound.
"Don't want her walking in here, seeing me dressed in nothin' but my drawers, feeling weaker than a new born colt." Long dark bangs fell across his face, hiding the embarrassment evident in his eyes. His right hand returned to rubbing the scar. "How long?"
"How long for what?"
"How long I got stay in bed this time? How long am I gonna feel like crap? How long till I can go back to town and let Casey get her room back?"
Jackson laughed. The young man's orneriness encouraged him. "JD, getting healed after being gunshot is gonna take some time. You ain't healed from being shot last time. Gotta give your body a chance to mend. Now I'm sure Nettie won't mind you staying on here a mite longer and I know a certain young woman, who'd love to sit with you again. Don't worry son. You rest and you'll be fit in a short order. You go pushing things and all your healing 'll take longer.
Nathan pulled a familiar pair of pants from a burlap bag and handed them to the almost naked boy. "Fixed you a pair of trousers so you won't feel quite so exposed." He slid the material over each foot and helped the young man pull the material over his narrow hips.
"Thanks Nathan," he sighed, visibly relaxing, having a resemblance of dignity returned to him. His eyes grew heavy while Nathan collected the dirty bandages and reached for the door knob. "How long," came the same question from the narrow bed.
"Just a day or two, just a day or two." Jackson knew they would never be able to corral the exuberance or energy wrapped up in the small package any longer than that.
Vin walked his horse, riding beside the wagon toting the blanket shrouded corpses, his left arm unnaturally still, attempting to keep his wounded shoulder motionless. The thunderstorm washed the air and the clear morning sky boosted his spirit.
"You sure the kid's alright? Nathan ain't hiding anything from me, is he?"
"Buck, JD's tired and hurting a mite."
"His leg wound didn't look too bad last night. Expected him to be getting the horses saddled, not you."
Buck pulled the wagon to a stop beside the house and leaped off the seat. He stopped on the porch and turned to see Vin still sitting in the saddle. "Ain't ya gonna help me carry his scrawny ass to the wagon?"
"Better I'd don't get off this beast till I'm back in town. Don't suspect JD's none to eager to ride with them bodies."
Shaking his head and knowing the healer would see through Vin's charade, Buck crossed the porch and remembered to wipe his boots on the entry mat before stepping into the clean, small house. He met Nathan exiting the bedroom.
Seeing the worry evident Nathan stopped his friend. "Buck, don't fret. He'll be fine, just needs a little longer before he's moved."
Pointing his thumb out the door Buck laughed. "The other one's trying to hide he's hurting. I'll say hi to JD and be right along."
"Ma'am," Vin looked down at the petite woman standing on her porch, both hands grasping the railing. Casey stood beside the pale woman. "Never did get to thank you proper for the fine meal yesterday. Could have done without the excitement, though."
She smiled, "I hear trouble is attracted to you boys like flies to honey. Glad to be on your side." She cast her eyes toward the human remains loaded in the wagon, "You know you're always welcome. Don't need to wait for an invitation."
"Don't seem right, Nathan, just leaving him here." Buck followed the healer through the door. "He needs someone to watch over him, to sit with him."
Four pairs of eyes stared at the ladies man.
"Buck, he needs to rest. He'll get plenty of that right here without you hovering over him. Mrs. Wells will keep him in line." Nathan mounted his horse and looked at his other patient. "You need some rest too, soon as we get back to town."
Casey guided her aunt to a chair while the men argued. Nettie knew the three stubborn men would continue to disagree so she interrupted them. "Boys, you best get them bodies buried before they rot anymore. Vin knows what he needs to do and we'll watch the boy till he's fit to ride. We'll see you all later.
The two women watched the wagon and two riders until they disappeared down the dirt road, each silently reviewing past day.
Casey insisted her aunt spend the day resting or sitting in the shade of the porch. Both women made several trips to check on their guest. His pale skin glistened as he slept, giving his body an opportunity to heal.
Nettie Wells sat in her rocking chair, a bowl of garden peas rested on her lap. A sunny, warm day following the previous evening's thunderstorm. Fluffy cumulus clouds decorated the blue sky, the kind of day that inspired a body to work hard. The old woman watched her niece completing the late afternoon chores, feeding the horses, gathering the eggs and milking the cow. Earlier in the day the girl dutifully tended the garden; picking the peas, digging potatoes for supper and weeding.
Nettie looked up from her work at the sound of halting uneven footsteps. JD stood on one leg balancing himself by grabbing the doorframe. He stared at the muddy yard, a downcast look on his face. His disheveled hair framed his unshaven face.
"Best get yourself set down before you fall." Casey's aunt moved the pan of peas from a wooden stool, giving him a place to rest.
"Got tired of looking at the walls." JD said, grimly, his eyes never making contact with the older woman.
"Tain't your fault, ya know. One can never be too careful." She thrust the unshucked pan of peas into his lap. "Might as well make yourself useful. Reckon them friends of yours'll be back to collect you before nightfall."
The boy grabbed a few pods and snapped them open, his long dark hair covering most of his face. Unaware of her scrutiny he worked carefully, dropping the peas into the pan and tossing the empty pods in the nearby pail. After shucking several pods he tossed a handful of the raw vegetables into his mouth. He rested his head on the wall with his eyes closed as he chewed the food.
Nettie washed his soiled shirt earlier and he wore it unbuttoned. As he reclined against the wall she could see his well muscled chest and trim abdomen. A pink scar marred his belly.
When a slight breeze cooled the exposed skin, he awkwardly pulled the shirt closed before rubbing his shoulder. Nettie saw the grimace of pain scrunch up his face before he relaxed and returned to shucking more of the spring vegetable. "Ain't had fresh peas in ages, ma'am. They were too tempting."
"Fresh food will help you heal faster. Looks like that leg's bleeding some," she observed. Nathan wouldn't be happy to see the wound still seeping blood.
"Damn," he said softly. "Misses Wells, it ain't that I don't appreciate your hospitality. That dinner yesterday was delicious. It's just that." He looked down at the pan of peas in his lap, a blush climbing up his pale skin. "It's just that I care about Casey, and laying in her bed is, well it's Ahhhh, I shouldn't be in there," he finally declared.
The old woman smiled to herself, her worry about her niece spending time with the young peacekeeper dissolving. "Mr. Dunne, I appreciate your honesty and I can understand your discomfort, but that's something she's willing to do for a friend, a good friend. It's not like she's in there sharing the bed, mind you. I'd personally shoot you if I ever found you and her like that."
JD looked up at the woman's humorous threat, his eyes wide in fear.
Lovingly she patted his uninjured leg, "JD you are welcome to stay as long as you want. And after you're back in town we'd love to have you stop by and share many more meals with us. You and the others, you saved my and Casey's home and I can't never thank you enough for what you did. Now I can see you and my girl got feelings for each other and knowing you're such good pals with Buck Wilmington, you must be getting a fair amount of coaching about wooing a girl. I trust you with my niece and know you've got enough intelligence under all that hair to do right by her. Enough serious talking. I intend to serve these peas for supper. Get shucking boy and try not to eat all of them." Her gentle laugh brought a smile to the young man's face as he grabbed another handful of the garden produce.
Three weeks later seven horses slowly walked down a dusty road, the summer heat parching the poor soil and dust devils danced along the path. The late afternoon sun sparkled through the oak leaves as the group progressed toward a promised appointment. The youngest rode stoically, unwilling to let the others know his leg ached. The ride progressed slowly because of his injury and he hated being the reason for the delay. Knowing there were only a couple more miles he concentrated on who would be waiting for him and let thoughts of her fill his mind, pushing the pain to the furthest corner of his conscious.
"How ya doing, Kid?" The familiar voice of his self-appointed protector startled him from his daydreaming.
"I'm fine, Buck." JD's pale face looked up from under his hat. "Just getting hungry."
"I'm with you there. Tucking into one of Nettie's meals is like taking a small visit to heaven. Hope she's made rhubarb crisp. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it." Buck continued to prattle as he rode beside his young friend. JD's recovery progressed slowly after the run-in with the bank robbers. The blood loss combined with a lingering infection kept Dunne bedridden for a week following his return to town. Nathan kept him from riding another couple of weeks to give the new tissue more time to heal. Nettie Wells invited the seven for Sunday supper to celebrate JD's recovery.
"Now you be sure to tell that little filly how good her cooking is. Women love to get compliments on their vittles. Since you haven't been out courting Casey for a few weeks be sure to notice what's she's wearing. She'll want to make a good impression on you so she'll be in her Sunday finest .."
As Buck continued offering his courting advice, JD smiled to himself. Yep, eating a delicious, home cooked meal with his friends, seeing Casey and maybe getting a chance to steal a kiss would make this Sunday dinner a night to remember.