Main Characters: Chris, Billy Travis
Author Note: When I read the announcement that Anne Haney had passed away, I felt as if I had lost a friend. Although I’ve enjoyed watching her in many roles, Nettie will always be my favorite. What an amazing talent, to be able to become such a lasting presence after a single appearance! I wanted a chance to say good-bye; to pay my respects to the lady. This was the best way I knew how...using Vin’s voice.
Webmaster Note: This story was formerly hostead at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2012.
Vin Tanner walked reluctantly up the stairs that he had come to know so well over the past few months. Normally he would bound happily up them in a heartbeat, but today, his steps felt leaden. He didn’t want to go inside; just looking inside the open door made his heart pound. It seemed darker than normal inside the Wells house, and rather than looking cool and inviting on a summer afternoon, it looked... what was the word Ezra used? Foreboding?
Looking up, he saw Josiah, JD, and Casey sitting at the table inside. The table where he had spent so many good times, eating and talking. Miss Nettie was always on him to eat...saying that he needed to fill out some. She always had stories to tell him of the days when she and her husband had first settled here, and listened to him while he told stories of his life. She had been the first one, after Chris, that he had confided in about the price on his head. Like Chris, she had never questioned his innocence, either.
Reaching the doorway, he leaned against the wooden door facing and continued staring inside. Those inside didn’t notice him for several minutes. They were talking in quiet, solemn tones that for some reason made Vin extremely angry. Nettie wouldn’t appreciate them sitting there all quiet and hang-dog. It was a wonder she wasn’t hollering at them about it...
If she could still holler.
The sudden, sorrowful gasp that escaped the young tracker drew the attention of those inside. Josiah stood and covered the space between them in three broad strides. He looked down at Vin with a look of compassion.
“Glad you made it out here brother. She’s been asking for you.”
“Buck...” he stopped, not even recognizing his own voice. Clearing his throat, he tried again, this time at least making enough noise to be heard. “Buck grabbed hold a me soon’s me and Chris rode in. How... how bad?”
“It’s her heart son. Nathan’s with her right now, checking her over. She had a bad spell about half an hour ago. We’re just waiting for him to let us know.”
Nodding, Vin looked longingly at the door to Nettie’s room, then at the two young people sitting at the table. JD was sitting so close to Casey they were practically in the same chair. The young woman’s face was puffy, her eyes red-rimmed. She was crying softly, her shoulders shaking with grief. The Kid had his arm around her and was whispering to her, his other hand holding hers tightly. He looked up at Tanner, his own eyes red and grief-stricken. He smiled wanly at Vin, then turned back to the young woman.
Watching the two of them, he felt even more alone than he had since Buck had sent him flying out of town. Peso, already tired from three days of travel, had taken up the challenge, and never broke stride as he transported his rider along the familiar path. Taking a deep, pain-filled breath, Tanner turned back to Sanchez. “Josiah?”
“Come on son, let’s go out on the porch,” the preacher led the younger man from the little house. Outside they sat on the steps, both men looking out across the little valley. “Son, Nathan says it’s just a matter of time. She’s been havin’ these spells every hour or so since yesterday morning. Nothin’ seems to be helping, and they’re just wearing her out.” He spoke the words softly, one arm around Vin’s shoulder.
He continued to stare out into the landscape, the only sign that he had heard the other man’s words was the tight clinch of his square jaw. He sat completely still, afraid to move. It crossed the younger man’s mind that if he didn’t move then none of it would be true. He would turn around and see Nettie standing there, telling him to wash up for dinner. Footsteps shocked Vin from his musing, but when he turned he saw only Nathan.
“Glad you’re here,” the dark healer said to Tanner. “She’s been asking for you for awhile.”
Stiffly the sharpshooter rose from the steps and turned to enter the little house. Before he could pass, Nathan gently took his arm. He looked up into the soulful brown eyes, seeing something of his own pain reflected there. He wasn’t the only one who had come to love and admire the ‘tough ol’ biddie’.
“I think she’s been holdin’ on til you got here, Vin. She’s slippin’ away pretty quick now.”
She was holding on for him? A sudden desperation flashed through tear-filled blue eyes. “Well, if I don’t go in there, then maybe...”
Placing his hands on the young man, Jackson said, “Vin, I know this is hard for you, it’s hard to let go. But you need to think about Miss Nettie right now.”
Taking a deep breath, Vin nodded, not trusting his voice to speak. On wooden legs he crossed to the partially opened door that led to the older woman’s room. Looking inside he saw Casey sitting next to her bed. He didn’t want to interrupt the young woman; it was her aunt after all. Then she looked up, her dark, tear-filled eyes piercing his heart. Tanner watched as she managed a smile and turned back to the older woman in the bed.
“Vin’s here, Aunt Nettie.” She motioned him over, standing and moving away from the bed as she did.
“Casey, you sit back down,” Tanner whispered.
“Vin,” she answered him in a strong, but emotion-filled voice, “I’ve had my time with her. She’s been askin’ for you ever since... ever since she got sick.”
The young girl’s words, well meant and caring, struck him like a fist in the gut. He and Chris had been taking their own sweet time coming back from Eagle Bend, dallying and even stopping to fish for a couple of hours. All that time, she was calling for him...
He shook himself from his thoughts and realized that he was being beckoned by Nettie herself. Casey pushed him gently forward, urging him to sit down. Leaning across him, she kissed her aunt on the forehead, whispering to her. Rubbing his arm quickly as she passed, she left them alone in the dimly lit little room.
“Boy... look at me,” the words were whisper thin, but still held a note of authority. He turned his gaze toward the woman in the bed. He couldn’t believe the change. He had just been out for dinner the night before he and Chris left. The woman he looked on was only a shadow of the one who had insisted he eat a third helping of stew and two pieces of pie that night, grousing at him because he never ate right on the trail. This woman was much older, frailer. Hell, she barely made a dent in the bed. And then he looked into her eyes. There was Miss Nettie.
“Miss Nettie,” his voice trembled. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier. I come out soon’s I could. Reckon y’ been havin’ a bad spell... Nathan’ll fix y’ up right as rain though.”
“Boy, you ain’t lied to me yet... don’t you start now,” she looked at him sternly. “I’m dying, and we both know it.”
“Now, Miss Nettie,” he began. Then he looked into her eyes again and knew he owed he nothing less than honesty. “Miss Nettie, I’m sorry... I just... I...”
The frail hand closed on his, squeezing gently. “Vin, honey, it’s gonna be okay. Son, I’ve lived a good, full life. I’m not happy to say I’m leaving, but I can go with a peaceful heart...” her eyes closed as a wave of pain overwhelmed her.
Vin took her hand in both of hers, watching her intently, barely breathing until her eyes finally opened. The pain was still there, but he watched as she managed to banish it. He couldn’t help but smile down at her. “Yes ma’am, I reckon if anyone can head for them pearly gates with a peaceful heart, it’s you.”
She managed a short laugh, “don’t know if I’m heading in that direction – “
Instinctively reaching out his hand, Vin stroked her cheek. “I know Miss Nettie. I don’t reckon there’s anyone else that deserves t’ be there more.”
“Boy, you’re... such a sweet... talker, “ she grimaced as pain overwhelmed her again.
“Miss Nettie,” he said, suddenly feeling the crunch of time. “You don’t need t’ be tirin’ yourself out talkin’, okay? You let me talk. I got some things I wanna say... some things I should’ve said way before now. Why don’t I say ‘em now, and you rest a bit.”
Nettie smiled and nodded, the pain still etched across her face. He pulled the chair nearer the bed, feeling a need to be as close to her as possible. Gathering his thoughts, he picked at the quilt, straightening it over her. Finally, stealing himself with a deep breath, he started. His voice was soft and filled with emotion as he spoke to the older lady. “Miss Nettie, there’s been a hole in my heart since I was a little feller...since my Ma died. I don’t know that I got over missin’ my Ma, but I learned to manage with it and go on. I got to the point that I didn’t really think about it much. Wasn’t til I met you that I realized how much I still missed her. Ain’t that it was a bad thing, rememberin’, at least not with you around.
“Miss Nettie, havin’ you in my life these past months...well, it’s been sort’a like bein’ given a second chance at havin’ my Ma around. I ain’t real good with the words...” he felt her squeeze his hand briefly, watched a tiny smile creep across her face.
“You’re doin’ fine son,” she whispered.
His heart skipped a beat as she called him ‘son’ once more. Tears rolled in hot streaks down his face, but he barely noticed. “I guess what I wanna say most of all Miss Nettie, is thank you. Thank you for mendin’ that hole for me. Every time y’ fussed at me, made me eat til I was afraid I’d break Peso’s back climbin’ in the saddle, patted my hand or kissed m’ cheek. All those things... little as well as big... they closed that hole and made me stronger for it. Even though I got me six brothers, the thing that’s meant more to me ‘n anything was havin’ a Ma again.
“Miss Nettie, I’d give anythin’ to have y’ stay here with me... with Casey...” He grimaced at the thought of Casey Wells being left alone now. “I promise y’ right here and now, we’ll look after Casey. Won’t let anything happen to her.”
Nettie opened her eyes, staring unseeing in the direction of the young man’s voice. “I know you will son. And I.... want you to know... I couldn’t be prouder of... you than if you were my... son. You make this ma just... as proud as... the first... one...” her eyes closed, a long sighing breath escaping her.
Vin felt her hand go limp in his, and watched as her entire body suddenly just went still. He pulled her hand to his cheek, drawing its waning warmth into his soul. The tears rolled faster now, and when he finally drew a breath it came with a heartbroken sob. His entire body quivered with emotion, and his mind contained only a single word that repeated over and over, almost a prayer, “Mama.”
Several long minutes passed before he could gather himself enough to go tell the others. Lowering Nettie’s hand gently to the bed, he patted it lovingly before standing and walking stiffly toward the door. Opening it, he saw the others gathered at the table. Casey was crying even harder than before, JD holding her, his arms wrapped tightly around her. Josiah was quietly reading scripture, his deep voice lending comfort with its tone as well as the words. Nathan was standing at the window, staring out into the hills beyond, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
Vin started to tell them... announce Nettie’s death... but knew it was unnecessary. They already knew; could feel the loss of her presence around them. Suddenly he felt as if the walls were trying to trap him. Taking a deep, ragged breath, he walked quickly across the room, reaching the door. Holding onto the frame, he spoke without turning, before he escaped to Peso’s back and the freedom of a long, hard ride.
“She’s at peace now.”
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