Harold Corly liked himself and couldn’t understand why everyone else looked down their noses at him. He was a better man than that bunch of misfit gunslingers that’d been hired by the senile judge. Weren’t many men more attractive than him. Ever since Larabee mentioned the unmarried Wells girl having her baby, he fantasized about her and what he would do with the new mother. She should feel honored to be receiving his attention. The cripple old woman wouldn’t be a problem. They lived alone and with everyone in town busy with the fire he’d set, he’d have plenty of time to visit before he was missed. No one would ever know. He watched from the woods as a boy from town arrived, spoke to the dark skinned healer and they rode out together.
Casey huffed as she walked toward the house with the pail swinging dangerously from her arm. She wanted to believe in JD, that he couldn’t be the monster Nettie and the rest of the men said he was, but. But he was. Never once did he ask about the baby, or Nettie or her. Well, he could just sit there and wait for Nathan to return to care for him. She was too angry!
Distracted, she didn’t see the skinny man slip around the edge of the porch until just before he grabbed her arm, his grasp viselike as he dragged her toward the house. “You and me are going to have a great time, Casey,” his voice purred.
“Let me go,” she screamed, struggling to escape.
He rewarded her outburst with a sharp blow to the head. Holding her in front of his body, they stepped into the house. Mary Kate fussed, hearing her mother’s voice, her tiny whimper a sign she needed attention.
“You let Casey be,” Nettie ordered, sitting at the table, her mending on the table. She held her rifle steady, aimed at the couple. “Get out of my house.”
“Now that ain’t being very friendly. Me ‘n Casey got some lovin’ to take care of. You can just sit there and listen. Maybe I’ll show you a good time when we’re finished.” He continued walking toward the older woman, keeping Casey between himself and the business end of the gun. He yanked it away from Nettie’s hands and tossed it toward the kitchen, dropped the dazed woman and grabbed Nettie’s knitting from her Heppleworth chair. “Don’t be getting’ no ideas about interrupting us neither. I intend to get what I came for, old lady.” His voice threatened as he tied her hands to the chair back. Convinced the old woman was not a threat, he grabbed Casey’s arm and yanked her towards the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind them.
The shriek broke his stupor and JD looked around the dusty barn trying to locate the source. Another woman’s voice reached his ears, Nettie’s voice. Pushing himself off the bed, he grabbed the wall when his leg threatened to collapse, stumbling toward the door Casey just exited. Another moan came from the house followed by the screech of a baby.
He grabbed a pitchfork and used it as a crutch, willing himself the strength to rescue Casey before he passed out again. Dark spots danced in front of his eyes as he struggled to remain upright crossing the yard. He reached for the handrail and pulled himself up each step.
The baby continued to cry louder and louder.
“JD, over here.”
He followed her voice and saw Casey’s aunt sitting by the table, her arms behind her.
“Casey needs you in the bedroom. Hurry.”
Sweat poured off his body as he struggled to pick up the gun from the kitchen floor. Casey needs help. You can do this. Casey needs help. Stop him. Casey needs help. He stumbled and tripped, falling into the closed door.
“Get off her!” His said, his voice strong. He raised the rifle and fired as the deputy reached for his own pistol.
Casey scrambled out of the bed and raced from the room, ignoring her aunt’s pleading to stay and not realizing she’d just shoved JD off balance. He fell into the corner of the dresser and slumped to the floor, closing the bedroom door.
“Hey there, stud!” Buck grabbed his long-time friend, squeezing him tightly. “Good to see you.”
“People will talk, Buck. When did you get here?”
“Just before the fire. Didn’t expect to see you.”
Larabee looked over Wilmington’s shoulder, surprised to see Ezra Standish standing there, laughing. “Ezra? You two together?”
Standish walked up to the pair and smiled, his gold tooth catching the late afternoon sun. “Good day, Mr. Larabee.”
Vin and Josiah entered the saloon and immediately saw the others, huge smiles erupting on their faces.
“God has indeed smiled on us today. Good to see you brothers.”
The five men settled down around the table, a mug of beer in front of each.
“What happened to your wife?”
“Is Mr. Jackson with his paramour?
“Who’s the kid?” Vin asked, watching the man behind Ezra who was staring at all of them.
“Have you heard from JD? He around someplace?”
Buck’s question solicited sighs from the three men who knew the truth. “What? Where is he? Look, this is Dillon Matthews. He needs to talk to JD. The kid went to Texas and joined the Rangers. Dillon needs to find him, give him some official papers.”
“You’re a Ranger?” Chris turned his deadly glare on the younger man.
“I, I, I.” He stammered, unable to speak. This must be Larabee, JD’s hero. He could see why Ranger Dunne admired him but Dillon wanted to throw-up.
“Wasting your time, Buck. Got no time for a backstabbing, traitor like Dunne.” Chris turned toward Wilmington. “Let’s take this outside. Just you and me.”
Buck turned toward Ezra and Matthews, his brows knitted in concern. He stood to follow Chris, not understanding the tension he felt in the room. Vin also rose and walked away from the group.
“Mr. Sanchez?” Ezra clearly read the faces of his three friends and didn’t care for the message.
“The boy was gravely injured by a bounty hunter. He’s at Nettie’s. Nathan isn’t optimistic about his recovery.”
“JD’s dying? No, he can’t. I gotta see him, give him the papers. He can’t die. It’s all my fault. I’ve got them right here. Where is he? It’s his job, his right. He worked so hard for it. His assignment. I got lost and now he can’t finish his assignment.”
“STOP! Mr. Matthews, now is not the time.” Ezra scolded the exuberant ranger.
Dillon stood, his mouth gapping open, not understanding. “But he’s looking for Tanner. I’m looking for Vin Tanner.”
The largest of the seven rose to full-height and picked up the smaller man, carrying him from the saloon, past the few men not studying the charred remains of the two stores toward the open space near the livery.
“Let go of me. LET GO OF ME!”
In a booming voice Josiah bellowed, “Chris, Buck. It is time to get some answers and this little man is going to provide them.” Sanchez smiled, his white bandage hiding much of the man’s rage.
The six mounted their horses and Matthews scrambled to get into his saddle after being tossed unceremoniously on his horse. The open trail outside of town would provide them with the privacy they required to untangle the current chaos.
“What’s this all about, Sanchez?” Larabee asked, his own anger building.
The six horses surrounded the interloper’s mount. “Boy, you’ve got one chance, one chance only to explain, and what you say had better be the truth.”
Dillion Matthews was never so scared in his life. His father’s dreams of him attending college looked like a Christmas wish at the moment. He took a deep breath and started. “Ranger Dunne and me met in Texas. I guess you know that. He’s a good teacher. See, he even showed me the trick of hiding my badge under the lapel. Anyway, he worked real hard to prove Vin Tanner’s innocent. He presented all the information to the judge from Tasoca and the judge ordered Tanner’s sentence exonerated. The clerk at the courthouse drew up the documents and the judge signed them. JD left Texas; determined to find Vin and serve them. He wasn’t looking to take Vin back with him. Only the clerk in the courthouse turned out to be an in-law of the guy that died and he didn’t want to let Vin escape hanging so he changed the words. The judge didn’t read the document carefully before he signed and put his seal on it. The man changed the word ‘exonerate’ to ‘extradite’ which if JD served the paper to Tanner would mean he’d have to arrest him for sentencing in Texas. So the judge sent me to find Dunne and or find Tanner first. Like that would ever happen. So.”
“JD didn’t come here, to take Vin back to Texas?” Nathan asked.
Chris’ question followed. “You were the ranger that talked to Tomkins in Eagle Bend, not JD?”
Matthews nodded in agreement to both questions.
“He was shooting at the bounty hunter, not me and Casey,” Vin added, the pieces of the mystery finally falling into place.
“Brothers, I feel we have severely misjudged our youngest and owe him a deep apology.”
“If he’s still alive to hear it.” Nathan didn’t wait for the rest; his horse led the way to the Wells’ homestead.
One rider remained behind, his already broken heart shattered further. The young man he loved as dear as if he was his own little brother was dying and the men he admired turned their backs on him and were the cause of his pain. Damn them. Buck turned his horse back towards town. He’d get the real doctor to save JD.
JD pushed himself upright, leaning against the closed bedroom door. He should check on the man he’d shot. Was Casey all right or was he too late? Nothing made much sense lately. He knew he’d done the right thing for Vin. Why didn’t anyone else realize it?
Hearing rustling near the bed, JD closed his fingers around Nettie’s gun. He doubted he’d have the strength to fire it again but the man who’d attacked Casey might not know that.
“You still breathing, mister?” he asked the silence. No one answered him.
A baby whimpered nearby, its cry muffled by the blankets covering its head. A minute later the cry increased in volume.
The younger man scooted towards the pile of blankets by the overturned basket. He pulled the cloth off carefully, revealing the tiniest infant he’d ever seen. Hungry, wet and scared combined for one upset child. JD pulled on the edge of the remaining blanket, drawing the newborn closer. He laid the rifle on the floor so his right hand could pick up the little one.
“Hey there. Don’t be crying. Your mamma will be back. Shush.” He gently rubbed the baby’s back, calming the baby and himself. The pain in his shoulder subsided as did the baby’s cries. Feeling secure, the little one quieted and fell back to sleep.
He continued to tenderly caress the child as the world outside continued on without him. It was just him and the baby and nothing else mattered.
Nettie sighed, hearing the approach of several horses. She’d prayed for help and hoped it just arrived. If only it was Nathan and some of the other former peacekeepers.
Vin and Josiah climbed the four steps to the porch and the Wells’ front door. The younger man entered first and hurried to the older woman’s side.
“What happened?” he asked, cutting the bindings and freeing her hands.
“A man barged in her and dragged Casey into the bedroom. JD appeared, took my rifle. Busted in the door. My girl ran outside. You’ve got to find her, Vin. Please, you’ve gotta find her!” She looked at the former preacher. “I heard a gunshot, Casey ran out and then the door slammed shut. No one came out. Josiah, Casey’s baby is in there. I heard it crying. I don’t hear it any more.” The woman wrapped her arms around her frail body, hugging herself tightly.
Josiah pushed on the door and was surprised to be met with resistance. He shoved harder, opening the door a crack but not enough to see what or who was blocking the wood.
Not finding JD in the barn, Chris and Nathan joined Nettie and Josiah. The healer checked the older woman’s wrists while the other two struggled to open the door. “I was sitting here, patching the holes in JD’s coat. He’d need it repaired whether he lived or not.” Nathan picked up the jacket, studying her handiwork, and touched the three patches. His mind reviewed the wounds he’d tended. Entry and exit wound in the flank matched but the small hole near the left shoulder didn’t match the long gouge in JD. He compared the three holes again and suddenly dropped the coat like it was suddenly too hot to handle.
“Hurry,” the healer yelled to the others. “I know what’s wrong with JD. I hope we’re not too late.”
Larabee’s thinner arm reached through the small crack and pushed JD’s shoulders away from the door, until he was able to squeeze passed the frame into Casey’s bedroom. He lifted the sleeping baby onto the bed before pulling the boy’s body away from the door.
The two other men poured into the room. Nathan checked both men’s necks for pulses. “JD’s alive, barely. Can’t say the same for the other one.” He looked around the small room and realized that this was no place to tend the injured. “Take them both the barn. I’ll treat JD there.”
Chris stared at the dead man, trying to place the face, knowing he’d seen it recently. “Deputy, he was one of the deputies. Said he was going to come here and harm Casey. Fool did it, too. Damn.”
Vin stood in the yard, trying to decide which way to look for the missing mother. Where would the young woman go to escape? He knew in his heart she wouldn’t do anything to harm herself but Nettie’s alarm frightened him. What had happened in the small house?
“May I assist?” Ezra joined Vin, still holding his horses reins, ready to ride.
“Gotta find Casey. She was attacked but got away. I’ll check the woods behind the barn. You want to search the area at the back the house?”
The two men separated, each heading in a different direction. Dillon remained on his horse, watching all of the activity. He wasn’t sure what he should do.
Nathan ran from the house, his feet barely touching the ground, followed by Josiah and Chris carrying the deputy between them. Chris yelled at the ranger, “Get off that horse and tend to JD, in the house.”
Dillon Matthews’s upbringing included learning and practicing proper manners. One did not, under any circumstances, enter a stranger’s house without an invitation. He was about to once again break the rules ingrained in him from an early age. Stepping over the threshold he stopped, seeing the older woman sitting at the table, a tiny bundle in her arms.
“Ma’am, excuse me. I’m looking for Ranger Dunne?” he asked politely.
“The bedroom is through that door.” Nettie pointed at the open doorway. “Who are you?”
“Ranger Matthews, ma’am. I’ve been looking for JD. I got to deliver some official papers to him. I…”
“You can explain your visit later, Matthews. Help me with JD.” Chris left no room for argument.
“Has anyone found Casey yet?” Nettie asked. From strong pioneer stock, the older woman inwardly cussed the infirmity that left her unable to walk and incapable of helping to located her niece.
Knowing that carrying JD by his arms and legs would further injure him, the two men created a chair with their arms and easily lifted him from the floor. Dunne’s head lolled back and forth as they left the house, descended the stairs and tried to find the correct rhythm to their steps. As gently as possible, they returned him to the makeshift bed in the barn.
Nathan readied the area again; JD had already lost precious time. The arrival of more horses in the yard caught the attention of Larabee and Sanchez.
“Where is he? Where’s JD?” Buck’s voice echoed as he searched for the younger man.
“He’s here, Buck. He’s still alive.” Chris responded from the open barn door.
“No thanks to you,” Buck spat back.
Chris, already filled with remorse at shooting JD, replied, “I’m sorry, Buck. I’m truly sorry.”
“Lot of good that’s going to him, if’n he don’t live.” He pushed past his former friend and quickly covered the distance to find JD, to see for himself that he wasn’t too late to help.
Casey’s fair skin stood out in contrast to the desolate landscape. She sat on a rock overlooking the small creek, her arms wrapped around her bare legs. So lost in her own pain, she ignored the biting flies and mosquitoes that attacked her bloody skin, torn by thorns and sticks that grabbed at her as she ran. Unable to go any further, she’d climbed on the rock and let her mind go blank. Only the little niggling thought of Mary Kate and Nettie needing her stopped her from washing away all of the hurt and pain of the last couple of days, stopped her from throwing herself into the swirling pool, the deepest place in the waterway.
Vin spotted her first and approached quietly. He didn’t want to frighten her and make her lose her balance from her precarious perch on the riverbank. She looked like an angel who’d lost her wings. He could almost touch her grief. Seeing her bare arms, legs and back stirred something inside of him; something a brother shouldn’t feel for his sister. That’s how he’d always thought of Casey, as his little sister, just as he’d come to think of Nettie as a substitute mother. He wanted to protect both women from the evils of the world, from evil men like the rancher Stuart James and Guy Royal, the collector, from leaches like the Nichols clan or the bastard deputy who’d tried to take what wasn’t his. Did he still hold that anger for JD Dunne for abandoning her, leaving her to raise their child alone?
What could he do? He didn’t want to embarrass her further, that she’d know he’d seen her naked. If he snuck up and grabbed her, where could he put her hands and not traumatize her further? Yet if he called to her, would she leap into the swirling water? Women were so complicated.
In the nearby woods, someone stepped carelessly on a stick and the cracking reached his ears. Ezra! He’d been so mesmerized by Casey that he’d forgotten the gambler was also searching for the missing girl. She would be mortified to have the fancy dressing con man discover her.
Vin slipped his suspenders down and pulled the tails of his calico shirt free from his waistband. The material easily slid over his head and the suspenders were returned to his shoulders. Casey was his little sister and even if JD had been an ass he was back now and the two of them deserved the opportunity to discuss the little baby’s future, hopefully a future with both a mother and father that loved her dearly.
The tracker silently approached the riverbank and gently wrapped the still sweat soaked garment around Casey’s shoulders.
Jumping at the soft touch of the fabric, she turned her red-rimmed eyes towards the man offering her protection. She felt scared, angry, vulnerable, guilty, sullied, abused, hated, frightened, violated and yet responsible all in one compact package. Could she have stopped the attack? What had she done to attract the man? Why had it happened?
“Time to go back, Casey. Your aunt’s worried. The baby needs you.” Vin said softly, standing close but not touching the young woman. “It weren’t your fault.” He reached out his hand to help her rise but waited for her to grab it.
“I don’t know if’n I can go back.” Her voice was so faint he barely heard it.
“Nettie and me will help you. You won’t be alone.” He paused, never taking his eyes off her face, still concerned she might decide the depths of the pool a better sanctuary. “JD needs you.”
Casey looked up at Vin’s face. “How can you forgive him so easily? He came to kill you.”
The man shook his head. “No, we were wrong. He was looking for me to give me my life back. He got the charges dropped; some big word I don’t remember, but I owe JD my life. Let’s go help him.” Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the flashy coat of the gambler retreating back into the trees, offering both of them the privacy she needed, yet ready to assist if needed.
“He did?” her voice rose in excitement until a scowl crossed her brow. “He don’t know; I never told him about Mary Katherine. I never told him,” she sobbed.
“Then maybe it’s time ta do so. Give him a reason to live. Come on. I’ll help you get back to the house. No one will see you.”
She accepted his hand and stood as her mind processed his words. Her eyes widened in horror. “NO! I can’t ever go back inside. He was going to.”
Vin pulled her close and held her tight. “But he didn’t. If you don’t go back, he’ll have won, anyway.” He sensed she wouldn’t run away as her shoulders slumped, resigned to the fact that the past couldn’t be erased but she would have to come to terms with the attack and get beyond it.
The couple climbed down the rocky, riverbank to the edge of the woods. Casey stopped and pulled the shirt down trying to cover herself. She buttoned the shirt from top to bottom and looked back towards the homestead. “I don’t remember how I got way out here.”
“Let me carry you. Nathan can tend your feet when we get back.” He put his arm behind her knees and lifted her slight frame into his arms. She reached her arms around his neck and leaned her head against his bare chest. Just before they left the seclusion of the trees, Vin smiled. Someone hung a blanket from a tree branch. Her boots hung from their strings. ‘Thanks, Ezra,’ Vin thought, setting Casey down. The simple act would go far in assisting her regain her dignity.
Nathan removed the stained bandages from JD’s shoulder, ignoring the putrid smell coming from the inflamed flesh. If the boy died, it would be his fault. He let his anger cloud his ability to treat the wound correctly the first time. Why hadn’t he realized that JD had been shot in the shoulder, too? Bloody pus oozed from between the stitches he’d used to close the long gash. Carefully he washed the gore away. JD’s coat told the story; the second bullet remained buried somewhere in the boy’s body, spewing poison into his system.
Before the healer could touch the keen blade to the swollen skin, JD’s eyes opened. His mouth mumbled something but the healer couldn’t understand. “JD,” he said gently. “You got another bullet in ya. Got it get it out ‘fore it kills ya.”
Dunne tried to lick his dry lips and his bottom lip quivered again as his exhaled. “Vin. Ga tell Vin.”
Buck rubbed JD’s good shoulder. “He knows, kid; he knows. You did good.”
The pain filled eyes looked at his big brother, unsure if he was seeing an apparition or the real thing, searching for the truth. Did Vin Tanner know he was a free man, the horrible sentence hanging around his neck eliminated?
“Tell him, take ca’ C’sy. Tell ‘m.”
“Don’t be talking like that. Got the doctor here. Him and Nathan gonna get you fixed up. Casey needs you to take care of her and your baby. Now lay back and let them get that bullet out.” He pushed the stringy bangs away from JD’s face with one hand while the other held tightly to the boy’s right hand.
What had he been thinking, leaving JD and the others? He’d let Louisa come between him and his best friends, his brothers. JD’s ideals and his sense of justice just about got him killed. Fool. He was so proud of him.
When Buck arrived at the Wells homestead, doctor in tow, literally kidnapped from his own office, he was ready to force Nathan away from JD and insist Dr. Quinn treat him. The two medical men soon realized that they weren’t competition but their combined skills of college training and practical experience would save the injured man.
Josiah and Buck held JD down while the doctor sliced into the inflamed shoulder to remove the lead and other debris. Nathan assisted and the two men discussed the various muscles and ligaments as they searched the wound. The other men willed Dunne to heal because deep in each of the men’s hearts they knew, the loss of one of the seven would undermine their collective strength. All were men of strong stomachs but the smell and sight would remain burned into their minds a lifetime as layer after layer of muscle opened in search of the elusive foreign bodies poisoning JD.