a week later…
Nettie and JD sat side by side on a bench, watching their friends carry the Wells belongings into the house located at the edge of town. Casey’s aunt held the sleeping baby and her husband obeyed the strict command to stay put and not try to help with the move. Casey Dunne gave the orders and the house soon developed into a cozy home for the newlyweds and her aunt. The week following the quick wedding was a whirlwind of activity.
Frustrated with sitting on the sidelines while healing, JD looked forward to spending a night, alone, with his new wife. A week ago, he sought a fugitive from Texas; today he was married to a beautiful woman, had a darling infant daughter and six men, who were like brothers, to watch his back. The minor inconvenience of two gunshot wounds and deep stab wound in his leg couldn’t compare to the excitement he felt.
Josiah and Nathan approached the house carrying several long boards. With no explanation, they began construction. Their hammers rang in a complementary rhythm while JD and Nettie watched. Buck arrived with another wagonload of household goods that soon disappeared inside.
“ Don’t know if I can stand sitting out here waiting much longer.” Nettie repositioned the baby, her arms aching from holding the infant. “I feel like I’m an old woman. I should be in there, putting things away, not letting a bunch of gunslingers organize my stuff.”
Smiling, JD patted her knee. Just as impatient, he understood her and wanted to be helping with the move rather than being stuck on the sidelines. “Casey knows what she’s doing. She’s had the best teacher. Want me to take Mary Kate?”
She looked at him, like he’d grown a second head. With only one arm usable, how did he expect to hold a baby safely? “No, I’ll keep her,” she replied. “I suppose I should be thankful for all the help rather than gripping about it. Just not used to sitting back while others do what I should be doing.”
Before the wedding, the older woman and young lawman came to an understanding. With the air cleared between them, the misunderstandings of a week ago evaporated. She welcomed the young man into her new home and he willing agreed to the living arrangements. Vin would continue to live on her ranch, raising horses in partnership with Larabee’s breeding program. Josiah resumed his role of spiritual leader for the small community. Dillon Matthews returned to Texas to submit his and JD’s resignation to the Rangers. Each one decided to pursue a different path for the future that didn’t include riding for the famous Texas Rangers. He would also make arrangements for the rest of Dunne’s belongings to be sent to the small western town.
Nathan and Doctor Quinn spent many hours together, sharing modern procedures and herbal remedies; each excited to learn more about the other’s knowledge. Ezra and Buck hadn’t found a reason to remain in the small community, but stayed anyway, enjoying the camaraderie with the rest of the men. Wilmington reveled in the role of surrogate uncle and doted on the baby girl every chance he could.
“JD, need to ask you something.” The older woman asked, her voice low. “How are you paying for this house? You make that much in wages in Texas?”
The injured man slowly shook his head. He been expecting this conversation about his finances and looked forward to explaining the wedding gift the couple received from some of the former peacekeepers. “Nope, I didn’t make much riding for them. Spent too much of my time getting the evidence to clear Vin, to make much money. Casey and me got the money as a gift, from Chris, Vin, Josiah and Nathan. None would say where the money came from, just that we should use it to get started and we couldn’t think of a better way than to get a house, here in town. The bank had this one available. Ezra helped Casey make the arrangements. She’s got a good head for numbers.”
“That she does.” Nettie’s head nodded in agreement, pragmatic to the core, to know better than to ask for the source of the gift. “Now if she can only learn how to cook.”
They both chuckled, watching the strange object taking form on the lawn.
“Casey and you; you planning on sticking around and making this work?” Nettie believed JD truly loved her niece but young love wasn’t always able to endure.
All humor faded from JD’s face as he turned towards Nettie. He reached out his good hand and rested it tenderly on the baby’s head. “Nettie, I love Casey. She told me what happened. If’n I weren’t as weak as little Mary Katherine, I’d…” He paused, his lips twitching as he suppressed his anger. “Timings right. No one can say otherwise. This is my daughter. Weren’t Casey fault, then or the other day. I don’t expect she’s told anyone other than you and me. I’d appreciate if you don’t say anything about it again. We’re a family; Casey, Mary Kate, you and me. Yes ma’am. I planning on being around a long time, seeing my little girl grow up along with all the other children we have together. “He leaned over and kissed Nettie’s cheek and smiled. “That said, don’t mean I understand Casey any more than I did before we got married.”
“Aunt Nettie,” Casey said, touching her aunt’s hand. “I’ll take Mary Kate. It’s time to show you our new home.” The young bride cradled the infant in her arms and stepped back to reveal the smiles of their friends.
“Miz Nettie, we figured you needed your independence for getting around town.” Josiah pushed a wicker, wheelchair towards the woman. He could see the wheels turning in her mind, one side willing to use the apparatus to operate independently, the other side practical. Would others look down at her and pity her, stuck in such a contraption?
“And so you can get in and out of the house, we built you a ramp,” Nathan added. Buck and Chris grabbed one side of the strange construction and Nathan and Vin the other. Josiah stood by ready with the hammer and 16 penny nails to secure it to the porch. Ezra directed the men as they maneuvered it into place.
Nettie’s eyes grew large as she watched their progress, almost like a child at Christmas, looking in wonder at the collection of presents gathered under the tree. She’d be able to help around the house, get outside without waiting for someone to carry her down the steps. Her independence drove her to survive in the new land and if her legs refused to cooperate, she’d use the contrivance to continue to be productive.
Casey lifted the baby from her aunt’s arms and stood back as Nathan helped the older woman settle into the chair. He placed a thin pillow behind her back. “You let me know if that pillow’s not feeling right. We want you to be comfortable. And don’t go overdoing, trying to get yourself around. Takes time to build up the muscles in your arms,” he instructed.
The mother sat on the bench beside JD and placed the infant in the crook of his good arm, quietly whispering into his ear. “Hope you don’t mind having to share her with Nettie.”
He whispered back his own answer, “We’ll just have to get busy and get some more, fill everyone’s arms with our babies.”
Her eyes grew wide as she read between the lines at his teasing and then laughed. “You be alright, here by yourself? I want to show Nettie the house.”
“Go on. We’ll be fine.”
JD loved to hold the tiny child and doubted he’d ever forget the experience of holding someone else who was a part of you. Even if he weren’t Mary Kate’s daddy, he’d always be her father. He listened to the voices inside as they toured the downstairs rooms. The sound of construction in the backyard reached his ears. He wouldn’t be surprised if his friends were adding a second ramp for the back porch and yard. Nettie would enjoy being able to fend for herself getting to the outhouse. He smiled at his daughter and gently caressed her soft cheek. Loved filled him; love for Casey and Mary Kate, love for Casey’s feisty aunt and a different type of love for the six other men who’d become such an important part of his life.
The porch roof graced the open area with shade and he watched the comings and goings of the town’s residents. A freight wagon rumbled past the house, full of supplies for the hardware store. Dr. Quinn waved as he raced by in a trim buggy and high-stepping horse, on the way to make a house call. The late afternoon shadows hid him from a group of horsemen entering the town. A couple of farmers, their wagons filled with purchases drove by as they returned home before dark. He’d be able to see the afternoon stage arrive and depart. Yes, he liked this house.
Vin stopped in the doorway and sighed. Except for the baby, JD was finally alone. No big brother Buck hovering close by. Casey was busy giving her aunt the tour and the rest of the men were busy in the back yard, adding a ramp to the back door. “Hey, kid,” he said, squatting beside the new father. “Been wantin’ ta thank you, for what ya did. And.” He paused, searching for words. “Sorry for beatin’ on ya, not givin’ ya a chance to explain.”
“I’m not mad at you, Vin. Nettie’s special to you. I don’t hold it against you for protecting her and Casey.”
“You’d think of any of us, I’d remembered a man’s innocent till proven otherwise. Didn’t give ya much chance. Then finding out what ya did for me in Texas.” Tanner looked at the floor.
“Vin,” JD said, waiting for his friend to look at him. “Vin, I feel awful about the papers I was bringing. I’d rather die than have to take you back.”
“Guess we’re both lucky to be friends.” Vin stood and reached out his hand to shake and laughed at the younger man’s predicament.
Holding the baby with his good arm and his left on in the sling, JD could only wiggle his thumb. “I can’t wait for this arm to heal. I hate feeling so feeble and having everyone babying me.”
Tanner shook the offered digit and shook his head. “Enjoy it while you can, kid. Living with three women, once ya get back on your feet, you won’t have a moments rest.”
The color drained from the younger man’s face as he realized the odds three against one.
“Just remember, you got six friends that’ll be glad to bail you out once and a while.” Vin turned and bounded down the steps to fetch the final load from the wagon.
JD looked down at his sleeping baby and whispered, “Mary Katherine, you’ve got a great band of uncles to watch out for you.”
The squeak of a wheel needed a few drops of oil announced the approach of more visitors. Mary Travis lead the parade of town’s residents, each carrying covered dishes or baskets covered with towels. The small group stopped at the new ramp, not sure if they needed to use it or bypass it for the porch steps. “Hi, everyone. That’s for Nettie, so she can get around in her new wheelchair. Come in, come in.” He smiled at the visitors.
“Welcome back to town, JD.”
“Good to have you back.”
Casey appeared at the door, hearing the many voices outside and laughed. “Hello. Welcome.” Filing through the door, the distinct odor of fried chicken reached the young lawman’s nose and his stomach growled in anticipation. Mary Kate stirred at the many footsteps and opened her eyes. Her young eyes struggled to focus on his face and she pursed her lips. He tightened his hold and smiled adoringly at her tiny face.
“They’re a wonder, aren’t they?”
JD looked up, startled by the familiar voice, “Judge. Sir. I didn’t hear you. Isn’t she beautiful?” he asked, his love for the child evident.
The old man settled on the bench beside JD and gently stroked the baby’s soft cheek. “That she is. That she is. Good to see you too, young man.”
“Yeah, right. Not getting around too good right now. Nathan says to give it will take some time. I’m not very patient.”
The two men sat in comfortable silence watching the funny expressions on the baby’s face. Voices drifted from inside the house adding to the whole domestic setting. The sound of china clinking and metallic ring of flatware put a smile on JD’s face. “Whatever they brought smells good.”
“Mary wouldn’t let me sample any before we came. JD, I need to ask you something. What happened at Nettie’s? Did you kill the deputy? I was also told you were responsible for a bounty hunter’s death, also found on Nettie’s property.” The judge looked at the young man, studying his face.
JD gulped. He hadn’t really thought about the circumstances and that he would be accountable. “Higgins was hunting Vin. He knew Vin was exonerated in Texas, but he dogged me, hoping to find Vin. Sir, I was headed to Chris’ place; I didn’t know Vin was at Nettie’s. I came to call on her before I headed out to Chris’ homestead. I wanted to make sure Casey was alright.” He hung his head, reliving the scene, seeing Higgins aim at Vin and Casey. “I couldn’t let him kill Vin. I winged him but it all happened so fast, I missed making the kill shot. He came after me. We fought and he pulled his knife. I had to kill him. Was my fault, Higgins finding Vin.”
“OK. What about the deputy?”
The young man looked up, his face angry. “The bastard was attacking Casey. He beat her up, tied up Nettie, dragged Casey into her bedroom and was going to... I shot him, too. You putting me under arrest for defending my family?”
Judge Travis shook his head. “No. I just needed to hear your own version of what happened. That’s what I heard from the others. You don’t need to worry about this. I record both as self-defense.”
“What are you two doing out here? The food’s ready. I’ll take Mary Kate. Judge, welcome to our home.” Casey gently lifted the baby from JD’s lap and led the way, opening the door for Judge Travis.
JD pulled himself up, using the railing as a support. Taking short, shuffling steps, he followed the trio. This day kept getting better and better.
Following the delicious meal of fried chicken, flakey biscuits, green beans and apple pie, the men gathered on the front porch to get out of the ladies way. JD settled into the rocking chair while the others occupied the bench and other chairs.
“Thanks for your help today, guys. For helping us move,” JD said, sincerely.
“Glad to help, son.” Josiah settled himself on the steps, stretching his long legs out in front of him.
“You need to take it easy, let that shoulder heal.” Nathan was pleased with Dunne’s recovery from the infection that almost cost him his life.
“Gentlemen, may I join you?” The judge smiled as he sat on the chair vacated by Buck. He looked at the group of seven men gathered together again and turned toward Tanner. “Vin, I read the papers from Texas and am glad you finally cleared up that matter. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to ignore the issue.”
Vin nodded. He often wondered if the older man knew of the warrant. “Thanks, sir. JD, you too. Thanks for what you did.”
The youngest looked down at the floor, embarrassed. Wouldn’t any of them have done the same, given the opportunity?
“I have another reason to be here besides enjoying Mary’s cooking and this housewarming. Earlier I talked to JD about the deaths of Harold Corly and the bounty hunter, Higgins.”
“Hold on Judge.” Buck stood, ready to defend Dunne. “Them fellows got what they deserved. No reason to charge JD with their deaths!”
Travis raised his hand, wanting to halt Wilmington’s rant before he said anything in anger he’d regret later. “I’m not charging him with anything. I believe both shootings were justified but I needed his clarification of a couple of details to collaborate the testimony of others. The matter is closed.” He waited for the taller man to return to his seat before continuing.
“As you know, Sheriff Coffee resigned and left the territory. The town needs new law. I asked for a volunteer, earlier today and got the same response I did a couple years back. Now I’m asking all of you, this town needs a new sheriff.”
“I’ll do it,” JD said.
“What?” Now it was Nathan’s turn to protest. “You ain’t got the strength to hold your baby girl and now you want to be sheriff?”
Chris sat on a stool next to JD, “Maybe you better give this some thought, son. Talk about it with Casey. This isn’t just about you anymore, you’ve got your family to consider.”
Buck jumped up again and his long strides brought him quickly to JD’s chair where he leaned down on the arms, his nose almost touching JD’s. “Of all the lame-brained, stupid words to tumble out of your mouth.”
“Mr. Wilmington!” Ezra sharp voice cut through Buck’s tirade. “Let him complete his oration.”
Pulling himself up as tall as he could, JD continued, “I can do it, sir. I’ve got experience. I know the law. Besides I’ve got to do something to earn a living. Horses and law, its all I know. Just so you know, Casey and me have already discussed this. I’ll be careful, not rush into trouble.”
“I, for one, believe Mr. Dunne’s resume would disclose his familiarity and fortitude for the profession. He possesses the acumen necessary as he’s no longer the green, naïve youth we met one day soaring off his mount into the watering trough.”
“Now that I’m a free man, I’ll back you up, JD. Help you out till you get back on your feet.” Vin stood and reached out his hand to shake with JD.
“Of all the... If’n your set on doing this, I’m hanging around to watch your back.” Buck returned to his seat, silently proud of his ‘little brother’.
Looking at the judge for his approval, JD continued. “If you and the town will hire me, I’d be glad to serve as sheriff. I know I’m not a hundred percent right now but you said yourself, Nathan, I’m healing; that everything looks good.”
Orrin Travis looked again at the seven men gathered on the porch and nodded. “Looks like the town’s got a new sheriff.” He reached over and shook hands with JD.
“You may wish to disclose to your paramour, the conclusion of this dialogue.” Ezra’s gold tooth caught the early evening sunlight.
Buck helped him stand so he could inform Casey that he’d accepted the position. He wasn’t worried about her reaction.
Moments after disappearing inside, the men laughed as the raised voice of Nettie Wells drifted out to them. “You just did what?”