It was just dawn when the four men began to break camp. Again, far too early for Ezra's liking, but he would, this time and this time only, for the sakes of JD and young Casey, endure the agony of losing his most precious hours of repose.
As the others were gathering up bedrolls and scattering the smothered ashes of their fire, Ezra noticed Vin making use of the brightening eastern light to take one more look around the plateau. He quietly joined the man near the opening of the small cave.
"Interestin', don't you think?" Vin asked, his hand caressing the sandstone wall. "Someone carved this. Years ago. Can't fer the life of me figure why, though. All the way out here, in the middle of nowhere." Then Vin bent down and examined the soil for a moment before rising again and turning to join Chris and Josiah at the horses.
But Ezra stopped him with a quiet word. "Vin. You know something, don't you?" The tracker turned but the look he gave Ezra was expressionless -- the best poker face the gambler had ever in his life been witness to. Not bad a bad showing for my first pupil, Ezra silently praised himself.
"Is it about JD?" the gambler persisted. Again, Vin's face remained placid and he did not answer. "Is it about JD and Casey?" Ezra continued, hoping to get any reaction from the man. "You know something about JD and Casey -- are they . . . or did they . . . ?" And finally the reaction came.
"Ezra, if you're gonna speculate, you oughta at least take the time to examine the evidence at hand," the tracker admonished before finally walking away.
The gambler was nonplused for a moment. It was a tone Ezra had often received -- from as far back in his childhood as he could remember -- but it was the first time since beginning their tracking lessons that Vin had spoken to him that way.
But then Ezra began to wonder at the reason. Examine the evidence, Vin had said, so he did. He turned back to the cave and began to look around. The Southerner found what looked like a cotton fiber caught by the sandstone wall. He found a subtle but wide indentation in the dust on the floor of the cave. And there was another area which looked like a bedroll had been laid out over it. Nearby, closer to the wide mouth of the cave, Ezra noted a small pair of boot prints, almost obliterated into the surrounding dust. Then something caught his eye and he moved a step to the side to get a closer look. Ezra wasn't sure what it was at first, maybe just a small rock, but when he brushed aside the soil, he found a small wooden button, almost the same pale color as the surrounding sandstone.
He stood again, ready to examine more of the cave when Chris called to him. The gambler had no choice but to rejoin his companions -- Vin had undoubtedly gathered all pertinent information for the task at hand and they really didn't have the luxury of time to spend sifting through dust on a deserted plateau.
"Vin, you and Nathan keep on JD's trail," Chris said, as the Southerner rejoined the others. "Ezra, you're with me." Ezra was, at first, surprised by the groupings; he thought for certain he would be allowed to continue tracking the missing pair. But, then he reasoned, Vin was the better tracker and if JD was indeed hurt, Nathan's skills would be needed as well. "Ezra and me'll take Barton's body back to town," Chris continued. "We'll meet back up there."
Vin and Nathan nodded as they mounted up and headed, single file, south, down the narrow canyon trail. Ezra watched them go for a moment before helping Chris secure the body over the saddle of the dead man's horse.
As the two mounted their own horses, Ezra stole a glance back toward the cave, wondering what secrets Vin had found and he had overlooked there. Then they headed north, back the way they had come, each leading one of the thieves' horses.
"We'll have to dig up that other body when we get back to the river," Chris noted to Ezra. "The judge is gonna wanna see 'em both."
"Too bad the third one is nowhere to be found," Ezra said conversationally as he followed behind Chris. "Suppose Vin is right? Suppose he fell over the edge and drowned in the river down there?"
"Let's hope so. If not, JD and Casey still have cause to be running."
A good point, Ezra noted, though it was one he would rather not have had the time to ponder.
"Casey," JD whispered in her ear, not that he was all that willing to rouse her, to leave the comfort of her arms, but it was past dawn and, much as he might like, they couldn't stay where they were forever. But the young woman was sound asleep, so JD kissed her ear before whispering again, "Casey."
This time the young woman stirred. But she did not open her eyes, instead she simply nuzzled her face into JD's chest and pulled him closer, like a warm blanket. And he found that he didn't really mind in the slightest -- the feeling of her body pressed against his, listening to her soft breaths. . . .
JD was comforted by the fact that the feelings were the same as they had been just two days ago, when he had awakened beside Casey in front of the hearth of her aunt's small house. It must mean that what they had done wasn't a bad thing. How could it be when it all felt so right?
But thinking about this reminded JD how much their friends and family would be worried about them. They had to get back.
JD shook Casey's shoulder but still she did not wake, and, remembering what Nettie had done the other morning to get her up, he gave it a try. "Cassandra Penelope," he whispered harshly in her ear.
The girl's eyes flew wide and she practically jumped out of his arms. Her breath was coming in rapid gasps as she looked around, trying to orient herself. Then she looked down at JD, who was grinning foolishly at her.
"Mornin'," he said, stretching.
She nodded, then rubbed at her eyes as she settled back down next to him.
"Cassandra," JD whispered under his breath. And Casey pushed herself back up onto her elbow, glaring down at him. She obviously disliked the name -- and, truth be told, JD didn't think it suited her, but he was in the mood to tease her about it just the same. "Is that really your name -- Cassandra Penelope?" he asked in mock innocence.
She pulled a face, but then nodded. "Can't be any worse than yours, if all you can manage are initials -- J.D." But he just smiled back at her. "So? Tell me," she insisted. "What do they stand for?"
"That's it? JD is John Dunne?" she asked, disappointed, and he nodded. Casey pulled another face, obviously thinking that it wasn't fair that he had such a straight-forward name and she got saddled with such a mouthful! But then she frowned at him, "So, why aren't you just called John?"
JD shrugged, though he knew the answer. "When I was younger, I worked as a stable hand. There was another boy there, older than me, whose name was John. It was too confusing for the stable master, so he called me by my initials. Pretty soon, everyone seemed to know me as JD, and I didn't think to mind, so it stuck. Never seemed to have a good enough reason since to change it back."
Casey nodded again before trying out the name herself, "John." Then she smiled. "You're right, JD suits you. You wouldn't happen to have a middle name, would you?" she asked, still hoping.
JD nodded. "My mother was Irish; she named me after saints, John and Patrick."
She sighed in resignation. "My pa was a professor at the university back in Ohio. Guess he read one two many books about Greek mythology, huh?"
Casey laid down next to JD again, and he pulled her close. "Do you know who they are -- Cassandra and Penelope?" he asked, and felt her nod her head against his chest.
"My pa used to tell me the stories when I was little," she began. "Cassandra was the daughter of the king and queen of Troy. And she was so beautiful that the god Apollo fell in love with 'er."
"I can understand that," JD interrupted as he took her hand in his, entwining their fingers.
"But, she didn't love him back -- she loved a mortal, a common soldier -- so Apollo punished her and her city was destroyed by the Greek army."
JD wondered why her father would have named her after such a tragic character. "What about Penelope?"
"Ulysses was one of the generals who marched on Troy. His wife was Penelope. She remained faithful to him, even though everyone told her that he probablyl died in battle."
"Did he? Die?"
Casey shook her head. "There's a epic called 'The Odessey,' written about all the things that happened to him during the twenty years that he was gone."
"She waited for twenty years?" JD asked incredulously.
"Yeah, she loved him that much." Then Casey asked what she ought to have known better than to ask: "So . . . would you wait twenty years for me?"
But even if Casey hadn't learned better, JD had. "Heck, I wouldn't let you outta my site for that long." When she hugged him, he knew that he had gotten the answer right, only later realizing that it was also the truth.
They laid together for a while longer. JD was reluctant to return home -- so much had happened to him and Casey in the past two days, so much to change everything between them, yet going home would make it seem like an end, instead of a beginning.
But finally they broke camp and neither questioned the direction of their travel when at last they mounted their horses, though neither felt the need to push their horses beyond a walk. It would take them most of the day, JD suspected, at that pace to reach town and he was glad for it, even if no one waiting for them would be -- he just selfishly tried not to think about them just now.
As they gained some altitude over a small hill, the pair stopped for a moment and looked back along the trail they had forged. JD reached over and took Casey's hand in his as he looked back at the canyon they had come through, at the now-receding river which had almost taken him from her. Then the young man turned and began to look over the plains, west, towards their destination.
"JD!" There was an urgency to Casey's voice which immediately caught the young man's attention. "Riders."
But his distance vision was still blurry. "Where?"
She pointed east and slightly north, towards where the canyon began to open up onto the plain. But he still could not make out any movement there, let alone any riders. "How many?"
"Two," she said, frowning over at him. "JD, you okay?"
He nodded. "We gotta get outta here before they see us."
"JD, we're on top of a dang hill in the middle of a plain -- they've already spotted us. And they're ridin' up fast."
"Come on!" JD turned his horse back west, waited for Casey to do the same, then kicked the gelding forward into a gallop.
Two riders. Two days ago, he wouldn't have turned tail and run. But, even if his vision had been clear and his hands steady from enough food and enough rest and no throbbing head wound, there was no way that he was going to risk Casey's life in a gunfight. And who knew who those two were; Casey said the three horse thieves were dead -- even though JD could only remember killing the first one -- and Chris had said there were only three still on the loose. Three out and three down -- so who were the two riders and why were they in fast pursuit?
But JD didn't have any more energy to think about them. His vision began to blur more and his hands felt like lead as he tried to keep hold of the reins. He kicked his horse again. He had to keep them going, he had to get Casey home safe.
"Well, Buck and Josiah brought back my horses," Nettie began as greeting to Chris and Ezra. "But you sure as hell better not have brought back my Casey!" she warned, her anger barely covering her fear that the body slung across the third horse belonged to her niece.
"No, ma'am," Chris said immediately, much to the old woman's relief. "We didn't find Casey. Or JD," he continued, knowing she would be wondering about the boy as well.
"If you would like to accompany us back to town, I'm sure your niece will arrive there before the day is done, ma'am," Ezra offered in his calmest, most reassuring tone.
"Well, all right, if you're sure. Got some things to do in town anyway; might as well get 'em done while I'm waitin'," Nettie reasonably agreed. "Would one of you mind hitchin' up my wagon while I get a few things?" she asked before heading towards the ranch house.
The pair stared at each other for a moment before Chris spoke. "Well, don't look at me. You're the one who invited her along."
An act which Ezra promptly regretted as he headed toward the old woman's barn.
How far they had gotten before the world closed in on him, JD didn't know. He thought he remembered falling, but wasn't sure. He never did feel himself hit the ground, but that's exactly where he found himself when the world around him returned. The kid squinted against the brightness of the clear, blue sky above him, thankful when a shadow fell over his face, cutting the glare. "Casey," he tried to say, but the words never seemed to leave his mouth. He wanted to know if she was all right. He wanted to hold her again, to feel her next to him -- his only comfort these last two days.
But another shadow crossed over him. He and Casey were no longer alone. He tried to get up -- he had to protect her!
"Lie still, JD," he heard Casey say, but the slight tremble in her tone only agitated him more.
Then he heard another voice, a man's voice -- "Don't move, kid" -- and he tried to reach for his guns, to defend Casey, until the shadow above him resolved into a familiar form and the voice finally registered in his mind.
"Vin? What happened?"
"You took a spill off yer horse. But, yer gonna be okay. Just lie still fer a while." And JD did. With Vin there, he knew Casey would be safe, even if he couldn't protect her himself just then.
It was a while later when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and he supposed that he had drifted off to sleep. "JD?" It was another man's voice -- not Vin's.
"Yeah, it's me, kid. You wanna try sittin' up?"
JD nodded slowly, then allowed the healer to take his arm and help him into a sitting position. His head swam a bit, his vision was a bit blurrier than it had been earlier that morning, and the effort had made him tired again, but other than that he thought he felt pretty okay. Nathan left him as Casey came over with some water, which he gratefully took from her, their fingers touching for a moment as she handed off the canteen.
She swallowed hard, looking like she was trying to hide a blush, before speaking. "Nathan thinks yer gonna be fine. But next time ya gotta say somethin' if yer feelin' dizzy. Ya coulda broke yer dang neck, ya know, then who would I have to go fishin' with?" she admonished with a shy smile.
"Yeah, fishin'. I sure wouldn't wanna miss goin' fishin' with you." He looked into her brown eyes and smiled, then lowered his voice a notch. "I don't think I'd even care if we didn't catch anything."
"Well, you won't be doin' anything, Nathan says, until that head of yours heals." JD placed a hand to his head and was surprised to find a new bandage there. "He says you're dang lucky that bullet just grazed you!" Casey continued.
"I'm dang lucky for a lot of things," he said in all earnest. But she shushed him with a glare, placing a finger to his lips to emphasize her point, which he kissed, making her blush. He took her hand then, as she tried to stand up.
"JD!" she rebuked him with an indulgent whisper. "They're gonna see," she said, referring to Vin and Nathan.
But he didn't much care about anything right at that moment except Casey. So, he just smiled at her, imagining that she must think him quite addled after his fall, and then realizing that she would probably be right.
She smiled back and stopped fighting him. Casey squeezed his hand in return and when he quickly grew tired, loosening his grip, she slipped her fingers free. But before she stood to rejoin the two men by the horses, ht thought she whispered, "I love you."
When he woke again, it was Nathan who came over to talk to him "How you feelin'?" JD nodded slightly in response. "You think you can ride?" the older man asked.
"Yeah, I'm okay now. Really."
Somehow Nathan didn't quite believe him, though. "All right, but" -- the healer insisted with a pointed finger -- "you start gettin' tired and we'll stop fer a break. If you promise to let us know that, then we can start headin' back."
The kid nodded, but Nathan narrowed his eyes at him until JD finally said, "I promise!" The healer then helped him to his feet, and JD realized he was a bit wobblier than he thought he'd be, but he had given his word, so he said something. "Nathan, can you, ah, help me up onto my horse?"
"Sure thing, JD." The man smiled and JD did, too.
It was a long afternoon as they all waited anxiously for their four friends to return. Ezra was trying to drown his troubles in whiskey and cards, but he had no takers that afternoon, and solitaire was simply never a game that much appealed to him -- you could only outwit yourself so many times before you started to grow weary of it.
As Ezra poured himself another small dram of the smooth, almost sweet, amber liquid, a disturbance at the door caught his attention.
"Nettie, I don't think we really wanna go in here," Mary said, trying to keep her voice down.
"Nonsense," the white-haired woman declared. Then, leaving Mary who smiled in weak apology at the gambler, Nettie walked straight over to Ezra's table.
Ezra nearly groaned aloud at the unwanted interruption, but instead he remembered his manners and merely said, "Ma'am." It wasn't that he didn't like Nettie Wells, it was more that he simply had no reason to either like or dislike her -- she was a solid, stoic, hardened, old, rancher's widow, and he was a gentleman of leisure with cultured and distinguished tastes -- they simply had nothing in common.
"I was talkin' to Mr. Larabee about why Casey and the others aren't back yet, but he said that I should speak to you," Nettie said as she pulled out a chair and sat down across from the gambler.
She waited for Ezra to explain, but he really didn't know what to tell her. The four ought to be back any time now, unless, of course, something went wrong, and he certainly didn't want to tell the old crone that!
"Well, if you don't have an answer fer me, son, aren't you at least gonna offer me a drink?" Nettie said as she reached across the table for the whiskey.
Ezra nearly grabbed for it, but a vision of the bottle accidentally being knocked from their hands and shattering on the dusty saloon floor stopped him before he even so much as twinged a muscle in that general direction. Instead, Ezra simply watched, as a mother cat wearily eyes the person brave enough to pick up her newly born kittens.
He watched as Nettie began to read the label on the bottle. He watched as her wrinkled, blue eyes grew wide.
"Tennessee Whiskey?" she asked, as if she were asking if the sun were rising at midnight. "Ezra, is this here really, honest-to-goodness, Tennessee Whiskey?"
"Yes, ma'am. I have been saving it for a special occasion, but way out here in these territories there is no occasion special enough, so today seemed as good as any other," Ezra explained but quickly realized that the old woman was not listening to him.
"I haven't had Tennessee Whiskey since comin' out here with my husband o'er twenty years ago," she reminisced. "The smoothest money can buy. My daddy would never touch a drop of alcohol -- called it sinful, disrespectful, and wanton -- but none of that applied to Tennessee Whiskey which he was certain was provided straight from God himself to reward his flock fer a decent day's work."
For the first time since meeting Nettie Wells, Ezra was actually interested in what the woman had to say. Anyone in these parts who actually knew the difference between sippin' whiskey and rotgut was one to be paid attention to, nay, reckoned with.
Ezra passed the woman a glass and watched as she carefully poured out two fingers worth, not spilling so much as a single drop on the table in the process. "Do you know they filter this through ten feet of sugar-maple charcoal?" she asked as she raised the glass up to the light, to gaze appreciatively at the reddish golden hue. "I actually think that is the reason my daddy married my ma," she continued before taking a slow sip from the shot glass. Ezra, too, took a drink and waited. "My ma's father was Albert Eaton--"
"THE Albert Eaton?" Ezra interrupted, no less than stunned by the name. The man who invented the Lincoln County Process, which made Tennessee Whiskey everything that every other type of whiskey the world over could only dream of being, was Nettie's grandfather? "I am impressed."
"Well, apparently so was my daddy," Nettie smiled as she watched Ezra take a small sip from his glass. "He said that man made the finest, smoothest whiskey he had ever in his life tasted."
"So he decided to bring it into the family," Ezra speculated as Nettie now sipped from her small glass.
"Can you blame him?" she asked as she set the nearly empty glass back on the table, which Ezra readily filled for her again. "So, tell me, son, where did you come across such a treasure in these parts?"
Ezra refilled his own glass before speaking. "Purely by chance, good lady," he assured her. "It was in the small town of Sweetwater, Wyoming," he began. "I was just passing through, on my way to Denver on the prospect of a rather lucrative investment, and just happened to stop in at their local tavern for a bit of respite and refreshment. Well, as luck would have it, there were several men there of a sporting nature, though they were in actuality poor as dirt." Ezra took a sip, then continued. "But this one rancher -- a Southerner like myself, youngest son, West Pointer, came west after the War Between The States -- he gave me quite a run for my money. A talented man, if I ever did meet one. And not a cheater, no. Didn't need to be with his skills. Had me down to my last one-hundred dollars at one point, but my superior abilities proved themselves in the end."
"So, you took him fer everything?" Nettie asked, as if she would have been disillusioned had he been anyone but himself.
"No. But I easily could have, had it not been for this very bottle," Ezra corked the whiskey before patting it affectionately. "You'd never guess how much these perfect spirits actually cost me," he grinned wide.
"And still a bargain, I reckon," she added, smiling herself.
The four rode slowly, taking only two breaks for some water and a little rest, and finally made it back to town just before sunset. The others were all eagerly waiting, but Nettie was the first one into the street to greet them. "Casey, are you hurt?"
"No, ma'am. JD -- and Nathan and Vin -- made sure of that!"
Nettie shot the kid a stern look, a silent reiteration of her previous threat, but when JD only nodded his head in greeting -- being too tired to do much else -- her face softened and she let it go. JD was pretty sure that her threat still stood, and he'd really have to do something to amend that, but at least at the moment the woman was willing to believe he'd done nothing to harm her niece.
Nettie turned back to Casey then. "Now, what in tarnation were you thinkin'? Goin' after those horse thieves like that -- you coulda got yerself killed!"
"I'm sorry. All I could think about was gettin' the horses back. Did we get 'em back?"
"Yes, we got 'em back -- Josiah and Buck saw to that yesterday. But I don't give one whit about those horses, girl, not if it means you riskin' yer fool neck!"
Casey nodded understanding before dismounting. She then handed the horse back to Buck and apologized, "He's okay, Buck. I'm sorry I took him."
Buck nodded with a tight smile. "Long as yer okay, young lady."
Nettie then wrapped Casey into a tight hug, before leading her off toward the livery. JD watched Casey go from the vantage point of his saddle. He hoped that she'd steal a look back, just once before she left, but she didn't. Which was probably a good thing since, unfortunately, Buck saw him watching her and just had to say something as he came over to help JD down.
"Missin' her already, kid?"
"Just glad we got back safe and that she's goin' home with her aunt."
"Mmm hmmm," the older man smirked. "But I bet it was awfully cold out there, huh? Had to do a bit of snugglin' to keep warm, I'd wager, eh?"
JD sighed, not quite knowing how to get the man off this topic without making him even more curious. "Buck! If ya hadn't noticed, I've kinda been shot."
Nathan walked over then and helped the kid out, first by leading JD out of the street and onto the boardwalk, then by adding to the conversation. "Casey said he spent most of the time either throwin' up or sleepin'."
And, as the kid sat down in the chair next to Ezra, the gambler added, "Sadly, not very conducive to romance, if you ask me, Mr. Wilmington."
"Well, will someone then kindly explain to me why Miss Casey is wearin' our JD's shirt?" Buck asked, not willing to drop the subject quite so easily.
Vin unexpectedly stepped up for JD then. "I'm sure the kid was just tryin' to be a gentleman, Buck. Look at this here shirt -- all torn as it is." He pointed at the large rent in the sleeve, but thankfully failed to mention the missing buttons. "He couldn't very well let Casey catch her death a cold wearin' this thing."
But Buck obviously wasn't buying into it. "Come on, JD, you can tell ol' Buck. There wasn't much of a moon last night, but I bet them stars were awful perty, just the thing ta get ya in the mood fer a little sparkin'. . . ." Buck grinned, trying to encourage JD into talking, but the kid, even if he hadn't been exhausted, didn't feel the slightest desire, probably for the first time since meeting this group of men, to brag about his experiences.
And it was Chris who spoke up anyway, "Buck. I've known a lot of men in my time, but you're the only one who would think of romance when you have a head wound and desperate horse thieves hot on your trail."
"Can I help it if I'm the only one around here who's got his priorities straight?" Buck declared, looking at his companions for agreement and support which they each failed to give.
Josiah came over then and clasped Buck on the shoulder. "Speakin' of women, I think Inez was lookin' for you just a little while ago?"
"Inez? Really?" Buck grinned wide as he rubbed his hands together. "I told ya she'd come around! I'll see ya later, JD -- my priorities call."
The others laughed at Buck's single-minded enthusiasm as he took his horse and headed off down the street towards the saloon. Josiah then handed JD a very dirty bowler. "We found this on the road on our way back. Thought you might be wantin' it."
The young man smiled as he took the hat and pressed it gingerly onto his head.
The preacher then offered, "JD, would you like me to take your horse for you?"
"Is your shoulder better?" the kid first asked. And when Josiah nodded, the kid smiled and replied, "Thanks, that'd be mighty nice."
And as the preacher led the horse away, Nathan spoke again: "JD, I think you best be gettin' some rest. Vin, you wanna help him to his room? I have to get a few things from my place so I can change that bandage on his head, then I'll meet you there."
Vin nodded and helped JD to his feet. The two youngest members of the group made their way slowly down the walkway in silence. But as they neared the boarding house, Vin asked, "Say, kid, you do know about Nettie's Spencer carbine, don't ya?"
~ The End ~
Happy 28th Birthday, Andy!
Comments may be directed to Bonnie (email@example.com).
Muchas gracias to Nancy and Amy for their invaluable beta-reading and encouragement.
And to Abdul Jalib for his expert poker advice.
For more information about Tennessee Whiskey, visit The Whiskey Pages.
No copyright infringement is intended.
Much thanks to Mr. Watson and associates for bringing these characters to life.
* July 1999 *