Lucy sat back on her heels and stared in disgust at the weeds taking over her vegetable garden. Time was, she would have had it hoed and staked, looking forward to gathering the fruits of her labors. But now.…
Her gray eyes swept over the yard, coming to rest on Mattie playing near the barn with the momma cat and her kittens. A small contented smile ghosted across her face. At least the fences were mended and the roof no longer leaked. Thanks to a certain young man and his six friends.
She shook her head slightly in wonderment as her thoughts shifted to that man. If she lived to be a hundred and ten Lucy would never forget the day when Mattie returned from playing by the creek, begging her to help a man she had found beaten, bloodied, and half-drowned. Sure he was probably going to die, Lucy had to admit, even as she had mended, patched and prayed, she never thought things would turn out as they had. Not only had he survived, his friends had repaid her kindness tenfold. She blushed even now, as she recalled her encounter with the tracker.... After caring for him those long days and nights, she hadn’t even recognized him! Well, she had appeased her shocking lack with the fact how handsome Vin Tanner really was after the bruises faded, the cuts healed and his healthy complexion returned to normal.
Giving herself a mental shake for wasting her time on silly schoolgirl nonsense, Lucy turned her attention back to the weeds as the afternoon sun began its slow slide behind the hills. Resembling a huge ball of orange fire, the sun rested for a moment on the horizon as Lucy finally finished, satisfied the weeds had been beaten back for a few more days, giving her vegetables room to flourish.
Slowly climbing to her feet, Lucy stretched the kinks from her back as her gaze automatically shifted over the land around her. Living alone for so long had taught her many things, first and foremost if she was to keep herself and her daughter alive and safe from intruders - human or four legged - in this desolate place, she always needed to know what was going on around her. Secondly, to always keep her shotgun near at hand. Her heart skipped a beat as she brought her hand up to shade her eyes. There, coming across the meadow was a lone horseman. As the dark horse loped closer, her breath caught. There was only one rider she knew who rode a blaze faced horse bay.
Flustered, her heart suddenly beating twice as fast as normal, Lucy attempted to brush the dirt from her clothes and straighten the stray strands of hair which straggled out from under her hat, unaware of the dirt streaking her face. Moving across the yard, she paused by the fence as the horseman rode up and drew rein in front of her.
"Howdy, ma’am." His voice was softly husky as he touched the brim of his old gray slouch hat.
"Mister Tanner! What a surprise!"
He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his saddle horn. "I hope ya don’t mind none, ma’am. I’s over Jules City way and thought I’d swing by, see how y’all was doin’."
"We’re doing just fine and you’re always welcome, Mister Tanner. Step down. You will stay for supper?"
He gracefully swung down to stand in front of her, twisting the leather reins in his long fingers. "Thank ya, ma’am. Iffen it’s no trouble..."
What ever else he was going to say was sidetracked as Mattie ran pell mell from the barn and threw herself in his arms. He gathered her up, a smile coming to his face as she wrapped her arms about his neck and gave his scruffy cheek a wet kiss. "You came back!" the child squealed happily, turning to look at her mother. "Momma, I told you he’d be back," she remarked smugly.
Lucy smiled. "Yes, child, you did at that. I’m afraid, Mister Tanner, she’s spoken of little else."
"Did Ezra come too?" Mattie’s eyes searched the area, looking for her other friend.
"No, ‘fraid not this time."
"Well, Chris needed ‘im in town..."
"Oh, that’s okay then if Mister Chris needed him. I forgive him for not coming," Mattie reassured him. "You’ll tell him, won’t you?"
Vin nodded as his gaze drifted back to Lucy. "Maybe ya can tell ‘im yer own self." At Lucy’s frown, he rushed on, "There’s a dance in town, and I’s thinkin’ maybe ya’d like ta go...." He trailed off, suddenly embarrassed by his forward assumption.
"Can we, momma? Can we go? Please?" Mattie wiggled down from Vin’s arms to tug at Lucy. "Please?"
"We will think about it," Lucy promised, her gaze softening, as she saw the slight blush of embarrassment on the tracker’s tanned face. She realized he had deliberately asked in front of the child to gain Mattie’s support in the venture. "You run and set the table, Mattie." She motioned the child toward the house, and then turned to the young man. "You can turn your horse out in the corral."
As Vin turned to loosen the cinch, she touched his arm. "That was rather under handed, you know. Now if I refuse, she’ll never let me forget it."
"That mean ya’ll go?" His voice was hopeful.
"I believe it does, Mister Tanner," she admitted, nodding, thrilled to see a lop sided smile grace his features. "Supper’ll be ready shortly." She moved away, hiding her smile.
Vin pushed his plate away and sighed. "Ma’am, that’s right tasty. Always was partial ta stew."
Lucy motioned toward the stove. "There’s more if you’d like." She offered, refilling his coffee cup.
"Honestly, ma’am, I couldn’t swaller another bite."
"Then I get all the bear sign!" Mattie happily crowed as she jumped from the chair and scurried to the pantry.
Tanner’s blue eyes danced as he straightened. "Ya say bear sign?"
"Uh-huh, Momma made some this morning." She climbed up on a low stool and pulled two of the doughnuts down from the plate. Balancing them and herself, she climbed down and handed him the smaller of the two.
Vin looked over the child’s head at her mother who stood with hands on hips. "Mattie! Where are your manners?"
The child looked contrite, then with a bright smile at Vin she explained, "Vin ain’t had them before and he might not like them..."
"You mean Vin hasn’t had them...." Lucy corrected, and then shrugged hopelessly at the tracker.
"Ya can’t fault her reasonin’, ma’am." He bit into the pastry and closed his eyes with a deep sigh.
"I think he likes them, Momma," Mattie whispered as he cracked an eye to wink at her. "See, you weren’t full after all!"
Lucy placed several doughnuts on a plate in front of the man. "I suggest you eat up, Mr. Tanner, before Mattie beats you to them." Lucy covertly watched the two out of the corner of her eye as she moved about the small room, washing and putting away the dishes. Except for Ezra, Lucy had never seen her daughter take to anyone like she had the tracker. What surprised her even more was the young man seemed equally fascinated by the child.
Finishing up and wiping her hands on a towel, Lucy shooed Mattie from the table. "It’s your bedtime, young lady. Tell Mister Tanner to sleep well and you’ll see him in the morning."
Frowning, the child moved to stand beside the longhaired man. "’Night, Vin. You’ll be here in the morning?" He nodded. "Promise?"
Reaching up, she wrapped her arms about his neck in a tight hug and giving him a kiss on the cheek, she slowly obeyed her mother. While Lucy listened to her child’s prayers and tucked her in bed, Vin grabbed his hat and gun and moved outside to tend his horse.
When he returned to the house, Lucy was waiting on the front porch. He settled on the top step, running a hand through his long hair, his gaze focused on the distant horizon as she wearily sank down in a nearby chair.
He brought his gaze around to rest on the young woman’s face, still visible in the golden light spilling through the open door.
"I’m not quite sure I understand. You rode all the way up here to invite Mattie and me to a dance.
It was Vin’s turn to be flustered as he toyed with his hat’s strings. "There’s gonna be fireworks, too and I thought Mattie might..." He trailed off.
Her expression softened. "I - we - just haven’t had anyone who thought about us before. It’s... it’s a strange feeling," she admitted, adding softly, "strange, but very pleasant."
"Ya can stay in town or out at Miz Nettie’s. Town’s goin’ all out fer the Fourth. Sight to be seen, I’m sure."
Lucy laughed softly. "You don’t have to sell me, Mister Tanner. I have agreed to go," she reminded him.
He focused on her face. "Wish ya’d call me Vin." A lopsided grin graced his handsome face. "Mister Tanner makes me feel like I'm talkin' ta Ezra."
Lucy giggled, hoping that was the only thing about her that reminded him of the gambler. "Okay, Vin..." She liked the way it sounded on her tongue. "If you promise to call me Lucy."
He shook his head slightly, "Don’t know ‘bout that, ma’am..." His blue eyes danced, "Lucy."
She secretly admitted to herself she loved the way he spoke her name, so soft and husky, his eyes shining like blue sapphires.… It had been too long since someone had looked at her like that. Mentally giving herself a shake, she pushed to her feet. "Well, good night, Mister...Vin." She motioned toward the barn. "You’re welcome to sleep wherever you like. We’ll see you in the morning."
He rose to his feet and nodded. "’Night, ma.... Lucy."
Smiling, she nodded before moving inside and slowly closed the door. Knowing Vin was just outside, a warm feeling of security washed through her and Lucy left the wooden bar off the door, something she had never done before. But this night, she wouldn’t have to worry about intruders. This night, she and Mattie had a guardian angel.
Vin stood for several long minutes, something between a smile and a frown flittering across his face when he did not hear the familiar sound of wood scraping against wood as she barred the door against invaders. Then, ducking his head with an understanding ghost of a smile, he settled his hat into place, gathered up his bedroll and with sure steps in the darkness, made his way to a place near a stand of trees where he had a clear view of the small cabin. Shaking out his blankets, he stretched out and lay staring up at the twinkling stars, letting the gentle breeze in the leafy limbs above him lull him to sleep. But just before he drifted off, the image of a sweet smile filled his mind...
Lucy awoke at day break and looked around the small cabin, stretching languidly, smiling at the memory of sweet dreams. Dreams of being held gently in the strong arms of a handsome blue-eyed ex-bounty hunter. It took her several sleepy minutes to realize her daughter’s bed was empty, the rumpled covers pushed aside. Eyes widening in fear, she grabbed her wrap and hurried outside. Finding her daughter safe and sound, Lucy’s heartbeat slowly returned to normal as, breathing a sigh of relief, she leaned against the porch railing.
There, under the trees, Vin Tanner lay on his bedroll asleep, one arm securely embracing Mattie who was snuggled up to his chest. One of her daughter’s small hands was wrapped in the fabric of his shirt as if afraid he would sneak off without her.
Lucy had often wondered what it would have been like for Mattie to have known her father. Matthew had been a neighbor’s son, helping her Pa break horses the summer she turned seventeen. He had declared his undying love to her and being young, naive, vulnerable, and lonely, she had believed every charming word he uttered. Too late, she realized while she had been in love, full of dreams and expectations, he saw her only as a young woman to use, a dalliance to kill time until joining his fiancé at the end of summer. Lucy had not even known he was engaged. He was her Prince Charming... they would marry, raise a family and build a life together. Wasn’t that how all the fairy tale stories she had read ended? Reality -cold and bitter - had crashed down around her when he left her pregnant, unmarried, scorned, and shamed to marry the daughter of some rich man back east.
Lucy’s mother, a strong willed Christian woman, unable to forgive what she saw as a sin against God, had thrown her out of the house with just the clothes on her back. Her father, never one to face his wife’s ire, nonetheless had found Lucy, gave her what little money he could spare and an old horse and, with a quick peck on the cheek, told her to never show her face at the homestead again.
Scared and alone, she had made her way to Denver. A caring family had taken her in, offering her a job helping with their children and doing odd chores. It had put a roof over her head and allowed her to save a little money. They were good people who treated her decently and saw Mattie as the beautiful child she was, rather than the bastard child of an unmarried woman. When a death in the family had taken the people back East, despite their fervent pleas, Lucy had stayed behind, doing what was necessary to survive and make a life for Mattie. After receiving a letter from her father, informing Lucy of her mother’s passing and his wish for her to come home, with a year old child in tow, Lucy had returned to the place she had vowed she would never even visit again.
Her father had loved Mattie, showing her all the love he had denied, or had not known how to show the child’s mother. When Mattie was two and still too young to remember him, he had died in his sleep. Lucy had struggled since then to keep the old homestead. It hadn’t been easy and many nights she had cried herself to sleep, wondering what the fates had in store for her and her daughter.
She had never dreamed her prayers might be answered in the form of a longhaired blue eyed tracker named Vin Tanner.
She finally stirred and loathe to disturb the two, went inside to start breakfast. The coffee was hot and the biscuits cooling when she heard the two of them tromp up the steps, Mattie bursting through the doorway, her hair a tangled mess, but a happy smile smeared over her face. "Momma, Vin said they were having firewords!"
Lucy turned from the stove. "Fireworks, Mattie, fireworks." Her gaze moved to the tracker who stepped into the doorway, combing a nervous hand through his long hair and trying to brush the wrinkles from his clean shirt. "Good morning, Vin. I trust you slept well."
"Yes, ma’am...." Mattie launched herself into his arms and he picked her up and carried her to the table, depositing her on one of the chairs.
"Breakfast is ready." Lucy dished up the bacon and eggs and filled his cup with coffee. "I figured you would want to make an early start."
He nodded around his first mouthful of coffee. "Yes, ma’am. Sooner we leave, sooner we get there."
"I’ll be ready as soon as I pack a few things and tend my stock," Lucy assured him.
"I done turned yer horses out. They’ve got plenty graze until ya get back. I kept the bay in. Mattie said she’s yer saddle horse and I figured ya’d be wantin’ to use her."
"Yes, thank you. I guess that just leaves me the packing then." She quickly finished off her breakfast and moved about stuffing Mattie a change of clothes as well as one for herself into the old carpetbag she had lived out of in her previous life. She’d finished bathing Mattie, nodding approval at the child’s appearance and returned to the cabin's living area, surprised to see Vin washing up the breakfast dishes.
At her wide-eyed expression, he smiled. "Dishes don’t wash themselves, ma’am." Drying the last cup, he took the bag from her hand and moved outside to saddle the horses.
He was waiting patiently, Mattie on the saddle in front of him when Lucy stepped from the cabin, a bag holding the remaining donuts in her hand. With a smile at Mattie’s excited squeal, she latched the door and mounted the bay, happily heading for Four Corners.
"Vin comin’ in!"
The old woman lowered her Spencer carbine and stepped down from the porch. "Good thing ya sang out, son. I was about to add another notch to this ol’ carbine." She looked beyond him, frowning, "Who’s that with ya?"
Tanner draped his right leg over his horse’s neck and slipped to the ground, still holding a sleeping Mattie in his arms. "Ya remember Miz Garth and Mattie. Reckon they could stay on the night?" he questioned hopefully, shifting Mattie around in his arms without disturbing her sleep.
"Why sure enough. Casey’s stayin’ over at Sally’s for that shindig and it’s right quiet here by my lonesome." She motioned for Lucy to dismount. "Climb on down. Vin, ya go ahead and put that child in Casey’s bed."
Vin crossed the room and gently lowered the sleeping child to the small bed in Casey’s room, carefully covering her with the folded quilt lying over the footboard. His hand lingered for a moment on Mattie’s tangled hair and bending, he gave her a small kiss on the forehead before returning to the other room where Nettie had settled Lucy in a chair with a cup of coffee.
The gray haired woman eyed the young man. "Ya stayin’?"
He shook his head. "Can’t. Promised Chris I’d be back tonight in case there’s trouble." He moved for the door. "Appreciate this, Nettie."
"Ah, go on, ya know how I enjoy company." A slight pink suddenly highlighting the older woman’s cheeks.
Setting the cup aside, Lucy jumped to her feet, following as with a small nod and a light touch to his hat brim, Vin stepped out onto the porch.
"Vin!" Suddenly embarrassed, Lucy hesitated as he paused on the bottom step, staring up at her. For one fleeting moment, she wondered what she was doing here. "I-I...are you...?"
"You’ll be fine here with Miz Nettie," he quickly reassured her. "She’s good people and I’ll be back tomorra."
"I know. I-I... You’re sure Mattie and I won’t be putting her out none?"
"Iffen ya was, ya can be sure, she’d say so." He grinned. "I better warn ya, though; Nettie’ll talk yer ear offen if ya let her."
Lucy nodded, unable to hide the slight quiver that came to her voice as she softly questioned, "Tomorrow?"
"Promise." With another touch to his hat brim, he moved to his horse and swung gracefully into the saddle. With a last smile, he turned and rode from the yard, leaving Lucy listening until the hoof beats died away in the distance.
Turning, she saw Nettie standing in the door behind her. Flustered at how things must have appeared to the older woman, she dropped her gaze to the floor.
"Honey, iffen I was thirty years younger, I’d give ya a run for your money."
Lucy’s head came up, her gray eyes wide in disbelief as she stared at the woman who gave her a wide smile and a wink.
"That’s one fine young man," Nettie pointed out as she stepped off the porch and quickly stripped the gear from the bay horse by the light spilling from the inside of the cabin. Turning the horse out in the nearby corral, she returned, handing Lucy her carpetbag as she gently steered her back inside. "C’mon, and help me finish off the last of that coffee."
Making a quick check of Mattie, Lucy settled next to the fireplace, cup in hand, as Nettie settled in her Hepplewhite chair. Her wise eyes studied the younger woman. "I can see you’re just dyin’ of questions."
Lucy started to deny, but closed her mouth. Somehow, she knew the sharp-eyed older woman would know she was lying. With a small nod, she questioned, "Have you known him long?"
With a deep sigh, Nettie shook her head before taking a sip of her coffee. "Can’t say as I have. I met him when I went into town to make a report to the law. This no good thievin’ bastard Guy Royal, well, he wanted all the land here abouts for the right away the railroad was gonna run through here. He was givin’ me all kinds of fits, making threats and callin’ in the money I owed on the mortgage and all, but Vin and his friends, well, they stopped him cold. He won’t say so, but I just know it was Vin’s idea to help me and Casey. Something just kinda hit it off betwixt us. I think I remind him of someone he oncet knew. But he’s always welcome here and comes by whenever he pleases." She sighed again, her coffee forgotten. "He don’t talk much ‘bout hisself. I do know he made a livin’ huntin’ buffalo for a while and he hunted bounty, too." She brought her wise old eyes up to look at the younger woman. "He’s a good man, Lucy. Gentle, kind, quiet and downright shy. The others say he’s a helluva tracker and an even better sharpshooter. The one thing I do know, above all else, he’s a damn good friend and a good man to have backin’ ya."
She sipped at her coffee, wondering if she had a right to warn the young woman about falling for someone such as Vin Tanner. After a long moment, her voice soft, she went on, "Vin stays around, but he’s lost inside himself. Deep down he’s like some wild thing that been trapped and kept for a pet. Iffen ya look close, ya can see it in him. He helps Chris and them others and then he’s up and gone without a word to nobody. Gone out there somewheres." Nettie waved a hand in the direction of the distant mountains hidden in the darkness. "I don’t think he’s hidin’ out as much as he’s finding himself, out there with the sun and the wind and the stars."
"I seen that in him," Lucy softly admitted. "I seen the wild in him, the need to be free to come and go."
Nettie nodded, her estimation of the young woman climbing up another notch. "Ya seen it. Do ya understand it?"
Lucy frowned. "I know you can’t cage or hold a wild thing. It’ll pine to be free and beat itself to death against them bars holding it captive." Her voice went soft, "So you let it be free and wild and just cherish the times when it comes close enough to be touched."
Nettie leaned over to gently pat her arm, her tone sad. "You got it bad, child."
Lucy straightened, her eyes wide, "Got what?" she demanded.
Nettie smiled sadly. "You got it bad," she repeated, not unkindly. "That Vin Tanner don’t even know what he does to folks when he turns those sad blue eyes on them."
Realization hit Lucy. "You care for him, too," she whispered.
"Never had no son of my own..." She trailed off as if she had said too much then brought her eyes up to meet Lucy’s. "Maybe that’s why I’m only gonna say this to you once. You hurt that boy..."
Lucy cut off her words. "I promise you, Nettie. I won’t," she vowed earnestly.
Nettie stared at her, sizing her up, weighing her words and her impressions. She slowly nodded. "I reckon you won’t." She sat back in her chair. "So, Vin’s escortin’ ya to that dance. You got something to wear?"
Lucy shook her head. "Nothing fancy. I didn’t stop to think I’d need something nice."
Nettie moved to pull an old trunk out from under the wall shelf. Dragging it over by the chair where Lucy sat, she swiped at the accumulated dust, and then opened the top. "This was Casey’s mom’s. Casey ain’t big enough to wear ‘em just yet, but I’ve been saving ‘em for her. You look about the right size." She rummaged and pushing several things aside, she carefully withdrew an object, which she held up in the lamplight.
Lucy’s breath caught at the sight of the dress. It was a soft flowing fabric, sky blue with a full skirt cut for movement and a deeper blue vest. She reached out tentative fingers and touched the soft shimmering material.
"Well, stand up, child, and we’ll see if it fits ya," Nettie ordered not unkindly. As Lucy gained her feet, Nettie held it up to her and nodded. "Looks like it was made for you." She shook out the dress and finding a hanger, she hung it on the porch to air.
Lucy shook her head. "I couldn’t..."
"Course ya can," Nettie smiled and laughed softly. "I just wanna see the look on Mr. Fancy Pants’ face when he sees ya on Vin’s arm wearing that." Shooing Lucy’s assistance aside, she gathered their coffee mugs. "You had a long ride. You go on, crawl in there with your little girl. Tomorrow’ll be a big day for both of you."
Stifling a yawn and apology Lucy thanked her and moving Mattie to make room on the bed, she lay down beside her, asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.
Nettie paused in washing the cups to glance through the open door at the sleeping young woman. She nodded to herself. She had been impressed with the young woman when they had delivered the supplies to her earlier that month. Now she had to admire the young woman’s spunk and determination. She knew first hand what it was like to try and keep a place going and how difficult it was to raise a child alone. In addition, how difficult it was to love someone wild and free.
It was mid morning when Vin returned and Nettie frowned. Didn’t that boy ever take off that old coat? He gave her a small smile as he hitched his horse and bound up the steps. "Mornin’, Nettie."
She nodded in greeting.
"Ya goin’ ta town fer the doin’s?" he questioned as he leaned against the porch rail, thumbs hitched in his belt.
"Been to one dance, you been to them all."
"I reckon so, but..." He trailed off as Lucy stepped out onto the porch. His eyes widened and his smile lit his eyes. "Mornin’, Miz Garth."
"Pshaw," Nettie growled. "Miz... my backside. You know her name’s Lucy."
Vin compressed his lips and looked away as Lucy blushed, totally discomforted by the older woman’s forwardness. However, any other remarks were delayed as a little whirlwind flew from the cabin.
"Vin! You came back!" Mattie wrapped herself around his waist and he smiled down at her as he ruffled her hair.
"I told ya I’d be back."
She stepped back, frowning. "You told Momma. I’s asleep and you snuck away," she accused him.
Vin rubbed his chin. "Well, I knowed she’d tell ya I’d be back... and here I am."
Her frown turned to a beaming smile. "I’m glad!" then in a lowered whispered she leaned close to him and added, "Momma is too, but don’t tell her I told you."
Lucy’s mouth fell open and she stared at her daughter mortified. She finally found her voice. "Mattie!”
Nettie coughed to hide her laughter and gaining her feet, she nodded toward the barn. "Reckon you’ll want to use my horses and wagon." Vin nodded. "As long as you got room for my pies."
Vin’s eyes danced as he nodded. "There’s always room for your pies, Nettie, especially the peach ones."
"You’re not to eat them all before you get to town. Oh, hell," she sighed, "I’ll just ride along to see they get there in one piece. ‘Sides, I just wanna see Mr. Fancy’s expression. You run and hitch up and we’ll be ready shortly."
Vin nodded and bounded down the steps moving for the barn as the three women went inside to get ready.
Half an hour later, they stepped out ready to go. Vin was waiting, standing by the horses, gently petting them. His eyes lit at the sight of Lucy’s dress, but he hurried to assist Nettie, burdened with a stack of her homemade pies.
The older woman climbed in the back and he settled the pies on the floorboards at her feet. Lifting Mattie with a flourish, he settled her beside the older woman. Only then did he turn to Lucy, a shy boyish grin coming to his face as his gaze swept over her. "Ya look nice."
She smiled shyly as she accepted his hand up and the smile remained as he climbed aboard to sit beside her. Clucking to the team, they headed for town.
Nettie pushed her old hat back from her face as they entered town. This was one thing she did not want to miss seeing.
The town was alive with people - ranchers in from the outlying area, town folks, all gathered to celebrate. They were hurrying about or standing in groups, but as in every small town, every eye turned to survey the newly arrived. And Nettie’s face beamed at the surprise she saw on the folks’ faces, especially several of the single females whose mouths actually dropped at the sight of a strange young woman sitting beside Vin Tanner, but they appeared even more shocked by the fair haired child who clung to his arm looking enough like him to be his own daughter.
Lucy smiled nervously and gave Vin a tentative look as he reined up the team. "Vin..."
"’S okay, Lucy," he assured her.
"I...I...I’m not so sure about this..." she began, but he cut her off.
"C’mon, now, I know ya faced worse ‘an this," he chided.
Her tiny smile grew. "I guess I have, haven’t I?"
Mattie tugged on his arm, her eyes wide at all the people and activity. "Vin..." A quaver filled her voice.
"This’s Four Corners, Mattie. Ezra’s ‘round here someplace, iffen he ain’t slithered under a rock." He heard Nettie’s low snicker beside him.
"He is? Can I see him?" Mattie’s attention focused on Vin and the prospect of seeing her friend again.
"Nettie, why don’t ya take ‘em by the jail after ya deliver ‘em pies? I’ll catch up as soon as I tend these horses." He helped them down and handed over the pies before turning to unharness the animals.
And so, clinging to Mattie’s hand, Lucy balanced two of Nettie’s pies in her other hand as she followed the older woman through the crowded street.
Mattie kept dragging her to a stop, happily squealing in delight at the festive surroundings. Red, white and blue bunting, ribbons and banners as well as flags decorated the buildings in profusion. Even Lucy was taken back by the sight.
She stumbled over a rough place in the boardwalk and a strong hand caught her arm, steadying her.
"Easy now, give me those." Helping hands took the pies from her grasp and she looked around to see the smiling mustached face of Buck Wilmington.
"Buck! Thank you!"
"At your service, ma’am. Hiya, Mattie. Hi, Nettie." He spoke to the older woman, smiling, "Ya mean Vin actually let you bring these pies? We figured he’d have them all ate before you got here," he teased, taking the additional pies Nettie carried.
"I did have to hide them from him," Nettie teased back, then questioned, "You seen Casey anywhere in this crowd?"
"Yeah, she and JD were over at the jail about an hour ago."
"Ya see her, you tell her I’m looking for her. You gonna give me those pies or sneak off with them?"
Buck smiled widely. "Reckon you’d best escort me so’s I don’t take off with them."
With a shake of her head Nettie shrugged apologetically to Lucy. "Let me go with him or those pies will never make it. I’ll catch up with you when I’m done." With Buck trailing her, she started up the street, leaving Lucy and Mattie alone.
Mattie tugged on Lucy’s hand. "Where’s Vin? Did he ‘bandon us?"
Lucy glanced down at her daughter. "No, he’s tending the horses." She frowned slightly, "Where did you hear that word?"
"Ezra told me before about his momma ‘bandoned him all alone with his cousins and... and we’re all alone without Vin...”
"Well, he’ll be along shortly." She mulled over Mattie’s words, wondering what else the fancy gambler had told her.
"Oh..." Mattie turned her attention back to the crowded streets, fascinated by all the people.
Lucy’s gaze swept over that same crowd. So many people. She wasn’t use to such noise and bustle. Firmly grasping her daughter’s hand, she started up the street.
She turned at the sound of her name and her eyes widened in surprise as Vin approached them. He had shed his old coat. A new blue overbibbed shirt with the bib half buttoned, was accented by a deeper blue neck scarf that drew out the blue in his eyes. She was amazed at what he kept hidden under that old hide coat.
As he came nearer, Mattie pulled free of Lucy’s grasp and ran to him. He swept her up, settling her on his shoulders where she could see over the crowd.
Continuing to stare, Lucy finally managed to close her mouth. "You look... very nice, Vin."
He actually blushed as he ducked his head. "Aw, hell, ma’am..." He held out his arm to her and as she tucked her hand through it, she couldn’t help but feel the stunned looks which were aimed in her direction by the town womenfolk on the street. Obviously, from the green-eyed looks of jealousy she garnered, Nettie wasn’t the only one in Four Corners affected by shy quiet manners and bright twinkling blue eyes.
They met Nettie coming back down the street and she nodded in approval at the young man. "My stars and garters, son, ya should shuck that old coat more often."
Flustered, Vin was rescued by Mattie who, still on his shoulders, reached down to pull up the brim of his hat. "When they doing the firewords?"
He frowned, looking to Lucy.
"She means fireworks," she explained.
"After dark," he assured her.
Mattie accepted that and turned her attention back to the crowd as the three adults moved through the throng toward the jail. Suddenly she squealed with delight. "It’s Ezra! It’s Ezra!" She shifted and Vin caught her as she scrambled down, pushing through the people to rush to the gambler. "Ezra!"
The gambler paused, then seeing the child, he flashed a bright smile. "Miss Matte!" As she literally tackled him, he gathered her in his arms and spun her around several times. She giggled happily and begged for more when he stopped.
"Perhaps after I extend my warm regards to your mother," he promised, sweeping off his hat as he turned to Lucy. "My dear Miz Garth, you look positively enchanting this fine day." His gaze drifted to her companions. His green gaze settled on Vin. "Why, Mister Tanner, your sartorial selection has greatly improved. It must be the company you are keeping as of late."
"Yep, been takin’ lessons from Chris," Vin drawled lazily, his eyes sparkling as Ezra sputtered.
The gambler finally noticed Nettie standing behind the tracker. "It is always a pleasure to see your face in town, Miz Nettie."
"Even if I am a wizened ol’ crone?" she quipped, adding, "And it’s nice to see you are still full of it, Mr. Fancy Frocks." Her quick smile belied the biting words.
As Ezra knelt down beside Mattie, Vin questioned, "Ya seen Chris and the others?"
Ezra nodded as he regained his feet. "Our illustrious leader was last seen in the vicinity of The Clarion and our other confederates were gathered in the local drinking establishment formulating a plan of action."
Lucy looked from one to the other as she saw Vin’s frown at Ezra oversized words. She finally realized what Mattie meant by Ezra’s fancy remarks.
"Plan fer what?"
"As Mr. Wilmington put it, ‘a plan of action by which they shall take the available females by a storm of charm and grace.’ I might add," he grimaced with distaste, "those are his words, not mine."
Nettie snickered out loud. "Charm and grace from that bunch. I’d say all the females are safe."
"I see we actually have something we both agree upon, Miz Nettie. Those were my thoughts exactly," Ezra remarked to the older woman then turned to Lucy. "I see young Mister Tanner has the pleasure of your company for the moment, but perhaps I might implore upon you to save me a dance later?"
Lucy nodded, "But, of course, Mister Standish."
"I thank you. Now, perhaps, with your kind permission, Miss Mattie might like to join me for a short while. I believe one of the locals has procured a machine for concocting ice cream. It would be my greatest pleasure to treat to her."
Mattie nodded vigorously and Lucy sighed. "Only if she agrees to mind you." She spoke to her daughter. "You mind Mister Standish and stay with him. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Momma. I will." She reached up to clutch the gambler’s hand.
"We shall find you shortly," he offered, tipping his hat. With Mattie clinging to his hand, giggling at some silliness he uttered, they disappeared into the crowd.
Vin turned to see Lucy’s expression and spoke softly. "She’ll be all right. Ezra’ll keep an eye on her," he reassured her.
"I know," she forced a small smile. "Other than when she was with you, I’ve never let her go off with anyone."
"She’ll be fine. C’mon, we’ll go over to Mary’s, see if we can find the others." With his hand lightly against the small of her back, he guided Lucy toward The Clarion office, Nettie walking beside him.
They crossed the street and as they stepped up onto the boardwalk, Vin accidentally bumped into a surly looking man and with a low ‘sorry’ he started to follow the women.
The rough looking man grabbed his arm and spun him around. "I know you. You’re one of them so-called lawmen in this here cow shit town. Heard tell you use to be a buffalo hunter." He wrinkled his nose. "I’m upwind and I still smell the stank on you."
Vin sensed Nettie coming back up beside him and saw her straightened with righteous indignation. "Nettie..." his voice was low.
She ignored him to step up in the man’s face. "I’m downwind of you, you sorry bastard and you reek of ignorance." The man blinked several times as she went on, "I’d slap the dumb outta you, but stupid goes clean to the bone." Turning she marched away, leaving the dumbfounded man to stare at her retreating back.
Her eyes were still flashing fire when Vin and Lucy caught up to her. No one insulted her friends, especially someone as good hearted as the young tracker and got away with it. Not while she still had a breath in her body. "I can’t abide people like that!"
Vin smiled. "Lucky fer that feller ya didn’t have yer carbine."
She looked up at him, seeing the teasing in his eyes and smiled back. "Gotta admit, I don’t have a notch on it for dumb ass yet." She laughed and Vin joined in as Lucy looked from one of the other, shaking her head over what they found so humorous.
They walked on a ways further. "Why don’t you young folks go on and have fun? I see Miz Potter over there and I been needing to speak with her. Go on, have fun." She gave Vin a light shove. "Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t," she teased as she moved to greet her friend across the street.
With her daughter entrusted to Ezra’s care, Lucy turned her attention to the excitement around her. She would never have believed so many people could gather in such a small town. After her years of being on the homestead with just Mattie around, it was all overwhelming and a bit scary, but she felt a firm steady pressure on her hand and knew she wasn’t alone.
Looking up at the man who held her hand so firmly in his, she saw an enigmatic expression on the tracker’s face. "Crowded," he mouthed over the sudden flare of music. He leaned down closer to her. "Wanna dance?"
She nodded and with a bright smile let him lead her to where a crude dance floor was already starting to fill with people.
A small group of musicians with fiddles, guitars, a dulcimer and an empty jug supplied a rousing jig and with twinkling eyes, Vin stepped behind her, tucked her back against his chest with his arm securely encircling her waist, gave a happy little shout and glided across the area. His steps were sure as they wove their way around the other dancers.
Lucy couldn’t help but laugh as they swooped through the crowd. She could feel his hand tucked firmly about her waist, could feel his body moving effortlessly with her, could hear his breathing as his mouth settled somewhere near her ear. She couldn’t help but giggle out loud at his happy laughter and his "Whoa, Bucklin!" as they nearly ran down Buck and his lady friend.
The music ended too quickly for her and they stopped at the edge of the dancers. Her face was flushed and she was breathing heavy as she looked up at her partner. He was staring down at her, eyes sparkling, a boyish grin on his face as the wind teased his hair in the flickering bonfire light.
A slower, more sedate tune filled the air and without a word, he gathered her close, his hand about her waist as she faced him, moving together to a graceful waltz. His steps were sure and strong as he guided her.
Lucy closed her eyes, and gave in to the music and the light pressure of his touch, following him. She hadn’t danced in years and her feet were awkward, but the effortless ease of her partner drew her in, captivating her with how light he was on his feet.
She wasn’t aware when the music stopped, only aware Vin had stopped moving. She opened her eyes and saw the dancers had cleared the floor as the musicians took a short break. She flustered, embarrassed, but the tracker took her hand and escorted her to a small table in the shadows.
"Ya hungry?" he questioned softly.
"Heavens, no!" she laughed.
"Thirsty?" At her nod, he moved away, with a "Be right back," before disappearing in the crowd.
She sat quietly, regaining her breath.
She glanced up to see Ezra approaching. She looked about. "Where’s Mattie?"
Ezra waved a hand across the street. "Josiah took her to play with Billy Travis. I hope you don’t mind."
She shook her head after a moment, "No, that’s fine. I hope she’s not troubling you, Mister Standish."
"Never," he assured her, looking oddly ill at ease. "I trust you are enjoying our municipality’s revelry?"
She nodded. "Yes, very much so."
"Perhaps I could impose on you for the next dance..." he asked hopefully.
She saw Vin approaching, two glasses in his hand. He handed one to her as he nodded to the gambler. "Ezra." He turned to Lucy, "Hope ya like lemonade."
She nodded approvingly as she took a long swallow of the cool liquid. "It’s wonderful."
Ezra looked uncomfortably at the young tracker and back to Lucy before finally speaking to the younger man, "With your kind permission, Mister Tanner, I would greatly appreciate the company of your enchanting companion for a turn across the dance floor."
Vin looked at her questioningly and she nodded as she set her glass aside. Settling in the empty chair, the tracker nodded. "Sure, Ez...." He watched as they moved away, absently gulping his drink as his gaze stayed on Lucy.
The music was another waltz and Ezra gently gathered her, lightly placing his hand at her back, his movements well schooled and polished, the familiar steps taught at an early age to the southern man.
To Lucy, while the gambler’s moves were exact and polished, she preferred the rather wild abandonment Vin injected in his dancing, self taught skill from someone who appreciated music and expressed that enjoyment freely.
Still, Ezra was a good dancer and she enjoyed the gambler’s quiet movements. He said little to her as they circled the floor, finding their way back to where Vin sat as the music ended.
Ezra released her hand and gave her a sweeping bow. "Thank you, Miz Garth. Perhaps I might prevail upon you for another turn about the floor?"
Surprised, she looked at Vin who only smiled and with a slow nod she let the gambler sweep her around the floor again.
On their return, Vin was on his feet and he reached out to take Lucy’s hand, his voice soft, "Believe next ones’s mine, Ezra."
The southerner nodded in difference to him, kissed Lucy’s hand and stepped back to watch as the tracker lead her out onto the floor.
They danced the evening away. She mostly stayed with Vin, but each time one of his friends approached her for a dance, she gave in. Finally, the musicians called it quits and with her hand looped through the young tracker’s, they made their way to the jail to join the others.
As they neared the gathered group, Lucy looked around, her gray eyes settling on Ezra. "Where’s Mattie?"
The southerner started. "Miss Mattie went with Josiah..."
The preacher spoke up. "No, she went with JD and Casey to get something to eat."
"And then she went with Ezra to get more ice cream," Casey pointed out.
Lucy’s eyes flashed. "Where is my daughter?" she repeated.
The men exchanged looks, none of them meeting her gaze and at their silence, Lucy’s face paled. "You’ve lost my daughter?" she questioned, her voice incredulous.
"Hold on, Lucy..." Vin began.
"No, you hold on!" Her voice was frantic as she hurried off the boardwalk. "If you’d held on, she wouldn’t be missing!" She spun and started to run down the street, but Vin grabbed her arm.
"Believe me, she’ll be all right," he tried to reassure her.
She jerked away from him, her gray eyes flashing angrily. "Believe you... believe you... that’s why I’m here and look what it has gotten me!" She hurried down the street, calling her child’s name.
Nettie looked at the young tracker and gently laid her hand on his arm. "She’s just upset, son. You’ll find the child."
Worried blue eyes tossed a grateful look her way as Vin hurried off. The other men exchanged looks and then scattered through the crowd, searching for the small child.
Lucy rushed through the crowd, calling her daughter’s name, her mind racing. She should never have let the child go off with Ezra. Nettie had mentioned the gambler was irresponsible. She should have known better then to trust Mattie to him, even for such a short time. What did any man know of children? What if Mattie were hurt or kidnapped... or worse? She refused to let her thoughts go further. She would never forgive herself. She should never have agreed to even come to Four Corners in the first place. If they had stayed at the homestead…
She stopped in her tracks. If they hadn’t come to Four Corners... She realized for a short while she had enjoyed herself, as she had not in ages. She couldn’t even begin to remember the last time she had been so carefree, laughing and having fun. And dancing… she hadn’t been dancing since before Mattie was born.
From the moment Lucy had realized she was carrying a child, her life had been too serious and hard with no time for foolishness and fun. She had struggled forcefully to keep things going and always at the expense of her own happiness and she was ashamed to admit, sometimes at the expense of Mattie’s as well. But recently... she had never seen the child as animated as when she was around Vin and Ezra.
But Damnit, she had enjoyed the time she had spent dancing with the tracker. He had made her feel special and wanted in a way she hadn’t known in too long a time. When he had held her close and she’d looked into his eyes, everything else faded away, leaving just the two of them in a world of their own with no farm responsibility, no wondering where the next dollar was coming from or how to extend the sugar and flour another week. If she hadn’t come to Four Corners...
A hesitant touch on her arm drew her attention and she turned to see Ezra. His face was pale and he was hatless. He licked nervously at his lips and finally blurted out, "Do not castigate Mr. Tanner. The culpability is mine. I lingered to pass time with an old acquaintance and when I turned, your daughter was no longer at my side. The blame should fall on me. Mr. Tanner would never knowingly harm your child and I veraciously hope you know I, too, would never jeopardize her, irrespective of my obvious carelessness."
She stared at him, her gray eyes flashing. "I... I...I..." She honestly did not know what to say as she saw the remorse in the man’s face.
"We are all searching for the child and I pray she will be found unharmed... I am most sorry and implore your forgiveness."
She suddenly realized how distraught the gambler was and despite her fear for her child’s welfare, she lightly touched his arm. "Mister Standish, please, just find Mattie."
She owed Vin an apology. It was her fault she had pawned Mattie off on the others to give her time with the tracker… She realized that now. In addition, guilt flooded her at her callousness. Still, she had spent the last five years living for her daughter... wasn’t she entitled to an hour of happiness of her own?
As she hurried up the street, she saw a part in the crowd and spotted a familiar blue shirted figure. Dodging people, she hurried toward him and as she drew nearer, he lowered the child in his arms to the ground. Mattie rushed to her, still wearing Ezra’s hat.
As Lucy knelt to gather her in her arms, Mattie hugged her tightly. "Everybody got lost, Momma. I turned around and Ezra was lost."
"Shhh, it’s okay now. See, I’m not lost," she reassured the child.
"I couldn’t find anybody so I went back to the wagon. Ezra said Vin loves that old coat of his and I knew he’d come back for it, so I waited. Only I fell asleep on it and then he found me."
Lucy let out a held breath. She would never have thought to look at the wagon, but Vin… She straightened and looked around, but there was no sign of the long haired tracker. Her gaze scanned the crowd, but saw no blue shirted figure.
Cursing under her breath, Lucy tucked Mattie’s hand in hers and moved up the street, searching the faces of the people who were moving toward the outskirts of town where the fireworks were to be displayed. Her thoughts raced as she realized she had probably destroyed whatever friendship and feeling was growing between herself and the tracker. Granted, she had been distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, but that was no excuse for turning on the young man who had done so much for her and Mattie. He certainly did not deserve to be treated so badly. She looked down at the golden brown head beside her. She had lost faith in the tracker, but her daughter had not. Mattie had known Vin would come for her... with her childlike faith she put all of her trust in him. Lucy realized she could learn a thing or two from her daughter.
Side stepping a happily chattering group on the boardwalk, Lucy glanced up a side alley. She took several steps before what she saw registered. She froze and turned back, searching the alley by the light of the main street bonfires.
Josiah was standing facing her. Standing with his back to her was the one person she sought and so desperately needed to speak to. As she took several steps toward the two, she heard Vin’s words.
"...borrow your horse, Josiah."
"Why?" the preacher questioned softly, not betraying the fact he saw her standing quietly behind the younger man.
"Mine’s out at Miz Nettie’s. Ya see the women home safe and ya can pick yer horse up there."
"You running off, Brother Vin?" Josiah questioned softly.
"Ain’t runnin’...just..just gittin’ too crowded for my likin’...."
Josiah reached out and gently relieved him of the horse’s reins. "Sorry, Brother Vin, I can’t let ya take him."
The tracker stubbornly straightened to his full height as if he was going to take on the larger man. "Aw, hell...I’ll just walk..." He turned to do as he said and walked right into Lucy. Backing up several steps, he fiercely jammed his hat into place. "Aw, hell..." he repeated as Mattie pulled from Lucy’s grasp and ran to him.
Grabbing one of his hands in both of hers, she stared up at him. "Are you ‘bandoning us, Vin?" she questioned, tears in her voice as her chin quivered. "Are you ‘bandoning us cause I got lost?"
"Aw, hell..." he whispered under his breath, as he looked away, chewing on the inside of his lip. He tried to look everywhere, but at Mattie.
The child tugged on his hand. "Don’t go! You promised you’d show me the firewords!" she pleaded.
"Awwww, hell..." He repeated, dragging his free hand across his face. Lucy heard the soft resignation in his voice as he dropped down on one knee beside Mattie. "I ain’t abandonin’ ya, Mattie. I just thought..." His questioning blue-eyed gaze met Lucy’s over the child’s head. "thought ya’d want Ezra ta take ya, so’s... so’s ya can give ‘im back his hat."
Lucy’s eyes welled as she listened to his soft words. He was still giving her an out. "It wasn’t your fault. I shouldn’t have railed at you for what happened. Ezra admitted it was his fault."
She heard Josiah’s soft laughter beside her. "That’s a first, Brother Ezra admitting he done wrong." She was barely aware of the preacher slipping from the alley as she moved to stand beside Mattie.
Vin’s questioning gaze focused on her face as he silently stared up at her, waiting …
Lucy reached down and laid her hand on top of his, held so firmly in Mattie’s grasp as if she were afraid he would leave without her. "I believe, Mister Tanner, if you have nothing more important or pressing, we would both prefer the pleasure of your company for these firewords."
His somber gaze studied her face and as she gently squeezed his hand, he shifted Mattie’s hand to gently grasp hers. A slow lopsided smile formed on his face, touching and lighting his eyes as he slowly stood. "Reckon there’s nothin’ more important than firewords." Bending down, he gathered Mattie in his arms and motioning to Lucy, he started from the alley.
"Vin..." She stepped closer, tucking her arm about his waist. He looked down at her, his expression soft as he draped his arm about her shoulders, pulling her closer to him.
As they stepped onto the street, Ezra hailed them, approaching with a plate in hand. He appeared embarrassed as he proffered it to the tracker. "Miz Nettie gave me strict instructions I was to deliver this to you."
Vin smiled as he lowered Mattie to the street and accepted the plate.
Ezra looked at Lucy, his expression contrite. "If I pledge on my life not to let her out of my immediate sight, would you consent to me taking Miss Mattie to the fireworks display?" His voice and expression were hopefully.
Lucy hesitated. The man had apologized and never one to hold a grudge, she nodded slowly. "On your life… and I don’t wish to send Mister Tanner or Miz Nettie and her carbine after you."
Ezra winked at her, scooped Mattie into his arms and settled her on his shoulder.
Lucy watched them weave through the crowd as Ezra searched for the most advantageous place to view the display then turned back to Vin who stood holding a huge wedge of peach pie. He offered her a bite. It was rich, tart, and sweet on her tongue. A boyish grin broke across his face as he took a bite. His smile widened as he offered her another. "Always loved peaches," he admitted softly.
Rockets climbed into the night sky and exploded, their brilliant light glittered in Vin’s eyes as he bent to lightly kiss her. Lucy could taste the sweetness on his lips and as he pulled away to look at her face, she whispered, "That’s okay, I’ve always loved wild things...."