Two of the three women approaching the depot exchanged grateful looks as the rumble of wheels and the creak of wood denoted the arrival of the stage.
"I'm really sorry you're going to miss Ezra." Mary offered the older woman a sad smile. Thank goodness, for one of the few times since the formation of the stage line, the passenger conveyance had chosen today to be on time. "Perhaps you'll be able to stop back by for a visit after your business is concluded."
Maude Standish sniffed, one hand trying to wave aside the dust raised by the horses. Reaching into her reticule the southern woman pulled out a lace handkerchief, inadvertently dropping an item caught in the cloth, a look of exasperation crossing her face as it hit the boardwalk with a metallic ring.
If circumstances were different, Maude might not have even bothered with the small effort it took to bend and retrieve the object. She had hoped to wrangle money from Ezra to pad her depleted funds, making her trip to Landon a tad more comfortable.
That hope had fallen by the wayside when she arrived in Four Corners the previous day only to discover he was out of town with the other peacekeepers. To her chagrin, she was nearly broke, a situation in life which rarely befell her. All she had was a few dollars, and the pieces of jewelry a paramour had given her. She would have to either pawn them, sell them or use them to stake a gambling pot. At least she'd been able to add a few dollars won from cowhands in last night's poker game to the paltry sum of cash.
"Silly trinket." she muttered, jerking the drawstrings on the bag. "I've meant to have it turned into a brooch and haven't found the proper jeweler to do it."
Lucy Garth's eyes widened slightly at what the woman called a silly trinket. But then, perhaps to some one like Maude Standish, such a grand piece of jewelry as she'd glimpsed was probably nothing more than a mere bauble.
The young woman had never been around anyone like the stylish Maude and was still in awe of the older woman's clothes and accruements. While the family she'd worked for in the city had money, a large house and fine clothes, they had lived modestly and hadn't flaunted their good fortune. When she actually thought on it, Lucy couldn't recall having ever seen her own mother wear so much as a wedding band.
Having spent the previous night at Nettie Wells’, Lucy had left Mattie with the older woman and her niece. Casey was watching over Billy so Mary could finish the latest edition of the Clarion and had assured her it was no trouble to watch her daughter as well and she had accepted the kind offer, knowing it would give the child someone her own age to play with.
Lucy's small homestead was several hours ride from Four Corners as the crow flew, but the young rancher had always chosen to make the much longer trip to the more lawful town of Eagle Bend for supplies which she couldn't get at the much closer crossroads.
That was until she'd discovered a seriously injured ex-bounty hunter by the creek near her home. The sharpshooter and his six friends hired by Judge Travis had brought law and order to the tiny western town.
And she had to smile to herself each time she thought of the shy tracker. He had brought so much to her life and Mattie’s. The choice to help the handsome young man had proven to be the best decision of her life.
Lucy sighed, drawing her thoughts back to her first encounter with Maude. The elegantly dressed Missus Standish had run into her on the boardwalk after Lucy had dismounted from her saddle mare. The refined woman had sniffed as she hurried past, tossing the younger woman a disgusted glance as if Lucy harbored vermin or some contagious disease.
Later that morning, as the young rancher visited with Mary, the con woman had approached and Lucy had been properly introduced, Mary pointing out she was friends with Vin Tanner.
Maude had looked down her nose at the plain dressed young woman with the tangled mass of wind blown hair, "Oh, yes. The long haired uncouth gentleman my dear boy runs with. I am to take it you 'run' with him as well?"
Lucy had bristled. "If you mean am I friends with your son, yes, ma'am, I'm proud to say I am."
Maude had made a disgusted sound and dismissed her, turning her attention to Mary who again, had stressed the men had gone out as a posse to assist in locating the men who had robbed Eagle Bend's bank and that it could, and most likely would, be days or even weeks before they returned.
After much teary eyed posing, Maude had finally decided the pressing business matters that waited in Landon couldn't be postponed and she was packed and ready to leave on the noon stage. Truth be told, although she would never admit it to anyone, she had only stopped at Four Corners in hopes of conning a few dollars from her son as her own funds were seriously depleted.
When the woman had finally climbed aboard the stage and the driver had urged the six up down the road, the two younger women exchanged looks, and relieved sighs. Both couldn't help but wonder if it was the same feeling of relief Ezra must have felt each time the woman left...
Mary looked at the young woman and flashed her a smile. "I do think this calls for a drink..."
They retired to the Clarion office and moved to the neat living quarters which occupied the area behind. Motioning Lucy to a chair at the small table, Mary set about making lemonade.
"Do you honestly think they will be gone for weeks?" Lucy questioned, toying with the sugar bowl which sat in the middle of the table. She had hoped to see Vin while she was in town, but she only had two days. The few supplies she required could be carried in her saddle bags and easily purchased at the crossroads, but she had decided to treat herself with a visit to Four Corners in hopes of seeing Vin and Ezra.
"Good heavens, no! I just said that hoping that vile woman would leave. I know she is Ezra's mother, but she does nothing but stir up trouble every time she comes to town. I figured after being out with the posse, Ezra didn't need to come home and face her."
"She wanted something..." Lucy pointed out absently.
In a perfect imitation of Maude, Mary sniffed as she stirred sugar into the liquid. "She always does. Probably money, or Ezra to join her in some outlandish scheme." She poured two glasses and moved to drop down in the other chair. "I swear, I find it so hard to believe a woman like that could have a son like Ezra." She took a quick drink.
"Of course, I'm sure he was much like her before he came here, running cons and gambling his life away. Glad he finally saw the light. Or at least partially." Mary laughed.
Lucy hid her smile behind the glass as she took a swallow of the sour liquid. She knew Mary was deeply in love with Chris, but there was something in her tone that hinted she cared about the handsome gambler. Lucy felt it as well... there was just something about the southerner which tugged at her own heart and if it hadn't truly belonged to Vin Tanner, she might have given serious thought to the gambler...
"Ezra strikes me as a self made man...." she remarked. ”I'd say everything he has become is due to what he himself has done. It's easy to see that woman sure didn't have a hand in it."
Mary nodded in agreement. "I'd say he has turned out quite well. They all have." She grinned at the younger woman, adding, "…and especially Vin."
Lucy's face colored and she ducked her head, focusing her attention on the glass in front of her.
"Oh, come now, Lucy, don't be embarrassed. It's as plain as the nose on anyone's face Vin has a soft spot for you and I dare say you feel the same towards him, " Mary pointed out, slyly adding, "don't you?"
Lucy bobbed her head, not looking up as she whispered, "Yes, I do."
"Then, what's the problem? You're both adults and both single..... Like me and Chris."
Lucy brought her eyes up to meet the other woman's. "Chris thinks the world of you."
"You think so?" Mary questioned, pleased to see the other woman vigoruously nod vigorously. "You'd never have known it the first time we ran into each other."
"Oh?" Lucy was still learning new things about these friends of Vin's, and he hadn't given any details on Chris' and Mary's first meeting.
"Well, there was a rowdy bunch of drovers in town and they blamed Nathan for their friend dying. Was gonna hang him right out there in the street, until Vin stepped up to stop them, with Chris beside him. Saved Nathan's life... and shot a few men in the doing. I-I wanted to interview them for the paper and they wouldn't have it, so I found some notes in Steven's records, got a tiny bit of information from Buck and wrote my little front page story on the streets of Four Corners running red with blood.”
She paused to take a swallow of lemonade and Lucy waited impatiently for her to continue." Next thing I know, this Chris Larabee--well known shootist, if those notes were to be believed--came into my office and confronted me about the article. I tell you, Lucy, I nearly peed in my drawers when he glared at me with those green eyes, saying he was the bad element I was trying to keep outta this town. And truth be known, he really was... he was everything I stood against.... and yet when he and Vin and the others went out to save that Indian village....
"I know it is a silly thing to say but Chris Larabee's violent ways brought peace to Four Corners. Orrin hired him and the others to keep the law and it was because he knew Chris' reputation would keep the bad element out. I guess somewhere along the way we just got close.... " She shrugged, giving Lucy a small mischievous smile. "Maybe there is something to bad elements after all?"
Lucy laughed. "Maybe...." She toyed with her glass. "Vin... when did Vin come to town?"
"Let me think. It was several days before Chris showed up." She smiled widely, "And the first time I saw him, I thought of the dirty element in town."
Lucy's gray eyes widened. "Dirty?"
Mary nodded, grinning wickedly. "Oh yes! He came limping into town, leading that horse of his, covered with dust and looking like something a coyote had mauled over. Had on that old hide coat he is so partial to and scruffy, his hair was wind tangled and knotted..... I remember thinking he hadn't seen a bath in months! Seems a few miles outside a town, he'd busted an axle on that ol’ wagon of his and he had Yosemite help him fix it long enough to haul it back here." She laughed lightly. "So much for first impressions!" She sobered. "Several days later, I saw this ..." she bit her lip, "handsome blue eyed devil working at Watson's.... "
Lucy shook her head. "NO! Vin worked at the hardware store? No! He never told me that!"
Mary nodded. "Yes, he did. That's when he met Chris. Guess he was flat busted and was willing to work for Watson for spending money..." She sighed. "He sure cleaned up nice." she half joked. Staring at the young woman across the table, her tone became serious. "Vin's a good man, Lucy. You're good for him."
Lucy played with the water ring caused by the wet glass on the table. "Sometimes I wonder. He's so fiercely independent and doesn't need anyone....."
"Oh, yes, he does. He just doesn't know it... Or maybe he knows it and doesn't want to admit it. Admitting you need others can sure scare the hell out of you."
"Ya think that's it?" Lucy questioned hopefully.
"You bet! Vin's had a hard life, and I don't think he's ever had the chance to settle down and love someone... Chris, well, Chris is just scared to love."
"Chris Larabee ...scared?" Lucy scoffed. "Not in this lifetime!"
Mary nodded. "It's sad to say, but Chris is afraid to love. He lost the people who meant the world to him and he's afraid if he ever loves like that again, he'll lose that person as well."
Lucy nodded in understanding. "You mean Sarah and Adam.... Nettie told me about the fire."
"Buck said they should have just gone ahead and buried Chris right along side of them because he died inside that day. He said Chris was walking around dead and was just waiting for someone to bury him. That is until he came here and met Vin and the others." She was silent for a moment, then added, "I think Vin's trust in him that day on the street showed him what it was like to live again.... " She trailed off, and fell silent for a moment, finally adding, "Protecting this town, having those men as friends, gave him a reason to keep going."
Lucy was quiet, sipping at the lemonade, then unable to contain herself, she blurted out, "What did you mean that Vin don't know how to love? Everyone knows how to love. Don't they?" A sudden vision of her own mother flashed in her mind. Well, maybe not everyone, she mentally amended.
"You learn love by being loved.... If you never have been, how can you really know what it is? I dare say Vin, or Ezra for that matter, never had much love growing up. They've both had hard lonely lives. Just look at Ezra. He doesn't know how to trust anyone. And Vin, Vin's always relied on himself. I'd almost believe he convinced himself he didn't need anyone in his life...."
"Everyone needs someone, Mary...." she interjected softly.
"Yes, they do. And I think that's why Vin and Chris meshed... they both needed someone to believe in them. No strings, no judgments. They didn't know a thing about each other. Instead they acted on pure instinct, trust and what they saw in each other's eyes. At least that's what I think. I also think they need someone to show them what they are missin' out on. In Vin Tanner's case, I think that someone is you. And I think he's perfect for you!"
Lucy's face colored again as she took another swallow of lemonade. "You might be right, Mary," she admitted softly.
"Oh, I know I am!" Mary crowed softly, laughing at the young rancher's embarrassment.
They spent the rest of the afternoon chatting about the peacekeepers, the town, and laughing at general gossip.
"I didn't realize how late it was getting to be." Mary finally pushed to her feet. "Now, since our men folk are outta town, we're free, single women tonight. I suggest we go out and have supper."
Lucy stood, nodding. "Sounds good to me. Let someone else do the cookin' and dishes. Lead the way!"
Laughing, the two young women exited the office and made their way up the boardwalk to the diner. It was late and the usual supper crowd had already left. Taking a table by the window, they ordered, then sat and talked some more. Anyone taking notice would have thought the two women had been lifelong friends never suspecting they had known each other only a few months and rarely saw each other.
As they finally finished with their coffee and pie, Mary eyed the rancher. "You're welcome to spend the night at my place."
Lucy dabbed up the last of the pie crust crumbs on her plate. "I-I thought I'd stay ..."
"Oh heavens, you're not planning on sleeping in Vin's wagon, are you? I won't hear of that!"
"No, ma'am, but I thought maybe his room..... Do you think he would mind?" she asked in a rush. Tanner had once told her she was more than welcome to use his room anytime she was in town, but without him being there to give his okay...
"I highly doubt if Vin would mind anything you did..." her eyes twinkled merrily, "except maybe stepping out with some other fella."
Paying the bill, they exited the diner and moved back up the boardwalk, parting company as Lucy headed for the boarding house and Mary for her office. "You stop by in the morning and I'll fix breakfast," the older woman called after her and Lucy nodded, waving goodnight.
Just inside the boarding house's empty parlor, she hesitated, really not sure of what she was doing. She had been there earlier and left her things and gotten Vin's key, but now, even with no one else in sight, she felt out of place, like she shouldn't be intruding.
Hell, her inner voice mocked, you've faced bobcats and villains, Larabee and his crew.... staying in Vin's room for one night ain’t some cardinal sin. It's not like he's gonna be there and you're gonna sleep with him!
Even the landlady had handed over the key to Lucy as if it were as natural as the sun comin' up in the mornin'.
With firm steps, she climbed the stairs and made her way to the tracker's room, unlocked the door and stepped inside, closing the door behind her.
It was small, but clean and neat. Light from the flickering street fires below lit it with a reddish golden glow and provided enough light so she didn't have to light a lamp. She moved about the area, her fingers lingering over Vin's few belongings on the dresser..... Then curiosity getting the better of her, she opened the top drawer.
Several clean shirts and bandanas lay within. She brushed her fingers against one of the shirts and withdrew it. It was blue...like the one he had been wearing the day she had found him wounded by the river....
She sighed heavily, clutching the fabric to her. Moving to the bed, still holding the shirt, she removed her boots and stretched out on top of the quilt. Snuggling against the shirt, and wrapped in the scent and feel of Vin, she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Vin wearily trudged up the steps, saddlebags over his shoulder, his rifle clasped in his hand. They had caught up with the Henderson gang and turned them over to Sheriff Hays, and not wanting to leave Four Corners vulnerable, the men had chosen to ride all evening to return.
Bone weary and saddle sore, dusty, and exhausted, he reached to open the door to his room. He had planned on sleeping in the wagon, but there was a hint of rain in the air and he still hadn't fixed the leak in the canvas top.
He froze, hearing the sound of breathing coming from within the room as he pushed open the door. Shifting the rifle, he struck a lucifer and a lop sided grin came to his scruffy face.
Leaning the rifle against the wall and lowering the saddlebags quietly to the floor, he soft footed closer and looked down at the young woman who was sleeping in his bed.
She was snuggled down in the quilt, his old blue shirt clutched to her chest. Her riding skirt had climbed upwards and one slim bare leg hung half off the edge.
He wasn't sure how long he stood over her, just looking at her peacefully sleeping, then with a sad wistful look, he slowly backed from the room. He wanted nothing more than to stretch out beside her and pull her into the curve of his body, but Four Corners was a small town and he didn't want to be the cause of the gossip and rumors which would circulate around Lucy if he did just that.
Quietly gathering his gear, he hesitated as he pulled the door closed, his gaze softening and a smile ghosting across his face. Maybe some day....
Lucy awoke and was momentarily disoriented by her unfamiliar surroundings. Blinking and sitting up, she saw the blue shirt and a smile came to her lips as she fingered the soft material. Closing her eyes and leaning back, she gave in to a few moments of wistful thinking, then, firmly pushing the blue eyed dream back to its proper place, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed .
Pushing to her feet, she stumbled to the water pitcher and filling the basin, she made quick work of freshening for the day.
Carefully folding Vin's shirt, she tucked it back in the drawer and with a smile, left the room and headed down the stairs to face the new day. Her eyes widened and her smile brightened as she saw the person ascending the steps. "Vin!"
"Mornin', sleepy head," he drawled, his lop sided grin brightening his face as he stopped to wait on her and when she reached the tread above his, he shyly gave her a quick kiss as he turned and tucked his arm about her waist..
"When did you get back?" Lucy questioned softly, seeing the weary lines on his face.
"Last night, late," he admitted.
She stopped, and looked up into his face. "Where did you sleep?"
"Wagon. Was gonna use my room, but found out it t'was already in use,"" he teased, his blue eyes twinkling, as he added, "’Course I coulda crawled in bed with ya..." he trailed off as the young woman's face blushed a bright pink, "but it was a might small fer two..."
She laughed as she lightly slugged his arm.
"How's 'bout I take ya ta breakfast?" he offered.
"I'd love..." She bit her lip. "I can't. Mary invited me over this morning."
Vin snorted softly. "Reckon she's done got all the company she wants this mornin'."
"Oh!" Lucy suddenly realized what he was saying and she blushed again. "In that case, I would be delighted to join you." She linked her arm through his and together they moved towards the dining room.
They ate a leisurely breakfast, quietly enjoying each other's company as they talked about Mattie, Nettie, the men the seven of them had just tracked, up coming events in town, Maude Standish...
The Texan's bright mood seemed to falter slightly at the mention of his friend's mother. "Glad Ez weren't here. That woman's always jerkin' his chain fer no good reason."
"It's a shame, being his mother and all." Lucy murmured softly, remembering her own mother and how the woman had always found fault with everything she did. Maude had reminded her so much of the woman who had driven her out of her own home when she had become pregnant with Mattie. "Some folk just enjoy bein' that way," she added softly.
Vin studied her intently, seeing a sadness settle over her and realized she wasn't just talking about Maude. He reached for the last biscuit and slathered it thickly with rich creamy butter as he changed the subject. "Ya say Mattie's at Nettie's?"
She nodded. "We stopped by on the way in, and nothing do Nettie and Casey she stay. Casey had Billy out there too, giving Mary a break. They're supposed to bring the children back tonight unless I ride out and get Mattie today."
Vin licked the dripping butter from his fingers. "Ya gonna go?"
"Depends." His eyebrows arched as she smiled, "on what other plans might come up."
"I'm sure we could find something...." he promised.
The day passed too quickly for Lucy. After explaining to Mary, who seemed none too surprised at her failure to show for breakfast, the young rancher and Vin headed out for a quiet ride and picnic.
It was a perfect day. Blue skies. Cooling breezes. Good food, each other's company. The times they actually got to spend together were few and far between and this day was all the sweeter because it was just the two of them.
Lucy regretted when they finally had to head back, but the sun was sinking low and she knew Nettie would be in town with Mattie, looking for her.
"Momma! Vin!" Mattie raced up the boardwalk as the young couple headed towards the Clarion office. "Me and Billy gotta see a foal bein' bornd! It was all wet and yucky and Billy threw up!" She threw herself into the tracker's arms. "I'm glad you're back!" she told him as she planted a kiss on his scruffy cheek. "We thought we'd missed you!"
Vin hugged the child, returning her kiss with a quick one on her forehead before she scrambled down from his arms. "I'm glad ta see ya, too." He ruffled her hair as he turned to the gray haired woman who had come up behind the child. "Hi, Miz Nettie." He doffed his hat, and stood holding it in his hands, the wind ruffling his hair.
"Hi, yourself." She smiled, nodding a greeting to Lucy. "Guess you young folk enjoyed a little quiet time, huh?" Her bright eyes were twinkling.
Vin nodded. "Yes, m'am. Had us a picnic, down by the water." he admitted, smiling at Lucy.
"Well, I'm glad to hear it. That Larabee keeps y'all too busy for yer own good. Some times a body just needs time to relax..." She nodded up the street. "I's headed for supper. Care to join me?"
"Ain't hungry, but could do coffee," he suggested and Lucy nodded. Grasping Mattie's hands and swinging her between them, they followed Nettie down the street to the diner.
After one cup of coffee, saying he'd be back later, Vin excused himself and headed for the saloon, leaving the women folk to talk about their gardens, recipes, and other feminine subjects.
As he entered the saloon, the tracker wasn't at all surprised to see Ezra already in the middle of a game, a huge pot of paper money and coins in the center of the table.
The gambler caught his eye and gave him a two fingered salute as the Texan grasped his beer mug and headed for their usual table. "Lady Luck seems to be smiling most hospitably on me, Mister Tanner. Would you care to join us?" He waved his hand towards the empty chair beside him.
"Don't think so, Ez. Thanks anyways." He nodded to the other players and moved on to the empty table by the wall. He sank into his customary chair and leaned back, sipping at his beer, listening to the conversations which swirled around him, but his thoughts were still on the young woman he had left with Nettie.
Perhaps he should have stayed longer. It wasn't often Lucy got to town, and lately, it seemed he couldn't shake the time free to ride out her way. He sighed. Maybe it jist weren't meant ta be, flickered through his mind.
He took another swallow of beer and looked up sharply as the man seated across from Ezra raised his voice shrilly, "...I bought it yesterday in Siler Point off some fancy woman takin' the stage ta Landon. It's gotta be worth that pot and more!"
Ezra remained unflustered, "I seldom play for trinkets, sir."
"She said it was gold!" the man whined, frowning at the item he had pitched on top of the chips.
"Do you believe everything you are told?" the gambler muttered sarcastically, reaching for the object the man had pitched in the pot in lieu of cash. He turned the trinket to the light and saw its dull golden shine. He had to admit, it was a pretty piece of workmanship and wondered why a woman would sell such an object. She had either needed the money desperately or the piece of jewelry held no sentimental value at all.
With a bored shrug, he nodded. "Ten dollars."
The man started to protest, but frowning, he called, and showed his cards, reaching to rake in the pot and grabbing the locket from the pile by its chain.
Ezra spoke softly, "Not so fast, my good man," and as he laid his cards face up, the man paled, seeing the three Aces which topped his two pair. "I believe this is mine," he retorted, reaching for the trinket the man held.
Angry at his loss, the man jerked away, and the golden chain broke, its weak links parting, leaving the chain in the man's hand, and the locket in Ezra's. With a small smile, the gambler tucked it in his pocket and reached to gather the remaining pot. The man glared at him, then swearing, he shoved back from the table and stormed from the saloon.
Drink in hand, the gambler moved from the table and back to where Vin still sat alone. "May I?" At Vin's nod, he pulled out a chair and sank into it.
Vin motioned towards the door with his half empty mug. "Feller weren't none too happy 'bout losin'..."
"A person should learn early on, Mister Tanner, never to bet when an opponent has two Aces showing."
"Maybe his ma never learned him that lesson" Tanner drawled lazily, his eyes twinkling. He took a swallow of beer. "Lucy's in town, her and Mattie. Reckon they'd enjoy seein' ya, if yer of a mind."
The gambler flashed him a bright smile. "Mister Tanner, I am always of a mind to see those two lovely ladies. Shall we?" He pushed to his feet as Vin gulped the last of his beer and leaving the empty mug on the table, he followed the gambler from the saloon.
They found the women, who had been joined by Mary and Casey, after putting Billy to bed, still gossiping as they sat in the cool evening breeze in front of the Clarion office and after exchanging pleasantries with Lucy, Ezra requested permission to take Mattie to the general store. He knew it was closed for the day, but was certain he could persuade Mrs. Potter to allow him to purchase a few pieces of peppermint.
Vin lounged on the boardwalk, his back braced against the support post, listening to the women talking. The other men drifted by, sitting down, talking, then moving on to their various activities, although Chris and JD settled down on the boardwalk as well.
It was quite some time before Ezra and the little girl returned, Mattie's pockets stuffed to overflowing with penny candies and a colorful rainbow's assortment of hair ribbons, several of which she dropped in the street.
As she ran up to Lucy to show her the purchases, Ezra moved to Vin's side and spoke softly. "Mister Tanner? May I have a word with you?" There was an urgent tone in his voice and Chris sat up, but the gambler shook his head. This was only for Vin.
When the tracker climbed to his feet, the gambler nearly dragged him down the boardwalk and around the corner into the deserted alley.
"Shit, Ezra...That's attached ta the rest of me ya know." Vin frowned, rubbing his arm. "Where's the damn fire?" he groused, disgusted at being pulled away from Lucy. "This better be 'portant," he warned.
"I do believe it is. Since it has not been mentioned, and Miss Mattie let it slip accidentally, talking about the cake her mother made for the two of them.... Did you know today was Miss Garth's birthday?"
The tracker's blue eyes widened as he shook his head. "No. She never said nothin'."
"Miss Mattie said she didn't want folks knowing and making a fuss," the gambler explained, hoping to appease the tracker's obvious distress at not being aware of the special day.
"It's her birthday, Ez. That means somethin', 'specially to women folk. Damn!" he swore softly. "Wish I'd know'd so I coulda got her something. She coulda told me..."
"Perhaps that is the very reason why she did not. There's is an old saying about expecting things, Mister Tanner. Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.” The gambler did not state it was the very sentiment by which he had grown up as a child, and one he still put to use every birthday and Christmas.
"Hell, Ez, she's been alone fer a long time and never had nothin' give ta her.'Bout time she had somethin' special ta make up fer all ‘em years." He gnawed on his lower lip. "What's women 'pect on their birthdays?"
Ezra laughed softly. "I'm afraid that is Mister Wilmington's area of expertise. I fear I am sadly lacking in that area. I purchased a book Mattie could give her mother when they return home." He didn't want to cause the woman or himself embarrassment.
"Then what did yer Ma like gettin' fer gifts?"
"Aw, Maude.... the more expensive the better, a sentiment I fear would not be shared by Miss Lucy."
"That's no help, Ez," Vin growled. "What did she like?"
"Oh, Lord. Mister Tanner, I don't know...." Ezra sighed in exasperation. "Clothes, money, perfume, jewelry..." he trailed off, digging in his pocket and withdrawing the object he had won in the evening's earlier game of chance.
"Perhaps..." He held it out.
Vin eyed the item as it glowed in the light reflected from the nearby street bonfire. It was a small golden locket, with a beautifully formed hand carved silver rose on the front. "I can't, Ez. I can't afford...." He touched the locket longingly, thinking how perfect it was for the young lady and knowing it would bring Lucy joy.
Ezra snorted. "Nonsense, Mister Tanner. I have no use for the silly thing. I'll just pawn it, or lose it."
"Ya could give it ta yer Ma," Vin uttered softly.
"And she would definitely just gamble it away, or pawn it as well. It's too fine an object for such callused treatment. It needs to be worn, enjoyed and as the craftsman intended it. I could think of no one more fitting than Miss Lucy to honor that intention."
Vin frowned, his long fingers still rubbing the locket. "It ain't 'zactly practical..." he pointed out.
"I'm sure Miss Lucy has lots of practical things, Mister Tanner. Birthday gifts should be frivolous and impulsive." He turned the locket to the light and studying it carefully, he tugged slightly and the back opened, "And we could engrave it if you like."
"Ya mean like Lucy, from Vin?"
"If you desire." The gambler, having already made up his mind, had removed his pocket knife and using the narrowest blade, from the light of the bonfire, began to etch the letters in the rather soft gold.
Vin frowned as he watched the gambler. "From don't sound right... "
Ezra looked up in exasperation. "I've already etched the 'F', Vin. What do you suggest instead?"
Vin chewed his lip and shrugged. He didn't want to admit he didn't even know what words began with an 'F'
Ezra, aware of the tracker's inability to read, spoke up softly. "There's flawless.... meaning without mistakes." He smiled. "Which I'm sure is how you think of Miss Lucy." He smiled wider at seeing the tracker's face blush. "There's favorable---meaning you hold her in high honor, there's felicity--that means happiness, fervently means with passion... Fidelity... means true and honest, first...you know that one. Forget me not, although there is hardly room for all that...Forever. Foremost...."
"Forever. That means always, don't it?"
Ezra nodded. "Yes."
"Forever... It don’t sound too.... familiar, does it?" He did not want to offend Lucy by being so bold.
"Absolutely not." Ezra shook his head. "It could simply mean you will never forget her." He waited while the tracker mulled over the word. Then with a firm nod, Vin motioned for him to continue... "Forever...."
The gambler quickly finished and handed it to the sharpshooter who studied the three words intently. "Ya really think she'll like it?" he questioned again, nervously turning it over and over in his long fingers.
"I can guarantee she will." He dug in his vest pocket and withdrew his silk handkerchief. "Here, wrap it in this and tie the top.... A woman loves to unwrap gifts." He smiled as he fished one of the hair ribbons Mattie had dropped on the street from another pocket.
In short order the golden locket was wrapped in silk and beribboned with a blue lop sided bow. Vin carefully slipped it in his pocket. "Thank ya, Ez."
"Well, it still needs a chain, but I'm sure Lucy won't mind. We can find one on our next excursion to Bluffton and it'll give you another excuse to ride out and see her. I recall a fine selection of jewelry in a store there." He gave the tracker a slight shove, "Go on, now. Surprise the lady."
The Texan hesitated, his expression earnest as he looked at the gambler. "I thank ya fer this, Ez."
The gambler flashed a wide smile and gave a perfect imitation of his Texas friend. "It weren't nothin', Mister Tanner."
"'Tis so!" Vin countered. "It means a lot ta me, and ta Lucy.... It's her day and yer helpin' me make it special fer her. Don't know how ta repay ya..."
The gambler gave him a wicked smile. "Name your first born after me." He laughed loudly at the tracker's flustered look of utter embarrassment and again shoved him towards the main street.
The two men arrived back on the boardwalk in time to hear Lucy telling Mary and Chris she had to leave on the morrow and should be retiring for the night. Vin gave the gambler a pleading look, and Ezra just shook his head, as he bid the young woman good night and moved off towards the jail.
Exhausted, Mattie had already fallen asleep in Lucy's lap and, insisting she make use of his room again, Vin quietly gathered the child in his arms as Lucy wished the others good night and pushed to her feet. Together they crossed the distance to the boarding house and climbed the steps to Vin's room.
Lucy opened the door and quickly lit the lamp as Vin lowered the child onto the worn old quilt. He took a moment to plant a soft kiss on the child's forehead, then turned to Lucy who was standing at the foot of the bed, watching him.
"Need ta talk ta ya," he whispered, taking her arm and gently steering her out into the hallway, leaving the door cracked open to hear Mattie if she awoke. The room was at the end of the hallway, and he motioned her towards the nearby window. The street bonfires below lit the area in a warm flickering golden glow.
He dug in his pocket as Lucy frowned at him in puzzlement. Withdrawing the silk wrapped object, he took her hand in his callused one. "Why didn't ya tell me?"
"Tell you what, Vin?" she questioned, still puzzled by his actions.
"It's yer birthday. We coulda done somethin' special..."
She laid the fingers of her free hand against his lips, silencing him. "We did," she whispered.
"Here..." He gently closed her fingers about the small gift. "..this is fer ya. Happy Birthday, Lucy."
She looked down, frowning at the blue ribboned silk covered item which rested in her palm. "This isn't necessary, Vin. I don't expect you to ..."
It was his turn to gently silence her with his rough finger against her soft lips. "Hush.... and open it," he urged.
Sighing, she pulled the end of the ribbon and the silk dropped away, revealing the little locket which seemed to glow with a golden light of its own in the dingy hallway. The silver of the rose seemed to shimmer like quicksilver in the pale light.
Speechless, she brought wide eyes to stare at the Texan's face. "Vin...." she found her voice, "I-I can't -- I can't accept this!" She attempted to hand it back to him, but he tucked his hands behind his back, refusing to accept it.
She looked at the locket, a longing flickering across her face. "It's lovely, but I just can't..."
"Ya can and ya will. I want ya to have it, Lucy.”
She started to shake her head again, but found herself staring at the locket, and realized what the long haired man was saying. "Vin...it's too valuable. I can't..."
Her feeble protest fell on deaf ears. His voice was soft as he stepped closer. "Ya gotta keep it."
She pulled her gaze from the gift to look up in his face, puzzlement written in her gray eyes. "Why?"
With a soft smile, he turned the locket over and flipped open the back.
In the flickering dim light, Lucy read the three words etched in the gold. She swallowed hard, fighting the tears stinging her eyes. Three little words.... fourteen little letters that said everything she had ever hoped to hear... and more.
"See, I want ya ta have it Lucy. I can't give ya a future till I clear my name...But I can give ya this...Ta remind ya when I ain't around that someone... loves ya.. .and always will. " Vin's voice was soft as he gathered her in his arms, "Can't take it back now, not lessen I find 'nother Lucy and 'nother Vin," his voice became huskier as he whispered, "and they'd hafta be in love, too... forever...."
Tears shimmering in her eyes, she leaned into his embrace, clutching the locket. "They might be kinda hard to find," she whispered.
He gently cupped his callused hand to her cheek and turned her face up until their eyes met. "Nah, they ain't. They're right here...."
"I promised to love you forever, but I lied.... It was longer."