Vin Tanner eyed the little boy who, with a lace trimmed handkerchief, so fastidiously wiped his fingers after finishing off the last bite of fish. The tracker couldn't resist shaking his head, amazed the child was still worried about his ablutions out here in the wilds.
Tossing the dregs from the bottom of his coffee mug, Vin refilled the cup and settled back against his saddle, content to enjoy the peace and quiet as the sinking sun turned the sky a myriad of brilliant orange, gold and pink.
Needing to escape the confines of civilization for at least a few hours, that morning he’d announced his intentions to spend the day in the hills.
Ezra had said nothing, but the sadness and resignation in the child’s emerald eyes had spoke volumes to the tracker. It was evident the little southerner thought the ex-bounty hunter was riding out because he had grown tired of Ezra’s constant presence.
The tracker couldn’t suppress his grin as he recalled the little boy’s reaction when Vin had arrived in front of the boarding house, leading an extra horse he’d rented from the livery. The child’s dazzling smile had put the sun to shame.
The two of them had ridden out and had spent the morning leisurely exploring the hills and the afternoon fishing in the stream, which cut its way through the mountains. Ezra had asked a million questions and Vin had tried to answer them all, pleased the youngster wanted to know more about the world he lived in.
When dusk began to fall, Vin had stopped in a little clearing by a babbling stream. While he quickly set up a night camp, Ezra had surprisingly cooked the half dozen trout they’d caught to a golden brown. Along with coffee, it had been a most satisfying supper.
Now, his stomach full and his mind at ease, Vin stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles as he sipped at his coffee.
Ezra had risen to his feet and was preparing the bedroll Vin had borrowed from Buck for his use.
Tanner silently watched him, still amazed at the child's self-sufficiency. It appeared to him it was almost as if the boy were afraid to ask for help… of any kind.
Once his blankets were settled just so, Ezra finally sat down with a sigh.
"Ya all right there, lil Pard?" Vin questioned quietly, a hint of concern in his raspy voice. The little southerner had become unusually quiet after Vin had commented it was too late to start back to town.
"Yes, sir." Ezra hesitated, and then admitted, "It's just, well, while I’ve enjoyed the day, I'm not particularly partial to sleeping in the wild."
His thoughts filling with their first meeting just over a month earlier, Vin could well understand the child's dislike. He had to wonder, again, how many times the little fella had been left to fend for himself in a strange, lonely town, or out in the woods.
Tanner's dislike for the woman Maude raised to the fore again, but he firmly pushed it aside. That witch would get her due and Vin had a feeling it would be at Larabee's hand, if she didn’t cross the tracker’s path first.
He took a sip of his coffee, and a question, which had plagued him for some time, came to his lips. "Ez, what do ya know of yer pa?"
The little boy squirmed on his blankets, and made a great show of removing an offending rock from under his backside. "My pa?" he echoed.
"Yeah, yer daddy," Vin clarified needlessly.
The child's thin shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. "Not much," he finally admitted, toying with a loose button on his jacket. “I think he died before I was born.” At least that’s what he wanted to believe. It was easier that way for him to accept the man’s absence, then thinking the man had simply not wanted anything to do with the child he’d sired.
Vin nodded understandingly, not wanting to make it harder on the child by questioning the statement. He swirled the liquid in his cup. "Ya know, Ez, I never knew my pa either."
The little boy stared at him, his green eyes grew wide. "You didn't?"
"Nope. I didn't. He died afore I even took my first step."
Ezra thought on that for a long stretched out moment, then, "Did your momma tell you about him?"
"Yep, she did. A little. She always told me he was a good man and I looked like him. Mostly she just told me "Boy, you're a Tanner…"as if it was some kinda honor ta have his name. She wanted me to be proud a him and proud of who I was."
"Did – didn’t she ever tell you bad things about him?"
Vin shook his head. "Not that I recollect.” Then, “Does Maude ever talk ‘bout yer pa?”
It was a long moment before the southerner chose to answer the sharpshooter’s question, and when he did, his tone was matter of fact. "Maude said my father was a no good shiftless bastard who would steal the pennies off his dead mother's eyes."
Vin cringed, wanting desperately to strangle the woman he’d never even met. "And do ya believe that?" he finally questioned softly.
"I don't know," Ezra responded in the same matter of fact tone. "But… he must have had some positive qualities or she wouldn’t have married him, don't you think?"
The tracker nodded. Anyone who stayed with a witch like this Maude person for more than two seconds had to have the qualities of a saint in Vin's book. Trying to understand the woman’s cold hearted remark, as well as hoping to make things a little easier for the boy, the Texan offered a possible explanation for her behavior. “Ya know, Ez, sometimes when a person dies, the folks who loved them most gets really angry at ‘em.”
“Getting mad at someone for dying doesn’t make any sense,” the child pointed out. “It’s not like they wanted to die… unless, of course, they committed suicide.”
Vin blinked at the boy’s statement, wondering again at the child’s grown up point of view. “You’re right, but, maybe Maude told ya those things because she was angry he left the two of ya alone in the world, even if he couldn’t help it. Sometimes, getting mad is easier than dealin’ with the hurt yer feelin’.”
Tanner waited, as the boy considered the likelihood the Texan might be correct in his assumption.
Chewing at his lower lip, Ezra glanced at the man on the other side of the small blaze before quickly dropping his gaze back to the dancing flames.
“Ezra?” Vin urged, hoping the little southerner would voice his thoughts.
Ezra toyed with his sleeve, and then quietly questioned, "How am I supposed to know how to grow up, if he isn't here to tell me?"
Vin sighed inwardly. Growing up fatherless, he had watched other boys and their fathers… and had envied that which he had never known and could never have and now Ezra was asking for an answer to the same question that had plagued Tanner all his young life.
"I guess the best thing ya can do is find someone ya admire. Someone with good qualities ya think are worth havin’ yer ownself and just try ta be like them,” he admitted.
Ezra considered that suggestion. His Uncle Bradley had plenty of money, but he sure didn’t want to imitate that bastard. He knew JD hoped to be just like Bat Masterson or Chris Larabee and he had heard Nathan talking one day about a doctor he’d worked with for awhile.
“I don’t think I know anyone rich or famous.” Ezra shrugged, as if those were the most important qualities he had to look for.
“He don’t have ta be rich or famous.” Tanner shook his head. "He can be a common ranch hand or just a hard workin’ farmer who does right by his family…” Thinking about the southerner’s sadness over the death of the passengers on the stage, Vin added. “Or even a person ya just spend a few hours talkin’ to on the stage. Don’t have to be nothin’ special ‘bout ‘em at all. Don’t even have ta be just one person.”
"Good. That eliminates Banker McMurty," Ezra remarked, bringing a smile to Vin's face.
The boy was quiet for a few minutes as if deep in thought and then asked, "Who did you look up to, Vin?"
The Texan sipped at his coffee before he spoke. "Been a few… However, there was this feller who helped us out when my ma was dyin'. Pitts was his name…. Hiram Pitts. Short fella, soft spoken, wore glasses."
Ezra snorted. "Doesn't sound like much."
“Yer right,” Vin shrugged slightly. "He wasn't nothin' special, just a store keep. He weren’t rich and while most everybody in town liked him well enough, none of them would a thought of ‘im as a hero, but I sure did. He made sure we always had somethin' in the house to eat, and wood to burn. He always helped carry in the water coz I's no bigger than ya and couldn't tote enough all the way from the well by myself. He didn't ask fer nothin'. He was just there, makin' things easier fer me and my Ma."
"Perhaps he thought she had money, or jewelry, or something of value he could get when she was gone?" Ezra stated bluntly, refusing to believe someone did anything out of the goodness of their heart or without thinking of a future gain.
“We was dirt poor. “ Tanner shook his head. "She didn't have nothin'…. Nothin' ’ceptin’ me."
Ezra rubbed his thumbnail across his lower lip, searching for the angle the storekeeper had been working. "There had to be something he wanted."
"I thought that, too, but he didn't. He took care of my ma's funeral and buryin' and made sure I got to my grandpa’s safe and sound. He didn't hafta, but he did."
The boy snorted, certain the man had intended to gain free labor from the boy, by claiming he had to work off the debt.
"Ya know, I never told no body, but when I got my first real money, I sent most of it back to ol' Hiram in a bank draft. I didn't hafta, and I knowed he didn't expect me ta pay him back fer all he done, but it was just the right thing ta do…" The longhaired man smiled. "And I felt right good 'bout doin' it. Didn’t even tell ‘im who it was from."
"Well, it sounds like you were…" Ezra trailed off, unwillingly to insult the blue-eyed man. Tanner was no sucker or an easy mark. He was just a kind man who always did what he thought was right. To an extent, wasn't what Vin had done for him the same as Pitts had done for the tracker? And as he studied the sharpshooter, Ezra realized he had always been correct in his first assumption that there was much more to the Texan than the long hair, well-worn hide jacket, and dusty breeches.
There were hidden qualities….
Ezra suddenly smiled brightly. Maybe Vin was right. A father figure didn't have to be rich or famous. Maybe he just had to have a gentle soul and caring ways and the youngster was certain if Vin Tanner didn't have the all the exact qualities a boy should look up to, the sharpshooter's five friends were bound to have hidden qualities he could emulate.
Ezra turned his green eyes towards the man sitting on the other side of the fire. "It sounds like some of that Hiram fellow's qualities rubbed off on you," he pointed out.
Vin frowned, then flushed with embarrassment. He gave a small chuckle. "Guess maybe they did at that, li'l Pard, maybe they did."
Ezra smiled widely as he settled back on his blankets. Yes, and maybe if wouldn't be such a bad thing if some of Tanner's qualities rubbed off on him. As he pulled the blanket up over him, he remembered Vin's response those weeks earlier. He knew there was no one else he would pick as a father figure than this man who had already admitted he liked pretending Ezra was his son. Since then, Ezra had wished with all his might that were true....
For now, he could pretend it was.