Lucy Garth swiped at the sweat running down her face as she straightened to look across the corral. It was the fourth time she had whacked her thumb with the hammer. With a low growl, she pitched the offending object into the tool box and gathering the other items scattered about, she headed back to the barn.
Enough! Forget the busted fence. She had hoped the menial task would take her mind off other things, but no such luck. Lucy had stewed and worried for days now and it was just getting worse. She had to know what had happened. All the gambler had told her when he'd returned Mattie safely home, swaddled in his fancy red coat, was that Vin Tanner was still alive. However, Lucy had read the worry and concern in his green eyes and knew there was more he wasn't telling her.
While it had been true Vin Tanner was simply worth five hundred dollars she so desperately needed, the fact he had been willing to sacrifice his own life for that of her daughter was not something she took lightly. If he had died saving her child, she had the right to know. No... She needed to know.
Hitching ol' Mike to her wagon, Lucy led the mule up to the house. She needed to drive to town and pick up a few staples -- if the storekeeper would extend her credit just a bit further -- and hopefully someone passing through would send a telegram to Four Corners for her. As a friend of Tanner's, surely Mister Larabee would know the young tracer's condition. Although she knew she really did not have the money to spare for a telegram, she had to know if the tracker had survived.
Calling Matte, she hurried inside to find the small child playing on the floor with the mother cat and her kittens. The child looked up as her mother entered. "C'mon, Mattie. We're going to town."
Mattie's eyes lit as she scrambled to her feet, brushing herself off. "Can I take my kitten?"
"No, you know better than that. Leave her here and get your coat. It'll be chilly on the way back tonight." As the child clambered to do as she was told, Lucy shooed the cats from the house, grabbed her gun from its rack and bustled the child outside, closing the door solidly behind them. Lifting Mattie up onto the wagon seat, she placed the gun on the floorboard and climbing in beside her daughter and headed Ol’ Mike for town.
As she drove, Lucy could not keep her thoughts from returning to the last time she had been on this trail accompanied by the six men from Four Corners. She could still see Larabee's tightlipped look of consternation when she had first approached him and the sudden relief, which had flooded his hard features when he realized his friend, was alive.
Lucy still did not understand. Try as she might, she had not been able to comprehend how six so very different men had come to ride together. She had good instincts about people and was sure the impressions she had gotten on the ride back to her homestead had been correct. Larabee was the quiet, solid, no-nonsense leader. The mustached one she had first bumped into on the street had a happy-go-lucky air about him, but he seemed to watch over the youngest-looking member of the group like a big brother. The older, gray-haired man had a solemn air about him, reminding her of a preacher who once told her she was going to hell for having Mattie. Lucy had not been able to peg the black man since he really hadn't said anything, yet she had seen his obvious concern for the missing tracker.
Besides Vin Tanner, the gambler was the one Lucy knew the most about. Mattie had rambled on in detail about the man who owned the fancy red coat. How he cheated at cards and could talk the birds out of the sky and how he loved fancy clothes and fancier words, but the child had wisely pointed out he and the others were friends of Vin and that made all of them special in her eyes.
Lucy was still lost in thought as the tired old mule shambled across the meadow and Mattie quietly played on the seat beside her. Not a day had not gone by she hadn't given thanks for her daughter's safe return, but she couldn't help but wonder at what cost. She simply could not bear the thought of not knowing the young tracker's fate. Of spending the rest of her life, wondering if the young man who had saved her daughter's life might be dead.
She had learned little from Mattie. The child had not spoken of what happened other than to say the bad men had hurt Vin, but Ezra and the others had helped rescue them. Lucy knew Vin meant the most to Mattie, but the child loved to talk about the man in the pretty coat who showed her magic with coins and cards. Mattie talked happily of Ezra and Lucy was grateful to the man for somehow sensing the child needed something good to remember from such a terrible ordeal. However, when Mattie spoke of Vin, it was to ask if he was going to be okay and when he was coming back to see them. Questions Lucy did not have answers for, as she did not know herself.
The young woman brought her attention back to the present, noting absently that the old mule was still on the worn trace, no thanks to her wandering mind. Looking up at the clear blue sky, her gaze trailed along the far-off mesa, suddenly focusing on a distant cloud of dust. A frown crossed her face as she glanced down at the shotgun by her feet. Long ago, she had learned never to travel without a weapon.
Ordering Mattie to sit down on the seat and stay put, Lucy watched the dust cloud move closer until she was finally able to discern several riders escorting a wagon. Her frown deepened, wondering what they were doing so far from civilization. Hers was the only homestead for miles in any direction. Her heart leapt into her throat as two riders suddenly broke away from the group, turning their horses in her direction. Pulling up on the reins until the old mule plodded to a stop, Lucy laid the shotgun across her lap and waited, knowing there was no way Ol' Mike could outrun them.
Mattie was suddenly jumping up and down with excitement. "Momma, it's Ezra! It's Ezra!"
Recognizing the bright red coat, which had been wrapped, about her daughter on the child's safe return, Lucy realized it was indeed the gambler Mattie was so fond of. Before she could say a word, her daughter had jumped from the wagon and was running toward the horsemen. Laying her weapon aside she watched, a small smile on her face, as the horsemen reined up and dismounted.
Ezra dropped to one knee, gathering the child in a fierce hug as she threw her arms about his neck and clung to him.
Lucy's gaze was drawn to the other rider who had also dismounted. Clad in a long dusty brown hide coat, his features indistinguishable, shadowed by a gray hat pulled low, he had an air of amusement about him as he stood back, watching the gambler and the little girl.
Her daughter's squeal of delight as Ezra swept her into his arms filled the air as Lucy stepped from the wagon and crossed to greet the gambler and his friend. Ever the gentleman, Ezra lowered Mattie to the ground and swept off his hat. "Miz Garth," he greeted with his slow southern drawl.
"Mister Standish, I'm surprised to see you." Her gray eyes searched his face. Fear washed over her and Lucy suddenly dreaded the answer the gambler's timely appearance had offered. Before her courage failed her completely, she blurted out, "How is Mister Tanner?"
Lucy's heart sank as Ezra cleared his throat, looking slightly disconcerted.
"Mind your manners, child. You know better than to interrupt your elders." Lucy reprimanded her daughter, her eyes remaining focused on the gambler, searching for any sign that what she feared was wrong. "I've been concerned about Mister Tanner's condition. You mentioned he was injured and—"
Mattie giggled, tugging on her hand. "Momma...."
"Perhaps, ma'am, it would be best if you posed that inquiry to Mister Tanner himself," Ezra offered with a smile and wave of his hand as, exasperated, Lucy turned to silence her daughter, only to see the child take the hand of the other rider, pulling him forward.
Lucy's gaze moved to the man's face and her eyes widened in total surprise as she stepped closer to him. Surely….
"It's Vin, Momma! It's Vin!” Mattie's happy cry verified what Lucy's wide-eyed gaze couldn't quite believe.
Lucy would never have mistaken the person standing before her now for the injured person her daughter had found by the creek not so long ago. The dark bruises had faded, the swellings gone, the abrasions healed, revealing the tanned and healthy visage of a handsome young man who spent most of his time in the sun and wind.
Without thinking, she stepped closer, laying an unsteady hand on his arm, as if to confirm he was indeed standing before her, healthy and whole. "Mister Tanner?" Her whisper was filled with disbelief.
"Yes, ma'am." If the lop sided grin did not convince her, the blue eyes twinkling with merriment did. It was indeed Vin Tanner.
"It's… it's good to see you looking so well." She dropped her hand, her cheeks flushing pink in embarrassment at her forwardness.
"Doin' fine, ma'am. And you?" Vin questioned, studying her face.
"I'm fine." Lucy silently added the word ‘now,’ drinking in the sight of him. Her gaze traveled from the top of his battered slouch hat, down over the long curly hair, the blue patterned shirt, the short-barreled Winchester on his hip and back to his face. "I have so wanted to see you."
She felt the blood rush to redden her cheeks again as his eyebrows arched in surprise. "I wanted a chance to thank you proper for what you did."
Ezra hid a smile as the tracker ducked his head in embarrassment, quietly stating, "Aw, hell, ma'am, I didn't do nothin'."
"I beg to differ with you, Mister Tanner. Mister Standish told me you saved my daughter's life."
The look Vin aimed at the gambler clearly said Ezra had gotten him into this and that smiling expression on the con man's face damn well better not mean he was enjoying the tracker's discomfort. "Ya can't b'lieve him. Ever'body knows Ezra lies," he muttered under his breath.
The gambler adopted a mock wounded expression, which promptly vanished when Mattie grabbed his hand.
"That may very well be, Mister Tanner, but my daughter does not, and she verified every word," Lucy assured him. "Therefore, I owe you my eternal gratitude."
Uncomfortable with the idea of anyone feeling as if they were in his debt, Tanner frowned. "Don't owe me nothin', ma'am. Ya and Mattie saved my life. Reckon that makes us even."
"Momma? Momma?" Lucy forced her attention to turn to her daughter who clung to Ezra with one hand and Vin with the other. "Can they come home with us? Pleaassse, Momma?”
"Mattie, I'm sure these gentlemen have other plans." Her glances passed from the gambler to the tracker and back again, her expression becoming one of puzzlement. "Why are you here? I mean this is...." She stopped, flustered. "I'm sorry; it's none of my business."
"Actually we," Ezra motioned to the approaching riders and wagons, "and our esteemed companions were… were on our way to make a delivery."
Lucy frowned. "So far from Four Corners?"
As the riders drew to a halt beside them, Ezra took the opportunity to change the subject. "Miz Garth, I believe you know these gentlemen." He motioned towards the five men she knew as the rest of Four Corners' regulators. "Permit me to introduce Miz Wells on the wagon with Josiah, and her niece Casey there beside JD. This here is Miz Travis and her son Billy."
Lucy nodded acknowledgments before turning to the two men standing at her side. "I don't understand. Where on earth would you be making a delivery around here?"
It was Ezra's turn to look uncomfortable as they all looked to him to answer her. "Well, ma'am, truth be told—" He toyed with the brim of his hat.
"And he doesn't tell it very often," Buck muttered with a wide grin.
Ezra went on as if he hadn't heard the remark. "—we came looking for you."
She let out a puzzled little laugh of disbelief. "Me?"
"As I said, ma'am, we have a delivery to make."
"You are joking."
"No, ma'am. The Lord works in mysterious ways, Miz Garth," Josiah offered as he stepped down from the wagon, moving to stand beside Ezra. "We wanted to show our gratitude to you for helpin' out Brother Vin in his hour of need."
Confused, Lucy searched the face of each man in turn, shaking her head slightly. "I still don't understand...."
Gently taking her hand, Josiah led her over to the wagon.
Lucy's hand flew to her mouth, her eyes wide as she took in the supplies, which filled the back of the buckboard. Shingles, lumber, tools, bags of feed and flour. One basket even contained sugar and coffee. She stepped back, slowly shaking her head. "I-I-...no, I-I can't...ac-accept...I appreciate.… No."
Josiah's voice was soft. "It's bought and paid for, ma'am. Although Nathan hasn't seen fit to allow Brother Vin to exert himself in manual labor, there are still six able-bodied men here willing to work."
Ezra coughed delicately. "Five," he corrected.
Lucy's gray eyes swept over the group. Other than Vin and Ezra, who were barely more than acquaintances, these people were all strangers to her, yet they were here, willing to do what they could to help her, out of some sense of obligation. "I-I didn't do...do anything...."
"Sounds just like Mister Tanner, doesn't she?"" Ezra muttered drolly.
"But I-I —"
"Madame, please accept it gracefully. Mister Tanner spoke of your ...circumstances and this is how we wish to thank you for your kindness to him," the southerner explained, pausing to send Mattie a smile. "As we had to explain to our young friend and I believe Mister Wilmington put it best, although rather crudely, do not look a gift horse in the mouth." Gathering his reins, he stepped into his saddle. "Might I suggest we continue this conversation at the Garth homestead where you gentlemen may begin your labors? Ma'am, if you would permit me the honor, I should very much like to enjoy your daughter's company."
Vin lifted Mattie, settling the child on the saddle in front of Ezra. Ezra gave them all a small two-fingered salute and turned his horse toward the homestead.
Lucy stared at his back for several long seconds, hearing her daughter's happy giggle as the southerner regaled her with some silly story, before glancing at the others, clearly reading the question in their eyes. With a deep sigh, she finally nodded. "I know when I'm outnumbered. Shall we follow Mister Standish?"
Vin assisted Lucy onto her wagon as the others followed after the gambler. Flustered, toying with the leather reins in his hand, he hesitated. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I just wanted ta help in the only way I knew… ta say thank you. I didn't mean ta upset ya."
Lucy looked down on the young tracker, seeing his discomfort and the slight flush of embarrassment on his tanned cheeks. She rested a reassuring hand on his arm. "You didn't. I just have a hard time accepting help from other people."
A small smile flickered across on his face. "I know that feelin'." He swung up into the saddle as she turned the wagon for home and rode along side, neither of them speaking, comfortable in the silence.
Lucy, drying her hands on her apron as she stepped from the house, swept her gray-eyed gaze over the yard, a small smile of contentment settling on her lips. Even though it was nearing sundown and they had already eaten the supper Miz Nettie and Miz Travis had provided, the men were back at work, determined to finish what they could before the light failed.
She saw Buck and JD were working on the corral fence, although the youngest of the seven men was so busy making eyes at Casey, Buck had to reposition the board several times before driving the nail home. Her smile grew slightly as the look on Buck's face was plainly saying it was taking all his willpower not to throw the hammer at Ezra who had seated himself on a nearby barrel and was happily issuing instructions on the proper procedure for repairing fences.
The sounds of hammering overhead drew Lucy's attention to the roof where Josiah and Nathan were laying the last of the new shingles, deep in the midst of what sounded like a philosophical discussion.
Searching for Mattie, she saw the child by the barn where Chris was settled in the late evening sunshine, Mattie on his left and Billy on his right, making repairs on Ol' Mike's leather harness. The children were intently watching his hands, listening in rapture as if he were telling them a fairy tale instead of explaining exactly what he was doing. It suddenly occurred to Lucy her daughter had never before been around this many people in her young life.
Miz Mary and Miz Nettie were settled in the shade, talking and watching the men and children. Lucy had adamantly refused their offer to help with the dishes, insisting that providing dinner was enough and complimenting Miz Nettie's peach cobbler. She had to admit it was the best she had ever tasted, her own included. Lucy couldn't help but notice Mary's eyes were more often than not directed at the barn and the blond man working there.
Lucy's gaze continued to search the yard, her smile fading when she did not see Tanner. With a concerned frown, she moved beyond the corrals and still not finding the tracker, purposefully headed across the meadow to where the hill sloped above the creek.
Her smile returned as she approached, her eyes on the tall, lean figure slouched against the flat rock at the base of an ancient tree whose branches sheltered the slope and nearby bank with cool inviting shade.
This had always been her favorite place on the homestead, but she had not climbed the slope in a long time. It seemed lately she was always too busy surviving to take time to relax and appreciate the beauty of the land. Being there, looking down on her home had only served to show her how the place was deteriorating. With no means to correct the situation, it had been easier to avoid the heartbreaking view.
As if sensing her approach Vin turned and pushed his hat back, letting it dangle down his back by its leather strings. Freed of the covering his long hair shimmered as it moved in the soft evening breeze.
"Ma'am?" his husky soft voice was full of warmth as he studied her face.
"Mister Tanner." She ducked her head from his studious stare.
"Mighty pretty view," he commented, motioning toward the house, barns and corral spread out below them.
"Yes, it is." She could make out the men still going about their work, the sounds of their voices drifting on the breeze.
"I'll leave ya ta enjoy it then." He tugged his hat back into place and turned to go.
She reached out, snagging his sleeve. "Vin, don't go."
He turned back and she dropped her hand as his blue eyes appraised her, waiting. Somewhere off in the distance a night bird began to sing, its plaintive voice sad and lonely in the gathering darkness.
She paced a few steps to distance herself from his direct stare, and then turned. "I...I need to talk to you."
He nodded, hooking his thumbs in his belt and leaning his shoulder against the old tree, his steady gaze never leaving her face.
Flustered, she stepped back several more paces, crossing her arms over her chest, swallowing hard before finally finding her voice, "I owe you an apology, Mister Tanner."
His eyebrows arched sharply as he straightened, but before he could speak, she rushed on afraid of losing her courage. "I-I think you know I intended to collect that bounty. I would have, too, if I hadn't encountered your friends." Angry at herself, she began to pace in short angry steps. "After all that happened, I am so ashamed of myself. I was going to turn you in for money - blood money and you risk your life for my daughter." She brought her eyes up to meet his as her chin began to quiver. "D-Do you have any idea how that's made me feel?" Wetness welled in her eyes. "You risk your life for my child and I was worried about losing the money.... "
He reached out, gently touching her shoulder. "Don't...." His voice was soft. "Don't be hard on yerself, ma'am. We all do what we gotta ta survive." He hesitated, then, "Guilt'll eat ya up inside if ya let it. ‘Sides," a rueful smile ghosted across his face, "I ain't worth that nohow."
She shook her head, her voice filled with disbelief, "How can you say that? What you did for Mattie, for me, Mister Tanner, was a priceless thing." When he did not answer, she went on, her voice muffled. "I know I can't ask you to forgive me...."
He stepped closer and gently tilted up her face until her tear-bright eyes met his. "There's nothin' ta fergive, Lucy."
A shiver raced through her at his use of her name. She could feel the gentle strength in the callused fingers touching her face and for half a heartbeat, she closed her eyes, letting that feeling of stability and closeness wash through her as if somehow she could gather new strength from this man. As her eyes opened, she was staring straight into the azure blue depths of his eyes, mere inches from her own. Her breath caught in her throat as he stepped closer, his hand still cupping her cheek and bent to lightly brush his lips against hers. She closed her eyes, and leaned against his slim length as he gathered her in a tender embrace, holding her lightly in the circle of his arms.
Time stood still as Lucy lowered her face to his chest, feeling the rough fabric of his shirt beneath her cheek. She nestled against him feeling the steady beat of his heart. She could feel his strong arms about her and she realized she had not felt so protected, so loved in a very long long time. She could stay there forever….
Reality returned sharply with the sound of Mattie calling her name. Breaking away, she stepped back, trying to regain her senses as Vin continued to stare at her, a ghost of a smile on his lips. Reaching out he lightly brushed the loose strand of hair from her face as they stood silently staring at each other while the sun slowly sank beyond the horizon, turning the sky to gold, ignoring the call of their names as their friends searched for them.
She looked down at the house and back to the man beside her, his face barely visible in the dying glow of the golden sunset "You're a wild thing, Vin Tanner. I tried planting wild things, but they didn't take to cultivated land and being tended to. There's something out there," she pointed off in the distance where the sun had gone down, "that's a part of them, makes them what they are. You can't bring them home, no matter how much you want to." Her eyes, filled with regret, focused on his face. "Like the wind and the rain and those flowers, you've got that wild in you, Vin Tanner, clean through to the bone."
He stared deep into her eyes, a strange sadness settling over his face as he slowly nodded. "Some things ain't meant ta be," he whispered softly.
She nodded as her eyes welled up, but the tears did not spill over as she softly admitted, "But that don't make ya want them any less."
As the darkness closed in, they slowly moved down the hill. As she walked beside him, he silently draped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer.
"Sometimes, wild things just need the right person to tame 'em." The quiet Texas drawl brought a smile to Lucy's lips.
She quietly tucked her arm about his waist. And for the moment, the unbearable loneliness which was such an unrelentless companion didn't seem as dark to either of them any more.