To Read, or Not to Read...

by Helen Adams

January 2005 Challenge by Katherine: Write a story in which euphemisms figure prominently. Begin or end the story with one, or sprinkle them throughout the story, just be sure to use at least one.

Minor spoilers to the episode "Achilles"

Moved to Blackraptor November 2009

I wish I hadn't laughed at him. I wish I could explain why I feel so terribly, lower than a snakeís belly at plantiní time, to borrow one of Mr. Wilmingtonís favorite expressions, about having done so.

In my own defense, I didn't know that Vin could neither read nor write. How could I? He's never said anything and he's done a damn fine job of conning us all into thinking he could. Heís pulled off a ruse to rival my best efforts, and that's saying something. I've seen him flipping through the pages of the few books on the shelves of the General Store, seeming engrossed enough to fool anyone into thinking he was caught up in the contents. Why should I have assumed that he was, in fact, studying the letters and trying to guess what those mysterious symbols might mean? I have witnessed him making identifications from the wanted posters in our jail a number of times as well, a skill which I now realize must have come more from recognition of the drawings from his bounty hunting days than any information gleaned from the descriptions written beneath.

Then there is the newspaper. How many times have I seen him enter the saloon of a morning, dropping the latest issue of Mary Travis' weekly publication on the table and making some comment on the headline? He rarely says much afterward, just settles back in his chair with that enigmatic little smile of his and listens as someone reads the articles aloud to the entire assembly, jumping back in as we discuss the relevant matter among us. I had always assumed that he, being such an early riser, had already read the pages and was only waiting for us to catch up before voicing his opinions. Somehow it never once occurred to me that Vin was simply guessing the contents of those headlines based upon his knowledge of local events and shrewd guesswork as to what Mary would find newsworthy.

I thought it strange the other night that Vin would request my assistance to write out a poem. Had I not been so firmly locked in the arms of inebriation and my own troubles, I might have questioned his motives. As it was, I thought it had to be a joke. Vin Tanner, rough outdoorsman and wilderness native, writing poetry? How ridiculous it seemed, and still seems now! If I am to be honest with myself, I must admit that I still find it difficult to imagine our local tracker in the guise of a gentleman bard, and even now I can barely stifle the urge to laugh at the very idea. It is only the realization of why he asked for my help that sobers me. It humbles me as well, to know that I by him as enough of a friend that he felt he could trust me to render assistance, even if he did not feel he could share his true motives.

The fact of the matter is, I would still be in the dark about those motives if Mary Travis had not stopped me to ask if I had seen Vin so that she could apologize to him. When I asked what was troubling her, she sighed deeply and said that she wished one of us had told her that Vin couldn't read before she'd gone and made a fool of herself and stirred up bad feelings between them. To say that this shocked me would be a gross understatement, but I did not let on to Mrs. Travis how much her news had affected me. I merely assured her that Vin preferred not to advertise his disability and would calm down as soon as he realized she had meant him no harm. Upon exacting a promise from her not to mention Vin's problem to anyone else, a promise which caused her to blush with renewed chagrin as it sank in that she had possibly blurted a secret to the first person she came across, I went on my way. I had business of my own to attend to with the gambler, Big Lester Banks, and no time to worry about my own shameful action toward a man I have only recently begun to think of as a friend.

Banks has gone now, departed on his merry way with his false leg reattached and his pocketbook several hundred dollars lighter. Without the ability to cheat me by slipping cards in and out of his false appendage beneath the table, our rematch turned out to be a far more equal contest. I did not win every hand, for Banks truly is an excellent card player, but I more than held my own against him and eventually recouped every dollar that he had swindled me out of over the course of the last few days, and made a tidy profit besides. To my immense surprise, Vin stood by to watch the entire match. He joked that he was there to see that an honest game was played because he did not want to take the risk of ever seeing me parade the main street in little more than my skin again. He claims his eyes couldn't take the strain. I might be inclined to take umbrage at such an insult were it not for the fact that I also hear the unspoken words beneath the verbal ones, the words that say he knows that I was not at my best the last time we spoke. I lost control, in more ways than one, and he understands that I could not see beneath the facade he presents to the world.

So now it is my turn to make amends.

Vin seems dubious when I pull him aside so that we will not be overheard and tell him that I wish to speak about what occurred between us that night. He assures me that everything is fine and tries to tell me it was his fault for approaching me when he knew I'd had too much to drink. It stops him cold when I reveal that I know why he asked for my help. Anger steals across his calm expression when I apologize for not having recognized his illiteracy. I stop him from storming out with five little words.

"I know how it feels."

Vin turns slowly to face me; disbelief and suspicion clear in his eyes. "What?"

Glancing around the saloon to assure myself that nobody is near enough to eavesdrop, I close the gap between us and tell him the truth, speaking words that I had never expected to say to anyone. "I knew my numbers before I could walk properly. I could double-deal, count cards, tally figures into the thousands and play a dozen variations of poker by the time I reached the age when most children begin formal schooling. I was helping my mother run scams and con marks on a regular basis before I hit my teens. I was a commodity, Mr. Tanner, a child with a talent for the game whose skills could be traded on when useful to my mother and traded off to a wide assortment of relations when not. I could do most anything with numbers, yet somehow it never occurred to anyone that it might also be useful if I knew my letters."

Shame fills me as I speak the words. Shame for the remembered humiliation of being regarded as some sort of idiot savant by a world full of mercenary adults who found it amusing that I, a well-mannered, well-spoken, card-sharp in short pants, could not read or write well enough to do more than unsteadily scratch out my own name and the letters I.O.U. on a piece of paper when necessary.

Vin must be able to see the truth of those memories in my eyes, for he relaxes. The surprise is still there but his disbelief has given way to an expression of commiseration. "How?" he asks, a note of pleading in his voice that I have never heard there before, but easily understand. "You can write real fine now, judging by them letters you're always scribin' to your ma, and you read easy enough so's I figured you'd been doin' it from the cradle. How'd you learn?"

"Practice," I tell him. "Determination and a great deal of practice. My mother seemed to assume that I knew how to read, in spite of the fact that she had never shown me and that we had never stayed in one place long enough to let me attend school. Since she seemed to expect me to know these things naturally, I felt that it must somehow be my fault that I didn't and that it would only disgrace us both if I were to admit my shortcomings. I became very proficient at hiding them."

"Itís tough," Vin agrees. "Reckon I know a thing or two about hidin', myself."

Pleased that I have him relaxed and talking, I continue. "One day, not long after Iíd turned fifteen, she returned from one of her many solo business-ventures, one which had kept her away from me for a period of several months. She had hardly greeted me before she began to scold me for not having obeyed some directive she had sent me in a letter. I'm afraid my temper was somewhat frayed from having spent those months in the company of a disagreeable relation who seemed to have mistaken me for a beast of burden, and I started shouting at her."

"You shouted at your ma?" Vin interrupts, grinning a bit. "You two got the most "civilized" way of fightin' that I ever saw. Politer than a couple of white-gloved dudes at a September social. Hard to picture you throwin' a fit."

I can't help but smile at his colorful turn of phrase. He is right, though. Mother and I have indeed developed a marked talent for civil disagreements. "I suppose it is, but Iím afraid I had a more difficult time maintaining proper appearances while dealing with the pressure of adolescent emotion, and there was nothing civilized about that particular confrontation. I told her flatly that if she wanted me to obey her letters then perhaps it would be a good idea if she stayed around long enough to teach me how to read them." Now it is Vin's turn to laugh. "You may very well be amused by this, my friend, but let me assure you that Mother was not. She demanded to know what on earth I was babbling about, and after a few more rather unpleasant comments, I finally admitted that I had never learned to read."

"Whatíd she do?" Vinís tone is one of fascination and somehow, knowing that he understands what I once went through makes the shame of that old memory fade a bit.

"Well, to say that she was appalled would be understating the matter considerably. To this day, I am unsure whether she was more disturbed by my lack of knowledge or by her own oversight in allowing the condition to go unchecked. For truly, how was I ever going to pass myself off as a proper gentleman of high society in Mother's cons, particularly as I was now growing old enough to look the part, if I could not so much as fill out a lady's dance-card?"

Vin snorts and the sarcasm in that simple noise easily matches the tone of my question. "Dance card," he grunts. "Now there's a hell of a reason to learn proper scribblin'."

"Yes, well the important thing is that for the next several months I was rarely separated from my mother's side as she bought a set of simple grade-school primers and sternly oversaw my absorption of their contents. Once I had the basics down, I spent several hours per day, seven days a week being made to study every written text we could get our hands on. Though it was not her usual way, Mother could not conceive of my disgraceful lack of education becoming public knowledge, so she tended to my instruction personally until I was entirely proficient in grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, word recognition and composition. By the time I had progressed to her satisfaction, Mother and I were thoroughly tired of each other's company and I was delivered to a private tutor for the remainder of my fifteenth year." I shake my head as I remember that time and the ordeal of several years' worth of education being crammed into a few short months. "I hated it at first, but it was worthwhile just to feel that I was finally equal to those around me. And in time I developed a considerable love of books, which I hold to this day. Unfortunately, that time also planted the seed of my mother's ongoing obsession toward keeping my skills sharp and my God-given talents flexible. I believe it stunned her that I had managed to keep my lack of education a secret for so long. I have never fully understood how she must have felt until now."

For a while, neither of us speaks. I have done my part and offered an opening to Vin and now the next step is his, if he will take it. We have moved to the comfort of a table and for a few moments, I watch as Vin takes out his pocketknife and thoughtfully carves a design into the scarred wooden tabletop as he ponders my words. Finally, he speaks. "Mary says she'll teach me to read, if'n I want her to. I been thinkin' on it. Wouldn't be a bad thing, bein' able to while away a stretch of time with a book, or one of them newspapers of hers. Reckon I might like bein' able to scratch out a letter, too, assumin' I ever had somebody to send it to. You think, if I try real hard, I'll be able to pick it up good as you did in a few months' time?"

"I'm sure that you could. You're a smart man," I say simply. I wait a moment, considering the wisdom of the offer I have impulsively wanted to extend several times during the course of our conversation and have only held back through sheerest will power. Finally, I decide that he is hoping I will say the very words I have resisted speaking and I give in to them. "I kept those old primers, as a reminder to myself that a man can achieve anything if he is determined enough. I would be pleased to offer them as a supplement to Mary's tutelage, if you wish."

His brow wrinkles. "That mean you're offerin' to teach me the basics?"

"And more, if you like," I promise, surprising myself with my own eagerness. Not wanting to appear too uncharacteristically charitable, particularly as Vin is not the sort to easily accept charity, I add, "I'm sure we can strike a mutually satisfactory agreement of remuneration for my services."

Vin's eyes narrow and I know he has correctly interpreted my request for payment, but the smile playing about the corners of his mouth also tells me that he knows why I have made that request. "How much you suppose a few months' worth of educatin' is gonna cost?"

I give him my widest smile, the one Nathan claims looks like a 'gator inviting somebody inside for dinner. "It occurs to me that while I am extremely capable with a variety of short range armaments and can fire field artillery with some proficiency, I never have learned to fire a rifle with any sort of accuracy over long distances. Perhaps you would agree to an exchange of services."

"You mean a trade? You teach me to read, I teach you sharp-shootin'?"

"I believe that would be the general idea."

The smile Vin gives me is like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. Reaching out, he takes my right arm in a traditional warrior's grip. As I return his grasp firmly, he nods. "We got us a deal, pard."

I smile back, knowing that I will have no cause to regret this bargain. "That we do. Shall we begin your lessons tomorrow, say, after breakfast?"

"Reckon that'd do just fine. I'll take you out in the hills some time this week and you can start practicing with my spare rifle. Lots of room out there, plenty of targets that don't shoot back, and nobody to notice if you cain't hit what you're aimin' at right away."

He grins at me when I say, "It will just be our little secret, then," knowing I am not truly referring to my shooting prowess.

With a nod, he suggests, "What say you part with a little of that poker money you took off a Banks and we grab us a bottle and talk Inez out of a platter of them frijoles of hers? I suddenly feel like I ain't et for days. How Ďbout you?"

Flipping him a couple of silver dollars, I slouch down in my chair, tipping it back on two legs and affecting Vinís typical attitude of a well-fed cat in a warm pool of sunshine. Tugging my hat lower across my brow, I say in my best imitation of his Texas twang, "Reckon I could eat."

As I knew he would, he laughs and tips his hat to me. And just like that, all is forgiven.

The End


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