(Moved to Blackraptor November 2009)
The room was warm, inviting; filled with early afternoon sunlight and a mingling of scents guaranteed to make the nose twitch and the stomach rumble. The table was neatly set with bone china dishes, plain unadorned flatware and tall water glasses, some of which bore scratches and tiny chips that spoke of heavy use. The table itself was covered with a delicate tablecloth of fine Irish lace, topped by sturdy woven placemats and timeworn linen napkins. A large clay pot decorated in a colorful Indian design and filled with fresh flowers stood at the center of the table, its base surrounded by a careful arrangement of dried leaves, fruit and a few cornstalks.
Ezra smiled as he looked the setting over. The mixture of elegance and simplicity, delicacy and strength was a perfect fit to the woman who had arranged it.
Nettie Wells had come to town last week to invite all seven of the town's peacekeepers out to her ranch today for a home cooked meal in honor of Thanksgiving Day. If it weren't for them, she had said, she wouldn't have a roof over her head or a penny to her name come this winter, and if that wasn't something to be thankful for, she didn't know what was.
It had initially surprised Ezra to be included in that invitation. Not that he normally felt his company was unwelcome, but he had gone out of his way to make a less-than-favorable first impression upon Nettie. Something about the feisty old woman’s honest and plainspoken manner, and the way everyone else had practically bowed down in abject respect within moments of meeting her, had created in him a perverse desire to irritate. He had indulged that whim, creating the impression that he was too lazy to lift a finger whenever there was work to be done, and too tightfisted to dole out cash when Nettie’s home was in jeopardy.
Of course, he had eventually loaned her the money, so, he mused; it surely would have been rude and unacceptable to a woman like Nettie to exclude him from this feast when she had invited everyone else.
Crossing both arms over his chest, Ezra walked further into the warm kitchen and then closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. What a wonderful mingling of odors filled this place. Wood smoke and fresh pine, cinnamon and cloves, baked apples and roasting turkey, fresh bread and brewing coffee. They all melded together with other rich and spicy scents that he could not readily identify, but which brought to him a wonderful long forgotten feeling of home.
"Thank you for coming by early today, Mr. Standish," Nettie said, her crisp tone startling Ezra as she walked in behind him. "That lace tablecloth adds a real nice touch."
He turned to face her, shifting uncomfortably as he wondered if his moment of sentimental distraction had been noticed. "I'm pleased to find it such an attractive fit with your charming décor," he said smoothly. "You will remember not to tell anyone where it came from?"
She patted him on the arm. "I gave you my word, though I don't know why it's got to be such a big secret that you done a nice thing."
Ignoring the subtle question in her tone, he flashed his most endearing smile, displaying his gold tooth and dimples to their best advantage. If he had been moody and irritable before, now he would make up for it. Capturing both of Nettie’s work worn hands in his own, he kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you for inviting me to partake in this joyous occasion, ma’am. It was most gracious of you."
A flush of color brightened Nettie's face as she pushed him away and scolded, "None of that nonsense now." Her attempt at a severe look failed utterly as he continued to smile at her. "You sure are a charmer when you put your mind to it, aren't you?"
A twinkle filled his eyes. "It's quite easy when one is in such likewise charming company. I so rarely have an opportunity to enjoy the society of such a lovely lady without Mr. Tanner or Mr. Wilmington swooping in to make their own bids for her attention."
He attempted a hangdog expression, then grinned when Nettie placed both hands upon her hips and laughed heartily. "And here I thought I was too much of a wizened crone for a young man like you."
He winced. "I really must apologize for that remark. It wasn't at all becoming of a gentleman."
"Pshaw," she scolded, waving away the comment. "I've heard worse in my time. Got a little favor to ask if you want to make it up to me, though."
Ezra's smile stiffened slightly. He should have known he wouldn't get off so easily. He heaved a silent sigh, seeing menial labor in his future, but said, "Happy to be of service."
Pulling out a chair, Nettie gestured him to take a seat then moved to the sideboard.
Hands safely out of sight in his lap, Ezra fidgeted with the edge of the tablecloth, heart sinking when he saw Nettie withdraw a knife from a box next to the stove. She was going to make him peel potatoes, he just knew it. Then, his eyes widened as a plate and fork were set in front of him, the plate adorned with a plump triangle of apple pie.
"Gloria Potter claims nobody can make this as good as she can," Nettie said briskly. "I aim to prove her wrong, but I need someone to test the first one and make sure nothing is left wanting in the recipe."
Ezra simply stared, making no move to pick up the fork. "Ma'am?" he said blankly.
"Well, dig in," she urged. "What's the matter, did you think I was gonna put you to work peeling spuds or something?"
The sudden flush to Ezra's skin at this echo of his thoughts gave him away, and he quickly ducked his head and turned his attention to the pie as Nettie began chuckling. Hastily cutting off a large chunk of the flaky crust and gooey fruit filling, he shoved it into his mouth to escape the need for a reply.
As the flavor hit his taste buds, Ezra’s eyes widened. "Oh, my."
"Does that mean Gloria has some competition," she asked dryly, "or are you just stuck for a polite way to tell me you hate it?"
Ezra took another bite of the pie, chewing slowly so as to savor the taste. "I'm afraid Mrs. Potter will simply have to admit defeat," he said finally, licking his lips as he reluctantly set his fork down to give proper attention to his hostess. "This is delectable. I haven't tasted pie this good since I was a small boy."
"Well, thank you very much," she said, looking surprised by the sincerity in his tone. Pouring out two cups of fresh coffee from the pot on the stovetop, Nettie took the seat across from Ezra and passed him one. "And who made it for you when you were a boy?"
"My father's mother," he replied, taking a sip of his coffee then grimacing and hastily adding a large spoonful of sugar from the bowl in front of him. Nettie Wells and Vin Tanner had many common traits, and apparently a preference for coffee strong enough to strip paint was one of them. Ignoring the amusement dancing in the old woman's eyes as she calmly took a sip from her own unsweetened beverage, Ezra ran one neatly trimmed fingernail over one of the whorls in the lace tablecloth. "This was hers, you know; my grandmother's. Her mother made it for her as a wedding gift."
Nettie also ran an admiring hand over the cloth. "I could tell it was old. Thought it might be a family heirloom of some sort, given that I wouldn’t have expected a man to own something like this. Not even you."
Ezra frowned, not sure if she was being deliberately insulting or not. Seemingly reading this in his face, Nettie reached forward and touched the lace cuff peeking out from the edge of his coat, raising her eyebrow.
"One must strive to look one’s best," he said blandly.
The old woman simply snorted and took another long sip from her cup. "So, how is it that a rambling man such as yourself managed to hold onto something like this cloth, and keep it in such fine condition?"
"I didn’t," he replied. "Grandmother passed this on to her daughter, my Aunt Caroline, who somehow never found a use for it and eventually gave it to her own daughter. I paid Cousin Trudy a visit not long ago and she gave me a few of grandmother’s things. I was her favorite, you know."
Nettie smiled at the smug statement. "I believe it. So this tablecloth was part of the collection, hm?"
He nodded. "I asked for it. I don’t really know why, it was a ridiculous impulse. After all, how many formal dinners is a person such as myself going to host out here in the great untamed west? It’s been sitting in the bottom of a trunk for months now, but when I received your invitation to come for dinner, I knew I had to offer its use."
"So you rode out here and brought it to me," she concluded. Glancing around her kitchen, at the plain board walls, lightened in spots where the sun’s rays had bleached them; at the sturdy furnishings and timeworn cookware, Nettie shook her head. "I appreciate the gesture but don’t know as it will get much more use than it did before. It’s too fine a piece for everyday use and I don’t have a lot of reason for formal dining."
"Perhaps not," he conceded, then took another deep sniff of the fragrant air, "but it belongs here just the same. Something about this place; the feel of it, the atmosphere, the very scent of it; reminds me of Grandmother. Your home doesn’t look anything like hers, but the first time I entered your kitchen I found myself halfway expecting to find Grandmother standing by the stove, stirring a pot and singing, welcoming me home with a smile just as she always used to when I would visit."
He stopped talking, suddenly uncomfortable with his impulsive revelation.
Seeing this in his face, Nettie reached out and patted his hand. "I’m glad you feel welcome here, son. All of you are welcome to visit, any time you have a mind to. Me and Casey get a little lonesome with just each other to talk to sometimes."
As if conjured by the mention of her, Casey Wells suddenly burst into the house, talking a mile a minute. "Aunt Nettie, they’re coming! I got the extra bag of sugar you asked for from town, and JD told me they’d be out as soon as they get; oh," she stopped, suddenly realizing that they had company. "Hi, Ezra. I didn’t know you were already here."
Nettie stood up, patting Casey’s shoulders. "Mr. Standish dropped by a little early to give me some help getting things ready."
Ezra stood as well, giving the surprised girl a slight bow. "Miss Casey, you’re looking lovely today, as always."
She grinned. "You look real nice too. Everybody does." She turned to her aunt, eyes wide with astonishment as she said, "Vin’s wearing a tie!"
Both adults laughed at this revelation, and then Casey looked back at Ezra and frowned. "Did you really come out here to help Aunt Nettie? In the kitchen?"
Amused by her incredulous tone, he shot back, "You race horses, shoot at targets and engage in other pursuits that are considered ‘man’s work’, don’t you? Why shouldn’t a man be able to help in the kitchen?"
Not giving her niece a chance to answer, Nettie seized Ezra by the wrist. "Come on, then. We need to quit lollygagging and get this supper finished." Her smile became wicked. "How are you at peeling potatoes?"
Ezra sighed. He really needed to learn how to keep his mouth shut around these two.