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Nettie Wells moved idly among the shelves of the Potter's General Store. She had come to town early to send a telegraph. That done, she had decided to allow herself the luxury of a little aimless browsing through the store and greeting little-seen friends. The bell above the door tinkled and she recognised the deep voice of Nathan Jackson.
"Good morning Mrs Potter. Mrs Wells," Nathan added, when he realised that there was another customer in the store.
"Good morning to you Mr Jackson. I hope you'll be having a quiet day. You seem to be rushing around for everyone lately." Gloria Potter knew their town healer had been kept busy in the last week as her store was the hub of town news and gossip.
"Clinic's empty and no out-of-town visits, so I'd like to get a few supplies while things are quiet," Nathan explained. "Can't hope that it'll last too long considering who I work with," he added with a smile.
Gloria nodded in agreement.
"Yes, you boys do seem to get yourselves into trouble. A certain two a little more often than most."
"They don't just get into trouble ma'am, they jump right into its path. I figure with winter setting in so early, I'll stock up on these items here." Nathan handed a list across the counter.
Gloria Potter was gathering together Nathan's order as the bell tinkled again and Vin Tanner strode through the door.
"Mornin' Ladies, Nathan." he greeted.
Gloria absently reached along the counter a lifted the lid on a jar, pushing it in Vin's direction. A hand reached out and hesitated briefly, debating the merits of the lemon or the raspberry drop before snagging the bright red candy.
Nathan just shook has head at the picture of their tracker eyeing off the candy assortment like he was picking out which bad guy to eliminate.
"Excuse my manners, Nathan. Would you like some candy as well ?" Gloria asked, moving the jar in Nathan's direction.
"No, thank you Ma'am." He turned to Vin who was letting his eyes wander over the store's contents. "You should be looking for a warmer coat now that winter's set in. That hide did you no good last year. You'll get sick again if you do those night patrols dressed like that."
Vin frowned at the attack on his clothes. "Nothin' wrong with what I wear. Its plenty warm enough."
"You were cold last winter, and don't deny it." Nathan insisted, remembering the hacking cough that had persisted for weeks.
"Nothin wrong with a little cold. Winter's supposed to be cold. Its all this town living that makes you soft Nathan." the Texan defended.
Nathan new this was an old argument and one he'd never win. How a person could choose to live with depravations when he didn't have to was beyond his understanding. Nathan had grown up with little comforts, but now that life had changed for him, he made use of everything now available. He knew Vin saw those same comforts, but instead of gathering them in he deliberately ignored them.
Vin wondered if Nathan was going to start into him again . He really didn't want that to happen in front of the ladies. Hell, he really didn't want that to happen at all. He mostly just let Nathan's words wash over him. He understood the healer was looking out for him the best way he knew how, so he would usually wait for the storm of words to end, nod like he'd listened carefully, and go about his life just the way he liked. Vin felt a little bad about treating a friend's concern like that, but in return he tried not to bother Nathan too much when he was feeling poorly. Particularly if he knew it was because he'd ignored Nathan's advice.
Nathan handed over some coins to Gloria Potter and collected his items, waving farewell to the ladies. Vin was relieved to escape any more attacks on his clothes.
"Can I help you with something Vin?" Gloria asked.
"No ma'am. I just saw Nettie's wagon out front and thought I'd see if she needed a hand with loading."
Nettie had been waiting quietly with a few selections from the shelves.
"Thank you Vin, but I'm just picking up a few small items. It's more a social trip to town this time," she assured him.
"I'd best be gettin' along then ladies." They caught a quick shy smile from him as he headed out the door.
"Gloria! Feeding that boy candy at this time of the morning," Nettie chastised her friend.
"A few sweets never hurt anyone Nettie. Let me take those from you." Gloria put the items into a bag. "That'll be two dollars even. Anything else you need today ?"
Nettie considered Nathan's words and looked back towards the bolts of fabric at the rear of the store.
"Have you any woollen flannel amongst those ?"
Gloria disappeared out the back and returned with two bolts of woollen flannel, a brown and a blue.
"I hadn't put everything out yet. Will either of these do ?"
"Blue looks just fine. Make it two yards and some thread for that."
Two days later Nettie had finished her project. It would be a pleasure to hand Vin a gift. She knew he enjoyed the meals she cooked when he stayed on to work around the farm, but this would be different. Just a plain gift, no exchange required. She tied off the thread around the last of the small buttons and folded it neatly away. Maybe just some brown paper. She would give it to Vin before he left this afternoon.
Vin sat on the top step of the porch, resting back against the post, legs stretched out before him. He gazed out toward the horizon, the afternoon sky stretching clear and blue all the way to the foothills. The days had grown short. He really couldn't sit long as he didn't want it to be dark for the ride home. It was too early for snow, but cold enough to be unpleasant for both he and Peso. He wrapped both hands around the coffee cup to warm his fingers and inhaled the crisp air deeply. The wood smoke from the fireplace was hanging in the air, and he imagined he could still catch a whiff of the roast beef from lunch. Food in town was good, but home-cooking just smelled and tasted better. A smile appeared as he realised he now recognised that there was a difference. A clatter came from the back of the house where Nettie and Casey were cleaning up. He'd offered to help, but as usual, Nettie had supplied him with coffee, then chased him out of the kitchen.
"Vin? What are you doing out there in the cold? Get back inside boy."
Vin rolled his eyes but followed the order. He stretched slowly, easing the stiffness from his back, then moved back inside to the dining table.
"This is for you." Nettie placed a flat package in front of Vin.
"What's this for ?"
"It's not for anything Vin. It's just something I want to give you." Nettie smiled at the little frown that was forming between Vin's brows.
Vin was surprised. Folks usually got presents for birthdays or Christmas. He never really celebrated those things. At least not regularly. Maybe Nettie had some occasion she liked to celebrate. Maybe he'd been supposed to get her something. Panic set in and he glanced up quickly.
Nettie had been watching his reaction, a little saddened at his confusion, but also pleased in knowing that she had surprised him. The little frown appeared to be turning into something more serious.
"It's just a gift, Vin. Its not going to jump up and bite you. Open it."
Vin slipped the string off carefully and pulled the edges of the paper apart. His fingers touched the soft wool flannel and he unfolded the blue garment. It looked like a vest and the fabric was soft and warm, not like those stiff fancy vests that Ezra wore.
"You wear it next to your skin. That good flannel will help keep the chill away from your chest this winter. Its thin enough that you can wear it under all those other layers of yours," Nettie explained. "Nathan'll never know," she added conspiratorially.
Vin ran a hand slowly over the fabric. He turned a glowing smile on Nettie. "Thank you." Vin stood up a placed a quick kiss on her cheek. "Thank you."
Nettie was surprised and touched by Vin's response. "You're very welcome," she replied meaning every word.
A MONTH LATER . . .
Silence finally descended as the bullets stopped flying and the panicked horses were calmed.
"Aw. . .no. . ."
Chris turned sharply at the distress in Vin's tone. The normally stoic tracker had a hand clasped to his side and blood seeped between his fingers.
"Vin let me see !"
"No, its just a graze." Chris didn't believe this given Vin's reaction to the injury. He grabbed Vin's shoulders and tried to force him down to sit on the boardwalk. Vin struggled, pulling himself out of his friend's grasp, all the while staring helplessly at the spreading blood. He backed away from Chris and straight into Nathan.
"Let me see that Vin." Nathan could see that Vin was in some pain, but he was still on his feet and the blood oozed from behind his hand, rather than a life threatening torrent. But the tracker's forlorn expression had him hustling Vin away from the gathering crowd and toward his clinic.
Chris turned to see Josiah and Buck had gathered together the remaining gang members. Buck gave a quick nod of acknowledgment to Chris. They would take care of the prisoners while Larabee checked on their friend.
Chris entered the clinic to find Vin now fidgeting and fighting against Nathan.
"Damn Vin, you're wearing more layers than an onion. Hurry it up and get that undershirt undone."
Chris smiled as the tracker tried to delay Nathan and his carbolic as long as possible. As the buttons to the undershirt finally gave way under the trackers fingers, Chris could see yet another layer.
"What the hell is that now ?" Nathan asked of the blue vest now being revealed.
"Keeps me warm," Vin explained. "Kept me warm," he corrected softly.
Chris heard the soft sad exhale and saw his friend's head lower in resignation as he began to remove the garment. The tracker's bloody fingers slipped on the tiny buttons, until Chris pushed them aside in exasperation to unbutton the vest for him. Vin carefully shrugged out of it, moving stiffly against the pain in his side.
Vin held the bloody vest in his hand. He stared at the now stained fabric. Maybe he could get it cleaned and darned. He should have put it away and kept it for special. He'd wanted it to last. It was as important as his coat, made by someone who cared enough about him to take the time and make the effort. Something that was just for him. At the orphanage it was always donations from nameless people, or hand-me-downs from the older kids. This was a gift, just for him. Now it was ruined.
Chris saw the return of the forlorn expression, but couldn't understand why. The tracker's gaze was fixed on the item in his hand. Startled blue eyes came up as Nathan tugged on the bloody vest.
"Put that aside now and lay down. I need to get that graze cleaned out."
Vin still hesitated, pulling the vest in toward him. Chris had never seen the vest before, but he could see Vin's unusual attachment.
"Give it to me, Pard. I'll see if I can get it cleaned up for you. Maybe you can get Nettie to darn it."
"No !" came the vehement response. "I'll see to it."
Nathan had turned his attention to the wound, knowing that Vin had complied with about as many instructions as he was going to. With a damp cloth he began to clean the graze. It was messy and bleeding, but not very serious. It would probably cause Vin some discomfort for a few days, but would heal fine if he kept it clean. Vin may grumble about the healer and his powders and teas, but he was careful himself in dealing with his own wounds. He was careful to avoid infections and Nathan had even seen the results of Vin stitching himself on some necessary occasions. But he never rested enough to satisfy the healer. Being injured seemed to provoke Vin into an even more watchful awake pattern. Nathan understood the need to hide illness and injury from the predators of the world. Sadly, Vin was forced to view most of the world as predatory so he doubted that Vin would ever give up such ingrained habits. He soaked a clean cloth in carbolic and pressed it over the wound. Nathan felt the ribs expand under his hand as Vin caught his breath quickly against the burning pain. Nathan had long ago learned to judge Vin's health by his movements, as he'd hide his pain in silence. Nathan finished wrapping the bandage around Vin's lower ribs to keep the pad in place.
"I'll check that, and change it again tonight. Otherwise you're done." He met Chris's gaze and silently handed the younger man's care over to the gunslinger.
Vin sat up, still clutching the vest. He took a breath against the constricting bandages, wincing at the pull of cloth on tender flesh. He looked down to the blue cloth still in his hand. He'd fix it. It wouldn't be quite the same again. Somehow he just couldn't keep the things around him from damage. Things never stayed perfect for him.
He felt the tug on his arm. Larabee wanted him to re-dress. He looked up and read the question in Chris's eyes, the curiosity at Vin's mental wanderings. Vin tried to shake himself from his strange mood but the reassuring smile didn't quite make it to his eyes. He stood slowly and let Chris assist him with the rest of his clothes.
"Vin ?" The question was still there.
"You comin' Larabee." Vin realised he was causing his friend concern. He looked down to the vest and carefully folded it into a small bundle. He'd clean it up and put it away. Decision made, he tried to throw off the melancholy that had struck so suddenly. Maybe not throw off . . .he'd just put it away too.
"A medicinal whisky would be what a real friend would be offerin'," he tossed to Larabee, as he moved toward the door.
Chris could see what Vin was doing and allowed himself to be led down this false trail. Whatever had upset the tracker was being dealt with in Tanner's usual manner. Larabee would watch patiently to see if his friend settled again.
"I seem to recall Nathan has some teas he'd prefer you to drink."
"Larabee, I did mention 'real friend' with that whisky. Only a low-down weasel would be offerin' tea to a dyin man."
"Dying, Tanner? That's hardly a scratch."
"Dyin' of thirst Larabee. Sick man, draggin' himself to the saloon. What kinda friends have I got. Woulda left me lyin' in the dirt but you're too damn lazy to keep steppin' over my carcass. Probably gonna have to pour the drink m'self. Lifin' weights and straining this side...."
The words faded off as the tracker continued his tirade as he headed down the stairs. Chris trailed after him, being educated in the long list of his failures as a true friend.
ANOTHER MONTH LATER . . .
"Now Nettie, you have to stay off that ankle. It needs to be completely rested for at least two days." Nathan Jackson knew his words fell on deaf ears. It had taken all his powers of persuasion to convince the feisty widow to take the cane that she now leaned heavily on.
"If you'll wait a few minutes ma'am, I'll get Vin to take you home."
"I got here all right didn't I, Mr Jackson. No need to be bothering Vin."
"Yer no bother Nettie," came the quiet drawl from behind her.
Nathan flashed Vin a relieved smile, happy to hand Nettie Wells into his care.
"She needs to stay off her feet, so make sure you tell Casey."
"Casey's not . . ." Vin started, only to be interrupted by a finger poked in his chest.
"If you want to help boy, go and bring that wagon." Vin gave Nettie a startled look, but only received a gentle shove toward the street. "Go. Its down by the store, loaded with supplies."
Vin decided it was easier to do as asked, so he headed to the store and climbed onto the old buckboard. He eased it down the busy street and pulled over close to the boardwalk outside Nathan's clinic. He found Nettie waiting, attempting to hide the cane from the sight of passing townsfolk. Vin stepped down then handed the woman up into the wagon. With his passenger settled comfortably, he pointed the team out of town and set them in motion. As he did so, he gently teased.
"Shame on ya for fibbin' to Nathan. Casey's visitin' with the Bellemy girl all this week."
"It was not a fib. I never even mentioned Casey." The reply had come back accompanied by a sharp rap across his knee with the cane.
Vin decided to change the topic now that he realised Nettie was armed and dangerous. He'd have to remember to thank Nathan for that. Vin frowned at the swollen ankle now swathed in bandages.
"What happened? " he asked concerned.
"Just an old woman's clumsiness."
She saw Vin's concerned look and tried to reassure him.
"It was just an accident."
"But it was bad enough to come to town."
"I was coming to town anyway, but when Nathan saw me he wouldn't be convinced that I was fine. It's just a sprain."
"He said two days' rest Nettie."
"And I've got a farm to run."
"You rest and I'll do it."
"You've got duties here. You don't need to be minding an old woman and her chickens."
"Then I'll mind the chickens and the old woman can sit on the porch." Vin cringed at the sight of the cane being raised. "Okay, I'll sit on the porch too. But I'm stayin'."
"You'll sit yourself in this wagon and head back to town."
Nettie saw the grin appear at her words. "That wasn't a yes."
"Wasn't a no."
"It's my house." Nettie nearly cursed as the words slipped from here tongue. She saw the smile abruptly freeze, the flicker that ran through his eyes. She hadn't meant it that way. "You can do the outside work, but I won't have you tramping about in my kitchen. I'm not planning on eating biscuits and beans."
"I do good beans!"
"So you might, but not for three meals a day. I've got perfectly good chicken there waiting to be fried. Set aside some young corn yesterday," Nettie tempted him, keeping her eyes on the road ahead. Vin's mouth watered in anticipation, but then he looked down at her ankle. Nettie felt the hesitation. "Only need my hands to cook, not my feet."
"That's not what Nathan meant by rest."
Nettie could see he was trying to strengthen his resolve. She attacked again. "Yes, surely would be a waste of chicken. Left the bread out specially to dry enough and make the coating extra crunchy. Of course, you could make the crumbs and fry the chicken. Not too dry, but not too slow that the grease soaks in. I do like my mashed potatoes whipped smooth with just a little cream."
Nettie smiled to herself. She watched his shoulders slump, heavy with the culinary burdens. She had him hooked now.
"I clean everything up so you're on your feet as little as possible." Vin tried for a compromise that he could maybe justify to Nathan.
"Of course Vin. Its just a little sprain and Nathan's making too much of it." Nettie kept her smile of victory to herself. Vin wasn't the only one who could get their own way when it came to Nathan's instructions.
Vin sighed. No wonder Nathan had been so quick to hand Nettie over to him. Probably laughin' his ass off back in town. Vin turned his attention to the trail, intent on keeping the wagon away from the jolting ruts to avoid causing Nettie any more pain than necessary. The sky was building into a heavy dark wall of thunderclouds. The rain was still hours away, but Vin set the horses a little faster to ensure he delivered Nettie home safe and dry.
The storm held off until after the evening supper. No amount of Vin's arguing had kept Nettie from her kitchen. Vin felt a little more sympathy with Nathan now. It was as frustrating as hell to deal with folks who just wouldn't do what was best for them. Vin reached his limit of words as Nettie attempted to clear the table. He grasped her gently and steered her toward the chair by the fire.
"I'll clear the dishes. You stay there or I'll. . . I'll. . ."
"You'll what?" she asked serenely, knowing Vin had nothing but empty threats.
Vin looked around for a weapon. Women just didn't fight fair. He couldn't tie her up or threaten to shoot her. Nettie watched as Vin struggled for an answer. She didn't like the evil gleam that suddenly struck his eye.
"I've seen ya make them peach preserves. I've got a real good memory. I just might suddenly remember all those details next time I'm in Gloria Potter's store."
"Clove, cinnamon, a little splash from that brown bottle you keep pushed to the back of the pantry. Don't think those are temperance peaches," he smirked.
"You wouldn't. You'll never see another spiced peach in this house," Nettie threatened hotly.
"Bet I'll be seein' a lot of them at Gloria's."
"That's low boy."
"Low! Nate steals my clothes! Yer forcin' me to do this," he defended.
"Fine. I'll sit, for now. Pass me that mending over there."
Vin decided to make the most of the short win and started to clear off the meal from the table and tidy the kitchen. Thunder rumbled overhead and a heavy gust of wind rattled the window panes. The downpour had started. Vin ran through all the chores in his head. Had he locked everything down? A crash from the barn seemed to answer that question.
"Don't even think about it," he ordered as Nettie started to rise. "It's just something out by the barn. I'll go check it."
"You take that oilskin hanging by the door!" Nettie called over the rumble of rain on the roof. Vin didn't hear, or chose to ignore her as he tugged the door closed against the heavy wind. Nettie waited anxiously as the rain was driven against the windows. A spray of water dampened the floor inside the door as the rain was pushed across the porch and over the sill. This wasn't a bad storm in Nettie's experience and rain was always welcome, but the strong wind could be a problem. Her eyes wandered around her home. She knew she struggled to maintain the farm against the elements but with Vin's help in the last few months she knew her roof and the out-buildings were sound. Nettie saw the damp spreading in front of the door, so she struggled to her feet and carefully moved to the fire to stoke it higher, then headed toward the linen chest.
The fool boy had disappeared into the rain with no protection. He paid her no mind. She was headed back to her chair with an armful of towels as the front door crashed back and a bedraggled figure stumbled across the threshold. Vin leaned against the door to force it closed, then dropped the bar across the back to make sure it stayed secure for the night. He turned to be confronted by a stern faced Nettie Wells.
"What are you doin' wanderin' around ?" He headed toward her to remove the stack of towels.
"Don't you move. I'm bringing these towels over to you."
"Nettie, I'm drippin'!"
"Yes, and you can drip over there and not on the rug."
"You're not supposed to be walkin' around."
"And you're supposed to have that oilskin on. Here." She thrust one of the towels at him and pushed another against the door to stop the driving rain. "Get most of that water off, then get out of those wet clothes."
"I didn't bring any spare. I'm fine. I'll dry off quick by the fire."
Nettie rolled her eyes at his shyness. She knew he'd risk pneumonia before undressing anywhere near her. "Just the outsides then. They're too heavy to dry on you. You've got your winter underthings on haven't you? You can wrap up in a blanket." She smiled as she watched his panicked eyes dart about the room. "Go into Casey's room and change there. Take the spare blanket from the end of her bed."
She saw the shiver run down his frame. "Go!" she exclaimed and settled herself back down in her chair.
Vin reappeared a few minutes later, awkwardly clasping the edges of the blanket around his shoulders in one hand and trying to spread his shirt and trousers out in front of the fire with the other. The blanket slipped from his grasp a few times and at one of those moments Nettie caught sight of a familiar flash of blue.
"Vin, are you wearing that vest ?"
"Yes ma'am. It's been workin' real fine," he smiled. He had relented on his earlier decision to put it away. It was warm and he needed it.
"Come over here and give me a hand up." Nettie knew a sneak attack was the only chance here. As Vin helped her to her feet she slipped a hand between the flapping edges of the blanket and flat again his chest.
"Nettie !" Vin exclaimed, trying to dodge the questing hand as it snaked around to his back.
"You're damp through. Get that vest off. It'll take too long to dry on you."
"You get a chill and I'll have to look after you. There'll be no rest for my ankle then," she warned sternly.
Vin knew his luck. If he dared to defy Nettie it was guaranteed to have him sneezing within an hour.
"Yes ma'am." He gave in gracefully and trudged off again to Casey's room.
Nettie heard the scuffing of feet across the floor in another few minutes. The shrouded figure moved past her to settle down on the floor by the fire. Nettie was accustomed to Vin's careless ways with furniture. She'd banned him from tilting her good chairs back on two legs or setting the chair backward when he sat down. Vin's compromise had been to sit on chairs properly when at the dining table, but to ignore all other furniture in favor of the floor, the stairs, the porch rail.
Nettie settled back to the comforting sounds of the rain on the roof and the crackle of the fire. Vin appeared to have drifted off to sleep. Nettie's eyes fell on the blue vest draped over the arm of a chair. She saw the peculiar catch in the fabric, and curious, she moved and picked it up. Nettie ran her fingers along the ridge in the fabric, caught together in neat, if broad, stitches.
"I'm sorry about that. It still works real well." The quiet voice startled her as she'd thought he was asleep.
"This your work?"
"Yes ma'am. Not really neat, but I do okay."
"You did just fine Vin, but I can straighten it out if you want." Nettie fingered the edges of the slash, her eyes detecting an ominous rusty stain like blood. Her eyes travelled across to Vin to rest where the wound would have occurred.
Vin saw the worry in her eyes. "It was only a scratch. Long healed now," he reassured her.
"Mmm." Nettie probed around in her pile of mending for a suitable needle and thread, then carefully undid Vin's stitching. She started the smooth weave of the darn across the gap in the fabric. Vin watched fascinated as the fire caught the shiny needle as it flickered in and out of the fabric.
"Vin. I'd like to know when you're hurt, how things are with you."
"I've got no right to be worryin' ya over every little thing."
Nettie stilled the needle. It saddened her to think of the child he had been, growing up without anyone to care where he was or how he was. She couldn't undo the years of neglect with a few words, but she could ensure there were no future years that way.
"I'm giving you the right. I want to know you're safe and well." She tied off the last of the thread and handed him the repaired garment. "There you are. It hardly shows at all ."
Vin ran his fingers lightly of the smooth flat darn that now neatly wove over what had been a gaping slash in the fabric. Nettie was right. It was as good as new. He didn't realise how long he'd been staring at the workmanship until a pillow and another blanket were set down next to him.
"Stay in the house tonight Vin. It's too cold and wet to be traipsing over to the barn." Nettie saw that Vin still held the vest. " Is something wrong with it?"
"No ma'am. It looks just fine." He raised his eyes, the honesty in the open gaze caught her breath. "I 'preciate all the trouble you go to."
"I've told you before Vin, it's no trouble. Sleep well."
Vin watched as Nettie limped off toward her bedroom.
"Don't let me catch you walkin' around tomorrow mornin'. I'll look after everythin'," he called to the departing figure.
"We'll see,' came the challenge.
Vin groaned and dropped his head back onto the pillow. Breakfast would be another battle. He rolled to his side and shifted a little back toward the fire. He closed his eyes and started to drift off contentedly. He'd never allowed himself to consider his future. What did the future matter if you were barely surviving today? But here, warm, well-fed, with friends who'd become family, maybe it was worth something now.
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