Learning to Improvise…
Chapter 4

by Katherine

Previous chapters: 1 | 2 | 3

This story takes place roughly two months after Chapter 3. Vin and Ezra have been lovers for just over three months. As before, this chapter is a complete story on its own. However, events of the previous three chapters are referred to, and I would recommend reading those to follow events of this one. As always, words in italics represent internal thoughts.

Feedback: Yes, please. Let me know what worked what didn’t. What you liked or hated. Suggestions for future chapters are always welcomed, but may not actually be used.

Size: Approx. 285K


Vin Tanner rode out of town for his usual morning patrol. Although, he was keenly aware of what was going on around him, Vin was mentally focused on a problem he’d been wrestling with for the past few days. Unconsciously, his right hand rose to pat his chest, reassuring himself that the key to his lover’s room was still there. It rested safely hidden beneath his shirt, securely hanging around his neck from a thin strip of rawhide, just as it had for the past three months.

It was so much more than just a key. Only three days after they had become lovers, Ezra Standish had given it to Vin. It was a genuine, tangible display of trust, love and affection. It gave Vin free access to Ezra’s room, to all that he possessed, and most importantly, to the man himself. That was something, which to Vin’s knowledge, no one else could actually lay claim to. Vin couldn’t help but see it as a symbol of Ezra’s feelings for him.

And there was more that Ezra had given him over the past few months. The wily cardsharp let him make use of his personal library, expanding Vin’s knowledge of the world, as well as giving him the opportunity to practice his hard won literacy. He trusted Vin to handle his books with the respect, and care, such beautiful volumes deserved. He shared his expensive, hard to come by, single malt scotch. He routinely handed out candy to the children he’d been teaching, but always made sure to save a piece or two for Vin, indulging the tracker’s infamous sweet tooth. He tolerantly provided Vin with stories of the places he’d been, never hesitating to regale the tracker with tales of places, and people Vin hadn’t even known existed until meeting Ezra.

Vin had returned the favor, sharing of himself with Ezra, the same way the gambler had with him. Vin had told him stories of his past, educating Ezra on the different tribes, their languages and customs. To his amazement, Ezra had listened with rapt attention, clearly interested in those stories, often drawing comparisons between the tribes and what he called, ‘aboriginal people of other countries and continents’. The tracker had shyly asked Mrs. Anders, the owner and cook at the restaurant, to have pies on hand, always aiming for Ezra’s favorite. He made a point of watching Ezra’s back while he played poker, ensuring this lover’s safety as well as he could.

But what was playing on Vin’s mind was that Ezra didn’t have a key, or more accurately, a token or symbol of Vin’s love, something he could touch, see, and hang on to when everything else faded to a dim memory. Since he’d gotten the key, Vin found himself playing with it, often using it as a center point. His fingers would run over it again and again, helping him balance his thoughts and emotions. Even when they were apart, Vin had this solid, immutable proof of their connection, their love. It was comforting, and reassuring, to a man who’d spent a fair amount of his life with little he could actually hold on to.

Vin’s mother had died when he was five, leaving him essentially alone in the world and on his own. He’d didn’t have much that he could call his own, always moving from place to place. Anything he couldn’t wear, or carry, often got left behind. Vin learned early in life that it was best not to become too attached to places or things. When he rode out of town each morning, every thing he needed to survive, and every thing he valued went with him. With the exception of his friends, especially Ezra, all else he left behind was unimportant, and could be easily replaced.

Ezra’s childhood, despite having a mother, or rather perhaps because of his mother, had been decidedly similar to Vin’s. The others might believe Ezra’s books, wardrobe, and fancy doodads were incredibly important to him, but Vin knew better. Yes, all those things mattered, and were valued, but Ezra could walk away from most of them without looking back or feeling regret. They could be replaced, and had been many times before.

Both men had things they routinely never went anywhere without, aside from their weaponry, there were items of profound sentimental importance. Vin’s knife was one. It had been a gift from a long time friend. For Ezra, it was the pocket watch he always wore. It had been belonged to comrade in arms who’d died saving Ezra’s life at the battle of Antietam.

The tracker knew without a doubt that Ezra would treasure a token of affection from him. And he wanted to give Ezra something. Something that would express how he felt, and would provide for Ezra the same sense of permanence and security that the key to Ezra’s room gave Vin.

There in lay the problem. He didn’t know what to give him. Vin wanted something that would suit Ezra. Something that struck the same chord for the gambler as it did for the tracker. They were sometimes so different, that Vin worried about misjudging what would make the right gift.

It shouldn’t matter, or have even been an issue that Vin debated internally for the past few days. But it did, and it had been. He knew Ezra would appreciate anything he gave him. Ezra didn’t honestly seem to expect Vin to give him any more than the pleasure of his company, his love and his time. And maybe that was why it did matter. Because Ezra gave so much, and expected so little, Vin wanted him to know it was appreciated. That if it was possible, he’d give Ezra the world. All the other man had to do was ask for it, and Vin would do his level best to get it. It never occurred to Vin that his willingness to do so was all Ezra wanted or needed.

The key suited Vin. It was such a simple thing, utilitarian and plain, but Vin had no intention of ever parting with it. Not even if Ezra moved, and it no longer served its original purpose of granting him access to Ezra’s sanctuary. It was his.

Vin sighed heavily. If Ezra were a woman, he could simply give him a ring. It was traditional. Something expected, and readily understood, a symbol nearly as old as the sacrament of marriage. ’Cept we ain’t really married. Well, not in the usual sense anyway. Think o’ us as married. Know Ez does too. ’Sides, Ez already has two rings. Can’t see him wantin’ another one.

Ezra always wore on one hand a plain, unadorned gold ring, which looked like it might have been a wedding band once, and on the other one, he wore a ring set with a square cut ruby. After they had gotten together as a couple, Vin had found himself wondering what had happened to Ezra’s wife, and what sort of woman had captured his heart. He knew something must have happened to her, because the gambler would never have gotten involved with him if the lady in question was still out there. Ezra took the promises he made seriously, and Vin couldn’t see the man ever cheating on a woman he’d promised to love forever. In moments of honest reflection, Vin wanted to know if he measured up to this mystery woman.

So, a few weeks ago, when they were alone in Ezra’s room, Vin screwed up his courage, and asked Ezra, "Ez…want happened to your wife?"

"Wife?" Ezra had raised both eyebrows, clearly confused by the question.

Vin tapped the gold band on his hand, his touch hesitant and wary. Ezra had just smiled, and shook his head, cupping Vin’s face with both hands. He placed a tender kiss on Vin’s forehead, before pulling away giving Vin a smile. The smile was soft, and warm, easing the nervousness Vin had felt. A man’s past was not something to be taken lightly or delved into without a certain amount of caution. Chris Larabee tended to waffle between violent and sullen whenever the subject of his deceased family came up. Vin had been worried that he might have unintentionally trespassed with Ezra by raising the issue.

"I was never married, Vin." Ezra’s tone was as soft and warm as his smile. Green eyes sent messages of reassurance as well. "The ring was ante in a poker game several years ago. It fit, and I kept it."

"Why?" Vin had asked. Ezra didn’t seem inclined to keep other items from the many poker games Vin had observed over the past year. He had wondered what made this ring worth hanging on to.

Ezra shrugged one shoulder, and waved a hand in a vague, meaningless gesture. "Because gold is always good currency, no matter what form it takes. Rings are easy to transport, and this one is unlikely to raise eyebrows, or garner much recognition the way a more distinctive piece of jewelry might."

Vin nodded, understanding Ezra’s logic. He’d seen barter used more often than not in this part of the world when paper money was sometimes suspect. Particularly right after the war. And Vin could readily understand getting rid of a more identifiable piece of jewelry. Not everything offered in a poker game came without a past that was suspect. It made sense for Ezra not to hang on to something that might be traced back to him or attract undo attention. His profession made enough enemies without adding to it.

Vin tapped the ruby ring, deciding since he was already committed to a course of action, he might as well go all the way. "And this one?"

"My inheritance." Ezra stated calmly.

"Your daddy?" Vin had asked, surprised. Ezra never mentioned his father.

"No." Ezra shook his head in firm denial. "My uncle Malcolm."

"The one who taught ya how to use a sling, and a bow? The guy who taught at West Point?" Vin remembered Ezra mentioning the man only once. It was one of the first pieces of Ezra’s past he’d been given.

"The one and the same." Ezra grinned, clearly pleased that Vin had remembered those details. "He left it to me in his will. Evidently, I made a rather favorable impression on the man in the brief time I stayed with him."

Vin shook his head, snapping back to the present when Peso shied at his own shadow. "Knock that off, ya knot head." Vin lightly slapped the horse’s neck in reprimand, easily preventing the gelding from shying any further.

Vin sighed. None of his earlier thoughts really got him any closer to finding a solution to his current problem. He’d considered asking Chris, but rejected the idea. Not that Chris might not have some good ideas. Vin was fairly certain his best friend would have something to offer. But the gunslinger had only courted women. And Vin had a feeling any suggestion his best friend might have simply wouldn’t apply where Ezra was concerned. Same held true for Buck Wilmington. The ladies man might now a great deal about what to give a woman when courting her favor, but somehow Vin didn’t think that would translate will to courting Ezra.

We’re not exactly courtin’ either. Might be easier if we was. Sort of did all that when we was getting ta be friends. Which is s’posed ta the whole point of courtin’ …getting ta know each other. I don’t think flowers or sweet words is what Ez would be wantin’ from me. Ain’t what I want from him, know that much. An’ ya can’t hold any o’ those things in yer hand.

Vin had idly wondered if a woman’s point of view might not be more helpful. Can’t hurt. He wasn’t too far from Nettie Welles’ ranch. Maybe she would have an idea of what he could do. Lord knows I’m not getting anywhere on my own. Jus’ have to find a way to ask that won’t let the cat outta the bag.

So far the only ones Vin and Ezra told about their relationship were Buck and Chris. They had decided early on that simply broadcasting their liaison was not a good idea. The reigning moral code, and Christian sensibility being what it was, neither man felt their romantic involvement would be readily accepted by the townspeople. And both men were aware that it would take just one of their fellow peacekeepers’ disgust, dismay, displeasure, or whatever negative emotion one might care to express, to create an irreparable rift among them. Vin and Ezra had agreed to behave in a sensible fashion toward one another when in public, and to honestly answer questions, if and when, they were asked. They were not going to live a lie, but they were not going to openly subject themselves to ridicule and persecution either. To date, only Chris and Buck had noticed anything sufficiently out of the ordinary to raise the question.

Chris had noticed almost immediately a new closeness between them. But his acceptance had started out as shaky, almost hesitant, and definitely conditional. And had stayed that way until two months ago, when he’d finally come to terms with them being a couple. While a lot of Vin’s anger at what Chris had to say initially had leaked through, Vin had been careful not to let his friend know just how disappointed he’d been. He was equally careful not to let on how pleased and gratified he was to finally receive unconditional acceptance.

Vin had chosen to respond calmly, knowing a matter-of-fact approach would be the best. The gunslinger had needed that time to come around, and realize Vin’s relationship with Ezra was really no different than the one Chris’ had with his wife, Sarah. Vin meant what he said to Chris; it didn’t matter how long he took to get there, just as long as he did. Their friendship remained sound throughout, and was as strong or stronger than it had ever been.

Buck, on the other hand, had been immediately comfortable with the whole situation, something that had amazed Vin. The tracker simply hadn’t expected a confirmed lover of woman to understand his and Ezra’s desire to be with each other. He had expected Buck to find the idea of two men in love with each to be as alien a concept as a man learning to fly. But the tall cowboy had been far more at ease, and more informed than Vin ever thought possible. Buck hadn’t been the least bit judgemental, and much to Vin’s embarrassment, Ezra’s prediction of the ladies man asking intimate questions had been accurate. Whenever Buck could catch Vin alone, he seemed to delight in teasing Vin about his sex life, always attempting to get a rise out of the laid back tracker. So far, Vin had succeeded in maintaining his composure and continued to hold the upper hand, in no small part because he realized Buck’s teasing signaled genuine acceptance.

As far as he knew, Buck had given up trying to get the better of Ezra. The gambler was just too sharp-tongued, and sharp-witted for Buck to ever really stand a chance. Vin couldn’t help but smile thinking there wasn’t anyone in town who really bested Ezra when it came to words.

Vin shook his head, bemused by the whole situation. He might be able to read people well most of the time, but there were still times when they left him completely mystified. Never can tell how people will react ta somethin’. Jus’ when ya think ya got ‘em pinned down they go and jump sideways on ya.

He bit his lip, wondering if he would be able to ask Nettie for her advice without actually telling her about being involved with Ezra. The old woman was special to him. And he respected her opinion. The last thing he wanted was for her to be disappointed in him, or to find fault with his choices. He didn’t think she would be, but there was only one way to know for certain.

Vin ran his thumb thoughtfully across his lower lip. She don’t always think too highly of Ez. But he’s a damn good man, with a lot o’ heart. An’ I think she’s beginin’ ta see that.

Nettie still referred to Ezra as ‘fancy man’. But the term no longer sounded derogatory. When she called him that now, it was almost a tease, closer to a nickname than an insult. Ezra, for his part, seemed to delight in aggravating her by treating her as the lady she claimed not to be, using an almost exaggerated courtesy at times just to get her wound up. He had told Vin once it was fun to see her eyes flash. Ezra said he could picture her as the fiery young woman she must have been. And Vin had to admit his lover wasn’t wrong. Nettie looked, and acted, a good twenty years younger than her age when she and Ezra were verbally sparring.

Know she likes him. Even if she don’t want to admit it. She might not ever see him the way I do, and I guess she ain’t really gotta.

He grinned suddenly thinking that he really didn’t want other people to see Ezra the same way he did. No one else got to see the gambler with his hair mussed up from fingers being run though it, curling wildly in abandon. Or with his clothes in disarray, jacket off and shirt half undone. No one else got to see Ezra’s eyes light up with joy, and passion, all his usual walls and shields temporarily down. Or see his expression so innocent when he slept, his whole body relaxed and at ease. Those were for Vin alone.

Vin forcefully redirected his thoughts. Even if Nettie thought the world o’ him don’t mean she’d be all that keen on my bein’ with a man. Can’t quite figure out how ta ask her what would make a good gift with out tellin’ her I want ta give it to Ezra. I already know I ain’t real good at lying. Maybe I shouldn’t ask her.

Vin sighed. He knew the best person to ask was Ezra, but that would sort of defeat the purpose. Ain’t a gift if ya got ta ask for it. And if I tell him I want to give him somethin’, I already know he’d tell me it weren’t necessary.

Nettie seemed like the easiest person to ask, but he’d never discussed with Ezra letting her know about them. He didn’t really think his lover would object. But Vin knew assuming things was a bad idea. It might be better to wait and talk to Ezra. See if the gambler minded him telling Nettie. But then he couldn’t exactly tell Ezra the truth about why he wanted to tell Nettie about them.

Vin snorted, disgusted with himself. Back to square one. Feel like a dog chasing my tail here. This would be a whole lot easier if I was a better liar.

Still undecided, Vin rode into the central yard of the Welles’ ranch. He smiled when Nettie stepped out on to the porch, her carbine rifle held ready. She was deadly with it, and just as capable as any man he knew. Her tough, unyielding nature was one of the things he liked about her. She was a survivor.

He stopped Peso just a few feet from the porch, and crossed his forearms, resting them on the pommel of his saddle horn. "Mornin’, Miss Nettie."

She smiled in response, setting her carbine down next to the door. "Well, Vin, good ta see ya boy." She waved a hand at him. "Get down, get down. Rest yer horse, and set a spell."

Nettie settled herself on the near by chair as Vin swung out of the saddle easily. He leaned carelessly against the porch pillar, and glanced around for Nettie’s niece, Casey. The teenage girl was usually popping up the minute he arrived, eager to hear about what was going on in town. Not that Vin ever said enough to appease her curiosity. Bet she loves it when Ezra stops by. He knows more’n anybody else what all is going on and don’t mind sharin’ information.

"Where’s Casey?"

Nettie rolled her eyes, and grimaced. It was an expression Vin knew was more for show than anything else. Nettie loved her niece dearly. "Finished her chores early so she could go off riding. Like as not she’ll be meeting up with JD."

Vin raised an eyebrow, noting an odd mixture of tolerant acceptance, and faint disapproval. He knew Nettie liked JD, and thought well of the young sheriff. But she just couldn’t bring herself to openly condone two younger people spending much unsupervised time together. Nettie seemed inclined to take the safety of her ward very seriously. She didn’t want the young lady to end up in the family way at too young an age, or become too serious too fast about the first boy who’d turned her fancy.

Not that JD would do anythin’ ta hurt Casey…but can’t really stop someone from worrying ‘bout their loved ones. Even if the worry ain’t got a basis in fact. Know that from jus’ worrying ‘bout Ez. He can take care o’ hisself, but that don’t me I don’t worry alla time ‘bout him.

"They’ll be fine." Vin said, knowing his statement was unnecessary, and likely to be unwelcome.

Nettie just looked at him, letting him know Casey damn well better be or there would be hell to pay. Her look changed swiftly to one of slightly embarrassed contrition. She waved a hand in dismissal. "I know JD’s on his way to being a good man, and he wouldn’t hurt Casey, but well, sometimes old habits die hard. Been lookin’ after that girl since she was in diapers. Forget sometimes she ain’t still in ‘em."

Vin grinned, not the least bit offended. "I know."

"So what brings you by?" Nettie leaned back in her chair, her blue eyes steadily regarding Vin.

"Peso." Vin hadn’t been able to resist the smart ass answer.

Nettie pointed a finger at him in warning, but her eyes were twinkling. "That’ll be enough of that, young man."

"Yes, ma’am." Vin tipped his head.

"Now then, why are ya here?"

Vin shrugged. "Ridin’ patrol. Was in the neighborhood. Figured I’d check on ya. Make sure everythin’ is all right here."

Nettie snorted. "I don’t need lookin’ after. Been takin’ care o’ myself since before you was born."

Vin smiled slightly, lips quirking upward. "Yes, Ma’am."

Nettie picked up a bowl of snapping beans that had been sitting next to her chair, and set to work on them. "Since yer here, ya might as well make yerself useful, and tell me what’s goin’ on in town."

It took several minutes to bring Nettie up to speed. It wasn’t that much happened in town on any given day, but she hadn’t been to town for a month or more. It was generally through conversation with the peacekeepers that she kept informed of what was going on. Vin was the one who stopped most often, but he seldom had time to stop every day.

Nettie eyed him sharply. "What’s bothering you?"


Nettie raised both eyebrows. "Yer mind is somewhere else." She stated firmly, daring him to argue.

Vin shifted his weight slightly. He couldn’t lie to her so he just nodded once. "Been thinkin’ on somethin’."

She smiled gently, nodding her head in encouragement. "Something I can help with?"

"Don’t rightly know." Vin sighed.

"Well, why don’t you ask me, and we’ll go from there." Nettie offered, her ever practical nature shining through that statement.

Okay. Vin took a deep breath. Maybe this might be better to go at it in a round about way. "When you and your husband were courtin’….Did he ever give you any thing…a token of his affections?"

"You mean like flowers, candy and the like?"

"Yeah." Good a place as anywhere ta start.

Nettie smiled, eyes bright with mischief. "You sweet on someone, Vin Tanner?"

Vin looked away, and could feel the blush warming his face. He knew Nettie had seen it when she chuckled softly. Vin shook his head. Damn. Didn’t want ta do that.

"Ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of Vin." She waited for him to look up, hard blue eyes pinning him in place. "Less’n she’s already promised ta someone else." There was a reprimand in her tone. Nettie knew about Charlotte Richmond, and she had let Vin know in her own terms how little she thought of his behavior during that whole incident. While she didn’t hold him totally at fault, she still thought his plan to run away with a married woman was foolhardy to say the least.

"Ain’t like that." Vin was quick to reassure her. Ezra isn’t anything like Charlotte. Not one bit. And he ain’t promised to anyone else.

"Good." Nettie nodded, satisfied with his answer. "So, you tryin’ ta figure out what ta give her? Let her know you’re sparkin’ on her?"

He shrugged one shoulder. Most of that is about right. "Somethin’ like that."

Nettie pursed her lips. "You know her well?"

After a moment of reflection on whether not he should correct Nettie’s assumption it was a woman, and deciding not to, Vin nodded.

Nettie paused for a second, eyes narrowed. She’d caught his hesitation, but didn’t call him on it. "So then you got an idea o’ what she likes?"

Vin nodded again. Got real good idea of what Ezra likes, but I don’t see how that’s gonna help. Already thought about all that this for last few days.

"Then all you have to do is give her something she likes. Every woman likes to feel special. And they all like getting pretty things. Flowers cover both bases. One o’ the reasons they are so popular."

Vin sighed. Can’t give Ezra flowers. "Want something more permanent than flowers. Flowers die, fade. Want something that lasts."

Nettie smiled. "You plannin’ on marrin’ her?"

"Would if I could." That slipped out before Vin had a chance to stop it.

Nettie’s eyes flashed, smile vanishing. "Thought you said she wasn’t promised to anyone else. You lie to me boy?" Her tone was sharp, demanding.

"No." Vin hung his head. "Not exactly."

Nettie waited, hands poised over the bowl of beans. When Vin didn’t say anything else, she sighed softly. "Why don’t you start at the beginning? I seem to be missin’ some pieces here."

Vin shifted restlessly, wishing fervently he’d just kept his mouth shut. Shoulda never even stopped here. Was a bad idea. Should a just talked to Ez.

"Ain’t a she." He finally mumbled, knowing he wouldn’t get away without answering Nettie.

"Speak up boy." She ordered calmly. "I didn’t hear that."

"I said, it ain’t a she. The one I’m sweet on." Vin braced himself for a negative reaction, but knowing he really couldn’t back away. "Ain’t a woman."

Nettie stared at him. "Excuse me?"

"It’s a man, Nettie."

Nettie pursed her lips giving him a hard look. "He know how you feel or you looking for a way to tell him?"

Vin blinked in surprise, caught off guard. That wasn’t the question he was expecting. "He knows."

"Well, you ain’t sportin’ any bruises or bullet holes, so I’m guessing he weren’t too upset."

"No, he wasn’t upset." Vin confirmed her assumption.

"He feel the same way then?" Nettie looked concerned, and that reassured Vin immensely. She wasn’t angry with him, and she didn’t look disgusted.

"Yeah." Vin grinned. "He feels the same way."

"Good." Nettie nodded, and relaxed in her chair. "Can’t tell how a man might react to find out something like that. You don’t need any trouble on that account. Got more than enough all on yer own."

"You ain’t…offended?" Vin asked, suddenly needing to know for certain that he hadn’t miss read her.

Nettie rolled her eyes. "You’d think after knowin’ me this long, you’d know by now that if I was offended, you sure as hell wouldn’t have to ask, you’d already know."

Vin hung his head again, contrite. "Sorry."

Nettie sighed. "Ain’t nothin’ to be sorry for. I know you just wanted ta be sure." She sent him a sly look. "Imagine this isn’t quite the reaction you were expecting."

"No, Ma’am." Not even close.

Nettie cackled. "Good. Hate to be actin’ like every other fool you meet."

Vin smiled. "Never thought you was a fool."

She nodded, accepting that statement, knowing he meant it. "So why don’t you ask me what you really wanted to ask earlier?"

"Weren’t all that far off really." Vin smiled slightly, feeling the tightness in his chest easing. Trust her not to get distracted for long. "I want ta give him something. Something real. Something he can hang on to when everything else fades away…you know?"

For a moment Nettie’s eyes took on a far away look "I know, son. I know exactly what you mean."

Encouraged by her statement, Vin continued speaking. "But it ain’t like courtin’ a woman." Vin waved a hand in frustration. "Don’t want to insult him. Don’t want him to think I really want him to be somethin’ he’s not. Need to give him something that would be right for him. And still let him know how I feel."

"Ah." Nettie nodded, her fingers still busy snapping beans. "Can see where that would be a mite difficult. Ain’t all that common for men ta give other men things, unless it’s a father to his son. Romance usually focuses on what a man is s’posed to be givin’ a woman."

She raised hand to rub her chin, pondering Vin’s problem. "So you thought what? Maybe ask me what I gave my husband, and see if it fit better?"

Vin nodded. "Wasn’t getting too far on my own. Thought a woman’s point o’ view might be better."

"Not a bad idea." Nettie commented after a moment of thought. She shrugged one shoulder, resuming her snapping. "Might help if you told me who he is."

"Can’t." Vin sighed softly, shaking his head with genuine regret. "We sort o’ decided not to tell people less’n they ask us. And I didn’t tell him I’d be talkin’ to you about this. Wouldn’t be right to tell you without talkin’ to him first." It was bad enough he felt like he was betraying Ezra by having this conversation. He wasn’t going to make it worse.

"He ashamed o’ being with you? That why he don’t want anyone to know?"

"No, he ain’t ashamed. I ain’t ashamed o’ him either." Vin stated fiercely. He straightened up, posture stiff. "Got a home here, a place we really belong for the first time in a long time. Don’t want ta lose that jus’ cause us bein’ together ain’t what most people think is normal. An’ like ya said before, got enough trouble in my life without borrowing more. We ain’t lying to anyone, we just ain’t advertisin’ the fact the we’s together."

Nettie held up a hand in a pacifying gesture, her expression one of understanding. "My mistake, Vin. I meant no insult."

Vin felt his face warm again for the second time in one day. "Sorry, Ma’am. Didn’t mean ta—", Vin stopped not exactly knowing just how to describe his out burst. He tried again. "I know ya didn’t mean anything bad. Know you was jus’ watchin’ out for me."

She smiled at him. "No harm done." Her expression turned rueful. "And it didn’t hurt for me to know that. Don’t want you getting involved with someone else who’s just gonna trample on yer feelings."

You and me both. Once was more than enough ta learn my lesson. Vin cocked his head to one side, studying his friend. "Ya don’t mind my sayin’, you seem to be taking all this in stride."

Nettie laughed lightly, a gleam in her eyes. "Vin Tanner, I learned a long time ago there is more to livin’ than just surviving. Havin’ someone share the burdens of life definitely falls on the livin’ side o’ things. An’ there’s no way ta tell which person is gonna be the right one ta share them with. Don’t think the Almighty really intended for it ta always about whether or not it was a man and a woman. Sometimes it’s jus’ about findin’ the one person who makes you want to keep going. Who makes getting up every morning a little less o’ a chore. Someone who brings out the sun on a cloudy day."

She casually shrugged one shoulder, a faint smile gracing her face. "I’ve seen all kinds come through this country. Only ones who really ever make it are the ones with someone they can count on, share with, talk to and laugh with. Life is hard out here. Worse when you’re alone."

She took a deep breath. "Me and my husband came here with nothing, and fought hard to make a go of it. Fought with the weather, the big cattlemen, the sheep herders, and the Indians. Sometimes fought each other too." Her eyes crinkled at the corners, amusement readily visible. There was no doubt that she still love the man she’d married so many years ago.

"If it weren’t for him…well, I’d have survived, don’t get me wrong." The statement wasn’t her bragging. It was a simple fact that Nettie Welles was not the sort to just lay down and wait for life to beat her. "But I wouldn’t have enjoyed the fight nearly as much. Probably wouldn’t have lasted this long either."

Vin looked at her in amazement. Never quite expected that. Damn. People always jumping sideways when ya least expect ‘em too.

Nettie put down her bowl, and rubbed her hands together. "Now then, you need ta give this man o’ yours something."

"Yes, Ma’am."

Nettie nodded and smiled warmly at him. "When I was a young girl, I had hair dark as a raven’s feather. Hung down to my waist. My husband loved playing with it." Her smiled became fondly reminiscent. "He even learned to braid it for me. Could do a better job of it than I could truth be told."

She flashed Vin a quick grin. "But then I was a better shot than he was, so I guess it all balanced out."

Vin grinned back. "Don’t have any trouble believin’ that."

"Anyway…whenever he had ta leave…go to town and such, said the thing he missed the most was my hair. So…I cut a lock off and braided it for him. He used to wear it all the time tied around his wrist. Had ta replace it a time or two, but he never went anywhere without it. Truth be told, he was buried with it. Said he wanted to have something ta hang on to while he waited for me ta join him in the hear after."

He considered her suggestion. It was something that hadn’t occurred to him. Ez likes my hair. Says he likes the way it feels running through his fingers. An’ I like havin’ him brush it.

"Know my hair’s longer’n most men’s, but don’t think it’s long enough ta do that, Miss Nettie. " Vin shook his head slightly. Ez ain’t a big man, and it probably wouldn’t take much ta make a braid long enough for him ta wear. But there’s somethin’ else ta think about here. "An’ not sure if he’d want ta wear somethin’ other people might see and ask about. We been real good ‘bout not showin’ too much in front o’ other people. "

Nettie shrugged. "Don’t have to be long enough ta circle his wrist. Could just braid a love knot for him. That can be pretty much any length or size ya want, and he could carry it anywhere."

Vin frowned. "Love knot?" Never heard o’ that one.

Nettie got up. "Let me get some string and I’ll show ya. Ain’t hard to do." Nettie stepped inside the house and returned a moment later. Her hands might be gnarled with age, and years of hard work, but her fingers were still adept enough to handle showing Vin how to tie knots. As she worked on it she explained the meaning of the knot.

"Ya can really make these outta anythin’. Girls used ta use ribbons off the flowers their fellas gave them. Saw a man with one made outta lace from his sweetheart’s weddin’ vail." She focused for a moment on the string she was working with, smoothing the line and making sure the tension was even, before she continued speaking.

"Used to be, you intertwined something of your loved one’s in with this. So it represented both of ya. Was meant to show a long life, and life long love."

Vin grinned, finding her explanation fitting, even as his fingers fumbled to master what she was showing him. Never woulda thought tying a knot would be so hard. Betcha Ez could do this in no time…them fingers o’ his can work magic.

"Some of the knots can be rather complicated." Nettie held up an elaborate knot that interwove and looped in on itself numerous times. It was beautiful, with a smooth, almost sensuous look to it. The stands connected so that there was no visible indication where one stopped and the other began, giving it a continuous, unbroken look.

"Sometimes, the more complicated, the better. You want it to show that your life, and that of your loved one, are now so intermixed, ya can’t tell where one quits and the other starts." She smiled. "When it’s all said and done, everybody’s knot is his own. Ain’t no two ever quite the same. Ya can add decorations to it, too. Knew of one that had a silver bell worked inta it. Traveling preacher man used it as a bookmark in his bible. He would shake the bible when he spoke and it jingled."

Vin looked at his own attempt sadly. It didn’t look anywhere near as nice as Nettie’s. "Gonna have to work on this a bit."

Nettie chuckled. "Well, Vin…like everything else, it takes some time to learn ta do it right."

Vin grinned. "Thanks, Nettie."

She nodded. "My pleasure."

Sharp eyes studied him. Vin resisted the urge to fidget under her gaze. "You tell me honestly…This man make you happy?"

"Yes, Ma’am." Vin’s eyes never left hers. He smiled, just thinking of how much better his life was with Ezra as a part of it, totally unaware of how his eyes suddenly lit up with joy and contentment. "Very happy."

"He treat you right?"

"Better’n anyone else ever has."

"Good. All I need to know then." She patted his arm. "When you talk to him, see if he don’t want to come by and talk to me. I’d like to meet him. Would be nice to know the man who captured your heart."

She stretched up and uncharacteristically kissed his cheek. "Now then, it’s high time you got back to doin’ your duty."

Vin offered her the string back, but she waved it off. "Keep that ta practice with." Vin nodded, and pocketed the string. He swung into the saddle, touching his fingers to the brim of his hat once he was settled.

"I’ll see you in a few days then, Miss Nettie."

"I’ll be here." The old woman confirmed, and waved her hand at him. "Off with ya now. Got work that needs doin’. Can’t be wastin’ my whole day with the likes of you."

Vin grinned, not the least insulted by her words or her tone. He rode out of her yard with a lighter heart and clearer mind than he’d rode in with. Asking Nettie was definitely a good idea.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie stood on the porch watching Vin ride away until he was no longer visible. She shook her head, smiling to herself, a bit bemused by their conversation. That boy. Never woulda guessed he’d be looking at another man that way. Wonder who it is?

She picked up her bowl of snapped beans, taking them inside, ready to start canning. As she worked at filling jars, her thoughts were drawn back to that the recent conversation. Really, I s’pose it don’t come as that big o’ surprise. Never saw him so much as look at a woman. Jus’ figured he was a mite shy is all.

Nettie snorted at her foolish thoughts. Human nature bein’ what it is…it don’t matter how shy a man is, he’ll find someway ta scratch that itch if he’s of mind to. Got a cat house in town where he could satisfy those urges if he had ‘em, and wanted a woman he didn’t have ta make conversation with. Know it weren’t him bein’ shy or even religion that kept ‘im from paying those ladies a visit.

Nettie was a rare breed of woman. She might not condone the way prostitutes made their living, but she didn’t necessarily find fault with it either. She had long ago come to terms with the idea that most people struggled to find their way in this world as best they could. It was not her place to judge someone for taking a different path. At least so long as they didn’t hurt anyone else doing it.

An’ him thinkin’ o’ runnin’ off with that Richmond woman! Bah. Knew that weren’t right. Weren’t all that surprised he didn’t go with her. An’ it wasn’t her bein’ married that decided it. No sir. If he’d a really loved that stupid, no account woman, he’d wouldn’t a let that stop him.

Nettie scowled. She vented some of her anger, picking up a jar and thumping the bottom harder than necessary, settling the beans so she could add more. Don’t think he really cared for her. Might a been what he thought he wanted, but his heart wasn’t in it. And if she’d a really cared for him, she wouldn’t a gone back to that good-for-nothing husband. She was just looking for some fun. Ought to be a male cat house for women like her. She coulda had her fun without hurtin’ anyone and then gone home ta her husband.

Nettie shook her head, as she put down a full jar, and picked up an empty one. She could never understand cheating on your spouse. Adultery didn’t bother her because the bible said it was a sin, it bothered her because it was just plain wrong to betray a loved one’s trust. To her way of thinking, if you promised forever, then by God, you should mean it. And if you couldn’t live up to that promise, the first person you should tell is the person you made the promise to. Anything else was just plain dishonest, and outright disrespectful. Owe it to someone you care about, even if you don’t care the same way any more, ta treat them the way you’d want ta be treated.

She had been decidedly pleased with Vin’s outburst when she’d asked if his male lover was ashamed of him. Good to know they ain’t hidin’ out of foolishness. Always heard discretion was the better part of valor. Looks like Vin and his friend might understand that to be the case here. Folks can be right stupid about someone being different. An’ all those good, upstandin’ folks think they got the right ta tell others what’s right for them, and God help ya if you don’t agree. Bah. Idiots. Can’t control who ya love and who ya don’t.

And the look on his face when she asked if he was happy put her mind at ease. Ain’t nobody look that happy if they ain’t. And if anybody deserves a little joy in his life, it’s him.

Nettie couldn’t help but wonder again just who’d captured Vin’s heart. Whoever it is…Vin’s definitely in love with him. Wouldn’t a sassed me if he wasn’t. Or been so worried about getting the right gift.

At first glance, Chris Larabee would have been a good guess. But Nettie knew better. Oh sure the two could talk without ever saying a word, shared similar views on a great many things, and were obviously good friends, but Nettie knew Chris wasn’t the sort to attract Vin on an intimate level. She just couldn’t see the two of them coming together that way.

She got the distinct impression that this relationship Vin was in was somewhat new. If it was Chris, Nettie didn’t think it would have taken them this long to get together. Those two got on a like a house afire since the minute they met. Vin wouldn’t be lookin’ ta me for advice on a gift if him and this feller had that same sort o’ history.

Nettie filled another jar. Always a good idea ta have extra preserves stored up. Never know when I’ll be getting ta town. Course, might be a good idea jus’ ta take a trip here in a few days. She grinned. See if I can’t spot this mystery man for myself.


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