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Vin Tanner was a patient man but this wasn't a quiet trail or a slow stream that he sat waiting beside, this was a loaded wagon on the busy main street of Four Corners.
He'd seen the empty wagon arrive with Nettie Wells at the reins and hadn't hesitated to assist her load her monthly provisions. He and the feisty old widow had struck up a solid and instant friendship after their recent meeting. Since then, Vin had made a number of visits to the Wells homestead to help with the heavier work. Vin had been hesitant to do this at first, still surprised by the widow's welcome of him into her home. Now he would make an excuse to simply drop by and sit on the comfortable porch and enjoy the wonderful home cooking that was freely offered.
Vin shifted restlessly as the sun rose a little higher and his patience wore a little thinner. He was tempted to go in and try to hurry the widow along but he was one to learn from earlier mistakes. Midmorning in the general store was now dangerous country to the tracker. He'd lost count of the tinkling of the entrance bell so there was no telling how many women might be in there. Separately the town's women folk seemed just fine, but put them in a confined space with one defenceless tracker and he'd struggle to escape with his dignity intact. He'd rather face bounty hunters.
Vin tipped his head back a little, squinting as the sunlight struck his eyes. He slapped his old hat against his leg and roughly dragged his hair back from his face deciding he could risk doing a little scouting. Stepping lightly across the boardwalk he tried to look casual as he sidled up to the door of the General Store to listen. He would be able to hear who was inside because no one ever seemed to stay silent in there for very long. He could hear voices but thankfully only those of Nettie Wells and Gloria Potter.
"I really don't see why you bother Nettie."
"There's a lot of good in him. It's not his fault he's been left to run wild. He'll settle down."
"I know you need the help out there, but couldn't you do better? Surely you can't afford to keep feeding him like that?"
"Oh, it doesn't cost that much. Beside, he's got a real sweet tooth and he appears ready to do anything for a molasses cookie."
Vin's hand fell away from the door has he took in the words in stunned disbelief. Gloria Potter had always been kind to him, going out of her way to speak to him sometimes. And Nettie Wells? He'd thought the widow honestly liked him, not that she was bribing him.
He realised his jaw was hanging and snapped his mouth shut with a painful click of teeth.
"Well, I think it's very kind-hearted of you to try. Not many folk would bother, Nettie," Gloria continued.
Kind-hearted. Vin barely held back his snort. He wasn't a charity case. He didn't need anyone's pity.
"But he's all skin and bone, and that scruffy coat? Surely he can't be of much use?"
"He'll clean up nicely. He just needs a gentle hand to get him used to people."
Vin's hand brushed lightly down his dusty coat and a layer of grime lifted on to his fingers. Well it did need cleaning up a little but he had thought that Nettie didn't mind his rough ways. She'd never commented on it, never hinted that she was planning on cleaning him up, civilising him.
"I'll grant you he has a sweet face, but Nettie those ears."
Vin frowned at the laughter he could hear in Gloria's voice. He fingered his earlobes self-consciously. There was nothing wrong with his ears. Was there?
"Appearances aren't everything. He'll be a big help to me once I have his trust. You mark my words, I'll have him eating out of my hand by the end of the month."
Vin turned away from the door, disappointed and disillusioned. He'd thought Nettie had felt the same connection as him. He'd thought Nettie invited him into her home because she liked him, not that she was planning to make use of him. Vin returned to the wagon and waited for the two women to finish. He didn't want to hear any more. He was sorry he'd heard any in the first place.
A tap to his leg brought his attention back to the street and he frowned at the small woman waiting by the wagon step. He was tempted to say something and clear the air.
Nettie was holding up one last parcel. Vin's good manners had him reaching for the item to safely stow it behind the drivers seat before jumping down to assist the older woman up onto the driver's bench. He'd promised to help unload but now he was determined that he wouldn't stay beyond that.
Nettie held out her hand but Vin tightened his grip on the reins. "I might as well be useful," he ground out, ignoring the request as Nettie usually insisted in driving her own wagon.
Nettie frowned at the words as the wagon jerked forward. "Where's that bag I had in the corner?"
"Under the seat."
"What is the matter with you Vin?"
"Nothin'." Vin could smell the rich sweetness as the brown paper bag was opened. Molasses. "Not even m' favorite."
"Molasses works better. It's the sugar, you can smell."
Vin just turned a surprised and hurt face toward his passenger. "It works better?" How devious was this woman? Vin thought of the familiar scents that always wafted from Nettie's kitchen, cinnamon, green apples, molasses. She'd baited her house so well that he'd never even seen the trap.
"Turn here and pull up over near Riley's Feed."
"You don't have any grain orders waiting," Vin reminded as he pulled up near the feed store.
"No, I'm just going round to the yard.' Nettie shook the brown bag then pulled out a cookie. Vin followed silently. "There you are you mangy beast. Come on now, it's just a little sugar."
There was definitely some age on the donkey, it's muzzle speckled in grey, its coat rough and uneven with tatters of winter hair still tangled through it. Angular bones at hip and shoulder moved sharply as the animal stepped out from the shade. Hesitating, the donkey twitched its ears forward although the direction was difficult to determine as the tips of both ears folded sideways. He would have appeared comical if not for the huge dark eyes that spoke of a gentle sadness.
Vin watched silently as Nettie encouraged the timid animal closer. The donkey turned wary eyes on the tracker but moved tentatively forward when it decided there was no threat. Vin could see by the split, unshod hooves that it had been wild for some time. The animal didn't try to resist the lure of the cookie for very long and chose to stay calm and still while Nettie ran a hand down his neck. He snorted in warning as Vin moved closer but didn't pull away from the other gentle touch.
"Riley found him wandering. He didn't have the heart to put him down but doesn't want to be feedin' him either. I'm going to take him. He's just a little rough now but I'll feed him up. I could use an extra worker at the farm."
Vin had moved quietly until he was leaning on the rail, the donkey now unconcerned by the approach. "He seems ta like ya."
Nettie turned with a smile. "No, he likes my cookies. He'll only come to me because of the sugar treats."
Vin knew the animal was content with more than just sugar treats. The cookies were now consumed but still the animal stood quietly, eyes closed, apparently blissfully content to have its ragged ears scratched. Vin rubbed his own ear self-consciously at his earlier mistake.
"What are you grinning for?" Nettie asked, thankful Vin's odd mood had lifted.
Vin wasn't about to explain. He was just thankful he hadn't tried to interrupt the women to defend himself.
"Well, what do you think?" Nettie knew the donkey was a little old and very neglected but with a little care he could still be a good productive animal.
"Think he's real lucky Miz Nettie. Most folk wouldn't look twice at a fella like that."
Nettie stoked a hand down the donkey's neck, brushing out some dirt that clung to the rough matted coat. "That's their loss, Vin. We'd best head on home. I haven't got all day to stand here patting this old boy."
Vin hid his grin at the slender weathered hand that patted at his arm. Maybe he wasn't to blame for misunderstanding. It was an easy enough mistake, except maybe the comment about his ears. He tugged again at the offending flesh.
"You got an earache?" Nettie asked, thinking this may be the cause of Vin's uncertain mood.
"No...just...." He decided to change subjects. "You feed that beast all the cookies?"
Nettie shook her head in exasperation. Vin was bottomless when it came to sweet treats but she enjoyed trying to keep up. "You'll get yours when we get home. Besides, I thought you liked my oatmeal and raisin the best."
"Well," Nettie suggested with a tap to the motionless arm. "Get this wagon moving, son."
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