Too Stupid To Learn

by Rhiannon

Summary: Vin finally admits to the boys that he can’t read and write.

This is a follow up to my story A Different Kind of Courage but can be read alone as a post ep to ‘Achilles’.

Chris Larabee leaned against the bar in the Standish Tavern, absently sipping a beer, watchful eyes raking the saloon for signs of trouble.

In view of the tranquil scene before him, his vigilance could have been mistaken for a sign of paranoia. For Larabee it was simply the act of caution that had been required over the past four days. For some reason that Larabee never did discover, the saloon, and indeed the town, had been full to bursting since Friday. The town’s peacekeeping force had been run ragged, breaking up fights amongst high spirited cowhands, investigating a spate of petty theft and dealing with the occasional more serious gunfight.

Now the only patrons of the saloon were the seven Peacekeepers themselves and the saloon’s manager, Inez Recillos. Chris didn’t understand why the crowds had disappeared, but he wasn’t complaining and neither were his fellow regulators, judging by their current high spirits.

His gaze passed over the table where Buck, Josiah, Nathan and JD were finishing their noon meal. Ezra was entertaining them with a story of a hoax he’d pulled on an unsuspecting traveling salesman. JD was listening in wide-eyed wonder, the others with skeptical grins.

Chris’s eyes strayed to Vin Tanner, slouched against the bar next to him. Chris had the feeling that the team’s sharpshooter had something on his mind, but hadn’t yet been able to figure out what. He was sure it was something more than Vin’s usual edginess when there were a lot of folks in town. Only yesterday Chris had strolled into the office of the Clarion Newspaper office to find Vin seated at the table with the newspaper’s editor, Mary Travis. Mary had explained that she’d been interviewing Vin about the previous day’s shootout, but they’d both looked guilty as hell and Chris hadn’t yet had time to pry out of his friend just exactly what had been going on.

His reverie was disturbed as Ezra finished his story and laughter broke out at the table, from all except JD who wore a slightly confused look. Chris smiled and glanced at Vin, whose face wore a lopsided grin. It was the first time in days that he’d seen his friend so relaxed. Maybe now would be a good time to dig a little, to try and find out what was on the sharpshooter’s mind.

Before he could speak, Nathan’s voice rang out. “Boys, could one of ya swap patrols with me this evening? Mrs. Hanson’s baby’s due any time now and I need to git out there and check on her.”

Chris looked automatically towards Vin, usually the first to volunteer for patrol duty. The Texan welcomed any opportunity to get out of town and Chris was certain he’d jump at this one. But Vin said nothing; if anything, he looked decidedly uncomfortable, seeming to slouch even further in what Chris was sure was a deliberate attempt to blend into the background.

“Count me out,” Ezra announced airily. “I have a prior commitment with a deck of cards and a table of fine but gullible young cowboys.”

“Ah, Nathan, you know I hate the evening patrol,” Buck put in plaintively. “Vin’ll do it – he loves patrols, don’t ya pard?”

Chris watched as Vin shifted uncomfortably.

“Sorry, Nathan,” the sharpshooter mumbled. “I cain’t this time. I got – I got something I need ta do.”

Ezra glanced across at him. “Sounds mysterious, Mr. Tanner. You wouldn’t by any chance have an assignation with a member of the fairer sex?”

Buck pricked up his ears at the question. He swung his chair round, straddled it and leaned forward, resting his chin on the back. “Something you want to tell us, Vin?” he said with a broad grin and exaggerated wink.

All eyes were on Vin now and Chris couldn’t hide his amusement as a familiar blush flooded the sharpshooter’s cheeks. It never ceased to amaze Chris how easy it was to embarrass this tough, life-hardened man and he knew that the others would often go out of their way to try. Chris knew, though, that Vin was well capable of defending himself, so he leaned back and waited for the inevitable smart-assed reply.

Chris’s smile faded as the reply wasn’t forthcoming. He looked more closely at the sharpshooter and realized that there was something more going on here than embarrassment at Buck’s question. Vin looked like a rabbit caught in the sights of a shotgun.

“Ain’t nothin’ ta tell, Buck,” he drawled finally, then turned away slightly, a clear signal that the conversation was over as far as he was concerned.

Chris frowned. It was obvious that there was something to tell and he knew that the others would not stop now until they’d dragged it out of the sharpshooter.

It was Ezra who now took up the mantel. “Well now, it seems clear to me that there must be something to tell, Mr. Tanner, or you would not be so coy about sharing it with us.”

Vin ignored him.

JD added his voice. “Come on, Vin, you can tell us. Who is she?”

Chris watched Vin’s jaw clench. Then the sharpshooter’s whole body visibly tensed as he growled, “Just let it alone. I told ya, it ain’t nothin’.”

Buck leaned forward further, whispering conspiratorially, “Ah, come on Vin, spill it, we’re all dyin’ of suspense here.”

Vin’s hand tightened around his glass until his knuckles showed white. It seemed to Chris that he was the only one who could see that Vin’s reticence in answering the question was more than his usual reluctance to talk about himself. Vin’s jaw tightened even more and a look that could have been fear passed over his face. Fear? Chris had never known Vin Tanner to show fear at anything. Whatever was going on in his mind had him badly rattled. Chris decided that enough was enough and was about to change the subject and let his friend off the hook when Vin said suddenly, “Have to go see Mary, is all. There ain’t no big mystery.”

Buck’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re seeing Mary!?

Vin scowled. “I ain’t seeing Mary. Just gotta talk ta her ‘bout somethin’, that’s all.”

Chris closed his mouth again, diversionary words unsaid, somewhat confounded by the answer. When he’d found Vin and Mary together the previous day it had been clear from their guilty looks that something was going on. It had crossed his mind that it might be something to do with him; after all, his birthday was coming up soon. He had never for one moment entertained the suspicion that they were engaged in anything clandestine. Vin was aware of Chris’s feelings for Mary and Chris knew without question that his friend would never make a move on the Clarion’s editor while he was aware of the gunslinger’s own interest.

Yet Vin’s behavior now was more than suspicious and for the first time Chris felt a tiny flicker of doubt.

“What’s goin’ on,Vin?” he asked evenly. “You’re actin’ like you’ve got something to hide.”

Vin’s eyes narrowed. “Ain’t got nothin’ ta hide,” he snapped. “Just don’ see why ya’ll need to know my bus’ness, is all.”

“Well, if your business is so innocent,” Buck said reasonably, “There’s no harm in tellin’ us, is there?”

Chris could see that Vin was getting angry now and his own anger surfaced at the sharpshooter’s stubborn reticence. Suddenly, finding out the truth became important.

“Yeah, Vin,” he said, his words deliberately harsh, “You can tell us - if it’s so innocent an’ all.”

The moment the words were out of his mouth he could have bitten out his tongue, for Vin rounded on him, eyes wide in shock at the implication behind the words. Then something seemed to snap inside him and he swung round to address the whole group, eyes reflecting the frustration and fury he was feeling. “Fine! Yer all so all-fired up to stick yer noses in my bus’ness. So here it is, are y’all listenin’? Mary’s bin teaching me to read and write! What ya’ll gotta say ta that?”

If Chris had been confused before, he was stunned by this revelation. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting to hear, but it certainly wasn’t this. Vin couldn’t read or write? Surely, if this was the case, he’d have known? Sure, he’d been aware that Vin didn’t read much – he didn’t seem to possess any books and he never bothered with the newspaper. They’d got into a comfortable pattern of a morning with Chris reading bits out of the latest edition and Vin contributing his opinion in his own unique way. Sure, Vin never seemed to write anything down – but then, he didn’t need to, because he never seemed to forget anything. Thinking back, Chris couldn’t think of one occasion when Vin’s literacy had been an issue. It really wasn’t that big a deal.

But it was quite obvious that it was a big deal to Vin. The way he ducked his head as soon as he’d finished speaking made it plain that he was ashamed of what he obviously felt was a disability.

Chris knew instinctively that the way to respond to the revelation was to be casual, to act as if Vin hadn’t just dropped a stick of dynamite in their midst. He glanced at the others, hoping they would follow his lead in this, but he was too late. Aware that Vin was embarrassed and anxious to reassure him, they all began speaking at once and it was immediately evident to Chris that they were about to make a difficult situation even worse.

”Ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of, Vin,” Nathan said earnestly.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” boomed Josiah’s deep voice.

“Don’t make no difference to us, Vin…” Buck put in.

Then JD’s incredulous voice that rang out above all the others. “You mean – you can’t read?!”

Chris scowled at the younger man and saw Buck kick him hard under the table, eliciting a squawk of pain. Vin had looked up finally at JD’s comment and Chris followed his eyes as he looked round slowly to gauge the reactions of his five companions.

Buck and Josiah both looked uncomfortable and it was clear to Chris that they were embarrassed at JD’s thoughtless remark and their own clumsy comments. Nathan’s face wore a look of compassion mixed with awkwardness. Ezra, surprisingly, looked completely stricken and JD’s face was a picture of incredulous shock. All in all, it was hardly surprising that Vin jumped to the erroneous conclusion that they were all embarrassed by him. Refusing to look in Chris’s direction, he pushed his drink away, rammed his hat further down on his head and mumbled something about having to get out on patrol.

Realizing the situation had gotten well out of his control, Chris called urgently after the sharpshooter, but Vin ignored him and Chris found himself addressing a wildly swinging batwing door.

In the stunned silence Josiah remarked soberly, “That went well.”

At almost the same moment Buck growled, “Kid, have I ever told you what a really big mouth you have?”

“What? What did I say?” JD said defensively. “I was surprised, that’s all. I mean, everyone can read! At least, everyone...”

“Who ain’t stupid?” Nathan suggested helpfully.

“Well, yes. No. I didn’t say… Oh. JD clamped his mouth shut as he realized how Vin might have interpreted his thoughtless words. “I didn’t mean it like that. I mean - I just assumed Vin could read, he’s so smart.”

Josiah shook his head slowly. “Wasn’t just you kid. Reckon we all handled it wrong.”

Nathan grimaced. “Ya got that right. Reckon Vin thinks we all think the less of him now ‘cause he can’t read.”

Chris cringed at Nathan’s words, but knew that the healer was right.

“Did you know, Chris?” JD asked.

Chris shook his head slowly. “He never said a word to me.”

“But he told Mary?” Buck made it a question.

Chris shot a look at Buck and shrugged. This was something he couldn’t understand either. He was surprised to find that it hurt to think that Vin had gone to Mary for help rather than him. But he merely said, “You know Vin. He’s full of surprises.”

“Must have taken a lot of guts, askin’ Mary for help like that,” Nathan put in.

“That ain’t no surprise. Vin’s got more guts than anyone else I know,” Chris said.

“Ain’t like Vin, thought, to get all bothered about what people think,” Josiah remarked, raising a questioning eyebrow in Chris’s direction.

”No, it ain’t,” Chris affirmed shortly. Truth to tell, he’d been shaken by Vin’s uncharacteristic behavior.

“Reckon you’d best get after him, find out what’s on his mind,” Josiah suggested.

Chris nodded shortly, heading for the door. The only reason he hadn’t gone already was that he figured it would be best to give Vin some time to get himself together. He knew that Vin always ended his patrol in the same place – a rocky outcrop just outside town from which a watcher had a panoramic view of the country around. He would head out to that spot and wait for the sharpshooter there.

As he walked past the table where the other Peacekeepers sat, it struck him that Ezra had been uncharacteristically quiet. He looked closely at the gambler who was sitting very still, his expression guarded.

”What’s up with you, Ezra?” Chris asked. “You’re mighty quiet. Something you want to get off your chest?” While he knew himself that Vin’s revelation didn’t affect his respect for the man, he was concerned that Ezra, an articulate man with a great deal of learning behind him, might feel differently. If that was the case, he wanted it out in the open.

Ezra looked up at him.

“I fear I owe Mr. Tanner a very big apology,” he said simply. “He came to me for help a couple of weeks ago and I refused him in a rather hurtful manner. Having heard his declaration, I now have a better understanding of why he was so upset at the time.”

Chris glared incredulously at the gambler. “He asked you to teach him to read and write?”

Ezra shook his head. “No. But he asked for help on a... related matter.”

Chris continued to glare at him, but Ezra didn’t flinch under his gaze.

“I believe I know what you’re thinking, Mr Larabee,” he said. “I can assure you that I do not think less of Mr. Tanner because of this. It is not his fault that he has been denied the gift of learning that circumstances have accorded to others such as myself.”

Chris stared at him a while longer, weighing Standish’s words and finally accepting the sincerity in them.

“Well, I suggest you put things right with him the first chance you get,” he said finally.

“Oh, I intend to, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra replied soberly. “I intend to.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris practically ran into Mary Travis as he strode along the boardwalk in the direction of the livery.

“Good morning, Chris.” Her welcoming smile faded as she observed his concerned expression.

“Is something wrong?”

Chris halted, wondering if this meeting would prove opportune.

“Vin just told me and the boys about your secret lessons,” he said abruptly.

He expected her to look guilty. Instead, she smiled with what seemed to be relief. “Oh, that’s good. I’ve been trying to persuade him to tell you. He was a little nervous about it.”

“Yeah, that much was obvious. It didn’t go too well.”

Mary gave him a sharp look. “What did you say to him?”

Chris grimaced at the memory of the scene that had just played out. “Guess we were all a bit surprised, so none of us said anything at first. Then JD said something stupid –Vin got upset and ran out on us.”

Mary sighed. “You know, it took a lot of courage for him to tell you. He was worried about the way you’d react.”

“He doesn’t need to be ashamed that he can’t read and write,” Chris said. “Lots of people can’t.”

“You can,” Mary pointed out. “So can the others.”

“Yeah, but… that doesn’t make any difference.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” Mary agreed. “But it makes a difference to him. Surely you can understand why it’s important to him, why he might feel that you’d think less of him because of it?”

“He knows us better than that,” Chris said with conviction, but even as he spoke he remembered the way Vin had hung his head, refusing to look anyone in the eye. Maybe Vin should know them better by now, but he himself knew from experience that it wasn’t always easy to be rational when your feelings ran as strongly as Vin’s obviously did. .

“I’m not who they think I am,” Mary murmured to herself. Chris’s sharp ears picked up her words and he frowned.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Mary shrugged. “Just something Vin said.”

Chris pondered the words for a moment. “I know who he is,” he said at last.

Mary cocked her head. “Maybe. Maybe you do. But how many others see what you see? Some people round here see a rough, uncivilized, dangerous man. They tolerate his presence because they need him, but they’re not prepared to invite him into polite company. It wouldn’t surprise them to know that Vin can’t read because they don’t expect it of people like that. Don’t you think it must hurt him to know that people see him that way? You and I both know that isn’t the real Vin Tanner.”

Chris wanted to protest that the words were untrue, but he kept silent because he knew that Mary was right. While many of the townspeople had made an effort to get to know the men who were paid to protect them, others remained resolutely aloof and he had seen the superior looks on their faces when they looked at the scruffily dressed tracker.

“Go and talk to him, Chris,” Mary went on. “Tell him how you feel, how you all feel. Oh, and when you find him, you can tell him that his poem won the competition, just like I said it would. I’m announcing the winner in the paper tomorrow and I need to know if he’s happy for me to put his name to it.”

“His poem?” Chris wasn’t sure he’d heard right.

Mary frowned. “Didn’t he tell you? He wrote a poem for the competition. It’s so beautiful, far better than any of the other entries. I told him it was sure to win, and it has.”

“Vin… wrote a poem?” Chris found he couldn’t move beyond the repetition of her words and Mary gave him an exasperated look.

“Yes, Vin wrote a poem. Why don’t you stand there and catch some more flies, while I go and get you a copy.”

Chris barely heard the tart comment as Mary disappeared into the Clarion office, leaving him standing on the boardwalk trying to get his mind round the concept of Vin Tanner as a poet. Mary returned a moment later with a copy of the previous week’s paper. She thumbed through it until she reached the competition page and held it out to Chris, stabbing a finger at Vin’s entry.

“It’s that one.”

Chris took the paper, staring stupidly at the poem she’d indicated, ‘A Hero’s Heart.’ He remembered flicking through the competition entries at the time, skipping over some that were badly written and laughing out loud at some of the bawdy limericks that didn’t actually qualify as poetry in the strict sense of the word. He’d even amused himself for a while trying to guess which good citizen of Four Corners had written which of the entries, for all were anonymous.

Chris had never been much for fancy poetry. He had always found it either pretentious or irrelevant to his life experience, but he remembered this particular poem very well because the words had resonated with him and made him stop to think; so much so that he’d torn the page out of the paper to keep.

“You’re telling me that Vin wrote this poem, ‘A Hero’s Heart’?” He said the words slowly and carefully, wanting to be sure he was getting this right.

“That surprises you?”

Chris was unsure how to answer that.

Mary arched an eyebrow. “Maybe you don’t know him as well as you think you do.”

Chris stared at her silently for a long moment, wondering if she was right. He felt his world tilt as he faced the possibility that maybe he didn’t know his friend at all. Then moments later realization flooded him; he did know Vin. He knew how much of himself the sharpshooter held hidden away inside, presenting to the outside a hard shell of protection against a world that had done nothing but let him down. He knew that under the rough exterior was a complex man who could be both tough and ruthless but also sensitive and caring. A man who thought deeply about things. A man who understood the nature of the world around him. A man who could utter a single statement that would cut straight to the heart of a problem. The kind of man who would write poetry.

He smiled suddenly, feeling his world slip back into place. “I do know him Mary, and it doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Mary returned the smile. “Then go and find him and tell him that.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin was not yet in sight when Chris arrived at the rocky promontory and dismounted. He led Pony to a small thicket of trees and tethered him in the shade before walking back to the outcrop and settling down to wait.

Seeing Vin so obviously shaken had unnerved him more than he’d care to admit. Vin had always been a rock of self-assurance and quiet confidence. He knew that the sharpshooter had led a hard life and it frequently struck him how differently the Texan could have dealt with the lot he was cast. Another man would have been bitter and resentful. Vin, however, had learned to take life as it came; admittedly not expecting too much of it, but still ready to give even if he didn’t expect to receive in return. Life had hardened but not embittered him and Chris admired enormously the sheer strength of character that showed. He had always thought of Vin as a man who was comfortable with himself; he didn’t care what others thought of his rough appearance and his lack of refined behavior. He was who he was and that was that.

Now Chris was beginning to see a different side to him, as if this secret he’d held inside so long had opened a channel to a core of vulnerability and insecurity he’d never revealed before.

He waited patiently for an hour, trying to come up with some form of words to convince his friend that this one lack in his life didn’t make him any less the man they all knew him to be. He was beginning to wonder if he should have sent a more qualified person like Josiah for this job when he spotted a familiar figure ride into view.

He deliberately kept his position as the sharpshooter reined Peso to a halt and was still looking out over the plain when he heard Vin’s quiet footsteps behind him. After a moment the Texan came into view and moved to lean against a rock across from Chris.

There was silence for a moment, then Vin said,

“Something on your mind, cowboy?”

Chris looked across at him. “Reckon it’s more likely you have something on yours.”

Vin shrugged.

It was obvious that Vin wasn’t going to make this easy, so Chris went on, “You know, you coulda told me.”

Vin shrugged again. “I guess I coulda.”

“Damn right. Why didn’t you?”

Vin looked down at his hands. ”Ain’t your problem, Chris.”

“I’m your friend, ain’t I? Seems like it’s real important to you. If you’d told me, I coulda helped you learn.”

Vin snorted. “You ain’t got the patience, Larabee. You’da shot me within a week!”

“Come close ta shootin you most weeks,” Chris growled, “Wouldn’ta made much difference.” He knew Vin was trying to change the subject, but he wasn’t going to let this go.

“So, why didn’t you tell me?”

Vin shrugged again.

Chris knew he was hitting a wall, so he tried a different approach. “It ain’t your fault you never got to learn, pard.”

.“I know that. But folks – if they know you cain’t read, they think… they think you must be stupid…”

“Is that what you thought I’d think?”

“I… no, but…”

“But you thought I’d be ashamed of you? Think less of you?” Chris persisted.

Vin shook his head, but the doubt was clear in his eyes.

”Is that all ya think of me?”

Vin’s eyes widened. “What d’ya mean?”

“You think I’m the kind of man who’s gonna look down on someone ‘cause they haven’t had the chance to be educated the same way I was?”

“No! I… course I don’ think that.”

“So why didn’t you tell me?”

Vin lashed out, obviously angry at Chris’s refusal to drop the subject. “Ya wanta know why? ’Cause I’m ashamed, that’s why! I’m ashamed that I cain’t read the newspaper – hell, I cain’t even write my own name! This ain’t about you! It’s about me being too stupid…” He broke off suddenly.

Chris knew that Vin’s anger wasn’t really directed at him, but rather at the situation he found himself in. He had been concentrating hard as the sharpshooter spoke, hoping for a clue as to the root of Vin’s insecurity. Was this it? Did he really think he was stupid because he couldn’t read?

“Don’t mean you’re stupid, Vin, just because you can’t read and write,” he said softly. “You’re as smart as any of us – I know that, so do the rest of the boys and Mary and anyone who really knows you.”

Vin just hung his head and Chris went on helplessly, “Vin, it just ain’t like you to care about what other folks think of you.”

“I don’ care what folks think of me, Chris,” Vin mumbled. “It’s jus’ that I ‘member my ma tellin’ me it’s important fer a man ta be able to read an’ write. An’ I reckon that ‘cause I cain’t – it’s like my ‘chilles Heel. Allus has bin. Reckon I’m jus’ scared that I really am too stupid to learn. Ya git told that enough, ya git to believin’ it.”

A light began to dawn for Chris. “Who told you that you were too stupid to learn?”

Vin shrugged. “No one.”

Chris was tempted to go over and shake an answer out of the infuriating Texan, but he forced himself to wait patiently. He had a feeling that Vin would answer the question this time, that he was finally getting to the root of the problem. So he waited.

Vin shifted position and looked out over the plain for a long time, eyes distant, possibly lost in memories of the past. Eventually, and without turning to look at his friend, he started speaking. His voice was so soft that Chris had to strain to hear the quiet words.

“After my ma died, I got sent to live with her brother – he was the only kin I had left. He… well, he weren’t too happy ta take me in, reckon he thought he had enough mouths to feed already. Anyways, I never got to go to school – he said I had to earn my keep by helping 'round the farm.” He looked round at Chris then, a slightly bitter smile touching his lips. “Don’ know why he bothered, nothing I did was ever good enough for him. He kept tellin’ me there was no point in sending me to school, ‘cause I was too stupid to learn anyhows.”

Chris had known that Vin had lost his mother when he was five, but very little else about his early years. This was the first time Vin had offered any information about his fate after his mother’s death.

“How long did you stay with him?”

“Jus’ til I was old enough ta run away. Got outta there when I was ‘bout thirteen.”

Chris thought about that, wondering what it had been like for a small boy to lose his mother and be taken in by kin who made it plain he wasn’t welcome amongst them. It was little wonder that Vin found it difficult to accept affection; most of his early memories held nothing but rejection. Chris was sure there was a great deal more Vin could tell him about his treatment at the hands of his uncle, and anger began to boil inside him towards the man who had spent eight years instilling a sense of worthlessness into a young boy.

He knew, however, that this wasn’t the time to express his anger; Vin would shy away from a display of emotion. Instead, he asked casually, ”You know he was wrong, though, don’t ya?”

Vin took a while to answer.

“Guess I figured it out when I got older,” he said eventually. “I knew I weren’t as stupid as he said I was. But kind of life I was leadin’, there weren’t much chance to learn anyhows, and I reckon I was scared to try, in case I couldn’t learn an’ that’d prove him right.”

“Aw, hell, Vin.” Chris felt out of his depth here, unsure what to say, his heart aching for this man who had carried such a fear around with him all his life.

“S’all right. It don’t matter none now.”

“It does matter, Vin. It matters to me. It matters that you grew up unloved and unwanted. It matters that the bastard didn’t let you learn when you’d probably have been the smartest kid in the school.”

Vin shrugged. “Past’s the past, Chris, cain’t change it, so no point dwelling on it. Anyways, I learned pretty quick how to git by without folks findin’ out. Reckon that’s mostly why I didn’t tell ya, just got in the habit of hidin’ it and that were easier than havin’ to face it an’ do somethin’ about it.”

“So, what made you decide to ask Mary to teach you now?” Chris was pretty sure he knew the answer to this one, but wanted to see if Vin was going to tell him.

Predictably, Vin shuffled his feet uncomfortably and Chris decided to put him out of his misery.

“It ain’t important – all that matters is that you had the guts to ask for help.”

Vin was obviously relieved that he didn’t have to answer. Then Chris said casually, watching Vin’s face closely, “Talking of Mary, she said to tell you that your entry won the poetry competition. She wants your permission to name you in the paper as the winner.”

He kept his expression neutral and watched in mild amusement as a variety of emotions crossed Vin’s face, initial shock turning to elation.

“I won?” he managed to force the words out eventually.

“Yup. Hands down, Mary said.”

Vin blushed.

“Ya coulda told me,” Chris remarked mildly.

The blush deepened. “I know I coulda, I was jus’…”

“Embarrassed?” Chris finished for him.

“I guess. Thought you’d all laugh at me, fer thinkin’ I could write a poem. Didn’t want y’all to have to pretend to like it, jus’ ‘cause I wrote it.”

Chris fished round in his pocket and brought out the folded page he’d picked up from his room before leaving town.

“What’s that?”

“It’s your poem. I liked it so much, I kept the page so I could read it again. Course, I didn’t know you’d written it then.”

“You kept it?”


Vin was silent for a moment, obviously trying to digest what that meant. Then he asked, “How do ya know I wrote it?”

“Mary told me.”

“You really liked it?”

“Yeah. I did. You got any more like that?”

“Some,” Vin admitted shyly. “It’s the only one’s written down, though. That’s how Mary found out – I asked her to write it down neat for me, and she guessed.”

Chris frowned, thinking back to Ezra’s admission earlier. He wondered if Ezra was also somehow mixed up in this and determined to find out later.

“I’d like to hear them some time,” he said.

Vin held his eyes for a long time, as if weighing up the sincerity of the request, then smiled. “Reckon I’d like to share ‘em with ya. Ain’t never let anyone hear ‘em before – never found anyone I felt comfortable enough with.”

“Make you a deal?”

Vin raised an inquiring eyebrow.

“Soon’s you’ve learned your letters, I’ll help you write ‘em down. Then we can read ‘em together.”

Vin nodded and turned his head away, but not before Chris had seen the brightness of tears in his eyes. Chris saw his throat working as he tried to control the emotion he was feeling, and waited patiently for him to regain control.

It was some while before Vin turned back to Chris and said, ”Reckon I’ve bin pretty stupid, makin’ such a big deal outta this.”

Chris shook his head. “Reckon it is a big deal fer you, to get this all out in the open after all these years. But if you call yourself ‘stupid’ one more time, I really will have ta shoot you!”

Vin raised a challenging eyebrow. “Like ta see ya try, Larabee.”

Chris smiled, relieved to see Vin’s spirit returning. He went on, “Boys feel really bad for the way it went down this morning. You know they ain’t laughin’ at ya, don’t ya? They know you’re smart, Vin. They understand that you just didn’t git the chance to learn and they’re all real proud of you for havin’ the couarge to ask for help.”

Vin nodded. “Reckon I know that. Guess I jus’ panicked. Took all the courage I had to ask Mary for help, and in the end that wasn’t so bad. She kept tellin’ me I should tell ya all, and I’ve bin meanin’ to; I jus’ couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“Well, you have now, so there ain’t no more reason to worry about it. And you might wanta think on this - there ain’t too many stupid cusses out there who can put words together in a poem like that, and not many who know what an Achilles Heel is, never mind have the courage to face their own.”

Vin nodded again and Chris was relieved to see that the haunted look had gone and he seemed at peace once more.

They stayed where they were for a long while, sitting in companionable silence, the quiet broken only by the occasional cry of a bird or soft nicker from one of the horses.

The sun was low in the sky when Chris said reluctantly, “Reckon we’d best be getting’ back. Don’t ya have a lesson ta go to?”

“Yeah. An’ this time I won’t have to sneak off. Almost had a heart attack yesterd’y when ya’ll walked in on me an’ Mary.”

“Yeah, about that,” Chris began awkwardly. “What I said this morning… I was out of order. I didn’t really think you and Mary…”

“Fergit it , Chris. I gone done some thinkin’ ‘bout that. Kinda hurt that you’d ever think that I’d do that ta ya. But I reckon the way I was actin’, I gave ya every reason to think the worse.”


“I told ya Chris, fergit it.”

Chris saw in Vin’s eyes that he was serious and nodded, grateful that his thoughtless comment hadn’t caused a rift between them.

The two men walked back to the copse where they’d tethered the horses. As he tightened Pony’s cinch, Chris remembered Mary’s question. “Hey, pard, you gonna let Mary put your name in the paper?”

Vin frowned. “Think I should?”

“Hell, yeah. I want to see the looks on some of them snooty faces when they find out who wrote that poem!”

Vin grinned. “Reckon that’s a good enough reason! So long as ya promise ta protect me from all them people’s gonna want a part of me when I’m famous!”

“Don’t reckon your scrawny hide needs any help protectin’ itself, but you have may promise.” Chris agreed solemnly. “Oh, and Vin?” he added.


“Is there anything else ya coulda told me?”

Vin looked back at him seriously.

”Reckon there’s a lot I ain’t told ya.”

“I ain’t askin’ you to tell me anything you don’t want to,” Chris said. “I know you think the past’s the past and that’s fine by me. I just want you to know that if there is anything – that you can trust me with it, that’s all.”

“I know I can trust ya, Chris,” Vin said quietly but with obvious sincerity. “It ain’t that – it’s just that I ain’t never had anyone before who cared enough to even ask. Reckon I jus’ need to keep rememberin’ that I have friends now.”

Chris smiled and mounted Pony in one easy swing. “Can’t ask for more than that.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish made his way along the boardwalk towards the corner where Vin Tanner kept his wagon. He had been trying to get the Texan alone all evening, but it had proved impossible. The other Peacekeepers, anxious to make up for their inept handling of the earlier incident, had between them kept Vin’s attention all evening and Ezra had been unable to carve out a private moment for what he wanted to say. He had waited until Vin had left the saloon for the night and then followed, determined that he wouldn’t sleep tonight until he had put things right between them.

Since the moment he had laughed in Vin’s face when the tracker had asked him to write out his poem, he had been feeling a deep sense of shame. He knew he had been inebriated and, indeed, had certainly had a lot on his mind, but he was haunted by the look of hurt embarrassment on Vin’s face as he’d turned and practically run out of the saloon. Vin’s revelation this morning had added fuel to the fire of his misery as he realized the real reason Vin had been forced to ask for help.

Concerned in the cold light of day that his refusal to help might have meant that Vin had lost his opportunity to enter his poem in the competition, he had checked with Mary and been very relieved when he wheedled out of her the fact that Vin had indeed entered a poem. She had refused to tell him which one.

Ezra had then spent a few hours reading over the fifteen entries, trying to decide which one could been written by the sharpshooter. He had immediately dismissed the bawdy limericks; such base humor really wasn’t Vin’s style. That left eight genuine poems that ranged, in his estimation, from terrible beyond belief to excellent.

He had pondered long and hard on the kind of subject matter Vin might write about and the conclusion he came to surprised him somewhat, for ‘A Hero’s Heart’ could only have been written by a man who thought and felt very deeply.

Yet the more he pondered on it, the less surprised he became. He remembered his first meeting with Tanner. He had summed up the ex-bounty hunter as a rough, undoubtedly uncouth man, probably useful to have on your side in a fight, but unlikely to prove very intellectually stimulating company.

It had taken him very little time to revise this opinion, as it was clear from very early in their acquaintance that Vin was an intelligent and thoughtful man, if somewhat ill-educated. Over time Ezra had come to respect and like the Texan very much. Admittedly, Vin didn’t have a lot to say for himself, but when he did speak he often revealed a profound insight into human nature and a sardonic wit that Ezra appreciated. Ezra had become acutely aware that there was a very great deal more to this man than most people were aware of and it intrigued him.

For two weeks Ezra had been trying to find an opportunity to apologize, but the moment never seemed to be right. He found himself slightly nervous now that the time had come. He observed the light shining out of the covered wagon and as he approached saw the shadow of someone moving around inside. He moved closer and cleared his throat to let Vin know he was there.

”What’d ya want, Ezra?”

Ezra didn’t bother to ask how Vin knew it was him. There were some things about the tracker that would always remain a mystery.

“I was wondering if I could talk to you for a moment.”

The canvass covering parted and Vin stuck his head out.

“It’s late, Ezra. I got early patrol in the mornin’.”

“This won’t take long, Mr. Tanner.”

Vin’s head disappeared back inside the wagon, then the canvas parted again as Vin jumped out. He leaned against the wagon, folded his arms and cocked an eyebrow.

”Well, spit it out Ezra, 'afore it chokes ya.”

Ezra cleared his throat nervously. “I simply wanted to apologise for my behavior when you asked me to write out your poem. I was unforgivably rude.”

“You were drunk.”

“Indeed, I admit I was somewhat inebriated. But that doesn’t excuse my behavior. I cannot deny that I was surprised to learn that you had written a poem. But I want to assure you that I didn’t intend to laugh at you – that was indeed the whiskey talking.”

Vin shrugged. “Guess I cain’t blame ya for being surprised. Reckon I might’ve overreacted.”

“No,” Ezra said firmly, “You did not overreact. I am the one who was at fault. I’ve been trying to find a way to speak to you about it ever since and when I realized this morning the real reason you needed my help, I was even more mortified by my thoughtlessness.”

Ezra wondered if he’d made a mistake in drawing attention to the Texan’s revelation, for Vin tensed and deep blue eyes locked on Ezra’s. Ezra stood his ground and held Vin’s gaze steadily. He was rewarded when Vin finally relaxed his stance and smiled slightly as if something he’d seen in Ezra’s own eyes had satisfied him that the gambler was sincere.

“Forget about it, Ezra.”

“Thank you,” Ezra said, and was surprised at how sincerely he meant those words. “You are very – gracious.”

Vin grinned. “Reckon that’s the first time anyone’s called me ‘gracious’, whatever the darned word means!”

“I meant that I’m grateful that you accepted my apology so readily,” Ezra explained. “I also wanted to tell you that I was deeply affected by the words of your poem.”

Vin groaned. “Is there anyone in Four Corners Mary Travis ain’t told about it!”

“No, indeed, Mary didn’t tell me,” Ezra corrected hastily. “I worked it out for myself. ‘A Hero’s Heart’, am I correct?”

“How‘d ya know that?” Vin asked, clearly astonished.

Ezra smiled. “A process of elimination. I considered what I knew of you and the thoughts I felt you might have. It wasn’t difficult – that poem was the only possible candidate.”

“Well, if that don’t beat everythin’!” Vin exclaimed, obviously somewhat flattered, and Ezra was delighted that he had been able to do something to make up for his error.

“One other thing,” Ezra went on, choosing his words carefully to ensure that he didn’t inadvertently cause any more offence, “If there is any way I can be of help to you in your current noble endeavor, I am at your service.”

Vin grinned again. “You sure got a way with words, Ezra! If you’re talkin’ about the readin’, there ain’t no need for ya ta do penance. You’ve apologized, that’s good enough for me.”

“You misunderstand,” Ezra assured him anxiously. “I am not offering out of a feeling of guilt. I admire a great deal your courage in asking for help in this way and I would like to be of any assistance I can. Perhaps when you’ve made some progress I could lend you some books – I have a quite a few volumes of poetry that you might enjoy.”

Another long moment went by in silence. Ezra found himself hoping fervently that Vin didn’t turn down his offer of help.

“You really want to help?” Vin asked finally

“Really,” Ezra replied firmly.

“Well, in that case – Mary’s given me a book to practice my readin’, but there’s some words I just cain’t figure out…”

“Say no more! Why don’t we read it together? Though perhaps it would be a little more, shall we say ‘salubrious’, if we removed ourselves to my room in the boarding house.”

Vin raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Just ‘cause I cain’t read, don’t mean I don’t understand when you’ve just insulted my humble home, Ez.” He reached back into the wagon to pick up the book. “But I’ll forgive ya, under the circumstances.”

“Why, thank you, Mr. Tanner.”

The End