Synopsis: "You were drunk, you said some things. What's done is done. I learned a long time ago—" The smile Vin gave Ezra was free from bitterness. "Hell, I probably wouldn't look at me and see a poet either." Sequel to Mistaken Identity.
It was an inescapable fact of life that their expert tracker was often annoyingly difficult to track down.
Ezra checked the Saloon, Vin's wagon, the sheriff's office, and finally the livery, where Tiny informed him that Tanner had taken off on Peso early that morning. Fingering the copy of The Clarion he'd tucked into his breast pocket, Ezra hesitated only a moment before heading back to the Saloon. His conversation with Mary Travis—damn the woman—still rang in his ears, and the urgency to speak with Vin hadn't abated. But continuing to search for the man would be as counterproductive as playing a pair of tens against a royal flush. Best to wait where there was whiskey and hope Vin came back thirsty.
He spent the remainder of the afternoon pleasurably, managing to cajole some cowboys into a few hands of cards. Overall the Saloon was unusually quiet for a weekday, however, and as the sun set and Inez lit the lamps to dispel the growing darkness, Ezra sat playing solitaire, one of only three remaining customers.
"Something to eat, Señor Standish?" Inez asked as she wiped down the bar.
"Thank you, señorita, but I think it's time I moved on to more fertile ground," Ezra said with a wink, scooping the cards into a neat pile and shoving back his chair.
Before he'd made it to his feet, the doors swung inward and the man he'd been searching for all day stepped through. Ezra sank back and watched as Vin scanned the room, a smile for Inez and a nod in his direction. Though his shoulders relaxed a bit and he moved toward the bar, there was a watchfulness about Vin that never dissipated. A wanted man, Tanner couldn't afford to be caught off guard, even for a moment. In truth, Ezra had observed him relax his vigilance less than a handful of times, and then only when Larabee was at his back. Ezra shuffled the cards in his hands; good to know some of his perceptions about Vin Tanner still held true.
"Mr. Tanner," he called, diverting Vin from his path toward Inez.
"Ezra." Vin came over to the table but didn't sit. "Was hopin' to find Chris."
"I believe he rode out to do some work on his homestead for a few days—at least, according to Mr. Wilmington, who in this case I consider a fairly reliable source." He waved at a chair. "Please, sit."
Vin pulled off his hat and ran his fingers through tangled hair before replacing it. "Thanks fer the offer, but . . . I'm not of a mind to add any money to that stash in your boot."
Ezra searched Vin's face with sharp eyes. He hadn't perceived Tanner direct any coolness or discomfort toward him after the unfortunate incident over the poem—could he have missed something? But no, the lines around Vin's eyes spoke only of fatigue, and one corner of his mouth had turned up in a wry grin.
"You misunderstand me," Ezra said, deliberately setting aside the deck of cards. "Allow me to buy you a drink, Vin."
"Who are you, and where did you put the real Ezra Standish?" Vin drawled, but after only a slight hesitation he pulled out a chair and sat with his back to the wall.
Seeing Inez look their way, Ezra held up his glass and pointed to Vin. After she'd set a glass in front of Tanner and poured, she turned to leave, but Ezra caught her arm. "Leave the bottle, por favor, Señorita Recillos."
Vin's eyebrows shot up. "Okay, now yer just scaring me."
Ignoring the jibe, Ezra downed his own drink and sorted through the words he'd been contemplating all afternoon. "You were a difficult man to find today," he finally said.
"Was out to Nettie's." Vin took a cautious sip of his drink. "Storm last week took off some shingles, flattened some fence."
"Ah. That was . . . kind of you. The wizened old crone is fortunate to have the benefit of your friendship." Ezra poured himself another shot, wincing inwardly. Get to the point, Standish.
Vin rolled his glass between his fingers but didn't drink. "What's this all about, Ezra? You say you were looking for me—we got a problem I ain't aware of?"
"No! Or rather, I sincerely hope—" Ezra stopped and shook his head. "I fear I find I myself faced with an uncharacteristic lack of eloquence for this situation."
Vin snorted and shook his head. "Don't know much about eloquence, Ez, but I'm thinking maybe you should just spit it out."
"Right." Ezra pulled the copy of The Clarion from his pocket and handed it to Vin. "Since you've been out of town all day, I would imagine you haven't seen this yet."
Several seconds passed before Vin accepted the paper. His body tensed as his eyes roved over the page and then he thrust it back at Ezra. "Not much interested in a lotta town gossip. I've got more important things on my mind."
Ezra accepted the paper, staring from it to Vin's expressionless face. Baffled. Town gossip? The headline for the poetry contest was right there, after all, with Tanner's poem featuring prominently. It was the first thing to draw your eye, the most obvious to read—oh.
“I was wonderin’ if, well, since you have such nice handwriting and all, would you mind, once you sober up . . . writing down my poem for me, all nice and pretty-like?”
"You aren’t the only one who hasn’t bothered to look past a lack of education and that buffalo hide coat."
". . . a lack of education . . ."
". . . a lack of education . . ."
Shaken, Ezra cleared his throat. "I can, ah, certainly understand that, Mr. Tanner. But in your . . . haste, you've missed something of great interest." He smoothed the paper out on the table. "Namely the entrants to the First Annual Territory Poetry Contest. Including a submission by Vin Tanner entitled 'A Hero's Heart.'"
For an instant Vin's face relaxed, his lips curving into a shy smile. "She did it? Mary really went and put my poem in the paper?" He voice held a note of something like wonder. Then he abruptly stiffened and raised angry eyes to Ezra's face. "Hold on, is that what you're after? Didn't have a good enough laugh the first time around?"
As he shoved back his chair and stood, Ezra rose with him. "Vin, wait." He grabbed Tanner by the arm, releasing him just as quickly when Vin's glare turned dangerous. Raising both hands, palms out, Ezra struggled to speak with a mouth that felt desert-dry. "I agree my behavior that day was reprehensible, but my intention is not to repeat it." He drew in a deep breath. "I wanted to . . . well, apologize."
Vin studied him for a long moment and then sat. Silent. Waiting.
Ezra nodded to himself and resumed his own seat. He opened his mouth to deliver the apology he'd been crafting all afternoon, only to press his lips firmly together. Until a few minutes ago his treatment of Vin had seemed merely oafish and insensitive. But now, in the wake of this new discovery of Tanner's illiteracy—something Vin obviously held a closely guarded secret—Ezra was forced to see his actions in a new light: betrayal.
"You came to me as a compatriot," he said, "one in whom you felt you could place your trust. Sadly, I failed to deliver. And in a most churlish fashion."
Vin leaned back in the chair, his body still tense. "'Preciate the fancy words, but as far as I’m concerned they aren't needed. You and me, we're good."
Amazed at being let off the hook so easily, Ezra watched Vin toss back the rest of his drink and pour another. The fact that Tanner obviously hadn't given much thought to the way he'd been mocked—and by a friend—made Ezra feel worse, not better. Mary's words from earlier that day echoed in his mind:
"I can guarantee you aren’t the only one who hasn’t bothered to look past a lack of education and that buffalo hide coat. I doubt very much he’s given whatever you did a second thought."
The woman was proving to be annoyingly right in more than one instance.
"I must admit I find your generosity surprising."
Vin lifted a shoulder, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "You were drunk, you said some things. What's done is done. I learned a long time ago—" He caught himself, reaching for his glass and downing the rest of his drink. The smile he gave Ezra was free from bitterness. "Hell, I probably wouldn't look at me and see a poet either."
That barbed wire he'd felt earlier with Mary Travis twisted inside Ezra's gut again. How could he ever have thought he was above this man's friendship?
"Perhaps," he acknowledged, pouring Tanner another drink without breaking eye contact. "But since I am your friend, you should expect me to see with clearer vision."
Seeing the impact of his words register in Tanner's wide eyes, Ezra continued. "That particular lack of judgment aside, I like to think I do have an ear for fine poetry when I encounter it. And yours, Vin, is far more worthy of publication than much of the dross I have seen in print. Be assured that I would be honored to put my penmanship skills to work on any future endeavors you might have."
Color rose in Vin's cheeks, but he couldn't hide the pleased quirk to his lips. "You really liked it? It's not just another way for you to eat crow?"
With a chuckle Ezra poured himself another shot. "I assure you, Mr. Tanner, I meant what I said. All of it."
"Well then . . . I appreciate the offer. Mary promised to help me with my handwriting, but if I need something put to paper sooner . . ."
"You need only ask," Ezra finished.
When Vin nodded and reached for his glass, Ezra raised his own. "A toast."
"To friendship," Vin said.
Ezra shook his head. "Not just to friendship. To clearer vision."
Grinning at each other, they drank.