Orphans, Mothers and Sons

by Sue Necessary


Nettie sat in her Hepplewhite chair before the hearth and gazed down at Vin, who sat on the floor and leaned against her, his head resting on her knee. All the tension had drained from him, leaving only exhaustion and overwhelming sorrow in its place. Nettie had finally gotten him to eat some, and between the food, her loving presence, and the whiskey she kept pouring into his coffee, he was finding it easier and easier to talk.

"She was all I ever had in this world that was good an' soft an' kind," he said in his soft, raspy drawl, his blue eyes staring tiredly into the fire. "There wasn't no hardness, no meanness, to her. But she was strong, though." He frowned slightly. "Reckon she had t' be. It was jus' th' two of us, y'know. I never had no pa. Leastwise, not that I remember. Never really missed him, though. Reckon ya don't miss what y'ain't never had. But she used ta say as long as we had each other, we had all we really needed. Reckon that was so, cause whilst I knowed some folks who had more'n us, I never knowed nobody t' be happier'n us. She'd sing t' me an' tell me stories, an' when I'd help her, or mebbe bring her flowers, she'd say there wasn't a better little boy nowhere than me." He sighed softly and shook his head slowly, grimacing in pain. "Reckon she wouldn't say that now."

She frowned at his strange words. "An' why not?"

"Aw, hell, Nettie, look at me!" he breathed. "What've I ever done that's worth a damn? Hunted buffalo, hunted men, never learned t' read-- Hell, there's a price on my head in Texas!"

"Ya didn't do it, son," she said firmly, "ever'body knows it."

A slight, wry grin touched his lips. "Well, ever'body ceptin' them who wants t' hang me." The smile faded and his eyes grew sad. "Reckon I oughtta be glad she didn't live t' see my name an' face on a wanted poster. That alone woulda killed her. To see th' disgrace I brung t' th' Tanner name--" He closed his eyes and swallowed hard against a sudden rush of pain. "I never wanted her t' be ashamed o' me!" he whispered harshly.

She winced and reached down, running gentle fingers through his long hair. "You listen t' me, son," she urged quietly, firmly. "Ain't no mother in her right mind would ever be ashamed o' you. An' I can't see that you've brought anything but honor t' yer name. Ya got a good heart, Vin, a decent heart, an' there ain't many men out here can say that. Hell, y'ain't no saint, but I likely wouldn't have no use for ya if ya were. Known a few saints in my time, an' they git damned tiresome after a while." She smiled down at him, still stroking his hair. "Ain't never seen a body more stubborn'n you; once ya git yer mind fixed on somethin', dynamite couldn't shake it loose. An' that temper o' yer'n -- ya don't lose it often, but when ya do, land sakes, th' rest of us'd best hunt fer cover! I'd surely hate t' cross ya, cause I've seen what ya c'n do t' them that does. But y'ain't got a mean or vicious bone in yer body, son, an' ya'd go ten miles outta yer way t' help somebody in need. Look at all ya do for them folks in town. Hell, look at all ya do for me an' Casey! An' for what? A dollar a day an' enough bullets in yer body t' fill the guns of an Army regiment?"

He reached up and took her hand in his, smiling tiredly. "That, n all th' chicken n dumplin's I c'n eat."

She squeezed his fingers lovingly. "Hell, boy, somebody's gotta feed ya," she said with gruff tenderness. "Ya need some meat on them bones." She gazed down at their joined hands. "Y'ain't no disgrace, Vin Tanner. Ya jus' ain't got that in ya."

"Why don't I remember her better, Nettie?" he asked suddenly, softly, a world of loss and confusion in his voice and eyes. "Why cain't I see her clear no more, like I used ta? Why cain't I hear her voice like I used ta? I try, but--" He huddled against her as the terrible ache again overwhelmed him. "What'll I do if I lose her?" he whispered in anguish.

She leaned forward in the chair and wrapped her arms about his shoulders, pulling him to her and resting her cheek against his bowed head. "Ya won't lose her, son," she assured him. "Ya can't. She's a part of ya, she's in yer heart an' in yer soul."

He hugged her arms with his, clinging tightly to her. "But I cain't see her--"

"Ya don't need to, child," she murmured, wishing she could take this hurt from him. "Mem'ries ain't what we see, Vin. They're what we feel, what we know, what we hold t' be true deep inside. An' ya can't tell me ya don't feel yer ma inside ya, that ya don't know she's with ya. Jus' who d'ya think's been watchin' over ya all these years, guidin' ya along right paths an' turnin' ya back from wrong ones? When you're confused about somethin', not certain of th' right or wrong of it, whose voice d'ya hear tellin' ya what's true? An' don't tell me ya don't hear that voice, cause I've seen yer face when ya do. Yer ma ain't some picture ya need t' take out ever' day an' look at, Vin. She's in here," she tapped his breast, "as alive as ever, an' still makin' sure her boy knows right an' does good. Ya can't lose her, son, not as long as ya stay true t' all th' things she taught ya."

"I'd still like t' see her--"

"I know ya would, son," she sighed, still holding him, still held by him. "But ya were so young when ya lost her-- Hell, ya weren't much more'n a baby. An' so much time has passed--"

He laughed softly. "She used t' call me that. I'se always her baby. But I always told her I weren't a baby no more--" He sighed deeply and leaned further into her embrace. "Lord, I'm tired, Nettie!" he breathed. "I'm tired almost t' death! I been wrasslin' with this all day-- It was makin' my chest hurt somethin' fierce!"

"And now?"

He sighed again, then smiled slightly and reached up to lay a calloused hand against her weathered cheek. "It's hard t' hurt with you, Nettie," he murmured. "Ya got a way of makin' th' hurt go way."

Tears filled her eyes at that, and she turned her head to kiss his palm. "A good boy like you don't need ta hurt," she rasped tightly. "Ya done hurt too much already, an' if I can take any of it from ya, I will. Y'ain't alone, Vin, an' y'ain't never gonna be alone, y'hear? Ya got yer ma, an' ya got me. Don't you ever fergit that!"

He turned on the floor and stared intently up at her, into the face he knew and loved so well. Frowning, he raised a hand and ran it slowly, carefully, over her face, as if he were reading sign.

And she sat patiently and let him, knowing he often "saw" as much with his hands as with his eyes.

"It's funny," he murmured at last, still frowning, his hand lingering on her cheek, "I cussed Peso somethin' fierce for bringin' me here, couldn't imagine what fool notion had got inta him. Reckon maybe I know now." That crooked, boyish grin broke slowly over his face and cast new light into his tired blue eyes. "Reckon maybe this time, instead o' guidin' me, she was guidin' him. Reckon maybe she told him t' bring me here, so's you could make th' hurt go way."

She smiled and pressed his fingers to her mouth, kissing them. "Reckon maybe she did, son. I reckon she knows she's got help now lookin' after her boy. Now," she reached out and gently brushed the hair back from his exhaustion-lined face, "let's git ya bedded down before ya fall over. Ya don't look far from it now. Casey's at the Allens', you c'n have her bed--"

"Aw, hell, Nettie, I don't need no bed," he protested. "I'll jus' spread my bedroll here, by th' fire. Her room's too small, an' I cain't sleep with them walls so close."

She frowned deeply, but knew better than to argue. She told herself she oughtta just be grateful he was sleepin' inside at all, instead of out on the porch, as he'd done more than once.

"Stubborn," she muttered, delighted to see the shy grin he tried to hide by bowing his head. "That's what ya are, Vin Tanner -- mule stubborn!" She reached out and cupped his chin in her hand, raising his head until their eyes met. "But don't fergit -- I'm stubborn, too, an' I know a thing or two about mules."

Gazing at her, feeling the strength and tenderness in her touch, there was suddenly so much he wanted -- needed -- to say to her. But, as ever, he found himself struggling for words he did not have.

What his tongue could not say, however, his eyes did, and she saw plainly in them all that was in his heart. Leaning forward, she smiled and kissed him on the cheek.

"I know, son," she whispered. "I know. And I love you, too."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra entered the saloon slowly, his head still hammering, his stomach still treacherously unsteady, his mouth dry as desert sand. He was in desperate need of coffee, but much preferred the dark interior of the saloon to the bright and lively dining room at the boarding house. And he felt much more at home here, as well.

Inez watched his entrance, noted his stiffly erect posture, his slow and careful steps, and shook her head in sympathy. Without waiting for him to ask, she poured a cup of coffee and carried it to the table where she knew he would sit.

"Thank you, my dear," he breathed, sinking miserably into his chair. "Now, if only you could still the hoofbeats of the cavalry runnin' rampant in my head, I would sings hymns of praise to your angelic glory."

"You know, of course," she said with a smile, "you are only getting what you deserve after last night. You should know better than to drink like that!"

He winced as her voice only intensified the pounding in his skull. "Softly, my dear, softly!" he urged, holding up a hand to silence her. "I fear General Sherman has mistaken my head for Georgia, and is layin' waste to it as we speak." He reached for the needed coffee, and was appalled to see his hands shaking. "Most distressin'!" he murmured.

The doors opened, admitting another patron. "Ezra!"

"Oh, Lord," he groaned, bowing his aching head and almost spilling the coffee. "It just gets worse! Why can't I die?"

Maude came to the table and sat down across from him, then smiled sweetly up at Inez. "Why, that coffee just smells heavenly! Might I trouble you for a cup?"

Inez nodded and walked off, feeling sorrier for Ezra than ever. Not even he deserved a hangover and Maude at once.

Maude stared after the younger woman. "What a delightful girl!" she said brightly. "And an amazin' head for business. She was really one of my better finds."

"As I recall, Mother, I found her," Ezra corrected tiredly, holding his tortured head in shaking hands. "Or, more accurately still, she found me." He withdrew one hand from his head and reached for the coffee with it, praying he did not spill any of it with her watching. "And to what do I owe the inestimable pleasure of your delightful presence this mornin'?"

She turned her benevolent smile upon him. "Why, I merely wanted to talk with my darlin' boy." She swept her gaze over his pale face and shaking hands. "And how are you, dear?"

He sipped from the coffee, grateful for its warmth and strength. "I am alive," he groaned. "I think."

"Hm, but not by much. Good Lord, Ezra, you're as pale as death! And shakin' like a tinhorn in a high stakes game!"

"Please, Mother!" he rasped, wincing in torment. "There's no need to shout so. I am right here."

She arched an elegant brow. "I wasn't shoutin', darlin'." She sighed and shook her head. "I do hope you've learned your lesson. You know, your stepfather had a similar weakness, and it led him to an early grave."

"Really?" he drawled. "And which unfortunate victim would that be?"

"Naturally it would be--" She frowned in thought, but memory failed her and she shook her head, smiling blithely. "Well, it really doesn't matter. One of them died drunk--"

"Only one?" he murmured. "What a surprise."

"Don't be nasty, darlin', it doesn't become you. And I'm not here to discuss me. I am here because I am worried about you."

"My, my," he marvelled, finally able to lift his head without feeling it might explode. "What a charmin', if novel, notion."

"Has anyone ever told you that you are a mean drunk?" she asked coolly. "You know you have always mattered to me--"

"In a neglected, forsaken kind of way."

She sighed patiently. "You're bitter."

"Me?" he asked with mock incredulity. "Bitter? Why, Mother, what on earth could I possibly have to be bitter about? True, I have been unceremoniously deposited with every relative we have, and even a few I am not completely convinced were ours, and, true, I seemed to matter to you only when I was useful to you, and, true, I have seen more maternal tenderness in alley cats and Mr. Wilmington's courtesans than in you. But, really, what cause could I possibly have for bitterness?"

"I have done the best that I can!" she snapped defensively, slapping a hand against the table and watching in grim satisfaction as he jumped and grimaced. "It's not easy for a woman to make it in this world alone, Ezra, but I used the talents I'd been given to make a life for us. And I don't recall it bein' such a bad life, either! You never went hungry, and you always had a bed to sleep in and a roof over your head. I also taught you a trade, an art, that has profited you most handsomely in the past! But if my efforts on your behalf were not enough, well, I am sorry!"

He sighed heavily and shook his head slowly, "I am not completely unappreciative of your efforts, Mother," he said quietly. "You did what you thought you had to, what you thought was best at the time. And I can appreciate how difficult some of your choices and decisions must have been. I am merely askin' you to do the same for me. You've lived your life as you've seen fit. Let me live mine as I see fit. I'm not askin' your approval, merely your acceptance. I'm not your darlin' little boy' anymore, Mother. I'm a grown man. And I would appreciate it if you would do me the courtesy of treatin' me as such!"

She smiled sadly and reached for his hand, closing her fingers about his. "Oh, Ezra," she sighed, "you're wrong. I know you're a grown man, but you will always be my darlin' little boy. I may not know much about motherin', but I do know that once you start, it's almost impossible to stop. I only want the best for you, Ezra, and I can't stand the thought of you settlin' for anything less. People like us were not meant to settle.' The very idea is anathema to us!"

He laughed lightly and raised her hand to his lips, kissing her fingers. "Believe me, Mothah," he drawled, his green eyes gleaming, "I nevah settle.' I abhor anything less than the very best, and simply will not tolerate it."

She eyed him steadily. "Then these men, these gunsl-- associates of yours-- I take it you consider them the best?"

He laughed again. "But of course! After all," he winked, "would I waste my God-given talents on anything or anyone less?"

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat outside the jail with Buck, enjoying the big man's easy camaraderie, a strong cup of coffee, and the morning quiet. Buck was going on about his courtship of Dora Mae, one of the newest girls at the saloon, and Chris was listening indulgently, smiling and wondering if his friend would ever change.

Lord, he hoped not...

All at once, Buck broke off and stared down the street, frowning slightly. "Well, he's back early! Didn't think we'd see him for another day or two, at least."

Chris followed Buck's gaze with his own, immediately recognizing the big black horse and the deceptively careless slouch of his rider. He had to agree with Buck. With the knots Vin had had in his soul yesterday, he'd expected the tracker to be gone a good two or three days workin' em out.

"Thought ya said he was troubled?" Buck asked quietly, watching the younger man's approach.

"He was," Chris answered. But it was clear -- at least to him -- that Vin wasn't troubled now. His shoulders no longer sagged under some invisible burden, and, though he rarely sat up straight, his lean frame was no longer bowed by the pain that had plagued him yesterday. Chris instinctively knew the blue eyes would be clear again, too. "Must've found some powerful medicine in them hills of his."

Buck grinned broadly. "Or a woman. Most powerful medicine I know!"

Chris only chuckled and shook his head.

Vin guided Peso over to the jail and reined him to a stop before it. Gazing steadily at Chris from beneath the brim of his hat, he leaned forward and rested his crossed wrists on the pommel, as relaxed as ever he'd been.

Chris' smile broadened; he'd been right about Vin's eyes. They were as clear as the midmorning sky.

Vin nodded slightly, his mouth curving into the familiar crooked grin.

And Buck, watching, wondered yet again how two men could say so much without ever sayin' one damned word.

Finally, knowing Chris was reassured, Vin turned his blue gaze upon the other man, still smiling. "Mornin', Bucklin," he greeted in that soft, gravelly drawl.

Buck smiled and took in Vin's relaxed posture. "You back?"

"Reckon I am."

"Use a beer?"

"Reckon I could."

"You buyin'?"

Vin reached up and scratched his jaw. "Ain't got no money."

Buck's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "How is it that I never see ya buyin' nothin but bandannas and rifle cartridges, but come drinkin' time ya never have any money?"

Vin shrugged loosely. "Reckon I'm jus' payin' too much fer bandannas an' cartridges." His blue eyes twinkled brightly. "Shame, though. Got me a powerful thirst."

Buck scowled and exhaled explosively. "Aw, hell, then, stable yer horse an' come on t' th' saloon. Reckon I'm buyin' again!"

Vin straightened -- or as much as he ever did -- and winked. "Reckon y'are." He touched the brim of his hat to Buck, then turned Peso toward the livery.

Buck stared after him, fuming visibly. "Damnation!" he swore loudly. "That boy's spendin' way too much time with Ezra! Next, he'll be cheatin' at cards!"

And Chris laughed helplessly.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked into the saloon and glanced about, seeing Chris and Buck at their usual table, with a beer there waiting for him. He nodded to them, but did not immediately join them. Instead, he made his quiet way toward a table nearer the center of the room, and to the man who sat alone at it.

"Mornin', Ezra," he greeted softly. "Mind if'n I sit?"

Ezra looked up, momentarily startled by the tracker's presence, but quickly gathered himself and waved a hand in graceful invitation. "Please, Mr. Tanner, be my guest."

Vin nodded and slid into the chair across from the gambler, sinking into his customary slouch. For long moments, he regarded Ezra steadily, silently, from beneath the shade of his hat, trying to pull together in his mind the words he wanted to say.

Ezra shuffled his cards effortlessly, acutely aware of that unwavering stare and trying not to be unnerved by it. Hadn't anyone ever brought to the man's attention just how rude such behavior was? His tracking skills might be superb, but he had all the social skills of a deaf-mute raised by wolves!

Yet when Vin finally spoke, his words so startled Ezra that the cards flew through his fingers and dropped to the table in a disorganized mess.

"Was wonderin' if'n ya'd squared things with yer ma yet," Vin said slowly, forcing aside his natural reticence to say what must be said.

Ezra stared at him in shock and bewilderment, his mind refusing to function. Square things... What on earth...?

Vin shifted slightly in his chair, painfully uncomfortable, but determined to go through with this. Mule stubborn, Nettie had called him. She was usually right about such things.

"That fight y'all had yesterday," he drawled softly. "I'se wonderin' if'n y'all had made it right between ya."

Ezra was tempted to ask what business it was of his, but stopped himself. He knew how Tanner loathed to intrude into the affairs of others, knew he had an absolute -- and wholly understandable, given his situation -- horror of what he termed "meddlin'." So for him now to insert himself into this most personal and delicate of matters told Ezra that he had something to say. Something that deserved to be heard.

"We have made our peace," he answered at last, growing more curious about this odd discussion by the moment. "Such disagreements, I'm afraid, seem to be a natural part of our relationship. Vitriolic as they are, they seldom last long. I am only sorry you had to witness such unpleasantness."

"Don't matter none," came the habitual answer. He dropped his gaze to the table, frowning in concentration, and ran his tongue slowly over his lips.

Ezra watched him in utter fascination, his whole attention riveted to the tracker. He could actually see Vin's painful struggle for words, and wondered what twist of nature or character made them so alien and unnatural to one man, and as easy as breathing to another. He found himself leaning forward, even holding his breath, to catch whatever came next from the quiet man.

"Hate t' see y'all fight is all," Vin said softly at last, still staring at the table. "Oughtn't be that way tween a son an' his ma. Specially when yer all each other's got."

Ezra exhaled unsteadily and sat back, his green eyes widening as understanding slowly dawned. For some reason, the stoic Mr. Tanner was expressing concern about his familial situation!

Vin slowly lifted his eyes to Ezra's face, deeply grateful the man, for once, was staying quiet. The gambler's fancy, high-falutin' words would only have confused him and made it impossible for him to continue.

Again, he ran his tongue over his lips, his eyes fixed on Ezra's. "She's yer ma, Ezra, an' yer her boy. Yer all each other's got. N one day, one o' ya-- won't be here no more." A flicker of pain clouded his eyes for a moment. "It's-- hard enough t' remember yer ma-- once she's gone, without havin' only fightin' t' remember. Ya need-- ya need t' make sure there's-- somethin' else t' hold onto, somethin' else t' keep inside n look back on when ever'thin' else-- fades away."

Ezra was stunned. Not only by the length at which the tracker had spoken -- surely a record for him! -- but also by the amount of himself that he'd revealed in his unusual flow of words. Vin was speaking from experience, from obviously painful experience, exposing the depth and hurt of his own loss to warn Ezra against incurring such a hurt of his own.

She's yer ma, Ezra. Ya shouldn't talk thataway about yer ma.

Words not of reprimand, but of wisdom, of warning, spoken by a man who rarely, if ever, spoke about his own mother.

Who had no mother to speak about.

He swallowed hard, intensely aware of the rare glimpse -- and rare gift -- he had been given. At that moment, Vin Tanner was entirely, excruciatingly vulnerable before him, utterly defenseless. And not for all the money in the world would he have shattered the trust being shown him.

Mother would be appalled.

"Thank you, Mr. T-- Vin," he said softly, sincerely, his eyes for once unguarded. "I know it cannot have been easy for you to say these things, and I am deeply grateful that you value our association, our friendship, enough to have made the effort. I suppose I have a tendency to take for granted what I have, and forget that there are others who-- have lost-- a most important part of their lives. Perhaps I have forgotten -- or simply choose to deny -- how quickly we may lose what we hold most dear."

"She's yer ma, Ezra," Vin said softly, simply. "She ain't perfect, but she's yer ma. An' no matter how she vexes ya when she's here, it'll hurt like hell when she's gone." He swallowed and nodded. "Jus' thought ya oughtta know that." He rose to his feet with a quiet, easy grace. "When ya want, come on up with us an' I'll buy ya a beer." He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat, then turned away to leave.

"Mr. Tanner!" Ezra called suddenly. When Vin stopped and turned back toward him, Ezra rose to his feet, searching for the tracker's eyes under that obscuring hat brim. "It occurs to me," he said softly, "that in the heat of emotion, and in frustration with my mother, I may have-- said something yesterday to offend or-- or to hurt you. If I did, I sincerely apologize. It was mean-spirited and thoroughly reprehensible of me to lash out at you as I did, and I-- I am- - sorry."

Vin puzzled over "reprehensible" for a few moments, but thought he understood the rest of it and nodded. He knew how much an apology -- any apology -- cost the gambler and was touched to have gotten what so few others ever did.

"Aw, hell, Ezra," he drawled softly, the crooked grin spreading slowly over his face, "it's done with. I reckon we was both a mite touchy. Anyhow, it don't matter now." He nodded again, fingered his hat, then turned and crossed the saloon to the table where Chris and Buck waited.

Ezra stared after him through wide eyes. But it does matter, his mind whispered in wonder at what had just transpired. It matters more than you could possibly know!

+ + + + + + +

Chris stared down at Ezra's table and watched the exchange between gambler and tracker with a deep sense of unease. He had been surprised when Vin had sat down with Ezra, had no idea what to expect, and half-wondered if he should go down and ride herd on the two very strong-willed men.

But, goddamnit, he wasn't a damned nursemaid, and Vin and Ezra weren't kids!

"Now, why is it," Buck said with quiet amusement, "that the sight o' them two together gives me th' sudden urge t' hunt fer cover?"

Chris said nothing, merely sipped from his beer and continued to watch, alert for any sign of trouble. He knew there usually was no animosity between the two. Hell, Vin was so easy-going he could tolerate almost anybody, and he actually seemed to enjoy Ezra's company, even if he didn't always understand him. But Chris also remembered how confused and hurt Vin had been yesterday, and knew how cutting Ezra's tongue and abrasive wit could be. He doubted Ezra would intentionally hurt Vin under normal circumstances, but, with Maude in town, circumstances were hardly normal, and Ezra was predictably on edge.

And the thought of Vin and Ezra both gettin' their backs up at the same time was not a pleasant one.

To his amazement, though, that didn't happen. As he watched, Vin rose from his chair and started toward them, but was called back by Ezra. The two men exchanged a few more words, then Vin left Ezra, coming with that silent, cat- like tread to join him and Buck. He hitched his thumbs into his gunbelt, and Chris could see he was smiling.

Just what the hell had happened down there?

Buck grinned at the confusion on Chris' face, knowing how much the gunslinger hated not knowing what was happening around him. He hadn't known many fellers who could confuse Larabee, but damned if Vin and Ezra hadn't pulled it off! For that alone, Buck figured Vin deserved that beer he was gettin'.

Vin stepped up to the table and moved to his usual chair, sinking down into it and sitting so the wall protected his back. As Buck slid his beer over to him, he picked it up and grinned at the big man.

"Thanks, Bucklin," he murmured, sipping from it.

"Don't suppose you're gonna tell us what that was all about?" Chris asked, eyeing his friend steadily.

Vin wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and returned Chris' gaze with wide-eyed innocence. "Weren't nothin'," he drawled. "'Sides--"

"Lemme guess," Chris said with a chuckle, relaxing at last, "it don't matter now. Damn, Tanner, when're you gonna learn some new words?"

Vin slouched comfortably in his seat, cradling his beer in his hands and regarding Chris with a mischievous smile. "Well, I reckon I could spend more time with Ezra. He's got more'n a few I could mebbe learn--"

"Hell, there's a thought t' keep a man awake at night!" Chris muttered darkly, his green eyes gleaming. "You an' Ezra spendin' time together. An' here I thought we were s'posed t' be makin' this territory safe!"

"Well, hell, ol' pard, it could be worse," Buck put in, determined to add to Chris' misery. "Maude could always adopt Vin. Jus' think of all th' uses she could find for his particular God-given talents'!"

Chris dropped his hands onto folded arms with a sick groan.

Orphans, mothers and sons.

Hell, why didn't somebody just shoot him now?


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