“It was a fine poem,” Nettie said as she put her teacup down on the table. “But then, most of his are.”
Mary looked up, startled. “You’ve read others of his?”
Nettie tilted her head to one side and lifted one eyebrow. It was a look Mary knew well, though she wasn’t often the one on the other end of it. Nettie used that expression when she was annoyed with someone, particularly someone who was trying to play her for the fool. “Of course I haven’t read them; Vin can’t read or write. But you know that.”
Mary couldn’t stop the flush that crawled up her face. But she didn’t give into the embarrassment – she was a newspaper woman. “He wasn’t pleased that I figured it out,” she said. “I gather it embarrasses him, though for the life of me, I can’t imagine why.”
Nettie stared for a second more then she straightened her head and sighed. “I agree that he has no call to be embarrassed about it, but look at the company he’s keeping. Every one of the others is able to read and they all take it for granted. In many ways, most of us in this town do. Even Nathan, born a slave, can read and he reads those medical tombs. Somewhere else, I doubt it would trouble Vin nearly as much as it does here.”
Mary frowned, thinking about it. “He asked me to teach him to read, and we have been trying.”
Nettie arched that eyebrow again, but she didn’t tilt her head and when she spoke, there was lightness in her tone that was almost amusement. “But it’s difficult to find time to work on his lessons because you are both very busy people, and if you’re trying to do this quietly, without drawing attention to your meetings, then that adds an additional problem to the timing.”
Mary looked away, feeling the flush once more. “As I said, Vin is embarrassed by it.”
“And more to the point, neither of you want others to think that your lessons are anything else. It is a dilemma.” She sat forward, reaching for the teapot and refilling her cup and then Mary’s as she continued, “Though I hope that you’ve given up on Chris Larabee. He’s a lost cause, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t save him from himself.”
The anger was sudden and hard, a different heat in her face. She opened her mouth to speak, but there were too many things fighting to come out of her mouth.
Which, in the end, was good, as it gave Nettie a chance to go on. “You’re a strong woman, Mary – you remind me a lot of myself at your age, though I still had my Henry. I can’t speak to the problems you’ve had and the pain, but I can speak to what I see as something that will only bring you more pain, and Chris Larabee is it. He’s still lost in his grief, and its a fire you can’t hope to put out. Trying to save him will only hurt you – and Billy – more.”
With that, Nettie sat back and sipped her tea, appearing to concentrate on the act of bringing the cup to her mouth.
A s she calmed, Mary realized that Nettie was giving her time to get herself together. That Nettie had known the effect her words would have – and had worked to be as clear as she could.
And now that she thought about it, Mary also knew that Nettie was, in her way, trying to be helpful. It wasn’t in Nettie’s nature to be silent if she thought something was wrong or if she thought someone was doing something that might get them into trouble. Or get them hurt.
“Billy is very fond of him,” she said after a time, picking up her own teacup.
“And Chris is very fond of Billy – anyone looking at him can see that,” Nettie said. “But Chris is still mourning his own boy. Just as you were when Chris got here, before Billy came back.”
Those words caught her off-guard. For a few seconds, she wanted to argue with Nettie, to remind her that she’d sent her son away for his own safety.
But she knew, even as she sought to defend it, that Nettie was right. She had been in mourning for her husband, and sending Billy away had been as much allow her that time as it had been to protect him.
“I’d be insane if something had happened to Billy,” she said softly “I think that sometimes, looking at Chris, I fear that that could happen to me.”
Nettie nodded. “I think we all do. I’ve lost children – three of them so far, three of my own body. None of them were as young as Adam Larabee, but to be honest, I’m not certain that age makes a difference. I had a very hard time after Henry died, and there are still days that I miss him so much that I find myself talking to him. But my children . . . .”
Mary drew in a breath, looking at the older woman. She’d known Nettie Wells for years now, and she’d known the woman’s history for almost as long. Nettie had been here when Mary and her husband had come to town, and one of the stories they’d run in their newspaper in those first years had been about the pioneering souls who had settled here. The Wells had featured prominently in that article and several others on the same topic.
But in all that time, she had never heard Nettie talk like this – talk with such emotion.
Talk about how the things she had endured in her life affected her.
“When Henry died, I was all alone here – well, not really, of course. I had the town and the Potters and the Harbisons, and of course I knew the Judge and other people who were invested in the town. And you and your family settled about six months after Henry died. The next year was when my son Barnabas died, and Casey was sent to me to raise. I was her closest living relative. In some ways – well, to be honest, Mary, having Casey arrive here is one of the things that kept me alive.”
It was so blunt and so personal that Mary’s breath caught. It also seemed so unlike Nettie Wells that Mary thought she had misheard.
As if sensing her doubt, Nettie shook her head. “You of all people know how hard it is to stay somewhere when you’ve got no kin. Truth be told, I had been planning to leave. Barnabas and Agnus had asked me to move out to California with them, to help with their ranch. I had already talked to several people about buying the farm. But then they died – typhoid fever, it hit hard that year – and while I could have moved there to take over their ranch and raise Casey, I knew I didn’t know enough about ranching. So Casey came here and I kept the farm.”
Mary swallowed, finding her own memories rising to the fore. She had thought about leaving, too, especially in the dead of night, when the fear that the men who had killed the man she loved would come back for her. When she had so desperately missed Billy that she started packing, planning to catch the first stage the next day.
“Reckon I’m glad I did,” Nettie went on after a time. “This town has been very good to me – to us. There was a rough spell there for a time, as you know. But Josiah came along and started preaching, or, well, at least something that was sort of like it. Then Nathan showed up, helping us as we’d let him. After that, others began to trickle in. Others who have come to mean as much to me as some of my own – not that they can take the place of one of my own, but I still care about them.”
Mary looked up to find Nettie’s gaze on her. It was soft and warm, and for a second, Mary thought the older woman as thinking of someone else. Vin, most like – the two of them had become close, which was what had started this whole conversation.
But once more, Nettie surprised her. “I lost by eldest daughter, Elsbeth, about two years before you came to town. For a time, I resented you because you reminded me so much of her, so full of life, so ready to take on the world even though you had a child and husband. She died in childbirth – her first – and the baby died a few months later. I lost touch with Edward, her husband. I suspect he probably married and started over – and I can’t blame him. If I’d been young, I might have thought about it myself when Henry died.”
Mary heard the last part, but it was distant, subsumed by the realization of what Nettie had said about her daughter. About her resentment.
“Which brings me to you, Mary. I know I’m putting my foot in where its probably not wanted – Elsbeth told me more often than not that I was a busybody – but I worry for you, same way I do for Casey, and Vin Tanner, and some of the others who have gotten under my skin. You’re a good woman and a good mother; if you want Billy to have brothers and sisters, you need to stop wasting time on Chris Larabee. That man who was with the wagon train – now he was a good one, though I can understand that you might not want to move away from here. You’ve got a life and a home here. And people who love you like family.”
The words weren’t new – The Judge had said them so often and for so long that Mary considered them a sort of benediction.
Though she had never heard them in Nettie’s gruff, non-negotiable tone. Truth, at least Nettie’s version of it, was somehow more decided than it was with anyone else. And Mary found that for all her own views, and as sad as she felt with Nettie’s assessment of Chris, it was hard to disagree.
She realized that Nettie was looking at her, expecting some reply, so she drew in a breath and gave it some consideration. After a short time, she found some words in the mire of different thoughts. “I appreciate your honesty,” she said, and she meant it. “I agree that it’s none of your business, but it’s also something that no one else has said.” She looked down at her teacup though she didn’t touch it. “I know you’re right, too – I knew it when I spent that time with Gerrard, and it was clear that Chris wasn’t jealous. I also knew, though, that I didn’t want to start over again out there. You’re right, this is my home, and all of you, even Chris, are my family.”
Nettie nodded at her, and there was a hint of a smile on the older woman’s face. “There are other men here,” she said quietly, “some that would make pretty good husband material.”
Mary looked at her. “I know there are,” she said slowly. “Who are you thinking of? Vin?”
Nettie blinked then laughed, a deep throaty laugh that Mary had rarely heard. “No no,” she said, grinning as she continued to chuckle. “Much as I care for you both, I wouldn’t do that to either of you. No, I was thinking more of Amos Porter, Cody’s brother. He’s a hard worker and a good man. Or Langston Martin. He’s done a lot to salvage his brother’s place, even managed to get in a pretty good crop for market, despite Bart’s death by the Nichols clan. I admit, I was surprised at him. He said he wasn’t planning on staying, just planned to come in and arrange to sell the land, but it seems to have agreed with him. I talked to him last week and he says instead of selling Bart’s place, he’s giving up his on place in Denver and his work at that hotel.”
Mary considered the two men; he knew Amos better than Langston, but Nettie’s assessment of each man was similar to her own. Good, hard-working men who had lost someone close over the past few years, and who were picking up the lives of the people they’d lost.
Just as she had.
Just as Nettie had.
Nettie put down her teacup and pushed herself up, out of her chair. “Reckon I’ve done enough damage for this afternoon,” she said, picking up her riding gloves from the side of the table. “I’m sorry if I’ve put you off, but I’ve held my tongue as long as I can.”
Mary rose as well, but as she got to her feet, she impulsively reached out and gave the older woman a hug. She was surprised when Nettie let her, and even returned it. “Thank you, Nettie. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have someone care.”
“I’ve gotten it off my mind now, so you can take it or leave it,” the older woman said lightly, but there was a softness in her gruff tone that made Mary smile.
They talked of the plans for the upcoming social as Mary helped Nettie gather her hat and other things, then they stood on the stoop of Mary’s house for a few minutes, confirming their final arrangements. It was late afternoon and though the sun wouldn’t set for another four hours or so, Mary knew Nettie had a ways to drive her wagon to get home.
As if on cue, Vin Tanner ambled out of nowhere, coming up to join them with a touch to his hat brim and a casual, “Mary, Nettie. Fine afternoon.”
“Indeed it is,” Nettie agreed. “A good afternoon for a ride into town – and now, back to my little farm.”
“Mind if I ride along?” Vin asked. “I was thinking to camp out that way tonight, maybe get an early start on that far fence you was talking about.”
“I was talking about wanting to build one,” Nettie said sharply, “not about you building it.”
He shrugged. “Reckon since you got posts in your wagon, it needs getting done, and I’m not doing much else at the moment. You got free time? Casey gonna collect the eggs, feed the horses, tend the garden, and everything else that you do while you dig post holes?”
Nettie glared at him, and her thin lips compressed in a hard line.
But Mary saw it, clear as the sky on a winter morning: Nettie loved Vin Tanner, and the man loved her.
“You’re just aiming to make me feed you dinner,” Nettie said after a few seconds.
“Well, now that you mention it, I did kill and dress a wild turkey yesterday, and it does need cooking. Might be late now to cook it, but if you get it on the fire in the morning . . .”
“Vin Tanner, what are you thinking?” Nettie reached out and slapped at his arm, hard enough to make a noise as the palm of her hand landed on the leather of his jacket, but not hard enough to hurt. “You can’t leave a turkey uncooked for that long – yes, it will take all day to cook it, to make sure it doesn’t kill us! We’d best get it back to the house now and get it into the cooling shed!” With that, she turned to Mary and said, “Thank you for the tea. I’ll see you on Sunday. Let’s get moving, boy.”
Vin grinned as Nettie turned away, her hand clutching at his arm. He had time to touch his hat brim again and say, “Mary,” before letting the older woman draw him along.
She watched them walk away, realizing how much she had come to care for them.
Three days later, she wasn’t at all surprised to find that Nettie had baskets of roasted turkey at the Sunday afternoon social, along with loaves of fresh bread, tomatoes, and a honey mustard sauce that was both sweet and hot.
“How does she do this?” she heard someone ask, and she turned to find Amos Porter talking to Josiah.
“Nettie Wells is a magical woman,” Josiah answered and then, catching Mary’s eye, he went on, “but then, all the women here are something special. You’ve meet Mary Travis, haven’t you?”
She found herself talking to Amos much of the afternoon, about all manner of things, from novels she had read, to the mechanics of machines – particularly temperamental printing presses – to his own cooking skills, which seemed more diverse and far-ranging, from pies and cakes to venison and turkey. “I”ll have to find out here Vin hunts,” the man said as he helped Mary and the others pack up the remains of the meal as the sun dropped in the sky..
He helped her take her things to her home, then, as natural as breathing, she asked him to sit on the porch with her, sharing a last drink – though this one was stronger than the teas and lemonades that had been on offer during the social. Billy ran up at one point, asking if he could spend the night at Gloria’s, to which Mary agreed, but with the requisite admonitions for him to behave himself.
As they sat talking, she watched the rest of the town wind down, waving to Nettie and Casey as they drove away on Nettie’s buckboard, JD riding along with them. Far down the street, Vin and Josiah sat on the steps leading up to Josiah’s church, comfortable, talking in much the same way Mary and Amos were.
Closer, she saw Ezra and Chris together, sitting in chairs outside the saloon. From habit, she found her gaze straying regularly to Chris, hoping to find him looking at her, perhaps jealously.
But his attention rarely wavered from Ezra, and when it did, it was because Ezra was directing him to look at something else.
She turned her attention to Amos and made an effort, mostly successful, not to look at Chris.
It surprised her how well she succeeded.
It was almost twilight when Amos took his leave; she felt worry that he would be riding after dark, but he smiled at her as he took her hand carefully in his. “Moon’s not full, but it should be bright enough to find my way home. May I call upon you later this week? Perhaps repay your kindness with a meal of my own making? I do promise that it won’t make you ill.”
And just like that, she found herself looking forward to the company of another man.
As he made his way to the livery, he lifted a hand in greeting to Vin and Josiah who were walking side by side down the main street, toward the saloon. She noticed that Nathan was already there, sitting in a chair alongside Ezra, the smoke from one of his cigars mixing with that of Chris’ smaller one. Sitting between them, Ezra frowned and waved his hand under his nose, in an attempt to redirect the smoke. Buck was standing in the saloon doorway, his long arms draped over the bat-wing doors, telling some tale that Mary suspected she was better off not hearing.
Six of the seven, together, keeping their own company for the most part. It struck her then that through the course of the day, she’d seen not one of them talking to any woman other than Nettie, Gloria, or herself – not for any amount of time. Now that she thought about it, it seemed as if they’d gone out of their way to avoid any conversation of length with the women and young ladies who had attempted to corral them.
Chris wasn’t the only one who wasn’t ready for a woman’s touch, she thought, and she recalled vividly Nettie’s rare laughter at her suggestion that Vin was a more suitable pursuit than Chris.
She shook her head, wondering what Nettie knew, but knowing that despite her openness earlier in the week, Nettie would never speak to her – or anyone – of something she deemed secret. Which mean that Nettie had already known that Mary knew about Vin’s desire to learn to read.
Maybe that was why Vin was spending so much time with Josiah as of late. Perhaps it was Josiah who was educating him.
Whatever the case, it wasn’t her business, at least not tonight. She had things to do and a new book to read when she finally made her way to bed.
And thoughts of a man bringing her dinner. What a very novel idea to think on.