A Different Kind of Courage
Summary: Vin's visits to the Clarion office during the episode Achilles, from Mary's POV, with a missing scene thrown in for good measure.
Author's note: Heartfelt thanks to Killdeer, Pam and Yuri for demonstrating the importance of a beta reader who isn't afraid to be honest and constructively critical.
The midday sun beat down on the small town of Small Corners. The main street was almost deserted, most folk having retreated indoors to escape the burning rays. Even then the heat was stifling, particularly in the office of the town's newspaper where Mary Travis, editor of the Clarion, was busy cleaning the printing press ready for the next edition.
Mary paused in her work to draw a hand across her sweaty brow, and reflected on the importance of getting this edition out on time. The events of the past few days had been trying for the town, with the fatal shooting of young Annie Nechaus by one of the town's peacekeepers the main item of news. The shooting had been an accident - JD Dunne had been attempting to thwart a bank robbery and in the rapid exchange of gunfire one of his shots had gone through the window of the bank and hit Annie.
However, Mary was only too aware from past experience how easily opinions were formed and how quickly gossip spread in a small town like Four Corners. In her view, her role as editor of the town's only newspaper was to present an objective representation of the facts. She was anxious to ensure that her contribution on the subject was balanced and fair, whilst also serving to assure her readers that the shooting was nothing more than a tragic accident. If anyone was to blame, it was the men who had tried to rob the bank, not the young man who had only been trying to do his job.
She was rehearsing the wording of her editorial in her mind when the bell rang, and someone entered the office. Looking up, Mary felt a mixture of anticipation and anxiety as she recognized the familiar figure of Vin Tanner, one of the seven men who acted as the law in Four Corners. She knew he was here at her own instigation, but now she couldn't help wondering if she might have made a big mistake.
Thinking back, she wasn't sure why she had made her spur-of-the moment suggestion to Vin that he might wish to write something for the Clarion's poetry competition. Of the seven peacekeepers, Vin Tanner wouldn't have been the obvious one to ask. Ezra Standish, the well-educated, articulate gambler, would have been a much more obvious choice. His command of the English language was excellent, if a little flamboyant at times. Even Buck Wilmington would have been a more likely candidate, if she could have persuaded him to stand still and be serious for a moment. Buck would have had no problem coming up with some sugary words of love poetry at the drop of a hat.
Vin Tanner was the most quiet and reserved of the seven men. Initially Mary had been a little wary of the long-haired, scruffily dressed young man, but over the months she had come to know him and had found that she liked and respected him very much. He was kind-hearted, always polite, and usually the most even-tempered of them all. She'd never known him to say no to a request for help. That didn't mean he wasn't as tough as they came; he had previously made a living as a bounty hunter and was regarded as the best sharpshooter in the territory. There was no question that he was a dangerous man to cross - if you were on the wrong side of the law. He would not hesitate to take a man's life, but never wantonly or for the pleasure of it, and it was this sense of honor and integrity that had convinced her that he was one of the best of the tough breed of men who ruled the West.
Sometimes she looked at Vin and thought he was impossibly young to have experienced all that he had in his life; at other times she'd seen a shadow of darkness cross his usually amiable features, and knew that Vin Tanner had seen and experienced things more terrible than she could ever imagine. Often, he surprised her with his insight and understanding of people and she had learned never to underestimate him. Yet for all this, she wasn't sure she could say that she really knew him. She had a feeling there was a depth to him that went far beyond the persona most people saw, and it was this instinct that had caused her to challenge him to write a poem for the competition. She had been delighted when he had agreed to think about it, and when he'd tried to make an excuse about his bad handwriting, she'd encouraged him by offering to write it out neatly for him
Mary had had high hopes for the competition. She was always on the look out for ways to bring some culture to the town and had hoped that the residents of Four Corners would rise to the challenge. These hopes had been quickly dashed as the entries started coming in. It seemed that most people's idea of poetry was a few verses of bad rhyme, usually of a coarse nature. Some of the entries were not even suitable to be published and she was sure that at least one or two of the entrants were just out to pull her leg. Even the suitable poems of more respectable members of the town were mundane at best. For some indefinable reason she'd been pinning all her hopes on Vin, but now that he was here she was afraid - afraid that his entry would be as poor as the others and she couldn't bear the thought of having to pretend to like it so as not to hurt his feelings.
"Mary? This a bad time?"
All this had flooded through her mind in the moments it had taken the lean, handsome Texan to close the door behind him and approach her, and his softy-drawled question broke her out of her reverie. Mary shook herself and smiled brightly at the sharpshooter.
"No, not at all. You have something for me?"
Vin favored her with a small smile, but looked nervous.
"Well, like I told you, my handwriting's as ugly as a toad. So if you'll write it down, I'll jus' say it."
"All right. Let me get a pencil." She turned away to look for the implement and felt her palms begin to sweat. She was as nervous as he appeared to be.
She turned. Vin raised an eyebrow and pointed to his left ear, then to hers, and she realized that the missing pencil was tucked behind her ear in its usual place. She laughed nervously, picked up a sheet of paper, and rested it on the desk, pencil poised. Smiling at Vin encouragingly, she asked, "So what's it called?"
Vin shuffled his feet. "Er...; A Hero's Heart."
A Hero's Heart? Certainly an unlikely title for a bawdy ditty about the goings-on in the back room of a saloon. She held back a shudder as she remembered the words of one of the more colorful entries, smiled brightly again, and nodded for him to begin. She watched as he cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and began to speak."I stare across that solitary plain, each and every dawn.
Always searching for a hero's heart.
A stranger bleeds, his hope lays near death.
Clutching a tangled wreath to crown a hero's heart."
The soft, melodic voice faded out and Mary looked up, her eyes filling with tears. She had known that there were hidden depths to this man and her instincts had been proved right - only someone with a gentle and passionate soul could have composed something so beautiful. Seeing that he was looking at her anxiously for a response, she was quick to reassure him. "Vin, that's beautiful."
"Really?" he asked shyly. "Ya like it?"
"Oh, yes." She wanted to ask him about the poem, what he'd been thinking when he'd composed it, but was afraid of embarrassing him. Instead, she handed him the sheet to check. "Did I get everything?"
Vin took it from her with obvious reluctance and glanced over the words written there. Mary watched him scanning the writing, realizing that she'd given it to him upside down and that he hadn't even turned it around to read it. He handed it back to her quickly, eyes averted. "Yeah. Sure looks nice."
It hit her then, and she wondered why she hadn't seen it before. He couldn't read! Thinking about it, she couldn't remember ever seeing Vin Tanner reading anything. He never dropped into her office to catch an advance glimpse of the latest edition of the newspaper as the others often did, and while Vin and Chris Larabee could often be seen sitting together outside her office, it was always Chris with the paper in his hand, occasionally reading out loud to his friend something that particularly interested him. Suddenly Vin's protestations about his handwriting made sense. He hadn't been reluctant to write a poem - he wasn't physically able to put the words down on paper. She found her heart aching for him, and without thinking she blurted out the first words that came into her head. "You can't read, can you?"
Vin was on the defensive immediately.
"Who says I cain't read?"
His look of hurt embarrassment told her immediately that she'd chosen the wrong thing to say at the wrong time, but she hurried on, trying to redeem the situation and reassure him.
"Vin, there's nothing to be ashamed of. Lots of people don't know how to read or write."
She saw the color rise in his cheeks, and a range of expressions passed over his face, settling into one of anger.
"I don't need a buncha books to teach me about life!" He pushed past her, striding towards the door.
Mary rushed after him, stricken.
"No! Vin, wait! I didn't mean anything by that. Vin!" Her final words were spoken to an empty room as she watched the door slam behind him.
Mary sat down on the edge of the desk and put her head in her hands. She was so angry with herself. She'd spoken without thought and had succeeded in embarrassing Vin and wounding his pride. She'd always had this fault - blurting out the first thing that came into her head. It had gotten her into no end of trouble during her life and now she'd hurt Vin. She wished for all the world that she could take the words back.
She knew full well that if he couldn't read or write it must be because the circumstances of his life had prevented him from learning, not because he wasn't capable of it. His Texas drawl and scruffy appearance had fooled many a man into underestimating him - it was a common belief that uneducated meant stupid - but Mary knew that was far from the truth. Vin Tanner had a sharp mind. She was well aware that it was the tracker Chris Larabee relied on the most out of the regulators, and that he was the one with whom Chris usually talked things through when needing an opinion.
Larabee! She groaned aloud as she thought of Chris's reaction when he found out about this. He was always telling her off for sticking her nose into people's business. For her to have hurt Vin, of all people, was worst of all. She knew how fiercely protective the gunfighter was of the Texan, although he'd rather die than admit it. Should she come clean and discuss this with Chris, ask his opinion on how to set things right? She didn't know for sure that Chris was even aware that Vin couldn't read and write. It would be unforgivable to compound her stupidity by revealing something so personal to the gunfighter if Vin had not already chosen to do so. No, she couldn't talk to Chris.
Mary sighed, then sat up purposefully. She was by nature a practical person and there was nothing she could do right now, not until Vin had calmed down. She had responsibilities - a newspaper to get out. The events of the past few days had been trying for the town and she still needed to finalize her editorial on Annie's shooting, to find the right words to defuse the anger many of the townspeople were feeling towards poor JD. She picked up the draft she had written earlier, reflecting wryly that every time she thought progress was being made in this town, something happened to put things back a step. Sometimes, she just felt so tired out by it all and wondered if she'd made the right decision by staying. She shook herself mentally, reminding herself that negative thinking never got you anywhere. She would get the paper out and tomorrow she would talk to Vin and apologize for her rash words.
For the next few hours, Mary concentrated her efforts on getting this latest edition of the paper on the press. She finished and typeset her editiorial, and placed Vin's poem in a prominent position on the competition page, praying that the other judges would have the sense to see it for the beautiful piece of work that it was.
Time went by, and she was just putting the first copies of the paper up to dry when a ringing bell informed her that someone was entering the office. She glanced up and her heart jumped as she saw Vin Tanner standing hesitantly in the doorway. She really hadn't expected to see him again today and she wasn't ready, hadn't yet rehearsed in her mind what she was going to say to him.
"Mary? I, uh... I've come to apologize for... stormin' off like I did."
She took a step toward him and the words came easily to her after all. "No, Vin, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you." She held his gaze, trying to convey the sincerity of her words. "That was a fine poem you wrote. You should feel proud."
He looked back at her shyly, shuffling his feet for a moment, then cleared his throat nervously.
"You know, with all that's bin goin' on, it made me think of a new poem, jus' for you. Like to hear it?"
Mary felt a moment of relief. She'd been afraid that the incident might have put up a barrier between them and she realized suddenly that she valued the friendship of this man very much. She smiled warmly, and gestured for him to sit.
She sat down on the chair while Vin perched on the edge of her desk. He looked up, held her eyes and began to speak.I'm not the way they see me, not who they think I am.
I'm just a man. And I have need of you, sweet woman.
Not for the velvet of your touch, but for the weaponry of your mind.
There's a hole that needs mending, my own Achilles heel.
So I offer up my need.
Teach me, noble lady.
Teach me to write... and to read."
For the second time that day Mary felt a lump in her throat and tears come into her eyes. She'd heard a catch in his voice as he spoke, observed the telltale brightness in the blue eyes and understood the courage it must have taken for him to ask for help. It touched her profoundly that the Texan trusted her enough to make himself this vulnerable before her.
Vin had looked away nervously when he had finished speaking, but now anxious eyes sought hers again. There was so much she wanted to say, but she found herself saying simply, "I'd be happy to," and it was enough. Relief flooded his face and she smiled, knowing that in this moment of understanding between them there was no need for further words.
Vin stayed to help her get the final copies of the newspaper off the press and they worked in companionable silence for a while.
Then, as the last copy was folded ready to go out, Mary said, "You know, Vin, if I was the only one on the judging panel, your poem would win that competition."
"Oh, yes. It's head and shoulders above any of the others. Is it really your first?"
He blushed and looked down, fiddling with a book on the desk.
"Not really. I often find words comin' into my head, and it don't seem too hard to turn 'em into verses. Jus' somethin' I've always done, since I was a little 'un."
Vin paused, and she sensed that there was something else, but that he was weighing up whether or not to share it with her. This time, wisely, she remained silent until he went on softly.
"Ya see, I think mebbe my ma wrote poetry and I got it from her."
"She died when you were young, didn't she?" Mary asked quietly.
Vin nodded. "I was five when she was taken. I don't remember her all that clearly, jus' bits n' pieces, but I do recollect that she was always writin', and she'd read to me from what she'd wrote and the words sounded like music." He looked up at her and she could see tears glistening in his eyes once more.
"She always told me she'd teach me one day, 'cause she said bein' able to read and write's important for a man to git on in life." He ran a hand quickly across his eyes. "Guess that's why I'm so ashamed I never learned. It was somethin' I could've done for her. Don' reckon she'd be too proud of me gettin' to manhood without ever learnin'."
Mary didn't feel it was appropriate to ask what had happened to the five-year old Vin when his mother had died. She could hazard a guess, though, that there hadn't been much room in his lonely life for books and learning from then on.
"I'm sure your mother would understand that it wasn't your fault you didn't get to learn, Vin," she said gently. "You were right - you don't need a bunch of books to teach you about life. You've grown into a fine person without any of that. You're a man of honor and courage, Vin, and your mother would be really proud of you. But it takes a different kind of courage to do what you've just done and ask for help. She'd be so very proud of you for that."
"Ya think so?"
"I know so," Mary said firmly. "So tomorrow we'll start working out some lesson plans. When you've learned your letters, you can start writing down some of those poems you keep in your head - maybe we'll even publish them and dedicate them to your mother. What do you think?"
He looked back at her, and a smile slowly spread across his face, lighting up his features. "That'd be fine, Mary. I never dreamed I'd ever be able to write 'em down. But are ya sure you don't mind takin' the time? I don't know if I'll be a quick study, might drive you crazy to try an' teach me...."
Mary shook her head. "You'll be a quick study, Vin, because you want it so much. And no, I don't mind taking the time. This is really important to you, so it's important to me too."
"Well, I 'preciate it, Mary, I cain't tell ya how much!" He placed the final stack of newspapers on her desk. "Reckon I've taken enough of yer time. I'd best be goin' an' let ya get finished up here. I'll come by in the morning, talk about settin' them lessons up."
Mary walked with him to the door. "Vin, do you want this to be just between the two of us?"
Vin considered that for a while. Then he grinned. "I'm 'bliged, Mary, but I reckon the boys'll find out pretty quick, I keep comin' 'cross here all the time. An' it'd likely be best to tell Chris afore he starts gettin' jealous at all the time I'm spending with ya!"
He tipped his hat to her, winked, and stepped out, closing the door behind him.
Mary was glad that he'd left before he had time to see her cheeks flood with color at his final remark. Then she smiled. Vin Tanner was a perceptive man; he wouldn't have made that remark if there wasn't some truth to it. As she moved around the office tidying up, she couldn't keep the smile off her face. She was sure her editorial would go some way towards setting things right for JD, she'd just discovered a new talent in their midst, and Chris - well, maybe there was more than one reason to stay on in Four Corners after all.