DISCLAIMER: Don't own 'em, don't earn any reward 'cept for a short adrenaline rush of fear and satisfaction when I post and hit send.
NOTES: Follows the stories Lesson and Hitches and makes reference, I think, to some of the color stories. I try to build one on the next, so it might make more sense if you've read those. Pretty sappy.
Sometimes, he forgot.
He forgot to keep his back to the wall, to look over his shoulder, to refuse an answer when asked; he forgot there was a price on his head and he could laugh.
Vin was enjoying the get together tonight. Billy Travis was turning 7 years old. There weren't many children in town, so Mary had invited the seven regulators to enjoy a small celebration in the child's honor. Nettie Wells and her niece, Casey, were there, as were Mrs. Potter and her children, and Judge Travis had made the long trip willingly to be at his grandson's side.
Billy didn't get a lot of presents, and most were hand made trinkets given by men who didn't know how to shop for a little boy's birthday party. Carved wooden horses and a whistle, cowboy gear four sizes too big, promises of fishing trips. It didn't matter to Billy, it was the attention and the safety of having friends and family that he and his ma could count on that mattered to him.
All of the men were enjoying themselves tonight. There hadn't been so much laughter among them for a long time. Each had his own reasons, but each, in his own way, had put aside his pain and found happiness tonight.
Josiah, in particular, had noticed the difference in Vin this evening. He had seen it before in Chris, when he was with Mary; that random glimpse of peace and happiness that would remind Chris of a future. He hadn't seen it in Vin, though. Every moment was guarded with Vin, every smile smaller than it could be, every laugh softer, shorter; the wall was inpenetrable, even when he tried. But tonight, Vin seemed to be genuinely relaxed and off guard.
Chris noticed Josiah watching Vin and had stepped along side him, thinking something was wrong. When Josiah noticed he was, in turn, being watched, he pivoted to Chris.
"Something wrong, preacher?"
"I was just watchin Vin enjoy himself. Don't see that too often. Maybe he should go to more birthday parties."
"Yeah, I noticed. Rest of 'em ain't doin too bad, either."
"No, everybody is having a good time tonight."
JD and Buck were trading barbs about age and beauty, which somehow slid around to birthdates. Each man spoke up with his own, in turn, until it came to Vin. He smiled, a big, open smile, then shrugged and spoke.
"Ain't got a birthdate, JD."
"Yes, you do, everybody has a birthday, Vin."
He shook his head. "Nope, not me." It still wasn't bothering him.
"Then how old are you?"
"I don't rightly know."
At this, JD's face changed, and Vin's short stint in a free world came crashing to a halt. He recognized that questioning, pitying look from JD and he remembered. As much as he wanted to be the same, he was different. Josiah noticed, and Chris, and Ezra. Vin's eyes travelled around the faces in the room, suddenly quiet and embarrassed , and dropped his head. Nettie spoke up with some quick comment to change the subject that no one would remember later, but the damage was already done.
"Let's have some cake." Mary came forward and smiled at Vin, then set the cake down in front of Billy and tried to light the candles. Buck, ever chivalrous, took the matches and insisted. JD was still watching Vin in disbelief. Buck elbowed him, hard, to get him to turn his attention away.
Billy never noticed a thing.
And sometimes he remembered.
The little boy watched his grandma smile at her friends and open her presents. He brought out a shawl for her, as his grandpa had asked, and handed it to her. She took it silently and turned back to her friends.
"When's my birthday, Grandpa?" He asked the man by his side.
Without looking down at the boy, he answered.
"Bastards don't have birthdays, cause they ought not to have ever been born. You still need to take care of them cattle tonight, boy."
The man reached out for a plate of cake from his wife, and the boy thought, just for a moment, that there might be a piece for him. He knew better, really, but he still hoped. Finally, he turned and headed out into the darkness , alone and hungry, to take care of the cattle.
"So we just give him a birthday." JD leaned forward to accept a piece of cake from Mary.
"Too late, JD, too late." Nathan answered. "Lotsa slaves don't know their birthdays, neither, or how old they are. Can't make up for that."
Vin slipped out onto the boardwalk when Chris stepped out for a cheroot. The silence was strained. When Vin caught his eye, he shrugged. "No matter to me, don't reckon they'll carve a tombstone when they hang me anyhow." He smiled, finally, just a small smile.
Chris shook his head. "You sound damn sure you're gonna hang."
"No sense in bein disappointed, that's what I always say. Anythin' better's just gravy."
Chris nodded. "I reckon."
Ezra joined the men outside. "Mr Tanner, Mary sent this out for you. She said you ought to enjoy it yourself this time."
He handed him a plate with a generous slice of pie. Fresh apple pie. Vin stared at the pie for a moment, then shot a quick look at Chris. Chris raised one questioning eyebrow at him, but did not respond further.
Ezra tipped his hat slightly. "Mr Tanner, would you have a bible in that God-for-saken pile of possessions you guard so carefully in the livery?"
"You're askin' me for a Bible?" Vin looked at Ezra incredulously.
"Well, I thought perhaps I could share a particular verse with young Mr Travis, and Josiah appears to be busy with Mrs Potter." Ezra spoke quickly and matter of factly. "I wasn't expecting Mr Larabee to carry one on him."
"Uh, yeah, I got a bible. I'll get it." Vin picked up the pie in his fingers, handed the plate back to Ezra and strode off to the livery. Chris eyed Ezra warily, but he simply returned a casual smile and shrugged. "Life is a gamble, Mr Larabee."
A few moments later, Vin returned with a small book wrapped in a piece of cloth and handed it to Ezra. "I want it back, though, it was my ma's."
"Of course, Mr Tanner. I will guard it carefully. Mother always said there were too many rules in the bible for her." He smiled and returned to the party inside.
"Ezra readin' bible verse. God, what's this town comin too?"
Chris and Vin laughed together. Vin finished his pie, licking his fingers; Chris tossed his cheroot down, snuffing it out under the heel of his boot and the two of them stepped back inside, fascinated by the idea of Ezra reading from the Bible.
" . . .and when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which is lost."
There was a pause from the gambler, as he drew his breath, and Mary took the opportunity to break in.
"Thank you, Ezra, that was lovely, but it is getting late and Billy needs to thank all of you and get to bed now."
The other men nodded, eyes on Ezra. Finally, Buck spoke.
"What the hell was that?"
"A meaningful verse, Mr Wilmington. Don't you think, Josiah?" Ezra dismissed him quickly and leaned over to Josiah. "I used that verse on my multitudes when I was running a con . . . never failed me then. It wasn't the verse I required, but the book."
Josiah nodded, not having a clue as to what Ezra was talking about. Ezra turned to Vin.
"Mr Tanner, I believe you are holding out on your friends."
Vin frowned. Ezra flipped the bible open and held it out to him, pointing to a few handwritten lines.
"May 24, 1844. Your mother recorded the birth of her son. You do have a birthday, Mr Tanner."
He leaned very close and lowered his voice.
"Vincent James Tanner." And he smiled.
Vin stared at Ezra for a moment, a grin spreading across his face as he looked down at the open book. Ezra, still holding it, closed the bible, wrapped it in the cloth and handed it back to Vin.
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