“I do believe that urchin is going to devour that jar with his eyes.” Ezra’s voice held mild amusement as he gestured toward a small boy. The child’s pug nose was smashed against a large glass jar of peppermint candy, his fingers caressing the container with spellbound longing.
Vin started to chuckle, but bit off the laugh as he took in the child’s threadbare coat and well-patched trousers. He dropped into a crouch and regarded the treat with solemn interest. “Looks good, don’t it, pard?”
The child hastily scrubbed at his dripping nose, smearing mud around on an already unclean face. “Sure do,” he breathed, flicking a sharp glance at Vin from the corner of his eye, before transferring his attention back to the intoxicating pink and white swirls.
“Want some?” Vin plunked a nickel down on the counter and nodded approvingly as Mrs. Potter measured out a generous helping onto a sheet of white paper.
The child stood transfixed as the shopkeeper gave the paper an expert twist and handed the lot over to Vin with a smile. Vin spared a glance at Ezra who watched the proceedings with a mixture of bemusement and suppressed hilarity. The fabric of his fine red coat trembled as he manfully struggled to suppress his laughter. Vin shrugged and turned back to the boy.
“Here y’go, kid,” he said as he held out the precious bundle. “Now don’t go eating ‘em all at once an’ getting yourself sick. I don’t want your mama hunting me down and scolding me, y’hear?”
The boy stuck his hands in his pockets as if he were afraid he’d snatch the candy involuntarily, and shuffled back a few steps, aiming for the mercantile door. He manfully shook his head. “Cain’t, mister. My mama done tole me not to take nothin’ from strangers.”
Vin nodded, his blue eyes narrowed in thought. “Your ma’s a wise woman, son.” He transferred the white paper twist to his coat pocket, noting the crestfallen expression on the child’s face. “You should always listen to your ma.”
Mrs. Potter stopped dusting the merchandise on the mercantile’s shelves and beckoned to the lad. He inched past Vin, giving Ezra a wide berth in the process and leaned toward the storeowner. “Jimmy Sullivan, I’d like you to meet some friends of mine.” Mrs. Potter’s eyes were sparkling with merriment. “And I promise they’re gentlemen of the finest quality.”
Jimmy surveyed the two men with a skeptical eye, obviously taking in Vin’s battered buffalo coat, and the layer of dust obscuring the rich fabric of Ezra’s jacket. He said nothing, standing with his hands still in his pockets, although his troubled expression had eased into a faint smile.
Mrs. Potter bustled around the counter. “Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish meet Master James Sullivan. Jimmy to his friends.” She nudged Jimmy forward and then planted her hands on her hips, unable to control a broad grin of delight.
Vin winked at Mrs. Potter and crouched in front of the boy. With a jerk of his thumb at the gambler, he spoke softly. “This one here’s Ezra Standish. Now don’t be afraid of his fancy coat, and that fine pair of boots. Underneath all that, ol’ Ezra’s just a regular feller, like you an’ me.”
Ezra nodded politely and dutifully proffered his hand for shaking, although Vin caught him surreptitiously wiping a smear of mud off his fingers with his linen handkerchief after the transaction. With a smile, Vin pointed at his own chest. “An’ I’m Vin. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He held out his own hand and waited until the lad had grasped it.
The child glanced from one man to the other. “I’m Jimmy,” he said. “Jimmy Sullivan.”
“Well, now Jimmy Sullivan.” Vin’s face was a study in seriousness and he spread his hands wide to include the shopkeeper as well. “Looks to me like there ain’t a stranger in this room. Ain’t that something?”
He pulled the white paper twist from his pocket and regarded it thoughtfully. “Do y’think your ma would mind a little sharing between men who’re already acquainted?”
Jimmy’s eyes lit up in wonder as he shook his head violently. “No sir, Vin. She never said nothing about takin’ something from a friend.”
“Well then,” Vin held the parcel out to the child again. “Looks like this’s got your name on it. And remember what I said about not getting sick.”
This time Jimmy reached for the candy without hesitation. A smile split his face, momentarily transforming the thin, tense features. “Thank you, Vin. I ain’t had candy in such a long time,” he breathed. He turned on his heel and raced for the door. “I gotta go show this to my little brother. He’ll think it’s Christmas.”
He was gone in an instant, the scuffed boots kicking up a trail of swirling dust in his wake.
Vin watched him go, his eyes soft and distant as he remembered a time not so long ago when he’d been a boy eyeing a longed for treasure in a big glass jar. Ezra’s firm hand on his shoulder jarred him back to the present.
“Well my friend, I believe the ten forty-five stage is arriving as we speak,” he said. “If you’re done making noble gestures, shall we proceed to meet the vehicle as Mr. Larabee requested?” The man’s eyes betrayed his sardonic words, however. They were gentle, soft with their own remembrance. With a quick clap of Vin’s shoulder, and an unconscious grimace of disgust at the dust the gesture raised, Ezra headed out the door, Vin trailing in his wake.
Vin glanced again at the jar of peppermint, and he grinned. Maybe some day Jimmy Sullivan would buy a small boy peppermint drops and he’d remember Vin and Ezra as he did so.
With a tuneless whistle on his lips and a spring in his step, Vin hurried to join Ezra as he went to meet the stage.
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