Sunday afternoon found one Ezra P. Standish sitting in a plane flying back to Denver. A picture of Alice and Annie Ramsey rested in his briefcase, carefully put inside a book. And there weren't any doubts that the girl in that picture and the young woman on the picture Vin Tanner had were the same person.
One part of Ezra felt lower than dirt for hiding the truth from Ms. Alice and, well, stealing the picture from her, though he had put a copy in the photo album the day after he'd taken the original. The other, more childish part, was actually thrilled at the fact that he had been able to con her – something he had never achieved while being at Bradford's. When it came to pranks and mischief, 'Miss Marple' had always known who had been responsible.
As he had countless times during the weekend, Ezra found himself wondering how it might have been if one Vin Tanner had studied at Bradford's a year or two below him… it certainly wouldn't have been boring, but they would have ended either as mortal enemies or the best of friends! Ezra clenched his fists tightly and unclenched them, putting a firm hold on his imagination. No point in dwelling on the 'what-might-have-been's if someone had actually bothered to look for Annie's family after her death and not just dumped Vin into the system. One couldn't change the past, only the future.
Anyway, he had to talk to Vin first. He knew that Vin's father, Annie's husband, had been a Texas ranger, killed in the line of duty; after that Annie and Vin had been traveling, until Annie had died suddenly from some natural cause. Who knows, maybe she was trying to get home with her boy and just couldn't make it… and if Ezra was to tell Ms. Alice about Annie's death, he needed to know more. And he would prefer to do it with Vin by his side, as a living proof that Annie hadn't vanished completely.
'And how exactly are you planning to break all this to Vin?' A nasty little voice inside Ezra's head asked him when he'd claimed his luggage. This wasn't a kind of talk you start while making coffee in the office or during a lunch break; and Vin most likely was still staying at Larabee's ranch. Though that wasn't necessarily a bad thing, Ezra thought, driving from the airport parkway. He knew Vin well enough to consider him a close friend and realize they had much in common, but he had no idea how Vin would react to the news he had blood family out there. Maybe Chris's presence during 'the talk' would smooth things over.
Monday in the office happened to be fussy – a lot of unexpected meetings and minor errands. Ezra was rather grateful of that, though, it meant his teammates didn't have the time to question him about his 'family weekend'. On the other hand, he hadn't come up with a suitable way to invite himself to the ranch for the evening, so in the end, he just decided to show up unannounced. After all, each one of his teammates had paid him an unexpected visit more than once for less serious reasons – and sometimes without any reasons at all.
Chris left Vin to make his choice between ski jumping and giant slalom on different sport channels, and went to the porch to have a smoke. He was halfway through the cheroot, when a familiar Jag appeared in the driveway. Oh. He'd had a feeling Ezra hadn't been quite himself today – must be really serious for him to show up like this. Well, at least he did show instead of handling whatever trouble he had on his own. Ezra reached the house, parked and left the car; Chris threw his cigar butt to the snow, actually pleased with his own timing – if he hadn't been on the porch already, Standish might have spent an hour in the car, gathering his strength.
"Evening, Ez. Something wrong?"
"I hope not. But there are some things I need to tell Vin."
"Come in, he's in the den."
Ezra entered, and Chris followed. If Ezra wanted a private conversation, he could just say so.
Some commercials had just started when they entered the den; Vin muted the TV and turned his head.
"Oh, hey, Ez. Something wrong?"
"No. But I learned some things recently, and I think you need to know them, too. Vin, it concerns your mother. "
Vin paled and threw Chris a pleading look; Chris nodded, silently saying he'd stay, and came close to the couch. Meanwhile, Ezra sat beside Vin and put a large picture on the table in front of them. A woman and a teenage girl were smiling on it; and though the girl had long curls instead of a short haircut and was a few years younger than on the pictures Vin had, Chris recognized Annie Tanner immediately.
"What the hell?" Vin whispered. "Who is it?"
"It's Mrs. Alice Ramsey and her daughter Annie, on the day of her 16th birthday" Ezra began in an expressionless voice. "They lived in Memphis, where Ms. Alice worked as an English teacher. A few months after that picture was taken, Annie ran away with some rocker. He dumped her in the next town, but she had liked being on the road. She sent a letter to her mother and promised she would return when she found herself. Ms. Alice has been waiting for her ever since. She is still waiting in the same old house, Vin, stubbornly refusing all the persistent offers to sell it. Still waiting for her daughter to come home."
Ezra stopped talking; Vin was silently tracing his mother's image with his fingers.
"How do you know her?" Chris asked quietly.
"Ms. Alice was my teacher for a year, when I was thirteen. I visited her quite often back then, and continued to stay in touch afterwards. Annie's pictures adorn the walls all over her house."
"I need a bit of fresh air, guys," Vin said in a muffled voice, took the picture and, moving a little unsteadily, left the den. A couple of moments later Chris followed him; satisfied that Vin had put his boots on and grabbed a jacket (there was a snowstorm coming), Chris returned to the room. He didn't know yet what to think of all this, so he went to the bar, took an opened bottle of scotch with a couple of glasses, and came back to the couch. He half filled both glasses, pushed one towards Ezra, and, with the other one in hand, sat on the nearby chair.
"So that was your 'family duty' in Memphis." No accusation, just a mere statement of fact.
"It wasn't a lie, Chris," Ezra answered wearily. "I really haven't been back to visit as often as I should have, and as for the family… She did invite me for Christmas while I was at that school, you know."
"And you accepted?" Chris asked skeptically. Before Ezra had accepted an invitation to a simple BBQ at the ranch for the first time, six months of teamwork had passed and a couple of life-and-death situations had occurred; and Chris highly doubted Standish had been a more open or trusting person in his teens.
"I wasn't intending to, but Ms. Alice knew how to persuade." Ezra finally took his glass and sipped a little, and then, somewhat to Chris's surprise, elaborated: "Ms. Alice was substituting our supervisor on holidays. Of course, there were a number of students staying at Bradford's, the school, for holidays, but I was the only one from my class, so, technically, her only charge. She stated that, if I accepted her offer, she wouldn't have to spend Christmas at the school quarters. I couldn't force the lady out of her home on Christmas, could I?"
Chris chuckled. "Of course you couldn't, that would be most ungentlemanly of you. A wise woman."
"Indeed. We set up a tree, not very big, but full-bodied." Dreamy notes appeared in Ezra's voice, and Chris held his breath – Standish seldom opened up like this. "We decorated it; Ms. Alice has a collection of old hand-made ornaments, real things, not at all like that Chinese garbage they sell nowadays…there was dinner with five kinds of dessert, a couple of good movies, music and talking, and watching the stars…it was a right Christmas."
Ezra got silent, and Chris realized why the story sounded so familiar. It reminded him of Vin, one starry night last winter, telling him about his first Christmas with Nettie. Tanner had been older then, almost sixteen, but the mood had been the same; a peaceful haven amongst a very turbulent childhood.
Chris felt a sudden anger growing inside him, anger at a heartless system, at the unfairness of life in general as he thought about a boy, struggling through the streets on his own, and a lonely woman, growing old in an empty house. Vin had found Nettie and turned out okay, and Chris was sure Ezra wasn't the only student remembering Ms. Alice with such fondness, but it didn't make it right. Chris gulped the remnants of his scotch, trying to drown that anger, and asked:
"What are you going to do now?"
"Everything in my power to persuade Vin to visit Memphis with me. Ms. Alice deserves to know her Annie had met a decent man and was happy, even if only for a little while. She deserves to know she has a grandson - one of the best men in this world. And Vin…" Ezra didn't finish his thought, finishing his drink instead, but Chris knew what he wanted to say. Vin could use a little more love in his life, that unconditional love that only parents and sometimes grandparents can give to you.
And to meet someone who knew and loved his mother…. Chris knew how desperately Vin clung to his faint memories and the few mementos he had; now he would have a lot more than three pictures and a couple of old things, if he was ready to face it. Well, fate sometimes had a funny way of correcting its mistakes, and Ezra had handled the situation just right. Chris filled both glasses anew, this time to the brim – a sign that he would back Ezra up in this.
Nettie Wells hadn't planned on making a pie on Monday evening, but a portion of apples had badly needed saving. She'd just put the finished pie on the kitchen table, when the doorbell rang.
"Must be Vin," Nettie mumbled to herself, going to the door. "That boy can smell baked goods before they were even put into the oven!"
It was, indeed, Vin, standing on the porch, but his appearance didn't dispose to jokes.
Vin shook his head. "Nothing, Miz Nettie. Just need to talk."
"Then come inside, boy, come inside."
Vin entered; Nettie helped him take his jacket off – he had some sheet of paper in his hand which he refused to let go – and ushered the man to the kitchen. Vin sat at the table, but didn't even notice the pie; whatever the matter was, it must be serious. Nettie reheated the electric kettle, poured two big mugs of tea and put them on the table.
"Vin," she touched his arm gently. "Tell me."
Vin turned the sheet of paper he'd brought, and Nettie saw it was a picture, with a woman and a girl. And the girl was Annie Tanner.
"Ezra showed up today," Vin began quietly, wrapping his fingers around the mug of tea. "Turns out he knows my grandmother…Mom's mother."
Vin finished the whole story, not that it was very long, and took a sip from his mug. "Nettie, what should I do now? I don't know…"
"Well, boy, that's obvious." Nettie stood up, took a knife and began to slice the pie. "You grab Standish, catch the first available flight to Tennessee and fly there. That poor woman has waited long enough."
"But Nettie, I…" Vin blushed slightly and stared down into his mug.
Nettie sighed and smiled sadly. "You know what, son? The Good Lord has established that every single person, coming to this world, is entitled to have at least two grandmothers. That means you too, Vin Tanner."
Vin blushed fully, indicating that Nettie had guessed right, and she put a plate with a slice of pie in front of him.
"So," Nettie asked, when Vin more or less overcame his embarrassment and wiped out his slice. "You planning to stay here tonight?"
"No. If I want to wring a couple of days off from Chris, I'll need an early start."
Nettie chuckled. "Take the rest of the pie with you, son, you might need a bribe."
The bottle was already empty; Chris and Ezra had spent about two hours, sipping their scotch in silence, each one deep in his own thoughts and memories. Chris would never have thought Ezra was any good at comfortable silence, but, well, life was full of surprises. It was getting late, though, and Chris wondered if he should start worrying, call Nettie or try Vin's cell, but then the front door slammed. Soon Vin entered the den with a paper bag in his hand; his hair was wet – that snowstorm must have started. And, judging by his eyes, Vin had reached a decision and was at peace with it.
"Cowboy, do you think you can manage without me and Ez for a couple more days? Reckon we have a family emergency in Memphis."
Nettie sat in an old rocker with a cup of cocoa. Tomorrow she would have to clean up the second guestroom; she had a feeling she would be receiving a visitor soon. And she was looking forward to meeting Mrs. Alice Ramsey – anyone who managed to get through to a teenage Standish and impress him must be an amazing person. They would have a lot to talk about. And besides, Nettie glanced at a big picture of 'Team 7 and friends' hanging on her wall, she and Evie Travis could use some help in keeping an eye on those overgrown boys calling themselves Federal Agents.