RATING: G - I don't
think there's anything naughty about this one.
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Nettie Wells and Ezra
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: August 2002 Magnificent 7 Challenge, offered by Flavia: Write to me about memories. Memories and cooking. Let the smells of food waft through your fics and bring back memories for the Seven. Any AU allowed, and any food, as long as the recipe is included.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
DATE: August 6, 2002
Pie in the Sky
By NotTasha...mmmmm ... pie
Nettie Wells set the fresh-baked peach pie on the windowsill. She regarded it for a moment, proud that it had turned out so well -- perfectly browned -- not a bit of it burned. "Not bad, Mrs. Wells," she said to herself as she turned back toward the table to tidy up. "It'll certainly be the talk of the social circle tonight."
The ladies from the adjoining ranches would be coming over for a 'social circle' today. It wasn't the sort of thing that Nettie usually cared for -- the ladies often reminded her of a twittering nest of starlings -- but the get-togethers made for good neighbors. They could all catch up on the local gossip, find out how each other had been doing, and receive a few hours of entertainment. She enjoyed the life she'd chosen on the lonely ranch, liked the hard work, was happy with the companionship of her young niece -- but she did enjoy a little extra company every now and again.
Casey was spending the day in town and wouldn't return until evening. The house seemed empty without her. Nettie was used to a full house. She was the third of seven children, and she in turn had a seven of her own. All her life, family had surrounded her. It was only in her old age that she'd found herself nearly alone -- just Casey and herself in a big house. Since her sons had moved off, everything had became quieter.
Maybe Vin will stop by for a visit, she thought as she put away the shortening and then placed the flour and sugar canisters on their shelf. She enjoyed the visits from the young tracker. He often came around to check up on her. Seems to me it ain't always just for my benefit. Seems he needs a mama sometimes. Vin reminded her so much of her youngest son, Ben -- gone now. He'd died as a child, during an outbreak of influenza. Lord, Ben was a lovely child, quiet and intense, shy and but strangely fearless. She sighed at the memory. So much of her life was bittersweet -- the hard mixed with the soft, the sweet and the sour. She put the knife carefully back in its drawer, thinking about her boys when they were young. Oh, they'd been a passel of trouble -- keeping her on her toes 24-hours a day -- there was always some sort of hullabaloo brewing. It had been one riotous party during those years that her sons were growing. How in heaven's name did she survive it? Ah, how she'd loved it -- she wouldn't trade a minute of her life for diamonds or gold.
Sometimes, she wished they were all together again. It would be wonderful to have her family around her, but the young men had all moved off to start their own lives, to wed their sweethearts, to follow their own paths, or had gone off to meet their maker. To wish things back to the way they were was just pie in the sky.
Outside, the horses frisked in their corral and a gentle breeze ruffled the lacy curtains. She smiled at the store-bought extravagance, remembering when her husband had brought the drapery to her as a gift. Lord, how she'd scolded him for wasting money. The cloth was a bit gray now, a bit tattered, but she couldn't bring herself to change them for new. They were part of her house, part of her life, part of herself.
Outside, the chickens clucked and strutted, clouds floated through a blue sky, the sun shown. It was a lovely day. If she were the 'romantic' type, she might take a stroll across the property before the ladies arrived, just to view the beauty of the day -- but Nettie Wells never was one who could be called 'romantic.' She touched the curtains and let them fall. No, not romantic at all.
She would move the pastry into the pie-safe once it had cooled. No sense in leaving it open to flies and other scavengers. She checked the special cupboard and dusted out a few remaining crumbs in preparation, and then turned just in time to see such a creature peer into the window -- bright, hungry eyes fastened on the helpless pie.
"Mr. Standish!" she cried sharply, making the colorfully-dressed gambler jump. "What in tarnation are you doin'?"
"Ah, Mrs. Wells." He composed himself quickly, smiling until the dimples nearly popped off his cheeks. He gazed through the open window and said casually, "It appears that you've dedicated the morning to culinary activities."
"If you're sayin' that I've been bakin', then I suppose you're right." She frowned, not trusting the disarming grin. "And what brings you out here at this time of day. I hear tell that you usually don't rise 'til near-bouts noon."
"I'm on my way to Eagle Bend on pressing matters." He rolled his eyes as if he didn't exactly agree with the description. "And, while passing near, I was drawn to the ambrosial fragrance of your domestic skills." He waved his hand over the pie, as if to draw the essence closer. He sighed and cocked his head as he leaned in the windowsill. "Peach? It must be delightful, considerin' the source. One would consider oneself blessed to be able to partake of such a luxury. "
Nettie shook her head and scowled. "If you think you can con me, Mr. Standish, you're mistaken."
"Ah," Ezra exclaimed, looking hurt. "You still haven't forgiven me for the 'wizened crone' comment?" He winced as Nettie increased her scowl. "I only meant that in the most favorable manner. I wanted to convey that I thought you were a woman of great wisdom -- the type of wisdom that is only attained through trial and experience, that your impressive age should be a matter of pride."
"So you were callin' me an old lady?"
He grinned again, showing that gold tooth. "Why no, my dear. I meant that you are a woman to be reckoned with." His eyes fastened on the dessert again.
"Oh, I'll reckon with you! Get on in here and have a slice before you attract more of your kind," Nettie finally allowed as she snatched the pie out from under him. "I don't think I can put up with your flattery for much longer. Lord, you do lay it on thick."
Ezra disappeared from the window and entered through the kitchen door a moment later, hat in hand. "I do hope I'm not inconveniencing you."
Nettie snorted as she cut into the pie. "Well, I'll just continue with my chores while you eat my morning's work. You'll be ‘inconvenient’ if you get in my way, so sit here." She indicated a chair and set down a plate before it, graced with a hearty slice of peach pie. "And stay put."
Ezra rubbed his hands and sat down where indicated. He glanced about for a fork until Nettie got the message. She muttered and grumbled as she pulled the utensil from a drawer, wiped it on her apron, and handed it to the cardsharp.
"Thank you, my dear," Ezra responded. He sat for a moment with the pastry in front of him, breathing in the warm scent. "Ah, this brings back such fond memories of home."
Nettie nodded as she wet her finger and touched the wood stove, gauging the temperature. She opened the grate and threw in a few more sticks of wood. "I suspect you had some mighty fine peaches in Georgia," she said and she pulled the canisters of flour and sugar from their places on the shelf. "This won't be much of a match to that, I'm afraid. The fruit came from a can." She searched in her cupboard for the other pie pan, and grimaced when she saw it, pitted and rusted. Well, it would have to do.
Finally having his fill of the scent, Ezra shook his head and he drove the fork into the crust. "Ah, Mrs. Wells, the pie I recall also contained canned peaches. My memories are not of Georgia, but of Maryland."
"Maryland?" Nettie exclaimed in disbelief. "You could have fooled me." She measured out handfuls of flour, then added shortening and water and a little sour milk.
Ezra sighed as forked the first bite into his mouth. "Ah, delightful. Perfection." He chewed slowly, savoring the treat as he watched Nettie work the ingredients into the flour, cutting it together on a stone slab. After finishing a few more bites, he said, "You, my lady, are an artist."
"And you, Mr. Standish, are a flatterer. It leads people to believe that you're less than truthful with them."
Ezra laughed. "Quite true, Mrs. Wells. I couldn't agree with you more."
She shook her head, wondering at how the gambler could accept her statement as a compliment. She just couldn’t figure out the man. "Maryland, huh? I always figured you were a southern 'gentleman'," she said the word with a certain amount of forced disdain. "From somewhere deep in Dixie."
"Well, I spent much of my life in Georgia, the Carolinas." He waved the fork about as he rattled off other states, "Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama…so I do claim that rather large region as my own." He paused to eat another bite. "But I was born in Baltimore."
Nettie laughed. "Well, that's a surprise to me." She quickly patted out the dough, careful to not overwork it. She halved it, then pulled out her rolling pin. "So, you regard that city as your 'home'?"
"Baltimore?" Ezra made a face. "Heavens, no."
"Why then does this pie remind you of home then, if it's like the one you had in Baltimore?" she asked as she rolled out the first ball of dough.
Ezra paused, considering something before he continued, "Please, ma'am, I wouldn't want to bore you with such trivialities. I'm certain you have better things to do and are finding my presence tiresome. I'll finish this piece and be on my way."
Nettie banged her rolling pin on the stone and gave Ezra a fierce look. "Now listen here, young man. I asked you a question and I feel I deserve an answer to it. I'm servin' you a mighty fine piece of pie, the least I should expect back from you is a straight answer to my question."
With a poke of the fork, Ezra lifted away another bite. "It's not important in any way," he said. "I shouldn't have brought it up at all. After all, it's impolite to compare the work of one to the work of another. Your baking, I should say, stands alone, incomparable."
"Don't you try to side-step me, mister!" Nettie said sharply, waving the rolling pin at him. "I'm an old lady and I'm armed."
"Well," Ezra started and set down his fork. "I really don't care to speak about personal matters. You understand."
Shaking her head, Nettie set aside the pin. Carefully, she picked up the first circle of rolled-dough and dropped it into the pie pan. "I'm not going to say a word to anyone about it, Mr. Standish." She didn't look at him as she spoke, breaking an egg into a cup and beating it. "Why should you be afraid of sayin' anything to an old lady like me? You can tell me anythin'. Heck, I've only got a few years left. That's why it's alright to tell your secrets to old folks; they don't got that long to carry them."
"Yes," Ezra conceded, "But the old grow senile and begin babbling."
She smiled. "If I'm senile, no one will pay attention to anything I say. You have nothing to worry about."
Picking up his fork again, Ezra seemed lost in thought as Nettie kept her back toward him as she rolled out the upper crust then put away the pin. He continued to eat his pie in silence as Nettie brushed the beaten egg over the crust's rim.
Finally, he smiled wistfully. "I spent my earliest years with a delightful family," he finally said. "My mother hadn't the constitution to take care of an infant, so she hired Mrs. Tolliver as my … ah, wet-nurse. Mrs. Tolliver had recently lost an infant son and had the -- how shall I phrase this delicately -- prerequisites to fill the position. She did, I understand, an outstanding job of caring for me in my infancy. They were a truly charming family, all of them. Mrs. Tolliver was always smiling and fretting over something, so warm and inviting. Mr. Tolliver was a giant, with a severe face and shoulders a mile across, but he was the most even-tempered man I've ever known. I have fond memories of being carried on his oversized shoulders and seeing the entire world in front of me. They had two half-grown daughters, Betsy and Millie. I think they believed I was their special pet. They enjoyed dressing me up like a baby-doll." He laughed and then looked embarrassed.
"Sounds like you spent a lot of time with them," Nettie put in as Ezra ate another bite.
"True. Until I was nearly four years old, I spent a great deal of time in their house. My mother, you see, found motherhood to be quite trying."
Nettie considered the statement for a moment before she responded, "You weren't with your mother?"
"Oh, I was often with her," Ezra replied. "She took me on excursions several times a week. We became quite a sensation. We were seen in and out of many of the finest places. She owned a private and somewhat illegal gambling hall at the time and made, I understand, a great deal of money. I learned much in observation there." He pushed the last of the pie around with his fork. "But, she didn't care much for the rigors that come with motherhood, so I often was with the Tollivers."
Nettie couldn't help the scowl that formed on her face. "So she sent you back to them whenever she got tired of you?"
Catching the iciness of her comment, Ezra shook his head. "It's difficult being a mother while one is trying to run a moneymaking establishment. There are so many more important things that must be attended to. Her actions are entirely conscionable."
"I raised my boys, took care of all the things that had to be done about the house, and worked as a hand on the ranch. I managed it," Nettie stated sharply. "The boys were the most important things in my life."
Ezra scooped up the remainder of the dessert and popped it in his mouth, swallowing it quickly. "Yes, well, everyone has their strengths." He stood and brushed at his trousers. "Thank you for your kindness. Now, I'm sorry for taking up so much of your time. If you'll forgive me, I'll be headed on my way. Again, the pie was magnificent."
Before he could step away from the table, Nettie slapped a second piece onto his plate. "You haven't told me why pie reminds you of home," she insisted. "You haven't held up your end of the bargain."
The gambler sighed, looking at another slab of pastry. He sat again and said, "She did her best for me, you know. She placed me with a good family and kept a close eye on me. She saw me often and made certain that I was well cared for. She paid for my upkeep so that I was never hungry." He poked at the crust with his fork. "She just wasn't made for motherhood."
Nettie sighed, realizing that speaking ill of someone's mother was never the way to get on someone's good side. "I figure you're right," she said tightly. "Must've been hard on her."
Ezra nodded. "The sound of a crying baby made her nervous, so it's understandable that she couldn't have one around for long periods of time. One cannot be 'nervous' in our profession. I understand that I learned at an early age not to cry, but sometimes, I suppose, it couldn't be helped. Plus there's the noxious activity surrounding the changing of diapers and feeding times, the inconvenience of naps. And, as I grew older, she didn’t have the patience to deal with something as addled as a toddler. Children can be awful burdensome when one has work to do. They're always in the way."
"Yes, yes…" Nettie responded, biting her lip to keep from saying more. She'd helped run the ranch with a babe on one hip, a toddler clinging to her skirt, a couple more ankle-biters wrestling at her feet and more swinging from the rafters. It had made her feel alive and vital. She'd loved those days.
"And the situation lasted for only for a short period of time, only until I was four years old," Ezra continued. "Maude was able to sell the business for a considerable profit and we left for Atlanta shortly after that." His expression became thoughtful as he added, "I believe that was the longest period of time she ever spent in one place during my childhood."
He commenced his destruction of the second piece of pie as Nettie pulled a can of peaches from the cupboard, opened it, and drained most the juice into an already half-full jar. She'd serve peach nectar punch at the social. The contents of the can were emptied into the crust and then she added sugar, cornstarch and a touch of salt. She mixed the filling with a wooden spoon, then grated in a bit of cinnamon -- her secret ingredient. Neither spoke. Nettie slipped the top layer of dough over the peaches and pinched the crust shut, then sliced the excess off with a knife. She brushed the remainder of the egg on top and finally cut a leaf pattern on the top to vent the pie. Ezra ate.
"I really didn't remember much of that early time because I was quite young," Ezra commenced again after Nettie put the finished pie into the warm oven. "So much happened after we left Baltimore…" his voice trailed off in thought. "We traveled throughout the south and I attained a love for that part of the country and also gained this charming accent." He smiled at Nettie again. "A bit of a conglomeration collected on my travels, but I feel it suits me well."
"Seems to," Nettie agreed.
The smile dropped as he continued, "But, there came a time when I was twelve years old and returned to Baltimore for… a bit of rest."
He swallowed another bite. "I was a rather sullen child at that point. Certain happenings had, well, dropped me into a state of self-pity. I was wallowing in it." He smiled, but his eyes didn't seem to reflect the expression. "A deplorable state really, but it seems I was unable to snap myself out of it. My mother arranged for my travel back to the burgeoning city of Baltimore and I was dropped once again at the doorstep of the Tollivers." He cut off another bite and rolled it onto his fork. "It had been eight years since I had last been there and I hardly remembered the place, but the moment the door opened, and the scent of fresh-baked peach pie reached me."
Lifting the fork, he held it in front of him and stared at the morsel. He changed his gaze and saw Nettie, leaning against the counter, looking at him intensely.
"I didn’t realize it until that moment, but the house was always filled with the delightful scent of things being baked. I’d been on the road much of the time over those years. There was a time when I'd found another place where I felt... safe." Ezra's brow furrowed and his eyes took on a lost cast for a moment. "Other times… well, I was settled somewhere, but never for long. When that fragrance wafted to me, I was immediately drawn back to that time when I lived with them. It was as if I had stepped back in time. I felt so…"
He paused again, the corners of his mouth tugging, then said, "There was Mister standing in the doorway, looking at this strange child that had appeared at his front step. He had the queerest smile on his lips. Missus peered over his shoulder. She just said, 'Oh!'. Betsy and Millie came running out, laughing like fools." Ezra shook his head in disbelief. "They recognized me, in spite of my sour mood and the fact that I'd changed from a toddler to a young man. They pulled me in and wrapped me again in that family, in that warm room filled with the scent of freshly-baked pie made from canned peaches."
Absently, he ate the bite that waited on the fork and chewed it luxuriously. "It was like coming home." A small smile touched his lips. "The Tollivers' house was one of two places that had ever been secure for me, long-lasting, warm and comforting in my childhood. There were times when home seemed like an untenable ideal, something just out of reach, a pie in the sky for me. To find myself there again was like a dream coming true."
Nettie watched as he pressed the last crumbs of crust into the tines of the fork. She considered the idea of an twelve-year-old that felt as if he'd never have a home. Hell, she thought, remembering her boys at their various ages. They'd always had a home, always had someplace safe and warm to come to. They never slept without a roof over their heads -- unless they meant to. Even now, when they visited, they came clumping into her house as if they still lived there. She couldn't even imagine sending any of her children off to stay with someone else, letting them travel alone, taking them on an endless journey that left them rootless and 'sullen'.
She cleared her throat and asked, "So, Mrs. Tolliver made a mighty fine pie?"
"Horrible," Ezra exclaimed with a laugh. "She tried her best, but the crust never turned out as she planned. That doesn't matter. The smell and the taste of pie -- any kind of pie (for she tried many) -- reminds me of that wonderful house." He licked the last bits from the fork. As he took the fork from his mouth, he pulled his watch from his pocket. "Dear Lord, is it that late already?" He sighed and shook his head. "Forgive me, my dear lady, but I must continue on my way."
He stood gracefully and took the old lady's hand. She smiled as he pressed his lips to it, and she wondered at how a man's hand could be so much softer than her own. He doesn't stoop to menial labor, she reminded herself.
"Thank you for this excellent repast,” he said. “I'm sorry to have been such a bother."
"You weren't no trouble at all, Mr. Standish," Nettie rebuffed.
Ezra shook his head as he picked up his hat. "You had to make another pie on my account."
"Well, I was plannin' on making a second in any case."
"Please," Ezra said. "You'd done nothing of the sort. All the ingredients had been put away and you needed to pull them out again."
She shrugged as he made his way to the door. "Still, weren't much of a bother. I liked havin' ya. Casey's gone off to town." She followed him to the porch where his nuisance of a chestnut gelding waited at the railing. "It's nice havin' a man about the place to talk to." She waited a beat before asking, “You see them lately, that family? Keep in touch?”
“Ah,” Ezra responded. “Mister and Missus lie side by side in the churchyard. She died on a fine spring day and he followed a week later. The man had a heart as big as the rest of him and it broke when she left him. The daughters are grown and married and have children of their own now.”
“You ever try to find ‘em?”
Ezra shrugged. “It’s been so long. I’m certain that they hardly remember me. Besides, they have respectable lives of their own, families to raise, and better things to do than allowing disreputable gamblers into their parlors.” He paused and he lowered his head before saying, "None of this discussion will reach another's ears, will it?" A humorous look struck his eyes and he added, "Especially the part concerning my place of birth. I have a certain image to maintain."
She frowned again. "No need to ask that, Mr. Standish. I can keep my word."
He mounted fluidly. "Ah yes, I remember. You're old and I won't need to worry about your discretion for long." As he brought the horse around, he uttered, "Of course, you'll probably outlive me, but that's another matter altogether." He tipped his hat and nodded. "Again, dear lady, I thank you."
Nodding, Nettie returned, "You can stop by anytime, Mr. Standish. Just don't go snoopin' by my windows and keep your horse away from my flowerbeds." Her eyes strayed to the little patch of pansies that had lost their heads.
His gold tooth shone again before he brought the horse to a trot and headed toward Eagle Bend. She stood on the porch, watching the gambler go. As he left her property, he turned and saluted before bringing the horse to a gallop. They disappeared from sight in no time whatsoever.
Ezra reminded her of her son, Adam. Strange that she'd never thought of that before. Adam, who was clever and funny, who would tell a tale before he'd give up the truth, who could drive her crazy with his meticulous nature, who was sometimes quiet and sad. She'd lost Adam, too. The war took him. It was if Adam and Benjamin just slipped through her fingers and were gone.
She watched for a moment longer, as if she expected Ezra to return -- but he was a wandering soul and had places to go.
With a sigh, Nettie Wells turned and made her way back to the homestead to finish baking the second pie. She checked the fire in the stove and threw in another stick to keep it going. Silently, she cut another piece from the partially consumed pie, then placed it on a clean plate and sat down at the table. As she ate, she ruminated on how she hated the fact that young people liked saying that she'd outlive them. She'd outlived two of her sons and wouldn't want to see the graves of any more.
She glanced out of the window, bedecked in lace curtains and considered taking a walk about her home, just to enjoy the day and appreciate what she had.
THE END - By NotTasha
Hope you enjoyed the story...comments