Vin fell into a fitful sleep which lasted until sunrise, when he awoke to the crowing of Nettie's rooster. After getting up, Vin fed and watered the horses and chickens while Nettie took care of the morning cow milking. With these chores taken care of, Vin sat down to the substantial breakfast which Nettie insisted upon preparing for him. He took his time with breakfast, in no hurry to get back and confront his father. When he could find no further reason for delay, Vin saddled Peso and rode back into town. After putting his horse in the livery, Vin went immediately to the Gem Hotel, checked Matt Tanner's room number and went upstairs. Vin wiped his sweaty palms down the sides of his pants and knocked on the door. After a slight delay, the door opened and father and son were face to face for the first time in seventeen years. For a moment, they stood staring at each other in silence.
Can't believe it's really my pa after all this time.
"Vin." The name was said so softly that it was little more than a whisper. Vin saw a variety of expressions register on the older man's face--disbelief, joy, longing and apprehension. Tears filled Matt's eyes. He stepped forward as if to reach for his son but stopped when he saw Vin stiffen. Reluctantly, he stepped back, and Vin walked into the room.
Matt was obviously relishing the sight of his son. He continued to speak softly. "Let me look at you. You don't look so different from the last time I saw you...just bigger. It was right after your fifth birthday, and I had to leave to go after some men who'd killed a rancher. Do you remember that day, Vin?"
Vin's tone was flat. "I remember you and ma arguin' a little about cuttin' my hair. I don't remember much else."
"Well, I guess you wouldn't remember much at that age." Matt pulled over a chair. "You want to sit down?"
There was an awkward silence. Matt nervously cleared his throat. "I got so much to ask you and to tell you, I don't know where to start."
Vin's blue eyes were hostile. "You can start by tellin' me why ya never come back ta ma 'n' me. Tell me why ya let everybody think you was dead all these years. Tell me how ya found me and why ya come lookin' fer me after all this time. Tell me about yer new wife. Did ya git yerself some new kids ta go along with yer new wife?"
Matt held up his hands. "Whoa! Wait a minute, son. Sounds like you got some wrong ideas about me. We got a lot of ground to cover, but I'll try to explain everything if you'll give me a chance."
Vin's soft voice was raspy with anger. "Explainin's not goin' ta make up fer what you done."
Matt responded with more sharpness than he intended. "You're judgin' me without knowin' the facts. Sit down and listen."
Vin clenched his jaw and glared back at his father.
Unwillingly, Vin responded to the authority in Matt Tanner's voice and sat down.
Matt began. "When I left you and your ma, I joined up with my partner, and we went after three murderers. One of 'em was half Anglo and half Mexican. He'd split his time murderin' and thievin' on both sides of the border. It turned out he had some crooked Mexican lawmen and judges in his back pocket. We went into Mexico after him and the other two. My partner got killed, and I was arrested on a trumped up charge. The judge sentenced me to twenty years in a Mexican prison camp that was located in a place called Sabinas. They took what money I had on me and took my horse and saddle. I had no way to bribe anybody to get word out on where I was."
Vin was still skeptical. "So how did you git out?"
"It took me four tries to escape from that hellhole. The bastards had some mighty effective ways of discouraging prisoners from escapin'. They came awful close to killin' me after my third try. The only thing that kept me alive was the thought of gettin' back to you and your ma. I was there for seven years before I got out. One night around midnight, there was an earthquake--a big one. The guards were runnin' around in a panic. The guard tower toppled and fell on one of the guards. I took his gun and slit his throat with his own knife. I had to kill a few more of 'em, and got knifed in the process; but I managed to steal a horse, and then I lit out for Texas. I crossed the border into Del Rio. I came to a ranch, and I couldn't make it any further 'cause I was in such bad shape. I fell off my horse, and I didn't come to for days. The ranch belonged to a widow. Her name was Pilar, and she took care of me while I was sick. There's more to tell, but I ended up marryin' her."
"Was that before or after ya found out that my ma was dead? Or maybe it didn't matter none to ya as long as ya had a woman in yer bed. Seven years is a long time fer a man not ta be gittin' any."
"Don't you ever speak to me like that again," Matt said sternly. "Pilar was a respectable woman, and she was kind and generous. It wasn't like what you're implyin'."
Vin looked sullen, but said nothing else.
"As soon as I was able," Matt continued, "I tried to find out about you and your ma. You might not remember, but when you turned five we were living in Sweetwater. I sent a telegram there, but the telegraph operator sent a message back that he couldn't locate a Molly Tanner. As soon as I could travel, I started back to Sweetwater. Your grandpa's cabin was on the way, so I stopped there, but I could see right off that nobody had lived there for awhile. Then I found your grandpa's grave and your ma's." He stopped for a moment, then went on. "I went into town, hoping that I could locate you. All I could find out was that you had left with a wagon train going to Oregon. The Rangers owed me back pay, and I used it to hire a Pinkerton to try and find you. He found out that the wagon train had been attacked, but he said it would take time to trace any survivors. There was nothing else I could do right then, so I went back to Del Rio to help out Pilar. She was short of ranch hands, and I owed her for lookin' after me. I told her that my wife was dead, and I told her about you. Later on, we got married."
"You got any other kids?"
"No. There's only you."
"Why'd it take you ten years ta find me? Don't seem like it shoulda took this long."
Matt hesitated. "The truth is, Vin, that there was a time I stopped looking for you. There were so many disappointments and dead ends that I felt like I couldn't take it anymore. I didn't just leave it up to Pinkertons. I looked for you myself, but I couldn't neglect my wife and our ranch. There was no proof that you were still alive, but there was no proof that you were dead either. Not knowing was killing me. After Pilar died, I decided to make one more attempt to find you. I found out about the wanted poster on you, and that's how I was finally able to trace you to Four Corners."
Vin's eyes widened. "You still wanted ta find me even after knowin' that I was wanted fer murder?"
Matt ran his hand through his hair. "I admit that was a shock I hadn't counted on. I kept thinkin' that there must be some mistake, but at least it was proof that you were still alive."
"I didn't do it. I was framed by a man named Eli Joe."
Matt looked relieved. "I couldn't believe that my boy would be capable of murderin' a man."
"You got no idea what I'm capable of. You coulda found me before now if you'd tried hard enough, but I reckon you was too busy with yer ranch and yer wife 'n' all." Vin got up and started for the door.
"Vin, listen to me... "
"I heard enough. I ain't decided yet how much of it ta believe. Fact is, ya showed up years too late." Vin slammed the door behind him as he left. His emotions were churning, and he stood for a moment in front of the hotel, undecided where to go next. There were too many people going in and out of the saloon, so he wandered aimlessly down to the livery stable. No one was in the livery. The interior was dim and quiet, except for the horses shuffling around in their stalls. He sat down on a bale of hay and put his face in his hands. Unexpectedly, tears began to trickle between his fingers and gave way to a torrent of deep sobs, which shook his body. He failed to notice someone entering the livery, until he looked up, startled and embarrassed, to see Chris standing in front of him. Hastily, Vin wiped his shirtsleeve across his eyes. "I ain't cryin'," he gulped, "and don'cha tell nobody ya seen me cryin' neither."
"I didn't see nothin', Vin." Chris resisted the urge to put a consoling arm around the tracker, uncertain of how the gesture would be received. He sat down on a hay bale and faced Vin. "You talked to your pa?"
"How'd it go?"
"He told me how he got railroaded into a Mexican prison fer seven years and told me some other stuff. I don't know how much of it ta believe. Maybe he's just makin' excuses fer hisself. He ain't got nobody now but me, so maybe that's the real reason why he finally come lookin' fer me."
"I talked to him myself."
"You did?" Tears lingered on Vin's lashes, and he wiped his eyes again with the back of his hand.
"Your pa seems like a decent man to me. I'd say he's a man who loves his son."
"You got it all figgered out, have ya?"
"Vin, I know what it's like to love a son, and I know what my own pa was like." He waited a moment. "Did I ever tell you that Adam was named for my pa?"
Vin shook his head. "No, ya never told me. I was named Vincent after some story my ma read, accordin' ta Grandpa, but nobody ever called me nothin' but Vin."
"Sarah was pregnant when she died," Chris related in his soft voice. "We hadn't decided on a name for a girl, but if the baby had been another boy, I wanted to name him Caleb after my brother." A smile crossed the gunslinger's handsome face. "Before I met Sarah, I was pretty wild. Didn't think about much but spendin' my pay on good whisky and bad women. Loved to fight, too. No wonder Hank Connolly didn't think I was good enough for his daughter. I changed when I got to know Sarah, and I was ready to settle down then. I thought I could have the same kind of life with her that my parents had. Never heard a real cross word between 'em. When I was growin' up, Pa used to tell my brothers and me, 'Boys, when you get ready to pick a wife, try to find one as good as your ma'. He would've been pleased with Sarah."
"You was lucky, cowboy."
"Yeah, I was, till my luck ran out."
"You could have a family again, Chris. What about Mary?"
"Mary? No, I don't think so." Chris grinned. "Mary's a beautiful, intelligent woman, but I'd kinda like to be the one to wear the pants in my family. I think Mary would have other ideas about that. Anyway, I'm not ready yet to look for another wife. When I want a woman, I can pay for one and walk away afterwards. That suits me for now." He stood up and straightened the tracker's hat and then put a hand on the back of Vin's neck. "Let's go over to the saloon and see if the rest of the boys're there." He paused. "I told 'em that Matt Tanner was your pa. They all wanted to know what I thought of him. I told 'em that I thought your pa was a good man."
Vin scowled. "I don't like havin' my personal business discussed."
"I know, but it's natural the boys would be curious."
"Yeah, I reckon." Vin looked resigned, but not pleased.
+ + + + + + +
Vin's expression was still sullen when he and Chris entered the saloon. They joined Ezra and Buck at their usual table, and Ezra pulled out a deck of cards. "Now that two of our compatriots have arrived, perhaps we can have a friendly game," the gambler suggested.
"Ain't in the mood, Ezra," Vin snapped, "and there ain't nothin' friendly about the way ya fleece the rest a' us."
Calmly, Ezra laid the cards back down and gave Vin a perceptive look. "Obviously, someone is not in the most congenial frame of mind. It is a little early yet for a drink, so are there any other suggestions for passing the time?"
"You could get us caught up on Miz Nettie, Vin," Buck said. "Haven't seen her for awhile. How is she?"
"Anything goin' on out at her place?"
"Any trouble lately with Guy Royal?"
Buck's voice was deceptively mild. "I get the feelin' you've decided to be a pain in the ass today. Has this got anything to do with your pa bein' in town?"
Anger flashed in the tracker's eyes. "My pa ain't none a' yer business, Buck, and if ya don't like my company, I'll leave."
Vin started to get up, but Buck put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back into his chair. "Sit your ass back down. I'm not wantin' you to leave, but I'd sure as hell like to know what's goin' on with you. You're sure not actin' like yourself, so I figure it has to have something to do with your pa bein' here. I might spend a lot of time jokin' around, but I'm serious now. If you had an old man like mine, I could understand why you wouldn't be happy to see him. My mother was a saint, but my old man was no good."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "A saint, Buck? Don't you think that is putting it a bit strongly?"
Buck glowered at him. "What would you know about it, Ezra?"
"Admittedly, very little. My experience with saintly mothers has been limited. Perhaps you could enlighten us."
Buck leaned back in his chair and began. "I ain't made it a secret that my mama was a workin' girl, but she only went to work in a sportin' house to support my three sisters and me. This was after my pa gambled away the general store that my mama helped him run. When he lost the store, he ran out on us. Mama took in laundry for awhile, but she couldn't make enough to take care of all of us. When she went to work in the sportin' house, she sent my sisters away to live with an aunt and uncle. She kept me with her till I was six, and then she sent me off to join my sisters. My uncle wouldn't have been able to take us all in if my mama hadn't sent every dime she could spare for our keep. There wasn't a week went by that she didn't write us and tell us how much she loved us and missed us. She was always plannin' for the day that we could be together again, but she got killed before that could ever happen. Two customers got drunk and had an argument. They tried to shoot each other, and one of 'em shot her by mistake."
They were all quiet when Buck finished and then Ezra spoke. "I take it that your father never reappeared."
"That's right. I was only three months old when he took off. My pa's sister heard from him a coupla times over the years, so we knew he was alive, but we never heard from him. He just didn't give a damn about any of us."
Ezra looked pensive. "My father was not a constant presence in my life after he and my mother came to a parting of the ways, but there were occasional visits."
All of the men looked up when the saloon doors swung open and Josiah entered. The graying regulator had a big smile on his face as he came over to join them. "Brothers," he greeted them, "the stage came in a few minutes ago, and it was carryin' a passenger that I've been anxious to see."
"Let me guess," Ezra drawled, "a possible suitor has arrived to whisk away the widow Alice and her charming child."
"No, nothing like that. This is better. Maude's back."
"Well, that means my day is shot to hell," Ezra groaned.
"I better go get cleaned up if I want to spend some time with Maude. She's a mighty fancy lady."
Ezra wrinkled his nose. "If you intend to renew your acquaintance with my mother, Josiah, then I suggest that you first scrape off your boots. The aroma indicates that you have stepped in horse manure."
Josiah looked down at his feet with an embarrassed grin. "Yeah, I guess I was so busy lookin' at Maude that I wasn't watchin' where I was goin'." He began to scrape his boot along the wooden floor.
"Not in my saloon!"
"Oh, sorry, Ezra. I'm just excited by having Maude here again. See you boys later." He touched the brim of his hat and went out.
Buck got up. "Think I'll go see what JD's up to. If I know that boy, he's probably needin' some of my advice."
Chris's face reflected his skepticism. "Advice on what, Buck?"
"Everything! Women, guns, outlaws--you name it. Lucky for him he has me to set him straight since I'm full a' knowledge."
"You're full a' shit, Buck."
Buck feigned indignation. "It's easy to see my wisdom ain't appreciated around here, so I'll mosey on over to the sheriff's office."
After Buck left, Vin said, "Need ta clear my head. Think I'll go fer a ride."
"Where to?" Chris demanded.
Vin scowled at him. "Since when do I hafta tell ya everywhere I go?"
"Don't be so touchy. I know you got things on your mind. Being distracted can make a man careless. I don't want you to do anything foolish."
"I don't need no nursemaid, Chris."
Irritation crept into Chris's voice. "What you need is a... never mind. Go for a ride. Maybe it'll do you some good."
Vin's response was sarcastic. "Appreciate ya givin' me yer permission." He got up and started out of the saloon, but stopped when he reached the swinging doors. He turned and came back. "Didn't mean ta sound so snappish. When I was out at Nettie's, she told me somethin' was botherin' her chickens, and I found coyote tracks leadin' away from the barn. Thought I'd go back out there and try ta track down the varmint."
"All right," Chris replied.
Vin nodded and left.
"Vin is certainly acting unlike himself," Ezra drawled. "I have always considered him to be quite even tempered and mature beyond his years."
"I think Vin had to grow up too fast," Chris reflected. "He didn't get enough time to just act like a kid. Now it looks like he's makin' up for it." He stood up and stretched. "Think I'll go have a seat outside. Your ma will probably be on her way over soon."
Ezra sighed. "That she will."
Chris pulled up a chair outside the saloon doors and leaned his chair back against the wall. He saw Vin emerge from the livery and ride out of town. The town's main street was bustling with people, wagons and horses. At the far end of the street, he observed a heavyset man lead his horse out of an alley, mount up and ride out of town at a leisurely pace. Chris frowned. Something about the man was vaguely familiar. This nagged at his mind, but his attention was diverted by the approach of Maude Standish. He stood and touched the brim of his hat. "Ma'am."
"Mr. Larabee. It's nice to see you again," Maude said. Chris surmised that Maude's pale yellow dress was of the latest style, and he caught a faint whiff of what smelled like an expensive perfume. "I presume that Ezra is inside."
Maude swept into the saloon, and Chris settled back into his chair. He was about to tip his hat over his eyes when he saw Matt Tanner emerge from the Gem Hotel and start in his direction. Chris could see the concern on Matt's face as he came closer and he arose. "Something wrong, Mr. Tanner?"
"You might say that, Chris," Matt replied. "I had it all planned out what I was going to say to Vin, but when I talked to him things didn't go the way I thought it would. I still need to try to set things straight. Do you know where he might be?"
"He went out to Nettie Wells's place," Chris responded. "Let's go over to the livery. You can rent a horse, and I'll give you directions to Nettie's."
Ezra was idly shuffling cards when Maude bustled in and marched over to his table. "My darlin' boy," she cooed. Ezra stood, and she gave him a light kiss on the cheek.
"Mother." Ezra pulled out a chair for her. Maude sat down and began removing her gloves, her eyes darting around the saloon. "You must be prosperin', judgin' from all those men drinkin' at the bar. What have you been up to since my last visit?"
"Nothing much. I was abducted, beaten and otherwise mistreated by some miscreants."
Maude gave him a cursory inspection. "You seem to have survived quite nicely, darlin'. A Standish always lands on his feet." She reached into her handbag, drew out a letter and handed it to him. "This arrived shortly before I left St. Louis. It concerns you, so I think that you should read it."
Ezra looked at the envelope. "A missive from Father." He unfolded the letter and, after making certain that no one was close enough to overhear, began to read aloud. "'Dearest Maude, my lovely and incomparable wife.'" Ezra stopped and raised a questioning eyebrow. "I had no idea that you and Father were on such good terms."
"We aren't. Your father must be entering his dotage."
Ezra continued. "'I have decided to let bygones be bygones, my love. I am trying to forget the time that you once turned me in for the reward money and the time that you shot me in the foot. For years, I kept our agreement. I prevented your relatives from knowing that I was still alive in return for periodic visits with our son. I was even willing to overlook your various marriages, since you assured me that they were marriages in name only and were of extremely short duration.'" Ezra stopped again. "I have always wondered, Mother, what devious methods you employed to cool the ardor of your numerous bridegrooms."
"That is not a subject that is open to discussion, Ezra. Other than your father, I have always managed to keep my husbands at arm's length."
Ezra resumed. "'As I contemplate entering my golden years, I am once again ready to claim my blushing bride.'"
"Preposterous! Simply preposterous!"
"'Although you try to pretend otherwise, I know that you still retain some of the romantic feelings from our younger days.'"
"'It is time for you and I and our son to resume being a family. More and more, I think fondly of the times that we were together. Do you remember how proud we were the day that we taught little Ezra Phineas to deal from the bottom of the deck? Do you recall how good he was at remembering all of our aliases and never once getting them confused? I am ready to abandon the life of high stakes poker and conning gullible marks, rewarding though it has been. I now desire a life of tranquility in a friendly, bucolic town like Ezra's Four Corners.'" A burst of gunfire sounded out in the street, causing Ezra to get up and to go peer over the saloon doors. He saw Chris, Buck and JD dealing with the disturbance and rejoined Maude. "Another customer for the undertaker," he commented and went on with the letter. "'I am ready to begin bouncing grandchildren on my knee.'"
Maude grabbed the letter from Ezra. "Grandchildren! How dare he make me a grandmother!"
"I believe that I would have to be the one to accomplish that deed, and the lady has not yet appeared to put the proverbial gleam in my eye."
"That is a relief. Ezra, I want you to write to your father immediately. You must try to dissuade him from comin' here. I will not have my visits spoiled by the unwelcome presence of Wade Standish."
Ezra grimaced. "I can see it now--havin' to arrest my own parents for attemptin' bodily harm upon each other. That would be awkward."
Maude gathered up her gloves and prepared to leave. "Awkward, Ezra, would be havin' to explain bein' a widow with a live husband."
+ + + + + + +
Vin dismounted for a better look at the coyote tracks that he had followed from Nettie's barn. The tracks led up into some rocks, and he tied Peso's reins to a tree and began following the tracks on foot. He had gone several hundred yards when he heard a rustling sound right behind him. He whirled, mare's leg in hand, only to see a rabbit emerge from the rocks and hop away into some brush. Feeling a little foolish, he holstered his gun and resumed searching for the tracks. He was kneeling down for a closer look when he sensed another presence. He felt a gun barrel in his back and heard a voice that was all too familiar.
"I move real light fer a big man, don't I? Git up slow and turn around."
Vin obeyed and turned to face Floyd Watts. The bounty hunter's hair was now cut short, and the bushy beard was gone, but the meanness in the eyes was just as Vin remembered. Watts reached for Vin's gun and threw it aside.
Vin's jaw clenched. "Yer supposed ta be dead. How'd ya manage ta survive?"
The bounty hunter gave him an malicious grin. "Boy, ain't you ever heard that only the good die young? I had five bullets in me, but I got plenty a' muscle and gristle, and that's what saved me. Leastways, that's what the doc in Defiance said when he sobered up enough ta take the bullets out. Thought I wasn't gonna make it when I was climbin' back up ta the top of the plateau where we was camped. Had just enough breath left ta whistle up my horse. Took me weeks ta git back on my feet again, after the doc patched me up. I didn't think about nothin' else, but comin' after you, you longhaired bastard. This time, I won't give ya the opportunity ta cheat me outa my five hundred dollars. We're goin' back ta Tascosa, but you ain't gonna git the chance ta escape again 'cause you ain't gonna be alive. I'm not as particular as my former partner. I don't mind haulin' a body around. I can stand the smell, and I'll shoot the buzzards if I hafta. You're gonna die right here, boy." Watts aimed his Winchester at Vin's heart.
Vin's eyes widened in horror. There was no escape. He was going to die. "Watts," he gasped desperately, stalling for time. What happened next occurred in an instant, and yet it seemed to Vin that it happened with a slow, dreamlike quality. From the corner of his eye, the bounty hunter caught the glint of sunlight on a rifle barrel. He wheeled towards the man standing in the open some thirty yards away. "NO!" Vin yelled. Both rifles seemed to fire simultaneously, and the bounty hunter collapsed onto his back. It took only a moment for Vin to discern from the sightless eyes that Watts was dead, and then he was running towards the other man lying on the ground. He reached him and fell to his knees. "Pa!" he cried, "how bad are ya hit?"
Grimacing and clutching his side, Matt tried to sit up. "It ain't that bad. I been hurt worse in my time. My bullet must've hit that son of a bitch just as he got off his shot and spoiled his aim."
Vin steadied him and worriedly noted the blood oozing from Matt's side. Vin tore off his bandana, unbuttoned his father's shirt and pressed the bandana against the wound. "Why'd ya do it?" he demanded. "Why'd ya step out in the open like that and expose yerself? Didn't ya see what kinda rifle he had? If he'd got off a clear shot, he woulda killed ya."
Matt flinched from the pressure on his wound. "I had no choice, son. In another second or two, you would've been dead. When I came over the rise, I saw that he was about to pull the trigger. There was no time to take cover and get off a shot."
"So you was willin' ta die fer me!" Vin was stunned.
"What man wouldn't die for his children, if it came to that. Why was that bastard tryin' to kill you?"
"He's a bounty hunter," Vin answered. "He was goin' ta take me back ta Tascosa fer the reward."
"Help me get on my feet," Matt grunted. "I need somebody to take this bullet out. You got a doctor in that town of yours?"
Vin helped him up. "No, sir, but we got a man who's good at diggin' out bullets if they ain't too deep. Where'd ya leave yer horse?"
"With yours. When I saw another horse standin' beside your horse, I got a bad feelin'. Chris told me you rode out here alone." With Matt leaning on Vin, the pair made their way back to the horses, pausing only for Vin to retrieve his gun. With Vin's help, Matt mounted his horse, and they started back to town.
When they reached Nathan's clinic, Vin assisted his father up the stairs and pounded on Nathan's door.
The healer came promptly to the door. "Vin, what's the... " He broke off when he saw the sharpshooter supporting an injured man.
"My pa's been shot."
Nathan helped Vin get his father inside and placed on a cot. Nathan quickly unbuttoned the man's shirt and examined the wound. "He ain't bleedin' too bad," Nathan declared, "but the bullet's still in there, and I can't tell how deep it is." He looked at Vin, noting the anxiety on the tracker's face. "I think you better wait outside while I take care a' this."
Vin wasn't reassured by Matt's appearance. The older man's eyes were closed, and there was a grayish pallor to his face. "I think I oughta stay, Nathan."
"I can work better with nobody in the way." He gave Vin a light push towards the door. "Go on, now. I'll come and tell you as soon's I get done."
Reluctantly, Vin went outside and sat down on the top step to wait. He drew his knees up and put his head down on his crossed arms.
What if my pa dies? I'll be losin' him all over again. Ought not ta feel scared like when I was just a little kid and Ma died, but it don't feel that different.
"HEY, VIN!" JD, passing by below, looked up and saw him. With his usual energy, JD bounded up the steps. "What're you doin'?"
"My pa got shot, JD."
JD's hazel eyes showed instant concern. "How bad is it? Who shot him?"
"Ain't sure how bad it is. Floyd Watts--one a' the bounty hunters that took me 'n' Ezra--come back ta take me in again. We all thought he was dead. He was goin' ta kill me when my pa stepped in. Pa killed him, but not before Watts shot 'im."
"Does Chris know about this?"
Vin shook his head.
"Then I'll go tell him. I'll be right back." JD bounded back down the steps.
In minutes, JD returned accompanied by the other regulators. Ezra came up to Vin and put a hand on his shoulder. "Vin, JD told us that your father killed that son of a bitch who should have already been dead. Nathan will do his best, so take heart, my friend."
"I am going to stretch my legs for a bit, but I will be close by if you need me."
Vin nodded, and the gambler descended the steps. Buck and Josiah came up to offer brief words of encouragement, and all remained nearby to keep Vin company. Chris lit a cigar and then came up to take a seat beside Vin. He smoked in silence, but Vin was comforted by the gunslinger's presence and the brush of black sleeve against his own buckskin jacket.
Vin finally broke the silence. "He saved my life, Chris. Still don't know exactly how I feel about 'im, but I reckon I mighta been wrong about some things. He said there was a time he stopped searchin' fer me, 'cause he couldn't take it no more." Chris looked at Vin. The lethal sharpshooter had an expression like that of a forlorn child. "You reckon that might be the way it was and not 'cause he didn't care no more?"
"You pa didn't strike me as a liar, Vin. I don't believe he ever stopped carin'. If I was you, I'd take him at his word."
"I'll think on it." Vin fell silent again, and the silence was unbroken until Nathan came out. Vin and Chris stood up, and the other men came closer to hear what the healer had to say. "I got the bullet out, Vin," Nathan reported. "Your pa seems plenty tough, but we got to consider his age and the chance of infection. If there's no infection, he ought ta be all right, but it's gonna take some time for him ta get over this."
Vin breathed a sigh of relief. "Can I see 'im?"
Nathan wiped his sweaty brow with the back of his hand. "I'd wait a little while. Give him a chance ta rest a bit. Why don't you go get yourself somethin' ta eat?"
"Yeah, Vin," Buck chimed in, smoothing down his dark mustache. "Let's all get something to eat. My belly thinks my throat's been cut."
Vin hesitated for a moment, but he was hungry, as well. "All right, Bucklin, but first I need ta git Peso and my pa's horse back over ta the livery. I left the bounty hunter's horse out at Nettie's."
"I'll take care of the horses," JD volunteered.
"Thanks, JD." Vin felt awkward. "I'm obliged ta y'all fer keepin' me company."
"Aw, shucks, Vin," Buck responded, "you don't hafta make any speeches. He grinned and clapped Vin on the back. "We're gonna let you show your gratitude by buyin' dinner for everybody."
Ten Days Later
Vin climbed the stairs to Nathan's clinic and rapped on the door.
Matt Tanner's voice answered the knock. "Come in."
Vin entered to find his father alone, fully dressed and seated in a chair reading "The Clarion." Vin had come by everyday to sit with his father, and they had filled each other in on the missing years of their lives. "How ya feelin' today, Pa?" Vin inquired.
"Good enough to move back to the hotel tomorrow. Nathan thinks it'll be about three more weeks before I'm strong enough to go back home." He looked thoughtful. "It appears to me that you've found yourself a home here in Four Corners."
Vin smiled in agreement. "Reckon I have. Never expected it when I first come here. Just wanted ta make a few dollars at somethin' besides bounty huntin'." Vin walked over to the window and looked down on the street below. "I made some real good friends here, and Chris is more than a friend. He's kinda like a big brother, I reckon. You musta met most a' my friends by now."
"They all seem like good folks. I had a long visit with Nettie Wells when she stopped by. She's a feisty old gal. Got the feelin' she'd have been ready to tar and feather me if she'd decided I'd done wrong by you. Miz Travis has been to see me several times. She said you're doing good with your reading and writing, but not so good with your speaking." Matt looked serious. "Vin, how come your grandpa never sent you to school?"
"School burned down. Folks built another one, but they didn't git a teacher till just before Grandpa died. Grandpa thought the school in town was too far away. Ma had some old school books at the cabin, and she was goin' ta teach me my letters, but then she got sick and never had the chance. Mary's been real nice about teachin' me."
"I'm glad there's so many good folks hereabouts. Guess you didn't really need me to come back in your life. It seems like you don't need much of anything that you don't already have."
Vin turned away from the window. "I still need ta git my name cleared back in Tascosa."
With the help of a cane, Matt got to his feet. He walked over to his son and stood facing him. "When I start back to my ranch, I plan to stop off in Tascosa to see if I can do anything to help you clear your name."
"Chris always told me that he'd go back with me ta help me clear myself, but I reckon havin' somebody else workin' on it wouldn't hurt none."
"When Chris came by a few days ago, he told me about his place. He mentioned that there's plenty of good grazin' land around here. I was thinkin... " He took a deep breath. "I was thinkin' that I might sell my ranch in Del Rio and buy some land around here." He continued hurriedly. "I know that you don't need me anymore, and you might not want me too close, so if that's how you feel, all you gotta do is tell me. I wouldn't interfere with you, though." He stopped. "Hell! What am I sayin'? I wouldn't be able to keep myself from interferin'. I'd forget sometimes that you can take care of yourself and that you ain't five years old anymore. If you don't want me around, I guess that's the way it'll have to be."
Vin didn't answer at first and then he spoke quietly. "If ya wanted ta be close by, I reckon I wouldn't have no objection."
Matt swallowed hard. "Son, I... there's one other thing. You ain't really let me touch you since I found you again. Would you let me... would you let me just put my arms around you this once? I won't ask you again, if you'll let me this one time."
Vin bit his lip and looked abashed and then wordlessly, he nodded his agreement. Slowly and carefully, Matt embraced him. He held Vin as if he might break and then tightened his grip, burying his face in Vin's shoulder. After a long moment, he stepped back and wiped his eyes. "I waited such a long time for that."
Vin felt moisture in his own eyes, which he tried to ignore. "I'd best be goin', Pa. Some a' the ranchers are complainin' about cattle rustlin'. I need ta see what I can find out."
Matt nodded, still wiping his eyes. "You go ahead then."
Vin had his hand on the door knob, when his father called after him with a reminder. "Be careful out there, son, and take your rain slicker. Looks like there's a storm brewin'."
Vin nodded and went out the door.
Matt watched him go. "My beautiful boy," he whispered, knowing that he would never say such words aloud to Vin.
Outside the clinic door, Vin straightened his hat and started down the steps.
Be careful. Take yer rain slicker. Next thing I know, he'll be tellin' me ta eat everythin' on my plate and ta button my fly. Sounds like Chris always tellin' me ta watch my back. Like I don't know that. Like I need lookin' after. Bad enough I got Chris actin' like he don't think I can take care a' myself. Now it looks like I got a pa who's goin' ta do the same thing.
Suddenly, Vin broke into a broad smile.
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