'Bout All a Man Can Ask For
Characters: Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee, and Ezra Standish
Webmaster Note This fic was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in July 2022.
"Happy birthday, old timer." Vin Tanner, face shadowed by his old Calvary slouch hat, slid a slip of paper across the table to his best friend.
A blonde eyebrow lifted as Chris Larabee questioned the younger man. "What's this?"
Smiling, Larabee unfolded the paper and read its contents: This entitles the owner, Chris Larabee, to two days' worth of labor from Vin Tanner. "At the ranch?"
"Yeah. I figured you'd be needin' an extra pair of hands about now. Mary helped me write up the note." Tanner’s shy smile turned into one that was laden with mischief. "My pen scratchin's still kinda hard to make out. Especially for old eyes."
Buck Wilmington, who'd been watching the exchange with interest, snorted with delight. Seldom was it that he saw his oldest friend on the teasing end of someone else's barbs. That it was Vin Tanner doing the teasing was the only reason it was being allowed. The hard-natured man that Chris Larabee had become after the loss of his family had developed a soft spot in his heart for the quiet spoken ex-bounty hunter. Buck had sat back and watched, first with trepidation, then with satisfaction, as the younger man had wormed his way into that cold, black heart. Now, he just smiled and waited for Larabee to respond.
"I'll old you, you young whelp!" Larabee snatched up Tanner's hand, twining their fingers together, prepared to arm wrestle his point home.
As the tracker stiffened his wrist and straightened in his chair, ready to do battle, a five-dollar coin hit the table. "I've got five on our erstwhile leader."
"I'll see your five - on the boy," Josiah Sanchez, the group's spiritual leader, countered the bet of Ezra Standish.
J.D. Dunne, the youngest of the group, cleared the table of half-full glasses and a whiskey bottle. Soon as he was finished, he nodded to the two wrestlers. "Go."
Grunts, labored breathing, and the cheering of the crowd accompanied the battle taking place. Sweaty palms, grasped together, fought for dominance. The wooden table where elbows rested vibrated as it absorbed the energy of the dueling men.
Vin figured it was hopeless. He'd never been able to defeat Larabee in arm wrestling before, but damned if he wasn't going to try! Eyes squinting, he felt his bicep quivering from the exertion. Concentrating his effort, he definitely noticed a slight give in the arm he was pushing against and couldn't help the small smile that escaped.
Feeling himself giving ground, Chris Larabee's chiseled jaw clenched and unclenched. The skinny tracker had yet to beat him at this game, and he wasn't about to let things change on his birthday of all days. Determined to win, he locked his back teeth together, breathed deeply through his nose, and closed his eyes for just a moment-gathering his strength. Opening his eyes, he looked directly at his opponent, and whooped "got ya!" before slamming his fist down on the opposite side of the table.
Tossing his coin to the grinning gambler, Josiah sighed. "Thought you had him this time, Vin."
Still stunned by how quickly Larabee had turned the tables on him, Vin frowned. "Sorry, ‘Siah. He's a sneaky old bastard. Makes you think you're winnin', then, bam, takes you right down."
Buck shook his head and smiled indulgently at his two friends. Both were rubbing their wrists, trying to ease the strain of the battle. Chris' green eyes were locked with Vin's blue ones, and Wilmington swore he could almost hear their silent communication.
For takin' ya down.
Hell, ain't nothin' new.
Whiskey bottle retrieved from the floor, J.D. filled a glass for both men and set it in front of them. "Here, Vin. Chris. You look like you could use some of this."
J.D. looked back and forth between their leader and the tracker; his brow furrowed in thought. "Vin, you always call me that, but you can't be much older than me. I know Chris turned 38 today, but how old are you?"
Vin eyed the younger man as he sipped his whiskey. Slouching back in his chair, he looked around the table at his six friends, his six partners, and shrugged. "I don't rightly know, J.D. I know my ma died when I's five, but I'm not sure how long it was 'tween then and now."
"Well, what year did she die?"
"You don't....ow, Buck, why'd you kick me?" J.D. turned questioning eyes toward his best friend.
"Now, son, you oughtn' be botherin' Vin like that. Hell, a man's business ought'a be private."
J.D. ducked his head, then apologized. "Sorry, Vin. I didn't mean to pry. It's just we know how old everybody else is, well, except Nathan, but at least he knows he's somewhere around 27 or 28, but you've never said."
"Never thought much about it, kid. I'm how old I am. Not knowing doesn't change it."
The words were spoken without hesitation, but Nathan Jackson had first-hand knowledge about how not knowing things about yourself tended to tear a hole in a man's soul. Having been born a slave, there were no real records of when he was born, but his parents shared what they knew. They knew he'd been born during planting season, and it'd been a full moon. He'd always figured it'd been sometime around the 12th day of April but wasn't exactly sure of the year. He knew he was at least 27, but had a hard time being more specific than that. "Vin, do you have anything your ma gave you? A bible or baptism record? Anything?"
Vin nodded, deep in thought. "Yeah, I have an old saddle bag with some stuff in it. I couldn't ever read it a'fore, so I don't know what most of it is."
"If you are willing, Mr. Tanner, I'd be more than happy to look through the information with you. I assure you that anything that you wished held in confidence, I would take to my grave."
"Thanks, Ezra." Vin reached for the bottle of whiskey and poured himself another drink. Uncertain, his eyes searched out the one place he knew he'd find unquestioning support.
Your decision, cowboy.
Would you want to know?
...Yeah, I would.
"So, Ezra, when do you want to get started?"
"Now would be fine, Mr. Tanner, if that is all right with you."
"Now's fine. Where?"
"We could do it here, or we could meet in my room. It's up to you."
Vin thought about it a minute. Upstairs would be more private, but here he'd have the support of all the other regulators, and Chris. Realizing it wasn't much of a decision to make, he told the gambler, "Here will be good. I'll go get the bag and meet y'all back in a few minutes."
The dust kicked up a ruckus in the street behind him as Vin pushed through the worn batwing doors. The saddle bag he had thrown across his shoulder sat like a verdict of doom. He was torn by the possibilities of what its contents could reveal. On one hand, it could be information he'd waited his whole life to hear. On the other, it could be things he'd rather not find out. Faced with the finality of knowing, he squared his shoulders and crossed the saloon to his friends.
Vin walked behind Larabee and slipped into the seat to his left, next to the wall. He placed the saddle bag on the table and looked over at the gambler. "There it is."
Studying the dark leather bag, Josiah reached across Ezra and lightly traced the pattern etched into the leather. "That's Calvary issue, Vin. Do you know where it came from?"
"Clear as I can recall, it belonged to my pa."
"Your pa?" J.D. asked.
"Yeah. He died fore I's born, but I think it was his."
"Well, Mr. Tanner, let's see what mysteries lie within."
Ezra unwound the stringed-leather clasp and folded back the flap. Reaching inside, he removed a stack of old papers, a cloth wrapped bundle, and a worn photo. He picked up the yellow and cracked picture, handing it to Vin. "Your father?"
"Yeah." Vin smiled, a wistful expression crossing his face. "She said he died 'fore he even knew about me. He never knew he had a son." Setting the photo down, he picked up the small bundle wrapped in cloth and opened it. A tarnished silver locket fell out, the two halves held together by a single wobbly hinge. "When I's little, there were pictures of my ma and me in here. Can't see 'em no more."
Smiling at the mental image of a tow-headed young Vin Tanner, Chris took the locket from him, frowning. "They're pretty caked up, but I bet you could find somebody who could clean them. Might be worth takin' a chance."
Nathan held out his hand. "Can I see that, Chris?" Once Larabee had handed it over, he examined it, hmmming and hummming ever so often. "I think I've got some stuff in my clinic that could clean this. Want me to give it a try?"
Vin ducked his head a moment before replying. "Thanks, Nate. I'd be beholdin' to you."
Nodding, the black man picked up the cloth the locket had been wrapped in, and carefully folded it back over the necklace. He tossed the tracker a look of encouragement before slipping the heirloom into the pocket of his jacket. "I'll let you know as soon as I'm done."
Ezra had been quietly going through the pack of papers that had been in the saddle bag. Finishing his perusal of the one in his hand, he flashed a grin at the other occupants of the table. "I think I've found something!"
"What have you got?" questioned Larabee.
Gesturing to the papers and envelopes that now littered the table, the gambler explained. "Most of these are letters from one Zachariah Tanner to his wife, Elise Tanner. Seems he was a member of the 104th Calvary out of Fort Younce. This document, however, is a letter that Elise mailed to Zachariah informing him of her pregnancy. It was sent back to her, along with a letter of condolence from his commanding officer."
"Condolence? You mean he was tellin' her he was sorry my pa was dead?" The tracker's quiet voice carried the weight of his young years; grief for a never known father pulled at his emotions.
Standish waited, hesitant to continue. "Yes, he was informing your mother that your father had been killed."
"I beg your pardon?"
"How did he die?"
"Apparently, he was a horse trainer." Ezra quickly scanned the letter looking for pertinent details. "It says he was trampled by an overly excited yearling. Hit his head on the corral railing. Never woke up."
"Damn." Vin rubbed his eyes, his head aching from the weariness of the new knowledge. Feeling a pressure on his shoulder, he looked up.
"You okay, Vin?"
Chris didn't believe the young man, but he let it drop. "Ezra, is there a date on that letter?"
"There certainly is." Ezra's gold tooth gleamed as he did some figuring in his head. "It was dated March 14th, 1854, and Mrs. Tanner stated that she was approximately four months along."
"Which means Vin would have been born late summer or early fall of that year - so he's twenty-three, almost twenty-four."
"So it would appear, Mr. Dunne."
"Too bad, son, it looks like Vin's got more than a good three years on ya. Looks like he gets away with calling you "kid" after all," Buck teased.
Vin thought about it. Did knowing he was twenty-three make him feel any different? He'd already figured he was over twenty by a few years, but pretty far from thirty - so he didn't really see that it made much difference. It was nice to know more about his history, but it really didn't change anything. He'd still keep letting the whiskers grow on his face so he wouldn't look so much younger than the others, still keep wearing the buckskin coat so he wouldn't look so darn skinny, and he'd probably still keep calling J.D. kid and Larabee cowboy. Nope, it was knowledge that really didn't alter anything, but he was glad he'd found out about his pa. His ma had always told him to be proud he was a Tanner and to do well by the name. It was something the son of Zachariah and Elise Tanner intended to do.
Placing the packet of letters back into the saddle bag, Ezra suggested, "Why don't you stop in after your patrol in the morning, Mr. Tanner, and I'll help you read through the rest of the material here?"
"Preciate it, Ezra." Vin picked up the leather bag, then stood up. Tipping his head, he touched two fingers to his hat's brim before leaving the saloon.
The peace and tranquility of the late spring dusk settled over the town of Four Corners. Gathering the serenity around himself like a blanket on a cool night, Vin Tanner pulled the beat-up harmonica from his pocket and brought it to his lips. Taking a deep breath, he blew into the mouth harp, finding even more comfort in the soulful tones. The sound of spurs jingling down the boardwalk caught his attention, breaking the rhythm of his notes. "Hey, cowboy."
"How was your birthday supper with Mary?"
Chris leaned against the wooden post beside him, mirroring Tanner's position. "It was good. Pork roast, new potatoes, and chocolate cake."
"Not careful, we're gonna have to roll you into the wagon and let you do your patrol from there."
Snorting at the wisecrack, Larabee watched his companion. Vin looked...content. At home with himself and the town. "What's got you in such a good mood?"
Vin shrugged his shoulders, then turned, leaning with his back against the post. "Part of me was always afeared that those papers had something in them that I didn't want to hear. Like maybe I wasn't who I thought I was, or that my pa had been a bad man. Now...,"
"Now, you know you are a Tanner, and your pa was someone you could be proud of," Chris finished for him.
"To be born out of love, to know you've got a name that's worth respectin'...a man would be hard put to find more to be grateful for."
Closing the distance between them, Chris propped himself on the rail running along the walkway, his arm lightly brushing Tanner's shoulder. "Good friends, good town, a partner to watch your back...,"
"Gives a man a lot to be thankful for." Vin turned, blue eyes catching green. "Buy you a drink, cowboy?"
Chris draped his arm around Vin's shoulder as they began to walk toward the saloon. "You buying?"
"It's your birthday, ain't it?"
Green eyes sparkling, Chris grinned. "That it is, cowboy, that it is."
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