REUNION by Janice

Summary:Vin is reunited with his father.

Author's Notes: This is a sequel to Bittersweet. This fic is a continuation of Vin's background and, to a lesser extent, the backgrounds of Chris, Ezra and Buck. A big thank you goes to Judy and Aramis for their input. Thanks also to Gloria for her assistance.

Feedback is most welcome.

Josiah Sanchez was leisurely strolling towards the saloon when a feminine voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Josiah! Yoo hoo!" The widow Alice and her young son Eugene were following behind him. Alice was beaming brightly as she approached the regulator. "Good morning, Josiah."

Josiah politely tipped his hat. "Mornin', Alice. Mornin', Eugene."

Eugene's response was a noisy crunch on the apple that he held in one pudgy hand, followed by a burp.

Alice took the regulator's arm. "There's something that I'd like to show you, Josiah."

Eugene broke in, speaking with his mouth full. "I want another apple."

Alice turned to him. "My goodness, sweetie, you've had two already, and you haven't even finished that one."

With another loud crunch, the blond urchin devoured the rest of the apple and threw the core into the street. "I finished it. I want another apple," he repeated. "You said I couldn't have any more candy."

Josiah reached into his pocket, pulled out some coins and handed them to the boy. "Here, Eugene. Go on over to Miz Potter's store and help yourself."

Eugene clutched the coins in a chubby fist. "Thanks. Mr. Josiah, are you gonna be my new pa?"

Josiah blanched visibly.

"Eugene!" his mother admonished. "You shouldn't ask a question like that." She gave Josiah a coquettish look. "But who knows what could happen."

"Eugene," Josiah said, "run along now, boy, and get your apples."

Eugene immediately trotted off for the general store. Alice took a firmer grip on Josiah's arm. "Come with me, Josiah." She led him over to the ladies' dress shop and stopped. The window contained a mannequin, in an elaborate dress, and bolts of gauzy material lying about. "Do you know what those bolts of material are for?"

Josiah looked mystified.

"They're for nightgowns--the kind a woman wears on her wedding night. The cloth is so thin that you can almost see through it." Alice gave him a discreet nudge. "Can you imagine me in something like that?"

Josiah swallowed audibly. He looked around and saw Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne going into the saloon. Buck gave him a sly wink and JD grinned.

"I could give you children just like Eugene," Alice purred.

Josiah answered quickly. "I'm afraid not, Alice. You see, I have this old... uh... war injury, and you might say I'm, uh, not the man I used to be."

"But you look so... robust. Do you mean to tell me that you aren't... that you can't... that you aren't any good anymore?"

Josiah attempted to appear sorrowful. "That's not quite how I would've put it, but that's about the gist of it. I'm going over to Nathan's right now for another treatment, but there's not much hope." He touched his hat brim. "Good day, Alice."

Inside the saloon, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were leaning up against the bar when Buck and JD joined them. JD glanced around. "Where's Ezra?"

"He's gittin' somethin' outa the back," Vin answered.

Almost immediately, Ezra Standish emerged from the back room, carrying a long object wrapped in brown paper, which he took behind the bar. "Would one of you gentlemen like to give me a hand with this?" he requested.

"What is it?" Buck asked.

"It is an objet d'art, Mr. Wilmington."

"A dart board?" JD inquired.

"A portrait, Mr. Dunne."

Vin came around the end of the bar. "I'll help ya, Ez."

"You hold that end, Mr. Tanner, while I position it to hang properly."

Chris spoke. "This ain't a picture of you, is it, Ezra?"

"Hardly, Mr. Larabee. It is a portrait of a most alluring and sensual woman." The gambler adjusted the painting. "Vin, if you will remove the wrapping at your end, I will remove the wrapping on this end." As the paper was removed, Ezra smiled proudly, showing his gold tooth. "Well, gentlemen, what do you all think?"

The men gazed raptly at the massive portait of a reclining, voluptuous nude. Vin went back around the bar for a better look.

Finally, JD spoke. "Why's she got a rose between her teeth?"

Buck snatched JD's bowler hat off his head and whacked him with it. "Kid, you see a picture of a beautiful, nekkid woman stretched out in all her glory, and you're lookin' at her teeth? There ain't no hope for you, son."

JD grabbed back his hat. "That's not all I'm looking at, Buck. I'm looking at the rest of her. She sure does have big... uh... a big bosom."

"Kinda reminds me a' Nettie's milk cow," Vin commented.

Ezra looked pained. "The appropriate term is buxom, my ignoramus friend."

"That picture puts me in mind of a place I visited once in Santa Fe," Buck mused. "There was a girl there that would... " He glanced from Vin to JD and grinned. "I ain't sure you boys are old enough to hear this. Hell! I ain't sure Chris is old enough to hear this."

"It's quite a picture, Ezra," Chris commented. "And that pose is downright welcomin'"

"Reckon I could stand here all day and look at it," Vin said.

"In that case, Mr. Tanner, I would hope that you will not be nursing the same drink for over an hour, as is your usual habit."

"It ain't my choice, Ezra. Nathan says I still ought not ta be drinkin' much."

Buck pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. "I almost forgot, Ezra. This telegram came for you a little while ago."

Ezra took the telegram and read it aloud. "Concluding business in St. Louis. See you soon. Mother." Ezra rubbed his forehead as if he had a sudden headache. "I do not know which is worse--having my mother arrive without notice or living in dread of the fateful day."

"D'you think she's gonna approve of your picture?" JD asked.

"I am more concerned with the approval of my customers. Gentlemen, may I count on you all to spread the word that my saloon boasts a new attraction?"

"You'll have to count on Buck and JD to spread the word," Chris answered. "I'm leavin' to round up a herd of wild horses I spotted in a canyon near Whitley Pass. I'm gonna drive 'em back to my place."

"You still want me ta come with ya?" Vin asked.

"If you feel up to it. Nathan says you're still havin' headaches."

"Sometimes," Vin admitted, "but I'm tired a' hangin' around town watchin' the jail. I been doin' that fer the past two months. I'm ready ta git out and do somethin' else."

"All right, if you're sure you're up to it. Buck, I expect we'll be gone about five days. You know where we'll be. If you need us, you can send word."

Vin had a twinkle in his blue eyes. "Ez, we could use another hand. Sure ya don't wanta volunteer?"

"Considering that our last trip into the wilderness turned into a disaster, I will have to decline the offer." Ezra refused to admit even to himself that he would have enjoyed spending time with Vin and Chris. "I will remain within the confines of my saloon and resist the temptation of eating dust with two sweaty companions smelling strongly of horse."

Five Days Later

Slowing their horses to a walk, Chris and Vin rode into Four Corners tired, dirty and thirsty.

"What's it gonna be, cowboy?" Vin asked. "You wanta stop at the saloon fer a drink or ya wanta stop at the bathhouse first and git cleaned up? I say we git a drink."

Chris rubbed a hand across his stubbled chin. "My throat tells me to stop at the saloon, but if I look as rough as you, I think we'd better get cleaned up first."

"Had a feelin' you'd say that," Vin grumbled.

The two regulators picked up a change of clothes and then headed to the bathhouse for a hot bath and a shave. Looking at himself in the mirror as he shaved, Chris said, "Probably ought to stop and get myself a haircut before goin' to the saloon. Vin, you ever think about cuttin' off that hair of yours?"

"Nope. It's always been like this." Vin was seated on a bench putting on his socks and boots. "My ma liked it long, but my pa didn't. Just before my pa disappeared, I remember him pickin' me up and sayin', 'Boy, I need ta cut yer hair.'" Vin paused. "Funny, I can't remember much more about 'im than that. After my ma died, Grandpa let me keep it long. When it got outa hand, he'd say, 'Can't have folks thinkin' I got me a granddaughter, 'stead of a grandson,' and he'd cut some of it."

Chris slipped on a fresh shirt and began buttoning it. "I was a grown man by the time I lost my parents. Must've been hard, you being so young when both of yours died."

Vin stood up and started for the door. "Far as I know, my pa ain't dead, but I lost 'im just the same."

Chris was puzzled. "What d'you... " He looked up from buttoning his shirt, but Vin was already out the door.

Hell, it ain't really none of my business.

When Vin and Chris entered the saloon, the tables were all occupied. They stepped up to the bar and nodded to Inez Recillos who was busy serving drinks to the other customers. "Looks like that picture behind the bar brought in some new business," Vin speculated.

"Either that, or Ezra's lost his touch at the poker table, and the customers have been cleanin' him out."

Inez returned to them. "Buenas tardes, Senores. Whisky?"

Chris nodded, and she placed a bottle and two glasses in front of them. Chris poured himself a generous drink and poured Vin a small one, ignoring the tracker's indignant look.

"Senor Vin, there was a man in here yesterday looking for you."

Vin was instantly wary. "You git his name?"

"No, but I do not think that he means you harm. I have spoken with many kinds of men. I think that this man is not an evil man."

Chris was as wary as Vin. "What did he look like?"

Inez smiled and rolled her eyes. "He is not young, but such a handsome man--muy guapo! His face is that of a man who has spent much time in the sun and the wind. He has silver hair that is short like yours, Senor Chris. His eyes are as blue as Senor Vin's. He is older than Senor Sanchez, but not as tall as Senor Sanchez, and he is thin like Senor Vin. He said that he was staying at the Gem Hotel." She frowned. "There was another man here at the same time." She glanced over her shoulder. "This man hardly looked at the picture like all the other men who come in here. He is very big and kept his head down and his hat pulled down over his face. He tried to act like he was not listening to the other man asking about Senor Vin, but I think that he was. He did not say much and did not stay long. I was busy and did not get a good look at him."

Vin tossed back the rest of his drink. "Thanks, Inez." He turned to Chris. "I'm goin' over ta the hotel."

Chris drained his glass. "Maybe I better come with you."

"No, I gotta check this out by myself." Vin paused. "Might ride out ta Nettie's place afterwards."

"All right, then, but watch your back."

Vin nodded and strode out of the saloon. He went to the hotel and spoke abruptly to the desk clerk. "I need ta see who's registered here."

"Sure thing, Vin," the clerk replied, pushing the register towards him.

Vin's eyes quickly fell on the name for which he was looking. He pushed the register back to the clerk. "Thanks." He got Peso from the livery and rode out to see Nettie Wells.

After Vin left the saloon, Chris went over to the sheriff's office where he encountered a citizen complaining about rowdy cowboys. While talking with the man outside of the office, Chris saw Vin leave the hotel, collect Peso and ride out of town. After handling the complaint, Chris changed his mind about staying out of Vin's business and walked over to the hotel. He went in and spoke to the desk clerk. "I'd like to see who's registered here."

"Certainly, Mr. Larabee." The clerk showed him the register.

Chris looked at it. "You have a Matt Tanner registered. You know if he's in?"

"I believe that Mr. Tanner is still in the dining room," the clerk answered.

Chris touched his hat brim. "Obliged."

Chris entered the almost empty dining room. Matt Tanner was easily recognizable from Inez's description. He had finished his meal but was still seated at a table reading "The Clarion." He looked up when Chris approached, and Chris was struck by the man's appearance. He looked like a much older version of Vin and had the same striking blue eyes, handsome features and lean build. Chris's tone was polite. "Mr. Tanner? I'm Chris Larabee."

The man extended his hand. The hand was calloused and the grip firm. "Matt Tanner."

"I'd like to talk to you. Mind if I sit down?"

"Not at all," the man replied. "What's on your mind, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris pulled out a chair. "I hear you've been asking about Vin. Vin's a friend of mine. I take it you're kin?"

The older man scrutinized the gunslinger and responded with a question of his own. "How good a friend?"

Chris met Matt's eyes directly. "Good enough to be concerned anytime a stranger comes into town and asks about him."

Something in the gunslinger's demeanor was reassuring, and Matt relaxed. "Vin's my son."

"Figured as much."

"I haven't seen him since he was five. Never got to see that much of him even before then."

Chris reached for a cheroot and offered one to Matt, which he accepted. After both cigars were lit, Chris spoke again. "I don't make a habit of interfering in another man's business, but Vin's never talked about you to me. Figure there must be a reason."

Regret was evident in Matt's face. "No reason why he should. I was given up for dead a long time ago."

"Vin knows you're alive. At least as of today he knows."

The older man gave a deep sigh. "I've got a lot of missin' years that I need to account for with my son." He puffed slowly on his cigar. "I was a Texas Ranger. After Molly--that was Vin's ma-- and me got married, we didn't get to be together all that much. Seems like I was always having to go chase after one outlaw or another. Molly had to pretty much raise our boy by herself. I wasn't even there when Vin was born. He was nearly three weeks old the first time I got to see him and hold him." He smiled in fond remembrance. "He had brown hair like Molly and me. I studied his eyes and his nose and his mouth, tryin' to decide which looked more like me and which looked more like Molly. I checked his fingers and toes to make sure he had the right number. Molly laughed at me, but I wouldn't take her word for it. And I checked his diaper to make sure everything looked normal there, too."

Chris smiled in understanding. "I looked my son over the same way when he was born."

"The first time I picked Vin up, it felt so right, and I wasn't used to holdin' babies. I don't know if he could focus his eyes that young, but he seemed to look right at me, and he curled his fingers around one of my fingers and held on tight. I felt like the luckiest man in the world that day. Wish I'd been around for him more. I missed it when he first started talkin', but I was there when he took his first step. I got him to come to me, and I'll never forget how happy he was that he'd walked on his own. I want to get to know my son again, Mr. Larabee."

"Chris. Call me Chris."

"You probably know Vin better now than I do, Chris. Do you think he'll listen to me?"

Chris was thoughtful. "Most of the time I know what's going on in Vin's head, but I don't know how he feels about you. He's had a hard life. I don't know if he blames you for that, but I hope for his sake and yours that he hears you out." Chris stood and extended his hand. "Good luck to you, Mr. Tanner."

+ + + + + + +

Nettie Wells was sweeping off the front porch of her modest house when Vin rode up. "Afternoon, Miz Nettie," Vin greeted her. He dismounted, tied up his horse and stepped onto the porch.

Smiling warmly, the gray haired widow propped her broom against the wall, hugged Vin and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "My goodness, honey, it must be three weeks since I laid eyes on you." She held him slightly away from her, studying him. "How've you been? You still havin' them headaches?"

He shrugged. "Sometimes, but it ain't nearly as bad as it was."

"You don't look too spry. You got a headache today?"

"No, ma'am." Vin removed his hat and stood there, twisting it in his hands.

Nettie cocked her head to one side. "What's wrong then?"

Vin refused to meet her gaze. "Nothin's wrong. Can't I just visit ya fer no special reason?"

Nettie placed both hands on her narrow hips. "Don't start lyin' to me now, boy, or I'll have to take a switch to ya. And you know I got plenty of peach sprouts out back."

Vin expression was slightly sheepish. "Reckon I do need ta talk ta somebody."

"I thought as much. Well, come on inside, and we'll have us a talk."

Vin held the door open for Nettie, and they went inside. "Where's Casey?" he asked.

"Visitin' a friend. She won't be back till tomorrow." Nettie began busying herself around the wood stove. "I baked a pound cake just this morning. I'm going to cut you a piece and heat up some coffee to go with it. You pull out a chair while I get out some cups and saucers." Vin sat down at the kitchen table as Nettie continued to chatter. "I'm glad to see you without them whiskers. It's a shame to hide a face as handsome as yours."

Vin ducked his head in embarrassment. "Aw, Nettie, I ain't nothin' special ta look at."

"You're purty as a picture, son. My niece thinks so, too."

"Casey? She ain't got eyes fer anybody 'cept JD. Besides, Casey's just a kid."

"And what do you think you are?" Nettie snorted. "You're not much older'n JD. I know you been on your own for a long time, but you're not much more'n a young'un for all you try to act older'n you are." Nettie poured herself some coffee and sat down opposite Vin. "How's them lessons with Mary Travis coming along?"

"She says I'm doin' good. I been spendin' more time studyin' with her since I been havin' ta take it easy. Mary's tryin' ta learn me... teach me to talk proper like, but it's hard ta remember all the rules. Ain't likely I'm ever gonna be no gentleman like Ezra is."

Nettie's sharp features softened, but her tone was brisk. "You listen to me, Vin Tanner. You might not have the spit 'n' polish of a man like Ezra, but you're a gentleman through and through." Her voice became stern. "Except for that tobacca chewin', that is. You got any of that disgustin' stuff on you?"

"Got a chew in my saddlebags."

"Then you make sure it stays there. I don't allow no tobacca chewin' in my house and no spittin' in the fireplace."

Vin grinned at her. "Yes, ma'am."

"Glad to see you smiling about something." She reached across the table and patted his hand. "When you rode up, you looked like you'd lost your best friend."

Vin's response was slow. "The problem ain't what I lost. It's what I found." He hesitated. "I found my pa, or maybe I oughta say he found me, even though I ain't talked to 'im yet."

"You feel like telling me about him?"

Vin fiddled with his fork and then laid it down. "I thought he was dead until a few weeks before I come to Four Corners. I was bounty huntin'." He looked directly at her. "I want ya to know somethin', Nettie. I never hunted no men but what I was sure they was guilty, and most of 'em was murderers. Anyway, I was in Texas, and I brought my prisoner in to the sheriff in Pecos. I told the sheriff my name, and he asked if I was any kin ta Matt Tanner. Seems they'd been in the Rangers together years ago. I told him that was my pa's name, and he said how much he thought I looked like my pa. Then he said he'd run into my pa and his wife about a year before. I couldn't believe it. Everybody figgered my pa was dead when he went after some outlaws and never come back. They found his partner's body just across the Mexican border. I didn't even ask the sheriff no questions. Just took my bounty money and got outa there. I rode fer two days before I turned my horse around and went back. I was goin' ta find out what the sheriff knew about my pa, but I was too late. The prisoner I brung in, I mean brought in, had tried ta escape, and he killed the sheriff."

+ + + + + + +

"Did you ever try to locate your pa after you found out he was alive?" Nettie asked.

"Thought about it," Vin answered, "but I never could figger out what I'd say to 'im if I found 'im. I told you once how my ma told me ta remember that I was a Tanner. She said that she wanted me ta be like my pa when I grew up and that I oughta always be proud a' him. My grandpa told me the same thing."

Nettie got up, came around behind Vin and gave him a hug. "Your pa sounds like a fine man, Vin."

"Then how come he left my ma and me and never come back?"

"I don't know, honey." Nettie lightly stroked his hair and then moved away from him to sit back down. "Sometimes it's hard to figure out why folks act like they do. Maybe he had reasons for doing what he did."

"What reasons, Nettie?" Vin got up, jammed his hands in his pockets and went to stare moodily out the window. "Maybe he wasn't the man my ma and grandpa thought he was. Maybe he found hisself another woman and decided not ta come back ta my ma and me." He sighed. "Everything would've been so different if he'd only come back. After Grandpa died, I didn't have nobody."

Nettie looked sympathetic. "You never told me, Vin, what you did after you were left on your own."

"I was eleven when Grandpa passed on. This old couple that knew Grandpa took me in. Their name was Russell. Mr. Russell ran the livery in Blackwell. That was the closest town to where we lived. I helped Mr. Russell in the livery, and I'd only stayed with 'em fer about two months when Miz Russell all of a sudden took sick and died. Their daughter come and tried to talk Mr. Russell into goin' back with her ta east Texas ta live. Mr. Russell didn't know what ta do with me 'cause I heard his daughter say she didn't have no place fer me. That was the first time in my life that I didn't have no place ta go and nobody what wanted me. It's pretty much been like that ever since. I lived with the Kiowas and the Commanches, but I couldn't never fergit I was white and neither could they. Most of 'em treated me good, but I didn't belong with 'em."

Nettie was perplexed. "How did you wind up with the Indians?"

"Right after Miz Russell died, a wagon train come through town on the way ta Oregon. There was this couple on it--the Kesslers. They was lookin' fer a boy ta help out with the chores, and I asked ta go with 'em. It turned out they was mean as snakes--both of 'em. Miz Kessler was a right pretty woman, but she thought she was better'n everybody else and couldn't git along with nobody on the train. She was real stingy with the vittles, and she wouldn't ever let me sleep in their wagon, even when it was rainin'. I had ta sleep underneath the wagon on the ground. Mr. Kessler had a bad temper. He'd git mad at me 'cause I wasn't strong enough fer some of the chores he wanted me ta do. He'd call me a lazy, worthless good fer nothin' little bastard, 'scuse me Nettie; and he'd hit me if nobody was around ta see 'im. I would've run away, but I didn't have no place ta run to. One night, a bunch of renegade Indians attacked the train. I was sleepin' underneath the wagon when the attack commenced. I got further under the wagon and hid, and they didn't see me. They carried off some of the women and children and killed everybody else. Some of 'em had their way with Miz Kessler before they carried her off. They scalped Mr. Kessler after they killed 'im. I never seen nothin' like what all they did, Nettie. I had bad dreams about it fer a long time afterwards. The mornin' after it happened, a band of Kiowas come by and found me. They took me with 'em, and I lived with the Kiowas 'till I was fifteen and started buffalo huntin'. After that, I stayed with the Commanches off and on, till a bounty hunter come by one day, and I joined up with him. All that time, my pa was out there somewhere and me thinkin' he was dead."

"It has to mean something that he's come looking for you now, honey. Don't you want to meet him?"

"I don't know, Nettie. When I's little, I used ta wish more'n anythin' that he weren't really dead and that he'd come back; but after all this time, I ain't sure how I feel. I ain't never been this confused."

"You have to be confused to be doin' this much talkin'. My stars and garters, boy! I don't believe you've done this much talkin' in the last ten years. You got an awful lot you been holdin' inside a' you."

"I got outa the habit of sayin' much after my grandpa died. Weren't nobody that cared enough ta listen." Vin glanced back out the window. "Sun's gittin' low. Time I was gittin' back ta town."

Nettie was firm. "You'll do no such thing. You're staying for supper, and you might as well stay the night. You can go back to town in the mornin' after you've had a good night's rest."

Vin started to protest. "You already let me talk yer ear off. I don't wanta take any more advantage."

"And what makes you think I'm going to let you take advantage? You're going to earn your keep. I got horses that need to be fed and firewood that needs to be cut and stacked. You can be takin' care of that while I milk the cow. Then I'm going to fix you a good supper. You're skinny as a fence rail once you take off that coat of yours. And you're going to stay the night. I don't want to hear any backtalk."

Vin smiled at her. "Yes, ma'am."

Vin was chopping wood when he sensed eyes watching him. He straightened up and was leaning on his ax, looking around, when Nettie came out of the barn carrying a pail of milk. She came over to him and gave him an inquisitive look. "Is something wrong?" she asked.

"I don't know. Felt like somebody was watchin' me."

"It's probably whatever's been after my chickens. Some damned varmint carried off my best layin' hen. Twice last week, I heard the chickens squawkin'. I came out here with my Spencer Carbine, but whatever it was got clean away."

"I'll take a look around when I git through with the firewood. See if I can find the tracks."

After Vin chopped the firewood and stacked it on the porch, he took a thorough look around and then came inside. Nettie was shucking corn and paused in her task to ask, "What did you find, Vin?"

"Looks like coyote tracks. I found somethin' else, too--fresh horse tracks. Somebody's been watchin' yer place."

"Must've been Guy Royal or one of his men," Nettie replied, unperturbed. "He likes to nose around my place 'cause he still thinks he'll own it one day."

Vin frowned. "If he causes ya any problems, ya let me know."

"Royal's nothing but a nuisance. He's not worth talkin' about. I made up the bed in the spare room for you. It's got a feather mattress that's nice and soft."

"Aw, ya didn't hafta go ta no special trouble fer me," Vin protested. "I was just gonna spread a blanket down in front of the fireplace."

Nettie was brisk. "I won't hear of it. That used to be my son's room, and that's where you'll sleep."

Vin gave in. "All right, Nettie, whatever ya say, but I'm not used ta sleepin' in soft beds. Don't know as I'll sleep much."

Nettie's rather plain features lit with a smile. "I got a remedy for that, honey. After supper, I'll tell you all about my life when I was a girl." She gave Vin a wink. "Puts Casey to sleep all the time."


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