What Has Been, Has Been by Dawn Cunningham

I have no idea where this came from... normally Josiah doesn't talk to me... but... oh well, I have to listen to the voices in my head or I will go insane! This is a sequel to my Fathers story but it is not necessary to have read it. It explains how Vin got his father's watch.

Poem quoted: Happy The Man by John Dryden

Many thanks to my friend, Judy M. for beta reading and offering suggestions to improve the story. Of course, then I had to rewrite some of it so I may have added more errors.

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

Vin Tanner used a biscuit to sop up the last of the stew on his plate. He crammed it in his mouth and chewed. He chased it down with a large swig of beer. He leaned back with a sigh of satisfaction. "They shore know how to make a good stew," he commented.

"Amen to that, brother," Josiah Sanchez replied, as he worked on his own serving.

Buck Wilmington just nodded, his own mouth full.

"Well, it is no Boeuf Bourguignon," Ezra Standish commented. "I had the pleasure of consuming that repast a few years ago while visiting my mother in San Francisco. But at least the hotel cuisine is more palatable than in the past."

J.D. Dunne swallowed his mouthful, then took a big sip of milk. "The new cook is much better than the old one, that's for sure. What's that buff burger stuff you're talking about? Is it made with buffalo meat? Maybe the new cook can make it next."

Ezra sighed. "It is Boeuf Bourguignon. It's made with beef, braised in red wine—preferably using a fine burgundy¬—with mushrooms, garlic, onions and vegetables. Quite delectable. I seriously doubt the new cook would be capable of such a culinary endeavor."

"Sounds like beef stew to me," Chris Larabee said.

Vin reached into his pocket and pulled out a watch. He clicked it open and checked the time. "Almost time for me to take over for Nathan."

"Is that your father's watch?" Josiah asked.

"Yep," Vin replied. "Got my ma's picture in it." He passed it over.

Josiah studied the picture for several long moments before closing the watch. He looked at the design on the outside for a few moments longer, then passed it back to Vin. "What was her name?"

Vin smirked. "Ma."

The other men chuckled.

"Pretty common name," Buck added.

"Her name was Margaret, which was her Ma's middle name, but she went by Meg. Said she didn't feel like a Margaret," Vin explained. He stuck the watch in his pocket, pushed back his chair and stood up. "I'm off to take over for Nathan. Best ask Becky for another plate of stew for him." He removed his hat from the back of the chair and placed it on his head. Touching a finger to the brim, he grinned at the remaining men before heading out the door.

Chris signaled to the waitress for another meal, before turning his attention back to his own.

Buck also stood up. "Got me a date with Wanda Sue," he said.

"And I have an assignation with a poker table," Ezra added, also rising to his feet.

"Stagecoach brought in some new victims?" Chris asked with a smirk.

"I thought I would welcome them to our friendly little town," Ezra replied with his own smirk.

"You thought you would fleece them," Josiah added in.

"You wound me," Ezra said, clutching a hand to his heart.

"We know you," Chris said. "Have fun, and don't start trouble."

J.D. pushed back his chair and stood up. "I'll keep an eye on him, Chris," he said.

After the rest of the men left, Chris looked over at the remaining man. "Something bothering you, Josiah?"

"Hmmm?" Josiah answered absentmindedly.

"Something to do with Vin's watch? You sure studied it for a long time."

Josiah contemplated his coffee cup for a long time. Finally, he asked, "Do you know when Vin was born?"

Chris was surprised at the question. "Not really. Why?"

Just then Nathan came through the door, and sat down at the table. "I hear the stew is mighty good tonight."

"That it is," Josiah said as he rose to his feet. "Sorry, but I have something to do at the church. Enjoy your dinner."

Chris watched as Josiah almost hurried out of the room. He made a mental note to follow up with Josiah on their discussion.

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

Josiah sat down on the front pew of his church. The picture in Vin's watch had brought back memories of a time he hadn't thought about it for many years. He stared at the flickering candles as he thought back to that time.

It had been a warm February, but had suddenly turned cold again. Snowstorms in this part of Texas were unusual at this time of year, but they had been known to happen. He'd been on his own, traveling through Texas, working his way north and west, no real plan in mind except to keep moving. He'd been to visit his father, and all they had done was fight—especially about his sister, Hannah, and about whether Josiah was going to continue his studies to be a minister. He was on a break from his seminary, and was questioning whether he wanted to return.

A sudden gunshot rang out, and he pulled his horse up quickly. Drawing his pistol, he looked around warily. When he heard a loud splash next, followed by cussing, he put away his pistol, and spurred his horse forward.

A few minutes later, he entered a small glen and spotted a man, rifle on the ground beside him, sitting on the bank of a creek, clutching his right ankle. The man's clothes were soaked as well, not a good thing in the cold weather. He rode up and addressed the man.

"Looks like you've had some trouble," he said.

The man sighed. "Yep, ain't been my day. Horse is lame, so I had to come out on foot. Tried to get some meat for the table but I missed. Then I twisted my foot crossin' the crik, and ended up in it instead. Now I've got a long walk home, and I cain't even stand up."

Josiah dismounted, and came over. He knelt down to look at the man's foot. "We're going to have to take the boot off, and it will probably hurt."

"Cain't be helped. Best do it now, 'fore the foot is all swole up."

"All right," Josiah said. "Let's get this done." Carefully he straightened the man's leg, then grasped the boot firmly. Slowly he pulled it away from the foot, knowing from the sounds the other man made that it had to be hurting. Hoping to distract the man, he continued, "Name's Josiah Sanchez. What were you hunting?"

The man grimaced, then took a deep breath. "Henry Mitchell. Had me a big tom turkey in my sights. Would have fed the family for quite a while but my gun misfired."

"You have a big family?" The man looked to be in his late 50's, his hair starting to gray. He was thin but didn't appear to be underfed.

"Just my wife, and a daughter. She's been visitin' while her husband is patrollin' with the Texas Rangers. Wife's been sick and I was hopin' to get some fresh meat." He groaned as the boot finally slipped from his foot. "I'll be laid up for days. How will I hunt now?"

"I'm in no rush. Maybe I can hang around a few days and help out." Josiah studied the man's ankle that was swelling and turning black and blue. "How far away is your homestead?"

The man pointed west. "Few miles that way. But I cain't ask you to do that. We'll manage."

"You didn't ask," Josiah pointed out. He stood up and fetched his horse. "Let's see if we can get you on my horse. You aren't going to be walking on that foot."

With Josiah's strength, he pulled the man to his feet, letting him hold on to his saddle. "Ready?" he asked as he knelt down to grab the man's left knee.

"Yes," Henry replied, breathing heavily.

Josiah hoisted the man up, and Henry swung his right leg over the saddle. Quickly, he untied his bedroll, and handed his blanket to the other man. "Wrap this around you. Try to get warm."

The man took the blanket, and wrapped it tightly around his upper body. "Feels like it could snow," he said.

"Maybe," Josiah said, studying the clouds. He picked up the man's rifle, before taking his horse's reins to lead him west.

As time passed, Josiah could hear the man's teeth chattering but there was little he could do about it. While they could stop and he could build a fire, it would take hours for the man's clothes to dry. He was glad when he spotted the smoke from a chimney, knowing it meant they were close. It had taken a little over an hour to reach the homestead.

As they approached the door opened and a young woman came out on the porch, holding a rifle. She was medium height, slim build, with brown, curly hair that hung loose down her back.

"Ma'am," Josiah said, pulling at the rim of his hat while he gave her a brief nod.

"Meg," Henry called out from the horse. "Put that rifle down and come give Josiah a hand."

"Pa?" Meg called out anxiously as she leaned the rifle up against the outside wall of the cabin. "What happened?" She hurried down the cabin stairs to look up at her father.

"Just a slight accident," Josiah said, soothingly. "Fell in the creek and twisted his ankle."

"Well, get down from that horse, you old fool," Meg said. "Just look at you. You're soakin' wet. I knew I should have gone instead of you."

"Yer a girl," Henry stated. "It's a man's job to hunt."

Meg just rolled her blue eyes. "And just who do you think hunts when Jim's off doin' his patrols?"

"I think this can wait until I get him inside where it's warm," Josiah pointed out.

Meg's hand flew up to her mouth. "Oh, now you must think me a fool, too. Of course, let's get him inside."

"I can do it, Ma'am."

"I'm stronger than I look," Meg said. "I can help."

Feeling like the woman would stand there and argue with him, Josiah gave in and let her help. It wasn't easy to get Henry off the horse without causing a lot of pain. The two of them helped him hop up the stairs and into the cabin.

It was a small cabin, just two rooms with a loft area above the main room. Josiah could see a bed in the other room and that it was occupied. He assumed it was Henry's wife. He assisted the man to a chair by the table in front of the fireplace. There were a couple of other chairs scattered around the room. On the far wall was a tall cupboard and a small cot was up against the near wall.

"If you want to get him in some dry clothes," Josiah said. "I'll go out and see if I can find some fresh meat."

"I don't want to trouble you," Meg said. "I can go out after I get Pa into dry clothes. Thank you for helpin' Pa get home. We're obliged."

"Man said he was going out," Henry stated. "Leave him be, and get me some dry clothes. Then make up a pallet for him in the loft so Josiah will have someplace to sleep tonight. We owe him that as well as a meal."

"Not necessary," Josiah said. "I can bed down in the barn just as well."

"Nonsense," Meg said. "Too cold for that. As Pa said, we owe you at least a warm place to sleep. I cain't promise much in the way of food but it will be hot and filling."

"Then I guess I need to make sure to find some fresh meat," Josiah said. He headed out the door to his horse.

An hour later, he was back with two rabbits. After unsaddling his horse and bedding it down in the barn, he quickly skinned the rabbits as the sun was setting and carried them inside the cabin. When he brought them over to the fireplace, Meg took them from him.

"Let me," she said with a smile that caused her eyes to twinkle. "It's just a guess, but I figure I'm a better cook than you are."

"Won't argue with that," he replied with a smile of his own. "Though I have had some experience with roasting rabbits."

Josiah removed his coat, then sat down in a chair near the fireplace, holding his hands out to warm them from the fire, and watched her work.

One of the rabbits was spitted and placed near the fire. The other she took over to the table, and started cutting up the meat. Some of it went into a small pot that was already filled with hot water. Josiah figured it was to make a broth for her sick mother. The rest went into another pot that was already filled with various vegetables. Meg then placed both pots on hooks hanging inside the fireplace.

"Where's your father?"

"I put him to bed. He was so cold, I thought it would be best. He should know better than to get wet when it's so cold outside."

"I don't think he planned on getting wet," Josiah pointed out. "It was an accident. Your mother is sick, too?"

Meg glanced toward the second room. "She's not been feeling well for several days. Now she has a fever. I'm worried she has the grippe. There's no doctors within a day's ride of here so I don't know what to do. I hope Pa don't get sick as well."

"Hopefully, the fresh meat will help. I fed the horses and the cow in the barn when I bedded down my horse. Why didn't your father take the other horse to hunt?"

"He's stubborn. The horse is mine, and he didn't want to borrow him. I wouldn't have minded. He blamed himself for his horse goin' lame. Didn't want to risk harmin' my horse."

"Does the cow need to be milked?"

Meg brushed her hair back and sighed. "I'll do it after dinner," she said as she went over to the fireplace to stir both pots.

"You take care of dinner and your folks. I'll do it."

Meg looked like she was going to argue, but finally agreed. "I'm obliged." She lit a lantern that was hanging by the door and handed it to him after he put on his coat.

Josiah headed outside. After milking the cow, he brought the milk in then returned outside. Spotting the woodpile, he carried in several loads of firewood. He would chop more the next day when it was light out. He had a feeling Meg was going to have her hands full with her parents. He didn't doubt that she would have managed on her own, but as long as he was here, there was no reason she should need to.

Meg wasn't a typical beauty, but she did have beautiful blue eyes. When she smiled, her face seemed to light up. And there was a certain feistiness that he felt attracted to. He would have to keep reminding himself that she was a married woman. And she was married to a Texas Ranger. She was very much off limits.

Josiah blew out the lantern and studied the sky once his eyes had adjusted. There was no sign of the moon or any stars. The wind had picked up. It felt colder than before. Maybe there would be snow tonight.

He heard the door open, and looked over to see Meg standing there, silhouetted by the light coming from the cabin.

"Supper's ready," she called out. "Best come eat while it's hot."

"I'll be there in a minute," he replied. Going over to the well, he pulled up a full bucket, then rinsed his hands and face. He finger-combed his hair, then went inside.

Two places were set at the table. Besides the roasted rabbit, there was cornbread with a bowl of hand-churned butter. Another bowl contained farmer's cheese, obviously a byproduct of having a cow. Stewed tomatoes finished off the menu.

"I already fed Pa some stew," Meg explained as she took a seat. "And Ma managed to drink some broth. So it's just the two of us."

"How are they doing?" Josiah asked as he sat down across from her. He reached for the platter of rabbit, and took some of the meat before passing it to her.

Meg set the platter down after taking a small portion of the meat, looking worried. "Ma's fever seems to be about the same, and Pa fell asleep after eatin'."

"Sleep is probably the best thing," Josiah replied, not sure what else to say. He hadn't much experience with dealing with sickness.

"I hope so," she replied. She sighed and started to eat. After a few moments of silence, she asked, "What brings you to this area?"

"Just passing through. Was visiting my father and sister, but as usual, my father and I didn't agree. So I thought I would do some traveling."

"Where are you going?" she asked.

Josiah shrugged. "Not quite sure."

Meg sighed and rested her chin in one hand, smiling dreamily. "I'd love to go to California. See the ocean. They say it's beautiful."

"There are a lot of beautiful things here in Texas, too," Josiah said with a smile. He couldn't resist adding, "Even here in this cabin."

Meg blushed but didn't reply. She jumped to her feet and hurried over to the fireplace, holding her hands out to the flames as if cold. "What do you and your father argue about?" she finally asked, turning around to face Josiah again.

"Mostly religion. You see my father is a missionary. But I'm not sure I agree with how he goes about his work or his interpretation of the bible."

Meg looked shocked. "You don't believe in God?"

"Of course I do! I just didn't think my father practices what he preaches. He wants me to become a minister just like him but I felt like I was getting a bible stuffed down my throat... It made me angry."

"Were you angry at him? Or maybe angry at yourself?"

Josiah was shocked. It wasn't something he had considered. "I'll have to give that some thought."

"I think sons always fight with their fathers. I remember my brother and Pa having some humdingers."

"Where's your brother at now?"

She looked down for several long moments, then looked back up and brushed one of her hands over her eyes. "He's buried out yonder. He broke his neck trying to tame a wild horse. He wanted to raise horses. Pa said it was too risky. If he had only listened..."

"I'm sorry," Josiah said. "Was it recent?"

"Been about six months," she said with a sigh. "But enough of sad stuff. Did you get enough to eat?"

"Plenty. Can't remember the last time I had such good cornbread. Thank you."

Meg began to clear the table. It didn't take long for her to have everything put away and the dishes washed. Josiah thought about offering to help but figured he would just get in the way. After she finished she went over to the fireplace mantel and opened a small box. Reaching inside, she pulled out a man's watch, and wound it.

"Normally, Pa does this but I guess I have to do it for him until he feels better."

"May I?" Josiah asked, reaching a hand out.

Meg passed the watch over and Josiah studied it. It was ornately carved on the outside. He clicked the stem and it opened. One side could have held a picture but that section was empty. "This is a very nice watch," he said.

"Pa found a man who was badly injured, and brought him home. Ma nursed him back to health. Took weeks before he could ride again. When he was better but couldn't move around much, he used to read to us at night from this poetry book he had. I'd never heard anythin' so beautiful as those poems. Before he left, he gave me the poetry book, and he gave the watch to Pa as payment. Neither Ma nor Pa wanted to take it, but he insisted he had to pay his debts. I was just a little girl when that happened. Pa has been real careful with the watch ever since. He won't wear it unless he's getting all spruced up for somethin'. Says it's a mite fancy for every day."

"True. If he had been wearing it today, it would have gotten wet. It might have ruined it."

"Still, what good is a watch if it just sets on a mantel day in and day out?"

"True, too. Do you still have the poetry book?" Josiah asked.

"Oh, yes. I left it at home when I came to visit my folks. Of course, I have all the poems memorized by now. Don't know how anyone can make up all those rhymes."

"It's definitely not a gift that I have," Josiah admitted.

Just then Henry called out for Meg from the bedroom. She hurried into the other room. Josiah fetched more wood and water from outside while Meg was busy with her parents. Finally she joined him back in the main room.

"How are they doing?"

"Ma's still asleep. Her fever doesn't seem to be any worse. Pa's in a lot of pain, but tryin' to hide it," she said as she started looking through the cupboard. "I'm gonna make some willow bark tea. Maybe it will help."

"Heard that it would. Good for fevers too."

She looked over at him in surprise. "Of course. I'd forgotten that. Maybe it will help Ma as well."

"I saw some willows near where I found your Pa. I can fetch some fresh bark in the morning if you'd like."

"No, that's not needed." She held up a bag from the cupboard. "Ma and I fetched this just a few days before she got sick when the new shoots were comin' out." She hurried over to the fireplace to fetch a pot and soon had the willow bark boiling.

"Tell me one of the poems from your book," Josiah asked.

Meg blushed. "Oh, I couldn't."

"Just one. A short one. Please."

Meg thought about it for a while, stirring the boiling pot. Finally, she started to speak. "This one was called 'Happy The Man'.

"Happy the man, and happy he alone,

He who can call today his own:

He who, secure within, can say,

Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.

Be fair or foul or rain or shine

The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.

Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,

But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour."

With the end of the poem, she removed her brew from the fire and poured it a tall pitcher, using a piece of cloth to strain the bark out of the liquid.

"Beautiful," Josiah said. "What has been, has been."

"You cain't change the past. You need to find joy no matter what. 'Cause you cain't know what tomorrow will bring." She poured out two mugs and carried them to the bedroom. When she came back she announced that hopefully her parents would sleep now.

"You should try to get some sleep, too," Josiah pointed out. "In fact I'm ready for bed myself. I was up very early this morning."

"I made up a pallet for you in the loft." She pointed up.

"Sounds good. If you need anything at all during the night, just call out. I'm here to help in whatever way I can."

"I'm obliged. Hopefully, I won't have to disturb your sleep."

"Good night, then." Josiah headed for the ladder, and climbed up into the loft.

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

Josiah emerged from the cabin shortly after sunrise. Meg was still sleeping. He'd heard her moving around several times in the night. There was a light covering of snow on the ground, but the sun was shining. He heard a cawing noise, and glanced up to the roof of the cabin. Two crows were sitting on the peak of the roof, and seemed to be staring at him. He felt a shiver run down his spine. Turning away he headed for the barn.

After feeding the animals, he milked the cow. He stopped at the well to fill the bucket he'd brought out, he carried both buckets into the cabin and poured some of the milk into a mug, and began to drink it. He started a pot of coffee going, then helped himself to some leftover rabbit and cornbread. While he'd been outside, Meg must have woke up, and gone into the bedroom.

She finally emerged from the room, looking shaken. She sank down in a chair next to the table.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Ma's fever is worse, and now Pa has a fever, too."

"I'm not from this area, but I'm willing to go fetch a doctor if you can tell me where to find one," Josiah offered.

"Normally, I could count on the doctor from the ranger post, but he went out on the patrol with the rest of the rangers. They aren't due back for several more days, and they could be anywhere. The only other one I know is in Lubbock, but that would take days to get there and back, even assumin' he would come."

"And it's too cold to take your parents to the doctor."

"What am I goin' to do?" Meg said, burying her head in her hands.

Josiah went over to kneel by her chair. He placed one hand on her shoulder. "We do what we have to do. Keep the cabin warm. Try to get them to eat and drink. Sponge them down to lower their temperature. And we can pray."

Meg took a deep breath and straightened. "You're right. I don't know what came over me."

"We need to keep our own strength up. You need to eat and then we will do what we need to do." He went over and fetched some more rabbit and cornbread, and brought them to her.

Meg sighed, and reached for the rabbit.

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

Chris Larrabee strolled down the boardwalk after dinner. He kept his eye out for trouble, but wasn't really expecting anything this early in the evening. He spotted Vin coming out of the livery with his horse, and he crossed over to talk to him.

"Gonna patrol south of town," Vin said, tightening the cinch on his saddle. "J.D. went north earlier."

Chris nodded. "When you get back, I'll be in the saloon. Join me for a drink?"

"Expectin' trouble?"

Chris shrugged. "Ezra is playing poker with some newcomers to town."

Vin nodded. "I'll be there. Just don't start without me," he said with a smirk, before mounting his horse.

Chris watched him ride out, before turning toward the church. He wanted to follow up with Josiah. He climbed the stairs and went inside, quietly. He could see Josiah sitting on a pew up front, so he walked up to join him. The larger man didn't appear to even be aware that someone had joined him. Finally, Chris spoke.

"Josiah? Josiah, are you all right?"

Josiah looked up with a start.

"Sorry, Chris. Just lost in some memories."

"Memories involving Vin's watch?" Chris asked. "You seemed to study it for a long time."

"I never realized... I never knew her married name... I just knew her parent's name."

"Her? You mean Vin's mother? You've met her?"

"I did more than just meet her. I ran into a man when I was in Texas back in... oh... it must have been in 1845. He was injured, and when I took him home, I met his daughter, Meg. His wife was sick, already. Had the grippe. Nothing we did seemed to help. It was cold and there was no doctors nearby. Then her father got sick."

"What was Meg like?"

"She was a spitfire," Josiah said with a grin. "Met me at the door with a rifle. She ordered her father around, and yet you could tell she cared for him. She was a good cook as well. If I hadn't shown up, I think she would have managed by herself. Nettie Wells reminds me of her."

"Hopefully, not that old!" Chris protested.

"No, she was young. Not exactly pretty, but when she smiled, her face just lit up."

"So what happened?"

"We tried to keep her parents alive for two days. Their fevers just seemed to get worse and worse. Even though her mother had been sick longer, her father passed away first. I thought Meg would fall apart then, but she only let a few tears slide down her face before she gathered herself, and turned back to trying to help her mother. I went outside to dig a grave."

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

It didn't take long for Josiah to find the grave of Meg's brother. It was behind the barn, with a small picket fence around it. With a sigh, he picked up the shovel he'd found in the barn and started to dig. He was almost done when Meg slowly walked up to the gravesite. Josiah put the shovel down and went over to her.

"We need a second one," she said, woodenly.

"I'm sorry, Meg," Josiah said, reaching out to hold her.

Meg stepped back. "I'll get them ready to bury." She turned back to the cabin.

Josiah debated following her, but decided to continue with his work. Once both graves were dug, he started looking for wood to make crosses with. Meg could always add more permanent markers later.

Going into the cabin, he found both bodies wrapped up in blankets. He carried them out, one at a time, and placed them in the graves. Meg followed him out as he carried her mother out.

"Would you say a prayer," she asked as he placed the second body into the ground.

"Of course," Josiah replied. "Our Father, who art in Heaven..." He went through the entire Lord's prayer, while Meg stood by his side, stoically. He kept expecting her to break down, but she hadn't so far.

Finally, he started filling the graves in. The final step was placing the crosses. At that point, Meg gave out a cry, and turning, fled toward the cabin.

This time, Josiah followed her. He found her in the bedroom, lying across the bed, sobbing wildly. He sat down beside her, and took her into his arms.

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

"I honestly don't know which of us kissed the other first, Chris. Suddenly, I was doing more than just comforting her. We were just a man and woman, alone in a bed together."

"I'm not judging you, Josiah," Chris said.

"No, I'm judging myself. She was a married woman. She was so upset after losing both her parents. I should have been stronger. Should have just comforted her."

"Sometimes, being with someone is a way of forgetting the pain. I should know. I've tried it often enough. You just need to feel a connection to someone. How did she react afterward? Did she seem to blame you?"

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

When Josiah awoke the next morning, he was alone in the bedroom. He could smell food cooking, so he got up. His clothes were neatly piled on the foot of the bed. He stretched, then started to dress, before heading out to the main room.

Meg didn't look at him, but just announced, "I'll have breakfast on the table directly. I'd be obliged if you'd leave right afterward."

"Meg..."

"My husband won't be but a day or two more. I need to head home. We'll come back to pack up things together."

"I'm sorry, Meg. I know I shouldn't have..."

"It wasn't just your fault," she said, cutting him off abruptly.

"We were just two lonely people, looking for comfort. No one else needs to know what happened last night."

"What has been, has been. Time to look toward tomorrow. I thank you for all the help you have given me. I don't know what I would have done if I'd been here by myself." She finally looked at Josiah.

"You're a strong woman, Meg. I have no doubt that you would have managed. If you are really sure, I will leave after breakfast."

"I'm sure. I think it will be for the best."

"Very well. I hope that someday I can find someone just like you. Someone who isn't already taken."

"You deserve the best," she said with a sad smile.

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

"I rode away, right after breakfast. I never saw her again. I actually stayed that night in the town where the rangers were posted. They came in the following morning. I thought about finding Meg's husband."

"What would you have told him?" Chris asked. "That his wife had been unfaithful?"

"Of course not!" Josiah protested. "But I could have told him about her parents dying. Then I realized I didn't even know his name. Of the many times we talked, she never really said much about her husband. Instead, I just rode away. Headed for California. Tried to forget that I slept with another man's wife."

"You said this was 1845?"

"February, 1845 I think, but Meg hadn't given birth to Vin yet. I couldn't have been much older than Vin is now. That's why I was asking when his birthday was. If it was in November..."

"You could be his father," Chris finished. "Or not. I'm sure when her husband returned, they did what most married couples would do. There would be no way of knowing."

"Vin has blue eyes like me. And curly hair like me."

"But your build is nowhere like his. And there's no photographs of Jim Tanner to see if Vin looked like him."

Josiah surged to his feet and started pacing. "There's just no way of knowing. And what should I tell Vin?"

Chris thought about it for a while. "I think he would like to know about his Ma, but I would keep the last part to yourself. I wouldn't want his memory of her to be tarnished by that."

Josiah sighed. "You're right. He's always been a Tanner. Even if I was his father, Jim Tanner was the one who raised him during those early years, before his death."

"That's right. You can't change the past."

"What has been, has been," Josiah murmured to himself. "Thanks, Chris, for listening to me, and the advice."

"You're welcome. How about a drink?"

"Sounds good. I'm a might thirsty from all this talking."

Together they headed for the saloon. Ezra was holding court at his favorite poker table. Only one of the players was a local. Judging from the stack of coins in front of Ezra, he was having a profitable night. That could mean trouble later. None of the others were in the saloon.

Chris went up to the bar and ordered a bottle of whiskey and three glasses. He carried them over to a nearby table where he could view all of the saloon floor and sat down. Josiah joined him at the table, wondering who the third glass was for. Chris poured two glasses and slid one over to Josiah, before sipping at his own. The third glass remained empty, just sitting in the middle of the table.

Josiah refused to ask about the glass. He just sipped his own whiskey, as he watched the people in the saloon. So far, no one looked too intoxicated. Everyone, with the exception of a few people at the poker table, looked like they were having a good time. Ten minutes later, the batwing doors swung open, and Vin entered the bar. He headed directly for their table.

That explained the third glass, though how Chris knew that Vin would be joining them was beyond him. The tracker sat down as Chris filled the third glass, before filling his own again. He held up the bottle toward Josiah, so he held his glass for a refill as well. He didn't sip this one, he downed it in one gulp, before holding it out for another refill.

Taking a deep breath, he started, "I have a story to tell you, Vin. Of a strong woman, I met a long time ago. Her name was Meg..."

Vin listened quietly to the whole story, slowly sipping his whiskey. Josiah couldn't really look at Vin while he talked. Even after all these years, the shame of sleeping with a married woman still affected him. He didn't want to see how this was affecting the younger man.

"After I buried her parents..." Josiah paused, swallowed hard, then continued. "I rode on. Later I heard the rangers came back from their patrol the next day, so she wasn't alone for too long."

"Why didn't you tell me this before?" Vin asked.

"I never knew her last name, just her parent's name, Mitchell. Even if I had known it, I probably wouldn't have thought much about it. It was a long time ago. It wasn't until I saw her picture in the locket, that I realized I had met your mother."

"Mitchell was my grandpa's name. Ma said he and Grandma died of the grippe before I was born. She never mentioned a stranger helping her."

"I was just there a few days. Days she probably didn't want to remember." He studied Vin's face. "You know I think you look like your Ma. I wish I had a chance to meet your Pa."

Vin was quiet for a while. Finally, he asked, "Do you remember the poem she recited? She used to read to me from that book."

"Just bits and pieces. The final line was something about 'What has been, has been'. Sorry, Vin."

"Just a second," he said, before standing and leaving the saloon.

He was back in almost no time, carrying something in wrapped in oilcloth. Setting down the package, he carefully opened it to reveal a small book. "Can you find the poem?" Vin asked, sliding the book across the table.

Josiah picked up the book gingerly, treating it with the obvious reverence that Vin felt for it. He carefully looked at each page until he finally found it.

"Happy the man, and happy he alone..."

When he was done, Vin surreptitiously wiped a tear from his face. "Thanks, Josiah. I remember Ma reading that one, but she always seemed sad when she did."

"Maybe it reminds her of her parents' death," Chris suggested.

"Reckon so," Vin replied.

Josiah hoped that was the case, and not that she thought about him when she read the poem. He looked down at the book again. He went back to the front page to see the title, and found the following words:

'To my beautiful son, Vin, on his 5th birthday. Remember you are a Tanner. Don't ever forget that. November 28th, 1850.'

'Oh, Lord, help me,' Josiah prayed silently. He handed the book back to Vin, before rising from his chair. "Time to call it a night." He hurried out of the saloon, without looking back.

Vin and Chris remained at the table. Chris poured out another drink for both of them.

Finally, he spoke up. He didn't want to pry, but Vin seemed shaken. "You all right?"

Vin just shrugged, studying his glass of whiskey, but not drinking.

"Sounds like you come from good people."

Vin finally looked up. "Cain't believe Josiah actually met my ma. Glad he was there to help her when she needed it."

"He'd have been a good man to have at her side. Doubt I could have done as well as he did."

"Jest seems so strange to hear stories 'bout her. Especially after all these years. Never thought I'd meet up with anyone who ever knew my ma, let alone that it turned out to be Josiah."

"Maybe if you went back to where you lived with your ma and pa, you would find more people who knew them."

"Too close to Tascosa," Vin said, frowning.

"That's too bad." Chris wasn't sure he should make this next suggestion. "Maybe you can talk to Josiah some more. He might remember more about those two days."

"Maybe." Vin quickly emptied his glass, and picked up his book carefully. "Maybe I'll do that." Rising, he left the bar.

* M7 * M7 * M7 *

Josiah stared up at the cross at the front of his church, praying for strength and guidance.

It was going to be nearly impossible to treat Vin the same from now on. Knowing there was a chance that he was actually looking at his own son, and yet not being able to acknowledge him. Still, it would devastate Vin to find out he might not be a Tanner. That he might be a Sanchez, instead.

What right did he have to claim fatherhood? Jim Tanner had been Vin's father. Jim Tanner might actually have been Vin's father. There would never be any way of knowing. He had to put it out of his head, once and for all.

"Josiah?"

He spun around and saw Vin, standing in the church doorway.

"What can I do for you..." Josiah almost said 'son' then changed it, "...Vin."

Vin slowly walked into the church. He finally spoke when he reached the spot where Josiah was sitting. "Was just wonderin'..." he paused again.

"Yes?"

"Was just wonderin'... would you read some more of Ma's poems? I'd like to hear them again. Been a long time."

"I'd be honored, Vin." Josiah held a hand out to take the book from the younger man.

Vin took a seat on the pew. "Thanks, Josiah."

He would take what he could get. Maybe bringing memories back for Vin was the best that he could do. He would be there for him, in whatever way he could. Find what joy he could, each day. And leave the past in the past.

The end.