January third was the day everything changed. The stage rolled into town, and Judge Travis stepped off.
He was unexpected. Seeing him, Chris walked over. "Judge."
"Chris." He sighed. "Vin wouldn't happen to be in town, would he?"
"Not until tomorrow. Why, something wrong?"
"I take it he's at the homestead, then." Travis headed for the livery. "Well, are you coming or not?"
"I hate secrets," Chris said, following Travis. "If I didn't respect you, I'd shoot you."
"I love you, too, son," Travis teased right back.
It was nearly seven PM when the horses rode to the Tanner cabin. Vin walked out in the darkness. "Hello, the horses!"
"It's us, Cowboy," Chris called back. "Travis is with me!"
"The judge?" Vin called, shocked. As they dismounted, tied the horses and came into the light, Vin asked, "Somethin' wrong?"
"The two of you must share a brain," Travis chuckled. "Where's Ezra? This concerns him as well."
"Dressin'," Vin said. "He spent the afternoon muckin' the stalls and had to have a bath."
All three men grinned, picturing the disgust that must have been on the fastidious ten-year-old's face. "How'd you get him to muck anyway?" Chris asked.
"Easy. Told him Chaucer was his horse, and I wasn't gonna look after him."
"Which I still maintain was a low blow," Ezra complained, coming to the porch and buttoning his nightshirt. "Judge. Is something wrong?"
Travis sighed. "Let's go inside." They sat around the table, and Travis asked, "Vin, how much can you write?"
"More'n I could a year ago," Vin said. "I can sign m'name if y'need me to."
"Good. Because I do." He drew a sheaf of paper from his pocket. "Yours as well, Chris. As a witness."
"A witness? To what?" Chris gasped.
Vin opened the papers. "Ezra, c'mere. Big words."
"He's a judge. Of course there'll be big words," Ezra chuckled as he drew his chair closer. His face went white in disbelief and his jaw slammed open.
"What?" Vin gasped. "What d'they say?"
"Certificate..." Ezra read. "Certificate of Legal...Adoption!"
Vin's hands clenched on the papers. "Judge..."
"It's final, Vin. Once I have your signature and Chris's -- Ezra is your legal son. As he's always been in your heart."
Ezra just looked at Travis.
Travis smiled at him. "And you can take the name Tanner as your surname if you choose, son."
Ezra turned his eyes to where the name 'Vin Tanner' was laboriously being scrawled on the paper. "Yes, sir," he breathed, meeting his father's eyes as they rose.
"Yes, sir," he repeated. "I so choose."
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