Jessie arrived in town about an hour later. Instead of pulling up in front of the clinic, though, she guided Chico down to the livery to give him some rest from the once again relentless sunshine. When she came back outside, she spotted Chris on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, and she figured she might as well just approach him about this misunderstanding.

 

Chris looked up at her when she came to a stop before him and actually flinched visibly at the angry look in her eyes. "Jessie. I was hopin' you'd turn up soon. I gotta talk to you," he said.

"Yeah, an' I gotta talk to you about somethin' of a stupid misunderstandin'," she replied, propping her hands on her hips. "Where's Vin? I reckon he came back to town?"

Chris nodded and rose. He somehow felt more at ease when she wasn't towering over him. As he had said once, there were a few women in the world he was scared of running into and Jessie would be one of them if she was ever angry at him. She had a temper that could easily match his own and he had always respected women like her. "Yeah, he did," he said. "That's what I wanna talk to you about. And I reckon it's all my fault."

"It ain't nobody's fault but all them nosy townspeople, who keep stickin' their noses where they don't belong," Jessie told him angrily. "I ain't one to worry about my reputation, Chris. I ain't got one to worry about. But this is ridiculous. I reckon you know what I'm talkin' about?"

"Yeah, I do," he agreed. "Look, as you said, it's a misunderstandin' and that's all it is. Vin knows that now, so there ain't no reason the two of you can't pick up where you left off, alright?"

Jessie's eyes darkened a bit more. "He don't trust me. What kinda foundation is that for a relationship, Chris?" she asked, swirled around and walked away.

With a hiss, Chris followed her. He had promised Vin he would set this straight and he would do his damndest to keep that promise. "Jessie, hold on a goddamn minute," he said, grabbing her arm and stopping her in her tracks. "There's somethin' you gotta understand about Vin. He ain't been too lucky with women in the past and that tends to make a man a might suspicious. An' you can't blame him, neither. So, why don‘t you just give the kid a break and forget about this? You ain't one to hold a grudge, Jess. I know you that well."

Jessie stared at him with narrowed eyes for a moment, then pulled her arm out of his grip. "Where is he?" she wanted to know.

"Saloon," Chris replied, jabbing a thumb over one shoulder.

She was still angry as she stalked back to the saloon and pushed the batwing doors open. One glance around showed her that nearly all of Vin's friends were there and one thing she knew for sure was that he didn't need to be embarrassed in front of them. So, when she caught sight of him, she walked straight over to the table and gave him an odd look. "Can I talk to you outside?" she asked.

Vin glanced somewhat uncertainly from Buck to J.D. and then back up at her and nodded. "Sure," he said, rose and followed her outside.

Buck would have loved it if their little lover's strife would have happened within hearing distance, but Jessie wasn't one to embarrass others and hence grabbed a hold of Vin's hand and nearly dragged him across the road to the livery. Once inside, she closed the door and turned to face him. "We gotta talk about this," she said sternly.

Vin didn't know what to say or where to look. He had been behaving like a fool. Knowing it didn't make any difference, though. He still felt utterly out of place and completely out of his league. "Jessie, I had no idea. I's just... bein' a fool," he tried to explain, not sure he was saying the right thing. "As usual," he added bitterly. "I ain't good around people. I told you that already."

Jessie stared at him, all her anger seeping out of her at the mere look in his eyes. He sure hadn't lived a happy life up until now. Well, that was going to change, she decided, stepped up to him and kissed him. "Yeah, you've been a fool. ‘Specially about thinkin' I'd give you up after last night," she said and smiled. "I ain't gonna let somethin' like this get between us when it's only a stupid misunderstandin'. But I do expect you to trust me in future, alright?"

"You forgive me?" he asked hesitantly.

That made her smile widen, as she reached up to brush his hat off his head. "Always," she promised. "There ain't nothing you can do that'll change my mind about you, tracker."

***

Two weeks later
Four Corners

The wedding of Chris and Mary was a small, quiet affair, conducted by Josiah who took great pride in joining his two friends together. The party afterwards included the whole town, though, and everybody was having a good time. A few of the good townspeople did think it was rather sudden and that Chris and Mary hadn't waited long enough to get married, but that didn't stop them from having fun too.

Vin and Jessie disappeared pretty early, and Chris couldn't help thinking it was a great outcome. Although Vin kept insisting that he wouldn't get tied down and, most importantly, wouldn't subject Jessie to the threat he had hanging over his head all the time, it hadn't stopped him from virtually moving in with her. The wagon he had used for all his belongings up until two weeks ago, was empty now, just sitting in the alley.

Buck was once again trying to woo Inez, who continuously thwarted his attempts with whatever seemed to work at the time. It was obvious to all involved that she was getting a little tired of keeping him at arm's length all the time. None of the others thought she would give in to him just to get her peace, though.

"That was a beautiful ceremony, Josiah," J.D. exclaimed and dropped down on a chair next to the preacher. Casey had been trying to teach him a certain dance that Josiah didn't recognize, and hence the young man was flushed and a little out of breath.

"Thank you, J.D. I found it rather rewarding myself," Josiah agreed with a smile and glanced over at the happy couple. Despite the fact that she hadn't worn a white dress, but rather a cream-colored one, Josiah couldn't remember ever seeing a more beautiful bride. And he could most certainly say that he had never seen Chris Larabee happier than he was on this day. The man was smiling and laughing, having the time of his life, and Josiah couldn't help feeling a tinge of envy. With a light shake of the head, he sighed and took a sip of his drink.

Ezra was having some kind of argument with a woman Josiah didn't recognize. Whatever that was about, it looked like the gambler was losing the battle. It always amused the ex-preacher to see how Ezra tried to handle women and never really got away with it. He didn't think Ezra was any less attracted to the opposite sex than Buck was, but he was more interested in gambling. Besides, Josiah had the sneaking suspicion that Ezra was scared to death of getting involved with a woman only to find out that she resembled his mother. Despite all the man's bravado and fancy talking, he was rather insecure about his own worth and therefore always seemed to put everything in money terms. He was amazing at gambling, able to cheat the socks of others without even batting an eyelash, but when it came to general interaction, he lost ground quickly. Despite Josiah's own preoccupation with Maude whenever she was in town, he knew she hadn't been a perfect mother. As a matter of fact, he doubted she had been much of a mother at all. The way she treated her son whenever she turned up showed that only too clearly. It seemed to be her goal in life to embarrass him, which of course accounted for a lot of his insecurity.

Nathan was there, too, and so was Rain. Josiah wondered how long it would take for the two of them to find that common path, and he was almost willing to bet money on that it would happen sometime soon.

Josiah's observation of the others was interrupted when Casey, for once in a dress, basically pulled J.D. out of his chair and back into the frenzy of dancing people. He shook his head again and briefly wished that he could be that young and naive again.

After a moment, Buck dropped down on the chair J.D. had abandoned, a look of defeat on his face. "Well, ain't this just a happy occasion?" he asked.

Josiah arched an eyebrow and glanced at him. "Can I conclude from this that you're not having fun, brother?" he asked back.

"Not even close," Buck replied and shook his head.

"What seems to be the trouble?" Josiah was always willing to help out, and he knew why Buck was about to despair. The man was just not used to being turned down. "Might it have something to do with our lovely saloon-owner?"

"Right on the button, Josiah. I just don't get it. I mean, what am I doin' wrong? Why don't she like me?" the big cowboy lamented, slowly losing faith in his abilities to woo the fairer sex.

Josiah looked over at Inez, who was chatting lightly with Chris before being dragged onto the dance floor by someone. "I don't believe it has anything to do with that, my friend," he finally said and glanced at Buck. "I think it's as simple as a question of compatibility. You're probably not her type," he suggested.

Buck snorted. "I'm everybody's type, Josiah. There ain't never been no woman who could say no to me. Why can she?"

Josiah chuckled under his breath. Buck sure didn't take defeat too well. "Because she is a beautiful, headstrong woman who knows what she wants out of life. And you're probably not part of her plans. Be careful not to push her too much, Buck. Try leaving her alone for a while. Maybe she'll turn around," he suggested, not sure it would work.

"You reckon?" Buck asked, then nodded to himself. "Right you are. I been comin' on too strong. Thanks, pard," he added, pushed himself out of the chair again and headed straight back for Inez.

Josiah sighed and shook his head. The man would never learn. As he watched, Buck suddenly veered off course and headed straight for the newlyweds, bowing and asking Mary to dance. She accepted, leaving Chris behind. Instead of staying in one place, the gunslinger came over to sit by Josiah.

"So, preacher," he said, unable to keep the contentment out of his voice. "Who would ‘ave thought, huh?" he asked.

"Who would have indeed," Josiah agreed. "You do make a nice couple, though," he added and winked at Chris.

"Thanks," he replied, watching while Buck swirled her around and she laughed out loud when she nearly lost her balance in the process. "She's sight for sore eyes, ain't she?" he added.

"That she is," Josiah said. "Beautiful as they come. And smart, too. You're not going to try and subdue that, are you?"

Chris gave him a somewhat stunned look, then grinned at the twinkle in Josiah's eyes. "No way. That's what I like about her. She's independent an' she can handle a riffle better ‘n any woman I ever met."

That made the ex-preacher nod with satisfaction. He'd had his own dreams about Mary Travis and would never stand for it if she was mistreated in any way. He knew, though, that Chris felt the same way about her and would protected her with his life if he had to.

Josiah decided to go talk to some of the others, relinquishing his chair to Judge Travis, who settled down on it with a sigh. He glanced at Chris and raised his glass briefly, giving the gunslinger a nod. "I want to have a word with you, Chris," he said.

Chris sat up a little straighter, uncertain of what came next. The man wasn't Mary's father, but he was damned close. "Sure," he said.

The judge eyed the commotion around them for a moment, considering his words carefully. He hadn't been asked to give his blessing and he knew he had no right to interfere anyway, but he did feel he had a certain amount of responsibility since Mary had been his daughter-in-law and Billy was his grandson. "I just want your word that you will do right by both of them, Chris," he finally said. He didn't want it to come across as a demand and he sure didn't want to sound like a father, either, but he was concerned about Mary and Billy's fate. "The boy is my grandson, after all. The only living proof of my son. And Mary is a fine woman, the best thing that ever happened to my Steven. I just want you to promise me that you're not going to leave them behind."

Chris stared into space for a moment, thinking about the judge's words. He understood the man, understood the concern. "I give you my word. I won't let nothin' happen to them," he then promised. A promise like that should have come easy, but to Chris, those words were spoken with serenity. He would do his damndest to keep them safe, to keep them from harm. And he would kill anybody trying to get in his way.

Judge Travis nodded. Even though the words were nothing much to go by, the tone of the younger man's voice was. He glanced at Chris and gave him a small smile. "Good. That's all I wanted to hear. They mean an awful lot to me. I just want to make sure they mean that to you too."

That made Chris smile weakly. "Billy could be my son," he said and looked over to meet the judge's eyes. "I love ‘em both. I'd rather die than let anythin' happen to ‘em."

Travis' smile widened. "Well, I wouldn't want you to go that far, seeing as Mary doesn't need to bury another husband," he said. "Just take care of them and treat them right. That's all I ask."

"I will," Chris promised, his own smile wider.

***

Jessie pulled a piece of straw out of her hair and wrinkled her nose. "Hay's pretty dusty, ain't it?" she asked and pulled the bodice of her dress together, joining the hooks.

"Sure is," Vin agreed and sat up too, pulling his shirt back on. Pausing, he gazed at her adoringly, then smiled and planted a kiss on her shoulder. "You wanna go back to the party?" he asked, nodding toward the doors of the livery and the party still going on further down the street.

She finished with the hooks and turned to face him, gently laying a hand against his cheek. "Do you?" she asked back.

For a moment, Vin just looked into her eyes, still not fully believing that this woman, this wonderful, beautiful, lively being, was his and his alone. Well, in theory, she wasn't. But for all appearances she was, and he relished the thought, the feeling. If it hadn't been for that damned bounty on his head, that charge against him, he would have married her two weeks ago. But, as it were, he didn't want to pull her any further into his uneasy existence. "We might as well, eh?" he asked her, responding to her question. What he wouldn't give to be able to forget his rootless past and find a save haven in her arms. It wasn't really fair to her that he allowed her to think that this could go on forever. But, right now, he was just enjoying this too much, and didn't want it to end. But he knew the time was coming when he would have to move on. If only to not endanger her.

"What's on your mind?" she asked, noting his preoccupation and the slight sadness she had seen in his eyes.

"Nothin'. Let's go back to the others," he replied and climbed down the ladder from the hayloft. Stopping at the foot of the ladder, he waited for her to climb down, helping her to the floor. Not that she needed any help, but he loved wrapping his hands around her slim waist. She turned in his arms and kissed him before he had a chance to make any move.

"Nothin' my foot," she told him, smiling sweetly at him. "Come on, lover. Let's go have fun." With that she took his hand and nearly dragged him along with her, not caring if they looked ruffled and so gave away where they had been. It wasn't like everybody in town hadn't guessed what was going on between them, anyway.

***

Chris saw Vin and Jessie rejoining the party and couldn't help smiling. This had, indeed, been a good day. Mary had danced with just about every male on the scene and was tired enough to nearly drop when she sank down on his lap. He wrapped his arms protectively around her, pulling her close to him. Life just didn't get better than this. All the things he had longed for over the past four years had been restored to him, alas in a slightly different package this time around.

Mary grabbed a glass handed to her by someone and turned to face her husband, a smile on her lips. "I would like to make a toast," she said quietly to him.

Chris looked into her eyes and saw something serious there, something heartfelt. He wasn't exactly sure what to expect, so he merely nodded. "Alright," he agreed.

"To Sarah and Adam. May they be at peace wherever they are," she said, holding her glass up a little, the gleam of tears in her eyes. "And I swear to both of them that I will do all I can to make you happy."

He blinked a few times and swallowed to clear the lump rising in his throat. Had this come from anyone but her, he might have gotten angry or depressed, but she meant every word and honored his previous family with her words. "You already are," he told her and kissed her tenderly. "You an' Billy."

"We both love you," she said and smiled, and then she glanced up at the sky. "The moon is high in the sky," she added and looked back down to meet his eyes. "And I am tired. It has been a long day and reality returns tomorrow. Maybe we should turn in?"

With an affirming nod, he brushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. "Reality returns tomorrow, eh?" he asked. "No honeymoon, then?"

That made her smirk. "The paper doesn't print itself, Chris," she told him and smiled at the somewhat surprised expression on his face. "I have asked for a little help, though. We have three days off. So, I suggest that we take ourselves up to your cabin and spend those three days there, all on our own."

That made him frown a little. "What about Billy?" he wanted to know.

"Oh, that's all taken care of. Buck has volunteered to look after him. And so has Josiah. And Nathan. And Ezra, even," she said. "And Vin. And J.D. So, you see, I believe my Billy is going to be in good hands while we're away."

He smiled in reply. "Not to worry you, my dear, but are you certain he'll be just Billy when we get back?"

Mary arched an eyebrow, slightly confused by that comment. "What are you implying?"

"Well, the way I see it, Mary, if we leave him in their capable hands for three days, he's goin' to be part tracker, part preacher, part gambler, part womanizer, part sheriff and part doctor when we get back," he said with a gleam in his eyes.

"And that would be a bad thing?" she asked, then smiled brightly at him, before glancing around in search of her son. She found him where she had actually expected to see him, and that was sitting on a chair next to Ezra, watching with fascination as the gambler showed him a whole array of card tricks. "It's funny, really," she added and slipped an arm around Chris' neck. "When I first met Ezra, I would never have entrusted him with my son. Now, however, I think Billy is in good hands, don't you?"

Chris watched the boy clap his hands in pure delight at something Ezra had just shown him, the boy's eyes full of adoration. Chris slowly shook his head. "I've known Ezra for over a year now and I still don't know what to make of ‘im. He ain't what he seems, and at the same time he is. How does that make sense?"

Mary watched, too, a small smile playing on her lips. "Do you trust him?" she wanted to know, giving Chris a quick glance.

"With money, no. With just about anything else, yes. I ain't sure he'd be able to resist the tug o' wealth, but he does seem to have a good heart hidden away somewhere. He ain't usin' it too much, but it's there."

That made his bride nod. "Just what I'm thinking," she agreed. "And he does have a remarkable grip on children. So, I think we have nothing to worry about," she added. "Vin and Jessie are taking him with them to Jessie's place tonight. Vin promised him they'd go hunting together early in the morning."

That again made Chris shake his head with a grin. "I think Vin would make a good father, don't you?" he asked, glancing up at Mary.

"Probably," Mary agreed. "Well, I think it's time for us to leave this party and head on home," she added and rose, pulling him up with her. "Let's say our goodbyes and be off."

THE END