Chris sat at the table in the common room, arms crossed on the table top, his forehead resting on his arms. Jessie gave him a glance in passing, wondering what he was doing out of bed when he had nearly collapsed on her no more than a few hours earlier. "What are you doin' out o' bed?" she asked while starting to gather various things to prepare a light lunch for Vin.

 

Chris raised his head, blinked heavily a few times, then focused on her. "I ain't sick," he insisted. "I ain't stayin' in bed if I ain't sick."

That made her roll her eyes. Damn, this man was stubborn. Turning around to face him, she propped her hands up on her hips and gave him a narrow stare. "You ain't getting well if you ain't stayin' in bed. What the heck is it with you men? What'cha gotta prove? Ain't it enough that you nearly got your head knocked off? You gotta go be a damned hero on top of it, too?" she asked tersely. "Not that I'll ever understand what's hero-like about draggin' yourself out o' bed when you ain't fit for walking around," she added and shook her head in disgust. "And you ain't, you know. I nearly had to pick you up off the floor no more 'n a few hours ago."

Covering his face with both hands, he was once again reminded of Sarah's commanding tone of voice when he'd been sick and tried not to appear weak. She'd sounded much like Jessie did now, and it made him feel both good and horribly bad at the same time. Groaning into his hands, he wondered when she would leave him be. Knowing that it was a strange thing to think, he also wondered when she would stop looking and sounding like Sarah. He knew she couldn't help it. In her own way she was the same type of woman Sarah had been, strong, dedicated, always willing to help.

The sound of a chair being pulled out from the table made him drop his hands and look at her as she sat down next to him and put a hand on his back. "I know you ain't feelin' good, Mr. Larabee. Heaven knows I understand. But you ain't doin' yourself no favors, tryin' to be well when you ain't."

He didn't feel like saying anything. Instead, he let out another heartfelt groan and dropped his head onto his arms again. Maybe she was right after all. How ever little he might want to admit it, he did feel lousy, and getting some rest sounded very appealing right then.

After a moment of doing a little soul-searching, he decided to heed her advice. It was well meant, he knew, and not entirely untrue. He rose somewhat unsteadily to his feet and headed back to the room, several times having to brace himself against the walls. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea to go back to bed.

Tumbling back onto the bed, he stayed as he was on his stomach, his face half buried in the pillow, half asleep already. Yeah, Jessie was right. This was the best thing for him to do right now, he thought before he drifted off.

***

Jessie sighed a little dramatically to herself and briefly wondered where Nathan had gone to. Frowning, she glanced around the common room without finding him there. "Mr. Jackson?" she called.

"Yeah?" The front door opened and he stuck his head in. "Anythin' wrong?"

All she could do was smile. He was so concerned about others most of the time. "No, nothin' at all. Just wonderin' where you were. I'm fixin' Mr. Tanner somethin' to eat before the hoard gathers. You hungry?"

"Always," he said with a smile and stepped inside. "I just figured I'd enjoy the quiet for a bit. It's a lovely day."

Jessie nodded and returned to preparing the food. "That it is," she agreed. "Why don't you just relax for a bit. You been helpin' me plenty today."

Nathan was not used to kindness from strangers, although he wouldn't call Jessie a stranger any more. They were, after all, going to work together in the near future. "If it's alright with you, I reckon I'll go back outside then," he suggested.

"Sounds like a good idea, Mr. Jackson," she replied, sending him a brief smile before he disappeared back outside.

***

As Jessie had correctly assumed, Buck, Ezra and J.D. turned up in time for supper, and they were all happy to hear that Vin was back among them, and feeling better, too. After all of them had been in to say hi and check on his progress, wearing him out with their mere presence, they settled down for another of Jessie's home cooked meals. Chris was still asleep and they were under strict orders to leave him be until he woke up on his own.

Jessie leaned back on her chair and watched them eat for a while. Each one in his own right was a man of consequence. She had always prided herself with being able to read people, and looking at these four, she figured she had them correctly placed.

Buck was the ladies' man, more like a kid in a candy store than anything. She realized fully that he respected women and treated them kindly, not discerning between them in any manner or fashion, and she liked him for that. Although he wasn't her type and she would never fall for his charm, she did see what the appeal was. Tall, dark and handsome were his trademarks, along with a mischievous mind. She figured he was the type to get into all sorts of trouble just because of his nature.

Ezra was the gambler. The way he dressed, the way he spoke, the way he behaved in general, gave that away without a doubt. Jessie had the distinct impression that he wasn't as brave as the others and did his damndest to conceal that fact, although the others seemed to be fully aware of it. Beneath all the mannerisms and lofty standards, she figured he had a good heart; although he was highly suspicious of anything and anyone. Someone had taught him not to trust others and it was so ingrown that she figured it went all the way back to his childhood.

Nathan was an ex-slave. She knew that just by looking at him. He was fiercely loyal to his friends, but also cautious. His mental as well as physical strength gave away that he was used to fighting for his survival, a fact Jessie found somewhat disturbing. It wasn't right that man as good-natured as Nathan had suffered so much. But he had survived whatever it had been and it had made him a stronger man. One you could rely on.

J.D. was the kid. Vibrant, full of life and pride. Jessie watched him for a moment, while he was chatting away, getting teased by Buck, who had a gleam in his eye. They had a brother-relationship going there. Buck saw J.D. as his little brother and J.D. probably saw Buck as his big brother. The boy had potential, she figured. Potential to get himself into trouble, but also to become someone great. He was so young and yet already the sheriff of Four Corners. That was quite an achievement in her opinion.

The remaining three not at the table were the more serious core of this group, she figured.

Chris Larabee was a leader, alas a reluctant one. If asked, he would probably deny it all together. He wasn't a man who took charge because he wanted to be in charge. He did it because it was required. Dark and brooding as he was, she wondered what had happened to his wife and son. They had been killed. That much he had told her. But not how or why. If any of the seven had demons to fight, it would be him. And these demons were bad.

Josiah was a man on a mission, she figured. He was strong of character, and still had an inkling of faith left from his preaching days, but he did not strike her as being the kind of man who would put all his faith in a God he couldn't see. He was a lot more earthbound than any preacher man she had ever met. Normally, she disliked men of the church for various reasons, but Josiah was likable in his calm, quiet way.

The enigma of the group was Vin Tanner. She didn't know too much about him yet, only that his friends were fond of him, each in their own way, and that they would go to extremes to help him out of a predicament. At least Chris Larabee would, which gave her the impression that the relationship between the two of them in a way mirrored Buck and J.D.'s. They were like brothers. From what little she had picked up about Vin, she figured he was the lone wolf of the group, the one who had trouble adjusting to the fact that he had friends backing him up.

Watching them talk and tease each other like that, she formed her own opinions about them in turn. And then, with a light shake of her head, she glanced down at her plate of half-eaten food. Only a week ago, she had lived out here all alone, hardly ever seeing anybody except for those few times when she went to the nearest town, which happened to be Four Corners, for supplies. That didn't happen very often, though. Or hadn't happened very often, she corrected herself. She had told Nathan that she would help him and help him she would, which again meant that she would be spending a lot of time in town. Despite her solitary nature, she didn't think it was such a bad thing to have found friends among these men.

Glancing around at them again, she smiled to herself. And perhaps she would find, in one of them, more than a friend.

***

Three days later

A silence so profound that it smothered life itself wouldn't be as heartbreaking and difficult to stand as not being able to move on your own when all you wanted to do was move. Vin was not fond of being indoors. As a matter of fact, he wasn't fond of staying in one place for too long. Being bedridden for nearly a week was not his idea of fun, and now that he was feeling better and didn't feel the need to sleep all the time, he wanted to get up and out. But his foot, still in need of a lot of treatment, wouldn't allow him to get out of bed. Nor would the rest of his slowly healing injuries.

He shifted uneasily on the bed, turning from his right to his left side, punched the pillow a few times, shifted his left leg a little, then rolled back onto his right side and repeated the procedure there. After doing that a few times, he sighed heavily and sat up, still having to use both hands to push himself up. "Damn," he grumbled and cleared his throat.

Pulling himself back, he leaned against the headboard of the bed for a moment before leaning forward again to readjust the pillow under his foot and shifting his right foot under his left thigh. "Shit," he hissed angrily.

Jessie Landon was going through the woes of hell to accommodate him, but nothing she suggested would allow him to rest easy. Nothing she did could quell his frustration over not being able to go outside. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Before he could once again shift his position, the door opened and Jessie came in with a tray. It took her one second to realize what was going on. Setting the tray down on a chair next to his bed, she gave him a thoughtful look, which instantly made him cringe inwardly. "Cabin fever, huh?" she asked him.

Vin had expected a tirade about that he shouldn't sit up yet, and the absence of it surprised him. "I reckon," he agreed tiredly. "I ain't used to bein' indoors this long."

She nodded. "Must be hard," she sympathized and gave him the once over, taking in his rising mobility. Every day he got stronger, and with every passing day, he became more antsy. Jessie realized without giving it any thought that he would become more and more difficult to be around. Chewing thoughtfully on her lower lip, she frowned deeply for a moment. "Well, I figure, with Nathan's help, you could get up."

He just stared at her for a moment. "Now?" he wanted to know.

Jessie wasn't happy about it, but she figured she needed to give him something to hold onto before he went completely stir-crazy on her. "Le' me see what the doc has to say about that," she suggested with a smile, and left the room without giving him a chance to reply.

The thought of being able to get out of this room right now made him even more edgy than before. He couldn't sit still, couldn't relax. When Jessie returned with Nathan in tow, he felt his hope dwindle. Nathan looked anything but happy. "Come on, Nate. I gotta get outta here," he insisted before the healer had a chance to even open his mouth. Suddenly embarrassed by that outburst, he flicked Jessie a guilty look. "No offense intended, ma'am," he added.

She merely nodded, not looking the least bit upset about it. Nathan, on the other hand, still didn't look happy. "I ain't so sure that's a good idea, Vin. You ain't well enough yet," he said.

"I need to be outside, Nate." He knew he was whining and he hated doing it, but he couldn't help it. He knew for certain that he didn't have the strength to get out of bed himself yet and depending on others wasn't his favorite past-time, but he needed to get out of this room. "I ain't seen the sun for a week."

"There ain't no sun today. It's been cloudy all day," Nathan tried to dissuade him. He knew it wouldn't work, knew the young tracker didn't care if it was coming down in buckets out there. He wanted to be outside and that was all there was to it.

"Aw, hell, Nate," Vin groaned. "I gotta get outside."

"What can it harm?" Jessie asked, glancing at Nathan. "I mean, if he's well enough to put up that much of a fight, I figure he's well enough to be outside for a bit."

Nathan made a face. He was not happy about it. But he figured Jessie was right. "Alright. But not for long, you hear?" he warned.

***

With a combined effort and much frustration on Vin's part, Jessie and Nathan actually managed to get him all the way out to the porch, where he gratefully sank down on a big, wooden chair. After pulling up another chair with a pillow for his foot, and placing a pillow behind his back as well, Jessie stepped back and eyed her handiwork. There was no doubt in her mind that he had needed this. There was a light breeze blowing over the yard, rustling the low bushes and the occasional tree, and up above, heavy white clouds were rolling over a steel grey sky, promising rain. The air was a bit nippy at this point, but that didn't seem to bother him the least bit. One of the others had brought him some clothes at one point, but the only thing he was wearing at that moment were his pants.

"If you gonna stay out here, you gonna need a shirt or somethin'," Jessie said. "You might not think it's cold, but you ain't in any condition to get a cold right now."

"Alright," he replied and leaned back into the pillow. He was not going to put up a fight over that. No way. He was outside, he could feel the wind on his face, and it improved his mood and his condition considerably.

Jessie tugged at Nathan's sleeve, urging him to come with her. Once she had closed the door, she gave him a quick smile. "I know it ain't the best idea, Mr. Jackson," she said, "but did you see that expression on his face? If he don't get better from this, he don't get better from nothin'."

Nathan sighed. "I guess," he agreed reluctantly. "Better get ‘im that shirt, though. He don't need a cold right now."

Jessie ran into Chris on the way back to Vin's room. He had spent the better part of the past three days sleeping. When he wasn't sleeping, they talked. He seemed to value her thoughts as much as she valued his, and they had spent a lot of time getting acquainted. "What's up?" he asked her, still looking pretty tired.

"Mr. Tanner's outside on the porch. I figure he's feelin' better," she said with a smile. "I just gotta pick ‘im up a shirt," she added and quickly went into Vin's room to retrieve said shirt. Chris was waiting for her when she came back out again.

"If he's well enough to be outside, he's well enough to get a piece o' my mind," he said, his expression tense.

"Chris, I ain't meddlin' here, but don't you think he learned his lesson? He ain't no little kid," she said, trying to cushion whatever blow he intended to give his friend.

"No, he ain't. I figure it's about time he stopped behavin' like one," Chris said and walked briskly along the corridor to the common room and disappeared from view.

Jessie made a face and sighed. She figured she should stay close to him to prevent him from going overboard with whatever he intended to say to Vin.

***

Vin enjoyed the air although it was a little chilly, and when the door opened again, he thought it was Jessie, bringing him his shirt. Seeing Chris, he instinctively ducked his head a little. He had been expecting Chris to tell him off ever since he'd been aware enough to understand it, but the expected reprimand had remained absent. He didn't for one minute believe he could avoid it, though.

Chris had grabbed a chair on the way out and settled down on it next to Vin, his expression much the same as it always was. "Good to see you up and about, Tanner," he said.

Vin knew what was coming when Chris called him by his last name, and he remained silent. No amount of apologizing would put this whole thing right with Chris until he'd had his say in the matter.

Leaning forward, Chris rested his elbows on his knees and folded his hands, his gaze roaming over the yard without really seeing it. What he saw before his mind's eye was what had transpired over a week ago. "I figure you know what I'm gonna say, don'cha?" he asked after a moment and sent Vin a quick glance. "Well, I'm gonna say it anyway. I know you ain't much for bein' on a leash, Vin, but as long as we're all workin' together, you gotta let us know where you're at." He paused a moment, considering his words carefully. He wanted Vin to understand that he was pissed, but he also wanted the younger man to know how scared he had been without having to put it in words. "You got a lot o' enemies out there, Vin. I ain't exactly sure how you got ‘em and it ain't my concern anyway. But, on account of it, you gotta be more careful. Them Stanford brothers could ‘ave killed you. I figure you know that, but still."

Vin stared ahead of himself, listening silently to Chris' words. It wasn't the worst dressing-down he'd ever had in the sense that Chris was speaking quietly without even stressing the words, but the meaning behind it all was clear as glass to him and it made him feel a whole lot worse about it. "I didn't figure I'd be gone long," he said after a moment. "I's just not payin' attention, I guess."

Jessie chose that moment to come outside to give Vin his shirt, well aware that he couldn't put it on himself. He wasn't that mobile yet. She helped him into it without a word, made sure he was comfortable, and went back inside, still without a word.

Chris appreciated that she hadn't interfered, although he was certain he would be hearing about this once he went back inside. "Well, you gotta pay more attention, Vin," he said, continuing where he'd left off. Turning his head, he looked back at Vin, who somewhat reluctantly met his gaze. "I might not ‘ave made in time. It was pure luck that I found you in the first place," he said, then made a face at his own choice of words. "Well, I reckon those brothers found me," he added.

"I reckon they did," Vin agreed. "I ain't proud of it, Chris. All I can say is, I wasn't thinkin'."

Once again, Chris turned his attention to the yard and stared ahead of himself for a moment. What else could he say? "Well, I figure that'll do for now," he said and leaned back on the chair. "Just don't expect Buck to go easy on you. He's mighty ticked off about this," he added.

Making a face, Vin shifted his position a little, then frowned and glanced down himself. He sniffed the air, then grabbed his shirtfront and pulled the fabric up to his nose. "What the heck is that?" he asked and looked over at Chris, who didn't seem to understand what he was talking about. "It kinda smells weird," he added.

Chris leaned in a little to get a whiff of what Vin was talking about and couldn't help grinning. "I reckon Mrs. Landon took the time out to wash your clothes," he said and couldn't stop the grin spreading over his lips.

"Well, that's mighty nice o' her, but..." Vin replied and smoothed a hand over his shirt, "... what is that smell?"

Chris had just about all the trouble he could handle to prevent himself from laughing out loud. The look on Vin's face was to die for. He displayed a mixture of confusion and disgust. "Lavender, I guess," Chris replied and started chuckling under his breath at the mortified look on his friend's face.

"Aw hell," Vin mumbled, glancing down himself again.

"It won't last, Vin," Chris promised, fighting his urge to laugh at this unexpected predicament. If Vin could fuss about something like that, he was definitely going to be okay.

***

Four Corners
Two days later

The judge had come and gone, taking the Stanford brothers with him to be tried and convicted. He had promised that there was no way in hell that the four brothers would get away with what they had done, and that promise had come easy after Buck and Josiah had presented him with the evidence of the six bodies in the Stanford homestead. Since it was impossible to identify them, they had been removed from the basement and had been buried in the local cemetery under nameless crosses. The Stanford house had been condemned and would be left to rot until it collapsed.

That didn't mean that Chris was satisfied with the result. He didn't want to see them hang. He wanted to shoot them himself. Pensively, he rubbed his brow. "Six people," he mumbled and dropped his hand, glancing around the jail without really seeing it. "Six damned people. How the hell could that happen?"

"They wasn't from around here. Nobody missed ‘em," Buck replied from where he was sitting on the edge of the desk.

J.D. watched Chris closely from his chair. "Guess it was sort o' lucky that Vin got on their land, huh? We'd never ‘ave found ‘em otherwise."

Chris gave him a dark look. "Lucky?" he asked. "You call what happened to Vin lucky?"

"Now, hold on a sec, pard. All the kid's tryin' to say is that we wouldn't ‘ave found ‘em if it hadn't been for Vin bein' a god damned lone wolf again and takin' off without us knowin'," Buck intervened, aware that J.D. didn't always express himself right. "Ain't nobody said it's good what happened to ‘im," he added, raising both hands in a deprecating gesture.

J.D. had ducked his head the second Chris had given him that glare and he was quick to agree with Buck. "Yeah, that's what I meant," he assured Chris, nodding his head vigorously.

Making a face, the gunslinger hooked his thumbs into his belt. "Well, I guess it does have it's benefits that he has to be so goddamn stubborn at times," he growled.

"Them brothers' gonna hang, Chris. That's all that matters. They ain't gettin' away with it," Buck said, hoping to appease his friend.

"Not like certain others," Chris grumbled, turned and left the jail without another word.

"I ain't never seen him that angry before," J.D. said, still cowering from being glared at like that.

"I have," Buck replied and shook his head sadly. Then he turned his attention to J.D. "You gotta learn to watch your mouth, kid. You can't go around sayin' things right off the top o' your head like that. It'll get you killed some day," he reprimanded J.D.

"Well, it's the truth, ain't it?" the kid tried to defend himself.

"Damned straight it is," Buck agreed. "But, some things you just don't say. You keep ‘em inside. You know?"

J.D. didn't really understand that, but he didn't want to make a fuss or seem ignorant in Buck's eyes, so he kept his mouth shut, for the first time implementing what Buck had just told him to do.

***

Smoke from about a dozen lit cigarettes and cheroots drifted lazily in the air, being stirred only occasionally when Inez brought the guests whatever they may have ordered, or retrieved empty glasses and plates from abandoned tables. She picked up an empty pitcher and glanced toward the gaming table, where Ezra was once again deeply engrossed in playing cards with three other men, while their comrades and other curious bystanders stood by, watching. She had never understood that game or the need to play it, but she didn't care one way or another what happened as long as nobody got killed.

Returning the pitcher to the bar, she caught Buck looking at her from the rear table, where he and Chris were spending some quiet time together. The second he saw her glancing his way, Buck grinned broadly at her and it was all she could do to not roll her eyes. When would he give up? She wasn't interested in him, not that way, and she had attempted to convey that to him in more ways than one. But every time she tried, she seemingly slammed her head against that brick wall of denial he had put up between himself and any woman who dared say the obviously rather offensive word ‘no' to him.

"Madre del dios," she muttered under her breath with a shake of her head, and slipped behind the bar again when the batwing doors parted, admitting two dusty cowboys looking for a drink.

Buck settled back on his chair, his eyes still on Inez, while Chris remained motionless with a glass of whiskey sitting untouched in front of him. He stared at the glass while his mind wandered. He had to admit, without hesitation, that he liked Jessie Landon. He liked her especially when she did things that reminded him of Sarah. Somehow, she had managed to drag his mind away from the horrible realization it had been that he had lost the two most important people in his life. When he had found out who had ordered their deaths, he had nearly lost it. He had nearly killed himself with booze after that one. All the bad memories had welled back up in him like stagnant water from an old well, threatening to drown him with the images of the charred bodies of his wife and son. All the evil thoughts he had ever harbored overwhelmed him, making him vile to even his closest friends. The only one ready to take action against him at that time had been Buck. When it came down to it, it was always Buck who managed to drag him back out of that dark pit he fell into. But now there was someone else doing that, someone who managed to make him remember all the good things about Sarah, about the love they had shared.

When Chris sighed heavily, Buck glanced over at him and saw the gleam of tears in his friend's eyes. But he also saw the shadow of a smile on the gunslinger's lips, and that made him wonder what Chris was thinking about. He knew better than to ask, though. Any wrong move could trigger Chris and send him back into the bottle, and Buck ahead of anybody wanted to avoid that. He was getting thoroughly fed up with having to bail his friend out of whatever self-destructive course he had gotten on whenever the drinks became too many and sleep became scarce. He couldn't help wondering, though. Something was obviously making Chris remember his past, but whatever it was, it also brought a smile to his face and that was very rare.

"Sarah would ‘ave liked her," Chris said out of the blue, continuously staring at his still untouched drink. "She would ‘ave liked her a lot."

Buck frowned. "Who?" he asked, not really tuned into what Chris might be talking about.

That made the gunslinger smile and give him a wry glance. "Mrs. Landon, of course. She's some piece o' work," he explained. The smile faded and he returned his gaze to the whiskey. "And she looks so much like Sarah," he added thoughtfully. "It's funny, really. I figured it would hurt. But it don't. Just makes me remember all the good things." He grabbed the glass and started turning it slowly on the table top. "I thought I was losin' ‘em there for a while. Couldn't remember much no more. About Sarah. About how she was. And Adam. But, somehow, she brought ‘em back." He smiled cynically at his own words. "How's that for crazy?" he asked and glanced at Buck again.

Buck leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table, and gave Chris a grin. "Well, we're all crazy, workin' for one dollar a day, gettin' shot at, beaten up, and God knows what else for virtually nothin'. Ain't that what's it's all about, pard?" he wanted to know. "Us bein' crazy enough to do this kinda work?"

Chris grinned weakly back at him. "I imagine so," he agreed. "It ain't the money keepin' us here anyway, is it?"

"Nope," Buck said and leaned back again. "If it were, it'd have to be a hell of a lot more ‘n this." Taking a chance, Buck grinned knowingly. "So, you like her too, huh?"

Chris made a face and tipped the glass until the whiskey almost spilled. "I suppose," he said. "She's a tough lady."

"Tough as nails," Buck agreed. "And beautiful as a dream," he added and sighed dramatically. "And smart too." It made him smile somewhat gleefully when Chris nodded to all of that without a word. "And she's got land," he went on. "How's that mix? I mean, she's got to have somethin' tugged away for a rainy day somehow. She ain't workin' the land. There ain't no horses or cattle out there. What's she livin' off, you think?"

Chris shrugged, obviously indifferent to how she might make a living. "Don't know. And it ain't our concern anyway," he said and pushed the glass away from him before leaning back on his chair.

That action made Buck stare at him for a moment. "You ain't gonna drink that?" he asked, trying not to sound too surprised. He couldn't remember the last time Chris had passed on a glass of whiskey while off duty.

"I'm not in the mood," the gunslinger said. "Gotta think a lot o' things through. Need a clear head for that," he added almost to himself, then rose. "I figure I'll go up to the cabin for a bit. I'll be back tonight." With that, he took off, walking slowly out of the saloon and across to the livery to get Pony out of his stall.

Buck just sat there, slightly confused about what this meant. Something had obviously changed and he figured Jessie was in part responsible for that merely by being who she was. "A blessin' in disguise," he mumbled, grabbed the glass and downed the contents in one go. "It's like Josiah always says. The lord works in mysterious ways."

***