Four days later


Vin had been laid up for another four days due to his own stupidity, he figured, and it really ticked him off that he couldn't even allow himself to complain about it. It was, after all, his own fault.

For four days straight he had done everything Jessie told him to do, had taken it easy and actually enjoyed her continued attention despite everything. Although it went against his grain to be cooped up indoors, he said nothing about it.

Something had changed since he had learned that she wasn't married. Both between himself and her, and between Chris and her. He couldn't figure out what the latter was, though. Chris acted sort of strangely around her now.

The first chance Vin got, which was when Jessie finally declared that she was okay with him going out if he took it easy, he headed over to the saloon, walking slowly and favoring his foot, to have a word with the only person who might know what was going on, and that was Buck.

Sure enough, the big cowboy was once again hanging around Inez, trying desperately to ‘thaw her out', as he put it. It was a bit of a surprise to Vin and the others that he seemingly didn't understand that Inez wasn't interested. But, since it was a continued source of amusement for all of them, nobody really tried to convince him apart from her.

Limping into the saloon, Vin briefly nodded to Ezra, who was doing what he did best, namely playing some sort of card game with some poor, unsuspecting fool about to lose every last dime to the gambler. Ezra nodded back, giving him a brief smile.

"Hey, Buck," Vin said, coming to a stop next to the big cowboy, who didn't look too happy about him turning up in the middle of everything.

"Hey, Vin," he replied, finally giving Inez a break. "How's it goin'?"

"Ain't too bad," Vin replied. "Got somethin' I wanna ask you. Figure you're the only one who might know," he added.

Buck grabbed a bottle and two glasses and nodded toward their regular table. "Wanna sit down?" he asked

Vin glanced toward the table, making sure in the process that none of the others were around, then he limped over there and settled down on his usual chair, while Buck did the same.

"So, what's up?" Buck wanted to know while pouring them both a glass of whiskey and handing one over to Vin.

"I'm a might worried. Since Chris found out Jessie ain't married, he's been kinda strange to her. Why's that?" He wasn't much for talking and hence didn't beat about the bush much. In his opinion, it was better to come right out and say what was on your mind.

Buck raised an eyebrow at that, emptied his glass, and leaned back on his chair. "Might be ‘cause he's sweet on her or somethin'. It's easier to get out o' that if she's married. I got a feelin' he ain't quite ready to get serious again." Sending a thoughtful glance toward the windows, Buck made a face. "If he ever will be."

That was not really what Vin had wanted to hear, but he couldn't really say that without giving away how he was feeling about the whole thing. "You figure he won't get involved with ‘er?" he asked, hoping for a positive answer.

Buck shrugged and poured himself another drink. "Well, I figured he'd get involved with someone else, if you's askin' me. But... Chris is a hard man to know. He ain't showin' too much on the outside. Makes it a might hard to guess what's happenin' on the inside."

Vin thought that through for a moment, pondering the meaning of Buck's words, then emptied his own glass and motioned for another one. "I reckon they'll work it out in time, huh?" he asked.

"Ain't entirely impossible," Buck agreed. "Another?" he asked, holding up the bottle, to which Vin nodded. "Ain't our business anyway, Vin. I ain't getting involved. Chris don't like it when others mess with his business."

"Yeah, his past ain't a topic for conversation," Vin said with a nod and smiled weakly.


Chris didn't exactly know how to respond to anything at the moment. Things hadn't exactly become easier after learning that Jessie wasn't married. Well, in a sense that wasn't true, he thought. Although he liked her a lot and couldn't really stop comparing her to Sarah, he just couldn't see this heading anywhere. He knew why, too. Because of her similarity to Sarah. He wouldn't be able to stand being near her for longer periods of time. It would feel like being haunted by the ghost of his wife and he couldn't deal with that. Not until he had avenged her death, at least. Then, maybe, the similarity would become a blessing rather than a curse. But, until he had dealt with his demons, he couldn't and wouldn't drag anybody else into his life. It wouldn't be fair to Jessie, and when it came down to it, he wasn't even sure she was interested in him that way. They talked a lot and he found that her presence and her advice soothed him, but he didn't really feel physically attracted to her except for those moments when he saw Sarah in her.

With a shake of his head, he guided Pony out of town, heading toward his cabin to be alone for a while again. The bottles of whiskey he had bought clanged against each other in the right saddlebag. Going away to get drunk wasn't exactly the best of ideas, he figured, but he just needed some leeway right now and the only way he could still his mind was by drowning it in liquor.

"Where are you headin'?"

That question came out of nowhere and made him pull the reins tight, stopping Pony in his tracks. Turning in the saddle, he looked behind him, seeing Jessie on a horse of her own. She had come from elsewhere, but had veered off course when she had spotted him. "Up to my cabin," he replied, not in the mood to answer questions as to why he would want to be alone at this point.

"Mind if I ride with you a bit? There's a few things I wanna ask you," she said, pulling up alongside him.

Chris gave her a dark look, wanting nothing more than for her to go away. The last thing he needed right now was a reminder of his wife. "Don't take this the wrong way, Jess, but I was kinda hopin' for some quiet time right now. I'll be back in a few days," he said.

Jessie gave him a strange look, but didn't make any move to leave his side. "Drinkin' your brains out ain't gonna help none," she said. She was treading on ground none of his friends would willingly step on, but Jessie wasn't afraid of his temper.

"That's my business, Jess, not yours," he claimed and nudged Pony on. The quarter horse picked up his pace again, heading toward the cabin once more.

But Jessie wasn't going to give up that easily. She kneed her horse into motion as well, catching up to Chris with no trouble. "I admit I don't know all there is to know about what's ailin' you, Chris, but I know you're punishin' yourself for somethin' you had no control over. It ain't right and that's all I'm sayin'."

Chris found himself wishing that were true, but he figured she wasn't done yet, no matter what he said. "I do as I see fit," he said tersely. "And it still ain't any of your concern."

"Well, I ain't seein' it that way," she told him. "I ain't the type o' person who likes to see her friends go down the drain just ‘cause they've got nobody to talk to about it. And talkin' helps, Chris."

Chris reined Pony in, stopping the horse in its tracks and turned angry eyes on this woman who was only trying to help him. "What do you know about loss, Jess?" he demanded angrily. "You ever lost someone dear to you in a brutal way? You ever bury a child, Jess?" He felt himself slipping back into that deep, dark pit that seemed to swallow him up hole more and more often these days. "I did. I buried my son. I buried my wife. And you know why? ‘Cause some demented female couldn't take no for an answer. She killed my family ‘cause she wanted me back. So, you tell me, Jess? You got any idea how that feels?"

She stared at him, eyes filled with regret and pity for his dark fate. "No, I got no idea how that feels. I can't even imagine it, Chris. I don't wanna. But that don't mean you can't take solace from those offerin' it. Listen to me, alright? Talk to me. Don't go up to your cabin and drink yourself into oblivion. It don't help. And you know that, too. I can see it in your eyes."

All he could do was stare back at her for a long moment, because her words made a hell of a lot more sense than he wanted them to. "Then what do you suggest I do, huh?" he asked, the majority of his anger deflated.

"Find someone to take your pain away. And I don't mean beddin' down with some woman you don't even know. Go be human again. Talk to someone. Hell, go hold someone you care about. Just don't do this alone no more."

Her eyes burned while she spoke, lit by an inner fire that told him she truly believed what she was telling him. And, in a strange way, it all made sense. For the first time in four years, he didn't feel like going out and getting mind-numbingly drunk. He felt like doing what she suggested. The only thing was, he didn't know how to go about it, had no idea how to approach the person he had in mind.

Jessie stared at him for a moment, then smiled weakly. She had accomplished what she had wanted to. He was thinking in a different way now. Reaching out, she took his hand, giving it a squeeze. "There ain't never been nobody in this world who could cope with heartache like yours all on their own. Now, come on, cowboy. Let's head on back to town and talk this through."

He made a face at her, but couldn't stop a somewhat helpless smile from spreading over his lips. "I ain't no cowboy," he told her and swung Pony around. "So, don't call me that."

Jessie chuckled under her breath. "Alright, then. Just as long as you ain't planning on any solitary drinkin' trips without invitin' me along."

That in turn made him chuckle lightly. "Oh, shut up," he told her good-naturedly as they slowly rode back to town.


Vin saw them riding into town together and sighed. Well, at least she had managed to prevent Chris from drowning his sorrows once again. That was a positive thing. And there were other women out there, he added in thought. But why did they always fall for others? Shaking his head, he pulled his hat down over his eyes and leaned back on the chair he was sitting on outside the saloon. He was happy to be in one piece, to be back to normal, or as normal as his still sore foot would allow him to be. Whatever happened, at least he had his health. And his ornery mule of a horse, he added in thought and grinned to himself.

"Something funny, brother Vin?"

Pushing his hat back a little he glanced up at Josiah as the ex-preacher settled down on a chair next to him. "Nah," Vin replied. "Just thinkin' of my horse. He damned near took my arm off the other day."

Josiah grinned at that. "Got a mind of his own, that horse. Much like his owner," he said. Gazing down the street, he watched as Chris and Jessie dismounted their respective horses and settled down on the steps leading up to the boardwalk to talk. "Looks like our fearless leader has found a soul mate there," he added.

Vin glanced in that direction and nodded. "I reckon he has," he agreed. "About time too, if you ask me."

Leaning back on his chair, Josiah made himself more comfortable and said, "All good things come to those who wait. Patience is a virtue, you know."

The young tracker gave the ex-preacher a scrutinizing glance, wondering if Josiah had seen right through him. But the man didn't look at him, merely sat there with his head leaned back against the wall, his eyes closed, a thoroughly content expression on his face. Vin figured he was talking about Chris and left it at that. No need to start something he couldn't finish by asking what Josiah had meant by what he had said and then having to explain the reason for his question. Instead, he settled for copying Josiah's posture, pretending that all was right in the world. At least for now.


Two months later

With summer at its height, the town of Four Corners was even slower than usual. Everything was dry and the winds coming in from the plains were a pain, driving people and animals crazy with its consistency. It had been two full months since a drop of rain had fallen and a few wells had already dried out.

Mary Travis stood on the boardwalk outside the Clarion, staring hard up at a clear blue sky, wishing she could force the heavens above to give off some water. But there wasn't a cloud in sight. The low whinny of a horse made her glance in the direction of the saloon, where she saw Chris dismounting Pony. He tilted his head back to look up at the sky too, gave his horse a look and lead the sweat-glistening animal over to the livery. It would be murder to leave the horse outside.

As she watched him, not so uncommon thoughts roamed through her head, making her stare harden. He had probably come from the Landon homestead, she figured. He went there a lot. And although she did not begrudge him whatever happiness he could find out there, she did however mind that it was the Landon woman who was giving it to him.

No matter how she chastised herself, she could not subdue those feelings rising in her whenever she thought of them together. When they met in town, they were always cheerful, laughing, talking quietly to each other. Mary figured it was only a matter of time before they would announce their engagement and impending marriage. Odd as it was to her, she couldn't stand the thought. If that were to happen, and she felt she had a pretty good sense of things like that, she figured she might find another place to dwell. It was hilarious, in a way. No amount of threats or attacks on the town could drive her out, but her broken heart could. Shaking her head, she turned around and went back inside to continue the hot work it was to finish the latest issue of the Clarion. She had thought about putting a blurb about those two in the paper, bringing her assumptions out in the open, but had then thought better of it. It was none of her business, after all, and the town certainly didn't need its attention drawn to it, either. As it were, she figured there wasn't anybody in town who hadn't seen them together anyway.

"‘Mornin', ma'am."

So engrossed was she in her own little world that she hadn't even heard Vin stepping into her office. But she caught herself before blurting out anything inappropriate. "Good morning, Vin," she said and gave him a somewhat shaky smile.

"Did I scare you?" he asked with a smile.

"I was just thinking. I wasn't paying attention," she replied and returned her attention to the press. "To what do I owe this honor?" she asked.

Vin settled down on the edge of her desk, watching her work for a moment. As usual, he took his time to answer, his words always well considered. "I's just takin' a walk. Figured I'd drop in on you," he finally replied.

"Well, that's nice of you," Mary said and finally closed the press, readying it to print the Clarion News. "Have you got something on your mind?" she asked, glancing at him over one shoulder.

Vin stared ahead of himself for a moment, considering all the things going through his head, then shrugged. "Nothin' much," he then said, knowing it was a full blown lie. He had lots on his mind these days and it had been there for two months now. Usually, he was able to let things go, to forget and push on, but this time around, he couldn't forget. He couldn't get over Jessie.

Mary sensed that he did want to talk about something, but couldn't really figure out what it might be. So she turned around to face him. "You seem mighty quiet these days," she said. "Quieter than usual."

"Oh, it ain't nothin'. Just me bein' silly really," he said, somewhat embarrassed that his preoccupation shone through like that. "Ain't nothing I wanna burden you with," he added and smiled. He liked Mary a lot, but she was more in the sister-category than anything else.

Mary's eyes narrowed. "Is it more that you've got someone on your mind?" she asked, having pinpointed the reason for him being in her office at this hour to that thought. Vin gave her a quick and uncertain glance before looking away. "That's it, isn't it?" she asked and the young tracker nodded once, saying nothing. "So, who is it? Anyone I know?" she wanted to know, wondering if maybe she could help him break the ice if that was what he needed.

Vin shrugged. He didn't want to say who it was, because it would seem downright silly if he was interested in someone else's woman. It certainly wouldn't be something Mary Travis would appreciate. He thought he knew her well enough for that. "It ain't gonna happen, so..." he began, but trailed off. Oh, how he wished it would happen. But it was unlikely that a woman like Jessie would fall for him in any event. It made it a hell of a lot harder when she was already interested in someone else.

"You don't know that," Mary tried. In light of her profession, she was usually able to satisfy her curiosity about others quite easily. Vin, however, was a hard man to talk to at times. If he didn't want to talk, he didn't talk, no matter how she pried. And she feared this might be one of those times, although she also felt that he actually wanted to talk about it. "Have you tried talking to her?"

Vin made a face. "It ain't that," he said. "She ain't... available."

That cleared a few things up for her and Mary nodded. "Oh," she said, understanding why he might have a hard time with this. This was the second time that he'd fallen for an ‘unavailable' woman. "Is she married?" she asked, sympathetic to his plight.

"Not yet, she ain't. But I reckon it won't be too long," he replied and got up again. "Well, I'd best go. Got a few things to take care of," he added and tipped his hat to her before walking out briskly.

Mary stared at the doorway, a few things clicking into place. Could it be that he was interested in the Landon woman? How was that for cruel? She apparently wasn't the only one nursing a broken heart from that union. With a shake of her head, she returned to her work, intent on engrossing herself in something that would take her mind of this insanity.


Buck made a face and threw down his cards. "Damnation," he sighed. "I ain't never gonna get this game." Leaning back, he downed another drink and gave Ezra a glare. "I'm out."

"I figured as much," Ezra replied and flashed him a smile. "What about you, young Mr. Dunne? Are you still set on losing the last of your earnings to me or shall we call it quits?"

"Don't goad the boy on, Ez. You know he can't leave it be," Buck warned him and then sent J.D. a warning glance when the boy was about to make a fuss again.

"I can take care of myself," J.D. pouted. "One more round, Ezra. Then I'm out," he added and pushed a wayward lock of hair away from his forehead.

"Very well," Ezra said and dealt new cards.

They played another round and finally, Ezra showed his cards, triumphant in his certainty that he had once again won. The smile froze on his lips, though, when J.D. laid his cards on the table and gave him an questioning look.

"Doesn't that mean I've won?" he asked innocently.

Buck started laughing out loud, finding great pleasure in seeing the gambler beaten by the youngest in their midst. "Way to go, kid," he said, slapping J.D.'s back and handing him a drink. "Drink up, boy. You earned it."

"Well, I'll be," Ezra said after regaining his composure. "You have potential, J.D.," he added, a glint in his eye.

Buck leaned forward, a suddenly cautious look in his eyes. "Oh no, you don't," he warned. "We got plenty to do to keep you outta trouble, pard. Ain't no sense in settin' him up to become like you," he said, waving a hand at J.D. and nearly hitting the younger man in the process.

"Would you rather he ended up bein' like you?" Ezra asked and smirked at the implied insult, which Buck naturally didn't get. "At least he stands a chance at increasin' his earnin's rather than lose every single dime he makes to the fairer sex."

Buck raised a finger, about ready to give him hell, when the batwing doors parted and Chris stepped in. He glanced around briefly, then headed over to join them. Taking a second to survey the situation, he smiled vaguely. "What's up?" he wanted to know.

Buck dropped his hand and settled back again, a discontent look in his eyes. "He just about cleaned me out and now he's suggestin' J.D.'s got potential to become a gambler," he explained and snorted with contempt. "As if we don't have trouble enough keepin' him outta trouble," he added, nodding toward Ezra, who looked like the whole situation was a hoot.

"All Ezra said was that I was good. I ain't never seen you win over ‘im yet," J.D. inserted, angered by the fact that Buck couldn't at least agree that he had been able to hustle the hustler. Not that he had, though. He figured Ezra had let him win to get Buck all riled up. It seemed to be the gambler's purpose in life to do what he could to push Buck off balance, and he usually succeeded too. J.D. glanced at Ezra, who winked at him. Oh yes, this was a game, alright.

Chris merely smiled and sat down. "Perhaps you shouldn't let ‘em get to you so much, Buck," he said, grabbed a glass and poured himself a whiskey. Before downing it, he met Buck's eyes and his smile widened.

"You're in an awful good mood today? Anythin' happen we oughta know about?" Buck asked, leaning forward again. He expected as much as to hear Chris tell him he was getting married again.

Chris made a face, then shook his head. "Nah, nothin' interestin'," he said, leaned back on his chair and sighed almost contentedly. "It's pretty hot out today, huh?"

"The wind is sure to drive someone into a frenzy pretty soon if it doesn't let up," Ezra agreed and started shuffling the cards, flipping single cards over and shoving them back into the deck one-handedly.

"Yeah, it's a bitch, ain't it?" Buck agreed. "Where's Vin gotten to? Anybody seen ‘im today?" he then asked. He had noticed over the past many weeks that Vin's presence among them had become rather scarce. Not that he had been there much to begin with.

"I saw him come out o' the Clarion a few moments ago," Chris said and knocked back another drink. "He ain't been too sociable lately, has he?"

"Maybe he's just got things on his mind," J.D. suggested, glancing from one to the other.

"Maybe," Chris said and sighed. "Perhaps I should just go talk to him about it," he added and rose again. "I can't help thinkin' it's me he's avoidin'."

"Now why would he do that?" Buck asked, looking a little puzzled by that statement.

Chris shrugged and walked out again, leaving them behind.

Ezra glanced over his shoulder at the still swinging doors, then returned his attention to the deck he was still shuffling. "It might be somethin' about that little bacchanalia our fearless leader seems to have struck up with a certain young lady," he said, as the first actually voicing what the others were only thinking.

"You reckon they're both sweet on the same girl?" Buck asked, looking as if he didn't believe that for one moment. But it sounded reasonable when he thought about it. Vin had been spending a lot of time, gazing at Jessie in that special way. "Hot damn," he mumbled. "Now, ain't that just a fix."

"Just my thoughts, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra agreed. "I just hope it does not mean insoluble differences between our two compatriots." The thought had only now occurred to him and he put the deck down, looking somewhat apprehensive all of a sudden.

Buck didn't look too happy about this, either. He knew Chris well enough to know what a squabble this could cause. He didn't know Vin as well, but he knew enough of the young tracker to be aware of his stubborn nature and that could definitely cause a clash between the two. He just hoped that Vin was wise enough to back down if Chris confronted him about this. Nothing could tear two friends apart like a woman.

J.D. for once kept him mouth shut about the whole thing. He could sense there was more going on than met the eye here and he too was aware of how stubborn Vin and Chris were. Any thoughts he might have on the matter were his own and would remain that way unless someone asked for his opinion.

"Might I suggest that we have ourselves a little colloquy with the good preacher?" Ezra suggested while getting up. "I do believe Josiah might be the only one capable of settlin' any dispute before it arises."

Buck and J.D. rose too, both nodding. "Good idea," Buck agreed.


Chris found Vin where he had thought he might be. In the livery. Stopping just inside the door, he watched while the young tracker continued to pack his horse as if he was heading out for a long time. "Hey, pard. Goin' somewhere?" he finally asked, surprised Vin hadn't heard him come in.

Vin didn't turn and that told Chris he had heard him, but had chosen to ignore his presence, another good indication that he was cross about something. "Just takin' a ride," Vin replied, still keeping his back to Chris.

"Must be a long one," Chris commented. "Were you plannin' on lettin' us know or are you just gonna take off again?"

Vin stopped moving for a second, once again telling himself that he had no right to respond the way he did, then sighed and turned around. "I ain't gonna be gone long, Chris. Didn't figure I needed to let'cha know my every move," he said, his tone a little defensive. "I ain't goin' huntin' or nothin'. Just ridin'. The town's too close for me right now."

"How come?" Chris wanted to know, sensing more than knowing that this thing was coming to a head. Vin was tense and that meant he was either gonna ride out angry or blow up in Chris' face about whatever was bothering him. The more he talked to him, the more he became aware that Vin's trouble was concerning him.

"I just need to be by myself for awhile. That's all," Vin replied, returning his attention to Peso.

Chris figured Vin wouldn't open up on his own, so he decided to nudge him. "You cross about somethin'?" he asked. He wasn't a man to come right out and say things, but he figured it was needed right now.

Vin made a face and briefly closed his eyes. Why was everybody always sticking their noses in his business, he thought. "No, ain't nothin' to be cross about," he said, his tone even more tense than it had been before. "I just need some space. There's too much noise in town for my likin' right now. I'll be back in a few days." With that, he swung into the saddle and urged Peso forward.

Chris stepped aside to let him pass, not at all happy about this. There was something nagging Vin. He just knew it was connected to himself in some manner or fashion, and he didn't like it one bit that Vin was avoiding him rather than talking about it. He watched Vin ride away for a moment, then dropped his head and sighed. "Damn," he mumbled. He'd have to wait with the answer to this question until Vin got back.

Staring down at the ground, the thought that the tracker might not be coming back hit him. Flinching, he raised his head and looked in the general direction Vin had disappeared in. Then he glanced over toward Vin's wagon and smiled curtly. The wagon was still there, full of whatever belongings Vin had. He would come back. Maybe not right away, but he would come back.