Josiah looked from one to the other, somewhat confused about what Ezra, Buck and J.D. expected him to do about this obvious dilemma. "I do not believe it is our place to interfere here," he said after a moment. "They're grown men, both of them. They can work it out without killin' each other."

 

"Are you so certain about that? They both have quite a temper," Ezra said, sounding a little more upset about this than he should be.

Tilting his head to one side, Josiah regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. "Why are you so concerned about this, brother?" he wanted to know.

"Why, it is never nice to see ones brothers in arms have a fallin' out over somethin' as elementary as a lady. Not that I don't understand the obvious attraction a single lady like Ms. Landon would have. I am, after all, a man myself. But I do believe it would be better for our team effort if we stuck together."

"In other words, Ez, you're worried about your position in town if Chris and Vin have a fallin' out, eh?" Buck asked, grinning at his own insight.

Ezra gave him a hurt look. "That would not be exactly the way I would put it, Buck, but essentially, that is what I mean, yes."

"I don't think we need to worry too much about them," Josiah said and shook his head with a smile. "Even if Vin does decide to leave us, which I of course hope he doesn't, that would not break up the rest of us. Let's just give it some time and see what happens. We can always patch up the pieces if the inconceivable should happen."

"Wise words from a wise man," Ezra agreed, tipping his hat to Josiah, who nodded his head in response. "Now, was it not you who said once that Mr. Larabee does not appreciate us discussing his private affairs?" he went on, turning his attention to Buck.

"I don't recall it bein' me who suggested this," Buck countered, waving a finger at Ezra, who merely chuckled under his breath.

J.D. merely shook his head and left to return to the jail and his duties there. There was, after all, nothing any of them could do to remedy this situation. The only ones capable of that were Chris and Vin, and Chris didn't even seem to know what this was about.

***

As Vin rode out of town, the first clouds in months appeared on the horizon, gathering and spreading at the same time. He gazed up at the sky, sensing the heaviness in the air, which indicated that there might finally be some rain. "About time too," he mumbled to himself and reached down to pat Peso's neck. "Guess it's just you an' me, pard. Like always," he added.

He didn't really know what he hoped to accomplish by leaving town right now, but he just needed some quiet time to think things through and to get back to his center of balance. It seemed that every time he fell for a woman, his balance was tipped and he had a hard time finding his way back. It bothered him because he never seemed to be on the receiving end of this deal. The few women he had been involved with in his life had all ended up leaving him behind for one reason or another. He knew full well that he had been the one doing the leaving when it had come to Charlotte, but he also knew that she had essentially left him long before he had said the words.

After riding awhile with his head down, his eyes on nothing, he glanced up at the sky again and nearly sighed with exasperation. The clouds were a lot heavier than they'd been only half an hour ago and they were steel grey. Filled with rain, in other words. The wind was picking up too, raising dust devils from the dry ground. "Aw hell," he mumbled. If he wasn't entirely mistaken, the heavens were about to open up and let loose. He wouldn't be getting much further and there was absolutely nowhere around to seek shelter.

Peso trotted on, finding his own way because Vin did fairly little to guide him, and the gelding knew where he wanted to go. Instinct told the horse that it was going to get uncomfortably wet soon and he wanted to find shelter.

To Vin's dismay, it didn't start raining a little to then increase along the way as it usually did. The heavens just simply opened the gates and the water came crashing down over him, soaking him to the bone within minutes as sheets of water rained from the sky and the temperatures dropped dramatically. Not even his leather coat could keep out the wetness and he felt more than a little cursed right then. Tilting his head back a little, he stared angrily up at the sky. "Is that what I get for tryin' to do the right thing?" he yelled and wiped the back of one hand over his face in a futile attempt to remove the excess water. "Not only can't I find no happiness, but you gotta rub my face in it as well? Damn it all to hell."

Groaning, he looked around in search of some sort of shelter, finding it hard to make out anything through the torrents of water soaking everything around him. The area look familiar and he suddenly realized where Peso was heading. "Aw hell, you damned mule," he snapped, pulling the reins only to have Peso move on without hesitation. "We ain't goin' there and that's final," he yelled, but continued to be unsuccessful in reining in the gelding. Peso wanted shelter and he wanted it now, and there was no stopping him once his mind was set on something. "Peso, goddamn it," Vin tried. "We ain't goin' there. I ain't imposin' on anyone, least o' all her. Forget it. Now, quit bein' so goddamn stubborn, you ornery excuse for a mule."

No matter what he called the gelding or how he pulled and yanked at the reins, the horse just kept moving, refusing to listen to his equally stubborn rider, and before Vin could come up with another plan, Peso turned into the yard in front of Jessie's homestead and came to a halt in front of the stable doors.

"Damn you, Peso," he growled under his breath, not wanting to raise his voice in case Jessie heard him. He dismounted and quickly opened the stable door to let both Peso and himself inside. Jessie's horse whinnied in recognition of both of them, not making a fuss at their presence.

Vin didn't know what to do. He couldn't very well just waltz over there and ask her for shelter until the rain was over. He hadn't talked to her in nearly a month, neatly avoiding her every time she came to town, and he wouldn't feel right about imposing on her like this. For all he knew, Chris was here, too, and he certainly didn't need to see them together. That would hit the nail right on the head.

Shrugging out of his coat, he hung it to dry on one of the crossbeams, then went about drying Peso off. "I should shoot you for this, you know," he grumbled under his breath.

A sudden gust of wind ripped the stable door open and Vin hurried over to pull it shut again. "Damned wind. Ain't gonna do me no good if she sees it openin' all the time," he grumbled, secured the door as best he could and returned to brushing the water off Peso.

***

The Landon Homestead

Jessie stood by the window, staring out at the pouring rain, when the stable door suddenly ripped open. With a sigh, she reached for her rain slicker, ready to have to go out there to close the door again, when she saw someone doing it from the inside without being able to see who it was. With a frown, she watched as the door close again. "What the hell?" she mumbled to herself, then grabbed the slicker and shrugged into it. To be on the ready, she grabbed the old Colt her father had left behind and shoved it into the belt of her apron before heading out into the rain to see who was hiding in her stable.

She rushed across the yard and opened the stable door, slipping quickly inside and closing the door behind her. The sight that met her was a bit of a surprise, though. Apart from her own horse in its stall, Peso stood in the middle of the stable, half wet, Chico's brush lying on the floor next to him. The gelding turn his head and whinnied when he saw her.

"Well, well, well," she said, glancing around for the gelding's owner. He was nowhere in sight, though, which made her smile weakly as she crossed the floor to where Peso was standing. "What are you doin' all the way out here by yourself, Peso?" she asked, stroking a hand over his flank. "And wet as a drowned mouse too," she added.

Peso nudged her shoulder and she petted his nose. "Don't you think Vin'll miss you?" she asked the gelding. "You didn't throw him or nothin', did you? I wouldn't wanna have to go lookin' for him in this weather," she added, then sighed. "Then again, I reckon you didn't take your saddle off all by yourself, now did you?"

The rustle of hay made her glance toward the rear of the stable, where she found Vin standing halfway in and halfway out of the rear stall, looking at her in a to her mighty peculiar manner. "There you are," she said with a smile. "Nice weather you've chosen to go ridin' in," she added when he said nothing.

"Didn't see it comin' until it was too late," he said. "Sorry about bargin' in on you like this. That mule's got a mind o' his own and he figured you'd put us up until the rain's over."

"Well, you could ‘ave come over to the house," she said, giving him the once over. He was wetter than his horse. "I don't bite, you know."

That made him smile a little hesitantly. "I wouldn't agree with that," he told her.

Jessie shook her head with bemusement. "Well, let's dry this horse o' yours and get you dry as well. You'll catch your death in them wet clothes," she told him.

***

Four Corners

When the heavens opened up and poured all its water down over the territory, Chris was caught on the boardwalk in front of the Clarion. The way the rain came down made him hesitate to venture out into it, knowing full well that even the short sprint over to the next boardwalk would leave him soaked.

Making a face, he stared out at the rain, wondering how long it was going to come down like that.

"When it rains, it pours, doesn't it?" Mary said from the open doorway, wiping her hands on her ink-blotted apron.

"Sure does," Chris agreed, glancing back at her for a moment. Then his gaze drifted past her to something happing in the rear. "Looks like your roof's got a leak," he added.

Mary swirled around and gasped at the water dripping down through the ceiling onto her desk. She hurried back inside to save what she could on the desk and, to Chris' immediate surprise, cursed heartily under her breath. "Oh, damnit," she snapped, settling for pushing the remaining things to the floor before dropping the rest on a table in the rear of the room.

Chris raised an eyebrow, but couldn't help smiling. "You need some help there?" he wanted to know, watching her from the doorway as she started picking up the things she had thrown on the floor.

Mary gave him a somewhat flustered glance. "Could I persuade you to go upstairs and see if you can find out where that leak is coming from? Maybe stop it? My work is getting soaked," she begged.

"Sure," he said and walked briskly across the room and up the stairs in search of the hole, which he found in her bedroom. The room was just as neat as the rest of whatever she touched and he couldn't help smiling at that, something he had become aware he was doing a lot lately. A folded-up towel lay on the tidy bed and he grabbed that and looked up at the ceiling. That roof would need patching once the rain had stopped, but until then, he would have to plug it up with that towel and find a bucket for whatever would seep through. Looking around, he searched for something to stand on, but the only chair in the room looked a little too rickety and definitely too old for that sort of thing. Instead, he kicked off his boots, not wanting to get her pristine white bedspread dirty, and stepped up on the bed to stuff the towel into the opening between the ceiling boards.

Just then, Mary turned up in the doorway and looked up at what he was doing. "Is it big?" she asked, a worried frown creasing her brow.

"Nah, not big. Just big enough to let a steady stream o' water through," he replied, still stuffing the towel into the hole. "I suggest you put a bucket beneath that until the rain stops. The towel won't hold it out long," he added, glancing down at her.

"Right," she said and hurried off to find a bucket, which she then placed under the hole just in time. Water started dripping into the bucket almost at that very moment. Glancing around, she surveyed the mess the water had made on the floor, and sighed heavily. "What a mess. I thought that roof was supposed to be watertight," she said and tilted her head back to look up at the ceiling again, while Chris jumped off the bed and put his boots back on.

"I'd be happy to take a look at it for you once the rain stops," he suggested, looking up at the ceiling, too. "That way you wouldn't have to pay nobody for it," he added with a smile.

Mary smiled back at him, a little confused. "Well... uh... I may take you up on that, Chris," she said. "Thank you for your help. Can I get you anything? A cup of coffee maybe?"

"I wouldn't say no to that," he replied, still smiling.

Together they went downstairs again after Mary had cleaned up the water from the floor and he had helped her with it. They settled down in the small kitchen after Mary had made some coffee for them.

The rain persisted, coming down like there was no tomorrow, driving people off the streets. Four Corners looked much like a ghost town at that time.

Mary sat still, listening to the rain hitting the house while she watched Chris from the corner of her eyes. He sat quietly across from her, his hands wrapped around the mug, his eyes on the steaming coffee. And he still smiled. She wondered about that smile on his lips, about his change of attitude toward things. He didn't seem so burdened any more, so tired of life. It was a welcome change, granted, but she couldn't help thinking about the woman who had done this to him. Was she serious about him? Or would she break his heart? Would anybody ever be able to pick up all the pieces if that happened?

"There's something very soothing about the sound of rain, isn't there?" she said after a moment.

"Yeah, I guess," Chris replied and looked up to meet her eyes. Then he glanced around with a frown. "I haven't seen Billy around."

"He's staying with a friend. I had some work to do, so he went there. He's probably going to spend the night there too," Mary explained, thinking it very sweet of him to worry about her son's whereabouts.

"Oh," Chris said, nodding in understanding. "So, you've got the house all to yourself eh," he added and gave her a quick smile.

"Yes, I guess I do," she agreed and couldn't stop the helpless blushing of her cheeks. Why was she responding this way to him? He was probably on the verge of getting married to another woman and here she was, responding to his presence in a very ungainly manner.

Chris took a sip of the coffee. "This is good," he said, raising the mug for a second. "So, what were you plannin' on doin' after you done your work?" he wanted to know.

Mary gave him a surprised look, confused about what she thought she heard in his voice. He had a gleam in his eyes she hadn't seen there before and it made her wonder what he was thinking. "Well, I hadn't really thought about it," she admitted. "I am probably just going to fix myself some dinner and go to bed early. It's rare that I get time to do that these days," she said.

And still he had that smile on his lips. "I reckon that might be a good idea," he agreed. "Mary, there's somethin' I've been wantin' to talk to you about. Somethin' that's been on my mind for a bit."

Once again, she felt heat rising in her cheeks and quickly looked away, feeling like a silly schoolgirl. She had no idea what he was going to say, but the tone of his voice made her spine tingle. "And what is that?" she asked, having regained enough of her composure to face him again.

"Well," he began and sighed. "I reckon I owe you an apology for... well... a whole lotta things. I know I ain't been easy to be around and... well... you've been mighty kind to the lot of us." He paused and took another sip of the coffee. "What I'm tryin' to say, I guess, is that you're a mighty fine woman, Mary, and I figure I ain't given you the respect you deserve."

Mary only became aware that she was staring at him when he gave her a funny look. "Uh... well... that's alright, I guess," she said, not sure how to respond to that. "Why are you saying that now?" she wanted to know, figuring if he could open up all of a sudden, so could she.

Chris shrugged. "Just figured it needed to be said is all," he replied and took another sip of the coffee. "You figure Gerrard is ever gonna come back?"

She was a bit stunned by his bluntness, but was slowly picking up the pace, too. If he could ask her questions like that, she could ask him about Jessie. She wanted to know for certain, to be sure she wasn't making things up. "I don't know, really. I've always cared for him, but it was Steven I fell in love with," she confessed. Raising her eyes to meet his dead on, she stared at him for a moment. "So, are we hearing wedding bells any time soon?"

That took him completely by surprise and for a moment she thought he was going to clam up like he always did. But there were no immediate signs of that. "Uh... pardon?" he asked, genuinely confused by her question.

"Well, I figured since you and Ms. Landon have spent so much time together..." she started, but felt herself taken aback by the somewhat mortified look on his face. "I mean... I didn't mean to pry. This isn't something I'll put in the paper or anything. I was just... wondering."

***

The Landon Homestead

Vin didn't feel right about being at Jessie's place, but on the other hand, there was nothing he wanted more. Wet as he was, he was beginning to shiver since the temperatures had dropped dramatically when the rain had started to fall and he was freezing already. Tired and worn from being tense for two months straight had put its mark on him, as well, and he couldn't claim that he wasn't grateful for the attention Jessie bestowed on him every time they did meet. He just didn't want to come between her and Chris, and knowing Chris the way he did, he figured the gunslinger would lose that famous temper of his if he found out about this. So, to say that he was comfortable with the situation would be a downright lie.

Jessie pulled a couple of towels out of a chest of drawers and handed them to him. "Here you go," she said and gave him a scrutinizing look before reaching up to remove his soaked hat. "Look at you. You're soaked to the bone and shiverin' bad enough to rattle me," she added. "Go get changed. I'll bring you something warm to drink in a second." When he didn't move, she grabbed his shoulder and turned him toward the corridor leading toward the rooms. "Go on. Git," she told him. And still he didn't move. "What do I gotta do, shove you all the way down there?" she asked, grabbed his shoulders and pushed him forward. "I figure you remember the room, don'cha?"

"Yes, ma'am," he finally managed to reply and headed toward the door, sending a confused glance back at her over one shoulder. She sure was pushy sometimes. Shaking his head and thereby spreading water all over the place, he opened the door and stepped inside the room, taking a quick look around before he closed the door behind him again. "This ain't right," he mumbled to himself, took one step toward the bed and landed on the floor with a resounding thump, hitting his right elbow hard enough to make his fingers tingle. "Ow," he groaned, uncertain about what had just happened.

Jessie heard the crash and ran down to the door, pushing it open and nearly hitting him in the head with it. "Jeez," she exclaimed and barely caught herself before she too landed on the floor next to him. "Aw hell, I forgot I waxed the floor in this room yesterday," she growled. "You'd best take one o' the other rooms. This here room's a deathtrap right around now," she added and returned to the safety of the corridor floor.

Getting up was a struggle. Not because he had hurt himself but because the floor was slicker than an iced-over lake in wintertime. He managed to precariously regain his feet only to lose his balance and sit down hard again. Making a face at the stinging pain that caused, he gave her a strange look. "Who in their right mind waxes a floor?" he asked her.

For some odd reason, his present dilemma seemed to give her a reason to laugh, which she did so hard that she nearly started crying. Sniffing, she reached a hand down to him. "I'm sorry, Vin. Did you hurt yourself?" she asked, still smiling broadly as she helped him back to safety.

"I hit my elbow ‘s all," he replied, rubbing the sore spot there and couldn't help smiling. This was pretty funny, now that he thought about it. "Are you tryin' to kill me or somethin'?"

That caused another bout of laughter from her as she opened the door to another bedroom. "I am sorry, Vin. Truly I am. I swear, I just plain forgot about it."

Vin shook his head with that smile still on his lips. "No harm done, I reckon," he said, then gave her a somewhat uncertain glance. "Uh... I ain't got nothing else to wear and... well... as you said, I'm soaked through."

"Well, the only other option is a blanket, then. You can't run around in them here wet clothes," she told him, having gained full control over herself again. "Just get outta that and I'll hang it up to dry," she told him, nodding toward his clothes. "You can wrap that around yourself," she added, pointing at a blanket lying on the bed.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, nodded once and closed the door on her. Only then did he allow himself to express his agony. He'd hurt his backside pretty badly by sitting down like that. "Damn," he hissed through clenched teeth, rubbing the sore spot tentatively. "I ain't gonna be able to sit down for a week."

Jessie, still standing on the other side of the door, clapped a hand over her mouth to still the impending burst of laughter and hurried back to the common room to pull the kettle off the fire.

Vin was out of his clothes by the time she returned and it came as much as a shock to him as it surprised her that she completely neglected to knock and simply barged in on him. He managed to rip a towel up to cover himself with, giving her a startled look. Jessie was fast to respond by closing the door again and couldn't help raising an eyebrow in surprise. That man was just full of surprises. "Sorry," she called.

"No harm done," he called back, his cheeks burning red. But he couldn't help smiling, either. This was turning out to be one topsy-turvy day.

***

Four Corners

The saloon was awfully quiet, considering that it was packed with people. It mainly had something to do with a high-stakes poker game in progress, and everybody was watching.

Ezra stared stoned-faced at his cards, then gave the opposition a scrutinizing look. "Are you absolutely certain you want to continue down this path of utter humiliation?" he asked. "There will be no hard feelin's if you decide to lay down your cards and back out of this game."

"I ain't quittin'," Buck replied, staring hard at his own cards, his face displaying everything he was thinking.

Ezra sighed and shook his head. It never bothered him to clean out everybody else, but it did when it were his friends. Especially since there would be sore feelings and perchance retribution afterward. And he certainly did not want a falling out with Buck Wilmington. The man was just to big and hot-tempered for that sort of thing.

Making a face, the gambler sighed again. What was he going to do when the man didn't want to lay off? In his humble opinion, there was really only one thing he could do. Glancing at the big cowboy, he shuffled his cards a few times. He would break the fundamental rule of his own game. He had done it before, but never so obviously as he did now. Buck would lose this round and Ezra could only hope he agreed to another, which he believed the man would since he was still in possession of one dollar.

So, he laid down his cards, showing Buck that he had once again won, and gave him an apologetic smile. "Are you game for another round or should we just call it quits?" he asked, fully aware that he was goading Buck on.

For a moment, Buck stared at him, then sighed deeply. "Alright. One more round. But then I'm out," he replied, his expression a mixture of hope and defeat.

Ezra merely smiled, picked up the cards, shuffled the deck and started dealing again. It hadn't taken much calculation to realize that he could easily go without the pile of money on the table. He had seen good times lately and had the neat sum of nearly one thousand dollars put aside. Losing a measly one hundred would not sting as much when he knew a friend had won it... because of his own design. He felt downright benevolent when he dealt Buck the winning hand.

Buck picked up his cards and couldn't help staring, not for one minute thinking it might give anything away. Then he glanced at Ezra with a scrutinizing look. "You hustlin' me?" he asked.

Ezra raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Am I to understand that you are accusin' me of cheatin', Mr. Wilmington?" he asked back, his tone of voice hurt. "Well, if that is how you see it, maybe we should just stop right now."

"No, no," Buck was quick to say, uncertain about this hand. He had played cards with Ezra nearly from the very first day and had never had such outstanding cards before. He couldn't help thinking that Ezra might have something up his sleeve.

Ezra made a face and picked up his own cards, barely preventing himself from flinching at the bad hand he had dealt himself. But it was all for a good cause, he convinced himself and looked up to face Buck. "Let us settle this," he said.

Buck flipped his final coin into the pile, that look of uncertainty still on his face, while Ezra matched him without so much as a bat of an eyelash. They continued their game for a bit until Buck couldn't possibly conceive how he could lose with this hand, his expression not concealing his triumph. Ezra figured Buck was ready to win and although he knew Buck wouldn't let him live this one down until the end of time, he still went ahead with his intended play, fully aware of how powerful a hand his friend was holding.

Smiling, he laid down his cards. Not an entirely bad hand, he had to admit, but not enough to beat the hand Buck was holding. "Three Knights. Read ‘em and weep," he said, keeping up the charade.

Buck eyed his cards for a moment longer, dragging out the suspense, but finally found himself incapable of retaining his smile. Spreading out his three kings, he gave Ezra an innocent look. "Well, I do believe that Kings have a higher status than Knights, if I'm not mistaken," he said, grinning broadly. "Or what do you think, huh, Ez?"

Ezra stared at the cards, pretending to be very surprised and more than a little disconcerted about it, then shook his head in dismay. "I do believe you have beaten me at my own game, Mr. Wilmington," he finally admitted and that raised a cheer from the crowd. One which attracted Nathan's attention. The healer usually didn't bother watching their games, especially when Ezra took on one of their friends. The gambler always won except when it came to J.D., and Nathan knew he let the boy win. But this was an odd development and he drifted closer to listen in on whatever might be said.

Buck rose, the triumphant winner of no small amount of money, and bought drinks for everybody. Then he turned his attention back to Ezra, who still looked a little shaken by the whole thing. "Had to happen sooner or later, eh, Ez?" he said. "You can't keep winnin' like that."

That made Ezra smirk lightly. "Well, I am nothin' if not a good loser, Sir," he said, rising from his chair to shake hands with Buck. "Thank you for an interesting game. I am not likely to repeat this experience, I assure you."

Buck laughed out loud and clapped him on the shoulder. "You are one hell of a gambler, Ez. I'll give you that," he said and turned to his suddenly adoring fans.

Nobody but Nathan noticed the content smile on Ezra's face and he stepped over beside the gambler to watch the commotion for a moment. "I never knew you had it in you," he said quietly.

Ezra gave him a surprised look. "And what might that be?" he inquired.

"You let ‘im win, Ezra. I know you did. Buck's concentration is shorter than an August shower. He ain't never won over you before and I bet he never will again. Still, it was good o' you to do it. It makes ‘im feel good," Nathan replied and gave Ezra's shoulder a squeeze before heading back over to the bar.

Ezra grinned and sat back down on his chair. "Sometimes, I do not know what comes over me," he said quietly and shook his head.

***