"The lunch is not ready yet, Senor Jackson," Miss Recillos called out as she noticed the healer enter the saloon. "I will send it over in … maybe twenty minutes."

"Oh, I know, Miss Inez," Nathan responded as he leaned against the bar. "I was just passin’ by and thought I’d let you know he won’t be needin’ any more meals after this one."

The beautiful Mexican looked at the healer with surprise. She wiped her hands on her apron as she came through the door from the kitchen. Stopping in front of him, she looked at him curiously, "You are letting James go home?"

The grin on Nathan’s face grew steadily as he began to nod.

Inez returned his smile. "This is wonderful news, Senor Jackson. He is well then?"

Nathan cocked his head. "As well as he’s gonna get laying around in my bed. The boy needs to be home with his family. I had Dr. Warner check him out a few hours ago. He agreed that James is lookin’ good."

The lady leaned against the bar. "Dr. Warner is from San Francisco, No?"

"That’s right."

"He is married to Mr. Langdon’s daughter?"

"Yeah, the elder of the two girls though. Not the one who’s gonna own the place."

"This is too bad, no!" Inez conceded. "It would be so nice for you to have a doctor around. Someone who could help you."

Nathan laughed out loud.

"This is funny?" the lady questioned innocently.

"Well," the healer began, "If Dr. Warner were stayin, there wouldn’t be much need for me around here. And if there were, I’d be the one helpin’ him… not the other way around."

"Ah," Miss Recillos raised her eyebrows. "I see…. But it would be a wonderful opportunity… No?"

Jackson nodded his head in agreement, "That it would."

"You could learn a lot from a man like that," the woman continued.

Again Nathan nodded his head, "Sure wouldn’t pass up…."

"You could learn a lot from a man like me, darlin’," Wilmington said coyly as he sidled up beside the pretty senorita.

Jackson smiled at Buck’s words. This was one man who could never be accused of passing up the opportunity to get into a conversation with a woman. Any way possible, it would seem. "Wasn’t exactly the kind of learnin’ we had in mind, Buck."

‘Well, hell, Nathan. What other kinda learnin’ is there?"

"There is no more room in your head for any other kind of words," Miss Recillos said forcefully. She positioned her hands on her hips and shook her head. "Is it not a wonder that he even takes the time to read and write."

Jackson laughed at the banter before returning to his thoughts. "So you’ll send the lunch and remember we don’t need no more."

Inez nodded her head.

"You letting James out?" Wilmington asked quickly.

"Yep. He’s goin’ home as soon as Margaret gets back with Andrew." Jackson couldn’t help but smile again.

"You should be very proud to be sending him home, Senor"

Jackson pursed his lips together and nodded. Turning to leave, the healer tried to hide his thoughts. The feelings he had went beyond pride. They dug down to the forces within that caused him to care so much about the injured he encountered. Nathan guessed that most men felt this way when they saved another’s life. He also imagined that perhaps only those who had made the same promise to heal actually carried the feeling so deep.

"I’ll make sure I slide by and say hi, before he skidadles," Buck commented. The ladies man had watched James get stronger over these past four weeks, and took solace in the fact that he had had something to do with the his survival.

"Alright, Buck," Jackson called back as he left.

"Now…" Wilmington turned his attention back to the lovely lady beside him. "Can I interest you in some learnin’, Miss Inez?"

Miss Recillos looked at the tall, handsome man beside her and smiled bashfully. She dipped her head and gazed at the ladies man from the tops of her eyes. "If only you were not so shy, Senor… Then perhaps we could talk about private lessons."

As the wind was sucked out of Wilmington’s sails, Inez patted the ladies man on the cheek and left him standing by the bar with his mouth open and his eyebrows raised.

Hearing the door open, Mrs. Thatcher looked up from the pile of old newspapers she was sorting through. "Good afternoon, Mr. Tanner. Is there something I can help you with?" she asked graciously. This man they called Vin was still very much a mystery to Miriam. Everyone seemed to like the quiet man, yet not a lot of people knew much about him. On the three occasions that she’d had the opportunity to speak with him, she hadn’t learned any more herself.

"Is Mrs. Travis around, Mrs. Thatcher?" the tracker asked quickly.

Miriam got up from Mary’s desk and ventured towards the handsome young man. "She just took Billy’s lunch down to the school. But I’m afraid she won’t be back for a while. She’s taking lunch with a gentleman today."

The tracker looked around the room before bowing his head. "Alright, thank ya, ma’am," he said, tipping his hat. The woman’s words didn’t set off any bells in Vin’s head. If he’d thought about it, Tanner would have remembered seeing Chris ride out of town an hour ago. Any other day he might have questioned further, but today he was distracted. Truth be told, he’d been distracted all week.

Vin’s disappointment didn’t escape notice though. "Perhaps there is something I can help you with, Mr. Tanner," the lady asked as he turned back towards the door.

Vin glanced over his shoulder. "Oh, that’s alright, ma’am. I don’t mean ta bother ya none." Again he turned for the door.

"No bother at all, Mr. Tanner."

Vin’s hand rested on the handle, but made no attempt to open the door.

"Really, Mr. Tanner… I’d be happy to help."

Once again the tracker glanced over his shoulder at the elderly lady. A few seconds passed before he turned to face Miriam Thatcher. "Don’t suppose you know where Mrs. Travis keeps that there word book ‘a hers?"

"Word book?" the woman questioned back.

"Gives her meanings and spellings and such."

A fleeting second passed before the lady understood what the tracker was looking for. Trying hard not to sound condescending, she attempted to clarify the man’s query. "The dictionary, perhaps?"

"Yeah… eh, yes, ma’am. That’s what she called it."

Miriam smiled and turned back towards the bookcase on the far wall. "Yes, Mr. Tanner. It’s right over here."

Vin walked towards the spare desk that he and Mary used when he was learning. He waited while the woman retrieved the book and then handed it to him. "Alright if I sit fer a spell?"

Miriam offered the young man a smile. "Of course, Mr. Tanner. I’ll be right over here if you need anything further."

"Thank ya, ma’am," Vin replied as the woman moved off and seemed to return to her previous chore.

The sharpshooter set the book on the desk and took up his usual chair. Taking a deep breath he opened the reference text and began to thumb through it slowly.

Mary Travis walked through the door of the sheriff’s office and greeted the peacekeeper on duty. "I brought some lunch over for you, Mr. Standish. I hope you don’t mind," she added as she moved towards the desk, "I brought mine too. I thought maybe we could talk while we ate."

Ezra was surprised by the lady’s entrance, overwhelmed by her gesture and extremely suspicious of her request. "What, pray tell, would you care to discuss with me on such a lovely day? … Or, any other day, for that matter?"

"Oh, really, Mr. Standish. You are a valued member of the seven and as important to this town, as the rest. Now if you will clear away those cards, I’ll set down this tray."

"Oh… yes of course," the southerner scrambled to gather his solitary game together before the tray landed on top of it. As he watched, Mary gathered up a spare chair and sat herself across from him. Ezra set his cards off to the side as his companion removed the napkins from the food to reveal their meal.

"You are alright with the roast beef sandwiches the restaurant serves… aren’t you, Mr. Standish?"

"Why, yes, Mrs. Travis," the gambler looked at the woman suspiciously.

There was a moment of silence while the woman fussed.

"Let me see if I can understand what is going on here, Mrs. Travis." Standish shuffled himself in his chair as the widow set a napkin down on the table. A rather large sandwich followed close behind. "Thank you," he acknowledged, before continuing his train of thought. "First you ‘volunteer’ to bring forth my sustenance for the afternoon. Then you ‘chose’ to provide your lovely company whilst I consume the offerings. Now you have ‘accidentally’ provided my preferred choice between the bread slices." Ezra cocked his head. "Really, Mrs. Travis… WHY are you here?"

Mary settled back in her chair with her sandwich in hand. Taking a large bite, she chewed slowly and swallowed. "Aren’t you going to eat your favorite sandwich, Mr. Standish?" she indicated to the untouched lunch that still sat in front of him. "I will be soooooo disappointed if my efforts to gain your co-operation have failed," the widow said with a curt smile.

Ezra looked at the lady and raised an eyebrow. "Indeed," he said as he reached for his lunch.

The door at the Clarion opened again as Nettie Wells entered.

Replacing the teacup on its saucer, Mrs. Thatcher looked up. "Ah, Mrs. Wells," she called out happily. Getting to her feet, Miriam continued her greeting while heading over towards the new arrival. "You’re a little early. Mary isn’t back yet."

Mrs. Wells couldn’t help but notice the tracker at the desk. She smiled in his direction as he nodded at her. "Don’t suppose she’ll be too much longer," Nettie replied. "I’ll sit a spell, if that’s alright?"

"Of course, Mrs. Wells. Can I offer you some tea? I just made some."

"Yes, thank you," Nettie replied. "I’ll be right with you."

Miriam hadn’t missed the eye contact between the tracker and her new companion. "I’ll be right back," she offered as she departed to retrieve another cup of tea for her guest.

"Afternoon, Mr. Tanner?" Mrs. Wells greeted as she took a few steps towards the tracker. He sat hunched over the dictionary and the widow could see that he had been trying to copy words from the book to a paper beside it.

Vin looked up at the elderly lady and smiled, "Miss Nettie," he nodded again.

The lady’s face scoured. She had noticed a few unusual signs in the past few weeks, but Vin Tanner with a reference text in hand wasn’t something she had expected. "Ain’t been yourself lately, son. Is everythin’ alright?" she asked as she again looked at the paper on the table.

Nettie’s attention to his scratchings made the tracker a little self-conscious. "Oh… yes, ma’am…" he stammered. "Just having a little trouble spellin’ somethin’ on the paper is all." He tried to hide his words as she drew a little closer.

"Somethin’ I might be able to help you with, perhaps?"

"Oh, no, ma’am," he replied quickly. "I’ll…. I’ll figure it out."

Anyone that had the slightest knowledge of Vin Tanner knew that he was a man who pretty much kept to himself. He valued his privacy and Mrs. Wells knew that to be a fact. His body language and demeanor told Nettie that the sharpshooter wasn’t in the mood to share anything today.

"Well… if you ever need anything, son."

"Thank you, ma’am," he concluded as he closed the dictionary and folded his paper. Tucking it deeply into his pocket he slid out of his chair and headed for the door. "I’ll be sure ta keep that in mind, Miss Nettie," he smiled before tipping his hat.

They exchanged faint grin before the tracker departed. Nettie Wells frowned as she watched the door close behind the young man. "Good day, Mr. Tanner," she whispered quietly to herself. She had little doubt that there was something bothering the young man…

"Mr. Tanner leave?" Miriam asked as she returned carrying a cup and saucer in one hand and a small plate of biscuits in the other.

Mrs. Wells turned and smiled as Mrs. Thatcher motioned for Nettie to join her at Mary’s desk. "Yes… He seemed to think he was done for now," she said as she pulled up a second chair and sat.

Miriam looked toward the closed door and back to Mrs. Wells. The look of uneasiness on Nettie’s face hadn’t escaped notice either. "Do you know Mr. Tanner well, Mrs. Wells? You seem a little worried."

Nettie bowed her head quickly before looking back at the lady across from her. "You’re a very perceptive lady, Mrs. Thatcher. But no… I don’t know the boy well… Reckon maybe there’s a handful of people who might claim that distinction."

Miriam smiled in acknowledgement of a fact that she probably already knew in her heart. "But you know him well enough to be worried?"

Nettie smiled. "Vin Tanner don’t need someone to worry about him none. He can take care of himself."

Again Miriam looked across the desk and into the eyes that stared back at her. "And yet you still worry."

Mrs. Wells shifted in her chair. "Concern… maybe. Them boys went through a bit of a fallin’ out some months back. I thought Vin was alright when he came back… but he’s been a might distant of late."

Mrs. Thatcher watched her companion carefully as the recollections came to her. She could tell that Nettie cared about the people she was speaking of. "They mean a lot to you, Mrs. Wells?’

Nettie did her best to compose herself and picked up the teacup in distraction. "Those seven men mean a whole lot to this little town, Mrs. Thatcher." She took a sip of her tea.

Wiping the last remnants of his lunch from the corners of his mouth, Buck tipped his hat to the pretty senorita behind the bar and smiled before turning to leave. As he exited the batwing door, he glanced quickly over his shoulder one more time, and in the process, ran smack into the sharpshooter as he came down the boardwalk. Wilmington grabbed to steady the tracker, as well as himself.

Fumbling through outstretched arms, Tanner caught his balance thanks to the ladies man. The tall rogue however, landed in a heap at the edge of the stair.

"You alright, Buck?" the tracker asked as he offered his fellow lawman a hand up.

Taking a hold of the outstretched limp, Wilmington got to his feet and dusted himself off. "Yeah," he laughed.

"Reckon you’d best be watchin’ ahead of ya next time," Tanner miffed.

Placing his hat back on his head, the ladies man laughed again. "Yeah, but the view inside was so much more invitin’ than this dusty street."

The tracker’s mood changed instantly. "Havin’ an eye fer the ladies, don’t give ya the right ta be knockin’ people down," Vin snapped.

"Whoa there, Vin. It was just an accident now. Ain’t no cause ta be stirring up trouble. A pretty lady is a real pleasure ta look at now and then… You should try it some time," he raised his eyebrows. "Might release some of them there tensions you got building up inside ya."

Vin Tanner simply stood in silence and stared at the ladies man. A long, uncomfortable moment passed before he stormed off down the street.

The jovial smile that had, moments before, covered Wilmington face was no longer there. He had become used to a lot of things in his lifetime. And if he were going to receive a killer stare it would most likely be coming from his long time friend Chris Larabee. The look on Vin Tanner’s face was unexpected and certainly unwelcome, but Buck had no idea what he had said or done to warrant it. He simply stood and watched after the tracker as he marched off down the street.

The gunslinger watched cautiously as the stagecoach approached his town. He sped up his pace to follow it into Four Corners. It had been more than six weeks since Judge Travis had warned them to keep an eye open for a man who looked something like ‘me’ he had said. A well dressed and distinguished, elderly man who wore glasses, walked with a slight limp and carried around a valise with the name ‘NEW YORK HERALD’ embroidered into it.

Larabee watched stealthily as the stage came to a stop in front of the ticket office and the driver began to assist the passengers to disembark. Seemingly uninterested, Chris noted that none of the five passengers resembled the man they had been warned of and continued on towards the livery.

Noticing Josiah making his way up the street, the gunslinger covertly signaled his fellow peacekeeper. To the passerby, it was a simple nod of the head. To Sanchez however, it was an all the clear sign.

Josiah smiled at his leader as they passed. Receiving the desired message, the preacher headed back towards the sheriff’s office. He had a little weapons cleaning to do, and since the job at the stagecoach office had already been taken care of, he thought perhaps now would be a good time.

"Oh hey, Chris," Dunne greeted the gunslinger as he came into the livery and dismounted.

"JD," Larabee acknowledged with the nod. Handing off his mount to Yosemite, the gunslinger patted Spirit on the rump he passed. "Everything quiet out ‘a town?"

"Oh, yeah," the kid replied as he let Haven go into his stall and closed the gate behind him. "Did the patrol, then took a ride out to the pond. Everythin’s fine."

Chris didn’t look at the younger man as they began ta walk up the street.

"Oh… and I’m gonna take Nathan’s shifts while he’s out visiting Rain over the next few days."

The gunslinger stopped and looked at Dunne suspiciously.

"Haven’t ya heard," the kid said excitedly. "Nathan let James go home. Mr. and Mrs. Watson just left a few minutes ago. I didn’t know until I saw them puttin’ him in the wagon. But he’s gone… so Nathan wants ta ride out and visit with Rain for a spell…. We reckoned it would be okay with you… since I’m gonna cover his shifts and all."

Larabee set his hand on the kid’s shoulder in an effort to shut him up. There was no getting away from the fact. If John Dunne was excited about it, you usually couldn’t get a word into the conversation, and Chris had given up trying a long time ago. Physical contact seemed to be the only way to get his attention. "JD," the gunslinger beckoned Dunne’s attention.

"Ummm," the kid mumbled. "Oh…" Realizing that he had said too much, too quickly, the young man lowered his head before grinning back at his leader. "Sorry, Chris."

Larabee offered the young man a small smirk before returning to business. "Where’s Nathan now?"

"He went back to his room after the Watsons left. Think he had some re-arrangin’ ta do."

"Alright, thanks," he said as he turned to go back the way he had come.

"See ya later," JD smiled as he continued on his way.

"Anyone know what the heck’s gotten inta Tanner these days," Buck mumbled as he came into the sheriff’s office scratching the back of his neck as he customarily did when thinking too hard.

Standish looked up from the cards he had laid out on the desk and raised an eyebrow at Wilmington’s remark.

From the other side of the room there came a huff of agreement. "Brother Vin has been a little distracted as of late," Josiah added. He set the gun oil on the shelf and massaged the liquid into his weapon.

The gambler nodded his head as he collected his cards and prepared to leave. "Yes, gentleman, he certainly is becoming more anxious as the months go by." Standing up, the gambler made his way to the door.

Wilmington took up the seat the southerner had just vacated and looked at the man curiously. "What ya mean by that, Ezra?" he asked, setting his feet on the desktop.

Almost at the door, Standish stopped, turned and gazed at the ladies man. Glancing at Sanchez he was greeted by raised eyebrows. "Really, gentlemen," he retorted, "Please don’t tell me that… I… am the… only… one around here who actually pays attention when one of our number displays abnormal behavior."

Buck’s response came in the form of his best ‘Standish’ imitation. "Why, no, Ezra… we’re… used to your ‘abnormal behavior’ by now."

The southerner’s forced smile flew Buck’s way.

Moving towards the gambler, Sanchez wiped his weapon down with the rag he was holding. He looked at the southerner curiously. "What do you mean… as the months go by?" he asked, repeating the gambler’s words.

"You mean since he’s been back in town," Wilmington’s comment cut into the conversation again. This time he was being serious.

Opening the door he glanced back at his fellow lawmen, "Yes…" Ezra cocked his head, "… and no." Standish smiled mischievously as he stepped through the door. He continued to grin, as the two men frowned at his comments. The gambler tipped his hat, "Good day, gentleman," he said happily as he closed the door behind him.

Josiah shook his head at the cryptic nature of the gambler’s message. Much as he’d like to figure out Ezra Standish one day, the preacher had pretty much resigned himself to the fact that god didn’t grant any man, that much time on earth. Turning, Sanchez shrugged his shoulders at Buck’s questioning look before returned his attention back to his weapon.

Wilmington sighed as he watched Josiah move back towards the table he had been working at. "It ain’t bad enough that we got ‘a deal with a moody tracker, who’s more edgy than normal," the ladies man huffed. "Now we got ourselves a wise-ass con man who thinks he knows more than the rest of us."

Josiah looked up as he set the gun on the table. "Ain’t nothing new then?"

Buck Wilmington allowed himself a good belly laugh at the preacher’s comment.

The three peacekeepers sat around their usual table in the saloon. They were in their usual jovial moods, and Nathan, in particular, was celebrating. "Buck sure seemed please when he said his good-byes," the healer commented as he twirled the glass in his hands.

"This is just another example of the great plan the lord has, my friends," Josiah piped in. He took a long drink and set the beer mug on the table. "Buck was sent to help that boy out, and he has every right to be happy about James gettin’ home where he belongs."

Dunne looked thoughtfully at his two companions. "Sure is funny how things work out some times. Chris sent everyone out lookin’ for the children."

"And Chris wouldn’t be here at ‘ll, without the judge hiring us on," Jackson added.

"Oh come on now. What about all the other stuff that’s gone on over the past two years?" the kid asked as he looked at Josiah. "You ain’t tryin’ ‘a say God had it all planned when he brought us here… is ya?"

Sanchez cocked his head. He looked back and forth between his two companions as a gentle smile slowly made its way to his face. "Stranger things have happened…"

‘Evenin’ boys," Larabee greeted as he stood at the table. His entrance had gone unnoticed when the conversation had taken a turn.

"Chris," Nathan replied happily. He motioned for the gunslinger to occupy the empty chair, but Larabee shook his head no.

"I’m gonna go over there," he cocked his head towards the back wall, " and sit with Vin a spell.

"I’d be careful if I were you," Sanchez voiced. "If what Buck says is true, he’s not exactly been in a friendly mood today."

Larabee glanced over at Tanner and then back to Josiah questioningly. "Oh?"

The preacher sat forward and leaned in to the table. "We know you been a might busy… helpin’ Mary get over her brush with death and all."

"Vin’s just been grouchy lately, Chris," JD added.

Larabee nodded his head acknowledging the warning. What his friends were say was indeed true. Any other time, he would have noticed the change in behavior of his best friend, but Mary had been a priority for him in the last month. Mrs. Travis was a strong woman, but Chris had been spending a lot of time with her lately. Especially after the encounter they had with the wild dog. But Mary was steadily gaining more and more confidence. Between himself and Mrs. Thatcher, the gunslinger knew the newspaperwoman was going to be just fine.

Larabee glanced back at the tracker before turning to the table once again. ‘When you headin’ out Nathan?"

"I’ll probably ride out with the sun," came Jackson’s reply. "Don’t expect to be gone too long… two or three days maybe."

"Alright," Chris nodded and left the three men to their conversation. Heading to the bar, the gunslinger smiled as Inez set a shot glass before him. He held up his hand when she moved to pour the whiskey into it.

Miss Recillos looked at Larabee questioningly. "Senor?"

"I’ll take the bottle, Inez. And another glass." Glancing over his shoulder at the tracker, he smiled once again.

Inez bowed her head momentarily before leaning in to talk to the blond. "There have been many times, Senor, that you have sat in that corner wanting to be by yourself. And Senor Tanner is the one that has come to sit beside you." The lovely Mexican looked at the gunslinger curiously. "Now it is he who drinks and you who will sit beside him?"

Chris furrowed his brow.

"Leave the whiskey, Senor Chris. As has been the case many times with you… Senor Tanner does not need any more."

Chris glanced at the bottle and then over at his best friend. Looking back at Inez he tipped his hat and smiled his gratitude for her words of wisdom.

Inez retrieved the glass and bottle as Larabee made his way over to the corner of the saloon.

For several long seconds the gunslinger stood in front of the tracker’s table. He looked at Tanner and tried to see inside the man. His study of his friend ended when the solitary drinker finally spoke.

"You just gonna stand there blockin’ the view?"

Outwardly, the gunslinger smirked, but he still wasn’t clear if he was reading Tanner right. "Evening, Vin…" Larabee greeted as he took up a chair. He glanced at the half empty bottle of whiskey on the table and the full shot in the sharpshooter’s hand. "What’s up?" he asked quietly.

As he had been doing since Chris arrived, Tanner continued to stare at his glass.

Hoping that his friend would take the same comfort that he did, in the other’s presence, Chris just sat quietly and looked about the room. Larabee’s mind began to wander. He thought about how many times he’d sat alone at this table with only Vin for company. But as Inez had correctly pointed out, it was mostly him doing the drinking, and the tracker doing the talking … and waiting.

Tanner moved the whiskey to his lips and swallowed down the liquid in one gulp. Reaching for the bottle his hand met Chris’.

"You might wanna call it a night, cowboy."

Vin’s eyes moved slowly from the bottle to the face of his friend. Their exchange was brief as the gunslinger’s hand moved away from the bottle and Tanner’s replaced it. Pouring himself another shot, the tracker downed it straight away. "I might," he said pouring himself yet another.

Larabee removed the bottle from Vin’s reach and leaned across the table. "What’s up, Vin?" he asked again.

Their eyes met once more, but the tracker was not content to listen. He shot back the last drops of whiskey, quietly set the glass on the table and got to his feet. Replacing the hat on his head, the sharpshooter moved round the table.

"Vin?" Larabee made once last attempt to talk, but the tracker ignored his leader and left the saloon by the most direct route. Taking up the tracker’s glass, Chris poured himself some whiskey and sat back in his chair. Looking longingly at the empty doorway, Larabee could only sit and wonder.