by Helen Adams

Characters: Vin, Nathan, Ezra

Author's Note: A little friendly morning gossip amongst the boys.

Watching the sun crest the eastern horizon, brightening the summer sky with shades of red and gold, Vin took a deep satisfied breath. Mornings like this one made him feel glad to be alive. There was a hint of moisture in the air that bespoke of rain showers by evening but for now the sky was cloudless and blue. An endless canvas of perfect azure that make the streaks of sunrise color all the more beautiful as they painted their way across it.

As he took another deep breath, his nostrils twitched appreciatively, a different scent catching his attention. Sausage rolls and fresh coffee! He turned to survey the surrounding streets and smiled. Nathan was just emerging from the hotel, a tray containing coffeepot and covered plate balanced in his hands.

"Need some help there, Nathan?" he offered, stepping down off the boardwalk and striding over to join his friend. "That tray looks mighty heavy."

"And you figure you'll just lighten it by a few biscuits?" the healer replied with a laugh, turning his shoulder to foil Vin's attempt to sneak a peek under the concealing napkin. "Go on inside the restaurant if you're hungry. There's plenty more where this came from."

Vin just grinned at him. It was early, the restaurant would still be serving breakfast for at least two more hours yet, and right now his curiosity was whetted more sharply than his appetite. "Somebody sick? Ain't like you to cater meals."

The healer snorted. "Nobody's sick and I ain't planning on making a habit of this, either. Mrs. Grayson had a whole passel of customers show up right when she got this ready for Ezra. Asked me if I'd mind dropping it by the jail for him."

"That little gal sure is sweet on him," Vin chuckled. "Reckon that's why Ezra don't eat his meals at the restaurant much anymore. Every time he goes in, the missus starts hoverin' over him, clucking and fussing like a sweet little brown hen."

Nathan grinned. "She thinks he don't eat enough. Last time we was in there together, she was all but spoon-feeding him." He began to laugh. "He ordered a steak and she actually cut it up for him! That damned plate was about crushed under the weight of all the food she served with it. There was potatoes, beans, succotash, bread, three different kinds of vegetables; I don't know what all! Then she told Ezra that if he was a good boy and ate up every bite, she'd bring him some peach pie."

Seeing that Nathan was barely breathing with the strength of his gasping and honking fit of mirth, Vin rescued the tray. He stole a peek under the covering and whistled in appreciation. It looked like there was enough food under there to fill up Four Corners'entire peacekeeping force!

Certain that Ezra would never find out, he snitched a piece of bacon.

"And then," Nathan continued gleefully, regaining control of the tray and slapping Vin's fingers away as he reached for a biscuit, "Mr. Grayson gets into the act, glaring at Ezra like he's a new plague just come to town, and sharpening all his kitchen knives right there in the dining room where Ezra can't help but get a good look at 'em."

Vin shook his head. "I could understand all that if it was Buck, but as far as I know Ezra ain't ever done anything but spit some of that flowery politeness at Mrs. G. Hell, she's old enough to be his mama anyway." Gesturing toward the tray, he added, "Surprised you agreed to take that. If you hadn't, Ezra'd have had to go get it himself and you could've got some more free entertainment."

"Nah, my turn to watch the jail-house."

Vin chortled. So, it wasn't sympathy for their colleague that had promoted Nathan's benevolence, it was knowing he wouldn't be there to watch the show.

"Mornin', Ezra," he called out as they reached the jailhouse, finding their comrade sitting on the front porch, at ease with his chair tipped back and his hat and jacket nowhere in sight.

Ezra glanced up from the cards he was shuffling in intricate patterns between his long fingers and smiled, gold incisor catching the morning light in a bright sparkle. "Gentlemen! Have you come to release me from the tedious chore of guarding our currently prisoner-free penitentiary?"

"I'm here to relieve you, if that's what you mean," Nathan grunted, shoving the heavy tray into his hands. "Mrs. Grayson sent that over. Said to tell you that she expects them dishes to be brought back empty or she'll know the reason why."

"Good Lord," he murmured, lifting the large cloth napkin and surveying the bounty set before him with open dismay. "That woman is not going to rest until she's given me a case of chronic dyspepsia. I'm beginning to suspect that she won't be satisfied until I have become as corpulent as that foul youngster we met on the wagon train some months back."

Vin went inside and came back with a chair and three coffee cups from the large stack they always kept on hand. He handed the chair and one of the cups off to Nathan, happy to lean against the porch rail himself. "Reckon I could help you out, if you're a'needin'."

Ezra snorted delicately, accepting the other cup and pouring out a steaming cup of fragrant coffee for each of them before setting the heavy pot down on the boardwalk beside him. "I'm sure that you could." Helping himself to a couple of sausage rolls and spooning a serving of scrambled eggs onto a large slice of buttered toast, he gestured for his friends to help themselves.

"That lady sure can cook," Vin said blissfully, biting into a biscuit. "Kinda wish she was lookin' to fatten me up instead of you."

Ezra gestured sharply. "Why isn't she? You're as slender I am, Mr. Tanner, if not more so. How is it that Mrs. Grayson isn't set upon filling out your meager frame with such enthusiasm?"

"Guess you just got lucky," he replied, snagging a sweet roll and more of the delicious crispy bacon slices.

Nathan likewise helped himself to a biscuit and some of the fresh strawberry jam included in a little pot, despite the fact that he had just eaten. "Mrs. Potter told me one time that the Graysons had a son once." He shook his head regretfully. "Poor young feller died from the consumption when he was just seventeen years old. I'm guessing you must somehow remind Miz Grayson of the boy she lost."

Ezra paused mid-bite, expression troubled. Finishing the bite, he ate it slowly then reached for another roll from the tray. "I had no idea. How very tragic. I really must remember to thank the dear lady for her kind and generous treatment of me, however misplaced it may be."

"Ain't misplaced if it makes her feel better," Nathan offered. "Back on the plantation, it wasn't unusual to see a family take in a stray young'un after one of their own was lost to 'em. Kind of made 'em feel the loss a little bit less, knowin' that they were giving decent care to somebody else's child and hoping that somewhere, some kind soul was lookin' after their own, on earth or in heaven."

"Reckon Mrs. G went and found herself a stray to look after, same way Miz Nettie did with me," Vin suggested, slightly amused by the abrupt about-face in Ezra's attitude toward Mrs. Grayson's coddling. Remembering Nathan's earlier analogy, he added, "Besides, a little mother-hennin' ain't so bad. Real nice sometimes."

Shrugging his eyebrows, Ezra took another deep pull of the flavorful coffee. "Perhaps. Now, if only I can convince Carl Grayson that his wife simply views me as a stray chick to be looked after. I fear the poor delusional fellow has convinced himself that I am something more along the lines of a chicken-hawk come to raid his family coop."

Both men chuckled, helping themselves to more food and coffee.

"Speaking of family coops," Nathan said after a moment, "What do you make of that?"

They followed his gesture across the street, interest piquing as they noticed a smiling Josiah helping Gloria Potter set out some of her wares on the walkway in front of her store.

"Well, well! It seems Mr. Sanchez has set his cap for our dear lady-widow," Ezra said, tongue poking out between his lips in an expression of subdued glee.

"He might just be helpin' with her stuff," Vin scoffed. "Them produce boxes are heavy, 'specially for a woman."

Ezra dismissed this with a languid wave. "Nonsense. She deals with equally weighty items every single day, morning and evening. No, look at them both. He's being gallant and the lady is quite impressed by his efforts on her behalf."

"Josiah did tell me that she was teasing him about courting young ladies that time he went in to buy a new suit," Nathan recalled, watching with interested eyes as Josiah said something to the store-keeper that had her laughing brightly. She smoothed her ruffled apron and patted her hair in an unconsciously flirtatious manner. Josiah smiled after her as she walked back inside the shop, a deep happy-looking sigh puffing out his broad chest as he went back to work. "Look at that. I think Ezra's right, Vin. Josiah's sweet on her!"

"And the feeling is mutual, unless I miss my guess," Ezra said, the note of deep satisfaction in his voice causing the other two to stare at him.

Vin nudged the gloating southerner. "What do you know about this?"

"Oh, nothing," he tried casually, giving himself away with the twinkle in his eyes. "Only that ever since the Preston Wingo incident, I have observed that Josiah's interest in the content of my mother's letters has waned considerably. And a keen eye might have observed him spending a great many of his off-hours fixing things at the General Store and dispensing his ever-flowing pearls of wisdom into the ears of young John and Rachel Potter, both of whom appear to have taken quite a shine to our friend."

Vin smiled. "Come to think of it, I noticed Mrs. Potter has stopped wearin' her widow's-weeds recently. Figured it was just 'cause more than a year has gone by since she lost George and she needed something cheerful again."

"I believe the two events may have a connection," Ezra agreed smugly. "In fact, when I went in to pick up a few odds and ends last month, I happened to overhear Mrs. Travis telling her that she would look lovely in a dress made from that new bolt of cloth that bears her name."

"Potter fabric?" Nathan said, confused.

Ezra rolled his eyes so hard, Vin thought he might be in danger of hurting himself. "Gloria fabric," he said witheringly. Then the smug look returned. "The very same rich gold and brown material that now adorns our dear storekeeper in the form of a beautiful new dress."

"Hair's fixed up real nice, too," Nathan said, smiling as the woman in question emerged again from her store, a cup of coffee in hand for Josiah. "She looks right pretty."

Vin grinned at the small domestic-looking scene. "Reckon Josiah thinks so, too." He shook his head, polishing off the last of the sausage rolls from the tray. "Can't quite picture him as a store-keeper, though."

Ezra shrugged and emptied his coffee cup. "No reason he has to be. Gloria has done quite well in running the store, and young John apparently has quite a knack and interest for the business. And after all, I cannot think of anything more respectable to a burgeoning metropolis such as ours than for a widow to be courted by a man of the cloth."

"Sure, 'cept Josiah ain't exactly a preacher anymore."

"Mr. Tanner, you lack vision," Ezra scolded playfully. "What better excuse could he have for taking up the mantle again than to provide aid and comfort to his new family and their neighbors?"

Startled, Nathan asked, "You really think he would?"

"Preach, or get married?"

"Both," Vin cut in.

Ezra stared thoughtfully at the would-be couple. His voice was suddenly serious as he replied, "I believe that we are looking at two very lonely souls who might have found solace from their loneliness in one another. I also believe that the penance Mr. Sanchez constantly seeks for some unnamed sin may at last find absolution in devoting himself, body and soul, to a little family whose lives were torn apart by needless violence."

Respect filling his voice, Nathan commented, "That's awful deep for you, Ezra; especially so early in the day."

Shaking off his melancholy musings, Ezra smiled brightly, holding up the now-empty breakfast tray. "As I feared, the lovely Mrs. Grayson is turning me dyspeptic. What other explanation could there be?"

He rose from his chair, handing the tray to Nathan just long enough to retrieve his hat and coat from the office, and the now-empty coffee pot from the edge of boardwalk next to Vin's dusty boots, where it had somehow migrated during their conversation.

"Gonna take that back over to the restaurant?" Vin asked, gesturing toward the tray.

"That was my intention."

The tracker straightened from his slouch against the porch rail. "Reckon I'll come along. See if I can't convince Mrs. G that I'm a poor skinny boy in need of feedin' up, just like you."

"Feeding up?" Ezra squawked, tipping his hat to Nathan as he accepted the now much lighter burden and stepped off the boardwalk. "You just ate two-thirds of the feast she sent me!"

"Well now, you know that and I know that, but there ain't no need to go tellin' everybody," Vin said, carefully brushing the incriminating crumbs off his buckskin jacket.

As he listened to Ezra gripe and sputter about gluttony and the distressing lack of manners found in some people, knowing all the while that the gambler was really glad of the company, Vin smiled and tipped his hat to Josiah as they passed. The big man looked amusingly embarrassed at being caught doing domestic chores, but then he shrugged and grinned brightly with those enormous white teeth. Vin nodded, glad to see that Josiah didn't try to deny what he was doing there.

Josiah and Gloria, who'd have thought it? And Ezra, practically on the adoption block for sweet little Mrs. Grayson and not fighting it with half the irritation he usually showed towards women who tried to mother him. He'd noticed lately that Chris and Mary were back to taking baby-steps toward each other again, and JD had been invited out to supper at Nettie and Casey's place three times already this month. He knew, because he'd been there, too.

Vin shook his head, wondering when they'd all started to grow so civilized in this wild and wooly little western town. Wondering even harder why it felt so right to do it.

His attention was regained by Ezra, who was asking, "What sort of betting pool do you suppose that type of event would garner, Mr. Tanner?"


Ezra looked exasperated with his inattention. "An eating contest between yourself, Mr. Wilmington and any other gentlemen who would be interested. I'm certain it would be an event that would go down in the annals of local history!"

"And turn a tidy profit for you besides."

The gold tooth gleamed in the sunlight again. "Naturally."

As they entered the restaurant, Vin smiled to see the delighted expression upon Mrs. Grayson's face at the sight of Ezra. "Well, pard, I reckon that might be fun. But if you want me to win, you'd better be ready to buy me a head-start on training."

Beaming at these words, Ezra slapped him on the back. "Of course! Mrs. Grayson, my dear lady, might you have any of your delicious flap-jacks on today's breakfast menu?"

THE END . . . or maybe not!