Four Corners stewed lazily in the heat of a summer's afternoon. Chris and Vin had abandoned the smoky closeness of the saloon and were taking advantage of what small relief the breeze had to offer, settled at a square table they had dragged outside to the shade of the building's wooden awning. Chris had found a piece of wood and was working away at it with the blade of his pocket knife. The shape he was whittling might have been a bear. Then again, it might have been an owl--Vin couldn't exactly decide which was more likely. Whatever it was, Chris finished it or got bored with it, because with a quick, sharp flick of his wrist, he tossed it onto the hard-packed dirt of the street and forgot about it.

Around them, the town was going about its business with ruthless banality. The only evidence that the events of the past week had taken place came from a shop down the street, whose owner was presently nailing the last of a half-dozen boards across his front windows. The message "For Sale" was scrawled across one of the boards in red paint. As the man climbed down off the wooden box he had been standing on and started back towards the front door of his shop, Mary Travis caught up with him, spoke to him briefly, then followed him as he returned inside.

"Bet you three dollars them boards come back down again," Vin commented lazily, after watching the silent vignette. Chris just quirked an eyebrow and shook his head to say that was one bet he wouldn't take, so the bounty hunter went back to his beer.

Harmon Conklin emerged from the cigar store down the way and started towards them. As he was about to mount the section of boardwalk that fronted the saloon, he finally noticed them sitting there. He paused indecisively, threw a glance across the street as though considering a retreat, but in the end, continued along the way he had been going. As he passed them, he tipped his hat and said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Larabee... Mr. Tanner. Nice day."

"Amazin' how the worm turns, ain't it?" Vin inquired with amusement when the man was out of hearing.

"Not really. Always been that way, always will be."

"Yeah, I guess." Vin slouched deeper into his chair and began to scratch at the healing scabs on one of his hands. A stab of pain reminded him that was a bad idea, so he reluctantly replaced it in his lap. "Makes me remember all the reasons why I don't spend too much time in civilization. "

Chris's only response was a slight smile. He wasn't about to argue the point. Or, at least, he wouldn't argue it until the morning when he found Vin trying to turn his back on this particular corner of "civilization." He might not even argue with it then.

Across the street, Josiah pulled open the door to the jail house and leaned against the frame, getting a bit of fresh air. The telegraph lines had been repaired so they had wired the Judge, but it would be several days more before he arrived to clean up the legal end of the mess. Meanwhile, the jail was more than filled to capacity. J.D. would have been having the time of his life, playing sheriff to that many desperadoes. With him still convalescing, the rest of them were simply bored with the shifts they drew that forced them to hang around the jail.

The glass-inlaid door of the hotel pulled open, drawing Vin's eyes in time for him to see the target of that thought appear, with Buck following close on his heels like an overprotective mother hen. A long night of exertion far beyond what his weakened body was equipped to handle had set back J.D.'s recovery, but Nathan never had managed to re-convince the young man that he was an invalid. Eventually, Nathan had just said "on your own head be it" and given up, but Buck was still trying. Watching the two of them as they argued their way across the street, Vin thought it was a shame Buck had such an aversion to the idea of getting married and settling down. Having a half-dozen kids of his own to worry about would have refocused his protective instincts from the pup who had followed him home, and who didn't at all appreciate the mollycoddling.

"Don't be ridiculous, Buck. I am perfectly all right," J.D. informed his harried mentor as he reached the edge of the boardwalk. He was so involved in the argument that he mounted the steps with less than the required amount of caution, wobbled dizzily, and caught himself with a forearm against one of the support poles of the awning.

While Buck was making a grab for him, Vin used the toe of his boot to shove back the third chair at their table and suggested, "Set yourself down, J.D."

J.D. flashed the bounty hunter a suspicious look, decided he was just being sociable, and sagged down in the proffered seat with carefully suppressed relief. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever get back to where he could take a five minute walk without ending up exhausted.

"Good idea. You stay here, I'll go get us something to drink," Buck informed him, then vanished through the swinging doors into the saloon.

Chris was staring off into space, lost in whatever private world occupied his mind when he wasn't actually busy, and Vin was naturally quiet. Normally, J.D. would have filled the ensuing silence with chatter or questions, but today he found himself unexpectedly self-conscious in their company. He wished Buck would hurry up and come back, then laughed at himself for feeling that way not five minutes after he'd been wishing Buck would find someone else to drive crazy. Finally, he sighed and straightened his shoulders.


The gunslinger's pale eyes refocused reluctantly on the surrounding world, then moved to his face.

"I just want you to know that I've learned my lesson..." The comment drew no immediate response, so J.D. went on, "About doin' what I'm told, I mean. Next time you tell me to do something, I swear I will. I won't be a burden again, I promise you."

Chris continued to study him with that peculiar stare which somehow managed to be dead flat and sharply measuring at the same time. It was Vin who finally answered his pledge, first with a soft breath of laughter that held no derision, then with the comment, "You ain't a liability, J.D. Bit headstrong, maybe."

J.D. smiled. "I'll work on it."

"See if maybe you can't teach Buck while you're at it."

His serious mien dissolving into a wide grin, J.D. promised he would, then threw an uncertain glance at Chris. The gunslinger's countenance hadn't exactly thawed, but there was a faint suggestion of a smile around his thin lips as he said, "You did fine, J.D."

"Thanks..." It was becoming apparent that Buck was in no hurry to return, so J.D. pushed himself back to his feet and gestured toward the doorway. "I think I'll go see what's happened to my drink."

He disappeared through the saloon doors, and a moment later Vin and Chris heard his light voice raised in outraged complaint.

"Milk?! I want a beer."

"Well, you're gettin' milk," Buck shot back immediately. "Nathan says no liquor for another week."

"Beer ain't hardly liquor."

"Yes, it damned well is."

Vin laughed, and when he looked across the small table, he found Chris grinning back at him.

"So what d'you think?" Chris inquired, straight-faced. "You figure he's a new man?"

"Well, lesse... With a bullet hole through him, he gets up, runs all over the countryside, and drags a coupla folks outta a burnin' building... Don't sound too mature and sensible to me," Vin finished, shaking his head with deadpan disapproval.

Shrugging, he went on more seriously, "Prob'ly a little of the experience'll stick with him. He'll forget the rest as soon as he's feeling like himself again and need to learn it all over." He grinned. "Dunno about you, but that's sure how I was at his age."

His companion's face had hardened again, so Vin shook his head and went on, "No point losing sleep over it. If all this didn't make him want to go home, then there just ain't no way we're gonna get rid of him--"

"Short of putting him under six feet of ground."

"Same thing goes for all of us. No use buying grief about it 'fore it happens," Vin reminded him with a shrug. "The rest of us made it past twenty in one piece. Prob'ly J.D. will, too. S'pecially since he's got Buck around."

The hotel door opened again, and this time Ezra emerged, then stopped at the edge of the boardwalk to twitch the lapels of his jacket into perfect alignment. It was only a couple of hours shy of sunset, but he looked as though he wasn't entirely happy about being up and around. Eventually, he strolled across the street, heading for the saloon.

"Gentlemen," he said blandly as he mounted the steps.

As the gambler walked past without slowing down, Vin reached out and caught Ezra lightly by the wrist.

"Why don't you join us for a drink, Ezra?" he inquired amiably when the gambler froze and gazed down at him warily. "We got an extra chair."

Ezra's bright eyes travelled from him to Chris and back again, searching for a trap and relaxing only when he failed to find one. Chris's face held none of Vin's open friendliness, but the hostility in his gaze was carefully muted to neutrality. He had neither forgotten nor entirely forgiven any of what had happened, but he wasn't planning to carry it forward. It was as much of a peace offering--more really--than Ezra would have ever expected to receive from him.

After a moment, Ezra favored both men with a slight bow.

"Thank you for your offer, Mr. Tanner. Perhaps another time."

"Anytime, pard," Vin agreed.

"Thank you," Ezra repeated and moved on.

Mary Travis emerged from the boarded-over store, her jaunty stride giving away her moment of victory even before the storekeep appeared behind her, a hammer in his hand, and began to pry loose the boards he had so recently nailed in place. The blonde woman paused briefly to watch him, then folded her arms and strode down the street.

"Good thing you didn't take that bet," Vin observed, watching Mary smile a greeting to everyone she passed.

As had happened with Conklin, her mood changed abruptly as she got within a few doors of the saloon and spotted the two of them sitting in front of it. Her firm stride wavered, and her eyes fixed on Chris with an expression that spoke volumes of emotion which, Vin was certain, she would have vastly preferred to hide--particularly from the man on whom they were focused. Chris wasn't looking at her, though. His interest was fixed on the shot glass full of whiskey that sat beside him on the table. He'd been giving it an equal amount of interest for the past hour or more, but so far he hadn't even taken a sip from it. Vin had been watching him play this game with himself since the night Mandrell died, trying to prove to himself on some level that the drink was a choice, not a necessity.

Only a few seconds passed before Mary regained her poise and approached them with her long, firm stride.

"Mr. Larabee--Mr. Tanner," she began, nodding an acknowledgment of their automatic greetings. "I hope you're both recovering from your injuries?"

"Doin' fine, ma'am," Vin assured her, sliding his scabbed and scratched-at fingers into his lap, where they were shielded by the table.

Mary hesitated, wanting to say more but not certain how to begin. Finally, she took a deep breath and spoke directly. "I just wanted you to know that I've been talking to people. When the Judge arrives, there will be people ready to form a jury for him. And witnesses who will testify, even when it means speaking out against Stuart James. This time, we won't let him get away with what he's done. The town may have let you down when Mandrell was here, but they won't let you--or themselves--down in this."

"Nobody let me down, Mrs. Travis," Chris told her.

"Because you didn't expect anything more?" Mary retorted, with a sigh. "I'm afraid I don't blame you. But I do promise you, I'm going to do everything in my power to change your mind."

Nodding farewell, she strode on.

"Chris?" said Vin, when Mary had disappeared through the front door of the Clarion News. "You ever heard of a woman gettin' herself elected mayor?"

Chris didn't offer any answer.


Comments welcome

AFTER WORD: The "jinxed hand" Ezra sees building in the cards comes from one of the legends surrounding Wild Bill Hickok. Reputedly, Hickok was holding two pair, aces and eights, when he was shot in the back during a poker game. Afterwards, that came to be known as "the dead man's hand" and was considered seriously bad luck.