He lay there, turning it over and over in his mind. Every repetition built up the warmth until he could not suppress the warm smile that broke out on his face.
Ezra Tanner. Married man.
Good Lord, if Maude could see him now....
That thought made him chuckle. He smiled at the raven-haired beauty who was using him as a pillow, and brushed a tender kiss on top of her head. I know you're awake.
A bubbling laugh rose from his wife. Good Lord, Ez, we do this every morning! What, I can't just enjoy a few more moments of snuggling?
Hey, am I complaining? He rubbed her back between her bare shoulderblade, frowning as his fingers traced a long, puckered mark. I wish your transformation had erased all of Vin's scars.
Her head tipped back and ice-blue eyes looked tenderly into emerald green ones. I don't, she replied, smiling at him. Every scar is a memory. And since my life brought me to you, I wouldn't change a thing. Not one thing.
Words failed the erudite conman. His eyes brimmed with tears of emotion as he bent his head to tenderly kiss her lips. When the kiss ended, Vivian returned to her cuddling with a happy sigh.
Ezra echoed it, his fingers carding through her long black hair. They lay in silence for a moment, then he asked, "Viv? I'm curious about something."
"Mmmm. What's that?" Her long, tapered fingers caressed his bare chest, and the smile at the vibrations his voice caused was audible in her voice.
"You've now experienced ... sensual delight... as a man and as a woman."
She raised herself up on one elbow, looking down at him with a wary frown. "....yeah....."
"So, in your opinion, which brings more.... delight?"
A long moment passed with her regarding him, then she grabbed a pillow and hit him so hard with it he fell out of the feather bed with a startled yelp. "Ya really wanna know?" she laughed.
"I really wanna know!" he chuckled back.
She grinned at him and leaned over the bed, her dark hair falling over her shoulders like a cape. "All right -- I'll tell ya. It's better as a woman --- after the pain goes away."
"Well...." He chewed on his lip. "There was no avoiding that minor hindrance."
"I know, don't go gettin' all in a twist!" She sat up, totally unself-conscious with him. "But like I said, after that went away, it was great. I've never in my life been able to do what I did with you!"
Ezra laughed and pulled himself back up into bed. "I was surprised you were still coherent enough to tell me good night afterwards!"
"There's a lot o'surprises I've got," Vivian laughed and hugged him again.
"Mmm. And I intend to spend my life finding every one of them out." Ezra grinned and began the ancient dance of love with her once more.
"Chris!" Judge Travis grinned as he shook the gunslinger's hand. "I was hoping to see you before the stage left."
Chris chuckled -- the judge had been climbing onto the stage when he'd walked up. "What for?" he teased. "Wantin' tips on shootin'?"
The judge laughed and shook his head. "No, I just wanted to let you know as soon as I get back home, I'll wire you about your new tracker." With that, he began to climb onto the stage again.
"Wait a second, hold on," Chris said, alarm in his voice. "'New tracker'? What are you talkin' about?"
"Why, with Mrs. Tanner out of commission ---"
"She ain't hurt!" Chris protested. "She's just female! I've seen enough t'see her skills are intact!"
The judge shook his head. "I will wire you about your new tracker," he said. "You will be back up to full strength soon."
"We're full strength now!"
The judge leaned out the stage window. "You have a liability on your team now, Chris. As of now, she is off duty. Permanently."
Chris was left staring in the street, his hands clenching in helpless rage, as the stage drove away.
Ezra smiled as he got out of bed, careful not to disturb Vivian's slumber. He pulled on his pants and padded to the door, answering the soft knock. "Chris," he whispered with a smile --- then he blinked, frowning at the gunslinger's expression. "What.... is it?"
"We gotta talk," Chris whispered, tapping the side of his own head gently. "Alone."
Ezra nodded. "The jail," he whispered. "Let me get dressed --- we'll re-establish the Link there."
Chris nodded and retreated.
The gambler turned and looked at his sleeping wife. Gently, he disengaged all but the basic "buzz" of his presence from her mind before he drew on his clothing. Instead of one of his normal rainbow-coloured swallow-tailed coats, however, today he showed mute allegiance and solidarity to his wife.
When Ezra stepped onto the streets of Four Corners, a long buckskin coat swirled around his calves with every step. It was a testament to the amount of love and respect the citizens held for both the altered sharpshooter and her gambler husband that none thought Ezra's "Vin-isms" insane any longer.
That didn't stop those who knew them best from gently teasing Ezra, however. Nor did it stop the troubles that seemingly always found the Seven from zeroing in on the pair.
"Tanner!" Ezra stopped in his tracks. The voice behind him was unfamiliar, though the click of a hammer being pulled back was all too familiar. "Knew that was you," the rough voice growled. "That damned coat and hat're unmistakable."
Ezra raised a hand and rubbed his nose. "That five hundred dollars sure would come in handy," the man gloated and Ezra's head bobbed slightly as he mouthed the words which were all too familiar to the seven by now.
"Slowly, Tanner," the man growled as Ezra began to turn around. Ezra nodded in reply as he finished his turn -- and merely removed his hat.
The swarthy man's jaw unhinged and his gun wavered. "What the... you're not Tanner!"
Ezra's gold tooth flashed as he smiled. "I am, sir, indeed named Tanner. I am, however, not Vin Tanner."
"Brother?" the man asked.
"Relation," Ezra conceded, though he did not voice the *husband, to be precise* that ran through his mind. "Vin Tanner no longer lives in Four Corners," he quite truthfully finished.
A very long pause, and the swarthy man nodded slowly as he thumbed the hammer forward and holstered his gun. He nodded to Ezra as he touched the brim of his battered hat. "Sorry bout the mix-up, Mister."
Ezra returned the salute. "Accepted, sir. I'm thankful you had the presence of mind to investigate before shooting."
"So am I," Nathan breathed from the boardwalk, making both men laugh as they went their separate ways.
Ezra walked into the jail and chuckled as he took off the coat and hung it up.
"What's so damned funny?" Chris demanded as he stood from behind the desk. "That son of a bitch could'a blown your head off!"
"What's so damned funny," Ezra replied merrily, "is that the bounty hunters no longer have a prey! With Vin Vivian...."
After a moment, a slow, bedimpled smile spread across Chris's face.
Ezra sat in a chair beside the cells. "You said we had to talk?"
"Yeah. Here." Chris reached out and pulled the chair closer. He cupped Ezra's cheeks in his hand and brought his own head forward. Forehead touched forehead. Eyes closed and both concentrated.
There was a visible flash of light, and Chris sat back and opened his eyes. Are we back?
Ezra's own bedimpled grin shone out, his gold tooth glittering. We are, indeed. Then he sobered. So what is it?
In the quickest way possible, Chris filled Ezra in on what had happened with the Judge. With a curse, Ezra stood up so quickly the chair toppled over. He began to pace the small jail, every step punctuated by a curse word, every motion building a rage within him. For a split-second, the gambler's reaction startled Chris -- but only for a second. Vivian was Chris's best friend, his second in command.
But she was Ezra's wife.
Finally, Ezra whirled to face Chris. That man can't see beyond what happened to her, can he? He can't see that's still the best damned tracker in the COUNTRY there? The best damned shot?
Chris spread his hands. That's the impression I got, yeah.
The emerald eyes closed and he struggled to put his poker face back on -- but it wasn't working. He was too angry. I'm going home. She deserves to know.
The blonde nodded and stood slowly. And tell her this -- far as I'M concerned, Vivian Tanner is -- and will ALWAYS be -- one of the Seven.
Though anger still burned in Ezra's eyes, the smile spread again -- and this time it was one of pure gratitude.
The swarthy man, Sanderson by name, walked into the General Store and rummaged for some new belts and gun parts. He happened to overhear a woman sigh, "Oh, I still think it's so precious the way the boys are protecting her."
"Scandalous, if you ask me," a second woman said. "Sure, she used to be a man, and couldn't help what happened to her, but she's a woman now. I'm made to think she ought to act like it."
Used to be a man? who was this? Sanderson leaned over slightly, listening more intently.
"Oh, Delilah, you've such a narrow mind. This is Vivian we're talking about," the first woman giggled. "Vin or Vivian, she's still the same person and I for one think she's very brave to hold onto her identity as much as she does."
Sanderson's eyebrows climbed nearly into his mop of unkempt curls. Vin? He blinked. No wonder the relative said Vin Tanner didn't live here anymore. If he was now a she....
A slow smile split the bearded face. Perhaps there was still a bounty to be collected....
Four days later, the stage arrived down the middle of main street and a tall man dressed in a cheap suit got out. "Chris Larabee?" he asked, his eyes scanning the boardwalk.
Seven forms met his gaze with cold eyes. One of them, a man in a red coat, had his hands resting loosely on the shoulders of a jeans-clad woman with a light blue bandanna tied around her neck and a gunbelt firmly cinched around her waist.
"Chris Larabee?" the man repeated, his voice suddenly a note or two higher in nervousness.
A man in black stepped forward, pushing his hat backward slightly. "I'm Larabee. Who the hell are you?"
The newcomer grinned, his amber eyes shining. "David Michaelson. Judge Travis sent me."
"We got a tracker," the woman said sharply. "Y'all'd best be gettin' on the next stage home." The man behind her tightened his hands on her shoulders, and she slumped slightly with a sigh.
"I've no doubt the judge sent you," Larabee said with an undercurrent of deadly ice in his voice. "And that's the only reason you'll ride with us. But like Viv said -- we've got a tracker." He turned and walked away from Michaelson.
Five of the others followed him. The sixth, a young man in a Bat Masterson hat, shot him a deadly glare and said venomously, "You're a fifth wheel here, Mister. Ain't none o'us gonna forget it." Then he followed his friends.
Michaelson stood in the street, blinking in shock for a moment. Then he sighed. "I think I'm gonna have me some words with the judge," he grumbled, lifting his one bag and heading for the boarding house.
Their shared link gave Ezra, Vivian and Chris each the stamina and strength of three. It was no longer an odd sight to see Ezra up with the chickens or Vivian up late at the poker table. Chris also was now neither an early bird or a night eagle -- he was both, as the married pair were.
So after Ezra all but cleaned Michaelson out in a late-night game, the new tracker was yawning in his saddle on early patrol. Chris looked over at him. "Tired, Michaelson?"
"Mmpf," was Michaelson's only reply.
Chris grinned, enjoying the sight of the newcomer's discomfiture. "Late night, huh?"
"Gambler cleaned me out. Only got about three hours sleep."
Chris nodded in mock sympathy. "He'll do that. Best not to play him -- or Viv -- when ya got mornin' patrol."
"No shit," Michaelson groaned as he lay over the neck of his horse.
By the time they returned from an uneventful patrol, Chris was still chuckling at the sleepy tracker.
Sanderson walked into the Clarion and doffed his hat. "Mrs. Travis?"
Mary wiped her hands on her printer's apron and frowned at the man. "Yes, may I help you?"
Sanderson smiled at her. "I'm Sam Sanderson --- I'm looking for some information on a bounty quarry last spotted in Four Corners."
"Oh?" Mary's defenses instantly rose.
Sanderson nodded and confirmed her suspicions. "One Vin Tanner."
Mary smiled genuinely at him, relieved she could tell him the absolute truth. "The only Mister Tanner in Four Corners is Ezra Tanner, sir."
"We met yesterday. Relative to Vin, he said?"
"You might say that, yes," Mary said, her grin growing.
Sanderson nodded. "And...Vivian Tanner?"
"She's Ezra's wife."
"Perhaps...." Sanderson mused, walking toward the door. "But I find it odd, ma'am.... that if one removes V-I- and A from Vivian.... one ends up with Vin. Good day, Mrs. Travis." And he left.
Vivian came bombing into the Clarion, Billy Travis pulling her by the hand. "Got her, Mama!"
"Thank you, Billy, now please go play." Mary kissed him on the cheek and the two women watched the tow-headed boy run off.
"You've had a run-in with Sanderson," Vivian said flatly.
Mary blinked. "How did you ----"
"Ezra told me he was in town." Vivian sighed and took off her bandanna. She dipped a corner of it into a washbasin and washed a dollop of ink off of Mary's cheek as she finished, "After Billy came thunderin' up t'our room, I figured he'd talked t'ya."
Mary smiled at the evidence that Vin's natural caring nature had become a deep nurturing inside of Vivian. Then she sobered and told the beautiful tracker of Sanderson's visit.
Vivian's eyes narrowed. "Do you have one of my wanted posters?"
Startled by the question, Mary nodded. "It's in my drawer...."
Vivian got it out. "This stops. Here and now. Vin Tanner's been dead for weeks --- he died the minute I woke up like this. I want you to print 'deceased' across this picture and put the date I became a woman on it."
Mary grinned. "Yes! And then we distribute it!"
"Ending the bounty hunters," Vivian finished. Then she leaned against the wall and chewed thoughtfully on her thumb. "That just leaves the problem of Sanderson t'deal with."
A cloud of dust announced the arrival of the stagecoach. Judge Travis stepped off of it, to meet the incredulous gazes of the Seven, who were coming from four different directions. As Chris stepped forward, he raised a hand. "I was asked here," he grumbled. "By him."
The eyes swung to Michaelson, who nodded. "I don't belong here," he said. "Dunne was right -- I am a Fifth Wheel here, neither wanted nor needed."
"Told you," JD grinned.
Travis scowled. "The town has come to depend upon seven protectors. With Mrs. Tanner out of commi---"
"I ain't outta nothin'!" Vivian snarled, shaking off Ezra's hand and stalking forward. "I'm healthy, I'm whole! I'm able! My skills ain't changed a whit!"
Travis opened his mouth to retort --- and a shot rang out. The bullet hit directly between Vivian and Travis, and both of them hit the dirt. Guns slid from holsters, but the shooter was already on the move.
"Get the judge under cover!" Chris yelled needlessly --- Michaelson and Vivian were already hauling Travis into the saloon.
Of ALL the STUPID times for me NOT to have my mare's leg! Rang in Ezra and Chris's minds.
You just stay under cover, love, Ezra sent back. We'll handle whoever this is.
The stranger who had challenged Ezra a few days earlier stepped onto the street, a gun in either hand. He scanned them with slitted brown eyes and spit a wad into the dirt. He scanned the group again, then said evenly, "I've come for Tanner."
Ezra stood slowly from his cover and moved into the street even more slowly. "We've danced this dance before, sir. I don't know you."
"That don't matter," the man said with a smile. "Ain't you I'm after anyways. Name's Sanderson. I've come for your wife."
Ezra's eyes narrowed. "My wife has done nothing."
"Nope, just somehow turned into a woman. Five hundred dollars is still five hundred dollars and I aim t'claim it." His smile widened. "She's a right purty thing now.... who knows --- might have me a bit'o'fun along the way."
SNIKT! Ezra's derringer was suddenly in his hand and leveled at Sanderson's forehead. "You touch her and I swear by all I hold holy I'll blow your head off."
Sanderson laughed. "That pea-shooter don't scare me, Tanner."
There was the multiple clicks of guns being drawn, aimed and cocked in one swift motion. Ezra didn't even look around, but he smiled tightly. "No?"
"No. Even y'all don't scare me. No law gainst me takin' what I came here for. She's got a bounty on her head."
"No she doesn't," Chris said coolly. "Vin Tanner had the bounty on his head. Vin's been dead for weeks now. Vivian's free and clear."
"Not in my book," Sanderson laughed. "I know bout her --- that she used t'be Vin Tanner. That makes her fair game." He smiled and raised his gun, aiming it for Ezra's chest. "And ain't nobody gonna stand between me and five hundred dollars. Especially not another Tanner."
All action froze, eyes widening as the unmistakable -- and long-missed -- sound of the mare's leg roared into the fray. Sanderson's eyes widened and he looked down at his chest, where a dark stain was slowly beginning to spread.
Ezra turned to find Vivian striding from the saloon, her mare's leg ready for another shot. As she reached Ezra's side, she said to Sanderson, "Vin Tanner died weeks ago. There is no bounty. You threw your life away for nothing."
That was the last thing Sanderson heard as he hit the ground.
"Well done, love," Ezra said, putting an arm around her shoulders.
Vivian jerked it off and whirled to face him. "And as for you!"
A million thoughts went through Ezra's mind, but all that came out was a startled, "Huh?"
Vivian handed the mare's leg to Chris, then turned back to her husband, jabbing a finger in his chest. "What the hell was that 'stay under cover, we'll handle it' crap?"
"Vivian, I was merely --"
"Listen, Ez! An' listen good, cuz I'm only gonna say this once! I am your wife, and I love you more than anything. But get this straight! I. Fight. My. Own. Battles! You fight beside me, you're more'n welcome. But you dare to fight for me, an'... an'...... well, I'll think o'somethin' when I ain't so pissed off!" She turned and stormed back into the saloon.
Give me some time, Ez. Just a little time.
I love you. I'm sorry.
I know ya are, an' I love you too. Just need some time, Robin. Just a little time. And she closed the link.
Ezra couldn't help it -- he broke into a wide grin in the middle of the street, even as he bent to help Nathan move the corpse. 'Robin', she'd called him. Cause of the red coat and his conning the rich.
'Robin Hood' Tanner.
Ezra laughed out loud at that. *God bless her,* he thought, shaking his head.
Michaelson boarded the stage without a word or a backwards glance. Ezra and Vivian stood watching him, Ezra's hands on his wife's shoulders as they had been that day he arrived in town.
Good riddance, both of them thought.
Chris echoed it, then turned to hear the Judge calling his name. Smiling, Travis said, "I'm glad I caught you!"
Chris couldn't suppress the wince. Last time he'd heard those words, Travis had issued the proclamation that Vivian was 'out of commission'.
"I've got something for you to see." He pressed a piece of paper into Chris's hand. "That's my reminder to myself to get the town a new tracker and sharpshooter." He gave a tight chuckle. "Without that paper, I'm more than liable to forget to get one. You know how my memory is." Leaving the paper in Chris's hand, Travis got on the stage and leaned out. "You do realise that until I remember to replace her, Vivian Tanner will have to do."
Chris was grinning from ear to ear. "I'll pass the message along."
Travis nodded and motioned for the driver to go. As the stage pulled out, he leaned out the window and called, "Good luck, Chris! No telling when I'll remember!"
He laughed and watched the stage leave. Then he smiled at the married pair, who were embracing, both with tears in their eyes. Welcome back, cowgirl.
She smiled and turned to face him. Never left, cowboy. Just got a little lost in the shuffle. She smiled up into her gambler husband's face. Nice t'know I got six friends who'll fish me outta the deck, right?
Right, my Queen of Hearts. Exactly right. And Chris turned away to give them privacy as the Tanners kissed deeply on the boardwalk.
The telegraph operator was swamped. And that was putting it kindly. He was sorting the pile he'd gotten in the last five minutes alone when the key began to click again.
With a sigh of frustration, he hit it, asking for a repetition of the message even as his other hand grabbed pencil and paper.
He recorded the words verbatim. *For Ezra Standish STOP Please inform am coming to town. STOP M.S. END*
Beyond frustration at this point, and attempting to help out the Seven, the operator clacked the keys rapidly, sending a message of his own back to the sender. He was completely unaware of what events he was setting in motion with his aggravated, terse message.
*For M.S. STOP Please be informed Ezra Standish no longer in Four Corners STOP Hasn't lived here in weeks STOP Four Corners telegraph operator Tyler.*
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