It had been six weeks since the nightmarish events in the Seminole Village. Vin looked at his reflection in the water and sighed as he ran a hand down his cheek. Very deliberately, he smiled at his reflection -- and had to close his eyes and look away.
The hair was no longer an issue. The green eyes he was growing used to. But those dimples and that damned gold tooth would take forever to get used to.
He sighed and climbed to his feet. Brooding about the situation wouldn't do anybody any good. He would look like this for the rest of his life -- might as well quit mourning what could never be and get back to living again.
After he was settled onto Peso, a free hand reached up and touched the medicine bundle under his shirt. He smiled unconsciously as he thought of the newest article the small pouch held ---- a four-inch long thin braid made of some of the long brunette curls that he'd cut from Ezra's head the day they realised they were stuck. Ezra had had the braid made just for that purpose -- so Vin would always have a part of 'the me I used to be' with him.
Vin petted the saddlebag, smiling as he reflected on its contents --- which included a small leather pouch on a cord. Inside that pouch lay four auburn curls, with more trinkets to come.
Part of 'the me Ezra used to be'...... a medicine pouch Vin would give Ezra on his birthday.
Smiling widely, Vin clucked and Peso bore him back to town.
She stepped off the stagecoach and got settled in. She moved into the street, toward the saloon, intent on greeting the seven once more.
Hearing hoofbeats behind her, she cast a cursory glance over her shoulder to see who was riding up. Her parasol clattered to the ground and her jaw fell open as she stared at the rider in unadulterated shock.
He stopped the horse and got off, having soft words with the unruly beast as it nipped -- playfully? -- at his shoulder. Passing the reins to Tiny, he moved toward the saloon, smiling at her and nodding in greeting, his fingers touching his hat in salute. "Ma'am. Welcome back."
She shook her head, her eyes raking him up and down. "....what....what...."
He blinked and looked down at himself, frowning at her. "What what?" he asked in confusion.
She recovered her parasol and moved forward, shaking it at him. "I knew this was a bad idea! I knew living in this town would... would....Ezra Standish, look at you!"
"Why, you..... you've.... you've degenerated!" she spat. "Didn't I teach you that appearances are everything? And I come here and what do I find?"
"Ma'am, please, I ---"
"Look at you!" she blew again, gesturing at the plain brown pants held on by worn suspenders, the red plaid shirt and the faded bandana around his neck. "Instead of giving these ruffians something to emulate, you have emulated them! You had such promise, Ezra! And now --- now!"
"Now, hold on! I'm ----"
"Even this!" she swept the hat from his head with her parasol.
Before he had a chance to do more than that, she had a hand at the nape of his neck, tugging on the curls that now came to mid-neck. As he hollered his protest, she pulled the hair. "When was the last time you went to a barber, Ezra? Your hair is an undignified length! Those clothes......I swear, when I think of what I sacrifi---"
"MAUDE!! I'M NOT EZRA!!!" He finally got out.
Maude released him and took a step backward, shocked into silence.
Watching from the saloon, Buck chuckled. "Think we ought’a go back him up?"
"Think he's suffered enough?" Chris asked, grinning over his shoulder.
Ezra ran his thumb over his lower lip, blue eyes dancing in delight as he watched the scene from where he was leaning on Buck's shoulder. "Perhaps," he agreed between chuckles. "But the tableau is extremely entertaining!"
A pang went through Chris and Buck. They still weren't completely used to this. Chris still felt a chill in his soul as he watched the long form unfold itself from the familiar Lean. The propping up wasn't a symptom of relaxation, the Seven had quickly realised after the Switch.
No, that particular idiosyncrasy was physical. If who was now Ezra didn't Lean periodically, his back would go into agonising spasms.
Ezra spread his arms slightly and reached for the ceiling, easing a now-familiar cramp. "Well, gentlemen," he chuckled as he came out of it. "Let us go and rescue the hapless individual on the street."
"Yeah, Vin looks lost," Buck chuckled.
"I was referring to my mother," Ezra grinned as they walked through the batwing doors.
Vin looked to the side and relaxed, seeing the others walk up. "About time!" he ground out. "Where were you when she was pullin' my hair, huh?"
"Enjoyin' the show, cowboy," Chris grinned.
"Oh, very funny..."
Ezra walked up to Maude and took her hand. "Mother," he said, raising the gloved hand to his lips, noticing idly how the fading calluses on the long-fingered hand caught the fine silk. His blue eyes shone in merriment.
For Maude, she was doing amply well not to faint. "Ez...Ezra?" she gasped out.
A single nod of the head was the only reply he made.
Her eyes flicked from one to the other. "Good Lord....HOW?"
"A very long story, and one I'd prefer to share over some libations. If you gentlemen will excuse me...."
"Hey Ez!" Vin called after him. The Standishes turned, and found themselves on the receiving end of a dimpled, gold-toothed grin. "Make sure she don't pull your hair! She pulls hard!"
Ezra ran his free hand through the thick sandy curls on his head and grinned back. "I doubt that'll be a problem, Vin, but I'll keep it in mind!"
After half a bottle of brandy and some conversation, Maude was sufficiently relaxed to accept that the man wearing the sharpshooter's face and form really was her son. Sensing this, Ezra tilted his head slightly and asked conversationally, "So what brings you to Four Corners, Mother?"
She took another sip of brandy. "I had come here to take you away for a time. Not long, only a week or so." She smiled. "But now that hardly seems necessary."
He cocked an eyebrow. "Why do you say that?"
"Because James will never think to look for you looking like that." She laughed. "You're safe!"
"Hold on, Mother...James who?"
"Why, James Mayson, of course. The ungodly cad that had designs upon marriage." She shuddered.
Ezra blinked slowly, one hand rising to rub his nose in a gesture of frustration. "Mother.... why would an ungodly cad be looking after me if he was to marry you?"
"Because I refused him, darlin'. With his temper and penchant for drink and violence, there was no way I was going t---"
"MOTHER!" Ezra got her attention. "Why. Would. He. Come. Lookin'. For. Me?"
Maude swallowed hard. "Why, to force me to become his bride by usin' you as a means of....persuasion." She leaned forward and petted the back of his hand. "But with you wearin' that face ---"
Ezra let out a curse and overturned his chair as he stood. Automatically, he stretched and the nagging pain retreated again. Then he leaned over the table and met her eyes. "Do you realise what you've done?"
She let out a short, tight laugh. "Why, darlin', you don't have to worry..."
"But Vin does. Because of your poor choice in men, one of my friends is in danger. AGAIN."
"He's more than that," came Chris's tight voice from the doorway.
Ezra turned to face him, blue eyes widening. "What do you mean? Please tell me it's not what I think it is..."
Chris raised his hand -- a battered wide-brimmed hat rested in it. "Vin's gone."
"Gone!?!" Ezra took the hat out of Chris's hands and moved out, taking in the signs of a tussle on the street.
Maude smiled and stood up. "Well... at least my boy is safe now... so I'll just be on my ---"
"Where do you think you're going?" Chris asked dangerously.
She blinked at him. "Ezra will be fine... that was why I came to this quaint town..."
Chris pointed at the chair. "Sit down, Maude."
"What?" she asked incredulously.
"Sit. Down. You're not goin' anywhere."
"B-But.... but Ezra is safe... I don't need to remain..."
Ezra walked back in. His features were set in hard lines, anger seething from every pore. "This is your fault, Mother," he ground out. "All your fault!"
"My fault?" she asked incredulously. "Ezra, I came here to warn you of James Mayson's actions!"
He glared at her, his eyes cerulean flint. "And, as usual, I and my friends are left to pick up the pieces!"
Maude drew herself up to her full height and daubed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief. "Lord forbid anyone should be subjected to such a fate ---"
Ezra groaned and took the handkerchief from her hand. "Mother," he snapped, "spare me the histrionics! You have brought every bit of this on your own head!"
"Fine," Maude ground out between clenched teeth as she leaned over the table separating them. Blue eyes met blue as she snarled, "Fine. I swear, Ezra, you may look completely different, but you're just as mule-headed...ungrateful...."
"Ungrateful?" Ezra yelped. "You come--come waltzing into my life... again.... with some romantic entanglement ... again... and strand me with the consequences! AGAIN! And I'm supposed to be grateful?!"
Maude just glared at him, speechless.
Ezra went on, "And now -- because of you -- my friend has been abducted because he has the ill fortune to wear my face!"
"But you are fine!" Maude protested. "I don't see why you can't accept that!"
"Yes!" Ezra snarled. "Yes, I'm fine, but he is not!" He took her arms and settled her in the chair. "Now you are going to sit here and give up everything you know about James Mayson!"
"I will not; I have nothing to say!" she growled.
He leaned over until his nose all but touched hers. "You will help us, Mother," he said softly but dangerously. "For if something should happen to Vin because of your duplicitous involvement with this... person... I shall personally incarcerate you until the sainted dead arise from their graves."
Her eyes narrowed. "You're bluffing."
The smile that twisted Ezra's lips held no dimples, no gold tooth -- and no humour. "Try me."
Vin struggled against his bonds, wincing at the pain that caused his already battered ribs. He moved his left arm and bit down hard on his lower lip, eyes closing convulsively as tears streamed from the corners at the agony that caused the dislocated shoulder.
The thought crossed his mind and made him smile despite the pain: Never thought the son-of-a-bitch would UNDERSTATE anything... he sure did the pain!
Vin looked around the camp again, his quick mind working out escape plans. Unfortunately, every one of them entailed him getting out of these bonds and that wasn't likely to happen quite yet. At least, not while his shoulder was hanging limply out of the socket.
Five men. All of them larger than he was. He didn't know them from jack, he didn't know why they attacked him in the first place!
One of them smiled. "Ah, you're awake. Sorry about the rough treatment, but Mayson wants you, boy. No matter what shape you're in, long as you're alive."
Vin nodded toward his shoulder. "......cain't ya... at least.... get that back for me?"
"I'll get the doc over here, he'll do it. Ribs hurtin' ya?"
"Who.... are... you guys?"
The man laughed. "James Mayson sent us after you."
Vin shook his head. "Don't know... no James....Mayson...."
"No, I wouldn't think you would. But that's okay --- see, you're just the bait."
Alarm shot through Vin. BAIT?....for Chris? "....bait?" he asked aloud. "What... for?"
The talkative man checked Vin's bonds, making him gasp. "Mayson's gonna keep ya, boy, so's to force yer ma back home."
Vin frowned. "My... ma?" He wished the pain would ease up a bit; he was starting to hear things. His mother was long dead....
"Yup. Seems Mayson's taken a right shine to that Southern belle...."
Aw, hell.... "Ain't my ma."
The talkative man paused. "....what?"
"She ain't my ma!" He raised green eyes, clouded with anger as well as pain, to meet the man's. "I ain't Ezra Standish!"
The man examined his face, then burst into laughter. "Well-played, Standish!" he chuckled. "You even managed to change your entire speech pattern!" He leaned closer, and the eyes were suddenly menacing. "But I'm warning you --- Mayson is no fool. Do not play him for one."
As the man moved off, Vin leaned back against the tree he was tied to. "Aw, shit...."
Maude drove a covered wagon up to Mayson's homestead two days later. Her face was set in grim lines. Her fussing over the horses distracted the guards from the figures sliding from the back of the wagon.
Mayson walked out, smiling humourlessly. "Maude.... it's so very good to see you again."
Without moving from her seat, she snarled, "Cut the pleasantries, Mayson. Where is he?"
"Where is who, dear heart?"
"Don't you play games with me," she half-spat. "I know you had your men kidnap that young man and I want him back!"
"Well, now, that's very easily solved," he came down from the porch. "Just marry me and he'll be released."
"I will never marry you."
Mayson shrugged. "Then I'm afraid you'll never see your darling boy again." He raised a hand ----
---and the barrel of a gun pressed into the side of his neck. "I wouldn't," a voice like soft death itself hissed in his ear. "Not unless you want your brains splattered all over this dear lady's frock."
"And I paid good money for this dress, too," Maude said with a mirthless grin.
Mayson licked his lips. "I see you brought company, Maude. Too bad."
"Too bad?" Maude gasped. "What d'you mean, too bad?"
Mayson made a cutting motion with the hand he'd raised. A second later there was a gunshot. He smiled. "You sentenced your dear boy to death."
"I beg to differ," a cultured drawl said and Ezra walked from the barn, wiping blood off of his green jacket as he did so. He raised cerulean eyes and met Mayson's startled ones. "The next time you decide to propagate a ruse of this sort, Mister Mayson, I suggest you first of all make certain you have the correct victim."
"Vin?" Chris called, never moving his gun from Mayson's neck.
"Safe," Ezra said succinctly. "In the capable hands of Messers Sanchez and Jackson as we speak."
Mayson shook his head slightly. "But I heard the shot!"
"Ah, yes, the shot." Ezra sighed. "Once we dispatched the others and were informed of your signal, I bided my time until it came --- then I shot harmlessly into the side of the barn."
"That's my boy," Maude muttered proudly, shaking her head and smiling.
"You think you've won," Mayson snarled.
Chris finally moved the gun. "Correction, Mayson." He turned it over and rammed the butt against where Mayson's head met his neck, sending the rancher into unconsciousness. "We know we've won."
Ezra watched the stage pull away from Four Corners, only coming out of the Lean and stretching his aching back once she was gone. "Mister Tanner, my estimate of you has ratcheted up a notch," he sighed as he came out of the stretch. "You never ever let on that it hurt this badly."
"Ya never asked," Vin said with a grin.
Ezra smiled at him. "Yes, well....."
"And you never told me how badly a dislocated shoulder hurt!" Vin gently rotated the still-sore arm, wincing as he did so.
"Ya never asked," Ezra mimicked perfectly.
Vin laughed, the gold tooth glinting. "Hey, got somethin' for ya."
"Was savin' it till yer birthday but after today..." He lifted out a leather pouch.
Ezra blinked. "Vin... I can't take ---"
"It ain't mine," Vin interrupted. "It's one I been makin' for you."
Ezra looked inside, then back up at Vin as he closed it and strung it around his neck, tucking it under the silken shirt. "......Vin...."
Without a word, Vin held out his hand.
Ezra took it, and pulled the sharpshooter into a hug. "Thank you," he whispered.
Vin returned the hug, green eyes full of emotion before they closed. "You're very welcome, my friend."
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