I hate slow days.
I tend to get antsy when the inevitable lull rolls around. I lean too much toward introspection to be satisfactorily comfortable in silences.
Recently, the lulls have become even more excruciating due the fact a hovering Chris Larabee has been added to the mix. Despite repeated assurances by both Vin and myself that we are fine, that the residuals of the merge are fading, the man still plays the vulture role.
And I reckon my display of sharpshooting with the weather vane didn't help matters any.
Okay, so perhaps Chris has a reason to worry....
Ezra's head snapped up from his journal as the sound repeated itself.
He grinned and 'asked', Okay, which of you two miscreants is shooting stones at my window?
The question bounced off a slightly muzzy mental shield, answering itself. Chris was battling some inner devil and getting steadily drunk. The shield would let him do that without affecting either Vin or Ezra.
Although due to the link it now took three times as long...
Ezra went to the window and raised it. A mental 'heads-up' would have been sufficient.
Yeah, but not near as much fun, Vin grinned back at him. I'm headin' to the river -- wanna come?
Ezra turned from the window and grabbed his hat. He wondered briefly how Vin could be so unconcerned about Chris, only to have that question answered as he headed down the stairs. At a table in the corner shadows sat Chris, nursing a bottle of whiskey -- and Buck sitting by him. Buck had no glass in front of him.
Sensing eyes on him, Buck raised his head -- and nodded at Ezra. Ezra returned it, knowing Chris would be okay. His own personal guardian was keeping sentry.
Walking outside, Ezra nodded to Vin. "Mister Wilmington is on the job, I see."
"Yup. An' I've got that little corridor of the link closed off. Patrol's done for me, it's a gorgeous day, an' I figured we could use a bit of time at the river."
"An excellent suggestion, Vin. Ride or walk?"
"Walk. Ain't far." His eyes shone with glee. Besides, maybe I can teach you a few more tricks along the way.
Ezra nodded. And I'll return the favor, he said, grinning broad enough that his gold tooth caught the light. "Shall we?"
"Let's!" Vin laughed and they headed off.
Ever since the events at Cutter's Pass, rumors had been spreading quietly through Four Corners that perhaps the gambler was finally going insane. Certainly he wasn't acting completely...himself. When the pair returned from the river, the rumor mill gained more grist.
Of course Ezra was going mad. What other explanation could there be for the normally impeccable gambler to walk back into town barefoot -- carrying his boots -- his hat nowhere to be seen and his sandy hair rumpled, his jacket slung carelessly over one arm and his sleeves rolled to his elbows -- the cravat missing totally and the shirt undone just less than halfway. To top it off, he was laughing freely, his green eyes practically shining with delight.
Vin was in a similar state of rumpled disrepair and mirth, but the townspeople were used to his rumpledness. This, however, was something they'd be talking about for quite some time!
The fact of the matter was that en route to the river, the pair had been 'talking' about their childhoods. Ezra had confided he'd never gotten in a true water fight. So Vin had coaxed him into the water on the pretext of teaching him how to fish with his bare hands. The next thing Ezra knew, he was in a full-fledged splashing and dunking battle! Before long, Ezra found himself laughing and fighting back -- having childlike fun for the first time in his life. Their rumpledness was due to nothing more sinister than having so much fun they'd lost track of time and had hustled into their outer clothing and back into town.
Vin suddenly looked over at Ezra. "That was fun. We ought'a do that again sometime."
"The next available opportunity, you have a deal!" Ezra shook Vin's hand to seal the deal. Then he frowned slightly at the small cloud of dust on the other end of town. "Riders arriving or departing?" he asked.
The tracker shook his head. "Neither," he said. "Stagecoach leavin'." He then socked Ezra on the arm. "Hey!"
"Betcha can't beat me to the jail!" and he began to run.
Ezra blinked hard, then burst out laughing. "You bedlamite cheater!" he bellowed, running after the tracker.
Vin's laughter was as much mental as physical. He pulled up short just off the boardwalk, however -- stopping so suddenly the gambler couldn't check his speed and literally smacked directly into his back. Vin whirled around and helped him to his feet.
What was THAT all about? Ezra shot, slightly stunned from the impact.
We've got company, Vin informed him.
We do? He ran a hand through his rumpled hair and turned to face who Vin was indicating. A nervous giggle involuntarily escaped as he ran his hands along his clothing in a vain attempt to smooth them out. When he gained his voice, it was strong with only the slightest tremor to it.
To say that Maude gaped at the sight would be a gross understatement. Her green eyes very slowly raked her son's form, taking in the dishevelment and the grin that he couldn't erase. ".......Ezra?" she finally asked in a voice half cold disapproval and half naked astonishment.
He looked at Vin and the grin widened before he turned back to her. "Last time I looked, yeah," he said and both men laughed.
Maude didn't. "Look at you!" she finally burst out. "Indulging in... in..."
"It's called fun, Mother!" Ezra laughed. "I strongly suggest your partaking in it occasionally. It's quite profitable!" A wink at Vin, who got the double meaning of his last statement, and Ezra was en route to the saloon --- humming a song quite off-key.
Vin winced at the tuneless tune and nodded once to Maude. "Ma'am," he said succinctly, heading toward his wagon home.
Her manicured hand on his arm stopped him. "Mister Tanner," she said coldly. "I don't know why my son is acting in this...deplorable... fashion, but I suspect you have something to do with it."
"Nothin' deplorable 'bout havin' a good time, ma'am," Vin said with an easy smile. He extricated his arm with a dancer's grace and nodded in her direction again. With that, he made his way to the wagon and climbed in, lowering the flap behind him.
Maude stared after him, her eyes narrowing.
Chris scratched on the wagon flap half an hour later. C'mon in, cowboy, came the warm reply.
"Went t'the river, the both o'ya," Chris said aloud as he climbed in.
Vin was sitting in the back, doing something with his hands that Chris couldn't quite make out. "Yep," he answered with a grin. He put whatever he was working with away and came to sit across from Chris. "You were so deep into the bottle that we figured we'd leave you be."
"Wasn't for long," Chris chuckled. "Started tastin' like river water."
The tracker winced. "Sorry bout that."
"Ah, don't be. Buck an' me had a long talk."
"Get whatever was up your butt out?" And both of them grinned at the startled mental SPLORT that erupted. Go slower when ya eat, Ez, Vin calmly replied. An' it ain't polite t'eavesdrop.
As if you are the only one concerned over Chris's well-being, came the instant answer. I'm staying put, thank you very much.
Yes, you two busybodies, Chris replied. I got it out of my system.
Wanna talk about it? Vin asked gently.
Chris shook his head. Not yet. Maybe someday. Just wanted t'let you --- BOTH -- know I'm okay. I'm goin' for a walk, then me and Buck are takin' the night patrol.
Vin frowned. Hang on, that's ours tonight.
So I changed it. Chris grinned at the tracker's expression, then he sobered. Seriously, I need to get out of town for a bit.
I understand THAT. Vin squeezed his arm. Get going, Cowboy.
With a swat to Vin's still-tousled head, Chris left the wagon.
Vin leaned against the wagon's wall and sent, How're you doing?
Going mad as usual, Ezra sighed. She is thoroughly insufferable and she won't let me get a word in edgewise.
Like some backup?
On my way.
Ezra took a pull on his drink and nodded as Maude went on. He was barely listening to her, having long ago tired of hearing her repeat again and again in endless variation "I've got this con, come help me with it and stop wasting your life here".
Ah, mother, he thought at one point, grinning as he felt Chris and Vin both agree with him. If you only knew how entrenched my life here has become...
"....Ezra, my boy, are you listening to me? Why are you grinning like a moronic idiot?"
"Merely a pleasant thought, Mother." Vin walked through the saloon's batwing doors at that moment. Bout time!
Sorry --- Casey stopped me. He meandered toward their table as if surprised to see them there. "Ez. Ma'am." He touched two fingers to the brim of his large hat before taking it off and laying his hand lightly on an empty chair. "May I join y'all?"
"Feel free, Vin," Ezra said with a smile.
Vin sat down and Ezra ordered a meal for him. Vin met Maude's eyes, calmly weathering the ice that shot at him. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything?" he asked casually.
"Nope," Ezra said, and Maude's eyebrows shot WAY up as she looked from one to the other. "Mother was merely telling me of her latest... business prospect."
"Oh?" Vin smiled at Inez as she laid the meal before him. "Thank you." When she moved off, he picked up his fork and took a bite. "Mm. This is excellent."
Maude's eyebrows shot up again.
"So," Vin said between bites. "Tell me about this prospect."
Ezra waited, but Maude seemed to have been struck dumb. She just kept looking from one to the other. Her eyes rested on her son -- this strangely altered Ezra who she'd caught leaning back in a chair at one point. Her son now used plainer speech and seemed to have developed a decided aversion to cravats -- indeed to ties of any kind. Then they moved to Vin -- this ruffian who had always been well-mannered. Now, however, he seemed to be becoming refined as well -- clean-shaven, his plain clothes neatly pressed and his hand staying on the napkin in his lap as he ate.
Again and again, the same phrase ran through her mind. *What is going on here?*
When no words seemed to be forthcoming from his mother, Ezra spoke up. "She has obtained some documents that she wishes to utilise for monetary advantage in California."
Without taking a pause to translate, Vin nodded. "I see. And your part in it?"
Ezra laughed. "I don't have a part in it, but Mother refuses to hear it."
Maude opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Vin brought the napkin up and laid it beside his empty plate before turning to her. "Ma'am, I'm a plain sort of fella, without the fancy breedin' and education you and Ez here got. But even I know that when someone says they ain't got a part in somethin', it's polite to at least hear them out." He stood up. "I've got an appointment cross town. Ez, you comin'?"
"Surely." He sat forward, putting all the legs of the chair on the floor with a thud. He stood up and kissed Maude on the cheek. "See ya later, Mother. Take care."
Vin picked up his hat and nodded his head. "Ma'am." Together, he and Ezra walked out the saloon doors.
Maude stared after them, her jaw hanging so low it nearly touched her bosom and her eyes open so wide they nearly fell from their sockets. "......Ezra....." she whispered. "....what the hell has happened to you?"
An appointment? Ezra asked, amused.
Vin shrugged. Felt like goin' for a ride. Livery's nearly across town. Care t'join me?
An expression of pure delight broke over Ezra's face. He laughed aloud. Of course! The further from HER I get, the better I feel!
That set Vin to laughing. Chris, we're heading out awhile.
What about Maude? Chris asked.
Following a rude suggestion as to how and where Maude could spend her time, Vin and Ezra rode out of town. Chris frowned as he watched them from the boardwalk.
Yes, he was definitely becoming worried about that pair.
Maude saw Vin leaning against the support pole on the boardwalk and walked over to him. "Mister Tanner --- a moment of your time, if I may?"
He favoured her with a charming smile. "A moment, Ma'am. Then I've things that need my attention."
That smile -- so like her son's -- made her shiver involuntarily. Then she drew on all her acting skills and forced a similar charming smile. "I wish to speak with you concerning my son."
He met her eyes for a second, then looked out over Four Corners. "I'm listening."
"It is my observation that Ezra is behaving... most oddly... of late."
Vin's attention was drawn by a group of riders just entering the town. His brow furrowed. They looked familiar....
"His behavior is most lax, as is his speech. I have noticed even his appearance beginning to suffer from this odd malady that has befallen him."
Got strangers in town, Vin sent. Look familiar, but I've never seen 'em before. Either of you recognise them?
"Now, I cannot shake the impression that you know more about what has become of my son than you are letting on. I merely wish to know if this is indeed the case and if so, what you intend to do about it."
Nope, Cowboy, can't say as I know 'em. What about you, Ezra?
Vin, get my mother under cover! NOW!
"Mister Tanner, are you listening to me?"
"Maude, come on!" Vin grabbed her by the waist and hauled her bodily into the saloon. At that very moment, the mounted men began to shoot without a word.
Vin pinned Maude against the wall and shielded her with his own body. To her credit, she never made a sound. The barrage ended as suddenly as it began, and an imperious voice rang out. "Standish! Where are you, you son of a bitch!"
As they moved toward the door of the jail, JD asked, "Friends of yours?"
"Old enemies," Ezra sighed.
JD blinked at his concise answer. "Swindled at the table?"
Ezra shook his head. "Not this time." He walked out into the street, his normal proud gait more of an easygoing amble. JD blinked at the odd sight. "Cole!" Ezra called.
The mounted man turned and grinned, getting off the horse. His four companions did the same. "Bout time I tracked you down," he smirked.
"I showed mercy the last time we met," Ezra growled. "You're still alive."
Cole nodded. "An' I've been waitin' three years to get you for takin' my hand!" he hefted a stump where his left hand used to be.
"At least I didn't take your life."
Images flowed into Chris and Vin's minds -- images of a young Standish called into a duel over a maid's honor. Images of Ezra shooting for the hand and being so fast he won without a shot being fired from the other gun.
"You took my livelihood," Cole growled. "Time to return the favor." And he drew -- and shot.
Ezra hissed as the bullet went cleanly through his left hand. He went involuntarily to his knees.
Vin instantly leaned out the batwing doors of the saloon and his mare's leg roared. Cole went down, crying out as his other hand was nearly severed from his body.
"Oh, my God, what's happening out there?" Maude wailed. "That maniac is after my boy! He's going to --"
"Maude, for the love of heaven, shut up!" Vin spun back against the wall and glared at her, and Maude gasped involuntarily. The voice was higher than Vin's normal one, and the eyes glaring at her were emerald green.
Chris and Buck ran to find Ezra in the street on his knees, head bowed, his left hand bleeding. Chris drew his gun and pointed it at Cole, bellowing his name.
Ezra's quiet voice in his mind retorted, No.... he's mine.
Cole held his now-useless right hand up with the stump of his left arm. "Kill him!" he bellowed to his men.
All but one aimed right on Ezra. That one held up his hands and stepped back, shaking his head. "Forget it," he called. "We're outgunned and outmanned!"
Josiah took him by the shoulders and nudged him toward the jail. "You got more sense than the rest o'these put together," he growled.
Three things happened simultaneously. Four guns roared in such precision it sounded like one huge explosion. All of Cole's remaining men fell like cards. Cole looked around and then back at Ezra. He laughed and used his stump to catch his horse's reins. As he swung on the horse, he taunted, "There will be another day, gambler!"
"Like hell there will," Ezra ground out. His Colt suddenly appeared in his hand and he struggled to his feet. "Cole!" he cried, his voice seeming to deepen.
There was a note in that voice that Cole took note of. He whirled his horse around, a look of puzzlement on his face. The Colt roared and Cole flew from his horse, a third eye blooming onto his forehead.
Buck walked over to Ezra and lay a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"
Ezra turned to look at him, and Buck's eyes widened. Involuntarily, he took a step back.
The eyes were ice blue.
Nathan took Ezra's left hand and forced it open. "I don't believe it," he said after a minute. "...that bullet went between the bones of your hand! You're gonna be fine!"
Those eerie blue eyes turned to him. "Today was my lucky day, huh?"
"It's starting to look that way," Nathan chuckled. "Let's get you patched up."
Ezra grumbled all the way to Nathan's clinic. Chris frowned after him. "Buck.... did you see his eyes?" he asked softly.
Buck nodded. "They were Vin's," he replied in kind.
"Find Vin," he ordered the ladies' man. Raising his voice, he called to Josiah and JD. "Get these bodies out of the street and post a guard on the man in the cell!"
Maude laid a hand on Vin's shoulder and looked into his eerie green eyes. "....Mister Tanner?"
"Don't touch me," he growled, shrugging her off. "You never wanted to touch me before, don't start now."
"Before?" she asked, confused.
His eyes narrowed. "Never wanted me around," he growled as he holstered his gun. "Always pawnin' me off on whoever you could pay t'take care o'me. Never mind I was beaten or hurt. Never mind I cried myself to sleep most every night wantin' you t'come home. No, Maude Standish had her cons to pull, and a minor inconvenience like a child didn't make a hell of difference!"
Maude took a step backward, startled. Her mouth worked but no sound came out for a moment. Then she heard herself saying the impossible. "E....Ezra?"
A familiar, two-fingered salute that looked absolutely --- wrong --- coming from Vin Tanner.
"We don't even know that, Mother."
The smile looked all wrong on his face, too. "Because you raised me as too much of a gentleman to say how I really feel about you. Vin, though, has no such scruples about it. Not when it comes to you. Good day...Maude." And he walked out of the saloon.
Maude sank into a chair. Totally alone in the saloon, she began to shake from head to toe. *What have I done....* she thought. *....And what's going on here.....*
Maude pulled her wrap tighter around her as she stepped from the hotel into the deserted street. Perhaps she could, indeed, slip away from town with no one being the wiser....
"Goin' somewhere, Maude?"
.....and then again, perhaps not. She smiled and turned to face the lanky form leaning against the hotel front. "Mister Tanner..... or is it Ezra?"
"Both," came the concise reply. He pushed away from the building and walked over to her, taking one of her two ubiquitous heavy bags. "It's not polite to sneak away."
She studied his face, taking note of the one blue eye and one green one. "Yes, indeed, you both are there," she whispered. In a normal voice, she sighed, "Oh, well, you know how it goes.... things don't work out as one expects and ---"
"You're runnin' scared."
"Really?" she asked in a voice filled with Standish ice. "And just which one of you has reached that erroneous conclusion?"
"Hardly erroneous, Mother." And the free hand squeezed hers. "You don't quite understand what has happened to us, and you're at a total loss as to how to turn this to your advantage. You are, therefore, exiting town with all due haste till you can gather your wits about you and regroup." A grin spread and the voice deepened just a shade. "As I said -- you're runnin' scared."
Maude sighed. "Put that way, I suppose I am." She met the mismatched eyes. "But honestly, do you blame me?"
"Honestly? Nope." He brought her to the saloon. "You can wait for the stage here."
"Can..." She shook her head. "This sounds so strange to say -- but can Ezra's ... body... feel it if I kiss you goodbye?"
A simple nod was the answer.
Maude stood on her tiptoes and brushed her lips across Vin's high cheekbone. "Take care of yourself, son." She lay a gloved fingertip on his nose. "Both of yourselves."
He smiled and held her hand tenderly for a moment. "We will, Mother. Maude." A dip of the head, a two-fingered touch to the brim, and the man with two minds left her in the saloon to wait.
She sat down in the nearest chair and sighed, running her hand over her mouth and chin. "Nobody is going to believe this one...."
After lunch at Mary Travis's, Chris and Buck walked into the saloon to see things pretty much back to normal. JD and Josiah were arguing the finer points of darts while Nathan walked out past them, tipping his hat. "Fellas."
"Nathan," they chorused as he walked on. Buck nudged Chris and pointed.
Chris grinned. Having fun?
Ezra and Vin both looked up from the table and smiled. Ezra's bandaged hand was in a sling, and his other one was nursing a drink while Vin clumsily shuffled the cards. We certainly are, Chris. Care to join us?
"We've been asked to join in," Chris relayed.
Buck grinned and rubbed his hands together. "Well, what're we waitin' for?" He strode to the table, a chuckling Chris right behind.
They found the piles of money roughly equal. "Just started, huh?" Buck asked.
"Nope, been at it awhile," Vin said. "Ez's a little distracted still."
"More like you are extraordinarily on top of your game," Ezra grinned and drew a long pull on the drink before setting it aside.
"Maybe a little of both?" Chris suggested. "You two ain't completely separate yet, are ya?"
"Perhaps," Ezra said with a bit of deviltry gleaming in his emerald eyes as he watched the tracker suddenly shuffle the cards with surprising dexterity.
"Yep," Vin said with a chuckle as he set the cards on the table and lifted the top one for Chris and Buck to see.
The Ace of Spades. "Perhaps."
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