On the hill overlooking Four Corners, the peace of the early afternoon was shattered by the whooshing roar of a vortex opening and the startled cries of seven men as they fell out.
Chris was the first on his feet, followed by Vin a second later. "Everyone okay?"
"So far so good," Josiah said, standing shakily.
Ezra just grumbled and knocked dust off of his jacket.
An outraged roar drew their attention. "Will you get off'a me??" Buck shoved JD off of his legs and staggered to his feet, slapping his hat against his thigh. "Jeez, wreck a guy's boots! I swear, you aimed for me!"
"I did not," JD said, laughing.
"You did too! I swear, you did!" Buck waggled a finger under his nose. "Don't you do it again, kid, ya hear me!"
"I hear ya, Buck." As he walked off, JD laughed and said softly, "I didn't aim for ya this time...."
"What makes you think there'll be a next?" Nathan asked him, making him grin wider.
Ezra pulled the device out as the vortex vanished. "Mister Larabee, the numbers now read six days, four hours, twenty-three minutes and the seconds are counting down."
"Does that mean that damnable thing is gonna appear again?" Chris moaned.
Vin nodded. "Sounds like it. Good."
"Good?" Buck roared. "How can it be good?"
That produced a wry grin. "Cuz if it comes back, we go back where we started."
JD let out a whoop. "It moved us! We're nearly at Four Corners!"
Chris smiled. "Looks like we won't need that thing after all."
"Perhaps," Ezra said, tucking it into his vest pocket. "Nonetheless, I shall hold onto it."
They walked into town seven abreast, checking it over. All seemed just fine, so they decided to check the prisoners at the jail before heading to the saloon. Why all seven of them went, they couldn't say, but they all felt they had to stay together.
And so, all seven were together when they found the empty jail cells. "What the hell..." Chris gasped.
"Who let the prisoners out?" JD gasped.
"Whoever it is, they're gonna be in the doghouse...." Buck growled.
And from outside came a familiar refrain in a gruff voice. "LARABEE! I'M CALLIN' YOU OUT!"
Chris rolled his eyes. "Now what..."
Vin's voice met their ears. "Larabee don't shoot men! Git outta here fore I do!"
All eyes turned to Vin, who stood wide-eyed and white-faced. "That was me.... but I'm in here!"
"What the hell is going on?" Buck hissed.
"Let's find out," Chris said, moving toward the door.
Only to be stopped cold as a woman's voice, touched with a faint Irish brogue, hit his ears. "Damn you, Sykes, you crawl back into whatever hell-hole you crawled out of. I don't shoot men, but I swear to God I'll make an exception in your case!"
"I said,I'm callin' you out, Larabee! You woman enough to face me?"
Laughter. "That's a joke! You woman enough to face me?”
And a second later, the distinctive bark of Vin's mare's leg roared. Six men started and whirled toward Vin, who looked down at his weapon.
He raised haunted eyes to his friends. "We're not where we should be..."
"I think that's obvious," Josiah said. His eyes were now on Chris, whose hazel eyes were huge in his milky-white face. "Chris?"
"Can't be...." suddenly he was on the move, running into the street, his friends right behind him.
Catching the movement, the two standing people on the street whirled, guns pointed right at him. One was unmistakably Vin -- save for the left hand aiming the gun and the wedding band on that hand.
The other one came up to Vin's shoulder. She was a slender thing dressed all in black, from the hat tied around her throat to the tight jeans to her boots. Her auburn hair bounced as she whirled, aiming the pearl-handled Colt with the deadly ease of long practice.
Suddenly her almond-shaped cerulean eyes widened and the Colt faltered. Her face drained of colour as she lowered the weapon, eyes locked on one form among the seven. Her voice shook as it breathed one word.
"My G-d," Chris said as he stumbled a step closer, his own eyes huge with shocked disbelief.
Vin's double looked back and forth between them. "You know these people?"
She nodded, taking one step closer, eyes locked on Chris. ".....it can't be...."
"....this is impossible...." Chris found himself whispering.
"You're dead!" they gasped in unison, staring at each other.
Vin's double stepped forward. "This some kind'a trick, mister?"
At that, Vin stepped forward, his eyes narrowing. "If it is, it's in mighty poor taste. Who're you and why're you wearin' my face?"
Eyes so like his own swept his form up and down. "Been wearin' it all my life. Who the hell are you?"
"Vin Tanner. You?"
Vin shook his head. "Impossible. We can't both be Vin Tanner!"
"Tell me about it!" the doppelganger growled. "I already got one twin brother, I don't need two!"
"One twin brother?" Vin frowned. "Ain't possible, I'm an only child!"
Suddenly there was the SNIKT of a hammer being pulled back and the cold pressure of steel under his right ear."You may be," a familiar voice holding a very unfamiliar regional accent growled, "but we are not. Tabitha-love, if you would be so kind...."
At the name, and the sight of a woman in tan pants with long black curls methodically removing their guns, Josiah choked.
"Josiah?" Nathan asked, concerned.
"Tabitha," the preacher gasped. "Her name's Tabitha."
"So?" Buck growled as she liberated his gun from its holster. "Pretty name, unfriendly lady!"
"More than a pretty name," Josiah chuckled, trying very hard to keep himself in check. "...Tabitha's Greek -- it means 'deer'. More exactly -- a female deer."
"So it means a doe. So...." Suddenly Buck's eyes widened and flicked to her. "Holy shit...."
Ezra frowned at that. For once, JD had to explain it to Ezra. "You can not be serious!" he roared, and JD chuckled as he laughed. "....holy shit, a female Buck...." Ezra breathed.
When the seven were unarmed, the man holding the weapon on Vin moved around to face the others. The face was Ezra's -- and there the similarity ended.
This Ezra wore homespun clothes. Sandy blond hair spilled over his shoulders, though the eyes boring into them were emerald flint. A ragged scar bisected his left temple, and his face held the hardness of a lifetime of hurt. The gun never wavered as he moved to the other Vin's side. "Now what do we do with them?" he asked, and Ezra's eyes widened as he pinpointed the accent.
Texan. "I would assume," Ezra said carefully, "you are this man's twin he spoke of?"
A single nod was the reply.
Ezra tilted his head toward Vin. "Somehow, Mister Tanner, I don't believe we're in the Four Corners we protect and serve."
"You just now figurin' that out?" Vin shot back in a whisper.
The seven were frogmarched to the jail and locked into two cells.
“Vin, I don’t think this is necessary,” Sarah began.
The other Vin turned to her, his touch achingly tender on her cheek. “Sarah-love – we don’t know anything about them. Until we find out, I think this is for the best.”
“But, Vin, he’s –“
A shake of the head interrupted her. “No, sweet. He’s not. He only looks like him. Chris is dead, has been for seven years.”
Sarah nodded and they left the jail, arm in arm.
The strange, blond Ezra sat at the desk, guarding them.
“…Sarah…” Chris whispered, touching the cell door with the palms of his hands.
Vin curled his fingers around Chris’s shoulder. “That ain’t her, pard, That’s that Vin’s wife – your double’s widow.”
Chris lowered his head, then gave a slow nod. “It’s just… I’m…”
Josiah spoke from the other cell. “Think of her as a ghost, if it helps.”
A moment, then Chris took a deep breath. “Thanks, Josiah… it does.”
They sat there, trying to figure out this confusing hand. It was Ezra who broke the silence. “We appear to have been transported into…into a funhouse.”
“A funhouse?” Nathan asked, and Ezra nodded.
“Yes,” he continued. “In a funhouse, there are mirrors made of twisted glass. What you see in it is yourself, but a self that is….” He looked over at the desk, where his blond doppelganger sat, legs propped up, cleaning a rifle. “….skewed,” he finished.
Silence fell for a moment, then Vin nodded slowly. “Good an explanation as any, I reckon. So how we gonna get outta here an’ get back home?”
JD spoke up. “That strange device,” He pointed out. “What does it say now?”
Ezra removed it and squinted at the numbers. “Six days, two hours, three minutes and the seconds are counting down.”
Buck pointed at it. “You think that whirlwind is gonna appear again once that thing hits zero?”
The gilded grin shone on him. “In my profession, Mist—Buck – we call that a ‘sucker bet’. One that the answer is a foregone conclusion.”
Chris nodded. “Well, then. We just have to hold on for six days.” He took a deep breath, leaned against the cell door and closed his eyes. “And try to stay sane in the meanwhile.”
Blond Ezra sat up as the little girl walked over and handed him a basket. “Here y’go, Uncle Ezra.”
“Thank y’, Tina,” he smiled, green eyes shining. “Ooh!” He chuckled, looking inside. “Your ma’s famous chicken and dumplings!” He hugged the child one-armed. “Thank you, sweetie.” Tina smiled and skipped off.
The scent of the food – the sight of a child who could have been a female Adam – Chris had to turn away.
It was torture.
Vin and Ezra each rubbed his shoulders.
Before they could say or do anything, however, the door to the jail blew open. Both Ezras shot to their feet as a familiar figure filled the doorway.
“Good Lord,” Ezra whispered, and it was more a prayer than a curse. “…Mother.”
Just like everyone else the Seven had seen in this strange world, Maude appeared to be seen as viewed through twisted glass. She wore a mannish white shirt over a plain burgundy skirt. Her hair was in a rather messy bun and her eyes were raking the cells.
Blond Ezra walked over and gripped her by the shoulders. “Maudie,” he said, his voice kind but firm as he bodily turned her to face him. “Maudie, don’t.”
She ignored him, her neck craning as she looked over his shoulder. Suddenly her eyes widened and her entire face lit up. “Josiah…”
“Aw, hell. Maudie—“ He laid his cupped hand on her cheek and forced her head around gently to face him. Green eyes bored into blue ones. “Maudie, it ain’t him.”
“It ain’t your J’siah. It ain’t Sarah’s Chris. They just look like ‘em. It ain’t them!”
Maude studied his eyes a moment more, and then her shoulders sagged. “…of course, you’re right…. I-I just….for an insane moment….”
Blond Ezra smiled, revealing the telltale glint of gold. “I know, Maudie. Nothin’ insane ‘bout missin’ your husband.”
She gave a shaky smile, then pulled loose and slowly approached the cells. “The Lord took away,” she said softly, her eyes on Josiah. “My husband died of a fever six months ago. We’d only been together four years.”
Josiah shook his head. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
She nodded. “Thank you, sir.” She held out her hands and Josiah clasped them – startled to find them calloused. “The Lord bless you.”
Maude released his hands and moved to the other cell – staring at its four occupants. “Good Lord,” she whispered, her wide eyes fixed on Ezra. “You… you look like….”
“Your son,” he ventured.
She nodded, and her eyes slid involuntarily to Blond Ezra, who was watching this.
Ezra tilted his head, fighting to keep the confusion off his face. His duplicate had stated he and Vin were twins. That ‘tell’ of Maude’s made no sense. “Where is your son, ma’am?” he asked, keeping his voice gentle.
Again, the involuntary eye-slide to his double. Then her voice filled with pain. “He’s dead.”
“Dead?” The Seven gasped as one.
Maude nodded. “He was shot in the head.” Her fingers rose to her forehead, touching the exact place as Blond Ezra’s scar.
”When?” Vin choked out.
Maude closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself. “Two years ago,” she whispered. “I lost my boy two years ago.”
Ezra’s eyes met those of his double, and he read something in those emerald eyes. “….curiouser and curiouser…” he whispered.
Over the next twenty-four hours, the jailed Seven learned more about the strange place they found themselves in.
They discovered yes, indeed, the other Vin and Sarah were husband and wife. Tina was seven – she was the other Chris’s daughter. Sarah’s first husband and son had been burned to death while she and Tabitha Wilmington had been on a trip while she was pregnant with Christina.
They discovered Blond Ezra was Maude’s son. A gunshot wound to the head had erased his memory and had created a new identity for him. He had awakened believing himself to be Ezra Tanner – Vin’s younger-by-fifteen-minutes twin brother. His mannerisms had shifted to match, and his hair had inexplicably become blond within a week’s time.
Shots rang out a few hours later, bringing the Seven to their feet. “Ezra!” Chris bellowed.
Ezra pulled out the device and reported, “Four days, seven hours, fifteen minutes!”
More shots and Chris swore. “We gotta get outta—“
Suddenly the jail door flew open and Maude ran inside. She shoved the pistol in her hand into a holster and grabbed the keys to the cells.
“Maude?” Vin asked, startled.
“We’re outnumbered,” she gasped as she opened the cell that held three. “Your weapons are in the desk –“ She fell silent, opening the second cell. “Vin is probably going to skin me for this – but we need help now.”
Chris caught her arm and met her eyes. He gave a single nod and she returned it.
Once their weapons were back where they belonged, Maude vanished back into the street.
One by one, the Seven stepped out of the jail. They found a mob of men firing at the other peacekeepers, who were doing well to just keep themselves unhurt.
Not a word was spoken. Vin and Ezra peeled off and headed for higher ground. JD and Nathan peeled away as well, heading for vantage points on the other side of the mob.
The other three waited a little bit. Then, with the distinctive bark of Chris’s pearl-handled Colt, the remaining Regulators waded into the fray.
The bullets flew fast and furious. The tide turned so fast it made that world’s mixed-gender Seven’s heads spin.
At last, there were only seven men left standing – and they found themselves outnumbered two-to-one. Five smart ones threw up their hands and threw down their guns.
Josiah, Maude and two Nathans took charge of those five. The other ten surrounded the two -- then JD and his older double peeled off to see about the rest of the own.
Both of the pair left were looking around wildly. Their guns flashed from person to person as if not sure what to do.
Ezra leaned against the hitching post, an arm across his bullet-grazed ribs. “I strongly suggest your surrender,” he advised.
“I strongly suggest you listen to him,” Sarah growled. Her hat was gone, and her auburn hair was slightly disheveled. “You surrender, you might get outta this alive.” Her Colt never wavered from its steady point.
One of the pair stood up straight and flung the gun aside. He stuck his hands in the air and moved toward Tabitha and Blond Ezra.
“Wise choice,” one of the Vins drawled. They were dressed absolutely alike – nobody could tell which was which!
The other Vin nodded and slowly addressed the man who still menaced them – though he was looking less and less of a menace every minute that went by. “What about you? You wise too?”
“Nah,” Chris put in. “He looks dumber’n a burnt-out stump t’me.”
“Y’know, stud?” Buck nodded, pushing his hat back with his thumb. “I do believe you’re right. Smart man’d have that gun put away ‘fore now.”
The man’s gun flicked from speaker to speaker as this happened. His eyes grew wider and wilder.
With a grunt, Ezra moved away from the hitching post and took a step toward the lone gunman. “If I may be so bold?” he asked, not showing any emotion as the gun whirled to bear on him. He made a show of studying the man’s eyes, then gave a satisfied nod. “Yes – just as I thought.”
“Wh-what?” the gunman stammered out. The gun shook ever-so-slightly.
“Sir,” Ezra began. “I make a living not solely from my guns. I also demonstrate some acumen in the mystic arts. I read minds, sir, and yours is wide-open to me.”
“Yeah? So what do you see in him?” Buck asked.
“I see plans gone horribly wrong. I see him promised easy money with nobody getting hurt.” Ezra watched the gunman’s face, seeing from the ‘tells’ he’d hit something. Nodding, Ezra went on.
“I see our compatriots opposing their plans and, confident of superior numbers, the leader attacking.” The man’s eyes widened, and Ezra pressed on, “And things went as planned, didn’t it – until reinforcements arrived.”
The man shook his head. “Hon-honest, mister – I-I just needed the money. I-I never even fired a shot!”
Ezra held out the hand that wasn’t clutching his ribs. “May I? Just to test the veracity of your words?”
The man blinked. “…uhh….”
“He just wants to make sure you’re tellin’ the truth,” Vin translated.
“Oh,” the man said. He seemed to be calmer now. His posture radiated confidence that someone believed his innocence! “Sure… here.” And he lay his gun in Ezra’s outstretched hand.
Ezra could tell by the heft of it, but he brought it up and awkwardly opened it. “It’s fully loaded – he didn’t fire.”
Buck nodded. He stepped forward and lay a hand on the man’s shoulder. “What say you and I and a few friends talk about this?”
Smiling, calm, the man allowed himself to be led off, Buck and Vin flanking him.
Sarah turned to Ezra. “That was brilliant! Can you really--?”
The gilded smile shone as Ezra shook his head. “I have seen several scenarios as his. I’m willing to bet he hasn’t been in the West long and –“ he sucked in a sharp breath as his ribs reminded him they were still there.
“C’mon,” Chris said, moving to his side. “Let’s let Nate have a look at you.”
It was a measure of how much he was hurting that Ezra did not protest.
“It’s over,” Sarah sighed.
“Not hardly,” her Vin growled. “Who the hell let them out of jail?”
To say Sarah’s Vin was ticked off would be a grand understatement. He rose to his feet behind the desk and leaned over it, his blue eyes blazing as he ground out one soft word.
Maude Sanchez raised her chin and met his eyes, totally unafraid. “We needed the help.”
“So you countermanded my orders –“
She leaned forward now; leaning on her fists as he leaned on his. “I disobeyed an order that never should have been given.”
“Vin Tanner, you jailed those men for no other reason than he looks like Sarah’s dead husband! Those men have been a tremendous help to us – and they saved your life!”
Vin glared at her. He opened his mouth to reply, but a quiet voice interrupted him.
“She’s right, honey.”
Vin’s head snapped around and he found himself facing his wife. Sarah didn’t look pleased at all. “She’s right,” she repeated. “There was no reason for you to do what you did, except one – you were jealous!”
Vin sank into his chair, conceding defeat.
Ezra looked at the device and sighed. Two days, three hours, fifteen minutes, it reported in flashing letters.
Nathan had finally let him go, and he was back at the camp the Seven had set up just outside of Four Corners.
Chris crouched down and held out a tin cup. “How long?”
Ezra pocketed the device. “A little over two days.” He accepted the cup and sipped the hot coffee. “I will be glad to leave here. It is too strange – looking into the twisted glass at all times.”
“I know. I’ll be glad to get home.” Chris sipped his coffee. “At least your double is still alive.”
“Is he?” Ezra studied Chris. “My double is bereft of his identity. He has a good life, yes… but it is not our life.”
“But like you said – it’s a happy one. Why would he change if he’s happy?”
Ezra smiled. “My point exactly – and that begs the question. Without the Ezra Standish identity – who is he?”
“Ezra Tanner,” Chris shot back without missing a beat. “Vin’s younger-by-fifteen-minutes twin brother.”
“Still – this world’s Ezra Standish appears to be dead.”
Chris frowned. “Appears?”
Ezra sighed. “Things don’t add up. I can’t put my finger on it, but I intend to solve this mystery before we leave.”
Slowly, Chris shook his head. “Two days….think you can do it?”
The gilded tooth shone in a sly grin. “Care to place a wager on it, Mister Larabee?”
Chris’s head still shook, but he began to smile.
“How long now?” Josiah asked as they secured their meager possessions.
Ezra put down his razor and washed his face quickly. He lifted the device from his pocket and studied it. “Four hours!” he crowed triumphantly.
JD pumped a fist into the air, whooping in joy. “We’ll be going home!” he cheered. “We’re going home!”
Vin smiled, watching the boy cavort. But the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Chris sidled up to him. “Somethin’ wrong, cowboy?” he asked softly.
Lowering his head, Vin replied just as softly, “Got a feelin’, that’s all. Wonderin’ if we are goin’ home.”
“You think we won’t be?”
He shrugged. “Not sure. If we are, that’s great. If not…” He shrugged again.
“If not,” Chris said firmly. “If not, we do what we have to, and we keep tryin’ until we’re home.”
Vin smiled, and this time it did touch his eyes. “Fair enough.” He raised his head and the smile faded. “Rider comin’ in!” he called out.
Hands moved to weapons, until a familiar twang rang out. “It’s Ez! I’m bringin’ supplies!”
He pulled up and dismounted as Ezra walked over to him. “Supplies?” he asked as he pulled on his swallowtail jacket.
Blond Ezra smiled. “Heard the kid sayin’ y’all’d be leavin’ today. So we got some food an’ water for ya.” He looked at Ezra and the smile turned calculating. “Can’t have y’all starvin’ like th’ ladies of Richmond.”
Ezra gasped. He grabbed his blond counterpart’s shoulder and pulled him aside as the others divided up the food and water. “You know who you are!” he gasped. “Why the deception?”
The gilded smile turned tender. “For a long time,” he replied softly in his native Georgian accent, “I didn’t. I truly believed I was Ezra Tanner, twin of Vin. By the time I regained my senses, much was as it is now. My assimilation was complete – Ezra Standish was always watched. Suspected. Ezra Tanner was loved and accepted unconditionally by his peers.”
Ezra nodded in understanding. “So… you remained Ezra Tanner. Who knows?”
“Vin. Sarah. Tabitha. It’s nobody else’s business. Maudie is happier in her new role.” His voice slid back into the easy Texan twang. “An’ besides – I’m happier now, too. I’m loved as never before. I’m finally content.”
Ezra smiled. “Then, Mister Tanner – I am happy for you. I do, however, have one final question.”
Blond Ezra laughed. “D’you have a Blossom in your world?” Ezra nodded. “An’ is she blonde?”
“Surely you don’t think that’s her natural colour?”
After a pause, both Ezras laughed heartily.
The Seven were alone at last. “Time!” Chris called.
“Five seconds!” Ezra replied. “Four! Three! Two! One!” He lifted the device and pressed the button.
The vortex appeared again. “Stay together!” Chris ordered, and leapt in. Two abreast, so did the others.
Seven figures fell from the vortex, which vanished behind them. They looked around at the hard, flat surface that seemed to surround them.
“This isn’t home!” JD gasped.
“Time!” Chris bellowed.
“Eight days, two hours, twenty minutes!” Ezra replied.
Chris and Vin’s eyes met, and they heaved identical sighs. “All right,” Chris sighed again. “We stick together! We find out where we are and—“
“LOOK OUT!” Ezra yelled, slamming into Chris and Vin and knocking them off the hard black surface into the grass. Josiah and Buck knocked Nathan and JD onto the opposite side.
A metal monster on four wheels screamed by between them, bellowing a toneless note that lasted as it roared out of sight at tremendous speed.
The Seven picked themselves up, gawking after the stinking, loud metallic thing.
“What in the HELL--!” JD gasped.
Vin looked at Chris. “Home was never like this.”
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