Learning to Improvise…
Chapter 7

by Katherine

Previous chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Size: Approx 275K


To all those who have faithfully followed this series from its first chapter, this will likely be the last one. I have enjoyed writing this series immensely, but feel ending at seven chapters is rather poetic and the ideal place to stop. Since this will probably be the final chapter, I think now is a good time to point out that while I was the sole author, the entire series was actually something of a collaborative effort.

There are two people in particular that I wish to thank whose input was instrumental in creating this series and making the story far better than I could have ever produced on my own. MAC, thank you for faithfully reading each bit and piece as the story grew. You gave me invaluable assistance when it came to characterization, storyline and plot development. Cobalt, bless you for being my sounding board. There are a number of chapters that would have been endless without your input. You provided an amazing amount of inspiration and direction, allowing the story to develop fully with consistent attention to detail and continuity within each chapter and from one chapter to another. So often we’ve had similar ideas and vision, I just needed help actualizing mine. ‘Anam cara’ indeed. I also can’t thank you enough for taking the time to edit for me. Damn commas, they will be the death of me. Okay, on with the story.

Chris Larabee settled himself in his usual chair on the saloon porch. He lit his cigar, and tried to relax. For the past few days he’d felt like there was an itch between his shoulder blades that he just couldn’t reach. Something just felt off. Chris couldn’t pin it down, and he was beginning to find the whole situation irritating.

He glanced up the street thinking he might find the source of his unease there. The town folks were busy constructing a one room school house. After nearly nine months of searching, Mrs. Potter had finally found a schoolmarm willing to accept a position in Four Corners. And one who was acceptable to the townspeople.

Chris kept trying to convince himself it was a good thing, but he really didn’t believe it. He would rather see Ezra Standish continue spending a few hours each day teaching the children whose mothers had not seen a gambling conman turned lawman as being an unsuitable instructor for their children. The gunslinger knew Ezra Standish doted on children and by all accounts the feeling was mutual. The southerner was evidently a very good instructor, exposing the children he taught to such diverse topics as geography, botany and astronomy. But not every parent in town saw him as being suitable to teach their children.

Chris snorted. There was no doubt in his mind that Ezra was probably the best educated man in the territory, and had been doing an outstanding job of teaching eight of the town’s children. He might not be a conventional school master but it didn’t mean he didn’t do a damn fine job.

Hell, the rest of them weren’t exactly conventional peacekeepers. The town had gotten along just fine with their motley crew. Chris sighed wondering how much longer it would be before someone started pressuring Judge Travis to replace them all with someone ‘acceptable’, ‘conventional’ or ‘legitimate’. He’d never expected them to serve as the law in Four Corners for as long as they had. But since undertaking the job almost two years ago, he found he was having trouble picturing them actually relinquishing the duties to anyone else.

Best not to think on that. ‘Sides that ain’t what’s been bothering me. He puffed on his cigar, focus returning to the schoolhouse. Judging by the progress being made it should be finished in another week.

Chris was pragmatic enough to realize that without someone the other parents found acceptable the rest of the children in town would suffer for it. He didn’t want them to suffer because of their parents’ stupidity. The children needed an education, not just for their own futures but for the future of the town as well. Four Corners could easily dry up and blow away like so many other nameless towns all over the west if it had nothing to offer or induce people to stay. Chris rubbed one hand tiredly over his face wishing that things could be easier.

Ezra for his part had not even batted an eye at Mrs. Potter’s news. That had been Chris’ clue just how much the other man would miss teaching. If it had been a meaningless thing the man would have bitched, whined, acted relieved, something, anything to make it seem like it was more than it was. The polite smile, neutral tone, and quiet acceptance were dead give a ways to how much Ezra would miss the time he spent with the children.

Chris’ jaw clenched as he remembered the moment when Mrs. Potter broke the news. He could still hear Ezra saying, "That is very good to hear, Mrs. Potter. I’m sure the town will be most gratified to have someone of good character and standing available to educate their progeny."

Later the same day in the saloon over a drink Ezra had waved off any regrets and commiseration Chris might have tried to voice. Green eyes had met his easily. "Really, Chris, it was a foregone conclusion that my teaching would be a temporary position. I will miss doing it, but it is best for all the children to receive an education from someone who can make doing so a number one priority. Far too often my attention has been split amongst my other duties."

It was hard to argue with the man on a good day. So Chris hadn’t bothered to. He just made sure to keep an eye on him and ensure Ezra was really as okay as he tried to appear.

Chris removed his cigar to spit. He scowled at the schoolhouse taking shape at the far end of town. It was the first new building in town that Chris could remember being constructed. Donations had been taken up for building materials, but the gunslinger knew they had fallen short of the necessary capital to actually complete construction. Chris’ lip curled in a sneer wondering how many of the ‘good Christian folks’ of Four Corners knew that the gambler they thought unsuitable to teach their children had made up the difference.

He shook his head, and looked away. It wasn’t the schoolhouse or the immanent arrival of the new teacher that had him feeling restless. Disgusted, maybe, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that would set off those instinctive alarms that had him looking for trouble. He pursed his lips in annoyance still trying to pin down the reason for his restlessness

Chris shifted in his seat, eyes moving toward the church. Josiah Sanchez would have been the logical choice to assist in constructing the new building, but he’d declined. The former preacher had simply said ‘no, thank you’, and that was the end of it. Chris figured he’d done it as a way of showing solidarity with Ezra.

It had been nearly three months since the big man had learned about the relationship Ezra had with Vin Tanner. And while his initial reaction had almost been enough to break up their little group, he’d managed to make it right before it came to that. Chris still watched him closely, but Josiah seemed to be honestly okay with the two of them being together and determined to make up for his transgression.

Things among their group had been very good of late. Something Chris wasn’t sure if he should be worried about or not. Although, he had to admit it was nice not to have someone with an arm in a sling, limping, or otherwise incapacitated.

With a frown he realized that might just be what was making him nervous. This could be a calm before the storm. He took a deep breath and held it, letting it out very slowly. Shit. It was too good to hope their luck would hold. Chris was sure that the longer their luck held the worse it was bound to be when it finally broke.

His attention shifted when he heard the stage coming into town. He wondered if the new teacher might be on this one. Chris frowned trying to remember her name.

Abigail…think that was it. Abigail something or other. Don’t matter much I guess. I’m sure I’ll be hearing it again at some point. Sure hope she’s not some shrinking violet type. Won’t last long out here if she is.

Chris smiled to himself thinking if this lady teacher didn’t last Ezra would at least have a new place to teach the kids. One that beat the little bit of space he’d been using in Mrs. Potter’s storeroom. Chris was fairly certain the gambler wouldn’t snub the children just because some of their parents were shortsighted bigots. With an official schoolhouse, maybe the rest of them would see the light and let Ezra teach all the town’s children.

Not that Ezra had quit teaching, at least not completely. There was still Casey Welles. Nettie Welles had adamantly refused to have Casey move to town and attend school with the other children. She was not impressed with the new teacher’s credentials. The old homesteader had given Mrs. Travis a look that could have boiled water when the newswoman had gushed about how nice it would be to finally have a qualified teacher in Four Corners and no longer have to rely on the well-educated, but clearly inappropriate, Ezra Standish.

"You really think some piece o’ paper will make a pale-faced eastern waif with no real experience qualified to teach? Teachin’ is as much about what you’ve learned the hard way as it is about what you learned from a book." The feisty old woman had snorted and rolled her eyes. "All the same to you, Mrs. Travis, I’ll be sticking with the fancy man. He’s done all right by me and mine. Don’t see no reason to change now."

Nettie had confronted Ezra in the saloon and asked him to continue Casey’s lessons. More like insisted if the truth be known. The tough old lady had squared off against the gambler, stubbornly refusing to take no for an answer, deftly countering every argument he had to offer.

Not that Ezra had really offered up much resistance to the idea. Chris knew that had Ezra really not wanted to teach Casey nothing short of a firing squad would have induced him to continue, and even then it might be touch and go. His giving in to Nettie and agreeing to keep up with Casey’s lessons didn’t really surprise Chris much.

Vin and Ezra weren’t due back until shortly before dinner. Although, knowing the two of them it could be a bit longer. Chris smiled to himself. He really should have just given Ezra the night off and let the two of them play if they wanted.

His recent bout of unease made him want to keep his friends close where he could keep an eye on them if need be. So he’d all but ordered them to be back in time to eat with the others. The casual two fingered salutes he’d gotten in return let him know they’d be back in time to share a meal. Or at the very least a cup of coffee afterward.

Chris stood up and leaned against a pillar. He wanted a better view of the disembarking passengers. The itch between his shoulders seemed to intensify and he could feel the hair on the back of his neck rise. Chris’ gaze wandered skyward for a moment wondering if maybe there really wasn’t a storm brewing somewhere. He would swear he could almost feel the tingle of electricity ghosting over his skin.

He glanced back to the stage in time to see the first passenger depart. Shit. "Shit." Chris spoke aloud adding an audible emphasis to his thought as he saw Maude Standish exit the stage. The blonde woman had a way of making her egress from the dusty, ramshackle stage seem more like she was stepping down from an imperial coach.

More cuss words tripped off his tongue with a quiet vehemence that would not really have surprised his long time friend, Buck Wilmington. Chris had harbored an icy rage for this woman ever since he started learning about Ezra’s childhood. He simply couldn’t comprehend how anyone could allow their child to be abused, or to sell them like so much produce at a farm market.

Chris cherished every minute he’d had with his son. It actually hurt him to think of Ezra being Adam’s age, big green eyes regarding the world with suspicion measuring every person for any threat to him rather than trust and excitement. He clenched his right hand into a tight fist and fiercely resisted the urge to leave the sidewalk and belt Maude one.

A man did not hit a woman. It wasn’t how he was raised. It wasn’t the sort of person he was. And for the first time in his life, Chris regretted it.

His eyes narrowed as he watched Maude step away from the stage. Chris expected her to have the same load of luggage she’d had the last time she’d made an appearance in Four Corners. A small smirk appeared when he realized that he wasn’t honor bound to help her haul her stuff anywhere.

After Maude’s first visit over a late night drink Ezra had laughingly informed them all of what was really in Maude’s luggage. Somehow Chris couldn’t fathom why one would bother to spend so much time on crafting such a false image. There was no denying she was successful in more ways than one. Not only did they all think she was someone of wealth and stature, but they all believed the damn stories she told about Ezra as a child.

Chris sneered. Let her haul her bags o’ bricks her own damn self. Maybe appearances won’t matter so much when it’s her that’s carting that shit around.

Chris blinked in surprise when Maude began walking away from the stage carrying only one small bag. She hadn’t spoken to the driver so he knew she hadn’t made arrangements to have more luggage delivered to the hotel. Something was wrong. Had to be. The woman spent way too much time crafting an image that needed the right props to maintain. She wouldn’t be without them without a very good reason.

Chris grimaced. The last time Maude had come to town the trouble she’d brought with her had been relatively easy to clear up. Somehow he was sure this wasn’t simply a case of her being falsely accused of theft.

Bad enough the bitch is here at all. Chris’ jaw tightened. He remembered Ezra referring to his mother as a force of nature. Sort of fits. She has the potential to be just as destructive as a tornado.

Blue-gray eyes studied the conwoman as she strode regally across the street heading toward him and not the hotel as he expected. Mentally Chris chastised himself. The saloon would have been more of a respite for Maude than any other place in town.

Her hair was up with a carefully arranged cascade of ringlets falling from atop her head to rest upon one shoulder. The whole style drew attention to her delicate facial features and long, elegant neck. The emerald green dress she wore served to highlight her still youthful figure and fair coloring.

Chris snorted and puffed on his cigar, the smoke drifting lazily skyward in the still afternoon air. Appearances sure are deceiving. Pretty things can be just as deadly as the ugly ones. Maybe more so ‘cause you don’t expect them to have venom.

He grimaced, grateful that Vin and Ezra were not in town but now regretting his order that they be back in time for dinner. With any luck maybe I can have Maude back on that damn stage before it leaves. Neither of them would even need to know she was here. Got a feeling if Ez was expecting her he’d have hightailed it out of town long before now, and gone a hell of a lot further than the Welles ranch. Can’t say I’d blame him either. Seems like every time Maude’s come to town it’s ended badly for him.

Chris felt a tight smile form. This time Ezra wasn’t on his own, and he’d make damn sure things didn’t go the way they had in the past. Chris could get her back on the stage, of that he was certain. Brute force would do nicely. Wouldn’t have to hurt her…just make damn sure she couldn’t get away or get off the thing.

Buck was around somewhere. And Chris was sure he could count on the ladies man for assistance if he needed any. Wilmington had backed his play for so long, Chris no longer envisioned a world without the tall lanky cowboy in it. And the fun loving cowboy invariably put the welfare of his friends above any other concern.

Josiah was in the church. Wouldn’t take much to get him if need be. He might have been sweet on Maude at one time, but the big man had his eyes opened with regard to her abilities as a mother, and it was unlikely that he’d be doting on her the way he had in the past. The former preacher didn’t know all that Chris and Vin knew, but he certainly knew enough. Josiah’s relationship with Ezra was back on an even keel, and possibly in a better position than it had ever been. He wouldn’t risk that by siding with Maude, especially not given what he knew about the physical abuse Ezra had suffered as a child. Abuse that Maude had done little to prevent or protect him from.

Nathan wasn’t going to be real receptive to Maude either. The former slave might not be privy to all the details, but he certainly understood that the stories Maude had told were far from the truth. The black man and Ezra had come along way in their friendship and understanding of each other. Jackson could be relied upon to back up what ever decision Chris made with regard to how to handle the conwoman.

JD Dunne was a wild card. Larabee didn’t know if JD knew as much as the others, or if the young sheriff had ever gotten over the awe he had felt for Maude. But if the gunslinger played it right, JD wouldn’t need to be involved.

Chris sighed, and allowed the smile to fade, dismissing the satisfying image of hoisting Maude of his shoulder and dumping her back in the stage knowing full well that even if he did there was no guarantee he could keep her from coming back. Woman isn’t the sort to take ‘no’ for an answer. Whatever the hell she is here for she’ll be bound and determined to get it. Been told I’m pretty stubborn myself. An’ it won’t be just me she’s got to deal with. Could just be Mrs. Standish will meet her match tryin’ to take us on.

Chris watched her climb the step up from the street onto the boardwalk. She inclined her head to him in a gesture he’d seen Ezra execute so many times he’d forgotten just how refined and graceful a movement it was. Wonder if he learned that from her, or if she learned it from him.

"Mr. Larabee, a pleasure to see you again."

Chris just stared at her, narrowed eyes relaying his antipathy without him having to say a word. A dark moment of amusement struck him when he saw her step back from him. Somehow he hadn’t expected her to show such an obvious sign of fear.

It only took her a second to recover. She smiled coyly, patting her hair, checking to be sure it was still in its elaborate style. Chris stifled the urge to smirk thinking her expression and action seemed more than just a bit brittle. It was decidedly satisfying to know he could intimidate her with no more than a look.

She squared her shoulders, and her chin came up slightly. "I had hoped my darlin’ boy would be here to meet me." She rolled her eyes in an artfully exaggerated display of motherly affection and exasperation. Maude ‘tsk’ed, and shook her head. "He was always such a forgetful child."

Chris raised an eyebrow and held his tongue. It almost hurt him not to comment knowing full well she had likely made a point of not letting Ezra know she was coming. His lip curled slightly in derision. Like she’d even know what he was like as a child. Woman didn’t spend enough time with her son to know more than his name.

"Is my Ezra inside?" Maude’s blue eyes shifted toward the saloon blatantly ignoring all the body language signals Chris was sending urging her to get the hell away from him.

"No." Chris decided to answer her, after puffing on his cigar for a moment. From the huff of annoyance she let slip he knew his one word answer had goaded her more than if he’d simply remained silent. Most people would have felt compelled to add more information, to do more than simply answer the question she asked. Chris was not most people.

She pursed her lips, her expression stiffening right along with her spine. "Would you happen to know where he is?" The question had an edge to it.

The gunslinger held his tongue, not the least bit affected by her tone. Maude took a deep breath, and Chris could almost see her reining her temper. He wondered what had happened to leave her so frayed. Ordinarily she’d show far greater control than this. Whatever the problem is that brought her here it must be pretty big. He took a perverse pleasure in knowing he was making it worse for her.

"Where is Ezra?" The question came out more like a demand.

Chris just looked at her. He straightened up, unconsciously using his greater height to intimidate her. "You want him, Mrs. Standish, then I suggest you find him." He smiled, lips twisted to give the expression a hard, un-amused look. "Weren’t my day to watch him."

Unable to resist a mocking display of courtesy, he raised two fingers to the brim of his hat and touched it lightly. "Ma’am." With that, Chris walked away, leaving her sputtering behind him.

Chris headed for the jail, long legged stride eating up the distance with ease. He needed get Buck and send him to Nettie’s. Needed someone to warn Ezra that his mother was in town. Would have to have someone keep an eye on Vin so that the tracker didn’t try to kill the damn woman outright.

Chris wouldn’t blame Vin if he tried, but there were others who might. People in town who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand how Vin might harbor a lot of hatred for misdeeds done to a child who was now a grown man fully capable of defending himself if need be. They didn’t need the kind of trouble killing a woman would bring. ’Sides, knowing Maude she’s likely brought enough trouble jus’ by being here. No reason to make it worse.

Chris grimaced thinking he should arrange to have Josiah and Nathan keep an eye on Maude. He didn’t hold out much hope of getting her to leave. Whatever had brought her here was likely sufficiently worrisome she wouldn’t go easily. Just have to make sure whatever the hell the problem is that she doesn’t drag Ezra into it. Might have failed to watch out for him before where she was concerned, but now that I know what a bitch she really is, I won’t let him down again.

Chris decided he’d send JD to warn Nathan and Josiah. Would probably be a good idea if everyone was aware that a tornado had just touched down in their midst. I’ll have him bring them to the jail. We can plan something together. Probably wouldn’t hurt if they didn’t show up together. Knowing Maude she’ll be watching all of us hoping to get a line on Ezra.

Chris nodded to himself. Between all of them they’d find a way to handle her, and make sure she didn’t wreak havoc. Maude Standish might well be a force of nature, but Chris Larabee had weathered many a storm and he was still standing.

He unconsciously squared his shoulders and settled himself, mentally preparing for the upcoming confrontation. A tight smile formed. At least now he knew what had him on edge for the last few days. Chris always felt better when he knew what he was up against.

+ + + + + + +

Vin nodded in satisfaction as he looked over the repairs he’d made to Nettie’s corral. It hadn’t taken much to fix. Not really. He just set a few new posts, nailed the boards back up, and re-hung the gate making the enclosure once again sturdy enough to contain her livestock when she needed it.

Nettie never really asked for much, preferring to make do on her own. Vin liked being able to help her out, knowing that even though she was capable of taking care of herself, there was a great deal he could do far faster and easier than she could. The tough old lady was as much family to him as the men he worked with and he didn’t see it as a chore to do what he could to make her life better.

Outside of their five friends, Nettie was the only other person who knew he and Ezra were a couple. Vin smiled remembering her reaction to finding out it was a man he was interested in. Her pragmatic approach had been very like her and really shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. Vin wiped his forearm across his brow thinking Nettie would likely continue to surprise him for some time to come.

He had been very relieved that she had taken the news in stride, welcoming Ezra with the same straightforward and honest approach that she would have used had Vin been in love with a woman. Vin chuckled and shook his head. He never should have doubted her.

His lover initially had been a bit unnerved by the attention Nettie began showing him. Oh they still sparred verbally, still did things to deliberately annoy each other, but she now asked after him with genuine concern, made sure to have fixings on hand to make meals Ezra would like, stood up for him against detractors in town. For all intents and purposes, Nettie had all but adopted Ezra in much the same way she had Vin.

Vin smiled softly as his gaze wandered to where Ezra sat in the shade teaching Casey. He knew Nettie honestly thought Ezra was the right person for the job or she’d have never asked him to do it. Having her say so to Mrs. Travis was just icing on the cake.

Ezra hadn’t said much about no longer teaching in town, but Vin knew he missed it. Vin had done his best to respect Ezra’s silence on the subject, simply offering comfort and understanding with his presence. It wasn’t fair but then as Ezra had pointed out many times, life was not fair.

Vin was selfish enough to appreciate Ezra having more free time in the afternoon meant they would have more time to spend together. Ezra had made him aware of that fact rather quickly. The tracker’s throat was suddenly dry as he thought about how they’d wiled away a number of the afternoons. He cleared his throat, and discretely adjusted himself. Not now. Be time for that later.

Vin put away the hammer, and moved toward the pump. Might as well wash up a bit. Figure Nettie will have some sort o’ snack for me and Ez and she’ll be mad if I ain’t fit to sit at her table.

Ezra would not accept payment from Nettie for teaching Casey, citing the fact that he only did so once or twice a week and that time hardly warranted financial compensation. But the old homesteader was adamant that some sort of exchange should be arranged to ensure that she was not beholden to him. Surprisingly, it was food that they agreed upon as currency.

Nettie knew Ezra didn’t eat breakfast, and seldom sat down to consume a large meal preferring to eat smaller portions than the rest of the seven. So she made a point of having something the gambler simply couldn’t say no to, something special she made with the intent of paying for his time. Coffee cake, pecan pie, oatmeal cookies, gingersnaps, blueberry muffins and a host of other treats had all been offered at one time or another. Ezra’s sweet tooth was nowhere near as bad as Vin’s, but the gambler had professed to have a fine appreciation for delicacies.

Ain’t anything more delicate than Nettie’s muffins. Vin grinned. His lover always shared whatever Nettie gave him. Vin knew he was getting spoiled, but couldn’t bring himself to care.

He just finished drying his face and hands when he spotted the small dust cloud that signaled the approach of a rider. Vin frowned, raising a hand to shade his eyes for a better look. He recognized Buck’s gray mare, Lady, long before here recognized the rider.

Lady was moving at a ground-devouring trot. It was an easy pace for her to maintain, but there was no reason to be moving at more than a walk unless there was trouble in town. Vin cursed quietly and headed for Ezra.

The gambler looked up from the book he was reviewing with Casey and rose smoothly to his feet. He held out a hand to her, assisting her even though Casey didn’t need his help. The teenager was dressed in boots, pants and a work shirt, but Ezra’s polite gesture emphasized that he had not forgotten her gender despite her attire. Ever the gentleman, Vin thought with a small smile.

"Miss Casey, I think now might be an appropriate time for a short respite from our educational pursuit."

Casey opened her mouth to protest. One look from Ezra was sufficient to halt her words before they even had the chance to form. "Yes, sir."

Ezra patted her hand. "Thank you, my dear. I’m sure your aunt has some task she feels are in need of your attention."

Casey grimaced. There were always chores in need of completion. She headed inside. Vin knew she’d alert Nettie to Buck’s approach. He also knew Nettie would likely be at the door with her Carbine in another moment or two.

Green eyes met blue before tracking Lady’s movement. "It would appear that Mr. Wilmington is moving with undue haste." Ezra’s tone was one of idle curiosity, not real concern.

"Yep." Vin’s brow furrowed. "You think there’s trouble?" The question was more a request for conformation than anything else.

"Probably." Ezra cocked his head to one side. "However, if it were something severe, I believe he’d be pushing Lady harder. So whatever it is will likely not be cause for extreme concern."

Your lips to God’s ears. Vin had heard Josiah say that once or twice. It seemed to fit. The tracker moved back to the corral, and leaned against one of the new posts he’d set earlier. He felt Ezra moving to stand next to him. Even though he couldn’t see him doing it, Vin knew Ezra was checking his weapons. Vin had already done the same thing. The reaction was so instinctive he didn’t even think about it.

Buck reined Lady into a walk well before reaching the ranch yard. The mare was still moving easily, breathing loudly but not blowing hard. She pranced across the yard to stop in front of the corral.

The tall cowboy smiled brightly, but Vin could tell it was forced. Yep. Definitely trouble of some kind. Damn shame. Figured the quiet was too good to last.

"Howdy, boys."

"Buck." Ezra tipped his head.

Vin didn’t even bother with voicing a greeting. "What’s wrong?"

"What makes you think—"

Vin waved a hand in dismissal, halting Buck’s words with no apparent effort. "You’re here."

Buck frowned and hesitated. Ezra smiled slightly, lips quirking upward in wry amusement as he elaborated for Vin. "If it were not important it could have waited until we returned. If it can’t wait then it is a problem. Problems in Four Corners are always trouble." Ezra’s eyes narrowed. "So at the risk of being rude, I repeat Vin’s earlier query: what is wrong?"

"Maude is here." Buck stated baldly. The normally happy go lucky ladies man winced in apology. "She came in on the stage not more’n hour ago."

Vin’s jaw tightened as he saw Ezra pale slightly, lips thinning. "Mother." Ezra’s voice held a wealth of inflection in that simple epithet. So much so Vin couldn’t read what his lover was feeling.

If is voice didn’t give anything away, the more subtle body language certainly did. The gambler straightened his spine. Vin watched as his lover seemed to settle himself as though preparing to receive a blow. Ezra’s expression shifted to one of neutrality, saying everything by simply revealing nothing. The lively green eyes that Vin found so engaging took on a flat, shuttered look.

Just seeing that reaction made Vin clench his right hand into a fist so tight his knuckles whitened, standing out in harsh relief. Everything he knew about Maude and her treatment of Ezra came rushing to the forefront of Vin’s mind. He wanted to hurt her, to make her suffer the same degradation, abuse, pain and embarrassment that Ezra had. Wanted her to know first hand what it was like to be totally at another’s mercy. To be betrayed by the one person in your life you should be able to count on to protect you.

The tracker could almost feel the world spin as he fought to control his emotions. He forced himself to take a deep breath and then another. With a conscious effort, Vin unclenched his fist. He reached out to touch Ezra, to let him know that he wouldn’t have to face his mother alone. To his immense relief Ezra’s hand met his, weaving their fingers together.

"She say what she wanted?" Vin barely recognized his own voice it was so harsh.

Buck shook his head. "Didn’t talk to her myself." Vin got the impression Buck really didn’t want to speak to the conwoman either.

The tall cowboy swung down off Lady in one smooth movement, standing squarely to face them. "Only one she spoke to was Chris. Met him at the saloon right after she got off the stage."

Ezra raised an eyebrow, a flicker of shadowed amusement in his eyes. "And they are both still standing?"

Buck chuckled dryly. "Think it mighta been touch and go there for a bit."

About that Vin had no doubt. He was almost disappointed that Chris hadn’t put Maude down like a rabid dog, but had no trouble understanding why he hadn’t done so. Even though she might deserve it there was just no way to explain that to the town. Killing a woman, even one like Maude, would have the ‘good Christian’ citizens of Four Corners up in arms.

And although she’d put Ezra through hell, it was obvious that the gambler cared about his mother. Vin didn’t totally understand it, but he’d done is best to try and accept it. Don’t want to hurt Ez by killin’ his mother. An’ I don’t want to hang for killin’ her either. Got me a lifetime o’ plans with Ez to make good on, an’ I aim to see them through.

Vin took another deep breath and reminded himself that Ezra was not a child any longer. The gambler wasn’t at the mercy of his mother’s whims. And he sure as hell isn’t alone. Not any more. Vin smiled tightly, the expression lacking any real humor. Jus’ have to make sure she’s aware of that little detail. Might not be able to fix what’s already been done, but I can make damn sure nothing like that ever happens again.

Buck’s light blue eyes sought out Ezra’s green counterparts. "Chris thinks it might be best if you laid low for a bit." The tall cowboy’s stance and tone made it obvious he felt the same way. "Give us a chance to deal with her."


"What’d ya mean why? Damn it, Ezra," Buck scowled eyes flashing fire, "she hurt you before, and we ain’t gonna stand around and let her do it again. We might not be blood kin, but we are family. Know the examples you had weren’t the best, but family is supposed to stick by each other."

Ezra cocked his head, his expression thawing considerably. When he spoke it was obvious he’d been touched by Buck’s declaration. "I appreciate your effort on my behalf, but I’m afraid my simply hiding out will not be a viable option."

Buck frowned. "Why not?"

"Discretion may well be the better part of valor, my friend, but I assure you trying to wait out my mother would be like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble." The gambler sighed heavily. "If she came with the express intent of speaking to me, she will not leave until she has done so. Mother can be most determined when she feels the need."

Vin squeezed Ezra’s hand lightly and got an answering squeeze back. The tracker traded a look with Buck. She ain’t the only one who can be determined.

Buck waggled his eyebrows, clearly trying to lighten the mood. "Now don’t go selling us short, Ez. We might just be able to get her on the next stage out o’ here."

Ezra’s gaze shifted to look toward the distance. A small frown appeared between his brows. "Chris has assuredly made his antipathy known to her." Ezra pursed his lips in an expression of mild annoyance. His next statements seemed to be meant more for himself than for them. "Being so forthright can be a detriment. One gives away far too much and that gets in the way of subterfuge limiting one’s options considerably."

Buck stared at him. "Hunh?"

Ezra shook his head, and redirected his gaze toward Buck. "Mother knows Chris doesn’t like her. She will immediately set about acquiring allies in town, assessing those she believed to be allies from prior visits. With enough sympathetic individuals to protect her I sincerely doubt that Chris will be able to utilize the means he would normally employ."

Seeing a questioning look on Buck’s face, Ezra restated, "He can not hoist her over his shoulder, bound and gagged, to simply throw her on the stage." A flash of gold appeared as the gambler grinned. "I, for one, would pay good money to see him do just that, but the rest of the town would likely harbor a decidedly different opinion on the matter."

Ezra squeezed Vin’s hand once more and then let go. "The best course of action is to simply confront her, find out what she wants and hasten her departure by providing it."

"And if she wants you?" Vin queried softly.

"She has never wanted me, Vin." Ezra stated calmly with no hint of rancor or self-pity. "Use of my god-given talents, oh yes, those she has wanted. Money to fund her next scheme or get her out of some debacle, certainly she has wanted that."

A dimpled smile appeared and Ezra raised a hand to lightly caress Vin’s cheek with his knuckles. "Even if she did, after all these years decide she wanted me, it is far too late. I already belong to you, Cheri."

Vin smiled, feeling the tightness in his chest lessen. He whispered in French the phrase Ezra had taught him only a few days ago. "You are mine and I am yours, now and for always."

Ezra replied with, "Always and forever."

Vin grinned when he suddenly realized that Buck was studiously not looking at them, trying to give them their private moment but unable to move away without interrupting. Ezra winked at him obviously just as aware as Vin was of Buck’s effort to give them privacy. He stepped away from Vin, breaking the moment. The gambler patted Buck on the arm as he moved past him heading for the house with a determined stride.

"We need to inform Mrs. Welles that there is no dire emergency. I do believe the lady has waited long enough to know what has transpired."

Vin wasn’t so sure Maude’s arrival didn’t qualify as ‘dire’. The look on Buck’s face showed that he felt the same way. Buck bit his lower lip, fingers rising to brush over his moustache in a gesture Vin recognized as one Buck did when he was anxious.

The tall cowboy squared his shoulders slightly, and dropped his hand to rest on the butt of his gun before he tipped his head toward Vin, speaking so softly his voice didn’t carry. "Don’t worry, Vin. You watch his back. We’ll be watchin’ yours. We’ll get through this. You’ll see."

Vin couldn’t tell if Buck was saying that to reassure him, or himself. He simply nodded in response. Figure we handled all the other shit that’s come our way, we can handle this too. Hasn’t been anything we’ve come across yet that we couldn’t handle together, whether it’s just me an Ez, or all seven of us.


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