It Happened This Way
Ezra came to a stop near the top of the stairs, the book now resting gently in his hands, and threw the two men at the bottom of the stairs a confused look. They were watching him with intensity and a slight grin. The gambler suddenly felt uneasy.
"Ezra," Chris began, moving forward to smile widely at the other man. The man in question suddenly realised that the darkly dressed gunman was baring his teeth, not smiling. It was a calculating grin that sent shivers down the normally unflappable gambler's back.
"Yes," he stammered, coming slowly down to the bottom of the steps and facing the two men.
"Mrs Travis has been kidnapped by Wicks," Chris began, his expression and tone changing to that of no-nonsense.
"Mrs Travis... kidnapped?" Ezra repeated, feeling suddenly foolish for repeating the words, but they had shocked him to the core. "Why? Whom?" he asked, looking from one man to the other.
"He wants Lydia and the girls back at Wicks Town by sundown, otherwise...." Chris paused, unwilling to say the words, but all three men present knew what would be Mary Travis's fate if they did not do as requested.
"What can we do?" Ezra asked, his mind already leaping ahead to envisage the possibilities of a rescue.
"We can go and get her back," Vin stated firmly, his tone hard. This caused the gambler to shoot him a surprised glance; the buffalo hunter turned bounty hunter rarely raised his voice or lost his temper.
"But to do that effectively," Chris continued, his calm words flowing over the other two with his authority, "we need a diversion to get us in to Wicks Town."
"A diversion?" Ezra asked innocently, then seeing the smirking look that entered the other men's eyes he knew that he was in deep shit. This feeling slowly turned to gut wrenching horror when Chris bared his teeth again and then rested his arm warmly about the gambler's shoulders, leading him away from the steps and towards the bathhouse.
"Yep, and you're just what we need... Miss Standish," Vin offered, bringing up the rear.
"MISS!" Ezra exclaimed, pulling sharply to a stop and twisting to face the smirking bounty hunter.
"Ezra," Chris cautioned, his face solemn as he continued, "we are talking about Mrs Travis's life here."
The gambler swallowed hard and then slowly nodded his acceptance of whatever wild plan the other two men were hatching. Chris nodded in return, and this time he did smile - it was warm and his tone soft as he began to speak. Ezra had agreed to help. With gathering momentum, he began to explain the plan that Vin and he had come up with. To give the gambler his due, he only stopped twice in shock, his mouth open, eyes wide... then, remembering he had agreed to help, he slowly wilted and nodded.
"You're the best choice for the job and you'll look great and all," Vin encouraged, "what with your airs and graces." The bounty hunter had taken on the role of excited puppy that was usually reserved for JD.
Ezra glared at him and stated firmly, in his best Southern accent, "Why, Mr Tanner, I do believe that you are enjoying my unfortunate predicament."
Vin looked slightly confused, then broke into another smile and offered warmly, "Well, you're always telling us you are a ladies man; here's your chance to prove it."
Ezra opened his mouth to reply, but then snapped it shut as he suddenly realised that it might be wiser not to continue the conversation.
The bathhouse was filled with six silent men and the sound of another shuffling about behind the drawn curtain that cut off the baths from the rest of the room. "How do they wear these things?" Ezra demanded roughly of the two women assisting him into his clothes, as he shifted his new upper body weight and tried to breathe with the corset he now wore.
"It takes training from the crib, Mr Standish," Mrs Potter, the widowed mercantile storeowner stated wisely. Chris, who had quickly explained what had happened and what was needed, had drafted her in. She had been more than willing to help them, and not the least curious to see who was the poor soul selected from the seven to wear the long, bulky dress that she had supplied. She had just managed to suppress the burst of laughter that rose to her lips when she saw that it was the handsome gambler.
"I do declare that I will never consider a woman's lot to be an easy one again," Ezra said with feeling, as he shuffled about some more, trying to hitch the tight contraption down some more so he could breathe easier.
"Well, now let's try the wig. I must say we were very lucky that I had this one in stock, as the colour really suits you," Mrs Potter said, trying to take the gambler's mind off the corset that they had spent twenty minutes and many gasps of pain strapping him into. More shuffling and then another howl of pain was followed by Mrs Potter's, "Sorry Mr Standish, but we need to pin it in so that it stays on."
"Why do you women put yourself through this hell?" the gambler asked, his tone totally at a loss to understand the working of a woman's mind.
"For the pleasure of our men, Mr Standish, for our men."
"Well I truly believe that we should be sending women in to fight any future wars, 'cause your ability to withstand pain is far greater than ours," Ezra stated firmly, then added, "I am not wearing those shoes, Mrs Potter... absolutely not.... No way."
"But..." came the woman's argument.
"NO," came the firm reply.
Chris straightened up from his slouched position and spoke for the first time in ages. "Mrs Potter, I think it would be all right for Ezra to wear his own shoes - after all, we might need to make a hasty exit and we don't want him tripping over his skirt now, do we?"
A deadly silence filtered across from behind the drawn curtains and everyone knew that a battle of stares was taking place. It was obvious that Ezra had won when Mrs Potter finally said begrudgingly, "All right, but I do feel that you need a little make-up... just a touch to enhance your natural beauty, my dear." Mrs Potter turned aside and finished, "And to hide that beard shadow."
"Here, I have some he can use," came the voice of Lydia, who had been silently standing in the background watching the proceedings, only offering her assistance when it became obvious that Ezra was about to rebel and needed four hands to help him instead of two. She was still annoyed at Chris for not allowing her to go to Wicks Town herself, to help in the rescue of Mrs Travis. "Do you want me to put it on?" she enquired of Mrs Potter, who was looking at the eye make-up with something akin to distaste.
Mrs Potter looked from Ezra to Lydia and finally nodded, standing back and saying, "I don't really have much experience with make-up, so it might be better for you to do it, my dear."
"Now you just hold still, Mr Standish," Lydia said, moving forward and tilting his face towards the meagre light so that she could apply the light foundation, "and we will have you looking real pretty, real soon."
"I don't want to look real pretty," came the disgruntled reply before he fell silent.
The silence that followed was broken only by Lydia as she advised, "That's right, now close your eyes... pucker your lips... no, like this... yes, that's right. Now, how much rouge do you want...? There... no... don't do that, you'll smudge it." Finally she said, standing back and admiring her handiwork, "Now, don't you look a picture?"
The other six men looked at each other, each holding their own thoughts in mind, their concern for Mrs Travis far outweighing the silliness of the situation they now found themselves in.
The curtain was lifted aside by Mrs Potter and, after much gathering of his long flowing dress, Ezra daintily stepped though. He stopped, and then broke into a hesitating smile as he snapped out the fan and held it up to his face, his eyes flashing coyly as he said in his best girlie, breathless tone, "Miss Standish at your service, gentlemen."
"This is never gonna work," Buck said, shaking his head and turning away. Just the mere thought of seeing one of them in a dress went against his every instinct, and now - seeing it in reality - he could not see how anyone would honestly believe that the man before him was really a woman.
Chris pushed himself off the wall where he had been leaning and advanced on Ezra, saying as he did so, "It's just for a diversion, Buck. He's not looking for a date, just a way to get us in, and anyway... Ezra's the best we've got."
"I could go," Lydia spoke up, her eyes flashing as she remembered the argument they had had earlier over just this subject.
"No," Chris shot back. "We need the element of surprise on our side to get Mrs Travis back. If you go in, then Wicks will immediately know something's up.... Ezra can do this." He then turned his attention back to the uncomfortable man standing before them.
"I think Ezra looks all right," JD said in defence of the other man, seeing the hurt look that had crossed the gambler's face at Buck's harsh words and wanting to make the other man feel better. After all, he was doing something that JD knew he would never have the courage to do... the embarrassment alone would kill the boy.
"Boy, you really need to meet a decent woman," Buck said, before throwing a look towards the heavens. He'd kept his words light in deference of Mrs Potter, who was still standing by the curtain.
"I think Ezra looks all right as well," Vin said, tilting his head as he inspected the man before him. Then he added, real polite, like he was talking to a shy young thing, his voice gentle as if taming a nervous horse, "Can you move for us, Ezra?"
"Move?" the gambler asked, looking at the bounty hunter.
In reply Vin waved his hand across the room before saying, "I want to see how you move.... You know... womanly like."
Ezra frowned, not sure if the bounty hunter was pulling his leg, but - seeing only concern for the plan in the others' eyes - he sighed, then pulled his face into a pleasant smile as he swayed across the room, hips swinging from side to side. "Well, he certainly has the walk down pat," Josiah said, admiration clearly heard in his voice.
"I would like to remind you people that I am doing this under duress, and that I am ONLY doing this to save Mrs Travis's life," snapped the gambler, eyes flashing as he snapped the fan closed. "Now, how am I supposed to cause this diversion?"
Chris smiled; even he had to admit that when the gambler's eyes flashed, he was almost downright pleasant to look at. Swallowing the snigger that threatened to rise, he said firmly, "You go into the bar, and tell them you're an entertainer.... A singer..."
"A singer!" Ezra stated, his expression informing all present just what he thought of that plan.
"Yes," Chris shot back firmly, not allowing Ezra's expression to deter him. "A female singer - when I was there, I felt that it was the only thing they were missing... they had plenty of whisky and a piano - a little bit of entertainment would go down really well."
"Can you sing?" Buck asked. He was still frowning at the prettily dressed-up man.
"I'm sure I can manage, Mr Wilmington... and if I can't, then the diversion will be even sooner after I get there, won't it?" There was an edge to Ezra's voice that warned the others present that he was getting tired of this discussion.
"You need to give us enough time to get into position, then you can start the diversion," Chris warned, knowing that if Ezra reacted too soon, it could throw the whole rescue out.
Ezra looked slightly nonplussed as he said, "I thought I was the diversion." He waved his hand, still holding the fan, down his femininely dressed body.
"No. We need a slightly larger, noisier diversion than your singing; try starting a fight or something."
"A fight or something.... First get a job as a singer, then do some singing, then start a fight... oh, that should be easy..." Ezra repeated, giving the impression that Chris was asking for the sun as well as the moon, a slight frown filling his handsome face. He snapped shut his mouth on any retort that he was about to make to Chris, as he remembered the reason behind the charade and offered, "I will do my best, Mr Larabee."
"Hell, Ezra, your singing voice is likely to start a fight the first time you screech a note," Buck sniggered.
The gambler shot the gunslinger a very cold look, and Buck sobered up very quickly as he realised that he'd better not play cards with Ezra in the near future. The look the other man was giving him informed Wilmington, in no uncertain terms, that if he did he was going to end up broke and poor... for a very long time to come.
Chris smiled and, reaching out, he gently squeezed Ezra's shoulder, saying, "I know you'll do your best, Ezra... now let's get this done."
Ezra took a deep, steadying breath and stepped out onto the main street of Four Corners. He was glad to note that it was mainly empty. He watched as Josiah, Nathan and Buck climbed onto their horses. "Where is the buggy?" he asked, looking expectantly up and down the street.
"Ezra," Buck said, his voice tight. Now that a course of action had been agreed upon, he just wanted to get to Wicks Town and rescue Mrs Travis. "Your damn horse is right there."
The man in question drew himself up to his full height, the dress blowing gently about his frame, and snapped, "I am not riding a horse in this dress."
Before Chris could answer that he had already sent JD to fetch the buggy, Buck burst out, "Oh for Pete's sake, Ezra, you certainly do know how to act like a woman, don't you? Are you sure you haven't done this a time or two before?"
Before anyone could react, the gambler was standing next to Buck's horse, having moved incredibly fast in the long dress. He unhooked Buck's foot and tossed him off his horse, over the other side, saying as he did so, "For a supposed ladies man, you sure are an oafish insensitive clod."
Before Buck could clamber to his feet and react to the attack, Chris stepped in and said firmly, "That's enough... JD's gone for the buggy. You're right Ezra, you can't ride into Wicks Town on a horse, and we will need the buggy for Mrs Travis. And you, Buck," he rounded on the fallen man. "If you can't contribute something useful to the conversation, keep your damn mouth shut. Ezra is doing us a big service by dressing up like this, and it can't be very pleasant for him - we certainly don't need your comments to keep things flowing."
Buck made to open his mouth to protest his innocence, but one look at Chris's grim expression forestalled any further words. Slowly he clambered to his feet and looked over at the still bristling gambler, saying sincerely, "I'm sorry Ezra. I know you're only doing this to save Mrs Travis, it's just that..." he stumbled to a stop as Chris's glare pinned him.
It was only the arrival of JD along with the buggy that broke the tense moment, and Buck - to show that he was sorry for his words - even went so far as to help Ezra into the buggy before he remounted his horse.
Ezra, for his part, was not so forgiving and could be heard grumbling quite clearly that it was amazing how many deaf, dumb and blind young women Buck Wilmington must come across, if his prowess as a rake were to be believed.
Ezra wiped a stray lock of hair out of his eyes and looked across at JD, who was holding the reins of the buggy that they were sitting in. JD's horse was tied to the back of the buggy and the other five members of the seven were surrounding the carriage. The gambler was starting to feel the heat of the clothes he was wearing and wondered for the hundredth time how women managed to survive in all the clothes they wore.
"How you feeling?" JD asked in some concern. He personally thought that Ezra was being very brave, dressing up as a woman and going into Wicks Town on his own.
"I'm fine, it's just a bit hot with all these clothes on," Ezra answered calmly. JD had treated him with respect ever since he had stepped out from behind the curtain, and the gambler was grateful for that fact, as he was very conscious of how silly he really looked.
JD leant over and said, his tone low, "I think you look just fine as a woman Ezra, and don't you go listening to Buck.... I know Chris is right and this is our best way of getting Mrs Travis out without an all-out gun fight, where she might get hurt."
"Why, thank you JD. I have to admit that I am a firm believer in trying anything once, but I have to be honest and say that I am ONLY going to do this once ever... but it has helped in my appreciation of women; what they suffer..."
Suddenly Vin spun his horse about and held up his hand. From the sound of it, the camp lay before them, just over the rise. Chris reined in his horse and said, "We'll give you twenty minutes to get into position - in half an hour I want that diversion, Ezra."
The man in question took the reins from JD, who climbed down from the buggy and unhitched his own horse. Turning, Ezra fluttered his eyes at Chris and said in his best southern belle accent, "Your request is my command, dear sir."
Chris smiled and shot a look over towards Vin, who was also smiling. Turning back, he offered in open appreciation of the gambler's ability to con, "Ezra, you are a man of many talents."
"Why, thank you kind sir..." the gambler threw back over his shoulder as he clicked the horse into action.
Watching the buggy slowly move towards the tented town in the distance, Vin pulled his horse up nearer to that of Chris and asked, "Do you think he'll be all right?"
"Hell, yes," Chris shot back with certainty and a large grin. "As long as no-one gets too fresh."
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