After The War Is Over
(Old West AU)
by BML Hillen-Keene
Chapter 2 added 2 October 2007
Summary: The War is over, the North has won, and everyone returns to the lives they left behind. Those who cannot, find another life. And thus begins a tale of death, love, betrayal, and loyalty, to one's family, friends, and most importantly, to one's heart.
Warnings: Death, sex, cursing, domestic abuse, racist language, possible rape (if I think up anything else I'll let you know).
Author's Notes: This is very different to what I normally write. For one thing it's not slash. But I shall not give the pairings away for fear of spoiling the whole story. Be ready for a complete shock by the end of the first chapter though. Be warned, this will go on forever, I feel the need to write a story of epic proportions.
Vin Tanner had been around a while, and met any number of interesting people in his life, seen all manner of interesting things. Not pretty things, not during the war at any rate, but interesting nonetheless. It was during the great war between the North and the South that Vin Tanner had met Chris Larabee, a Captain of a Union squad. He had been assigned to this team, right out at the front lines, against his kith and kin. He knew, perhaps better than anyone else in the unit, what it was like to choose sides in this war.
Vin was a Texan, born and bred, and while he had never agreed with using another man as a slave, no matter what the colour of his skin, it was his state, and he loved it. So choosing to join the union army instead of the Confederate had been difficult. He was glad when he had made his choice that his mother had died when he was a child, what with the way his Uncle had raged at him for taking a stand against everything the South was.
It wasn't that he didn't love his state, he did, with all his heart, it was just that he didn't hark to making the south great off the backs of slaves. The War had changed a great many things. He knew when he took a stand against the South that he couldn't return there, not yet. So when Larabee offered him a job at his home ranch working with horses, Vin had accepted, thinking of it only as a temporary thing until he got enough money to go off and do something else. Maybe travel some, or head west to the new territories.
He hadn't been surprised when Buck Wilmington had joined them on the journey. Larabee and Wilmington had grown up together, together with someone they had only ever mentioned as 'Ezra'. That friendship was hard to break, even with the things that had happened to them. Chris losing his wife and son while they were at war being one of the most prominent. So no, it hadn't surprised him in the slightest when Wilmington had joined them.
Nathan Jackson on the other hand was another story. Jackson was an escaped slave who had somehow become the unit's medic during some of the bloodiest battles they had participated in. Now that he was officially free, what with the North having won, Vin had figured the coloured man would move on to green pastures. The man had just shrugged and told him that Larabee had told him his home town was a good place if you were looking to start something good.
The travelling hadn't been hard, they'd made good time to the little town Larabee called home, Four Corners. So named because all it contained were two streets that interconnected to form a cross shape, apparently, according to Wilmington, each end pointed to a point on the compass. Doing a quick check using the skills his grandfather had taught him, about using the sun or stars, the landscape, the wind, to find his position. He nodded to himself when he had proven to himself what Wilmington had said was true.
The Larabee ranch was outside town on the North side by a good five miles. Not a long ride under normal circumstances, but for four weary travellers this last stretch could prove their undoing. Larabee had insisted that they bypass the town, who knew they were returning home and probably had a party planned, one Larabee felt could wait until the morrow, when they were rested enough to deal with the throngs of people wanting to know about the war, not understanding the true horror of what they had witnessed.
Vin had agreed, simply because he didn't like crowds, Wilmington agreed because he had always followed Larabee's lead. Jackson had conceded because Larabee had never led them wrong before. So they bypassed the town, and the sounds of revelry that followed them on the strains of the wind as they travelled on. Finally Vin saw lights, which he soon realised were those of candles flickering in the windows of a building.
He could not quite make out the features of the building as they approached, the evening's shadows were too long, but the ranch house was big, almost as big as the big houses he had seen down south before the war, with acres of sprawling land fenced off around it. Horses chased each other in the dying sunlight around corrals. It reminded Vin of home, of Texas, and he was surprised when it didn't unsettle him, instead making him far more comfortable.
"Home sweet home," Larabee said.
Vin looked at him, not at all surprised to see the man's lips had curved into a slight smile, one of contentment. Of gladness to be back where he belonged.
"Reckon Ole Ezra's waiting up fer us?" Wilmington asked with a small grin, one that proved infectious as Larabee looked back at their travelling companions.
"Reckon," was all he replied.
Vin had the distinct feeling there was some kind of joke going on here, he'd always gotten that feeling when they talked about their childhood friend, never elaborating on who this Ezra actually was. He pulled his horse round, twisting the reins around one hand and leaning forward in something of a slouch, his elbow on the pommel of the saddle. "There something we're missing?" he asked finally.
Wilmington's moustache twitched as he grinned again. "You'll see soon enough."
"Come on boys, beds await," Larabee said, breaking the conversation up.
That was enough to spur any man on, the idea of sleeping in a proper bed, after so many months on the field, was more tempting than a barrel of gold, a jar of whiskey and a willing woman. Though the willing woman wouldn't go amiss in the bed it had to be said. So they kicked their horses into a canter towards the flickering windows.
They arrived as the sun died away completely, dismounting quickly, Larabee and Wilmington leading them towards the stables, where they saw to their horses quickly, but efficiently in the dark, as they had done many times before when it was too risky to have a lamp lit, before making their way back out to the courtyard.
"Ah wouldn't suggest coming any farther gentlemen." It was southern, and pitched low, indistinguishable whether it was a man or a woman.
Vin's hand went immediately to his gun, only to be stopped by Larabee's hand and a slight shake of his head. He glanced towards Jackson to find him being stopped by Wilmington. He cast his eyes forward to try and spot whoever had stopped them, but saw nothing. Finally he thought he saw a shadow move in the shadows of the house and step forward.
"Just what is your business here?" The voice was amused now.
Wilmington laughed. "God Ezra, give us a colder welcome and we're likely to get frostbite!" He moved forward and pulled the other person into a hug.
"Buck, folks'll talk," Chris warned in good humour.
Buck laughed again. "What folks?" He turned his attention back to the shadowy form. "How've you been pard?"
The shadow shrugged. "Managing. Am Ah to take it the war is over and you return victorious?" There was a sigh. "Ah'm going to have to put up with your callous behaviour. And Ah thought having JD around was bad enough." It was obvious the other was jesting, the tone suggested as much. "Well, Ah suppose ya'all ought to come inside and freshen up before dinner." There was a flash of white and gold as the shadow smiled before turning back to the house.
"Ain't ya gonna ask us who we have with us?" Buck called out.
A chuckle sounded. "All introductions can be made indoors, where it is warmer and infinitely more comfortable." The door opened, shedding light onto the courtyard and the men standing in it. Vin watched the one known only as Ezra disappear inside.
Larabee muttered something Vin couldn't quite make out before moving towards the house, Wilmington only a few steps behind. Vin looked after them, then to Nathan, who looked a little shocked at finding such a noticeable southern accent here, especially the kind of rich sounding accent. Vin winced a little, it probably reminded him of slavery or something. Vin stifled a sigh and moved towards the house, glad to be invited.
Inside the house was not as splendid as Vin had been expecting for the size of it. It was decorated nicely, obviously a woman's touch. Vin supposed it was probably Sarah's doing, the wife Larabee had lost well over a year ago now. He followed Wilmington into a... a lounge, he thought it was called, he couldn't be sure, but he thought that was what it was known as. This too was tastefully decorated, in warm reds and golds, a fire burning merrily in the grate.
"Now, gentlemen. I regret that the introductions will have to wait for the moment. I must go and see how young JD fares with the evening repast. And it might befit all of you if you were to wash and change into less dusty clothing," Ezra said.
Now that Vin could see him, he was a bit disappointed. The stories Larabee and Wilmington told of this man had made him think of someone in finery, colours, not this plain clothed man before him who had yet to remove his hat, thus continuing to obscure his face, though his ready smile was easy to see as was the mischievous glint in startlingly green eyes, that reminded Vin of his mother's.
"Water is in your rooms, it has probably cooled some as you took longer than I had anticipated to arrive, but everything should be satisfactory. I have left some clothes out for you two should you require them. I was not informed of whether you had brought your own attire. If you will excuse me." Ezra turned and left the room by a small door by the fire that led into what Vin guessed was the kitchen by the smell.
"Informed?" Jackson inquired, surprising Vin as he had not realised the black man had joined them.
Wilmington shrugged. "Well, we couldn't just barge in or we'd have had our heads shot off. Ez don't much like surprises."
Chris grumbled before turning away. "Rooms are this way. It ain't worth getting on Ezra's bad side the night we get back."
"Half an hour gentlemen!" Ezra called after them.
"We'll be there Ezra!" Wilmington called back.
The room Vin was given was lovely, and in more of a way than just the mere fact that he had a bed at all was lovely. It was set out simply, a handcrafted bed, single chest of drawers, a wardrobe off to the side, and a trunk right at the end of the bed. It wasn't a big room, but he doubted the bedrooms would be if there were enough for everyone in the household, which numbered six he believed if 'JD' stayed on.
He examined the room first, with a kind of abstract fascination he had never before possessed. He had grown up in a small one bedroomed house, with his mother and some pigs for food and sale. There hadn't been room enough to swing a cat in there when everyone and everything was crammed in together. Of course he had seen the big houses, and imagined what they must look like inside, how big all the rooms must be, how lavish the decorations would be. He found this much nicer in reality. Yes it was big, bigger than he had ever known, but in the same regards it was homely. Lived in.
He shook himself from his thoughts and turned towards the basin of water that rested on the chest of drawers. Undressing he washed himself down, glad for the chance to be rid of trail dust. While he fully enjoyed riding, he never did like the feel of the grit on him afterwards. When he was done he towelled himself dry with the cloths left for him before turning to the bed, where he had noticed the shirt and pants laid out for him. He wasn't sure just how they dressed here for dinner, so it wouldn't be amiss of him to wear what was provided, after all, if he wore his own tatty uniform while everyone wore something much nicer looking he would feel very out of place.
He donned the shirt and pants, surprised when they fit him quite well, obviously these were not borrowed from either Larabee or Wilmington as they were bigger and broader than he was himself. They must have come from Ezra, or this JD they had yet to see.
The knock on the door startled him and he moved to it quickly and opened it. Wilmington stood there, grinning madly. "Come on then Tanner, get a move on, it's nearly dinner time!"
Vin smiled back. "I'm coming," he said, stepping into the hall and shutting the door behind him.
Wilmington led him down the hall and to a dining room, with a long table that looked to be able to hold ten to twelve people easily. Wilmington took a seat next to Larabee who was seated at the head of the table. Jackson was sitting on his other side. Vin took the seat beside Jackson and looked expectantly at the door, wondering when Ezra and JD were going to arrive. He was curious now, and that grin on Wilmington's face was not helping matters.
Suddenly the door opened again and a young... Vin frowned. The clothes spoke of a man, but the face, and the barely visible curves, spoke of a woman. He glanced at Wilmington, who seemed just as confused as he was at this. Was this the JD that was mentioned earlier, or someone else? The man/woman set down the platter (s)he was holding and smiled beamingly at them before nodding her/his head and leaving again.
Wilmington turned hurriedly to Larabee and the two had a quick whispered conversation.
The door opened again, and Vin was stunned.
There, in the doorway was the most beautiful sight he had ever beheld. She was a few inches shorter than he was, with long cascading locks of auburn hair that shone nicely in the fire of the candles. She wore a simple dress of green that brought out the colour of her eyes perfectly. She moved forward gracefully until she settled herself in the chair directly opposite Larabee.
"Christopher, would you be so kind as to introduce your companions?" she asked, her voice lilting into a southern accent.
Vin's eyes widened in realisation just as Wilmington began to laugh.[i]
Buck Wilmington's laugh was something like a 'guffaw' of noise that just exploded into a life of its own. It was followed soon after by a chuckle from Larabee, and a small smile of amusement from the lady at the end of the table, but her humour was no less obvious, her green eyes dancing merrily. Finally Wilmington's laughter died out after Larabee reached out and hit him on the back of the head.
Vin's head was still whirling as he tried to work out just what exactly was going on here.
"Ah apologise, but I fear Ah was caught up in the mischievous air Buck normally brings home with him. My name is Isabelle Standish." The woman smiled gently, her eyes lingering for a moment on Vin's stunned expression before she looked at Wilmington, who grinned at her.
Larabee shook his head. "Tanner, Jackson, my step sister, Isabelle," he introduced, shaking his head, smiling while he spoke.
"Or more fondly known as Ezra," Wilmington added.
Vin forced his eyes away from the woman and looked at Wilmington. "What?"
"Why?" Jackson added his two cents.
"That's a long story!" Wilmington laughed again.
"But interesting, no?" Isabelle/Ezra pointed out.
The door to the room swung open before anything else could be said and the boy/girl, the gender thrown even more into confusion with Isabelle/Ezra's revelation, entered. There was a short pause as the person stopped and blew out a sigh. "You promised you would wait Ezra."
Isabelle/Ezra smiled indulgently. "Now now JD, let's not act so ungainly, it is hardly ladylike, is it."
Wilmington's jaw dropped, and Vin found great pleasure in laughing at that expression after this little trick. "That is a female?" he demanded to know.
Isabelle/Ezra looked positively enraged, until JD collapsed into laughter, having been well prepared for that outburst from Isabelle/Ezra's stories about Wilmington, then her lips twitched into a small smile and she shook her head. "That was most uncalled for Mr. Wilmington, though expected," the woman said, smirking, and Wilmington coloured up with a blush before muttering an apology. "JD, do put that plate down before you drop it and sit down. I think dinner has been waiting for long enough."
JD sat the plate down and took the seat to the right of Isabelle/Ezra, who smiled a winning, encouraging smile at them. "Do eat gentlemen. We did not slave over a hot stove all day to have it wasted."
"You? Slave over a hot stove? You don't even know how to cook," Wilmington pointed out, in a friendly, familiar way.
"All ladies know how to cook Mr. Wilmington. Just because I never chose to exhibit those skills for you does not mean I am devoid of them."
"Sure, sure," Wilmington grinned. "And since when were you a lady?"
Vin was surprised at just how... familiar this scene seemed, it was almost the same as the way Wilmington had joked at mealtimes in the war. And the way he spoke to Isabelle/Ezra was the same as he did to Larabee. Vin had always been taught that women were to be respected, and not to be spoken to callously. Not that he believed Wilmington was being callous, he was never callous towards ladies, but he wasn't being entirely respectful either.
"So what is the story?" Jackson broached the subject quietly, and Vin was glad he had asked because the curiosity was eating him up inside.
Isabelle/Ezra laughed, a pretty laugh Vin fancied. "As Buck mentioned, it is a long story. But I suppose a story over dinner would not go amiss, as I am sure you would all rather not speak of the war." She said it with a knowing sympathy.
"Just tell the story Ezra." Larabee rolled his eyes.
"Of course," she said, unaffected by his tone and words. "It all started many years ago when I was only perhaps nine years old, and my mother, a woman of rather dubious talents, met a man of wealth. Chris's father. My mother was always on the lookout for the next man of wealth to marry. She had rather expensive tastes. When she discovered that Mr. Larabee had a son, and a surrogate son in the form of Buck here, a plan formed."
"Yep, great plan by the way," Wilmington added.
"It fooled you did it not?" Isabelle/Ezra said, directing a glare at the grinning man.
"She has you there Buck," Larabee added.
Wilmington snorted. "Hey, pot and kettle Chris, pot and kettle."
Isabelle/Ezra coughed pointedly to return their attention to where it should rightfully be, on her. "As Ah was saying, my mother formed a plan, which required me to don boys' clothes and become a son. I was to win Chris and Buck's friendship, a feat much simpler if Ah was a boy than a girl. Through this friendship, my mother would then woo her way into Mr. Larabee's affections, marry him and spend his money as she pleased."
"It worked too," Larabee added.
"She was a conwoman?" Jackson asked, a frown furrowing between his eyes.
"Indeed Mr. Jackson, she was." Isabelle/Ezra smiled. "My name during that time was Ezra, and Ah managed to befriend Chris and Buck quite easily--"
"Always did think it was odd you not wanting to go swimming though," Wilmington said.
"Of course you did. Buck, you didn't care one whit, you merely enjoyed having someone to gang up against Chris with." She smiled. "Ah remained in this guise for almost six months."
"What happened?" Vin questioned.
"My father found out Ezra was a girl," Larabee smiled.
"An unfortunate incident I must admit," Isabelle/Ezra muttered. "My mother was gone on this particular occasion when a mark she had once conned arrived in the town. He recognised me through the disguise and immediately began to make such a fuss, demanding to know where my mother was, telling Mr. Larabee all about how my mother had conned him out of all his money. Mr. Larabee of course defended my mother most dutifully as he was now married to her. I had thought I would be able to talk the idea out of his head later on. I had seen how cons could go wrong before, and it is not a pleasant sight.
"Of course as soon as we returned to the ranch, Mr. Larabee asked me straight off if what that man had said was true..."
"You told him?" Vin asked.
"I did, there was no point lying then, he already knew, and believed, I could see it." Isabelle/Ezra shrugged.
"So why Ezra?" Jackson asked. Vin knew he hated con-people, and was biting back any comments on the matter as they were in the presence of ladies.
"That was us," Wilmington smiled. "It's a terrible thing when a young lad of thirteen realises he's been spending the last six months being friends with a girl."
"It boggles the mind," Larabee added.
"We couldn't have anyone knowing we'd been friends with a girl, so we just kept right on calling her Ezra, and unless we were in town and she was wearing a dress, she was just another one of the boys. Worked out pretty well really, and Chris's Da never seemed to mind," Wilmington ended with a smile.
"Of course, when my mother returned some weeks later, she had been visiting my grandmother who had been ill during that time, Mr. Larabee confronted her. She was not best pleased by this turn of events, and was ready to move on immediately. But Mr. Larabee had gained something of a true affection for her, and I believe my mother may have shared this with him, so she stayed. We remained here for six years, before Mr. Larabee passed on and my mother chose to move on."
"You stayed on?" Vin hazarded.
Isabelle/Ezra laughed. "Hardly, I also travelled with her, my mother decided it was time I put my god given talents to work."
"God given talents?" Nathan asked.
"Why yes. If everyone is done we could retire to the parlour." There was a glint in her eyes that spoke of more mischief yet to come.
Larabee nodded. "Sure, boys, you done?"
Vin nodded, Jackson did the same.
"JD, be a dear and clear up would you?" Isabelle/Ezra asked.
"Sure thing Ezra, you want me to check the horses as well?" JD asked.
Isabelle/Ezra shook her head. "No, I'm sure Buck and Chris checked when they were out there." She looked to them for confirmation and they both nodded. JD smiled, gathered up the plate and headed to the kitchen with them, while Isabelle/Ezra led them out of the room and into the parlour.
"--game of cards gentlemen?" Wilmington and Larabee chorused together, earning a reproachful look from Isabelle/Ezra.
"Cards ma'am?" Vin asked with a frown.
"'Ma'am'? Good Lord sir, I'm hardly old enough to require being called 'ma'am' and especially not in my own home. Call me Isabelle, or Ezra if you would prefer, after all, if what my dear brother has informed me is true you will both be here long enough to realise that formality has no place on this ranch. In town however Isabelle is much more appropriate. After all a--"
"Appearances are everything," Wilmington grinned.
"If you are quite finished," Ezra said, taking a seat and producing a deck of cards. "A hand of poker before JD returns perhaps?"
They each took a seat around the gaming table and Ezra dealt the cards.
"What's with this JD?" Wilmington asked suddenly as he lifted his cards.
Ezra looked at him as she finished laying the cards out. "I could hardly be expected to run the ranch by myself Buck. She came here from Boston I believe, after her mother passed away. Her mother was a housemaid at one of the big houses. She worked in the house with her mother, and also helped out in the stables at the house apparently. She is very good with the horses. Tomboyish true, but she's a good worker, and she can handle a gun fairly well."
"Trouble?" Larabee questioned, arranging his cards to his satisfaction.
"Nothing we couldn't handle, I assure you," Ezra smiled.
The evening had passed pleasantly, Vin had watched in ever growing fascination as Ezra had raked in her winnings from almost every hand. Jackson had bowed out early on and watched, Vin knew he was trying to work out if the woman was cheating. Jackson had no love for conmen and women, nor cheats, but Vin also knew he would not make any accusation against her, not unless he had solid proof, nor in front of two people who obviously loved her as true family.
"Damn Ezra, you're cheating. I know you are!" Wilmington accused finally.
"Ah have no need to cheat, you've lost your touch. Even JD has been able to beat your hands," Ezra responded, gathering up the cards. "Ah believe you might like to retire gentlemen, after all, you have been travelling a long way and the hour grows quite late."
"Might be an idea," Chris said.
Vin recognised that as a subtle dismissal, and realised that perhaps he and Jackson needed to leave, after all, they were guests, and Larabee and Wilmington probably needed to ask personal questions they should not be an audience to.
JD stood up also. "I'd best go too, need to be up early to see to the horses." She smiled at them.
"Captain, Wilmington," Vin said, nodding to them. "Miz Isabelle." He nodded to Ezra.
Jackson echoed his words.
"Come on now. I think it's about time we started using our given names. Call me Buck, boy. I got enough 'Wilmington' during the war, and I'll get enough of it here with Ezra."
Vin smiled. "I'll call you Buck if you stop calling me 'boy'," he offered.
"You got it junior!" Buck grinned.
Vin rolled his eyes.
"Same goes for you Nathan," Buck added
Nathan smiled and nodded.
"Captain," Vin said again, turning to leave, eliciting a put upon sigh from the man.
Ezra laughed. "I think we can safely assume that the same goes for Chris as well. You do remember the way to your rooms, yes?"
"Yes ma'am--Miz Isabelle," Vin corrected himself, and he left the room and headed to his room, where he undressed and got into bed, promptly falling asleep.
The parlour was silent for a long moment until the sounds of the house died away as the others got into bed. Ezra shuffled the cards slowly, Chris and Buck watching her. Finally Chris broke the silence. "Trouble?"
Ezra shrugged. "No more than the usual."
"Only worse 'cause we weren't here," Chris added.
Ezra flashed him a smile. "Something like that. Nothing Ah couldn't handle on my own Chris, Ah have been a grown woman for a long time now."
"Want me to show him not to mess with you?" Buck offered.
Ezra laughed at that. "No. Ah must say though, Ah am quite glad you have returned. Ah can sleep in for once." A small grimace passed over her features before vanishing.
Buck looked at her, knowing his surrogate sister too well. "You ain't planning to leave are you?" he asked. She never stayed in one place for too long, her mother's influence. Her remaining at the ranch for as long as she had since the war had begun was rare for her.
Ezra shrugged. "I have not as of yet decided." She looked at Chris. "Reverend Sanchez is coming over tomorrow. I told him you were coming home, he wishes to speak with you." She said it quietly, a tone in her voice that if one didn't know her they would not have picked up. But Chris knew her, after finding out his friend was actually a girl, a sister not a brother, he had developed protective instincts for her, and the ability to realise that something wasn't quite right. She could hide things remarkably well.
"It wasn't your fault Isabelle, you know that," Chris told her, using her given name, as he always did when dealing with his 'sister', that was, when she needed some sort of comfort, or encouragement.
"I know. But you did ask me to look after them Chris," she sighed.
"And if you hadda been with them you'd be dead too, Ez," Buck added his two cents.
There was silence, a strained one, before Ezra stood. "It's late, you need to rest. I can give you a full report on the goings on at the ranch in the morning." She shooed them out of the room and towards theirs.
Buck went straight to bed and slept. Ezra remained in the parlour, moving to the seat by the shelves and taking down a book, she settled in and began to read. Chris went to the room he had shared with his wife and stood, staring at the bed. The war had put distance between him and the news, but now, here... He fell into the chair by the dresser and just stared at the bed, where someone, Ezra he figured, had sat Adam's favourite toy. If sleep came to him at all, it would be restless and uncomfortable. He could only hope morning would come quickly.[ii]
TO BE CONTINUED
[i]Footnote Chapter 1: Yes, I did, I made Ezra a woman. Why? Because it seemed like a good idea. He won't lose any of his Ezra-ness, he'll just be a woman instead. And this story shall not remain so light-hearted, It'll get interesting soon, I promise. I just needed to set the back-story a bit. If anyone would care to beta this, or just let me know how I can improve don't forget to review!
[ii]Footnote Chapter 2: Yes, the Isabelle/Ezra thing was annoying, but it was necessary until she had informed them of what she'd prefer to be called and the story was told. The name Ezra will be used consistently except in speech by the other characters while in the town of Four Corners, and those who are not close to the group. And JD is a girl! It had to be done. Poor Ezra needed someone to talk to about girl stuff. Confusing, I know, but like I said, a story of epic proportions, nothing is supposed to make sense for a long time. Lol.
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