The Stand-In
A Cowboy Dreams Challenge
(Old West)

by MAC

Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: Starwinder's, You Want Fries With That?, and The All-Ezra FanFic Archive --- all others, please ask.
Summary: Vin and Ezra are found out and chased out of Four Corners, taking temporary refuge with Nettie Wells.
Warnings: Unhappy situations, references to violence and bigotry
Author's Note: This was in response to the Cowboy Dreams Ash Challenge 2004: "I'd love to see stories about mothers. Any of the seven's moms, in old west or modern day, good or bad, sweet or nasty From their POV or from their son's POV, I'll leave it loose so you can decide. Even the ones who are dead can come back to help with a situation. Ghost stories can be fun or scary." Originally exclusive to Cowboy Dreams Archive, now timed out.
Completed: 7 March 2004
Feedback: welcomes comments

Nettie stroked Vin's hair once more before standing up and wiping her hands on her apron. His mama must have been a very sweet and loving woman, and very strong too. In the short time she'd had with him, she'd imbued him with a sense of pride in himself and his family, a set of hard values that nothing ever seemed to shake, and a kind heart.

Nettie looked out into the kitchen area of her small ranch house. She could see Ezra Standish, her Mr. Fancy Man, carefully removing the old, battered tin coffee pot from the cast iron stove. He was using a rag she kept folded on one of the wood handles at the front of the stove. Now his mama was a different cat altogether, she mused. Wonder if she knows about them?

The old ranch woman licked her lips in thought as she straightened her skirt and made her way toward the kitchen, sparing a backward glance for the injured man on her settee. That old chaise had creaked and moaned for years, but it was the alarm it set off in Standish's face, as he helped lower Vin down on it that came back to her now. He'd thought, for a passing moment, that the noise came from the tracker himself. She smiled. Mouth had started movin' faster than a runaway stud horse. That's when she found out. About them. He'd acted like Tanner was the only person in the room and, for him, maybe that was how it was.

She'd hoped that Vin would find a wife, a good strong pioneer-type, and settle down. One look in those achingly blue eyes as they warmed with love in response to the gambler's prattle, and she'd given up those hopes. While she weren't his ma, she felt as if she stood in the woman's stead, with Vin Tanner's consent. Made it real special for her since her own boys were all long dead. Nothing like a son to make a mother's heart swell with pride and love.

"Would you care for some coffee, madam?" Standish's southron drawl was more pronounced than she'd ever heard it before. She nodded and sank on to a stool by the worktable in the small hot kitchen. Nettie watched the fancy man place one of her enameled tinware cups on the table and carefully pour steaming black char into the cup. "Sugah? Milk?"

She shook her head and gathered in the cup between gnarled hands. "Thank you."

"Mrs. Wells, no thanks necessary from you, but I must tender some from me and from Mr. Tanner---"

"Don't need no thanks. A body does what's needed."

"None the less, we owe you a debt." Standish, looking pale still in the golden glow of the gas lamp and the stove light, moved to sit on the straight back chair on the far side of the table, his own cup in hand. He set it down and placed his hands flat on the table on either side of it.

Silence drifted in and settled. Nettie wasn't bothered by it, she was comfortable with being alone much of the day, her niece running errands or out working around the homestead. She studied the small man seated across from her. Even after the trek here with the wounded tracker, he still looked presentable. Must have wiped down the dust and blood. She looked down at her hands. Still had traces of dark brown on the fingertips. She'd had to press hard to slow the blood flow before she could bandage up Vin's arm. "Where were you two headed?"

Standish's head came up, the dark reddish hair taking on highlights in the warm lamplight, his eyes, though, in shadow, the green impossible to see. "Away from here." He paused and then corrected, "That is, away from town." His hands came up to close around the cup of untouched coffee, steam still swirling upward, creating a veil between them.

"Reason to run?" Nettie prodded, already suspecting from his earlier speech.

Sharp eyes snapped to her face. His face was remarkably bland. "We were asked to," he swallowed and the fašade softened into sorrow, "to leave."

Nettie sat up straighter. "Mr. Larabee? The others?"

Standish sighed and slumped down slightly, his normally perfect posture fading. "No, not them." The southerner looked idly toward the front room, as if to check on Tanner, but he was asleep now. "Mrs. Travis. Mr. Conklin. Some of the other town emissaries."

Nettie frowned and dropped her eyes to her coffee, raised it and sipped, taking her time to swallow. "Because you two are---"

"In love, Mrs. Wells," her fancy man answered fiercely. "We are in love. Lovers."

Nettie raised her eyes again and met his. "So I figured." She shrugged at his questioning look. "What you said to Vin, when you were calming him down in there." She looked away, anywhere except at the desolate man in front of her. "He get hurt in town?"

"As we were leaving. Mostly, they just threw rocks." Standish's voice wasn't as steady as it had been. That had hurt. She watched him lift and straighten his shoulders. His eyes, clearer now as he leaned forward over the table, glinted ice green. She shivered involuntarily at the coldness there. "It was my own dear Mother who betrayed us to the locals." He sat back then, eyes back in the shadows.

"How'd she do that?"

"Oh, a 'shocked' look --- a sympathetic ear --- a shoulder to 'cry' upon --- my Mothah," his accent was slipping into molasses, "my Mothah is a skilled practitioner of the fine art of the con." Only bitterness, not pride, echoed in the tone.

"But why?" Nettie Wells honestly wanted to know. She toyed with her cup, but was unwilling to lower her eyes to look at it, fascinated by the man's confession. "Why would a mother do that to her son?"

Standish tipped his head to the side as if to study her now. He didn't answer right away. He turned his body to the side in the chair, facing out toward the front room and Vin. Finally, after what seemed a very long wait to the rancher, he raised one hand and ran the fingers through his dark hair. Not turning back to face her, he answered, "Even in nature, Mrs. Wells, some maternal creatures will devour their own young, given the chance and provocation."

"You 'provoke' her?" Nettie knew the word but didn't use it ordinarily.

He flashed a look of pure anger at her, causing her to sit up and slightly away from the table before she caught herself. "No, madam, I did not. Nor, before you ask, did Mr. Tanner. It is her very nature. She wants to protect me."

"This is protectin' you?" The woman gestured with slight nod to the front room.

"That was never an anticipated outcome, I am certain." Then he slumped, hands going up to cover his face, elbows resting on his knees. Through the cage of his fingers, she heard him continue, "At least, I pray to a god I am not certain exists, that that is the case." There was silence for a while again.

Nettie couldn't be sure what the man was thinking about, but for her part, she was recollecting what the others had told her of Mrs. Standish and her actions. Winning a hotel in a poker game. Driving her own son out of a business he'd only just started. Dashing his dream into the dirt. Vin had told her that last. She wasn't sure if all the rest knew about his dream, but Vin had known. Later, coming back to town, only to sell the business to others and run off again. Vin Tanner had been angry and sad when he'd told her some of the things that had been done, said.

Finally, the man raised his head again. Still he didn't turn to look at her, just stared ahead, his profile like that of a fine cameo she'd once seen. She could see his Adam's apple bob when he swallowed harshly and cleared his throat. "She means to keep me 'sharp' by preventin' me from getting complacent." He dropped his hands to his knees and dragged them up his thighs, then chest until they wrapped each other into a fold across it. "It's all a game to her." He held the pose for a heart beat, two, then swiveled around on the chair dropping his hands to the table again. Looked up at her. "But it is no game to me. Not any more."

"So you two decided to tail it out of there." She made it a statement.

"Seemed the bettah part of valor." Green eyes glowed. "Our compatriots were all away. Timing is everything, Mrs. Wells, and my dear Mothah knows that so well."

"You can stay here. Long as you two want. Fine with me." She stood up and finished her coffee in a long swallow. "The others will be along, I expect, soon as they get back, hear. I can send Casey in to wait for them, get them." She sighed. "You two won't be alone. They'll ride with you. I know that bunch of boys." Wiping at the ring of moisture on the table, she lowered her voice some. "I imagine the seven of you will ride out together. You'll be missed. All of you."

"Thank you." Her fancy man's voice was a bare whisper, he didn't dispute her.

And this time, she didn't call him on the words. Letting them stay here could be trouble for her, but she felt as if she had to stand firm for Vin's mama's sake. From what Vin'd let out in passing, and what she'd seen in him, it's what the woman would have done, wanted done for her baby. So it's what Nettie would do. Would have done anyway. For both of them, 'cause they both needed mamas now.


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