High Stakes

by Jade

Ezra shivered, pulling his coat tighter as the chill October wind whistled past him. He quickly made his way to the saloon, wanting nothing more than a stiff drink and a friendly game of poker. He pushed open the doors and stepped inside, but the saloon's warmth couldn't dispel the ice that suddenly filled his veins.

He walked slowly over to a table in the back where a lone man was sitting, half-hidden by shadows. The noise of the room seemed to bleed away the closer he got until all he could hear was the pounding of his own heart in his ears. He silently sat, his green eyes never leaving the pale figure across the table from him.

After a moment of silence Ezra spoke, his voice low and raspy. "Who are you here for?"

The figure raised an eyebrow. "You know who I am then?" His tone was mildly curious, with a properness of speech that was out of place in Four Corners.

Ezra nodded. "Indeed, sir. I have seen you once before, when you came for my father. He offered you a deal, and he lost."

A smile slowly appeared on the man's pale face. "Yes, I remember your father. He was a very interesting gentleman."

Ezra glanced quickly around the crowded saloon before turning his gaze back to the figure across from him. "I ask again: who are you here for, sir?"

The other man's ice-colored eyes warmed slightly. "You need not be concerned. I did not come for you." He sighed when he noticed the desperation in Ezra's eyes. "I have come for Christopher Larabee."

The gambler's breath caught in his throat and he began shaking his head in denial. After allowing himself a moment of uncontrolled panic, Ezra took a deep breath and brought himself back under rigid control. "While we wait for Mr. Larabee, could I interest you in a game of chance?"

The other man smiled as Ezra pulled out a deck of cards and let them fly through his fingers. "And what of the stakes? You know I have no money."

"I propose an alteration of the wager my father offered you." The cards continued to fly as Ezra spoke, even though he paid them no attention. "If I win, Mr. Larabee retains his life and you will vacate our quaint municipality empty-handed."

The smile never left the pale man's face. "And if you lose?"

Ezra forced himself not to shiver as the air suddenly turned colder. "If I lose, you take me instead, as a companion. I would imagine that even Death is subject to loneliness."

Death's pale eyes widened. "Is this man truly worth the risk to you?"

Ezra stilled his cards and nodded. "Would any man do less for his brother?"

"Many men have." Death smiled, leaning forward so that his entire face was in the light. "Your wager is taken; deal your fate."

The Southerner quickly shuffled the cards and dealt them, the thought of cheating never crossing his mind. While he was not adverse to cheating death in a gunfight, he would not cheat Death at poker. His face was blank as he looked at his cards. While it wasn't a poor hand, he still felt a chill shoot up his back as he stared at the black aces and eights. The pattern was only broken by the blood-red Queen of Diamonds.

Death glanced up from his cards, one eyebrow raised. "Since neither of us can raise, shall we see what fate you have drawn?" As he lowered his cards to rest on the table, Ezra could feel his heart drop with them. He had dealt Death a royal flush.

The gambler took a deep breath as he lowered his own cards. "It seems that you have beaten me, sir. My life is yours."

"I must admit, I was rather hoping that you would win. However, a deal is a deal." The smile was gone from the pale face as he extended a hand to Ezra. "Christopher Larabee's life is his own. Now, we must depart."

Ezra rose to his feet, gripping the table as his breathing slowed and his vision swam. He fell to his knees as he felt his life slipping away. He was quickly growing colder, but two points of warmth flared as hands gripped his shoulders. He glanced up and was pinned by a pair of hazel eyes.

"You can't have him. I won't let you." Chris glared at Death, Ezra's failing body cradled in his arms.

Another voice rang out from behind him as Vin knelt, placing a hand on the Southerner's arm. "If'n ya take him, ya gotta take all of us."

Ezra felt some of the warmth stealing back into his body as Buck and JD also appeared. It was still a struggle to breathe and black rimmed his vision, but a smile curled his lips when he heard them say that he was needed there. The smile widened when he heard Josiah's booming voice coupled with Nathan's, both men pleading with Death to let him live.

Death slowly stood, towering over the men crouched on the floor. But his face showed no malice, only curiosity. "You gentlemen would be willing to take his place, as he was willing?"

The six men all nodded, though only Chris spoke. "We're seven, and life or death, we stay that way. Take all of us, or take none of us. You decide."

Ezra suddenly felt the tightness in his chest disappear, and he gratefully sucked in the air that his body was starved for. He was still chilled, but the cold no longer went bone-deep. He glanced up at Death, meeting the ice-colored eyes.

The pale lips curled up in a smile and two fingers rose in a familiar salute. "I return your life to you. Use it well, for I shall return. But when I do, I shall return for you all." With those words, he simply faded from sight.

The lawmen stared in wonder at the spot where Death had been for only a moment before focusing their attention back on Ezra. Each man found himself seeking physical contact with the gambler, wanting to assure themselves that he was still with them. Ezra remained kneeling on the floor and allowed Chris to continue to hold him up, needing the reassurance that Death had not taken the blond gunslinger.

After a few moments the gambler was forced to move as his legs began to cramp. He rose shakily to his feet, absently noting that except for his fellow lawmen the saloon was empty. A quick glance outside confirmed that the night was much darker than it had been when he arrived. He mentally shrugged; he probably didn't want to know exactly how that had happened.

He made his way to one of the other tables, still able to feel a chill surrounding the table where Death had sat. The others followed him silently, Chris and Vin at either elbow in case he stumbled. He practically fell into a chair, glancing down at the table as the others sat.

"Ez." Chris waited until the gambler looked up to continue. "What did he mean when he said you were willing to take someone's place?"

Ezra raked a hand through his hair. He had been hoping that none of the other men had caught that statement. He sighed as he met Chris's eyes, the shutter gone from his own for the first time since he had come to Four Corners. "Death did not come here tonight for me, Chris. He came for you."

The gunslinger's face never changed, but understanding began to dawn in his eyes. "If he came for me, why was he taking you?"

"I offered him a wager; one hand of poker. If I won then he would leave with no one, and if I lost then he would take me instead." By the time Ezra finished speaking, his voice was nearly inaudible. He shivered, still feeling a lingering chill from his brush with death.

Chris rested a hand on Ezra's shoulder, smiling when the gambler turned to look at him. "Thank you, Ezra." Suddenly his smile changed to the familiar glare, though there was no real heat behind it. "And if you ever do anything like that again, I'll shoot you myself and save Death the trouble."

Ezra chuckled, a genuine grin curving his lips. "Whatever you say, Chris. Whatever you say." He finally relaxed, safe with his six friends nearby.


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