On the Outskirts of Tascosa

by Sue

Disclaimer: The characters from the program The Magnificent Seven in this story are not mine and are owned by Trilogy, CBS and MGM. I am making no profit from their use. Honest.

Summary: On the evening before Vin's trial, Ezra muses on their chances of success and the bond of the seven.

Comments: Written in response to the October M7 fic challenge: Five of the seven go to Tascosa to try and clear Vin's name while two of them stay behind in town to keep an eye on things.

Enjoy!! Feedback is always welcome!! :)

The warm night wind howled plaintively across the rocks on the outskirts of Tascosa, its dusty air dancing through the sharp crags and across the time-polished boulders. Ezra frowned at the intrusion and shifted on his lookout perch, brushing the wayward dust from his travel-worn red sleeve and wishing for the hundredth time he had stayed in town.

Settling back down to resume his watch, he repositioned his rifle across his knees and sighed. Lazily his green eyes wandered down to the area a short way below him, where Chris, Vin and the others were preparing the evening meal. In the full moonlight the sharp-eyed Southerner could easily pick out each of his comrades, their silvery shapes moving ghostlike in the blue-black darkness.

It was a familiar sight, one which had graced his sight a hundred times over the past three years, during countless missions which pulled them from the confines of the small frontier town the seven of them had been hired to protect.

But this time, it was easy to tell that something was different.

Even from this distance, Ezra knew, he should be able to hear the good-natured joshing that had always accompanied their journeys in the past. Normally young JD would be inciting groans with his bad jokes, or Buck would be waxing rhapsodic about his latest romantic conquest. Josiah might favor them all with an impromptu meditation, or even a hymn if he was in the mood for it. Chris would stay mostly quiet, keeping an eye on things, and Vin would keep his protective vigilance even while relaxing in the wild outdoors he so loved. But those two men as well would join in the frivolity, if the situation presented itself.

There was no frivolity tonight. Buck and JD were not with them this time, having remained in town to stand guard while the rest of them ventured forth, and the rest of them were too anxious on their comrade's behalf for lightheartedness. The camp was blanketed with an air of grim impatience for the dawn, a dawn which, it was fervently hoped, would finally end the unjust captivity of one of their number.

With any luck, the next sunset would find Vin a free man.

Ezra frowned good-naturedly at himself; luck was an illusion, he reminded himself, it certainly had not been mere luck which had afforded them an opportunity to finally lift the bounty from Vin's head. They had all been working hard to see this day, keeping watch for anything which might prove that Vin was an innocent man framed for murder by the vicious outlaw Eli Joe. Eli's death had seemed an insurmountable barrier, but none of them had even considered giving up. When a former associate of Eli's had been caught following a murderous bank robbery, the man had practically begged for a chance to do anything to save himself from the noose, including making a statement that would swear that Vin had been framed.

But the situation was far from solved, Ezra recalled sadly. The man had been badly wounded in the shootout; he'd only had time to write and sign a statement before expiring. The seven men had no choice but to take the paper to the judge at Tascosa and present it, hoping that it would be enough to free their friend. Judge Travis, the circuit court official who had hired them, would be standing with them in the Tascosa courtroom, but eventually it would all come down to the sevens' will against that of the court of Tascosa.

The gambler chuckled darkly to himself as he scratched an insect bite on his neck; it would certainly be a day to remember. All they really had to go on was their own reputations, and that of Judge Travis, to persuade the court that the confession was genuine. Long odds, to be sure, if one studied them closely; how would he wager on the outcome, if his soul was cold enough to place such a bet?

Bored with staring at moonlit rocks, he dropped his gaze down once more to the camp as he considered the question. Surely, they were a uncivilized lot, but not without their merits. As any good gambler would do, Ezra carefully weighed every aspect of the wager, trying to discern how justice would fall.

He first picked out Chris, easily finding the gunslinger's long, lean form lounging near the fire and watching its flames in silence. The judge might only know Chris by his reputation, as a dangerous gunfighter swamped in blood and violence. Ezra could clearly recall hearing the name of Chris Larabee whispered around in the saloons before coming to Four Corners; it was a name spoken with dread. Larabee was a dangerous man, they'd said. Best steer clear of him, if you want to live.

A smile crossed the Southerner's lips; he'd rarely believed barroom gossip, but he had to admit he'd shared their opinion briefly after meeting the man. After the judge hired them all to work together, Ezra was convinced he would never be able to work with a man who was so unbending and, worse yet, seemed to see through every con Ezra attempted. But it hadn't been long before Larabee's courage impressed him, inspiring in Ezra a loyalty he had never given to anyone else. In the three years of their association Ezra had never seen Chris coldbloodedly gun anyone down in a hail of bullets, or go on a murderous rampage, or do any of the horrendous things he supposedly did as a matter of routine. What he did see was a man who set aside his hellish personal grief and bring together a group of disparate men for the common good, a man who was still haunted by demons but had the power to turn them aside.

Would the judge in Tascosa see that when he looked at Chris, as well?

Nearby to Chris, Josiah and Nathan were deep in some sort of discussion. Surely, Ezra mused, the fact that Josiah had been a preacher would count for something. Of course, his path of righteousness had not been smooth, but any man who had faced the rough terrain which Josiah had been forced to navigate, and still retain even a semblance of decency, had to be respected.

Certainly if Ezra, consummate sinner that he was, could come to respect it, anyone could, the gambler figured as he shifted his position on the hard rock. He and Josiah had disagreed often in the past, and there had been times when the Southerner felt pretty fed up with Josiah's attempts to mend his path. But, he'd noticed, that hadn't happened as often lately. Could he possibly be becoming reformed? Ezra gave a theatrical shudder and chuckled. He would never be able to tread the way of righteousness as Josiah did, but their continued association had given Ezra enough respect for the man to at least occasionally listen to his advice-even if noone knew of that practice but himself.

Now, Josiah's current partner in conversation- there was a man that Ezra never would have found himself championing three years ago. At their first meeting, Ezra had barely given Nathan a cursory glance before dismissing him, purely because he was black. He had even refused to ride with Chris and the others, he remembered, simply due to Nathan's involvement, and had only reconsidered after mulling over the probability of financial gain.

Ezra shuddered at the memory, suddenly fearful that the Tascosa jury might feel the same way he had then. What if they decided to dismiss the confession as a fraud outright, just because Nathan was with them? Would Ezra have the courage, then, to step forward and condemn their shortsightedness? He could tell them not to misjudge the man, and speak from experience. He could say how he had often regretted his haste, even when he and Nathan were embroiled in one of their many disagreements. Certainly, the man was self-righteous and intractable, but Ezra could swear unflinchingly that the healer also had an immeasurable amount of integrity. Despite slavery, despite torture, despite attacks and hardships which would warp the soul of a lesser man, Nathan still retained enough compassion for humanity to tend its wounds rather than cause them. How could any jury be aware of that, and not be moved?

His gaze lifted up into the more distant hills. In the bright moonlight he could see a solitary figure riding slowly across the rocky heights, the gentle beams glinting off of his buckskin coat and long brown curls. The man of the hour himself, Vin Tanner. What would the jury think, when they saw him?

Ezra pursed his lip, recalling that Vin's appearance was not prepossessing at first. The rough buckskin clothes, the large weather-worn hat pulled low over his blue eyes, the long unruly hair, the easy, relaxed stance which was at once leisurely and menacing-such a sight would doubtless inspire the usual response. Vin bore the look of the lone rider, the renegade, the man who was most at home in the wilds. It didn't help that he'd been accused of murder, had lived with Indians, and bore the dubious past of a bounty hunter. None of these, likely, would make much of a good impression.

He sighed and frowned, remembering with shame that he had made similar judgments when he'd first met Vin. He'd thought the man uncouth, uncivilized, and as dangerous as a prowling wildcat. A good man to have at your back during a fight, but not so good when you were trying to attract gamers to the table. Used to well-dressed opponents and conversation, Ezra had at first been discomfited by Vin's looks and taciturn manner, and at one point would not have had much trouble believing the man to be guilty.

But now...Ezra scowled and leaned his chin into one hand, staring thoughtfully at the horizon. Now, he was willing to stand beside Vin and speak for him, to risk an associative guilt so that his friend could gain his freedom. Vin was still as wild as ever, of course, but there was no doubt now that beneath the rough exterior burned a brilliant sense of honor. Ezra trusted nothing better than his own eyes, and those eyes had witnessed time and again Vin's acts of courage on behalf of the town and their small, bloodied band. Ezra had known enough true villains to know that Vin did not belong in their number. The tracker might dress like a savage and live like a wild man, but Vin was more of a gentleman than many of Ezra's acquaintance who had clothed themselves in silk and walked palatial halls.

If only they could persuade the judge and jury of this fact...

Buck and JD had stayed behind, to watch Four Corners in their absence, but their names would be announced as vouching for the testimony's authenticity as well. Would the jury trust them? JD Dunne was young, to be sure, but Ezra had been amazed at how swiftly the young man had gone from brash tenderfoot to seasoned lawkeeper in just a few short years. The lad had developed a keen eye and steady nerves, yet still retained the youthful optimism which had jumped with him off the stagecoach so long ago. JD's tenure among the lawbreakers had not hardened his heart or eroded his faith in justice; even a cynic like Ezra had to hope that such courage would count for something.

And Buck, the other lawkeeper still in town, well, there were few men as ready for a good time as Buck, but still fewer who were as reliable when things got tough. Buck's high spirits and eye for the ladies might have struck some of the jurists as a sign of instability, but Ezra knew how Buck would defend his friends and the town to his last drop of blood, if need be. he had seen the easy laugh turn to a deadly snarl, the merry eyes cloud over with the steely light of grim purpose. He had proven his devotion to duty time and again with his blood, stood between danger and its victims too often for Ezra to count. Such painful fidelity was not freely given, even by a seemingly easygoing man as Buck; it could only be hoped that those in Tascosa might recognize that fact as well.

And then, there was himself. A self-depracating grin crept across Ezra's lips; a gambler might not be the best person to choose for your defendant, he thought, particularly one as familiar with the interior of a jail cell as Ezra was. Ezra knew exactly what the judge and jury would see when he walked into the court with the others tomorrow. Despite the fact that had chosen his most subdued attire, they would still assume the usual. Here was yet one more worthless, drifting gambler, a shameless con artist preying on the gullible. Certainly nothing he said could be trusted.

None of these sentiments would be new to Ezra; he had heard them all, and agreed with most of them, all of his life. He knew his shortcomings, and was neither ashamed nor proud of them; they were simply who he was. He could only hope now that his past failings would not too badly damage Vin's chances of recovering his freedom.

Ezra knew what life on the run was like, what it was to be caught and caged and yearn for nothing more than escape. He also knew how it felt to live with a sullied reputation, to lose one's good name. Of course, Ezra had given up his reputation of his own free will, and had no illusions that he would ever be able to reclaim it. Such an action would require sacrifices that he was not sure he had the courage to make. But Vin did not deserve his fate, and tomorrow all of them would stand together before the gods of justice and plead their case. Hopefully, Lady Luck would be in a benevolent mood, and by this time tomorrow their comrade would be free.

It seemed like such a long chance, Ezra thought as he gazed at the quiet scene below him. But then, three years ago, who would have said that Fate would take seven men, most of whom had never met before, and bring them together in that small, dusty backwater town? What sane gambler would have bet that, three years later, these men would still be together, despite the gunfights and disagreements, boredom and dust and spilled blood? It surely would have seemed an impossibility that those seven men-including a wandering, cynical gambler-would see their association grow into a friendship, and that friendship forged into a brotherhood, which would carry them through whatever trials destiny had in store.

And yet, that was precisely what had happened, as improbable as it seemed. And tomorrow they would go to Tascosa and present themselves. How would they fare?

Ezra sat back against the rock and smiled a little, basking in the moonlight and reflecting on his contemplations. A small flicker of confidence sparked in his heart, growing stronger the more he pondered the situation, until only one outcome could be seen in its brilliant light.

He, for one, knew how he would place his wager.


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