A Talent for the Game


DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit will be made from the distribution of this story.

NOTES/COMMENTS: Mostly Ezra, Chris, Vin; This story stands on it's own, but it is a sequel to The Letter Home. You may want to read it first. Thanks to Kim, Nancy and Chris G. for their great suggestions and encouragement.

Part 1

"Ezra, look out!" The body diving into him as he stepped out of the saloon drove him down onto the boardwalk, not giving him time to move. JD's shoulder crushed into his ribs driving the air from his lungs as they met the hard wood.

Untangling himself from the gasping gambler, JD rolled to his feet continuing to fire both guns at the outlaws. He chanced a glance over at Ezra and saw he was sliding behind the overturned table and had his Remington in his left hand. JD sighed in relief, he was okay. The young sheriff moved down the boardwalk to a better position behind a water barrel.

The gun battle was short-lived as the seven had a decided advantage over the five members of the outlaw gang. Three were dead and two were being hauled off to jail by Josiah and Buck. The peacekeepers came through without a scratch.

JD stood next to Chris as they prepared to take the dead men to the undertaker's. He looked back to where he had left the con man.

"Where's Ezra?"

A shot of fear ran through Chris. Not Ezra. Standish had been through far too much in the past few months. The runaway wagon that fractured his leg, arm and hand, and killed young Jesse Martinson, had nearly destroyed the man.

"He was okay, JD?"

"Yeah. I think I knocked the wind out of him when I pushed him down, but he was shootin' and I didn't see no blood."

Chris nodded. "Let's get them off the street and go find him."


He was confused and if he admitted it, a little frightened. Ezra had heard the gun shots and gone to help his friends, but his stiff leg made it difficult. JD had risked his life to get him out of the line of fire. The young man could have been killed because the gambler was too slow. Another thing to add to his list of sins.

Ezra could barely defend himself. His right hand was worthless with a gun. Even with a lot more work, he may never regain full use. His derringer was not an option. With the muscles in his right arm refusing to completely cooperate, he couldn't release the mechanism to slide the tiny gun into place, and even if he could, the fingers wouldn't work quick enough to be of any good. He had to rely on his left hand, and while he was capable with his left, it was pretty hard to draw a gun with a cane in your hand.

He took a swig from the flask and settled back into the shadows. He needed some time to think.


JD stood guard over the prisoners. The sheriff was concerned about Ezra, but he had a job to do. The others split up and began to search the town. With his injuries still healing, they knew the gambler couldn't get far.

"He ain't in the boarding house, Chris," said Buck.

Chris shook his head, "He's not in the saloon either." As Josiah strode over, Chris asked, "Any luck?"

Josiah frowned. He hoped they had found the elusive con man. "He's not in the church, or Potter's store..."

"Or the Clarion, or the telegraph." Added Nathan as he approached.

They saw Vin step out of the livery, and seeing the group in the street he shrugged indicating the gambler wasn't there either.

"Where else would he go?" asked Buck.

"Keep lookin'," said Chris sternly. He headed for the cemetery wondering if the con man had gone to visit Jesse's grave.


Ezra sighed when he realized the others were looking for him. He was tired and needed time to clear his head. He wasn't ready to deal with them, but it wasn't fair to worry them either. It was nice to know they cared, but sometimes it was a bit overwhelming for someone who had never experienced true friendship.

He shook his head as he saw the tracker up checking the rooftops. Now that was optimism. Admittedly, he had ventured up there many times to be alone, but how did Vin think he could reach the rooftops now with a useless arm and leg?

"That's not true." He said the words aloud almost to reassure himself. His leg and his arm were not useless...they just weren't as useful as he hoped...yet.

He smiled sadly as his friends re-checked all the obvious places. They didn't seem to remember that a gambler and con man would know secret places to hide to make a quick getaway when needed.


As the tracker walked down the darkening alley, a soft southern voice spoke.

"Vin...tell them to stop looking. I'm alright."

Vin stopped and peered around the crates, cocking his head to one side with a frown. "I'm not so sure about that pard," he said to his friend who was curled up in a small space behind the stack. <How the hell did he get in there?> he wondered.

He saw the slight grin that came to Ezra's face. "Yes, well, I am unharmed physically except for some sore ribs."

"And?" asked Vin reaching down and offering Ezra a hand up.

"There is no and, Mr. Tanner. I told you, I am fine." Ezra took the hand, pulled himself up and steadied himself. He brushed the dirt off his trousers with his left hand. Taking his cane, he began to walk slowly back toward the saloon.

"What happened Ez?" asked Vin, knowing that something had made his friend feel the need to run.

Ezra eyed Vin suspiciously.

Vin sighed. They had come a long way in their friendship, but Ezra was still questioning if he could trust him or not.

"I'm sorry, Vin," said Ezra realizing what his hesitation meant to the tracker, "I didn't mean to infer that you couldn't be trusted." Looking away from Vin, he whispered, "It's me..."

Vin smiled briefly. "S'all right, Ez." He gave a nod toward the street and they started walking again.

"What happened?"

"I nearly got Mr. Dunne killed because I couldn't move fast enough," replied Ezra bluntly.

Vin winced and closed his eyes. He knew Ezra was battling with his physical condition and the frustration overwhelmed the con man at times. This would just be one more thing that told him he didn't measure up. He wasn't going to let his friend sink into that trap.

"JD's fine, Ezra."

"I know that, Mr. Tanner. It's what could have been..."

"Aw hell, Ez. You know you cain't live by the coulda's... or the what if's."

Ezra sighed and nodded.

"Ya jest need more time ta git that leg under ya. And that hand? That hand's gittin' better every time I see ya," grinned Vin.

The tracker's smile was infectious, and the gambler couldn't help it, he began to smile. Vin Tanner would never understand the full extent of what his friendship meant to Ezra.

"Time seems to be the one thing I have a lot of, Mr. Tanner."

"C'mon, pard," Vin nodded toward the saloon, "I'm buyin'."


The seven sat around the table playing cards. They didn't talk about what happened on the street. In the week that Ezra was home, they learned that letting the gambler deal with things at his own pace worked best.

JD dealt the next hand. The Southerner picked up his cards with his left hand and put them into his uncooperative right. Ezra sighed. What was he even doing here? He was playing for their sake and found no pleasure in the game itself. The cards were still too much of a reminder of Jesse's death, and Vin being shot.

He stared at his cards but he wasn't really looking at them. Ezra was certain the other peacekeepers were aware he was finding reasons to excuse himself from the games. He just couldn't bear to participate when the game moved from friendly hands to betting.



"I asked how many cards d'ya want?"

He was startled to realize he didn't even know what cards he held. He folded his hand and laid it on the table.

"I'm sorry Mr. Dunne, gentlemen, but it has been a long day. I must retire for the evening."

Six concerned faces stared at him.

Ezra sighed.

"I'm tired," he stated simply.

Looking up he saw six unbelieving faces.

"I am tired," he protested.

Josiah stood. He felt sympathy for the con man, but he also believed, given time, Ezra would sort this out. "Come on brother. I'll walk with you."

As Ezra and Josiah left the saloon, the others finished the hand and broke up for the evening, still not talking about the non-gambling gambler. Vin and Chris remained.

"You gonna talk to the judge?" The tracker pushed up the brim of his hat so he could look Larabee in the eyes.

"He's coming on the stage Friday," nodded Chris.

"Ya reckon he'll agree?"

Chris sighed. "I figure he'll give it a fair consideration. I think if we can show him Ezra's able to contribute to protecting this town, then he'll keep him on."

"How we gonna do that? Ez ain't up to it yet."

"I don't know Vin. We have to find a way or we'll lose him."

Part 2

Hacienda de Cordoba was laid out in grandiose style. Each room was filled with works of art and fine furniture. The owners had spared no expense on the furnishings. There were numerous outbuildings, including stables, barns, bunkhouses and servants' quarters. It was a fitting place for the heiress of Don Jose Gaston Carillo de Cordoba y de Mendoza. Philip IV of Spain had given him the Cordoba land grant as a gift for his service. Now, four generations later Dona Maria de Garcia de la Cordoba y de la Montoya was claiming her rightful title to the land. The only problem was that the claim encompassed a large part of the Arizona and New Mexico territories, and people weren't happy with the idea of giving up their land.

James Seaver, a former land office clerk had seen the opportunity and seized it. He had found Dona Maria as a 14-year-old waif on a ranch in San Bernadino, California. He made her his bride, and set about authenticating the claim that she was the last Cordoba. He convinced the girl of her heritage. She had been born a twin, but her brother was sickly and he and her mother had died shortly after she was born. Her father had been killed in a skirmish on the Mexican border. She had been given to a family in San Bernadino to be raised.

Seaver trained her to act as a noblewoman, spending a few years in Spain with royalty. During his time in Spain, and in subsequent visits to Mexico City, he gathered evidence supporting his young wife's claim.

Now they were settled on the site of the original house built on the Cordoba Land Grant. A cornerstone surrounded by a fenced in flower garden gave proof to the location of the original hacienda.

The time had come to collect the rents and royalties due them from the ranchers, railroads, townsmen and mine owners who occupied their land. Seaver began hiring ruthless men to carry out the dirty work. It would be a messy business handling those who would not pay up, but if he handled it correctly they could come across as a generous and gracious man, allowing the 'tenants' to remain on Cordoba land.

Part 3

Ezra was beginning to feel that coming home was a big mistake.


How could it be home? He didn't even have a place to sleep. He couldn't continue to stay at Nathan's. The healer needed the bed for other patients. And then there was the humiliation of the stairs...

When the seven began protecting this town, Ezra had chosen not to take the room in the boarding house that was included in their wages, preferring the something closer to the gaming tables. He had paid for the room above the saloon with his poker winnings. Gone three months in the hospital, there was no choice but to let his room go. Not that it mattered now. Even if he still had the room, his friends wouldn't have let him navigate stairs on his own and he refused to be carried like an infant anymore.

That left few options. The boarding house had stairs as well, but there were no rooms available anyway. All the sleeping rooms in the hotel were on the second floor. There was the back room at Josiah's, but another homeless young man presently occupied it. Larabee's ranch was a consideration, but it was too far out, and Nathan felt Ezra would be better off in town. Ezra was met with protests when he offered the only logical solution he could find. He would sleep on the cot in the office area of the Jail.

"You can't sleep in the Jail, Ezra!"

"There is a bed, Mr. Dunne," responded Ezra with much more composure than he felt. He didn't want to sleep in the jail, but he could find no acceptable alternative.

"It's too cold and drafty," added Nathan. He didn't need Ezra getting sick on top of everything else.

"There is a stove, Mr. Jackson."

"What if there's a prisoner?" asked Buck.

Ezra shook his head, "Then we shall have a double guard, Mr. Wilmington."

"What about the smell?" added Josiah.

Ezra wrinkled his nose in displeasure. "Yes, well, there is that. But the repugnant odor is preferable to being carted around like an infant." He looked at Josiah, his eyes asking giant of a man to understand he meant nothing against him personally. Josiah nodded to him.

Ezra turned to Chris and Vin. "You have no objections, Mr. Larabee?"

"Nope," said Chris breaking into a grin.

Vin looked at the gunslinger quizzically.

Ezra watched the silent communication between the two men. Eyes met... gazes locked... an eyebrow went up in question... a single nod confirmed the answer.

"What just happened here?" asked Ezra looking from one to the other.

Vin broke into a grin as he realized what their leader was thinking. "Well, Ez, looks like we just found a way to keep ya on the payroll... seein's how ya like ta be up most the night anyways... and how you'd be sleepin' at the jail, I think we jest found ourselves a night guard."

None of them missed the brightening of Ezra's eyes as a small flicker of hope began to burn.

Part 4

James Seaver, now known as Baron Seaver, had orders posted all over the territory for landowners to settle with him for the rent of their land, or face eviction. He had been slightly surprised at how easy it was to get some folks to pay up. The land was ripe for picking. The Federal Government had recognized a number of old land claims and people were afraid of losing everything.

The railroad company had just paid him the tidy sum of $25,000 for permission to cross his land. The Carrington Silver mine had come up with a similar fee. The ranchers were small nuisances in comparison, but they had to be dealt with.

Maria and the babies' nurse came into the sitting room with the children. The Baron greeted his wife and kissed his twin daughters. If Maria knew some of the dirty work that needed to be done, she would never agree to it, but he didn't see the need to inform her of his actions.


"Good morning, Ezra, how are you feeling today?" Mary Travis approached the boardwalk with an armful of newspapers.

"Good morning, Mrs. Travis. I'm well. How are you?"

"Oh, I'm fine. Would you like the latest edition?" Seeing Ezra nod, she handed him a paper. "I'm so glad you're back Ezra. We missed you."

Ezra looked up, careful to mask his surprise. Mary Travis had made it clear early on that she did not approve of his profession, and particularly didn't like his influence on Billy. As time passed, her stance had softened as she began to see through the gambler's façade and see some of his good qualities. Ezra knew her words were sincere.

"Thank you, Mrs. Travis. Please send young Mr. Travis my greetings."

She nodded and headed down the street to deliver the newspapers.

Ezra began to read the local news. He realized that he had missed a lot while he was gone. There were the usual stories - someone got married, somebody built a new barn, and so on. The biggest story was about the descendant of a Spanish land baron, who had come to the area and was claiming his rightful land, or rather, his wife's land.

Ezra frowned as he read. Something didn't sit right about the story, but he didn't have enough facts.

"Any good news this week Ezra?"

Ezra looked up. "Mr. Larabee, are you aware of the Cordoba Land Claim?"

Chris sighed and sat down next to the con man. "It's all we've been dealing with since you went to St. Louis."

"There have been problems?"

"People are scared. Notices are posted all over the territory for people to settle up or be evicted. There's been a few incidents, ranch hands getting beat up, cattle disappearing... no hard evidence that the Baron is responsible."

"This isn't right."

"I agree, but what can we do? The Surveyor General's office says it's a legitimate claim. We have to pay up or lose everything."

"No... that's not what I meant." Ezra shook his head trying to explain. He was not accustomed to the words coming out wrong.

"Yes, it is a travesty what is happening to the landowners, but that is not what I meant, Mr. Larabee. I meant that something is not quite right about the claim itself. I just don't know what it is yet."

He didn't want to say the words, thinking Chris would never believe him, but he simply had a feeling that something was wrong.

<Good Lord, I'm getting as spooky as Tanner.>

"Well, Ezra, you can think on it awhile. Right now we have work to do."

Ezra let out a big sigh before getting to his feet and heading inside with Chris. Yes, they had work to do and it was not fun.


Chris had been surprised that the Southerner let him work his stiff limbs. First off, he figured Ezra would put up a ruckus for doing it at all, but the con man didn't protest. He thought Ezra would have preferred help from Vin, because of their growing friendship, or even Nathan, since he was the healer, but no, he had specifically asked for Chris.

The gunslinger was grateful that the nurse who worked with Ezra in St. Louis had shown him how to manipulate the muscles to help him the most. He now watched the gambler grimace with every movement and Chris began to understand the extent of pain his friend had gone through.

"Enough Chris...enough," pleaded the smaller man in a strained voice. He was covered with a fine sheen of sweat, and he looked exhausted. The con man only used 'Chris' when he was deadly serious or too tired to keep his protective walls up. All of the gambler's walls were down, and his pain was more than obvious.

"One more Ezra," said Chris. When the gambler nodded in agreement, Chris manipulated the leg again.

Ezra sighed in relief as Chris finished the movement.

"That was good Ezra, one more," said Chris, looking him in the eyes.

Ezra scowled, "You already said that, Mr. Larabee."

"I did, didn't I?" smiled Chris. Ezra rolled his eyes and nodded that he was ready and the procedure continued.

"Ezra, why'd you pick me to help with this?" Chris nodded toward his leg.

Ezra chuckled, but it broke off as fiery needles of pain shot through his leg. "Oww!" He clinched his eyes closed tightly, breathing deeply. After gaining some composure, he answered, "...Because, Mr. Larabee, I knew you would push me hard. I was afraid I could con Mr. Tanner or Mr. Jackson into letting me quit when it got to be...too much. You, on the other hand, won't let me off that easy..." The gambler grimaced in pain. "One more?" he gasped.

Chris smiled. He was amazed at the trust the con man had placed in him. Ezra had been taught from a very early age to trust no one. He had been taught to look out for number one, and that everyone had an angle, something they wanted from him. It had taken a long time and a lot of butting heads before Ezra had risked trusting any of the seven.

He thought back on the words the weary man had just spoken, 'I was afraid I could con Mr. Tanner or Mr. Jackson...' Responsibility weighed a little heavier on Chris as he realized Ezra didn't trust himself at this point and he was relying totally upon the gunslinger.

Ezra Standish, con man extraordinaire, could tell you something you knew was an outright lie and make you believe it. He built impenetrable walls around his heart and feelings so that no one could see inside. But now that man was lying before him, on a cot, letting Larabee work his uncooperative limbs. His heart and soul were totally exposed...totally vulnerable.

He looked at the gambler closely, knowing he was past his limit physically and emotionally, "One more, Ezra, last one, I promise."

Part 5

Judge Travis agreed to keep the con man on the payroll for awhile. He was not totally convinced that Ezra was up to the job, and Larabee's idea of a 'night guard' job was pure fabrication. Orrin smiled at the thought. He had come to like the cocky gambler and felt a bit of an obligation to him. After all, he had been injured trying to save a resident of the town. And his presence really did make a difference in the other peacekeepers. He needed the team whole, especially with this Cordoba Land Grant fiasco.

Before he left town he met with Standish privately. The meeting was somewhat awkward because of what he wanted to ask of the con man. He needed Ezra's expertise to check into the Cordoba situation. He expected that Standish would take offense at his request, but surprisingly the Southerner agreed without hesitation.


Ezra was actually grateful for Judge Travis's request. He knew something wasn't right with the Cordoba Land Claim situation, and the judge had given him carte blanche to find out what it was. It was a great distraction from his own difficulties.

Ezra was making progress, but it was far too slow in his eyes. His emotions were up and down, not as rolling hills, but more like cliff tops and canyon floors. He would struggle to climb his way out of the canyon and reach the top only to fall off the cliff again.

He knew readjusting would be difficult, but dealing with his extreme mood changes was even harder than dealing with the physical issues. Ezra was unaccustomed to dealing with his feelings at all, and now they were all over the place. The lack of control scared him.

It seemed that the strangest, sometimes the smallest things would be the catalyst to set him off. A wagon would rumble past on the street and he would be filled with memories of the accident. Not being able to cut a steak... the smell of Mr. Jackson's tea... a stupid overcoat...


"Damn it Ezra, why not?" growled Buck.

As he stood in the saloon facing Buck and Vin, Ezra bristled at the thought. No, he would not take charity, and that is what this was, plain and simple.

"C'mon, it ain't that bad," the ladies man added in frustration.

Ezra glared at Buck. "A Standish does not take charity." Ezra looked at the thing Buck Wilmington dangled in front of him.

"Maybe not, but ya'd con the shirt off a man's back," Buck threw back at him.

Vin grimaced as Ezra turned away from Buck to hide his anger and embarrassment. <Why can't these guys see how much their words hurt Ez?> He stepped in between the two men.

"Ez, it's jest for a bit, 'til ya git some cash in yer pocket. Yer clothes don't fit and it's gittin' cold out."

Vin managed to get Ezra to look at him. The humiliation the Southern gentleman felt clearly showed in his eyes. Vin tried to smile reassuringly at his friend, and nodded once toward Buck.

Ezra sighed. He didn't like this silent communication thing, but Vin was right. Buck was just trying to help. The ladies man didn't know such a simple gesture on his part would remind Ezra of how much he had lost.

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington," he said quietly.

The con man shifted his weight to balance and accepted the gift. He silently shrugged into JD's old coat, took his cane and shuffled out the batwing doors.

Buck stared after him, noticing the shoulders slumped in resignation. He hadn't thought Ezra would be so touchy about accepting JD's coat. He'd lost so much weight during his hospital stay, and then selling off his fancy clothes to get those books for Nathan, he thought Ezra would be glad to have something warm. He'd always been glad for hand-me-downs growing up, and hadn't even thought the gambler would refuse or take offense. But now seeing him walk away, JD's coat sleeves hanging too long over his hands, and seeing the glare on Tanner's face changed that.

Buck looked at Vin with sorrow in his eyes begging for understanding. "I didn't mean to..." his voice trailed off.

Vin nodded that he understood. "He knows."

Buck looked out the door as the con man reached the sheriff's office and entered. "His body may be here, but I sure miss Ez."

"Me too, Buck... me too."

Part 6

Ezra fidgeted with the sleeves of the coat. Vin was right. At least it was warm. Ezra cursed himself. He shouldn't have gotten angry with Buck. He sighed. "What I wouldn't do for the good old days," he whispered softly.

Josiah had told him that in time things would even out, and that he needed to be patient. He also suggested that focusing on something else would be helpful, so Ezra dove wholeheartedly into the Cordoba affair.

He sent out countless telegrams asking questions. He collected newspaper articles from Mary Travis from the Clarion as well as from other regional papers that she received. He wrote letters and made contacts with associates he had not seen in years. It would take awhile to get back responses to his inquiries, so he worked even more tenaciously to strengthen his arm and leg. He needed to be ready for whatever was coming.

With his near obsession on the matter, his friends began to see an old familiar spark in the gambler.


As Vin walked along the boardwalk toward the saloon, something in the shadows caught his eye. Giving it his full attention, his distinguished the form of Chris Larabee in the fading twilight. Vin casually walked up behind the gunslinger making enough noise to let him know he was coming.

"Hey Cowboy," said Chris, "take a look at this."

Vin took a step past Chris and looked around the corner of the building. Seeing the gambler in the shadows, he glanced back at Chris.

"What'se doin'?"

Chris shrugged and stepped even with the tracker.

"Practicing, I think."

The men fell into silence as they watched Ezra walk back and forth on a short path from behind the jail to the rear of the livery. He walked it several times before he stopped, apparently to catch his breath.

They watched him lean his cane against the fence and start the walk without it. Neither man realized they were holding their breath, silently cheering on the con man. He successfully made it to the jail, turned, and was nearly back to the fence when he lost his balance. He teetered to the side forcing himself to catch his balance.

A smile broke across Vin's face as he watched Larabee's body language. He was so caught up in Ezra's efforts that he was leaning with his own body in effort to help him.

"I reckon he's got it pard," whispered Vin.

When Chris looked at him questioningly, Vin just imitated Chris's actions, leaning and correcting. Chris grinned and shook his head.

Ezra made it successfully to the fence and sat on the edge of the nearby watering trough. He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his brow. He sighed in weariness, but the smile was clearly there.

Vin took Chris's elbow and nodded his head toward the alleyway indicating they should leave. Chris turned and followed the tracker, leaving the gambler to his private victory.

Part 7

As Inez brought their breakfast to the table, the saloon doors opened and Ezra came through. Conversation paused. Something was different. He was still wearing the plain clothes, still using the cane, but there was a sharpness, a little bit of flair. Confidence, that's what it was.

"Buenos Dias, Senor Standish. Would you like some breakfast?"

"Buenos Dias, Inez. That would be agreeable. Good morning gentlemen."

"Mornin' Ezra. What are you doing up so early?"

Ezra smiled, ignoring JD's question. He sat down next to Nathan and Josiah.

"Well Brother, it looks like you're in good spirits today."

"I slept well, Mr. Sanchez," was his only answer. He looked across the table at the grinning tracker. His eyes flicked to the man in black. They knew. How? Another smile crept across his face and he simply nodded to them in acknowledgement.

Inez brought over another plate of steak and eggs. Ezra hesitated briefly before picking up his fork and knife. He had learned to do this left handed, but his stubbornness had raised up this morning. Using his left hand, he put the knife into his right. He kept his head down knowing that concerned glances were flying across the table.


"I can do it. Thank you, Mr. Jackson."

It was a struggle. He repeatedly dropped the knife in the attempts to cut the steak. With a tenacity they had not seen, he picked up the knife and tried again and again.

There was no conversation. Each man had considered providing a distraction, but it seemed more appropriate to honor the battle with silence.

They had all finished their meals when Ezra finally laid down the knife and began to eat. His food was cold but it was the best meal he had eaten in a long time.

Nathan smiled as the gambler ate every bite on his plate, something he had not done since his return.

As he finished, Ezra pushed his plate back with a contented sigh.

There it was - that smug grin that had been missing for months - the grin that made Chris Larabee want to slap it off his face. Chris chuckled. He'd let it go this time.

"Hey, Ez. Me an' Buck are goin' fishin' today. We thought you might want to come along."

Ezra opened his mouth to answer, but Vin cut him off. "He cain't, JD. He's..." he searched for the words, words that Ezra would be proud of, "he's... otherwise occupied."

"Why, what's he doin'?"

"Gentlemen, I am in the room," complained Ezra.

They ignored him. "He cain't go fishin' with you, JD, 'cause he's goin' on patrol with me."

"Patrol?" asked JD

"Patrol?" repeated Ezra.

Josiah and Chris looked at each other and shook their heads, grinning. Seeing JD wasn't going to let it go, Chris intervened.

"I want Ezra on patrol," He looked at the gambler, "if you're ready. The judge won't let you be night guard forever." He tried to read Ezra's response, but he was a blank.

"You up to it, Ezra?"

Ezra nodded.

"Good. You two head on out then. Buck and JD will ride at noon."


Vin watched as Ezra saddled his horse. The movements were stiff and jerky, not at all the smooth cat-like grace the gambler was known for. Ezra struggled with the saddle and the cinch, but Vin wasn't about to help him. He knew the best medicine was to let Ezra do it on his own. Thank goodness his horse was patient.

Ezra grinned as he mounted, using mostly his left arm to pull himself up. "Well, Mr. Tanner, it may be time for us to return before we even leave," he quipped.

"Nah, Ez, yer doin' jest fine... Let's ride." Vin grinned as they headed out.

Chris Larabee stood on the boardwalk outside the sheriff's office. He watched the two peacekeepers ride out of town with a great satisfaction. Standish was back. He still had some healing to do, but their amiable con man was back.

Part 8

"We had to use force this time boss," informed Lon Peters.

Seaver looked at the leader of his enforcers. "What happened?"

"Damn rancher wouldn't pay up, wouldn't get off. We had to give him a little incentive."

"Yeah," Fredericks butted in, "that barn went up real good."

Seaver scowled at the interruption. "Give him a week. Either he pays up or... you know what to do. They all pay up, you understand me?"

"Yes sir," agreed both men.


JD and Buck had just made it back from their fishing trip. They were headed out of the livery for patrol when Buck saw it.

"What the hell?"

JD looked where Buck's vision was directed.

"Fire!" he gasped.

Larabee, who was approaching their horses, saw the column of smoke as well. "JD, get Josiah and Nathan, meet us back here."

"Right," said JD hurrying toward the church.

Chris and Buck saddled the horses, and when Josiah and Nathan arrived, they headed for the dark plume north of town.


"Stay put, Ezra!" ordered Tanner as he ran toward the burning barn.

Ezra dismounted and moved to where the rancher's wife and son stood. The boy was obviously frightened and the woman was in tears. All eyes were fixed on the barn doors.

The rancher emerged leading a panicking horse. He let the horse run as he headed back in. Vin emerged with a second horse and followed suit.

The woman began to scream as portions of the roof began to collapse in flames.

Tanner had just come out with a horse as a major portion of the roof fell. Vin didn't pause to really consider the danger. He knew it was a big risk, but that family needed their husband and father. He dashed back through the blazing doorway.

"Vin, no!" yelled Ezra. Injured leg forgotten, the Southerner trotted toward the barn to help his friend.

He made his way through the doorway. Smoke stung the eyes and it was difficult to breathe. Ezra struggled to see. "Vin? Vin, where are you?" he called anxiously.

"Ezra, what the hell? ...Get outta here!"

Ezra moved toward the voice. There was no time to argue. He saw the beam that trapped the rancher. Vin was trying to move it, but it was too heavy for one man.

Vin looked at Ezra, not believing he was really there. With a bad arm and leg, how could he help? Vin wrapped his arms around the beam again and heaved as burning embers floated down around them. It didn't budge.

Vin heaved again and this time it moved. He looked up.  <Ezra.> How the hell could the smaller man have the strength to help move that beam? All three men were coughing as another beam fell.

"Let's get out of here!" called Vin. He pulled the rancher up and slipped under one shoulder. Ezra slipped under the other and they made their way out of the inferno.

Barely clear of the barn, the three men fell to the ground gasping for air. Ezra looked over to see that Vin was all right, but he had so much junk in his eyes, he couldn't see him clearly. He felt dizzy. It was hard to breathe. The coughing took all his energy...

The next thing he knew, Josiah was leaning over him.

"There ya are. Just relax Ezra. You're fine."

"Vin?" The hoarse word sent him into another fit of coughing.

"He's got a burn on his hand and he's coughing a lot too, but Nathan says he'll be fine. Josiah gave the gambler a sip of water. "Jeffers has a broken leg, but at least he's alive."

Chris stepped into his line of sight. "How are ya doin' Ezra?"

"Fine... <cough> ...Mr. Larabee."

Chris shook his head. "What ever possessed you to go into a burning barn to rescue horses?"

Chris already knew the answer.

"I didn't. I went in after Mr. Tanner, and he went after Mr. Jeffers."

Yep. Exactly what he figured had happened.

"Ya gotta stop scarin' us Ez," he said so softly that only the gambler heard.

Ezra grinned.

Chris walked over to check on Vin, leaving the Southerner in Josiah's capable hands.

Part 9

JD and Ezra were sitting on the boardwalk outside the Saloon. The sun was beginning to slide past the horizon and the evening was quiet. Ezra was bundled up in JD's old coat. It itched. It was worn and patched in a couple places, but it was warm.

Ezra coughed and rubbed his left hand across his still aching chest, unaware of his action. Nathan had said he would be fine, but the healer wanted him to take it easy for a couple days. Ezra shook his head, that's all he'd been doing for almost four months.

JD chuckled as Ezra began picking at pieces of lint and string on the coat. "Hey 'Ez, I'd be careful about pullin' on those strings."

Ezra stopped fidgeting. A ghost of a smile crossed his face. He missed his clothes. He missed the feeling of the soft material against his skin, the clean, sharp feeling of being well dressed... the thrill of the con.

He looked at JD, whose mind had now drifted somewhere far off. It was the coat, Ezra realized, that had sent JD to remembering. He was certain that JD's mother had given him this coat, and it was much more than a piece of material to the young man.

"Mr. Dunne?"

"Yeah Ez?"

"I don't believe I ever thanked you properly."

"For what Ez?" asked JD, slightly confused.

"For saving my life in a certain street altercation... <cough>...and for the use of this invaluable garment."

"It's nothing Ez. I mean, you'da done the same for me."

"Perhaps, JD, but I still appreciate your sacrifice." He looked into the eyes of the young sheriff, no longer the green, brash boy who had joined them before the adventure to the Seminole village. JD certainly had matured, but there was still an innocence to him.

"And JD, when I am able to procure my own clothing... <cough> ...be assured I will return your coat in good condition."

JD broke into a smile. "Thanks Ez, my ma gave me that coat. I mean, I know it's just a coat, but..."

"But it was from your mother."

JD nodded.

Ezra began to cough again and soon Nathan stepped out the doors and began to hover over him.

"I'm quite all right... <cough> ...Mr. Jackson."

"Uh huh. I can see that."

"How is...<cough> ...Mr. Tanner's hand?"

"Vin's doin' fine." Nathan paused. He wanted Ezra to go inside but he didn't want to battle with him. "Ezra, this cold air is gonna make you cough more. It'd be better if you come in."

Ezra rubbed his chest again. "Thank you Mr. Jackson, I believe I'm ready to join you inside." The three went back into the saloon to join Buck, Chris, Josiah and Vin.

They sat around the table discussing the incident at the Jeffers' place. After Chris recounted Jeffers' story, the peacekeepers believed that some of James Seaver's henchmen were responsible for the threats to Jeffers and the fire. There was no proof, but the seven vowed to find something before someone got killed.

Coughing fits from Vin or Ezra constantly interrupted the conversation. The stubborn men were driving the healer crazy. He had told them to rest, but no, they had to be up running around and making themselves worse. Nathan sighed loudly. Every eye at the table turned to him. "If I hear one more cough..."

Ezra's face flushed as he tried to choke back the cough that threatened.

Vin breathed quick short breaths trying to avoid taking the air in too deeply and prompting the coughing.

Chris looked in amusement at his friends. They would be fine. Nathan had proclaimed it. With an impishness rarely exhibited, he looked directly at Nathan...and coughed intentionally.

Buck began to laugh as he too coughed. JD added his to the foray and even Josiah joined in. Ezra and Vin joined the laughter, which of course brought on more fits of coughing.

Nathan was grinning as he stood. He shook his head, "I wash my hands of the bunch of ya. Don't come cryin' to me next time yer sick or hurt." Nathan tried to keep himself from laughing as he walked out the batwing doors.

Ezra excused himself and followed after Nathan, allowing the healer to walk him back to the jail and make sure his lungs were clear. He was tired and after all he had been through, he wasn't taking any chances.


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