Heart of Gold

by Monica M.

Disclaimer: The M7 characters in this story belong to MGM.

Thanks: To Mods for finding the potential for this short story in a response I made to one of her comments in an e-mail. This is actually the first piece of fanfiction I ever allowed anyone to read. And thanks to Debbie, my beta, who would NOT let me forget about this story and whose patience and guidance gave it a bit more of a life.

Pleased! Yes, I'm quite pleased with myself. And why shouldn't I be? Ezra thought as he strode toward the jailhouse. After all, he had just done something completely unselfish and he was not even concerned that none of his fellow peacekeepers had witnessed it. In fact, he was almost grateful that none of them had been around. One, they would not believe it. Hell, he was still having a hard time believing it. Two, they would ruin it by teasing him. And he did not want this feeling to be destroyed; he wanted to relish it, bask in it, for as long as possible.

And it had just been so simple. He had been a bit annoyed at first with the young woman who had interrupted his reading. She had strode up and down in front of the saloon, sobbing as she occasionally peered over the batwing doors. Ezra had looked up from his book, hopeful that one of the others would come and see to this young woman. Her sudden, loud outbursts of crying would distract him and make him lose his place in his reading. He had shifted in his seat, trying to turn away from her noise, but she just continued even louder than before. Finally he had stomped to his feet, "Really, my dear girl, if something inside this establishment is troubling you so deeply, perhaps you should simply go inside. Or perhaps you should leave the premises, since they disturb you so."

She had stopped and looked up at him then, her wide blue eyes blinking through her tears. "But I can't go inside. My pa'll kill me."

Ezra raised his eyebrows and gave a slight shrug, unsure of how that could be such a bad thing, especially since it would conveniently solve his problem.

"But he's going to lose everything in that poker game! And then what will become of us?" she wailed.

The book fell, forgotten, from Ezra's hand as he now peered over the batwing doors and did indeed see a poker game in progress. How could he have possibly missed that earlier? Turning back to the young woman, he said, "Well, then, please allow me to enter in you place."

She flung herself at Ezra and hugged him fiercely. "Oh, thank you! Will you stop him before he loses everything? We're gonna lose the ranch I know. Pa just owes so much to that awful Mr. Campbell. But you have to stop him before he has nothing left."

Ezra nodded distractedly as he attempted to extract himself from her embrace. As he did, his eyes met hers and he paused. Never in his life could he remember someone looking at him in that way. There was unabashed hope and trust in those wide blue eyes and it was all directed at him. Ezra looked back into the saloon at the older gentleman who was obviously this girl's father. He could tell by the look of frustration and despair on the man's face that he was losing and losing badly. Looking back into the young woman's eyes, Ezra found an idea forming in his mind, despite his best efforts to push it away. It went against everything he had ever been taught, against every instinct that his mother had honed in him. But how could he betray such naked trust in him?

He held her shoulders and gave her a slight shake as he said, "Now don't you worry, uh, Miss?"

"Julia," she said with a shy smile.

He nodded at her. "Don't you worry your pretty little head, Miss Julia. I will see to it that your father does not lose his entire fortune. But," he finished firmly, "it will be up to you to keep him out of my gaming halls in the future."

Her smile blossomed with gratitude and Ezra returned it with a reassuring grin. But as he turned to enter the saloon, the grin melted from his face. He could already hear his mother, "Ezra Standish, if you are even thinking about doing what I think you are, I will disown you!" But he was more than thinking it, he was going to do it. A half smile teased one corner of his lips, exposing a dimple. Would it really be such a bad thing to be disowned by Maude? But that would only be a side benefit. Someone, other than a child, had shown utter trust in him, and Ezra had found it to be a most pleasant feeling.

He was not welcomed at the gaming table but he sat down anyway and was grudgingly dealt into the game. Skillfully he manipulated the game so that Mr. Dickerson, Julia's father, began to win the larger pots. He shrugged innocently at Mr. Campbell's glaring accusation. Finally the man threw his cards down in disgust and stormed out of the saloon. But Ezra continued to play until he had nothing left to lose to Mr. Dickerson.

Grateful that the saloon was fairly empty at this early hour so that no one would witness his disgrace, Ezra stood and smiled to the other man. "I applaud your talents, Mr. Dickerson. Apparently you have missed your true calling in life," he drawled, forcing the words out with some difficulty, before turning and walking out of the saloon. As he strode out onto the boardwalk, he merely gave Julia a tug on his hat brim to acknowledge the radiant beam on her face.

As he cockily strolled down the street, Ezra had to grin to himself. It had been completely out of character for him and he would have to remember to keep that to a minimum, especially since this episode had emptied his pockets. But it was a wonderful elated feeling he had at the moment. If he could just keep this escapade to himself, just maybe he could keep the feeling as well. No, he did not want anything to take this feeling away from him. Unfortunately the bullet that struck him in the side, spinning him around, had other ideas. For a brief second, Ezra saw the face of Mr. Campbell, his attacker, before he collapsed to the ground.

+ + + + + + +

Chris, Vin, and Buck had just put the finishing touches on the repairs to the jailhouse and were looking forward to drinks in the saloon, when they heard the shot. Drawing their guns and exchanging looks, the three of them made their way to the doorway. A second shot rang out as Buck peered out the window and Chris and Vin crouched near the exit. "Ezra's been shot!" Buck yelled in disbelief as he saw the form lying on the ground.

At that news Chris' grim eyes grew even colder as he nodded to Vin. The tracker moved to cover Chris as he exited the jailhouse. Buck immediately took Chris' place at the doorway.

As Chris stepped out into the daylight, he was greeted with the sight of Ezra rolling in pain in the street and then a bit further down the street another body lay still in the dirt. Chris turned back to Vin and Buck, "Find out what happened," he ordered, his voice as cold as his eyes as he holstered his gun. As he stepped down into the street, Chris saw Nathan rush out of the clinic and over to their fallen teammate

Ezra writhed on the ground, the pain in his side punishing him with agony. Almost as painful were the thoughts in his head, which assaulted him with a biting tirade that would put even his mother to shame. You're the third kind, remember? You're supposed to ride away from these types of situations, not charge into them like some red-coated Sir Galahad. You're supposed to let the weak fend for themselves. The only person you're the champion of is yourself. Ezra comes first and foremost in everything you do. You only put your body in mortal danger when there is monetary gain. You won't get any money here; you knew that from the start. In fact, you gave away most of what you had. What did you get for your act of kindness? A bullet to the gut. Ezra groaned trying to find relief from both the pain and his thoughts, but his mind was vicious. Don't think for a minute that I'm gonna let you drift into unconsciousness. You're gonna feel every bit of this. Maybe that way you'll remember next time and keep yourself out of other people's business; and out of the way of their bullets.

Just when Ezra thought things could not get any worse for him, Nathan was beside him, his firm hands pulling the bloody shirt away from the torn flesh in his side. Ezra tried moving away from him, but other hands held him still. He looked up into the cold, hard eyes of Chris, only they weren't quite so cold and hard. Was he hallucinating, or was there a bit of fear for him in those green eyes? Ezra turned his head slightly and could see Vin and Buck getting the whole story from Julia. She looked over at him, pointed directly at him and said something that made the two men give a short laugh of disbelief. Ezra could understand; he did not believe what he had done either.

Vin walked over and checked on the fallen gambler. There was a lot of blood, but he could tell from Nathan's face that while Ezra was in a world of hurt, he wasn't quite at death's door. "Nathan, Julia there says you better do everything you can for Ez. Says the man's got a heart of gold." He shared a knowing smile with Chris as Nathan motioned for Buck and Chris to help him. The tracker figured Julia was too young and innocent to know that Ezra had to have had another angle he was playing. The gambler would never intentionally lose all his money without having some twisted scheme to get it back, with interest. As they picked up the wounded gambler and carried him up to the clinic, Vin continued, "Seems Mr. Campbell thought Ezra was cheatin' at the poker table. 'Cept Mr. Dickerson was the only one winning. Ezra even lost everything to him. Campbell shot Ezra in the back when he left the saloon and then Dickerson shot Campbell."

Chris eyed Vin speculatively then tossed a look back over at Dickerson and his daughter. Julia smiled bravely at him, but he could see her fear and concern for the gambler in her eyes. Chris sighed to himself as he turned back to his task. Would anyone ever understand this fool-headed gambler? What the hell had been in it for him?

+ + + + + + +

After getting Buck to help him force a bit of laudanum down Ezra, Nathan gathered his supplies and began to clean and dress the gunshot wound. Chris, Vin, and Buck left the healer to his task as they turned to their own task of seeing to Campbell's body. Ezra's wound was not serious, but Nathan was beginning to grow worried over the fact that the normally verbose gambler was remaining quiet aside from a few grunts of pain.

Ezra lay still, his mind still turning over the recent events. Could his mother have been correct in saying that he was not meant to be a peacekeeper, not meant to be unselfish in his actions?

"Of course, I'm right, darlin'", he could hear her voice in his head. Lying on the cursed cot in Nathan's clinic, Ezra could not really find an argument for his mother's voice. He had lost everything to Dickerson and then the greater indignity of being shot in the street without the slightest opportunity to defend himself. He had been taken unaware because he had been exulting in the memory of the absolute faith and gratitude that Julia had shown him. Even as he thought about that feeling, it washed over him again drowning out Maude's voice in his head.

He realized suddenly that nothing could actually take that feeling away from him. He could be alone and destitute but he would always have that feeling to cherish. Maude's voice came back then, full of sarcasm, "That heart of gold is worthless, Ezra. Good only for getting you killed. Focus on the money, darlin'. That's what's gotten you through life so far and what will keep you alive. That's the only angle you're good at playing."

Ezra sighed, Maude's voice ringing true in his head. Having a heart of gold would not get him all the things that he had dreamed of possessing. In fact it was becoming quite the hindrance to the pursuit of his dreams, not to mention a pain free existence.

Finally Ezra spoke, his southern drawl thicker than usual, "Do you think you could cut it out?"

Nathan looked up into the gambler's pain filled, sea-green eyes and noticed there was something else in them, a look he had never seen in Ezra's eyes before. "The bullet went right through, Ezra. I don't have to cut it out," he said softly, as if explaining to a child.

An impatient shake of his head and Ezra said, "No, my heart."

Nathan's confident hands froze in their work. After a few seconds he reached for the bottle of laudanum and checked the contents. No, he hadn't overdosed Ezra. He reached out and felt the gambler's forehead, but there was no signs of a fever yet.

"What are you talking about, Ezra? Nothing wrong with your heart," he reassured the gambler.

Nothing but the fact that it just got me shot! Ezra thought. He opened his mouth to explain that he would prefer to have the offending do-gooder organ removed from his body before its humanitarian impulses completely overrode his far more sensible and profit inclined mind. But he paused when his eyes met Nathan's soulful and concerned brown eyes. No, Nathan would never understand that. The healer would rather die multiple, horrible and prolonged deaths before he willingly gave up his own noble and caring heart. That ability to help others, to sacrifice willingly all that he was, was far more important to Nathan than anything else the man could possess or want. So, how could the healer possibly understand the near terror Ezra felt at finding himself enjoying the benefits of a selfless act. Nathan performed countless ones a day, more than likely not even recognizing half of the ones he did. But to Ezra they were still new, and the near addictive taste of them was becoming too tantalizing for the confused gambler. And if it confused him, he was more than certain that the others would be completely befuddled by his behavior.

But they would naturally believe the worst of him and even though Ezra was finding it hard to hide even from himself, he was still the master of misdirection where the others were concerned

"She said it was made of gold. How much you think that's worth?" he asked finally, squinting his eyes at Nathan as if he himself was trying to calculate the ounces.

For several moments, Nathan was speechless at the serious tone with which Ezra asked the question. Finally all he managed to say as he shook his head in disgust was "Ezra, you have lost your mind."

"Oh, I'd give you a small percentage for your services, Mr. Jackson, have no fear," Ezra answered quickly, now trying to reassure Nathan.

"It's just a figure of speech," Nathan said, frustrated at Ezra's persistence.

"But many are based on a sliver of truth," Ezra responded reasonably.

Nathan threw his bloody hands up in disgust. "The only truth in what you're talking about is that you'd be dead if I cut out your heart." Nathan turned away, unable to believe that he was having this conversation with Ezra.

Ezra nodded, "You have a point, Mr. Jackson. I'm sure, though, that together you and I could find a way around that inconvenience. I'd even be willing to increase your percentage a bit." He weakly waved a clenched fist at Nathan, as if to represent the size of his heart. "Think of all that gold, think of what you could buy, what I could buy. The possibilities," finally the gambler drifted off into sleep.

Nathan finished bandaging Ezra's wound and stretched as he stood. He looked down at the sleeping gambler and shook his head. He looked so young and innocent now, but just moments ago he was talking about cutting out his own heart for money. Nathan would never understand him; didn't think he wanted to if the gambler could contemplate such a thing. "You should just be happy that people can think you've got a heart of gold," he said to the sleeping form. "That's a long way from what most people think of you." As if he heard Nathan's words a small smile crept on Ezra's face, increasing his angelic appearance.

Nathan moved away and began to clean up the clinic. As he picked up his cutting knives, Nathan looked over at Ezra. Suddenly the healer couldn't shake the image of cutting into that smooth chest and actually finding a heart of gold pulsing within. Nathan dropped the knife as he shook his head to rid himself of the image before it got too tempting. "You're a bad influence on people, Ezra." With that he turned and walked out the door to inform the others that Ezra would be fine, at least physically. The gambler's mental status was unfathomable to the healer and he figured to most sane people as well. Nathan gave Ezra one last look of disbelief before exiting the clinic and closing the door behind him.

He never saw Ezra's hand reach up and rub his chest over his heart or the small smile deepen into a devilish grin. The Southerner had to admit that he liked his heart of gold right where it was. From within him it could send those warm feelings coursing through his body, filling him with a peace and joy he had never experienced before no matter how much money he had in hand. "No, Mr. Jackson, I believe that y'all have been a bad influence on me."

The End

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