Disclaimer: I still possess no claim to any official ownership of the Magnificent Seven.
The doors of the saloon swung open. Ezra glanced up, hopeful for some form of distraction from what had turned into a long, quiet, and boring afternoon. He winced when he found a scowling Chris Larabee in the doorway.
Damn! So much for an enjoyable distraction.
"Mr. Larabee," he drawled. "You appear a trifle out of sorts this fine day."
Chris stalked over and flung himself into the chair across from Ezra.
The gambler blinked and tilted his head to the side as he reviewed the planned schedule for the day. He and Vin had morning patrol and watch respectively, with the seven of them gathering together at the restaurant for lunch. Josiah had taken afternoon watch, and Nathan had left for patrol, with JD and Buck due to take over for them after dinner. He glanced at the clock, an eyebrow rising in surprise at the lateness of the hour.
"It is later than I expected," he noted.
"Yeah," replied the gunslinger. "Nathan was due back an hour ago. He'd planned to stop at the Wells' place last to check on Casey's cough. I sent JD out that way when he wasn't back on time."
"If it were any one other than Mr. Jackson, I would say you were exercising a little too much caution. However, as punctuality is one of Mr. Jackson's chief virtues, this is a most unusual situation."
That actually got an amused snort from his companion as the Southerner shrugged.
"Shall we wait to hear from our young sheriff before we pursue any trails?" he asked, prepared to follow his leader's decision.
The blond shifted uncomfortably, and Ezra frowned.
"Vin's gettin' antsy, and somethin' doesn't feel right."
The gambler gave a slow nod as Chris' stormy eyes met his.
"Ah," he said softly. He looked down at his hands, once more astounded at the trust this man offered him. Chris was not just giving him an opinion. No, the gunslinger was asking for his…for the opinion of a gambler, con artist, and disreputable character. He looked up, locking glances with the man across the table. He searched those stormy green eyes, looking for something. He was not quite sure what. Then, he found it.
A mixture of confidence, expectation, and reliance dwelt in the depths of his leader's expression.
Before either man could speak however, Buck ambled in.
"Hey, Ezra, Chris! One of you boys mind lettin' JD know I'll see him at dinner? I'm goin' down to see Miss Millie for a bit."
Chris looked as his friend through narrowed eyes.
"Just make sure the window's open so you can hear us leavin'."
"Aw, c'mon, Chris! So Nate's runnin' a little late. We've all done it. He probably just took longer checkin' on some of the homesteaders than planned. One of them greenhorns from back east is bendin' his ear about this or that. You're worrin' too much."
"Don't recall askin', Buck. I'm tellin' you to stay within earshot. You'd best be with us if we have to leave."
"Yeah, yeah," answered the jovial man, rolling his blue eyes. "I'll keep an ear out. Nate's fine, you'll see."
With that, the mustached man headed back out the door. Visibly forcing himself to calm down, the blond gunslinger returned to his seat. Ezra snorted as he reached into his pocket and pulled out his deck of cards.
"Mr. Wilmington does have a tendency to be a little too optimistic, does he not?"
"That's Buck," Chris shrugged. "He doesn't worry until he has to."
"True. Our resident lothario does tend to live very much in the present."
The gambler shuffled his cards, sending them twirling in a complicated dance as he moved them through the air. His eyes remained fixed on the man in front of him however. Chris did not trust Buck's instincts in this matter. He had come looking for Ezra's.
"Why?" asked the Southerner.
"Why what?" returned the leader with a snort.
"Why my opinion? Why not Mr. Wilmington's? Or Mr. Sanchez's?"
The dark-clad man nodded and leaned back in his chair. He tilted his head down for a long moment before lifting his eyes to peer at his companion.
"The three of us, you, me and Vin, live every day lookin' over our shoulders or peerin' at the horizon. We're waitin' for that one person, that one thing that's goin' to take all this away from us. We've lived that way for over three years now. Before that, we pretty much expected to die without havin' a soul in the world to mourn our passin'. Live that way long enough, you learn to have a sense for trouble. Now, we have a pack here to watch out for, and at least three of them would be blindsided by the trouble we pick out with ease. I could swear Vin smells trouble on the wind, and I just get a feelin' that creeps up my back. Still haven't quite figured yours out yet, but I'm sure as hell not goin' to let it go to waste."
With a quick sharp movement, Ezra brought the deck back together and held it tightly in his hands. His emerald gaze bored into the other's stormy one. This eclectic and unusual group of men had accepted him, faults and all, and this man? Their de facto leader? He had given Ezra the one gift that no one ever had before – a second chance. So, did he trust Chris? With a snort, Ezra turned over the top card.
The Ace of Clubs lay at the center of the table. He pushed it to the side, his lips curving in a quick smile. He should have guessed that Nathan would get the card of prosperity, good health, and practical endeavors. In quick succession, he turned over two more cards, revealing the Ten of Spades and the Five of Diamonds. He froze.
As Chris' voice penetrated his concentration, he drew his eyes up slowly. Cold green eyes moved from the dark line on the table to his friend's concerned gaze. Without speaking, he looked back down at the spread and dealt three more cards: the Jack of Diamonds, Seven of Hearts, and Jack of Spades. The danger that Chris and Vin had sensed was apparently all too real. He took a breath and looked back up.
"There's trouble. If I am correct, Nathan has found a dangerous pair of men."
One last time, he dealt a line of cards and found himself looking at the Ace of Spades, the Five of Clubs, and the Six of Hearts. This time, he and Chris would need the others. They could not solve this on their own. Sweeping up the cards, he rose to his feet.
"We will need the others tonight."
Chris nodded and gave a grim smirk.
"It figures your notions would come out of the cards."
"Unfortunately, this particular type of notion has never been wrong."
The two men rounded up their fellow peacekeepers and met at the stable just as JD returned from checking on the Wells' ladies.
"He hasn't been there at all today," reported JD.
Even Buck quit grousing at that. Running late or not, Nathan would never go back on his word to check on a patient. Ezra kept a bland look on his face as his eyes slid over to Chris. The gunslinger tilted his head.
"Vin?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, I can start trackin' him," came the quiet reply.
Ezra pulled on his jacket cuff, brushing off some imaginary dust.
"May I recommend we try on the road towards Greeley?"
"Got a particular reason to head that way first?" asked Vin, frowning at the vanishing sunlight.
"If I remember correctly, I believe that rather uncouth Hezekiah Thomas and his son settled their family in that direction. If you will recall, both men seemed rather…perturbed that a man of Mr. Jackson's…ancestry was serving as a doctor to our small community."
"You mean they're a pair of dirty…" started Buck, only to stop as both Ezra and Vin turned towards him. "Never mind."
"Yes, well," replied Ezra with a nod to his companion. "They are assuredly not stellar examples of the men of my birthplace. However, they do possess some of the more loathsome attitudes and opinions that have hardened since the Late Unpleasantness."
"Figure they still have their white robes?" Vin asked, sliding a look towards Ezra.
"No doubt," answered the gambler, distaste rolling off his tongue. "Probably kept in the same hope chest as their wives' wedding dresses."
The Texan nodded, sharing another glance with his fellow Southerner as the others frowned in confusion. The two of them shared a heritage the others did not quite understand. They were the only two who had called the Confederacy home, for good or bad, right or wrong.
Chris just shrugged.
The six men mounted up and rode towards Greeley. As he rode, Ezra kept only a portion of his attention on the journey. The rest of his mind rewound the entire scene in the saloon. He had just given away one of his greatest secrets. He had done it on the spur of the moment, without a second thought. His mother would be terribly disappointed.
"The three of us, you, me and Vin, live every day lookin' over our shoulders or peerin' at the horizon. We're waitin' for that one person, that one thing that's goin' to take all this away from us."
The words echoed in his mind. After a lifetime of receiving and giving broken promises, what was it about these men that kept him here? He continued to ruminate over the idea as the ride continued.
The men came up to the top of a rise looking over the Thomas homestead. Everything looked quiet, but Vin hissed.
"There," said the tracker, pointing towards the back of the house. A familiar horse had been put in the corral.
"Time to pay a visit," Chris said, nudging his big black forward.
They cantered up to the house, and the door opened. The younger Mrs. Thomas stepped onto the porch. Taking in the hard faces and tense mouths around her, she bowed her head. Lifting her left arm she pointed towards the back of the house.
"They're out behind the barn," she whispered.
"Ma'am," Vin acknowledged as Chris led them away.
She just shook her head and walked back into the house.
The six peacekeepers rode over to the barn, and could hear loud, drunken voices. Laughter and taunts flew swiftly through the air. At a sign from their leader, the men dismounted and followed him around the corner. The sight that met their eyes sparked their fury.
Hanging from the back hayloft of the barn by his wrists, the seventh of their number was covered in sweat and blood. At least one of his eyes was swollen shut, and the other appeared dazed. His torso, bared to the chill of the darkening air, bore welts from a thick belt currently abandoned by door. Two men stood around a small fire, laughing and drinking as they looked upon their handiwork.
In near perfect harmony, the six men began to advance on the two villains. Like wolves circling their prey, they spread out, cutting off any escape. Too late, the hunted caught scent of their danger. The older of the two men froze, seeing the hopelessness of any action. However, with wild eyes the younger man lunged for his gun and tried to bring it to bear.
Chris fired a single shot.
As the body of his son fell, Hezekiah Thomas turned hate filled eyes on the six men but did not move. Ezra and Vin moved to bind him as the others went to help Nathan. As they tied his hands behind him, he began shouting at them.
"You should be ashamed of yerselves! What're ye doin' workin' wit' the damn Yankees! And that one? Ha! He's just a darkie!"
Hearing a hitched breath the two men glanced around to see Nathan leaning against Josiah, his one good eye focused on his tormenter. With a quick exchange of glances, the two former Confederates dragged the tied up man over to their fellow peacekeeper and dropped him on the ground in front of the healer. Stepping back, they gave Nathan room for whatever he wanted to do.
Nathan looked at both of his friends, and managed a half smile that faded as he winced. With a careful shake of his head, he ignored the man in front of him.
"Thanks you two, but he's not worth it."
At those words, Hezekiah Thomas came off the ground in fury. Despite his trussed up hands, he tried to barrel into the healer. With quick, sure movements, Ezra hauled him back and Vin landed a solid uppercut to his chin. He went down, completely motionless.
Leaving the man where he fell, they turned to leave. JD collected Nathan's horse as the man himself was hoisted up in front of Josiah. With his injuries, they did not want to risk him slipping off and doing more damage. Josiah started back towards town at an easy walk with Buck and JD riding alongside to assist and guard them. Chris turned to his remaining two men.
"Vin, head back to town. Get Inez to help you get the clinic ready for its patient. Have Yosemite haul up some warm water."
"I'll take care of it, Cowboy."
With a slight grin at Chris' scowl, the Texan headed off at a fast pace, passing his friends with a wave. The blond leader turned to Ezra. The gambler lifted a brow in question.
"I take it we will be offering a strong suggestion to Mrs. Thomas? A recommendation that they might desire to homestead elsewhere?"
"Yep," summed up the gunslinger, turning to stride towards the house.
"Ah, Mr. Larabee," Ezra began.
Stormy green eyes met his, and the humor in them stopped his words.
"You know, Ezra, one of these days you're goin' to have to start callin' us by name all the time."
Chris raised a hand, cutting him off.
"Nothin' is goin' to be said about it. Until you're willin' to tell the others, they can go on thinkin' you've got a knack for timin' and sensin' trouble."
Ezra's shoulders slumped in relief.
"Much obliged. Perhaps I will tell them one day, but I would rather hold those cards close to my chest awhile longer."
"Then let's go make some 'suggestions' and go home."
Ezra nodded and followed Chris towards the house.
Home? Maybe…just maybe.