Lessons In Sharing
by Patricia Semler
Disclaimer: I do not own any rights to The Magnificent Seven. They belong to Trilogy and the Mirisch Corporation. I'm merely borrowing the boys for a while to indulge an imagination that acknowledges the talent and charisma instigated by said owners.
Unexpected snowfall and bitter winds curtailed most of the thievery in particular and activity in general around Four Corners, but the tension only increased for the seven men hired to guard the peace. Christmas was coming. Each had his reasons for avoiding the general good humor of the local population. Each withdrew into himself a little more with every passing day. They didn't outright avoid one another, but neither did they go out of their way to seek company when their combined skills weren't needed.
None more so than the fastidious southern gambler Ezra Standish. For all his adult life the Christmas holidays were nothing more than a highly opportune time for plying con games and escaping unscathed. People were uncommonly generous and fell for the simplest of ruses. This year however brought a pain he hadn't felt since childhood.
He knew better than to drown his sorrows. No amount of liquor would ever fill the emptiness in his heart instilled by so many joyless childhood Christmases of refurbished hand-me-downs, mindless trinkets or worse still, something he truly treasured that an older, stronger cousin would claim in short order as rightfully his. When he was very young his mother would come for him, but only as a prop for her own cons. As soon as the holidays were over back he went to fosterage with hardly more than a pat on his head for his labors.
No, since Ezra wasn't in a position to ply his charity cons he preferred to occupy his mind elsewhere and rode scouts with Vin or Chris at every opportunity. Neither man was much for talking and the silence suited Ezra just fine.
Two weeks to go and JD started fussing. He wanted to buy presents but didn't have that much money saved and really had no idea what he should buy for the men he considered family. So naturally he asked Buck for help and Buck turned the innocent little quest into a project that pulled in the other members of their group one by one. Nathan and Josiah were all for some kind of celebration in keeping with the spirit of the season. Vin gave in simply to shut JD up. The boy never knew when to quit. Ezra proved intransigent about remaining aloof from the whole business, and Chris blew his top, gathered them all in the saloon to dispense his opinion on the foolishness of exchanging gifts.
The arguments and whiskey went back and forth for hours. No one but Ezra actually had money enough to allow for a thoughtful gift. Weather made travel between towns difficult and there wasn't all that much to choose from in Four Corners. Vin oscillated between sides. He considered these men extended family and family meant exchanging gifts no matter how small, but he was intimidated by having to consider just what to give each man. Nathan promoted the idea that gift giving should be voluntary and under no obligation for reciprocal action. He was still steamed over some slight on Ezra's part days earlier and had no intention of getting the gambler anything. Josiah suggested an exchange of promissary notes of favors in the interest of keeping feelings from being hurt by an awkward gift or the omission thereof, angry with Nathan for being spiteful with Ezra.
Just when it seemed they had come to an equitable arrangement Buck or JD threw another suggestion out and started the whole process over again. Chris chaffed at the whole business, trying hard to keep his temper under control. He knew that they all knew full well how poignant the holidays were for him. This nonsense ate into his soul just when he had promised himself not to drink himself blind and sleep through Christmas day as he had the last three years.
"Gentlemen, if I may, there is a simple solution to this dilemma."
They all shut up and looked at the gambler. He had listened without comment, merely shuffled his cards, and every one of the six simply forgot he was there.
Ezra fanned cards in his upraised hand. Seven to be exact, each one written on in his precise hand. "One name per card. One card per man. One gift to be purchased and delivered. No recriminations, no embarrassment, no argument."
There was something in his tone that brooked no dissension. Truthfully a sigh of relief went through each man. When Ezra saw that he had full consensus he dealt the cards out around the table.
"Rules of the game, gentlemen. No one reveals who his recipient is. All gifts to be left anonymously wherever convenient. Merry Christmas."
Four days later Nathan caught up to Josiah cleaning pews in the church. "Josiah, I need to ask you whose name you drew."
The big man straightened up, frowning. "Why?"
"Buck got Vin I got Buck. Ezra has Chris."
"I am surprised at you, Nathan. I also know for a fact that Vin has Chris. How could Ezra have him as well?"
"He dealt the cards. By the way Chris has you, JD got me. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important."
Josiah wanted to be angry, laughed instead. Neither Buck nor JD had been able to keep the secret very long and it was only a matter of quiet observation to figure out how the rest of the group had picked. "I pulled JD. Wait a minute. That leaves no one buying anything for Ezra, doesn't it?"
"Like I said he dealt the cards. He dealt himself out of his hand." Consternation creased the healer's face with an intense frown. He accepted everything Ezra did for the group with a grain of salt. You just never knew what motivated the man, but this turn of events upset him with a strange guilt for his selfish thoughts of snubbing the gambler.
"We need to talk with Chris," Josiah decided.
Ezra had kept up appearances, playing poker daily even though the games were hardly worth his effort. Secretly he enjoyed the hustle as his friends fretted and shopped. He never expected the anonymity to be held long. JD and Buck were too boisterous to allow for extended subtlety. It didn't matter. They left him alone.
It was a lesson he learned for himself at age ten living with his Aunt Judith and her six hellions. Distraction. He had marveled then at how a few well chosen words could spark his cousins into doing exactly what he wanted, which was to be left alone. It meant alienation from their community games, but it also meant he didn't have to withstand insults and fistfights. Being solitary wasn't so bad. It prevented him from being disappointed. Just like now.
The other six gathered in the church and Josiah presented the problem.
"It was his idea," Buck protested. "Why not include himself?"
"He wasn't happy about the whole thing to begin with," Chris said flatly. "This is his way of staying out of it."
"Could be he didn't want to be judged by whatever gift he did leave," Vin observed.
"Could be he didn't want a gift just because somebody felt obliged," JD blurted. All eyes turned to him and he felt crimson rise up his face. He hadn't meant to say that aloud. Ezra would kill him for revealing the confidence.
"JD," Chris encouraged sternly.
The youngster cringed, fought for a suitable lie to cover, gave up. He couldn't lie to Chris' face. "We got to talking yesterday. He said he didn't care for exchanging gifts because it reminded him of his childhood and being an outsider living on the charity of his aunts and uncles. If you think about it that's sort of the way we treat him."
An uncomfortable silence settled. Ezra never talked about his past, preferring to apply his con man ability on the group's behalf without elaborating on how his skills came to be so finely perfected. No one could get him to open up about family. Even mention of his free spirited mother would often bring a chilly retort and immediate departure from the conversation.
"What are we going to do about this?" Josiah threw out.
"He won't accept a present," Vin offered. "Well, he will but that'd just be doing what he wanted to avoid, and he's ornery enough."
"What could we get him anyway?" Buck snapped. "Man's right particular about his things."
"There's one thing," Nathan said quietly. "We give him what he's given us. A sense of belonging to family."
"Just how in the hell do you figure on wrapping that?" Buck cracked, followed with a howl when Chris clipped him in the back of the head with an open hand.
"Just leave him alone," Chris admonished.
The next morning Chris rode out with Ezra to check the northern pass. Little was said on the ride. Both men wore scarves up over their faces and tucked deep into heavy coats under the bite of freezing winter winds. Chris chose a thicket of pine to shelter in while they scanned the rolling hills for signs of trouble.
After a while the sun came out strong and the wind fell off, allowing them a chance to loosen the muffling layers. Chris threw an eye at the gambler. It wasn't in his nature to butt into people's privacy, but he also hated surprises and felt strongly that Ezra was no different.
"How long did you think we'd all fall for that sleight of hand?"
A lazy shrug answered him. "I did buy myself a week's worth of peace."
Chris chuckled. "JD does throw himself into a project. If it hadn't been him started this whole thing it would have been Buck. Buck and Christmas. You thought he was bad about chasing after skirts. One year he had Adam ..."
He caught himself up short. Christmas without his family. The scorched frame of his house flashed into his mind's eye and anger started to churn deep inside his chest. He had tried so hard to keep it at bay, letting the business of shopping for Josiah keep him occupied, but now the blackness seeped through him, taking possession.
Furious blue eyes swung around, startled. Ezra held a hand out, a small box on his palm wrapped in blue paper. "Merry Christmas."
Chris deliberated before pulling off his gloves and taking the box. He made short work of the wrapping, tension from keeping his anger in check tightening every muscle. Just like Ezra to change the rules of the game to suit himself. He opened the lid, went very still over the object inside.
It was a picture frame, bronzed and ornate with some kind of trailing vine frieze but it was the faces that smiled up at him that froze his heat. Sarah and Adam, drawn in pencil with a skill that caught the nuances of love and admiration as he had seen them last.
"Where the hell?"
"Forgery is one of my lesser accomplishments." Ezra explained.
"I don't have any pictures of my family. Neither does Buck. How could you know what they look like?" Chris demanded.
Ezra fidgeted before answering. "You were delirious last month after that brawl with the Simpson gang. The idea came to me while I sat with you. Swear you won't tell Nathan. I prompted you for details. Buck assured me the likenesses are striking."
"Striking doesn't begin to describe ... My God, Ezra, I could reach in and touch them." Chris stroked a delicate fingertip over the glass. He had feared losing their faces to failing memory. It made him boiling mad when he couldn't recall details. Now, following the delicate pencil lines he could bring up images he thought long lost. Adam's birth. His first steps. Dancing with Sarah at a social. Building their house. Making love to his wife in the hay loft of her father's barn. So many good times to counter the darkness. He pocketed the box with care, held his hand out.
"My pleasure entirely." Ezra automatically reached for the other's hand, startled when Chris grasped his arm in the manner the gunslinger used with Vin.
Blue eyes bored into him. "Don't ever try that again."
Ezra lit up with a mirth Chris rarely saw in the gambler's eyes, a small unguarded moment of pure friendship, and he was glad he managed to talk the others out of buying Ezra anything.
Days passed swiftly. Winter gales blew fierce storms down on the little town and Christmas Eve found it looking like a picture postcard with drifts of snow cascaded over everything. One by one the men brought their gifts to the saloon to include Ezra in on the fun.
Chris watched from a neighboring table. Ezra was never smoother in his admiration of the surgical needles Nathan received or Vin's new rifle cleaning kit, and all the other well thought gifts, but for all the group's good intentions the green eyes never lit with true fire. In fact the gambler seemed to retreat further into himself.
Josiah pulled up a chair, his package unwrapped but remaining closed. His deep set eyes flicked over Chris, settled on the gambler.
"Come now, Josiah, don't leave me in suspense," Ezra chided with a sarcastic bite.
"It's just a book, a collection of Shakespeare's tragedies," Josiah answered. It was more than a mere book. It was a handsomely bound work with gilt touched illustrations on the finest vellum. He had already spent hours reading passages that held special meaning to him. He couldn't imagine where Chris had found it.
JD bounced up just then with a box of fishing lures Vin had hand made with the boast of being completely irresistible to trout. Josiah lingered, to make sure the youngster didn't wear out his welcome. He didn't have to worry. Ezra dutifully admired the workmanship and sent JD off with a prediction of unparalleled success on his first spring venture.
"Ezra," he started then stopped. Something flickered in the gambler's eyes, something that warned Josiah not to broach the subject. For some unfathomable reason Ezra could bring joy to others, but refused to open himself up to reciprocal generosity. A glance at Chris and Josiah found the same warning, but he wasn't a man easily put off, turned back to the gambler, lowered his voice.
"This exchange of gifts was truly inspired. Thank you. It wounds me that you wouldn't trust us enough to include yourself."
A very small shadow of derision flickered then Ezra's customary benign front was back in force. "I see no need to justify my actions, Mister Sanchez. I suggest you drop it."
"Will I see you at the service tonight?"
"Why on earth would you want me there?"
"Now, Ezra, if there's one thing you taught us all, it's the importance of keeping up appearances. People will expect to see all seven of us."
A smile did nothing to chase the bitterness in the green eyes. "As I fear there will be a dearth of poker players at that particular time, I imagine I shall find myself in attendance."
Josiah nodded, got to his feet. He had pushed as far as he thought reasonable, annoyed with himself for his lack of success. Buck was right. How could anyone wrap up the sense of belonging to family? Particularly when the recipient was so opposed to accepting the gift. "Eight o'clock. Don't make me send somebody to get you."
Anyone who didn't have to travel far gathered in the little church for services that evening. It was going to be a nasty night but it was important to celebrate the peace the seven had brought to Four Corners since their arrival, and people willingly braved the elements.
Josiah was mid way through the service when a horrible groaning of wood vibrated through the church. Every head went up to the exposed beams, praying the roof would hold. In the far back, just at the doors, Vin looked down as a tremor passed under his feet. Buck's eyes went up and he lunged to grab the tracker and haul him out of danger seconds before the vestibule caved in.
People screamed and pushed away from the disaster.
"Everybody, stay calm," Josiah boomed out. "We will calmly go out the back." The quiet assurance from each of the seven kept panic from taking hold and the crowd pressed forward into the little back room. Except the door was sealed with a tremendous drift of heavy snow.
Chris came around the outside of the trembling mass of people. "Josiah?"
"We'll be fine, Chris. Just a little delay, that's all. Brother Ezra," he got the gambler aside. "Folks are going to start panicking any minute now. Now Nathan and I can shovel the door clear but it'll take time. Think you can keep everyone calm in here?"
"Card tricks on the altar is a little gauche, even for me," Ezra said acidly.
"I was thinking more in the line of reading the Christmas story. That is why we were gathered."
Ezra gasped, stunned. What kind of subterfuge was this? The ex-preacher held in quiet contempt the fact that he had once used the pulpit for monetary gain. The man couldn't possibly be serious, but there was no evidence of mockery in the serene eyes.
JD came up, flushed with cold and effort. "Vin's okay. We braced the door as best we could but that roof doesn't look good at all and the draft is taking all the heat. We could use you back there, Chris."
"Do what you can, Mister Larabee. I'll handle the congregation," Ezra strode out without bothering to pick up the Bible Josiah offered. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you will all kindly find a seat as close in as comfortable. Rescue is being effected. We must exhibit patience. If I may have all the children down front here."
He sat on the top step. There was a bustle of movement as people huddled into the forward pews and the dozen or so youngsters in attendance gathered at his feet.
"Wonderful. You're all cold and frightened and I imagine wondering what possessed you to come out of your warm little homes on such a night as this. Well it was on just such a cold and bitter night that other people gathered ...."
The men set to their assigned tasks. Chris, Buck and JD muscled timbers into a sketchy frame so that the roof didn't collapse further. Vin, having twisted a knee under Buck's tackle, was given fire duty and kept the little stove glowing. Josiah and Nathan applied shovels to the drifts that mercifully seemed to be drifting away from the door now.
All the while Ezra's voice carried crisply in the church, mesmerizing his audience. The adults gathered in close, sheltering in the warmth of shared body heat, fears allayed by the lure of the story teller. Even the men stopped now and then themselves, falling under the spell of the vibrant retelling of a story they'd all heard time and again. Ezra wasn't just reciting, he was recreating that first Christmas with a skill and enthusiasm that sent shivers down spines.
"And there were shepherds in the same district living in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, an angel of the Lord stood by them and the glory of God shone round about them, and they feared exceedingly..."
Nathan stepped back inside to warm his chilled lungs, glanced into the main hall and smiled. JD had joined the kids on the floor, rapt, glancing up as if he expected angels to actually appear overhead. Behind him were Buck and Chris. Off to the left Vin had been given a seat. The vulnerability of each man showing as their guards dropped.
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will."
"Josiah, leave that and come here."
The ex-preacher resisted the invitation. Nothing pained him more than to listen to Ezra when he was on one of his promotions. The man had a natural charisma and magnetic speaking voice. It reminded Josiah of his father's impassioned sermonizing, and of his own solemn, but ultimately somnambulant preaching style. But he advanced to stand beside Nathan. After all it was Christmas and he had coerced Ezra into attendance.
"So they went with haste and they found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And when they had seen, they understood what had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard marveled at the things told them by the shepherds."
The families stood or sat silent when Ezra paused for a breath then didn't continue. A tribute to his oratory that they wanted to fix the storyteller and his magic firmly in mind before leaving. Ezra seemed perfectly content with the children crowded around his knees. Billy Travis up on the step beside him in a trance.
"So then what happened?" Billy blurted out.
Laughter erupted but Ezra turned to him quite seriously. "Why, then everyone sang a song and went home to their families."
"Oh, like you're coming to my house with Chris and everybody?" Billy chirped, pushing to his feet to look Ezra directly in the eye.
Josiah caught the consternation rising in the green eyes. He knew full well Ezra had already begged off the invitation. "Ah well, son, you see ..."
"You have to come, Uncle Ezra. Mom made pies and there are presents for everybody."
Something like shock crossed Ezra's face. Josiah smiled. Out of the mouths of babes.
Ezra couldn't look away from the six year old's bright eyes. It had started with Buck, Billy calling the men uncle, except for Chris who would always simply be Chris. This was the first time Billy used the familiar to address him. It brought with it a rise of emotion he couldn't rightly gauge, something he hadn't felt since Chris had spun around in that Seminole village and given him a second chance in the guise of a warning against running out again. When the boy threw his arms around his neck to reinforce his plea, Ezra totally lost his composure.
"Door's cleared, folks," Josiah moved in. He had seen the tear. It was right to turn the focus away from Ezra and give him time to recover himself. "Let's get you all home."
Josiah made sure he was the last man waiting for Ezra, stopped the gambler at the door, held up a package . "I know you didn't want a fuss, but here. Merry Christmas."
"Don't thank me until you've opened it."
Ezra scowled at him, tore open the plain paper to reveal a handsomely bound leather Bible. An expensive old Bible, embossed with gilt on the cover and the edges of the paper. It had belonged to Josiah's father and the preacher felt impelled to pass it on.
Josiah watched the gambler's eyes. Questions came and went, derision flashed, disappeared under a bitter cynicism. "I see you've already marked a passage. What might it be? Repent, ye sinner, for the kingdom of God is at hand?"
"Faith, hope and love, let these endure among you, and the greatest of these is love." Josiah chided gently. "Just put it away for now, Ezra. There may come the day when a church like this will be your home. Lord knows you have the gift. Time will provide the faith."
Ezra tried a laugh, but it caught in his throat. The suggestion tickled somewhere deep inside him. He had enjoyed his days in the revival tents. It was an easy con, and yet there had been times when he almost believed in what he was doing. Almost. Not enough to counter his mother's teachings or his own arrogance, but a year of working beside the six had shown him other possibilities and truths, and depths within himself he would never have believed possible.
Was he getting soft, as Maude insisted? Never in his life had he known people he could depend upon. People who didn't chase him off at the first or second or even third application of his native skills. People who accepted him, even encouraged him to stay. Is this what family felt like? It was new and frightening and somehow comforting.
"That would be an interesting turn of events indeed. Thank you, Josiah."
"You're right welcome, Ezra. Now let's get over to Mary's before the apple pie is all gone."
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