Out Of Aces
(M7/Highlander AU)

by Marns
aka Bumpkin

Disclaimer: Not mine... 'The Gambler' belongs to Kenny Rogers and Don Schlitz, however they worked it out.
Rated: PG
Author's Note: I would like to thank Sue MacDonald for very graciously going over this story and pointing out where I was missing things and had too much of others - Thanks Sue!
Description: AU M7/Highlander 'verse's meld. In the Old West, Ezra went his separate way after a falling out. In the time after the others found out they were Immortal. Then in the late 1970's a song is a catalyst to them figuring out they could still be Seven again. (AN: Yeah, *cringing*, doesn't every M7 writer out there have to get the bug to write a 'Gambler' fic at some point?)

The bar was smoky, and rather realistically done up like an old time western saloon - almost to the point that some would call overdone. But to six men sitting around one of the tables, it wasn't overdone at all. If anything, it felt more like home to them than anything else had in a long, long time. Right down to the gambling that was such a staple to Vegas going on in the back room. Hell, it was almost a recreation of the Standish Tavern they had spent so much time in when they had first met each other back in Four Corners.

The only thing that really kept them from feeling they actually were back in the past were two things; the feeling that they were missing a member of their party - his distinctive smooth southern tones were not evident from the gaming area after all - and the young, up and coming, country western singer set up on a little stage in the corner of the room. Back then, the only music they'd ever had as an option had been from a rather beat up and out-of-tune piano. Thankfully, it hadn't seen much use.

The discussion of the similarities and contrasts between then and now had the six friends happily occupied. But then, before they could really start to reminisce, the young musician called their attention back to him.

He leaned forward, tapped the mic to make certain it was on, and then muttered the rather ironic introduction of his next song. Especially, considering who was in his audience, and whose saloon the bar reminded them of.

"This is just something that came to me, late one night after one very strange conversation with a young lookin' feller who had some old, old eyes. At any rate, as we are in Vegas, this is the perfect city for sharing what I learned from that talk, a little 'Gambler Wisdom' as it were."

The table full of Immortals went strangely quiet. That song's introduction had hit a bit too close to home for all of them. But JD was the only one who actually said anything, blurting out what they were all feeling,

"Man fellas, doncha all just wish the guy he was talking 'bout was Ez?"

He was hushed rudely by his tablemates as the musician on the dais strummed his guitar a few more times and then addressed the mic again in his low voice, "And it goes something like this…"

*On a warm summer's evenin' on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with the gambler; we were both too tired to sleep. So we took turns a starin' out the window at the darkness 'Til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.*

*He said, "Son, I've made my life out of readin' people's faces, And knowin' what their cards were by the way they held their eyes. So if you don't mind my sayin', I can see you're out of aces. For a taste of your whiskey I'll give you some advice."*

The opening two stanzas had an electrifying effect on their table and they found themselves exchanging telling glances. Hell, the second stanza had sounded so much like Ez during some idle talk late at night that it had been uncanny. Fighting eldritch shivers running up their collective spines, they returned their attention to the music. The slow build up in intensity of the following verses held them spellbound, but only one other snippet hit them as hard as the introduction had. When the whiskey rough, but still tuneful, voice sang vibrantly;

*And the night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression.
Said, "If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.*

- and they all reacted. That description, those words… It was like hearing a voice from the past, albeit without the rich southern drawl they would expect to hear along with the words. Buck was the one who said what they were all thinking though.

"Damn, if that don't sound just like 'im."

The other five remaining men present who used to be part of 'The Seven' nodded or made a small sound of agreement with the eternal ladies man.

By unspoken accord they all fell silent and listened to the rest of the song without any more interruptions. One line in particular disturbed them near the end of the song, the one where it said the 'gambler' broke even, it sounded so ominous. But then, it was also ambiguous enough that they were able to dismiss it for the most part. The rest of the song's message was too positive not to.

When it was over and the young entertainer had segued smoothly into another tune, something about a gal named Lucille, they all sighed with something akin to regret and by the looks on their faces it was clear they were remembering the past. All except Vin, that is. The expression he wore on his face was more thoughtful than anything else. He seemed to be thinking about another possibility.

Finally, leaning forward in his seat a bit, he ventured, "I know we all decided that all o' us were Immortals, includin' Ez, back in Four Corners when the sixth o' us to die ended up coming back to life like all the others. That it was part o' the reason that we had all were drawn together so stronglike back then, but mebbe do any o' y' all think that Ez might've already been an Immortal back when he was living in Four Corners with us, and running around as one of the 'Seven'?" Then he added as an afterthought, "Y'all realize, o' course, that'd meant Maude would've hadta've been one all along, too."

His five companions turned to look at him, thrown by the idea, and Vin explained further, "Well, think about it fer a bit, fellas. He and his Ma already lived in a way, even back then, that made it easy to reinvent themselves whenever they had a notion to. Hell, between the two o' them, they had more'n a town's worth o' identities to pick and choose from when they were deciding who they wanted to be on any given day."

The five other men at the table were nodding agreement. The idea Vin was laying out just made sense, a lot of sense. JD was the first to realize what it all meant.

He stretched his mentor's favorite cussword out as he said,

"Da-a-amn! D'ya guys think that might've been why he didn't kick up too much of a fuss when we had that last big falling out? That it was the reason he just took off instead of talking to us? 'Cause that way he wouldn't have to worry 'bout awkward questions when he would've had to take off, sooner rather than later, for not getting any older?"

Most of the others blinked and tried to make sense of what JD had said, but not Vin. No, he just said with a careless shrug as he leaned back again.

"I suspect so, at least in part."

Then Vin was silent. He'd said what he'd intended to say and now he could relax. He'd put it out there on the floor, let them know his suspicions, and now it was up to the others to decide what they thought of his idea.

"It would certainly explain why Maude was so dead set against him settling down, or getting close to us, Brothers." Josiah rumbled. "She must have thought it was the height of foolishness to get attached to mortals - any mortals, no matter who they were."

Unfortunately that killed the conversation for a while. No-one knew what to say in response to what Josiah had said, because frankly, they could now understand that way of thinking themselves. Too many good people they had known and loved had died already, and they were young by Immortal standards as they all were just over the century mark. They couldn't imagine how many people you would lose over say, five times that, or more, depending on how successful you were at the 'Game'.

Not feeling up to the bother of making the effort to talk for the moment, the friends just sat contentedly in each other's presence for a while and let the sounds of the bar wash over them. As usual though, JD, couldn't keep quiet for long. He just had to ask aloud, the curiosity in his voice very clear to all sitting at the table.

"If Ez and his Ma were Immortal like we're thinking they were; I wonder how old they were?"

"Old. Real old."

Everyone turned to look at Nathan surprised. He sounded very sure.

"Why do you say that, Nathan?" Chris finally asked when it looked like no-one else was going to say anything.

"Because only the old, old ones ever get control over their quickening to the degree that they can slow or delay our automatic healing, especially to the point where they can actually get ill," the healer of old said.

Nathan, of course, had used the extra time afforded to him by his immortality to study medicine officially. He was now a fully accredited doctor in more than one field. He had, of course, studied their own differences while he trained, so his friends knew he wasn't guessing. He was stating fact as he knew it.

The others nodded; it wasn't something they could refute anyway. They all remembered Ezra hating to go to Nathan's clinic, but nonetheless they still remembered him going and being treated. Granted, he'd always healed a bit faster than normal, but that had been blamed on a quirk of his constitution, not on anything supernatural like what their Immortal quickenings could be taken for. It had never been that 'too fast'.

It was Vin who voiced what they were all thinking though, "Makes sense, if'n he hadn't been able to control it we woulda twigged onto his being different pretty early on. The man took chances. He didn't make stupid mistakes. He wouldn't've stayed fer the first thirty days if'n it wasn't a sure bet he could pass as normal."

Grunts of agreement passed around the table. That was Ez, through and through. Nothing was said again for a bit. But then Vin chuckled and all his friends turned to look at him. He chuckled more at the entire table's surprised look, but he still explained, "I just remembered what he said that first day, 'bout how he 'abhorred gamblin' and left nothing to chance'."

His friends nodded, they remembered that line too. It was one that stuck in the mind. Vin grinned, he'd thought they might've committed it to memory. He certainly had.

"Well, I remembered that and then I thought 'bout how b'tween that pea-shooter o' his, and all those skills he seemed to pull out o' thin air when we needed them that it turns out he weren't talking big when he said that, was he? Not that we knew it back then, but the fact that if'n he was already an Immortal and there was no-way he was gonna stay dead, even if someone *did* get a lucky shot off - well hell, he never did gamble on anything a'tall really, not fer the entire time we knew him, did he?"

Stunned silence was his only answer as they all assimilated what he'd said, but then they all laughed. That crazy Reb - always had something held back, something that gave him an edge, and this wasn't any different really. But then Chris thought of something and he, alternately groaned while at the same time, creatively cussed their missing member out. Some of the suggestions were more than a bit improbable, let alone possible or just crude. Finally he calmed down enough that he started to make sense again.

"Damnit! I knew it! I just knew that fool southerner had something up his sleeve when he took all those crazy risks, I just never would have guessed something like this." He said as he gestured sharply to indicate the gathering of them around the table. Snickers sounded all around, but only one of his companions retained enough cheerful equanimity to speak.

"I don't think any of us could have guessed at something like this, Brother." Josiah said with a smile. "This isn't exactly something we would ever have suspected or known about if it hadn't happened to us."

"That's certainly true," Nathan said with a dark chortle. "Hell, I woulda dosed him for sure if he had come prattlin' to me about living forever. Or that the reason he didn't need my services was because if he died he would just wake up again, unless of course whatever killed him took the fool's head clean off his shoulders."

"But he knew about us," Chris broke in sourly, and then clarified for those who didn't immediately get what he was talking about. "Or more correctly, what was going to happen to us - as in, what we were going to become."

"That's right! We can feel when we're around a pre-immortal, it's faint but unmistakable. So he would've had to have known that all of us would've become Immortal!" JD said animatedly. Then his face fell, and any excitement he felt at figuring out what Chris had meant leeched away as it hit him. "He did know, didn't he?"

"I think he did, JD." Buck said heavily.

"So why did he leave like that? I know we aren't allowed to tell the pre-immortals what's going to happen, but he had to know that at least some of us were going to come to a violent end and need a teacher. Our very lifestyle lent itself to that."

"Well, why shouldn't he have left?" Vin challenged. "We weren't exactly making him welcome at the end there, remember. So what reason did he have to keep fighting and stick around? You can only keep swimming against the current fer so long before you have to give up and go with the flow, fellas, and that goes fer no matter how old ya are."

Then Vin grinned sardonically and said, "And besides, can any o' you really see Ez as a 'teacher' to any of yas? Y'all never listened to the man when we were working together as a team, how would any of ya cope with having to learn how to survive in a whole new way of life with him as yer teacher?"

Chris bristled and said hotly, "That ain't the point, Cowboy, the point is that he left us to fumble things out on our own when-"

Vin leaned forward into Chris' face and cut him off. "Nu-hunh, no way. Don't you even think o' going there, Cowboy. You're acting like he left us totally defenseless, and that's hardly the case. Hell, he was well aware two of our number were already fairly well versed in bladework - thanks to that hullabaloo with Don Paulo and Inez - so why would he doubt that Nate and Buck here wouldn't take the others in hand and teach them what they needed to know?"

"Brother Vin has a valid point, Chris," Josiah said. "And I'll remind you that I did receive that mysterious letter not too long after Brother Ezra's departure that suggested that an older burial custom should perhaps be revived for the remaining members of the 'Seven' as a matter of honor - the one where the body of the deceased is laid out in seclusion for a week before the burial proper with all their belongings. I have a very strong feeling that was Brother Ezra's hand in play as well."

Chris harrumphed. He wasn't interested in forgiving their absent member yet, not when he'd just figured out a new thing to be angry with him for, even if it wasn't something he should be blamed about. Again, the group of six subsided into silence. And again it was JD who broke it.

"I wonder if the singer there ever knew where the 'Gambler' of his song went? I mean that 'broke even' line could mean that Ez skipped out on him, right? Which is probably what happened, Ez made a break for it after he realized how maudlin he'd gotten. And if Ez really was the gambler he was talking to, I wonder what he thinks of having this guy turn his words o' wisdom into a song? I don't think he'd like it, what do you guys think? And you know, if Ez - and his Ma - really are Immortals too, I wonder where they are now? And I really want to know why he's never bothered looking us up again, he's got to have heard that we're all still together."

At first he just rambled, but by the end of his little soliloquy, JD's voice was wistful. He'd missed their seventh even before the dust of his departure had time to settle, and never stopped in the time that had passed since then. He wasn't the only one, but none of the others would admit it. At least not aloud.

Buck decided one part of JD's question could be answered as the musician on the stage announced just then that he was going to be taking a short break. He nudged the youngest looking of them all, and said jovially.

"Well, why don't we go and ask that there warbler over for a drink and see if'n we can't get a few of your questions answered, JD. He's not singing right now, so I'd say he wouldn't mind us standing him a drink or two in return for some answers to a few friendly questions."

JD flashed a grin in Buck's direction and jumped up to do just that. He was over to the singer's side in a flash, talking animatedly and gesturing in the direction of their table. The singer must have agreed to the invite because JD gave them quick a thumbs up sign as he detoured over to the bar. Probably to pick up the offered drinks rather than have to wait for their server to get back round to them.

"Oh lord, Buck, didja haveta encourage him?" Chris moaned. "He's gonna make that poor man sorry he agreed to come over in no time flat."

Buck chuckled, and he wasn't alone in his amusement as the rest also laughed at Chris' prediction.

"Aw hell, big dawg, don't worry about it. Don't you think that's part o' the reason I suggested the kid invite him to the table? I thought we might run a bit o' interference if it were needed."

"A sign of wisdom that I never would have expected from you, Brother Buck," Josiah said with admiration. "That was a very astute rationale you employed with unusually quiet cunning in your customary glib manner."

"Why thank you, Josiah, it's nice to hear someone appreciates my - Hey! Now wait just a minute there. That wasn't exactly a compliment, Josiah, was it?" Buck had initially puffed up with pride at Josiah's words, but then the true backhanded nature of the compliment had sunk in and he was still glaring at the oldest looking of them when JD returned with their guest in tow.

"Hey, guys, I'm back!" Then feeling the tension between Buck and Josiah he paused for a minute before cautiously continuing, "Umm, I miss something?"

"Naw, JD, you didn't miss nothin' at all." Vin answered JD laconically, but the amused glint in his eye told JD he was going to want to hear the real story rather than the pared down for public consumption one he was about to hear. "It's just that Buck and Josiah got to talking on two different levels again and the trouble that always seems to cause."


It was all JD could think to say to that explanation, while he stood there and looked a bit unsettled. Chris snorted, and Nathan faked a cough to try to hide his amusement.

"Hell, just pull up another chair for our guest there and have a seat, JD. Never you mind the hash Buck and Josiah are making out of the language." Chris finally said with asperity.

JD shrugged and did as suggested. What else could he do? After they had gotten settled in, he introduced the young musician to the rest of them.

"Guys, this here is Donny - he's a songwriter looking to find people to buy and sing his songs. Donny, this is Chris, Vin, Nate, Buck, Josiah, and as I already told you, my name's JD."

Donny nodded to each man who raised their glass as their name was said in turn in greeting.

"Hey. It's a pleasure, but I have a feeling that you all have something on your minds that you think I can help with, or I wouldn't have been invited over. How 'bout you just out with it and I'll see if'n I can help yas."

Given carte blanche to do so, JD dove in.

"Well, see, that one song of yours - the one about the gambler - it reminded us of an old friend of ours, one that we haven't seen in a really long time. We miss him and were just wondering if the feller you were talking about in it - well, if you knew where he might be found?"

"Him?" Donny's voice was amused, and he had a wide grin on his face. "Hellfires, boys, you're sitting in his place. This here is his bar."

Stunned looks were on all the faces around him, and Donny laughed. The six of them looked as if they had all been whapped up side the head with a two by four. Donny expanded on his initial statement.

"After he and I spoke on the train, he vanished on me. Guess he didn't care for how much he'd shared. But then, a few years later, I ran into him again and he gave me the chance to perform here as a means to get my songs heard. Said I reminded him of another kid who just needed a fair chance to get a foot in the door, and that I would prove myself in no time at all. It worked too, just last week I signed a contract with a major country label to provide songs for some of their best singers. This was my last weekend here."

A significant look had been exchanged among his tablemates when Donny had mentioned his benefactor saying Donny reminded him of another young man who needed to prove himself. It confirmed to them that it was indeed Ezra that he had been talking to, and ironically if Ezra was the owner, why the bar they were sitting in at the moment reminded them so much of the Standish Tavern. It was the 'Standish Tavern', just modernized and set in a new locale.

All six Immortals offered up their congratulations to the young man in their midst for his good fortune. While at the same time, they all tried to figure out a way to ask, hopefully without sounding too much like they were prying or fishing for information, if he knew when the owner might next be in. He took the matter out of their hands though a few seconds later when he seemed to spot something across the main room and said offhand, as he stood up to return to the stage.

"Hey, there he is."

His tablemates spun as one to look where he indicated and Donny continued wryly, "Oh yeah, if'n you want to catch up with him, I'd catch him now before he starts in at the tables. Old friends or no, you sit down there to talk to him and he'll clean you out slicker than a greased weasel."

That said, he left. The six at the table barely noticed, they were still too fixated on their first glimpse of their missing seventh in about one hundred years. In so many ways, he looked the same. Flashy suit, well groomed hair, a glinting glimpse of gold when he smiled widely at a passing woman, and self-confidence just oozing from every pore as he gracefully made his way across the main room towards the back room where the gambling took place.

One shared look had all six of them abandoning their table and moving to intercept Ezra. They had already waited too long for this reunion, and they didn't want to be put off like they knew they would be if they lost him to the cards. They'd just managed to get ahead of him and in place, if it was needed, to bar his way into the back room by standing shoulder to shoulder when he came abreast of them.



"Hey, Ez."


Their voices overlapped as they called out, hoping to get his attention. It worked.

Hearing them, Ezra spun on his heel, his normally blank face showing a slight bit of shock to those that knew him. His gaze traveled from Chris to Vin, from there to Josiah, and all along the line down to JD. Standing silently, Ezra took in the six men who were standing in front of him that he had probably never expected to see again after leaving Four Corners, and for a moment it was obvious that speech had deserted him. Not for long, though, he seemed to get himself pulled back together quickly enough and then his lips quirked in a way they were familiar with from the past as he dryly observed,

"Well, I guess congratulations are in order boys - as against all odds I see you've all managed to stay ahead of the 'Game'."

On to: Know When To Fold

On a warm summer's evenin' on a train bound for nowhere,
I met up with the gambler; we were both too tired to sleep.
So we took turns a starin' out the window at the darkness
'Til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.

He said, "Son, I've made my life out of readin' people's faces,
And knowin' what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.
So if you don't mind my sayin', I can see you're out of aces.
For a taste of your whiskey I'll give you some advice."

So I handed him my bottle and he drank down my last swallow.
Then he bummed a cigarette and asked me for a light.
And the night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression.
Said, "If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

Now ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
'Cause ev'ry hand's a winner and ev'ry hand's a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep."

So when he'd finished speakin', he turned back towards the window,
Crushed out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.
And somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even.
But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep.

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

Author's Note: Don Schlitz (born August 29, 1952 in Durham, North Carolina) is an award-winning country music songwriter. His first hit as a professional songwriter was 'The Gambler' which became a crossover country hit upon its release in 1978, and then later became one of Rogers' signature songs. He has since penned other hits for other artists, including 'Forever and Ever, Amen' by Randy Travis and 'When You Say Nothing at All' by Keith Whitley.

If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Marns would love to hear from you.

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