by Birgit "Lee" Kohls (May 2001)
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM, TNN, and Trilogy/Mirsch and were used without prior permission.
Author's Notes: After watching "Serpents", I got half a dozen ideas in my delirious mind. This is one of them (and also my first M7-fanfic). I'm not a native English speaker, so please humour my insufficient language skills. Feedback is appreciated.
Thanks to Birgit "Gryph" Stäbler for suffering through my slight (erm, did I say slight?) obsession for a certain green eyed gambler with me (and great fondness for the other six characters!).
Thanks to Heather F. for the great discussions. :-)
Special thanks to the cast & crew of M7 who managed to produce a show that managed to break through a solid creative writer's block of over three years and light a spark again.
You are acting like a fool again,
In a world of thieves all ready to run you down,
They are waiting till you make your first mistake,
And you're going to make it,
That's why I always call you an Imbecile.
Mike Batt, "Imbecile"-Tarot Suite
"How long would you have run before coming back?"
"W..what?" Nathan's matter-of-fact question took Ezra Standish by surprise. Ever since Jackson had helped him up to the healer's clinic to tend the shotgun wound he had suffered when he had rescued Mary Travis from the assassin, Ezra had been deep in thoughts, making up all kinds of apologies and half-hearted excuses for taking the money while knowing all the time that it would be wasted energy. His friends had seen straight through him, and Ezra reluctantly admitted that he had allowed himself to think better of himself than he really was. He had succumbed to the lure of riches, the 'apple' as Josiah had named it, and now he waited to be expelled from paradise for his sin.
Well, for a moment he really had believed that he had earned enough respect to be trusted with all that money. But bottom line was, Ezra just had done as his friends knew he would do all along, he had stuffed the bills into his coat and run. Of course, there was that unfortunate incident with the younger Stutz, which stopped me even before I reached the livery. Chris said I did good.
It didn't change much on the plain and cold facts. Ezra felt more than just a bit disappointed over his actions, his weakness. Just half an hour ago, he had turned the shaving mirror in his hotel room, because he couldn't stand to see his own face any longer, all that greed, all the unreliability, all the things he had thought he had left behind. Conned myself quite good, didn't I?
The disappointment in his friends' faces when they had detected the money in his coat… If he hadn't been such a good poker player, Ezra wasn't sure if he had been able to stand through those minutes. For a moment, he had actually wished he could melt into the ground below him. The giddy happiness over rescuing Mary, the proud feeling of Larabee's commending words, it was all swept away the very instant Nathan had discovered the money. The quick apology Ezra had come up with had sounded thin, even to his own ears. And Chris hadn't bought it for an instant, Standish had seen it in the other man's eyes.
"How long would you have run?" Nathan repeated seriously. The healers eyes seemed to search Ezra's soul.
"What makes you think I was on the run?" Ezra used a lifetime of experience to pretend that he hadn't done what he did, feigning innocence, but he knew that it was lost on Jackson. The man wouldn't stop until he had his answer. "I was merely seeing to the money's safekeeping."
"Ezra," Jackson said softly, and it seemed like he had thought about his words carefully. "You're not that much able to con your friends as you like to think. I know that we hurt you by what we said, and that you were about to run with that money."
"Ouch!" Ezra complained, suddenly glad for the fact that Nathan was cleaning his wound. "Well… I was somewhat… disappointed… in the lack of trust you all have in me. After all these years… And… by taking it, I just did what you thought of me, anyway. Making me rich and getting out of this dustbowl."
Great, Ezra, you decide to be honest with him now. Oh dear. Why wasn't Nathan going on with one of his lectures? Why did he act like the crime Ezra had committed had no influence on the healer's opinion of him? Because he knew I am a cheat from that first moment we met in the saloon.
"You know what they say, friendship doesn't count when money gets involved," the healer chuckled briefly and reached for a bandage. Ezra's expression became unreadable, and Nathan added with a fond smile: "In those two years, how often did you try to pull some scheme on us to get money? Apart from cheating at cards."
The gambler swallowed uneasily and grinned nervously. "Mr. Jackson, I can assure you that I'd never…"
"Ezra…" the sparkle of amusement in the brown eyes was undeniable. "You know that those smokescreens of yours don't work with me."
"I have to admit that there was the one or other occasion," Standish felt the urge to die right on spot. Of course, he had let his greed for anything valuable shine through at every opportunity. Plotting and planning more or less openly on how to exploit his friends or some unfortunate stranger whenever there was a chance to make a quick buck. Keeping my skills sharp. Yes, mother, so sharp that it cuts my soul now, thank you very much.
"And how often did you actually get through with one of your schemes?" Nathan queried, still smiling. His patient stared at him as if he had suddenly grown a second head.
"Since I joined this illustrious group? Not once. I never had much of a chance with all that law keeping duties and the six of you supervising me," Ezra sighed deeply. Mother would be disappointed, but it was the truth. His associates, especially Nathan, had verbally kicked his butt on more than one occasion when he had tried to pull through some scam. Well, and there was that one time Jackson had catapulted him through the air with that tree, when they had defended the wagon train. Very embarrassing, and not kind at all. "I'm sorry, Nathan. I guess, the only one that I managed to lure into thinking I'm trustworthy is myself. You and the others were just on your toes, and it seems that my actions justified your suspicions on my person. I'm a real disgrace for my profession."
The sadness seeped into his voice before he could stop it. Sadness and regret, for having a lifetime of cheating, lying and running interfere with the one single thing that mattered on the long run. Appearances were not everything, and money didn't buy respect and trust. The grudging respect he had earned from his six fellow law keepers, the way the had trusted him with their lives even after he had ran out on them in the Seminole village… was it all gone now?
As if taking the money wasn't bad enough in itself, Ezra had failed Chris when he was expected to keep an eye on Liver Jones, their prime suspect at the time. And what did I do? Complained about not being trusted and let him out of my sight. Congrats, Ezra. Always looking out for number one, no matter who pays the price. I'm disgusting. He was only grateful that Jones hadn't been the shooter, it took a bit of the weight from his shoulders. But at that time that wasn't so clear and Larabee's anger had been more than justified. The memory of the disgusted look that the gunslinger had darted at the slightly drunk gambler had burned a hole through all defences Ezra had ever managed to built up. Mother's pride, indeed.
Apart from his service as lawman in Four Corners, there were only a handful of occasions in his screwed up life were he had felt true pride about his actions. It had given him a feeling of being richer than all the times when he had won at the gaming tables or finished a successful con. No nasty aftertaste, because different from monetary value, the pride had lasted.
Unfortunately, he was left with nothing at all after his downfall. What he had built up in so many months he had destroyed single-handed in a matter of hours because he had let his hurt feelings and lust for money take the better of him. Aw Gawd, why do I feel so ashamed?
"Who fits the shoe…"
Ezra winced. "No need to rub it in. I'm very much aware of how my less than stellar reputation caught up on me once more."
"You know, only a year ago, I'd said your reputation was right." Nathan didn't smile, but there was a warmth in his voice that was hard to miss. It brought him a suspicious look from the suave Southerner. "You were the perfect con man, cheat and gambler. Always looking out for number one. You never seemed to care, unless you could gain something from it. But," the healer stated bluntly. "You are going out of your way to hide and deny all the niceties you committed in the time you are with us."
"I assume that now, after I took the liberty to abscond with the money, you have realized that of course all my niceties, as you call them, were mere show?" This time, Ezra managed to keep his voice friendly and controlled. He knew that his friend was playing him like a fiddle. Just like Sanchez had done in the church. Damnation. When had he allowed his protective walls to become so ineffective that they could see through them? A disgrace for my profession, indeed.
"What I realize is that you value the lives of any of us more than all the gold on this planet. Even more than your own life," Nathan finished bandaging the flesh wound and looked for a sling to fix the arm. "You'd lost more than you'd gained if you had run out."
Oh, don't I know that. "Maybe."
"Well, I know for sure that we would have lost dearly if you had left."
Ezra had a smart, sharp stinging reply for this apparent verbal assault on his lips, but Jackson continued: "And I don't talk about the money."
Surprised and somewhat shocked over the serious and honest statement, the gambler frantically tried to digest the information and control the emotional turmoil inside. "I bet that Mr. Larabee and the rest of our associates will disagree with you."
"You know, I take that bet. Because you'd lose it."
Ezra snorted. "You have a lot of faith in them."
"And you, Ezra, have little faith in us."
The healer seemed to change tactics again and it confused the hell out of Ezra. He only too well remembered all the things that they had said, how his little safe haven illusion had crumbled to pieces.
"Mr. Jackson, you all left little room for interpretation about what you believe of me."
"And you interpreted nevertheless. Did you ever stop to think about that not everything was meant as it sounded? That all of us were tempted by the money? That we all had our demons to fight?" Nathan sighed. "I had that dream last night, about being a doctor and living in that great house with Rain. Never worry about anything again, buy her all the things she wants…and the only thing I had to do was go to Josiah and take those ten thousand."
"A nice dream, indeed," the gambler agreed. "But you didn't cave in. If any, it makes my actions worse."
"It's a steep road, and it's easy to stumble. You were raised to take the money and save your sorry butt. When the chips are down, it's easier to fall back to old habits."
"Let the wicked forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts," Ezra quoted, realizing the reason behind the words of the preacher. It hadn't been a condemnation from Sanchez, only a reminder to where the change had to come from. On Nathan's curious look, Ezra explained: "Just something Josiah said."
The pieces of the puzzle slipped into place one by one as the preacher's little speech echoed through his mind. 'You blame your friends? Blame yourself!' How could he expect that they trusted and respected him if he didn't even trust, even less respected himself? 'Look inside your own heart, Ezra.' His heart was a torn and shattered something, covered with scars, tainted by fear and hurt, desperately clinging to gentle feelings he had tried so hard to dispose of a lifetime ago. How could he ever expect to find the truth in that mess he was? 'Face your own demons.' Well, the demons had won, he had been too weak and wretched up, to readily wallowing in self pity and delusions to see or take the unique chance Josiah Sanchez had offered. Josiah, who had had enough trust in a struggling gambler to give him the money despite Larabee's order. Aw hell. How could I be so blind?
"You know, when Chris asked Josiah why he gave the money to you, he said that it would serve a purpose." Nathan looked at the stricken man in front of him. "I didn't really understand it right then… but when we waited for that assassin to strike, it hit me. I thought, if it's this tempting for me, how bad must it be for you? I mean, it would be like locking up Buck in a room with a dozen pretty, stark naked, willing ladies after him being on trail for two weeks… and expect him to keep his hands off them. Or any other body part, for the matter."
Involuntarily, the Southerner had to laugh at the comparison. Don't do this to me, Nathan. Hate me, yell at me. Don't make it harder for me to keep my distance now that I've fallen from grace.
"He wanted you to put some demons to rest, didn't he?" There was a new respect in the healer's voice, as he apparently tried to imagine what the gambler must've gone through.
"Your assumption is correct, Mr. Jackson. But it seems that those demons of mine are harder to extinct than our dear Mr. Sanchez thought," Ezra admitted ruefully, rubbing the back of his head with his good hand. It was just like J.D. had said, they trusted him, just not with money. And now they never would, because he had ruined the chance to prove himself beyond doubt. "I've been such an idiot."
"Yep," the healer chuckled at the self-recrimination, and received a deadly glare from Standish. "It's a long road, but I guess we stand a good chance if all seven of us walk together."
"Seven men, one destiny," Ezra contemplated loudly, then shook his head. One destiny. Magnificent Seven. One team, against all odds. Cheesy words from a dime store novel. But what were the odds of meeting these men he called friends, of being offered all those 'second' chances? "I guess I'll have to change more than I thought to fit into this career choice of mine."
"You know, I never thought I'd say that, but…" Nathan said with a mischief smile as he fastened the sling and helped the gambler to his feet. "Don't change too much. You are a good man under all that cocky, cheatin' good-for-nothin' gambler attitude of yours."
Standish needed a moment to absorb this, his feelings too close to the surface to be effectively controlled. After a few seconds, he grinned. "Now, does that mean that in the future I'll be spared your inept attempts to indoctrinate me with that ethical convention you seem to consider adequate for an ol' Southerner boy like me, Mr. Jackson?"
"Hell, no!" Nathan laughed and ushered his friend out of the clinic. "Ya know what? Let's go and see if you can talk Chris into splitting up that money so that I can buy a wedding ring for Rain with my share."
There's a heart that must be free to fly,
That burns with a need to know the reasons why.
Why must we all conceal
What we think, how we feel?
Must there be a secret me I'm forced to hide?
Reflection, Pop Version, Mulan
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