PG for language, but the story is pretty tame.
CATEGORY: OW - Christmas Story.
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra and Chris
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: Ezra is left alone to watch over the town on Christmas.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Kristin created the name for Ezra’s horse. Eleanor T gave Chris and Buck’s theirs
DATE: December 26, 2002.
By NotTasha...who doesn't celebrate that one
He walked the empty street, past the closed general store, the empty saloon and the vacant restaurant. The telegraph operator’s station sat unattended. The blacksmith’s shop was silent. The general store was locked. The world had tucked itself up into safe corners, leaving the chilly street to one wandering gambler.
With a sigh, Ezra Standish pulled his wool coat close and leaned against the railing. Quiet was good, he reminded himself. Quiet was better than a raging riot, the chaos of a bank hold-up, or the cacophony of a shoot-out. Lord, he didn't wish for any of those. But why did it have to be so damn silent? He wasn’t used to seeing everything so still. Four Corners usually bustled with people this time of day. Sure, it was cold, but the afternoon was usually a time for business.
Well, he reminded himself, looking at the bright decorations that augmented many of the shops – it is Christmas Day after all. People had better places to be than on the street.
The town was half-vacant. Many of the townspeople were gone for the holiday, and none of the other regulators were currently in residence. Chris had accompanied Mary and Billy Travis to visit the judge. Larabee had mentioned something about how a woman shouldn’t be going so far alone. Vin and JD were spending the night at the Wells’ place. The wizened crone had invited them to partake in a feast with her niece, and to chop enough firewood to last them through the rest of the winter. Menial labor suited them better than some. Nathan was with Rain in the Seminole village, celebrating a quiet Christmas with her people, and Josiah had gone to Vista City for some secret reason. It struck Ezra that Josiah always seemed unusually somber and rather unsettled whenever he returned from that town. Ezra didn’t know if taking that particular journey was a good idea for the preacher, but Sanchez certainly felt a need to be there. Something – someone – existed in that town. Josiah should know what’s best for him, shouldn’t he? Buck, well, Buck was probably with Lady Jennifer, unless he was with the lovely Miss Monica.
The southerner yawned into his hand and blinked at the cold, empty street. Just a few more hours and Buck was expected back. He pulled his gold watch from his pocket and noted the time. Yes, it would be dark soon. He rubbed his hands together after returning the timepiece to his pocket. Wilmington had promised to be back in time to take up the evening shift. Lord, he hoped that Buck didn’t dally too long. He didn’t think he was going to last for much longer.
His gaze took in the windows of the town, decorated with evergreen boughs and holly, with bright ornaments and bits of shiny glass. All was looking a little bedraggled as the season was at an end. Tomorrow, it would all be taken down – Christmas nearly over.
With a luxurious stretch, he straightened and continued his walk along the boardwalk, past closed shops and empty businesses. The Potters were visiting in Eagle Bend. Inez Recilios was with an old friend in Greeley. The Jujes were gone, as were the Greens and the Tulls. Mrs. Underwood, his favorite washerwoman, had family and was busily cooking for a whole house filled with people. The Stokers were all happily gathered at the family ranch, with Yosemite at their table. Joe Rutledge, the barkeeper at peacekeeper’s favorite saloon, was off to see his sister. Even Ben Mack, the town’s young and serious undertaker, had gone for the day – off to court a paramour.
Everyone had found someplace special to spend the holiday. That’s how it should be.
Here and there wisps of smoke curled from chimneys as the remaining families gathered and celebrated. Ezra walked past a house, hearing laughter, singing and the warm sounds of family. He paused and listened for a moment, smiling before continuing on his rounds. Christmas, of course, was for family. It would be nice, he supposed, to be in such a warm, happy place for the holidays.
Family was important, after all.
He stopped in front of the church and gazed at the wreathed door for a moment. It was too bad that Josiah was away – there’d been no Christmas services. That alone might have brought some of the residents from their snug homes. The townfolk would have enjoyed a Christmas mass.
After a sufficient pause, he walked up the steps and pressed open the door. Unlocked -- Josiah truly was too trusting about some matters. It was the second time he’d entered this building over the holiday, and he gazed at the poor box, wondering if it was safe. There were certain families in the area that could use the help that others felt compelled to dole out, but there was an unseemly element in town, too. Josiah really should be more protective of such things.
The afternoon sunlight filled the windows, illuminating the pulpit and the chilled space. He let out a breath and removed his hat. Churches always filled him with a strange feeling of dread, a reminder of where he was bound after all was said and done. Who else would have him on Judgment Day?
He steeled himself before walking down the main aisle. A church seemed like the right place to be on this date, but the emptiness didn’t make him feel any better. He stepped up to the crude altar and then turned back to the unoccupied pews. He smiled for a moment, remembering another time in his life when he’d played the part of a preacher. He took a deep breath, as if preparing to begin a rafter-shaking sermon, and then let it out slowly. The smile quickly dropped and he shook his head woefully, wondering if he’d ever be forgiven for the mistakes he’d made in his life.
His hand played across the worn leather binding of Josiah’s bible. He stared at the faded, gold-stamped lettering for a moment before opening the tome and turning to the Gospel of Matthew. He silently read the first few pages, before turning to Luke and reading further. In the empty church, he continued reading until he became aware of how strange the situation was. Carefully, self-consciously, he closed the Bible and, after straightening a tipped candlestick, walked to the back of the church. He lingered by the poor box for a moment and again considered locking the door, before stepping back into the tranquil town, leaving the place open. If Josiah felt it was necessary to allow people access to the place on this holy day, Ezra had no intention of denying that wish. Someone in town might need it.
He glanced at a house, watching shadows dance at the windows as the family within played some sort of a parlor game. He could hear their laughter from where he stood. On Christmas, people should be with the ones they loved. They should be happy.
With a slow stride, he continued his path -- going nowhere in particular. He reached the livery and gazed within. He smiled when the chestnut horse at the back of the livery whinnied. "Dear Chaucer," he said quietly. "You’re nearly as alone as I."
The chestnut shook his mane in the nearly-empty building and stomped as his owner approached. The six horses that were usually housed in the stalls around him, were missing -- off with their owners, in some other stable or barn. "I’m sorry, my friend," Ezra said as he approached. "I assure you, your neighbor, Clyde, will be home soon and hopefully that taskmaster, Job, will return shortly afterward. He does try to boss you, doesn’t he?" Chaucer tossed his head, as if in agreement. "I’m sure you miss them nearly as much as I miss their owners." He blushed privately at that admission.
"Perhaps we’ll take another ride around the town before Mr. Wilmington returns, eh?" He reached out a hand and carefully stroked the horse’s big head. "I’m certain there’s plenty that needs investigation. The town is rife with activity." Chaucer snorted.
He gave the horse a pat and sighed. "Well, perhaps you’d rather rest. We’ve already taken that route several times in the past two days. I think you’ll be in dizzy dither if we turn round one more time. There is nothing to find, in any case." He smiled as the horse nuzzled him.
He leaned against the horse, and the gelding responded with a quiet murmur. "Lord," he admitted, "But I’m tired. Weary to the bone." With a shake of the head he added, "It’s not as if I’ve never stayed up for two days straight. It’s just…well, I never sleep well without something to fill the hours -- no one to talk to or to lend an ear, not even a decent meal to be had. I’ve had to rely on my trail rations." He smiled again, just a small turn of the lips. "It’s been rather lonely, I suspect. Rather lonely indeed."
He gazed over his shoulder as if he expected someone to enter, but the streets remained as silent as ever. "But that’s all just self-pity, my friend, and we must never wallow in such sentiment. It doesn’t become a gentleman." He smiled again, a tired and sad expression. With a gentle hand, he caressed the horse’s muzzle and stepped away from the stall. "Merry Christmas, Chaucer," he murmured as he walked back toward the exit.
Pausing at the doorway, he gazed again at the unchanged and uninhabited street and uttered, "Merry Christmas, everyone."
"Vin, JD," Chris greeted as he approached the home of Nettie and Casey Wells. His horse jogged along at a quick gait, eager to get him home.
"Hey, Chris!" JD shouted from the woodpile where he and Vin were laboring.
"Cowboy," Vin returned. "Have a good trip?" He flipped another piece of wood toward the cords already stacked.
"Yup," Chris returned. "Got ‘em to the judge’s."
"Thought you were comin’ back yesterday," Vin continued.
"Judge invited me to dinner." Larabee shrugged. "Couldn’t refuse ‘im. Got to Ridge City this morning. Picked up Job from the livery and headed on home."
"Good eatin’ at the Judge's table?" Vin asked.
"Damn fine," Larabee responded.
"Aw, can’t be as good as what Miss Nettie and Casey cooked up for us," JD quickly retorted. "Man, we’ve been eatin’ like kings for days."
"Miss Nettie sure can cook up a storm," Vin added as he patted his belly.
"Shucks," JD said with a laugh. "I think Vin ate a whole jelly cake all by himself."
The tracker nodded with a sly smile. "It was tasty."
"I bet," Chris responded.
"All we had to do for it was chop up this mess," Vin gestured to the nearly completed task. A mountain of firewood was stacked and ready. Only a few uncut logs remained.
"Fair trade," Chris decided.
"Ya have a good Christmas, Chris?" JD asked brightly.
The gunslinger shrugged. "Good enough. Kinda glad to have it over," he added.
Vin nodded in agreement.
JD looked confused. "Heck, I love Christmas. When I was a kid, I made myself half-crazy waitin’ for it to come. There’d be candy and presents and a Christmas orange in my stocking. Ma used to work in this huge house and the whole thing would be done up. Day after Christmas had to be the saddest day of the year ‘cause it all was done. I remember Ma puttin’ away the decorations and me bawlin’ over it. The master of the house didn’t care to have the stuff up for long. Why would you want it over and done, Chris?"
Larabee silently considered and then stated, "Figured I wanted to get home. Didn’t feel quite right bein’ away."
Vin set another log onto the stump he’d been using as a platform to split the wood. "Yup," he agreed. He nodded toward the barn where Nettie and Casey were currently working. "Mighty fine thing bein’ treated like kin by Miss Nettie and all, but…" he trailed off. "Could ‘ave been good if we all hung ‘round town. Something seemed kinda wrong bein’ away."
"Yeah," JD figured. "Might have been a fun thing if all seven of us got together to celebrate Christmas. Wish I’d ‘ave thought of it earlier."
"Yeah, good thing you thought of it," Vin said with a grin. "We got a mighty interesting set of folk." He swung the maul, bringing it down with a mighty crack and splitting the log neatly. "Get us all together and there’s bound to be some excitement."
"Yeah, and since you mentioned it…" Larabee furrowed his brow. "Wasn’t exactly expectin’ to see you at Nettie’s. When’d you two get out here?"
"She invited us on the mornin’ of Christmas Eve," Vin replied. "Came right out and spent the last two nights in the barn."
"Josiah’s gone to Vista City," Chris recalled. "I think Nate’s with Rain. They both went a couple days ago."
Stalling his action to grab the next piece of wood, Vin turned to Chris with a surprised expression. "Didn’t know that," he stated.
"Hmmm," Chris voiced. "Where’s Buck?"
"Oh, I know," JD responded proudly. "He’s gone to spend some time with Jennifer… or was it Monica." JD rubbed his chin. "Told me all about it before we took off." He shook his head woefully, as if he’d heard too much in that conversation. "Heck, Chris, I didn’t know you’d gone until just now."
Vin looked concerned. "So who’s been watchin’ the town?"
"Only one left." Larabee frowned and then reminded, "Both of you had shifts scheduled."
"Hey, I got mine covered," Vin told him. "Traded Ezra for tonight’s patrol."
"I paid him $8 to take mine," JD added. "Figured it was worth it…ya know… Casey and all." He looked embarrassed at his admission.
"Damn," Chris murmured.
"What’s wrong?" JD asked. "You figure he didn’t watch the town or somethin’? Just did that tradin’ to get some money and such?"
Chris and Vin didn’t seem to hear his question.
Vin asked pointedly, "So, Chris didn’t you have to work yesterday mornin’? What you pay ‘im to take your shift?"
"$10," Chris admitted before setting his jaw. He reined in his horse, turning the big black toward Four Corners, muttering, "Son of a bitch," under his breath.
Chris rode into the awakening town. Shopkeepers were setting up for the day, taking down the decorations that had graced their storefronts for the past few weeks, putting away Christmas. It was December 26th and the holiday was over. It was time to get back to a normal life.
Larabee swung down from his saddle just as Buck exited the jail, stretching.
"Hey, stud," Buck said with a yawn. "Merry Christmas to ya. Bit late, but the sentiment…"
"Seen Ezra?" Chris demanded.
With a shrug, Buck commented. "Yeah, was here when I got back earlier this mornin’. Told me that everythin’ was quiet and then took off with hardly a ‘how-de-doo’."
"Where’d he go?"
"Figure he went to his room. Looked pretty done in."
"Where you been over the past two days?"
"For Christmas? Hell, Chris," Buck chuckled. "Jennifer likes to celebrate on Christmas Eve. Monica prefers celebratin’ on Christmas Day. It makes a mighty fine situation for such as me." He slapped his chest as he spoke.
"Ain’t been in town a’tall?"
Catching the serious tone of Larabee’s question, Buck responded. "Not until this mornin’. I got a bit delayed, you see and…"
"Anybody else ‘cept Ezra been watchin’ the town over Christmas?"
Buck frowned. "Vin and JD been here, ain’t they? I know they got a couple shifts scheduled."
"Ezra traded them," Chris replied. "Traded for one of mine, too."
With a groan, Buck rubbed his forehead and muttered, "He got mine. I had to pay him $15. Little snake wouldn't take anything less."
"Must have done the same with Nathan and Josiah." Chris narrowed his eyes as he thought.
"They’re gone, too?" Buck exclaimed.
"Did you ask him?"
"What? Ask him what?"
"Did you bother to ask Ezra what he was gonna be doing for Christmas while the rest of us were off celebrating?"
"Didn’t think about it. Didn’t ask anyone." When Chris scowled, Buck continued "What the hell’s going through his fool head anyway? Why’d he take all our shifts without a word about it?"
"I’m gonna go find out," Chris declared and strode toward the saloon, leaving Buck at the jail.
Years ago Chris had had a family, had learned what it was like to be happy and comfortable. When he lost them, he’d lost touch with that happiness, that feeling of comfort. Now, he’d started to find something similar, something familiar, with this town and these men with whom he worked. It was almost like having a family again.
Families didn’t do this to each other.
How the hell had this happened? What the hell was Ezra thinking? Damn it! Larabee thought as he moved through the saloon. I'm gonna knock some sense into that thick skull of his. Wring his neck until he understands.
He quickly scaled the stairs to reach the gambler’s room. Silently, he laid a hand on the doorknob and turned it slowly. It wasn’t locked. He pressed open the door and sighed at the sight. The con artist lay sprawled out on the bed. His jacket was slung over a nearby chair, his weapons, but not the holsters, were laid on his dresser, and his boots sat on the floor near the bed -- one was uncharacteristically on its side. Other than those items, Ezra was still dressed. Even his hat lay near him, having rolled from his head onto the bed – graced with a sprig of holly for the season.
Larabee stood in the doorway for a moment, looking at the exhausted and forlorn sight, before pulling the door closed and moving quietly down the hallway.
"Hey, Chris," Vin called as he spotted the gunslinger exiting the saloon. JD rode at his side, heading toward the livery.
"Everythin’ okay?" JD queried, as he dismounted. He glanced around the town searching for some form of trouble. "What with the way you rode out of Nettie’s, I would ‘ave thought the town was burning. Looks like there ain’t been a lick of trouble. Ezra wouldn’t ‘ave done nothing to hurt the town. Weren’t no reason to worry. You know that, don’t ya, Chris?"
Chris grimaced as he leaned against the railing.
Vin stepped down from his horse, and then, noting Larabee’s expression, asked, "Is it as bad as I think?"
Chris shrugged, irritated. "Damn fool. Far as I can tell he was on duty from sun-up on Christmas Eve until Buck dragged his carcass back here after sun-up this mornin’."
"Think he was up all night?" Vin asked.
"Knowing him? Yep," Chris responded.
"Most the stores would ‘ave been locked up, I figure," Vin added. "Weren't no reason for him to do that."
"He's a confusing son of a bitch. Not much stays open on Christmas," Chris agreed. "People got better things to do than keep their places open when folks aren't going anywhere." He frowned. "People should be with their families."
"There was no one to look out for him," Vin said with a dour expression. "Mrs. Potter was gone, Mary and Inez, too." Tanner knew how the women-folk could dote on the well-dressed, loquacious southerner. "Figure the restaurant was closed. Wonder if anyone thought to invite him in for supper."
Chris looked way, annoyed, knowing the probable answer to that question.
"Dang it!" JD cursed. "Never would have given him my shift if I’d known he was all alone. That ain’t right!"
"You’re right, JD," Larabee commented. "It sure as hell ain’t right and it never should have happened. Not to him, not to any of us."
"What’re we gonna do?" Vin asked.
Chris’ scowl didn’t change as he lifted his head, looking off in the distance. "Nate and Josiah comin’ back today." He straightened and then headed down the boardwalk. "When you see ‘em, tell ‘em to come find me." He paused and turned toward them. "All of you, come find me."
Ezra brushed at his sleeves as he sauntered down the stairs, on the evening of December 26th. He suppressed a yawn, still feeling weary, but the night was calling. After two evenings without any business at the poker tables, he was ready to find a game.
A movement in one corner of the saloon drew his attention as Vin departed. He watched the doors swing, regretful that he’d just missed Tanner. After a two-day abstinence, he was hungry for conversation. Then he noticed Larabee at his usual table, giving him a dark look.
"Ah," Ezra cried. "Mr. Larabee, how good to see you." -- funny how truthful that statement had become. "I would hope that your journey with Mrs. Travis and son was uneventful and that you saw them safely to the judge’s residence?" He moved smoothly through the room until he stood beside the table.
"Sit down, Ezra," Chris growled, kicking out a chair.
Ezra adjusted the chair and sat down gracefully. "You have some matter that requires discussion?" Ezra queried. "Perhaps you need the ‘low-down’ on recent happenings around town, since you missed out on so much during your absence? That dissertation’s certain to take hours. Well, ask away."
"What the hell did you think you were doin’ over the past two days?" Chris grumbled.
Ezra blinked. "I was watching the town," he responded.
"You let everyone give you their shifts."
"No, sir. They paid for that service."
"Who the hell do you think you are? Taking up all the patrols and working them alone?"
"Who am I? Why, I’m Ezra Standish, at your service, sir." Ezra tipped his now-undecorated hat. "Gambler and underpaid lawman. Just doin’ my best to earn a little extra money to offset my personal expenses."
"So you figure there’d be no problem with you working alone, all through Christmas while the rest of us went off and celebrated?"
Ezra paused, gauging, and then spoke, "It didn’t seem to be an issue at the time the shifts were traded. And, I assure you, sir. The people of this locale were never in any danger. Surely, you realize that I wouldn’t let you down on this issue? Christmas Day is notoriously slow for evil doings. There was never a time when the town…"
"Damn it, Ezra!" Chris slammed one fist onto the table, making the glassware jump. "You didn’t have to be here alone all that time. There was no call for it."
"But you wanted to accompany Mrs. Travis and Billy." Standish ticked off fingers as he recited the facts. "Mr. Jackson wished to spend some time with Miss Rain. Vin and JD had received invitations from the Ladies Wells, Buck had received invitations of his own, and Josiah wished to use a few days for a trip to Vista City. I on the other hand," he pressed a hand to his chest, "had no plans." He shrugged. "Each of you voiced his desires and disappointment at how the duty schedule interfered with such. All I did was resolve those issues." He smiled. "I made $40 in the process, and managed to free up today entirely."
Chris remembered a few days back, when he’d spoken to the boys about how Mary was taking the trip alone, and how he thought she shouldn’t go unaccompanied. The next thing he knew, Ezra had privately suggested a trade. It had been a happy moment for the gunslinger, but now it took on a darker shade in his memory. Why didn’t he bother to ask after Ezra’s plans? Why didn’t he care that he was leaving one of his men with extra work over that special holiday?
He should have asked Ezra… he should have asked the others… he should have known exactly how each of his men were going to spend Christmas. Instead he lost track of some of them. Lost track of a lot.
Ezra laughed. "I tell you honestly, none of this was my intention. I had no desire to take on such a long shift. It simply happened that way. Everyone was more than eager to part with their cash and hand their work off to me."
"Man shouldn’t spend Christmas alone," Chris murmured.
"Please," Ezra responded. "This was nothing extraordinary. Christmas is hardly a holiday from my point of view. Truly, I can’t say it has ever been an especially ‘merry’ event for me. I didn’t indulge in celebrations as a child. Christmas memories are not always golden. As an adult, I found that gambling is never good on those days. Everyone stays at home with their families. What’s a man like me to do besides wander the streets alone or read quietly in my room? At least I had a job to occupy my time this year." He raised his hands in an open-armed gesture, and then lowered them, realizing from Chris’s expression that he’d said too much. "It’s nothing really," he finished quickly.
Chris stood abruptly and jerked a startled Ezra to his feet. "Come on," he growled.
"Please, sir, you’re wrinkling…"
"Shut up, Ezra," Chris ordered. "You’re coming with me."
Ezra made an attempt to break free, but Chris’ hold was fierce. He shoved the gambler through the saloon, drawing chuckles from the patrons.
Ezra stumbled as he was forced through the door and down the boardwalk. "This is unnecessary. I’m quite capable of maneuvering on my own!"
With a shove, Chris released his tight grip on Ezra’s biceps, but placed a hand on his elbow to continue propelling him along at a quick and demanding clip.
"What, exactly, do you have planned for me?" Ezra continued, his voice growing frantic as Chris forced him down the dark, December street. The look on the leader’s face didn’t bode well for the gambler. He’d seen expressions like that before -- and when they were aimed at him, he usually sought shelter or prepared himself for battle.
"Just keep moving," Chris uttered.
"I assure you that I meant no harm to anyone. Truly, this was only meant to make everyone happy." Chris gave Ezra an angry look, only making the gambler babble more. "Nobody was hurt by this, I swear. Everyone received what they wanted. Each of you, you must agree, deserved a little time to celebrate with those that you love…" He quickly changed his course of discussion, realizing that he was treading on difficult terrain regarding the relationship between Larabee and Mrs. Travis. "I meant to say…with those that they admire and appreciate," he restated. "Everyone deserves that, don’t they? It was easy to accomplish. Everyone won in this endeavor. No one was left out. I treated everyone with equal respect."
"Not everyone," Chris responded, pulling Ezra to a halt in front of the church. "Not everyone," he echoed, his blue-green eyes seeking out Ezra’s greener ones.
The door to the church opened, and Josiah stood in the opening, surrounded by light. "Welcome, brothers. Merry Christmas."
"Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said as he tried to straighten his jacket with Larabee still holding his elbow. "You are a bit late in your sentiment. Christmas Day was yesterday."
Josiah shrugged. "Seems to me that the Bible never stated the exact date of our Savior’s birth. I doubt it matters much to Him if we celebrate it on one day instead of another." The unsettled expression that usually resided on the preacher’s face after his return from Vista City seemed to be missing, but there was a strange sadness in his gaze. "What matters is that we recognize the event."
"Get in there, Ezra," Chris barked, shoving Ezra at the steps.
Standish yelped, and turned toward Josiah. "You wouldn’t let anything happen to me… not in your church." He threw a glance at Larabee’s still unhappy expression.
"Well," Josiah started philosophically, "It isn’t exactly a church tonight. Rather, it’s a place to meet and celebrate." He reached down and grabbed hold of the skittish gambler. "It’s time to come in and begin that celebration."
With a powerful yank, Sanchez tugged the con artist up the stairs and into the bright church. Ezra squinted for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the glare of the candles and the shine of decorations. It seemed that many of the items that had formally graced the shops’ facades were now used to make the church more festive.
"Hey, Ezra!" Buck shouted. He clumped toward the southerner and gave him a slap on the shoulder. "Can’t thank ye enough for givin’ me a couple days to catch up with the ladies. Gotta say, it was a good time."
Nathan was beside him next. "I really appreciated the chance to be with Rain at Christmas," he said humbly. "It meant a lot to both of us."
"Gosh, Ezra," JD exclaimed. "Me and Vin had a great time at Nettie and Casey’s. They treated us real fine." He scuffed at the wooden floors for a second and added, "It was almost like bein’ home, ya know. It was real nice."
"Real nice," Vin repeated.
Chris tugged at his hat. "I appreciated being able to get Mary to the judge’s."
Josiah hadn’t released his hold on the gambler. He lowered his voice and whispered, "Thank you, Ezra, for givin’ me the chance to go to Vista City this year."
Ezra looked between the six of them, still wary. "You’re welcome," he returned after a moment, when it became obvious that such was expected.
"Just real sorry that you didn’t get to go anywhere," JD put in.
"Well," Ezra responded, looking away. "That sentiment isn’t necessary. I’m really not the type of person who celebrates the season. The Yuletide is best left to those who delight in it. It’s not a holiday for the gambling crowd and there’s little chance of garnering any gain, unless one is able to finagle a dollar or two out of his friends. Christmas, in short, means absolutely nothing to me."
"Bullshit!" Buck exclaimed.
"Yeah, that’s a load of crap," Vin added.
"Gentlemen," Ezra looked around in astonishment, as if he thought the chapel walls might cave in on them. "Remember where we are!"
"Yes, remember where we are." Josiah turned the gambler toward him and said solemnly, "No man can honestly say that he doesn’t hold Christmas in his heart after giving everyone exactly what they wanted."
Ezra’s lips twitched before they formed into a smile. "Oh, but you misinterpreted my intentions. I was able to make $40 in the dealing. Money, of course, was what I was after. It’s all I ever seek."
"Funny," Josiah responded. "Someone added that exact amount to my poor box sometime over the past few days."
Ezra paled slightly, stepping away from them. "A coincidence. Someone… some group of people… was simply in the 'giving' mood. That’s all."
"Yeah, yeah," Buck said. "Funny coincidence." He chuckled. "We ain’t lookin’ to pin the blame of that on anyone. What we come here for is to celebrate a bit…together." He pointed Ezra toward a table at the back of the church. There was a spread of Christmas delights, turkey, ham, fresh breads and pies.
"A church is not the sort of place that one should hold such…base… festivities." Ezra turned a bewildered eye on Josiah.
"Jesus was born in a stable, filled with oxen, sheep and an ass or two," Josiah replied. "A lot more than ‘eating’ went on in that sacred place. And, the Bible mentions that he enjoyed celebrating with his friends at a wedding…with wine. I’m sure he’ll see nothing wrong if we celebrate his birth here, just this once."
"Christmas is over," Ezra reminded. "Officially, it’s over."
"Well, yeah, I guess," JD said, scratching his neck. "But we can still celebrate Boxing Day, can’t we?"
"Boxing Day?" Ezra questioned with a laugh.
"J’siah says it’s when folks give gifts to the ones who do stuff for ‘em," Vin exclaimed.
"It’s also the day to open the alms box at the church to distribute the contents," Josiah said with a smile and a wink to the suspicious-looking gambler.
"Yeah," JD put in. "And since you done this for us…"
"Now, see here," Ezra let them go no further. "My actions had nothing to do with…"
It was Nathan’s turn to cut him off. He held up his hands to halt Ezra’s denials. "Hang on there, Ezra. We just figured that we all do a service for the town. Must be our day to celebrate."
"Yup," Buck expounded. "And I’m all for findin’ new reasons to have a party."
"It’s a bit of a stretch." Ezra said, rubbing his chin. "Boxing Day is really a day designed to recognize those of lower classes, to distribute wealth to those less well off."
The men shrugged. "Ah, screw tradition," Buck voiced. "I’m just happy that it gives us a reason to have a party."
Ezra harrumphed. "Honestly, I can’t see myself in a lower station than many of the residents of this town. Consider that grizzled curmudgeon with the bad eyes who frequents the saloon. Am I to feel inferior to the likes of Tucson Jeff?"
Josiah shook his head at Ezra’s protests. "Ezra, it’s time to shut that over-educated mouth of yours and just enjoy yourself."
"Very well," Ezra responded. "Since all of us do work to guard the town, and since I am severely underpaid, I believe a celebration of Boxing Day is appropriate." He nodded, smugly, and then gestured to Nathan and Josiah. "Some, of course, do more service than others."
"Ain’t a day to go judgin’ one man over another, Ezra," Nathan cut in quickly. "And since you were the one who got us all conned into…"
Ezra raised his hands. "Enough, enough. If we’re to celebrate Boxing Day, let’s stop this pointless dissertation. I do believe a pie is calling my name." He craned his head toward the table.
Josiah chuckled, a low rumble in his throat. He stepped toward the table and picked up an already uncorked bottle of wine. Seven glasses were quickly filled and handed out to the assembled men.
"To Boxing Day," Josiah said, raising a toast. "And all those who serve."
Ezra and Chris walked side by side, back toward the saloon. The hour was late and the other lawmen had gone to their beds or to take up a night patrol. They’d just spent the better part of the evening in warm camaraderie: eating, drinking, talking, laughing and joshing one another, enjoying the company of their miss-matched brothers.
Standish felt warm as he walked alongside the gunslinger, despite the chilled air. He smiled as he glanced across to Larabee, seeing a relaxed and content expression. It wasn't often that Chris looked so at peace. So, it was a few hours well spent, he figured.
"Ah," Ezra exhaled. "An enchanting evening. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced a more pleasant holiday. We should celebrate Boxing Day every year, just like this."
"Nope," Chris returned. "Never again."
Ezra halted in his tracks. "Pardon me?" he queried, his expression puzzled. "I thought it was enjoyable… for everyone involved. I know that I appreciated it. Why must we halt any future celebrations?" He held his breath, waiting for the reasons behind Larabee's statement.
Chris paused, hating the hurt expression that played for a moment over Ezra’s face. Standish looked like a child that had lost a beloved toy. Damn it, Larabee thought, how many times has Ezra been given something just to have to have it ripped way from him.
"Ain’t denying that it was a good time," Chris assured. "Fact that it was necessary is what’s got my goat."
"Oh, I see" Ezra dipped his head and grinned self-deprecatingly. "But, you do understand that it was simple coincidence that everyone made plans and I…"
"Damn it, Ezra." Chris turned on the gambler, pinning him against one of the roof supports. "It ain’t gonna happen this way again. There’s no reason for you to work yourself to exhaustion while the rest of us are relaxing on Christmas."
Ezra made a dismissive gesture. "We’ve already gone over this. All of you were able to spend this day with those who were important to you. It’s a day for family, after all."
"You and the others are all the family I got," Chris responded, his voice softer than normal. "Should have figured that out earlier. Shouldn’t have just run off leaving ANY of you to work through Christmas. Shouldn’t have gone without knowing how each of you was gonna spend that time. That wasn’t right." He nodded sharply. "Next year will be different. Next year we’ll spend it together, in town. We share the responsibility."
Ezra smiled wryly. "Why, Mr. Larabee, am I to believe that you plan to spend another year in these environs?"
Chris returned the smile. "Believe whatever you want. I just need you to know that we shouldn’t have left this to you. You may have done a good turn by giving us a Christmas, but ain’t one of us that done something to be proud of by taking yours."
"Mr. Larabee, none of you knew what the others had agreed to."
"Doesn’t make a difference." Chris slammed an open palm against the post, giving Ezra a start. "The fact that none of us bothered to ask you what the hell you had planned for Christmas galls the hell out of me. No, Ezra. We're not celebrating Boxing Day again, you can count on that." He narrowed his eyes as he gave Ezra his famous glare.
"Understood," Ezra responded.
"Now get your ass to bed. You still look like you're about to keel over." Christ stepped back, letting the gambler get free of him.
"Yes, sir!" Standish responded brightly, making a smart salute.
"And, Ezra," he added. "Merry Christmas."
"And to you as well," Ezra tipped his hat and bowed formally. "Happy holidays and good night to you, sir."
"‘Night, Ez," Larabee said and watched as the conman turned and crossed the street to enter the saloon that formed his home. He sighed, watching Ezra disappear inside, muttering to himself, "Won’t happen this way again, Ezra. I swear, there won’t be a need to celebrate Boxing Day. Next year we’ll spend Christmas with family."
THE END - By NotTasha
I hope you were able to spend the holiday with those you loved.
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