DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction.  No profit involved. If they want to pay me...fine!  No one's offered though, so Don't Sue me!  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.  This is just for fun
RATING: PG for Language
SUMMARY: Owning a business has its ups and downs
SPOILERS: Sins of the Past, Vendetta and Ghosts of the Confederacy (the Pilot) -- as well as  my own Stories, Down the Amazon, The Ledger, Redbird, and especially Across the Andes.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:  Kristen supplied the name of Ezra's horse. Thank you to Debby Gerl and KellyA for your great comments and beta abilities!
COMMENTS: Yes, please! Drop me a note, let me know what you think.
DATE:  August 12, 2001, revisions done on July 8, 2004

Strictly Business
The Amazon Series - Winner of 2003 Mistresses of Malarkey Best Gen Sequential Fic
By NotTasha... who has a vested interest in this story

Part 1:

Vin sat with his back against one side of his wagon's bed, watching the morning light slowly take possession of the town.  This was always his favorite part of the day, when all was quiet and the world was starting to wake.

The tailgate was open, and his splinted leg rested on the wagon's floor.  His left arm was still held in place by a sling, keeping his healing shoulder blade still.  His fall from Dolby's Crest was a recent memory and he would remain encumbered by the splints for at least another two weeks.  He sighed, glad that -- at least -- he could use his right arm to manage the crutch.

He couldn't wait to be rid of these trappings.  Yet, his body gave him constant reminders to behave himself.  The leg ached and couldn't hold his weight.  His shoulder didn't hurt as long as he kept it still, but if he tried to move his arm free of the sling, bolts of pain ran through his shoulder.  It was frustrating to be so tied down, so forced to stay in one place -- damn annoying, too.

He gazed down the street, out of town.  The whole world lay out there -- the whole rugged, wild world -- and he was kept from it, caught among the buildings and businesses where he could only hobble about on his one crutch, hardly able to manage the step onto the boardwalk.  He was limited to ground level.

It was a miserable way to spend his time, but he knew things could be worse.  He could be dead.  If Ezra hadn't been with him after his fateful fall, he would have bled to death from that gunshot wound.  If he had survived that, and not gone loco with the pain from his broken bones, then Grady's gangs would've gotten him.  Yes, if Ezra hadn't been with him, he'd be dead.

Nathan had promised Vin that as long as he didn't put weight on the leg and did nothing foolish, he wouldn't have any lasting problems.  Well, Tanner thought, I guess I can hang around town for a bit more if that's the prize.  The fear of being forever hindered kept him from being too daring.

The others had done what they could to keep him in good spirits while he had been trapped in the clinic.  Buck and JD had visited and were boisterous enough to lift anyone's poor mood. Josiah had been available to talk about anything.  Nathan had been a constant presence, tending to him, making certain that his warnings were heeded, and taking care of everything no matter how embarrassing.

Chris had stopped by often, keeping him up to date on what was happening in town.  The two remaining members of Grady's gang had been removed from town, returned to Blaire for their trial.  Larabee figured that they'd hang for their part in the robbery and subsequent ambush -- but Tanner wasn't so sure.  Not everything in life worked out as planned and not every resolution was just.  Sometimes, things just got derailed, no matter how hard you tried to keep it all on track.  It was inevitable.  The trick was in knowing how to put it all back together again.

Ezra had visited him as well, often claiming that he had nothing else better to do.  He'd leave as soon as anyone else showed up, but stayed for hours if left alone.   The gambler had procured a book about Japan and had read to Vin about the samurais and geishas, tea gardens and sugar-cone mountains, common farmers and bejeweled emperors.  Delicate watercolor prints illustrated the scenes that Ezra described in his smooth southern tones.

The book had filled the tracker with wonder.  It enthralled him. Here was a place, strange and exotic -- so very far away, but brought so close by the written word.

The town grew brighter as the sun rose higher.  He contemplated lowering himself off the back of his wagon, picking up his crutch and hobbling off to start his day.   He had been contemplating it for almost half-hour and decided that he preferred the contemplation to any action at this moment.

A few buildings away, a soft sound was heard.  There was a creak of a door and Josiah emerged from the church.  The big preacher stretched as he made his way down the boardwalk to the jail, where a lamp illuminated the window.  The light had been there since Vin had awakened, signifying that the peacekeeper who took the night watch had ended his rounds and waited out the rest of his shift in the relative comforts of the jail.  There'd been some recent trouble with rowdies in the area -- calling for a night watch.

Josiah passed on the opposite side of the street, not noticing him in the dim light.  Vin smiled as he watched the big man stretch again, yawning as loud as a mountain lion.   Somewhere in town, someone probably was startled from their sleep by the roar.  They'd dream of fearsome creatures if they were able to drop back into slumber, not knowing that it was only the gentle-natured preacher passing beneath their window.

Sanchez reached the jail and opened the door.  "Good morning, Brother," he called good-naturedly to whomever was inside.  "I hope you have the coffee brewin', because I have a powerful need for…" and the door shut before Vin could here any more.

Vin waited, and shortly after Josiah disappeared within, a figure emerged, walking with a quick gait toward him.  It was impossible to mistake the shape and movements.  The low-crown black hat, the colorful jacket and the easy grace were clear markers of the town's resident gambler.  He held a rectangular object against his side and set his sights on the wagon.

"Mr. Tanner," Era drawled as he drew near.

"Mr. Standish," Vin returned with a nod of his head.

Ezra grinned and leaned against the vehicle.  "Vin, it comes to my attention that your convalescence has been to my detriment."

"Yeah?  Why you figure that?"

Ezra raised one arm exasperatedly.  "I'm just finishing the night shift and have to return to duty in the afternoon.  It's insufferable."

"I was wonderin' what you were doin' up so early."

"Early?" Ezra tipped his head.  "No, my friend, it's late.  Very late."

"Why'd you get two shifts today?"

"Well, we have one member of our staff incapacitated due to injuries incurred in the line of duty," he waved his hand in Vin's direction.  "Mr. Wilmington has yet to return from his sojourn to Miss Angela's estate.  Mr. Larabee is at his ranch doing Lord knows what.  Mr. Dunne is to work tonight.  Mr. Sanchez is on the payroll now and Mr. Jackson has made plans to travel to Ridge City."

"Ya let Nate know that the guys are gone?  Maybe he'll stay if you ask."

"He was adamant about his need to meet the train."

"Maybe Buck will be back…"

"Lord," Ezra moaned, straightening and pulling his watch from his waistcoat pocket.  "I'm not expecting his return until nigh on evenin' and believe we won't see him for some time after that."

Vin chuckled.  "He does like a nice nap afterward."

Ezra shrugged.  "At least he has a hobby."

"Chris'll be back soon in any case."

"Unless of course he becomes distracted by mending a fence or some-such."

"Yeah," Vin agreed.  "Some-such can be a bit distractin'."  It was obvious to the tracker that Ezra really wasn't annoyed, but simply jawing away for the enjoyment of having something to jaw about.  His casual manner and comfortable stance gave himself away. "You'll probably manage some way or 'nuther."

Ezra sighed long-sufferingly.  "Still, I haven't had a chance to go over the Redbird's books.  Hopefully I'll find the time between my shifts."

"She's still standin'."  Vin nodded to the saloon.  "Long as she ain't a'fire or fallin' ta pieces, I don't see a problem."

Ezra snorted.  "You know little about running a business."

"Well, pard, we leave that up to you.  Yer the one who knows about all that.  Ya seem to be doin' a good job of it."

"Everything is going quite well." Ezra's eyes took on a pleased look.  "In all honesty, Vin, I never thought I'd find a place such as this.  It really is…" he sighed contentedly and pressed one hand against his chest, "…all I had ever hoped for, my dream fulfilled."  He gazed toward the Redbird lovingly.

Vin smiled and slapped Ezra on the shoulder.  "Well, you deserve it, I reckon."

Ezra turned to Vin.  "Nothing would've been accomplished without the help of you and the others.  This small victory for me will be a victory for all of you once you start to see the return on your investment. You'll find it to be a pleasant gift."

Vin didn't understand much about investments.  All he knew was that he'd given up a wad of money that he'd been saving -- wasn't using it in any case.  Nobody had seen any return yet due to the never-ending improvements that Ezra saw fit to make to the saloon.   Something always needed to be purchased or ordered or changed.

The result was that the small and dusty tavern had become a bright little showplace for the town.  They hadn't seen any dividends, but they had a comfortable spot to relax.  It was theirs.  Vin felt the pleasant sensation of ownership when he entered the little business.  This was his, too.  He'd never owned property before -- the wagon he lived in had been the largest thing he had ever owned.  Now he had a share of the Redbird.  That was a mighty fine gift in itself.

"Speaking of gifts," Ezra said.  "I wanted you to have this."  He held out the book he'd been carrying.  "I had the chance to finish the final chapters during the early morning hours in the jail and thought you might want it for your burgeoning library.  It's yours."

It was the book they had read in the clinic, much larger than Travels in South America.  Ezra had given him that pocket-sized book over five months ago and Vin took it with him when he went out on the trail.  It was his one book and he'd pushed himself to be able to read the whole thing.  Recently, he'd had a great deal of time to sit around and do nothing, and now knew it front-to-back.  He liked the pictures best and was still a bit confused by some of the words.

He’d always dreamed of being able to read.  Mary Travis had been the one to help him begin his education.  She had given him the foundation and the abilities he needed, and he'd always be extremely grateful to her for that.  The book that Ezra had given him, the one about South America, wasn't a children's book.  No, it was written for someone with 'education'.  His mastery of it made him feel smart.

The book that Ezra held now was thick and wide.  It was leather bound, gilded along the edges, with hand colored plates covered with velum.  The words "Discovering Japan" were struck into the leather and embossed in gold.  This book had never been thrown into a saddlebag or sat on, or thumbed through with filthy hands.  This book was meant to be treated with dignity.

"Ay, Ez," Vin said, "You should keep it.  It'd just get all messed up if I had it."

"Nonsense," Ezra replied.

"You seen what happened to the last book you gave me.  The pages are comin' loose now.  This'd end up the same.  It's too nice a thing.  You should keep it where it's safe."

"What good is a book if it isn't read?  I've finished it and doubt that I'll find reason to read it again."

"You don't want a thing like this stayin' in a wagon."

Ezra reached over Vin and wedged the book into a space along one of the shelves.  "It'll do no harm here.  It won't even be in the way."  He looked skeptical and then added, "If you truly find it a burden, I'll remove it for you."

"Ain't a burden, Ezra," Vin sighed.  "It's just too nice is all."

"You enjoyed the experience when I read it, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I liked hearin' about those warriors and all that.  Those fellas were pretty exciting."

"The samurais were exceptional."  The gambler's eyes sparkled, remembering that section of the book.  "Fearless men with incredible moral character."

"They did put up a good fight."  Vin looked down the empty street and then grinned sheepishly.  "I was thinkin', when you read ‘bout ‘em, that we were somethin' like those samurais -- me, you and all the guys."

Ezra laughed.  "Me?  The samurais were men of great honor and discipline.   They lived by their ’bushido’, that is to say 'The Way of the Warrior.'  They prized, if I recall correctly, the following characteristics: loyalty, self sacrifice, justice, sense of shame, refined manners, purity, modesty, frugality, martial spirit, honor and affection."  He smiled and tipped his head.  "Now, my manners are exceptional, but the rest are beyond me."

"I don't know ‘bout that," Vin said, mulling over the list that Ezra had ticked off so easily.

"My ‘sense of shame’ is non-existent if you consider my lifestyle.  How can a man who bilks another man from his lifesaving be accused of any shame?  And ‘justice’ would be discounted for the same reason.   I do my very best to avoid justice and keep myself from jail.  Neither of these virtues are part of a con man's repertoire.    ‘Purity?’  I think we've gone over that one before.  ‘Frugality’," he pulled on the lapels of his obviously expensive coat.  "I wouldn't even want to consider that particular trait, and one may as well lump in ‘self sacrifice’ as I loathe to sacrifice my comforts.  ‘Modesty’?   The modest never wear red.  ’Martial spirit’, now that may be somewhat fitting as I'm quite capable in a fight -- but my preference is to avoid such confrontation as it is detrimental to my existence.  I would prefer to talk my way out of a fight."

"Which leads me to another point."  Standish leaned against the wagon again.  "The samurai had no fear of danger.  Death was not to be avoided and in fact, they were capable of suicide if they became negligent in any of these virtues."  Ezra shook his head.  "My friend, I have a healthy respect for danger and avoid death at all costs.  Vice is preferable to hara-kiri."

"You left off a couple of 'em," Vin commented.


"When you went over all those things you listed, you forgot ‘honor’ and ‘loyalty’."

Ezra smiled, revealing his gold tooth.  "Mr. Tanner, if you've perceived either of those qualities in me, then I'm a far better con artist than I thought."

"Yeah, maybe yer not so good as you think.   You may be connin' the wrong fella.   I'm thinkin' that yer wrong on most of those accounts anyway."

"I believe you need to read more about this subject."  Ezra nodded to the book.  "This'll give you incentive to use the resource on your own for research."

Vin looked at the book on his shelf, shoved among the blankets, tins and cooking utensils.  It didn't fit in with the rest of his kit, but he had to admit that it was a handsome thing.  "I'll take good care of this one," Vin promised.  "Won't come to no harm.  Won't get in as bad shape as the other one at least."

Ezra shrugged.  "It's yours to do with as you please. I won't police it."

"Thanks, Ezra.  It's a mighty fine thing."  Vin extended his one good arm and Ezra smiled as they shook hands.

"You're welcome, Vin.  I hope you enjoy it."

"You can come borrow it if you get the notion.  Or maybe come by and I'll tell ya a thing or two 'bout those samurais, once I've had a chance to go through it all.  I don't think you got it remembered rightly."

"Perhaps you'll teach me a thing or two."

"I aim to," Vin returned.  He leaned forward and asked, "Ya think ya can give me a bit of help? Gotta get movin' sooner or later and the first step is kinda hard."

"Certainly," Ezra replied, offering an arm.  He carefully helped Tanner to slip off of his perch and land softly on his one good leg.  "Careful, my friend," he said, steadying Tanner until he was sure that Vin could manage it himself.

"Can ya get my coat for me?  Bit of a chill in the air."

Ezra grimaced as he picked up the buckskin jacket, remembering that the last time he had held it, he was manhandling a dead body into the sleeves.  "I can't believe that you didn’t allow me to have this properly cleaned."

"You'd ruin it," Vin replied, pulling on the jacket.  "I got it worked in just the way I like it.  You get it cleaned all nice and it'd take me months to make proper again."  He poked at the arm where his blood had discolored it.  “This ain’t hardly anything.”

"But after being used on that body…"

"Hell, Ezra," Vin cut in.  "Marley wasn't even gettin' puffy when you stole it from me.  Didn't do nothin' to the jacket.  I just let it air a bit.  The stink went right out of it."

"Still," Ezra said, curling his nose.  "I would prefer to replace it, or have it cleaned."

Vin snagged his crutch and worked it under his one good arm.    "I like it this way.  Gives it character."  He laughed at Ezra's pained expression.  He took a step, ensuring that his leg was going to hold him.  Ezra stayed beside him, ready to offer help if necessary.

After taking a few test steps, Vin glanced down the street.  "Think Shaffer's up?"

Ezra nodded.  "His front room was lit when I passed through on my rounds earlier.  I spoke with him briefly. He's still trying to decide on what to pack and what to sell before his imminent departure."

"I think I'll go on down and see if he's set a price for that rifle."

"Mr. Tanner, don't you have enough firearms?"

Vin snorted as he stepped forward, rolling along onto his good foot again.  "Hell, Ez, you got yourself a walking arsenal. I'm just tryin' to keep up."

Ezra patted his Remington.  "That's one thing that I have in common with our friends, the samurai, I am prepared for anything."

"You talk to Shaffer 'bout that piano?"

Ezra stiffened.  "Piano?" he responded innocently.

"Yeah, that big ol' piano with all the fat baby angels and curly-things on it."

"It is exquisitely carved  -- a work of art.  It's also of the finest quality and in perfect tune.  How'd you know about it?"

"Me and Buck seen you droolin' over it. You got a price fixed yet?"

Ah yes, Ezra thought.  He could remember catching sight of the two lawmen through Shaffer's parlor window.  He recalled that they both had been making faces while Shaffer's back was turned; he had tried his best to ignore their antics.  When the homeowner faced them, they had to work rather hard at looking inconspicuous.  Vin had been in a wheelchair still, and Buck had nearly shoved him off the boardwalk as they tried to get out of view.

"My last offer was $300, a reasonable sum for this part of the world.  But, I'm afraid that he may try to press as far as $400.  If I'm lucky, I may be able to reach an agreement of…" he squinted in contemplation, "...$350 -- perhaps $380 at the most.  It'll clean out the Redbird's ready cash.  If he insists on $400, I'm not certain where I will find the remainder, what with bills coming due at the end of the week.  I'm hoping it doesn't reach that amount."

"You'll find a way to make it work," Vin returned knowingly.  "Might have to dig into your own personal stash."

Ezra looked aghast.  "God forbid!"  he declared.  He gave Vin a slap on his good shoulder, holding him steady from the blow with his other arm.  He smiled.  "It's good to see you up and around again, Vin.  You'll be free of these annoyances in no time whatsoever.  You'll see."

"Sooner the better," Vin responded.

"It's disheartening, I know, but you'll make it though.  Have faith.  Let me know if you need anything, and I'll see to it."   Standish nodded and continued on his way.  "I hope you enjoy the book, and remember, it's yours to do with as you please. Don't worry about it at all."

Vin recalled another part of the bushido that Ezra neglected to contest – ‘affection’.

Part 2:

Nathan squared his shoulders. Don't let him railroad you, he declared to himself.  Don't let him sweet talk or brow beat you.  Don't let him use his sleight of hand or misdirection or any such thing.  You can do this.

He pushed open the bat-wing doors of the Redbird and strode inside.  The saloon was quiet.  The morning crowd had gone and wouldn't return until mid-day.    The tavern was empty, except for Ezra, who sat at his usual table, his hat beside him, a large mug of coffee at his hand, an inkstand and a ledger before him.  He poised a pen carefully over the inkwell as he ran his eyes down the columns.

This wouldn't be easy, Jackson realized.  He prepared for a fight.  It'll be liked pulling teeth, like taking cubs from a mama-bear, like passing a camel through the eye of a needle.

"Ah, Ezra," Nathan called tentatively as he approached.

"Mr. Jackson," Ezra replied, lifting his gaze.  "I take it you're about to commence your journey to Ridge City."

"Yeah, just about."

"Godspeed," Ezra responded.  "I hope for your quick return so that I can be relieved of this arduous schedule."

"I won't be that long, Ezra," Nathan sighed in irritation as he settled heavily into a chair. "I'll be back tomorrow afternoon."   He sat for a moment, watching Ezra as he did his sums.   This wasn't going to be easy.

"Ezra, I got to ask a favor," he started.  "No, no, I got a request.  I got somethin' I need to do.  There's somethin' I need from you.  I need..." Nathan groaned at his own inability to put his words together.

Ezra looked contemplatively at the healer as he set down the pen. "Is something wrong, Nathan?"

"I need my money back," Jackson blurted out.

"Your money?"

"The money I sunk into this place.  I need it back."

Ezra blinked.  "But, Mr. Jackson, surely you realize that the funds you've invested are currently being utilized in…"

"Ezra, you told me that I could pull out any time I wanted.  You said when I gave you the money that there was nothin' wrong with me gettin' my $100 back."

"I believe I told you that your investment could be bought out at its current value."

Nathan stiffened.  "I need that money, Ezra.  Don't tell me that my $100 ain't worth $100 no more just because you spent so much on buying lamps that burned less kerosene."

"…while providing better lighting and commanding a more pleasant appearance," Ezra amended.  "I could make you a loan, if you wish, and leave your investment intact.  It would be from my own personal…"

"Ezra," Nathan moaned.  "I don't want no loan.  I don't want to be beholdin' to you -- to owe you for anythin'.  Payin' interest and all.   I just want what's mine -- my money.   I know you're makin' money hand over fist here. "

Ezra smiled mildly.  "I wouldn't use that analogy, but yes, the Redbird remains solvent.  But you see, most of the incoming capital is used to continue improving the business.  Also, I must pay my employees, purchase liquor and foodstuffs."  He rolled his eyes.  "There's coal, wood and, yes, kerosene to consider. I've just had the façade repainted and I'm still in need of several objects to complete…"

"Ezra, you'll just keep buyin' more stuff and nobody's ever gonna get any money back," Nathan said tiredly.  "This don't seem like any kind of an investment to me.  Ain't a person s'posed to get money back if they invest?"  He pulled a paper from his shirt pocket.  "Here's that contract you had me sign.  It says right there that I can get my money back at any time I ask."

"At its current value," Ezra included.

Nathan dropped the paper to the table and sunk his head in his hands.  "Don't cheat me, Ezra," he muttered.  "Ya ain't supposed to be cheatin' your friends."

There was a long pause before Ezra responded.  Jackson didn't raise his head or see the expressions that crossed Ezra's face.  "Mr. Jackson, I assure you that this business venture is entirely on the up-and-up." His voice was very calm and free of any emotion.  "If you'll allow me a few more months, I'm certain you'll be pleasantly surprised…"

"I need that money today.  I got a package coming in on the train.  If I don't pay for it when it gets to Ridge City, it's goin' back."  He sighed and finally raised his head from his hands.  Ezra watched him with a serious eye.  "It's a surgical kit -- a real good one.  The ad said that it's the best you can get for the money.  And there's some medical books.  I thought I could just make a down-payment, but I got the wire last night sayin' that they want all the money when the stuff arrives and it's coming on today's train.  I got $20 saved up, but it'll be more like $120 total; that's why I need that money -- now."

Ezra responded evenly, "That is an impressive use of capital."

"Don't you see?  I can't let them send it back.  I've wanted this for so long.  The books are from a university class.  I'll learn more about healing and doctoring."  Jackson stopped speaking for a moment and gathered up his resolve. "I'll be usin' them for savin' lives.  You can see how that's more important than a saloon."

Ezra picked up his coffee mug and sipped at it while Nathan regarded his cool behavior.  "You can't deny me that money, Ezra," Nathan added.

"No, I deny nothing," Ezra replied.  He turned to his ledger again and scrutinized the numbers.

"Ezra," Nathan said exasperatedly.  "I ain't goin' away 'til you get me that money."

"A moment, please," Ezra responded.  "Let me make these last calculations.  I want to ensure that you receive the correct amount in return for your investment."

"It was $100.  Ain't nothin' hard about that," Nathan groused as he sat back in his chair.  "I need it, Ezra.  All of it."

"You shall receive everything due you."  Ezra ran his finger along the bottom list of numbers and clucked to himself. "Let me investigate our ready cash supply."

Ezra moved behind the bar to where the safe was imbedded in the floor. He disappeared from sight beneath the bar as Nathan waited.  Jackson briefly wondered if Ezra would take this opportunity to take flight.  He could easily crawl along the floor and make it to the back door unseen.

He’d get dirty – but he’d also get away – probably a fair trade for the con artist.  "You still back there, Ezra?" Nathan quizzed.

"I haven't left, Mr. Jackson," Ezra replied, his voice muffled by the furniture in-between them.  "I'm afraid there are some things I cannot run from.  I'm simply putting together the proper amount. "  The gambler returned soon enough, with a handful of bills and a folded paper.  He silently counted the amount onto the table into four piles, one smaller than the other three.

The gambler raised his eyes to meet Nathan's.  His green eyes were indifferent. "Now, if you'll allow me to see your contract again, I'll amend it with the proper verbiage and update my copy as well."

Nathan looked perplexed at the four piles.  "Which one of these is mine?"

"All of them," Ezra said off-hand as he dipped the pen into the ink.

"This is more than $100."

"You're quite perceptive.  There's $315 total." 


"The current value of your investment."

Nathan picked up the four piles, stacking them one on top of the other, and running his thumb along the edge.

Nathan was silent as Ezra finished the amendment, blotted the paper and then flipped it toward him.  "Please initial here."  He pointed to the bottom of the page, handing him his spare pen.

As Ezra wrote the same information on his copy of the contract, Nathan's eyes scanned the words on the document before him.  It said that he'd opted out of his investment and had received the specified sum.  He initialed the paper where Ezra indicated.  Ezra gave him the other copy and it was initialed as well.

Ezra made his mark on the documents and then said, "You are now free from all financial entanglements with me and the Redbird.  Now, if you'll allow me to return to my work," Ezra gestured over the ledger.

"Sure," Nathan nodded.  "I'll be on my way then."  He stood quickly, carefully folding his document and placing it and the money deep into his pocket.  "No hard feelings, right, Ez?"

Again, Ezra smiled.  "None whatsoever.  This is strictly business."

Nathan nodded and left the saloon, heading toward the livery.

Ezra watched Nathan go, the doors swinging after his departure.  He sighed heavily as he opened the ledger again, and picked up his pen and selected the red ink for his next entry.

Part 3:

Ezra walked slowly up the street toward the shortly-to-be vacant house.  He paused for a moment, caught in indecision.  He was certain he could make this work. Mr. Shaffer had spoken earlier about the need for 'up front' cash, but surely Schaffer would understand the situation and allow him to make payments.  The man wanted funds for travel, and the piano was far too large to ship cheaply.  Who else could possibly want it?  He'd have to take the offer.  Ezra could pay him a down payment, and the rest could be offered in installments.

He approached the door with a confident gait, then smiled broadly as he knocked.  A stiff-looking man, with prematurely gray hair, answered the door.

"Mr. Shaffer," Ezra said as he removed his hat.  "Good day to you.  I hope all is going well.  Perhaps Dame Fortune has smiled on you, and sales of your extraneous property have been brisk."

"Doin' pretty good," Shaffer responded.  "I'm getting close to traveling weight."

"But the piano, I hope, hasn't been snatched up."

"No, not yet," Shaffer looked as if he was hiding something.  "Ah, come in."

All right then, Ezra thought as he stepped through the doorway.  Let's make this work.  "I've come bearing sad news, but perhaps we can come to an agreement regardless."

Shaffer's expression was difficult to gage.  "Did you hear already?"

"Hear?" Ezra asked.  "Is there something I should know about?"

"Mr. Palmer made an offer."  Shaffer smiled meekly.

"Oh," Ezra responded.

"He said he'd pay … $500 for the piano."

Ezra felt his hopes fall through the floor.  "$500?" he asked. "$500 is a considerable sum.  Are you certain that this was his offer."

Shaffer scowled.  "As certain as anything."

Ezra was dumbfounded.  "Surely, he wasn't planning on paying you in cash."

"Cash it is," Shaffer replied.  "Said he could get it to me by the end of the day and have it picked up tomorrow, but since you had the prior offer, I told him I'd wait 'til your reply."  He paused.  "If you increase your offer to... $550…" Shaffer shrugged.  "I'm certain Mr. Palmer would attempt to best the offer if you came up with anything less."

Ezra said nothing as he considered his options.  He had sworn off taking loans from the bank, after the last fiasco concerning the Standish Tavern. The bank considered him a bad risk in any case and probably wouldn't lend him a dime.  The Redbird's safe was nearly empty; it would be difficult to meet this week's bills, even if he had a particularly successful weekend.  His own personal funds were rather tapped out at the moment.  Perhaps there was something he could sell…

"Mr. Standish," Shaffer said matter-of-factly, "Mr. Palmer said he'd bring me the money today and I'm in sore need of it.  If you can't make me an offer right now, I'll go with Mr. Palmer.  It would be the right business decision in this situation."

Ezra paused.  What answer could he give?  The Redbird had little more than $65 available, and the sum-total of Mr. Ezra P. Standish's liquid assets amounted to less than $100 at that moment.

$550 -- he recalled the discussion that he'd had with his mother, when he found that his value on this earth equal to $400.   It was a belittling and painful bit of knowledge.  He had paid her, releasing him from that debt.   It still surprised him that his mother had returned it.  He wished that he had some of that amount still, but the cash was long gone.  Money goes so quickly and is spent in so many ways.

Funny, he thought.  The piano has more value than I do. 

Well, Ezra, he thought, it's time to lay this particular dream aside.  Standish spoke softly, "Please contact Mr. Palmer and let him know that the piano is his."

"Good!"  Shaffer nodded emphatically.  He was obviously relieved.  "Honestly, I prefer it this way. Mr. Palmer will give it a decent home where it'll be seen to properly.  He told me that he aims to go courtin' and needed to add some incentives in his house, something to charm a bride.  I hear he's got a newfangled clothes washer, too."

"Ah, yes," Ezra responded.  "A carrot to dangle."

Shaffer grinned and said, "No offence, Mr. Standish, but it really shouldn't be in a place like yours.  A saloon! -- a haven for sinners, drunkards, debauchers and the refuse of this earth.  Good God, what was I thinking!  I doubt it would have lasted a week there.  It deserves a far better home than that.  It needs someone genteel to play it.  This makes much better sense."

"You're right, sir," Ezra said without any enthusiasm.  "Yes, you're quite right at that."

"I thought you were joking the first time you asked." He shook his head merrily.  "I was sure you were trying to con me out of it, that you had something planned for it.   Maybe you'd lined up someone who'd pay big bucks for it and you'd make out like a king.  I'd talked to some of the folks 'round here and they told me to be sure I that had the cash in hand and to count it twice before I let you near it.  You can imagine my relief when Mr. Palmer finally came through with a real offer.  It really is a laughable situation, isn't it?"

"Yes, amusing."  Ezra gazed off toward the parlor.

"Worked out for the best in the end," Shaffer said with a nod.

Standish quietly spoke, "Perhaps you'll let me see it once more before you release custody of it."

Shaffer looked skeptical, but could find nothing wrong with letting the gambler view the merchandise one more time.  Standish was, in spite of all appearances, one of the town's regulators.  Shaffer would be leaving town in a few days.  It made him bold enough to make some comments that he otherwise would have kept silent, but he wanted no trouble. He gestured through the doorway.  Standish nodded formally and proceeded to the piano.

It was a gorgeous creation, made of dark wood, richly carved.  Ezra stood a moment in the dim parlor and gazed upon the upright piano.  When he had heard that Shaffer was moving east and attempting to empty his household, Standish was one of the first people to inquire about the items he was liquidating.

The piano had belonged to Shaffer's wife, Marie.  She was a pretty and lively woman, full of music and laughter.  The house had resounded with the piano's lovely tones while she lived there.  But a tightness came to her pretty face and a loneliness reached her eyes the longer she lived under Shaffer's roof.  The music stopped and she finally left him in the spring, taking nothing more than a carpetbag of clothing.  The house had been silent ever since.

Ezra stood beside the piano, running his hand over the key-cover, feeling the carved florets under his fingers.  It truly was beautiful.  He had imagined it in his saloon, the centerpiece of the room.  He could picture it against the rear wall, between the sconces. He would have bought a special pair of lamps with rose-colored glass shades to illuminate the piece, accent it with a piece of lace across the top.   It would have been lovely.

"Would it be all right," Ezra asked quietly, "if I were to play it just once?"

Shaffer bit his lip.  Up until now the saloon owner had only touched a few random chords.  "Okay, I guess.  Mr. Palmer said he'd pay, so I believe him.  Just be careful.  It's not used to that saloon music and it might not take to it."  He squinted.

Ezra moved out from under Shaffer's glare, ignoring him, and carefully pulled out the bench.  He set up the key-cover and gazed down at the ivory and ebony for a moment.

The homeowner stood back, wondering what he should prepare for.  Was Standish planning revenge by damaging the piano?  He wouldn't put it beyond the con man.  Had he made a mistake in letting this saloon owner play?  Shaffer watched carefully to make sure that the gambler didn't scratch or someway mar the perfect wood as he settled himself.

Standish raised his hands above the keys, and then lowered them slowly.  First, a single chord rang through the small room.  Then, his fingers were in motion and a delicate melody floated from the piano.  The music was soft, played pianissimo, as if Standish wasn't quite willing to let the sound travel.  He bowed his head over the keys closed his eyes.

Shaffer didn't recognize the piece, hadn't heard his wife play it in any case.  He only knew that it was lovely and sad.  The music filled him with a quiet longing and he couldn't quite explain why.  He stood back, watching in disbelief and remembered his Marie and how empty the house had been since she ran out on him.

The music continued for only a few minutes, then it came to a stop -- it simply petered out as Ezra's hands stopped moving.  He remained motionless at first, allowing Shaffer time to run the back of his hand across his eyes.  Then, with great dignity, Ezra lowered the cover over the keys and stood.  "Thank you, Mr. Shaffer.  It was very decent of you to allow me that opportunity."

Shaffer didn't speak.  He just nodded.  He looked past Standish to the piano that was now destined to sit silently in Palmer's parlor.  Palmer didn't play, but perhaps he'd find a woman who would like it.  He grimaced, remembering how his Marie had begged him to buy it and how she had left him anyway.

Hang it!  Let Palmer haul it away for firewood!  "It was a pleasure doin' business with you," Shaffer said, not knowing what else to say.

Ezra just smiled mildly as Shaffer took a rag to the wood, to wipe off any fingerprints had been left behind, to polish away any trace of the gambler.  Standish departed without another word, leaving Shaffer alone in his empty and silent house.

Part 4:

Vin watched from the shade of the restaurant as Ezra rode through the town to start his second shift of patrolling that day.  Usually when Standish exited town on that high-stepping chestnut of his, it would be with a whoop and a cloud of dust, but Chaucer seemed unusually spiritless.

"Hey, Ez," Vin called.  "You headin' out?"

"So it would appear," Ezra responded with a small smile, as he glanced down the street.

"Wish I wasn't stuck in town," Vin grumbled, messing with his sling.

"I wish the same," Ezra replied.

"You got a couple minutes b'fore you go?  I'm gettin' a mite bored and could use the company."

"I'm afraid not. I have a long day ahead of me."

"Oh, okay.  Which route you takin'?"

Ezra gazed out across the land in front of him as if he was considering this for the first time.  " I'll travel out toward the Warren's property and check the homesteads along the way, then come back along Gravel Creek."    He looked undecided as he scrutinized the plain.

"That far?"  Vin asked.  Ezra always planned out his patrols very carefully.  He'd spend part of the time in the saddle, but most of it walking the streets.  The route he just outlined would take him out of town until nearly dark.

"It hasn't been covered for some time," Ezra replied.

Vin studied his friend.  "You okay, Ez?" he asked finally, noting that Ezra hadn't even looked at him yet.

"I'm quite well.  I just need a little time away from town.  You can understand that, can't you, Mr. Tanner?"  His voice was flat as he spoke.

"Yeah, I ‘spect."

Ezra nodded and said, "I should be going.  Good day, sir."  And with that, he left the town.

Vin watched the man and horse until they disappeared from view.   Chaucer kept his head down and Vin couldn't help but notice a slump to Ezra's shoulders.

What the hell happened? Vin wondered.

Part 5:

Vin sat in front of the restaurant, keeping an eye on the town.  He watched as people came and went, as they patronized the businesses, as they visited friends and neighbors.  He noted that Mr. Shaffer was still emptying out his house.  He paid close attention, to see if anyone carried off the rifle that the homeowner was still contemplating selling.

Mr. Palmer, a bachelor who owned a large ranch outside of town, arrived at Shaffer's for a short visit.  Vin watched as Palmer left the house, making a beeline to the bank.  Palmer returned to Shaffer's, clutching a fat wallet, but he left empty-handed.

Mabel, from the restaurant, brought Vin a plate of supper and took it away when he was done.

The day rolled on, and Vin sat forward when he noted a familiar rider approaching from one direction.  He smiled to see another coming in from the opposite side of town.  The old friends, Chris and Buck, seemed to have timed their arrivals like clockwork.

"Hey, Vin!" Buck called as he rode up.  His horse tossed his head excitedly.  "You been keepin' yerself out of trouble?"

"A mite," Vin replied.  "Can't seem to get into too much in any case."  He moved his splinted leg for emphasis, wincing.  "Gettin' damn tired of it."

Buck grinned and then nodded as Chris came alongside.  "Looks like the chickens are comin' home to roost."

Chris raised an eyebrow at this comment.  "I can't quite recall anyone callin' me a chicken before -- and living to tell about it."

"Maybe I meant to say roosters," Buck replied and then added, "Pigeons?"

"Best stop now, Buck," Vin chided.  "Don't think ya want to join me on these seats."  He looked toward Chris. "How're things at the ranch."

"Needed to fix a fence," Chris declared as he dismounted.

Vin grinned.  "Someone told me that you might.  It was either that or ‘some-such’."  That comment garnered a perplexed look from both men. Vin looked to Buck and asked, "And Miss Mandy?  How is the lovely lady?" 

"Now you know a gentleman don't talk about things like that," Wilmington declared as he stepped down from his gray.  "But since I ain't no gentleman…"

"Later, Buck," Chris said, gesturing for quiet.  "You holdin' out okay, Vin?"

"Feelin' pretty much the same, cowboy," Vin replied.  "I 'spect I'm feelin' better by the day, but I'm powerful anxious to get out of these things."

"Two more weeks ain't that bad," Chris said, grabbing the reins of his horse.

"The two weeks ain't bad," Vin agreed.  "It's the six weeks that's the problem."  He had already made it through the first four weeks that Nathan had imposed on him.  These final two would kill him.

"Everyone else back?" Buck asked.

"Nate's gone to Ridge City," Vin replied.  "Should be back tomorrow.  Ezra's off patrolling.  JD and Josiah are about."

"Well then," Buck responded.  "I guess that gives me time for a nap."  He yawned.  "I got me a powerful need for some rest right now."

"Figured as much," Vin replied.

"Ezra taken a trip around town yet?" Chris asked.

"Naw," Vin looked out in the direction the gambler had taken.  "Still out ridin'."

"Been gone long?" Chris continued.

"Route should take him all day.  Said he was goin' by way of the Warren's spread and comin' back along Gravel Creek."

Chris frowned at that information.  "He figure he didn't need to check the town?"

Vin sighed.  "Said no one's been out that way for a while.  I'm thinkin' maybe someone should go out and check on him."

"Why's that?"  Buck asked, concerned.  "Somethin' wrong?  We got some trouble brewin'?"

"No," Vin responded.  "Just ain't like him to go so far from the comforts of town for no good reason."

"He's a big boy, Vin," Chris replied.  "Probably just wants a bit of time alone."

"I ‘spect."  Vin couldn't contest that; Ezra had declared that fact himself.

"I’ll take a stroll then," Chris decided.  "Check the town."

Vin watched the two lead their horses to the livery.

Part 6:

It was powerfully boring to be incapacitated, but Vin was a man used to stillness.  He stayed in front of the restaurant, watching as Chris made the rounds.  Larabee had stopped to chat for a spell and then headed off to his room at the boarding house.

Not willing to get to his feet, Vin waited at his spot on the boardwalk.  He wanted to talk to the gamester when he returned to town, wanted to find out what was going on.  Chris, of course, was right.  Nothing was wrong -- that had to be the case.

But, something had been bothering Ezra when he left town.  Vin just wished Standish had stopped to talk about it a bit.  Of course, he fully realized that Ezra was never the type to discuss anything like that.  No, the gambler never revealed a hand.

Vin couldn't fault him for that.  Hell, he was just as bad when it came to anything personal.  He just figured that maybe Ezra would be open to jawing a bit when he showed up again.  Maybe the ride would clear his mind of whatever was troubling him.

Tanner  napped, lulled by the warmth of the late afternoon.

Night fell and the cool temperatures woke him.  He sat up, hoping to catch sight of the gambler, but he was nowhere to be seen.  Vin felt a worry creeping to him.  Where the hell was Ezra?  He should have been home before dark.

Damn!  That man could get into more trouble than a bear with a bee's nest.  His mind raced, trying to figure out might have happened. Had Ezra been attacked… captured…shot?  Had there been some sort of an accident?  A lot can happen in the open territory.  Was he hurt?  Hell, it had happened before.  Vin remembered finding Ezra at Kotter's Ridge and another time in that burned out basement on the Vaughn Ranch.  Damn!

Vin clumsily got to his feet and made his way toward the jail.  When he spotted JD on the boardwalk, he hobbled toward him.

"JD!"  he called urgently. "Hey, JD.  Ezra ain't back yet!  We gotta go find him."

Dunne regarded the tracker as he clomped noisily toward him, then he grinned knowingly.  "Gee, Vin.  He come back well over an hour ago.  You was fast asleep at the time.  Didn't want to wake you since you looked so peaceful."

Vin sighed in relief.  "Did he look okay when you seen him?"

"Okay?"  JD puzzled.  "He was fine.  Tired maybe, but that's all.  Should somethin' be wrong?  He didn't have a whole lot to say.  That's peculiar, ain't it?"  The young man scratched his chin.  "You want me to get Nate? Oh, wait, he aint' back yet.  What about Josiah or Mary?"

"No, no," Vin muttered.  "Where'd Ez head off to?  He in the Redbird now?"

JD shrugged.  "Said he'd be goin' to bed. I took a look into the saloon just a minute ago and didn't see him.  I figure he was tired out.  Now that Buck and Chris are back, he won't have to pull any duty tomorrow, so he'll probably sleep 'til noon.  You know how he is."

"Yeah," Vin responded.  "Yeah, I do."

CONTINUE with the Second HALF