DISCLAIMERS:: This is fanfiction.  No profit involved. Who in their right mind would pay me anyway?   It 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 purely for fun to keep my writing skills somewhat tuned. I haven't written anything in years, so I thought I'd try my hand at it again.
RATING: PG-13 for Language
SUMMARY: Chris and JD have been captured by the evil Varness gang... so what is Ezra doing with that picnic basket?
COMMENTS: Yes, please! Drop me a note, let me know what you think. 
NOTE:  This is the FIRST M7 story I ever wrote!  So, just remember that as you read...
DATE: February 13, 2000. 
APPEARS IN:  Fanzine Nothing Left to Chance #4

Ezra's Feast
By NotTasha -- who's feeling a little hungry right now.


Chris became aware of his surroundings. It was a slow and arduous process -- painful.  His side ached fiercely, as did his head, making it difficult to get a grasp on the situation.  His mouth seemed strangely dry and he felt a weight pressing against one side.

He tried to move, to dislodge the weight, but it remained against him.  He tried to push his hands against the burden and realized with a start that he couldn't. His hands were bound in front him and somehow anchored to the ground. He could feel ropes biting into his legs.

He understood why his mouth felt so strange when he discovered the cloth gag.

"Damn," he thought, "they got me."

Word had gone out that the Varness Gang was headed their way, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Edmund Varness, and his band of eleven men, had captured the small but prosperous town of Vineville. The band killed men, women and children and had pillaged the town of anything of value. When they left, Vineville was in ruin. The rich houses, the pretty little church, the well-stocked stores -- were all looted.  Bodies of those who resisted littered the streets. Bodies of those who cried and tried to run, lay with the bold.

Varness had to be stopped -- at all costs.  The law from Vineville had perished in the attack. Peacekeepers from the neighboring towns had been called out to pursue, and five had died at the guns of Varness and his men. Skilled shooters were in the gang -- they would not be easily halted.  The remaining lawmen turned back to tend to their wounded, to bury their dead and to save their own hides.

The Army had been called out. The men in blue were in route to intercept them. They would stop Varness.  It was only a matter of time. But, observers had noted that the gang was headed toward Four Corners.  The Army wouldn't make it in time.  Four Corners was NOT going to fall victim as Vineville had.

The Seven had ridden out to meet the Twelve, knowing of the skill and cruelty of their opponent. Varness was a man of culture and old family money.  He had lost his wealth in the war, but had managed, somehow, to have this venture financed. He had woven a skilled and loyal team around him, had stocked them for the journey.  That required money on hand, not just the promise of it.

Chris, more than anyone, knew how formidable a close-knit team could be. He knew that capturing them would be dangerous. When he had seen that they were holed up in the Martinez Compound, he knew it would be trouble.

The Martinez Compound was a fortress-like structure, an hour ride from Four Corners. A square, adobe building, built for defense, and once owned by a large farming family, but the family had moved on when the land proved unproductive. Chris had known that driving the Varness Gang out of the compound would be, to say the least, difficult. But he couldn't see the point in waiting for the army.

He had argued with the others. Vin, Buck and JD had been ready to attack with him. Nathan and Josiah had both voiced their concerns, but Ezra resisted the strongest, declaring that a simple assault would never work.

Chris had been desperate to stop this band of murders. He would not wait for the Army; he would wait for no one.

The Seven had tried to make an assault on the structure, to reach heavy wooden doors that protected it, but Varness had stationed sharpshooters along the upper level of the compound, who could easily pick off anyone who approached them.

Chris remembered running for cover behind a series of boulders. He had turned to see JD near him.  What the hell was he doing so far forward?

Shots had rung out and JD had fallen. He had seen Nathan trying to get closer, and Ezra moving backward toward better cover. Buck and Vin had been somewhere to the left of him and Josiah to the right. Then there had been this incredible pain in his side. He'd tried to catch himself but his hand had slipped and his head had glanced on the stone.  He hit the ground hard.

From his position, all Chris had been able to see was JD, his head bleeding where he lay. Everything became fuzzy when he'd heard a powerful voice call from inside the fortress. He couldn't quite make out what was being said. He had focused on Dunne and then everything went dark.

He had been in blackness until this moment, as sensation slowly returned.

JD, he thought and struggled to open his eyes. The brightness of the day made him squint -- and it took a moment to comprehend his surroundings.  He confirmed his fear. He was inside the compound, against one corner beneath a wooden catwalk that ran along the inside perimeter of the compound. He could see at least four men on that upper level, carefully hidden by the building's parapets, aiming out into the land beyond. There were four other men, easily visible on the ground level.

He turned to discover what was weighing against him. With a sigh, he realized it was JD.

The young man was bound and gagged in the same manner as Chris, and his head was carefully bandaged. Thank God, Chris thought, he's alive.  But his relief was short lived, knowing that both of them had been captured.

He jostled JD. The sheriff's eyes fluttered open and then Chris saw them fill with fear as Dunne stared out at what was in front of him. Chris shoved him gently and JD's glance swung around to meet his. He saw the fear subside somewhat when their eyes met.

Chris looked down to see that his hands were tightly tied to a metal stake that had been driven deep into the ground. It would take some work to get loose. He'd need to find something that might help him.

A man he hadn't seen before came into his vision, and Chris knew immediately that this must be Varness. He was very tall and thin, with silvering-black hair and a neat mustache. He was smartly dressed in an expensive-looking charcoal suit and silk shirt -- something Ezra might have worn, except for the lack of color. But the suit was worn, as if it had been long used.  He was a man who had known wealth, and had had it forcibly taken from him. That never went down well.  Varness would do anything to have his riches again.

He walked around the area with his arms behind his back, watching everything. He looked across the compound at the men, the horses, at the wagons now stuffed with the wealth of Vineville.

Varness suddenly gazed in their direction and smiled. He walked toward JD and Chris, and spoke with a cultured eastern accent, "Doc, it looks like your charges has regained consciousness."

Doc, a short and wiry haired man, appeared from somewhere near Chris' left. "Now," Doc said, "You just keep still here and I will check your bandages. We gotta make sure our hostages are healthy, for now at least."

Chris glared at the man and prepared to jump him, in spite of his bonds, but the Doc turned to one of the other men and said, "Buddy, would ya help me out?"

"Love to, Doc," Buddy, a sandy-haired youth, said and pointed a rather massive looking pistol at JD's leg. "Don't want to kill anybody just yet," he said to Chris, "so if you give us any trouble, I'll just cripple yer friend."

Chris tried to split his attention between Doc, Buddy, Varness and JD, who was breathing hard, trying to control his fear. Doc smelled strongly of whiskey, and Buddy showed his rotten teeth as he smirked and held his aim. Varness stood silently with his arms folded over the front of his charcoal jacket, scrutinizing Chris carefully.

Chris wanted to speak, to get some answers from this man, but the gag made that impossible, and it appeared that Varness had no intention of talking to him. From the way Varness looked at him, Chris could tell that the tall man considered him nothing more than a bargaining tool, hardly even human.

Doc moved quickly and efficiently to check Chris' side. He pulled back the bandage and Chris grimaced. He could see that his wound had been stitched together with some skill. Doc must have known at least something about medicine, a rarity it seemed amongst people named 'Doc'. He replaced the bandage and checked Chris' head next, examining a lump with a perfunctory manner, then moved to JD and checked the bandage around his head.

"They'll survive," he pronounced.

"Make sure you keep them hydrated, Doc," Varness said and Doc complied, bringing a canteen.

Chris glared as Doc tipped the canteen to his mouth without removing the gag. It was difficult to drink the water through the cloth binding, but Larabee realized that he had no choice. It wasn't until the liquid hit his mouth that the gunslinger realized how thirsty he'd been. Doc did the same for JD and then sat down at his chair beside them. It was only after this process was finished that Varness walked away.


A shot was heard from outside the compound and the men on the catwalk fired back. Chris recognized the report of Vin's mares leg.

Varness climbed the stairs. He signaled for his men to stop and then, safely hidden behind the buildings protective wall, called to the shooter beyond the walls.

"I think you're forgetting our bargain!" Varness shouted. "If any of my men are so much as grazed by a bullet, I'll start taking my hostages apart." Varness looked down to where Chris and JD were tied. "Perhaps I'll have one of their hands removed first. That may make you reconsider this tactic of yours."

Chris could just barely make out Vin's voice, unable to understand what he said. Varness replied, "Then you'd best behave if you want to see them alive." Apparently satisfied by the silence that followed, Varness descended the stairs while his men scanned the land beyond. He made his way to a table near the far wall and sat down.

JD and Chris exchanged glances. Larabee wished he could talk to the Kid, to reassure him somehow, but it looked like things were pretty bleak. He wished he had listened to the others and had not tried the pointless attack. He wished the young sheriff wasn't with him. He could tell that JD was still terrified, and doing his best to control his emotions. Hell, Chris thought, I'm pretty scared myself.

He tried to loosen the ropes around his hands, but any time he started to work on them, Doc or Buddy would pull a gun and the bindings would be checked.

There had been no sound from outside the compound for hours now. Chris was desperate to know what was going on. He watched the men mill around, taking their shifts on the wall, not allowing the shooters to tire. It appeared that at least six men were always on the catwalk. Doc and Buddy had been assigned to watch them and they shifted off regularly. Varness seemed able to order his men with little more than a look. They moved about at his command like extensions of his own body.

Chris could hear the men talking harshly about their recent conquest of Vineville. One man was laughing about how he had shot up a whole shop filled with people. Another was complementing him on his technique. Larabee listened with growing rage as heard about the terror that they had brought upon that town and the humor they all seemed to find in it. One man gleefully told another about how their leader, Mr. Varness, had gunned down a young woman running with her child.

Chris would find JD's eyes from time to time and try to give him some confidence that everything was going to be all right.

A meager dinner was set out for the gang, and they took turns eating their meals around a small fire. They didn't seem to have much food stored. That meant that they wouldn't stay here long. Chris hoped that was a good sign, but he was afraid that it wasn't. This was a siege, and he had a bad feeling that it would not end easily.

He watched Varness, as he sat at the table, eating his dinner. Varness ate no better than his men did.

When the leader was finished he went about checking on everything, assuring himself that his team was running perfectly. Varness often walked past Chris and JD, checking with Buddy or Doc to make sure that they were tended and carefully watched.

They were both allowed up, one at a time, to use the toilet. Chris prepared himself to bolt once his legs were untied, but Buddy kept his gun trained on JD, and Chris had no choice. He let Doc lead him to the privy that they had set up in the opposite corner. The door remained open during the process.

Upon his return, JD was untied. Chris watched JD as the young sheriff took his turn, swaying slightly, but apparently able to keep himself upright despite his head wound.

When they had finished, and the bonds had been retied, Chris hoped that the ropes would be looser this time. But Doc seemed to be as deft at tying knots as he was at sewing up wounds. Chris would not be able to free himself without drawing attention.

Chris' side still ached at the reminder. As far as he could tell, he had no fever and the grazing wound was no longer bleeding.  His short trip to the privy had let him know that he could walk, that JD could, too.   Still,  the wounds would slow them down when the time came to escape -- if the opportunity ever presented itself.


Night fell and the only light in the compound was a lantern near the prisoners, to keep them illuminated. Chris watched the men move about in the moonlight, keeping watch over the wall.

JD fell asleep beside him, and he hoped that the kid would be able to get some rest. JD's head wound didn't seem to be too bad. Larabee hoped it didn't hurt as badly as his own side.  His own head ached, but the pain was lessening.

Chris had fallen asleep only to be awakened by gunfire. The sharpshooters were taking aim and firing. He heard the returning shots, and recognized the report of the guns as easily as he recognized the voices of the owners.

Vin, Josiah and Buck were out there still. He hoped they weren't taking stupid risks. He knew that they probably were.

The marksmen had fired first. Chris figured his men were trying to sneak up on the fortress under the cover of night, but the moon was too bright and the men on the wall were too dedicated.

Varness was on the catwalk again, shouting out to Vin and the others, "You'd be smart to keep your distance. If we have this sort of thing happen again, I'll not hesitate to follow through with my threats. I think you are all aware of how far I will go to get what I want." And all was quiet again.

Varness moved about the compound, cool and calm. One could hardly tell that he was trapped. Chris tried to keep his eye on the leader of this group, but he could feel weariness descend on him and he fell into a troubled sleep. He woke from time to time during the night to see either Doc or Buddy staring back at him. When he awoke again, near dawn, it was Varness who greeted him. The well-dressed man smiled, but said nothing. Chris wondered how such a civilized looking man could be such a barbarian. Doc took over the watch as the morning grew brighter.


While the men were drinking coffee, a volley of bullets rained upon the fortress. The sharpshooters ducked behind the parapets, but soon enough started taking calculated shots again. Chris recognized the sound of the attacking guns, and knew they did not belong to his men. The army had arrived.

Varness moved past them and quickly made his way back to the catwalk. His men were well hidden and took their time, aiming and firing at will. The shooting suddenly stopped and for a moment Chris could hear Vin shouting frantically, “Stop! Stop!"

Varness laughed. "You should listen to him. I've made them several promises. I shall not hurt their men as long as my men remained unharmed. But you're pressing the issue. If you try anything as foolish as that again, I promise, I 'll carve them as easily as a chicken at dinner." Chris felt JD shudder beside him. "I've also promised that I would leave this territory if you withdraw and we are given free passage."

Chris heard Buck shout, "Sure, go!"

Varness smiled and said loudly, "You tire me." And he climbed down the stairs one more time, and then headed to the prisoners. He nodded to Doc and asked, "Have they been well behaved?"

"Good as gold," Doc replied.

"We'll need to be leaving soon. These hostages will be helpful now that the brave boys of the Union Army have descended. Will they be ready to travel?" Varness asked.

Doc nodded. "Oh sure. As soon as you're ready. Don't worry 'bout 'em."

"And will they be tractable?"

Doc smirked. "All ya got to do is threaten the kid and the big guy does what you want."

"Good," Varness said. "If the men outside continue to threaten us, we may want to consider dismantling the boy somewhat.  You would able to keep him alive for me, wouldn't you, Doc?"

Chris could feel the young sheriff stiffen beside him, and his own rage building. You son of a bitch, the gunslinger thought as he glared into Varness' glass blue eyes, and Varness smirked down at him.

"Oh, sure," Doc replied. "I'll keep him livin' just as long as you want."

Chris again wished that JD wasn't with him. Why was Dunne so far forward when they had attacked? What the hell was he doing there?  Larabee damned himself, realizing that he should have been more attentive, should have kept better tabs on everyone's positions.  Chris felt responsible for the young sheriff and would have done anything to keep him safe. All he had managed to do so far was to get them both wounded and captured.

He hoped that the other men were safe. Nathan would be beside himself, knowing that both of them were wounded. Buck would be especially troubled about JD; the Kid was like a little brother to him.  He thought about Vin, and imagined he was out there, well hidden and ready to make a move if only one presented itself.  He could imagine Josiah, silently praying as he gazed down the sights of his rifle. And Ezra, well, you never knew about Ezra. Nothing about that man would surprise Chris.

The rest of the day was quiet. Chris' side didn't seem to hurt so badly anymore, he hoped that the same was true for JD's head. His own had stopped throbbing.  He could see Varness and his men crowded around the table for most of the day, apparently going over their escape plan. He watched as they prepared a small mid-day meal. JD and himself received only water. He was getting damn hungry. They were given another toilet break, and this time Buddy was the one that tied them back into place. Chris smiled once the man left him. Buddy was not as good as Doc at knots.

As the long summer day wore on, there was no further gunfire. Varness' men napped in shifts, but always kept a close watch on the land around them and their prisoners. Chris tried to work at the ropes without giving himself away, but he was constantly watched. When the men started packing, Chris realized that they would be making a break for it soon. That didn't bode well for anyone.


"Hey!" a marksman shouted, "Someone's coming toward us real slow." Chris watched as the man aimed. "He's not even trying to sneak up."

A second marksman laughed. "How could he in those clothes?"

Chris sighed inwardly. It had to be Ezra. Then, to confirm his thought, he heard the southerner cheerfully call, "Good afternoon, gentlemen. Is anyone available for a tęte-ŕ-tęte?"

Varness made his way up the stairs and assumed his usual position. "And who is it I'm speaking to?"

"I'm Ezra Simpson. I've been appointed by the Territorial Governor to negotiate a treaty in this otherwise untenable situation."

Varness smirked. "And what have I to gain from speaking to you?"

"Everything," Ezra shouted back, "And nothin' to lose. And it may interest you that I've brought libations that should go far to enhance the negations. Perhaps, Mr. Varness, you'd be interested in a sumptuous meal prepared by a most skilled professional. I'm unarmed."

Chris turned to JD and saw him staring intently at him. What was Ezra up to?

Varness signaled to his men below. "Let him in," he said off hand. "Kill him if he makes any wrong moves."

The marksmen above cocked their guns and prepared for an attack as the doors swung open. Doc and Buddy aimed at the prisoners. Every other gun in the compound was aimed at the brightly-attired gentlemen who entered the compound on a high stepping chestnut horse.

Ezra Standish was wearing his new blindingly-red jacket and a matching brocade vest. His hat seemed especially black as it sat cocked over his head.  His boots gleamed. He certainly was a spectacle. Chaucer was brushed to a high sheen, and the horse tossed his head dramatically as they pulled to a stop, as if he knew exactly how good he looked.

"Good day to you," Ezra said as he was yanked unceremoniously from his horse and roughly patted down. Ezra never dropped his charming smile. Chris held his breath as a man ran his hands over Ezra's right arm, the usual hiding place of his derringer, but nothing was found.

Ezra carefully straightened his clothing when they finished. "As I have said, I'm unarmed. Now if you or your men would assist me with the hamper." Chris watched him carefully, but Ezra never seemed to look up to try and find JD and himself. He seemed to be more interested in the safety of the basket.

The guns were never lowered from the gambler as two of Varness' men unstrapped the large wicker hamper that had been secured behind the saddle, and then the horse was led away. Chaucer snorted, giving his owner a backward glance.

Varness signaled to two of his men and they rifled through the basket, bringing out crockery, dishes, bottles, glasses, forks and a box tied with a string.

"Careful," Ezra said. "You'll damage the pastry." Everything was opened and the men gazed down at the contents, smiling. One man started to reach into the box, but was stopped by a look from Varness.

Ezra quickly stooped down and picked up a large piece of cloth, seeming oblivious to the fact that the action almost got him shot. He then walked confidently to the only table in the compound and spread the cloth out ceremoniously. "We aren't heathens," he said, "And decorum is always appreciated." He smoothed out the tablecloth carefully, and only then did Chris notice the gambler's green eyes scanning the perimeter of the compound. He thought that Ezra caught sight of him for a second, but the gambler straightened and returned to the spilled contents of the hamper.

One of the men held a bottle, trying to read the label, "Cog Nack?" he said tentatively.

Ezra carefully took the bottle from the man. "It's pronounced cognac, my dear sir. And if you please, this is an after dinner beverage, not an aperitif. You must have patience if you are to partake in an excellent epicurean experience."

Varness crossed his arms and stared at Ezra. "You were sent by the Governor?" he asked.

Ezra set the bottle on the ground beside the hamper and picked up a stack of tin dishes. “It’s a pity I couldn’t bring china, but the weight was an issue,” he muttered.

He carried the inadequate dishware to the table and returned for the forks and napkins; the guns followed him back and forth. "I've been requested to act as his special negotiator."

"He's going to grant me safe passage? Pardon me my crimes?" Varness asked evenly.

"I've been appointed to decide the proper line of action on both sides and to act as an impartial arbiter, as I have nothing to gain from either faction."

Ezra carefully rooted through the spilled contents and came up with two tins and a paper wrapped bundle. Varness' men had torn back the paper, exposing the bread within. "Mr. Varness, will you join me? I believe we should enjoy a repast before negotiations are opened. One is able to speak so much easier when one is comfortably sated, don't you agree?" the southerner drawled.

Ezra sauntered back to the table and set down the items. "Perhaps one of your men will procure a means to open the containers, as I've brought nothing that may be considered a weapon. I'm sorry, but I felt it was necessary."

Chris couldn't stop watching Ezra. He was acting the part of a perfect host. He pulled a chair out for Varness and carefully handed him a napkin. Ezra then found a chair for himself and perched on the end of his seat as if to quickly jump up and serve his guest.

Chris shifted his attention and glanced around at Varness' men. Nearly everyone on the compound floor was watching Ezra, even some of the marksmen above. Doc had moved off to see what else was in the hamper, and Buddy currently had his back to JD and himself. Chris took this chance to start working on the ropes.

"You'll find that the caviar is Russian," Ezra said officiously, "And the pate de foie gras is French. I've had them imported at great expense for this gathering." Chris remembered Ezra had received a large package via the stage not long ago. He had seemed very excited to receive it, and refused to let anyone see what was in the box. Chris had been certain at the time that it had something to do with a con, but now he was fairly sure he was looking at some of the contents.

He glanced to JD and he could see JD smile through his gag, wondering what Ezra had up his sleeve. 

Varness motioned to one of his men to open the tins, and then he said eagerly, "I've not had caviar for many years, Mr. Simpson." There was a catch in his voice as he added. "The war, you know, changed many things."

"Yes, indeed," Ezra drawled with a smile that hid any true feelings he had on the subject.

A man stepped up and used a hatchet to open the caviar. Chris almost laughed to see the look of disgust on both Varness and Ezra's faces.

"Perhaps," Ezra allowed, "I should have risked my life to bring the proper opener, as I'm afraid the caviar may've suffered unnecessarily." He reached into the brown paper and brought out a carefully cropped piece of toasted bread, and using one of the forks, topped it with caviar. He winced as the hatchet came down on the tinned pate, then handed the toast to Varness.

He was met with a gun to his face. "You take the first bite, Mr. Simpson."

"Sir, my mother would be offended at my lack of social skills if I were to partake of this delightful repast before you."

"You first, Mr. Simpson," Varness said as other guns were raised to the gambler. "I don't know where your caviar has been."

Ezra's smile did not change. "The Caspian Sea, sir. It's Buluga -- only the best." And he delicately ate the bread and caviar. "Delightful," he drawled.

Varness pointed the gun at the pate. "And that one, too. I don't know who you are and I have no intention of falling prey to poisoning."

Ezra wrinkled his brow. "Please, Mr. Varness, poison? It'd ruin the pate." Ezra went through the fluid movements of spreading the pate on another piece of toast, eating it slowly and then wiping his mouth with a napkin. "Absolutely delectable. Please sir, I feel I'm taking advantage of the situation."

Varness watched Ezra's face carefully, as if he was trying to decide whether or not the man was an absolute fool, a naďve idiot, or something entirely different.

Chris worked at the ropes, he could feel his hand getting loose, but Buddy turned momentarily toward him. Buddy glanced at the prisoners, just a quick check and then his attention was back on the gambler. Chris could now understand why Ezra had neither looked at them, nor mentioned them. If Ezra ignored the two prisoners, the others might ignore them as well.

Varness stood and walked slowly around the table, watching Ezra. Standish followed him with his eyes, his face mild and smiling still. As Varness passed behind him, Chris was sure that Ezra had looked his way again, but it was only for a fleeting moment and then Varness was back in front of the gambler.

The leader of the gang reached into the paper and withdrew a piece of toast, forked out a large measure of caviar and placed it on the bread. He ate it in three bites, and then he smiled. "You're correct, Mr. Simpson. It's delightful."

"Then you must try the pate," Ezra replied.

Varness and Ezra slowly consumed the contents of the two small tins and then Ezra stood and walked back to the hamper. He tucked two glasses into his pockets, two magnums of wine under his arms and retrieved a large crockery pot.

When he opened the pot at the table, a rich aroma drifted up to Chris and JD. The gunslinger felt his stomach growl. He looked at JD and saw that same hungry glance.

"Roast Pheasant a la Standish with a wild rice dressing. I've chosen a wine to complement the flavor." Ezra said presenting the items to Varness. He gestured to the pot, grandly, inviting the other men to look as well. The henchmen stepped closer to see what could possibly smell so good.

"Do you prefer something from the breast?" Ezra asked Varness.

Instead Varness stood, and taking a knife from his holster, carefully carved out a small piece out of each of the three pheasants contained in the pot, and then spooned out a hearty helping of rice and set it in front of Ezra.

"Sir," Ezra said, "You embarrass me."

"Eat it!" Varness said darkly as he opened one bottle of wine and poured a glass for Ezra.

Ezra set his napkin on his lap and patiently ate the meal presented to him. He sighed at every bite and chuckled softly. "It's so tender, Mr. Varness. I thought at first the wild rice dressing might overpower the bird, but I stand corrected. The wine, as expected, is perfectly matched."

It seemed to take forever for Ezra to finish, but once he had cleaned his plate he looked up at Varness and smiled that same Ezra smile, flashing his gold tooth. "Oh, Mr. Varness, it would be a shame for you to not share this with me. There is plenty here for everyone. I suggest you allow your men to sample this as well. I'm sure they would be pleased.  They deserve a decent mean, don’t they?"

Varness looked into the crock. It couldn't help but think how good it smelled. He served himself a large helping and then sat down to eat. After a few bites, he smiled. "Best thing I've had in months, Mr. Simpson."

Ezra beamed. "Only the finest ingredients were used, Mr. Varness.

Varness waved to his men and some came to the table, grabbing dishes and filling them with pheasant and rice. The men on the catwalk waited as plates were handed up to them.

Ezra returned to the hamper for more glasses, and wine was poured all around. When the second bottle was opened, Varness made sure that Ezra drank the first glass, waiting until he finished it before passing it on to the others.

Varness kept an eye on his men, ensuring that the perimeter of the building was still patrolled, but Chris noted that most of the men had holstered their weapons to use the dainty plates and forks. The men on the catwalk were leaning against the parapets as they ate.   Buddy abandoned his post to get some for himself.

Chris worked harder to free his hands, and could feel one hand pulling loose as Buddy walked back toward him and sat on the chair. The guard didn't even look at him. He was engrossed in the contents of his plate.

Ezra made small talk with Varness as the leader ate, talking about the finer aspects of good food and where to find it. They discussed theatre and tailors, literature and the latest news from the East Coast. Varness told his tale of woe, describing how he had lost so much in the war and had never really recovered. Ezra seemed suitably sympathetic.

As they spoke, Ezra always deferred to Varness' greater wisdom in every matter. Chris had to stifle a laugh, wondering why Ezra couldn't do that when they were talking. Varness was relaxing, leaning back in his chair and his whole team relaxed with him. The leader of the group seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.


Once Varness finished his plate, Ezra removed the empty crock and returned with a second, and two more bottles of wine. "And now sir, perhaps you would enjoy a succulent trout poached in white wine sauce?''

Varness sighed when he saw the contents of the new crock.  When he looked up again, Chris thought that the man had tears in his eyes.

Again, Varness selected what Ezra would eat, but this time, after watching the gambler take three bites of the moist fish, Varness started as well. The men joined in and soon everyone was drinking and eating.

Chris and JD found that they were virtually ignored by now. Chris had freed his hands and began working to release JD. JD looked at him, asking a question, what was Ezra expecting them to do?

Chris was damned if he understood. There was a bench between the two of them and the gambler. Chris realized that Ezra did not have a view of their hands, and would not be able to see that they were free. It would be risking their lives to try to alert him of that fact. There were too many eyes that might take notice, and Ezra was once again ignoring them.

Once the trout was consumed, Ezra removed the pot and returned with the box. "Dear sirs, the following was provided to this feast by an excellent pastry chef, known throughout the Four Corners area for creating delectable confections." And he pulled a tall chocolate cake from within the container.

Varness looked at it skeptically, and nodded to one of his men who attempted to cut it with his buck knife.

Ezra sighed, "If only I had known, I would have brought the proper serving utensils. I am afraid that the pastry shall be irreparably damaged." The man moved the too-short knife about in the cake, as if he expected to find something in it, while Ezra raised his eyebrow at the desecration. "It may have been worth risking my life to save the poor pastry."

He smiled again when a mangled hunk was placed before him.  "In all honesty," Ezra said as he picked up his fork, "My preference is pie, but for this I will grant an exception."  And again, he started to eat.

Varness and the others immediately followed.

"Magnificent, Mr. Simpson." Varness said. "You must tell me the name of fine woman who created this."

"Perhaps that might be a consideration in the negotiations," Ezra replied. "Which, of course, we'll begin momentarily."

Chris looked to JD and shook his head slowly. He knew Ezra was a light eater, and he wondered how much more the man could take. He honestly could not remember seeing the conman eat so much before. The cake was quickly handed out and the gang consumed it almost immediately.  Nobody was paying attention to their duty as they licked the chocolate off their fingers and cleaned their plates.

Ezra made one final trip to the hamper and returned to the table with the bottle of cognac. He opened it carefully. "This, Mr. Varness, is the finest cognac available." He showed Varness the label and Varness nodded in approval. "I do wish we didn't need to reuse our 'wine' glasses, but unfortunately I was unable to pack a sufficient supply to allow for fresh dishware at every course."

Thirteen glasses appeared on the table. Ezra regarded them for a moment, and then he raised his head to look around. He caught Chris' eye, and seemed to hold his attention for a second.

We're loose, Ezra, Chris thought. Whatever the hell you are up to, you better get on with it.

Ezra continued his gaze around the open courtyard and then sighed and distributed the liquor among the thirteen tumblers. He made a gesture above the glasses and the men reached in to pick up their own glass or to hand one up to the men on the catwalk.

Varness sniffed the brandy luxuriously and considered taking a sip, but he looked again to Ezra. He held his own glass before himself, waiting.  His men waited with him.

Ezra nodded, understanding his role. "To your health gentlemen," he said raising his glass, and then, before he downed it, he added, "And to mine as well."

Varness chuckled to see the fine liquor swallowed it one gulp. Ezra smiled back at him, that same charismatic smile. Varness raised his glass and downed it as well. His men followed suit.

Ezra looked about himself again, to ensure that everyone had finished. He swayed for a moment as one man hesitated over the glass, swirling around the liquid and sniffing at it before he finally gulped it down. It was only after the last man had finished his drink that Ezra dropped his glass, shattering to the ground. A second later the conman collapsed into the shards.


Chris sat bolt upright as Varness leapt to his feet, grabbing his gun and pointed it at the collapsed man. The other men looked confused and some started to laugh, until Varness was the next to go down. The other eleven quickly followed.

Chris had his feet untied in seconds and pulled off his gag. He grabbed Buddy's discarded gun and sprinted across the courtyard, his injured side protesting all the way. Ezra was lying on the ground, his mouth half open and his eyes staring unseeing before him.

"Ezra!" Chris shook the gambler's shoulder, as he kept the gun ready. Standish was hardly breathing.

JD was suddenly at his side. "What happened?  Is he okay?"

"Get help," Chris ordered, nodding toward the doors. "Ezra, what did you do?" he demanded to the unresponsive form. Ezra's breathing seemed to become more labored by the second.  Quickly, he pulled the gambler upright, shaking him harder without receiving any response.

JD pulled off the crossbeam and threw back the heavy wooden door to stand in the opening. Almost instantly, they heard the sound of a horse coming toward them at full gallop -- Nathan -- with the others coming up behind.

The horse burst into the compound; Nathan dismounting even before it came to a stop. "Get him up!" Nathan demanded as he pulled a bottle of smelling salts out of his upper pocket.

Nathan helped Chris to pull Ezra fully upright, but the gambler was like rubber. His eyes finally slid shut as his breathing became even shallower. Damn it, Ezra, Chris thought, what the hell's going on?

Nathan uncorked the bottle and shoved it under the man's nose. "Wake up, Ezra!" the healer said sternly. "Wake up!" He slapped him sharply with his free hand.

Ezra snorted and his eyes fluttered open for a moment. He turned his head away from the offensive smell.  Nathan pulled a slim blue bottle out of his pocket, uncorked it with his teeth, and the pressed it into the gambler's mouth. He got half of it into him before Ezra sputtered and shoved him away.

"Come on, Ezra, you promised," Nathan chided. Ezra’s eyes half opened.  “A promise is a promise.”

Ezra made an unintelligible sound, and seemed to be drifting back to sleep again. Another sharp slap from Nathan brought a deadly glare from the conman.

“You drink this now!” Nathan ordered, trying to keep the fear from his voice, as Ezra’s head lolled against Larabee.

After a slight nod, Ezra allowed Nathan to tip the rest of the bottle down his throat. He gagged, but Jackson persevered.  "Antidote," Nathan said to Chris' unasked question.

Finally, once the bottle was empty, Ezra smacked his lips and grimaced.  "Why does everything you force into me have to taste so utterly foul, Mr. Jackson?" he asked miserably.

"Get him to his feet," Nathan demanded.

Chris, dumbfounded by what was going on, helped raise Ezra to his feet, but the gambler was in no state to stand on his own.

"I think I shall be ill," Ezra mumbled.

"That would probably be the best thing," Nathan responded. "I was gonna have to try the syrup of ipecac otherwise in a minute."  And Ezra turned a deeper shade of green.

Chris felt Josiah step in beside him and take Ezra by the elbow. "Come, Ezra," he said, "let us find a nice quiet place for you to purge your body of the evil afflicted upon it."

The army had entered the compound by this time, guns drawn, ready to shoot any desperado that tried to jump them. They looked disappointed to find their quarry already dead.

Chris watched as Josiah led the wobbly gambler off to one of the corners of the structure. He just barely made it before Ezra began to empty his stomach.

"What the hell's going on?" Chris demanded.

JD was standing nearby, his mouth open. "The cognac was poisoned? Did you poison him?" he asked Nathan incredulously.

Nathan extended his hands. "It was all HIS idea. He told me he needed something that would take effect almost instantly and would work on a full stomach. I tried to convince him to use a sleeping powder but he needed something that worked fast. Kept saying that if it wasn't fast, you'd end up dead. The only thing I had would kill him if I didn't get the antidote to him in about a minute."

Chris looked around at the twelve bodies lying around him. The soldiers were poking them, looking for any sign of life, but it was too late for the outlaws. The punishment for their sins had been carried out quickly and efficiently. Varness, in his elegant and worn suit, lay crumpled in a heap near the table. The unstoppable Varness gang had been stopped by one man and an excellent meal.

"Let me get this straight," Chris tried. "Ezra poisoned himself."

Buck laughed. "We weren't getting anywhere the way we were going, so Ezra came up with this plan of his. He said that Varness thought he was a gentleman, and a gentleman always likes good food."

Nathan added, "He and I went back to town and he got about a dozen folks working for him: cooking, baking, packaging.  We must have raided every larder in town.  Got the whole thing whipped together in a few hours."

"And he got you to poison him?" JD said, still having trouble believing what he was hearing.

"He wouldn't listen to reason," Vin interjected.

Nathan shook his head. "Oh, of course he told me that he wasn't gonna drink the cognac; kept tellin' me he'd get around it somehow. After I got the stuff together I figured that I'd better bring an antidote, too.  You should've seen the expression on his face when I told him." Nathan shook his head. "He seemed... startled by that thought.  His whole plan was to... what was it? 'lull them into a sense of complacency' and said that he wouldn't need it.  I figured that it might not turn out that way."

The men watched as Josiah slowly walked Ezra back toward them.  The southerner wiped his mouth on a fine handkerchief, looking ready to keel over. His legs were still like rubber, his expression -- wretched.

"Damn good thing that I did," Nathan muttered. "Which reminds me, Ezra..."

Ezra, propelled by Josiah, moved toward Nathan, "And of what are you reminded, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra mumbled. Nathan pulled another blue bottle from his pocket. "Good Lord," Ezra moaned, "You can't expect..."

Nathan smiled at him, "Now, you just threw up that last bit. I need to get a full bottle of this into you and I'll keep makin' you drink it 'til you keep it down." He patted his pockets, rattling the bottles inside. "Remember your promise... no arguments."

Ezra sighed and drank the second bottle, grimaced and handed it back to Nathan in disgust. "No more, Mr. Jackson. I shall not again endure your medications."

Chris laid his hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Ezra, are you okay?"

"Mr. Larabee, you've chosen a very poor time to ask me that question."

"What if we weren't free, Ezra?" Chris asked seriously. "What if we didn't get to you in time?"

"I knew you were free, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied. "I saw it in your eyes."

"And if I wasn't?"

"I'm quite content that that particular alternative didn't arise, Mr. Larabee."

Chris glanced around at his men and stated, "We're going to have a discussion about this later."

"Keep him moving," Nathan ordered, and Josiah turned Ezra away from the others.

Buck stepped forward to take Ezra's other arm. "Hey, Ez," he said cheerfully. "How ya doin'?"

Ezra just groaned.

"Ezra," Chris called, causing the three men to stop in their tracks, "Thank you."

Without turning around Ezra said, "You owe me."

Buck swiveled his head to Chris and added with a smile, "Ain't no denying that!" before continuing to help keep the gambler in motion.

Nathan was checking JD's bandage, but Dunne's attention had not drifted from Ezra. "I can't believe he did that," JD exclaimed. "I can't believe he just drank that stuff, knowing it could kill him." They watched as Josiah and Buck dragged Ezra across the compound, the conman's legs barely functioning. "Is he gonna be okay?"

"He'll feel pretty low for a few days, but he'll be his ole ornery self soon enough," Nathan replied.

They heard Ezra weakly say, "Please, not near the food." Josiah and Buck had steered Ezra near the hamper and the remains of the meal.

Josiah rumbled softy, "I'm sorry, Ezra, my mind was on other things." And the two men half-dragged him in the opposite direction, wending around the bodies and the bored soldiers.

Nathan quickly checked Chris' bandage and seemed satisfied that they were all right for the time being

"He had them eating out of the palm of his hand, Nathan." Chris said with a laugh. "You should've seen it. Conned the whole lot of them."

Vin chuckled. "I guess it's a good thing we got ourselves a conman in this outfit."

"Nah, a conman wouldn't have done that." Chris replied, "It's a good thing we got Ezra."

Continue to the sequel: Just Deserts

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