CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Chris, Nathan, Ezra and Josiah
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven".  No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: This is a sequel to A Gift of Patience, which is a sequel to The Winning Side
SUMMARY:  Ezra recovers from the incident in A Gift of Patience and finally gets to play that game
SPOILERS: ah, just my other stories
FEEDBACK: Yes please comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
DATE:  October 26, 2004

The Game's in Play
By NotTasha... I'd like to say, "I'm game", but more likely it's "I'm gamey"

Chris Larabee moved easily down the November street, enjoying the cool weather and the signs of autumn all around him.  The crisp air let him feel easier – better than he had in days.  God, it actually felt good to be alive!  A few stray leaves tumbled in the breeze and the signs of harvest crowded the storefronts.  Yeah, he was feeling better, but his improving mood, he admitted, had nothing to do with the quality of the day.

He paused when he reached the livery and looked up toward Nathan’s clinic.  The last few days had been wretched – every trip up those stairs had only brought him sorrow.  But things had changed last evening.  Chris allowed himself a smile at that thought.  Standish had awakened.

As he gazed up the stairway, he was surprised to see the healer there, seated against the balcony’s railing.    Nathan, relaxing outside the clinic, was reason enough to feel even better – it meant that Ezra was able to be without the healer’s constant supervision.  Ah, it was a good day, indeed.

Of course, Larabee reflected, Josiah’s probably in there right now, watching over their brother.  Ezra would have little privacy for a while – no doubt.  Not after what had happened to him, when the rest of them let their guards down.  Damn, that still ate at the gunslinger, tore at him.  They’d gotten too sure of themselves and had forgotten that the game wasn’t over – that losses were still possible – penalties to be wrought.

He’d made a mistake.  He’d allowed Ezra to be captured and nearly killed, all due to his overconfidence.  “Won’t happen again,” Chris promised softly.  “Won’t forget it.”

Nathan, feeling Larabee’s gaze upon him, turned, looked down the stairs, and nodded toward the gunslinger inviting him up.  Larabee needed no further coaxing.  He climbed the too rickety stairs, wondering again why Nathan never sought to move his quarters.  It’s a damn fool place to be keeping sick people, Chris thought as he remembered how they carried Ezra up these stairs just a few days earlier – bloody, bruised, broken and already sick with fever.

Nathan leaned back far enough to watch Larabee make his way up and smiled.  “You enjoyin’ the day?” Jackson asked.

Chris suddenly caught sight of Josiah, leaning against the outside wall of the clinic.  “Gettin’ better and better,” Chris admitted, realizing that if they were leaving Ezra to his own devices, then Standish must truly be on the road to recovery.

Josiah nodded, and stated a soft, “Good morning, Chris.”

The gunslinger let out a short chuckle, little more then a, “heh,” when he took his final step to reach the upper floor and spotted the third figure on the balcony.

Ezra sat, nestled in blankets and ensconced in his rocking chair, beside Josiah.  The gambler gave Larabee a pointed glance as he pulled the coverings close.  “Mr. Larabee,” he drawled slowly.

Larabee tilted his head and he leaned against the railing, regarding the pale and bruised southerner whose splinted arm rested in a sling at his chest.  “You look like hell, Ezra,” Chris commented dryly.

“As do you,” Standish responded smartly.  “But I’m on the mend.”  His good hand found its way loose of the blankets and it gestured as he continued.  “I’m afraid there’s little to be done for you.”

“Hmmm,” Chris snorted.  Since they’d freed Ezra from that gang of desperados, three days ago, Nathan had fretted and fussed, distressed by the southerner’s condition and his fevered mutterings.  It was only late last evening that Standish finally started coming around and speaking intelligibly.  Still, Jackson had insisted that Standish be kept quiet and immobile for the next few days.  “See you changed your mind about keepin’ him in bed,” Larabee commented.

Josiah chuckled and Nathan scowled.  “I was ready for some air,” Ezra responded for them.  “And better light.”  With that, the gambler leaned forward, and extended a hand to move something on the table beside him.

Chris tsked and shook his head as he moved closer to the trio, finally noting the table that sat in their little circle. He came to a dead stop and peered in interest.  There sat a chessboard of white and rose marble and a chess set unlike any he’d ever seen before.  Half the pieces were carved of mahogany, depicting African warriors – the other, of a pale wood, seemed to represent figures from the War and the West.  Ezra played the dark figures while Nathan commanded the light.

Chris squinted at the nearest pawn and let loose a slow breath.  “What the…”  he started as he reached for the pawn that sort-of resembled himself.

“Do NOT touch the pieces in play!” Ezra spat out, giving him a vicious glare in spite of his bloodshot and tired-looking eyes.

Larabee stilled his hand, letting it hover over the piece and looked to Nathan who smirked.  “Let it alone,” the healer chided.

Leaving his hand over the piece for a moment longer, Larabee scowled and squatted down.  Now, eye level to the piece, there was no doubting it – the piece was carved to look like him.  Hell, it was even scowling.  He glanced from Nathan to Ezra – who weren’t paying him any attention – then to Josiah who grinned, showing his big white teeth.

Chris poked out a finger, wanting to just turn the piece to see more of it, but instantly he received reprimands.

“The piece is in play!” Ezra exclaimed, his voice dripping with distain, glancing to Josiah for support.  “Incredible, the man can’t even follow one simple rule of the game.”

“Leave it,” Nathan commanded, as one might discipline a dog that was after one’s supper.  “Let it alone.”

Chagrined, Chris straightened, then snagged another pawn that stood captured before Ezra.   He shot Ezra a look that stated he’d put up with no further rebukes.  The conman gave him a haughty look, but said nothing.  Damn him, Chris thought, wondering how he’d allowed these people to order him around.  He immediately recognized who was depicted in pale wood:  long hair, sawed off Winchester, spyglass, obviously decaying jacket.  “It’s Vin,” he uttered.

Ezra leaned back in his chair and stated, “It’s a pawn  -- one of the pawns I've managed to capture, and I request that you return it.”  And he let loose a slow breath as he closed his eyes.

Nathan gave the gambler a probing look as Josiah patted him gently on the shoulder.  “You ready to go back in now, son?” Sanchez asked sincerely.

“Not just yet,” Ezra responded.  “A moment or two more… please.”

Chris’ gaze flicked between the three men, wondering if something should be done, but neither Josiah nor Nathan made any further move regarding Ezra, so he continued the scrutiny of the pawn in his hand.  “This is amazing,” Larabee murmured.  Vin’s eyes seem to narrow at some distant sight.  His hand gripped the spyglass as if he meant to lift it to his face.  The seams of his jacket were almost falling to pieces before his eyes.  “Incredible.”

Ducking his head, Nathan murmured, “Oh, it’s nothing really.” And he grasped JD, squeezing his head at the ears, and moved him forward to take out a crouching warrior on Ezra’s side.  “Just something… I… ah…Well, it’s nothing.”

“Hardly,” Ezra returned.

“They’re works of art,” Josiah added, nodding to Nathan.  “And there’s the artist.   And he kept all this secret for so long.”  And he gave his old friend an appraising look.

Astounded, Chris turned to Nathan and asked, “You carved all of these?”

“Yeah, well…” Nathan responded, scratching at the back of his neck as he placed the taken pawn on his side.  “Not the board,” he amended quickly.  “Ezra got that.”

And Josiah and Chris both looked at the conman in disbelief.  Ezra yawned and said, “I paid a dollar for it in a second-hand shop.  It was in deplorable condition.  All it took were a few repairs.  Cost me a dollar-fifty in all and little effort.”  He gestured again with his good hand, waving toward Nathan.  “He’s trying to divert your attention.  He’s the master carver and deserves all your acclaim.”

“Master carver?” Nathan repeated.  “Now, I wouldn’t say that!”

“I would,” Chris returned.

“Me, too,” Josiah agreed.  “And I’ve seen some mighty fine works of art, Nathan.  What you have here is something incredible… unbelievable.”

Nathan felt his heart flutter and his face grow hot.  He glanced down at his work, seeing the faces of all those people – all the important people of his life.

“It must have taken some time,” Chris stated.

“A lifetime,” Ezra commented softly.

Chris set down the figure of Vin and picked up the image of Buck from the little captured group in front of Ezra.  The southerner peeled open an eye and quirked an eyebrow at him, looking annoyed.  “Mr. Larabee…” he started.

“Not in play…” Larabee said, mockingly as he waggled Buck at Ezra.  Ezra lifted a lip in irritation.

Buck was delightfully realized. The image smirked.  There was something playful about his stance, as if he were ready to leap forward to tackle one of his brothers, yet his grip on his weapon was deadly, as if he had no problems with using it if the time came.   Larabee glanced at the other pieces in front of Ezra, noting that little Billy Travis seemed to be among them. 

Standish gave up his glare on Larabee and looked toward Josiah.  “My turn?” he asked.

“Yup,” Josiah responded.  When Ezra drew in a sharp breath as he sat forward, Josiah asked, “You tell me what you want to move and I’ll take care of it.”

With a reluctant sigh, Ezra sat back in his chair.  “Perhaps it would be for the best.”

Still examining Wilmington in his palm, Chris suggested, “Take out my piece next.”

“Never thought I’d hear the man so eager to be removed from play,” Ezra commented dryly.

“Come on.  I want to see it.”

“The move would not be wise at this moment,” Ezra stated.  “I have you protecting half my field.”

“Do it anyway,” Larabee growled.

Ezra grinned and some color seemed to come back to his cheeks.  “Patience, Mr. Larabee.  Good things come to those who wait.”  He cleared his throat and requested, “Josiah, would you please move Miz Lizzy to Pastor Grady?”

Josiah’s hand hesitated over the figure of a black woman warrior, crouching without a weapon, and looked to Nathan for confirmation.  The healer nodded and Sanchez moved the piece as instructed, capturing the figure of a fat priest.  He settled the bishop among the other pieces that Ezra had already managed to remove.

“And tell Mr. Larabee to keep his mitts off my detainees,” Ezra commented as Larabee reached for the latest removed piece.

Josiah guffawed and Chris scowled.  Nathan grinned at both of them. “They ain’t in play,” Chris grumbled.

“Just the same…” Ezra responded with a yawn, closing his eyes again and snuggling into his comforters.  “The game is still in progress.  One must wait.”

Chris crossed his arms over his chest and glanced over at Nathan’s captured pieces.  The healer put his hands protectively over the assemblage and shook his head.  Damn it, Chris thought as he ground his teeth.  I don’t get no respect.

Nathan regarded the board and edged JD forward again.  The boy sheriff was taken out by Ezra’s next move, removed by another pawn, an annoyed-looking warrior named Rodney who carried a spear and had a bone through his nose.

Josiah’s figure took out Rodney, and Sanchez’ double was in turn taken away by a knight on a zebra – going by the name of John.  Ezra sunk further into his chair at every turn, watching the game through hooded eyes and instructing Josiah with a soft, sleepy voice.

Finally, after Nathan went after one of Ezra’s rooks, Ezra slipped into sleep, snoring every so softly as he nestled into his blankets.

The three men were quiet, watching the gambler slump further.  “He gonna be alright?” Chris asked candidly as he picked up the captured figure of JD and held it carefully in his hands.  Damn, the hat was so perfectly carved, he could see the hole where a bullet had been sent through it.

Nathan regarded the sleeping southerner.  Ezra had awakened late yesterday evening. Nathan, having waited with all the patience he could muster, had found Standish, laying in bed and gazing blearily at the chessboard.  Standish blinked at it as if he wasn’t quite able to fathom the sight.  “S’done?” Ezra had asked hoarsely.

“Yeah,” Nathan had answered, sitting down quickly beside Ezra.  “Hope you don’t mind I opened the box.  I guess I couldn’t help myself.  Never’ve had any patience when it comes to things like that.” And he smiled, unable to stop, as Ezra continued to gaze toward the chess set.  “Figure I couldn’t just leave the board sitting there waiting – I had to get it all set up and ready for you.” He had wrung his hands as he said, “Thank you… but why?  I don’t understand why you got it for me.”

“Where were they?” Ezra had asked, licking his dry lips. “The pieces.”

Nathan nodded toward the box beneath his cabinet.

“You owe me… a game,” Ezra stated.

“Soon as you can sit up proper,” Nathan had promised.  And he kept his word.  Jackson would have preferred to keep Ezra a’bed for another day, but Ezra had finagled a promise to let him out into the fresh air for the game.  A little sunlight and air would be good for him, Nathan had decided.  So, after sending Josiah to fetch Ezra’s rocking chair, they’d managed to move the gambler out only a short time ago.

“He’s gonna be fine,” Jackson promised.  “Just needs to rest up a bit more.  It’ll take some time, but he’ll be okay.  That bullet wound is finally healing proper.  His arm’ll have to be in that splint for a while though.  Hope he can be patient enough to let it heal straight.”  Nathan shrugged as he stood.  “But, right now, we just gotta get him inside.  Figure he won’t wake.”

And Josiah laughed again, long and hard.  Chris realized how good it was to hear Josiah laugh like that.  “That boy won’t wake even if cannons were thundering down these streets,” the big man stated gleefully.

Chris stepped back, watching as the healer and the preacher got into position, then carefully lifted the slumbering gambler, blankets and all, from the chair.  With infinite care, they adjusted their grips, mindful of the healing wounds, supporting the broken arm, letting Ezra’s head rest on Josiah’s shoulder, and then they made their way toward the clinic.

Easily, Larabee got around them, opening the door and then reaching the bed so that he could straighten the sheets and fix the pillows.  They had Ezra settled in his bed in no time at all.

Then, quietly, they filed out of the room and back onto the balcony. Nathan sat down in Ezra’s chair and sighed.  Rocking back, Jackson wondered why he didn’t keep a chair like this in his clinic.  Lord, it was worlds better than his regular chair.  Josiah leaned against the railing, breathing in the crisp autumn air and Chris returned to his position beside the table and the elegant chess set.  His hand moved toward his own pawn.

“Leave it,” Josiah growled, sounding too much like a watchdog, as he twisted in his place to fix a glare on Larabee.

“Game’s over,” Larabee declared.

“Not by a long shot,” Nathan shot back.  “We’re finishing it as soon as that fool wakes up again.”

Larabee scowled and declared, “It’s not as if it’ll make any difference if I touch one of them.”

“Game’s still in play,” Nathan declared.  He rocked back, regarding the pieces from this new point of view.  He’d been surprised when Ezra declared that he wanted to play the dark pieces, but now he thought he understood.  From this seat he could see the faces of the white army – there was Chris and Josiah, Nathan and Ezra still looking at him, still fighting.

“The game’s still in play,” Nathan repeated softly and closed his eyes as he rocked.

THE END - by NotTasha
Next story in this series?  A Curious Game

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