CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Nathan and Ezra 
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 in response to the October 2004 Magnificent 7 Challenge, offered by Tipper: One (or more) of the Seven leaves another one of the Seven a gift.  It can be anything.  Rules are: (1) the receiver is alone when he finds/receives the gift, (2) the title of the story must include the word "Gift" and (3) you must use one of the following words: pumpkin, witch, monster, candy, trick, treat.  BONUS: I double dog dare you to try and use the words "googlism" (I dare NT in particular to use that in an OW fic!) and "abstruse" (just cause it's a cool word).
SUMMARY:  I squeaked in "googlism".  So nah nah nah.  Sure, it was a cheat... but a cheat comes in handy sometimes.  Nathan is watching over an ill Ezra when a package arrives. 
FEEDBACK: Yes please comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
SPOILERS: Small one for Sins of the Past, and then for one of my own stories, to be revealed at the end
DATE:  October 18, 2004

A Gift of Patience
By NotTasha... who's running out of it...

A knock on the door awoke him from his half-slumber.  Nathan jerked up his head and blinked at the doorway, taking a moment to clear his mind and remember where he was.  He coughed and shook his head, feeling every ache that came from sitting too long in a wooden chair.  Someone had knocked.  Was it Josiah or Chris or one of the others?  No, they would have barged right in.  Who then?  Jackson ran one hand across the corner of his mouth, wiping away a trail of drool as he contemplated.  The knock repeated.  “Mr. Jackson?” someone called in a reedy voice.

Who the hell was that?  “Coming,” Nathan muttered as he stiffly stood and stretched.  With a determined stride, he headed to the door.  He opened it, letting in the crisp autumn breeze, to find Finn from the hotel.

The lanky clerk wrestled with an odd-sized crate.  “Hey,” Finn stated, nodding his head toward the stage below them.  “This come in.”  He hefted it, trying to rest the strange box on his knee while keeping one hand on either edge, spreading his arms to encompass it.  “I was waitin’ at the coach-stop to see if there was anyone who needed a room, but there weren’t no one getting off.”  He sounded disappointed, but brightened when he added, “They had this package though, so I brung it up.”

Jackson crinkled his brow.  “Don’t remember orderin’ anything,” he commented, trying to figure out what might be within the large, yet thin, square-shaped package.  It didn’t seem deep enough to hold anything, but Finn was hardly able to keep it in his hands.  “Who would send me anything?”

“Oh, it ain’t for you.”  Finn hopped back as he struggled with his load.  “I was gonna bring it to his room, but I figured… well…” and a troubled look crossed his pasty, mustached face as he indicated the bed with his head.  “You know, might as well bring it to him.”

Nathan nodded. “Thanks, Finn,” he uttered and put his hands on the awkward package.  It took a moment to find the best way to hold it.

“I think it’s full of rocks,” the clerk told the healer as he released it.  Nathan grunted when he felt the full weight.  “They ain’t rattling in there, but that’s what I figure.”  When Nathan didn’t respond, Finn snuffled and jammed his freed hands into his pockets.  “He gonna be okay?”

“I hope so,” Nathan responded.

Finn nodded, accepting the answer for what it was.  He eyed the bed fretfully and stepped back from the doorway, as if frightened to enter the sick room.  Nathan wondered why he worried.  The clerk always looked on the verge of succumbing to some terrible illness, but somehow avoided every one that came through the town.  How could someone so sickly-looking keep going?  The pimple-faced clerk with the weedy mustache was a medical mystery.

“If you need anythin’, just let me know, okay?” the clerk told Nathan.  “The boss says…” Finn started, meaning Virginia Bluth, the owner of Virginia’s Hotel, “… we’ll help any way you need.”

“Thanks,” Nathan responded, still trying to master the right hold on the box.  When the hotel clerk didn’t move, Jackson said, “You better be goin’, Finn.”

“Yeah,” the clerk answered, moving uncomfortably.  “See ya later, okay,” and he turned, hands still in pockets and clomped down the stairs.

Nathan hefted the load into the room and set it flat on the table with a grunt.  Damn, it did feel as if the thing were full of rocks.  A card was tied into the cord and he tugged at it, pulling it loose.   The healer turned the letter in his fingers, finding the envelope unsealed.  He regarded it a moment before he let the note rest atop the crate, displaying the address as “Mr. E. Standish c/o Four Corners Jail”.

Jackson sat down in the chair at the bedside, greeting softly, “Hey, Ezra.”

Standish gave no indication he heard.  Instead, he turned his head to one side, and shuffled under the covers. Splinted, bandaged and beat all to heck, it didn’t look like he’d be answering anytime soon.  With a sigh, Nathan picked up a rag from the bowl on the bedside table and used it to again mop down Ezra’s bruised face.  “Something come for you,” he continued, his voice low and soothing.  “Maybe you’ll open your eyes and take a look?”

Two days ago, the seven of them had ridden out, chasing down some foe that had dared attack their town.  They’d cornered the men in a canyon, and had thought the battle won.

Jackson remembered that feeling of triumph.  It felt good to win. Perhaps that was one of the reasons he stayed amongst these people – they were winners – they were the top dogs – they’d always come out ahead.

Then things started going to crap.  They’d been too confident -- too sure of their victory – too damn spread out.  Ezra had been on the far left of their group, undefended, out on his own.   Chris had sent him in that direction, trying to get the gambler into a position to defend their left flank.  “Don’t let those bastards get in behind us,” he’d chided the southerner, and had received a nod in return.

But the bastard did get in.  Some son-of-a-bitch had circled around and had taken down Ezra before the rest had a chance to move.  Nathan recalled how his heart had raced, hearing the shot and Ezra’s pain-filled shout.   The outlaw had gotten to the gambler, and had dragged the bleeding man back to camp.  Nathan had scrambled, trying his damnedest to get there in time, but he was too late.

The gang had captured Standish, thinking him a mere pawn in the game.  The bandits felt secure with one of Larabee’s men as a hostage.  They’d threatened terrible things.  They thought themselves safe with their shield.  They were wrong.  The hounds of hell were unleashed upon them and the gang hardly knew what hit them as Josiah Sanchez and Chris Larabee exploded into their stronghold – as Buck and Vin attacked – as JD and Nathan Jackson retaliated without remorse.

The bandits had reduced their odds of surviving significantly with that stunt.  Maybe, Larabee would have let them live if they hadn’t resorted to such dirty tricks, if they hadn’t hurt one of the Seven.  After the lawmen of Four Corners saw what those monsters had done to Ezra, those men hadn’t had a chance in hell.

“You can save ‘im?” Buck had asked Nathan, his voice thick as he leaned over their hurt brother.

“‘Course,” Ezra had answered for the healer, gasping and coughing, his eyes squeezed shut against the pain, his face swollen and bleeding.  “No doubts.”

But Nathan had his.  It had taken them too long to get to Ezra, they’d had allowed those desperados too much time.  The healer had patched up the bleeding hole, set the bones of a damaged arm, bandaged wounds and tended the bruises that those bastards had inflicted on the already injured gambler. Bruised and broken, Ezra had fallen unconscious almost as soon as they’d found him and hadn’t really come around since.

Standish had surfaced for a moment or two since they returned to Four Corners, delirious and breathless with pain.  Nathan would force down medicine, water, anything that might give the southerner a chance to fight the fever, to fix the damage, to bring him back.  But Ezra would drift away again.

Should’ve kept a better eye on him, Nathan decided.  Shouldn’t have left him out there all alone, allowing him to be sacrificed.  Should’ve watched out for him.

Nathan sighed and sat back in his chair, wishing and hoping still.  Ezra was a fighter, after all, and he’d beat this.  Ezra liked winning as much as Nathan – maybe more even.  An incentive might help him keep going, a treat to dangle at the end of a stick.  “Ezra,” Nathan said softly. “A package came for you.”

Ezra drew in another breath and released it.  His voice, harsh and thick, sounded, but the words were abstruse, and Nathan had no idea what was said.  Standish may have said, “For the love of God,” but it could also have been, “flappin jibjabs.”

“Ain’t you curious about what’s in it?” the healer asked, as he turned the card about.  “Could be something you’d want to see.  Might be important.  Sure is heavy as hell.  Finn thinks it’s rocks.” And Nathan remembered when Maude had come to town, laden with brick-filled luggage.  “You ain’t takin’ after your ma, now, are ya, Ez?”  He smiled at that memory. He’d liked Maude.  Heck, the woman had employed him as a doctor!  And he sighed at that memory, thinking that the woman had turned out to be a bit of a witch, destroying Ezra’s dream.

And Nathan had fallen for her scheme, had been a part of it.  Ezra should have hated him for that – hated them all for what happened to his dream.  But he hadn’t.   No, Ezra just shook off the disillusionment as a duck might shake off water.

There was something remarkably patient about the gambler.  Nathan expected it came from long poker games and the staging of intricate cons.  For a man who seemed all about immediate action, succumbing to base needs, and endless frivolity, Ezra could be remarkably lenient.  Heck, he’s put up with my jibes, Nathan thought. And it hardly seems to affect him… hardly.

Wanting to chase away that thought, Nathan opened the flap on the envelope.  He cleared his throat and spoke, “Maybe I should see what this is about, huh?  I don’t mean to pry.  Just want to make sure nothing gets forgotten.”  He had to do something other than just sit here, waiting, hoping that Ezra would come out of this.

The sick man didn’t say anything, so Nathan pulled the card from the envelope.  “Mr. Standish:” he read aloud.  “I’m sorry it’s taken so long to complete this work for you. Your specifications were a bit more involved that I’d considered, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the extra time was worthwhile when you see the finished product.  I hope you find it satisfactory.  Thank you for the payment that you sent in advance.  All expenses were well covered.   It has been a pleasure doing business with you.  Sincerely, Mr. Edgar Whup.”

Nathan regarded the box again, unable to figure out what could fill it – skinny, square and heavy as anything  -- obviously something more than mere rocks.  “Ezra,” Nathan said hopefully.  “You gotta wake up so I can see what’s in there.  Seems you spent some money and some time on it.  Be a shame to just leave it here, waitin’ for you.”  Nathan drummed his fingers on the crate, and set the note on the bedside table, wishing there was more.

“You’ll beat this, Ezra,” Nathan vehemently told the ailing man, as he picked up the rag and ran it over Ezra’s hot forehead.  “Don’t let those sons-of-bitches win.  They don’t deserve it. They’re not taking you.  You belong with us, you know that.”

Ezra murmured softly.   The word came out throaty and unintelligible as Ezra gasped while he spoke.  Nathan leaned closer, willing himself to understand the phonetic stops.  Ezra might have said, “Go, go get ‘em.”  It also could have been “googlism”.

“We got ‘em, Ez,” Nathan assured, wringing out the cloth to dip it again in the water.  “Sons of bitches,” he repeated, wishing that there was more punishment to be leveled against them.

Ezra tried to move his broken arm and stopped before Nathan could counter the move.  Standish let out a slow, pained breath, leaving Nathan in misery.

Nathan placed a calming hand on Ezra’s shoulder, keeping him from trying that move again.  “The boys have been ‘round,” he stated, wanting, hoping to draw Ezra’s mind away from his constant pain.  “They’ve been here almost always.  I can hardly keep ‘em out of here.  Finally shooed ‘em off.  I hear Massachusetts Meg’s been busy.”  He chuckled, wanting to find humor somewhere.  “JD tells me he saw her slinking out the back of the church yesterday, and right after that Josiah came out the front door with a big ol’ grin on his face.  First time for him to smile since you got…”  And the healer stopped again, hating this.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Nathan voiced quietly.  “You should be strutting down the boardwalk right now, checking out your reflection in the windows, looking like a damn peacock as ya head to Potter’s store and get some candy for your damn horse.  I should be hanging out in the saloon or on the boardwalk…or the jail.” Ezra was quieting as Nathan spoke, his useless movement stilling as he fell into a deeper sleep.  Nathan paused and set the rag back in the bowl.  “Or maybe I could helping out somewhere in town, or could go with ya to spoil Chaucer a bit more.  Billy’s gonna be carving a pumpkin.  He wanted my help.  Said I was the best at carving.”

“Would have been nice,” Jackson stated, “But I guess I’m gonna stay put for a while yet.  Gotta wait until you open those green eyes of yours.  Gonna be soon, I reckon. You won’t let them win.”

“Lord, Ezra, I hate this waiting,” Nathan admitted. “Seems most of my life has been spent waitin’ for one of you boys to wake up from a hurt.  Don’t think I can handle it much longer.  Don’t think I like it much at all.”

Outside, people moved through the clear autumn weather.  Children were laughing.  Dogs barked and horses whinnied.  Within the clinic, Ezra still fought his fight and Nathan stayed beside him.  He seemed to be getting better.  It was only a matter of time now.

Nathan glanced again at the crate, pondering still what could be within.  “Ezra, what do you say I open it up for you?” he asked.  “Might be a nice thing for you to wake up to if I got it out, huh?”  Jackson smiled.  This could be just the thing they needed.  Open the box and magically Ezra might wake up to see!  No more waiting.

Deciding that anything was worth that chance, Nathan drew a knife from its sheath, and pried at the boards.  He had the lid lifted in a few moments, and stared down into a nest of crushed excelsior.  He felt through the packing, finding something hard and cold within.  Curiously, he gathered the packing in his hands and a pattern of squares was revealed.  He tossed the stuffing on the floor, perplexed by his discovery.  “A checkerboard, Ezra?” Nathan asked aloud.  He tried to get his fingers around the edges of the board, but the weight and close confines of the box worked against him.  He carefully tipped the crate on end, letting the heavy board fall onto one hand, then dumped the emptied container into the shaved wood on the floor.

Slowly, brushing the remaining bits of excelsior out of the way, he let the board tip back to cover the little table.  The board was a beauty – white and rose marble forming the playing surface, set in a frame of a darker shade of the same stone.  Jackson ran his hand along the polished frame, then rested one palm against the cool playing surface.  “Pretty impressive checkerboard,” Jackson commented, wondering why Ezra would want such a thing.  Nathan expected to at least find checkers, too, but the box was now empty.

As he ran one finger along the edge, he found two letters engraved in each of the corners – NJ.  “Wonder what NJ is supposed to mean,” the healer softly spoke, and then he paused in wonder.  “Not just a checkerboard,” he whispered, his gaze straying from the magnificent board to look at the sick man.  “It’s a chessboard, ain’t it?  Ezra…” he started.  “Ezra… how?”  And his glance dropped to the carved letters again, his own initials.  His finger traced the letters, channeled into lovely marble.

Nathan didn’t know what to say.  It had been two years since he’d shown Ezra the chess pieces – items that Jackson had been carving from pale pinewood and rich mahogany, illustrating the people he had known in his life.  Two years since Ezra stated that he’d like to play a game with the finished set.  Two years as Nathan finished the carving, pausing far too often to tend to other activities.  God, there were times when Nathan was so eager to complete it!  But he’d been slow and careful, diligent in his work.  The pieces would be prefect!

How had Ezra known that the set was finally complete?

He pulled a rag from the stack near Ezra’s bed and ran it across the surface of the board, carefully dusting and polishing, bringing a luster to the marble.  It was a pretty piece and would have cost a pretty penny.  “Why?” Nathan asked softly, marveling at the board.

Ezra offered only garbled words, that might have been, “fight, you’ll see” or perhaps “fricassee”.

He watched Ezra for a moment longer, still fighting, maybe looking better.  He didn’t seem to be tossing quite as much.  Glancing to the door, Nathan paused, as if he expected someone to come in.  The stairway was quiet and Ezra said nothing outside senseless mutterings.

Slowly, Nathan stood and strode across the room.  He pulled a wooden box from under a cabinet and removed two cloth bags.  “They’re all finished now,” Nathan explained to his patient.  “I know they were only partly done when you saw ‘em.  Took me longer than I thought.”  He opened one bag and removed the dark pieces – King and Queen that resembled his parents in their glory.  Then the shaman bishops – one a wise old slave he’d known, the other a woman who’d taught him the healing arts.   The next pieces were the knights, one warrior rode a zebra, the other an antelope.  He had known those men, fellow stretcher-bearers during the war – brave men who rescued wounded Yankees from the battlefield, bringing them to safety.  Next came the pyramid rooks and the pawns followed – familiar dark faces, men and women who’d peopled his life – fellow slaves and others, all dressed like African warriors.  Black faces that looked human – without the buffoonish eyes, swollen lips and huge white teeth that usually accompanied the portrayal of anyone from his race.

He set the pieces in their places on the far side of the board.  He recalled their names, the tones of voices, the way they laughed – all voices sound different when they laugh. He paused at the last pawn as he looked at his own image as a warrior.  He let himself smile at that conceit and set it among its siblings.

From the second pack, the white pieces appeared.  President and Mary Todd Lincoln were first on the board, then bishops:  Father Antonio and Reverend Grady -- one who’d hid him after his escape, the other was the preacher that had visited the plantation.  Following were the knights: a surgeon and a captain on horseback – fine men who’d treated him well during his days in the army.  The next pieces were the bastion and the tower rooks.

He paused and looked to the doorway before he continued.  No one came.  The place was safe for the pawns.  He handled them slowly and carefully.  They’d come out better than he’d expected.  His earliest pieces showed a certain naďveté.  The features had been a bit crude, the proportions not quite right, but by the time he’d reached these final eight pieces, he’d found a certain brilliance.  The pawns were made in the same proportions as the major pieces, but were crouched down, as if to spring into battle.  The first figure out of the bag was, appropriately, Chris Larabee, his face set to a scowl, his hands clenching his Yellowboy rifle.  He looked fierce and determined, ready to protect his ranks.  Nathan carefully set the leader of their group before the King’s Rook.

Vin was next, his long hair carefully carved about his shoulders, his mare’s leg in one hand, his familiar spyglass in the other.  His eyes were narrowed as if seeking something in the distance.  After Vin came Little Billy Travis – looking pleased as punch and carrying a popgun.  He was the only pawn to stand to his full height.  Buck came after, looking sly and smiling beneath his mustache.   JD was placed beside his mentor, wearing his bowler and carrying his Colts.  Next was Josiah, looking terrible and amused at the same time, carrying a Bible under one arm as he hefted his Schofield with the other.  Nathan found his own piece, and smiled that he was represented on both sides.  This was his own life, after all, and he knew that he couldn’t desert his past or his present companions.

He liked to be on the winning side, and this was one way to assure it.  He’d win no matter what.  His eyes strayed to the man in the bed again.  “We’ll win this one,” he promised.

Ezra responded by turning his head and gasping out, “cheats horribly”, or it may have been “cheese doodley”.

The final piece was found after a moment’s fumbling in the bag.  Nathan carefully retrieved the gambler’s pawn.  It was the last piece he’d finished – had probably gotten to the bottom of the bag as pieces were polished and shuffled about.  He held the wooden conman in the palm of his hand as his eyes stayed on the patient.

Ezra looked like hell, wasted and pale except for the flush of color at his cheeks; his eyes were sunken, his hair matted.  His mouth formed words that no one could understand, muted and mumbled and half-silenced.  But he was better, wasn’t he?

The wooden piece, on the other hand, grinned cheekily.  It showed off a fleck of gold imbedded in his teeth, carrying a Colt in one hand, a derringer in another and a Remington at his hip.  The carving looked so vital, ready to jump to his feet and to run into battle – so unlike the present state of man it’d been modeled after.

With a sigh, Nathan placed the piece at the last empty space, before the Queen’s Rook.  The pieces looked perfect on the chessboard.  The marble set off the rich tones of the wood, making it seem to glow.

Nathan shook his head, and muttered, “Why?” again.  This was obviously an expensive board – far more valuable than these simple woodcarvings.  He paused in his thinking as he recalled how Ezra had insisted that the chess set would be very expensive when complete – worth at least $100, possibly a lot more.  He recalled Ezra’s smugness as he calculated the worth of such a set… And Nathan had been surprised, pride had swollen in his chest.  Something he created could be worth that much?  It seemed impossible.

“Never sell it,” Ezra had told him.  And the chess set wasn’t mentioned it again.   Jackson had kept its existence secret – more out of habit than anything.  At times, he yearned to show off the pieces, but the right moment never came and he’d become to used to stashing them away, working in secret.  He had a niggling fear that the others might not appreciate it – being turned into pawns.  Ezra had stated differently – but….

The last piece had been finished for almost a month.  Nathan had spent the last weeks oiling and polishing them – and not knowing what to do with them – not knowing if the time was right to finally display his masterwork.  After spending nearly a decade carving the figures – he didn’t know how to go about using them as they were meant to be.  How had Ezra known they were finished?

Nathan watched Ezra breathe. He seemed to be struggling less, quieting, yet the gambler continued to mutter words that Nathan could almost understand yet fail to grasp.  Certainly, he was getting better.

He’d wait a year, Nathan recalled.  Ezra had told him that he was willing to wait a year to play a game with Nathan’s chess pieces.  It had surprised Nathan.  Could the cardsharp remain in Four Corners for a full year?  Now, it seemed silly to doubt such a thing.  Ezra had stayed; he had waited.  And one year stretched into two.

Nathan crossed his arms and smiled at the marble chessboard, covered with his intricately carved pieces.  It was a wonder to behold, the sort of thing a rich man might possess – but there it was, the story of his life, carved in wood and set against beautiful stone – in his crude clinic.  The marble reflected the pieces, doubling them.

Still, the question was… why?  Why had Ezra gone to the trouble and expense of ordering the custom-made chessboard?  What was the purpose behind it, because everything the conman did had a purpose.  Was it meant to be payment for something?

And Nathan shifted in his seat, where he’d been sitting for hours … for days.

Or was it just meant as an act of friendship.

“Care to tell me, Ezra?  You mind waking and letting me know?”

Maybe… just maybe… the board was given as a bribe… so that Jackson would take his finished pieces out of hiding, let them be seen, and allow the gambler a chance at a game.

It would have been perfect if Ezra were to awaken now.  Just open his eyes and see the chessboard, all set up and ready.  “It’s time for that game, Ezra,” Nathan said hopefully.  “What do you say about that?  You’ve been waiting a long time.  It’s ready now.  I’m ready.”

But Ezra made no sign of coming around.  He might have muttered “hellacious headache,” but it also might have been “Hellboy’s first weekend.”

Nathan picked up the cloth, wringing it out and using it to daub at Ezra’s face.  Standish was getting better, Nathan was sure of it.  “I’ll wait,” Nathan promised.  “I can be patient, too.”  He rested the cloth on Ezra’s forehead, willing the cool water to take away some of the heat.

Another glance at the board disquieted him.  Furtively, Nathan leaned toward the board and rearranged the pawns on the left side of the board, moving them about so that Ezra’s piece wasn’t left alone on one end. He tucked it between Josiah’s and his own doppelganger.

There, he thought.  That’s better.

He returned his attention to the bed, knowing it was only a matter of time before Ezra awoke – he always did, after all.  Just give him some time to recuperate and he’d be back with them again.

“I’ll wait,” Nathan repeated, and waited.

THE END - by NotTasha
The next story in this series is... The Game's in Play

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