RATING: PG - for language
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW 
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra ...and Vin and a bit of Chris
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, The Hallmark Channel, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: February 2004 Magnificent 7 Challenge, given by Yolande:  I want you to write a story that shows us what the boys get up to when they’re not saving the town or off rescuing a village…when they’ve got far, far too much spare time on their hands.  What sort of pranks, tricks, mischief and general mayhem do they get up to and who do they target? 
SUMMARY:  Ezra's bored, and when he gets bored, he starts to think too much
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
SPOILERS:  small spoilers from Ghosts of the Confederacy, Serpents, Obsession
APPEARS IN: Fanzine Nothing Left to Chance #3
DATE: February 29, 2004

Traveling Weight
Winner of the 2004 Diamond Ezzie Award for Best Old West Fic - General - Medium
By NotTasha...who could lose some weight, too.

It was insufferable. Completely unbearable.  In the darkness, Ezra leaned against the railing outside Virginia's Hotel. It was well past midnight and the citizens of Four Corners were all tucked into their beds.  A dull and rotten lot, Ezra decided.  Not one person, aside from himself, had the wherewithal to be up at that late hour.  Pitiful, really.  No one had the stamina to remain wakeful once the saloons shut down.  Ignorant bastards, smug pricks – sleeping when there might be something else to do.

If Four Corners was a half-way decent city, there'd be something happening -- a saloon still open, a hotel lobby to haunt, a coffee house, an ale house… a whore house -- but everyone was sleeping like good and honest citizens -- everyone with the exception of one restless gambler.

Hopeless sons-of-bitches.

Ezra straightened, stretched and then kicked at a bit of dirt on the boardwalk.  The night fires were nearly out.  There was no one to tend them, no one who should care.  Not even Ezra P. Standish cared that the streets became darker with each progressing minute.  Why should it matter?

As he recommenced his slow promenade down the dim boardwalk, Ezra kicked a bit of wood into one of the dying heaps. He didn’t see the flame that re-ignited with the new fuel. He was already on his way.  With careful movements, he walked, muffling his step.   There was no point in rousing others.  No man liked to be awakened from his sleep.  No one wanted to get out of their warm beds to shout, “Quiet!” at a solitary wanderer.  No one should be searching the unwelcoming streets, looking for the one who disturbed their slumber.

Ezra Standish traveled like a ghost through the sleeping town.

With a yawn, he came to a stop -- just a few doors down from where he started.  Slowly, he slouched until he leaned against a roof support.  With hooded eyes, he gazed down the dark street as if something might come at him.  Nobody came.  Nothing moved.  Nah, they were all smarter than that.  Every other living soul in this destitute town knew how to sleep.  Not even a cat roamed.

He slouched further.  The moon glowed.  The stars shown.    He gazed up, squinting at the pinprick lights.  The wind blew softly.  The world revolved on its axis.  Somewhere, grass grew.

He straightened and started his slow plod.

Outside of the jailhouse, he paused, wondering if he should go within.  He could fire up the stove and make some coffee.  Get warm.  Sit back.  Relax.  He let his expression sink as he considered the chairs within that room  -- not what any man could call comfortable. Perhaps, he’d lie down on one of the cots in the cells?  On, no… not that.  He rubbed his arms, feeling a chill.  No thank you, he'd prefer to stay on the other side of the bars.  He wouldn't go within without a fight.

Well, maybe he could page through some Wanted Posters -- see if he recognized anyone.  He could do some good...but that sounded too much like work.  Instead of opening the lock and starting the jail's stove – getting warm and comfortable -- he sat down on the bench beside the door and rested his head in his hands.

He was bone-tired, weary to the core, but sleep refused to find him.  The town had been too quiet lately, too still, too colorless.  There was nothing to hold his attention.  Nothing to distract him.  No new opponents at the tables.  No evil-doers to rankle the law abiding citizens.   Nothing.  It only reminded him of how pointless his existence was.  It dropped him into a despondent state that left him walking the dark street.

Well, the street was better than his closed room.  He'd passed his first restless nights there.  After spending too much time staring up at his ceiling in the dark, he turned to lighting a light, reading books, writing letters.  He'd tried to sleep again -- failed -- then spent the rest of the night cleaning his weapons, then brushing the dirt and dust from his clothing -- bringing a sheen to his guns and a luster to his jackets.

To avoid the third evening of tossing, he'd taken to the street two nights ago.  He was a wanderer by birth -- brought up to be in motion.

He leaned back into the bench and stared into the dark.  Without motion, without activity, without mental stimulation, he was left with only himself and that wasn't much company.  Oh, sure, the other men he worked with kept him occupied during the day.  They were an engaging group that never failed to entertain  -- but in these quiet days there just hadn't been anything for them to do.  They’d passed the time in listless card games, in quiet conversation, in reflection.  Larabee seemed to draw up into himself and grow darker.

There were others in his group -- God help them -- who took on extra chores during the quiet days, helping out the townspeople with their various drudgeries.  Ezra, of course, wouldn't stoop to such menial behavior and was left to watch and supervise.

The others managed to find sleep.  Ezra walked the midnight street.

The others were stronger than he.  The others were better men. He scuffed at the walkway again.  What the hell was he doing here?

Maybe he could wake one of his fellow lawmen.  JD and Buck were both in the boarding house -- Chris was spending the night there as well.  Nathan was always in the clinic wasn't he?  Even if there was no one to tend -- Nathan slept there anyway, 'just in case'.  Josiah was in his church.  Both men were used to being awakened at odd times.  There were always people who needed their kind of help during all the strange hours.

His gaze came upon Vin's wagon.  It wouldn't take much to awaken the tracker.  Standish had purposefully kept to the opposite side of the street as he paced so that he wouldn't disturb the light-sleeper within.  Maybe, Ezra pondered, if he just changed his walk a bit, he'd be loud enough to awaken Tanner.  It would look like an accident, and Tanner couldn’t be too annoyed at that?

With a disgusted grunt, Standish discarded that idea. Sure, Tanner would be angry.  Who wouldn’t?  Ezra knew that he, himself, would never stand for such selfish and obnoxious behavior.  Nobody wanted to be awake at this hour.

Ezra yawned again and rubbed at his eyes.  Onto his fifth night without real sleep, he should just fall over from exhaustion -- but with each progressive night, he became more agitated -- more incapable of just staying in his room -- less likely to lie still until sleep found him.

It was too damn still here.  Too damn peaceful.

Why didn't he just go?  Just leave this place?  Why not?  Certainly there was a town better suited for him – somewhere.  Certainly there was a place – somewhere – that would have him.  Why didn’t he go?

Because he had a responsibility here?  Yes, that was right.  But, he was only one of seven -- the seventh of seven.  Truly, he wouldn't be missed if he left.  Six men could accomplish the same as seven.  Sure, he'd made that promise to Larabee about not running out, but there was no impending danger, no need be vigilant.  This was just a silent, quiet town.  He wouldn't be missed.  He wasn't needed -- not really.  Seven dollars could be split six ways if one kept track of who got those extra pennies each week.

One dollar and sixteen cents… seventeen if you’d pulled extra weight that week, Ezra thought.  Sixteen cents.  That’s all I’d amount to when spread out over the remaining six.

You see, everyone would gain if he just gave up with this charade and left.  He was, after all, just a traveling gambler, a man that picked up and left when the gaming rooms grew quiet.  He was a confidence man who had to scurry away like a mouse when the tables turned. He was a cheat that disappeared with his meager belongings before his tricks could be discovered.  It used to be so easy – just grab his carpetbag and go.  Could he still do that?  Was it still possible.

Hell, he’d gained too much 'stuff’ since he moved here. He had too much baggage, too much to weigh him down.

Finding his position on the bench no longer bearable, Ezra stood again.  He treaded the boardwalk -- careful of the squeaky boards -- moving like a somnambulist -- patrolling a town that needed no such thing.

Coming to a stop, he glanced across the street toward the window of his rented room.  I could just go upstairs and pack, he thought.  Just pack, to see if I can do this.  I won’t really ‘go’, but something must be done.  This quiet will destroy me bit by bit.  I will be reduced to a husk. It’s time I got back to traveling weight.  Just clean up a little bit. Time I shucked off the excess.  

Without further thinking, he ended up at the base of the saloon's outside stairway.  He halted, not wanting to return to his room -- where it was quiet and empty – but the street was just as quiet... just as empty.  I could just pack a bag, he thought.  See if I can do it.  See if I can make it work.  It will give me something to do.  I can clean house, discard what’s not needed.  It’s time I rid myself of some of that ‘stuff’.  It’s time I got back to traveling weight.

He ascended the stairway slowly, knowing that there were souls asleep all around him.  He placed a key in the lock and entered the upper floor, not bothering to light a lamp.  He knew the way through the hallway and could do it blind if he had to.  He ran his fingers along the wall as he drifted through.

At his room, he undid another lock, and entered.  He shut the door behind him and stood a moment in the black. Really, he should just try to sleep again.  What would it hurt to settle on his bed and shut his eyes for a moment or two?

He shook his head sharply.  What good would that do? He'd only grow irritated as his inability to do something so simple as sleep. For the Love of God!  Everyone in this town could sleep! Babies slept, horses slept, little kitties slept. Rats and drunks and black-hearted gunmen slept. Even the serpents slept in their snake pits.  Why couldn't he?

Instead of sitting down on the bed, taking off his boots, pulling back the coverlet and lying down, he lit a match.  The light flared, illuminating the closed space, the small room that he rented.  It was really entirely too cramped, he thought.  He should be in a bigger town with a suite to satisfy him.   Yes, that was part of the problem -- he deserved better than this.  He deserved so much more!

Carefully, he lifted the chimney on the lamp and brought the match to the wick.  He watched it burn for a moment, fascinated by the dancing flame.  He blinked and shook out the match before singed his fingers.

Yes, the room was entirely too small -- as was the town -- too small for a man such as he. He needed something better, more fitting of his personality -- a big town, with plenty of marks to fleece -- a city, goddamn it!   This little scab of a town was hardly worth mentioning.  The people who lived here -- well -- they were beneath him, weren't they? They had no money.  They had no class. He required more.

He sat down on the bed, but didn't take off his boots. He glanced about the room as if he expected something to happen. He listened to the night as if he thought someone might call out. He held his breath as if he expected someone to say, "Wait."

Only silence was returned.

Quickly, to dispel the awful quiet, he pulled his Colt Richards Conversion from his shoulder holster.  It clicked reassuringly – a familiar noise to soothe him. He emptied it, and checked it, wondering if it needed another cleaning. He rotated the cylinder, and reloaded the gun methodically before returning it to the holster.  Next, he removed to the Remington at his hip and did the same with it.  His derringer followed. He went as far as to remove his jacket and the rig -- making sure that the mechanism was in perfect operating condition, before strapping it back on, setting the little gun in its spring and pulling his chocolate-brown jacket over it.  He ran his hand over the fabric of the blazer, ensuring that it was perfectly placed.  Appearances, after all….

He stood and adjusted the holsters, taking his time with every step, making each movement deliberate and graceful, but even with his slow speed, he finished far too quickly for his preference.  He stood – back where he started – nothing accomplished.

It was time.  Time to do what he came here for.

He pulled his carpetbag from under his bed, and dusted it off. His movements were slow and purposeful as each bit of dust was plucked away.  He frowned when he noted its size.  The bag really seemed so small. How had he packed his whole life into it before? How could everything fit? Sometimes, he felt so old – as if he’d lived one-hundred years already. How does one make that fit into one small bag?

How had it gotten so dusty? For most of his life, the bag had been in constant use. No matter where he stayed, he'd kept it packed and ready -- only needing to grab it and go when his luck turned bad.  He stayed at traveling weight.  What wasn't already in the bag, would be left behind when he had to flee.

But he’d let the bag go empty – he’d allowed himself to accumulate more than would fit.  He dropped the bag onto the bed, and then pulled open the top drawer of his dresser.  He drew out his cravats, his handkerchiefs and other small things that were needed to play the part of a gentlemen -- taking this… and leaving that.  There wasn’t room for everything.

He moved from one drawer to the next -- making painful choices.  He had to be vicious.  He couldn't keep something only because he 'liked it'. No, he had to bring only what made the most sense -- something warm for when the nights grew cold -- something light for when the days were hot.  He chose what was easily packed.  He went through each drawer purposefully – leaving behind more than he kept.

When he opened his wardrobe, he had to stand back and stare at his collection of jackets, waistcoats and shirts.  How could there be so much?  He’d grown too fond of buying new things – he’d forgotten how to throw out what was not ‘needed’.

His hand closed on his red jacket -- his favorite. He drew it out and held the blazer for a moment. He flipped back the lapels and sighed, finding the place where he'd ripped open the lining when he attempted to make off with all that money. His laundry woman had managed to get out the bloodstains and sew up the worst of the damage, but the jacket was really hopeless -- not worth the space it took up in his luggage. The edges were worn, the red was fading to a rose.

As he ran a finger along the repaired hem, he smiled, recalling events that had happened around this jacket,  little things about the men he worked with -- the laughter of his friends, the jokes, the good-natured conversations.  They were a magnificent group, an excellent association…the finest men.  What the hell was he doing amongst them?

With a sigh, he replaced the jacket in the wardrobe.  It made no sense to bring it -- it has been ill-used.   Time to let it go.  He had to be sensible.

He sorted through the rest of his clothing, being as heartless as possible in his choices -- trying to find articles that matched up well with each other -- that would suit him in any weather.  He chose his plain tan jacket over the beautiful plum because it was better for travel.  He took his black suit in case it was needed for some austere moment -- there was no telling where he'd end up.  The green jacket had a stain on the sleeve. Time to let go.  Aw, but it looks so good on me.  No, too late. Too late.

He ended up taking a dark blue suit, mostly because it was new and less-worn than the others – and held no memories to make it more burdensome.

He turned to the clothing he'd lain out on his bed and wondered if he should draw this matter to a close.  His exercise was complete.  There was no need to wrinkle anything just because he wanted to try this out.  A glance to the clock told him that daylight was hours away.  The night wasn't going to be dispelled so easily.  So he packed, mechanically, putting this on top of that, fitting all his life into one bag.

He snagged his saddlebags from their place beneath the nightstand and ensured it was properly packed, too.  Within was his sewing kit, his shaving kit and everything he needed on the trail -- hair soap, cookware, flint, a knife, a compass, ammunition, a book, playing cards, bandages -- and dozens of other necessary things.  It was all in order.  He dumped it out and put each item back into the pouch, throwing aside the bits that weren’t needed.

Not wanting to forget anything, he knelt to move one of the floorboards beneath his bed and brought out a tin box.  He shook it.  It used to rattle, but it was packed full now.  The box was bulky and heavy, not the right thing for travel.  He keyed it open, lifted the lid, and stared a moment before poking at the assortment of precious things he'd collected over the years.

Some of the items were new – jewelry he’d won in a game.  Others were quite old -- a faded yellow ribbon -- a tie-tack that he'd stolen from his father's house -- a broach that he'd smuggled away from his mother -- weathered papers: a packet of letters, a marriage certificate, a death certificate -- he moved past them without reading the words.  Three photographs -- a lock of hair in a tiny silver box -- some small toys that misguided children had given to him.  There were newspaper articles from the Clarion that heralded the great deeds of the local lawmen, and a copy of a book by Jock Steele.

Beneath the cheap novel, he found a harmonica that Vin had presented to him as a joke, and a beautiful Book of Psalms that Josiah thought he should have.  He’d irked the preacher when Josiah had been to his room.  Ezra discovered Sanchez perusing his library with a puzzled expression – obviously looking for the gilded book.  There was no need to tell Sanchez where it ended up – let him think what he may.

Next, the gambler brought out a chunk of pyrite that JD had given him – thinking it was gold (magnanimous of the lad to give it away).  There was a bullet that Nathan had dug out of his skin and put on a chain for him, as a reminder to be careful.  With a smile, Ezra pulled out a small silver tray that Buck had filched for him from Ella Gaine’s ranch.  He let out a breath as he saw what was under it -- the Pardon that Larabee had given him thirty days after he began his service to the town.  Larabee had been discrete about it, handing it over casually, but fixing him with a piercing glare.  Apparently Chris had been holding it for the judge since the day he'd first started working for the town.  Ezra recalled he’d laughed knowingly at the gunslinger and then smiled slyly  – left him guessing.

At the very bottom of the box – keys -- keys to places he had lived, to rooms he’d rented, to locks long rusted. Why was he always collecting keys?

And, in amongst all the keys, he uncovered a woman's ring. He pushed it around for a moment before he plucked it up. For a long minute, he held the object in the palm of his hand as if he didn't know what he could possibly do next.  Recalling that memory only made him feel worse, he jammed the ring into a pouch with the jewelry he’d won at the poker tables. After the ring went the broach and the tie-tack.

A wad of cash was folded and wedged into his boot. The jewelry, he figured, was nearly as good as cash and even the sacred items that he'd kept for so long could be worth a few pennies if pawned.   The pouch went into an inside pocket of his vest. The papers and photographs were easily toted -- he slid them into an inside pocket of his traveling bag.  The letters were bulky, but he couldn't leave them behind where they might be discovered -- he could always use them as tinder for a fire.

The rest was just silliness.  It was time to abandon such worthless stuff. He stared at the objects, spread out on his bed.  Yes, time to leave them.  There’s no room.  Still, the lock of hair in its silver box and the ribbon took up hardly any room at all.  The book of Psalms might help him pass the time.  The harmonica was small.  The pyrite might be useful in a con.

The keys, well they could be shaken into the little crevasses within his clothing. He could sell the silver plate, and the bullet necklace might be good for… something. The Jock Steele book might be worth some laughs – he should read it sometime. The newspaper clippings were light. The toys weren’t big at all. The Pardon went in with the other papers. He had to lean his weight into the bag to get it all shoved down so that the bag could latch.

He smiled, pleased that he'd managed to pack it all without splitting the seams.  See, he told himself, you could do it.  You could pack up your entire life here without any trouble -- you could pull up and leave without any difficulty at all.  It was easy!

He closed his eyes a moment and tried not to remember all the little things that had happened since he arrived here. He tried not to recall how happy he’d been, how content he’d become living amongst these townspeople – those men.

He picked up the bag and gasped in surprise at its weight. Damn!  How did that happen? He settled it on the bed and considered opening it – removing a thing or two… the Psalms, the pyrite, the plate – the pointless toys.  Still, as his hands closed on the latch, he couldn’t bring himself to open it up.  Hell! It was all in there already.  He’d sell what he could at the next town!

Again, he lifted the bag, and then slung his saddlebags over his shoulder.  He was ready.  He could go now.  He caught sight of himself in the mirror of his shaving stand.  The yellow light from the lamp illuminated everything. He put on a determined look, but the image that was returned to him looked sallow, tired and sad.  Slowly, he reached out his free hand and turned the reflection away.  He smiled self-deprecatingly and braced himself as he picked up his rifle.  Imagine that, he thought, I did it.

Drawing in a breath, he jammed the rifle under his arm and looked around the room one more time.  The lamps he'd purchased couldn't come with him.  The shelf of books that he'd been so proud of -- would need to stay.  The decanter and glasses would gather dust here.  They were too fragile for his lifestyle.

His hand rested on the door a moment, remembering how often the others had bounded up the stairs to pound on his door -- demanding he attend them for some reason.  There was always some miscreant that needed rounding up, some mischief about.  He'd played a good part in those excursions, but he really wasn't needed was he?  No, they would perform just as well with six as they had with seven.  The reduction in forces would make little difference.  He wouldn’t be missed.  Hell, in the past, when he'd left a town, it had brought joy – people wanted him gone.

With a smile, he recalled Buck coming to his door, trying to coerce him into going to Purgatorio with him.  He remembered JD coming one night and wanting to talk.  The kid sorely missed his mama sometimes and, perhaps, because Ezra was still in contact with his mother, Dunne felt as if Standish might be able to assuage that pain.  It made no sense at all.  Sometimes Josiah wanted to get into a theological discussion – as if Ezra were an expert in that.  It was laughable.  Nathan sought him out at times for unfathomable reasons – it seemed as if the former-slave enjoyed his company, liked to argue and converse with him on any subject.

Ezra stood in that position -- one hand on the door, the other holding his bag – his rifle tucked under his arm -- as time passed.  Finally, unable to delay any longer, he berated himself, blew out the light, pressed open the door and headed out into the dark hallway.  He hurried, knowing that there was no stopping now.  Within a few seconds, he was on the boardwalk again.  The last night fires had died, otherwise, nothing else had changed since he’d climbed those stairs -- and yet everything was different.  He was packed.  He was ready to go.

He breathed deeply of the night air.

He couldn't stop now.  No, it was done.  Time to go.  Time to be in motion.  To be out of here.  To be on the road again -- where he belonged.  To free himself of this burden of stability.  To be blithe and without responsibility.

Purposefully, he treaded toward the livery.  His boots clomped on the wood as he decided on speed over stealth.  He felt a buzzing within him as he realized he was truly going, that he wouldn’t stop, that this wasn’t a game anymore.  He’d get on his horse and go.  They’d just keep going.

But, Ezra slowed his pace the closer he came to the stable.  Is that what he really wanted?  Did he really want to go?

When had he become so indecisive?  Why was this so hard?  Was he running out?  No… no he was only improving the situation for everyone.  Seven was too many, wasn't it?  Things would run better without him.  Even numbers are easier to deal with than odd – and he’d always been the ‘odd’ one.  He was always the type of person who caused trouble.  He couldn't help it.  He was that way from birth.

He glanced toward the jailhouse and considered leaving a note.  They deserve that, I suppose.  Mr. Larabee deserves it.  There were few people in this world who would welcome a man like me.  Ezra Standish was a good man to have around for a night of gaming, good for entertainment, for conning, for cheating.  But why in the hell did Larabee keep him?  Larabee would figure it out on his own, wouldn't he?  No need to write out that Standish finally high-tailed it.

Ezra slowed further, came to a stop, and let out a slow breath.  In the darkness, he listened, wondering if something should stop him.

If something… if just someone… would stop me. 

Then, almost in answer, he heard a shuffling sound, and the squeak of wood.  Ezra tensed, setting down his bag and letting the rifle drop into his left hand.  With his right, he prepared to draw the Remington at his hip.  In the darkness, he saw Vin's wagon dip and the cloth parted to let the shadowy form of one tracker step down.

Tanner came toward him, pulling on his jacket, rubbing his eyes, not speaking.  Finally, when Vin had nearly reached him, Ezra resettled the rifle under his arm and stated quietly, "It's rather early for you to be up.  The sun hasn't yet risen."

With a shrug, Vin responded, "Rather late for you."

Ezra nodded in return and shifted the rifle again.  "True," he replied.  He picked up the dropped bag, trying to look nonchalant about his present circumstance.

"See any mischief goin’ on?" Vin asked, not looking at the packed bags.

"Mischief?"  Ezra returned innocently.  “Not that I’m aware of.”

With a satisfied look, Vin stated,  "I was headed t'the jail.  Gonna have myself some coffee.  Want to join me?"

Ezra didn’t move, watching Tanner's unfazed expression.  Vin looked as if this was all perfectly natural.  "That would be delightful," Ezra finally managed to get out.

Tanner nodded, and then, moseyed toward their place of work.  Ezra followed.  Neither spoke.   Ezra unlocked the door and lit a lamp.  Vin took care of the stove.  Standish set his rifle into one corner of the room and shoved his bags under the table while Vin brought a flame to life.  Within a few minutes, the stove was warm and a kettle of coffee was brewing.

With a yawn and a stretch, Vin sat down at one of the wooden chairs, while Ezra chose the desk chair.  When Vin yawned again, Ezra echoed him, discreetly covering his mouth.  The gambler sighed deeply and leaned back, propping his feet up on the desk.

"Long night?"  Vin asked.

"Extraordinarily," Ezra responded, tipping his hat down over his eyes.  "Sometimes it seems as if it will never end."

"Sun'll be up any minute now," Vin told him.

"God willin'," was Ezra's reply.

"Been slow around town lately, ain’t it?”

“You, my friend, are on the money.”

“Figure Buck and me need somethin’ to do.  We were gonna take a ride down to the Wallace place later t'day.  Check up on 'em."

Ezra's smile was visible from under his hat's brim.  "They do have lovely daughters.  Will you be able to control Mr. Wilmington?  He might become a bit too excited by all that feminine beauty around him."

Vin laughed in return.  "Maybe you should come along.  There's three Wallace girls.  We can share ‘em out easier that way.  Carmen likes your accent and we gotta keep her from Buck.  She’ll just go to putty if he gets to her."  Ezra chuckled but gave no further response, so Vin continued, "That's 'less of course Josiah's already got ya hired for the day."

Ezra pushed his hat back so that he could catch Vin's expression.  Seeing that the tracker looked serious, Ezra declared, "As far as I know, Mr. Sanchez had no plans for me." Shoving the hat back, he completed, "And I refuse to labor in that church."

"I heard it that he was gonna try doin' some teachin' for some of the kids around here.  Was lookin' for someone who could help him figure out how to go about it."

Ezra didn't move his head, but he folded his arms over his chest.  "Now, why would he want my help in that?"

"Figure he knows yer good with kids and got all kinds of book learnin’," Vin responded.  "Might be a good thing."

"Hmmm," Ezra voiced.

"And Nathan told me he needed someone to help him organize his stuff.  Figure he could use someone who could read the funny writing that's on those bottles.  Wouldn't take any sweat.  And you know how he can get to yammerin’ when he’s sortin’."  When Ezra remained silent, Vin stated, "Then, of course, JD's been wantin' to do some target shootin'.  Maybe I'll tag along with him instead of goin' with Buck.  That'll leave Buck to have his pick of those Wallace girls.  You could come with JD 'n me.  Give the kid some pointers."

Ezra's hat elevated as he lifted his brow.  One green eye glinted at Tanner.  "If he has you along, why would he possibly need anything from me?  You, my friend, are the expert sharpshooter.  The best."

Vin leaned back and casually told him, "Figure you could show him a thing or two about close range stuff.  You sure were good at shootin' out that Ace when we first met."

"That, my friend, was a trick," Ezra explained.  "Only one bullet was real.  The rest, as you recall, were blanks."

"Still, mighty fine shootin' to hit that target with one bullet," Vin responded, and after a moment, he added, "And Chris has been feelin' a mite low lately."  Tanner stood quickly, stretched and headed to the coffeepot.  "He's been ponderin' on things a bit too much.  Figure he's got himself tied up about his past and all.  The quiet will do that to a man."  He checked the stove, poking open the grate and throwing in a few sticks of wood, keeping his back toward Ezra as he spoke.  "Gets him worked up sometimes and he can't think straight.  Maybe there's somethin' we can do 'round town to get his mind off things."

"Such as…" Ezra prodded quietly.

Vin shrugged, pulling the pot from the stove.  He swirled the contents, wondering if it was strong enough.  "Ain't got that figured yet.  Maybe you kin come up with somethin'.  Do somethin’ to distract him.  Get up to some mischief."

"Hmmm," Ezra voiced.  "I'll think on it."

"Good," Vin stated and picked up one mug from the floor and located another sitting on the file cabinet.  "Always can count on you.   Dunno what we'd do without ya."  He set the mugs on the cabinet and filled one, snatching back his hand when a few drops of the hot liquid hit him.  He sucked on the scalded digit as he filled the other mug.

As he located the pouch of sugar, he continued, "We'll get it worked out.  Things 'ave been just a bit too quiet around here for my liking.   Maybe we should be happy for the slow days, but I know I get tired of 'em.  Give me a bank hold-up or somethin' to get my blood racin'."  He poured a significant amount of sweetener into one mug, but left the other mug alone.  "Figure there'll be some sort of trouble happenin' soon enough.  We'll be ready for it.  Heck, the seven of us are good enough to take care of anything.  Don't ya agree, Ez?"

Standish grunted in response, his chin resting on his chest.

"Seven seems like just enough to get a job done.  Just right."  Locating a spoon, Vin wiped it against his pants before using it to stir up the sugared coffee.  "Can’t think of what it’d be like if any of us was gone."  He tapped the spoon against the side of the mug, then set it down where he'd found it.  A coffee-brown puddle formed around it on the dirty surface.  "Seems somehow we were meant to stay t'gether.  Josiah likes sayin’ it’s our destiny."

Ezra muttered.

Vin took a sip of the sugared coffee, grimaced and grabbed the sugar again.  "If I ever had t'go, I figure I could get rid of just about all I owned without much pain."  He dumped in another load of sugar as he stated, "Leavin’ you and the rest -- that'd hurt."

Vin set down the sugar and didn't bother stirring again.  Taking a long sip, he gave a satisfied sigh, picked up the other mug, and strode over to the desk where Ezra still slouched, snoring ever-so-quietly.  Vin cocked his head, holding the two coffees, listening to the slow, measured breaths.  When the door slowly opened, Tanner turned and nodded to the blond man that peered in.

Larabee gave the scene a puzzled look, and entered silently.  “Saw a light,” he stated.  “Thought maybe something was wrong.”

“Nothin’ that weren’t fixable,” Tanner replied.

Taking the second mug from Vin, Larabee looked a question at Vin.

"Finally fell asleep," Vin replied quietly, as he set his cup down on the desk and gazed down at the slumbering gambler.  "Figure he'll be out for a while.  Don't think he's slept much at all for the last few days."

Chris nodded as he crossed the floor to lean against the table.  He sipped carefully at the coffee first before taking a bigger drink. “He was lookin’ rather run-down,” he commented in a low voice.

"Just needed to lay back a bit, relax, not think about anythin'," Vin continued, as he grabbed one of the blankets that were kept near the cells. "As much as he talks about relaxin' and such, I figure he don’t really know how t'do it.  Needs t'be movin' about."

Chris nodded.  "You give 'im some ideas of what he can do to fill his time?"

Vin smiled widely as he shook out the blanket.  "Gotta talk to Buck and the others.  Oh, in case it comes up, you've been bothered lately."

"Bothered?" Chris questioned, gripping the mug, a tightness coming to his eyes.

With an easy movement, Tanner draped the blanket over the leaned-back gambler.  "You been ponderin' things a bit.  Figure he won't come right out and say anythin', but he might try to distract you."  Vin waved his hand about a bit.  "Just 'go with it'."

Chris narrowed his gaze, and glared over the top of his mug at Tanner.  He started to speak, paused, and started again, "If anyone ends up in the clinic over this…"

Vin's grin widened and he patted Ezra's shoulder.  Standish made a soft sound, but didn’t awaken.  Continuing, Tanner said, "I'll keep an eye on things.  Make sure nothin’ gets out of hand.  ‘Sides, that sort of mischief is better than the other.  He gets ideas into his head when he don’t have anythin’ to do."  Tanner nodded toward the table.  “Sometimes livin’ like a normal man just weighs him down.”

With a sigh, Chris set down the mug as he noticed the bags that were stowed beneath.  “Damn,” he muttered.

"He didn't want to go," Vin told him.  "Figure he was bored and needed somethin’ to do.  He's just too stubborn to give up on something once he's started it."

“Travels light,” Chris thought, looking at the meager bags.   “For everything he's got in that room … he’s not leaving with much.”  He picked up the carpetbag and shook his head when he discovered its weight.

“Heavier than you might think,” Vin told him, knowing without even trying the bag.

Chris nodded, then grabbed the saddlebags and threw them over his shoulder.  "I'll be back soon as I get these back to his room," Larabee stated as he tucked the rifle under his arm.  He frowned as he realized he needed something.  By the time he glanced to Vin, the tracker had already drawn back the blanket far enough to get access to Ezra's keys.  Tanner tossed the set easily to Larabee.  Jingling them in his hand, Larabee asked, "Why's he got so many keys?  Can't see why he needs so many of 'em."

With a shrug, Vin commented, "Got lots of places that need to stay locked up."

Chris nodded and started to turn. "Keep an eye on him while I'm gone," he stated.

Vin laughed as he picked up his cup and sat back in the chair.  "Yeah," he decided.  "Someone needs to.”

"Figure we'll move him onto one of those cots in the cell when I get back,"  Larabee said, cocking his head at Ezra's position.  "Gonna get a crick in his neck if he stays like that too long."

Vin nodded.  "Gonna leave the cell door open?" he asked.

"I'll think about it," Larabee returned gruffly.

With that, Vin gave Ezra’s foot a pat and leaned back.  Taking another sip of coffee, he looked yearningly toward the sugar bag, wondering if he could put some more in.

Chris passed through the doorway, catching the door before it slammed shut.  He glanced at the scene -- the serenely sleeping southerner and the sugar-addicted tracker.   He shook his head and headed toward the room above the saloon that the gambler called his home, carrying the heavy bags back to where they belonged.

THE END - By NotTasha

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