Author's Note: This contains a small spoiler for the M7 episode Sins of the Past and a brief reference to my OW story The Stockings.
Fourth story in the Christmas Wish series.
"First my mother buys this establishment out from under me, then she turns around and sells it at the first whiff of filthy lucre, now the gentlemen who procured it from her are putting it up for sale. I do not understand why everyone seems to be flaunting their power over me and this saloon every time I turn around!"
Ezra Standish sat twirling the shot glass he'd just emptied around in talented fingers as he ruminated mostly to himself. The rest of the seven were sitting at the table in the object of the gambler's attention as well, but the chestnut-haired man seemed to be barely aware that they were there as he glared balefully at the two men who were putting up a 'For Sale' sign in the window of the tavern.
JD Dunne swiveled his head to watch as the piece of paper was leaned into place behind the glass.
"I didn't know they were planning on selling it," murmured Josiah Sanchez as he too turned to look at the notice with its large script.
"Me either," added Buck Wilmington as he thoughtfully took a sip of his beer. "Hope whoever buys it keeps Inez on."
The rest nodded, a couple of them glancing at the pretty Mexican where she stood wiping out glasses, a slightly pensive expression on her face.
Dunne suddenly looked concerned. "Hey, we can still drink here, can't we?" Not that he drank actual alcohol very often, but he liked having whatever he chose in company with the other members of the peacekeeping force who frequented the saloon in their free time.
Josiah smiled at the younger man. "I'm sure we can, JD. I imagine the judge will make the same arrangements with whoever the new owner turns out to be that he has all along," reassured the former preacher soothingly. "And he was wise enough to make sure a few drinks are included in our room and board!"
JD took a sip of his milk, then his eyes got bright as an idea came to him.
"Hey Ezra! Since your mom ain't around this time, why don't you buy the saloon again?"
The other five turned their gazes to the elegantly dressed form who blinked like he'd just realized that they were there.
"Excuse me?" asked the honeyed tones in confusion as the emerald eyes focused on Dunne for the first time in a quarter of an hour or more.
"I said, why don't you buy the saloon again? You won't have to worry about your mom interfering this time."
Standish sat the glass that he'd been toying with on the table and leaned forward as if in consideration, eyes straying to the sign in the window absently.
"I would be elated if I could engage in such a venture again, but I'm afraid I've had some unexpected expenditures lately, and foresee a few more that mean even more to me than the fulfillment of my long-held wish. I'm afraid I don't have the necessary funds right now to procure the rights to this establishment."
JD's eyes crossed for a minute as he tried to decipher what his friend had just said.
"He's a little short on cash right now Kid, and doesn't have the money that it would probably take to buy the saloon," translated Chris with a tiny quirk to one corner of his mouth. Not much was ever said about it, but it was obvious that the blond was well educated himself since he understood everything the erudite gambler said, even if he chose to ignore part of it sometimes.
"Oh." The smaller form was quiet a moment, then he smiled in commiseration at the southerner.
"That's too bad, Ez. It would be great to have the Standish Tavern back."
The rest gave nods or murmurs of agreement, Josiah and Nathan ducking their heads as they remembered the way they'd deserted Ezra before, taken in by Maude's wiles and promises. Chris and Vin exchanged a silent glance, the tracker giving a tiny nod even though Larabee hadn't spoken aloud.
The two just shared a small smile, then turned their attention to the lackadaisical poker game that Standish dealt hands for, his mind still partially preoccupied with the ownership of the saloon. He really wished he could find a way to come up with a little extra money . . . .
+ + + + + + +
Through the next three or four months the gambler engaged any prosperous-looking visitors to the town in card games during his off hours, and the others seemed to be participating in more poker than normal as well, though they all made sure they didn't deprive anyone of money that was actually needed to survive. Chris was quite a good player and wore a tiny smirk or blank face no matter what his hand, and most people who knew who he was were too afraid of the well-known gunman to challenge him if they lost. And Vin was a good bluffer, he just didn't usually bother trying if he had a bad hand. The others were decent players as well, although Buck was easily distracted by the working girls and JD got too excited when he had a good hand to allow him to take any really big pots.
In October the men agreed to exchange Christmas gifts, giving in to their young sheriff's pleading and puppy dog eyes. That gave them over two months to decide what they wanted to do for each other and work on getting things arranged. Chris and Vin had a couple of quiet conversations soon after the decision was made, then one or the other of them were seen occasionally whispering to Wilmington, Sanchez, or Jackson. Since the peacekeepers often conversed about their duties or other things relating to the town, it wasn't considered anything of note, however.
During November, JD recognized three men that came through from their wanted posters, and the seven quietly surrounded them in the saloon and took them into custody with a minimum of fuss and no gunplay. Each of the trio were worth several hundred dollars, so it was a bit surprising that they gave up without more of a fight. However the reputation of the "Magnificent Seven" who guarded the town was now well known, so apparently they decided being taken alive was better than dead, since they weren't wanted for anything that would get them a sentence of hanging. Judge Travis came to conduct the trial and praised the peacekeepers, meeting with Chris behind closed doors after the official proceedings were finished, presumably to congratulate the leader and thank him for not involving the patrons of the saloon in gunplay.
At the first of December, Standish went out of town on an errand, apparently sent by Larabee since he was seen stuffing official-looking papers in his saddlebags as he readied his chestnut for the trip. The others sat together at the saloon drinking and talking softly when they weren't on their rounds or involved with other duties, but that wasn't anything out of the ordinary since all of them spent quite a bit of their spare time there.
All seven helped the storekeepers put up decorations for the upcoming holiday, and gathered stuff for Inez to put up for Christmas in the saloon during the next two weeks or so. They also continued with their own preparations for their gift exchange. Each of them was seen at one time or another sneaking furtively around or strolling with exaggerated nonchalance as their saddlebags or coat pockets, etc. seemed to bulge with heavy or odd-shaped items. They had all agreed however not to say anything about any of the strange behavior they might witness or to pry into any secret or whispered conversations between the others.
Standish was joined by Wilmington about two weeks before Christmas on a trip to Eagle Bend, to help keep the peace while the new sheriff was down with the 'flu. Nathan was busy with a number of cold and influenza cases himself, so the healer didn't have time to worry about what the rest of the group was up to, although he was seen a time or two taking a break and chatting quietly with either Sanchez or Larabee.
As soon as Buck and Ezra got back, Vin and Josiah took off to see the former priest's sister in Vista City. Chris arranged for two or three of the men to watch over the town for a couple of days so that he and the rest of the peacekeepers could ride out and meet the absent pair to provide moral support . . . or physical . . . should it be needed.
When they all returned, it was only a week or so until Christmas day. Standish was spotted once discreetly counting his winnings as he sat alone at the table on the dais that he favored for his games. He kept his poker face in place, but the other six who knew him well detected just a hint of regret when he finished his calculations in the small notebook he carried with him. Nothing was said however, since the elegant figure soon came down and joined them, drinking and engaging in his usual repartee with a smile of apparent unconcern on his handsome face.
Buck went to the bar and got beers for all of them, spending a few minutes in earnest conversation with Inez. The good-looking rogue was intent on winning the señorita's affections however, so it was normal for him to expend a bit of energy every time he was in the saloon in trying to woo the pretty Mexican.
The two tavern owners stopped Chris on his way back in from a trip outside, having a few quiet words with the imposing blond before he resumed his seat. Those who noticed figured that the duo were thanking the leader for not putting any extra holes in the wooden roof or walls during the last official arrest that took place in the building. The owners had to keep a man employed just to patch the bullet holes and fix all of the furniture that usually got destroyed in the seven's altercations with miscreants, as Standish termed them, so they were probably quite grateful not to have any new damage just as they were trying to sell the place.
+ + + + + + +
On Christmas day, the peacekeepers all met at the saloon that Inez opened just for them. The generous bartender had gotten up early to fix the wild turkey that Vin had provided and all the other food items necessary for a lavish holiday meal. The tracker and ladies' man had also cut a small evergreen and put it in the corner, the seven stringing popcorn and cranberries and coming up with other decorations the night before as they enjoyed their drinks.
As they entered the barroom, the scent of spruce and juniper mingled with that of roast turkey and sage stuffing, enveloping them in a cloud of delicious aromas. They all carried in bags and boxes full of gifts, placing them under the tree with its red and white garlands, shiny paper-wrapped nuts, pinecones, and candle ends on their tin holders, etc. Even Larabee had a genuine smile on his face and a relaxed stance to his attractive frame. Dunne was almost bouncing with excitement, although there was a bit of a wistful expression at the back of the hazel gaze.
Once the packages were in place, the men gathered at the table nearest the cast-iron stove. It was cold outside, and the clouds hung low, so they were all happy to settle near the fire in the warm, cheerful room.
They had just finished the meal, Inez eating hers at the bar as she smiled at the jokes and memories the seven men shared and their teasing banter, when JD jumped up so fast his chair almost toppled over. Calling that it was snowing, which was what the young easterner had wanted for Christmas to make it feel like home, the peacekeepers all bundled up in their coats and gloves and headed outside to take advantage of the rare occurrence.
After some snowball fights, Buck showing the kids how to make snow angels, and even a few carols that the whole town joined in on, the seven trouped back inside. Red-cheeked and wet, they shed their outerwear and made a ring around the stove, holding out their hands to the heat until Inez passed out whiskey-laden coffee.
When they were dry and warm inside and out, they sat back down to open their gifts. Buck played Saint Nick, passing out the presents and encouraging first Nathan and then some of the others to see what they had once everyone had six packages in front of them.
Nathan discovered that the rest of the men had chipped in to get him some medical books, which had pleased the healer more than anything else could have. Inez had knitted each of the men warm scarves as well, each in a different color, and they hadn't forgotten her in their preparations, Buck giving her a pretty wool shawl as his gift. He had considered buying her a pair of pretty colored stockings with lace tops, but had given that idea up when a vision of the fiery woman flinging them at him had intruded in his mind.
When all the things Wilmington laid on the table were opened and examined, and exclaimed over, the room got quiet for a minute. Ezra looked up to see what had caused the unnatural silence.
Chris raised one hand and gestured to Inez. He then turned to the gambler with a warm smile and a sparkle in the often icy green eyes.
"We've got one last gift, Ezra," offered the unique voice softly.
The petite bartender walked over with something in her hand, a red ribbon showing above her fingers.
"For . . . ?"
Buck slapped the chestnut-haired man on the shoulder with enthusiasm.
"For you, Ez!"
The emerald eyes widened in surprise. "But I already have six gifts from you gentlemen, which were all very well thought out and much appreciated," protested the Southern tones in confusion.
"Well, we've got one more," rumbled Sanchez with a big smile.
"None of the rest of you got more than six gifts, why should I?" asked the gambler, still slightly bewildered.
"Some 'a us got wishes granted that weren't material, Ez. JD got his snow for Christmas, J'siah got to spend the day with the old Hannah, and even Nate got more than just his medical books. So we got you somethin' extra too," answered Vin with a grin as he lifted his shot glass.
Still looking bemused, Standish turned to Inez when Larabee indicated for him to.
The brunette held out a large skeleton key with a scarlet bow tied around the loop at the top.
"What is this?"
JD could barely sit still in his chair. "It's the key to the saloon, Ezra!"
Green orbs widened in shock, then turned to peer at each one in turn as if trying to ascertain if they were playing a joke on him.
Taking pity on him, Chris explained.
"When we saw you countin' your money the other day and asked, you told us you were still a little short havin' the money to buy the saloon. So we agreed to use the reward money the judge gave us for catchin' those three stage robbers to make up the difference. I've already given it to the owners as a down payment for you. All you have to do is pay the rest and sign the papers and it's yours."
All was quiet for a moment as the smaller man digested the blond's words. Then a look of true pleasure lit the sparkling gaze.
"You gentlemen gave up your share of the reward to help me purchase this establishment?" asked the southern tones just to be sure.
At the six nods, a gold-toothed smile curved the handsome form's lips.
"Then I owe you more thanks than I can ever give. What I have wished for most of my life, more than money or jewels or any other riches, is a place to call my own . . . a place to belong. You gentlemen have just given me that. That is worth more to me than all the mines in the territory! You gentlemen have granted my fondest, most secret wish. You made me a part of you and this town. Thank you!"
"You're welcome, Ez." "Merry Christmas, Ezra!" and other laughing comments met his almost whispered declaration. Taking the key, the well-dressed figure forgot his dignity for a moment and almost ran to the door to try the piece of iron in the lock.
When it turned, he twisted it again just for fun, then strolled more sedately back to the table. Placing the key safely in his waistcoat pocket, he turned to the others.
"Since you have granted me a wish, I shall grant one for you gentlemen . . . Inez, drinks are on the house for the rest of the afternoon!"
The pretty woman gave a little giggle and then went to pull out bottles of the saloon's best whiskey.
It might cost Ezra to provide drinks for his friends, but they had given him much more. They had given him a place to call home.
Next story: Vin
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