Fate's Reward

by Rebel Yell

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters, they belong to Trilogy, MGM, Mirisch, all those people who didn't know a great show.

Acknowledgements: Anyone who's minor characters I might have borrowed unintentionally, thanks. Drop me a line, and I'll acknowledge you properly. My beta, Amethyst, for all the usual reasons, and the title as well..

Note: Watching Serpents, I couldn't help but ponder Nathan's line "He'd be dead if it weren't for this." What if Ezra really didn't have the money? What if Josiah never gave the money to Ezra, instead ending his little 'advice' session with the admonishment to "face your own demons"? This is my little idea of what might have happened.

The seven were spread around the town, each on the lookout for Stutz, the assassin with the glass eye. Vin was up high, perched on the roof of Potter's store looking for anyone else looking for a long range shot, while keeping his eye on the gathering below. Buck was near the governor, and consequently Louisa, watching the crowd from the front and occasionally scanning convenient windows and roof tops. Josiah was up high too, carefully searching through the crowd. The number of strangers in the town for the 'rally' made this harder than it might have seemed. JD, Nathan and Ezra were in the crowd, watching for the killer from the crowd. Chris was next to Mary, scanning the crowd carefully, waiting for Stutz to make his move. If only he'd had a chance to tell the others that the target was Mary, he'd feel better. It was hard enough to protect a target in the crowd, without most of his team protecting the wrong 'target'.

Ezra skirted the crowd, nearing the livery. He was still stewing over the lack of trust of his 'friends' and was seriously considering just saddling up Chaucer and leaving. It wouldn't hurt to stop in and make sure his noble steed was feeling well today. Heading for the livery, he collided with one of the crowd, and just managed a glance at the other man. Turning back towards the livery, Ezra took all of one step before it hit him. The man he'd run into had a glass eye. Damn it! Spinning back around, the gambler searched the rally for the man he'd just run into. He'd disappeared. His eyes settled on Chris, who was standing next to Mary, as the newspaper editor led her contingent of statehood supporters in a typically annoying political chant. Cutting through the crowd like the professional he was (in his childhood gatherings like this could garner him enough cash to live for weeks) the southerner appeared at the gunslinger's side. Chris looked at him questioningly, as they were supposed to be spread around the rally.

"I saw Stutz, he's not going long range. We have to get the governor down."
"It's not the governor he's after. Its Mary." Chris replied, his hand immediately gripping Mary's arm.

Ezra searched the crowd frantically, ignoring the background noise of Hopewell's speech, the chant, the crowd's comments, and Chris arguing with Mary that they needed to leave. Stutz's small stature lent itself to getting lost in crowds, as easily as Josiah's bulk made him impossible to miss in any gathering. Keen eyesight long used to observing trouble at a distance let Ezra see the hired killer as he headed towards the editor. Chris was too busy arguing with Mary to notice him, and besides, only Josiah and now Ezra had ever seen Stutz before. Reacting before engaging his brain, something his mother had trained him never to do, Ezra stepped in front of the assassin, laying himself across the gun as it fired.

"Mary, we need to go. Now." Chris Larabee was a stubborn man, but damn if this woman wasn't nearly as stubborn. Unfortunately, she was digging in her heels at the wrong damn time.

"Chris, no. I don't want to leave yet."

"Mary, we're leaving."

"This is important-"

"More important than seeing Billy grow up?" Chris whispered harshly, ready to throw the woman over his shoulder except it would impede his gun arm, and garner more attention than he wanted to bring to this infuriating woman. That got Mary's attention, but before any reply could be made, the sound of a slightly muffled gun firing scattered the crowd. The citizens scrambled, desperate to be out of any line of fire, and Chris spun towards where the report had come from, Colt in hand and Mary behind him. Mary screamed, as with the crowd now gone, they saw Ezra crumpling at the feet of a small man with gun still in hand.

All six of the remaining peacekeeper's reacted instantly, five guns trained on Stutz as Nathan slid to a stop beside the fallen gambler. The short stand-off was done by habit, no one but Buck and Vin could later remember anything about it, and Vin recalled very little except changing his aim from a head shot to a debilitating one to Stutz's knee. The whole incident was over in five minutes. The undertaker was at Stutz's side, and Buck had taken Louisa back to the hotel. Vin and Josiah were scrambling from the roofs, and JD was doing his duty as Sheriff and attempting to calm the crowd. Chris still stood somewhat over Stutz, wishing he could have had the chance to find out who hired him. Mary was in shock, her eyes not on the man who had just tried to kill her, but rather the man who was lying in the middle of Main Street, bleeding.

"Nathan?" She asked, bringing the former slave's eyes up to meet hers as she moved closer to the prone gambler. He shook his head, his eyes showing his despair that there was little he could do. It was too high, probably in his lung, if not other organs. He wasn't a doctor, but even if he was he wasn't sure a doctor could fix this. Tears gathering in her eyes, Mary squatted beside the healer as he valiantly tried to staunch the flow of blood from the nasty wound. Pain-filled emerald eyes met hers, and Ezra managed a small smile for the editor. Chris appeared behind her, his eyes fixed on the blood seeping up around Nathan's hands. He dropped a hand to Mary's shoulder, and hated himself for being grateful that first instant that it wasn't her. Vin appeared, rifle case in hand, with Josiah at his side. Any relief Chris felt vanished when he looked into the eyes of the giant preacher. Ezra and Josiah had an unusual relationship. The preacher regarded the stubbornly selfish and greedy gambler as somewhat of a lost lamb. Another part of his penance, that had somehow become more, as close to a son as the older man would ever have. Ezra, for his part, took great joy in aggravating the preacher with his behavior, and refused any relationship beyond general friendship. Except they'd all seen Ezra slowly open up more to the missionary's son, and quietly accept the small signs of affection. Now, Josiah was faced with another in a long life of losses, one horribly close to what Chris himself had experienced over three years ago now. Josiah didn't even look at Nathan, just dropped to his knees besides the southerner.

"Son." Josiah managed around the lump in his throat. Ezra's eyes met his, and Josiah saw the pain in them.

"Not your son." His accent was deep, but the words were so familiar that they brought tentative grins to everyone's faces. Buck had come back, and JD was there as well.

"Mr. Jacks-, Nathan." Ezra stopped to take a breath, the pain washing over him. "Clinic, please."

"Ezra," Nathan began, his tones heavy with grief already.

"Ah know." Ezra nodded slightly. "I just...don't want to die here." Talking was becoming increasingly difficult, and it was the Texan who dropped to his haunches, understanding immediately. Ezra had confided in him once, that all he wanted from life was not to die anonymously in some street or alley. He nodded, and then looked up at his other friends.

"Not in the street. Not like this." Buck nodded, and moved to grasp the southerner's feet. Josiah stopped him with a raised hand.

"I've got him, brother." The giant preacher gently picked up the gambler from the street, the dust turning into a grotesquely dark mud as Ezra's blood seeped in. His strength obviously waning, Ezra reached a hand out to Mary, and she grasped it.

"Take care of Billy." She nodded, tears streaming down her face as she watched all but Chris follow Josiah and his burden to the clinic. Black clad arms wrapped around her, and she turned into the strong chest. Chris was not surprised to see a few of the town's citizens appear back on the sidewalks as the small procession passed. It was Gloria Potter who appeared at his side, her children and Billy at her side.

"Mom?" Billy asked, and Mary turned to her son, dropping to wrap him in a giant hug.

"Mr. Larabee?" Josh Potter spoke up, and Chris turned his gaze to the shopkeeper's son. "Is Ezra gonna die?" The boy's voice broke, and his sister was already crying.

"We don't know. There's a good chance." Chris refused to lie to children who'd already seen enough death. They knew all about death out here. All three, Billy, Josh and Katie, had lost a father to violence already. Billy had nearly lost his mother today. Gloria nodded at his honesty, dropping arms around her children. Anything further Chris might have said was cut off as JD ran towards him from the clinic.

"Chris!" the sheriff slid to a stop, a tight grin on his features. "Nathan's gonna operate. He needs all of us there, because he can't give him laudanum, and he can't wait for Ez to pass out either." JD explained and Chris nodded. No hope sparked in him, he'd never seen a man survive a wound that close. But something in him couldn't give up on the gambler yet.

"Hurry now, Mr. Larabee." Gloria encouraged. She'd come to truly like the southerner who now did her books. She had latched onto any possible hope.

"If anyone was destined to beat all the odds, it was Ezra." Mary agreed, earning a tight nod from the gunslinger. Chris turned to leave, but was stopped by Amy Potter's shy voice.

"Mr. Chris? Can you give this to Ezra?" She held out a small necklace with a charm on it. The chain was clearly too long for the girl, and Chris was a little curious about its origins. " Ezra gave it to me after Papa died. He said St. Michael helped us be brave. He needs it now."

Chris nodded, and accepted the necklace. The charm looked a little worn, and the chain showed years of wear, with not just a few scratches. The gunslinger followed JD back to the clinic, stepping into the highly crowded room. There was no way they could all fit in here and still leave Nathan enough room to work. Suddenly, he thought that Ezra was gone, and JD just hadn't wanted to say it in front of the kids. His sudden panic ended when he latched on to open, if pain-glazed, green eyes. Crossing the room, he stopped beside the bed.

"Amy wanted you to have this." Chris undid the clasp with practice born of having had a wife, and got it around the gambler's neck. Ezra managed a nod, although his strength was ebbing more all the time. Nathan started issuing orders, hoping against all reason and sanity to be able to save the life of the most aggravating man he'd ever claimed as a friend.

"JD, I need you to keep bringing up water, and plenty of towels. Chris and Buck, get his legs. Vin, I need you behind him, get his shoulders." Vin nodded, knowing full well that he was probably the only one Ezra would allow himself to rest against. Somehow, a deep unwavering friendship had sprung up between the two opposite men, and the Texan slid easily behind the southerner. Nathan nodded to his usual 'assistant', Josiah, and after taking a deep breath began the delicate and most likely fatal operation. At least this way, there was some chance for Ezra.

Half the town was gathered below the healer's clinic, waiting on word of the seven. All of them knew that if they lost one, they could quite easily loose the others. A mystique had grown up around them that if all seven were together, they were unbeatable. Without one piece, would they still work so flawlessly together? Besides that, quite a few of the townspeople genuinely found themselves liking the gambler. Five hours later, there was still no word, just JD occasionally appearing for more water and to shake his head at the crowd. Still working on it. Which was a sort of good news of its own. Ezra wasn't dead yet either. Eight hours after the seven peacekeepers had disappeared into the clinic, the door opened and three men stepped onto the porch. JD was joined this time by Chris and Buck, who looked surprised at the gathered crowd.

"How is he?" Someone called out.

"Still breathing." JD replied. Ezra was indeed still breathing, miraculously. Nathan had never stitched an organ before, but he'd heard it was possible to stop bleeding. The only problem was the foreign bodies, the stitches, being left in the body. Still it was a chance they had all agreed to take.

"He's got a chance." Nathan announced from the door, and the crowd immediately started to disperse, relieved mutterings running through their ranks. For now, they were still guarded by their seven. Nathan headed back inside to his patient, who he was pretty sure was hanging on to life by pure stubbornness. Not that he was complaining in this instance. Buck grabbed JD and headed for the Sheriff's office. They'd left their responsibilities to the town long enough. It was time there was a visible presence of law again.

Chris nodded at their departure, and settled on the bench outside Nathan's clinic. He was there when Vin and Josiah were finally kicked from the small room to eat and sleep. He was still sitting there when they relieved Nathan some six hours later. And he'd be there when Ezra woke up, telling the gambler that if he ever tried to die on him again, he'd follow him to hell and make Lucifer look like a right nice old guy. Ezra just grinned, and replied that he thought this WAS hell. Chris laughed, and after telling Ezra to do what Nathan said and earning a sarcastic "Yes, big brother" from the conman, disappeared to his room at the boarding house to sleep for twenty hours. He felt more balanced then he had in three years...he'd come to the realization on Nathan's bench that despite all the faults and troublesomeness of these men, and this town, Chris Larabee had again found a place in this world to call his own.

The End

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