Legends Born: Aces High -- Ezra Standish
AUTHOR: Joan Curtin
RATING: PG-13 Language
SPOILERS: To the Pilot Episode.
DISCLAIMER: Sadly, I can't claim financial or creative rights to the characters of the Magnificent Seven. Those belong to the writers and producers of the series. I have quoted dialog from the series where necessary. I reckon you all know those lines by heart.
Note: I suppose you might consider this an alternate universe since it is my version of the events that took place before the Pilot episode. I'm sure there are other stories which I haven't read, dealing with the same subject, and logic dictates that some cross-over of ideas is inevitable. However, I have not knowingly used any other author's ideas. If there is some coincidental resemblence, it is because great minds think alike, and not conscious plagiarism.
I have also taken liberties with some of the circumstances in the Pilot to provide an opportunity for Fate to bring these seven men together in Four Corners.
As always, a thanks to my Beta-readers, particularly Sue N., and Sarah Bartholomew. And a tip of the hat to Sue Bartholomew, for being my Ezra expert. Mel and Elizabeth, thanks for the encouragement.
Aces High: Ezra Standish
"If you look like a gentleman, people will believe you are a gentleman, Ezra. Remember, appearances are everything, and a gentleman can be forgiven many things that would be the ruin of a common man."
White ruffles appeared from burgundy wool sleeves as Ezra Standish shot his cuffs and fastened his gold cufflinks. He straightened his cravat, tugged at his brocade vest. He smoothed his auburn hair and studied his reflection in the rather blurry mirror over the washstand in his hotel room. He looked like a gentleman until he smiled, revealing the glint of a gold incisor which gave him a roguish, slightly vulpine expression. A gentleman might sport a gold tooth, but a gentleman never looked as clever or as calculating as Ezra did. He was a con man, a gambler, and an erstwhile thief. He was everything Maude Standish had raised him to be. But he was not a gentleman, at least not as society would judge him.
At the moment, he was not a particularly successful gambler, either. He was mired in a veritable Slough of Despond; a run of misfortune that had left him financially embarrassed, and worse, in trouble with the law. He'd fled Fort Laramie to escape the gimlet eye of a federal judge, owing to an unfortunate turn in one of his capital ventures. Ever since, it seemed that he'd been on the slippery slope to perdition. Fort Laramie, Durango, Vista City, Eagle Bend, and now this miserable, dry hole of a town called Four Corners.
Ezra settled his shallow-crowned hat on his head. "I believe I have reached the nadir of my existence, Mother. But as you would have me believe, once you reach bottom, the only direction you can take is up." He snapped the brim. Before he could start on his way back up, he had to adopt certain precautions. Every gambler instinctively hedged his bets, and Ezra was nobody's fool. He picked up a wooden box from his bed and left his room.
He went downstairs to the saloon, tipped his hat to the bartender and smiled at the serving girls. He stepped out of the bat-wing doors into the mid-day heat. It was nearly enough to send him back inside, but he narrowed his green eyes against the glare and set off down the street.
As Ezra made his way down the boardwalk, he politely greeted other passers-by, aware that he was being appraised minutely. That was one of the disadvantages of a town as small as Four Corners; a man couldn't lose himself in a crowd, and everybody noticed strangers in their midst. Ezra's fancy clothes and polite demeanor set him off from the usual rough denizens; the ranchers and farmers, the itinerant cowboys and vagrants who tended to collect in western backwaters. Everyone of them was looking to get ahead, and that was about all Ezra had in common with the rest of them.
A particularly attractive blond woman caught his attention, and he tipped his hat to her. "Pardon me, ma'am. I was wonderin' if I might inquire as to the whereabouts of the nearest gunsmith."
She was lovely, but her blue eyes were about as warm as the North Sea. "That would be Vista City."
Ezra's dismay must have shown, for the Ice Queen suddenly thawed and smiled at him. "Virgil Watson at the hardware store might be able to help you. Just keep heading the way you are, and across the street."
"Thank you, Miss --"
"Mary Travis. And it is Mrs."
Ezra noticed that she wasn't wearing a wedding ring. Widow? Seemed too young, but then the West was a hard place. Travis? Worry hit Ezra in the gut. As in Judge Travis? No, surely the lovely woman and that judge in Fort Laramie couldn't be related. Coincidence. It happened every day, and Travis was not an uncommon name in these parts. He shrugged off his fears.
Watson's Hardware store was a small emporium, cluttered with just about every tool and gadget that a person could want. Unlike some other merchants he had noticed in town, Watson's seemed to be thriving. Ezra set the box he carried on counter and waited. A middle-aged gentleman wearing an apron and sleeve garters was deep conversation with a long-haired man. When he heard the bell over the door chime, he looked up and acknowledged Ezra's presence.
"Be with you in a moment. Son, can you wait while I take care of this customer?"
"Reckon so, Mr. Watson." He nodded at Ezra, who immediately felt that sharp blue gaze had seen a lot more than the gambler cared to reveal. But there was no hostility, just interest, so the gambler turned his attention back to Watson.
He flicked the catch on the wooden box and raised the lid. Inside, on a bed of black cloth lay a small derringer and an unusual arrangement of metal and leather straps. Watson's brows rose. "Ain't never seen anything like that, mister."
Ezra sighed. "It is really quite simple." He picked up one of the metal pieces. "It is a spring release rig that, when strapped to the forearm, impells the gun into the wearer's hand when the mechanism is triggered by a motion of the wrist." He flicked one of his elegant ruffled wrists to demonstrate the motion. "Alas, it seems to have been damaged in a recent altercation."
"I c'n take a look at it, but I ain't promising anything."
The long-haired young man wandered over. "Mind if I have a look-see?"
Ezra looked at him in alarm. "I don't think so -- this is a highly sensitive mechanical apparatus --"
The blue eyes took on a hint of scorn. "I c'n strip the lock on a Winchester faster 'n it took ya t'tell Mr.Watson here, what was wrong, and put it back t'gether b'fore ya c'd say ya wasn't interested in havin' me touch it." He picked up the metal brace in slender, agile fingers. He pursed his lips slightly in concentration, narrowed those blue eyes, and turned to Watson. "Look here, you c'n see it's missin' a screw, and that metal spring's been bent."
Watson peered through his glasses. "So it is. I might have something to fix that." He went off in search of a properly sized screw and a pair of needle-nose pliers..
Ezra blinked. "My apologies, sir. I value my weapons, and don't entrust them lightly to strangers."
A smile touched the corner of the young man's mouth. "Reckon I c'n understand that. Man's got to take care of his own."
"Allow me to introduce myself. Ezra Standish." He offered his hand, and received a wary look in return and a cautious clasp in return.
"Name's Tanner." He didn't like saying it, but he figured Virgil Watson knew, and so did Mary Travis. He doubted this fancy gambler fella had any notion of the bounty on his head, and he didn't look like the type to stick around a place like Four Corners.
Virgil returned with a screw and pliers. He and Standish watched as Vin deftly repaired the bent spring, and inserted the new screw. When he had finished, he offered the rig to Ezra. "Should work. Though an itty-bitty pop gun ain't gonna stop a man cold."
"It will if I put a shot through his heart," Ezra said. He took off his burgundy coat, buckled on the rig, and put the coat back on. With a quick bend of his wrist, the small gun slid into his hand from beneath his sleeve. "Perfect. Mr. Tanner, you are a man of rare talents, and I am in your debt."
Vin grinned crookedly. "I'll hold ya to it, Standish. But I ain't much of a gambler." His eyes glinted with amusement. Ezra knew that a man didn't always gamble with cards and dice, and he would have been willing to bet that Tanner was more familiar with the elements of risk taking than his appearance revealed.
"How much do I owe you, sir?" Ezra asked and paid Watson the required sum. "I am beholden to you. I hope to have a game going in the saloon this evening, if you care to stop by, gentlemen." He tipped his hat and stepped jauntily out into the heat of the day.
Virgil Watson handed Vin the two bits that Ezra had paid him. "Here, son. You earned this. Consider it your first day's wages."
Vin looked at the money in his palm. "I'm hired?"
"Man like you could be a valuable asset."
Vin nodded. "Thanks. I'll make it worth your while."
Virgil shook his hand. "Take it easy for a few days, son. Mary told me you've been through a bout of fever."
"We'll start out slow. You might want to move your things into the room upstairs. Save you some money."
Vin smiled. "I'll do that." Seemed he and the gambler were all square.
Having the good fortune to have his gun repaired made Ezra more sanguine toward the small town, and gave him renewed confidence that his luck was returning. He went to his room, took a catnap, the gambler's necessity -- or so his mother said -- and then ate a light repast, before he descended to the saloon shortly after sunset.
He stood at the bottom of the steps and surveyed the floor. He had picked out his table earlier, and the bartender had promised for a fee, to hold it for him. He scanned the men at the other tables, picking out his marks. Mostly rough-looking cowboys, but among them a few possibilities. And a few who wouldn't have at his table for all the money in the world: the big Negro sipping beer, and seemingly tolerated, though no one sat with him. The mean looking cowboy with the scar of a knife slash across his nose. Then there was the gunslinger who walked in and made the room go still for a moment; tall, narrow, dressed in black and cold as dark ice. The Devil would have run from him, and he certainly wouldn't have played cards with him. Ezra hoped he wasn't in the mood for a game, because if he was, he'd be playing solitaire.
However, the gunslinger brought a bottle from the bar and settled at a corner table with his back to the wall. Ezra found four likely gamesters, and made eye contact with them as he crossed the room to his table. They knew why he was there. One by one they drifted over. Ezra took out his deck of cards, greeted each participant, and grinned, the glint of his gold tooth bright as a beacon and baleful as the yellow eyes of a fox. Let the games begin.
By the end of the evening, Ezra was wishing the gunslinger had joined the game, if only to put him out of his misery. He was beginning to think he might have to lay his tooth on the table as a wager, he was so tapped out. He kept an emergency fund in his boot, but he was loath to dip into it, since he never knew when a quick exit from town would be required.
Two of his playing partners drifted away, to be replaced by the cowboy with the scarred nose and another of his compatriots. Ezra would have been willing to fold for the evening, but he had dealt himself a hand that looked like a sure thing. Scar-nose looked at his hand and laid down a small leather bag. "Gold dust. Twenty-five dollars."
Ezra tried to read the man. He looked excited in a secretive way. Bluffing? Maybe. But not likely. Ezra considered his cards and his future. "Call and raise." He reached into his boot and put his money on the table.
Scar-nose's partner folded his hand. "Too rich fer me, fellas. I'm out."
There was a hundred dollars on the table. Enough to buy a ticket to San Francisco. Enough to add to his nest egg he was saving for the purchase of his own gambling parlor. Enough to get him out of this God-forsaken town. He tried not to smile as he fanned out his cards. "I believe the honor is mine?" He started reaching for the pot, and found a pistol aimed at his hand.
"Not so fast, Fancy Man." Scar-nose sneered. "Last I looked, a flush beats a straight, 'less yer playin' by some funny rules." The pistol wagged menacingly.
Ezra had a brief, horrifying vision of splintered bones and blood. His bones. His blood. He swallowed. "Sir, your insinuation wounds me deeply."
"I ain't sure what that means, mister. But it sounds mighty insultin'." The pistol cocked.
Ezra drew back from the foul breath. "I apologize, sir."
"That's better, Fancy Man."
Ezra watched in despair as the pot, his emergency fund, his future was swept up by Scar-nose. "Wait!" he cried. "Wait -- I have a proposal for you, sir." Desperation began to give way to glimmering hope.
"What c'n ya offer me better'n this pot?" Scar-nose asked suspiciously.
"An opportunity to double your fortune -- a wager."
"I can see by the way you handle that weapon that you are a fair shot?" Ezra asked delicately.
"He's the best in the county," his friend boasted.
Ezra doubted that. But Scar-nose just nodded. "That's right. Best you'll ever see."
Ezra canted his head in the direction of the corner where the gunslinger sat. "Better than him?"
Scar-nose had been drinking all night, but he wasn't so drunk that he didn't recognize the man in black. He started laughing. "You know who that is, Fancy Man?"
"I regret that I do not know the gentleman."
"Regret? Damn, you kin sure make me laugh! That's Chris Larabee." He gave Ezra a leer. "Larabee's faster 'n a strikin' snake. Cain't match that. But I kin sure as hell match you."
"Then let's prove it."
Scar-nose slapped his hand on the table. "All righty! Pick your target and let's get on down to it."
Just then a burst of laughter rang through the room, and a tall, rangy cowboy came through the bat-wing doors. Ezra just gave him a sour look. They'd played cards the night before, and he'd lost more than a few hands to the man. Seemed he had the luck with the ladies, as well. Lucky in love and at cards. It scarcely seemed fair.
Ezra startled as his shoulder was jostled sharply. "Are you willin' to put your money where yer mouth is?"
"Of-of course. But obviously we cannot do it here, sir. There are far too many spectators to distract us. Tomorrow morning, when we are both fresh and at our best?" He thought that he was about to lose his chance, but Scar-nose was both greedy and vain.
"Whenever you wish."
"At noon. Here. Come ready t'shoot. And bring yer money." He left and Ezra sat down, feeling like all of his blood had just drained away. His hands were trembling as he picked up his tumbler of whiskey and downed it in a shot. A few hours earlier he had thought his luck had changed. Just proved how wrong a man could be.
Ezra pushed himself away from the table. Luck was transient; life with Maude had taught him that. His childhood had been one of shocking extremes, from luxury to poverty, at times overnight. His education had varied from expensive boarding schools to Maude's tutoring in subjects that the Jesuits would have considered occasions of sin at best, and outright criminal acts at worst. It had been a painful, confusing childhood but he had grown used to it; to Maude's vagaries, to her callous affection, to her selfish, but well-intentioned attempts to teach him to watch out for himself, as she had been taught by her own hard life. And then to cast him adrift ...
Angry at himself for his reminiscences, and feeling choked and battered by the smoke and the noise in the saloon, he stepped outside. He slipped into the shadows and sat on the bench running along the siding of the saloon. As he sat there, he noticed a dark shadow on the porch of the Grand Hotel. Looked like the gunslinger was restless, too. He watched the man's cheroot trace a path of light in the darkness, then the trail of sparks as he jetted it to the ground and snuffed the butt out with his boot.
Ezra wondered what a man like that was doing in Four Corners. It was an idle thought, soon forgotten, as his mind turned to the more mundane, but no less puzzling problem of how to escape this town, and Scar-nose, with his hide and his fortune intact.
Ezra ate breakfast the next morning, confident that he had come up with the solution to his problem. Granted, it required a certain amount of elaborate subterfuge, but the con was Ezra's second nature. He preferred to win on his gambler's skill, but when imperiled, his instincts for survival overtook any scruples that lingered in his conscience.
He could pull this off. He had to pull this off. It was a fiddle that had worked excellently in the past, as long as the mark wasn't too observant -- and they usually weren't. The only danger was that Scar-nose had a familiarity with weapons that would lead him to suspect a trick. Ezra could only hope that he could escape before Scar-nose figured out the ruse.
Success depended on a perfect set-up. Ezra had slept poorly; the shadows under his eyes needed no cosmetic enhancement. And he had been awakened far too early by some sort of brouhaha in the streets; shots fired, glass breaking, rowdy shouts. The mayhem had subsided quickly, allowing him to drift back to sleep for an hour or so.
Erza appraised his reflection in the mirror. He wore the same clothes he had worn the day before. He had slept in them to further his illusion of dissipation. He ate his breakfast, and chased it with a shot of whiskey. He poured a small amount on his hand and patted it on his cheeks and neck, then rinsed his mouth out with the spirits. Lord, he stank like a three day bender!
Next he prepared his weapon. One chamber held a real bullet, the other five chambers were loaded with blanks. Ezra's gold tooth glinted in his smile as he holstered the Remington. He strapped on the little sleeve gun and tested the mechanism. It was not as smooth as he liked, but it worked. He'd have a real gunsmith check it out in San Francisco.
He gave himself a final appraisal in the mirror. He looked inebriated, exhausted, like a child of six could take him. He held out his hand and decided that allowing it to tremble was a nice touch. Now, if he could only do something about his eyes ...
The saloon was fairly packed for that hour of the day. Folks got down to business early in this town, Ezra thought. He made his way to the bar. "Whiskey," he ordered, "and water."
The bartender was looking a mite skittish as he handed Ezra the bottle. "You hear the big fight this mornin', Mister Standish?"
"I heard some sort of commotion. What happened?"
"Bunch a' rowdy cowpokes took a notion t' lynch Nathan Jackson. Claimed he kilt their boss with his darky healin'."
Ezra snorted. "Why am I not surprised? And how was this situation resolved?"
The bartender shook his head. "Most amazin' thing I ever saw. That there gunslinger in black and the young feller works at the hardware store -- them two teamed up and went after those rowdies. Saw the fight myself. That Larabee, he's jist about the fastest draw I ever seen, and the other feller, he shot clear through that rope Jackson was dancin' on -- while he was bein' shot at!"
Ezra regarded the man with a jaundiced eye. "I hope riskin' their lives was worth it."
"Hell, Jackson's the closest thing we got to a doctor in these parts. I'd say it was worth it."
Ezra shrugged and picked up the bottle of whiskey to take to his table. He settled in, poured whiskey in his glass, and pulled out a fresh deck of cards. He cut them, and drew from the deck, let the card face down, and drew another and set it down. It was his own ritual; the card on his right was yes, the card on his left, no. When he was facing a decision, he always trusted that the higher card would rule his fate. He turned the left card over. A King. Interesting. He turned the right card over. An Ace. He would proceed with his plan and confront Scar-nose.
He didn't have long to wait. Scar-nose and his entourage entered the saloon precisely at noon. He strode confidently up to Ezra. "Ya ready to prove yer point, Fancy Man?"
"I am beginning to loathe that appellation, sir."
"Hell, I don't understand half a' what you say." Scar-nose nodded to the bartender. "We got a wager t'settle here. Ya might wanna stow away them liquor bottles." He turned to one of his compatriots. "Lew, you tack up ..." his eyes lit on the King lying on the table. "This." He turned to Ezra. "I'll wager I kin put a bullet between that there King's teeth from ... here." He paced off a distance.
Ezra allowed himself a slightly inebriated giggle. "Now, that I would like to see, sir. Go ahead. Take your shot."
Scar-nose grinned. "You been at the sauce there, sonny?"
Ezra wasn't sure he didn't prefer Fancy Man. He shrugged. "I find a brief libation takes the edge off my nerves." He sat back in his chair and rested his boots on the tabletop.
"I reckon I ain't got no nerves." Scar-nose snorted, and raised the pistol.
A loud report echoed through the room, and when the smoke cleared, Scar-nose retrieved the card and held it up. "Dead center. Let's see you beat that."
Ezra flipped the Ace of Spades over to the barkeep. "Tack that up, sir." He slid his leg across the tabletop, knocking the bottle of whiskey to the floor. He staggered upright. "It should be a piece of cake." He took deliberate, if shaky aim, raised the gun and fired, making it seem as if he had tripped over the whiskey bottle, and missing wildly.
"Pay up!" Scar-nose demanded.
"Nonsense, I was encumbered by the debris on the floor." Ezra was momentarily distracted by the entrance of four men; Larabee, Tanner, that damned lucky cowboy, and the big Negro who he figured to be the beleaguered Nathan Jackson. Seemed like odd birds to flock together.
"Well, mister ... Let's jist try it again," Scar-nose said, feeling generous and certain of the gambler's inebriation.
Ezra let the thought of the four men go, and gave a slight grin. "Pleasure. Double or nothing."
"It's your money," Scar-nose sneered. He looked at his cohorts. "Prepare to duck, men."
Ezra took a breath, raised his pistol -- his hand rather astonishingly steady for a man who had been a sot a moment earlier -- and fired. Five shots, five strikes on the target, apparently dead center. Ezra tried to took sheepish. "Astonishin'. I've never done that before."
"You sobered up mighty quick, mister."
"Must be the desert air."
"I don't take kindly to bein' hustled." Scar-nose suddenly pulled out a knife, and the buzz in the barroom died down instantly, all attention focused on the threat. "We'll see how good you can shoot with one eye." The cruel hook of the blade hovered over the gambler's eye.
Now, Ezra was a man who made his living on the odds. His tools in trade were his agile mind and sleight of hand. Reflexes as quick as thought. And he thought that he could take the lumbering Scar-nose. Ezra's left fist darted out toward the man's midsection, he grabbed the knife in hs right, and the fight was on.
Chris Larabee had been observing the scene with the cold eyes of a hawk. He and Tanner had exchanged one glance, then settled back to watch the mayhem, both of them too wise to enter a fight that was not their own and none of their business. Besides, it was damn entertaining.
Nathan stood near them, mentally tallying up the injuries that might require his services, and wondering if he had enough linen and arnica to bind up the various wounds and bruises.
And when the dust had settled, the gambler was still alive, his little sleeve gun smoking in his hand, and Scar-nose was clutching bleeding fingers.
Vin noted with wry amusement that the gambler had the presence of mind to scoop up what he could of the wagered pot. "Nice shot, pard."
"Dreadful. I was aiming to kill him, but the mirror was cracked." Now that his heart was slowing down, Ezra realized that he was still in very deep trouble. A room full of hostile cowboys, a keen-eyed sharpshooter, and Chris Larabee, who was giving him a green-eyed appraisal that set his hackles rising. Ezra swallowed hard, wondering the best way to extricate himself from this extremely uncomfortable situation.
Larabee took a swallow of whiskey. "The first shot was louder than the other five," he said in that rasp of a voice that gave Ezra chills.
"What are you attempting to suggest?"
"The first bullet was real. The rest were blanks."
"Well, sir. I abhor gambling and as such leave nothing to chance." What was the use in lying? He looked at Larabee with some apprehension, wondering what it would take to buy the man's silence. The man was a hired gun; surely his honor was for hire as well.
Before Ezra could ask, the gunslinger did something that amused, alarmed, and appalled the gambler. He offered him a job.
Later that night, Ezra lay on his bed, watching the progress of the moonlight across the floor. He had sat downstairs for a while with Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, and Nathan Jackson. He had nothing in common with those men, but for some reason, he had found their presence comforting, realizing that the only reason he had not been tarred, feathered, and run out of town, was the gunslinger's presence through the evening.
That, he couldn't figure out. Why would anyone offer him protection? He hadn't even decided whether or not to aid them in their mad quest to protect the Seminole village. But Larabee stuck with him, and Tanner, who had apparently given up his job at the hardware store for something more perilous. And Buck Wilmington, whose ties to the gunslinger went back to the war.
And then there was Nathan Jackson. A Negro. A man who Ezra had been raised to believe was property; assigned a value like a bale of cotton, and not worth much more than that. But that night, he had sat at the table with the others. His words granted equal merit with Tanner's, or Wilmington's, his medical knowledge obvious. And this man who had been a slave, who knew what Ezra was, still tolerated his presence at that table.
It gave Ezra an uncomfortable feeling in his gut. It was either the stew he had eaten or his conscience. Ezra sincerely hoped it was the former, because a man in his profession could not afford the latter.
Weary of his thoughts, Ezra rose and went to the window. He saw two shapes standing on the steps of the boardwalk; Tanner in his slouch-brimmed hat, unmistakable in the moonlight, and Chris Larabee, nearly invisible, and so mirroring Tanner's slouch that he might have been a shadow, but for the glint of the moon off the silver conchas on his belt.
Leaving at dawn. Ezra considered his options: to ride with Larabee, or to pack up and run off to the next miserable town. Either option meant death of one kind or another. He took a deck of cards out of his pocket.
He shuffled, cut the deck, and selected two cards. One on the left. One on the right. He turned the left-hand card over. The King of Diamonds ... his lucky card. Ezra smiled. He turned over the right-hand card. For a moment he stared at it. His hand crept towards the deck, to draw a third card, and then with an effort, he brought it back. He might cheat on other matters, but never on cards.
The Ace of Spades. "Aces high," he whispered. He tucked the card in his vest pocket. It seemed that Chris Larabee had his fifth gun.
Continued in:Legends Born: A Lamb Among Wolves -- JD Dunne