The Gambler's Christmas Eve
by Sue Bartholomew
Disclaimer: The characters of the Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM, CBS, and Trilogy. I am making no money from their use. No kiddin'!
Author's Note: This is a short Ezra Christmas story that just popped into my head the other day. I'm not sure if it even makes sense, but the muse was insistent, so here it is!! :) Hope y'all enjoy it!
Ezra scanned the rowdy throngs at Digger Dan's and sighed to himself. Another boisterous Christmas Eve!
It was nearing midnight, but the noisy, drunken crowd was still in full throat, drinking and carousing as if possessed of unlimited energy. It was a somewhat ugly mix, rough men and women with no families to go home to, and in some cases no homes at all. Miners, working girls, transients, cowboys, cattle drivers, drunks, loose women -- all imbibed, laughed and reveled the hours away, ignorant of the night's special meaning. To them, it was just another evening to drink away.
Ezra shook his head as he returned to his card game, tossing in his ante and taking another draw on his cigar. This mass of humanity was certainly rough, but really it wasn't all that different than the crowd he normally spent Christmas Eve with. As a gambler, con man and drifter, he could hardly expect to be welcome at the nicer homes and parties. This thought brought no self-pity; it was simply a fact. It had always been this way.
As the other men at the table anteed up, Ezra's thoughts wandered back to years past. This night had always been a lonely, painful time for him, and it helped to have the distraction of poker and loud company to keep his mind from this fact. He had only the barest recollection of a time when his father was alive and they were a family. It was a warm memory, but a fragmentary one, hardly as solid as the ones which came a short time later, when his father was dead and his mother eager to palm him off to any relative who would care for him. Consequently, it was those memories that lingered.
He could still feel the hot pain of those holidays spent in strange homes as an unwanted visitor, watching his cousins get the love and attention he could hardly hope for. There were a few holidays spent with his con-woman mother, but somehow those were even worse than the ones spent with his relatives; it was if Maude scarcely knew what to do with him, and was embarrassed at having to display maternal feelings she either didn't have or didn't know what to do with.
So, as he grew up, Christmas Eve began to mean a late night gambling with the other outcasts, usually taking in a pretty good amount of cash and sleeping in the next day. It seemed no different here; this was his first Christmas in Four Corners, and so far it had proven to be remarkably like the ones he had spent in other small frontier towns.
The calls went around, and Ezra lay down his bet. Idly he wondered what the six other men who protected this small frontier town of Four Corners were doing. Some of them may have gone to the service held at the small church. Josiah, one of their number and a former preacher, was going to hold a short service there. Ezra had considered attending, but, knowing how gamblers were looked upon by the more self-righteous members of other towns, he had decided against it. Oh, Josiah certainly wouldn't object, but Ezra had run into enough high-minded individuals in other towns to know that his presence would only cause a disturbance.
Faces rose before him, memories from a dozen towns before this one, stern and disapproving. Men and women from a large variety of moral leagues, temperance leagues, anti-gambling associations, all letting him know in no uncertain terms what a waste he was making of his life. He was a sinner, they told him, vile and corrupt, stealing honest men's money and leading the gullible to destruction. Some scolded, others cajoled; some were gentle, others were hostile. Some ran him out of town, others merely made sure he and others of his profession were unwelcome anywhere but the saloons and gambling halls.
No, he thought as he downed a shot of whiskey and looked around at the sodden horde writhing in the dim, musty smoke, it was better here, just like every other Christmas. Rounds of poker until he couldn't stay awake, and then bed. He sighed to himself, thinking briefly about the church service -- he hadn't been to a Christmas Eve service since he was a child, and even then it was only to help his mother con sympathetic churchgoers out of money. But there was no use thinking about that; this was his place in society, and he had long since accepted it.
"Hey, there ya are!"
Ezra started and looked up to see his fellow lawman Buck Wilmington pushing through the drunken masses, his handsome face ruddy from the cold, his thick black hair tousled. He was dressed slightly better than usual.
"Good evening, Buck," the gambler nodded. "I see you're ready for some Christmas cheer with the ladies."
Buck chuckled as he drew up next to Ezra. "That's later, pard. I been lookin' all over for you. C'mon." He plucked at Ezra's sleeve and stepped away, as if expecting Ezra to follow.
"And where precisely am I supposed to be going?" was the curious reply, as Ezra stayed seated where he was.
Buck looked back at him and jerked his head towards the door. "Let's go!" he said, and headed back out into the street.
Ezra looked after him, puzzled. He hated to leave the game, even though his hand wasn't all that good. A sudden, horrid thought struck him -- perhaps something was wrong. In any case, knowing Buck, Ezra would have no rest until he found out what the gunslinger wanted.
He rose quickly, tossing in his cards and picking up his hat. "I will return in due time, gentlemen," he said to the two miners and three cattle hands at the table. The scruffy, besotted men looked blearily at him and said nothing, so he hastened out into the dark night after Buck.
"Is something amiss?" he asked, pulling his red jacket tight against the chilly air. They were hurrying towards the end of town.
"Naw, everything's fine," Buck assured him as they stepped quickly onward. "Josiah just wanted you over to the church."
Ezra frowned. "Why, if there is no problem?"
Buck laughed a little and glanced back at his comrade. "'Cause it's Christmas Eve, Ezra! He kinda thought we all ought to be there, all seven of us. You were the only one missin', so they sent me out to fetch you."
So that was it. Ezra sighed and slowed his steps, finally coming to a complete halt.
Buck looked back at him and sighed, walking up to him with a patient, puzzled expression. "Somethin' wrong, Ezra?"
The gambler quickly shook his head. "Oh, no, no -- I just believe it would be better if I declined attending the church service. I am sure some of the more morally strict citizens of this area would rather someone of my profession not be there."
The handsome gunslinger waved one hand with a chuckle. "Aw, shoot, Ezra, if they can put up with me, they can put up with you! You ain't a murderer or nothin'."
"Try telling that to the Ladies Society of South Creek," Ezra said with a shade of regret. "I certainly appreciate Josiah's invitation, but my Christmas Eve routine usually does not involve church, which suits both myself and the towns I stay in just fine."
Ezra was surprised at the resulting light in Buck's blue eyes; it was almost angry. His comrade took a few steps towards him and crossed his arms. "Yeah, well, it don't suit your friends just fine," he said quietly. "An' as for them other towns that don't like gamblers, well, you ain't there no more. You're here, an' the folks here want you at this service, 'cause they're grateful for the good you done for 'em."
A thrill of mild surprise rushed through Ezra, and he glanced at Buck with skepticism. The citizens actually wanting a gambler at a respectable social function seemed impossible to believe.
"Now," Buck continued, "I dragged my butt out of that nice warm church to find ya an' bring ya in. I found ya, an' now I'm headin' on back. Up to you if you wanna come, but don't give me no more of that hooey. If anyone tries to throw you out, they'll have six other fellas to deal with too."
He turned and began to walk back to the church, in a particularly slow manner. Ezra hesitated, feeling oddly afraid, and staring at the old white church with great uncertainty. It had been many years since he had attended a real church service; he had performed many revival meetings as cons, but this was something else.
Then his resolution took hold. What was he afraid of, anyway? It would just be a few moments, he'd stand in the back, and get clear before any of the meddling moral arbiters of the town had a chance to buttonhole him and upbraid him for his sinning lifestyle. It would keep him in good standing with the town, at any rate, which would make them more willing to gamble with him.
He quickly followed Buck back to the church. Buck glanced behind him, smiled a little, and hastened his steps. They ascended the creaking wooden stairs and entered the building. Ezra suddenly felt very nervous, but was not sure why.
Josiah was preaching, and all eyes were on him, so no one noticed Buck and Ezra as they slipped into the back pew. As Ezra sat down next to Buck, he saw with surprise that the other men were there too. Smoothly removing his hat, he settled back, observing everything as he experienced his first real Christmas Eve service since he was a small child.
At first he felt uncomfortable and awkward, certain that he didn't belong there, that the well-established town fathers and mothers were condemning him for just being present. He paid little attention to Josiah's sermon, aside from noticing that the man was a strong-voiced speaker.
Years of experience, however, had given Ezra the ability to quickly accommodate himself into many situation, and after a few minutes he was able to relax a bit more. He noticed how very hushed it was in the church, so different from the saloons he usually frequented on Christmas Eve. The interior was quietly ablaze with dozens of candles whose golden glow filled the small space with a gentle, ethereal light quite unlike the brilliant glare of the gambling halls he was used to.
It was all oddly calming, although Ezra wasn't really sure why. A vague memory danced at the back of his mind, of his parents taking him to a similar service as a very small child. It was part of a swindle, no doubt, but he clearly remembered being held in his father's arms as they stood in the back of the church waiting for the service to end. It had been very much like this, a small church, lit with what seemed like thousands of candles, all shining like earthbound stars in the darkness. The same pleasant, secure feeling that had stolen over him then embraced him now, but he could not understand where it was coming from.
Josiah was still speaking, his voice gentle and reassuring. He was saying something about how the story of Christmas gave hope to even the worst of sinners, that it was never too late to turn a bad life to good. The holy star would always light the way, he explained, for those who wanted to find it.
A twinge of skepticism vibrated in Ezra's heart. A naive notion, he thought, very typical of religious men like Mr. Sanchez. How could a man with a long and sinful past -- like himself, for example -- hope to be able to shun the familiar path after years of transgressions? He was a sinner and had never been ashamed of it or thought that he would ever be otherwise. Why seek the difficult road, when the easy one was so much more fun and lucrative?
Ezra swallowed and looked around, feeling more uncomfortable. Perhaps this had been a mistake after all.
The sermon ended, and two of the townspeople got up, a young woman and a man in slightly rumpled middle-class clothing. He was carrying a fiddle, and after a few moments of preparation she cleared her throat and began to sing a hymn.
The sanctuary was still as the gentle strains of "Silent Night" filled its tiny space. Ezra listened intently, enthralled; it had been years, he figured, since he had last heard this song, but he knew they had played it that night in the church so long ago. He recalled the tune, if not the words, and as the woman sang in a clear, beautiful voice, the old warm feeling came flooding back over him. It was as if he was back again with his family, when it still was a family, and he felt safe and protected from whatever hardships might lie ahead.
He blinked and frowned, ashamed at himself for such sentimentality. Life was as unsure now as it had ever been, what reason could he have for believing otherwise? It seemed as foolish as thinking he could ever be more than a con man and gambler.
But the feeling just wouldn't go away. He glanced beside him, at the other men, who were sitting and listening with rapt attention. They had wanted him here, had gone so far as to send Buck out to find him. And Buck had done it. This was certainly a change from the Christmasses when no one cared where he was or what he did.
He looked back up at the woman singing, still puzzled. The candlelight and tranquil music eased him into a quiet, contemplative mood. Ezra was not a contemplative person, except when it came to working out cons, but as the delicate song swept over him he found himself nearly overwhelmed at the solemn beauty of what he saw and heard.
She was singing of redeeming grace. As Ezra sat, overcome by the gentle holiness around him, something else twinged in his heart, displacing the doubt. Some small part of him, long denied and buried, voiced the hope that perhaps this peace was not as out of his reach as he had supposed. He had a home now, and a new family, and a duty greater than any he had ever shouldered before. It was a chance to rise above what he was, if he had the courage to take it.
Ezra dropped his eyes to his lap, bewildered at the thought. It was an enticing idea, but he was not a courageous man, just an itinerant gambler. Besides, he enjoyed his life. He didn't really want to change it. Did he?
There was a general rumble, and suddenly everyone was standing. Ezra shook himself from his reverie and got to his feet as well, still half-lost in his reverie.
"Thank you all for comin' tonight," Josiah was saying. "Have a merry Christmas an' the good Lord bless you. Amen."
And that was the end of the service. Ezra braced himself as many of the townsfolk walked past them on their way out, but no one upbraided him or glared at him for daring to pass himself off as a respectable citizen of the town. Relieved, he put on his hat and hastened outside, with the other men on his heels.
It was colder now, the night sky studded with brilliant stars and small, silver-edged clouds. As the townsfolk went their ways, six of the seven lawkeepers gathered by themselves.
Chris pulled on his long black duster and nodded at the men he had led for the past six months. "Boys, good to see we're all here."
"That service was really somethin'," JD said as he shoved his hands in his pockets.
"Hard to believe a head-buster like Josiah can preach like that," Vin observed, as he pulled his wide-brimmed hat over his long brown curls.
Nathan chuckled as he tied his wool scarf around his neck. "Sometimes ya gotta bust heads so's the right ideas can get on in."
"Glad you decided to join us there, Ezra," Buck commented as he rubbed his hands together in an effort to keep them warm.
The gambler smiled, trying to appear nonchalant. "As you pointed out, Buck, it was the polite thing to do. And it did make an... interesting change from my normal routine."
Buck grinned and gave him a light slap on the shoulder. "Reckon maybe it's time for a new routine, pard."
There was a thoughtful light in Ezra's green eyes, but before he could respond, Josiah appeared, shrugging on his long tan coat.
"Sure glad you all could make it," he said with a smile. "Anyone care to join me at the saloon for a Christmas toast?"
"Sure, Josiah," JD said brightly. "If they're still open."
"Oh, one of them will be," Ezra assured him.
They all began to move down the street, chatting among themselves. Ezra was still lost in silent thought when he realized that Josiah was walking beside him.
"I apologize for my late arrival at your service, Josiah," he said, looking over at his comrade.
Josiah shrugged and looked at him with an understanding smile. "Didn't bother me none, Ezra. Just happy to see you there at all."
The other man chuckled a little to himself. "Our good friend Buck was most persistent."
"I can see that," Josiah laughed, as he watched Buck tease JD that he had gotten him a new hat for Christmas to replace JD's beloved bowler. "Hope you didn't regret it."
Ezra sighed, the old memories coming back. "Not at all, although it was a touch... overwhelming. It likely won't surprise you to know that I have not been to a Christmas Eve service in years."
"That's all right, Ezra, I sure ain't a man in any position to judge folks," Josiah replied quietly, with a short shake of his head. "That was my first holiday service in a long time, too, an' I think I was talkin' to myself as much as anyone else." he glanced over at his friend, a warm expression in his blue eyes. "Ain't none of us perfect; if we were, there'd be no need for Christmas at all."
Ezra pondered this as they reached the saloon and filed inside. He was the last to go in, and hesitated; the idea formed in his mind that he could go back to Digger Dan's and rejoin his poker game, resuming his old and familiar tradition. But something was pulling him inside here, away from the well-worn path, and it took him only a moment to decide. He could tell himself, of course, that it was only the lure of whiskey and new gaming opponents that drew him inside the saloon, that the men he was with were only business associates and nothing more. But one small part of him, the part that had reached from the darkness towards the glimmering light, knew better.
He drew a deep breath, glanced up at the bright gleaming stars in the black December sky, and went into the saloon.
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