Disclaimer: I own neither the Magnificent Seven nor Maverick. Hell, I wasnít even alive when Maverick was first shown (1957), though the fact that I love that show almost as much as MGMís Magnificent Seven is a testament to just how good it was. AnyhooÖ Maverick is owned by Warner Brothers, ABC, TVLand, ColumbiaHouse, and anyone else who may have a claim to it. M7 is owned by MGM, CBS, Trilogy/Mirsch, John Watson and all I ask is that their lawyers donít sue me. I have no money. Iím a student in an obscene amount of debt (note to all those thinking about Grad school: if youíre thinking New York City would be exciting to live, remember, it is also EXTREMELY expensive. I mean, a buck fifty for a doughnut? Who are they kidding? This is why we should all live in Oregon. I mean, that state is so inexpensive in comparison and is so damn gorgeous, how could you not want to live there? ĎCourse, I would miss the delis. New York has great delis. And great bars. Did I mention that the museums are also incredible? And I saw this rainbow over the Empire State Building the other day that just made my heart leapÖ.

Ahem. Sorry.

Notes: This story is a crossover with Maverick. For those who donít know it, Maverick was a very funny, well acted show with the young and handsome James Garner (Bret), Jack Kelly(Bart), and, near the end of its run, Roger Moore (Beau) and Robert Colbert (Brent). I saw it for the first time last May when TVLand did one of those Fandemonium Weekend things while I was studying for an exam, and, well, I probably could have done better on the exam. (Oh, and Warner recently did a movie version with Garner, Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster. Rent it, itís a great movie). If youíre curious as to what the Mavericks looked like, you can go to http://welcome.to/mavericktv. The girl who set it up did an amazing job.

Spoilers: Achilles, Serpents.

Description: When Bart and Bret Maverick visit Four Corners, well, letís just say things become even more interesting than usual.

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Three of a Kind

Part One

Bart Maverick sat at the bar watching the gambler in the corner with great interest. He had seen him before, although never in such a dive as this. Last time heíd seen him, the man had been freeing the good people of the Mississippi riverboat Bella Donna of their hard-earned cash. If Bart remembered correctly, this man was not only one of the best, he might even be better than Bart. The dark haired man tilted his head to one side as he thought this, a dark curl falling curiously out of place across his forehead, and considered whether the gambler might actually be better.

Nah.

Vin kept his eye on the young man near the bar, but not too seriously. He only watched him because the newcomer seemed to be watching Ezra so intently. After a few moments, though, Vin surmised that the man was watching Ezra not as someone who wished harm upon another, but as a man might watch a sporting event. It was the eye of one professional watching another professional at work.

Bartís eyes narrowed suspiciously as the black man at the table won another round. He also noticed that, in the last half an hour, the gambler, despite clearly being the more skilled player, had made only slightly more than what heíd started out with. Most of the money seemed to be flying out of the hands of the other two gentlemen at the table and towards the black man. Such a result alone would have made Bart suspicious, but his practiced eye had caught the subtle palming of cards that gave Mr. Jackson (as heíd heard the black man called by the gambler) the three of a kind to win the pot. Palmed, of course, by the gambler as he dealt. The gambler was directing the game as easily as one led a docile horse.

With one final swig of his whiskey, Bart stood and straightened his black silk waistcoat. A flickering of Ezraís eyes in his direction indicated that Bartís interest had not gone unnoticed. While Maverick had not intended to stay in this small town for longer than a few hours, something told him he would be delayed meeting Bret in Grand Junction. With practiced ease, he sidled over to the gaming table and flashed a smile at the men gathered there.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen. I was wondering if, perhaps, I might join you for a round or two?"

"Why, of course, sir," the gambler replied in a soft southern drawl, "the more the merrier. May I ask the moniker by which you make yourself known?"

Bart grinned at the roundabout speech, recognizing the style immediately. Always use more words than necessary, that way no one will have any idea what youíve gotten them into until its too late. Heíd used it to great effect himself, many times.

"Nameís Bart Maverick, my friend. A gambler by trade much as yourself, though perhaps not with your, ahem, munificent qualities?"

JD, sitting across the table from Nathan, formed the word "munificent?" with his lips. Nathan just shrugged. He didnít know what it meant either. Over by the bar, in earshot of everything that was going on, Josiah grinned slyly.

The gambler lowered his head to hide an abashed grin, then, more seriously, stood to extend his hand. "Ezra Standish, Mr. Maverick, and may I say it is an honor to meet a man of your reputation."

"My repÖ?" Bart smiled. "Yes sir, and may I say that, as of the last time I saw her, your mother was looking extremely well."

Ezra blinked, then shared the grin. "Touchť, mon ami. Please, have a seat." He indicated to the chair opposite with a grand gesture and looked around at the others at the table, who all still looked slightly puzzled. Green eyes fixed on the youngest member of the group before turning back to Maverick.

"May I introduce Sheriff JD Dunne."

JD inclined his head, and Bart mimicked the solemn nod.

"A pleasure sir," Bart smiled, amused by the youth of the young man, but also aware that he was probably very sensitive about it.

"Mr. Buck Wilmington," Ezra continued, introducing an older man with a moustache, a ready smile on the gunslingerís face. Buck tipped his hat in welcome to the newcomer. Bart smiled back, and tipped his own imaginary hat. The real one he had already placed on the table.

"And Mr. Nathan Jackson," Ezra nodded to the black man. Nathan smiled shyly, and Bart imitated that look as well.

"Mr. Jackson is our resident healer, Mr. Maverick. He is playing today in order to try and make enough money to replace some needed supplies. So far, it would seem that lady luck has been on his side."

"Yes, Iíd say so," Bart agreed, looking at the not inconsiderable pile in front of the healer, and flexed an eyebrow. Sensing something, Nathan began to gather his money together. Heíd won more than enough, and had a feeling his luck would change in the face of this new gambler.

"Well, thanks very much boys, but Iíd best go before the lady changes her mind about me. Iím probably pushing it as it is, donít you think?" He placed the money in his pocket, grabbed his soft brown hat and nodded his good-byes. "See yíall later."

"I gotta go spell Chris at the jail," Buck agreed, also standing. As he got up, he nudged JD hard in the side.

"Huh?" JD looked around, and saw the way Ezra and Bart seemed to be appraising each other from across the table. "Oh yeah, me too. Plus, I ainít got no money left. See ya, Ez, and, um, you boys play nice now."

"Of course, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said, sparing him a brief glance. Bart gave the boy a salute. Even before his fellow peacekeepers cleared the table, Ezra was dealing, his eyes never leaving the new man before him. The air took on an electric quality, and a crowd gathered to watch the show. From his stool by the bar, Josiah leant back to watch their boy in action. Vin went to stand next to him, curiosity piquing the normally solitary man.

"Who do you thinkís going to win, preacher?" he whispered into the older manís ear.

"Depends on whether Senor Ezra cheats, I should think," Inez answered for Josiah from where she stood behind him at the bar. She poured Vin a beer and slid it over.

"He wonít cheat. This oneís too clever," Vin replied. "If itís a fair game, you want to take a bet on the outcome, Inez?"

"Tempting, Senor. Why not? Iíll put five dollars down on Senor Maverick."

Vin looked properly shocked and shook his head. "I wonít tell Ezra you bet against him, Inez. What about you Josiah? Or should I even bother to ask?"

Josiah pursed his lips. Loyalty demanded he bet on Ezra, but he too had heard of the Maverick brothers. Good men and excellent card sharps. He looked at Vin, who watched him quietly. "Iíll lay five on Maverick as well, Vin."

This time Vinís surprise was genuine, but he hid it well. "I guess I really wonít tell Ezra that, though Iím sure heíll figure it out. Shame on you, preacher."

"I may be crazy, VinÖ"

"Yeah, yeah, but youíre not stupid. Well, I guess that leaves only me to place my five on our hero. I think you both underestimate him," Vin shrugged.

"I put my money on Ezra, too," Chris said, arriving just in time to insert himself into their little group and nodding at Inez. "Something tells me that this meeting might bring out a side of Ezra we rarely see in our small town." Meanwhile, Inez poured him a whiskey and handed it to him. At the table, the first poker game looked to be in full swing. The two men were playing an introductory game of five card stud, nothing wild.

Bart looked down at his three face up cards on the table, and at the one face down, then threw three more bits into the pot. Visible on his side was a pair of nines and a five. Ezra slid him his fifth card, revealing a king. The manís expression did not change at all at the addition. On his side, Ezra matched the three bits, and added two more. Before him he had a pair of threes and a jack. As the third card was turned over to reveal a queen, he tilted his head and smiled pleasantly.

Maverick scanned the cards in his hand and looked appraisingly at the one that was face down. He matched the two bits and raised five. Innocent green eyes lazily watched the movements, then threw five bits into the pot to call

Maverick flipped over his hole card Ė a second king, giving him two pair, kings and nines. Ezra nodded, and flipped his own hole card Ė another three. Three of a kind, all threes. Bart grinned, shaking his head as Ezra drew in the small pot. Coins mostly, but it was just a starter game. The two men each had a better idea of the otherís skills now.

Ezra shuffled again, the cards a blur between his fingers. He liked to use three distinct styles of shuffling Ė the traditional bridge shuffle, a lazier hand shuffle, and the one he did now. Vin named it the speed shuffle. Ezra didnít lift the cards from the table. He simply split them in half, lifted the corners ever so slightly, and before you knew it, had them back together again. The dexterity of the movement had always impressed the tracker.

With a gentle move, Ezra slid the cards across the table, "Care to deal, Mr. Maverick?"

It was a symbol of trust, and Bart accepted it thankfully. He imitated Ezraís shuffle, although, to the loyal eyes of Vin, it hadnít looked quite as smooth. Within moments, the game was dealt again, but not five card stud. This time they played seven card stud, one-eyed jacks wild, and Bart had added the jokers as "bugs."

"Senor, what is a Ďbug?" Inez whispered, leaning in again to talk to the three men at the bar.

"A bug is a joker, Inez. It is a wild card that stands as an ace. So, if you have two aces and a joker, then you have three aces. But, say, you have two kings and a joker, then you merely have two kings and an ace. Of course, if your opponent has the same hand with a real ace, then he wins," Josiah replied.

"Oh. Yes, Iíve seen that, but we do not call them bugs where I am from. Why are they called bugs here?"

Josiah looked at Vin and Chris. Both men shrugged. Josiah then shrugged at Inez, who made a wry face, and disappeared to serve someone new. In front of them, the game became more serious, but no less spirited. Eventually, of course, it would graduate into draw poker, but for now the two men were still sizing the other up. When the real game began, that was when their skills would really show.

____________________________

Two hours later, the two men were still at it. The size of the pot had grown considerably, and Bart frowned at the thought that he had lost more than he intended to this man. However, heíd been watching him intently, and, irritatingly enough, was sure that Ezra hadnít been cheating him. Calling to close a fifty dollar pot, Bart laid down a straight.

Ezra laid down a full house.

"Damn," Bart smiled, shaking his head. He stood and stretched as Ezra drew in the cash and worked it into a small wad.

"A most enjoyable game, sir," Ezra chuckled, inserting the money into his waistcoat pocket. "I must say, I have not had the opportunity to play with such a skilled opponent in a long time. The last time I thought I had met my match, the man turned out to be a charlatan with a false leg."

Maverick grinned at this information as he carefully placed his own smaller pile of cash into his wallet. He still had plenty of money, but it always stung to lose. His pappy would not be proud.

"A false leg? That is low. But tell me, how did you discover that his leg was false? Surely you didnít look under the table," Bart said. Such a thing would not be honorable in their profession, even if you were certain the other man was somehow cheating.

"No, though it might have given me a little extra peace of mind. Unfortunately for my opponent, his leg came off when he kicked a thieving brigand out of a moving stagecoach." The gambler leaned back, his eyes taking on a slightly far away look, and he swiped his thumb across his bottom lip. "As I was nearby at the time, I retrieved the leg for him and returned it. Needless to say, I requested a rematch, at which point I easily beat the gentleman." Ezra flexed an amused eyebrow, his hands shuffling the cards again.

"And you just happened to beÖnearbyÖwhen this happened?"

Ezra grinned wolfishly, but shook his head. "No need to worry, my friend. I was not in the raiding party."

Bart raised his eyebrow at the remark, but was willing to give his fellow professional the benefit of the doubt. "Well, I do hope you will allow me the same courtesy?"

"A rematch? It would be an honor, sir. Are you staying in town?"

"I think I just might. I do, however, need to send a telegram to someone. Could you direct me to the telegraph office?"

"Absolutely. If you simply walk out the door and turn right, youíll see it next to the Clarion news office."

"Thank you kindly, Mr. Standish." Bart put on his hat and tipped it towards his fellow gambler.

"My pleasure." Ezra stood up as well, and extended his hand to be shaken. Bart took it warmly, then wandered out.

Sighing, Ezra returned to his seat and stretched out, unthinkingly looking over to check on his associates. Vin had left a while ago, as had Josiah. Chris remained, and Inez shook her head as she handed him five dollars. Chris grinned, and pocketed the cash. Ezra merely raised an eyebrow at the black clad gunslinger as he came to join him at the table.

"She has no faith in me," Ezra muttered in a self-mocking tone, indicating the senorita with a tilt of his head. Inez ignored him as she brought him a whiskey shot. He downed it in one go.

"Nah, she just likes to keep things interesting," Chris replied, drinking his own whiskey more slowly. He looked askance at his gambler. "So, did you cheat?"

Ezra looked up, his eyes wide. "Why, Mr. Larabee, how could you even suggest such a thing? Surely you know by now that I only cheat when others cheat me, or when I think there is something worthwhile to gain. Here, there was nothing more to gain than the joy of a well played game. Hence, there was no reason to cheat."

Chris was about to return with a smart remark when gunshots echoed outside. Instantly, both men were at the door and ducking outside, guns raised. From across the way, they could see Bart Maverick hiding behind one of the posts in front of the Clarion, his hand gripping his shoulder. Not far from him, Vin hid in the recess of the alley next to the jail, his Mareís Leg pointed down the street. JD and Buck were just inside the door to the jail, still trying to get their bearings as to what they were shooting at.

Three gunmen were hidden at the other end of the street behind a wagon, their backs to the church. One of the gunmen raised his rifle to shoot at the saloon, forcing Chris back inside and causing Ezra to duck behind a fence post. Both men quickly returned fire, and Vin took aim at one of the other shooters, bringing him down with a well placed shot.

Moments later, after a barrage of wasted bullets sprayed out from both sides, a quiet standoff occurred. Ezra couldnít help but smile as he saw how it was about to end.

"Tsk, tsk, boys, didnít your mother tell you to never to turn your back on God?" Josiah asked politely. He and Nathan had crept up from behind, having been in the church making repairs, and now stood within five feet of the insurgents, rifles raised at their unprotected backs.

Any normal man would have given up then. For some reason, though, the two remaining gunmen didnít seem so inclined. They each raised their weapons, forcing both Nathan and Josiah to shoot.

Nathanís bullet grazed one man in the arm, and Josiahís caught the other in the shoulder, effectively preventing either man from re-firing. Their guns fell uselessly to the ground. Throwing swears out at the two lawmen, the gunmen struggled to their feet, looking ready to fight, only to find themselves surrounded on all sides by the Seven.

Bart watched the fluid manner in which the peacekeepers encircled the outlaws with a mixture of surprise and awe. He was particularly surprised to see how smoothly Ezra fit in with the group, as if they were all part of a single whole. Now he understood better why Ezra had been "nearby" when that cheating gambler had lost his leg.

His shoulder began to throb unmercifully as the adrenaline rush of fear fell away, and he started to fade as the outlaws were carted off to jail by the young sheriff. Ezra, Nathan and a man in black looked his way, and he could see Ezra shaking his head vehemently at something the gunslinger was saying, his hands upraised in a warding off gesture. The man in black wiped a hand across his face, then nodded. As if given a reprieve, Ezra and Nathan rushed to Bartís side.

Bart slid to the ground, still leaning against the post. Not the first time heíd been shot, and likely not the last. Didnít stop it from hurting like hell every time though. The black healer was suddenly in front of him, stripping off his jacket and inspecting the wound. Ezra squatted next to Nathan, his face lined with concern.

"You alright Maverick?"

Bart looked up at Ezra, smiled, and fainted.

______________________________

"Well, then, explain it again!" Buck growled. He was in the cell with one of the outlaws, pacing up and down the small space like a caged lion considering pouncing on its trainer.

The gunman snarled, not hiding his contempt for the lawman. "Mister, thatís all we know, alright? We were paid to hit the gambler as he walked out of the saloon. We werenít told why, and weíre not in the business of asking. You get that?"

"So who hired you?"

"What the hell is this? You slow or something? Weíve already told youÖ"

With a yell, Buck lunged at the gunman, pulling him up by the lapels, and bringing his face within inches of the other. JD shook his head where he sat at his desk, whittling a piece of wood with a knife.

"Buck," he said warningly, not looking up.

The ladies man stared at his victim one more time then dropped him to the ground. Unable to catch himself as his wrists were shackled, the gunman collapsed into a heap, grunting as he landed on his bad arm. With one more look of disgust, Buck stalked out of the cell and slammed the door. At the same time, Chris opened the door of the jail.

"How is Mr. Maverick?" JD asked, standing. Buck moved to sit on the corner of the desk next to his friend, waiting for Chrisís reply with an annoyed look on his face.

"Fine, just a bit spooked. Heís downing whiskey with Ezra in the saloon and muttering about his brother being worried about him," Chris answered. He turned steel blue eyes towards the jail cell where the two gunman sat in sullen silence.

"They tell you anything?"

Buck huffed. "They say they were hired by some guy in a black three piece suit in Grand Junction, but they donít know his name. Idiot clodhopper there said that the guy looked pretty average for a rich guy, but nothing else stuck out in his mind. Anyway, they were paid a thousand bucks to come to Four Corners and hit Bart. They donít know why, and they didnít ask."

Chris nodded, and looked at JD. The Sheriff sighed and handed over the two menís wanted posters for Chris to look at. They were each wanted for murder, theft and horse stealing.

"I got some Marshals from Fort Hunter coming to take Ďem away," JD told him. "Judgeíll sentence them when he arrives there next week."

"And whereís the money they were hired with?" Chris asked, handing the posters back. Buck looked at JD, and JD looked back. They hadnít thought to ask that.

Chris shook his head and offered them a weak smile. "Whereís Ezra when you need him?" He looked at the two men in the cage. "Where you boys staying here in town?"

The one Buck had just yelled at stared back defiantly, but the second man didnít seem to see much point in being stubborn. He was playing with the bindings on the bandage over his shoulder as he replied, "at the boarding house. Moneyís there."

The first man rolled his eyes and turned himself on the cot to face the wall.

_____________________________________

"So much for that rematch," Bart muttered unhappily, looking at his bum arm. "I should probably make myself scarce now that this has happened." He sighed, and shifted the pained limb. Nathan had him wrapped up and in a plain cotton sling, not very becoming for a man of Bartís tastes.

"Well, while I would rather you stay, I suppose I must remain content with a rain check, Mr. Maverick. And invite your brother as well. Iíve heard tell that, together, the two of you are unbeatable. Iíd like to take that challenge." Ezra grinned, his fingers idly spinning the cards in his hand so that the top card slid around the deck. It was the king of clubs.

"It would be a pleasure, sir," Bart replied, watching Ezraís hands. It amazed him that the man always had a deck of cards handy, to the point that they looked to be an extension of his body. Not even Bret was that addicted to the cards. No, he and Bret were more addicted to the money one won from playing cards, he thought wryly. He looked up in time to see the man in black heading this way through the saloon window, the tracker fellow on his heels.

"Tell me, Mr. Standish, what was it that your Mr. Larabee was saying after the gunfight that caused you to argue so doggedly?" Bart asked.

Ezra took another sip from his whiskey, and tucked the cards away. "Oh, he merely asked if I thought you might be involved in something nefarious. I told him you were exactly what you appeared to be."

"Oh yes, and what is that?"

"An exceptionally proficient gambler, and an honorable gentleman. Not the kind to get involved in something that could undeservedly harm another person."

Bartís eyes narrowed, and he absently scratched at the wound on his arm under the sling. "And how do you know that? My reputation again?"

"Hmmm," Ezra shook his head. "Letís just say I am an excellent judge of character. By the way, I telegraphed your brother in Grand Junction to let him know what happened to you."

"Really?" Bart grinned. "Thank you."

"Not a problemÖ."

"Did you say Grand Junction?" Chris moved across to join the two gamblers at the bar, Vin following him in. The tracker tossed a small satchel at Ezra, who caught it deftly.

"Why Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, so good of you to join us. May I assume that you have ascertained the impetus behind the maleficence of our two felons?"

"For Christís sake, Ezra, use plain English for once," Vin groused.

"didja figger out why dem bad guys shot up Bart?" Ezra restated, his accent thickening to the point of intelligibility. At the same time, his eyes opened wide and he even managed to loose a bit of drool off his lip. Vin stuck his tongue out at him.

Scowling, Chris shook his head. "No, but the man who paid him off was from Grand Junction. You going there for a reason Bart?"

Maverick shook his head, his face puzzled. "Just to meet my brother. Certainly nothing to shoot a man over. Unless, of course, Bretís in some kind of trouble."

"Mr. Maverick has told me he knows of no reason why someone would want him dead, Chris. Of course, as with all of us, he has made a few enemies over the years, but, from what I know of him and have heard of him, I would say that Mr. Maverick is the innocent in this affair." Ezra was firm in his statement, though he didnít look up as he spoke. His attention was focused on the money in the satchel in his hands Ė a thousand dollars?

Chris pondered this for a while, looking back and forth between Ezra and his friend. For some reason, Ezra seemed intent on sticking up for this man, despite having only met him a few hours ago. Vin remained silent next to him, not being of much use in the matter.

Chris sighed. "Well, then, why donít you write your brother and ask him to look around for us, Bart. The city is over four days ride from here, which, obviously, is a bit outside our jurisdiction at the moment." He paused, pursing his lips slightly. "Would you mind if I asked you whether you plan on staying here or moving on?"

Bart quickly understood the underlying sentiment, it being one he had heard many times before. Get out before you cause any more trouble. Well, it was what he was planning on anyhow. He was about to answer that he would be gone first thing in the morning when he felt Ezra rest a hand on his good arm.

"I believe it best if Mr. Maverick stay here a while, Chris. For his protection. We can wire his brother, perhaps even invite Bret Maverick to join us here once he has pursued any inquiries." Ezra stepped forward to stand in front of the taller Maverick, ignoring the surprised look on the newcomerís face. "If some villain paid a thousand dollars to have him killed, he is not going to give up easily."

"A thousandÖ" Bart repeated, amazed at the fee. Of course, he routinely carried more than that in his wallet, but it was still a lot of money. Ezra continued on, ignoring the interruption.

"More to the point, if that same villain sends someone else to carry out the act, on the basis that there is a thousand dollars waiting for him here in payment, then that person will more than likely have actually met our villain face to face. Trust is very thin in this business, so I am told. Heíll have met our villain as insurance. Heíll know his name," Ezra smiled, and Chris narrowed his eyes. After a moment, the black-clad gunslinger shook his head and lowered his hat over his eyes.

"Youíre not keeping the money when this is over, Ezra," Chris deadpanned, unable to resist the barb. The gambler rolled his eyes, and tossed the satchel back to Vin. Chrisís smile grew to cover his whole face, and Ezra scrunched up his face at him in disdain. Bart didnít understand the exchange, but, then again, he wasnít about to ask. He was still impressed that these men seemed willing to actually protect him.

Why?

He watched the men in front of him interact, trying to make sense of it all. Why would such an imposing figure as this Mr. Larabee listen to what a jaded riverboat gambler had to say? And then there was the buffalo hunter behind them, staying silent while he watched them both like a hawk. What was his role in this play? And those others Ė a boy sheriff, a gunslinger with the air of a drifter who nevertheless seemed rooted to this place, a preacher with a gun, and a black doctorÖ. He felt as if heíd fallen into some strange alternative universe, one where people actually cared about whether an idler such as he lived or died.

No one ever cared before. Not unless they were family.

Or had some other reason.

There must be an ulterior motive, he just couldnít see it yet. Still, better here and under the protection of these strange men than out facing the wolves. No one ever said Bart Maverick was a fool. A coward, certainly, but never a fool. For now, heíd just have to wing it.

Interestingly enough, Chris Larabee was having very similar thoughts as he looked at Ezra. What was Standishís motive? The money? They didnít normally protect drifters, and Ezra never did without some promise of "pecuniary gain", as he would put it. For now, though, heíd let Ezra have his way. If anyone got hurt though, he knew exactly where to lay the blame.

"On your head, then, Ezra." He looked over at Maverick who remained perched against the bar, a full glass of whiskey in his hand. "Mr. Maverick, we will protect you for as long as you wish to stay here. But, please, write your brother. Anything you can learn would be most helpful."

Bart raised a glass to the leader of the peacekeepers, and Chris nodded. As quietly as he drifted in, Chris left. Vin hefted the satchel of money over his back, and joined the men at the bar.

"I have heard of you, Mr. Maverick," the tracker stated quietly, not looking up from the dark wood. "You and you brother are something of legends back down in Texas, where Iím from. Two of the best swindlers in the country, so Iíve been told. But Iíve also heard tell of the people youíve helped, some of whom were friends of mine."

"Oh yes?" Bart sipped his drink, staring out the batwing doors. Ezra stepped behind the bar to fetch the tracker a beer. Vin continued on as if Bart hadnít spoken.

"Ez is right, Maverick. Youíre a good man. You have nothing to worry about while youíre here."

Ezra slid Vin a bottle of beer, which the tracker snatched up and took a swig from. He threw Ezra a coin, nodded once more to the newcomer, and walked out of the bar, bottle in hand. Ezra dropped the coin in the register, then leaned across the bar to look at Maverick. He smiled when he realized that the man was trying to hide his embarrassment at Vinís words.

"So, how about that rematch?" the green-eyed man asked, flashing a gold tooth.

Maverick smiled.

____________________________

The night rolled by lazily, with Ezra and Maverick rarely leaving the saloon except to finally get some sleep. The next morning, both were back at the table as if nothing had interrupted them.

JD sat at the bar, nursing his milk with a distracted air. For several hours now, heíd watched transfixed as Maverick and Ezra seemed to play every style of card game in the book. The two gamblers had long since moved past poker to games heíd only heard of, like Michigan and Red Dog, and on to games heíd never seen before. For example, right now they were playing a game he thought he recognized as one heíd played as a kid back east, but the way the two gamblers played, this was no childís game.

He was not the only one to take an active interest in the goings on of the two professionals. Almost half the town had taken up residence in the saloon, keeping Inez busy as the townsfolk both admired and bet on the outcome of the games. Occasionally, other members of the Seven would wander in, but only Buck, JD and Vin had spent any time watching. Buck wandered in for the fourth time that day, and made his way to JDís side.

"What are they playing now, kid?"

"Bart there called it Casino, Buck, and it donít look like a particularly hard game to play. I even think I used to play something like it with my friends back home. But the way these two play Ė they barely look at the cards as they pick Ďem up, like they already know what is going to be played next."

"Casino? Yeah, I heard of it. Itís a memory thing, kid. They already know whatís going to happen because they both count the cards. Whoever has the sharper memory and the quicker arithmetic will be the winner."

"Yeah well, so far its been pretty even. Did ya know that Bart there won his money back this morning? And he got a little of Ezraís money too. Then, just in the past few hours, Ezra won it all back again, plus some more. Now, neither is getting the upper hand. Its really incredible." The boy Sheriff put a hand to his forehead to brush back his hair, never taking his eyes from the two men before him. Buck smiled wryly and settled in to watch for a bit.

Ezra shook his head and threw down his cards, already knowing heíd lost this round. Bart smiled easily and drew in the pot, scratching the back of his head as he counted the cash. He was still down by almost four hundred, but he had gained about a hundred back in this last hand. He looked up at Ezra, who was pushing a tired hand through his brown hair. Clear green eyes looked up to meet the laughing brown eyes of his opponent, and both men grinned.

"Perhaps the time has come to take a break, Mr. Maverick?"

The crowd groaned, and Maverick looked around as if noticing them for the first time. "And disappoint the people?" he returned.

"Oh," Ezra looked around him, meeting the expectant faces with a sly look, "I imagine they can handle it." He stood and stretched, and looked around him. Suddenly, he leapt across the table, looking for all the world like he was going for Bartís throat.

BANG!

The gunshot seemed to come out of nowhere, and Ezra went down, crumbling into an unconscious heap to the floor, Maverick underneath him. The thick crowd screamed and yelled simultaneously, running over each other to get away. In the melee, Buck and JD tried to get an idea of where the shot had been fired from. Buck looked up to see legs running away down the hallway on the second floor. He vaulted onto the stairs, taking them two at a time in order to catch up with the running man.

JD scrambled over to Ezra, shooting a few times in the air to try and calm the crowd. Of course, he only succeeded in frightening them further. He finally got close enough to find Bart crouched protectively over the prone figure, the dark eyed gamblerís gun out and raised. Maverick pointed it at the kid as he pushed his way through, and immediately drew it back upon recognizing the figure.

"Heís alive. Get help, Iíll protect him," Bart promised, and JD nodded. The young Sheriff blended back into the crowd and was practically carried outside. In moments, the saloon was empty except for Inez behind the bar with a shotgun, and the two gamblers on the floor next to the now upturned gambling table.

Bart looked at the blood on the side of Ezraís head with wonder. This man whom he barely knew just saved his life, and for what?

JD came back in with Nathan and Josiah, who quickly took control while JD ran back outside. Bart stepped back when he saw the careful way Josiah cradled Ezra, and the efficient manner in which Nathan checked him over. The healer looked up at the newcomer and nodded.

"Bullet just grazed his skull. Man has more lives than a cat. Heíll be fine."

Bart nodded back, releasing the pent up breath than heíd been holding. Rubbing his forehead, the older gambler decided he needed fresh air, and pushed his way outside. He found the street empty except for JD.

The Sheriff seemed to be watching something going on down the alley next to the saloon, looking both amused and angry at the same time. As he got closer, he heard a woman demanding to be let go. He rushed the last few steps, and stopped short at the sight before him. He now understood the odd look on the young Sheriffís face.

Buck Wilmington was holding a young blond woman by the arm, while Vin flanked them from behind with his sawed off Winchester. Chris Larabee stood just in front of her, his arms crossed in anger. The woman twisted in Buckís grip, but she wasnít going anywhere.

She wore dark brown leather chaps, over black cotton pants, a black shirt and a short, dark brown leather jacket. She wore no hat, but her hair was tied up in a messy bun on her head, as if sheíd been wearing a hat until recently. Dark blue eyes glared at Chris, and a stream of very unladylike invectives spewed from her pale lips.

"Let me go, you sorry excuse for peacekeepers! I ainít done nothing wrong, and my pappy is going to be real upset if I donít get back to him." Her threats fell on deaf ears as Chris stared her down. She could scream and yell all she wanted, he told her silently, but she wasnít going to get out of this.

Bart wandered into the alley, holding his hurt arm close to his body. When she caught sight of him, she stopped moving and looked at him with a surprised expression.

"Clara?" Bart asked.

"I thought I hit you!" She blurted out, causing Maverick to blink. He looked up at Chris, but the man in black didnít take his eyes off the blond. She shut up then, suddenly realizing that sheís just admitted to taking the shot.

"No, my dear, but you did hit a good friend of mine. Lucky for you, he will be alright," Bart replied slowly. Beyond her, he saw the others relax slightly at his news, but the woman didnít notice.

"Damn fools, protecting this no account cheat," she muttered, shaking her head. She looked up into Chrisís cold stare. "You going to take me in now?" she asked him.

"Yep."

She sighed, and looked to the ground. "Any way you might be willing to let me go?" she asked coyly, digging a toe into the ground like a little girl.

"NoÖthough I might convince the judge to go lighter if you answer some questions."

She looked up again, her jaw tensing. "Such as?"

"Who sent you to kill Maverick?" he asked quietly.

Her lips curled into a sneer, and Bart turned away. "Why no one, sugar. I came after Bart all on my own."

____________________________

"OW! Damn it, Nathan!" Ezra whined as the healer pressed the milk and linseed oil soaked cloth against his head. The gambler reacted by pulling back, only to be stopped by the firm hands of Josiah on his shoulders.

"Stop being such a baby, Ez," Nathan admonished without raising his voice. "Thisíll dull the pain enough for me to stick some stitches in, unless you want to walk around with an ugly gash on your forehead for the rest of the week."

"Without hesitation, if it means I no longer have to endure the torment of your painful ministrations. Ouch!" He made to pull back again, but this time Josiah clamped a hand on the back of his head. Nathan grinned as Ezra shut his eyes in defeat.

"Two against one is not what I would consider fair odds, gentlemen."

"Yeah, well, if you like, we could get Vin over here to tie you up, then I wouldnít need Josiah to hold you down," Nathan replied. Ezra frowned as he felt his forehead begin to numb, but didnít comment again.

They were still in the saloon, Inez rushing around in the background putting everything back in order. Some of the usual patrons had returned, but, now that the sporting event seemed to be over, the rest of the town remained outside, making the saloon seem awfully quiet. Ezra had only been unconscious for about ten minutes, but with Josiahís warm hands on his shoulders and the subdued atmosphere, he felt ready to fall back asleep again.

Just as Ezra was about to drift off again in his chair, Bart, Chris and Buck walked in and joined them at the table.

"What did you find out?" Josiah asked, bringing all eyes but Nathanís to Chris. The healer was threading his needle, a fact that Ezra was doing his best to ignore.

Chris raised an eyebrow. "Well, turns out our Mr. Maverick here is a popular fellow."

Bart sighed. "Her name is Clara Styles. Her father is Bentley Styles, a somewhat wealthy rancher back in Texas. Sheís his tenth daughter, and not exactly prominent in the family legacy," he said, scratching at the bandage under his sling.

"Stop that!" Nathan barked, looking over. Bart immediately dropped his hand, and looked emphatically at his fellow gambler, who had grimaced at the shout. Ezra had a headache on top of everything else, and was wishing Nathan would just get on with it so he could go to sleep.

"Go on," Josiah prompted.

"Well, I had the opportunity to play Mr. Styles in a friendly game of poker a while back, during which I liberated a fair bit of cash from his pocket. Unfortunately, Mr. Stylesí son was the Sheriff of the town, and had me arrested for being a public nuisance before I even left the table. Next thing I know, Iím being accused of everything from stealing the horse I rode in on, to cheating Mr. Styles out of his livelihood. But, Mr. Styles was a fair man, so he said. He gave me a deal Ė I was free so long as I married his wild daughter Clara and took her away with me. Needless to say, while Clara is certainly aÖnice girl," he looked over at the others, who all grinned back, "I simply am not the marrying kind. As soon as I had an opening, I took off."

"And Clara?"

"She was a little annoyed by the whole thing, but was going along with it for the dowry. She wanted out of there as much as I did. When I left, she felt betrayed, not too surprisingly, and her father was livid. Apparently," Bart smiled ruefully, "her father made her a new deal. Sheíd still get the dowry money if she found me and brought me back to him, preferably dead."

"And you didnít snap her up when you could have?" Ezra quipped. "Tell me, did she also hire those two other miscreants currently inhabiting our jail?"

"Donít talk Ez, and donít move," Nathan warned, raising the needle. The gamblerís face paled as he watched the shiny object move past his eyes, and quickly shut them tight. Chris smirked at the gamblerís discomfort, but sobered as he answered the question.

"Thatís the odd thing." He shook his head as he looked at Bart, who shrugged. "She says sheís never laid eyes on them before. That means there is still someone else out there trying to kill Bart."

_________________________________

Part two

_________________________________

The mood in the saloon the next day was sullen, to say the least. Bart and Ezra sat at a corner table quietly drinking coffee. Vin and Josiah sat nearby, keeping an eye out for danger. As JD wandered in, Bart jumped to his feet.

"Any word?"

JD shook his head, his face looking sympathetic. "Iím sorry, Bart, but your brother hasnít written back yet."

Bart frowned, his eyes betraying the worry that he was feeling. Ezra placed a hand on his good arm.

"Iím sure heís fine, Mr. Maverick. Probably just hasnít had a chanceÖ"

"No, Ezra. Bret checks his messages every day, usually more than once. Something is wrong. Either heís being prevented somehow from checking in, or heís not in Grand Junction at all." Bart collapsed back into his seat. Neither gambler had seen the newcomer as he walked in, though Vin and Josiah had both raised their guns. The new man was tall and handsome, with thick black hair and sparkling eyes. If he noticed the guns trained on him, he gave no sign. Bart, meanwhile, had placed his heads in his hands.

"Damn it, Bret, what the hell have you gotten me mixed up in this time?"

"Thatís my brother Bart folks, always a kind word for his elders and betters," the man said, grinning broadly as he approached the table. Bart looked up, his face open in surprise. Then he was up and throwing his good arm around Bretís shoulder, grinning just as widely as his now slightly puzzled brother.

"Bart, what happened to you arm?" Bret asked, looking at the sling.

"Never mind that now, where the hell have you been?" Bart demanded, loosening his grip and turning Bret to face him, his good hand grasping the otherís lapel. "How did you get here from Grand Junction so fast? Why didnít you write me?"

Bret backed a way a little, brushing the other manís hand from his jacket. "Well, uh, first of all, brother Bart, as far as I know, Iím late in meeting you here, and, second of all, what are you talking about? Didnít you get my message in Stanton?"

"Stanton? No, though I did check in at the telegraph office several times before leaving. Why? Whatís going on?"

"Oh, well, about a week ago I got into a little trouble in Grand Junction, so I lit out of town. I wrote to tell you to stop here, where Iíd meet you. I meant to be here about three days ago, but I was delayed. Actually, thatís an interesting storyÖ." He paused when he realized that Bart was no longer looking at him, but at a green eyed man with a white bandage around his head at a nearby table. The man, as well as three other odd looking gentlemen in the bar, were all watching him strangely. Bret smiled and stepped forward to meet the green eyed man.

"Sir, Bret Maverick, I donít believe Iíve had the pleasure."

Ezra raised his hand and shook the proffered limb. "Ezra Standish, and actually, I think we have. Perhaps you might better remember my mother, Maude?"

"Maude? Maude and EzraÖ?" Bret paused and frowned slightly, then his face lit up. "Yes, of course! You and your mother were the owners of the riverboat Mississippi Glory, right? Iím sorry to hear about its unfortunate demise; she was a beautiful steamer."

"Wait, I thought you owned the Bella Donna?" Bart interrupted, momentarily distracted by the new topic.

"Oh, that sir, was a mere borrowing," Ezra bowed his head. "The Bella Donna was never ours, except in spirit. No, it was the Glory that was our pride and joy Ė made enough cash out of her to buy several Bella Donnas, in fact. That was, of course, until we had to sink her for, um, shall we say, insurance reasons? But, then you know how money is. It seems to slip through the fingers faster than free candy in front of a hungry child." Ezra tilted his head, and Vin looked somewhat wonderingly at Josiah. This did not sound like the tinhorn gambler playing for pennies that they knew. Bart also seemed to have reassessed his opinion of Ezra, understanding a little better now why he had been losing so handily to this man. He looked over at his brother, but Bret was still smiling at the young man in front of him.

"Well, MisterÖ. Standish is it? I like the new name; it appears to suit you. And how is your mother?"

"Very well, thank you. She is in Saint Louis at the moment, buying up the town I should think."

"She is a resourceful woman, as were you, good sir. I must say, I did not expect to find a man of your qualifications in a place like this." He looked around the small saloon, his eyes drifting over the others.

Ezra paused there for a minute, mulling over his next words. "Yes, wellÖIíve somewhat reassessed the priorities in my life, Mr. Maverick. This is my home at the moment." The words slipped out of Ezraís mouth easily, though the word Ďhomeí was still not one he was used to saying. He glanced at Josiah and Vin, who both smiled lightly. Without acknowledging their expressions, he proceeded to introduce his companions to Bret.

"It is good to meet you gentlemen. Your reputation as lawmen precedes you. Itís one of the reasons I wanted to come and visit. Now Bart, what happened to your arm?"

"A misunderstanding with a couple of local gunslingers. For some reason, Iíve been placed on someoneís black list."

"A couple of someoneís back lists," Vin amended dryly. Bart shot him an acerbic look.

"Um, excuse me, Brother Bret, but exactly whom did you swindle in Grand Junction?" Josiah asked, coming forward.

Bret frowned, wondering whether they believed him to represent trouble. A reassuring hand on his arm from Bart calmed him slightly. Pursing his lips, he blew out a held breath. "Oh, well, um, I didnít swindle anyone exactly. Actually, I just helped a rather nice family get back the title to their land, for a minor fee of course."

"How?"

"Cards, of course. Unfortunately, the gentleman I played with was something of a sore loser. The Sheriff of Grand Junction promised me heíd protect the family Iíd helped, but said he couldnít do the same for me. I wasnít a resident after all." He grinned sheepishly. "I guess, maybe I angered Mr. Carter a little more than I thought."

"Carter? Oh, Bret, please tell me you donít mean Skull Carter," Bart reproached, shaking his head. He went to sit next to Ezra again, while Bret stayed standing.

"The manís a cretin, Bart. He needed to be taken down a peg," Bret replied, his voice betraying the crack in his normally easy-going manner. He looked questioningly at the preacher. "Why do you ask, Mr. Sanchez?"

"Well, just wondering if those two gunmen who first came knew which Maverick they were shooting at is all," he drawled quietly. "If you were supposed to be here three days agoÖ." He left the thought unfinished, and stood. "Excuse me a moment, wonít you?" The large man tugged his hat over his eyes and left the saloon.

Bret sent a still puzzled look at Bart, who shook his head.

"Come on, brother Bret," the younger Maverick said, "letís go find you a room and some food." Taking the other man by the arm, Bart led his brother back outside, Vin moving catlike in front of them, guarding them. JD followed them out, his mind whirring happily at the admission that their "reputation preceded them." From his seat by the gaming table, Ezra watched them leave quietly, a deck of cards already in his hands, appearing as if from nowhere. The purr of his shuffling drifted out of the almost empty room.

__________________________________

Josiah looked at the two men in the jail cell with a mixture of disgust and annoyance. Neither man was responding to his questions, and he was on the verge of going in and smashing the truth out of them when JD walked in the door.

"You get anything out of them, Josiah?" the boy asked, wandering over to his desk. Josiah grunted a negative, and looked back at JD.

"I think perhaps you should leave now, JD," he stated quietly. JD glanced up from the book heíd just lifted off the desk, his expression open. He took in Josiahís stony countenance, then looked over at the men in the cells. The angry one still faced the wall, while the other one seemed happy enough just staring at the floor from where he sat on his bunk. Neither man seemed aware of what was about to be unleashed on them.

Over in her cell, Clara watched the game intently, oddly excited by the whole thing.

JD sighed and stood, tucking the book into his breast pocket. "Donít do too much damage, Josiah. Iíll be just outside." The preacher smirked evilly, and moved to lift the keys off the post.

At that same moment, Nathan burst into the office, panting as if heíd just run a mile. "Thereís something going down at the hotel! You guys better come quick!"

Dropping the keys back on their rung, Josiah followed the other two out of the jail, his mission forgotten. They left the gunmen and Clara unguarded. The blond woman stood, brushed some dust from her pants, and walked to the bars to see if everyone had left. She backed away again as a new figure slipped into the jail, clothed in a dark three-piece suit and black duster. He carried a sloshing bucket, and the cloying smell of kerosene filled the small room.

"WhoÖ?" she stammered. He shook his head, and lifted a finger to his lips. He walked over to the keys and lifted them off the rung. With a grin, he tossed them into her hands.

______________________________

Bret winced slightly, the gun pressed firmly against his skull. He hoped it wasnít too filthy, it could leave a mark.

"So nice of you to finally arrive, Bret. We were starting to get worried. Mr. Carter really does hate delays."

"I guess I just like to be fashionably late, McCoy," Bret replied, earning him a knock on the skull.

He, his brother and Vin were all being held in one of the rooms in the hotel. Three men surrounded them, thugs that Bret immediately recognized as working for Skull Carter. McCoy was Skullís right hand man, and a colder man than his boss. Apparently, they had been waiting for Bret in Bartís room, knowing that both men would arrive here eventually. Vin had been a surprise, but having disarmed him almost immediately upon entering by placing a gun to the head, they now paid him very little mind. Thus it was that he was able to signal for help from the window without Carterís men noticing. He stood with his back to the window now, hands behind his back, three fingers extended on one hand.

"What do you want?" the tracker asked, trying to take some of the heat off the other two. McCoy ignored him, and instead directed another question to the older Maverick.

"Who is your new buckskin clad friend, Bret? Someone we should know about?" He made the query casually and Bret arched a brow. Vinís mouth opened slightly. Didnít they know who he was?

"I hired him for protection," Bart quickly answered for his brother. "If youíve been around for a few days, youíll know that there is someone aiming for me as well."

McCoy looked over at Bart, and nodded. "Yeah we know about her. Small world, really. Well, Iím sure sheíll be happy to pay for your body after we get out of here." He leered at the younger man, who just sighed in response. Inwardly, Bart smiled. If they didnít know who Vin was, then they clearly hadnít done their homework too well. The younger Maverick caught Bretís eye, and his brother lowered his eyes in understanding.

"Well," Bret asked, sounding as if he were supremely bored, "what are you waiting on, McCoy? If youíre going to shoot, why not just take us out back to where you plan to do the deed and get it over with?"

Carterís man looked a little puzzled by the question. "How do you know I wonít shoot you here?"

"Oh, donít be a fool man!" Bret replied, as if speaking to a child. "You know full well that if you start firing off that pistol in here, youíll get the seven gunslingers hired to protect this town over here so fast that youíd never get out alive. Now, I know youíre smarter than that."

"Did you say seven gunslingers?" one of Carterís other men asked, a slight hitch in his tone.

"Why sure! Iím sure you heard of them. Making a real name for themselves, arenít they brother Bart?"

"As always, youíve hit on it, brother Bret. I think Iíve even heard Ďem called the Magnificent Seven in some dime store novel or other. I understand the Sheriff is a boy who is rumored to be some sort of virtuoso with a gun, and thereís a black clad gunslinger who is so fast with his Colt that it is smoking before you even hear the shot."

"Yes," Bret continued, "and I heard that thereís an ex-preacher who can break a manís neck with one hand while calling down the wrath of God with the other, and a black man who can clip the wings off a hawk in flight with a single knife throw. Then, of course, thereís the sharpshooter who can still a manís beating heart from two hundred paces away, and never even stutter."

Vin had to repress a smile as he watched the two men with McCoy glance nervously at each other, then over at the windows as if they thought a knife or a bullet might come flying through at any moment. But, of course, neither Maverick was finished.

"Now, donít forget, Brother Bret, about the ladies man. I heard tell that heís a master both with a rifle and with the women Ė never missing with either one. And then, of course, thereís the gambler whose wits are so sharp that heís probably not only figured out that we are in trouble, but how to get us out of it." He smirked at McCoy, whose face had hardened with each description.

"So it would seem to be in your best interest to hurry up this little endeavor, McCoy," Bret finished, standing up from the plush green chair in which McCoy had had him pinned. Maverick started to brush dust off his sleeves and straighten the cuffs -- a move Vin had seen Ezra do a thousand times. It amazed him that both Mavericks were so calm, as if such an occurrence as being held at gunpoint was a common event for both. Again, their mannerisms were so similar to Ezraís it was almost eerie.

Over where he was sitting, Bart made to stand as well, brushing a hand through his black hair. Confused, Carterís men reacted by stepping back, though they kept the rifles trained. Vin, who was already standing, allowed himself a small smile.

McCoy shook his head and barked at the Mavericks to sit back down. Bret looked over at Bart with a raised eyebrow, and his younger brother shrugged in return. With deliberate ease, they both sat back down. Bart crossed one leg over the other and started inspecting his nails. Bret simply favored McCoy with a curious air.

"You ainít going nowhere, Maverick. Mr. Carterís going be coming here any second now, soon as he provides a distraction for your lawmen." McCoy grinned wickedly.

"Distraction? What kind of distraction?" Bret asked innocently.

______________________________

"What kind of distraction?" Buck asked Ezra, as the gambler lifted the bandage up from off his head to reveal the rather nasty but healing cut underneath.

"What ever you wish, Mr. Wilmington. Just make sure itís loud. A hail of gunshots, sounding the fire siren, ringing all the bells in Josiahís church all at the same time, something like that. Iíll leave it up to you." Ezra pulled on the white waiterís jacket and mussed his hair, pushing it forward so that quite a lot of it covered his face, including the cut.

"I donít like this, Ezra," Chris interrupted. "Pretending to be room service is one of the oldest tricks in the book."

"Perhaps so, Mr. Larabee, but the oldest tricks are still usually the best," Ezra replied. "As Mr. Tanner has so politely provided us with the number of bandits holding him and the Mavericks hostage, it seems clear that all we need to do is tip the odds slightly in our favor." He pulled the sleeves of the uniform down and brushed off a little bit of dust, then looked over at JD. "Are you ready Mr. Dunne?"

"As ever!" the boy replied, practically jumping up and down. Ezra was going to be the waiter, while JD, being the smallest, was going to hide under the cart. A simple plan, and an easy one. Too easy for Chris. He didnít understand why the bandits hadnít either shot Vin and the Mavericks yet, or marched them somewhere else to be shot. They were obviously waiting for something. Still, lacking a better plan, heíd gone along with Ezraís.

"Weíll be watching for you, boys. Be careful, and try to avoid putting too many holes in the walls, okay?" Chris said solemnly, earning him nods from both men. It was amazing, but with all his hair in his face and the uniform, Ezra really did look different. Hopefully, it would be enough. Ezra and JD ducked into the back of the hotel, through the kitchens, and were gone.

__________________________________

Carterís men jumped slightly at the polite knock on the door. Neither Bret, Bart nor Vin looked up, seemingly more interested in the room and whatever else they were looking at. McCoy growled at them all to be quiet as he approached the door.

"Who is it?" the outlaw demanded gruffly. Carter wouldnít knock; heíd just come in. So, who the hell was this?

"Room service, sir," came a rather whiny voice from the other side. "I have the food you ordered when you came in." The voice was flat, without an accent, and sounded fairly young.

"We donít want it!" McCoy replied.

"You donítÖ? But sir, I had to go to a lot of trouble to get the cook to make this the way you wanted, sir. Please! If I have to bring it back, heíllÖ."

"I donít care boy. I said we donít want it. Now git out of here before I get real angry!"

"Are you sure sir? I mean, filet mignon is not an easy dish to get out here, and the lamb is so succulent that itíll practically melt in your mouth. And donít even get me started on the side dishes. Please sir, even if you donít want it, couldnít you at least see your way clear toÖ"

"I said, git!" McCoy yelled, about to wrench the door and knock the boy down if he didnít leave. A hand on his arm stopped him. One of his men was looking at him with pleading eyes.

"We ainít eaten all day, boss, stuck in this room waiting for these two chumps. What say we just let him in, get the food, then toss him out? He donít need to know whatís going on."

McCoy was about to deny his request when he saw his other man nodding fervently in the corner where he stood holding a gun on Vin. Carterís right hand man frowned, knowing full well that he too was very hungry. He looked back at the door.

"You still out there boy?"

"Yes sir!" came the quick reply.

"Alright, just hold on there, then."

"Yes, sir! Thank you sir!"

McCoy looked around the room, then indicated for Bart and Vin to be locked into the bedroom with one of his men to guard them. The man by the window did as he was bid, leaving only Bret, McCoy and the other bandit to welcome the waiter.

McCoy looked at Bret as he and the other man holstered their guns. "No funny moves now, Maverick. You bring him in, pay him, and then usher him out. You try and tip him off, and he might become the first casualty of our little game." He tapped the gun at his side for emphasis.

Bret didnít even flinch. Instead, he stood up, brushed his coat off, then languidly made his way to the door to open it. With one last glance at McCoy, he opened it wide enough to let in the "waiter."

Keeping his head down, Ezra pushed the food inside. The cart was covered in a long white sheet that hid the undersides, and four silver-domed plates sat on top. The steak and lamb were presumably underneath the domes, being kept warm.

"How much, sonny?" Bret asked as Ezra placed the cart in the center of the parlor.

"Ten dollars, Mr. Maverick," the waiter replied.

Bretís hand flinched, nearly dropping his wallet, and he regarded the waiter with a shocked air. "Iím sorry, but did you say ten dollars?"

"Yes, sir, on account that it was such a special order. You must know we donít normally carryÖ"

"Why, that is highway robbery, boy! I am not paying that much for a simple dinner. What do you think this is, the Ritz?" As he spoke Bret advanced menacingly on the "waiter," and Ezra took a step back towards where the second bandit was standing. McCoy flanked Bretís right side.

"Sir, Iím sorry, but thatís what I was toldÖ"

"Horseshit! Youíre trying to scam me boy, and you know it!"

"Just pay him, Maverick," McCoy hissed urgently.

"Make me!" Bret shouted, turning to face McCoy, barely inches form his face. Just then the fire alarm sounded, the piercing wail cutting through the air in the room like a knife. In that same instant, Ezra engaged his derringer and pointed it at the second gunmanís head, while Bret took the same opportunity to slam his fist into McCoyís face. JD rolled out of the underneath of the cart and stepped to the side of the bedroom door. As the third man looked out to see what had happened, JD trained his rifle right against his temple.

"Uh, uh, uh," JD chastised. "Drop it mister, or Iíll drop you."

Moments later, all three bandits were tied up and gagged in the back room, with JD watching them.

"I canít believe that worked," Bart said, shaking his head in amazement as he looked at the room service cart. "That has to be the oldest trick in theÖ"

"Worked, didnít it?" Ezra shot back, cutting him off. He was currently pulling off the offending waiterís uniform to reveal the finely cut silk shirt underneath.

"Youíre lucky the siren went off," Bret admonished. "Speaking of whichÖ."

"Oh that? That was merely Mr. Wilmington. He provided the distraction, though I must say Iím a little surprised not to see him and the others up here already," Ezra replied, his southern drawl back in full force. He spared a hesitant glance at the window.

"I donít think it was Buck, Ezra," Vin answered. "In fact, that siren is a sure sign that Mr. Skull Carter himself with Miss Clara Styles in tow are about to make their entrance."

Ezra shot him a startled look. "What?"

"McCoy told us that Carter was going to take us somewhere else to be shot. He was going to set the jail on fire to distract the law, so he could get us out of town without anyone seeing. Heís bringing Miss Clara along so she can get the dowry money from bringing in Bart," Vin explained.

"Wait, my jail? Did you say he was going to set fire to my jail?" JD called from the bedroom, his voice a little higher than normal.

"Now JD, Iím sure the others have it under control," Vin replied soothingly, smiling a little at the young sheriffís concern.

"We gotta go help them!" JD retorted, sweeping his rifle across all three of the bound men in the bedroom without noticing. They each instinctively ducked slightly.

"Right now, Mr. Dunne, Iím sure the good people of Four Corners are dealing with said calamity perfectly adequately without us, if the jail is indeed on fire. I suppose, however, that the fact that Mr. Wilmington is not here crowing over his cleverness is because he is indeed battling said blaze. Nevertheless, we do have other concerns at this moment, and I think it may be time to end them." Ezra sent a meaningful look across to the Mavericks.

"Well, then, I guess we should make ourselves ready to receive our forthcoming guests," Bret smiled, sitting back down in the plush green chair of the hotel room and pulling out a cigar. Bart took up residence on one side of the hall door, while Ezra moved to sit in another chair and propped his feet up on a handy coffee table. Cards appeared in his hands. Vin gently opened the door to the hallway and glanced out, his Winchester in hand after having retrieved it from the bandit whoíd stolen it. Once he was sure it was all clear, he disappeared outside to hide somewhere down the hallway. In the bedroom, JD settled back to keep his eyes on the three outlaws.

Less than three minutes later, the door was quietly opened, and a voice hissed McCoyís name. When no one answered, the door opened a little wider to reveal a rather portly man in a three-piece suit and a long black jacket. Clara Styles stood just behind him.

"Hello, Skull, Clara, so nice of you to join us," Bret smiled as he puffed away on his cigar. Bart reached out from his hiding place, grabbed Carter by his arm, and propelled him into the room, causing the man to stagger to a stop just in front of Bretís chair. Both Bret and Ezra instantly had their guns up and leveled on the man.

Outside, Clara jumped and turned to run, only to find herself staring down the barrel of Vinís Winchester.

"Didnít anyone ever tell you itís rude to leave a party before itís even begun?" Vin chastised, his gray eyes bright with mirth.

____________________________

In fact, Buck had rung the siren at almost the same instant that Skull Carter and Clara had thrown their matches, terrifying the would-be arsonists. They quickly ran out the back door and were forced to hide for a few minutes while men and women ran around the town looking for the fire. The blaze was out before it caught the oil and did any real damage, due to the efficiency of the townspeople.

Swearing, Carter and Clara had run to the hotel, hoping to still prevail in the ensuing confusion as people tried to figure out who started the blaze. That, and the fact that Carter had released the two other prisoners. He paid the two gunmen to make some noise as they escaped, in order to draw the Seven away, and it seemed to work.

Obviously, he was not expecting to find a welcoming party for him already in place.

Now he was on his hands and knees in the jail, up to his elbows in soap and water, being forced to wash away all the oil heíd spilt on the wood floor. Clara was standing next to him, scrubbing away at the walls. His other three thugs were sitting tight in a jail cell, looking very sheepish.

He glared at them with malice in his eyes and continued to scrub, imagining the floor to be their faces. JD grinned as he sat down in his chair, happy that all was now well with the world. Well, except for the fact that Carterís two other men had vanished after heíd released them, but the Sheriff was more than confident in Vinís ability to track them down quickly even if they couldnít get the information from Carter himself. He leant backwards, and spun the chamber of his colt.

Buck, sitting on the edge of the desk, his rifle in hand, chastised JDís action with a scathing look. The young sheriff stuck his tongue out and returned the colt to his gun belt.

"So where are your other men, Carter?" Buck asked nonchalantly as he fingered the hammer. When Carter didnít answer, Buck sighed and got up off the desk. With slow, heavy steps, he walked forward until he was right next to the mobster. Squatting, the ladies man raised his rifle and pointed it directly at the portly manís sweating head.

"I asked you a question, Skully. Where did you send your other men?"

Carter glanced over at Buck, hatred in his eyes. "I donít know what you are talking about," he spat, and returned to his scrubbing.

Buck raised his eyebrows and prodded Carterís side. "The two men you released, Carter. We will find them, you know, but if you were to tell us where you have them stashed away, we might convince the judge not to hang you."

Carter paused, and turned to look Buck squarely in the face. "I have no idea where those men went, sir. They were not my men, nor would I bother to hire such obvious ruffians." He then turned back to the floor. Buck frowned, confused.

"I think I might know," Clara interrupted, dropping her own brush into the soap pail. "I heard them talking when you guys were out doingÖwhatever it was you were doing."

Buck stood and looked at her, his gun still pointed at Carter. Clara stared back and licked her lips seductively.

"Iíll tell you if you can stop me from being sent to jail," she said winsomely, winding a strand of dirt blond hair around one finger.

JD leant forward on his desk. "We canít do that maíam. But we might be able to get you a lighter sentence. Right now, youíre probably going to get life, you know. If you help us, we might be able to swing a deal."

Clara looked over at the young man, then back at Buck. The older man didnít contradict the Sheriff, but simply gave a curt nod. She licked her lips again and self-consciously tucked the loose strand of hair behind her ear, getting soap all over the side of her face.

"Well, all I knows is, that they were sent to kill the gambler and they were real upset Ďcause they hit the wrong one. They figured this out after seeing the right one later on. If they got out, they were still planning on killing him, once they got the money back from the preacher at the church."

Buck looked at JD, who shrugged. "We already know that maíam," the young sheriff stated. "Those men meant to hit Bret Maverick, not his brother. Which is why we need Carter here to tell us where he sent them."

"Besides, Josiahís got that money well hid at the church, and heís out with Vin and Nathan tracking them down. Theyíre not going to get the cash without a fight," Buck added.

"No, no, you donít understand," Clara waved his words off. "They werenít sent to kill Maverick. They were supposed to kill your gambler, the gambler of Four Corners, the one with the green eyes."

____________________________

JD quickly locked both Carter and Clara back in their cells, not caring that they were still both covered in soap and that there was water all over the floor. Buck had already charged out of the jail and into the saloon. He found Chris and the Mavericks sitting at a table, sharing a drink.

"Where is Ezra!" Buck shouted, slamming his hands down on the table.

"Up in his room," Chris replied, "getting cleaned up. Why, whatís wrong?"

"The two rats we arrested first, the ones Vinís searching for now, they weren't after Bart or Bret. Chris, they were after Ezra!" Buck ran to the stairs and vaulted onto them, taking them two at a time. He was calling Ezraís name even before he reached the top and was pounding hard on the gamblerís door as Chris came up beside him. With a frightened look, Buck threw open the doorÖto an empty room.

____________________________

"Get a move on, gambling man!" the first gunman demanded, pointing a pair of six shooters at Ezra. The gambler grimaced as he continued to search Josiahís back room, looking through the rickety wardrobe before making his way over to the pallet. The two outlaws had been waiting for him in his room when he got back from the hotel, quickly marching him down and out the back door of the saloon, a gun to his head. By the time they had gotten to the church, Ezra had already figured out that he had been their initial target, not Maverick.

The second gunman sighed. "Look, we know you and the preacher are close, Standish. We could have looked in these same places as you are looking now, without your help. Címon, show us where he hid the cash." He said this with his arms crossed, the sawed off shotgun in his hand looking deceptively unthreatening. Ezra had learnt that this one was called Shane. The other one, the hard-assed one with the shotgun, was called Mitch.

"Gentlemen, I am sorry to tell you this, but I am not the one to whom our preacher normally confides such secrets too," Ezra replied tiredly, wiping a bead of sweat from off his forehead as he inspected the large black table in the middle of the room. He had not yet replaced the bandage, and was paying for it by the stinging sensation of dirt in the cut. The fact that Mitch had seen fit to bean the back of his head with the rifle butt earlier for daring to argue with their plan to find the money hadnít done much for his ever present headache either.

"Donít give us that horseshit, gambler. Youíre just stalling Ďcause you think those men out there are going to figure out your in trouble and come help you. Well, theyíre not going to, Ďcause they donít know youíre in trouble. They think we were after that other feller in the saloon. Man, how dumbÖ."

CRASH!

The image of Buck diving through the glass window was incredible, forcing them all to jump backwards. All Ezra saw was glass shattering everywhere, almost in slow motion, and a red and brown figure in the middle of it all. Time sped back up again to reveal a furious looking Buck, who had rolled to a stop, his rifle up and pointed at the shocked Shane. Coming back to life, Ezra dove for cover as Chris followed by JD came through the door from the church.

"DROP IT!" Chris yelled, his guns pointed at Mitch. The outlaw replied by instantly backing up behind the wardrobe for cover and firing bullets in all directions, hoping to hit one of the interlopers. Shane also tried to hide, diving for the same cover as Ezra -- which happened to be Josiahís table in the center of the room -- and firing his guns wildly at Buckís position. The gunman didnít make it -- dead by Buckís rifle before he hit the ground. Buck moved to one side, getting behind a small dresser, vaguely aware that one of the Shaneís shots had gotten lucky and hit him in the leg. Meanwhile, Mitchís guns continued to explode from his position by the wardrobe.

Ezra had pulled the table down on its side, and was cowering behind it, his head in his hands. Without weapons, he was pretty useless. Mitch and Shane had stripped him of every gun, even his derringer. He could only pray that the others had him covered.

Chris dove into the room, to the other side of the wardrobe, while JD ducked back behind the doorframe. Ezra tried to protect his ears by covering them, but the guns were much too loud. Suddenly he was aware that two new guns had entered the fray. Risking a glance up, he saw Bret and Bart Maverick standing just outside the smashed window, guns raised and firing at Mitchís position. Both hit their mark expertly.

And it was over, the whole melee taking less than a minute. Standing up on shaky legs, Ezra looked around the ruined room.

"Thanks," he said simply, his face bright with an undisguised smile of relief as he pushed a shaking hand through his hair.

"What the hell have you done to my room!" Josiahís voice boomed from behind JD, the large man shoving the poor young sheriff aside. He looked around the ruined room with a furious expression. Seeing Ezra in the middle of it all, the preacherís face seemed to get even redder.

"EZRA! God help me, boy, if this is your doingÖ."

With the speed of a lynx, Ezra jumped out the smashed window and past the surprised Maverick brothers before Josiah could take another step, grinning like a Cheshire cat the whole time.

________________________________

Ezra, Bret and Bart were deeply involved in a poker game before the dust had even settled over the whole affair. Unfortunately, with the death of Mitch and Shane, the question still remained as to who had wanted to kill Ezra. The green-eyed gambler had waved it off with a laugh, saying that, in his profession, if he hadnít made a few enemies then he hadnít done his job well. The other six accepted this sad fact with a nod, adding it to the list of problems on their never-ending list, along with the bounty on Vinís head and the disappearance of Ella Gaines.

Now, he and the Maverick brothers were finally able to grant Ezraís wish and play the sort of game that Ezra had been afraid he would never see again, for the sort of stakes he had been sure heíd never see again. The skill level had blown everyone away from the table, and most now kept a discreet distance. The only peacekeeper close by was Vin, who was watching the game with a keen interest Chris didnít know the tracker had. JD was up with Buck in Nathanís clinic, where the healer was stitching the ladies manís leg. The complaints that the tall man had made the whole way up, begging Nathan to stitch him up in the saloon so he could watch the game, had obviously fallen on deaf ears.

Still, something was nagging at Chris as he watched the game from across the room. He turned to face Josiah, who was equally enthralled by the three professionals as they practiced their craft. The big man had quickly gotten over his anger at the damage done to his home, especially as everyone had agreed to help him clean up (except Ezra, of course, menial labor and all that). Besides, his fury had mostly been borne of the fear that Ezra had been in danger when he wasnít around to help. With Ezra none the worse for wear, Josiah had calmed considerably. Sensing Chrisís eyes on him, he turned his soulful blue eyes to meet the other manís cold steel ones.

"Josiah, do you still have the thousand dollars at the church? I mean, you didnít give it to Ezra again when I wasnít looking, did you?"

Josiah smiled lightly at the joke. "Not that it would have mattered if I had, Chris. Ezraís not about to run out on the Maverick boys for a mere thousand dollars. Now, ten thousand, maybeÖ." The smile was replaced by a knowing grin, and Chris just shook his head. His expression became more serious as he looked back at the poker table.

"I donít get it, Josiah. Iíve never seen him so interested in helping a couple of drifters before, not without some other motive."

"Iím sorry?" Josiah replied, obviously puzzled by the statement.

"Well, whyíd he do it? Stick up for Bart and his brother so readily. What makes them so special?"

"Are you serious? You donít know?"

Chris shot Josiah an annoyed look. "Would I be asking if I knew?"

Josiahís mouth formed a small "oh." He looked over at the table, noticing how none of the three men noticed as Inez replaced their drinks with new ones.

"I should say it is pretty obvious, Chris. The Maverick boys are both cut from the same cloth as our Ezra. Havenít you noticed the similarities? The only difference between them and our boy is that Ezra has found a home. Theyíre still looking." He paused and grinned as Ezra laid down a winning hand and raked in the pot. Bret shook his head and laughed, while Bart rubbed a hand across his face. The preacher turned his eyes back to Chris, noting that the man in black was pursing his lips as he thought about what Josiah had said.

"Ezra stuck up for them, Chris, because he could, and because he hopes we will do the same for him when his own past comes back to haunt him," Josiah finished. Chris shook his head again.

"Donít be ridiculous, Josiah. Ezra already knows that we will stick up for him," Chris argued. "Hell, what was today? A dry run?"

"We only got a glimpse of Ezraís past today, Chris, and we still donít know who sent those men or why. However much we may forget who Ezra was before he joined us, I think he has far uglier things in his past than either you or I could ever dream of. It is when those parts of his past catch up with him that has him worried. He knows we will be there when lowlifes like Mitch and Shane come knocking, butÖLook, all I know is that, beneath it all, he has become deathly afraid of losing what he has here."

Chris grimaced and took another drink. Stupid gambler.

"You know," Josiah said, putting his own shot glass of whiskey to his lips, "it really doesnít matter who wins the game over there. Ezra will still leave the table the richer man." He punctuated the statement by downing the shot.

Chris glanced at the preacher, waiting for him to explain the enigmatic statement. When no more words were forthcoming, the black clad gunslinger resigned himself to simply having to work it out on his own.

"Truth be told, I think we all are," Josiah whispered. Chris smiled.

Over at the table, Ezra sighed as Bret threw down a full house and took in the next pot. And the game was just beginning.

End