Rating: PG-13 (language, violence)
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven is owned by Trilogy, Mirish and MGM. No money is being made. This fanfic is purely for entertainment purposes
Author's Notes: I got the idea for this story last year when I was reading, 'On a Pale Horse,' by Piers Anthony. I've been wanting to do it ever since. Thanks Penny, for the quick beta. Thanks Judy for the beta and the title. Please let me know what you think.
Feedback is always greatly appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thank you, Ruby :)
The sound of the rope twisting and the silence of the crowd spurred him into action. He'd been so caught up in the tableau before him that he hadn't been paying attention to what he was supposed to. He'd been to a hundred of these, hell, even a thousand and it never ceased to amaze him. Not the execution in itself, hell the man had deserved what he got. No, what he couldn't understand was the bystanders. What would possess anyone to want to stand around and watch death claim a soul? Not just hardened men either; women and children seemed awed by the sight in front of them. He'd been doing this for a long time and if it didn't make sense by now he knew that he'd just never understand it. He had a job to do, he'd better just get it done. He had an appointment near Four Corners, Arizona in less than twenty minutes.
He moved swiftly and quietly through the crowd. He marveled at the shivers he sent down some people's spines. That was another thing he'd never understand. How could some of these people sense he was there and the others didn't?
He was done here, better just get on to the next one and leave all this wondering to Fate. All he needed to worry about was getting to his next appointment in time. He didn't need another reprimand. Now that was embarrassing. He grabbed the reins, mounted his pale horse and set off for the Arizona desert.
He knew the specifics of his next job. It wasn't gonna be pretty. He caught site of his next victim. He could see the outline of two horses and riders about a half mile in front of him. He spurred his mount on.
He pulled up just short of the two men; wanting to be close, but not too close in case one of these men could sense him. He thought it was just cruel to spook them like that.
He could hear bits and pieces of the conversation between the two men. The younger man in the bowler hat was rambling on; talking fast about anything and everything. He wondered how the man in the red coat could just sit there patiently and listen to the young man's rambles. He'd seen men like this red-coated rider before, on gambling boats in the Mississippi. This man was a gambler.
The younger man was truly an enigma. He wore the clothes of a big city easterner, but he seemed very relaxed out here in the desert of Arizona. Both men seemed comfortable in each other's presence. Friends. These two men were definitely friends. The gambler was listening attentively to the other man's story about someone named Buck and his exploits the night before. The younger man was gesticulating wildly, obviously trying to imitate the man he'd been talking about. The gambler chuckled and the young man broke out in guffaws, which sent the other man into fits of laughter. A huge smile split the face of the bowler-wearing man. He leaned over to his friend and told him that he didn't even know he *could* laugh. This brought about another fit of laughter from the gambler.
He was startled when he found that he had brought his horse right up next to the gambler's chestnut. All three horses were stirrup to stirrup as they navigated the rocky plain. He'd been so intrigued by these two men's antics that he wanted to get closer. He watched as the red coat moved slightly on the gambler's shoulders. Suddenly green eyes were staring at him. If he didn't know better he'd think this man was looking right into his soul. If he'd had a soul. The shrill scream of a horse brought their attention back to the youngest of the group.
He knew what was happening. He'd read the specifics. All he could do now was watch.
The small bay had stepped in a deep crevice in the rock's surface. The front left leg twisted, sending both horse and rider to the ground. The bay made its way to its feet, leaving its young rider lying motionless, flat on his back. Unfortunately the horse had rolled over the young man in its frantic attempt to gain its feet. That would not have been life threatening in itself. The boy might have been able to live through those injuries. The horse rolled quickly, not putting all of its weight on him.
He knew that what was doing the damage at the moment wasn't the fall from the horse, or even the cracked ribs in the young man's chest. It was the jagged piece of rock that the bowler wearing man had landed on. A two inch long shard that jutted straight out of it had broken three of the ribs in the man's back and punctured his right lung. The young man in the city clothes with a gambler for a friend was quickly drowning in his own blood.
The red coated man was at his friend's side. Holding his hand and wiping the blood from his mouth. The gambler's face was shiny with tears and his voice was hoarse as he told his friend to keep living. But the pleas were in vain. The young man's hazel eyes, that one moment before had been full of pain and fear, glazed over and stared unseeing at the blue sky. He watched as the gambler shook his young friend; screaming his name and saying that Buck would be mad that he left them like this. There wasn't a response from the young man. There couldn't have been. He was dead.
He stepped forward, towards the sorrowful scene. He knelt on the other side of the boy. He could feel the anguish that rolled off the gambler, who was still holding onto the young man's hand. He reached out a bony hand, needing to get this done. He was death and he had a job to do. He felt eyes on him and glanced up at the gambler. Green eyes seared him; he was surprised by the vehemence in them. He was even more surprised when the gambler spoke directly to him.
"You can't have him. It's not right!"
"It is right, it's his time. This is his way." Death tried to speak calmly to the distraught man in front of him.
Vehemence turned into sorrow as the man bowed his head.
Death once again reached out a skeleton hand towards the boy. He was stopped by a hard grip on his wrist. The gambler had grabbed his arm and stopped him from taking the young man's soul. "I need to do this. He's dead. It's not right for his soul to be in limbo."
The words caught Death off guard. He wasn't sure that he'd heard right. "Excuse me?"
The gambler stood up, his grip still tight on his arm. He was pulled up to stand in front of him.
"Take me, instead of him."
"I'm sorry. That's not how things work. I have a job to do. It's this young man's time. Your time will come when it's right."
"Oh please! Are you telling me that you have no control over such things? Not one ounce of discretion in this matter?"
Death had to stifle a chuckle. If the situation hadn't been so mortally serious, he might have grinned. This was a con artist in front of him, not just a gambler. He was amused by the man's gumption. He was actually trying to deceive Death. Death. Like this was a card game or a swindle. He placed a bony hand on the other man's arm and squeezed until the gambler had no choice but to remove his grip. He stepped forward. He knew that his appearance was terrifying; long black robe, black hood over a skeletal face with eyeless sockets. It amazed him when the smaller man in front of him only flinched slightly and stood his ground.
"Are you honestly telling me that you'd like to trade places with the boy? Die in the same way he did?" He knew that the kid's death had not been easy. He had to have been scared to death and in terrible pain before his life left him.
He could see the desire burning bright in the gambler's green eyes. "Yes."
Death shook his head. "I don't believe this."
"Please. You don't understand. To you he's just a man. But to us, to the rest of us, he's a brother. He's very important to all of us - to me. I don't know what his death would do to the Seven. Please."
Death continued shaking his head. "You understand that you'll die. You'll be making the ultimate sacrifice."
"Yes, I understand." The gambler's eyes cut down to the pale lifeless body laying on the rocky ground and then slowly drifted back up to meet his eyes.
"What about you? You seem so convinced that this young man's death would devestate 'the seven,' but what about you? I get the feeling that you're also a member of this 'family of brothers.' What is your death going to do to them?"
"Nothing. Oh, I mean, of course they might be sad, or some of them maybe. But let me assure you that my death will in no way affect the group as much as JD's. I'm a gambler. I'm a con man. I'm a hired gun. He's," the gambler glanced down and then back up, "he's their 'little brother.' Please, I'm begging you and I don't beg. Please take me instead. Hell, I'm sure you'd get more 'points' for me anyway - a lyin' cheatin' bastard. He's just a good kid. Surely I'll be worth more."
Death could see that the gambler truly thought that's what these other men thought of him. Such a shame. "It doesn't work that way. This 'point' system of yours. That's not how all of this works. I don't have a quota. I don't get a commission. I have a job to do and I do it. I don't get any pleasure out of it. I'm Death. I always have been, I always will be. I don't just pick and choose who I think should die, it's already laid out. I just take souls." He watched the handsome face in front of him fall. The man's green eyes filled with tears.
"Please. I haven't asked for much in my life. I didn't ask someone to take me away from the life of conning and cheating I grew up in. I didn't ask someone to spare me from abusive relatives who got a kick out of beating the daylights out of me. I'm asking for this now. Please let him live. Please."
Death glanced away from the gambler, down to the cold body on the ground. He'd broken rules before, he'd do it again. He couldn't remember ever having a better reason than this.
He stepped forward and reached around, placing one hand on the small of the gambler's back. He looked deep into the green orbs that silently pleaded with him. He nodded once and watched as relief quickly washed over the man's features. It was just as quickly replaced by pain as he placed his open palm on the red brocade vest. He held the gambler's body as it went through the motions. Pain creased lines on the gambler's face. His chest arched up into the hand and his arms flailed back, behind his rigid body. His brown-haired head tossed back, exposing veins. Death held his body as it finally stopped shaking. He carefully lowered the gambler to the ground, laying him next to his friend.
He stepped back, took one last look at the two men laying lifelessly on the ground, grabbed his horse by the reins, mounted up and rode away.
He could hear a voice, soft and distant.
"Ezra? Can you hear me?"
He moved his head, cracked his eyes open and stared at hazel eyes.
"JD!" Ezra moved in one motion. He sat up and grabbed his young friend. "JD! You're alive!" He looked down at himself, "and so am I."
"What are you talking about Ez? You're the one who took the tumble. You hit your head, you've been out for a while. We'd better get you to Nathan's."
Ezra couldn't help but smile. He nodded at his young friend. "Yes, let's get to Nathan's." He'd had the weirdest dream. He could still see bits and pieces of it. JD was dying, a conversation with death, horrible pain and then sudden blackness. But here he was. He was the one who had been hurt. JD was fine. What a dream!
JD slowly helped him to his feet. "You okay to ride?"
He nodded his reassurance to the young Sheriff as he glanced around, thinking about that dream again. It was a dream right? He probably had a concussion. Did you dream when you had a concussion? He didn't know, but he was sure it was just a dream. He gingerly made his way into the saddle and both men started towards town.
It had been three weeks since the ride from Eagle Bend to Four Corners when he'd taken that fall. He'd been right. He had had a concussion and of course Nathan made him stay overnight in his clinic and forced skunk water down him. But he hadn't minded so much. He'd had such a feeling of well being that he just didn't mind being incarcerated in the sick room. Every time he'd look at JD he was just so glad the kid was alive. He knew it was because of that dream he'd had.
He was remembering even more bits and pieces, more snippets of the conversation. He knew if he told any of his friends about it they would just laugh him out of town, so he kept quiet. It was, after all, just a dream.
It was late. The full moon hung low over the town, casting pale shadows. Ezra walked quietly down the boardwalk, relishing the cool night air. It had been a prosperous evening at the tables. He'd played with some drifting cowboys, practically taking everything they'd had. Of course one of them had accused him of cheating; but instead of having to watch out for himself, six other men backed him. It was a nice feeling. He might not totally belong, but he was slowly moving in that direction.
The sound of the gunshot and the excruciating pain the bullet caused as it ripped into his back was simultaneous. The force of the blast spun him around and his body slammed into the boardwalk. His head hit the hard surface and stars exploded before his eyes. The pain slowly drifted away and his eyes closed. He could hear distant sounds, but none of that mattered. He was dying. He could feel his life slipping away. Suddenly there was a presence beside him. He slowly opened his eyes to see who it was.
The black-garbed apparition of Death knelt next to him. Suddenly everything came back; not just bits and pieces, but the whole conversation.
JD was dead. He'd convinced Death to take him instead. He'd figured that he would die right then, but he hadn't. Then, he'd woken up and convinced himself that it was all a dream. But it wasn't. Death was right here and he was dying.
As if sensing his inner thoughts, Death's raspy voice rang clear in his mind. "I didn't take you then because *this,*" he motioned to Ezra's body, "*this* was *your* way to die."
Ezra nodded, knowing it was true. He felt the bony hand on his chest one more time and steeled himself for what was to come. He slowly reached up and placed his own pale hand over the white bone. He squeezed the hand as he smiled. "Thank you."
His eyelids drifted shut, his grip went slack and he was gone.
Death pulled the young gambler's soul from his body and stood. He watched as the man's friends gathered around his dead body, all lost in their own grief.
He wondered at how wrong the man was, thinking that his death wouldn't effect them as much. He wished the gambler could see his friends now, know how much he was loved. But it was too late. He'd made a sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice, for his friend.
He stood, glancing once more at the sad scene before him. His job was done here. He just wanted to leave all this sordid mess behind him. He knew he'd never forget the brave red coated gambler or the sacrifice he'd made. He mounted his pale horse, turned its head away from town and spurred it into a trot. He had an appointment in thirty minutes. He was Death, after all, and he still had a job to do.
the end (Feb 2000)
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