The Trail to Tascosa

by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist

DISCLAIMER: The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of CBS, The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy, or anyone else who may have legal claim on "The Magnificent Seven". I do not claim the characters or concept, and the only profit I get is the enjoyment of writing the stories and sharing them with other fans.

NOTES: The Trail to Tascosa series takes place, as the title suggests, on the way to Tascosa to clear Vin's name. The tales follow one another chronologically and will keep to stories involving only the seven men with no romantic entanglements or off-the-wall characterizations (I hope!). As the characterizations are based on my observations, they may not agree with your own, as we all see the world from our own unique perceptions. In this "episode", I have included a non-fiction historical figure and have taken some creative license with the character, so please be gentle!

SPOILERS: Makes numerous references to episodes, including Penance and specific dialogue from Working Girls and Achilles, as well as references to the previous Tascosa stories and my M7 fic Just Another Day.

Mucho thanks to my two beta readers--Kerry and Judy--for your time, encouragement, and constructive critiques!

Story Six

Pocketful of Trouble

By The Traveling Dimestore Novelist

"Civilization on yonder horizon," Ezra Standish announced with a dry southern drawl.

"It's about damn time," Buck Wilmington grumbled. He drew his forearm across his sweat-beaded brow. "Why do horses always go lame miles from the nearest town?"

Chris Larabee shook his head, stifling his own impatience. When Josiah Sanchez's horse had picked up a rock that morning, Josiah had been relegated to either walk or ride double. The men had begun by taking turns riding double, but in the end the preacher had chosen to walk. Chris couldn't figure out how Josiah had managed the last couple hours in his boots. And without a word of complaint.

Chris glanced at Vin Tanner who'd kept Josiah company the last mile. The two of them spoke in low voices, and occasionally a word drifted to Chris. He figured they were discussing their experiences with different Indian tribes-a topic both Vin and Josiah enjoyed palavering about.

As they neared the outskirts of a bustling town, Chris spotted a weathered sign with the word Pocket carved into the wood.

"You reckon Pocket's the name of this town?" JD Dunne asked as he removed his hat and fanned it in front of his sunburned face.

Nathan Jackson, the black healer, shrugged. "Good a name as any, I guess."

"Sure is big," Vin commented.

A wagon rolled past and the driver shook his fist at them, yelling something about taking up all the road. Chris grimaced. Large towns like Pocket always made him uncomfortable. He was a man unaccustomed to closed-in spaces, and preferred wide open range where a person could breathe without the stench of civilization. Chris glanced at Vin and noticed the stiff set of his shoulders and the scowl that tugged at his lips. The tracker didn't like this kind of place any more than Chris did.

The seven men paused at the edge of town and studied the imposing main street, lined with shops, hotels, bath houses, Chinese laundries, and a huge brick bank. The Seven continued past the row of legitimate businesses until the storefronts changed to those of saloons and gambling halls. In this red light district, Chris saw sporting women dressed in various dishabille hawking their ample "merchandise" from second story balconies.

"I think we done found Eden, boys," Buck exclaimed, tipping his hat to the prostitutes and giving them his most charming smile.

The women giggled and spoke to each other behind their palms. Chris shook his head. He suspected they wouldn't be seeing much of Buck for the next few days while they waited for Josiah's horse to heal.

The hair prickled at the back of Chris's neck and he lifted his gaze to search the street and alleys. Some old men wearing faded overalls and smoking corncob pipes watched them from rickety chairs on the boardwalk, but none of them seemed particularly hostile. The unease faded, leaving Chris restless and wondering what had set his gut to churning.

Josiah and Vin led them to a large livery. After paying the hostler and making sure all the horses, especially Josiah's, were well cared for, the seven men headed down the street to find a respectable boardinghouse. They found one in need of a fresh whitewashing and a few repairs, but otherwise it appeared decent.

"If you gentlemen don't mind, I believe I shall find accommodations elsewhere," Ezra said.

"You don't like us?" Buck asked in mock disbelief, then laid his hand against his heart. "Damn, that hurts, Ezra."

The dapper gambler's eyes twinkled, though his mouth remained set in a firm line. "It has nothing to do with fondness, Mister Wilmington. I merely must have the lullaby of shuffling cards and clinking glass in order to slumber."

As Ezra continued up the street to a saloon and gambling emporium called The Barbary Coast, Chris and the other five men entered the boardinghouse.

"Can I help you, gentlemen?" a woman with gray hair but a lively sparkle in her hazel eyes greeted them.

"We were wondering if you had any rooms available for some weary travelers," Josiah said.

"How many days you boys plan on staying?"

"A few, no more than a week."

She studied them a moment, then nodded. "As long as you all don't mind sharing. I've got three rooms, each with a couple beds in them."

Josiah smiled. "That sounds like heaven, and you're an angel in disguise, ma'am."

Chris lowered his head as a smile tugged at his lips. Though Buck was the ladies' man, Josiah wasn't lacking in charm either.

"My name's Mrs. O'Kelly and if you need anything, just let me know," she said as she led them up the stairs. "Breakfast is served at six thirty, lunch at noon, and supper at six. If you miss it, you're plumb out of luck." Mrs. O'Kelly stopped at the first door. "Two of you can have this one."

Buck and JD shrugged at one another and claimed it. Nathan and Josiah took the one next to it, and Chris and Vin the room across the hall.

"Thank you, ma'am," Vin said, touching two fingers to the brim of his hat.

"Such polite young men you are," Mrs. O'Kelly said, then added, "Don't forget to be down in the dining room at six."

"We wouldn't miss it," Chris reassured.

Mrs. O'Kelly chuckled. "I s'pect not, seeing as how you're growing boys and all."

Smiling and shaking his head, Chris closed the door behind her and tossed his saddlebags and rifle on the bed nearest the door. He knew Vin would want the one closest to the window.

"Reminds me of Nettie Wells some, don't she?" Vin commented as he dropped on to his bed and crossed his ankles.

Chris removed his hat and slung the stampede string around a bedpost. "I reckon." He sank down on the edge of his mattress and sighed. "Sometimes I think I'm gettin' too old for this."

Vin chuckled. "Ain't we all, pard. I figger we can use the time to rest up-in a civilized town like this, it don't seem likely we'll run into any trouble."

Chris nodded, though the nape of his neck continued to tingle. He knew the six of them in the boardinghouse weren't in any trouble, but he wondered about Ezra. Frowning, Chris hoped the gambler hadn't gotten himself into some calamity already.

He glanced up at the ceiling that appeared to be recently painted, then at the walls that were covered with flowery wallpaper. If the condition of the room was any indication, Chris doubted they'd find bedbugs in the muslin sheets. He recalled the outside of the house and figured Mrs. O'Kelly had done the fixing up inside first.

A soft snore startled him and he looked over to see Vin had fallen asleep. He smiled fondly. After the run-in with the Jordans, the barbed wire, and a bullet through his side a couple weeks ago, Vin hadn't regained all of his normal strength. Maybe it was a good thing Josiah's horse had thrown its shoe.

Chris pressed his palms against his thighs and pushed himself upright. His back and knees cracked, telling him he was definitely getting too old to be spending so many hours in a saddle. He only hoped his reflexes hadn't slowed, also. Too often his lightning speed had saved himself or one of his friends. If he lost that edge, he may as well dig a grave and lie in it. There were too many young gunfighters out there wanting to make a name for themselves by outdrawing a gunslinger like Chris Larabee. He scowled-he hadn't been looking to make a reputation as a fast gun. It was just something that had happened after he thought he had nothing left to live for.

"You better know where you're headed, son, or you're gonna end up someplace you don't wanna be."

The words his father had spoken to him nearly twenty years ago came back to haunt him.

You were right, Pa, but then maybe the trail has a way of straightening up later on ....

Chris stepped over to the window and opened it, letting the cool breeze in to flutter the gingham curtains-curtains like the ones Sarah had made for their cabin. With trembling hands, he rubbed the material between his fingertips. Memories like tin daguerreotypes flashed through his mind: Sarah rocking Adam gently as she fed him; Sarah's shining eyes as she buried her nose in the bouquet of wildflowers he'd picked for her; Sarah standing by the stove stirring the Sunday chicken and dumplings; and Sarah's whispers of pleasure after the day's work was completed and the moon's glow bathed her smooth skin in silver....

Moisture stung his eyes and he released the curtain, but the images faded more slowly than the feel of the cloth's texture on his callused fingers. Lord, he missed Sarah and Adam. If anyone had told him the pain would still be this intense four years after their deaths, he might have ended his own life right after he found their charred bodies. Instead, he'd pursued whiskey and faceless women to fill the aching emptiness that he'd come to learn could never be filled.

He pulled a chair over by the window and sat heavily upon it, then leaned his forehead against the glass pane. Watching the busy street below, Chris felt the vague sense of unrest anew. He searched for a familiar face among the bustling crowd, and spotted Buck and JD as they emerged on to the street to enter the saloon Ezra had gone into earlier. A few moments later, he heard Josiah and Nathan's voices as they came out of their room and the sound of their boots on the stairs told him they were going to get a drink, too. He watched them cross the street to the Barbary Coast and was tempted to join them. Whiskey would dull the memories, and make the loss of Sarah and Adam a little more bearable.

For only a few hours.

Chris swallowed hard and turned to look at Vin. The long-haired man's slack features appeared more vulnerable as he slept. Though Vin seemed to be slumbering peacefully, Chris wasn't fooled. Nightmares had plagued him since his time with the murdering outlaw gang hired by Justin Jordan, and Chris had awakened Vin more than once in the past couple weeks. He'd stay close in case the nightmares returned to haunt him.

Having a mission to keep his thoughts occupied, Chris leaned back in his chair and stretched out his long, lean legs in front of him. He threaded his fingers together and laid his clasped hands across his belly as he watched over his friend. And hoped one of them would find some peaceful sleep.

Ezra managed to procure a room above the fancy saloon that happened to be a cut above the standard hotel abode. He suspected the room was rented to traveling gentlemen who preferred to remain circumspect in their 'affairs of the heart'. Not that Ezra had designs on any of the ladies-at the moment Ezra would rather have a deck of cards in his hands than a soft woman.

He washed up and replaced his dusty green jacket with his red one. As he donned it, he caught sight of the neat stitches used to repair the coat after the unfortunate incident with the mountain lion right after they'd left Four Corners. He thought of Vin's embarrassment when he'd thrust the brown paper package into his hands and couldn't stop a fond smile from tilting his lips upward.

"Mister Tanner, one should not be ashamed of doing a good deed," Ezra said quietly and his brow furrowed thoughtfully. "I, for one, have learned that from you and our other fine friends."

After a quick look in the dresser mirror to check his appearance, then ensuring he had a new deck of cards in his breastpocket, Ezra left the room. Downstairs, he found a table with four poker players-all dressed in fine business suits-and approached them with a friendly smile. "Might I be so bold as to inquire if I could join you, gentlemen?"

They did the expected visual inspection and after a moment, nodded.

"Be our guest," one of them said.

"Thank you." Ezra seated himself.

"I'm Astor Phillips and I own Phillips Mercantile," the heaviest of the four men introduced with a wide smile. He pointed to the man on his right who was completely bald. "This is Jameson Kirkwood, he owns this choice establishment. The gentleman wearing the glass spectacles is Ralph Johnson-he's the manager of the bank. And the last one is Norbert Calloway who owns the Imperial Hotel, the finest hotel in the territory."

Ezra shook hands with each of the men in turn. "Ezra Standish, and I am a traveling man."

"I'll bet you've seen most of the gambling halls this side of the Mississippi," Ralph Johnson commented as he pressed his wire glasses up on his narrow nose.

"And some on the other side also, my good man," Ezra said smoothly. "Would that be a problem for you gentlemen?"

"Do you cheat?" Kirkwood demanded.

Ezra met the bald man's dark eyes. "No, sir, I do not."

Kirkwood studied him for a long moment as Ezra held his gaze. Suddenly Kirkwood smiled. "Welcome to Pocket, Mister Standish. I hope you find your stay...profitable."

Ezra returned the smile. "Thank you, Mister Kirkwood. That is my expectation also." He glanced around at the other players. "No offense intended."

"None taken," Calloway said with a magnanimous wave of his hand. "It's always good to get some fresh blood in."

"I do hope you are speaking figuratively and not literally, Mister Calloway," Ezra said, arching a sandy eyebrow.

The hotel owner chuckled, a deep resonant sound. "Of course, Mister Standish. We're peace-loving men in a peaceful town."

A tingle of alarm slid down Ezra's spine though he had no reason to be suspicious. Pocket appeared to be one of those frontier towns that had passed the initial tests of civilization and had settled into being a cultural oasis in the wilderness.

Calloway shuffled the cards and dealt. Ezra picked up his five cards-among them two nines and an ace-and the thrill of the game surged through his blood. A few minutes later, Ezra noticed Buck and JD enter the saloon. They headed straight to the polished mahogany bar and ordered a couple drinks. Picking up their mugs, Buck led JD to a table a few feet from where Ezra played poker.

"I see you didn't waste any time, Ezra," Buck said with a grin.

Ezra didn't like having his attention divided during a poker game, but managed a quick nod. "And I see you did not loiter in your room before acquiring refreshments."

JD's brow creased. "Huh?"

Buck removed his hat and tossed it in the center of his and JD's table. "He said we musta been thirsty."

Ezra bit back his smile. "How very astute of you, Mister Wilmington."

A few minutes later, Josiah and Nathan joined Buck and JD.

"Are you going to introduce your friends, Mister Standish?" Phillips asked.

"Excuse my atrocious manners. These are my traveling companions," Ezra said, then introduced the parties to one another.

"Five of you ride together?" Kirkwood asked.

"Actually there are seven of us," Ezra replied.

Kirkwood's eyes narrowed and that same apprehension tightened Ezra's neck muscles. Something here was amiss, but the gambler couldn't place his finger on the reason for his misgivings.

"Chris and Vin aren't here yet?" Nathan asked, one dark eyebrow pitched upward.

Buck shook his head. "Seems kinda strange, don't it?"

Josiah slid his hat off, allowing it to rest against his back, held by the latigo strap around his neck. "Vin was mighty tired and I think his side was painin' him some."

"Why didn't he say somethin'?" Nathan demanded. Buck, JD, and Josiah all gazed at Nathan mutely, but the healer had no trouble reading their message. "Vin would rather eat nails than admit he's hurtin'," he sheepishly answered his own question. Impatience returned to Nathan's dark features. "I'm goin' to have a talk with him next time I see him."

"So why ain't Chris here?" JD asked.

"Because Mister Larabee owes Mister Tanner," Ezra said softly, then laid down four kings. "I believe this game is mine."

"Is that Chris Larabee, the gunman?" Kirkwood asked as Ezra raked in his winnings.

Ezra's muscles stiffened and he noticed his four friends had the same reaction. "I believe he has a somewhat overblown reputation as a 'fast gun'," Ezra replied carefully.

"And he don't like no one remindin' him," Buck said menacingly.

Ezra wasn't surprised by Buck's defensiveness. The tall man, though often the brunt of teasing due to his 'animal magnetism', was overly protective of the blond gunslinger. Buck and Chris had known each other a long time-Ezra had heard ten or twelve years-and though the two often butted heads, they would defend the other against any threat, real or perceived.

Kirkwood held up his hands. "I was just curious is all."

Josiah lifted a shot glass of whiskey to the light and seemed to be admiring the subtle shades of amber shooting through the liquid. "They say curiosity killed the cat."

"It's a good thing I'm not a cat."

Josiah turned to the bald man and suddenly laughed. "I guess it is, Mister Kirkwood."

The tension eased and Ezra went back to his poker game while his four friends ordered another round. An hour later, Ezra had won more than he'd lost. The heady taste of triumph buoyed him and he bought a round of drinks for his fellow players.

Buck, JD, Nathan, and Josiah said something about going to eat supper then left Ezra alone once more. As he watched them leave, Ezra felt a split second of hollowness and he blinked at the odd sensation. He was perfectly at home here with his best friend-a deck of cards.

Phillips excused himself for a moment and the poker players took a break to stretch their legs. Ezra ordered a cup of coffee with a shot of whiskey in it to fortify himself for the next round. He waited by the bar for the refreshment and watched the hive of activity in the busy saloon. This was the type of place Ezra wanted someday-refined, but with enough rough edges to make it interesting.

One of the waitresses, a woman dressed in a knee-length emerald green dress, approached Kirkwood. Her face, though pretty, had hard lines around her eyes and mouth, characteristic of women in her profession. She appeared angry and Kirkwood took her arm, drawing her into an isolated corner. Kirkwood's back was to Ezra, but he could plainly see the woman's expression. No doubt about it-she was piqued.

Kirkwood said something to her and Ezra saw her impatient gaze flicker to him across the room. She narrowed her eyes as if assessing Ezra and finding him inadequate, then gave her attention back to her employer. After another couple minutes, she calmed down, though it didn't appear as if Kirkwood had completely mollified her antagonism.

The bartender set a cup of coffee in front of Ezra and added a couple shots of whiskey to it. After laying two coins on the bar, Ezra carried the cup back to his table where the other four men had already returned to their places.

And the poker game resumed.

Go to part 2