DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit is being made - enjoy!!

Cluckie, The Rooster That Couldn't Crow

A morally enlivening tale of destructive redemption

Eleanor Tremayne, Ezquire

Episode One

The sun rises early in the desert, its first rays stripping away the cool reprieve of the night. All sensible predators slink home to their lairs for a well-deserved day of rest before the dawn arrives, sated and happy with the night's hunting.

For those whose quarry is the bottom of an empty whiskey bottle or a tequila-soused worm, the first clear rays of light are daggers stabbing through the eyelids of a head pleading for decapitation.

For a rooster, it is irresistible. The first baleful glare of the sun draws them forth to crow mightily, the herald of the new day. To decent, respectable folk who neither hunt nor drink and who rarely understand those who do, the sound of a cock's crow is a cheerfully rousing one.

But sometimes the hunt is long, or the whiskey is weak, and the message that morning has arrived is not a welcome one. When that happens, the messenger is likely to be in serious trouble...


Cluckie was a scrawny, parasite-ridden pullet with delusions of rooster-hood. The town of Four Corners was quiet, those citizens who were stirring doing so with the habits of some of their guardian wolf pack respectfully remembered. With all the brains of his kind, Cluckie saw the deserted street as his opportunity to make his mark on the town.

He made it on Vin Tanner, instead.


Munching on a fresh, buttered biscuit as he walked down the middle of Main Street, Vin narrowed his squint to peer at the chicken strutting jerkily along ahead of him. It was a puny little critter, mostly comb and wattle. Throwing back its head, the chicken opened its beak and flapped its wings.

'Never heard a mute rooster before,' Vin mused, oblivious to the contradiction that would have left Ezra cross-eyed and speechless.

"Poor little feller," he said sympathetically as the rooster flapped harder. Finally, a piercing sound erupted from the bird bringing the feel of a barbed wire fence to the tracker's mind. It was about as far from 'cock-a-doodle doo' as a chicken could get and it stopped Vin in his tracks in astonishment.

"Y' all right there?" he asked the strutting rooster. His answer was a second rendition of the piercing, rusty shriek that threatened the stability of the town's few panes of glass.

The first bullet came from the second floor of the boarding house, the powerful .45 caliber ammunition of Chris Larabee's Colt Peacemaker catching the chicken dead center and kicking most of its mortal remains a foot in the air.

The second bullet came from the second story of the saloon and the .38 caliber Remington of Ezra Standish, neatly drilling the three largest pieces of Cluckie as they spun in the air.

The familiar bark of their friends' sidearms brought J.D. and Buck running out of the saloon to see what the drunken marksmanship contest was this time. In time to witness an impressive display of sleep-shooting, the remaining ten bullets from the chambers of the two guns were rapidly emptied into the disintegrating chicken corpse as it fell back to the ground at Vin's feet. Not a single shot missed - or failed to liberally paint the tracker with a coat of blood, guts, gore, dirt, and feathers.

"Vin don't look too happy," J.D. observed, watching Tanner study the dead-chicken splattered biscuit in his hand. Throwing it to the ground, the tracker stormed through the front door of the hotel.

"He's madder n' a pissed-on Bobcat," Buck agreed happily, patting Dunne on the back. Satisfied that the shooting was at least mostly over, the curious townsfolk emerged from beside their windows and behind sturdy furniture to see what would happen next.

Mary Travis arrived in the middle of the street just in time to see Vin slamming open a second story window of the boarding house. A moment later, he was pitching a barefoot, half-naked Chris Larabee through it onto the street below.

The gunslinger bounced on the awning below his room, breaking the momentum of his fall before he rolled down its slope to land in a groaning, head-clutching heap at Mrs. Travis's feet.

"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," she greeted him sweetly - and loudly - unable to resist the urge of gently prodding his bare ribcage with the toe of her shoe.

"Mornin', Mrs. Travis," Buck replied for all of them as he and J.D. joined Mary in the street to survey the wreckage, living and dead. The kid tipped his hat in silent acknowledgement. With Josiah and Nathan gone to the Seminole Village through the week, Ezra was the only one of the peacekeepers who remained unaccounted.

"Long night, Stud?" Wilmington inquired of Larabee, delivering a none-too-gentle shove to the suffering man's butt with the sole of his boot before sidestepping behind Dunne.

Chris rolled in the direction of the kick, puking up a night of over-indulgence on J.D.'s shins by way of reply.

"Eeeewww!!" J.D. cried, doing a jig step away from Larabee, ineffectually waving his hands at the mess that his common sense refused to touch.

Buck just grinned and laughed, having been on the receiving end of this conversation with Chris before.

"Ma'am," Vin snapped, tipping the brim of his hat to Mary with a shower of sticky feathers as he passed by on his way into the saloon.

"Go in low!" J.D. called out helpfully as Vin passed by, damn near swinging the saloon doors off their hinges by the force of his passage.


Ezra was in the lovely wonderland between true sleep and waking, in a world far removed from the plodding, pedestrian necessities of the Western frontier:

The heavy velvet stage curtain muffled the sound of the orchestra as it practiced the overture to Salome. The gallic cooing of the delighted ladies of the corps du ballet of the Paris Opera blended with the sound of the music as he popped the cork from a magnum of champagne with a single sweep of his saber. Glasses were filled, clinked and sipped as he was led to the cushions of the Sultan's throne on a stage dressed for the orgy scene.

A red-headed soloist tucked herself under one arm, the generous curves of the blonde understudy of the title role filled the other, and pretty little hands were landing like butterflies on his legs, boots and chest as the rest of the women settled around him adoringly. He was kissing the lush, champagne-flavored mouth of the understudy when -

The door to his room slammed open and he was instantly awake, firing from where he lay.

'Click,' went the empty chamber of his Remington. 'Click, click, click...'

"Aaaaawwww hell!" Ezra yelped, barely rolling out of the way as an abomination of bloody buckskin launched itself at him from his open doorway.

"Get back here, ya little runt!" Vin bellowed, diving across the bed in a vain attempt to grab Ezra as the gambler dived out the open window and scampered across the roof like a squirrel.

Crossing the soft depths of the goose-feather bed in a floundering crawl, it took Tanner two tries and a hat-skewing head-crack against the window sash to get out onto the roof after Standish. By that time, Ezra was already on the ground and high-tailing it across the street and angling for the livery.

"Ya little yeller weasel!" Vin yelled down at him.

The insult had the desired effect of making Standish stop dead and turn back toward the tracker.

"Uh oh," Vin muttered as he got a good look at the expression on Ezra's face. The gambler was as mad as a tromped on rattler, and that fact simmered Tanner's temper down to where he realized that if he didn't get back into the saloon in the next few seconds, Standish was going to be on the roof. The steep pitch was as good as a flat floor to Ezra, and he would be more than happy to have a bare-knuckle knock down on its tar and shingles.

Struggling to sit up, Chris leaned heavily against Buck's solid form, one arm supporting his head, the other wrapped around his unsteady gut. Absently reaching out to pat the sweat-damp head resting against his leg, Buck shook his head in wonder at Ezra's agility and strength in hauling himself back up onto the saloon's roof. Looking at him, you never would have guessed that there was that much deadly hidden underneath all them sissy clothes.

"He ain't as much of a fribble as he looks," J.D. observed, as Ezra lunged through the window in hot pursuit of Vin.

"Nope," Buck agreed, watching Vin shoot out the front door of the saloon with Ezra gaining fast.

"Wonder how he moves like that without splitting his britches," J.D. mused, shaking his head in wonder as Ezra's straining trouser seams once again held together in the face of the unreasonable demands placed upon their structure by the sprinting Standish. "Hell, I ain't even sure how he manages to get in his saddle."

"Ask Chris," Buck suggested, thinking how pretty Mary Travis was when she blushed.

"Yeah, but Chris's trousers are re-enforced denim. They got a fightin' chance."

"Kid, sometimes you worry me."

"Huh? Why?"

Vin pulled up in the middle of the street, putting the wet, feather clumped splat that had once been Cluckie between him and Ezra.

"Ugh," Ezra grunted, abandoning the cause of honor in the face of the gore lining the bullet-dug pit in the middle of the street, glinting cheerfully in the ruthless light of the bright morning sun.

"Mornin' Ezra," Buck said, laughing at Standish blinking owlishly as he finally woke completely up.

"Good lord," Standish yawned, nose wrinkling in disgust. "Catastrophe had best be immanent, Mr. Tanner. Autodefenestration is not how I care to bring my day to a close."

Vin blinked, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He shot a glance at Mrs. Travis, in a not-so-subtle plea for help.

The best Mary could do was frown sternly at Standish.

Ezra's sigh turned into another yawn. "What's goin' on, Vin?"

"You're the one that kilt the rooster - you tell me!" Vin fumed, shaking a sodden sleeve at the recoiling gambler and the general vicinity of the Cluckie-lined hole in the ground.

"Rooster?" Standish repeated, raising his hand to shield his aching eyes from the glare of the sun. A vague recollection of his somnambulant turn down memory lane surfaced and he smiled nostalgically. Then his brain reminded him of the question he was supposed to pondering.

"Good lord! That infernal cacophony was produced by poultry?"

"What the hell did ya think it was?" Vin bellowed, trusting in context in lieu of a complete translation. "Beggin' yer pardon, Missus Travis."

"I thought I was dreamin'..." Ezra muttered with a faint shudder.

"About what?" Buck boggled. He had heard Cluckie's serenade through the walls of the saloon and had assumed it was a dying goat that Chris and Ezra had taken pity on.

"I thought I was puttin' some poor botched castrati out of his misery," Ezra explained.

Chris's laugh ended in a truly wretched groan. Everyone else looked worried - and anywhere but at Mary.

"Good lord," Ezra said again, taking his first good look at Chris. "Credo non nunnulos hic mortuos esse."

'Bastard,' Chris thought blearily at Ezra, his eyes crossing as his brain threw itself relentlessly at the high and jagged wall of Latin translation, an activity that had been agonizing when he was sober and in practice.

Much to his surprise, his brain sloshed out an ancient if imperfect doggerel that suited the occasion perfectly.

"Bracae tuae aperiunter," he managed to get out through the gravel in his throat and the dust in his mouth. His reward was a quickly covered, downward looking flinch by Ezra.

"Made ya look!" Chris gloated feebly.

"Very funny," Ezra drawled, deciding to ignore Mr. Larabee's juvenile antics in favor of avoiding Mr. Tanner's determined advance towards him.

"Lookit my capote!" Vin demanded.

"Must I?" Ezra asked. "In regards to your coat, Mr. Tanner, I would prefer to take the lesson of Lot's Wife to heart."

"Y'damn near ruined it!"

"How can you possibly tell?"

Knowing he'd never win a war of words, Vin decided to outflank Ezra, and kicked a goodly chunk of Cluckie-imbued dirt over the gambler's polished boots.

"Gentlemen!" Mary cried, stepping between the combatants and into the Cluckie debris field, leaving Buck and J.D. quite in awe of the delicate beauty. "We have a bigger problem than who's responsible for the condition of Vin's jacket."

"It was fine 'til them two got a hold of it," Tanner fumed.

"That's a discussion for another time," Mary said, side-stepping the issue neatly. "That wasn't just a chicken."

"Madam, judgin' by its swan song, that wasn't any kind of gallus domesticus known to mankind. I might be persuaded to believe it was an infant harpy that had fallen out of the nest onto its head after hatchin', but a chicken it was not."

"What it was, Mr. Standish, was a pet," Mary corrected patiently. She knew Ezra wasn't at his shining best; the use of Latin was always a dead give-away. The southerner was the only person she'd ever known whose vocabulary got larger when he was hurt or tired. Sometimes she knew she let Standish get more of her sympathy than perhaps he should; how lonely it must be to have to stop and think every time you opened your mouth.

"A pet?" Ezra echoed, appalled.

"A what?" Chris croaked, equally horrified.

"A pet. The special pet of Molly Sinclair."

"Good lord," Standish murmured.

"Aw, hell," Chris moaned, hiding behind Buck's kneecap. "Not the orphan kid with the squint and the limp?"

Before Mary could confirm Larabee's worst fears, a young and tremulous voice quavered through the morning air.

"Cluckie?" called little Molly Sinclair, rounding the corner of Main Street in bare feet and wearing a worn, hand-me- down night dress and sleeping bonnet that were far too large for her thin frame. Her pinched gaze fell on Mary, an oasis of kindness in the bewildering ruin of her life. "Mrs. Travis, have you seen Cluckie?"

"Molly..." Mary hedged, trying to get between the child and the gruesome sight of Vin. "There was an accident..."

"An accident?" Molly repeated, the words trembling between breath and sound.

Uneven legs and dirty feet lurched Molly inexorably onward, closer to the undeniable evidence of Cluckie's demise.

"Cluckie?" she gasped, halting at the sight of Vin's jacket and hat and the molting carnage lining the hole in the middle of the road. She didn't make a sound as her face crumpled, hanging onto her tears in a way that let the adults around her know she'd had plenty of practice being brave.

"Cluckie got out of the coop," Mary said gently.

Molly lifted her chin, clutching the ragged, trailing hem of her nightdress in both hands. Chris's listing head brought his gaze level with her narrow, rough-skinned knees.

"I let him go," Molly confessed, in the same thin voice.

"What the hell'd ya do that for?" Chris demanded, his dismay and his pounding head draining his real sympathy from the sharp words.

Molly swallowed hard, tears beginning to puddle on her cheeks and turn her nose an unsightly shade of red. "Uncle was gonna cook 'im tonight," she whispered. "So I set 'im loose."

"Oh," Chris blinked. 'Shit...'

"No harm done, then," Ezra said, with the heartless bonhomie and crocodile grin that always made Mary want to slap him.

"Here you are, my dear," he told Molly, gingerly putting a silver dollar into her grubby little fist. "That should be more than adequate recompense for the loss to the stewpot, and in future I advise you to pick your pets with more care."

Defiantly meeting the furious glares he was receiving from the adults and resolutely avoiding looking down into Molly's stricken face, Ezra tipped the hat he wasn't wearing. "Goodnight, ladies, gentlemen."

"Ratfucker," Chris wheezed under his breath. Mary pretended not to hear him, putting her arm around Molly instead.

"I know'd he wadn't much, even for a chicken," Molly admitted, staring down at the Cluckie encrusted divot decorating Main Street.

"But you loved him," Buck reminded her gently. "That had to make him somethin' pretty special, darlin'."

"I did love 'im," she agreed, looking up from the street to face Buck as he knelt down beside her, careful to keep Chris propped up against his shoulder. "I loved him 'cause he was busted, just like me. See, I cain't walk right," Molly explained earnestly, "an' neither could Cluckie. An' I got this squint an' cain't see right, and Cluckie - well, he couldn't crow. We sorta fit together, Cluckie an' me."

Buck's mouth opened, but Molly's brutal honesty left him without a thing to say. He looked up at Mary for help and found her speechless, too, her hand pressed against the base of her throat.

"I had a squint when I was little," Vin offered unexpectedly. "But I growed out of it."

Molly looked up into the lanky tracker's face, and began to wail.

"Don't help, Vin," Buck muttered. Chris slid down his back with both of his hands clutched over his ears.

Leaning forward, Wilmington awkwardly patted Molly's bony arm. "Now, darlin', don't cry - it's gonna be all right..."

Molly had heard that before, more than once, and her sobbing kicked up an octave.

"Now that is just about enough of that, young lady."

Molly stopped crying on a great hiccuping gulp of air as Ezra's shadow fell across her. His words had been stern, but the tone - well, Molly was old enough to remember when people had spoken to her with that tone, instead of awkward stammering or a too-sweet voice that dripped with pity.

"That's bettah," he approved, reaching down and picking Molly up as though she were as light as one of the feathers drifting off Vin in the morning breeze. Mr. Wilmington might choose to ruin his trousers, but Ezra had more sense than an indifferent Providence had seen fit to grant his associates.

Ezra frowned at Molly and she bit her trembling lower lip. Settling the child on his hip with one arm, the gambler swept the cap off her head with the hand of the other, holding it between his thumb and forefinger.

"Darlin', this is hideous."

"I know," Molly whispered. "But it's Aunt's best one."

"I was afraid of that," Ezra sighed, carrying her away from the scene of her loss with a sorrowful shake of his head. Grabbing Chris, Buck dragged Larabee along with the rest of them as they followed Ezra to the porch of the saloon.

Easing into the chair the entire town acknowledged as his siege perilous, Ezra settled Molly across his lap, tucking the skirt of her nightdress around her legs and pulling the back of it down to raise the too-wide neck up to a more seemly position on her skinny shoulders.

"Busted?" Ezra repeated, his tone clearly disapproving.

Molly nodded, lowering her face to hide from the scrutiny of his green eyes.

Ezra tucked his hand under her chin, gently raising her gaze to meet his. "Mah deah Miss Sinclaih, you are not busted. You are unique - and therefoah, truly beautiful."

"I am?" Molly whispered, her eyes growing huge with wary delight.

"You most certainly are, darlin'," Ezra assured her, inclining his forehead to touch hers in a brief, conspiratorial caress.

Buck shook his head in admiration and frustration, watching Molly Sinclair fall head over heels in love with Standish. Ezra could have any female in town, maiden, matron, or grandmother and probably half the men if the truth were known, if he'd ever take those damn blinders off long enough to see the handkerchiefs piled up in front of him.

"What's a neek?" Molly asked shyly, her rigid body beginning to relax into the curve of Ezra's arm.

Standish smiled. " 'Unique'. It means someone so precious and special, there isn't anyone else like her in the world. D'you know who Venus is, darlin'?"

Molly's whole face lit up and she smiled for the first time anyone could remember, displaying an endearing absence of her two front teeth. "It's the mornin' star!" she answered proudly.

Watching Ezra fall hopelessly in love in turn with Molly, it occurred to Buck that Ezra might have a good reason for wearing those damn blinders.

"That's right," Ezra praised her.

"Pa always said a wish y'make on the mornin' star likely might come true," she confided, turning a wiggle into a snuggle.

"Your father was a very wise man, Miss Sinclair. Many, many years ago, there lived the most beautiful girl the world has ever seen," Ezra explained. With a frown, he licked the ball of his thumb and rubbed it over a blotch of something clinging determinedly to Molly's freckled cheek.

"Her name was Venus, and she was born in Greece, by the Aegean sea."

"She was born in grease?" Molly cried, quite sure that she was being teased. Molly had seen a baby born and despite the fact that she would now climb the highest mountain for Ezra, she couldn't quite bring herself to believe what he was telling her. "Hot grease?"

Ezra's face reflected his struggle to sort through the images and phrases colliding in his mind as he searched for an appropriate reply to her question.

"Hellas," he said, knowing instantly from the primness of Molly's expression that that explanation would not suffice. "Uh - it's not what you get when you're cookin', darlin', it's a country called Greece or - or Hellas, or, or - well, let's just call it Rome, shall we? No one else seems t'mind."

"Why'd they name a whole country after lard?" she demanded.

"Perhaps they named the lard after the country," he countered. "After all, it is a very old country, very, very far away from here." He conceded the battle but not the war to the blotch and with a smile and a flourish, he produced a spotless white handkerchief from mid-air.

Recognizing Molly's delighted gasp as his cue, Buck flipped J.D.'s hat off his head, ignoring the kid's half-hearted squawk of protest. Stepping over Chris, Wilmington filled the bowler with water from the horse trough and held it out for Ezra's use.

Consoling himself with the thought that the trough had been filled with fresh water before sunrise and was out of the line of flight of Cluckie debris, Ezra tried not to think too hard about the disreputable state of Mr. Dunne's hair as he dunked the fine lawn into the saturating wool.

He failed, miserably.

"How far away?" Molly prompted him, helpfully screwing up her face to assist the vigorous scrubbing it was receiving from the handkerchief.

"All the way across two oceans." Ezra paused in his narrative for a moment, struck by a sudden thought. "Have you evah seen an ocean, darlin'?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"Well, you know the river, when it's roarin' and wide in the spring?" At her nod, Ezra gestured widely with the handkerchief, taking in the whole sweep of the desert horizon.

"Wrap that roar up in a thunder storm, and that's what an ocean sounds like. Take that wide and stretch it so it fills out blue along the horizon, and that's how big it is. Y'ever see a hawk fly up so high it's just an itty-bitty speck of black against the sky? That's how deep the ocean runs. Imagine it, Molly - a place where the wind always blows, and the sand is always wet."

J.D. swallowed hard, hearing the harsh cry of the seagulls wheeling over the tall masts of merchant ships riding low in the water of Boston Harbor, smelling the sharp tang of seaweed, tar, and salt air. Damn it - he hadn't been homesick since he'd come west until Ezra opened his big mouth.

Buck's fist punched into his shoulder, rocking his body to the side and boosting his flagging spirits considerably.

"Wet sand?" Molly asked, stretching her mind to conceive of such a thing. In her world the only time sand was wet was when it was mud or flash floods.

'Y'can build castles out of it - just like the castle of Olympus that Venus lived in. The Romans named the mornin' star after her, because it's so bright and pretty it made them think of her eyes."

Ezra finished cleaning Molly's face, revealing a charming sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose. He shift ed his grip and turned his attention to her sticky hands. Buck nearly died of mortification when Standish produced a nail file and clippers from the same mysterious home as his handkerchief, using them to good effect on Molly's dirt-packed cuticles and fingernails.

"As you can imagine, our Venus had many admirers. She still does, foremost among them artists: painters, poets, and sculptors. D'you know what a sculpture is, darlin'?"

She settled her head against his shoulder, saying, "I see'd one in Tennessee when I was a little girl, 'fore we came West. Some feller whittled it outta a white rock and put it up on a stand in the middle a'everythin'. Pa told me it was s'posed to be General Lee, and Ma said it oughta be taken down, 'cause it'd just cause more trouble."

Ezra rested his chin briefly on the top of Molly's head. "Your mother sounds like she was a very sensible woman, mah deah. Try to cultivate her intelligence," he advised, trimming her fingernails with an expertise that broke Mary's heart.

"There are some men who can - whittle - a rock into a likeness of a person so real that you can stand in front of it for hours, just waitin' for it to say somethin'."

He finished with her nails, disappearing the instruments of the impromptu manicure as easily as he had produced them. A silver comb was next, and he tackled the jumbled tangle of her braid with determined tenderness.

"As you can imagine, many sculptors tried to capture the beauty of Venus in their work - but only one ever truly succeeded. No one knows his name, but he is immortal nonetheless, as eternal as the marble he carved his Venus from. They call his statue the Venus de Milo, and people travel from every corner of creation just to see it."

"Have you seen it?" Molly whispered.

"I have. I have seen her, and touched her, and waited for her to grow arms and speak to me."

"Grow arms?" Molly repeated. "Ain't she got none?" Her expression showed that she didn't think that could be very attractive at all.

"No. One shoulder ends at nothin', the other curves to here," Ezra brought the flat edge of his comb over her shoulder and down her arm to a hand's length above her elbow. "That is the secret to her fascination - she would just be ordinary if she had arms and hands like any other statue. She, like you, is unique - and utterly lovely."

Mary scavenged the yellow grosgrain ribbon tied around the bundle of telegrams and letters in her pocket, handing it to Ezra when he finished plaiting Molly's brown hair in four flat strands. He wrapped it around the end of her braid several times, knotting it properly and polishing it off by looping the ends into a pretty bow.

"Now, I trust I have made my point, and we will have no more talk of bein' busted?" he said briskly.

"No, sir," she promised meekly.

"And darlin' - no more makin' pets out of food. That's just askin' for trouble."

Reminded of her lost friend, Molly's chin wobbled. Ezra steadied it between his thumb and forefinger.

"I will admit that your Cluckie was - unique - in a very - interestin' way. But you can be proud of him - he gave his life for a great cause, and we will always remember him because of that."

"He did?" Molly, Buck, Chris, Mary, and J.D. chorused. Vin was silent, recognizing the evil twinkle in Ezra's eyes.


"What'd he do?" Molly demanded.

"Let us just say he has... paved... the way to a liberation long sought by many of us. You'll understand bettah when you 're older - for now, just know that your Cluckie died a hero, and will always have mah gratitude."

"He will?"

"He most certainly will. But now, my deah Miss Sinclair, I must call upon you to be very brave. For you see, you are not the only one who has suffered a loss this grievous day."

Ezra tilted his head closer to her ear, oozing confidentiality from every pore. "You've met our gimlet-eyed Mr. Tanner?"

Molly looked over at Vin, biting her lip at the sight of his Cluckie drenched coat.

"Mr. Tanner's loss is even greater than yours, darlin'. Why, several dozens of his nearest and dearest friends were no doubt drowned as a result of poor Cluckie's gallant sacrifice. He hides it well, but I am certain he is devastated by the massacre."

"Ezra - !" Vin growled.

"Y'see how upset he is by me even mentionin' his personal tragedy. He needs our sympathy and our support in his time of trial. D'you think you can do that, darlin'? It's what Cluckie would have wanted."

"Gosh," Molly said, peering up at Vin with great empathy. "Dozens?"

"Probably hundreds," Ezra told her solemnly, his face the picture of heartbreak.

Buck dumped the bowler full of trough water over the choking Chris and handed the hat back to J.D. in time to give the kid something to hide his laughter in. He brought his own hat down to hide his grin, and noticed that Mary had developed a sudden cough.

Inspired to selflessness, Molly hopped off Ezra's lap and went to stand beside Vin. The reeking presence of Cluckie's sprung mortal coil gave her pause for a moment or two, but compassion gave her strength. Gingerly taking the tracker's tanned hand in her own, she squeezed it comfortingly. "It's okay t'cry if ya want to," she told Vin. "Uncle sez it makes ya feel better when yer sad."

"Wise man," Ezra nodded approvingly. "We should ask him to speak at the funeral."

"Didn't know Yosemite knew ya that well, Ezra," Vin warned.

"Cluckie's funeral," Ezra corrected smoothly, stroking along the bottom of his lip with his thumb.

"But there ain't - " Vin stopped himself before he could say 'nothin' left t'bury'. Other than a feather or two, Cluckie was mud or all over -

His capote.

Ezra grinned, gold tooth flashing in the sun as his trap closed around Vin with a loud 'snap'.

"We're gonna have a funeral?" Molly asked.

"Considerin' the debt we owe the dubious creature, of course we shall have a funeral for Cluckie - and all the lost little Tanners. In the absence of Mr. Sanchez, it would be my honor to speak a few fittin' words at the graveside," Ezra replied, rising from his seat into a sleepy stretch he just couldn't fight off.

Buck was suddenly and guiltily glad that Nathan was also absent. Jackson would never have let Ezra have this much fun.

Vin's hand tightened uncontrollably around Molly's. She patted his white knuckles with her free hand. "I know all about buryin' folks, Mr. Vin," she told him. "Don't you worry none - I'll help ya t'get through it."

"That's right nice of ya, Molly," Vin replied softly, looking down into her big brown eyes.

"We shall all take heart from your example, darlin' girl," Ezra told her, and Mary would have bet her last dime that he was perfectly serious. "But it seems t'me you had best be goin' back t'bed before your aunt takes a fright."

"Do I have ta?" she asked wistfully.

"It would be best," Ezra told her, taking the hand she held out to him. "Give Mr. Tanner a kiss and get on back to bed, darlin'."

Carefully removing his gore-trimmed hat, Vin knelt down to get a shy peck on the cheek.

"Now scoot," Ezra told her, but not before collecting his own kiss. He and Vin stood together shoulder to shoulder with smiles on their faces, watching her trot off down the street with her beribboned plait bouncing down her back.

"Ya ain't buryin' my capote," Vin growled, getting back to the real issue as soon as Molly had disappeared around the corner of her house.

"It stinks," Chris announced from the saloon's porch and the pillow of Buck's boot.

'Course it stinks!" Vin exploded, flinging his arms wide. "Ya shot dead chicken all over it!"

"I'll concede the momentary improvement, but surely even you must realize that it is transitory at best," Ezra said, wrinkling his nose.

"I'll clean it!" Vin fumed.

"Ain't never helped before," Buck observed critically.

"It ain't that bad," J.D. said. The tracker found himself smiling at the kid, until the pipsqueak went and added, "when you're downwind."

Realizing that his position was about to be overrun, Vin called in the heavy guns. "Mrs. Travis?!" he said, turning a beseeching gaze on Mary.

"It would mean so much to Molly, Mr. Tanner," she replied diplomatically.

Recognizing that his cause was lost, Vin's shoulders sagged.

"What on earth...?" Mary said, her attention caught by something not quite right in the vicinity of the tracker's left ear. Taking the steps necessary to bring her close enough to Vin, she reached a hand into the long tangle of his hair and brought forth a four-toed chicken foot.

"Eeeeewwwwww!" she cried, dropping the dismembered mutation to the dirt and wiping her hands repeatedly on her apron.

"Mah deah Mrs. Travis..." Ezra breathed, staring at Mary with an admiration so vivid it made her blush. "That is the bravest act I have ever had the privilege of witnessin'."

"Thank you," Mary answered distractedly, unsure of whether to look at Ezra standing in front of her with his hand over his heart or over at the growling Vin.

Ezra knew he should heed Mr. Tanner's warning rattle, but he couldn't help himself. The same devil that had once led him to the after-hours stage of the Paris Opera House had possession of him now, and damn the consequences.

"Ah stand in awe," Ezra told her, matching his expression to the sentiment. His hand left his heart, presenting itself palm up to Mary for her approval or rejection.

Mary's imp of fun overcame her common sense and she laid her hand in Ezra's, nostalgic for the days of old when a handsome gentleman paying her extravagant compliments and bowing over her hand had been an expected part of her routine. She bit her tongue to keep from laughing as Ezra visibly steeled himself to kiss the fingers that had delved into Vin's hair. With a tremble that made her snort in a most unladylike fashion, he finally managed the feat.

And paid for it almost immediately. In one long stride, Vin had Ezra by the collar and the back of his pants and the gambler was airborne, flying toward the horse trough.

Making the best of his landing, Ezra rolled over and came to the surface laughing before he'd even cleared his vision.

A mistake, as it turned out. His first sight upon shaking hair and water out of his eyes was a green faced Chris Larabee heading straight for him at high speed.

Vin didn't wait to see Chris land, content to hear the splash behind him as he stalked away toward the bathhouse.

"Good Lord!" Ezra howled in horrified indignation as the unmistakable sound of Chris puking all over him graced the morning air, balm and salve for Vin's wounded dignity.

End of Episode One

Coming Next:
The Last Full Measure of Devotion

Ordinarily, I wouldn't post a story in chapters. However, this is a complete tale in and of itself, and it is Fluff. So, I thank you in advance for this one time indulgence.

I would also like to thank the people without whom I would never finish anything, or even care to begin - and who invariably hand me the best lines in every story. Donna, problem-solver, editor, and a woman with a deliciously wicked mind; Barb, an incredible artist and level-headed pointer-outer-of the obvious (including low-slung gunbelts); my darling sister Christy, fellow flyer of the dawn patrol who keeps me in stitches with our Vin and Ezra show; Amy, a wonderfully perceptive beta-reader and amica mia; and Dina, who listens for hours and knows what the Latin means. They are my very own Belles of Bedlam, and they never let me get away with anything.

We would love to know what you think... email me

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