Departure
(Old West)

by Brandgwen

Disclaimer: This story is a piece of fanfiction containing characters which are the property of MGM, Trilogy, and CBS. I do not make any claims to these characters.


Ezra Standish walked into the saloon, scanning the scene for his comrades in arms. He found all six sitting together at their usual table, drinking whiskey and conversing little. The Southerner smiled at how a group of such diverse individuals could share such an easy companionship. He would miss that. He walked up to the table and pulled up a chair, directly opposite Chris Larabee. This would not be easy. Ezra held a healthy respect for Larabee. The gunslinger was the only man Ezra had ever called leader; the only man he would take orders from. He also held a healthy fear. Larabee had made it clear long ago that desertion would not be tolerated and Standish knew how this fiercely loyal man would react to any hint of betrayal. Ezra sat for a moment, drank the shot of whiskey poured for him and firmed his courage.

Vin sat next to Chris at the table and saw Ezra enter. The usually easy-going gambler obviously had something on his mind. Vin watched him sit and take the whiskey Buck had poured him with a growing apprehension. Ezra had never been one to fear speaking up. Half the time what he said was designed to be unpopular - designed to keep an emotional distance between himself and the others - but what he was about to say would stir the group too much for even Ezra's liking.

"Mr. Larabee, I feel it is my duty to inform you of my impending departure," there, it was said. No turning back now, no second guesses. Ezra braced himself for the response, never taking his eyes from the man across from him.

Larabee did not respond at once. This really was a surprise to him. From the beginning he had suspected that if any of the group would leave it would be Ezra, but lately he seen the man settle in. "You're leaving? You have a deal going with the judge, remember. How long will you be gone?"

"I do not anticipate a return. While I appreciate that my obligation to Judge Travis is an ongoing one, recent circumstances, which I do not intend to relate, have rendered me unable to fulfil it. I hope you will communicate my regrets to our esteemed employer."

Silence. It was Buck who spoke up. "Are you running out on us, Ezra?" His voice carried his disbelief and anger. Here was Ezra, his friend and ally, threatening to leave without so much as an explanation. Ezra didn't take his eyes from Larabee. He did not want to see his companionsí faces. He knew Josiah would be disappointed that his lost sheep would stay lost. Nathan would see Ezra's departure as justification for the poor opinion the healer had always held of him. JD would be deeply hurt that one of his adopted family would chose to leave.

"If that is how you wish to view it, Mr. Wilmington."

Chris had enough. Ezra would not go without at least giving a good reason. In a single fluid movement, the gunslinger rose from his chair, drawing his weapon. Standish was prepared for this and responded in kind. Larabee was the faster of the two, but not by much, and seeing as neither man actually intended to fire upon the other, they soon found themselves in a stand-off situation. Chris had not bargained for this. He had only wanted to remind Ezra of his place, to see to it that he and his group were shown the respect they deserved. After several agonising moments, Ezra broke the stand-off. He uncocked his Remington and placed it back in its holster.

"Chris," he said, his voice uncharacteristically low and even, "I will walk out of here. If you feel the need to interfere, there is little I can do about it, but you will have to shoot me in the back."

With that, Ezra Standish turned and left the Four Corners saloon.

*******

Vin, Nathan and Josiah sat on the roof of the church, hammering down slats to replace old, weather-damaged ones. They worked in silence, each thinking over what had happened that morning. The Autumn sun shone down on them, providing a steady warmth, which would dissipate by night fall.

"I guess we all kind of knew he would do it, eventually." Nathan commented, sounding less than convinced of his own words.

"I didn't," replied Josiah, "I thought he was kind of getting used to us." It was hard not taking this sudden departure personally.

Vin said nothing. Before today, he hadn't really known whether Ezra would stay. He had never presumed to understand what went on in the other man's head. That was the thing with Ezra. Vin trusted the Southerner with his life; a man couldn't ride with another unless that trust existed. Vin liked Ezra. He had been surprised to discover this and it had been a gradual thing, but there had been a day in a town called Jericho when Vin had realised that he considered Ezra a friend. The problem was Vin didn't understand him. In all things, Ezra seemed to have two sides. He displayed the manners of a refined gentleman, but lived according to the instincts of a caged animal. How did this departure fit into that? The part of Ezra that had insisted he face Chris was the part which should have prevented his leaving. If the gambler had just disappeared, there would have been no conflict, but, as things stood, there was.

"It does seem a bit sudden," Nathan admitted, " I mean, did anyone have any idea he was planning this?"

Josiah shook his head. "I don't think so. Buck and JD seemed pretty shocked when he told us and Chris..."

Nathan nodded. Chris had been livid. Chris was still livid. Ezra had challenged his authority then used his knowledge of the gunslinger's nature to gain the upper hand. That affront would never be forgotten and probably never forgiven.

"I'm gonna follow him," Vin entered the conversation abruptly.

Nathan and Josiah were surprised to say the least. "Why?" They both asked.

Vin thought about this for a moment and then answered. "There's just something... wrong about this."

With that, the tracker climbed down from the roof and went to get his things together.

*******

Just before leaving, Vin entered the saloon, looking for Chris. He found his friend sitting at the bar staring into a shot of whiskey. Friend or not, Vin considered retreating in the face of the thundercloud that shadowed the gunslinger. Yet, Ezra had dared create such a storm. Why risk it if not out of friendship?

"I'm going after Ezra," Vin stated, quietly.

Chris looked up, taking in the expression of the younger man. "Why?" he growled.

"Because there was something not right about the whole thing. I don't like it. I want to know why he left the way he did."

Larabee nodded. ...recent circumstances, which I do not intend to relate... Ezra was up to something. Knowing the Southerner, that something would not be good. If Vin wanted to waste his time chasing after that no-good rattlesnake... There was something else nagging at the back of Chris' mind. Ezra had drawn on him and the speed with which he had done so suggested he had been ready and waiting to draw. Why would he assume Chris would react aggressively? Why anticipate the need to defend himself? Chris had once told Ezra that he would shoot him if he ever ran out, but that threat had had been made to pin down a liability, not a friend. Still, Chris had to wonder if Ezra actually knew that, wonder if he knew things had changed. "Don't be gone long, we're short-handed as it is."

Tanner nodded and left.

*******

JD and Buck stood by Vin's horse, waiting for his owner. As he walked out of the saloon, Buck called out to Vin "I hear you're gonna track Ezra."

Vin nodded, waiting for the question... why? The first question all the others had asked. But Buck did not ask, he merely nodded back.

"Good," said JD. Finally, someone was going to do something about this stupidity. Someone was going to go get Ezra back and things would return to normal.

Vin smiled his crooked smile. These two judged Ezra only by what they knew of him. They knew him to be a gambler who won more often than pure chance and skill would allow, but also a man whose quick wit and trigger had been more than useful to the group. More importantly, they knew Ezra as a friend; one who would risk almost anything for the good of the whole. They really didn't care how the man had left, they just wanted him back.

"I don't know if I can get him to come back with me. You know how he is," Vin cautioned.

"I know," replied JD, "but at least you're trying."

Vin mounted his horse and looked to the east, the direction the gambler had taken. Ezra had up to four hours head start, but Vin hoped he could make up much of that distance in the hours of daylight he had left. "At least I'm trying," Vin agreed.

*******

Ezra rode out of Four Corners with an overwhelming sense of regret. Not only had he been forced to abandon the only place he had ever considered a home, in doing so he had alienated his only friends. While the gambler hoped to return, he did not count on it. Ezra shook his head. You had to live with the consequences of your actions and, in this case, he was paying for a sin committed more than ten years ago.

As a boy in Saint Louis, Ezra Standish had lived many lives. Thanks to his mother's habit of off-loading him on disinterested relatives, he had run wild, associating with all kinds of less than savoury types. He had met Jimmy Stiles when he was fourteen. Jimmy was a small-time criminal with big-time ambitions. Ezra knew better than to trust him. He had given Jimmy a false name, Nicholas Hewitt, but had gotten to know the older man because he presented a path by which Ezra could make a name for himself. There was money to be made in theft and intimidation and, to this young Ezra, that did not sound so bad.

Ezra had been hungry for independence. He had learnt early that if you relied on others, they would be able to hurt you. Ezra's mother had taught him to play poker and con people, but his youth had limited his success in these fields. He needed money now and Jimmy had an idea to rob a bank. It was a small establishment, in a town just outside the city. Jimmy had guns and two other men to help with the job. They would enter the bank at the end of the day, when the safe was full and the customers gone, and take the money. Then they would disappear back into Saint Louis, never to be seen again.

That is how it began, anyway. Ezra had walked into the bank, checking that is was empty, then signalled to the others to follow. Jimmy held a gun on the hapless teller, screaming at him to open the safe, which he did. The other two then collected the money, while Ezra watched the door and Jimmy covered the teller. They were about to depart, all was well, when the teller foolishly made a lunge for Jimmy's gun. The criminal evaded his prisoner easily, knocking him to the floor with a vicious blow, but, out of pure spite, took things one step further. The teller died before Ezra's eyes, the result of a bullet to the head.

Ezra had never forgotten that day. He gave up outright crime for slight of hand and moderate dishonesty. The shock when Jimmy Stiles had walked into the Four Corners saloon and recognised his old friend Nick was, as one might imagine, immense.

*******

Vin followed Ezra's trail as far as he could, before the light failed him. He set up camp, fixing something to eat, and fell into a light, but peaceful sleep. He did not think this a dangerous task. Who was he following, anyway? Certainly no vicious criminal, just Ezra. By the end of the next day, he would have found his friend and had it out with him. If nothing else, the gambler would know how the others felt about his sudden departure and, if things went well, they would both be back in Four Corners before the next dusk.

He set off again at first light, following Ezra's unconcealed trial at a speed twice that at which it was formed. He caught up with the Southerner within hours. Ezra was none too happy to see him.

"Mr. Tanner, please tell me I am mistaken in the belief that you are tracking me."

"No, that's what I'm doing."

"And, prey tell, what has precipitated this presumption on your part?"

Vin was unsure how to answer this. He shrugged. "You left awful quick."

"Perhaps I have somewhere to go. Now, if you will excuse me, Mr. Tanner, I must be on my way. Time waits for no man."

Vin ignored this, bringing his horse level with Ezra's. "What I don't get is why you told Chris. I mean, if you don't care what we think anyway, why not just leave a note?"

Ezra scowled. "Maybe my motive for informing you in person, Mr. Tanner, was the vain hope that you would accept my decision and not attempt to intervene. In short, so I would not be followed."

Vin hadn't thought of that. Ezra had been looking at Chris the whole time, but he had chosen to make his exit when all of them were present. This was not just about Larabee. "Okay, so why leave at all?"

"That, Sir, is none of your concern. However, if you insist on an explanation, you must be content with this; a man of my profession and talent will occasionally find himself encumbered with some less than amiable acquaintances. After a time, enough of these acquaintances accumulate to make his continued habitation of a single address somewhat ill advised. It becomes clear he must move on."

Vin nodded. "So that's it?"

"It is."

Vin halted his horse and watched after his friend. Ezra continued on his way, not looking back.

*******

Ezra had wanted to tell Vin everything, but didn't. The fewer people who knew about his plan the better it's chances of success. He concealed his intentions for Vin's own good.

Ezra first noticed Jimmy a few days ago in the saloon. Jimmy had watched him at the poker table for over an hour. Ezra was aware of his presence, but was unsure if he would be recognised. Ezra, himself, had known Jimmy the moment he had entered the saloon. How could he have forgotten?

When Jimmy had finally gone, Ezra left the saloon, with the intention of informing Chris of the dangerous new arrival in town. Jimmy had waited for him in the alley beside the saloon and cornered him the moment he walked out.

"Nick! Nick, old friend, didn't expect to see you out here."

Ezra forced a smile. "Jimmy. I thought it was you. What are you doing so far from Saint Louis?"

"A new scam, one which promises big money. You're in luck - one of my gang got picked up and I've been looking for another man."

Ezra groaned inwardly. If Jimmy was part of some gang, arresting him here and now would not prevent whatever trouble they intended. Ezra was in a unique position to gather the details his own group would require to stop them. Still, he would have liked to have thrown Jimmy straight into the gaol and left JD to sort him out.

"What kind of scam? Nothing that will get me hung, I hope."

"That's what's so great. It's not illegal at all. Word has gone through the city of a man offering big money for a murder."

Ezra held his breath. "How is that not illegal?" He already knew the answer.

"The one were supposed to hit is wanted by the law, dead or alive, but the bounty we're after is from some other buyer. Pays better than the law."

This employer must be offering a fortune to bring Jimmy so far. "Does this dead man have a name?"

"Sure," Stiles said, trying to remember, "Tanner, I think. Yeah, that's right, Tanner."

*******

Vin rode back into town that afternoon, alone. JD had expected this, but, still, he had hoped otherwise. The six remaining gunmen gathered together in the saloon, as they had the previous morning, but now the contented companionship was gone.

"I can't believe you pulled a gun on him, Chris." Buck dared to say what the others had merely thought.

Chris shut his eyes. "I know, but I didn't think."

"Not that it matters, anyway," Vin added, "he'd already made his mind up."

They sat for a moment, considering this. The explanation Ezra had offered Vin fit with the gambler's lifestyle, but somehow did not fit the gambler. No one Ezra had played in Four Corners would dare retaliate for their loss, let alone those who suspected they had been cheated. Oh well, what's done is done, Ezra was gone and the six of them still had a town to protect.

"You heard any more on those gunmen headed this way?" Chris asked the young sheriff, changing the subject.

JD shook his head. "Nothing. I thought they'd be here be now."

Vin, who had not heard about this new threat, spoke up. "Gunmen?"

"Yeah. Four of them to start with, but one of them got caught on a bank job a few towns back, so now there are three. They came from the east, but they've been heading this way like they're after something. Bad news, if you believe the stories."

*******

Ezra met up with Jimmy and his two companions that afternoon. He did not like the look of them, but knew that if he wanted to find out who was behind the new bounty on Vin's head he would have to put up with them.

Jimmy saw him approach. "Nick, Nicky, come meet my pals. This is Jack, he's the best sharpshooter in North America," Ezra shook the hand of a small, wrinkled, dark haired man of about fifty. Jack peered back through a long, greasy fringe of hair and grunted hello. "This here is Will. He's the one who found out about this little enterprise," the one who can lead me to the money Ezra thought, as he grasped the smooth hand of the tall fair haired man before him.

Will got right down to business. "So what do you know about Vin Tanner?"

"Only what I've heard," Ezra lied, "Mr. Tanner is one of a group of seven men, hired mercenaries who protect Four Corners. Only six are in town at the moment, but they will be no minor obstacle."

"We can take 'em," sneered Jack, "after all, we have the element of surprise."

Ezra nodded. These men were arrogant and had no idea of what they faced, but might easily have taken Vin out before they were even detected.

The plan was simple. Sharpshooter Jack would hide amongst a rocky outcrop a few miles outside of town. The others would head for Four Corners and rob the bank, attracting the attention of the six peacekeepers. They would then ride toward the outcrop, where Jack would take Vin out. Will would ride on, while Jack, Jimmy and Ezra provided cover, then double back for the trophy. From then on, it was every man for himself.

"What about the money?" Ezra asked.

"As soon as you get rid of the remaining five, we meet up here with Tanner's corpse," Ezra's poker face was tested by Will's cool reference to his friend, "we'll go back to Saint Louis, collect the money and split it between whoever's left."

"What if you are amongst those who do not make it? What good is any of this if we cannot contact our employer?"

"What are you suggesting?"

"Only that you share the name and contact details of the esteemed individual with the rest of the group. We cannot collect our commission without them."

Will looked at Ezra, suspicious. "I guess it's in your best interests to see I make it, then, isn't it?"

End of discussion.

*******

Will and Jack rode into Four Corners the following morning. They entered the saloon in the hopes of getting a look at their opponents and singling out Vin for attack. Will identified him easily from his employer's description; young man, brown hair, slender build, around six foot. His companions helped to mark him. While not all of them appeared dangerous, they had that restlessness about them which marked men of action. This accomplished, Will and Jack returned to camp with a renewed confidence.

*******

Ezra tried all day to find out who was funding this little hunting party. He tried to get information form Jimmy while the others were in town, but it soon became clear Jimmy was as much in the dark as he. When the others returned, Ezra began asking oblique questions, trying for some clue. He knew his curiosity would not go unnoticed, but the time of the robbery was approaching and so his time was running out.

Will, Jimmy and Ezra approached Four Corners a few hours before dusk. They split up as they neared the town, each entering from different directions, so as not to attract attention prematurely. Ezra was the first to enter the bank. The teller looked up and smiled, as he recognised this relatively wealthy townsman.

"There is no time to explain myself, so I must simply request that you co-operate with the following events," instructed Ezra.

The teller appeared confused, until Ezra's two companions entered the bank, pistols drawn. Ezra guarded the door, watching the street for any sign of trouble. While he hoped his fellow peacekeepers would appear and subdue the gang before they reached the outcrop, he did not want it to happen while they were still in the bank. Jimmy had the teller pinned down in the corner, his gun aimed directly between the terrified man's eyes, while Will emptied the safe.

"Done," said Will, emerging from the safe, "any sign of Tanner?"

Ezra shook his head. "It seems our criminal act has gone somewhat too well," he observed, "but, rest assured, the moment we leave this gentleman will inform them of out activities."

Will shook his head. "We have to be sure they follow us and now. We have to get their attention."

"No problem," snarled Jimmy, his gaze fixed on the teller, "a gun shot should do it."

Ezra turned on his accomplice in horror. Jimmy tensed his arm and cocked his pistol. A gun shot rang out through the town. But the teller was not dead, Jimmy was. Ezra had acted on instinct. He had no intention of letting another innocent man be killed, so he struck out, not considering the consequences. The consequences were, of course, alerting Will of his true allegiances. Jimmy's body had no sooner hit the floor than Ezra felt a burning pain strike his body, propelling him forward, into the counter. As darkness settled over his world, Ezra remembered the sharpshooter waiting for Vin. Damn.

*******

JD was in the gaol when he heard the gun shots. The first two were close together, almost at the same time, while the third was a few moments later. He raced out into the street, as Nathan appeared from his surgery and Chris, Vin and Buck from the saloon. Josiah called from further down the street, "the bank!"

They reached the bank just in time to see a lone gunman ride away. Nathan entered the building, all but falling over his friend's lifeless body. "Oh, Jesus, it's Ezra."

Chris breathed in, his anger building like a dammed river. "Nathan, Josiah, you deal with this. The rest of you with me." With that, Chris, Buck, JD and Vin rode out after the bandit, towards the rocky outcrop.

*******

Will wasn't sure if he should be happy or furious. He knew that Nick was trouble. The slick appearance, the endless questions. Now Will was sure; Nick was the seventh peacekeeper. Oh well, that's two less associates with whom to split the bounty. It was also two less gunmen to provide him with cover, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Jack was a very good sniper.

As he approached the rocks, Will turned in his saddle to get a quick look at his pursuers. There were only four of them. Apparently in death Hewitt had taken care of two of the peacekeepers, anyway. Will was pleased to see Tanner amongst the group, hat off, hair streaming behind him. Things were going very well.

*******

Nathan bent over his former associate, not even daring to breathe. Ezra lay face down on the floor, a bullet hole in his back and a large pool of his blood forming beneath him. This was very bad. Nathan checked for a pulse and was surprised to find one.

Josiah heard a moan from behind the counter. The teller sat against the wall, a neat bullet hole in his left shoulder. Will had shot him from the other side of the counter before riding off, but did not have time to make sure of the outcome. An armed man lay dead a few feet away from him.

"They were talking," the teller moaned, "they were talking about Tanner." With that the bank teller passed out from the pain. Josiah looked at him, concerned by this information, but unable to use it. The preacher went about wrapping the wound, hoping his friend would be alright.

Nathan turned Ezra over, carefully. What he found was confusing. From the position of the bullet in Ezra's back, he would have expected to find an exit wound in his chest, directly above his heart. But no exit wound was there and Ezra's pulse was actually quite strong. The blood Ezra lay in came from his mouth.

Josiah was astonished to hear a deep, hearty laugh come from the healer. "What's so funny?" he queried, almost annoyed.

"The bullet's lodged in his rib, it barely touched him at all," Nathan was dizzy with relief. He was surprised how much he had missed the cocky gambler.

"But the blood...?"

"He bit his tongue. The Son-of-a-bitch hit his head on the counter and bit his Goddamned tongue!"

Josiah roared with laughter. Ezra was home.

*******

Chris lead the charge after the man who had murdered his friend. The man would pay. Vin followed close on his heels, but could not be so single minded. What had Ezra been doing in the bank? Why would he leave Four Corners, only to reappear at the scene of a robbery? Something told the tracker there was trouble ahead.

It was JD who saw the glint of metal by the rocks. At first, the young man did not know what to make of it, but realisation came in a flood. "It's a set-up, an ambush," he yelled to his friends, "sniper in the rocks!"

Chris did not hear him, but the others did. Vin and Buck searched the rocks for the sniper, soon seeing what they had missed, but JD had not. Vin brought his horse up next to Chris' and yelled at him, "sniper!" then came to a halt. He took out his rifle and took aim at the distant glint of light.

Chris and the others slowed their pursuit, but did not stop. Jack saw them come into view, but hesitated when he did not see Tanner with them. He didn't want to reveal his position before he had taken down his primary target. He leaned forward, trying to get a better view. Vin saw his shot and took it. The best sharpshooter in North America was taken out by a better one.

*******

Chris continued after the last remaining bandit, finally cornering him in a blind canyon. Will had taken cover behind one of the many boulders, but Chris knew he was there, somewhere. This man would not escape.

"You have two choices," he began, "you can either give yourself up and be arrested, tried and hung for the murder of the lawman Ezra Standish, or you can try and run, in which case I will hunt you down like a dog."

...you will have to shoot me in the back... Those were the last words Ezra would ever say to Chris. Things had gone badly and now there was no way of making amends. The man who had shot Ezra would pay. Buck and JD understood this. To a lesser extent they felt the same way. They remained silent as their leader dealt with the criminal.

Will did not like his options. He had seen men hung and it was not pretty. He liked the idea of being hunted down by this man even less. He could hear the fury in the peacekeeper's voice. Somehow, he doubted he would live to see another day. Will sighed over his almost perfect plan. Were it not for Nick Hewitt, Ezra Standish, whatever his name was, everything would have worked out. The illicit bounty hunter leant his head against the boulder he hid behind and drew his gun.

A single shot rang throughout the canyon.

"Coward," Chris cursed him and went to look for the bank robber's remains.

*******

Chris and the others were astonished to learn Ezra was all right. From what they of him in the bank, they were sure he was a gonner. However, you can't go looking a gift horse in the mouth, so they just accepted their good fortune and went to the saloon for a drink.

Ezra awoke in Nathan's clinic. His head ached, his back ached and the pain in his tongue was unbelievable, but, other than that, he was fine. Then a thought hit him. "Vin...?" His words were barely comprehensible through his swollen tongue.

Nathan, who was sitting in the corner, watching over his charges, raised an eyebrow. "He's fine. Everyone's fine, even him."

The bank teller lay in the bed beside Ezra's, enveloped in an exhausted sleep. Excitement could do that to a man, especially if he weren't used to it. Nathan was pleased to have such a co-operative patient.

Ezra began to get up, his head spinning and nausea rising in his throat. "They were after Vin. Someone was paying them..." Ezra's headache intensified.

Nathan frowned. "Well, they didn't succeed. Chris hauled in the last of them an hour ago, dead as dead. Now, lie back down, before I make you."

Ezra ignored the threat. "Who was behind it? Who held the money?"

Nathan shook his head. "We didn't even know there was any money."

The Southerner rested his head in his hands. All that, for nothing.

THE END

On to: Revisited

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