DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction.  No profit involved. Who in their right mind would pay me anyway?   It is 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.
RATING: PG-13 for Language and Violence
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Chris and Everyone.
SUMMARY: Ezra and the others have a fairly straightforward plan, but nothing is every as easy as you think it’ll be.
SPOILERS: Small spoilers for Vendetta, Lady Killers and Safecracker
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Kristen supplied the name of Ezra's horse, I borrowed others from Eleanor Tremayne Esquire. Thank you Debby Gerl for your help and assurances. I probably would have ditched this one without you.
FEEDBACK: Yes, please! Drop me a note
DATE: October 20, 2001

So Simple
By NotTasha... who’s about as simple as a stack of tires.

Part 1:

"Did you hear me?"

"You were more than clear. Clear as glass."

"Then, why the hell are you still here?"

"Attempting to leave, sir. If you'll allow me to mount, I'll be on my way."  The horse stood still as the man easily climbed into the saddle; its head was down and its brown eyes kept watch on the other man.  The rider took his time as if there was no trouble to concern him.  A crowd had begun to build.  People stopped on the street, or exited their businesses and stood on the boardwalk.  They gaped at the proceedings.

“It's hard enough keeping this place safe from the garbage I can see. I don't need you stabbin' me in the back."

"You can rest assured, sir, that I'll trouble you no longer.  This town has done little to improve my financial status.  It’s time that I departed to more favorable conditions.”  The gambler settled in the saddle and stared down at the man in black.

Larabee glared fiercely as he chewed at his cheroot.  "You've run your last con against decent folk. You've stolen your last dollar."

Standish snorted.  "Stolen?  There’s nothing of worth to take.  I’m certainly not paid a valid salary for my time. A dollar a day hardly covers the cost of my handkerchiefs."

"You’ve never been worth any damn dollar.  Hell, I wouldn't give two-bits for you."  Larabee slashed his hand for emphasis.  The horse flattening its ears and his rider sat stiffly.

Larabee stepped forward. “I should have known you would turn tail and run.  You would've given up this town to save yourself."

"You're right; I look out for myself," the gambler stated, turning his horse around in a tight circle to draw him a short distance from the gunslinger.  He regarded the crowd as he was spun about, as the horse minced its feet.  The stage was about to leave town, and the passengers stood waiting, watching the show, smiling in amusement. Townspeople looked on with various expressions of shock, dismay, disgust, and vindication.  He spotted the other men whom he worked with.  Josiah and Nathan were near the church.  The preacher was gazing away, unable to even look at him.  Nathan glared daggers, as he clutched a literal one in his hand. Vin was outside the hardware store, watching and waiting for the outcome of the encounter, grasping his rifle. Buck and JD stood behind Larabee, just outside the jail.  Both had their guns ready, displaying them as talismans against the gambler.

Standish gestured. "As you can plainly see, I'm the only one who will watch out for me. They'll all back you without question. They'll shoot me down if I were to make one movement toward you. There's no one to back me -- not here and now, not then. You'd just as soon I died out there."

Larabee pulled the mangled cheroot from his mouth and spat out, "At least you might have died for somethin'.  When I gave the order, I expected it to be followed.  I didn’t expect you to come back here and start up a god-damn game!"

Ezra spread his arms in exasperation.  "I could’ve been killed.  You sent us to surround the outlaws, but Mr. Tanner was assigned a protected route.  I was sent into the open.  Those rustlers were as good as caught, in any case.  Sending me in as fodder for their guns seemed unhealthy from my perspective.  You managed to kill them all quite neatly without my help.  You didn't need me.  You have never needed me for anything.  I know where the best profit lies. I'm not a fool, Mr. Larabee."

"Money is the only thing you give a damn about.  You'd sell your mother for a dollar.  You'd give up your soul for less.  I doubt you even have one anymore."

Ezra smiled thinly.  "I suspect not," he returned.  "If it were possible to make a profit from such an insubstantial thing, you'd rest assured that I'd have tried it.  But who would buy?"

"Get out of here, Standish.  You're useless.  I can't stand the sight of you anymore."

"I shall long rue the day I ever set sight on this paltry excuse for a backwater…"

"Goddamn it, Standish, are you deaf?"  Larabee's voice rose as he strode forward  "I don't give a damn what you think.  Get out of this town and never show your worthless face here again!"

Standish took his horse several safe paces from Larabee.  "Your wish shall be granted," Ezra said with a curt nod.  "I’m no longer a friend to this town.  I shall go."  Their eyes met, narrowed and intense.  They stared wordlessly for a moment and Standish looked away.  With a flick of the reins, he brought Chaucer to a jog, heading out of town.  He glanced at the faces of the people he passed, noting the amused, hateful, annoyed, frightened, saddened expressions.

Mr. Conklin shouted as he passed, "That's right!  Get the hell out of here!  We don't want your type in this good town!"

A young man threw something at Standish, missing his hat by a few inches.  Ezra ducked his head into his collar.

Tanner was the last man Ezra paid attention to.  The tracker’s face was still, his mouth set in a straight line.  Their eyes met for a few seconds, before Ezra turned and faced the open land.

Standish brought his horse to a stop not far from the tracker and turned in his saddle.  "You'll regret this Larabee, if you live that long."  The young hooligan picked up another clod of dirt.  This one struck Standish in the shoulder.  Ezra didn't look at him, as the clod disintegrated and discolored his jacket.  He brought his heels sharply against the horse's belly.  It snorted in surprise and then took off at a gallop.

Larabee dashed his destroyed cheroot to the ground, turned on his heel and immediately entered the jail, closely followed by Buck and JD.  Nathan and Josiah headed their way immediately.

Part 2:

A loud murmur arose in the street  -- several people were laughing, a few were exchanging money, others stood in frightened and bewildered silence.  The passengers finally boarded the stage, shaking their heads and speaking in low voices.  The vehicle started out of town, following the same general path that the departing gambler had chosen.

Vin remained on the boardwalk, watching until Ezra disappeared from sight, listening remotely to the voices around him.

"Should'a kicked that gambler out of here months ago.  I knew it was trouble havin' that con man pretending to be a peacekeeper."

"We need some decent lawmen in here.  This just proves that what we got ain't any better than outlaws."

"Good for you, Tanner.  Keep an eye out.  Make sure he don’t turn around and come back.  Shoot him if he turns around."

"I never would've believed it. How could that happen?"

"But, I thought… I thought he was a good man…"

"Poor Mr. Standish."

"Damn that Standish!"

"It wasn't fair."

"That wasn't right."

"Will he come back?"

“Doubt it.  Would you?”

“He promised me he'd show me some tricks… he promised…”

"Ah gee, I'm gonna miss that guy."

"Mama, why was Mr. Larabee so mad at Ezra?"

"I don't know, honey.  Let's go home.  I really need to get home."

Conklin was crowing with glee at the day's outcome.  Mrs. Potter had shooed her children inside her store at the start of the conflict.  She returned to the street and was looking about miserably, worriedly.  She seemed as if she wanted to say something to Tanner, but couldn't bring herself to move.  Mary stood at the doorway to the Clarion, wiping her hands on a cloth, looking at Vin in astonishment.  She seemed to know better than to interrupt immediately.  That would come in time.  Inez glared and made a movement toward him, but Mary halted her progress.

Vin's eyes were on the departing horseman.  Standish never slowed and, very soon, he became tiny in the open land  -- just a colored spot in the bleak country.  From time to time the traveling stage would obscure Tanner’s view and Ezra would disappear prematurely.  It was if the benign transport were chasing him down.  But as the vehicle wended its way, the gambler would become visible, if only momentarily, until the stage obliterated the view again.

Finally, once Ezra had completely disappeared from sight, Tanner left his position and sauntered slowly down the street.  The townspeople watched him in a strange form of awe, but nobody spoke a word to him.  He made his way to the jail and pushed open the door.

The room was dim.  The shades had been drawn and the men who occupied the room were somber.  Vin shut the door behind him and locked it.

"Is he gone?"  Nathan asked without raising his head.

"Yup," Vin replied.

"Good," Nathan responded softly, nodding to himself.  "Good."

“Any problems?” Josiah asked.

“Nope,” Vin said with a shrug.

"They get a good eyeful?"  Buck added.

"Seen and heard plenty, that's for sure," Vin replied.

"They sure seemed interested.  Creel and Ludlow got off the stage and everything to hear it all," JD stated, his eyes bright with excitement.  He moved about nervously in the cramped room.  "It sure was a show!  Think they believed it?"

Vin nodded.  "Seemed to."

"Is he's gonna be all right?"  Josiah put in, looking worriedly to the tracker.

Vin shrugged again.  "You know Ezra."

They nodded and muttered in the dim jailhouse.

Vin looked toward Chris who stood in the shadows, leaning against the filing cabinets.  Tanner moved across the room and came to rest beside his friend.  Larabee's eyes were focused on the shaded window, following the hidden path that the gambler had taken.

"He'll be okay," Vin said quietly.  "It'll work out."

"Damn well better," Larabee muttered.

Maxwell Creel had a gang that operated from somewhere outside Ridge City.  He had never been arrested -- or at least never convicted -- but he was suspected of being the brains behind several violent robberies in the area.  There seemed to be a malicious glee in those robberies, those murders.  Rumors were flying that Creel was planning to hit the bank in Four Corners next.  He wanted to try the lawmen of that town -- the legend that surrounded the seven men had intrigued him  -- the supposed richness of the bank sealed the deal.

The peacekeepers of Four Corners had to get a man close to Creel, to clarify the information they'd been receiving.  It was decided that Ezra would be the best man for the job, what with his abilities to blend in with any company.  When they received word that Creel would be traveling by stage through their town, they started coming up with ideas and finally settled on a plan.  Creel knew Standish was one of the lawmen -- that tie had to be severed if their idea was to work.

As the lawmen were planning what to do about the situation, a group of rustlers made their ill-fated visit to the area.  It couldn't have come at a more opportune time for the peacekeepers.  Chris and the others had attempted to bring the rustlers back alive, but it was not to be.  There was a stupid streak in those would-be outlaws.  They died despite the fact that the lawmen offered them their lives for their surrender.   The seven men, in a coordinated effort, took down the rustlers.

Out in the middle of nowhere, with no witnesses outside of the buzzards, the lawmen could reinvent the proceedings.  A story was decided  -- the events changed for the benefit of their ruse.  Ezra returned to town first; the others followed a few hours later with the bodies and started spinning tales  -- Standish had run out on them, again  -- Standish had left them high and dry and open to attack – Standish had almost gotten them all killed.

Ezra would be thrown out on his coat tails, in plain view of Creel and his men.  From that point, he would have to work his way into Creel's good graces. He would live with the gang and deliver information via coded telegrams to the town.  Creel and his men would be stopped before the gang ever reached Four Corners.  No one would get hurt.  The town would be kept safe.And then Ezra would come back.

It would be so simple.

"He'll be okay," Vin reiterated.

"Yeah," Buck confirmed.  "He's got more tricks than a coyote.  Don't need to worry about Ezra."

"You're right, brother," Josiah said with a small smile.  "I'm certain that Ezra will come out of this smelling like a rose."

Nathan snorted and grinned.  "Probably will manage to make a profit, too."

"That'll make him happy," JD joined in.

But Chris continued to stare at the closed shade.  Out beyond that window, a man rode alone  -- just Ezra – riding into who-knows-what.

"Whoo-nelly," Buck uttered with a chuckle.  "You sure let loose some powerful words, Chris.  I bet there ain't a person in town who doubts what you said."  Buck nodded and Chris dropped his gaze for a moment.  "Ya did a good job at that.  Ezra'll have no trouble gettin' in with Creel now."

"Should have done it differently," Chris muttered.

"He's a big boy," Buck responded, understanding what Chris was getting at.  "He knows it's all part of the game."

"It needed to be done," Josiah rumbled softly.  "We had to make it obvious to Mr. Creel that Ezra was an enemy of this town."

"Yeah," JD said with a quick nod.  "Creel will be beggin' Ez to join up with him, just to get at all the stuff he knows about Four Corners."

Chris rubbed the corners of his mouth.  Those indifferent green eyes had met his, and Chris had seen it… under the coolness, beneath the callous demeanor, he had struck a nerve and mangled it.  He had taken every fear and uncertainly that the con man harbored, and brought it forward in crystal clarity.

There should have been another way to do this.

Chris turned to each of his remaining men, seeing various forms of conviction.  They were ready for this fight, even if most of it was to be fought without them.  Finally, he met Vin's eyes and realized that the tracker had seen it, too.  When Vin said, "He'll be okay," for the third time, Larabee knew that Tanner was saying it to convince himself, not just Larabee.

"I'm sure he's heard most of it before," Nathan said with a shrug.  "It's not as if you said anything new to him."

Larabee looked sharply at the healer and couldn't find words to say.

"I mean," Nathan tried, seeing the accusation in Chris' glare, "He's run a con or two.  He knows how to play a part."

"He'll be back soon," Buck added.  "You'll see.  He'll let us know what Creel is up to and he'll give us the warning we need.  We’ll get that bastard locked up without anyone gettin’ hurt.”

Chris returned his gaze to the shaded window.

"He'll be back in no time at all," Buck stated.

It was two months before they saw Ezra Standish again.

Part 3:

Creel was a cautious man.  Yes, he was a criminal, capable of great violence, but he was cautious as well.  His earlier strikes (or rather -- alleged strikes) on nearby towns were carried out with precise planning.  He was also a heartless man.  He killed without regard – not sparing the innocent.  There seemed to be an unnecessary viciousness in the evidence left behind, as if Creel enjoyed the killings, but that was just conjecture.

The problem was there was no proof.  He hid himself too well, killed too many and left no witnesses.  Local peacekeepers had been unable to locate his hideout.  He appeared when he wanted to and brought nothing more than suspicious conjecture about him.  Suspicion doesn't put one behind bars.

Ezra was admonished to be careful – don’t rock the boat  – maintain a low profile.  These were dangerous me who had killed before and would kill again.  “I mean it, Ezra,” Chris had said in a low growl.  “Don’t cause any trouble.  Too much rides on this.”  Ezra had saluted him, which was as close as Larabee could come to receiving an agreement from the southerner.

The evening following Ezra's dismissal, he sent a telegram from Ridge City to cancel his subscription to the Clarion -- that was his notice of safe arrival in town. The peacekeepers had ordered Mr. Juje, the telegraph operator in Four Corners, to turn over any correspondence received from Standish.  The man was cowed and easily complied.  They'd have no problems from him.  The telegraph operators in Ridge City were another story altogether.  They were a mangy lot without confidentially or well-defined morals.  It was suspected that they often passed information to Creel and it would be dangerous to use their services -- dangerous unless the messages went out cloaked in code.

After nearly a week in residence, Ezra broke his lease with the livery.  This telegram was notice that nothing had happened yet -- that all was going as planned and he was simply waiting.  The messages were noted by the lawmen, and then handed off to whom they were addressed. The subscription was cancelled; the lease was broken.  The stall in the back corner was quickly snatched up by the lawmen, who utilized it to store their tack.

Then, ten days after he had ridden out of town, Standish sent word that the contents of his room were to be boxed up and shipped to Ridge City.  He was giving up the room. Contact had been made -- Standish was now employed by Creel.  There was a small celebration in the Four Corners jail.  Buck rented the emptied room, as well as his own, saying that he sometimes needed to juggle his visitors.

Four days later, the livery received another message from Standish, asking that his tack box be sent. The men looked for certain words and counted certain letters.  They now knew the general location of Creel's camp.  They were told it was too risky to attempt an attack there -- Creel was too well settled, the place too well guarded.  They should sit-tight and wait for a better opportunity.  They should wait until Creel was in their territory, where they'd have the advantage.  Creel was biding his time and no attack date had been decided yet.

There was no correspondence for some time after that.  They waited.

Twelve days after the last message, Standish sent a wire to Mrs. Potter, asking for the name of the tea that she had special ordered for him, and requesting the address where he should send his future requests. The note stated, in its oblique fashion, that Creel and the others were leaving the vicinity and would return in a week or so.  Standish would contact them again when he could.  The trip was apparently to sell some goods and the attack on Four Corners was planned for their return.

Mrs. Potter returned the message promptly, with the information he requested and a note concerning her dissatisfaction with the way the town was being run.  She was a fine and understanding woman who always had a soft spot for the well-mannered southerner, but she didn't have a way with words.  The message sounded like a scolding instead of consolation once it was written out for transmission.

It was quiet again after that.

Thus, the first month passed.

Another ten days went by before the next telegram arrived.  The latest message was again addressed to his former landlady, Mrs. Tull, inquiring about some items that were missing from the boxes that had finally arrived in Ridge City.  It often took an inordinate amount of time for large packages to travel that distance.  Ezra let them know that the attack was planned the following week.  There would be fourteen men involved.  It would be dangerous. The men were ruthless and not above murdering innocent citizens. Word would be sent once the day was set.  "Be careful," was spelled out using the first letters of the last sentence of the note.

Mrs. Tull sent back a curt note, telling Mr. Standish that she had taken nothing outside of what she felt was owed.  The lawmen retrieved several items from Mrs. Tull and stored them away as evidence.

A terse note arrived eight days later, addressed to Larabee.  The obvious content was concerned with certain slanderous statements that Standish had heard in Ridge City.  Beneath the indignant words was the caution that the attack had been delayed.  A large payroll was due to hit the bank and Creel was determined to wait.

Six days later another admonishing message was received, again to Larabee.  The gang had increased to twenty; they would arrive in five days.  They would come from the north, would stop at Nelson's Pond.  They were planning to arrive in town in that evening, after the payroll had arrived but before it was shelled out the next day.   They'd dynamite the vault, the bank, and anything that got in the way.  They weren't to let it get that far -- Larabee and the others should ambush them at Nelson's Pond.  "Until Then" was spelt out this time.

It was a long two months.

Part 4:

Ezra made his way through the main street of Ridge City.  The town was rather quiet; the next train wasn’t expected until tomorrow and the train town had emptied.  The quiet was appreciated and the gambler figured that several of the better hotels once again had vacancies.  He toyed with the idea of moving into one of them, never really considering it.  No, he had to get back to Creel’s camp, back to a cold bedroll and terrible food, back to the scrutiny of Red-Eye and the distrust of all.

As he walked through the town, he realized that he’d sent his last telegram from this place.  There would be no further delays.  There’d be no need to alert Larabee again.  Creel was anxious to get to that money and didn’t want to wait any longer.    Standish sighed, wanting the same thing.

He couldn’t quite explain his emotions.  He was confident.  He realized that his warnings would bring the others, that they would be waiting exactly where he asked.  The lawmen of Four Corners had the upper hand, even though they were outnumbered.  They would be successful.

But still, he worried.  What if JD or Nathan or Buck were hurt during the operation?  What if Vin or Josiah or Chris were injured? What if they all failed and left the town open for attack.  He shook his head as he walked.  No, that wouldn’t happen.  They would succeed.  Failure was out of the question.

He paused when he reached the end of the block and leaned against the dry good store.  Red-Eye Ludlow would be somewhere nearby.  The big overman was gathering supplies and would probably be done by now. The gambler exhaled slowly, not looking forward to meeting up with “Red-Eye” or to the ride back to camp, helping to protect the goods. Ludlow was a most… disagreeable man.

Red-Eye, apparently, had decided to make life as unbearable as possible for Standish.  He had been a witness of the gambler's public shaming, and never missed an opportunity to remind him that he was not to be trusted, that he was tossed out on his ass, that he was not worth anything.

Resting heavily against the building, Standish felt a weariness grasp him.  He wasn’t used to sleeping out of doors for so long a time at a stretch – but it wasn’t just that which robbed him of his sleep.  Constantly on the watch, he’d felt too stressed to sleep or eat much of anything.  Ludlow seemed to delight in finding fault in everything he did and was always ready to find some new flaw to worry.  The constant barrage of animosity was taking a toll on the gambler.

Tugging at his jacket, he realized it was now an ill-fit.  He contemplated visiting a local tailor to resize the fine garment, but discarded that idea.  Usually, he’d be concerned about looking his best – appearances are everything -- but, recently, he had fallen into a mire of despondency.  He just didn’t care one way or another.  Right now, the only thing he wished for was that this thing would end, that Creel and Red-Eye and all his men were behind bars.

The stories he had heard around the campfire sickened him.  How could these men eat while discussing the horrible deaths of innocents?  They had killed and would kill again.  They had discussed it all in vivid and excited detail.  No wonder he’d had no appetite, no wonder he was growing thinner.  He pressed his head against the building and closed his eyes.  No wonder he was tired.

“Standish!”  A voice sounded near him.  Ezra sighed and opened his eyes.  He really didn’t need this right now.  “Standish?  You haven’t gone yet?”

Ezra straightened, pulling his jacket into shape and facing the approaching man.  “Mr. Conklin,” he greeted graciously.  “How good to see you again.  It's been nearly a week since our last encounter near this spot.”

The man, a long-term resident of Four Corners, stalked up to him.  “I thought I told you last time I saw you, we don’t want you here.”

Ezra smiled.  “But, sir, I’m nowhere near your fair town.   What harm could I possibly be doin’?”

“Plotting, scheming, planning,” Conklin replied.  He narrowed his beady eyes and stated, “I know you're staying nearby so you can cause trouble.  I know your type, Standish.  You want revenge on that Larabee.  You want to take him down.”  He stepped closer to Standish and the gambler rolled his eyes, wanting to be away from this man.  “I may not look like much, but I’ll keep you from my home with ounce of strength in my body,” Conklin said in a low voice.

“I don’t doubt you, but I have no time for discussion.”  The way he was feeling right now, Standish figured that Conklin might be right about who the victor would be.  “I have someone I must meet.  Now, if you’ll excuse me.”  It would do no good to be seen with someone from Four Corners.  He'd have to leave Conklin behind before Ludlow caught up with him.

“It's Creel that you're meeting, isn't it?  Or one of his men?”  Conklin inquired, thumping Standish with his finger.  “I saw you with him last time I was in town.  He's a vicious criminal and you're courtin' the devil by bein' with him  -- not that that's anything new to you.  You've been in league with wickedness all your life."

Ezra sighed, brushing away Conklin's offending arm.  "In league? Perhaps, but she was my other after all.  There was little I could do."

"I know exactly what you’re up to!”

“And what would that be, sir?”

“You going to get your revenge on Larabee by hurting us fine folk.” Conklin jutted out his jaw.  “Well, I can tell you right now, we won’t let you anywhere near our home.  We're good people.  We don’t want the likes of you anywhere near us.”

“Is that so?”

Conklin grinned.  “You should have seen it, Standish.  The moment you left town, a celebration started.  People came from everywhere, cheering Larabee and the others, glad to be rid of you."

Conklin wondered if he should make up more.  He'd only heard a few terse remarks from the lawmen and had spoken to a few of the folks who always agreed with him.  He hadn’t gotten the response he wanted from this outcast; Standish was gazing back at him with maddening detachment.  He'd make the man give a damn.

"Those lawmen were at the saloon all night after they kicked you out, drinking and laughing," he stated darkly. "I heard Dunne saying that he was glad you were gone because you were nothing but trouble to him, confusin' him about right and wrong.  The darky said he was sick of you and your ways and never thought you were any good.  Wilmington said you were a joke and Sanchez was laughing about you.  He just laughed and laughed."  He paused, looking for a reaction, but Standish just looked bored.  "Tanner cursed your name and Larabee told anyone who'd listen that he wished he never let you join them.  I heard him say that he wished he’d sent you packing on that first day.”

"Please, Mr. Conklin, I have no time for this," Standish returned.

The well-regarded townsperson continued, hoping to strike a cord.  "They played poker all night long.  I kept hearing them say that they could finally play fair without your cheating ways.”

Standish smiled.  "That's quite possible," he commented.  "Their pockets must be somewhat fuller than they'd been in the past."  Still, Ezra felt as if the blood had left his face.  He kept his hands at his side and his expression as pleasant as possible.

Conklin thumped the pariah again with one digit.  “Not a soul in town could find a good word to say about you, they tried…but failed.  They said that the town would improve without your interference.  We’re damn glad you’re gone.  The town’ll be better for it.  Four Corners is a decent place, Standish, and might finally have a chance of becoming something worthwhile now that you’re out of there.”

“That’s quite possible,” Ezra responded, keeping a smile on his face.  “I always felt that Four Corners held a great potential.”

Conklin sneered.  “We’d all been waiting for that day, you know – waiting for Larabee to kick you out of our home – or kill you.  Glad I lived to see it.  Stay away from our town, Standish. You aren't wanted.”

Ezra watched Conklin stalk away. A man snickered as he walked past, obviously having heard part of the conversation. He leaned against the building again, feeling tired beyond words. Five more days, he thought woefully, and it will be done.

He kept still, letting the sun attempt to warm him, until a surly voice called out, "Standish! Get your worthless ass over here." Ezra sighed and looked up, catching sight of Ludlow and two of his henchmen. The big blond scowled at him.

Back to work, Ezra thought and strode toward them.

Part 5:

JD nervously paced outside the jail, trying to look calm, trying to behave as if everything was normal.  Today was the day.  Today, they’d complete the mission they’d started over two months ago.  Today, they’d get Ezra back. Today, Creel would come with his gang of twenty men to try to dynamite the jail's vault.  The gang had planned to kill anyone who got in their way.  Those men would never get that far.  JD was ready, at least he hoped he was.  He hoped they all were ready for this.

Well, of course they were ready.  They were the lawmen of Four Corners!  They were ready for anything.  He rubbed his hands together, remembering the first time he'd fought beside Chris and the others, the odds had been worse.  They had been up against forty that time.  Twenty?  They could take on twenty easily.

He was eager to see Ezra.  Two months had been an awful long time and he had missed the fun-loving cardsharp.  They hadn't contacted him at all following his dismal from town.  They couldn't -- it was safer that way for him.  JD had suggested they had a good reason to send him a wire when Ezra had started baiting Chris with his messages  -- maybe they could send some words of encouragement, but Larabee stuck to his guns and the silence continued.

‘Doesn't seem right, somehow,’ JD thought as he moved through the street.  ‘Seems kinda sad that he's out there alone and we can't even say "Hey".’ 

Dunne walked toward the livery and nodded to Chris who was exiting the restaurant, heading in the same direction.  Josiah and Nathan were already preparing the horses.  Buck and Vin would be here shortly.  They'd meet those men outside of town, before they had a chance to enter the streets of Four Corners -- they'd take them on at Nelson's Pond.

JD passed a man who watched him intently.   Things had felt so strange since Ezra left town -- since he was thrown out.   Everything felt… odd.  The people on the street treated him differently.  Some looked disgusted, some were saddened, others -- only a few -- seemed overjoyed and still others watched with a sense of foreboding about them -- as if they had seen the first fall and now were expecting the next.

Many people were upset.  They had come to him, begging for an explanation.  They had been ready to back the gambler, telling JD of the good Ezra had done for them, telling him that maybe a mistake had been made, maybe Ezra'd had a good reason for returning early and nobody had realized it yet.  Several of the town folk told him that Ezra never really explained himself very well and often left out major details to his detriment.  They’d insisted that JD find out the whole story.  It made the young sheriff smile to note that so many people were willing to believe in the wily cardsharp… that so many people tried to understand the incomprehensible man… that so many were ready to give him the benefit of a doubt.

It was hard to return their kind entries with indifference.  The six lawmen had to stand together in their conviction – Ezra was an enemy of the town – not to be trusted.   They had to speak ill of him, to protect him, but the words were often difficult to speak.

In spite of those who believed in Ezra, more than one townsperson had been quite content with what had happened.  Conklin seemed especially happy to see the gambler shamed publicly.  It had surprised JD that this opinion existed in the town.  It made him wonder about those wires that Ezra had sent to Chris.  Had Ezra actually been hearing these rumors?  Were the telegrams true?  All of the other message that Ezra had sent, despite the coded meanings, had been essentially true.  Dunne rubbed his forehead as he reached the livery.

Josiah and Nathan both voiced a greeting to him as he entered.  They were nearly ready to go, and were only waiting for the others to arrive before hitching up the wagon horses.  Buck and Vin were still gathering supplies and would be there shortly.  They'd set up at Nelson's Pond and wait.  They'd keep the town safe.  They'd take these men down.

Josiah nodded as Chris came in behind JD.

"Nathan, Josiah," Larabee said, nodding to his men. "JD, you ready?"

"Sure, Chris," JD answered quickly.  "Been ready for weeks now.  Want to get this done and get Ezra back with us."

"Lord, I've missed that swindler," Josiah said with a sigh.  He kept his eyes on the horse, not wanting to reveal the sadness of his eyes.  Missed him?  Yes, more than he thought he could.  Every night, he lit a candle for the cardsharp’s safe return and said a prayer to whatever saint might listen.  He had waited in dread during the long pauses between messages and had exalted when word was received – he’s still there.  Now, to just get him back into the fold.  That lost sheep had been wandering loose for too long.

Nathan chuckled.  Yes, he had missed Standish as well.  He, despite their sometimes-prickly relationship, truly liked the southerner and enjoyed his company.  "Never thought I'd say it, but I’ll be glad to get him back.  It just doesn't seem right without him."  Nathan would welcome an intriguing game with the gambler, he'd love to find a reason to argue with the con man, he truly wanted to speak again to his friend.

"Matter of hours now," Chris replied tersely.  Nathan was right.  It hadn't been the same here without their gambler.  Everything seemed quieter, more subdued.  The saloon was less boisterous; their meetings were more solemn.  When trouble erupted, they missed the glib comments and amused expressions of their friend.  Chris even missed the irritation that Standish could generate.  So often, Ezra had been able to redirect a charged situation with a few carefully chosen complaints.  Without that gadfly to change the thrust of things, every problem seemed blown out of proportion.  Damn that infuriating southerner, Larabee thought, I miss him.

The past months had been difficult for the man in black.  The women of the town had let him know what they thought of the whole 'Ezra' situation.  They all had their own ways of delivering their message.  Mary was straightforward, striding into his jail and blaring out her concerns shortly after the incident.  It only took a few words to remind her that Ezra's errant behavior had endangered the whole town -- her son included.  Chris had seen her waiver in her conviction. Finally, almost reluctantly, she agreed that it was best that Standish was gone.  But, she printed no story about the incident in her paper.  She figured that everyone in town already knew what had happened, and nobody outside needed to know.

Larabee had duly noted that Billy no longer watched him with his child-like awe.  Young Travis now stood back and watched in dread as the man in black walked the street.  To his young mind, if a grown man, as smart as Mr. Standish, could fail so badly and get yelled at and kicked out of town, what chance did a boy have?  Kids are always doing something wrong, always making mistakes.  Billy avoided Larabee, hoping that he didn't fail in front of the lawman, fearing what would happen.

Inez hadn't been convinced by Larabee's argument that Ezra had endangered the town.  She had stormed at the gunslinger when he entered her saloon, spitting out quick insults in English and Spanish, slamming down plates and spilling drinks.   She had cooled over time, but a fire still burned in her eyes when she saw him, and Larabee no longer frequented her saloon.  He didn't need the added stress or increased laundry.

Gloria Potter was subtle.  When he entered her store, she'd cast her eyes downward and hardly spoke a word to him.  She'd chat openly with anyone else in the store, but when she turned to Larabee, her words would be nothing more than a quick 'yes' or 'no'.  She was always out of the things that he wanted.  On the rare occasions when their eyes met, Chris saw only disappointment and sorrow in her eyes.  Her children, Paul and Katie, hid from him.  He could hear them whispering fearfully from beneath the counters of the store.

Even Mrs. Combe at the restaurant seemed less than pleased with him.  She never made her apple dumplings anymore.

Nettie Wells just shook her head and tsked when she heard the news as if she’d expected something like this all along – or maybe she’d just dreaded it.  Her niece had stood bravely, listening to the explanation of the events, her eyes growing moist with tears.  She turned away finally from him and looked to JD, her eyes wide and pleading, looking for a different answer from the young sheriff.

JD had taken her aside later, and explained it again, not looking at her, letting Casey know that Ezra wasn't worth the tears -- that he had abandoned them all and deserved his fate.  Casey hadn’t spoken to him much since then and Nettie kept her close to home.

Four Corners just didn’t seem right.   Chris could feel it every day as he walked the streets.  People avoided him like the plague, stepping quickly to get out of his way.  They had seen the way that he'd verbally attacked one of his own men for stepping out of line, and nobody wanted to try him.

At least the townspeople were safe – the town would be protected from Creel's rampage.

Chris had wanted to get some sort of a message to Ezra as JD had suggested, but they had decided that complete silence on their part would be best.   It would keep the con man safe.  Ezra was in the pocket of the enemy and needed nothing that would give him away.  What good would a few words in a telegram do anyway?

Larabee wondered how the gambler was doing.  It had been an awful long two months from Larabee's point of view; he wondered how long it had seemed to Standish.

Larabee sighed as he pulled his saddle from his place.  He looked toward the stall at the back of the livery.  A pile of unused tack filled it now, instead of the intelligent, maddening chestnut gelding.  Chris could almost hear Ezra’s honeyed voice, speaking softly to his overindulged horse, scratching its ears and bribing it with peppermints or apples.  ‘Chaucer doesn’t need the bribes, Ezra,’ Larabee thought.

But that was Ezra.  Unable to explain the abiding loyalty of the animal, he called it an expected response to his bribery.  He never could understand how something would be so devoted to him.

Yes, Larabee could almost envision Ezra at that rear stall, further spoiling his horse, getting his clothing nipped and yanked, nearly crushed against the far wall for his trouble, quipping to the others, lightening the heaviness of the situation, trying to set everyone at ease.  They truly needed that right now.

‘We'll getcha back home,’ Chris promised silently.  ‘I owe you a drink or two.  Get this town straightened out again. Put everything right.’  The hurt look in Ezra's eyes still bothered him.  Ezra realized that it was all for show, didn't he?  He had to know that the argument needed to sound valid…that the points cited had to seem legitimate.  Ezra realized that he hadn't meant any of it, didn't he?

Damn it all!  Chris had known exactly what to say to the cardsharp to hurt him most.  He had pulled the knives that would cut deepest, and flung them to their targets.  Why had he used those particular words? -- because he knew that they would work so damn well.  It was easy to question Ezra's loyalty, it was easy to attack his morals, it was easy to bring up those things that should have been forgiven.

‘Sorry about that, Ezra,’ he thought.  ‘I’ll make it up.’

He checked his guns and wondered what Ezra was doing at that moment.

Part 6:

Ezra tipped his head against the dust churned up by the other horses.  Chaucer snorted unhappily and Ezra let him fall back a few paces to escape the cloud without any success.  The gambler coughed and squinted, trying to keep the dirt from his eyes.  The worst part about traveling with twenty other men -- barring the whole sanitary issue -- was the amount of dust that such a mob could create.

He was feeling poorly and the added dust wasn't helping.  He coughed again and looked up to see Red-Eye falling back in the group and glaring at him in disgust.  Ezra touched the brim of his hat and smiled at the reprobate.

"Yer fallin' behind!"  Red-Eye bellowed.  He was a big man with long greasy blond hair and irritated eyes.

"Ah yes," Ezra said, encouraging Chaucer to come alongside Red-Eye Ludlow and his big roan.  The horse didn't seem happy to comply, but followed his rider's request.  "Sorry, I was only tryin' to find a breath of fresh air."  He smiled disarmingly, but received a vicious look in return.

"You keep in your place, Standish."  Red-Eye snarled.  "Don’t care if you breathe. Your time is almost up.  Once we get out of Four Corners, I'm cutting you loose."

Ezra looked disappointed.  "But, sir, I believe Mr. Creel makes that decision."

"Don't want no traitor around here,” Red-Eye bit back.  "Good for nothin' turncoat!"

Again Ezra smiled.  "I'm doin' you and Mr. Creel a great favor by joining your mission."  The smile dropped as he continued, "And those men in Four Corners have yet to learn what comes from crossing me."

Red-Eye just shook his head in annoyance as the two horses kept stride with each other.  Chaucer sidestepped the roan and made it stumble.  The overman jerked angrily at his horse's reins, correcting him for his misstep.

"Shut the hell up," Red-Eye ordered, unable to think up a better response, and brought his roan around the side of the group and out of the worst of the dust.  He wiped his poor eyes as he found his place in the front.

The outlaws near the rear of the pack laughed.  They enjoyed seeing the dandified southerner catch grief from Red-Eye.  It had become a sport with some longer tenured men to see how far they could push it.  Durand "Red-Eye" Ludlow ran their lives, and Red-Eye hated the gambler on sight.  If a man wanted to keep on Red-Eye's good side, he'd hated the gambler as well.

They all did their best to make Standish's existence miserable.  He got the worst lots in everything -- the space furthest from the fire to sleep, the odd bits at the bottom of the pot to eat, the worst position in the pack -- and yet he remained.  That need for revenge must have been an awful powerful thing, because Standish sure put up with a lot.  He was the butt of their jokes and a constant source of amusement.  They could say just about anything to the traitor and he'd just shrug it off.

Three times already they'd found a means to get Red-Eye riled enough to go after the southerner.  Standish had managed to stand his ground and get a few licks in, but he still sported healing bruises from the drubbings he withstood.  The entire camp had hooted in enjoyment, shouting encouragement to Red-Eye, until Creel called an end to it.

Creel tolerated Standish.   He was a man who knew what he wanted -- and Standish was a means of getting to that.  Standish had already delivered a wealth of helpful information and seemed devoted to the cause of destroying the town of Four Corners.  Hell, he'd even been helpful in that sale of stolen goods last month.   That incident hadn't set well with Red-Eye Ludlow.  The overman had seen the discreet assistance from the southerner as a clear sign that his own position was in jeopardy.

The two men would never get along and Creel was ready to let one of them go when this was over.  Although, he appreciated Standish's brains, he preferred Red-Eye's power.  One set of brains was enough in this organization.

Creel didn’t give a damn that Standish had turned on his former colleagues.  Red-Eye had complained that once someone ran out on their friends -- be they lawmen or outlaws -- he was not to be trusted.    Well, that was possible.  Creel was just glad to have gained from the betrayal, and Creel allowed Red-Eye to keep tight control over the erstwhile lawman, to make certain he didn't have a chance to run out again.  They were lucky that the attack wasn't delayed any further because Creel was fairly certain that Red-Eye's tolerance was almost at an end and the turncoat wouldn't last much longer in his shadow.

Creel grinned, thinking that once this was over and all the information and usefulness of Standish had been extracted, Creel would let Red-Eye do whatever he wanted to the traitor.  It would be fun to watch his overman beat the peacock to a pulp and would prove a wonderful incentive for the others to stay in line.  The leader of the gang felt a surge of excitement at the possibility. Yes, he thought, it'd be exhilarating to watch Ludlow kill Standish with his bare hands.  He closed his eyes and for a moment he was captivated with the possibility, imagining it in vivid and bloody detail.

He sat forward in his saddle, urging his sorrel onward, anxious to get to Four Corners and begin the killing.  His mouth watered with anticipation.

Part 7:

The men rode moved across the open desert.  Josiah and Nathan drove cargo wagons.  The others rode alongside them, keeping pace together.  It had been the preacher's idea to bring the wagons at the onset of their plans.  He refused to leave the scene to fetch a wagon if someone were to be injured.  He hated being sent away at critical moments and had convinced Larabee that the wagons would be needed in any case, to haul back their prisoners -- dead or alive.

There would be room to hide the large vehicles along with all the horses at the ambush site so Larabee conceded.  ‘Yes,’ Chris thought, ‘if something happened, it would be good to have transport ready -- no waiting around this time.’  Why was he haunted with this thought?  He didn't doubt that they would succeed at this.  They had been given excellent information and would make use of it.  This round-up of outlaws would be simple -- for a change.

Dark thoughts had been his companions since this whole operation started.  He was glad that he'd soon be rid of them. Just a few more hours and Creel would be under lock and key and Ezra would be riding with them again.

JD looked anxiously toward Chris, seeing the leader's jaw set firmly, his eyes forward, staring at the trees before them.  It would do little good to talk to Larabee at that moment, his mind was so set on their task.  Dunne turned to Buck and said, "Almost there.  The pond is right in those trees there."

"Yup," Wilmington responded.  "We’ll get these wagons and the horses hid, try to cover the tracks a bit, and then start waitin'.  Shouldn't take too long for Ezra to bring us Creel."

"Think he's doin' okay?"  the young sheriff asked.

The ladies' man gave him a quick wink.  "Sure, kid.  Ezra's a cat.  He always lands on his feet.  You can bet he's got Creel eatin' out of his hand by now.  Probably has the whole sordid lot of them charmed.  They'll be doin' whatever he asks of 'em."

"I don't know," JD replied as he kept his eye on the trees. They'd be at Nelson's Pond within the next half hour.  "Seems like a pretty ugly group of guys.  I know I wouldn't be happy with 'em."

Wilmington chuckled.  "Well, you and Ez are different folks.  He's used to that sort of stuff and he's got a thicker hide than you do…even though he's got skin like a girl."

JD smiled slyly.  "How's it you know that, Buck?  You got experience with Ezra on that?"

Buck grimaced.  "Shut up, kid."

And JD laughed, glad to have a reason to laugh.  Josiah chortled nearby and Nathan smiled from his seat on the following wagon and shook his head at Buck's discomfort.

"I was just sayin' he's not the 'outdoors type', wouldn't you say, Vin?"  Buck looked for help. “It’s not like I… you know.”

The tracker looked serious.  "I wouldn't know, Buck."

Buck first scowled and then laughed.  "You all are as annoying as hell."

Josiah nodded in agreement.

Wilmington cuffed JD over the head and the kid ducked playfully, bringing Toby to a gallop and out of his reach.    Buck smiled at Dunne’s high jinx.  It was good to laugh for a change.  He’d felt rather down since Ezra’s departure.  When he had stood on that boardwalk, backing Larabee as the gunslinger tore into Standish, he had agreed completely with their plan.  Now, after two long months, he didn’t feel so confident.

Ezra was a puzzle. One could say almost anything to him, and he’d shrug it off, like water from a duck, act as if he didn’t really hear the comments.   But at the same time, the con man remembered everything.  He’d heard Ezra repeat conversations verbatim, remembering every nuance and inflection, every word spoken – even after the passage of weeks.  Certainly Ezra remembered everything that was said that day  -- Wilmington just hoped that he also remembered the reason behind it.

Buck liked the southerner.  From the first time he set eyes on the gambler, up against a roomful of angry bar patrons, he’d appreciated Standish’s guile, his resolve, his bravery, his love for adventure.  Wilmington’s thought had been, ‘we gotta get that guy!’ and had always been pleased that Larabee had asked Ezra to join them, that Chris had allowed him to stay even after that ‘misjudgment’ in the Indian Village.

‘Yeah,’ Buck thought, ‘I miss that pain in the ass.’   They almost had him back.  Just had to get rid of Creel and the others and everything would be back to normal.  He’d give ol’Ez a good thumping, just to remind him what it was like to have a pack of ill-bred gunslingers for brothers.  He grinned at the thought, imagining a sputtering gambler.

The group continued onward, getting closer to the trees and the pond within them.  JD, observing the nearness of their destination, said, "Won't be long now."

"Don't worry, JD," Buck said with a self-satisfied sigh.  "We'll be done with this, get a'hold of Ez and be back home in time for supper."  He leaned forward and looked toward Vin.  "It'll be simple, don'tcha think, Vin? Easy as…lickin' somethin' off of some-such or other."  He grinned at the tracker, trying to encourage him to comment.

Vin just shook his head, feeling the same dark fears that disturbed Larabee.  Nothing was simple -- that was certain.  He wouldn't feel good about any of this until Creel's gang was stopped and Ezra was back with them.

Vin had never been much for talking and when he first got to know Standish, he wondered if the southerner would EVER shut up.   He’d talk rings around someone when a few words would do the same thing.  Standish liked money far too much.  He dressed in clothes that were ridiculous for riding, read too much, gambled too much, and shaved EVERY DAY!  Ezra Standish always was the complete opposite of Vin Tanner and the two men probably should have been at each other’s throats all the time.

And yet, Vin thought as he followed along with the group, he’d come to like the con man… like him a lot.  Somehow, their different ways just worked well together.  ‘Miss him now,’ Vin thought.  ‘Gonna go find him.’

Part 8:

"Standish!"  Creel shouted and the gambler made his way with some difficulty through the pack.  Nobody seemed to want to let him through, but Creel's call had to be heeded.  The men reluctantly parted their horses after the chestnut tried to fight his way amongst them.  It snapped at the closest horses, encouraging them to hasten their movements out of the way.  "Standish!" Creel demanded again once the gambler was alongside.  "How much farther to this pond?"

Ezra nodded his head, indicating the distance before them.  "Not much further.  We'll be there in time for our mid-day meal.  You'll find it an interesting location.  There's plenty of water and even firewood if you'd like to make some coffee."

"We ain't gonna want no fire," Red-Eye growled.  He had moved aside when Creel called for Standish and now the two outlaws flanked the con man.  "We don't want no smoke to show 'em where we are.  Are you a total idiot?" 

"Total, Mr. Ludlow?"  Nobody called Ludlow by his nickname.  It was a name snickered behind his back.  "Not a TOTAL fool, sir.  Perhaps a semi-fool or demi-fool."  Ezra shrugged at Red-Eye’s angry look.  "The smoke would make no difference.  We are far enough off that it won't be noticed in town and a campfire is a common enough thing in this area."

"We ain't gonna have no fire," Red-Eye ordered, looking to Creel for support.

Creel sighed.  He wished that thing could have gone smoothly.  It was a shame that Ludlow and Standish didn't get along.  That would have been too perfect though.  He was destined to have these little imperfections in his life.  Heck, a hot cup of coffee would have really hit the spot, but Ludlow had his point.  "No fire.  The boys won't need no coffee."  He heard a sad groan come up from the men behind him.  "Besides," he added.  "There'll be enough things burning by this evening to keep everyone satisfied."  And a happy little murmur backed him.

Ezra nodded.  “As you wish,” he said in return.  He had done his best to play his part, become part of Creel’s gang and cause no problems.  If he'd been feeling better, he might have fought Ludlow for superiority, but he had joined the gang late and had no place among them. They all saw him as a traitor and the other men, he feared, would only attack him if he were to best their overman.   Chris had told him to not cause trouble. He was doing his best.  The malaise that had gripped him further ruined his desire to gain dominance in the pack.  He was only here to direct them and send information home  -- that was his task.

Home, he thought as he rode between Creel and Ludlow, did it still exist for him? His meetings with Conklin illuminated the fact that a home for him in Four Corners was unlikely.

Ezra stayed near the front of the pack for as long as he could, glad to be free of the dust, but soon enough, the others forced their way past him and he was relegated to the tail end again.  He watched as Ludlow threw him angry glances from time to time, obviously making sure that he was still with them.  Ezra tipped his hat at the big blond.

Red-Eye faced forward again and Ezra sighed.  He was so damn tired.  Two months… had it only been two months?  It seemed like a long year had passed.  A long unbearable year, and yet he bore it.  He should have left long ago.  He should have flung up his hands and said, 'enough'.  Should have packed his saddlebags and turned his back on all of them, and headed out.  Yet he put up with the endless insults, the slights, the fighting, the obvious disgust that everyone met him with.  He sported a bruised cheek and sore ribs from his last encounter with Red-Eye.  It wasn’t Ezra's style to remain where he wasn't wanted.  He knew when to cut his losses and depart, but there was a job that needed to be done, a prize to be won.  He wouldn't lose that prize.  He'd stick with it to the bitter end.

These people disgusted him.  They talked of killing innocents without the slightest remorse. They could care less if children died, if women perished.  The twenty men who rode about him were willing to sacrifice every soul in Four Corners for their meager gain.  He shivered at the thought, pulling his too-big coat close to him as a chill came through him.

He was catching a cold, he told himself.  That was why he felt so poorly, why his arms ached and his head pounded, why he felt so damn tired.  It was just a cold.

He had to protect those people, the residents of Four Corners.  He had to protect his fellow lawmen.  He'd let no harm come to them and would do what needed to be done.  It didn’t matter that he had been uncomfortable for the past two months.  It didn’t matter that he was weary and sick.  It didn’t matter that he hardly found any sleep and that getting up in the morning had become an almost unconquerable task.  So often, he had laid there, in his cold bedroll on the hard ground at Creel’s camp, and wondered – why bother?  For the town, he remembered.  I must protect the town.

He recalled the words Larabee had so carefully chosen in the faux-argument.   He knew full well that Chris was playing a part, reciting lines to incite a certain response from Creel, but every word spoken had a ring of truth to it.  Larabee certainly seemed prepared with his dialog, had all the stinging nettles ready.  The gunslinger must have been mulling those comments over for some time, must have had a list of grievances ready to air, must have been waiting for the right moment to speak what had been long hidden.  Larabee had been playing a part in a strange play, but once the chance was given, he couldn't help himself.  The truth was revealed.

Chaucer snorted and shook his head, falling back another pace or so.  Ezra patted him gently. "It's all right, old friend," he said under his breath.  "Chaucer, my friend, let's keep going.  We're almost finished. I’ll have a fine apple for you at the end of this."  The warmth of the animal felt good against his hand.

Chaucer fell back a few more paces and Ezra had to encourage him back into the rear of the pack to avoid Red-Eye's ire.  There was no sense in inciting the beast.

He coughed into his hand and then rubbed his aching head.  How could he go back to Four Corners now?  The townspeople didn’t want him.  Larabee didn’t want him either; the gunslinger had made that clear. It had only been a play, but the dialog was based on reality.  Conklin only clarified the situation -- playing the part of the messenger and supplying words for the off-stage action.

It was simple.  When this was over, Ezra would leave, depart this stage.  Larabee was too decent a man to truly oust him -- Standish would do it himself.

Where would he go when all this was done? Meet up with his mother, perhaps?  Or maybe not.  Somehow, he didn’t feel like facing her just now.  She’d only laugh at his predicament, say it was to be expected and that he deserved it all for turning his back on his destiny, his breeding, his training and his wise mother.

Somewhere, there must be a place that would accept a rootless gambler – for a time.  At least he was already packed, the crates waited for him in Ridge City.

All in all, he thought as he rode through the dust at the tail end of this group of vicious outlaws, he would be sorry to leave Four Corners.  He dropped his head again, thinking of his resolve.  He'd prefer to stay, if he could.  But that was impossible, wasn't it?

God, he was tired.

Part 9:

"Here they come," Vin said softly, crouching behind the rocky escarpment that surrounded the pond.

Chris, just behind him, asked, "How many?"

Tanner took a moment to count, straining his eye through the spyglass.  "Twenty-one."

Tucked behind the rocks, JD declared, "Ezra said there'd be twenty.  Did they get an extra one?"

Vin didn't look away from the approaching group.  "Ezra’s the twenty-first.  He didn't count himself." 

"Oh," JD responded and signaled to the others that were further down the wall, separated from them by an open space between the rocks.

Buck, closest to the gap, nodded when he saw the young man’s signal.  He turned to Nathan and Josiah and muttered, “Looks like things are about to get interesting.”

The group of twenty men plus Ezra slowed as they approached the sparsely wooded pond.  They pulled to a stop just outside the perimeter of trees.  Vin narrowed his gaze as he watched their careful movements.  The other lawmen waited for him, waited in hiding so that their position wouldn’t be given away.  The outlaws didn’t move in immediately, reminding Vin that Creel was a cautious man -- perhaps he had sensed something.  Two men were sent to make a quick circuit of the area.  They rounded the water, finding nothing out of the ordinary as they kept their distance from the innocuous natural wall.  Apparently Vin had been able to hide the tracks well enough because Creel’s men moved closer.

Josiah said a silent prayer, hoping to keep the horses silent.  The hidden animals nodded, half sleeping, and didn't make a sound.

Larabee took his chance and looked up from his hiding place.  He had to ensure that Ezra was among them – that he hadn’t been lost somewhere along the way. It took a minute for Larabee to find their gambler among twenty-one men.   They moved in little groups, little cliques and alliances -- all except for one; there was one man who was apart from the rest  -- Ezra.  A layer of dust hid the color of his jacket and disguised his horse.  ‘He's thinner,’ Chris thought, keeping close to his cover.  Even from this distance, Chris could see a strained and pale look to Standish's face, the bruised cheek half-hidden with dirt, the dark circles under his eyes. ‘He looks exhausted,’ Larabee thought, and then heard the big blond speak sharply at Standish.  Ezra smiled and nodded in response.

"You see, Mr. Ludlow," they heard him drawl.  "I’ve been quite truthful.  This shall be a perfect place to prepare for what happens next."  The gambler lit a cigar and puffed on it serenely.  He dismounted easily and, after giving his faithful animal a gentle pat, removed Chaucer's saddle to allow him to rest.  Some of the other riders followed suit.  Chaucer bit at his lapels, pressing close to him until Ezra encouraged him to the pond.

The regulators in the rocks remained silent as the men pulled what constituted their lunches from the saddlebags, unhooked their canteens and let loose their horses to drink. Ezra sauntered away from the others, walking parallel to the rocky wall that hid the lawmen and their horses.  With a yawn, he sat down on a rock and then flicked the ash from his cigar. Nobody seemed to give a damn about him at the moment.

Standish was clear now, out of the line of fire, close to protection.  It was time.  Chris nodded to JD and Vin.  Young Dunne signaled Buck, Nathan and Josiah.  It was time to end this charade -- it had gone on for too long already.  Chris shouted "Creel!  Give yourself up."

The men, squatting by the pond to fill their canteens or sitting among the trees, leaped to their feet. They drew their guns and started shooting frantically, at anything, at everything, not knowing where the voice had come from.  Horses screamed in terror and bolted into the open as everyone dove for cover behind the rocks and trees that littered the area.   Chris kept an eye on Ezra.  The gambler should have dived behind his rock. Instead, he ran toward the outlaws.

Damn him!  Damn him!  Chris and the others fired at the outlaws.  What the hell does he think he's doing?  What if we were to take him out by accident?  Damn him! 

Ezra dove through the hail of bullets toward one of the discarded saddles, his cigar still clenched in his teeth.  He rolled and came up with a heavy saddlebag, skittering backward and away from the gang.  Ezra finally jumped behind a rock, separating himself from the men he had been riding with.  Larabee heard JD and Vin audibly exhale once Ezra had reached safety, as Standish looked to one side and smiled toward the rocky wall.

"Smug bastard," Larabee muttered.  JD and Vin laughed, glad to have that smug bastard nearly within their grasp.

Larabee and the others continued to fire into the trees when they could.  The returning gunfire kept them pinned down and unable to take accurate shots.  Creel's men were hidden from sight.  Too much cover!  This wouldn’t be as easy as they’d hoped.  The gunfire slowed and soon the air grew quiet again, except for the raspy sound of labored and excited breathing.

"Creel!" Larabee shouted again.  "Give it up!  We'll take you in alive if we can."

"No way in hell," was the return, and again shooting erupted.

Ezra stayed tucked up in his cover as the two forces shot at each other without accomplishing much.  Nobody could take a decent shot with both sides so well hidden.  Standish sighed as he listened.  From his point of view, he could see the wall that hid his comrades and catch glimpses of them as they popped out to take a shot, but he couldn’t get a glance at the men he’d only recently abandoned.  It would be best if he kept still and out of the battle.  It would be best if Creel’s men didn’t know his part in the scheme.  It would be best to do nothing but hide.

Ezra undid the clasp of the saddlebag that he’d risked his life for, and started rooting though it as the gunfire continued at a measured pace.  The prize was easily found.  Ezra brought his head up when he heard another shot, and then JD cried out sharply.  He looked worriedly toward the wall, clutching the bag tightly to his chest.

Part 10:

"Damn!" JD gasped, grabbed at his sleeve, watching in amazement as blood oozed through his fingers.  "God, it hurts."  He squinted his eyes shut and tightened his grip on the arm.

“JD?”  Larabee called, his voice full of question.

The kid leaned heavily against the rocks, trying to control his breathing.  He released his tight hold long enough to examine the damage.

“JD!” Larabee demanded again.

Dunne smiled weakly.  “Not so bad,” he whispered as he clasped at the wound again.  “Grazed me, I think.  Just hurts like hell.”  He wasn’t going to cry, he told himself as the tears formed in his eyes.  The bullet had taken off a good chunk of skin.  It hurt like a sum'bitch, but wouldn't kill him.

Larabee nodded, accepting JD’s declaration.  Damn, the kid better be all right.  Larabee could see Nathan looking worriedly toward them, but there was no time to help and too much distance between them.   Buck was the next one to yelp.  He'd been firing around the side of their stone cover and suddenly lurched away, clutching his thigh.  He was upright for a moment longer before he finally collapsed.  Larabee could hear him swearing loudly from his position down the line.  Two men hit now.  Chris ground his teeth.  There were bodies on the ground around the lake, at least five of Creel's men were dead, but the remaining men were getting more accurate in their aim and he couldn’t take a shot worth shit.

Simple… this was supposed to be simple. Nothing was ever easy when lives were at stake.

Ezra had heard Buck’s shout, and it rattled him.  He fingered the contents of the bag.  JD and Buck had been shot – dying maybe, his friends…the men who had sworn to protect Four Corners.  He couldn’t let that happen.  He had to do something.  He rotated the cigar in his mouth as he gathered his resolve.  He closed his eyes and tried to remember why he should give a damn.

Ezra knew that his life depended on his staying behind this rock.  All things considered, he owed nothing to that town anymore. He had completed his task and they didn’t want him there… nobody wanted him there.  He glanced again toward the wall. He could hear Buck moaning.  He caught a glimpse of Vin as he took another shot at the hiding outlaws.  Chris was talking to JD, softly and reassuringly and he could hear the young man’s reply, pitched higher than usual as he tried to ignore the pain.

Ezra knew that he couldn’t let anything happen to them. He’d have to act now.  He pressed his hand against his forehead again, feeling heat.  Did he have a fever?  No wonder he felt so ill.  Well, there's no time to worry about yourself, he thought -- no reason to either.  He pulled something free of the bag and prepared himself.

Part 11:

Chris was about to pull his head from cover when he heard Vin's frantic shout, "GET DOWN!"

Larabee had enough time to cover his head when the explosion ripped through the area.  Wood, water, dirt and bits of outlaw rained down on them. "Son of a bitch!" Chris shouted.

"What does he think he's doing?"  Josiah cried, peering out and seeing Ezra lighting another stick with his cigar. "Good God!  He's got dynamite!"  The damn fool was much too close to the target. He’d get blown up along with the outlaws if he wasn’t careful.  Standish stood in the open, and cocked his arm back, ready to throw the next explosive.

"Duck!"  Josiah demanded.  Men were shouting and running for their lives.  One brave man fired at Ezra and missed.   The shooter didn't take time to see if his bullet found its mark as he dove to safety. The second charge was hurled and Ezra ducked back down.  Another blast shook the area, throwing up a hail of soil and wood.

"Damn fool is shortening the fuses!"  Buck muttered, clutching his wounded leg and laughing. He was wet from the water thrown up in the explosions and debris peppered him. He gasped sharply as Nathan put more weight on his bleeding leg, using his body to protect the wounded man. “Hey, Nate,” he said through gritted teeth. “You tryin’ t’maim me?”

“Gotta get the bleedin’ stopped,” Nathan answered sharply, looking over his shoulder at Josiah, who was brushing the dirt from his shoulders.  The preacher chuckled in disbelief.

Larabee shook the debris from himself.  Damn! He never could trust Standish around explosives.  He’d have to stop the fool before he’d blown them all to bits.  "Creel!” he shouted.  “Creel!  You ready to give up?"  A silence followed.  "Creel?  You still alive?"  Chris looked around the rocks to see Maxwell Creel standing near the ruined pond, shaking as he held his hands above his head.  The bodies of his men littered the area, and Creel was splattered with blood -- whether it was his own, or that of another was unknown.  His face was pale with fear and his legs seemed barely able to hold him.  The man who had planned to terrorize the town, had been broken.

"Step out of there, Creel," Larabee ordered and the leader of the group moved slowly away from what was left of Nelson's Pond. The happy little waterhole was half empty, the trees ripped from their roots.  The gentle banks were cratered and strewn with bodies.

“I surrender!” Creel muttered and then nodded to his remaining men.  Too many were dead --  blasted and bullet ridden.  He’d had such a wonderful day planned.  How could it end like this?  “We surrender.”  Those that were still living began to stand, dropping their weapons and holding their hands high.  "We'll give you no trouble."

“Vin, Josiah, Nathan,” Chris ordered.  “Let’s get this scum locked up.  Ezra!  Get your ass out of there.  I got a word or two for you!”

‘Damn glad to see this end’, Larabee thought.  Get this garbage locked up and get Ezra back.  Put things right again.  Get back to a town where kids didn’t hide from him, and the women don’t hate him.  Back where they could all play a game of poker, laugh and relax and enjoy themselves again… get Ezra back.

Vin, Josiah, Chris and Nathan stood up in the rocks, holding their weapons on their captives.  Ezra carefully stepped free of his protection.  He was covered with the dirt that had been thrown up by the explosions, soaked with the accompanying water.  ‘He’s damn luck he didn’t get blown up with the rest of them,’ Larabee thought.  ‘Yeah, I’ll have plenty to say to him about that maneuver.’   Ezra grinned at him, through the filth that covered him, and Chris returned the smile.  ‘The fool’s gonna want a bath when he gets home.’ 

Ezra brandished another stick of dynamite, holding it as a warning to Creel.  The leader of the outlaws looked toward the man he’d hired and narrowed his eyes in hate.  Creel’s eyes fastened on the dynamite and he sighed, sorry that he'd brought the explosives along, thus arming the southerner.  Who would’ve thought that the fastidious gambler would have been so insane as to use dynamite.

Everything was calm and quiet again.  Ezra was glad for the calm, glad that his headache might gain a reprieve.  His head was pounding from the explosions and his mouth felt dry.  He glanced toward Larabee and his men.  Buck and JD were missing from that brave line.  Ezra felt his heart sink.  What had happened to them?  Nathan would see to them, ensure that they were all right and bring them home to recuperate.

Home… again the word resonated through Ezra.  Was there any home left?  Conklin had made it clear that Four Corners no longer wanted him.  It was time to go.  He knew that.  It was a simple thing to do -- just go.  Why did that thought depress him so?

He needed no home.  He’d never had one in his past, why should he yearn for one now?  It should be an easy thing to shake off.  A place of residence is an inconsequential thing.  He had known only saloons, hotels and the backrooms of relatives' houses all his life.  Why should he need a home?  He needed nothing.

His arm felt tired as he held the explosive.  He felt so weak. He just wanted to go someplace far from here and start again, to sleep and start again.

The crack of next shot stunned nearly everyone.  Ezra gasped as his chest exploded with pain.  He twisted about, his eyes wide in surprise, his chest turning red.   He tried to find Chris, Vin, Josiah…anyone, but his eyes failed as he fell.  He crumbled, landing hard on his back and staring, dazed, at the sky.

Creel and his men gasped, grabbed their guns off the ground and dove again into the rocks as Larabee screamed out, "NO!"

Part 12:

Vin sought frantically for the shooter.  Gunfire from the others chased him back to cover without success.  He could hear a man laughing, but the bullets from Creel’s other men kept him pinned down.

“Damn traitor!  Turncoat! Bastard!” someone shouted.  “I told you Creel!  I told you!” 

“Damn you, Ludlow!”  Creel shouted back.  “You’ve killed us all!”

There was at least five outlaws still alive, plus the one that had been hidden.  All of them were firing now.  The fight wasn’t over – not over.

"Ezra!"  Tanner shouted. "Ezra!"  Unable to find the shooter, he turned his attention on Ezra.  He was lying stunned on his back, in the open.  His white shirt was becoming soaked with blood and he blinked at the sky.  He seemed to be aware of nothing.  "Ezra!" Tanner called, "Answer me!"

Ezra responded with a groan.  Pain, he felt incredible pain as the bullets flew over his head.  Had to get out of here, he told himself.  Have to move.  He was as helpless as a turned tortoise.  He tried to get up, tried to roll over, off his back.  His arms didn’t seem to want to work for him.  His movements were futile.  ‘That isn't good enough, Standish,’ he admonished.  ‘Try again.’  He twisted and moaned loudly as he finally managed to flip onto his stomach.  A bullet pinged close to his head.

“Stinkin’ bastard!”  Ludlow shouted.  “Die, you filthy two-timer!”

"Get back, Ezra!"  Vin shouted, glad to see that Ezra was capable of movement.   If Standish just edged back a bit, he'd be out of the line of fire.  "Get back!"  Another bullet kicked up a cloud of dust too close to Ezra’s head.  “Ezra!  Do it!”

Chris was beside Tanner, trying to see around the rock and stay away from the flying bullets.  He watched Ezra's feeble attempts at movement, the pings of dust that made it clear that Ezra was still a target.  Oh, God no!   "Standish!" Larabee shouted.  "Get your ass back behind that rock!"  He put steel into his voice as he demanded, "Do it now!  That's an order, Standish!"

At the sound of Larabee's voice, Ezra tried to get his hands beneath him and move closer to the rocks.  His arms shook with effort.

Ludlow was laughing still.  "Take your time," he muttered.  "I got all day."

"Shut your hole!"  Larabee shouted back at the unseen man.  "You ain't got nothin' anyone wants to hear."  And the voice responded with a laugh.

"He okay?"  JD asked timidly, pressing hard on his bleeding arm.  He leaned against the rock, gazing hopefully at Larabee, feeling lightheaded and a little sick.  The arm sure bled a lot for such a small hole.

Further down, Nathan looked frantic, trying to take care of Buck who had managed to start his wound bleeding again during the confusion. The healer kept his eye on Chris and Vin, wanting to find some information from their movements.  Their shouts told him that Ezra was still alive, but their frustration revealed a terrible fact.  He took a quick glimpse around the rocks to see what he could find.

"What the hell's happening?"  Buck demanded of the healer.  "What happened to Ezra?"

Jackson furrowed his brow as he returned to working on Wilmington.  "They shot him in the chest," he said softly.  "Someone’s still tryin’ to put another bullet in him.  He's on the ground now and tryin' to get to safety."

"Aw no," Buck sighed, pressing the back of his head to the ground.  "God, no."

Josiah was holding back the outlaws on his own, keeping the majority of them in place, while this Ludlow continued firing at the gambler, as Vin and Chris shouted to Ezra.

Another shot pinged too close to Ezra.  The man laughed again.  “You’re gonna get what you deserve, ya damn traitor, ya worthless piece of shit!”

Ezra was inching himself backward, dragging himself toward the rock.  Whoever was firing at him couldn’t get a decent shot… either that or he just had piss-poor aim.  ‘The first shot must have been damn lucky,’ Larabee thought and then corrected himself to – ‘damn unlucky.’

"Yeah, crawl like the worm you are!" the voice taunted.

Chris felt a red rage growing in him, directed at the son-of-a-bitch that had targeted his downed man.  "Faster, Standish!  Stop your lolly-gaggin’!  Get moving!  NOW!"  Chris demanded frantically.  He fired off a few shots in the direction of the unseen shooter.  Obviously, Ludlow had found a place where he could get a shot at Ezra, but was safe from the rest of the lawmen.  Someone else fired back at Chris, forcing him back.  Damn!  This was getting nowhere! He leaned out and took out one of Creel’s men -- another one down.

Ezra didn't raise his head as he dragged himself further backward, leaving a trail of blood.  He breathed harshly at the effort, inching slowly.

"You're almost there, Ez," Vin encouraged.  "Just gotta go a bit more and you'll be safe!"

“Give up, Standish!” Ludlow countered.  “You’re as good as dead now.  Who would want you anyway?”

Chris set his jaw, without moving his eyes from Ezra he demanded to Vin, “Shut that damn bastard up.  Blow his head off.”

Vin nodded tightly, grabbed what ammunition he could, and took off along the almost non-existent cover.  Tanner knew that he'd be putting his life in jeopardy by moving to the new location -- but there wasn't a question regarding whether he should -- he had to.

Chris and the others set up a barrage, enough to allow Vin to reach the next set of rocks.  A bullet clipped Tanner, catching his shirt and tearing a shallow channel across his arm.  The tracker grimaced as he dove behind the neighboring wall.  He rolled and turned back toward his friends, tugging on the brim of his hat to let them know he was all right.  He immediately stared checking out his new location, trying to find the man who wouldn’t stop shooting at Ezra.  He could feel the sting of the wound, but it would wait.

"What's goin' on?"  Buck demanded, as Josiah tried to lay down some fire to allow Vin another attempt at the shooter.  Not receiving an answer, Buck tried to shove Nathan away and sit up.  "What the hell’s happening?"

Ezra still inched his way back, slowly, until the gunfire could no longer reach him, the bullets hit the earth without getting near him any longer.  He shuddered as he lowered his head.

"You did it, Ezra," Chris called to him.  "Stay put.  Don't move."

Nathan looked to Josiah, looking for an answer as well.  Sanchez smiled.  "Vin’s got himself a good location and it looks like our brother Ezra finally got out of the way."  The preacher ran a hand across his brow, grateful to see that the bullets couldn't reach Standish anymore.  It was God's good graces that whoever it was that fired, didn't seem to have very good eyesight.  ‘Thank you,’ he prayed softly.

Another shot was fired and Josiah's face went white.  "Sweet Mother," he groaned.

"What?"  Buck again tried to sit up, and Nathan pushed him down.  Vin and Chris where swearing from their positions.  "What's happening now?"

"The dynamite," Josiah groaned. "He's aiming for the dynamite now."

Part 13:

The charge that Ezra had held only minutes ago still lay where it had fallen.   Where the shooter had originally targeted Ezra, he now tried to hit the abandoned stick of dynamite.  If he were successful, the gambler would be blown to bits along with anyone else who was free of adequate cover.

A little spray of soil kicked up and showered down on Standish. Another bullet hit a few seconds later, just missing its mark.  “Hey, Standish!” the voice chided.  “Ready for a taste of your own medicine, eh?”

Ezra raised his head slightly and seemed to realize what was happening.   His face was blank as his pale green eyes followed the progress of the shooter.  One bullet nearly reached the stick.  The force of the shot rolled the charge toward Ezra.  He watched as it came closer to his hand, and then lowered his head again, turning his face and pressing one cheek to the dirt.

Buck finally succeeded in shoving Nathan off of him. "Help them!" he demanded.  "This little ol' scratch can wait."

Nathan regarded Buck for only a second. The bleeding had slowed considerably, and another of his brothers was in danger now.  He picked up his gun and Buck released a sigh of relief.

Chris, Josiah and Nathan did what they could to keep the shooter pinned down, but he obviously felt safe in his position.  And there were still the rest of Creel's men to contend with.  Larabee looked up when he heard the report of a Colt Lightening beside him, glad to see JD return to the fight.  Dunne had fashioned a bandage to slow the bleeding of his wound and tucked his hand into his belt to form a makeshift sling.  He fired using his good arm, a grim look on his face.  When he felt Larabee’s gaze upon him, JD turned toward him and nodded curtly.  He wasn’t going to let the bad guys win.

Larabee glanced at Vin, seeing him continue his careful search.  Another bullet dug a channel near the exposed dynamite.   Laughter again.

“You’re gonna die, Standish.  Die like the worm you are!”

‘Get him, Vin,’ Larabee thought.  ‘Get that bastard!’ He saw Tanner quickly raise his rifle and fire one shot.

The report was instantly answered with a gurgling shout, the sound of a body falling.  Vin turned toward Chris and nodded, with a small smile.  The gunfire stopped once more.

“Creel!”  Larabee shouted.  “If you’re still breathing, I suggest you end this.  We got your man!”

“It wasn’t my doing!”  Creel insisted from his hiding place.  “That was Ludlow!”

“I don’t give a damn!  Step clear and give up your weapons or, I swear, I’ll kill you!”

The lawmen hesitated this time and waited for Creel and three other men to step away from the rocks and the fallen trees.  The landscape behind them was pitted and ruined by the explosions, bodies lay everywhere, the stick of dynamite that had been such a tempting target lay untouched, a scant few inches from Ezra’s hand.  Ezra wasn’t moving and the gurgling cry continued.

Nathan was the first to leave the protection, springing over the rock wall with his bag in hand and rushing toward the downed Standish.  At the healer’s movements, the others went into action.  JD, Josiah and Chris charged toward Creel and his remaining three men. Vin went after Ludlow, throwing a look toward Ezra as he ran.

‘Move, damn it,’ Tanner demanded.  But Ezra was as still as death.

Tanner found the big blond lying on his side, his hands clutching his throat.  As Vin approached, the outlaw raised one hand, pleadingly, allowing his precious blood to squirt from the gaping wound in his neck.  The area around him was sprayed with the red substance. Every attempted breath sent up another red mist from the hole in his neck.  “Help me,” Red-Eye tried to say, blood dripping from his open mouth.  The words were nothing but a wet gasp.

Vin raised his rifle, keeping a bead on the man’s head.  Ludlow lowered his hand, unable to hold it up any longer.  “Help me,” he mouthed, uselessly clasping his neck, trying to hold back the life-force that was fleeing him.  His eyes sought help, but found none.  The tracker returned his frightened gaze with cold blue eyes.

‘Help me,’ Durand Ludlow thought.  He choked.  Everything grew dimmer.  The world shrank from around him.

Vin waited until those red eyes became unfocused, until the hands no longer clutched at the ruined neck, until he stopped trying to suck in air, until the blood stopped flowing.  Once Tanner knew the man was dead, he abandoned him to find his friend.

CONTINUE on to Section 2