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oooOOooo

Vin swallowed the last of his coffee and tossed money on the table for his meal.  When he scooted his chair back, the scraping noise drew the other men's attention to him.

"Fellas, I'm headin' out fer a day or two."  The Texan stood.  "Don't want ya'll to worry none, you don't see me around."  

Tanner noticed that each man looked to Chris before nodding or offering Vin good wishes for a safe journey, as if seeking his approval first. It didn't bother Vin that they looked to the blond, it had been something they all did during their time together as peacekeepers. Chris was a natural leader.

Vin was turning toward the door when he heard Ezra speak to the group, and the gamblers words stopped him in his tracks.   

"Well gentlemen, I'll be taking a prolonged absence from Four Corners as well."  Ezra left money by his empty plate and made to stand, not expecting that any of the other men would voice any objections. It had not been his intention to leave town when he came into the restaurant but once the thought crossed his mind, Ezra couldn't dispel his urge to go.

"With Vin gone, I need you here Ezra."  Chris didn't want to spare anyone else with Tanner out of town and it was damned inconvenient to have the gambler want to leave at the same time.

"Mr. Larabee, I believe that I am entitled to…" He was interrupted.

"Ezra can come with me, if'n he needs some time."  Vin made the unplanned offer because he wanted to derail what was sure to become an eruption of anger between the gunslinger and the gambler.  Each man had a different agenda and it was clear that Chris would soon alienate Ezra with his demands that the Southerner stay in town.  

Chris turned shocked eyes toward the tracker, trying to read the intent behind the offer.  Knowing Tanner's need for privacy, he knew there had to be a deeper meaning in this.  He was disturbed that he didn’t know what was going on with Standish and made a vow to find out before the day was through.  His thoughts were interrupted as Ezra answered Vin.

"While I appreciate the offer Mr. Tanner, I had a rather different destination in mind.  A soft bed being at the top of my requirements: along with a ready game of cards and strong drink."  Although Ezra was surprised at Vin's offer he was not at all shocked at how Chris had reacted to his announcement.

Larabee stood followed by the rest of the men, looking down on the gambler where he was still seated.  "I won't pretend to know what's going on with you Standish, but I'd feel better if you would stick with Vin if you need a couple of days to figure out if you're staying or going."  The small group left the restaurant behind their leader.

oooOOooo
Vin waited outside the eatery for Ezra.  He watched as Nathan went back to his clinic, Josiah headed to the church and Chris, Buck and JD entered the jail.

He heard the door open behind him.  Ezra came out, both men spoke at once.

"Vin"

"Ezra"

The southerner held out his hand indicating that his friend should speak first.

"I just wanted to say thanks for the help with Eli Joe an' his gang."  

A gold tooth flashed as Ezra smiled, "My pleasure, Mr. Tanner." He moved up closer to the longhaired man before speaking again.

"While I appreciate your offer to accompany you outside town, I am not certain of my destination or the duration of my journey."   

Vin nodded his understanding, "I was too caught up in my own troubles these past days to see what else might be goin' on."  It was his way of apologizing for not knowing that Ezra had concerns of his own. "an' I just wanted you ta know you've got a friend ready to stand beside ya."  

After listening to Vin, Ezra decided that maybe leaving town with the tracker would provide a good cover if he decided not to come back.  "If you are sure that it wouldn't be an imposition, I would be honored to join you."

Nodding his head, Vin told the gambler to meet him at the livery by ten that morning.

As they parted for the short time it would take to prepare to leave, Ezra thought ahead.  He might still want to leave Four Corners and rather than coming back for his meager belongings, he would arrange an extra mount to carry those items he didn't want to leave behind.

oooOOooo

Nathan was sitting outside the clinic when he saw Ezra enter the livery.  Taking a deep breath the healer rose to his feet and started down the steps.  He waited for fifteen minutes by the double doors, until Ezra walked out leading his horse and an old mule.

"Ezra, you got a minute?" Nathan asked. He read the desire to refuse in the other man's eyes just before Ezra spoke.

"I have only a moment to spare, Mr. Jackson.  What can I help you with?"  Ezra didn't want to have this conversation but realized it was unavoidable with the man standing in his path.

"I just wanted ta tell ya that I'm sorry 'bout getting' 'tween you an' yer ma.  I was lookin' at all that fancy equipment an' she sure knows how to persuade a man that he can do good fer folks." Nathan saw that he had the gambler's attention, so he continued.

"You been at my back more times than I care ta count an' that means somthin' ta me.  Truth is, I got no extra money ta be investin' in yer saloon an' I should'a just laid it out plain an' simple, but sometimes a man's got too much pride."

"I can certainly relate to that."  Ezra thought of the way he had let his mother get to him and the competition that resulted in his loss of the Standish Tavern.

"I just want ya ta know that I quit that place."  

The gambler knew that he and Nathan would never completely see eye to eye due to the circumstances of their upbringing, but he did appreciate the other man's effort to settle things between them.  He felt he could do no less.

"Consider it water under the bridge, Mr. Jackson."  He offered his hand and felt the strong grip of the healer in response.

"Well then, I must be moving along, Mr. Tanner has given me a time schedule."  He touched the brim of his hat in a two-finger salute as he moved away.

Nathan watched him for a few minutes with a smile on his face.  

oooOOooo

Vin stood in front of Peso, stroking the gelding's soft muzzle.  His mind ran several old trails, places he'd been that he might choose to go again.

His wanting to leave town was due to the shame he felt that many of the town's citizens had witnessed him being led out of Four Corners as a prisoner.  One of the town's peacekeepers accused of a vile crime. Mary and Chris had tried to reassure him that the incident had been kept quiet, and as much as he appreciated their efforts, but knew that, something like the bounty couldn’t be kept a secret for long. If he stayed, there would be questions from people like Conklin, and that would led to others getting suspicious, until he absolutely won’t be able to hide it.

All this thinking left him with the knowledge that he was looking for a reason to leave and all he needed now was a way to tell the rest.

Still thinking of where he wanted to go, Vin turned his thoughts to the mountains, high places still untouched by the human hand.  If he had to live with the bounty on his head the rest of his life, he would go to a place that brought him peace.

Peso lifted his big head and snorted, an answering sound came from a horse outside the livery, telling Vin that Ezra was on time and ready to ride.

oooOOooo

"Boy, would you look at that? What a pair!"  Buck chuckled hanging onto the support pole outside the jail.  

JD laughed along as they watched Vin ride ahead of the Gambler out of town.  Peso bore a set of leather saddlebags and a bedroll tucked up behind the low back saddle.  Ezra was leading a mule, loaded down with four carpetbags and a large role of bedding tied across the middle.

Chris was sitting outside the saloon with Josiah watching the two young peacekeepers head south.

"How long you think Vin is gonna put up with Ezra on the trail?"  Josiah laughed softly.

The gunslinger shook his head, "He's got the patience of a saint, but Ezra knows how to whine so's it makes your ears bleed."  

Underneath the humor, Chris harbored a deep and abiding worry that neither man would come back to stay.  He was surprised to have such a concern for Standish; he wondered when he'd let the gambler get under his skin.

oooOOooo

By two that afternoon, Ezra was beginning to wonder how far outside town Vin was intending to go.  They had traveled at a sedate pace, and to his surprise, he was enjoying the peaceful setting, but dark clouds had gathered overhead and he was worried that they would be caught out in a rainstorm.

"Mr. Tanner?"

Hearing another voice startled the Texan, so lost in thought he'd forgotten for a time he was not traveling alone.

"Just up ahead." He answered the unspoken question.

Another 20 minutes and Vin turned toward a small stand of trees, their green leaves, fed from the stream that ran nearby.  Vin came out here often when he wanted a few days away from the busy town; it was quiet and good place to think.

oooOOooo

"Chris!"  JD swept in through the doors of the saloon waving a yellow paper.  He headed to the back table where the gunslinger was sitting sipping on a glass of whiskey.

"Telegram from the Judge."  

Taking the paper, the blond read it silently and then looked up at the Kid, who was waiting for instructions.

"Get the men together at the jail, I'll be along."

It never failed that when they were down a man or two, trouble came up their backs.  Judge Travis had sent them a warning of several thousand head of cattle headed their direction from Texas and in a direct line were reports of rustlers coming down from Colorado Territory.  

Orrin did state that he thought the threat of the gang that was stealing cattle, were too far away to be a worry but wanted them to be prepared.

On top of that news was a report that the prisoner wagon the Judge had arranged to pick up Yates and his gang had been delayed by two days.

Throwing back the rest of his drink, Chris left the saloon.  He was going to have to set watches between the jail and the outskirts of the town.  First he would send JD and Buck out to warn the surrounding ranches of possible danger.

oooOOooo

Vin and Ezra worked in silence to set up the camp.  The gambler proving that he was not a novice on the trail, that so many had mistaken him for in the past.  By nightfall, each man was settled on either side of the fire with a plate of beans and biscuits with thick slices of ham.  Vin made the coffee and Ezra added a dram of rum from his flask.

The Texan closed his eyes as he ate, listening to the sounds of the night. He was glad that the rain had been brief and hadn't saturated the ground where they set up camp.  In the canopy of the trees he could hear the wind blow the branches around, creating music of its own.   

"You really do love it out here don't you Vin?"  Ezra had watched the smile on the other man's face, noticing how relaxed Vin was now that they had left the trappings of the town behind.

The tracker didn't bother to open his eyes as he spoke, "Yep. Ain't somethin' I can explain ta someone who ain't use to it."

"Don't bother; it’s a language I don't speak very well."  The gambler chuckled.

Both men lapsed into silence again until the howl of a coyote sounded in the distance.  Vin laughed aloud as Ezra jumped to his feet with his pistol in one hand and the little derringer in the other.

"Very funny, ha ha, so happy to have amused you."  Standish dropped back to his bedroll but kept his six-shooter within easy reach.

"Sorry Ezra, but you looked right funny just now."  He chuckled again as he reached for another cup of coffee.

"I must admit that I am a bit out of my element.  In town one doesn't often hear the symphony of the wild."  

"I reckon not."  Taking a sip of coffee Vin studied the gambler.

"Is there something bothering you Mr. Tanner?"

"Just trying to figure out a way ta let the rest of the boys know I won't be stayin'."  

"If you don't mind hearing my opinion?"  Ezra paused and continued when Vin didn't speak.  "I think it would be a great loss for the town and the other men.  Considering the things you have accomplished since your arrival."

"Don't know that what I've done is enough ta make up fer the danger that bounty brings."   

"Mrs. Wells would have something to say about that, or Mrs. Potter.  Mary Travis has reason to be thankful for your presence as well.  I could also name Miss Inez and …"

Vin stopped the man from continuing, "Seems ta me you ain't stickin' round either, so what's it matter to you if'n I stay or not?"

Ezra looked down into his cup, shook his head and then looked back up at the other man, "I've been sitting here asking myself that very question."  His gold tooth flashed as he grinned.  

"In truth, I was more than content to stay in that dust covered backwoods little burg, but recent circumstances have altered my thinking."  Pausing, he dowsed his coffee with more of the rum from his silver flask and then offered the flask to the tracker.
 
Vin watched the Southerner as he took the liquor, poured some into his own cup and waited for Ezra's gaze to come back to him, before handing it back.

Ezra starred into his cup as he spoke, "I feel that at least one of us should stay, as the rest of the men would be hard pressed to protect the town with both our absences'. May I also add that you have only had one incident regarding the bounty in the months we have been in Four Corners?  Don't you think the odds are in your favor?"

"Maybe, it's just…I can't…shit Ezra."  Vin huffed a frustrated breath as he rose to his feet.  

Ezra watched Vin paced away toward the remuda and then back again before the Texan pulled a bottle of whiskey out of his saddlebags that they had left under a tree. Vin broke the seal and offered the bottle to Ezra.

The gambler tossed the remaining dregs of coffee laced with rum and accepted a full cup of liquor from the other man.

Both men were quiet for a time.  Ezra reasoned that Vin just needed time to gather his thoughts, and he himself, felt an unaccustomed desire for silence.

oooOOooo

Chris Larabee sat in a table in the back of the saloon, sipping a glass of whiskey, when the saloon doors burst open and handful of dusty men marched through.  

After the Judge's missive, he'd sent Buck and JD to check out the surrounding ranches and homesteads, making sure that people were informed of the large herd of cattle headed their way.  

Nathan was at the jail and Josiah was patrolling the boardwalks around town.

Watching closely as the trail hands settled at various places around the saloon, Chris was relieved that such a small number had come into the bar.

Finishing off his drink, he went outside, instinctively knowing that the men behind him in no way represented all the wranglers.

The hitching posts up and down the boardwalk were all full of the horses the new arrivals had rode in on, attesting to the large number of strangers that were in town.

He would have felt better if Ezra and Vin were back in town.  

 
oooOOooo

"Where was ya figurin' ta go?"

Ezra was startled at hearing Vin speak after almost an hour of silence.

"Well, I hadn't really contemplated that portion of my journey."  He turned so that he could see the Texan; Vin was lying on his back, he was so still for a moment, Ezra questioned if he'd actually heard the other man speak.  

That notion was dispelled when Vin lifted his hat and faced him. "You ain't got no price on yer head, seems ta me that it'd make better sense fer you ta stay." Vin reached for the half empty bottle of whiskey and poured a generous potion into his mug. "You said earlier that yer feelin's changed 'bout stayin'."

Vin shifted back against his saddle, his top lip was tingling, indicating he'd more than reached his limit of alcohol for the night; he had been feeling drowsy until the southerner spoke.

"Did you know, Vin that I procured ownership of one of the saloons in town this past week?"

"No, Ezra didn't know 'bout it. That what you wanna do fer a livin'?"  

"That's a moot point, since I no longer have possession of the establishment."  Ezra could hear the bitterness in his own voice.  

Vin saw the angry flash of eyes as Standish looked across the fire at him.

"My very own mother ruined any chance I had to settle there."  He purposely didn't mention the role the other peacekeepers played in the last few days.  He'd made his peace with them and was willing to leave it alone.

"How so?"  Tanner found that he was curios as always about the relationship between Ezra and his mother.  He'd been orphaned so young that half the time he wondered if his memories were true of his beloved mother. He'd never understood how those two could go from happy greetings to constant arguing in the blink of an eye.

"She swooped into town without any prior notice, coincidently won the hotel across the street from my establishment and set up a gaming room.  In direct competition with my own saloon."  Taking a deep breath, he looked up toward the sky, trying to control the emotions that were so close to the surface.
 
"I think what bothers me most is that I can find no rhyme or reason in her actions other than to humiliate me in front of the town." Ezra shrugged his shoulders.  "I sometimes envy you. You hold nothing but cherished memories of your mother... while I only feel anger, disappointment and the unshakeable belief that she truly doesn't care for me…" his voice trailed away as the coffee cup was lifted to his lips.  

"My ma's been gone years past, wish it weren’t so."  Vin shrugged the sadness away and changed the direction of the conversation back to Ezra.  "She still own that hotel? Your Ma?’

"No and that's another piece of the puzzle.  Not two days after she purchased the Hotel, she sold it and bought the mortgage on my saloon."   Lying back against his saddle, Ezra shook his head, still perplexed over the entire incident.

"Don't mean ya gotta leave.  There's a place fer you there, Ezra, all's you got ta do is want it."  While those words were meant for the southerner, Vin felt their meaning as well.  

Looking at his friend, Ezra tilted his head at a thoughtful angle, "Sage advice. I could say the same for you."

Nodding Vin smiled.  

"What say we head on back in the mornin'.  No tellin' what trouble the boys have got to without us."

"Sounds like a good plan to me."

Somewhere between wanting to stay and needing to go, Vin Tanner realized that for now he was right where he wanted to be, beside the friends he'd made and the town he had come to care for.  Vin knew he always had the choice to leave if those feelings changed.

Ezra didn't know how long he would stay in Four Corners, but Vin was right, he did have a place there that didn't have anything to do with his mother or the Standish Tavern.  It would be enough to hold him for now.

oooOOooo

Vin and Ezra got a late start back to Four Corners, staying in camp to avoid riding in an early morning rain shower.  Several hours later, they approached the outskirts of town.

On their approach, they heard gunfire.  Setting spurs to their mounts they raced forward.

The first thing they noticed was several horses tied up from the hardware store down past Diggers Saloon and out in front of the cigar shop.

The two men tied their mounts to the hitching rail in front of the jail and crossed the street with guns drawn.

Ezra moved to one side of the saloon entrance as Vin took position on the other side.  Just as they were getting ready to enter, a body came flying past to land in the dirt beyond the boardwalk.  A short dust covered cowboy got up, rubbed his hands together and marched right back into the melee.

"After you, Mr. Tanner."  Ezra bowed from the waist and swept his arm out toward the double doors.

Grinning with anticipation, Vin nodded.  "I thank ya kindly."  

oooOOooo

Chris had managed to avoid the mass of bodies struggling in the middle of the saloon and had pulled his gun ready to fire when he saw Vin come in followed by Ezra.  It was good to have all the men together again but he didn't have time to savor the feeling as Buck called out and Tanner answered by jumping over the top of the bodies and fighting his way toward his friend.

Larabee put his gun back in its holster.  He figured the boys needed to have a little fun before he broke up the party.

EPILOGE:

Vin watched as Yates was loaded in the prison wagon, the last of the six men who were headed to Silver Springs to face justice.

The Texan watched as the four outriders followed along beside and behind the prisoners until they were out of town.

"You okay?"  Chris studied his friends face.

Vin turned to look at the blond offering a smile as he nodded his head.  "Yep."

Chris didn’t expect more of an answer from Tanner.

The two men watched as Buck and JD passed by on their way to the Wells Homestead, they could hear the ladies man giving unsolicited advice to the Kid as they rode by.

Looking across the street, they saw that the gambler came out of the Standish Tavern with a smile on his face, carrying two large canvas bags and Inez hot on his heels.  

They could hear the pretty Senorita as she fussed at Ezra all the way across the street.

"You can't take those Ezra; they belong to your mother."  Inez finally threw up her hands. "I give up. You can work this out with Mrs. Standish."

"Thank you."  Ezra chuckled as he stepped up onto the boardwalk beside Vin and Chris.

Just then, Josiah came by with Nathan to let Chris know they were going to attend a birthing out at the Napier's small ranch.  

"Seems the wife had a habit of having twins and this was her ninth pregnancy but her 13 child or maybe 14."  Josiah mused aloud.

"Mr. Jackson, might I have a moment."  Ezra asked.

"Sure Ezra, but I need ta get goin' soon, them babies have a habit of not waitin' on the rest of us."  Nathan walked a short distance with the gambler.

Holding out the bags to the healer, Ezra waited until Nathan took hold before he let go.  As he was turning away he spoke, "Those are yours Mr. Jackson, use them for good health."  

Nathan was shocked when he slowly opened the smaller of the canvas bags.  Nestled in the bottom was a black doctor's bag.  He recognized it as the one Maude had put in the hotel medical office.  

The healer was ready to argue that these didn't belong to him when Vin stepped into this line of vision blocking out the retreating southerner.

"Don't question it, Nate.  Let Ezra do this one thing for the town."  Tanner squeezed Nathan shoulder as he passed by. The Texan unhitched Peso and mounted.

Nathan realized that is exactly what Ezra had done, not bestowed these items upon him but contributed them to the wellbeing of the town as a whole.  Thus cementing Ezra's commitment to do all he could to watch after them. The offering humbled Nathan.

"'siah, you about ready?"  Nathan looked over to where his friend held their horses.  "Give me a bit to take these here things up ta my room."

A few minutes later, all Chris could see was the fading image of Nathan and Josiah as they rode out of town.  Turning back down the boardwalk, he caught sight of Ezra just outside the saloon.  The Gambler flashed him a gold-toothed grin and a two-finger salute before entering the bar.


The End

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