That night Vin Tanner never let Ezra out of his sight. He tried not to let on what he was doing, but he was pretty sure Ez noticed he was acting different. But then Ezra was acting different, too. The gambler seemed out of sorts when it came to his mood. He kept snapping at people then he’d apologize and get all quiet. Everything else about him was sharp, though. A lot sharper than usual. He reminded Vin of a wolf on the hunt, all his senses listening to the sounds of the world. Then he did something that surprised everybody. He went to bed early. Nathan asked him what was wrong, but all he said was “a slight headache, nothing to be alarmed about” and went on up to his room.
Vin knew following him up wouldn’t do much good. Ezra would just sneak out the window or something. The tracker got a seat in the saloon by the window so he could see the livery. No way Ezra would leave without that ornery horse of his. He’d just wait.
“You’re right ugly, Cord. But at least you’re not as ugly as your mother!”
“You’ve never met my ma!”
“Kid, every man west of the Mississippi’s met your ma!”
“I’m gonna kill you, you…”
A bottle was smashed over someone’s head, chairs were thrown and overturned. Vin turned to see Chris on the other side of the room. Buck was also there, frothing at the bit. The three of them jumped in to try and stop the whole place from getting smashed up. Vin didn’t like bar room brawls the way Buck did, but he could get into the spirit. Unfortunately his mind wasn’t all on what he was doing. He hoped Ezra didn’t take off on him while he was stuck in the middle of a fight. Ezra should’ve been down by now to help out unless he already…
That was the last thought Vin Tanner had before he woke up in Nathan’s clinic some time later. The morning sun was streaming in through the window. Vin squinted his eyes, trying to block it out. His fingers found a knot on his head when he ran them through his hair. “Chris?”
Chris smiled. Vin knew he’d be there when he woke up. “You alright?”
“Think so. What happened?”
“Some drunk hit you over the back of the head with a chair. You’ve got a nasty bump there, but you’ll live.”
The fight. Ezra. “Chris? Where’s Ezra?”
Nathan piped up. “Probably in his room. I guess he couldn’t be bothered to get his lazy butt downstairs and give us a hand. Most likely he didn’t want to get his new shirt messed up.”
Vin sat up, ignoring the throbbing in his head. He could feel a hot anger more than anything else right now. “Did anyone check his room?”
Chris shook his head. “Were we supposed to?”
Vin struggled to pull up his pants. “If I hadn’t showed up, or Buck or Nathan or JD or Josiah or even you, everybody else woulda been worried. We all woulda gone to check. But it’s Ezra, right? If he don’t show up, it must be ‘cause he’s lazy. No wonder he don’t feel like one of us half the time.”
“What’s this all about, Vin?”
“Go check his room, Chris. I’ll be there as soon as I get dressed.”
Chris knew better than to argue with the stubborn tracker when he was like this. He left the room.
Nathan put a hand on Vin’s arm and tried to coax him back into bed. “You need to rest a bit more. You got hit pretty hard.”
“I’ll rest later. Ezra’s more important.”
“Nathan! I ain’t a little kid! If I fall down or get sick, then you can say, ‘I told you so’. Now, I’m goin’.”
Nathan threw up his hands, shaking his head in exasperation.
Chris knocked on Ezra’s door. “Ezra?” Nothing. He didn’t even hear the man stirring. “Open this door or I’m gonna bust it down!” Nothing. Chris stepped back and threw all his weight into the door. It flew open with a bang against the inside wall. No one was there. Ezra’s things were gone. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. Hadn’t Standish started to settle in like the rest of them? He complained all the time, but Chris had come to believe that that was just his way. And what about the judge’s pardon? The gambler had seemed determined not to go back to jail. Why would he risk it all now when he only had about a week to go in order to get that pardon? There were a lot of things he didn’t understand, but there was one thing he did. Betrayal. No matter what the reason, he’s run out on them again.
On the bedside table lay a note. Probably some lame excuse explaining why he left or a nasty note laughing at them for being fool enough to trust him. Either way, Larabee didn’t want to read it. He crumpled it in his hand and threw it to the floor.
“What’s that ya got there, Chris?”
He turned to see Vin in the doorway, still looking a little wobbly on his feet. Vin walked over and picked up the paper.
“That’s all he left.”
Vin scowled at the other man. “And you didn’t think it was important enough to at least read it?”
“I don’t want to know what he said. It doesn’t matter much now, does it?”
“It should matter to his friends.” Vin spun on his heels and stormed out of the room.
Chris followed. “You going back to the clinic?”
“Then where are you going?”
“To find somebody who cares enough about Ez to read this note to me.”
Vin didn’t have to look far. Josiah was downstairs in the saloon. So were the others.
“Brother Vin. Should you be up and about so soon?”
“Reckon some people don’t think so, but some things are more important.”
“Some things like..?”
Vin shoved the note at Josiah. “Ezra’s gone. He left a note. Was wondering if you’d read it for me.” Vin looked down at the table. “My reading ain’t so good.”
Josiah shared a look with Chris. What was going on here? Ezra was gone? Chris and Nathan were always harping on their well-dressed brother for the slightest thing. If they did something to chase him away…
Buck, JD, and Nathan came over to the table. Buck was trying to get a look at the note. “Did you say Ez left?”
“Room’s cleaned out.”
Nathan shook his head. “I knew that cheat would up and leave us one of these days. You can’t count on them types.”
Vin turned and punched Nathan square in the nose. He was getting a mite sick of Nathan always putting Ezra down. “You don’t ever give him the benefit of the doubt, do ya? He didn’t wanna go! Heard him and his ma talking in the livery. They didn’t know I was there. She told him he had to go so nobody’d get hurt. I don’t know just what she was meaning, but I know he didn’t wanna go. He looked like a man on the way to his own hangin’.” He looked back at Josiah. “Read it.”
Josiah tried to hide the smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. Nathan had it coming. If it hadn’t been Vin, he would’ve been the one to knock the healer down a peg himself sooner or later. He flattened the paper out in front of him as the others sat down. Chris reluctantly pulled up a chair. The older man cleared his throat and started to read the letter out loud.
Yes, I said “Dear Friends”. I know that may sound strange coming from me, but that is how I feel. In such a short time I have come to value our association. It is something I am unfamiliar with, but it is not an unwelcome sensation. I doubt that the feeling is mutual, as I have quite often been on the receiving end of someone’s ire, but that seems of little importance now.
I hope that by the time you read this, I am far away. I ask that you do not attempt to locate me. I have found that even though I may wish to, I do not fit into your world. I tried. Heaven knows I tried! But the cards were against me from the start.
I considered not leaving this missive at all. Perhaps it would have been better that way. You would have assumed I ran out on all of you once again in order to pursue some more lucrative way of life. In my weakest moments I found that I could not bear for you to remember me that way. Maybe if the fates allow, our paths will cross again someday. Anything is possible. Until then, I hope that you think of me fondly. I know that I shall think of you in that manner.
Ezra P. Standish
Buck looked ashamed. He was always teasing Ez about his money-making plans, but he didn’t think it mighta bothered his friend any. Yeah, he considered Ez a friend. Maybe he shoulda told him that.
Nathan held his hand to his nose, slowing the blood flow. He’d done it again. Why did he always say things like that about Ezra? He was actually starting to like that gambler a bit. Who woulda thought Ezra felt the same way? Sometimes stupid things just crawled out of his mouth. Maybe he’d better learn to think first. It hurt Nathan to think he might be too late in realizing that to do Ezra any good.
Ezra was leaving? JD just couldn’t understand that. They were seven. Things wouldn’t be right without all of them. They were his family. Ezra was like an older brother that was always getting in trouble, but you just couldn’t stay mad at him. At least JD never could. “Something’s wrong. We gotta go after him—I don’t care what he says!”
“JD’s right. We all know our wayward brother likes to handle his problems on his own, but this time he’s going to get some help whether he likes it or not.” Josiah couldn’t get over the letter. It seemed that scoundrel really did care. He’d tried so hard to show Ezra that he was one of them, a member of their newly-forming family. The older man had begun to despair that Ezra would ever feel anything for them except obligation. So few of Josiah’s overtures of friendship had gotten any positive response from Ezra. A lot of that was his own fault, though. He’d driven a wedge between them over that cursed money. All he wanted was the chance to make things right with the man he’d been feeling fatherly towards lately. Would he get that chance?
Chris cursed the fancy-dressing con artist. Larabee had already started to hate him for running out. Now Ezra had to go and turn everything upside down. How could you hate someone that sounded so lost? Chris understood loss. Just when he thought he had a handle on that man… His eyes met Vin’s. “Guess we’d best go get him, then, and find out what all this is about.”
Vin gave him a small smile. “Reckon so.”