Departures: Nathan's Apology
(Old West)

by Sue Bartholomew

Disclaimer: The characters of the Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM, CBS, and Trilogy. I am making no money from their use. No kiddin'!
Author's Notes: I was rummaging through my story files and found this short follow-up to the episode "Chinatown" that I started back in July 1999. It was almost done, so I thought, what the heck, tweaked it a bit, finished it, and am now offering it for your perusal! :)
By the way, this ficlet makes the supposition that Ezra and Li Pong did, um, share a night together, although this is not a big part of the story. Just so y'all know!

The saloon was almost empty, save for a few idle drunkards still trying to figure out which wall the door was on, and Ezra Standish. The gambler barely noticed the men as they drowned their last few drinks and staggered to their feet, just as he had barely noticed much of anything all day.

He stirred, drawing a deep breath as he straightened his elaborately colored silk vest and examined the contents of the table in front of him with a studious frown. Not a bad night's take, overall. About sixty-five dollars, by the looks of it. Enough to at least start the rebuilding of his fortune; but it would have been more if he had not felt so distracted.

He shook his head as he reached for his hat; he had been back in town since late afternoon, but his mind was still on the train platform on Ridge City, watching with a strange ache in his gut as the train for San Francisco pulled away into the vast desert.

It had been the oddest feeling, one which Ezra had never experienced before, as he watched the train carrying the young Chinese girl Li Pong back to her family leave town. Part of him was chiding himself for giving her the money to go - she hadn't really expected it, and he was hardly flush enough to afford such generosity. His mother would kill him for being so recklessly charitable.

And he really had not wanted her to go. Ezra sat back for a moment, hat in his hand, as he remembered how young and lovely she was, how smooth her skin felt beneath his touch, her beguiling innocence, so ravaged by the harshness of life yet still so intact. She had known loneliness, as he had, and the terror of being thrown into an uncaring sea of faces to sink or swim. He could only hope that he had soothed her loneliness as much as she had eased his.

Perhaps that was why he had let her go, he mused, letting his hat dangle in one hand as he rubbed his chin with the other, staring into the golden-hued mist of the saloon. He knew what it was like to be far from home and frightened, to yearn for a kind word, a sympathetic touch from someone, and never get it. He had been abused and betrayed by those who should have cared for him, as she had been; and he recalled all too well the painful longing for home and haven which, for him, had never been fulfilled.

Which, he told himself, must have been why he sent away the young and beautiful answer to his loneliness. Even he was not so selfish as to deny her the happiness which only her home and family could give her.

Lord, though, it had been painful, watching her go and knowing he could have kept her with him. It would take some time to get used to the empty room again. But warring with the pain, and the part of him which ached to see her go, was another feeling, an odd sensation of sad satisfaction. He had made this happen for her, knew how happy she had been, and the realization made him feel strangely peaceful. This eased the ache, somewhat, at least.

"Another drink, senor?"

Ezra started a bit, looked up to see Inez standing over him, watching him with - concern? He smiled and shook his head.

"No thank you, Inez, I'm just-" he picked at the small pile of money "-basking in my good fortune before retiring."

Inez smiled a little and nodded, moving off to clean up after the drunks. As she busily placed the empty beer glasses on the tray, she glanced at Ezra, her bright dark eyes curious.

"Would the senorita in your room like something to eat?"

Ezra tried to be nonchalant; he succeeded, outwardly, anyway. "No, Miss Li is... no longer here. She's gone home, to San Francisco."

Inez was trying to dislodge a knife from one of the tables, left there by one of the less ruly patrons. "Oh," she said with a nod. "I will miss her, she seemed very sweet. But she must be very happy to be going home."

The reply was a nod as Ezra stared off, trying to ignore the lonely ache which had returned. "Yes, I'm sure she is," he said quietly.

He heard the thump of the batwing doors, but didn't look up.

"I'm sorry, Nathan, the bar is closed."

Ezra's green eyes widened in surprise as he turned to see the healer standing at the doors, one hand still on them.

"Oh, that's okay, Inez," Nathan said, stepping inside and taking off his hat. "I ain't thirsty."

Inez seemed to know what was happening, and stepped into the back room with a full tray of dirty glasses.

Ezra could feel his cheeks burn, but tried to keep his temper at Nathan's approach. He still smarted from the healer's accusations that he had been keeping Li Pong as a slave, and was not quite ready to give up the grudge.

"If you're looking for some business, doctor," Ezra said, gathering up his winnings and tapping the bills into tidy little bundles, "I believe some patrons just staggered out which will no doubt be needing medical attention soon."

Nathan walked to Ezra's table somewhat hesitantly, turning his hat in his hands. "That ain't the kind of healin' I'm lookin' to do tonight, Ezra. Fact is, uh... I got a confession to make."

Ezra glanced up at him, skeptical, as the healer sat down opposite him. "Perhaps you should see Josiah, then. My religious credentials are not as valid as his."

His comrade laughed a bit. "Oh, we talked about this, believe me. Had to do somethin' to sort out what I wanna say."

The gambler eyed him. "You intrigue me, Mr. Jackson. What exactly are you confessing?"

Nathan was bouncing a bit in his chair now, absently patting his crossed arms, as if trying to control his nervousness. He bit his lip for a moment, as if unsure how to proceed. "You ain't gonna like it, probably."

Oh, hell, Ezra thought, he's going to lord something else over me. Just what I need. He sighed and gathered up his money. "If this is another lecture on my morality, sir, I assure you I am not in the mood."

To his surprise, Nathan grabbed his arm to stop his going. "Dammit, Ezra, hold still! I'm tryin' to apologize here, an' believe me it ain't easy."

Ezra felt a small thrill of surprise shoot through him. For an instant he couldn't move, then he sat back down, unable to do anything but stare at Nathan.

The healer swallowed. "Look, you didn't know it, but - I saw you yesterday at the railroad camp, givin' that money to that girl."

The gambler narrowed his eyes, the familiar anger coursing through him. "Were you spyin' on me, Mr. Jackson?"

"Not on purpose," Nathan insisted. "But - well, I was just on my way to see if she was okay, and you got to her first. So I was just waitin' my turn."

"Hmmph," Ezra grunted. "I suppose you thought I was whipping her when you weren't looking."

Nathan looked at him seriously. "Fact is, Ezra, she said you'd been treatin' her right nice. But, well, I figured maybe she was too scared to say if you'd troubled her any. But that poor girl seemed really worried about you, an' I can tell you, folks who been mistreated don't much care what happens to them that beats 'em."

Ezra nodded, noticing that he had never seen Nathan look so quiet. The healer folded his hands and leaned forward, his voice growing soft.

"An' then when Li Pong said you'd run off to help them railroad workers - damn, Ezra, then I knew somethin' was goin' on."

Ezra shifted in his seat, embarrassed. "Yes, well, it so happens Mother has some investments in the railroad industry. Merely protecting our family's finances."

"Uh huh," Nathan nodded, smiling and apparently not believing a word of it. Then his expression softened. "But I'll tell you, Ezra - when I saw you give that poor girl that money, and the joy on her face - well, then I knew I was wrong, an' I'd have to give you that apology. She looked real happy."

Ezra nodded, still feeling her joyous kisses on his cheek, her arms around his neck. It had been one of the most painful, and proud, moments of his life. "She was."

"Yeah, well," Nathan sat back, relaxing a bit, "when I saw all that, I knew you hadn't been treatin' her like no slave, 'cause no master would put a slave's needs before their own. So..." Nathan took a deep breath, and looked Ezra square in the eye, "I'm sorry for what I said 'bout you keepin' her, Ezra."

Ezra sat still for a moment, unsure what to say; he had been used to people distrusting him, but nobody had ever apologized for it before. He coughed and tried to cover his discomfort. "I accept your apology, Mr. Jackson," he said smoothly, taking the money from the table and putting it in his wallet to busy himself.

Nathan leaned forward a little, a smile of admiration on his lips. "I hope this makes you see there's more to life than just makin' money. Helpin' folks ain't such a bad way to go."

The other man laughed a little, not meeting Nathan's eyes as he pretended to count the cash in his wallet. "This incident was more the exception than the rule, I assure you."

Nathan shrugged. "Enough exceptions can make a new rule. Y'ever think on that?"

"All I am thinking on at the present," Ezra replied lightly as he stuffed the wallet into his jacket pocket and straightened his attire, "is the best means to replenish my funds, buy my saloon and outlaw such philosophical conversations as we are having from the premises. It is far too late in the evening for such musings."

Nathan smiled, picked up his hat and stood up, relieved. "I'll head on out, then. But I gotta say, I'm mighty encouraged, Ezra. We'll make an honest man outta you yet."

The other man was silent for a moment, then laughed softly at such a thought. "Please do not start polishing my halo yet, Mr. Jackson, I still vastly prefer laughing with the sinners to crying with the saints. And while I have accepted your apology, I would remind you that there is still the matter of seven dollars between us."

Nathan put on his hat. "Now that you'll have to wait on. Judge don't pay us 'til Tuesday. Though-" He looked behind him out the doors of the saloon and smiled. "Maybe them fellas you was talkin' about earlier need some lookin' after, an' if they pay me then I can pay you."

His companion leaned back in his chair a bit, glancing at the clock on the wall. "They should be paying their respects to the alleyway right about now, I would imagine."

"Yup. Well, g'night, Ezra."

"Good evening, Nathan."

Nathan nodded, and then disappeared through the doors. Ezra looked after him, vastly relieved that he was gone, and a little bewildered at the entire episode. Nathanís apology hadnít surprised him - hell, he deserved it - but the healer had actually expressed a measure of faith in Ezraís better nature, something he found uncomfortable and rather embarassing.

He sat for a moment quietly, hat still in his hand as he considered what had just happened. Astonishing, he thought as he prepared to go upstairs, that Nathan of all people would take Ezra's part, after all of their clashes. A slight smile tugged his lips as he looked after the path the healer had taken, an odd mixture of satisfaction and gratitude warming his heart. Perhaps they could be friends, after all.

Still, Ezra found himself mildly uncomfortable at Nathan's interest; what did the healer, or anyone else for that matter, care about how Ezra lived his life? Nobody had ever given a damn before, not even himself, and everything had been perfectly fine. Until now.

Ezra stood, contemplating the situation as he stretched his sore muscles. Ezra had never needed anyone's attention, or concern, or moral advice; he knew who he was, and what he was, and how impossible it would be to be anything else. He didn't want or need the responsibility that came with the good, honest life. Hell, he had almost gotten himself killed by helping someone out; what sort of reward could he hope for if he kept indulging in such suicidal behavior?

His boots echoed on the polished wooden steps as he climbed up to his room. As he stood in the darkened hallway and turned the small golden key in the door, he thought again of the recent events in his life, and grew more puzzled and slightly frightened. Since he didn't know why he had dashed out to help Li Pong and her people, there was no guarantee it wouldn't happen again. He had to figure this all out so that he could control it, as he had made sure to control everything in his life, but the more he sought for an explanation, the more the misty wraith eluded him.

Ezra slipped into the room, pausing in the empty darkness before turning up the lamp, unable to keep thoughts of Li Pong from his mind. She was home in San Francisco, surrounded by the kind of love she needed so badly, and he... where was he? Still looking for his home. Perhaps when all this was over, he would finally have found one. Maybe that would be the reward, if there was such a thing beyond all the fighting, and it wasn't all just random and meaningless.

Ezra carefully stashed away his winnings in the metal strongbox and wearily went to bed. As he lay in the soft featherbed and waited for sleep to come, he recalled Li Pong's words with mild amusement. Ezra, a good man? Could that even be possible now, after all the misdeeds he'd done? He had gotten used to the darkness in which he lived his life, and now that a tiny star of light appeared, burning with the promise of duty, home and friends, he wasn't sure whether to reach for it or run from it. It was not how he had envisioned living his life at all.

After musing for a while longer, he scowled to himself and resolutely burrowed beneath the fluffy quilt. Surely, such speculative thoughts could be put aside until tomorrow. Perhaps when he was not so tired, he would be able to put all this uncertainty behind him, to once more have a firm idea of who and what he was. Although Li Pong, and even Nathan to some degree, seemed to already know.

Hoping one day he'd know as well, Ezra curled up in the warm covers and drifted off.


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