Disclaimer: I don't own any of this, I'm not making money, I'm not worth suing.
Author's Note: Having accidentally left Departure open-ended, I figured I'd best write a sequel.
Back to: Departure
Larabee sat, alone, at a table in the saloon, nursing a whiskey. The late afternoon sun fell through the door across the floor, partially illuminating the poker table situated by the far wall. Chris glanced across the saloon at the already established poker game. Ezra Standish was cleaning out the pockets of yet another unsuspecting opponent. The gambler was doing well, but there was something missing in his manner. His usual enthusiasm for the game was absent. Rather than play with his prey, the hunter just went for the kill. Chris looked away. A month ago, Ezra had risked his life and position for one of his friends. Not wholly unexpected; Ezra never laid small bets, if he risked anything, he risked all. The way he had done it, though, bothered Chris a great deal. Ezra had left the group without explaining his actions. He had stood against Larabee in a battle of wills and won, because he knew his leader too well to lose and because he was prepared to use that knowledge to his own advantage. The whole thing left a bad taste in the gunslinger's mouth. The other concern nagging at the back of Larabee's mind was the knowledge that an illicit bounty had been placed upon his best friend's head. Ezra, too, was concerned about this, as manifest in his preoccupation. Vin Tanner was already wanted by the law in his home state of Texas, but this new threat, originating from Saint Louis, had nothing to do with the law.
As if in response to the thought, Vin appeared at the entrance of the saloon. He spotted Chris immediately, sitting at their usual table, and sauntered over, followed by Buck, Nathan and Josiah. They soon acquired shot glasses and poured themselves whiskey from Larabee's bottle. They sat in friendly silence for a moment, before Larabee spoke his mind.
"I think it's time we took care of this Saint Louis business," he began.
Vin made a face. "We can't go chasing down every bounty hunter that wants a piece of my hide," he interrupted. He didn't like the thought of going all that way east, especially on his own account.
"We're not chasing bounty hunters. We're looking for the money," Chris answered, reasonably. He glanced around the group to see if there were any other objections. There weren't. They had all been concerned for Vin, ever since Ezra had told them about the bounty.
"When do we leave?" It had been a quiet month and Buck was feeling restless.
"You don't. Just me, Vin and Ezra. Tomorrow."
Ezra's ears pricked at the mention of his own name. He was used to the others planning things without him. Unlike JD, who was also left out of many of these discussions, Ezra felt no need to participate in the making of such decisions; provided it didn't interfere too much with his gambling, nor result in his own untimely death, Ezra was happy. But him go to Saint Louis? This was not good. He quickly finished up his game and crossed the floor to join his friends.
"Mr. Larabee, I really don't know why you would feel it necessary to include me in this little expedition. Surely another of our companions would suffice." Ezra knew he would not succeed in changing Larabee's mind, but it was worth a try.
"Got some bad debts back home, eh Ezra?" Buck threw in. Ezra did not respond. Let them think what they liked.
"You know the area, you know the people. You're coming." Chris was surprised Ezra didn't want to help out. After all he had already been through to protect Vin's back, Ezra should have been eager to see this resolved. Ezra shook his head, but offered no further argument.
JD burst through the doors and, seeing his friends in earnest discussion, approached the table. "What's going on?" he half asked, half demanded.
Buck replied "Chris, Vin and Ezra are going on a little trip."
JD's face registered annoyance. "And leaving us here?"
"I need the rest of you to keep an eye on things. I don't know how long we'll be gone," Larabee's voice left no room for argument. JD suppressed a scowl.
"Well, if I'm to participate in this voyage, I'd best prepare," with that Ezra left the table.
Chris hoped he did not pack his whole wardrobe.
Saint Louis. Ezra had not seen the city in many years, but his memories were vivid. He remembered the river, with its steamboats, and the bustling business district. He also remembered the tenement buildings to the north of the city, where the Irish and German workers lived and where he had run when there was nowhere else to run. Where he had met Jimmy Stiles. If that's what Chris Larabee wanted to see, then Ezra would show it to him, but he wasn't going to like it.
Ezra pulled a few items of clothing from his wardrobe, including a rough work coat and a coarse homespun shirt. These haven't seen the light of day in a while, Ezra thought, shaking some of the musty smell out of them. He took them down to the stables and stuffed them into his saddle bags.
Josiah and Nathan sat in the saloon, eating a leisurely breakfast. Their friends had left for Saint Louis very early that morning, travelling light (to Chris' relief) and heading at a good pace. Even so, it was a long way to Saint Louis and they would not be expected back for at least a month. Buck and JD joined them at the table, JD still bristling at being left behind.
"Feelin' restless, Brother JD?" Josiah asked, with a smile.
"How can you be so relaxed?" JD knew this was a stupid question; Josiah invented relaxed.
Josiah chuckled. "My young friend, the town has not seen a lick of trouble in a month, God has blessed us with the mildest Autumn in living memory and the three men most likely to have gun wielding lunatics chasing after them have just left town."
"What about Buck?"
Josiah thought for a moment. "I stand corrected, but two out of three is still pretty good."
JD sighed and sat back in his chair. He was stuck in this hideous quiet and there was no escape. "There's nothing to do," he whined.
"Why don't you head out to Miss Nettie's" suggested Nathan. If nothing else, the trip would occupy the boy for a day. Casey might even occupy him for longer.
JD's face brightened. "Yeah! Maybe there's some trouble brewing out at Miss Nettie's!" He jumped up and skittled out the door, to get his things together.
"Not quite what I had in mind, but, still, he's happy." Nathan shook his head.
Within half an hour JD was on the road out of town. As the sheriff crossed out of the town limits, another man crossed in. JD observed him, but the man appeared harmless enough; brown cotton shirt, coarse riding pants, sidearms, but that was to be expected. Just another traveller.
The unknown man entered the saloon. It was empty except for two men sharing breakfast in the corner and a barmaid industriously setting up for the day.
"Excuse me, Miss," his voice was low but penetrating.
Inez looked up from the glasses she was polishing. "Can I help you, Senor?"
"I was wondering if you might know where I could find one Buck Wilmington?"
Inez raised an eyebrow and glanced over to the occupied table.
Josiah spoke up. "Do you mind if I ask what your business with this man is, friend?"
The man grinned. "Old acquaintance."
Buck was leaving a room on the second floor, someone else's room, when he heard the voice. "Gil? Gil Hughes, you son-of-a-bitch. What are you do doin' here?" Buck bounded down to the first floor, seemingly in two steps, all smiles, beneath his thick moustache.
"Passin' through," the man returned the smile, a hearty handshake and playfully punched Buck in the arm, "heard you and that no-good pard of yours, Larabee, were holed up here."
Buck laughed and threw a few air-punches at his friend.
Nathan watched the exchange as one might watch an obscure religious ritual. Two individuals as demonstrative as these did not often meet. In the back of his mind, though, Nathan wished either Vin or Ezra were here to screen the new arrival. There was something about this Gil that seemed false, but, Nathan had to admit, he was no expert at reading people.
The three travellers finally reached Saint Louis. They had rode most of the way in silence; Chris and Vin because that was their way and Ezra because he was occupied with his own thoughts. They rode through the town to a modest hotel, where they took rooms and settled themselves, ready to start their search.
"We're here, what now?" asked Vin, eager to be done, so they could head home.
Chris shrugged and looked at Ezra. The southerner glanced at his two companions and then fixed his eyes on the table. "I suggest you allow me to revisit some haunts of my youth. There, it may be possible for me to reacquaint myself with some old..." Ezra searched for a word, "acquaintances."
"Good, lets go," Chris got up to leave.
Chris looked down into the green eyes, which were now fixed on him. He would not lose his temper, "Why?"
"There is something in your bearing, Mr Larabee, which some individuals find, well, threatening. Should my sources feel threatened, information would not be forthcoming." In truth, Ezra didn't want Larabee to see his old neighbourhood.
Chris narrowed his eyes, but held his tongue.
"You'd best be off," suggested Vin, "only a few hours of light left."
Ezra nodded and went up to his room, where he exchanged his usual red coat and ruffled shirt for homespun. Thus prepared, Ezra headed north, on foot, toward the tenements. Moving deftly through the shadows, Chris Larabee followed.
Tenement trash come in all shapes and sizes. Davey was the small, dirty variety. His father had been a factory worker and he and his parents had lived in the tenements for all of Davey's short life. When his father had died in an accident at work and his mother was taken by consumption, Davey had no intention of leaving. In truth, he didn't even know there was somewhere else to go. So, at the age of eleven and a half, Davey was master of his own destiny and street scum to the core.
He watched in interest as an unknown man entered his territory. The man was of medium height and medium-to-slight build, seemed to know his way around and was Irish, or so Davey guessed, and thus acceptable. What made him interesting was the dangerous looking man in black, who tailed him. As Davey watched, the Irishman strode purposefully toward a bar and entered through the swinging doors. The man in black followed, but, just as he was about to enter, the Irishman stepped out. Davey laughed, quietly. Sprung. The two men had words, but the encounter did not lead to blows being exchanged, much to Davey's disappointment. Rather, the two came to some kind of agreement and resumed their course down the street, the Irishman leading.
The path Ezra took lead straight into the seediest area of Saint Louis. Even Ezra was surprised by the squalor. The place had been pretty horrid when he left and most of the housing had been pulled down to make way for factories, but the islands of habitation which remained made Purgatory look like paradise. Larabee glanced at his companion's face. No emotion, as usual, but Ezra's actions suggested he was actually quite at home.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra caught glimpses of what he was looking for. In places like this, everything was for sale, information included, and Jimmy Stiles had frequented this area for many years. It was Ezra's hope, and a safe bet, that one of the locals might know something. Ezra had one local in particular in mind. But to get to her, he would need a more accessible informant. The street rat who had been watching them since the bar incident would do, nicely. The brat had gradually been getting braver and was now within striking distance. With one fluid moment, Ezra deviated from his apparent path and grabbed the child by the collar.
"Hey!" the boy protested and let fly a tirade of obscene words and gestures. Ezra held on, waiting for his prize to run out of breath. Chris stood back, eyebrows raised.
Finally, the kid paused. Ezra took his chance "Thank you, Sir. Now that you have calmed down, I would like to make a business proposition..."
Buck and Gil sat in the saloon all day, spinning tall tales of gun fights and dangerous women. JD returned from Nettie's completely exhausted (when asked for an explanation, he mumbled something about idle hands and the devil, suggesting to Josiah that Nettie had found the boy an occupation). When he discovered what he had been missing he moaned, drank three cups of coffee and vowed to stay up to hear everything else that was said.
Nathan had been watching Gil, but saw nothing to cause alarm. He had nothing on this man but a gut feeling. Gil had felt the healer's heavy scrutiny, but did not comment. He only hoped the man would remain silent.
Outside the saloon, a lone figure stood, watching. His wore stolen clothing and his hair was newly cut with a hunting knife. A serial number branded him prisoner 362. He did not speak, did not smile, did not dream. All he thought of was slitting Gil Hughes' throat.
Gil retired to a room in the boarding house a few hours after midnight. He couldn't remember the last time he had actually had fun. Sitting there with Buck, talking about the old days, it were as if the events of the past two years had been washed away. He had been down on his luck and in need of money, so Gil had hooked up with a group of desperate men. For the most part, his companions were decent enough. They were just weak. They had found themselves in need of employment, so they formed a group and went to work for some less than scrupulous ranchers. At first, the work had been easy enough, if somewhat distasteful; a little rustling, intimidation. Then it had gotten ugly and one of the smaller land owners had died. The local judge, sick to death of the lawlessness which had taken hold of his town, had declared the band of men outlaw. The men, unable to face an outlaw's fate, had resisted, and most had died trying to escape capture. Only two remained. Gil and 362.
362 watched as Gil left the saloon, laughing and talking at the top of his voice to the one with the moustache. How dare he laugh, when 362 no longer could? Moustache tripped on the steps, obviously drunk, and only just managed to avoid falling on his face. The young sheriff exited the saloon, walking zombie-like toward the boarding house, to tired to acknowledge his intoxicated friend's spirited teasing, let alone return it. The bear-like preacher and the tall healer stepped onto the porch. The preacher ambled down the boardwalk toward the church and out of sight. The healer remained by the saloon door, quietly observing the spectacle before him; Gil practically dragging his friend down the street to the boarding house. 362 smiled. His time was neigh.
He moved quickly down the back street, behind the shops and out of sight, reaching the boarding house long before his prey. Concealing himself in the alley beside the building, 362 watched the boy enter the main doors. No need to trouble him. He heard the others approach, before he saw them. Buck was making enough noise to raise the dead. As they neared the end of the alley, prisoner 362 pulled a knife from his belt and readied himself to pounce. Ready... ready... ready....
A strong hand caught prisoner 362 from behind, around the throat, and pushed him back against the wall. Another pinned his knife hand against the brick and slammed it, once, twice, three times, and the weapon clattered to the ground. To say 362 was surprised would have been an immense understatement, but he never called out, barely fought back. As he looked up into the eyes of his assailant all he could think was ironic that a healer would be so efficient at this. Alone in the night, Nathan hauled the would-be murderer into the gaol and left him there.
Vin was feeling very left out. Ezra was off doing his usual I don't need or want your help thing, while Chris retaliated with his I'm gonna help, like it or not thing and both had told Vin to stay put. Just because someone had put a bounty on his head.... Vin fidgeted, growled and downed another shot of whiskey.
When they finally returned, he was in a truly filthy mood. "If you two haven't found something out, I'm going home," he announced.
"Patience is a virtue, Mr Tanner. Have a little faith," Ezra seemed smug, so Vin assumed something had gone right.
Chris sat behind his friend and poured himself a whiskey. "Much to my amazement, Ezra, here, seems to know what he's doing."
Ezra shook his head. "I am overwhelmed by this outpouring of confidence in my person," Ezra retorted, sarcasm dripping from every word. His annoyance dissipated as Chris grinned at him. Ezra, himself, was pretty pleased with proceedings.
"So, fill me in..." demanded Vin, sounding strangely like JD.
Chris was about to when a young boy enter the hotel and headed in their direction.
"Such alacrity, Master David? Surely you have not cornered our quarry so soon," Ezra raised an eyebrow at his young employee.
"See f'r y'rself," replied Davey, as he led the way out of the large doors, into the street. There, on the boardwalk stood a girl of no more than twenty five years. Her clothes, a shirt and peasant skirt, were several sizes too big for her and bleached grey from years of use. She was stick thin, the result of persistent malnourishment, and her face pale as her clothing, made more so by her near-black hair. She, like the tenements, had deteriorated since Ezra's last contact, but there was a fire in her eyes and her movement that had not diminished at all.
"Aline?" Ezra spoke the name almost reverently. Davey pulled on Ezra's coat, demanding payment, which Ezra dutifully handed over. Ten dollars, to match the one already in the child's pocket from when he was commissioned.
"Davey, you look after that, ye hear? Don't ye go tellin' no one ye have it, or ye won't have it for long," Aline was American, born and bred, but her accent carried the Irish of her neighbourhood. The boy glanced from the girl to his bounty, then solemnly handed it over to her. "Alright, then, I'll see to it f'r ye." Davey ran off, back to his own neighbourhood, where he felt safe. Aline then turned her attention to the men before her. "Nick," she called Ezra by the alias he had used with Jimmy Stiles, " I see double talk and card tricks are profitable enterprises," she referred to the money Ezra had lavished on his messenger. Two dollars would have been enough, not twenty.
Ezra looked away, apparently embarrassed by that forthright assessment. "How have you been keeping yourself?" he asked, his voice low.
"No way you'd approve, I'm sure," she replied, her cold eyes darting from one of his companions to another, "now, the boy tells me ye have business f'r me. Is that right, Nick?"
Ezra nodded. "If you still sell information. I want to know about Jimmy. He turned up out west last month with some sharpshooter and a toff, Will something-or-other. They were bounty hunting."
Aline frowned "What's it to ye?"
Vin spoke up. "I'm the bounty."
Aline raised an eyebrow. "I'd not be sayin' that so loud, were I ye. I girl could live a long time on the bounty bein' offered."
"A lot. I depends on who ye ask; there's more than one party interested in that money. It was foolish f'r ye to come here."
"So you know something?" Ezra moving things back on track. "Can you tell us from where the money originates?"
Aline smiled. "I heard it from Will. He was one of my regulars, ye see. I'm the one who got him and Jimmy together, in the first place."
"A method by which I have been keeping myself, of which you would not approve. Itís amazing what ye can find out, listening to pillow talk." She relished the look of horror that flashed in his eyes, if only for a moment. Attacking that wall of his was her favourite sport.
The idea of this proud girl selling herself made Ezra sick, but he hid this behind a poker face and continued on. "The money?"
She shook her head. "Will liked to brag, but he was not stupid," Ezra nodded, glanced over to Vin, who now seemed to be taking this bounty seriously, "however, for the right price, I might be able to find out f'r ye."
Ezra fixed her with a stare. "Name your price."
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