Note: This story answers the April 2006 Mag7Challenge, the Western Cliché Challenge

PART 1:

A ruthless gang had been robbing banks throughout the area, known for finding locations with an influx of gold. They had no qualms with killing anyone who stood in their way.

A tiny gold rush had hit the hills over Four Corners, so the gang tried their luck in town. When they made their attempt at the bank, they'd been surprised by the vigilance and the ferocity of the town's protectors.

The gang of ten went after the team of Seven, and soon nine men were in custody, with only minor injuries amongst the Four Corners regulars. Ezra was able to get a good look at the last man, but he was occupied with taking down their lookout, and then there were the others in his team that needed tending. Matt Harrington, the leader of the gang, managed to get away. There was no doubting that he'd show up again somewhere. It was only a matter of time.

Weeks later, Harrington seemed to have resurfaced in his old stomping grounds, Cincinnati, Ohio. He brought a new gang together, forsaking the Wild West for the established banks of the east. Harrington was going up in the world. Judge Travis asked that Standish travel to the city to help the officials in identifying the man – Ezra was one of the few who'd seen Harrington and lived.

It was a tough time to be sending one of the Seven away, what with the gold in the hills and a tenacious fever going through the area, but Ezra went willingly, glad to spend some time in the city. Besides, it would be for only a few days.

He sent a telegram when he arrived, stating that all was well. The next telegram, a few days later, said that his goal would not be accomplished as quickly as Travis had speculated.

For nearly three weeks, semi-regular notes explained Ezra's lack of progress. "NO SIGHT OF TARGET" and "STILL WAITING DOING NOTHING." Then a telegram stated that he would be out of communication for an unknown amount of time. He would send a letter to explain the details.

Nearly a week later, the letter arrived, sent on the same day as the telegram.

"It is a frustrating situation.

Why was I sent to this metropolis if I am not to provide any assistance in the endeavor of bringing Matthew Harrington to justice? I am a mere criminal to these Officers of the Peace. They have seen my record and have no regard for the pardon I received. They believe I should be locked away for my past crimes. I have served enough time behind bars to satisfy my sense of justice, but not theirs.

When they are not treating me as a serious threat to their safety, they behave toward me as if I were a simpleton that needs everything explained in excruciating detail. They have been calling me "Cowboy" if you can believe that, and seem to be fixed on the idea that everyone who lives "The Wild West" is a violent gunslinger who has no qualms about shooting down any miscreant that looks at him sideways. This is true of some, but not everyone.

They believe that I have no idea how an investigation is handled. True, I'm used to different tactics, but I will not be treated as an imbecile. They are determined to follow their protocol unbendingly. I must say that some of their actions are questionable. There are some underhanded deals going on, of that I have no doubt.

I have not yet caught sight of Harrington, and the officers have been unable to detain him so that I can make a positive identification of the outlaw. It seems as if this is not by chance

Since I am making no progress under their good graces and they seem to be blocking my way, I am branching out on my own. I believe I have found a way into Mr. Harrington's new 'gang' and will do what I can to ingratiate myself into his services. I do not believe he was able to see me when he was in Four Corners, and I have altered my look in any case. He will not recognize me.

Wish me well. Yours, most sincerely, Ezra P. Standish"

Larabee fired a telegram off to Stanley Carr, the Police Captain at the precinct where Ezra was assigned. The next telegram went to Judge Travis. Another was sent to Ezra, but he was unsure of when Standish would be able to respond. It said simply, "DO NOT DO ANYTHING STUPID."

Neither Standish nor Carr responded. Travis' telegram stated that he'd look into the situation. It took a few days, but the judge finally was able to deliver some information. Standish had parted ways with the police force, but had been sending them covert messages regarding his work with Harrington. Standish had succeeded in gaining a place with the man's crew. Travis was told that this venture was not approved by the police, and they accepted no responsibility for what might happen to Standish.

That was the first time that one of them almost boarded a train to Ohio. Larabee was ready to pack and go before Buck reasoned that it would be better to stay away. "If you ask too many questions and he's trying to keep himself secret, you'll just be causing him harm. Let Ezra finish this up and come home."

Chris considered going anyway, to find out what was going on with Carr, but they were shorthanded. And what could he do anyway? The town was filling up with folks who were determined to bring gold out of the ground. Every night, a new riot was breaking out as the frustrated prospectors took to the streets. It was a constant battle to keep everyone in line.

Nathan was in demand as the fever went through the town, with Vin currently in residence at the clinic, caught in its grips. It was an unpleasant sickness that brought a rising temperature and delirium. The worst of the illness would pass after a difficult day followed by several days of bed-rest afterward. It kept Nathan busy day and night.

It made no sense for one of them to leave, and just cool their heels as they waited for Ezra to finish up his work. He was a big boy and could take care of himself.

Larabee wired Travis asking for an update, and was rewarded a few days later with the good news that Harrington and his men had been captured that morning.

"Praise the Lord," Josiah said when the telegram reached his hands. "Ezra will finally be able to come home." It had been over a month by that point.

Expecting an immediate telegram from Ezra, the others hung near town, watching Juje's telegraph shack. Nothing came.

Larabee sent another message to Carr that received a response the following day. It read: "STANDISH RECOVERED STOP UNDER TREATMENT AT GENERAL HOSPITALSTOP."

Alarmed, they wired the hospital immediately. The response came that Standish had been admitted but had since been discharged. No other information was given. Anxious as hell, Larabee sent another telegram to Carr and to Travis demanding information, and another to Standish reading "WHAT IS GOING ONSTOP ARE YOU ALL RIGHTSTOP"

The wire service was going to be the death of them all with its frustrating delays and clipped messages.

A message from Travis arrived, explaining that Ezra had been shot in the arm during the capture and the injury was not serious. He'd been released from the hospital. Carr's office would be sending him a detailed letter to the judge's office, and Travis would forward it when it arrived.

Nathan wanted to go, but was too overwhelmed with treating the folks suffering from the fever. Vin was on the mend, but Josiah and JD were both suffering now. Then, Chris started to get woozy. He would be in bed soon with the disease.

Ezra had received hospital treatment in the city, so what good was a healer from a tiny town?

Gold kept coming into town, and Four Corners remained ridiculously crowded. They'd called in the men who regularly helped them when they were short staffed, but it still wasn't enough. Still, Buck made plans, and sent a wire, letting Ezra know he was coming. If Ezra was hurt, they were going to send someone.

The next morning, before Buck could go any further, another wire – this time from Ezra. "I AM FINE STOP WOUND IS SLIGHTSTOPBUCK PLEASE REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE NEEDED STOP DETAILS TO FOLLOW IN LETTER STOP"

The next day, another telegram from Standish, saying little aside that he was recovering and that he would soon be on a train home. And then, another telegram two days later, saying that he would spend a few days in the city. With that, they all waited.

JD and Josiah were feeling better by then, and Chris – worse.

The letter from Standish and the one from Carr, forwarded by Travis, came on the same day. Larabee opened Ezra's letter first, perplexed by the handwriting. "I may not be seein' straight right now," he said, "but this ain't Ezra's handwriting."

Vin corrected him. "That's his left hand. He writes with his right most times, but does his sums with his left. That's how his numbers look."

Larabee frowned and read the letter.

"Dear Mr. Larabee, Nathan, Josiah, J.D., Buck and Vin. Please be aware that the order of your names probably has nothing to do with preference of any kind."

Well, although the handwriting was different, the words were not.

"I am certain that you are somewhat alarmed by the news that I have managed to wound myself during this escapade, but please be assured that this injury is nothing more than an inconvenience. A bullet clipped my right arm.

Worry not, the wound is insubstantial. It will just need some time to heal. Sadly, I have injured my favorite arm, thus the poor penmanship of this letter. Please forgive me."

Larabee smirked because Ezra's left-handed writing was better formed than his own right-handed.

"I believe I may take a few day's leisure at the hotel before returning to the bustling streets of Four Corners."

"He's been there for well over month already," Nathan said petulantly. He was sitting at one of the tables, his head in his hands. The fever had finally latched hold of the healer and he really should have been in bed at that moment, but he'd come down from the clinic when he heard that letter had arrived. "Why would he want to stay longer if he was okay?"

Yeah, Larabee had to admit, that sounded a bit peculiar.

"How goes Mr. Jackson's fight against the dreaded disease inflicted upon our fair town? I hope that he has not succumbed as well."

Nathan snorted at this.

"It may be wise for me to stay here at present if the fever is still virulent. I am not at my best and would prefer to remain on the road to recovery."

"That's why," Josiah said, looking to Nathan. "He might have a point."

The healer sighed, "Yeah, it might be best if he stayed away for a bit longer." He looked weary as hell. "If he's still recovering from that gunshot, another few days away might be a good idea."

"Yeah, probably," Larabee said with a shake of his head. "We can tell him to start heading back though, maybe get him to Ridge City?"

Nathan shook his head in his hands. "They got it bad there. I hear it's as far as Dodge City."

"St. Louis then?" Chris tried.

"We'll let him know," Josiah commented. "Unless, of course he's feeling poorly. Might be best to just rest where he is then."

Larabee continued reading.

"Are the hills still filled with gold? I may have to return soon in order to get in on the rush, but I fear the hills will be depleted before am able to return. I have serious doubts on the quantity of gold available. The quality seemed questionable. I fear that the labor expended in the pursuit may not equal the possible gain. I believe I would have better luck with the amassed rabble that is undoubtedly filling your streets. If they haven't already spent all their money on mining supplies, I could definitely free them from remains in their pockets."

Chris shook his head, realizing that Ezra was missing out on a gold mine of his own with all the frustrated prospectors currently in town.

"I hope that my absence hasn't caused undo stress on the rest of you. I know that resources are stretched. I hope that no one else has attempted to breach the bank and that not too many saloons have been broken up in the melees.

I will return as soon as it is advisable. Yours, most faithfully, Ezra P. Standish."

"Well, that sounded good," Nathan said.

"He sure gave us a scare," Josiah said, looking relieved as he clapped a hand on Buck's back. "He'll be back soon!"

Larabee opened the letter that Travis had sent them, written by Carr.

"Travis," it started. "I was misinformed regarding the man you sent. I was under the impression that he was a certified lawman. Then, I found out he is little more than a hired gun in an unincorporated town. His record is extensive. I feel that I was dangerously misinformed regarding this person. This is especially unjustified considering that we are working for the public good."

"That guy's a prick," Buck stated. "No wonder Ezra didn't like him."

"E. Standish was not under my supervision for much the duration of this investigation. Against my orders, he ingratiated himself into Harrington's company. Due to his history, we were unable to be certain of his intentions.

On April 3rd, during the arrest of Harrington and men. E. Standish chose an ill-advised position and was caught in the crossfire. He was recovered the following day and…"

"Following day?" Nathan cut in, blinking to clear his eyes. "Did I hear that right? They didn't find him until the next day?"

Larabee clutched at the letter, his brow furrowing. "It doesn't explain," he said.

"That son of a bitch!" Buck growled as he got unsteadily to his feet.

"Steady, Buck," Vin said, putting up a hand to keep Buck from falling over.

Nathan sighed, realizing that he'd have another patient in the clinic by the end of this meeting. At least they'd be able to keep each other company, and let Josiah take care of things.

"What the hell's goin' on out there?" Buck barked.

Larabee's frown deepened. "Carr blames Ezra for what happened to him," he said. "He's saying that it's his own damn fault he got shot."

"That's not fair!" JD cried.

Larabee stood. "I'll send the wire. I'll tell Ezra to relax at the hotel for now. He can head to St. Louis in a few days if he's up to it."

"One of us should go fetch him," Buck said, blinking a bit too much as he sagged.

They were in sorry shape. Nearly all of them were sick with the fever or in various states of recovery. There was no telling when the gold would stop trickling into town. Every ounce of it meant more trouble. Every new miner meant more upset visitors.

They sent the telegram, and waited to hear when he was on the move westward.

More days passed. Ezra sent regular messages from the hotel, with updates that he was fine, and asking if things had improved in Four Corners. He hadn't made any plans to begin his travels. When asked, he returned with "TRAVIS PAYING FOR HOTEL". They figured he'd rather let the judge foot his bill at the agreed to hotel, rather than take his chances in St. Louis, or have to pay out of his own pocket.

Ezra had been away for six weeks, and the fever in town was finally diminishing. Nathan gave the 'go ahead' and Ezra let them know he'd be out on the next train.

Except, he wasn't.

They'd all planned to ride out to meet at the station when Ezra's train eventually made it there, but just before he was to depart Cincinnati, Winston Juje, the telegraph operator called them into his shack to hand them the latest message personally.

It said that Ezra would have to delay for a day or two. He was changing his residence and he'd be unable to respond to any further telegrams sent to the hotel. The message ended with "REVISE TO TOP HAT GD."

"Top Hat?" Buck frowned, still muddled as he recovered. "Revise to Top Hat? Does that mean he's gonna start wearing a different hat?"

"I don't know anyone who wears one in these parts," Vin said, and then he paused. "'Cept, of course, Top Hat Bob." Vin looked to the others. "He might be tellin' us to use that name to contact him."

"GD?" Chris tried. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"General Delivery," Juje told them. "He wants us to send it General Delivery instead of to an address. That way the message will be kept on file at the major telegraph hubs and he can pick it up wherever he pleases."

"Sneaky son of a bitch," Buck stated.

"He's always being sneaky," Nathan grumbled. "Is he doing it because he likes foolin' with us, or does he have a reason?"

"Well, let's see what he has to say about that," Chris said and nodded to Juje to pick up his pad.

"You know," Juje said. "If you need it to happen, when I send it, I can change the codes and make it look like your message is coming from somewhere else."

They looked at him in disbelief.

He added, "And if you feel like you want to use a different name, I won't ask questions."

They sent the message to Bob Spikes in care of General Delivery Cincinnati, asking, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING". Juje coded it as if it had come from Cedar Ridge, from Jock Steele. When asked if the Cedar Ridge operator would ask questions when he heard the message coming through, Juje rolled his eyes and said. "We got an understanding," and "We got ways of letting each other know."

"DEPARTING TOMORROW," Bob Spikes told Jock in his next message. It had been sent to Cedar Ridge, but Juje picked it up, as he listened to all the messages that came through the wire.

But the fever resurfaced in Four Corners with a vengeance, so Jock sent a message to Bob Spikes, telling him stay away from Four Corners. Still, Bob refused to start his journey home. "INVESTIGATING," he said. "NEED MORE TIME."

Jock's next message was an order to leave town, to head to St. Louis. Bob replied with, "NO" and "THIS IS IMPORTANT."

What the hell was Ezra up to? Harrington and his gang had been taken down. There was no reason for him to stay.

The next message to Bob demanded to know where he was. The fever had run its way through all six of them by now, and the gold was a bust. The town was emptying. "WHERE ARE YOU?" Jock asked. "I AM COMING TO HELP".

"DO NOT COME," Bob returned. "WILL CAUSE DIFFICULTIES."

"Difficult, my ass!" Buck grumbled. "I'm goin' to get that stupid so-in-so, and haul his butt back here!"

"WHERE ARE YOU?" the question was sent again. Chris and Buck would be on the next train east, if they just knew how to find Ezra. Cincinnati was no small town, and they had no idea of where to search, especially if Ezra was being sneaky.

"NOT TELLING," was the childish response they received. "ANSWERS WILL COME IN TIME" and "MUST COMPLETE TASK. NEXT PHASE." The message ended with "REVISE TO HANDSOME J".

"What's that one about?" JD asked.

"Handsome Jack Averell," Chris supplied, remembering the man who'd worked for Ella Gaines. Something was definitely going on. This wasn't just Standish trying to annoy them.

What the hell was this 'task'? Ezra's work in Ohio was done.

Their next message was routed to look like Cedar Ridge again, this time they used the name 'Lester Banks' as the sender. "JACK STOP EXPLAIN"

"WORKING" was the return. And "DELAYED."

Working? Larabee ground his teeth in annoyance.

"JACK WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON" was their next message to him. "COMING TO ASSIST," he added. If Ezra would just tell them where he was!

"PENDING" was the enigmatic reply. "NO NEED FOR ASSISTENCE."

Chris was going to strangle the son of a bitch when he finally got his hands on him.

And a week later, Jack sent the message: "ACHIEVED" and "NEXT TASK PENDING."

"EXPLAIN," they asked again.

"NOT AT THIS TIME," Jack replied. "UNWISE."

Almost another week passed, and another message arrived: "TASK COMPLETE. NEXT PHASE." and "DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING" and "REVISE TO PINKERTON MAN".

"Cyrus Poplar?" JD tried. "Why's he keep changing names?"

Something was very definitely wrong. And they were too far away to do anything.

Their next message was routed through Roosterville. Tired of trying to make up names, it was simply signed CL. "CYRUS STOP WHERE ARE YOU STOP". If they knew where the idiot was, they could go after him and end this ridiculous game. It was time for Ezra to come back. What the hell was going on? "WHEN DO YOU RETURN"

"SAFE," was the reply. And "SOON"

They all stayed near town, waiting for the next message to arrive.

If Ezra was running from something, then why wasn't he leaving town?

By then, it had been over two months since Ezra left Four Corners. Not willing to put up with any more of the shenanigans, Larabee wired Cyrus, through Roosterville, letting him know that he was getting on the next train to Cincinnati and would locate him one way or another.

"NO NEED." Came the reply. "MISSION COMPLETE STOP LEAVING TODAY STOP REVISE TO ACHILLES BROTHERSTOP"

"So, he's Hector Thompson now?" Nathan said with a shake of his head. "What's he doing?"

"Who knows?" Larabee shook his head. "But if he's leaving today, he should be back to Ridge City within the next few days." Finally!

But, it took more than a few days. For the next week, more messages trickled in, from Hector, sent to Roosterville for CL. The first came from a town just outside of Cincinnati, and then another from Louisville. "TRAVELING", "HEADED HOME", "ALL IS WELL" and then, "SHOT THE 10K".

"Is he getting more cryptic, or is it just me?" Josiah asked.

Frustrated as hell, Larabee said, "Lucius Stutz, the man who shot Ezra at the governor's rally." The assassin had meant to kill Standish – if it hadn't been for the money stashed in his jacket, Ezra would have been a dead man. There were times that Larabee was grateful that Standish was a greedy son of a bitch.

"Junior," Josiah corrected soberly. "Lucius Stutz, Jr." After a moment, Josiah stated, "He seems to have a curious way of picking names to use."

"Yeah," Larabee muttered, realizing type of men Ezra had chosen for his aliases, all of them had questionable reputations.

"It shouldn't take this long to come home. He sure is making a lot of stops," Buck said.

Another few days passed, and a note came from St. Louis from Lucius Stutz, Jr, letting CL in Roosterville know that everything was fine, and that he would leave the next day.

Larabee was fed up and concerned as hell. "I'll meet the idiot halfway if he's going to keep hopscotching his way here. I'm not going to let him waylay me again." He headed to Ridge City to catch the next train east.

Josiah found Larabee at the Ridge City train station later that day.

"He's coming," Sanchez said happily. "Thank the Lord! We intercepted the telegram from 'L. STUTZ JR' after you left."

Larabee stepped to him to read it, but Josiah went on, "He sent it from Dodge City. He's on his way. He'll be here tomorrow."

Chris sighed in relief. "Guess I'm stayin' put," he said. "Might miss him if he makes another goddamn stop."

"We'll get rooms at the hotel," Josiah decided.

So they stayed the night, and in the afternoon, went to meet the promised train.

If Ezra tried to delay again, there would be no stopping them. Chris would board the next Eastbound and haul him back to Four Corners – one way or another.

TBC - that was one long introduction. Well, I'm sure everything is going to be okay