Chains of the Past, part 2

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Night fell, blanketing the quiet land with blackness. Nathan sat outside the flimsy shelter he shared with the other ‘slaves’, and watched six armed men guard the perimeter of the camp. He shuddered, recalling too vividly the days he’d tried to forget.

He’d been at the slave camp now for four days, each one longer than the one before. His head still ached, but his sore muscles from the physical labor easily surpassed it. He shifted slightly, feeling the reassuring weight of the knife that hung between his shoulderblades. His captors hadn’t done a thorough job of searching him, probably figuring someone like himself wouldn’t know how to wield a knife with deadly accuracy. Of course, they had never had to escape through the Underground Railroad where the only weapon Negroes had were knives. He wouldn’t use it, though, unless he had to. As Ezra would’ve said, it was his ace in the hole.

Somebody opened the canvas flap and Nathan recognized Tommy’s smaller figure.

"Whatcha ya doin’ out here, Nathan?" he asked curiously.

"Thinking," he replied quietly.

Tommy shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

"Want to join me?" Nathan invited.

The boy nodded and sank down to the ground to sit cross-legged beside him. "What’re you thinkin’ about?"

"This place. How can someone get away with makin’ us slaves again?"

Tommy shrugged. "I s’pose ‘cause no one cares what happens to us."

"I have some friends who care, and they’re gonna come lookin’ for me sooner or later," Nathan said confidently. "You know how many guards there are?"

"There’s six around at night and ten during the day."

"And how many of us are there?"

"’Bout thirty, I reckon."

"So why haven’t folks worked together to escape?"

"My pa tried to get ‘em to do that, but everyone was scared," Tommy explained, his voice sounding small in the vastness of the Texas night. "I guess they had good reason."

"What do you mean?"

"Pa didn’t know about the guards at the canyon entrance. Anybody tries to get out, they got to go through that pass. That’s where he was killed."

Nathan’s blood chilled. "That means anyone who tries to come in’s gonna be shot down, too."

Tommy nodded. "Even if your friends find out about this place, they’re gonna be killed tryin’ to get in."

Nathan’s breath caught in his chest. He had planned on waiting until Chris, Josiah, and the others came, but now…. "Are you sure? Is that the only way in and out?’

Tommy nodded. "Yep. Pa did a lot of scoutin’ around before he tried…I wanted to go with, but he wouldn’t let me. Said he’d bring the law and get everyone out."

"Your pa was a brave man."

"Ma didn’t think so. Said he was stupid for tryin’ to get away." Tommy paused. "I think someone told on him so they knew and was just waitin’ to shoot him."

"Why would someone give up one of their own?"

"To get more food or some new clothes," Tommy replied with a thread of steely anger, the first passionate emotion Nathan had seen in the boy..

"A human life is a helluva lot more valuable than that," Nathan stated, his own rage adding force to his words. He took a deep breath to cool the wrath heating his blood. "Before the war, before we was freed, we didn’t have no say in our lives. I never knew my father, and my ma raised me until I was old enough to work the cotton."

"How old was that?"

"Five. I never seen my ma after that. I remember cryin’ myself to sleep, wonderin’ where she was and why she’d left me."

"Why did she?"

"The master sold her." Nathan took a deep breath. He hadn’t thought about his mother for years, yet the feelings were still there – biding their time until he brought the memories out of their hiding place. "There was this old woman who took me under her wing, and watched out for me. Folks would go to her when they was sick, and I used to help her take care of them. Harriet taught me about different plants and how they could heal certain sicknesses. She also taught me about hate and how it doesn’t hurt nobody but yourself, and she said even though I was a slave, no one owned my thoughts and feelin’s."

Tommy appeared thoughtful in the sparse light. "My pa said that though my body was a prisoner, my soul wasn’t. I ain’t quite sure what he meant, but I got a feelin’ it’s a lot like you said."

"Sounds like he was a smart man."

The boy drew the back of his hand across his eyes. "He was."

Nathan put an arm around his shoulders. "I bet he’s up there lookin’ down at you, and he’s right proud of you."

Tommy raised his gaze to the twinkling stars. "You really think so?"

Nathan nodded. "If you were my son, I’d be proud."

They sat in companionable silence, though Nathan’s troubled thoughts brought him back to the narrow canyon pass and the deadly trap that awaited his friends. He’d have to try to escape, like Tommy’s pa had done. Only he had to survive in order to save his friends, as well as free his fellow prisoners.

"You really think your friends are gonna find you?" Tommy asked skeptically.

Nathan pictured Chris, Vin, Josiah, Ezra, Buck, and JD, and couldn’t help but smile. "You don’t know my friends. Iffen they have to move heaven and earth, they’ll do it."

"I wish I had me some friends like that."

"You have one friend like that," Nathan said softly. "Let’s go on back inside and get some sleep. I got a feelin’ we’ll need it."

Nathan followed the boy back into the shelter, but paused in the doorway and took one last longing glance at the open sky that he’d taken for granted. If – when – he got out of this, he would remind himself every day of the priceless gift of freedom.


"And Ezra’s mother comes down those stairs like a queen about to hold court," Stewart described. "Why, I bet half the men there nearly tripped over themselves trying to get to her side first. Little did they know what they were getting into when they sat down at the poker table with her," he managed to finish his story before he lapsed into more laughter.

Ezra’s smile was bittersweet at the long-forgotten memory. "My mother always did like to make a spectacular entrance."

"That’s an understatement if I ever heard one," Stewart said and puffed his thick cigar. "It’s your turn to tell us what you’ve been doing since the conflict."

Ezra sipped the exceptional brandy and set the snifter down on the linen-covered table. "I followed in my mother’s formidable footsteps. I spent a couple years dealing poker and faro aboard a Mississippi riverboat that ran back and forth between St. Louis and New Orleans. Then I followed the mining towns – I made quite a killing on many of those hapless miners." He chuckled. "Until one gentleman took offense at my penchant for winning. And I’ve been drifting ever since, gambling and engaging in other sports of chance."

"Do you ever think about buying your own place?" Lottie asked from beside Stewart, whose arm was draped around her shoulders.

"I plan to as soon as my monetary resources allow such an investment," Ezra said. "But for now I must content myself with gambling in distinguished establishments such as your own."

Stewart’s twinkling gaze remained on Ezra, and he grinned. "You remind me so much of your mother. A wonderful woman, Lottie. You’d like her."

Lottie smiled. "I believe I would. Would you gentlemen like some more brandy?"

Ezra shook his head. He’d already consumed three glasses, more than he was accustomed to since he preferred to keep a clear head. "No, thank you, my dear Lottie. Although I hate to end such a delightful evening, I’m afraid I am a bit fatigued."

Stewart pulled out his gold pocketwatch and his eyes widened. "It’s nearly one o’clock. I have to say I’ve enjoyed this evening immensely. Seeing you again, Ezra, has reminded me of the good times, before the conflict."

Ezra nodded. "I, too, have enjoyed re-living old times with you, Stewart. The visits to your plantation are some of my fondest memories."

"It’s a shame what those Yankees did to it. I was glad my wife didn’t live to see the shamble of her beloved home," Stewart said, and sighed. "How long do you plan on staying in town, Ezra?"

"I’m not certain, perhaps a day or two."

Stewart sat up straight, excitement lighting up his expression. "Why don’t you return to my home with me tomorrow morning? You can stay there for as long as you’ll be in the territory."

Startled, Ezra said, "I thought you lived in town."

Stewart chuckled. "I come in to visit Lottie a couple times a month, but I prefer the comforts of the Evening Rose."

"The Evening Rose?"

"I re-built her here in Texas," Steward replied proudly. "It looks exactly like the original plantation."

Ezra’s mind conjured the opulent elegance of the Evening Rose. He and his mother had stayed in an enormous suite with two adjoining bedrooms which had taken up one half of the second floor. Those had been good days, days he and his mother had spent together in the company of Stewart and his lovely wife Ruth. Servants had catered to their every need, and food had been plentiful and prepared by a French cook brought over from Paris by Stewart. The thought of returning to such exquisite surroundings tempted Ezra. Then he remembered Nathan and the others, and the reason they were in Lancaster.

"I’m not certain if I can accept such a gracious invitation."

"You said yourself you’re only drifting," Stewart pressed.

Ezra tugged at the ruffles on his shirt cuffs as his conscience struggled with its dilemma. "Why not allow me to sleep on it and if I decide to accept, I could meet you here in the morning."

Stewart nodded, satisfied. "That’ll be fine. I’ll be leaving right after sunrise." Ezra couldn’t forestall a slight scowl, and Stewart laughed. "Still a late sleeper, I see."

"My vocation disallows me from retiring too early in the evening, and I’ve grown accustomed to such hours."

"I understand, but I have to get back. I have some business to attend to."

"Then perhaps I shouldn’t -- "

"Nonsense. While you’re settling in, I can take care of it, then I can show you around."

Ezra smiled. "Your offer is a difficult one to resist." He pushed back his chair and stood. He faced Lottie, took her hand in his and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. "Thank you, Lottie, for an enchanting evening."

Stewart leaned back in his chair, humor glinting in his eyes. "I think I’m glad you’re not staying around too long. I’m afraid I would have to challenge you to a duel over Lottie’s hand."

"I would never be so bold as to presume I could win the fair lady’s heart when it is already clearly captured by you," Ezra said gallantly.

Lottie laid her palm on Stewart’s arm. "Ah, but a woman loves to have her affections courted by two such handsome men."

Ezra accepted her teasing with a slight laugh. "Thank you again, Lottie." He turned to Stewart. "And it was a fortuitous circumstance running into you again, Stewart."

The powerful man stood and gripped Ezra’s outstretched hand. "I’m hoping this isn’t good-bye yet."

"I harbor the same hope. Good night."

Ezra crossed the intimate dining room and stepped into the main hall of the emporium. Though late, the gambling continued and Ezra resisted the urge to join them even as he covered a yawn with his hand. The two day ride to Lancaster had been a test in endurance. They’d barely recovered from the labor of the cattle drive when Nathan had been asked to help deliver a baby. They’d gone ahead while the healer had gone with the anxious father. And now Nathan was missing.

Through the smoky light given off by a few street fires, Ezra walked down the boardwalk toward the hotel. He assumed the others were already asleep for the night and was surprised to see Vin sitting in the hotel’s bar drinking. Without hesitation, he moved to join him at his table.

"How was your little party?" Vin asked with a twinkle in his eyes that made it hard for Ezra to be offended by the prying question.

"Splendid, Mr. Tanner." Ezra glanced at the half empty bottle of whiskey. "It appears the two of you are having a party of your own."

"The boys drank most of it. I’m just watchin’ and listenin’," Vin replied.

"Have you ascertained anything about our missing companion?"

"Nothing. Chris, Josiah, Buck, and JD are headed to Orville tomorrow morning." Ezra didn’t bother to correct his tomorrow to today. "They hit the sack a couple hours ago – going to get an early start."

"Orville is where the woman lives who Nathan gave assistance to?"

Vin nodded. "That’s right. Me and you are going to stay behind in case Nathan shows up. Or in case someone wants to tell us something."

"Do you believe someone in this town is not being completely forthright with information about the whereabouts of Mr. Jackson?"

Vin tipped his head to the side. "Maybe more than one someone. You learn anythin’ tonight?"

"Only that one must be wary of the effects of three glasses of brandy," Ezra said with a lazy grin. "My friend invited me to visit his home for a couple days."

"What’d you tell him?"

"That I highly doubted I would be able to accept." He looked around at the dreary saloon, and a surge of annoyance surprised him. Stewart had reminded him there was more to life than places like this; places where Ezra had spent most of the last ten years of his life. "That, of course, was before I knew we would be extending our stay."

Vin studied him with an unblinking and somewhat unnerving stare. "What’s this fellah to you, Ezra? Family?"

Ezra shook his head. "Unfortunately not. He was a friend to my mother and I when we had few. Stewart Randolph and his wife Ruth were the epitome of Southern hospitality. Before Sherman burned his home to the ground," Ezra finished bitterly. He took a deep breath, realizing he’d shown too much emotion, and eased his features into a neutral mask. "Stewart is an upstanding gentleman, a rare commodity in this uncivilized frontier."

The tracker remained silent for a long moment, then shrugged. "Why don’t you go visit your friend while I hang around town, do a little snoopin’. Hell, maybe Nathan’ll ride in on his own."

Startled that Vin would take on the responsibility of remaining in town alone, Ezra asked, "Are you certain?"

"Sure. It ain’t often you get to spend time with folks you care about."

Although Ezra cared about Vin, Chris, Nathan, and the others, it was different than what he felt for Stewart. Stewart reminded him of better days, a time when Ezra and his mother had been happy and carefree. There were few times in Ezra’s life when he’d felt like he belonged – Stewart Randolph had given them a place to call home for a little while. And the memories Ezra had of him were filled with warmth and contentment.

"Thank you, Vin," he said, and was surprised when his throat tightened a bit.

Vin sent him a crooked grin as if he knew exactly how he felt. "I’m gonna turn in. See you in the mornin’."

"I’ll be leaving right after sunrise," Ezra said.

"That late?" Vin winked and climbed the stairs up to his room.

Ezra sat quietly. It didn’t seem right to leave Vin alone without anyone backing him up. How often had the ex-bounty hunter backed him when a poker game got ugly? Offhand, he could think of at least five instances. Yet there didn’t seem to be any reason why both of them should grow bored, waiting for Nathan to show up or the others to return. Besides, out of all seven men, Vin was the most self-sufficient. He could take care of himself.

Standing, Ezra shoved his reservations aside. He doubted he’d ever have another chance to visit with Stewart and re-live some of the glorious days before the war. With bone weary steps, he climbed the stairs, wincing only slightly at the remaining stiffness from the cougar’s attack nearly two months ago.


Chris tightened his saddle cinch, then dropped the stirrup into place. He turned to Vin who leaned against the livery door, a dim figure in the pre-dawn dark. "You watch yourself, Vin."

"I always do," Vin responded with characteristic self-assurance.

Chris watched JD tie his bedroll to the saddle, then looked at Buck and Josiah who were already standing by their saddled horses. A sense of unease crept through him, although he couldn’t assign a specific reason for it.

"I don’t like us splitting up like this -- " he began

"We ain’t got a choice," Vin interrupted. "Nathan’s out there somewhere and I hope to hell he’s alive, but the longer we’re missin’ him, the less chance we got of findin’ him that way."

Chris didn’t like it, but he couldn’t argue either. He nodded shortly and tightened his latigo strap beneath his chin. He held out his hand and Vin gripped it firmly. "We’ll see you in two, three days at the most."

"Good luck, pard," Vin said.

Their eyes held for a long moment, then Chris mounted up and led the others out of town.

Vin lifted his hand to the men. He had decided not to tell Chris about Ezra and his planned visit with his friend. Vin suspected what Chris’s reaction would be and felt that there was little danger to him as long as he kept his wits about him. Hell, Vin had lived on his own for years. A couple days alone in Lancaster would be a cakewalk.

Once the four men were out of sight, he glanced around at the still-quiet town. A light in the restaurant reminded him he hadn’t eaten breakfast and he went to treat himself to a thick steak, a few eggs, toast and a pot of coffee. He paid for the meal and tipped his hat to the young waitress who blushed. As Vin strode out onto the boardwalk, he idly wondered if he’d embarrassed her. Shrugging, he set the trifling thought aside and glanced around the awakening town.

Spotting a familiar figure, he crossed the street to cut him off.

"Good mornin’, Ezra," Vin greeted with a grin.

"Morning, yes, good, no," Ezra growled.

"You shoulda had breakfast with me, a mighty fine steak and a hot pot of coffee to wash it down."

Ezra’s face seemed to take on a greenish cast. "Eating at such an ungodly hour cannot be healthy."

Vin took pity on him and refrained from tormenting him any further. "This fellah, Stewart Randolph, where does he live?"

Ezra opened his mouth then clamped it shut. Finally he shook his head. "I have no idea. However, from what I can determine, it is an imposing residence so should not be overly difficult to locate."

"You gonna be back in a couple days?"

Ezra nodded.

"Have a good time," Vin said then turned away.

Ezra grasped his arm. "I feel as if I’m running out on you and Nathan," he admitted in a low voice.

Vin recalled Ezra’s one and only time he’d deserted the six of them, and Chris’s subsequent cold anger. Vin had been more disappointed than angry, but the gambler had made up for his mistake many times over. "You ain’t runnin’ out on anyone, Ezra," he reassured, a hint of gentleness in his tone.

The lines in Ezra’s brow eased and he granted Vin a grateful smile. "If you learn anything of Nathan, be sure to come and inform me. Or if you need help, you know I will return instantly."

"I know you will," Vin said, meaning it.

Ezra, seemingly embarrassed, continued across the street to a place called The Green Table Emporium.

Sighing, Vin rubbed his grizzled jaw. One of these days he’d get a handle on Ezra.

Or maybe not.


Even though it was late October, the Texas sun still wielded an almighty powerful heat. Nathan drew his forearm across his brow, and the sting of sweat in his eyes made him blink rapidly. His filthy shirt clung to his back and his trousers chafed his legs. The last time he’d felt this miserable was when he was hanging by his neck in the cemetery in Four Corners, right before Vin shot the rope which was slowly strangling him.

The thought of Vin and the others made him more determined to escape before his friends were unwittingly cut down trying to rescue him. That they wouldn’t try didn’t even cross Nathan’s mind.

Glancing around, he noticed an old white-haired man hanging his head and seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. His healing instincts sharpened and he approached the man then hunkered down beside him. He laid a hand on his pitifully thin shoulder. "You okay, mister?"

The man didn’t seem to hear him.

"You need some water?" Nathan asked.

That seemed to stir the old man out of his stupor, and he nodded weakly.

Nathan took hold of his arm to help him stand. "C’mon, we’re gonna get you out of the sun and get some water for you."

As he aided the ailing man toward a scant piece of shade, Nathan was aware of the half curious, half hostile looks they garnered from the other slaves. Was everyone so absorbed in their own pity that they couldn’t even attempt to help one of their own? Anger vibrated through Nathan, tensing his muscles and making his heart pound. He remembered well the apathy before the war on that Mississippi plantation.

//It don’t matter what others do, Nathan, it’s what you do. Your life is the only one you can control and you can choose to help those less strong or you can choose to damn everyone else for not makin’ that choice.//

Harriet’s words cut through his disgust and anger, and his breathing slowed. She was right. He could either waste energy getting mad or do something positive. It was why he’d chosen healing people instead of remaining bitter to those who had kept them like animals. And if Nathan hadn’t made that decision, he would’ve never met Josiah, then Chris and the others. Even Ezra who, at first, had reminded Nathan too much of why he’d never returned to Mississippi.

One of the armed guards stepped in front of Nathan and his burden. "What do you think you’re doin’?"

"This man needs water and to rest some in the shade," Nathan replied, not giving in to the instinct to lower his eyes as he’d been trained to do so many years ago.

"Get back to work!"

"But he’s gonna die if he don’t get out of the sun," Nathan argued.

The old man groaned and feebly moved. His mouth moved but he didn’t have the strength to speak aloud.

The guard brought his rifle up, the barrel centered on Nathan’s chest. "I said get back to work or it’s gonna be you who dies."

"What’s goin’ on here?" the overseer approached, his coiled whip in hand.

"They won’t go back to work," the guard replied, his gaze and rifle steady on Nathan.

The man narrowed his eyes. "That right, boy?"

Nathan choked back his indignance at being called a boy, and kept his voice even. "Yes, sir. This man needs water and to rest for a time."

"You a doctor?" the overseer continued.

"No, sir, but anyone can see he’s feelin’ poorly."

"You sassin’ me, boy?"

Nathan could barely speak through his clenched teeth. "No, sir. I’m only tellin’ you how it is."

The heavyset man stepped up to Nathan and deliberately uncoiled the whip. "You either get back to work or you’ll feel the rawhide."

Remembered pain and fear flickered through Nathan. "Iffen you let this man get some water and sit in the shade for a time, I’ll go back to work."

"You tellin’ me what to do?"

"No, sir, but I figger you can’t afford to lose two men at once. You help the old man and let him rest, you still got me to work. You whip me, you’ll have two men who can’t do nothin’."

The overseer studied him closely, his beady eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"

"Nathan Jackson."

"I’ll bet you were one of them uppity slaves who tried to escape your master."

Nathan shook his head and raised his chin, unable to stop the pride in his following words. "Didn’t try, did escape."

"Then maybe I’d best give you a few lashes just to remind you what’s gonna happen to you if you try to escape here."

Nathan refused to rise to the bait. Instead, he remained standing in the hot sun, holding most of the old man’s weight across his shoulders.

Finally, the overseer gave in to the bluff and nodded curtly. "Go ahead, get the old nigger out of the sun, then I want you back to work."

The victory tasted bittersweet and Nathan moved away with his semi-conscious burden. After getting him some water and making sure he was going to be all right, Nathan went back to his backbreaking labor, aware of the hostile gaze the overseer didn’t relinquish.

An hour later, he glanced up to see a man riding a white stallion. Dressed in an expensive suit, the gray-haired man surveyed the field, his gaze flickering across the men who worked it. Nathan knew without a doubt that this arrogant man was the ‘master’, the person who had created this hell for he and the other prisoners. His fingers curled into fists and he ached to pull the man from his high and mighty perch, abuse him as Nathan and the others had been mistreated. With an effort, Nathan slowed his breathing and relaxed his hands. Everybody got their due; the ‘master’ would get his, too.

"Monroe," the wealthy man called out.

The overseer hurried over to him, huffing and puffing. "Yes, sir?"

"I thought you said you’d have this section done by now."

Monroe shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other. "Another couple days and it will be," he said, a note of fear in his voice.

The fancy dressed man’s lips thinned in annoyance as he looked about. His gaze stopped on the old man resting in the shade. "What’s he doing over there?"

Nathan’s muscles tensed once more.

Monroe’s face reddened. "He was feeling poorly."

"I don’t care how he was feeling. He should be working, especially since you’re behind schedule already. We need every nigger out in that field. I can’t afford to lose any of this crop."

Before even consciously making the decision, Nathan crossed the twenty feet to where the two men were. "That old man’ll die if he you make him work under the hot sun."

The imperious man glared at Nathan, but spoke to Monroe. "You seem to be getting lax in your duties. First, you allow one of my darkies to sit around when there’s work to be done, and then this one dares to argue with me." He turned his full gaze on Monroe. "Perhaps you’re getting too soft for this job. Maybe I need to find a man who can make sure discipline is maintained and the work is done. On time."

The overseer’s hand settled on his whip. "Give me another chance, sir. I won’t let you down again."

"Be certain you don’t or I will terminate you permanently." The ‘master’ sent Nathan a baneful look. "And make sure this one pays for his insubordination, but only give him five so that he can keep working." And with that, the man yanked on the reins, wheeling his horse around and nearly knocking Nathan over, then he rode away.

"Lem, Charlie get over here," Monroe called out.

Two of the guards hurried to heed his command, and Nathan had a feeling he wasn’t going to like what was coming next. His gaze darted about, searching for an escape route while at the same time knowing he had no chance to get away. His heart pounded in his chest, and his hand went to his back where he had his knife. He had nothing to lose by pulling his ace in the hole – if they planned on whipping him, they’d find the knife anyhow.

He yanked the weapon out of its hiding place and took a defensive stance, holding the knife with a steady hand. "Don’t come any closer," Nathan ordered.

Monroe’s eyes widened then narrowed. "Throw down that knife or you’ll be shot down where you stand."

"Then what’ll you tell your master – he’s already none too happy with you."

"He’ll be a lot less happy if you escape. Nobody has ever escaped."

Though Nathan trembled on the inside, he smiled coldly, consciously mimicking Chris’s expression. "Then I guess I get to be the first."

Monroe’s eyes flickered over Nathan’s shoulder, and he had less than a second to realize one of the guards had moved behind him. A heavy blow to the back of his head sent him stumbling forward and the knife slipped from his numb fingers. Rough hands grabbed him and he was powerless to stop them from dragging him to the t-shaped frame with chains connected to it. He tried to blink away the cobwebs in his head, and made a feeble attempt to escape his captors. But the blow had dazed him, making his reflexes slow and weak. His arms were lifted against the pole and metal links were snapped around his wrists. The renting of cloth told Nathan they’d torn his shirt off his back and he swallowed hard.

"This one’s felt the whip before," one of the guards called out.

"We’ll just add a few of our own reminders," Monroe stated with a chuckle.

"Stop, don’t whip him!"

Nathan twisted his aching head around to see Tommy had run up and stood behind him, shielding Nathan with his small body.

"Get out of the way, boy, or the first lash’ll be yours," Monroe ordered.

"No. You can’t do this!"

Monroe’s face reddened with his rising temper, and he raised the whip. "Move, boy!"

"You gotta leave, Tommy," Nathan said hoarsely. "Don’t worry, I’ll be all right."

Tommy turned to face Nathan. "When my pa was whipped, I seen how much it hurt."

"I’ll be all right," Nathan reassured, and licked his dry lips. "They’re only gonna give me five." He hoped he hid his dread from the boy. "I don’t want you hurt on account of me. Now go on back to work."


"Go on, Tommy. Please."

The boy looked as if he was about to cry, then he drew a deep breath and nodded. "Okay, Nathan, but only ‘cause you asked me to. I’ll take care of your back when they’re done. I done it for my pa."

Nathan managed a smile. "I’ll hold you to that. Now go on."

Instead of going back to work, Tommy moved to stand in front of him, the defiance muted but still there. Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan noticed Monroe raise the whip and he turned to face Tommy. His right cheek against the rough wood, Nathan didn’t have to wait long for the first lash. He jerked as the leather tore into his flesh, renting the skin like a knife flaying a fish. He bit his lip and felt blood roll down his chin. Nathan stared into the boy’s moist eyes, and concentrated on being brave for Tommy. Nathan clamped his teeth together at the second blow, and sweat trickled into his eyes. Then came the third and he closed his eyes momentarily, but reopened them to see a tear roll down Tommy’s cheek.

"It’s all right," Nathan managed to say in a husky voice before the fourth one struck.

Agony screamed through his veins, and he felt the warm wetness of his blood flowing down his back. Finally the fifth lash was dispensed, and Nathan allowed his body to sag against the whipping post and the metal dug into his wrists, a slight discomfort compared to the pain that pulsed in his back and spread outward.

A few moments later, one of the guards unlocked his manacles and Nathan slipped to the ground. Unconsciousness invited him into sheltered darkness and Nathan allowed the temptress to lure him to oblivion.

Part 3