Chains of the Past, part 3

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

"So what do you think of the Evening Rose?" Stewart asked, smiling broadly like a child showing off a new toy.

Ezra stepped off the bottom step of the curved staircase on to the gleaming wood floor. He shook his head in wonder and smiled back. "If I had not known we were in Texas, I would surely believe I was in Georgia. It’s as grand as I remember it."

"I knew you’d enjoy seeing it," Stewart said. "Have you taken a tour of the place yet?"

"I must confess that my curiosity impelled me to wander about, and I feel as if I should be seeing my mother descend the staircase at any moment."

Stewart threw his head back and laughed. "It’s too bad Maude couldn’t be here, too."

"Yes, well, she has a very full engagement calendar," Ezra said dryly. Anxious to change the subject, he asked, "Were you able to complete the task which you were concerned with?"

Stewart’s smile faded. "Somewhat. I’m afraid good workers are hard to come by down here. One of my employees disappointed me and I had to speak to him about it." He put a hand on Ezra’s back. "Enough business talk. Let’s go into the parlor where we can have a drink and play some billiards. Do you remember how?"

"I haven’t played in years, but I believe it should return to me soon enough," Ezra replied.

Stewart poured them each a brandy while Ezra removed his jacket and hung it carefully on a chair. He straightened his suspenders, then reached for a cue stick and chalk.

An hour later, Ezra set his cue stick on the velvet-covered slate table. Though he’d lost half of the games, he’d enjoyed the company and the visit to the past.

"You are still the most formidable opponent I have ever faced," Ezra said. "For a few years after we stayed at the first Evening Rose, I utilized the skills you taught me playing billiards, and was able to procure more than a few dollars playing against men who fancied themselves quite competent."

"At least until you took their money," Stewart drawled with a smile. He sat down in an overstuffed chair and took a sip of his brandy.

Ezra lowered himself to the sofa across from him and rested an arm across the couch back. "I am amazed that the conflict did not turn you bitter. You are still the same man I knew fifteen years ago."

A shadow passed over Stewart’s face, but he put his smile back in place. "On the whole, yes I am. But losing a wife and home to aggressors wasn’t an easy thing for me, Ezra. We had a genteel life, a home and traditions passed down from my father and his father before him. And in one single blow, everything was destroyed. I knew that it would destroy me, too, if I let it. Instead I swore on my hands and knees on the soil of the Evening Rose that I would rebuild and it would be the same or better than what it was before."

"I have never lived in one place long enough to establish such ties, but I would like to someday. I admire and envy you, Stewart."

"Why don’t you stay here with me, Ezra?" Stewart suddenly asked. "This place is getting too large for one man to handle. You could be my right hand man."

Ezra blinked, shocked by the offer. He smiled and nervously ran a hand through his well-groomed hair. "That’s quite a proposition, Stewart, but-- "

Stewart raised a hand to stop his objections. "I don’t expect you to give me an answer immediately, Ezra. Why don’t you think about it, then give me your decision in a couple days." He stood. "Excuse me a moment, I’m going to check on dinner."

After Stewart left the room, Ezra rose and moved to a full length window that opened on to the verandah. He gazed out at the Texas sunshine. Horses pranced around in the corrals, their well-brushed manes and tails flowing behind them. Ezra could see cattle in the distance, grazing on the rangeland’s grasses. Stewart’s offer was more than a little tempting. All his life he’d made his home wherever he lay his head down. Four Corners was the closest he’d come to a real home, and that was a room above the saloon. Of course, the respect and friendship of the six men counted for something, too. He’d never known such loyalty, either at the receiving or giving end. It was an odd position to find himself in, choosing between them or a man he’d known for half his life.

He drained the rest of his brandy and the smooth liquor flowed down his throat, leaving a lingering but soothing burn behind. Turning, his gaze wandered across the expensive furnishings, the elegant drapes, and the rosewood that shone brightly from regular polishings. He hadn’t been surrounded by such refinement since the last time he’d stayed with Stewart in Georgia. If he accepted his friend’s offer, he’d be able to live here among genteel cultivation. No more gambling in smoky saloons with men whose idea of sophistication was drinking beer out of a clean mug. No more poker games where the winning pot was twenty-five cents. No more bad cheaters who thought they could get away with such amateurish sloppiness.

No more risking his life with the six men or spilling blood for no profit. Except that of knowing he’d made a difference.

A black woman entered and she appeared startled to see Ezra standing by the window. "Excuse me, sir. I didn’t know nobody was here." She kept her gaze down, not meeting Ezra’s eyes.

He smiled. "That’s quite all right, madame. If there’s something you are required to do in here, do not let my presence stop you."

She glanced up at him, her dark face appearing puzzled, then looked away. "Thank you, sir."

For some reason, her diffident manner bothered Ezra. "Have you been employed by Mr. Randolph long?" he asked pleasantly.

She froze like a deer, and her dark eyes were wide when she flashed him a half-fearful look. "Maybe a year."

Ezra frowned. "You’re not certain?"

Again, timidity pinched her features. "I can’t rightly remember."

"Where did you work before coming here?"

This time her gaze remained on Ezra. "I was married to a good man. We had a son." She blinked and he had the most uncomfortable feeling she was going to cry.

"What became of them?"

She shrugged. "I don’t know."

Suddenly Stewart strode through the door and his eyes settled on the servant. "What are you doing in here? I thought you were told to clean only when the rooms were unoccupied."

Alarm registered in her taut body and she bowed deferentially. "I’m sorry, master." She backed out of the room and closed the door behind her.

Ezra’s brow creased. "’Master?’"

Stewart shrugged. "Many of the Negroes I employ continue to use that term."

"I imagine it is strange for many of them who were slaves to now be treated as employees instead of property," Ezra commented, although he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was more to the woman’s oddly frightened reaction.

Stewart put an arm around Ezra’s shoulders. "Come along, Ezra. Dinner is ready. I hope you enjoy roast duck."

In spite of his uneasiness, Ezra’s mouth watered. "If your culinary chef is as remarkable as the rest of the Evening Rose, I’m certain I shall not be disappointed."

Chuckling, Stewart escorted him to the dining room.


Vin leaned back in his chair on the boardwalk and stretched his legs out in front of him. He scanned the town as dusk turned to evening and folks took to their homes for the night. He pulled his harmonica from his pocket and the typical noise of the town – tinny saloon pianos, men’s ribald laughter, a working girl’s giggle, and the barking of a dog – all faded as he concentrated on the random notes from his harmonica. As usual, the sound soothed him, reminding him of peaceful nights in the wilderness, surrounded by nothing but nature and the night rustlings.

His thoughts drifted to Chris, Buck, JD, and Josiah as he wondered if they’d had any luck. If they hadn’t run into trouble, they would’ve made it to Orville and had already spoke with the woman whom Nathan had helped. He hoped they had more luck than him. The day had crawled by as folks had made a wide loop around him, which convinced Vin even more that they knew more than they were saying.

What had happened to Nathan? Vin paused, the harmonica’s notes dying on the breeze. There were a lot of things that could happen to a man traveling alone, and none of them were good.

A woman stepped out of the general store across the street. She paused, looked around, and her gaze settled on Vin. For a moment, it appeared she’d turn back into the store, then with a quick glance over her shoulder, she crossed the dusty street, stepping around the horse droppings with practiced ease. She slowed as she approached Vin’s position, and he saw her shoulders stiffen with resolve as she walked the last few paces.

"Excuse me," she said with a low voice.

"Ma’am," Vin said, touching the drooping brim of his hat with two fingers.

Her gaze bounced around furtively, then settled on Vin. "Are you one of the men searching for your friend, the black man?"

Vin’s eyes narrowed and he nodded slowly. "Nathan Jackson’s his name."

She swallowed and tugged her shawl around her. "I saw him five days ago, before – " she faltered, and took a deep breath. " – before Stewart Randolph’s men took him."

Stewart Randolph – Ezra’s friend. "Why would he do that?"

She leaned closer. "He has a plantation called the Evening Rose about fifteen miles from here and still thinks of Negroes as slaves. If someone like your friend comes to town, he disappears, never to be seen again."

Vin sat up straight, his lips compressed in anger. "Why are you tellin’ me this?"

"I can’t stand to see any person owned by another. When I was a girl, my parents helped many slaves escape to the north."

"Where does this Randolph live?"

"Ride southwest. You can’t miss it."

She turned to leave, but Vin stood and caught her elbow. "Thank you."

Her expression turned bitter. "Don’t thank me, mister. I should’ve told someone sooner then Stewart Randolph would’ve been in prison and he wouldn’t have taken your friend."

Vin released her, and she hurried back across the street and into the store. He frowned, debating his options. Should he go to the sheriff? Or was he in on it, too? He couldn’t take the chance. And where did Ezra fit in all this? Did he realize what Randolph was doing? Or was he unaware of his old friend’s ‘business’?

The first thing he’d do was find out how much Ezra knew. He’d ride out to Randolph’s tonight – he couldn’t take a chance waiting until morning. It was hard to say what kind of condition Nathan was in. He strode over to the livery and saddled his gelding, then rode out of the darkened town.

Three hours later Vin stopped on a slight rise above the imposing structure. He peered through his spyglass and whistled low. The lady wasn’t joking – it did look like a southern plantation with four white columns across the front porch. The place appeared dark, telling Vin everyone inside had retired for the night. Using his glass, he searched the grounds for guards and found a couple by the corrals and another by the barn. He should be able to slip past them.

Dismounting, he ground tied his horse, then took off on foot down the ridge. He kept to the shadows, glad there was a new moon. With the stealth of a man who’d lived most of his life in the wilderness, Vin moved closer to the house. He got past the first two guards, and pressed himself against the side of a building that appeared to be a bunkhouse. The third guard had moved toward the others and they talked in low voices, leaving an open path to the house.

On the balls of his feet, Vin ran in a half-crouch toward the wide verandah. He found a glass door that opened on to the porch and he tried the handle. It moved easily and he slipped inside. Although it had been dark outside, it was even more so inside. Vin waited, motionless, until his eyes adjusted to the blackness. He made out furniture in the dimness and threaded his way between the obstacles. A jacket hung on a chair and Vin recognized it as Ezra’s. Although he figured he had the right place, he was glad to have confirmation. Finding the door, he opened it a crack and found only more darkness. With silent footsteps he entered the much larger room and figured it was some kind of fancy foyer.

Suddenly a body loomed before him and he tensed, ready to strike, but recognized the figure as a woman. She spotted him a moment later and let out a yip of surprise before she could cover her mouth.

"Take it easy, ma’am," Vin soothed the black woman. "I won’t hurt you."

"What’re you doin’ here?" she asked, keeping her voice pitched low.

"I’m looking for a friend of mine, Ezra Standish."

"He dress fancy and talk real nice?"

Vin smiled at her apt description. "That’s him. You know which room he’s in?"

She nodded. "You here to help?"

"Are you being held here against your will?"

"Me and my boy who I ain’t seen in nearly six months. Stewart Randolph’s men killed my husband." Vin didn’t have to see her face; he could sense her helpless rage. "I don’t even know if Tommy’s still alive." Her eyes glistened with moisture.

Vin, never able to abide a woman’s tears, touched her arm gently. "Don’t worry, ma’am, me and my friends are gonna make sure you see your boy real soon."

Before either one could say anything more, the door opened and four men entered, carrying a lantern and their revolvers in their hands. One of them wore spectacles that the light reflected off.

"Hold it right there, mister," the bespectacled man ordered.

Vin grimaced and lifted his hand slowly, not wanting to give the men a reason to shoot.

As one of the guards relieved Vin of his mare’s leg, Vin met the woman’s terrified eyes and tried to reassure her with his own.

"Get Mr. Randolph down here," the man with the glasses commanded her.

She nodded and hurried up the long curving staircase.

A few moments passed as Vin studied the stranger a little closer, trying to figure where he’d seen him before. Someplace in Lancaster, but he couldn’t recall where.

"You should’ve just forgotten about your darky friend and rode on like your friends did," the man said.

Although fuming inwardly, Vin gave him a small smile. "Don’t worry, they ain’t gonna be gone for long. You see, we don’t take kindly to folks kidnapping our friend and using him like he was some kind of property."

A gray-haired man tightening a sash about his robe came down the stairs and stared at the scene below. "What’s going on?" he demanded.

"It was Eloise who talked to him. I asked her what she was doing. She told me so I followed him here."

Randolph glared at the man. "You’d better keep a closer eye on your wife, Asa. She could ruin everything."

Vin suddenly realized who the man who was – the mild-mannered owner of the general store.

"Don’t worry. I plan on having a little talk with her," Asa stated. "What should we do with him? It seems to me there’s only one way to make sure he never tells anyone what he knows."

Vin raised his chin and his eyes narrowed. Were they going to kill him in cold blood? Where the hell was Ezra? Hadn’t the ruckus woke him? Or did he know exactly what was going on and was too cowardly to face him? No, he couldn’t believe that. Ezra had had questionable allegiance in the beginning, but he’d earned Vin’s trust and friendship.

"We can’t kill him outright," Randolph countered. "The sheriff didn’t try too hard to find niggers, but he might take exception to a white man missing. Besides, won’t this man’s friends come searching for him?"

Asa shrugged. "It won’t matter. We’ll get rid of his body so no one will ever know."

Randolph shook his head. "I can’t condone murder." He studied Vin a moment. "However, if he likes niggers so well, maybe we’ll have him join them. It’s well guarded, and he’ll be put to good use. Tie him up and take him out there. And don’t forget to blindfold him."

Vin considered hollering for Ezra and making a break for it, but decided against it. It sounded like he was going to find Nathan, though not quite the way he’d hoped. But between the two of them, they should be able to figure something out. And Vin wasn’t going to discount Ezra – he had faith that the con man didn’t know what was going on yet, and when he learned of it, he would be there for them.

Grabbed roughly by the guards, Vin allowed himself to have his hands tied behind his back. Then he was shoved out the door on to the wide porch and noticed his horse tied to the hitching post. The deceptively innocent storekeeper must’ve found Sire and brought him down. Someone wrapped a bandanna around Vin’s eyes, then one of the men helped him mount awkwardly.

"Let’s get going. It’ll take a while to get there," one of the guards said.

A moment later, his horse was led away and Vin tightened his thigh muscles to keep himself in the saddle. And settled in for a long ride.


Waves of agony greeted Nathan as consciousness returned. Groaning softly, he realized he was lying face down on his blanket on the ground.

"It’s okay, Nathan. I took care of your back the best I could," Tommy’s voice cut through Nathan’s torment.

Nathan turned his head to see the boy kneeling next to him, and in the dim light of a low-burning lamp, he could see the worry in Tommy’s face. "Thanks," he managed to say with a husky voice. "What’d you put on it?"

"Some medicine Corrine had. She said it would keep it from gettin’ putrid and help it to heal," Tommy replied, then shifted. "But she didn’t have nothin’ for the pain. Said you’d have to keep a stiff lip."

Nathan smiled slightly. "Did you put some bandages on it?"

He shook his head. "We ain’t got none."

Nathan closed his eyes. How would it stay clean if it wasn’t wrapped? He took a deep breath, then winced when the motion aggravated his ribboned back. He’d forgotten how intense the pain was from a whipping. When he’d been whipped the first time twenty years ago, he figured he’d never forget the torture of the lash. But, probably out of survival, his memory had been unable to retain the true agony of the leather’s vicious rents.

He re-opened his eyes. "How long have I been unconscious?"

"’Bout twelve hours. It’s after midnight."

"Have you slept at all?"

Tommy shook his head. "I wanted to make sure you woke up."

Nathan managed a reassuring smile. "I’ll be all right, son. You done a good job."

Tommy appeared flustered by his gratitude. "I’ll lay down close by in case you need something."

The sound of hooves approaching startled him, and Nathan glanced at the boy. "Who do you think that is?"

"Could be they’re bringing somebody new in."

A few moments later, Nathan saw a man shoved roughly inside and he wished he felt well enough to welcome the newest arrival. He remembered his confusion when he’d awakened here six days ago.

"And don’t try to escape – those who’ve tried are either dead or a lot worse off than they were before," Monroe said to the man they’d just brought in.

Monroe let the canvas flap fall back in place, and Nathan watched the man get to his feet. He stared at the dim figure and could make out a man with shoulder length hair.

"Vin?" he whispered hoarsely.

Quiet as his voice was, Vin heard it and hurried over to him. "Nathan, that you?"

Relief filled Nathan and he nodded awkwardly from his position on the ground. "I sure am glad to see a friendly face."

Vin leaned close to see his back. "Geezus, Nathan, they whip you?"

"Yeah, but it ain’t as bad as it looks," Nathan reassured.

"Like hell." Vin’s voice was tight and filled with rage. "Sonuvabitch, Randolph’s not going to get away with this."

Nathan reached out and grasped Vin’s arm. "Don’t worry, Vin, he won’t, but we can’t be doin’ something stupid that’s gonna get us killed. Where are the others?"

"Chris, Buck, JD, and Josiah went to see that woman whose baby you delivered, see if she knew where you might be," Vin replied. "They’re supposed to be back in Lancaster in a day or two."

"What about Ezra?" Vin hesitated. "Somethin’ happen to him?" Nathan demanded.

Vin shook his head. "He knows Randolph from way back. He was visitin’ him for a couple days."

"Who’s Randolph?"

"The man who brought you and all the others here. He owns this place. Some southerner who don’t like to believe the War’s over."

Nathan tried to sit up, but fell back down with a low moan.

"You’d best stay down, Nathan," Tommy spoke up. "You’ll be openin’ those wounds up."

Vin glanced at the boy. "You been takin’ care of my friend?"

Tommy nodded, more than a hint of defensiveness in his expression.

Vin smiled slow and easy. "Thanks. I’m in your debt. My name’s Vin Tanner."

"I’m Tommy," the boy said.

Vin studied him a moment. "Does your ma work at Randolph’s house?"

Tommy nodded. "I ain’t seen her in a long time."

Vin grinned. "Don’t worry. She’s fine, but she misses you."

"You were in his house?" Nathan asked.

"For a few minutes. Until the storekeeper showed up with the guards."

"The storekeeper?"

"Uh-huh, seems he and Randolph are in cahoots. He must be the one who brings Randolph his ‘slaves.’"

"That’s hard to believe. He seemed like a right nice fellah. What about Ezra, where was he during everything?"

"Don’t know," Vin said. "I didn’t see him. You know what a heavy sleeper Ezra is."

"You don’t think – ?"

"No," Vin broke in firmly. "Ezra wouldn’t go against us."

"But you said this Randolph is an old friend of his, a southerner just like him."

"Eight months ago, I might’ve agreed with you. But not no more." He looked around the dismal surroundings, taking note of the number of bodies crammed inside the poor shelter. A shiver of claustrophobia chased down Vin’s spine. "How many prisoners Randolph got?"

"Thirty or so," Nathan replied. "You’re the only white person I’ve seen though."

"They knew I was in town lookin’ for you. There any way out of here?"

"Only one and it’s guarded real close. Tommy’s father died trying to escape."

Vin glanced at the boy, who was staring at the ground. He reached over to lay a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. "He’ll pay for that, Tommy. I promise. Turn up that lantern a bit. I’m gonna take a look at Nathan’s back."

Tommy did so. Vin saw the extent of damage done to his friend’s back, as well as the past scars, and murderous rage pulsed through him. A bowl of reddish water sat beside him and he picked it up. "Could you get me some fresh water, Tommy?"

The boy nodded and took the bowl out of the tent.

"Christ, Nathan, your back looks like hell." Vin kept his voice pitched low. "And don’t tell me you ain’t in any pain, ‘cause I know how it feels."

Nathan glanced questioningly at Vin, but the tracker didn’t elaborate. "If I don’t work in the field tomorrow, they’ll probably chain me to the post again," Nathan said.

"Not if I have any say."

The cold fury in Vin’s tone almost frightened Nathan. He’d heard such intensity from Chris and even in Buck’s and Josiah’s voices on occasion, but never soft-spoken Vin. "Listen to me, Vin. We don’t have a choice. We got to do what we’re told. I ain’t gonna have this happen to you, too."

Vin’s face seemed carved in stone, his lips set in a grim line.

"The rest of ‘em’ll find us," Nathan continued. "You know how they are – they ain’t gonna stop until they do. Someone’ll put two and two together and they’ll get us out of here."

Finally, Vin’s expression eased and Nathan relaxed. He wasn’t sure what Vin was capable of if he was pushed hard enough. And Nathan wasn’t so sure he wanted to find out.

"All right, but I ain’t gonna let them whip you again, Nathan. I promise you that," Vin vowed.

Nathan didn’t ask him how he would keep that promise.

Tommy returned and Vin thanked him, then carefully dabbed at the fresh blood oozing from the deep gashes in Nathan’s back. Tommy handed him the salve and Vin spread another coat on the wounds. Though Nathan remained silent, Vin could feel his suffering as if it were his own. Once he was done, he turned down the lantern.

"Go ahead and get some sleep, Tommy. I’ll take a turn at watching him," Vin suggested.

Tommy didn’t argue, but lay down and fell asleep immediately.

"You get some rest, too, Nathan. It’s my turn to pay back some of the nights you sat up with me or one of the other boys," Vin said gently.

Exhausted, Nathan closed his eyes. Vin settled beside him, leaning his back against the wall and stretching his legs out in front of him. He removed his hat and ran a hand through his unruly hair. At least he’d found Nathan alive, but how much longer he remained that way was another story. Vin allowed his anger to once more build and crescendo, giving him the strength to remain patient for the vengeance that would be his. No man owned another and Vin anticipated teaching Randolph and his cohort that lesson. While living with the Indians, Vin had learned many ways to prolong a man’s death. It looked like he might be able to put some of those methods to use real soon.


"Good morning, Ezra," Stewart greeted from the dining room table. He waved expansively to the sideboards where a variety of food was laid out. "Help yourself."

Although it was early for Ezra, he took some strawberries, crepes and cream, then poured himself a cup of coffee from the silver pot, and joined Stewart at the table. After taking a sip of the hot bitter liquid, Ezra closed his eyes and sighed. "Nothing like a bracing cup of coffee to awaken the senses."

Stewart smiled fondly. "Has anyone ever told you you should’ve been a poet?"

"Perhaps a lady or two," Ezra replied with a wink.

Stewart laughed. "How did you sleep?"

"Quite well, thank you. Did you happen to have a bit of a disturbance in the middle of the night?"

Stewart shook his head. "Why do you ask?"

"I awakened to the sound of horses galloping out of the yard."

"We had a late night intruder."

"I hope it wasn’t serious," Ezra said.

"Nothing I couldn’t handle," Stewart assured. "Have you been thinking about my proposition?"

"I have been seriously contemplating it," Ezra said. "It’s a tempting offer."

"Then say yes."

"There are other factors which I must consider."

"What kind of factors?" Stewart asked curiously.

Ezra dabbed a corner of his lips with the linen napkin. "There are six men whom I have been riding with for quite some time now. They are," he paused, "friends whom I owe a fair amount of loyalty."

"I always figured you as more of a loner."

Ezra smiled ruefully. "That was my former perception also. I shall ride into town tomorrow and speak with them, then I’ll give you my answer."

"Fair enough." Stewart rubbed his hands together. "How about going for a ride? I’ll show you everything you would have under your command if you say yes."

"Do I detect a bit of a bribe?"

"More than a bit." Stewart stood.

Ezra finished his coffee and after grabbing his hat and jacket, he joined Stewart outside. Together they walked to the corrals, and Ezra couldn’t help but admire the variety of horses: Morgans and Arabians, Appaloosas, with a few mixed range horses thrown in. Ezra paused, staring at a blaze faced black gelding.

"What is it? Does one strike your fancy?" Stewart asked.

"That black gelding is similar to the horse a friend of mine rides."

Stewart studied the animal a moment. "If you’d like him, he’s yours."

Ezra watched his horse nuzzle the gelding, as if they were old friends. And if that was Vin’s horse, they were. But why would Stewart lie? And why would Sire be here in the first place? "No, that’s all right. I believe I shall ride my own animal. He and I have spent numerous hours together and are quite familiar with each other’s habits."

Stewart motioned to the wrangler to have his and Ezra’s horses saddled. As they waited, Ezra’s gaze kept straying to the familiar black horse and he grew more convinced it was Vin’s. Later, he’d slip away and take a closer look. Not that he didn’t trust Stewart, but Ezra didn’t want to be embarrassed if he was wrong.

They mounted up and Stewart led the way across the open range. "As far as the eye can see is mine. I’ve got two thousand head of cattle, about three hundred horses, and a field of cotton that would rival any back in Georgia."

"I’m surprised. I didn’t see that many men around the yard this morning."

"They’re out at sunrise and don’t return until sunset."

"They labor long hours."

"With a plantation this size, they must," Stewart said.

They rode for a couple hours as Stewart pointed out various points of interest. A little after noon, they rode through a narrow pass and emerged into a field of green. Stewart reined in his horse, and Ezra stopped beside him.

"This, Ezra, is my piece of the old South," Stewart said proudly.

Ezra observed the workers from a distance, noticing that all were black and dressed in threadbare clothing. They moved slowly as if they were tired. "Where in the world did you find so many Negroes to hire?"

Stewart shook his head, turned to face Ezra, and spoke seriously, "You don’t hire niggers, Ezra, you buy or capture them."

Ezra blinked, considering he’d perhaps heard the man wrong. But one look at his somber expression convinced Ezra otherwise. "The war is over, Stewart. The slaves have been freed."

"A gross error made at the highest level of leadership," Stewart stated vehemently. "It is a fact the niggers need us to make their decisions, feed them, give them a roof over their heads. They do their work and I take care of them, just as I did in Georgia."

Alarm skittered through Ezra’s veins. He didn’t like the insane glitter in Stewart’s eyes. "Surely they don’t come here of their own accord and remain here as beneficiaries of your benevolence."

"Just as children, sometimes they must be punished for not obeying. My overseer knows how to make them behave."

Ezra stared at Randolph as if he’d never seen him before. "Stewart, you cannot be serious. You cannot continue to live in the past."

Stewart took a deep breath. "I thought you of all people would understand, Ezra. Our lives, our culture, revolves around the use of slaves. The darkies are inferior. They’re not like us. I’m doing them a favor by bringing them here to live and work. They’re not able to survive on their own."

Sickness gripped Ezra. "And how do you come across them?"

"I have a friend in town who keeps an eye out for me. If he sees a nigger walking around free as you please, he brings him to me for a small fee."

Ezra searched the workers for Nathan’s familiar face, but he was too far away to make out individual features. His eyes stopped on a man different than the others, a white man dressed in tan pants, red shirt, and a slouch hat. Vin.

Ezra kept his voice even. "I see you have a white man working out there with them. That seems quite inappropriate."

"He was looking for one of my darkies. Said he was a friend. I figure a man who claims a nigger as a friend is no better than them."

"I see." Ezra didn’t, but he had no idea what else to say. Stewart’s refined world he’d envied was only superficial. Beneath the surface lay a rotten core, a world where Stewart’s wealth had been gained on the backs of innocent men, women, and children. He had no doubt Nathan and Vin were both trapped in Randolph’s grotesque idea of gentility. He couldn’t allow Randolph to learn they were two of his six friends. If he did, he couldn’t help Vin and Nathan escape.

"How many guards do you have?" Ezra asked, hoping he sounded merely curious.

"There are always ten around the field as they’re working."

"What about in the evening?"

"Six men keep watch around the camp with orders to kill."

Ezra’s stomach grew more queasy. "So anyone who attempts to escape is shot down."

"I can’t let even one get away. If I do, the others will get it in their heads they can do the same thing." Stewart turned his horse around. "We should head back to the house before the sun becomes unbearable."

Ezra wanted to ask him if his ‘slaves’ were allowed to get out of the ‘unbearable’ sun, too. He doubted it. With a silent promise to Vin and Nathan, whom he hoped was with Vin, that he would return for them, Ezra followed Stewart back through the narrow pass and toward the ranch, memorizing the route.

The ride back to the house was a silent one. Stewart Randolph had become a stranger to Ezra. The possibility of accepting the man’s offer was no longer feasible. Fifteen years ago, Ezra hadn’t seen slavery as wrong. He’d never felt comfortable about it, but it was a part of the Southern way of life. One he accepted. But Ezra could no longer accept it. Especially after getting to know Nathan and realizing how wrong slavery had been in the first place.

They dismounted beside the corral and Ezra eyed the black gelding once more. Randolph had said they’d had an intruder last night – it didn’t take a genius to determine who the interloper had been. He would have to string Randolph along, stay within his confidences. Tomorrow he would ride into Lancaster and find Chris and the others. Between the five of them, they would be able to figure out a way to rescue Vin and Nathan.

Part 4