Vin bent over Nathan who sat on the ground, pulling feebly at the weeds around the cotton plants. "How ya doin?"
"I aint dead yet," Nathan replied with a shadow of his usual smile.
Vin clenched his teeth and glanced up at the sun which was halfway to the western horizon. "Another few hours and we should be able to get you inside." He drew the back of his hand across his forehead, and tossed off droplets of sweat. "Damn, its hot."
"Aint as bad as Mississippi in the summer. Hot and wet, could hardly breathe in the stuff," Nathan said.
"That where you were a slave?" Vin asked cautiously, not sure if he was treading on forbidden ground.
Nathan nodded. "From the age of five I worked the cotton. Tried to escape a couple times when I was fourteen, fifteen years old. Finally made it when I was sixteen. All I had was a knife and a vague idea of who to go to for help."
Vin smiled slightly. "That where you learned how to use a knife so well?"
"Saved me more times than I can remember. Had to be quiet; didnt want to draw no attention to myself."
"Silent but deadly," Vin agreed. "Im goin to make sure you get out of this, too, Nathan."
"Make sure you dont get your head blowed off in the process," Nathan said, a twinkle in his dark eyes.
"Not if I can help it, pard."
"Get to work you two," one of the guards called out, raising his Winchester menacingly.
Vin gave Nathan a reassuring nod then continued harvesting the crop.
A few hours later, the guards called an end to their day and Vin helped Nathan to his feet. The dark man let out a slight moan, but wrapped his arm around Vins shoulders as Vin carefully placed an arm round Nathans waist. Vin supported much of the larger mans weight and by the time they arrived at the shelter, both of them were breathing heavily. Tommy met them at the entrance and helped Vin get Nathan to his blanket where they laid him on his belly carefully.
Vin lifted Nathans shirt to examine his back and found a couple spots where the fragile scabs had re-opened. He cleaned them gently with Tommys help, then applied some more salve.
Vin laid a hand against Nathans forehead and cursed in a low voice. "Feels like you got a fever."
"Wouldnt surprise me none," Nathan said. "Dont feel so good."
Tommy handed Vin a cup of water and Vin held it to Nathans lips. "Drink this. You need the liquid."
Nathan did so slowly, then closed his eyes. "Tired need to sleep." His breathing grew regular and Vin realized hed indeed fallen asleep.
"He gonna be okay?" Tommy asked, his eyes wide and worried.
"Hes a strong man, Tommy. Hell be just fine." As long as he doesnt have to go back out in the field again, Vin thought soberly. "Lets get somethin to eat, then well come back to stay with Nathan."
Vin noticed that everyone with the exception of Tommy cast him hostile glares. He couldnt blame them. He had white skin, the same color as the man whod imprisoned them. Hed have to earn their trust, and he planned on doing that by giving them back their freedom.
He and Tommy sat side by side on the ground as they ate the watery stew. Vins eagle gaze surveyed their surroundings. The field set in a box canyon measured maybe a half mile long and a quarter mile across, and was enclosed by high smooth walls with only one opening: the narrow pass where the guards were situated. Night would cover his crossing the field, but hed have to climb the steep rock face in the darkness. Vin was confident enough in his abilities that knew he could make it to the canyon opening; he wasnt so certain he could scale the rock wall at night. If by some chance he did make it to freedom, he had to get help to get Nathan out which meant Nathan was at Randolph and his guards mercy until he made it back. And that meant theyd either kill Nathan or use him as a pawn to get him and Chris and the others.
He thought of Ezra and how hed seen him with Randolph in the early afternoon. Vin hadnt told Nathan. There was no reason to worry him. Vin only hoped he had Ezra pegged right and the con man was just going along with the charade until he could affect their escape. Vin grinned to himself hed been spending too much time listening to Ezras four bit words.
He stifled a yawn, realizing how tired he was. Hed snatched only a few minutes of sleep last night and the day had been long, working under the hot sun. Deciding he couldnt do anything at this point, Vin stood and with Tommy they returned to the shelter.
Tommy laid down on one side of Nathan and Vin on the other. Vin figured hed wake up if Nathan began to move around. Closing his eyes, he was asleep in minutes.
"You didnt like the cordon bleu?" Stewart asked Ezra.
Ezra pushed back his nearly-full plate. "No, it was most excellent. Its just that Im feeling poorly this evening. Perhaps my stomach is not accustomed to such exceptional cuisine."
"Would you like me to send for the doctor?" Stewart asked in concern.
Ezra shook his head. "Oh, no, Im sure Ill be fine. Perhaps I shall beg your forgiveness and make it an early evening."
"No need to apologize, Ezra. Go ahead. I have been putting off my ledger work for some time. Its time I work on that."
"Then I shall bid you good evening and retire to my room." Ezra forced himself to move casually out of the dining room and up the stairs.
Closing the door behind him, he stood in the middle of the floor, a hand pressed to his brow. It would be so easy to forget what he saw in that field earlier. The rest of the day Stewart had acted like the old friend Ezra had known. He crossed the room to a wing chair and settled himself in it, his fingers curving around the armrests. What if he accepted Stewarts offer, then talked Stewart into releasing the slaves? Surely he wasnt that far gone that he wouldnt listen when Ezra explained how wrong it was.
Ezra closed his eyes and the memory of the insane gleam in Stewarts eyes returned to plague him. His stomach cramped, and he thought hed lose what little hed eaten for dinner. How could a man change so completely? Had the war turned him so bitter he would ignore the laws of the land and humanity and imprison people to use for his own personal gain? That was just it Stewart didnt see Negroes as people; he saw them as things, beasts of burden to use as he saw fit.
No, Ezra had no choice. He had to get into town and find Chris. Vins and Nathans lives depended on it. As well as the poor souls who had been caught in Stewarts delusional world.
Chris dismounted stiffly in front of the saloon where the six men had met three days earlier. Buck, Josiah, and JD joined him, each of them as saddle weary as he was. Theyd ridden hard and arrived in Orville by dusk the day before, and had found the woman whom Nathan had helped. Neither she nor her husband knew what happened to Nathan. Nathan had left them in high spirits, and was looking forward to catching up to his friends.
Without a stop for a drink to wash down the dust, Chris had them starting back to Lancaster before the sun went down. Theyd slept on the trail for five hours, and finished the grueling ride by late afternoon.
They stepped through the batwing doors and waited for their eyes to adjust then found an empty table. They each ordered a beer, even Chris, and drank it without pause. As Buck got them another round, Chris stood. "Im going to go find Vin and Ezra. Ill be back in a minute."
His spurs jingled on the boardwalk as he walked down to the hotel. He pounded on Vins door, but no one answered. Frowning, Chris stopped at the desk. "What room is Ezra Standish in?"
"Im sorry," the buxom woman replied. "Mr. Standish checked out two days ago."
Chriss unease grew. "What about Vin Larabee? Longish hair, carries a sawed-off carbine." They had decided that since they were in Texas, it would be safer for Vin to use Chriss last name.
"I havent seen Mr. Larabee since he rode out last night." Her plump cheeks reddened. "It wasnt like I was watching him or anything, but I just happened to be looking out the window when I seen him leave."
Chris didnt like this one bit. "You dont happen to know where he was going, do you?"
"No, Im sorry. All I can tell you is his things are still in his room." Her flush deepened to scarlet. "I was just checking to see if hed come back."
Chris nodded absently and strode out. He stopped at the livery and found both Vin and Ezras horses missing.
A gray-bearded man shuffled out of one of the stalls, pitchfork in hand. "Lookin for somethin, mister?"
"Yeah, a couple friends of mine who stabled their horses here. One of em had a blaze faced black gelding, the other a bay mare."
"Fancy feller took his mare early yesterday morning. Didnt say where he was goin, but I saw him ride out with Stewart Randolph."
"Whos Stewart Randolph?"
"Rich southern gentleman from Georgia or thereabouts. Settled here a year or two after the war and built himself up a fine place."
"What about the other horse?"
"That fellah rode out last night, bout eight oclock. I was tryin to get some sleep when I heard him come in and saddle up."
"He say where he was going?"
The old man shook his head and spat a stream of brown tobacco to the straw-covered floor. "Nope. Looked kinda mad, though."
Chris cursed. "Thanks for your help." He turned, then paused. "You know where this Randolph lives?"
"Someplace west of here, I think. Go see Miss Lottie at the Green Table. She and him are pretty tight."
A few minutes later, Chris joined Buck, JD, and Josiah. "We got us two more missing men."
"What do you mean?" JD asked, his young face confused.
"Vin and Ezra have disappeared. Vin rode out last night and no ones seen him since. Ezra took off yesterday morning with someone named Stewart Randolph," Chris explained.
"You figure Vin went after Ezra?" Buck asked, frowning.
Chris shook his head. "I dont know what to think, Buck. But I figure we might want to check this Stewart Randolphs place first. The livery man said a Miss Lottie over at the Green Table would know how to get to his place."
"Maybe I should talk to the sheriff," JD suggested. "After me and Bucks little act, he might trust me enough to tell me something."
Chris thought a moment, then nodded. "All right. The rest of usll pay a visit to Miss Lottie."
"Maybe someone should keep JD company," Buck said.
JD shook his head. "If hes gonna talk, it might only be to me."
"JDs got a point," Chris said. "But maybe Josiah can stand outside the door in case you need any help."
"All right," JD reluctantly agreed.
The four men split up into pairs. With long-legged strides, Buck and Chris angled across the street to the Green Table and entered the elegant looking establishment. They paused inside the curtained entrance, and Buck whistled low. "Damn, this place belongs in Frisco or New Orleans, not here in the middle of nowhere."
"Can I help you gentlemen?" an older attractive woman asked.
Buck sent her an appreciative look and opened his mouth to reply, but Chris elbowed him in the ribs.
Chris touched his hat brim reflexively. "You Miss Lottie?"
Her eyes flickered up and down his body. "Whos asking?"
"Chris Larabee, maam," he replied. "Were looking for a friend of ours who rode out of town with Stewart Randolph yesterday morning."
"You mean Ezra?"
Chris and Buck exchanged surprised glances.
"Yes, maam, thats right," Chris said. "We were supposed to meet him and another friend of ours here today and we cant find either one of them."
"Well, I know Ezra and Stewart were friends from way back, and Stewart invited him to stay with him a couple days. Ezra took him up on the offer."
"You figger Vin told him to go ahead?" Buck asked Chris in a low voice.
Chriss jaw muscle knotted. "Probably, and Ezra didnt argue." He turned back to the woman. "Our other friends name is Vin, longish hair, tan hat, wears a hide jacket."
"My, you have an odd assortment of friends," she exclaimed. "No, Im sorry, I havent seen him. But you dont have to worry about Ezra. He said he would return tomorrow. You boys look mighty thirsty. Would you like to have a drink on the house? Any friend of Ezras is a friend of mine."
"No, thank you," Chris declined.. "Afternoon, maam."
They stepped back on to the boardwalk.
"You believe her?" Buck asked.
Chris rubbed his whiskered jaw. "I dont know. She didnt have any problem telling us about Ezra and Randolph."
"Think we should wait for Ezra to come back tomorrow or ride out there right away?"
"Lets see what JD and Josiah found out."
JD found Sheriff OMalley in his office, sitting behind his desk and cleaning a Winchester. "Afternoon," JD greeted.
The lawman eyed him warily. "Wheres your mouthy friend?"
JD nearly smiled. "I left him back at the saloon. Figgered you might not want to see him again."
"You figgered right. You have any luck finding your friend?"
JD shook his head. "Thats why Im here. Weve lost two more."
"You keep losin friends like that, aint nobodyll want to ride with you."
"Maybe you seen them. One was the fellah with longer hair, leather coat, rode a black gelding."
OMalley nodded. "I was on my evening rounds bout eight oclock when I seen him ride out. Took the south road."
"The other dressed real fancy -- "
"Yep, seen him, too. He rode out with Stewart Randolph yesterday morning. Heard tell they were old friends."
"Who is this Randolph anyway?"
The lawman propped the stock of the Winchester on his thigh. "Stewart Randolphs a fine gentleman, originally from Georgia. Came here after the War and now owns the biggest spread around. But he dont act all high and mighty like a lot of them big ranchers. Always has time to have a drink with me when hes in town. Fact is, he had this jail all fixed up, too, with his own money."
Randolph sounded too good to be true. "He sounds like a saint," JD said with a large dose of cynicism.
OMalley nodded, missing JDs sarcasm. "That he is."
"Have there been other folks who have disappeared around here?"
Sheriff OMalley stared at JD a long moment. "Theres been a couple others," he admitted.
JD laid his palms flat on the desk and leaned forward. "Why didnt you tell us that before?" he demanded.
The sheriff shrugged. "They were only Negroes. You know how footloose they are. I figgered theyd just moved on without tellin anyone."
"Did you even investigate?"
"I poked around a little, but no one knew anything, so I just let it go."
JDs temper notched upward. "A lawman has the duty to get to the bottom of things. Sounds to me like you were just plain lazy."
OMalleys eyes darkened and he set the rifle on the desk then stood and leaned close to JD. "I been a sheriff in Lancaster for ten years, and nobodys complained before. And I dont have to put up with lip from a wet-behind-the-ears kid."
"I may not have as much experience as you, but I wouldve done my job," JD shot back.
The door opened and Josiah stepped in. "You need some assistance, JD?" he asked in a low voice, but the threat was easily discernible.
"Sheriff OMalley has just been telling me that a couple other folks have disappeared, but he didnt care since they were only black like Nathan," JD responded, keeping his gaze on the lawman.
"Is that so?" Josiah stated, approaching the two men.
OMalley swallowed hard and relinquished his defensive stance. "Look, there have been five, maybe six Negroes who have been reported missing in the last couple years. Compared to the number of people who turn up lost, I figgered a few more didnt matter."
"So youre tellin us you dont even have a guess as to what happened to them?" JD prodded.
The sheriff shook his head. "I got no idea and thats the honest-to-God truth."
"Youd best be right, or Gods gonna be mighty upset with you for taking His name in vain," Josiah said.
The two men left the office.
They met Chris and Buck on their way back to their informal meeting place. After they got a bottle of whiskey and four shot glasses, the men sat down at the same table theyd deserted earlier.
"Well?" Chris prompted JD.
"He remembered seeing Vin ride out last night, and Ezra goin with Stewart Randolph, too, but thats it," JD replied dejectedly. "I asked him if he knew anything about this Randolph and he said he was one of the finest citizens in the territory. He damn near drooled on me goin on and on about him." He paused a moment. "He also said there have been other Negroes who have disappeared around here in the past couple years."
Chris pierced JD with a sharp gaze. "What happened to them?"
JD shook his head. "OMalley did a little lookin around and figured they mustve just moved on."
"You reckon hes telling the truth?" Buck demanded.
JD met Bucks impatient gaze and nodded. "I dont think hes crooked, just lazy and stupid."
Chris leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "Somethings not adding up."
"We are now missing two men instead of one, and Ezras off visiting an old friend," Josiah began. "What doesnt add up is how people can disappear without a trace."
"They can if theres folks in this town who are covering for the man who took them," Chris said in a low voice, his cool eyes surveying the inhabitants of the saloon.
"You think Ezras old friend may be involved?" Buck asked.
Chris shrugged. "I dont know. Our horses are beat, were beat, and its getting late. If Ezra doesnt show up by midmorning, we pay Stewart Randolph a visit."
"What about Nathan and Vin?" JD interjected.
"We have to hope that theyre alive," Chris stated. "And that were going to get some answers from Ezra tomorrow."
The four somber men refilled their whiskey glasses, and after draining them, ordered steaks all around.
Usually a sound sleeper, Ezra awakened to the noise of an approaching wagon. He stood and moved to the window. Squinting in the dim light, he could make out a buggy and what looked to be a woman stepping out of it. A rectangle of light appeared when the door opened and Ezra recognized Lottie as the late visitor. A shiver of foreboding shimmied down his spine.
He dressed quickly, forsaking his fancy coat and donning the buckskin jacket and a pair of brown trousers. Throwing his saddlebag over his shoulder, he opened the door a crack. He didnt see anyone in the darkened hallway and slipped out into the corridor. He flattened his back against the wall, and made his way to the back stairs. Breathing a sigh of relief, he hurried down the steps and out the back door. Staying to the shadows, Ezra arrived at the corral.
"Going somewhere, Ezra?" Stewart Randolphs voice broke the nights silence.
Slowly, Ezra turned and found two guards with guns aimed at him, and Stewart and Lottie staring at him with something akin to disappointment.
"I thought I would get an early start for Lancaster," Ezra said with a wide smile.
"And you werent even going to say good-bye. Your mother would be very disappointed in your lack of breeding," Stewart said, his sarcasm sharp enough to draw blood.
Ezras smile faded. "My mother has always been disappointed in me so that shall be nothing new."
Stewart and Lottie stepped closer to Ezra. "Why?" Stewart simply asked.
Ezra took a deep breath and sighed. "Im afraid my newly awakened conscience wouldnt allow it. You see, I have reason to believe you have imprisoned two friends of mine, one because of the color of his skin and the other because he is Nathans friend."
"I told you he was with them," Lottie said, her face pale in the darkness. She raised her chin and met Ezras eyes. "Four of your friends arrived in town today, looking for you and the man who came here last night to find you. They were the same men who were turning the town upside down looking for a nigger a few days ago."
Ezras jaw tightened. "My dear, you really should watch your mouth. Such language is quite unladylike."
"Shut up, Ezra," Stewart ordered curtly. He appeared dismayed and more than a little frustrated. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Release me and those slaves you are illegally holding," Ezra stated evenly.
Stewart barked a humorless laugh. "Do you think Im crazy?"
"Thats exactly what I believe."
Stewart backhanded Ezra, knocking the smaller man to the ground. Ezra lay still for a moment to wait for the ringing in his ears to lessen, then pushed himself to his feet. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and gazed down at the streak of blood across his knuckles. "Did that make you feel any better?" he asked, his split lip already swelling.
Stewart shook his head and sadness filled his face. "I always thought of you as a son, Ezra, ever since you were fifteen years old and I taught you how to play billiards. You were such a smart boy, intelligent, sharp, with a quick wit. You couldve had everything."
"Im not willing to pay the exorbitant price youre asking," Ezra said softly.
Stewart sighed heavily. "Tie him up and throw him in the root cellar. And dont forget to gag him. Ill decide what to do with him later."
"Whatre you going to do about his friends, Stewart?" Lottie asked.
Randolph kept his gaze on Ezra. "Im going to double the guards around the house. If his friends wont accept my explanation, theyll be shot down."
Ezras heart kicked against his ribs. If he didnt warn Chris and the others, they were going to be murdered by this stranger in front of him. Helplessly, Ezra could do nothing as his weapons were taken and his hands tied behind his back. As they shoved him across the yard, he was aware of Stewarts gaze on him. And Ezra wished to God hed never stopped in Lancaster, Texas.
The following morning Nathan was so stiff that he could hardly move and his fever hadnt abated. He suspected it wasnt infection, just his bodys way to start the healing process. However, knowing that and suffering through it were two different things. He tried to hide his discomfort from Vin, but the man could always read a person with those sharp blue eyes of his.
"You cant go out there, today," Vin stated. "Ill talk to Monroe."
Nathan shook his head and grabbed Vins arm. "Ill make it. You just help me out there and get me in the field."
Vin knelt down beside him. "No. Youre too sick and weak. I aint gonna lose you just after I found you."
"I aint gonna die, Vin. Ive been whipped more times than this and I survived. Ill make it this time, too," Nathan reassured.
"You dont know that," Vin hissed.
"Help me up."
"Damnit, Nathan, if you aint the most stubborn "
"Now you know what I got to put up with you and the others when Im tryin to heal you."
A sheepish grin twitched Vins lips and he reluctantly aided Nathan to his feet. The room swam in and out of focus a moment, then settled into some kind of clarity.
"You sure you gonna be okay?" Vin asked in concern, keeping a hand on Nathans arm.
"Ill be fine," Nathan lied. "Now lets get out there before Monroe gets it in his head to come lookin for us."
"Im lookin forward to givin him a taste of his own medicine," Vin murmured.
"Everyone gets their due, with or without your help," Nathan said.
"I prefer with my help," Vin said as he helped Nathan out of the tent and into the field. "I dont know how you can be so damned forgiving, Nathan. Iffen I was you, Id want to bury both Randolph and Monroe."
"Hatred never done anyone any good, Vin. All it does is beget more hatred. After the War, I decided that I could either hate all the white folks or I could let it go and help people, no matter what color they were."
"Youre a better man than me."
"Each man has to make peace in his own way."
Vin turned to gaze at Nathan. "Maybe someday Ill be able to be as forgivin as you, but until then, anyone who hurts one of my friends is fair game."
Nathan studied the intensity in Vins usually twinkling blue eyes. Fiery rage lay banked in the embers and he shivered despite the hot day. And was glad he wasnt in Randolphs or Monroes shoes.