"No ones seen Ezra yet. And Miss Lottie is gone, too. Nobody knows where shes at," Buck reported to the others as they stood on the boardwalk.
"Anyone else think this is getting stranger and stranger?" Chris asked.
"Seems to me we should pay Stewart Randolph a call," Josiah said.
Chris nodded. "Since Miss Lottie isnt around to tell us how to-- "
"Morning," the sheriff greeted.
JD nodded at him warily, but didnt reply. The Irishman seemed ill at ease.
After a moment of awkward silence, OMalley went on. "I remembered somethin last night. Your friend, the one who left night before last, well, right before he left, Eloise Hamilton was talkin to him."
"Whos she?" Chris demanded.
"Store owners wife. She and her husband settled here about three years ago."
Chris glanced across the street to the general store. "Lets go pay her a visit."
He stepped off the boardwalk with the other three men following closely. The bell over the door tinkled as they entered the store.
A woman was standing behind the counter, her face pale and her eyes wide. "Can I help you?"
"You Eloise Hamilton?" Chris asked.
She nodded, a short jerky motion. "Yes."
"We heard you talked to our friend right before he rode out of town night before last," Chris stated.
"Im afraid you have the wrong person."
It was obvious she was lying. And she was frightened.
Josiah approached her, and spoke in his gentle, rumbling voice. "Excuse me, Mrs. Hamilton, but if you have any idea where our friends are, we would greatly appreciate your help."
She glanced back over her shoulder guiltily, and two pink spots appeared on her white cheeks. "Is the gentleman who played the harmonica missing?"
"Thats right," Chris replied.
She closed her eyes and swayed, as if about to faint. Josiah steadied her with a firm hand. "Are you all right, maam?" he asked.
"Do you know something about Vin?" Chris demanded, taking a step toward her.
"Take it easy, Chris. She looks scared to death," Buck said in a low voice.
Chris nodded curtly and forced himself to speak softer. "Weve lost three friends in this town, and we dont plan on leaving without them."
A myriad of emotions crossed the womans face. Finally she nodded resolutely. "Its got to stop."
Behind the woman, a man dressed in a grocers apron shoved a curtain aside and stepped up beside her. "Go on into the back, Eloise."
She stiffened. "No, Asa, Im going to tell them."
"Didnt you learn your lesson? The other mans probably dead because of what you told him."
Chriss vision hazed and he took hold of the storekeepers shirt front and jerked him forward against the counter. "What do you mean, dead?"
The woman grabbed Chriss arm. "Please dont hurt him. Its not his fault."
"Would you just tell us whats goin on?" JD asked plaintively. "We can sort out whose fault it is later."
"Amen, brother," Josiah said in a barely controlled voice.
Chris gave the bespectacled man a last shake before releasing him. "All right, you got one minute."
"I told your friend that Stewart Randolph was the man behind the kidnappings of all the black folks who disappear around Lancaster. He uses them as slaves on his plantation," the woman explained, her tone bitter. "He thinks hes some kind of southern gentleman but hes no better than a thief and murderer."
"Has he killed people?" Josiah asked.
"I dont know. We never see anyone whos been taken by him again."
"Do you know what youve done, Eloise?" her husband demanded. "He finds out you talked, and hell have us both killed."
The womans face became even whiter. "No. If these men can stop him, itll finally be over."
"So you told Vin all this about Randolph?" Chris prompted.
She nodded. "Then he asked how to get to his place and I told him. That was the last I saw of him."
"Sonuvabitch," Chris swore. "Sounds like Ezra may have gone too far this time."
"You dont think hes in on this with Randolph?" JD asked incredulously.
"The only thing I know is Randolphs an old friend of Ezras, and Ezra didnt come back to town like he was supposed to, Chris stated. His lips pressed into a grim slash. "If hes part of this, hes gonna pay." He turned back to the woman. "How do we get there?"
Eloise told them, and her husbands face grew more stormy.
"You could take a lesson from your wife, mister," Buck said, poking the mans chest with his forefinger.
Defiance glimmered behind the storekeepers shiny lenses, but he remained silent.
"Lets ride," Chris said.
The four men hurried to the livery and retrieved their horses, then rode out of town at a gallop. It was afternoon when they arrived at Randolphs plantation.
Buck whistled low. "Would ya look at that? Just like them places we seen during the war."
Chris nodded. The mansion had brought back memories for all of them, except JD whod been too young to experience the horrors of the bloody battlefields. "See any guards?"
"One on the roof, another near the barn," Buck replied.
"And one by the corral," JD added.
"Keep an eye on them," Chris warned.
As they approached the house, a silver-haired man came out of the wide double doors.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," he greeted, his Georgia accent heavy.
"Howdy," Chris replied. He crossed his wrists on the pommel and leaned forward. "You Stewart Randolph?"
"Were looking for some friends of ours."
"I doubt if I can help you. The only visitor Ive had lately is an old friend of mine, Ezra Standish," Randolph stated.
"Hes one of the men were looking for," Chris said.
Randolph stuck his hands in his trouser pockets. "You just missed him. He rode out this morning."
"He say where he was going?" Buck asked.
"As a matter of fact, he was headed to the train station in Liberty. He said he was tired of the uncivilized frontier and that he was going to try his luck at the tables in San Francisco."
Chris frowned and exchanged glances with the others. "Thats funny. He was supposed to meet us in Lancaster today."
"Ah, yes, he did mention something about some men hed been traveling with. He said he hoped that you all wouldnt hold his leaving against him," Randolph said with a chagrined smile. "From what I gathered, he missed the city life and all the amenities that went with it."
"He couldve," Buck said softly.
Chris nodded, disappointment teeming through him. He hoped hed been wrong about Ezra. The gambler had changed much in the past months, but maybe meeting with his old friend had brought back all the old habits.
"What about another man?" Chris described Vin.
"No, Im afraid not," Randolph replied. "Like I said, I havent had any visitors besides Ezra."
"Thats funny. You see, we were told that Vin was headed here because he found out you had kidnapped our friend, a black man by the name of Nathan Jackson," Chris stated coolly.
Randolph appeared surprised. "Why on earth would I kidnap anyone?"
"Because you dont want to give up your slaves," Buck said, his tone ugly. "Because you think youre bettern everybody else and that if a persons skin isnt white, he aint a human being."
"How dare you come here and insult me! Get the hell off my land," Randolph ordered furiously.
"Where are they, Randolph?" Chris asked, his eyes boring into the southerner.
"That question doesnt even deserve a reply."
"We got company," JD said in a low voice.
Chris turned to see ten men lined up behind them, weapons in hand, and he gave his attention back to Randolph. "Were going to find them, and when we do, were going to have you put away for a long time."
"Dont threaten me, mister. All I have to do is give the word, and all of you would be dead," Randolph said.
"So would you," Chris said steadily, his hand on the butt of his revolver. "Well be back."
Chris reined his horse around and the four men rode out of the yard.
"We could take them," Buck hissed as he rode next to Chris.
"Not yet. Well go find some high ground where we can keep an eye on the place, and tonight well come back under the cover of darkness and get some answers," Chris said.
"You think Ezra really ran out on us?" Buck asked.
"Could be. I always wondered why he stayed with us as long as he did."
"I dont believe it," JD stated, riding on the other side of Chris.
"I dont want to either, but the only thing we know for certain is that Ezra and Randolph are friends from way back," Chris said softly. "From before we knew him"
They continued on in awkward silence.
From his uncomfortable position on the dirt floor, Ezra breathed a sigh of relief when he heard Chris and the others ride away. Hed been able to make out snatches of conversation and was dismayed to hear Randolphs explanation for his disappearance. He hoped Chris didnt believe him, but had a bad feeling there would be enough doubts in the ex-shootists mind that he might.
Hed been trying to loosen the knots on the rope, but hadnt had any luck. The only thing hed managed to do was cramp his fingers until he nearly cried aloud at the stabs of pain. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness and hed found himself surrounded by jars of fruits and vegetables. As he stared at them, a plan took shape. With his ankles tied and his hands bound behind his back, Ezra struggled to stand. Sweat rolled down his forehead into his eyes. He blinked aside the salty moisture, and finally got to his feet. He swayed for a moment and his numb legs nearly collapsed beneath him, but he managed to stay upright as sharp needles shot up his awakening limbs.
He took a deep breath, then wished he hadnt after smelling the stale sweat of the gag around his mouth. Ezra hopped over to one of the shelves. Turning his back to the shelf, he awkwardly tried to grab one of the glass containers. Finally, he got one in his hands then dropped it on the hard-packed earth. The sound of breaking glass and the smell of sweet peaches told him hed succeeded in his task. Falling to his knees beside the mess, he felt around until his palm ran into a large sharp piece of glass, and he bit the inside of his cheek at the piercing pain. Ignoring his discomfort, he picked up the glass and began to saw away at the rope binding his wrists.
Ezra didnt know how long hed been working on the hemp, only that by the time the rope separated, his body was so stiff and cramped he could barely move. Slowly, he removed his gag, then untied the knot binding his ankles.
In the dim light, he could see blood covering the hand that had been cut and, stifling a grimace, he wrapped the cloth that had been his gag around his palm. He climbed the steep stairs and tried the door. Ezra was disappointed but not surprised that it was locked. From the crack under the door, he could tell it was still daylight. Hed have to wait until after dark to force it open.
He settled in for a long vigil.
Nathan fell asleep immediately after Vin helped him back to his mat after their day of work ended. Helplessness made Vin edgy, and he ate supper quietly with Tommy. After theyd eaten, Vin went back to check on Nathan. His friend was still feverish.
"He gonna be all right?" Tommy asked worriedly.
Vin rubbed his grizzled jaw. "Not if he goes into the field tomorrow." He gazed intently at the boy. "I have to get out of here and get help, but I need to know Nathan will be taken care of. Can I count on you to watch over him while Im gone?"
Tommy nodded somberly. "I can do it."
Vin gripped Tommys shoulder firmly. "I wouldnt have asked you if I didnt think you could."
"You be careful, Mr. Vin. If them men see you, theyll kill you," Tommy said.
"Dont worry. I dont plan on gettin killed yet," Vin said with a grin and wink. "As soon as it gets dark, Ill head out."
An hour later, Vin crept out of the crowded shelter and picked out the positions of the drowsy guards, then crawled away, using the cotton plants to cover his movement. Fortunately, there was only a tiny sliver of a moon and once Vin was a few hundred yards from the camp, he rose to a half crouch and made better time toward his destination.
As he approached the pass, he went back down to the ground and bellied over the dirt and rocks. Over two hours after he left Nathan in Tommys hands, Vin found himself leaning against the steep rock face of the pass. He spent another half an hour searching for a way up, and finally found a path that wasnt so steep that he needed a rope to ascend it. Taking a deep breath, Vin started up the rocky trail.
Ezra had tried everything, even brute force, to affect his escape from the root cellar. Nothing had worked. He was surprised nobody had come to check on him throughout the day, but maybe that was Stewarts method of killing him: allow him to starve. An altogether unpalatable way to die. His gallows humor brought a grim smile to his face.
The sound of quiet footfalls outside the door made Ezra halt his ruminations. He could hear someone unlocking the door, and he tensed, ready to attack his gatekeeper. The door swung open and a slight figure stood in the opening.
"Mister, you got to get out of here," a woman said urgently.
Through dusks diminishing light, Ezra recognized her as the black woman who had seemed cowed by Stewart. He didnt notice any timidity now. Ezra pushed himself to his feet and nearly groaned at his stiff muscles, but hurried out of his dark prison. "Thank you."
"Randolph plans on killing you, along with your friends," she stated.
Ezras blood turned cold. "Did my friends come back?"
She shook her head. "Not yet they havent, but if they do, theyll be gunned down."
Ezra had to find them. "Thank you," he said. "I promise you you will be set free as soon as possible."
She nodded. "You need to stop him before more people are hurt." Then the woman returned to the house.
Angry humiliation drummed through Ezras veins. He didnt know Stewart Randolph any more, but he did know his six friends. As unstylish and ill-mannered as they were, they were honest and loyal. And theyd never let him down. He wasnt going to let Randolph destroy them.
Keeping to the deep shadows of the buildings, Ezra made his way to the corral. Working silently and quickly, he saddled his own horse and led her out of the enclosure. Ezra kept his hand on his mounts nose to keep her from snorting and giving them away. He skirted between two guards, and made it to a crooked tree that hid him and his horse from view.
Ezra mounted up and nudged the mares flanks. Every moment, Ezra expected to feel a bullet between his shoulderblades, and when one didnt come after a few minutes, he breathed a sigh of relief and urged his mount into a trot back toward town.
Suddenly, a shot rang out and shards of stone were thrown upward in his path. His horse neighed in fear and jerked at the bit, while Ezra fought to regain control. Yet he knew with no weapon, hed be powerless against Randolph and his men.
"Hold it right there, mister," a familiar voice called out.
"Buck?" Ezra asked tentatively. Four men on horseback materialized around him, and relief flooded Ezra as he grinned. "My, my, you are a sight for sore eyes."
"Whereve you been?" Chris demanded.
Taken aback by the mans sharp tone, Ezras smile faded. "I have been trussed up, lying in Randolphs root cellar."
"You all right?" JD asked.
Touched by the boys concern, Ezra gave him a nod. "Other than a little wear and tear upon my person, I shall survive." He turned back to Chris and met his steely eyes. "I take it you havent found Vin or Nathan?"
Chris nodded curtly. "You take it right. Where are they?"
"They are being held in a canyon not far from here," Ezra replied. "Once Stewart Randolph learns of my escape, he will surely send his men there."
Chris motioned for him to lead on, and Ezra set off across the sage-littered landscape. The darkness, where it had been a help earlier, was now a hindrance. They didnt want their horses stepping into a hole, but they couldnt afford to walk them either. Vin and Nathans lives depended on them arriving before Randolph.
"How much farther?" Chris demanded half an hour later.
"Right through there." Ezra motioned to the narrow pass up ahead.
"They got guards up there?"
"Stewart didnt say there were. He did tell me there were six guards around the prisoners at night, and ten during the day."
Chris drew up, and the other men stopped beside him. He gazed upward at the rocky opening. "Looks to me like a perfect place to put a couple men with rifles."
Buck nodded. "Thats what I was thinkin. How we gonna find out?"
"Is this the only way in?" Chris asked Ezra.
He nodded. "The canyon is enclosed completely except for this entrance." Ezra rubbed his brow. "I will attempt to draw the fire of the guards if there are any up there."
"If there are, you wont have a chance," JD argued.
Ezra smiled slightly with more than a hint of sadness. "It is the least I can do to atone for my mistaken judgment."
Chris eyed the gambler. "Did you know what he was doing?"
Ezra shook his head and replied somberly, "I had no idea until yesterday when he brought me to this box canyon. I attempted to leave last night, but unfortunately, Stewart caught me. I was able to escape with the help of one of his servants." He held Chriss cool stare, unable to look away from pale green eyes that seemed to sear his soul.
Finally, the ex-shootist nodded. "JDs right. Youll be shot down if theres guards stationed there. There has to be another way."
"One of us could climb up there," Buck suggested.
"That would take too long," Ezra argued. "Let me go, Chris. Itll be the quickest and easiest way."
Chris didnt want the responsibility of making a life or death decision hed done that far too many times in the past and he was tired of it. But Buck, JD, Josiah, and Ezra were waiting on him to make up his mind, and he knew they would do as he said without question. They needed to find Nathan and Vin, and to do that, Ezra was ready to offer his own life a sacrifice Ezra would have never made eight months ago. Two for the price of one. Damn, Chris hated this!
"All right," he said evenly, surprised his voice didnt reveal his tormented thoughts.
Ezra met Chriss eyes and nodded. "Thank you."
"Well meet you on the other side," Chris simply said.
In the oppressive silence of the night, they watched Ezra ride alone toward the entrance of the valley.
Vin scrubbed the blood from his hand on to his trousers. Hed nearly slipped down the steep incline and had managed to catch himself on a rock, while at the same time cutting open the back of one hand. Hiding behind a rock, he spied two men with rifles about fifteen feet from his position. One was guarding the open range, while the other kept his gaze riveted on the hidden valley as he searched for escaping prisoners.
"Looks like we have a visitor." the man facing outward said.
The other man turned to see the intruder. "You got him?"
"Yep." The man sighted down his rifle barrel.
Vin didnt know who the visitor was, but he suspected it might be Chris or Ezra or one of the other men. Steadying his breathing, he jumped out of his hiding place and let out a war hoop, hoping to startle the man into inaction. The rifle spat just as Vins body impacted with the shooter. A horse neighed from someplace down below, then Vins attention was centered on the guard. Vin grabbed the rifle from his hands, and swung the stock. The wood butt hit the mans face with a sickly thud and the guard lay still. The second guard raised his weapon, and Vin flung himself to the side. The bullet struck a rock where Vins body had been a split second earlier. Vin jacked the rifle in his own hands and using instinct rather than aim, fired at the second man. Vins shot struck him in the chest and the man slipped to the ground with a disbelieving expression.
Trembling slightly in the aftermath of the skirmish, Vin pushed himself to his feet and gazed down at the man whom the guard had fired at. Suddenly, the explosion of guns sent him to his knees and he curled into a ball behind a rock, waiting for the barrage to end. It became silent, and Vin cautiously raised his head above his protection.
"Its me, Vin. Hold your fire," he shouted. "Im gonna stand up now, and Id appreciate it if you wouldnt use me as target practice."
Vin rose slowly, holding his hands high in the air. He looked down at the five men a couple hundred feet below him, and called out laconically, "Come on in, boys. Ive been expectin you."
Vin scrambled down the slope, his descent much faster than his climb had been. Ten minutes later, he stood beside Chris holding the reins of one of the guards horses.
"You okay?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded shortly and looked over at Ezra, whose left sleeve showed a red stain. "What do you thing you were you doin ridin into that ambush by yourself?" he demanded.
"Attempting to save you and Nathan," he replied, though his flippant tone didnt match his somber eyes. "By the looks of it, however, you saved me."
Vin motioned to his arm. "Hit bad?"
"Merely a flesh wound. Hows Nathan?"
Vin shook his head. "Not good. He was whipped a few days ago."
"Son-of-a-bi" Buck began.
"Hes been whipped before," Josiah said with a husky voice as he met Vins solemn gaze.
"Come on, we need to get him out of there and free the other prisoners," Vin said, his voice hard. He mounted his borrowed animal.
The six men rode across the field, the horses hooves trampling the cotton plants and Vin saw it as a small retribution for the hours he and Nathan had toiled in the field under the hot sun. As they neared the flimsy building, the guards began to shoot. Chris, Vin, Buck, JD, Josiah, and Ezra continued to gallop toward them, brandishing their own weapons. Two guards went down, then a third. The last three ran off in three different directions, and the men pursued them.
Vin spotted the cruel overseer, Monroe, slipping behind the barracks and he sent his horse racing after him. The fat man turned to fire at Vin, but his weapon clicked on an empty chamber and he threw the gun at Vin, missing him by a wide margin. Vin uncoiled the rope on the saddle and tossed a loop over Monroe, jerking him back so hard he fell on his backside. Vin dismounted quickly, and kept the rope taut as he hurried toward the man.
"Dont kill me, please," Monroe cried. "I was just doin my job."
Vin leaned over and jerked the whip from the mans belt. He raised it over his head and flicked it through the air, bringing a moan of fear from the coward.
"Ever feel the lash, Monroe?" Vin asked as he circled the man, snapping the leather so close to him that he drew blood on Monroes arm.
"Please, mister, dont whip me," the overseer practically blubbered, as he pressed his hand against his bleeding arm.
Vin stopped and stared at the pathetic excuse for a man, then shook his head in disgust Vengeance had suddenly lost its appeal. "Nathan was right. You aint worth it. Youll get yours in prison."
Vin ushered him back to join the other prisoners who were herded into a huddle, then went into the shelter and faced the gathered slaves. "Youre all free to go. The guards at the pass are dead."
At first no one moved, then shouts of jubilation arose and the people began to gather up their meager belongings. Ezra joined Vin who spotted Tommy kneeling beside Nathan. The two men went to Nathans side.
"How is he?" Vin asked the boy.
"Im better," Nathan replied with a familiar smile. "Fever broke a couple hours ago." He spotted Ezras pale face and his smile faded. "You okay, Ezra?"
The gambler managed a smile. "Ill be fine," he assured. "Its good to see you again, Mr. Jackson."
"What happened to your friend?" Nathan asked.
Ezras face shadowed with dismay. "He died a long time ago."
"Wed best get out of here," Vin said.
"Wish you woulda told me what you had in mind," Nathan complained.
Vin smiled. "So you could talk me out of it? Come on, the others are outside waitin for us."
With Ezra on one side, and Vin on the other, Nathan was helped out, where they were greeted by Josiah and Chris. A few of the former prisoners held weapons that were now trained on the ex-guards.
"Wheres Buck and JD?" Vin asked.
"I sent them back to the pass in case Randolph shows up," Chris replied. He looked at Nathan. "Think you can ride?"
Nathan smiled. "Try to stop me."
Ezra and Vin helped Nathan up on to a horse that had belonged to one of the men guarding the prisoners, then they mounted up. Tommy stood beside Nathans horse. "Can I go with you?"
Nathan shook his head. "Not yet. First were going to make sure Randolph is behind bars, then well take you to your momma."
"I spose I can wait a little longer," Tommy said reluctantly.
"It wont be long," Nathan said. "I promise you that."
"I believe you, Nathan," the boy said.
Vin turned to the former slaves and raised his voice. "Well send the law to take care of these men. Until then, theyre under your guard."
"Do you think thats safe?" Josiah asked softly.
"I figger these fellahs deserve whatever they get," Vin replied, his features set and unyielding. He glanced at Chris and saw his eyes narrow slightly, but the blond man nodded in acquiescence. Then Vin looked at Nathan who slumped in the saddle. "I got one other thing to do."
Unlooping his rope again, he lassoed the whipping post and spurred his horse forward. The post snapped and Vin dragged it over to the fire the guards had kept going. He untied the rope from the pommel and tossed it away. The hungry flames began to devour the wood, and Vin nodded to himself as the fires heat radiated outward to warm his face. He rejoined his friends, and spoke tautly. "That thing aint ever gonna be used to bring pain to anyone again."
Nathan drew his gaze away from the leaping flames and looked at Vin, his dark eyes filled with gratitude. "Thanks."
Vin and Ezra rode on either side of Nathan in case their friend began to weaken. When they met up with Buck and JD, the seven men continued on together. Though no one had discussed where they were going, each man knew. They would end Stewart Randolphs reign tonight.
An hour later, they lay on their bellies overlooking Randolphs ranch.
"Buck, you take care of the guard standing by the corral," Chris said. "JD, you got the one by the barn. Josiah, you get the one at the corner of the bunkhouse. Vin, Ezra, and Ill go to the house," Chris said. "Well meet at the porch."
"What about me?" Nathan asked.
"With them wounds on your back, youre stayin right here," Chris replied, then smiled. "Youll be our ace in the hole."
Using the darkness to hide their motion, the men did as Chris said. Chris and his two companions went after the other three had moved out, and they snaked their way across the open ground between their position and the house. Chris saw Buck get his guard, then Josiah. He glanced over at JD, hoping the boy would be able to take care of his man without any trouble. He wouldnt have had to worry as JD dispatched his guard with the butt of his gun. That was three of Randolphs men down.
He, Vin, and Ezra scurried over to the corral, spreading out and using the posts as cover. Peering around, Chris saw another guard walking toward him from the outhouse. Chris froze, knowing the man couldnt miss him. From his cover, Vin sprang into action, downing the man with a well-placed blow to the back of his head. Chris helped Vin drag the guard into the shadows, and they continued on toward the house. The six men converged on the porch and they silently crossed to the front door. Chris tried the doorknob and found it locked.
Vin, who had moved over to the huge window waved them over and the men entered the house through a glass door. After waiting for their eyes to adjust, Ezra who knew the layout the best, led them through the room. Buck tripped on a chair leg and the chair crashed to the floor. They froze for a full minute, waiting for Randolph to come charging in. When he didnt, they continued through the room and into the foyer.
"Drop your weapons, gentlemen," Randolphs voice sounded from above them.
Chris looked up to see the man halfway down the stairs, a revolver in each hand trained on them. He had six of his men with him and all had weapons aimed in their direction, too.
"After I saw Ezra had escaped, I was expecting you to come calling," Randolph said and he studied Vin a little closer. "Looks like youve already been to my cotton field."
Chris nodded. "Thats right. Your prisoners are free."
Randolph shook his head. "A pity. Ill just have to start rounding them up again. Oh, well, Ive had to start over before, I can do so again." He took a deep breath. "Now get rid of your guns and put your hands in the air or we shall have to kill you all right here, and I do hate blood stains in the house."
Slowly, with anger marching through his veins, Chris did as Randolph ordered, and heard his friends weapons hit the tile floor, too. A woman joined him, and Chris recognized her as Lottie from the Green Table Emporium, and she and Randolph descended the remaining steps.
"I had hoped you wouldnt be so deeply involved in such nefarious activities, my dear Lottie," Ezra commented..
Her eyes were as hard as diamonds. "Im not so certain its nefarious. It is, however, profitable." Lottie shook her head. "Im disappointed in you, Ezra. I thought you and Stewart would make a wonderful partnership."
Melancholy gripped Ezra, and he said softly, "Maybe some other time in some other place. But Stewart went too far this time. He kidnapped my friends, whipped one of them so severely I shudder to think of his pain." Ezra shook his head sadly. "No, Lottie, I could never go along with Stewarts insanity."
"Then youll die with your so-called friends," Stewart stated.
"Better to die with them than live in your depraved world."
Stewart blinked, looked around, then narrowed his eyes. "Wheres your nigger friend?"
"As I stated, he was whipped so severely, he was unable to travel," Ezra replied smoothly.
"Thats all right. I shall find him later and put him back to work," Stewart said with a shrug.
"The hell you will," Vin growled.
"Whos going to stop me? You from the grave?" Randolph laughed. "Lets go outside." He motioned toward the door with his weapons.
Fuming at his stupidity, Chris walked to the door and went on to the porch. The six men stood silently, surrounded by Randolphs hired guns. "Now what?" Chris asked.
"Now I get rid of all of you."
A rifle shot broke the night. One of the guards fell to the porch, and a dark river of blood meandered across the wood. Chris and the others attacked the remaining guards, while Ezra jumped Randolph.
Despite being twenty years Randolphs junior, Ezra found himself floundering under the older mans onslaught. Randolph managed a fist in Ezras gut, and the gambler tumbled down the stairs on to the ground. With fire blazing in his eyes, Randolph jumped off the porch and Ezra scrambled to his feet. He swung, his knuckles cracking against Randolphs jaw and the man stumbled back, dazed. Ezra moved in for another blow, but Randolph sidestepped at the last moment, and Ezras fist only grazed him. Randolph charged forward, head down, and butted Ezra with bone-jarring force. Then Randolph struck his cheek, and the gambler fell back to the dirt once more.
Blackness crowded Ezras vision and he struggled to remain conscious. He reached out, finding dirt beneath his palms, but his fingers felt something smooth and hard. Ezra closed his fingers around the revolver and managed to focus on Randolph who was aiming his retrieved gun at an unarmed Chris. Seeing Chris was too far away to stop him and too close to be missed by a bullet, Ezra raised his weapon and aimed at Randolphs back.
"Dont, Stewart," Ezra cried.
The gray-haired man spun around, bringing his gun to bear on Ezra. Stewarts finger curled around the trigger.
"No!" Ezra shouted as he fired his own revolver.
Crimson blossomed on Randolphs fancy white shirt and he dropped to his knees, his accusing eyes on Ezra. Ezra crawled toward him, catching his old friend before he fell face down on the ground. He cradled Stewarts shoulders in his arms, sorrow washing through him like the swell of a tide on a Georgia beach.
"You you c-could of had it all," Randolph managed to say as red spittle stained his lips.
Ezra shook his head, his eyes filled with moisture and his gaze blurred. "I already do, my friend," he whispered. "I already do."
Stewart lifted his hand slowly and touched Ezras cheek. Then his hand fell back to his chest and his unseeing eyes remained fixed on the night sky. Lottie dropped down beside Randolph and bowed her head over his body as she wept.
Ezra swallowed hard, then felt a firm grip on his shoulder. He looked up to see Chris, a black specter in the dark night, except for his light colored eyes which revealed solace and understanding. Then the ex-shootist slowly walked away.
"Come on, Ezra," Nathan said softly. "Its time to go."
Ezra nodded and got to his feet awkwardly. He swayed a moment, and Nathan took hold of his arm. "Are you all right?" the healer asked.
"I dont know, Nathan. I truly dont know."
Nathan nodded gently, his brown eyes compassionate, but he remained silent, respecting Ezras right to grieve. And together, the two men left behind the carnage and joined their friends.
Five days later, the stage rolled into Lancaster, sparking the usual excitement in the small town. The seven men clustered around a table on the boardwalk, however, merely glanced at it, and returned their attention to the shots of whiskey in front of each of them.
The fading bruise on Ezras cheekbone appeared out of place on the usually fastidious man, and he moved his left arm a little stiffly as he played solitaire. Nathans back was healing slowly, though he continued to move carefully.
"Aint that Mrs. Hamilton?" JD asked, pointing to a woman carrying a portmanteau toward the stage.
Vin nodded. "Yep, thats her all right."
They watched in silence and when she walked toward them, the men sat up a little straighter.
"Mornin, maam," Vin greeted, touching the brim of his hat.
"Hello," Louise Hamilton replied, her gaze passing over each of the men nervously. "I I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am." She looked at Nathan. "For everything."
"It wasnt your fault, maam," Nathan said.
"Maybe not, but if I had realized earlier what my husband was involved in." She sighed. "I thought I knew him."
"People change, Mrs. Hamilton, and often times it is for the bad," Ezra said.
"But sometimes its for the good," Nathan added, deliberately gazing at Ezra.
"Yes, well, I suppose youre right.," the woman said. "I just hope I can find a way to start over."
"Youre taking a step in the right direction, maam," Josiah interjected.
After a moment, Louise Hamilton smiled slightly and nodded. "Thank you all for everything."
"No, maam, its us whos in your debt," Nathan said.
Her smile grew, then she crossed the street and boarded the stagecoach.
"Whod she sell the store to?" JD asked curiously.
Nathan grinned. "Tommy and his ma. Her and her husband used to run a store a few years ago."
Vin laughed. "Seems kind of a fit endin, dont it?"
Ezra pushed back his chair and stood. "If you gentlemen will excuse me a moment, I have an errand to effectuate."
The six men watched him walk down the boardwalk and turn into the Green Table Emporium.
"You figger hell be okay?" Buck asked, a thread of concern in his voice.
"Only time can heal that kind of pain, Buck," Nathan said softly.
With his heart in his throat, Ezra walked toward the bar where Lottie stood, her back to him. He paused a couple feet behind her. "Hello, Lottie."
She stiffened, then turned. "What are you doing here?"
Ezra turned the brim of his hat around in his hands nervously. "I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for what happened."
"Sorry isnt going to bring Stewart back."
Ezras breath caught in his throat with renewed sorrow. "I know."
Lottie crossed her arms. "I thought you were his friend."
"I was." Ezra glanced down, then around the Emporium. No longer did the poker tables invite him, or the faro box tempt him. "He was a different man when I knew him."
"He was the same man, Ezra. Back then, he believed in the South and the right of a landowner to have slaves, just as he did now." She shook her head. "Maybe youre the different man."
Had the six men changed him that much? Without searching too deeply, he knew Lottie was right. He wasnt the same person he was fifteen years ago, not even a year ago. It was he who had changed, not Stewart Randolph, yet Ezra knew he couldnt go back and be the man he used to. Just as Nathan could never go back and be a slave again.
He gazed into her accusing eyes. "Have a good life, Lottie," he said softly.
Then he turned and walked out of the Emporium. Down the street, he saw the six men sitting at the same table. Someday hed strike out on his own again, but that day had yet to come. For now, his place was with them.
And Ezra took a deep breath and went to join his friends.
The Trail to Tascosa #5: Breach of Faith
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