Magnificent Seven: Trail to Tascosa
by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist
This series of stories takes place, as the title suggests, on the way to Tascosa to clear Vins name. The tales will follow one another chronologically and will keep to stories involving only the seven men with no romantic entanglements or off-the-wall characterizations (I hope!). As the characterizations are based on my observations, they may not agree with your own, as we all see the world from our own unique perceptions. If anyone would like to send comments, you can send them to me at my e-mail address at the end of the story.
DISCLAIMER: The following stories are works of fan fiction. They are not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of CBS, The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy, or anyone else who may have legal claim on "The Magnificent Seven". I do not claim the characters or concept, and the only profit I get is the enjoyment of writing the stories and sharing them with other fans.
"Chains of the Past"
by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist
"I donít like this one bit, Chris," Buck Wilmington stated, removing his hat and tossing it on to the middle of the liquor-stained table.
JD Dunne took the chair next to Buck and shook his head in response to the unspoken question in the other four menís eyes. His uncharacteristically somber expression foretold his bad news. "No message from Nathan at the telegraph office."
"Maybe the child decided to prolong its entry into the world," Ezra Standish commented as he played a game of solitaire. An expert poker player, and con man when the situation demanded it, Ezra was unable to hold his hands idle for any length of time.
"Three days is an awful long time for a woman to be giviní birth," Vin Tanner said, worry evident in his blue eyes.
"And if he was going to be this late, he wouldíve sent us a message," Josiah Sanchez added. The former preacher toyed with his empty whiskey glass. "Iíll ride back to Lancaster and find out whatís goiní on."
Chris Larabee, the unspoken leader of the seven men, glanced at Vin whose grim expression told him he wasnít about to continue to Tascosa without Nathan. Chris shook his head. "We all go."
Although it meant a two day ride back the way theyíd come, his companionsí approval didnít surprise Chris. Nathan Jackson was the healer of the group, although it wasnít only physical wounds he treated. His thoughtful insights had often stopped the others from jumping into a fray, and heíd become their collective conscience. Sometimes he struck a nerve as he often did with Ezra, but his quiet ways always acted as a soothing force to the band of diverse men. If something had happened to Nathan, Chris wasnít sure what would hold him and the other five men back from seeking vengeance since it was Nathan himself who usually spoke with a voice of humanity and reason. A voice the six men needed more than Chris wanted to admit.
Where the hell was he?
Nathan touched the lump at the back of his head and groaned. He pulled his hand away, cursing silently at the blood on his fingers. The last thing he remembered was walking out of the saloon in Lancaster, where heíd gone to have a drink to celebrate the birth of a healthy baby boy. Heíd only delivered a few babies, and each time the joy of the miracle never ceased to humble him. As a stretcher bearer in the Union Army, heíd seen more death than heíd ever wanted to in his lifetime, so the entrance of a new life into the world always touched him profoundly. Even now, his head throbbing, Nathan managed a slight smile at the memory of the birth.
"íBout time you woke up."
He turned his head to see a black woman staring down at him. She wore a drab gray dress held together by patches. An equally faded scarf was wrapped around her head but a few strands of white hair had escaped the confines.
"Who are you?" he asked in confusion.
"You can call me Corrine," she said with a thick southern accent. "You got a name?"
"Itís just Nathan now."
He frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You know where youíre at?" Corrine motioned to the dingy dimness of the shelter with a thin, work-worn hand.
For the first time Nathan realized he was lying on a coarse blanket on a dirt floor. "Last I remember I was in Lancaster."
"I ainít surprised." She sighed. "You ainít a free man no more, Nathan."
Confusion sliced through the eddies of pain in Nathanís head. "Whatíre you talkiní about?"
Before she could speak, a heavyset white man barreled in, wearing clothes in considerably better shape than Corrineís. "How long has he been awake?" he demanded.
Corrine folded her arms over her chest and raised her chin. "He just done woke up, and he ainít in any shape to go out into the field."
"Heís alive and thatís all that counts." The man stabbed a thumb over his shoulder, toward the door. "Címon nigger, time to earn your keep."
Anger surged through Nathan, bringing him to his feet. His head spun and his stomach lurched, but he swallowed back the bile. "I ainít your Ďniggerí and last I heard, no man owned another."
The stranger threw back his head and barked a harsh laugh. "You ainít a man, youíre the bossí property. And if you donít do what youíre supposed to, heíll get rid of you like he would a tool that ainít no good anymore."
Was his head wound making him imagine this craziness? Nathan blinked, but the brutish man didnít disappear. He glanced at Corrine, who studied him silently, her expression neutral. Nathan would go along with this insanity until he learned more about what kind of hell heíd stumbled into.
With a bracing breath, Nathan pushed aside the canvas flap and walked out of the crude shelter. He put a hand to his eyes as he blinked rapidly. When his eyes finally adjusted to the bright sun, Nathan could make out a field of cotton spread out before him. Throughout the field, he spotted Negroes bent over working among the crop. Time spun backwards when Nathan had been a slave for a plantation owner in Mississippi. He thought those days were gone, destroyed by the War Between the States, yet here was a piece of the past in some godforsaken area of southern Texas.
"I figure you know what to do so get to it," the overseer stated and gave Nathan a shove toward the field.
He glanced back at the man, who put a hand on the coiled whip hanging from his belt. The scars on Nathanís back seemed to tighten with his gut muscles.
Where the hell was he?
By the time the sun set, Nathanís entire body throbbed with agony. As he hobbled along with the others, he tried to talk to some of his fellow prisoners. He refused to think of themselves as slaves. Those terrible days were in the past.
"What is this place?" he asked in a low voice.
The man he asked merely shook his head and picked up his pace to move away from him. Nathan clenched his jaw and turned to a boy about twelve or thirteen who walked with the slow, measured steps of an old man.
"How long you been here?" Nathan asked him.
The boy shrugged. "Maybe a year, maybe more. I donít know."
"You donít know?"
"Me and my folks were just traveliní down the road when we was taken by these men and brought here."
"Where are your folks now?"
"País dead. Ma works at the big house, so I donít see her much."
Nathanís heart twisted for the boyís anguish. "I never knew my pa and I never saw my ma after I started workiní the cotton. That was before the war, when we was forced to be slaves."
"Pa tried telliní the men that we were free now, but they wouldnít listen. They whipped Pa bad, but he wouldnít give up." His huge dark eyes filled with sorrow. "Not Ďtil they shot him in the back when he was tryiní to escape."
Despite Nathanís own pain, he put an arm around the boyís shoulders as they walked back to the flimsy shelter that housed them. Uncertain where he was to sleep, Nathan stood awkwardly in the center of the dirt floor.
"You can have the blanket my pa had," the boy volunteered.
Touched by his offer, Nathan smiled. "Whatís your name?"
"You got a last name?"
"Lawrence." He stared at Nathan a moment. "Nobodyís asked me that in a long time."
"You remember it good, Tommy, Ďcause one of these days weíre gonna leave this place and youíll need it," Nathan said softly.
Tommyís eyes brightened for the first time since Nathan had met him. "Letís go get some supper."
"Where do we do that?"
"Címon, Iíll show you."
Stifling a groan of physical exhaustion, Nathan followed the boy and hoped he stayed awake long enough to eat.
Tired and dusty, the six men dismounted in front of one of Lancasterís six saloons.
"Weíll split up so we can cover more ground," Chris stated, loosely wrapping his big blackís reins around the hitching post.
The men divided into pairs, Vin going with Chris, Buck and JD moving off together, and Josiah and Ezra walking across the street.
Chris and Vin entered a smoky cantina, instinctively stepping to the side so they wouldnít be outlined by the light streaming in behind them. Stale beer, cheap cigars, and unwashed bodies mingled into a familiar odor Vin recognized from a hundred other saloons.
Chris glanced at him and Vin motioned to a piece of the bar that was unoccupied, and the two men moved shoulder to shoulder toward it.
"Whiskey," Chris said to the heavyset barkeeper.
Vin held up a finger, motioning for another.
The bartender poured two shots of whiskey, then scooped up the coins Vin and Chris laid down.
"Weíre looking for someone," Chris began.
"You and everybody else," the fat man said in a bored voice.
"Heís a friend of ours," Vin added.
"A black man, a little taller than me. Wouldíve been through here four, five days ago," Chris said.
"Nope, ainít seen him," the bartender stated, then turned away.
With the speed of a striking rattler, Vin grabbed the manís arm and jerked him against the bar. He kept his tone low and deadly. "Iffen you know something about him, youíd best tell us. You see, Nathan is a good friend of ours and we wouldnít take kindly to anyone withholdiní information about him."
The barkeepís pig-like eyes bulged and he shook his head. "Look, I ainít seen a darky around here for a long time."
Vin backhanded the man, then shoved him away. He stumbled against the shelves of liquor, nearly toppling several to the floor.
"What the hell was that for?" the bartender demanded, holding his palm against his red cheek.
"Poor manners," Vin replied.
He touched the brim of his hat with two fingers in a mocking salute, and he and Chris left.
They paused on the boardwalk and Chris sidled a glance at Vin, his lips tilted upward. "If Iíd known you were so good at playiní mean, Iíd let you do it more often."
Vin shook his head somberly. "I wasnít playiní. My gut tells me he knows more than heís sayiní."
"Think he knows where Nathan is?"
Vin frowned. "I donít know, but thereís somethiní goiní on." He gazed at Chris intently. "Remember when you were at that hellhole in Jericho?"
Chris glanced away, but not before Vin saw his jaw clench and his face plane into sharp angles. Chris nodded curtly.
"Well, when me and the boys were snoopiní around town tryiní to find you, everybody seemed to be hidiní some big secret." Vin paused and looked around the town, noting the women dragging little children behind them and men sitting on the boardwalk, swapping tobacco and lies. "Thatís how I feel right now."
From beneath his wide brim, Chris surveyed the main street. "Letís check the livery next."
Across the street in the general store, Buck and JD approached the storekeeper who stood behind the counter shining an apple on his apron front.
"Afternoon," the bespectacled man greeted with a smile.
"Howdy," Buck replied.
"Is there something in particular youíre looking for?"
The storekeeper blinked, then regained his composure. "Can you be any more specific?"
"A friend of ours passed through here a few days ago, black man by the name of Nathan Jackson. ĎBout my height."
He thought for a moment. "Oh, yes, I remember him. Had real nice manners. He bought some cloth for bandages. Said he was a healer."
"That was him," JD piped up. "When did he leave?"
"Mustíve been about four days ago. He said he was meeting some friends."
Buck and JD exchanged concerned looks.
"He never made it," Buck said grimly.
"Iím sorry to hear that," the storekeeper said sincerely, then added, "maybe he stopped someplace along the way."
JD shook his head. "We backtracked the whole ways and ainít nobody seen him."
The manís eyes held sympathy. "Iím sorry. I wish I could help you."
"Me, too," Buck muttered, and strode to the door.
"Thanks," JD said politely, and followed Buck out.
After theyíd gone, a woman came through the curtain behind the counter, her expression a mixture of fear and anger. "We canít let this go on, Asa."
Asa Hamilton, the storeís proprietor, shook his head. "What can we do? If we say anything, we may as well pack a wagon and leave tonight. He owns this town, Eloise, and thereís nothing we can do to stop him."
"But all those peopleÖ" His wife crossed her arms. "Itís just not right."
"I know," Asa replied in a frustrated tone that said theyíd had the same argument numerous times before. "I donít like people like their friend being used either, but if we go against him, it wouldnít surprise me if he had us taken or killed, too."
Eloise pressed her palm to her mouth as her eyes filled with tears. "Maybe we should sell the store. Move on. Thereís nothing holding us here."
"Weíre making a good living here."
"Only because people like that nice man Nathan and all the others are being treated like animals."
"It isnít our concern, Eloise," he said firmly. "Did you get the bill of lading checked against our list?"
Eloise bit her lower lip and nodded reluctantly. But her gaze strayed to the window where she could see the two strangers continuing to search in vain for their friend.
"If you want to check in the saloon, Iíll go across the street to the hardware store," Josiah suggested.
Ezra nodded in agreement and turned into the most elegant looking saloon in town, The Green Table Emporium. In spite of his worry for Nathan, Ezraís gambling instincts told him this would be the place he could make a killing, figuratively speaking, of course. He entered the establishment and paused in the doorway as his thirsty gaze drank in the sights and smells. Instead of the usual stench, The Green Table Emporium smelled of fresh sawdust and cherry smoke from expensive cigars.
Glancing at his dull red coat, he tried to brush some of the offending dust from the material. He pulled a handkerchief from his breastpocket and mopped his brow, grimacing when he saw the dirt on the white cloth.
"Welcome to the Green Table Emporium."
Ezra turned to see a handsome woman with thick brown hair and startling violet eyes. As she drew closer, he could see a few lines in her tastefully powdered face and guessed her to be in her late forties. Probably close to his motherís age. He smiled gallantly.
"My, my, a vision of loveliness amidst an ocean of pallor," Ezra said in his most charming voice.
Her kohl-shadowed eyes widened slightly, then her smile grew. "Youíre a long ways from home, Mister Ė "
"Ezra Standish at your service, maíam." He took her hand and gently pressed his lips to the back of it.
"Mr. Standish, what a pleasure to find a man of such culture here in Lancaster." She eyed his disheveled clothing. "I see youíre a traveling man."
"Thatís correct, Miss -- " he waited for her to reciprocate.
"Lottie Robertson," she replied. "And this is my place."
Ezraís brow shot up. He didnít often run into a female saloon owner. "My compliments, my dear Miss Robertson."
"Actually, itís Misses, although Iím a widow. But please call me Lottie. All my friends do," she said without the coquetry of inexperienced youth.
"Itíd be my pleasure, Lottie."
She put her hand through the crook of his arm. "Come on, Iíll introduce you to a special friend of mine. I think you two will have much in common."
Puzzled and curious, Ezra allowed her to lead him between the poker and faro tables, and around the roulette wheel. A monstrous chandelier shone so brightly it almost hurt oneís eyes to gaze upon it, and shiny silver spittoons were placed discreetly so as not to offend sensibilities. A tasteful mural of a Rubenesque semi-nude adorned the wall behind the gleaming mahogany bar.
Lottie took him into a back room that Ezra assumed was for higher stakes games. They went directly to a table with four men, all prosperous by the looks of their haberdashery. And Ezra wished he couldíve cleaned up before being paraded in front of a wealthy group of suckers such as this.
One of the men, a steel gray-haired man with twinkling blue eyes, looked up at Lottie. His curious gaze flickered across Ezra. "Whoís your new friend, my dear?" he asked with a southern drawl that sounded distinctly familiar.
"Ezra Standish, this is -- " Lottie began.
"Stewart Randolph," Ezra finished, staring at the middle-aged man.
Randolph blinked, looked closer at Ezra and recognition filled his eyes. "Ezra Standish, Maudeís little boy." He stood and grabbed Ezraís hand, shaking it vigorously.
"Not so little anymore, sir," Ezra said respectfully.
Randolphís gaze traveled up and down Ezra as if not believing his own eyes. "How long has it been, son?"
"Since before the war," Ezra replied.
Randolph sobered and the twinkle disappeared. "The aggression of the north, you mean."
Ezra didnít blame the man for his bitterness. Heíd been a successful plantation owner until the war, then Sherman had blazed a fiery trail through the south, destroying everything in his way, including Randolphís mansion.
"I didnít know youíd come west to start anew," Ezra commented.
"Where else was there for me to go?" He blinked, and the sparkle reappeared in his eyes. "So what have you been up to these past years?"
"That, sir, is a long story and before I entertain you with it, I would like to bathe and change into something more suitable for such illustrious company."
"Did you just get into town?"
"Not more than an hour ago."
"Why donít you come back here for dinner? I know for a fact Lottie has the finest French cook this side of the Mississippi."
"Yes, please, Iíd love to hear your stories also," Lottie interjected.
"It would be my pleasure," Ezra said. "Now, if youíll excuse me, I shall go make myself presentable."
With one last look at the man from his past, Ezra left the back room and walked through the gambling hall, using every ounce of willpower not to sit down and join in a poker game. Out on the boardwalk, he paused, realizing heíd been so surprised to see Randolph there, he hadnít asked about Nathan. Frowning to himself, Ezra doubted if Nathan wouldíve gone into such an establishment. He preferred less ostentation. But if he had a chance, heíd ask Lottie and Stewart if theyíd seen him.
Josiah came out of a building a couple doors down and Ezra joined him.
"Anything?" Ezra asked.
Josiah shook his head, his expression forbidding. "A man just doesnít disappear without a trace. Somebody had to have seen him."
"Maybe the others had better luck."
"Maybe," Josiah said dubiously.
They met Chris, Vin, Buck, and JD in a saloon across the street, and joined them around a table stained with liquor and scarred by overzealous drunks.
"Any luck?" Chris asked.
"Not a sign," Ezra replied.
"The only person who admits to seeiní him is the storekeeper," Vin added.
"Perhaps the store was the only place he visited," Ezra said.
"Itís possible," Chris said, though his tone said otherwise.
"I say we bust a few heads and see what falls out," Buck exclaimed.
"Has anybody checked with the sheriff?" Chris asked, ignoring Buckís outburst. "Me and Vin didnít." He didnít have to explain why.
"Iíll go," JD volunteered.
"Iíll back ya up," Buck said.
Although the boy had come a long ways since heíd joined the group, Chris felt better with Buck accompanying him. And he didnít have to worry about Buck keeping an eye on him; sometimes he damn near smothered him. Of course, since the cattle drive with Barkley, Buck and JDís relationship had changed some. It seemed to Chris that Buck treated him more like an equal rather than a kid. That didnít mean he had stopped teasing the boy; hell, if that happened, Chris would check to see if Buckís heart was still beating. But he noticed, too, that JD was fast learning how to defend himself against Buckís badgering.
After Buck and JD were gone, Ezra spoke up. "I ran into an old friend at an establishment across the street. If thereís nothing we can do at this time, I believe I shall procure a room then join him for some reminiscing. Provided we are staying here for the night." He arched an eyebrow questioningly.
Vin nodded. "Somethinís goiní on around here and I aim to find out what it is."
Ezra didnít doubt the tracker. He had remarkable intuition. Besides, that gave Ezra time to discuss old times with Stewart Randolph, and enjoy a meal not cooked over an open fire.
"Weíll get rooms at the hotel," Chris said. "If anything comes up, weíll find you."
"Or I shall find you," Ezra said with a twinkle in his pale eyes.
"Amen, brother," Josiah stated, his expression dark and unfathomable.
Ezra nodded to the three men, then left.
"Nathanís in trouble, Chris," Josiah said with the certainty of God proclaiming Judgment Day.
Chris removed his hat and raked his fingers through his dark blond hair. "My gut tells me the same thing." He swore. "Thereís got to be someone who knows something."
"Where does that woman live Ė the one who Nathan helped deliver her baby?" Vin asked.
"I heard her husband give Nathan directions," Josiah volunteered. "Itís closer to Orville than Lancaster. Itíll take us about thirty miles west."
"If we havenít learned anything by morning, weíll head that way," Chris said.
"Maybe somebody should stay here in case Nathan comes back," Vin said.
"Ezra can since he seems to have stumbled upon an old friend," Josiah said.
Vin nodded. "Iíll stay with him."
Chris leaned back in his chair and planted his elbows on the chair arms, then steepled his fingers as he studied Vin. "All right. Weíre going to be gone at least a couple days so itís a good idea to leave two of you so you can watch each otherís backs."
He studied Vin, wondering if he should stay with him and send Ezra with Josiah, Buck, and JD. It wasnít that he didnít trust Ezra Ė heíd come a long way since heíd ridden out on them in that Seminole village. It was just that he trusted himself more.
"Ezraíll do fine," Vin said in a low voice, startling Chris.
Sometimes Vinís intuition was damned eerie, but it was that perception that Chris admired most in his friend. And even though Chris often cursed Vinís soft heart when it came to helping folks, he respected him for that compassion, too.
Chris nodded. "All right. If we ainít back in three days, you and Ezra head out to Orville."
"You got it," Vin said.
JD entered the sheriffís office ahead of Buck and nodded at the red-haired man sitting behind the desk. "Howdy," JD greeted.
The lawman set aside his pen, and sent him and Buck an answering, but wary nod. "Afternoon. New in town?"
"Thatís right," JD said, feeling right at home in the office. He hooked his fingers around his gunbelt. "Me and my friends are lookiní for someone."
The sheriffís eyes narrowed. "To gun him down?"
JD blinked, thrown off-balance by the odd question. "íCourse not. Fact is, Iím a sheriff, too. Well, I was until we left Four Corners."
"When did they start hiriní boys to do a manís job?"
Buck took a step forward, his hands clenched in fists, but JD grabbed his arm. "Iíll take care of this," he said in a low voice. Keeping a hold on his friend, JD gave the lawman a steady look. "When that boy proves he can do it."
For a long moment the sheriff eyed JD, his expression unrevealing of his thoughts. Finally, he pushed back his chair and stood, offering JD his hand. "The nameís Sheriff Dan OíMalley."
"JD Dunne," he introduced, shaking the manís hand. "And this is Buck Wilmington."
Buck only glared at the sheriff.
"Weíre trying to find a man," JD began.
"You bounty hunters?" the sheriff asked, narrowing his eyes.
JD shook his head. "Weíre looking for a friend of ours. A black man by the name of Nathan Jackson. Wouldíve passed through a few days ago."
"Donít recall any Negroes in town lately. Iíd remember if there had been."
JDís hopes tumbled; heíd been so certain the sheriff would have seen him.
"Or maybe you conveniently forgot," Buck growled.
OíMalleyís hostile gaze settled on Buck. "You calliní me a liar?" A thick Irish accent slipped into his speech.
Buck stepped up to the desk and flattened his palms on the surface, leaning toward OíMalley. "You tell me."
The tension grew thicker than sorghum, and JD wrapped his fingers around Buckís arm. He could feel the taut muscles beneath his jacket sleeve. "Címon, Buck. If Sheriff OíMalley said he didnít see him, he didnít."
The two men continued to parry looks like two tomcats getting ready to spit.
"Címon, Buck," JD said more forcefully.
After a moment, Buck relinquished his gaze and pushed back, muttering an oath.
JD forced a smile. "Thanks for your help, Sheriff."
"You two stayiní in town a while?" OíMalley asked.
"For the night."
"Be gone first thing in the morning. I wouldnít want to have to lock up your friend."
Buck charged toward the lawman, and JD planted himself in front of him and grabbed his shoulders, barely restraining the larger man. He pulled him out of the office, then released him as they walked down the boardwalk.
"So howíd I do?" JD asked.
"Just fine, kid," Buck said with a wink and a grin. "Now he thinks youíre his buddy and Iím crazy."
JD adjusted his derby hat with a jaunty motion. Then he reminded himself of the reason for the charade. "You think Nathanís still alive?"
For a moment, JD thought Buck was going treat him like a kid again and feed him some bullshit about not worrying, that Nathan could take care of himself.
"I donít know, JD, and thatís the honest to God truth," Buck said somberly.
And JD almost wished Buck would have given him empty reassurances instead.
Night fell, blanketing the quiet land with blackness. Nathan sat outside the flimsy shelter he shared with the other Ďslavesí, and watched six armed men guard the perimeter of the camp. He shuddered, recalling too vividly the days heíd tried to forget.
Heíd been at the slave camp now for four days, each one longer than the one before. His head still ached, but his sore muscles from the physical labor easily surpassed it. He shifted slightly, feeling the reassuring weight of the knife that hung between his shoulderblades. His captors hadnít done a thorough job of searching him, probably figuring someone like himself wouldnít know how to wield a knife with deadly accuracy. Of course, they had never had to escape through the Underground Railroad where the only weapon Negroes had were knives. He wouldnít use it, though, unless he had to. As Ezra wouldíve said, it was his ace in the hole.
Somebody opened the canvas flap and Nathan recognized Tommyís smaller figure.
"Whatcha ya doiní out here, Nathan?" he asked curiously.
"Thinking," he replied quietly.
Tommy shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
"Want to join me?" Nathan invited.
The boy nodded and sank down to the ground to sit cross-legged beside him. "Whatíre you thinkiní about?"
"This place. How can someone get away with makiní us slaves again?"
Tommy shrugged. "I sípose Ďcause no one cares what happens to us."
"I have some friends who care, and theyíre gonna come lookiní for me sooner or later," Nathan said confidently. "You know how many guards there are?"
"Thereís six around at night and ten during the day."
"And how many of us are there?"
"íBout thirty, I reckon."
"So why havenít folks worked together to escape?"
"My pa tried to get Ďem to do that, but everyone was scared," Tommy explained, his voice sounding small in the vastness of the Texas night. "I guess they had good reason."
"What do you mean?"
"Pa didnít know about the guards at the canyon entrance. Anybody tries to get out, they got to go through that pass. Thatís where he was killed."
Nathanís blood chilled. "That means anyone who tries to come inís gonna be shot down, too."
Tommy nodded. "Even if your friends find out about this place, theyíre gonna be killed tryiní to get in."
Nathanís breath caught in his chest. He had planned on waiting until Chris, Josiah, and the others came, but nowÖ. "Are you sure? Is that the only way in and out?í
Tommy nodded. "Yep. Pa did a lot of scoutiní around before he triedÖI wanted to go with, but he wouldnít let me. Said heíd bring the law and get everyone out."
"Your pa was a brave man."
"Ma didnít think so. Said he was stupid for tryiní to get away." Tommy paused. "I think someone told on him so they knew and was just waitiní to shoot him."
"Why would someone give up one of their own?"
"To get more food or some new clothes," Tommy replied with a thread of steely anger, the first passionate emotion Nathan had seen in the boy..
"A human life is a helluva lot more valuable than that," Nathan stated, his own rage adding force to his words. He took a deep breath to cool the wrath heating his blood. "Before the war, before we was freed, we didnít have no say in our lives. I never knew my father, and my ma raised me until I was old enough to work the cotton."
"How old was that?"
"Five. I never seen my ma after that. I remember cryiní myself to sleep, wonderiní where she was and why sheíd left me."
"Why did she?"
"The master sold her." Nathan took a deep breath. He hadnít thought about his mother for years, yet the feelings were still there Ė biding their time until he brought the memories out of their hiding place. "There was this old woman who took me under her wing, and watched out for me. Folks would go to her when they was sick, and I used to help her take care of them. Harriet taught me about different plants and how they could heal certain sicknesses. She also taught me about hate and how it doesnít hurt nobody but yourself, and she said even though I was a slave, no one owned my thoughts and feelinís."
Tommy appeared thoughtful in the sparse light. "My pa said that though my body was a prisoner, my soul wasnít. I ainít quite sure what he meant, but I got a feeliní itís a lot like you said."
"Sounds like he was a smart man."
The boy drew the back of his hand across his eyes. "He was."
Nathan put an arm around his shoulders. "I bet heís up there lookiní down at you, and heís right proud of you."
Tommy raised his gaze to the twinkling stars. "You really think so?"
Nathan nodded. "If you were my son, Iíd be proud."
They sat in companionable silence, though Nathanís troubled thoughts brought him back to the narrow canyon pass and the deadly trap that awaited his friends. Heíd have to try to escape, like Tommyís pa had done. Only he had to survive in order to save his friends, as well as free his fellow prisoners.
"You really think your friends are gonna find you?" Tommy asked skeptically.
Nathan pictured Chris, Vin, Josiah, Ezra, Buck, and JD, and couldnít help but smile. "You donít know my friends. Iffen they have to move heaven and earth, theyíll do it."
"I wish I had me some friends like that."
"You have one friend like that," Nathan said softly. "Letís go on back inside and get some sleep. I got a feeliní weíll need it."
Nathan followed the boy back into the shelter, but paused in the doorway and took one last longing glance at the open sky that heíd taken for granted. If Ė when Ė he got out of this, he would remind himself every day of the priceless gift of freedom.
"And Ezraís mother comes down those stairs like a queen about to hold court," Stewart described. "Why, I bet half the men there nearly tripped over themselves trying to get to her side first. Little did they know what they were getting into when they sat down at the poker table with her," he managed to finish his story before he lapsed into more laughter.
Ezraís smile was bittersweet at the long-forgotten memory. "My mother always did like to make a spectacular entrance."
"Thatís an understatement if I ever heard one," Stewart said and puffed his thick cigar. "Itís your turn to tell us what youíve been doing since the conflict."
Ezra sipped the exceptional brandy and set the snifter down on the linen-covered table. "I followed in my motherís formidable footsteps. I spent a couple years dealing poker and faro aboard a Mississippi riverboat that ran back and forth between St. Louis and New Orleans. Then I followed the mining towns Ė I made quite a killing on many of those hapless miners." He chuckled. "Until one gentleman took offense at my penchant for winning. And Iíve been drifting ever since, gambling and engaging in other sports of chance."
"Do you ever think about buying your own place?" Lottie asked from beside Stewart, whose arm was draped around her shoulders.
"I plan to as soon as my monetary resources allow such an investment," Ezra said. "But for now I must content myself with gambling in distinguished establishments such as your own."
Stewartís twinkling gaze remained on Ezra, and he grinned. "You remind me so much of your mother. A wonderful woman, Lottie. Youíd like her."
Lottie smiled. "I believe I would. Would you gentlemen like some more brandy?"
Ezra shook his head. Heíd already consumed three glasses, more than he was accustomed to since he preferred to keep a clear head. "No, thank you, my dear Lottie. Although I hate to end such a delightful evening, Iím afraid I am a bit fatigued."
Stewart pulled out his gold pocketwatch and his eyes widened. "Itís nearly one oíclock. I have to say Iíve enjoyed this evening immensely. Seeing you again, Ezra, has reminded me of the good times, before the conflict."
Ezra nodded. "I, too, have enjoyed re-living old times with you, Stewart. The visits to your plantation are some of my fondest memories."
"Itís a shame what those Yankees did to it. I was glad my wife didnít live to see the shamble of her beloved home," Stewart said, and sighed. "How long do you plan on staying in town, Ezra?"
"Iím not certain, perhaps a day or two."
Stewart sat up straight, excitement lighting up his expression. "Why donít you return to my home with me tomorrow morning? You can stay there for as long as youíll be in the territory."
Startled, Ezra said, "I thought you lived in town."
Stewart chuckled. "I come in to visit Lottie a couple times a month, but I prefer the comforts of the Evening Rose."
"The Evening Rose?"
"I re-built her here in Texas," Steward replied proudly. "It looks exactly like the original plantation."
Ezraís mind conjured the opulent elegance of the Evening Rose. He and his mother had stayed in an enormous suite with two adjoining bedrooms which had taken up one half of the second floor. Those had been good days, days he and his mother had spent together in the company of Stewart and his lovely wife Ruth. Servants had catered to their every need, and food had been plentiful and prepared by a French cook brought over from Paris by Stewart. The thought of returning to such exquisite surroundings tempted Ezra. Then he remembered Nathan and the others, and the reason they were in Lancaster.
"Iím not certain if I can accept such a gracious invitation."
"You said yourself youíre only drifting," Stewart pressed.
Ezra tugged at the ruffles on his shirt cuffs as his conscience struggled with its dilemma. "Why not allow me to sleep on it and if I decide to accept, I could meet you here in the morning."
Stewart nodded, satisfied. "Thatíll be fine. Iíll be leaving right after sunrise." Ezra couldnít forestall a slight scowl, and Stewart laughed. "Still a late sleeper, I see."
"My vocation disallows me from retiring too early in the evening, and Iíve grown accustomed to such hours."
"I understand, but I have to get back. I have some business to attend to."
"Then perhaps I shouldnít -- "
"Nonsense. While youíre settling in, I can take care of it, then I can show you around."
Ezra smiled. "Your offer is a difficult one to resist." He pushed back his chair and stood. He faced Lottie, took her hand in his and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. "Thank you, Lottie, for an enchanting evening."
Stewart leaned back in his chair, humor glinting in his eyes. "I think Iím glad youíre not staying around too long. Iím afraid I would have to challenge you to a duel over Lottieís hand."
"I would never be so bold as to presume I could win the fair ladyís heart when it is already clearly captured by you," Ezra said gallantly.
Lottie laid her palm on Stewartís arm. "Ah, but a woman loves to have her affections courted by two such handsome men."
Ezra accepted her teasing with a slight laugh. "Thank you again, Lottie." He turned to Stewart. "And it was a fortuitous circumstance running into you again, Stewart."
The powerful man stood and gripped Ezraís outstretched hand. "Iím hoping this isnít good-bye yet."
"I harbor the same hope. Good night."
Ezra crossed the intimate dining room and stepped into the main hall of the emporium. Though late, the gambling continued and Ezra resisted the urge to join them even as he covered a yawn with his hand. The two day ride to Lancaster had been a test in endurance. Theyíd barely recovered from the labor of the cattle drive when Nathan had been asked to help deliver a baby. Theyíd gone ahead while the healer had gone with the anxious father. And now Nathan was missing.
Through the smoky light given off by a few street fires, Ezra walked down the boardwalk toward the hotel. He assumed the others were already asleep for the night and was surprised to see Vin sitting in the hotelís bar drinking. Without hesitation, he moved to join him at his table.
"How was your little party?" Vin asked with a twinkle in his eyes that made it hard for Ezra to be offended by the prying question.
"Splendid, Mr. Tanner." Ezra glanced at the half empty bottle of whiskey. "It appears the two of you are having a party of your own."
"The boys drank most of it. Iím just watchiní and listeniní," Vin replied.
"Have you ascertained anything about our missing companion?"
"Nothing. Chris, Josiah, Buck, and JD are headed to Orville tomorrow morning." Ezra didnít bother to correct his tomorrow to today. "They hit the sack a couple hours ago Ė going to get an early start."
"Orville is where the woman lives who Nathan gave assistance to?"
Vin nodded. "Thatís right. Me and you are going to stay behind in case Nathan shows up. Or in case someone wants to tell us something."
"Do you believe someone in this town is not being completely forthright with information about the whereabouts of Mr. Jackson?"
Vin tipped his head to the side. "Maybe more than one someone. You learn anythiní tonight?"
"Only that one must be wary of the effects of three glasses of brandy," Ezra said with a lazy grin. "My friend invited me to visit his home for a couple days."
"Whatíd you tell him?"
"That I highly doubted I would be able to accept." He looked around at the dreary saloon, and a surge of annoyance surprised him. Stewart had reminded him there was more to life than places like this; places where Ezra had spent most of the last ten years of his life. "That, of course, was before I knew we would be extending our stay."
Vin studied him with an unblinking and somewhat unnerving stare. "Whatís this fellah to you, Ezra? Family?"
Ezra shook his head. "Unfortunately not. He was a friend to my mother and I when we had few. Stewart Randolph and his wife Ruth were the epitome of Southern hospitality. Before Sherman burned his home to the ground," Ezra finished bitterly. He took a deep breath, realizing heíd shown too much emotion, and eased his features into a neutral mask. "Stewart is an upstanding gentleman, a rare commodity in this uncivilized frontier."
The tracker remained silent for a long moment, then shrugged. "Why donít you go visit your friend while I hang around town, do a little snoopiní. Hell, maybe Nathaníll ride in on his own."
Startled that Vin would take on the responsibility of remaining in town alone, Ezra asked, "Are you certain?"
"Sure. It ainít often you get to spend time with folks you care about."
Although Ezra cared about Vin, Chris, Nathan, and the others, it was different than what he felt for Stewart. Stewart reminded him of better days, a time when Ezra and his mother had been happy and carefree. There were few times in Ezraís life when heíd felt like he belonged Ė Stewart Randolph had given them a place to call home for a little while. And the memories Ezra had of him were filled with warmth and contentment.
"Thank you, Vin," he said, and was surprised when his throat tightened a bit.
Vin sent him a crooked grin as if he knew exactly how he felt. "Iím gonna turn in. See you in the morniní."
"Iíll be leaving right after sunrise," Ezra said.
"That late?" Vin winked and climbed the stairs up to his room.
Ezra sat quietly. It didnít seem right to leave Vin alone without anyone backing him up. How often had the ex-bounty hunter backed him when a poker game got ugly? Offhand, he could think of at least five instances. Yet there didnít seem to be any reason why both of them should grow bored, waiting for Nathan to show up or the others to return. Besides, out of all seven men, Vin was the most self-sufficient. He could take care of himself.
Standing, Ezra shoved his reservations aside. He doubted heíd ever have another chance to visit with Stewart and re-live some of the glorious days before the war. With bone weary steps, he climbed the stairs, wincing only slightly at the remaining stiffness from the cougarís attack nearly two months ago.
Chris tightened his saddle cinch, then dropped the stirrup into place. He turned to Vin who leaned against the livery door, a dim figure in the pre-dawn dark. "You watch yourself, Vin."
"I always do," Vin responded with characteristic self-assurance.
Chris watched JD tie his bedroll to the saddle, then looked at Buck and Josiah who were already standing by their saddled horses. A sense of unease crept through him, although he couldnít assign a specific reason for it.
"I donít like us splitting up like this -- " he began
"We ainít got a choice," Vin interrupted. "Nathanís out there somewhere and I hope to hell heís alive, but the longer weíre missiní him, the less chance we got of findiní him that way."
Chris didnít like it, but he couldnít argue either. He nodded shortly and tightened his latigo strap beneath his chin. He held out his hand and Vin gripped it firmly. "Weíll see you in two, three days at the most."
"Good luck, pard," Vin said.
Their eyes held for a long moment, then Chris mounted up and led the others out of town.
Vin lifted his hand to the men. He had decided not to tell Chris about Ezra and his planned visit with his friend. Vin suspected what Chrisís reaction would be and felt that there was little danger to him as long as he kept his wits about him. Hell, Vin had lived on his own for years. A couple days alone in Lancaster would be a cakewalk.
Once the four men were out of sight, he glanced around at the still-quiet town. A light in the restaurant reminded him he hadnít eaten breakfast and he went to treat himself to a thick steak, a few eggs, toast and a pot of coffee. He paid for the meal and tipped his hat to the young waitress who blushed. As Vin strode out onto the boardwalk, he idly wondered if heíd embarrassed her. Shrugging, he set the trifling thought aside and glanced around the awakening town.
Spotting a familiar figure, he crossed the street to cut him off.
"Good morniní, Ezra," Vin greeted with a grin.
"Morning, yes, good, no," Ezra growled.
"You shoulda had breakfast with me, a mighty fine steak and a hot pot of coffee to wash it down."
Ezraís face seemed to take on a greenish cast. "Eating at such an ungodly hour cannot be healthy."
Vin took pity on him and refrained from tormenting him any further. "This fellah, Stewart Randolph, where does he live?"
Ezra opened his mouth then clamped it shut. Finally he shook his head. "I have no idea. However, from what I can determine, it is an imposing residence so should not be overly difficult to locate."
"You gonna be back in a couple days?"
"Have a good time," Vin said then turned away.
Ezra grasped his arm. "I feel as if Iím running out on you and Nathan," he admitted in a low voice.
Vin recalled Ezraís one and only time heíd deserted the six of them, and Chrisís subsequent cold anger. Vin had been more disappointed than angry, but the gambler had made up for his mistake many times over. "You ainít runniní out on anyone, Ezra," he reassured, a hint of gentleness in his tone.
The lines in Ezraís brow eased and he granted Vin a grateful smile. "If you learn anything of Nathan, be sure to come and inform me. Or if you need help, you know I will return instantly."
"I know you will," Vin said, meaning it.
Ezra, seemingly embarrassed, continued across the street to a place called The Green Table Emporium.
Sighing, Vin rubbed his grizzled jaw. One of these days heíd get a handle on Ezra.
Or maybe not.
Even though it was late October, the Texas sun still wielded an almighty powerful heat. Nathan drew his forearm across his brow, and the sting of sweat in his eyes made him blink rapidly. His filthy shirt clung to his back and his trousers chafed his legs. The last time heíd felt this miserable was when he was hanging by his neck in the cemetery in Four Corners, right before Vin shot the rope which was slowly strangling him.
The thought of Vin and the others made him more determined to escape before his friends were unwittingly cut down trying to rescue him. That they wouldnít try didnít even cross Nathanís mind.
Glancing around, he noticed an old white-haired man hanging his head and seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. His healing instincts sharpened and he approached the man then hunkered down beside him. He laid a hand on his pitifully thin shoulder. "You okay, mister?"
The man didnít seem to hear him.
"You need some water?" Nathan asked.
That seemed to stir the old man out of his stupor, and he nodded weakly.
Nathan took hold of his arm to help him stand. "Címon, weíre gonna get you out of the sun and get some water for you."
As he aided the ailing man toward a scant piece of shade, Nathan was aware of the half curious, half hostile looks they garnered from the other slaves. Was everyone so absorbed in their own pity that they couldnít even attempt to help one of their own? Anger vibrated through Nathan, tensing his muscles and making his heart pound. He remembered well the apathy before the war on that Mississippi plantation.
//It donít matter what others do, Nathan, itís what you do. Your life is the only one you can control and you can choose to help those less strong or you can choose to damn everyone else for not makiní that choice.//
Harrietís words cut through his disgust and anger, and his breathing slowed. She was right. He could either waste energy getting mad or do something positive. It was why heíd chosen healing people instead of remaining bitter to those who had kept them like animals. And if Nathan hadnít made that decision, he wouldíve never met Josiah, then Chris and the others. Even Ezra who, at first, had reminded Nathan too much of why heíd never returned to Mississippi.
One of the armed guards stepped in front of Nathan and his burden. "What do you think youíre doiní?"
"This man needs water and to rest some in the shade," Nathan replied, not giving in to the instinct to lower his eyes as heíd been trained to do so many years ago.
"Get back to work!"
"But heís gonna die if he donít get out of the sun," Nathan argued.
The old man groaned and feebly moved. His mouth moved but he didnít have the strength to speak aloud.
The guard brought his rifle up, the barrel centered on Nathanís chest. "I said get back to work or itís gonna be you who dies."
"Whatís goiní on here?" the overseer approached, his coiled whip in hand.
"They wonít go back to work," the guard replied, his gaze and rifle steady on Nathan.
The man narrowed his eyes. "That right, boy?"
Nathan choked back his indignance at being called a boy, and kept his voice even. "Yes, sir. This man needs water and to rest for a time."
"You a doctor?" the overseer continued.
"No, sir, but anyone can see heís feeliní poorly."
"You sassiní me, boy?"
Nathan could barely speak through his clenched teeth. "No, sir. Iím only telliní you how it is."
The heavyset man stepped up to Nathan and deliberately uncoiled the whip. "You either get back to work or youíll feel the rawhide."
Remembered pain and fear flickered through Nathan. "Iffen you let this man get some water and sit in the shade for a time, Iíll go back to work."
"You telliní me what to do?"
"No, sir, but I figger you canít afford to lose two men at once. You help the old man and let him rest, you still got me to work. You whip me, youíll have two men who canít do nothiní."
The overseer studied him closely, his beady eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
"Iíll bet you were one of them uppity slaves who tried to escape your master."
Nathan shook his head and raised his chin, unable to stop the pride in his following words. "Didnít try, did escape."
"Then maybe Iíd best give you a few lashes just to remind you whatís gonna happen to you if you try to escape here."
Nathan refused to rise to the bait. Instead, he remained standing in the hot sun, holding most of the old manís weight across his shoulders.
Finally, the overseer gave in to the bluff and nodded curtly. "Go ahead, get the old nigger out of the sun, then I want you back to work."
The victory tasted bittersweet and Nathan moved away with his semi-conscious burden. After getting him some water and making sure he was going to be all right, Nathan went back to his backbreaking labor, aware of the hostile gaze the overseer didnít relinquish.
An hour later, he glanced up to see a man riding a white stallion. Dressed in an expensive suit, the gray-haired man surveyed the field, his gaze flickering across the men who worked it. Nathan knew without a doubt that this arrogant man was the Ďmasterí, the person who had created this hell for he and the other prisoners. His fingers curled into fists and he ached to pull the man from his high and mighty perch, abuse him as Nathan and the others had been mistreated. With an effort, Nathan slowed his breathing and relaxed his hands. Everybody got their due; the Ďmasterí would get his, too.
"Monroe," the wealthy man called out.
The overseer hurried over to him, huffing and puffing. "Yes, sir?"
"I thought you said youíd have this section done by now."
Monroe shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other. "Another couple days and it will be," he said, a note of fear in his voice.
The fancy dressed manís lips thinned in annoyance as he looked about. His gaze stopped on the old man resting in the shade. "Whatís he doing over there?"
Nathanís muscles tensed once more.
Monroeís face reddened. "He was feeling poorly."
"I donít care how he was feeling. He should be working, especially since youíre behind schedule already. We need every nigger out in that field. I canít afford to lose any of this crop."
Before even consciously making the decision, Nathan crossed the twenty feet to where the two men were. "That old maníll die if he you make him work under the hot sun."
The imperious man glared at Nathan, but spoke to Monroe. "You seem to be getting lax in your duties. First, you allow one of my darkies to sit around when thereís work to be done, and then this one dares to argue with me." He turned his full gaze on Monroe. "Perhaps youíre getting too soft for this job. Maybe I need to find a man who can make sure discipline is maintained and the work is done. On time."
The overseerís hand settled on his whip. "Give me another chance, sir. I wonít let you down again."
"Be certain you donít or I will terminate you permanently." The Ďmasterí sent Nathan a baneful look. "And make sure this one pays for his insubordination, but only give him five so that he can keep working." And with that, the man yanked on the reins, wheeling his horse around and nearly knocking Nathan over, then he rode away.
"Lem, Charlie get over here," Monroe called out.
Two of the guards hurried to heed his command, and Nathan had a feeling he wasnít going to like what was coming next. His gaze darted about, searching for an escape route while at the same time knowing he had no chance to get away. His heart pounded in his chest, and his hand went to his back where he had his knife. He had nothing to lose by pulling his ace in the hole Ė if they planned on whipping him, theyíd find the knife anyhow.
He yanked the weapon out of its hiding place and took a defensive stance, holding the knife with a steady hand. "Donít come any closer," Nathan ordered.
Monroeís eyes widened then narrowed. "Throw down that knife or youíll be shot down where you stand."
"Then whatíll you tell your master Ė heís already none too happy with you."
"Heíll be a lot less happy if you escape. Nobody has ever escaped."
Though Nathan trembled on the inside, he smiled coldly, consciously mimicking Chrisís expression. "Then I guess I get to be the first."
Monroeís eyes flickered over Nathanís shoulder, and he had less than a second to realize one of the guards had moved behind him. A heavy blow to the back of his head sent him stumbling forward and the knife slipped from his numb fingers. Rough hands grabbed him and he was powerless to stop them from dragging him to the t-shaped frame with chains connected to it. He tried to blink away the cobwebs in his head, and made a feeble attempt to escape his captors. But the blow had dazed him, making his reflexes slow and weak. His arms were lifted against the pole and metal links were snapped around his wrists. The renting of cloth told Nathan theyíd torn his shirt off his back and he swallowed hard.
"This oneís felt the whip before," one of the guards called out.
"Weíll just add a few of our own reminders," Monroe stated with a chuckle.
"Stop, donít whip him!"
Nathan twisted his aching head around to see Tommy had run up and stood behind him, shielding Nathan with his small body.
"Get out of the way, boy, or the first lashíll be yours," Monroe ordered.
"No. You canít do this!"
Monroeís face reddened with his rising temper, and he raised the whip. "Move, boy!"
"You gotta leave, Tommy," Nathan said hoarsely. "Donít worry, Iíll be all right."
Tommy turned to face Nathan. "When my pa was whipped, I seen how much it hurt."
"Iíll be all right," Nathan reassured, and licked his dry lips. "Theyíre only gonna give me five." He hoped he hid his dread from the boy. "I donít want you hurt on account of me. Now go on back to work."
"Go on, Tommy. Please."
The boy looked as if he was about to cry, then he drew a deep breath and nodded. "Okay, Nathan, but only Ďcause you asked me to. Iíll take care of your back when theyíre done. I done it for my pa."
Nathan managed a smile. "Iíll hold you to that. Now go on."
Instead of going back to work, Tommy moved to stand in front of him, the defiance muted but still there. Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan noticed Monroe raise the whip and he turned to face Tommy. His right cheek against the rough wood, Nathan didnít have to wait long for the first lash. He jerked as the leather tore into his flesh, renting the skin like a knife flaying a fish. He bit his lip and felt blood roll down his chin. Nathan stared into the boyís moist eyes, and concentrated on being brave for Tommy. Nathan clamped his teeth together at the second blow, and sweat trickled into his eyes. Then came the third and he closed his eyes momentarily, but reopened them to see a tear roll down Tommyís cheek.
"Itís all right," Nathan managed to say in a husky voice before the fourth one struck.
Agony screamed through his veins, and he felt the warm wetness of his blood flowing down his back. Finally the fifth lash was dispensed, and Nathan allowed his body to sag against the whipping post and the metal dug into his wrists, a slight discomfort compared to the pain that pulsed in his back and spread outward.
A few moments later, one of the guards unlocked his manacles and Nathan slipped to the ground. Unconsciousness invited him into sheltered darkness and Nathan allowed the temptress to lure him to oblivion.
"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. Itís as grand as I remember it."
"I knew youíd 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. "Itís too bad Maude couldnít 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?"
Stewartís smile faded. "Somewhat. Iím 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 Ezraís back. "Enough business talk. Letís go into the parlor where we can have a drink and play some billiards. Do you remember how?"
"I havenít 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 heíd lost half of the games, heíd 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 Stewartís face, but he put his smile back in place. "On the whole, yes I am. But losing a wife and home to aggressors wasnít 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 donít 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. "Thatís quite a proposition, Stewart, but-- "
Stewart raised a hand to stop his objections. "I donít expect you to give me an answer immediately, Ezra. Why donít you think about it, then give me your decision in a couple days." He stood. "Excuse me a moment, Iím 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 rangelandís grasses. Stewartís offer was more than a little tempting. All his life heíd made his home wherever he lay his head down. Four Corners was the closest heíd 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. Heíd 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 heíd 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 hadnít been surrounded by such refinement since the last time heíd stayed with Stewart in Georgia. If he accepted his friendís offer, heíd 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 heíd made a difference.
A black woman entered and she appeared startled to see Ezra standing by the window. "Excuse me, sir. I didnít know nobody was here." She kept her gaze down, not meeting Ezraís eyes.
He smiled. "Thatís quite all right, madame. If thereís 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. "Youíre not certain?"
Again, timidity pinched her features. "I canít 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 donít 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. "Iím sorry, master." She backed out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Ezraís brow creased. "íMaster?í"
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 couldnít quite shake the feeling that there was more to the womanís oddly frightened reaction.
Stewart put an arm around Ezraís shoulders. "Come along, Ezra. Dinner is ready. I hope you enjoy roast duck."
In spite of his uneasiness, Ezraís mouth watered. "If your culinary chef is as remarkable as the rest of the Evening Rose, Iím 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 Ė tinny saloon pianos, menís ribald laughter, a working girlís giggle, and the barking of a dog Ė 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 theyíd had any luck. If they hadnít run into trouble, they wouldíve 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 harmonicaís 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 sheíd 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 Vinís position, and he saw her shoulders stiffen with resolve as she walked the last few paces.
"Excuse me," she said with a low voice.
"Maíam," 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?"
Vinís eyes narrowed and he nodded slowly. "Nathan Jacksonís his name."
She swallowed and tugged her shawl around her. "I saw him five days ago, before Ė " she faltered, and took a deep breath. " Ė before Stewart Randolphís men took him."
Stewart Randolph Ė Ezraís 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 telliní me this?"
"I canít 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 canít miss it."
She turned to leave, but Vin stood and caught her elbow. "Thank you."
Her expression turned bitter. "Donít thank me, mister. I shouldíve told someone sooner then Stewart Randolph wouldíve been in prison and he wouldnít 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 couldnít 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 friendís Ďbusinessí?
The first thing heíd do was find out how much Ezra knew. Heíd ride out to Randolphís tonight Ė he couldnít 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 wasnít joking Ė 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 whoíd 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 Ezraís. 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, maíam," Vin soothed the black woman. "I wonít hurt you."
"Whatíre you doiní here?" she asked, keeping her voice pitched low.
"Iím looking for a friend of mine, Ezra Standish."
"He dress fancy and talk real nice?"
Vin smiled at her apt description. "Thatís him. You know which room heís in?"
She nodded. "You here to help?"
"Are you being held here against your will?"
"Me and my boy who I ainít seen in nearly six months. Stewart Randolphís men killed my husband." Vin didnít have to see her face; he could sense her helpless rage. "I donít even know if Tommyís still alive." Her eyes glistened with moisture.
Vin, never able to abide a womanís tears, touched her arm gently. "Donít worry, maíam, 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 mareís leg, Vin met the womanís 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 heíd seen him before. Someplace in Lancaster, but he couldnít recall where.
"You shouldíve 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. "Donít worry, they ainít gonna be gone for long. You see, we donít 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. "Whatís 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. "Youíd better keep a closer eye on your wife, Asa. She could ruin everything."
Vin suddenly realized who the man who was Ė the mild-mannered owner of the general store.
"Donít worry. I plan on having a little talk with her," Asa stated. "What should we do with him? It seems to me thereís 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? Hadnít the ruckus woke him? Or did he know exactly what was going on and was too cowardly to face him? No, he couldnít believe that. Ezra had had questionable allegiance in the beginning, but heíd earned Vinís trust and friendship.
"We canít kill him outright," Randolph countered. "The sheriff didnít try too hard to find niggers, but he might take exception to a white man missing. Besides, wonít this manís friends come searching for him?"
Asa shrugged. "It wonít matter. Weíll get rid of his body so no one will ever know."
Randolph shook his head. "I canít condone murder." He studied Vin a moment. "However, if he likes niggers so well, maybe weíll have him join them. Itís well guarded, and heíll be put to good use. Tie him up and take him out there. And donít 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 heíd hoped. But between the two of them, they should be able to figure something out. And Vin wasnít going to discount Ezra Ė he had faith that the con man didnít 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 mustíve found Sire and brought him down. Someone wrapped a bandanna around Vinís eyes, then one of the men helped him mount awkwardly.
"Letís get going. Itíll 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.
"Itís okay, Nathan. I took care of your back the best I could," Tommyís voice cut through Nathanís 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 Tommyís face. "Thanks," he managed to say with a husky voice. "Whatíd you put on it?"
"Some medicine Corrine had. She said it would keep it from gettiní putrid and help it to heal," Tommy replied, then shifted. "But she didnít have nothiní for the pain. Said youíd have to keep a stiff lip."
Nathan smiled slightly. "Did you put some bandages on it?"
He shook his head. "We ainít got none."
Nathan closed his eyes. How would it stay clean if it wasnít wrapped? He took a deep breath, then winced when the motion aggravated his ribboned back. Heíd forgotten how intense the pain was from a whipping. When heíd been whipped the first time twenty years ago, he figured heíd never forget the torture of the lash. But, probably out of survival, his memory had been unable to retain the true agony of the leatherís vicious rents.
He re-opened his eyes. "How long have I been unconscious?"
"íBout twelve hours. Itís after midnight."
"Have you slept at all?"
Tommy shook his head. "I wanted to make sure you woke up."
Nathan managed a reassuring smile. "Iíll be all right, son. You done a good job."
Tommy appeared flustered by his gratitude. "Iíll 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 theyíre 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 heíd awakened here six days ago.
"And donít try to escape Ė those whoíve tried are either dead or a lot worse off than they were before," Monroe said to the man theyíd 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 ainít as bad as it looks," Nathan reassured.
"Like hell." Vinís voice was tight and filled with rage. "Sonuvabitch, Randolphís not going to get away with this."
Nathan reached out and grasped Vinís arm. "Donít worry, Vin, he wonít, but we canít be doiní something stupid thatís 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. "Theyíre supposed to be back in Lancaster in a day or two."
"What about Ezra?" Vin hesitated. "Somethiní happen to him?" Nathan demanded.
Vin shook his head. "He knows Randolph from way back. He was visitiní him for a couple days."
"The man who brought you and all the others here. He owns this place. Some southerner who donít like to believe the Warís over."
Nathan tried to sit up, but fell back down with a low moan.
"Youíd best stay down, Nathan," Tommy spoke up. "Youíll be openiní those wounds up."
Vin glanced at the boy. "You been takiní care of my friend?"
Tommy nodded, more than a hint of defensiveness in his expression.
Vin smiled slow and easy. "Thanks. Iím in your debt. My nameís Vin Tanner."
"Iím Tommy," the boy said.
Vin studied him a moment. "Does your ma work at Randolphís house?"
Tommy nodded. "I ainít seen her in a long time."
Vin grinned. "Donít worry. Sheís fine, but she misses you."
"You were in his house?" Nathan asked.
"For a few minutes. Until the storekeeper showed up with the guards."
"Uh-huh, seems he and Randolph are in cahoots. He must be the one who brings Randolph his Ďslaves.í"
"Thatís hard to believe. He seemed like a right nice fellah. What about Ezra, where was he during everything?"
"Donít know," Vin said. "I didnít see him. You know what a heavy sleeper Ezra is."
"You donít think Ė ?"
"No," Vin broke in firmly. "Ezra wouldnít go against us."
"But you said this Randolph is an old friend of his, a southerner just like him."
"Eight months ago, I mightíve 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 Vinís spine. "How many prisoners Randolph got?"
"Thirty or so," Nathan replied. "Youíre the only white person Iíve seen though."
"They knew I was in town lookiní for you. There any way out of here?"
"Only one and itís guarded real close. Tommyís father died trying to escape."
Vin glanced at the boy, who was staring at the ground. He reached over to lay a hand on Tommyís shoulder. "Heíll pay for that, Tommy. I promise. Turn up that lantern a bit. Iím gonna take a look at Nathanís back."
Tommy did so. Vin saw the extent of damage done to his friendís 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 donít tell me you ainít in any pain, Ďcause I know how it feels."
Nathan glanced questioningly at Vin, but the tracker didnít elaborate. "If I donít work in the field tomorrow, theyíll probably chain me to the post again," Nathan said.
"Not if I have any say."
The cold fury in Vinís tone almost frightened Nathan. Heíd heard such intensity from Chris and even in Buckís and Josiahís voices on occasion, but never soft-spoken Vin. "Listen to me, Vin. We donít have a choice. We got to do what weíre told. I ainít gonna have this happen to you, too."
Vinís face seemed carved in stone, his lips set in a grim line.
"The rest of Ďemíll find us," Nathan continued. "You know how they are Ė they ainít gonna stop until they do. Someoneíll put two and two together and theyíll get us out of here."
Finally, Vinís expression eased and Nathan relaxed. He wasnít sure what Vin was capable of if he was pushed hard enough. And Nathan wasnít so sure he wanted to find out.
"All right, but I ainít gonna let them whip you again, Nathan. I promise you that," Vin vowed.
Nathan didnít 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 Nathanís 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. Iíll take a turn at watching him," Vin suggested.
Tommy didnít argue, but lay down and fell asleep immediately.
"You get some rest, too, Nathan. Itís 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 heíd 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 manís 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 shouldíve 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 wasnít serious," Ezra said.
"Nothing I couldnít handle," Stewart assured. "Have you been thinking about my proposition?"
"I have been seriously contemplating it," Ezra said. "Itís 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 Iíll give you my answer."
"Fair enough." Stewart rubbed his hands together. "How about going for a ride? Iíll 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 couldnít 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 youíd like him, heís yours."
Ezra watched his horse nuzzle the gelding, as if they were old friends. And if that was Vinís horse, they were. But why would Stewart lie? And why would Sire be here in the first place? "No, thatís all right. I believe I shall ride my own animal. He and I have spent numerous hours together and are quite familiar with each otherís habits."
Stewart motioned to the wrangler to have his and Ezraís horses saddled. As they waited, Ezraís gaze kept straying to the familiar black horse and he grew more convinced it was Vinís. Later, heíd slip away and take a closer look. Not that he didnít trust Stewart, but Ezra didnít 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. Iíve got two thousand head of cattle, about three hundred horses, and a field of cotton that would rival any back in Georgia."
"Iím surprised. I didnít see that many men around the yard this morning."
"Theyíre out at sunrise and donít 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 donít hire niggers, Ezra, you buy or capture them."
Ezra blinked, considering heíd 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 Ezraís veins. He didnít like the insane glitter in Stewartís eyes. "Surely they donít 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 heíd 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. Theyíre not like us. Iím doing them a favor by bringing them here to live and work. Theyíre 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 Nathanís 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 didnít, but he had no idea what else to say. Stewartís refined world heíd envied was only superficial. Beneath the surface lay a rotten core, a world where Stewartís wealth had been gained on the backs of innocent men, women, and children. He had no doubt Nathan and Vin were both trapped in Randolphís grotesque idea of gentility. He couldnít allow Randolph to learn they were two of his six friends. If he did, he couldnít 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 theyíre working."
"What about in the evening?"
"Six men keep watch around the camp with orders to kill."
Ezraís stomach grew more queasy. "So anyone who attempts to escape is shot down."
"I canít 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 Ďslavesí were allowed to get out of the Ďunbearableí 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 manís offer was no longer feasible. Fifteen years ago, Ezra hadnít seen slavery as wrong. Heíd 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 theyíd had an intruder last night Ė it didnít 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.
Vin bent over Nathan who sat on the ground, pulling feebly at the weeds around the cotton plants. "How ya doiní?"
"I ainít 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, itís hot."
"Ainít 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; didnít want to draw no attention to myself."
"Silent but deadly," Vin agreed. "Iím goiní to make sure you get out of this, too, Nathan."
"Make sure you donít 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 Vinís shoulders as Vin carefully placed an arm round Nathanís waist. Vin supported much of the larger manís 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 Nathanís shirt to examine his back and found a couple spots where the fragile scabs had re-opened. He cleaned them gently with Tommyís help, then applied some more salve.
Vin laid a hand against Nathanís forehead and cursed in a low voice. "Feels like you got a fever."
"Wouldnít surprise me none," Nathan said. "Donít feel so good."
Tommy handed Vin a cup of water and Vin held it to Nathanís lips. "Drink this. You need the liquid."
Nathan did so slowly, then closed his eyes. "Tired Ė need to sleep." His breathing grew regular and Vin realized heíd indeed fallen asleep.
"He gonna be okay?" Tommy asked, his eyes wide and worried.
"Heís a strong man, Tommy. Heíll be just fine." As long as he doesnít have to go back out in the field again, Vin thought soberly. "Letís get somethiní to eat, then weíll come back to stay with Nathan."
Vin noticed that everyone with the exception of Tommy cast him hostile glares. He couldnít blame them. He had white skin, the same color as the man whoíd imprisoned them. Heíd 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. Vinís 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 heíd 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 wasnít 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 guardsí mercy until he made it back. And that meant theyíd either kill Nathan or use him as a pawn to get him and Chris and the others.
He thought of Ezra and how heíd seen him with Randolph in the early afternoon. Vin hadnít 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 Ďaffectí their escape. Vin grinned to himself Ė heíd been spending too much time listening to Ezraís four bit words.
He stifled a yawn, realizing how tired he was. Heíd snatched only a few minutes of sleep last night and the day had been long, working under the hot sun. Deciding he couldnít 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 heíd wake up if Nathan began to move around. Closing his eyes, he was asleep in minutes.
"You didnít like the cordon bleu?" Stewart asked Ezra.
Ezra pushed back his nearly-full plate. "No, it was most excellent. Itís just that Iím 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, Iím sure Iíll 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. Itís 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 Stewartís offer, then talked Stewart into releasing the Ďslavesí? Surely he wasnít that far gone that he wouldnít listen when Ezra explained how wrong it was.
Ezra closed his eyes and the memory of the insane gleam in Stewartís eyes returned to plague him. His stomach cramped, and he thought heíd lose what little heíd 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 Ė Stewart didnít 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. Vinís and Nathanís lives depended on it. As well as the poor souls who had been caught in Stewartís 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. Theyíd 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. Theyíd 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 abeer, even Chris, and drank it without pause. As Buck got them another round, Chris stood. "Iím going to go find Vin and Ezra. Iíll be back in a minute."
His spurs jingled on the boardwalk as he walked down to the hotel. He pounded on Vinís door, but no one answered. Frowning, Chris stopped at the desk. "What room is Ezra Standish in?"
"Iím sorry," the buxom woman replied. "Mr. Standish checked out two days ago."
Chrisís 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 Chrisís last name.
"I havenít seen Mr. Larabee since he rode out last night." Her plump cheeks reddened. "It wasnít like I was watching him or anything, but I just happened to be looking out the window when I seen him leave."
Chris didnít like this one bit. "You donít happen to know where he was going, do you?"
"No, Iím 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 heíd come back."
Chris nodded absently and strode out. He stopped at the livery and found both Vin and Ezraís horses missing.
A gray-bearded man shuffled out of one of the stalls, pitchfork in hand. "Lookiní for somethiní, mister?"
"Yeah, a couple friends of mine who stabled their horses here. One of Ďem had a blaze faced black gelding, the other a bay mare."
"Fancy feller took his mare early yesterday morning. Didnít say where he was goiní, but I saw him ride out with Stewart Randolph."
"Whoís 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, Ďbout eight oíclock. I was tryiní 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 oneís 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 donít know what to think, Buck. But I figure we might want to check this Stewart Randolphís 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 Buckís little act, he might trust me enough to tell me something."
Chris thought a moment, then nodded. "All right. The rest of usíll pay a visit to Miss Lottie."
"Maybe someone should keep JD company," Buck said.
JD shook his head. "If heís gonna talk, it might only be to me."
"JDís 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. "Whoís asking?"
"Chris Larabee, maíam," he replied. "Weíre 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, maíam, thatís right," Chris said. "We were supposed to meet him and another friend of ours here today and we canít 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.
Chrisís jaw muscle knotted. "Probably, and Ezra didnít argue." He turned back to the woman. "Our other friendís name is Vin, longish hair, tan hat, wears a hide jacket."
"My, you have an odd assortment of friends," she exclaimed. "No, Iím sorry, I havenít seen him. But you donít 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 Ezraís is a friend of mine."
"No, thank you," Chris declined.. "Afternoon, maíam."
They stepped back on to the boardwalk.
"You believe her?" Buck asked.
Chris rubbed his whiskered jaw. "I donít know. She didnít 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?"
"Letís see what JD and Josiah found out."
JD found Sheriff OíMalley in his office, sitting behind his desk and cleaning a Winchester. "Afternoon," JD greeted.
The lawman eyed him warily. "Whereís 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. "Thatís why Iím here. Weíve lost two more."
"You keep losiní friends like that, ainít nobodyíll want to ride with you."
"Maybe you seen them. One was the fellah with longer hair, leather coat, rode a black gelding."
OíMalley nodded. "I was on my evening rounds Ďbout eight oíclock 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 Randolphís a fine gentleman, originally from Georgia. Came here after the War and now owns the biggest spread around. But he donít act all high and mighty like a lot of them big ranchers. Always has time to have a drink with me when heís 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.
OíMalley nodded, missing JDís sarcasm. "That he is."
"Have there been other folks who have disappeared around here?"
Sheriff OíMalley stared at JD a long moment. "Thereís been a couple others," he admitted.
JD laid his palms flat on the desk and leaned forward. "Why didnít you tell us that before?" he demanded.
The sheriff shrugged. "They were only Negroes. You know how footloose they are. I figgered theyíd just moved on without telliní anyone."
"Did you even investigate?"
"I poked around a little, but no one knew anything, so I just let it go."
JDís temper notched upward. "A lawman has the duty to get to the bottom of things. Sounds to me like you were just plain lazy."
OíMalleyís 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 nobodyís complained before. And I donít have to put up with lip from a wet-behind-the-ears kid."
"I may not have as much experience as you, but I wouldíve 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 OíMalley has just been telling me that a couple other folks have disappeared, but he didnít 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.
OíMalley 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 didnít matter."
"So youíre telliní us you donít even have a guess as to what happened to them?" JD prodded.
The sheriff shook his head. "I got no idea and thatís the honest-to-God truth."
"Youíd best be right, or Godís 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 theyíd deserted earlier.
"Well?" Chris prompted JD.
"He remembered seeing Vin ride out last night, and Ezra goiní with Stewart Randolph, too, but thatís 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 goiní 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. "OíMalley did a little lookiní around and figured they mustíve just moved on."
"You reckon heís telling the truth?" Buck demanded.
JD met Buckís impatient gaze and nodded. "I donít think heís crooked, just lazy and stupid."
Chris leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "Somethingís not adding up."
"We are now missing two men instead of one, and Ezraís off visiting an old friend," Josiah began. "What doesnít add up is how people can disappear without a trace."
"They can if thereís 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 Ezraís old friend may be involved?" Buck asked.
Chris shrugged. "I donít know. Our horses are beat, weíre beat, and itís getting late. If Ezra doesnít show up by midmorning, we pay Stewart Randolph a visit."
"What about Nathan and Vin?" JD interjected.
"We have to hope that theyíre alive," Chris stated. "And that weíre 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 didnít 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 Randolphís voice broke the nightís 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 werenít 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.
Ezraís 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. "Iím afraid my newly awakened conscience wouldnít 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 Nathanís friend."
"I told you he was with them," Lottie said, her face pale in the darkness. She raised her chin and met Ezraís 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."
Ezraís 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 Iím crazy?"
"Thatís 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 couldíve had everything."
"Iím not willing to pay the exorbitant price youíre asking," Ezra said softly.
Stewart sighed heavily. "Tie him up and throw him in the root cellar. And donít forget to gag him. Iíll decide what to do with him later."
"Whatíre you going to do about his friends, Stewart?" Lottie asked.
Randolph kept his gaze on Ezra. "Iím going to double the guards around the house. If his friends wonít accept my explanation, theyíll be shot down."
Ezraís heart kicked against his ribs. If he didnít 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 Stewartís gaze on him. And Ezra wished to God heíd never stopped in Lancaster, Texas.
The following morning Nathan was so stiff that he could hardly move and his fever hadnít abated. He suspected it wasnít infection, just his bodyís 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 canít go out there, today," Vin stated. "Iíll talk to Monroe."
Nathan shook his head and grabbed Vinís arm. "Iíll
make it. You just help me out there and get me in the field."
Vin knelt down beside him. "No. Youíre too sick and weak. I ainít gonna lose you just after I found you."
"I ainít gonna die, Vin. Iíve been whipped more times than this and I survived. Iíll make it this time, too," Nathan reassured.
"You donít know that," Vin hissed.
"Help me up."
"Damnit, Nathan, if you ainít the most stubborn Ė "
"Now you know what I got to put up with you and the others when Iím tryiní to heal you."
A sheepish grin twitched Vinís 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 Nathanís arm.
"Iíll be fine," Nathan lied. "Now letís get out there before Monroe gets it in his head to come lookiní for us."
"Iím lookiní forward to giviní 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 donít know how you can be so damned forgiving, Nathan. Iffen I was you, Iíd 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."
"Youíre a better man than me."
"Each man has to make peace in his own way."
Vin turned to gaze at Nathan. "Maybe someday Iíll be able to be as forgiviní as you, but until then, anyone who hurts one of my friends is fair game."
Nathan studied the intensity in Vinís usually twinkling blue eyes. Fiery rage lay banked in the embers and he shivered despite the hot day. And was glad he wasnít in Randolphís or Monroeís shoes.
"No oneís seen Ezra yet. And Miss Lottie is gone, too. Nobody knows where sheís 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 isnít around to tell us how to-- "
"Morning," the sheriff greeted.
JD nodded at him warily, but didnít reply. The Irishman seemed ill at ease.
After a moment of awkward silence, OíMalley went on. "I remembered somethiní last night. Your friend, the one who left night before last, well, right before he left, Eloise Hamilton was talkiní to him."
"Whoís she?" Chris demanded.
"Store ownerís wife. She and her husband settled here about three years ago."
Chris glanced across the street to the general store. "Letís 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.
"Iím 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?"
"Thatís 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, maíam?" 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. "Weíve lost three friends in this town, and we donít plan on leaving without them."
A myriad of emotions crossed the womanís face. Finally she nodded resolutely. "Itís got to stop."
Behind the woman, a man dressed in a grocerís apron shoved a curtain aside and stepped up beside her. "Go on into the back, Eloise."
She stiffened. "No, Asa, Iím going to tell them."
"Didnít you learn your lesson? The other manís probably dead because of what you told him."
Chrisís vision hazed and he took hold of the storekeeperís shirt front and jerked him forward against the counter. "What do you mean, dead?"
The woman grabbed Chrisís arm. "Please donít hurt him. Itís not his fault."
"Would you just tell us whatís goiní 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 heís some kind of southern gentleman but heís no better than a thief and murderer."
"Has he killed people?" Josiah asked.
"I donít know. We never see anyone whoís been taken by him again."
"Do you know what youíve done, Eloise?" her husband demanded. "He finds out you talked, and heíll have us both killed."
The womanís face became even whiter. "No. If these men can stop him, itíll 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 donít think heís in on this with Randolph?" JD asked incredulously.
"The only thing I know is Randolphís an old friend of Ezraís, and Ezra didnít come back to town like he was supposed to,í Chris stated. His lips pressed into a grim slash. "If heís part of this, heís gonna pay." He turned back to the woman. "How do we get there?"
Eloise told them, and her husbandís face grew more stormy.
"You could take a lesson from your wife, mister," Buck said, poking the manís chest with his forefinger.
Defiance glimmered behind the storekeeperís shiny lenses, but he remained silent.
"Letís 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 Randolphís 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 whoíd 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?"
"Weíre looking for some friends of ours."
"I doubt if I can help you. The only visitor Iíve had lately is an old friend of mine, Ezra Standish," Randolph stated.
"Heís one of the men weíre 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. "Thatís funny. He was supposed to meet us in Lancaster today."
"Ah, yes, he did mention something about some men heíd been traveling with. He said he hoped that you all wouldnít 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 couldíve," Buck said softly.
Chris nodded, disappointment teeming through him. He hoped heíd 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, Iím afraid not," Randolph replied. "Like I said, I havenít had any visitors besides Ezra."
"Thatís 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 donít want to give up your slaves," Buck said, his tone ugly. "Because you think youíre betterín everybody else and that if a personís skin isnít white, he ainít 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 doesnít 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. "Weíre going to find them, and when we do, weíre going to have you put away for a long time."
"Donít 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. "Weíll 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. Weíll go find some high ground where we can keep an eye on the place, and tonight weíll 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 donít believe it," JD stated, riding on the other side of Chris.
"I donít 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. Heíd been able to make out snatches of conversation and was dismayed to hear Randolphís explanation for his disappearance. He hoped Chris didnít believe him, but had a bad feeling there would be enough doubts in the ex-shootistís mind that he might.
Heíd been trying to loosen the knots on the rope, but hadnít had any luck. The only thing heíd 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 heíd 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 hadnít 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 heíd 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 didnít know how long heíd 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. Heíd 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 theyíd 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 Iím gone?"
Tommy nodded somberly. "I can do it."
Vin gripped Tommyís shoulder firmly. "I wouldnít have asked you if I didnít think you could."
"You be careful, Mr. Vin. If them men see you, theyíll kill you," Tommy said.
"Donít worry. I donít plan on gettiní killed yet," Vin said with a grin and wink. "As soon as it gets dark, Iíll 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 Tommyís 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 wasnít 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 Stewartís 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 duskís diminishing light, Ezra recognized her as the black woman who had seemed cowed by Stewart. He didnít 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.
Ezraís blood turned cold. "Did my friends come back?"
She shook her head. "Not yet they havenít, but if they do, theyíll 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 Ezraís veins. He didnít 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 theyíd never let him down. He wasnít 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 mountís 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 mareís flanks. Every moment, Ezra expected to feel a bullet between his shoulderblades, and when one didnít 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, heíd 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."
"Whereíve you been?" Chris demanded.
Taken aback by the manís sharp tone, Ezraís smile faded. "I have been trussed up, lying in Randolphís root cellar."
"You all right?" JD asked.
Touched by the boyís 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 havenít 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 didnít want their horses stepping into a hole, but they couldnít afford to walk them either. Vin and Nathanís 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 didnít 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. "Thatís what I was thinkiní. 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 wonít 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 Chrisís cool stare, unable to look away from pale green eyes that seemed to sear his soul.
Finally, the ex-shootist nodded. "JDís right. Youíll be shot down if thereís 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. Itíll be the quickest and easiest way."
Chris didnít want the responsibility of making a life or death decision Ė heíd 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 Ė 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 didnít reveal his tormented thoughts.
Ezra met Chrisís eyes and nodded. "Thank you."
"Weíll 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. Heíd 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 didnít 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 Vinís body impacted with the shooter. A horse neighed from someplace down below, then Vinís attention was centered on the guard. Vin grabbed the rifle from his hands, and swung the stock. The wood butt hit the manís 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 Vinís 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. Vinís 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.
"Itís me, Vin. Hold your fire," he shouted. "Iím gonna stand up now, and Iíd appreciate it if you wouldnít 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. Iíve been expectiní 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 guardís 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 doiní ridiní into that ambush by yourself?" he demanded.
"Attempting to save you and Nathan," he replied, though his flippant tone didnít match his somber eyes. "By the looks of it, however, you saved me."
Vin motioned to his arm. "Hit bad?"
"Merely a flesh wound. Howís Nathan?"
Vin shook his head. "Not good. He was whipped a few days ago."
"Son-of-a-bió" Buck began.
"Heís been whipped before," Josiah said with a husky voice as he met Vinís 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 horsesí 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.
"Donít kill me, please," Monroe cried. "I was just doiní my job."
Vin leaned over and jerked the whip from the manís 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 Monroeís arm.
"Please, mister, donít 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 ainít worth it. Youíll 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 Ďslavesí. "Youíre 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 Nathanís side.
"How is he?" Vin asked the boy.
"Iím better," Nathan replied with a familiar smile. "Fever broke a couple hours ago." He spotted Ezraís pale face and his smile faded. "You okay, Ezra?"
The gambler managed a smile. "Iíll be fine," he assured. "Itís good to see you again, Mr. Jackson."
"What happened to your friend?" Nathan asked.
Ezraís face shadowed with dismay. "He died a long time ago."
"Weíd 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 waitiní 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.
"Whereís 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 Nathanís horse. "Can I go with you?"
Nathan shook his head. "Not yet. First weíre going to make sure Randolph is behind bars, then weíll take you to your momma."
"I sípose I can wait a little longer," Tommy said reluctantly.
"It wonít be long," Nathan said. "I promise you that."
"I believe you, Nathan," the boy said.
Vin turned to the former Ďslavesí and raised his voice. "Weíll send the law to take care of these men. Until then, theyíre under your guard."
"Do you think thatís 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 fireís heat radiated outward to warm his face. He rejoined his friends, and spoke tautly. "That thing ainít 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 Randolphís reign tonight.
An hour later, they lay on their bellies overlooking Randolphís 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 Iíll go to the house," Chris said. "Weíll meet at the porch."
"What about me?" Nathan asked.
"With them wounds on your back, youíre stayiní right here," Chris replied, then smiled. "Youíll 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 wouldnít have had to worry as JD dispatched his guard with the butt of his gun. That was three of Randolphís 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 couldnít 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 didnít, they continued through the room and into the foyer.
"Drop your weapons, gentlemen," Randolphís 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 youíve already been to my cotton field."
Chris nodded. "Thatís right. Your prisoners are free."
Randolph shook his head. "A pity. Iíll just have to start rounding them up again. Oh, well, Iíve 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 friendsí 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 wouldnít be so deeply involved in such nefarious activities, my dear Lottie," Ezra commented..
Her eyes were as hard as diamonds. "Iím not so certain itís nefarious. It is, however, profitable." Lottie shook her head. "Iím 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 Stewartís insanity."
"Then youíll 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. "Whereís your nigger friend?"
"As I stated, he was whipped so severely, he was unable to travel," Ezra replied smoothly.
"Thatís all right. I shall find him later and put him back to work," Stewart said with a shrug.
"The hell you will," Vin growled.
"Whoís going to stop me? You from the grave?" Randolph laughed. "Letís 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 Randolphís 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 Randolphís junior, Ezra found himself floundering under the older manís onslaught. Randolph managed a fist in Ezraís 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 Randolphís jaw and the man stumbled back, dazed. Ezra moved in for another blow, but Randolph sidestepped at the last moment, and Ezraís 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 Ezraís 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 Randolphís back.
"Donít, Stewart," Ezra cried.
The gray-haired man spun around, bringing his gun to bear on Ezra. Stewartís finger curled around the trigger.
"No!" Ezra shouted as he fired his own revolver.
Crimson blossomed on Randolphís 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 Stewartís shoulders in his arms, sorrow washing through him like the swell of a tide on a Georgia beach.
"You Ė 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 Ezraís 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. "Itís 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 donít know, Nathan. I truly donít know."
Nathan nodded gently, his brown eyes compassionate, but he remained silent, respecting Ezraís 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 Ezraís cheekbone appeared out of place on the usually fastidious man, and he moved his left arm a little stiffly as he played solitaire. Nathanís back was healing slowly, though he continued to move carefully.
"Ainít that Mrs. Hamilton?" JD asked, pointing to a woman carrying a portmanteau toward the stage.
Vin nodded. "Yep, thatís her all right."
They watched in silence and when she walked toward them, the men sat up a little straighter.
"Morniní, maíam," Vin greeted, touching the brim of his hat.
"Hello," Louise Hamilton replied, her gaze passing over each of the men nervously. "I Ė I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am." She looked at Nathan. "For everything."
"It wasnít your fault, maíam," 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 itís for the good," Nathan added, deliberately gazing at Ezra.
"Yes, well, I suppose youíre right.," the woman said. "I just hope I can find a way to start over."
"Youíre taking a step in the right direction, maíam," Josiah interjected.
After a moment, Louise Hamilton smiled slightly and nodded. "Thank you all for everything."
"No, maíam, itís us whoís in your debt," Nathan said.
Her smile grew, then she crossed the street and boarded the stagecoach.
"Whoíd 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 endiní, donít 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 heíll 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."
"ĎSorryí isnít going to bring Stewart back."
Ezraís 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 youíre the different man."
Had the six men changed him that much? Without searching too deeply, he knew Lottie was right. He wasnít 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 couldnít 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 heíd 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
At least, until Story Five of The Trail to Tascosa seriesÖ.
The Trail to Tascosa #5: Breach of Faith
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