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 Vin’s 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.

Story Four

"Chains of the Past"

by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist

"I don’t 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 men’s 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 givin’ birth," Vin Tanner said, worry evident in his blue eyes.

"And if he was going to be this late, he would’ve sent us a message," Josiah Sanchez added. The former preacher toyed with his empty whiskey glass. "I’ll ride back to Lancaster and find out what’s goin’ on."

Chris Larabee, the unspoken leader of the seven men, glanced at Vin whose grim expression told him he wasn’t about to continue to Tascosa without Nathan. Chris shook his head. "We all go."

Although it meant a two day ride back the way they’d come, his companions’ approval didn’t surprise Chris. Nathan Jackson was the healer of the group, although it wasn’t only physical wounds he treated. His thoughtful insights had often stopped the others from jumping into a fray, and he’d 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 wasn’t 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 he’d gone to have a drink to celebrate the birth of a healthy baby boy. He’d 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, he’d seen more death than he’d 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.

"’Bout 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?"

"Nathan Jackson."

"It’s just Nathan now."

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

"You know where you’re 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 ain’t surprised." She sighed. "You ain’t a free man no more, Nathan."

Confusion sliced through the eddies of pain in Nathan’s head. "What’re you talkin’ about?"

Before she could speak, a heavyset white man barreled in, wearing clothes in considerably better shape than Corrine’s. "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 ain’t in any shape to go out into the field."

"He’s alive and that’s all that counts." The man stabbed a thumb over his shoulder, toward the door. "C’mon 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 ain’t your ‘nigger’ and last I heard, no man owned another."

The stranger threw back his head and barked a harsh laugh. "You ain’t a man, you’re the boss’ property. And if you don’t do what you’re supposed to, he’ll get rid of you like he would a tool that ain’t no good anymore."

Was his head wound making him imagine this craziness? Nathan blinked, but the brutish man didn’t 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 he’d 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 Nathan’s back seemed to tighten with his gut muscles.

Where the hell was he?

By the time the sun set, Nathan’s 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 don’t know."

"You don’t know?"

"Me and my folks were just travelin’ down the road when we was taken by these men and brought here."

"Where are your folks now?"

"Pa’s dead. Ma works at the big house, so I don’t see her much."

Nathan’s heart twisted for the boy’s anguish. "I never knew my pa and I never saw my ma after I started workin’ the cotton. That was before the war, when we was forced to be slaves."

"Pa tried tellin’ the men that we were free now, but they wouldn’t listen. They whipped Pa bad, but he wouldn’t give up." His huge dark eyes filled with sorrow. "Not ‘til they shot him in the back when he was tryin’ to escape."

Despite Nathan’s own pain, he put an arm around the boy’s 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. "What’s your name?"


"You got a last name?"

"Lawrence." He stared at Nathan a moment. "Nobody’s asked me that in a long time."

"You remember it good, Tommy, ‘cause one of these days we’re gonna leave this place and you’ll need it," Nathan said softly.

Tommy’s eyes brightened for the first time since Nathan had met him. "Let’s go get some supper."

"Where do we do that?"

"C’mon, I’ll 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 Lancaster’s six saloons.

"We’ll split up so we can cover more ground," Chris stated, loosely wrapping his big black’s 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 wouldn’t 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.

"We’re looking for someone," Chris began.

"You and everybody else," the fat man said in a bored voice.

"He’s a friend of ours," Vin added.

"A black man, a little taller than me. Would’ve been through here four, five days ago," Chris said.

"Nope, ain’t seen him," the bartender stated, then turned away.

With the speed of a striking rattler, Vin grabbed the man’s arm and jerked him against the bar. He kept his tone low and deadly. "Iffen you know something about him, you’d best tell us. You see, Nathan is a good friend of ours and we wouldn’t take kindly to anyone withholdin’ information about him."

The barkeep’s pig-like eyes bulged and he shook his head. "Look, I ain’t 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 I’d known you were so good at playin’ mean, I’d let you do it more often."

Vin shook his head somberly. "I wasn’t playin’. My gut tells me he knows more than he’s sayin’."

"Think he knows where Nathan is?"

Vin frowned. "I don’t know, but there’s somethin’ goin’ 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 snoopin’ around town tryin’ to find you, everybody seemed to be hidin’ 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. "That’s how I feel right now."

From beneath his wide brim, Chris surveyed the main street. "Let’s 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 you’re looking for?"

"A man."

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. ‘Bout 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?"

"Must’ve 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.

"I’m 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 ain’t nobody seen him."

The man’s eyes held sympathy. "I’m 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 they’d gone, a woman came through the curtain behind the counter, her expression a mixture of fear and anger. "We can’t let this go on, Asa."

Asa Hamilton, the store’s 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 there’s nothing we can do to stop him."

"But all those people…" His wife crossed her arms. "It’s just not right."

"I know," Asa replied in a frustrated tone that said they’d had the same argument numerous times before. "I don’t like people like their friend being used either, but if we go against him, it wouldn’t 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. There’s nothing holding us here."

"We’re making a good living here."

"Only because people like that nice man Nathan and all the others are being treated like animals."

"It isn’t 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, I’ll 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, Ezra’s 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 mother’s 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. "You’re a long ways from home, Mister – "

"Ezra Standish at your service, ma’am." 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 you’re a traveling man."

"That’s correct, Miss -- " he waited for her to reciprocate.

"Lottie Robertson," she replied. "And this is my place."

Ezra’s brow shot up. He didn’t often run into a female saloon owner. "My compliments, my dear Miss Robertson."

"Actually, it’s Misses, although I’m a widow. But please call me Lottie. All my friends do," she said without the coquetry of inexperienced youth.

"It’d be my pleasure, Lottie."

She put her hand through the crook of his arm. "Come on, I’ll 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 one’s 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 could’ve 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. "Who’s 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, Maude’s little boy." He stood and grabbed Ezra’s hand, shaking it vigorously.

"Not so little anymore, sir," Ezra said respectfully.

Randolph’s 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 didn’t blame the man for his bitterness. He’d been a successful plantation owner until the war, then Sherman had blazed a fiery trail through the south, destroying everything in his way, including Randolph’s mansion.

"I didn’t know you’d 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 don’t you come back here for dinner? I know for a fact Lottie has the finest French cook this side of the Mississippi."

"Yes, please, I’d love to hear your stories also," Lottie interjected.

"It would be my pleasure," Ezra said. "Now, if you’ll 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 he’d been so surprised to see Randolph there, he hadn’t asked about Nathan. Frowning to himself, Ezra doubted if Nathan would’ve gone into such an establishment. He preferred less ostentation. But if he had a chance, he’d ask Lottie and Stewart if they’d 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 doesn’t 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 seein’ him is the storekeeper," Vin added.

"Perhaps the store was the only place he visited," Ezra said.

"It’s 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 Buck’s outburst. "Me and Vin didn’t." He didn’t have to explain why.

"I’ll go," JD volunteered.

"I’ll back ya up," Buck said.

Although the boy had come a long ways since he’d joined the group, Chris felt better with Buck accompanying him. And he didn’t 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 JD’s relationship had changed some. It seemed to Chris that Buck treated him more like an equal rather than a kid. That didn’t mean he had stopped teasing the boy; hell, if that happened, Chris would check to see if Buck’s heart was still beating. But he noticed, too, that JD was fast learning how to defend himself against Buck’s badgering.

After Buck and JD were gone, Ezra spoke up. "I ran into an old friend at an establishment across the street. If there’s 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. "Somethin’s goin’ on around here and I aim to find out what it is."

Ezra didn’t 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.

"We’ll get rooms at the hotel," Chris said. "If anything comes up, we’ll 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.

"Nathan’s 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. "There’s got to be someone who knows something."

"Where does that woman live – the one who Nathan helped deliver her baby?" Vin asked.

"I heard her husband give Nathan directions," Josiah volunteered. "It’s closer to Orville than Lancaster. It’ll take us about thirty miles west."

"If we haven’t learned anything by morning, we’ll 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. "I’ll 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. We’re going to be gone at least a couple days so it’s a good idea to leave two of you so you can watch each other’s backs."

He studied Vin, wondering if he should stay with him and send Ezra with Josiah, Buck, and JD. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Ezra – he’d come a long way since he’d ridden out on them in that Seminole village. It was just that he trusted himself more.

"Ezra’ll do fine," Vin said in a low voice, startling Chris.

Sometimes Vin’s intuition was damned eerie, but it was that perception that Chris admired most in his friend. And even though Chris often cursed Vin’s soft heart when it came to helping folks, he respected him for that compassion, too.

Chris nodded. "All right. If we ain’t back in three days, you and Ezra head out to Orville."

"You got it," Vin said.

JD entered the sheriff’s 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?"

"That’s right," JD said, feeling right at home in the office. He hooked his fingers around his gunbelt. "Me and my friends are lookin’ for someone."

The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. "To gun him down?"

JD blinked, thrown off-balance by the odd question. "’Course not. Fact is, I’m a sheriff, too. Well, I was until we left Four Corners."

"When did they start hirin’ boys to do a man’s job?"

Buck took a step forward, his hands clenched in fists, but JD grabbed his arm. "I’ll 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 name’s Sheriff Dan O’Malley."

"JD Dunne," he introduced, shaking the man’s hand. "And this is Buck Wilmington."

Buck only glared at the sheriff.

"We’re trying to find a man," JD began.

"You bounty hunters?" the sheriff asked, narrowing his eyes.

JD shook his head. "We’re looking for a friend of ours. A black man by the name of Nathan Jackson. Would’ve passed through a few days ago."

"Don’t recall any Negroes in town lately. I’d remember if there had been."

JD’s hopes tumbled; he’d been so certain the sheriff would have seen him.

"Or maybe you conveniently forgot," Buck growled.

O’Malley’s hostile gaze settled on Buck. "You callin’ 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 O’Malley. "You tell me."

The tension grew thicker than sorghum, and JD wrapped his fingers around Buck’s arm. He could feel the taut muscles beneath his jacket sleeve. "C’mon, Buck. If Sheriff O’Malley said he didn’t see him, he didn’t."

The two men continued to parry looks like two tomcats getting ready to spit.

"C’mon, 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 stayin’ in town a while?" O’Malley asked.

"For the night."

"Be gone first thing in the morning. I wouldn’t 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 how’d I do?" JD asked.

"Just fine, kid," Buck said with a wink and a grin. "Now he thinks you’re his buddy and I’m crazy."

JD adjusted his derby hat with a jaunty motion. Then he reminded himself of the reason for the charade. "You think Nathan’s 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 don’t know, JD, and that’s 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 ‘slaves’, and watched six armed men guard the perimeter of the camp. He shuddered, recalling too vividly the days he’d tried to forget.

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

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

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

"Thinking," he replied quietly.

Tommy shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

"Want to join me?" Nathan invited.

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

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

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

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

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

"And how many of us are there?"

"’Bout thirty, I reckon."

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

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

"What do you mean?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Your pa was a brave man."

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

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

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

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

"How old was that?"

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

"Why did she?"

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

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

"Sounds like he was a smart man."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Evening Rose?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Then perhaps I shouldn’t -- "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I harbor the same hope. Good night."

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

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

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

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

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

"Have you ascertained anything about our missing companion?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What’d you tell him?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Good luck, pard," Vin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You gonna be back in a couple days?"

Ezra nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe not.

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

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

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

The man didn’t seem to hear him.

"You need some water?" Nathan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Get back to work!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You a doctor?" the overseer continued.

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

"You sassin’ me, boy?"

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

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

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

"You tellin’ me what to do?"

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

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

"Nathan Jackson."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Monroe," the wealthy man called out.

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

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

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

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

Nathan’s muscles tensed once more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stop, don’t whip him!"

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

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

"No. You can’t do this!"

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

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

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

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


"Go on, Tommy. Please."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra frowned. "You’re not certain?"

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

"Where did you work before coming here?"

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

"What became of them?"

She shrugged. "I don’t know."

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

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

Ezra’s brow creased. "’Master?’"

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

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

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

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

Chuckling, Stewart escorted him to the dining room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Where does this Randolph live?"

"Ride southwest. You can’t miss it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He dress fancy and talk real nice?"

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

She nodded. "You here to help?"

"Are you being held here against your will?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded and hurried up the long curving staircase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Have you slept at all?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Vin?" he whispered hoarsely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who’s Randolph?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I’m Tommy," the boy said.

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

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

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

"You were in his house?" Nathan asked.

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

"The storekeeper?"

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

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

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

"You don’t think – ?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not if I have any say."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stewart laughed. "How did you sleep?"

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

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

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

"We had a late night intruder."

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

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

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

"Then say yes."

"There are other factors which I must consider."

"What kind of factors?" Stewart asked curiously.

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

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

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

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

"Do I detect a bit of a bribe?"

"More than a bit." Stewart stood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They labor long hours."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about in the evening?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vin bent over Nathan who sat on the ground, pulling feebly at the weeds around the cotton plants. "How ya doin’?"

"I ain’t 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, it’s hot."

"Ain’t 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; didn’t want to draw no attention to myself."

"Silent but deadly," Vin agreed. "I’m goin’ to make sure you get out of this, too, Nathan."

"Make sure you don’t 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 Vin’s shoulders as Vin carefully placed an arm round Nathan’s waist. Vin supported much of the larger man’s 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 Nathan’s shirt to examine his back and found a couple spots where the fragile scabs had re-opened. He cleaned them gently with Tommy’s help, then applied some more salve.

Vin laid a hand against Nathan’s forehead and cursed in a low voice. "Feels like you got a fever."

"Wouldn’t surprise me none," Nathan said. "Don’t feel so good."

Tommy handed Vin a cup of water and Vin held it to Nathan’s lips. "Drink this. You need the liquid."

Nathan did so slowly, then closed his eyes. "Tired – need to sleep." His breathing grew regular and Vin realized he’d indeed fallen asleep.

"He gonna be okay?" Tommy asked, his eyes wide and worried.

"He’s a strong man, Tommy. He’ll be just fine." As long as he doesn’t have to go back out in the field again, Vin thought soberly. "Let’s get somethin’ to eat, then we’ll come back to stay with Nathan."

Vin noticed that everyone with the exception of Tommy cast him hostile glares. He couldn’t blame them. He had white skin, the same color as the man who’d imprisoned them. He’d 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. Vin’s 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 he’d 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 wasn’t so certain he could scale the rock wall at night. If by some chance he did make it to freedom, he had to get help to get Nathan out which meant Nathan was at Randolph and his guards’ mercy until he made it back. And that meant they’d either kill Nathan or use him as a pawn to get him and Chris and the others.

He thought of Ezra and how he’d seen him with Randolph in the early afternoon. Vin hadn’t told Nathan. There was no reason to worry him. Vin only hoped he had Ezra pegged right and the con man was just going along with the charade until he could ‘affect’ their escape. Vin grinned to himself – he’d been spending too much time listening to Ezra’s four bit words.

He stifled a yawn, realizing how tired he was. He’d snatched only a few minutes of sleep last night and the day had been long, working under the hot sun. Deciding he couldn’t 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 he’d wake up if Nathan began to move around. Closing his eyes, he was asleep in minutes.

"You didn’t like the cordon bleu?" Stewart asked Ezra.

Ezra pushed back his nearly-full plate. "No, it was most excellent. It’s just that I’m 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, I’m sure I’ll 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. It’s 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 Stewart’s offer, then talked Stewart into releasing the ‘slaves’? Surely he wasn’t that far gone that he wouldn’t listen when Ezra explained how wrong it was.

Ezra closed his eyes and the memory of the insane gleam in Stewart’s eyes returned to plague him. His stomach cramped, and he thought he’d lose what little he’d eaten for dinner. How could a man change so completely? Had the war turned him so bitter he would ignore the laws of the land and humanity and imprison people to use for his own personal gain? That was just it – Stewart didn’t 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. Vin’s and Nathan’s lives depended on it. As well as the poor souls who had been caught in Stewart’s 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. They’d 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. They’d 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. "I’m going to go find Vin and Ezra. I’ll be back in a minute."

His spurs jingled on the boardwalk as he walked down to the hotel. He pounded on Vin’s door, but no one answered. Frowning, Chris stopped at the desk. "What room is Ezra Standish in?"

"I’m sorry," the buxom woman replied. "Mr. Standish checked out two days ago."

Chris’s 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 Chris’s last name.

"I haven’t seen Mr. Larabee since he rode out last night." Her plump cheeks reddened. "It wasn’t like I was watching him or anything, but I just happened to be looking out the window when I seen him leave."

Chris didn’t like this one bit. "You don’t happen to know where he was going, do you?"

"No, I’m 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 he’d come back."

Chris nodded absently and strode out. He stopped at the livery and found both Vin and Ezra’s horses missing.

A gray-bearded man shuffled out of one of the stalls, pitchfork in hand. "Lookin’ for somethin’, mister?"

"Yeah, a couple friends of mine who stabled their horses here. One of ‘em had a blaze faced black gelding, the other a bay mare."

"Fancy feller took his mare early yesterday morning. Didn’t say where he was goin’, but I saw him ride out with Stewart Randolph."

"Who’s Stewart Randolph?"

"Rich southern gentleman from Georgia or thereabouts. Settled here a year or two after the war and built himself up a fine place."

"What about the other horse?"

"That fellah rode out last night, ‘bout eight o’clock. I was tryin’ to get some sleep when I heard him come in and saddle up."

"He say where he was going?"

The old man shook his head and spat a stream of brown tobacco to the straw-covered floor. "Nope. Looked kinda mad, though."

Chris cursed. "Thanks for your help." He turned, then paused. "You know where this Randolph lives?"

"Someplace west of here, I think. Go see Miss Lottie at the Green Table. She and him are pretty tight."


A few minutes later, Chris joined Buck, JD, and Josiah. "We got us two more missing men."

"What do you mean?" JD asked, his young face confused.

"Vin and Ezra have disappeared. Vin rode out last night and no one’s 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 don’t know what to think, Buck. But I figure we might want to check this Stewart Randolph’s 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 Buck’s little act, he might trust me enough to tell me something."

Chris thought a moment, then nodded. "All right. The rest of us’ll pay a visit to Miss Lottie."

"Maybe someone should keep JD company," Buck said.

JD shook his head. "If he’s gonna talk, it might only be to me."

"JD’s 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. "Who’s asking?"

"Chris Larabee, ma’am," he replied. "We’re 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, ma’am, that’s right," Chris said. "We were supposed to meet him and another friend of ours here today and we can’t 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.

Chris’s jaw muscle knotted. "Probably, and Ezra didn’t argue." He turned back to the woman. "Our other friend’s name is Vin, longish hair, tan hat, wears a hide jacket."

"My, you have an odd assortment of friends," she exclaimed. "No, I’m sorry, I haven’t seen him. But you don’t 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 Ezra’s is a friend of mine."

"No, thank you," Chris declined.. "Afternoon, ma’am."

They stepped back on to the boardwalk.

"You believe her?" Buck asked.

Chris rubbed his whiskered jaw. "I don’t know. She didn’t 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?"

"Let’s see what JD and Josiah found out."

JD found Sheriff O’Malley in his office, sitting behind his desk and cleaning a Winchester. "Afternoon," JD greeted.

The lawman eyed him warily. "Where’s 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. "That’s why I’m here. We’ve lost two more."

"You keep losin’ friends like that, ain’t nobody’ll want to ride with you."

"Maybe you seen them. One was the fellah with longer hair, leather coat, rode a black gelding."

O’Malley nodded. "I was on my evening rounds ‘bout eight o’clock 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 Randolph’s a fine gentleman, originally from Georgia. Came here after the War and now owns the biggest spread around. But he don’t act all high and mighty like a lot of them big ranchers. Always has time to have a drink with me when he’s 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.

O’Malley nodded, missing JD’s sarcasm. "That he is."

"Have there been other folks who have disappeared around here?"

Sheriff O’Malley stared at JD a long moment. "There’s been a couple others," he admitted.

JD laid his palms flat on the desk and leaned forward. "Why didn’t you tell us that before?" he demanded.

The sheriff shrugged. "They were only Negroes. You know how footloose they are. I figgered they’d just moved on without tellin’ anyone."

"Did you even investigate?"

"I poked around a little, but no one knew anything, so I just let it go."

JD’s temper notched upward. "A lawman has the duty to get to the bottom of things. Sounds to me like you were just plain lazy."

O’Malley’s 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 nobody’s complained before. And I don’t have to put up with lip from a wet-behind-the-ears kid."

"I may not have as much experience as you, but I would’ve 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 O’Malley has just been telling me that a couple other folks have disappeared, but he didn’t 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.

O’Malley 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 didn’t matter."

"So you’re tellin’ us you don’t even have a guess as to what happened to them?" JD prodded.

The sheriff shook his head. "I got no idea and that’s the honest-to-God truth."

"You’d best be right, or God’s 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 they’d deserted earlier.

"Well?" Chris prompted JD.

"He remembered seeing Vin ride out last night, and Ezra goin’ with Stewart Randolph, too, but that’s it," JD replied dejectedly. "I asked him if he knew anything about this Randolph and he said he was one of the finest citizens in the territory. He damn near drooled on me goin’ on and on about him." He paused a moment. "He also said there have been other Negroes who have disappeared around here in the past couple years."

Chris pierced JD with a sharp gaze. "What happened to them?"

JD shook his head. "O’Malley did a little lookin’ around and figured they must’ve just moved on."

"You reckon he’s telling the truth?" Buck demanded.

JD met Buck’s impatient gaze and nodded. "I don’t think he’s crooked, just lazy and stupid."

Chris leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "Something’s not adding up."

"We are now missing two men instead of one, and Ezra’s off visiting an old friend," Josiah began. "What doesn’t add up is how people can disappear without a trace."

"They can if there’s 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 Ezra’s old friend may be involved?" Buck asked.

Chris shrugged. "I don’t know. Our horses are beat, we’re beat, and it’s getting late. If Ezra doesn’t show up by midmorning, we pay Stewart Randolph a visit."

"What about Nathan and Vin?" JD interjected.

"We have to hope that they’re alive," Chris stated. "And that we’re 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 didn’t 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 Randolph’s voice broke the night’s 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 weren’t 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.

Ezra’s 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. "I’m afraid my newly awakened conscience wouldn’t 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 Nathan’s friend."

"I told you he was with them," Lottie said, her face pale in the darkness. She raised her chin and met Ezra’s 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."

Ezra’s 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 I’m crazy?"

"That’s 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 could’ve had everything."

"I’m not willing to pay the exorbitant price you’re asking," Ezra said softly.

Stewart sighed heavily. "Tie him up and throw him in the root cellar. And don’t forget to gag him. I’ll decide what to do with him later."

"What’re you going to do about his friends, Stewart?" Lottie asked.

Randolph kept his gaze on Ezra. "I’m going to double the guards around the house. If his friends won’t accept my explanation, they’ll be shot down."

Ezra’s heart kicked against his ribs. If he didn’t 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 Stewart’s gaze on him. And Ezra wished to God he’d never stopped in Lancaster, Texas.

The following morning Nathan was so stiff that he could hardly move and his fever hadn’t abated. He suspected it wasn’t infection, just his body’s 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 can’t go out there, today," Vin stated. "I’ll talk to Monroe."

Nathan shook his head and grabbed Vin’s arm. "I’ll make it. You just help me out there and get me in the field."

Vin knelt down beside him. "No. You’re too sick and weak. I ain’t gonna lose you just after I found you."

"I ain’t gonna die, Vin. I’ve been whipped more times than this and I survived. I’ll make it this time, too," Nathan reassured.

"You don’t know that," Vin hissed.

"Help me up."

"Damnit, Nathan, if you ain’t the most stubborn – "

"Now you know what I got to put up with you and the others when I’m tryin’ to heal you."

A sheepish grin twitched Vin’s 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 Nathan’s arm.

"I’ll be fine," Nathan lied. "Now let’s get out there before Monroe gets it in his head to come lookin’ for us."

"I’m lookin’ forward to givin’ him a taste of his own medicine," Vin murmured.

"Everyone gets their due, with or without your help," Nathan said.

"I prefer with my help," Vin said as he helped Nathan out of the tent and into the field. "I don’t know how you can be so damned forgiving, Nathan. Iffen I was you, I’d 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."

"You’re a better man than me."

"Each man has to make peace in his own way."

Vin turned to gaze at Nathan. "Maybe someday I’ll be able to be as forgivin’ as you, but until then, anyone who hurts one of my friends is fair game."

Nathan studied the intensity in Vin’s usually twinkling blue eyes. Fiery rage lay banked in the embers and he shivered despite the hot day. And was glad he wasn’t in Randolph’s or Monroe’s shoes.

"No one’s seen Ezra yet. And Miss Lottie is gone, too. Nobody knows where she’s 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 isn’t around to tell us how to-- "

"Morning," the sheriff greeted.

JD nodded at him warily, but didn’t reply. The Irishman seemed ill at ease.

After a moment of awkward silence, O’Malley went on. "I remembered somethin’ last night. Your friend, the one who left night before last, well, right before he left, Eloise Hamilton was talkin’ to him."

"Who’s she?" Chris demanded.

"Store owner’s wife. She and her husband settled here about three years ago."

Chris glanced across the street to the general store. "Let’s 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.

"I’m 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?"

"That’s 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, ma’am?" 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. "We’ve lost three friends in this town, and we don’t plan on leaving without them."

A myriad of emotions crossed the woman’s face. Finally she nodded resolutely. "It’s got to stop."

Behind the woman, a man dressed in a grocer’s apron shoved a curtain aside and stepped up beside her. "Go on into the back, Eloise."

She stiffened. "No, Asa, I’m going to tell them."

"Didn’t you learn your lesson? The other man’s probably dead because of what you told him."

Chris’s vision hazed and he took hold of the storekeeper’s shirt front and jerked him forward against the counter. "What do you mean, dead?"

The woman grabbed Chris’s arm. "Please don’t hurt him. It’s not his fault."

"Would you just tell us what’s goin’ on?" JD asked plaintively. "We can sort out whose fault it is later."

"Amen, brother," Josiah said in a barely controlled voice.

Chris gave the bespectacled man a last shake before releasing him. "All right, you got one minute."

"I told your friend that Stewart Randolph was the man behind the kidnappings of all the black folks who disappear around Lancaster. He uses them as slaves on his plantation," the woman explained, her tone bitter. "He thinks he’s some kind of southern gentleman but he’s no better than a thief and murderer."

"Has he killed people?" Josiah asked.

"I don’t know. We never see anyone who’s been taken by him again."

"Do you know what you’ve done, Eloise?" her husband demanded. "He finds out you talked, and he’ll have us both killed."

The woman’s face became even whiter. "No. If these men can stop him, it’ll 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 don’t think he’s in on this with Randolph?" JD asked incredulously.

"The only thing I know is Randolph’s an old friend of Ezra’s, and Ezra didn’t come back to town like he was supposed to,’ Chris stated. His lips pressed into a grim slash. "If he’s part of this, he’s gonna pay." He turned back to the woman. "How do we get there?"

Eloise told them, and her husband’s face grew more stormy.

"You could take a lesson from your wife, mister," Buck said, poking the man’s chest with his forefinger.

Defiance glimmered behind the storekeeper’s shiny lenses, but he remained silent.

"Let’s 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 Randolph’s 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 who’d 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?"

"That’s right."

"We’re looking for some friends of ours."

"I doubt if I can help you. The only visitor I’ve had lately is an old friend of mine, Ezra Standish," Randolph stated.

"He’s one of the men we’re 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. "That’s funny. He was supposed to meet us in Lancaster today."

"Ah, yes, he did mention something about some men he’d been traveling with. He said he hoped that you all wouldn’t 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 could’ve," Buck said softly.

Chris nodded, disappointment teeming through him. He hoped he’d 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, I’m afraid not," Randolph replied. "Like I said, I haven’t had any visitors besides Ezra."

"That’s 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 don’t want to give up your slaves," Buck said, his tone ugly. "Because you think you’re better’n everybody else and that if a person’s skin isn’t white, he ain’t 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 doesn’t 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. "We’re going to find them, and when we do, we’re going to have you put away for a long time."

"Don’t 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. "We’ll 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. We’ll go find some high ground where we can keep an eye on the place, and tonight we’ll 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 don’t believe it," JD stated, riding on the other side of Chris.

"I don’t 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. He’d been able to make out snatches of conversation and was dismayed to hear Randolph’s explanation for his disappearance. He hoped Chris didn’t believe him, but had a bad feeling there would be enough doubts in the ex-shootist’s mind that he might.

He’d been trying to loosen the knots on the rope, but hadn’t had any luck. The only thing he’d 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 he’d 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 hadn’t 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 he’d 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 didn’t know how long he’d 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. He’d 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 they’d 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 I’m gone?"

Tommy nodded somberly. "I can do it."

Vin gripped Tommy’s shoulder firmly. "I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t think you could."

"You be careful, Mr. Vin. If them men see you, they’ll kill you," Tommy said.

"Don’t worry. I don’t plan on gettin’ killed yet," Vin said with a grin and wink. "As soon as it gets dark, I’ll 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 Tommy’s 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 wasn’t 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 Stewart’s 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 dusk’s diminishing light, Ezra recognized her as the black woman who had seemed cowed by Stewart. He didn’t 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.

Ezra’s blood turned cold. "Did my friends come back?"

She shook her head. "Not yet they haven’t, but if they do, they’ll 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 Ezra’s veins. He didn’t 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 they’d never let him down. He wasn’t 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 mount’s 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 mare’s flanks. Every moment, Ezra expected to feel a bullet between his shoulderblades, and when one didn’t 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, he’d 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."

"Where’ve you been?" Chris demanded.

Taken aback by the man’s sharp tone, Ezra’s smile faded. "I have been trussed up, lying in Randolph’s root cellar."

"You all right?" JD asked.

Touched by the boy’s 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 haven’t 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 didn’t want their horses stepping into a hole, but they couldn’t afford to walk them either. Vin and Nathan’s 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 didn’t 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. "That’s what I was thinkin’. How we gonna find out?"

"Is this the only way in?" Chris asked Ezra.

He nodded. "The canyon is enclosed completely except for this entrance." Ezra rubbed his brow. "I will attempt to draw the fire of the guards if there are any up there."

"If there are, you won’t 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 Chris’s cool stare, unable to look away from pale green eyes that seemed to sear his soul.

Finally, the ex-shootist nodded. "JD’s right. You’ll be shot down if there’s 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. It’ll be the quickest and easiest way."

Chris didn’t want the responsibility of making a life or death decision – he’d done that far too many times in the past and he was tired of it. But Buck, JD, Josiah, and Ezra were waiting on him to make up his mind, and he knew they would do as he said without question. They needed to find Nathan and Vin, and to do that, Ezra was ready to offer his own life – a sacrifice Ezra would have never made eight months ago. Two for the price of one. Damn, Chris hated this!

"All right," he said evenly, surprised his voice didn’t reveal his tormented thoughts.

Ezra met Chris’s eyes and nodded. "Thank you."

"We’ll 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. He’d 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 didn’t 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 Vin’s body impacted with the shooter. A horse neighed from someplace down below, then Vin’s attention was centered on the guard. Vin grabbed the rifle from his hands, and swung the stock. The wood butt hit the man’s 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 Vin’s 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. Vin’s 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.

"It’s me, Vin. Hold your fire," he shouted. "I’m gonna stand up now, and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t 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. I’ve been expectin’ you."

Vin scrambled down the slope, his descent much faster than his climb had been. Ten minutes later, he stood beside Chris holding the reins of one of the guard’s horses.

"You okay?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded shortly and looked over at Ezra, whose left sleeve showed a red stain. "What do you thing you were you doin’ ridin’ into that ambush by yourself?" he demanded.

"Attempting to save you and Nathan," he replied, though his flippant tone didn’t match his somber eyes. "By the looks of it, however, you saved me."

Vin motioned to his arm. "Hit bad?"

"Merely a flesh wound. How’s Nathan?"

Vin shook his head. "Not good. He was whipped a few days ago."

"Son-of-a-bi—" Buck began.

"He’s been whipped before," Josiah said with a husky voice as he met Vin’s solemn gaze.

"Come on, we need to get him out of there and free the other prisoners," Vin said, his voice hard. He mounted his borrowed animal.

The six men rode across the field, the horses’ hooves trampling the cotton plants and Vin saw it as a small retribution for the hours he and Nathan had toiled in the field under the hot sun. As they neared the flimsy building, the guards began to shoot. Chris, Vin, Buck, JD, Josiah, and Ezra continued to gallop toward them, brandishing their own weapons. Two guards went down, then a third. The last three ran off in three different directions, and the men pursued them.

Vin spotted the cruel overseer, Monroe, slipping behind the barracks and he sent his horse racing after him. The fat man turned to fire at Vin, but his weapon clicked on an empty chamber and he threw the gun at Vin, missing him by a wide margin. Vin uncoiled the rope on the saddle and tossed a loop over Monroe, jerking him back so hard he fell on his backside. Vin dismounted quickly, and kept the rope taut as he hurried toward the man.

"Don’t kill me, please," Monroe cried. "I was just doin’ my job."

Vin leaned over and jerked the whip from the man’s 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 Monroe’s arm.

"Please, mister, don’t 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 ain’t worth it. You’ll get yours in prison."

Vin ushered him back to join the other prisoners who were herded into a huddle, then went into the shelter and faced the gathered ‘slaves’. "You’re 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 Nathan’s side.

"How is he?" Vin asked the boy.

"I’m better," Nathan replied with a familiar smile. "Fever broke a couple hours ago." He spotted Ezra’s pale face and his smile faded. "You okay, Ezra?"

The gambler managed a smile. "I’ll be fine," he assured. "It’s good to see you again, Mr. Jackson."

"What happened to your friend?" Nathan asked.

Ezra’s face shadowed with dismay. "He died a long time ago."

"We’d best get out of here," Vin said.

"Wish you woulda told me what you had in mind," Nathan complained.

Vin smiled. "So you could talk me out of it? Come on, the others are outside waitin’ for us."

With Ezra on one side, and Vin on the other, Nathan was helped out, where they were greeted by Josiah and Chris. A few of the former prisoners held weapons that were now trained on the ex-guards.

"Where’s 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 Nathan’s horse. "Can I go with you?"

Nathan shook his head. "Not yet. First we’re going to make sure Randolph is behind bars, then we’ll take you to your momma."

"I s’pose I can wait a little longer," Tommy said reluctantly.

"It won’t be long," Nathan said. "I promise you that."

"I believe you, Nathan," the boy said.

Vin turned to the former ‘slaves’ and raised his voice. "We’ll send the law to take care of these men. Until then, they’re under your guard."

"Do you think that’s 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 fire’s heat radiated outward to warm his face. He rejoined his friends, and spoke tautly. "That thing ain’t 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 Randolph’s reign tonight.

An hour later, they lay on their bellies overlooking Randolph’s 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 I’ll go to the house," Chris said. "We’ll meet at the porch."

"What about me?" Nathan asked.

"With them wounds on your back, you’re stayin’ right here," Chris replied, then smiled. "You’ll 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 wouldn’t have had to worry as JD dispatched his guard with the butt of his gun. That was three of Randolph’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t, they continued through the room and into the foyer.

"Drop your weapons, gentlemen," Randolph’s 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 you’ve already been to my cotton field."

Chris nodded. "That’s right. Your prisoners are free."

Randolph shook his head. "A pity. I’ll just have to start rounding them up again. Oh, well, I’ve had to start over before, I can do so again." He took a deep breath. "Now get rid of your guns and put your hands in the air or we shall have to kill you all right here, and I do hate blood stains in the house."

Slowly, with anger marching through his veins, Chris did as Randolph ordered, and heard his friends’ weapons hit the tile floor, too. A woman joined him, and Chris recognized her as Lottie from the Green Table Emporium, and she and Randolph descended the remaining steps.

"I had hoped you wouldn’t be so deeply involved in such nefarious activities, my dear Lottie," Ezra commented..

Her eyes were as hard as diamonds. "I’m not so certain it’s nefarious. It is, however, profitable." Lottie shook her head. "I’m 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 Stewart’s insanity."

"Then you’ll 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. "Where’s your nigger friend?"

"As I stated, he was whipped so severely, he was unable to travel," Ezra replied smoothly.

"That’s all right. I shall find him later and put him back to work," Stewart said with a shrug.

"The hell you will," Vin growled.

"Who’s going to stop me? You from the grave?" Randolph laughed. "Let’s 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 Randolph’s 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 Randolph’s junior, Ezra found himself floundering under the older man’s onslaught. Randolph managed a fist in Ezra’s 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 Randolph’s jaw and the man stumbled back, dazed. Ezra moved in for another blow, but Randolph sidestepped at the last moment, and Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s 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 Randolph’s back.

"Don’t, Stewart," Ezra cried.

The gray-haired man spun around, bringing his gun to bear on Ezra. Stewart’s finger curled around the trigger.

"No!" Ezra shouted as he fired his own revolver.

Crimson blossomed on Randolph’s 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 Stewart’s shoulders in his arms, sorrow washing through him like the swell of a tide on a Georgia beach.

"You – you c-could of had it all," Randolph managed to say as red spittle stained his lips.

Ezra shook his head, his eyes filled with moisture and his gaze blurred. "I already do, my friend," he whispered. "I already do."

Stewart lifted his hand slowly and touched Ezra’s 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. "It’s 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 don’t know, Nathan. I truly don’t know."

Nathan nodded gently, his brown eyes compassionate, but he remained silent, respecting Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s cheekbone appeared out of place on the usually fastidious man, and he moved his left arm a little stiffly as he played solitaire. Nathan’s back was healing slowly, though he continued to move carefully.

"Ain’t that Mrs. Hamilton?" JD asked, pointing to a woman carrying a portmanteau toward the stage.

Vin nodded. "Yep, that’s her all right."

They watched in silence and when she walked toward them, the men sat up a little straighter.

"Mornin’, ma’am," Vin greeted, touching the brim of his hat.

"Hello," Louise Hamilton replied, her gaze passing over each of the men nervously. "I – I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am." She looked at Nathan. "For everything."

"It wasn’t your fault, ma’am," 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 it’s for the good," Nathan added, deliberately gazing at Ezra.

"Yes, well, I suppose you’re right.," the woman said. "I just hope I can find a way to start over."

"You’re taking a step in the right direction, ma’am," Josiah interjected.

After a moment, Louise Hamilton smiled slightly and nodded. "Thank you all for everything."

"No, ma’am, it’s us who’s in your debt," Nathan said.

Her smile grew, then she crossed the street and boarded the stagecoach.

"Who’d she sell the store to?" JD asked curiously.

Nathan grinned. "Tommy and his ma. Her and her husband used to run a store a few years ago."

Vin laughed. "Seems kind of a fit endin’, don’t 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 he’ll be okay?" Buck asked, a thread of concern in his voice.

"Only time can heal that kind of pain, Buck," Nathan said softly.

With his heart in his throat, Ezra walked toward the bar where Lottie stood, her back to him. He paused a couple feet behind her. "Hello, Lottie."

She stiffened, then turned. "What are you doing here?"

Ezra turned the brim of his hat around in his hands nervously. "I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for what happened."

"‘Sorry’ isn’t going to bring Stewart back."

Ezra’s 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 you’re the different man."

Had the six men changed him that much? Without searching too deeply, he knew Lottie was right. He wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 he’d strike out on his own again, but that day had yet to come. For now, his place was with them.

And Ezra took a deep breath and went to join his friends.


At least, until Story Five of The Trail to Tascosa series….

 The Trail to Tascosa #5: Breach of Faith


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