Disclaimer: Not mine. Never will be. No money being made.
Josiah and Nathan sat in front of the jail enjoying the unusually quiet afternoon, but that peace was quickly shattered as a wagon came racing into town.
"Is there a doctor in town?" the driver of the wagon asked as he came to a stop in front of the two men.
"No doctor, but Nathan here's a healer," Josiah explained as he stepped closer.
When there were no objections Nathan walked around to the end of the wagon and asked, "What happened?"
"Horse was spooked by a rattler," said a voice from the back of the wagon with a distinct southern accent. Seeing the black man hesitate the man continued, "Can you help him?"
Nathan shrugged his shoulders and climbed onto the wagon, "I'll do my best."
"That's all we ask Mister," the Southerner assured him.
Josiah pointed the driver toward Nathan's clinic and then hurried across the street and held the door open so that the others could enter. It was only as men passed that Josiah noticed that they were wearing Cavalry uniforms.
"I don't think it's broken, but it swelled up so badly that I couldn't really tell," the southerner said.
Nathan nodded his head and gingerly touched the grossly swollen leg. "What's your name?"
"C..captain Jacob Hutson," the wounded soldier said.
"Captain Hutson, my name's Nathan and I don't want to hurt you, but I'm gonna have ta check this leg out," the healer explained.
The young captain clenched his teeth to keep from crying out. Gripping the bed covers tightly in his hands, Jacob tried to ride out the pain.
"You can relax now Captain it's over," the healer told him and patted him on the arm. "Drink this it'll help with the pain," Nathan said picking up a cup with some herbs in it.
Captain Hutson pushed the cup away and rose up on shaky elbows and asked, "Will it make me sleepy?"
Shaking his head the Captain said, "Sergeant you'll need to w..wire Ft. Laramie and tell them s..situation."
"Yes Sir," the Sergeant replied then turned to the other soldier. "You stay with the Captain. I'll be back as soon as I can," he said heading for the door.
Seeing that the captain's strength was waning Nathan held the cup up to him again and saw to it that he drank every drop.
Heading for the telegraph office Sergeant Stanley Johnson stopped dead in the street as he thought he saw a person from his past walk into the saloon. Nah, it couldn't be, he told himself and continued on his way.
The Sergeant sent the message and was now waiting on a reply. He got lost in his thoughts as he looked out the window of the telegraph office.
"Excuse me, Sergeant this message just came in," the clerk said and handed it over.
After quickly reading it he mumbled a, "Thank you." Then headed back to the clinic.
Private Tim Rains stood at attention as his Sergeant walked in.
Sergeant Johnson looked from his sleeping Captain to the telegram in his hand and then turned to the private. "Go back to the camp and inform the Corporal of the situation and tell him he's in charge until my return. Then get back here as soon as you can . . . and bring back my mount," he told him and then watched as he left. "How long will be off his feet?"
"A week or two. Maybe longer," Nathan told him to which the Sergeant nodded his head. "I'm gonna go and see about getting you fellas some food. I'll be back in a little while."
"I'll help you," Josiah said and followed him.
The two peacekeepers met Chris and Vin on the boardwalk and Nathan quickly explained about the soldiers.
"Reckon there's gonna be trouble?" Chris asked Vin.
"Always is when there's soldiers involved," Vin replied matter-of-factly.
"Gentlemen," Judge Travis called as he stepped out of the newspaper office. "Mr. Jackson I understand you have a Cavalry Captain under your care." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Yes sir. Knee's twisted up pretty bad," Nathan explained.
"I just received a telegram from Fort Laramie and we have a situation. Let's go back to your clinic and we'll discuss it further there," he said and began to walk away leaving the others to follow.
The Sergeant got to his feet as the door opened and moved closer to his Captain.
"Relax Sergeant . I'm Judge Orrin Travis," the Judge said holding out his hand. Once the introductions were over the judge turned to the soldier and replied, "Sergeant I just received a telegram from Colonel Madison at Ft. Laramie and he wants me to assist you on your mission."
"And what mission would that be sir?" the Sergeant questioned.
"The Indian Treaty," Judge Travis told him. "Now what I need from you is an idea of how me and my men can help you to complete that mission."
The Sergeant looked at each of the men and then said, "Well now Judge the way I see all we need is someone to pose as our Captain until we get where we're going. We're merely making a delivery. The Captain won't be expected to do anything more."
"Why don't you do it?" Vin asked the obvious.
"What happened to your Lieutenant?" Chris asked before the Sergeant could answer.
The Sergeant smiled and shrugged his shoulders, "I got demoted." Pausing to run a hand through his hair he then continued, "They know me and most of the men," he told them. "The Captain's new and isn't readily known."
"He's got a point. One of us will have ta do it," Chris said. "Don't look at me," he warned as both the judge and Vin gave him pointed looks, "I have to be at that trial." Chris grinned as they realized he was right.
"Well don't look at me. I ain't cutting my hair," Vin vowed. "What about you, Josiah?"
Josiah grinned and shook his head. "Oh no, not me brother, I'm more of a follower than a leader. Besides I don't believe the Captain's uniform would fit."
"What about Buck?" Nathan asked. "Didn't he serve with you in the war?" he asked Chris.
Chris grinned and replied, "That he did, but Buck . . . has problems following through with things. He made one hell of a Sergeant , but I don't think he'd make a very good captain."
"JD's to young and I'm not the right color," Nathan said with a shrug. "So that only leaves . . ." the healer trailed off and grinned and looked at the others.
"Ezra." Exchanging knowing looks between them they missed the shock that registered on the Sergeant 's face.
"I don't think that's such a good idea," Vin told them with a frown.
"I agree with Vin. Maybe we could get the trial postponed so Chris can do it," Josiah put in.
"Why? Don't you think he could?" Judge Travis asked.
"Oh no, I know he can. Ezra can do anything he puts a mind to," Josiah told them with a touch of pride in his voice.
"So what's the problem?" Chris pushed.
"Ezra fought for the South during the war and ain't gonna wanta to wear that uniform," Vin explained and pointed to the Sergeant .
Ezra sat playing a game of solitaire and nursing a bottle of scotch when four shadows fell across the table making him look up. Seeing Chris, Vin and Judge Travis had Ezra racking his brains trying to remember if he did something to offend these men. "To what do I owe this . . ." his voice trailed off as he noticed the soldier standing behind the judge, "pleasure?"
"Ezra I have something I need you to do for me," the judge said as him and the others sat down.
"Care to play a hand?" Ezra asked as he dealt the cards.
"No Ezra I don't want to play cards," the judge told him and waved the cards away.
"Cards? Any fool can play cards, Judge. I play poker. It's completely different."
"Look Ezra I don't want to play cards . . . ok poker," he corrected at the look Ezra sent him. "We need to talk to you. It's very important."
"Then, please, proceed," he said and quickly drew his gun causing the Sergeant to sit up in his chair. Grinning he causally laid it on the table.
"Damn Ezra you never change do you," Sergeant Johnson remarked with a laugh.
"Did you really expect me to?"
"You two know each other?"
"Ezra was my Captain during the war."
"Still the Sergeant I see."
"Well, hell, Ezra I made Lieutenant once, but then I got demoted."
"Some things never change," Ezra commented. "So what do you wish to speak with me about Judge?"
"Was he always like this?" Chris asked. Ezra could change subjects on a person in a blink of an eye.
The Sergeant just smiled.
"Ezra I'm sure you are aware the upcoming meeting concerning the Treaty with the Indians," the Judge began in soft voice.
"Yes, but what does that have to do with me?"
"Sergeant Johnson's Captain has been injured and . . ."
"What happened?" Ezra interrupted.
"To the Captain?" the Sergeant asked.
"No, to you. Why were you demoted?" Ezra asked changing the subject once again.
"The usual reasons," the Sergeant replied with a grin.
"Not the same reasons, I hope?"
"No. Drunk and disorderly."
Ezra merely nodded his head. "Judge you never did tell me what the Treaty has to do with me?"
Judge Travis took a deep calming breath before continuing, "Like I said the Captain's been injured and. . . ."
"Judge Travis I'd appreciate it if you'd get to the point," Ezra said interrupting again. He then grinned as he saw Vin duck his head.
"They want you to pose as my Captain," Sergeant Johnson put in with a grin.
"Are you mad?!" Ezra exclaimed and sat up in his chair.
"Ezra a lot of lives are riding on this . . ." Judge Travis began only to be interrupted. Again.
"Women and children, Ezra. Lots of children," the Sergeant put in with a small knowing grin. "It won't be for long. We only have to go there and back."
"Have a safe trip."
"Ezra you're doing it," Chris said in a tight voice.
"I'll be damned if I will!" Ezra said gathering up his cards. "I suppose you'll want me to wear . . . Yankee blue," he said this as if it was something distasteful and actually shuddered. "Oh hell no!"
"I know it's ugly as hell, but you get used to it," Sergeant Johnson replied with a grin clearly enjoying himself.
"I did my patriotic duty during the war and I don't wish to repeat it," he said picking up his gun and getting to his feet.
"Your duty was paid to the South Ezra not the North," Vin pointed out then grinned at the look Ezra sent him.
"Thank you so much for pointing that out Vin. However, seeing as we are now one and the same, the point is mute," Ezra explained.
"I'm sorry Ezra, but you don't have much choice in the matter," Judge Travis told him. "Your thirty days aren't up yet and I still have your pardon."
Ezra sat back down and cocked and uncocked his Remington several times in aggravation making the men sitting with him more than a little nervous. "What exactly would I have to do?"
"Get our men safely there to Fort William," the soldier told him.
"How many men?"
"Twenty? Young or old?
"Some of both."
"Aww hell. And I'm to get them there safely. Correct?"
"Fine, I'll do it, but I want you to know that I'm going so under duress," Ezra said getting to his feet. "And furthermore, I do this my way or I won't do it at all. Pardon be damned."
Not having time to press the issue the Judge reluctantly agreed and excused himself.
The Sergeant grinned as Ezra walked away. Then stepped outside and told his man to ride back out to the camp and bring back the Captain's extra uniform. But to his surprise the Sergeant found that the soldier had taken the liberty of bringing the uniform in case the Captain needed it. After taking the uniform from the soldier the Sergeant went back inside the saloon.
"Hey fellas," Buck said as him and JD pulled up a chair and sat down. "This Ezra's?" he asked indicating the bottle of scotch and poured himself a shot.
"Yeap, but I don't think he's through with it," Vin said and watched as Ezra descended the stairs and walked back to the table then without a word Ezra snatched the bottle away from Buck and turned back around.
Ezra halted as the Sergeant stepped in front of him and holding a neatly folded uniform with a Captain's saber laying on top.
"Here ya go Cap'ain," was all he said.
Ezra shot him a deadly glare and snatched the items from him. Taking a step closer he said, "Enjoy yourself while you can Sergeant because once I put this uniform on . . . I'm in charge. And remember," he paused and looked him directly in the eye, "payback's a bitch." Having said that Ezra continued on his way.
Sergeant Johnson waited until Ezra was on the stair before allowing himself to laugh. The laughter quickly faded at the questioning looks he was receiving. He opened his to explain when he saw Nathan, Josiah, and the judge walk in. "Mr Jackson how is the Captain?"
"Some of the swelling has gone down, but he's still asleep," Nathan told him. "So did Ezra agree?"
"Not willingly," Chris said with a grin, "he had to be persuaded."
"You mean you threatened him," Josiah clarified with a knowing look.
"You fellas mind telling us what the hell's going on? And who the hell is he?" Buck asked.
"You knew Ezra during the war?" JD asked once the explanations were over.
"Yes, sir. I did," the Sergeant replied.
"What was he like then?" Josiah wanted to know.
Vin watched as the Sergeant 's face tensed before answering. "Younger."
"Just younger? You mean he was always guarded?" Josiah pushed.
"A person grows up real fast during a war and Ezra was . . . well Ezra," he said with a shrug. "The war just added the finishing touches," he went on to explain.
"Was Ezra a good commander?" Judge Travis asked as he rejoined the men.
"Yes. Like most soldiers back then Ezra was field promoted. And as reluctant a leader as Ezra was, he handled the pressure with a dignity that belied his age. He never ordered us into to battle. Ezra lead us. He never once asked his men to do something that he wasn't able and willing to do himself," Sergeant Johnson responded giving the men sitting with him something to think about.
An hour later Buck whistled as a dapper looking Ezra walked down the saloon stairs dressed in the Cavalry uniform.
Ezra walked up to the table pulling on his collar and muttering under his breath.
JD looked up in awe and wondered about the saber Ezra was carrying and the one at his side. "What cha got there, Ezra?"
Seeing that JD was eyeing the saber in his hand Ezra tossed it on the table and said, "That gentlemen is nothing more than a glorified piece of polished tin." Then with a tug he pulled the one at his side out and held it up to the light and boasted, "This gentlemen . . . is a real saber." The gold saber gleamed in the sun light.
"Wow, Ezra where'd ya get that?" JD asked with wide eyes.
"This was mine during the war," he told them with a touch of pride.
"You kept it all these years," the Sergeant said in disbelief.
"No small feat I assure you," he replied still eyeing the saber.
"I see no beauty in it. It's just another instrument of death," Nathan said with a shake of his head.
"I find that hard to believe coming from you Mr. Jackson," Ezra said putting it away and looking at him. "Considering that your own choice of weapons is a knife."
Vin grinned at Ezra's comment and nodded his head in agreement.
Ezra turned his attention to the young soldier just outside the swinging doors. "Private!" he called out to which had the soldier immediately stepping inside and saluting him. "What's your name soldier?"
"Private Tim Rains, Sir," the soldier snapped out still saluting the Captain.
"Private Rains I want you to ride out to the camp, gather the men, and bring them into town."
"Captain Standish I don't think that's such a good idea," Mary Travis said as she stepped into the saloon behind the soldier. The judge had told her what was going on and she wanted to see if she could find out a few more details. "We cannot allow all those soldiers to run loose in this town." When Ezra didn't retract the order Mary stepped closer to him and asked, "Did you hear me?"
"Yes ma'am I did. Rest assure Mrs. Travis that there is a method to my madness," was all he said and frowned at the still saluting soldier.
"And that would be?"
"A military matter that I am not at liberty to discuss," Ezra said hoping that would be the end of it.
"Captain . . ."
"Mrs. Travis your objections have been dully noted," he told her. Turning to the soldier he asked, "Private why are you still here? I gave you an order."
"He won't leave until you return his salute Cap'ain," the Sergeant explained.
"Oh heavens," Ezra muttered under his breath and raised his hand and straightened his back and gave the private at sharp salute. "Now Private do as you're told."
"Mr. Larabee aren't you going to do something?" Mary asked him placing her hands on her hips.
"Yes ma'am I am," Chris said.
"And that would be?"
"Wait, of course. No use in borrowing trouble. We'll handle whatever happens, when it happens," he assured her.
"Judge are you going to let him do this?" the blond newspaper report asked.
"Yes Mary I am," the judge told her.
"You can't let him unlash all those young men on this town!" she exclaimed.
"He can and I will," Ezra told her with grinned and then tipped his hat before walking out to the boardwalk. Sitting down he propped his feet on the hitching rail and pulled his hat low on his face and awaited the arrival of his men.
"You know what you've done don't you?" Josiah suddenly asked with a knowing grin on his face.
"What?" Chris asked not at all liking the look in the ex-preacher's eyes.
Laughing Josiah told him, "You've given him power and a position to go with it. In other words you've created a monster."
Chris and the others groaned because they knew the older man was right.
Vin leaned against a support beam outside the saloon and nudged Ezra with his boot as he noticed a large cloud of dust headed their way. "Hey Ez, here come your men."
Ezra pushed his hat up on his head and slowly got to his feet. Then with a determined stride he walked out into the middle of the street and waited for them. Only good manners kept his jaw from dropping open at the sight before him. Throwing his hands up in the air he swore under his breath and walked over to his Sergeant , grabbed him, and jerked him close. "You lying son of a bitch," he growled and then pushed him away. "These aren't men, Sergeant ! They're a bunch of hay seed plow boys!"
"I admit they're young, but their not as green as they look," Sergeant Johnson assured him.
Vin had come to stand beside Ezra and could hear him muttering under his breath, "The lives of so many innocents in my hands. It's like the war all over again!" He watched as Ezra took a very deep breath then squared his shoulder before turning back to his men.
"Gentlemen!" he said. "I am Captain Ezra Standish and I will be in charge of this troop for the durance of this mission. And as I'm sure your Corporal has told you Captain Hutson will make a full recovery and will rejoin you shortly." Ezra paused and made eye contact with as many of the men he could before continuing, "Gentlemen I am giving you two hours of leave to use as you will, but you are not to make a nuisance of yourself. You will behave as gentlemen or you will answer to me." The soldiers began to talk amongst themselves in excitement and he held up his hand to quiet them, "However, I feel I must inform you that this town is under the protection of seven peacekeepers; six of which are standing immediately to my right. Now what you need to understand is that if you get into trouble, these six men will not hesitate to place in jail or even shoot you on sight. Do you understand me?"
A loud, "Yes, Sir," was heard.
"Very well, enjoy yourselves, but heed my warning," Ezra said walking back to the boardwalk. "Sergeant !" he called stopping the man before he could go into the saloon.
"How are the provisions for the men?" he asked.
"Adequate? I'm afraid adequate isn't good enough Sergeant ," Ezra told him. "The men must be taken care of. They have to have food, water, and ammunition. Check the supplies and let's see if you can't do better than adequate. Shall we?"
"Yes, Sir," the Sergeant assured him.
Ezra grabbed his arm as he made to go past him. "I won't have hungry men in my unit." With that he turned and headed for the livery.
Vin watched Ezra walk away and then with a quick nod of his head he turned to Chris and said, "I'm going with Ezra."
"Why?" Chris asked.
"Cause he needs someone to watch his back and who can do that better than an Army scout," the Texan explained.
"I want to go too," JD suddenly put in.
"Someone has to stay and keep an eye on the town," Chris reminded him.
"Josiah, Nathan, and Buck can do it," the young sheriff quickly told him.
When the two hours were almost up Josiah glanced up and watched as Ezra walked down the saloon stairs with his saddle bags and bed roll. "Ezra what are you doing?" he asked as he approached him.
"Joining the men," Ezra replied then continued out the saloon and placed his saddle bags on his horse then tied on his bed roll before turning to look at the older man. He noticed two young soldiers sitting on the boardwalk near the saloon. "Just a minute," he said to Josiah then made his way over to them. "Gentlemen," he said, "what are y'all doing out here? Why aren't you inside enjoying yourselves?"
"Cap'ain," they said getting to their feet and saluting him.
Ezra let out an aggravated sigh and returned their salute.
"Well, Sir, we don't got no money," one of the men said.
"We send our pay home to our families, Sir," the other one said. "Besides my mama would skin me if she knew I'd been in a saloon; especially one with working girls." To which the other one quickly nodded his head in agreement.
Looking from one to the other Ezra shook his head and held up one hand indicating that they should stay right there and then turned on his heel and disappeared back in the saloon.
Josiah watched this with a smile playing at the lips and grinned outright at seeing Ezra return with two mugs of beer.
After handing a beer to each soldier the southerner said, "Enjoy."
"Thank you sir," they said with a big smile on their faces.
Ezra turned back around and found Josiah watching him. "Mr. Sanchez," was all he said then returned to his horse.
"That was real nice of you Ezra."
"Yes, well, it pays to keep the men happy," he replied with a grin. After making everything was secure Ezra turned and looked at Josiah and suddenly to grin that cocky grin of his.
Vin and JD walked up to them and grinned in response to Ezra's grin. They knew he was up to something.
"Where's Chris?" Ezra asked.
"At the jail taking a cat nap," Vin replied.
"Good," he said with full-fledged smile. "You boys' wanta have some fun." Not waiting for a response Ezra walked up to the saloon and pushed the doors open and called, "Corporal!" A younger man quickly stepped up to him clutching his bugle in one hand and saluting Ezra with the other.
"Do you play that?" Ezra wanted to know and then snapped off a salute.
"The two hours are up and I see no soldiers. So I want you to play a revelry. Now," he took the young man's arm and pulled him out into the street.
The young corporal licked his dry lips and began to play a tune guaranteed to make soldiers scramble to attention.
Vin, JD, and Josiah laughed as they saw Chris' feet get tangled with his chair as he tried to jump to his feet sending them both to the boardwalk.
Buck had followed the soldiers out of the saloon and gave an obvious start at seeing JD with his horse saddled. He had followed the soldiers into the saloon to make sure none of them got out of hand with any of the ladies. "Where ya going JD?"
Without looking up he replied, "With Vin."
The lanky gunslinger nodded his head and asked, "Where's Vin going?"
Buck stopped in mid-step and looked at JD as if he'd grown another head. "Like hell! You ain't going nowheres with those two," he said earning him a look from both men in question.
JD chuckled and said, "I'm going Buck."
"Chris? Nah uh, there ain't no way Chris agreed to let you go with them," Buck sneered motioning toward Ezra and Vin.
"It's true Buck," Vin told him not at all bothered by his attitude.
"Well, we'll just see about that," he snapped and pushed past Josiah and headed for Chris.
Ezra ignored Buck and his rantings and mounted his horse and watched as the soldiers raced out of the saloon and attempt to mount their horses. The Southerner openly grinned as he saw Chris headed his way only to be waylaid by Buck.
"Chris, JD's got this strange idea that he's going with Ezra and Vin. And he seems to think that you said it was ok," Buck said blocking his path. "Say it ain't so?"
"Not now, Buck," Chris snapped and pushed his old friend away. He was intent on getting to Ezra before he left.
Not willing to be deterred Buck grabbed Chris' arm and asked point blank, "Are you letting JD go with those two?"
The black clad gun slinger looked from Buck to his hand until he was released. "Yes, Buck I am. The experience will do him good."
Buck threw his hands up in frustration.
"Why the hell did you do that?" Chris demanded when he'd finally reached Ezra.
"I had to assemble the men," he replied.
"You couldn't think of a quieter way," Chris muttered.
Still grinning Ezra said, "This was the most effective way." Turning his attention to his Sergeant , he continued, "Ready the men."
"COMPANY MOUNT UP!" the Sergeant shouted.
Ezra pushed his way through the middle of the two lines of soldiers and shook his head at the sight. "Where's your shirt soldier?" he asked one young man as he began to weave in the saddle.
"I. . . I don't know sir," he cautiously said.
"You don't know?" Ezra repeated with a small smile. Just as he was about to tell the soldier to go and find his shirt one of the saloon girls stepped outside and handed over the missing shirt over. Ezra tipped his hat at her before continuing down the line.
"Move 'em out Sergeant ," he said as he came to a stop in behind of them.
"JD you be careful and only believe half of what they tell you," Buck told the young man.
"Don't worry Buck, I'll be fine," JD said in an annoyed voice, but was secretly glad that Buck cared enough to be worried about him.
Unable to help himself Ezra said, "Yes, Mr. Wilmington, do not concern yourself with Mr. Dunn's welfare . . . "
Before Ezra could say more Vin interrupted, "Me and Ez will look after JD. And bring him back safe and sound."
"Of course, he might be . . ."
"Might be what?" Buck demanded of Ezra.
Vin exchanged a look with Ezra then a grin the tracker said, "A little older."
"And a little wiser," Ezra added with a grin of his own.
Then to the horror and dread of Chris, Buck, and Josiah the two unlikely friends said in perfect unison, "But safe and sound."
"Ezra, you Vin and JD be careful," Josiah quickly told them before Buck could act on the murder that flashed in his eyes.
"And don't you go takin' any chances with those soldiers' lives," Nathan warned him as he joined them.
Ezra didn't say a word merely raised one eye brow at him and then rode out of town.
The others stood and watched as their friends rode away until they were mere dots on the horizon. Turning the four remaining peacekeepers went in the saloon. Chris sat down and sighed then grinned at the others. "Do ya hear that?"
Nathan grinned in response and said, "Yeap. Great ain't it."
"I don't see what's so damned great about it," Buck griped. Snatching his hat off his head he slammed it on the table in frustration. "It's to damned quiet."
For the most part Chris ignored Buck. Looking at Josiah he noticed the thoughtful look on his face and asked, "What about you Josiah? What do you think?"
Josiah scratched in head and lifted the wooden cross from around his neck and placed a brief kiss on it before answering. "Well, now I miss our young brothers already."
"Why? They've only been gone five minutes," Nathan pointed out.
The older man gave a small laugh and replied, "Simple reasons. Like, while Ezra isn't as talkative as JD he has a unique way of looking at things . . . "
"You mean jaded."
Josiah frowned at his dark friend and continued, "I mean unique. Even though it seems like Vin can goes days without saying a word he makes his presence known. And I find JD's youthful insights refreshing. I've grown accustomed to having them around." The older man let his friends absorb that for a minute before adding, "Plus, I don't know what I'm gonna do with all my free time."
"Free time?" Chris questioned.
"Yes. Without Ezra, Vin, and JD around what will we focus all of our attentions on?" he asked them and got to his feet.
Buck jumped to his feet and grabbed his hat. "Well I don't know about you boys, but I know what I'm gonna do with my free time," he told them with a naughty grin on his face.
"Buck you do that when they're here," the black clad gunslinger said.
The tall dark haired peacekeeper shrugged his shoulders and said, "It's either that or I'm gonna go plum crazy wondering which one of those fools are gonna get hurt first."
"You two worry to much," Nathan said with a shake of his head, "Ezra and Vin are grown men and JD is too smart to doing anything too stupid . . . "
"Hell Nathan, you know that they ain't got a lick of sense between 'em!" Buck interrupted.
"Dammit Buck! They're be fine," Chris snapped daring any one of them to say any differently.
The troop of soldiers traveled until sundown then made camp in an open area that would be difficult for someone to sneak up on them. After taking care of his horse Ezra stepped closer and surveyed the camp.
JD stepped up beside Ezra and stood with his hands resting on his butt of guns and shook his head. "Man they must be really drunk. They forgot how to set up camp," he commented and was about to say something when the Southerner shook his head. The soldiers were bunched together and would make an easy target if they were attacked.
Without a word Ezra pulled his gun and fired directly into one of the groups effectively capturing everyone's attention. "Congratulations gentlemen, you're all dead," he said.
Vin came running at the shot and came to a stop beside JD and watched as Ezra walked through the middle of the soldiers. "What's going on JD?"
"Shhh," was all the younger man said.
"Spread out. If we were to be attacked during the night you'd make too easy a target," Ezra told them. Looking at the Sergeant he asked, "Why haven't these men been taught any basic survival skills, Sergeant ?"
"They have, Cap'ain," he replied. "They're just drunk and didn't think, is all."
"It should be second nature to them. Besides, not thinking can get someone killed. And I, for one, do not intend to die in the dessert," Ezra pointed out in a calm tone, never once raising his voice. "Let's keep the fires down to a minimum. We don't need to draw any more attention to ourselves than we already have," he said. "Please keep in mind that the survival of the troop depends entirely on the survival of it's soldiers." Having said his piece Ezra holstered his gun and walked out in the darkness.
A little while later as he was returning to camp, he heard a racket and hurried his steps, pushing his way through the soldiers he came to a stop beside Vin and JD. "What's going on?"
"Fight," Vin always had a way of stating the obvious.
"I just don't know what I'd do without your insights, Mr. Tanner," the Southerner said with an annoyed looked then asked, "Why haven't you broken it up? You are peacekeepers, after all."
"Sorry Ez, but we figured it was a military matter that was best settled by their Cap'ain. Cap'ain," Vin explained with a grin.
Ezra swore under his breath and mumbled, "I suppose you're correct, Mr. Tanner." With a sigh he pushed his way through to the soldiers and grabbed the two men fighting by their hair and pulled them apart then shoved them to the ground.
"Will someone tell me what in the hell is going on here?" No one answered. "Sergeant !"
"Why didn't you break this up?"
"It's been brewing for a while and I thought it best for them to get it out of their systems, Sir," the Sergeant explain.
"And why is that," Ezra pushed.
"They're from different sides of the Mason-Dixon."
Ezra nodded his head and turned to look at the two soldiers still sitting on the ground. "On your feet," he ordered. "Now you listen to me . . . in fact, all of you listen. I will not have dissension in the troops!" he told them in a firm voice. "We're here to fight the enemy, not each other. You don't have to like one another, but by God you will learn to depend on each other." Then with an exasperated sigh Ezra told them, "Look, gentlemen, there will come a time in your life when you will have to rely on someone other than yourselves and your friends."
Stepping closer to the two men he said, "Shake hands." Once their hands met Ezra took the joined hands in both of his and said, "From now on the two of you are partners. Neither of you is to go anywhere without the other. And if there is anymore fighting then I shoot you where you stand. Do you understand me?"
"Good. Now get out of my sight," he told them and released their hands.
Vin stepped up beside Ezra and watched at the soldiers went about their business. "That sounded kinda funny coming from you Ezra. Considering you don't rely on anyone except yourself."
"Well, now, Mr. Tanner I wasn't talking about me," Ezra explained. "What's good for me isn't necessarily good for the troops. And," he paused and stepped closer to the tracker before continuing, "need I remind you that during battle you rely on whatever keeps you alive. Be it yourself, a friend, or a stranger."
Vin shook his head as he watched Ezra walk away. Damned uniform is having a queer affect on him. Or maybe it's the added responsibilities of being a leader of so many. Whatever it is, it's a shame the others weren't here to see it. Especially Nathan.
After everyone had eaten and the washing up was done the Sergeant got to his feet and said, "You ladies better get some sleep. We leave at sun rise."
Ezra groaned and hung his head. He hated getting up before the sun. Hell, he hated getting up early period. Ezra was almost resigned to his fate until he realized that as far the men were concerned he was their Captain and they had to do as he said. "I don't think so Sergeant ," he said getting as he got to his feet.
"But Cap'ain . . . "
"We will not be leaving at sunrise. We'll get up at sunrise and leave shortly thereafter. I refuse to stumble around in the dark," Ezra told him. "End of discussion."
"But Cap'ain . . ."
"End of discussion."
Early the next morning JD and several soldiers sat straight up at the sound of a bugle. Ezra however, jumped to his feet with his gun drawn and stalked toward the young corporal, snatched the offending instrument away from him and contemplated tossing it as far as he could, but instead said, "If you value your life, Corporal, then I suggest that you not do that again. In fact, from now on you are only to blow this . . . bugle upon my command. Is that clear?"
The Corporal shallowed hard and nodded his head, "Yes, Sir."
"Good. Here," he said handing the bugle over.
Sergeant Johnson held his side as he laughed. "Damn Ezra, must be getting mellow in his old age."
Vin shot the Sergeant a look and repeated, "Ezra mellow?"
"When he first enlisted Ezra filled our corporal's bugle with axle grease," he told them causing them to laugh. "And there was the time he shot it out of a cannon."
"Did he shoot it at the Yanks?" Vin asked with a laugh because he could picture Ezra doing just that.
"I don't know, but I don't think so."
"Then how do ya know?" JD asked wiping the tears from his face.
"Malone told me," the Sergeant said with an odd look on his face. Then seeing the questions in their eyes he continued, "Malone was Ezra's corporal once he made lieutenant. Then his lieutenant after he made Captain. Damn, but those two were a pair."
Vin could hear an edge in the Sergeant 's voice when spoke about that Malone fella that wasn't there before.
"Anything Ezra did, Malone did. Malone was the oldest, so you'd think it would have been the other way around," the Sergeant went on to say.
"What happened to him?" JD wondered.
The Sergeant got a far away look in his eyes and said in a quiet voice, "He was killed at Gettysburg."
Later that night as Ezra and the others sat around the fire, he noticed JD looking at him with a thoughtful look in his eye. Finally he asked, "Is there something you wanted Mr. Dunn?"
JD gave a start at being caught staring and shook his head no. Then a few minutes later he cleared his throat and asked, "Ezra can I ask you something?"
"You may asked me anything you please. However, I reserve the right to answer," the Southerner told him with a small smile.
"Did your family own slaves before the war?"
"JD!" Vin said in shock.
"What? He said I could ask," JD reminded him.
"No," Ezra replied without hesitation. "You do remember my mother, don't you?" At JD's nod he continued, "Maude never kept anything that could not be easily disposed of."
"Then why'd you fight in the war?" JD asked in confusion. "If you weren't fighting for slavery then why did ya fight?"
Ezra thought long and hard about even answering that particular question then before he'd even made up his mind, he heard the Sergeant say.
"Pride? What the hell does that mean?" the Easterner asked turning his attention to the Sergeant .
The Sergeant sighed and gave Ezra a hopeful look.
"Don't look at me, you got yourself into this," Ezra told him.
"Come on Ezra, help me out here. You have a way with words and I'd never be able to explain it like you could," the Sergeant whined.
"Flattery will get you no where."
With a sigh the Sergeant looked at the young man and said, "Well, now JD. Those of us who did not to keep slaves fought to keep our way of life."
"But wasn't slavery a part of your way of life?" JD questioned.
At the look of panic in the Sergeant 's eyes Ezra finally took pity on him and said, "Not every family in the South owned slaves JD. And those people fought for the for one simple reason . . . self-preservation." Seeing the confused look still on the young man's face had him continuing, "How can I put this so you can understand?" A glance at Vin brought an idea to mind, "Ok, JD how would you like it if say, Mr. Tanner went to your home in Boston and told you that you nor your mother had the right to live there. That the way you and your mother were living wasn't how he wanted you to live. What would you do if Mr. Tanner came into your home and destroyed it leaving your mother with no means in which to live? Leaving her defenseless. What would you do?"
Vin hadn't said a word, but he noticed that Ezra had not only captured JD's attention, but several of the soldiers as well.
JD straightened his shoulders and got to his feet. "I'd defend my home and my mother," he said without hesitation, "to the death."
"Then why shouldn't I?" he asked. "We had people just like you and your mother, others where like the Sergeant 's and did in fact own slaves and he was expected to join and fight for the cause. Him and those like him fought not for slavery, but in defense of his homeland. And then there were those like me. Who didn't have a home to call their own, but knew that the whole of the South was their home. We fought in defense of it with or without parental approval. And right or wrong I'd defend her still today."
"And even though the Northern soldiers burned our homes and generally destroyed all that we held dear; they were unable to destroy our spirits," the Sergeant told them. "That's why it didn't take us that long to rebuild and allowed the South to rise again in all it's glory."
JD finally nodded in understanding then watched as both Ezra and the Sergeant walked away each lost in their memories.
Little happened over the next couple of days and it gave Ezra too much time to think about his current situation. Now granted, he didn't know much about how the Cavalry worked, but it seemed odd to him that it would send a troop of twenty soldiers as messengers. Twenty men were a lot, but for something as important as the Indian Treaty, Ezra would have thought there'd be three times as many men, just to insure that the message was indeed received. Wrinkling up his nose Ezra decided he smelled a rat. Or in this case a . . . decoy.
"Mr. Tanner," he said in greeting as the man pulled his horse up beside him.
"Ezra," Vin replied and then removed his hat to wipe the sweat out of the eyes. Looking over at his friend Vin asked, "So what ya think?"
The gambler didn't even pretend not to know what he was talking about. "I don't like it. Something about this little excursion bothers me."
Vin nodded his head in agreement and silently including the Sergeant . "So what are we gonna do about it?"
"Hey guys!" JD hollered as he came to a stop beside them. "Something wrong?"
"What do you mean?" Vin asked.
JD shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't know. You just look like ya got something on your mind."
"We're just taking stock of our current situation," Ezra replied.
Just then the Sergeant rode past the three peacekeepers and tipped his hat in acknowledgment.
JD noticed that both Vin and Ezra both sat up straighter in the saddle and he found himself looking from the Sergeant to his two friends with a frown on his face.
Green eyes met blue and as one man began, "We need to . . ."
"Get the dispatch," the other one finished.
With a smile on his face JD shook his head as he realized that neither Ezra nor Vin had realized that they just completed each other's sentence.
"How do we do it?" Vin asked.
"Every once in a while gentlemen, we can count on a little Devine intervention," Ezra told them with a wide grin on his face and then he rode away.
"What the hell's does that mean?" JD suddenly asked.
"That means we're about to find out just what in the Sam Hill we're doing out here," Vin told him as he spotted a covered wagon up ahead resting on one of its axles.
"Is that wagon Devine intervention?" JD questioned.
"According to Ezra," the tracker replied and spurred his horse.
Ezra waited until Vin lowered his spy glass before speaking, "See anything?"
"There's a man and two women," he told them.
"Mr. Dunn you stay with the troops. Sergeant Johnson you and ten men come with us," Ezra said as he began to ride away.
"Hello the wagon!" Ezra called out not wanting to get shot. "Good afternoon, sir. May we be of some assistance?"
"Thank you kindly, Captain. Name's Henry Jones," the young man said with a tip of his hat. "This here's my wife Annie and my mother Carol."
"Ladies," he said with a nod of his head. "Where you headed Mr. Jones?"
"Cedar Ridge. I got working waiting on me."
"Well we'll see if we cannot help you on your way," Ezra assured them. "Sergeant you and a couple of men see to that wagon wheel." The Southerner rode his horse around the wagon looking at things and motioned Vin to follow him.
"What is it Ezra?" Vin asked him as he too looked around.
"Nothing Mr. Tanner. I'm merely going for the effect."
"The effect? What effect?"
"Details, Vin. Anything can be accomplished if you pay attention to the details. Remember that," was all Ezra told him before turning back around. Dismounting he handed the reins to Vin to hold. Walking up to the young man Ezra asked, "Mr. Jones may I have a word with you? In private." Once they were out of hearing range of the wagon he said, "Mr. Jones my scout has informed me that there have been Indians spotted in the area and I don't wish to alarm you, but I felt you needed to know."
"Indians? Hostile? Or friendly?" Henry asked looking around. "Do you think they'll bother us?"
"I'm sure they won't."
"But you don't know for sure?"
"No. And I would not be so brass as to suggest that you are unable to protect your family on your own, however, I do stress that you take extra precautions," Ezra said in a mild-mannered tone.
Henry looked from Ezra to his wife and mother to the soldiers, both here and the ones he could see in the meadow just across the way. "You have a lot of men Captain. Might even have some you could spare," he suggested with a hopeful look.
The Southerner let him mouth hang open for just a moment in apparent shock and implored, "Mr. Jones I do beg your pardon. I don't know why I didn't think of it myself. Of course, I can spare some of my men to escort you and your family to Cedar Ridge."
"Thank you, Captain."
Vin hide his grin as he listened to Ezra and once again thanked the powers that be that he was on their side.
"Sergeant I need you to take these soldiers and escort these good people to Cedar Ridge," Ezra told him.
"What?" the Sergeant asked in surprise.
"Excuse me Sergeant , but is that the way you were taught to address a superior officer?"
"No, Sir, I'm sorry. May I see you in private, Sir?"
"Ezra what in the hell are you doing? This isn't a game. Lives are at stake," he snapped as soon as they were alone.
"I am well aware of that fact, Stanley. Give me the dispatch."
"I don't take orders from you."
Ezra grabbed his arm as he tried to go past him. "Oh, I bed to differ, Sergeant , but you do."
"Need I remind you that you are not my real Captain?" the Sergeant sneered and tried in vain to pull his arm free.
"No, you do not. But let me remind you that I was placed in command of this unit, a unit that includes you, and was told that I could handle things my way. Now give me the damned dispatch," Ezra intoned.
The Sergeant reluctantly handed it over. "Promise me you won't open it."
"You have my word."
"Why does that not reassure me?"
Buck sat outside the saloon bored out of his mind. Looking up he grinned as he saw Chris leaving the boardinghouse carrying his saddle bag. Crossing the street he closed the distance between him and his oldest friend then asked, "Where ya going Chris?"
"Eagle Bend," Chris replied without stopping.
"Why? The trials not for two days yet," Buck reminded him.
"I decided to go early," the black clad man said with a shrug.
The tall dark haired peacekeeper nodded his head and grinned as he followed his friend into the livery. "The silence is getting to you isn't it," he stated.
"Silence? I don't know what you're talking about Buck."
"Yes you do. But that's okay. It's getting to me too," Buck told him. "Just like it's bothering Nathan and Josiah."
Chris sighed in frustration. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew Buck was right. He missed Vin, JD, and even Ezra. Hell his day wasn't complete unless he argued with the stubborn Southerner at least once. Josiah was right the other day when he said that Ezra had an 'unique' way of looking at things. Ezra and Vin both had a way of turning a situation around in their heads that the rest of them envied. And JD? The Easterner had so much energy that just being around him made the others feel younger. "Dammit Buck, I can't take it any more!" he finally snapped reaching for his saddle.
Buck just laughed and slapped his friend on the back.
Ezra and Vin rode back to the meadow and quickly got on their way. Later that night as they made camp Ezra approached JD and Vin's fire and pulled the dispatched from his jacket.
"So, now what? You gave that fella your word you wouldn't open it," Vin reminded him.
"And I am a man of my word. However, you and JD did not," Ezra pointed out to him before handing it over and looked at JD.
"You aren't gonna open that are ya?" JD asked with a frown. "I mean, that's confidential."
"Vin?" Seeing the tracker hesitate had Ezra shaking his head.
Vin looked JD in the eye and said, "I know it ain't right to open somethin' that don't belong to us, but if it saves our lives or them boys over there then I think we should."
"I . . . I don't know guys," JD scratched his head. "Let me think about it. Ok?"
"Well while you think about it just keep in mind that we . . . Never mind," he said just able to keep the irritation out of his voice. Ezra then snatched the dispatch from Vin and said, "Fine. We'll do it your way JD. At least, for now."
Vin and JD both sighed as they watched Ezra walk away. Neither couldn't help but feel their friend's disappointment in them.
Ezra had only taken a few steps before turning back around. Without looking directly at either of them he handed JD the dispatch. "Perhaps you'd be so kind as to hold this," he said and before the young man had a chance to say anything he continued, "after all I wouldn't want to be falsely accused."
The tracker flinched just like he was suppose to and wondered just how long Ezra has known about his past.
Around noon the next day they came to a part of the trail that was sparsely outlined by large rocks and trees on both sides.
"Looks like a perfect spot for an ambush," Vin told Ezra and JD. Then squinted as he saw the sun reflect off something turning to look at them he said, "Someone's in those rocks."
"Can't we go around?" JD asked.
"Yeah, but it'll take time."
"So what do we do?"
"We go through it," Ezra told them and turned to head back to the men.
"Through it?" JD repeated. "Ezra I don't think that's such a good idea."
"Because we'll make too easy a target."
"JD we don't have time to go around. Besides," Ezra told them with a cocky grin on his face, "I have a plan."
"What kind of plan?" the younger man asked.
"Just a little distraction."
"What kind of distraction?" Vin wanted to know.
"Don't worry about it. You just be ready to ride." Ezra then tipped his hat at them and turned away. He rode straight for the chuck wagon and he said, "I want you to stash anything you don't need in those trees over there. Try and make the wagon as lite as you can." Next he went to the second wagon which was carrying a small cannon and another crate. "Tie everything down. We're not leaving any ammunition behind that they can later use against us." Straightening his shoulders Ezra turned to the men, "I want the wagons in the middle. Ride as fast as you can, but hold on to your hats, boys, 'cause the fun's about to begin. Follow Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunn and don't stop until they do. Do you understand me?"
Vin swore when he saw what Ezra was holding. Riding up to him he asked, "What cha gonna do with that?"
Ezra held up two sticks of dynamite and with a shrug said, "This is our distraction."
"What ya know about that stuff?"
"Much more than I want to, I can assure you."
The tracker shook his head as remembered what Frances told them and said, "Ezra . . ."
"If something goes wrong I'm counting on you and JD to get these men safely to Fort William," Ezra told him. "The men come first, Vin. Do you understand?"
Vin nodded his head even as a sliver of fear worked its way into his heart. "I understand. You just be careful Ezra."
Ezra nodded and turned Chaucer around to face the men. "Mount up, gentlemen. Remember two lines with the wagons in the middle. Good luck to you. And I'll see you on the other side." With that he pushed his hat tighter on his head. "JD be careful and stick close to Vin. Move 'em out Corporal."
JD nodded as he rode past. "What's he gonna do Vin?"
"I don't know."
Taking a deep breath the Southerner calmed his nerves and pulled the first stick of dynamite from his pocket then waited until the men were about half way there before tossing the dynamite as far into the air as he could. Taking careful, aim with his Remington Ezra fired causing a loud explosion. Urging his horse forward he waited until the men were in the middle of the passage before tossing the second stick into the air.
Once through the passage Vin slowed down and was nearly thrown from his horse as an explosion rocked the ground. Holding tightly to the reins, he pulled to a stop, but motioned JD and the others on. Turning back he looked for Ezra, but all he saw was a cloud of dust. "Come on Ezra. Come on," Vin mumbled under his breath. After a couple of minutes of waiting the tracker was torn between needing to find his friend and keeping his word. Just as he made up his mind to go and get Ezra, Vin caught a glimpse of blue and held his breath until his friend completely emerged from the dust.
Vin couldn't help, but laugh at the sight of Ezra. He and his horse was cover from head to foot in dust. "Looks like you got a little dust on your jacket there Ezra," he teased.
"Can't get anything past you, can I," Ezra said with a grin.
Just before the made camp later that day Vin stood in his saddle to scan the horizon and tensed as he spotted two Indians sitting on a hill about a quarter of a mile behind them. Pulling out his spyglass he checked the surrounding area to make sure there weren't any more. When he didn't find any, he swore and quickly went in search of Ezra. "We got company," he hollered as he came to a stop in front of both Ezra and JD.
"Indians?" Ezra asked.
"I spotted two."
"Two?" JD repeated with a frown. "Two ain't enough to worry about."
"JD just because we see only two doesn't mean there are only two," Vin told him.
Ezra nodded his head and suddenly sat up straight as a thought came to him. "How long have we been traveling? Four? Five days?" JD and Vin nodded. "Don't you think it's odd that we have only just spotted our Native Brothers?" Seeing the confusion on his friends' face Ezra continued, "We're on our way to an Indian Treaty; so where are the Indians?"
Vin and JD looked at each other as they realized that Ezra was right. "So what do you want us to do?"
"Nothing? But . . ."
"But what? They haven't threatened us in any way. So there's nothing we can do," Ezra explained.
Vin watched Ezra ride toward the soldiers for a minute before turning to look at JD and said, "I think it's time we opened that dispatch JD."
JD nodded and pulled it from his jacket then the two of them followed Ezra.
"Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that we are no longer alone in our travels," Ezra told them. "I want you to be more alert and keep your eyes and ears open. However, you are not to instigate anything. In other words, we will not draw first blood. Do you understand me?"
A chorus of, "Yes, Sir's!" rang out.
Turning Ezra saw Vin and JD standing directly in front of him. Looking at them, he noticed to the opened dispatch in JD's hands. With a brief nod of his head he took it from him. After quickly reading it he swore under his breath, carefully folded it and handed it back.
"Well? What did it say?" Vin asked.
"It basically states that we are decoys. The real treaty is being conducted sixty miles north of here," he explained.
"Decoys? You mean we're doing all this for nothing," JD snapped.
"No, JD. Not for nothing. We're drawing any potential danger away from the actual meeting and that has to count for something. The needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few."
"We still don't know what we're riding into," JD pointed out to them.
Seeing that the soldiers were listening to every word Ezra decided that they deserved the truth and preceded to tell them everything.
"So what do we do now?"
"You mean you aren't our real Captain?"
"No, I'm not a real Captain, but I am in charge of this troop. And as for what we're going to do, it's very simple, we're going to complete our mission," Ezra told them.
"But we don't know what we're riding into."
"You didn't know before," he reminded them. "So nothing's changed, has it?" Ezra sighed and continued, "Move 'em out Corporal. We have a mission to complete."
Two days later Vin pulled his horse to a stop and couldn't help but feel that something was wrong. Looking carefully around he tensed as he spotted buzzards circling up ahead and then felt his gut tighten in apprehension.
"Vin," Ezra said and took a couple of steps back as the tracker jumped in surprise.
"Don't sneak up on me like that Ezra," he warned as he relaxed his grip on his maresleg.
"I called out, you must not have heard me," he reasoned. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Look," was all the Texas said pointing toward the sky.
"I don't suppose we can assume it's a dead animal," Ezra mumbled.
"Reckon not," Vin said.
"I didn't think so," the Southerner said with a shrug of his shoulders. Pulling out his guns he checked his ammo then hurried back to camp. "Mount up! We're leaving in ten minutes!" Ezra shouted.
"What's wrong?" JD asked.
"Don't know, but we're gonna find out," was all he would say.
A few minutes late the group of men gave an audible gasp at the sight that greeted them as they reached the Fort. Ezra took a deep breath and immediately regretted it, as a smell suddenly assaulted him. It was a smell he knew all to well. One he had become all too familiar with during the war. A smell he knew he would never forget . . . the smell of death. Swallowing hard he reined in his emotions and clamped his mask down as scenes from the past threatened to overwhelm him.
But one image managed to get past his defenses and flashed through his mind as he briefly closed his eyes. Snapping his eyes open hadn't helped as Ezra was momentarily stuck in the past and saw a sea of Yankee Blue uniforms scattered across an open field. Vigorously shaking his head he pushed the past back where it belonged and dismounted. Handing the reins to Vin he pulled his gun and took a tentative step forward.
Being careful not to step on anyone Ezra surveyed the destruction around him for a few minutes before turning back to the men with a hard fought for a detachment. "Split into two groups, I doubt we'll find any, but we need to check for survivors. Check the dead for any kind of identification," he told them. "JD I need you and Vin to help me conduct a body count."
Vin nodded and dismounted.
JD had lost almost all his color and was just controlling his urge to run.
Seeing that no one had moved Ezra said, "Gentlemen, I know this is hard, but we're going to show these men the respect they've earned and give them a proper burial." Still no one moved so the Southerner snapped, "Shit like this happens more than you realize. You won't ever get used to it, but you will learn to handle it. Now suck it up and deal with it!"
JD watched as Ezra and Vin both removed their jackets and rolled up their sleeves before walking into the Fort. Dismounting his horse he took off his own jacket, rolled up his own sleeves, and followed them. Walking quickly to his friends JD drew on a reserve he didn't know he had and did what he had to, to help.
"Who do ya think did this?" he managed to get past the lump in his throat. "Was it Indians?"
"Look around you JD. Look past the destruction and tell me the answer to your question," Vin told him.
Damn, he hated when they did this to him, he muttered under his breath. Why couldn't they ever just answer his questions? Why did they feel the need for him to figure things out on his own? With a sigh JD looked at the bodies and noticed that he didn't see any dead Indians, but he did notice that some of the dead were dressed like bandits. "Great!" he swore. "Not only do we have to worry about the Indians following us, but now we have to worry about bandits!"
A few hours later the three peacekeepers and ten soldiers stood as the Corporal played Taps in honor of those that they had just laid to rest.
"You okay, JD?" Ezra asked.
"Yeah. I just wish Buck and the others were here," he said with a slight catch in his voice.
"Me too, JD. Me too."
Buck looked up from his game of solitaire and nodded at Josiah and Nathan as they sat down. "Hey fellas."
"How do reckon Ezra plays this boring game? I been sitting here an hour and ain't won a game yet," he complained with a shake of head.
Josiah grinned and said, "Well now, Brother Buck, have you ever noticed that whenever Ezra plays that we're usually here helping him? He probably hasn't played an actual game of solitaire since hooking up with us."
"That's true," the dark-haired gunslinger said. "Your patient up yet Nathan?"
"I had him up and walking this morning. Once the swelling went down I could tell it wasn't as bad as I first thought. He'll be on his feet before you know it," the healer told them.
"BUCK!" a voice exclaimed from just inside the saloon causing the three peacekeepers to jump to their feet.
"What is it Henry?"
"This just came in from Ft. Laramie," Henry said handing over the telegram.
"Damn!" he swore as he read it. "Henry I want you to wire Eagle Bend and tell Chris there's trouble and we're coming to get him."
"What's wrong, Buck?"
"No one's heard from Fort William in days and they want us to check it out."
"Fort William? Isn't that where . . ."
"Why us?" Nathan asked. "I mean don't they have troops in the area?"
"It's no telling what the others are riding into," Josiah said as he ran a suddenly weary hand across his face.
Buck slapped the older man on the back and said, "Come on fellas lets get our stuff and go get our boys."
Josiah and Buck quickly gathered the necessary supplies, saddled the horses, and were waiting on Nathan when he stuck his head out of the door of the clinic to say, "The Captain wants to go. I don't think he's up to it, but I'm afraid he'll just try and follow us if we don't bring 'im along."
"I'll get his horse," Buck volunteered and hurried back to the livery.
"It's up to him, Nathan, but tell him if he can't keep up," Josiah said getting on his horse, "then we'll leave him behind."
After having a quick word with Mary the three peacekeepers and the captain raced toward Eagle Bend.
Chris Larabee was not a man known for his patience and as he paced up and down in front of the saloon the good people of Eagle Bend were subject to his frosty glares and gave him a wide berth. 'Damn,' he muttered under his breath, 'where the hell are they.' "Shit," he cursed, causing some ladies walking by to gasped in shock. Chris had the decency to at least to looked contrite even if he didn't apologize. Shaking his head he grabbed the reins of his horse and was about to ride out to met them when they rode in. "It's about damned time you got here," Chris snapped as he swung up in the saddle. "What the hell is he doing here?"
Captain Jacob Hutson sat up straighter in his saddle and tried to look the man in the eye, but couldn't quite pull it off. "Those are my men, Sir, and . . ."
"And he knows that if he falls out of his saddle that we'll leave him where he lands," Josiah finished for him.
Chris shrugged his shoulders and grinned before saying, "Works for me."
They rode from sun up to sun down and the Captain managed to keep his seat. The next day they caught up with the Sergeant and his men who were returning from Cedar Ridge. Sergeant Johnson explained about the Jones' and how they escorted them to the outskirts of town before turning back.
As they made camp later that night Josiah said, "I'm surprised you went to Cedar Ridge. Didn't the dispatch have to be delivered by a certain time?"
The Sergeant ducked his head and sighed before mumbling, "I gave it to Ezra."
Josiah looked at him in surprise. "Did you say what I think you did?"
"You want to repeat that Sergeant ?" Chris asked him with a pointed look that told he had better.
"I gave it to Ezra," he repeated a little louder.
"Ezra! Why?" Nathan wanted to know.
"Because it had to get to Fort William," the Sergeant explained with shrug. "He gave me his word he wouldn't open it."
"And you believed him?" Chris questioned.
"If Ezra said he wouldn't open then he won't open it," Josiah felt the need to point out. He liked Ezra and in spite, of his faults or maybe because of them Josiah found himself wanting to protect and guide the younger man.
"Hell Josiah, you know as well as us that he'd just Vin or JD to open it for him," Buck put in.
"Well, if he does then he had a reason," the older man told them.
"Yeah, to save his own skin," Nathan added.
"I disagree. What you need to remember is that Ezra fought in the war and he'll do whatever is necessary to insure the safety of his men. Isn't that right, Sergeant ?" Josiah asked.
"Yes, Sir, it is," the Sergeant readily agreed. "I know you can't tell by looking, but Ezra takes his responsibilities as a leader very seriously. And it was only because I knew he'd do what had to be done that I finally agreed to hand the dispatch over."
As JD finished his breakfast the next morning he looked at Ezra and asked, "So what do we do now?"
"Stay? But what about the bandits?"
"And the Indians?" asked one of the soldiers standing near by.
"What about them? They know where we are. If the want us then let them come and get us," Ezra told them.
"There are only thirteen of us, Ezra," JD pointed out to him, "those bandits are sure to out number us."
"True, but I think we stand a better chance here where we at least have some protection," the Southerner said. "Besides, if I know the Sergeant like I think I do then he only escorted that family to the outskirts of town and is now in route to join us."
"So what do we do in the mean time?" Vin asked.
"We even the odds."
"How?" JD wondered.
"By any mean necessary," Ezra told them. "Look we have plenty of food, water, guns, and ammunition. Including dynamite." When there were no more questions he continued, "Okay, I want two men posted at the front and back of the Fort and one on each side. Vin I need you to scout the area and see if you can't find out just what we're up against."
"What are you gonna be doing?" Vin asked getting to his feet.
"The rest of us are going to rig us up some surprises," he said with a gleam in his eyes.
Two hours later Vin rode back into the Fort and saw that Ezra, JD and the others had been busy. It looked as if every available gun was loaded and ready. Some sat in rolls by each guard while the rest lay on a table within easy reach. A wagon was filled with sharpened limbs that would discourage any horse from jumping it. Everything and anything was being used as a barricade. Vin had to grin as he spotted JD and a couple of soldiers putting one of the cannons in place. If Buck could see him now, he'd have a heart attack, Vin thought to himself.
"See anything?" a voice asked from above him.
Looking up he saw Ezra standing on the upper level of the Fort. "No, but I saw a lot of tracks though. Something's out there." Vin dismounted and joined his friend. "Looks like you've been busy."
"Well you know what Josiah says about idle hands," he teased. Then with a serious look on his face said, "Walk with me."
Without a word Vin followed him.
"Look what I found," Ezra said lifting a sheet to reveal a gleaming black Gatling gun.
Vin stared at the gun in wonder and looked at the ten barrels inside the supporting frame that would be like firing ten shots at once. He gingerly touched the vertical magazine of ammunition mounted atop the gun then gripped the hand crank in his hand Vin tried to get a feel for the big gun. "You know how to use one of these?"
The Southerner sadly shook his head no. "But I figure we'll get plenty of practice," he said with a grin. "Don't tell Buck, but JD and I set explosives on the bridge and along the edge of woods behind us," Ezra smiled. "The one good thing about this Fort is that it's in the open and we'll be able to see what coming. Our only weak spot is the trees behind us, but there a good hundred yards away so it's not as bad as it might seem."
"What do ya think our chances are?" the sharpshooter asked still looking at the gun.
"Fifty-fifty. We have a few surprises in store for whomever attacks us."
Seeing dust in the distance had Vin dropping low. Pulling his spyglass out he swore, "Damn, here they come."
"Shit, there's gotta be at least forty or fifty of them," Ezra muttered as took a look for himself. Handing the glass back, he took off to warn the others. "Places everyone!"
Josiah pulled his horse to a stop as he noticed the Indians in the distance blocking their path and turned to go in another direction.
"Josiah why the hell are you going that way?" Chris asked.
"That's why," he said pointing toward the Indians.
"That's a good enough reason for me," Buck said as he followed Josiah.
"Do think there's gonna be trouble?" Nathan asked.
"No. I just think they don't want us going that way," Josiah told them. A little while later he paused again as they came to a clearing with some sparsely placed rocks. It wasn't the rocks that caught his attention, but the bits of tree and rock scattered about.
"What ya reckon happened here?" Buck asked.
The Sergeant pulled up beside them and quickly looked around, "Well, it looks like Ezra found the dynamite."
"Dynamite?" Josiah repeated.
"Do you think he found the other thing?" Captain Hutson asked with a frown.
"Found what thing?" Chris wanted to know.
"Knowing Ezra yeah, he probably did," the Sergeant assured him then found himself grabbed by the collar.
"Don't make me ask you again," Chris growled.
"A Gatling gun."
"Gatling gun," the ex-preacher whispered.
"Do you mean to tell us that we've let Ezra, Vin, and JD loose with a Gatling gun!" Buck screamed. "Are you out of your mind?!"
"Uhm fellas," Nathan said trying to get their attention. "I think we have more to worry about right now."
"Like . . ." the rest of what Nathan was going to say was cut off as a sudden boom could be heard in the distance.
"That's cannon fire," Chris said as he tore off toward the sound.
"Stay down," Ezra told them as he took the American flag from where it hung outside the office and carried it up to the steeple like arch over the Fort's gates. Climbing up the outer steps he placed the flag where all could see it.
"Hello the Fort!" someone shouted.
Ezra stepped up to the edge of the wall and waited.
"All we want is the gun," the voice said.
"This gun?" Ezra asked holding up his revolver.
The bandit looked at him for a moment as if trying to determine if he was serious. "No. The Gatling gun."
"Oh, that gun," the Southerner said with a grin. "Well now, uhm . . . gentlemen," he struggled to get the word out, "I'm sorry, but that particular gun belongs to the U.S. government and is not available for trade."
"If you leave now we'll let you live."
"And if we don't?" Ezra pushed.
"Then you die."
The Southerner suddenly grinned. "Well that seems fair," he replied. "Only you see this," he said with a sweep of his hand, "is ours and we're not giving up anything." Ezra then hit the ground as bullets pelted the walls of the Fort. He could see the men getting anxious and he shouted, "Not yet! Hold your fire!" After a couple of minutes the firing stopped. Risking a peek over the wall he cried, "NOW!"
Vin watched as JD and a soldier pulled a string that sent a volley of sharp spear like limbs into the bandits below. Peering over the edge he grinned as he saw that they were a little closer to evening the odds and they hadn't even fired the first shot. Vin felt his respect for the gambler increase as he realized that the man knew exactly what he was doing. The grin quickly left his face as he saw Ezra running toward one of the cannons.
Ezra saw that they were about to launch some burning arrows and swore. "Oh, you want to play dirty do ya. I'll show you dirty," he muttered to no one in particular then quickly aligned the cannon and lit the fuse. With a signal the other cannon was fired as well.
The Southerner hadn't survived the war without learning a few things; the most important was when to press the advantage. So with smoke from the fired cannons shielding them Ezra gave the order to blow the bridge and was inordinately disappointed when only half the explosives worked.
His disappointment was short lived as he realized that the bandits were fleeing. Ever the practical man Ezra counted his blessings even as he mentally prepared for their return. "Is everyone all right?" he asked as he keenly looked each of them over, but other than a few cuts everyone was fine. "Let's not get too relaxed," Ezra warned them, "they'll be back. JD take a couple of men and make sure these fires are out. I want guards in the same positions as before. Keep your eyes open. Kill anything that moves." Then just before they broke up he called to them. "Good job, gentlemen," Ezra said with pride, "damned good job. You each handled yourselves admirably and should be proud."
Vin couldn't believe that they just chased off fifty bandits without firing a single shot. Shaking his head he watched the soldiers' chests swell with pride at Ezra's compliment. He wondered what else Ezra had up his sleeve.
"You did good Ezra," the tracker told him from where he sat by the big gun.
"Just doing my job, Vin," Ezra said nonchalantly.
Vin hid his grin because the other man looked uncomfortable with the praise. Watching Ezra's narrowed eyed search had him asking, "So what's the plan?" Those green eyes darted a look at him that gave Vin a sinking feeling in his gut. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm not gonna like this plan?"
Ezra turned, with a big grin on his face, and instead of answering the question said, "I wonder why the explosives didn't work."
Punching the man on the arm the sharpshooter snapped, "Answer the damned question Ezra!"
"Could you repeat the question?"
Vin growled deep in his throat and wondered how Chris hadn't managed to shoot the man yet.
Seeing the frustration on Vin's face Ezra decided to compromise. "Look Vin, our survival depends in part on those explosives. They were our equalizer and now I have to think of something else."
"When I get it all worked in here," Ezra tapped the side of his head, "I'll let you know."
Vin nodded his head and said, "Fine, but if ya don't tell me soon then I'm gonna have ta kick your ass."
The Southerner grinned and slapped him on the arm before saying, "You are certainly welcomed to try."
Chris and the others raced along the trail determined to get to their friends in time, but as the sun began to set they realized it wasn't going to happen today. Fort William was just over the next hill, but since they didn't know what they were up against Chris decided he didn't want to risk traveling at night.
"Who taught Ezra to use dynamite?" Chris asked.
"A fella named Malone."
"Yeah, his father was an explosives expert that used to work for the railroad. The man taught his son everything he knew and then Malone taught it to Ezra," the Sergeant explained. "We soon discovered that Ezra had an infinity with loud things. Be it a cannon or dynamite. Hell, I remember this one time Ezra and Malone stole this cannon," he said with a laugh.
Chris and Buck exchanged at look. "Did he tell you how he did it?" Chris asked.
"No, all Ezra says is that sometimes the best approach is the most direct. Which means they snuck in that camp, blew up something, and rode off with the cannon during the confusion," he explained with a grin.
"That slippery son of a bitch," Chris muttered with a partial grin.
Buck nodded his head, but didn't say anything he was to bothered about the all to familiar smell of cannon fire that filled the air.
"Don't worry, Buck, I'm sure JD's fine," Nathan told the somber man. The healer didn't like seeing the usually easy going man looking so down.
"Nathan's right, Buck," Chris told his friend.
"Ezra will do anything within his power to protect those in his command, including your two friends," the Sergeant told them.
"What about Ezra?" Josiah asked getting to his feet and throwing his food near the fire. "Who's going to protect him?" he wanted to know then disappeared into the darkness.
Nathan watched him go and sadly shook his head.
"You boys better get some sleep. We leave at first light," Chris said before he too disappeared into the darkness.
Morning came early and as Nathan and the others went to ready the horses they found them already saddled and ready to go. Seeing Josiah he walked over to him and asked, "Did you do this?"
"Yeap," was he said before finishing with his own horse.
"Did you get any sleep last night?"
"Nope," he said pulling himself up in the saddle. "Let's save the chit chat. We're burning daylight," Josiah told them just before riding out.
Vin stood guard and thought back to Ezra's crazy plan. "Damned crazy southern son of a bitch," he muttered under his breath. Now that he'd had time to think about it, Vin couldn't believe he actually agreed to go along with it. Of course, Ezra had a way of explaining things so that it didn't sound as bad as it actually was.
Thoughts of Ezra were pushed out of mind as a cloud of dust caught his attention. Pulling out his spyglass Vin grinned as he recognized the black clad figure leading the pack. "Open the gate!" he shouted.
"JD!" Buck shouted as soon as he was through the gates.
"Howdy fellas," Vin called from his vantage point above them.
"Where's Ezra?" Josiah asked jumping from his horse.
"You bellowed," Ezra said stepping out of the office.
"BUCK!" JD hollered as he came out behind the Southerner. "It's about time you guys got here."
"You all right Kid?" Buck wanted to know.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he replied.
"RIDERS COMING!" a shout rang out.
Ezra pushed past his friends and made his way to the top of the guard post where he dropped to his knees as a small band of bandits opened fire.
Chris and the soldiers quickly returned their fire, but the Vin, JD, and the rest of the soldiers held their fire and waited for Ezra's orders. "Fire!" Chris shouted.
With a wave of his hand Ezra signaled JD who, with a couple of other soldiers, promptly lit arrows and shot them over the side into some dry brush which quickly ignited forcing the horses back. "Now Vin!" he shouted, to which the tracker quickly began firing the Gatling gun. At first the shots were a little erratic, but Vin soon got the hang of it.
Ezra reached for the fuse box and pushed in the lever then swore as nothing happened. "Shit!" he exclaimed then kicked the damned thing. Only through the smoke from the brush fire did Ezra give the order to return fire. "Fire!" he ordered. They soon had the bandits retreating. "Cease fire!" he shouted then walked over to one soldier and grabbed his arm. "Hold your fire."
Chris grabbed another soldier and snapped, "Why the hell didn't you return fire?" When he didn't answer the peacekeeper jerked him close and asked, "Did you hear me soldier?"
Ezra quickly jumped down and pushed himself between them. "He doesn't follow orders from you Chris," he told him. "Get back to your post soldier," Ezra said.
"Fine, then you tell me."
"It's simple really, we were not sure how long we would be forced to hold them off. After all, thirteen men can only do so much," the Southerner explained. "Out numbered as we were, I thought it prudent to try and to save our precious ammunition. So I opted to wait until almost the last minute to return fire," he went on to say.
"You what!" Buck snapped pushing his way through to stand in front of the Southerner. "You can't take that kind of chance with these boys' lives."
"What chance?" Ezra questioned. "In case it's failed to catch your attention, not a one of them is dead or seriously injured. You cannot hope to survive a battle with better results."
"He's right Buck," JD put in. "Hell, yesterday we chased them bandits off without even firing a shot," he boasted with pride.
"What do they want?" Captain Hutson asked him.
"What do you think?" Ezra asked with a raised eyebrow.
"The gun," Chris said.
"Got it one," the Southerner said with a smile.
"Well, they're not getting it."
"My sentiments exactly," Ezra told him. "Now we need to prepare for their return."
"Ezra I believe that's the Captain's job," the Sergeant pointed out.
"Exactly, and I'm the Captain."
"This is no longer your responsibility," the Sergeant told him. "These are our men and they'll follow their real Captain's orders."
"These are my men," Ezra responded in a hard voice. "I was given the responsibility of seeing this mission to its completion . . . "
"Ezra this is not the time for you to develop morals," Nathan threw in.
"Shut the hell up Nathan," Ezra snapped in a heated voice. "Unless you have something constructive to add then I suggest you keep your narrowed minded opinions to yourself."
"Our mission was to deliver the dispatch. Which you did . . . "
"I understood that the mission was to assist in the Treaty. And if you'll look around you I'm sure you'll notice there is no Treaty," the Southerner pointed out.
"Ezra . . ."
"What?" Ezra asked turning to look at Chris. "Need I remind you gentlemen that you dealt me into this hand and now I'm going to play it and see what happens."
"He's right Chris. I know me and JD volunteered for this fight, but I think Ezra should see it through," Vin said siding with Ezra. "Besides we have make sure that those men don't get that gun."
Without a word JD walked away from Buck and joined them as well.
"This is mutiny. You could hang for this," the Sergeant warned as the men started gathering around Ezra.
"That's enough Sergeant !" the Captain ordered.
Ezra stepped forward and pulled something from his pocket. "I have a document here signed by the Honorable Judge Orrin Travis giving me complete control of this troop as requested by Fort Laramie. This document is not only signed by me, but Captain Hutson. It also states that I am to deliver a military dispatch to a superior officer at Fort William," he told them. "And since there are none here superior to me," the Southerner taunted with a grin, then added as an after thought, "in rank, at least. Therefore, I remain in command of this troop."
"He's right Sergeant ," the Captain said.
Ezra's grin grew at the contemptuous look the Sergeant sent him and he stepped closer to him. "What a pity your Captain's making such a speedy recovery," he whispered so only the Sergeant could hear him. "But you wouldn't have been in charge regardless. I'd have seen to that myself."
"Chris how long you gonna let this go on?" Buck asked.
Chris just shrugged his shoulders and suddenly realized that other than the Indians they saw the day before, there wasn't an Indian in sight. "Where's the real Treaty Meeting?"
"There ain't one," JD told him. "We were a decoy."
"A decoy?" Chris repeated in a cold voice.
"The real meeting's 60 miles north of here," Vin added.
"How'd you find out?" Josiah asked then watched as all three men ducked their heads. "Which one of you opened it?"
Vin and Ezra both silently pointed at JD whose only defense was to shrug his shoulders.
Buck and Nathan both gave Josiah a look that clearly said 'I told you so.'
Vin and JD took an unconscious step backwards when they saw Chris' eyes narrow and his jaw clinch. While Ezra grinned in anticipation.
Chris stepped up to the Sergeant and asked, "Did you know about them being a decoy?"
"N..no," he stammered.
"No," the Captain replied.
Swearing under his breath Chris bellowed, "You mean to tell me that I sent three of my men on a wild goose chase!"
"It's okay Chris. We understand that scarifies have to be made to insure the greater goal," JD quickly explained.
"The hell it is!" the black clad man shouted. "I don't give a shit about the greater good! You three will not be scarified for any reason!"
"But Chris . . ."
"But nothing," Chris quickly cut him off. "Who's the shithead that told you that?"
Ezra cleared his throat and said, "I believe the shithead would be me."
"I should have known," he said with a shake of his head. "No . . . ," Chris held up a hand stopping Ezra before he could get started. "Just tell me about the gun."
"I don't know how they knew about it," Ezra told them. "However, I do have two theories," he said then ran through his hair, "there were papers scattered in the office when we arrived . . . so maybe they found something then."
"But you don't really believe that do you," Josiah stated.
"No, that would give them far to much credit," the gambler replied. "Which leads me to my second theory . . . they had someone on the inside," he said looking directly at Stanley.
"So we have a trader among us," Chris quickly agreed.
"Any idea on whom it might be?" Josiah asked stepping closer to Ezra.
All Ezra did was shrug his shoulders.
Chris sighed and shook his head as he waited. Sometimes getting Ezra to talk was like pulling teeth, he thought to himself. "Well? You gonna share with the rest of us?"
"Not at present."
Vin's eyes narrowed as he heard what Ezra said and he noticed how nervous the Sergeant seemed all of a sudden.
Then out of the blue Ezra walked up to the Captain and shook the man's hand. "You have some good men here Captain."
"Thank you," he replied. "By the way, what's that smell?" he asked.
"We found 45 bodies upon our arrival," Ezra said with a catch in his voice. "We buried them back behind the Fort." Turning to look at the Sergeant he continued, "You should be praising these men. Not threatening them."
Early the next morning the were all awakened by a voice calling out, "Riders coming!"
Ezra quickly got into place so he could watch their approach and wished once again that the explosives on the bridge worked. "Hey Vin?"
"You want to do a little more practicing," the Southerner teased.
"Yeah!" Vin said and stepped up to the Gatling gun.
"How about you pepper a few round in the ground to get their attention," Ezra suggested. He then grinned as Vin cranked the handle and did just that. Once the bandits came to a stop Ezra shouted, "Are you men ready to surrender yet? Or do you wish to play a little more?"
The bandit laughed then said, "Oh, we want to play. And I'll have that gun." The dark-haired bandits pulled his hat off and made a suggestion of his own, "Are you sure you do not want to surrender yourself? I'll kill your men, but make you my second in command."
It was Ezra's turn to laugh. "I thank you for the offer, but I am second to none."
"Well then, let's play," he taunted and pulled a piece of dynamite from his pocket, lit it with his cigar then threw it toward the Fort.
Vin didn't hesitate as he drew his rifle and shot the fire stick in mid air. Then grinned as he saw Ezra pull a stick out of his jacket, lite it, toss it, then watched as the bandits scattered.
"We'll be back," the bandit warned.
"We'll be here," Ezra returned.
Ezra made eye contact with both Vin and JD motioning them to follow him.
Chris, Josiah, Nathan, and Buck watched as their three youngest members huddled together. "I say once we get back home that we never leave those three alone again," Buck stated.
"Sounds like a plan to me," the other three readily agreed.
"I'm changing the plan," Ezra told them.
"I hope it's better than the last one."
"What plan?" JD asked.
"I'm going to go check those explosives," he told them in a low voice.
"No, Ezra!" Vin snapped. "It's to dangerous. Besides, Chris and Josiah ain't gonna let you go out there."
"Vin's right," JD quickly agreed.
"Well, I wasn't planning to ask their permission," the Southerner said. "Besides, what they don't know won't hurt me. Or you for letting me go."
"Ezra . . ." Vin started to say more, but was interrupted.
"Look, Vin I know what I'm doing . . ."
"I know that Ezra," the tracker told him in an exasperated voice. "It's not you I'm doubting, but them. They're watching us just like we're watching them and the minute you go out there . . ."
"I know that," he said with a sigh. "I've grown tired of this cat and mouse game. It's time to finish this once and for all." Ezra looked at Vin for a moment the said, "Keep an eye on the Sergeant . He's up to something. I can feel it," he warned them then headed for his horse. "Now I'm gonna need a distraction."
"I still don't like it, but you can count on me, pard," Vin said with a tip of his hat.
"And leave the distraction to me," JD assured him before he too walked away, "Josiah! Chris!" he shouted. "You'd better come see this!"
"What is it JD?"
"Over there," he pointed then saw Vin hurry to the upper level of the Fort to get into position. Then with a small nod of his head nine of their ten soldiers quickly followed suit. Once everyone was in place JD began to back away from his friends and motioned for one of the soldiers to open the gate.
Chris frowned as JD turned and quickly ran to the horses. He then swore as he saw Ezra headed for the gate.
"Ezra what the hell do think your doing?" Josiah snapped and tired to grab Chaucer's reins, but the horse was being it's usual difficult self and kept dancing away.
"Only what has to be done," Ezra told him with conviction. "Don't worry Josiah. I know what I'm doing." Then with a tip of his hat he urged his horse on and rode out of the fort.
"What the hell is going on JD?" Chris demanded and grabbed his arm.
"Ezra has a plan . . ." was as far as JD got before Chris interrupted him.
"Ezra has a plan?" Chris repeated. "Why does that scare me? And just where the hell do you think you're going?"
"All I know is that we're suppose to be ready to ride once Ezra gives us the signal," JD told him as brought their horses closer.
"What kind of signal?"
"I ain't got time to talk now Chris. We gotta get ready," the younger man said pulling his arm free. "You men get ready! And remember to spread out! We don't want to give them any more of an advantage then they already have!" JD shouted as he ran past Chris.
JD got into position, but couldn't help feeling somewhat responsible. After all, he was the one who helped Ezra wire those explosives.
"Hey Kid, you okay?" Buck asked as he knelt down next to him.
"What's Ezra doing?"
"We rigged some explosives along the bridge and he's gone to check it out."
"We? We, as in who?"
JD shot a Buck a nervous look before responding, "We, as in me and Ezra . . ."
"You? You and Ezra? Ezra let you . . ." Buck took a deep breath and told himself he wasn't going to get mad over and over again. "Ezra let you handle dynamite . . ."
"Ezra let who handle dynamite?" Nathan asked as knelt down on the other side of JD.
"JD. Seems him and Ezra have been rigging explosives on the bridge," the ladies' man explained in a tense voice.
"Well from what the Sergeant says Ezra knows what he's doing," Nathan told him. "Oh, and don't forget about what that Frances fella said." The healer was starting to think that maybe he was letting his past cloud his judgement of the Southerner and was rethinking a few things.
"Thanks Nathan," JD said with a grin.
"Thanks Nathan," Buck mimicked causing both men to laugh.
Ezra rode out with his shoulders squared and held his head high. The bridge was a good distance away from the Fort and as he neared it he slowed Chaucer to a steady walk and braced himself for the shot he knew was coming. Just the night before as him and Vin stood guard he told the tracker about his plan. But then the Cavalry arrived. So Ezra had to do what he did best . . . and improvised.
"Vin?" Chris asked as he knelt down next to him.
"Not now Chris," was all he said then silently repeated to himself, the first tree. "You damned well better know what your doing Ezra," he pleaded and then held his breath as a shot rang out just like Ezra said it would. The must have been one hell of a shot because he hit a stick of dynamite causing an explosion to rock the ground. Vin watched as Chaucer rared up on his hind legs then tumbled over backwards and appeared to have landed on Ezra. Even before the sound died Vin was on his feet and headed straight for Sergeant Stanley Johnson.
"Dear Lord," Josiah whispered as he could barely see Ezra and his horse where they lay motionless on the ground.
"I suppose this is part of the plan," Chris snapped then jump to his feet as both Vin and JD took off after the Sergeant .
The ex-preacher swore as he got to his feet and pushed people out of his way. Josiah had only one thought in his head . . . vengeance.
Stanley Johnson dropped his gun and then ran for his horse and jumped into the saddle. There was no way he was letting these men get a hold of him. He'd take his chances with the bandits.
Josiah watched as the Sergeant got past both peacekeepers and picked up a near by limb then swung it as he rode past and sent the man flying backwards. Tossing the limb aside he grabbed the fallen man by the throat and jerked him to his feet only to hit him sending back to the ground.
"Don't kill 'im Josiah!" Vin told him.
"He killed Ezra!" the older man growled. "And now I'm gonna break him in two."
"No, he didn't."
"It was all part of the plan," JD said as he joined them.
"Killing Ezra was the plan?" Nathan couldn't believe it.
"He ain't dead," the sharpshooter assured them. I hope, he silently added.
"What are you talking about Vin?" Buck asked. "We all saw him get blown up. No one could survive that."
"Look, I know you guys don't trust Ezra, but he knows what he's doing, and I for one believe him," Vin told them with conviction.
"Me too," JD stated with confidence. He then slapped Josiah on the arm and snapped, "Now, you let him go!"
"Corporal place his man under arrest. If he moves . . . kill 'im," the Captain said.
Josiah released the Sergeant and watched as he hit the ground gasping for air. Waiting until the Corporal and another soldier picked him then drew back his fist and hit the man right between the eyes. The Sergeant was out cold before him and the two soldiers holding him hit the ground.
"Let's finish this," JD said as he mounted his horse.
Chris and Buck couldn't help, but grin at the confidence JD was projecting. It was nice to see that something good came from all of this.
"Captain," Vin began as he too mounted his horse, "if they get past us . . . blow the gun." Spurring his horse forward, "Open the gates."
The six peacekeepers stood just inside the gates and could easily see a cloud of dust fast approaching. Just as the bandits reached the bridge they watched in awe as both Ezra and Chaucer rose from the rubble like an apparition. They held their breath as Ezra pulled his rifle and fired causing the bridge and everyone on it to be blown into oblivion. Then the whole area was swallowed up in a cloud of dust.
They had almost reached the bandits when Chris turned and said, "JD, I want you and Nathan to stay here just incase they get past us." Then kicked his horse urging it into the battle.
Nathan heard riders coming up behind them and turned then grinned as the Captain and ten men approached.
"I want two rolls at least two arm lengths apart," Captain Hutson ordered. "You men in the back I want you to position yourselves between the two horses in front of you. Don't fire until the person in front of you does first," he told them. After they'd gotten into position he rode in front of them and said, "We have to hold the line. We are the last line of defense and we cannot fail."
Ezra coughed and spit the dust from his mouth. After replacing his rifle he took out his revolver and started firing at the shapes as they began to appear through the thick cloud of dust surrounding him. Hearing the loud retort of Vin's maresleg coming from behind him allowed Ezra to relax just a little. A flash of color to his right caught his attention, turning he saw one of the bandits holding the American flag that must have belonged to Fort William and couldn't help but remember all the men that had been killed in defense of it.
With growl he kicked his horse forward and rammed the bandit's horse knocking them both to the ground. Jumping down he struck the man struggling to his feet then snatched up the flag. Rolling it up Ezra then stuck the flag in his saddle holster with his rifle then turned and was about to resume fighting when he heard a voice behind him.
"So at last we meet."
Slowly turning around Ezra carefully eyed the man before him. "You almost left it too late."
"Why you'll surrender of course."
The bandit laughed then shook his head. "I will regret killing you."
"You'll get no such sentiment from me. I could gladly kill you without blinking an eye, but honor dictates that I give you a fair chance," Ezra told him then lashed out with a hard right knocking the man to the ground.
The bandit kicked out and caught the Southerner in the chest causing him to stumble backwards and Ezra cursed as he dropped his gun. Getting quickly to his feet the bandit went to land another kick to Ezra's head only this time he was ready and caught the offending limb and with a twist he sent the bandit back to the ground with a thud.
Getting to his feet Ezra lunged for his gun only to be forced to stop as the air was forced from his lungs as a pair of arms wrapped around his chest from behind. Sucking in as much air as he could, Ezra threw his head back and was rewarded with the crackling sound of broken cartilage. Never one to pass up the advantage Ezra landed a couple of hard punches to the man's mid-section and once more to his chin.
Pausing to catch his breath Ezra watched as the bandit spit blood from his mouth before advancing once more. "Wait!" he suddenly shouted. Surprisingly the bandit did just that. "Just a minute," he said then shook his head and wiped the blood away from his eye. Ezra noticed the bandit doing the same. Taking a deep breath he nodded his head and told him, "Okay. I'm ready now."
Using his arms Ezra managed to block a few punches, but not all of them. Shaking his head Ezra wiped the blood from his busted nose on his jacket. Shoving the man back Ezra realized his mistake as the bandit got to his feet with Ezra's gun in his hand and fired.
Being no match for the seven peacekeepers plus the soldiers the bandits were soon on the run scrambling as best they could across the ravine. Hearing a shot had Vin and the others shifting their attention. Turning they saw Ezra flinch as a bullet struck him. Seeing the bandit advancing on him had the others spurring their horses into action. They had almost reached Ezra when the Southerner let out a yell that sent a chill down Chris and Buck's spines. Ezra slammed into the bandit sending them both to the ground where they wrestled for control of the gun. Another muffled shot was heard and both men stopped moving.
Vin urged his horse forward then jumped down and cautiously approached the downed men. Seeing the bandit move the tracker cocked his gun and took aim. Upon a closer look Vin could tell that it wasn't the bandit moving but Ezra trying to get the man off. Dropping his gun he grabbed the dead man by the arm and pull him away from his friend. Then grinned as a pair of green eyes blinked up at him.
"Thank you, Vin," Ezra mumbled. "I'm afraid I wasn't making much progress with one arm."
"Anytime, Pard," Vin replied. "Anytime."
"No Ezra, you stay put and let me look at that arm," Nathan called out even before his horse came to a stop.
But as usual Ezra ignored Nathan and got to his feet anyway with a little help from Vin. "The men come first Nathan. See to the men. I can wait," he said even as he fell to his knees. Once again with Vin's help Ezra got to his feet and placed his fingers in his mouth he whistled, for Chaucer, then immediately made a face. Spitting the foul taste from his mouth Ezra gritted his teeth then pulled himself into the saddle. Reaching for the flag he unfurled it's colors and watched as it rippled in the breeze. The red, white, and blue colors were a little tarnished but were a welcomed sight to this battle weary American.
With a surge of renewed purpose Ezra picked up the reins then urged Chaucer forward with an easy gait leaving the others to follow as they will. He pulled to a stop next to the Captain and said, "I believe this belongs to you."
"Thank you, Captain Standish," Captain Hutson replied as he took the offered flag then saluted him with ten soldiers quickly following suit.
Determined to return their salute Ezra again gritted his teeth and lifted his wounded right arm. White-hot pain shot through him and he would have fallen except for the strong hand that grabbed him.
Josiah reached over and steadied Ezra then held on just long enough for him to regain some of his bearings. Then together they rode back to the Fort.
The Sergeant was just coming around as the others returned. Seeing this Chris approached him with Buck and Vin flanking him. They had almost reached him when the Captain stepped in front of them.
"Gentlemen, this man is our prisoner and will be dealt with by the Army."
"He tried to kill one of my men. Hell, he jeopardized the lives of two more of my men," Chris sent him one of his most deadliest glares. "I want him dealt with now!"
"It's a matter for the Army . . ."
"I don't give a shit about the Army," the black clad man said stepping closer. "No one threatens one of mine. No one," he emphasized each word with a jab in the man's chest.
"At least, let us talk to 'im," Buck suggested.
The Captain looked at the three men in front of him then over at the other four peacekeepers behind them and gave an small nod. Still not moving the he said to Chris, "So long as you give me your word you won't kill him."
"Fine," Chris agreed then pushed the younger man out of the way. Stepping closer the Sergeant the black clad gunslinger eyed him with disgust. "All we've heard from you since you arrived in Four Corners was how capable Ezra was and now all of a sudden you're trying to kill him. I want to know why?"
"You killed all those men for money," JD said from where he sat next to Ezra.
The Sergeant turned away from the disgust in those trusting hazel eyes. "They weren't suppose to kill them all. Just the officers," he said.
"Oh, well that's all right then," Buck quipped.
"I had everything under control. The Captain was out of the picture and thought for sure they'd let me take command, but then they sent that telegram to the Judge and ruined everything," the Sergeant told them. "You can imagine my surprise at who was given command. My very own former captain. Ezra Standish. But then I got to thinking that it might not be so bad after all. At least, now I could kill two birds with one stone."
"Why would you want to kill Ezra?" Josiah asked even though he was ashamed to admit that he could think of one or two reasons himself.
"You mean besides the oblivious?" the Sergeant snapped. "He ruined everything!" he then shouted. "I'd have killed him during the war only Malone got in the way."
Ezra jumped to his feet.
"I thought you said he was killed at Gettysburg," JD reminded the Sergeant .
"Gettysburg? We were never at Gettysburg," the Southerner told them. "Malone was my friend."
"Malone was a fool . . ."
"Aghhhhh!" Ezra growled and surged forward wanting nothing more than to get his hands around the man's throat.
"Ezra no!" Josiah cried and grabbed him before he could get too far.
"Malone was a better man than you could ever hope to be," the Southerner said as he pulled himself away from Josiah. 'Control, Ezra. Control,' he silently told himself.
"All my life all I heard was how a man could make a fortune during a war," the Sergeant continued as if Ezra hadn't even spoken. "After all, to the victor goes the spoils."
"Is that what this is all about?" Ezra suddenly asked as he inched himself closer. "Those spoils didn't belong to you!"
"I was the victor! ME!" he bellowed as he got to his feet. "The Yankee's shouldn't have been allowed to have it all! I wanted my share!"
"You weren't a Yankee! There was no way in hell I was going to let you steal from those people," the Southerner said a deadly quiet voice and took another step forward. "Dammit man, these were the same people we were fighting to protect."
"What's he talking about Ezra?" Chris asked.
Ezra ran a hand through his hair then said, "Well to make a long story short . . ."
"That'll be a first," the Sergeant quipped.
"We were somewhere in northern Virginia and had the Yankee's on the run. The field was ours and we took it," he told them. "The field was also the front yard of what we thought was an abandoned plantation home. However, we soon discovered that the family still occupied the dwellings. They offered us food and water, but some of my less then stellar soldiers were not content with that," Ezra said and looked pointedly at the Sergeant . "Some of them wanted to take liberties and anything else they could carry and leave them with nothing on which to survive . . . "
"I thought you said this was going to be a short story."
Ezra ignored him. "It wasn't until after we'd moved on that I overheard my Sergeant bragging about how he'd beaten the middled aged man up and then took his wife's jewelry. One of the other soldier's bragged about how . . . how he had v..violated her," he said with a sad shake of his head.
"Tell 'em what you did," the Sergeant dared him.
"I killed him," Ezra told them without remorse. "Shot him right between the eyes. I blew his brains out." Taking a deep breath he continued, "We had traveled too far away for him to return his stolen lute so I did the next best thing. I took it away from them and gave it to the first church I came across. Then I took his stripes and I would have taken his life if I could have gotten away with it. Needlessly to say I kept my eye on them from then on and it didn't happen again."
"Why'd you betray us?" the Captain suddenly asked.
"It was just after I'd been demoted that I overheard some men talking the saloon and I offered to some help in exchange for gold," the Sergeant told them. "It would have worked if not for you seven bastards!" he sneered.
None of them noticed that Ezra had been inching himself closer and closer. He was standing between Chris and Buck before they knew it. Then with a flick of his wrist he had his derringer in the palm of his hand. 'You murdering sonofabitch!' he silently screamed and casually raised his hand as if he was going to run it through his hair, but fired instead.
"No, Ezra!," Chris cried as he saw the glint of medal. He then grabbed Ezra's arm causing the bullet to lodge in the post just behind the Sergeant 's ear.
Not so easily discouraged Ezra allowed the gun to be wrenched from him only to throw his head forward and he head butt the Sergeant right between the eyes. When the man staggered back Ezra allowed the others to hold his weight and brought up his foot and kicked him square in the chest throwing him to the ground cracking at least two ribs in the process. Arms and hands tugged at him trying to pull him off, but Ezra wouldn't budged. Finally Josiah joined the fray and only then were Buck and Chris able to move him. Vin and JD were more inclined to let Ezra tear him apart. While Nathan stood in shocked silence. Pulling away from them Ezra straightened his shoulders then surveyed the bloody and broken body on the ground. Then with a grin of satisfaction he turned on his heel and walked away.
Josiah cautiously approached Ezra. He did not want to intrude or step over any unseen lines. But, Josiah needed to know that the younger Southerner was going to be okay. Sometimes a man just had to take the bull by the horns and pray you didn't land in a thorny bush. So with that in mind Josiah sat down next to his young friend and asked, "Are you okay Ezra?"
Ezra shrugged and replied, "Yes."
"I'm sorry about your friend Malone."
"So am I."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"You have a lot to thank him for," Ezra suddenly said then looked at Josiah as if surprised he'd actually spoken.
"Me? Why?" Josiah asked with a frown and then wondered if he could get Ezra to walk by the sheer force of his will.
"You know those redeeming qualities you like to harp on?" he asked, when Josiah nodded he continued. "Well, Malone brought those qualities that had laid dormant for so long back to life. He came into my life at just the right time," he told him.
"It was war Josiah and I was . . . young . . . and s..scared . . . Malone told m..me that it was okay. That it wasn't anything to be ashamed of," Ezra told him. "You have to understand that I wasn't afraid of being alone because I had been most of my life. I was more afraid of the unknown. Of dying and . . . going to hell."
"Why? What had you done that was so terrible?" Josiah almost grinned at the look Ezra gave him. It was as though he expected Josiah to already know the answer.
Ezra hung his head as if in thought. "I had never killed a man before the war," he finally said with a catch in his voice. "I hadn't even been around that many dead people then all of a sudden they were everywhere. Bloody bodies that were ripped and torn apart. Bodies that I had helped to rip and tear apart. A sea of Yankee Blue," he whispered. "And then there was Malone. He taught me all that shit about sacrifices and pushing beyond your endurance to achieve the greater good," he said. "You gentlemen remind me of him," Ezra commented.
"Really. Malone had a sense of humor much like that of Vin's. And he was full of life just like JD. Malone always had a ready smile on his face like Buck. He was also a fair man like Chris. And compassionate like Nathan. But most of all he c..cared like . . . you," Ezra said then got to his feet.
Josiah felt a pang of regret for all Ezra had lost, but mixed up in that regret was a feeling of pride for the man that he had become in spite of it all. Swallowing the lump in his throat he got to his feet and stepped up beside Ezra and said, "Sounds like he was a good man and friend. And for what it's worth . . . I'm proud of you Ezra."
"Well, be that as it may, if you tell a soul what I told you I'll . . ."
"Don't worry Ezra. I won't."
"I mean it, Josiah. If you tell anyone, I'll . . ."
"I won't. You have my word," Josiah reassured him with a little shove.
Neither of them were aware of the fact that the other five peacekeepers sat on the steps just below them and had heard every word.
The early morning sun found Ezra was in the same spot where Josiah had left the night before. He sat leaning against the wall lost in thought and cursing the fact that he'd told Josiah so much about himself. With a shake of his head Ezra thought it was time to do some damage control. So being his mother's son, he pushed thoughts of yesterday's conversation to the very back of his mind and locked it away. And if by chance Josiah should attempt to bring it up then he'll deny it ever happened.
"Riders coming!" a soldier shouted and brought Ezra scrambling to his feet where he swore at seeing a regiment of Cavalry soldiers descending upon them. 'It's finally over,' he silently told himself.
"Looks like our job here is done," Vin said as he came to stand beside him.
"Yes," Ezra agreed softly. "And I'll be damned if that isn't a sight that brings a chill down this Southerner's spine."
"Don't fret Ez, you ain't got nothing to worry about with them soldiers," the tracker told him.
With a nod Ezra agreed. Feeling a bit more confident he straightened his shoulders then froze as he realized that he still wore the Yankee Blue jacket. Turning on his heels Ezra hurried to his saddle bags, snatched them up, procured him some water, and then found himself a secluded corner so he could restore himself to his former glory.
Thirty minutes later Ezra reappeared freshly shaven and sporting a soft dove grey-colored jacket. His saddle bags were thrown over his broad shoulders and he had the Cavalry jacket folded over his arm. After dropping the bags next to his saddle Ezra walked up to the Captain and said, "Here you go Captain. After a good cleaning it'll be as good as new. Still ugly, but good as new."
Captain Hutson took the jacket and held out his hand. "I can't thank you enough Mr. Standish."
"I would love to say anytime, but I have now served on both sides and have had my fill of the military," Ezra told him with a smile that showed off his gold tooth and then shook the offered hand.
"I don't know Ezra I think the blue suits you better," JD teased with a grin as he joined them.
"I think the grey reaffirms his heritage," Nathan threw in with a grin of his own.
"Ezra? Ezra Standish?" a voice said from behind them.
Vin quickly stepped up then in front of Ezra and asked, "Who's askin'?"
"Gentlemen this is General Roger Malone," the Captain said. "General Malone will escort Sergeant Johnson to Fort Laramie to stand trial."
"Are you Ezra Standish?" he asked and trying to get another look at him, but Vin, JD, and Nathan had closed ranks on their Southerner.
"Yes I am," Ezra confirmed and pushed his way through the others.
"You fought in the war," the General stated to which Ezra merely nodded his head in agreement.
"My son fought for the South during the war."
"Was his name Jamie?" he asked in a quite voice. The General sadly nodded his head, yes. "Well, General Malone it's a pleasure to meet you, sir," Ezra said holding out his hand. "Your son taught me a lot."
"Jamie spoke well of you, Mr. Standish," the General said then took the offered hand in both of his. "I'm glad he had a friend and . . . and I appreciate the letter you sent me as well."
"I'm please you received it," Ezra told him. "He was a good man, your son."
"Yes he was," was all the older man said before he released the captured hand. Then with a tip of his hat he walked away.
Ezra watched as he disappear in the office then stared with unseeing eyes at the closed door. Hearing someone calling his name brought him out of his befuddled state. Looking up he tensed as he saw Josiah approaching. The yesterday's conversation never happened, he reminded himself.
"Hey Ezra, I brought you something," Josiah said and then tossed him the small bag he carried.
Easily catching it Ezra cautiously peered inside then favored Josiah with a rarely seen genuine heart felt smile. "Josiah, my friend, you are a true God send," he boasted as he pulled his hat out of the bag.
"Well, I don't know about that son, but I do try," he replied with a smile of his own.
"Nathan is Ezra okay, to ride?" Chris asked stepping right up in the middle of them with Buck right on his heels.
"Excuse me, but you might ask me that question," Ezra stated as he adjusted his hat.
"Why? It's not as though you'd tell me the truth," the gunslinger stated.
"Truth is in the eye of the beholder," he quipped in response.
"Always thought that was beauty," Buck added with a grin.
"It's neither here nor there," Ezra said just to confuse them and then grinned when it worked. "The point is that I'm perfectly capable of making the journey from whence we came."
"Nathan?" Chris growled out in frustration.
"His ribs are a little bruised and his arm doesn't seem to be bothering him, so I reckon if we take it slow then he'll be okay," Nathan told him.
Ezra raised one eyebrow at Chris as if to say, see I told you so.
The seven men were ready to ride within the hour. Four of them were already mounted and waiting on the other three. Vin and JD shook hands with some of the men and wished them well then mounted their own horses. As Ezra exited the office, where he bid the General goodbye, the Corporal ordered, "Attend Hut!" Causing the Southerner to give a small jump in surprise. Ezra watched with pride as the ten men he traveled to the Fort with snapped to attention and gave him a smart salute.
He stepped into the light and made eye contact with each of them before lifting his arm to return the salute. "It has been truly an honor to have served with you gentlemen. And I wish you luck for the future," Ezra said then made a point to shake each man's hand. Then with a tip of his hat he mounted his horse and the seven of them began the journey home.
Vin could tell that Ezra was embarrassed by such an open display of respect so he repeated the words he'd used after their first big battle, "You shoot a cannon pretty well, pard."
Ezra grinned and replied, "Dreadful. I was trying to hit the bridge."
The tracker laughed and knew that everything would be okay.