Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series
Ghosts of the Confederacy, written by Josef Anderson and Chris Black. Directed by Steve Beers and Christopher Cain.
Chief Tastanagi, leader of the band of Seminole and former slaves, looked around him with dismay. The white men in tattered gray had just left a short time ago, riding away after they delivered an ultimatum.
Fill the chest with gold within a week, or die.
The silver-maned man turned to his close friend, and the man who led their people beside him. "Tennessee," He said softly, using the familiar nickname, "We must find help. There are not enough of us to fight them when they return, and there is no gold to fill the chest."
"Where do we look?" Ebon asked.
Looking toward the distant horizon, Tastanagi replied, "We must travel to the town... we must look for help with the white man there."
Shocked now, the other man gasped. "The white man!? Why would the white man help us? To them we are nothing but - "
Raising a hand, the chief interrupted. "Then we will find white men who will see us as men. We will find men who will look beyond our skin and help us protect our home... and our family." Then, with a sly grin, he held up a small, gold talisman. "If that does not work... we will offer them a reward."
The small, blond boy looked up, scanning the street before him with keen interest. The town was always busy and loud, from sun up to sundown, something he wasn't used to. As he was watching the people and horses moving up and down the street, one figure caught his attention. He watched as a man dressed head to toe in black, rode casually up the street, ignoring everything around him. He reined in his horse, stepped down from the big animal and strode into the saloon.
Vin Tanner wasn't certain what it was, but the sight of the tall man gave him a strange feeling. On one hand he got a nervous feeling in his stomach, just looking at the man. On the other, there was something almost familiar about him. Something that gave him a safe feeling.
Chris Larabee stood at the bar, drinking whiskey and smoking a cheroot. All around him was bedlam, the sounds of drunken men and gunshots filled the air. Finishing his drink, he turned and casually strode across the littered floor. The other patrons of the saloon cowered behind overturned tables, trying desperately not to be the target of a bullet.
Larabee had no such fear. He had ceased caring whether he lived or died two years ago. Puffing on his cigar, he stepped out onto the boardwalk. As he stood, holding the batwing doors open, the wind caught his long, black duster. It flapped open, revealing an ebony outfit. Only the silver conchos on his gunbelt caught the sun.
The gunman stepped over to where an old man sat, watching the chaos on the street. His keen eyes stayed on the action as he asked, "Town always this lively?"
"Trail hands, up from Texas. Got all liquored up and decided to hang the man they blame for their boss' death."
"Where's the law?" Larabee wondered aloud.
Nodding toward a pair of quickly departing riders, the man answered, "Marshall and his deputy. That isn't even his horse."
Chris watched the deserting lawmen then his attention was called back to the middle of the street. There a wagon was just beginning to roll down the dusty little road. In the bed of the wagon several men were struggling with a loudly protesting, large, black man. The man wore a noose around his neck and was being forced to sit on a coffin. He was loudly protesting his innocence, but his captors paid him little attention.
The wagon traveled a few yards, only to stop when a pretty young blonde woman stormed out into the street. She carried a rifle, swinging it up to point at the wagon driver. "Stop right there! You're not hanging that man!"
"Stand aside, lady. He killed a good man... claimed to be a doctor and let 'im die," One of the riders charged.
"I never claimed to be a doctor!" The black man protested. He was quickly silenced when one of the men cuffed him across the face.
"Nathan didn't kill your boss, gangrene did!" The woman argued.
"I said stand aside!" The man lashed out with a boot and the woman fell backwards, dropping her weapon. One of the men scrambled to retrieve the rifle from the ground, and the entire group moved around the woman, continuing on their way.
The blonde climbed back to her feet and glared at the other townspeople. "Are you just going to stand there? Don't you care that they're going to hang an innocent man!?"
Her accusations and questions were met with turned backs and downcast eyes. With a look of disgust she turned and ran down the street after the wagon.
The gunslinger watched the whole thing unfold with only a faint stirring of interest. This wasn't his town; the fight wasn't any of his business. He had been a hired gun for two years - nothing more and nothing less. People died every day; he had nothing to gain by interfering. Besides, for all he knew, the man could be guilty.
Then he glanced across the street and everything changed.
He had noticed the little boy a short time ago, sweeping the walk in front of the general store. He had slipped inside when the woman had confronted the cowboys. Now he was coming back out onto the walk, carrying a 25-20. The light rifle seemed at home in his little hands.
The child was concentrating on loading the weapon, looking neither right nor left. Then he glanced up, his eyes locking briefly with the gunman.
In that second, Larabee knew the truth. The kid was going after those drunken cowboys!
Before the man in black could respond, the thin little boy took off, sprinting up the street, heading for the cemetery. Tossing aside the slender cigar, Larabee cursed, "shit" and started down the street. He could turn a blind eye to many things, but a child with a rifle, heading toward danger wasn't one of them. Only barely registering the fact that no one tried to stop the boy, he moved as quickly as possible to intercept him.
While the drama was unfolding on the street, other events were taking place as well. The two leaders of the Seminole village, had slipped into town virtually unnoticed. They watched all that happened with vague interest. When they saw the black clad man, they focused their attention on him. He carried himself with the baring of a gunman and that was just what they needed. When he strolled off down the street, they moved after him, curious to see what happened next.
Behind the village elders, the stage was just arriving. Amongst the passengers was a tiny little brunet. He stared out the side of the open stage, little mouth forming a perfect "O" as he took in the action. Big, hazel eyes opened wide at the sights before him. Real, live cowboys! And there... there was a real Indian! Just like in the stories his ma had told him.
At the thought of his mother, the little boy's face fell. His ma had died six months ago and he still missed her terribly. And now the people she had worked for were sending him all the way across the country, to live with strangers.
Taking a deep breath, he blinked away the tears. Then his child's mind moved away from the sad thoughts, and he made a decision. He had always loved hearing about cowboys and Indians, and had dreamed of becoming a cowboy. It made perfect sense to him that staying here would be his best bet at doing just that. So, when the driver stopped to let out two of the passengers, he slipped out the other side of the stage, grabbing up his little bag as he did. Without a backwards glance, the boy scrambled away, going to hide until the stage was gone.
Vin Tanner ran toward the wagon, one thing on his mind. He knew that Mr. Nathan hadn't wanted that man to die. He had been in town for a week; had been sick when he got here. Mr. Nathan had taken care of him and made him feel just fine within a day or two. And he hadn't even asked for payment. Vin had managed to talk Mr. Watson into giving him a job at the store, where he got three meals a day, a cot in the store room, and five pennies a week. He felt like the richest boy in the world! He planned to give his first week's pay to Mr. Nathan, to pay for making him better.
But now, watching those angry men dragging Mr. Nathan off, he knew he had to do something to help. Seeing that Mr. Watson was busy at the back of the store, he made a decision. He went to the gun rack, where Mr. Watson had the rifles and shotguns on display to sell. Carefully he took the 25-20, easily recognizing it as like the ones he had learned to shoot long before coming here. Grabbing the shells for it, he slipped out onto the walk, where he loaded the weapon.
Something called his attention just as he finished loading the rifle and he glanced up. The man dressed in black was standing across the street, looking at him. Vin didn't have time to think about him, he had to help Mr. Nathan. Hefting the rifle, the little boy took off toward the cemetery at a run.
Nathan Jackson knew he was going to die. He felt himself being pulled up by several pairs of hands, but had stopped all but token resistance. Anyone who had followed he and his captors to the cemetery stood outside the fence, watching. While he admired the widow Travis for her bravery in trying to free him, she was only one woman. No match for the group of drunken men set on hanging him. The rest of the town had either turned away or stood there, waiting to witness his death. He wasn't even surprised. He was a black man, after all.
The former slave's thoughts were halted by the sight of one person coming to his rescue. He cried out, "NO!" but not at his captors. He cried out at the little blond boy who was heading toward them, carrying a rifle. "Vin, please, get on back!"
The young boy looked up at the big man held in the back of the wagon. Mr. Nathan had taken an interest in him when no one else had. He wasn't about to stand by and watch him hanged. Taking a deep breath, he called out, "Let 'im go!"
One of the cowboys turned toward the call, eyes widening when he say the bold child standing there, aiming a rifle toward them. With a harsh bark of laughter, he said, "Git, boy... go home!"
Vin raised the rifle higher, aiming it at the man. Barely able to keep his voice from trembling, he repeated, "I said, let 'im go!"
"Cut him down."
Young Tanner started at the voice that came from behind him. Instinctively he knew that it was the man who had watched him from across the street. The boy couldn't help the smile that crept across his little face.
"I said, cut him down," Larabee repeated. His hand lay casually on the yellow wood of his gun butt. Then, to no one in particular he pondered, "Shot a lot of holes in the sky... anyone reload?"
Vin watched the cowboy's eyes widen as he thought about that question. Then he watched as the man raised his gun, aiming it at the man behind him. Without thinking, he scurried behind one of the big headstones, peering around the edge. He gasped as he saw the wagon begin to move as its team became nervous. As gunfire erupted around him, he watched in horror as the wagon moved out from under Mr. Nathan, leaving him dangling, a rope around his neck.
Without thinking the boy moved from cover, taking aim at the rope where it was wrapped around a tree limb. Blocking out everything around him, he fired. The first shot missed, causing him to grumble under his breath. Taking a deep breath and steadying the rifle against his shoulder, he aimed again. This time the rope split, and Mr. Nathan fell to the ground. He wasn't out of danger yet; the rope was still tight around his neck.
Nearby, Chris Larabee was busy firing at the cowboys. His attention was divided between the drunken mob and the brave young child. He registered the fact that the boy had moved from cover, and was now creeping along the ground toward the black man. "Stay down, son!" He called out the order as he dropped another of the men with a bullet in the chest. There were only three more men opposing him now, and one of them was moving toward the back of the cemetery.
Vin continued to edge toward Mr. Nathan, his mind focused on his need to help the kind man. He jerked as a bullet landed in the ground beside him, spitting dust in his face. Glancing around, he tried to decide whether to hide, or continue forward. Then, looking at the strangling man's face, he knew he had to get to him.
Chris dropped the man who had nearly shot the boy, leaving him with only one more man to concern himself with. The other man was nearly outside the fence now. Shooting once more, Larabee dropped the last man facing him. Just as he did, he saw quick movement at the edge of his vision. Turning, he saw a second little boy, this one even smaller than the first, running toward the center of the cemetery, a big rock in his hands.
"I got 'im!" JD Dunne called out just as he heaved the large rock toward the departing cowboy. When the rock landed just a few feet before him, he ran forward, intent on picking it up. Suddenly a pair of hands stopped him, all but lifting him off the ground.
"Hold on there, boy, settle down. You don't hit a man in the back, it's not safe."
"But he's a bad man!" Little Dunne cried out in protest.
"Yeah, but he's also a scared man, and you never know what a scared man will do. Why don't you go on back to your mama now? We've got things handled here." Larabee moved off, not seeing the pain-filled expression the little boy turned in his direction.
Chris met the little blond boy just as he reached the choking man. Together they helped get the noose off from around the man's neck.
The black man took a few deep breaths then reached out, silently asking to be helped up. As he did, he said in a wheezing voice, "I wanna thank y'all." He hesitated, giving the young child a look that was both thankful and angry. Then he added, "Both of you."
Larabee helped the other man to his feet, barely suppressing a smile when he noticed that the diligent little boy was helping him up as well.
Just as the three of them stood, regarding one another for a few seconds, the blonde woman from earlier appeared. "Excuse me, gentlemen, I run the Clarion. I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Not now," Chris said; his face stern and no-nonsense. "I've got other business to attend to."
"Well, can you tell me where you're going?"
"Saloon," Larabee replied, hearing the word echoed by the man whose life he had just helped to save. There was a third voice that repeated the single word; the voice of a child.
Together the three of them moved off, Vin trotting to keep up with the much bigger men before him.
Mary Travis, ever the newspaper woman, followed the three figures back down the street. She watched as the little boy stopped briefly when he came to Watson's store, speaking to Virgil Watson, the owner.
Vin saw Mr. Watson step to the edge of the sidewalk, looking over at him with a stern expression. He took a deep breath, squared his narrow little shoulders, and stopped in front of the man. Holding the rifle out, he stammered, "I'm sorry, Mister Watson... I... I just didn't want... Mister Nathan..."
Shaking his head, Virgil Watson said, "You're a brave boy, Vin. Braver than most adults I've seen around here. But, what say I hold onto this for a bit? You really don't need it in town, but it'll be here if you need it again." As the boy smiled shyly, he added, "Now, I reckon you've earned the rest of the day off."
His smile widening as the shop owner motioned toward the men he had just fought beside, Vin hurried up the street to catch up with Mr. Nathan and the man who had helped them both.
After the child scurried off, Mary hurried over to Watson. "I know that youngster's been working for you for a few days, Virgil, but do you know that stranger?"
"The one in black?" He looked surprised when Mrs. Travis nodded. "Don't you know who that is? That's Chris Larabee. He's got quite a reputation with a gun."
Watching the striking figure, clothed in the color of mourning, disappear into the saloon, she nodded absently. Curiosity spurring her further, she made a mental note of the name before hurrying off toward her newspaper office.
Vin hurried along behind the two men, all but running to keep up with their longer strides. He didn't hesitate to enter the saloon; it wasn't the first time he'd been inside one. As the gunslinger and Mr. Nathan walked to the bar, he followed suit, grabbing an empty chair as he moved past a nearby table. Pushing it across the sawdust covered floor, he climbed up onto it and leaned against the bar to join the men.
Chris Larabee cocked an eyebrow as the brave little blond joined them. Then, turning back toward the bartender, he pointed to himself and the man beside him and ordered, "Two whiskeys." Spying a pitcher on the back bar, he added, "and a lemonade for the sharpshooter there."
Meanwhile, turning to the young boy, Nathan said, "Vin I know you've been taking care of yourself for a while, and I do appreciate what you did out there..." Then, pausing, his voice took on a firm, somewhat hard tone. "But, boy, if I ever catch you doin' somethin' like that again, I'll tan your hide!"
Shocked the boy managed to raise his eyes to the familiar face, seeing both anger and fear in the warm eyes. It was then that he realized just how much danger he had put himself in at the cemetery. Squaring his shoulders and swallowing hard, he managed to explain, "I had ta do somethin', Mister Nathan. I couldn't jist let'cha... hang."
Tears threatened to spill from the former slave's eyes at the fierce look of loyalty and dedication he read on the tiny face. Heaving a sigh, he placed a big hand on one thin shoulder. "That means more to me than I can say, son. But I couldn't live with myself if you got hurt on account of me."
Vin wasn't used to having anyone worry about him. Not since his Ma... Vin felt the sadness well up in him at the thought of his mother. Turning, his attention and his gaze to the bar, he noticed that the bartender had set a glass of whiskey in front of the big cowboy and a glass of something that looked like water, except for a light yellow tint to it, sat before him. But there was nothing sitting in front of Mister Nathan.
Dark blond brows furrowed as the boy called indigently to the man behind the bar, "Hey! One for the Doc here!"
One the other side of Jackson, Larabee couldn't help but smile just a little. The child had a lot of grit that was for sure. He hoped the boy's family knew just what they had in him.
Before the gunman's thoughts could go any farther, he recognized a change in the air around him. Glancing in the mirror behind the bar, he saw the reason for the sudden silence in the saloon. A large, imposing Seminole stood just inside the door. Beside him stood a black man, just as large and imposing.
Wary of the silence, the men nonetheless strode across the room with determination. Coming to stand in front of the black clad man, Chief Tastanagi spoke without preamble. "We have come to hire you."
On the chair, Vin was the only person in the place paying no attention to the newcomers. He had discovered lemonade! Holding the glass in both hands, he was drinking the sweet tasting mixture just as fast as he could. Finding himself holding an empty glass, the boy looked around. The bartender was talking to the gunslinger, Mister Nathan, and some other men. He also noticed that the bartender had left the pitcher containing the sweet liquid on the bar.
Ever conscientious, the child reached into his pocket and pulled out a penny. Laying the coin on the bar with only a little hesitation, he carefully poured another glass full of the drink. His plan to use the pennies to pay the healer was forgotten as the sweetened drink coursed through him.
Chris and Nathan were conferring, having agreed to help protect the people of the Seminole village from the raiders that were terrorizing them. The two men were trying to come up with a plan.
"I think I know a man we could get to help," Nathan nodded as he spoke.
"I know of one, too," Larabee said, one corner of his mouth quirking up slightly. "If I can get him out of bed."
"Bed! Who's still in bed? Is he sick? Cain't no sick man help do nothin'. I know! If ya really want 'im outta bed, I c'n help! C'mon, where is he?"
Chris and Nathan looked down in shock, seeing that the little boy had been transformed into a pint-sized whirlwind. The two men looked at the bar, seeing three pennies sitting next to an almost empty pitcher. They looked back at one another, shaking their heads as the boy continued to chatter as he danced around beside them.
"Not gonna be pretty when the sugar wears off," Nathan noted.
Nodding in agreement, Larabee observed, "Guess we'd better get him to his folks."
Sorrow in his handsome face, Jackson informed the blond quietly, "Far as we know, he's an orphan. Wandered into town about a week ago, alone and sick. He's been workin' for Mr. Watson for room and board the last few days."
Chris felt his heart clench at the thought of the brave little boy being alone in the world. Then he forced the cold shell to close over his heart once more. People lost family every day, there wasn't any rule that said that loss was reserved for adults only.
"Hey! Hey, Mister!" Vin continued chattering, one little hand tugging at the tall man's duster. "Mister, Mister! I c'n help ya git that friend 'a yers outta bed if ya want. Can I? Can I? Huh, can I?"
Holding out a hand to stop the boy's rapid-fire speech, Chris said, "Hold on there, boy! Okay, I've got an idea and you can help me, okay?"
Buck Wilmington was in his favorite place in the world. The bed of a lovely young woman. They had enjoyed one another's company all night and on into the morning. Not even the sound of gunfire could distract the big, mustached man. He was about to entice the woman back under the covers when someone began banging on the door. Both he and the blonde jumped, startled, and stared toward the door.
"Hey, Mister! You in there with my sister!?"
Turning toward the woman, Buck raised a questioning brow. "You got kin around here?"
Before the woman could answer, the pounding began again. "Sister! Sister! You in there? Hey, Sis! C'mon!"
Shaking her head, the working girl said, "My family's all living around Yuma..." She turned a puzzled gaze back toward the door, "I think."
"C'mon, open up! Mister, what'cha doin' in there with my Sister? Hey, open up!"
Leaping out of bed, Wilmington started grabbing up his clothes. The blonde divided her attention between him and the door.
"Hey, Mister! How come ya ain't sayin' nothin'? Sister?! Maybe I ought ta git Pa?"
That was the last straw for the big man. He wasn't in the mood to deal with an outraged father. Grabbing up his belongings and giving the woman a quick kiss, he fairly leapt out of the window. Finding himself building momentum at the top of the slanted porch roof, he barely had time to brace himself for the fall. He was suddenly on all fours, in the dusty street, pants around his knees.
Glancing around as he collected his clothing, the mustached man caught sight of a familiar figure, leaning against one of the uprights. A broad grin split his face as he called out, "Chris! You old war dog!"
Larabee kept his expression passive as his bigger-than-life friend called out to him. He glanced around as the half-dressed man grabbed him in a bear hug. "Easy, big fella. People will talk."
Buck hooted with laughter, slapping his friend on the arm as he backed up a step. "How'd you know I was here?"
"Make a habit of knowing who's in town... live longer that way." Not one to waste words, the blond said, "Got a job. You interested?"
"Yeah? A Job?" Buck asked as he finished pulling on his clothes. When the black clad man nodded, he asked, "How much does it pay?"
"Five dollars a man."
"A day?" When his friend shook his head no, Buck asked, slightly shocked, "A week?"
Nodding in the affirmative now, Chris said, "Know it ain't much..."
"How are the odds?"
"Five, six to one."
With a glint in his dark blue eyes, the brunet asked, "There gonna be ladies where we're goin'?"
"Imagine so." Chris began to smile.
"Well, imagine I'm in."
Just then the sound of small, pounding feet could be heard coming closer. Wilmington was shocked to see the other man scarcely react when a skinny, shabbily dressed, flushed face boy came bounding up behind the blond.
"Hey, Mister! Is that yer friend? I sure scared 'im good, huh? Is he gonna help? Is he with us? Is he? Are ya, Mister? Huh?"
Larabee glanced down, shaking his head when he noticed that the child was now carrying a peppermint stick from somewhere.
As if reading his mind, the boy said, "That lady was real, real nice! She give me this penny candy, but she wouldn't take no penny fer it. I told her we was playin' a trick on yer friend and she thought it was real funny..."
While Vin continued chattering as he fairly danced around them, Buck asked, "He with you?"
Shaking his head, Chris answered, "He's been keeping me company today."
"... Never had one a these candy's b'fore. Sure is awful sweet. Do y'all wanna taste? Jist a lick, mind ya, but y'all can git a taste..."
"Lord, he does talk a lot don't he?" Buck observed, pitching his voice to be heard over the animated child.
"Think he just got his first taste of sweets today," Chris replied, shaking his head. Then he leaned down, grasping a pair of narrow shoulders. Getting the boy's attention, he said, "Son, you need to go on back to the store, now, okay? Reckon the shopkeep could find plenty to keep you busy."
As the words sank in, Vin looked crestfallen. "But... but... I thought maybe I could go with y'all. I'm real handy with a gun, an' I know a lot 'bout the land. I don't eat much and I'm a real hard worker."
Feeling something chip the armor around his heart, Larabee looked into the wide, blue eyes that should be in a face far older than this child. He knew he was right in this, though, so he said, "You're a very brave young man, and it's been my honor to meet you. But where we're going, it's gonna be really dangerous. Even more dangerous than the cemetery," He added when he saw the protest forming. He didn't know what made him say it, but he added, "I was very worried that something would happen to you out there. I wouldn't want to see you hurt because you came with us."
Heaving a deep sigh, Vin dropped his gaze. He felt the man pat him on the shoulder, but when he looked up again, both men were gone.
Evening found a rather cranky boy scuffing around the town. Virgil Watson had sent him out to run off some of his energy after Vin had bounced around the store for an hour, messing up as much as he cleaned in his unusual exuberance.
Now, as the long shadows of evening began to spread over the land, he wandered into the livery. Crossing the threshold, he stopped, frowning as he looked upward. There, in the hayloft, his keen ears caught the sound of someone crying.
Creeping across the floor, he reached the ladder and started climbing. As he climbed into the loft, he saw a little boy curled up in one corner. He was dressed in the type of clothes he'd only seen a few times when he'd watched people come out of the stagecoach. He had black hair that hid most of his face, but Vin could still tell he was crying. "Hey... hey, kid? What's the matter?"
JD Dunne jumped, pushed the hair back out of his eyes, and stared at the older boy. "Wh-what? Who're you?"
"Name's Vin Tanner. Who're you?"
"JD... JD Dunne." The smaller boy sniffled, using the back of his hand to wipe away the tears.
"Hi. So, what's the matter?"
Scrubbing angrily at the tears that continued to fall, the brunet answered, "I was just tryin' to help that cowboy and he yelled at me and then he told me to go to my Mama, but I can't go to my Mama, 'cause my Mama's in heaven and I can't go there the Reverend said 'fore I left home. Then when the coach stopped here I saw cowboys and injuns and 'cided to stay here 'cause I thought it'd be fun to live with cowboys and injuns but then that cowboy hollered at me."
Frowning as he struggled to decipher the rapid-fire speech of the other boy. "Ya mean ya snuck outta the stage an' yer folks don't know?"
The tears began again and the tiny brunet said, "I ain't got no folks. Mama's boss 'cided to send me out to Cal'for'na to live with some other folks but I don't know 'em and I wanted to stay at home 'cause I gots other folks that's like aunts and uncles and they'd take care of me but now I don't know who's gonna take care of me?"
Vin wasn't certain what to tell the younger boy, but realized that he needed comforting. Moving to sit beside the little brunet, young Tanner tentatively reached out, putting his arm around the child. To his surprise, the tiny brunet curled up against him, little hands grasping his arms tight. The older boy sat still, a shocked expression on his tanned little face. Then, gingerly, he patted the smaller boy's shoulder. The two children sat like that for several moments before the newcomer stopped sniffling.
Giving JD's shoulder a final pat, Vin said, "I'm sorry 'bout yer ma. My Ma... well, she ain't 'round neither. Ya ain't got no pa?"
Sniffing hard, the tiny brunet sat back, shaking his head as he noisily rubbed his chubby hands over his pale little face. "I never had a Papa. Mama said I was a special gift to her, so she'd always have someone to love."
Nodding at the sage words coming from the tiny boy, Vin spoke softly. "My Pa had to go 'way b'fore I was borned. Ma said he had a real special job ta do, so he couldn't stay with us. She said he was real sorry he had ta go 'way but he didn't have no choice."
Reaching out, JD patted the other boy's thin arm. "I'm sorry you don't have a mama or a papa." Then, the big, hazel eyes brightened as a thought crossed the child's mind. "Hey! Me and you could 'tend we're fam'ly! Would that be okay?"
Young Tanner considered the proposal for a moment. He had planned to stay in town, working for Mr. Watson until he had earned enough pennies to strike out on his own. He figured he could either go work for a rancher, or he'd go live with the Indians and learn their ways. If he had to take care of JD too, it would probably take him a lot longer to save up enough pennies to move on. On the other hand, it would be nice to have a friend. He'd never had a real friend before. That last thought made up his mind. Shrugging, he said, "Okay."
The boys grew still then, as they heard someone coming into the livery. Pressing a finger to his lips, Vin motioned for JD to stay quiet. He carefully scooted over until he could peer over the edge of the loft. He felt the smaller boy crawling up beside him. Looking down, he saw the two men who had come into the saloon earlier. Being certain to stay quiet, Vin listened to their conversation.
"I don't trust them," the black man muttered.
"I do not trust them, either," The Seminole Chief agreed. "But they are men who know how to fight. We have need of their abilities."
"I still don't like it."
Clapping a hand on his old friend's shoulder, Tastanagi said, "We do not have to like it, my friend. But they are our only hope of surviving when Anderson and his men return. Now, get some sleep. We will leave as soon as the sky greets the sun."
"Yeah... okay..." It was clear that Ebon was still unhappy.
The two men settled down in a stall, growing quiet as they dropped off to sleep. As they did, Vin turned to the other boy. In a whisper, he explained, "C'mon, an' stay quiet. I got a idea..."
Chief Tastanagi glanced to his left, watching his long-time friend. Ebon had been looking over his shoulder more and more often. Finally, smiling slightly, the silver-maned Seminole said softly, "They have been with us since we left town."
Frowning at the other man, Ebon answered, "Is it the men we hired?"
"No, Tennessee," Tastanagi replied gently. "They will not start out until they have enough men. We should be home several hours before they arrive."
"Then who is it?"
Shaking his head, the wise man said, "I am not certain, but they mean us no harm."
"How can you know that?"
Grinning, the Chief replied, "Because we are not dead."
JD struggled to look around his bigger friend, trying to see where they were. "Are we there yet?"
Heaving a sigh, Vin shook his head. "Nope."
"When we gonna be there?"
"We've only been ridin' a couple 'a hours," the little blond explained patiently. The other boy had done nothing but complain since they'd left town.
They had snuck out of the loft as soon as Vin decided that the two men were asleep. With JD on his heels, he slipped back into Watson's store, where he found the gun Mr. Watson had given him. He also retrieved the few belongings he had come into town with - a canteen, his harmonica, and the old spyglass he'd inherited from one of the buffalo hunters he'd lived with for the last several months.
They left the store as quietly as they'd entered it. Stopping only long enough to fill the canteen, the two boys returned to the livery. Instead of the loft, Vin led the smaller boy into one of the stalls.
In the darkness JD didn't see the black pony that occupied the stall. Suddenly there was something snuffling at his hair, he couldn't help but squeal in fear.
Vin slapped a hand over the other child's mouth, hushing him as best he could. Still holding his hand over the open mouth, he listened for any indication that JD had wakened anyone. He heard one of the men mutter as he shifted in the hay of the far stall, but nothing more. After several tense moments, he decided they hadn't been found out. Then, glaring at the smaller boy, he hissed, "Ya gotta be quiet!"
"But he scared me!" Young Dunne argued.
"Sh! Yer gonna wake someone up!"
"Sh! Now, Peso ain't gonna hurt ya. He don't like growed ups, but he don't mind kids. Jist settle down."
Huffing out a breath, the little blond ordered, "Now, git over yonder and settle down in the hay. We gotta be ready, 'cause as soon as them two light out, we're gonna follow 'em."
And that was just what they'd done. Vin had nothing but a pack saddle and rope halter, but he was comfortable atop the black pony. The two boys had climbed up the open slat wall of the stall and onto the animal's back. Vin sat in front, taking up the reins. JD sat behind him, little arms clinging to him tightly.
Chris Larabee looked at the men around him. They had only been able to add two more to their group; no one from the town itself agreeing to help.
Josiah Sanchez was a former preacher who seemed hell-bent on repenting for things he wouldn't talk about. Not even Nathan, who had known the man for most of the year he had been in town, was certain just what the gray-haired man was making amends for.
Ezra Standish was a gambler; a grifter, liar and cheat but he insisted that he "abhorred gambling". A Southerner by birth, he had originally declined after discovering that Nathan, a former slave, would be riding with them. However, the climate of the little town had turned chilly after he'd tried to pull a scam in the saloon. Standish decided that a little ride through the countryside was just what he needed, no matter the company.
Their exit from the town was delayed after Ezra had joined them, making a quip about the company he would be keeping, and displaying the local newspaper. Chris had yanked it from his hands, reading the front page article with a deepening frown. Without a word, he spurred his horse forward, grumbling under his breath.
A quick exchange between the gunfighter and the newspaper woman ensued.
"I see you've read it." Mary said with a calm she didn't feel.
"As I recall, your quiet little town was full of drunken scum looking to lynch a man. "
"If I have to bend the facts a little to keep our town safe and if the next bunch of drunken scum decides to steer clear of here, then it was worth another black mark on your... your already less-than-stellar reputation, Mr. Larabee. You see, I... took the liberty of researching your past in my late husband's files."
"You read second-hand trash, and you think you know a man. You don't know me." Chris Larabee growled, turning toward the door.
"I'm just trying to scare the bad element away from this town," Mary called after him.
"Lady..." hazel-green eyes regarded her with a glare, "I am the bad element."
The fire in Chris Larabee's eyes hadn't faded as he led the other four men out of town. They rode at an unhurried gait along the dusty street, feeling the eyes of many of the townspeople on them. The gunman ignored the looks; he had grown used to being the object of perusal and curiosity. There was one pair of eyes, though, that he found himself missing. Nowhere along the boardwalk was the little blond he had met the day before. Deciding that the child's feathers must still be ruffled, he pushed aside further thoughts of the boy and nudged his horse a little faster.
They rode throughout the day, stopping only once for lunch on the trail. The other four men were treated to an occasional tirade by Ezra Standish who, it became ever clearer, detested life on the trail.
Vin and JD rode cautiously down the hill, toward the little village. They had stayed in the saddle since leaving town, and both boys were exhausted. Vin could feel the smaller boy leaning heavily against him and knew that JD was asleep. In truth he wasn't far from it himself, his eyelids batting more and more rapidly. As they neared the village, Vin noticed several people coming toward him and his little heart beat faster. Some looked like Mr. Nathan and others were Indians. The man with the long silver hair came closest, reaching out and taking hold of the halter.
"Where were you going, little one?" Tasanagi asked gently.
"We... come ta help... Chief," Vin replied between yawns.
The Chief couldn't help but smile as he regarded the brave little boy. He recognized him as the same child who had faced the drunken cowboys in the town he and Ebon had just returned from. "You are a very brave man-child. I think you must be very tired from your long journey, as well. Would you and your little brother honor us by letting us take you into our homes for the night?"
Vin frowned, not completely certain of what the old man asked. He got the idea they were being welcomed, though, so he nodded and murmured, "Okay."
Tastanagi motioned to Ebon and the two men lifted the children off the pony. JD didn't budge as the black man cradled him against his broad chest, the little boy snuggling against him automatically.
Vin frowned when the man with silver hair lifted him down. At first he thought he was going to be carried, too, like a baby. Then the big man stood him on his feet, keeping hold of him while the pins and needles feeling went away. Then the Chief motioned to him, leading him toward a nearby hut. Tiredly, the seven year old shuffled after him, fighting to keep his eyes open.
As the sun dropped slowly toward the western horizon, they spotted the village. Chris Larabee and the other four men began a slow descent into the valley. They each scanned the area, taking in the small gathering of ramshackle homes. As they neared the village, they were greeted by Tastanagi and Ebon.
As he dismounted, Buck's gaze settled on one of the outlying adobe homes. Frowning as he saw the damage done to it, he said, "You never said anything about a canon." He shot a look at his old friend.
Chris in turn, looked at the Chief, with a questioning gaze. His eyebrow raised as the older man gazed evenly back at him.
"You never asked," Tastanagi responded, the ghost of a smile flitting across his weathered features.
The five men spent the rest of the evening with the tribes people. They plotted and planned how they would defend the village when Colonel Emmett Riley Anderson and his so-called Ghosts of the Confederacy returned.
As night hid the world beyond the campfires, the men were offered the use of one of the larger domiciles. While Chris, Buck, Josiah and Nathan settled close together, Ezra moved off by himself, rolling into his bedroll and turning his back to the others.
As dawn broke, the little village began to come to life. The five men came out and started to mingle with the villagers. None of them were blind to the fact that many of those they had come to help regarded them with open distrust. They were men used to such looks, and shrugged it off with only a little effort.
Chris and Buck sat with the Chief, discussing what they would need to do in the hours and days ahead. The blond suddenly felt a strange sensation; someone was nearby, watching him. Not one of the villagers, either. With a frown, he turned to look behind him. Grumbling a curse under his breath, the gunslinger stood, arms folded across his chest, scowling at a pair of small figures standing nearby. He vaguely recognized the smaller one as the child who was throwing stones in the cemetery the day before. The other child was Vin Tanner.
"What are you two doing here?"
Tastanagi and Buck followed the blond's gaze. Wilmington recalled the older boy from town, but didn't recognize the stout little brunet beside him. The Seminole leader stood, coming to stand beside Larabee, the mustached brunet following close behind.
"They are young and brave and adventuresome for ones so little."
Leveling a cold stare at the silver-haired man, Chris said, "You brought them here?"
Unfazed by the other man's menacing demeanor, Tastanagi replied, "No. They followed us... stayed in the saddle and on our trail the entire trip. We did not discover who they were until they rode into our village."
Turning from the older man to face the boys, Larabee asked the children, "What on earth were you two thinking?"
With a boldness he didn't feel, Vin stepped forward, unconsciously placing himself between the gunman and his young friend. Folding thin arms over a narrow chest, young Tanner mimicked the gunman's stance. In a firm voice, he replied, "Me an' JD wanted ta come help. I'm good with a gun, ya know that. I'm good at other things, too, like trackin'. An' JD..." he nodded toward the smaller boy, "He's good... good at... ummm..."
JD leaned forward and whispered something in the other boy's ear. He moved back, his smile broad and proud.
Looking back at the other boy for a second and shaking his head, young Tanner turned back to face the men. Shrugging as if to say he wasn't certain why it was important, the little blond said, "JD's good at his numbers an' countin'... and singin'."
The black clad man's frown deepened as he heard his friend snickering. Turning toward Wilmington, he growled, "You think this is funny? They could have gotten lost, hurt..."
Chris trailed off, but Buck knew where the man's thoughts were heading. In a soft voice, he said, "but they didn't, and they ain't, pard. They're right here and just as safe as the other kids in this village. Don't go borrowin' trouble."
"Buck," the blond grumbled in a warning tone.
As if he hadn't heard his friend at all, Wilmington stepped forward and squatted down before the two little urchins. He reached out and ruffled Vin's thick, blond hair. "Hey there, junior, you sure do know how to get yourself right into the middle of things, don't you?"
The seven-year-old looked into the laughing blue eyes, relieved to see nothing but compassion. He smiled and giggled as the big man tweaked his nose.
Peeking around the slender little boy, Buck locked eyes with the diminutive brunet. He felt something tug at his heart as a pair of big, hazel eyes peered back at him from beneath a shock of overly-long bangs. "Hey there, little britches, what are you doin' here?"
"I comed with Vin, we 'cided to be brothers 'cause we don't got no one else and then we 'cided to come out here after them," he pointed to Chief Tasanagi and Ebon, "I wanted to come out here 'cause I ain't never seen no Injuns 'fore and so I comed out here with Vin."
Wilmington shook his head at the rapid fire speech. Finally he sorted through the information, latching onto one statement. "You don't have any family? Either of you?" Getting his answer in the form of twin nods, the big man asked, "So who takes care of you?"
Bristling at the suggestion that he was a helpless baby, Vin pulled himself up to his full height. "I don't need nobody ta take care of me. I been takin' care of me fer a long, long time."
Struggling to maintain a serious expression as the little boy gave him an indignant glare, Buck said apologetically, "Well, I'm certain you're real good at it, too. But... what happened to your folks?"
A sad expression replaced the glare and little Tanner said, in a mournful whisper, "They're both gone."
Before Buck could respond, the seven-year-old stormed off. He started to call him back but, before he could, he heard a loud sniffle. Turning, he saw that the smaller boy was crying. Instinctively he held out his arms and, suddenly, he found himself cradling JD to him.
Between sobs young Dunne managed to gulp out his story. "I never had no Papa. My Mama said I was sent to her special, so she'd have someone to love. But then she got real sick and had to go to heaven to sing for God. She didn't wanna leave me, but she had to, 'cause she sings so pretty. Then there wasn't nobody to take care of me. Granny Parsons wanted to, but she's real old. So, the Mister 'cided to send me all the way out to Cal'for'na to live with his sister but when I seen the Ind'uns and Cowboys, I 'cided to live here."
Listening to the broken speech, Buck continued to hold the little boy. he rocked him gently, one big hand patting the tiny, trembling back. As gently as he could, he said, "I'm real sorry to hear that, short britches. You'll be okay, though, I'll make sure of it."
Sniffling loudly, JD asked, "You will?"
Nodding, the big man said, "Yep, I will son, I promise."
The five men spent the day helping the people of the village prepare for the impending battle. Ezra found himself drawn to the children. He found them not only good workers, but they were small fonts of information. By the time they finished their preparations - making dummies to place around the village as decoys - they had supplied him with some very interesting information.
JD was quickly pulled into the group of children, his sweet nature earning him any number of new friends. Vin was seen here and there, typically at the fringes of the group. The children welcomed him, but the blond's innate shyness made him reticent to become too friendly.
Nathan spent the daylight hours preparing for the injuries that were bound to come with the upcoming battle. He found himself being helped by one of the young women who, he found out, was named Rain and was the daughter of Ebon. She was a pretty young woman with a beautiful smile, and he found himself growing more and more attracted to her.
Josiah spent the day building stone walls that would serve as barricades when the so-called Ghosts of the Confederacy returned.
Buck and Chris spent the day working with the men, teaching them to shoot and preparing as many traps as they could. Throughout the day Buck made no effort to hide the fact that he was keeping tabs on JD. Something drew him to the little brunet, like a moth to a tiny, noisy, active flame.
Chris, on the other hand, seemed intent on not keeping track of Vin. He stayed on the other side of the village if at all possible. At those times he found it necessary to be near the group of children, he very studiously ignored them all.
The blond's actions didn't fool his old friend, however. Buck had known Chris far too long; he knew only too well that Larabee was keeping a close eye on the two children that, for some reason, he seemed intent on feeling responsible for. The big man hid a smile, knowing only too well that Chris Larabee had been taken in by the two little waifs.
Sundown was coming nearer. Chris had seen Vin wander off a short time ago and, when he didn't return, he went searching for the child. He found him sitting atop a large, flat boulder, his gaze on the desert floor below. He wasn't particularly quiet, reasoning that the little blond had more than likely already become aware of his presence. Coming to sit next to young Tanner, he asked quietly, "What are you doing out here alone?"
Holding up a spyglass, Vin replied, "Thought I'd best keep an eye on things. If that Colonel fella's like most 'a the Rebs I've met, he'll be a sneaky one."
Marveling at the child's wisdom, Larabee replied, "Good thinking. Your Pa teach you about things like that?"
A strange expression came over the child and he looked away. "Never met my Pa. My Ma said he died 'fore he even knew she was gonna have a baby."
Feeling a lump in his throat that threatened to choke him, Larabee said, "I'm sorry."
Shrugging, the little boy said, "I had my Ma, and she took real good of me."
"I'm sure she did... " Chris hesitated before asking, "How long since she... passed?"
Heaving a sigh, the blond child said, "Reckon 'bout two, three years."
Frowning, Larabee asked, "You've been alone since then?"
With a shake of his head, Vin said, "No. Folks in the town we was livin' in when she died sent me out ta this orphans home. I lived there 'bout six months or so..."
When the child didn't continue, Chris found himself urging the child to talk. Quietly he asked, "Then what?"
Turning to study the man, young Tanner didn't say anything for several moments. Then, finally, he seemed to make a decision. "I lit out, with a couple other, older boys. We 'cided ta go off by ourselves an' learn ta be cowboys."
Chris had to smile at that. The profession most men refused to associate with had been a goal for these little ones.
Not noticing the man's smile, Vin continued. "Them fellas at the home come after us, though. The got 'hold of my two friends an' took 'em off. Figgered I'd better git myself gone, 'fore they found me, too."
"Are they still looking for you?"
Shrugging, the boy said, "Ain't for certain. Might be. I didn't stick 'round long enough ta find out. I lit out an' hooked up with some buff hunters. They took me in... showed me how ta shoot... stuff like that." He dipped his head, signaling that he had told as much of his story as he intended to. Then he looked up, giving the gunslinger a curious look. "You ain't gonna take me back there."
Registering that it wasn't a question as much as a declaration, Chris shook his head. "No, I'm not going to take you back there."
Morning arrived on hoof beats as Colonel Anderson and his Ghosts of the Confederacy approached the Seminole village. They didn't expect the welcome they received. Under the Colonel's orders, a soldier dismounted, checking the chest they had left earlier. With a look of resignation, the man informed his leader that the chest was filled with nothing but sand.
Anger flashed across Anderson's face as he growled, "My instructions could not have been more explicit."
Oh, you were very explicit, Colonel," the soldier, Captain Francis Cochran, replied.
"And yet for some reason, they were not carried out." Turning toward the village, he shouted, "I have shot my own men for less!"
Anderson watched as several figures appeared at various points around the village. With a smirk, he called out, "Colonel Emmett Riley Anderson of the Army of the Confederate States of America. And you are...?"
"There's no gold here, Colonel," Chris responded, his voice seeming soft, but carrying to where the men sat astride their horses.
"No. Course there isn't. You're here for your health or the, uh, company perhaps?" The soldier replied sarcastically.
"We came to ask you to leave." Larabee called back, evenly.
"And purely out of the goodness of your heart?"
"Yep. Something like that." Buck joined in the conversation.
"Well... how many of you humanitarians are there?"
"Enough." This came from Ezra.
"What do you say, Captain? You think there's going to be trouble?"
"No trouble, Colonel. Just turn around and ride out."
"I like that. Audacity!"
"Move on, Colonel. These people have nothing you want." Josiah urged.
"Shoot 'em down, Captain," Anderson ordered.
"Company... " Corcoran called, on arm raised in the air. He listened to the sound of cocking guns, before continuing, "Fire!"
As the Ghosts began their attack, the gunmen, along side the villagers, began a counter-attack. Under Larabee's command, they sprung their traps with a precision that would make any commander proud. After what seemed like an eternity, they sent their attackers into retreat.
"Stand and fight, damn you!" Anderson called out, a note of hysteria in his tone. He pulled his side arm and shot one of his men in the back as he started to ride off.
"For God's sake Colonel!" Corcoran protested.
Anderson leveled an angry glare on the man, still standing his ground.
"For the Love of God, Colonel, let's go!" The Captain was nearly begging.
When Anderson finally registered the fact that they were outnumbered, he had to acknowledge defeat. "Damn it all to hell! Sound retreat!"
Chris, Buck and the others watched from their vantage points as Anderson and his men disappeared. When there was nothing but dust to mark their passage, the village came alive with shouts of triumph and joy. The celebration was short-lived, however, as they turned to the next job at hand... tending the wounded and caring for the dead.
Larabee moved through the chaos, helping to get the wounded gathered together so that Nathan and some of the others were doing their best to care for them. So focused on that task, it was nearly half an hour before he noticed something. Turning to Wilmington, he asked, "Where are the boys?"
Shrugging as he looked around him with a frown, the bigger man remarked, "Haven't seen them... must be with the other young'ns."
The blond tried his best to believe that, but there was a niggling little voice in the back of his mind that said something was wrong. Helping to settle another wounded man onto one of the rough tables that served as cots beneath the canopy of the make-shift infirmary, he strode off. Behind him, Buck watched the black-clad man with a knowing expression.
Chris moved through the village with a new purpose. Here and there were small groups of children, but he saw no sign of either Vin or JD. The gunslinger asked about them, but no one had seen the boys. Just as he was ready to start calling for them, he saw JD peeking around a boulder. The child's dust-covered face was streaked with tears. Speeding up his steps, he moved toward the boy. "JD? What's wrong?"
"It's Vin... he-he won't wake up!"
"What?!" Larabee's heart began to beat a violent tattoo as he ran toward the boy. Fearing the worst, he moved around the stone barrier. His heartbeat slowed quickly, nearly stopping as he took in the sight before him.
Vin lay in a crumpled heap, the side of his head covered with blood. With a great deal of trepidation, the gunman dropped to his knees beside the child. Reaching out a trembling hand, he let out a breath when he felt the boy's heart beating beneath his fingers.
"What happened, JD?" He asked, his voice trembling.
"I-I was throwin' rocks at the bad man... Vin was shootin' his rifle. Then... then one of the men come t-toward me. V-Vin shoved me out of th-the way and the bad man's horse... his horse runned into Vin. He... he fell down and now he won't wake up!"
"Okay, JD, calm down. This wasn't your fault, all right? " While he was speaking to the younger child, he was examining the older boy.
"But... he won't wake up!" Young Dunne cried.
"JD, it's going to be all right." Larabee knew the boy was upset, but had more important things on his mind at the moment. As carefully as possible, he lifted the little blond up, cradling him against his chest. Vin moaned softly, but didn't wake.
Chris nodded absently as someone handed him a mug of coffee. He sat cross-legged beside the pallet where Vin lay, sleeping now. Nathan had cleaned the wound, a small gash in the hairline, and wrapped it with boiled cloth. The child had wakened a few times, for just a minute or two. They had gotten him to drink some water and some broth, and he was able to tell them his name and the few other facts they knew about the boy.
Now all they could do was wait.
Nearby, Buck sat; JD sprawled across his lap, asleep. He was watching his old friend, a knowing expression on his face. He nodded when Josiah Sanchez came to sit beside him on the bench. The older man had caught a bullet in the side during the attack, not telling anyone until he'd simply fallen on his face while tending to a dying Seminole.
"How ya doin', preacher?" Buck asked.
Smiling as he drew a bottle of whiskey from beneath his serape, the gray-haired man said, "just fine."
With a brief chuckle, Wilmington said, "Well, you seem to be in good spirits."
Grinning now, Sanchez replied, "I'm a spiritual man... but sometimes I turn to the wrong kind of spirits."
Shaking his head, the brunet resumed watching the blond. JD chose that moment to mutter something in his sleep, shifting on the big man's lap. Absently, he patted the little back, soothing the boy.
Looking at the way Buck acted with JD and then shifting his attention to how Chris ministered to Vin, his curiosity rose. "You both seem pretty comfortable with children."
Sighing, Wilmington said softly, "He had a son once. Never had a chance to see him grow up, though. He lost that boy-- and his wife-- in a fire and that burned half the soul out of that man."
Josiah saw quickly that the death of Chris Larabee's family had marked the soul of more than the man himself. The man beside him, lost in memories now, had not gone unscathed. Without another word, the big man reached out and squeezed the brunet's shoulder. Then he pushed himself to his feet and left Buck to his thoughts.
Chris stretched, feeling protesting muscles pop and crack. He hadn't moved much for hours, still sitting beside the pallet where Vin lay. He had coaxed those big eyes open every few hours as Nathan had instructed, making certain that the child's mind wasn't affected by the blow to his head. He had a variety of bruises from his fall, but nothing serious. The healer assured the gunslinger that the boy would be fine in a few days, with nothing but a headache.
But Larabee couldn't bring himself to leave Vin's side.
Just as the sun rose on another day in the village, the child woke on his own. Those fathomless blue eyes, far too old for the face they were set in, blinked open and began to search the world around him. As they settled on the blond man next to him, they stopped their search. "Ch... Chris?"
Larabee's face brightened as he saw the little boy awake and aware. It seemed so inadequate, but all he could think to say, was, "Hey there. How're you feeling?"
Frowning, the child considered the question for a full moment before answering, "head hurts."
The corner of his mouth quirking up, the gunman replied, "Imagine it does. Think you can sit up for a bit? I'll get you something to eat if you want."
"I'm okay," Vin responded, bristling at the fussing. Then he moved to sit up, and found just how difficult that was. Things began to spin and, if he'd already eaten, he'd have lost it. Suddenly he felt strong arms holding him up, and experienced something he'd forgotten. He felt safe.
Chris felt the tiny body slump against him, and held the boy carefully. Looking around, he saw Buck nearby and motioned him over. "Think you could rustle up something for our little sharpshooter to eat?"
His smile broad beneath his mustache, the big man nodded. "Reckon I could do that."
A few minutes later, Larabee had the little boy situated with his back against a saddle. He held the bowl of mush and allowed Vin to feed himself. After a dozen bites or so, the little boy began to slow down, then dropped the spoon into the bowl.
"Reckon I'm full," he murmured, leaning back against the saddle tiredly.
"Sure?" Larabee asked.
Nodding, Vin let his eyes drift shut. He felt someone moving him, felt himself stretched flat on the blankets again. With a sigh, he drifted back to sleep.
Chris didn't want to leave little Tanner's side, but he and Buck needed to go on patrol. They all hoped that Anderson and his men were gone, but had to make certain. So the two gunmen saddled up, preparing to leave. The blond frowned, "Where's Ezra?"
"He relieved me a couple of hours ago," Buck responded. They had kept their guard through the night. Just in case.
Nodding, Larabee looked over to where Josiah was stirring a cookpot. "What's for dinner?"
"Chili and beans," the older man announced.
"We'll be back in a few hours."
Before the two men could ride out, however, a voice, ordering "Fire!" split the air. Buck's head shot up, as he scanned the bluffs around them. "What's that?"
At the same time that Wilmington spoke, there was a blast, one of the adobes exploding, the shards of wood and mud raining across the village.
"It's the canon!" Chris yelled as he dismounted. He didn't have time to question why Standish hadn't alerted them; that would have to wait for later.
Chaos overtook the village and people began running every direction. Larabee and Wilmington dashed across the desert floor, heading toward the spot where they had left the two boys. Locating them quickly, Chris scooped up Vin, who was just waking in response to the commotion. At the same time, Buck grabbed up a crying JD, holding him close as the two men began sprinting across the sand.
"Everybody into the bluffs! That cannon will tear these adobes apart!" Larabee yelled as he ran there, Vin tucked against him.
"Bring it around! Reload! Move it! Ready! Fire!" At the top of the canyon, Sergeant Darcy, Anderson's canon man, yelled the orders.
"Lower the damn elevation." Anderson growled, when the ball's trajectory went wide.
"Fire!" Darcy commanded.
Beside the commander, Frances Corcoran was losing faith in the man. This was just a peaceful village, after all. Not an enemy encampment. "Colonel, that village has no fortifications. We're wasting powder and shot."
"Waste?" Anderson growled, pointing at the dead bodies of his men that lay nearby. They had been dumped beyond the village after yesterday's skirmish and retrieved by his men during the night. Pale eyes flashing, he continued. "Men who survived the battles at Shiloh and Bull Run -- the finest sons of the south -- and they die here? I'll wipe this place from the face of the earth. I'll fire rocks if I have to." Turning back to the others, he yelled out, "Fire!"
Below the soldiers, Chris, Buck and the others were huddled beneath the bluff. The blond settled the drowsy seven-year-old in the far corner, Buck peeling JD from him and coaxing him to stay with Vin. Then the men turned to the task at hand.
Looking around, Larabee asked, "Where's Ezra?"
Ezra Standish was just topping the rise, the sounds of battle far below him. He turned, looking back down at the village. He remembered the night before, when he had been talking with the children, showing them card tricks and teaching them to play poker. Then he had told their fortune, and one of the boys stated that he wanted to grow up to be a hero, just like him.
Standish shook his head and said, "There are two kinds of people in this life, my friend: those who seek battle and seem not to fear death-- like them--" he nodded toward where Buck and Chris were strolling through the village. "And those who avoid battle but will stand and fight to the death if their loved ones are threatened-- like them." He indicated some of the villagers. "That is true courage."
Then the conman in him had taken over, and he continued. "Now... you have lost to me at poker and I have read the cards for you. The time has come to pay. You see... I've heard tell of a gold mine in these parts."
That was where he had been, investigating the gold mine, rather than standing guard as he was supposed to. And now the village was paying the priced, and all he had found was a played out mine. Guilt washed over the man's handsome face as he whispered to himself, "And then there's a third kind..."
Beneath the bluffs, Chris and the others were discussing their predicament. "We got two options: we can ride up after that gun - "
"That's no option. That's suicide." Buck cut in, ducking as dust rained down on him. "What's the other option?"
"We could raise a white flag." The blond replied in a tone of resignation.
Not satisfied with either of those, Wilmington came up with, "Or three, we could mount up and we could ride the hell out of here!"
"Go, then!" Rain, the young woman who had been helping Nathan, yelled angrily. Tears streaked her pretty face; she had just witnessed her father's death, and was focused now on revenge. "With my last breath, I will fight these men."
"Them's Rebs up there. That makes it my fight." Nathan added from where he stood beside the young woman.
"They'll see us before we get five paces, and that gun will cut us to pieces!" Buck said, arguing with himself now.
"There's got to be another way up there!" Larabee lamented.
"There is." One of the Seminole braves, Imala, stated. Waiting until all eyes were on him, he continued, "We can climb."
Vin opened his eyes, looking around him at the out of focus world. Slowly things became clearer, and he saw the source of the sniffling sound he'd heard. J.D. sat nearby, his face wet with tears running his tongue over his lips he managed to croak out "What's wrong JD?"
Seeing his friend's eyes open, the smaller boy smiled. "You're awake!"
Frowning as the loud voice made his head hurt, Tanner repeated, "What's wrong?"
Young Dunne's face fell and he looked as if he wanted to cry again. "Chris and J'siah and Nathan climbed the mountain to get them ghosts and I'm afraid they won't never come back!" Tears begin to flow once more.
Pushing himself up slowly and taking a deep breath one is inside seem to do flip flops Vin said firmly "They'll be back."
J.D. looked at him "How do you know?" he challenged
Young Tanner shrugged, "I just do."
Chris and the others were just reaching the top of the bluff behind Imala when a single shot rang out. They watched, shocked, as the young brave fell to the ground. Then their attention was drawn to the handful of men before them. They wore confederate gray, and they all had guns trained on the man
"Surrender or die," one of the men ordered.
Sighing dramatically, Buck said, "Think I'll take that $5.00 now."
Larabee couldn't help but smirk at his old friend's comment. Then, squaring his shoulders he raised his hands. Behind him the others raised their hands as well.
Another of the soldiers stepped forward and quickly disarmed them. With resignation the five men allowed themselves to be taken prisoner
Rain knelt beside the two small boys. She set aside her own grief as she took in J.D.'s tear-stained little face. "Are you two all right?"
Vin looked up into the young woman's face. "He's sad 'cause Buck and the others went away."
Reaching out Rain stroked the thick, black hair back from a smaller boy's face. "I'm sure they'll be fine. Would you both like to come and sit with me?"
"Okay." Vin moved to stand only to find the world spinning around him once more. When things finally righted he found himself in the young woman's arms. Embarrassed, he murmured, "I'm s-sorry."
Cradling the injured child to her, Rain stood. Carrying him across the space to where the others sat, waiting, she said softly, "That's okay, sugar. You just lay still and rest."
Vin started to protest being carried, but truthfully it felt too good to be cradled in the woman's arms. He snuggled against her shoulder even after she settled on the ground near Tastanagi and some of the others. JD sat down beside them, leaning against Rain. She held Vin with one arm and wrapped the other around the little brunet. Together with the others in her tribe, they listened for the sounds of the canon.
Above the waiting children, Chris and the others were being shackled and forced to sit in a group, their backs against the stone at the top of the bluff. Larabee glared at the confederate soldiers who were holding them captive. Nearby, Buck sat, long legs stretched out before him, with a resigned look on his face. Nathan too stared at the men who wore the hated uniform of his former oppressors. Beside him Josiah seemed not to notice their predicament, he sat watching the clouds floating by overhead.
Darcy grinned as he ordered the men seeing to restraining their captives. "Make them nice and tight, boys."
Nearby, Colonel Anderson was speaking to Corcoran. "I was there at Shiloh, Captain."
"I know you were at Shiloh, Colonel."
"The union lines had broken. They were in full retreat. There was no way they could counterattack. But they did. Our surviving officers were herded up like cattle; forced to watch as they raised that union flag. Then they fired off that cannon and we were all left for dead. And I lay there amongst that carnage surrounded by the bodies of my dead brothers. Well... we're going to raise the stars and bars over that little village. I want it to be the last thing these boys ever see." With that he turned and limped toward his tent.
Darcy, having seen to the prisoners was now overseeing the placement of the canon. "All right! Let's get some muscle behind it! Move it up there on that flat now!"
Josiah grimaced as Buck jostled against him. Looking at the other man he asked, "Mind not leaning against my bad leg?"
Buck gave him a surprised look, then scooted over a bit.
A short time later, in the Colonel's tent, Anderson and Corcoran were in a heated debate. The commanding officer was drinking straight from a bottle of Laudanum, and had just ordered the deaths of the prisoners.
The younger man looked appalled as he asked, "Are you ordering all these prisoners to be executed, Sir?"
"That is correct." Anderson replied smugly.
"But, Colonel, these men surrendered."
"And we shall reward them with a quick and merciful death. They shall not be made to suffer, as I was."
"That's murder, Sir." Francis argued.
"Are you refusing my order, Corcoran?"
"Colonel..." Corcoran was pleading now. "Colonel, we've been riding together for a long, long time, you and I. Following your orders has saved my life more times than I can remember. But this, I... "
"I can't do it, Sir." Corcoran replied, shaking his head.
"But that's treason." Anderson growled.
"Treason? Treason against what? The war is over, sir."
Anderson removed his hat, hitting the other man over the head with it several times. Then he called out, "Darcy!" Turning now to Corcoran, he said coldly, "You disappoint me, Francis."
"Sir!" Darcy responded sharply as he entered the tent.
Nodding toward his former right hand man, Anderson ordered, "This man is stripped of rank and privilege. You're hereby promoted to Captain. Place the mutineer among the other prisoners. And then execute them all."
"All, sir?" Darcy asked. He asked for clarification.
"I think I made myself clear, Captain Darcy. When our flag reaches the top of the staff execute the prisoners."
"Yes, sir." Turning to Francis, he motioned toward the tent opening. "Private?"
Darcy escorted Corcoran from the tent and over to where the prisoners sat. Handcuffing the man, he shoved him forward. Francis dropped to sit next to the other men. On their part, the others regarded him questioningly. They had overheard the heated exchange, and wondered at this man standing up to the Colonel.
Finally, Buck asked, "How about it, Johnny Reb? I bet you never thought your boss would go loco on you."
"I'll have you know Colonel Anderson was one of the finest soldiers in any man's army. I owe my life to him."
"And soon, your death," Wilmington quipped.
The only answer that Francis could give was an ironic smile.
They all watched as Anderson and most of his men mounted up and started back toward the village below. Then, something caught Nathan's eye. He looked to see Ezra slipping into the ranks of the confederates disguised as one of their own. The slippery con man ended up in the middle of their abductors before they even knew he was there. The former slave could only shake his head at the man's nerve.
Back on the desert floor, now, Anderson and his Ghosts approached the village. The Colonel motioned to a spot nearby and ordered his men, "Set up the flag pole over there."
The soldiers worked to follow his orders and, quickly, the pole was set. Others were rounding up the villagers, and soon they were clustered together before the men. Vin and JD stood between Rain and some of the others, all but hidden from their attackers. The little blond was still wobbly, his head throbbing, but he stood quietly, leaning against the young woman.
Anderson stared hard at the Seminole Chief, his pale eyes cold. In a rough voice, he said, "Well... I hear the clank of gold bars and the roar of the guns as we hit back at the Yankees. Here's what we're going to do now. We're going to have us a little flag-raising ceremony. Then we're going to execute us some prisoners with our little cannon. Then you're going to show me where that mine is."
"There is no gold in that mine," Tastanagi tried to reason with the madman.
"Oh, no! Of course not! You're going to show me, old man."
Darcy barely noticed the man who had just rejoined the group. Above the village, they awaited the signal that would tell them to execute the prisoners. That was where his mind was; not on the man walking closer. "About time. They'll be raising the flag soon."
"I wouldn't want to miss this." Ezra Standish, wearing the coat and hat of one of the Ghosts, he infiltrated their number. Showing his face, he lifted a rifle, pointing it toward Darcy. "Nobody move, or he's dead." Then, glancing toward where the other four men sat, he quipped, "I leave you boys alone for five minutes and look what happens."
"You'll only get one shot off before we take you," Darcy growled.
"Then you best discuss amongst yourselves which one of you is going to die," the gambler retorted.
His words didn't have the effect he expected. The soldier laughed; a cold bark of a sound. "Why... pick 'em yourself. The rest of us will tear you apart."
Pointing the rifle toward a powder keg sitting nearby, he said softly, "Well, I guess I'll just have to take all of us."
Unfazed, the gray-haired man chuckled. "Why, that powder keg's empty, Mister." Pulling his own weapon, he ordered, "Drop it." As the other man did just that, he shook his head. In a smug tone, he said, "Big mistake, sonny boy. You shouldn't have tried that."
With a contrite look, Standish shook his head. Eyes downcast, he murmured, "I know. I can't imagine what came over me." But then he released his derringer, shooting Darcy in the chest.
Nearby, Chris had managed to pull his wrist through the manacle surrounding it, taking more than a little skin with it. Taking advantage of the chaos created by Ezra's unexpected appearance, he grabbed the closest confederate soldier, using the man as a shield even as he grabbed his gun. Just as another soldier shot at him, killing the man before him instead, he returned fire and the soldier fell.
Buck, not one to miss a fight, grabbed up a rifle dropped by one of the soldiers. Hands still shackled, he fired the weapon, felling another of the Ghosts.
The battle was swift, the confederates atop the bluff either killed or captured. Chris moved amongst the captives, unlocking their manacles.
As he came to Corcoran, the disgraced Ghost argued, "You're outnumbered three to one. Anderson's a mad dog. You'll all die."
In a cold tone, Larabee responded, "We know what to do with a mad dog." Then he turned, facing Standish. He growled softly, "Don't ever run out on me again." He watched the other man's face fall, the gambler nodding briefly as he strode away.
Satisfied that the Ghosts left to guard them were taken care of, Larabee and the others prepared to return to the village. Francis pleaded with them. "Take me with you. I know him. I know him. I know his methods. I'll kill him."
Below, the tattered flag was removed from its leather case and carefully attached to the pole. With reverence, the Ghosts stood silent as the flag was raised. Then... nothing.
Anderson frowned and ordered, "Give me that glass, Soldier." His frown deepened as he could see nothing on the ridge above. "What the hell? Troop B!"
"Yes, sir!" The leader of Troop B called out sharply.
Pointing upward, the madman ordered, "Check out that cannon!" He watched as his soldiers rode off to carry out his orders.
Larabee and the other men reached the spot on the ridge they had climbed up earlier. Chris knelt beside the fallen brave who had led them here. Retrieving the man's knife, he silently vowed to return it to Tastanagi, his father. With a slightly haunted look, as he thought of the Seminole chief who had already lost so much of his family, he spoke quietly. "Let's finish this."
Buck, Josiah, Nathan, Ezra and Francis Corcoran followed the black clad man back toward the besieged village.
With Troop B off to investigate the silent canon, Anderson prepared for a fight. "All right, you men take the high ground. Command the approaches."
The remaining soldiers followed his orders with the experience of years. Quickly they were prepared for battle.
As Troop B ascended the ridge, they found things eerily quiet. The bodies of Darcy and many of the others lay scattered around the ground while others returned their gaze balefully from where they sat, shackled.
Then Ezra suddenly appeared, guns trained on the soldiers. "Drop your guns... or join your friends." When they did as told, he nodded, "Much obliged."
Below, the Colonel was watching for signs of an attack. In agitation, he growled, "Show yourself... damn it. Show yourselves. Show yourself."
The Colonel got his wish, but not in the way he expected. Suddenly a high-pitched whistle drew his attention and he watched as a cannonball took out the flagpole. Shards of wood and dust exploded, filling the air. As the cloud began to disperse, Chris Larabee and the other men could be seen, advancing on the Ghosts of the Confederacy.
"LEMME GO!" Despite his head wound, Vin was struggling hard to get out of Rain's grasp.
"No, calm down, little one. You can't go out there, it is too dangerous," the young Seminole woman did her best to comfort him.
"But we gotta go help! Buck needs help!" JD joined the argument, tugging at the woman's skirt. "Please, miss, we gotta go help!"
Beyond the sheltering rock, the battle was being waged. The confederate leader's voice could be heard above everything else, shouting out orders. "Come on, Let's go. Troop C, run them down! Watch it over there!"
Like the commander of the opposing force, Chris Larabee was yelling out his own orders. "He's up there. He's up there! Get down, get down, get down. Get Anderson. No matter what, get Anderson!"
Vin continued to struggle against the woman's hold. Tears streamed down his little face as he tried his best to get away from her. "Please... please, miss, let me go! I gotta go help!"
"You need to calm down, child. You need to rest, you are hurt." Just then a stray bullet caught one of the women nearby. Rain's attention was drawn to her and she loosened her hold.
Seeing his chance, Vin pushed against the young woman's arm, wriggling free. Before he could be caught up again, he ran as quickly as he could, heading for the nearest opening. JD was only a step behind him. The two boys scampered out, running across the village toward the battle.
"I can't get him!" Chris yelled out in frustration. He started toward a boulder where he hoped to get a better shot. He was shocked to find Vin running toward him. "Vin! Get back!"
Unheeding, the little boy came right up to the black clad man, big eyes determined, he simply said, "I c'n help."
Shaking his head, Larabee grabbed the child's arm and pulled him behind the rock, making certain he was hidden as well as possible. Then he peered over the boulder and began shooting at the colonel again.
Across the village, Buck and Corcoran had taken cover in one of the little homes. Wilmington gasped and cursed when he saw JD Dunne dashing inside, coming right up to him. "Boy, what are you doin' out here!?"
"I wanted to come help fight them bad men!" JD yelled back, then he yelped as a bullet whistled past him. Frightened now, the little boy burrowed against the big man's leg.
Grabbing the little boy, Buck moved him behind a heavy chest, hoping it would prove to be adequate as a shield. That done, he began shooting again. Then he heard Francis groan and looked toward the other man. "You hit?"
"I'm... f-fine," Corcoran replied, grasping his side. A few seconds earlier it had burned as hot lead tore through his flesh.
Both men heard Anderson yelling outside. "Show them what you're made of, now! Come on!"
"Bastard won't go down!" Josiah yelled out from his own place of cover, continuing to fire. As the others were, he was concentrating his bullets on the Ghosts' leader.
With a smug look, Anderson called out, "You can't kill me. I'm a ghost of the Confederacy and I will not die."
"He's so pumped full of laudanum someone could chop off his head and he wouldn't feel it." Nathan observed as they continued firing on the confederates.
Inside the little house, bullets seemed to be flying in every direction. Buck glanced down to see JD huddled in a tight little ball, little arms covering his head. He knew he had to do something to end this madness. Deciding to put the adage 'to kill a snake, you cut off its head', he dashed from the house and headed for Anderson. Then he stopped as the Colonel turned in his direction. Before he could react, the man spurred his horse forward, his sword slashing in an arc to open a wide gash in the brunet's chest.
As Anderson rode away, Josiah broke cover and came to where the injured Wilmington lay. Despite his injury, he began to drag the man toward the nearby house. Then a bullet caught him, sending him to the ground. Even so, he managed to shield Buck with his body.
Anderson bellowed out, "Finish it!" as his men continued to fire at the mix of gunmen and villagers. He bled from a variety of wounds, but still sat astride his horse. Then he looked to see Francis moving slowly into the open.
"This has to stop, Sir." He held his gun at the ready, aimed at his former commander.
The colonel looked at the other man with an expression of shock. "Francis... You were like a son to me."
"Don't make me do this, Sir." Francis pleaded, his gun never wavering.
"My God... you're a coward." He raised his own gun to fire on Corcoran. Then a shot rang out, and he fell - dead - from his horse.
Larabee stood, gun still aimed toward the fallen man, eyes narrowed in an expressionless face. With Vin on his heels, he moved over a few steps, to where a piece of the confederate flag dangled from the bare branches of a tree. Pulling it loose, he waved it above his head as he called out, "The war is over! Go back to your families."
Nearby, Francis dropped to his knees beside the dead colonel. In a voice hollow with grief and shock, he said, "He's dead. It's finished now."
The remaining Ghosts rode slowly away, their heads hanging as they disappeared from the village. Behind them, the Seminole village seemed eerily quiet now. The villagers stumbled and shuffled into the sunlight, staring around them in shock.
Chris knelt beside his old friend, Vin on one side of him and JD on the other. He winced as he saw the blood covering the man's broad chest.
"Hey, pard. We got him." Wilmington murmured in a pain-filled voice.
"We did." Larabee agreed. Then he looked to Nathan, silently asking the man if his friend would survive.
"Buck... " JD whimpered, tears streaming down his face.
"Hey, kid... do me a favor... hold onto my hat for me, okay?" He picked up his hat and handed it to the child with a trembling hand. Then he turned back to his friend. "Never did get to spend any time with those fine ladies."
"You will, but first let's get you stitched up, Buck." Nathan promised. Then he looked toward Chris and nodded, telling the blond that he was being truthful.
Managing a nod in return, Chris reached out and squeezed the brunet's broad shoulder. Then, to the children, he said, "why don't we let Nathan take care of Buck, okay?" Then seeing how pale Vin looked, and how traumatized JD was, he said, "JD, why don't you go with Vin over to some shade. I think his head's hurting again. Maybe you could get him a drink?"
"Oh... okay, Mister Chris," little Dunne answered. He found it difficult to leave Mister Buck, but his friend needed him. Family did for each other, that's what his Mama had always said.
"I'm okay," Vin protested. Then he caught Chris' expression and realized that the blond was trying to distract his friend. With only a hint of reluctance, he said, "I reckon I could use a drink, though."
With the two boys distracted and Nathan tending Buck, Larabee moved to where Tastanagi stood, searching the top of the bluffs. Handing out the buck knife he'd picked up earlier, he said softly, "It's Imala's."
Pride filled the old man's face, along with sorrow. He reached out and accepted the knife. "You fought with him... Not against him. Me-doh."
Clean-up took the rest of the day, and into the night. The wounded were tended to, the dead villagers were buried, while the bodies of the ghosts - including Colonel Emmett Riley Anderson - were piled together and burned.
The two little boys sat to one side, watching all the hustle and bustle. Vin knew that he had been silently asked to keep JD preoccupied while they tended to Buck. He had seen the blood and the awful gash across the man's chest and understood what the smaller boy didn't seem to. The big man was in bad shape.
However, as soon as he saw them carrying Wilmington to one of the shelters, not even Vin could keep JD preoccupied. The little brunet trotted away, following Nathan and Chris as they carried Buck out of the hot sun.
The men didn't notice the tiny brunet behind them. They settled Buck on a narrow bed, made certain he was comfortable, and then hurried back out to help with other injured people.
As soon as they had disappeared, little Dunne crept to the bed. He stared up at the injured man, noting that the laughing blue eyes were closed. Buck was stripped to the waist, sporting a bandage that seemed to cover most of his chest. JD reached out, settling his hand on one forearm. Despite his efforts not to disturb the man, Buck's eyes blinked open.
"Hey... little britches," Wilmington's voice was soft and rough with pain.
"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to wake you up. I just..." JD sniffed, realizing only now that he was crying.
Recognizing the fear in the little boy, Buck managed to reach out and wipe the tears on the tiny face. "Hey, you're not worried... about me, are you?"
"I... well, I just got... scared. I didn't want you... want you to... to..."
Stroking a hand through the thick, black hair, the injured man read the child's thoughts easily. "Hey, I ain't goin' nowhere, okay? This..." He lightly touched the wide bandage on his chest, "is just a big scratch, okay? I'm gonna be fine."
Blinking the tears away, the child asked, "Promise?"
Nodding, Wilmington managed a smile. "I promise, son."
It was some time before Nathan tended to Francis Corcoran. Like any confederate, the former slave had no use for the injured man. However, he begrudgingly admitted that the Reb had come through for them in the end. Pulling open the rebel's shirt, he saw that, while painful and bloody, the bullet had passed through the man's side, doing little damage. Jackson efficiently cleaned and dressed the wound. "You'll be fine... you can even catch up with your... friends... tomorrow if you want."
Shaking his head, Corcoran said, "I wouldn't count any of them as friends, Doctor Jackson."
With a wry grin, Nathan said, "I'm no doctor, I just like healin' folks. You of all people should know that there ain't no darkie doctors."
Grunting as he tried to find a comfortable way to lie, the former Ghost said, "For what it's worth, Mister Jackson, it was never about slavery. Not for me anyway."
"Yeah, well, you'd be one of the few then." Bitterness colored the man's words.
Nodding, Francis said, "I don't have a family... no friends. Perhaps I'll settle in somewhere around here." His voice took on a dreamy quality as he said, "I always wanted to own a little place... somewhere I could put down roots."
Frowning as he found himself begrudgingly liking this man, Nathan said, "Yeah? Well, there's lots of land out here for the taking." He nodded, slapped the man on the shoulder, and left to tend to the other injured.
By the next sunrise, the village and its people had begun to recover.
Chris was strolling across the village, young Vin walking beside him. "So, what do you think, little sharpshooter... you want to come back with us, or stay here at the village?"
Squinting up at the tall man, Vin said, "I ain't certain. I'd like ta learn the Sem'noles ways, but... "
Hearing the hope in the child's voice, Larabee took a deep breath. After all, what did he have to offer a child? But, there was that part of him he had ignored for two years. The part that had been a father. That part of him begged to have the chance to give this little orphan what he had never been able to give his own son. A future.
It was that man who said softly, "Well... what if you ride back to town with us, and we'll sort this all out? Then, if you want to come back here..."
Vin's little heart was beating a quick tattoo at the thought that Mister Chris wanted to have him along. Grinning, unable to completely contain his happiness, he said, "I'd like that... if yer okay with it?"
Grinning now, Larabee reached down and gently ruffled the long, dark blond hair. "Yeah... I'm okay with it."
A short time later, six horses rode slowly away from the village, carrying five men and two boys. JD sat in front of Buck, trying his best to be careful of the man's injuries. Vin rode his own horse, staying as close to Chris Larabee as he could.
Josiah sat, slumped over his saddle, looking quite a bit the worse for wear. Nathan rode close beside him, still fussing and growling at the older man. He had planned to stay at the village; to help them, until he had seen Sanchez riding off to join the others. Reluctantly, Rain urged him to go with his friends, promising to wait for his return.
Ezra rode with them as well, still uncertain of his place in their band. He rode at the edge of the group, sending furtive glances toward the unspoken leader of their number. He was near Wilmington and watched as the man reminded the wiggling child once more that he needed him to sit still.
Quietly, Standish offered, "I could take the child for a while, if you'd like, Mister Wilmington."
Smiling, the bigger man shook his head. "Nah, that's alright. I've got 'im." His dark blue eyes twinkled as he silently added, "And I aim to keep him."
Seven. Five men and two boys. They rode across the desert floor, heading back toward the little town where they had all met.
Next: One Day Out West