Summary: When an injured teenager stumbles into town with a monstrous story to tell, Nathan Jackson and the rest of the seven journey to a remote part of the Territory to free a people trapped in time by cruel masters keeping a terrible secret.
Ninth story in the "Seven Scrolls" series. Follows Julia.
Philly couldn't run anymore.
The pain from the bullet wound had become his entire world until he couldn't see colours any more, or feel warmth against his skin. All he felt was the pain, tearing away at his insides, chasing him down like the men he knew were hunting him. He knew he couldn't go on much longer, that exhaustion would kill him but he had no choice, he would rather die on his feet than on his knees as a slave. North was too far away, Ma had said that to him, but if he kept going south, he'll eventually get to Mexico and in Mexico, he would be safe.
In Mexico, no one would care if he was a nigger.
Philly hoped they didn't hurt his Ma because of what he had done but knew with anguish they probably would. The overseers liked laying with her and for years, he could do nothing but watch a little more of the light fading away from her eyes, each time they came to the shack in the night. His father had died long ago, having hung himself from the shame of it and when he had gone, what spirit she had was broken for good.
Philly missed that most about her.
Even when she had done something to herself, so one day he came home from the fields and found her lying in her own blood, thinking she was dead for sure, they hadn't stopped coming. They just waited until she was patched up and healed before resuming their visits, even more frequently than before, like they were punishing her for what she had done to herself. Three days ago, the man she despised the most, the one who always left her broken and bleeding so bad she couldn't move for days after, had come to the shack again.
A lifetime on his knees saying ‘Yassir, Nossir,' had been forgotten completely when Philly saw the defeat in her eyes as if the last vestiges of her soul was being ripped away even as Mr Brent dragged her away into the shack. Wearing that leer on his jowled face, he could see Mr Brent telling him in no uncertain terms with his cruel eyes what was going to happen, and relishing the fact Philly could do nothing to stop it. He watched his Ma's eyes deaden, unable to cry anymore, following Mr Brent into the shack they called home, her head hung low like a dog that been kicked one time too many.
Something inside him snapped, a voice held down for so long, finally screamed.
He wasn't going to let Mr Brent hurt his Ma no more. When the axe had come into his hand, he didn't know but what he did with it, was vivid in his mind. So were the screams, not from Mr Brent who never had a chance to cry out but from his Ma who watched Philly put the blade in the back of the man's head, even as he was grunting like an animal over her. When he watched Mr Brent slide off her, his eyes wide open, gaping in shock that the death blow had come from a nigger slave, a truth was revealed. It was the first thing Philly had ever done in his life that was solely his choice to make.
His mother had told him to run and run he did. Even as the camp came alive with the news of what he'd done, even as he heard Master screaming after his head, and Ma telling him to go south, to not stop until he got to the sea, and over it if he could. She didn't want him to look back, didn't want him to catch his breath, even after they shot at him and one of their bullets struck flesh. It didn't matter.
He was thirteen years old and was named Pheidippides by his father, who said it was the name of a great hero. Philly didn't think he was a hero but like his namesake, he knew he had to run and keep running because if they caught him, they wouldn't kill him. They wouldn't be that kind.
They would bring him back alive and that would be worse than hell.
Nathan Jackson was not in a good mood.
The cloud of annoyance that followed him all the way to the Standish Tavern had not dissipated by the time the healer stepped through the batwing doors of the saloon. It was an unusual state of affairs for the normally easy-going healer who was known throughout Four Corners as one of the more approachable members of the town's lawmen, the Magnificent Seven. On this occasion, however, Nathan's amiable personality was nowhere in sight and even the dust motes stepped aside in caution as he stepped into the premises, searching for his comrades at their favourite watering hole.
At this time of the afternoon, the saloon was barely occupied with only the usual die-hard barflies at the counter, trying to cajole free drinks out of Inez Recillos the saloon's lovely bartender, who was having none of it. While hardly deserted, the lazy atmosphere inside the saloon was far removed from the hustle and bustle of activity taking place in the rest of the town. Within these walls where sunlight struggled for purchase, time was a thing trapped in amber, shielding its patrons from the realities of life on the other side of the swing doors.
Spotting his party at their usual felt-covered table, Nathan saw Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish, enjoying the afternoon indoors with a game of poker, since little else was happening in town today. Truth be told, when the seven weren't playing lawmen to the Four Corners, it could get awfully dull without something else to occupy their time. Nathan himself had spent the time at his infirmary, nursing his patients through their various maladies while Josiah continued the work at his church while young love had JD riding out with Casey for the day.
"This is all your fault!"
Nathan announced himself to his friends with that rather accusatory statement, immediately interrupting their game of cards as he stomped over to them, wearing an expression that was equal parts exasperation and worry. By the time he reached them, it was abundantly clear which one of them had earned his ire and the remaining three men shifted their eyes to the gambler in a mixture of sympathy because no one liked being in Nathan's doghouse.
Ezra looked up from his hand, his previously impenetrable poker face dissolving into an expression of bewilderment as he tried to understand what he had done to earn Nathan's ire. Running his mind over his activities this past week, he wondered if Nathan could still be annoyed at his latest get rich quick scheme involving a product called ‘Standish's Lucky Elixir.' The concoction, which Ezra had sold to the masses claiming it was brewed from a recipe given to him by a gypsy witch, supposedly bestowed good luck on those who took a swig of it. As an added incentive, Ezra cited his success as a cardsharp as proof of its effectiveness.
He had to admit, even his paramour Julia Pemberton was sceptical anyone would be foolish enough to fall for such nonsense, but Ezra knew how to move product and his convincing speech proved quite effective by the number of bottles he sold. Unfortunately, the only thing the elixir was capable of bestowing on anyone, was a severe case of the runs, which he supposed could be considered lucky for patrons suffering constipation. Unfortunately, neither of the town's healers, Nathan or Alexandra Styles, had been amused and Chris threatened to make him drink the things himself if he tried to sell another bottle to anyone.
Sometimes, the lack of entrepreneurial spirit in those around him was quite disheartening.
"What did you do?" Chris drawled from beneath the brim of his black hat, his blue-green eyes fixed on Ezra with suspicion. Whether or not Ezra knew it, Chris was also thinking of the gambler's money making schemes and wondered when the man would get past his need to make a quick buck. Judging by Nathan's stormy expression, it was not anytime soon.
"Nothing that I am aware of," Ezra answered, genuinely puzzled as he looked up at the healer when Nathan reached the table. "To what are you accusing me of now?"
Despite the occasional hiccup, both healer and gambler who started their relationship rather acrimoniously had reached a good place in their friendship. While Nathan still frowned upon his money-making schemes, they both shared the same sense of humour and often rode side by side on the trail. Ezra had a feeling Nathan was, determined to reform him by acting as his conscience since Ezra's own had long ago been beaten into submission, and now merely threw up its hands in surrender whenever Ezra had a moral decision to make.
"You are the reason she's done this fool thing!" Nathan glared at him.
Buck Wilmington who could never resist the urge to amuse himself at anyone's expense, responded almost on reflex, wearing a grin on his face. "With his luck with women lately, you're going to need to narrow it down a bit Nate."
Ezra scowled at Buck for picking at that particular scab. The gambler was still trying to live down the embarrassment from a month ago, where he stood in this very spot trying to explain himself to Alexandra Styles, whom he had been openly courting for two months, his dalliance with new arrival Julia Pemberton. The whole affair was handled so badly the entire town became aware he had stepped out on the doctor with another woman, leaving Alex publically humiliated. Even though the gossip had since died down, Ezra had no wish to be reminded of how appallingly he had behaved.
"Miss Alex!" Nathan declared, not bothering to sit because he was too infuriated by what the woman had done.
Almost immediately, though not to the notice of anyone at the table except Chris, Vin Tanner's eyes flashed in reaction to the lady's name. Feigning nonchalance, he managed to speak in a voice full of indifference. "What she done now?"
"She's done ride out to the Indian Reservation, that's what!"
That made every man at the table sit up a little straighter and gape at him in astonishment. The Apache village was a good two hours ride away and not a journey to be undertaken by a woman alone, especially one who was young and beautiful. The area she was entering was rife with lawlessness and normally, it was a journey Chris would never allow her to make on her own, usually assigning someone to escort her.
"Alone?" Vin blurted out in shock, before quickly reining in his emotions and retreating behind his usual unflappable mask to show his comrades he was no more interested in Alex's welfare than anyone else at the table.
"Yeah alone," Nathan growled, continuing to glare at Ezra, whom he blamed entirely for her behaviour.
Since her arrival in town, Nathan and Alex had developed a close friendship. Unlike most general practitioners who tended to view him as something of a quack, Alex never treated him as anything less than a colleague. As she explained to him once, during her travels with her father across the globe, she met many skilled healers who never spent a day in medical school and still managed to save lives. While she discouraged him from conducting surgery, since any fatalities caused as a result of it could land him in serious trouble, she was happy to answer his questions and presented him with a few volumes of medical texts to make him a better healer.
He was the only member of the seven she now approached for anything since the dissolution of her relationship with Ezra. Alex was fiercely private and the public airing of her difficulties with Ezra had mortified the woman, enough so she had made it a point to stay away from the cause of her humiliation. It stabbed at Nathan she had done this foolish thing because there was no one else she could go to under the circumstances.
"She knew I was busy today so she didn't ask me," he grumbled, guilt oozing from each word.
"And she sure as hell ain't about to ask one of us for help now, is she Ez?" Buck threw the gambler a look, wearing a smirk that made Ezra feel a great deal worse.
"How long has she been gone?" Chris asked, ignoring Ezra's discomfort because right now, he was more concerned about the woman's welfare. Alex had helped put one or all of them together, when their injuries were beyond even Nathan's ability. The idea she was out roaming the plains on her own, filled with justifiable alarm. The woman simply didn't know the Territory, didn't understand life out here was rough and dangerous, far removed from the civilisation of the world she was used to.
"Since this morning," Nathan sighed, wondering why he hadn't considered the possibility when she had asked him to be her escort the day earlier. Alex could be so damn stubborn sometimes. Her need to be the best doctor she could be often led her to go where angels feared to thread. "I called into the clinic to let her know I can ride out with her tomorrow, on the account I gotta go treat Will Jefferson but she wasn't there. It didn't bother me none until someone told me they saw her riding out of town this morning in her buggy."
"We ought to go after her Chris," Buck advised, the jovial tone in his voice gone now, replaced with sober concern. "It's not safe for a woman travelling alone across the Territory like this."
"That's what I'm thinking but I can't do it," Nathan lamented. "I still ain't seen Will Jefferson yet. The man's arm is hurt, I can't leave it any longer."
"I'll go get her," Vin offered, clearing his throat and once again, trying not sound personally invested. For the most part, he succeeded. Only Chris had an idea how much he felt for Alex and it was taking all Vin's control to hide how worried about her he was of her being out there on her own. He knew just how well she could manage out on the plains after their three days together when she recklessly embarked on a trip to treat Agnes Doherty.
"She already hates me. Can't rile her up any worse by escorting her back to town."
Chris resisted the urge to smile, perfectly aware of Vin's reasons and then added, "I'll come with you. The last time you went anywhere with her, it took you three days to get back."
The look Vin gave Chris put the Larabee glare to shame.
"Well unless something happened to her," Nathan shuddered at the thought but had to be realistic about his expectations. "She ought to be on her way back by now."
"You know it is hardly my fault if the lady chooses to behave recklessly," Ezra finally marshalled up the nerve to speak. "I will admit, my behaviour to her was hardly chivalrous but that was four weeks ago. How long can she stay mad?"
Buck's loud guffaw spoke volumes.*****
In truth, Alexandra Styles was nowhere in danger at all.
While she had to confess, the action of riding out to the village was ill-conceived, some might even say reckless, Alex made it to the reservation in good time and without incident. While she suspected she would receive holy hell from both Nathan and Chris when she returned to Four Corners, she did not regret making the journey to the Apache village on her own.
Ever since she accompanied Nathan here the first time, Alex recognised the dire need of the First People to have access to regular medical services and shared his desire to make sure they received it. While she had faith in the ability of the tribe's medicine men to treat some ailments, those introduced by outside elements such as the white man, were simply beyond their experience to deal with. It was a sentiment reaffirmed by how busy she had been since arriving at the village this morning.
Thanks to her previous visits with Nathan and Josiah, the tribe had become familiar enough with her to approach her for help. The women, in particular, liked the idea of being able to see a lady doctor and Alex was able to address a number of health issues specific to the gender. Aside from that, she was able to offer new mothers advice on natal care and provide necessary vaccinations to any infants.
Inheriting her father's love of meeting new cultures, Alex also enjoyed seeing how they lived, learning their practices and communing with them in a way only women were able to do, no matter what their background.
When it was time to leave, however, the old Chief Kojay would not let her go alone and so she now found herself escorted by his son Chanu. The old man had claimed it was the proper thing to do since she was a friend of Nathan Jackson's and felt a duty to see her back to town safely. While she protested this at first, Kojay's determination finally eroded Alex's resistance and she reluctantly agreed. Chanu would get her back as close to Four Corners as he could, to ensure she would arrive at the community safely when he headed back to the village
"You know you really didn't have to escort me," Alex pointed out good-naturedly as she sat across the seat of her buggy while he rode alongside her on a dapple grey. "I made it here safely, I would have gotten home in the same way."
Chanu uttered a small laugh. "You are stubborn, like my wife Clare."
Even though he wore a smile as he said those words, Alex could clearly see the sadness in his eyes. Nathan had told her the story of Chanu and his wife Claire, a white woman who was killed by her own father for the sin of loving one of the First People. It took no special insight to see Chanu was still mourning her and if it were not completely inappropriate, Alex would have offered words of comfort.
"Smart women are always stubborn," she chose to joke instead, propelling them past the moment.
"That is for certain," he returned with a wry smile. "But you still should not have ridden out here alone. It is dangerous for a woman. There are evil men who roam this land. If they had found you, it would have been very bad."
"I can take care of myself," she frowned, even though he was right and she knew it. If anyone had ambushed her, she would have been in no position to stop them. Once again, she admonished herself for what she had been thinking when she left town this morning. It was one thing being proud, it was another thing to be stupid.
"I did not wish to inconvenience anyone," Alex admitted somewhat contritely.
"Perhaps next time, you should ask Tanner to bring you."
The mention of that name made Alex stiffen immediately and she threw a suspicious stare at Chanu, wondering why of all people, he had to bring up Vin Tanner.
"What..," she cleared the squeak out of her voice and then resumed speaking. "What makes you say that?"
Did he know something? Had Vin mentioned their relationship to Chanu? Alex knew they were close from what Nathan told her. Even as she asked the question, thoughts of him surfaced in her mind, in particular, the one memory that immediately flooded her cheeks with colour. Facing front so Chanu wouldn't notice, it was to Alex's chagrin the tracker often crept into her thoughts as stealthily as he moved through life quite frequently of late. Part of the reason, she had ridden out here alone, avoiding asking the seven for help was because it was very possible Chris would have instructed Vin to bring her here.
With her feelings for him at a very strange place at the moment, it was a minefield she would rather avoid.
"He comes to the village often," Chanu remarked, oblivious to what was running through her head with his simple suggestion. "He will make sure you are safe."
That was true, Alex had to concede the point. He could be very reliable, as well as passionate, warm, funny...
Alex immediately halted the natural progression of such thoughts because they would only culminate on the memory of what had transpired between them in Agnes's cabin. Sweeping her gaze across the fields of drying grass, she let her mind linger on the tracker and how he made her feel. Ever since he took her hand at the creek on Nettie Wells's property, he had shifted her world off its axis and Alex had no idea how to feel about him since. Worse yet, even before Ezra's betrayal, Alex knew her affections had been shifting towards him.
Suddenly, she saw something lying amongst the grass that made her forget all about Vin Tanner. Sitting up straighter in the seat, she leaned forward and focussed, trying to see what it was. Chanu's attention was elsewhere, his eyes were scanning the area directly opposite from where she was looking, keeping a vigil on the surrounding area to ensure nothing snuck up on them. Meanwhile, Alex continued to stare at the shape, trying to make out what it was. An animal perhaps?
"Chanu, do you see that?" She finally spoke up, drawing his attention to it.
Turning back to her sharply, Chanu followed her gaze through the long grass. His eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched after a second or two of observation and Alex guessed his vision was far more superior because he wore the look of a man who knew exactly what he was staring at. Without uttering another word, he prompted his horse forward and started trotting off the path towards the swell of the field they were riding past.
"What is it?" Alex demanded but received no answer and she wondered if all men were purposefully obtuse or was it just the variety encountered in the Territory.
Chanu was not about to wait, leaving her to languish for a few minutes, stewing in impatience. He had dismounted his horse because whatever he was examining required for him to be on the ground. When he looked up again, his face was etched in worry and he signalled her to come over with an almost frantic wave of his hand.
"Doctor, please come!"
Alex immediately prompted her horse Phoebe into movement, pulling the buggy off the path, across uneven ground that made her teeth chatter as it rolled through the tall grass. However, when she was near enough, she realised why he had called her over. Once again, the familiar instincts took over, the ones that pushed common sense to the background and burned in her with one simple need. To help. Grabbing her medical bag before the horse had even stopped, Alex jumped out of the buggy and hurried to Chanu.
Lying across the ground, a stain of fresh and old blood caking his filthy shirt, was a boy no more than thirteen, who looked as if he had been run into the ground.
At the sight of her, he opened his mouth and whispered in a voice that was barely a croak.
"Is this Mexico?"
Out on the Range
Even if it was to chase after a woman with more courage than sense, Chris Larabee couldn't deny he wasn't displeased at having an excuse to ride out of town.
While he was forced to admit rather begrudgingly he now considered Four Corners his home, Chris would never be a social creature. Like Vin Tanner, Chris enjoyed solitude when he could get it. Leaving the dusty town behind them, Chris was grateful to soak up the quiet of the open plains as he andVin followed the path most likely taken by Alex Styles when the lady went to the Indian reservation. Since she was making the journey on a wagon and possessed barely passable skills as a driver, Vin suspected she would take the easiest path to and fro the village.
In any case, it was a nice day to be out on the trail. They left town shortly after lunch and the noonday sun had reached its zenith. Fortunately, there was just enough cloud cover to ensure the sun, while still visible through the cumulus, was not glaring or aiming to peel off anyone's hide. Along with the shade, the breeze sweeping through the land carried the scent of wildflowers to mask the stench of dry horse manure and dust.
Spring was closing in on summer and the high grass covering the plains were still green, though it wouldn't be long before the heat burned it gold. Florets of white wildflowers were scattered across the landscape, peering past the bushes of buffalo juniper, silverberry and Hawthorne while in the distance, burr oak, aspens and olive trees watched their journey with indifference.
As the wind blew seductively over them, Chris had to admit there were worse places to be on a day like this. Hopefully, Alex had not landed herself in trouble because this was too good a day to ruin with any unpleasantness. To his shame, he found himself thinking it was a pity Mary was trapped indoors at the Clarion because she would have like to have gone out for a ride on a day like this.
It was still taking some getting used to the fact he and Mary Travis were openly courting. The hurdle of leaving Sarah and Adam behind had taken him more than a year to overcome. What had made him realise the extent of his feelings for her was the aftermath of his encounter with Ella Gaines. In the wake of the discovery, Ella the former love who was responsible for his family's murder, Chris realised how easily he allowed himself to be duped by the woman simply because she promised him a new life.
Despite what she took from him, it was Ella who convinced him he was ready to move on. It just wasn't with her. Now the entire town was aware he and Mary were engaged to be married even though no date was set since neither of them were in a rush to get to the altar. Truth be told, the only reason they announced an engagement at all, was to finally silence the wagging tongues of innuendo that swirled around their relationship from the very beginning of their association.
Riding alongside Vin, the tracker had said little since leaving Four Corners, though it did not surprise Chris in the slightest. Considering the reason they left town in the first place, the gunslinger had a good idea what was occupying the younger man's thoughts.
Chris hadn't been blind to the way Vin looked at Alexandra Styles from the moment she arrived in town, however, he dismissed it because they had all admired the lady when she first stepped off the stage. Unmarried women who weren't working girls were rare in the Territory and a beautiful, not to mention exotic one such as Alex was even rarer still. Nor did it help she was spirited and kind, devoid of airs and graces and was single-minded when it came to saving a life, almost to the point of recklessness as today proved.
Qualities, if anyone had asked him, Chris would have said she shared with Vin.
When the lady began keeping company with Ezra Standish, Chris figured that was the end of it until Vin started finding more and more reasons to stay out of town. Vin had always been a solitary creature but Chris realised rather belatedly it was because he couldn't bear seeing Alex with Ezra. At least this time, Vin had learned his lesson from his affair with Charlotte Richmond about intruding on another man's woman. A fact Chris was grateful for because if Vin pursued Alex, he wouldn't be dealing with some hot-headed homesteader but Ezra Standish, a friend and comrade.
However, Vin had surprised him by being remarkably restrained.
Even when it became clear to Chris something had taken place between Vin and Alex during the three days they were stuck in the wilderness, Vin had done nothing to make the situation worse. Ultimately, it was Ezra who did that by taking up with Julia Pemberton, the lovely easterner who was now building an emporium in town. After Alex's very public break with Ezra, Chris expected Vin to make his feelings for the doctor known, except Vin's reaction to Ezra's mess was to ride out of town for a few days.
For the last month, Chris watched Vin and Alex giving each other a wide berth, however, when they did see each other face to face, one thing was perfectly clear; Vin's feelings were not one-sided. While Chris did not claim to be an authority on women, it seemed the tracker was able to ruffle the mercurial doctor's feathers far more passionately than all the time Chris had seen her in Ezra's company. He wondered if Vin had noticed the same.
"I'm sure she's fine," Chris said finally breaking the silence.
Vin threw a sidelong glance at Chris. "She probably is. Woman's too stubborn for anything else."
"The ones with spirit usually are." Chris smiled slyly.
Despite his efforts not to react, the corner of Vin's lips curled into a small smile at Chris's remark, agreeing wholeheartedly with the sentiment. "I reckon."
Chris rolled his eyes, wondering how one of the most capable men he knew could have such trouble dealing with a woman he liked. He certainly hadn't been shy around Charlotte. Then again, Chris had a sixth sense Vin's feelings for Alex were of an entirely different order and wondered how it would all turn out when the tracker got around to doing something about it.
"You know If you like her, you ought to just tell her."
"I don't..." Vin reacted almost on reflex, with far more emotion than he intended to show anyone, least of all Chris. Clearing his throat because he was caught out, he shot Chris a glare, resisting the urge to wipe the amused smirk off the man's face with a fist. Then again he supposed if there was anyone he could talk to about this, it was Chris.
"It ain't the right time for it yet." He said firmly and knew it was the truth. Vin knew she felt for him, he could see it in her eyes every time they ran into each other but it was too soon on the heels of what happened with Ezra. When she came to Vin, he wanted her to do it without any lingering sentiments for the gambler.
The gunslinger raised a brow at that. "What's the right time?"
"Not sure," Vin admitted, knowing only that patience was needed here. Every instinct he had told him so even when the ache for her was so bad, he could barely stand it. "Just know it ain't right now."
Chris didn't understand but then again, he didn't need too. This was Vin's business. He just hoped Vin didn't wait too long and let Alex Styles slip away again.*****
Alex had never seen a child in such horrid condition and judging by the look on Chanu's face, neither had he. As he stood over her while she knelt down next to the boy, tearing away the filthy shirt, reeking of blood, sweat and God only knew what else, she could tell immediately the wound was days old. How on Earth had he lived so long and where did he come from? He had tried bandaging it with a bit of torn sleeve but it had done little good. Furthermore, the sweat covering his body spoke of infection.
"He's burning up," Alex declared as she reached for the doctor's bag beside her.
Chanu didn't respond, his eyes scouring the surrounding plains, keeping a vigil for danger because it bothered him where the boy had come from. Judging by the dirt and blisters on his bare feet, he had been running for some time and such effort was usually the result of pursuit. If the boy made it this far, Chanu wanted to know if whoever had tried to run him down was far behind. Even though the Apache brave was armed, protecting themselves with a wounded child in the mix placed them at an obvious disadvantage.
"We should not remain here," he said after a moment.
Alex did not look up as she rummaged through the leather case belonging to her father and produced a bottle of what appeared to be a gold coloured powder resembling crushed mould. Mixing a portion of it in a small cup with water from her canteen, she held it to the boy's lips and forced him to drink. He was delirious with infection and unless she got his fever under control, he would never make it back to Four Corner's alive. As it was, it was a testament to his will that he wasn't already dead.
"I agree," she said looking up at Chanu. "I need to get him back to Four Corners right away. He needs surgery immediately."
Even as she spoke, she reached into her bag and produced a bottle of iodine. It wasn't much of a remedy for his injuries, but under the circumstances, it was the best she could do. Cleaning the wound quickly with a swab, she flinched each time she saw a pulse of blood escaping the entry wound and knew she would need to perform a transfusion as well. God only knew how much blood he had lost already. After a few minutes, she wrapped up the wound with a clean roll of bandage and turned to Chanu.
"Help me," she said putting a hand under the boy's arm to move him.
Chanu obeyed without question, even though his eyes darted about, continuing to scan the terrain around them as they lifted the boy to his feet. He needed to get the doctor and her patient to Four Corners as quickly as possible, where they would have the protection of Tanner and his friends. Out there like this, they were vulnerable and subject to harm.
"Gotta run..." the boy muttered in a weak voice. "Gotta keep running to Mexico. Masser gonna come for me."
Alex looked up at Chano in puzzlement. The Apache returned her stare with similar confusion. While the First People had not fared well under the boot of the white man, they knew the dark-skinned people brought to this land as slaves had suffered even worse indignities and were treated like livestock in a way they could not possibly imagine.
Over the years, his tribe had encountered many of these runaways who took shelter among them for a time. They spoke of tales filled with unimaginable cruelty. While the white man treated the First People poorly, at least they were treated as a race. However, these slaves were not even that. They were not quite human but not animal either. Chanu had thought the great war had ended this question once and for all and this boy, should not know such evil or fear a master.
"No master is going to come for you," Alex assured him as they lifted him up and carried him to the back of her buggy.
"Masser gonna come for me..." he continued to rant.
"Why does he keep saying that?" Chanu asked, growing more anxious by the boy's words.
"I don't know," Alex replied, wishing more than ever Nathan had come with her today. He would know how to answer the poor thing, having personal experience with the horror of slavery. When she first came to Four Corners and been forced to treat Nathan who was almost killed by an assailant's bullet, she had seen the terrible marks on his back. Marks that could only be caused by one thing, a slaver's whip. Those wounds had moved her to tears, especially when she knew they were inflicted not on a grown man but on a boy not much older than this child they were trying to save.
It made her all the more determined to save him because, despite all that pain, Nathan still wanted to help people.
"We'll figure it out when we get back to Four Corners..."
But Chanu was no longer listening. He had gone very still and the expression on his face immediately filled her with alarm because she recognised it well, after being in the company of the seven. A few seconds later, she understood why when the thunder of hoofbeats broke the silence of the plains.
"Put him in the back and cover him up," Chanu ordered, his eyes already searching the distance for the arrival of the riders.
Alex nodded and quickly found a blanket in the back, spreading it over the boy's body but he continued to rant and rave, revealing he had a good reason for fear. If the men chasing him were coming, she would not be able to keep him silent in his present state of delirium. Making a quick decision, she went to her bag and prepared a syringe of morphia, even as she saw four figures appearing in the distance. Once done, she injected its contents into his veins and hope it would take effect quickly. As he drifted into his black sleep, Alex covered him up and piled on everything she had in the wagon around him, to conceal his presence.
She did not know if the men approaching were after him, but she was not letting him go back to any master.
Chanu took up position next to the corner of the wagon, keeping his body partially concealed because he had his gun drawn, ready to take cover if these men were a danger. "Doctor Styles, you should take cover."
"No," Alex shook her head as she slipped her cloak over her shoulders, hiding the traces of blood on her clothes. "If these men are after the boy and we are to convince them that we don't have him, we can't raise their suspicion."
Chanu wanted to argue with her, but sadly, she was right. The best way out of this situation was not to fight, not with four to one odds. However, there was also every possibility the boy may not be what they wanted either. She was a beautiful woman and he was just an Indian. To men who would harm a lady, they would have little difficulty killing him to satisfy their desires. Of course, Chanu did not tell her this as the men approached.
When they finally arrived, Alex noted three of the four wore clothes that might have been worn by any one of the seven, save Ezra. They were hired guns of some kind. The leader of the group and there was no mistaking him for being anything else, in his suit coat, collared shirt and puff tie, looked her over with interest. He reminded her a little of Ezra, which only produced in Alex the desire to kick something, hard. He was pale, with light gold hair, watery coloured eyes and looked as if he was unaccustomed to being on the trail and somewhat irritated he was forced into it now. She recognised the leering looks on all four men almost immediately and once again, cursed the reckless behaviour that saw her standing before them, alone in the middle of nowhere.
Suddenly, Alex really wished Vin was here.
"Now what on Earth is a beautiful filly like yourself doing out here alone with this...Indian," he asked, his southern drawl oozing with contempt.
While Alex might have been forgiven for thinking the man's words offended Chanu, in truth, it was the lustful looks at the woman that really gave the Chief's son cause for concern. For the sake of Tanner and his friends, if any of these men made a move towards her, he would kill them. He knew she meant a great deal to Nathan Jackson who came frequently to the village to help them, to say nothing about the debt he owed to Tanner who once saved his life.
Alex offered the man a pleasant smile, trying to diffuse the situation and avoid violence because she saw the odds against them as well and knew her presence here would further handicap Chanu. "I am a medical doctor, Sir. I am making my monthly visit to the local reservation and Chanu here, was good enough to escort me back to Four Corners, not far from here." She glanced in the direction of the town.
Unsurprisingly, they burst into laughter.
It was not the first time Alex had received such a reaction to her credentials and incensed as she might feel at the insult, this was hardly the time to voice it.
"Ain't no such thing as a lady doctor," the man behind the leader, a heavyset and rather mean looking bear snorted. "Especially no half-breed."
"I assure you," Alex said lifting her chin in dignity. "I am a qualified general practitioner and surgeon."
"Now, now Horace," the leader said with a condescending smile. "I do believe the lady might be genuine in her claim. Is that an English accent I hear?
"It is," Alex nodded. "I was educated in London and what is your business in these parts, if I may ask?"
"Well," he said eyeing her with that damn leer making her skin crawl and once again, the need for Vin to be here to wipe that stupid smirk off his face was almost overwhelming. "I wonder if you might have seen a nigger boy running across these plains. He's been hurt badly and we promised his mama we'd get him home safely."
The use of the word made her stomach clench in disgust but Alex hid it and answered politely. "I‘m afraid we haven't seen anyone like that around here. However, if he is hurt, do bring him to Four Corners when you find him. I'll be happy to take a look at him."
"Well, you see...Doctor..." he stared at her. "I'm quite sure he came this way and I'm afraid, I'm going to have to search your wagon. Just in case, he didn't sneak in there while you weren't looking."
"She told you we saw nothing," Chanu said sharply, realising now despite their words, these men were going to do what they wished, whether the Doctor Styles liked it or not. "Perhaps you should be on your way."
"Maybe you should mind your own business Redskin," Horace warned, reaching for his weapon. The others did the same.
"Doctor," the leader said staring at Alex, shedding all attempt at civility now, his eyes full of menace. "You're going to let us search that wagon to satisfy our own curiosity. You can do it the easy way or the hard way."
She had a sense she wasn't going to like the hard way but she remembered how frightened that boy had been, remembered the scars on Nathan's back and knew what her answer would be.
She didn't know who started shooting but she suspected it might have been Chanu. Uttering a short scream as the bullets exploded around her, Alex was vaguely aware of Chanu shouting at her to get down. Dropping to her hands and knees, Alex felt dirt scraping her palms as she scrambled beneath the wagon and hoped the boy was safe where she left him.
Whether the same could be said for Chanu, was another thing entirely.*****
The instant they heard the gunshots, Vin and Chris exchanged a brief glance before digging their heels into the flanks of their horses and sending both Pony and Peso bolting forward into a full gallop. Riding hard across the plains, they headed straight for the gunshots that sounded like thunderclaps over the empty landscape. No sooner than they crested the top of the hill in front of them, did they spot Alex's buggy in the middle of a field, off the main trail. Four riders were riddling the wagon with bullets and Chris had only to glance at Vin's face to know where his mind was at.
From where they were closing in, Chris could see Chanu had taken refuge behind the wagon, partially concealed by the wall of grass surrounding the carriage. The Chief's son was trading gunfire with four attackers who had the advantage and they knew it. Even as two of them lay cover fire, the remaining men were outflanking the lone warrior and it would only take one shot to put Chanu down for good.
"Can you take them from here?" Chris shouted as they galloped through the spring growth, trampling shrubs and flowers into mud as they closed in on the beleaguered buggy.
Vin was already unsheathing the long-barrelled Winchester rifle from his saddle holster even as he was galloping ahead. Years of practise hunting buffalo, as well as men, had solidified Vin's reputation as a marksman and now more than ever, it showed. Taking aim, he placed one of the men attempting to ambush Chanu in his crosshairs. Focusing his attention on nothing else but the shot, he brushed aside his worries for Alex knowing he would be no good to her if he couldn't think straight.
The bullet once fired, travelled the distance in a matter of seconds. When it struck, Chris only saw a pinprick flare of blood before Vin's target was abruptly unseated, tumbling to the ground and disappearing into the underbrush. The man's horse fled the scene in panic. The remaining three, realising they were no longer facing one lone warrior, immediately turned their attention to the approaching lawmen. The instant they were within range of his gun, Chris drew his peacemaker and entered the fight with weapon's blazing.
Taking advantage of the rescue, Chanu had emerged from his hiding place and added his own fire to the battle, trapping the men in a deadly crossfire. Another tumbled into the grass when Chris's bullet tore through his head, blood splattering spectacularly across the rear of his startled horse. When Vin took aim again, he reduced their number again, until only one man was left. As they closed in on him, the gunslinger deduced rightly this was the leader by his fancy clothes.
Realising he was now alone, the man was unprepared to fight now that reinforcements had arrived. Glaring at Chris and Vin with a dark scowl, he turned tail and started riding away from the scene. Chanu took another shot as he left and Chris could almost see the satisfaction on the warrior's face when the bullet caught the fleeing man in the arm. The leader clutched his arm but did not stop riding until he crested the hill and vanished from sight.
However, Chris had a premonition this was far from over.
After almost three months in the Territory, Alexandra Styles had learned one lesson better than all others, when there was shooting, keep your head down until it was all over. This was a particularly important rule when one kept company with seven lawmen who tended to attract trouble like flies to manure.
Crawling underneath her wagon with the outbreak of gunfire, Alex scrambled through the thick undergrowth and hoped it would protect her from the bullets crisscrossing the air. As much as she tried to keep her head in such situations, she cried out in fright when the bullets splintered the wood around her or spat up dirt when they struck the ground nearby. Folding her arms over her head, Alex stayed down, again cursing her own stupidity for coming out here alone in the first place.
What had she been thinking? She should have just waited for Nathan to take her or swallowed her pride and asked Chris for an escort. Why on Earth did she think the rules of the Territory did not apply to her? It was sheer arrogance to believe she could just ride out on her own without a second thought because she was a doctor with a cause. With her cheeks pressed against the dirt and crushed grass, Alex kept her eyes closed as if that would do any good against the danger she'd placed herself in. This land was dangerous and her actions had not just jeopardized Chanu's life, she had made herself vulnerable to a situation where her ordeal might be even worse if those men got their hands on her.
The gunfire continued for another few minutes, lasting much longer than she anticipated. Despite her fear, the emotion gave way to some astonishment, because she did not think Chanu was capable of such a formidable defence against four to one odds. Yet as more and more bullets were traded between the combatants, Alex began to hope he might actually succeed in fighting them off. It was a better alternative than what would happen to her if he was overcome.
After what seemed an eternity, the gunfire ceased and Alex lifted her head so she could see what was happening, only to find the tall grass surrounding the wagon prevented it. Realising the best course was to stay put until she had a better idea of the outcome, she considered her options of escape if Chanu had indeed fallen. It made her feel terribly ashamed to realise any escape plan she came up with would require her leaving him and the boy behind.
Suddenly boots started trudging through the foliage, walking briskly towards the wagon and Alex could tell immediately they did not belong to Chanu. She went very still, too afraid to breathe as she saw the man circling the wagon, like a lion stalking prey in the Savannah. It was one of those men, she thought with dismay. Taking a deep breath, Alex closed her eyes and steeled herself to make a run for it. She was not about to let any of those men lay one filthy hand on her. The boots paused directly next to where she was hiding.
"Doc?" A familiar voice called out. "You can come out now. It's safe."
Vin! She thought almost elatedly. That was Vin out there!
Alex's eyes flew open, recognising his voice immediately because of late, it had been a nightly staple of her dreams. The sheer relief that flooded her chest at knowing he was here, almost made her heart explode with gratitude. With no hesitation, Alex crawled out from under the wagon, only to look up to see him regarding her, with a look of relief that almost matched her own.
Vin Tanner exhaled gratefully when he saw those beautiful brown eyes meeting his and thanked all the deities, even the ones he had no use for, she was safe and sound. When he rode towards Chanu and the wagon, unable to catch a glimpse of her during the fight, he had been gripped with the terrible fear he was too late, that something awful had happened to her. During their three-day ordeal in the wilderness, there had been a moment when Alex was caught in a landslide and Vin had been forced to dig her out of the mud.
He remembered thinking for one terrible instant she might be dead and the swell of despair that rose up from inside him had nearly broken him in half. It was one thing to know she would never be his, but the idea she was dead was one he never wanted to face. When he had been unable to see her during the gunfight a few minutes ago, Vin felt a resurgence of that same terror.
Alex took the hand he offered and as she stood up and their eyes met, Vin once again felt the power of what they could mean to each other. Ever since Agnes Doherty's cabin, the shift between them was obvious and every time she looked at him, Vin swore she could see into his soul just as clearly as he could tell she was warming to him, even if she didn't know what to do about it yet.
To his surprise, as soon as she was on her feet, she threw her arms around him and embraced him in relief and gratitude.
"Oh thank God Vin," she exclaimed. "I thought you were those men."
For a few seconds, Vin could say nothing, overcome by the sensation of her body pressed against his, even though he knew the action had come from a place of relief. She was plenty scared by the looks of her and yet he still took the time to savour the faint perfume of whatever it was she washed her hair with and the light tinge of rosewater on her skin. That scent would linger in his mind all day. At this moment, Vin wanted nothing more than to taste her full lips and tell her that if she'd have him, he'd love her every day of her life.
However, it could not last. They were still in a transitory place with each other and as if Alex knew what was running through his head, she quickly pulled away, her cheeks darkening with colour, embarrassed by her forward behaviour.
"Are you all right?" He asked her, clearing his throat and dispelling the sensation of her closeness that settled over his head like a fog, so he could focus on where he was.
"Yes," she nodded, "I'm fine. Is Chanu all right?" She hoped he was if Vin was here.
"Yeah, Chanu's fine," Vin assured her, seeing the worry in her eyes at the Apache chief in waiting. "He's with Chris, making sure those varmints shooting at you both are dead."
Thank God, Alex thought silently, glad nothing had happened to the man after he stood up so bravely to protect her and the boy they had found. Looking at Vin, her brow knotted with puzzlement. "What are you two doing out here anyway? Not that I'm not glad you came when you did."
"Well," Vin said wearing that unflappable expression again. "This stubborn, pain in the ass woman we both know, got it into her mind to ride out of to the Indian reservation on her own, making Nathan go crazy with worry, so we figured we better ride out and find her before she gets herself into trouble."
Alex winced at that, especially the part about Nathan. If there was one relationship that mattered as much to her as the strange one forming with Vin Tanner, it was her friendship with Nathan Jackson. Whether or not the tall healer knew it, he filled a void left behind like her father because, in the same way, Vin possessed William Styles's wandering free spirit, Nathan possessed his strong streak of integrity and compassion. Working with Nathan was like having a small part of her father back again and she hated worrying him.
"By the way," Vin added, "when Chris catches up with you, be prepared for a whole lot of hollering."
"All right, all right," Alex conceded the point, deciding whatever harsh words she would get from the gunslinger was certainly deserved until she remembered with a start, she had a patient. "Oh! Vin!" She brushed past him and hurried to the back of the buckboard, expecting him to follow. "Those men were after us because Chanu and I found this boy, almost half dead on this field. They were after him!"
"Why?" Vin asked as he climbed onto the buckboard behind her to see her pulling back the blanket, to reveal a negro boy no more than thirteen who looked like he'd been chased through hell and back.
"I don't know," Alex shook her head as she looked him over and made sure none of the bullets that had shredded the wood of the wagon had reached him. "I gave him some morphia to keep him still so we could hide him but before he went under, he kept raving about his master was going to find him."
"His master?" Vin's eyes widened as he stared at her. "That can't be right, the war was over as long as this boy's been alive. Maybe even before he was born."
"It's what he kept saying," Alex reiterated, glad to see her patient had sustained no further injuries. "Although those men said they were trying to bring him back to his mother."
Somehow Vin doubted that. An ugly suspicion surfaced in his mind but Vin shook it off, unable to imagine how anyone could get away with something like that. Then again, this was the Territory and nothing surprised him out here anymore. Deciding he needed to talk to Chris about this, he tabled the discussion for now.
"We'll figure it out when we get him back to town,"
One thing was for certain, Nathan was not going to be happy.*****
After thanking Chanu for his assistance in keeping Alex safe, the Apache warrior returned home to the reservation now he knew Alex would have an escort back to town. When the man was far enough away, the hollering Vin warned Alex about descended upon her as Chris told her in no uncertain terms the next time she took off like that, he would have her bound and gagged when brought back.
To her credit, the doctor had endured his rebuke stoically, saying nothing to counter the accusation she behaved recklessly, endangering herself and those around her. Vin had stood by, saying nothing to stop him and Chris had the feeling the tracker was grateful Chris was the one doing the scolding since he would most likely be unable to do it himself. When it was all said and done, Alex merely apologised and returned to the patient who needed her help, leaving Chris to wonder if hell had frozen over or was she going to get him back when he wasn't looking.
By the time they rode into Four Corners, dusk was well and truly on the way, with the doctor heading straight for the clinic because she didn't think her patient could wait that long. As she rode through town, Chris saw Nathan emerging from the saloon with the rest of the seven. The healer took one look at the buggy, riddled with bullet holes and barely holding together on its wheels and immediately ran across the street towards her. Upon seeing Nathan, Alex brought Phoebe to a stop so Nathan could climb on board.
Chris saw Mary Travis emerge from the front of the Clarion News and tipped his hat in her direction, a subtle indication he'd be by later for supper after he concluded his business with the others. She offered him a little smile and Chris couldn't ignore the warmth that ran through him at seeing her. In recent weeks, he had become accustomed to sharing meals with her before joining the seven at the saloon for the rest of the evening.
For now, however, he needed to tell the others what had happened when they went after Alex and what was likely to happen once Nathan discovered the truth about the poor half-dead boy. Chances were good not even wild horses was going to stop Nathan from chasing down those men responsible for hunting a teenager down like an animal.
"Vin, I'm gonna let the other's know what's going on," he said glancing at the friends on the step outside the tavern. "You keep going with Nathan and Alex, make sure he don't do anything stupid once he gets wind of what happened.."
Vin cast a glance at Alex and saw Nathan looking over his shoulder to the back tray of the wagon, and while the tracker couldn't imagine what was on his mind, the look on the healer's face said enough. "Yeah," he nodded, "I hear you."
"Tomorrow, I need you to head back out to where they found him, see if you can track where he came from."
"I planned on doing that anyways, Vin nodded. After seeing the horrific injuries on the kid, he could do nothing less.
"Alex says that wound is days old, means he's been running for God only knows how long. I want to know where he came from."
The idea that terrified young boy might have thought he had a master when the war to end slavery ended years ago was beyond Chris's ability to comprehend. God only knew how Nathan was going to react when he found out. Next, to Vin, Nathan was probably the most reliable and level-headed member of the seven.
While he trusted the men he rode with like brothers, the truth was, they all had their eccentricities. Buck's head could be turned by the flounce of a skirt, Ezra lost all good sense when money was concerned, JD was too eager to prove himself and Josiah, well he marched to a choir only he could hear. Nathan, on the other hand, despite all the horror he must have seen in his life, possessed a streak of idealism as wide as the Rio Grande and a personal integrity that often acted as their moral compass when it was easier to avoid doing the right thing.
Chris had a feeling the instant he learned about Alex's patient, all that was going to get shot to hell.*****
Nathan didn't speak as he assisted Alexandra Styles a short time later with the removal of any fragments left behind by the bullet that almost claimed the boy's life. When Alex first arrived in town, she and Nathan reached the mutual agreement he ought to leave surgery to her, not because he was unskilled but because it was here, the law drew the line. The lack of doctors had allowed the proliferation of unqualified healers across the Territory but the authorities had no patience with anyone attempting to perform surgery. A surgeon required a license and if Nathan didn't have one, he could be arrested if someone chose to make a complaint.
Nevertheless, at this moment, standing in her clinic, staring at the boy who was starting to come out of his morphia-induced slumber, surgery was the furthest thing from his mind. He saw this child, no more than thirteen years old he estimated, whose feet were almost raw after running barefoot from God only knew where, who had scars on his wrists and on his back, Nathan was all too familiar with and would spend a lifetime to forget. Nathan almost felt the scars on his back then, like some phantom pain that cruelly taunted him with the truth he would never truly be free of them.
This boy, Nathan thought silently, this boy was him.
Nathan had been only a few years older than him when he had run from that plantation in Georgia. Had this boy been driven to escape because of despair, the way he had done. Thinking about the reason for his flight, Nathan instinctively looked up at Alex and felt a wave of sadness washing over him.
When he opened his eyes that first time and saw her, the way she smiled at him, the way her voice despite its foreign accent, bore the same lilt and same carefree optimism he had missed so much, Nathan had almost wept. Ever since that day, their friendship had evolved into more. It was a kind of love but not romantic. She saw in him a kindred spirit, who burned to heal but like her, limited due to the colour of her skin.
He saw in her the spirit of one he had loved more than life returned to him.
Something had made this boy run, made him run until he was half dead. When Alex told him what he had said to her when they first found him, the fury that Nathan felt was so overwhelming he could barely speak. He knew Vin was staying at the clinic to keep him from doing something stupid and the truth was, it was a good thing too because he might be inclined to do just that if tending to the boy didn't come first. While Alex treated his bullet wound, Nathan cleaned him up, applied salve on the blisters and cuts all over his body from his run. The concoction she'd given him out on the trail brought down his fever some but he was exhausted, dehydrated and near starving.
For the most part, Nathan believed in preserving life. When he fought at the side of the seven, it was because it was the right thing to do. Keeping folk safe and protecting the lives of his friends were causes for which he was prepared to kill. Furthermore, Chris Larabee, despite being a gunslinger wasn't a mindless killer. Chris, not only saved his life but had become a brother and a man worth standing behind. There was only one reason Nathan would willfully take a life and it was represented by this boy whose suffering mirrored his own from so long ago.
The slave masters who made suffering a way of life for him and so many others, in the generations before his own, who believed the colour of one's skin was cause enough to be branded as cattle, had nothing to contribute to the world but sickness. Like any good healer, sickness had to be cured and if a bullet would do it, Nathan had no trouble administering the treatment. The idea somewhere out there, there was a man claiming to be this boy's master made Nathan so furious it was all he could do to keep from going out and hunt for the son of a bitch.
As if hearing his furious thoughts, the boy suddenly woke up with a start. His body flopped on the treatment bed like a fish as he opened his eyes and saw himself surrounded by strangers. Alex reacted just as strongly, startled by the sudden return to life by her patient who only a minute ago was unconscious from the morphine she had administered out on the prairie. She had been working on closing the wound left by the bullet and almost dropped the needed in her gloved hand.
"Where am I?" The boy demanded, his eyes widened at the sight of the two people in front of him. "Who are you? Am I caught?"
"Settle down kid," Nathan said quickly, wanting to calm him down before he burst the stitches Alex had managed to get done. "You're okay, you're safe."
"Nathan, he needs to go under again," Alex said urgently. "I'm not finished. "
"I know Miss Alex," Nathan agreed, "but we best calm him down first or you ain't getting nothing else done. Why don't you go fix up another syringe of morphine and I'll see to him."
"Alright," Alex nodded, agreeing with him that it was best if the patient were calm instead of agitated. Besides, hadn't she thought the same thing when she first found him? "I'll go prepare a syringe and tell Vin what's happening."
The tracker was presently in her kitchen upstairs. Alex had told him to help himself to some coffee since he had come straight to the clinic after returning to town. God only knew what he was doing up there left to his own devices.
Once Alex was gone, Nathan turned back to the boy who still looked very afraid but appeared too frightened to move. "My name is Nathan Jackson. What's yours?"
"Philly," the boy answered, staring at him so intently as if trying to understand what he was.
"Philly?" Nathan stared at him. "Philly what?"
"Ain't got no name, just Philly," Philly answered the stranger in front of him, wondering why he thought a slave ought to have a last name.
His answer made Nathan's jaw tick because he remembered the kinds of names given to slaves back on the plantation. His own had been Ajax but privately, his father and mother had named him Nathan and taken the surname of Jackson, after the president Andrew Jackson. Stifling his outrage for the moment, Nathan took the opportunity to learn as much as he could from the boy before Miss Alex came back with the morphia.
"Where are your people?"
"At the plantation," Philly answered. "My mama is still there."
There was such profound sorrow in his eyes, Nathan could not help but be affected by it. However, seeing Philly's pain also provoked Nathan's anger even more. The boy was talking as if he could never go back and that was only something that happened in the past because going back to the plantation after being caught was tantamount to suicide. If your master didn't kill you, he'd damn well made you wish you were.
"Where is this plantation?" Nathan had to ask, still trying to wrap his mind around the idea this boy lived on a plantation and still thought he was a slave. As it was, he knew of no plantation in the area, certainly not one that had negro workers on it.
"I don't know," Philly shook his head.."Only know what mama said when I had to escape. She said it was too far to reach the north so I had to go south instead, to not stop running until I got to the sea or Mexico."
The North. When Nathan had made his bid for escape, the North was the promised land spoken in the same reverence as the one in the Bible. He didn't even know what North was, only it was the place to go to be free. Nathan didn't realise he was sweating, that beads of perspiring were forming against his skin, that he was almost about to hyperventilate from the path this boy was leading him down.
"Why Mexico?" Nathan forced himself to ask, even though he knew the answer.
"Cos there we be free." Once again, Philly gave Nathan an odd look as if he was being required to explain the facts of life to this grown man.
"But you're already free," Nathan pointed out, wanting to see how the kid tried out that concept for size.
"No we ain't," Philly declared incredulously. "None of us are. Black folk ain't free, we're slaves. I'm a slave, my mama is a slave, daddy before he died, was a slave and you are too."
Nathan was about to refute that statement in the strongest possible terms when Alex returned holding a syringe in her hand. Next to her was Vin who wanted to be present now Philly was up to answering some questions. If Vin was to determine where he had come from, Vin needed to know how Philly had begun his journey. At the sight of the tracker, Philly sat upright, almost ready to bolt. It took a second for Nathan to realise Philly was so afraid because Vin was white.
"It's okay Philly," Nathan assured him, placing a hand on his shoulder to keep him from attempting to jump off the table. "Vin's a friend. He ain't going to hurt you."
The boy's wide-eyed stared said otherwise but he didn't try to run and seemed to settle back down again.
"Philly," Nathan drew in his breath, steadying himself before he continued speaking. "You're free. There ain't no slavery no more. We're free, all of us. The war decided that. There aren't no negro folk anywhere who are still slaves"
Philly's expression was one of astonishment and looked at the other two people in the room as if he wanted to ask them if some trick was being played on him. "But I was born on the plantation with all the others and the overseers, they told us the Union lost."
"What?" Nathan exploded as the full scope of the lie this boy had been forced to live with began to settle over his brain. "Boy, we didn't lose the war, we won! The Confederacy is broke. There ain't no slavery anywhere. Are you telling me, you're on a plantation with white folk whose told you, you're still slaves?"
"Jesus Christ," Vin exclaimed, the cruelty of it was too much for him to stomach.
"How many of you are there?" Alex asked as she saw the fury in Nathan's eyes and knew the answer would probably drive him barking mad.
Philly had to think. He wasn't so good with his numbers because slaves weren't allowed to learn to read or write. "Thirty," he answered after a moment. "There's thirty of us."
It wasn't often Chris Larabee saw Nathan Jackson angry.
Oh, he was used to seeing the healer exhibiting self-righteous indignation when some injustice reared its ugly head in their midst. Even then, Nathan managed to maintain some measure of calm, despite his outrage. He was like Vin that way, able to funnel his anger into something constructive, like steely determination instead of explosive fury, like Buck and Josiah tended to do. Sometimes, Chris believed Nathan's true purpose in the group was not as merely healer, but also its conscience.
While the rest of them save JD, were guilty of straying beyond the lines of good and evil, Nathan always remained centred. Maintaining his calm, sometimes better than Vin, Chris thought, Nathan had a way of reminding you doing things the right way, even when it was hard, was often worth the effort. He was in Chris's opinion, one of the most principled men he'd ever met and his politics fixed on one singular notion, to help when he could. Nathan could never see past that, even when there was a threat to life and limb.
The side of him Chris was seeing, was new.
Chris supposed he shouldn't have been surprised this was the one thing that would send Nathan's balance off kilter. Being born a negro was something none of them could understand and it was less than a generation ago, that half this country believed them to be little more than livestock. None of them could know what it was to be born into servitude, to face the unbelievable cruelty of being forced to call someone ‘master', or to be flogged and driven to run because to stay was worse than dying.
Considering where Nathan had come from, Chris was always surprised by how well-adjusted he appeared to be, even if the scars on his back, they'd all seen but dared not ask about, revealed the terrible past he never wished to speak about.
The audible snap of the rifle made Chris look up at Nathan who was at present in the jailhouse with the rest of the seven, looking nothing like the reasonable, even-tempered man they had come to know this past year. Setting down the rifle, Nathan was now checking his Remington, ignoring the varying expressions of concern and astonishment on the faces of his friends.
"Nathan, you ain't got no idea where they are," Vin spoke up, having followed Nathan here from Alex's clinic, with nothing less than smoke trailing out of his ears.
"That's right Nathan," Buck added, perfectly aware of how over the edge Nathan was by the way he was seeing none of them, just the course he intended embarking on. "Wait till morning and we'll go out there with you and Vin can track these varmints to whatever hole they're hiding in."
"They ain't hiding in a hole!" Nathan burst out furiously. "They're on a fucking plantation! With folk who still think they're slaves!"
The vehemence of his words startled all of them, especially JD, who had never seen the healer behave in this way before. Of course, this only drove home how intractable Nathan was going to be on the subject.
"I ain't waiting!" Nathan continued. "I'm for going out there and hunting down these sons of bitches and feeding them their goddamn livers!"
Ezra, who had been reluctant to say anything since of all the seven, he was the one who most represented the men who did this heinous thing, tried a different tack instead. "What I would like to know is how they managed to get away with such an act of deception. How does one hide a war from an entire group of people for so many years?"
"I'll tell you how," Nathan turned on him. "By making sure we don't read or write, to whip us raw if we talk to anyone we ain't supposed to, or working us so hard into the dirt, we ain't got thought to do anything but drop dead from exhaustion when we're done for the day. That is if we're not trying to find some way to keep those whoring bastards away from our women! That's how!"
"Nathan, calm down!" Josiah spoke with a tone that might have come from the heavens above for all the command in it. "No one here is denying this needs to be dealt with, but the only thing you're going to do by going out there alone is getting one more black man killed when we're trying to save thirty. Now you know perfectly well, every one of us will stand with you and get this done, but it has to be done right."
Nathan opened his mouth to protest before his eyes swept over the faces in front of him. Not just Josiah's but the rest of the seven, Buck, Chris, Vin, JD and even Ezra. They were looking at him with concern, not because of the dangerous course he intended on embarking, but because they feared for him.
He saw Chris and Vin who came out of nowhere to save his life, who treated him like an equal from the very first. Buck as always, looked sympathetic, understanding the depth of his pain even if he accepted he would never really know what it felt like. JD was plain shocked because he wasn't used to seeing Nathan this way and in Ezra, Nathan saw shame, which immediately provoked the healer's guilt. Ezra had overcome his upbringing to see him as a man and accept him as a brother. In the last year since they began riding together, Ezra had proved himself a friend more times than he could count, more than enough to no longer feel ashamed for his earlier behaviour.
And then there was Josiah.
Josiah understood better than all of them, what he was feeling right now and why. Josiah had been there from the start, who gave him more than a vague idea of what freedom meant and encouraged him to use his head when he was told all his life ‘a buck needed to do no thinking, just obey'. The preacher had taught him how to read and write, saved him in more ways than any man could do for another. Through the tide of his anger, Josiah's was the only one whose words penetrated.
Exhaling loudly, he dropped the gun against the table. "These people have been thinking they're slaves for the last fifteen years, Josiah," he met the preacher's eyes. "That ain't right. It's worst than that, its evil."
"You got no argument from us there Nathan," Buck spoke up. "We'll find these bastards and we'll make them pay, but none of us in this room are willing to sacrifice you to get it done, so we need you to keep your head. I can't even begin to imagine what you must be feeling to tell you I understand, but you need to trust us. Trust that we'll do right by those folk when we find them."
Nathan nodded and leaned against the table, his disposition showing the anger was fading, even if the hatred was not. At least he was in the mind to listen.
"I say we all turn in and get some rest," Chris spoke up, knowing they could not waste any time with this. Nathan's temper was a powderkeg waiting to explode if action wasn't taken soon. Besides, as much as he was calling for calm, Chris was just as appalled as Nathan by what Philly revealed. The idea of such a lie being allowed to continue for more than a decade provoked Chris Larabee's utmost contempt and it would be his pleasure to end the sadistic bastard who came up with the idea in the first place.
"We ride out at first light and head back to where we found the boy. Vin and me left one of them alive, so I'm guessing they would have ridden back fast to where they came from. We'll track him back to this plantation or whatever and go from there. That okay with you Nathan?"
"Yeah," Nathan said begrudgingly forced to admit Chris was right. Cowards like the overseers of this plantation were seldom alone and all he'd accomplish if he went after them half-cocked, was to get himself killed, without ever being able to help the people he was trying to free. "But I ain't gonna stop until those people are free Chris. They've been in chains fourteen years longer than they needed to be and it ain't right."
"No it ain't," Vin stated firmly, with as much conviction. "You got our promise on that Nathan. We'll make them pay for what they've done. You can bet on it."
For Nathan's sake, Chris hoped they could make good on that promise because he had a feeling that they hadn't even come close to how much hatred Nathan was keeping bottled up inside him. At some point, all that rage was going to surface and the gunslinger feared for his friend when that day finally arrived.*****
"I'll wire the judge and tell him what's happening," Mary Travis declared as she walked with Chris to the livery, where the rest of the seven were gathering to ride out this morning.
Although the sun had risen over the horizon, the sky was still dipped in fading shades of indigo as night withered away with the dawn. A thin veil of fog made the air feel brisk and Mary pulled her shawl closer to her body, as she walked along the boardwalk towards Yosemite's where the seven's mounts were usually stabled. Although Chris had stayed in town last night, he left her bed in the small hours of the night to spend the rest of the evening at the lodgings above the Standish saloon.
"Good," Chris said neutrally, showing no signs to anyone who saw them together, they were only a few hours ago, a tangle of limbs engaged in heated lovemaking. "If the kid is right and there's a plantation or farm out there with that many people thinking they're slaves, then there might be just as many overseers keeping them penned in. We may need help to get them out."
"It's monstrous," Mary shook her head in disgust. "I can't believe something like this could happen. I know the Territory is rough but this..."
"It's exactly why it happened Mary," Chris explained, unsurprised by anything these days. "There's a lot of the Territory that is still remote and cut off. With a big enough piece of land, a man could do anything on his property without anyone being the wiser for it. Chances are, he brought Philly's people there before the war ended, maybe because he guessed how it was going to go. Considering what happened to the South after the war, it was the smart thing to do."
"But to keep them completely isolated?" Mary shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around the callousness of it. Every time, she thought she had seen it all, there was always something lurking in the darkness, to make her reevaluate her perceptions.
"Like Nathan said," Chris's stomach hollowed, remembering his outburst the night before and as terrible as the healer had made it sound, Chris, suspected it was a great deal worse. "They don't teach slaves to read or write, so they couldn't even tell the date or even read a newspaper if they could even get their hands on one. Overseers keep them penned in like cattle, probably kill the ones who escape, at least the ones who reached other people. If Alex and Chanu hadn't found the boy when they had, they would have taken him back or killed him. They were willing to kill Alex and Chanu to keep the secret so it was damn lucky that Vin and me came along when we did."
"How is Alex?" Mary asked.
"She was a little shaken up," Chris replied and then added with a vicious sneer, "then plenty of shaken up after I got through with her."
Mary rolled her eyes and gave him a look. "Yes, I recall how you behave with unescorted women leaving town." Her lips curled up into a faint smile of teasing.
"That's different," Chris grumped, aware she was referring to the day he brought her back to town using the excuse some outlaw gang was roaming about the place, when in actual fact he thought she might be meeting someone in Sweetwater.
"Oh really?" Mary smirked, not believing it for a second. "I am wise to your ways Mr Larabee."
"Anyway," Chris shrugged, propelling them past that subject. "I did it for Vin's sake. He would never have been able to do it himself."
Mary uttered a soft laugh, aware of Vin's feelings for Alex and after talking to the doctor, getting a sense of Alex's as well. "They still dancing around each other like a bunch of teenagers?"
"Pretty much," Chris nodded, recalling the heated looks being exchanged by the duo the day before. However, that was Vin's business and he had no intention on commenting on it further until the tracker got off his ass and did something about it.*****
It wasn't Alex's intention to see Nathan off the next morning when he left Four Corners with the rest of the seven. Not until he stopped at her clinic the night before to check on Philly and tell her she would have to tend to the boy while he was gone. His mood had shocked her. Alex had never seen him so angry and on edge, it frightened her. While he was more than justified in his fury, considering how personally affected he was by Philly's incredible story, Alex worried his state of mind would get himself killed.
Of all the relationships Alex had formed since arriving at Four Corners, the one she had with Nathan Jackson was the one she considered especially precious. Not only was he her first patient in town but from the moment he woke up from the surgery, Alex had recognised a kindred spirit who reminded her so much of William Styles, it was like having a little bit of her father back again. Just like her father, Nathan's heart was one of boundless compassion and integrity, a remarkable well of kindness when one remembered where he had come from.
Both of them were outcasts, bound by their need to help and heal, made exile by the colour of their skin. Their talks when he came to her office for advice or assistance, was sometimes the best part of her day. He would tell her about the Territory, the people in town and his adventures with the seven, while she spoke about the places she'd been. It pained her to see how hungry he was for knowledge and denied it because of his skin. As it was, she had been trying to think of a way to get him a medical license and knew it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility, even if it would be difficult.
Somehow she had no doubt in her mind, Nathan was made to overcome hurdles.
Approaching him and his horse Hippy, which she learned he'd named after Hippocrates, Alex ignored the presence of Julia Pemberton who was making similar farewells to Ezra. In a town as small as Four Corners, it was impossible to avoid each other, but Alex had tried because the urge to wipe that smug smirk off the woman's face was overwhelming. Especially now when she was smiling in satisfaction at the fact, she was with Ezra, not Alex.
"Nathan," Alex brushed aside the woman's attempt to get her goat and regarded the healer, whose expression still concerned her. While his rage seemed temporarily pacified, Alex could still see it simmering beneath the surface, waiting for the right moment to vent its explosive fury at everyone around him.
"Miss Alex," Nathan said with genuine surprise at the doctor's presence. "What are you doing up so early?"
"I wanted to let you know Philly is better this morning," Alex replied. "His fever's gone and there were no complications from the surgery."
"That's good to hear Miss Alex," Nathan said, although he saw through her ruse easily enough. She hadn't just come to give him that report and knowing that, diffused his anger somewhat. She was here because she was worried about him and once again, Nathan felt that same surge of feeling for her, the one that had come out of nowhere the first time he saw her. "I know you'll take good care of him."
"Thank you," she said with a little smile. "Take care of yourself too, please? I know you're angry about what's going on with Philly's people and you have every right to be, but you're no good to them if you go in there mad. You've got friends around you," she gazed at the rest of the men at the livery also preparing their horses to ride, "don't shut them out. I know none of us here can understand what you've been through but we're here for you."
"I know," Nathan said quietly and once again, her words echoed so closely with something said by someone he once loved dearly, now gone forever, it made his heart ache and reminded him why this plantation of Philly's needed to be obliterated and the men responsible, ended for good. "Thank you, Miss Alex."
"Nathan, you ready?" Josiah asked Nathan, tipping his hat in Alex's direction as he approached.
"Just about," Nathan nodded and turned to Alex. "I'll be okay Miss Alex, I promise I won't do nothing stupid."
"I'll hold you to that she said appreciatively and then said to Josiah. "You will be careful, won't you? I don't want a whole bunch of difficult patients to deal with when you all get back."
"We'll do our best," Josiah said with a smile, able to see her worry for Nathan.
She noted Vin was by his horse, waiting patiently for his comrades. Try as she might, she couldn't ignore the pull towards him. Telling herself it was only politeness that made her drift towards him, Alex saw his blue eyes staring at her as she approached. It occurred to her then, if anything happened to Vin Tanner, she would be rather devastated.
"Hey Cowboy," Alex smiled at him, hiding her concern for him beneath gentle teasing.
"Ain't no cowboy," Vin replied, having enough sense of her now to know she was masking her worry about Nathan behind her usual flippancy. "Ain't never handled a cow in my life. I'm a buffalo hunter."
"You're a cowboy to me," she insisted and then looked over her shoulder almost furtively, before facing him again. This time her expression was devoid of the teasing a moment ago because she had something important to ask of him. It was probably a moot point anyway. The seven always kept an eye on each other but on this occasion, Alex couldn't be assured by that bond alone. "Do me a favour and keep an eye on Nathan, please? He's so angry I'm worried he'll rush in without thinking and get himself killed."
It was a sentiment Vin could appreciate because that was exactly what Chris and the others were worried about too. However, Vin also knew Nathan and Alex shared a deep friendship that was not at all romantic because they all knew Nathan's heart was with Rain, but a sibling affection, almost as close.
"I'll watch his back Doc," Vin promised, his blue eyes conveying to her the depth of that vow because her worry for Nathan was plain, despite her efforts to present her usual physician's calm. After months of observation, Vin could safely say he might be the one person who could see past that tough facade to the woman she was, the one who needed to erect walls less her empathy made her seem weak. "I promise."
Aware of just how much value there was to be had in his word, Alex nodded in gratitude before meeting his gaze again. For a moment, she was lost in those cobalt coloured eyes as he stared at her, and the memory of what they shared at Agnes's cabin surfaced in her mind. She thought of how her heart had almost stopped beating when he kissed her, how everything about that moment seemed so perfect, she almost wanted it to go on forever.
"Vin," Alex said quietly. "Be safe. I've gotten accustomed to you."
"I'll do my best," he returned in his too soft voice and felt like he could ride the wind on just that little request. Once again, he knew she was made for him and it seemed to him, she was realising it too. "That's a promise too."
"See to it," she said finally and stepped away, assured when he made such promises to her, he kept them.*****
"I should have known better than to send you to take care of this."
The man seated in the leather wing chair, glaring contemptuously at his brother, wondered for not the first time, how on Earth the weakling presently being attended to by a physician, could have slithered out of the same womb as he. Although they both shared the same dark hair and brown eyes, he was a decade older and more steel than his younger sibling. Patrick Selitrenny drummed his fingers against the armrest of the chair, the gold ring bouncing off the hide as he saw brother Callan make excuses for being unable to catch one nigger child.
"It wasn't my fault Pat!" Callan who was better known as Cal, protested hotly from his bed where he was presently being treated by the estate's physician, Dr Bellows. The healer was putting the finishing touches to the wound left behind by a bullet, trying to conduct fine work while his patient hissed impatiently. In truth, the old man wanted to be done with this task so he could leave the room immediately. He had no desire to watch the dressing down Cal was receiving from his brother at present.
"Then whose fault was it?" Patrick demanded, getting to his feet. Even though he was no more than six feet tall, his fury made him look like a bear standing upright. "You had three men with you and you couldn't get him back from a woman and some prairie nigger!"
"These two men came out of nowhere!" Cal exclaimed helplessly and then hissed when his movement tugged against the stitches the doctor had just sewn into his flesh. "One of them was a crack shot. We didn't have a chance to fight back!"
"And now they got that little bastard." Patrick stomped forward, pausing at the bed, his fists almost ready to strike. "If Philly tells them about where he's from, they' might just come back here! Do you have any idea what that will mean for us?"
Cal's eyes dropped in shame because he did know and yet it did not feel as bad as seeing Patrick's disappointment. "What do we do?" He asked in a quiet voice.
Patrick turned away in disgust before answering. "The only thing we can do. Be ready for them when they get here."
"How are you doing?"
Nathan who had been oddly silent after leaving town, bound for the spot where Chris and Vin encountered Alex, Chanu and Philly the day before, returned from the world he was seeing inside his head, to meet Josiah's eyes. The older man had nudged his horse Preacher alongside him, most likely because he was the only one of the seven who dared to intrude on Nathan's current state of mind.
"I'm fine," Nathan said shortly, hating the sharp edge of his answer, aware the normally pent-up anger inside him was spilling out of its receptacle, contaminating everything around him. In a more sober tone, he repeated himself. "I'm alright."
Josiah had met this Nathan Jackson before.
Almost fourteen years ago, he had found a boy, the same way Alex had found Philly yesterday, broken and run into the ground, needing help. After nursing him back to health and getting him safely north, Josiah found his new charge was a well of anger needing expression after a lifetime of servitude and humiliation. It would have been so easy to leave him to his fate except Josiah saw something in the boy that was worth the effort put in. He had never regretted the decision and Nathan became one of the best men he knew.
Thus, it was with alarm he was seeing the return of that enraged teenager.
"Are you?" Nathan raised a heavy set brow and eyed him sceptically, telling Nathan in that one look he was not fooled.
Nathan faced front and blinked slowly. "I keep a lot of things buried Josiah, things I ain't never told you about. I have to keep it hidden because to feel it, is to drive myself crazy. Back then, anger made me nearly rush out and join John Brown or one of his gang, to start slaughtering white folk who did nothing to me. But then I remembered what she..." his voice faltered.
Josiah knew who he meant, even though they had never spoken about it. During his fevered delirium at their first meeting, Josiah discovered who she was and knew she was dead, most likely in the same manner Nathan lost his mother.
"She said we had to survive, no matter what. If I did what I wanted to do, to go out and kill every white man I saw, I wouldn't be doing that."
"I understand," Josiah said with a greater empathy than he would have liked. "Believe me I do."
Nathan did not call him out on that, sensing it wasn't necessary. "Seeing Philly again brings it all back up. Makes me remember her."
Her. Rebecca. The sister he never spoke of, whose death was almost a certainty but not the method. Josiah had no doubt she had died badly and the lash marks covering Nathan's back the night Josiah found him half-dead in that ditch in Kentucky, was a result of it.
"Maybe you should remember her," Josiah said quietly. "Keeping it inside ain't healthy. Eventually hurt that strong, gets out and it won't be pretty when it does."
Nathan considered Josiah's words for a moment before shaking his head. There was too much of it inside of him and it had taken too long to bury it deep. If he hadn't done that, Nathan doubted he would have been able to function. The hate would have eaten him alive.
Since leaving Four Corners, he had been warring with himself, thinking on Alex's words to him and feeling an ache in his heart because every time he saw the doctor who had become his friend, she reminded him most acutely of what he had lost. But it wasn't just her that preyed on his mind. Philly and those poor folk trapped on the plantation, thinking they were still slaves and believing they had no hope to except to pray for mercy from men who were incapable of giving it.
"I'm not ready to do that yet," Nathan exhaled loudly, raising his eyes to the mountains in the distance, separated by the rugged terrain before them. "Not until I help those people get loose."
Yet even as he said that Josiah knew he was lying. He was keeping his anger pent up for someone alright, but it wasn't for the men who imprisoned Philly's people.
Whoever it was, heaven help the son of a bitch when Nathan finally caught up with him.*****
It wasn't difficult to pick up Philly's trail once they returned to the scene of Alex's encounter with the men who had tried to take the boy from her and Chanu.
The bodies and horses were removed when they returned to town the day before, but there was still plenty of tracks left behind in the trampled grass, clumps of loosened earth and the horseshoe dent in the loamy soil for Vin to follow. While Philly had shed plenty of blood to give Vin a trail, the tracker was more interested in the route taken by the coward who fled when his comrades had been gunned down. Chanu had winged the son of a bitch and experience told the former bounty hunter, the man would make straight for home.
The trail followed took them away from the woodlands native to the area, with the tall grass and wild shrubs and trees, giving away for a time to hard-baked red earth and rugged, rocky terrain. The Territory was a place of extremes, an uneasy alliance between woodland forests and encroaching desert from end to end. As they crossed over from one to the other, Nathan tried to imagine Philly crossing this harsh, unforgiving terrain and was frankly amazed he had made it as far as he had. It was a stroke of luck he came across Alex and Chanu when he did because Nathan couldn't imagine he would have managed to stay ahead of men on horseback for much longer.
By nightfall, they had well and truly left the familiar area surrounding Four Corners as the trail took them further southwest, entering the parts of the Territory still ruled by the Navajo and free of settlers. Crossing the desert, they returned to heavy woodland once again when they reached Coyote Canyon or what the Navajo called Mą'ii Tééh Yítłizhí, meaning "Where Coyote Fell Into Deep Water." Deciding to camp for the night before going on, it was time to take stock of what was to be done when they reached their destination.
"Well, we ain't got no jurisdiction to do much," Buck, who had the most experience as a lawman said. They were stretched out across their bedroll or leaning against logs and boulders within range of their campfire.
"Jurisdiction?" Nathan piped up immediately. "What the hell do we need jurisdiction for? Those men are keeping slaves!"
His outburst was of no surprise to the rest of the seven who had learned in the last twenty-four hours, Nathan's temper on this subject was burning on an extremely short fuse. While they knew he was passionate about certain things, they had never seen him this way before and Chris knew until this matter was resolved, Nathan would be difficult to be reasoned with. Not that any one of them could blame him of course. Being a slave was the one experience none of them could understand and as terrible as they imagined it might be, they all knew the reality was far worse.
"Nathan," Vin said calmly, remembering his promise to Alex and also because he understood Nathan's outrage by all this. "We ain't lawmen, not really. If we find this place, we're going to have to free those people by force."
"And since we winged one of them who got away," Chris added after lowering his cup of coffee. "They know we are coming."
"So what does that mean?" Nathan challenged. He stood up from the log he had been sitting on and started pacing. "We do nothing?"
"Nathan, settle down," Josiah met his gaze from the other side of the fire. "No one is saying that. We're not going to do anything but we gotta think this through. We go in there half-cocked, we'll get ourselves and those people killed."
"Mr Jackson," Ezra spoke up, always feeling awkward voicing his opinion on this subject, particularly after how he had behaved when he first met Nathan. While they had since overcome that hurdle to be good friends, Ezra still felt ashamed by his behaviour when he thought back to their first meeting. "I hesitate to make any comment on this matter, but we have no idea what forces are rallied against us. Furthermore, what these men have done will ensure they will spend a considerable amount of time behind bars if their crime is brought to light. We need to proceed carefully because to hide their crime, they may be moved to take extreme actions."
"You think they'll kill those folk just to hide what they've done?" JD exclaimed, shaken to the core by that possibility. "But there's like thirty or forty people! They wouldn't just kill all of them! That's a massacre!"
"They wouldn't consider it a massacre," Nathan spoke, his voice as hard as flint. "They'd call it a culling."
"Jesus Christ," Buck whispered but his horror was reflected in the eyes of every one of them, save Nathan because it was a chillingly accurate description.
Around the campfire, the reaction was one of stomach-turning disgust. Chris's jaw tightened. Josiah swore under his breath. JD's colour turned a shade paler while Vin's unflappable expression was more unreadable than ever. No one could meet Nathan's eyes because they knew he was right. Men who treated others like cattle would probably dispense with them just as callously.
Then out of nowhere, Ezra spoke up. "Mr Larabee, I have an idea."
All eyes shifted to the gambler who was staring thoughtfully into the fire, seemingly mesmerised by the dance of flames in front of him.
"Let's hear it," Buck prompted.
Chris simply waited, watching the flicker of flames across the man's face, the sea green points of his eyes aglow with revelation. Although he liked to feign indifference, Chris had ridden with Ezra long enough to know the gambler took care of his friends, even when he pretended not to care. Nathan, in particular, was someone whose respect meant a lot to Ezra.
"Our problem is, we do not know what kind of force we are dealing with, is that correct Mr Larabee?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded, playing this game with the gambler, able to see Ezra was still building his idea and this step by step process of unravelling the problem, would help him come up with an answer faster. "That's right. If they're on a plantation, there'll be overseers."
"Enough to keep thirty slaves under control," Josiah stated. "They can't risk any of them escaping. All it would take is just one reaching the outside."
"All it did take was just one," Nathan corrected, thinking on Philly and how hard he'd been run into the ground. "What you got in mind Ezra?" He asked the gambler impatiently.
Accustomed to being hurried along by his associates, Ezra turned to JD. "Mr Dunne, are you by any chance in possession of your tin star?"
Instinctively JD reached for the breast pocket of his coat where he kept the tin star labelling him the Sheriff of Four Corners, even though it was a title only in name.
"Uh yeah, it's here." He admitted, fishing it out and handing it to Ezra. Even though it had some dents, it was obvious by the way it gleamed in the firelight, JD polished it regularly.
"What do you have in mind Ezra?" Vin asked, sensing the gambler had a plan up his sleeve...along with all the aces he claimed he didn't have.
"We need intelligence on this ‘plantation' and they are expecting us to arrive. So I say we give them exactly what they are anticipating."
"I don't understand," JD said not grasping what Ezra intended.
"I do," Chris caught on. "You want to go in?"
"Well," Ezra leaned back against his bedroll. "They assume whoever comes after them will be there to free their captives. What if I were to approach them after we locate this plantation, playing the role of lawman of Four Corners? I will claim to be investigating Master Philly's allegation and for a tidy stipend, I can be persuaded to return to Four Corners and reveal the boy's accusations are fiction, ensuring their enterprise continues."
"What if they don't believe you?" Nathan asked, not wanting Ezra to simply walk into the lion's den when there was every chance these animals wouldn't have any hesitation in killing him to protect their secret. "They may try to kill you."
"They may," Ezra nodded, having considered the possibility. "I will tell them I am here on behalf of Judge Travis investigating this charge. Now if I fail to return home to assume the duties of my office while making inquiries this matter, it would raise suspicion that the boy's charges are indeed true. It would be beneficial to them if I put the matter to rest to the satisfaction of Judge Travis."
"Smart," Josiah nodded in approval.
"And while you're there," Chris added. "You can take a look about the place and get a sense of how many men they got."
"Precisely," Ezra concluded.
"You ain't going alone," the gunslinger stated. "The one we winged might recognise me and Vin, so we can't go with you. Josiah you and Buck ride shotgun with Ezra."
"Mr Sanchez and Mr Wilmington may play my equally corrupt deputies," Ezra suggested, grateful for the company. He did not relish facing these men on his own, even if he wished to do this for Nathan's sake.
"Nice," Josiah frowned.
"You sure you can do this Ezra?" Nathan asked. While their relationship had begun acrimoniously, he considered the gambler one of his best friends. He wasn't blind to the way Ezra was trying to be a better man, even when he was shamelessly swimming upstream of his natural inclination for avarice.
"Yes," Ezra met his gaze seriously. "I believe so. Unfortunately, I have the right accent for it."
No one could argue with that.*****
The sun was blazing down on them when the seven lawmen laid their eyes on the plantation in the distance. From their lookout point on top of the canyon, they observed the spread which was as large as they believed it would be, surrounded by a high fence with barbed wire. Vin had risen earlier that morning and followed the trail on his own, as much as he could before finding someplace high so he could get a bird's eye view of what lay ahead, without getting any closer. Upon doing so, he sighted the plantation in the distance before heading back for his comrades.
"There it is," Vin said as he lay on his stomach near the edge of the rock shelf, lowering his spyglass as he faced the others.
From their vantage point on one of the higher shelves along the canyon walls, they were able to see the plantation that looked more like a prison. Barbed wire surrounded the entire estate, held up by high walls that revealed what was a large parcel of land. Within it, sorghum crops were being grown, creating fields of dark gold with their russet coloured heads of grain swaying in the breeze, irrigated by the flow of Broad Canyon river.
While it was all possible for a slave to run, there didn't seem to be any sign of life beyond the estate and once they got past the canyon, it would be a hard trek across the semi-desert terrain. Chris could understand why the master of the plantation had chosen this area to settle. It was isolated, far from civilisation and framed by hard terrain that would make an escape by foot risky at best. A perfect place for evil men to do whatever they wanted without discovery.
"It's big," Buck commented. "No wonder they need slaves to run it."
"They ain't slaves," Nathan said tersely, glaring at the place in dislike. "They're kidnap victims."
Chris exchanged a look with Buck, who took the snipe without comment, aware Nathan wasn't in his right mind at present. He suspected until they freed the poor souls trapped down there, he wouldn't be. However, now that Chris had seen the size of the place, he was more convinced it was necessary for Ezra to put his plan into motion, to figure out just how many overseers they were dealing with. To police a spread this size, Chris imagined it had to be a good number of men.
"Okay Ezra," Chris looked at the gambler who was presently dusting off some grit from his burgundy coloured jacket. "You're up. Try and learn as much as you can and get out with your skin. Just remember, we can't do nothing for these people until we know how many men we gotta fight."
"Understood," Ezra replied suspecting the warning was for Josiah and Buck whose moral outrage might get the better of them. "I will make sure we do nothing foolish and stick to the plan."
As the three men stared to move, Nathan spoke up.
"I got an idea too."
For some reason, Chris immediately felt nervous the hair on the back of his neck standing. "What?" The gunslinger shot Nathan a look of suspicion.
"I think I ought to sneak in there at sundown."
All six sets of eyes stared at him in absolute shock.
"HELL NO!" Buck declared before any of them could speak. The big man jumped to his feet and stared at Nathan as if the healer had lost his mind. "Are you insane? Do you know what those bastards will do to you if they find you? The least they will do is shoot you dead, the worst they can do is..."
"Buck," Chris stopped him from saying it, although he was just as horrified by the idea. He could just hide it better. "Nathan why?"
Nathan inhaled deeply, not wanting to step into that place but knew he had to. "Chris, those people don't know they're free. If I go in there, I could tell them there's nothing to stop them from breaking loose of the overseers. So far, they've been putting up with the way things are because they don't know they can leave any time they want. If I tell them the truth, it might give them the courage they need."
"To do what?" Buck demanded.
"To fight back," Vin answered, understanding what Nathan was getting at. "Chris, there's thirty of them who don't know they're slaves, who don't know they are allowed to fight back. When it's time to make our move, that could help us."
"Assuming they believe you," Josiah pointed out and rightly so. "These people have been told they're slaves for the last thirteen years. They're not going to take you on your word when what you're suggesting could get them killed."
"I can convince them," Nathan insisted but even as he said those words, he knew Josiah had a point. Philly had no idea he was free. He had been heading for Mexico on the belief it was safer south of the border than being caught anywhere in this country.
"I'll go with him," Vin declared. "We can sneak in there after dark. The size of the place is big enough for us to lay low. They may not believe Nathan but they might believe me."
Chris didn't like it, he didn't like it one damn bit but it wasn't a bad idea. "We'll wait until Ezra gets back," he said finally, refusing to commit to anything. "Once we figure out what we're dealing with, then you two can sneak in. Not one minute before, do you hear me."
There was enough menace in his voice to indicate if they didn't obey him on this, he'd shoot them both before any overseer could get their hands on either of them.
Both Nathan and Vin nodded in agreement, not brave enough to challenge that fierce glare.
"Alright you three," Chris said to Ezra, Buck and Josiah. "Get going."
If the lawmen of Four Corners thought the plantation looked ominous from afar, it was nothing in comparison to the aura of malevolence it radiated upon approach. Once upon a time, Ezra had been in the vicinity of Yuma Prison as a passerby instead of an inmate and was struck by how sinister the place felt. With its high stone walls, its medieval entrances and cast iron gates, he was struck by the absurd notion the evil of its occupants had seeped into the stone masonry, leaving behind an indelible stain for all time. Yuma Prison had made him consider it.
This place made him believe it.
Nearing the property, they were better able to see the vast expanse of sorghum fields running right to the barbed wire fence. A relatively new invention that was seeing more and more use these days in the west, Ezra shuddered at the idea this method was being employed to restrain people instead of livestock. His stomach clenched at the realisation for the masters of this plantation, there was no difference and felt a surge of shame, because until meeting Nathan Jackson, he was inflicted with the same prejudice. While he was never so extreme as believing negroes were animals, he was guilty of thinking them less until meeting the healer taught him otherwise.
It took the trio a good hour to find the main gates into the plantation and like the high fences of barbed wire, the gates were sturdy iron, making one think the things were barring outsiders from invading a fortress, not a farm. The gates emptied onto a gravel road framed by tall aspens and manicured shrubbery, almost concealing the Spanish style mansion hidden beyond it. The barbed wire fence appeared to run along the inside of the place as well, keeping any strays from reaching the path to the main gates.
"Created themselves a nice little country here, haven't they?" Josiah asked as they neared the gates to see a sentry box on the other side. Drawn by the clip-clop sound of their horses, two white men who bore a striking resemblance to hardened hired gun one might find at Purgatory, emerged from the sentry box, cradling shotguns in their arms. The scowls on their faces indicated they rarely received visitors.
"Yeah, real nice," Buck said under his breath, disliking everything about the place, knowing what it was concealing behind its sharp wire barricades. He spared a thought for the boy who had made it through the barrier to reach them near Four Corners and felt an immediate swell of admiration as well as outrage he had to go through that in the first place.
Ezra couldn't blame Buck for his seething dislike, feeling the emotion himself. Once again, he thought about Nathan, thought about his friend living inside a place like this, escaping on foot, running across the hard-baked earth, barefoot and terrified. When Ezra saw the scars on his back for the first time, the shame drove the ability to speak from his mind and all he could do was turn away because to say anything, was pointless. What could he say?
"Alright Ezra," Josiah said to him. "You're up."
Ezra nodded, digging his heels into Chaucer's flank to which the trusted steed snorted indignantly before breaking into a slight trot that got him ahead of the two horses at its flank. Already wearing the tin star on the lapel of his coat, Ezra took on the square-jawed persona of a self-righteous lawman, which was none of the men he rode with unless justice had a very odd sense of humour.
The name across the gate read ‘Eden'. It was painfully clear for whom this paradise was meant.
The two men who watched his approach did so with clear hostility, perhaps forewarned of trouble because of Philly's escape. Either way, Ezra raised his right hand in greeting, while at the same time revealing his guns to indicate he was perfectly capable of defending himself despite his conciliatory gesture. Both were obviously hired guns and if not, had been in a past life. While well dressed, the older of the two was a pug-nosed creature with a moustache that had seen better days. He squinted at Ezra while his fingers traced the smooth finish of the shotgun in his hand.
"Greetings gentlemen," Ezra oozed all the charm of a snake oil salesman. Behind him, Josiah and Buck exchanged knowing glances, familiar with the performance. "My name is Sheriff Ezra P Standish, these are my deputies, Josiah Sanchez and Buck Wilmington. We represent Territorial Judge Orin Travis and I require an audience with the owners of this fine property to discuss a matter of grave importance."
The two men exchanged knowing looks, telling Ezra right away, they were expected.
"He can't see you," the older man said gruffly.
"That is, of course, your prerogative," Ezra said leaning forward in his saddle, all traces of slick charm vanishing from his face as his voice took on a tone of cold calculation, one used just before he blew a hole in a someone's head for attempting to outfox him at the tables. "However, if I do not see your employer this day, the next visit you will have will be from the Judge himself and accompanying him will be the Union Army. "
The mention of the army, considering the law they were breaking behind the high fences made both men nervous and Ezra saw the man's moustache twitch. He threw a sidelong glance at Josiah and Buck who had now caught up to him and saw the faint smile crossing their lips at the man's capitulation. Facing the gatekeeper once more, Ezra waited with patience for him to allow them entry, able to smell blood in the water.
"Alright," the sentry said gruffly and nodded to his younger companion, who was about JD's age but with eyes nowhere as intelligent. "You can go in but stick to the road. We got men and dogs keeping watch..." he paused a moment and then continued, "for them prairie niggers looking to raid us. They see strangers, they're liable to get twitchy before they know you ain't them savages."
Ezra held his poker-face but Josiah had taken great offence to that disgusting term for the local Navajos. Buck's jaw tightened but like Josiah, managed to hold his tongue. It told all three visitors from Four Corners, what kind of life Philly and his people were subjected to here and were doubly worried about Nathan coming anywhere near this place. Even with Vin, none of them liked the idea of Nathan's plan to infiltrate the plantation. If anything went wrong, God only knew what these animals would do to him.
"I assure you," Ezra returned his attention to the man as he nudged Chaucer forward when the gate was unlocked and swung open for them to gain entry. "We only wish to conclude our business and take our leave with the minimum of time spent imposing on your employer. By the way, what might his name be? The Judge did not provide us with that intelligence."
The man bristled, clearly unhappy about having to give out any information, however, if this sheriff represented a Territorial Judge, then it seemed he had no choice but to make the revelation. Besides, if a judge was involved, what had been going on in Eden was going to come out and liable to land a lot of them in jail or worse.
"Patrick Selitrenny," He grizzled, saying the name as Ezra, Buck and Josiah passed through the gates and began down the long, gravel road leading to the house beyond the canopy of trees.
"Much appreciated," Ezra said tipping his hat as he passed the two sentries by. "I shall give Mr Selitrenny your regards when I make his acquaintance."*****
While the arrival of the three men at the gates was expected, the manner in which they did so was not.
When Callan returned informing his older brother that the nigger boy not only eluded capture but had fallen into the hands of others, Patrick Selitrenny expected the worst. Fifteen years ago, he had bought this parcel of land in the middle of Navajo territory, protected by hard men who killed without impunity and even harder men who would do anything for the money. Their only allegiance to the money he paid them, it was easy to buy their silence in the presence of the plantation's main crop, its slaves.
Patrick had always known northern industry would break the back of the south. When the Emancipation Act was enacted, slaves would simply leave the plantations and with most of the men fighting in the war, there would be no one to stop them. Southern belles did not have the fortitude to run the plantations, not if they were raised properly. Patrick had no intention of seeing his mother driven to such indignity, so he made the decision to leave before the Yankees made it for him. He had no intention of losing everything when the war was over. While he lamented having to leave his South Carolina home, he knew it was necessary to preserve his family's legacy.
While the South had gone to its fate, Patrick recreated his piece of it here in the wilderness of the Territory, bringing with him enough slaves to create new breeding stock and the men necessary to ensure his nigras never knew the world outside had changed. While most slaves didn't know their letters well enough to read, Occasionally a well-meaning overseer committed the unpardonable sin of teaching one of them to read and the result was usually a bullet between the eyes, for both.
He would dismiss no overseer who might go running to the law and who gave a fuck if he shot dead a nigra anyway?
Those who made the attempt to escape were hunted down and when they were brought back, were hobbled to ensure they never ran again, that is if they didn't make contact with anyone on the outside. Otherwise, they'd be put down before contaminating the rest of the herd. The high fences he erected after the first few attempts had kept the number of escapes down and with the added security of men and dogs on patrol, he was able to keep the truth from his nigras for years.
Until Philly escaped.
For the overseers, the benefits of the job had always been their access to the women. It was simply a fact of life. Of course, the women were never happy about it but after the first few times, they submitted to their duty. In hindsight, he supposed he ought to have warned Asher Brent to stay away from Philly's mother Willa.
She was a beautiful Negress and was a good worker, but after the attempt to kill herself some years ago, it was clear her days as being used as entertainment had taken its toll on her sanity. Of course, Brent being the fool he was, liked her and didn't even have the sense to send the boy to run some errand while he had his way with Philly's mother.
Assuming he would be killed for his trouble, they weren't surprised when the boy ran off and hid because it never occurred to them Philly might be smart enough to know how to get through the wire. By the time they realised their mistake, the boy had cut through a section of fence, since repaired, and made his escape. Patrick had sent his brother Callan after Philly, convinced the boy would succumb quickly enough. They were wrong. Even after catching a bullet, Philly had kept going and eluded recapture. Considering what fate awaited him when he was brought back to Eden, Patrick supposed the little nigger thought he had nothing to lose.
Now with barbarians at the gate, Patrick braced himself for a fight. He was uncertain of his strategy yet because he was not one to make rash decisions. Thanks to his endeavours since the end of the war, it would not be difficult to pick up and start somewhere else. The plantation had maintained his fortune and allowed him to expand it while so many of the families he knew back in South Carolina were almost destitute.
The men appearing at his gates had come with neither a sizeable force or backed by self-righteous nigger loving abolitionists, giving him a little difficulty in interpreting the situation. However, Patrick's success in how he conducted himself and his business was his ability to wield patience like a well-oiled weapon, ready to strike when the moment was right.*****
He would see what these men had in mind before he decided whether or not he would kill them.
"My God," Ezra managed to say once the mansion came into view.
It was possibly one of the most opulent structures he had seen since entering the Territory. It stood at two stories high, with large french windows, and long-stemmed columns running across its frontage. A manicured garden surrounded it and Ezra had to wonder at the water supply needed to keep the lawn lush and green. If he didn't know better, he would think he was staring at one of those stately homes that had been such a staple of the old south, homes that now belonged to Yankee carpetbaggers.
"He certainly did build himself a nice little piece of heaven here, didn't he?" Josiah commented, his eyes taking in the sight of the place and wondered where the imprisoned negro workforce was. He could see none of them in sight and once again, the high fences which were also erected inside the outer fence, told him that Mr Selitrenny was wisely keeping them out of sight to avoid visitors asking uncomfortable questions.
"Heaven that's been built on a lot of blood," Buck couldn't help but add. He didn't see beauty. He saw a place built on the back-breaking toil of a people who should have been enjoying their freedom instead of languishing here, trapped in amber because of one man's greed and cruelty.
No one could disagree with that and while the lack of negro slaves was telling on the grounds around the mansion, what was obvious was the number of men Selitrenny had hired to keep his slave population under control. The snapping irritation of barking dogs could be heard as they saw two hired guns, heavily armed, run a team of dogs along the fences on either side. Large, brutish dogs that Ezra identified as some kind of mastiff, sniffed the air and kept their eyes focused on the new arrivals with the unfamiliar scents.
Elsewhere, teams of men, all armed with shotguns could be seen stationed across the area surrounding the mansion. Ezra had a feeling this was for their benefit. As if the master was deploying his minions to let them know just how much firepower they were dealing with if they intended to free the slaves. God only knew how many overseers were keeping Philly's people under control. Either way, the seven were in for a fight if they thought they were going to take this place easily.
Once again, Ezra feared what Nathan would think when they returned with this intelligence. The healer was riding a wave of high on self-righteous wrath waiting to burst free and Ezra hoped their report made him abandon his foolish plan to infiltrate the premises. The idea of Nathan under the power of any of these men made not just his stomach clench in horror, but the rest of the seven as well. He'd seen Chris's eyes and knew the gunslinger abhorred the idea even with Vin accompanying Nathan.
As they approached the house, two men stepped out onto the porch. The leader of the two, in his expensive dark suit, slick black hair and a moustache as well-manicured as his lawn, eyed them with hawkish eyes. With a puff tie and diamond winking at them on approach, Ezra knew without a doubt this was the master of Eden. This was Patrick Selitrenny.
Next to him was a younger man, Ezra guessed by the similarities in their features, a sibling. The younger Selitrenny's hair was worn longer, wearing clothes just as expensive as his brother's, except he was missing a jacket, exposing suspenders and a silk shirt.
"Greetings, gentlemen," Patrick Selitrenny greeted as he descended the front steps of the home, leaving Callan behind him as he proceeded down the walkway to greet them.
All three lawmen tipped their hats politely as their horses reached the hitching post near the walkway and they promptly dismounted their horses. Once again, Ezra gave Buck and Josiah a quick glance to reaffirm the agreement to let him do the talking, especially after hearing Selitrenny's South Carolina accent.
"Greetings," Ezra said brandishing his best smile. "I take it you are Mr Selitrenny?"
"I am," Patrick nodded, studying the man closely, taking note of the star on Ezra's jacket lapel. "We do not get visitors in these parts often, so I am rather intrigued by your presence here. You must have made a compelling argument to Mr Albee to be allowed entrance."
"I did," Ezra said sanguinely. "I am Sheriff Ezra P Standish of Four Corners, these are my two associates and deputies, Mr Josiah Sanchez and Buck Wilmington. We are intruding on your company for a most pressing matter which I believe we can resolve to the benefit of us all."*****
Once introductions were done, they were let into the main house and for the first time, Ezra, Buck and Josiah caught a glimpse of the slavery Philly escaped. The household slaves were comprised entirely of negros servants and Ezra thought he'd stepped back in time, to his youth where Maude's more affluent relatives kept slaves to manage their household. The look of them was all the same, time and apparel notwithstanding, wearing the expression of desolation, that this was all there was in life and it was best to simply accept it.
They moved about the house in their plain clothes, playing the part of maid, houseboys, cooks and whatever else was needed, not daring to make eye contact with the master of his guests. Buck fought hard not to react when he saw children no older than ten, put to work when they ought to be in school, enjoying the sunshine, instead of being trapped in this hell he couldn't even begin to imagine. Suddenly, he empathised all too well with Nathan's outrage.
Joining them in Patrick Selirenny's private study, a lavish affair as the rest of the house with its polished wooden floors, expensive furniture with richly coloured embroidered upholstery and gold gilt fixtures, was his younger brother and the head overseer, a man called Cicero Jones. Jones wore a battered and darker version of Vin Tanner's slouch hat, with watery coloured eyes warning menace and a scarred face that spoke a lifetime of violence.
"So Sheriff Standish," Selitrenny said after everyone was served drinks, whisky for those who wanted something stronger than the sweet tea Josiah and Buck opted for. "What brings you here."
Of course, the man was perfectly aware of why they were here but Ezra decided to play the hand they agreed upon and went through the motions. "As I told your man out front, we have something of a situation. A little nigger boy..." Ezra spoke and didn't have to glance at Josiah and Buck to know that neither liked the use of that word. Unfortunately, Ezra had no choice but to use it to set the stage. "Was located by our local doctor."
"The coloured woman," Callan hissed with anger. "I knew that bitch was hiding him!"
This time it was Ezra struggling to maintain his cool. Whatever may have transpired between them, Ezra still cared for Alex and did not at all like the sum of what she was, distilled to that offensive description. Once again he didn't need to look at Buck and Josiah to know, they would have been similarly aggrieved by the description.
"Yes, Doctor Styles. In any case, she returned the boy to Four Corners, where I am charged to carry out the duties of this tin star. After listening to his story, which unfortunately reached the ears of our local newspaper editor, one of those spirited northern types. She brought the situation to the attention of her father, Territorial Judge Orin Travis."
Selitrenny exchanged glances with Cicero and his brother. "And you're here to do what? Give me notice that the law will be coming to Eden?"
"The law has come to Eden. Fortunately for you, we are its representatives," Ezra said smoothly. "I manage to convince the Judge the boy's story was preposterous, that no one could have committed the act of deception you are reportedly guilty of committing. However, upon seeing this place, I see you have done exactly that."
Cicero and Callan flinched uncomfortably but Selitrenny continued to remain calm. "One can do anything if one sets one's mind to it, Sherrif. I was not prepared to let the old ways die because of abolitionist nonsense. However, I am aware of how my situation could be misunderstood. Perhaps you ought to get to your point quickly."
As he said that, they saw Cicero's hand shift to his gunbelt. Behind them, footsteps were heard and Ezra had only to look over his shoulder to see two men of equal bearing to Cicero, were watching through the doorway. Buck and Josiah showed no signs of caution since they had more or less expected this reaction the minute they entered the house. As it was, Buck's hand was already around the butt of his Remington and Josiah continued to sip sweet tea, firmly convinced Ezra's slick tongue could get them out of trouble without weapons fire.
"Fair point," Ezra replied and sat forward giving Selitrenny a look of ice. "I am the only thing keeping the Union Army from thundering through those gates of yours. I convince the Judge to allow me to investigate the boy's claims which frankly beggars disbelief. If I return to Four Corners and tell them that I found nothing substantiating his claims, that will be the end of the matter. However, if we do not return, the Judge will send someone else in our stead, who are less amenable to the situation. If you get my meaning."
"I do," Selitrenny said with a smile. "So what would it take for you to convince them, there is nothing to the nigger's claims."
"Well then," Ezra grinned. "Let make a deal."
Josiah Sanchez remembered the first time he met Nathan Jackson.
The boy was seventeen years old but at the time, it was difficult to tell. If not for the fact Josiah had stopped for a smoke by the side of the road on that field in Kentucky, he might not have seen the half-dead figure huddled against that abandoned chicken fence, shaking with fever. When Josiah had approached him, Nathan had barely been aware of his presence. Covered in sweat, the shirt he wore was brown with old blood, sticking to his back like a second skin. His feet were covered in cuts and caked with mud, with grass seeds and small pieces of dried vegetation clinging to his threadbare clothes.
Josiah had stood there, shocked by the state of him, wondering how far he had run in this condition and surveyed the landscape for his pursuers. At the time, the preacher had no idea if there was anyone after him, but he had no intention of leaving this child to them. As a preacher, he'd crossed this country and as a youth, he'd crossed the world in search of spiritual truth and so far, there had been nothing more despicable in his reckoning than the bondage of a human by another, simply because of colour.
If Josiah thought the exhausted state of his new charge was bad enough, it was nothing compared to seeing those terrible wounds across his back, the result of a hellish whipping. To this day, Josiah marvelled at how Nathan had been able to make it from Georgia to Kentucky with those rips on his flesh. Yet the physical trauma was nothing in comparison to the distress the boy suffered in his delirium. As Josiah tended to him, he listened to sobs of anguish and the words uttered spoke of only grief and profound sorrow, for a girl who died in the worst circumstances imaginable.
Years after the fact, Nathan was still loathed to talk about her, as if saying her name would do nothing except bring up the pain of her loss.
There were not many things in his life Josiah had to be proud of, but saving Nathan was one of them. Taking him into Illinois, freeing him from the fever and teaching him how to read, had restored Nathan's spirit and turned him into one of the best men Josiah knew. Yet in all the years of their friendship, Josiah never asked the question of what life had been like before he found Nathan in that field, ready to die.
When Patrick Selitrenny took them through Eden, Josiah at last understood.
The deal which Ezra struck with the master of Eden, involved being paid a lot of money for the ‘Sherrif' of Four Corners to turn a blind eye to the man's activities here. While Selitrenny's scepticism was obvious, Ezra managed to use that silver tongue of his to convince the southerner, he was genuine about not only remaining silent but he would inform the Judge, Philly needed to be returned to his mother who was worried about him.
Following that, Selitrenny who clearly did not get many visitors was eager to show off his plantation to a fellow southerner, which was why they were now allowed into the ‘enclosure' as the man called it, where he kept his nigras. Josiah's jaw had tensed at the word, thinking it was the same term used by the keepers at the New York City zoo, when referring to the animals. Then again, Josiah reminded himself bitterly, in Selitrenny's mind, that was exactly what they were.
The plantation had been cordoned off into a series of compounds. There was, of course, the main enclosure where the sorghum crops were grown, its borders patrolled by men and dogs preventing any slave from reaching the fence to escape. As they walked through the place, they could see the workers in the field, performing their back-breaking toil while being guarded by overseers with guns, ready to punish the first one of them to disobey the rule of Selitrenny's law.
The mansion and its grounds were similarly partitioned, with a set of gates guarded by overseers to monitor the passage of workers to the big house, ensuring no one slipped through without permission. The overseers quarters were no different than any bunkhouse one might find on a ranch and the sprawl of them told Josiah there were at least twenty men. Like Albee at the main gates, they were hardened men who lived by the gun with cruelty lining the creases of their face.
Seeing the slave quarters told Josiah immediately Philly's calculations had been wrong.
There weren't just thirty slaves. Counting the ones out in the field, it looked more like sixty. It made sense why Selitrenny had such a sizeable force of overseers working for him. Walking through the place, Josiah saw women washing or weaving clothes while ignoring the leers of overseers who would no doubt become tigers in the night, forcing visitations they had no power to stop. Children were also forced into labour, churning butter, cleaning shoes, tending to the grounds and carrying out chores their parents had probably done in their youth, and their forebears before them. All the way back to the first one of them brought to this land that was nothing less than hell for a negro.
"Will you have any difficulty convincing your Judge to let the boy be returned here?"
"Not if I see his mother," Ezra told Selitrenny. "It would help the situation if I can tell the Judge that I spoke with the lady. Perhaps I can return with a token from her the boy will recognise."
Patrick exchanged a glance with Cicero at the request, still unwilling to trust this Sherrif, but the man's offer to bring Philly back to prove his word did lend weight to his claim their deal was legitimate. The head overseer's eyes shifted immediately to a shack at the far end of the path they were currently walking
"Can't see why not," Cicero shrugged. "She ain't working today. She's feeling poorly."
What Cicero did not say was Callan, stinging from the harsh rebuke he'd received from his brother, took out his fury on the woman, when he returned to Eden with his tail between his legs since he could not do so on her son. Already suffering the worst of what Brent had done to her, the added beating had ensured she was less than fit for work.
Josiah flashed Buck a look, silently cautioning the ladies man to keep calm. While Ezra's poker face was set in stone, Josiah knew just how incendiary Buck could be when it came to women in trouble. There was no doubt in any of their minds what ‘feeling poorly' translated to and all were expecting the worst as Cicero led the way to the shack occupied by the woman. As they did, they saw furtive glances thrown their way from the men and women indentured here, no doubt wondering what fresh indignity Philly's mother was going to suffer next.
"What will happen to him when he gets back?" Buck asked, perfectly aware there was no chance of Philly ever coming back to this place. Not while there was breath in his body or for that matter, Nathan's.
"He did kill an overseer," Patrick said coldly. "We can't let that kind of behaviour go unpunished. Once a buck gets wild like that, you want to break the fight in him and make sure the others see it."
Buck Wilmington never thought his name could sound so profane when uttered in that context and bit back the urge to speak, considering Philly's act of murder had been in retaliation for his mother's rape. In his position, Buck would have done no different. Only men like Selitrenny didn't see it as rape. No, they considered it the fringe benefits of owning slaves. It made Buck sick to the stomach and yet he maintained his composure because reacting right now would give this whole thing away and get all three of them killed. There was enough suspicion in these sons of bitches to make their hospitality turn to hostility with any careless remark.
"We won't kill them though," Patrick added hastily, in case this was a factor for keeping this Sheriff's silence. "A good whipping is all that's needed. He'll burn some but he'll be alright to send into the fields and give the others a good reminder of how things are."
"Yes, I'm sure it would be," Ezra said revealing nothing.
Ezra had never been on a plantation since most of his time in the south was confined to the cities where the slaves he encountered were mostly housebound. Behind his gambler's countenance, Ezra hid how much he loathed seeing how well the place operated, with every one of Selitrenny's pieces of ‘property' knowing their place in the world. More than ever, he empathized with Nathan's rage in wanting to put a stop to this sooner rather than later.
As they moved through the slave quarters, Ezra noticed none of its occupants made eye contact with them and supposed such actions might result in the master taking notice, which was probably what no slave wanted really. They just wanted to work from dawn to dusk and get through the day without being set upon by overseers.
Upon reaching her door, Cicero started pounding hard against the wood, making the shack shudder as if it would collapse at any moment. The three lawmen from Four Corners tried not to react to the way the woman was being summoned, particularly when they remembered why Philly had escaped in the first place.
The shuffle of feet preceded the creak of wood before the door swung open and standing there in front of them was a woman who was expecting death on her doorstep. Her expression was one of defeat and just looking at her made Buck's fists clench in outrage. She was a beautiful woman, almost regal in her manner, not even the bruises across her lovely dark skin could take that away from her. Her features were elegant, with a long swan-like neck and high cheekbones.
"Yessir?" She asked quietly, her eyes fixed on the dirt ground in front of her door.
"Hello Willa," Cicero spoke gruffly. "These men have come to see you."
She stiffened involuntarily and as her eyes darted to each one of them quickly, a veil of despair descended over her lovely face. It was at that moment Buck realised with dismay what she was thinking. After what she had been through, or rather was still going through on this plantation, how could she be blamed for jumping to the conclusion the master was giving her to these new arrivals for their pleasure.
"Pretty isn't she?" Patrick asked, stepping forward to brush a finger over her cheek. "Even if she is a little scuffed."
Instinctively, Buck felt Josiah's hand on his shoulder, his fingers digging in because Buck was ready to take the man's head off for that remark alone.
"She is indeed," Ezra remarked and tried not to be similarly outraged by the wounds on her skin. "Madam, I require something of your son's to let him know you are well."
Her eyes widened immediately. "Philly? He's still alive?"
"Yes ma'am," Buck answered automatically. "He made it to our town. We're going to bring him back to you."
"No!" She exploded, surfacing a momentary display of animation at the possibility of the threat to her child. She knew full well what would happen to to Philly if he were brought back to Eden.
"Watch your mouth, Willa!" Cicero snapped, his hand lashing out to cuff her hard across the head. Willa uttered a soft cry as the blow struck the swollen skin of her face, forcing her to clutch her wounded cheek in pain.
Once again Buck tensed, but Josiah held firm, keeping him in place. They were surrounded on all sides by numbers they could not hope to overcome if Buck attacked either master or overseer. As much as he himself loathed seeing the woman stifling her despair, they had to bide their time.
"Thank you, Cicero," Patrick said to the overseer with appreciation. "Now Willa, do as Sheriff Standish here asks. Bring us something Philly will know is yours."
Nodding defeatedly, she retreated into the home.
"There's a good girl," Patrick said turning to the three visitors. "You just gotta know how to handle them."*****
Leaving Eden behind once their business was concluded, none of them could dispel the bad taste left in their mouths from their experience inside the enclosure. Buck had vented his outrage as soon as they were out of earshot of the plantation and any of its overseers. As it was, the old, ceramic pipe belonging to Philly's dead father, sat in Buck's coat pocket and it felt like thirty pieces of silver, considering it was meant to be a lure to bring the boy back to Eden.
By the time they reached the others, the sun had descended over the horizon and the only one of them more angered by what they had seen in Patrick Selitrenny's hideaway was Nathan, who had been awaiting their return with growing impatience. Nathan's desire to ride into the place and tell the poor folk the truth about their situation was great and the entire time spent waiting for Ezra, Buck and Josiah's return, was an exercise in restraint which he was barely managing to control.
"It is a bad as the boy said," Josiah explained as they sat around the fire, in a spot suitably shrouded in the canyon to prevent its light from being seen. "There's at least sixty of them and they have no idea the war is over or they're free."
"I can't believe how he's managed to get away with it," JD shook his head, unable to imagine it. Then again, coming from New York, where slavery seemed secondary next to the intense poverty from the influx of immigrants coming through Ellis Island, he supposed his naivete was understandable. Still, the idea of slavery still existing even now, made his stomach turn in disgust.
"Oh he's managed quite well alright," Buck spoke, still seething. "He's got them penned up behind wire, kept watch on by men with dogs and punished hard if they misbehaved. They're too damn terrified to believe anything else."
"Mr Selitrenny has been most careful," Ezra added. "He ensures the place is secured like a prison, barring his inmates from straying into areas that might allow them to come into contact with visitors. They are watched at all times, whether in the fields or in the slave quarters. The only reason Philly escaped at all was simply that they were taken by surprise that one of their ‘charges' actually managed to kill an overseer."
"Overseer," Vin snorted, sharing Buck's indignance after hearing the trio describe the place. "Sounds like a fancy name for a prison guard."
"That's more or less what it is Chris," Josiah aimed his stare at the gunslinger who until now had not spoken, merely listening. "He's hired the worst kind of trash who's willing to keep quiet for the money."
"Why shouldn't they?" Buck growled. "They got access to all the women they want! Philly's momma had bruises all over her. Some as fresh as a few days ago. The woman's been put through hell. I'm betting they're all been used in the same way!"
Chris's jaw tightened because he knew perfectly well what took place in the plantations back in the day. In his native Indiana, despite its strong ties to the south, slavery had been abolished as early as 1816, with abolitionists ensuring the population was more than aware of what was happening on the other side of the Mason-Dixon. His mother, before her death, was active in abolitionist causes and Chris had read Uncle Tom's Cabin when he was a kid.
"We couldn't even tell the woman her boy was safe!" Buck continued on his self-righteous tirade. "She was terrified because she thought we were going to bring him back."
"They'll never let him live long enough to tell the others what he's seen," Josiah stated. "I'm guessing that's what they do to any slave that reaches the outside. They can't be allowed to tell the other's the truth."
"That's why they were so determined to kill Alex and Chanu, just to get to him." Vin's blue eyes turned dark at the thought, recalling how frightened she had been when he found her under her buggy. "They couldn't risk him telling anybody else either."
The group lapsed into silence when suddenly, the snap of a gun cylinder in place, made them seek out the final member of their group. Nathan had disappeared during their conversation and as Chris sought out the healer, understood why.
Nathan was getting ready to ride.
The healer had returned the gun to his holster and was striding towards his horse and judging by how quickly he was moving, Chris guessed he wasn't waiting for permission to leave. Cursing under his breath, Chris got to his feet, prompting the others to follow before Nathan could mount Hippocrates and ride away from their campsite into what was almost certainly his death if Chris was right about where he was headed.
"Nathan! Where are you going?" Chris asked even though he knew the answer. The question was only meant to delay the man, nothing more.
"I think you know," Nathan said curtly, not slowing down one bit. "I'm going down there and tell those people the truth. There's no reason for them to put up with what's happening to them, they're free. Once they know that, they'll fight..."
"And they'll die," Chris returned sharply. "You heard Josiah, they've got men with guns who aren't afraid to kill a few of them to keep the rest under control. You go down there and get them rioting, that's exactly what's going to happen. Nathan, we need to think this out..."
"NO!" He fairly roared at Chris in fury. "They've waited long enough! Thirteen years too long as a matter of fact! They should be free Chris! FREE! I won't sit by and let them go through it another minute longer! "
"We're not going to let this continue Mr Jackson," Ezra implored, understanding... no, he couldn't say that. He couldn't understand, not in the slightest, not when it wasn't that long ago he would have simply dismissed what Selitrenny had done as just the way things were. Until he walked through Eden and saw those poor people himself, he never realised just how terrible it could be. He was never indoctrinated with the idea men could be beasts, only that coloured folk were inferiors, because, in the south, one was taught no other way.
Maude had certainly never subscribed to such thinking because her view of people was confined to two realities, mark or grifter. Colour never came into it.
"Nathan enough!" Josiah boomed, using a voice with the healer he hadn't used since he first found that half-dead kid years ago.
Nathan froze in his tracks, too conditioned to obey him when Josiah commanded him that way, to keep walking. Turning around, his eyes were filled with sorrow and whatever else was driving him mad with rage, Josiah knew at the eye of this storm, was the girl whose name he couldn't even bring himself to speak.
"I can't let this go on Josiah," he said quietly. "I can't let any of my people stay trapped in a world where there ain't no such thing as hope, because God didn't see fit to give us any. He wasn't even our God, just someone else the master made us obey. There was no promised land for us, no hope that when it was all said and done, we wouldn't be turned out of heaven cos it was meant for white folk only. They didn't just make us slaves Josiah, they took our past and everything we were. We ain't got no country, no language, no memory of where we came from. To them, we're nothing more than a litter they can breed so we'll work their fields, clean their houses and feed scraps from their table."
His voice shuddered. "We didn't even have a right to keep our mothers or our daughters safe. To them, we ain't quite human but not animal enough for them to leave us alone."
He thought of his mama, who killed herself from the shame of carrying another man's child and he thought about Rebecca. No matter how much he tried, his last image of her would always be one bathed in blood.
None of the others could speak and only the crackle of fire could be heard in the background. There was nothing they could say to Nathan, not after hearing that heartbreaking speech. Eventually, it was Josiah who spoke, because Josiah had stopped him from getting on his horse.
"Nathan," the preacher spoke just as quietly, mustering all the power of his soothing voice to assure the healer. "We're not going to let this continue, you have our promise on that but you can't go off half-cocked, not without a plan. They've kept those people pinned down for so long because they've got the men and the guns to see it done. All that will be accomplished by you rushing in there, is getting yourself killed."
"None of us here can know what you went through Nathan," Chris added, his voice filled with conviction, "but we're going to save those people and we're going to do it together. You have my word on that."
He spoke on the behalf of the others because he meant it and because he was their leader and this was what leaders did. Chris wanted Nathan to understand because while they could not share his pain, they could certainly avenge it.
That was what it meant to be seven.
It was rather ironic to realise for all the trouble Patrick Selitrenny had gone to keep anyone from escaping Eden, he spared almost no effort to keep anyone from getting in.
Watching the fence line closest to their hiding place in the trees skirting the edge of the property, the shadows afforded excellent concealment as they studied the movement of guards and dogs patrolling the barbed wire enclosures, ensuring none of Eden's workforce made foolish attempts to escape. As terrible as the place had seemed to Vin from a distance, seeing it up close felt even worse. It was sinister, like the aftermath of a massacre when blood and shit had soaked the ground and cursed it for all time.
He couldn't even begin to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped inside that hell.
"Was this what it was like where you were?" Vin asked Nathan.
The healer hadn't said much since they took up position here, watching for the appearance of the guards, so they could determine the interludes between patrols. When they left the camp where the others were waiting, Nathan fell silent, as if the outrage had left him exhausted and now all that was left to do was to simply accept what needed to be done, the way a man accepted that there was no escape from a, particularly odious task.
Nathan turned to Vin in surprise because no one had ever asked the question, not even Josiah. Sometimes, he volunteered snippets of his life as a slave but no one ever asked him to elaborate and Nathan understood why, even if he never voiced it. Despite having no connection to the cruelties inflicted on him and his kind, they felt ashamed, as if being white made them culpable for the sins of others. The healer never thought such a thing, not after meeting Josiah and learning not all white men were evil, just as all black men were not saints.
The seeds of evil were blind to colour when needing a place to grow.
"Fences weren't as high," Nathan said after a moment, facing front once more. "There wasn't no need for dogs either. Back then, there wasn't anywhere to go unless you planned on heading north. Most of us didn't know what north actually was. It was like the Promised land, someplace to dream about. All we knew about it, was in the north you were free. Trouble was, most of us didn't understand what being free meant. Some of the older slaves, the ones who'd come on the boats from Africa, talked about it, but even for them the memories were fading fast."
Vin said nothing for a time and when he spoke, he said with equal solemnity. "After my ma died when I was a little fella, I was taken to the state orphanage which wasn't much of a home for kids as it is a prison to keep us from getting underfoot until we was old enough to leave. I reckon the people who ran the place was much like your slave owners, we weren't real to them either. Some kids got sold, taken away on trains to places that didn't sound all that good to be. I was almost twelve when they shipped me off. I don't know where I was going but I knew I wasn't gonna get there to find out."
Nathan turned to Vin, gripped by Vin's narration. The tracker spoke little about his past and Nathan realised Vin was as closed mouth about it as he was about the plantation. "What did you do?"
"Well, I was pretty thin back then," Vin shrugged. "They didn't feed us much so we weren't that far away from being skin and bones. When they took me away on the train, I managed to get out by squeezing through the bars of the window. Wandered through the desert for a few days until the Comanche found me and took me in. Stayed with them until I was old enough to fend for myself."
"Damn," Nathan gave him a look. "Didn't know that about you."
"Ain't something I like to talk about," the tracker admitted. "It wasn't easy growing up in the tribe either. They weren't too eager to welcome a white child to the village but the war chief, Peta, kind of took a liking to me so I got to stay."
"I wanted to run away lots of time but common sense told me if I did, I'd only get myself killed," Nathan said quietly. In truth, it was Rebecca who kept him from running because she was certain he'd get caught and be subjected to the hobbling the Master was so fond of inflicting on runaway slaves who were brought back to the plantation. "So I stayed and put up with it. Even after they sold my pa down the road. He was getting older and couldn't work the fields any more. One of the master's friends needed a farrier for his plantation so they took my dad. I was gonna run then but I realised I had no idea where north even was."
"So what changed your mind?" Vin asked aware Nathan had eventually broken that conditioning to escape to the North at the onset of the war.
Nathan closed his eyes and forced away the image of Rebecca's broken and bleeding body, her dress torn and clinging to her in scraps. Even now the fury bubbled inside of him, remembering the bites on her flesh, the shattered bones, the Master's stink on her skin. He thought of how beautiful she had been, lying on the grass next to him on a balmy night, staring at the stars ahead and listening to her talk about hope and freedom. Only his recent friendship with Alexandra Styles had helped blunt some of the pain but it was nowhere enough.
No matter how many years had passed, the anguish of losing her still felt fresh.
"Just got on the wrong side of the Master and got a whipping," Nathan said evasively, having no wish to reveal the truth to anyone. "I decided I had enough and made a run for it. I figured they would think I'd die on the run and give up the chase but those sons of bitches tracked me all the way to Kentucky before I ran into Josiah. Good thing too," he recalled the utter exhaustion finally driving him to collapse and defeat. "I was just about done."
"Good thing for us too," Vin squeezed him on the arm, a small gesture with a world of sentiment and regard behind it. "Couldn't imagine riding without you Nathan."
Nathan flashed the tracker a little smile, "me neither. You and the others, I didn't expect to have friends like you, even if you are all white."
"Yeah," Vin laughed. "We can't be perfect I guess."
Suddenly Vin felt silent, gesturing for quiet as he sniffed something in the air long before Nathan heard it. They only had to wait for a minute before the dark silhouette of a man, with the long barrel of a shotgun poking out from under his arm, walked past, with two dogs leading the way. The animals were big and the shape of their heads gave away their breeding. The twin mastiffs sniffed the air, detecting something distant, without the wind to give them further direction.
For a few seconds, Vin and Nathan held their breaths as they watched man and beasts continue on their way, studying the area with hawkish eyes before disappearing into the darkness further along the fenceline.
When they were gone, Vin turned to Nathan. "You sure you want to do this?"
"No," he admitted readily enough, "but it's gotta be done."
"Alright," Vin replied, revealing the wire cutters hidden within in his coat. "Let's go."*****
"I don't trust them."
Cicero Jones stated with utter certainty to Patrick Selitrenny from inside the man's study after their visitors from Four Corners had departed Eden and they had retired to the main house again.
Cicero had noticed the reaction of the men as they were walking through Eden and what he saw disturbed him. While he could not read the Sheriff, his deputies were another matter entirely. The one with the moustache was awful twitchy and Cicero had not missed the restraining hand the older man saw fit to place on his shoulder. Even if Standish was genuine in his intention to keep silent for a stipend, Cicero wasn't as confident about the two men with him. All it took was one self-righteous whisper in a sympathetic ear or in this case, the judge Standish answered to, and Eden, Selitrenny's piece of the south, would vanish like smoke.
"I understand your misgivings," Patrick nodded in empathy as he gazed back at Cicero from across his desk as the man was seated next to his brother in one of two wing chairs in front of him.
Despite the seemingly fortuitous proposition made by the Sheriff of Four Corners. Eden survived because Patrick was not prone to complacency or taking anyone on face value. There was nothing lost in being careful and if Standish was sincere in his intentions, then Patrick was certain the man wouldn't mind the scrutiny. However, if this was a ruse, it was better to know sooner rather than later because contingency plans had to be put into effect. Besides, he trusted Cicero Jones whose instincts had been an asset since the man entered his employ and if his head overseer bore misgivings about the situation, then Patrick was sensible enough to take them seriously.
"Sheriff Standish's companions did seem a little uneasy by our encounter with Willa."
It was unsurprising of course. Those who weren't raised with nigger slaves assigned the breed with more consideration than was proper. After all, negroes were a notch above a beast of burden. In the south, this was understood but the abolitionists had chosen to credit them with the equality of a white man, which was, after all, a preposterous notion.
"You think they're lying about what they intend Patrick?" Callum inquired, still feeling the need for vengeance on the men who caused his injury and killed a good number of men over a runaway slave. The effrontery of it still made Callum's blood boil with fury.
"Sheriff Standish's proposal might be genuine but the men who ride with him are under no obligation to hold their tongue, particularly if they share some misguided morality about the management of our slaves. In either case, I would rather be certain of his intentions before we bank too much on his silence." Patrick remarked, swishing the contents within the cognac glass in his hand, staring at the liquid thoughtfully as he considered what was to be done. After a moment, the answer surfaced in the amber.
"Mr Jones, at first light I want you to take some men and ride out to this town he claims to come from. What was it? Four Corners?"
Cicero nodded imperceptibly, more or less envisioning the same plan himself. "I believe that is what he said. Four Corners."
"Do it quietly, make inquiries after Standish and find out what you can. I want to know for certain if he is who he claims to be and whether or not he is in any position to deliver on what he promised."
"If he can't?" Cicero asked, guessing this answer as well.
Patrick's eyes darkened with menace. "Then we have preparations to make and Mr Standish is going to be extremely sorry he dared cross swords with me."
"Patrick," Callum spoke up, "I want to go with Cicero."
Patrick turned to his brother, guessing what accounts Callum wanted to settle. "You wish to find Philly? Yes, we do have to tie up that loose end. If Standish is lying, make sure the boy never lives long enough to tell his tale to anyone else."
"I don't just want Philly, I want the woman," Callum growled, thinking about the lady doctor he encountered on the plains with that prairie nigger. "The way she was protecting Philly, I'm pretty damn sure he told her about Eden. She claims to be a doctor."
"A lady doctor?" Patrick snorted. "How...novel."
"Doctors are respected," Cicero pointed out. "If she is one, she might convince others that Philly's telling the truth."
"That's right," Callum declared, eager for any comment that supported his argument. "We can't let her talk."
"Then you deal with them," Patrick directed his statement at Cicero, secretly convinced Callum didn't have it in him to be that efficient. "I won't let any coloured trash stand in the way of Eden's survival."*****
It was Chris who found little solace in sleep on the night Vin and Nathan slipped into Eden covertly and spotted the group of riders leaving Eden, heading in a direction that took them deeper into the territory, instead of its outskirts where they were presently situated. The gunslinger hadn't liked the idea of Nathan entering Eden under any circumstances because the men within its barbed wire enclosure saw no difference between the murder of a black man than the putting down of a dog. While Vin was also in similar danger, Chris had a feeling Selitrenny and his men would be especially brutal if Nathan fell into their hands.
Thanks to Vin's selection of a vantage point, they were able to observe Eden without giving themselves away and through the spyglass, the tracker left behind, Chris saw the men being led by Cicero Jones, riding quickly away from the plantation. Without even needing to follow them, Chris knew immediately where they were headed. Four Corners. Whether it was to investigate Ezra's story or to deal with Philly themselves, it was clear Patrick Selitrenny was not completely fooled by their ruse.
"We can't let them get to town," Buck declared once Chris made the others aware of the situation. "You know they'll head straight for Philly."
"And Alexandra," Ezra pointed out. "The boy did tell her his tale."
Chris stiffened at that, somewhat grateful Vin was not present to hear this because the gunslinger was certain the younger man would lose all good sense if he thought for one moment his doctor was in trouble. While Vin had done a good job of hiding his feelings for Alex from the rest of the seven, Chris knew just how deeply Vin felt for the woman and knew for the sake of his best friend, Chris would have to ensure Alex's safety on his behalf.
"Buck, Ezra, JD," Chris said to his three comrades. "You three get riding after them. Judging by what you've told me, they don't know where Four Corners is so it's going to take them a bit of time to get there. If you three start out now, you can beat them there. Get Philly and Alex out of town, hide them if you have to. Mary was contacting the Judge when we left, so she should have word from him by the time you get back."
"What will you and Mr Sanchez do?" Ezra inquired, hoping Chris didn't have any dangerous ideas about invading Selitrenny's bastion without them.
"We'll wait here for Vin and Nathan," Chris replied. "Nathan is only supposed to go in there and tell those people the truth about what Selitrenny has done to them. Once they know, Vin and Nathan will get out of there."
"That's easier said than done," Josiah rumbled. "Nathan may not want to leave without taking those poor souls with him."
"He'll leave," Chris said with his jaw set, a cold look in his eyes. "I told Vin to drag his ass out of there kicking and screaming if it comes down to it. I didn't like the idea of him going in there in the first place, let alone letting him stay there so those bastards can figure out he isn't one of their slaves."
No one had to ask why.
"With any luck," Chris added, "the Judge will call in the Army."
"You think they'll come to help us on this?" JD inquired, hoping it was the case because his youthful mind couldn't even begin to imagine the horror of what those people were suffering. With his Eastern education, JD had read Uncle Tom's Cabin and learned enough about the Abolitionist movement in school, to know just how brutal slavery in the south had been. If he needed any more proof, he just had to look at Nathan's back.
"For this?" Buck said as he gestured for Ezra and JD to follow him, tipping his hat in Chris and Josiah's direction, before heading towards his horse. "They'll come."*****
While his inclination was to find the first captive he saw and revealed to them the truth, for the sake of both their lives, Nathan decided to follow Vin's advice of finding a good hiding place, since sunrise was only a few hours away and they needed to rest. Using the darkness to mask their movements, they headed past the collection of crib barns where the crops harvested by Eden were stored, to the bullet shape silo that was starting to appear on more and more farms these days. With its height and proximity away from the main house and the slave quarters, it seemed like the best place to hide.
Climbing up the ladder that ran up the shaft of the silo walls, they reached the rafters at the very top, which had something of a small window that allowed them the perfect perch to observe the plantation during the day. Vin insisted on this, having been given instructions from Chris to ensure Nathan didn't do anything reckless that placed him in unnecessary danger. Considering where they were, the consequences to him would be extreme.
"I should be going with you!" Nathan hissed as Vin prepared to climb down the shaft.
"Nathan, it's better if I go alone. I can come up with a good reason for being here if they don't recognise me. Place like this has to have men coming in and out all the time, working as overseers. Same can't be said for the coloured folk. If they don't recognise you, they'll know right away you're from the outside."
Nathan smouldered at this and realised Vin was correct. If he went out there and was recognised by someone who knew all the slaves by sight, he'd give them away. It was best for Vin to get the lay of the land first, before he approached the slave quarters tonight and told them the truth. He had no idea what the outcome would be, but he only knew they had to be told. For now, however, if he wanted to be of any help to them, he would simply have to swallow his pride and let Vin go.
"Alright," Nathan sighed, his shoulders slumping as he leaned back against the roof wall of the narrow space. "You're right. Take a look around and if you can, find Philly's momma Willa. Woman's probably going out of her mind with worry after what she got told today. It ain't right to let her suffer any more than she has to."
"I'll do that," Vin nodded, agreeing that she ought to be put out of her misery. After what she'd been subjected today, believing her son was going to be brought back to be killed or worse, she deserved some easement from her suffering.
Descending the shaft of the tower, Vin emerged while it was still dark out, using his natural stealth to move around the place without notice. The overseers were definitely a presence throughout the plantation and Vin observed them patrolling the fenceline, standing guard at the entrances to the carefully sectioned parts of the place. As he approached the slave quarters, he saw a guard standing at the gate and kept the brim of his head down low. Vin almost reconsidered the approach but knew that this had to be done.
"Howdy," Vin greeted.
The man standing at the gate was young, in his twenties, with sunken eyes and a pocked mark face. He cocked his head at Vin, trying to place the tracker, his fingers tightening around the shotgun he was holding. "Ain't seen you around before. You new?"
"Yeah," Vin nodded. "Been told I'm replacing some boys you lost a few days ago. Name's Vin."
"I'm Jeb." The man answered in turn and nodded in understanding, perfectly aware of the turnover of men in this place. Not all of them left of their own accord and it was best not to ask too many questions about where or how they had gone. "Horace was a good man."
"I heard," Vin lied. "Anyway, Cicero said I could pay a call to a widow woman called Willa? Says she's fine company."
"Willa's awful pretty," Jeb agreed, flashing Vin a mouthful of rotting teeth. "Always good for a poke."
Falling in love with a woman who could be considered coloured, hearing Philly's mother being disrespected so made Vin's gut clench and knew if anyone talked about Alex that way, he'd taken their goddamn head off. Hiding his revulsion and knowing he had a part to play, Vin swallowed his disgust and broke into a grin.
"That's what I hear, mind if I get through?"
"Sure," the man stepped back and allowed Vin through the gate. "She's got the shack at the far end." He pointed towards the collection of shanties that made up the slave quarters on Eden.
"Thanks," Vin said graciously and headed in the direction Jeb indicated. As he drew away, he was more determined than ever to reach Willa. Nathan was right, after what she had been put through, she needed to know her son was safe at least.
For now, Vin could do that much for her.
When the door to Willa's shack swung open, Vin Tanner found himself staring at a willowy beauty, with wild dark hair, wearing a bleached, threadbare nightdress that hung off her slender frame. The expression she wore on her elegant features was one of resignation and even though he did not know her, he was certain the light faded from her eyes, just a little bit by his nocturnal visit. With a sinking feeling of revulsion, Vin realised, she must have had many callers at her door in the dark, with no choice in whether or not they could enter.
Once again, he thought of his Alex. Yeah, he knew she wasn't his yet, but the more and more they encountered each other lately, the greater his faith became it would be true someday. It made no difference what colour she was, because to him, Alex was perfect but Vin wasn't naive. He knew she wasn't considered white and the idea that men like the ones on this plantation, might abuse her the way this poor woman had been, sent a surge of white-hot rage through Vin.
"Ma'am," he tipped his hat at her. "Can we talk inside?"
Her brow furrowed slightly at the request but as no more than a curiosity. She knew what was expected of her and no longer had the energy to fight it, not that she ever could. Withdrawing into her home, she turned her back on the stranger with the grey acceptance he would be on her heels, expecting her to satisfy his desires whether she wished it or not.
Vin did exactly that, stepping through the doorway after she disappeared through it, shutting the door behind him after taking a furtive glance around the place to see if anyone was around. At this time of night, he expected the captives here to be indoors, since he guessed they had a curfew they were forced to obey or risk punishment if an overseer saw them outside. As he turned back to Willa, he saw the shack was simply one room, with a small hearth for heat and cooking, a bed that was little more than a cot and a table and chair, with one oil lamp sitting in the middle for light.
Willa did not speak. Instead, she had retreated to the bed and was standing over the frame. She did meet his eyes, even though she stood facing him. There was such misery in her vacant expression, Vin wondered how many times she had found herself in this predicament before. He was too young to remember slavery and if he did, his contact with it had been minor. What he knew of those terrible times came from his encounters with coloured folk and then Nathan himself. The whole idea of human bondage disgusted Vin who could not imagine anything more horrific than to be robbed of one's freedom.
She reached for the cap sleeve of her nightdress and started tugging at it mechanically, her mind slipping into the place of refuge that made these nightly visits endurable. Revealing a shoulder that was marred by bruises resulting from a grip too tight, she expected the man to approach her and do as he wanted, once she was naked.
When Vin realized what she was doing, he quickly spoke. "Stop. That ain't what I'm here for. Ma'am, I'm here about Philly."
The reaction was immediate. She raised her eyes to him and for the first time, Vin saw the spark of something dormant, coming to life in them. "Philly? What about Philly? He ain't here. He's gone."
Her words were spoken with the misery of knowing he would soon be brought back and the fate that awaited him when he arrived.
"Ma'am," Vin spoke quickly, understanding now why Nathan had sent him here first. The woman's only joy in this life was her son and Vin could see her anguish at the idea of his life in danger. She deserved to know her boy was safe. "Philly's free. Right now, he's with a lady doctor friend of mine, being taken care of. He ain't never coming back here, not if me and my friends got anything to do with it. He's safe."
Now she looked at him with confusion.
"What you mean?" She demanded, trying to understand what game he was playing. "The men who came this morning said he was caught, that they were bringing him back here."
"Those were my friends," Vin admitted readily enough. "My name's Vin Tanner. Me and my friends, we're the law in a small town called Four Corners, a day's ride from here. We found Philly, he was hurt pretty bad but he was able to tell us what's been happening here in Eden. We came here to figure out how many of you there were, so we could help you folks."
This sounded too good to be true and understandably, Willa was skeptical. "Help us do what? Escape?" What this man was suggesting was too impossible. There were too many of them to escape north, the Master would hunt them all down and when they were brought back, the punishment would be severe, if they even lived long enough to suffer it.
Vin took a deep breath and hoped what he was about to tell the woman wasn't met with complete disbelief or shock because he needed her help if the others were to learn the truth as well. Vin wondered if Nathan had an ulterior motive for having him reach out to Willa first, to motivate her into helping them by using her son's safety.
"Ma'am, there ain't no need for you to escape. The Union won the war almost thirteen years ago, there ain't no slavery anymore. All the slaves have been freed."
She said nothing for the longest time and her eyes, so filled with fear for her son, now turned black. "You're lying."
"No ma'am," he shook his head, expecting her reaction but there was something in her eyes that gave him caution. He remembered hunting a wolf once, cornering it in readiness for the kill. He hadn't liked doing it but it was killing livestock and when wolves got that way, it wouldn't be too long before they turned rabid on people too. Just before the end, it made a last ditch effort to escape and Vin had seen its eyes. They had become black like pools of obsidian before it lunged to attack. Philly's mother's eyes looked like that now.
"You're just trying to play with my head," she declared angrily. "Is this some new game the master wants me to play now? Isn't it enough he comes in here when he wants, takes...." her voice broke in mid-speech before she caught her breath and resumed speaking, "takes what he wants, him and his men? Now you got to fill my head up with these crazy ideas?"
"I ain't one of the Master's men," Vin spoke up quickly. "My friend Nathan and I snuck in here not long ago. We've been watching this place for a day now. We weren't sure what was going on in here. Philly told us you all thought you were still slaves. We had to come here and see for ourselves. There ain't been no slavery since the war ended Ma'am. That's been more than ten years ago. We thought he was out of his head but my friend Nathan, he's coloured, wanted to make sure."
After years of cruelty and learning to read men's minds to anticipate their needs, Willa could actually see this white man's sincerity and the genuine need for her to believe him. Yet if she believed him, then what she and the others in Eden had endured these many years, had been for nothing. They had been free all along. The Master had lied to them. No, more than just lied to them, kept them trapped like animals, made ignorant so he could go on keeping them under control.
"The war's over?" She finally allowed herself to entertain the idea.
"Yes ma'am," Vin nodded, seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. "Ended in 1865, this here's 1878. I think the President made you all free during the war. My friend Nathan joined the Union and became a doctor. He's my friend and one of the best men I know. He wanted me to find you first, to tell you Philly is safe. There ain't no way we're letting him come back here. He's free, just like you and every slave in Eden. Your master..." Vin grit his teeth thinking about Selitrenny and how he'd like to introduce all the sons of bitches in this place to his knife "has been lying to you."
Once again, her dark eyes reflected nothing but menace when she answered him. "Then we can go anytime we want?"
"Once the army gets here, yeah. There's only seven of us here, not enough to take on your Master and his overseers on our own," Vin exclaimed. "The minute they do, we're riding in here and taking this place apart, so all of you can leave."
Willa said nothing but as she stared at this stranger, with the truth now settling permanent in her head, she knew one thing.
They were not going to wait that long. Not anymore.*****
As the sun started to rise, Nathan remained in his hiding place watching the day begin for the captives of Eden. He would not call them slaves because they had not deserved to be called that in almost fifteen years. It infuriated Nathan to no end knowing the year Philly was born, he should have been the first child born to his parents as a free man. Instead, he was forced to grow up in bondage, perpetuating a cycle that so many had died to abolish.
From his perch, he had a given a bird's eye view of the place and saw the men and the able-bodied women heading out into the fields, ready to work the land for millet and beans, the latter which would undoubtedly be harvested into hay. They would work until the sunset, with a short period of time during the day for rest, with a pittance for lunch to keep them going. Nathan remembered the routine well, he'd grown up with it and watched his father age a decade faster in the toil.
Studying the height of the copper coloured stalks covering the fields, Nathan saw they were almost at full growth and knew if he were careful, he could sneak into those fields. All he needed was a hat like one of the slaves were wearing and he'd be indistinguishable from any other man in the fields. While he had no wish to correct Vin earlier, the truth was, to the overseers, one nigger was as good as any other.
Descending from the tower, he made sure he left his guns behind although his blades were hidden beneath his shirt because there was no way he was going into the lion's den without any protection. Furthermore, despite the danger of what he was going to do, Nathan was also confident if anything went wrong, Chris Larabee and the others would storm the gates to get him out. If nothing else, Nathan had faith in the men he rode with.
Having studied the lay of the land for most of the dawn, it was a simple matter for Nathan to pull off a straw hat from one of the clotheslines hanging behind the various shacks in the slave quarters and join the exodus into the fields. He kept to himself at first, holding breath when he came into sight of one of the overseers. The man hollered orders to the workers, Nathan had not heard since his youth, paying Nathan no mind than he would any other slave heading into the fields.
When he was eventually noticed, it did not surprise him in the slightest it was another worker who approached him after he thought himself lost in the tall stalks. The man was in his forties, who looked even older because the sun and wear had taken its toll upon him and did not seem too unlike his father Obediah Jackson, just before he was sold away from their plantation, Avalon.
"Who're you?" The man asked him, his expression one of puzzlement rather than hostility.
"My name's Nathan," Nathan introduced himself, his eyes scanning the area to ensure there wasn't an overseer in sight.
"I ain't seen you before," the man pointed out. "You brung in new?"
"Yeah," Nathan nodded. "Came from Georgia."
"Georgia," the man nodded. "Master ain't brought no one new for a long time."
"He won me in a poker game from my old master," Nathan lied. "Mr. Potter couldn't pay him so he got me in payment."
The man's shoulder slumped in understanding and Nathan had an idea, this was not a tale he had not heard before. "Always the way, us paying for something a white man done."
"Ain't that the truth," Nathan offered him a grin. "Nice to meet you...."
"Aeneas," he introduced himself and extended a hand. "Good to meet someone new Nathan. Though I'm guessing you ain't gonna find life as easy here as it was before. Master works us real hard."
"Masters always do," Nathan nodded in understanding.*****
The work was just as bbackbreakingas he remembered and as he worked the land, harvesting the ripe crops, he learned a bit more about the lives of the slaves who were trapped in this place. As suspected, Selitrenny had brought most of them here before the end of the war, before the word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached their ears and slaves began to desert the original Eden which was situated in South Carolina. Most of those brought here were young with the older slaves left behind. Nathan could only imagine the anguish of families torn apart by this and felt a surge of fresh hatred for Patrick Selitrenny and his brother Callum.
According to Aeneas, the Master fed them well enough but things didn't become bad until Mr. Brent came on the scene. While Cicero Jones was harsh, he didn't take to whippings for no reason but Mr. Brent seemed to relish it. Not to mention, the man was a raping animal who molested every woman in the plantation no matter how old they were. While none of them would say it, Nathan sensed they were proud of Philly for ridding them of the cruel bastard. Hearing all this made Nathan want to reveal the truth to them, but he worried how they would take it. After being subjugated for so long, they may well balk at the idea of freedom or believe he was making it all up.
It was most likely none of this would be real to them until they heard it from a white man, or before the plantation was liberated, either by the Seven or the army, whichever came first. Right now, it was best to heed Chris's advice to gauge the situation before making any sweeping revelations. Impatience would only get everyone killed and Nathan had sense enough to exercise some as he got to know the folk held captive at Eden.
Nathan spent most of the morning working side by side with the captives of Eden, answering a lot of questions about the outside world since none of them had seen it since coming to this plantation in the middle of nowhere. Aeneas, who reminded Nathan of a slave named Priam back in Avalon, the Georgia plantation Nathan escaped years before. Priam had always tried to make the best of a situation no matter how terrible things were. Always rallying folk to their feet before the overseers did it themselves and with less kindness, he diffused tensions when others got bitter or angry about their lot in life. In the life of a slave, resentment was seen as rebellion and the punishment for that was often brutal.
Others, however, viewed him with suspicion which told Nathan as soon as he got the chance, he needed to get back to the tower. No doubt Vin would be mad enough to spit at him taking off like he had but Nathan had to know how much spirit was left in these folk. Locked away from the world, without oversight, Patrick Seltrenny could do any damn thing he wanted to his slaves, including killing them for no good reason. Working with them, he understood Chris's call for caution because there was no telling how they would react to knowing they were free. It was best if the revelation was made after their ‘Master' was dealt with.
A loud bell clanged shortly after noon signalling the short break for lunch such as it was. At the edge of the field, a chuck wagon of sorts waited under the watchful eye of an overseer. As the workers moved towards it, Nathan held back, having no desire to come into view of guards unless it was necessary. Instead, he lingered back, deciding this was a good an opportunity as any to head back to the grain tower. Unfortunately, his hesitation did not go unnoticed.
"Ain't you gonna eat?" A slave named Cornelius, who was about his age and had been rather pointed in his questioning throughout the morning, asked curtly.
"It's alright," Nathan shrugged, already scanning the route for the best way to disappear into the stalks. "Ain't that hungry. You go on ahead, I'm gonna sit here and enjoy the quiet a bit."
Aeneas, who was also in earshot, asked. "You sure? You gotta be hungry after all that work you put in. If you ain't used to working in the fields, it can catch up to you."
"I'm fine," Nathan assured him with a little smile. "Truth is, I squirreled away some bread from my trip here, had a big helping of it this morning before I got started. Like you said, it's hard work in the fields, and I was kind of worried I wouldn't be able to keep up with y'all."
"Oh you done fine!" Aeneas exclaimed, , slapping Nathan on the back in support of his efforts.
Cornelius however was not about to be put off by Nathan's answer. No slave would turn down food, not if they wanted to last the day.
"Why don't you want to eat?" Cornelius demanded. " I ain't see no slave that ever turn down food after working all morning."
Aeneas let out a sigh of exasperation having become accustomed to this kind of griping from the man. "Come on Cornelius, if the man don't want to eat, there ain't nothing wrong with that."
"Thank you, Aeneas," Nathan said gratefully but now on guard by the gleam of suspicion in Cornelius's eyes. Cornelius' manner told Nathan the man was going to push the point, which meant Nathan needed to get away now. If everything had gone right, Vin would have relayed the truth about Philly to his momma. He suspected if she learned about the way things really way outside the fence, she wouldn't keep it to herself.
When it came to spreading the word, no one was better at it than womenfolk.
"Where are you from again?" Cornelius insisted, holding his ground, forcing Aeneas and a few others to stop their journey towards the chuck wagon.
"I told you..."
"That's what you say," Cornelius challenged. "Maybe we should get Mr Thomas here."
Damn. This fool was going to get him killed, Nathan thought cursing under his breath. The suspicion Cornelius displayed was spreading across the faces of the others and Nathan realised he was in trouble. The sound of raised voices was all it would take before an overseer came over to investigate. If Cornelius voiced his suspicions, the overseer would be compelled to bring Nathan to someone who was capable of identifying him, like Selitrenny himself.
"Cornelius, what's the matter with you?" Aeneas barked, growing equally unhappy at any slave accusing another, and worst yet intending to bring an overseer into it. "Let the man be."
"I want to know where he come from? None of us laid eyes on him before today and now he come here with his fancy talk about being outside?" This time Cornelius aimed his remark not simply at Aeneas, but at the others standing by and watching the scene. "He says the Master won him in a card game, but did any of you see how he got here? He weren't at the slave quarters last night."
Turning to Nathan, Cornelius glared at him. "Maybe you don't want to get food because you're afraid Mr Thomas might get a good look at you."
"Cornelius, stop this." Aeneas warned, sensing the mood of the situation and knowing it was getting ugly really fast. "Why you doing this?"
"Because I don't want the Master to get angry with us like he did when Philly done run away? Do you want that kind of trouble again?"
Heads shook from side to side in response to Cornelius's incendiary words. Nathan could see they were conflicted about the situation but the truth was, the agitator's words had the desired effect. The fear crept into their faces and Nathan knew he was out of time. He had one card to play and he hoped it was enough. If not, he was going to make a run for it and that would more or less kill any covert departure from Eden.
"Selitrenny didn't buy me."
His words silenced everyone present, not just for his admission but the fact he dared to address the Master by name. Not only by name but without the appropriate title.
"What?" Aeneas stared at him, a mixture of shock and betrayal on his face. "What you mean?"
"My friend and me snuck through your fence to come in here," Nathan explained, grateful for the silence at last, even though their absence would soon be noticed. "We found Philly a few days ago. He was almost dead but we saved him, fixed him up good."
"He's alright?" Aeneas said with relief, obviously knowing the boy as more than just another slave.
"Yeah," Nathan nodded. "He's safe but when he told me about this place, I had to come. I had to come here and see for myself what was going on in Eden is true."
"What do you mean?" Cornelius asked, his suspicion still there but was compelled by the tale he was hearing. "What is true?"
"That you're all still slaves," Nathan stated, sweeping his gaze over all their faces and watching their reaction. "The South fell thirteen years ago. If you remember Lincoln, who was President when the war started, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation during the war, freeing all slaves. There ain't no slavery anywhere. You're all free, every single one of you."
For a few seconds, none of them spoke.
Nathan could understand their silence of course. What he revealed to them was simply too big. News like this offered cold, with no preparation, was overwhelming. He imagined what he would feel in their place and honestly, nothing came to mind because, for him, the hope of freedom was a given. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, after being told the only freedom they would be afforded was death, he could understand their shock.
Predictably, this came from Cornelius. The man had questioned his story from the onset. Why should he not question this too? Especially this.
"No I ain't," Nathan countered, expecting scepticism but the truth was a reality approaching them like a locomotive and would soon be something they would have to face. "At this minute, the Union Army is on its way here. Before me and my friends set out to find Eden, we called the Territorial Judge and told him what Philly told us. Judge Travis, he is a good man. He'll bring the army and free all of you. The South fell thirteen years ago, I ought to know I joined the army and fought."
"You were a soldier?" Someone asked, their voice filled with awe and disbelief.
"He's lying!" Cornelius insisted. "Ain't no one gonna let a black man be in the army."
"I was a stretcher bearer with the Union Army. Once Lincoln freed us, many of us signed up. Folk started leaving the plantations, heading north." Nathan repeated himself, dismissing Cornelius's incredulity because it was understandable considering what they have been told for years. "Least I can figure out, Selitrenny figured the South was gonna fall, so he brought all of you here. He made sure none of you saw anyone from the outside, am I right? Just the overseers? None of you ever wonder why there were no new slaves? You had people escape over the years?"
Their exchanged glances with each other told Nathan the answer.
"Any of them brought back?"
Spines stiffened, eyes dropped and sorrow crept into their faces. One man, who was in his fifties, looked up, "my daughter Clara and her man Ramius escaped four years ago. Mr Jones brought them both back, they were dead."
"I'm so sorry," Nathan said sadly. "I'm guessing no one who escapes comes back alive because Selitrenny can't take the risk they'd tell you the truth if they ran into anyone else and found out they were free. He couldn't let any of you know the minute you left the plantation, he had no power over you. He's only managed it this far because of guns and malice."
"We've had people who escaped and didn't come back!" Cornelius spat because the reality of what this stranger was saying was too monstrous. "They could be free."
"If they were free," Aeneas finally spoke, his eyes revealed his astonishment, but also his fury, seething beneath the surface, waiting for the slightest provocation to ignite. "Do you think they wouldn't have done what Philly did? Tell the law the truth about what was happening here? You heard Nathan, we ain't slaves. We're prisoners."
"It's a lie," Cornelius shook his head. "A damned lie! He's gonna get us whipped with this kind of talk!"
"Cornelius, keep your voice down!" Aeneas snapped and shot a glance at the direction of the chuck wagon where the other workers were congregated.
Nathan did the same, conscious of the overseer's location at present. The man had to be noticing a few of them were missing and would no doubt come to investigate. Unusual behaviour was always quick to provoke overseer's attention, Nathan knew this much from his own days on that plantation in Georgia.
"Look," he faced the others, "I've gotta get back to my friends. I wanted to come in here and tell you folk the truth, you're free. All of you. Just hold on for a day or two, don't do nothing until the army gets here."
The last thing Nathan wanted was them to get the idea to riot, something that was entirely possible if they were angry enough and certain freedom was possible. With the amount of hired guns Selitrenny had at his disposal, the fight would be uneven and they would all be killed for their defiance and to hide the truth about what the man had done here in Eden.
"You're a liar!" Cornelius shouted again. "Nothing but a damned liar, filling our heads with lies! He's gonna get us whipped or worse!"
"Cornelius SHUT UP!" Aeneas barked.
But the damage was done.
"MR THOMAS!" Cornelius shouted. "COME QUICK!"
Hell, Nathan cursed and saw Mr Thomas, the overseer who was almost as tall as Buck but nowhere as pleasant looking, come running towards them. If he got one look at Nathan, he'd know in an instant the healer was a stranger and all hell would break loose. Not that it wasn't on the verge of doing it. While Cornelius continued to holler, Aeneas was trying to restrain him into silence, however, the rest appeared confused, uncertain what to do.
Well, Nathan had no illusions about what came next Not bothering to wait around for the inevitable ruckus, he turned his back on the whole bunch and started running. Thomas, who reached them in time to see Nathan's back, stumbled into the scene uncertain what he was going to find. The man was armed with a pistol and a rifle, but it was what was hanging at his belt that made Nathan so raw with rage, he almost turned back and beat the man to death.
"Catch him, Mr Thomas!" Cornelius managed to bellow. "He's talking about rioting!"
No word could be more incendiary to a slave owner. Even before the rise of the abolitionists, slave revolts happened in the South. They were brief flashes of violence, with the strength of a single match surrounded by a sea of water. While they breathed, however, lives were lost, often brutally for both the owners and the slaves. Using those words had invoked the basest fear and Thomas who remembered the uprisings, immediately raised his rifle to fire.
"Cornelius, shut your damn mouth!" Aeneas finally threw a fist into the man's face, wondering if he knew how much trouble he'd brought down, not just on the stranger but on all of them. Cornelius caught a fistful of knuckle in the jaw and fell silent briefly.
Nathan raced through the fields, intending to lose himself in the crops, but with Thomas's pursuit narrowing the gap between them, he had no idea if that was enough. Behind him, he could hear Thomas ordering him to stop, calling for help and basically ensuring everyone on Eden knew he was here. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Thomas pausing long enough to take aim at him and started zigzagging, hoping the man was not a good shot.
An explosion of sound made Nathan jump and he looked down, expecting to feel the punch of pain to the chest, not to mention the spread of crimson across his shirt. Yet no such thing happened. Instead, he saw Thomas collapse where he was standing, the rifle tumbling from his hands. Nathan looked up and saw the figure of Vin Tanner through the window of the tower, the gleam of his rifle catching the healer's eyes to reveal the source of his salvation.
Letting out of a breath of relief, Nathan backtracked long enough to approach Thomas, who had died with that single bullet. The chest wound Nathan expected to suffer was instead inflicted on the overseer who was lying flat on his back amongst the stalks of millet. Thomas was wearing an expression of shock because the end had come upon him without warning. Yet as his blood salted the earth, Nathan felt any lingering regret at the man's death vanish at the sight of the whip hanging from the belt on his hip.
He deserved to die, just like all the bastards who sat by and let the atrocity in Eden happen deserved to meet a similar fate.
Snatching the man's gun out of his hand, Nathan resumed his departure from the fields, even as the alarm was raised at his presence. As badly as it had turned out, he had done what he had set out to do. Now it was time to get the hell out of Eden and rejoin Chris and the others.*****
Vin descended his perch inside the grain tower after pulling the trigger of his Winchester and ending the life of the overseer hunting Nathan.
When he returned to their hiding after talking to Philly's momma and found the healer gone, it required no clairvoyance on his part to guess where Nathan went. Even though common sense demanded he stay put, Vin knew in Nathan's place, he would behave no differently. After seeing the haunted look in Willa's eyes, knowing what she suffered to get that way, Vin understood a fraction of Nathan's outrage. He also realised why Alex had asked him to watch over the healer because she understood just how hot his fury burned.
With his keen sharpshooter's eyesight, it didn't take long for Vin to find Nathan and was damned grateful he had. He'd seen the gathering in the fields from a distance and though he did not know what was discussed, he saw enough to know a situation was brewing. He was correct of course. When he saw the ruckus with blows being traded and Nathan running away from the scene, Vin knew it was time to leave but not before, he kept an overseer from putting a bullet in Nathan's back.
The loud bang made by the bullet fired by the Winchester was akin to someone ringing the Sunday church bell. Everyone in Eden would have heard it and what element of surprise they had, vanished as surely as the fading roar of the gunshot. As soon as Vin fired the shot that downed the overseer, he was scrambling to collect Nathan's things and climbing down the tower before the shock wore away and the warders of Eden figured out where the shot had come from. The last thing Vin wanted was to become trapped in the tower with nowhere to escape.
No matter what, Nathan could not be captured.
Vin might survive the encounter but he knew with every fibre of his being, just as he knew why Alex had begged him to watch over the healer, the men who were willing to enslave a group of people for thirteen years would have no trouble in ending what they considered just another nigger. Racing down the ladder through the shaft of the tower, he could hear the distant voices of men being rallied as he saw the ground approaching. Nathan burst through the door when his boots touched the ground.
"Vin!" Nathan exclaimed, glad he didn't have to climb up and get the tracker. "We gotta get moving."
"You ain't kidding!" Vin paused long enough when he got to Nathan to shove the man's belongings in his direction. Most specifically Nathan's gun belt. They were going to need it to get out of here alive. He supposed the one advantage they had over the poor slaves who tried to escape Eden over the years was their ability to fight back.
As Nathan strapped on his gun, they stepped out into the sunlight outside the tower and heard excited voices in the distance, trying to figure out where the shot that took Thomas's life had come. Dogs were barking which told the two men they needed to get moving immediately if they were going to get out alive.
"I say we go out the way we came," Nathan replied, surveying the terrain they had taken to reach here. It was mostly fielded beyond the cleared land but if they could cross it without being seen, they could use the tall millet stalks to conceal their presence at least until they reach the fenceline. Jogging forward, it took but a second before Vin was running alongside him.
It was midday and the plantation was well into its working day. Slaves were going about their chores, pausing long enough to question the commotion taking place. Meanwhile, overseers and their dogs were moving across the place, headed towards the fields where the gunshot had originated. No one had noticed them yet, but it would change at a moment's notice.
"We better get under cover before the dogs pick up our scent."
"Yeah," Nathan nodded. "I remember from the last time I got chase down by slave hunters."
Vin shifted his eyes to Nathan briefly but shook the thought to ask more about it from his mind. If they made it off the plantation alive, there would be plenty of time for him to ask his questions, though, in the back of his mind, he suspected the healer would reveal little on the subject. Nathan never liked talking about his days as a slave unless it was necessary.
They were almost to the fields when suddenly a loud voice boomed loudly, putting a quick end to any hope of a discreet departure.
"Here we go," Nathan said quickly before breaking into a sprint, intending to reach the crop line before the inevitable gunfire.
Vin said nothing but kept pace with Nathan even though the healer stood almost a head taller than him. Both men who had formidable stamina were able to maintain their pace as they became swallowed within the stalks of sorghum when as the first bullets ripped apart the plants behind them. Vin was certain he felt hot lead whizz passed his shoulder and kept his head down, ensuring he was not given away by his slouch hat. Nathan's own headgear was hanging from his neck and bouncing off his back as he ran.
The bullets were soon followed by the yapping of dogs and both men exchanged a look and knew what ability to remain concealed in the fields was about to be lost. Once the dogs picked up their scent, there would be no hiding anywhere. Drawing their guns, both men made the unspoken agreement that anything getting in their way was going to die for the inconvenience.
Hearing the rustling of plants from all directions, Vin primed the mare's leg as he ran, preparing to fire at the first sight of an overseer. When the stalks parted directly ahead of them and a tall man with an eye patch appeared, he got his chance. The man's gun was already drawn but Vin was quicker with the trigger than he was. It was not lost upon the tracker that the overseer took aim at Nathan first.
The powerful blast of the sawn-off rifle sent them man flying backwards. Tumbling into the surrounding plants only his boots could be seen through the stalks. Unfortunately, if their pursuers had any doubt as to their whereabouts before this, the roar of the mare's leg answered that question most decisively. Sounds of angry voices and barking dogs, distant a short time ago, were now converging upon them on all sides.
Nathan saw Vin cocking his gun again, ready to fight their way out of their current predicament when his eye caught a glimpse of the plant leaves being brushed aside to allow the passage of a gun barrel, aimed squarely at Vin's head. The healer had no time to think and reacted swiftly, drawing his gun and firing before they had a chance to pull the trigger. Vin saw him draw and immediately spun around as the gun fired. A short cry of pain split their ears briefly before they saw the familiar rustle of greenery being crushed by a falling body.
Vin did not show how relieved he was to be still standing and reminded himself to thank Nathan later. For the moment, however, he had a promise to keep to Alex.
"Come on!" Vin grabbed the healer by the arm, hurrying along as more gunfire ripped through the air sending bullets past them.
Both men kept their heads down to keep themselves from being given away by their hats poking through the crops in the field. As it was, the enemy knew in which direction they were headed and were closing in fast. However, it was not the bullets that concerned them as much as the barking that was growing increasingly louder as the dogs neared them. The animals could move a hell of a lot faster than men and dogs could sniff out prey better than they could see them. Their incessant howling managed to eclipse the sound of gunfire and Vin knew it was only a matter of time before they made their appearance.
"Whatever happens Nathan, you head for the fence, do you hear me?"
"What?" Nathan demanded over the incessant yapping of the dogs. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means if I have to hold them back, you keep going!" Vin snapped. "I ain't letting them bastards catch you in this place!"
"Fool! Don't be crazy!" Nathan bit back at him. "I ain't leaving here without you!"
"Nathan!" Vin protested, wanting to remind the healer of what could happen to him if he was caught in this place when suddenly bursting through the crop, a large coonhound sailed through the air to land on Nathan. The dog was large enough to bring down the healer as both man and dog landed on the ground, crushing the plants beneath them as they impacted. As the surprise wore away and Nathan moved to shove the animal off him, Vin saw the coonhound widening his jaws in readiness to take a bite, an action no doubt learned from years of hunting down runaway slaves.
When he saw the mouthful of teeth coming at him, Nathan's first thought was to buck hard. The full-grown coonhound was heavy but Nathan's fear of those teeth doing him serious harm overcame the animal's weight and it was enough to send the dog tumbling across the shrub. Of course, it was on its feet and ready to pounce again when the mare's leg discharged once more, halting the animal in its tracks with a howl of pain that descended into a sharp yelp.
Vin lowered the gun, hoping his aim was good because he wasn't a fan of harming dogs. Like a horse, a dog couldn't be held responsible for the demands of its owner. The animal dropped to its haunches, its right leg bleeding profusely from where the bullet had struck him in the upper thigh. It was the only shot Vin could make without killing the dog. As the animal whimpered, Nathan got to his feet, retrieving his gun and seeing more hats above the stalks, closing in on them fast.
"Thanks!" Nathan said as he gestured to Vin they had to keep going.
Vin was not about to argue and they both ran from the scene, forced to leave the animal in pain even though it would be found by its master's soon enough. Behind them, the coon hound's howl attracted more barking dogs and Vin glanced over his shoulder to see men's faces appearing through the field, raising their guns to shoot. As bullets exploded around them, shredding leaves and plants as the shots missed them, the feel of hot lead passing by told Vin just how close they were to being hit. The tall stalks of sorghum, with their copper coloured flowers, had provided them with cover but not enough.
Suddenly Vin was gripped with white-hot pain radiating across his shoulder from what could only be a bullet. He stumbled forward slightly, with Nathan shouting in his ear before the healer's hand clamped over his arm and kept him moving, even though for a second, the pain had been so intense he had almost dropped to his knees. Yet Vin knew if he faltered, they would both die and he wasn't ready to meet his maker, now that he had so much to live for.
"I'm alright!" He managed to grunt but kept his legs moving despite the pain made him grit his teeth because every step forward sent fresh stabs of it through his body.
They emerged on the other side of the field and sighted the section of fence they had cut through to enter Eden in the first place. Yet even as they ran across the cleared strip of land abutting the fenceline, they could see the overseers and the dogs stepping out into the field. On sighting their intruders, they immediately snapped at the hounds to attack while raising their guns to fire.
However, before any of them could open fire, two riders thundered along the outside fence, their guns blazing. Trailing a cloud of dust behind them, Nathan and Vin saw Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez riding to their rescue, laying down enough suppressing fire to allow them to cross the distance needed to reach the ragged hole they had left in the fence when they had infiltrated Eden in the small hours of the night. As always, the gunslinger's aim was deadly accurate and the first bullet fire struck the nearest overseer in the head, sending him sprawling while the dog in pursuit halted abruptly in its tracks at the realisation of injury to its owner.
With Vin's arm firmly in his grip, Nathan ushered Vin to the fence.
"Go!" Nathan ordered Vin, shoving the tracker through the opening who cursed at the aggravation to his shoulder as he passed through. Nathan looked up long enough to see Chris's peacemaker driving their would be captors back into the fields, his accuracy with a gun proving too much for them. The dogs, however, kept coming.
Nathan followed Vin closely, scraping his arm along the cut mesh as he squeezed through and emerged on the other side just as Chris and Josiah reached them. The dogs were snapping at their heels, ready to come through the fence after them.
"GET ON!" Josiah offered Vin a hand up to his horse, just as Chris reached them to make Nathan the same offer.
"We heard all the ruckus and thought you might need some help."
"Amen brother!" Nathan grinned at Josiah before he clambered onto the back of Chris's saddle.
"GET MOVING!" Chris ordered Josiah and dug his heels into the flank of his mount just as the first of the dogs broke through the mesh to come after them.
Their horses broke into a gallop, veering away from the fence and headed towards the mountains, knowing it would offer them temporary refuge before Eden and his its masters came after them.
If there was one thing that proved conclusively the difference between her feelings for Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish, it was how Alexandra Styles felt in the wait for Vin's return. True, she did feel concern for Ezra when he went riding off to face danger with the rest of the seven but it was not the same. She never knew this tightness in her chest that settled in for the long haul the instant that buckskin jacket of Vin's disappeared from view.
It was not that she didn't feel a similar concern for the rest of the seven. She cared deeply for Nathan and his state of mind when he left Four Corners, was what prompted Alex to make her request of Vin to keep an eye on him. Still, she was able to take comfort in the ferocious intensity of Chris Larabee's desire to protect his men, to know the gunslinger would ensure no risk would come to them if it could be avoided. However, since their return from Agnes Doherty's cabin, where she and Vin had shared a moment together, her concern for his safety had become acute.
Even before she set foot on these shores, Alex had read the tales of the American West, and true, much of what was written was vastly exaggerated to increase readership, but the violence was not. It was dangerous out here with men dying easily. From her own experiences, Alex was almost murdered along with Mary Travis during her first week in town. Not to mention, she and the rest of the seven and their closest friends were forced to flee when an unstoppable killer came to town hunting for Chris.
Thanks to her care of the boy Philly, who was a little stronger now, and most vocal on the subject of Eden, Alex had a better sense of what Vin and the seven were about to face and it was from this source, her secret panic found sustenance. Subconsciously, she knew if Vin were hurt, she would not be able to bear it and even worse than that, it would hurt much deeper than Ezra's betrayal with Julia Pemberton.
As she went about her day, treating patients at her clinic, making her house calls across town and running her errands, she found her thoughts drifting to the tracker. He with the quiet smile and the penetrating blue eyes, who seemed to have no trouble calling her out on her excesses while making it sound like a charming character trait. Yet he also understood her.
It baffled her why he was still keeping his distance after so ardently expressing his feelings for her. Ezra had been standing between them then, and while it was her choice to remain true to the gambler, Vin had respected the decision. Of course, things were significantly different now, with Ezra no longer being an obstacle. Yet Vin still stayed away even though everything she saw in his eyes burned as hotly as it had during that night alone.
Then again, she wasn't exactly taking the initiative herselfs was she? She could tell him how she felt and yet had not. Alex knew why of course. Even if she was mostly a practical woman, not prone to believing in the romantic nonsense described in books by Bronte or Austen, she knew what she felt for Vin would be life-changing. Once she crossed that line with him, there would be no going back, and Alex was just not yet ready to succumb to such passion.
Just about to go check in on her patient who was still convalescing in what passed as the recovery room of her clinic, Alex was pleased with Philly's progress. The boy was lucid now and mending nicely from his injuries. She'd been plying him with fluids to combat the dehydration he suffered on his arduous trek across the Territory, and his appetite had returned with a vengeance. Like all thirteen-year-old boys, he was always hungry, but slavery meant he was never given enough to be remotely satisfying. Alex didn't mind though. Just hearing his pleasure at learning he was free, not only him, but his mother too, had been reward enough.
Before her foot reached the last step, Alex glimpsed a shadow moving over her front door before it burst open and stepping inside was the one person she had been avoiding for the previous month.
Her first impulse was to tell him to get out.
Then common sense kicked in because if he was here, then so were the seven and he would not come to her door when one of them could do the honours. Almost on reflex, she wondered where Vin was. She would have thought he might have found a way to see her if he was back. Then a more worrisome thought struck her mind? Was something wrong? Was he hurt? Was Nathan? Suddenly the tightness she felt in her chest the last few days became sharper than ever, as her fears about both men gripped her.
"What's happened? Is Nathan alright? When did you get back?" She fired questions at Ezra like artillery fire and twisted inside because the inquiry she wanted to make the most, was the one she couldn't utter under any circumstances, least of all to Ezra.
"Mr Jackson is fine, everyone when I last saw them are similarly well," he assured her, aware of her close friendship with Nathan. "However, a situation has arisen that may place you and the boy in danger. The men who run Eden are coming here, and they must not find either of you."
"What?" Alex stared blankly at him for a moment. "Coming here, what for? "
Ezra padded nothing because, with Alex, it was not needed. " To ensure you and the boy are dealt with to protect the secret of Eden."
Eden. She recognised the name of the plantation Philly had fled. While grateful to have her questions answered, she still burned with curiosity at why Vin had not come instead. This would be news he would deliver himself, she was certain. Whatever the reason for his absence, however, it mattered little. Her patient was in danger, and they had to get him out of here. After what he had been through, she was not allowing him to suffer any further harm.
Despite her ire at having to take Ezra's direction, she shunted aside her bruised feelings to deal with the crisis at hand.
"What do we do?"
Ezra felt a surge of relief she was not going to give him any trouble. He had half expected to have her throw him out when he first walked through the door. As it was, Julia had been none too happy he had to run off and attend to the safety of the doctor and her patient, no sooner after his return to Four Corners. Since the somewhat acrimonious dissolution of their association, she gave him and the Seven, save Nathan a wide berth. He still felt guilty about that even though he had done all he could to repair the situation because he still cared for her as a friend and had enjoyed their time together.
"You and Philly must be ready to ride immediately. Mr Wilmington, Mr Dunne and I rode hard to get here ahead of the men coming for you, but they will not be far behind, and I am uncertain if they will be alone. "Mr Larabee suggested the best place for you to seek refuge is at the Indian Reservation. He believes they will protect you."
Chris was right, but then he always was, Alex thought silently, agreeing with the gunslinger's suggestion. Considering how hard Chanu fought to protect them both when they first found Philly, she had no difficulty believing he would offer them refuge. Besides she was now familiar enough with the folk at the reservation to be granted sanctuary for a time.
"Alright, I'll go get ready. " Alex nodded and started to move.
"I'll get the boy...."
"No I'll do that," she said abruptly, still bristling with annoyance this flight had to be done under Ezra's care. "You just go get my wagon here. Philly doesn't know you and frankly that southern accent of yours doesn't work on frightened young boys as well as it works on painted eastern snakes."
Ezra opened his mouth to argue before remembering himself and then shut the hell right up.*****
It was pure luck that allowed Cicero Jones to learn about more than just the location of Four Corners when he and his company made inquiries about the town. News of the seven men who guarded Four Corners reached the town of Desolation, the dreary watering hole they had stopped at to freshen their horses and get information. A hired gun who worked out of Purgatorio, a seedy backwater occupied by murderers and thieves looking to hide out or spend their coin, revealed what he knew about Four Corners. Digger Sweeney was more than happy to offer every morsel of knowledge he knew about the Seven and their familiars, for a couple of shots of whiskey and a night with an accommodating saloon girl.
For starters, Four Corners had no real Sheriff, just a boy who apparently wore a tin star and played the part. No, the man to watch in Four Corners was Chris Larabee. Cicero knew who Larabee was by reputation. The man was a notorious gunslinger who drifted into town and was soon join by six others who were appointed the law by the locale Territorial judge. Sweeney's own experiences with the seven came from one or two jobs where he rode alongside someone wanting to pit themselves against the men. It never ended well.
Learning this, Cicero reached the unhappy conclusion Standish had come to Eden under Larabee's orders, and that entire farce with Selitrenny was an attempt to get inside the plantation and scout the place. This meant it was more than likely Larabee and his men were already at Eden, instead of Four Corners. He had to get back and warn Selitrenny it was likely the Union Army was indeed on its way.
"You want me to go ahead?" Callan stared at him, disliking the idea of splitting up, mainly when Eden was in danger.
"The woman and the boy need to be done with," Cicero grunted as he saddled his horse. In truth, he didn't trust Callan to handle anything because the younger Selitrenny lacked the intelligence or the efficiency of his older sibling. However, their options were limited. "You got money, and this town is filled with hired guns willing to ride with you."
Callan threw a glance at the town of Desolation, which was a dust-blown collection of ramshackle buildings, where businesses and decent folk were fast vacating. Only the saloons and the whore houses remained open, making it an ideal location for lawless men to congregate. If you had the money, you could buy anything here. Cicero was right about that.
"You think you can handle that?" Cicero's sneer was just a little more cutting with his scarred face.
"I can handle it!" Callan snapped, disliking the man's tone, aware Cicero thought him less than Patrick. It rankled him that this nothing hired hand was looking down at him, with his pedigree and social standing. "I can handle a couple of niggers."
"Good," Cicero glanced over Callan's shoulder at Bart Oxley, or rather Ox as he was called by the men at Eden, who was one of Cicero's personal hires and a man the head overseer found reliable. "Ox and the others will stick with you. Get this done and head back to Eden. We're gonna need the hands."
Ox nodded in understanding and the silent message that past between Cicero and him, well beyond the notice of Callan, was clear. Ox was to make sure Callan did not do anything stupid and get himself killed. The kid might be an idiot but blood was blood, and Cicero knew his older brother would not be happy if anything happened to him.
"You think so?" Callan stared at him.
"Yeah," Cicero spoke as he heaved himself onto his saddle. "I think Standish wasn't lying about the Union. I think they're coming and we need to get ready for them before they get to Eden. There's nothing them Yankees like better than cutting to ribbons a bunch of southerners they still consider Rebs, to say nothing about the niggers when they find out what's been done to them."
Callan's stomach hollowed at the thought.
Cloistered in their own private kingdom, Callan and Patrick ruled Eden with no thought of the outside world. In their minds, they had kept a piece of the South alive and while Eden stood, time had held still for them. However, the foundation for their idyllic existence came at the price of the slaves they'd brutalised these last thirteen years. The niggers had stayed put because they didn't believe there was any place to go with the north having fallen.
If they learned otherwise, Callan wasn't sure in what form their vengeance could take, but there was no doubt it would be bloody.*****
"How's he doing?"
Nathan Jackson tossed a glance over his shoulder at Chris Larabee who keeping a vigil over their campsite, after successfully eluding Eden's overseers earlier. They'd ridden up the mountain and sought refuge in a gully wide enough for the horses to pass through but narrow enough to remain concealed in the trees and bushes scattered across the terrain. Fortunately, their pursuers seem to have given up since it had been hours since any barking or hoofbeats were heard.
"He'll be fine," Nathan explained as Chris kept his steely gaze fixed on what was happening beyond the walls of the gully. "The bullet passed clean through his shoulder. He'll be ornery but fine."
"Quit talking about me like I ain't here," Vin grumbled, his mood had turned decidedly sour when he realised where Buck, Ezra and JD had gone.
"Here drink this," Josiah approached the young man and handed him a tin cup of coffee. Vin accepted the cup and the situation begrudgingly, even though he was chomping at the bit to ride out to Four Corners.
Chris ignored Vin's twitchiness, perfectly aware of what was snaking the sharpshooter, even if he wasn't about to let Vin do anything stupid. While Selitrenny's men might have appeared to have given up the search, Chris was not about to let Vin ride out alone for any reason. Besides, even though the four of them were capable of putting up a fight if any of Eden's men came at them, it was not for themselves that Chris was concerned. It was the slaves at the plantation.
With the real possibility his operation had been discovered, Chris worried what Selitrenny would do now that he knew or at least suspected, his crime had been discovered. A smart man would leave while he still could, but a man who imprisoned others for almost thirteen years in the cruellest way imaginable would have no hesitation in turning to murder to hide his crimes. To say nothing about the folk held captive for the last thirteen years. Now that Nathan had revealed the truth to them, how might they react to their imprisonment?
Chris had a feeling they were about to find out.
"What's our next move?" Josiah asked as Vin seemed momentarily placated as he sipped coffee.
"I'm not sure," Chris replied. "I'm worried about the people down there, now that they know we're on to him."
"I'm sorry Chris," Nathan apologised. "You were right, I should have kept my head and waited for the army to get here."
"It ain't your fault Nathan," Vin spoke up. "No one could have seen what those folk were going through and do nothing about it, not unless they're the kind of low down dogs like Selitrenny's got working for him."
"Thanks, Vin," Nathan replied. "What about Miss Alex and Philly? They gonna be okay?"
Vin's blue eyes sparked at the reminder of Alex's situation even though he maintained his stoic mask and gave no indication he was any more interested in the lady's welfare than any one else. Inwardly, however, It was taking all his control to not jump on Peso and ride back to Four Corners, to make sure she was alright. Only Chris could see through his unflappable expression to know just how anxious he was about her safety.
"Buck, Ezra and JD are going to get her and Philly out of town while they deal with Jones and his men. They're taking her to the Indian Reservation so Alex and the boy will be safe there."
Chris aimed his words directly at Vin, even though it was Nathan who asked. It wasn't just to answer the healer's question but to also assure the tracker, the woman Chris was almost sure Vin was in love with now, would not be harmed in his absence. It was the closest he could come to actually bring up the subject of Alex with Vin.
Recalling how Chanu had protected Alex when this whole thing began, Vin was satisfied by that course of action. It would not take the place of being there with her, but it made him feel a little less helpless. Besides, as much as he wanted to ride to her side, he had also made her a promise to keep Nathan safe. Even though truth be told, Vin would have done that anyway. Nathan was hs friend.
"For now we wait," Chris said not liking the delay, but as much as he wanted to go riding into the rescue, the reality of the situation made that impossible. They were outnumbered and outgunned until Buck, and the others got back. He wasn't afraid of dying, but he had no wish to make the situation worse for the people still trapped in Eden by their failure.
As much as Chris loathed it, they couldn't move until the time was right.
However, as he saw the impatience seething under Nathan's eyes, held in abeyance while he treated Vin's injuries, Chris knew the healer would not tolerate the delay for long.*****
It wasn't often they gathered like this, but after what took place today, the situation warranted it. Even though they risked extreme punishment should they be caught, it was worth it in light of what they had learned from the two strangers who had infiltrated Eden. In fact, it was even a might easier to do so because the master and his men were so busy chasing down the strangers in the hills, they had ordered everyone indoors so he would have one less thing to worry about.
At least twenty of them had gathered in the small barn they had been provided to tend to the livestock keeping them fed. Amongst the cows and chickens, where they got their milk and eggs, the menfolk and a handful of women gathered to discuss the great truth revealed to them this day.
"This is dangerous!" Cornelius grumbled as he looked about furtively as if expecting the overseers to come crashing through the door at any second. Even though he was heard throughout the room, his voice was still kept reasonably low. Near the windows and doors, watchful eyes kept a look out for the approach of any slaver who might discover their gathering.
"The only thing dangerous is you, Cornelius!" Arlo, who had told the stranger about his daughter Clara snapped at him. "You almost got us all killed today. If that stranger was telling the truth, that the master was willing to kill anyone who knew it. What do you think he would have done to us if he had admitted what we heard?"
Cornelius shut up immediately, unable to refute that statement. When the master had questioned them, Cornelius under orders (and threats) from Aeneas and the others, revealed the slave named Nathan had talked about running away, not about the war being over or the fall of the South. That revelation would have doomed them all, and even he knew it by the way the Master had interrogated them after.
"I don't think he was lying," Aeneas declared. "He didn't come here alone, and it wasn't him that killed Mr Thomas. Someone else came in here with him, which means he was telling the truth about him and his friend."
"We don't know that..." Cornelius opened his mouth to object.
"Yes we do," a new voice rose above theirs like a decree from heaven.
Willa stepped forward and took centre stage. To the men in Eden, she had always looked broken and beaten before this day. They all knew what their women suffered, what terrible sins were committed in the dark, amidst the weeping and sometimes screaming, yet it was a reality they could do nothing about even if it made every man in the place, mad with impotent fury. Of all the women, Willa had been the prettiest and the most cursed. The overseers always picked her, and even the master came to her bed when the mood took him.
Yet that broken, defeated woman was nowhere in sight.
There was a new creature before them and in her eyes was nothing less than fury. When she made her utterance, not a man in the room dared to contradict her. She had suffered a world of pain, losing a husband who killed himself in shame at being unable to prevent her dishonour, a son who was driven to run and most likely dead. Of all the people here, she had most leave to speak.
"A white man came to my shack last night and told me Philly was safe. They found him hurt, but alive. Philly told them what was happening to us. That's why they come, to see if my boy was telling the truth. We're free. We've been free, but we've been made to think we're still slaves so the master can get his free workers and his men, their whores."
The words made the women flinch, but Willa's tone was merciless. "We can walk out of here right now, and they have no right to stop us."
"They got guns!" Cornelius pointed out, and the rumble from the group appeared to agree with him.
"So what?" Willa hissed. "There is more than one way to kill a man. You don't need a gun to do that."
Aeneas stared at her, somewhat frightened but compelled to ask because he saw calculation in her eyes. "Like what?"
Willa only smiled in answer, and Aeneas shuddered because it was the smile of a crocodile.
Gunfight at Four Corners
Buck Wilmington recognised at least three of them when Callan Selitrenny came riding into the town of Four Corners.
They were the legacy of the last war, men for whom the fighting would never end. Carnage had gotten into their blood and taken hold, refusing them the peaceful life the other survivors embraced happily. Instead, they drifted across the Territory, skirting on the edges of society, applying their skill of death into the trade of hired gun, fighting smaller wars to satisfy the one they could not let go in their heads.
Of the ten men who rode into town bringing nothing but trouble, Buck recognised three of them from his time as a lawman in Kansas. Dave Burnett, Eli Curtin and Dewey Hardin were hired guns who made themselves a name in Lincoln County but sensibly fled before the law started paying attention to the chaos taking place there. Rudderless, they drifted from town to town, leaving dead bodies in their wake and had apparently now hitched their wagons to the Selitrenny brothers' employ.
Of the trio, it was Burnett that gave Buck the most concern because the man had a reputation as a cold, stone killer. Sitting astride his horse, Burnett used the height provided by the gelding to survey the town, resting longer than usual at the jailhouse which was where a man intending to murder a woman and a child might find the most opposition. With penetrating dark eyes, he dressed more like a farmer in his heavy brown coat, tan hat and work boots. Yet what he did for a living could not be mistaken, by the irons hanging at each hip or the sinister gleam in his eyes.
On the other hand, there was no mistaking what Eli Curtis did for a living. Eli played the part of the dapper gunslinger, dressed in an embroidered red shirt, a leather vest and fancy guns slung at his hips. He was probably the same kind as Ezra, wishing to appear pristine while riding into glory each time he drew his guns. Meanwhile, Dewey ‘Bull' Hardin as his nickname implied, was nowhere that refined. He was a tall, brute of a man whose weapon of choice was the shotgun holstered along his saddle and the massive hands capable of snapping bone.
The others in Selitrenny's company were unknown to Buck, except for one man whom he was sure was an overseer at the plantation. Whether they were employees of Eden or mercenaries as well, they were clearly intimidated by Burnett and Buck could appreciate why. Chris Larabee wore a similar aura of menace around him that not even two years as a lawman in Four Corners could dispel. While the community looked to him for protection, there was no mistaking the fact, they still regarded him with a little fear.
Even though Callan dismounted first, Burnett remained in the saddle, his deep-set eyes continued to study the town with the eyes of someone accustomed to searching the plains for enemies. Right then and there, Buck knew they intended on searching every inch of Four Corners for Alex and the boy and would not stop until the two were found. Buck suddenly felt a surge of relief knowing both were well away from town, grateful Chris's foresight had allowed them to get them both to safety.
With the arrival of Selitrenny's younger sibling with these men, there was only one conclusion to be made. They were here to kill anyone who knew about Eden.
"Let me speak to them first Mr Wilmington," Ezra advised as he took a step back from where he was standing behind Buck, making the same observation through the window. As he did so, he made an obligatory check of the small derringer concealed beneath his sleeve, convinced if any shooting started, the small weapon would be the most effective means of saving his skins. All three lawmen had watched the new arrivals from the jailhouse and knew their battleground needed changing for there to be any advantage over them. Without the rest of the seven, Ezra was painfully aware of how outnumbered they were.
"Don't know if they're here to talk Ezra," Buck expression showed his displeasure at the idea of Ezra going out there to face these men alone.
"We have no idea what they are planning," Ezra countered. "At present, we are outnumbered and would be at a disadvantage if this came down to a fight. We need to delay that outcome for as long as we can."
Buck cursed under his breath. Ezra was right. Right now, Alex and Philly were in no immediate danger because they were miles away from here and under the protection of Kojay and Chanu at the Navajo reservation. "You go out there and don't do nothing stupid. If you think they're gonna draw, you head for cover Ezra. I mean it. JD and I will give you enough breathing room to get there."
Buck's tone was devoid of its usual good humour and his blue eyes, often warm and dancing with amusement was hard like pieces of smoothed flint.
Ezra nodded in understanding. "I will endeavour to weave a suitably believable tale for their benefit, although I am of the sneaking suspicion they will not take my word for it."
"Then we'll start shooting until you get out of there," JD said firmly, both guns drawn as he took up position at the other window flanking the doorway.
"Damn straight," Buck replied. "Don't go being a hero either Ezra."
"Now Mr Wilmington," Ezra gave him a look. "If you're going to resort to insults, I shall just take my leave of you now."*****
The men had all dismounted their horses by the time Ezra emerged from the jailhouse.
While the new arrivals had captured the attention of the townsfolk, the greater community of Four Corners went about their business, oblivious to the danger that just rode into their midst. People still moved up and down the boardwalks flanking the main street into town. Wagons rumbled across the dirt road, creating a cloud of dust behind them, while children ran in clusters down alleys, getting up to all kinds of mischief. As Ezra approached the men who were preparing to disperse, no doubt to seek out their quarry, the gambler was suddenly very conscious of how many bystanders were on the street if this did become a shooting match. Suddenly he was grateful Julia had decided to go to Sweetwater to conduct some business for her emporium and was nowhere in town at this moment.
"Mr Selitrenny," Ezra broke into a wide grin. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? I believed matters were settled during my meeting with your brother."
Ezra paused a suitable distance away from the group, his keen eyes taking stock of what lay nearby when he approached. A wagon parked not far from the horses belonged to one of the local farmers, who was no doubt getting supplies from Virgil Watson's hardware store. A large water barrel stood beneath the mouth of a drain pipe, while he noted the approach of wagons and buckboards on both sides of the street.
Callan turned towards him, and the sour expression on his face indicated he did not like Ezra much. Burnett, on the other hand, showed no emotion at all and that gave Ezra concern. Curtis and Hardin regarded him with contempt. Ezra noted the subtle shift in the stances of the men surrounding Callan, their hands moving to their guns, ready to defend their master.
"Seeing how you promised to bring young Master Philly back to Eden," Callan smiled with the arrogance of one who knew the odds were in his favour, "my brother and I thought we might provide you with an escort."
"Really?" Ezra took a quick glance at the men behind Callan. "You must think the boy especially dangerous if you require such a large entourage."
"These parts are dangerous. My encounter with the Indians in the area necessitated the precaution."
"I see," Ezra answered, continuing this bout of verbal fencing, aware the moment of civility was fast dwindling. "Unfortunately, Master Philly is no longer in Four Corners. My compatriots are at this moment, on their way to Eden, ferrying the young man back to his mother."
"Your compatriots. Would that include Mr Larabee?" Callan challenged. "I believe he is one of the lawmen in these parts?"
Ezra showed no signs of being affected by the revelation that Callan knew about Chris Larabee and possibly the seven's role in this town. Instead, he played the hand dealt. "He is, and you are correct. Mr Larabee is escorting young Philly to Eden. He should be there by tomorrow morning. I'm afraid I had to remain behind to deal with the Judge and explain there is nothing to Master Philly's story."
"And what about the lovely Doctor Styles?" Callan asked, his eyes narrowing.
Ezra maintained his facade of calm, even though the question regarding Alex was filled with menace. Despite being no longer associated romantically thanks to Julia's entry into his life, Ezra still cared for her and considered her a friend no matter how angry she still was at him. The idea of these men laying one hand on her was something Ezra Standish would not stand for. Not ever.
"I'm afraid Doctor Styles has also left town," Ezra said smoothly. "She is making her rounds of the local homesteads. She should be back in a few days."
"You will forgive us if we do not take your word for it," Callan returned. "My men and I will take a look around town for ourselves."
"You are welcome to of course," Ezra stepped and gesture at them to proceed with a wave of his hand. "However, I assure you, neither Philly or Doctor Styles are in town at the moment."
Callan frowned at the answer but the man was nowhere done with his interrogation of Ezra. "What about the prairie nigger?"
Ezra stared. "I beg your pardon?"
"Mr Selitrenny tells me there was an Indian assisting this ‘doctor' when he encountered her," Burnett eyed Ezra coldly after giving a quick glance of annoyance at Callan for tipping their hand. His voice was quiet, strong and decidedly intimidating. It bore the same tone of underlying danger so prevalent in Chris's voice and told Ezra he had to be especially wary of this man. "Where is he from?"
Inwardly, Ezra was cursing. To tell them about Chanu would be to give them a direct route to Alex and Philly and that he would not do. He had not expected such intelligence from Callan but had completely underestimated Burnett. If he did not answer, he would prompt Burnett's suspicion and if he did, these men would no doubt ride to the village in search of Chanu.
"I'm afraid I cannot say," Ezra lied through his teeth. "He passes through here from time to time, trading with other tribes. I believe he hails from a Navajo tribe along the Arizona border."
"I've had enough of this," Dewey Hardin spoke for the first time, the impatience showing on his face. Before anyone could stop him, he went for his gun.
The gunshot that rang out came not from Dewey's gun, but from across the jailhouse. Dewey uttered a cry of pain as the bullet struck him in the shoulder. Before the shot could even fade from his ears, the others had drawn their weapons, and Ezra found himself running for cover. Buck and JD continued shooting, driving the men who were standing out in the open, scrambling for similar protection while their comrade made his escape.
Ezra managed to get as far as the entrance of the Standish saloon before the firing started up again. As he ran, he spied the townsfolk immediately hurrying indoors, the gunshots indicating the streets were no longer safe. On the boardwalk, Mary Travis who was handing out papers paused and looked across the street in concern until Yosemite tugged her through the doors of Virgil Watson's store. Meanwhile, Gloria Potter screamed for her children who were playing on the road outside to get indoors immediately. The usual chatter had fallen silent after the initial cries of shock had faded away and the citizens of Four Corners took themselves out of the line of fire.
Fortunately, the saloon was almost empty at this time of the day, and he entered the establishment and saw that its few patrons had either scurried out the back entrance or were taking refuge upstairs. Inez was staring at him from across the bar, her expression worried.
"Ezra, what's happening?"
"My dear, it might be an idea for you to leave the area."
He made that statement just as gunfire broke out and he was driven to the space between the door frame and a window. Bullets slammed through the swing doors, splintering wood and shattering glasses that were in the way. Inez uttered a short cry of fright before dropping to her knees, hiding beneath the counter. Peering over the top of the door, Ezra saw the ten men dispersed over the area and knew some were probably trying to sneak up behind him.
In the silence that followed the first volley of shots, Ezra called out to Callan and his men making a last-ditch effort to diffuse the situation before he took the Remington in his grip into battle.
"I suggest you leave this locality gentlemen! Your quarry is no longer in town! You best hurry back to Eden. I believe your brother will have company very soon!"
He was answered by a fresh hail of bullets that tore through the swing doors, shattering anything in itss path. From behind the counter, Inez cried startled as broken bottles rained liquor and glass down on her. Ezra looked through the window and saw men running past the window sill, no doubt attempting to enter the saloon through its rear entrance.
"INEZ, GET UPSTAIRS NOW!"
Inez poked her head over the counter at Ezra's furious demand. She looked properly frightened, however, not so much she couldn't move. Yet as she tried to make her way out from behind the bar, more shooting drove her back again with as more bullets sent fragments of wood and broken glass at her in a deadly spray.
Ezra cursed, needing to get her out of the line of fire before the men who were attempting to breach the saloon found her and used her as a hostage. Keeping his head down, he ran towards the nearest poker table, as the wagon wheel chandelier, all shot to hell, broke loose from the ceiling and came crashing down against the wooden floor. Ezra raised his arms to shield himself from the barrage of broken fragments spraying across his side. Slivers of pain flared across his neck and cheeks as some of those pieces bit into his skin. Unfortunately, the minor physical discomfort could not match the strategic one that took advantage while he was momentarily distracted.
One of Callan's men, an overseer Ezra recognised from Eden was making a fast approach through the doors. Ezra continued his race to the table and when he reached it, flipped the thing on its side, sending to the debris-covered floor, poker chips and cards, to gather dust with the fragments of wood and glass. Balancing it on its edge, he allowed it to shield him as he took aim at the enemy and fired. His position did not let him shoot high, so the bullet entered the man's boot above the ankle eliciting an indignant howl of pain.
"Son of a bitch!"
Ezra saw the man collapse, clutching his bleeding foot as he lay doubled over the floor. However, there was little or no time for him to gain any satisfaction from this small victory, not when more bullets whizzed over his head, shattering window after window in the tavern, splintering the walls with fresh holes and covering the floor with the growing debris of destruction. Continuing his advance to Inez, he intended to use the table to shield her retreat to the bannister.
Her cry made him spin around, and he saw another man emerge from the rear of the saloon, seconds away from putting a bullet in his temple. Ezra reacted on reflex, his derringer snapping out of its harness into his palm before he pulled a trigger. The bullet was small but loud, and the hole it put in the man's head was almost as prolific. He fell backwards in a thud, his body crushing the glass on the floor as he landed.
"Come on dear lady," Ezra motioned Inez to him. She was looking away from the grisly scene, clearly shaken but not enough to completely lose her wits. Yet as frightened as she had been, if Inez had not warned him, Ezra had no doubt he would be the one dead. For that, he was getting her out of harm's way while he still could.*****
When Buck saw Dewey go for his gun, his rifle was already poised to shoot From everything he had heard about the hired gun, Dewey was a hot-headed fool who would be the most likely to draw first when he got tired of Ezra's attempt at diplomacy. No matter how silver-tongued Ezra thought he was, he was capable of testing the patience of even his friends, let alone a bunch of men out for blood.
He could have easily killed Dewey but Buck had opted for a warning shot to give Callan and the men with him pause, but it was always at best a slim hope. After the first shot was fired and the gunfire broke out across the street, he and JD had held their position at the windows of the jailhouse, laying down enough fire for Ezra to get to safety. They watched the gambler scrambling for the saloon, barely eluding the bullets in pursuit. Once Ezra was inside, Buck could concentrate on the men who were dispersing along the street.
Two or three of them were heading for the saloon, while Dewey managed to get back on his startled horse and ride away from the scene, clutching his shoulder as he departed. Funny, Buck thought that the big man wouldn't be scared off so easily. He had little chance to ponder this as he lost sight of Burnett and Callan. Instead, he was focussed on the guns turning their attention to the jailhouse, now that they realised where Ezra's cover had come from.
"JD, get to the back door! If they haven't gone around the back yet, they soon will to try and ambush us!"
JD nodded, stepping away from the window as another bullet flew past him, driving itself into the wall and shredding the wanted poster hanging there. Crouching low, the young sheriff hurried across the floor, avoiding the bullets that were coming through every opening in the building. Some of the weaker walls were becoming riddled with holes and Buck continued to fire, pinning one man who was running from a barrel to a hitched wagon to a post, to reach the jailhouse door. The gunshot to the chest had him flying backward, and he sprawled across the boardwalk, half his body on the road and the other half on the boardwalk.
A window pane shattered near Buck, and the big man turned away just in time to avoid his eyes being hit by the deadly spray of glass. Some of it dug into his cheeks and pain flared across his ear as he felt the tiny fragments bite into his skin. As Buck was driven back from the window, he saw JD reach the back door, pushing it open gingerly and checking the alley beyond to ensure no varmint had made it that far to ambush them.
"Get on the roof! Get the high ground!"
JD nodded, knowing with their numbers, any advantage would help, but he wasn't going until he knew Buck would be right behind him. There was no way the youngest member of the seven was leaving the older man. "What about you?"
"I'm gonna draw their fire for a bit then I'll be right behind you!" Buck assured him, knowing JD would not leave otherwise.
JD's indecision showed on his face, but in the end, he knew he had little choice but to do as Buck asked. Darting through the door, JD knew getting up above the jailhouse would allow him a better view of the scene as well as pinpoint anyone attempting to sneak up on them. As he emerged into the alleyway, heading for the steps that led to the roof, movement at the corner of his eyes made him spin around. The man was a good deal taller than him and was wide enough to take up most of the alleyway. His eyes widened when he realised JD had seen him coming and raised the guns he had lowered because he thought he had the element of surprise.
JD did not give him the chance to regret the decision.
Twin barrels fired simultaneously, and the force of the two bullets threw the man backwards. He uttered a short cry and crashed into a barrel beneath d rain pipe, breaking the wood and spilling water across the dry ground. It pooled beneath him and turned his blood into swirling patterns of red.
JD gave him no more than a second's thought because the continuing sound of gunfire reminded the young man most acutely there was a gunfight in progress and he had to get moving if he and his friends were going to survive it. However, as he reached the steps leading to the jailhouse, JD saw something that told him immediately, the situation was a hell of a lot worse than they realised.
Callan, Burnett and Curtis had left the others behind and were riding out of town.
Towards the Indian reservation.
Oh, my little doe, dry your tears!
Look, Thiab is crying! Oh, my little doe, dry your tears!
Tening Thiab's mother! Oh, my little doe, dry your tears!
Look, Thiab is crying, Oh, my little doe, dry your tears!
You are so forlorn, but oh, my little doe, dry your tears!
Look, your mama's here, Oh, my little doe, dry your tears!
Ndiague Dibor's mother! Oh, Thiab Diome, dry your tears!
Comfort your sister, Dibor, don't let her cry. Oh, do dry your tears!
You're not frightened, you're just feeling lonely, dry your tears!
When she was little, her mother used to sing her a song, one taught to her by her own mother, from a land lost in time and memory. When things were at their worst, she would sing the words and take comfort in them, even though she did not understand the language. It seemed important to learn, however, important to pass down. It was a song taught to daughters as a means of finding one day, the land of the ancestors so they could go home.
In hindsight, she was glad she had not borne a daughter. Bringing a daughter into this world meant condemning her to the same fate Willa herself endured since she was old enough to fall prey to the white man's lust. She wanted no one to suffer what she had as a slave of Eden. Teaching a girl child such a song would seem profane, especially after her husband Isaiah could bear it no more and killed himself. He had loved her so much but the anguish at being helpless in the face of her degradation had broken him.
She was not unique in her suffering, for the other women in the slave quarters were the property of any overseer who wished his desires satiated. Still, it was her they seem to want because she was beautiful. In a slave, beauty was a curse. Yet, Willa still sang the song, even though she knew it would be forgotten once she passed from this world.
After the meeting the night before, she told the others her plan and though they stared at her in shock, there was also a hint of admiration that she would dare such a thing. It was to beak with a lifetime of conditioning and obedience. Even Cornelius, who had been most vocal about their situation, was stunned into silence because he knew if he spoke out and gave warning to the overseers like he had done earlier with the stranger Nathan, she would kill him.
And if she didn't, the others would.
In truth, the method in which she intended to liberate the camp was a fate she planned for herself. Until the Master knocked on her door and told her Philly was being brought back. Her mother had taught her about herbs and plants, so it wasn't difficult to gather what she needed. However, the last two days had changed everything.
Vin Tanner's words were convincing and now she was armed with the knowledge the others still had difficulty believing. It did not matter. She would do what was necessary, she and the others who she enlisted in her cause, the women who would suffer as she had, who learned the last thirteen years was a nightmare forced upon them needlessly. It did not matter if they died in the trying. So many of them had died a little inside a thousand times already. The physical end would be a blessing in comparison.
Before that moment, however, she would have the Master and his men feel her vengeance.
"Quit dawdling singing that nigger crap!"
The slap that struck her cheek followed by the harsh rebuke snapped her out of her thoughts. The pain flared briefly across her face and made her bite down in surprise, drawing blood. Willa raised her eyes to see herself staring into the rotund face of Mrs Wilson, the mean spirited white woman who cooked for the overseers in the kitchen where Willa and two other women, Mariel and Bess worked.
Both women shot her a look of concern as they stood in the small kitchen, sweating over the pot of stew Mrs Wilson had been preparing for the men's breakfast that morning. Master didn't trust the slaves to make the overseers' food, because they might be tempted to steal from the kitchen. Instead, he appointed Mrs Wilson, a woman who had come from the south to do the honours, allowing Willa and others like her, to do the serving.
"It's the song of my people," Willa's voice was soft but distinct.
"What did you say?" Mrs Wilson who had been on her way to the stove when she cuffed Willa for singing while peeling potatoes, wore a mask of stunned outrage at the nigger's insolence at speaking back.
"I said," Willa straightened up, her chin raised. "It's the song of my people."
Before Mrs Wilson had a chance to retort, Willa still clutching the knife shot out her arm in one quick movement. The blade sliced through Mrs Wilson's vocal cords with the speed of one who was used to working fast or risked a beating otherwise. Mariel opened her mouth to scream but Bess cupped her palm over the younger woman's face. The kitchen was fully enclosed, save for the kitchen pass adjoining the dining room. As of yet, the men had not come in for their breakfast, but it wouldn't be long now.
Mrs Wilson made no sound except gagging noises, her blood spilling over her clothes and on Willa's skirt in the spray following the arterial rupture. She continued to stare at Willa in shock and Willa wondered what surprised her more, the dying to come or the fact a nigger slave had done her in. Either way, Willa stepped away and looked at Mariel and Bess, her eyes cold and devoid of emotion.
"Clean this up," she ordered them both. "Put the body in the fruit cellar."
Bess who was the more composed of the two nodded in answer. "What you gonna do?"
"I got stew to make," Willa said with a little smile and began to sing again.*****
Chris outlined his plan to the others even though he knew the risks.
Under any other circumstances, Chris would never have entertained the idea of going anywhere near the plantation with half their number absent, but the truth of it was, they were running out of time. Nathan's fears for the folk of Eden were real, real enough for Chris not to take it seriously. There was no way to know when the army might come this way and with there being every likelihood Selitrenny knew Ezra was false, the man might take extreme actions to cover up his crime.
Such as slaughtering every slave in Eden before they could reveal what he had done.
"It's risky," Josiah remarked from where he was seated at their hiding place in the mountains, set high so none of Eden's overseers could sneak up on them. He took a puff of his pipe and breathed the smoke into the air in lazy tendrils. "But it could work."
"We did it once already," Vin glanced at Chris, lending the gunslinger his support with those words. "We can do it again. Truth is, that plantation is big and dogs or not, they don't got enough men to keep watch on every inch of fence running around the place. We slipped through at night, we could make it to the slave quarters. Besides, I don't reckon they'll think we'll be stupid enough to sneak in again."
"Selitrenny knows he's gotta find us and keep us from reaching the army," Chris pointed out. "He's been looking for us but he can't risk pulling all his men from the plantation, not with the possibility Nathan might have told the folk in the slave quarters the truth."
"That's right," Nathan added. "I think if we make it to the slave quarters, Philly's momma will hide us and get the word to the others we're here to help them escape. Between the four of us, we've got enough spare guns and rifles to arm anyone who's willing to fight."
"And once we get the drop on a few overseers, we'll be able to use their guns." Chris added, recalling this tactic had worked quite when well they were defending the Seminole village."
"How many do you think will stand with us?" Josiah inquired. While he knew Nathan had convinced a few, there were still enough overseers to ensure that any fight to liberate the slaves would end badly if the lawmen did not have help.
"I think there'd be more than a few," Nathan answered, Aeneas coming to mind at Josiah's question. Not just Aeneas though, but also the others, who listened to his words with growing outrage at the possibility they had been lied to for more than a decade. "I think once we give them the chance, they are gonna want their pound of flesh from Selitrenny."
For all their sakes, Chris hoped Nathan was right and the slaves of Eden would be to rise up to help them. After all, it was one thing to want freedom but quite another to be willing or capable of fighting for it. In any case, he supposed they would learn soon enough. Besides, Nathan was reaching the limits of his patience. His willingness to continue waiting for the army to appear was dwindling fast and it wouldn't take much for him to go off on his own and do something stupid.
Something that would most likely get him killed.
"Alright," Chris said now that their course was decided. "We move at dark, but in the meantime, I want to get closer to the plantation. We may not be able to do much in the daylight but we can at least keep watch on the place in case the son of a bitch gets paranoid. There's no telling what he might be willing to do if he thinks he's cornered."
"Damn straight," Nathan agreed, feeling a renewed sense of hatred for the man when he thought of the folk he had worked the fields with yesterday. While it was not an experience Nathan ever wanted to relive, at least he got to know some of Eden's captives, such as Aeneas and even Cornelius. It stabbed at the core of him how frightened and subjugated they were by Selitrenny's cruelty.
Vin could see the anger moving across Nathan's face and after two days watching the man facing his worst demons, he knew it was almost at breaking point. He thought of his promise to Alex to keep Nathan safe because she saw what burned in his eyes when Philly told them his tale. Upon reflection, Vin supposed Alex had a slight insight into Nathan's emotions that none of them could share because she herself was not white. Of course, none of their experiences could ever compare to what Nathan had been born into. To see others living that nightmare when there was no need to must have been a terrible reminder of that horrific past.
"I can find us a trail," Vin spoke up. While Selitrenny's men had continued to search for them, they were used to frightened slaves on the run. They had never tracked anyone who did it for a living and had horses at their disposal. The seven were men accustomed to evading enemies and were able to keep ahead of Eden's master. It wouldn't take much effort on Vin's part to sneak past them again, especially after dark. "We got in using the treeline as cover, I reckon we can do it again."
"It better be," Josiah rumbled. "Cause if they catch us, it isn't going to be much of a rescue. If I were Selitrenny, I'd be circling the wagons and I don't like to think what that could mean for the folks in that place."
"Amen brother," Nathan agreed and then sighed. "I just hope Miss Alex and Philly are okay."
He had almost forgotten that aside from what was happening in Eden, there were men on their way to Four Corners for reasons that were still a mystery, even though the seven had a pretty good idea what they were. No doubt, Selitrenny had doubts about Ezra's story and had sent a party to Four Corners to investigate. It wouldn't take long once they arrived to learn Ezra had misrepresented himself to them. After that, there would be only one choice left to them, eliminate Philly and any witness to his escape.
Vin tensed inwardly, though he hid well. His reaction was only noticeable to Chris Larabee who could see through him like glass, thanks to their almost symbiotic ability to know each other's mind.
"They'll be alright," he feigned indifference as he stared into the coffee swirling within the cup he was holding, trying to appear as if he was no more concerned about Alex than anyone else at their campsite. "Chanu will make sure they're squared away safe."
"In any case, that's something Ezra, Buck and JD will handle," Chris replied, knowing no matter what was said, Vin would not be satisfied Alex was safe until he could ride back to Four Corners and see for himself. "We've got our own problems to deal with."
"I want to get this over and done with," Nathan said firmly, telling everyone by the intensity of his words that he was allowing the slaves of Eden to endure no more of this captivity. They were free and the men who kept them like cattle needed to pay for what they had done.
Yet even as the sentiment crossed his mind, Nathan had no idea someone else was already settling accounts with the masters of Eden on her own.*****
Willa stood behind the kitchen pass, ladling another spoonful of stew into the bowl of the overseer named Ellis, who barely gave her a second glance, even though he'd visited her numerous times in the slave quarters. While he feigned ignorance as he headed to one of the tables in the cookhouse to join the others, she remembered every detail of him. How he grunted like a pig, smelled of tobacco and called her mama just before he was finished.
In the kitchen, Mariel was a little less shaken as she continued to mop the floor, removing all traces of Mrs Wilson's blood. The woman's corpse was languishing inside the food cellar beneath the floor and as far as Willa was concerned, the bitch could rot in there for all she cared. Meanwhile, Bess was going about her business on the main cookhouse floor, clearing away plates and handing out fresh rolls to those who wanted it. She was a pretty girl, with a lot of steel in her nature. Willa liked her but knew that spirit was going to be crushed the first time she heard a knock on her door in the middle of the night.
Judging by the way some of the men were eyeing her as she moved through them, it would be soon.
Not all the overseers were present for breakfast. Some of them were still out hunting for the stranger Nathan and his friend Vin, while others were on their patrols along the fences. Nevertheless, a good number of them were here, enjoying the meal they believed prepared by Mrs Wilson, whose shocked expression of horror as the life drained from her eyes would follow Willa until the day she died. It gave her a feeling of grand satisfaction.
Since she was old enough to be a woman, Willa suffered the horror of rape. Not even marrying her Isaiah, who loved her even though many thought she was spoiled, who treated her with tenderness, could stop them from demanding their pound of flesh. He watched in anguish, impotent in his fury because defending her would mean punishment not just for him but for her too, and when Philly came, his crime would be inflicted on their child as well. So he watched in growing despair as they came for her until killing himself was the only way to cope.
Philly had watched too, watched until he could stand it no more and killed that animal, Mr Brent. She had told him to run even though he was the only thing that gave her life meaning. It didn't matter if she never knew he escaped or not. The hope of his freedom would be enough to commit the suicide that had been derailed when she learned he had been caught and was being brought back.
Then the man named Vin told her the truth.
The last thirteen years of hell had been for nothing. She and all the slaves of Eden were free. The master had brought them to this piece of land in the middle of nowhere because he knew the minute they learnt this truth, they would leave. Using the overseers who were at this moment feeding at the tables like pigs with their snouts in the trough, they'd been tricked into believing there was no hope when beyond the fence, freedom awaited. She'd told Aeneas she'd deal with them and he had stared incredulously, as the others had, thinking she had finally gone mad.
Perhaps she had but before she made that final descent, she would take these sons of bitches with her.
The loud cough from one of the overseers immediately caught her attention and her eyes narrowed as she saw one of them stand up abruptly and start to shake. His body jerked about like a puppet, wracked with spasm as the ‘chives' he thought he ingested took effect. She'd chopped them up fine and mixed them in the stews, masking enough of the things in the gravy to ensure a quick but painful death. She owed them all that. With a slow forming smile, she watched as he clutched his stomach in pain, while at the same time on the other side of the room, someone else started coughing.
Bess stopped what she was doing and immediately went to the door as Willa had instructed earlier and secured the lock. No one was getting out. Meanwhile, Mariel had stopped mopping to join Willa at the kitchen pass to watch the horror coming. They watched as the first man started to display symptoms, his cough disappearing into his seizures, as the comrades around tried to help. However, the coughing that began with him was soon moving throughout the room, sounding like musicians before the start of a concert testing their instruments.
One by one, she watched them double over in pain, clutching their sides, jerking in seizures, while hole others began puking out their guts. The stink of vomit began to fill the air as pandemonium broke out in the room. Willa stepped onto the floor as men fell out of their seats, twisting in pain, while others upended plates and glasses on the table in their violent tremors and seizures. Others for whom the effect took longer tried to help their comrades but to no avail. Willa had filled the stew with enough ‘chives' to kill everyone one of them.
"You bitch!" She heard Ellis snarled, he was armed, but by the way, his face was turning purple, knew he too was affected and fighting the symptoms. As he pushed away from the table and staggered towards her, Willa saw Bess come up behind him, unnoticed. Without saying a word, she plunged the kitchen knife she had been hiding in her apron in his back. His face contorted in agony as he craned his neck, trying to see what she had done. Bess stepped back, her expression fearful but there was also satisfaction. The man sank to his knees and fell against the wooden floor.
Others started to rise from their chairs, seeing his death, understanding now what was happening to them. A few of them reached for their guns but the poison she had fed them all regain its death grip upon them and drove the thoughts of vengeance away. There were at least fifteen men in the cookhouse, more than half the number of overseers keeping the slaves of Eden subjugated. Willa watched them die, twitching, coughing, groaning and crying out in pain. Their cries were like music to her ears and as she listened to them, fell closer to God than any moment in her life.
Dispassionately, she drew her blade, the same one she had used to end Mrs Wilson and met Bess's eyes as she approached the girl. Around them, there was plenty of noise but once again, she had timed her killing well. The few overseers watching the slaves at work would be hard pressed to get here in time to save these men. The water hemlock she had mixed into the stew had sealed their fates but Willa was taking no chances that any of them might escape.
"Mariel!" Willa snapped at the girl still hiding in the kitchen in fright. "You and Bess collect their guns."
Mariel emerged from her hiding place, her face showing her distress at the men dying in front of her that neither Bess nor Willa seemed to mind. "What do we do when we have them?"
Willa turned to look at the men in their various stages of poisoning and answered coldly. "I'm going to start a fire."
Riding hard across the plains, the three lawmen of Four Corners were in a race.
Their competitors were only ahead of them by half an hour but in JD Dunne's opinion, that was still too much time. In the horizon they could not see, Callan Selitrenny or rather Dave Burnett was leading a party of dangerous men to the Indian village with the intention of turning the place upside down to find Alex and Philly. The Indians would put up a fight, JD knew from the last time anyone tried to storm the place, but a lot could happen in half an hour.
After all, it took only a second to pull a trigger.
Annie Neuhaus taught him that. While he learned to live with the knowledge he was responsible for her death, JD was far from forgiving himself for it. If anything ended his fantasies of being the type of gunfighter he read in those dime store novels, it was learning he killed an innocent through accidental fire. Her husband moved away shortly after her death so he was spared the man's hostility but every so often, he went to her grave and made sure the weeds were cleared from her resting place and fresh flowers were placed there. It was a paltry penance for the sin committed.
No sooner than JD had emerged from the jailhouse and sighted the absence of Burnett, Callan, Hardin and Curtis, JD came quickly to the realisation Burnett had used the gunfire laid down by the others as a distraction to slip away. The young sheriff supposed they must have figured Ezra wouldn't be trying so hard to deter them from Chanu unless there was something to hide. In either case, it wouldn't be hard to find the reservation once they knew it was where they had to go.
When he climbed to the top of the roof, it didn't take long to get a bead on the men who were left behind and shooting at them. Buck was right, the high ground gave them a good view of where the enemy was situated throughout the street. Most of the gunfire had been concentrated on the saloon because that was where Ezra had gone for cover. He saw at least three men remaining, with two sprawled across the dirt on the street, having died where the lawmen's bullets have left their mark.
From his vantage point, he took aim at the man finding cover behind a large rain barrel, unaware he no longer had the advantage once JD reached the roof. It was probably why Vin always took the high ground, JD realised. The tracker was already a crack shot, but from a height he was deadly. Squeezing off a round, the bullet ripped a hole in the side of the barrel, allowing a stream of water to escape in a neat arc into the dirt like a small child taking a piss n the street.
The man taking refuge beneath it was startled by the direction the bullet had come from and raised his head just above the top of the barrel, to seek out the shooter. No sooner than he had done so, he was thrown back when a bullet struck him between the eyes, this one coming from the direction of the jailhouse where Buck Wilmington had no doubt used the opening JD had provided him. The wall behind the dead man was splattered with gore and blood, leaving a crimson stain that ran into the ground below the wall.
Another explosion of sound followed by flecks from splintered wood spat at him as a bullet struck the ledge. Flinching instinctively at the spray of sharp debris, he shielded his eyes as he recoiled from the roof's edge. As another bullet tore through the wood, JD kept his head down and crawled over to the other end of the roof, so he could glimpse the enemy taking shots at him. It didn't take him long to see the tall man behind one of the wagons parked in front of Virgil Watson's store. The animal tethered to the hitching post was extremely agitated, its hoofs stamping the ground in fright, wishing nothing but to be away from the gunfire.
If anything stabbed at JD more than shooting unarmed bystanders, it was the sight of frightened horses. At the fancy boarding school he and his ma had lived, JD had no friends except the horses he attended to as stable boy. He knew each one distinctly, knew their names, their natures and their personality. Coming out West and meeting the seven had not changed his affection for the animals and seeing the fear of the horse below prompted JD to put an end to this quickly.
Switching from his revolvers to the rifle slung over his shoulder. He took careful aim at the man below, now being assailed by bullets not just from Buck, but also Ezra whose silhouette JD could see through the broken window of the saloon. He was about to pull the trigger when another idea came to him and he shifted the barrel of the gun and squeezed. The rope holding the horse bound to the hitching post snapped in half. The horse reared its graceful neck back and then realised it was no longer being held in place. It reacted immediately to its new found freedom and broke into a run. With the wagon being pulled behind it, the animal's payment for freedom was to give JD a clear line of sight to the man hiding behind it.
"DROP IT!" JD heard Ezra's erudite voice speaking much too loudly than he was accustomed to hearing.
The man realising he was in the sight of three guns, knew better than to attempt shooting it out. Especially when it appeared Ezra and Buck had finished off the rest of his comrades. Screwing his face into an expression of anger and frustration, he dropped his gun into the dirt, before raising his hands to his head in a gesture of compliance.
Squaring the man away in the jailhouse didn't take long and now they were in a race against time to reach the Indian village where Alex and the boy Philly was hiding, before Callan Selitrenny's party of hired guns did their worst. Ezra was hurt but the gambler wasn't about to sit out this rescue. Ezra was incapable of letting his friends ride into danger even though he still claimed to be the self-serving gambler he had always been. JD suspected a part of him still cared enough about Alex to want to take a hand in her protection.
For his part, JD liked the doctor, who always answered his questions without judgement especially when JD was too embarrassed to bring it to Buck because of the big man's tendency to amuse himself at JD's expense. Nathan and Josiah were the men he rode with and some things were too personal and sentimental to bring up with another man, particularly those he was trying so hard to measure up to.
Of course, he didn't like her as much as Vin Tanner.
JD knew personally what it was to be young and in love just by the way he felt for Casey, enough so he recognised the behaviour Vin was trying to hide from everyone, including the lady herself. He might have talked to Vin about it, to tell him that he understood, but JD had a feeling Vin would not be comfortable with him knowing so he kept silent. All he could do for Vin in the tracker's absence was to make sure Alex was okay.
If they got to the village in time.*****
Philly was still weak but freedom was something he had so little of, Alex could not deny him when he wanted to experience a little of it. Having seen other boys his age in the village being taught by an elder how to fashion a bow, Philly had wanted to join them and Alex decided it couldn't hurt if he got a little fresh air. Assured by Nacoma Philly would be fine, Alex couldn't begrudge him a few hours to enjoy the childhood denied him.
As she watched him from a suitable distance from the small square, so she couldn't be accused of hovering, Alex had the impression Philly consider his brief taste of freedom to be finite. As if it were all a dream he would soon wake up from to find himself back in the plantation again. It saddened Alex to think a boy so young could no such cruelty but America, as much as it was a land of opportunity, had blood in its foundations. The blood of slaves and the blood of the people whose lands were stolen.
William Styles had never wanted to bring her to America before the war because he feared for his half-caste daughter who was not quite Indian but not white either.
When she was a teenager, they travelled back to her mother's land and the natives looked at her like an oddity with her English accent and London fashions. They couldn't imagine her as one of their own, in the fields, skirt hiked about the knees, hands in the mud. Even now, Alex felt out of place among the people of this tribe and suspected her acceptance was largely due to her standing as a medicine woman and nothing else.
"What will happen to him?" Kojay, the old chief asked as he joined Alex who was standing in the shadow of one of the huts, watching Philly so it didn't look like she was some kind of fussing hen. God knows, he heard enough of that from her during his convalescence.
"If she's still alive," Alex thought of Eden and the terrible captivity Philly's mother was enduring, "he'll be reunited with his mother and hopefully with all the people he grew up with."
"Good," Kojay nodded, having spoken to the boy once or twice during his time in the village. The old chief recognised the ravaged soul inside Philly and understood all too well what it was to be robbed of one's freedom. "He needs to feel the wind on his face and the grass beneath his feet. For too long, he has been in chains and even though he has escaped his prison, his mind is still in a cage."
"I know," Alex agreed, "I wish it were otherwise, but I can't fix those wounds. Just the ones on his body. It's going to take someone with more skill than I'll ever have to..."
"Naatʼáanii!" A male voice shouted on top of his lungs, capturing Kojay's attention immediately and silencing Alex just as quickly. From the edge of the camp, Alex saw one of the braves running towards them, his expression one of worry.
"What's happening?" Alex asked and then felt her stomach clench at the possibility the men chasing her and Philly might have found them. How could they know?
Kojay didn't answer her immediately as the man Alex knew was called Tselah, reached them and began speaking excitedly. "‘Ana'í hágo, wóshdę́ę́' akǫ́ǫ́ biye'ke!"
As he spoke, Alex saw Kojay's expression darkened and knew the worst had happened.
"He says there are strangers coming towards the tribe," Kojay explained as Tselah continued to speak. "They come from your town, carrying guns. You and the boy must hide now."
Alex paled and stared at Philly, her heart sinking at having to go tell the teenager they had to run again, that even here, the monsters of Eden had found him.
"What will you do?"
Even as she asked the question, she saw Chanu on horseback, rallying the younger braves to their horses, preparing to meet the threat. Cursing under her breath, she saw Philly and the other children noticing the commotion and getting to their feet. Meeting Kojay's eyes she had her answer and nodded in understanding at what needed to be done next. Lifting her skirt so she could break into a small run, she had to get to Philly as quickly as possible.
By the time she reached him, the ripple of impending danger had moved throughout the village and everyone was mobilised to act. She saw women ushering younger children indoors, while the older ones helped the old and weak to safety. Fathers were ensuring their families were safely tucked away in their huts, while the village braves were arming themselves with a host of weapons from rifles and guns to more traditional spears, bows and tomahawks. When Alex reached Philly, only he and Nocoma were left in the small square. The other boys had been called home already.
Philly who was searching the faces around him anxiously brightened up at the sight of her. Upon reaching him, he expressed his relief in a hug and Alex found herself embracing him back. A surge of affection filled her heart for this broken young boy who deserved so much better than the world of pain he was born into.
"What's going on Miss Alex?"
"We have to go," she said taking his arm, trying not to look over her shoulder in the direction Tselah claimed the intruders were approaching. From where she was, she doubted she could see anything anyway, but the rising panic moving through the village like wildfire was around them. Yet despite the situation, there was method in their seemingly disorganized dispersal. It occurred to Alex, Kojay's tribe was very accustomed to incursions onto their land.
"Are they here?" The boy's eyes widened to saucers when it dawned on him why everyone was suddenly so afraid. "Has the Master come for me?"
His body stiffened, in readiness to run, even though in his condition he wouldn't get very far. When he was found, he was suffering from dehydration, exposure and blood loss. It was a miracle he had survived as long as he had. If Philly made a run for it now, Alex knew with utter certainty, he wouldn't survive the day even if Eden's masters didn't catch him first.
"Take the boy back to my tent," Nacoma gestured to a hut on the far side of the village, the furthest point from the source of the trouble. "You will be safe there."
"I gotta run Miss Alex!" Philly cried out, his fear giving him enough strength to weaken the grip she had around on his arm. "If he finds me, he'll kill me!"
They'll kill us both, Alex thought. However, she was not about to descend into panic, not yet.
"Philly, listen to me," Alex made her look at him. "I am not going to let those men take you. Do you understand me? Everyone here is going to protect you. That's why Chris sent us here. He knows they'll keep us safe. I won't let them get their hands on you Philly, I promise."
Yet even as she made that vow, she knew the power to keep it was entirely out of her hands.*****
Once upon a time, Vin Tanner and his friends had stood for Chanu when the white men came to his village. They demanded his head for the murder of his wife Claire and their child, unaware that it was her father, the Reverend Moseley who committed the terrible deed. The seven lawmen who protected the town of Four Corners had also kept the village from harm and for that debt, Kojay recognised them all as friends.
Later on, Nathan Jackson would come frequently to see to their health, bringing with him the white man's magic and with him, Alex Styles who Nathan claimed was a medicine woman of great skill. The women of the village were particularly pleased to have a medicine woman to consult about their troubles since they had not one of their own. Even though she had the white man's ways, she also possessed skills that were not of his world. Since then, she had come many times to the village, helping them and also showing an interest in learning their ways. Sometimes she would sit and listen to the stories of their ancestors and the land, claiming it to be a way of honouring her father who was a wandering spirit in life. Whether or not she knew it, it had gained her their respect.
Chanu saw how fiercely she stood for Philly and he admired her courage, reminded of another young woman who was brave and strong, who dared to love him and paid the ultimate price for it. Chanu had taken no other woman since Claire's death, even though as the son of the chief, there were many who offered themselves to him. He could not offend Claire's memory by taking another wife, not unless he felt his heart soar in the same way and that would not happen until the embers of grief died out in his soul.
It was why he was prepared to protect Alex then and why he was going to do it now.
When the townsfolk had come to the village to attack them, the tribe was unprepared. This time, it was different. Despite Kojay's objections, Chanu intended for no one to invade their sacred lands at will. When Ezra Standish brought Alex and the boy here for refuge, Chanu had prepared for a fight even if one did indeed come to their doorstep. His father would prefer to handle things amicably but Chanu understood the enemy's way all too well.
Diplomacy was just a prelude to slaughter.
He rode out to meet the men, at least ten of them he counted before they encroached the cleared land around the village. The longer he could keep them from the tribe, the better. Upon approaching the intruders, he recognised one of them immediately. He was the youngest in the party present and certainly dressed prettier. The one who looked like a woman in his frilly shirt was one of the men chasing down Philly on the plains not long ago. When the stranger saw him, his eyes widened in surprise and then narrowed with a weasel's calculation as he stared at Chanu.
"If it ain't the prairie nigger who got in my way the last time," Callan sneered.
Burnett shot him a glare, not because he was offended by the word but the malice behind it. There were at least four braves on horseback, including the one who was facing them. They had picked up the men who rode with them from Desolation, who were left waiting outside of town because Burnett wanted their true numbers concealed. From all accounts, Larabee and his six companions were tough men and Burnett had no desire to lay his cards down so soon.
"Shut up," Burnett snapped with enough menace in his voice for Callan to take heed of it before he faced the Indian to begin their parley.
"We want the woman and the boy," Burnett wasted no time getting down to business. He suspected they were going to be drawing in seconds but it was worth making the effort to see if this Indian could be reasonable. It would save the bullets. "Hand them over and we'll go."
"Screw that...!" Callan sputtered in retaliation immediately, "I want this..." he shot Chanu a hateful glare, "this redskin too."
"You'll be satisfied with the woman and the boy," Burnett hissed, "or we'll leave and you can talk it over with him on your own."
A rumble of amusement crossed the group of men as they sniggered at the sight of Callan turning pale at the threat. The younger Selitrenny did not hide his fear and swallowed thickly, no doubt visited by images of scalping.
Chanu made his intentions equally clear, so there would be no misunderstandings. He understood in the last few seconds the real enemy was not this petulant man-child but the stranger with the dead eyes, for whom killing was a task he was very adept at performing. "The medicine woman and the boy are under our protection. You have entered our land without permission. If you don't leave, we will make you."
"Shit," Curts snorted and drew his gun. "I like to see you try."
Whether or not they knew it, the braves behind Chanu were prepared for the talk descending into violence when the white men did not get his way. Poised and ready, they were aware their leader would soon need the cover. Guns were immediately raised on both sides and Burnett had no wish to get into a shootout right here and now when it was likely both sides would lose good men.
"Alright then," Burnett nodded. "We did ask."
Chanu nodded and tugged at his reins, the horse under his control began to retreat without turning around. His eyes were locked in unspoken combat with Burnett, testing each other to find weakness. However, their cold war was about to become a hot one.
Predictably it was Hardin who fired, having learnt no lessons from his earlier encounter at Four Corners. Even though his shoulder hurt, the man had little difficulty handling his irons. Chanu swung sharply to the side of his horse, allowing the bullet to fly past him instead of through his chest. No sooner than he took the evasive action, his Navajo brothers behind him opened fired to give him cover from the barrage of gunfire that was surely coming his way. Digging his heels into his horse's flank, he sent the animal into a sudden sprint away from the deafening noise. As he pulled away, he saw the others following him, now that he was clear of the white man's bullets.
"Back to the village!" He shouted at the others and saw the enemy was in pursuit. With any luck, his father would hear the gunfire and be prepared for when they reached the village boundary.
Meanwhile, Burnett returned fire, aiming for the Indian who had caused Callan Selitrenny such trouble, aware that any fight to protect the woman and the boy would suffer a significant blow if he could kill the one Ezra Standish called Chanu. Unfortunately, the brave was smart getting ahead of them and as they approached the village, which was little more than a collection of huts, Burnett knew they would have to rethink their strategy. Fortunately, Burnett who spent some time in the army and had fought in the Battle of Washita River knew how to deal with them quickly and had approached this encounter with a plan.
"Break up and follow the plan!" He shouted at the others. "Oxley, you stay close to him!"
Ox sounded like he might have some sense but Burnett had no faith in Callan who reeked of Southern privilege and probably didn't have any idea what it was to work a day in his life. He was soft and lacked cunning. All he knew how to be, was mean and mean was no protection against a bullet if it was coupled with stupid.
Ox intended to do that anyway while having no desire to take orders from this hired gun, he was smart enough to accept good advice when he heard it. Besides, Mr Selitrenny would have his hide if anything happened to his little brother.
As Burnett gestured for Curtis and Hardin to follow him, he remembered the farm he had grown up in Colorado. There was a field that needed clearing before they could plough, but it was filled with rattlesnakes. His pa hadn't the patience to wade through all that tall grass or rely on traps when he had livestock and young children running about the property. Instead, he set the whole field ablaze and when the snakes came slithering out seeking to escape the fire, that's when he'd caught and killed them all.
If they wanted the doctor and the boy, that's just what they were going to have to do. Burn the place down and see what came slithering out.
When the smoke rose into the air like a signal fire, Nathan knew time had run out. The only thing he didn't know was for whom.
If it was Selitrenny attempting to conceal the evidence of his crime, then everything he feared for the captives of Eden had come to pass with the man employing extreme measures to ensure they never revealed the truth of their enslavement. At the core of him, he knew it wasn't the case. What may be happening gave him hope for their survival but also filled him with dread. The wounds caused by his enslavement was soothed by his calling as a healer, and the healer inside of him suspected the carnage was taking place inside Eden.
When he was still at Avalon, chasing dreams with Rebecca, they heard of the slave riots that took place from time to time. The uprising by Nat Turner and the raid on Harper's Ferry were failed and brief, with all involved ending up dangling at the end of a rope. The only thing they succeeded in doing was ensuring the masters were more brutal in their methods to apply discipline for fear of outbreak on their properties. No one ever won their freedom in such rebellions unless you counted death as being free, which he supposed some might.
Revealing the truth to Aeneas and the others had been a risk, he knew that even as he spoke the words but inwardly, he did not see any one of the men before him, despite their anger, possessing the courage to riot. However, he supposed when men were pushed hard enough when they were so outraged by the cruelty inflicted upon them and their own, there was no telling what rage could compel them to do.
As he and the others neared Eden, watching the smoke rise into the late morning sky, marking the black place it was, Nathan realised it was a mystery no more.
Meanwhile, Chris Larabee stared at the column of smoke, his gut clenching as the evidence of fire provoked a visceral reaction from him. He hated nothing worse than fire. As the gunslinger fought the memories the smoke inspired, he forced himself to regain his composure as they rode hard to the plantation. The plan to sneak in under the cover of darkness hads more or less been abandoned at the first sight of the black cloud and as they rode towards the fenceline, other sounds exploded in their ears, revealing just how badly things had gone in the Eden.
"How the hell did they get their hands on guns?" Chris demanded as they rode towards the gates where Josiah, Ezra and Buck had encountered the two guards, one of whom was named Albee. It was telling that none of the men was present and the gate was left unattended.
Nathan shook his head in confusion. Beyond the gates, they could hear the random but fierce bursts of gunfire, voices shouting in panic, fear and anger, and the general rumble of discourse that came from one hell of a ruckus. Even though it was a moot point as they reached the gates, with Vin takinga aim with his rifle at the lock a few seconds before they closed in, the healer could not imagine how Selitrenny could be careless enough to allow such a lapse in security. Not that he was sorry to know the slaves had gotten their hands on the weapons, but this meant any chance of the bloodshed being reduced to a minimum was more or less over.
"Don't matter," Josiah shouted back. "They're in it now."
It, being a whole lot of trouble.
"Well, we gotta get in there and help them!" Nathan hollered over the sound of hoofbeats. "Most of them folk have probably never touched a gun in their lives, let alone defend themselves against the overseers who do. They're going to get killed unless we get there."
Vin Tanner did not speak. He was sitting up in his saddle while Peso took him ahead without needing him to direct the animal. Taking careful aim, he squeezed off a round just as the road between them and the gate narrowed. The first shot struck the metal lock, rattling the frame with a shudder. The second tore it off with a teeth chattering screech. The iron gate, poised on a gradual slope, swung inward with a low whine none of the lawmen heard as they thundered through it.
"We do this together!" Chris barked as they passed, eyeing Nathan in particular because this situation was too close to the bone and when the healer's ire was raised, he was a runaway locomotive not even Chris could restrain. "Stay on the horses for as long as we can until we figure out what's going on!"
Considering his suspicions about what was happening, Nathan was willing to accede to Chris's direction on this much because the gunslinger was an excellent strategist and cared for the survival of the folk in Eden just as strongly as him. Now they were closer, the smoke column appeared to be billowing from the centre of the plantation, not from the direction of the slave quarters which was somewhat surprising. If there was a riot, Nathan had been sure it would start from there.
"The fire's coming from the overseers quarters!" Vin announced up as they passed through the gates without any resistance. Vin had studied the lay of the place when he had been perched up high in the grain tower, taking stock of where everything was located for their eventual incursion into the property.
As they entered Eden, the overseers who had been so prolific in their presence were far and few. The din caused by the cacophony of voices, all running hot with emotions, was almost as deafening as the gunfire being traded. The sentries Josiah had seen stationed on the balcony and porches were gone and their absence seemed all the more unnerving. The former preacher realised they were probably drawn to the source of the trouble, leaving the place unguarded.
As they reached at the gates of the first enclosure, this one leading away from the grounds of the main house into the rest of the plantation, they finally saw one of the overseers. The man's eyes widened in shock at the sight of the four riders, hurrying to open the gate before they bore down on him. Chris wasn't about to let him warn anyone else of their arrival.
As far as the gunslinger was concerned, anyone who sat by and let the atrocity that took place in Eden for profit, deserved the harshest treatment. Chris's bullet splattered his brains across the wood just as he lifted the latch. Tumbling forward, the weight of his body pushed the wooden gate open, providing the lawmen with the entry they needed without dismounting their horses.
This was the overseer's domain, Josiah recalled when Selitrenny took him, Ezra and Buck, on tour, like the son of a bitch was proud of what he had accomplished, even if it was an affront to human decency. It was pristine and well tended, with a cookhouse and all the facilities, not unlike an army barracks. It was certainly a far cry from the ramshackle, collection of shanties and cabins that made up the slave quarters. However, as they entered its confines now, Josiah realised, much had changed in the last few hours.
The cookhouse was the source of the blaze. If there were any souls inside, there was no way for them to escape the building for it was consumed in fire. Every inch of it was covered in thick, raging flames. The inferno was so intense, Josiah could feel it from this distance and the smoke in the air made all their eyes sting just as the noxious stench filled their lungs. It was as if God himself had decided to smite the place down in utter fury.
There were bodies on the ground, overseers and slaves alike. Sprawled across the dirt, on their back and their faces, their bullet-ridden corpses left no mystery to what had caused their deaths. The exchange of gunfire was close and as Chris scanned the area, he saw men attempting to douse the flames to prevent its spread from the ruined cookhouse to the other buildings close by. It was becoming clear they were fighting a losing battle. Out here in the Territory, water was an even more precious commodity than gold and the lack of it, particularly in such disasters, was felt most acutely. They were fighting to douse the flames with buckets of water while others were using dirt and blankets.
From experience, Chris knew it was not going to be enough. The cookhouse was lit up like a Roman candle and nothing save a good rain storm was going to snuff out the flames. Looking at the gloriously clear sky, it seemed there would be no salvation from above. Then again, after what Selitrenny had done in Eden, it was poetic justice.
They would be busy enough trying to keep the place from being razed to the ground so there was no reason for the lawmen to deal with the firefighters just yet. Right now, Chris was more interested in the fierce gun battle taking place elsewhere.
"Gunfire's coming from over there!" Vin shouted, waving his arm in the direction of the slave quarters almost as if he had read Chris's mind, which the gunslinger sometimes wondered whether the tracker was capable of doing.
To no one's surprise, Nathan's horse was the first to break into a gallop towards the enclosure the slaves of Eden had called home for the last thirteen years. As Chris saw the healer driving the animal to move faster, he swore under his breath because Nathan's impatience was going to get him killed. Fortunately, Vin was quick to fall into pursuit behind Nathan, keeping an eye on the man's back as he did for all of the seven.
"Nathan wait up, goddamnit!"
"Forget it, Chris," Josiah shook his head as they both rode after the two younger men. "He's in no mind to listen to anyone right now."
The two men rode after their comrades, thundering past the open gate and kicking dirt across the still warm corpse of the guard who had inadvertently provided them with entry, his blood soaking the soil as he lay sprawled against the ground. Passing through the gateway, the loud bang of gunfire intensified, drawing them to its source.
"Ain't gonna do him much good if he gets himself killed," Chris growled.*****
While the slave quarters were hardly lavish, Nathan found it no less tolerable than the ones he'd been forced to inhabit in his youth. Most slave owners fostered their captives need to turn the usually ramshackle collection of log cabins into their own little community because the sense of familiarity would discourage ideas of escape. Eden was no different, even with its tall fences and the dogs on patrol. Nathan infiltrated this place no more than a day ago and was struck by its similarity to Avalon, the plantation he most remembered from his youth, for more than just it being the last place he was a slave before his escape.
LIke Avalon, Eden's slave quarters had been turned into a small village, with cabins and shacks clustered together, with front porches for folk to gather and talk after a hard day's toil or just to enjoy the stars in the night sky. There was a well for water, a barn where the animals they were provided to feed themselves were kept and the outhouses interspersed through the area. If one forgot how one came to be in here, it might even seem pretty.
That was then though. Now, it was the last place anyone should want to be.
One or two buildings were in flames, no doubt at the hands of the overseers attempting to burn out the slaves taking refuge in their homes, having withdrawn there in the course of the fighting. Bodies lay across the ground, black and white. For now, they were forgotten by both sides as the fighting continued. Nathan saw the overseers were mostly taking cover behind the cabins, their guns aimed at the barn the slaves were using as cover to continue their gun battle.
Even as he and Vin approached on horseback, Nathan's worst fears were realised as he saw the slaves struggling to hold their own against as superior force comprising of seasoned gunmen used to handling the weapons. The shots fired were wild and though they had gotten lucky with one or two kills, the truth was, they were going to be overwhelmed. As of yet, the overseers had not seen or heard the lawmen's approach, too focussed on trading bullets with the slaves inside the building. One of them was holding a torch and trying for a sneak approach to the structure, no doubt intending to ignite the dry hay inside.
Nathan wasted no time, drawing his Remington and taking aim. The healer put a bullet into the man's leg as the overseer was in mid-run. He uttered a cry of pain as his knees buckled and he dropped to the ground, the flaming torch landing on the dirt near him. A dozen eyes turned to Nathan in shock because the direction of the bullet coming from an entirely different direction captured their attention immediately.
"What the hell!"
The furious demand came from a man taking cover behind one of the cabin's closest to the barn. He and the overseer with him swung around to seek out the source of that mysterious shot and Nathan knew just by the look of him, this was Patrick Selitrenny. The man was dressed just like another slave owner Nathan knew, who till this day still haunted his memories and was the only person he would have no hesitation to kill with his bare hands.
It took the Master of Eden but a second to register the unexpected second front of this uprising. Nathan had no idea whether or not the slaves knew he was here, but he didn't care. None of these varmints deserved any kind of consideration for what they had put the folk of Eden through. No sooner than he met the man's eyes, Nathan was aiming at him.
"Watch out Mr Selitrenny!" One of the overseers shouted, tackling him to the floor just as Nathan had pulled the trigger, narrowly saving the man from wearing a bullet in the chest. Selitrenny and the overseer tumbled to the dirt and Nathan felt some satisfaction, seeing the absolute outrage on the man's face at the idea of being shot at, by a negro.
Nathan turned and saw Vin putting a bullet into an overseer who had used his distraction with Selitrenny to target him. Vin's mare's leg hit the man with the force of a sledgehammer and sent him flying back from the force of the blast. He landed hard against the wall of one of the slave shacks, his face a rictus of agony as he slid to the dirt, a trail of blood following his path down the rough-hewn wood.
The death of the second man and Selitrenny's near miss had shifted the attention of the overseers from the barn to the new arrivals. Seeing a dozen or so guns turning in their direction, he heeded Vin's order to keep moving. Digging his heels into Hippy's flanks, the horse broke into an ungainly gallop, happy to get away from the gunfire.
"Vin!" Nathan shouted as they rode their mounts behind one of the shacks away from the shooting, even though he could see overseers coming after them on foot. "I'm going to the barn! I need to know how many of them are holed up in there!"
"Nathan that ain't a good idea!" Vin knew Chris wanted them to stick together but he also knew it was necessary for them to gauge the situation in the barn, to know what kind of force they were facing. Vin noticed the number of men trying to take the barn was significantly lower than what they had seen earlier. Selitrenny should have been able to take the place easily with the hired guns on hand. The fact he was being held at bay, even if it would not be for long, was puzzling.
"I'm going!" Nathan snapped, showing Vin just how intent he was at doing this. "You gonna cover me or not?"
Vin was going to catch nine kinds of hell from Chris for this, but unlike the rest of the seven, he wasn't afraid of facing Chris's wrath.
"You head around the back!" Vin voiced his agreement with that order. "The back door faces the fence and Selitrenny's men know they can't get near it without getting shot to pieces. I hope they remember you when you ride up or this ain't gonna be pretty."
"Nothing about this is pretty," Nathan bit back as they pulled away from the fighting and judging by the fresh bursts of gunfire, he suspected Chris Larabee had made his arrival into the fight and was proving how formidable he could be. In either case, they didn't have much time. The horses gave them an advantage over the enemy, but they were in too close quarters for either horse to achieve the speed they needed to get far enough ahead. Right now, Selitrenny's overseers were running to catch up.
As Nathan headed down the pathway meandering around the cabins, he saw Vin following behind, cutting down the men attempting to ambush them by taking shortcuts and routes inaccessible to the horses. Driven back by the deadly accuracy of the tracker's aim, Nathan was able to reach the fence enclosing the slave quarters to make his approach to the rear of the barn. As soon as he saw the building in sight, he waved Vin off. The tracker gave him a nod, wishing Nathan good luck before he turned Peso around to head back the way he came, no doubt with the intention of joining Chris and Josiah.
Heading to the rear of the barn, he saw some of the slaves keeping watch over the area and was grateful they had sense enough to take the precaution. Tugging the hat off his head, Nathan made sure his face was visible to them as he galloped forward. He saw the gun barrels poking through the crack of the door and from the window in the loft above. As he closed in, the window widened and someone looked out as if they needed to get a better look at him.
"DON'T SHOOT!" Nathan said raising his hands to show them he was a friend, not an enemy.
The man at the window blinked, even if the gun aimed through the door did not waver. He leaned forward a little more and Nathan recognised him as Cornelius. This time, however, the reception he got was nowhere as hostile. If the healer didn't know better, he would have thought Cornelius felt rather overwhelmed by the situation and was glad for some direction.
"Let him in!" Cornelius shouted to whoever was guarding the back door to the barn. "Let him in!"
As the door widened, Nathan saw it was Abraham, whose daughter Clara and son-law Ramius was killed during an escape, guarding that entrance. He parted the barn door wide enough for Nathan to ride right through them. No sooner than he had passed the threshold, the doors were quickly slammed shut behind him, with Abraham taking up position again, while Cornelius and some of the other slaves holed up inside the barn swarmed around him, their faces showing the same relief. Their rage had brought them this far, but none of them were fighters and they needed guidance if they were going to survive the next hour, much less an entire siege.
As he dismounted his horse, Nathan made a silent promise, not just to them but to himself, however this ended, he was going to see it through to the end by their side.*****
The instant Cicero Jones and the men with him saw the column of smoke in the sky, he knew what was going on in Eden.
He supposed this was always inevitable. Even if his employer had deluded himself into believing Eden would remain his private domain in perpetuity, Cicero had known better. The truth was, the outside world that Selitrenny chose to ignore, was changing and the head overseer had always known that eventually, Eden's day would be numbered. When Philly had escaped, pushed too far by the whoring ways of that son of a bitch Brent, Cicero had suspected the boy was the breeze that signalled the coming storm.
A smart man would have taken off then but Selitrenny had been a good employer who paid well and a man even one as sinful as he, could still keep his word when he had nothing else left in the world. If the army was coming and Larabee had made his move, then Cicero would do his best to lessen the damage for as long as possible. Selitrenny was a brutal bastard who knew how to run a plantation and keep his niggers in line but he did not know how to fight. That was what he paid Cicero for.
Uncertain of how badly the situation had disintegrated, all he could do was ride hard to get to Eden before everything was lost.
* Leader - closest I could find to Chief.
Unaware of how closely their circumstances mirrored that of their comrades in Eden, Ezra, Buck and JD saw the violence taking place at the Indian Reservation before they reached the small community. Trails of smoke blighted an otherwise clear blue sky even before the audible bursts of gunfire shattered the quiet serenity of the landscape. As they reached the hill overlooking the plain the Navajo tribe called their home, what they saw filled each man with anger.
The riders were laying siege to the community, circling its confines on their horses, trading gunfire and flinging small torches into thatched rooftops, igniting the dry, flammable chaff used to construct them. The result was every bit as devastating as the invaders intended. Even though there was a creek near the village, it took time to draw that much water to douse the flames. Women and children had formed chains, trying to extinguish the fire while the tribe's warriors dealt with the white men who had caused this disaster just so they could murder a woman and a child.
"Son of a bitch," Buck cursed watching the water chain leading from the creek to the huts on fire, furious at the sight of women and children enlisted to the task. Like Chris, Buck had terrible memories of fire, the stomach-turning stench of cooked flesh and worst yet, the knowledge it belonged to someone who always welcomed you to Sunday dinner, or had a warm embrace for his Uncle Buck.
Leading the village against the gunmen, Chanu and the comrades had taken refuge behind a short, retaining wall and was laying enough fire to ensure Callan's men weren't able to storm the village on mass but it was becoming clear, gaps were forming in the defence. Employing the same strategy they had used in Four Corners to distract the lawmen long enough to break off and head for the village, Burnett was using the fire to the same spectacular effect.
"Is there a lot more of them now?" JD shouted as they rode into the fray, allowing nothing to stop them, not even superior numbers.
"There does appear to be some new faces, yes," Ezra frowned, not liking the fact they were dealing with a rather formidable enemy who knew the advantages of keeping one's cards close to the chest. "They must have planned for this."
Once again, he cursed himself for being unable to keep Burnett from the village when questioned about Chanu. Unfortunately, while Ezra's power of deception was formidable, every now and then he encountered an intellect that had little trouble seeing through him. Chris Larabee had been one such man and it appeared Dave Burnett might be another.
"I suggest we allow Mr Chanu to deal with the frontal assault and we curb the arsonists from inconveniencing the villagers with their pyromaniacal activities."
"If you mean shoot the bastards with the torches, I'm all for that plan!" Buck declared before digging his heels into Beavis's flank, prompting the big grey into a powerful gallop towards the fighting. As of yet, neither side had noticed their arrival. It was just as well because even with the element of surprise, Buck knew they were outnumbered.
Bill, JD's horse a fast little racer, not unlike his master, pulled ahead during their descent allowing the younger man to reach the fighting first. As always, JD was eager to prove himself but he was also affronted by the use of fire to breach the village. Like most Easterners, he was very aware of the injustice inflicted upon the Indian Nation and it infuriated him, what little these people had was being burned to the ground around their ears.
Drawing both guns while he remained in the saddle, JD proved once again, why he was the best rider among the seven. He spotted the gunmen carrying the torches easily, the flames and smoke providing an effective target for him to aim at. The young sheriff fired both weapons simultaneously, with Bill whinnying in annoyance at the burst of gunfire in his ears. Fortunately, the horse was accustomed to his master's activities and reacted with no more than a disgruntled snort.
The rider tumbled from the saddle almost immediately as both bullets caught him in the torso. He stiffened and uttered a cry muffled by the chaos taking place around them before falling to the ground, taking the torch with him. Both it and him landed against the high grass and JD directed his horse to the dead man, so he could put out the flames before it ignited the entire field. As he neared the corpse, JD saw other torchbearers making the same assault and hoped Buck and Ezra could handle them while he attended to this.
Ezra who formed their current plan of attack had dispatched yet another torchbearer who had unfortunately for the man but not for the situation, fallen onto the flames after Ezra's bullet ended him. His bulk was sufficient enough to suffocate the flames and prevent any unfortunate bushfires to result from his sudden demise. However, Ezra promptly forgot all about this when he sighted two men, who did not carry torches but were still breaking away from the main group shooting it out with Chanu.
It was Callan Selitrenny.
The younger slavemaster was riding towards the edge of the village, away from the fighting and the concentration of burning huts. He was accompanied by another man, a large, round specimen whose thick neck supported a nearly bald head and a long handlebar moustache. The gambler watched the duo's progress and then realised they were intending to enter the village through the creek, where the women and children attempting to extinguish the flames, would provide little resistance.
Jaw ticking in disgust because he hated cowards who thought fighting defenceless opponents made them feel less ineffectual, Ezra directed Chaucer to go after them. True to his assumption, he saw them riding hard through the tall grass, stomping the riparian growth along the creek that included cattails, plumes and milkweed. With all eyes fixed on the frontal assault and the flames, no one had noticed their approach.
It didn't take long to reach the human chain that had formed along the creek. Not about to be deterred from their quarry, whom Ezra was certain was Alexandra and the boy, the two men thundered through the firefighters, those who could not get clear in time. Ezra saw an older woman go down, her shriek of pain making him draw his gun, with the intention of blowing a hole in the head of the brigand who would be so callous. Another woman who was in his path received a sharp kick from Callan and tumbled against the child she was attempting to get to safety.
Ezra took aim and fired, striking the rump of the horse and causing the animal to rear up in pain, unseating Callan with a satisfying thud against the ground. The man stood up shakily, clutching his shoulder briefly before yelling at his companion and glaring at Ezra, once he recognised who had unseated him. Ezra fired again, hoping to put the man down but the other rider immediately barred his way, blocking the shot and allowing Callan to disappear into the crowd.
Cursing under his breath because he knew exactly where Callan was headed, Ezra realised he had to put down this human obstacle quickly or no one would stop the coward from reaching Alexandra and Philly and silencing them for good.*****
Alex's first impulse upon learning the village was on fire because of her and Philly was to leave their hiding place and go assist in fighting the flames. However, even as the thought crossed her mind, she knew this fire was lit just for that very reason, to draw them out of their hiding place and into the open. While she wasn't so much worried for herself, Alex did not wish Philly anywhere near the slavers who would drag him back to Eden for a fate worse than death, if they did not kill him outright first.
Yet as the gunshots continued to explode through the air and the cries of panic and fear intensified, she felt her insides knot with guilt at hiding here while others were fighting outside to protect them. Her natural instincts as a healer wanted to rush out there and tend to any wounded when she reminded herself most pointedly, she was attending a patient and Philly needed her more right now than anyone outside. The boy was frightened enough as it was, itching to run, which would almost certainly result in his death unless she remained and kept him calm.
Pressed against the wall of the hut as they remained crouched on the floor, Alex kept her arm around his shoulder, not merely to restrain him from jackrabbiting, but also because she wanted to soothe him the way his mother would if she were present. Every time she looked at his wounds or saw the fear in his eyes, her heart ached for Nathan and what he must have suffered.
While Alex was close to Mary and Inez, it was Nathan she considered her best friend in Four Corners. She admired him greatly for the horrors he must have seen in his life. How terrible must it have been, growing up in bondage? Despite this, his capacity for compassion was damn near endless and yet every now and then, she noticed something in his eyes when he looked at her, a sadness that was soul deep she could not fathom. One day, Alex promised herself, she was going to have to ask him about it, even if instinct told her she might not want to know the answer.
"It's okay Philly," Alex said softly. "We'll be fine. If there's one thing we can count on, it's Buck and the others."
It surprised Alex how much she meant it. Ever since coming to Four Corners, the seven had become her friends and in the case of Nathan, almost family. Even without seeing them, she knew Buck, Ezra and JD were out there in the battle, fighting to keep her and Philly safe. She only wished Vin was with them. A surge of longing filled her thinking about the tracker and how he would give that little smile of reassurance, making her feel the hell they were going through was just a storm in a teacup. Right now, she needed that comfort.
Philly didn't speak but whatever faraway place he was at the moment, made Alex think of Kojay's words. His mind is still in a cage.
"You know," she spoke trying to inject some optimism in her voice. "You were named after someone very famous."
Philly tilted his head and looked at her. "I was?"
"Yes," she nodded, glad to see a response. "You said your name was Philippides right? Well, Philippides was a runner back in Greece, four hundred years before Jesus was born. When enemies were attacking his home in Athens, he was asked to run to another state called Sparta. He ran all the way there and asked for help and then he ran all the way to where the battle was happening. When it was done, he ran all the way back to Athens again to tell them they won. That's over two hundred miles. The last thing he said before he fell down dead of exhaustion, was ‘Joy to you, we've won.'"
Philly's eyes widened at the conclusion of that story before his expression became downcast. "I just ran cause I was scared Miss Alex. I killed Mr Brett for hurting my momma and then I just ran."
Alex hugged him tighter. "You did what you had to Philly, you were trying to protect her. No one sees wrong in that but you running, was a good thing."
She nodded. "You may not think so, but because you ran, we found you, and because we found you, we know about Eden. Your mother and all the people there, who still think they're slaves, they're not. They're free and soon they'll be able to walk out of there as you did."
No sooner than she uttered those words as if fate itself was spitting them back at her, the leather flap acting as a door to the mud hut fluttered open and stepping inside, gun leading the way, was Callan Selitrenny.
"Figures this is where I'd find a darkie doctor and a nigger slave."*****
Like two knights in medieval combat, Ezra galloped towards the overseer on horseback, wielding his Remington instead of a jousting lance. His opponent was equally determined to unseat him, riding hard towards him, firing his gun in the hopes of one shot meeting its mark. Ezra who was more than accustomed to evading bullets on horseback after spending one too many times fleeing from an angry mob, dodged them easily even though he winced with each bullet fired.
There were too many innocent bystanders in the immediate vicinity and the collection of old buildings and mud huts were spaced too close together to allow for such a battle to be conducted without casualties. Even as Ezra dodged the bullets by the semi-accurate opponent, he could see the villagers running for cover, no longer able to attend the fire because of their fight. Aware of how imperative it was for the fire fighting efforts to resume, Ezra decided to put an end to this now.
Squeezing the trigger in rapid succession, he aimed to put the man down quickly, aware his opponent would be doing the same, however, Ezra knew he was the better shot. So far he had been aiming to unseat the man so he could continue after Selitrenny on horseback, however, it was fast becoming clear a more final action was necessary.
They were heading towards each other like the knights of old, preparing to meet in a final confrontation that would decide everything. The villagers in the narrow track scrambled to get clear of them and as their horses thundered towards each other, they knocked over cooking pots, trampled belongings and swept aside scaffolding where leather and clothes were hanging, Ezra's anger mounted at the utter decimation of the tribe's home because they had given comfort to friends.
In the age-old game, it was the larger opponent who blinked first, perfectly aware sooner or later, one of Ezra's bullets would meet its mark He pulled the reins of his horse sharply, causing the animal's head to rear up and veer away. The gambler's patience was exhausted and he gave the man no further quarter. Letting this enemy loose would only invite an ambush later on. Pulling the trigger, the explosion of sound was like the boom of a cannon when it was the last bullet in a fight. Blood and gore splattered across the ground when Ezra's bullet struck him in the temple and kept going.
The overseer, whoever he was, slid off the saddle quickly, his bulk landing hard on the ground as his horse continued galloping, eager to escape the commotion and the smell of blood. Leaving behind its owner, it disappeared out of sight, eclipsed by the huts and buildings in the village. Ezra didn't give the man a second glance, riding past his body to head in the direction he had seen Selitrenny go, hoping now this small melee was over, the community could resume its efforts to put out the fires.
As Ezra rode through the dirt path winding through the huts and shacks, he could see Chanu and his men holding their own against the hired guns now Buck and JD had ensured no more torchbearers would be assailing the place with fire. As it was, he could see his compatriots following the path he had taken towards the village, no doubt sensing there was trouble afoot. Scanning the pandemonium, he tried to catch sight of the younger Selitrenny when suddenly, his eye caught something even more distinct.
She was walking through the chaos, an expression of worry on her face. Next to her was Philly, whose hand she was holding tight in her grip. The boy looked positively terrified and it took but a glance to know why. Callan was standing directly behind them and judging by his stance, was walking them somewhere secluded no doubt, with a gun Ezra could not see but was certain was there. Ezra could tell she was trying to remain brave for Philly's sake, but she was afraid too. Alex was just capable of hiding it better.
Her eyes were searching the crowd, seeking help because she knew as soon as they were alone, Callan would kill them both, the boy first and then her. Unfortunately, everyone was either too absorbed in their own troubles or fighting the gunmen laying siege to their community. When her head turned in his direction, her brown eyes widened in recognition. The action was brief, but Callan caught it and followed her gaze.
As soon as he saw Ezra on horseback, Callan immediately swung around to fire but before he could pull the trigger, Alex darted forward and shoved him hard, forcing him to stumble sideways. It was just enough to provide Ezra with the opening needed to dismount Chaucer and reach them on foot.
When Alex saw Callan go for his gun she knew she had to act whatever the consequences to herself. All she cared about was giving Philly the chance to escape. Without considering the danger, she threw herself at Callan, slamming into him with her shoulder. While she lacked the strength to put him on the ground, the slaver lost his footing just long enough for Alex to do the only thing she cared about at this moment.
"RUN PHILLY! RUN!"
The boy was startled into action by her order and though there was hesitation, his fear of Callan won out and he sprinted away. Terror and his fierce desire for survival propelled him forward, overcoming the injuries he had yet to fully recover from. He did not see Callan raising his gun to take aim at him or Alex grabbing his hand to deflect his shot when the bullet was fired. All he heard was Alex's order to run.
Like Philippides had run across the land so long ago.
"Bitch!" Callan swore and swatted Alex hard across the cheek in a backhanded blow that sent her sprawling. Forgetting the boy for the instant, he turned the gun on her.
Alex stared down the barrel and closed her eyes, expecting to die and was glad Vin wasn't here. She didn't know why but suspected he might blame himself if anything happened to her. That thought bothered her greatly. Fortunately, the death she thought was coming ended when Ezra came out of nowhere, launching himself at Callan and going down in a powerful tackle. Both men hit the dirt as Alex uttered a cry of fright and scrambled away.
Ezra had never been so grateful to be anywhere on time as he did at the moment he saw Callan about to kill Alex. Once again, he thought of what she meant to him, that even though he did not love her, she had seen a better man inside him and lamented not being able to be that man for her. He hoped someday she would find someone who would be. Furthermore, Ezra knew just how devastated Nathan would be if anything happened to her. The healer had found a kindred spirit in Alex, who treated him not as some back alley quack but an equal and a brother.
Rolling across the ground, Ezra resisted the urge to draw his gun because in the advance towards Callan and Alex, he had come up with a plan to stop this fight once and for all. A plan which depended on Callan remaining alive.
"Get off me, you nigger lover!"
Callan struggled to dislodge Ezra who was pinning him to the ground with his weight. The young Selitrenny threw a fist in Ezra's side, causing the gambler to utter a grunt of pain while twisting hard enough to throw Ezra off him. He scrambled to his feet, searching for the gun he dropped, to regain his advantage when Ezra struck out his foot. The heel of Ezra's boot connected with Callan's ankle and brought him down again, this time to land on his face. Callan managed to brace himself on his hands and feet before he tasted dirt but was not fast enough to get up before the lawman with the faster reflexes.
Ezra grabbed him by the hair and dragged him to his feet before slamming him hard against the wall of a hut. When his face met the dry mud, it left an impression against the rough surface and fragments of dirt flaked off on the man's skin before Ezra repeated the action and ran him into the wall. Callan uttered a cry of pain at the impact as he tried to reach around his head to get at Ezra's hands.
"You are lucky Sir," Ezra growled. "I do not put a bullet in your head for what you have done to this community, to say nothing of the obscenity you have committed against those poor souls at your so-called plantation."
"They're just niggers!" Callan snapped defiantly, his forehead dripping with blood. "They ain't good for much else!"
The regard Ezra felt for Nathan Jackson made him throw a fist in Callan's face for the remark. His knuckles connected with slaver's jaw and flattened Callan on the ground again. He pulled out his gun and took aim at Callan. "If I did not require you alive Mr Selitrenny, it would be my pleasure to paint the ground with your brains and your unsavoury ideas, but I think it might be more poetic to let you learn what it is to be robbed of your freedom."
Callan spat a mouthful of blood at him. The dark red spittle splattered against the fabric of Ezra's trousers and provoked the gambler to retaliate with similar spite when he squeezed off a round. A sharp cry of pain followed as Callan doubled over, clutching his thigh, now bleeding profusely from a fresh bullet wound.
"You shot me!" Callan howled in outrage, unable to believe the gambler had actually pulled the trigger.
Alex, having seen the fighting was finally over, approached the two men. Picking up Callan's lost gun from the place it landed, she gave the plantation owner a quick glance to ensure the wound he sustained was not life-threatening, even if it was serious. While she had no sympathy for him, her physician's instincts would not allow her to ignore anyone who needed medical help.
"Was that really necessary?" She gave Ezra a look of faint reproach as she handed him the weapon.
"Exceedingly so," Ezra shot Callan a scathing glare after sighting the dark bruise forming at the corner of her lip. "Are you alright?"
Alex nodded, "I am. Thank you."
"Where is Philly?"
In answer to his question, he saw Buck Wilmington riding up the same meandering path he had taken to reach Alex, and riding behind him in the saddle was Philly. The horse came to a stop and Ezra's saw Buck's rather predictable reaction to the scene he had just come upon. If there was anything the ladies man detested more, it was seeing any woman come to harm and his usually affable expression hardened like stone at the sight of the bruise on her face.
Alex cared about none of this, seeing only Philly.
"Philly! " She broke into a smile. "Are you alright?"
The boy nodded and got off the horse once it was stationary. When he was on the ground, Alex gave him a hug, glad that he was alright. When Callan had come across them, all she could think to do was tell him to run, but without any idea of where the men Callan had brought with him were situated, she feared he might fall into their hands.
"I'm okay Miss Alex," Philly assured her and flashed a grateful smile over his shoulder, at yet another white man who seemed ready to defend him and his new found freedom.
"I found this fella heading for the creek," Buck said tipping his hat at Alex in greeting after dismounting Beavis. He headed towards Ezra who was keeping his gun trained on Callan. "Thought I better give him a lift and see to it no harm comes to him."
"Thank you," she said flashing him a smile of gratitude and ruffling Philly's hair affectionately. "What do we do now?" She asked the two men, hoping they had a plan to resolve the situation.
"Well Chanu and the tribe are holding their own against them hired guns," Buck explained. "I think they were meant to give that varmint over there a chance to get to both of you. Now that plan has been shot to hell, we might have some leverage to talk them into putting down their guns."
Ezra surveyed the chaos taking place in the village. After he and Callan's companion concluded their gunbattle, the villagers had returned to the business of putting out the fires, re-forming the human chain that was briefly broken. Women were tending to those trampled by the duo's horses and where the gunfire was fiercest, he had no doubt there were more wounded and possibly some dead.
Yes, it was time to put an end to this.*****
This was taking too damn long.
Dave Burnett had expected to see Callan and Ox back by now, but as of yet, there was no sign of the southerner or his overseer employee. Worst yet, the Navajos were putting up a hell of a fight, enough so the number of men at his side was dwindling and the arrival of the lawmen from Four Corners had shifted the balance out of their favour. The fires should have driven them out but Callan had insisted on going after the woman and boy. Unfortunately, Burnett could only call the shots to a degree. It was the young southerner who was paying them.
When he saw the three lawmen, dragging a wounded Callan to the front of the firing line, amongst the Indians defending the tribe, Burnett knew the fight was over.
"Damn," he whispered under his breath.
"Yeah," Curtis who had been at his side for most of the shooting uttered a similar curse from their vantage point once he saw the latest development in their fight. "You should have gone in and gotten them yourself."
"Kid insisted on going," Burnett grumbled. "Has a real burr up his ass for the boy and the doctor."
"What do we do?" Hardin inquired, hating to give up on a fight when his ire was up but knew they were on the losing side when they saw who the lawman had captive. "I ain't wasting my bullets if they've got him caught. Sure as hell not gonna be able to pay us what's owed."
Callan had been wise enough to give them half their money and Burnett had to admit it was a good sum even on its own. Besides, he had a feeling sticking around was more than it was worth. Still, he eyed the lawman and decided very firmly that one day, he wanted to meet Larabee and his men face to face again.
He had a feeling, that would be a hell of a fight.
Nathan Jackson supposed the situation with Eden was always going to end with bloodshed.
While he tried to obey Chris Larabee's calls for restraint, a part of him always suspected freedom for the slaves of Eden was only going to happen one way - through violence. Patrick Selitrenny and his brother Callan had stolen their lives for thirteen years and hidden them away here, crushing their hopes with brutal punishments for any disobedience. It was plain foolishness to believe the brothers would just let them go because someone found out what they were up to. Men like them were incapable of any empathy for people they believed to be no better than the cattle in the fields.
When Nathan had told the slaves of Eden the truth he had not expected them to riot and as he faced them down, preparing to fight the barbarians at the gate, he knew he was responsible for the situation they now found themselves. It made him doubly determined to keep them alive for as long as he could, even if it meant dying alongside them in the battle ahead.
"Okay, how much ammunition have you got?" Nathan asked once they overcame their shock at his sudden arrival.
"Only what Willa took from the overseers." Aeneas who was leading the group in the barn answered. "She got everything they had on them, but we're starting to run low."
"Willa? How she manage that?" Nathan's jaw dropped in surprise. How on Earth had the woman managed to get her hands on so many weapons? No sooner than he asked the question, he saw something ripple across the faces of the men present. It was as if his inquiry unearthed some terrible truth they preferred to keep buried.
Aeneas exchanged a grim look with Cornelius and Abraham. "She poisoned everyone who went to the cookhouse for breakfast. She put something in the stew and fed it to them."
"Jesus Christ," Nathan whispered, horrified at the thought. "How many?"
"Mariel done told us at least twelve men were in the cookhouse at breakfast," he continued, his eyes haunted by the number even though every one of the bastards probably deserved to die and were bound for hell anyway. "After they started dying, Willa, Mariel and Bess took all their guns and bullets, before locking the doors and setting the place alight."
Nathan's stomach hollowed, remembering the fiery blaze he and the others had seen riding here. Nothing could survive in that inferno and supposed for a woman who had most likely been forced to service most of the men in the place, and it was a fitting end for those responsible for her humiliation and shame.
"Where is she now?" Nathan asked, wondering how far over the edge she had gone and what else was she prepared to do since it appeared she was the real architect of this sudden rebellion.
"Don't know," Aeneas shook his head, showing he was just as worried about her as Nathan was, for her state of mind. "But she told us we were to stay in here until things were ready."
Aeneas shrugged. "She said we'd know when it happens."*****
Once again Chris Larabee was not surprised when Vin Tanner told him what Nathan had done when the tracker joined them again.
Staying on the horses had given Chris and Josiah the advantage as they were able to move quickly and put down as many targets as they could. Their surprise attack was extremely effective with Chris able to drop several men before the enemy recovered their senses and took cover. By the time Vin met up with them, Chris knew they had significantly reduced the numbers assaulting the barn and scattering the others.
The remaining overseers hid beyond the sight of the riders and Chris knew to ferret the rest of them out, he, Vin and Josiah would have to dismount. Now more than ever, Chris missed having their full complement and hoped Buck, Ezra and JD weren't facing similar limitations.
"Not a bad idea," Josiah pointed out as they took temporary refuge behind what appeared to be a laundry house. "Those folk aren't used to handling guns; he can school them enough to stay alive."
"There's a lot less of them overseers than there were before," Vin observed somewhat puzzled by the reduced numbers they were facing. Earlier on, they had been held back because even as seven, they would have trouble fighting off all those men, without sustaining casualties. Now, the odds had shifted, and it might be possible to take the plantation without the army.
"I noticed that," Josiah nodded in agreement at the observation.
Chris's eyes shifted to the column of smoke continuing to rise in the morning sky. Suddenly, the fire didn't feel like an accident as it did an act of vengeance. Running a few mental calculations in his mind, his icy coloured eyes darkened as the terrible result presented itself in his brain. "They were in there."
Both Josiah and Vin followed his gaze and then realised what he was telling them.
"Jesus," Vin whispered, shocked. "You think the overseers were in there when it went up?"
"It's not long after breakfast," Josiah pointed out. "There would have been a hell of a lot of them in there, getting some chow."
Chris's jaw tightened, not wishing that kind of death on anyone, even the scum who were under the employ of Eden's master. Then again, if someone had taken thirteen years of his life, Chris wasn't sure he'd be merciful either. If they were in the cookhouse at that time, it would explain why Selitrenny wasn't able to overwhelm the rebels with his men. He just didn't have them to spare.
"Don't matter," he said shaking his head. "What there is, is what we've got to deal with."
From the corner of his eye, Vin spied someone moving.
She walked through the dirt street, looking like lady death with her blood splattered clothes. Even though there was a fire burning behind her, the lethargic trade of gunfire from two forces with a dwindling arsenal nearby and a collection of buildings where the enemy could lay in wait, she saw none of this. She was so silent in her movements, one would think she was sneaking about, but she was not. She was walking across the gravel path, her chin held high, like the captive queen marched in someone's triumph, defiant to the very last.
And she was carrying a rifle.
"What the hell is she doing?"
Chris and Josiah did not answer Vin's demand, recognising the dead in her eyes to know she had crossed over into someplace very dark. Nodding at his friends, Chris nudged his horse forward after her. Willa didn't seem to notice the three riders suddenly providing her with an escort as she continued to walk. The trio kept their guns ready to fire, scanning the area for anyone who might try to take a shot at her, but there was something about her march through the bloodied path of Eden that demanded restraint.
Willa paused in front of the barn, and whether or not the men inside could see her, she gave no sign of it.
"MISTER SELITRENNY!" She called out. "WE NEED TO TALK."
Chris saw a barrel shift in her direction as if the call for the master had snapped them out of their temporary cease-fire. He fired first, a good enough shot to nail his target with one bullet. A cry of pain followed the fading crack of gunfire, and a Colt tumbled out of the window, followed by the man who was wielding it.
Willa stared at the Man in Black with wonder. The surprise on her face that a white man had killed one of his own to save her life was apparent. She gave him a silent nod of thanks before she faced front.
"LISTEN UP!" Chris shouted to the remaining overseers to educate them on their situation. "The army is on the way. They know what's been happening here and I'll guarantee you, what you've done is a hanging offence for all of you. The Union army don't much like stubborn Confederates thinking they can forge their new south in the Territory. If you want to walk away with your lives, now is the time."
"STAY WHERE YOU ARE!"
Patrick Selitrenny's voice preceded his appearance on the street. He had been taking refuge in one of the empty slave shacks but dared to emerge now he knew who was in charge of this insurrection. Willa's appearance meant there was a deal to be made. Of course, he was going to shoot the bitch the first chance he got, because giving one's word to a nigger was like giving one's word to a dog, utterly meaningless because they were too dumb to know better.
As he approached her, he kept an eye fixed on Chris, Vin and Josiah, aware that any moves he made in her direction would be a fatal one. It was a sentiment shared by the rebels inside the barn because the doors to the rickety building swung open and leading the way, with his guns trained on the man's back was Nathan Jackson. Behind Nathan, the slaves he'd fired up with his talk of freedom were following close, their weapons raised in readiness to fire as well.
"What are you doing?" Selitrenny demanded, seeing them out in the open, his eyes searching the windows and corners where his men were taking cover. "SHOOT THEM."
However, none of the soon to be former overseers made any effort to do so. They were hesitating, weighing their options and the numbers rallied against them. Suddenly, the single advantage they had against the people they oppressed for so long had shifted dramatically, and the consequences for their part in the slave's captivity was far worse than just vengeance.
Then as if to compound the odds against them, the doors of the huts and shacks began to swing open, all across the slave quarters. Emerging from the darkness into the light, were the slaves who were now aware they were free and wanted to make their presence known to those who had tried to steal their futures. They came armed with knives, pans, sticks and pitchforks, anything that could become a weapon.
Men, women and teenagers, were all ready to fight, all ready to shed the shackles that kept them trapped in hell for so long. They emerged like an army of ghosts, forgotten and entirely discounted by the master and his overseers, believed to be too broken to be of any threat. In their eyes, every one of them was willing to walk into a wall of bullets if the comrades behind them could prevail against the enemy and win the day.
The lawmen of Four Corner's exchange glances, aware they were poised on a knife's edge. There were two ways this could end up, either in a massacre or a flag of surrender. For Selitrenny's sake, Chris hoped it was the latter because if it came to a fight, Chris had no intention of preventing these people from getting their revenge. For starters, Nathan would never forgive him for it and secondly, because Chris valued the healer's friendship too much to risk losing it over scum like Selitrenny.
Besides, Selitrenny and his men had it coming.
However, no one was making a move, not until Willa and Selitrenny had their words.
"What is this about Willa?" Selitrenny demanded, eyeing the woman with contempt, realising now, he was going to have to negotiate with her if he intended to leave this place with his skin intact.
Willa blinked, almost as if she had forgotten she held the weapon in her hands. She set it down gently across the ground at her feet, with the grace of a beautiful woman who might be laying down silk against a table. All the while she wore a mask of detachment that was slightly unnerving.
"Don't," Chris warned sharply, in case Selitrenny had any ideas of going for the rifle. "Anyone who makes a move towards the lady, we'll cut you down before you can even make the second shot, and if we don't, we'll let these people cut you to pieces like you probably deserve."
Proving the point of this stranger in black, the armed slaves cocked their guns and brandished their weapons in menace, confirming the validity of the threat. Eden's captives did not know who these white men were, but they were protecting Willa, and that made them someone to trust for the moment.
The fury in displayed by their former captives was enough to make a few guns lower in surrender, no one daring to risk the riot poised on the verge of breaking out.
"The floor is yours, ma'am."
Once again, Willa thanked Chris with a slight nod before facing Selitrenny that cold mask fixed in place.
"No Sir, I ain't gonna shoot you with that gun," she said quietly.
She had a sweet voice, Chris thought, a little like Mary's and admired what a beautiful woman she was beneath her bruises and winced at what price she must have paid for it in this place.
"I just want to tell you Mr Selithrenny; we know the truth," she glared at the master, the man who was responsible for her misery. "We know you lied to us, made us believe we were your property, worked us to death from sun up to sun down and then fucked us raw in the middle of the night like the filthy dogs you are."
Every man who was not an overseer flinched at that statement, before glaring at Selitrenny like the human garbage he was.
Selitrenny flinched too, but not for the harshness of her words but because he was affronted that any slave would speak to him this way, especially this picaninny whore he'd fucked several times over the years. Yet he forced himself to swallow his outrage, because the faces of the niggers around him, had murder in their eyes, glaring at him with hatred and accusation. A rebuttal on his part could be a fatal mistake. Back in the South before the war, even without guns, slave riots had caused much bloodshed.
If he intended to survive this day, he was going to have to tread with extreme delicacy even if it burned him to the core.
"I killed your men in the cookhouse," Willa announced tonelessly. "They didn't die in no fire. I just lit the thing to keep you and the others busy fighting the fire, but they were dead alright before I set it alight. I poisoned them all with hemlock. It grows all around here and weren't hard to make it look like fixings in a stew. I watched them twitch and twist, watched them drown in their puke and piss. Then we took their guns, and I burned the place down around them."
"You crazy bitch!" Selitrenny's temper got the better of him, and he snarled at her like a rabid animal, almost apoplectic from fury. Without thinking he took a step towards until a single gunshot halted him in his tracks. The bullet spat dust and grit at his feet, and Selitrenny turned to glare hatefully at the nigger who almost took off his foot.
"Next time, I won't miss," Nathan warned in a voice that was not unlike Chris's menacing tone.
Josiah, Chris and Vin kept watch on their surroundings, ensuring none of the overseers suddenly got brave and tried to defend their master. Each man knew that in this situation, they were spectators and would only act to help Nathan in his quest to gain justice for these people.
"Go ahead ma'am," Nathan prompted her to continue, knowing the words she would say to this bastard was a long time coming, and she had earned the right to be heard.
Willa didn't look at Nathan. Since this morning, she felt so far away from herself, it as if some stranger had taken over her body and was saying the words she never thought she would have the courage to speak. Right now, all she could see was the master, the one who forced himself on her, who allowed so many others to do the same, to her and to the other girls across Eden.
"You took everything from us, our hope, our freedom, our pride. You let your men use us women like your whores. You drove my man to kill himself because he could do nothing to stop you. How many runaway slaves did you murder? How many of them reached the promised land only to have you drag them back into the dark to be killed? Do you think I was going to let you do that to Philly? My baby? You may have broken me a thousand times Mister Selitrenny, but it was always my Philly who kept putting me back together, but now you got no power over us anymore. Isn't that right?" She turned to Nathan.
"That's right!" He nodded and then addressed the folk around him because their eyes were filled with anger and hatred at what this man and his overseers done to them. "You're free. You can leave this place and go anywhere you like. No one will stop you, least of all this piece of trash. I ain't saying it's perfect out there, but there's hope, and you can build on that to start new lives."
Like Chris, he recognised the incendiary situation they had on their hands and knew it would only take a spark to ignite. If bloodshed was to be avoided, it was Willa he had to reach because she was the one who had crossed the line none of them had dared to take. Nathan did not want their freedom to be marred by an act of slaughter. There had been enough pain and suffering already. Somehow, he had to temper their justifiable rage before it burned as out of control as it was in Willa's eyes right now.
Willa stared at Nathan, remembering what Vin Tanner told her. ‘You're the doctor." She almost smiled. "You looked after my boy."
"I did," Nathan said taking a step towards her, his gun lowered a little but not enough to prevent him from drawing if he needed to. "Ma'am, I know what you been through, believe me, I do. I may be a man, but I've suffered watching what happened to you, happen to my mother and..." he paused unable to say Rebecca's name, even now. "Your boy is well, and he's free, but he needs you. Come with us, come back to Four Corners because he's waiting for you to start a new life."
"Yeah start new lives," Selitrenny snorted. "At least I kept you fed, clothed and with a roof over your heads. Do you think being free is any better than what you got now? You may be free, but you're still niggers, and you'll be treated like the apes you are. All of you," he shouted at them. "What good are you to anyone, unless a white man is telling you what to do."
"Shut up," Josiah growled, almost sick to his stomach by the cruelty of the man's words. "People aren't all like that. They'll be fine; they'll find their path. God takes particular care of the downtrodden."
Selitrenny ignored the preacher, reserving his barbs for the woman in front of him. "What about you Willa? The only thing you're good for is to lay on your back like a good little whore. You're nothing but used up trash."
"Shut your mouth, you son of a bitch!" Nathan snapped.
However, Willa did not need Nathan to defend her. Without saying another word, she pulled out the gun hidden in her apron and promptly blew out Patrick Selitrenny's brains.
Audible gasps of shock and horror rippled through the crowd as the dirt behind the master of Eden was splattered by blood and brain matter. The man never had the chance to utter a cry of pain or see the death that came for him out of nowhere. When he finally landed flat on his back, a crown of red spreading across the ground where his head rested, the only expression of his face was one of surprise.
Willa dropped the gun and met Nathan's eyes, and only then did he see the tears.
Before any words of reproach escaped his lips, Nathan remembered Rebecca. He remembered how she died and then considered for the first time, what she would have endured if she had lived. Would she have been abused and degraded as Willa had been? Rebecca was beautiful, and the curse of beauty in a slave was to be subject to the desire of every man who wanted you. Would she be used so badly that what remained of her soul were nothing more than filaments of pain in her body? Nathan blinked slowly because, at that moment, he knew his answer and understood her reasons.
"Come on ma'am," he reached for her hand, taking it gently in his. "It's time to leave this place and not look back. This ain't your home or your life; it's time you find one you deserve."
And as she collapsed in his arms, weeping away the pain from a thousand cuts, Nathan hoped this would come true. She had earned it.
The army did eventually come.
They arrived a day later, sent on by Judge Orin Travis, allowing the remaining overseers, who were rounded up and confined under the watchful eye of the newly liberated slaves, to be placed into the custody of the Union. Chris was pleased to see his old friend from the war, Major Simmerson leading the troop of soldiers. They ran into each other almost a year ago, when the seven passed through Fort Seldon in search of lost homesteaders. On this occasion like any decent human being, Simmerson was appalled to learn what Patrick Selitrenny had been up to in Eden and was more than happy to escort the newly freed slaves back to civilisation.
Josiah recommended once they got to town, they ought to head to Silver City, where Raymond Peabody, a government agent working for the Land Office, still resided. It was Peabody who enlisted their aid to find the lost homesteaders, and though that incident ended tragically, he did adopt two of the children who survived it. Josiah kept in touch with Peabody to stay abreast of how the two girls, Heather and Jenna, were faring in the care of him and his wife. From all accounts, the sisters were thriving which cemented Josiah's belief Peabody would help the freed folk of Eden get a fresh start.
No one made mention of how Selitrenny had passed and considering why he was killed, not even Simmerson could find it in his heart to hold a woman, traumatised after years of abuse, accountable for the man's death. Nevertheless, Nathan had no desire to tempt fate and wanted to get Willa away from Eden as quickly as possible. Her son Philly was waiting for her in Four Corners, and Nathan intended for them to be reunited at any cost.
Since the plantation was taken over by its former captives, Willa had become withdrawn and silent. Whatever spirit enabled her to carry out the brutal plan of revenge against Patrick Selitrenny and his men was exhausted, leaving the woman a shell of herself. After remembering how his own mother killed herself after the abuse she suffered, Nathan had real fears Willa's will to live was broken and she'd kill herself if she got the chance. He suspected the only thing capable of drawing her back from the brink was her son.
A day after the army's arrival, Eden was being emptied of its overseers and its captives. Some of the former slaves, Cornelius among them, had chosen to remain on the plantation and take it for their own. Simmerson agreed to take their claim back to the authorities to make the change of ownership legally binding. After all, they deserved some compensation for thirteen years of bondage and suffering. Most, wanted nothing more to do with the place and wanted to leave for good.
"You gonna head to Silver City?" Nathan asked Aeneas, glancing at the collection of wagons, previously used for transporting goods and equipment, now occupied by folk who were tasting real freedom for the first time in their lives.
"Yeah," Aeneas grinned happily, looking over his shoulder at a woman and two small children, a boy and a girl, waiting for him to join them in the wagon they were presently occupying. "Me and Belle are going to Silver City. like Mr Josiah says. Get us a parcel of land for our own."
"Sounds mighty nice," Nathan smiled, pleased to hear this. He admired Aeneas's family and was reminded of his own in happier times before his mother died, his father was broken and Rebecca...no he couldn't finish the thought. "You take care of yourself. If you need anything, come find me in Four Corners. Me and my friends, we'll help if we can."
"Thank you," Aeneas's face revealed how much the offer meant to him. Looking past Nathan's shoulder, he saw Willa in the buggy that once belonged to the Master. Whatever fire burned hot enough for her to do what she had done to free them, was gone. She appeared so fragile and delicate that if handled wrong she might break into a thousand pieces.
"You gonna look after her?" Aeneas met Nathans eyes again.
"Yeah, I'm gonna try. The town I'm heading to has some good people, and Philly is there waiting for her."
Nathan saw a hint of relief in Aeneas's face as he spoke and Nathan realised as grateful as the others were by what Willa had done to secure their freedom, they were also a little afraid of her. Josiah told him once about a goddess who wore two faces, one who nurtured and gave life to the world, and the other who was capable of destroying it. For a brief time, Willa had worn that second face.
Suddenly Aeneas's gaze dropped to the dirt between them, and he said nothing for a few seconds. When he did lift his chin again, Nathan glimpsed the emotion threatening to spill out of his eyes. In that instant, Aeneas's feelings were naked across his face, and Nathan saw more than just gratitude reflecting back at him.
"Thank you, Nathan," he said finally. "Thank you to you and your friends for what you did for us. We never thought this day was possible, that we'd be free. There ain't no way we'll ever be able to pay back your kindness for taking us to the promised land."
Nathan swallowed thickly trying to rein in his own emotions because this whole affair had unearthed painful memories he had tried to bury for years. Only a fraction of what lay simmering in the heart of him had surfaced, but even that was enough. Nathan felt hollowed out by the experience and supposed it was a small price to pay to see Eden's folk free at last.
"Ain't nothing to thank us for. You're free because you stood up for yourselves and fought for your future. You gotta hold on to that always, hold on to what it means to be free and remember you have the right to walk the street like any man. I ain't saying it will be easy, because nothing for our kind ever is, but you can make your happiness, that much I can promise you."
Aeneas patted Nathan on the shoulder. "I'll remember that, Doctor Jackson."
Nathan stared at him and realised he had been talking to Vin. Vin always referred to Nathan as a doctor, even though the healer corrected him repeatedly, "I ain't no doctor."
"Not yet," Aeneas smiled with confidence, "but I got a feeling someday, you will be."*****
After the terrible business in Eden, returning home to Four Corners was just the tonic the weary travellers needed to lift their spirits again. They wanted to forget Eden, whose stink made them feel like they needed a bath to wash it entirely away. Riding their horses down the main street at a leisurely pace, Nathan who was driving the buggy with Hippy leading the way, headed towards Alex's clinic so Willa could see her son. During the journey home, the lady seemed lost in her own world, coming to grips with her new situation while bearing tremendous scars from her previous one.
Chris heard his name called and turned to see a familiar face emerging from the office of the Clarion News. Seeing her made him warm inside, and he slowed his horse so she could catch up. Watching Mary Travis walking toward him, Chris thought her golden hair looked like strands of sunlight and how easy it was for her to bring its radiance into his charred-burnt soul. Without even saying a word, he could see how much he was missed in her blue-grey eyes and felt a corresponding ache in his gut because he felt the same.
"Mrs Travis," he greeted affectionately and extended his hand towards her.
"Mr Larabee," she took it and squeezed gently before letting go again. There was no need for overt displays of affection between them because neither were teenagers needing to make so marked a statement when all that needed saying could be passed through them with this simple bit of contact. "Everything finished up in Eden? Your telegram didn't say very much."
He'd wired her at the first opportunity after leaving Eden, to let her and the others know all was well with them and the business at the plantation was done. Nevertheless, her question prompted him to throw a quick glance at the buggy being driven by Nathan, to study Willa briefly before responding to Mary.
"As much as it could go right in a place like that. Those people are free now. Army's escorting them away from the place. Josiah aimed them in the direction of Peabody in Silver City."
"Oh," Mary shifted her gaze instinctively at the preacher who was directing his horse towards the saloon. The group was breaking up with everyone going their separate ways until they met up in the Standish Tavern for a drink. "Raymond will take care of them," she said confidently of the Land Office bureaucrat who was so helpful to her during that business with the wagon train and Dicky O'Shea.
"Hey, Chris!" Buck Wilmington's voice sang out across the street, and the couple saw the big man coming down the boardwalk with his usual swagger accompanied by JD and Ezra. It was mid-morning, and the men were undoubtedly on their way to a later breakfast since Inez would be serving at this time of the day. As a matter of fact, Chris could sniff out the faint tendrils of the enticing aroma wafting from the place.
Not wishing to intrude on the talk between the lawmen, Mary decided to take her leave of them. "Come for supper tonight?"
"Try and keep me away."
"Then I'll leave you boys to it," Mary declared. "The town's anniversary is coming up, and I've got a ton of things to do."
She flashed him another warm smile just as Buck and the others arrived, before crossing the street to continue her busy day.
"I hope the fair Mrs Travis didn't leave on our account," Ezra asked as he saw the widow making her way to the boardwalk.
"Probably," Chris shrugged, hating to discuss any element of his personal relationship with Mary to others. "I take it everything went alright?"
Buck shrugged, not about to go into too much detail right now. There was plenty of time to do that over a drink. Still, knowing his old friend, Chris would want to know. "It could have gone better. Callan Selitrenny and his hired guns managed to track Alex and Philly back to the reservation. Caused a bit of trouble there but we handled it."
"How bad?" Chris asked and was suddenly grateful Vin was riding alongside Nathan towards the clinic. Even though wild horses would have to drag him across the Texas Panhandles before he admitted it, Chris knew it was so he could go see Alex.
"Bad enough," Buck frowned unhappily, thinking about the destruction the fires had caused. "The hired guns tried to burn them out of the village and got into a gunfight with Chanu and the other Navajo, but they managed to hold the varmints off."
"With a little assistance from us of course," Ezra flashed his trademark grin, complete with gleaming gold tooth.
"Callan was trying to sneak into the village so he could reach Doctor Styles and Philly," JD added helpfully.
"Are they alright?" The gunslinger did not like the fact Callan had gotten even that far.
"They are both fine," Ezra assured him, "somewhat bruised but otherwise in good health."
Oh, Vin wasn't going to be happy about that, Chris thought silently. "What about Callan? Where is he now?"
"In the jailhouse," JD glanced at the building in question. "Doctor Styles treated his leg, and he's hollering nine kinds of hell, but otherwise he's fine."
"Not when the law catches up with him," Chris thought about Patrick Selitrenny and the man's last words. He had no doubt Callan bore the same vicious pedigree.
"Mr Larabee, did you see Cicero Jones?" Ezra inquired, his expression serious. "He was not among the party of men who attempted to murder Alexandra and Philly."
Chris stiffened at the thought because he had not seen the head overseer during the battle to take Eden and certainly not after it. "I thought he was here with Callan."
"No," Buck shook his head. "I thought for sure that son of a bitch would have been at Eden if he wasn't here."
Knowing the head overseer was unaccounted for did not make Chris happy. Unfortunately, there was little to be done about it now. He doubted Cicero Jones would attempt to take out any retribution on the freed slaves, especially since they were under the protection of Simmerson and would soon be scattered to the winds in every direction.
"I'm sure he'll turn up eventually," Chris sighed, deciding this was a battle for another day. "His kind always do, and we'll be ready for him when he does."*****
Philly's jubilant cry seemed to mesmerise the street when the boy emerged from the front door of Alex's clinic at the sight of the buggy coming up to a stop with Nathan and his mother. Alex followed closely, spotting their arrival through the window of her office and alerting Philly to the fact. As he appeared into the morning light, Philly's joy at seeing his mother for the first time since his flight from Eden was marked by a smile that almost split his face in half.
Willa who was being helped down the buggy by Nathan, immediately came alive at her son's voice and was soon crossing the distance between them. When she reached her son, her open arms drew him to her in a fierce embrace the boy returned with just as much emotion. For the first time since her liberation, Willa's spirit rekindled, and its power was almost as blinding as the sun shining over their heads.
"My baby!" She held him close, weeping in happiness, finally being at peace with herself because, for all the wrong she'd committed getting here, it was worth it just to hold her son in her arms again. She held him tight, not seeing a boy almost on the cusp of becoming a man, but the child she had cherished from birth, who was the only source of happiness in her dark world.
"Momma, you're here," Philly whispered in her dark hair. "You're really here!"
"I'm here," she nodded, pulling away so she could look at him, to see for herself he was alright, her cheeks were wet with tears. "We're never gonna be apart again. We're free now, we got our whole lives ahead of us."
Leaving Philly and his mother to their reunion, Alex approached Nathan who was keeping his distance for the very same reason. He was leaning against the buggy, watching the scene with that look of sadness again, the one she never understood but so marked him whether or not he knew it. When he saw her, Nathan broke into a smile and Alex didn't care whether it was proper or not, she hugged him in greeting. Thanks to him and his inability to give up on people, this reunion was made possible.
"Hello Nathan," she spoke when they parted. "It's good to have you home. Are you okay?"
Apart from her rather mixed up feelings about Vin Tanner, Alex had worried about Nathan and how he was faring out there in Eden. Seeing him back safely lifted that burden from her heart but knew he probably carried some of his own from the experience.
Nathan cast his gaze at Philly and his mother, watching their affectionate greeting and nodded. "Yeah, I think I am."
"I'm glad," she brushed a bit of dust off his coat, a gesture of affection as old as time. "I was worried about you."
Nathan saw the ugly bruise at the corner of her lip and frowned, wanting a piece of the man who had done that to her face. He could not stand knowing a white man had done that to her, of all people. "I heard you had some trouble too."
"Nothing I couldn't handle," she admitted, shrugging it off even though at the time she was terrified. Casting a glance at Ezra who was making his way across the street to the Standish Tavern with some of the others, she had to give the gambler his due. "With Ezra's help of course."
"You ready to forgive him yet?" Nathan teased, knowing Alex would hate to be beholden to Ezra for anything, especially after their somewhat turbulent romantic history.
Alex snorted. "It's going to take more than coming to my rescue for him to dig himself out of that hole."
Nathan laughed at that until he heard soft footsteps behind him and knew they could belong to only one person.
"You did good Nathan," Vin announced himself.
Vin had hitched Peso at the post in front of the doctor's clinic, compelled to come because he had to see for himself Alex was alright. While what they had done in Eden was important, and the reunion between Philly and his mother was the sweetest conclusion to the whole affair, he had been fighting the urge to come back here when he learned Alex was in danger. Now that he was back, he had to see her, just for his own peace of mind.
"We all did," Nathan stated patting Vin's shoulder in gratitude for the way the tracker stood by him through all this. When he caught sight of Willa motioning him forward to join her and Philly with more animation than he had ever seen her, he gave Alex a Vin a quick nod to excuse himself and took his leave.
No matter what she might tell herself, Alex felt the swell of warmth inside her the instant Vin came into view. Whatever this thing she was trying to deny existed between them, there was no doubt how he made her feel. A smile formed on her face at the sight of his cobalt coloured eyes displaying subtle affection instead of the burning passion beneath. However, her doctor's sensibilities immediately dismissed the torrid emotions he engendered for more practical concerns.
"Mr Tanner," she greeted, her expression darkening when she noticed the stiffness in his shoulder as he paused in front of her. "You're hurt."
"Ain't nothing," Vin met her eyes, delighted by the gamut of emotions running across her face in the split second before she spoke. This madness he felt for Alex was a condition she suffered too. It was evident in the pleasure reflected in her eyes at the sight of him and the quick shift to worry when she realised he was hurt. Yet the feeling was diminished by the fury he felt at the bruise on her golden skin. "Are you alright?"
Realising he meant the ugly contusion on her cheek, Alex shrugged, trying to downplay the injury though it still smarted like hell. "I'm fine, it's nothing."
Vin almost reached over and touched her cheek when he noticed Alex's gaze move past his shoulder, and he saw Chris approaching them. Taking a step back, the gunslinger's arrival had intruded on the moment and dissipated it completely. Clearing his throat, the unflappable mask fell over his face again.
"Good to hear," he said as if it didn't matter to him one bit if it was or not. "Seems I'm going to have to stay in town if you plan on getting into trouble all the time."
"Please," she rolled her eyes, grateful that the spell between them had passed. She was still uncertain about navigating such uncharted waters with him and was content to leave things as they were for the moment. "You men are usually the reason I'm in trouble in the first place."
With that, she turned on her heels and walked away, deciding it was the perfect place to end any further conversation between them. As she walked towards Philly and his mother, Alex shook her head, wondering what on Earth was to be done about her simmering passions for Vin Tanner.
All she knew was once she surrendered to it, everything would change.
Vin watched her go, trying to hide the urge to grin because he was more confident than he had ever been she felt the same way as he did.
"Seriously pard," Chris joined him, having come to invite the tracker to join him and the others for a drink, noticing the faint smile on Vin's seemingly stoic features. "It's getting almost painful to watch you two dance around each other. Grow a pair and do something about it already."
"Screw you Larabee," Vin shoved him while hearing Chris's laughter in his ears.*****
In the town of Desolation, Cicero Jones was drinking his way to a pleasant stupor.
Drowning himself in liquor was the only way he could face himself after fleeing from Eden. He had been all set to go riding into the plantation and liberating it from the nigger slaves who had most likely started to riot when he heard gunshots. With the eruption of gunfire, he knew the situation was far worse than just a few slaves starting fires. They had gotten their hands on weapons. Only knowledge of their freedom could provoke the breaking of such a forbidden rule. The few men who returned to the plantation with him had fled the instant they heard the shots, not about to risk the wrath of slaves who had plenty of reason to want them all dead.
The few that made it a little further lost their nerve once they were in earshot of Chris Larabee's warning the army was on their way and if captured alive, would most likely swing for their complicity in Selitrenny's crime. Larabee's argument was far more compelling than any desire they possessed to remain behind and be swarmed by angry niggers who were out for blood. Abandoning Patrick Selitrenny to his fate with their departure, their actions forced Cicero to reconsider his own choices too.
Once he realised Eden was lost, he intended to ride to Four Corners and reach Callan to salvage the situation. On route, he encountered some of the hired guns sent with Callan to kill Philly and this darkie doctor. True to form, instead of being able to lay claim to Eden for himself, Callan was instead rotting in a jail cell because the incompetent fool had gotten himself caught and was used for leverage. The lawmen had offered the mercenaries a choice; leave or die fighting for a payday they would never collect.
The choice was brutally simple.
So now Cicero found himself languishing in Desolation, pining for the world he lived in for the past nine years, realising there was every chance he had a price on his head too. His hatred simmered inside him, not just for the niggers who rioted and affected his future so irrevocably, but also the men who stood against their own kind for slaves. That sin was unpardonable.
"You look like a little worse for wear since the last time I saw you," a low voice sneered, standing over him.
Cicero looked and recognised one of the three men standing in front of him as those he directed Callan to hire before he made the ride back to Eden. Seeing them here, when the kid was languishing in jail and would most likely spend the next twenty years there, filled Cicero with a surge of self-righteous outrage.
"You were supposed to protect him!" Cicero leapt to his feet in accusation.
Dave Burnett stared him down hard. "I wasn't being paid to keep him from being an idiot. The fool kept wanting to go after the woman, wouldn't stick to the plan. Not my job to save the boy from his own stupidity. You know that yourself."
Cicero opened his mouth to object but the truth of it was, Burnett was right. Callan was impulsive and stupid, not a good combination under any circumstances. He glared at Burnett, lowering into his seat now his anger had bled out like wind from sails. "So what do you want?"
"Well," Burnett sat down at the table, not caring whether or not his company was wanted. Joining him was Hardin and Curtis, whom he found to be reliable travelling companions and possible business associates. "I was thinking about Larabee and his men."
"Fucking race traitors," Cicero snapped.
Burnett who didn't give two shits whether a man was black or white, so long as he was dead if he got in Burnett's way, shrugged off the comment. "Whatever. I do think they're on to a good thing, however, protecting that little town, becoming respectable and all. They trust him and his men for protecting them."
Cicero downed another drink and snorted. "I ain't interested in gaining anyone's trust."
"Neither am I," Burnett answered. "But we can make it work for us in other ways. You interested?"
Cicero stared at the three men at the table before him. They were hardened men of the Territory. Burnett, in particular, was a cool customer and truth be told, Cicero had nowhere better to be, not anymore.
"Yeah," he said with a nod. "I'm interested."
Burnett grinned, "then let's get down to business."
Next Story: Hunters & Prey
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