Lonesome Star

by Chris and Laurie Anne

The young private Larabee had confronted earlier were still at his post, his manner easing when he caught sight of the familiar visitor. "Evening, Jackson. Here to talk to the Doc?"

"Yep." Nathan replied with a forced smile.

"Did the Doc see that reb? Man, he sure looked bad, but Captain Larabee ain’t no doctor anyway, there was nothing he could do to help the kid," the private rambled on, unaware of a shadowy figure lurking near one of the back windows, "Couldn’t understand why he wanted in here so bad."

"He was worried 'bout the boy."

"Why? He is only a damn reb. You know how many of our guys this 'tree frog' killed, before getting caught."

"Or how many of his guys were killed by us," Nathan countered.

The young man’s face fell as he soaked in Jackson words. "Some hell of a war, huh?"

He lowered his rifle to his side and allowed the colored man to pass inside.

Larabee listened quietly to the exchange, pressing his back against the stone building to hide him from the ever-roaming eyes of the sentries up in the tower and on the ground. . It still amazed him how Vin had managed to escape the other night, hurt and feverish to boot.

A window rattling caught the officer's attention, Jackson carefully lifting the frame to allow Chris to enter.

"Wilson’s in the other side of the buildin’," Nathan explained in a whisper.

"I best get ta seein’ him."

+ + + + + + +

Barely squeezing through the narrow window, Chris hurried to his task, not knowing how much time he'd have to search. With a bright moon giving the room some illumination, Larabee began lifting the packages up to the moonbeams to read them properly. Damn, there were so many parcels to go through.

"Doctor Wilson?" Nathan said hesitantly as he neared the older man.

"Jackson," the doctor replied with a dismissive nod, turning to leave.

"I just wanted to get things straight 'tween us, Sir."

Wilson stopped his forward motion, his back still turned to his pupil." You should have been more ardent in my defense, Jackson. You disappointed me greatly."

"That boy reminds the Captain of his dead brother," Nathan tried to elaborate "he wants everything done for this one ….."

"And if we do give the boy bromine? Will we have to open up our entire stock of medical supplies to help all the other prisoners?"

"Not ta offend ya, Dr. Wilson but ain’t that who the medicine is for?"

Cold, gray eyes softened at the younger man. "It’s just not me, Nathan. Colonel Graves gave specific orders about the prisoners, and how I should treat them. You know yourself it is only for emergencies ,"

"Ain’t saving the boy’s arm emergency enough?"

"Amputation is done all the time, the Colonel doesn’t consider that an emergency."

"Why? Doesn’t he want the prisoner ta get better?"

Receiving no answer from his mentor, Jackson looked at Wilson in horror.

"Those men surrendered. Don’t they deserve to be treated better'n animals?"

The doctor sighted heavily, "I know you like to see the good in everyone, Nathan, but do our enemy treat our boys any better? I have heard horror stories about some of those camps down South. I think we’re being more than fair keeping these rebs alive, but they don’t deserve a better treatment than what our men are receiving."

Nathan felt his heart sink. This went all the way the top. True, he didn’t have a fondness for the South, especially the slave trade he hated with every fiber of his body, but this boy didn’t have a prejudiced nature. His only crime was signing up with the " wrong " side.

Searching out a hand, the doctor clasped it upon Jackson’s shoulder,

"Amputation is the best I can do for him. I’ll still speak to the Colonel about it . but I know what he’ll say . If we give in to this one, what all the others that were amputated?" He allowed his words to echo in the former slave’s mind as he walked out of the room.

"I did the best I could, Captain," Nathan thought morosely as he left the room.

He could only pray now that Chris found the bromine and was on his way to the Confederate’s tent.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee walked into the prisoner’s tent as calmly as he could, his eyes searching for one person only. While quieting is wildly beating heart, the officer strode over to the cot holding the young reb who had completely overtook his core being. Meeting the curious gaze of the old Sergeant, Chris gave a faint smile and slid a wrapped package from under his uniform coat to the man’s hand.

"Spoke to Jackson, he’s going to be stopping by real soon to heal Vin up right," the young Captain said with a wink, "Best keep things quiet, don’t want to disturb the kid any."

The Sergeant's eyes misted slightly when he realized what that Union officer had just done. He had seen himself how stingy the medical personnel was about supplies, and the fact that this officer was bringing it, not the doctor, told the old soldier a great risk was taken.

"'preciate ya stoppin’ by, Captain," the Sergeant said, exchanging a firm handshake with the enemy .

Nathan walked to the Confederate tent with a heavy heart, the discussion with Wilson disillusioning the younger healer. He was aware of the Colonel’s orders about the dispersion of medical supplies, but he had no idea how much the prisoners were denied help. His brown, gentle eyes looked up and glanced around the camp, struck by how many of the men were missing limbs. He wondered sadly how many of those amputations were actually necessary. Dr. Wilson allowed him to treat only the minor wounds, so he generally wasn’t around when diagnosis was given, and therefore didn’t question Wilson’s decisions.

How could he look those poor, wretched men in the eyes, knowing their lives were deliberately destroyed because of the cold callousness of the enemy? To divert his mind from this sad statement he focused on his mission, thanking silently God that at least he could help a young man in deed. A sense of relief filled the healer as he neared the prisoners’ tent.

"How is he doin'?" he asked the Sergeant as he entered inside . A shade of concern passed over his face as he observed Vin’s evident fever.

"A little warm," the Sergeant answered, secretly passing the package captain Larabee had given him earlier. "Heard yer gonna fix Vin up right as rain."

Nathan smiled as he fingered the pouch filled with bromine. Reaching a hand, he shook his head as the boy was hot to the touch. He prayed the medicine would be able to help.

"He refused to eat and drink . All I could do was to moisten his lips with some water," the Confederate soldier offered sadly.

Seeing Vin stir slightly Nathan leaned in near the young man." Hey, Vin, how’s your arm feeling?"

"Fine," the young man muttered stubbornly, but it was obvious he was in great pain, causing the healer to be anxious about him.

"I’m going to work some more on your arm," Nathan said. "You all right with that?"

"I reckon," Vin whispered in reply.

With the help of the old Sergeant, Nathan situated Vin’s arm. Grabbing a little basin, he poured the bromine’s solution in it, and prepared some bandages while a lint cloth soaked up the healing medicine.

The boy twitched nervously as the old bandage was removed but didn’t utter a sound. Jackson worked quickly, cleaning the wound and applying the saturated cloth over it.

Sighing in relief the healer passed a knowing look with the Sergeant." All done, Vin. I think you’re goin’ to start feeling better soon," he said, making himself sound cheerful. "How does it feel?"

"I think it’s doin’ somethin’, Doc," Vin replied in that soft voice of his." Might just be gittin’ better."

Nathan staggered slightly on his feet, his emotional ordeal suddenly tiring him. He had disobeyed orders, helped an officer in a plot to steal Union supplies, and found out the true treatment and further handling of the prisoners.

The sergeant approached the healer," You need some rest."

"I won’t leave him."

"I’ll look out for him, 'sides, it might be too dangerous for ya hang around too much."

Jackson nodded in surrender and leaned down near his resting patient checking on Vin’s breathing. He smiled to himself reassured by the steadiness of the sound. Slipping cautiously out of the tent, he carried all the proof of his " illegal " administrations on the Confederate soldier.

Going to the near outhouse, he took the bundle of dirty bandages and linens used in connection with the bromine and threw them in it, knowing no one would ever look in there. Scanning the area for any possible " witnesses" the weary young healer head for his humble quarters. As soon as he lay down on his narrow cot, Nathan’s eyes closed, the need of sleep far overwhelming his troubled thoughts, and soon he was out.

+ + + + + + +

Chris reasoned he had been sitting on his bunk for at least an hour, staring blankly at the left over bromine in the package he had snatched from Wilson’s supply room. Nathan only needed a portion to tend to Vin’s arm and Larabee had insisted that he’d to be the one to return the stolen medicine to its rightful place. After he had snuck back out the supply room window, he deliberately left a twig from a nearby tree inside the pane to allow access later. It wouldn’t be right to involve the black man any further in the dangerous ruse.

His green eyes fell upon the package again. What had he done? He had disobeyed orders and stolen from his own regiment .. for the enemy no less. A smile found it’s way to the full mouth. That boy was no enemy, in fact he could see them becoming fast friends once the war was over. No, he had done the right thing.

+ + + + + + +

A light tap outside his door caused the Captain to jump in alarm. "Who is it?" he called out, hoping his voice didn’t give away his nervousness, instantly he shoved the package under his bed, putting the blanket down further over the side to hide it from view.

"Captain Larabee?" a youthful voice answered from the other side of the door." Colonel Graves wishes for you to report to him as soon as you can, Sir."

"Inform the Colonel I’ll arrive shortly," Chris replied, hurrying to tidy up his appearance. Taking a quick glance behind him, he sighed. The return of the bromine would have to wait.

+ + + + + + +

Doctor Wilson charged resolutely into the medical supply room, a nagging feeling deep in his gut not easing. Something wasn’t right. He took a quick look around the room, but nothing seemed out of place. Just as the medic was turning to leave, he felt a slight whiff of air hit the back of his neck. Air? There was only one window, and that was locked. His suspicion raising the doctor went to the window, again feeling air hitting his skin. A closer examination provided the cause .. a twig placed under the bottom of the window. Instantly Wilson hurried to where he kept the bromine, a package was missing. His eyes narrowed as a hiss of pure rage exited his lips. He knew it! Making sure the window was locked properly this time Wilson stormed over to Larabee's shack, knowing exactly where the medicine disappeared.

"Thank you for your prompt arrival, Captain Larabee," Colonel Graves greeted his best officer. Motioning for the young man to take a seat opposite him, the older man eyed Chris warmly.

"Have you any trouble while I was gone?"

Chris shifted uneasily in his chair." Well there was a bit, Sir," he began slowly. "Some soldiers took it upon themselves to hang a young prisoner they felt had killed one of the men’s brother’s."

"Did they succeed?"

"No, Sir, I stopped them in time and confined the men to their barracks until you arrived."

The Colonel nodded gravely "It’s so hard on the men, knowing some of the prisoners here had caused them so much pain."

"The Confederate soldiers can say the same, Sir," Chris rebutted respectfully, surprised by his commander’s comment. "Besides, the boy was only following orders, it’s not right to hang him for that."

"No, you did the right thing, Captain," Colonel Graves agreed. "We can have our men enforcing their own version of justice. "He watched the emotions cross upon Larabee’s face.

"Captain …. Christopher .. I’m speaking this to you because I consider you a good man, and a loyal soldier. Don’t let this get personal for you. This is an enemy of war camp. These men here killed fellow Union soldiers .. you can’t forget that."

"I can forget they are also human being," Chris answered quietly. "They have lost loved ones too."

"Didn’t a reb kill your brother?"

"Yes, and I’ve killed brothers, fathers and husbands from the Southern side," Chris acknowledged with a tinge of regret in his voice." None of us is innocent, Sir."

"We didn’t ask for this war, and our side is just."

"I know, Sir," Chris agreed, "but it’s so hard to see all the suffering, and many good lives lost."

The young officer fingered the edge of his uniform coat absently . He knew he had to bring up the matter between him and dr. Wilson, but a snag he suddenly thought of held him back. What if Graves okayed the use of bromine ? His insubordination would surely be discovered then. Maybe he could insist Nathan administer it, since Vin trusted him….yes he could try that angle. No one would need to know that Vin had already been treated.

"Something else in your mind, Captain Larabee?"

Colonel Graves’ voice snapped the young blonde out of his schemes. "Well, Sir…something else happened between me and dr. Wilson."

"You and dr. Wilson?" Graves eyebrows lifted in curiosity.

"Yes, Sir," Chris swallowed hard before continuing. This wasn’t going to be easy to explain. "The young reb that was attached had a bad arm. Just a small amount of bromine could help save it, but Dr. Wilson refused, wanting to only amputate ..."

"And you two got into an argument over it?" the Colonel guessed.

"Yes, Sir. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t do everything possible before amputating."

"Using supplies such as bromine has to be authorized by me first."

"I understand, Sir, but Doctor Wilson didn’t want to wait for that permission. If it wasn’t for Mr. Jackson's herbal skills, I’m afraid the boy would be dead by now. "

"Or amputated," Graves said with a shake of his graying head. "Dr. Wilson knows what is expected of him. If he doesn’t think the bromine would’ve worked "

"Excuse me, Sir," Chris inserted politely," but dr. Wilson wouldn’t even try the bromine . It could have worked."

"We can’t go wasting our medicine on cases it might help, Captain."

"Then why do we carry any?" Larabee couldn’t hide the slight bitterness in his voice . Here was a man he respected but even Colonel Graves was sounding like Wilson." If the good doctor isn’t willing to use them?"

"Captain Larabee you are walking a fine line here. Doctor Wilson flows my orders to the letter. To attack him is almost the same as attaching me. I will overlook this little difference of opinion between you two," Graves said sternly," I want to hear no more about it unless you have a real grieVince to bring before me."

"Oh I have a grievance, Colonel Graves," Doctor Wilson said as he entered the office. Chris felt his heart sink as he spotted the package of bromine clutched tightly in Wilson’s hands. He had been found out.

Graves raised his eyes, surprised by the abrupt intrusion. "Doctor Wilson? What’s going on ? I’ve not requested your presence."

"I apologize, Sir, but I regret to inform you that one of our officers is a thief and a traitor," Wilson replied with a withering look in Larabee’s direction.

"Tell me his name, Doctor," Graves insisted.

"Captain Christopher Larabee."

"What?" The Colonel rose from his chair in alarm.

"Captain Larabee refused to obey your specific orders about medical supplies and used a threatening language towards me in the presence of my helper."

"You better explain your charges better than that!" Colonel Graves demanded.

"Captain Larabee tried to compel me to give a prisoner a very particular kind of medicine and when I didn’t see the need …."

"Didn’t see the need?" Chris snapped, jumping in front of the doctor’s face.

"Captain Larabee!" Graves yelled out. "You will have your chance to tell your side! Now sit down and let the doctor finish."

"Thank you, Sir," Wilson continued, "the captain even tried to usurp my authority by trying to bring the same prisoner to our supply building but he didn’t succeed due the opposition the brave guard standing watch . Since he didn’t get in that way, he snuck inside through a window and stole the bromine from my cabinet."

The Colonel frowned, looking at the tall, serious young Captain and unable to believe he was a traitor. "I knew his father years ago," the old officer murmured. "We went to the same military academy. He gave me and the Army credit for making a man out of him."

"I have the proof right here," Wilson insisted, lifting the parcel that held the bromine. I found it hidden under Captain Larabee’s bed, and if I go inspect the prisoner right now, I’ll find some had been used on him."

"You leave the boy alone!" Chris spat out angrily. Green eyes focused on the one man he prayed would understand. "Colonel Graves, that young reb had nothing to do with my actions…."

"Do you admit to Doctor Wilson’s charges against you?" Graves asked solemnly.

"Yes, Sir, I did take the bromine to save the boy’s arm and his life. Doctor Wilson refused to help and I wasn’t sure when you’d return …"

"So you took matters into yours own hands," the older man acknowledged. "This is very serious, Captain. Not only did you usurp dr. Wilson’s authority, you also disobeyed orders from your ranking officer. Stealing Union supplies is another issue that won’t bode well. You understand your actions will require punishment?"

"Yes, Sir, and I fully accept them. I alone stole the bromine and the boy and Nathan Jackson had nothing to do with the theft."

"Nathan?" Wilson scowled. "He was on this?"

"No!" Chris countered, "I gave the bromine to one of the enemy soldiers. When Nathan arrived to check on the boy, he was given the bromine. The plan was mine."

"Why?" Graves wondered aloud. "Why do this ? For the enemy no less?"

"The boy was in a great pain, and dying ….," Larabee began.

"All that was needed was an amputation!" Wilson interrupted. "The boy refused. If he died, it was his own fault."

"Taking his arm would kill him just as much as the gangrene," Chris shot back.

"He’s only a boy …."

"A boy who shot our soldiers," Graves pointed out severely. Clasping his hands together, the Colonel eyed both men before speaking. "I’ve heard enough. You both go to your quarters while I investigate further."

Larabee and Wilson exchanged adversarial look as they exited the Colonel’s office, each man aching to get the Colonel alone to further their side of the argument. But one of the men was worried more about how the investigation would affect a certain Confederate prisoner.

Colonel Graves stormed into the tent housing a particular regiment of soldiers. He had heard from the Corporal who had tried to hang a prisoner days earlier which one Larabee favored. Entering the tent like an ominous cloud, the Union officer stared unexpectedly into the face of a man he detested with every fiber of his body. Having been gone from the prison for over a week, he had no idea this man had been brought here. Bitter memories surfaced as if they had happened only yesterday, the fury and anguish almost crushing his chest.

The Confederate Sergeant rose stiffly from Vin’s bedside to greet the unwelcome guest, having seen the Colonel’s face before … across a battlefield, leaning over a young man who obviously meant a great deal to the officer. A young man the Southerner had killed.

Graves went from the hated figure to the young man in the bed. The Confederate trash had been tending to him when he had entered. Forcing his tongue to speak civilly, the officer kept his eyes on the wounded prisoner to keep from killing the Sergeant with his bare hands.

"Is he one of your men?" Graves asked.

"Yes, he is," the Sergeant answered truthfully.

"I need to question him."

"He’s in no condition ..," the Sergeant began to protest, but it fell upon deaf ears as the Colonel grabbed the boy roughly by the shoulders, pulling him erect. Vin cried out in pain from the harsh treatment, causing the Confederate soldier to intervene .

"You are hurtin’ him! He ain’t done nuthin' ta deserve this!"

Pulling out a revolver tucked inside his uniform's jacket, the Union officer placed the barrel of the gun into his enemy's chest.

"He is going to be questioned," Graves grounded out in an icy voice," even it’s on your dead body." He saw the fear for the boy in the man’s eyes. Yes, this sorry excuse for a soldier cared about what could happen to this whelp … an evil smirk lit up the Colonel's face as he forced Vin to his feet. The pathetic Sergeant was going to feel what he was made to feel when he held the dead body of the young private he swore to protect.

Vin felt the room spin as he struggled to remain upright, the Colonel’s grip upon his bad arm making him want to scream in agony. "It’s all right, Sarge … don’t be worryin’ on me," the youth pleaded with his superior. The Sergeant could only stand there as he watched Vin drug out of the tent.

"Move you filthy little bastard!" Graves growled at Vin. When the boy stumbled again, he shoved the injured prisoner to the ground a kicked at him. "You lousy Reb! A good soldier’s career is going to be ruined because of you! I can’t understand why Captain Larabee would sacrifice all he has achieved for a worthless son of a bitch like you!" Another kick hit Vin in his arm, the young man unable to hold in his scream of pain.

"Oh? Does that hurt?" Graves taunted. He pulled Tanner up by his long hair until the prisoner's face was close to his. "You’re gonna wish you had that damn arm amputated, boy!"

Chris' head bolted up in alarm when he heard the cry of pain. Vin? Instantly he rushed outside, his worst fear being realized before his eyes. Vin was on the ground, being beaten by Graves!

"No, Sir. … stop!" he called out, desperate to stop the cruelty.

Wilson too had heard the noise and hurrying outside, he was appalled at the scene he saw. Granted, he wasn’t happy about the bromine, but his intention was to punish Larabee, not the boy .

"Sir! you must stop! "

The former adversaries ran to their leader, calling out for Graves to desist his torture of the now unconscious prisoner. Colonel Graves was beyond reason, his mind overwhelmed with pain revenge. That damnable Rebel Sergeant killed a young private in his regiment, his only nephew, in cold blood. Another good man’s life was going to be ruined by another reb connected to that murderer, and by all that was in him, it was going to stop!

Chris reached his superior first, grabbing the older man and twisting him around to face him.

"Colonel Graves…. the boy is innocent … there’s no reason for you to beat the hell outta him!"

"You are too blind to see the truth!" Graves snarled out, wrestling his body free.

"He tricked you into helping him … destroying the career you built up! Can’t you see that? They’re all evil … every last one of them! If I had my way … they’d all be wiped out!"

"Colonel," Wilson spoke up quietly," Captain Larabee is right. The boy has nothing to do with stealing the bromine. He’s barely been conscious most of the time."

Kneeling down beside the, still, enemy soldier, the doctor checked for injuries, shaking his head sadly at the turns of the events.

"Captain Larabee, let’s bring him back inside."

Both men reached down to pick up the boy when Graves pushed Chris aside., pointing his revolver at Vin’s prone form.

"I hereby execute this prisoner for the good of the Union!" the officer yelled passionately, his need for revenge outweighing his reason.

"No!" Chris didn’t have time to think on his next action, whipping out his pistol to stop the murder about to take place. He didn’t hear the bullet leave the chamber or even see the Colonel’s shocked face as a pool of blood began to form on the left side of his chest. The entire Captain could see was Vin’s limp body still breathing.

"He’s dead …," Wilson half whispered over the fallen officer.

"What?" Chris shook the cobwebs from his mind, and looking down, he finally saw the result of his action.

"Colonel Graves is dead."

Soldiers from both sides of the conflict emerged, all standing in complete astonishment. Finally one of the Union soldiers stepped forward, demanding to know what has taken place.

"I shot Colonel Graves ….," Larabee mumbled, staring unbelieving at the deceased officer. Dear God in Heaven…… what had he done?

+ + + + + + +

A young sergeant and a small group of soldiers came into the cell as Chris ate his breakfast.

"It’s time to go, Captain," he said in embarrassment. "General Parker is ready."

Larabee stood up and without a word followed them out of the cell.

Chris found it ironic that he was led into the very fortress he had tried to take Vin to get the bromine just yesterday, the court martial gathering there At first glance noticed the flash and glitter of the shiny buttons of the various grades of officers sitting in semicircle around the table in the biggest room of the building.. The Sergeant made him sit on a chair in front of the table.

He heard very little of the speech or other details of the trial, finding it hard to focus as he sat on that chair, while the minutes dragged by. It was as if and his brain wasn’t even able to connect with his body.

An officer read a long list explaining the procedures of the court, the names of the men participating and the charges themselves. It felt like the man had been reading for an eternity when the room finally fell silent.

General Parker eyed the young Captain quietly ,knowing full well what caliber of a soldier was before him. Larabee was a rare find, the kind of man any officer worth his salt would want serving under him.

"Captain Larabee," Parker said in a serious tone," Are you fully aware of the charge leveled against you?"

"Yes, Sir," Chris replied.

"How you do plead?"

"Guilty, Sir."

"Are you prepared to defend yourself in any way?"

"No, Sir .. I accept full responsibility for my actions," Chris said firmly. To defend his case would draw Tanner into the mess, and he feared for the boy’s future more than his own.

Parker could tell Larabee was keeping something back. "So you killed Colonel Graves willingly?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Was there a reason for you to shoot him?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Please tell this court why, Captain Larabee," Parker insisted.

Chris straightened in his chair, looking his superior in his eyes. "Sir, why I shot Colonel Graves won’t change the fact that he is dead by my own hand."

"I would like the court to hear it."

"I’m sorry, Sir but it won’t help me . I willingly killed an officer and must face the consequences."

Sighing heavily, Parker exchanged glances with the other officers in the room. There wasn’t anything more he could do, this prisoner seemed determined to seal his fate. "Captain Christopher Larabee, you leave the court no choice but to sentence you to be hanged by the neck until dead at such time and place as the President of the United States may direct."

Quelling his trembling body, the young Captain met Parker’s stern face., letting the older man know he understood the ruling. Even if he had told of Vin's involvement, there was still a strong possibility of a stiff sentence. The defense of the " enemy " may not have set well with these men.

The General pounded his gravel on the wooden desk before him. "Take the prisoner to the jail," he ordered the guards Watching the proud, young soldier being led out of the room, Parker sat back in his chair. There was more to this story that met the eye. Larabee was protecting something .. or someone .. and he was going to find out why.

+ + + + + + +

Jackson paced the room, slowly, thinking on the miracle-taking place in front of him. Vin was healing fast, so fast that it would have been astonishing to anyone who didn’t know of his iron constitution and the hard life he led.

"What’s wrong with me, then, doc?" Vin Tanner asked, as he sat on the bed. Only wearing a pair of ragged pants he placed his bare feet on the crude floor, sweat soaking his skin as he tried to walk around the bed, making him look more like a boy who had gone fishing and got wet on the way home.

"It’s all right, Vin, you need ta rest up and eat," the black healer said as he placed a tray of scrambled eggs and milk on the bed ..

Vin took the fork and slowly ate the eggs, eyeing suspiciously the full glass of milk. "I aint’ used ta gittin' this kinda stuff, Doc."

"Ya need it," Nathan urged gently, handing the boy the glass. "Need ta get yer strength back up."

Smiling at the man, he accepted the glass then and drank all its contents, even though it was tepid and tasteless. Finishing the best meal he could remember in a while. Vin lay back in the bed and tried to keep his eyes alert. Four days ago he knew he was near death, now he was still here, even his arm healing rapidly. Other then some soreness caused by the beating he received from the Union Colonel, he was feeling better. He knew there was one man in particular he could thank for his recovery.

"Where's the Captain?"

Nathan unintentionally jumped at the softly spoken question . His patient had been so out of it lately that the subject of Captain Larabee wasn’t discussed .

"I cain’t lie ta you, Vin, he's in jail," the older man replied sadly.

"Why?" Vin frowned, a thought hitting him. "Weren’t 'cause of me was it?"

"No kid, because of himself." Nathan exhaled before saying the next part.

"He's going to be hanged for killing a fellow officer. I’m sorry. "

Tanner’s eyes grew wide,. "I don’t figger it," he muttered under his breath. "Captain Larabee is a good feller."

"He still is," Nathan quickly added. "It was in defense of another that he shot the man, but the rules are purty clear 'bout what happens." The healer kept the detail of "who" Larabee was protecting from the rebel soldier so not to burden him further.

"Have ya seen him? Is he well?" Vin asked worriedly. He felt his gut tighten at the thought of his benefactor having to be executed. It wasn’t fair that a decent man had to die because he killed to save another.

Nodding Jackson rummaged through the pockets of his coat retrieving a tiny package wrapped in brown, tattered paper :" Captain Larabee asked how ya was doin’ and was real happy to hear you were gettin’ better," he said, putting the package in Vin’s hand. "Gave me this ta give ta you and ta ask ta you somethin’."

"A gift?" Vin asked in wonder. The Texan carefully unwrapped the package and took out a little, shining harmonica.

"Said he’d 'preciate ya takin’ it It belonged ta his brother, and he wants ya ta take care of it." Nathan supplied. "Wanted ta know if’n you'd take care of his horse too when ya get sprung from here."

Unshed tears glistened in Vin’s expressive blue eyes," I’d sure like ta thank 'im, fer that and fer helping save m’ arm," he murmured.

Nathan glanced at the emotional youth, his own eyes misting. "I’ve noticed yer able ta move around like a shadow, even sick as ya were. So why don’t ya go ta the back of the prison tonight, and just 'round midnight the guard changes. I know the Corporal on watch then likes ta sneak a quick drink 'fore he takes over, so it’ll give ya a few minutes to talk to the Captain."

"Yer a good man, Nathan. Sure is bad luck yer struck in a place like this." Vin yawned and sank into the pillow. "I best be havin’ me a nap if’n I want to sneak out later."

"Vin? Are ya asleep yet ..?" Nathan asked, leaning near the huddled form of the boy .

"Huh?" a muffled voice replied.." Not yet .."

"I’ve got somethin’ ta tell ya."

"Then spill it, Doc . I’m a mite tired . "

Smiling at the reb, Jackson shrugged his shoulders. "I haven’t never thanked you proper fer saving my life against those other prisoners. I owe you one."

A soft drawl replied cryptically," I reckon I might be askin’ fer a payback real soon, Doc…"

+ + + + + + +

For Chris Larabee it was the beginning of one of those wakeful nights he had grown accustomed to recognize in adVince. The moment he settled on the hard cot of the jail cell, he knew that he wouldn’t get any sleep . Normally on a night like this he would have taken a little walk around the camp, but now he could only lie there grimly immobile.

Only days ago he had been a respected officer of the Union army, but now he was a nobody. Even the lowest ranking soldier in the camp could insult him with impunity and he could only come and go by the bidding of his jailers. Worse than all of that he was branded a criminal. Soon, in a cold dawn he would be led out to face a noose, and then hang there till he was dead. Then he would be dead. Larabee's vivid imagination pictured his execution, wondering how long the pain would last before oblivion overtook him.

Lines from "Hamlet" sprang into his mind, but that dread of something after death - The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns – puzzles the will …. He felt the hot blood running under his skin as the full realization broke upon him at last – the thought of facing something completely unknown, frightened him.

The trumping of boots signaled the changing of the guards. Chris tried to listen the ensuing conversation, but he couldn’t make out the words, hearing the sound of voices replaced by the clanging of the outside door. He was alone in his solitude again.

Looking out through the barred window, he saw in the dim moonlight a slight figure walking across the grass toward the jail. Noiselessly the form drew near the cell’s window, followed by a faint, familiar sound. A harmonica?

Larabee grabbed a hold of the bars, pulling himself up higher. "Tanner? What the hell are you doing here? And playing that harmonica no less?" he whispered in mock irritation.

"Hell, I’m doin’ my best I can with the darn thin’," the young Texan drawled, his face grew serious as he studied Chris' face behind the bars. "How are ya doin’?"

"It’d be better if I had a cheroot and a shot of Rye, but they're not real good about offering commodities to prisoners," Chris replied. "Nathan told me your wounds are healing up well and it sure is good to see you without that sling."

"I owe ya, Captain, ya saved my arm, I am no good at jawin’, but .. I'm here to say I’m mighty obliged ta you and I’m goin’ to git ya outta this mess." With those few whispered words Vin Tanner slipped away into the darkness.

+ + + + + + +

As General Parker entered inside the cell, Chris stood sharply at attention, the knot in his stomach growing by the second. The General was obviously here to discuss the hanging.

"At ease, Larabee," General Parker said with a dismissive wave of his hand. He could tell the former Captain had a sleepless night, probably one of many he guessed. Once the prisoner had situated himself on the cot. Parker nodded thoughtfully." I’ve been doing a private investigation of my own about the charges against you." He noted the look of apprehension that crossed over the blonde’s features. "Yes, I know about the prisoner."

"He didn’t ….," Chris began to protest.

"I know why you shot the Colonel .. to protect the boy."

"But …"

Parker threw up a hand for silence. "No harm is going to come to the boy .. At first I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t at least defend yourself but now I know why. You feared for the boy. Can you tell me, just between the two of us, what happened?"

"Yes, Sir," Chris finally relented. He could see the compassion in the older man's eyes, and believed him about no harm coming to Tanner. "Colonel Graves was raving like a lunatic, and the boy was unconscious, not able to protect himself from the continuous blows. When Graves pulled out his gun to shoot Vin, I fired at him without thinking . All I could think about was saving the boy."

"I’ve heard he reminds you of your dead brother."

Shocked by the General's knowledge, Chris nodded mutely.

Sitting down beside Larabee on the cot, Parker sighed heavily." This damn war torn many good families apart. The Sergeant your young prisoner is under was the one who had killed Graves’ only nephew . He was very close to the boy, and he never truly recovered. The Confederate Sergeant feels Graves may have wanted to kill Tanner to get back at him."

"What do you think, Sir?"

"I think he’s right . From all accounts, Tanner was ill and in no condition to fight back, even if had wanted to. I was against putting Graves in charge of this prison, but I was overruled by Washington." Parker paused before continuing." He wasn’t emotionally competent to handle this right now .. putting him in charge of prisoners of war . It was still too raw a wound."

"Tanner won’t be harmed?" Can you guarantee it?" Chris asked hopefully.

"I’ve left my explicit instructions that this particular prisoner and the Sergeant are not to be targeted for revenge or punishment. Any violation will be addressed by me personally."

"Thank you, Sir," Chris smiled faintly. "I can’t begin to tell you what a relief that is hearing that." Seeing the grim countenance overtake his superior’s face, the former officer asked," But it doesn’t change my situation .. does it?"

"No," Parker admitted sadly. "You killed a fellow officer and you must be punished appropriately. We can’t send the wrong message to the others in this camp.. Union or Confederate."

"Killing in defense of a prisoner doesn’t help either," Chris realized.

"I’m afraid not . The battle - hardened officer’s eye softened as he placed a hand briefly on Larabee's shoulder. "You were wise in not bringing Tanner into this at the trial. The bureaucrats in Washington were demanding blood, and I’m sure in their eyes hanging a prisoner would look better upon the Army than hanging one of their officers."

"Tanner didn’t ask for any of this. He’s just a kid … a kid who was unlucky enough to be caught. If Graves would’ve done right by the prisoner all along .. none of this would have happened. "Chris said bitterly.

"You’re right," Parker conceded. "We like to think we're better than the Confederates, but in really we are the same …. only different goals." Taking a quick glance outside the cell’s bars, the General eyed Larabee steadily. "I have a cousin fighting for the South so I know what it’s like being torn in half like this. I know in my heart our cause is right, but also in my heart I ache for him, praying each night for his safety."

"I had no idea, Sir."

"You’re the only one who knows," Parker acknowledged, rising from the cot." I had better go. I just wanted to find out for sure from you, face to face what happened. I knew a good soldier like you wouldn’t have just killed Graves for no good reason."

"Thank you, General," Chris said, warmly shaking the man’s offered hand .

"What you’re doing for Vin .. I can’t express my gratitude enough."

"Just wish I could do more," Parker replied somberly. "You still have to face the gallows."

"Yes but with a lighter heart," Chris answered sincerely.

Parker stopped and shook his head before turning to call for the guard to let him out.

"It’s a damn shame … you are one hell of a soldier .. and man."

"So are you, General." Watching the other man leave, Larabee couldn’t help but wonder if some of Parker’s helping Vin had to do with his cousin as Jim was the reason for him. Settling back on the cot, Chris was able to finally relax enough to close his eyes and rest.

+ + + + + + +

A slight shaking of his shoulder awoke Jackson from his slumber . Turning the black healer frowned at the figure beside him. "Vin! What are ya doin’ runnin’ 'round in the middle of the night? What’s wrong?"

"I’ve got some business ta tend ta, Doc," Vin said with a mischievous grin on his handsome yet still pale face," and I came ta have a little talk with you 'bout 'em."

"On one condition: ya set yourself down and let me take a good look at ya."

"It ain’t fair!" Vin protested.

"Well, remember to shut the opening on yer way out," Jackson groused as he turned to his side to go back to sleep.

"'kay, ya won," Vin relented as he dropped into a near coat, stretching his slim body out on the mattress sighing, "Have yer damn look."

"Now there's a good boy," Nathan teased as he began his examination. Fifteen minutes later Vin was done, sitting up on the bed telling a stunned Jackson about his plan of freeing Larabee.

"Did ya know they’re throwin’ that General a party 'fore he goes?" Vin asked excitedly.

"Yeah I did. It’s supposed ta be a big shindig with lots of food and drinks . Even entertainments."

"I overheard they’re havin’ it at the saloon that’s jist 'bout a mile from here. Probably by midnight all them soldiers goin’ ta it will be so plumb drunk, they won’t be able to hit us even if we was standin’ still."

"Maybe you're right, Vin, but what about the jail, and the guards left behind? How are ya goin’ to get yer hands on the keys?"

"I’ll git 'em, Doc ..with yer help."

Jackson threw the young man a suspicious look.,

Vin's smile grew wider," Hell,it goin’ ta be like lickin’ butter off a knife! I need some that there awful tastin’ swill ya use ta knock people out ..ya know, the powdery stuff. Give the sentries some in a stirrup cup and then I’ll take care of the rest …. stealin’ the keys, gittin’ the horses .The Sarge even agreed ta help."

"It’s the craziest plan I’ve ever heard," Nathan mumbled with a grave smile.

"I reckon yer right, Doc, but I've tried seven ways to Sunday to come up with somethin’ different, this is the only left." Vin scanned the doubtful face of the older man with sparkling, clear eyes.

"I’ll be a damned fool…" Nathan spat out while nodding his head in agreement," Yeah kid, I’ll help you 'n the Captain. He’s the only one in this place resemblin’ a human bein’ "

"Ain’t any kid," the Texan grumbled in jest.

"I want ya to rest up a spell 'fore goin’ off on your adventure," Nathan warned his patient. "Captain is gonna need ya at your fittest ta help escape."

+ + + + + + +

Larabee bolted up from his cot, a sudden thought striking him. Vin had mentioned something earlier about getting him out of this mess. What the hell Tanner was talking about? A sense of fear and excitement coursed through his body at the same time. Was Vin talking about springing him from jail? As much he didn’t want to hang, he also didn’t want the young reb getting caught. Battling the war in his mind between

Freedom and repercussions, Chris heard the jangle of keys and the opening of the lock that led to the main cells.

"Howdy, Larabee," a soft Texan drawl said as the door to Chris' cell opened.

"Vin! What Th’ hell…. "

"Don’t be gittin’ yer dander up, I've come ta bust ya outta here." Vin replied with an easy, lopsided grin. "Couldn’t sleep thinkin’ 'bout handlin’ that black devil of horse of yers. Going to need some lessons on that harmonica too. Thought I’d bring ya along with me."

"How’d you get the keys? What about the guards?"

"They are sleeping fer now, c’mon, we best git movin' 'fore we have the rest of the camp onto us. "Vin reached out and helped Larabee to his feet, urging the former captain to hurry.

"What about the rest of the guards, how are we going to get past them?" Chris couldn’t help but ask.

"Most of 'em are at the General’s party and the ones that are left." Vin smiled impishly," well, they’ve got their hands full with the Sarge and a few of the fellers. We’ve got 'bout half an hour clear ta git away."

"Damn crazy, boy… " Chris muttered with an half smile on his lips.

"Quite a pair, ain't we, Cap’n?"

As the two men exited the back of the building, they found horses waiting for them. Vin mounted his horse in one fluid movement, beckoning Larabee to follow suit. "C’mon Larabee. time is a wastin’," he whispered urgently.

Quickly easing himself into his horse's saddle, Chris turned to his new companion as they cleared the confines of the camp. "Where we headed, Vin?"

"See that star?" said Vin, pointing to the starry night sky. "Shoulda seen it like I have over the prairie in a winter’s night. It’d be there waitin’ fer me jist 'fore the dawn when I’d be out huntin’. It's bright light is gonna show us the way ta freedom."

"You’ve got the guts of a hero, but the heart of a poet," Chris said in admiration.

"Ain’t no hero, and I cain’t write neither," Vin smiled shyly. "We best git ridin’ hard if’n we want some distance 'tween us and the guards."

He spurred his mount on and flattened down upon the animal's back, asking it to go into a full run. Larabee followed Vin’s example, the two men speeding away into the night.

In the background they could hear yelling, the fire exploding behind them, but missing their marks as the two riders were well beyond reach. On the open ground the horses came together again as they blew over the hills and shot down the slopes that led south – West.

Warily the two friends watched another horse come in the direction. When they were able to make out the rider, they both smiled in unison. It was Nathan Jackson!

"Hey, Doc, whatcha doin’ out here?" Vin called out.

"Was wonderin’ if ya would let me come with ya on your trip. Everyone at the camp might get a bit riled up when they find out what happened. When they all fell better," Nathan yelled back.

"Feel better?" Chris questioned out loud, furrowing his brow. "What happened?"

"Let’s say the punch at the party had somethin’ added ta it," Nathan laughed as he rode closer to the men.

"Heard they drank three bowls of it. Weren’t complain’ while they was drinkin’ it. but they’ll be complainin’ later."

"Reckon ol’ Doc Wilson's gonna be a busy man, tomorrow," Vin said jovially," without help too."

Nathan smirked. "Don’t think he’d love ta have me 'round.specially since he drank some of that spiked punch."

"You’re welcome to ride with us," Chris invited.

"Where we headed for?" Nathan asked the pair. He softly kicked the flanks of his horse to make him run faster.

"Followin’ the star home," Vin said with a loud whoop and laugh. He spurred his mount to a fast gallop.

The wind stirring his wavy long hair, as he spurred his mount to a fast gallop, the wind stirring through his long, wavy strands of hair as they headed full speed towards a distant line of mountains under the endless, starry sky.

Or is it the beginning?