The Seamstress and the Indians

by Angie

Since Ms. Dunlap’s untimely demise, I figured the boys would need someone to repair and replace all the clothes they damage in their travels so I brought someone in. Miranda will be a recurring character in my stories. Feel free to borrow her as needed. I know I probably got the episodes out of order, if I did, sorry.

Miranda Barton rode into Four Corners in her small wagon hauling all her worldly possessions. She wanted a fresh start. She had bought a small storefront with living quarters in the rear. She was looking forward to meeting Mrs. Travis. She had arranged the purchase thru her and was pleased that there was at least one other woman-owned business in the small town.

The young woman stopped in front of the building and climbed down from the wagon seat. She stroked her chestnut mare on the neck before tethering the animal to the hitching post. She walked down the boardwalk to the Clarion office to look for Mrs. Travis.

Mary looked up as the door opened. The young woman who stood before her was smiling timidly.

“Mrs. Travis?”

Mary nodded as she wiped the printers ink from her hands. “That’s me. What can I do for you, Miss?” she let the word dangle for a moment.

“Barton, Miranda Barton, you helped me make the purchase of the storefront down the way.”

The two women talked together for a while and Miranda felt much more comfortable with her decision to choose Four Corners for her new home. Mary made her feel right at home and invited her for dinner that evening. She was gratified to get the invitation, as she didn’t have time to set up her things in the daylight she had left.

Mary had informed Miranda during their correspondence that the town was protected by seven lawmen. She hoped that it would be safer here than it had been in the last place she lived. She had just begun to unload her belongings when a young man in a bowler hat approached.

JD noticed the woman as she began to unload her wagon and he ran up to see if he could help her. “Afternoon, Ma’am. Need some help?”

“Yes, thank you, Mr. ?”

“JD Dunne, Ma’am,” he answered as he tipped his hat.

“Miranda Barton, pleased to meet you Mr. Dunne,” she said offering him her hand.

“Call me JD, Ma’am, everybody does,” he replied as he shook her hand.

JD grabbed several of the bags and followed Miranda into the storefront. “What kind of business you plannin’ on startin’ here?”

“Seamstress,” she answered, “I make tailored clothes.”

JD laughed, “There’s someone in town that will be mighty glad to meet you.”

Miranda raised her eyebrows, “Really?”

“Ezra, he’s always ordering clothes from Denver and St. Louis. He’ll probably be your best customer.”

JD helped her carry in the boxes and spent an hour helping her put things in the right rooms. Miranda learned a lot about people as she made clothes for them. People tended to talk to her while she measured and pinned things together. Miranda tended to say very little, preferring to listen and learn about her customers.

Women were more likely to talk about their children and families. Men talked about their work. Young people talked about each other. Miranda found that she learned the most about the town and its people listening to the lawmen talk when they happened by her shop.

She quickly discovered that JD was a nervous talker, filling the silence with the sound of his own voice. She almost laughed at him at first, he was so unnerved by her touching him to measure him for new trousers. She realized that JD was innocent, having little experience with women. He spoke fondly of Casey, the girl he was sweet on.

Vin Tanner was the quietest of the seven regulators, saying very little when he came in to be fitted for a new shirt. Vin made astute observations about people and was not at all uncomfortable being touched.

Buck Wilmington was a terrible flirt. He spent most of his first visit to her shop trying to convince her to go out with him. Miranda discovered that Buck was also terribly ticklish; she had to be especially careful when she worked with him.

Nathan Jackson was uncomfortable about even coming into the shop. He mostly brought things that needed mending. He talked about the people he was caring for, most often the other lawmen.

Josiah Sanchez was by far her favorite customer to just listen to. He had been all over the world in his lifetime and filled their time together with stories of exotic places and the things he had seen. He only seemed to avoid the subject of religion. She had learned from other people in town that he had been a priest at one time.

As JD predicted, the person she saw most often was Ezra Standish. She met him the first day she opened the shop. He was eager to have someone to make him a new outfit. He also knew exactly what he wanted in the clothes he ordered. He exuded confidence in himself.

Chris Larabee was the one who made her most uncomfortable. He asked questions. Miranda wasn’t comfortable sharing her life with people she had only just met. She sensed in Chris a kindred spirit, someone who had been tempered by fire in his life.

She also met JD’s young lady friend, Casey. The girl was a tomboy trying desperately to find her place. Miranda enjoyed listening to Casey as she talked about the things that she saw and heard. Casey wanted a new dress to try to impress JD. After hearing about the fiasco surrounding the first time she had approached JD in a dress, Miranda laughed until she cried.

Mrs. Travis also came in to be fitted for a new dress. Miranda was completely at ease with Mary. They talked and laughed as if they were old friends. Only with Mary did she let down her guard and share any of her life story.

Ezra came in one morning after the seven had been out of town for several days. He brought her several articles of clothing that needed mending. He talked to her about the events of the past few days.

Miranda stared, open mouthed, as he told about the events surrounding the wagon train. “Weren’t you afraid that they would blow you up too?” She finally asked.

“My dear, there is always someone out there trying to kill one or all of us. It was safer for me when I was running cons with my dear mother,” he said with a chuckle.

She remembered the shipment of cloth she had gotten in while they were gone. “Would you like to see the new wools I got in last week?”

Ezra followed her to the wall where she stored the bolts of material. She pulled down a bolt of royal-blue wool. Ezra ran his hands over the material and smiled, “I do believe that I would like a new jacket of that material,” he said, grinning. They made arrangements to fit him a few days later.

Miranda thought she would be able to function when she woke up that morning. Unfortunately, she accidentally stumbled across one of Lana’s little booties while she was trying to find her marking chalk. Ezra was coming in to be fitted for his new jacket. She sat holding the bootie in her hands for several minutes. When she heard the bell on the door she briskly wiped the tears from her face and picked up the chalk.

She had basted the pieces together over the past few days and he was coming in for the final fitting to make sure that the lay was right before she finished lining it. Ezra smiled warmly as he greeted her. He pulled off the emerald green jacket he had on as she handed him the royal blue shell. Turning to admire the coat in the large mirror, he didn’t notice the haunted look in her eyes.

“My dear, you have worked magic with this material. The lines are perfect. Could you, perhaps shorten the front just a smidge? My violet jacket tends to hang up on my gun when I draw.” He saw the top of her head as she nodded.

She ran her hands down his sides from under his arms to check the fit against his waist. Ezra caught her hand for a moment under his. The action stirred an emotion so deep that she gasped. He felt the shudder that ran thru her body.

“Mrs. Barton, are you all right?” He tightened his hand over hers for a moment.

She pulled her hand free and rested both palms on his shoulders to prevent him from turning around. Her hands communicated her anguish unbeknownst to her and Ezra turned anyway.

“Mrs. Barton? Miranda? Have I said something to offend you?”

Tears flowed unchecked from her eyes and Ezra pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and lightly touched her face. She lowered her face to his shoulder and gave in to the shuddering sobs that ran rampant thru her soul. Ezra guided her to a chair and knelt before her.

“Please tell me what is troubling you so.”

After a few moments, she managed to get it out. “Today would have been my wedding anniversary. I’m sorry to go all to pieces on you like this, Mr. Standish. If I had been thinking clearly the other night, I would not have scheduled this appointment. I awoke this morning feeling like a raw nerve.”

“My dear, you had only to tell me, I would have gladly rescheduled the appointment. Although, I suspect that it might be better if you were not alone while you are so melancholy.” He reached out and touched the tears from her cheeks again.

Miranda felt the pull of the man. The sincere concern on his face, the emerald green eyes and the dimples in his cheeks stirred something in her that she thought she had buried in the cold ground of Nebraska. She had tried to resist her attraction to him from the beginning. He so resembled her Lawson in build that she could almost have made his clothing without touching him.

He saw that she was lost in memory as her hands touched his shoulders and then followed the line of his lapels to his chest. A tremor of desire coursed thru him and he studied her face. She leaned close and they kissed. His hands moved lightly to her shoulders as he rose from sitting back on his heels. Her hands tightened on his shoulders before her fingers ran up to the soft curls at his collar.

When they drew apart, he saw embarrassment, shame and a single tear roll across her fair features. His hands cupped her face and he pressed his forehead to hers for a moment.

“Dear lady, allow me to apologize for taking advantage of you during your moment of vulnerability. I am ashamed that I have behaved as a cad.”

Her head shook in his grasp. “No, there is no shame in what you did. I’ve wanted to do that for some time. Forgive me but my body responds to you in a way that I find shameful sometimes.”

He saw the chagrin in her eyes and he smiled. “Perhaps we should take time to explore those responses some time? I would enjoy having supper with you, at a time when you are not feeling so vulnerable.”

She nodded. “I would like that, Mr. Standish. I would like that very much.”

Ezra pressed a gentle kiss on her hand before he removed the jacket shell and placed it on the table and let himself out of the shop.

Chris came in a few days later to be fitted for a new pair of pants. Miranda tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to select a color other than black. As she was measuring him, Chris struck up a conversation. “Mary tells me that you’re a widow. You seem awfully young to be widowed.”

“Wasn’t my first choice,” she said wryly.

Chris smiled, “Want to talk about it?”

“No, Mr. Larabee, I don’t want to talk about it.”

Chris studied the top of her head as she knelt to measure his inseam. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” he said. He heard her sigh before she turned to write the number on her paper.

“I don’t mean to be brusque with you, it’s just that it was a really painful time and I don’t want to remember it right now.”

“Fair enough. How did you come to be a seamstress? You seem to do okay with the shop and everything,” he said to change the subject.

Miranda smiled, “My mother had a shop in St. Louis. I’ve been sewing since I was old enough to thread a needle. I like the work. I like working with people.”

“Well, I can see that you’re pretty good at what you do. Ezra has never looked better.”

The seamstress laughed, “He certainly knows what he wants, doesn’t he?”

The next day, JD came to her with a special request. He stood, struggling to put his request into words. “I would like to, that is, I need to get a gift for Casey, for her birthday,” he stammered.

“What did you have in mind, JD?”

He looked at the dress she had been hemming, “Something pretty. Something different. A pretty blouse?”

“Okay, I can do that. When do you need it?”

“Oh, her birthday isn’t until next month. I just wanted to have something nice to give her.”

+ + + + + + +

Miranda had been talking to Casey only the day before as she helped to put away the new shipment. Casey’s eyes had lit up at the sight of a bolt of lovely pale linen with tiny violets. “I would just love to have a blouse made from this,” she whispered, “I’d bet JD would be sure to notice me in something like this. Don’t you think?”

“I think so. Do you want me to make you a blouse from that?”

Casey had put the bolt aside, “No, not right now.” Miranda didn’t pry.

+ + + + + + +

“Yes, JD, I have the perfect material for a blouse for Casey,” she pulled the bolt out and showed it to him.

JD’s eyes lit up, “That’s perfect! She won’t know about it, will she? I mean, can you make it without her knowing? Does she have to come in to be fitted like I do?”

“No, JD, she won’t have to be fitted. I have her measurements on file. She won’t know.”

A couple of weeks before Casey’s birthday, the girl burst into Miranda’s shop in tears. It seems that she had caught JD in the livery with one of the female bounty hunters in a somewhat compromising position. To add to her embarrassment, she had come on to Vin and then to Ezra. Both men had politely and gently turned her down which enraged her even more.

“How could he do that to me? I thought he cared about me! And then I made a complete fool of myself with Ezra and Vin! Oh, Miranda, how can I show my face around them again?”

“Casey, I’m sure Vin and Ezra will understand. They’re both fine gentlemen, if they weren’t, they might have taken advantage of you when you offered, right? JD cares for you, Casey. I know that for a fact. You’re all he talks about when he comes in here.”

“Really? He talks about me?”

By the time Casey left the shop, she was feeling much better. When JD returned to town after having been shot, the young woman was beside herself with worry. Miranda delivered the blouse JD had ordered to Nathan’s clinic for him to give to Casey on her birthday.

+ + + + + + +

When things had settled down, Ezra approached Miranda about having supper with him. She thought he had forgotten about it when he hadn’t said anything before. With a nod, she agreed to go out with him that night. After a pleasant meal at the restaurant, they went for a walk in the moonlight. The night air was cool and the full moon cast a pleasant glow on the desert. They stopped alongside a stream and sat on a fallen log that lay on the sandy spit.

“It’s beautiful out here.” Miranda whispered as she looked up at the stars overhead.

Ezra was not at all interested in the stars, he was looking at her. The moonlight made her pale skin seem to almost shimmer and her eyes sparkled as they caught the moonlight. He found himself reaching out to cover her hand with his. She smiled at him as she covered his hand with her other hand.

“I hadn’t noticed.” He drawled as he reached out to cup her face with his free hand. She nuzzled against his palm. “Miranda, I find myself thinking about you at the oddest times. Your eyes, your lips, I’ve, I’ve never felt this way before. I find myself curious about your past.”

She withdrew her hands from his and turned her face away from him toward the water.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to pry. It isn’t any of my business. You don’t have to tell me anything.”

“No, I want to tell you, Ezra. I need to tell someone. My husband and I married when I was only 15. It was an arranged marriage, my mother and father sent me to him. After the mine ran dry, my father lost his job. With 13 kids to support, we were starving. My mother couldn’t earn enough to feed all of us. They sent my two older sisters off the same way. We never saw them again. I was the lucky one, actually, Lawson was a good and kind man. He didn’t force himself on me even though I was legally his wife. When Lana was born, he was the happiest man in the territory. She was only three when she died. A part of me died with them.”

Ezra was moved by her words. He felt the sting of tears in his eyes as he scooted closer to her side. Placing a hand on her shoulder, he leaned close and pressed his forehead to her shoulder. She was trembling as he reached around her waist and drew her close.

After several minutes, Miranda pulled herself together. “It’s been two years since I stood over their graves. You’re the first man I’ve let get close to me in all that time.” She covered his arm with hers and pressed her back against his chest.

With his chin resting lightly on her shoulder, he sighed softly. “It must have taken a lot of courage to pack up and leave town like that. The west is not often kind to a woman alone.”

A raw laugh burst from her before she could stop it, leaving him puzzled. She asked him where he was from to change the subject.

“Well, now that is an interesting story. I have been all over the country. The majority of my youth was spent in Georgia. Around the Savannah area I spent a good portion of my formative years. Mother dragged me from town to town, running cons and scamming people out of their life savings. We never had a home or a place to call our own. Except for a bevy of cousins by marriage, I have no other living relatives except for my darling mother. We had good times, but we had hard times too.”

For hours, the two of them talked about their lives before returning to town. Ezra saw Miranda to her door and gave her a chaste kiss before returning to his own room for the night.

The next day, the judge sent a telegram requesting that some of them ride over to Eagle Bend to pick up a prisoner. Chris sent Ezra and Vin. Josiah and Nathan were out at the reservation checking on the Indians. It was quiet in the town and with Buck and JD, he knew they could handle things.

+ + + + + + +

After dropping the prisoner off at the territory prison, Ezra was eager to get back to town. Vin, on the other hand, wanted to take a longer, circuitous route so he could do some hunting. Knowing he would get in trouble for returning alone, Ezra huffed angrily and followed Vin.

They rode for a couple of hours in silence as Ezra fumed and Vin soaked up the open spaces. The sound of gunfire drew their attention suddenly and they both urged their horses toward the source of the sound. Rounding the bend in the road, they came upon a stagecoach robbery. Both men jumped from the horses as they sought shelter among the trees that lined the road.

“Come out of there or I’ll be forced to start shooting people out here!” Matt Perez called in a loud voice as he grabbed the youngest passenger on the stage and pressed his gun to her head. The girl, who couldn’t have been more that 14 or 15, let out a shriek of pure terror as she fought to free the man’s hand from her hair.

Vin looked at Ezra for a moment before he stepped out from behind the tree and dropped his mare’s leg to the ground. The southerner took a moment to tuck his derringer into his boot before stepping out and dropping his pistol alongside of the other gun.

“Get over there and tie them up.” Perez called to one of his men.

Falcon turned and stared hard at the men who had stepped from the trees. With a cry of rage, he hurled himself at Vin Tanner. Ezra sneaked a quick look at Perez before deciding not to interfere. Vin went down under the irate Indian. The two men rolled around on the ground for several minutes before Ezra saw the knife flash in the sunlight. A moment later, Tanner’s cry of pain made the gambler’s blood run cold.

The blade slid between the bones of Vin’s wrist, pinning his right hand to the ground. Falcon slammed his open hand down on the handle of the knife, driving it further into the ground until the hilt touched the sleeve of the hide coat. Pinning the tracker’s left arm with his knee, the Indian used his fists to batter the face and chest of the defenseless man.

The sound of a gunshot stopped the rain of fists. Jack Coleman grabbed the irate Indian and threw him across the open ground. Falcon came to his feet with another knife in his hand and waived it menacingly at the man. There was a blood lust in his eyes as he watched Vin roll over and try to pull the knife from his wrist. Faster that any of them could react; the Indian crossed the space again and kicked the ribs of the buckskin dressed white man.

“That’s enough! Leave him alone!” Perez glared at the Indian and he immediately retreated. Pointing his gun at Ezra, Perez gestured toward Vin. “Help your friend. Don’t try anything heroic or I’ll let Falcon finish what he started.”

Blinking and licking the sweat from his upper lip, Ezra moved to Vin’s side. The tracker had grasped the hilt of the knife and was feebly attempting to remove it from his wrist. Catching the hint of fear in the green eyes, Vin sank onto his back. Grasping the hilt in his right hand, Ezra lowered his knee to Vin’s forearm to hold it still as he pulled the knife upward quickly.

As soon as the blade cleared his flesh, Vin shoved Ezra away and curled into a ball, holding his injured arm to his stomach and hissing in pain. Standish rolled to his knees as soon as he felt Vin push him away, finding himself face to face with the angry Indian. He meekly surrendered the knife and sat back on his heels with his hands up in a supplicating gesture.

“Tie them up. We’ve been here too long as it is.” Perez growled.

“Before he does that, could I perhaps dress the wound on my friend’s arm?” Ezra asked as he watched Vin rocking slightly cradling his injured wrist.

Perez nodded. “You, get him something he can use for a bandage. NOW!” He pointed the pistol into the face of the terrified matronly woman who was clinging to one of the men. The woman moved to the rear of the stage and opened one of the trunks. She withdrew a sheet and handed it to Ezra with trembling hands.

Taking the sheet, Ezra began to tear it into strips. Prying the injured arm out of Vin’s grasp proved to be harder than he expected. Finally, holding the injured wrist, Ezra removed his flask from his jacket pocket without thinking. The sudden sound of guns being drawn caused him to hold up the silver container between his thumb and forefinger to show that is wasn’t a weapon. When the guns eased back, he opened the flask and poured some of the fiery liquid onto the nasty looking gash. Vin winced and wrapped his other arm around his knees as he tried to remain still. Ezra finished cleaning the wound and began to wrap the strips of cloth around it, knotting it securely before handing the flask to Vin.

“Drink that, it will dull the pain.”

Vin took the flask with his trembling left hand and tipped it up against his lips. Before he had taken more than a swallow, the container was knocked from his hand and a vicious backhand knocked him onto his back. Ezra jumped to his feet and slammed his fists into the ribcage of the Indian. A moment later the world exploded into red and gold stars just before the southerner slumped to the ground.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan nodded his thanks to the heavyset Indian woman who handed him a bowl of stew. He and Josiah had been at the reservation for the past few days, checking on the well being of their friends. Relations between some of the tribes and the military were degenerating to bitterness and hard feelings. Many of the young male members of the tribes were picking fights with the soldiers and fighting amongst themselves. Josiah had tried, without success, to explain to the men in charge that the different tribes had different beliefs and that they couldn’t lump them all together because of the similarity in their skin color.

The two men had been patching up the young men as they fought. The tension was reaching a point where Josiah was afraid that it would soon lead to fatalities on both sides. A small contingent of Indians had already left the reservation and was creating havoc among the farms and homesteads nearest the reservation.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra opened his eyes for a moment before the pain in his head commanded them closed again. His body registered that he was moving and that there was another body resting against his side. The sound of a young girl crying caused him to try to open his eyes again. He found himself looking down at the top of the head of the teenaged girl from the stage. Lifting his head slowly, he looked around and noticed the other passengers crowded around him.

“Mr. Tanner? Are you here as well, I hope?” He said softly.

The girl clinging to his chest raised her head and looked at him. “That guy that was with you, that who you’re calling for?”

“Yes, where is he?” Ezra felt a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach.

“That Indian fellow rode off with him. He said that the man had killed his brother and he was taking him back to the tribe to stand trial.”

Ezra’s eyes glazed over as he chewed on his lower lip. The girl lowered her head back to his chest and he found himself pressing his cheek to her head, seeking comfort for the ache in his soul. <<<>>>

Vin scowled as the blood soaked thru the bandage on his arm. He had been trying to work his hands free of the leather strap that bound him to the saddle horn for the past couple of hours. He had to get free before Falcon got him back to wherever his people were camped. The young Indian was part of a group that had run from a reservation over a month ago. The army was cracking down on the tribes, forcing them onto smaller and smaller plots of land as the settlers and homesteaders claimed more and more for themselves. Falcon and his brother had taken hostages and Vin had been forced to shoot one of them to prevent him from killing the young mother of three.

Falcon had been returned to the reservation, only to escape again the next day. He had hooked up with Perez after trying to steal one of their horses when his own had gone lame. Perez had offered the young Indian the chance to use his rage against the white settlers as they made their way across the territory robbing stage coaches and homesteads.

When they reached a sheltered valley, Falcon decided to give the horses a rest. He also wanted to have some fun with his prisoner before he turned him over to his tribe for punishment. Tying the horses to a bush, he jerked Vin down from the saddle and dropped him to the ground, kicking him repeatedly in the sides and back. Dragging the nearly unconscious man to a tree, he passed a rope around the trunk and tied him to the tree by his neck.

Searching the area carefully, he found what he was looking for. Falcon spent a few minutes digging out around a couple of exposed tree roots. Returning to his prisoner, he untied him and dragged him to the new spot. Untying Vin’s hands, he tied one to each of the roots. He then tied his ankles together and tied them to a stake he drove into the ground. Suppressing a cold smile, Falcon waited for the man to waken so he could have his fun.

+ + + + + + +

When the stage stopped, Ezra lifted his head expectantly. A moment later, Perez and Coleman opened the door and began to haul them out and force them to the ground alongside the coach. A fire was built in the clearing and food from the stage was prepared. The food was ladled onto plates and the mother and daughter were given the responsibility for feeding the men because their hands were tied behind their backs. The teenaged girl knelt close to Ezra as her mother moved to the driver and the other man he assumed to be her husband.

“My name in Virginia Foster, but everybody calls me Ginny.”

Ezra put on his best smile for the frightened girl. “My name is Ezra.”

“What do you think they’re going to do with us?” She asked as she looked over at the two men who bristled with weapons and glared angrily at her.

“I’m sure that they will release us when they feel safe. Perhaps you should eat to keep your strength up.” He urged her softly. She looked at the plate in her hand and picked up the spoon.

“He said I should feed you, too. It isn’t too bad actually. It’s not very warm but do you want to try some?” She lifted the spoon and offered it to him. For the next several minutes, the two of them quietly shared the plate of stew. Afterward, Perez called out to the women.

“Get over here with them plates, you should be done by now. Give them a drink from the canteen and hurry up!” He shoved a canteen into each of their hands.

Ginny carefully tipped the canteen for Ezra and wiped his chin apologetically when the water ran down his face. She drank only a little of the water before capping the canteen and settling back on her heels. Coleman looked at the girl kneeling by the man in the bright colored coat. The girl shuddered under his leering gaze.

“Come over here, now!” He gestured to Ginny. The girl looked at Ezra with pure terror in her eyes. Coleman was impatient and strode over to the coach and grabbed the girl up by her hair. She cried out and tried to pry his hand from her hair. He dragged her to the other side of the fire and shoved her down near his bedroll. Her mother jumped to her feet and began to protest.

“No! Please don’t hurt her! She’s just a child!”

Perez walked over to the woman and proceeded to pistol-whip her into silence. Ginny screamed and tried to get to her mother but was quickly restrained by Coleman. The girl was pinned beneath the man and her cries were muffled as the man tried to press his lips to hers. Ezra considered whether he could affect the rescue of the girl without getting any of them killed. He knew that anything he did was likely to make matters worse. Lowering his eyes, he clenched his teeth as he tested his bonds again.

Losing his patience with his partner, Perez nudged Coleman. “Let her go. She’s just a kid.” After several tense moments, Jack rolled off of the girl and she fled, not to her mother, but to Ezra’s side. Clinging to the front of his jacket, she sobbed hysterically. The southerner nuzzled against her head as he tried to calm her.

+ + + + + + +

Vin opened his eyes and looked around. The green, leafy canopy above his head would have been relaxing if it were not for the fact that he was staked out on the ground. He tested his bonds and heard the shuffle of Falcon’s approach.

“Go ahead, try to get loose! I welcome the chance to kill you myself.” The Indian pulled his knife and touched the tip of the blade to Vin’s chin and he leered over him. Shifting the blade, he began to cut the front of the tracker’s shirt. Dragging the point gently down the center of his chest, he raised the knife perpendicular to the body just under the edge of his ribs.

Vin forced himself to lie completely still. Moving would only provoke more pain. He kept his breathing calm and shallow so that his ribcage didn’t move against the point of the blade.

Falcon could see that the prisoner wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of struggling or pleading for his miserable life so he changed tactics. Moving to the bound right hand, he slashed away the knot that held the bandage on the wrist. Flicking the knife, he removed the bandage and began to poke at the earlier injury. The response was everything he hoped for as Tanner began to thrash and cry out. Inserting the blade into the wound, Falcon twisted the blade, forcing the bones apart as Vin screamed until he finally blacked out.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat in front of the saloon wearing a look of silent rage. He didn’t know what was wrong exactly but he had begun to feel as if his skin was itching earlier that afternoon. Not an actual physical itch, but a deeper emotional itch, the kind that drove him to prowl the streets of town seeking something he couldn’t identify. As each circuit of his stalking brought him back to Vin’s wagon he became angry. He passed Miranda Barton on each trip down the boardwalk. She didn’t speak to him until the third time he strode past her shop.

“Mr. Larabee? Is everything all right? You seem upset.”

“There isn’t anything I can put my finger on but I just feel restless.” He leaned against the post with his thumbs tucked into his belt. Miranda kept looking toward the far end of the road as if expecting someone. He smiled. “I’ve been doing that all day.”

“Mr. Standish and I had plans for this evening. I don’t know him very well, but he doesn’t strike me as the type to stand someone up like that.”

“No, that would definitely not be Ezra.” He studied the woman from under the edge of his hat. She seemed to have captured something in the gambler that the previous seamstress, Miss Dunlap, had not been able to do. There was something compelling about the woman he just couldn’t figure out what.

+ + + + + + +

The whooping and gunfire in the camp awakened Josiah and Nathan. Grabbing his gun, Josiah stuck his head cautiously out of the canvas tent and peered around. He found himself facing several braves with rifles and offered up his hands as he was dragged from the tent. Nathan was also yanked form the tent and stripped of his gun and knives. Both men were shoved to their knees before the fire.

The group of braves continued to whoop and jump around the fire, occasionally lashing out with the butt end of their rifles to tag the two white men. Finally, one voice called for silence and the camp fell eerily silent. One young Indian strode around the fire and knelt before the two white men. His eyes were glazed with hatred and blood lust.

“You and your friends have brought us back to this place for the last time! We cannot live like this! Your kind abuses the Mother Earth and ravages her gifts! We are going to be free! We will take back the lands of our fathers.”

“You will bring war to your people. The army will close its fist and crush them. They will crush your souls! Your women will tear at their hair and gash their heads and arms in grief as their husbands and sons are killed,” Josiah intoned softly.

The Indian slammed the butt of his rifle into Josiah’s ribs with a cry of rage. Nathan reached for his friend only to find himself facing one of his own knives. As the rifle was raised again, another voice called out and a body thrust itself between the gun and the downed man.

“Don’t do this! I beg of you! You are sons of the people! You will bring shame on your families and death upon us all if you persist in this course of action. These men only tried to help our people.”

“Old man, if you wish to live in the cage that the white men are building for you, then go, but we wish to live free in the lands of our fathers. We will not submit to the white man’s law! If we let these men live, they will betray us to the army. They will not be allowed to inform the army of our plan!”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra opened his eyes as the first sounds reached his ears. Ginny was wrapped around his chest, drawing warmth from his body. Her arms were around his ribs under his jacket. Coleman and Perez were making coffee. An urgent need drove him to waken the girl.

“Miss Foster, Ginny dear, wake up. Ginny?” The deep ache in his shoulders flared as he tried to move. The girl moved and lifted her eyes to look up at him before blushing and easing away from him.

Coleman tossed a hard glare at the fancy dressed man as he wakened the girl. He was beginning to think it had been a bad idea to bring all of them along as prisoners. They only actually needed the man with the safe combinations. He had refused to cooperate unless they brought all of the others along. Ginny’s father had hatched the plan to rob the banks after working in the factory where the vaults were manufactured. He had learned how to install a second combination in each safe so that he could get into it no matter what other combination was laid down in it after it was delivered. Perez and Coleman were the muscle he hired to help him to carry out the plan. One of the vaults was recently installed in a brand new Wells Fargo office not far from Eagle Bend. The office was being used to hold the army payroll for the forts that were securing the reservations in the new territory.

“Don’t get any ideas over there. I can still shoot you as easily as look at you.” Jack hissed as he pointed his finger at Ezra.

“My only idea was to ask if I might be released from my bonds long enough to relieve my aching bladder. I assure you that I will offer no resistance. I have no desire to endanger my person or any of the other hostages.” The southerner was careful not to sound too cocky or to provoke Coleman with an inadvertent smile.

Jack walked over and jerked Ezra to his feet. Shoving him toward the trees, he untied the gambler’s hands and thumbed back the lever on his gun. Without bothering to turn around, Ezra tended to his call of nature before turning around and offering himself again for bonding.

“I would appreciate it if you would tie them in front of me for a while. I assure you, I will take no action against you or your partner.”

Coleman sized up the smaller man before securing his hands together in front of him and shoving him back toward the coach. He then escorted each of the other two men over to similarly relieve themselves. Ginny reacted with a horrified expression when Jack suggested that she should also take advantage of the time to see to her needs.

“Both of you, go on now! If you try anything at all, I will shoot one of them.” He waived his gun at the men and the women moved off, clinging to each other as they walked to the trees. The women returned a few minutes later and then they were all loaded back into the coach.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah pulled himself back up to his knees still clutching his stomach. He held out his hand as if to ask permission to speak as he gasped for breath. “What if we agree to stay here on the reservation until you are well away. If you are determined to do this thing, don’t start out by killing people. We won’t reveal your plan to anyone.”

“Why should I believe you, white man? Your kind has been making promises to our people since you first arrived here. You have yet to keep those promises.” The disgust and disdain the young Indian felt for the white man was evident in the hatred dripping from his voice.

The older Indian spoke. “Josiah has spent time among the people. He carries a medicine pouch from a Cherokee holy man. He has great respect for us and for our ways. I will vouch for him. If he gives his word, he will not violate it.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin awakened and looked around. Falcon was sleeping against a tree within easy reach of his prisoner. The Indian opened his eyes as the rustle of leaves announced that the man had resumed his struggles. Rising to his feet, he walked over and dug his heel into the wound on the tracker’s right arm. The scream of agony was a sweet sound to the angry man.

Kneeling at Vin’s hip, Falcon placed the point of his knife against the thigh of the bound man. Slowly, steadily applying pressure, he pushed the knife into the muscle. When the prisoner didn’t cry out as he expected, he turned the knife savagely, eliciting a scream as the bound body bucked in the ropes.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra rested his elbows on his upraised knees as the coach rocked gently. Perez had closed the curtains so that the hostages had no idea where they were going. Ginny crept across the floor and pressed her back against the seat next to the gambler. He raised his arms and lowered them around the girl as she leaned against his chest. He rested his cheek against the top of her head and dozed off.

+ + + + + + +

Chris woke up that morning with a headache worse than any hangover he could remember. Vin and Ezra should have been back already and he just knew in the core of his being that they were in trouble. He passed Mrs. Barton on his way to the saloon. She was sitting outside of the shop, staring up the street again.

“Morning, Ma’am.” He touched his hat as he stopped in front of her.

“They’re in trouble. You feel it don’t you? Every time I pick up Ezra’s jacket I feel it.”

“Yep, I get the same feeling when I pass Vin’s wagon. Buck and I are going out after breakfast. I sent telegrams to all of the towns along the way back from the territory prison. There’s a stage missing that should have arrived in Eagle Bend yesterday. I sent JD out to the reservation to bring Josiah and Nathan back.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin screamed as Falcon touched the red-hot tip of the knife to the new wound on his leg. He had an assortment of tiny burns on his chest and stomach from the same source. He was so thirsty that he almost could not voice his pain. The throbbing pain in his right wrist was almost a part of him now. The wound was festering and there were ants crawling over and around the bloody flesh. His back arched and he screamed again as the Indian ground his heel into the wound on his thigh.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had come to a decision. The next time they stopped, he would use the derringer to attempt to affect their release. He was afraid that the men would grow tired of hauling all of them around and decide to kill them. He had hoped that his complacency would have caused them to lower their guard. Every time they had looked into the coach that day, he had been cradling Ginny against his chest; he hoped they had come to expect it. If he was wrong it could mean all their deaths.

+ + + + + + +

JD rode onto the reservation and began to look for his friends. He noticed the surreptitious glances from the Indians as he rode thru the camp. He spotted Prophet and Hippocrates in the corral but didn’t see his friends anywhere. Climbing down from Lady’s back, he approached one of the teepees.

“Excuse me, ma’am, do you know where I might find Nathan and Josiah?” When the woman shied away from him, he tried another person. “Please, can you tell me where my friends are?” He led the horse amongst the dwellings as he asked everyone if they had seen Josiah and Nathan.

After several minutes, JD was more than a little worried and he was becoming angry. He put Lady in the corral with the other two horses and began to systematically search the shelters. Seeing the young sheriff so obviously looking for someone, the soldier approached him.

“Are you looking for someone, Sheriff?”

JD looked gratefully at the Private. “Yeah, my two friends came out here several days ago and now I can’t find them and no one will talk to me.”

“You mean the black fellow and the big, gray haired man? They were using that tent right over there. I haven’t seen either of them today, though. It’s strange; there seem to be several braves and horses missing from this quarter of the reservation. I think I better get the Lieutenant and check this out.” The Private turned to leave only to find himself facing a wall of angry looking Indians.

JD drew both of his colts and pointed them at the approaching men. “Now y’all stay back! I don’t want to have to shoot any of you but I will. I just want to find my friends and get out of here!” As he spoke, he backed away from the advancing line until he found himself against the tent. “Stay back! I mean it, I’ll shoot!”

A deep base voice from behind him startled him badly. “You don’t want to be doing that, son, we’re right here.”

JD’s head snapped around to see Josiah and Nathan standing among a group of older men. His eyes scanned the crowd as his mind struggled to figure out what was wrong. He continued to hold his guns in a defensive position as he looked from the crush of approaching Indians to his friends.

Josiah stepped over to JD and eased his arm across the front of the young man, causing him to lower his guns. As the colts slid into their holsters, he looked closely at the older man for the first time. His friend looked as if he had not slept well the night before. He noticed that Josiah held one arm protectively over his ribs as if they pained him.

“What’s going on here, Josiah? We have to get back to town. Vin and Ezra are missing and the stage didn’t make Eagle Bend yesterday.”

“We can’t leave yet, JD. You’ll have to trust me on this. We have to stay here for a while longer.”

JD blinked in confusion at Josiah. “No! Vin and Ezra are missing! We have to go looking for them. Chris is all wound up and glaring at everything and everyone! Come on, both of you, we have to get back to town!”

Nathan reached out for the young man to draw him away from the threatening group of people advancing on him. Josiah pulled the Private along with them as they were escorted thru the camp to one of the few wooden buildings on the reservation. One of the younger men shoved JD as he reached the door.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra heard Perez call for the coach to stop. He lifted his arms from around Ginny and eased her behind him. He slipped his fingers into the top of his boot and removed the derringer. Four pairs of eyes widened and he gave them what he hoped was a confidant gaze. The men moved up onto the benches on one side of the coach and the women moved to the other.

Coleman and Perez moved to the coach. Perez had the rifle resting across his arms, not expecting any trouble from the hostages.

“Okay, get out here and sit down!” Jack jerked the door open and called inside.

Ezra pulled the trigger, striking Coleman in the head. In the instant it took for him to aim at Perez, the rifle came up and both men fired at the same time. The derringer bullet struck Perez in the heart, Perez’s hit Ezra in the chest, high on the left side. All three men collapsed amid the screams of the women in the coach.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was shaking with fever when Falcon untied him and tossed him onto his horse. He barely felt it as his hands were lashed to the saddle horn. Weak from fever, hunger and thirst, the young tracker’s head hung on his chest bobbing as he rode. The sight of his wrist made him sick to his stomach. The tissue was badly infected and it had ants and maggots crawling in it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris paced the length of the saloon. Rage rolled off of the man in sheets. No one would approach him or speak to him. Most people wouldn’t even look his way. JD should have been back with the others by now and he was beginning to worry. Buck paced on the boardwalk.

Miranda watched Buck as he paced. She had carried the royal blue jacket and liner out to the boardwalk and sat in her chair as she forced herself to work. It had become her goal to have the coat finished for him when Ezra returned to town. It helped her to have a something to do.

+ + + + + + +

JD paced in the confines of the small room. Josiah wouldn’t tell him why they were staying at the reservation. He knew Chris would be angry when he didn’t return as expected. Glaring at both of his friends, the young sheriff made his way to the door and tried to leave the building. Several of the village elders stood in his way and held out their arms to hold him back.

+ + + + + + +

Ginny climbed down from the bench and tried to pull Ezra up and into her arms. The blood pouring from the hole in his chest was spreading a rose stain on his brocade vest. The girl lifted her frightened eyes to her mother and then to her father.

+ + + + + + +

Vin smelled the smoke from the fires of the nearby village and raised his head slowly. It was a small band of Indians, not a full village, judging from the sparse number of dwellings in the sheltered valley. He blanched when he saw the open hatred on the faces of the people as he rode past them. Allowing his head to drop back to his chest, the tracker lost consciousness.

+ + + + + + +

“You can’t just keep sitting there! Vin and Ezra may be hurt or dying! Why are you just sitting there? Don’t you care? I don’t understand the two of you!” JD shouted and gesticulated before the two older men.

Josiah shifted in his seat and looked at Nathan. “I think we’ve been here long enough, brother.”

The dark skinned healer nodded and looked up at the elders standing near the door. Both men came to their feet and strode purposefully toward the exit. The Indians looked up with startled expressions as Josiah swept them out of the way like so much chaff in the wind. JD followed his friends, drawing the Private along with him.

All three of the lawmen marched thru the village and to the corral where their horses waited. Ignoring the angry looks of the elders as they mounted, Josiah made an apologetic gesture to them before he turned his horse and followed Nathan and JD out of the reservation.

Buck saw the approaching horses and darted to the doorway of the saloon. “Chris! They’re riding in! Let’s go!”

The five regulators rode out of town in the direction of Eagle Bend. Chris rode in the front with Buck close on his heels. Nathan had stopped to get more supplies before racing to catch up with the others.

+ + + + + + +

The ground was hard and unforgiving as Vin slammed into it from the horse’s back. A cry of pain tore from his mouth as his injured arm was jarred. Immediately, he was kicked brutally in the side several times and struggled to avoid making another sound. From his time among the Indians, he knew that crying out was a sign of weakness and would be swiftly punished.

Falcon grabbed his prisoner by the hair and jerked him to his feet. He dragged the nearly unconscious man thru the small cluster of dwellings before throwing him from his feet near a large fire. As the cry went out thru the valley, all of the braves gathered around the bonfire to jeer at and spit on the helpless white man.

+ + + + + + +

Opening his eyes, Ezra found himself looking into the worried face of the young girl. It hurt to breathe and he was dizzy, but he was alive! His eyes shifted around the small clearing. He immediately began to try to rise from the pallet he was laying on.

“Be still! Don’t move or you’ll start bleeding again. Momma! He’s waking up!” Ginny called as she kept both hands on the shoulders of the gambler. After a moment, the older woman knelt at his side and drew back his shirt. She lifted the pad that was pressed against the bullet wound in Ezra’s chest.

“The bleeding has stopped. Hand me that other pad, I want to get this one off.” The woman’s hands were firm but gentle as she eased the bloody pad away from the wound and replaced it with the fresh one. Her eyes were sympathetic as she pressed the pad hard against his chest. “We will leave here at first light and get you to Four Corners. Do you think you could bear to sit up and drink some soup?”

Ezra nodded and lifted his right hand to pull himself up. A sharp pain took his breath as he drew to a sitting position. Pulling his left arm across his chest, he clenched his eyes shut as he rode out the pain. He felt someone touch his back and found himself being supported by Ginny. Reaching over his shoulder with his right hand, he caressed her face in thanks.

+ + + + + + +

Vin arched his back against the pain as the sharp, pointed sticks prodded his wounds. He had been staked out on the ground near the bonfire and the braves were taking turns tormenting him. Falcon had decreed that he would be executed at sunrise.

+ + + + + + +

The Private made sure that the three lawmen were safely away before informing his commander that several of the braves had escaped the reservation. A telegram was sent to the nearest fort requesting a contingent of soldiers to help with the search for the braves to bring them back.

Twenty soldiers rode out of the fort and headed for the reservation. Their scout, an Indian from another tribe, rode well ahead of the others searching for tracks. He spun his horse on its heels and raced back to tell the Captain that he had found something. The tracks of several heavily loaded travois cut thru the forest.

+ + + + + + +

The rocking motion of the coach lulled the fevered gambler as he squeezed the hand of the girl whose lap his head lay in. Ginny had been mopping the sweat from his brow thru the night and morning after her parents had put him into the coach. He was piled with blankets and made as comfortable as possible for the journey home.

Chris stood up in his stirrups as he stared at the coach coming towards them. He motioned the others off of the road as he stopped to wait for the coach to catch up. An older man and woman sat up front of the coach. They pulled up the horses as soon as they came close to the man in the middle of the road.

“How far is it to Four Corners?” Mr. Foster asked of the dark clothed man on the horse.

“Why do you ask?”

“We’ve got an injured man in there. He lives in Four Corners. He needs a doctor, he’s been shot.”

Nathan bolted out of the cover of the trees and climbed up on the side of the coach. The young girl looked up, startled at the sudden appearance of the dark skinned man in the window of the door. She leaned protectively over the prone form of the man lying in her lap.

“Chris! It’s Ezra!” Nathan jerked the door open and climbed inside, reaching to check for a pulse in the pale wrist that lay on top of the blanket. The heat of his fever was apparent in that simple touch.

“He was shot, mister. We did everything we knew to do for him. Please mister, you have to save him! He kept us alive!” Ginny’s voice wavered as she dropped her eyes to Ezra’s face. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she mopped the sweat from his face again.

+ + + + + + +

The soldiers surrounded the small camp of Indians. The braves were so engrossed in what they were doing that they never heard the approach of the soldiers. Using binoculars, the Captain tried to figure out what the braves were tormenting. His eyes widened as he saw the pale flesh between the moving bodies. Turning to the Private at his side, he issued orders to take all of the Indians in the camp.

The Captain stepped into the firelight and called out to the braves.

“Put down your weapons and surrender or we’ll open fire!” The sudden silence was filled with the sound of the soldier’s shotguns being pumped.

Several of the braves gave war cries and rushed the soldiers. The sudden, simultaneous firing of a dozen or so guns was deafening in the small valley. By the time it was over, all the Indians were dead or dying. The Captain and Lieutenant rushed toward the bonfire to the bound, white captive.

The young man was unconscious, bleeding from several wounds and burning up with fever. They cut the bonds from his limbs and moved him away from the fire. Bringing a bedroll from one of their horses, they covered the man until they figured out what to do with him.

The Lieutenant asked the Captain, “Do you think he’ll live?”

“Did you see the wound on his arm? He’s sure to lose it even if he survives the rest of what happened. With the fever he’s got burning him up, he may not make it. If he’s to have any chance at all, we have to get him back to the fort.”

“Private Morrissey, find one of their travois and let’s get him back to the doctor at the fort.”

The Indian tracker approached the injured man and took up his wounded arm. He studied the suppurating gash and looked up at the soldier.

“I can make a poultice to draw out the poison. It will buy him time.”

“How long will it take?”

“I can finish before you get all the bodies on the horses to take back to the fort.”

“Do it.”

The tracker pulled his medicine pouch and poured the contents into his hand. He sprinkled them in the water heating in the pot by the fire. He found the roots he needed and mashed them into a pulp. Searching thru the Indian shelters, he found a reasonably clean shirt and drained the liquid from the pulpy mush. He carried the poultice to the man and knelt at his side. Gently lifting the arm, he applied the hot poultice and wrapped the cloth around the wrist. The man moaned softly at the new pain before slipping into silence again.

The wounded man was lifted onto the travois, which was attached to the only horse bearing an identifying brand, presumably the man’s own animal. Tying all the Indian ponies to several lengths of rope, they left the valley.