After the Peace

Jaye B.

Warp and Woof

Chris Larabee had moved from sitting on the bolder to sitting on the ground in front of the bolder. The adrenaline from the fire fight was wearing off causing a tiredness to invade his being. The other men had gone to move the bodies, set up camp and take care of the horses. The only company he had was the boy. He closed his eyes leaning his head against the rock wishing he had a bottle of whiskey to dull his aching arm.

Ezra Standish was wary of the black clad man beside him. He knew that Mr. Wilmington hadn't really given him a job, just wanted him to stay out of the way. Observing the grimace of pain that crossed the man's face, Ezra asked, "Are you well, Mr. Larabee? Do I need to get Mr. Jackson for you?"

"No. I'm fine."

Ezra didn't believe him for a minute. You could obliviously see the pain and fatigue that lined the man's face but the boy kept silent. After ten minutes of strained silence, he pulled out his deck of cards. "Care for a game of chance?"

Chris snapped his eyes opened and looked at the small child who was shuffling some cards. Had he heard right? "What did you say?" he questioned.

"Would you like to play some cards? I know this is not a proper environment for such activities but one must make do with what one has." replied Ezra as he continued to shuffle his cards.

Chris took a long look at the little boy beside him. He was having a hard time understanding this child. Maybe playing whatever game Ezra knew would help keep his mind off the pain in his arm. He straightened up from his resting place as he said, "Sure."

"Excellent. We can use this blanket as a table. Would you like to play five card stud or is there another game you would prefer?"

"You know how to play poker?" a stunned Chris asked. He thought they would be playing some kid's game. How could a child know how to gamble? Better question is why?

"Of course, it is a gentlemen's game after all. Are we going to be wagering? I do have some money if you would like to play table stakes." informed Ezra as if it nothing.

Chris blinked again. Money? He knew how to play for money? There was no way he was going to take this kid's money from him. "No money."

Ezra was disappointed but conceded to the injured man's wishes. "As you wish, though it would be more exciting. If we cannot play for real money, how about we use our imagination? No money will exchange hands, this is just for practice."

This boy surprised Chris again. He asked, "How will we keep score?"

Pulling a small pad and pencil from inside his jacket, Ezra replied, "No problem. I have the instruments on hand. Now what will the ante be?"

"Uh, two bits?" suggested a confused Chris.

"Come, come, Mr. Larabee. Since we are not using real currency lets at least make it interesting and worthwhile. How about five dollars ante with raises of no lower than five dollars also?"

"Uh...sure. Not playing for real money anyway."

"Wonderful. Now since you shouldn't be using that arm, I will shuffle and deal while you can cut the cards." Ezra got down to business.

For the next hour, Chris and Ezra played cards as the other men set up camp. Buck had walked back after he and Josiah had moved Maze's body. He chuckled at the sight of his friend playing some kid's card game. A flash of memory surfaced where Chris was playing a game with his son Adam. A moment of pain and loss was felt before he shoved aside the disturbing picture. He grinned as he saw the total concentration that the man and boy were giving to their cards before he rejoined Josiah to move the rest of the bodies. Sometime during that hour of play, each man had made an appearance in the camp smiling at the child and gunslinger. Nathan had started to say something to stop the game until he realized that no money was changing hands. Of all the others, Nathan was the only one who knew that Ezra could beat Chris in poker.

The others had the camp set up, horses taken care of and supper cooking by the end of that hour. The bodies of the bushwhackers were pulled a long way from their camp, not bothering to bury them. At the end of the hour, they all gathered around the two card players to watch. Chris was flabbergasted and frustrated. If he didn't know better, he would swear that he was playing with a profession gambler. The child had the best poker face he had ever seen. He couldn't tell what was going on while they were playing. Ezra's face would be blank throughout the play and then, when Chris would lay down his hand thinking he had won, the boy's would smile this cocky grin while his eyes sparkled as he played his cards. So far he had won every hand...but not this time. Chris looked at his full house and grinned. There was no way the boy was going to beat this. Laying down his hand he said, "Full house."

Chris' heart sank as there came that smirk before Ezra laid down his hand saying, "Four Jacks, sir." Grabbing the pad and pencil, the boy made the notions then calculated the figures. Chris' eyes stared at the four of a kind hand. Damn it! He had won again. His eyes narrowed as he glared at the pint size card shark. Chris had played with professional gamblers before but never had he seen such luck. Surly there was no way this kid was cheating?

"Wow! Did you see that Buck? Ez beat Chris again." exclaimed JD as he watched the child scribbled on his paper.

'That's Ezra, two syllables Mr. Dunne." corrected the child as he continued to add. Vin snorted trying not to laugh, Josiah covered his smile with his hand, and Nathan bit his lip trying not to grin while Buck chortled out loud.

The sun was starting to lower as Ezra finished his math saying, "That brings the total to $300 that you would owe me if we were playing for money, Mr. Larabee." Putting aside his pencil and pad, he picked up the cards again. Shuffling as he turned innocent eyes on Chris, he asked, "Another hand, sir?"

Buck, gasping from his laughter, said, "$300? You lost $300? You better stop while you are ahead, Chris. Next thing you know you'll be betting the ranch."

Chris just glared at his friend which made Buck laugh all the harder. The laughter was so infectious that the others started grinning as they watched the jovial gunslinger.

Except Ezra who added his own glare stating calmly, "And why are you laughing? He is playing with one of the best poker players east of the Mississippi if not the best."

The tone of voice caused the others to stop smiling. Standing up suddenly, Ezra continued scathingly, "I'll have you know that I've been playing cards since I was three years old when I could hold a deck in my hands. One of my first sentences was 'How many cards do you want?' Just because I'm nine does not mean I am incapable. Mother always said appearances are everything and that they can be deceiving. I resent your remarks about Mr. Larabee's playing as they also reflect on my abilities. Do you think you can do any better, Mr. Wilmington? If so I'll be glad to play a few games with you sir."

Mouths had dropped open as astonished looks passed from one man to another during the boy's speech. Chris was overwhelmed at the outburst of Ezra. The boy was defending him even though he didn't need it. The child had spirit and gumption to stand up to a man four times his size. Buck looked like a puppy had suddenly turned into a wolf before his eyes.

"Ezra, I'm sure Buck didn't mean it that way." Nathan tried to sooth the flustered child. It had been a long strenuous day for the boy. He could see the dark smudges forming under Ezra's eyes. After all it had only been a few weeks since the child had been able to walk on his own after his illness. He still had bouts of weakness sometimes bringing on a fever when he was fatigued. Nathan could see the signs of tiredness in Ezra.

At Nathan's words Ezra realized he had over reacted. "You are right Nathan." Walking over to Buck, he stuck out his hand. "I apologize for my outburst Mr. Wilmington."

Buck was shocked at the child's reaction. He hadn't meant anything by it but was just teasing Chris. Looking at the boy standing with his hand in front of him Buck replied, "Sure. No hard feelings." Taking the boy's hand he shook it seriously. "And I'm sorry if my words offended you, Ezra. I was just teasing Chris."

Ezra searched Buck face. His mother had trained him in reading people. He saw only sincerity in the jovial cowboy before him. Nodding his head, he said, "Accepted. I will still play with you if you want to, Mr. Wilmington."

"No more tonight Ezra. You still have to eat and then take your bath." said Nathan. He knew the mention of a bath would please the child. Nathan was also counting on it relaxing Ezra enough to go to bed early.

Ezra's face brightened immediately at the mention of a bath. He had been thrown twice onto the ground and he was dusty as well as tired. It was a tribute to how weary the boy was as he conceded to Nathan's wishes.

"Then it's a good thing supper is almost done, brothers." announced Josiah to the group. "Let's eat."

Supper consisted of beans, roasted rabbit and corn bread washed down with coffee. Nathan had put water in Ezra's cup so as not to keep the boy up. Soon everyone would be adding water to the coffee except Vin who had made it.

Sputtering after taking a drink, Chris said, "What the hell? Who made the coffee?"

"I did." replied Vin as he took a sip. "What's the matter? Taste alright to me."

"Yeah? Well it would be better if there was water in here with the coffee." uttered Buck as he grabbed his water canteen. "Coffee so strong it could up and walk away on its own."

JD eyes were bugging out as he tried to swallow his mouthful of coffee. Finally swallowing, he bent over coughing loudly. Josiah took JD's plate before he could drop it, waiting for the lad to catch his breath.

Buck snatched the kid's cup throwing away it contents. "You better stick to water until the morning JD. You've got enough energy without drinking this stuff. It would keep you up all night."

JD nodded in agreement as he took the water from Buck taking a drink to clear his throat. "Gosh...that is so strong! How can you stand it Vin? Won't that keep you up all night? I mean that coffee don't know how to describe it! What do you say Buck? Chris?"

"Dang it! See what just that one sip did to him!" declared Buck to Vin who just shook his head. "He's rowdy enough without any outside help."

"Wimps. You can't even handle a little coffee."

The banter flew back and forth in a companionable way as they continued to eat their meal. Nathan had surreptitiously watched Ezra as they ate. The boy consumed about half before he began shoving the rest around on his plate waiting for the others to finish. That was another sign of the weariness that had come upon the boy. Chris had also noticed that the child had not eaten much.

Nathan finally said, "Ezra you had enough? If you have, let's head for the creek over there."

Ezra gave a grateful smile to his friend as he stood up to follow. They went to their bedrolls that were already spread out for the night to get towels and soap. The child also pulled a clean shirt out as they gathered their things. Heading for the trees that were between the creek and camp, Nathan took Ezra hand as the boy asked if they could wash his shirt as he had been thrown down twice that day and was that necessary both times? Nathan reply was lost as they past into the trees.

"That's a strange pair." observed Buck as he watched them leave. "Wonder what their story is?"

"Wonder where his mother and father are?" questioned JD.

"Probably dead." said Vin as he started to gather up their plates and utensils. "Come on JD, help me wash things up." Soon both men were heading down creek from the pair that was bathing leaving Josiah, Buck and Chris at camp.

Buck reached over to his saddlebag pulling out a bottle of whiskey. Uncorking it he took a drink before handing it to Chris who nodded his thanks. After taking a long swig, he handed it over to Josiah who drank then gave it back to Buck.

"What is a puzzle about Nathan and Ezra is how those two got together?" queried Josiah. "It's not everyday that you see a black man taking care of a white southern boy without a whip over him."

Chris agreed with Josiah. They had just fought a war over people owning others, winning freedom for all. Still there was hatred and bigotry on all sides. Buck looked towards where the two oddities had gone.

"Maybe the boy's father owned Nathan. Could be his parents were killed and Nathan's so use to taking care of him that he's still doing it." thought Buck out loud. It had been a mystery to those who fought for the North when many of those that were freed still followed old patterns of master and slave. Usually it was the old slaves who knew nothing else, not the younger ones like Nathan.

"Don't think it's like that though I guess it could be. Noticed the way the boy follows his orders. It seems to me that if the boy was his master's son he would be giving the orders instead of following them. Those two act more like friends or brothers." stated Josiah.

"Don't matter." replied Chris as he took the bottle from Buck again. Taking another drink he said. "That damned war changed a lot of things and it none of our business."

Josiah took the whiskey from Chris saying, "Your right. Whatever their story, we'll hear it when their ready or won't if they so incline. They are trying to make their way just like everyone else in this world, I suppose." Josiah took a drink and passed the bottle over to Buck.

Buck received the bottle as he said, "I say their still a strange pair. Mighty curious."

Nathan had helped Ezra take his shirt off beside the creek. "Oh Ezra, why didn't you tell me?"

Bruises dotted the boy's torso front and back. Kneeling beside the child, Nathan began prodding to check the extent of the damage. Ezra stood silently knowing it would do no good to protest. His friend would persist until he got his way and Nathan was very determined when it came to helping the injured. After the third time of scanning the same contusions, Ezra moved away saying, "Enough Nathan. I'm alright."

"Okay, they don't appear to be too bad. Here ya go, lets get cleaned up." Nathan handed to the boy his wash cloth and the soap. Stripping off his shirt, he knelt beside the child as they washed the dirt and grime of the day off.

"Nathan, do you think they will sell us two of the ruffian's horses?" asked Ezra as he dipped his rag into the creek. Taking the soap, he lathered it good before handing it to his friend. After wiping his face with the cloth, he splashed the soap off as he waited for Nathan's reply.

"Don't know. Suppose it wouldn't hurt to ask. We got any money?" replied the black man as he prepared his own wash cloth. "Make sure you get your ears real good."

A roll of the eyes was the only sign that Nathan received. He grinned as he said, "I'll be checking. Let me check your back before ya put on your shirt too, Ezra. I want to make sure your healing right."

"I'm fine, Nathan. There's no more pain." The boy bent down to dip his rag again before soaping his chest and arms.

"I know but I just want to make sure. Don't want ya to risk infection." he replied as he rinsed off. Taking his cloth he lathered it again. "Ya finished so I can get your back?"

Ezra washed the soap off his arms and chest before he presented his back to Nathan. He stood still as Nathan first soaped then rinsed his back. He waited as his friend inspected his back by running his fingers up and down over the scars. Nathan stopped over those that were the most recent prodding them for signs of infection. Finally he said, "Looks good, but your still too thin. Now ya remember if ya start to feeling weak, I need to know. Just as a precaution, I want ya to drink the herbal mixture I'm gonna make." Holding up his hands to stop the protest that Ezra was sputtering, he continued, "I know, I know it tastes bad. But it is building up your strength. It's not been that long since you were real sick, Ezra. So I just making sure, okay?"

Grabbing one of the towels, Nathan dried himself off before putting his shirt back on. Seeing the concerned and worry on his guardian's face, Ezra heated reply froze in his throat as he looked up. His face grew solemn as he hung his head, "I know Nathan. I'm sorry for worrying you so."

Grabbing the other towel, Nathan began to rub the boy dry. "It's okay Ezra. It's not your fault to begin with. You should never have been beaten like that. Now let wash that shirt of yours."

Ezra had learned at an earlier age that no one would look out for him but him. As he was left with one relative after another then finally sold, his education had solidified that there was no one who loved him. His mother's training of not revealing his emotions had gotten him through the worst. That is until Nathan scooped him up in Atlanta after their masters were killed. Every since then he had come to the realization that there was at least one person who cared about him. Slowly his perception had begun to change. Watching his friend as he washed his shirt, Ezra felt gratitude and love. In a rare moment of abandonment as his guardian was bent over the creek, Ezra threw his arms around Nathan's neck from behind giving him a hug. Whispering he said, "Thanks for being there. Thanks for caring."

Caught off guard, Nathan went still. Knowing how uncommon it was for the child to show emotion, he grinned as the warmth of the moment filled his soul. Gently he patted the boys arms slung around his neck, replying, "Thank you too Ezra. Thank you."

After another emotional moment passed, Nathan harrumphed, "Now let me finish this shirt of yours. We still got to go back so ya can take that herbal drink."

"Aww, Nathan," groaned Ezra as he released him.

"What? You think you could get out of it? Nope. Still got to take it." confirmed Nathan as he finished cleaning the boy's shirt. Gathering up the rest of their belonging, they headed back to camp.

JD had followed Vin to the small creek. Both men started cleaning the eating utensils as JD questioned Vin about his life. They chatted amicably with JD supplying answers to questions that Vin wondered about but would not ask. Soon they were finished and heading back to the camp site. The arrived just as Nathan and Ezra returned.

Noticing that a whiskey bottle was being passed around, Nathan handed Ezra his shirt saying, "Spread your shirt on that bush there, Ezra. I'll get your medicine started. Chris, I need to check you wound and change you bandage."

Ezra arranged his shirt over the bush Nathan had pointed out then went over to sit on his bedroll. He would never admit it but he was feeling fatigued. He watched as his friend tended to Mr. Larabee. The gunslinger patiently accepted the ministrations of the healer as he un-wrapped his arm, checked for infection then wrapped it up again. Ezra yawned.

Nathan noticed his charge's tiredness. Turning to his patient, he asked, "Ya need anything for the pain?"

Chris looked at the healer as he shook his head. "Nope. Got all the medicine I need here." he said as he took another swig of the bottle that had been passed to him again. Vin reached over and took it from Chris saying, "Share, Cowboy." This earned him another glare and growled, "Don't call me that." Vin just grinned.

"Suit yourself. Be better if you had some tea for the pain then that stuff. Might not be feeling any pain now, but in the morning will be a different matter." Nathan went over to his saddlebag pulling out his teas and herbs. Quickly he mixed several things together in a cup before adding water. Stirring the contents, he walked over to Ezra handing him his drink.

Making a face, the boy swallowed the contents as fast as he could. Handing the cup back to Nathan, Ezra reached for his satchel. Suddenly the boy jumped up going to his guardian waving for him to bend over. As Nathan's ear came close, Ezra whispered so only he could hear, "We've go an extra $60 for the horses." Trust the child to remember important things, well at least important to him thought Nathan.

"Goodnight Nathan. Goodnight gentlemen." addressed the boy as he went back to his bed.

A chorus of goodnights was herald back to Ezra. Nathan watched as the child grabbed his bag again before crawling into his bedroll. He wrapped his arms around the satchel almost curling around it. Ezra faced the group of men lying still as he watched them. Shaking his head, Nathan washed out the cup before going over to his bedroll by Ezra and sitting down. He knew the boy wouldn't fall asleep easily with so many strangers around. Reaching again into his saddlebags Nathan brought out this dark brown leather bundle. Rolling it open, he grasped one of several sharp knives that lined what now looked to be a pocketed belt. Drawing it out he again fumbled around his bag as he brought forth a whetstone to sharpen his blades on. Soon all that could be heard was the rasping of the knife as it slid across the stone.

Vin had watched sadly with knowing eyes as the boy clutched his belongings. He remembered a time when he had trusted no one around him either. It got to the point that with everything being taken from you, you clung to that which you had fiercely. He had had a knife himself and would have killed anyone who touched his things. Vin wondered what weapon the boy had. He looked toward Chris waiting to catch his eye. Chris blinked then turned to Vin. Vin eyes mirrored his thoughts to Larabee. Chris nodded in acknowledgement.

Buck had seen many a weary soldier hug their only mementos in the same why that Ezra clutched his bag. He felt sorrow in his heart as he beheld the movements of the small boy. No child should fear or mistrust so much at that age. His life should ring with joy and laughter. He glanced at JD seeing the understanding flash in his eyes. Looking at the others around him, he noticed that they all fathomed the distrust that Ezra had. It hurt every one of them to think that a child feared them.

Nathan started humming as he sharpened his knives. The others listened to the pleasant sound of his voice. The watched as Ezra eyes fastened onto his friend. A few minutes passed as they saw the boy's eyes blink as he fought sleep.

Vin realized what Nathan was trying to do but he knew that Ezra felt their eyes on the both of them, it was making him tense. Trying to break the tension, he looked down saying, "Should get an early start tomorrow."

Chris looked and nodded, "Yep. Better figure out a watch schedule."

Vin said, "JD can take first watch, then me. Buck followed by Josiah should see us to the morning. If no one has any objection."

Nathan said in singsong voice, "I could stand watch."

Josiah grinned, "Brother, I think your about worn out with taken care of Chris there and the excitement."

"Besides you'll have to deal with Chris in the morning and he's not a morning person." stated Buck. He just grinned at the glare he received.

Another twenty minutes of chatting passed as they watched a little boy lose his battle with sleep. Nathan kept humming until he was sure that Ezra was fast asleep. Sighing he reached over and tuck the blanket higher around his friend. Quietly he got up and moved over to sit with the other men.

Whispering Buck said, "How is the little fellow? "

They jumped as Nathan spoke in his normal tone. "He'll be fine in the morning. He's just a little tired."

Buck ask, "Shouldn't we be whispering so as not to wake him"

"Lord, no. The boy is soundly asleep now. The only things that can wake him now would be thunder or the breaking of a stick. In fact, we may have a little trouble getting him up real early. That boy and the sun don't see eye to eye." chuckled Nathan.

Josiah studied Nathan as he spoke. "Where did you learn to doctor?"

Nathan answered, "My last master was a good doctor and decent man. He never treated me like a slave but more like an assistant. He would have me help him during his surgeries explaining everything he did. He would say that while he might have to say he owned me in society he didn't because no man could own another. He told me he bought me to teach me to be a doctor because he saw that I had the healing in me. He always said there would come a time when anyone could be a doctor. No matter what."

"Sounds like a right good man to know." stated JD. "What happened to him?"

"Got killed when the Union soldiers overran Atlanta and won the war."

"You were in Atlanta during the siege?" asked Josiah. Each man knew about the last battle of the war. "I heard that many didn't escape the bombing."

"Lord that was the truth. Out of the ten of us that were hiding in a cellar when the shelling started, four of us walked out of that city three days later. Three days of..." stopped Nathan shaking his head.

"Shelling was that bad?" asked JD as he shifted into a more comfortable spot. Everyone waited patiently for Nathan to answer as talking about something so recently was painful.

"Weren't the shelling that got most of us. Bands of people would catch one or two of us and beat them to death...or hang'em."

A shocked JD gasped, "What? Why would they do that?"

Nathan looked at the young man with sad eyes as he shook his head replying, "I don't know. We were hiding...not hurting anybody. Just trying to survive the bombing and find any food or water we could."

"Fear...fear and hatred." spoke Vin. Seeing the others looking at him for more of an explanation he continued, "Fear of the shelling and hatred of coloreds. Hatred because they figured this was because of you. It was your fault."

Buck looked thoughtfully at the tracker. "Did you feel that way?"

With a shake of the head Vin answered, "Nope, at least not against the slaves. Mine was against the blue bellies. Reason I fought. It was the man who took me in after the soldiers killed my family that finally changed my mind. Of course it was half way through the war before I calmed down enough so he could reach me."

"What did he do to change you?" asked Chris from his sitting position near Vin.

Looking calmly at his new friend he replied, "Died in my arms begging me to forgive."

Silence filled the camp site at this declaration as shocked expression crossed everyone's face. Vin resumed, "He joined the south to protest the unfairness of congress. Weren't nothing to do with slavery for that man. To him he was fighting for his rights and freedom. But he knew I joined to kill as many of the Union troops as I could because it was their fault my family was dead. He was a colonel and kept me close to him. Since I was underage, I needed his permission to join. I watched that man and even though he led charges in battles he showed compassion to the prisoners captured. Still it took a bullet at the battle of Shiloh which killed him before I gave in. By that time I was sick of killing and it wasn't hard to do his last request. Forgive."

Curiosity pushed JD to ask, "How did your family die?" Each man looked at Vin again waiting for his response.

"My real family moved from Tennessee when I was four. Half way across Texas they all died of the fever that hit that year. Why I was spared, I don't know. Running Elk and his band found me wandering the desert and took me in. I was fifteen when they were killed by a band of Union Soldiers."

Josiah sucked in his breath. "The Painted Rock Murders."

Vin looked at the preacher man saying, "You heard of them?"

"It was hard not too as it made all the papers. Gave the Army a black eye back then. You were part of the Ute tribe?" At Vin nod, Josiah said, "God must have a purpose for you brother to survive so many different times. Fever, massacre and war."

"I think God must have a purpose for all of us to have survived so far." stated Nathan.

"So how did you find the kid, Nathan?" asked Buck.

Nathan looked sadly at the sleeping boy. "In Atlanta."

Chris saw the expression on his face as Nathan answered Buck's question. Larabee spoke, "Boy was there too?"

"Yep. He was one of the four of us to walk out of there alive or I should say leave alive. Boy couldn't walk because of a bad fever from infection to his wounds so I carried him." Looking at his friend again he said, "I tried to help him while we were trapped but there weren't any medicine around."

JD looked concernedly at Ezra as he queried, "Wounds? Was he hurt during the shelling?"

Nathan shook his head no as his eyes turned darker in anger. Glancing at Ezra for a moment he turned back towards his companions telling them, "No. His master beat him with a riding crop."

Heads shot up or turned to the healer at his statement. Nathan watched as confusion then horror crossed the surprised faces of the five men listening. Incredulous expressions shone round about as they tried to comprehend what the healer had said. Finally JD voiced his confusion, "What do you mean his master? He couldn't have been a slave!"

Nathan looked sadly at the others. He knew he would have to explain everything to them. Nathan was one of those who were open and honest believing there was good in people while knowing that evil existed. He had lived it. He started, "Dr. Conner, my owner, had us go to this tavern to met with a friend of his for a drink. There wasn't much going on in the city what with the siege and all. It had been a couple of weeks since it started and tempers were fraying. I don't know how many people were inside but there were about twenty of us standing outside minding the horses including Ezra. He was just standing quietly there not saying a word. He must of been awful thirsty because he went over to the trough for a drink."

Here Nathan paused as he got up and got himself a cup of coffee bring sure to water it down. He took a sip before he continued his story, "He hadn't got within two steps from it before the tavern door was flung open and this man, must weighted all of two hundred pounds, comes charging out screaming at the boy. We all froze. We watched as gripping his riding crop he began beating that child. Ezra dropped to the ground and curled in on himself covering his head. That man whipped that boy raising bloody welts all across his back. Not a sound did he make. We were shocked as never having seen a white child every beaten like that. That man," Nathan spat out derisively, "didn't stop swinging until his arm gave out on him. All the while cussing that child and calling him all sorts of names."

Rage permeated the air around the camp fire. Five men were struggling to contain their fury that anyone would beat a helpless child in such a manner. An incensed JD questioned, "Didn't anyone try to stop him? Shouldn't you have stopped him?" Nathan hung his head not answering. How could he explain?

Josiah gazed at Nathan understandingly before answering the lad. "They couldn't JD. They were slaves. If they had tried to help it would have meant their death."

Nathan nodded as he said, "Besides making it worse for Ezra. I've seen where another slave tried to help his brother and was killed for it. Then his brother was beat ten times worst. You learn not to interfere so things won't get worst."

Vin asked, "What happened next?"

"He told Ezra to get up and stand by that horse. He was not to move one inch from that spot. He also told him he better not speak to the other worthless slaves either or he would get the whip out. Ezra did as he was told."

"Damn." Buck commented. He looked over at the kid and thought what kind of hell had he been through?

Chris' eyes glowed as he growled, "Is this piece of shit still alive?" If he was Chris was going to hunt him down. Vin read the intention smothering in Larabee's face. He couldn't agree more. In fact he would help with a few things he had learned from the Indians. Buck trembled with rage as his eyes were a blaze of blue fire, he would kill the bastard. Josiah and JD just looked sadly at the sleeping boy in his bedroll wondering what else had happened to him.

"You don't have to worry about him. He went back into the tavern before the shelling started. That was one of the first places that were hit. Shells blew that place up so that only a wide deep hole was all that was left. Killed a few of us on the outside too. No one survived the blast including Dr. Conner." Nathan sighed. "Shore could of used his help with Ezra. After we picked ourselves up, we found that basement. Three days later we walked out. I carried that child until I found us a place to rest up. Almost lost him there at one time. He was so starved that he could barely fight the infection from his back. But he's a fighter. It's only been a couple of weeks since he could walk on his own."

"How did he become a slave? Was he an orphan?" Josiah wondered out loud.

Nathan's voice went cold, "While that man was whipping Ezra he shouted out about how he got swindled by the woman who sold him. I haven't asked Ezra who that was but I have a suspicion. It would either be his mother or one of his relatives. Not unknown down south for a family to sell unwanted children."

JD couldn't believe that a mother would sell her son. It just couldn't be. Turning incredulous eyes toward Buck he asked, "Buck? Is that true?"

Buck closed his eyes before his head dropped forward. He didn't want to disillusion his best friend but he had to tell the truth. Before he could speak, Josiah's deep voice rumbled sadly. "Yes it's true. There are many tragic events in this world, son. That is just one of them."

"Don't make it right." murmured Vin as he stood up. Every line in his body was radiating his fury. "Don't have to like it."

"No it doesn't and no we don't." agreed Josiah. Tension radiated around the camp fire as everyone digested what had been revealed.

"I don't understand? How could someone do these things?" agonized JD.

"Thank God you don't and I hope you never do." proclaimed Buck.

Chris had seethed in frustration and anger as Nathan told their story. He had thought about is own dead family. Like JD he couldn't understand how anyone could get rid of their children so callously. Sighing he said, "Better turn in. We got a long ride tomorrow."

"Before we turn in, me and Ezra were wondering if you wanted to sell a couple of those extra horses? We've got a little money..."

"You pick which ones you want in the morning. No money." stated Chris.

"Much obliged. Well guess I'll see y'all in the morning." said Nathan as he got up to head for his bed.

The others all headed for their bedroll except for JD who had first lookout. Watching as his friends settle down for the night, he wondered what tomorrow would bring.

Six Guardians

One Week later

The afternoon was growing late as black thunderclouds gathered. Vin Tanner had said that morning, amidst a clear sky, that there was going to be a bad storm by nightfall. The group of six men and one small boy had been traveling consistently since the encounter with the now deceased Mace and his crew. They had made one stop in one other little town on their way west for additional supplies. Since then they had lived off the land which wasn't that difficult with Vin Tanner along. Chris Larabee glanced at the man that rode beside him. Somehow the two had connected the moment they met. Chris found that the quiet man also helped sooth the rage that was always with him since his family's death. He didn't know how but they had become closer than brothers. Buck and JD now had help in keeping their Captain from self-destruction.

Chris had wanted to die when he received the letter about his wife and son. He had almost succeeded except for Buck and JD. Those two had taken his abuse and frustration in stride although for the life of him he didn't know why. Their constant presence had drawn him from the brink of oblivion to the brink of life. In fact, in just one week he found himself the leader of this diverse group and he had become close to them all. They had become his family now. He wouldn't let them know that though. He had enough trouble trying to contain the energy of these individuals, including the small boy named Ezra Standish.

Once again Chris looked back to where Ezra was riding quietly beside Nathan. The child had his blank face in place. It was irritating when he became so closed up that even Nathan couldn't get anything out of the boy. They had learned the next day after the ambush, the boy loved to talk. He had a way with words for one so young. Ezra had talked with JD all day that day about his new horse.

The light chestnut mount had not let anyone near it. The horse snorted, kicked and bit at those who tried to get near him. JD had gotten the saddle off the night before but now the critter shied at every movement. The two former slaves approached the five extra mounts. The others could practically feel the pent up anticipation of Nathan and Ezra as the horses were looked over. After a moment Nathan picked a sorrel out. The rest turned to watch the boy. Ezra stood for awhile studying each of the four that were left. Nathan had pointed out a smaller brown horse but Ezra shook his head no. He headed for the ornery chestnut. Chris and Vin both took steps to stop the child from getting hurt but he was already at the horse's head. The boy held his hand up saying, "I think we could get along fairly well, don't you?"

In amazement, everyone watched as the horse dipped its head sniffing the hand. A moment past then the chestnut lowered to gently butt heads with the child who laughed. It was a moment of pure joy that lit Ezra's face as he wrapped his arms around his new friend. Murmuring non-stop, he led the horse away from the other mounts asking it what name should he have?

Buck looked at the others who had the same dumb struck face, "Dang it if that don't beat all." From then on that day the boy chatted about his new friend to JD. JD had been happy to find someone who could talk as much as him. When JD and Buck would clown around causing JD to chase Buck on horse back, Ezra happily engaged in conversation with Josiah or Nathan. Since Vin and himself were quiet men, Ezra didn't expect an answer back all the time when he chose to converse with them. They quickly learned that as long as he was chatting, he was okay. It was when he went silent that Nathan began to worry.

They had all agreed to travel together after that confrontation with Mace. That morning had seen Nathan wrestling to get Ezra to wake up. The boy slept like the dead mumbling about the sun not even up. He only got up because Nathan threatened to take his coffee away if he didn't wake up right then. They watched in amusement as Ezra crawled out of his bedroll with his eyes still closed. He stumbled over to the campfire to sit beside Josiah. He sat down only to lean into the big man's shoulder going back to sleep. Josiah chuckled while Nathan shook his head as he fixed the boy a very weak cup of coffee. Waving the brew under the boy's nose caused him to finally become semi-aware. He got the boy his plate of food encouraging him to hurry up so they could pick out their new mounts. At the mention of the horses, the boy perked up and hurriedly ate all of his food.

Only one time since then had the boy grown so quiet, when he was feeling tired and ill. That had been three days ago. That time he had come down with a slight fever causing Nathan to fuss as he gave him one of his teas. The boy was still too thin and had hardly eaten anything that whole day. He had stuck by his guardian not talking at all until that night he told Nathan that he wasn't hungry and didn't feel well. Ezra drank his tea then went straight to his bedroll. He laid there while they readied camp, silent with his eyes closed and tiny drops of sweat beading his face. Chris grew apprehensive as they ate watching the boy lay there. His face was pinched with pain causing Chris to look at Nathan silently asking what was wrong. Nathan had stood up motioning for Chris to follow him out of hearing range.

"He gets these bad headaches and coupled with him just getting over his illness, he will sometimes get a fever. Most times I have to pry information out of him before I know something is wrong. He tells me he doesn't say anything because he doesn't want to be a burden. You generally can tell something is wrong when he gets quiet." said Nathan.

Now three days later, Ezra was quiet again but there was no fever. Chris saw Vin turn around to glance behind them. When he turned back he caught Vin's eyes asking him 'what's wrong?' Vin replied silently 'worried about Ezra'. Chris had noticed that everyone was checking on the boy. He sighed. They were all truly hooked on the child. Chris thought about how the boy had beaten him at poker. The next night he had taken on Buck thoroughly showing him no mercy either. Nathan wouldn't let them play for money, only for fun. After being whipped by Ezra, Chris couldn't help but agree. Buck lost more money then he did when he played. JD, Vin and Josiah had tried their luck last night. The kid would have walked away with all their money.

Vin looked up at the gathering clouds. "We need to find shelter. Going to be a real bad storm. I think there are some caves up ahead. I'll go check it out. Y'all keep going at this pace and I'll meet ya up there apiece."

Nodding his head in agreement, he watched as Vin rode off. Buck came up beside him asking, "Hey, where's Vin going?"

"To find us some shelter. Storm is going to be a rough one." answered Chris. "Pass the word that he's looking for a place to hold up."

"Will do." Buck rode back to pass the word.

It was about half an hour later that Vin returned. The others gather round to hear his report. "There is a large cave, enough for us and the horses, about two miles ahead. I've checked it out. Should be there before the storm hits. We need to hurry so we can gather wood."

"Okay, let get going. Lead the way, Vin." ordered Chris. The tracker set a slow canter pace as they followed.

By the time they reached the cave, the wind had picked up. The clouds had grown so thick that it was considerably darker. Vin led them to the cave entrance, showing them the way in by a torch he had found and lit. Each one had to dismount to lead their horses in.

Chris ordered, "Buck, Josiah and Nathan, go gather wood while we take care of the horses. They rest of us will take care of the horses and set up camp." They hurried out. They got three armloads apiece in before the storm hit. Josiah had just dropped his load when Buck and Nathan ran in as thunder crashed.

Ezra hated thunder. It sounded too much like cannon fire. He had been quiet all day trying to steel his nerves for the coming storm. He knew Nathan was worried but he didn't know how to tell him about his fear...his fear of the nightmares that were to follow. It was the nightmares he feared. His dreams tossed him back to the time of Atlanta. His dreams mixed the beating with the booming of the cannons. Every time it sounded he felt the lash again. He would not get any sleep tonight if he could help it. The first time it stormed he had woke up with Nathan holding him as he cried. His screams had woken his friend up from a sound sleep. Nathan had held him until he fell back to sleep cringing every time it thunder. It had terrified and embarrassed him. From then on he had stayed up all night so his nightmares would not come. Nathan would fuss the next day seeing the dark circles under his eyes but he didn't know what else to do. Now after helping with the horses and setting up his bedroll, he pulled out his cards, shuffling them to calm his nerves.

Josiah dug a pit for the fire. Soon he had a nice blaze going as the others set up the rest of the camp. Tonight was Nathan's turn to cook. Everyone took turns except for Ezra. The others didn't think he knew how to prepare a meal. He knew they would be surprised to know he was actually a pretty good chef. His mother then his master required that he perform all the meal preparations for them. One of his mother's old friends had lived with them for several months teaching the child the art of cuisine. His master, when he found out, required him to fix every meal.

Nathan began fixing the meal while watching his charge. He was at his wits end trying to figure out what was wrong. He had asked Ezra if his head was bothering him but the boy only said no he was fine. He had watched for a fever but there was none. The eyes were clear but still the child was quiet. Now Ezra sat with his eyes on his cards as he shuffled. Thunder struck and the boy slightly jumped. Nathan's eyes went wide as he realized what had been upsetting his friend all day. Oh Lord he thought how was he going to handle this?

Josiah had tried to engage Ezra in a talk all day. The boy would just give him one word answers. It was unnatural for him to be so quiet. Ezra didn't look sick as Josiah knew everyone was thinking. He would see Chris then Vin looking back checking on the boy. He watched as JD and Buck would exchange glances wondering what was wrong. He saw Nathan's worried gaze on the child. Now he saw Nathan's face change as he was looking at Ezra. He knew Nathan had figured out what was wrong.

Vin and JD had bedded down the animals as Chris and Ezra set out the bedding and saddlebags. Everyone was worried. Vin saw Ezra jerk as the thunder crashed. He suddenly knew what was going on. He had to agree with the boy as he hated the sound himself. But as a grown-up, he could handle the noise most times...though sometimes his dreams were disturbing. It must be terrifying for Ezra.

Quietly he walked over to the fire and sit down beside the boy. He pulled out his harmonica playing a few tuneless notes. He waited a few minutes for another booming sound before saying, "Sometimes I hate that sound."

Ezra looked up into the tracker's face. "You do, Mr. Tanner? Why?"

Nathan looked up. At least Vin got the boy to say more than one word. He looked over as he saw his friend finally look at someone instead of away.

"It reminds me of the war. Especially on a night like tonight when the storm is so fierce. It almost sounds like cannon firing."

Ezra scooted closer to the man. "Yes it does sound loud. But it shouldn't bother one so, should it Mr. Tanner?"

Nathan remembered the time Ezra had woke him up screaming. Lord, his heart had nearly stopped at the piercing screams. It had taking him a good ten minutes to wake the boy up. As Nathan cooked their meal, he began piecing other clues together on other stormy nights. Those were the nights that Ezra didn't sleep.

"Yeah, there has been many a night that I've woke up in a cold sweat when the thunder booms." stated Josiah. "Woke up thinking I was back in battle."

As the others murmured their agreement, Ezra felt some of his tension release. Maybe, just maybe he could tell someone. He looked at his guardian.

The subject was changed as they waited for their meal to finish cooking. As it was dished out, Ezra went over to sit by Nathan. They began to eat. When the others were discussing something else, Ezra whispered in Nathan's ear, "I hate it. The thunder reminds me of that night." There it was out. Now he would see what his friend would do.

Nathan had listened to Ezra's confession. It had taken a lot of courage for his friend to confide in him what he considered a weakness. Ezra didn't think of himself as a child because he had never been a child. His life had been such that he grew up way before his time. Nathan knew this because his life had been the same. One difference was that he had had other children around him. Ezra had not.

Nathan leaned over to whisper, "Don't worry. We'll figure something out."

Ezra looked at his friend only seeing his concern. He nodded as he went back to picking at his food for some reason feeling better. His guardian would figure something out...he hoped.

Vin had watched the whispering of Nathan and Ezra. He saw the tension ease in the shoulders of the boy. He could understand the terror that would overwhelm you when being in the middle of a fight. He had been trapped at Vicksburg during the bombardment of Cutter's House. A terrifying time of shells dropping every half hour and orders not to leave the house until released. Half their troop, two hundred men, died during that week long fight. Hearing the screech of shells as they headed toward you was something you didn't forget...ever. Seeing friends blown apart right beside you didn't ensure pleasant dreams. His commander had finally said to hell with orders and got the rest of his men out. Turned out that the messenger had been killed four days ago bringing their directive to leave. What a waste!

Chris had listened to Tanner as he talked to the boy about the storm. He was saddened to think that a child had such problems. Only warriors or veterans like Buck, Josiah or himself should have such troubles. He remembered when Adam had nightmares. God he miss his family! He felt the boiling black rage rising again. He needed a drink!

JD was talking to him about one of the extra horses when Buck felt the shift in his friend's mood as he ate. He saw Chris looking at Ezra and knew he was remembering Adam. The boy had been too quiet all day long. Now Chris had fallen into one of his black moods as they sat eating supper. A series of flashes followed by loud thunder suddenly shut JD up. Buck saw his friend cringe and his plate hit the floor.

JD jumped at the sudden barrage of noise, paling as he dropped his plate. "Damn...that sounded just like Fredericksburg for a moment, Buck. How I hate that."

Ezra had gone still at the noise, holding his breathe. He crowded closer to Nathan. Noticing JD reaction, he stilled than asked, "Fredericksburg, Mr. Dunne?"

"A terrible battle of the war." said Josiah. Sensing that this might be a good time to help all three lads, Josiah asked, "JD, why don't you tell Ezra about it?"

JD looked at Ezra and remembered a week ago when Nathan had told their story. Ezra didn't know they knew about him. Nodding his head, he began as he looked into the fire, "It was the one time I wasn't with Buck and Chris." He snorted. "They thought I would be safe at headquarters away from the fighting. I actually hadn't minded since the General was looking for some clerical help until his secretary got back on his feet. Buck got Chris to volunteer me. So I went."

"Worst thing we ever did, old dog," said Buck to his old friend. Chris couldn't have agreed more as he thought about that time. His black mood turned introspective as he listened.

"Hey, Buck. It turned out all right though I don't mind saying I wouldn't want to go through it again. Anyway, I was helping the General with some of his correspondence when all hell broke lose. Those Rebs came out of nowhere on the attack. Cannon balls were falling so thick you didn't dare move. Of course we gathered up every pieced of paper to hightail it out of there." Here JD paused as his face filled with awe. "The General was so calm. He made sure all of us were on our way. He was the last to leave. I hung back as I was his aide when three Reb soldiers broke from the trees. They were racing towards firing as the General climb on his horse. Shot it right out from under him. As he fell, I knew I had to do something so he wouldn't be captured. I saw two of his other guards racing back so I did the only thing I knew to do."

JD had paused as he relived that moment. Buck could feel the fear of his friend. But it was Ezra who asked, "What? What did you do, Mr. Dunne?"

"I charged."

"Fool thing to do," murmured Buck as he shook JD by the nape of his neck.

Brushing off his friend's hand, JD said, "Cut that out Buck! Weren't either! It worked. Held them off long enough for the others to arrive."

Chris interjected, "Would have worked better if you hadn't got shot."

Ezra gazed at JD in wonder, "You were shot?"

"Yeah. Wasn't that bad."

Here Buck smacked JD on the back of the head. "Weren't bad! Weren't bad! You were two weeks in the hospital recovering. Almost died scaring me and Chris nearly to death. Shore did impress General Grant though. Gave you that pretty medal didn't he?"

JD broke out into a proud grin, "Yeah. He pinned it on me himself."

Josiah whistled, 'General Grant? The Grant?"

Nathan looked at JD differently. Ezra looked confused. "Whose is this General Grant, Mr. Sanchez?"

Josiah turned to the boy saying, "Grant was the leader of the whole Union Army, Ezra. He is a great man."

Now Ezra looked at JD in awe. "Oh my."

"It still shouldn't have happened. Nearly lost you." growled Chris.

Josiah sighed as he added, "War is a terrible thing. Makes children grow up and lads become men before their time. Others, men and boys, it takes away before they've really lived."

"Sounds like you got some demons of your own, Josiah." commented Vin as he started playing on his harmonica again.

"Yeah, I don't like cannon fire either. But I suppose all of us have things in our past we would like to forget. Sometimes though, they won't let us."

Silence fell across the group. Lighting flashed and thunder boomed again. Ezra noticed JD and Vin both jump at the noise. Looking up at Nathan a silent message passed between them. Nathan nodded. Ezra climbed to his feet and walked to JD and Vin. Sitting between them he said, "We were in Atlanta."

Everyone looked at each other. The boy was making an effort to confront his fear. Josiah encouraged with, "Heard it was bad."

"Yes. The shelling was tremendous. I only remember hiding with Mr. Jackson and the others. I don't remember him carrying me out." Leaning over to JD, he touched his hand. "I too hate the din that a storm makes. It reminds me of that time. A terrible time."

For once Chris spoke, "We understand, Ezra. We all understand the fear. Some of us know the pain. I remember Buck holding me as I cried when I found out about my family."

"Family, Cowboy?" queried Vin.

"You cried, Mr. Larabee?" questioned Ezra.

Looking at the others, Chris said, "Had me a lovely wife and fine son. Adam was maybe a couple years younger than you Ezra. Both were killed during the war while I was away fighting."

Buck nodded his head, "Yeah but you repaid me when you held me as I cried about Ma. Ma died while I was away too. Chris was right there with JD to help me."

"I cried every time I had to help bury one of the fallen. Whether Rebel or Union." added Josiah.

"Nathan sang to me that first night as he held Me." spoke Ezra as he looked at his friend.

Vin placed his hand on the boy's shoulder as he said, "Sounds to me like you were in right good hands there."

Ezra searched every face. They were not laughing at his weakness. Instead they had shared the same fear. They were strong men who fought a war. He knew he would have to be strong too. Oh Lord but if he fell asleep the dreams would come. He got up again to go sit by Nathan, leaning into his guardian drawing strength. Finally taking the courage shown him tonight, he said, "Nathan?"

"Yes, Ezra?"

"I have bad dreams...dreams about Atlanta and before we met." confessed the boy.

"That the reason you don't want to sleep?" asked Nathan as he hugged his charge.

"I feel the whip." whispered Ezra.

Nathan sucked in his breathe, closing his eyes. He had not expected that. "We'll think of something, Ezra. But you have to promise me that you'll tell me these things. I can't help if I don't know."

"I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about, Ezra," replied Nathan as he gathered the boy into his lap. "You've done nothing wrong. Just need to let me know when you're hurting, okay?"

"Nathan, I guess I must remind you that I'm nine and a big boy. I don't require you to hold me like a baby."

"And I guess I have to remind you that this is for my own comfort, Ez." grinned Nathan.

Smiling in return, he patted his friend's chest as he leaned completely into him saying, "Well by all means, Mr. Jackson. You can hold me for as long as you need comfort. But I will absolutely draw the line when I turn ten."

Chuckling, Nathan replied, "Understood, Mr. Standish. Understood."

The night did not pass without incident. After finishing supper, cleaning up, the others played cards to try to distract the boy. After the third yawn, Nathan called a halt to the game as the storm seemed to be passing. Sleep came quickly until after three o'clock in the morning. The storm started up again. Ezra screams roused everyone up, some drawing their guns in reflex as they staggered upon their feet.

Nathan rolled out of his bed quickly grabbing the struggling boy. Wrapping his arms around him he whispered, "Its okay. Ezra, it's just a bad dream. Wake up now, its okay."

Finally Ezra woke up sobbing, "Make him stop, Nathan. Please make him stop."

"He's dead, Ez. He can't hurt you anymore. He's dead and gone."

"He's dead." repeated Ezra over and over. Soon his crying stopped and he relaxed against his friend laying his head against his chest. He listened to the strong heartbeat beneath his ear drawing some sort of strength for the sound. Thud, thud, thud went the rhythm.

Nathan felt the boy's body relax in his arms as he went back to sleep. Thunder sounded again causing the boy to slightly jerk but he didn't wake. Resolving himself to the inevitable, he laid back down with Ezra lying on top of him.

Josiah reached over to pull the blanket across both of them receiving a look of gratitude from Nathan. Soon all of them settled down for what was the rest of the night. Six groggy men awoke to the sunlight streaming into the cave. Nathan carefully laid the boy in his own bedroll as they prepared for the day.

Rousing the boy awake the next morning met the same every morn. He would crawl out and sit asleep until the weak cup of coffee would rouse him to open his eyes. Josiah chuckled at the routine everyone had fallen into. Soon they were mounted and on their way.

Two days later, after nothing but sunshine, they were cresting a hill when they heard gunfire. The scene before them looked to be a stagecoach being attacked by a group of men in the valley below them. Vin grabbed his spyglass to get a better look.

"What do you see, Vin?" asked Buck.

Vin reported, "Looks like a troop of soldiers guarding that coach. The attackers seem to be picking them off from the surrounding rocks. Several of the bluecoats are down."

Chris held his hand out for the instrument. Without thinking about it, Vin handed it over. Noting the position of the attackers, Chris questioned, "Vin, think you could hit a few from here?"

Grinning, Vin asked, "Who? Bluecoats or the others?"

Turning Chris gave him a glare, which didn't faze Vin at all. He just grinned all the more as he said, "Yep."

"Smartass." muttered Chris as he handed the glass back. Turning his glare on the others as they laughed, he waited until they quieted to say, "Here's what we're going to do. Vin and Ezra will stay up here. Vin after we get close enough to be effective, start taking out as many as you can. We'll flush the others out of the rocks. Buck, JD, and Josiah you're with me. Nathan, make your way to the soldiers and start helping. Let's get on down there and help, boys."

"I fail to see why I couldn't be of assistance in the endeavor, Mr. Larabee. I can assist Mr. Jackson with the wounded in..."

Five no's sounded around the group as they interrupted Ezra. Scowling at the interruption, he started to protest again when Chris said, "Ez, I need you to hold Vin's mount while he's busy."

Noting the finality of Chris' order, Ezra harrumphed, "Fine. If that's what you want." He stomped his way to Vin and his mount taking their reins. Talking to his horse, he complained, "The name's EzRa. Not that hard to pronounce is it boy."

Buck nearly lost control as he saw the flabbergasted look on Chris face. Vin had no such inhabitations and snorted at his friend. Josiah and Nathan hurried to their mount so Chris couldn't see their smile. JD shoulders shook as he followed Buck.

Chris glared at the boy who glared at him. They stayed this way until Vin said, "We were going to help them today, right Cowboy?"

Lips twitching trying not to smile, Chris switched his glare to Vin, "I gonna shoot you one of these days if you don't stop calling me that."

Vin just smirked back thinking 'yeah right'. Chris walked over and climbed on his horse. Vin looked at Ezra catching his eye and winked. Ezra bowed his head hiding his smile. He liked Vin. Ezra sighed as the others started to pass them on the way down the hill. "Be careful, gentlemen." floated after them from the boy. Chris turned a moment looking at Ezra before nodded his head. "Watch you back, EZ." Chris said as they rode on.

Ezra realized that he would be watching Vin's back as well. He grinned as he whispered back, "EzRa, Mr. Larabee. EzRa."

Vin had been the only one who heard the soft reply as he turned to get into position. Lying down on the hill, he picked his first target as he waited on the boys. Ten minutes later, Chris and the others charged into the fight. Vin started firing bringing down one after another. Ezra clutched the reins tighter as he tried to track his friends. The firefight became fiercely intense as the soldiers realized they had help. Nathan made it through to go directly to the nearest wounded man. Vin kept firing and soon the ambushers surrender as they grasped a sharpshooter was on the hill.

Ezra had watched as his friends battle men hidden in the rocks. He appreciated Vin's fine skill as he saw him take down a man aiming for Nathan's back. He sighed in relief as Nathan made it to the stagecoach. He searched around trying to spot his friends to make sure they were alright. Ezra remembered he was supposed to guard his and Vin's back so he looked behind them as he held the reins. A sigh of relief escaped as the fighting stopped and his friends appeared unharmed. He waited patiently for Vin to get up then he walked the horses over. They watched as the outlaws were rounded up. Chris turned and waved his arm giving the signal to come down.

Vin turned to Ezra saying, "Guess we can go down now."

"Yes, well let's not keep them waiting," replied Ezra. He was still a little peeved at having to stay behind but he was more anxious to get back together with them. Riding down the hill they were soon at the stagecoach. Several soldiers were helping the others gather up the ambushers while Chris was talking to any older well dressed man.

Nathan was tending to the shoulder of a young soldier as he looked up to see Vin and Ezra arrive. The boy jumped off his mount running to his friend. He stopped a few steps away as he checked Nathan over for any damage. Getting control of himself, Ezra calmly said, "Everything seemed to go well, Mr. Jackson. Are you and the others unhurt?"

Nathan knew how hard it was for the boy to show his concern. Someone had taught the child that showing feelings was wrong. Nathan took it in stride as he replied, "We're not hurt. Just the soldiers are. Come help me with this Ezra, I need you to hand me my supplies as I ask for them."

Judge Orrin Travis was talking to the black dressed man who led a charge to help his escort of soldiers. Captain Lindsay was at his side as he said, "I wish to thank you for your assistance Mister..."

"Larabee. Chris Larabee."

"Mister Larabee," the man finished his greeting. "I'm sure the Army appreciates your help as well. We were in a tight spot there. I am Judge Orrin Travis and this is Captain Lindsay."

The Captain looked inquiringly, "Captain Larabee? Of the Indiana Second Company?"

The blond man's piercing hazel eyes looked at Lindsay, "Yes, I was with Indiana."

Captain Lindsay held out his hand as he said, "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir. I was in the New York Third Division at Round Top. I would like to say thank you for the help you gave us that day and today." Smiling he said, "That twice you saved my life Mr. Larabee."

Chris shook his hand, "Mind telling me what was going on?"

"We're escorting the Judge to the town of Rock Ridge for a murder trial. There were some death threats against him so we were assigned to make sure he gets there in one piece."

"I thought it was excessive to have the Army as an escort. It's not the first time I've been threatened." Travis looked around, "Though it seems it was warranted this time."

A soldier ran up to the Captain, saluting. "Sir, reporting Sergeant Davis and Private Mills dead and we have six wounded. There are six prisoners alive and we have ten not wounded including you, sir."

Returning the salute, Captain Lindsay said, "Thank you Corporal Jones. Help secure the prisoners and ready the bodies for transport. We'll head back in an hour."

Watching the Corporal hurry to carry out his orders, Lindsay turned to the older man, "I'm sorry sir, but we'll have to return. Half my men are down and the others will be watching the prisoners. I'm sure we can wire Rock Ridge from the Fort to tell them you'll be delayed. The Colonel will want to send you out with another escort as soon as possible."

"I must precede now Captain. I can't delay any longer. The Sheriff in Rock Ridge was emphatic that I arrive at the end of this week or he wouldn't be able to guarantee the health of the prisoners. The attack on us just emphasizes the need for my continued journey."

Captain Lindsay frowned, "I know Judge Travis, but the Colonel would have my commission not to mention my hide if I let you go without any protection. For your own safety, I must insist that you accompany us back to the Fort."

Out of the blue, Chris asked, "You mentioned a murder trial in Rock Ridge. How many men on trial and who did they kill?

Judge Travis contemplated the man before him. He knew the Captain was impressed with the dark clad man but he had never heard of him. Before he could answer, Captain Lindsay said, "Two men and they killed a family outside of town. A man, his wife and two little girls were shot then burned in their home."

Both men felt a sudden chill run down their spines as Chris Larabee changed right before their eyes. His eyes went dark and his lips thinned as he clenched them together. A dark cloud seemed to descend over the angry man. The five men and one boy head's shot up as they felt the change in the air. All were looking at Chris as he growled, "Let me talk to my men. Maybe we can help."

Searching for Nathan, Chris located him and signaled for the other to gather. The others moved quickly at their leader's gesture to where Nathan and Ezra were working on another soldier. Watching as the black healer tied the bandage around the injured man's middle, Chris asked, "Got a moment Nathan, Ezra? We need to discuss something."

Looking around and seeing that there wasn't any other injured, Nathan nodded as he stood up. "Come on Ezra."

The group moved off a little ways to confer. Orrin Travis turned to the Captain, "Who is this man? You seem to know him."

"Never met him personally, but he's got a reputation for being a fierce fighter. It was said that if you were in his unit, he would protect you anyway he could. He inspired loyalty in all his men. They would have died for him. There was a report that he knocked his Colonel out when the man ordered him to lead a suicide charge at Brown's Ferry campaign. Larabee refused so the Colonel said he would lead it himself, that's when he punched him. The Colonel tried to court martial him but it backfired. The General told him that he hadn't given that order and he sure as hell wouldn't have given it. The General moved the Colonel to another command. I know that at Round Top he lead his men to assist our unit that was pinned down." The Captain got this far away look as he continued, "I was just a lieutenant then. I saw him as he led his troop into battle. God, he looked like a blue avenging angel. He kept coming and coming no matter how much fire power they threw at him. Even when he was wounded he led his men. I remember how a couple...' he stopped as he turned to squint at the group of men. Nodding his head, "Yep, that's them."

"That's who?" asked Orrin Travis.

"See the tall mustached man with dark hair and the young man who's by his side?"


"They were there. Both of them were by his side, holding him up...practically carrying him as they kept coming."

"That boy with the dark hair? But he can't be more than fifteen or sixteen." stated the Judge incredulously.

"He may look like a boy, but those two fought like devils. In fact, the whole unit fought like demons. If he decides to help you, and those men are as good as his troop, you couldn't have a better escort. I'm sure my commander would approve. See he was my Captain that day."

Judge Travis looked at the group of men as they broke up. The black man and small boy heading back to the injured as the others returned to helping the other soldiers. He watched as Chris Larabee stalked back to them.

As the others gathered around him, Chris struggled to rein in his fury. Buck said, "What's up, Chris?"

"The man I was just talking to is a Federal Judge Orrin Travis on his way to hold a murder trial in someplace called Rock Ridge. The escort here was for him. Seems he got some death threats. The Army doesn't have enough men to continue his escort and take the prisoners back to the Fort."

"A judge?" squeaked Ezra as he moved closer to Nathan. Looking down, Vin saw the boy's fear. He squatted as he asked, "What's the matter, Ez?"

Swallowing his alarm, Ezra answered, "Mother said I was always to avoid any entanglements with the law. I was to keep far away from any form of lawmen. Mother said it would be detrimental to our health."

Buck knelt down beside Vin in front of the boy. "Why would you mother say that, Ezra?"

Blinking in surprise at Buck, he said, "Why because of what we do for a living, Mr. Wilmington. Maude is the best con woman in the states."

JD looked confused, "Maude? Who's Maude?"

Looking up at JD, Ezra replied, "Why that is Mother?"

Silence dominated for a minute as the others digested this new information. Shock then anger spread as the men realized just what Ezra had revealed. The boy, feeling the mood change in intensity because of something he said, looked up at his guardian in trepidation. "Did I say something wrong, Nathan?"

Putting his hand on the child's shoulder, Nathan replied, "It's not anything you've done, Ezra. It's just that..." He looked at the others for help.

It was JD who said, "It's just that the only reason you would avoid the law is if you are breaking it. Now there are some bad lawmen who abuse their power but not all are bad. I'm sure you mother just meant for you to avoid the crooked lawmen, Ez. Not all lawman."

Ezra cocked his head as he contemplated JD's answer. He was not just a little kid. He knew what is mother did was wrong. That had been part of their problem together. Maude was always complaining about his 'soft heart'. She had tried many times to beat it out of him but his true self would not let him be but what he excellent gambler with a conscious. He had posed the question to see what their reaction would be. "It's alright JD. I know my mother was working on the wrong side of the law. There were too many nights we left town because something went wrong with her plans. My reaction was out of habit."

Seeing the others at a loss for words after the boy's confirmation of their thoughts, Josiah asked, "Chris, what was the reason you called us?"

Controlling his urge to hunt down this woman, he came back to the original discussion. "The Judge says he can't go back. He must continue on to Rock Ridge to conduct the trial. The Sheriff can't guarantee the prisoners will be there alive when he arrives if he delays any longer. The Captain insists that he returned to get another escort. I thought we might be able to help Judge Travis out."

"You mean we become his bodyguards." stated Vin.


"What else, Chris? You don't usually get involved like this. What did these men do?" inquired Buck.

Chris demeanor darkens more. "Killed a whole family and burned down their house with the bodies inside."

A moment of stunned disbelieve hovered over the group. The cloud that had hovered over the dark clad leader extended over the whole group. Ezra's sucked in his breath in shock and horror.

Buck hung his head. Shit, shit, shit he thought. JD paled as he glanced at his leader. The others might have known Chris' family was dead, but they didn't know how they died.

"What do you say?' asked Chris.

Buck and JD nodded their consent.

Josiah shrugged his shoulders saying, "I'll go along."

Vin looked at Chris sensing that there was more about the deaths but said, "Got nothing else better to do at the moment."

Nathan looked down at Ezra. This was dangerous work and he didn't want to put his charge in harms way. He hesitated as he looked at their new companions and then back to Ezra.

"Ezra?" inquired Nathan.

Ezra had endured a lot in his short life. Most of his life he had been terrified though he put on a brave front. He looked at all the others thinking about the last weeks together. He didn't want to lose his new friends; he had lost so much already. He could see that Nathan wanted to go but was reluctant for some reason.

Ezra looked at Chris and asked, "How much recompense is this Judge Travis going to pay for our services?"

Chris blinked for a moment stunned. "Uh...I didn't ask. Nothing."

Ezra frowned in exasperation. "You mean you want to do this for free! Mr. Larabee, you need to ask for some form of payment for putting our lives in jeopardy in this enterprise. If you would like, I will negotiate with the honorable judge myself. I assure you I will acquire the appropriate fee for our services."

"Ezra!" gasped a shocked Nathan.

"What? Mr. Tanner said we would be like bodyguards and they get paid. Lawmen do get paid don't they?" inquired Ezra. Maybe that was why mother wanted him to stay away from the law.

Josiah was amused as he listened to the conversation. Vin, JD and Buck looked confused. JD had actually whispered to Buck, "What did he say?" Buck just lifted his shoulder and Vin scratched his head. He could see that Chris was not amused while Nathan was trying to sputter an answer to the boy. Josiah intervened, "Boy has a point. If we are going to put our guns to work at least we should get the cost of the bullets."

Chris paused a minute, "So you want me to ask the Judge for payment?"

"As I stated before, Mr. Larabee, I would be glad to negotiate the compensation..."

"No, that's okay, Ezra. Besides you wouldn't be in this deal..."

"Oh, I see," cutoff the boy who had grown pale. "Nathan, are you planning to join with Mr. Larabee and his company?"


The boy's face suddenly went blank. He had known it would end but didn't think it would be this soon. He had always been sent away when he was not wanted and hearing Chris say he wouldn't be in the deal sounded like he wasn't wanted. "That is fine, Mr. Jackson. I knew we would part ways eventually." Holding out his hand, "It has been a pleasure traveling in your company. All of you. I hope..."

"Now hold on here a minute, Ezra. What are you going on about? Where do you think your going?" questioned a bewildered Nathan.

"What do you mean part ways?" asked JD as he looked at his friend.

"And just where do you think your going?" demanded an irritated Chris.

Startled, Ezra replied, "But you said that I wasn't a part of this deal. When Mother said that, I was usually sent away to stay with relatives or to fend for myself. You don't have to worry about my welfare; I am quite adapted in taking care of myself."

Chris shook his head as he thought that woman has a lot to answer for, "That's not what I meant Ezra. We're not sending you away. I was saying that you wouldn't be a bodyguard. You're too young for that but that doesn't mean we want you to go away."

"But I can pull my weight, Mr. Larabee. I don't want to be a burden to anyone." replied the confused child. He didn't understand these men. His upbringing had always taught him that he had to be useful. If he wasn't useful then he wasn't needed.

Nathan dropped to his knees, "You're not a burden, Ez. You help a lot. Just like today when you helped me take care of the injured men and when you helped Vin."

"That's right Ezra. You may not be able to be a guard the Judge but there will be other things that need to be done." said Chris.

"So you're not sending me away?" asked Ezra to be sure.

"No, son." answered Josiah.

"Nope." responded Vin.

"No way, Ez." confirmed JD.

"You're stuck with us, kid." replied Buck.

"Absolutely not." stated Chris.

"See Ezra, your part of us." said Nathan.

Ezra searched every face. He only saw sincerity. "Really?"

"Really, Ezra." confirmed Nathan.

Nathan suddenly found himself with an armload of boy with his arms wrapped around his neck. Squeezing, Ezra whispered, "Thanks."

Stepping back from his guardian, Ezra gained control of his features as he faced the others and said, "Thank you."

"No thanks needed," said Chris. "Now that that's settled, I'll go talk...negotiate with the Judge."

"We'll get back to helping the soldiers, brother. Come on guys."

"Come on Ezra. I want to check out the soldiers one more time."

Chris watched as his men (and one boy) separated. His eyes followed Ezra as he walked beside Nathan. The boy had surprised him again. He had also saddened him. He turned walking back to the Judge and Captain Lindsay.

"Judge Travis, the boys wanted me to talk about the price of bullets." said Chris.

To be continued