Dirty Laundry

by Susan Macdonald

Originally published in the fanzine Magnificent Shorts #1, from Neon RainBow Press. Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn’t last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren’t my characters. I’m just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. That’s it, typing practice. I’ll return them to their original owners (relatively) undamaged.

"General Sherman, coming here," Nathan said. The ex-slave shook his head, stunned by the thought of the General of the Army passing through their little town.

"And coming here to see Chris," JD marveled. The sheriff was a young man; his dark hair was in need of a haircut, and he didn't look old enough to shave yet.

Chris and Buck traded pleased glances.

At a table in the corner, Ezra stopped shuffling cards long enough to yawn ostentatiously. Vin, sitting halfway across the saloon at Chris' table, winked at him.

"C'mon, Ez, you can't tell me you ain't excited about Sherman coming here?" JD asked.

"Thank you, I have no desire to make the acquaintance of the Arsonist of Atlanta," the southerner said as he laid out a hand of solitaire.

Josiah couldn't help grinning at Ezra's phrasing. Vin winked a pale blue eye and grinned back at the sandy-haired ex-preacher.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Three days later, William Tecumseh Sherman arrived with his entourage. The entire town gathered to see the famous general and his soldiers. He was accompanied by a troop of cavalry and a military band. The band played "Marching through Georgia" as General Sherman rode through town and dismounted, taking his place on the reviewing stand.

"Citizens of Four Corners," General Sherman began, "I am honored by your warm welcome…"

From an upstairs window of the saloon came the sound of a harmonica. After a few bars of music, the soldiers scowled. A few of the officers put their hands on their sword hilts.

The blond gunslinger frowned. "That's Ezra's room," Chris muttered.

"What's up? What's the fuss?" JD asked quietly.

"The song is called 'Good Old Rebel,'" Buck said and softly quoted a few lines. "'Oh, I'm a good old rebel, now that's just what I am. And for this Yankee nation, I do not give a damn. I'm glad I fought again' her. I only wish we'd won, and I don't ask any pardon for anything I've done.'"

Sherman glared up once and then continued his speech. "I am especially honored, before I continue on my way to inspect Fort Yuma, to be reunited with my former comrade-in-arms, Captain Christopher Larabee."

The townsfolk applauded at the mention of their protector.

"Were it not for his courage and quick-thinking, I would not be here today," Sherman continued.

The harmonica played on.

Irritated, Sherman glanced at one of his officers. A bearded captain broke away from the crowd. He signaled to three men to accompany him.

"Buck, get up there fast. Get Vin and Ezra to behave themselves before someone forgets you can't court-martial civilians," Chris ordered.

The tall, dark-haired man nodded and slipped away.

"Captain Larabee, come up here," Sherman invited. "I want to shake the hand of the man who saved my life at the Battle of Collierville.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Neither Ezra nor Vin were present for the rest of Sherman's speech. Nor did they appear at the dinner given in the general's honor.

However, that evening Ezra did appear at the saloon, ready and willing to relieve Sherman's aides of their pay. After a few hands, Sherman himself walked through the bat-wing doors.

His men started to jump to attention.

"At ease, at ease," he ordered, waving them back into their seats. "You're all off-duty." He looked up when he saw Chris at his usual table. "So, Larabee, this is where you disappeared to after dinner."

Chris just nodded.

"Bartender, fetch out your best whisky," Sherman called out. He stopped on the way to the bar to visit the officers playing cards. "Who's winning? Mitchell, are you having your usual luck?"

Captain Mitchell sighed. "Not tonight, sir." He indicated Ezra. "This gentleman is Fortune's favored son tonight."

Sherman swore. "You're the son-of-a-bitch who stole my horse."

Mitchell and the other officers reached for their pistols. Soldiers scattered around the saloon did likewise.

JD spoke up, breaking the ominous silence. "Ezra wouldn't never steal a horse."

Ezra replied quietly, and with dignity. "Actually, Mr. Dunne, during wartime relieving the enemy of supplies is considered a laudable, rather than a criminal, act." He looked up at the general, his voice calm, his green eyes shining defiantly. "Lieutenant Ezra Standish, late of the Third Mississippi Cavalry."

"You stole my horse," Sherman repeated.

A freckle-faced redhead in a lieutenant's uniform pointed out, "They hang horse thieves hereabouts."

"I very much suspect, sir, that the statute of limitations has expired," Ezra countered.

Neither the general nor his staff seemed placated.

Vin approached, appearing out of nowhere. "Let it go."

"You look familiar, sir. Have we met?" Sherman asked, turning to face the new arrival.

Vin shook his head. Light brown hair, nearly as long as a girl's, fell in his face. "You ain't never laid eyes on me 'fore. Not ever. Leave him be."

Ezra's expression was as noncommittal as always, but the fear faded from his eyes. "My thanks for your assistance, Mr. Tanner."

"Tanner?" Sherman snapped his fingers. "You Mark Tanner's son? You have something of his look about you."

Vin shook his head again. "Mark Tanner was m' uncle. I'm Polly Tanner's son."

General Sherman paled.

"Remember her, do ya?" Vin asked coldly, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops.

"She would be a difficult woman to forget," Sherman said quietly. He watched Vin intently, as if memorizing his features.

"Funny, y' managed t' forget her after the Mexican War ended and y' left Texas." The sharpshooter's tone was deceptively mild, making the contempt in his voice all the stronger by the contrast.

Sherman took a deep breath. "Is there somewhere we can talk privately? Let me buy you a drink, son."

"Y' ain't earned the right t' call me 'son.' An' I'm a mite particular who I drink with."

Chris looked over, wondering what was going on. Sherman's men frowned, upset and confused. Sherman looked like someone had slapped him.

Hoping to change the subject, Mitchell pointed out, "If this fellow stole your horse, General, then he was most likely behind your abduction attempt as well."

"The war has been over a good ten years, sir," Ezra announced.

"Leave him be," Vin ordered.

"Ezra, he's a real dandy, fond 'a fancy clothes, don't care much fer dirty laundry. Y' leave him be or we'll have a whole lot 'a dirty laundry out on the table."

Sherman nodded.

"I find I've lost interest in the cards tonight." Laying down his cards, Ezra pocketed his money. He glanced wistfully at the pot, then turned to Vin. "I have a bottle up in my room, if you'd care to share it with me, Mr. Tanner…"

Vin nodded, and they both left.

Sherman's gaze followed Vin hungrily up the stairs.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A few minutes later, Ezra asked, "Have you ever tasted brandy, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin seated himself in Ezra's rocking chair. "Nope."

"I save it for special occasions." He poured two small glasses. "It needs to be sipped, not guzzled," he warned as he passed the glass over.

Vin sipped and his pale blue eyes widened appreciatively as the liquid ran over his tongue and down his throat.

"If you were of a mood to talk, I'd be willing to listen," Ezra offered. "However, some people believe brandy is best enjoyed when sipped by friends, sharing the beverage in companionable silence. Whichever you prefer, Mr. Tanner, especially as it's your first exposure to this ambrosia."

"Companionable silence? That a fancy way 'a sayin' shut up 'n' drink?"

"It simply means friends don't always need to talk, Vin. A concept young Mr. Dunne has yet to master as he seems convinced of the necessity of imitating a squirrel and constantly chattering."

Vin looked up sharply. Ezra seldom indulged in the informality of using first names. "That boy does like to talk, don't he?" He looked Ezra in the eye and started to ask that this be kept private, just between the two of them, but then he shut his mouth. He wouldn't insult Ezra by suggesting that he'd blab. He knew without asking that whatever was spoken in this room would never be spoken of by either of them.

"M' uncle fought with Sherman in the Mexican War. His father was a rancher, sold beef to the army. Sherman came home with Uncle Mark on leave, met m' mother. She was real purty, m' mother, and Sherman… Anyhow, when she found herself in the family way, m' grandfather threw her out fer disgracin' the family. He let her stay at a little shack on the edge of the ranch, but never spoke to her again; didn't even come to her funeral. Uncle Mark insisted on me bein' allowed t' move into the big house after she died, but m' grandfather tried t' pretend I weren't there as much as he could. Tried t' get m' uncle t' act the same.

"I put up with it fer two years, then ran off with a half-breed Kiowa boy I knowed who was tryin' t' get back t' his pa's people on the reservation."

Vin poured himself a second brandy and sipped it slowly. "William Tecumseh Sherman," he pronounced the name as slowly as he'd sipped the brandy. "Always knew who he was. Never saw him b'fore, never wanted to. I'd planned t' go up t' the Seminole village while he was here. If Peso hadn't gone lame, I would've. Should've just borrowed another horse from the livery stable."

"I, for one, am glad you did not. Had you ridden out to visit the aborigines, there would have been no one to come to my rescue once the Arsonist of Atlanta realized that I was the Thief of Collierville."

Vin shook his head. "Chris wouldn't have let 'em hang ya."

"Our illustrious leader would have been able to save my life," Ezra agreed. "But I very much doubt he would have been able to prevent the soldiers from harassing me. It's quite probable some of them were with Sherman at Collierville."

"The General said Chris saved his life there. What happened?" Vin asked, grateful to turn the conversation away from his roots.

"Collierville is a small town in Tennessee, thirty or forty miles east of Memphis. The Union was using it as a supply depot. My unit was assigned to attack it, to steal much-needed supplies." Ezra sipped his brandy. "'Twas logistics, more than tactics, that defeated the Confederate Army."

Vin nodded. He remembered all too well. He'd spent most of the war hungry, poorly clad, and low on ammunition.

"By sheer bad luck, Sherman passed through town on the day of the battle. His train came through on the way to his infamous March to the Sea. His troops joined in." Ezra sighed, the memories he had tried to bury for years overwhelming him. "We hadn't expected a major strategist to take over the battle, nor fresh troops. But with the opportunity staring us in the face, the chance seemed too good to ignore. We stole his horse, as much of his supplies as we could manage, and attempted to abduct him. We had hoped that, with one of Lincoln's top generals in a prison camp, it would slow down the Union efforts. Unfortunately – from the Confederate point of view – a brave young sergeant rescued General Sherman. He got an officer's commission out of the deal. My colonel got a new horse. And I… Well, I gained an influential enemy. If your fath–" Ezra saw the look on Vin's face and quickly corrected himself. "If the general realized that I was not only the one who stole his horse, but who had masterminded the hastily conceived plan to kidnap him, I strongly suspect he would be unforgiving, even after so long."

"Reckon he might."

"I realize you would have preferred General Sherman remained ignorant of your identity. I appreciate the fact that you sacrificed your anonymity to come to my aid. Thank you, Mr. Tanner."

"Hell, Ez, that's what friends are fer."

Ezra raised his glass in salute. "To us… We have been far luckier in our friends than in our families."


Historical Note: Collierville, Tennessee, was the site of four battles in 1863. On October 11, 1863, General James Chalmers led five cavalry units from four states (7th Tennessee, 3rd Mississippi, 18th Mississippi, 2nd Missouri, and 2nd Arkansas) against the 66th Indiana Infantry protecting the Union supply base there. By sheerest chance, Sherman's train came into town during the battle. His favorite mare, Dolly, was stolen, and Sherman himself was nearly abducted. Given the combination of grand theft equine and an Indiana regiment, I couldn’t resist putting Ezra and Chris into the battle. The song "Good Old Rebel" was written by Major Innes Randolph, a Confederate officer. Many thanks to Edward, Christine, Kelly, and especially Hombre, for constructive criticism.