Fellow Travelers

by J. Brooks

Alternate Universe - "Little Ezra"

Main Characters: Ezra, Nathan, Vin, Chris

Note:A skewed little Little Ezra adventure, written on a dare.

Size: Approx. 175K

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Jackson Plantation
Colbert County, Alabama
Spring 1857
Nathan Jackson sighted down the cold steel length of the rapier blade, slicing viciously at a padded practice dummy, wishing it was someone else.

The fencing hall was a bright, airy place, painted white from floor to ceiling, its walls bristling with displays of daggers, foils, sabres, epees and all manner of edged weapons. Idly, Nathan wondered how they managed to keep the walls so white in a place where so much blood had been spilled.

With smooth precision, he moved through his practice routine. Thrust, parry, riposte, advance. Through the open windows, he could hear Master Jackson's voice booming down the path that led from the plantation great house to the outbuilding that held his prized salle d'armes.

Please let him come alone this time, Nathan begged silently.

His heart sank as Buford Jackson rounded the bend in the path, dragging a small boy along by one arm. The youngster stumbled, unable to keep up with the man's longer legs. The plantation owner aimed a vicious kick, which the boy dodged with the ease of long practice. The older man staggered as the momentum of the blow almost knocked him off his unsteady legs.

Nathan closed his eyes. Middle of the morning and Buford was already blind, stinking drunk. It looked like blood would be shed in this room again today.

The boy broke free of Buford's bruising grip and darted toward the fencing hall, as though he thought he would safety there. He burst through the door, wide eyes searching until they met Nathan's. Some of the tension seemed to go out of his small frame as he nodded a greeting, then ran to the wall to pull down a fencing foil that was almost as long as he was tall.

Nathan shifted position, placing himself between the boy and the door. By the time Buford reached the hall, the two of them were moving through the practice routine side by side, as if they'd been there for hours. Thrust, parry, riposte, advance.

"Ah good, Nathan. Pray show my worthless nephew how a blade was meant to be held," Buford drawled, making his way to his customary seat on the raised dais above the practice floor. "You hear that, Ezra? You remember what I said I'd do to you if allowed a slave to best you today?"

Ezra kept his eyes forward and his expression blank as ran through the fencing moves. Lunge, feint, cut, retreat.

The movements were surer, more graceful than they had been when Ezra began these lessons a month ago; but Nathan could see the child's shoulders trembling with the effort of holding the blade steady. There wasn't a weapon in the room light enough for a seven-year-old boy.

Buford drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, waiting impatiently for his nephew to falter. Three months. Three months since his late wife's sister had arrived on his doorstep with her scrawny whelp and a promise to return for him within the week. His hand twitched toward his epee. The very least young Ezra Standish could do, in return for eating his food and sleeping under his roof was, to provide some decent entertainment.

Ezra's blade dipped slightly as he struggled to maintain proper form through the difficult septime haute parry. Buford snatched up his blade, only to be distracted by as Nathan stumbled through an unusually clumsy passata-sotto lunge.

Eyes alight with glee, Buford switched to a rapier and stalked toward Nathan instead. Ezra shrank back against the wall.

"I see young Ezra isn't the only one in dire need of a practice bout! En garde!" Buford whooped, ignoring the traditional fighting stance and whipping the blade around in a vicious cut that aimed to separate his slave's head from his shoulders. Nathan deflected the blow and retreated, keeping a wary eye on his foe. Buford Jackson might be an abusive, slaveholding drunkard, but he could fight with a blade like he had been born with one in his hand.

Again and again, Nathan blocked the sword cuts, careful not to make it look too easy, careful to let a few glancing blows slip past his guard and draw enough blood to satisfy his opponent. Above all, he was careful not to let any of his own thrusts come close to the mark. He had seen what happened to fencing partners who spilled Buford's blood.

Still, he was caught off guard when the swordsman abandoned any pretense of fair play and charged him, bellowing. The older man's shoulder caught him across the midsection and he went flying, to land stunned and gasping on the clean white floor. With a satisfied smirk, Buford raised the rapier above his head and prepared to bring it down in a two-handed killing blow...

Only to drop the sword with a howl and clutch instead at the sharp fencing foil that had lodged, quivering, in his ample backside.

He whirled, the foil whipping out behind him like a rattail, to face his assailant.

Ezra gave his uncle a weak, apologetic smile. Then he bolted, with the enraged man limping in pursuit.

The boy scampered around the room, pulling equipment off the walls and hurling it at his uncle whenever he came within grabbing distance. He paled as Buford scooped up a sharp dagger and began to close the distance.

In moments, Buford was on top of him, the bright blade slicing down through layers of clothing and flesh. Ezra yelped and threw himself to the side, rolling toward the open door.

And then Nathan was there, yanking Ezra aside with one hand, while the other brought the pommel of his blade whipping around to strike Buford's head with a satisfying crack.

Master Buford Jackson dropped like a pole-axed calf.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan and Ezra stared down at the inert lump on the floor, then at each other. As one, they turned and made a break for the door.

Outside, Nathan grabbed the little boy's hand and tugged him around the side of the building, glancing around to make sure they were still entirely alone. He dropped to his knees and wrenched a loose board off the wall, reaching behind it to pull out a hidden cache of food, clothing and traveling supplies.

This wasn't the way he'd planned to begin his flight to freedom, but it didn't look like he'd get a better chance. He turned to say something to Ezra, only to watch, speechless, as the boy reached calmly into the hidey-hole and pulled out an almost identical bundle of his own.

Nathan's jaw dropped. "How did--?"

With a flourish, Ezra held up his free hand to display ... Buford Jackson's wallet.

Nathan choked. "When did--?"

Ezra flashed him a sunny smile. "I think we should be going now, don't you? I don't think my uncle will be in a very agreeable mood when he wakes."

Nathan reached out and gently caught the boy by the shoulders. "You sure about this? It's a long hard road north."

The little boy grabbed his hand and began tugging him toward the woods. "Think how much easier that road will be if we travel it together, Mr. Jackson. If anyone accosts you, I can simply tell them you're with me. If anyone accosts me, you can hit him over the head. We'll blend in like--"

"--a sore thumb," Nathan grumbled, nevertheless allowing Ezra to pull him along.

+ + + + + + +

"San Francisco?" Nathan repeated incredulously, his hands freezing on the bandage he was winding around the ugly knife cut on Ezra's shoulder.  It was one more mark in a collection of colorful bruises and half-healed cuts that marred the boy's narrow back. "San Francisco's on the other side of the world. How're you supposed to get there?"

"I'll manage, Mr. Jackson. And once I'm there, I should have no trouble locating my mother," Ezra said with a breezy confidence that made Nathan want to shake him 'til his teeth rattled.

They walked as they talked, keeping to the densest parts of the forest, expecting any minute to hear the baying of the hounds that were trained to track down runaways and tear them to shreds. Still, the child marched ahead with an air of preternatural confidence, one eye on the trail and one eye on the map he'd liberated from his uncle's study.

Nathan tied off the rough bandage, wishing he had time to clean the cut properly or brew up a poultice. He felt a brief pang, realizing that he would be leaving the plantation slaves without anyone who knew the healing herbs and arts. He spared a brief glance for his own injuries, relieved to see that only one cut still seemed to be bleeding.

Ezra, who had shrugged back into his shirt and jacket, silently pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to Nathan. The healer accepted it with a smile and tied it around the deep gash on his left arm.

"Well, we can't turn west right away, Ezra," Nathan said, lifting a low tree limb out of the boy's way. "Ain't no way we'll make it through Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas without somebody stopping us. Gotta head north to the free states. We can figure out what to do from there."

Ezra turned wide, wise eyes on Nathan and studied him for a long moment, his expression unreadable. Then he nodded, and the deal was made.

+ + + + + + +

By evening, they'd made it farther than Nathan could have imagined, thanks largely to Ezra's map. And still there was no sign of pursuit. It was doubtful anyone would go looking for Buford before dinnertime. They would simply assume he had passed out drunk somewhere.

But Ezra was beginning to falter. The cut on his shoulder still bled, and he would stumble from time to time, irritably shaking off Nathan's hands when he tried to help. He was fine, he
insisted. There was no need for Nathan to leave him behind for his uncle to find. No need to worry that he would slow him down enough for his uncle to catch up.

The next time the boy tripped, Nathan simply swung him up in his arms, ignoring Ezra's weak protests and the sudden burn of his own injuries. He felt the boy's over-warm forehead settle against his neck as Ezra resigned himself to this new indignity and slipped slowly into an exhausted stupor.

+ + + + + + +

The light from the hunters' torches reflected off the water, catching the ripples in bright flashes here and there, even in the dank recesses beneath the dock where Nathan Jackson hid.

Someone had finally raised the alarm at the Jackson plantation.

He tensed as the baying of the hounds took on a confused note when the dogs lost his scent at the river's edge. The rough planks above him shook as men pounded down the dock, exclaiming over the boat that was missing from its moorings. There was more shouting from the men waving torches and milling around in confusion, then plaintive howls from the dogs as they were dragged from the scent and sent hunting downstream. Other men ran to their horses, spreading out in search patterns along the banks in both directions, scanning the dark river for a runaway slave in a stolen rowboat.

Nathan watched them go, one hand holding onto the small boat he'd dragged with him under the dock; the other hand holding Ezra's head above the water.

After long moments of blessed silence he moved, hissing as the stagnant river water stung the cuts on his chest and arm. With great care, he lifted the limp, unresponsive child into the boat and tugged the tiny craft out from beneath the dock and into the current. He clambered inside and paddled as quickly and quietly as he could to the opposite bank, where he dragged the boat up the bank into the cover of the dense undergrowth. Only then did he stoop to retrieve the valuables inside.

He slipped the two supply bundles over one bleeding shoulder, tucked his master's wallet into his pocket and gently lifted the little boy into his arms, checking to make sure his bandage hadn't bled through.

"Everything's gonna be okay now, Ezra. Don't you worry about a thing," Nathan whispered, turning his eyes to the heavens and the brilliant point of light that was the North Star. He slipped into the woods with his burden, heading north, freedom bound.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stirred and groaned, trying to escape the sharp pain in his shoulder.

"Hush now." A hand smoothed his hair back from his forehead. Ezra forced his eyes open, staring around in confusion. He was in a barn. Why was he in a barn? Why was Nathan in the barn with him? Was it time for his fencing lesson?

Nathan chuckled gently, pushing the boy's damp hair back again. "Welcome to Tennessee," he said. "Think you could eat something?"

Ezra pulled himself up shakily against a hay bale and reached for the hard biscuit Nathan offered; determined to prove that he was feeling just fine, thank you very much. The light filtering through the gaps in the barn wall were golden with the late afternoon sun and Nathan wanted to start moving again, as soon as he cleaned and re-wrapped Ezra's shoulder.

He lifted Ezra up onto his back, ignoring the boy's squawk of protest. The litany of complaints and unhelpful suggestions in his ear for the next several miles convinced him that Ezra really was feeling better, and he finally allowed him to slide to the ground and resume the journey on his own two feet.

They continued on like that for days, sleeping by day, traveling by night. Until the North Star led them through a particularly dank and boggy stretch of Tennessee, where they floundered through a sucking morass of black mud and insect swarms so thick they could barely breathe.

Nathan closed his eyes tiredly, allowing Ezra's insistent hand on his sleeve to guide him forward. The night felt stiflingly hot and his arm throbbed in painful counterpoint to his heartbeat. A tiny voice in the back of his mind scolded him for not tending better to the sword cut. He ordered the voice to hush up. He'd had more important things to worry about.

"Ezra?" he asked aloud, surprised by the harsh croak of his own voice in his ears.

"Mr. Jackson?" The boy was still tugging on his sleeve, staring up at him with wide, worried eyes. He swayed slightly, smiling down at Ezra, thinking how strange it was that after everything they'd gone through together, this was the first time he'd seen Ezra look scared.

He was just about to reassure the boy that he was just fine when everything went dark. He collapsed, dragging Ezra to the ground with him.

+ + + + + + +

The force of the fall drove the air from Ezra's lungs and he lay gasping, pinned to the soft earth by the weight of an unconscious adult twice his size.

After a long, airless moment, it dawned on him that Nathan wasn't going to apologize and roll off him. Or check on the knee he'd skinned in the fall. Or take his hand and lead the way back up the freedom trail. With a soft sigh, Ezra wriggled free and turned to study the downed man.

Tentatively, he reached out and nudged Nathan's shoulder. When that brought no response he tried a shove, then a vigorous shake.

"Mr. Jackson?" he whispered, leaning close enough to feel the unnatural heat radiating from the man. He brushed anxiously at Nathan's sweaty forehead and tentatively pushed back one eyelid to peer into the unresponsive brown orb. "Mr. Jackson? Please wake up."

He glanced around the boggy clearing. The trees and marsh shrubs seemed to close in around them, forming and reforming in ominous shapes with each passing night breeze. He was almost certain he could see the moonlight reflecting off dozens of beady eyes. "I don't think this is a very nice place to camp, Mr. Jackson."

Apparently Nathan disagreed. Ezra squared his shoulders and groped through the darkness until he found their bundle of supplies. He draped both blankets over Nathan, tucking them around him as the sick man began to shiver.

Cautiously, the little boy crept around the clearing, gathering firewood, keeping a wary eye on the suspicious shapes in the undergrowth.

"You'd best keep your distance tonight, you hear?" He warned a swaying clump of chickory. "We are escaped felons. Armed and dangerous."

He retreated to Nathan's side with an armful of wood and set to work coaxing a small campfire with the aid of one of Nathan's precious sulfur matches and the sacrifice of one of the jokers from his favorite deck of cards as kindling.

The cheery blaze drove the shadows back beyond the clearing's edge, giving Ezra the confidence to fill the canteens at the stream.  Nathan's eyes fluttered as Ezra pressed the container to his lips for a drink.

Ezra sank down beside him, leaning closer to the comforting warmth, and closed his eyes; just for a moment, just until he figured out what on earth he was supposed to do next.

+ + + + + + +

The smells of coffee brewing and bacon frying woke Ezra the next morning. He blinked sleepily at the cold ashes of his campfire, trying to work out why he could still smell woodsmoke.

Slowly, the answer dawned on him. With great care, he uncurled from Nathan's side, easing out from beneath the arm the man must have thrown over him in the night. He gave the sleeping man's shoulder a reassuring pat and crept off, following the tantalizing breakfast smells, and a faint noise that sounded a lot like someone trying to play the harmonica.

The musical notes came one after another, in no particular order or tune. The odd melody led Ezra upstream to a low rise in the land. He crouched behind a cypress stump and studied the campsite.

A longhaired man in a raggedy leather coat lounged easily by the fire. Ezra wrinkled his nose. This, he decided, must be one of the wild mountain men said to populate the backwoods. His speculations broke off as the stranger pocketed his harmonica and turned to the skillet on the fire's edge, prodding at the bacon strips and corn fritters.

Ezra's stomach rumbled.

The mountain man looked up and directed a small smile at the spot where Ezra thought he was hiding.

"Morning," he said conversationally, tilting his head to meet the boy's wide, shocked eyes. "Made enough to share."

+ + + + + + +

Hunger won out over common sense and moments later Ezra found himself digging into a heaping plate beside the stranger's campfire. From time to time, he slipped bits of breakfast into his pockets, grateful his mother was nowhere nearby to witness this new abuse of his jacket.

"Vin Tanner," the young man introduced himself around a mouthful of bacon.

"Eldon Spratt," Ezra lied glibly.

"Uh huh. What brings you to the boondocks, kid?"

"I noticed your campfire while I was taking my morning constitutional," the child said, radiating the innocence of a choirboy as he filched another slice of bacon out of the frying pan. "I find the morning air invigorating, don't you Mr. Tanner?"

"Yup. Invigorating as all get-out. You planning on carrying all that food back to your friend in your pockets, or you want me to lend you a plate?"

Ezra blinked. "Whatever do you mean, sir? There's no one out here but you and--"

"EZRA!!" Nathan burst out of the trees, swaying unsteadily as he waved a sharp knife in Vin's general direction.

Ezra dropped his plate and scrambled to Nathan's side, relieved to see that Tanner had made no move toward his rifle or gun belt. Nathan threw a protective arm around the boy. "He hurt you? You okay?"

"I'm fine. I'm fine," Ezra croaked, his head pinned in the crook of Nathan's arm.

"Oh," the healer said, knees buckling as he slid sliding slowly toward the ground. "Good."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra hovered over Tanner's shoulder, watching his every move as the stranger smeared a steaming greenish paste over the inflamed cuts on Nathan's arm and chest. The unconscious man twitched and jerked, but Ezra was relieved to see him settle quickly, soothed by the heat and the herbs Tanner found in the healer's supplies.

"He's gonna be just fine, Ezra," Vin said, clapping the worried boy on the shoulder.

Ezra flinched, both at the rough handling of his sore shoulder and the reminder that Nathan had told this stranger his real name.

"Kid?" Tanner touched his shoulder again, gingerly. Before Ezra knew what was happening, he found himself sitting on a log, stripped of jacket and shirt, with a smelly herbal poultice wrapped around the healing knife cut.

Tanner's expression tightened at the sight of Ezra's back, and the boy opened his mouth to explain all about the trip he and Nathan had just taken through a thorny bramble patch -- and yawned.

Vin left the questions unasked. Dropping a blanket around the boy's shoulders, he settled down next to him on the log. Ezra yawned again as Vin pulled out his harmonica and began to play softly, a tuneless lullaby. Warm and well fed for the first time in more days than he cared to remember, the little boy swayed sleepily, slumping against the tracker's shoulder, sound asleep before the harmonica hit its sixth note.

+ + + + + + +

The sound of Nathan yelling at someone rang comfortingly in Ezra's ears when he woke again. He opened his eyes, puzzled to see that the sun seemed to have moved backward across the sky. If the sun was to be believed, it was morning again. Ezra was still lying there, pondering the mystery, when Vin Tanner's face moved into his field of vision.

"Morning," he said, holding a plate of something close enough to Ezra's nose to let the bacon finish the job of waking him up.

Ezra sat bolt upright, almost sending the plate flying. "Nathan?" he gasped.

"Could've sworn you told me his name was Norbert Johnston." Tanner chuckled, stepping aside to reveal Nathan, lying wrapped in blankets on the other side of the fire, looking mad enough to spit nails. The healer's scowl vanished, replaced by a delighted smile as he realized Ezra was awake. Ezra returned the grin.

"So, Ezra--" Tanner began, handing him the plate and a fork.

The boy rolled his eyes. When Nathan recovered, they were going to have a long talk about aliases. He dug into the food.

Vin was still talking. "Me and Nathan was just talkin' about your travel plans." Ezra sighed again and added "secrecy" to the list of things to discuss with Nathan. Vin continued. "I was wondering if you'd mind some company."

Ezra tilted his head, confused.

"He's on the run from the law too, Ezra," Nathan said, shooting a skeptical look at the stranger. "Says he's a tracker and can get us through to the free states -- if we don't mind taking a little detour with him through Kansas first."

Kansas. Ezra slowly pulled out the battered map, looking at it to avoid looking at the adults. Kansas and its bloody conflicts between proslavery and antislavery militias had dominated dinner table conversations at the Jackson plantation. Newspaper headlines from Kansas sent his uncle flying into the sort of rages that usually ended in the fencing room.

"Where are we now?" he asked Vin.

"'Bout three nights hard travel south of the Ohio River."

"See?" Nathan demanded, scowling again. "We could be into Illinois, free and clear, by the end of the week and this fool wants us to haul our carcasses west through ... how many more slave states?"

"Missouri and Kansas Territory," Ezra reported, tracing his finger along the route -- then beyond to the vast stretches of empty space that lay between him and California. Three days. Three days and Nathan would be free. And Ezra would be on his own, left behind as he always was when adults no longer had a use for him. He swallowed hard, the food suddenly weighing on his stomach like lead.

"I'm telling you," Vin said, taking up the argument where they had left off when Ezra woke. "You wouldn't make it close enough to spit in the Ohio. They got slave catchers and posses thick as fleas on a dog up that way. This whole corner of Kentucky's all riled up."

"We been doing just fine on our own `til now."

"You said the two of you're bound for San Francisco," Vin pressed. "My way'll getcha a lot closer."

Ezra straightened in surprise, staring at Nathan in absolute wonder. Nathan still meant to go to San Francisco with him? He ducked his head quickly, hoping neither adult had noticed.

Nathan crossed his arms, but Ezra could see the man was wavering, sorely tempted. "How do we know you won't turn us in to the first posse we run across?"

Vin cocked his head and gave them a strange little smile. "I turn you in, you can turn me in. I'm worth five hundred dollars, dead or alive."

+ + + + + + +

The familiar, chilling bay of bloodhounds sent Ezra burrowing deeper into the thick carpet of leaves on the forest floor. A few members of the passing search party peered into the thick forest that bordered the road, but couldn't couldn't penetrate the deep shadows where he hid. As the hunters passed him by, Ezra risked a look.

Nathan stood in the middle of the road, shoulders slumped, circled by the slave hunters.  Chains bound his wrists and ankles as Vin Tanner held his rifle on him. Wide-eyed, Ezra listened as the bounty hunter waved off the posse's kind offer of a free lynching for the runaway. They parted ways amicably -- the posse heading east, Vin and Nathan heading west.

Ezra bounced out of concealment, grinning, as Nathan shucked off the unlocked manacles and returned them to Vin with a grimace. Without a word, the three resumed their journey.

Nathan had pitched a fit when Vin first suggested taking to the open road in daylight, but more than a week of safe travel had proven the genius of the plan. They took turns, two on the road, one hiding nearby whenever they came across another traveler. Sometimes they were a father and son strolling down the trail; sometimes a privileged child and his servant; sometimes a hunter and his bounty. Nothing remarkable. Nothing to stick in the mind if wanted posters were to circulate in this area in the future.

Ezra trotted between the men, all but skipping as he read the granite road markers. There was a town ahead.

+ + + + + + +

"Watch the lady. Watch the lady, my friends. Round and round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows. Pick the right card and win the pot. How about you, sir? You strike me as the sporting type. Perhaps your eye is quicker than my hand?"

A stout shopkeeper chuckled and tossed a dollar on the upended crate in front of Ezra, leaning close as the boy began shuffling the three bent playing cards, weaving them over and under, flashing the Queen of Hearts from time to time so quickly she barely registered.

Vin leaned against a nearby wall, watching the hypnotic motion of the cards and marveling at the child's unceasing line of patter. The marks pressed closer to the action, positive that their luck at three-card monte was about to change. The sound of running feet alerted Vin to the fact that Ezra's luck was about to take a turn as well.

Nathan rounded the corner, breathless from his frantic run through town. Vin stopped him with a hand to his chest before he could burst into the crowd and haul Ezra away by the ear.

Ezra, no fool, wrapped up his final game, nodded farewell to the crowd and bolted down a side alley toward the cover of the nearby woods.

Nathan caught up to him in three steps. He dragged the protesting child deeper into the alley, away from the prying eyes of the town. He hoisted the boy up until he dangled eye-to-eye.

"Didn't I tell you to wait by the stables?" he scolded, giving Ezra a shake, trying not to let him see how frightened he'd been when he returned to find the hiding place empty.

"Um. You're back early," Ezra said with a weak smile, puzzled by the worry he read on the healer's face. Did Nathan think he wouldn't split the take?

"You scared us, Ez," Vin said, lifting Ezra out of Nathan's grasp and setting him back on his feet. "Thought something bad mighta happened to you." He tousled the boy's hair, shooting a warning look at Nathan.

Ezra fished the small money roll out of his pocket and held it up. "I-I had a lucrative afternoon. This should cover my share of expenses."

He waited expectantly for the praise that money always brought.

Nathan's face twisted as Ezra pressed the dollars into his hands. "Money! This ain't about money, Ezra!" He dropped the roll of bills as if it burned him. "And I don't want you cheatin' folk on our account!"

Ezra shrank back, watching his dollars flutter to the ground. As both Nathan and Vin started toward him, he tensed, bracing for a blow.

He heard Nathan sigh. "Aw, Ezra." A hand caught him gently under the chin, tilting his face up he met the healer's apologetic gaze. "Here. Vin picked up all your money for you. It's yours.
You keep it."

When Ezra made no move to take the money, Nathan tucked the dollars back into the boy's pocket and pulled him into a hug. Ezra blinked. His mother hugged him sometimes; usually when she needed to hiss instructions in his ear before she went off with one of her marks. He had no idea how to respond to a hug that didn't come with directions. Tentatively, he leaned into the hug, arms still at his sides, and felt the big man's arms tighten comfortingly around him in response. He rested his chin on Nathan's shoulder, fighting an alarming prickle of tears.

These were the most confusing people he'd ever met in his life.

+ + + + + + +

"Would it've killed you to take what he offered?" Vin finally asked, his expression glacial as he shifted the sleeping child to a more comfortable position on his shoulder. Night had fallen, but they had decided to press on to make up the time they lost in town.

Nathan threw him a sidelong glare, glancing down to make sure the boy was still sound asleep.

Vin kept pushing. "I'm guessing money's the only way Ezra knows to show somebody he cares. And he was ready to give you every penny he had."

Nathan stopped in his tracks and turned to face the younger man. "People been using that boy to make them money all his life," he said, keeping his voice low with some effort. "I ain't gonna be like them. Don't want him believing that's all he's good for. Don't want him thinking that's the only reason anyone might want him around."

Vin felt the anger he'd been nursing all day drain away, replaced by chagrin. "Damn, Nathan. I didn't--"

Nathan brushed off the apology with a change of subject. "So, you got any idea where we are right now?"

Vin cleared his throat and started walking again. "Due east of Lexington. Could hit the Kansas border by the end of the week."

"Then on to that Army fort you was talking about?"

"Yup. Paymaster there still owes me for two deserters I rounded up last fall. Should pay enough to get me anywhere I want to go."

Nathan grinned. "You given any thought to where that might be?"

Vin glanced up at the stars as if he could read the answer there. "I hear San Francisco's right nice this time of year."

There was a soft chuckle through the darkness. "I heard that too."



"You really think his mama's gonna be there waiting?"

Nathan didn't answer, and they walked on in silence while the full moon rose and lit the trail like silver under their feet.

"Nate?" Vin asked at last.


"You think Ezra'd show me how that trick with the three cards works?"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra crept through the high prairie grass, keeping his belly low to the ground, trying to move as silently as the breeze. His eyes narrowed as he spotted his quarry. Gathering himself, he sprang through the air and landed on his target's back, coiling his arms around the man's head, growling low in his throat as he tried to wrestle his victim into submission.

His victim sighed and carefully folded the map he'd been studying. "That's right, Ez. You got me," Nathan said, lurching to his feet as smoothly as he could in his top-heavy condition.

Ezra chortled as he found himself suddenly six feet off the ground. He tried a few more experimental wrestling holds on Nathan's head as the healer patiently moved around the camp, stowing their gear.

"Attaboy, Ez. Think you might really have caught him off guard that time," Vin snickered, popping out of the long grass where he and Ezra had been practicing their stalking technique.

"The Kiowa headlock is supposed to inspire fear and dismay," Ezra informed Nathan, adjusting his grip and nearly tumbling off the healer's shoulders. Nathan caught him smoothly and flipped the boy into a more secure fireman's carry.

Ezra studied the Kansas prairie from his new upside-down vantage. "Were you struck with fear and dismay that time, Mr. Jackson?"

"I was struck by forty pounds of silly white boy, same as the last three times," Nathan snorted, latching on to Ezra's ankles and lowering him slowly toward the ground, head-first. Ezra stretched his arms out and attempted a handstand, tumbling in a heap just like the other times he'd tried it. He blinked up at Nathan expectantly.

The healer thought it over. "The growling was a nice touch," he conceded. "And you did sneak mighty quiet that time. Wouldn'ta known you were coming at all if Vin hadn't kept laughing."

Ezra turned a betrayed glare on the tracker, who just laughed harder.

"Come on, let's get packed," Nathan prodded Ezra's ribcage with his toe before stepping over the boy to douse the fire. "We should be at that fort of Vin's by mid-afternoon and then it'll be time to head for the Promised Land."

The long walk through Kansas had gone more smoothly than the screaming eastern newspaper headlines had led Ezra to believe. They avoided the main roads and skirted around towns with names linked to fearsome massacres. So far, they had seen no sign of the roving bands of zealots who were said to keep the territory awash in blood while they feuded over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or free. Just day after day of rolling hills and prairie, farms and farmers and the occasional wagon train trundling westward.

Ezra stowed the last of his meager belongings and swung the bundle over his healed shoulder. In the distance, a farmer and mule team turned the rich black earth. Ezra watched the man intently. One never knew when these Kansans might run amok and start massacring. When the man stuck to plowing, Ezra turned away with a grunt of satisfaction.

"All clear, Ez?" Vin deadpanned. The boy nodded solemnly. If they wouldn't let him pay his way, he would find other ways to contribute to their welfare. Watching out for marauding Kansans was the least he could do.

He sidled up next to Nathan as they set out across the swaying sea of grass. Every step carried them closer to Nebraska Territory and the invisible line that separated slave from free in the Far West. For days now, he had been trying to imagine what life would be like on the other side of that line. Every time he tried to picture it, he came up with an image of Nathan relaxing on his uncle's verandah, sipping sweet tea while Buford Jackson waited on him in ragged slave's clothing. Ezra grinned.

"I've never been to the North, Mr. Jackson," he confided. "Will it be very different, do you think? In the Promised Land? Will we know when we cross into it?"

Nathan's eyes took on a distant, dreamy cast. "Maybe, Ez. Maybe the air'll smell sweeter. Or maybe we'll just feel it in here--" he tapped the boy's chest gently. "Although I got to admit, I don't see how I could feel much freer than I do right now."

He hopped over an irrigation ditch and turned to see if Ezra wanted help. The boy studied the two-foot-wide trench of muddy water and slowly held out his hand. Nathan took it and swung him safely across, surprised and warmed when Ezra didn't let go immediately.

Behind them, Vin cleared his throat. They glanced back to see the tracker standing on the other side of the ditch, holding his hand out expectantly. Ezra took it, giggling as Vin hopped the gap to join them. They set out again, the men swinging Ezra high into the air between them a few times until he shook free and trotted ahead, on the lookout for Kansans.

"So, Nate," Vin drawled, his gaze drifting north. "What's the first thing you're gonna do when you're officially a free man? Have a beer? Vote?"

Nathan considered the question, staring out over the long miles of grassland that lay between him and freedom. He grinned. "I'm thinkin' maybe I'll buy a horse. My feet are killing me."

+ + + + + + +

By mid-afternoon, as promised, the army fort appeared on the horizon, rising out of the grass like a mirage. Vin picked up the pace, then slowed, frowning, as they neared it.

The gates hung half-open and unguarded. There was no sign of activity on the walls and watchtowers or on the ground outside. The great wooden fortress, which should have hummed with activity, stood ominously silent.

Vin passed his rifle to Nathan and drew his sawed-off Winchester. Both men waved Ezra back as they approached the front gate. Ezra scowled and followed on their heels.

"See anything?" Nathan whispered as Vin peered through the entrance.

"Quiet as a tomb," Vin reported, leading the way inside. The two men exchanged a nod and split up, heading in opposite directions to check the fort for signs of life.

Ezra peeked through the gates, watching as Nathan moved to explore a small building in the center of the courtyard and Vin vanished around a corner. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped inside and headed for the closest building -- the soldiers' barracks -- determined to do his part in the search.

He never noticed the dark shape that detached from the shadows near the wall and moved to follow him.

+ + + + + + +

The stale air inside the bunkhouse reeked of dust, lamp oil and too many grown men living too closely together. Ezra peered around as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. The neat rows of bunks stood empty. He moved down the long aisle between the beds, peering inside footlockers and cabinets. Most still held the soldiers' belongings.

He stooped, frowning, to pick up a blanket that someone had tossed on the floor. After spending last summer in the home of a retired army colonel -- a distant cousin of some sort -- he was painfully aware of the military obsession with neatly made beds.

His thoughts broke off as the door crashed open behind him.

+ + + + + + +

"What do you think you're doing? Get away from there!" The angry voice cracked like a whip through the empty barracks.

Ezra whirled to find an impossibly tall stranger in Army blue bearing down on him. For a long moment he simply stared, torn between fright and confusion. Then the flight reflex kicked in.

Ignoring the soldier's sharp cry of warning, he darted toward the far end of the room, halting in dismay when he found the rear exit boarded and nailed shut. Ducking neatly beneath the man's reaching arms, he rolled under a row of bunks and scuttled into a side storeroom, his eyes fixed on a window set high in the wall.

He didn't notice the strange bundles heaped around the floor of the small space until he tripped over one of them, his feet tangling in a rough woolen blanket that covered something soft and strangely lumpy.

Panting in fear, Ezra reached down to tug at the material that snared his legs -- and froze as the blanket slipped down to reveal the gray face of a corpse.

He threw himself backward, recoiling as he came in contact with another bundle, then another. Wide, panicky eyes scanned the room, taking in the dozens of shrouded forms covering the floor of the small space. He shrieked.

And then someone was lifting him up, off the floor, away from that place. He could hear the soldier's voice, softer now, almost gentle, as the man carried him through the barracks and back out into the clear air. Ezra struggled weakly against the strong arms, barely aware of the hand rubbing his back or the voice whispering soothingly in his ear.

The only thing Ezra heard clearly was the sudden sound of a shotgun cocking close to his head.

+ + + + + + +

"You let the boy go. Now," Vin Tanner said softly, leveling his mare's leg at the soldier's head.

The man turned, never releasing his hold on the trembling child, keeping his own body between the gun and the boy. Hazel eyes met blue for a long, considering moment as each man took the measure of the other.

Slowly, Vin lowered his weapon.

"Vin Tanner," he introduced himself. "And that's Ezra you're carrying there like a sack of potatoes."

The stranger's lips twitched in a shadow of a smile. "Larabee," he replied. "Captain Chris Larabee."

"Ez?" Vin stepped closer, frowning when he realized the boy hadn't moved or opened his eyes. He holstered his weapon and held out his arms. There was an almost imperceptible moment of hesitation before Larabee handed the child over.

Vin smiled sadly as two skinny arms snaked up to wrap around his neck in a stranglehold. He rested his chin on top of the small head, wondering what could have happened to turn the cocky little con artist into this clingy shadow. Gently, he swayed back and forth, rocking Ezra while he cast about for some sign of Nathan.

Larabee's gaze drifted to a spot just over Vin's left shoulder. "It's okay Buck," he called, resting one hand on Ezra's back in an oddly possessive gesture. "You can all come out now."

Four figures emerged from one of the buildings. Vin relaxed slowly as he saw Nathan shake free of his guards and rush to join them.

"EZRA!" Nathan hollered from halfway across the courtyard. "Ezra! You okay? You hurt?"

Ezra's eyes flew open and he launched himself out of Vin's arms toward the healer. Nathan caught him in mid-air and pulled him into a fierce hug. The healer pulled back with an embarrassed cough and began inspecting the boy for signs of injury or abuse. Vin laughed as Ezra sputtered a weak protest when Jackson began tousling his hair in search of head trauma.

The other three soldiers ambled up to join them, staring at the newcomers with undisguised curiosity. "Buck," Larabee snapped, turning to a dark-haired man with sergeant's stripes on his uniform. "Get the rest of the lamp oil. We're doing this now."

The sergeant nodded thoughtfully then swatted the young private next to him. "C'mon, JD. Let's go." The soldiers hoisted two casks off the barracks porch and began moving around the building in opposite directions, splashing the fuel on the wooden walls.

Larabee tilted his head at the final member of the group. "You got any last words to read over the men, Josiah, this'd be the time to do it."

The visitors watched the soldiers warily.

"Nathan," Ezra whispered, tugging Vin's sleeve until the tracker turned to listen as well. "Dead people. The building's full of dead people."

Nathan's arms tightened around the boy. Larabee turned away to face the barracks, nodding to Buck and JD, who waited on opposite sides of the structure with matchboxes in their hands. The chaplain murmured the last words of the benediction and stepped back, bowing his head.

As one, the soldiers struck their matches and tossed them toward the fuel-soaked walls. Bright yellow flames caught and spread, licking hungrily up and around the walls. Within moments, the blaze had engulfed the entire building.

Ezra, recovered from his fright, slid out of the healer's arms and scooted toward the fire with all a small boy's enthusiasm for wanton destruction. The preacher moved to follow, making sure the youngster kept a safe distance.

Nathan stared into the flames, his jaw clenching. "What was it?" he asked, turning to give Larabee a hard look. There was only one reason men burned buildings full of unburied corpses. "What'd they die of?"

Larabee sighed, closing his eyes to shut out the image of a small boy silhouetted by flames.

"Typhus," he said. "It was typhus."


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