Amor Vincit Omnia
(Love Conquers All Things)
(Civil War AU)
Chapter 6 added 29 November 2004
Chapters 7-9 added 3 April 2005
Chapters 10-13 added 21 October 2005
Chapters 14-16 added 6 July 2006
Chapters 17-18 added 3 September 2006
Chapter 19 added 16 October 2006
Chapter 20 added 12 November 2006
Chapters 21-23 added 3 June 2007
Chapters 24-25 added 30 July 2007
Chapter 26 added 18 January 2009
Chapter 27 added 28 January 2009
Chapters 28-29 added 31 December 2009
Disclaimer: These Cowboys don't belong to me. I'm only borrowing them for a 'ride' or 3. And will return them to MGM, Mirisch and Trilogy when we're done. No copyright infringement intended. Written for fun. No profit made.
Warnings: Slash (male/male pairing) in a romantic/sexual relationship. Some violence, language, h/c, angst.
Pairing: Chris & Ezra
Rating: R eventually
Author's Notes: Open AU. Set during the Civil war. What if Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington were Union Soldiers undercover in the South and meet two Confederate Soldiers -- Ezra and Vin of course. Will Chris and Buck compromise their mission for Ezra and Vin? Will Ezra's and Vin's secrets help or hinder Chris and Buck?
Thank you for all your wonderful feedback. It's absolutely scrumptious to Pegasus and I. We've creatively played with the timeline of certain events in the war. Hope you enjoy the weaving together of the new chapters.
Thoughts denoted by */ /*, Flashbacks denoted by +++++++, ^ ^ denotes flashback within a flashback.
'Battery' -- the unit of organization for the field artillery.
'Canister' -- simply a tinned-iron can full of iron or lead balls packed in sawdust. When fired, the effect is that of a giant shotgun blast. Canister is essentially short-range anti-personnel ammunition.
'draughts' -- checkers.
'Haversack' -- sacks sometimes lined with linen in which a solider carried his rations of hardtack, vegetables, coffee and cutlery too.
'Housewife' -- A soldier's sewing kit
'Limber' -- basically a two-wheeled cart, simply an axle, with its wheels, surmounted by a framework for holding an ammunition chest and receiving the tongue." At the back of the axle is the pintle hook, on which the lunette on the trail of the gun carriage can be keyed into place. The result is a four-wheeled cart that pivots on the pintle hook.
Information about the civil war was found at the following sources:
"The Atlas of the Civil War" by James M. McPherson
"Strange but True Civil War Stories" by Nancy Clayton
Status: Work in progress
Feedback: Yes please at firstname.lastname@example.org
It was 1863 and the civil war was raging strongly through Tennessee.
Colonel Orin Travis of the Union Army handed over the necessary papers to the stoic officer sitting in front of him. Travis hid a smile as he studied the other man and asked "Any questions on your new orders, Captain Larabee?" The tall, dark-blond, slim yet sinewy captain replied steadily, "No sir. We'll leave at first light tomorrow." All the while pocketing the new orders in his navy blue uniform jacket.
Christopher Daniel Larabee heard the colonel clear his throat and say "Chris." Chris raised His hazel eyes to once again focus on the colonel and waited for Travis to continue. Orrin Travis told him "God Speed Chris." The captain nodded once then rose and strode out of the tent.
As Chris's crisp strides carried him across the camp, other soldiers gave 'the panther' as they had dubbed him a wide berth. This went unnoticed by the officer who was concentrating on his mission. Larabee's lips turned upwards slightly as he thought on his partner for the mission, his oldest and lifelong friend Lieutenant Bucklin 'Buck' Wilmington. */ That tall, blue-eyed lug-head stuck by me when I was going through hell losing my family in that awful fire, right before the war began./* Chris shook his head to dispel the dark memories that had left a lonely void in his heart. The captain knew his friend wouldn't mind getting singed one more time if it meant saving a life. */Old Bucklin always watches my back, like he knows I'll watch his. Besides Buck can ride, shoot and wrangle with the toughest. After all he's tangled with me. And boy can he sweet-talk the ladies. What Buck will scream about will be that he'll have to shave off that moustache of his. But ever since that fiasco at Berry Creek where he and I almost got caught, we have to be more cautious. And change our appearance somewhat. /*
The blond man ran a callused hand over his clean- jaw, figuring how he was going to change his look. Smirking he walked in into Buck's tent calling for Buck and heard a deep rumbling voice reply, "Buck isn't here. He's visiting with the major's daughter who came to see about her father's health. And the doctor's with them too." Chris pivoted around to see his gray-haired giant of a Sergeant, Josiah Sanchez playing checkers with the drummer boy, John Dunne whom Buck had taken under his wing. "Josiah, J.D." Chris greeted his sergeant and the dark-haired fair young man. J.D.'s expressive eyes gleamed humorously when he said, "Buck's doctoring the daughter while Saunders sees to the major." Then the young man launched himself off Buck's cot telling Chris that he would go get Buck for him. And J.D. sprinted out of the tent. Josiah stretched his six foot plus frame out of the chair he had been sitting in and asked gravely "New orders, Captain?" Before Larabee could reply, Buck sauntered into the tent followed by J.D. Josiah had offered the chair to his captain who sat down while he waited for his men to settle themselves around the tent. The tall, genial, brunette lieutenant lounged against the tent pole while Chris succinctly began to detail their new mission. As Larabee finished, both Buck and J.D. whistled softly while Josiah nodded his understanding. Josiah and J.D. left to prepare the supplies that Buck and Chris would need for they were going deeper into Tennessee ahead of the rest of Orin's men. Josiah and J.D. would meet up with the duo in a month.
Buck was still casually leaning against the tent pole, though there was nothing casual about the look in his intent blue eyes. He'd caught Chris's slanted look in his direction as the others left the tent.
"All right pard, what aren't you telling me?" Questioned the brunette of his dark-blond friend and commanding officer. Chris squared his shoulders, */Buck knows me too well. Have to tell him about his mustache. Shit, should have let Travis tell him this bit. /*
"Chris?" Asked the slightly impatient Buck. "Well you have to shave off your mustache for this assignment Buck. We have to change the way we look since the Rebels almost caught us in that last raid. And those are Travis's orders." Replied the blond.
Wilmington stared at his best friend in shocked silence for a long time then grumbled loudly about the injustice of duty. Larabee hid his smile, and retired for the night.
Two gray-clad uniformed men sat next to each other and rested their backs against the smooth brownish-gray bark of the whitewood tree. The shade provided by the tree allowed the golden- brown head of the taller lithe man to bend his head only slightly so that his bright blue eyes could see the worn primer book held in his steady hands. His soft-spoken, Texas drawl slowly sounded out the words on the page. During the Texan's reading, his russet-haired, shorter, muscular companion closed his moss-green eyes and focused on Vin Tanner's voice. When Vin finished reading, Ezra opened his eyes and his smooth as honey southern tone congratulated his friend "Mister Tanner, you read very well. Your pronunciation was excellent." The two confederate army lieutenants exchanged grins then Vin replied "Thanks Ez." And then the taller man gently shut the book in his hands and carefully replaced it in his saddlebags.
Ezra P. Standish's jade-colored eyes stared across the now quiet Confederate camp as his mind recalled how he had met Vin whom was his first real friend.
+++++++Four Years Earlier+++++++
1859 Abilene Texas
Ezra debonairly attired in his dark green jacket, pristine white shirt and black trousers sat at the main poker table of the saloon gathering up the winnings with his elegant hands when a disgruntled man shouted "You cheatin' scum. I sho' wun that hand." Ezra leveled his composed gaze and smile on the man. "Mr. Porter, I assure you that there was no sleight of hand involved in the game. Lady luck just smiled fortuitously upon me this fine evening." Mr. Porter pulled out a pistol to attack the gambler but Ezra P. Standish was faster and had his trusty Derringer aimed at his attacker's chest before the man could draw the gun out of his holster. Mr. Porter panicked and ran out of the saloon without another word. Ezra heard a quiet "Nat right ta shoot a man in the back."
"Bang" a single gunshot was heard. Then the gambler started slightly as a dead body thudded on the floor next to his chair. A golden-brown haired, blue-eyed man dressed in buckskins made his way over to the table, "Ya okay there Mistah? Ain't right what he was goin' ta do." The blue eyed man stared disgustedly at the corpse at his feet then stepped over it. "Name's Vin Tanner" and the man held out a tanned, slim, strong hand to the still seated gambler. Standish studied the man at his side and seconds later; his hand shook the waiting outstretched hand. Ezra introduced himself "Ezra P. Standish." and continued speaking "Mister Tanner I am grateful for your timely intervention, would you care for some libation after your exertions?" At his companion's blank look, the chestnut-haired man translated, "Thank you for guarding my back, would you care for a drink for all your trouble?" Vin took him up on the offer.
And that is how the two men forged a friendship over the next few months. And realized they had things in common. The two men were self-reliant, had a similar sense of humor, courageous, loyal, and smart each in their own way. Vin was an excellent sharpshooter and tracker. Ezra was an expert strategist and cajoler of people; getting information out of people. The jade-eyed man was also a terrific gambler. Both had grown up without a steady maternal influence in their lives. Ezra discovered that Vin's mother had died when he was very young. Vin found out that Ezra's 'ma' as Vin called her usually handed Ezra off to uncaring relatives or friends for months at a time while she went away. Once in a while Maude would come and see Ezra but it wasn't very often, only when she wanted to run a con.
Vin had met Ezra's ma "Maude" when she came to town and tried to swindle some rancher out of his property. Of course, she tried to involve Ez in it but he refused to help her and boy did that cause a stir between mother and son. Standish suspected that the blond didn't really like his mother but put up with her because of him. Vin supported his friend and Ezra began to realize there was someone who really cared about him the person. And not just his ability to con people.
Ezra also learned that Vin had the soul and talent of a poet but that the quiet Texan did not know how to read. The jade-eyed man determined that he was going to teach him but that's when his mother's con almost got them all killed. And trying to escape from the furious rancher and his family's viciousness--a bounty on their heads, Ezra and Vin had joined the army. And so Vin's reading lessons had to wait these three war-torn years but Ezra began them a few weeks ago and Vin was an excellent student.
Ezra returned to the present as he felt a gentle squeeze on his shoulder. He saw the tracker nod in the direction of a redheaded, freckled whirlwind rushing straight for them.
Ezra nodded back. Then the two friends rose and dusted themselves off when more dust rained on them as Private Buddy Roberts arrived, panting out "Surs, the general wan' to see both of ya." "Thanks Buddy." Said the two men then Vin asked him to take his saddlebags back to their tent and handed them over to the friendly private. The young man took them, then smartly saluted the two lieutenants and faded back into the camp.
Vin and Ezra rapidly made their way to the headquarters tent and the general. The sentry posted outside the tent waved them inside. The chestnut-haired and light-haired man awaited their new orders from the cunning general in front of them. Vin and Ezra had originally been with the brigade from Texas that had been sent to Tennessee to fight.
But the general in charge of this campaign of war had heard of the magnificent shooting and tracking skills of one Vin Taggart and of the exceptional strategic and spying skills of one Ezra Stanton.
"Men, we have two new arrivals in camp, Captain Chris Laramie and a Lieutenant 'Buck' Wilmont." The general said in a serious voice, "They claim that their unit was from Missouri originally and were sent here to fight but was ambushed by bushwhackers. Laramie and Wilmont were the only survivors." The two lieutenants understood the unspoken command in the general's voice. Ezra and Vin retreated from the tent heading straight to the hospital tent where the two new men could be found.
Vin matched Ezra's sure steps when abruptly the shorter man veered to his left. A "shit" burst from the blue-eyed Texan as he saw the reason for his friend's sudden movement. There by the horses' corral, that mean Waller fella was beatin' on Buddy. Ezra's soft "How dare those miscreants prey upon innocents. It is time to give that bully his upcomenance." made Tanner glad that he wasn't Waller. And then the green-eyed man stalked off leaving the taller man staring at his back.
Before the tracker could follow, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Another curse fell from his lips as he spotted four-year old Morning Star scramble under the fence to pick up her rag doll, which she had swung into the corral. */Horses hooves goin' to stomp on her fore' I kin git her clear./* thought the anxious man when he saw a tall dark-haired man scoop up the little one into his long arms. Vin breathed a sigh of relief as he saw Morning Star giggle.
Ezra was already at the edge of the circle of soldiers taunting poor Buddy when he halted mid-stride.
The russet-haired man saw an angry, dark-blond stranger shoulder his way into the opposite side of the circle and then clench his fists tightly as his side. Standish was close enough to hear the Captain for the man was wearing a uniform of that rank, hiss orders to the husky Waller. "Private let that boy go. Stop using him as a punching dummy or you gonna be diggin' ditches for the rest of the war. That's an order." Waller didn't respond to the unfamiliar voice as he kept hitting the already bloodied face and body of Buddy Roberts. The other soldiers saw the deadly fire in the stranger's gaze and the Captain's insignia on the uniform and skulked away until the only man left around the circle was Ezra.
"Gave you fair warnin". Let the boy down gently on the ground now. Now get up slowly and don't move."Snarled Chris as he pressed his gun against the back of the neck of the bullying man.
The dumb man resisted so Chris pushed him face down and hard to the ground in front of them when he caught someone in his peripheral sight. As he crashed into the ground, Bo Waller hit an old wound on the edge of a rock and he blacked out. The captain placed his boot roughly on the scumbag's back then pointed his colt sights right between the newcomer's moss-green eyes.
Ezra's orbs widened slightly and he raised his hands non-threateningly. The shorter man took a couple of cautious steps forward then stopped as he drawled "Captain, I just want to assist the broken and beaten private on the ground to the left of you. May I?"
The dark blond's fierce glare raked the chestnut-haired lieutenant over from head to toe then gave a brisk nod as he dryly replied "Yeah." A moment later the colt once again rested in its holster by the blond's hip.
Ezra ignored the butterflies sweeping across his stomach and the racing of his heart as he felt the piercing gaze of hazel eyes. */Not now Ezra P. Standish. Control yourself. So what if the Captain is attractive? Remember your last crush?/* whirled Ezra's thoughts.
Another few thoughts snuck in, */But this man's honorable. He stuck up for Buddy. And Gawd I think he's as fast or faster on the draw than Vin. So that means honorable but dangerous./* Ezra silently scolded himself as he blinked himself out of his thoughts at the tall man's verbal response.
The Southern man expertly blanked his face of any thought or emotion except concern for Buddy as he two-finger saluted the lethal man in front of him then fell to his knees and gently guided the injured man up and across the yard into the hospital tent.
Captain Christopher Daniel Larabee returned the lieutenant's salute and fell deep into green eyes. */Gorgeous and compassionate too. What the blazes am I thinking?/* Chris asked himself as he shook his head to clear it.
When he focused there was a tall blue-eyed blond man standing in front of him. Vin quirked his lips slightly upwards as he asked "Need help with Waller Cap?" then looked down at the unconscious man at Chris's feet.
Chris sensed an instant connection with the man. Larabee glanced down, grunted and removed his boot from Waller's back. At the captain's nod, Vin squatted down, removed some twine from his pocket and tied the now groggy man's hands behind his back. Then the blue-eyed man hauled the bully to his feet and awaited Chris's orders.
Chris eyed the other light-haired man thoughtfully. Vin stared calmly back and introduced himself, "Vin Taggart. Lieutenant." Chris did the same. "Captain Chris Laramie." He then stated sarcastically, "Let's take the scum to the hospital tent. Just to make sure Waller didn't eat too much dirt."
Vin silently chuckled as the three men entered the tent. He and Chris quickly deposited Waller with 'the doctor.' After which two pairs of eyes scanned the tent and found the russet-haired man keeping vigil in the rear. Ezra's relaxed stance told Vin that Buddy wasn't hurt too bad as he and Chris immediately strode over to the two men.
When the two fair-haired men were a few feet opposite the shorter man, Ezra tensed squaring his shoulders unconsciously and formally introduced himself to the Captain. "Lieutenant Ezra Stanton. Captain Laramie I presume?" he said steadily without revealing his reaction to the man . " Yeah that's me. Lieutenant, nice to meet you."
And the blond unthinkingly clasped Ezra's hand within his own larger one and then released it. "How's the private doin'?" he asked abruptly, ignoring the shivers the handshake sent up his arm. Ezra also ignored the flutters dancing along his own arm.
"A concussion, two cracked ribs, cuts and bruises but Mr. Jackson says there does not appear to be internal bleeding this time. So I am just accompanying the private until he is conscious. Mr. Roberts becomes agitated if he does not observe a familiar face upon awakening." Responded Ezra to Chris's question.
"This time?" Said the captain sharply. His hazel eyes narrowing in renewed anger.
Chris circled the private's cot, studying the injured man. */Glad he's still livin'. He could be a redheaded J.D. God I hate bullies./* thought Chris fiercely as he stopped next to Ezra.
Vin took up the explanations this time as he answered that Waller liked to pick on his fellow soldiers and this week it was his friend Buddy Robert's turn.
Chris's jaw and hands clenched as he fought down his impulse to go and punch the daylights out of Waller who was still across the tent. Instead the blond stood there and the green-eyed man standing next to him heard a still angry Chris murmur about men that taunt weaker men than themselves.
Ezra covertly glanced at the man at his side. His thoughts racing across his mind.
*/Chris Laramie is a captain in the Confederate army. Remember what happened with your last captain? Laramie 's not like him, look how he defended Mr. Roberts. Okay so the captain appears to care about his men but that doesn't mean he'll care about me. After all he called me lieutenant and not by my name./* the russet-haired man reminded himself. Ezra bent his head down appearing to check on the injured private but really to put his thoughts in order. Chris gazed at the quiet lieutenant who had looked down at Buddy's prone, unconscious body. Thus Ezra missed Chris's speculative glance.
But Vin had not. The sharp-eyed tracker had remained silent, observing the interaction between the two men and hid his own grin.
Another blue-eyed man also saw Chris's and Ezra's meeting and gazed thoughtfully at Chris as he tightened his grip on the wiggling bundle in his arms. Buck moved forward inclining his head towards Chris as he said, "There ya are old dog. Was wondering where you got to. The boy alright?" Ezra's head snapped up to stare at the newcomer.
Vin spun around so quickly that he almost knocked Buck and Morning Star over.
The Texan had been so caught up with Ez and Chris that he hadn't noticed how close the other man was to him. Vin's hand grasped Buck's forearm to steady the man.
The dark blond sighed exasperatedly then introduced the tall dark-haired man. The captain turned to the man at his side and stated "Lieutenant Ezra Stanton, Lieutenant Bucklin 'Buck' Wilmont." Ezra nodded in greeting as did Buck because he still had his arms full of a squirming four-year-old girl. Then the green-eyed man proceeded to once again recite Robert's condition.
Buck was about to respond but at that moment Buddy's dark eyes flew open and Ezra's presence seemed to reassure him because he immediately closed his eyes again.
A dark-skinned man made his way over to the four men. "You did good Ezra, bringing Buddy in as quickly as you did. Or it could've been worse for him." said the man a bit gruffly. Nathan smoothed the linen over Buddy's body as he waited for Ezra's reply.
The healer and the lieutenant did not always see eye to eye and had differences from time to time. So the big man braced himself for a caustic answer and was pleasantly surprised by the soft "Thank you Mr. Jackson." Nathan responded with "You are welcome Ezra."
Vin relaxed his protective stance as the tracker heard the healer's words. The blue-eyed man then introduced Laramie and Wilmont to the dark-skinned man, as "Nathan Jackson our camp healer since our 'doc' got kilt in a fight a few months ago."
After the introductions were made, Nathan shooed them out, stating that the injured man needed his rest. The commanding blond silently motioned for the four of them to continue their conversation outside.
Vin led the way outside and led the four to a small clearing within the camp. The men ended up in a small circle starting with Chris, Vin, Buck and ending with Ezra.
"Buck the man next to you is Lieutenant Vin Taggart." continued Chris. "Howdy Vin." Said Buck as he turned his head sideways to look at Vin. Vin muttered back
"Howdy Buck," but got no further because Morning Star had hopped into his arms. The little girl then demanded that Vin do his"grr-grrs" while she tickled him. Vin blushed slightly as he began his mock growls, which amused the other adults as well as the child.
Just as Ezra was going to explain about Morning Star, she stretched her arms out towards him.
"Ez, she wan' ta play with ya like she always do when she and her pa visit. " Remarked Vin calmly.
The Southern spy felt a fleeting sense of mortification as he thought what would Wilmont and Laramie, especially Laramie think about his game with the little girl but then felt resignation.
The ebony-haired girl snuggled happily in the compact man's strong arms as he sat on a log at one edge of the clearing.
Vin just quirked his lips indulgently while Chris and Buck stared interestedly at the duo.
"Lieutenant Wilmont, do you have the little one's cloth doll on your person?" Queried the now seated green-eyed man. "Sure do." Replied Buck cheerfully as he pulled the doll gently out of his jacket and handed it over. "So who's the little darlin?" Asked Buck as he watched the man place the doll within tiny arms that tightly circled her oldest friend whispering to a worn blue ear "We gonna ride the horsy." and then laughed. Ezra settled the young one on his right thigh and tickled her with one hand for a few moments as he answered Buck. "Her name is Morning Star. She's the daughter of the local Indian Chieftain with whom we occasionally acquire supplies."
Chris and Vin had stayed back a bit but were still close enough to see and hear everything. When Buck rejoined them, Chris muttered dryly "Would figure Buck, we've been in camp less then two hours and you're already picking up the ladies. Even if she's a mite young for ya." Buck laughingly responded with a quip about his animal magnetism.
Chris snorted and Vin gave them a small smile.
The trio watched the little girl riding her 'horsy' until said 'horsy' put a halt to it. Ezra secured 'Morning Star' in his arms and walked past his audience towards the trade officer's tent to take her back to her father. When the eagle-eyed man saw that Vin had an inquisitive look on his face, Ezra resolved to ask his tent mate about it later that night.
Ezra and his friend reached the major's office just as Chief Manu came out and saw his daughter. The stoic Indian nodded at Ezra and then left with Morning Star.
Major Thomas beckoned Ezra and the three men behind him into his tent.
The four men Ezra, Vin, Chris and Buck all stood at attention in front of the gray-haired major. Chris and Buck were behind and slightly to the right of Ezra and Vin respectively. "Lieutenant Stanton, Taggart good to see you again men." Thomas saluted Ezra and Vin who returned the salute and smile of the major.
"Gentlemen I am glad to meet you" the major now addressed Chris and Buck. He also gave them a salute, which they returned. Thomas looked the men squarely in the eyes and said "Boys, we've just learned that General Hudson will be visiting with us for the next couple of weeks so the tent we were goin' to give Captain Laramie will be his instead. That means you four are going to have to double up in the tents."
Ezra and Vin were a bit puzzled since they already shared a tent when it hit them and both groaned in their minds.
And sure enough, the major added "The general decided that since Lieutenant Stanton is more familiar with strategic maneuvers it would be good for the lieutenant and Captain Laramie to share Stanton and Taggart's regular tent so that the lieutenant can brief you Captain Laramie on all the important details of the upcoming campaign. And Lieutenants Taggart and Wilmont will share the remaining tent." as the black-eyed man sat down on his chair waiting for the orders he had just delivered to sink in.
*/More like the old coot of the general wants me and Vin to ascertain if the Captain and this other Lieutenant are legitimate Confederate soldiers and not 'spies'. The general does this every time we get a new solider in camp. But this time the general has to stick me with a model for my dreams. Hell, how am I going to survive the next two weeks?/* rattled Ezra's thoughts behind his serene green orbs.
The shortest man in the room chanced a look at the Captain and saw flashes of emotion chase themselves across his hazel eyes.
*/Shit, how are Buck and I gonna accomplish our mission? We have to find and bring the 'cougar' home. I had planned to smooth out our plan for the 'cougar' at nights when he could come to my tent but that's scratched because I'll have a tent mate whom I may or may not be able to trust eventually. Haven't shared a room or tent with anyone since Buck and I joined up. Its going to be awful hard to start again./* sang Chris's inner voice.
After a moment it started up again with, */Is it going to be that hard? He's got those emerald eyes and well-built body with a nice as...Larabee what the hell are ya doing? You're gawking at another man. And there have been men before but why would this man even look at you? Stop it./* yelled Chris's thoughts at him before he responded to the major.
*/Hell, the general wants me an' Ez to suss out the two new men./* whispered Vin's thoughts as he sneaked a peek at the dark-haired, clean-shaven man.
*/Bet the old dog's ticked. Chris want' to bring our man home as soon as possible. We're were goin' to work on the details at night in his tent. But since he's got a tent mate now, and so do I we'll have to figure out a new way which might take more time. But we'll do our jobs. No two ways about it if I know Chris and I know Chris. Besides Ezra and Vin seem to be good guys for Confederate soldiers./* Buck silently chuckled to himself.
*/Bet the old dog's ticked. Chris want' to bring our man home as soon as possible. We' were goin' to work on the details at night in his tent. But since he's got a tent mate now, and so do I we'll have to figure out a new way which might take more time. But we'll do our jobs. No two ways about it if I know Chris and I know Chris. Besides Ezra and Vin seem to be good guys for Confederate soldiers./* Buck silently chuckled to himself.
The major went over a few more orders for the men and then dismissed them.
Chris and Buck exited the tent and stopped mid-stride as they realized that they didn't know where they were heading. Vin and Ezra followed them out and came to rest behind them. The Captain and brunette lieutenant pivoted to face them.
Vin's soft voice echoed through the camp as he asked "Lost fellas?"
Ezra smirked, his jade eyes twinkling at the frosty glare that Captain Laramie threw at the tracker and the hoop of laughter that Buck let out as he answered "Yup."
Chris's glare melted as he saw the twinkle in the auburn-haired man's eyes. It dissolved completely when he heard the smile in Ezra's voice as the Southern queried "would you gentlemen care to group into a "mess" and partake of our fine cuisine of cornmeal and peas? Or would you prefer to adjourn to our humble abodes?" The blond man answered for Buck and himself as he said, "Rather go to the tents Ezra." Ezra graciously tipped his hat and felt his heart rate triple because the handsome Captain had addressed him by his name. "As you please Captain Laramie." responded the emerald-orbed man.
Chris fell into step next to Ezra, with Vin and Buck following behind them.
Suddenly a menacing figure blocked Ezra's path and growled "Gonna git ma muney back at the poker game tomorrow nite, Lieutenant Stanton...sir" growled the figure. Chris snarled and had drawn his pistol as had Buck and Vin. The auburn-haired man unconsciously stood closer to the hazel-eyed man next to him. Ezra's eyes narrowed as he silkily answered, "Private Waller it was your perogative to wager and lose all of your month's wages during last week's Camp poker game. If it is your desire to attempt to recoup your losses, I do not intend to detain you from it. You are most welcome to play in tomorrow night's game." The russet-haired lieutenant then tilted his head inquiringly and the private grunted "See ya, there...sir." and marched off. Ezra breathed deeply and then exhaled as three men reholstered their weapons. Chris had cleared his throat to ask for an explanation when Vin reached out and patted Ezra's shoulder. The jade-eyed man's head turned and graced his friend with a smile.
The dark blond man saw the exchange between the two men and squinted his eyes in annoyance as a tendril of jealously uncoiled in his stomach. */Just how close are Ezra and Vin?/* questioned Chris inwardly as he barked out, "What the hell just happened here?" Buck's lips curled into a mischievous grin as he spoke up, "Looks like Ezra here is a gambler, Chris and a pretty good one if he won someone's entire month's wages. That right fellas?" Vin snorted with good humor as the compact Southerner responded "Modesty aside, I am considered an excellent player." Chris's curiosity was piqued and he asked "Who taught you how to play cards, Ezra?" The younger man's response, "Since I was very young, my mother educated me in the games of chance." startled both Chris and Buck. Buck's good-natured "Ezra, your mother sounds like a fascinating woman with an interestin' life." The auburn-haired man's green eyes shadowed for a moment as he answered the tall man, "Lieutenant Wilmont, my mother has led a very adventurous life and has many talents."
Buck asked Ezra another question so they both missed Vin's mutter of, "Yeah Ez, your ma's got a talent for leavin' ya behind, for leavin' ya with other folks when she ain't got time for ya, cause she's too busy runnin' after rich men." Chris's sharp ears heard Vin's mumbling and vowed to himself that he would find out what the tracker meant.
By this time, the four men had reached the tent. Vin lifted the tent flap up and away from the tent pole and Ezra ushered the Captain and dark-haired lieutenant into the tent. Chris and Buck looked around. "Nice tent ya got here Pards." whistled Buck as Vin gathered up his gear. Chris silently nodded his agreement to Buck's statement.
Inside the tent, two cots were in the middle of the tent, one on the right, one on the left. And in between the cots at their heads was an upside down crate being used as a little nightstand with a deck of playing cards, a pitcher of water and two tin cups on top of it. A chest sat at the foot of each cot and a buffalo robe rested on each chest. At its southern corner, the tent had a small, elegant writing desk with a little oil lantern perched on it and in front of the desk, a well-used oak chair sat comfortably. The tent's northern end held two more oak chairs. One of the chairs had two rough towels draped over it. By the chairs was a small table with 'a housewife', a shaving kit, a basin, another jar of water, plus a compact mirror sharing its top. Haversacks and Chris's belongings were under the table.
Chris settled himself into one of the chairs by the table, Ezra sat down on his cot as Vin glided to the tent flap with his equipment. Ezra bend down and picked up some- thing that had fallen out of Vin's knapsack. "Mr. Taggart your musical instrument." Vin handed off his gear to Buck who was waiting for him and returned to take his harmonica from Ezra's outstretched hand. "Thanks Ez." Vin said.
Looking directly in Buck's direction, Ezra asked "Before you take your leave of us, Lieutenant Wilmont would you care to join our game of chance tomorrow evening?" Buck glanced covertly at Chris and saw the minute shake of the blonde's head. The dark-haired man drawled "Thanks for the invite, Ez but I gotta send some money home this month. Maybe another time. And I'm better at draughts anyway." "Well then Lieutenant, you and Mr. Taggart will get along splendidly. He also prefers draughts to poker. Goodnight Gentlemen." replied Ezra. Vin and Buck chorused their goodnights to Ezra and Chris and left for their own tent.
An awkward silence settled over the tent until Chris who was still sitting in the chair by the table broke it by asking "Where is the poker game held, Ez...Lieutenant?" The younger man reclined on his cot and glanced shyly over at Chris. And then said "You may call my by my Christian name if you wish, Captain Laramie. I won't mind." */I definitely won't. Please call me Ezra, Please./* thought the Southerner. His honeyed voice continued with "And we play our game of chance in Lieutenant Carter's tent." Chris nodded and remarked "I will then, Ezra and you can call me Chris in private or when Buck or Vin are here all right?" The younger man hoped that the Captain did not catch the slight breathlessness in his voice as he agreed in the affirmative.
Chris didn't, he was busy studying the lantern on the desk as he pulled his belongings closer to him. "Ezra I'm going to light the lantern. Its getting a bit dark and I want to lay my things out." Ezra rose swiftly and lit it as he explained, "Its a bit tricky, but she gives out good light as the flames from the lantern danced across his face. Chris's tanned fingers rested his shaving kit against the Southerner's and as he looked up his gaze was mesmerized by how the light deepened the emerald hues of Ezra's eyes and silky burnished the auburn strands of Ezra's hair. The commanding officer snapped out of it as he heard "I am positive that it has been an arduous day for you, Cap...Chris. I will commence with my evening ablutions and bid you a good night." The blonde's husky "Good night Ezra" sounded muffled to Ezra's ears as he was putting on his linen undershirt at the time Chris said it. The green-eyed man wrapped the buffalo robe around his person and let his uniform pants fall, he then returned the buffalo robe to the chest and folded his uniform neatly. Chris who was in his gray long johns by now sat at his cot and watched the younger man in his linen undershirt and underpants move economically, folding his clothes, quickly wash his face and shave nighttime stubble from that gorgeous jaw.
Ezra almost nicked himself twice with the sharp razor as he felt the intense stare of the Captain boring right through him. Finally satisfied that he was as presentable as he could get the Southern returned to his cot and grabbed the playing deck from the nightstand.
"Mr. Laramie, would you care to play a hand of chance?" And studied Chris as the older man raked a strong hand through his blond hair. "Not tonight, Ezra, another time. You're right, its been a long day. Gonna get me a cup of water then hit the hay." */Chris looks scrumptious with his hair all mussed and tousled like that. It also looks so soft. Maybe one day I will have the opportunity to card my fingers through that golden tress. Stop it Ezra. This speculation is foolish./* A lonely sigh fell from the young man's lips as he automatically shuffled the deck within his hands. Suddenly he was splashed by water. "What?" Was all he was able to splutter as the cold liquid soaked through his underclothes and deck of cards. Chris's sincere "Ez, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to knock the pitcher of water on the nightstand over." The Captain rapidly got one of the towels from the chair and handed it over to Ezra. Ezra was now standing dripping wet at the foot of his cot.
The hazel-eyed man knew that the sight of the emerald-eyed man before him would forever be burned in his memory. Chris's eyes devoured the muscular form outlined by the sodden underwear. The blonde licked his lips unconsciously as he took in the broad chest and shoulders, the trim torso, solid legs with shapely calves, elegant ankles and small feet.
Ezra stiffened as he became aware of the other man's scrutiny then dared a peek from under his lashes as he dried himself off. */Is that desire I perceive in Chris's eyes?/* swirled in Ezra's thoughts. A devilish glint gleamed in Ezra's jade eyes as he asked "Chris could you hand my buffalo robe? Please?" When their hands accidentally touched Chris's eyes darkened to a warm amber. Ezra's also deepened and he dared a small squeeze of the callused hand within his own. Chris dropped his hand and gruffly strode to the end of the tent. He gripped the tent pole with one hand and rested the other on the tent flap as he looked out onto the night. Chris then ordered "Get out of those wet clothes and into something dry Lieutenant."
Disappointment welled in Ezra's chest as he felt the Captain distance himself physically and emotionally. The Southern quietly put on his white nightshirt, settled himself on the cot and laid down on top of the buffalo robe which he was now using as a bed sheet . "Captain I am decent once again. You may turn around now. Good night once again." drawled Ezra's southern tone a bit thicker than usual.
Chris nodded his blonde head but made no motion to turn. */Ezra if I move right now, I'll pounce on you and then you'll probably shoot me./* Chris heard Ezra bedding down and clenched his fists and teeth as he fought his impulses to join the younger man.
Ezra finally succumbed to sleep and Chris returned to his cot longingly gazing at the other man all the while. The blonde's weariness overtook him and he also surrendered to slumber.
The bugler's call woke Ezra and he discovered that the Captain had already risen and was sitting by the table drinking a cup of coffee. "Morning, Lieutenant, some coffee?" and Chris raised his tin cup to him. Ezra shook his head in the negative and dressed quickly. The green-orbed man gathered up his haversack and made his way to the tent's entrance as he returned "Good morning, Captain Laramie." Chris's voice stopped the Southern a few scant steps from the tent flap as he stated, "Ezra since you have the poker game this evening, Buck and I will be having "mess" here in the tent tonight. Ezra nodded and continued on his way out the tent.
Chris was on his own way out when he heard the commotion of horses stampeding out of the corral. His hazel eyes saw the dust swirl in whirlwinds and men dive out of the way. Suddenly his heart thundered in his chest and then stilled as the sun glinted off a russet-haired, compact figure who shoved a man frozen with fear out of the path of the run away horses. Chris's shout of "Ezra" was lost in the melee as Vin and Buck halted the lead horses gently, inches from the Southern and other men swarmed about the trio.
Chris angrily made his way to the men and was about to tear into Stanton when Nathan Jackson barreled his way through the mob and led a resisting Ezra to the medical tent. Vin, Buck and several of the other men returned the animals to their corral. The dark blonde stood there for a moment then followed the dark-haired man and his tent mate to the sick tent.
"You are all right, Ezra. Just a few scrapes this time." commented Nathan. "Damn lucky, Ezra. You fool, you could of been killed saving another fool." Chris's angry grumbling tapered off as he saw Ezra scavenge through his haversack and give some of his 'rations' to Nathan and ask the healer to hand them to the private who lost his haversack under the horses' hooves. Nathan's. */ Ezra has really surprised me lately./* flashed through his head as he took the food staples from Ezra's hand.
The auburn-haired man shrugged off Nathan's helping hand, as he finished listening to Captain Laramie's tirade. Then the Southerner asked if he could resume his duties. At Nathan and the Captain's nods Ezra left the medical tent.
Chris plowed through his duties that day in a foul mood.
Ezra gamely limped into the tent he now shared with Captain Laramie. "My horse injured himself by losing a shoe and as I dismounted and removed his saddle, he kicked me." Muttered the green-eyed man crossly at Chris's questioning glance. Chris rose from Ezra's desk and put his letters into his saddlebag. " Need help taking off your boots?" Replied the blond man. The lieutenant grimaced more in wounded dignity than pain and shook his head no.
*/I am weary and sore but if the Captain touches me, I might lose my restraint and do something foolhardy, like kiss him. Has it been only three days since my 'new' tent mate moved in? It feels like much longer./* swam through the jade-eyed man's mind as he uncharacteristically slumped down on his cot. His usually agile fingers fumbled with the buttons of his dirt-stained jacket. The hazel-eyed man watched the younger man for a few moments, scratched at his six-day beard and then asked "Did you and Vin find the trail to the secret cache of medicine? We're heading out and picking it up first light tomorrow right, lieutenant?"
At Ezra's tired nod, Chris's eyes lit in satisfaction. */Good, the men need it, the North has cut off almost all the supplies the South needs but Gawd dang it there are men really ill here. Jackson will be pleased about the drugs for the men. It can also lead me to my spy since it was rumored he was the one to tell the colonel about the stolen medicine. Stan...Ezra can almost be as mule-headed as me./* thought the lean man as he knelt by Stanton's feet and his sure fingers batted away sluggish ones, pulling off one supple-leathered boot and then the other. Chris felt a warm breath tickle the top of his head then heard a soft sigh followed by "I am grateful for your assistance Captain Laramie." Then the lieutenant's breath hitched as Chris unconsciously picked up Ezra's now bootless legs and settled them comfortably on the cot. The fair-haired man perched himself on the foot of the cot and began to knead the socked sole of Ezra's right foot. As he kneaded, the Captain's hazel eyes traveled over the now prone russet-haired young man. "Don't think you need to see Nathan."
Ezra had evened out his breathing and had partially reclined on his cot when Chr...the Captain began to massage his foot. The Southerner almost lost his control again but held on to it. The tired man sank onto the cot and closed his emerald orbs in bliss as he felt firm fingers work out the pins and needles in his foot.
There was also pain hidden behind his closed lids because he didn't know yet why this exceptional man was offering comfort or what price he would be expected to pay for it. Ezra tucked away the pain in the recesses of his mind and lulled by the soothing strokes fell asleep.
Chris's tiger eyes locked on to Ezra's face and the usually taciturn man's lips curved into a half-smile. */Damn the man looks good even bone-tired. I wonder if he would be interested in an old man like me?" Larabee don't go there. You don't have time for 'courtin' as Buck would say. Stanton's a stubborn, honorable, good- hearted, quick-witted and gorgeous man. Even though he can anger me quicker than anybody else except maybe Buck./*
The blonde suddenly dropped the foot he was massaging back onto the cot.
Ezra did not stir. He was deep in the arms of Morpheus.
*/Shit, I didn't just think that. I haven't fallen for him. I haven't./* chanted the hazel- eyed man's thoughts as he stormed from the tent.
Starlight glinted on the tense, still figure at the edge of the clearing staring unseeingly at the stars. Chris's callused fingers running through dark blond strands of hair as his thoughts swirled, */You've been livin' with him only three days but ya caught glimpses of a man you could really admire, respect and love. Blazes, what do I do now? Don't even know which side of the fence Ezra is on. And I have a duty to fulfill./*
Buck strode up to the quiet man and sidestepped a mean right hook as Chris threw a fist at the shadow that came upon him. "Buck don't sneak up on me, I could have flattened you."
Buck's blue eyes peered at Chris's set face and the tall man said "Pard, what's botherin' ya? And don't tell me its about our mission cause that ain't it." After a few moments of strained silence, Buck dared a few more questions "What's Ezra done now? He ride away again, like he did the day after we got here?"
Chris tersely answered "No." as he leaned back against the rough bark of a tree and his eyes darkened in memory.
Buck's blue eyes peered at Chris's set face and the tall man said "Pard, what's botherin' ya? And don't tell me its about our mission cause that ain't it." After a few moments of strained silence, Buck dared a few more questions "What's Ezra done now? He ride away again, like he did the day after we got here?"
Chris tersely answered "No." as he leaned back against the rough bark of a tree and his eyes darkened in memory.
+++++++Two Days Earlier+++++++
The pink light of dawn was just peeking over the horizon while Vin, Chris, Ezra and Buck cautiously made their way to investigate the rumors of the remnants of a Union encampment on the other side of the stream. Vin riding atop his black horse, Peso was scouting ahead of the others when he heard the Indian bird call coming from the woods to his left. He wheeled about and rode back to the three men following behind him. The tracker's blue eyes caught Ezra's and the Texan then scratched behind his left ear with two fingers. The observant Southerner acknowledged the signal by smoothing down the mane of his white mount, Pegasus, two times. Vin drawled "Ravine up ahead, we're goin' hafta ride downstream a bit. Stream's shallow by the boulders at the other end of camp." "Buck, Ezra you waiting for the spring thaw? " asked the Captain as he turned his ebony horse, Thunder in the direction that the tracker was now heading. Their two horses, one white, one gray riding next to each other let Buck ask eagerly "So Ez, what happened next ? Did they catch ya?" As he spoke, the tall lieutenant leaned sideways, and slightly into Ezra's side. Ezra's reply was drowned out by the growl coming from behind the two lieutenants. Buck sat straight in his saddle once again as he glanced over his shoulder to see Chris scowling at him. Blue eyes lit up with mischief as the rangy man turned back. Buck's long right arm tweaked the other lieutenant's kepi and slightly tousled Ezra's auburn hair as the ladies' man said "Glad that ya were able to get away from those bad folks." Ezra's indignant "Mr. Wilmont" Rivaled Chris's snarl of "Bucklin." "What?" Asked Buck innocently as he thought */So, its like that pard, huh? You've been hooked by a certain emerald-eyed enigma. About time too. /* And Buck grinned happily. Chris glowered at his oldest friend suspiciously as he rode up alongside Buck's gray, Belle. Ezra adjusted his hat, gave the Captain a salute and fell back to the rear of the group. Chris and Buck soon became engaged in a deep discussion. Ezra observed them closely.
The Southerner heard the birdcalls become more insistent.
The green-eyed man knew he had to make contact soon but instinct kept him riding briskly behind Buck and Chris. As the four men and their horses began to wade across the shallow part of the stream, Chris swiveled his head to the left and spotted Pegasus and his rider gliding through the water to join Vin and his mount on the other side. Buck and Belle stepped onto the bank of the stream on Vin and Peso's left side. Thunder on the other hand was an ornery creature and disliked water immensely so Chris had to wrangle a bit with the reigns and prod the flanks of his steed with his lean, strong legs to get Thunder to cross the stream. Captain Laramie finally joined the other men and they continued on their way. The chestnut-haired, emerald-eyed man noted that there was more fauna and flora on this side of the water, for which he was grateful because more grass underfoot meant that it muted the sound of the horses' hooves. Once again ,Vin took the lead, Chris and Buck were still discussing the best way to discover their 'undercover' spy.
Ezra softly pulled Pegasus's reigns to the left and rode into the adjoining woods.
There he found two Indian braves who quickly told him the news that he and Vin had been waiting for. They also warned him that some white man renegades had been seen in the area. The Southerner thanked them for the information and rapidly wheeled his white mount around to head back to the others before it was noticed that he was missing. His timing was sound and would have worked had not the fate of an eight year old boy interfered.
Pegasus was clipping at a fast trot through the meandering short-cut through the woods to the Union encampment for the Indians had told Ezra where it was. He should arrive a few moments before the others did. Ezra had travel- ed a little over third of the way there when he first heard the plaintive cries. "Help me, please. I can't climb out of this hole. Help me." */That sounds like young Mister Travis./* thought the emerald-orbed man as he urged his stallion onward. Suddenly Pegasus halted right before a scattered canopy of leaves and twigs which had covered the pit into which the boy, Billy Travis had fallen.
Billy's parents had been killed just after the outbreak of the war by unknown persons. Vin and Ezra had come upon the bloodied, four-year old boy crying for his mama and papa in the middle of the road. They were the ones to discover the bodies of the murdered Stephan and Mary Travis. The two men had reported the discovery to the local sheriff . Sheriff Potter asked his widowed sister-in-law, Gloria to clean up and watch over the boy until he could contact the authorities at the area orphanage. Mrs. Potter and Vin were opposed to Billy staying at the orphanage but the Sheriff had to contact the proper authorities. Ezra, Vin and Gloria were overjoyed to learn that the children had been moved to a safer location.
Then tragedy struck again as the Sheriff was killed in an attempted train robbery.
Because the killers of his parents were still at large and the two soldiers and widow did not know if an attempt would be made on young Billy's life and there were rumors that Stephan Travis's father was an officer in the Union Army, the trio decided it would be best if Mrs. Potter raised him as a long lost relation. Billy's name was now Billy T. Potter. And he lived with Mrs. Potter and her brood on her ranch, a few miles outside the deserted town where she and her husband had owned and run a general store.
Ezra dismounted from his horse and rapidly strode to the edge of the pit. The auburn-haired man knelt down cautiously and intently gazed into the shadowy hole. He saw a young, slender, blonde boy sitting with his legs pressed against his chest and the boy's arms wrapped around his legs. The back of the boy rested by one of the smooth, dirt walls of the pit. The Southerner then called out, "Billy are you injured? Are you able to move without assistance?" Ezra's eyes had been darting about the surrounding forest floor and spotted a long, sturdy tree branch about a yard away on the other side of the hole. As the soldier rose to pick up the branch when he heard, ""Uncle Ezra, Thank God you found me. I'm okay, just a few cuts and bruises. Get me out of here, please." Sure hands placed the tree limb diagonally into the pit opening. Within a minute, a tired, hungry, thankful boy scrambled up the log to land in the safety of strong arms.
Meanwhile Vin, Chris and Buck neared the site of the former encampment of the Union Army when the trio felt the earth tremble with the pounding of hooves approaching them. The three men drew their weapons as the sound got closer. The Captain wheeled Thunder around to check on Ezra and that's when he noticed that the Southerner was missing. Chris's angry "Where the hell is Ezra? Bucklin, Vin did you see him leave?" Before either one could reply, Mrs. Potter sitting astride a brown gelding came flying towards them. Vin's startled "Mrs. Potter? What ya doin' here?" The stout, strong-willed gray-haired woman replied "Vin, have you seen Billy, he's disappeared. No one has seen him since supper last night. "Buck Wilmont at your service Ma'am. Is Billy your son?" Said Buck politely. Gloria had stopped her horse and answered "Nice to meet you, young man and Billy's my nephew." "How far away is your spread?" asked Chris. "About a mile up the creek" stated the lady. The dark blond man responded "I'm Chris Laramie, Mrs. Potter." "Captain." Mrs. Potter nodded The Captain swallowed a bit painfully then asked "Might he have fallen into the water?" The woman's brown eyes widened as Chris's question sunk in.
Hazel eyes shot a sharp look around the stream, the clearing and adjacent woods looking for any sign of the boy. Vin had started tracking as soon as Mrs. Potter started talking. Buck had followed him as soon as he finished introducing himself to the widow.
A few seconds later the foursome heard the neigh of a horse approaching.
Pegasus broke through the trees into the clearing. Mrs. Potter, Buck and Vin breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Ezra and the boy. Chris was also gladdened by the sight but he was furious at Ezra for running out on them without saying a word. The fury showed in his hazel-eyed glare directed towards the russet-haired lieutenant.
Ezra flinched slightly at the steely gaze of the dark blond man and knew he was in for a tongue lashing or worse when the current situation was properly attended to. The jade-eyed man bend his head slightly and whispered into the drowsing boy's ear. "Mr. Taggart and your Aunt Gloria are here." Billy became more alert as he squeezed one of the forearms holding him loosely. Billy and Ezra's mount halted in front of Mrs. Potter. Before he slid off the horse, Billy twisted himself sideways and the eight-year old 's arms wiggled around the Southerner's waist, then pressed himself gratefully against Ezra's chest. All the while, the boy muttered his thanks for rescuing him from the pit. The chestnut-haired lieutenant tightened his arms around the boy and rested his chin on top of Billy's head for a moment. Then the boy slid off the horse to run into his 'aunt's' waiting arms.
Chris mentally scolded himself for feeling jealous of a child.
Mrs. Potter clucked a few times then asked "Billy, why did you disappear like that?" The blue-eyed boy stared at her then at the four men surrounding them. Billy gulped then answered "I was in the barn feeding our mule, Charlie when I saw two men cross the yard. Thought they might be tryin' to steal the chickens, cause they looked awfully scrawny in their dirty gray uniforms, so I followed them. Guess, they were just cuttin' across our place to get to the woods where they had their horses waiting. I was going to turn back. But then, I heard them talkin' about stealing some important medicine that was going to be left at the old, abandoned town train station in four days time. Then they said they could sell it on the black market. After which one of the men cussed and said they better head back to camp." I stayed where I was for a few minutes to see if they were coming back, but they didn't. So I headed back towards the house when I fell into the hole in the ground. Stayed there, until 'Uncle Ezra' found me this morning." relayed the eight-year old. The blonde boy threw the auburn-haired man a thankful grin. Ezra winked at the boy.
Buck and Chris swore mentally. Then Chris asked "Billy, do you think you can remember the name of the medicine?" The boy looked away from Ezra to the stern looking man on the big black stallion. "Think so." Billy replied. Billy crunched up his face in concentration and he finally said "It was called mor... mor.." Ezra quietly said " Morphine?" The eight year old's face lit up as he responded "Yeah, that's it." "Well that confirms it then." muttered Vin. The Captain asked the boy a few more questions then said, "Thanks Billy." Gloria Potter settled Billy into the saddle and then sat behind him. Thanked all of them for their help and then rode off.
The dark-blond Captain held his tongue as Mrs. Potter and her nephew rode away. Once they were out of earshot, Chris turned a fierce glare in Vin's direction and rasped "Confirms what, Taggart?" Vin calmly stared at the angry man as he relayed "Heard rumors that some stolen stuff mite be passin' through the area ." "Where did you hear that rumor?" queried Chris steadily. Laramie's attention was focused on Taggart so he didn't notice Ezra roughly clench his hands on the pommel of his white steed but Buck did and made a mental note to find out why later.
Right now he had to keep an eye on Chris and Vin.
Vin's "The General has me and few others ride to the town once a week to check on the old and sick folk still there. And Yosemite, that's the old blacksmith told me about some drifters that were passin' through and were jawin' about it while he fixed their horses' hooves."
Chris gave a grudging grunt of acceptance. Vin turned to ride over to Ezra's side but Buck's hand on his forearm stopped him as did the raven-haired man's "Best let Chris and Ezra hash this out on their own pard."
The Southerner had great peripheral vision and excellent hearing. And had seen and heard Mr. Wilmont's actions and comments. So he braced himself for the Captain's wrath.
Chris rode Thunder over to stop in front of Pegasus. The dark-blond's gaze angrily raked over the chestnut-haired man as the Captain ordered in a dangerously soft tone, "Lieutenant Stanton a word with you." Ezra nodded and dismounted his steed. The Captain did likewise. Hard hazel eyes stared into serene jade-green eyes as the lean blonde man towered over Ezra and a slender but sinewy arm pressed Ezra's collarbone.
Ezra could not move he was pinned between the Captain and the tree behind his back. The Southerner first felt the smoothness of the blonde's arm; then he felt the arm's hard muscle laying against his bone and quickly swallowed down a moan that wanted to escape his lips.
Chris's eyes flashed amber fire as he harshly barked, " You rode out on me and on the rest of the men under my command. Without saying a word to anyone, Lieutenant. No one and I mean no one does that unless they want me to shoot them." The blonde man lightened the pressure of his arm against the other man's collarbone though his face and voice still reflected his anger as he asked "Understand?" At Ezra's nod, the Captain continued more calmly, "Granted you saved the boy and returned. So I am willing to give you a second chance. Just never ride off again without telling me. And no poker game for you tonight. You'll be helping Jackson in the sick tent tonight." Chris removed his arm from Ezra's body.
Ezra breathed deeply, his face impassive as he two-finger saluted the Captain in acknowledgement of the dark-blond man's words. Chris nodded in satisfaction. Both the Captain and the lieutenant mounted up.
Buck and Vin breathed more easily as their friends resolved the situation.
The rest of the morning was spent in tracking down the camp that Billy spoke of.
They found it deserted a couple of miles north of the town and reported back to the General. The General formed his plans and handed down his orders.
A large hand waving insistently in front of his face and Buck's calling him by his full name "Christopher Daniel Larab...Laramie." brought Chris back from his memories. The blond shooed the hand away from him and irritably answered his oldest friend.
Chris and Buck stood out there for a few more minutes talking about Vin and Ezra. Buck suspected that Vin and Ezra knew more than they let on and that the Texan and Southerner were somehow connected to their mission.
The two friends finally bid each other good night and went to their tents.
Chris entered the tent and put aside his suspicions as he saw Ezra's tousled chestnut- hair, the long eyelashes dusting against smooth cheeks, the curve of pink lips softly breathing. The blond yearned to hold the mysterious, frustrating, adorable, wonderful man in his arms. The Captain quietly tread to Ezra's side and ghosted his knuckles gently against Ezra's cheek and whispered "Sweet dreams angel." The hazel-eyed man froze as the Southerner sighed in his sleep. Chris exhaled as Ezra rolled over, giving his back to the man standing next to his cot. The tall man found his own bed but sleep was a long time coming.
Ezra sat up in his cot and stretched his muscular limbs. The jade-eyed man flexed his arms upwards and his toes touched the edge of the wooden chest at the end of his cot. As he stretched, Ezra's eyes covertly glanced over to the next cot expecting to find it empty as usual for the Captain was an early riser but today was an exception. Chris's dark-blonde head still rested against the pillow. */Could he be ill?/* worried Ezra for a moment. The auburn-haired man had just risen from his bed to check on his tent mate when he heard Chris mumble "angel" and snuggle his face against the pillow. Jade eyes hardened like ice as he imagined what the Captain was dreaming about. Ezra reached over to the night stand and read his pocket watch. When he saw 4:10am, he decided to let the dreaming man sleep for a little longer. After all the bugle did not sound until 5am. The Southerner quietly went through his morning ablutions before dressing.
Twenty minutes later, Chris bolted upright in his cot. "Shit, what time is it?" Grumbled the gritty-eyed blonde when he saw that Ezra was already dressed, sitting at the writing desk and playing with a deck of cards. The Southerner's honeyed drawl of "4:30 in the morning, Sir." Had Chris stumbling to his feet to wash his face. Chris noted grumpily that Ezra had called him 'sir' and not by his name. */So, I'm dreaming about a green- eyed siren and he's not even thinking of me./* thought the blonde man sourly.
As the blond shrugged into his jacket, Vin poked his head into the tent and asked to see Ezra outside and this blackened Chris's already dour mood even further. Ezra sensed Chris's black mood and gave him a wide berth as he left the tent.
"The dream certainly did nothing to brighten the Captain's disposition." said Ezra to himself. "Did you say somethin', Ez?" Asked the long-haired tracker. The jade-eyed man shook his head and queried "What did you wish to discuss with me, Mr. Taggart?" The Texan smiled as he replied. "Got Pegasus all fixed up for ya." And then gestured at Buck as he rode up with Pegasus, Thunder and Peso following him. The three horses were already saddled and waiting for their riders. Chris strode out of the tent and Buck grimaced. */Hell, bet the old dog didn' sleep so good. He's most likely bear-headed this morning./*
As the Captain settled himself in Thunder's saddle, Nathan Jackson rode up on his gentle pinto Nellie. The healer's chocolate brown eyes took the scene in at a glance as he said "Good Morning all." And received verbal greetings from three of the men. Chris just nodded his head, spun his black stallion about and led them and the rest of his men out of camp.
Five of the Confederate soldiers noted that the train station had once been an elegant building with a high domed ceiling but was now a run-down dilapated building with a cracked dome and broken window panes. The Captain had ordered most of his men to remain outside guarding the station in case of attack.
Inside, the train depot had been beautiful with smooth platforms, benches, booths and counters now jagged and buried under twisted metal. Weapons drawn, Chris, Ezra, Vin, Nathan and Buck picked their way carefully through the rubble to reach the area where they loaded the baggage onto the trains. Buck, Nathan and Ezra heard snoring coming from the area. The trio hand-signaled their leader who was watching their rear. The Captain and tracker whom were the best shots came up from the back and flanked their friends. Once they reached the baggage room, the tall, dark-blonde man ordered his men to stay put with one hawk-like look and entered first.
It was a large area. One stone wall was crumbling and had left a man size hole. On its opposite side the remnants of left behind baggage was now a home to pigeons. The once burnished wood floor now had chunks missing, so you had to watch your step or you could twist an ankle or worse. Beneath its sagging ceiling, the room had a maze of overhead steel platforms running throughout it. These platforms had been used to haul trunks and such into the trains' storage area. Ladders and ropes were how the workers reached the maze. But all the ladders were now smashed wooden shavings on the floor and many of the ropes were cut and dangling from the ceiling.
Chris wanted to snort at the two drunken soldiers snoring away in the middle of the area, supposedly guarding two small cloth pouches sitting on an uneven, narrow, elevated, steel platform above their heads. The hazel-eyed man waved his men into the room and the four made their way softly into the room.
Ezra immediately spotted an intact thick heavy rope hanging down by the side of the overhead platforms and without waiting for orders, the russet-haired man holstered his Remington and began to shimmy up the rope to jump gracefully onto the beams. Chris had his Colt Model 1860 trained on the 'guards' and Vin also had his Spencer Carbine covering them just in case they woke up. Buck and Nathan had fanned the room to search for others but finding no one they returned to their Captain. That's when Vin nudged Chris into looking up. The hazel-eyed man wanted to bellow at the jade-eyed man's daring. For there was Ezra balancing with cat-like grace on one of the rugged walk-ways leading to the pouches. Chris's eyes were glued to Ezra while the dark-blonde's heart lodged in his throat as the chestnut-haired man skipped over a very uneven beam. */Damn it. Ez be careful./* whirled through Chris's mind. The jade-eyed man finally reached the pouches and very carefully knelt down and picked them up. Ezra secured them on his person and choosing another path of platforms made a slow but steady return to his comrades.
The tracker grinned at his friend's plan while keeping his gun on the two guards; Buck wanted to whistle but knew Chris would shoot him if did; Nathan stared disbelievingly at the Southerner.
The tall, raven-haired blue-eyed Lieutenant moved to the end of the rope and waited to see if Ezra needed help. Ezra was half-way down the rope when he heard Mr. Wilmont's urgent whisper "Ez, the rope's unraveling. Jump I'll catch ya." The shorter man knew he had no other option and complied. Buck 'ummphed' as the Southerner almost knocked him backwards but Nathan and Chris were at his sides to steady him.
Ezra had rapidly found his footing and stepped out of Buck's hold.
Buck had felt a minute tremor pass through one of the arms that had steadied him and his dark blue irises flew to flashing Hazel orbs. Chris quickly masked his emotions but not before Buck saw them swirl in his eyes. The rangy brunette was about to speak but Chris quelled Buck into silence with a shake of his head.
Vin sensed his Captain and friend's unease as he expertly tied up the two drunken 'guards' before he joined the foursome again. Chris wouldn't look at him. The Texan then looked at Buck who mouthed "Later." Vin nodded but his azure blue eyes were troubled.
The blond man then darted a quick look in the jade-eyed man's direction and thanked God that Ezra hadn't noticed his fear for him. The compact man was facing the other direction, busy talking to the healer.
The Captain had sent Buck for more men. Buck rounded up four of the stoutest men to handle their unconscious prisoners of war. Chris approved of Buck's choices and the captured men were unceremoniously tied onto horses.
Before they moved out, Chris coldly asked Ezra to hand over the pouches of morphine to Nathan. The dark-blond ordered Vin and Buck to go on ahead of them to escort the healer back to camp.
Vin, Nathan and Buck had already ridden off in the direction of the camp. Chris, Ezra and the remaining men had cleared a 100 foot wide gully and passed some run-down homes when men and gun shots suddenly erupted out of the windows and doors of one of the houses.
Chris and his men wheeled their mounts around to return fire. The Captain un- consciously controlled Thunder with his legs as he spun, his Colt barking out shots methodically. He halted one man ready to kill Private Buddy Roberts. Chris's men were forming a line of defense with Chris at one end. A few of the soldiers still had to fill their places in the line.
One of those soldiers was Ezra. The Southerner was covering his comrades still behind him. The jade-eyed man's Remington and Starr Army Percussion firing in rapid succession, his strong calves causing Pegasus to finally twist around and surge forward towards the Captain. His chestnut covered head ducking as he narrowly avoided a bullet whizzing inches from his ear.
Chris's golden green irises gazed around frantically until he spotted Ezra riding his way. Chris 's shot fatally pierced the body of the man who had tried to kill Ezra. "No one hurts my angel." growled the dark-blond man when he suddenly felt Thunder rear up, startled by the bombshell thrown right in front of the black's hooves. Luckily the bombshell did not explode but it allowed a mini ball to rip a groove through the Captain's left bicep and he tumbled off his horse from the impact.
Ezra gasped in horror as he saw the scene unfold before his eyes. Without thinking he jumped from a still racing Pegasus and ran to check on Chris. Thunder had calmed down and now stood protectively in front of his rider. Ezra's white horse recognized the big black and came to a standstill at its side. Chris was still on the ground but conscious. The hazel-eyed man was trying to stop the flow of blood when a pale Ezra came to his aid. The auburn-haired man had squatted by the Captain's injured side and ripped the kerchief from his jacket inside pocket. Ezra then anxiously knotted the clean cloth around the wound on Chris's arm. "Are you hurt anywhere else Chris?" stuttered the Southerner nervously. Chris's straightforward " The ball went in and out clean. It stings and burns like hell but the rest is just bumps and bruises from the fall. I've had worse. I'll live."
The Captain thought he heard the lieutenant whisper "But will I survive you being injured?" though he couldn't be sure because the sounds of the battle were all around them. And Ezra had turned his head away from him to study their position.
Their horses still shielded them but Ezra knew that he needed to get the Captain to a safer location. His sharp jade eyes locked onto the cellar of the house about a yard away. It had several advantages, it was nearby; it was away from the fighting; and it had one of its doors open.
Ezra shifted to the other side of the hurt Chris then said "Captain, please put your uninjured arm around my shoulders." Before the hazel-eyed man complied he whistled and alerted his mount. Chris then threw his good arm across Ezra's strong shoulders. The chestnut-haired man wrapped an arm around the lean man's waist and hefted the Captain to his feet as gently as possible. Ezra then whistled to his own steed. By this time Chris was a bit light-headed from the loss of blood and leaned tiredly against Ezra as the shorter man led him to the cellar.
The Southerner thanked the Deity above because this cellar door had an inside latch as well as an outside one. He closed the door behind him to shut out the firefight. As Ezra lay Chris down carefully on the dusty ground, while keeping the Captain's wounded arm elevated, they heard an explosion.
Thunder and Pegasus heard their riders call and moved parallel to their men. The powerful horses still guarded their owners stomping their huge hooves and thrashing their muscled necks back and forth as someone approached.
It was a fleeing renegade soldier. Their number were being outfought. The coward was running away but he had one last bombshell and meant to use it on those two men seeking shelter but the two large and mean- looking horses flanking the house had changed his mind. Instead he threw it into a copse of trees near the cellar. This time the bombshell shattered and caused two trees to crash on top of the cellar door; effectively locking the Captain and Lieutenant in the cellar.
This time the bombshell shattered and caused two trees to crash on top of the cellar door; effectively locking the Captain and Lieutenant in the cellar. A squatting Ezra was carefully cradling Chris into a semi-prone position with the blond head and upper back against the storm cellar's wall and the lean man's long legs stretched out before him, when they heard the boom outside the doors. "What the hell was that?" Breathed across Ezra's ear as Chris swiveled his head to look curiously at the doors. The jade-eyed man stifled a shiver caused by the whisper and responded to the Captain's question.
At the moment, the Southerner was more concerned about his Chris's welfare than about being trapped in the room. Ezra stood up and deftly stripped off his jacket and undershirt. He then began tearing his undershirt into strips. As he watched the chestnut-haired man, Chris's hazel orbs widened and deepened to a tawny gold. The dark-blond huskily rasped out, "Stanton what are you doing?" Privately thinking */Not that I mind seeing that magnificent chest of yours, though I wish I wasn't quite so sluggish from my wound or I'd show you how much I like it./*
The jade-eyed man balanced on his haunches next to and facing Chris with a few torn strips of cloth resting on his strong thighs.
Ezra then gave Chris an exasperated look as he untied the slightly crimson cloth around the hazel-eyed man's bicep and replied "I am attending to and bandaging your injury, Mr. Laramie. Since Mr. Jackson and his medical expertise are unattainable for the moment, I am improvising with the options available to me." Chris's "Oh" was lost because he clenched his teeth against the pain when Ezra tenderly peeled the used kerchief off the ugly looking groove.
Some of Chris's torn jacket had been ripped away with the cloth and there were pieces of the jacket within the hole creasing Chris's arm. The Lieutenant carefully picked at the snippets of the offending uniform until he had completely cleared the area.
Ezra breathed deeply and then stated calmly, "Mr. Laramie, we need to take off your jacket and undershirt so that your wound will not become contaminated by any foreign material. Will you allow me to remove your upper garments to redress your injury? You understand that I'm going to have to tear the rest of the sleeve off the jacket before I attempt anything else. I have a small knife which should suffice in ripping away the material. "
The lean man understood the necessity of the shorter man's words and nodded once. Ezra saw the nod and immediately extracted a sharp silver blade from his jacket pocket. The chestnut-haired man went to work, cutting away the sleeve of the uniform until the auburn-haired man had completely bared a long, lithe arm. The Lieutenant sighed in quiet relief that the area around the wound was clear and not red which meant that there was no infection but that did not mean that one couldn't occur.
The jade-orbed man silently prayed to the Almighty above that Chris survive this without getting an infection.
The Southerner was grateful that the blond man had stopped bleeding and that the mini ball had gone clean through the Captain's arm. The Lieutenant's gracious "Captain, would you stretch your wounded appendage straight out so that I may cleanse and re-bandage the injury?" Had Chris complying within moments.
Wiry muscles bunched and flexed and then relaxed under Ezra's touch. As Ezra's fingers glided over Chris's skin, they greedily soaked up the satin-like skin under their finger-tips. Ezra's tactile memory stored the sensation as velvet over muscle and bone.
As soon as he heard the husky sound, Ezra's probing fingers stilled. The Lieutenant's Southern drawl intensified as he queried "Captain?"
The blond bumped the back of his head against the cellar wall as he realized that the chestnut-haired man thought that his moan had been one of pain instead of pleasure at the jade-eyed man's touch. Chris's steady "Its all right Ezra, it just stings. You're not hurting me any." */And please don't stop touching me./* cried the hazel-eyed man's thoughts.
Ezra sighed with relief at the Captain's words and kept up his ministrations. Ezra was also thankful that his own hands were not trembling as he treated Chris's wound once again.
Tiredness overcame Chris and he sank the left side of his body against Ezra's warmth. Then Chris sleepily nuzzled his cheek against the auburn-haired man's silk-smooth skin. The blond's soft "Its only a scratch Ez." Had Ezra's jade eyes and voice snapping in indignation "Scratches can become infected, Mr. Laramie and since my medical skills are rudimentary at best infection would be a complication that we do not need."
There was no reply, Chris had fallen asleep.
Suddenly, Ezra's brain caught up with Chris's actions and the jade-orbed man blinked his eyes in shock. The compact man glanced down to ascertain that the Captain did indeed have his lean body slumbering against his sturdier body. Dark-blond hair tickled the bottom of Ezra's chin. The Southerner shifted carefully until he maneuvered his spine against the wall with the hazel-eyed man's back nestled against the chestnut- haired man's chest. In effect, Ezra pillowed the Captain's body. Ezra's arms encircled Chris in a loose embrace. */In ordinary circumstances, I would never dare such an intimacy, but this no ordinary situation. At least, I'll always have this precious memory of holding Chris in my arms./* flashed through the compact man's mind.
A horrendous thought then assailed the Lieutenant . */What if the Captain has a concussion?/* Ezra ghosted his hands up Chris's torso and chest to trace the fair head, gently searching for lumps. Finding none, had the auburn-haired man whispering "Oh, thank heaven for small mercies." "Yeah, I got a head like a rock and thank goodness for that. " Chuckled Chris as he twisted around to look at Ezra in the eye. Chris now rested with the right side of his body tucked next to Ezra's body. The blond had woken up when Ezra's hands were carding through his dark-blond hair. The jade-eyed man's query "Is that a fact?" Had Chris replying with a short "Yup." The tone of the reply had Ezra's lips curling upwards slightly, while his arms dropped to his rest against his sides. Ezra's tone became serious as he asked "No dizziness, nausea or double vision then?"
Chris's "No" vibrated against Ezra's clavicle as amber irises locked with jade green ones. The hand of the blond's injured arm mapped a path up Ezra's arm until he reached Ezra's shoulder . Strong, blunt fingers curved around the shoulder and squeezed once as the lean man spoke. "You've done a real good job. Both of finding shelter and of patching me up, Ezra. Thanks pard."
Ezra's breath caught in his throat as Chris touched him and then complimented him. Both sets of eyes darkened with emotion until the emerald-hued set broke contact and glanced downwards.
Chris was now staring at a crown of auburn curls. The hazel-eyed man removed his hand from Ezra's shoulder and his fingers firmly but gently grasped under the shorter man's chin and pushed it upwards until he was once again face to face with Ezra. And the Captain found that Ezra blushed delightfully.
Ezra finally exhaled "Captain Laramie, your gratitude is appreciated. But I only did what another would have done under the circumstances." The blond man grunted and arched his eyebrow in irritation as he rasped "Ain't only saying I'm grateful." Ezra's heart somersaulted as he queried incredulously "Are you implying that you trust me? Trust me enough to watch your back?"
Chris beamed him a rare, genuine 'Laramie' grin.
The blond evened out his eyebrows over twinkling hazel irises and tenderly cupped Ezra's face between the palms of his hands. Chris's face leaned forward until his lips pressed softly against Ezra's gorgeous lips. And nibbled gently on Ezra's lower lip. After a stunned moment, Ezra kissed Chris back and reciprocated Chris's action on Chris's own bottom lip. The Lieutenant's eyelashes fluttered the moment he felt the blond's lips on his own then they flew wide-open as he gazed dazedly at Chris. */Oh Lord, we're kissing! Could he be doing it out of gratitude? But yes, we're kissing.../* shouted Ezra's thoughts before thought fled.
The hazel-eyed man's veins roared with need and love for the man beside him and he wanted nothing more than to devour Ezra whole but tawny gold eyes saw the dazed look of his jade-eyed 'siren' and instinctively sensed that he had to slow down or he would risk spooking this 'Ace' of a man away from him. And that was the last thing Chris wanted to do. So when they broke off the kiss because of their need to breathe, the usually taciturn blond rested his forehead against Ezra's, then pulled back a few inches and whispered, "Mmm...you are not only trustworthy, honorable, smart, resourceful, handsome, kind, etc... You are also a great kisser and we'll do more kissing when I not injured. And we'll also get to know each other better. All right?"
Ezra pinched himself and winced at the pain but he was elated. He was lucid and the Capt...Chris had said he wanted to get to know him and continue the physical aspect of their relationship.
Jade eyes fell into deep amber ones.
Amber orbs that became muddied with worry as Ezra did not immediately respond to Chris's question. The chestnut-haired man saw the concern and wondered at it for a second before he realized that he had not answered the query.
Ezra mentally shook himself and nodded as he stated "All right."
At the jade-eyed man's nod, Chris inhaled a relieved breath then asked, "So Ace how about a game of poker?"
Ezra flashed Chris a gold-toothed smile.
The blond man blinked rapidly and mentally told a certain part of his anatomy to behave as the chestnut-haired man dazzled the Captain with his smile.
The lieutenant found the deck of cards and deftly began to shuffle them with his hands. A mischievous Southern drawl asked "What are the stakes in this game?"
Hazel eyes tore themselves away from the sight of those nimble, fascinating hands and Chris's husky voice rasped "Stakes?" Twinkling jade orbs stared into bemused golden green ones as Ezra laid out seven cards apiece in the space between the two men. "Yes, what are the winnings I will reap when we end the game?" The Southerner dimpled another gorgeous grin at his Captain. Chris inwardly melted but mock-scowled as he grunted, "Cocky aren't we? Who says you're going to win?" At the same time as his blunt hands scooped up the cards in front of him. */Wish I could scoop you up into my lap and.../* The hazel-orbed man's thoughts trailed off in another direction when a twinge of pain shot up his shoulder but that didn't stop a wicked smile curling his lips into a huge grin. Ezra swallowed at the wolfish look on the blond's face and forced himself to concentrate on the game of chance rather than on the handsome man at his side.
The Southerner was pleasantly surprised by Chris's card playing skill. The hazel-eyed man was a better than average player and challenged the jade-eyed man throughout the game. "What are the winnings of this game to be?" inquired the Southerner as he dealt another round of cards. The slim, blond Officer's hazel eyes darkened as he whispered a response. A response that had the auburn-haired man's jade eyes widening in surprise and delight. "Do we play on?" nonchalantly asked the Captain. Ezra threw the older man an assessing look and nodded.
You're an excellent poker player, Captain Laramie. Almost as skilled as I am." commented Ezra as Chris won the third hand of the game with a Straight Flush. The Southerner had won the first two hands but his focus had faltered momentarily when the blond had flexed his legs and the Captain's pants tightly outlined a certain portion of Chris's anatomy. "My grandfather taught me. He used to say it helped him relax after he worked hard all week. He just did it for fun though." Chris replied to the unspoken question in the Southerner's voice. Callused fingers brushed the sensitive tips of Ezra's digits as they both laid out their hands for the other's perusal.
Meanwhile back at the camp, Private Buddy Roberts rushed into lieutenant Taggart's tent and froze under the barrel of two guns pointing at him. As Vin and Buck slowly lowered their weapons, the Texan asked Buddy what he was hollerin' on about. "The Cap was hit n Ez, he covered 'im and then drug 'im inna the Grady's cellar." panted out the young redhead. "Where's the Grady place?" puffed Buck at the same time that he tugged on his boots. Vin's answer was lost as he followed Buddy out of their tent. Buck wasn't too far behind his younger tent mate and heard the Texan order Buddy to go and get Nathan. The private did say Chris was hurt. The raven-haired lieutenant only hoped the old dog's wound wasn't too serious. The dark-blue-eyed man would never forgive himself if Chris's injury was life-threatening. The tall man rolled his neck about to relieve the tension as he mounted a fresh horse. Vin was also astride a rested horse. But their anxiousness communicated itself to their mounts and the horses began to paw the earth restlessly. Both lieutenants were excellent horseman and soothed their horses within moments.
The freckled, red-headed private stumbled into the infirmary tent in time to see the healer, Nathan Jackson storing the herbs he'd just received from Mrs. Gloria Potter in a large homemade pouch. The widow often gave herbs from her garden to the dark-skinned man so that he could make poultices and other remedies for the sick men he tended. "New Cap 's hurt. Ez is with 'im but they're trapped in the Grady's cella'" Buddy hastily interrupted the duo's goodbyes. Nathan quickly gathered what he might need as he asked how the men were trapped. "Grenade wen' off near them. An' a couple of trees fell on top of the cella' doors" responded Roberts. The healer, the soldier and the widow bustled out of the tent. Private Roberts jumped onto his horse as Nathan quickly but serenely mounted his. Once he had done so, Vin and Buck led Chris Laramie's new company to rescue the Captain and their other lieutenant.
Gloria Potter scanned the area as she sought Billy's fair-head among the dark-haired ones playing in front of the laundry tent. Her forehead crinkled in puzzlement. There was no sign of the boy, "Where he'd get off to?" mumbled the lady. A horse's neigh caused her to jump slightly. Gloria pivoted around and scolded gently, "Land sakes, Billy. What's the matter?" as she took in the tear streaks on the boy's cheeks. Billy who sat astride the Potter's horse hiccupped "Heard Vin and the tall dark-haired man talkin'. They said that the New Captain Laramie was injured and that he and Ezra were trapped in the Grady's cellar because of two trees blocking their way out. The young blond boy wiped the tears from his face with the sleeve of his shirt then stuttered out "What if Uncle Ezra is hurt too? What if they can't get out? If they end up like my parents or your husband?" Anguished blue eyes stared solemnly at Gloria. Gloria didn't respond verbally ; she settled herself behind the boy and hugged him hard for a moment as she took the horse's reins from Billy's hands. She could feel the slender boy shaking in her embrace. The widow knew the boy needed the security of knowing that he had not lost someone else that he had loved. Mrs. Potter heaved a sigh when she asked "You want to make sure they're okay, don't you?" She felt the nod against her bosom. "All right, but we'll hang back from the men, let them do their work. Once we see Ezra and the Captain free from the cellar and know that they are okay, we head home." Said the widow with a soul of gold. Gloria had to admit to herself that she did have a special place in her heart for a certain chestnut-haired, moss-green eyed Confederate solider and would be deeply saddened to learn that he too had died. So she prayed for Ezra and the Captain, Chris Laramie as she and Billy trotted 'Jack' up to the copse of trees by the Grady Place.
Eight horses broke through the tree line and pounded through a bullet-strewn field but hedges still shielded the homestead from the soldiers sight. Buck's height let him see the two strong, fiercely protective horses guarding their men down in the cellar. The raven-haired man let out a relieved chuckle. The long-haired Texan quirked an eyebrow in question. Wilmont was about to reply when they both heard powerful snorts and then a white whirlwind nudged Vin's horse forward. A black blur did the same to Buck's mount. Pegasus and Thunder had recognized the smell of their mens' friends and knew they were here to help them out. The two impatient horses just wanted them to hurry. They were hungry and they were pretty sure their riders were too.
Chris didn't know for certain how long he and Ezra had been down here in the cellar but he was starving. His stomach had been growling for the last few minutes. Long, work-worn fingers gently gripped Ezra's forearm. The Southerner's jade eyes quickly left his cards to scan his blond's face. "Captain Laramie? What's wrong?" Queried the lieutenant. The lean, hazel-eyed man shook his head. I'm okay. Jus' hungry. You wouldn't be any chance have any beef jerky in those saddlebags of yours, Ez?" Chris laughed at the look of askance that Ezra shot him. His laughter turned into a coughing fit which prompted the younger man at his side to drop his cards and kneel in front of the older man. And then the Southerner whacked the blond on the back. Warn a guy will ya? But thanks." huffed out Chris as he stopped coughing. "Still want food though. So you got any grub or not?" grumbled the Captain. Ezra whose hand was still on Chris's spine and was slowly rubbing circles on the lean man's back, replied a little sarcastically "Well since I am not a worm that eats grub, no I do not have any of that disgusting delicacy with me but I do have some tack." Chris grinned at his lieutenant's answer and pulled the moss green eyed man in closer to him for a quick kiss. When the chestnut-haired man could breathe again, he placed his smaller hands over larger, blunt-shaped ones and squeezed once before rising to his feet and getting the food for the hazel-eyed man. A few seconds later, Chris gratefully chewed on tack. The lieutenant took the opportunity to check the wound on the blond's arm and was relieved to find that it was not any worse. Callused fingers tore food into two halves and then Chris nudged the auburn-haired man with a knee to the Southerner's side and handed a piece of tack over to the younger man and ordered "Eat."
Suddenly they heard the sounds of horses and the yells of men outside. "Sounds like the Cavalry has arrived." exhaled Ezra. He had just finished swallowing his last bite of the fare that the Army called food when he heard the noise. Chris had also caught the commotion and was looking up at the same time he tried to struggle to his feet, using one hand for leverage. The blond man found himself in the grip of two iron forearms as Ezra hissed at him. "Chris you could fall and injure yourself further. If you wanted to get up you should have asked me."
The Captain's tawny gold gaze saw the worry, anger and hurt swirl through Ezra's jade irises like lightning, then all emotion fell into the blank green pool of the Southerner's eyes. Chris decided he loathed the blank mask which Ezra was now wearing. The hazel-eyed man grunted "Used to doin' things on my own Ez. But I'm glad you're here to help. I just don't think sometimes. At least that's what Bucklin says." and pressed his forehead against Ezra's. Ezra found himself agreeing with lieutenant Wilmont and said so as he hauled the Captain to his feet.
The duo stayed standing near the rear of the cellar as dirt and dust rained down from the trap doors at the furious movement the two men could hear going on outside. The snorts and grunts of horses, the creaking of wagon wheels, the melee of men's voices shouting ideas and commands back and forth. Buck's bellow of "Now tie that rope around this end of the wagon, Mackenzie." had the blond man grinning and whispering, "The Calvary" has arrived." The russet haired man' at his side dimpled as he replied "It appears it has." as Ezra heard Vin's "Ye-haw. Come on, git movin' ya ornery mule." then wagon wheels groaned as they dragged forward slowly, while Mackenzie, a tall, slender Irishman and Yosemite, a grizzled veteran who could've been Josiah's twin stood on one side of the doors with Buck and Buddy on the other side of the doors. The four guiding the tied up trees to slide carefully off the doors at the same time that Vin drove the wagon forward an inch at a time.
Chris had taken a few steps forward but a strong forearm around his waist stopped him at the moment a tree branch broke through a cellar door, splintering slivers of the door everywhere. Ezra's worry was evident in his voice as he queried "Chris... Captain are you alright?" Ezra pushed the hazel-eyed man down and ducked himself as a piece of wood flew across the room to crash against the floor a few feet away. Chris had turned to look at Ezra, so he had missed most of the debris coming their way when Ezra had none too gently shoved him down. The blond panted for a few moments, getting the air back into his lungs. "I'm alright, Ez and you only call me Captain in public." Ezra agreed, the captain and lieutenant staggered to their feet once more. The russet-haired man cursed to himself as he saw that Chris had reopened the ugly gash in his arm and was bleeding again. Ezra carefully lifted the hazel-eyed man's injured arm around his smaller back and moved ahead carefully. Cursing softly to himself as his sharp emerald eyes noticed a chunk of wood in Chris's wound.
The Southerner closed his eyes in relief then blinked them rapidly open again as Buck Wilmont shouldered Chris on the other side and they clambered up the rickety steps into fresh air.
"Thank God." breathed Ezra as he heard Nathan order them to sit Chris down on a nearby boulder so the healer could take a look at the Captain's wound. The dark-skinned man found himself delighted at how thorough the Southern lieutenant had been in cleaning out Laramie's injury. //Maybe some of our talks are doing some good. Ezra did good but the arm's infected. The Captain has a fever.// thought Nathan. Chocolate brown eyes traveled over the Captain. The healer turned the hazel-eyed man over and discovered that he had a small but thick piece of wood lodged in the back of the gash on the Captain's arm. Nathan carefully plucked the wood out of the arm as Wilmont held Laramie still. Vin had jumped from the wagon to pat Ez's shoulder. The russet-haired man had been returning the pat on the sharpshooter's shoulder when he heard Buck's "Hell, Nathan, Chris got a piece of wood in the back of his hurt arm." Ezra hissed at the sight of the sliver but seemed to relax once Jackson had pulled it out. Vin squeezed his shoulder once more than regained his seat in the wagon.
The Southerner's nerves were frayed but he soothed himself by calming down Chris's impatient, imposing big black gelding. Thunder settled quickly under Ezra's ministrations. Buck stared in awe at Ezra. That cuss of Thunder hadn't let anybody but Chris get near him until now. Ezra tied Chris's horse to the back of the wagon and then mounted his patient, steadfast horse while verbally thanking the other men for the rescue.
Once Jackson was done tending to the wound the best he could, he and the big sergeant hoisted Chris onto the back of the wagon. The healer didn't want the Captain riding for a few days yet. The blond groused and grumbled at that pronouncement but Nathan didn't pay it any mind.
Pain-dulled but determined hazel eyes stared into a pair of worried sapphire eyes as Vin had swiveled his head from the front of the wagon to check on his friend. And the Texan nodded once as he saw Chris was going to be all right. Buck flashed a big grin at the 'old dog' in the back of the wagon as Wilmont's tall frame sat down next to Vin. Nathan and the Yosemite flanked Chris's either side. The blond mentally counted his other men as they took care of the horses. Heavy eyelids began to droop over golden green orbs when they suddenly flew open again. "Ezra!" croaked out the injured man. A gentle hand patting Chris's large-boned one and Ezra's soft "Right here, Chris. I'm fine. We're heading back to the camp." whispered into his ear calmed the agitated Captain. "Camp with my angel." mumbled the hazel-eyed man as his body and mind slid into sleep. Nathan and Yosemite covered the Captain with some blankets and ignored the blush that stole up Ezra's neck and face as he again sat up straight in Pegasus's saddle as he rode on one side of the wagon.
Jade eyes peeked out of the corner of his eyes and found that the healer and sergeant were conversing quietly with Vin and Buck. Vin then got the buckboard moving carefully forward. And all of Chris's men moved forward too.
Ezra's keen irises caught a glint of silver out of the corner of his eye and dropped back a bit as the others kept on going. He drew his gun silently and cocked it when his steely gaze landed on Mrs. Potter and Billy in the copse of trees a few yards away . The silver colored bridle of their horse had captured the Southerner's attention. The auburn-haired man quickly re-holstered his weapon. Then he nodded and grinned at the duo. Mrs. Potter and Billy smiled back at him. //I have to go out to her abode tomorrow. I need to speak with her.// sped through the lieutenant's mind as Mrs. Potter wheeled her mount around to head for home. Suddenly her horse reared upright, dropping Mrs. Potter and Billy off of him. At the horrendous sight, Ezra spurred Pegasus towards the copse.
Vin, Buck and the other men had halted their movement as they heard the Southerner's yelp of anguish.
They all turned to see what happened. Vin and Buck exchanged glances then the longer-haired blue-eyed tracker leaped out of the driver's side of the wagon and ran to help Ezra with Mrs. Potter and Billy. Buck was now going to drive while Nathan barked at Mackenzie, his helper in healing the sick to take his place at Chris's side. Jackson needed to see if Mrs. Potter or Billy needed his help so the dark-skinned man inched his way out of the wagon through the back end, as the Irishman climbed over a side of it to take Nathan's place. Once Jackson was clear of the wagon, he dashed for the trees.
The tall, raven-haired lieutenant at the front of the wagon waited for a signal from the healer. Buck didn't know if they were going to have to use the wagon to transport more hurt persons or not and he didn't want to leave before he found out.
As Ezra reached Mrs. Potter's and Billy's side, the Southerner's derringer already palming his hand, fired squarely at the rattlesnake slithering towards the fallen woman and boy Gloria and Billy had landed on top of a pile dense leaves so they were just jarred by the fall nothing seriously hurt. Vin and Nathan stepped up to the trio in the copse at the moment that Ezra bent over and was aiding Mrs. Potter up. The soft-spoken Texan helped her up also. Nathan brushed Billy off as his healer's eyes and hands checked for injuries and found none. With a relieved hand wave to Buck and the others, the darkly-skinned man then squatted in front of the slightly dazed Mrs. Potter while Vin quietly talked with the boy. Ezra was sprinting back to the wagon, Chris was frantic and calling for him.
Yosemite and Mackenzie were stretching their legs out when the pop of Ezra's small weapon went off. The gunshot woke their feverish Captain who immediately began thrashing about. Flailing his arms and kicking out his legs, the lean blond man freed himself from his coverings. Bolting straight up but still sitting, Chris's hazel eyes wild with fear, scanned the area, searching for his angel's auburn head. When Chris saw the auburn-headed man doubled over by the trees, a hoarse yell emerged from his throat "Ezra! No! Hold on! Don't you dare die Ez! I comin for ya!" then the Captain began to scramble his way out of the wagon. Mackenzie tried to hold him but got punched in the solar plexus. Punching didn't work on Yosemite. The blond, hazel-eyed man was turning the air blue as he cussed. Larabee's wiry frame squirmed every which way to make the big sergeant loosen the bear-like grip he had upon his Captain but the big man held on.
Chris was desperate. All he knew was that he couldn't lose Ezra too. Ezra was hurt and he had to help him. He had too!
The blond was about to bite Yosemite's arm when the Southerner leapt into the wagon. Flashing an apologetic smile at Mackenzie and Yosemite, Ezra's strong hands tugged Chris's fair head up and away from the older man's body and cupped the blond's face within his palms. The russet-haired man then whispered "Captain, I am safe. You are safe. We are here together. Its all right." While he was speaking, jade irises gazed deeply into haunted hazel ones. Chris slumped against Ezra, muttering "Safe... Together." Callused hands gripped softer ones tightly and the blond burrowed his head against Ezra's sturdy shoulder and soon the hazel-eyed man's breath evened out.
Buck had hopped off the front of the wagon when Chris was fighting to get off the back and was rounding the buckboard's side to help Yosemite with his oldest friend when Ezra sped by the tall man and the Southerner sprang into the wagon. Buck's sharp, worried blue eyes softened as he saw Ezra calm Chris down. The dark-haired lieutenant's long legs got him back to the driver's seat of the wagon in three strides. Wilmont noticed that Nathan was already perched on the other side of the driver's bench. As he swung himself back into the driver's side of the wagon, Buck and Nathan swiveled their heads and spotted Gloria and Billy mounted on Pegasus while Vin led the white horse away from them, back towards the Potter homestead. The sharpshooter from Texas looked back and tipped his hat. Buck and Nathan breathed sighs of relief, tipped their caps in return and then Buck with a quick turn of the wrists flicked the reigns and drove back to camp.
Back at camp, Captain Laramie's men got their sick commander off the wagon and into the medical tent. Buck and Yosemite then tended to the animals and wagon; Mackenzie staggered over to an empty cot on the right side of the tent while Chris had been laid in a bed near the center of the room. Nathan made the still-sleeping Captain as comfortable as possible before the darkly-skinned man turned away to attend to his other patients. Jackson left Ezra sitting on a rickety wooden chair by Chris's side. Once Nathan had spun around, the Southerner's right hand which had been hovering over Laramie's face, gently stroked a couple of unruly strands of blond hair off of Chris's forehead and Ezra took a deep breath. A pained moan escaping Chris's lips had concerned jade green orbs rising from the prone form on the cot to the alert dark-chocolate brown eyes of the healer. In two strides Nathan was back at the Captain's side at the first hiss of the moan. The confederate 'doc' reassured Ezra with a smile. "Its all right, Ezra. It appears our hard-headed Captain here, is waking up."
Hazel eyes flicked open slowly and locked onto emerald irises. A scratchy "What the hell happened? My shoulder and head's on fire." "You've got a bit of an infection from a nasty piece of wood that got stuck in the bullet crease in your arm. I got it out but you have a fever. And I'd like you to stay overnight in the tent so I can keep an eye on you. Stanton can stay and keep you company if he's quiet." The Southerner flashed the efficient healer an indignant look which caused Nathan to chuckle lightly.
The wounded blond grunted then held out his uninjured hand towards his lieutenant before whispering "I'll be all right. I'm too ornery to be down for long. You did a good job of taking care of me in the cellar, Ezra." Ezra gave him a shy smile of thanks at the same time that Nathan left them alone again. Chris squeezed Ezra's hand but before he could say anything, Buck entered to check on his oldest friend. "Hey there, pard, how are you doing?" Hazel eyes tracked Buck's entrance into the tent when it dawned on the blond, "Where's Vin?"
Ezra's eyes flickered downward as he felt a stab of jealously at Chris's question. \\Vin and he have hit it off wonderfully, they think very similarly. And the Captain cares about all of his men, which is why he's asking about Vin. Chris also kissed you! So don't be a silly nincompoop now, Ezra Standish.\\ reasoned Ezra's logic.
Buck stood at the end of the bed and replied to Chris's worried inquiry. The lean man in the cot, relaxed but he noted that Ezra looked pale and drawn. A rough-worked thumb pad unthinkingly rubbed circles along the outer edge of Ezra's hand still held within his hand as he ordered the lieutenant to get some rest in their tent cause Ezra looked worn out. Buck laughed at Ezra's sharp retort but noted that the chestnut-haired man didn't object overmuch before actually obeying the Captain . \\Boy's plumb tired.\\ thought the tall man as the Southerner gave them a two-finger salute before leaving the tent.
The dark-blue eyed man slid his big frame into the chair which Stanton had just vacated, crossed his arms Indian-style while waiting for Chris's focus to shift away from the emerald-orbed man leaving the tent. A happy grin cracked Buck's face when he spied the soft, loving look in Chris's golden green gaze. \\It's been too long since I've seen that look in the 'old dog's' eyes. I'll have to think of a way to thank Ezra later.\\ flowed through Buck's mind. The raven-haired man also had time to nod in Nathan's direction at the other end of the tent before Chris's attention came back around to him. Hazel-eyes scowled sleepily into Buck's mobile face. Laramie's "Why ya smiling so wide?" had Wilmont hiding his grin at the same time he answered, "Just grateful that you both weren't hurt any worse and we got those trap doors open." The blond was asleep before Buck finished talking. "And because you've found yourself another angel though I think this one's just as much of or more of a handful than the last one." Whispered the blue-eyed man as he settled deeper into the chair and kept vigil over his friend.
Vin strode into the medical tent a little while later to discover Laramie sleeping restfully in his cot and a gently snoring Buck slumped in the chair. The Texan's trademark lop-sided grin appeared as Nathan glided over to the sapphire-eyed lieutenant. Jackson nodded at the dozing men and told the sharpshooter that Chris's fever had broken 15 minutes before and would be released in the morning. Vin tilted his head in acknowledgement and asked for Ezra. The dark-skinned man replied "Laramie ordered Ezra to go and get some rest in their tent." Taggart quietly wished Nathan a good night.
Taggart left the medical tent centered in middle of the camp, then headed over to the clump of trees at the edge of camp. Sure enough, there was Ezra's shadow underneath the biggest tree looking up at the stars. "Ya all right pard?" Ezra had stiffened but then recognized Vin's soft footfalls. "I am fine, Mr. Taggart but a bit preoccupied for the Captain." It took a moment or two for the Texan to suss out Ezra's words. Vin's strong hand landed on Ezra's shoulder when he figured out what Ezra had said. "Nate told me, Chris's fever broke a bit ago. The Cap's sleepin deep and peaceful like now. Jackson says he'll be right as rain in the mornin. I looked in on Chris after I reported in. And Buck's snoring away too. " Jade-green irises smiled into sapphire blue ones as the Southerner thanked him for the update on the Captain. Vin smiled back. "Ready to keep watch?" Asked the sharpshooter. "Yes, but I do detest all those leaves that nest in my hair and clothes when I descend from our perch." complained Ezra who was gamely climbing up the tree behind Vin.
Vin nestled in a high, wide, sturdy bough of interlaced branches. Ezra sat next to him. They had found this spot a few months ago. It was a perfect spot to keep watch over the entrance into the camp and the entire camp but yet completely hidden by the thick leaves of the tree.
Ezra and Vin could also talk privately when they needed too. Vin's eagle eyes scanned the darkening horizon twice before turning towards his partner. "Okay, Ez tell me." drawled the Texan softly. The auburn-haired man sighed. "Chanu confirmed what we suspected. Morgan Coltrane AKA... Morgan Hill rides with those bushwhackers terrorizing the countryside. Chanu spied them raiding the Buford place and he recognized Morgan." Finished the Southerner. "Damn. Mrs. Potter got a letter from ya uncle for ya, Ez. She told me ta tell ya to see her when you can, when I took her home earlier. Ya think it could be 'bout Morgan?" Vin asked.
Ezra absently stared at the camp when he responded, "More than likely. I'll visit the good woman tomorrow." Vin nodded, his sapphire blue eyes glancing unseeingly at pitched tents. His mind traveling back to the battle of Shiloh a year and a half ago.
Peso's black mane whipped through the air as his hooves pounded through the mud-soaked ground near Shiloh Church. Vin Taggart nearly bolted over Peso's head and into Ezra's lap when the Texan abruptly pulled the horse's reins to avoid colliding with his chestnut-haired fellow-officer and friend. Ezra P. Stanton stilled his white mount. Emerald eyes appraised the sharpshooter's agitated movements. Ezra spoke soothingly when he asked the longhaired man what was wrong. Vin's reply was disheartening to the Southerner. The jade-eyed man had hoped they could avoid the inevitable a bit longer. Thundering hooves hammering against the earth had both men whirling their horses around. Pegasus and Peso were a white and black blur as they raced back to their camp.
Five minutes earlier, The Texan had spoken with his contact and had given him Ezra's message before he rode by a small "Union" reconnaissance team heading towards his battery. He had almost cleared the copse of trees separating the conflicting armies when a man in blue spotted him and yelled out. The sapphire-orbed man cursed quietly and urged his big black to gallop faster until he had almost ran down Ezra. Stanton's compact frame ducked low in his saddle as a bullet whizzed by his head. He heard a mighty shout behind him. /Was that Josiah's voice reprimanding a solider? / Rattled through the Southerner's mind.
Suddenly the ground stopped shaking.
Josiah Sanchez's huge mount 'accidentally' jostled the shooter's horse just as the man had taken aim at the fleeing "Rebels." Grey blue eyes had recognized Vin Taggart's dark horse with that white blaze in front.
Ezra P. Stanton, Vin Taggart and Nathan Jackson had saved his and JD's lives during the bushwhacker's attack at Spring Hill in early March. The older man and the young drummer boy were alive and still had all of their limbs because of the courageous Southern trio.
The grizzled Sergeant repaid the favor as he sharply reminded the young, green private that orders were to watch and wait. They were not to start a skirmish before the commanders were ready. The big man then ordered the reconnaissance unit back to the Union camp.
^Early March, Spring Hill Tennessee 1862^
The six-man Union scouting party rode back to their camp. The gray-haired veteran, Josiah Sanchez rode next to their excited drummer boy, JD Dunne. Gunshots abruptly peppered the early, quiet morning. One of Josiah and JD's companions fell from his horse. The big sergeant and the slight boy dove off of their steeds, at the same moment their captain tumbled fatally off of his mount. Josiah prayed as he fired upon the group of bushwhackers bearing down upon his unit. JD's who had dived in the opposite direction from Sanchez, hunkered down behind his horse. Dunne's head snapped around when he heard more horses and heavy wagons rushing towards them. The sixteen-year old took in the gray, tattered uniforms of the men; the limbers or specially constructed wagons pulling a cannon; a magnificent white gelding; a huge black gelding; the lean man catapulting off the black's back; a chestnut-haired man volleying a canister shot over the Federals heads to land amid the ambusher's group. The shot killed some bushwhackers but not all of them. JD's hazel eyes widened in horror when a bullet from one of the bushwhacker's guns hit Josiah in his side and the sergeant went still.
Stanton's sharp jade-green irises had seen the ebony-haired kid crawling towards the big man, prone on the ground, a few feet to the side of the ambush. Suddenly JD clutched at his leg. The kid could not suppress the cry of pain that escaped his lips as the mini ball lodged in his leg. Fierce emerald eyes glimpsed Morgan Coltrane putting away his still smoking gun and then galloping away. The Southerner almost took a shot at the traitor but JD collapsing to the ground stopped him.
The auburn-haired first lieutenant had instinctively heaved the unconscious drummer boy out of the line of fire, between his battery and the bushwhackers. A powder-covered Ezra had pulled the injured, fair-skinned 'boy' behind him and the smoothbore, muzzle-loading, 12-pounder "mountain-howitzer." cannon the Southern man was firing.
The chestnut-haired man's blood boiled at the thought of such a young, innocent-looking drummer boy being shot and wounded without provocation.
All of the boy's companions had fallen. Ezra was not going to lose another life to those murderous, treacherous, thieving bushwhackers.
Taggart had seen what his friend was doing and raced to help. The blue-eyed man half-carried, half-dragged the drummer boy further back to safety behind the hedges of half-formed shrubs.
Ezra had looked down and grimaced at the drops of blood tracing Vin and the boy's progress.
The Texan pierced a shrill whistle that brought the dark-skinned Nathan Jackson running to Vin's side. Chocolate brown eyes roved over the injured boy as gentle hands skimmed the youngster's body. There was a big bump on the back of the ebony-haired boy's head and a dark red stain saturated JD's blue-clad left leg. Nathan slit the side of the boy's pant leg from the ankle to just above the knee. The healer found a deep gash that almost penetrated to the bone. Jackson let out a soft hiss of dismay. Nathan pulled off his belt and tied it like a tourniquet, right above the kid's knee.
A watchful Texan knew that they would not be sending this boy to Andersonville. So, Vin suggested another place that Nathan could take the boy.
Taggart's soft "Nettie's place is up ahead. We can take 'im there." Had the ex-slave gently lifting JD in his arms and trudging after the silent tracker. Nathan mounted his patient horse and then Vin handed the kid up to Jackson for the short ride to the Wells place and then the sharpshooter strode back to Ezra and the others. Nathan rode off as soon as Vin turned around.
Taggart jogged over to Ezra. The First Lieutenant was giving orders to his Second Lieutenants about the cannon which the Confederates had 'purloined' from the Federals in a chaotic clash the night before. Ezra's captain had been killed in the assault. Ezra was now commanding officer for his battery. The rebels had been returning to their main camp when they had encountered the band of deserters led by Morgan Coltrane...AKA Morgan Hill.
^Early in the war, Morgan had once been a fellow-officer and friend of Ezra's and Vin but the war had revealed the man's naturally cruel and greedy nature. Coltrane had abandoned the army when he had turned on the rest of his company, which had been escorting General Joseph Hooker and a shipment of gold to the Union's Treasury. He had grievously wounded the General, Standish, Tanner and Travis; while killing all the rest of the company. Morgan had stolen the bullion and disappeared for a time. General Hooker, Ezra, Vin and Stephan recuperated under the care of Dr. Joseph K. Barnes.
Once the three Lieutenants had fully recovered their health, the general recruited them to join the newly-formed Bureau of Military Information.
The three officers would be under Colonel Joseph Sharpe's command. Sharpe was the man that the general tapped to lead the Bureau. The Colonel's organization was charged with "sorting out and synthesizing information gathered from any and all available sources; including cavalry reports, balloonists, Signal Corps officers, spies, informants, runaway slaves, prisoners and deserters. Sharpe initiates the use of soldier-spies, supplied with Confederate uniforms and identification credentials, and uses them to scout enemy positions. " Lieutenants Standish, Tanner and Travis also had private orders from General Hooker to search for and apprehend their former comrade, Morgan Coltrane.
Ezra and Vin had helped solidify the Bureau's success when they determined that "General Robert E. Lee had dispatched Longstreet's Corps to Richmond."
Meanwhile, Stephan Travis had gone to Tennessee to visit his wife and son. He had told them that he would be away on a very long mission. Travis stayed in Tennessee for three days. On the fourth day, he was supposed to meet his partners, Standish and Tanner. The man had been saying tearful goodbyes to his family when Morgan Hill came upon them and shot the Travis family at point blank range. Stephan died instantly. When Mary Travis Stephan's wife was hit, she toppled over their son, thus saving the boy's life. Billy was finally able to squirm out from underneath his mortally wounded mother. The distraught boy cried by his parents' body until two gray-uniformed men found him.^
^Spring Hill Tennessee, March 1862
A pounding skull and the fiery pain in his side roused Sergeant Josiah Sanchez. Blue-gray eyes darted from side to side looking for JD. The veteran's gray-haired rose slightly looking for Dunne. Josiah's weak, hoarse shout for the young man was muffled by the sound of gunfire. Suddenly the sergeant head JD cry out in pain. Every movement agony, the big man gritted his teeth and rolled onto his stomach. Blue-gray irises saw a courageous Confederate pull JD to safety. The Sergeant silently thanked the 'Reb.' Sanchez squinted dangerously when another man dressed in gray moved the boy further back into the bushes. Josiah breathed again though, when he saw a dark-skinned man tie a tourniquet around JD's knee. "Where are they going with the boy?" Questioned Josiah when he saw Nathan and Vin head to their mounts. /No, they wouldn't take the boy to Andersonville. Not while there was still breath in this old man's body. / Sped through Sanchez's mind.
Josiah crawled and scuttled over the rocky ground. On his stomach, he slid forward carefully and slowly, ignoring the red, slippery, stickiness oozing from his side. The big man slithered ever closer to the Confederates who were still gathering their battery together. Blue-gray eyes glowed with determination to reach JD Dunne.
"Lieutenant Stanton!" Shouted one of the gray-clad junior officers. Ezra spun around at the anxious tone of the soldier's voice. Jade green eyes quickly appraised what had the younger man perched on the limber so panicky.
One of Josiah's massive hands gripped the wheel of the Rebels' limber. Sanchez's other hand gripped a gun that was pointed in Ezra and Vin's general direction. The sergeant croaked, "Where's JD? I won't let you take the boy to Andersonville."
Stanton and Taggart cautiously approached the big man still wielding a Colt revolver. The auburn-haired man slowly sank to his haunches next to the grizzled veteran. Emerald eyes locked with blue-gray ones as Ezra drawled that they weren't going to send the boy to the infamous prison camp. As Vin crouched, he added that the battery 'doc' had taken JD to Nettie Wells place so Nathan could heal the boy. Nettie was an old woman, compassionate to both sides.
Josiah dropped his gun and fainted into the first lieutenant's arms. The auburn-haired man breathed out a startled, "Vin?" Taggart found the open wound in Josiah's side. It still bled but not as profusely as before. The sharpshooter untied the kerchief from his neck and used it to staunch the blood. The sapphire-orbed man told his friend that they needed to get the big man to Nate too. Ezra nodded and told Vin to take the Sergeant to Nettie's. Ezra called Yosemite over and asked the huge Confederate sergeant to help Vin transport the injured man to Nettie's. Yosemite lifted the blue-clad man from his lieutenant's hold and settled the injured man onto the back of an abandoned wagon. Stanton would accompany the rest of the battery back to the main camp. Ezra would then ride over to the Wells farm when he could.
Nathan and Nettie had been able to save both men though it took a long 48 hours to make certain that the injured would survive. It took another three weeks for JD and Josiah to fully recover. Nathan, Ezra and Vin were frequent visitors to the Wells cabin during this time.
The five men became friends.
Nettie claimed that Josiah was her oldest son and that JD was her grandson.
No one argued with the sixty-year old woman.
At the end of their third week at Nettie's, Josiah and JD knew that they had to return to the Union camp across the river. The newly healed men bade a reluctant farewell to their friends and rescuers. Once the Sergeant and drummer boy returned; they were assigned to a new unit commanded by Captain Chris Larabee.^
April 6, 1862 - Shiloh
Ezra and Vin both stole a backward peek toward the Union scouts behind them and saw that it was indeed Sergeant Josiah Sanchez whom they had heard. Their friend sat astride a massive roan-colored charger. Ezra and Vin tipped their kepis at Josiah and he tipped his blue one back at them. Then the three men headed back to their respective camps.
Taggart and Stanton had been given their orders. They marched with their battery to join General Johnston's flank attack on Grant's army.
As they marched, both Ezra and Vin noted that it was a glorious morning, Mother Nature was resplendent in her robe of green foliage. Sapphire and emerald irises had seen brilliant swamp lilies splashing their bright color against the green. The two lieutenants had smelled the lily's redolent perfume and both men had heard the birds warbling in the trees. But the day was marred by the sound of erupting gun and artillery fire.
Vin pulled out his spyglass from his haversack and scurried up one of the gnarled, thick, oak trees. "There's some fierce fighting' goin' on in front of the church, Ezra. Shoulder-length blond-brown hair shook as the scout then told Stanton that Josiah and JD were smack in the middle of a picket line defending the church. Ezra's eyebrows lowered into a worried frown before the Southerner smoothed it out into his usual 'poker face'. For a moment, Stanton gazed unseeingly in the direction of the church. Then the Southerner blinked and instructed his men to keep going forward. The rangy Texan scrambled down from the tree and mounted his ornery black while Ezra led his battery and limbered cannon toward the old peach orchard where Johnston's army was gathering. General Johnston and Hardee had agreed to deploy their "forces in lines of brigades, with their batteries in the rear." Vin, Ezra and the battery were a part of the last line defense. Past the orchard, squadrons of Southern cavalry tried to drive back Union pickets. The gray-clad mounted horsemen were partially successful. Some of the raw soldiers from different pickets were pushed back, others like Larabee's unit were skilled men and advanced on the `swarming' Confederates.
The ebony-haired drummer boy had become separated from his unit and he found himself in the middle of an intense skirmish. JD's quick thinking had his bay mount galloping into a dense oak thicket and he thus escaped a barrage of musket fire. Ezra dove for the ground as a bay gelding plunged out of the trees by his 'Napoleon' cannon, then the familiar horse and rider jumped over the cannon. JD yelled an apology to the man in gray. At that minute, opposing gunfire hit the spot where the chestnut-haired lieutenant had been crouching moments before. Vin crawled over to Stanton's side and muttered, "That boy sure knows how to ride," As a pair of blue and green irises tracked Dunne's dash through enemy lines to get back to his own side. "He must have also been born under a lucky star," Whispered the jade-eyed Southerner when JD had safely cleared the peach orchard.
The battle in the orchard raged fiercely. First the Confederates had the upper hand but then the Union troops pushed the Southerners back slightly but the `Rebels" did not give much ground and fought back hard. By the battle's end, two weary and scorched Confederates collapsed amid the squashed and rotted remains of the once glorious fruit of the orchard.
The jarring notes of a harmonica floated up the tree and jolted both lieutenants out of their past and back into their present. Emerald green and sapphire blue eyes peered through the thick branches. Ezra and Vin spotted a private playing his harmonica underneath the tree next to the one that they were perched in. Ten minutes later, the `musician' was called over to a friend's tent to play a hand or two of cards. The moment the young man disappeared into the tent, Ezra and Vin scrambled down the tree. The shorter Southerner chuckled, "I think we've found someone who plays that musical instrument more atrociously than you do." Vin mock-scowled at his friend and one side of his mouth curled up as the chestnut-haired man headed for the sick tent. Taggart turned in the direction of his tent as he and Stanton exchanged, "Good nights."
The thought of joining the card game had briefly crossed Ezra's mind but then he realized he wouldn't be able to concentrate properly because he would be thinking about Captain Laramie so instead of going to his tent, the jade-eyed man entered the infirmary. The Southerner smiled at Vin's tent mate who rose from the chair at the blond man's side. Buck stretched and then waved the younger lieutenant into the now empty chair. Wilmont's gentle grin and "He's all yours now, Ezra. Good Nite." As the tall man left the tent puzzled the emerald-eyed man. Chris' mumbled, "Ezra, Angel?" at the same time that he swished his fair head from side to side. Stanton caught a hand clenching and unclenching rough bed linen. Jade orbs darted around the tent and noticed that everyone seemed to be sleeping, even Nathan. Jackson was sitting on a stool between a small table and a cot. The healer's cheek rested against the table and Ezra could hear the man snoring softly.
Ezra's eyes returned to Chris Larabee's agitated form. Stanton's reassuring, whispered, "I am here. I am safe. So are you." Plus Ezra's fingers tenderly stroking through the blond's hair settled the Captain almost instantly. The Southerner sat with Chris through the rest of the night. Laramie's eyelids fluttered open to the sight of Ezra asleep in the chair. */God, I could wake up to this sight every day for the rest of my life./* flit through the blond's mind.
Chris thought Ezra looked adorable.
The smaller man had stretched out his legs under the Captain's cot, his usually straight spine slouched against the back of the chair, and one arm curled against his side, the other hand rested on the bed near Chris's head. Ezra's head lolled on the shoulder of his extended arm. Thick eyelashes dusted Ezra's gorgeous cheekbones. Chris wanted so badly to card his hand through tousled chestnut locks and kiss those soft-looking lips so near to him. Instead, his hand reached out to touch those luscious lips and accidentally ghosted over the back of the Southerner's hand.
Ezra felt the butterfly touch against his skin and alert emerald eyes flew open to stare into heated amber ones.
Ezra felt the butterfly touch against his skin and alert emerald eyes flew open to stare into heated amber ones. "I didn't mean to wake you. I just wanted to touch my angel and make sure you weren't a dream," whispered Chris in a still-sleep-roughened voice. A warmth crept up Ezra's neck and with his free hand, he tenderly palmed Chris's forehead. The Southerner's thumb unconsciously rubbing soothing circles across the blond's temple. Ezra quietly replied, "If you are dreaming then so am I." A slow smile graced Chris's lips and his eyes softened to the color of molten honey. As the flaxen-haired man began to respond, he was interrupted by a young blond boy running into the medical tent. "Mornin' Uncle Ezra, Mornin' Captain." Exhaled Billy T. Potter. Billy skidded to a halt next to Stanton's chair. "Uncle Ezra, Vin wants to see ya," continued the child. Ezra nodded and then asked Billy if he could stay with Chris while Nathan returned. The fair-headed boy's chest puffed with pride at his 'uncle's' request and Billy immediately sat on one side of Chris's cot. Billy just asked Ezra if he needed to keep checking the Cap for fever, like Uncle Ezra had been doing when the boy had run into the tent. Stanton told the child that the Captain's fever had broken but that he was still weak. The injured blond sagged back into the bed, disappointedly. Ezra gave Laramie a two-finger salute while Billy patted Chris's lean forearm, telling the 'Cap' not to fret cause his uncle Ez was the best and that he and Vin would be back 'fore long. Chris found himself agreeing and then he cracked a big yawn which he hurriedly covered up with his good hand. Billy, now standing on one side of the cot, made a clucking noise and told the blond to go back to sleep cause Chris was still recoverin' from his injuries. At the boy's tone, a small smile tugged at Laramie's mouth as his eyelids fluttered shut.
The child perched on the chair and kept vigil over the sleeping man until a raven-haired soldier came in a short time later. Billy stared suspiciously at the very tall man until memory nudged him. The boy now recalled that this man had been with his Uncle Ezra, Vin and the Captain on the morning that Uncle Ezra had rescued him from the pit. Buck waited while Billy scrutinized him. It warmed the big man's heart to hear the child say that he, Billy didn't want to leave Chris with just anyone, especially since neither Uncle Ezra nor Nathan Jackson were around. Buck had been with Ezra the morning, Billy had met him so the boy guessed it was all right to leave the Captain in the raven-haired lieutenant's company. Wilmont seriously thanked the child for watching over Chris and broke out into a big grin once Billy had left the tent.
Meanwhile, Ezra had found Vin waiting for him in Ezra and Chris's tent. The chestnut-haired Southerner and the blondish-brown haired Texan spoke quietly. Vin and Ezra knew something was amiss when instead of Gloria herself, Billy and Mrs. Potter's oldest boy, ten-year old, Edward came to leave off the laundry which Gloria washed for the soldiers. The two decided to go out on patrol as usual but instead of turning back at the old, crooked forest trail, they rode onwards. Side by side, Pegasus and Peso trotted quietly upon the foliage-covered trail passing through a thick canopy of trees.
Suddenly the black stopped and the Texan leapt off and ran for a trio of tall Birch trees bunched together. Vin had drawn his mare's leg while Ezra ground tied the horses and then sped to the sharpshooter's side. His own weapon in his hand, the chestnut-haired man silently asked, "How many?" "Four, two guardin' the front and two guardin' the back." Answered Vin. Emerald and sapphire irises peeked around the tree and noted not only the men milling about Gloria Potter's yard but the danger signal of the red long johns hanging squarely in the center of the clothesline. Ezra's free hand tightly gripped a bare branch of the Birch when he noticed Nellie, Nathan Jackson's Pinto tied behind another horse in front of the yard. Vin saw the healer's mare a second later and a soft puff of air escaped his lips.
Every morning, the dark-skinned healer Nathan Jackson visited the outlying farms near the Confederate came and this morning was ambushed by bushwhackers. The renegades had forced Nathan at gunpoint to accompany them to Gloria Potter's house. When the healer had entered Gloria's parlor, he had seen Mrs. Potter putting pressure on an injured man's leg with an old towel but crimson stains kept blossoming on the material. Morgan Coltrane lay on Gloria's loveseat, his faded blue uniform soiled and torn. His body bathed in sweat, his blunt face contorted in pain but he still barked orders through clenched teeth. One of them was to let the widow's seven-year old daughter, Abigail finish pouring the willow-bark, whiskey-laced tea so that he could swallow the medicinal drink. Once the girl was done with her task, she was shoved into a spindle chair and tied up.
Mrs. Potter's eyes flashed daggers at the rough treatment of her daughter but wisely held her tongue as she continued to try to stop Coltrane's wound from bleeding so profusely. The man had told her that he had dug a minie ball out of his own leg. A fact she told Jackson as he knelt at her side. Nate saw that the leg was inflamed and infected. It was swollen and red. Morgan's fibula or lower leg bone was jutting out an awkward angle.
Nathan needed to clean his hands. He didn't want to get the injured man's wound any dirtier than it already was. But first he needed to gather two sturdy splints of wood for a tourniquet to set Coltrane's leg and to stop the bleeding. Under the watchful eyes of the guards outside, the dark man was rooting around the woodpile when he heard the shrill birdcall. It came again. Jackson now knew that Taggart was out in the woods. An answering birdcall told the healer that Ezra was also out there. Nathan carefully put the sticks in his bag strapped to his shoulders and then went to the well and the full bucket beside it. He quickly washed his hands with the soap Mrs. Potter provided then rinsed his hands five times before heading back inside. Jackson hoped the splints would help keep the fibula in place now that Nathan had tied the tourniquet The hurt bushwhacker had screamed as Nathan worked and then Morgan had passed out. Blood slowly stopped pooling onto Nathan's pants and onto the hardwood floor.
Vin and Ezra now knew that there were five men inside, one of them injured from the signal Nathan gave them when he cleaned his hands. A few minutes later they saw the outside guards rush into the house.
Emerald and sapphire eyes met for a moment then their owners ran for the house. Both Southerners crouched and ran with their guns cocked and ready in their hands. The Texan peeked through the window facing west while Ezra cautiously peered through an open one which was facing east. The startled, brown eyes of a raggedy, unkempt youth who couldn't stomach what the 'healer' was doing to the captain and had escaped to the farthest corner of the house met emerald eyes and the young bushwhacker let out a surprised yelp. Ezra quickly cocked him on the head with the butt of his gun and the youth's body fell to the floor with a heavy thud. Sharp ears heard the stomp of boots rounding the corner of the room and Ezra ducked as bullets flew by his head. He dared a minute look at Vin and mouthed, "GO!" then the emerald-eyed man ran in the opposite direction from which he and the Texan had come. His gamble worked. Four men came storming out of the house and chased the fleeing 'Reb.'
Meanwhile, Taggart made it back to the trees and their horses undetected. He heard shouts and gunshots.
A quick prayer for Ez's safety flashed through the scout's mind, even as his jaw clenched and his legs propelled Peso forward. Pegasus followed behind the big black. The white gelding sensed his master was in trouble and that they needed to get help so he gave his master's friend no trouble on the way back to camp.
Outside Laramie and Stanton's tent, Lieutenant Buck Wilmont stopped mid-stretch when he noticed Peso and a rider-less Pegasus galloping into camp. //What the hell? Where was Ezra?// Buzzed through the raven-haired man's mind. Midnight blue eyes hardened as Buck's long strides quickly carried him to the corral where Vin was talking to Yosemite, Tiny, Buddy and Mackenzie. The Texan and Buck collided when Taggart turned to get another horse. Buck caught the younger man before Vin could fall. Wilmont could feel the man's agitation in the fine tremor of the lean man's limbs. "Vin?" queried Buck worriedly. The tracker tossed the answer to the unspoken question over his shoulder because the Southern lieutenant was busy saddling up once again. Taggart's reply had Buck saddling up his own gray. Tiny, Yosemite, Mackenzie and the others followed.
Captain Chris Laramie emerged from his tent in time to see Buck and Vin's mounts lope out of camp. And he also saw that almost the rest of his unit were behind them. The only ones missing were Buddy and Ezra. His stomach knotted as he hurried to the corral and found Buddy grooming Stanton's white gelding. //Where was his angel? Where was Ezra? Was the Southerner hurt while on patrol? Was that why Buddy was tending to Pegasus?// All of these thoughts and others spun through the blond man's brain. Laramie's snarled inquiry about Ezra made Buddy jump and drop the brush which he had been using on the white horse. Roberts' stuttered response made Chris's face pale. The flaxen-haired man began to saddle his horse with his one good arm, his left arm was still healing and bandaged up. At the moment, all Chris cared about was that Ezra was in trouble and Chris needed to make sure that his angel was alive because if Ezra wasn'tÖ //No!, he's not dead!// Cried Chris's soul, while at the same time a fierce shudder passed through the hazel-eyed man's body. Buddy mistook the reason behind the Captain's shudder and picked up Thunder's saddle and placed it over the big black's saddle blanket before adjusting the cinch. Once he finished saddling Thunder, the private offered to help Laramie mount the horse. Chris would usually spurn this type of assistance but not today. Today only Ezra was important, pride be damned. As soon as Roberts handed him Thunder's reins, Laramie spurred his gelding and the big black surged forward.
Thunder's hooves flew toward Mrs. Potter's house. The Captain and his horse nearly barreled into Mackenzie and his mount. Mackenzie was guarding the rear and leveled his gun at the intruder before he recognized Laramie. Chris ignored him and dismounted by all the other horses. A few feet away, Buck and Vin were plastered to either side of a thick tree. Tiny and Yosemite were standing in similar position behind a thicker tree just to the right of the two lieutenants. The rest of the battery was also skillfully hidden within the forest. Laramie crouched behind an old tree stump and carefully drew his Colt. A second or two later, in an almost synchronous move, Vin and Buck each shot out a long arm and with their guns butted the heads of two bushwhackers trying to sneak up to the trees. Wilmont and Taggart dragged the unconscious men behind the trees. Tiny and Yosemite bound and gagged the raggedy-looking men while Chris stalked over to Buck and Vin to find out what was going on.
Two pairs of surprised blue eyes stared at the blond storm cloud heading their way. Chris's harsh "Ezra? Nathan?" snapped the two lieutenants out of their stupor. Buck and Vin filled the Captain in on what they saw when they had reached the edge of the forest bordering Mrs. Potter's house. A tied up and beaten-up Ezra was being shoved into the back door of the house by two of the bushwhackers. Two other renegades had stayed outside to guard the house. "These the guards?" queried the Captain. Buck and Vin nodded. The blond man fought the urge to kick the deserter closest to him.
"So what do we do now?" asked Vin. Chris studied their prisoners, the layout of the land and the house for a moment and then began to outline a plan.
Inside the house, Nathan knew that the emerald-eyed man had dislocated his shoulder again by the way the lieutenant held his arm stiff and unmoving by his side. Ezra had hurt it when he had zigged-zagged to avoid a bullet and stumbled over a broken arrow on the ground and then landed on a sharp boulder. The Confederate's fall had allowed his pursuers to catch up with him. The bushwhackers had roughed the Southerner up a bit when they were tying him up but Ezra had still fought, kicking out and catching one of his captors on a thigh. The thin, weasel-like man had doubled over in pain. Another outlaw backhanded the chestnut-haired man across the face and scratched Ezra's cheek with his ring. The four men then half-pushed, half dragged the emerald-eyed man across the yard into the woman's house.
By this time, Morgan Coltrane had regained consciousness and reclined on the loveseat belittling a bound Nathan. When Ezra was pushed into the parlor, Coltrane halted his tirade against the dark-skinned healer. The deserter had recognized the emerald-eyed man and decided to kill him but first he would have a little fun. A sadistic grin slashed across Morgan's face.
A sadistic grin slashed across Morgan's face and stayed there as defiant jade green irises met his dark ones.
"Well, well if it isn't Ezra P. Standish! Or should I call you 'Cougar?' Not so high and mighty now are you?" taunted Coltrane. Ezra kept silent even when one of his 'guards' kicked him in the back and forced him to his knees in front of Morgan. Nathan had instinctively tried to rise from his chair to go to the Southerner's aid but a rifle pointed to his chest stopped him. Jackson blinked. //Did the man just call Ezra, Cougar? As in Cougar, the notorious Union Spy?// Suddenly, Ezra and Vin's mysterious disappearances from camp made sense. Chocolate brown orbs stared at The Southerner's profile for a long moment before looking away to meet an also-bound Mrs. Potter knowing gaze.
Ezra ignored the stares and waited. His arm felt like it was about to fall off, he was dripping blood from various abrasions across his body and the bruises on his back and legs were aching profusely but none of this agony was showing on the emerald-eyed man's face. He refused to show this miscreant any weakness. Morgan continued his diatribe against Ezra and the auburn-haired man let him ramble.
Coltrane shifted his wounded leg and it began to throb unmercifully. Morgan turned from his former friend and spat at Nathan. The deserter then ordered two of his men to take the dark-skinned man outside and shoot him. When the leader of the outlaws returned his gaze to Standish, Ezra was no longer where he had been. The Southerner had kneed his way over to kneel in front of Nathan. Ezra's cold, icy voice then told Coltrane "This is murder." Morgan laughed and said "What's one more?" Jackson leaned forward slightly and whispered into Ezra's ear, "Thank you Ezra, but if it is too late for me, you save Mrs. Potter, Abby and yourself. Hear me?" The chestnut-haired man nodded and moved to one side of Jackson. Two bushwhackers then hauled the reluctant healer to his feet and began to pull the dark-skinned man toward the door.
The front door of the house suddenly burst open and Edward Potter ran in, shouting, "Ma, The Indians are coming." "Indians?" yelled three of the deserters as they rushed to the door to see for themselves. A trio of Indians were indeed galloping down the road in front of the house. Another band of Indians appeared. They were chasing the first group of Indians. The bushwhackers then saw their horses stomping down the road and took off after them.
The distraction allowed for three men to sneak in through the back door and they slipped deeper into the house, finally reaching the parlor.
In the parlor, three renegade soldiers still guarded Ezra, Nathan, Mrs. Potter and Abigail. Morgan motioned for one of the men to bring the auburn-haired man to him. One of the 'guards' jerked Ezra up by his bad shoulder. The Southerner bit his tongue to stifle the scream that wanted to escape his lips. Ezra wobbled for a second but then righted himself. He felt something metal slide into his still-tied palms. An emerald eye glanced to one side and saw Nathan shift from one foot to the other. Fingers curled around a small knife which was rapidly hidden in a closed wrist. Coltrane said he enjoyed seeing the spy on his knees so the 'guard' prodded the gray-clad lieutenant on a particularly tender spot of Ezra's back and Ezra fell forward, knees smacking painfully against the hardwood floor. The crown of his auburn head nearly brushed Morgan's forearm. Standish's head was yanked up by a rough, hard tug of his hair. Even though cruel fingers held Ezra's head in a punishing grip, blazing emerald eyes dueled with manic onyx eyes. Morgan laughed softly when he flicked a knife, pricking the soft skin of Ezra's throat and a thin trickle of blood oozed down Standish's collarbone. Eyes still locked in a silent battle, Morgan purred, "Still full of piss and vinegar, huh Ezra? I like that." The guard behind Ezra fidgeted and said, "Captain, I gotta go." Coltrane nodded, thought for a moment and then ordered him to take the boy and the girl to the woodshed and lock them in the shed. The renegade herded the kids up and went outside. The outlaw Captain then waved an arm at the scruffy, lean, dangerous-looking blond man dressed in a beige duster standing just inside the door of the parlor. "Come here. You're guarding Ezra now." The blond tipped his hat in acknowledgement and took up position slightly to the right of Ezra's back. Morgan's fingers began cramping and so he loosened his hold on Ezra's hair. When the Southerner felt the grip slacken on his head, he twisted sideways until with his good hand he was able to stab Coltrane in the leg with the hidden knife.
At the same moment, Ezra had spun around, gunshots sounded.
Buck and Vin in their unkempt, torn, blue uniforms and hats had flanked Nathan's side, putting themselves between the hostages and the other two men in the room. Once Ezra had stabbed Morgan, the two bushwhackers drew their guns but they never got a chance to fire because two other faster guns dropped them where they stood. Chris's aim was straight and true. His shot landing right between Morgan Coltrane's eyes, killing the man instantly.
The golden-green-eyed 'guard' fell to his knees by Ezra's side and callused fingers gently touched his angel's face. Ezra exhaled "Chris" and then promptly collapsed into Chris's arms.
Vin untied Nathan while Buck gallantly freed the ladies, one of the 'Indians', who was actually Mackenzie strolled in, took in the scene and shepherded the children whom he had freed from the shed upstairs. Some of the other 'Indians,' Yosemite and the rest of the company had taken the still living bushwhackers back to the camp. Tiny and Billy came into the house and Mrs. Potter sent Billy upstairs with Edward and Abigail. Billy and Mackenzie passed each other on the stairs. Tiny and Mackenzie took the lifeless bodies of the bushwhackers outside and buried them.
The golden-green-eyed 'guard' fell to his knees by Ezra's side and callused fingers gently touched his angel's face. Ezra exhaled "Chris" and then promptly collapsed into Chris's arms. As Chris shouted for the healer, Nathan was already behind the blond. Jackson held out his arms so that the Captain could pass Ezra to him. Chris was very reluctant to give up his angel until Jackson explained that Ezra had a dislocated shoulder and that he wanted to try and pop it back into place before bandaging it up. Tired, jade-green orbs fluttered open when the Southerner felt a big body slide into his side and he stared at the worried tawny irises inches in front of him. Before the questions could completely form in his thoughts, Ezra felt a hard wrench on his bad shoulder and Ezra yelled into Buck's shoulder. The raven-haired man's reassurances slowly penetrated the russet-haired man's mind as did the warm, mahogany-colored, hand splayed against his back.
Nathan frowned a little. //Why was the Captain scowling at him?// Peeling his attention away from the blond man, the healer asked Ezra to move his shoulder to see if the Southerner could move it more freely now. Ezra was able to do so. With Mrs. Potter's permission, Buck and Nathan helped Stanton down the hallway to the master bedroom.
Taggart's lean but strong hand landed on Chris's good arm when Chris rose to follow his angel. Hazel eyes briefly left off tracking Ezra to stare at the Texan impatiently. Vin smothered his grin at the ornery look in the amber eyes, while at the same time deftly knotting a relatively clean kerchief around Chris's wounded arm. "You opened up your stitches, Cap. Don't think Mrs. Potter wants any more blood spilled on her floor." Vin led a bemused blond in the direction of Gloria's bedroom.
Now that the brownish-blond-haired man had mentioned it, Chris felt the stinging pain radiating down his injured arm. A moan turned into a curse when the scout accidentally bumped the blond's injured arm when they entered the big bedroom. Nathan spared them a glance before returning his attention to Ezra. The Southerner squirmed about at the sound of Laramie's pained muttering. The slightly-feverish, chestnut-haired man heard his beloved's voice and bright, jade-green eyes popped open, while a hoarse, "Chris?" pierced the air.
Chris and Vin came into Ezra's line of sight and they hurried to Stanton's side so that the Captain could crouch down and be at eye level with the injured lieutenant. "Ezra, I'm all right. Just banged into the door with my wounded arm and it hurts like the devil." Ezra's dimpled smile winked briefly and wearily at Chris before it turned into a grimace when Nathan touched a particularly tender spot on Ezra's thigh. The Captain reached out with his good arm to touch his Ezra, who had rolled closer to the edge of the bed to be closer to the blond man. A tanned, callused palm patted the top of the Southerner's hand, briefly.
Buck rounded the corner of the bed and extended an arm down to help his best friend up, while at the same time reassuring Chris. "Come on old dog, now that you've proven to yourself that one of the men under your command is alive and on the mend, let's get ya looked at." Amber orbs blinked at him while Nathan told the raven-haired lieutenant to settle Chris on the other side of Ezra.
An unconscious Ezra thrashed on the bed, writhing and tangling the bed sheets, his wounds causing a rising fever, which was climbing higher and higher despite Nathan's best efforts to lower it. As he pressed another cool rag to Ezra's face, the former slave glanced at the now sleeping blond man on the cot next to the other side of the bed and shook his head when he recalled Laramie's earlier actions.
The Captain had hovered just behind Nathan as the healer had worked on Stanton. Vin and Buck had finally settled Chris on the cot by threatening to bodily remove him from the room. Hazel eyes had glowered darkly into two sets of determined blue eyes. The Captain had then sagged grumpily into the bedding and had continued to scowl at Jackson as Nathan had attended to Ezra until sleep had finally claimed Chris. Then, Buck, Vin and the other men had returned to camp. Once the others had left, Mrs. Potter had retired to her daughter's room, which was upstairs, leaving Nathan alone with the injured men.
Ezra mumbled incoherently, bringing Nathan's thoughts back to the present. The dark-skinned man said something in a soothing tone and the Southerner quieted. Ezra's fitful sleep momentarily peaceful until the feverish nightmare began.
+++++++ Nightmare +++++++
Ezra watched his companion's lithe body crawl through the bushes near the enemy's campfire. They were so close, the flames of the dwindling bonfire colored Chris's hair to a burnished gold. Laramie turned back as he slipped past the first tent, heading toward the corral of horses. The horses whickered as the lean man slid quietly among them and began cutting their cinches. With the butt of his pistol, Ezra thumped the drowsing sentry from behind and then disarmed him. Standish then dragged him into the woods which were a few yards behind them. White teeth gleamed in the moonlight as Chris grinned at Ezra.
Explosions rocked the night. Stephen's charges had begun to detonate. On this assignment, Ezra and Chris had been on reconnaissance only but they had decided to help out their friend with his assignment.
Both men began to run for cover when Ezra heard Chris cry out in pain. Worried jade green eyes pierced through the night and found a horrifying sight. Chris had stumbled to his knees and a large, crimson stain was spreading through the back of his blue uniform.
Ezra raced back to the man he loved. Frantic hands tried to staunch the flow of blood pooling beneath Chris's body. Tears ran down Ezra's face unchecked as he whispered, "Chris, No!" With fading breath, the blond man said, "Always love you, Ezra."
Then Captain Chris Laramie died. The distraught Southerner cradled Chris to his chest and rocked in agony.
+++++++ End Nightmare +++++++
Ezra's quiet moan of distress woke up Chris. The Captain grunted slightly as he accidentally shifted onto his wounded arm. Groggy eyes saw Nathan asleep in a chair next to the bed as Laramie rose to his feet and strode to the edge of the bed where Ezra lay. Chris climbed onto the bed and pressed his uninjured side next to Ezra's agitated form. Ezra's compact body rolled into the lean Captain's body and muscular arms possessively clutched the blond man. Chris's callused hand wiped the silent tears flowing down Ezra's cheeks and soft murmurs flew from the hazel-eyed man's lips. Finally, Ezra's rocking body stilled and fell back into a more restful sleep.
Lips softly kissing his hair woke Ezra up. The Southerner discovered that he was sprawled on top of the Captain. One of his hands splayed across the blond's torso, the other hand curled around Chris's healthy arm. He had also been using Chris's chest as a pillow. A puff of air tickled Chris's collarbone as a still feverish Ezra snuggled deeper against the blond and went back to sleep with a contented sigh.
Chris's drowsy chuckle was aborted when he heard Nathan's voice ask, "Ezra still have a fever?" The blond man had forgotten that the healer was there. Steely hazel eyes met concerned dark brown eyes. Chris didn't see any disgust or censure in Jackson's eyes. He just saw concern about his friend's fever. Laramie told Nathan that Ezra was still warm. The dark-skinned man nodded and answered that sleep was the best thing for the Southerner. Nathan then told him to also get some more shut-eye and not to worry because he would be watching over them. The Captain stared hard at Jackson for a few more minutes before nodding and sliding into sleep as well.
Jackson shook his head fondly and settled back into the chair next to the bed.
Later that morning, Nathan cast one more look on the two men intertwined on the bed like a pretzel as he checked Chris's injured arm. He looked up and saw Ezra was looking at him with clear bright eyes. Jackson said good morning and hid his grin when Ezra realized that he was fully entangled with the Captain and blushed a becoming shade of pink. Then Nathan headed for the bedroom door and exited the room, closing the door softly behind him.
Ezra intently gazed at Chris as the blond slept. The Southernerís mind memorized the feel of their intertwined bodies. Chrisís sinewy arm and leg pressed against his own, callused fingers splayed across his waist, soft breath tickled his earlobe. Ezra turned his head and a puff of air caressed his nose. Ezra slowly undid his body from the blond manís. He didnít want to wake the captain. Once he was untangled, the Southernerís fingers reached out to touch Chris but Ezra stopped himself. He crept off the bed.
His muscles protested the movement but Ezra kept going. He needed to speak to Nathan.
He needed to know what the dark-skinned man had heard.
"Cougar" still had a mission to accomplish.
Chris woke up and groggily looked for his Ezra. Chris panicked when he couldnít see him in the room. The blond man rose from the bed and stumbled out of the room in search of Stanton. Hazel eyes narrowed as he found Ezra and Nathan in the kitchen. Ezra was giving Nathan a warm smile and patted the healer on the shoulder. Nathan returned the smile and clasped the younger manís elbow to help him back to the bedroom.
Thatís when both men noticed Chris standing in the doorway.
Ezra and Nathan said good morning but Chris barely responded. Nathan thought it was because of the manís injury. Ezra was the one that noted the dark look that the Captain shot at them, before the blond man flanked his other side. Chris ignored Nathanís scolding and helped Ezra stand up.
As they passed the front parlor, Vin entered and told Nathan that he had brought the wagon to take Ezra back to town. Jackson was pleased but the scowls on the lieutenantís faces showed his displeasure. Ezra pulled away from Nathan and insisted that he could ride his mount. The healer asked him, "What mount? The others took your horse back to camp."
Ezra glanced at Vin to confirm this and glowered as Vin answered in the affirmative. "So itís the wagon for you or you walk back to the camp. And with that leg of yours hurt the way it is..." Nathanís voice trailed off as Ezra interrupted to argue.
At that moment, Ezra felt a rough-worked hand squeeze his forearm lightly and looked up into sympathetic yet unyielding hazel eyes. Everyone heard the Southerner s sigh and then his drawl accepting the wagon ride.
Since Chris still had a hold of Ezra, Nathan asked the Captain to lead Ezra to the wagon. He needed to talk to Vin alone and he still needed to see Mrs Potter about some herbal remedies.
Chris was delighted to be able to be with his angel alone, even if it was just for a few minutes. He dropped his head down near an elegantly curved ear to ask the younger man a question when Tiny walked over to help the Chris lift Ezra onto the back of the wagon.
The big man gently hefted the lieutenant onto the wagon. Chris then made Ezra as comfortable as he could.
Billy T. Potter came barreling around one end of the buckboard and stopped as he spotted his Uncle Ezra half-laying, half sitting in the back of the wagon. The lad clambered up and squatted down next to Ezraís side. Billy said good morning to the Captain who was on the opposite side of his uncleís body.
Hazel eyes glanced briefly at the boy while the blond man responded and then looked away.
Billy turned his attention back to his friend and softly patted Ezraís cheek. The child admonished his beloved uncle to stop getting hurt so often and to listen to Mr. Nathan so that Ezra could be better soon. Vin and Nathan came out of the house at the moment and the dark-skinned man vocally agreed with Billyís advice. Vin lifted the lad out of the buckboard
Meanwhile, Chris struggled but finally mounted his horse. He could still ride even with one arm in a sling. The healer shook his head at the stubborn man and climbed in beside Ezra. Dark eyes saw jade green eyes shoot the Captain a thoughtful look then they fluttered shut and Ezra fell back to sleep.
Ezra strode out of the Majorís tent. His leg had regained most of its strength after two weeks of doing the exercises Mr. Jackson and Captain Laramie had ordered him to do. His other injuries were healing, his aches and bruises were fading. He and Vin were being sent out on patrol tomorrow morning. Buck looked up from cleaning his rifle as Ezra peeked his head into Vin and Buckís tent. "Think Vin is over in your tent talking to Chris, pard.", Wilmont answered Ezraís unspoken question. Stanton thanked him and left.
Midnight blue eyes stared at the retreating figure for a few moments before Buck resumed cleaning his weapon. The big man didnít think that the lieutenant knew how much he had gotten under Chrisís skin. Buck knew that the situation between Chris and Ezra would soon come to a head. He just hoped and prayed that Chris wouldnít blow his second chance at happiness.
Chris was fuming. Long legs paced the length of his tent. Vin was sitting on Chrisís trunk, trying to calm his friend down. Chris had stormed out of the meeting held at his commanderís tent. The tracker had silently followed the Captain back to his tent and had heard the blond manís angry mumblings.
"He says the healer cleared him to ride patrol. That Ezra and Vin are heading out tomorrow on a scouting patrol. But Ezra isnĎt yet a 100% fit." Chrisís hazel eyes had noted the slight grimaces on Ezraís face as his angel had done the nightly leg exercises. Ezra was also having nightmares but refused to acknowledge them.
Laramie recalled the one from last night. Ezra thrashed about on his cot, sweat drenching his face , voice hoarsely crying out for Steven, green eyes flew open and Ezra bolted upright. The Southerner looked around and then his body shook with silent sobs. Chris lay very still in his cot and clenched his jaw. He wanted to comfort Ezra but when he had tried to do that a few nights back, Ezra had become more agitated instead of calming down. The blond pretended to still be asleep and continued to watch his angel through slitted eyes. Who the hell is Steven? thought Chris darkly. Both men had finally fallen back asleep. When Chris awoke Ezra was gone. Laramie growled to himself. "Damn it, why is it that every morning during these past two weeks, Ezra is up and gone before I wake up? Why is Ezra distancing himself?"
Buck stored his rifle and stepped outside his tent, stretching his six-foot plus frame. He was lowering his arms when he heard an infuriated hiss off to his right. He followed the angry whisper and saw Waller pushing Ezra hard. Ezra stumbled to his knees and felt a painful snap in his recently injured leg. Pearl white teeth gnawed at a soft bottom lip while Ezra pulled himself up against the corral.
The private almost ran right into Buck. The tall lieutenant spun sideways to avoid him and the sharp-eared lieutenant heard the man mutter something about "the cougar." Alert blue eyes followed the big private for a moment before they shifted their focus back to Ezra, now leaning awkwardly against a rickety corral post.
"Aww hell," mumbled Buck under his breath as he advanced toward the Southerner. It looked like Ez had hurt his bad leg again. "So, you won all the manís wages again, huh?" Buck asked as he nonchalantly rested against the other side of the post. He felt Ezra cautiously slide closer into the support offered by his shoulder. Then heard the pain-filled Southern drawl, "What can I say? Itís a natural gift?"
Green eyes closed for a moment, Ezra took a deep breath. His leg was buckling underneath him. His eyes shot open as Buck roped a strong arm across his shoulders and then bellowed at Nathan standing in front of them a few yards away.
The healer had just walked out of the mess tent when he heard someone yell out for him. It took him a second to recognize Buckís voice. Nathan spotted Buck holding on to a slumping Ezra and sprinted to their side.
Inside of Chris and Ezraís tent, Vinís quiet question brought Chrisís thoughts back to the present. The blond stopped in front of the now standing lithe Texan. Serious crystal blue eyes stared into hazel ones as Vin asked again, "What do you mean, Ezra isnít fit yet?"
"His leg still bothers him some. Heís getting better with the exercises. But heís having nightmares every night," replied Chris.
There was a slight smile gracing Vinís lips as he said, "And he isnít talking about them right?" Chrisís own lips quirked up in response as he answered, "Yup."
Suddenly, both men heard Buckís shout and both dashed out of the tent. When Chris saw Buck cradling Ezra against his body, his heart clenched in fear. The Captain whispered, "Not again," as he saw Jackson kneel to check on Ezraís injured leg. Chris reached the trio a few seconds before Vin. He barked out, "What happened?" Ezra picked up his head from Buckís shoulder about to rasp out an answer when Buck replied, "Waller didnít like losing at poker again." The blond man curled his fists as he fought the urge to go and punch out the private but he would take care of Waller later.
Nathanís voice finally penetrated the red haze of the Captainís thoughts. "Think you sprained your knee, Ezra." Four groans were his reply. Between them, Nathan and Buck were supporting the Southerner as they limped to the sick tent. Ezra blinked at Vin and stuttered out, "The patrol." The fair-headed lieutenant told him not to worry about it. He could do it solo. A "No you wonít, Pard. Iíll take Ezraís place," Wilmont said.
At that moment, Buddy rushed up to Jackson and gushed, "We lost a skirmish, a lot of woundedíre cominí in, includiní the major and the colonel." Nathan nodded in understanding. Buddy anxiously asked about Stanton. Buck answered him as Nathan told Vin to take his place at Ezraís side. The healer then instructed Buck and Vin to head toward Chris and Ezraís tent. "Buddy, fetch some clean rags and a bucket of salt and water, and then take them to Ezraís tent. Captain come with me," continued Nathan. Buddy ran off and Chris followed Jackson into the rapidly-filling sick tent. Nathan told Chris how to treat a sprain and gave the blond man some leaves of garden wormwood in case the sprain was very painful. Chris strode out determinedly as the healer was called away.
Meanwhile, Buck and Vin had done all they could to settle Ezra comfortably on his cot. He was half-sitting, half-lying down with his pant leg slit open to reveal the painfully swollen knee. Buck had just plunked a whiskey bottle on the upside down crate that served as a nightstand between the cots when Buddy ran in with the bucket and rags.
On his way out of the tent, Buddy almost collided with Chris but quickly sidestepped him.
Ezra bit off a moan at the stinging pricks of pain on his skin. Jade green eyes squinted at Chris squatting at his side. The blond's strong hands steadily pressed the whiskey-soaked leaves of garden wormwood against Ezra's still-inflamed joint. "Mr. Jackson?" croaked the Southerner.
"Skirmish," replied Chris.
"Aah..." exhaled Ezra. He tried to keep his knee as still as possible though his reflex was to jerk away every time his tent mate touched his leg.
To distract Ezra from his pain, Chris told him about Buck taking his patrol with Vin.
An unidentifiable look flashed on Ezra's face before the pain again flared in green eyes.
The blond also told him everything that he was doing to reduce the swelling and agony of the sprained knee. Ezra spluttered out, "You're going to pour a bucket of salt water on my knee if it is still inflamed in the morning?"
"You want to walk again, don't you?" Chris responded curtly. Ezra's nod was answer enough.
A tired smile lit Ezra's face as he felt a callused thumb stroke his calf gently then his eyelids fluttered shut when he heard Chris order, "Rest."
Chris watched his angel fall asleep. He strode to the entrance flap of the tent, spotted Buddy and called the private over with the crook of his finger. Buddy gladly agreed to sit with his friend while the Captain attended to his duties.
Waller had just finished chopping and stacking wood onto the wood pile when he was spun around to face a furious Captain Laramie. The officer hissed a question about Stanton.
Waller gleefully spat out some derogatory remarks about Ezra, ending with, "That traitor. He's been helpin' the 'Cougar.' " A hard fist suddenly bunched up the private's jacket and stony hazel eyes bored into him. Private Waller swallowed down a lump of fear as Captain Laramie snarled at him to explain. After the nervous solider stammered out what he knew, Chris dropped him to the ground.
When Chris turned away, Waller's beefy hand clutched a narrow ankle and tripped up the Captain. The blond rolled and kicked out with his free leg. His fierce kick smashed Waller's nose. Waller reared back, both hands now holding a bloody, broken nose. Chris's feral eyes blazed, while he whispered in a dangerously soft voice, "If you come near me or any of my men again, you will have more than a broken nose."
Dark eyes glanced down submissively before Waller turned and ran for the sick tent.
Chris rose to his feet gingerly. There was a painful twitch from his left ankle. He gritted his teeth and headed back to his tent.
He needed to see Ezra now.
A bare Ezra waded into the cool, refreshing stream. He crept up on the blond man already bathing and pressed himself against Captain Laramie's tantalizing backside. One of the Southerner's arms curled around Chris's chest and began tracing a path down the Captain's tautly muscled body.
This elicited, Chris growling Ezra's name. A small smile graced Ezra's lips then a puzzled frown creased his forehead. The Captain no longer sounded passionate, he sounded angry and why was the blond shaking him? Were there piranhas in the water?
Green eyes glanced down and saw only clear running water. Chris was still shaking him and shouting something about a cougar. The Southerner raised his eyes and scanned the area for the feline threat. The clearing held only their horses grazing placidly while they waited for their masters. He turned to look at the blond man and find out what was going on.
Heavy eyelids lifted and Ezra's still sleepy eyes peered into glaring hazel eyes. "Are we in peril from a Felis Concolor?" drawled Ezra.
Chris, who had been sitting at the edge of Ezra's cot and shaking the Southerner to wake him up, pulled away from the man and barked out, "What?"
A now fully awake Ezra propped himself on his elbows, noted the fully dressed Captain and realized he had been dreaming. The Southerner muttered, "I was awakening from my slumber and I thought you bellowed something about a cougar."
The blond huffed, "I don't bellow."
Ezra cocked an eyebrow at him.
Chris grumbled something under his breath and hazel eyes pinned Ezra with a scorching look.
The blond crossed his arms and gritted out, "Are you an informant for the Union spy, the Cougar?"
Ezra gazed impassively at the Captain even though each nerve cell in the Southerner's body was tingling with adrenaline.
The chestnut-haired man drawled sarcastically, "Am I feasting on meat during my meals? Do I have coffee every day? Does Pegasus have a new saddle? Are my coffers overflowing with gold?"
At the Captain's negative, the lieutenant continued, "If I was aiding and abetting the enemy, don't you think I would indulge myself with those luxuries?"
The blond had to concede that Stanton did enjoy his comforts and if Ezra was a paid informant, he would eat better and would pamper Pegasus even more than he already did.
Ezra made a movement to rise from the cot and Chris stopped him with a hand to the chest.
"Where do you think you're going?" barked Chris. The younger man responded that he had to go check on Pegasus
Chris tried to detain Ezra with his arm but the moment the blond man stretched out his arm to its full length, his injured ankle buckled underneath him. Ezra cried out in dismay when he saw his Chris crumple to the ground,
Nathan had been coming to check up on Ezra when he heard the Southerner cry out the Captain's name. The dark-skinned healer rushed into the tent and found Laramie clutching his left ankle. Jackson shook his head and assisted the blond into his own cot. "What did you and Waller do to each other?" asked an exasperated Nathan as he stripped the lean man of his boots and socks to check for a sprained ankle.
A puzzled Southern drawl queried, "Waller?"
The healer answered Ezra's question.
"The Captain here and Waller fought about twenty minutes ago. Chris broke his nose. "
Jade green eyes swung away from Chris's ankle up to Chris's face.
Hazel eyes were sullen as Chris grunted, "He was spreading ugly rumors about our unit. No one does that on my watch."
Ezra now understood why Chris had questioned him about "The Cougar."
Waller was one of the many Rebels eager to capture the spy for the bounty on the espionage agent's head. After the incident with the cache of medicinal supplies, Waller had taken to following Ezra and Vin as much as he could.
Of course, Ezra and Vin always managed to escape him but he was a stubborn man who did not easily give up.
He and Vin would have to be more careful than ever. They needed to get Billy Travis reunited with his biological grandfather and then "The Cougar" could disappear for good.
Several days later, Ezra had hobbled over to Vin and Buck's tent. He and Buck were playing a game of draughts while Chris was in a meeting with the colonel and Vin tended to his horse.
As Buck glanced down at the board and thought about his next move, Ezra speculated out loud, "It is curious how Captain Laramie avoids young Billy Potter whenever he sees him."
With his mind on the game, Buck replied automatically, "That's cause Billy reminds him of his boy, Adam."
Shocked green eyes stared at the bent head of Buck Wilmington.
Ezra's thoughts whirled. Chris had a son? Did that mean there was a wife too? Captain Laramie had a family? What was he then? An inner voice taunted him with, "You're only a diversion, Ezra. One the good Captain will discard once the war is over and he returns to his wife and child."
The Southerner had to be certain so he queried Lieutenant Wilmont further.
He mentally ordered his voice not to quiver and it did not as he said, "What is the name of Captain Laramie's wife?"
The dark-haired man had knocked some of his game pieces off the board before he moved his black checker and was picking them up off the ground when he heard Ezra's question.
"Sarah." Fell from Buck's lips as he jumped over one of Ezra's game pieces.
Buck crowed gleefully, "King me, Ezra." When Ezra made no movement nor replied to the lieutenant's maneuver, Buck looked up and cussed softly.
Ezra's eyes were wide and shocked; his skin had lost all color. Buck barely caught the younger man before he slumped all the way to the ground.
Buck had just laid Ezra on his cot as Vin walked into the tent.
The Texan rushed to Ezra's side and snapped out a "What happened?" to Buck.
Buck responded that they were playing draughts when Ezra asked why Chris kept his distance from young Billy Potter and then Ezra had crumpled down toward the ground.
The tall Lieutenant then mentally recalled the next question of their conversation and. his strong jaw clenched as he put it together.
Chris hadn't told Ezra anything about his family. Ezra hadn't known about Sarah or Adam. God dang it Chris was going to ruin his relationship with Ez before it really even got started. And he had unknowingly revealed something he thought Ezra already knew.
Vin saw the storm brewing in Buck's midnight blue eyes and was about to ask when a moan from the Southerner had him leaning over his friend. Ezra's eyelids fluttered open.
The tall, dark-haired man loomed over Vin's crouching form and said, "You feeling better from the pain in your knee, now?"
Ezra gave him a tired, grateful smile when he said, "Yes."
"Good." Buck responded before he prowled out of the tent.
Midnight blue eyes tracked Chris leaving the colonel's tent and waited the blond man enter his own quarters. Long strides had Wilmont inside the tent in seconds.
Chris looked up from the map he was studying and was knocked down to the ground when Buck angrily punched him in the jaw. The brunet man heaved, "Shit, Chris, you didn't tell Ezra about Sarah and Adam. And I put my boots in it, cause you didn't."
"What the hell?" cried Chris as he stood and rubbed his sore jaw. Last week it had been Waller bruising his ankle and now Buck bruised his face. Chris's reflexive punch stopped an inch short of Buck's face as his brain caught up with his friend's words.
Chris hissed out for Buck to explain and fisted Buck's uniform jacket tightly while Buck did so.
Buck finished up with, "You gotta fix it Chris. He's thinkin' you're only dallying with him until ya get home to your family. And we both know that ain't true."
Hazel eyes glared at him, before Chris released him, pivoted on his heel and stalked out.
"Where is he?" Chris snapped at Taggart as he walked into Buck and Vin's tent.
Buck sagged onto his cot as Vin answered the Captain.
Chris was seething. He had not had a chance to speak to Ezra yet.
Ezra had been called to the General's tent and had not yet returned to their quarters.
"Where was Ezra?"
The blond paced and grew angrier as time passed.
On his way to the General's quarters, Chris was intercepted by bringing him his horse, Thunder.
The Captain vaulted onto his mount as he heard Vin's explanation.
Chris, Vin, Buck, Yosemite, Buddy and almost the entire battery raced out of camp.
There was a fire at Mrs. Potter's and Ezra was trapped inside of the house.
A few minutes earlier, the General's aide who had been riding recon with Ezra rushed back to get more men to help. Parker told the men that he and the First Lieutenant were heading back to camp when they rode by Gloria Potter's house.
It had been Stanton who had spotted the orange flames circling the house.
Ezra had leapt from his horse and tumbled through a window of the house.
The aide was about to do the same when the Lieutenant ordered him to stay outside.
Someone had to lead the Potter family to safety once they were outside.
Parker heard Ezra's shouts for the family become fainter as the Southerner made his way deeper into the house.
The young aide was trying to douse some of the fire by throwing buckets of water from the nearby water trough onto the flames licking their way across the ground and toward the house.
Suddenly, the red-headed Lieutenant heard a mighty crack and then a woman yell, "Ezra!"
Parker had jumped on his steed and rushed back to camp to get help.
Thunder galloped through the night, his hooves hardly touching the ground.
Chris felt the fear and anguish churning in his gut as he raced to the fire. He pushed those feelings down and his anger rose.
This time he would not be late in reaching the one he loved. Chris vowed to himself that he would find Ezra and show the darn Southerner how much he loved him.
To his left, Chris noted Buck's gray flying alongside Thunder, on his right Vin kicked his heels against the flank of his animal and the powerful beast surged a nose ahead of Laramie's.
The three men broke through a copse of trees and all three men jumped from their saddles.
The front of the house was engulfed by the fire.
Gloria, Edward, Abigail and Billy Potter all had buckets full of water and were trying to put out the fire.
The three men, unconsciously in unison, shouted out, "Ezra?"
Gloria replied as she filled a bucket from the water trough, "Nathan Jackson is inside trying to free Ezra from under the weight of a collapsed beam.
Yosemite had stopped at the water trough to help with the buckets but at the widow's words, the big Sergeant rushed into the house..
Buck, Chris and Vin followed him in.
While he ran, the blond Captain ordered Buddy and the others to put out as much of the fire as they could.
Buck, Chris and Vin crouched low to the floor as they squatted through the blackened parlor.
Wilmont was talking in a low, soothing tone of voice when they all heard a fatigued voice say, "Yosemite if you and Mr. Jackson could now leverage this offending beam from on top of my legs, I should be able to maneuver myself out of this quandary."
Chris swallowed down the knot of fear, dread and pain that had been rising in his throat as he heard Ezra's voice.
They arrived in the kitchen in time for Buck to help the Sergeant move the fallen bean while Nathan tried to help Ezra wiggle free from the tight wedge the Southerner was caught in.
Ezra had fallen into a narrow space between the wood stove and the pantry.
Nathan was too big to fit into the space and just pull Ezra out but the dark-skinned man had assisted the Southerner in sitting up and they were trying to work Ezra's shoulders free.
Vin's quiet but urgent, "Fire's a coming," as he poured a pitcher of water he grabbed off a counter onto the flames underneath the frame of the kitchen door.
Once Buck and Yosemite lifted the beam, Chris twisted his lean body side ways and sidled into the clear side of the wedge. Then he and Nathan pulled Ezra free and to his feet.
Ezra scrabbled a moment as his still recuperating knee buckled on him slightly but Nathan and Chris caught him before he fell.
"The Potters?" Ezra asked.
They are all safe outside, Pard." Buck replied as he and the Sergeant let the beam fall again and everyone ran out the back door of the kitchen just as flames ate the door to the kitchen from the hallway.
Buddy and the others had wisely herded the Potters near where the horses were tethered.
Ezra and the others barely made it there when they all heard the roof collapsing.
"Let's ride," ordered the Captain.
Nathan nodded to Laramie as he ran to his mare, Nellie.
As Ezra made to move to his gelding, Chris tightened his hold around Ezra and said, "You're riding with me, Stanton."
The Southerner began to assure the blond that he was fit to ride when the auburn-haired man felt the minute tremors of Laramie's body against his own and then caught the look in Buck's blue eyes.
Ezra consented and he swiftly mounted the big black gelding.
Chris settled in behind him and they all galloped back to town.
In an instant, the Captain had ridden ahead of all the others. Once they were out of earshot of the others, Chris whispered, "Thought I lost you, Ezra, just like I lost Sarah and Adam." The lean man then let go of one of the reins and a callused hand squeezed Ezra's hand briefly before reclaiming the reins.
Ezra was stunned and softly questioned, "You lost your family in a fire? He barely heard the Captain's quiet, "Yes."
"My condolences," was all he got a chance to say because at that moment, Vin came riding up on their right side,
Ezra turned his head to the side as he heard his horse, Pegasus whinny
Pegasus galloped behind Vin and his mount.
The Texan read the unspoken question in Ezra's jade eyes and answered, "Pegasus is good.
The auburn haired man flashed him a smile which disappeared when Vin spoke again.
"Did you see who might have started the fire?" asked the tracker.
Stanton shook his head negatively though he had his suspicions The Southerner knew that Vin probably was also suspicious of the same person but at the moment they could not prove anything.
By this time, they were on the outskirts of camp.
Chris asked as casually as he could, "Do you think it might have been "The Cougar?"
Impassive sapphire blue eyes studied him as Taggart coolly answered, "Nope."
Ezra's Southern drawl was honey-smooth as he dismounted and replied at the same time. "From what I comprehend, "The Cougar" is an agent of espionage not an arsonist."
Chris had caught an odd inflection in the Southerner's answer. He would ask Ezra about it later, right now all he wanted was to get the man to their tent and into bed so he could properly hold him in his arms.
Several hours later, Ezraís head shifted against a hard pillow as he groggily blinked his eyes open. The Southerner realized that the pillow his head rested upon was actually Captain Chris Laramieís chest. A small smile curled Ezraís lips as he recalled how the blond man had Ďinsistedí upon them sleeping in the same cot.
A small smile curled Ezraís lips as he thought Chris is an excellent kisser.
Natureís call had beckoned him out of sleep and out of Laramieís arms.
The Southerner rapidly undid the secured tent flap and quietly slipped outside to attend to business. When he reentered the tent a few minutes later, he found himself staring at the barrel of Captain Laramieís gun.
"Captain?" asked Ezra
"Woke up a few seconds ago, you were gone and then I heard a noise," Chris muttered sheepishly as he put away his gun, got up from the cot and ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up even more.
Ezra hid his grin at the way the blond looked and nodded as he took up his razor and shaved.
As he dressed, Chris peered suspiciously at his tent-mate.
Ezra had laughter lurking in his eyes and he wanted to know why.
Before he could ask, Buck poked his head inside the tent and told Chris that they would be on the Generalís escort duty today.
Chris groaned and then frowned as Ezra threw him a two-finger salute before stepping out of the tent.
Ezra chatted with Buck while they reached the livery.
A few seconds later, Vin and Nathan rode in from the ruins of Mrs. Potterís house.
Both Buck and Ezra looked inquiringly at the tracker and healer.
Vin volunteered, "Found two sets of tracks leading away from the house, headed west."
Jade green eyes narrowed at the information as Ezra then turned and said, "Mr. Jackson?"
"The Potters all breathed in some smoke last night but they are fine as rain today. Theyíre staying with Nettie Wells, right now," Nathan replied.
Chris walked into the livery at that moment.
Greetings were exchanged and then Chris asked Nathan to check on Ezraís knee, because it seemed to be giving him some trouble during the night.
Ezra scowled at the Captain which just made the blond half-curl his mouth before he and Buck trotted off on their mounts to escort the General.
Secretly, the lieutenant was glad to have a few minutes to speak to Nathan in private.
They still had to go over some of the plan to get the Potters to the Underground Railroad and get Billy Travis safely to his grandfather, Colonel Orin Travis.
Nathan had overheard Ezraís true identity when both he and Ezra had been held captive by Morgan Coltrane. Ever since then, Ezra had gained another ally in spiriting people through the Underground Railroad. The healer had even warned Waller to back off of Ezra a couple of times. Jackson just reminded the hostile private that Ezra was one of the Commanding Generalís favorite officers and the General would not be pleased with any of his men if anything happened to the green-eyed man.
Waller grudgingly accepted this truth and had left Ezra alone for a little while but had again begun to taunt and shadow Ezra.
Nathan stopped his woolgathering as Ezra asked him, "How is the sapling faring? Was it able to provide you with any of the sap you needed for the medicinal remedies which have been cut off by the Federals?"
The dark-skinned man responded instantly, "Itís young and healthy, but I think it will grow sturdier if we planted it in the garden at the north end of the camp in a week or so."
Vin, walking aside them, smiled to himself as he thought, "Ezra could just about outfox anyone he had a mind to."
If he didnít know that they were really talking about Billy Travis also known as Billy Potter, heíd think they were just talking about a tree and medicines but then that was the plan.
The three men continued their coded conversation as Nathan re-bandaged Ezraís knee.
Finally, quietly, Ezra said, "Is he gone?"
Vin responded with, "Yep. His shadowís gone from the far side of the tent."
Nathan was worried that Waller had understood what they were talking about.
Waller shook his head and cussed. He had just spent minutes outside the sick tent, listening to that arrogant Southerner, the darkie and the scruffy tracker talking trees, medicines and old battles, they hadnít said anything about "The Cougar" or the spyís plans though
Later that day, Ezra was inspecting his cannons with a slight frown creasing his brow. He was glad the plans for Billyís reunion with his grandfather had been settled but he still had an uneasy churning in the pit of his stomach. He just knew something was wrong.
Right then, Yosemite came running over to the cannons and lifted the ammunitions chest onto the ĎLimber.í
Ezra clambered off the cart as the big, bearded man replied to the Lieutenantís unspoken question.
"Major ordered us to get the Battery ready, sir. He says weíre needed, the General and his escort party are pinned down by enemy fire some miles up the road and need our help."
Ezra nodded as he fairly ran to the livery and nearly collided with his gelding.
Vin already had their horses ready and Ezra quickly mounted as the Major motioned them over to his side.
The officer gave them their instructions and they rode off.
Vin perched in a copse of trees and watched Ezra and the rest of the Battery circle around the Yankees and find good cover besides a thicket of trees across the clearing from his position. The tracker and eagle-eyed shooter slid across the sturdy branch and carefully balanced the rifle in his hands as he sighted down his scope and aimed.
Ezra and the others had a clear view of the Federals fighting with the General and his guard.
Jade green eyes narrowed and Ezra searched for Chris and Buck amongst the fighting.
A few seconds later, the Southerner saw the blond break cover and run toward a fallen man.
Ezraís heart hammered in his chest as he hissed out, "What the hell is he doing?" and then realized who the fallen man was.
"Cover me," yelled Ezra to Yosemite who nodded.
The Southerner reached the unmoving figure of Buck Wilmont before Chris could.
At that moment, a canister was lobbed in from behind Ezra and exploded, filling the air with smoke and fire.
Chris cursed as fire blocked his path to Buck. He tried to dart around it but gunshots peppering his heels stopped him.
Then a sharp retort of a second rifle silenced the first.
Hazel eyes blinked at the smoke as he peered through it to see a gray-clad man dragging Buck away from the fighting and the fire. The blond released a deep breath and retreated to safety once more.
Ezra wanted to return to the Battery, for Nathan was there and he could tend the injured Wilmont, but Ezra had caught a glimpse of wolves between them and their men. He could probably defend Buck and himself against one wolf but against a pack of them?
The odds were against them and Ezra would not take those odds.
Buck had roused somewhat and was able to stumble forward with Ezraís help.
Ezra did not like the blood dripping off the gash on Buckís temple nor the blood which was flowing from a small hole in the dark-haired manís left forearm
The two plowed deeper into the trees, fleeing the wolves now openly chasing them until tired green eyes spotted a crumbling log cabin sitting forlornly along their path.
Ezra and Buck staggered to the door and Ezra breathed a, "Thank You," as the door was open and ajar.
Sweat poured off of Buck as he thrashed upon an old bed, Ezra had found in the cabin. The tall lieutenant had a raging fever which the Southerner tried his best to cool with strips of cool, water-dampened rags gently swiped across the brunet's flushed face. Buck cried out for his Ma and for a Miss Blossom and a Miss Millie.
As Ezra soothed his delirious friend, he tried to recall everything that Nathan would do for a man that had been shot. Hours earlier, Ezra had to forcibly remove a bullet from a deep groove in Buck's left forearm or the lieutenant might have bled to death. Once Ezra had taken out the mini ball, he had to staunch a gush of blood flowing from the wound. Ezra reasoned that the bullet had been near a vein; seconds later, he was able to stop the blood loss and bandage the wound properly. The Southerner had counted it as a small blessing that Wilmont had passed out just right before he had to dig into the injured arm for the bullet.
Buck finally quieted and quit thrashing about, falling into an uneasy sleep.
In the chair next to the bed, Ezra slumped down in exhaustion. Taking a deep, relief-felt breath, jade-green eyes closed to rest for just a moment which promptly popped open a few minutes later when Ezra heard the wolves baying nearby.
Minutes later, he also heard voices; one was a clear, high-pitched voice, the other a deeper baritone.
The voices came closer and closer to the cabin.
The Southerner rifled through and then hid behind the armoire where he had clear sight of the door. His pistols aimed and ready to shoot.
"Hush now, JD. Save your strength. I've got to get this bullet out of you." Josiah gently scolded the young man he carried in his arms
"Trail of bloodÖlead wolves here," mumbled Dunne as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Sanchez breathed a sigh of relief, now he could get the mini ball out of JD's leg and hopefully stop the bleeding.
As eyes took in the cabin, Josiah noted one of the beds already occupied. A shocked whisper fell from the big man's lips, "Buck?" Blue-grey eyes darted around the cabin as Josiah set JD upon the empty cot next to Buck's. Josiah didn't notice anything out of place nor did he see anyone. Josiah then attended to JD's leg wound before the boy bled out on him.
Ezra had lowered the pistols as his sharp green eyes watched Josiah clean and bandage JD's wound. He had not moved from his hiding place nor uttered a sound.
Thoughts whirled in the Southerner's mind. Ezra trusted Josiah and JD but other Federals were most certainly searching for the sergeant and the private, so he had to flee with his injured friend before they arrived. Also, Josiah had gasped Buck's name out loud when he had seen him. Did they know each other? It was possible that they had met before the war. Josiah had told Ezra that he had traveled a lot and met many people. Or could it be something else? Right now, he had no time to ponder such things he had to devise a diversion so he and Buck could escape from the cabin. Suddenly, Ezra brought his guns back up and aimed at the door. Out of the corner of his eye, he had seen the door being nudged open.
A familiar figure slipped through the narrow opening and cocked his gun at Josiah's temple, "Put your hands behind the chair, Yankee."
Chris had quickly followed Vin through the door and had Josiah's hands tied behind his back within moments. The captain also blindfolded the now tied-up soldier.
Ezra rose and stepped out from his hiding place, silently as Nathan and Yosemite helped Buck to his feet.
Relief lit hazel eyes as they swept over Ezra's apparently uninjured form and Chris let a taut half-smile curl his lips slightly.
Ezra returned the smile and then grinned at Vin as the trio strode out of the cabin.
Chris knew it wouldn't be long until Josiah freed himself and he hoped the big man could get JD back to camp before the younger man bled out or injured himself further.
Ezra was riding next to him, strangely quiet. Hazel eyes glanced over and found Ezra looking back at Buck riding in the wagon then Ezra turned and looked at him. Finally, Ezra acknowledged him with a two-finger salute.
Chris's eyes darkened as he tipped his hat to Ezra then Vin who was riding point whistled sharply and loudly.
Both Chris and Ezra kneed their horses forward until they reached Vin who crouched by a wounded, older man.
The man was dressed in serviceable dark brown boots, breeches, plain white shirt now crimson stained and tan duster. A hat lay overturned on the ground next to the prone man.
"He's alive, Captain, but he's hurt bad," said Vin.
The older man's pain-glazed eyes locked onto hazel ones as Chris crouched on his other side while Vin called for Nathan. He whispered scratchily, "Chris, be careful. Bushwhackers out looking for 'the cougar' and found me instead.
Chris's eyes were stormy as he heard those words.
Ezra had also heard the man's words and his eyes narrowed slightly. He recognized the man. He had once briefly met the man at a meeting in the nation's capitol before this assignment began and he had seen the tin-type photo of Stephan Travis's father countless times. The southerner knew that this man was Colonel Orin Travis of the Union Army. He knew Travis was here because of his grandson but the mention of 'the cougar' had him on full alert. Ezra had also seen the quick flash of recognition in Chris's eyes when the blond man had first seen Travis. In addition Travis had called Chris by his name. Whirling thoughts of how Chris knew Travis sped through Ezra's mind but was not reflected in his face or eyes.
Nathan who was by this time kneeling on one side of the injured man and treating his wounds the best he could almost started at the mention of the spy.
Vin kept his gaze from straying toward Ezra when he asked Chris what they were going to do about the man, since he wasn't wearing blue or grey.
Chris thought furiously for a few moments then quickly barked out orders.
The men hurriedly complied and built a travois for the injured man. They then remounted and trotted rapidly to their destination.
A lit lantern moved through the darkness of the old Royal homestead as Mrs. Potter heard the pounding of hooves within the yard. With her nightcap on and a shawl thrown over her nightgown, she now stood at the frame of the front doorway with a Spencer carbine aimed and ready to fire as she peered out owlishly into the night.
Chris inclined his head in Ezra's direction and gave him permission to speak with a look.
"Mrs. Potter... Gloria, we have an older, injured man here who is neither with the Rebels or the Federals. We need assistance in giving him medical aid. Also Lieutenant Wilmont is wounded and time is of the essence."
Gloria set down the rifle as soon as she heard Ezra's voice. She rapidly agreed to help the two men that were hurt. She told the men to bring the wounded into the house and scurried to light more lanterns and lamps inside the house, so the men could see where they were going.
It took only a short while before Buck and Orin were settled into two of the bedrooms downstairs.
Nathan surprised Chris by asking that Ezra stay and help with bandaging and dressing Orin's wounds. The dark-skinned man calmly informed the mystified captain of what he wanted to do. "I've already seen to Buck and to this man," said Nathan who tilted his head toward the older man in bed. "But I'd like to give Ezra the once over more closely. Thought I spotted him limping before he got on his horse and holding an arm against his ribs when he thought nobody was looking," he added.
Chris paled at Nathan's words.
'Damnit! Had Ezra been hurt and not said a thing?' sped through the blond man's thoughts followed by, 'of all the idiotic, stupid... and he hadn't seen it!' Chris whirled around and stomped to the bedroom door. The captain poked his head out the door and saw Yosemite striding down the hall. Chris halted the man and growled out, "Tell Stanton to get in here, now!"
Meantime in the kitchen, Ezra was quietly conversing with Vin and Mrs. Potter. He had just apprised them of the older man's true identity when Yosemite found them.
The big sergeant told Ezra that the Captain wanted to see him immediately.
Vin's orders were to accompany Yosemite on outside patrol which was set to begin in a few minutes.
Ezra thanked the man before Yosemite pivoted around and headed for the front door.
"Be careful," the southerner told Vin as the Texan slipped through the back door of the kitchen.
"Watch your back, pard. Night, Mrs. Potter," responded Vin as he gave Ezra and Mrs. Potter a two-finger salute before shutting the door softly behind himself.
Ezra took leave of Mrs. Potter and strode out of the kitchen and to the sickroom as he had been ordered to do.
A puzzled frown slightly creased his forehead as he silently wondered why.
The Southerner ignored the small twinges of pain radiating from his left ankle any time he stepped down on the sole of his foot too hard. And he also paid no heed to the soreness of his ribs which were protesting at his every other breath. Squaring his shoulders as he arrived at the sick room, he firmly rapped on the door once and waited for admittance.
Chris yanked open the door, gave him a hard, speculative gaze and waved him impatiently into the room. A moment later, the Captain ordered Ezra to sit on the empty cot across from the occupied bed.
Ezra arched an eyebrow but did as he was bid while he asked, "May I ask why have I been summoned here?"
"Nathan's going to take a look at you. He thinks you might be hurt," the blond man answered succinctly and in a suspicious tone of voice.
Ezra groaned inwardly and replied, "I am fine."
The dark-skinned man snorted. Then the healer asked him to strip off his jacket and shirt and he, Nathan would remove his left boot and sock.
At the moment, a kneeling Nathan was wrestling with the boot, a timid knock sounded on the door.
"Captain?" Private Rafe Mosley called out.
Again, going to the door, Chris pulled it open and glared at the man. "What is it, Private?"
Rafe swallowed once and then spit out, "Mrs. Potter would like to speak to you sir. She's in the parlor sir."
Chris clenched his teeth and nodded, acknowledging Rafe's words with, "I'll be right there." He closed the door after Mosley saluted. He'd so wanted to stay through Ezra's examination and find out how badly his Ezra was hurting. But apparently it was not meant to be. "Ezra, stay here in the room and guard the wounded man. I'll be back after I finish speaking to Mrs. Potter."
The blond's heart somersaulted against his chest at the spark which lit up Ezra's eyes at his words. He barely heard Nathan agreeing with him and stating that he, Nathan would be staying with Buck across the hall, while periodically checking on Ezra and the injured older man.
Maybe he'd get to spend time with Ezra alone tonight thought the Captain to himself as he walked toward the parlor.
To be continued...
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 Felis Concolor - Latin Name for Mountain Lion or Cougar.
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