Pawns And Sacrifices
Disclaimer: Not mine, no money, yadda yadda....
Rating: PG, violence
Comments: Thanks to my title fairy Carla and all her encouragement. I have taken literary liberties for dramatic effect. This is just a story.
The flurry of horses and sound of gunfire suddenly disrupted the early morning quiet. "Now what?" the dark clad gunslinger growled as he looked down at the steak and eggs in front of him, knowing that they were going to grow cold. He pushed himself away from the table and headed for the door. His black duster flared out behind him enhancing his agitation.
Buck continued to shovel scrambled eggs into his mouth as he reluctantly stood and started after Chris, dodging the rush of town's folk scampering inside for safety. Vin smoothly came around from behind, grabbing the plate of food and laying it on a table.
"Ah shucks Vin, I'm still hungry," Buck griped as he was ushered out the door.
The three gunslingers stepped out on the boardwalk to see four Army soldiers, leading three other horses, pull up in front of the jail. The horses danced in obvious distress at their brusque treatment. The lawmen stared as the soldiers roughly pulled four Indians from their saddles. A small Indian boy rushed at one of the soldier's with all the fury of a wildcat. The soldier grabbed the young hellion by the scruff of the neck and summarily threw him to the ground. Chris grabbed Buck's arm stopping him in mid stride. They needed to wait to figure out what was going on.
Chris let himself fall against a post. He pushed back his black hat to reveal the deep scowl set on his face. Buck and Vin glanced apprehensively at each other, with guns ready, prepared to follow Chris' lead. Their attention was suddenly diverted down the street to the sudden appearance of several Indian braves, who stopped just outside the town limits. The braves fired deliberately upon the soldiers, who were now ushering their prisoners into the jail and returning fire.
Several town's people, led by Nathan and Josiah, quickly pulled two wagons across the main avenue and tipped them over, creating a protective wall. Chris and the others then loped across the street and took up position behind the wagons.
"Fire over their heads," Chris yelled out. "Just let them know we're here."
The five lawmen returned fire, not aiming to kill, but discouraging any further hostilities. The braves gave a whoop of anger and frustration, turned and rode over the rise and out of sight.
"What the hell was that all about?" Buck inquired, checking his gun. He kept an eye on the distant desert landscape, expecting a war party at any moment. He belched slightly, tasting the morning's eggs for a second time; shooting at Indians didn't aid in digestion.
Josiah and Nathan sat in the dirt their backs against the overturned buckboard. "It would appear our Native American brothers are a might riled," Josiah intoned in his usual calm baritone voice, stretching his neck and head around to peer around the wagon.
"A might?" Nathan repeated, exasperation clearly evident in his tone. He never could get use to his friend's penchant for understatement. The whole Indian nation could be coming down on top of them and Josiah would barely flinch.
Chris glanced over his shoulder at the jail, which now held the Army soldiers and their prisoners. The hairs on the back of his neck had already begun to prickle.
"Keep an eye out Buck, we'll go find out what's goin' on," Chris stated, already annoyed that someone would bring trouble to his town. He nudged Vin to follow, knowing the tracker's experience with Indians would be needed.
Chris and Vin holstered their weapons as they crossed the street and entered the jail. They saw JD standing by his desk, his arms crossed, and the angriest sneer he could muster pasted on his boyish face. It was directed towards a tall, square jawed Major, who didn't appear much older than Chris. He was giving orders to three veteran Sergeants, who stood in front of a now occupied cell. The Major sported close-cropped blond hair and perfect posture. Chris thought a freshly cut board couldn't be any straighter than this Major, who stood like he owned the place. The three Sergeants all appeared cut from the same cloth, mostly due to being relatively the same height, with only one leaning to the heavy side. They all looked like they had seen their share of life on the wild frontier.
The Sergeants moved to one side, allowing Chris and Vin to get a good look at the prisoners. Vin's heart skipped a beat, and he had to take a deep breath at the dread that suddenly enveloped him. His quiet blue eyes clashed with the dark sunken eyes of a muscular brave, who stood about as tall as him. He wore buckskin pants and a decorated deerskin vest that was laced closed. His dark hair was pulled back into a makeshift ponytail with two eagle feathers woven in. The chiseled features of the brave remained hardened, giving nothing away. Vin diverted his eyes down to the young boy standing next to him, obviously his son. He was also wearing buckskin pants with no shirt. Vin had to smile slightly at the boy, who tried to feign the exact stance and stoic manner of his father. Vin looked past the two Indians to see two women sitting side by side on the cot, their faces showing no fear.
Chris approached the Major. "Who are you?" he asked, glancing over to Vin and seeing the distraught gaze on his face.
"I am Major William Sumners out of Fort Fisher in Texas," the Major replied his hands going behind his back.
"A little far from home aren't you, Major?" Chris asked, keeping his voice low.
The Major straightened, jetting out his clean shaven jaw. His boots shined like black marble and his buttons gleaned like gold pieces. Chris suspected that even the man's underwear was regulation.
"And who might you be?" the Major pressed in a clipped tone, eyeing the two gunslingers suspiciously and ignoring JD.
"Chris Larabee, I'm part of the law here," he replied, watching as Vin casually walked up to the bars and spoke to the brave, who stood with his arms crossed in the center of the cell.
The soldiers stared slack-jawed when the buckskin-clad gunslinger spoke in the Indian's language. They abruptly pushed him away, looking towards the Major for instruction. Major Sumners stared at the blond gunslinger in front of him, and a slight shiver went up his spine. This was a dangerous man was the first thought that came into his mind. His cold blue eyes seemed to pierce right into a man's soul. The Major didn't need any more trouble. He shook his head and waved the soldiers aside, allowing Vin to again approach the bars.
Vin had seen the Indian flinch when he spoke, but the impassive fašade immediately returned. Vin then decided to direct his questions to the two women.
The Major cocked an eyebrow at the darkly dressed gunslinger then nodded over to Vin. "And your friend over there?"
"He's a lawman too, and JD is the sheriff." Chris nodded towards the young sheriff, who still held the same scowl he wore when they came in. JD stepped up alongside Chris, garnering strength from the blond cowboy.
"Yeah, and we don't take too kindly to people pushing us around," he snarled.
The Major looked at JD, not hiding his contempt for the young man, but forcing a slight smile to creep upon his face. "I'm sorry young man for not taking your position more seriously," the Major apologized. This seemed to appease JD somewhat, and the scowl relaxed on his face. Sumners turned his attention back to the Chris. "Being lawmen you all have an obligation to help and see to it that justice is done."
Chris was already attaining a distinct dislike for the smug military man. He shifted his stance hitching his weight upon his right leg and resting his right hand on his gun.
Vin suddenly materialized at Chris' side and matched the blond leader's own deadly glare towards the Major.
"Do you know who you have?" Vin asked.
"Yes, Tohono and his family," the Major replied proudly.
Vin hung his head in resignation, wondering if the man was a total fool or only misguided, either one was dangerous.
"What is it?" Chris asked, noticing the troubled expression on his friend's face.
"Tohono is Great Eagle's son," Vin replied his eyes coming up to lock on the seemingly unconcerned Officer.
"You mean the Ute Chief's son!" JD jumped in wide-eyed. "Don't we sort of have a truce with him?" JD suddenly took a whole new interest in the prisoners.
"Yep," Chris replied, not liking the feeling of this at all.
A low whistle escaped JD's lips and he bowed his head allowing his long black hair to hang down and hide his face.
They had been at peace with the surrounding tribes for the past six months; thanks in part to Nathan and Josiah's help in saving many of the children from disease and malnutrition. The other lawmen also made sure that boundaries between the white settlers and Indians were observed and respected. There had been only a few incidents where they had to intervene and all had ended peacefully. Chris had met the sagacious Ute Chief once, but it was enough to learn the man was a force to be reckoned with. The Chief was highly intelligent, and recognized that for his people to survive they had to get along, but that didn't mean allowing the white man dominance over him and his people. Chris knew the Chief would not hesitate to go to war over this.
"Well, the United States government does not recognize your so called treaty. I captured Tohono for crimes against white settlers, who were traveling from the east. I have a whole list of complaints, from stealing livestock to burning wagons," Sumners explained.
Vin couldn't believe the man's arrogance. He thought the military man was probably new to the west and had spent most of his career in the mostly white dominated east. He probably didn't understand the delicate balance between whites and Indians that existed out here, and he was about to upset that balance.
"The woman I spoke with is Sweet Water's sister. Sweet Water is Tohono's wife, the boy is his son," Vin explained, looking over at the cell seeing that the sister had returned to Sweet Water's side. "The sister says they were protecting land that they legally owned from settlers, when they were taken by the Major and his men."
"That should be easy to prove," Chris intoned, looking at the Major.
"I lost three good men to those heathens," Major Sumners snarled. "I'll let a trial prove it."
"Major, Great Eagle hasn't caused any trouble around here for a long time, but you taking his son could change that put settlers here in a lot of danger," Chris explained, trying to keep his voice even and calm, but there was no missing the dark and menacing undertone. He didn't think Major Sumners had any interest in the truth. This was some type of conquest for him.
"I'm sorry Mr. Larabee, but I'm still taking Tohono to stand trial at Fort Fisher," Sumners replied matter-of-factly.
"What kind of trial can he get in Texas?" Vin admonished, his voice edged with anger.
"I assure you sir," the Major began, stressing the last word in a not so pleasant manner. "Tohono will get a fair trial the Army adjutant will see to it," he assured.
Vin snorted his disbelief and shot the Major a look of disgust. He now knew for certain the man was the worse kind of fool, one who believed the Army way was the only way.
The three Sergeants took up guard positions under the Major's silent order. Chris inhaled, held it, then exhaled. His icy blue eyes swept over the four military men. He looked at Vin, whose own blue eyes showed the anxiety both were feeling. Things were going from bad to worse, and Chris wondered how bad worse was going to get.
Ezra had no idea what was transpiring back in town, but he was about to become an unwitting participate.
The suave gambler patted his horse's neck enjoying the solitary company of his one true friend, or so he believed. He was preparing to return to town after patrolling the outer ranches. He looked forward to a little sleep, then of course, some challenging games of chance, but he'd settle for taking his cohort's pay for the week. He smiled when he remembered that JD's birthday was at the end of the week. He thought he might let the young man win enough to buy that saddle he had a fancy for. His early morning rounds had been quiet and he took time to admire the growing sunrise. Red and orange streaked out from behind the hills, filling the sky with a palette of color. He wasn't normally a morning person, but who wouldn't appreciate the beauty of a western sky awaking to a new day. There was something in it that just held you, and made you gaze in awe. Maybe this was why he remained here instead of joining his persistent mother in St. Louis. Well, it was as good a reason as any. He had to admit to himself whenever the thought of moving on tickled his brain, he always managed to come up with an excuse not to leave.
The arrow appeared as if out of thin air, burying itself into his right shoulder, and knocking him from his horse. He rolled onto his side clenching his teeth against the gripping pain. With his left cheek on the dry, gritty ground he cursed, feeling the blood oozing through his fingers. He struggled to sit up, his left hand shaking as he took hold of the arrow feeling how deeply imbedded it was. He looked up to see four painted faces, glaring down at him. He bowed his head unable to even bring one of his infamous self-confident smiles to his face. He didn't think he could smooth talk his way out of this one.
Ezra hissed through clenched teeth when one of the braves grabbed him by the arm, hauling him to his feet. Another pulled off his verdant jacket, causing the arrow shaft to break off. He screamed out as an agonizing bolt of pain ripped through his shoulder. They allowed him to crumble to the ground, and watched as the fancy-dressed conman writhed in pain. Ezra fought the darkness, which undulated over him. He wondered what was going on. His last coherent thought was that he hoped that someone realized he was missing.
Chris, Vin, JD and the soldiers remained in the jail. Chris cast a quick glance out the window, seeing several townsfolk manning the makeshift barricade. He then looked over at Vin, who was sitting on JD's desk, his eyes downcast and his right leg swinging nervously back and forth. He watched as the tracker's hands tightened and loosened around his rifle. This was not good, if Vin was disturbed. Nothing short of Armageddon could ruffle the normally even-tempered ex-bounty hunter.
Tohono and his son hadn't moved from their imposing positions in the center of the cell. Chris went over to the coffee pot and poured the last of the coffee into his stained cup. They had tried to prevail upon the Militaristic man that he was making a terrible mistake, one that could start a long and bloody war.
Chris decided to try one more time to reason with the obstinate Major. "Listen Major, you and your men will leave and we'll be stuck here with the consequences of your actions."
"I am truly sorry Mr. Larabee, and I'll do everything in my power to get you reinforcements."
"We don't want the Military out here that would just cause more trouble," Vin blurted out. His fists clenched in rage as he hopped onto the floor and strode towards the Major. His travel was interrupted when Josiah's huge form appeared in the doorway.
"We have a problem, brothers." Everyone turned their attention to the somber ex-preacher, whose baritone voice was strained and tired. His face etched with unseen pain as his body slumped against the doorframe. "Ezra's horse just rode in, alone."
Chris bowed his head and closed his eyes at what this meant. He had forgotten that Ezra was out on patrol.
Chris, Vin, JD and the Major strode out of the jail and headed towards the blockade. Chris saw Buck and Nathan trying to maintain some sort of order among the town's people. Everyone was on edge, and they didn't need anyone going off half-cocked and starting a war they could possibly avoid.
"Maybe they'll just want to trade," JD remarked hopefully, practically running to keep up with the determined strides of the three taller men. The expressions on Chris and Vin's face over the news about Ezra caused JD's heart to drop into his stomach.
As they neared the blockade several of the towns people sneered at the Major, whom they knew was the cause of the trouble. Buck stopped one rather large farmer, who was probably going to do more than just speak his mind to the approaching officer.
Major Sumners had noticed the camaraderie the six lawmen seemed to share. They were almost tighter than most small army units. He couldn't understand how such contrasting men could work so fluidly together, much less care about one another. With one of his men now threatened, Larabee's anger seemed to of risen another notch.
Vin pulled out his spyglass and swept the distant landscape, taking note of every cactus and wildflower. Nothing moved, the gentle breeze, which had given some measure of relief from the summer heat had died away.
Everyone knew something was going to happen they could feel it. It showed in the white-knuckle grips they held on their rifles and the fear-filled look in their eyes. Anyone who had spent any amount of time on the frontier became in tune with it, could feel the spark and knew it was going to ignite. Vin had lived among the Indians for awhile, and learned many of their ways, but he was still a white man, and certain things still remained a mystery even to him.
An indistinct shape crested the distant hill churning up a small cloud of dust. Vin rubbed his eyes then returned the spyglass to his eye. He watched as a lone brave emerged, riding a paint. The brave wore buckskin pants. Paint adorned his torso and arms. Vin was relieved when he recognized that it wasn't war paint.
The horse was maintaining a steady loping gait, coming straight for the blockade. The brave sat tall on the horse and appeared to be dragging something behind him. A couple townsfolk raised their rifles. Josiah came up behind them and reached over their heads, taking the rifles from their grasps. His menacing glare silencing any protest. Everyone was silent as the young brave continued to ride closer. Chris pulled his hat down shielding his eyes against the rising sun.
The brave suddenly turned east and Vin had to swallow the lump that jumped up his throat, causing his mouth to go dry. His hand tightened around his spyglass and his knees buckled slightly, only his arms resting on the wagon kept him on his feet. He could make out the fancy, white ruffled shirt, now brown and tattered. He lowered the spyglass; his eyes shut tight to keep the tears back.
Chris picked up the glass, which Vin relinquished without looking up. The brave released his hold on the rope and continued on, leaving the battered body just on top of the rise for all to see. Chris' jaw clenched as he peered at the unmoving form of one of his men. He couldn't believe the ache that suddenly gripped his heart. Had he grown that accustomed to the enigmatic gambler without even realizing it. The others squinted against the sun's glare, just barely able to make out the distant form.
"Chris....is it...?" Buck stammered, his voice coming out shaky and quick. He felt sick.
Chris lowered the spyglass and turned to Vin, who hadn't moved. He made no effort to wipe the tears that streamed down his face. Josiah stood tall, staring out into the distance, another piece of his heart breaking. He didn't think he had anymore pieces left. His eyes shined with unshed tears. Nathan bowed his head, resting it against the rough hewed wood of the wagon, thinking how much he would miss the verbal battles between him and the suave southerner. A single tear ran down his dark face.
"Wait....he's moving!" JD yelled out, his young brown eyes glued to the sight of his friend out alone on the desert. Chris brought the glass back to his eye. He watched as Ezra slowly struggled to get himself to his knees using only his left arm, which shook with the strain.
Chris glanced down the makeshift barrier at his five remaining men, knowing what each one was feeling. A helpless rage was strangling each of their hearts. Chris looked towards the cocky Major and his hand went to his gun where it rested. He didn't like feeling powerless, especially when one of his men was in trouble.
Major Sumners stared out at the man struggling out on the desert. He began absently chewing on his bottom lip, and took a sidelong glance seeing six pairs of deadly intent directed towards him. He shifted nervously back and forth.
Buck squeezed the butt of his pistol trying to siphon off his growing rage and fear. He looked at the five men he considered brothers. He saw JD's young face scrunched with anxiety. A young man who was growing up to fast and seeing too much. He hated to see Chris trying to deal with a situation that was beyond his control. Even Josiah's imposing form seemed to have withered. No one noticed when Buck slipped away from the wagon and headed towards the stables.
Ezra raised his head and squinted towards the town, seeing the overturned wagons cutting across the road. His shoulder throbbed with the continuing irritation of the imbedded arrowhead. He shook his head trying to erase the fuzziness that buzzed in his head. He still didn't know what was going on or why. He had been beaten then dragged, and left just outside of town. He could make out several people standing behind the barricade and wondered why they weren't coming to his aid. He thought he could see JD's dark hair bouncing up and down behind the wagon next to Larabee's dark silhouette. Ezra's head fell to his chest, he just couldn't hold it up anymore. He coughed at the dryness in his throat and this brought renewed pain from his side. He tilted his head to the side seeing several Indian braves laying motionless on the other side of the rise and realization twisted in his stomach, churning up the bile that was already threatening to come up.
He was bait.
He forced his head back up, and tried to raise his left arm in warning. His knees shook as they dug into the sharp stones underneath. His hand dropped back down to the ground, and he panted at the strain. His manicured fingers clawed at the sand in frustration. His remaining strength left him and he crumpled to the ground, knowing he didn't have the energy to rise again.
"We have to do somethin'!" Nathan yelled, breaking the silence, which had fallen over them.
Chris turned on his heel, but stopped when a soft Texas drawl rose up.
"It's a trap."
Vin slowly raised his head and turned to meet Chris' own determined blue stare. He wasn't sure if he could stop the headstrong leader. Chris had taken it upon himself to protect all of them with his life, but he had to understand they would do the same for him.
Chris paused for a moment meeting his buckskin-clad friend's eyes, then looked back at Ezra's now motionless form. "We can't leave him out there."
"They want someone to come for him," Vin sadly explained, knowing it wouldn't make things any easier. He removed his hat and started playing with the rim.
"We can't just sit here and watch him die!" JD angrily interjected, getting both men's attention. His nostrils flared as his raging heart demanded more oxygen. His wide brown eyes darted back and forth between two men he had grown to respect and care about.
Chris suddenly stepped towards the Major, who had remained silent. Without warning Chris grabbed a handful of the Major's uniform, bringing his face to within inches of his own. "You're responsible for this, this is only the beginning," Chris snarled, wanting to release his rage on someone.
A whoop and the sound of falling hooves brought everyone's attention to the large gray gelding charging down the street, right for the barricade. Buck slapped his hat on his horse's flank bringing forth an extra burst of speed and power.
"Buck, no!" JD yelled to his friend when he realized what the ladies man was about to attempt. They all watched as the gray and its rider cleared the overturned wagons. Josiah spun around, grabbing JD by the waist band of his pants as the young gunslinger began to climb over the wagons screaming for Buck to stop.
Buck couldn't stand it. He was too far away to see the fear and pain in Ezra's green eyes, but he felt it. It tore through him like a rampaging bull. Buck knew it was a trap, but he couldn't let Ezra die alone and afraid in front of everyone he trusted. He knew he wouldn't be able to live with that nightmare, which would plague his sleep for eternity if he didn't do something. He hoped the others would understand, especially JD.
Buck reached Ezra and leapt from his horse, falling to his knees next to the battered gambler. He pulled Ezra into his arms and looked down into pain-filled eyes. "No...Buck...go back," Ezra gasped out.
Buck felt the strong arm come around his throat. He could smell the earth on the tan forearm that suddenly cut off his air as it hauled him to his feet. He then felt the knife at his side. He didn't fight back as he was quickly stripped of his weapons. Buck looked towards the town trying to make out his friends. He could just make out JD's dark unruly hair and thought he could feel the kid's anguish.
Chris watched through the spyglass as his two friends were dragged out of sight. Why did Buck do such a foolhardy thing? He knew the answer even before the question stopped ringing in his head. He had been about to do the exact same thing. Chris turned his head to the right to see JD slumped against the knotted wood of the wagon, his eyes unblinking, Josiah's arm across his shoulders. Josiah's own face buried in his arm, which lay across his knees.
Chris scowled at the Major, who stood impassively, causing Chris' anger to slowly boil to the surface; his hand hovering at his gun. A blur of long brown hair and buckskin stepped in his way breaking him from his deadly reverie.
"It won't help Buck or Ezra," Vin intoned. Chris wondered if the Major realized how lucky he was.
Major Sumners was shocked by the turn of events. He couldn't believe a man would risk his life for another. Even in the Army it was rare that such a bond would develop between two people much less seven.
Buck was unceremoniously thrown to the ground, he was able to catch himself since his hands were tied in front of him. He sat up glaring at the brave who stood over him. The Indian smirked then turned his back.
Buck could make out three other men in the early darkness. They were all tied in the same fashion huddled just outside the circle of light from the nearby campfire. Two braves stood guard, keeping their eyes on the tight group but not paying much attention to them. Buck had counted ten braves around the campfire and figured there were probably more in the surrounding area. He didn't really have a plan when he came after Ezra. He hoped to come up with something along the way, so far, nothing looked too promising.
Buck turned his attention to the three strangers, who he noticed were the missing soldiers. He then saw another form lying on the ground and his heart almost stopped. He crawled over to the inert shape. "Ezra?" he murmured looking down at the slack features. He lifted the conman's head up and placed it on his leg.
The youngest of the soldiers crawled up alongside Buck. His face scrunched at the sight of the battered gambler. He watched as Buck talked quietly to the unconscious conman and wondered for a moment if the two men were related in some way.
"Ah, Sir, I'm Corporal Jenkins, most people call me Jinx," he said, a tremulous note in his voice.
Buck raised worried eyes up to the young soldier. Jinx nodded his head towards the other two soldiers. "That is Sgt. Stilles and Sgt. Lakes," the young soldier introduced, keeping his voice low; although, the guards didn't seem interested. The two Sergeants glared back at Buck, who returned the glare then turned his attention back to Ezra.
"I'm Buck and this is Ezra. We're lawmen out of Four Corners," Buck explained. He saw the arrow that was still in Ezra's shoulder, the shaft having been broken off almost flush with the skin. He pulled aside what was left of his white shirt, seeing the bruising on his side. Buck laid a hand on his friend's chest, not noticing any difficulty in breathing, but he felt the heat of the growing fever.
"Sorry about your friend," Jinx stated.
Buck could hear the sincerity in the young soldier's voice and managed a faint smile. He figured the young man was probably pretty scared and it didn't seem like his compatriots offered anything in the way of reassurance. He remembered during the war; often, the older soldiers would ignore the new recruits afraid to get to close, knowing most didn't survive very long.
"Why do they call you Jinx?" Buck finally asked, trying to get his thoughts off their present situation even for just a little while.
Jinx grinned, making him appear even younger, if that was possible. "Well, doesn't this sort of answer that. I mean, I get in more trouble than anyone I know."
Now Buck was the one to grin. He looked down at Ezra, pushing back the matted hair from his brow. "If we get out of this, you'll have to get to know Ezra here, you two have a lot in common."
Jinx's smile remained, but went slightly askew in bewilderment.
"Why'd you go and do a fool thing riskin' your life coming after your friend? You had to know it was a trap?" Sergeant Stilles broke in. He was probably about Josiah's age with dark salt and pepper hair. The military was his life as it was his father's and his father's father.
Buck's eyes narrowed. "Well Sarge, the way I figure it, riskin' my life for a friend is a lot more honorable than riskin' it for a man who could care less if you live or die."
"You watch what you say about Major Sumners," Stilles growled in deference. "He's a fine officer. He'll get us out of this just you watch."
Buck noticed that Jinx's eyes shifted down at the mention of the Major.
"He's the cause of this!" Buck answered back in the same menacing tone, lowering his voice when he noticed that he got the guards attention. "He's going to start a war."
"We were just doing our duty," Jinx stated defensively. Buck had to smile. The young soldier reminded him of JD and his own naivetÚ. The thought of never seeing JD or the others again cut a chasm through his heart. He hoped JD knew how much he cared about him; hell, he hoped they all did. Sometimes he wasn't even sure Chris, who he had known for fifteen years, knew how he felt.
"Son, sometimes there are more important things than duty," Buck explained.
"Without our duty, you wouldn't be living here," Sgt. Lakes broke in. "This country is growing and we're doing the Indians a favor."
Buck stared incredulously at the Sergeant. "What, by forcing them off their land and onto reservations where they starve." Buck remembered when he went with Nathan and Josiah one time to the nearby reservation. Children were weak from hunger or sick from putrid food.
"Can't stop progress," Stilles intoned.
"Maybe not, but I wouldn't count on the Indians just movin' aside either," Buck replied.
He was about to start in on the Sergeant when Ezra stirred weakly under his hand. He looked down to see eyes fight to open.
"Ay pard, welcome back," Buck said as green eyes now looked up at him.
A smile creased Ezra's mouth when he saw Buck, for a moment forgetting the situation he was in. Then reality came back and he moaned. "Damn, hoping it was a dream," he managed softly.
Buck chuckled at Ezra's lack of five-dollar words.
"Don't worry, Chris will get us out of this," Buck tried to assure.
"You have a lot of faith in our illustrious leader. Let's hope for our sake he can live up to that," Ezra drawled.
The morning sun brought with it a warmth that didn't touch any of the men who stood vigil within its ever expanding rays. The night had been long for the five lawmen, who wondered if their friends were alive or dead. Their questions were answered when the sun revealed five men. Their hands were tied over their heads to stout poles that had been driven into the ground on the crest of the hill.
Vin peered through the spyglass with blood-shot eyes, relieved to see that Buck and Ezra were among them. He passed the glass to Chris, who first zeroed in on Buck. His long-time friend was a little roughed up, but didn't seem to be in too bad of shape. He was awake and looking over to his left. Chris moved to the next figure and his heart skipped a beat when he looked upon the battered gambler, who hung limply from the pole. His chin rested on his chest and Chris couldn't tell if he were alive or dead, he seemed more the latter. Chris could see the blood that covered half his chest. He quickly wiped at his misting eyes, trying to clear his sight. He returned his eye to the glass to see three more men, all soldiers. Two were Sergeants who were trying to maintain some sense of Military bravado. The soldier next to Ezra was a young Corporal, who was just plain terrified and not afraid to show it.
Nathan suddenly grabbed the glass from Chris and looked at Buck and Ezra. "Shit!" He quickly categorized their injuries taking in how much blood Ezra had lost.
An Indian warrior appeared on horseback, and rode towards the barricade, stopping several yards away. He carried a long spear with a red feather attached to one end. He pulled the horse up and seemed to stare at each and every person. He drove the spear into the ground and rode back the way he had come.
"What the hell was that all about?" Major Sumners asked, not really expecting an answer and surprised when he got one. He wanted nothing more than to get his prisoners and himself out of this town and back to the Fort. He was practically drowning in the tension and animosity that surrounded him, and the look in Larabee's icy gaze made him fear for his life.
"They're giving us five hours to release Tohono and his family," Vin dryly explained.
A smug grin appeared on the Major's face. "Ha! The rest of my unit will be here long before that," he stated, a contemptuous edge in his voice that sickened both Josiah and Nathan.
Vin turned violent blue eyes towards the Major. "You don't understand, five hours in one-hour increments, for every hour we don't release the prisoners they'll kill one man. That spear is to mark time."
The spear that was driven into the ground was acting as a crude sundial. The long shadow marking the start of a sacrificial game.
Chris' head snapped around to stare at Vin his heart pounding so loud in his chest he could hear it in his ears. The sudden surge of fear erasing any residual of weariness he felt from lack of sleep.
"You are sacrificing the lives of five good men for one man, who was probably only trying to protect what was his," Vin exclaimed, not hiding the growing anger.
"What are you talking about?" the Major asked.
"I told you, Tohono's sister said her brother was only protecting his own land from settlers who didn't think he had any right to it," Vin explained.
"That's a lie! Tohono attacked the settlers and their wagon train. I have signed affidavits." The Major's voice rose with indignation along with his stature. "How do you know she wasn't lying just to save her brother?"
"Of course, and a white man would never lie," Chris sneered as he turned away, suddenly sickened by the sight of the Army Officer. It was going to be up to him and the others to save Buck and Ezra and probably the Major's men too.
The Major stood silent, seeming to digest this, trying to justify it in his own mind; once he accomplished that the sick feeling in his stomach subsided. He looked out at the five men whose lives were in his hands. The capture of Tohono would mean a promotion, and hopefully a ticket out of this god-forsaken territory. He had come out here to get his promotion to Major, now that he had it, he wanted nothing more than to go back east and sit behind a desk somewhere. He hated the wilderness, and wanted to get back to what he considered civilization, and if it took the lives of five men, so be it.
"Release your prisoners," Chris simply stated, but the tone in his voice was anything but simple. The Major licked his lips to ease the sudden lack of moisture in them.
"Why, because of what some Indian lover says is the truth," Sumners slurred, staring directly at Vin. Vin took a step towards the Major, but stopped himself. The Major didn't realize what a dangerous game he was playing. "I'm sorry Mr. Larabee, I can't release the prisoners on your say so," he replied. "We'll just have to wait for the rest of my unit."
"You're going to sacrifice those men out there.. How many will have to die before your unit shows up, one...two...," Nathan berated, coming right up to the Major. He couldn't believe this man was actually willing to forfeit the lives of those men for some petty, unconfirmed squabble.
"They're soldiers, they know the risks," Sumners noted, throwing his shoulders back.
"My men aren't soldiers," Chris angrily exclaimed.
"They're lawmen they have a duty..."
"Not to die," Vin yelled as he lunged at the smug officer, no longer able to hold back the anger that was growing inside. For a moment he thought it funny that he had stopped Chris earlier. He threw an arm across the Major's throat, pinning the man against the buckboard. Chris and Josiah pulled the suddenly explosive tracker off the Major.
"I'll forget that little transgression, Mr. Tanner. We're all under a lot of strain," Sumners stammered, rubbing at his throat. Chris and Josiah maintained their hold on Vin.
"Shut up or I'll let him go," Chris snarled back at the Major.
"C'mon Ezra talk to me." Buck had been trying for the past hour to bring the unconscious conman back to reality. His own side ached with each breath he took and he suspected he had a couple of cracked ribs. It was probably nothing compared to what Ezra was going through. In the brightness of the day Buck took in his friend's appearance. It looked like there wasn't a spot left on Ezra's body that wasn't bruised or bloodied. Ezra's face was flushed with fever and his hair hung damp and limp about his skull. When the Indians had forced Ezra's right arm up with the imbedded arrow the pain had drove him back into oblivion.
"Ezra, please answer me," he pleaded one last time, not expecting an answer. He leaned his head against the post, squeezing his eyes tight in frustration.
"And what...would you... like me to say, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra's gasped out. His southern drawl coming out slow and tired. He raised his head, which Buck could tell was taking a tremendous effort. He winced at the bruising and redness in Ezra's usually clean shaven face. His normally vivid green eyes now appeared dull and lifeless.
The town watched in morbid curiosity at the sight of the five men, whose fate lied in the hands of Major Sumners. Chris and the others continued to watch, trying to think of a way to help their friends. Chris still couldn't believe what Buck had done, even though he himself had been prepared to do the same thing. He never realized what a close bond Buck and Ezra had developed or the bond they all shared. Either one willing to put down their life for the others. Chris was not about to let this happen, not today. He was not going to watch two of his friends die.
Major Sumners seemed unconcerned with the current situation. He hid behind his duty and faith that the Army would not let him down. He had lived his whole life this way, putting his trust in knowing that whatever the Army did, and whatever he did for the Army was the right thing. It made things so much easier than thinking for himself or making his own decisions.
The first hour was nearing closure, the shadow from the shaft bending and growing longer. Everyone watched as a very young brave, probably no more than fifteen, appeared from the left and walked in front of the five prisoners a bow and arrow held in his hand.
Buck followed the young boy as he passed by, eyeing each of them, intimidating them with the power he held over life and death. Buck had never felt such relief as when the brave passed by him and Ezra. The young soldier that was next to Ezra had his eyes closed quietly mouthing a silent prayer; he too was passed by. The brave walked to the end of the line then returned and stopped to stand in front of Sgt. Stilles.
Stilles' eyes went wide when he saw what was about to happen. He had always considered himself a brave man, but faced with his own death his courage quickly deserted him. He tried in vain to pull his hands free, the ropes cutting into his wrists. The brave slowly raised his bow, hesitating only a moment to let the soldier feel the full power of his fear overwhelm him. The brave pulled back on the bow and released the arrow. Stilles screamed as the arrow tore into his stomach. He continued to yell as blood poured out and soaked his shirt. The red blood turning the dark green shirt a ghastly dark purple. Chris bowed his head then slowly raised it and looked over at Major Sumners. Who had paled slightly, some of the cocky confidence he had held earlier dissipating.
"You could of stopped that," Chris menacingly accused as he straightened from his position at the barricade and approached the Major. Vin caught the look in Chris' stony blue eyes and immediately intervened, again smiling at the irony.
The Major held his ground, trying to block out the screams of his dying man. Most of the town's people had enough and quickly decided to let the Army, and their hired lawmen take care of things.
The Indian brave notched another arrow and took aim at the suffering soldier's heart. The arrow was true.
The distant screams were abruptly cut off, sending a chill through everyone's soul. Josiah said a quiet prayer for the brave soldier.
JD could only stare wide-eyed, not believing what was happening. How could he stand safe, watching his friends face death. He kept throwing glances at Chris expecting the stalwart gunslinger to come up with something to save them.
"You can stand there and watch as they murder your men?" Chris exclaimed over Vin's shoulder towards the Major. He was allowing the ex-bounty hunter to stop him, only because he wouldn't be any help to Buck or Ezra if he was locked up for murder.
"It is not the Army's policy to give in to heathen demands, Mr. Larabee. I don't expect you to understand. If they knew they could do whatever they wanted by just taking a few hostages we would all be held hostage to their demands. We must show them that the US Army can not and will not be intimidated," Sumners stated as if reading from some military reg.
Some of Major Sumners' military baring seemed to leave him as he looked towards the man hanging limp from his bonds. He turned his back on the five lawmen who glared at him, and walked to the end of the barricade.
"Chris, we have to do something," Nathan exclaimed, coming up alongside the dark-clad gunslinger, whose mood and face now matched his dark attire. "We can't let Ezra and Buck and those other men die."
"I know Nathan, I know," Chris snapped a little more harshly than he expected.
The next hour passed all too quickly and two braves appeared and stopped at the soldier at the end of the line. They tied his feet to the post and started placing dry brush around it.
"Oh God no!" Sgt. Lakes looked out towards the town and began screaming. "MAJOR! PLEASE HELP ME!"
His plea carried to the town and tore into everyone's gut; all knowing there was nothing they could do. If they rushed them the Indians would just kill all the prisoners and probably some of them too.
Vin brought his spyglass up and his breath stopped somewhere between his lungs and throat. He turned and slumped to the ground. He watched as Major Sumners headed towards the jail house. He also knew what was about to happen. Vin looked over to see JD staring at what was about to take place.
"Josiah, take JD to the saloon," Chris murmured.
"Chris, I'm not a child. You don't have to protect me," JD replied, trying to sound righteously angry.
"JD, there are some things no one should see," Josiah added putting an arm across his shoulders and gently guiding him towards the saloon; having every intention of staying with him.
The soldier continued to plea towards the town his heart racing so fast he hoped he'd die right then and there. He watched with eyes so filled with fear he thought he was watching a dream. Sgt. Lakes closed his eyes and started to repeat over and over again. "This ain't happenin', this ain't happenin'." But when the fire was lit and the flames started licking at his pants leg he could no longer convince himself. The screams lasted for what felt like an eternity, before the smoke and flames finally plunged the Sergeant into sweet darkness.
The young Corporal cried like a baby over the screams of his Sergeant. The smoke and putrid odors imbedding into his skin as well as his soul. He was unable to stop the rising bile, which only added to the sickening smells that surrounded him.
Buck also had to choke back his own nauseous feelings, wishing now he had never eaten those eggs. He closed his eyes, envious of Ezra who hung unconscious and oblivious.
"Why'd they burn him?" Chris asked, staring out at the blacken corpse of the soldier, standing stark against the blue backdrop of the sky.
Vin shook his head. "Maybe the first one was some type of initiation for the boy," Vin concluded. "Or, they figured this would make more of an impression on us."
Chris wiped at his tired face. It had definitely made an impression on him; one he would probably relive in his nightmares for a long time to come.
"Do you think the Major's unit will get here in time to save Ezra and Buck?" Vin asked Chris, who appeared lost in thought.
"We're not waiting," Chris quietly replied. "Have everyone meet me in the stables now." He paused. "You will have to stay here."
Vin furrowed his brow and watched as his friend took a deep breath before continuing, "You're the best shot. If they try and burn Buck or Ezra you need to take care of them. I don't want them to burn to death," Chris spoke slowly and carefully, enunciating each word with special precision so that no emotion would show in his voice. He winced as the words brought the memory of his own family's death back to the forefront of his mind. He chased the thought away, refusing to be distracted.
Vin bowed his head, knowing what Chris was asking of him-to kill a friend. Could he do it? The screams of the two soldiers still echoed in his mind. He raised his blue eyes and Chris saw the decision was made.
"What about the soldier?" Vin softly asked.
Chris knew the last soldier was no more than a boy. He was about to tell Vin that they couldn't make that decision, he was not their responsibility. Buck and Ezra were family as far as he was concerned. Then the screams and smell assaulted his senses once again.
"Him too." He gave Vin a curt nod and headed towards the stables.
At the closing of the third hour Major Sumners joined Vin at the barricade, refusing to look at the men staked out on the desert. "Where is Mr. Larabee?"
"'Round," Vin curtly replied.
The reply caused Sumners to raise a suspicious eye towards the tracker, who continued to keep watch out on the desert.
Chris and the remainder of his men met secretly in the stables. He passed out bandannas to each of them. JD held the red cloth in his hand looking strangely up at Chris. "What are these for?"
Chris wrapped the bandanna around his face, covering his nose and mouth. "It's what you use when you break someone out of jail."
Nathan's mouth fell open and Josiah placed his hand under the dark man's chin and closed it.
A huge smile broke out on JD's face and he quickly followed suit and wrapped the bandanna around his face.
"No shooting, we don't want to kill anyone," Chris explained. "We release the prisoners and lead them out the back."
The four lawmen managed to slip inside the jail before being noticed. Chris took out the first soldier with a right cross and Josiah threw the second one into the wall where he slid to ground in an unconscious heap.
The third soldier raised his hands and smiled. He looked at JD who held a gun on him. He hadn't agreed with the Major. The soldiers that were taken were his friends. He gave JD a wink and laid on the floor.
Tohono and his family were surprised by the sudden intrusion of masked men. Their first thought was that they were all going to be killed, then Tohono recognized the dark-clad gunslinger. His father, Great Eagle, held a deep respect for the seven lawmen who protected this town. Tohono was now seeing the truth in his father's wisdom.
Chris and Josiah quickly unlocked the cell door and ushered the Indians out. Tohono eyed Chris suspiciously at first then nodded and followed his family out the door.
Vin swore as he saw two braves appear and stop in front of Ezra. They tied his feet to the post and started surrounding him with brush.
"Leave him alone!" Buck yelled, but the braves ignored him as they went about their deadly task. Buck didn't think he could bear watching Ezra burn.
Ezra turned dull, glazed eyes towards Buck, and a knowing smile came to his handsome face. He had come to a while ago, but was having a hard time maintaining his hold on consciousness.
"Don't worry, Mr. Wilmington. I have the utmost confidence that Mr. Tanner will rob these aborigines of their pleasure," Ezra calmly drawled. He hurt too much and it was a struggle for him just to remain conscious. He already felt like he was on fire. He looked over at the ladies man, a man he had grown to trust and care about. Buck was probably the closest thing he ever had to a big brother. "I will have you know, Buck. I have been honored to know you and call you friend."
Buck bowed his head to hide the tears that he could not stop from sliding down his face. He looked towards the town wondering what was going on. Someone had to stop this.
Vin was also trying to stop the tears from clouding up his vision. He brought his rifle up, looking down the sights at his friend. A man he had known for only six months, but had started developing a deep kinship with. He quickly wiped the tears that escaped and took a deep calming breath. Ezra was depending on him and he would not let him down. The tracker's heart beat hard in his chest. He knew nightmares of this would follow him for the rest of his life, but he would not let Ezra suffer.
Buck kicked out as a brave neared carrying a torch. He knew he would soon hear the bullet that would end Ezra's life; two friends would die today. Buck knew it would destroy Vin. He wasn't so sure he would live through this either, even if he somehow escaped the same fate.
Ezra actually raised his head and looked up to the sky. He smiled faintly, wondering what Josiah would be thinking if he saw him doing this. Probably just think he'd lost his mind. He had never been a pious man and sometimes not even a very good man, but he never thought he had been so bad that he would end up dying like this. He was weak from blood loss and pain, and he was terrified, but found it amazingly easy to maintain control. It was too soon. He had only just found a family, people he could trust and care about, why was it going to be taken away now?
The brave stood before him as some sort of ritual of respect. Ezra thought that if the Indian could speak English he'd probably say something like, 'Don't take it personally'.
Vin braced the stock of his rifle deep into his shoulder and placed his finger on the trigger. He took a deep breath and held it. His mind's eye seeing nothing but Ezra's heart.
The brave bent down to light the dry brush when a shout stopped him. Buck turned to see Tohono running up to them, saying something to the brave holding the torch. Buck watched as the two Indians walked away. He never felt such relief in his life and couldn't stop the huge grin that took over his face. He closed his eyes and laid his head back letting the feeling flood over him and calm his heart. He turned to look at Ezra, who again hung unconscious.
"Buck, does this mean we're not going to die?" Jinx asked, not sure if he should allow himself to believe it.
"Not today son," Buck laughed.
Major Sumners stormed into the saloon and glared at the four men, who leisurely sat at a table drinking beer. "I know you all were responsible!"
Josiah and Nathan both gave looks of pure innocence, which almost caused JD to spit out his beer.
"Whatever are you alluding too, Sir?" Chris coolly asked, in his best Ezra impression, of the distraught officer. This was too much and JD slammed his forehead down on the table to stop his laughter. Josiah placed a heavy arm across the young gunslinger's shoulders.
"Boy, just can't hold his liquor," Josiah replied to the Major's suspicious eye, also trying to maintain a straight face.
"You accosted my men and broke those Indians out of jail that's what," he angrily explained.
"Really? I don't see how that's possible we've been here for the better part of an hour, haven't we boys?" Chris slyly asked, looking towards his three friends for confirmation and allowing himself the slightest of smiles for the perturbed Major.
"Yeah," JD agreed excitedly, wiping his grinning mouth and hiccupping from the beer and nervousness in his stomach. Nathan kicked the overly eager gunslinger under the table, causing him to flinch, but regain a more sober expression.
Major Sumners turned to a couple other customers. "How long has Larabee and the others been here?"
The two men lazily regarded each other and grinned. The older of the two replied, "Oh, I'd say at least an hour, wouldn't you Mike?"
The younger man looked up at the Major, a half smile coming to his weathered face. "Oh, at least an hour," he answered, laying down the cards he held in his hand much to his partner's dismay.
Sumners knew they were lying. His men couldn't or wouldn't positively identify the men who broke the Indians out. All they could tell him was that there were four of them and they had their faces covered. Sumners turned to Inez, who was wiping down the bar. "Miss, can you tell me how long Mr. Larabee has been here?"
"Si, senor, at least four beers-about an hour," she easily lied with a twinkle in her eye.
Vin suddenly rushed into the saloon. "Better get out here, somethin's happening."
Everyone raced out of the saloon and took position behind the barricade. They watched as a lone brave on horseback rode up and pulled the spear from the ground. He held the spear high over his head then rode off.
"It's over," Vin explained. JD whooped in delight and ran with Josiah and Nathan to the stables. The turned-over wagons were moved out of the way as Josiah drove a team and wagon past, with Nathan and JD riding in back. Chris and Vin jumped on their horses and followed.
JD jumped out before the wagon even came to a stop, scrambling up to his friends. "Buck, are you alright?"
"Yeah, kid I'm fine it's Ezra I'm worried about," Buck replied looking over at the unconscious gambler.
JD looked over at the slack features of his friend and for a second believed that they were too late. Josiah and Nathan came up and quickly cut the three surviving men down. Jinx collapsed to the ground out of pure relief at the fact that he was alive. Josiah and Nathan gently laid Ezra down on the ground as Vin went and cut the two dead soldiers down covering them with blankets.
Nathan removed what was left of Ezra's fancy shirt. His body a mass of bruises and abrasions. Nat was relieved when he didn't feel any broken ribs, it was one less thing he had to worry about. The arrow was imbedded deep in his shoulder and a fever already had hold of his body. "We have to get him back to the clinic. I'm going to need to cut this arrow out."
Josiah and Vin carefully lifted Ezra's battered body up into the wagon. Nathan grew worried when no sound came from the southerner.
"He goin' to be okay, Nat?" Buck worriedly asked, jumping in to the wagon next to him, wincing slightly at his injured ribs.
"I don't know Buck. He's in bad shape." The euphoria that had gripped the six men suddenly dissipated at Nat's admission.
The wagon pulled into town stopping at Nathan's clinic. Chris and Vin following behind. Major Sumners and two of his men approached the somber parade. He watched as Josiah and Nathan carried Ezra up to the clinic.
"Buck, get your butt up here I know you're hurt too," Nathan called out over his shoulder to the loitering gunslinger. He had seen Buck wince when he jumped into the wagon. JD glared at his mentor and friend and started pushing him up the stairs to Nathan's clinic.
The Major then turned his attention to the young soldier who stood in front of him.
"Corporal Jenkins, it's good to have you safe," Sumners said. Jenkins could only glare at the Major. "Why don't you go and get yourself cleaned up and we'll talk later."
Jenkins threw a weak salute at the Major and began to walk away.
"Mr. Larabee," the Major said, stepping up to the stoic gunslinger as he dismounted his horse. "You are under arrest." Two soldiers stepped forward only to be stopped by Chris' angry glare and Vin's mare's leg.
"What's the charge?" Chris sneered, absently scratching at his neck.
"I know you helped those Indians to escape. You will go before a judge, and if I have my way you will face a trial and be charged with aiding and abetting the enemy." The two soldiers who flanked the Major raised their weapons.
Vin stepped alongside his friend prepared to follow his lead no matter how he wanted to play it. Chris glanced over at his steadfast friend and smiled. "Go check on Ezra and let me know how he is. I'll be at the jail," he calmly stated.
Vin opened his mouth then shut it. He glared at the Major then turned on his heel and left.
"So I'm officially under arrest?" Chris calmly asked.
With that Chris balled his fist and swung, knocking the Major off his feet. He raised his hands allowing the two sergeants to take his guns. "Figured I might as well make it for something worthwhile."
The Major picked himself off the ground. "You'll pay for that Larabee," he growled.
A dark grin came to the gunslinger's face as he was lead towards the jail.
Corporal Jenkins watched as the dark-clad gunslinger was taken away. He had seen the look of concern on all their faces over their friends. Larabee was a person who didn't demand respect, but people were just willing to give it. A man who stood and protected his own, without thought to his own life. Jenkins veered off from the bath house and headed down the street to the telegraph office.
Vin had silently slipped into Nathan's room. He watched as Josiah, Buck and JD held Ezra down as Nathan cut the arrowhead out of his shoulder. Ezra's face contorted in pain as he arched and tried to pull away, holding back the scream that desperately wanted to be released. Ezra slumped unconscious as Nathan threw the arrowhead into the basin and started cleaning the wound.
Vin watched as the ex-medic finished dressing the wound then straightened, putting his hands into the small of his back. "Okay, that's all I can do for now. Someone needs to stay with him until we get his fever down," Nathan explained.
"I'll stay with him," Josiah volunteered. He looked over at Buck and grasped his arm to get his attention. "You need to go and get some rest."
Buck continued to look at Ezra's slack features. "I'll be back in a little while." He nodded towards Josiah and walked past Nathan and Vin.
"JD, can you get me more water," Nathan asked.
"How is he, Nat?" Vin asked after JD had left. He looked over to see Josiah carefully moping the conman's brow.
Nathan followed the tracker's eyes and his shoulders slumped. He always questioned his ability, especially when he wasn't sure what the outcome would be, this time was no different.
"I don't know. His shoulder is badly infected and he's running a high fever. I cleaned everything the best I can. If he makes it through the night his chances should improve."
Vin's blue eyes showed his fear, they could still lose one of their own. Vin knew if Ezra died he didn't give good odds on the Major leaving town alive.
Vin looked across the street from the saloon to see a small unit of men enter the town and pull up in front of the jail. He watched as the Major directed them towards the stables. As Vin watched the contingent of men make their way to the stables he realized they would of lost four of those five men before the unit arrived. The taciturn tracker pulled his hat down and strode across the street towards the jail. He entered, stopping when the two Sergeants aimed their guns at him. "Whoa, boys." He raised his arms showing he was unarmed. He casually walked over to the cell to see Chris stretched out on the bunk, his hat over his face.
Chris removed his hat and sat up as Vin pulled a chair over to the bars. He looked over his shoulder at the two men who glared at him.
"How's Ezra?" Chris asked, afraid of the answer. Ezra hadn't looked too good coming into town.
"Not good. If he survives the night his chances should improve," Vin explained.
Chris dropped his head, the thought of Ezra dying twisted his gut into knots, something he hadn't expected. His blue gaze rose up to meet his friend's matching stare. "You all need to be with him. In case..." Chris let the sentence hang. It would hurt him more if the egotistical conman died alone. Vin nodded and rose from the chair. He tipped his hat in salute and walked out.
The next morning another regiment rode in, led by a Colonel. The Major exited the jail and eagerly saluted the unknown Officer.
"Sir, I am Major Sumners how can I be of assistance?"
The Colonel swung his leg over and dismounted his horse to stand in front of the now subservient Major. His face was lined and wrinkled, looking like crinkled parchment. His eyes were bright though and they looked the arrogant Major up and down, seeming to assess him right there on the spot.
"I am Colonel Jenkins, my son sent me a telegram informing me of a very interesting situation."
The Major scrunched up his face, bringing his brows together. "Your son?"
"Yes, Corporal Max Jenkins, he's part of your regiment, is he not?" the Colonel asked.
"Oh Corporal Jinx, yes sir, and what a fine young soldier he is. I was just telling one of my men the other day what a fine..."
The Colonel leaned over slightly, getting the Major's attention. "You lick my boots any cleaner and you're going to choke on the dust, Major."
Major Sumners flustered and stepped back. "Ah...yes sir."
"I wish to speak with my son."
At that moment Corporal Jenkins appeared behind the Major giving a snappy salute towards his father.
Major Sumners stood bewildered on the boardwalk, watching the two men walk casually up the street towards the telegraph office. He wiped at his face, feeling the stubble and making a note to shave the first chance he got. He then wondered what the Corporal had told his father, and suddenly a sick feeling churned in his stomach and his face paled.
An hour later the Colonel and his son met Major Sumners outside the jail.
"I understand you're holding a Mr. Chris Larabee."
"Yes, Sir. He's a traitor; he released my prisoners," Sumners explained.
The Colonel pursed his lips then scratched his head. "I would like to meet Mr. Larabee."
"I have him under arrest in the jail, Sir, if you'll just follow me."
The Major stepped aside as the Colonel pushed his way past. He didn't need some ass-kisser leading him anywhere. His son had told him the whole story and he had then contacted Judge Travis.
The Colonel entered the jail followed closely by the Major. The three Sergeants standing guard immediately snapped to attention. The Colonel noticed the dark-clad gunslinger stretched out in the cell, seemingly unconcerned.
"At ease, gentlemen," he absently replied as he approached the bars. "Mr. Larabee?"
Chris raised his hat and sat up when he saw the Colonel. "I am Colonel Jenkins. My son has told me everything you and your men have gone through and what you did to save my boy."
Chris didn't say a word. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall, not knowing what to expect. He had had his fill of Military officers.
The Colonel turned to the Major. "Release him, Major."
"What! Sir I..."
"I said release him. The charges are dropped."
The two military men stared at each other; one hardened by years of experience and living, the other by arrogance and greed.
Major Sumners' shoulders slumped slightly. "Sir, he still struck a United States officer." He was trying to hold on to something. He couldn't abide Larabee's smug attitude and desperately wanted to bring the gunslinger down a peg or two.
The Colonel could see the faint lines of a bruise on the Major's face. He turned to Chris. "Is that true?" he asked with just the hint of a smile on his aged face.
Chris only nodded in reply. The Colonel could see the devil himself in Chris' icy blue eyes and had to smile. The Judge had spoke well of the seven lawmen, who protected the town, and especially of the dark-clad gunslinger.
"Well Major." The Colonel turned around to face the Major. "Be thankful he didn't kill you. I would of in his position."
The Major's face fell as his world crumbled.
"And we'll be discussing your conduct with your superiors when we reach Fort Fisher. You lost two good men and put civilians at risk I want to know why?" the Colonel sneered, and for a moment he looked more threatening then all seven of the gunslingers put together. "Now release Mr. Larabee and hope he doesn't tear your head off."
"Yes... yes, Sir," Major Sumners stammered, throwing up a clumsy salute, which was ignored. One of the Sergeants rushed to the cell and quickly unlocked it.
Chris casually picked up his hat and walked smoothly out. He paused a moment alongside the honorable Colonel.
"Mr. Larabee, I do apologize on behalf of the United States Army."
Chris held his lips in a firm straight line and met the Colonel's gray aged eyes. "Tell that to Ezra." With that he strode out the door.
Chris took slow deliberate steps towards Nathan's clinic. His boots producing a hollow sound on the stairs, which matched the hollowness within him. He looked up as Buck and Vin exited the clinic quietly closing the door. Vin smiled when he saw Chris climbing up the stairs.
"Ay, cowboy how'd you get out?" he asked, checking the street below for any sign of pursuit.
"Corporal Jenkins' father is a Colonel," he replied, flashing a smirk towards his two friends. He nodded towards the door. "How's he doing?"
Buck looked at the door. "Well, he made it through the night. He's still running a pretty high fever, but Nathan thinks he'll make it," Buck explained. Exhaustion from the ordeal still showed on the mustached gunslinger's face and the horror still resided in his dark eyes.
Chris slumped against the wall. When he had seen Ezra and Buck out there on the desert he thought he'd be watching their deaths. He had always taken his responsibility of being the leader of the six unique men very seriously, but he hadn't counted on caring about them like some sort of big brother. His heart and soul had been ripped apart when his wife and son had died three years ago, maybe these six men were starting to put the pieces back together.
Chris entered the darkened room. He saw Nathan mixing up some herbs as Josiah sat in the rocking chair with his eyes closed but not asleep.
Chris sat on the chair that was at the head of the bed and looked down at the man, who took great pleasure in antagonizing him to the point of wanting to ring his neck. Chris smiled faintly as he reflected on the gambler. Ezra liked to take chances and risks, he lived his life that way, as long as the odds were stacked in his favor. Chris suspected that Ezra could read him well enough to know how far to push him. Although, at times, he had almost pushed him to the limits. Chris had to admit he would of missed hearing that smooth southern drawl as he conned his way out of one situation into another. He would even miss the feeling of wanting to kill the suave conman with his bare hands. He was part of them, a part that would be missed as much as any of them.
Chris looked down at the face that was bathed in sweat. He looked so young, so innocent, which was a word rarely uttered in the same room as the roguish conman. Ezra's eyes fluttered and his head rolled to the side caught in the throes a fevered nightmare.
Josiah watched through slitted eyes as Chris placed a calming hand on the gambler's shoulder, and chuckled slightly when Ezra went back into a restful slumber.
Chris turned to the sound of several booted footsteps trying to tip toe quietly in. Buck, JD, and Vin quietly entered, all prepared to keep an eye on their seventh man. Chris slumped back into the chair finally allowing himself to relax. They were still seven men with one destiny, they were still whole.
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