Rancor of Honor
Chris was soaked to the bone by the time he arrived back at his shack. He slowly pulled his saddle from Diablo and placed it under the porch overhang. Next he grabbed the blanket and threw it on top of the saddle to keep it dry. The blond turned back to the black and untied Diablo’s reins from the wooden post and led him to the corral. He opened the gate and the big black followed him in. Chris turned and the well-trained horse lowered his head so that Larabee could slip off the bridle. For a time, man and horse stood silent in the light drizzle. The cool raindrops felt good against the blond’s hot face cooling it down. Chris finally sent Diablo off with a pat and after hanging the bridle on a peg he went inside to dry off.
Larabee peeled off his black duster and threw it over the chair. His head still ached from his morning encounter with the little piglet. He went to the corner cupboard and poured himself a shot of whiskey, downing it in one gulp. Licking his lips, Chris poured another shot and this time sipped slowly, letting it warm his gut. Grabbing the whiskey bottle, the gunslinger made his way to the bed, sat down and poured another shot, then placed the bottle on the floor next to the bed where he could find it. He raised the glass to his lips and once more slowly sipped some of the golden liquid. Chris winced as his left hand rubbed against the side of his face where a dark purple bruise ran from his temple down to his cheekbone.
Exhausted, Chris pulled his boots off and placed them by the foot of the bed. Weary, he lifted his legs and settled his back against the headboard. Chris leaned his head back, fighting to keep his eyes open, but lost the battle as he fell into a drunken slumber. The glass he was holding in his right hand slipped out of his fingers and fell to the floor. The glass hit the floor, spinning, without breaking, rolling to a stop a few feet from the bed.
It was well past midnight when the first sounds of whimpering escaped Chris’ lips. His body curled inside itself, subconsciously trying to seem smaller. He was caught up in his childhood nightmare.
Gray clouds swirled around Chris as he walked a few steps then stopped, tilting his head, listening for any familiar sounds. Hearing nothing he moved on and then suddenly he felt like he was falling, floating downward falling into a bottomless pit; at the same time he felt his body shrink smaller and smaller. He reached out, his fingers scraping against the cold stone wall. With strength of mind, the blond willed his body to stop its descent and clawed his way back up and out of the pit. Taking deep breaths, Larabee stood on shaking legs as behind him the pit disappeared. A gentle breeze brushed against his face, warm and inviting and Chris proceeded forward. The wind picked up, carrying a musical sound along the air current. The blond was drawn towards the musical voice; it was a source of warmth and love. Chris staggered forward in haste as he became aware of a menacing presence reaching out to gather him into its embrace. Larabee shivered as he ran, leaving the dark, murky demon behind, fleeing to the musical voice as it called out his name.
“Baby… don’t hide from mommy.” Elena Larabee’s angelic voice called out to her five-year-old son. She was wearing her finest gown. The dress matched her emerald green eyes and she looked stunning with her long blonde hair flowing down her back. She wanted everything to be perfect when her husband returned home. The house smelled like fresh peaches and cinnamon from the jam she finished canning earlier in the day. The parlor was decorated with small ribbons of blue, yellow and green, tied together making up streamers that lined the walls. In the center of the table was a round two-layer cake with white frosting and little toy ponies on top. The cake was for her son’s fifth birthday party. Her son’s giggles rose from behind the love seat and green eyes that matched her own peeked around the corner to look up at her.
“Mommy,” chuckled little Christopher as he stood up. In one hand he held a toy, a stuffed black and white horse’s head on a stick, lovingly made by his mother with buttons for the eyes and a red ribbon for the harness. The little boy moved the slender piece of wood that made up the toy’s body between his legs and pretended to gallop over to his mother.
“How is my little cowboy?” Elena reached down and lifted his son into her arms. She swung him around as he giggled with delight. “I believe it’s time for Blackie and his master to take a nap.” She told the yawning five-year-old in her arms.
“No nap…want papa, promised!” pouted the toddler as his right thumb headed for his mouth. Christopher’s mouth closed around his thumb as he finished a second yawn. Elena smiled down at her weary little boy and moved to sit in the rocking chair to settle him down for a nap. As she reached over to get the baby blanket, she thought she heard the sound of horses stopping in front of the small two story house. Elena was excited as she stood and shifted Christopher’s head against her shoulder, pulling the blanket up to cover his head. She kissed him on the side of the cheek and went to greet her husband at the front door.
Elena carefully opened the front door so that she wouldn’t wake the sleeping child in her arms. She took a voluntary step back inside the hallway at the sight of the man walking up the steps towards her. From the glossy look in his eyes Elena could tell that he had been drinking. She looked past the man hoping to see her husband and friends riding towards the small cottage. It was late and most of the slaves and men who worked for her husband’s grandfather were already in for the night. The young mother was alone with her five-year-old son. “Charles,” she said, keeping her voice steady; she hadn’t seen the man since before she had been married. Elena shifted the baby in her left arm, keeping him out of sight and out of reach, behind the door.
“Elena.” Charles said her name as he put his hand on the doorframe, leaning his head in the door. “Elena, it’s been a long time.” His eyes roamed the portion of her body that was not covered by the door. “You’re still the most beautiful woman in Louisiana.”
She didn’t know what to say, she couldn’t let him in the house. “Thank you, Charles.”
“May I come in?”
“It’s late Charles. Tyrone should be arriving home any minute now.” Elena saw the man’s eyes harden at the sound of her husband’s name. “Please, Charles, go back home. Remember our past friendship and let it be…let it be enough. You shouldn’t be here… I love Tyrone.” Her eyes pleaded with him to go away. The bundle in her arms started to wake up and little Christopher slowly opened his eyes.
“The men are gone?” Charles asked with a tight sneer on his face. Elena instantly knew she made a mistake, she shouldn’t have told him that Tyrone wasn’t home. Charles placed his foot in the doorway, blocking her from shutting the door in his face. Elena’s body shuddered in fear and her child picked up on that fear and dug his face into her shoulder, his little body shaking in terror. Her deep love for her son took over and Elena wrapped both arms around him, hugging him closer to her body, whispering sweet words of love into his little ear. As she shifted her son over to her right arm, the young mother heard Charles’s audible gasp of shock and she took several steps back away from his extended hand as it reached for the toddler. She quickly lowered the boy to the floor and said, “Run baby…run and hide…run…baby.” She stood facing Charles as Christopher obeyed, running down the hallway where the old grandfather clock chimed away. Elena screamed Tyrone’s name as Charles lunged towards her.
He was mad, lost in a rage that he couldn’t control. Savagely, Charles glanced around the room. He was out of breath as he finally caught up with the struggling woman. He grabbed her around the neck and placed his hand over her mouth, stopping her from telling the boy to wait for his Papa. Charles yelled for the boy to come out as he pulled Elena towards his chest. How dare she…she had a son…she gave that…that…devil a son… his son… the son that should have been his.
She struggled to get out of his arms. Elena bit down hard on the hand covering her mouth, she instantly heard Charles curse. The struggling woman felt a pressure against her side. Terrified, she exerted all her energy to free herself but failed to escape the strong grasp. She became numb, feeling no sensation from her lower body. Elena’s mouth opened and she tried to cry out; her face turned paste white from shock as she cast her eyes down, staring unbelievably at the knife protruding from her body. Elena whispered her husband’s name before her eyes rolled back into her head, becoming dead weight in her killer’s arms.
Charles lowered the body to the kitchen floor, his eyes wide and feral as he looked around the room, searching for the boy. The boy… devil’s son… had to get the boy. Charles stepped over Elena’s dead body, moving towards the parlor. He never saw the piercing green eyes staring straight at him through the crack in the cupboard under the sink. Charles ransacked the parlor, shoving the blood-covered into the middle of the cake. Not satisfied, Charles pulled the knife out of the cake and slashed down again and again, until the knife became embedded into the wood of the table. Like a mad dog, Charles tore through the parlor, over turning furniture, tossing lamps and fragile figurines to the floor. A glass vase shattered against the fireplace.
The whiskey glass shattered…
Chris woke with a scream, his body rising halfway out of the bed and soaked with sweat. For a moment he thought he was five again. The dream still swirling in his head, but the dream faded, leaving him with a feeling of dread. Chris glanced around the room; it was early morning, just before sunrise, and from the dull sound of thumping coming from the roof, it was still raining. Then off to his right he heard it again, the sound of breaking glass. A shadow in the dark moved and Larabee instantly reached for his gun, that wasn’t there.
The two shadows moved quickly to subdue the gunslinger. One of the men pulled his gun and hit Chris over the side of the head with the butt of the gun. Dazed for a moment, the gunslinger fell back onto the bed, blood ran down his face where the handle had cracked open the skin. “Did you kill him, Bart?” said the taller of the two men, his black hair dripping wet from the rain.
“Didn’t hit him hard enough to kill him. Check him, Tex,” answered the man named Bart.
“You check him, I aren’t going near him. Shellburne will knife ya for sure, if you hurt him.” Tex claimed. The tall rebel knew of the gunslinger’s reputation with a gun. The first thing he did when entering the shack was to grab Larabee’s gun from it holster and toss the ivory handled colt to his friend. A moan from the bed made both men step closer and prod the wounded gunslinger with the barrels of their guns. Seeing his chance, Chris struck out at the nearest man, clipping Bart in the jaw, forcing the small rebel to his knees. Tex pulled back in fear, giving the blond the time he needed to scramble from the bed. Once on his feet, Larabee took a right swing at the tall rebel, then he followed up with a left punch to the rebel’s stomach, forcing Tex to the ground. Chris didn’t wait to search for the gun that was tucked into the pants of the first man he had hit. Unarmed and bare foot, the gunslinger stumbled out the door into the storm.
“Don’t let him get away,” shouted Bart as he got to his feet.
The angry shouts of the two men drove Chris forward, staggering past the gate to the corral, past Diablo, who was frantic, running around the pen kicking at the rail posts, his hoofs flinging mud in all directions. The horse was desperate to follow his master. Larabee made his way blindly around the corral running into the trees. He ran until he stumbled down the creek embankment that wrapped around the western part of his land. The blond slid down the rock-covered slope, his body rolling over the sharp boulders, coming to a halt in the middle of the creek. Shaking the water out of his eyes, Chris staggered to his feet and made his way down the middle of the stream, trying to cover his tracks. The water was getting deeper as the gunslinger stumbled and fell over a large dead tree that had fallen across the creek. The rapid flow of a waterfall near by, brought Chris back to awareness. He glanced around at his surroundings; unarmed he knew he had to find a hiding place until Buck or Vin arrived. He knew when he didn’t show up in town to see the colonel off the others would be concerned and come looking for him. Slowly Larabee crawled around the dead trunk and gradually lifted himself up and out of the cold water. The old tree had split in half and after brushing the floating foliaged always from the crack the blond discovered it was hollow and wide enough for him to crawl inside. Feet first, Chris slid down inside the trunk. Gathering the wet foliage with his hands, Chris covered the opening, as the voices of the two men searching for him grew louder.
“Where is he?” Bart shouted at Tex. The two men had followed Chris’ trail but lost it after he hit the water.
“Are you sure he came this way?” Tex shouted over his shoulder. Both men were wet from running in the creek. “We don’t have time for this. Thomason is sure to have missed his men by now and ride out to investigate.”
Bart frowned and said, “Told Shellburne it was a mistake to kill those troopers.”
“Well, it’s too late, now; I think it’s time we head back to Mexico and cut our losses,” Tex told him. Both men turned at the sound of a bugle blowing off in the distance. “Shellburne is not going to like this,” he said as he pushed past Bart to climb the rocky slope, slipping and sliding until he made his way up the hill, mud caking his hands and face. Bart was not far behind.
The sound of the two men’s voices grew fainter as Chris listened to them arguing. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but his body subconsciously shuddered when he heard the name ‘Shellburne’. The return of the soft chirps of birds and the rustling of the brushes as the animals came out of hiding told him the men had moved off. Cold and wet, Larabee fought to keep his eyes open as blood ran down the side of his face. He needed to return to the shack, get his gun and hunt the two men down on his terms. The blond raised his hand to wipe the blood out of his eyes before crawling out of the dead tree when a piercing stab of pain shot through his head. Too cold and exhausted to fight the pain, Chris closed his weary eyes and collapsed, his unconscious body half under water.
It started to hail, the thunderous boom in the sky announced a new day….
Ezra had been up since the crack of dawn. After destroying his white shirt and a receiving a rip in his favorite red jacket, he had four of the eight piglets back in their pen. After changing, he was on the trail of the fifth. The piglet was heading towards the livery and food. Ezra was sure that Tiny was secretly feeding the pigs. The gambler stationed himself beside the barn door, waiting to grab the pig as it came around the corner. He heard the piglet snorting and readied himself. Like lightening, the piglet cut round the corner of the barn and Ezra made his lunge…and missed, falling hard. Dust drifted in the air as Ezra pounded the ground in frustration, “This is most undignified,” he said out loud.
“Having trouble, Ezra?” Vin asked, his voice low and smooth. He was leaning against the barn looking down at the gambler. Ezra stood up and brushed the dirt from his vest.
“No… no trouble at all, Mr. Tanner,” he said sarcastically, pulling down the cuffs on his once white sleeves. “Has Mr. Larabee decided to grace us humble peasants with his presence today?” Ezra asked, changing the subject.
“Diablo ain’t in his stall,” Vin answered. He was worried. He had expected Chris two hours ago. A bugle call forced the two men to turn their attention to the front side of the livery stable. C Troop was mounted and ready to ride, Major Winslow and Colonel Thomason stood, talking with Buck and Josiah. JD and Nathan stood off to the side, listening. Vin turned and motioned with his hand for Ezra to follow him through the barn door to see the soldiers off.
“Well Mr. Wilmington, we have waited long enough. It appears that Mr. Larabee has other business to take care of,” Major Winslow said, put out. With a nod of his head, he moved to mount his horse.
Waiting for the two men coming through the barn to join them, Colonel Thomason said abruptly before he whirled around to join his men, “Gentlemen, the army thanks you for the supplies.” Thomason was in a hurry to get out of town. The four scouts that he had sent to keep an eye on Larabee hadn’t return to make their morning report. The old soldier briskly made his way to his horse and placing his right foot in the stirrup, he mounted. With a wave of his hand, he advanced C Troop out of town. The soldiers rode two by two, following the flags of C Troop and its two officers.
“Well?” Buck asked.
Vin continued to stare after the troopers. “Something ain’t right, Larabee should’ve been there by now.” As the last soldier went out of view, the tracker walked back towards the barn. A crashing sound and horses’ shrilling came out of the barn and on its heels, ran a piglet. Instantly, Ezra’s double-barreled derringer was out of his sleeve pointing at the baby pig.
“I believe brother Chris said ‘alive, not dead’,” Josiah reminded him in his deep husky voice. Ezra pushed the derringer back up his sleeve. Turning, he followed Vin into the barn and started to saddle his horse, Loki.
“Someone needs to stay in town.” Buck told the other men. Three pairs of eyes turned toward JD.
Backing away, JD said, “No…I’m going,” he wheeled around in time to see Vin with Ezra leading their horses out of the barn. He quickly made his way towards them and entered the barn to saddle his horse, Dusty.
Buck shrugged his shoulders as he looked at the other two men. There would be no one staying. Nathan had to go and the stocky built Josiah was the only one who could control Chris without punching his lights out.
The three men turned as one towards the barn to see Vin leading Darling, her saddle already on. The tracker tied the mare’s bridle to the hitching post. He returned to his own horse, Unalil, checked the mares leg behind his saddle then mounted, waiting. Buck nodded to Nathan and Josiah to get their horses. It didn’t take long before Ginger and Dulcinea were saddled and ready to go. After double-checking his cinch, Buck mounted, turned Darling’s head toward the direction of Chris’ shack and said to the others, “Let’s ride.”
C Troop was a few miles out of town when Colonel Thomason raised his hand and halted the column. The officers continued a few paces, allowing seclusion for a private conversation.
“You’re thinking the same thing as I am,” Major Winslow stated. It wasn’t a question; he turned and waved to one of Thomason’s lieutenants forward. Young Lieutenant Jessie Smith raced to his side, ready to please the major.
“Something is wrong.” Thomason affirmed, “Sergeant Fargo should have reported back in by now.” The old soldier raised his hand stalling the overeager Smith's salute. “Seems you were right, there is more going on here tha n just stolen plates.”
Winslow stared over the hillside, lost in thought as he went over the last few weeks in his mind. There was evil about, he could smell it. Winslow turned to the young lieutenant, “Take two men with you and ride back into town and wire this message to the general.” He paused gathering his next words carefully before speaking to the lieutenant. The young officer pulled out his writing pad to take down notes. “Write word for word, lieutenant. Sir, your suspicions were right. Stop…Shellburne in territory. Stop… Come at all possible speed. Stop…Heading towards young Christopher's cabin. Stop…May be too late. Stop…” He paused to make sure Smith had written down each word. “Wait for confirmation and then meet us at the rendezvous point, due south of Coyote Canyon. Now off with you, boy.” The young lieutenant saluted, turned, pointed for two of the horse soldiers to follow him and they rode off, leaving a trail of dust behind them as their horses ran full out.
“Shellburne? Well that explains why the general sent you.” Thomason glared over to the younger officer. “I haven’t heard that name since the war. Clayton still in jail over in Wyoming?” He watched silently as the major’s back stiffened at the older brother’s named.
“And he'll rot there.” The Major's eyes were cold and distant as he stared right back at the Colonel. “It’s Charles that we’re after.”
“Could be… but then that madman could never orchestrate the pilfering of the currency plates.” Thompson stated. His eyes narrowed as his voice deepened, “you know it’s a trap.”
Winslow lowered his head before speaking softly, “I suspect so.”
“You suspect so. That all you have to say,” The Colonel's voice raised in anger, reflecting his frustration at the major’s uncaring attitude about his own safety. Why in God’s name was Tyrone risking the major’s life after…? Thomason stop his thought cold. “My God, man, you didn’t tell Tyrone about the letters.”
“There was no time.” Winslow shot back, “Tyrone was frantic about Charles sniffing around his son. The threat to Christopher is here and now. I couldn’t say no.”
“And if you end up dead?” Andy Thomason shouted back. Ready to reach over and smack some sense into his friend.
Silent meet Thomason’s questioned. Shaking his head, the Colonel pulled a map out of his saddlebag, opened it up and studied the trail marked out for him by his general, the route to young Larabee’s cabin. The sound of horses in the distance made Thomason glanced up, with a frown on his face, Andy pointed towards the southwest direction where six riders were making their way down the hill. “It looks like those six peacekeepers have the same idea. This should become interesting, to say the least,” the colonel told the major. With a wave of his hand forward, Major Winslow moved the column, slowly and as quietly as possible, following the six riders.
“Are they still out there?” Buck asked the tracker. All six peacekeepers were dismounted, standing out of view under the trees, east of the gunslinger’s shack. Buck pointed to Nathan and Josiah, directing them to make their way around to the backside of Chris’ shack. Then Buck whispered to Ezra to scout the front side around the corral. He kept JD with the horses; Buck wanted the kid where he could keep an eye on him.
“Yup, troopers are still there, about a mile behind us. Been following us on and off for a while, though, looks like they were heading in this direction all along.” Vin raised his spyglass again, waiting for Buck’s next question. The tracker didn’t have to wait long.
“What did you think they’re up to?” Buck asked, moving to stand by the tracker.
“Looks like they’re looking for something. Several of the troopers are off their horses.” Vin paused when he saw one of the troopers point and half the column rode over to a tall grassy area. “Yup, they’re tracking, they just found…” He stopped talking as he watched the three soldiers dismount, bend over and lift a body out of the yellow grass. He leaned forward to get a better look and released a sigh when he saw the stiff body had dark hair and was wearing a blue uniform.
“What did they find?” JD whispered.
Vin turned to face Buck and said, “What’s going on Buck? And don’t tell me you don’t know. First Orin Travis sends for Chris to ride up to Fort Laramie. Then Larabee disappears for a couple of weeks, and when he finally shows his face back in town… what happens the next day? We have the cavalry riding all over the territory. And one more thing, I could of sworn that Chris knew this Colonel Thomason. I can’t put my finger on it, but there was a look in Chris’ eyes.”
‘What kind of look?’ JD thought to himself. JD almost kicked himself as he received a stern look from the two older men; he had asked the question out loud. Vin turned, letting Buck deal with the kid and he once again raised his spyglass to his eye. JD had learned long time ago not to question Buck about Chris or the two men’s past, once again in his excitement, the youngest peacekeeper almost stepped over the line. “Sorry, Buck.”
Vin stood back, lowering the spyglass, his voice heavy with worry as he said, “We need to get to the shack. They just found three more bodies.” Vin made a straight line for Chris’ shack, forcing Buck and JD to run to keep up.
All three men were breathing heavy when they stopped a few yards from the shack. Vin saw Ezra out of the corner of his eye near the corral; the gambler nodded his head, all clear. Vin and Buck inched forward, silently telling JD to watch their backs. JD pulled his colts out of his hostlers. Buck laid his hand on Vin’s shoulder, pointing to the movement around the left side of the shack. Josiah waved all clear and made his way to the door. He slowly peeked inside, and then went in, gun drawn ready for anything, with Nathan right behind him. The four men outside waited for the sign of all clear. It didn’t take long…Nathan waved them to come in as Josiah walked out the door beside him, a disturbed look on his face.
The four peacekeepers hurried to join the other two men. As they reached the door, Buck was the first to ask, “Well…?”
“He’s not inside,” Josiah said. Buck could tell that he was clearly holding something back and pushed his way past the door not waiting to hear what else the big man had to say. Josiah didn’t try to stop him. “Ezra, take JD and get the horses and bring them back to the corral.” Josiah grabbed Vin’s arm before he could enter the door. “There was a struggle.” Vin nodded, before he crouched down to the ground, studying the footprints. Two wore boots and one was bare-footed. After a while Vin stood and followed the tracks made by the one not wearing any boots, the tracker followed the footprints around the corral.
Diablo snorted noisily as he caught sight of the tracker. The horse pawed at the ground angrily, demanding to be let out. “Easy boy,” Vin whispered. Diablo looked the tracker in the eye and reared up on his hind legs, his front hoofs kicking in the air. His front hoofs hit the ground hard and Diablo ran around the pen kicking at the posts on the western end. As Vin watched the horse repeatedly run around the pen, each time he came to the western end, Diablo kicked as if he was pointing, sending the tracker a message. Vin took off running for the trees with Nathan and Josiah not far behind, their guns out, covering the tracker’s back. As Vin reached the trees he heard the sound of running water and made his way towards the creek. “Nathan, you and Josiah go up stream, yell if you find him,” Vin shouted over his shoulder. He came to a halt at the side of the creek embankment and studied the three sets of tracks. He drew in his breath as he saw the signs where someone had slid down the slope; little spatters of blood laced the rocky trail.
Vin jumped down the embankment and slid until his feet hit the water’s edge. Again he studied the muddy bank and saw two sets of tracks, deep in the mud. Vin looked up and down the creek trying to decide which way to go, he turned at the sound of Josiah’s voice calling out to Nathan, a little ways up stream. He waited, nothing, no shouts that they had found him. Vin glanced back down stream. Where is he?
As he walked along side the water, the tracker came across a dead tree that had fallen across the creek. He jumped up on the log, leaping over the broken truck where it has spit in half and walked to the other side, again looking for any signs where Chris might have left the water. Turning back around, the Tracker made is way back over the truck, stopping were the dead tree had broken in half. Water lapped at the edge of the log as Vin studied the terrain, his eyes narrowing. Something seemed out of place. He stared down at the wet underbrush piled against the log opening, brown, orange leaves floated down stream on the surface of the water, as the water ate away at the pile. Vin bent down to get a drink of water and brush away some of the rust color leaves from the log. Dipping his hand in the cool water, he cried out as his fingers brushed against a cold hand. “Oh God…Chris!”
Vin jumped into the water, shoving the pile of leaves out of his way. “Nathan! I found him! Nathan!” The tracker pushed his way into the hollow log until he saw Chris’ mud caked hair. Grabbing the unconscious man by the shoulders, Vin pulled with all he had. It wasn’t long before Josiah’s strong hands were helping Vin pull Chris out of the log.
“Keep his head out of the water,” Nathan told them. “Easy…easy…get him over to the bank.” Josiah instantly put his arm under Chris’s legs as the other one wrapped around his upper body and he lifted the blond up with ease and swiftly moved him to the bank. The three men got their first good look at the unconscious gunslinger as Josiah gently lower himself to the dirt, refusing to give up his burden. Nathan knelt beside Chris, running his hands down the gunslinger’s arms, then legs. Finally Nathan pulled the cold, wet shirt away from Chris’ chest. The healer looked up and said, “No bullet wounds or broken bones.” The healer placed his hand on Chris’ head gently examining the deep, mud caked gash running along his temple. “We need to get Chris out of this wet clothes and warmed up before he catches pneumonia.” Not waiting to be asked, the gentle giant lifted the unconscious gunslinger in his arms. With Nathan and Vin’s help, the composed preacher made his way back up the embankment. Halfway to the gunslinger’s shack they ran into Colonel Thomason and his dismounted troopers.
Buck lost track of time as he waited. The shack was in shambles, cupboards tip over, the bedside lamp knocked over when the bed was overturn, and broken glass littered the floor. Buck slowly walked over in a daze and turned the bed right side up. Sitting down, he placed his hands over his face, his whole body shaking. He looked up as JD and Ezra walked through the door. “Heard anything yet?” Both men shook their heads.
JD walked over to the overturned chest with its contents spilled out across the floor. Wanting to stay busy, he bent and knelt on the floor, gathering the gunslinger’s belongings to place them back inside the chest. JD ran his hand down the cavalry sword, in awe before he placed it back inside the chest. Then he gently started to fold the blue uniform when a velvet blue box dropped from its pocket onto the floor. Without thinking JD reached over and picked the box up and opened it. He stared down at the shinning medal, “Ahhh….Buck.” JD held the box, “This is…is…”
Ezra interrupted, “That gentlemen is the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor the nation can bestow on one of its gallant heroes.” The gambler studied Buck’s face before asking, “The medal, I assume, is Mr. Larabee’s.”
Before Buck could answer, Vin called out that they had found Chris. Buck and Ezra stood facing the door and JD reverently placed the box with the medal on Chris’ uniform as Josiah walked through the door with his precious cargo. Nathan was right behind, calling for the men to start a fire. Josiah slowly walked over and gently placed Chris on the bed and with Nathan’s help they peeled the wet clinging clothing off the unconscious gunslinger. Buck hovered over Nathan’s shoulder taking the wet clothing and draping the pieces over a chair as Nathan gathered blankets to cover the blond, tucking the edges around his shivering body.
“Is he alive?” asked Colonel Thomason, his voice deep with worry for his old friend. Buck turned, staring past Vin at the man coming through the door.
“What the hell is going on, Colonel?” Buck demanded, storming over to face the soldier.
Colonel Thomason didn’t back down from the man stalking towards him. He remembered how protective Sergeant Wilmington was of the then young Captain Christopher Larabee. The colonel snarled, “Shellburne.”
His eyes going wide, Buck froze in his tracks.
A moan escaped the gunslinger’s lips as Nathan finished stitching his forehead. “He’s coming around,” the healer said to the men hovering over his shoulder. Nathan placed the bloody needle and thread on the nightstand.
Chris released another moan, and without opening his eyes, he whispered through trembling lips, “Cold… so cold.” Josiah instantly grabbed the blanket toasting near the black iron stove and gently added the warm blanket to the pile. Chris’ body snuggled around the added warmth, slowly drifting to sleep. Nathan frowned. He didn’t like the rattling sound in Chris’ lungs as he breathed.
“Oh…No you don’t soldier. Report!” Colonel Thomason demanded, pushing his way to Chris’ side. His stern command never reached his eyes as he laid his hand on Chris’ shoulder.
Chris’ eyes flew open at the colonel’s tone of voice. “Sir…” Feverish eyes looked up at the faces hovering over the bed. Through his hazy vision, Chris made out a blue uniform and uttered, “Andy?” Chris started to choke as he coughed, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath.
“Turn him on his side,” Nathan ordered, as he pushed the colonel out of his way. “Vin, go get the herb mixture on the stove.” The tracker went over and poured the warm mixture into a tin cup. On the other side of the bed, Buck went down on his knees and helped the healer roll Chris on his side to help his breathing. “Slow, deep, breaths, Chris…take it easy. One breath at a time,” Nathan soothed. Vin returned with the herbs, handing the tin cup over to Nathan. “Chris drink this…easy.” Nathan tilted the cup to Chris’ lips and the gunslinger took short sips.
“I’m fine,” Chris choked out, pressing his lips together to stop another cough. He pushed the tin cup away, glancing up at the colonel.
“Chris, you’re not fine. So don’t lie to me,” said Nathan, pausing before turning to the Colonel. “This man is sick, Colonel. You’ll just have to wait to ask him questions til after we get him back to town.”
“Ya’ll have to wait,” Buck muttered in agreement.
“Wait for what, Sergeant? I already have four dead soldiers,” the colonel bellowed, his face going red with anger. He didn’t even realize his slip. “Chris has already been attacked once. How long do you think it will be before Shellburne makes another attempt to grab him?”
“He tried to kill him again.” Buck shouted back. Nothing made any sense to Buck anymore. The war was over; why would this mad man be after his friend? All eyes were glued on the two arguing men and no one noticed the gunslinger trying to get out of bed.
“Andy!” Chris choked out, swinging his shaky legs to the floor. Nathan caught him before he slid to the ground, pushing the gunslinger back into bed.
“Damn Chris,” Nathan scolded. Turning he yelled back over to the others, “Buck, Colonel get out and let me help this man.”
“NO!” Chris’s cracked voice roared, his eyes going hard as he looked at the colonel. “Two men, heard them say they killed four soldiers.” He paused to cough again, shrugging off Nathan’s hand. “Heard them say…Shellburne.” Chris coughed again; he closed his eyes against the burning pain in his chest.
“Drink this,” Nathan said as he held the tin cup full of liquid against Chris’ lips. Slowly, the gunslinger drank the water. It didn’t take long before Nathan’s sleeping potion took effect and Chris slowly closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep. “Well, that’s settled, Chris will be out for a couple of hours.” The healer turned angry eyes on the colonel.
“Colonel Thomason, Buck, I think it’s about time you tell us what going on,” Vin challenged, his eyes cold and hard. The tracker needed to know the truth. It was the only way he could protect his friend.
“How much do you know?” the Colonel inquired, studying the six peacekeepers’ faces. The men looked at each other before shaking or waving their hands that they knew nothing…all but Buck, his eyes were on the sleeping gunslinger.
Again, the tracker challenged the colonel. “Who’s Shellburne?” He leaned back against the wall, beside Chris’ bed, standing guard.
“Major Shellburne.” Buck finally spoke, his voice sounded like it was off the distance. “Never had the pleasure of meeting the bastard. Can’t say the same for Chris. Meet Chris a few days before the battle of Gettysburg, we were just dumb kids. Well, I was the dumb kid. Chris…well, he was smart, too smart.” Buck stopped and studied his sleeping friend. “Shouldn’t tell you this but, well, Chris went to the Point…West Point, graduated just before the battle, top of his class and a year younger than most of the other cadets. You see he had family… important family. Made him an easy target for the rebels. That’s why Buford, John Buford, kept him as one of his aides.” Buck paused, remembering his time spent during the war was painful. He almost lost his best friend, the man who walked away from his family, to follow him out west.
The five other peacekeepers settled down to listen. Too young to remember the war, JD was eager to learn more about his hero. The tracker just wanted to know who to hunt down; no one attacked his family and got away with it. Nathan’s face was drawn as he remembered the days during the war he spent helping Union doctors save the wounded or help buried the dead. Josiah listened with a heavy heart, not wanting to be reminded of his time in California.
Ezra’s eyes watered as he remembered his birthplace down in the south and the harsh times during the war. The southerner’s breath hitched in his throat as he remembered another time, his eyes glue to the feverish blonde’s face, as long forgotten memories flooded his mind.
The colonel took over where Buck had stopped, “Even Buford couldn’t keep Chris out of harm’s way.”
“General Buford was down. Don’t ever let Chris hear you say that what happened that day was General Buford’s fault. Chris loved that man like a father. More then that so called father that abandoned him. When Chris saved Devin from being captured by the rebels, he was doing his duty,” Buck stated in the dead general’s defense.
Defending his own general, Thomason said in a cold voice, “The Blue Ghost was in Vicksburg, under orders from General Grant, to stay away from Shellburne when Chris was captured.”
“Is that when Chris got the medal? Buck, you knew the Blue Ghost?” JD asked in awe. Every school boy heard of the Blue Ghost and his men, the ones who slipped through Confederate lines, bringing out gold and information about rebel troop movement. They were legends.
“What medal?” Josiah asked, having not seen the medal earlier.
“It seems that Mr. Larabee received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his gallant deed of saving Colonel Devin’s life, I presume at the near cost of his own.” Ezra said; he wondered if the others had figured it out yet, just where Chris had disappeared to. As for the Blue Ghost, Ezra had heard the rumors after the war that the man was from the south, a traitor. Standish looked up and over the colonel’s shoulder, his face paled as he looked into eyes of death.
“You’re right Ezra, saving Devin that day almost cost Chris his life. They gave him a medal for it. As for the Blue Ghost, JD, didn’t I tell you to stop reading those dime store novels?” Buck twisted around to glace at his sick friend, his voice was hard when he continue speaking, “You can’t believe what they write in them the Blue Ghost was just a man, a hard cold man who didn’t care about anything but his duty.”
Seeing that the colonel was about to explode, JD turned to the quiet preacher and asked, “Josiah, which side did you fight on?” Josiah was taken back, shaken; before he could answer he heard the colonel’s voice.
“North, South. Blue or gray, it doesn’t matter anymore. boy, we’re all Americans now. In the end, when they lay dying on the cold, wet, fields of Shiloh, Chattanooga, and in the lush green fields of the Shenandoah Valley. They bled red. What’s important is to remember those brave men who fought and those that died for what they believed in, no matter what color they wore or the color of their skin. They died Americans, they lived on as Americans under one flag.”
“Amen, brother,” Josiah whispered.
Vin broke the silence, “So why after all this time is Shellburne back? Why is he after Chris? The war’s over.”
“The war will never be over for Shellburne til he hunts down and kills the Blue Ghost. After the war, Shellburne dropped out of sight. We believe he headed towards Mexico. About a year ago, new plates were stolen from the US Treasury department. We suspected Shellburne had a hand in the theft and counterfeit bills have been showing up all around the territory.”
Thomason stop, at the sound of the door opening and closing, he took a deep breath, glancing over he saw the major’s body stiffen, and waited for the soft murmuring of the soldier’s report to finish before adding, “We believe that Shellburne is trying to draw out the Blue Ghost. His identity is still only known to a handful of men, and the Blue Ghost now works for the new Secret Service department. It was just blind luck on Shellburne’s part to have run into Chris in New Y….” Thomason stopped, and then continued, “It doesn’t matter where but Shellburne must have followed Chris back to Four Corners.”
“Colonel Thomason, you believe the counterfeiters are hiding out somewhere near here and Shellburne’s with them?” Vin asked.
“I can answer that better than the Colonel.” Major Winslow stated, as he advanced further into the shack, holding a dispatch in his hand. “C Troop has trailed the outlaws to the entrance of Coyote Canyon, where we lost their tracks. We need a tracker. Sir, this is for you.” Winslow handed the dispatch over to the colonel.
The colonel felt all eyes in the room turn towards him as he read the dispatch. Looking up at the major, he said, “Damn that Sheridan, I have my orders, gentlemen. By orders of the general, Christopher is to be taken under guard back to town.” The six peacekeepers stood up out their seats, hands on their guns. “Gentlemen, please. It’s for his protection. Don’t ask me how he does it, but the general will be in town tomorrow night and he expects Shellburne’s head on a gold plate.”
“He’s coming here…?” a rough, harsh voice choked out. Nathan moved to Chris’ side and checked his forehead, still feverish, but not deadly hot. The healer went to the stove and started to mix more herbs for the gunslinger to drink. “Vin, they need a tracker. You’re the best…” Chris closed his eyes; his lungs burned with each painful breath. “Don’t wait for me,” he uttered between breaths.
“Which direction did you say the counterfeiters were heading?” Vin turned and questioned Major Winslow.
“Southwest. We lost their tracks in the rocky terrain of the canyon,” Winslow replied. “Almost lost several men yesterday when a flash flood raced through the narrow canyon floor. It will be dangerous.” His eyes gleamed with the anticipation of catching and ending a year old search.
“It will take a full night’s ride to reach the canyon,” Vin said, thinking out loud. The tracker glanced around the gunslinger’s shack, picking out items they would need for the long trail.
“If we leave now, we can reach Gray Tail cliff before sunrise,” Buck added, knowing that they had no choice. If they waited, Shellburne would attack again without warning. Better to take the fight to the outlaws first. Buck watched his oldest friend struggle for each breath he took. Buck turned; his eyes met the blue cold steel ones of the tracker’s. Both agreed in that moment to leave Chris behind.
“Gentlemen, I have a solution to your dilemma. I would be honored to lead the entourage for our distinguished hero, and secure his deliverance back to our fair town,” Ezra said, solving the problem. Standish stood straighter, feeling the Devil’s eyes fixed on him. He could almost see the blue eyes turned to gray as the man searched his memory.
Buck gave the southern gambler a lop-sided look, and said, “Nathan, can Chris ride in the morning?”
“I’ll ride.” Chris, hacked, forcing air past his dry throat. Nathan glanced over his shoulder, a disturbed expression on his face. Chris’s lungs were becoming congested. The healer rummaged through the gunslinger’s cupboard as the others continued to make plans to ride out after the horses had been watered and fed.
Shoving cans around, the healer found what he was looking on the back shelf. Opening the tin can, he took a whiff, his nose wrinkled at the smell. Deciding that the spice was still good, Nathan grabbed a bowl and poured a cup of flour from the bin under the hutch, and then added three teaspoons of the brownish yellow power. After mixing the two dry ingredients, Nathan walked over to the water pump and added just enough water to make a paste. Stirring with a wooden spoon, Nathan transferred the mixture back over to the stove and heated the medicated mass until it was soft. Nathan turned his head sideways; the room soon reeked of mustard. Spreading the poultice on a hot cloth, Nathan advanced on his victim.
“Don’t you walk out that door yet. I’m gonna need ya to hold the stubborn man down,” Nathan told the five peacekeepers who were backing away from the smelly cloth, their eyes full of horror. The six men all recognized the smell and JD and Ezra were the first to hightail it out the door, almost running over the two cavalry officers. Chris was about to be drenched in mustard. “Now Chris, don’t you give me that look. This will help with your breathing,” Nathan told the struggling gunslinger as he attempted to rise from the bed.
“Sorry, cowboy,” said Vin as he took hold of Chris’ shoulder forcing the gunslinger back against the bed. Vin turned his nose up at the smell assaulting his nostrils. Josiah grabbed the gunslinger’s kicking feet, turning his head away from the foul odor, his eyes watering.
“Don’t you put that stuff on me,” Chris snarled between coughs, struggling against the hands that kept him bound to the bed. Ignoring the gunslinger, Buck battled to unbutton Chris’ cream-colored longjohns so that Nathan could slap the mustard covered cloth against the sick man’s chest. At first, the hot cloth burned against Chris’ skin, then a warm sensation spread down his chest, sending healing waves of warmth to his congested lungs. Chris’s eyes became heavy and he soon drifted back to sleep.
“That will keep him down for the rest of the night, giving you boys the time to head on out to the canyon. If he wakes up while you’re still here, we’ll have a hell of a time keeping him from riding along.” Nathan stood by the bed, looking down at his stubborn patient, hands on his hip, his shirt smudged with mustard.
“If all goes as planned, we’ll be back in town tomorrow night,” Buck said, pausing before he added, “If you have any trouble, send Ezra after us.” He was finding it hard to leave his friend, shifting his feet back and fourth, Buck finally walked out of the shack, edging his way between the soldiers, he headed over to the corral to saddle Darling.
The barrel-chested preacher bowed his head in prayer before he made his way out the door to saddle Dulcinea.
“He’ll be all right, Vin,” Nathan told the tracker.
“You’re sure?” Vin whispered, his eyes never leaving his friend’s sleeping face.
“Yes,” Nathan reassured the tracker. Reluctantly Vin went outside, the others already sitting on their horses. He was halfway up on Unalil when he heard Nathan’s voice call out, “Ezra, I need more wood chopped for the fire.”
As Vin settling on the saddle, Ezra came in view, with his arms full of wood. The gambler hustled as he made his way toward the stack. Satisfied that Ezra wouldn’t let them down, Vin turned to the others and said, “Let’s ride.”
The red and orange canyon walls rose twenty feet high in the narrow ravine. Years of gushing water had eroded the bottom of the sandstone cliffs, leaving a high over hang, with deep blue and red veins running vertically throughout. Tall pyramid-shaped trees, with soft lightwood, lined the edge of the cliffs. A bird’s cry drew Vin’s eyes upward; young eagle with a six-foot wingspan glided the wind currants, majestic against the indigo sky. Closing his eyes for a second, Vin took a deep breath; he loved the smell of air after a morning dazzle, mixed with the fresh scent of evergreen.
The four peacekeepers, along with C Troop, had camped at the basin of Gray Tail cliff; the gray rock formation formed a long crooked dog’s leg. At first light, Vin had taken off with Buck and Josiah. The men had left JD behind to guide the troopers, single file, through the canyon pass. The sound of hoofs splashing downstream echoed through the narrow gorge. Vin Tanner tilted his head, listening, twenty or so horses, JD and C Troop, about a half a mile behind. A low whistle from across the stream got Vin’s attention. He glanced over to see Buck pointing a little ways past where the canyon walls wrapped around a curve. He was standing under a huge rock formation that hung over the muddy brown water.
The tracker dropped Unalil’s reins and the horse roamed over to munch on the yellow green bushes lining the waters edge. Vin had Unalil well trained, so he wasn’t worried that the horse would run off. He climbed a small rock and slid down the other side to jump to the next rock. Vin’s boot slipped as he stepped on the slimy, slippery stones, forcing him to swing his arms in the air to regain his balance. As soon as he was balanced, he stepped more carefully on the next stone, making his way to the other side of the gorge. His boots were covered in mud as he bent to examine the horses’ tracks in the shallow water. He traced the marks with his fingers and a tight grin spread across his face and he nodded his head. Buck instantly released a high pitch whistle. A few moments later, a second, deeper whistle was returned from above them. Both men looked up; on the other side of the gorge, Josiah stood on the ledge of the cliff, where a narrow path wrapped around the bend. Vin held up six fingers so the preacher could see, indicating that six riders had crossed the stream. Buck followed Vin up the stream as they looked for where the riders had emerged from the murky water.
Josiah followed the ledge of the cliff as it curved and wound around the bend, leaving the two other peacekeepers behind. As he walked further along the widening ledge, Josiah came to a dead stop as vibrant green trees covered the cliff edge, to hide a sheer drop, descending down the canyon floor. The wind picked up and Josiah felt moisture in the air. The sound of roaring water caught his attention as it fell forty feet below into deep blue pool. Josiah looked out across the red and white sandstone cliffs, with its tall rock formations and spiral ravines, surround by a mesa. The preacher was in awe of God’s beautiful creation. Lowering his eyes in reverence, Josiah bowed his head, whispering a silent prayer. ‘Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.’ The preacher lifted his head and gazed out across the sky. A smile tugged across his lips and he lifted his eyes to the heavens and said, “Thank you Lord,” at the sight of the grayest white column of smoke rising above the trees off in the distance.
Frustrated, Vin smacked his hat against his leg. He had lost the tracks. Movement along the ledge made the tracker and Buck look up at the same time to see Josiah scrambling down the rugged path, covered in mud and pine needles. The slender man knelt down; studying the narrow terrain after the preacher gave him the general directions of where he had seen the smoke bellowing from deep in the gorge. His blue eyes followed the green murky water as it flowed down the creek, picking up speed; white-crusted water hit the sides of the rocks forming the beginning of running rapids. He searched the banks for any signs of hoofs marks in the mud, or disturbed water in the inland pools. Vin’s eyes wandered over towards the evergreens lining the steep, red cliffs. As the tracker moved his eyes further down the creek, the wind picked up and the tall evergreens waved in the air. His eyes narrowed in a fixed stare as the trees moved back and fourth as if they were caught in a wind tunnel. Tanner examined the cliff slowly, moving up and down the walls hoping to find what he was looking for. There, as the trees moved against the wind, Vin saw it, a small jagged opening. The tracker released a soft low whistle. They had them.
With cat-like grace, Vin stalked towards the slight structure nestled against the trees; his Winchester rested in his right hand. Not a very religious man, Vin was still grateful for all the help they could get and gave his own silent thanks for Josiah’s discovery. It was mid-morning before he had led the last trooper through the narrow ravine that opened into the lush green meadow surrounded by the high canyon walls. A creek ran behind the shed, feeding into the canyon river where JD and a bunch of the troopers were staked out to cover the counterfeiters’ escape route. Vin saw movement through the window and cocked his rifle. A hand on his shoulder made him freeze as a voice whispered in his ear, “We want them alive, Tanner.” Major Winslow said. He had silently followed the tracker.
“Yessss… Sir,” Vin said in a low voice as his finger released the trigger. His voice held a new respect for the soldier. Turning, Vin studied the major and was surprised at the change. The major was no longer the raw, quiet aide that followed the colonel’s orders. No, Vin thought, this soldier was a leader of men; you could see the determined battle worn gleam in his gray eyes and the tight stretch of his mouth.
“We want Shellburne alive at any cost,” Winslow stated, his voice laced with loathing for the mad dog. His tone softened when he added, “Tyrone should be the one to put a bullet through the mad man’s heart. We all owe him that much.”
Vin was about to ask who the hell Tyrone was, when a voice bellowed out, “You, in the shed. You’re surrounded. Come out with your hands in the air.” Vin and the major turned their heads towards the direction of the voice to see the colonel standing a few yards from the shed, out in the open. A little way off to the right, Buck and Josiah had taken cover behind a cluster of boulders, peeking around, shaking their heads. Half of C Troop was dismounted, rifles drawn, fanned out, surrounding the front side of the shed.
“Is the Colonel insane?” Vin uttered.
“No,” Winslow told the tracker with a wolfish grin on his face before he advanced closer to the shed, taking cover behind the corral full of horses. Vin reached his side as the soldier pulled out his revolver.
“I’m only going to ask one more time. Throw your guns out the door and come out with you hands in the air. You have five minutes before we start shooting.” Colonel Thomason pulled his timepiece from his vest pocket and watched the minutes tick by; one, two not a peep out of the shed. The Colonel put his timepiece away and slowly took off his blue coat and neatly handed it towards the soldiers behind him. A young trooper ran and grabbed the coat, then turned and returned to the line. Thomason took out his timepiece again, checking the time. His eyes darkened with anticipation for the coming battle.
“Ahhh…the fun begins,” Winslow said out loud as he saw the colonel take off his uniform coat. The major turned and said to Vin, “Here, hold this,” as he handed his revolver over to the tracker. Vin was surprised when the major did the same as the colonel and took off his uniform coat, leaving him in his blue checkered shirt and his blue pants. “Thank you,” Winslow said to him as he took the revolver back.
Vin stared between the colonel and the major, both wore a blue ribbon around their upper left arm. A flag waving in the wind caught Vin’s eyes as a trooper walked up and stood by the colonel; he too, wore a blue ribbon. The red and white flag of the First Division Cavalry Corps flapped in the wind. Soon, two more men carrying the flags of the Second and Third Division stood on the other side of Thomason.
“What’s going on, Major?” Vin asked, his voice low and deadly. Staring at the colored flags, Vin knew C Troop wasn’t just any ordinary regiment of troopers. He may have been young during the war, but every soldier, blue or gray knew what a blue ribbon around the left arm meant. They were the Blue Ghost’s men, his regiment.
“Justice,” Winslow stated, balancing against the corral and raising his revolver as the first shot was fired from the shed.
The return fire was deafening as the soldiers shouted and ran for cover. A new volley erupted out of the shed. A bullet ripped across Thomason’s shirt, leaving a bloody crease. The Union troopers returned fire, ripping holes through the shed door and shattering the glass windows.
“Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” Winslow yelled out to his boys. Buck dragged the wounded colonel back toward the boulder and handed him over to Josiah. The preacher immediately wrapped his scarf around the colonel’s arm, controlling the flow of blood.
“Watch out,” Vin yelled down at Winslow he pushed him out of the way. He had seen the shooter aiming for the major. Out of the corner of his eye, Vin saw one of the outlaws creeping out the side window. Taking aim, Vin shot the outlaw, the man dropped to the ground.
“Did you kill him?” Winslow asked.
“Winged him in the arm,” Vin returned.
“Too bad. If he sticks his head up again, kill him,” Winslow ordered the tracker. Vin shrugged his shoulder, a confused look on his face. Over the new volley of gunfire, the major answered Vin’ unspoken question. “Shellburne is the only one we need alive; the others already killed four of our men. So they forfeited their lives in my book.” Winslow turned a rigid stare back to the tracker and added, “Shellburne is slim, about forty, blond haired, graying around the temples. Drop any other outlaw. I don’t want any more of our men killed.” Both men turned their guns toward the movement behind the shed.
“Don’t fire…don’t fire. That’s JD,” Buck called, crawling towards them.
“What’s that crazy kid trying to do? Get himself killed?” Winslow growled back. All three men watched as JD climbed the back of the shed, slipping once before he made it to the roof. His left hand held a blue coat, soaking wet from the creek. JD crawled on his belly until he reached the chimney. Careful not to burn himself, he pulled himself up and straddled the chimney. Slowly he climbed to the top and shoved the soaking coat down the stack, clogging the airway. It only took of few minutes before billows of white smoke drifted out of the window and under the door. The door soon slammed open and the outlaws rushed out, shooting as they attempted to get to their horses.
Vin shot the dark haired outlaw headed in their direction, the man dropped dead to the ground, blood flowing from his chest. JD shot the next one through the heart as the outlaw turned to fire up at the roof.
“JD! Get off the roof,” Buck shouted, giving cover fire as JD slid down the roof, both guns blazing. At the edge, the kid jumped and rolled when he hit the ground.
“Buck, watch out!” JD screamed as he fired at the outlaw that had the womanizer in his sights. The outlaw fell to his knees with a yell, cradling his bloody gun hand.
“Drop it!” Josiah’s husky voice called out. He had the other two outlaws in his gun sight. Both men dropped their guns and raised their hands in the air.
Winslow stood, gazing out among the men, before turning to say, “Tanner, check the man over there against the shed. See if he is still alive.” Vin nodded and cautiously walked over to the outlaw. Both the major and Buck hastened over to the first outlaw that JD had dropped. Buck kicked the dead man over. “Don’t know this one,” Winslow told Buck. Not wasting time, he stepped over the body and headed towards the first outlaw the kid had shot from the roof. Winslow bent down and turned the dead man over. A grimace stretched across his face. ‘Where the hell was Shellburne?’
“Major!” Vin called out, “the one by the window is still alive. Where’s Shellburne?” Vin’s heart turned cold at the expression on the major’s face as the man walked over and bent down, face to face with the outlaw.
“Where is he?” Winslow snarled in the man’s face knowing he didn’t have much time; the outlaw only had moments to live. Grabbing the man’s pale face between his hands, he asked again, “Where’s Charles?”
“You’re too late, Ange de la Mort,” the outlaw choked out with his dying breath, blood dripped out of the corner of his mouth. His eyes rolled up in his head, then his body went limp. Vin pulled the major’s hands away for the dead man’s already cooling body, forcing him to stand up. Both men turned at the sound of the womanizer's cold voice.
“Vin, get over here.” Buck called over to the tracker as he reached down and pulled something out of one of the outlaw’s pocket. Vin reached Buck’s side as the womanizer slipped Chris’ colt in his belt and then with a snarl, threw his weight at the outlaw, reaching for the man’s neck.
“Wilmington! Stop!” Colonel Thomason shouted. Buck soon found his arms held as Vin and Josiah dragged him back from the outlaw. “Where’s Shellburne?” the colonel demanded as he advanced, holding his left arm between blood soaked fingers. “Major Winslow, report!”
“Sir, three dead and one wounded,” the major answered. Turning he added, looking at JD, “Good shooting, kid.” JD felt his face turning red and he turned to stare at the ground, shuffling his feet.
“Where Shellburne?” Thomason demanded again.
“Sir,” Major Winslow turned, facing his commander and the four peacekeepers with a painful expression, “He’s not here,” he finally answered.
A young trooper ran over and handed Thomason a package wrapped in brown paper. Winslow, no longer the center of attended, walked over and mounted his horse. He sat there for a moment, before giving the gelding a nudge with his heel to walk. The major was at a full gallop before the others knew that he was gone.
“What the hell do you mean he’s not here?” Buck heatedly shouted as the colonel opened the wrapped package. Silver plates tumbled out of the paper.
“We have them,” Thomason said to his men, holding up the plates.
“Colonel, we don’t care about the plates,” Vin said in a low voice before he turned his face toward the direction of the town. His sharp eyes spotted the major at a full gallop heading towards town. He whipped his head yelling, “Chris is back in town with only Nathan and Ezra,” he reminded the other three peacekeepers as he took off running.
“Damn, Damn,” Buck muttered as he followed Vin towards their horses, Josiah and JD hot on his heels.
It was late afternoon before Nathan and Ezra arrived in town with Chris riding between them. Nathan was worried; the cool morning air hadn’t been good for Chris’ weak lungs. By the time they reached Four Corners, Chris was covered in sweat and leaning forward on the saddle, painful coughs emanating from deep down in his chest. Nathan pulled Ginger’s rein to the right, pointing her towards the livery stables; however, Chris dug his spurs into Diablo’s flank guiding the black towards the blonde woman coming out of the Clarion.
Mary studied the fail looking gunslinger; he seemed so fragile as perspiration poured off his pale, gray complexion. Diablo came to a halt, Chris swung his leg over the saddle and as his right foot hit the ground his knee buckled under the weight. Mary’s fingers dug into the post as Chris grabbed the horn, stopping his body from sliding to the ground. After a dreadful bout of coughing, Chris leaned his cheek against Diablo’s neck trying to catch his breath as his lungs desperately sought to release the painful burning in his chest.
“Chris, slow even breaths or you’re going to pass out,” Nathan told the gunslinger as his hand rubbed Chris’ back in a circular manner, trying to smooth the tension out of the gunslinger’s shoulders.
“Mary,” Chris choked out between coughs. “You alright?” his glossy eyes searched her face; for a moment the gunslinger’s vision turned to the past and Chris thought it was his mother standing in front of him. Her beautiful blonde hair hanging around her shoulders, in her green calico dress. Chris blinked and raised a shaking hand to rub his eyes. Taking a step, he staggered against Nathan.
Mary gasped as the sun hit Chris’ blond hair sticking out beneath his black hat. His shoulders trembled as he stubbornly shook off Nathan’s hand on his arm. “I’m fine, Chris,” Mary finally answered. She was confused, her mind flashed back to that dreadful day many years ago. Mary looked the gunslinger over, his feverish eyes with their glossy expression reminded her of the young lieutenant. Could Chris be… could he be her young lieutenant? “Nathan, bring Chris inside.” Her soft voice whispered.
“I don’t need help,” said Chris before a new cough racked his chest. Nathan turned toward Ezra and handed him Diablo’s reins. He grabbed his medical supplies from his saddlebag and hustled to move behind the gunslinger as he staggered into the Clarion.
Nathan called back over his shoulder to Ezra, “Hurry back. I’m going to need your help.” Ezra glanced towards Chris’ back and nodded, leading the big black towards the livery. Chris was leaning heavily on Mary’s desk as Nathan walked in. Taking the gunslinger’s arm, the healer directed him towards the back room. Slowly, the two make their way to Mary’s bedroom where she waited with the bed turned down. “Mary, you sure about this?” Nathan asked.
“Nathan, don’t be a fool. Chris will never make it up those stairs to your room.”
Nathan helped Chris sit on the bed; wearily, the gunslinger stared at the wall. Mary bent down and pulled the boots from Chris’ feet, placing them beside the bed. She moved to help Nathan lift Chris’ legs when Nathan’s voice stopped her, “Ahhh…Mary. I think it’s best if you let me handle Chris for the moment.” Mary’s face turned scarlet, as blood rushed to her cheeks. She backed out the door, her eyes full of concern for the gunslinger. “Come on, Chris, let’s get you out of these sweaty clothes.” Nathan moved towards the gunslinger.
“Can’t stay here,” Chris’s raw voice uttered.
“Now don’t you argue with me.” A knock on the door stopped Nathan from saying anything more.
Mary’s face peeked around the door, holding a glass full of liquid. “I thought you might need this.” She handed Nathan a glass full of hot tea. At Nathan’s hesitation, she added, “My mother’s cure for everything. Don’t worry; Chris will drink it.” She glanced over towards the bed before stepping back out the door.
After taking the glass out of Mary’s hand, Nathan sniffed the tea and a grin tugged on his lips at Mary’s mother’s cure. Nathan walked over and placed the cup against Chris trembling lips. “Here, Chris, drank this up.” The gunslinger instantly drank the liquid laced with whiskey. The hot liquid had the desired effect and soon the gunslinger’s head was hitting the soft lavender scented pillows. “Oh, no, you don’t; help me get your clothes off first,” Nathan told the sleepy man, sitting him back up. Chris fumbled with the buttons on his shirt as his head sunk lower and lower towards his chest.
“No,” Chris mumbled as Nathan reached to unbuckle his pants, “Mary’s room, not proper.” Again Nathan attempted to unbutton the gunslinger’s black pants. “No, go home,” a deep rattling cough escaped Chris’s lips. “Take me home.”
“I see our luminary leader is in his usual splenetic mood.” Ezra remarked as he came through the bedroom door.
“Stop your complaining and get over here and help me with him,” Nathan ordered. Nathan and Ezra soon had Chris neatly nestled under the blankets in spite of the gunslinger’s reluctance. Chris’ aching body snuggled towards the warmth as he drifted off to sleep.
A few minutes later, Ezra stood outside the Clarion, examining the tall man entering the saloon. He had four hours before he had to relieve Nathan. With a gleam in his eyes, he made his way across the street heading for the saloon and a good game of poker. He had to win money to pay Tiny for hunting down those little piglets. Besides if he got caught, he could always say that he was keeping an eye out on the tall easterner. Ezra grinned in anticipation as he went through the double doors, his gold tooth sprinkled in the light.
Nathan’s pacing was getting on Mary’s nerves. She could see that the healer was frustrated. Standish was late; in fact he was thirty minutes late. The blonde broke out in a smile when she heard mumbling under his breath. She could have sworn that she heard ‘biggest needle’ and she blush when she heard him mumble ‘ass’.
“Mr. Jackson.” Mary repeated his name, “Nathan.” That got his attention. “Why don’t you go see what keeping Mr. Standish? I’ll keep an eye on Chris till you get back.”
“No… I promised Chris that one of us men would be here at all times.” Jackson relied back.
“Don’t be silly, I can handle Chris. Go get yourself something to eat, Nathan; it’s been a long day.”
“I’m sorry, Ms Travis. Chris is right; it’s not proper for him to be here with you alone. There will be talk as it is, now; more if I leave you lone with him.”
“Alright, Nathan, I’ll go get you something to eat from the boarding house and then find out what keeping Mr. Standish.” Mary said with a sigh. Gathering her shawl, she left out the front door.
A smile broke out on Nathan face as he watched the stubborn blonde walk straight towards the saloon. He almost felt sorry for Ezra… almost. A painful moan and a deep congested cough drew his attention back to his sick friend.
Again, Tom Horn reshuffled to deck of cards. The five men had been playing for hours and the green eye southern gambler had won most of the hands. Old Tom turned the cards over and studied them, checking for any marks. With a sigh, Tom once again dealt out the cards. Starting with his left, one card at a time he circled the round table until each man had five cards. Horn placed the deck on the table as each man lifted the corners of their cards. “Ante-up boys,” Horn told the men as he threw in his gold coin; one by one, the other four men threw a coin in the pot.
The same drunk from two days ago sat on Horn’s left. During the last hand, he had finally slipped out that his name was Samuel. The drunk glanced at the faces around the table before tilting the corner of his cards again taking another look. A good hand, an excellent hand; careful not to give his hand away, he placed the eight of clubs next to the eight of spades. He had the eight of hearts with the eight of diamond and on the end was the five of diamonds. “Bet’ya five.”
The easterner was the next to bet, “I’ll see your five and raise it five more.” Phillip Sheridan said with a smile. He knew he had a good hand, with the ace of diamonds, jack of hearts and diamonds along with the king of clubs and hearts resting between his fingers.
The young man who had introduced himself as Jackson, sitting on Phillip’s left, was the next to place a bet. With a sharp hawk-like stare around the table, Jackson placed a ten-dollar bill into the kitty. “Got ya covered and see ya ten more.”
Ezra’s eyes narrowed as he studied Jackson, the man didn’t even look at his cards before placing his bet. The gambler’s eyes roamed over to the easterners, who, when asked his name, just shrugged his shoulders. The man looked familiar, if only Ezra could remember where he had seen the easterner before. As for Jackson, the young man had the bearing of a military man. Ezra studied his cards; he had a winning hand with the ace of spades along with the king, queen, ten and the four of hearts. “Gentleman, I’ll see you’re ten and raise five.” Ezra said smoothly.
Again, Tom was the last to place his bet. The white haired dealer looked down at his cards. He had the ace and ten of hearts, the ace and four of clubs with the ten of diamonds Tom turned towards the man named Samuel staring at his cards, “Well?” he asked.
The drunk threw down one card, the five of diamonds and drew the nine of spades. He tried to keep his excitement off his face, but failed as he grinned, he had four of a kind, in his mind the winning hand.
Phillip also threw away one card, drawing the king of diamonds. Phillip glanced around the table as he calculated the odds of one of the other players having kings over jacks, a hand that would win over his full house.
Jackson threw down three cards; he only wanted to stay in the game, keeping the five of hearts and clubs. Tilting the corner of his new cards he saw three queens, diamonds, hearts and the club.
Ezra studied his cards, and then threw out the four of hearts. Slowly he drew a new card, his smile never crossed his face, and he drew the jack of spades. Nothing can bet his hand, only match it.
Tom was the last to throw out a card, the four of clubs; he drew the six of diamonds. He looked over at Samuel, “Place your bet.”
Samuel stared down at his cards. His hand shook as he reached into his pocket to pull out a wad of bills. He was desperate to win a hand against the gambler in the crimson jacket. “Bet ya ten,” and he throw in his last ten-dollar bill.
Phillip took a sip of his brandy before saying, “Well, sirs, I see your ten and raise you twenty.” His coal black eyes turned towards the man on his left, a sheepish grin on his face.
Jackson spit out his whiskey that he was drinking after hearing the amount. He glared at the easterner and said, “I see ya thirty and raise it ten,” throwing his hard earned money into the kitty.
Ezra considered the amount of money in the pot then made his decision, “I will see your forty and raise our little nest egg another ten.” He leaned back into his chair, taking a sip of his beer.
Tom looked at all the bills in the kitty and weighted it against the amount of money he had left in his pocket. Frustrated, Horn threw his cards face down, snapping, “Fold, darn it.”
Samuel patted down his shirt, looking for more money. He knew he had the winning hand; not finding any bills in his shirt, he once again pulled out the wad of bills rolled in his pants pocket. He slowly threw down two twenty-dollar bills. “See you’re forty and raise ya twenty,” throwing another crumbled up bill into the pile.
Ezra caught the sparkle in the easterner’s eyes as he reached in and pulled his money out of his vest pocket. Again, Ezra examined the money clip with the cross swords etched on the front. Ezra’s eyes hardened, cavalry, the man was a cavalry officer, a high-ranking officer by the looks of the silver clip. Ezra turned towards Jackson just in time to see the young man roll his eyes in disgust as Phillip said, “Gentleman, let’s make this interesting, I will see your sixty and raise it up another twenty.” Phillip Sheridan sat back in his chair with a self-righteous grin on his face.
Jackson swore under his breath… the general was going to break him. Without a second thought, Jackson pulled out his money from his shirt pocket, neatly tied with a blue ribbon. “I’ll see ya sixty and raise it another twenty,” He said as he threw the bills into the pot.
Ezra decided that the game had gone on long enough and said, “Gentleman let’s finish this, I see your eighty and call.” Ezra placed the last of his money into the pot.
Samuel looked at his cards and with a grin showing his yellow teeth as he said, “four of a kind, read them and weep.” He immediately reached for the pot.
Both Phillip and Jackson threw down their cards in disgust and frustration before Ezra said, “Not so fast, my good man,” as he laid down his hand of a royal straight. Reaching out with both hands, Ezra gathered his winnings.
“You cheater, you,” Samuel yelled, pushing his chair back as he stood, backing away from the table.
“I would be very careful of who you call a cheater, sir,” Phillip told the drunk, his voice low and deadly. Samuel raised his hands from his sides, his eyes full of fear as he back further away, turning he went to the bar and ordered a beer. Phillip never took his eyes off the southern gambler as Ezra folded the money into his vest pocket.
Ezra stared into Phillip’s dark coal eyes and said, “Thank you, sir.”
“Another hand?” Jackson asked the gambler.
“I apologize gentleman for not indulging you further; however, unfortunately I have a prior engagement.” Ezra replied as he stood. With a nod of his head, Ezra made his way out of the saloon, heading back to the Clarion.
“Well?” Jackson turned and asked the easterner.
“The young rebel plays a mean hand of poker,” Phillip remarked. His smile lit up his eyes.
“Do you think he’ll hand over the money, sir?” Jackson inquired.
“No.” Phillip answered as he pulled out his gold watch, with the US etched on both sides, to check the time. “Not much longer. What did Major Winslow have to report, Captain?”
“Nothing new since last night’s report. Chris Larabee should be back in town, most likely guarded in the healer’s room by a Nathan Jackson. And no, sir, no relations,” Captain Jackson answered.
“What of Lindsey’s daughter?” Phillip questioned.
“The newspaperwoman? Why would she be mixed up in all this mess?” Jackson asked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that is where they have Christopher.” Phillip calmly stated sitting back in his chair to wait.
Ezra stood for a moment outside the saloon, watching Mary Travis head in his direction, unaware that Samuel had slipped out of the saloon and was hiding around the corner in the alley. Ezra tipped his hat as Mary approached, “Mrs. Travis.” He glanced around before adding, “Chris feeling better?”
“Still sleeping; Nathan is waiting for you to return, Mr. Standish.” Mary scolded; she turned and headed back over to the Clarion. Ezra stared after the woman, he stepped into the street to follow when he saw two men on horseback enter the town near the livery stables. He watched as Tiny talked with the two men, Ezra assumed giving directions and was surprised when Tiny pointed to the sheriff’s office… two more officers. With a shake of his head, Ezra slowly proceeded towards the sheriff’s office, for the moment forgetting that Nathan was waiting for him back at the Clarion.
Samuel waited until the gambler moved down the street to head over to the stables to meet Shellburne and report where he could find Chris Larabee. He didn’t have far to go as a hand slid around his mouth. Struggling against his attacker, Samuel felt a sharp pressure enter his back. He tried to cry out as the knife was pulled out and shoved forcible back in again, he gasped once, and then went lump in his attacker’s arms. Shellburne pulled the bloody knife out of the dead man’s back before he released his hold. Stepping over the dead body, he savagely advanced towards the Clarion.
They rode hard and fast. It didn’t take long for the four peacekeepers to catch up with the major. In a silent agreement, the men pushed their horses harder. A trail of dust blew behind the horses. Finally a voice of reason shouted out, “We’re killing them, we need to stop.” Josiah yelled over the sound of the beating hooves on the ground. “It won’t help Chris if we kill the horses and can’t get back in time..” The preacher slowing pulled back on the reins of his horse, drawing the animal to a standstill. JD followed suit, sliding off of Dusty. Taking the lead, the kid slowly walked his horse in a circle, cooling the exhausted horse down.
It took another shout from Josiah before Vin had Unalil reined in, the worn out horse’s sides heaving with exertion. Buck followed suit with Darling, the poor mare’s legs were trembling as her rider slid off. The major was the last to rein in his horse, sliding off the fatigued gelding. All five men paced the horses, walking in slow circles, cooling them down before letting them come to a full stop under the shade of a cluster of enormous oak trees. Each man water down their horse before taking a sip to moisten their dry cracked lips.
“We should give the horses a couple hours to rest, then head out again.” Vin reluctantly told the others as he began to strip the saddle off Unalil’s back. The others followed, placing the saddles in a circle; each man settled down to rest.
“Then we should reach town just before dark.” Josiah stated, looking at Buck as he glared at the major. The preacher waited, he knew the womanizer was about to explode and he didn’t have long to wait.
Buck was up swinging with his right fist before the major knew what hit him. “You son of a bitch, I recognize you now.”
Rubbing his hand over his jaw, Winslow harshly spoke, “Took you long enough.”
“Buck, care to explain what you’re going on about?” Vin asked in his slow drawl, forcing his way between the two men.
“I’ll tell you want’s going on.” Buck’s blue eyes turned darker, “that bastard of a father is using Chris as bait.” Josiah was up and had his arms locked around the tall man’s arms before he could take another swing at the solider. Struggling to get out of the preacher’s arms, Buck continued yelling, “You tell them how the great Tyrone Larabee used his son once before as bait to get at Shellburne. How Chris almost lost his leg because of that man’s revenge.”
“Settle down, Buck. This isn’t helping.” Josiah turned towards the solider. The major was around the same age as Chris, maybe a little older. The preacher didn’t like the picture that was forming in his head and asked, “Well, Winslow is Chris’ father using him as bait?”
Wearily, John Winslow lifted his head. “You have to understand, Grant was desperate.” The ex-sergeant struggled to get out of Josiah’s hold, but the bigger man just tightened his grip. “We were at war. To the outside world, the battle at Gettysburg was a turning point; however the few of us inside General Grant’s confidences knew that the Union was on the edge of defeat. There was a traitor in the high ranks of the military giving away troop movements. We knew the Shellburne brothers were the ones receiving the information and paying the traitor with our own gold which they had stolen. Grant had to give up something to draw the brothers out.”
“What does this have to do with Mr. Larabee?” JD asked innocently, and then added, “I mean Chris was just a lieutenant, right? And his father was what… a captain or major in the union army?”
“Don't be so naïve, boy,” Buck yelled, “Tyrone Larabee may have been a major, but more importantly he was the Blue Ghost.” Turning furious eyes on the soldier he added, “And Grant would never give up the Blue Ghost. However, a mere lieutenant was a different matter. And we all know how Tyrone felt about duty. He left Chris hanging out to dry.” All eyes were back on the major.
However it was Josiah who spoke first, “I heard rumors about the Blue Ghost. I also heard rumors about several of the men that served under him. Particularly about one man they call Ange de la Mort.” The preacher waited for a reaction and was secretly impressed when there was none, “I also heard rumors of Clayton Shellburne’s obsession in capturing the Blue Ghost’s right hand man.” That got the reaction Josiah was waiting for as blue eyes turned smoky gray, eyes that reminded the preacher of an old friend, he wondered if the old friend knew that his grandson was still lived. Josiah spoke in a low voice so not to set off the wolf in the fold, “It wasn’t only Chris that was left hanging out to dry, was it son?” Buck’s shoulders stiffened, turning hard eyes on the major.
“No.” Winslow paused, “Duty, Honor, County… those words are engraved in each cadet’s heart. Grant gave misinformation about my activities. However, he never counted on how high the traitor was in the government. There were only a handful of men that knew that I was really traveling with Chris to White Haven. The trap that Grant set backfired and before they realized their mistake… I… I was in a fight for our lives.”
“Does your grandfather, old man Harrington, know you’re alive, son?” Josiah asked quietly.
Winslow took a step back, away from the men facing him, he felt trapped. Glancing around for an escape and finding none, he squared his shoulders and faced the danger head on. “Who are you?”
“Easy son, I’m just an old friend.” Josiah tried to reassure the major that he meant no harm. Every man had his secrets. The younger man was as skittish about his past as Chris.
“Chris is the bait, but I don’t think he is in any danger” Vin finally speaking up, while glancing over the hill towards the town.
“What’cha mean Vin? We all know that Shellburne wants Chris dead.” Buck paused turning his eyes on the Winslow, “Isn’t that right, major?”
“I think that we’ve been worried about the wrong Shellburne,” Vin stated, and then added, “You knew all along that Chris wasn’t in any danger. Those men could have killed him when they found him all alone at his shack the first night. They had orders not to kill him.”
“Is that right, son?” Josiah asked. “Then what’s the rush to return to town.”
“Because, Tyrone will arrive in Four Corners before nightfall, and Charles Shellburne will kill him. Then Chris will be in the hands of that madman.” Winslow yelled back. “I know you don’t understand, Buck, but Tyrone is like a father to me. Chris could have been my brother. It broke Tyrone’s heart watching Chris walk away when he followed you. He just wouldn’t leave me…just wouldn’t… no matter how much I begged him.” Winslow turned away so the other men couldn’t see the moisture swelling in his eyes.
Buck broke the silence, his voice was soft and low, “He doesn’t remember… you know… about that time. First couple of years on the trail, old Chris had nightmares.” Buck closed his eyes for a moment, remembering, “He would mumble names I didn’t recognize, begging someone not to leave, then turn around promising to keep those same people safe. When he finally came out of it he just stared off with a blank look in his face. I even told him the names to see if he remember but he just shook his head no. I finally stopped asking.”
“You led them away from Chris and almost died.” Josiah closed his eyes, a prayer on his lips for the young man. He remembered holding his friend Harrington as the man described how Clayton Shellburne tortured and then killed his beloved grandson. “You must have been sick for a long time. I think Chris would understand if he knew the truth surrounding those terrible events.”
“That’s the point. He doesn’t remember.” Winslow said bitterly, “Too many secrets, too many lives are at stake now.” The major shook his head at his moment of weakness; he knew better then confiding to these men. Now more lives could be in danger. The four peacekeepers watched as the major turned and faced the town. When he turned back around, his face was unreadable, the glare of the lone wolf danced in his eyes, a lone wolf on a deadly hunt.
Each man settled down, lost in their own memories, calmly waiting, steeling their heart for what was to play out… praying that they would reach their friends in time.
Vin slowly opened his yes, yawning as he shook himself awake from his short nap. The others where also slowly waking up. Vin tilted his head to observe the major, the man looked beat. The tracker’s voice was low, saying, “It’s been over an hour. The horses are rested. If we pace them right, we should reach town before dusk.”
The men silently gathered the gear. Each man check the cinch around their horse’s belly one final time, then mounted. They took off together with Buck and Vin in the lead. Josiah rode last with JD in front of him. Without realizing, the major failed to see that the men of Four Counters had placed him in the middle, surrounding and protecting him as if he was family, Chris’ family.