"I don't believe you, Buck! They met the Pimpernel and you just walked away from them?"
The young man's incredulous voice cut through the chilly morning air, mingled with the sounds of brushes smoothly moving across horsehair and the rustling of leather tack. The stables of the Wilmington mansion were deserted at this early hour save for two figures, their forms moving about in the dusty columns of early sunlight which slanted lazily through clouds of dust flecked with bits of hay. Buck was sitting on a wooden barrel, checking his bridle and casting amused glances at his frustrated young companion.
"We didn't just walk away, JD," Buck said in a tolerant tone. "We asked them a few questions, but there wasn't any point in pestering the fellows. They'd been through enough, I'd say."
"No point!" JD exclaimed, staring at the older man as he brushed the long, thick black hair out of his eyes, his boyish face relaying a look of shock. "Lord, Buck, I'd give my right arm to meet someone who's met the Pimpernel, and you run into two of them! It's not fair." His hazel eyes scowled as he continued brushing the dark horse in front of him.
"I know, JD," Buck said lightly as he peered at the bridle, looking for worn marks, "but if this situation in France goes on much longer, you won't be able to turn around without tripping over someone rescued by the Pimpernel. It's not something you'd *want* to have happen to you, you know."
JD considered this. "I know, but..." His voice became more excited as he worked the brush. "But I've never heard of anybody like the Pimpernel. God, Buck, could you just imagine it, going around France right under the eyes of the French, rescuing people from the mouth of the guillotine? Facing danger at every step, never sure what's around the next corner..." He laughed, shaking his head. "That sure sounds more exciting than grooming horses all day!"
"And dangerous, too, don't forget, son," Buck reminded him, standing up and striding over to hang the bridle up alongside the rest of his tack. "Someday that man and his League just might not run fast enough, you know."
JD gave his friend a look of dubious amusement. "Oh, they'll never catch the Scarlet Pimpernel," he admonished Buck with a grin as he finished the grooming. "I heard he outrode a whole squad of soldiers, all while carrying three prisoners with him on his horse!"
Buck chuckled. "I'd call the horse a hero for that," he said, looking over a nearby saddle. "You should read things other than those lies the Gazette prints out. They're just trying to sell papers by making up stories about the Pimpernel."
"They ain't lies," JD said in a challenging tone as he checked the horse's shoes.
Buck sighed and scowled in JD's direction. "*Not* lies, son. You'd better watch that new slang if you want to improve things for yourself. And, yes, they *are* lies, no man could do all that stuff they say he does. You'd think the French prisons were empty, with all the people they say he's carried off."
JD gave his friend a goading smile. "You're just mad because the girls won't talk about anyone else," he said as he mopped his brow on the sleeve of his simple, somewhat dusty work shirt.
"I am not mad," Buck protested, hefting the saddle and frowning at the younger man. "A man...just can't compete with all those wild stories, that's all."
"Mmm-hmm," the stableboy replied knowingly as he stood up and wiped his hands on his plain dark breeches. "I wish I knew who the Pimpernel was. I wonder if he'd let me join his League."
"A youngster like you?" Buck carefully settled the saddle on the horse's back. "I don't know, JD."
"Well, why not?" JD inquired, brushing his thick black hair out of his eyes as he went over to the tool bench and began picking through it. The clopping of the heels of his worn black boots resounded throughout the wooden stable. "You already taught me French, and I can swordfight rings around just about anybody." He looked up and gazed out over the yard of the estate, seeing past the green-gold trees and landscaped lawn. "And what I wouldn't give to see France. Mama always wanted me to travel."
Buck's expression softened as he saw JD drop his eyes. He finished cinching his saddle, then walked over to the young man, who had grown suddenly quiet.
"JD, I know you still miss your mother and want to do things that would make her proud," he said in a soft voice. "I miss mine, too. But I don't think running into a nest full of Frenchmen who're looking to chop your head off is what she had in mind."
"But I'd be doing something about it, Buck!" JD insisted, lifting his eyes to give the older man a determined stare. "What's happening over there is wrong."
"Sure it's wrong, but so's getting yourself killed," Buck shot back in a louder voice. "Now I promised your mother I'd look after you, didn't I? You know I couldn't let you walk right into that hell. I've been there, JD, and trust me, it's not a place for a holiday. Chris, Vin and I barely got out of there with our lives."
"But you *did* get out, right?" JD said brightly, pointing at him with the hoof pick he'd pulled from the tools. "So it's not impossible."
Buck sighed. "JD-"
It was another voice, older and male, calling from the house nearby.
Buck sighed again, irritation clouding his eyes. "Yes, George?" he yelled, none too pleasantly.
"Father wants to know if his horse is ready yet!" George's voice shouted back.
"He'll be right there!" Buck replied, hurrying over to the tack as he dropped his voice. "Take my advice, JD, and don't waste any more time daydreamin' about going to France with the Pimpernel. I don't want to have to have another argument with Father over keeping you on here."
"Don't you worry about me, Buck," was JD's confident response as he picked an elaborate leather bridle off the wall. "After all you've done for me, I won't let you down. Maybe we could go to France together, wouldn't that be great?"
"BUCK!" George yelled again from the yard. "Father says hurry the hell up!"
Buck grunted and gave JD a chagrined look. "Don't tempt me, boy," he muttered, and hurried to finish readying his father's horse.
The sparse forest lay quiet beneath the bright morning sunlight, its tranquility broken only by the gentle song of the distant river and the rustling of its wildlife moving through the leaf-strewn undergrowth. Overhead a small flock of ducks winged their way across the treetops, their wings flapping sharply against the chilly air.
Suddenly two loud noises rent the silence, the thunderlike reports of the hunter's rifle. One of the ducks faltered and plummeted to the ground, dead before it struck the earth.
The two hunters soon appeared from among the trees, one of them shaking his head with a smile as they approached the downed bird.
"That's why I hired you for my huntsman, Vin," the man said, his blonde hair ruffling in the soft breeze. "If I miss, I know you won't."
Vin grinned a little as he picked up the prey and swung the three dead birds he already carried off his shoulder to add it to the tally. "Keeps food on the table," he said modestly.
"It's done more than that," Chris replied grimly, looking off into the distance as a pensive look crossed his face.
Vin finished tying the duck in with the others and glanced up at Chris, concern in his blue eyes. "You all right?" he asked, still in a crouch.
His friend answered with an offhand nod. "Oh, fine, just...thinking. I suppose I'm ready for a rest." He sighed as he swung the heavy load of prey from his shoulder, setting it carefully down on the ground. "I was thinking about when you and Buck got me out of Paris. If it hadn't been for your skill, we'd all have been dead."
Vin nodded once with a slight, uncomfortable expression. "If I ever was thankful for being such a dead shot, it was that day," he confessed, putting the kill aside and sitting back in the grass. Chris sat down next to him, laying his rifle to one side.
"You weren't the only one," Chris assured him, allowing his gaze to wander over the vast fields and woods in front of them, brilliant in their autumn colors. "Though I am sorry you had to pay such a high price for your loyalty."
"What, that bounty on my head?" A small smile curled one end of Vin's mouth. "Damn, Chris. That's nothin' to me if it meant getting you out of there alive. Hell, I'd do it again."
"You would?" Chris posed the question casually as he sat back, palms flat against the cool grassy ground. "You'd go back into Paris?"
Vin's tan, handsome face became thoughtful as he sat up, his elbows resting on his knees, the hands dangling. "Chris," he finally said quietly, "you know I've been on my own most of my life. Made my livin' hunting, trapping, sailin' on ships for a time. I've seen a whole lot of the way people treat each other, and learned early on what I saw as right an' wrong. An' what's happenin' over there now isn't right, so I've got no fear about standin' against it."
Chris dropped his eyes to the ground, thinking, then looked away, a nod being his only response.
"Now, we've been through a lot together," Vin went on. "Owe each other our lives more times than I can count, anyway. If you were in danger again over there, or Buck, an' needed help-then hell, yes, I'd go back. Couldn't live with myself if I didn't."
Chris remained quiet for a moment, then looked over at Vin with a serious expression. "I never doubted you'd do it for me, or Buck," Chris admitted. "What if it was someone you didn't even know?"
Vin scowled, confused. "What d'you mean?"
The other man paused, then looked away once more. "Vin, what would you say if I told you I met the Scarlet Pimpernel last night?"
His friend let out a skeptical laugh. "I'd say you've been drinkin' too much ale at Nettie's," he replied.
Chris paused, then swung his head back to level a somber look at the huntsman.
Vin read the expression's meaning instantly, the amusement slipping from his face. "Damn," he breathed, "you're serious."
Chris reached into his pocket, pulled something out and handed it to Vin. "Found that under my door last night."
Vin stared at the small piece of parchment with the beautifully inked note and the small red flower.
"Shit," Vin breathed in awe, wide-eyed. After a few moments he looked up. "So, who is he?"
The other man smiled a bit and shook his head. "Sorry. I gave him my word not to reveal who he is. It's safer that way."
His companion accepted this with a comprehending nod. "You're right," he muttered. "He's got plenty of people lookin' for him who want him dead."
"Yes, he does," Chris said quietly, his gaze wandering over the gentle hills as he spoke. He took a deep breath and said, in an equally soft tone, "He asked me to join the League, Vin."
A startled expression swept over Vin's features. Then they settled into a slightly amused grin. "He must've heard how you handled yourself during that tavern brawl in Bolton," he said with a touch of pride.
Chris shrugged, smiling a little as well. "Maybe," he said, his voice still low and contemplative. He looked at his friend. "He needs help, Vin. Things over there aren't getting any better; they're sending hundreds to that damn guillotine every day. I was almost one of those people. I figure I've earned the right to try and stop those bastards."
"Nobody'd argue that," Vin said firmly, shaking his head. He paused, thought for a moment, then looked his friend in the eye. "But you know I'm not goin' to let you go over there alone."
Chris peered at the huntsman closely, a great sense of unease spreading over him. "Vin, if it's dangerous for me to go back over, it's doubly so for you. They've got a price on your head that most poor Frenchmen would do anything to get."
Vin shook his head firmly, one hand waving in the air as if to physically ward off any arguments. "I know that, and don't think I'm too happy at the thought. But hell, Chris, your fight is my fight. I think between the two of us, we can give 'em a brawl even the people in Bolton wouldn't believe."
Chris chuckled a little and after a pause extended his hand to Vin. "I think you're right," he said. "Thank you, Vin."
Vin shook his friend's hand. "Thank me after we've turned that damn guillotine to firewood," he muttered. "When do we leave?"
Chris sat up and rubbed his forehead. "I'm not sure yet. Probably at least not for-"
A distant shot split the air, followed by the unmistakable shout of human pain. Chris and Vin sat up, startled, and looked around as the noise rolled and echoed through the woods. Not far away, a surprised flock of birds fluttered out of the trees, swooping into the sky.
"What the hell-" Vin murmured, as he got quickly to his feet, his hands deftly collecting his discarded items as he peered off into the forest.
"Maybe a hunter's been hurt," Chris offered, gathering up his gun and catch. "Sounds like it was down near the river, we'd better go see what's happening."
Without another word, they swiftly trotted in the direction of the sound, Vin in the lead.
They ran for five minutes, Chris following Vin as they moved along. The huntsman had the keenest eyes and ears of any man Chris had ever known, and he trusted him completely to discover the source of the disturbance. As he ran, Vin gripped his rifle, ready for any surprises.
At length they burst into a large clearing, in time to catch the rhythmic sound of several horses riding swiftly away. Vin ran forward fast enough to see four dark shapes disappearing into the woods.
"Damn," he muttered in frustration. A low nickering caught his attention. Whirling, he saw a beautiful chestnut-colored stallion tethered to a nearby tree stump, watching him with alert brown eyes.
Vin turned to see Chris loping towards a still form lying in the middle of the clearing. Pursing his lips, he followed his friend, his gaze now locked on the supine figure. As he got closer he saw that it was a man, dressed in a fancy white shirt and striped yellow vest, light breeches, and knee-high black riding boots. On the ground nearby lay a crumpled, familiar, very fashionable green coat and a gold-topped walking stick.
"Hell!" Vin exclaimed as Chris reached the man and knelt down beside him. "Is that-Ezra Standish? From the tavern?"
Chris nodded as he bent over the form; there was blood seeping through the man's fine clothing from a shoulder wound. "Looks like our gaming friend here ran into a streak of bad luck," he said, as Ezra began to moan.
"Least he's still kickin'," Vin observed, looking around with concern. "Was it a robbery?"
Ezra moaned louder and struggled to sit up, one hand grasping his bleeding shoulder. As Chris helped him up, he glanced at something behind Ezra's head, reached back and picked it up, showing it to Vin. It was a spent long-muzzled pistol.
"Looks more like a duel," he explained, his voice dry.
Vin nodded and took the gun, not at all surprised.
Ezra gagged as he sat up, his face contorted with pain.
"Played one card game too many?" Chris inquired.
Ezra blinked, confused, and looked up at his two rescuers.
"Ah," he coughed. "From the tavern, correct?"
"I'm Chris Larabee, this is Vin Tanner," Chris explained. "We heard the shot, thought we'd better have a look. You come up against a sore loser or something?"
"Oh," Ezra looked uncomfortable and tried to sit up farther. "Just a, er, small matter of honor, related to the fact that my opponent does not possess any."
"Is that why they just rode off and left you?" Vin inquired, leaning over to study the gambler's wound.
"Precisely," was the gasped reply as Ezra bent his own eyes down as far as he could to see the injury for himself. "I believe the surgeon was convinced my wound was mortal, and the fewer people who knew about this, the better. I do not believe my welfare was their primary concern at the moment."
"Where's your second?" Chris asked. "Shouldn't he be looking after you?"
"Lord," Ezra muttered as he saw the blood seeping through his clothing. "My second? I believe that loathsome fellow rode off with my opponent, his second and the surgeon."
Vin made an unpleasant noise in his throat. "That's a pretty low thing for a friend to do, leaving you like this," he observed angrily.
"Friend?" Ezra emitted a gurgled laugh, shaking his head a bit. "I barely knew the man. And since he revealed himself to be such a rascal, I am rather glad our acquaintance was so short."
Vin's blue eyes widened a little, and he glanced over at Chris, confused. "I thought you usually got a close friend as your second for this sort of business," he said before dropping his gaze back to the wound. "Someone you trust."
Chris shrugged a little, and looked down at Ezra for an explanation.
Seeing his attention, the gambler shifted a little, his expression one of discomfort. Licking his lips, Ezra coughed and turned his eyes up to Vin. "Am I gravely injured?"
The huntsman was eyeing the bullet hole carefully. "I could try to get the ball out," Vin murmured, squinting. "It's not too deep."
Ezra stared at him. "Are you a physician?" he asked in thinly veiled disbelief.
Vin grinned a little and sat back. "You learn to be a lot of things if you live on your own long enough," he stated. He turned his eyes to Chris. "It'd be better if we could get him to a doctor, though. Don't want him to lose the arm."
"We could see if Dr. White is home. He's not too far from here," Chris mused as he looked down at Ezra. "Do you think you could stand a ride?"
Ezra appeared chagrined as he struggled to sit up under his own power. "I appreciate your concern, gentlemen," he said through clenched teeth as he finally managed to hoist himself upright, "but I believe I am able to locate medical care under my own power."
Chris and Vin exchanged glances. "I'm not so sure about that," Chris observed, reaching over and picking Ezra's coat up.
The gambler gasped, suddenly agitated. "Ah, you needn't trouble yourself about my attire, I am perfectly capable of retrieving it myself," he protested.
A puzzled frown crossed Chris's face as he looked down at the seemingly innocuous green coat; it was a beautiful garment, cut in the very latest style, but hardly something which would cause such anxiety. As he lifted it up to hand it to Ezra, he felt something small and stiff in the left sleeve, a flat object which should not have been there. He peered at Ezra, a knowing light in his eyes, before reaching into the cuff of the sleeve. After a moment of feeling around, he removed his hand; clutched in his fingers were two playing cards, the queen of hearts and the ace of spades.
"I think I can guess what the duel was about," Chris said dryly, bending a sharp gaze at Ezra.
The Southerner pursed his lips. "Sir, I object to your invasive handling of my clothing, as well as your heinous insinuation," he said as firmly as his wound would allow.
Chris smiled a little as he pulled three cards from the other sleeve, two knaves and a king. He turned them over, studying the backs, then looked expectantly at Ezra, waiting.
Vin let out a small whistle. "Do you have the whole bloody pack hidden in there?"
The wounded man licked his lips. "Ah, it's not what it looks like, I assure you..."
"That's good," Chris said, handing the cards to Vin for inspection. "They're marked, too."
"Hm," Vin grunted with interest as his keen blue eyes peered closely at the plain backs of the cards. After a moment he flipped them over, gazing at the faces. "Damn nice cards, though."
Ezra growled and awkwardly snatched the cards from Vin's hands. "Are you two men rescuing angels or demons sent to torment me?" he inquired angrily.
Vin smiled, amused.
"You can decide that after we've gotten you to the doctor," Chris replied, getting to his feet as Vin did the same. The two men took the gambler's elbows, preparing to help him rise. "Can you stand?"
Ezra quickly pocketed the cards and climbed to his feet, shrugging off the aid. "As I have informed you," he said, finally straightening after a few wobbly tries, "there is no need...for..."
His eyes immediately rolled up in his head and he pitched to the ground.
"Damn!" Vin gasped, jumping forward and grabbing Ezra in an awkward grip.
"Standish?" Chris grabbed Ezra's head, lifting his face into view. "He's unconscious."
Vin cursed again, looking out into the vast forest. They were a long way from the edge of the woods. "It's going to be a hard road to the doctor's, carrying him like this. He might bleed to death before we get there." He glanced over at the gambler's mount. "Think that horse'd let us ride him?"
As Chris pondered the question, a new sound came to his ears: the thudding sound of hoofbeats pounding through the trees towards them. Chris tensed; Vin quickly but gently lowered Ezra's sagging body to the ground and picked up his rifle just as his friend also retrieved his own weapon. The two men stood protectively in front of Ezra as the galloping neared. Had Ezra's dueling opponent come back to finish the job?
Chris was about to load his rifle when the rider suddenly burst into the clearing. Both men's eyes widened at the same time at the sight of the large horse and its equally impressive master; it was the tall, graying stranger from the tavern of the day before, who like Ezra had been rescued from the guillotine by the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Neither party spoke as the man rode up. Chris watched him carefully, unsure. While he wasn't certain if the man was mad, as the rumor went, he didn't appear completely ordinary either, with his rough, plain clothes, large hat, and strange beads hanging around his neck.
Finally the burly stranger reined in his huge mount to stand just next to the trio, looking down at Ezra's bloody, unmoving form.
"I do hope you two didn't do that," he said in a deep, warning voice.
Chris quickly shook his head as he lowered his weapon. "He got on the wrong end of a dueling pistol," he explained.
The large man sighed and shook his head. "The wages of sin," he said sadly. "Is it bad?"
"Bad enough," Vin pronounced, kneeling down beside Ezra.
"We'd be thankful if you could help us get him to town," Chris said, stepping forward.
The man leaned over a little, looking into Ezra's pale face. "I'm not so sure he'd last that long, over these roads," he said. "If you'll hand him up here, I can get him to my house. I'm sure Nathan can help him."
Chris looked up at him, puzzled. "Is Nathan a doctor?"
The other man smiled a little. "Better than many doctors I know. He can get a bullet out, at least, and there's a good chance our brother here won't die before he can be helped."
Chris glanced at Vin, and saw his own decision mirrored there; town was too far away, and time was running out. He turned to the stranger.
"Can we trust you with his life?" Chris inquired, studying the man closely.
The tall rider peered at him, his blue eyes dark and serious. "I'm willing to swear before God that I don't mean him, or you, any harm," he said in a somber tone. "Besides, you've got the guns. If I do something you don't like, there's nothing to stop you from just shooting me."
Chris considered the truth of this, looked over at Vin, and nodded. As gently as possible, they lifted Ezra's limp form up to the stranger, who settled the gambler before him on the saddle, wrapping one strong arm around Ezra's waist.
"Get on this fellow's horse and follow me," the man said. "It's not too far, down by the river."
With that he whirled his horse around and began to ride off. Chris grabbed the green coat and Ezra's walking stick, and he and Vin climbed onto Ezra's horse and rode after the mounted stranger, hoping that they had made the right choice in trusting the strange man's word.
After ten minutes' travel, they came upon a large open area by the river. The trees thinned out some distance past, indicating that they were close to the edge of the woods. In the clearing loomed a small stone structure with tall windows, their glass panes mostly broken and patched with wood, the roof in the first stages of repair, the wooden steps leading to the front door half-rotted away. It appeared to have once been a church or meeting-house, long since abandoned. If any name had been attached to the building, it had eroded away years ago.
To Chris's surprise, they turned from the church to a wooden building nearby. This house was smaller and simpler, but appeared more recently built and reasonably intact. Smoke curled from its stone chimney, and next to the east wall spread a large garden full of several plants Chris didn't recognize. Bunches of drying greens hung from the eaves, and there was a large iron kettle strung up over a cold fire pit near the back corner waiting to be used. The place seemed somewhat wild, but there was no ignoring the well-worn path to the cottage's front door.
The stranger reined in outside the small house. Within moments Vin and Chris were dismounted and at his side.
"Looks like the Lord is with us," he said as he cautiously eased the still-senseless Ezra into Vin's waiting arms. "Nathan's home."
"What'd you bring me today, Josiah?"
At the sound of the voice, all three heads turned to the opened front door, where a man stood, wiping his hands on a stained white cloth and watching the proceedings with concern.
Chris blinked, slightly startled. He was not so surprised at Nathan's tall build, or the expression of compassion in the man's brown eyes. But he had not expected Nathan to be black.
After a moment, he glanced over at Vin, but the huntsman was absorbed in trying to hold Ezra upright; if he was taken aback by the healer's appearance, he showed no outward sign of it.
In an instant, Josiah was at Vin's side, helping him ease Ezra over the threshold. "Bullet wound, Nate," he announced calmly as they lifted the unconscious man inside.
The interior of the small house was cozy and dim. As Chris's eyes adjusted to the light, he saw a large room formed by plain wooden walls, mostly devoid of decoration. Drying herbs and plants hung almost everywhere; a fire flickered in the hearth, a kettle boiling over the glowing coals. There was little furniture save a rough wooden table and two benches by the fire. Against one wall stood a sagging bookshelf half-full of tattered texts.
"Over here," Josiah instructed, as they conveyed the gambler to a small bed in the corner by one of the room's two windows. Nathan followed them closely, leaning in to examine the wound as soon as Vin and Josiah settled the gambler down and cleared out of the way.
"Don't look too bad," he muttered, his fingers gently pressing around the wound with great care and skill. After a few minutes he stood, looking at the three men. "Might need y'all to hold 'im down if he comes to while I'm gettin' the bullet out."
Chris nodded. "It sounds like you've done this often."
Nathan sighed. "Yeah, too often," he replied, glancing down at Ezra. "He a friend of yours?"
"I'd wager he is now," Vin offered, taking off his large hat and ragged leather hunting coat. "Found him in the woods; some men he was dueling with shot him and rode off."
Nathan snorted. "Damn gentlemen," he said, shaking his head as he walked halfway across the room and picked up a leather bag which had been sitting by the table. After a few moments of rfling through it, he removed a long iron probe.
Footsteps sounded heavily on the wooden floor as Josiah walked up, rolling his sleeves to the elbow. In the small house, he appeared even larger. "Well, my friends, I suppose since we keep encountering one another, we might as well introduce ourselves," he announced. "Name's Josiah Sanchez, this talented fellow with the probe is Nathan Jackson."
A small shock coursed through Chris as he looked up at Josiah. God, why didn't he realize it? This was the man Percy wanted him to find, to join the League. Strange, he realized, how he had found both Ezra and Josiah at just about the same time. It was just enough of an oddity to send a slight tingle down his back.
"Vin Tanner," the huntsman announced with a grunt as he began removing Ezra's bloodied garments. He nodded at Chris. "You can call him Sir Christopher Larabee, if you want to be formal."
"I think under the circumstances, Chris will be just fine," Chris said, slightly embarrassed as usual by the pretentiousness of the title. He shed his fine black coat and began undoing the cuffs of his simple white shirt.
Before long they had divested Ezra of his ruined fancy shirt and hopelessly bloodstained striped silk vest. Chris was slightly surprised at how solidly built the gambler was under his foppish clothes; he was a good deal more muscular than he appeared. Standing at the ready in case Standish began to thrash, the three men watched anxiously as Nathan probed for the bullet.
After only a few minutes, the healer bit his lip and slowly withdrew a smashed pistol ball from the Southerner's bleeding shoulder.
"He's lucky," Nathan announced quietly as he dropped the projectile into a nearby wooden bowl.
"We'll see how lucky he feels when he wakes up," Chris said, studying Ezra's pale, sweat-soaked face. The gambler had moaned once or twice but remained unconscious.
"You're pretty damn good at that," Vin observed in a grateful tone, nodding at Nathan.
The healer shrugged a bit as he reached behind him for some water.
"Served as a slave to a ship's doctor most of my life," he said, by way of explanation. "Compared to most of what we had to do, takin' out bullets is simple."
"Is that where you learned all this?" Chris looked around the room at the exotic herbs and plants.
Nathan was pouring water on the wound and swabbing it gently with a cloth. "Some," he said. "Learned a lot of it from my mama in Georgia before I was sold off. The poor folks around here don't seem to care where it all came from, long as it helps 'em out."
"Can't argue with that," Vin admitted as he watched Nathan place a clean bandage over the wound. He glanced up at Chris. "Looks like he'll make it."
"I'm relieved to see the Lord's in a good mood today," Josiah said with a slight smile. "Chris, if you'll come with me, I've got some food over at the church which ought to serve as a passable supper. I just need a few strong arms to help carry it over."
Chris nodded; he wanted to talk to Josiah anyway. He looked back to where Vin was helping Nathan wind the bandages around Ezra's chest.
"We'll be here," the huntsman said in a dry voice.
With a small answering grin, Chris followed Josiah out the door.
"So, this is your church?" Chris asked as they walked across the grassy expanse towards the sagging stone building.
Josiah laughed a little. "I suppose it is. I found it here years ago when I was wandering through these woods; nobody else seemed to want it, so I moved in. It was almost falling down. Needs a lot of work, but no worthwhile task is ever easy. Now I just have to figure out why God led me here."
They reached the front of the building. Chris could see it had once been a handsome chapel, but time had left its mark. He looked at Josiah as they mounted the creaking wooden steps. "You sound like a minister."
"I was, once," Josiah replied with a sigh, putting one large hand on the tarnished brass knob of the tall wooden door. "About a hundred years ago."
With a push the door opened, its iron hinges protesting every inch of movement. Chris squinted as they entered the large sanctuary; the patched windows afforded little light. Overhead the high ceiling soared to a point, birds fluttering in its rafters. There were no seats, only a small bed set up at the front, stacks of books, scattered tools, and a small fireplace to one side in which a few coals blinked.
"My father was a minister," Josiah explained as they walked to the front of the church. "When I was young, we went to America to save the Indians from themselves. Spent most of my young years going from colony to colony, watching my father tell those people to accept what he said or face damnation." He paused, his face grim in the uncertain light. "Said the same thing to me, too."
Chris considered the sobering words. "Is that why you came back to England?"
The older man was gathering some bits of bread and checking a joint of beef which sat on the table. "Mostly," he replied. "We didn't agree on a lot of things. I'd talked to the Indians quite a bit. They're not the savage creatures you've heard about, Chris. In many ways, they're more civilized than we are. My father didn't want to hear any of that, and after our last...discussion, I was on an American ship sailing to England. Could you get that pot off the fire, please? There should be enough stew left for a few bites apiece."
"Oh-" Chris grabbed a cloth and carefully lifted the small covered iron kettle from the coals. "Did you meet Nathan on that ship?"
Josiah wrapped the beef joint in a cloth as he nodded. "The crew was about to flog him for letting one of their shipmates die. From what I could tell, the surgeon was fond of his rum, and didn't seem to mind letting his slave take the blame for the bungled operation. Apparently, he'd done it before."
A hot feeling of anger burned in Chris's chest; he had seen naval floggings during his sea travels, and stood against slavery on principle, as many Englishmen did. "So what happened?" he asked as he brought the kettle over.
"I went and pleaded Nathan's case before the captain and that surgeon," Josiah replied, wrapping the bread up in some cheesecloth. "Naturally, both of them told me to go to hell, and the surgeon said I was a limey bastard who should mind my own damn business." He looked at Chris and smiled. "Such blasphemy offended me, of course. I told him I'd be happy to drop the matter if he would accept my challenge to a fair fight as soon as he sobered up. If he won, he could flog Nathan; if I won, I'd be allowed to buy Nathan from him."
"I think I know how it turned out," Chris aid with a grin as he accepted the wrapped food Josiah was handing to him.
A similar grin was on Josiah's face. "Let's just say he was still out cold when Nathan and I disembarked in Portsmouth," the preacher said. "We traveled some, even spent some time in Paris. Few years back we settled down here, then I heard about the trouble in France and went over, thinking I could help. Next thing I knew, I was arrested as an enemy of the state and condemned."
Their arms laden with food, they began walking back towards the door.
"That's how you met the Scarlet Pimpernel," Chris guessed, his mind working fast.
"That's right," Josiah said. "Never met a man like him, I'll say that. God must be watching over him, the way he's always one step ahead of his enemies."
"Any idea who he is?" Chris nudged, deliberately slowing his pace.
Josiah shrugged. "None. I've helped him out a few times since, even had a lively debate on religion with him as we crossed the channel. But he was always in disguise, and so were his men." He gave a slight shake of his head. "I've never stopped praying for him and his cause, though. I only wish I could do more."
Chris stopped and looked at the other man intently. "Is that the truth?"
Josiah halted as well and eyed his new friend curiously. "As truthful as a sinner like me can be," he replied in a puzzled tone.
There was a pause. "In that case," Chris finally said quietly, "I think some of your prayers are about to be answered."
"Sounds like a very dangerous endeavor, to me."
Josiah's quiet, thoughtful voice barely disturbed the warm air of Nathan's cottage. He and his three companions sat at the rough table before the fire, lit only by the flickering glow of the hearth as they softly conversed over the remains of their supper. In the shadows, Ezra slept undisturbed on Nathan's bed, oblivious to the crucial conversation taking place nearby.
Chris took a puff on his long pipe, the aromatic smoke rising and mingling with the clouds wafting from the shorter pipes held in the hands of Josiah and Vin. "It *is* very dangerous," Chris replied softly. "And it's entirely up to you if you want to join us. But the way I see it, it's the very dangerous endeavors that need doing the most."
Josiah puffed his pipe and glanced at Nathan. Unlike the other men, Nathan had foregone the pipe for a small cigar. Chris waited, hopeful; he'd decided to include Nathan for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that they'd likely need someone with healing skills in the risky venture which lay ahead of them. The former slave had already proven his worthiness by saving Ezra's life; the question now was whether he would risk his freedom by involving himself in such a lethal enterprise.
"Dangerous don't tell it by half, from what I hear," Nathan offered, the pungent smoke from his cigar floating around his head. "It sounds like they've lost their minds, over there."
"And it's likely going to get worse," Chris said with a sigh, shifting in his seat on the rough wooden bench. "Now that Robespierre's in power, Paris will most likely be drenched with blood."
"I saw enough in France to know this won't be easy," Vin said in a grim whisper, his blue eyes staring into the hypnotic fire. "Everyone's ruled by the fear of bein' denounced and condemned. All you got to do is look at someone sideways to be arrested."
"And if we're caught," Josiah added in a low, pensive voice, "it'll likely mean facing the guillotine again."
Chris drew a deep breath and leaned forward, folding his hands on the table, the pipe cradled in one palm. "At least they probably wouldn't kill us right away," he said in a deceptively light tone. "I imagine they'd have a few questions to ask before putting our necks under the blade."
"And I'm guessing they wouldn't ask politely," Vin coughed quietly.
Chris shook his head, lifting his eyes to meet the gaze of every man at the table. "I know it's asking a lot," he said in a voice barely above a whisper, his green eyes burning in the firelight, "and there's no guarantee of anything, not even returning to England alive. But I know I can't sit easy here, knowing what's happening to my dead wife's countrymen, and not try to help. Those poor bastards have no one to look to, but men like the Pimpernel. And us."
Josiah's face was somber, his blue eyes cast down to the table as the smoke from his pipe slithered into the air. "The Lord's led me down a lot of paths in my life," he finally said softly, not looking up. "Some of them I felt certain were roads to hell, like the one that led me into the prison in Paris. I've been thanking God every day for my survival, even if I wasn't sure why He granted it to me." He paused, then looked up at Chris. "Maybe this is why. I suppose I won't find out unless I come along."
Chris smiled, relieved and not terribly surprised. He glanced over to the healer. "Nathan?"
The former slave took a draw on his cigar, his expression thoughtful. For several minutes, he said nothing.
"I wouldn't blame you if you'd rather stay safe, and enjoy your freedom," Chris said, eyeing the healer earnestly. "God knows you've suffered enough, from the sounds of it. But we certainly could use you."
Nathan glanced up at him, paused, then nodded. "It ain't been easy, that's for sure," he agreed softly. "An' if it was just those rich aristocrats in those jails, I'd say go on without me. But they're lockin' up and killin' rich and poor alike, people who don't deserve it." His lip twitched, and his eyes fell. "I know what that's like, an' I can't sit by and be selfish with my freedom. It'd shame my mama and papa to know I could have helped, and didn't." He took a deep breath and met Chris's eyes, a smile spreading over his face. "S'pose I'm in."
A second grateful smile crossed Chris's face. "Good!" he said in a quiet, emphatic voice. Percy would be pleased to know so many men were willing to join him.