The small camp came alive before the first streaks of light appeared. Breakfast was made and the horses were seen to. Josiah cautiously approached the man he thought of as a younger brother. He knew most people looked at their relationship as a father and son one. That idea bothered him, afterall, he wasnt that old. Josiah shrugged off the thought as he reached the gambler. "Ezra, think it might be wise if you changed your shirt. Dont you?"
They had all noticed yesterday that the man who revered tidiness had gone to his room and came back out still wearing the bloodied shirt. The preacher understood it was up to him to approach the man and point the fact out to him and hopefully get him to change clothes.
Ezra looked down at his front and for the first time seemed to notice the dark stain that covered the front of his normally pristine white shirt. The dark stain bought back the yesterdays scene with complete clarity. For a moment the world tilted before the young man nodded in agreement. Grabbing a shirt from his saddlebags Ezra headed for the stream to wash away the blood.
After a while the black clad leader looked around and momentarily feared the gambler had left before spotting Chaucer . He asked, "Wheres Ezra?"
Chris would never admit it, but Ezras behavior was slightly unnerving the normally cool gunslinger. Up until yesterday, the green-eyed gambler had always maintained a deceptively passive mask. Never revealing any of his true emotions. Now he had them hanging out like Nathans shingle.
"Went to the creek to change clothes," Josiah responded, noting the man had been gone for a while. "Ill go check on him."
Walking down to the waters edge he noticed the other man scrubbing furiously at his skin. Sidling up to the man, he gently reached over and took the soap from the slender fingers. Ezra looked up with a look in his eyes that about broke the older mans heart. "I cant get the blood off, Josiah," he choked out.
"Its gone, Ez. Its all gone," Josiah spoke softly, as he reassured the other man. He reached over and took the smaller hands in his and held them until they were once again steady before handing him the clean shirt.
The older man knew what his friend was talking about. Josiah had seen this reaction many times in life, especially during the war. Young doctors who had lost their first patient, boys cradling their best friends as they lay dying. They always seemed to focus on the red staining blood. He clasped a gentle hand around the others neck and guided him back to the camp. Today was going to be as long as it was yesterday.
+ + + + + + +
Three hours after breaking camp Chris spotted a familiar figure in the distance. Relief flowed through the leader like a tidal wave. Catching up to Vin meant they were close to catching up with the outlaws that started this campaign. Though Chris emotions were still torn, he knew what needed to be done to set things right. All he had to do was remember the two dead drivers, the wounded chaperone and the rag doll of a child that Ezra had bought out of the woods.
The blond clamped down on that image. When he had spotted Ezra coming out of the tree line with the boy draped limply in his arms, he like the others had automatically assumed the worst. At first glance the boy had reminded him of Adam. Anger had flared inside him so hot he could have set the grasslands around him on fire. When the gambler had handed him to Nathan a small part of that fire died down. They all needed justice in some way.
Half an hour later the four riders came upon the fifth member of their team, patiently waiting for them to catch up. Greetings were exchanged as Vin took the lead towards the camp he had already set up. The tracker observed the countenance of each rider and tensed at the sight of the gambler. The hairs on the back of his neck rose and Vin looked towards the others, raising an eyebrow in question. He only received a shrug from Buck as an answer.
Looking over at the blond, Vin relaxed a bit as his friends posture and eyes reassured him. Chris was bent for revenge and the tracker understood that, but he always sensed that Chris was in control of his emotions and there would be no worry coming from that direction. Once again he looked at Ezra, who was still riding off to the side of the group.
Sidling closer to the preacher, he whispered, "Problems?"
The older member didnt need Vin to elaborate, he knew exactly what was being asked and about who. "Not yet," he sighed, "but there might be."
Vin nodded and reined his horse in until the blond was past him, then rode over to the gambler. "Hey, Ez," the longhaired man spoke in his normal soft slow voice.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra retorted. The anger that had slowly boiled up into a fiery rage needed venting. The trackers easygoing manner ignited that spark. "I dont suppose you have put to use that errorless ability of yours to lead us to those filthy loathsome barbarians, have you?"
The tracker didnt take any exception of the barbed jibe and simply replied, "Yep."
At the mention that Vin had found the group of men they were seeking, the other three riders joined the two men who had come to a stop. They consciously kept themselves from circling around the two and thereby entrapping Ezra.
Buck knew what lay beyond that line that kept a man from doing right from wrong, a crevice that fell straight into hell. He knew without a doubt that if Ezra crossed that line, he would fall into that crevice and once he did, there was no chance of getting him back. He shifted his eyes over to the black-clad leader and readjusted that thought; there might be a chance of getting him back, but if was up to him, he would rather keep Ezra from going that route to begin with. He looked at his other friends and saw the same resolution in their eyes. They would do whatever it took to keep their friend from stepping over that line, even if meant losing his friendship in the process.
Vin explained they were less than a couple hours ride from the group they were seeking as he dismounted and began making a dry camp, the others followed suit. Beef jerky and dry biscuits were taken from their saddlebags, and canteens were shared with the tracker. The gambler had seen the looks of concern thrown his way and didnt want any of it.
He walked away from the small group and sought out the one being that bought him peace and friendship. Chaucer stood slightly away from the other steeds. He knew his rider well and had felt from the beginning of this journey that something was different. The gentle equine had sensed his owners urgency to get where they were going and knew the problem lay ahead and not behind them. The sorrel watched his beloved owner approach and begin his soft mutterings and the curry brush begin stoking his soft coat.
Without knowing what the words meant, Chaucer understood his companion was upset about some occurrence. His man had smelled of blood earlier, that was not an irregular occurrence, but the loud booming noise that signaled a gunfight had been missing, only the high pitch screaming of small beings and blood was left.
+ + + + + + +
"Whatd ya learn?" Chris asked straight forwardly, looking into the young trackers eyes.
"Found their camp over the yonder," Vin quietly replied nodding his head over his shoulder indicating the direction of the camp. "Be there by late afternoon."
"You see the kids?" the preacher asked nervously, looking around for Ezra.
"Yeah." The tracker nodded once. "Looked shook up, but otherwise fine."
"You think theyll still be there?" Buck asked incredulously. He knew if it was him in Flemings place he would light out of the territory as soon as possible."
"Yeah," Vin nodded. "Somethings wrong. Saw the leader pacing around like a wild cat. Like to have beat one his men to nothing."
"How many are there, brother?" Josiah asked quietly.
There are about twelve men in camp," Vin responded.
"Thats nothing," Buck stated picking up on the hesitation. "Weve been up against bigger numbers."
The black clad leader studied his young friend. The two, it was said, were two halves of the same soul. They were well known for their ability to silently communicate whole conversations.
"What is it?" Chris questioned aloud for the sake of the others.
Vin waited a second, glancing in the direction of the gambler, watching him brush down his horse briefly before returning his gaze back to the men before him.
"Those kids taken, their last name was Fleming. Right?" Vin restated the information they had already learned.
Josiah nodded. "Thats who they thought they were taking. Turned out only the boy was a Fleming, not the girl. Why?" the preacher was suddenly getting a very bad feeling.
"The name sounded familiar but didnt put it together until I saw the man. Fleming is Howard Fleming, cattle rustler and thief. Saw his wanted poster when I was bounty hunting," Vin finished quietly. "Could be the reason theyre not moving out is because he might be planning on going back and getting the right girl," the tracker, shrugging his shoulders
Mutterings and curses were softly issued. Why would this man who was supposed to be on the run, risk everything to have his children by his side. This made no sense to the one-time father of the group. What kind of father would take a chance on his childrens lives? This new twist ate at the four men sitting in a small circle. Vin turned and saw those green eyes of the gambler studying him hard.
After a brief discussion describing the lay of the land and where the men they sought were located , the five men mounted up and headed towards their prize. Once on the trail, the silence returned. Vin was leading them to the place he had already picked out to camp for the night. It would be too late in the evening for a confrontation; they would go at first light. Chris looked over towards the tracker, he was normally silent, but this silence was a different kind.
The tracker had spent the day before and last night tracking the small group. His mind thinking on the scene they had found yesterday. He knew from first hand experience what it was like to lose a parent. He remembered how it felt to be so young and alone. How it felt to have the safety of your environment ripped away and then be thrust into an entirely new and foreign environment. It felt very much like being thrown into the ocean and then be told to swim for shore. Vin worried for the children, not just for their physical well-being but for their mental well being as well.
He could identify what these children might have been feeling. What he couldnt fathom was to have those feelings compounded with the event like those of yesterday. They were already defenseless and insecure, but then to have people shooting around you, at you. Then if that wasnt enough, to have some stranger grab you and ride away, claiming they were taking you see a father you havent seen in who knows how long. Vin had figured it out earlier. Howard Fleming had been a wanted man for four years, had probably lived out here for a while before making a name for himself. That meant that little boy hadnt seen his father since he was an infant. Vin shook his head. Is that a normal fathers instinct? To do whatever a father wanted to have his children with him, and if so, why not go back earlier for them?
Vin turned to look at the man riding beside him and quickly turned back, ducking his head in embarrassment. Not all fathers would put themselves first. Chris felt the quick glance and looked over to where the tracker was riding with his head down. Almost reading his thoughts, the black clad man knew what the tracker was thinking. Chris shook his head, he had come to the realization last night that, as much as he had loved Adam, he would never put the boy in danger just to have him close by.
Late that evening the group of regulators stopped at the small grove of trees that Vin had noted would be where they would make camp. The tracker watched the gambler dismount and care for his horse. Moving slowly, like one would approach a snarling dog, Vin came up Ezras right side. Since the man was ambidextrous, it didnt matter which side you approached from; you could get shot. Making enough sound to warn the skittish man of his arrival, he quietly asked, "How are ya doin?"
Without looking up the gambler replied, "I suppose, Mr. Tanner, that I am fairing better than those two frightened youngsters being held by that rabid, despicable miscreant."
Vin remained quiet for a moment. "Yeah. Been worried about them myself." Taking a slow breath, he added, "Reckon we all are."
The quiet man let the thought slip into his friends mind. Ezra wasnt alone in his thoughts or his desire to get them back and make the kidnappers pay. Without forethought, he began gently rubbing Chaucers muzzle then almost laughed when he realized the ornery mount was actually letting him do it. To most of them, the horse was a nuisance, a pain in the backside. To Ezra, he was a loyal, dependable and trustworthy friend. Vin wondered if they would ever reach that point with the gambler.
After a few more minutes the sharpshooter informed the gambler in a low voice, "Chris got a plan," before moving off.
Ezra gave Chaucer a few more strokes with his hand before moving off. Walking to where the other four men were gathered, he settled himself between Buck and Josiah. Seeing he had the attention of the cold, green eyes, the leader picked up the stick and began laying out his plan, emphasizing his demand that they take as many as possible alive, especially Howard Fleming.
Looking at the brown-haired man across from him, Chris waited for an argument and privately hoping for a suggestion. The slippery man was quick with plots and schemes. When neither came, the gunfighter sighed inwardly and went back to outlining the details.
"Vin, youll be up here above the camp," he said, indicating with a stick at the map he had drawn in the dirt. He pointed to the hilltop overlooking the camp. Vin gave a slight nod in agreement.
"Buck, you and Josiah come in from the left." He pointed the stick harmlessly at his friend.
The preachers son smiled slightly. He had been worried from the onset of this ride that this man would become filled with so much rage he couldnt contain it. Josiah had been afraid that rage would lead Chris into doing something stupid and harmful. It appeared now, though, that the blond had his rage under control, at least until the kids were safe.
Buck didnt need any more explanation than what Chris said. He had ridden with Chris for many years. They had been together in their rowdy years. They had been together through the years following Chris marriage to Sarah and the birth of Adam. Buck had loved them as much as Chris had. Buck had been there when the charred remains of the house had been discovered. Burying those two souls had been the hardest thing hed ever had to do, and he had done a lot of things no man should be called upon to do, mostly during the war.
Buck had watched over his friend in the following years when it seemed all the man wanted to do was drink and share his pain with others; mostly by the use of his gun. Then these men had met up in a dusty, little burg and had formed a new family, bringing the gunfighter back to life. The gregarious man would be the first to admit they were, at best, dysfunctional, but a tighter knit group of men hed never had the pleasure of being with. He had been afraid that was going to change, but Chris was keeping it together and still in charge. It looked like they had a chance. If they could only keep Ezra from going around the bend and losing him, they would be alright.
+ + + + + + +
The leader paused before giving the last of the instructions. "Ezra." He waited for the green eyes to look up before continuing, "You come down the embankment on this side of the camp." He pointed at a place directly opposite from where Buck and Josiah would be entering. "Grab those two kids and high tail it out of here." Chris waited for the others acknowledgment.
"No," the southerner stated defiantly. The three regulators watching the interaction stilled.
Chris moved into a hostile mode. "Excuse me?" the blond asked harshly. Not many people opposed him and lived.
Without blinking or hesitating Ezra simply said, "I believe, Mr. Larabee, the word I spoke was no. It is a word used to express denial or refusal. Those innocents have already been in the middle of one shootout."
The three men watched the exchange with caution and foreboding. It appeared that their angry, errant brother had turned suicidal. Chris, for his part was fighting the urge to reach across the small area and grab the infernal man by his throat. Maybe, the man needed to have his brains rattled back into working order.
Looking back into the hard, green eyes that stared at him, the gambler continued, "You did inform me that we were taking these low-life cretins alive. Did you not?"
The blond nodded ever so slightly, fighting the now burgeoning smile that threatened to escape. The man with the lightening quick ability to formulate plans was back in their midst. Chris had seen a shimmer of that man flash in those green eyes. It was the only reason he hadnt grabbed the southerner and choked him.
Chris looked into those green eyes across from him. The coldness was still there, but there was also, a person of rationality in there, too. "You have a better plan?" inquired the leader.
"Indeed, sir, I do. One that would be less hazardous to all," the gentleman said with a wide smile.
The men around him knew that smile and what it usually implied, it made them shudder inwardly. It quite often meant that the plan would seem harebrained to them and quite normal to the gambler. That smile indicated an idea none of them would normally have the guts to carry out, but somehow the gambler always made it possible. It also, meant that a large part of the gambler had come to his senses and was now part of the group once again. For this reason alone Chris let the man lay out his own plan.
For the next hour Ezra laid out a short, yet detailed plan. It would require little of their outside talents, but needed exact timing. Later that evening Chris assigned the watch duties and everyone else bedded down. The four men lay in their makeshift bedding and thanked Josiahs god fervently that the gambler had resumed some control over his emotions. It wasnt like they would all like to go into that camp and shoot every single one of those men down. They probably would have a few years ago. They had been different men back then, today they were better men. Justice meant more and they were bent on getting some for those drivers, the chaperones and each of those children.
Nathan sat in the quiet clinic watching over his two sleeping patients. JD, Mary and Mrs. Potter had all been through, helping when time allowed. Mrs. Potter hadnt noticed any change in the young lady she had taken home, but stayed hopeful. Mary said that Henry had taken up with the Potter children and, except for a couple of rough periods during the night, he seemed to be bouncing back after the traumatic events from the day before.
Mrs. Kingston, the chaperone, had held her own and had woken briefly early in the afternoon. Things looked good for her. The healer had a hard time adjusting to the idea that the little boy had made it through the night. Inez had bought over a late supper for Nathan and had stayed until quite late. She had bathed and sung to Sammy, combing the damp hair back out of the closed eyes. After she left, the healer had spotted the barkeep going into the church, no doubt to say a prayer or two.
+ + + + + + +
The young sheriff had ridden out to the outlying families that had taken in a child, to check on them. He had come back to report that a majority of them were doing well, most had a rough night, but the families seemed to understand. JD had ridden further out to the Wells place. He said the Swann girl and Casey seemed to be hitting it off quite well.
The little Fleming child was still unresponsive, but Nettie had told him that a couple times she sensed the girl was trying to come back. Nathan trusted the old ranch woman to do what was best for the child. She had said, herself, she had been around since Heck was a pup. Nathan had laughed at the old saying and told Nettie he seriously doubted shed been around that long. She had replied shed been around long enough to see everything she wanted to and more.
Matthew and Vivian sat on the log close to the fire, huddled together under a blanket. It had been over twenty-four hours since the children had been taken. Vivian had been scared yesterday, but now that she realized these men would not harm her she felt a little safer. Matthew had stuck to her with intensity. She had not slept much during the night, the fighting had made her extremely nervous. She was unsure of what the older man who appeared to be in charge would do to the younger man of the group.
From the fight last night, she had distinguished that the five men were only suppose to ride up to the wagons, ascertain which were the correct children and ride away with them. The angry man wasnt happy about the wrong girl being taken and he sure enough got angry when the man who appeared to be in charge yesterday informed Mr. Fleming of the gunplay.
Since the night had been noisy and terrifying, little sleep had been had. Vivian found herself and Josh both dozing off several times during the day. She had let Josh keep sleeping, but had tried to force herself to stay awake. The older man, Mr. Fleming, had come over to where they were and pulled a blanket up around her. Sitting down on the ground by her, he had ensured her that she would be safe and had rubbed her eyebrow until she had fallen asleep.
Now as they sat on the log, Vivian watched as the little boy she took responsibility for removed himself from her side and hesitantly walked towards the one responsible for all this.
Howard Fleming watched as his son tentatively made his way toward him. The boy hadnt said a word since arriving late last night. The brown-haired boy stopped in front of the large man, "You really my pa?" he asked, uncertainty coloring the words.
Fleming stared into those gray eyes, so much like his, and nodded his head solemnly. "Yes, I am."
"How come youre not dead? Ma said you were dead." Matthew stated innocently. A look of confusion spread across his face.
"Matthew!" Vivian hissed at the smaller child.
Fleming held up his hand to ward off any further comments from the nine-year-old. "Its alright, the boy asked a fair question."
"Well," the outlaw drawled out slowly trying to stall for time. He had had several conversations with his children in his mind, but never once had this question been bought up.
"Well," Fleming started again, "You see, your ma just thought I had died." He really had no intent on making the childs mom the bad guy. You dont do that to a dead person. "I came out here to make a living for all of us and we lost touch. It wasnt until I read about this wagon train of children coming through here and seen your names in the paper that I knew you were here.
"My name was in the paper," Matthew asked excitedly, all fear dissipating as he sat down next to the man who claimed to be his pa.
The man nodded with a smile. "Sure was," he replied. Looking at the little boy beside him, Fleming felt a large smile blossom on his face. "Could hardly believe it was you when they bought in last night. You grew up while I was gone," he said softly.
"Im five now," the little boy replied with a smile holding up five fingers for the man to count.
"I know," Fleming replied with sorrow, swiping a hand down his face. He wondered how the time had gone by so fast.
"How come they took her?" he asked, pointing to Vivian across the way. "She aint Emily," Matthew stated with childhood innocence.
"It was an accident, Matthew. They thought, since you were sitting with her and shes about the right age, she was Emily," Fleming answered, hoping it explained the situation well enough for the little boy to understand.
"Well, she aint, so what are you going to do?" Matthew asked looking up at the tall man staring down at him with a smile. Fleming couldnt help, but notice the child had turned to him to solve the problem.
"Vivian has to go back so she can get a...adopted," he stated, unsure at first if he had used the right word. "And we cant leave Emily behind," he said, hoping his father would go back for his sister.
Howard Fleming sat there for a moment; this very problem had been plaguing him since he first learned of the mistaken identity. To take the girl back and try to get his daughter was dangerous. He had already surmised that Four Corners was the nearest town and probably where the wagons headed after the attack. They had all heard about the seven men who protected the town and none of them wanted to come face to face with them. There was no doubt a posse had formed by now and those seven men would be leading it.
"Ill think of something," the father figure replied reassuringly, patting his son on the back. Fleming couldnt help the elated feeling he got being near his son and having that son count on him to fix the problem.
"Now, why dont you and Vivian go down to watering hole and clean up?" Fleming gave his son a big smile and a gentle push to get him going. A small smile crept upon his face as he watched the protective little girl unwrap from the blanker and take his sons hand and walk off toward the pond. He wondered if Emily was that attentive to her brother.
After the departure of the two children, Roger Marksman walked slowly over to his boss. "Howard?" he asked with straight forwardness, "How are we going to fix this mess?"
Dragging a large hand down his face, the cattle rustler drew in a lungful of air and looked straight into the others eyes. "Since Mr. Wakefield seems so set on getting into a gunfight and proving himself, were going to let him do exactly that."
Roger didnt know what his boss meant by that statement, but by the look in those eyes, Tim Wakefield was in for rude awakening in the morning.
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