Vin kept his horse on the course their wayward partner had set before dark. Chris had given no indication that they would stop for the night. They would catch up to Buck and settle in once their numbers were almost complete. They still had to find Ezra, who by his very nature would hide his directions and intentions. If only they knew why he'd left, they might be able to predict his course. But Buck, straight forward Buck. He had been planning to leave all along. He had shown Vin how to take care of a drunken Chris because he wouldn't be there to do it. How hard had it really been for Kestrel to convince Buck that all of Chris's problems were his fault? The man was up to something. And it was most likely working. Buck had been turning over the reins that night. Vin had been looking for it, the clue that Buck had had enough and had still missed it. And it was because the emotion that had Buck leaving wasn't that he had 'had enough'. It wasn't an angry emotion. It was, as it always was, a protective one.
Vin pulled up at the glow of a campfire in the distance. There were night sounds in the air, an owl, and crickets. Nothing seemed amiss. Chris pulled up beside Vin. The others followed suit. Chris looked over at Vin with an unspoken question.
"Let me ride in a little closer. I'll get a sign to you if it's clear."
"I'll pace you."
The two men disappeared into the night almost as soon as they moved forward. The others sat their horses and waited, but not for long.
"Nathan!" Vin's voice cut through the night. The tone was unmistakable. Someone was hurt. JD got his horse off first. The others were right behind him.
Vin and Chris were kneeling over a body when the rest of the seven rode into the camp.
"Buck!" JD called as he ran to his friend.
Nathan slid to a stop beside Buck. "Blood back here in his hair. Somebody hit him pretty hard." Chris and Vin moved back silently to give the others room.
"Buck? Can you hear me?" JD shouted. Nathan looked up at JD. "Get me a canteen." JD ran to comply.
"Do you want to move him closer to the fire? Can you see?" Josiah asked.
"I want to try to wake him up first. Check for other injuries." Nathan moved his hands over the too still body to get an idea of what he couldn't see. He grimaced when his hand came away from his friend's back covered in even more blood. Buck's sudden and rising voice drew the attention of everyone in the camp.
Buck didn't know why it was so dark. The last thing he remembered was drinking. His head hurt like the devil. Was it a hangover? No. Leaving Four Corners. Oh, God, leaving. So was he just on the trail? Then why was it so hard to wake up? Who was calling him? Oh hell, Ezra! Buck tried to get to his friend to help him. He fought the hands that held him back. "Let me go!" "Buck!" "Let him go!" "Buck open your eyes. It's Chris and Nathan." "Don't touch him!" Buck's shouts to protect his friend overlapped the friends that, in turn, tried to reach his conscious thought.
Nathan, in desperation splashed cold water on Buck's face in an attempt to bring him back aware of his surroundings. Buck tried to shake the water from his face. His head exploded with new pain. His eyes came open. He still fought.
"Buck, you're scarin' JD!"
"Yes! Yes, Buck, are you alright?"
"Buck, it's Nathan. Try to be still. How's your head?"
"Nathan?" Buck opened his eyes. His friends were there. Nathan, JD, Josiah. Where was Chris?
"Where else are you hurt?"
"Hey, Big Dog, outta town less than a day and you run into something you can't handle." Kestrel purred as he moseyed into the light. Chris's hand went to his gun before he recognized the man. Nathan, Josiah and JD turned quickly, surprised by the man who had followed them. Vin watched quietly, his pistol gripped shotgun already pointed at the new arrival.
Clay Kestrel - that son-of-a-bitch - something about - oh, hell. Buck forced his way to his feet; broke free from the hands that tried to support him, lunged at Kestrel and went to the ground with him. "You son-of-a bitch you can't ruin one life and it's enough ... " Buck punched Clay, but it pulled viciously at his bloody lower back. He gasped. Clay threw him off and landed on top of him. Buck roared and continued to fight. He couldn't keep up with the larger man in his weakened condition. Nathan and Josiah moved in. Chris, further away, somehow beat them to the altercation. He had seen the look in Buck's eye - too tired to weak to fight, drawing the strength from somewhere most men couldn't tap into. "Damn it, Buck!" Chris roared. Nathan and Josiah supported Buck. Buck didn't miss that Chris stood beside their old trail buddy and read it as displaced loyalty. "Me?! Ask your friend ... " He spat out out like the word was profanity.
"You're hurt, Buck. Your side... "
Buck was focused beyond the pain. "Ask him why he's here, Chris."
Chris turned his attention away from Clay. "Calm down and let Nathan ... "
"He's working for some Union captain. Taken it upon himself to punish Civil War criminals."
"Ain't no war criminals. President Lincoln --"
"Ask him! He set Ezra up! Ask him!"
"Settle down, Buck." Chris put his hand on his old friends' arm. Buck jerked away. With a pinched yelp, he fell to the pain in his back. Nathan and Josiah were there to lower him gently to the ground. JD took a defensive posture between his friend and Clay. He was also between Buck and Chris.
"Ask him." It was a breathy demand, weakened by the pain that overcame him.
Chris turned back to Clay. "What's he talking about?"
"Ezra. We gotta find him." Buck fought to remain conscious but he was weak, sapped. Sheer determination kept him from losing consciousness. But he felt like he was in a well. The voices and goings-on around him were distant and hard to follow. At Nathan's encouragement, JD helped the healer coax Buck back to the ground.
Chris stepped to the penumbra of the camp light. He waited for Nathan's diagnosis. Some emotion gripped him he hadn't felt since ... He was angry with himself that he had been so distracted as to allow Clay - or anyone - to ride up on them. Then he noticed that Vin had his mare's leg out. He had heard the approach. Seemed when one of them was less than vigilant the other took up the slack. But then it registered that Vin had, consciously or unconsciously, yet to return his weapon to its holster. And the way he was wary of the new arrival. This caused Chris himself to notice the way Clay was watching everything. It was a predatory, evaluating, cold appraisal of each of the men. Chris didn't like it. He was on Clay in a step and slammed his fist across his jaw. Clay knew Chris; had anticipated the attack, but not the speed. He went to the ground and rubbed his chin. "You said they wouldn't go after him." Larabee spit out.
"He's still alive, ain't he?" Larabee moved in like an alpha wolf to lead in the kill.
Vin stepped back to willingly give Larabee access to Kestrel. In doing so, he bumped into something heavy. "Chris." The tone in his best friend's voice might have been the only thing that could pull Larabee from the other gunman. He backed away from the troublemaker with a glare that told him things weren't over. Kestrel kept his face impassive but maintained a superior air that, Josiah thought, no amend that, hoped, would prove suicidal. With that thought, Vin's one word also drew Josiah to where the bounty hunter toed something in the darkness. "Ezra's saddle."
Buck's dapple was the only horse there. Chris read the story the campsite told. "Where the hell is he? Who else was here?"
"Several horses." He could tell Vin was doing his best to read sign in the flickering light.
Chris turned to confront the outsider in their midst.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan insisted they wait even for Clay's explanation until they got settled. Buck thought he heard himself try to insist they move out. He thought he heard Vin apologetically explain they could do nothing in the night. Clay enigmatically said they wouldn't have to.
Josiah moved out of Nathan's way as he tended to Buck's injuries. He might have been able to help but then they would both have to work around JD who couldn't be torn from his friend's side. The boy was unnaturally quiet, bothered by recent events. They let him stay close to Buck and gain comfort from the closeness.
They finally angled Buck against his and Ezra's saddles in such a way that he neither rubbed the cut on his back nor pulled at the few stitches Nathan had taken in the deepest puncture. Except for the initial entry wound the slice wasn't too serious. It could heal on its own. Nathan couldn't help compare it to a small paper cut he had gotten one day helping Mrs. Travis at the Clarion. He remembered that the nerve endings had responded more to that small cut than deeper ones he'd felt. Buck was in for some pain. He forced a white willow bark tea down the stubborn throat and finally let him kill the taste with coffee. Chris and Vin chose to stand when everyone finally had coffee and Kestrel began his tale. Vin seemed to dissolve in the shadows.
"There's a former Union captain, Benjamin Francis Carlisle. He was a prisoner of war at Andersonville. Despite what the Union decided, he's set up some mobile, clandestine POW camp. He arrests confederate soldiers, sympathizers, scouts, and spies. Pretty much anyone with a southern accent or friends of southerners could be on his list. The few confederate soldiers ... ".
"You went along with this?" Chris's whispered interrupted.
"There was a time ... There were atrocities committed... "
"On both sides."
"You would punish, you would hold accountable, one side for crimes committed in both camps because they lost?"
Kestrel chose not to rise to Josiah's condemnation. "I was recruited by my subcommandant from Elmira. His name is Lucas Bridger. Things made sense until I'd see them bring in a Southerner because they didn't like his attitude. Or a man would see beyond the war to defend a friend and be branded a sympathizer - even if he had fought for the Union. Carlisle brought in others who were bitter over the war to back him. They kept bringing in prisoners."
"And tries them for war crimes."
"The bodies we've been finding?" JD asked.
Buck held his coffee as if to warm his hands and listened. JD moved closer. Nathan tried to grasp the ramifications of all that was being said. Josiah looked as if once again his disappointment in man had been valid.
"Carlisle always said each man'd get a fair trial. But no one seemed to go free. There's no reading the way they think. Something about if they've executed enough men by the time they reach Gettysburg, the government will take over for him."
"His body count will justify his crusade?" That's insane."
"You think you're gonna leave Ezra to that nut case?" Buck's voice was low.
Kestrel took time to meet each man's eyes. What he saw was loyalty. "You know me, Chris. I get stupid sometimes. But I come around. I've been working with three confederate soldiers to find the camp."
"You don't know where he sits up?" Vin's tone was suspicious.
"I'm a scout. My job is to hunt down war criminals. They keep my knowledge minimal in case I'm 'captured'. A separate team comes in to arrest anyone I identify."
"Why not go to the Cavalry? Have them track these men down?"
"The Johnny Rebs don't trust them. Besides, they ride in like gangbusters, how many POW's will die?"
Chris didn't look convinced. "Have you tried to follow them?"
We're not trackers, we lose 'em. They backtrack and such. But not this time."
"What makes you think this time is different?"
"Standish. I told you there's no reading what Carlisle thinks. But Bridger. He was held responsible for the escape EZ led at Elmira. Lost his eye to him in the aftermath. EZ is legitimately on the war criminals list. They won't waste time getting him back to stand trial. They won't take time to cover their trail to lose us. We got 'em this time."
There was silence around the campfire. They still didn't trust him. He played his hole card. His voice became lower, as if he regretted what he had to say. "Lately, the men riding with him have started looting from those they 'arrest'. They've burned homes. I don't know who put those ideas in their heads ..." he trailed off and looked to Chris for a reaction. "If Carlisle or Bridger have snapped to that, they're ignoring it."
Buck's eyes were filled with hatred. Kestrel had known all along the risk he took by endangering someone he and Larabee had taken under their umbrella of friendship. He had hoped things might be more callous with Chris after his family's death. The mention of the fires seemed to harden him a fraction. That might be something to play on after all. And yet, the Preacher looked like he was seeing right through him. You could feel the confidence in that tag-along boy that Larabee would look out for the current situation. The kid was more worried about Wilmington and the risks he would take to go after Standish. The tracker was keeping his eyes, body language, any possible reads hidden in the shadows. And the healer. A former slave, how could he appear so indignant that a few Southerners were getting their comeuppance? Hell, at least Standish. He had seen those brown eyes go darker when he'd told that story in the bar.
But there they were, evaluating him, finding him wanting. "I'm trying to save lives, undo what I've done." Still no reads as to whether they were accepting his epiphany. He pushed. "Look, my men are on them tonight. Let's get some rest and relieve them tomorrow. Once we find this God forsaken place, then we can decide what to do."
"What can we do tonight, at this point?" Nathan said it casually enough, but he inclined his head in Wilmington's direction. Chris, reading what the healer could not say without agitating their wounded friend. Buck was nodding and fighting to stay awake. There was a thin sheet of sweat across his forehead. He was spent beyond his worth and battling the fatigue that called him to sleep. As Chris watched, Buck gave JD a weak smile and reassuring wink that the boy fell for because he wanted it so badly. "Tonight, then. Everybody get some rest." He knew how used up Buck was when he didn't protest. Although he suspected his bullheaded partner had elected to choose his battles and would save his strength for when he argued he had to go with them tomorrow.
Buck tried to get comfortable. Finally he realized it wasn't his back rubbing against the sheepskin underside of the saddle as much as it was the doe-brown eyes that stared at him. He wasn't looking forward to this. "Spit it out boy." He said brusquely, trying to set the tone of the oncoming conversation.
JD didn't take the bait. His tone was hurt and confused. "I need to know why you didn't want me riding with you."
"It ain't that way, Kid. You need to stay with people like Chris and Nathan and Josiah, responsible people."
"Is it because of the things I said? I shouldn't have said ... I can do better ... "
"Don't you ever, ever be afraid to say anything you want to around me. Do you hear me?" Buck sounded as angry as his condition would allow. JD hung his head. His long dark bangs fell forward to hide his eyes. His friend reached out and took his wrist. When the young man looked up to meet his eyes, Buck said much more gently. "I don't want you to ever worry what you say to me. It ain't gonna change us. What you think is important. Wouldn't hurt me to pay more attention." He smiled to try and lighten the conversation.
"Then why did you leave and not say anything or ... "
"It's for your own good."
JD was quiet for a moment as if trying to understand the answer. "Is that what Chris says to you when he leaves?"
That was like a blow. After thinking about the answer, Buck chose honesty. "Yeah, Kid, yeah, he does. I reckon in his own way, he believes it. But I reckon I know how it feels, and I never liked it. I didn't mean to do the same thing. I don't know what the answer is, but what say you and me find a better way?"
The sincere smile and relief that came over JD's face was worth any doubts Buck had in his reply. The mustached gunfighter leaned his head back in pained exhaustion and shut his eyes for a moment. "JD," Chris called from across the fire. Buck opened his eyes and they both looked that way. "Buck needs his rest. You gonna be part of the problem or part of the cure?" JD acknowledged the ultimatum with the same relieved grin and turned back to make sure Buck was as comfortable as possible. Then JD moved his bedroll closer to Buck and slept better than he had the last two nights.
Chris set across the fire and watched JD and Buck from beneath his lowered hat brim. He had to smile. The boy would mother hen the gunslinger to death. It would serve him right. He thought about the older of the two kids. Because that's what Buck was. He would never grow up. And he wasn't used to being cared for. He would balk worse than any of the others and that was saying something.
Good old Buck. Usually he was a gangly colt, so busy loving life and frolicking he could barely keep his legs under him. In the blink of an eye there was also the fiercely protective Buck Wilmington and there was the deadly shootist who you would always want at your side and never against you. But when you really needed him, there was the Buck Wilmington he chose rarely to share with anyone other than the women he courted, the Buck Wilmington who could chose just the right words to soothe a guilty conscience, a wounded heart or a frightened soul. That was the Buck Wilmington consoling their youngest. He could tell from clear across camp. JD was a lucky young man. Chris nodded to Josiah as he took first watch.
+ + + + + + +
The men were breaking camp at first light. Daylight gave Nathan a better look at Buck's injuries. The scalp wound was more than a headache. The eyes were dilated irregularly and he would blink occasionally as if to clear blurred vision. Already twice today he'd noticed the rascal pause, waver, as if fighting dizziness or disorientation. The healer wished there were some other option other than forcing him to ride, yet he knew better than to try to get Buck to stay behind. Apparently a concussion and the pain from the long, shallow knife wound were no match for stubborn and cussed bullheadedness.
Across the way Nathan heard Kestrel argue his side, that he should ride with them. The Johnny Rebs following Ezra trusted him. They were men who didn't trust easily. They were following a dangerous, organized enemy who could plant spies in their midst as they did in the war. Larabee and his crew would save valuable time with Kestrel acting as go-between. Chris scanned the others. Damn the man and his logic. As if Chris's visual check of the group had opened the decision up, Josiah sauntered forward and forced the reins of Kestrel's horse into his hands. "Get in your saddle."
With a decisive nod, Chris added, "We're wasting time arguing." Chris met Buck's eye to see if there would be a problem. Buck, his face unreadable, concentrated on turning his horse and moved out faster than he should in his condition. The initial tracks from the night before were easy to follow. Chris kneed his pony to keep up and JD was right with them.
Josiah unobtrusively hung back to ensure compliance by the stranger in their group. Nathan and Vin followed his lead. "Mighty eager to have that man ride with us." From Nathan's tone of voice they could tell he was not thrilled with the idea.
"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, Brother Nathan" Josiah kneed his horse forward so he could make conversation with Kestrel. Nathan shook his head. Vin indulged in a wistful smile.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra rode in silence. They had tied his hands in front of him, but let him hold his own reins. The men who had taken him from the camp rode single file now. They were being careful to back track; hide the trail. Some of the men were behind them. No doubt they were doing things to further throw off people who might be looking for them. They seemed to be very good at it.
His thoughts drifted to the night before. He hoped Buck was all right. How could that happen? He had been so careful to be alone when these men came after him. It had been his plan to be sure no one else got hurt. And yet, one of those men, those six he rode with had somehow shown up. For once he hadn't been on his own to handle a bad situation as best he could.
He understood these men standing back to back to protect the town or even Vin from Eli Joe that time. But this had been his problem, his history, and his past that had followed him and tracked him down. He had tried to leave. One of them had shown up. Buck had been there, fought for him and been injured because of it. Buck had fought for him as recklessly and determinedly as he would have fought for the others. What was with that? Was it Wilmington's nature? Or did he believe Ezra was a friend worth fighting for? It best served the Southerner's survival instincts to believe Wilmington would fight for anyone who needed help. But it came back to him that Wilmington was willing to die for a friend. If their leader didn't recognize the value of that kind of friendship he was a fool. But of the many things Larabee was, he wasn't a fool. He had come for Buck. There was no doubt in Ezra's mind that Chris led the riders that had led to a hasty retreat of the ex-Union soldiers. And the others would be with him. Nathan would be there. They would take care of one of their own.
Ezra knew he had to get past those thoughts. He had a task ahead of him. He had to get himself back into that place in his mind where he could deal with this situation he found himself in. He was alone now, and on his own. Strange how easy it was, really; how far he had come in some ways and not a step in others. It was a testament to how far he'd come that he really felt the need to do this, to help the men already imprisoned by a madman. And he did it despite the fact that his mother would chastise him; despite that part of her that fed into his intelligence and chastised him. But he also knew better than to rely on Clay Kestrel and his men. He would have to devise a means of escape on his own. He didn't trust the men backing him up no matter how good their intentions. There were only six men he trusted that way and in that sense, the sense of trust, he hadn't come so far at all. He studied the men surrounding him; watched for a weakness he could exploit. He hadn't seen one yet. If he could engage them in conversation and delve into their personalities he might discover his weak link.
There was another reason to keep his mind occupied. It would do no good to dwell on what was ahead. Just the thought of the place left him to believe he would never be clean again. The sweat from his horse seeped into his pants legs. His shirt had been torn during the altercation the night before. One of his captors already wore his jacket. Another wore his hat at what the fool must consider a jaunty angle. They had taunted him earlier, but that wasn't so easy as they rode single file to hide their numbers. Too bad, thinking of the comebacks had been at least a light preoccupation. Now he thought about Elmira. First it was filthy. And crowded. And the cold - men's toes and fingers seemed to die of frostbite in an unsuccessful attempt to shunt the blood to the more vital organs. In the end, it was useless. So many died. Well, at least the cold wasn't such a factor. Mid-February here still had the bitterly cold nights, but the days warmed up fairly tolerable, sometimes even hot. There would be dysentery and food poisoning. Judging from the ones with him now, there would be embittered and resentful guards. And there would be Bridger, his short riding crop, the dead, blue eye, those massive, callused hands, a hunger ... Terrell had been the lucky one when he died. And sometimes, even with fine clothes and a down pillow, you could never be clean again. Ezra closed his eyes tightly to block out memories. His fists clenched around the reins. Focus, damn it. Find the answers. Don't give up before you get there. But even as he fought for inner courage, he finally realized they had been riding almost a full day. A day closer to hell.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was fretful and hurting. He cast a glance at the three ex-Confederate soldiers that rode with them now. Clay had introduced them as Carson, Bonner and Darby. He remembered how they had caught up with them way too early for it to be good news. He'd been right. They'd lost the men they were supposed to follow. Despite Kestrel's predictions, the "Union" soldiers had traveled all night and concealed their tracks. These rag-tag losers had again been no match for their adversaries.
Buck had started to work himself up, but Vin leaned over and grabbed his saddle horn. "Save your strength, Buck. Let me see what I can find." He had ridden out. Josiah wasn't surprised Chris let JD accompanied the tracker. The boy wanted to learn everything he could and was an apt student. And it would keep his mind off of things he could not control.
There wasn't much choice but to take a break and wait for Vin and JD. But as Buck channeled his pain toward anger he became convinced that Chris had called camp early because of him. There were at least two hours of good light left. They needed to be using it to follow the men who had Ezra. Buck tried to argue with Larabee, but was ignored. It made him temperamental enough to refuse to allow Nathan to get any willow bark tea down him. But as soon as Larabee was out of sight Clay ambled over, hunkered down with a bottle of rot gut and shared it with an amused, "medicinal purposes." Buck was quick to join him in a drink.
The truth was that Buck was having trouble focusing. He knew it would pass. He'd been the same way once before when one of the wild mustangs had kicked him at Chris's place. It would pass. He needed to help get Ezra out of his jam. Nathan had been there poking and prodding and said something about keeping a low-grade fever from getting worse. Buck, too tired to truly focus, was relieved when he finally heard Vin return. He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but it didn't seem too long. When Kestrel had originally introduced the two factions, he ended with, "The tracker fella who's gonna save your sorry asses and find that trail is Vin Tanner." Seems he had been right.
There was some conversation about how someone put something over the horses hoofs to soften the signs, something about traveling single file - tumbleweed or sage tied to the back horse to smooth out the ground behind them."
"Can you follow it?" Chris had asked.
"Piece of cake." Buck clearly heard that and was relieved. He even worked up a smile as Tanner rode past Kestrel's three men and drawled, "Hope you fella's are better at keepin' up and fightin' than you are at cold trailin'."
It had taken Buck's two hours of daylight for Vin and JD to find the trail, so their early camp had become a foregone conclusion. To Buck's thinking the day had been a waste except for Vin's confidence in the track they would be following tomorrow. Buck knew that Vin was relaying the information directly to him in an attempt to console him. How did he know Buck was feeling guilty that he hadn't been able to do more to help their missing friend. "Buck, you feeling all right?" The tracker asked late in the evening.
"Don't start. Nathan ain't on me, you don't need to be."
"Nathan doesn't know you like I do." Chris imposed himself into the conversation. Buck gave him that damn indecipherable look again. "We're going to have to talk about it." Chris continued. Vin moved forward to give them privacy.
"Talk about what?"
"You're ridin' out." Clay saw the uneasy look on Buck's face and sidled his horse over, interrupting Chris without a second thought.
"Hey, Old Dog, can I talk to you here?" With only the briefest hesitation, Chris addressed Buck, "This isn't over." He let Clay lead him away from the others. Behind Chris's back, the raven-haired rogue tossed Buck the bottle of rotgut and a wink. Buck smiled appreciatively and uncorked the bottle.
JD cast a cautious eye at Buck. "You can share, JD, but don't even think about taking this away from me." And he tipped the bottle on end at his lips.
Nathan was not so hesitant as the young gunman. He snapped the bottle from their injured friend. "That don't mix with a head wound. You want to be in any shape to ride with us tomorrow?" Buck glared at his friend first, then contritely nodded agreement.
A short distance from the others, Kestrel observed the interaction and cast a cold glare at Nathan before he faced his old friend. "Chris, I want to sit some things straight." Larabee waited, but did nothing to encourage conversation. "The boy, I admire the hell out of his takin' up for his friend, but he took a lot of things wrong that I said to Buck. I think maybe he's rememberin' me saying things that really came from the Big Dog over there. Kid just doesn't want to see that." Kestrel's tone of voice was much like the one he used to talk about Darby in front of Carson or Bonner, patient, tolerant, not wanting to call the boy a liar, but ... Chris looked from Kestrel to JD to Buck and back again. He couldn't help hear the tone of voice as well as the words themselves. Kestrel continued, "Buck confides in me, you know that. I could talk to the boy, but he won't listen, you might ... it was all a misunderstanding."
Chris watched the man's face, watched for any sign of deception. "Make sure there are no more misunderstandings." It was an ultimatum, and with it Chris rode forward to catch up to Tanner. Clay was a good poker player, a good bluffer, a good liar. But what would he have to gain setting Buck off on his own? Without a motive, it was hard to imagine their old friend causing dissention. They had ridden the river together; saved each other's lives. That meant something to Chris Larabee. The man was pushin' a little too hard, but Clay was just being Clay. What had Ezra said? He turned his back on anything he couldn't settle with a gun? Maybe this was the time to change that.
Clay Kestrel studied the men. They didn't give away much, but his explanation and remorse seemed to have placate the group to a degree. He glanced over at Carson who was keeping counsel with his own men. Kestrel threw him a quick wink.
Despite Clay's assurances that they were safe, Chris set up a watch when they made camp for the night. Chris sent Josiah on the first shift with Carson. He wanted his men to mix with the others. They had decided to gather what information they could from Kestrel's associates, one on one. Josiah's eyes fell on the rot gut Nathan had taken from Buck. He took the bottle from his friend and tossed it roughly back at Kestrel in passing. Kestrel fumbled with the force with which the bottle was directed at him, but maintained a grip. The look on Josiah's face and the action said 'Keep it to yourself.'
Later around the campfire, everyone tried to relax and rest for what might come. Josiah and Carson, on guard, still remained close enough to hear what plans might be formed. Kestrel volunteered what little intelligence information he could offer regarding the POW camp. "There's at least 30 men who follow Carlisle. More could have joined him and I wouldn't know about it. We get them penned down, they'll have over 100 hostages."
"If we get into a standoff, how many prisoners do we let them kill before they give up or we do?" Carson played his part.
"We're outnumbered to begin with ... " Nathan mused.
"That's one way to look at it." Kestrel smiled.
"You have another take on this, Mr. Kestrel?"
"Way I see it, me, War Dog and Big Dog here got 'em outnumbered by two. Then we got the rest of you for backup."
"How you figure that?" JD asked incredulously.
"One riot, one ranger." Kestrel quoted like a motto.
It took a moment to sink in. Clay smiled proudly at the motto. Buck stared into the flames. Chris found something fascinating in his coffee cup.
There was a mixture of disbelief, wonder and a little betrayal in JD's next hushed tones. "You were a Texas Ranger?"
"Told you I'd been a lawman." Buck's answer was just as low.
Not satisfied with the answer, but sensing it was all he'd get just now, he turned the same question to Chris, "You were a Texas Ranger?"
"Once a Ranger, always a ranger. They'll ride with 'em again when they get around to it.
"Leave it, JD." Chris growled then he softened his tone perceptibly. "For now."
"Gentlemen, these two haven't told you the kind of team they made have they?" Kestrel asked, "Unconventional. It's a beautiful word when you see their application. Most of the time it's not even planned. It's an honor when you can see them in action."
Kestrel told a few more tales of how Larabee and Wilmington had taken on the greatest odds and won because, while no one else could predict what outrageous course of action they might take, they seemed to read each other's minds in those situations. He could tell JD hung on every word. Nathan and Josiah seemed to enjoy hearing of the lighter side of Chris's life. It helped to see what Buck fought to hold on to.
Vin couldn't help it. While this man seemed to be mending fences faster than should be possible after the havoc he'd wrought, Vin couldn't help but feel uneasy in his presence. He watched closely. There was a reason for the feelings - the man's body language? Maybe the way he chose his words the - there it was - the way his eyes constantly flitted from man to man. He was more concerned with how his stories effected the others; set them at ease, than he was with sharing good stories and good feelings. Now, was that a threat, or was it just the man?
"We're tryin' to figure how to get Ezra and the others out of this." Chris said, thinking to change the subject.
"I think that's Clay's point, Chris."
It didn't take Chris long to get on the same wavelength or to growl as he shut down the idea. 'No."
"Chris ... "
"Pandemonium could be our friend. You know like the last time - "
"They'll be another way." Chris stated with finality.
"Want to let us in on it?" Nathan asked impatiently.
Without detailing whatever past episode the three men had suddenly focused on, Buck chose to apply their implied tactic to the current situation. He seemed to ramble a little bit and Nathan watched him closer to see if there were any other symptoms from his concussion. "One of us would get ourselves thrown inside that camp with Ezra and the others - he could let those prisoners know what's coming and organize them to back us up as soon as we let 'em out."
"They know what's comin', take the guards by surprise - " Kestrel encouraged.
"Nobody else is going in that cess pool." Chris stated.
"I could do it." JD volunteered.
"No!" Buck exploded.
"He's right, Kid. Carlisle's too partial to young 'uns. That's why EZ appealed back then - got away with so much back then." A sallow coldness set over the group with Clay's newest revelation. It made the situation more desperate.
"They saw me with Ezra. I'd be a logical ... "
Chris interrupted Buck venomously. "No one goes in there! JD, you and Darby get over there and relieve Josiah and Carson."
+ + + + + + +
CRRAATHAAWCK. Ezra flinched involuntarily as the whip cut into the scrub mesquite to his right. He didn't open his eyes. He told himself the sound was like thunder. Once you heard it, you were safe from the lightning. Until the next time. The whip cracked through the air again. He smelled cedar as wood chips and leaves rained down on him. The men, led by the red-haired giant with the beard, laughed at him as he recoiled again. He absently wondered if Mr. Larabee had a flinch reflex or if he would have been able to sit here, like stone, and stare these men down in defiance. Ezra leaned back against the gnarled cedar that defied the elements and put down roots in the godforsaken plains. He was able to maintain his relaxed posture except for that damned lash.
He didn't know why they were still in camp. Unfortunately it left his overseers bored and he was their distraction. Even worse, it meant that they weren't worried about being discovered. That didn't bode well for rescue in the form of Kestrel's confederate liberators. The thought sobered the self-sufficient conman. Startled, it took him a moment to register the level of pain when it bit into his arm. The whip sliced through his already tattered sleeve and the flesh of his upper arm. He sprang to alert, gasped, and reached to squelch the instant blood flow. The redhead, his name was Jordan, hooted. The gash erupted in a fiery pain and Ezra held his breath involuntarily to fight it. Jordan knelt down in front of him and ran the grip of the whip over the cut and pressed hard. "Got your attention then, didn't I you son-of-a bitch." Ezra shouldered the man off balance to get the pressure off the wound. Jordan righted himself and backhanded Ezra to the ground.
Jordan kicked Ezra back to the ground when he would have tried to stand. "You've got a long stay to be showing attitude, boy." He hissed. Ezra thought of several quick replies. That he couldn't catch his breath to utter the words was a blessing in disguise. His already bruised ribs informed Standish that trying that again was not a good idea. Jordan immediately pulled Ezra to his feet. "I wish you'd make up your mind." He was able to gasp.
"I'll be glad to have a part in breaking you." The bearded soldier laughed. Then he shoved his prisoner toward the horses. "Mount up." So they were on some schedule, Ezra mused.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah and JD seemed regretful that Buck had to sit his horse again so soon. But Buck had been anxious to be on the move and wasn't complaining.
Kestrel had muscled his horse to Chris's right. Vin's spot. JD thought proprietarily on his friend's behalf. His thoughts were cut short by the sound of a Mockingbird's call. Within moments they had all responded to Vin's guarded warning. They belly crawled up a slight rise and saw Ezra and his captors. Josiah clapped Vin on the back. He had done it. There were five well-armed soldiers guarding Ezra. He didn't look too much the worse for wear from this distance, but Buck remembered the fight and knew they'd both been bruised. "Let's go get 'em." Buck growled.
Through his spyglass Vin could see there was more damage than the others could observe and was standing to back Buck's play.
"No." Clay ordered. All of the men looked him over like he was a new life form. They didn't take orders well. Clay quickly explained, "Ezra's agreed to this. We have to find those men." Larabee, Tanner and Wilmington, as one, moved below the hillock. The others followed as if an order had been given. Carson and Bonner kept watch.
"Tell me again why you can't lead us to this POW camp?" Larabee demanded.
"They move while I'm out looking for war criminals."
"They're not war criminals!" JD caught himself at the last minute and lowered his voice. He didn't know how far it would carry across the flatness. Buck put a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder.
Kestrel ignored the young Easterner. In this moment of intensity, when his plans were on the line, the fact that the boy didn't even exist as far as he was concerned became evident. He only had eyes for Larabee and Wilmington and an occasional glance at Sanchez. "I explained that to you. I only find them when they contact me. We're so close." He looked for a weak link. "We're so close to ending a nightmare for over 100 men." He waited.
"Chris, let's get Ezra the hell away from those men then 'convince' one of them to tell us where the damn cage is." Buck demanded.
Chris considered this alternative. He wanted to get Ezra back safely. He wanted Buck to know that his opinion mattered. Before a decision could be made things changed. Bonner alerted them. Chris and Vin returned to their lookout post in time to see five more men rode up and joined Ezra's captors. The rest of the seven were too far away to hear what was happening, and the odds having suddenly changed gave them pause.
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