by Helen Adams

Characters: Vin and Ezra

July 4th, 1873
Chinese firecrackers snapped and popped merrily through the streets of Four Corners, echoing the larger, brighter bursts of colored light exploding overhead. Citizens clapped, oohing and aahing with each new blast as the small community celebrated another Independence Day.

"Some fun, eh?" Vin asked, nudging Ezra with his elbow as a double burst of green and yellow showered the dirt street with sparkles of fire. The two lawmen had claimed seats on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, chairs tipped back and glasses of cool beer in hand as they watched the show.

"A most exciting display," Ezra replied with a grin. The expression faded along with the waning light of the fireworks as a few of the townsmen, including Buck and JD, dashed out into the street to set up the next round of skyrockets. "Everyone appears to be having a very nice time."

Vin looked sharply in the gambler's direction. His comment had had a wistful tone to it that seemed out of place with the general gaiety of the day. "You, especially," he shot back. At Ezra's questioning look, he gestured toward the street. "You appear to be having a real good time, but I'm pretty sure you ain't."

Startled by the insight, Ezra stared at him. "And what brings you to such a conclusion?"

Blue eyes studied him shrewdly, a knowing expression in their depths that made the other man shift uncomfortably. "War was a long time ago, Ezra, but I ain't forgot it. Don't reckon any man who saw a lick of action back in them days will ever forget it entirely. Day like this one can't help but bring back a few memories that ain't so happy." He raised a questioning eyebrow. "Specially for those of us who was fightin' on the other side."

"Us?" Ezra repeated. The instinctive defensive stiffening of his spine relaxed a bit. "I hadn't realized."

"You thought you was swimmin' alone in a sea of blue-bellies?" Vin asked, his rueful grin inviting Ezra to join in on the joke. He nodded. "I was just a kid and it ain't something I talk about, what with Chris and Nathan and a lot of the other men hereabouts having fought for the Union, but I joined up with the 4th Texas Infantry late in '61."

Respect filled Ezra's green eyes. "Hood's Brigade?" The Texan nodded sharply, the gesture almost a salute in itself. Ezra shook his head. "1861 . . . good lord, you couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen."

"Old enough," he grunted. "You?"

"Artilleryman, Valley Campaign, spring of '62," he said, chin lifting with a hint of pride.

Vin whistled. "You fought with 'Stonewall' Jackson? Damn. And you wasn't no ol' gaffer yourself in '62, so don't be talkin'."

The gambler smiled. "Old enough, as you say. And my participation ended long before the final battle of the war was waged. Following the death of General Jackson, my company ended up being transferred to the command of General Lee and my personal service concluded with our great defeat at Gettysburg in '63."

"I's there too," Vin said, grimacing. "Wish to hell I hadn't been."

Ezra's expression grew distant. "I lost many friends and comrades, and damn near lost my life after catching a Union bullet on the very first day of that engagement. Two weeks later, I had barely begun to recover my strength when a bout of pneumonia brought an ignominious end to my bright military career. I was discharged and my mother promptly snatched me up to spend the remainder of the unpleasantness far from the reach of further injury."

Vin snorted at the sarcasm in those words. "Reckon I'm glad she did, pard. Gettysburg weren't no picnic. I was lucky to get out of it with my hide intact but if you'd have gone back into battle and fought again wounded or sick, there's a right good chance we wouldn't be sittin' here watching fireworks together tonight."

"Celebratin' the glorious 4th," Ezra sighed, knocking back the remainder of his beer in one large gulp.

The Texan briefly gripped his friend's shoulder, understanding perfectly. "Don't suppose anyone who spent the first part of July at Gettysburg in '63 will ever forget it. Celebration like this one has a way of bringin' it up again real sharp and painful." Then, watching Buck cavort in the street with a crowd of small children as he lit off another rocket that exploded in a huge flower of red sparks, he smiled. "But there are a lot of things that soften the blow, too."

Ezra, too, smiled at the sight of Buck breaking into an impromptu jig, dancing and strutting like an overgrown rooster while the little ones giggled and tagged after him. "I believed in The Cause with all my heart when I was eighteen years old," the gambler admitted. "Couldn't imagine any reason for ever wantin' to truck with northerners, but now, having the life I live today and the wild assortment of comrades I am fortunate enough to share it with, I must concede that the end of the war was not the end of the world."

As they watched, Nathan Jackson came out to light off a rocket, cursing and laughing as his fingers were singed by an unexpected spark. "Nice job, Nathan!" Vin sang out, cupping his hands around his mouth to be heard over the booming explosion the firework made.

"You boys think you can do it any better, get your lily-white southern backsides off of that porch and give me a hand then!" the healer taunted back.

Slapping Ezra on the chest, Vin stood and placed his empty beer mug on the porch rail. "That sound like a challenge to you, pard? There's lots of fireworks left in that there supply wagon. What do you say we go show 'em how it's done?"

Ezra's eyes sparkled with interest. "I am rather partial to a good explosion."

"Hear that, Nathan?" Vin called out. "Ezra wants to blow some shit up!"

The healer laughed. "Well, come on, then. These fuses ain't gonna light themselves!"

Ezra grinned, rose and grabbed his discarded jacket. Snapping a saucy salute toward the black man, he called back, "Yes, suh!"

Nathan cocked his head in curiosity, then shrugged and picked out a delightfully large skyrocket to place on the launching platform constructed for this event.

Feeling much cheered, two young former Confederate soldiers hopped off the boardwalk and hurried to join in the community celebration.

The End