"Come on, we’re going to get our horses."
I stand as soon as Ronon comes to fetch me, thinking that it’s about damn time. It’s been full on dark for hours and I was about to say to hell with them all and head back on my own. When we go downstairs, I can hear Jennifer and Sheppard arguing.
"It’s too soon to move him," she’s saying. "If he rides all that way he’ll tear his sutures."
"He can ride in the back of the wagon…give him an extra dose of morphine. That should be easy enough."
"He can stay here, if you like," Jennifer offers. "That way I can see to his medical needs."
"We can tend to him back at the farm. It’s too dangerous for both of you if he stays here."
Ronon and I decide to stay out of the mess and head out the backdoor to circle around to the stables as that’s our best reckoning as to where they’ve put our horses. If they ain’t there, then surely there will be others we can borrow for the time being. The moon is barely half full, but it seems bright enough to show our every move as we sneak to the livery. At least it seems that way to me, although Ronon don’t seem to pay it no mind.
He leads the way, knife in one hand and gun in the other, and just as deadly with either. We weave our way through darkened streets, melting into the even darker shadows when we hear a horse approaching. As we figured, there are plenty of Cowen’s men patrolling the streets, but none of them see us. When we get closer to the livery, I can hear the piano from the saloon, the music as rowdy and unruly as the men inside the gambling hall. Here’s hoping some of those drunken men are Cowen’s and they can’t even walk much less ride.
The man standing guard on the back door to the stables doesn’t make a sound as Ronon wraps a muscular arm around his neck and squeezes until the man’s eyes roll back and he falls limp to the ground. We slip in quietly and I place a hand on Jumper’s nose to quiet her when she blows warm air on my neck. The horses belonging to John, Ronon, and Rodney are all here and still saddled, but my horse and wagon are nowhere to be seen.
Ronon leads two of the horses toward the back door, pointing to another stall with a dark bay mare to tell me to take one for myself. I lead it out and grab the saddle from the post. And that’s when I hear the click of a hammer being drawn back on a gun.
"Well, well, well, looky what we have here. It seems we caught ourselves a couple of horse thieves."
"If I recollect properly, that’s a hanging offense," the second man says.
"These horses are ours," Ronon tells the man, turning to face them and dropping the reins.
The first man waggles his gun toward the one I just led from the stall. "That one ain’t."
"My mistake," I shrug casual-like, but my heart is pounding hard in my chest.
"You can try to explain that to the sheriff," the first says, but I know that won’t happen. They aim to shoot us where we stand.
Evidently Ronon knows the same, because his tomahawk is sticking from the one man’s chest before any of the rest of us realize he had it out. The other man’s eyes go wide in surprise as his partner stumbles forward a step before folding forward to the ground and it takes him a second to remember he has a gun. When he does, he fires at Ronon, who is already moving. The shot has the horses rearing and I fight to hold the reins even as Ronon springs forward and jumps the shooter, the knife in his hand slicing silently across the man’s throat. By the time I have the horses calmed, Ronon has gathered his blades.
"Do you think they heard the gunshot?" I ask in worry.
Ronon opens the gates and lets out the other horses, giving a sharp whistle and a swat to get them charging out into the night. "We’re not waiting around to find out." Ignoring the saddle, he grabs a fistful of dark main and swings up on the back of the bay in one smooth motion.
I climb into the saddle of Ronon’s horse with a wince at the pain that runs through my leg, but we’re trotting out into the street within a few seconds each leading another horse. Ronon pulls us to a stop when we reach the street that runs in front of Jennifer’s house, putting a finger to his lips when I start to ask what he’s waiting for. He dismounts and hands over the reins to the bay before he disappears down the street. I wait for him to return and finally see what he was going after when the rider we had seen before, the one I’d watched riding in front of the house most of the evening, comes into sight… and quickly vanishes when Ronon pulls him from the saddle and punches him a few times to leave him lying unmoving in the road.
At Ronon’s signal, I lead all the horses on toward the doctor’s place, following Ronon on the newly riderless horse as he heads behind the house. Sheppard is there already holding Rodney on his feet with the help of the doctor who has changed into britches and a wide-brimmed hat with her black bag in her hand.
"Where the hell’s the wagon?" John demands as soon as he sees us with a mess of horses but no cart.
"Wasn’t there," Ronon tells him simply. "McKay will have to ride."
"She’s drugged him to the gills," Sheppard exclaims. "He can’t sit up straight in a chair, much less a saddle."
"He don’t have to sit up straight, just hold on."
Sheppard is none too happy with Ronon’s idea.
"I have a buggy," Jennifer offers. "We can ride in that."
John shakes his head. "We don’t have time to harness a team. We heard the gunshots from here. They’ll be on our tails any minute now."
"We?" Ronon cuts in. "She’s going, too?"
McKay tries to straighten, staggering further into the doctor. "I can ride." Jennifer does her best to catch him until Sheppard can pull him off her, but not before Rodney gives her a drunken smile. "Howdy, little lady."
"No, you can’t ride," Sheppard tells him before turning back to Ronon. "And no, she’s not going. Not now anyway."
"He’s going to need a doctor even more if we don’t have a buggy," Jennifer argues. "And I grew up with horses. I dare say I can ride as well as any of you."
"Sheppard," I warn when I hear horses bearing down. "We got company coming."
"Shit!" Sheppard curses, apparently having changed his mind about Rodney’s abilities to ride seeing as he’s moving Rodney toward his horse. "Canaan, you lead them back to the farm. Stay off the path and to the trees as much as you can."
Jennifer takes that as permission to mount up on Ronon’s horse as he’s back on the bay, evidently figuring he’s best suited to ride without a saddle of anyone.
"What about you?" I ask.
Sheppard is all but shoving McKay up onto his horse, steadying Rodney when he nearly sways right out of his saddle. "Me and Ronon will stay behind and buy a little time."
Ronon pulls McKay’s gun from his holster and offers it to Keller. "Can you shoot a gun?"
"I have," she tells him, eyeing in nervously.
"Good," is all he says as he presses it into her grip. She takes it and puts it in the belt of the pants she wears.
Sheppard is placing Rodney’s hands on the horn of the saddle. "All you have to do is hold on, McKay. Just hold onto the goddamn saddle. Think you can manage that?"
Rodney looks like he’s coming off a three day drunk the way he teeters but manages to stay upright. "Not a problem."
Satisfied, Sheppard takes McKay’s reins and hand them to me with a look that says it’s all up to me to get Rodney and the lady doctor through safe. "Canaan…"
I nod and promise, "We’ll see you back home."
"Ride safe," he tells me, then smacks my horse’s rump and I head out at a canter, McKay bouncing along as I lead his horse but managing to stay seated. Jennifer rides easily beside him and I decide we can risk a slow gallop when the shooting starts behind us, at least until we reach the trees.
It’s a good half-hour ride before we reach the woods and the moonlight is mottled by the nearly bare branches above us, so I slow us down so that we are weaving between the trees at barely a trot. I have no doubt we’re hidden from the main trail, but the fall leaves underfoot crunch with each step of the horse’s hooves. The trees are thick, but I find a deer trail that meanders through them giving a relatively clear path for us to follow even if we have to travel in a single file. No one has spoke a word since we left Dr. Keller’s house over an hour before, but my thoughts are sounding loud in my head.
Did John and Ronon make it out alive? Did they buy us enough time? Are Acastus and his men riding hard and fast on the trail at this very moment for my home and we won’t make it in time anyway?
My worries are interrupted by Jennifer speaking behind me. "Dr. McKay, are you alright?"
"Fine, fine," he tells her, but I can hear it in his voice that he’s anything but.
The distressed, "Rodney!" from Jennifer just goes to prove my point, and I look back in time to see him slide from his saddle to land face down in the leaves on the forest floor.
She’s already on the ground beside him, rolling him over by the time I climb down from my horse. Rodney is looking up past her with glassy eyes. "Well, would you look at that; my horse is upside down."
"Rodney, just lie still," she insists as she pulls his jacket away to look at his shoulder again. Even in the pale silver light of the moon, I can see the dark stain of red seeping through his bandages. "He’s torn his sutures just like I knew he would." She gives an annoyed shake of her head. "I’m going to have to sew him back up."
"Here? Now? This ain’t exactly the best place to be doctoring someone."
"I don’t have much choice. He’s bleeding…"
I raise my hand to hush her up when I hear the shuffle of leaves back behind us. "There’s horses a’comin’."
"What do we do?" she whispers in worry.
"Move deeper in the trees," I tell her, trying to pull Rodney to his feet. "Get the horses."
She gathers the horses, doing her best to shush them when they whinny and fuss. But it ain’t enough because the noise has the horses behind us stopping. I pull my gun, pointing it toward anyone who might be coming toward us, even as I all but drag McKay off the deer trail.
"Canaan?" Sheppard calls and I exhale and let my gun fall to my side.
"Here," I answer him back and the horses move toward us at a quicker pace.
As soon as they reach us, Sheppard is out of his saddle. "What happened?"
He takes most of McKay’s weight, which I’m thankful for as my leg can barely support us both, and Rodney looks at him dazedly. "Oh, hey. Where you been?"
Jennifer steps out of the trees and explains, "He’s bleeding again. I need to resuture the wound."
"Not here, you’re not," Sheppard declares. "We slowed down Cowen’s men but sure as I’m standing here they’re only a few minutes behind."
"He’s bleeding!" she insists.
Sheppard seems torn but asks me, "How much further to home?"
"On the main trail, riding full out, I’d say almost an hour. In the trees like this, twice that."
That makes up John’s mind for him. "He won’t bleed to death in a couple of hours. Cinch his bandage tight and you can mend him back at the house."
"He can’t ride a horse for that long," Jennifer argues but sets to work doing as Sheppard says. "I honestly don’t know how he stayed in his saddle as long as he did."
"I know he can’t, that’s why he’s riding with me. Ronon give me a hand."
Ronon sends the horse he’s been riding bareback off into the trees before hoisting McKay up behind Sheppard. "Rodney, don’t get excited, but you need to hold tight to me because we need to double time it from here on out."
McKay snorts at the joke and joshes back even though his words are mumbled. "I knew it was just a matter of time before you tried something like this with me, Sheppard." But he does as he’s told, leaning heavy against Sheppard’s back. "I was actually starting to feel left out."
"Canaan, you’re point man. Doc, you stay tight on his heels. Ronon you have our backs." With those orders, I click my tongue and set the horse I ride toward home.
* * * *
The sky is lightening to a deep purple by the time I spot home. The house is dark, but the smoke from the chimney is floating thick and gray in the cold air and the grass is brittle under the horses’ hooves from the frost. I coax my horse into a gallop, all the more eager to be home now that it’s in sight. And I pull it to a halt as soon as I round to the front and find myself with a rifle pointed up at me.
I can’t help but call a desperate, "Teyla?" into the house at the sight of the stranger.
"Canaan!" Teyla runs out onto the porch, placing a hand on the man’s arm and he lowers his gun enough for me to see that it’s Stephen Caldwell.
"Son, we were getting a might worried about you," Caldwell tells me.
I barely hear him as Teyla nearly knocks me from my feet as she wraps her arms around me. "Mr. Caldwell said there had been a shootout and Rodney was shot. I was so worried about you all."
I hold her close and rest my head against hers. "Don’t you fret none. I’m fine."
"And Rodney?" she asks in dread.
"Alive," I promise. "See for yourself."
She lets go of me as soon as the others ride up, her attention turning to McKay now that he’s here. Apparently, she don’t like what she sees. "Rodney, what have you done to yourself?"
Rodney don’t give an answer seeing as he’s barely conscious as Sheppard helps ease him from the saddle down to where Ronon and Teyla are waiting to catch him. The bandage on his shoulder is more red than white and Dr. Keller frowns at what she sees.
"Let’s get him inside so I can re-suture his shoulder."
John stops Ronon before he can help with McKay. "Ronon, scout back on the trail. First sign of Cowen’s men you hightail it back here."
Ronon mounts up again and starts back the way we just came as Teyla and Jennifer help McKay into the house, leaving John and Ronon to deal with the horses and Cowen’s men who can’t be far behind.
I offer my hand to Caldwell. "Thank you for staying with her. If I had known you was here it would have lifted a heavy burden from my mind."
He takes my hand and shakes. "I came to deliver your supplies and thought it would be best to stay."
John steps up behind me when he hears. "Supplies?"
"Yeah. Let’s just say Radek had a change of heart. Your wagon and everything on your list is in your barn."
Sheppard is already heading for the barn with a lantern he took from the porch, with me and Caldwell following close behind. He swings the door open, holding the light high to see in the dark space. The milker in the side stall stands from her bed of hay to see what all the commotion is about.
"Hot damn." Sheppard smiles broadly at the wagonload of supplies, and by the looks of it, it’s all there… the powder kegs, the fuses, the rock picks and shovels, hell, I even see a small brown paper sack that contains the licorice pieces I was going to bring back for Teyla and Charin… all of it.
"But… how?" I ask Caldwell in amazement.
"You aren’t the only one who’s been dealing with Kolya and the others. But you and your friends are the only ones who seem to have a plan for dealing with them. I just convinced Radek it would be in everyone’s best interest if he helped with that plan however he could."
I shake his hand again. "Thank you. I don’t how to repay you for this."
"Getting rid of Cowen is more than enough thanks."
Sheppard is already in the back of the wagon going through the goods. "Canaan, we’re going to need jars, at least half a dozen."
"Jars?" By Caldwell’s question, I know I’m not the only one confused by the request.
"I picked up a few things from Rodney along the way." This time John’s grin has a touch of the Devil in it.
"We have some," I tell him, "but they’re put up with the summer fruit."
Sheppard is already moving one of the kegs of powder. "Then Charin can make us a couple of her famous peach pies tomorrow. Right now I need them empty and clean."
I give a quick nod before heading back toward the house. Inside, Teyla is speaking quietly to Rodney while Charin holds a basin of water for Jennifer as she works on McKay’s shoulder. I grab Hallings arm and pull him out the door.
"Go in the cellar and hand me up some fruit jars."
I give the man a gentle shove. "Don’t ask, just do it. I don’t really have any idea why he wants them neither."
Sheppard and Caldwell come out of the barn carrying a powder keg about the same time Halling and I step up on the porch with our arms full of canned peaches and butter beans.
Inside, I grab a bowl for each. "Now, start emptying them."
Teyla stands as soon as I start dumping out heaps of syrupy sweet fruit in a bowl. "Canaan, what are you doing?"
I don’t bother answering seeing as Sheppard has walked in and placed the barrel on the floor by the table. "Good, good." He pushes the jar I just emptied at Teyla. "Wash it and get it good and dry."
She don’t get a chance to say more before Sheppard is pushing her toward the water basin in the kitchen. "Wash and dry them. We don’t have a lot of time here."
Teyla does as she’s told and me and Halling pitch in to help her when we finish with the emptying. John is measuring out lengths of fuse and cutting it off with his knife.
"Too long," Rodney tells him from his seat by the fire. He swallows and blinks his eyes to try to keep them open as Jennifer finishes up with her bandaging. "If you plan to throw them, you’ve cut them too long."
John cuts off about a quarter of the length and holds one up for McKay to inspect. "How’s this?"
"Better." Rodney’s looking a might green around the gills and he sways where he sits. "You’ll need to notch the lids, too."
John looks a little disappointed that he hadn’t thought of that himself. "Right. Canaan, you got a file?"
"In the barn," Halling says as he puts down the jar he’s drying and starts out the door to fetch it.
"And dirt," McKay calls, his head drooping more with each word. "Can’t fill the entire jar with powder. Too big an…explo…"
Jennifer catches him before he can slip out of the chair and into the floor. "Whoa!"
John is by his side lickity split, pulling Rodney to his feet with the help of Keller and leading him to the bed. McKay is still giving directions, or at least trying to. "Pack the dirt hard… two thirds full…"
"We’ve got it from here, McKay."
John’s promise earns a snort of disbelief. "Don’t blow yourself up."
As soon as McKay is dropped onto the bed, Sheppard returns to his work in the kitchen, leaving the settling in of Rodney to the doctor. Halling returns a few minutes later with the file and bucket full of dirt and Ronon right behind him.
"They’re maybe five minutes behind me, almost a dozen horses, riding like Hell’s at their hooves."
Sheppard and Caldwell are packing dirt in the jars and John hands one to Ronon. "Notch this lid, enough for the fuse to fit but no more."
The tracker can see instantly what Sheppard is up to. "Are you serious?"
Sheppard don’t stop with his work. "You got any better ideas on how the five of us able to hold a gun are supposed to take on twice our number?"
Apparently, Ronon don’t have any because he picks up the file and sets to work. John takes the notched jar and tops off the dirt with a cup full of powder.
"Six of us," Teyla corrects, grabbing the rifle and shells.
"The hell you are," I declare, taking the gun and giving it to Halling instead.
"I defended this land long before you ever knew it existed, Canaan." She tries to take it back but I hold firm.
"And now you have a son to defend… while you keep yourselves out of sight."
"Charin will take care of Torren," she argues. "You need every straight shot you can get."
When Sheppard pulls her hand away, she opens her mouth ready to give him a piece of her mind, only to close it when he replaces my rifle with his. "Get up on the roof. Signal when they’re in sight."
Teyla glares at me, daring me to try and stop her, before darting out the door. A few seconds later I can hear her footsteps on the roof, like Santa and his sleigh. Only I doubt Old Saint Nick would be carrying a Henry rifle… at least not since the war ended.
Sheppard has two of his homemade bombs finished by the time Teyla stomps hard on the roof above us. "Doc, get in here!" Jennifer appears in the doorway as he gathers up his jars. "Help Canaan and Halling finish up. Ronon, Caldwell, you’re with me."
"But…" I start but Sheppard cuts me off by lifting the bombs in his hands.
"These will slow them down." He tips his head toward the remaining jars on the table. "Those are going to stop them." I feel a tiny bit better about it all until I hear him mumble, "I hope," as we walks out the door.
"What do I need to do?" Jennifer asks, more than a little nervous at the prospect of handling gun powder.
"Grab that cup and fill it to there," I show her before filing the notch in another jar lid.
The shooting starts up a few seconds later and it takes all my willpower to stay right where I am and not go outside to help. But if Sheppard’s right then this is the best place for me. The flash of light and blast that rattles the rose-covered tea cups on the hutch that comes a minute later just makes me even more sure of that truth. Jennifer’s eyes widen at the explosion, but I barely flinch. Even years since the last time I’d seen a battle, the sound of artillery was so common that I was more distressed by Torren’s wailing than the blast. Charin paces with him, humming an old lullaby in his ear as she’s done since the day he was born to try and sooth him, but the second explosion only has him crying louder. It also has McKay staggering out of the bedroom.
With a white-knuckle grip on the doorframe, he braces himself to keep from landing face-down on the floor. "He’s probably singed his goddamn eyebrows off."
"Dr. McKay, you need to be back in bed."
Rodney pays no heed to Keller’s scolding, just pushes off from the doorway while cradling his arm in the sling to reach the table. "I need to be where I should have been all along." He shakes his head in disappointment at what he sees, sitting heavy in one of the chairs. "The son of a bitch didn’t even pack them, did he?" It’s obvious we ain’t meant to answer his question because he don’t bother waiting for one before he tries to snap his fingers on his free hand. "Canaan, cut up that rag there, enough to fit in the neck. Surely you’ve shot ball and cap before. Same concept for the wad only we want to keep the deflagration from spreading over too big an area instead of preventing a chain fire."
I may not understand all his big fancy words, but I understand the idea behind them and set to helping him. Rodney finishes cramming the rag in the top of the jar about the time Sheppard bursts through the door, surprised to see McKay at the table. "Rodney, what the hell…?"
McKay slumps back in his chair and waves his hand at the jar. "Your eyebrows will thank me."
John don’t waste no time snatching up the sealed jar and running back out. A few seconds later another blast rumbles through the house. I can’t hear no difference but Rodney must given the way he smiles groggily. "That’s better." He stands and steadies himself before deciding walking back to the bed is too much trouble. So, instead, he sits back down and puts his head down on the table and twirls his good hand in the air. "Carry on; you know what to do."
We do know what to do and finish with the remaining jars. I gather them up and step out the door, ducking almost as soon as I do when a bullet hits the doorway above my head. Halling takes aim at the rider who fired, but I’m pretty sure it’s Ronon who actually shot him. The rider slumps low over his horse’s neck but manages to stay in his saddle as he trots off.
The sky has paled to a rosy gray with the rising sun and I can make out more men on horseback beside the windmill firing where Sheppard and Caldwell are pinned down behind the old bunkhouse that ain’t been used since Teyla’s family was killed. I can still hear shots from the roof and take that as proof Teyla is still up there and okay.
From his position by the barn, Ronon yells, "Light it and throw it!"
I motion for Halling to follow me and we carefully work our way around the back of the house and to the springhouse. We pause long enough to see if the coast is clear. All we see is a horse with an empty saddle. I look off to the side and can make out the dark shape its rider lying unmoving on the ground. Satisfied, we cross the short but open distance to the outhouse. With Halling’s age and my leg, it ain’t none too fast, but we manage to make it without being seen. From there, I have a pretty good shot at the men firing at Sheppard and Caldwell.
I light the first jar, alarmed at how quickly the fuse is burning, and throw it with all I have before ducking back behind the latrine. It still lands short, but close enough that the men shooting are fighting to control their horses. The second one I throw has two men bucked into the dirt and the others turning their own mounts back down the trail for Athos. The thrown men manage to remount and are not far behind their fellow raiders as they turn tail and run.
I look back at the house to see Teyla stand from where she was squatting behind the chimney and she raises her rifle to signal she’s unharmed. The same woman who cradles our son and sings him to sleep at night and here she stands surveying the dead men on our land with hard eyes and a harder set mouth. Sheppard and Caldwell are already heading back toward Ronon and I go to meet up with them.
"Everybody all right?" John asks as he reloads his guns.
"I count three dead." Ronon uses his own gun to point in the directions of the bodies. "All Cowen’s men."
"Is Acastus one of them?" I know it’s probably sinful of me to hope for that, but I can’t help wishing it were true all the same.
"No, he was with the bunch firing at us that ran off," Sheppard tells me. "But I can guarantee we’ll have another shot at him."
I nod before asking, "What do we do now?"
Sheppard pushes back his hat and squints down the trail where the riders have disappeared. "Well, way I figure it; they won’t be back until they regroup back in Athos. So, I think we won’t be seeing them again until tomorrow night or the day after at the earliest."
"That’ll give us time to be ready for them," Ronon points out.
"And get a little rest," John adds. "As soon as we strap the bodies to their horses and set them on the trail for Athos, that is."
I’ve seen my fair share of dead men in my life. Hell, I spent one bitter cold night in the winter of 1863 surrounded by more dead men than live ones. After a while, you learn not to see them. Even when you’re moving them to a mass grave, or draping them across the saddle of their horse like Ronon and me are doing, you just don’t see them, least ways, not as men who woke up alive the morning before. Not as men who sat at a table and ate a meal like the one Charin cooks for us all.
It’s a meal that goes mostly uneaten. Keller and Halling are the only ones sitting around the table with me. Jennifer must have got Rodney back into Halling’s bed, because that’s exactly where McKay is, sound asleep. Ronon has taken the first watch, just in case Cowen’s men come back early, and Sheppard has propped his feet up and pulled his hat down and is snoring lightly by the fire. Caldwell decided he’d best get home to his own farm and make sure all was well with it and his family. And Teyla had taken a still crying Torren from Charin’s arms as soon as she came down off the roof and disappeared into our room.
I swallow down some flapjack and eggs and a few peaches before I go find her. She’s lying on top of the quilt on our bed, curled on her side, running a thumb along the baby’s chubby little hand that is wrapped around her finger in his sleep. She don’t look up from where our son lies by her side, but she speaks to me just the same. "I never thought much about having a baby before I found out I was expecting Torren. And now, I have trouble thinking of what it would be like without him."
I sit on the edge of the bed beside them. "He is a right fine baby, ain’t he?"
"Right fine," she agrees, looking at me with a smile. "I wish he could have met my daddy. He would have been so proud to have a grandson. He would have been proud to call you son, too."
I lean down and kiss her forehead before doing the same to Torren. "We’ll make sure he grows up worthy of his grandpappy’s name."
"This land is all I have left of my daddy, Canaan. But sometimes I wonder if we might be risking so much more by trying to keep it."
Seeing Teyla up on the rooftop today with a gun in her hand had me wondering the same thing myself. But I also know Teyla is her father’s daughter through and through. I might never have met the man, but from the stories I’ve heard from those that did know him, I know there is no denying that Torren and Teyla Emmagan was cut from the same cloth. "Would your pa have left?"
"Of course not."
I spent years fighting in a war not know what I was fighting for. It weren’t for land or slaves or beliefs and it weren’t because of the fancy words the President or any of the generals said. I shot at the Rebs because they was shooting at me, and sometimes I wondered if they wondered why they was shooting same as me. But now when it was supposed to be a country of peace, I’d finally found something worth killing men over, worth dying for. There was no way I could turn back now.
"Then we ain’t leaving neither."
Teyla reaches out and takes my hand, and even though she don’t say it, I know it’s meant as a sign of thanks.
* * * *
I hadn’t planned to doze off myself. Just because you had a crooked cattleman trying to run you from your land, it didn’t mean there weren’t chore to be attended to. But two gun fights and a nighttime of worrying and riding for your life can take a toll on a man, and I find myself waking alone on my bed with the sun high overhead and the smell of peach pies filling the air.
It seems I wasn’t the only one plum tuckered out by the night we had. The lady doctor is still here, sleeping in a chair by the fire with her knees pulled up under the quilt draped across her. Not that I expected her to be gone back to Athos on her own or anything. I ain’t right sure she realized it at the time, but when she rode with us last night, she had bound herself to the same fate that awaits all of us. That may not be fair, but having a cattleman trying to run me off my land ain’t exactly fair neither. Ronon is sleeping in the same spot Sheppard had been before, and I assume John has taken watch for the time being. A glance in the other room shows McKay is still sleeping soundly in his sick bed.
Charin offers to fix me a plate of supper but I wave it off, instead heading outside to see where everyone else is. Teyla is sitting in the porch swing with the baby bundled in a blanket watching Sheppard and Halling as they work on finishing the repairs to the corral. I suppose with as many horses as we have here now, it’s a good thing to have.
"Did you sleep well?" she asks.
I stretch with a broad yawn. "I reckon I did."
"Good, I have a feeling we have some long nights ahead of us."
"We ain’t had a short one since little britches arrived," I remind her with a grin before stepping off the porch and joining the other men at the corral.
Halling is leaning heavy against one of the posts and I slap him on the back. "Why don’t you go take a break and I’ll finish up here."
He starts to argue but I won’t take no for an answer, so he finally gives in and heads for the house. John watches as Halling stops on the porch to lean over Teyla and smile down on the baby like Torren is his own flesh and blood.
"Halling’s a good man," Sheppard says, taking a short rest himself. "Ever since the day I met him I knew Teyla was in good hands with him around."
I take up the hammer John has just put down. "Too bad there aren’t more like him and less like Cowen and his lot."
"Amen to that," Sheppard agrees as he holds the board in place for me.
"Have you run into other men like Cowen?" As hard as it is to consider the possibility that men like him are common, once you’ve seen men fighting over the coat of a dead man surrounded by a field of dead bodies, nothing surprises you.
Sheppard gives a short, bitter laugh. "Hell, I grew up with a man like Cowen." He don’t look me in the eye even when I stop hammering and stare up at him. Only shakes his head. "Oil… cattle… it doesn’t matter much how a man makes his fortune, if he’s a greedy son of a bitch at heart the results are pretty much the same. In my experience, money either draws people to you or chases them away. The measure of a man comes in the quality of those people who come to his riches and those who turn their backs on it."
"I take it you’re one who turned your back?"
He grins with little humor at my question. "I haven’t set foot in Texas in over twenty years and I don’t aim to anytime soon." Sheppard waves a free arm at the farm around us, at where Teyla and Torren swing on the porch. "This is the way to live, Canaan. You’re a richer man than Cowen could ever dream to be."
I see something in Sheppard’s face, something I had been wrong about before. I had seen it the first time I laid eyes on him in that surgical tent back in Virginia. I saw a man who had been ripped apart and was fighting hard to hide it from the world. But I could see it, like a white shirt that had been darned with black thread, the rips were clear as day for anyone who took the time to look or anyone who felt the same way… like me. I had always figured his damage had come from the same place as mine, the same place as so many others moving wraithlike around us in that prison camp. But now I can see that his hurts goes back further to a time before the battlefields and it was those things that broke many a man what set to mending John Sheppard.
I take up my hammering again. "There were times back in the prison camp I never thought I’d live to see the spring much less live long enough to have a family of my own."
"That’s something else I’ve found; family tends to sneak up on you and ambush you out of the blue." His lips curl up at the notion.
"So blood has nothing to do with family in your book?"
"Unfortunately, blood has had more to do with it than I care to recollect." He looks down at the smear of dark brown on his shirt that I realize is a bit of Rodney’s blood from the day before and his face hardens with resolve. "And it’s just one more reason Acastus will be planted in the ground before this is all said and done."
I give a single nod before asking, "Do you think McKay will be able to do his part?"
"He’ll do it," Sheppard guarantees without a doubt.
The next morning, Rodney proves him right as he rides tight-lipped and ghost-white out to the bluff on the buckboard next to me to meet Sheppard and Ronon who had taken turns keeping watch from the top of the ridge line the night before. Once at the bluff, McKay uses the supplies in the back of the wagon to blow a good chunk of it out over the trail and into the trees. Ronon gives him a rough slap to his good shoulder that has McKay gritting his teeth to keep from crying out. Sheppard stand on his other side and pushes his hat back to have a better look at the damage as the dust clears.
"Well, Canaan, it looks like you’re going to have a sight more trouble getting into Athos from here on out."
"We’ll make due," I tell him with a satisfied grin at the destruction laid out before us.
"So now what?" McKay asks, moving to lean against the wagon.
"Now you head back to the house and we stay here and wait."
John’s response is met with a shake of Rodney’s head. "You need at least four… two up top, two down along the stream."
"Seeing as you can’t hardly hold a gun, we’ll manage with three," Sheppard insists. "And with Ronon slipping through the trees, that’s better than a whole battalion of men."
"I can set more charges, take out any stragglers that might get through."
Sheppard don’t look none too happy with McKay staying behind to do that but he don’t say no neither. Instead he looks to Ronon who just shrugs. "Might not be a bad idea."
Sheppard ponders it over for a minute before finally sighing. "Fine, you set up some charges. Ronon you help him. Signal when you’re set. Canaan, you’re with me."
With him is on top of the bluff and I grimace at the thought of having to climb with my leg. But Sheppard is right that Ronon on the ground is a better idea than either of us, and with a clipped wing, there is no way McKay could make the climb. Besides, Sheppard don’t think Rodney should be out here longer than it takes to plant his explosives.
"When you finish up with your charges, I expect you to head back to the farm."
McKay waves his free hand as he starts rummaging through the materials in the wagon.
John sees it for what it really is… a dismissal. "I’m serious about this, McKay."
"I’m sure you are." Rodney don’t look up and his tone is long suffering.
"You can barely stand," Sheppard argues.
"I don’t need to stand to push a plunger."
Ronon steps in before Sheppard can say more. "I’ll take care of it."
Sheppard’s frown deepens but he turns to start his climb. I follow along as best I can, taking the hand John offers in some particularly steep spots. But once we reach the top, the view is unbelievable. This is my first time on top, but Teyla has told me about the times she would climb up here with her sister when they were young ‘ins and she hadn’t been telling tales in church about the view and how far you can see. In the spring and summer, there would be nothing but miles and miles of green stretching below us, stopping only when the prairie reaches a stand of trees or the denser forest off to the west. But now the grasses are golden brown and what leaves remain on the trees are bright orange and red, as if the world below us is on fire.
From up here, I can see over the lower ridge to the east that marks the far side of the creek and that’s when I notice the wisps of black against the blue sky and realize maybe there really is a fire nearby.
"Is that smoke?" I ask, already knowing the answer.
"I noticed it at dawn but it seemed to be a ways a way," Sheppard tells me. "Maybe someone’s clearing land for the spring planting?"
"Maybe," I consider. "The Lorne farm is off over yonder."
We set in to waiting and Sheppard don’t say much until he sees a flash of light shining off a piece of polished metal Ronon is flickering in the trees to let us know McKay has finished up with his charges.
"How much are you willing to wager that son of a bitch is still down there?" Sheppard grumbles.
I laugh at the idea of McKay refusing to leave, trying to talk Ronon into letting him stay, and somehow managing to succeed at both. "That’s a bet I’m not willing to take."
John apparently decides it’s not worth going down to check and find out, or it would be a useless trip even if he did, because he stays put and we continue to look out across the countryside. It’s a nice day, the sun warm but the breeze cool and scented with the musty smell of dry leaves and the dark earth of the damp riverbank far below us. After a couple of hours, it’s almost easy to forget exactly why we’re up here, what we have planned, until Sheppard perks up and shades his eyes against the sun. I follow his gaze and see what he does‒ a cloud of dust rising off in the distance from the direction of Athos.
I feel my heart bounding in my chest at the sight. "Is that them?"
"Unless you’re expecting company, I’d have to say chances are it’s them." Sheppard pulls his own mirror from his shirt pocket and flashes it down into the ravine and the signal is returned with another flicker of light.
I check my rifle. "How long until they get here?"
"My guess, twenty minutes, maybe less." John takes the watch from his pocket before he sights down his Henry rifle, rechecking the approaching gang of men. "Canaan, you hold tight until I give the word. Is that clear?"
I can’t help but hold my own rifle a little tighter as I nod silently and my fingers are aching by the time the first horse appears in the stream below us. I don’t have a watch of my own but it seems like twenty minutes has passed, give or take, before the rider in the lead moves as silently as possible through the water rushing past his horse’s ankles. There are only five riders. Either we hurt more than we thought two nights before or Acastus is getting a might prideful in what he believes his men can accomplish.
Sheppard raises a single finger then points to hisself, then two fingers and points at me. He’ll take the first rider; I’ll be responsible for the second. Two shots and two riders down will spook the remaining horses enough to give Ronon and Rodney a chance to take them out down below if we can’t from up top. I take aim with my own rifle, waiting for the signal from Sheppard and adjusting on the rider as they pass through the trees below us. I see Sheppard’s finger tighten around his trigger, and just as I’m about the squeeze my own, the creek bank behind the riders explodes upwards.
Rodney has set the charge shallow enough that it don’t block the flow of water, but it starts the horses rearing and racing down the creek.
"Aw, hell!" Sheppard curses and stands to get off a shot at the lead rider who is already bolting down the creek.
My man has been thrown from his horse and is fighting to remount, the body of the horse blocking him, so I adjust and fire at the man who is watching his own mount gallop after the lead horse. He goes down with my bullet in his chest, the water stained read with his blood and the blood of the man Sheppard has also shot. Sheppard is firing at a second man and misses, preparing to fire again when a second explosion downstream cuts off any retreat, effectively boxing in the remaining three men with nothing more than the fear of another blast. Two quick shots from down below has two more men in the water, and the fifth man raising his arms in surrender.
"Don’t shoot! I give up!" echoes through the canyon.
Ronon steps out of the trees then, his gun pointed at the man who throws his own gun into the water at his feet. From out vantage point, we can see Ronon have the man drop to his knees so he can secure his wrists behind his back as Rodney holds a gun on the man with his good hand. We can also see something else.
"We’ve got more riders!" Sheppard yells down.
I can see the two men riding hard across the dried prairie and John has them in his sights even before they enter the creek. That’s when I see who they are.
"Hold up, it’s Stephen Caldwell and his boy." It’s also when I hear two gunshots from back at the farm. "Sheppard," I fret, my heart instantly jumping into my throat.
"Move," he tells me simply, the same worry on his own face, and I know he’s thinking the same as me… there was only five men here because the rest circled around and came in another way.
* * * *