By the time we climb down from the ridge, I can just make out Ronon’s back as he and the Caldwells gallop full out down the trail.
Rodney calls up to us as soon as we’re in shouting range. "Acastus took a group and attacked the Lorne farm last night. Burned it to the ground and killed one of the farm hands. The family made a run to the closest farm." He’s already in the saddle of one of the dead men’s horses, or maybe it belongs to the man sitting tied up on the ground.
"Caldwell," I finished, mounting up as soon as my feet touch the ground. "And they would be able to come straight to the farm from the south instead of through the trap we set."
McKay nods in agreement. "That’s what Caldwell was coming to warn seeing as they never came by his farm." He hitches a head toward the bound man with the blood running from a busted nose. "From what Ronon was able to gather from our friend here, they were supposed to cut off any escape we might try to make this way."
I’m torn between shooting the son of bitch between the eyes right where he sits on the ground and riding for home, my worry over my family and possible need for every bullet I have winning out and we push the horses as hard as we can down the trail for home.
When we get there, Teyla is dressed in the same britches and suspenders she was wearing the first time I set eyes on her, a bruise already darkening on one side of her face, and Ronon is arguing with her.
"Teyla, you let us take care of this. You need to stay here and care for Halling."
She pays him no mind, her pa’s knife at her waist as she tucks the rifle into the saddle. "This is my son, Ronon. They took my son, and by God, I will bring him home and kill every last one of them."
My stomach rolls to hear what she says. "Torren?" I manage to croak.
Her face is set like stone, no tears, no emotion, nothing at all. "Acastus took him. He shot Halling and took Torren and I intend to bring him home and make Cowen pay dear."
"How’s Halling?" Sheppard asks and I should be asking the same thing, but all I hear is what Teyla is saying about our son.
"The lady doc’s working on him now," Ronon answers but my head is buzzing with the sound of blood pounding in my ears and I barely hear him, barely hear anything except the call in my gut to hit the trail and find my boy.
Teyla climbs on her horse and I fall in beside her before Sheppard blocks our path.
"John, move aside," she tells him. "I have to do this."
"I understand that, but you have to stop and think about this, Teyla. Where are you going to go? You don’t even know where Acastus took Torren."
"His man will know. The one we took prisoner at the bluff." I offer up the man who surrendered like the plate at Sunday services and Teyla’s face shows the first sign of hope I’ve seen since we rode up to the house. "One way or another he’ll tell us."
With a heel to the flank of her mount, Teyla skirts around Sheppard and toward the bluff and I’m fast beside her. I don’t look back, but I’m sure the others are behind us. None of those men would let Teyla ride off on her own to face down Cowen like this, not even with me.
She pulls her horse to a stop so close to the man that he curls in a ball to keep from being trampled and she looks down on him. "Where is my son?"
The man looks up and shakes the dirt from his face that the horse’s hooves have thrown on him. "I don’t know what you’re talking about, woman."
"Canaan," she calls, smooth as cream. "Shoot this man."
I pull my revolver and intend to do just as she says and the man cowers on the ground again. "Wait!"
"What for?" I ask. "Either you tell us what you know or I kill you to work out some aggressions." I lean forward in my saddle and aim for his head. "Because right now I really have a hankering to kill someone, and unless you tell me where to find someone else to shoot, you’re going to have to do for the time being."
When I pull the hammer back on my gun, he blurts, "They was supposed to come back this way and go to Athos!"
"Where in Athos?" Teyla demands.
"The Gateway. Mr. Cowen keeps some rooms there. But they must have heard the explosions and gone another way."
"Which way did they ride?" I don’t even know Sheppard and the others are there with us until he speaks.
"Back to the south," Teyla supplies.
Ronon shakes his head. "That’s a long way to Athos."
Teyla looks down on our prisoner with her hand on the knife on her belt. "Perhaps this gentleman can tell us more before I gut him like a river trout."
"If things didn’t go as planned, we was supposed to meet up back at the Flying Diamonds."
The Flying Diamonds was Cowen’s ranch and it would be a far sight closer from the south of our farm than Athos would be from that direction. "We can head up the creek, circle back north of the bluff and head across the prairie."
Teyla don’t wait for the other’s to agree with my plan, just gives a sharp whistle and sends water flying as she gallops down the creek bed and the rest of us follow in her wake. We’ve been riding for almost an hour, our horses starting to lather, when Sheppard pulls beside her and calls to her. She don’t even look his way until he reaches out and grabs the reins to her horse.
"We do not have time for this, John. We have to get to Cowen’s ranch…"
"And then what? Ride in on half-dead horses with our guns blazing?" Sheppard sighs and shakes his head. "Teyla, we need to come up with a plan. We need to rest the horses. Hell, we need to rest McKay before he falls out of his saddle."
She turns to see Rodney who is a shade of pale green as he grips his reins. "Rodney should not have come."
"Yeah, well, you tell him that because he sure the hell isn’t going to listen to me if I tell him to stay behind. None of us are going to do that."
"John, Torren is…"
"Alive," Sheppard tells her in confidence. "He’s alive because Cowen wants him for something, probably to blackmail you into signing over your land. And you running in there like a hen for Sunday dinner right after it’s become acquainted with the axe won’t do anyone any good."
She don’t seem exactly convinced as she demands, "Then what would you suggest we do?"
But Sheppard takes it as a good sign she’s at least listening. "Cool the horses and you tell us what you know about the Flying Diamonds."
She ponders for a few seconds. "Half an hour then I am back on the trail with or without you."
But the half hour comes and goes and we aren’t back in our saddles. Sheppard and Ronon have convinced her that our best chance lies in Cowen believing me and Teyla have come on our own to negotiate for Torren’s return. That means we need the cover of night for the other three men to help ensure Cowen doesn’t try anything two-timing. Considering the man’s reputation, we both know that has more of a chance of happening than not.
Just because Teyla has agreed to wait until nightfall, it don’t mean she’s the least bit happy with the wait and she turns to walk away and stare out across the open stretch of land between us and Cowen’s ranch. I start to follow but Ronon grabs my arm.
"Give her a few minutes."
I decide maybe he’s right, so I stay behind and watch as she lifts her face to the sun and closes her eyes, as if willing it to set all the faster.
Behind me, I hear Sheppard ask McKay, "How’s your shoulder?"
"It has a hole in it," Rodney answers. "How do you think it’s doing?"
"Teyla’s right, you know," John tells him, taking a seat on the ground beside him and pulling back the bandages to make sure McKay hasn’t tore his sutures out again. "You should have stayed behind."
"Would you have stayed behind if you were the one that was hurt?"
Sheppard frowns at McKay’s question before trying to sound convincing, "Yes."
"Sure you would," Rodney snorts and rolls his eyes. "Just wrap the damn thing tighter so I can make it until we can get back to the farm and let Dr. Keller drug me until I can’t see straight."
"She was supposed to do that after you blew the damn ridgeline," Sheppard tells him as he cinches the bandage.
"Why do you think I didn’t go back?"
"Because you’re a stubborn son of a bitch who thinks he knows it all?"
"What do you mean thinks he knows it all?" Rodney lets out a yelp when John pulls the wrapping a little rougher than he needs to secure it.
"You should have known that was going to hurt, now shouldn’t you?"
I leave to the sound of McKay calling Sheppard a smartass and go to join Teyla. She don’t look my way, just keeps gazing out across the prairie as if she can see Torren is she stares hard enough. The bruise on her face is purple now and I know that son of a bitch must have hit her, because there is no way she would have given up Torren without a fight. The thought makes my blood boil even hotter. Teyla, however, is simmering; like a stew seasoned with fear and hate, she’s cooking slow and steady until the time is right.
"He will pay dear for this."
I don’t know if she means Acastus or Cowen or both. And, truth be told, I don’t rightly care. Either one of them dead right now would suit me just fine. Both would be the chocolate sauce on the biscuits.
"That they will," I agree with a sigh for what is sure to be a long night. Long and dangerous and with only one acceptable ending… to bring Torren home safe and sound. "That they surely will."
* * * *
We run into the cattle before we ever reach the Flying Diamonds, hundreds of head roaming the open range on the outskirts of the ranch that are only a small part of the full herd. They low to each other in the moonlight, complaining as we walk our horses in amongst them, but they offer cover so the lookouts don’t spot five riders coming toward the brightly lit house we see up ahead. Teyla pulls in a harsh breath when we hear a baby cry in the distance.
"That’s good," I whisper, fighting my own urge to spur my horse on. "It means he’s alright."
"Alright but hungry," she murmurs back, able to tell one of Torren’s cries from another.
When we reach the edge of the herd, we dismount to blend in even more, just a few more shadows among hundreds a stone’s throw from the house with its broad, covered porch that circles the white, two story building.
Ronon speaks quietly from behind us. "I count four guards outside, one covering each corner."
"Same here," Sheppard agrees. "Okay, Ronon you take the two in the back. Canaan, we’ll take the two on the front corners. Stick to the shadows as much as you can; it’s better lit up here. Rodney, you and Teyla stay back until the coast is clear. Hold off on using the guns if you can. The longer we go without letting them know we’re here, the better."
Teyla braces her rifle over the back of her horse to provide cover if we need it as McKay slips his arm from the sling to draw his own gun. Ronon turns and heads back into the herd to circle around and soon I can’t pick him out from the lot of cattle. Sheppard moves off to the right, leaving the left for me, and I stay as low in a crouch as my leg will let me to come at the guard from behind. I wait until he turns to walk back toward the front of the house, slip over the railing of the porch to wrap an arm around the man’s neck, and squeeze for all I’m worth. I’m not a big man by any means, but hard work running a farm and desperation to save my son more than make up for my size. The man drops his rifle trying to get the revolver from his holster, and the larger gun clatters to the wooden slats. The sound has the guard to the right, the one Sheppard is going after, turning to see what’s happening.
Anything else the man was going to say is cut off as Sheppard grabs him from behind and drags him around to the side of the house and out of sight. I continue to squeeze around the guard’s neck, tightening my hold as the man twitches a few more times before going limp against me. I ease him down, more to be silent than gentle, and give a swift kick to his head for good measure before taking his guns. Then I head around to the side of the house where Sheppard had disappeared.
John is on his knees beside his man and in the faint moonlight I can see dark blood pooling under the body of the guard. Hearing my approach, Sheppard turns and points a gun at me.
"Whoa!" I hiss. "It’s just me."
He exhales, letting the gun drop and wrapping his free arm around his middle.
"Sheppard? You okay?"
"Yeah," he grunts. "He just got in a good gut punch is all."
When he starts to rise, he braces against the wall of the house and I move to help him stand. His face screws up as I haul him to his feet and he leans against the house for a second catching his breath.
"Sheppard?" I ask again.
John takes a deep breath and straightens. "Come on, let’s go get the others."
But when he pulls away from the house, there’s a dark handprint on the whitewashed wooden plank and I notice the knife at my feet ain’t the one Sheppard usually carries on his belt. Our eyes meet for a second and I know it weren’t just a gut punch that had him on his knees.
"I promised you I wouldn’t leave this thing half done, Canaan, and I intend to keep my word." He turns his back to me and pulls the bandanna from around his neck to press it inside his shirt before pulling his duster around to cover his right side. "Now, are we going to go get your son or not?"
I’d once told Teyla these men were the most stubborn cusses I’d ever met. Sheppard, McKay, Ronon… the lot of them was worse than an ornery team of mules. She’d just smiled with a touch of pride and told me she liked to think of it as not so much stubbornness as determination. I can see that now… and Lord help us all if they got any more determined than they already was.
I nod and follow after him as he starts around to the back of the house to see about Ronon, only the large man appears before we even round the corner.
"What happened?" Ronon asks as soon as his eyes light on Sheppard.
"Nothing," John dismisses before I can answer. "I took a punch. Nothing to get excited about."
Ronon is about to call Sheppard on his lie, but before he can, a voice speaks behind us.
"Sloppy work. Sloppy and noisy and completely lacking in discipline." The three of us have our guns pointed at Acastus after his first word, but it don’t faze him none seeing as he’s already got one pointed at Sheppard. "If this is how you commanded you men during the war, I’m amazed you survived long enough to be promoted, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard."
John gives Kolya a little smile but he don’t lower his gun. "Well, considering how you treated your men, I’m surprised you survived long enough for them to kick your ass out of command."
Kolya’s eyes flicker from me and Ronon back to Sheppard. "I see you’re down a man. Nothing permanent, I hope." When Sheppard’s eyes narrow, Acastus curls his lips viciously. "Funny, I was kind of disappointed when Dr. McKay was the one shot and not you. Now, I think it all turned out for the best."
Sheppard ignores the crack about McKay, and he don’t let on that Rodney is still alive. "You’re already four men down tonight. I’d be more than happy to make it five."
The arrogant smirk fades at the challenge. "I’d be careful if I was you, Sheppard. Unless you’ve got someone else willing to take a bullet meant for you."
"See, that’s the difference between you and me, Kolya. I do have someone who’s willing to do that… a couple of someones actually. But that’s not going to happen this time."
"Not this time." Acastus echoes as he takes a few steps back. "Let’s settle this once and for all."
John moves back too, waving me and Ronon off the porch. "With pleasure."
Kolya reholsters his gun in preparation for the standoff and Sheppard does the same, the two men facing off like they did in the streets of Athos. Ronon does as Sheppard wants and steps down off the porch, keeping an eye out to make sure Acastus don’t have another hidden gunman waiting to shoot John in the back.
Me, I fire my gun and hit Acastus square in the chest.
Kolya’s eyes open wide in shock that I would do such a thing, but I don’t mind. If he’s dim-witted enough to think I was going to let him beat my woman and kidnap my son and not shoot him when I had the chance, then he can go to his grave a fool. If I learned nothing else during my time with the Union Army, it was that you take your shots when you get them because you may never get another. And, son, I got that bastard but good.
Acastus presses his palm to his chest then pulls it away and staggers back a few steps staring at the blood there before collapsing in a heap on the porch… and for once, the blood on his hand is his own. Ronon and Sheppard are almost as stunned by what I did as the dead man at our feet, and it takes a second for John to finally speak.
"Goddammit, does nobody think I can win a gunfight against this man?"
"We don’t have time for your gunslinger shit, Sheppard. My boy is in there." The gunshot has the men inside the house scurrying around and I wave my gun in the air to get him moving when I hear Teyla’s rifle firing at the first ones out the front door. "Besides, seeing as you’ve been stabbed, Acastus had the upper hand."
"I knew you were lying," Ronon accuses as we move around to the back of the house looking for a back way in.
"I wasn’t lying."
Sheppard grits his jaw to keep from crying out when Ronon pushes him back to throw his tomahawk at a man coming out the kitchen door. I manage to catch our injured man before his knees buckle and pull him back around the corner of the house. John blows out a few rough breaths and leans his head back against the house while I keep a gun trained behind us.
Satisfied that the man is down, Ronon raises an eyebrow at Sheppard’s claim of innocence.
John manages to pant, "He just happened… to be holding a knife… when he punched me."
Ronon just shakes his head even as he peeks around to the back of the house. "I don’t expect that lady doctor will get bored as long as we’re around."
"Don’t you two… end up on her table… any time soon," Sheppard warns, letting out something between a groan and a growl as he forces himself to stand straight once more.
"You should stay here," Ronon tries to reason. "Out of sight…"
Sheppard speaks through gritted teeth. "And you should tell me what’s behind this house so we can get in there and stop this mess."
Seeing that he’s not going to be able to convince Sheppard to stay, Ronon gives his report as the shooting continues at the front of the house. "There’s the kitchen door and two glass windows as ways to get into the house."
"Windows, huh?" John grimaces at the news and the thought of climbing through one. "I don’t suppose they are ground level, are they?"
"Not hardly," Ronon snorts.
"Kitchen it is then."
As we work our way along the backside of the house, I hear Torren crying louder and I cling to that as my hope. His crying and Teyla’s rifle firing means my family is still whole, still alive, and God willing we’ll soon be back together. And then I hear Cowen yelling out into the darkness from the front of the house.
"Canaan! Teyla! You’d best take care else a stray bullet might hit the baby!"
From our position behind the house, I can’t make out what Teyla hollers back, but seeing as the shooting stops, I have a feeling she’s surrendering.
"That’s right," Cowen calls, "put down the guns and come on in here so we can talk like sensible folk."
Ronon stops us as we reach the kitchen, slipping in silently with his knife drawn before returning to the door a few seconds later to motion us in. Once inside, I hardly pay any notice to the body on the floor, as my attention is torn between Torren crying off to my right and Teyla’s voice from the front room of the house.
"Let me see my baby."
Rodney complains, "Easy, easy, my arm… OW!" And I can only figure he’s being restrained by more of Cowen’s men.
"All in good time, my dear," Cowen tells her smoothly. "First, I need to know where Canaan and your other men got themselves off to."
"I had hoped they would have killed you by now," she answers honestly.
"Now, now, that’s no way for a lady to talk. Of course, I don’t expect you to know much about that given your rather crude upbringing." We sneak a little further into the house, and from where we stand in the hallway, I can just make out Cowen as he crosses the room to stand beside the fireplace and stoke the flames. "That must have been hard for you growing up like that, left all alone on the frontier with no family to watch over you."
"Bring me my son." Teyla’s voice reminds me of the ice I’d had to break on the pond back in Tennessee to let the livestock drink in winter… bitter cold and brittle with the threat of death just below the surface.
Cowen don’t pay her no mind. "His name is Torren, isn’t it? Your father’s name."
The baby’s crying grows louder and I tap Sheppard’s shoulder and point toward the room across the hallway where I’m sure they are keeping him before moving quietly in that direction.
"You have no right to speak his name," Teyla threatens.
The door is cracked open just a sliver and I can see an older woman pacing back and forth with the baby in her arms trying to hush him. From what I’ve heard around Athos, she worked for the Weir family before they moved on and sold the ranch to Cowen and he’d changed the brand from the Lazy W to the Flying Diamonds. It’s funny, she reminds me of Charin in a way who’s done the same thing with Torren many a night at home. Only she ain’t Charin and this ain’t home.
In the front room, Cowen continues to talk to Teyla. "It’s ironic, really, when you stop to think about it. Your father only left you two things in this world− his land and his name for your son. Don’t you think it’s worth giving up the one to have the other?"
With Sheppard at my back, I open the door, my thoughts completely on Torren so that I don’t see the man with the gun sitting in the corner. The old woman looks up at me in alarm, stepping back into the corner and holding the baby a little closer when the man stands before I can even lift my revolver. The gunshot has Torren screaming even louder and it takes a second for it to dawn on me the bullet didn’t hit me, in fact, the man didn’t even get off a shot. But I don’t realize it came from one of Sheppard’s fancy sharp shooters McKay made for him until I see the smoke drift up from the barrel over my shoulder and the man crumples to the floor.
There are shots fired in the front room in answer to the commotion we’ve caused, and I leave Torren with the old lady to follow Sheppard back out into the hallway in time to hear Cowen yelling, desperate for his men to hold their fire and lay down their guns. Teyla has a knife to Cowen’s throat, a bead of blood dripping slowly down his neck to stain the bright white shirt collar under his brocade vest.
"Ends up my daddy left me something else beside his land and his name. He left me this knife. And I will gladly use it to have the other two." She presses the knife harder and Cowen actually whimpers. "Now, give me back my baby."
"Esther!" Cowen manages to call out and still remain stock still. "Esther, come on out now!"
The old woman steps out into the hallway with a look of relief that she can turn the baby back over to its ma and I scoop a wailing Torren out of her arms. "Hey now, little britches, you’re with your Pa now, safe and sound." It don’t stop his crying but it sure the hell makes me feel a heap better to look down into his small face, red and angry and as beautiful as the first day I laid eyes on him.
I’d been terrified to touch him the day he was born. He had been so little, more delicate than Teyla’s beloved tea cups, and far, far more precious to his Ma than a piece of china ever could be, but Teyla had insisted I hold him. With her hair wild and skin still slick with sweat from the trial of the birth, she had placed him in my arms and the world turned inside out on me. I realized that tiny baby had suddenly become the biggest thing in my life and I was the one on the verge of breaking into a thousand little shards when he opened his eyes and took me in.
Right now, his eyes are squeezed shut as he cries, but it don’t stop me from smiling down on him. "Come on, let’s go see your Ma." I step into the room where Teyla still holds the knife on Cowen. "Teyla, I’ve got him and he’s fine. He’s just fine."
She eases off with the knife before exhaling in relief and taking a step back. She looks back to where I stand, as if she needs to see for sure with her own eyes that I speak the truth. Then she hauls back and punches Cowen in the face with all she has in her before turning her back on him and walking straightways to me and Torren.
Cowen grabs his busted nose, blood already flowing free. "You bitch!"
Teyla don’t pay him no mind, just takes Torren from me and starts murmuring happily to him as she walks from the room already unbuttoning her blouse to feed him.
Ronon, however, uses the butt of his gun to whack Cowen upside the head for his language. "You might want to watch your tongue before you make me angry."
Cowen apparently takes his warning to heart since he don’t say nothing more… or it could be that he’s lying unconscious on the floor.
Rodney is holding his shoulder, wincing, as he demands of Sheppard, "What the hell took you so long?"
"I’m sorry our rescue attempt wasn’t as timely as you had expected, Rodney. I had no idea you were trying to keep to a schedule." Sheppard struggles to keep his gun pointed at the remaining three of Cowen’s men in the room.
McKay kicks the gun on the floor nearest his foot out of the way to Ronon who is gathering them up after securing Cowen’s hands behind his back. "It’s not a schedule so much as succeeding to free us before they decided to prove a point by shooting… John?"
When Sheppard staggers sideways, McKay’s griping turns to worry. Sheppard waves his gun to take in the room. "Help Ronon with the men."
Rodney pays him no heed, instead he crosses the room and pulls Sheppard’s coat open. "What happ… holy shit, you’ve been shot!"
"Stabbed," Sheppard corrects. "And it looks worse than it is."
John tugs the duster back to cover the dark stain of blood on his shirt only to have McKay slap his hand away to show it again. "As bad as this looks, that’s not saying too much."
Sheppard hisses when Rodney presses against it. "Goddammit, McKay, stop poking at it!"
"I’m not poking, I’m examining. Now sit down and shut up." Rodney points to a chair then snaps his fingers. "You, little old lady, bring me something to use for bandaging." He don’t wait for her to leave before he orders, "Canaan, grab that decanter over there."
"Now’s no time for drinking, Rodney," Sheppard snorts as he drops into the winged-back chair by the fireplace.
"If ever there was a time for a shot of whiskey, now is it. But it’s actually for you and the wound."
I fetch the booze in its crystal container and McKay intercepts it before I can hand it over to Sheppard and takes a long swallow. "Well, maybe a little bit for me." Fortified with bourbon, he pulls away the blood soaked bandanna. "Christ," he declares in disgust as he tosses it aside before holding the bottle over the wound and asking, "Ready?"
Sheppard takes away the bourbon and drinks deeply hisself, exhales heavily, then hands it back. "Yeah, I’m ready."
McKay grimaces as he pours the alcohol over the gash and Sheppard gasps, his face as bloodless and pale as his hands gripping the wooden arms of the chair. Once he’s cleaned it out, Rodney takes the towel the old woman brought back and warns, "This won’t be much better."
John can only nod as he don’t seem capable of speech right now, but he yanks the bottle back with shaking hands and takes another swig. Then he closes his eyes as McKay presses the bandage against his side and sets to cinching it in place. By the time finishes up, Sheppard has taken a couple more drinks and is slumped in the chair still holding tight to the bourbon.
"I haven’t seen Acastus yet," Rodney mentions as he wipes Sheppard’s blood on his pant legs.
"We have," Sheppard tells him with another drink. "Dead on the front porch."
McKay takes the decanter and another shot. "Good to hear."
Ronon has finished with tying up our prisoners in the room and he pulls McKay a few steps away. "How’s he doing?"
"He needs the doctor," Rodney sighs and cradles his arm back into its sling. "And I wouldn’t complain about seeing her either."
"Then we head back to the farm?" I ask. "What about Cowen and his men?"
Ronon shrugs. "We tie the rest of them up and lock them in the cellar."
"What about grandma over there?" McKay asks with a hitch of his head to the old house keeper looking down at where Cowen lies on the floor.
When the woman gives the rancher a swift kick, Ronon laughs softly. "Give her a gun to stand guard over them?"
McKay’s head bobbles at the idea. "As much as I’d like to let them stay in the cellar and rot with the potatoes, we can’t do that indefinitely. I mean Granny is pretty old; she probably only has a few good years left in her."
Ronon’s brow creases in thought. "Is the sheriff in Athos crooked or just scared?"
I think I understand what he’s asking. "If you mean would he would jump at the chance to be rid of Cowen and his lot, then yeah, I think he would."
McKay shakes his head. "If kidnapping a baby isn’t enough to have him arrest the man, then nothing will."
"We should be able to see that he holds them until the Circuit Judge comes in the first of the month. From what I hear tell, Judge Woolsey’s a pain-in-the-ass, stick-in-the-mud, but he’s honest. He won’t let Cowen walk away from this."
"Athos is a shorter ride for you and Sheppard than the farm," Ronon points out. "Take Sheppard to Jennifer’s house, there’s at least medical supplies there, send the sheriff back out for Cowen, and I’ll ride to the farm to fetch the doc. If we’re lucky, I could have her in Athos by midmorning."
"McKay!" Sheppard is slumped in the chair and beckons with a sloppy wave of his hand. "Where’s the bourbon?"
Rodney rolls his eyes. "What am I, your nursemaid or your barkeep?"
Sheppard motions for him again. "Right now, they’re one in the same."
I help Ronon with the men outside and we manage to get them all locked away, with Cowen cursing a blue streak as we push him down into the dark cellar and lock it tight. Then I give Teyla a leg up with a sleeping Torren held snug against her by a shawl Esther gave her to use. McKay is doing his best to hold Jumper still as Sheppard attempts to climb in the saddle while refusing to let Ronon help him. By the time we’re ready to leave, the decanter of bourbon is empty and I have a feeling Sheppard didn’t do it alone.
John once again swats Ronon away, finally turning to poke a finger into Ronon’s chest. "I have ridden a horse a hell of a lot drunker than I am right now, Ronon Dex."
"It’s true," Rodney agrees. "His horse got into a barrel of sour mash one night and couldn’t even stand on four legs."
Sheppard gives up trying to get his foot in the stirrup and leans against the saddle and laughs at the joke and soon Ronon and McKay are joining in.
"Poor old Jumper," Rodney laments between his guffaws. "She’s a good horse but can’t hold her whiskey worth a damn."
"Ow!" John chokes out. "That hurts," but he don’t stop laughing.
Teyla shakes her head at the foolishness. "It is a wonder we have a farm to ride home to with those three helping us."
"You was the one that wrote them," I remind her from atop my own horse.
"Yes, I was." The pride in her grin changes to disbelief. "Is it really over?"
"Seems like it is." I shake my head in my own wonder that Cowen won’t be bothering us no more.
The snickering is finally settling down and Ronon tells Sheppard, "You may have rode drunk before but you’ve never rode drunk and stabbed at the same time."
The finger pokes into Ronon’s chest again. "You, my friend, make a very good point. Help me up on this damn horse before she finds the liquor cabinet."
They finally manage to get everyone mounted up and Ronon takes hold of Sheppard’s leads for good measure. Teyla pauses, looking back at the house then down at Torren snuggled up against her.
I frown in worry. "Teyla? Everything alright?"
But she smiles at me. "Everything is perfect, Canaan. We are truly blessed."
We are blessed, there’s no way to deny it, nor would I want to. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible for me to live a blessed life, not with the war and my leg and a name like Canaan. But I can’t help but think Doc Beckett was right. Ends up I was stronger than my name after all.
* * * *
The fall of 1867 was a time I won’t never forget. There ain’t many men who can say they got two second chances in their lifetimes, but I’m one of the few who can. The first time I nearly lost my life, the next time I nearly lost everything worth living for. And both times I got it back thanks to Ronon Dex, Rodney McKay, and John Sheppard. But even after we locked Cowen in his root cellar along with his men, the story weren’t completely told.
Ronon arrived at our homestead in time to help Dr. Keller load Halling into the wagon for the trip to Athos and her supplies waiting at her house. Between Halling being shot in the leg and Sheppard being stabbed, not to mention the fact McKay weren’t nearly healed from his own shooting, the doc had her hands full. Charin and Teyla, along with Torren, stayed in Athos to help care for the injured men, while me and Ronon traveled between the doctor’s house and the farm to tend to the animals there.
When Sheppard developed a fever on the second day, Doc Keller told us she’d do all she could, but that it was really up to John if he was going to pull through. Teyla tended to him like she had me two years before, cooling his fever with compresses, feeding him spoonfuls of warm broth when he was awake, and piling on more blankets when he shivered so hard his teeth chattered. McKay left his own sickbed to sit by Sheppard’s, refusing to leave even when Teyla and Jennifer both tried to coax, then bully, him back to bed. Rodney talked to John nonstop when he was awake, jabbering on about jobs they’d taken in the past two years, people they knew during Sheppard’s service at Fort Leavenworth, even some of their time spent in the prison camp. When John slept, Rodney would fall unnaturally quiet for McKay, responding to Teyla’s attempts at conversation with one or two words and nothing more. Ronon had listened to Jennifer’s diagnosis without speaking a word, mounted his horse with no hint as to where he was going, and rode north out of town.
More than once I found Teyla staring out the bedroom window in the direction Ronon had rode and I couldn’t help but ask after he’d been gone for a day, "Do you think he’s coming back?"
"Ronon will be back," she told me, her words more confident than her expression as she stared off into the north. "I know he will."
I’d left her to her vigil then, heading down the hall to sit a spell with Halling. But I stopped by Sheppard’s room when I heard John tell Rodney, "You should go see Jeannie."
I recalled McKay talking about his sister back in Canada a few times in the prison camp. It didn’t sound much like the two of them exactly saw eye to eye on most matters.
"Maybe we’ll go up in the summer when it’s warmer. Vancouver is no place to spend the winter."
Sheppard shivered, pulling the quilt up under his chin a little further. "You grew up there; you could get used to it again."
"Why on God’s green Earth would I want to get used to Canadian winters again? Trust me; you thought the Colorado territories were bad? You haven’t experienced cold until…" When John just stared at him, Rodney straightened with realization of what Sheppard was trying to tell him. "Oh. You’re not talking about going yourself."
"I may not have a chance, but that don’t mean you shouldn’t go."
McKay’s chin rises in defiance of what Sheppard is saying. "Maybe I don’t want to go up there by myself."
"It doesn’t matter if you want to, what matters is that you should." When Rodney just glares at him John tries again. "It would be good for you, Rodney. You need people."
"I don’t like people."
"That doesn’t change the fact that you need them."
"I don’t need people, Sheppard," Rodney told him stubbornly. "I already have people. And that’s not going to change anytime soon."
John sighed, taking in McKay with tired, dark-circled eyes. "Rodney…"
McKay just shook his head sharply. "Look, enough of this. Okay? If you think I need to go see my sister so badly, maybe I need to drop you with your brother before I go see her. Is that what you want?"
I blinked in surprise to hear Sheppard had a flesh and blood brother seeing as he’d never mentioned him before. And when he scowled and turned away from McKay, I could see why John never spoke of the man. "You know I have as much use for Dave as I do my father."
"Why not?" Rodney challenged, more than a little angry with the direction their talk had gone. "He’s your kin. Family is family. Right? Nothing else should matter. No one else should come before that."
"You’re a real ass sometimes, McKay."
"And you’re not? Trying to ship me off to the frozen wastelands of the north so you can lay here and die with a clear conscious that you did right by me? I don’t think so, Sheppard. You don’t get off the hook that easily."
John lay silent for a few seconds before finally suggesting, "How about we go west to California for a spell? I hear down south it’s warm all year long."
Rodney’s anger slid away and a smile tugged at his mouth. "I’ve always wanted to see the Pacific. And with all that water around maybe Ronon will see it as an excuse to bath more than once a year."
I left them to their planning then, daydreaming that Sheppard would get better instead of worse like he did throughout the day, and that Ronon would return from wherever he had run off to. Neither one was likely to happen in my book. Once a fever took hold, it was rare a man survived. Some did, hell, I had, but the odds were stacked hard against them. And Ronon… I reckoned he’d seen enough people he cared for die that he just couldn’t stand the thought of watching one more.
But when he returned in the middle of the night with an Indian medicine man in tow, I realized I’d been wrong. Doc Keller weren’t none too happy with Ronon’s idea to have the Indian with the long white hair braided here and there with feathers treat her patient.
Ronon had crossed his arms to match Jennifer’s stance. "Do you have any way of treating Sheppard with your white man medicine?" When she didn’t answer, Ronon started upstairs with the Indian right behind him. "I’ve seen warriors in worse shape than Sheppard live to fight another day after being treated by a shaman."
McKay woke from his doze beside Sheppard’s bed when Ronon and the medicine man entered the room. "What the hell? Who’s he?"
"He’s a healer," Ronon told him as he pulled McKay from the seat to make room for the Indian. "He’s here to help Sheppard."
Jennifer was close on his heels, but didn’t try to stop the shaman as he bent to study John’s wound. Sheppard didn’t even crack his eyes open.
"But he’s a Comanche," Rodney pointed out in amazement that the man wasn’t dead for that fact alone.
Ronon shrugged. "They were the closest tribe I could find."
The old man called Ronon over and started speaking in his native tongue. Ronon set to deciphering what he said, giving orders to Jennifer to make a tea from one bag of herbs and to mix a poultice from a combination of some others.
The lady doctor took the bags curiously before asking, "What do I call him?"
When Ronon rattled off a name as long as my arm made up of nonsense sounds, Rodney honed in on the first part. "Okay, Todd it is."
Todd stayed and worked on Sheppard for the next two days, sometimes chanting over him while John mumbled gibberish in his sleep or the fever dreams had him thrashing until his sheets were soaked in sweat. Other times the healer brewed bitter smelling teas for John to drink. I did my fair share of propping the sickly man up while Teyla poured what seemed buckets of the stuff down his throat one teaspoon at a time. When Todd wasn’t treating Sheppard, he sat with Jennifer, who had a million questions for him, and Ronon interpreted between the two. Doc Keller even used a few of his remedies on Halling’s leg.
I don’t know if it was Indian medicine or the Good Lord’s intervention or Sheppard just being too stubborn to die, but Rodney roused half the house before dawn when he yelled, "He’s awake!"
Jennifer came down the hall wearing her nightgown and robe and looked John over by the light of her lamp. Sheppard only opened his eyes a sliver, but he took in her dress and the braid across her shoulder and managed to croak out, "Hey, Doc. Did Rodney wake you?"
She placed her hand on his head and neck and smiled in relief. "Don’t you worry yourself about that. I told Dr. McKay to call me when your fever broke."
That was apparently all the proof Todd needed that his medicine had worked; he slipped away from the house without so much as a goodbye, although she never could find her stethoscope or one of her corsets after he left. We figured it was due payment for what he had done. A few days later Jennifer let her patients leave her house bound for our farm. Me and Ronon had managed to get the old bunkhouse set up for the three of them to use over the winter. With Sheppard and McKay both recovering, Teyla had convinced them to board with us until the spring. When John tried to argue it would be too much trouble, she reminded him that Halling was hurt too and given his age, he weren’t likely to heal as fast as them. I could use the help they could give me with the farm and the spring planting. Besides, didn’t they want to make sure Cowen didn’t get set loose by the law? He didn’t, of course; Woolsey was as much a stickler for the law as they had said he would be and Cowen was hauled off to do hard labor in prison.
So the three men stayed as I knew they would; Teyla’s a hard woman to refuse when she sets her mind to something. But when the first corn seedlings pushed through the ground, they decided it was time to go. After all, there was an ocean off to the west they hadn’t never seen before. We saw them off on a warm spring day colored with a dark blue sky over a sea of pale green grass and the smell of wild onions on the breeze. Teyla hugged them all close and told them to take care and don’t be strangers and know they was always welcome here.
I shook their hands, confessing to Sheppard, "I don’t think I ever thanked you proper for what you all did for us."
"Sure you did," John told me, glancing back at Teyla who held Torren on her hip, waving his hand at Ronon and Rodney who was already on horseback.
When Sheppard mounted up, Teyla stepped in closer and looked up at him. "Come home again soon."
"We will," he promised, walking Jumper forward a few steps before saying with a grin, "Try not to surprise us with another baby next time."
There weren’t another baby the next time they came for a visit, but eventually there was Charin, who we named after the woman who had been a mother to Teyla since her own had been killed, and who the Good Lord called home the summer of 1870. We continued to work the farm, doing good enough to save enough money to buy the land that led to the bluff where we took a stand against Cowen’s men that day back in 1867 and fought for what was mine and still is and will be until the day I die.
Canaan’s Bluff Teyla still calls it to this day, and now it is on paper, too. From up here, I can still see for miles in all directions. The climb is still hard for me, but Torren scrambles up with ease these days, already on the top before I reach the halfway point. When I do reach the top, I stop and stretch my back and rub at my leg, then take in the view of the some of the most beautiful land in the state of Kansas.
Torren calls to me from where he stands at the northernmost point of the bluff, waving for me to join him. At ten years old, he is nothing but piss and vinegar made flesh. He may be the spitting image of me, but he is Teyla through and through. "Pa, there’s riders heading this way."
I place a hand on his shoulder, using my other to shield the glare of the autumn sun, and look in the direction he’s pointing. Three men ride across the golden prairie at an easy cantor; one in black, one in buckskins, and the third still wearing a damn bowler hat.
"Go ride on home and tell your Ma to set three more plates for supper." I give Torren a pat to his back and smile at the sight of the men riding our way, riding for home. "Family’s a comin’."