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Authors: Stone Wallace

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BOOK: Black Ransom
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Melinda's eyes widened. Fearful and uncertain, she pressed her body close to Buck and he wrapped his arm around her protectively. Evaline just stared at the Indians with a numb, uncomprehending expression. She neither knew nor cared whether they had come in friendship or aggression. George Watson understood this. He observed the girl with concern and reached over to take her hand in a comforting gesture. She did not resist, nor did she offer any show of acknowledgment of his touch.

The chief, who sat at the forefront, presented an intimidating figure. Yet he was also an educated man. He both could understand and speak the language of the white man. While he did not dismount from his horse, which stood as tall and proud as its rider, it was the dark-skinned, granite-visaged chief himself who presented the demand of his people. In his hand he held a long, feathered staff.

“Let it be understood among you that we wish not to make war,” he stated formally. “We have killed only the white man who has crossed the grounds beyond the northern ridge of the mountains. He who has left his footprint upon the land we hold sacred and beneath which we have buried our dead. We have chosen by our council to let others live in peace.” He paused to allow the intent of his words to be understood by the group.

When the chief next spoke, his voice was darker, making clear his purpose.

“But a debt must be paid by the one among you who has taken the life of our brother,” he said. “He who has slain the son of a respected elder. What we seek is for the one who committed this act to come forward, to confess his crime, and pay the debt owed to our people. If that is agreed upon, we will permit the others to go free. No further blood need be shed.”

No one responded to the grim ultimatum, which, in fact, none understood.

The chief waited patiently. He did not display an outward acknowledgment of the silence other than a tightening of his lips.

“The one who has guilt upon him must be punished by the laws dictated by our people,” the chief further added. “Chiricahua law is strict and has long been observed. We seek flesh for flesh, blood for blood. If this confession is not made, we have decreed that all of you must suffer.”

Again, no one spoke.

“Young Jishnu, which among these men killed Dahana?” the chief said to one of his warriors, waving a finger among the people standing outside the cabin.

The Indian youth who had been with the brave killed by Jess Colfax studiously looked over the small group. His expression was grim and intense, his narrow eyes squinted deeper into slits. He could not identify the man who had killed his friend for he had not remained long enough to positively know. Still, he was of a fierce pride and possessed of warrior blood and demanded to see that death avenged, whether or not the man guilty of the crime was among those people.

There also was another consideration, one which he had not shared with his tribe. He had fled the site of his friend's murder. He had displayed cowardice. As long as the killer lived, he would have to live with his shame—unless Chiricahua justice was served.

Cora stood watching through the kitchen window. She turned to Ehron Lee, who was growing ever weaker and paler from the blood loss his bandage could not contain, and she finally uttered his name in a gasp.

Ehron Lee turned to her and saw the fear darkening her expression.

Cora took two deep breaths before she uttered, “Chiricahuas.”

Ehron Lee's forehead creased in a frown. With effort, he pulled himself from the chair and stumbled toward the window. The look on his face was vacant as he viewed the assembled warriors.

“My God, what are we gonna do?” Cora exclaimed, her voice tremulous.

Ehron Lee had no answer. He stood leaning his body forward, maintaining his balance with both hands braced against the counter. He held himself that way for several moments before he turned to Cora. He offered an enigmatic nod, and summoned the strength to slowly, painfully, limp toward the front door. Cora hesitated, then she followed, tentatively.

Upon stepping outside and holding himself steady against the doorframe, Ehron Lee looked into the stern, stoic features of the mounted Chiricahua braves and their chief. Almost immediately the young Indian named Jishnu pierced Ehron Lee with his dark-eyed stare.

He raised his arm and pointed a stiff, accusing finger.

“He . . . it is he who is responsible for Dahana.”

Ehron Lee looked back at the brave. He detected death in the young man's eyes. While he could not understand the accusation placed upon him, neither did he dispute it.

Once more, the chief expressed his demand. His voice was calm, controlled, but his words were serious with intent. He again stated that the one responsible for the killing of the young brave must pay the penalty that the Chiricahua demanded; otherwise he would give the command for his warriors to exact retribution upon them all. Given their number and the determination expressed by each, the vengeance enforced promised to be swift, and would result in a massacre.

The chief's eyes leveled upon Ehron Lee and held firm. He lifted the feathered staff in a subtle yet resolute gesture.

“You are the one Jishnu says is responsible,” he said, his voice as stern as the expression embedded on his countenance.

Although a quick, puzzled furrow creased Ehron Lee's brow, he did not respond. Instead he looked at each of the people with whom he was standing. All of them had suffered because of a plan he had initiated and with which he had forged forward. He determined that the killings must finally end and that somehow there must be restitution. A payment to the sad-faced girl, Evaline, whose father had been killed before her eyes; George Watson, whose wife had been shot in a courageous attempt to bring to an end this madness perpetrated by both himself and Ward. Buck Leighton . . . and most especially Melinda.

Yes, he resolved, there had to be an end, and while Ehron Lee could not comprehend the condemnation thrust upon him by the Chiricahua, in a strange, fragmentary way he recognized it as another form of justice.

Still, only briefly succumbing to a moment of physical weakness, did he consider that the vengeance he had sought could be completed if he—he alone—permitted it to be . . . if he simply denied the accusation made against him by the young Chiricahua.

The notion passed quickly. Another thought overtook him. The legacy left to his son. Not only could he not deny his child a mother, but he could not allow a selfish action to further taint the memory his boy might someday have of the father he never knew.

He realized that perhaps this could . . .
would
be his redemption. The redemption he only just now was aware he sought.

As Cora inched beside him and he responded to her closeness by wrapping his arm around her shoulders, Ehron Lee felt the confidence to do what was needed—to, at least in part, set things right.

“I'm the man you seek,” he stated with emphasis.

The others reacted with shock and surprise. Melinda could not accept her husband's confession, nor could Cora, who impulsively broke away from Ehron Lee's embrace to gaze upon him with a look of astonishment. She knew without a doubt that he was innocent. She knew that if anyone was responsible for the killing of which he was accused, it had to be Jess Colfax. He was the one who had gone off into the hills. He was the only one who could have encountered an Indian. No one else had strayed from the cabin.

Ehron Lee could read into what she was thinking. It was probably true. But Colfax was dead. The Chiricahua would not accept that. They needed a live body upon which to exact their vengeance.

Ehron Lee glanced upon his companions with a nod and a smile that suggested contented resignation. He had nothing to say. Even if he'd had the words, he would not speak them, for he understood there could be no real comfort to either Cora or Melinda. They had to know that by admitting his guilt, the Chiricahua would inflict upon him the most terrible punishment. Death, when it finally came after hours, perhaps days, would be merciful.

Yet his sacrifice would not be entirely selfless. He was confident that long before they reached the Chiricahua camp, he would be spared whatever fate the tribe had planned for him. He recognized that Ward had done him a favor when he'd stuck that knife into his leg. He was bleeding to death; the makeshift bandage Cora had fashioned was not stanching the flow of crimson. Without proper medical care, the wound would prove fatal. Already he was weak and groggy, and he could feel his heartbeat weaken with the slow yet steady pumping of blood as it coursed from his body. Maybe a half hour. Probably less.

It really made no difference. Not now. Not anymore.

He stepped away from the others and limped toward the waiting Indians. Although his leg was weak, Ehron Lee strode with a determined purpose each of his companions recognized. A strong hand was put forward and Ehron Lee took it and was helped onto the back of a horse by one of the Chiricahua braves. Ehron Lee allowed himself a final look at those he was leaving behind, and through his own red-blurring haze, he noted the tears of both Melinda and Cora. They wept freely, but neither tried to interfere with the decision he had made. They . . . all of them, would now be allowed to go. Each had realized their freedom through Ehron Lee's courage . . . both in his defiance of Ward Crawford, and now by his bravery in making this final sacrifice.

Yet no one moved immediately. They all stood quietly, watching as the Chiricahua slowly turned their horses and, in their own silence, now no longer acknowledging those standing outside the cabin, rode off toward the beckoning depths of Brimstone Canyon.

Buck kept his eyes forward on the departing Indians as he tightened his embrace on Melinda and said with emotion, “When the day comes, don't ever be ashamed to tell your boy 'bout what his pa done.”

The sadness in Melinda's features turned to strength as she, too, kept her gaze focused straight ahead, her memories intact, the pride that overwhelmed her firm and permanent.

“No,” she replied solidly. “His son will know. He will know the truth. He'll grow up to be a man proud of who his father was. Neither of us will ever be ashamed of Ehron Lee Burrows.”

BOOK: Black Ransom
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