It wasn't hard for Jeb's soldiers to pick up the Longcoats' trail. A group of men and horses that size couldn't hide their tracks. But he was relieved when a scout found coins from the Other Side dropped in the trail at semi-regular intervals. They marked the path to follow, especially when the trail intersected a heavily traveled road in the Madeleines. The collection was heavy in a pouch in his saddlebag, but it gave him hope that he would be able to return them.
The Longcoat camp was well established. This area of the O.Z. was sparsely inhabited, so no one had seen anything suspicious. He divided up the troops sent with him, sending two squads to surround the camp led by Dickinson and Kirkland. He and Marsen led the rest of the soldiers into the camp in the late afternoon.
Longcoats bolted or fought back. Jeb's gun dropped two, but he let other soldiers take point while he made sure the tents were clean. He finished sweeping one when an explosion shook the ground. "What the hell?"
He shoved out of the tent and met one of the privates. She saluted. "The Longcoats ringed the camp with landmines, sir."
"Tell the men to keep away from the perimeters." The private nodded again before dashing off to pass the command. Jeb moved into the next tent. And aimed his gun at the Longcoat aiming at him. He didn't recognize the soldier whose arm tightened around Natalie Durant's chest keeping her arms pinned. "Release your prisoner and surrender, traitor."
"Not happening, crown kisser." The Longcoat pulled Natalie back as he moved through the tent.
Natalie's wide eyes reminded Jeb of the past too keenly. "Get Jack; they put him in a hole in the ground. Don't worry about me!"
"See, the alchemist wants to come with me." The Longcoat smirked as they reached the canvas wall at the other end of the tent. Jeb stepped closer. The Longcoat pushed through the tent flaps, withdrawing his gun from the tent last.
Jeb sprinted after them, passing cots with wounded men on them. The Longcoat shifted his gun to press against Natalie's head when more weapons held by Royal Army soldiers pointed at him. "You've got nowhere to go. Release her and surrender."
"You won't shoot an innocent slipper." The Longcoat's smirk widened as more of his compatriots came around a tent and realized there was a standoff. "Get over here!" The Longcoats scurried behind Natalie and none of the Royal Army soldiers were in a position to stop them. Jeb gritted his teeth as the group of six backed towards the forest. Natalie's eyes closed. The Longcoat dragging her along felt safe enough to move his gun away from her temple. "Give our regards to the Gale bitch."
The ground exploded underneath the group.
Jeb let loose a volley of curses as he sprinted to Natalie's prone body and pulled what was left of the hostage taker off her back. He couldn't fathom going back to Connor and telling himů she was breathing, he didn't have to.
Marsen knelt down beside him. "Careful, Captain. Is she bleeding?"
"Can't tell." Most of the gore looked like parts of the Longcoats. "Her back is in one piece."
They rolled her over carefully, and the redhead woman let out her own oath when they saw Natalie's twisted arm. "That's broken and she hit her head. She needs a Viewer."
"Get a splint on her and get her to the truck. I have to find the boy." Jeb scanned the camp. Longcoats rarely deviated from the same layout. He signaled two soldiers to follow him and headed in the direction where prisoners were usually kept. Sure enough, there was a grated hole in the ground. One of the soldiers sprang forward and helped him lift the grate out of the way.
The brown-haired boy stared back at them, his stiff stance melting into relief. "Mr. Cain?"
Jeb reached down for his hand. "Come on, Jack, your father's been worried about you." He looked even more relieved as they hauled him out of the ground and hustled him through the camp.
Marsen was waiting at the truck, parked down the path the Longcoats had made to their camp. "She didn't wake up when we set her arm, Jeb."
They had both seen what head trauma could do in the Resistance. "Raw is with the Queen. We better go straight there."
"You better go." She glanced down at Jack, still clutching Jeb's arm. "We can handle this mop up, Captain."
"Fine, Captain. Come on, Jack, get in." Natalie was strapped down on one of the benches in the back of the wagon, so they sat on the other. Jeb flexed his fingers to return blood flow and leaned against the wall of the wagon. The truck started moving; maybe now he could finally shut his eyes.
"Those guys," Jack said in a small voice. "The ones in black trench coats, what did they do to Natalie?"
Jeb leaned forward and rested his elbows on his thighs. The kid stared at the injured woman. "The Longcoats were using her as a shield so we wouldn't shoot them. Then they stepped on a landmine. She got caught in the blast. But we're taking her straight to help."
"Is my dad really okay?" Brown eyes scanned Jeb's face. "They shot him."
"Patched him up so well he was throwing a fit when we wouldn't let him fight Longcoats to get you."
Jack continued to stare at him. "Sometimes grown-ups lie to spare your feelings."
"I'm not that kind of grown-up." The kid nodded and returned his gaze to Natalie, leaving Jeb to wonder which part Jack thought he was lying about.