The Justice Riders
- Chuck Norris Author
- 2006 17 Feb
Captain Ezra Justice dove for cover just as the vanguard of General Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army rounded the bend, coming out of the small North Carolina town of Bentonville, headed northward toward Richmond. Lying on the ground, shrouded by a clump of bushes, Justice stiffened as he heard a sound behind him; his finger tightened on the trigger of his LaMat nine-shot revolver. From behind the bushes emerged a tall, muscular black man, dressed in a Union soldier’s uniform, complete with a blue kepi cap and perfectly tied dark blue bow tie. Crouching low, he made his way toward Ezra. Justice relaxed his grip on the LaMat.
Nathaniel York — “Big Nate,” as he’d been known most of his life and still was — flopped down on the grass next to Justice. “Everything’s in position, Cap’n,” he said. “We’re ready when you are.”
“OK, fine. Good work, Nate.”
“Shades of Washington all over again, huh?” Nate pointed down the hillside toward the long rows of Confederate infantry soldiers now coming into view, with the supply line behind them.
“Let’s hope so,” Justice said, raising his eyebrows slightly and nodding.
Nate understood the look of concern on Ezra’s face. The scene below was reminiscent of General Joe Johnston’s forces coming to the aid of P. G. T. Beauregard’s Confederate army at Manassas in late July of 1861. Johnston’s army thwarted the Union forces advancing southward from Washington, not only beating them back but sending them on the run, forcing them to retreat all the way to the Capitol. Had it not been for a dispute between Johnston and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Johnston may have marched right into Washington and the war may have turned in an entirely different direction.
Davis’s badly timed intervention, combined with problems in the supply lines — caused mainly by covert attacks and diversions spawned by Ezra Justice and his band of marauders — stymied the Confederate’s offensive action toward Washington and gave the Federal army a much-needed opportunity to regroup and reposition its forces.
Now, more than three years later, with the South reeling from a series of devastating military blows, General Johnston’s battle-weary but undaunted troops were threatening to change the course of the war again. And Johnston believed he would succeed in his assignment at all costs.
Equally determined to stop Johnston’s army from reinforcing General Robert E. Lee’s was a quiet but courageous captain in the Union Army, Ezra Justice. General William T. Sherman had personally assigned Justice and his men — all six of them—to stand in Johnston’s way, to slow down an entire army, to do everything possible — anything possible — to interrupt Johnston’s northern progress.
MORE THAN ANY MAN ALIVE, Nathaniel York knew how to interpret the often understated expressions of his enigmatic leader, Ezra Justice. Nate raised a finger to his thin, neatly trimmed mustache as though contemplating some great philosophical truth. “Think we can pull this off, Ezra?”
Justice didn’t flinch at the sergeant’s familiarity. Most of the other men rarely referred to their leader by his first name, but Nathaniel York was not just a fellow soldier. He and Ezra were best friends, practically family. They’d grown up together on a large, prosperous Tennessee tobacco farm owned by Ezra’s parents. Nathaniel York, however, was a former slave, legally emancipated by Abraham Lincoln, but emancipated a long time before that by his friend Ezra Justice. Even as a boy, Ezra had believed that all men were created equals and had defied his family’s ironclad rules for relating to “darkies.” Against his parent’s objections, he had formed a strong bond of friendship with Nate. Now, with both men fighting for the North, that friendship remained intact.
Moreover, Nathaniel York hailed from good roots. His grandfather — also a slave — had gained great respect and admiration as a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803. For his part, Nathaniel York never thought of himself as enslaved to anybody, despite the fact that his family worked long hours in the tobacco fields and lived in a shack at the back of the Justice property. Bright, articulate, and deeply spiritual, Nathaniel had committed his life to God as a boy and had adopted Jesus’ statement,
“The truth will set you free” as his motto. When Ezra asked Big Nate to join him in setting other men free, Nate never hesitated. He’d fight throughout the war, a black man and a white man side by side, with his friend Ezra Justice.
Ezra peered down at the seemingly endless line of soldiers streaming out of the town. Getting to the supply line would not be easy, he knew. Getting out with their lives would be tougher still. He spoke to himself as much as to Nate. “We have to stop them, Nate. We have to stop them here.”
“Yes, sir. Word from the north is that General Grant has Lee ready to do something desperate.”
“It’s about time,” Justice replied. “That siege at Petersburg has been going on for far too long. For the past ten months, our men have been living in trenches all the way from Petersburg to Richmond. Grant’s been puttin’ the squeeze on them, and Lee’s boys are getting nervous. General Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina is the South’s last hope. If we can keep Johnston’s troops from reinforcing Lee’s, we might be able to bring this war to a close. If we can’t …” Ezra’s voice trailed off.
“If we can’t?” Nate pressed.
“If Johnston gets his troops to General Lee, they will be a formidable force against General Grant’s army. They may be able to mount an attack that will split Grant’s troops and break the siege. If they do that, a lot more men are going to die on both sides.”
Nate nodded and proceeded to brief Ezra on the readiness report. “Sergeant Bonesteel has his .44-caliber rifle scope focused on the first ammunition wagon. Sergeant Whitecloud has his own brand of Injun fireworks ready on the other side of town. He can’t wait to get into the fight. I practically had to hold him down when he saw those Confederate cavalry boys.
“And the Hawkins twins are itching to try out their new invention they dreamed up for our enjoyment. Some wacky thing they call a ‘satchel charge.’” Justice smiled at Nate’s sarcasm regarding Roberto and Carlos Hawkins, two of the most ingenius, young explosives experts he’d ever known. Nate would have been content to rely on good old-fashioned dynamite charges, but not the twins. The Hawkins brothers were constantly coming up with seemingly ridiculous new methods to destroy something, and Ezra learned long ago not to be so cynical. The twins’ crazy inventions usually worked. Usually.
Nate interrupted Ezra’s ruminations. “And O’Banyon wants to go down and try to talk them into surrendering.”
Ezra’s mouth hinted at a smile as he thought of Shaun O’Banyon, the lovable, impetuous Irishman who in the past had preferred a bottle of good whiskey over fighting any day. Shaun O’Banyon believed that he could talk his way out of most any situation, and he often did. But this would not be a day for talk.
“Pass the word, Nathaniel. When the church bell strikes three, let ’er rip. There’s no way the seven of us can stand a chance against their entire army. Our goal is to slow them down by taking out their supplies. Try not to get involved in combat with their troops any more than necessary. Otherwise we will lose our element of surprise. We have to hit them hard and fast. Get in quickly and get out. If we take more than a few minutes, we’re all dead men.”
Nate rose to his knees. “Got it, Cap’n.” He halfway stood up, brushed himself off, and repeated the command. “Start the attack right after the bell strikes three. I’ll meet you back at the camp. God be with ya, Ezra.”
Ezra nodded but didn’t look around as Nate slipped away. “Here’s hoping.”
GENERAL JOE JOHNSTON’S TROOPS never knew what hit them. One moment they were trudging through town, complaining about their aching feet and how much farther they had to go before meeting up with General Lee; the next moment, just after three o’clock, when the church bell tolled for the third time, the earth erupted. Preset dynamite charges blew dozens of soldiers closest to the supply train sky high. Many of the multiple sticks of dynamite tied together and buried just below the ground exploded almost simultaneously due to some long fuses rigged before sun-up and now ignited by Harry Whitecloud. Huge craters ripped open in front of the supply train bringing it to a halt.
From his concealed location in the hills, Reginald Bonesteel squeezed the trigger on his Henry .44-caliber repeating rifle. The butt of the high-powered rifle kicked hard against Bonesteel’s shoulder, but the British-born marksman kept on firing. A moment later, an enormous explosion blew the first ammunitions wagon into a ball of flame. A second concussion followed, creating several more deafening blasts. By the third and fourth rounds, bits of fiery wood were flying through the air, landing on the ammo wagons following behind, igniting the canvas atop the arms wagons, turning that section of the road into an inferno as well. Satisfied with his work, Bonesteel mounted his horse and kneed it toward the fire. With a double set of holsters strapped on the front of his saddle and another double set of guns behind the saddle, Bonesteel swept through a line of Confederate officers at full gallop, firing incessantly in every direction as he crossed the road. Men in gray uniforms who had been maneuvering the troops, in their efforts to fend off the attack, dropped in Bonesteel’s path. A piece of shell winged the brazen Brit in his shoulder, but it didn’t slow him down a bit. His steed’s powerful legs stretched out as though in a race for dear life, and Bonesteel disappeared into the forest on the other side of the field.
The sky around the supply train turned a gritty brown laced with orange. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder permeated the air. The flames and smoke created so much chaos and confusion in the Confederate ranks that nobody noticed the lone rider racing toward the water wagons. When a soldier finally caught a glimpse of the rider wearing a blue jacket and a wide-brimmed hat, it was too late. The man on the horse blew the soldier into eternity. He flipped a lever on his specially designed LaMat, and the single shot pistol became a blazing rapid-firing repeater. Good thing, too. Ezra Justice needed all the fire power he could get. Three or four Confederate soldiers converged on him, but Ezra eluded them. Justice felled several more gray-coats as he dodged the musket balls whizzing by his ears. He took comfort in one of his own favorite sayings that he used often with his men: “Don’t worry about the lead you hear. If you hear the bullet, it’s already gone by you. It’s the one you don’t hear that you have to worry about.”
Ezra knew that merely upsetting the wagon carrying the large barrels laden with water wouldn’t be good enough. He wanted to destroy General Johnston’s water supply. An army can survive a long time without food but only a few days without water. Even if the troops kept moving northward, they’d have to stop for water before long, giving General Grant more precious time to drive toward Richmond.
At full gallop, Ezra reached the water wagons and started firing, not at the soldiers nearby but at the barrels containing the water. One by one, streams of water poured out of the barrels as, too late, the Rebels realized the true targets of Ezra Justice’s bullets. With his gun barrel hot, Justice danced his horse through the maze of dead bodies, mangled wagons, and other equipment. Getting to the supply line was one thing; getting clear of it would be quite another.
Ezra veered hard to the left, attempting to avoid several Rebs running back toward the supply train. His horse obediently leaped over a pile of rubble as Ezra pulled up hard on the reins. Just as he went airborne, he saw the soldier in the dirty gray coat, kneeling on the ground straight ahead of him, aiming his musket right at Justice. Ezra tried to duck, but it was too late. He heard the sound of a rifle blast.
The kneeling soldier crumpled to the dirt as the hoofs of Ezra’s horse touched the ground. Ezra looked behind him and saw Nathaniel York coming alongside, smoke still curling from the barrel of his carbine. “Thanks, Nate. That was a close one.”
“Glad to be of service!” Nate yelled as he galloped by toward the chow wagons without breaking stride. Nate pulled a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun out of his saddle holster and blasted his way toward the food supply. Confederate soldiers scattered or dropped to the ground as the feared shotgun sprayed bullets in a wide swath. The shotgun blast gave Nate just the opening he needed to get close to the mess wagons. He lit a torch on the way by and tossed it onto the top of one of the covered wagons carrying the food supplies.
Whooosh! The wagon burst into flames.
Shaun O’Banyon had worked his way to the rear of the supply line where the extra horses were in tow. His job, although relatively easy in the midst of the chaos, was one of the most dangerous. He wanted to set the horses free, to stampede them hopefully in the opposite direction of Richmond, so even if the Confederates were able to round them up again, the time it took to track down and capture the horses would disrupt the army’s forward progress.
While the confusion raged up ahead at the front of the supply train, O’Banyon raised his head up out of the ditch in which he had been waiting impatiently. He spotted the horses about to come by, roped to several feed wagons. Taking careful aim from his position, O’Banyon picked off three men struggling to keep the horses calm that were pulling the feed wagons. He then quickly mounted his wild-eyed Appaloosa horse, which had been hidden behind a thicket. Before anyone saw him coming, O’Banyon came out of nowhere and boldly made for the horses.
Pulling up in front of the feed wagon, O’Banyon couldn’t resist commiserating with the animals. “Such a pity to be agitating these fine animals,” he said, as he slashed the reigns previously securing two large beauties to the wagon. “Get on, now! Go south.” O’Banyon slapped the rear flanks of the biggest horse. “Go now! You’ve seen enough of this kind of fightin’. You’ve served these Johnny Rebs for too long. Today, I’ll be giving you your own emancipation proclamation. Go, Big Fella! Go, Sweet Lady. Go visit General Sherman or just go find a wee bit of green.” One by one, O’Banyon went down the row of horses, slashing the reigns, offering a few words of encouragement or a friendly pat to each animal before slapping it on its way southward. When the last horse had been freed, O’Banyon spurred his own animal, which reared slightly and took off through the haze of spherical lead balls flying all around him.
Meanwhile, Ezra Justice headed toward the twelve-pound round-shot howitzers, each with its own large ammo box being pulled on the same wagon wheels as the huge gun barrel. Ezra ducked just as a hot piece of shrapnel flew by his head. He heard a sickening thud as the metal seared into a young Confederate lieutenant, hitting him chest high, shredding his upper shoulder, and mangling his left arm. Ezra Justice flinched as he saw the boy fall on his face. Ezra hated this war, with its senseless maiming and killing; but there was nothing he could do but hope that by doing his job well, he could help bring it to an end soon.
Ezra glanced in the direction of the front lines. Time was running out.
Although only a minute or two had passed since the first shots had been fired, by now, Rebel infantrymen and, beyond them, the Cavalrymen had realized the true nature of the attack and were doubling back to help their fallen comrades. The Confederate soldiers had been caught with their guard down, but those who had survived the initial blasts were scrambling to defend the supply train with any weapon available.
Pulling two sticks of dynamite from his saddlebags as he rode, Justice was about to light the fuse and toss it toward the howitzers when a soldier on the ground grabbed a shovel, hauled off and swung the blade at Ezra’s midsection, walloping Justice right in the stomach, knocking him off his horse, and sending him tumbling to the ground face first. For a moment Ezra’s world went dark; then he felt the dirt and blood in his mouth.
Holding his side, Ezra thought sure that a rib was broken. No time to worry about it now. He spit out some blood and staggered to his feet, just in time to elude the soldier diving toward him, bowie knife in hand. Undaunted, the soldier came at Ezra again.
Ignoring the pain in his side, Ezra pivoted on his left foot. Instantly, he whirled around a full 180 degrees and launched his right leg at the man’s face, connecting his right foot squarely with the soldier’s jaw, flipping him backward in the air and landing him on his side with a grunt, right next to a dead Confederate soldier. Ezra’s attacker raised up, leaning momentarily on his left hand, sliding his right hand over the dead soldier. Still a bit groggy himself, Ezra almost didn’t see the Rebel snatch the dead man’s revolver off the ground, fumbling to aim it at Justice. In a flash, Justice’s strong right arm chopped down, the straightened side of his rigid, bare hand connecting firmly on the side of his attacker’s neck. Ezra stood over him, waiting to see if he was going to retaliate. The soldier didn’t get up; he was out cold.
That’s when Ezra saw Mordecai Slate for the first time.
Off to Ezra’s left a Cavalry officer sat on a black horse, amidst the burning rubble, smoke, and dust of battle, the blackened remains of a supply wagon behind him. Dressed in full, clean Confederate regalia, while his soldiers wore filthy, tattered trousers and shoes with gaping holes in them, the officer was ruggedly handsome yet possessed a nearly palpable sense of malice at the same time — the type of man that men feared and women could not resist. Although he had never met him, Ezra recognized the officer immediately. He’d heard about Mordecai Slate, a leader who preferred to fight out front with his men, rather than remaining in safety, behind the artillery lines. Known as a ferocious and merciless soldier, Slate was the commander of a regiment detached from the rest of the Confederate army, a regiment that nobody on either side of the Mason Dixon line wanted to claim — “the Death Raiders” regiment as they were known.
At one time, the band of thugs under Slate’s command may have been honorable soldiers of the South. At one time … maybe … but not anymore. Mordecai Slate had slowly but surely transformed his regiment from noble men fighting for a cause they believed in to murderers who enjoyed killing for no reason or any reason. They took no prisoners, preferring to shoot anyone they captured rather than bother with having to feed, house, and/or transport the enemy.
Slate sat high on his horse, his revolver aimed at Ezra’s chest. “Justice!” he called. “How about some of Mordecai Slate’s brand of justice?”
Ezra looked up and saw Mordecai Slate pull the trigger and felt the bullet slam into his chest. The impact of the bullet sent Justice reeling backward onto the ground. His body didn’t move; his face was expressionless.
Mordecai Slate let out a hideous laugh, spinning his horse and galloping back to the fracas.
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Excerpted from "The Justice Riders" by Chuck Norris, Ken Abraham, Aaron Norris and Tim Grayem. Copyright © 2006, Robert Hostetler. ISBN 0-8054-4032-1. Published by Broadman & Holman Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
Chuck Norris is known worldwide as an action movie & television star, but he considers his greatest honor, next to his family, as being recognized as a humanitarian. Chuck's most rewarding accomplishment was the creation of the his KICK-START® Foundation (building strong moral character in our youth through the martial arts). Chuck has received numerous humanitarian awards, including the Make-A-Wish® Foundation's Celebrity Wish Granter of the Year, and Veteran of the Year by the Veterans Foundation of America. Chuck and his wife, Gena, live with their children in Dallas, Texas.
Ken Abraham is a New York Times best-selling author who has co-written books with Chuck Norris ("Against All Odds"), Lisa Beamer ("Let's Roll!"), and Tracey Stewart ("Payne Stewart: The Authorized Biography").
Aaron Norris, a military veteran and martial arts expert, is also an actor, producer, director, writer, and president of Norris Brothers Entertainment.
Tim Grayem is CEO of the Canon Group and an established film writer.