Chris opened his eyes, but everything remained dark and murky. He blinked and his vision adjusted slowly to the dim moonlight shining in through the window. His head pounded and he lifted a hand to rub his brow. His fingers encountered cloth-a bandage?
"'Bout time you woke up," Vin's low familiar voice swept across Chris.
He turned to seek his friend's face, but pain shafted through his head and he groaned.
A warm hand settled on his shoulder. "Take it easy, Chris. You got a nasty wound there."
After the sharp claws stopped digging into his brain, Chris focused on Vin who was leaning over him. Vin's hat and jacket were off and his hair was tousled as if he'd been dragging his hand through it. "Wh-what happened?"
"You were ambushed by someone with a rifle and a grudge," Vin replied.
He moved out of Chris's line of sight, and Chris forced himself to remain calm. A moment later, Vin returned. He curved his palm around the back of Chris's neck and raised him slightly so he could drink without choking.
Chris swallowed the lukewarm water gratefully and began to feel more alert almost immediately. After Vin eased his head back down on the pillow, he sat down in a chair that had been pulled close to the bed. Chris had a feeling that chair and Vin had become good friends in the past few hours.
"How late is it?" Chris asked.
"Nearly midnight. How do you feel?"
Vin smiled crookedly. "Don't surprise me none. That bullet took a helluva chunk out of your head. The doc said an inch or two the other way and you'd a been dead." Even in the dim shadows, Chris could see the fury build in Vin's face. "The bastard's gonna pay for what he done."
"And I'm gonna be the one to pay him," Chris growled.
"Not without me." The steel in Vin's voice told Chris it'd be senseless to argue.
"You got anything to eat?"
"I'll rustle somethin' up from the kitchen."
"I thought Mrs. O'Kelly said if we missed a meal, we were plumb out of luck," Chris said.
"She said she'd make an exception this time." Vin grinned. "I think she likes you, though damned if I can figger out why."
Chris chuckled as the tracker left the room. Pushing himself up, Chris struggled out of bed. He wasn't going to lie around when all hell was breaking loose around him.
When he finally made it to his feet, his stomach rolled and his head swam in dizziness, but the symptoms passed fairly quickly. All he was left with was one helluva headache that he hoped the food might help dissipate.
The door opened and Vin entered. He set down the tray of food and hurried over to Chris's side to take hold of his shoulders. "What the hell are you tryin' to do, cowboy?"
Chris laid his hands on Vin's arms. "I'm okay, Vin. Just a headache is all."
"Damnit, Larabee, if you ain't the most stubborn man I ever seen."
"You look in the mirror lately?"
Vin narrowed his eyes. "All right, but if you fall flat on your face, don't bother to come lookin' for sympathy from me."
Chris snorted. He didn't have any trouble seeing through Vin's thin mask. "You gonna let me die of starvation or do I get some of that food you brought up?"
"Hell, I should just take it back." Vin guided Chris to a chair and lowered him to it, then set the tray on the bed beside him. He lit a lamp so Chris could see what he was eating.
Vin sat in the other chair, his ankles crossed as he rested his feet on the window ledge, and watched him eat. The food tasted good and the slight queasiness in Chris's stomach disappeared after a few minutes.
"How's Ezra doin'?" Chris asked in between mouthfuls.
"Just as muleheaded as you-wanted to go back to his saloon, so me and Nathan helped him over there."
"Who's stayin' with him?"
"Buck, JD, Josiah, and Nathan are all over there now."
"What if those men come back to finish the job they started on him?"
"Buck's spendin' the night. Blames himself for what happened to Ezra." Vin laced his fingers together and rested his hands on his belly. "Accordin' to Ezra, those men won't be back until tomorrow night to collect their money." He paused a moment. "Martha said that Leo over at the Lucky Chance is also gonna have some company tomorrow night, too."
"Sounds like they only have certain nights they go out."
Chris pushed back his empty plate and took a sip of the thick, strong coffee. "So it's 'Martha' now."
In the lantern's shadows, Chris could see a flush stain Vin's cheeks. "She ain't so bad."
In spite of his pounding head, Chris couldn't resist teasing him. "You thinkin' of courtin' her?"
Vin scowled. "That bullet musta addled your brain, Larabee. No, I ain't gonna court her. She jist helped us out is all. Helped us get you back here, too."
"She see who shot me?"
"Nope. No one did. Whoever it is, he's keeping hisself hid good. We ain't got any idea who it is or why he's after you."
"He'll try again," Chris stated. "I just have to be ready when he does."
"Don't you go takin' any stupid chances, Chris. We all want this bastard."
"And we want the men who beat up Ezra." Chris stared into his coffee cup. "You come up with a plan for tomorrow night?"
"Josiah and Nathan's gonna watch the Lucky Chance, while the rest of us keep an eye on Ezra and the Barbary Coast. If they go to the Lucky Chance first, Josiah and Nathan'll follow 'em back to the Barbary Coast. While the bastards are inside talkin' to Ezra, we'll close the trap."
Vin went on to explain the plan in more detail. When he was finished, Chris asked, "What about me? Where do I fit in?"
"You're stayin' right here in this room."
"Ain't gonna happen, Vin. You leave me out, I'll find my own way in."
"I told the other fellahs that, but they figgered you'd be too weak to argue. They shoulda known." He took a deep breath. "You'll stay close to me, where I can keep an eye on you."
"Don't you mean so I can watch your back?"
A corner of Vin's lips quirked upward. "Goes both ways, pard."
They sat in silent camaraderie until Chris's eyelids began to droop.
The tracker rose and moved to his side, putting a hand around Chris's elbow. "You'd best lie back down. Doctor James said you'd be pretty tired for a time."
After only a token resistance, Chris allowed Vin to guide him back to his bed. He closed his eyes and felt the covers being drawn up over his chest.
"Sleep tight, cowboy," Vin said softly.
Chris dropped off to sleep, knowing he was safe with Vin watching over him, just as he had done-and would do again-for Vin when their roles were reversed.
"So what you been up to, JD? Ain't hardly seen you since we got here 'ceptin' in our room," Buck said in between pouring drinks.
Leaning against the bar, JD shrugged. "Not much, just been talkin' with that Texas Ranger, findin' out what I'll be doin' when I join."
Buck paused and his brow furrowed. "You didn't go and sign up, did you, kid?"
JD didn't like the accusation in Buck's voice. "Not yet, but that don't mean I won't."
Buck leaned forward so he wouldn't be overheard. "You forget about why we're down here? We got to get to Tascosa and get Vin's name cleared."
"I ain't forgot, but seems to me Ezra has. You think he's gonna leave this place to go with us to Tascosa?"
"Sure he will," Buck said firmly, though his gaze didn't hold JD's. "He'll have someone watch over it for him until he gets back."
"You don't believe that, and neither do I. We been on the trail to Tascosa for how long now? Three months? And we ain't any closer to it than when we first left Four Corners."
Buck's face grew serious. "What're you sayin', JD?"
"That maybe it's time we split up, you know, go our own ways."
"What crap has that Ranger been fillin' your head with?"
JD's temper climbed. "It ain't crap. He's been tellin' me how much more good I could be doin' by ridin' with the Texas Rangers."
"Listen to me, JD. Them stories he's been tellin' don't give the whole truth. Bein' a Texas Ranger ain't like bein' some knight in shinin' armor. I knew more than a few Rangers in my time."
JD rolled his eyes. "You always know more'n anybody, don't you?"
The hurt expression on Buck's face made JD cringe inwardly, but he didn't allow the older man to see it. Buck wasn't ever going to stop treating him like a kid, despite the changes JD had undergone in the past year.
"I never claimed to know everythin', JD, but I do know this. You leave us to join the Rangers and you'll have a whole lifetime to regret it."
The thought of leaving the six men he thought of as family twisted his gut into a knot, but the lure of the Texas Rangers tempted him more than anything else had in his life. He didn't want to abandon Buck and Vin and all the others, but after the protection racket was put out of business and the man who shot Chris behind bars, then JD would make his decision.
"You think you know me, Buck, but you don't," JD said. "I got things inside of me that I ain't ever told you or anybody else."
"Every man does," Buck said quietly. "Iffen you ever want to talk about some of them things, you know I'll always be willin' to listen."
His soft voice caught JD off guard and he glanced away from the man who was as close as a brother. He didn't want Buck to see the uncertainty in his eyes. Spotting Captain Daniels sitting at his regular table, JD headed that way, but Buck's grasp on his arm stopped him.
"A person don't make many good friends he can trust with his life, JD. You been blessed with six-don't you ever forget that," Buck said gently.
He released him and JD continued toward Captain Daniels, though confusion swirled through him. When did things get so messed up?
"Evening, JD," Daniels greeted.
JD pulled out a chair and sat down across the table from the Ranger. Buck's final words echoed in his mind-friends, trust, life, blessed. JD had never once questioned his loyalty to the Seven, not until he met Captain Ham Daniels.
"You in there, JD?" Daniels asked, waving a hand in front of JD's face.
He managed a weak grin. "Sorry, I was just thinkin'."
"So have you decided to join the Rangers like we were discussing yesterday?"
"Not yet." JD took a deep breath. "We got us a plan for tomorrow night."
"Let's hear it."
Josiah watched with more than a thread of alarm as JD conversed with the Texas Ranger. Both he and Nathan had overheard part of his and Buck's conversation, but neither could believe JD would actually leave them. The boy had hung up his guns once and started back East after accidentally killing a woman. But JD had learned a hard lesson that had matured him and taught him a hero was only a man who wore a tangled wreath around his heart.
He didn't want the boy to make a mistake any more than Buck did, but nobody could force another man to do his bidding. Oh, he could try, but that man would only end up with a belly full of hatred later on. Josiah knew only too well.
The saloon was emptying out as midnight came and went. Buck would close it down at one o'clock, and Josiah and Nathan would stay and make sure everything was quiet before they headed back to the boardinghouse. Josiah hoped Chris was doing all right. Nathan had told him and Buck what had happened. It seemed that the civilized town of Pocket was harboring more than a few skeletons in its closet.
The batwing doors opened and Father Schyma entered hesitantly. He looked around the smoky interior, then spotted Josiah and hurried toward him, but stopped to look at Nathan. "Could I talk to you?"
Josiah pointed to a chair. "Be my guest. This is my friend Nathan Jackson."
The priest offered his hand and Nathan accepted it. "Nice to meet you, Mister Jackson."
"Same here, Father." Nathan pushed his chair back and stood. "I should go check on Ezra, make sure he's doin' all right."
Josiah silently thanked Nathan for giving him and Father Schyma some time alone.
The priest sat down and clasped his hands nervously. "I've thought about what you said, Josiah." He laughed somewhat shakily. "In fact, that's all I've been able to do since you left."
Josiah waited patiently.
"I found my spare bottle of whiskey and set it in the middle of my table. You know what I did then?"
Josiah shook his head.
"I stared at it. For five hours, I stared at that bottle and I saw my life inside that brown glass, alone and filled with darkness. And I wondered why God had forsaken me?" The priest smiled with a peace Josiah hadn't seen in the man's face before. "It was then that I realized the truth. God hadn't forsaken me, I'd forsaken him.
"I went into the sanctuary and starting lighting candles, saying a prayer with each flame until the church glowed with a light so bright, I knew I'd found my way out of that bottle."
"Welcome back, Father," Josiah said, his throat tight.
"I want to help, Josiah. I need to help."
Josiah studied him for a long moment. "Where's the bottle of whiskey you were staring at all day?"
Father Schyma smiled self-consciously. "I threw it against a wall. I'm afraid my room smells a bit like the inside of a whiskey keg."
Josiah chuckled. "If you really want to help, make sure your parishioners are safely in their homes tomorrow night. There may be some gunplay."
"I know how to shoot."
"No. That's our job. There's no reason your hands should be stained with blood, too."
The priest gazed at Josiah. "Why do I get this feeling there are a great many things you keep hidden from the world?"
Josiah thought of JD and Buck's conversation and his smile was bittersweet. "We each have things inside of us that nobody will ever know. And some have more crosses to bear than others."
"If you ever wish to unburden your soul, the sacrament of confession is always available."
"I'm not Catholic."
"It doesn't matter, Josiah. It's not only Catholics who feel the need to unburden their souls." Father Schyma stood. "Thank you again."
"I didn't do anything. You were the one who had to travel the road alone."
"Perhaps, but I wouldn't have found that road without your assistance."
Josiah stood and the two men shook hands.
"If I learn anything about these men who are tearing our town apart, I'll let you know," Father Schyma said, then walked out of the saloon, his back straight and his shoulders held erect.
"That the priest you talked to this mornin'?" Buck asked from behind the bar.
Josiah walked to the bar and rested his elbows on the shiny surface. "Yep. It looks like he finally found his path again."
Buck's worried gaze flickered over to JD. "I hope he doesn't get lost."
"Have faith, Buck." Josiah squeezed Buck's shoulder. "JD'll come through."
"I hope so, Josiah. I sure do hope so."
Ten minutes before one Buck made a last call for drinks, but the saloon was nearly empty. JD and Daniels were still talking in the corner, and all but one of the waitresses had gone home already. When nobody wanted a last drink, Buck sent the last saloon gal on her way, not even trying to worm his way into her favor. He had more important things on his mind, mainly worrying about JD and making sure Ezra wasn't attacked again.
When one o'clock arrived, everyone but Josiah and Nathan had gone. Buck had watched helplessly as JD and that Texas Ranger had left together. He didn't like the way the kid was acting around Daniels, even if the man was supposed to be some damned hero.
"We'll help you clean up," Josiah offered.
It took only half an hour for the three men to get the saloon swept and the tables wiped down.
"Ezra can't complain tonight about me not doin' my job," Buck exclaimed.
"Ezra was sleepin' when I checked on him," Nathan said, glancing up the stairs. "I can sit with him tonight if you want."
Buck shook his head. "I'll be fine. I ain't gonna let me and my gun get too far apart tonight."
"Just pretend it's a pretty woman," Josiah teased.
Buck scowled. "Hell, Josiah, I almost forgot what a woman feels like."
"Don't worry, Buck. It's kinda like ridin' a horse, you don't ever forget how to do it."
Buck's frown deepened. "If that was supposed to help, it didn't."
Josiah and Nathan chuckled as they headed to the door.
"Lock it behind us," Josiah reminded.
"Yes, Mother," Buck said.
After Josiah and Nathan went through the door, Buck snapped the bolt into place. They had double-checked the back door earlier, ensuring that it, too, was locked. He blew out the lanterns, then carried a lamp upstairs to Ezra's room. Opening the door quietly, Buck slipped inside, only to be met with the audible click of a gun hammer being drawn back.
"Do not move," Ezra ordered.
"It's only me, Ezra."
Buck saw the gambler raise the gun barrel and slip the hammer back in place. "Next time, I would appreciate some warning."
"Nathan said you were sleepin'." Buck moved farther into the room, toward the full size sofa along the opposite wall as Ezra's bed. He plopped down on it with a heavy sigh.
"I awakened when he came in, but pretended to be slumbering. You know how concerned Doctor Jackson becomes if one of his charges is not getting his required rest." Ezra said, not without a hint of fondness. "I hope you managed to add to the Barbary Coast's profits today."
Buck peered at Ezra, who was sitting up in bed with the blankets covering him from the waist down. The white bandage around Ezra's chest stood out in the dim light. He could also make out the worst of the bruises on the younger man's face. If it weren't for the visible signs of his beating, Buck wouldn't have known anything was wrong with him by his characteristic dry tone. "I think you made two bits today."
Buck had no trouble discerning the cool scowl on Ezra's face. "Well, I suppose I should be grateful to you."
Buck chuckled. "Dang, Ezra, you can even make a thank you sound like an insult."
"That was not my intention, Mister Wilmington." Ezra slumped visibly. "I'm sorry, Buck, but I feel so helpless lying here. Especially after what transpired with Chris."
"Don't you worry about ol' Chris. He's got a head as hard as a rock, and a guard dog who ain't gonna let no one near him."
Buck nodded. "And you got me."
Ezra smiled slightly. "Thank you."
"No need to be thankin' me, Ezra. You know we all stick together and ain't a one of the others who wouldn't have taken my place beside ya."
Ezra's throat grew tight. How had he survived all those years on his own? He couldn't even imagine what his life would be like without the rest of the Seven. There probably wouldn't be life-the odds would have caught up to him, leading to an untimely demise.
"I can assure you, Mister Wilmington, that I have complete faith in your abilities as a guard dog."
"You don't know how much that plumb tugs at my heart, Ezra." Buck's tone left no doubt there were equal doses of sarcasm and fondness mixed with his words.
Buck took off his boots, dropping one, then the other onto the floor and stretched out on the couch. Ezra noticed that although Buck removed his gunbelt, he kept the weapon close at hand.
When it looked as if Buck was settling in for the remainder of the night, Ezra shifted down to lie on his bed and pulled the covers over his chest. Pain jabbed through his middle, but he knew it was due to the tenderness of the bruises.
"What're you gonna do, Ezra?" Buck asked quietly, startling Ezra.
"Do about what?"
"This place? You gonna stay here when we head out for Tascosa again?"
That very question had started plaguing Ezra two minutes after he won the Barbary Coast. "I'm not certain, Buck."
"You mean, you'd just forget about us?"
A different pain struck Ezra in the vicinity of his newfound soul. "Hardly, Mister Wilmington. Men such as you and the others would be difficult to forget."
Ezra heard Buck sit up. "You're tellin' me that the past eighteen months of workin' and ridin' together don't mean nothin'?"
"On the contrary, it has meant more to me than you could possibly understand."
"Then why would you just abandon us?"
"I haven't said I would."
"But you sure as hell haven't said you wouldn't neither."
Ezra shifted on the soft mattress and stifled a groan. "I have dreamt of winning my own saloon for years, and I am quite pleased with the Barbary Coast."
Buck was silent for a long moment and when he finally spoke, it was in a quiet voice. "You didn't win it, Ezra."
"Of course I did. I have the title to prove my ownership."
"Oh, yeah, it's yours all right, but Kirkwood let you win it. He wanted to lose it."
Ezra's heart pounded in his chest. The victory had seemed a bit too easy at the time, yet he had wanted the saloon so badly, he hadn't questioned the validity of the game. "Why?"
"So you'd get the beatin' instead of him. He was tired of payin' the money and wanted out. And there you were."
Ezra didn't want to believe him, but he did. His instincts were right-Kirkwood had cheated, but not for the reason Ezra had thought at the time. He closed his eyes and concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths.
"You okay?" Buck called softly from his makeshift bed.
"Fine, Mister Wilmington, although I would be better if I could possibly get some sleep."
"Sure. I'm sorry, Ezra."
Ezra heard Buck re-settle on the couch and a few minutes later, quiet snores emanated from him. But sleep remained elusive for Ezra. The doctor had left some laudanum to help him rest, but Ezra preferred not to take it. Besides, it wasn't the physical wounds which were keeping him awake. Rather it was the knowledge that he hadn't won the Barbary Coast in a fair game, and that galled him. It also injured his pride.
Two years ago, I would not have cared how I procured this place, only that it was mine. Now I find myself torn because I did not win it honorably. He chuckled to himself. Ezra Standish, you have changed, though Mother would have a fit if she knew the moralistic direction your life has taken.
For that matter, Ezra wasn't even certain he approved of his recent acquisition of morals. Ethics could be damned inconvenient to a well-planned con.
Unless he allowed them to work in his favor.
Go to part 8