The Trail to Tascosa

by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist

DISCLAIMER: The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of CBS, The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy, or anyone else who may have legal claim on "The Magnificent Seven". I do not claim the characters or concept, and the only profit I get is the enjoyment of writing the stories and sharing them with other fans.

NOTES: The Trail to Tascosa series takes place, as the title suggests, on the way to Tascosa to clear Vin's name. The tales follow one another chronologically and will keep to stories involving only the seven men with no romantic entanglements or off-the-wall characterizations (I hope!). As the characterizations are based on my observations, they may not agree with your own, as we all see the world from our own unique perceptions. In this "episode", I have included a non-fiction historical figure and have taken some creative license with the character, so please be gentle!

SPOILERS: Makes numerous references to episodes, including Penance and specific dialogue from Working Girls and Achilles, as well as references to the previous Tascosa stories and my M7 fic Just Another Day.

Mucho thanks to my two beta readers--Kerry and Judy--for your time, encouragement, and constructive critiques!

Story Six

Pocketful of Trouble

By The Traveling Dimestore Novelist

"Civilization on yonder horizon," Ezra Standish announced with a dry southern drawl.

"It's about damn time," Buck Wilmington grumbled. He drew his forearm across his sweat-beaded brow. "Why do horses always go lame miles from the nearest town?"

Chris Larabee shook his head, stifling his own impatience. When Josiah Sanchez's horse had picked up a rock that morning, Josiah had been relegated to either walk or ride double. The men had begun by taking turns riding double, but in the end the preacher had chosen to walk. Chris couldn't figure out how Josiah had managed the last couple hours in his boots. And without a word of complaint.

Chris glanced at Vin Tanner who'd kept Josiah company the last mile. The two of them spoke in low voices, and occasionally a word drifted to Chris. He figured they were discussing their experiences with different Indian tribes-a topic both Vin and Josiah enjoyed palavering about.

As they neared the outskirts of a bustling town, Chris spotted a weathered sign with the word Pocket carved into the wood.

"You reckon Pocket's the name of this town?" JD Dunne asked as he removed his hat and fanned it in front of his sunburned face.

Nathan Jackson, the black healer, shrugged. "Good a name as any, I guess."

"Sure is big," Vin commented.

A wagon rolled past and the driver shook his fist at them, yelling something about taking up all the road. Chris grimaced. Large towns like Pocket always made him uncomfortable. He was a man unaccustomed to closed-in spaces, and preferred wide open range where a person could breathe without the stench of civilization. Chris glanced at Vin and noticed the stiff set of his shoulders and the scowl that tugged at his lips. The tracker didn't like this kind of place any more than Chris did.

The seven men paused at the edge of town and studied the imposing main street, lined with shops, hotels, bath houses, Chinese laundries, and a huge brick bank. The Seven continued past the row of legitimate businesses until the storefronts changed to those of saloons and gambling halls. In this red light district, Chris saw sporting women dressed in various dishabille hawking their ample "merchandise" from second story balconies.

"I think we done found Eden, boys," Buck exclaimed, tipping his hat to the prostitutes and giving them his most charming smile.

The women giggled and spoke to each other behind their palms. Chris shook his head. He suspected they wouldn't be seeing much of Buck for the next few days while they waited for Josiah's horse to heal.

The hair prickled at the back of Chris's neck and he lifted his gaze to search the street and alleys. Some old men wearing faded overalls and smoking corncob pipes watched them from rickety chairs on the boardwalk, but none of them seemed particularly hostile. The unease faded, leaving Chris restless and wondering what had set his gut to churning.

Josiah and Vin led them to a large livery. After paying the hostler and making sure all the horses, especially Josiah's, were well cared for, the seven men headed down the street to find a respectable boardinghouse. They found one in need of a fresh whitewashing and a few repairs, but otherwise it appeared decent.

"If you gentlemen don't mind, I believe I shall find accommodations elsewhere," Ezra said.

"You don't like us?" Buck asked in mock disbelief, then laid his hand against his heart. "Damn, that hurts, Ezra."

The dapper gambler's eyes twinkled, though his mouth remained set in a firm line. "It has nothing to do with fondness, Mister Wilmington. I merely must have the lullaby of shuffling cards and clinking glass in order to slumber."

As Ezra continued up the street to a saloon and gambling emporium called The Barbary Coast, Chris and the other five men entered the boardinghouse.

"Can I help you, gentlemen?" a woman with gray hair but a lively sparkle in her hazel eyes greeted them.

"We were wondering if you had any rooms available for some weary travelers," Josiah said.

"How many days you boys plan on staying?"

"A few, no more than a week."

She studied them a moment, then nodded. "As long as you all don't mind sharing. I've got three rooms, each with a couple beds in them."

Josiah smiled. "That sounds like heaven, and you're an angel in disguise, ma'am."

Chris lowered his head as a smile tugged at his lips. Though Buck was the ladies' man, Josiah wasn't lacking in charm either.

"My name's Mrs. O'Kelly and if you need anything, just let me know," she said as she led them up the stairs. "Breakfast is served at six thirty, lunch at noon, and supper at six. If you miss it, you're plumb out of luck." Mrs. O'Kelly stopped at the first door. "Two of you can have this one."

Buck and JD shrugged at one another and claimed it. Nathan and Josiah took the one next to it, and Chris and Vin the room across the hall.

"Thank you, ma'am," Vin said, touching two fingers to the brim of his hat.

"Such polite young men you are," Mrs. O'Kelly said, then added, "Don't forget to be down in the dining room at six."

"We wouldn't miss it," Chris reassured.

Mrs. O'Kelly chuckled. "I s'pect not, seeing as how you're growing boys and all."

Smiling and shaking his head, Chris closed the door behind her and tossed his saddlebags and rifle on the bed nearest the door. He knew Vin would want the one closest to the window.

"Reminds me of Nettie Wells some, don't she?" Vin commented as he dropped on to his bed and crossed his ankles.

Chris removed his hat and slung the stampede string around a bedpost. "I reckon." He sank down on the edge of his mattress and sighed. "Sometimes I think I'm gettin' too old for this."

Vin chuckled. "Ain't we all, pard. I figger we can use the time to rest up-in a civilized town like this, it don't seem likely we'll run into any trouble."

Chris nodded, though the nape of his neck continued to tingle. He knew the six of them in the boardinghouse weren't in any trouble, but he wondered about Ezra. Frowning, Chris hoped the gambler hadn't gotten himself into some calamity already.

He glanced up at the ceiling that appeared to be recently painted, then at the walls that were covered with flowery wallpaper. If the condition of the room was any indication, Chris doubted they'd find bedbugs in the muslin sheets. He recalled the outside of the house and figured Mrs. O'Kelly had done the fixing up inside first.

A soft snore startled him and he looked over to see Vin had fallen asleep. He smiled fondly. After the run-in with the Jordans, the barbed wire, and a bullet through his side a couple weeks ago, Vin hadn't regained all of his normal strength. Maybe it was a good thing Josiah's horse had thrown its shoe.

Chris pressed his palms against his thighs and pushed himself upright. His back and knees cracked, telling him he was definitely getting too old to be spending so many hours in a saddle. He only hoped his reflexes hadn't slowed, also. Too often his lightning speed had saved himself or one of his friends. If he lost that edge, he may as well dig a grave and lie in it. There were too many young gunfighters out there wanting to make a name for themselves by outdrawing a gunslinger like Chris Larabee. He scowled-he hadn't been looking to make a reputation as a fast gun. It was just something that had happened after he thought he had nothing left to live for.

"You better know where you're headed, son, or you're gonna end up someplace you don't wanna be."

The words his father had spoken to him nearly twenty years ago came back to haunt him.

You were right, Pa, but then maybe the trail has a way of straightening up later on ....

Chris stepped over to the window and opened it, letting the cool breeze in to flutter the gingham curtains-curtains like the ones Sarah had made for their cabin. With trembling hands, he rubbed the material between his fingertips. Memories like tin daguerreotypes flashed through his mind: Sarah rocking Adam gently as she fed him; Sarah's shining eyes as she buried her nose in the bouquet of wildflowers he'd picked for her; Sarah standing by the stove stirring the Sunday chicken and dumplings; and Sarah's whispers of pleasure after the day's work was completed and the moon's glow bathed her smooth skin in silver....

Moisture stung his eyes and he released the curtain, but the images faded more slowly than the feel of the cloth's texture on his callused fingers. Lord, he missed Sarah and Adam. If anyone had told him the pain would still be this intense four years after their deaths, he might have ended his own life right after he found their charred bodies. Instead, he'd pursued whiskey and faceless women to fill the aching emptiness that he'd come to learn could never be filled.

He pulled a chair over by the window and sat heavily upon it, then leaned his forehead against the glass pane. Watching the busy street below, Chris felt the vague sense of unrest anew. He searched for a familiar face among the bustling crowd, and spotted Buck and JD as they emerged on to the street to enter the saloon Ezra had gone into earlier. A few moments later, he heard Josiah and Nathan's voices as they came out of their room and the sound of their boots on the stairs told him they were going to get a drink, too. He watched them cross the street to the Barbary Coast and was tempted to join them. Whiskey would dull the memories, and make the loss of Sarah and Adam a little more bearable.

For only a few hours.

Chris swallowed hard and turned to look at Vin. The long-haired man's slack features appeared more vulnerable as he slept. Though Vin seemed to be slumbering peacefully, Chris wasn't fooled. Nightmares had plagued him since his time with the murdering outlaw gang hired by Justin Jordan, and Chris had awakened Vin more than once in the past couple weeks. He'd stay close in case the nightmares returned to haunt him.

Having a mission to keep his thoughts occupied, Chris leaned back in his chair and stretched out his long, lean legs in front of him. He threaded his fingers together and laid his clasped hands across his belly as he watched over his friend. And hoped one of them would find some peaceful sleep.

Ezra managed to procure a room above the fancy saloon that happened to be a cut above the standard hotel abode. He suspected the room was rented to traveling gentlemen who preferred to remain circumspect in their 'affairs of the heart'. Not that Ezra had designs on any of the ladies-at the moment Ezra would rather have a deck of cards in his hands than a soft woman.

He washed up and replaced his dusty green jacket with his red one. As he donned it, he caught sight of the neat stitches used to repair the coat after the unfortunate incident with the mountain lion right after they'd left Four Corners. He thought of Vin's embarrassment when he'd thrust the brown paper package into his hands and couldn't stop a fond smile from tilting his lips upward.

"Mister Tanner, one should not be ashamed of doing a good deed," Ezra said quietly and his brow furrowed thoughtfully. "I, for one, have learned that from you and our other fine friends."

After a quick look in the dresser mirror to check his appearance, then ensuring he had a new deck of cards in his breastpocket, Ezra left the room. Downstairs, he found a table with four poker players-all dressed in fine business suits-and approached them with a friendly smile. "Might I be so bold as to inquire if I could join you, gentlemen?"

They did the expected visual inspection and after a moment, nodded.

"Be our guest," one of them said.

"Thank you." Ezra seated himself.

"I'm Astor Phillips and I own Phillips Mercantile," the heaviest of the four men introduced with a wide smile. He pointed to the man on his right who was completely bald. "This is Jameson Kirkwood, he owns this choice establishment. The gentleman wearing the glass spectacles is Ralph Johnson-he's the manager of the bank. And the last one is Norbert Calloway who owns the Imperial Hotel, the finest hotel in the territory."

Ezra shook hands with each of the men in turn. "Ezra Standish, and I am a traveling man."

"I'll bet you've seen most of the gambling halls this side of the Mississippi," Ralph Johnson commented as he pressed his wire glasses up on his narrow nose.

"And some on the other side also, my good man," Ezra said smoothly. "Would that be a problem for you gentlemen?"

"Do you cheat?" Kirkwood demanded.

Ezra met the bald man's dark eyes. "No, sir, I do not."

Kirkwood studied him for a long moment as Ezra held his gaze. Suddenly Kirkwood smiled. "Welcome to Pocket, Mister Standish. I hope you find your stay...profitable."

Ezra returned the smile. "Thank you, Mister Kirkwood. That is my expectation also." He glanced around at the other players. "No offense intended."

"None taken," Calloway said with a magnanimous wave of his hand. "It's always good to get some fresh blood in."

"I do hope you are speaking figuratively and not literally, Mister Calloway," Ezra said, arching a sandy eyebrow.

The hotel owner chuckled, a deep resonant sound. "Of course, Mister Standish. We're peace-loving men in a peaceful town."

A tingle of alarm slid down Ezra's spine though he had no reason to be suspicious. Pocket appeared to be one of those frontier towns that had passed the initial tests of civilization and had settled into being a cultural oasis in the wilderness.

Calloway shuffled the cards and dealt. Ezra picked up his five cards-among them two nines and an ace-and the thrill of the game surged through his blood. A few minutes later, Ezra noticed Buck and JD enter the saloon. They headed straight to the polished mahogany bar and ordered a couple drinks. Picking up their mugs, Buck led JD to a table a few feet from where Ezra played poker.

"I see you didn't waste any time, Ezra," Buck said with a grin.

Ezra didn't like having his attention divided during a poker game, but managed a quick nod. "And I see you did not loiter in your room before acquiring refreshments."

JD's brow creased. "Huh?"

Buck removed his hat and tossed it in the center of his and JD's table. "He said we musta been thirsty."

Ezra bit back his smile. "How very astute of you, Mister Wilmington."

A few minutes later, Josiah and Nathan joined Buck and JD.

"Are you going to introduce your friends, Mister Standish?" Phillips asked.

"Excuse my atrocious manners. These are my traveling companions," Ezra said, then introduced the parties to one another.

"Five of you ride together?" Kirkwood asked.

"Actually there are seven of us," Ezra replied.

Kirkwood's eyes narrowed and that same apprehension tightened Ezra's neck muscles. Something here was amiss, but the gambler couldn't place his finger on the reason for his misgivings.

"Chris and Vin aren't here yet?" Nathan asked, one dark eyebrow pitched upward.

Buck shook his head. "Seems kinda strange, don't it?"

Josiah slid his hat off, allowing it to rest against his back, held by the latigo strap around his neck. "Vin was mighty tired and I think his side was painin' him some."

"Why didn't he say somethin'?" Nathan demanded. Buck, JD, and Josiah all gazed at Nathan mutely, but the healer had no trouble reading their message. "Vin would rather eat nails than admit he's hurtin'," he sheepishly answered his own question. Impatience returned to Nathan's dark features. "I'm goin' to have a talk with him next time I see him."

"So why ain't Chris here?" JD asked.

"Because Mister Larabee owes Mister Tanner," Ezra said softly, then laid down four kings. "I believe this game is mine."

"Is that Chris Larabee, the gunman?" Kirkwood asked as Ezra raked in his winnings.

Ezra's muscles stiffened and he noticed his four friends had the same reaction. "I believe he has a somewhat overblown reputation as a 'fast gun'," Ezra replied carefully.

"And he don't like no one remindin' him," Buck said menacingly.

Ezra wasn't surprised by Buck's defensiveness. The tall man, though often the brunt of teasing due to his 'animal magnetism', was overly protective of the blond gunslinger. Buck and Chris had known each other a long time-Ezra had heard ten or twelve years-and though the two often butted heads, they would defend the other against any threat, real or perceived.

Kirkwood held up his hands. "I was just curious is all."

Josiah lifted a shot glass of whiskey to the light and seemed to be admiring the subtle shades of amber shooting through the liquid. "They say curiosity killed the cat."

"It's a good thing I'm not a cat."

Josiah turned to the bald man and suddenly laughed. "I guess it is, Mister Kirkwood."

The tension eased and Ezra went back to his poker game while his four friends ordered another round. An hour later, Ezra had won more than he'd lost. The heady taste of triumph buoyed him and he bought a round of drinks for his fellow players.

Buck, JD, Nathan, and Josiah said something about going to eat supper then left Ezra alone once more. As he watched them leave, Ezra felt a split second of hollowness and he blinked at the odd sensation. He was perfectly at home here with his best friend-a deck of cards.

Phillips excused himself for a moment and the poker players took a break to stretch their legs. Ezra ordered a cup of coffee with a shot of whiskey in it to fortify himself for the next round. He waited by the bar for the refreshment and watched the hive of activity in the busy saloon. This was the type of place Ezra wanted someday-refined, but with enough rough edges to make it interesting.

One of the waitresses, a woman dressed in a knee-length emerald green dress, approached Kirkwood. Her face, though pretty, had hard lines around her eyes and mouth, characteristic of women in her profession. She appeared angry and Kirkwood took her arm, drawing her into an isolated corner. Kirkwood's back was to Ezra, but he could plainly see the woman's expression. No doubt about it-she was piqued.

Kirkwood said something to her and Ezra saw her impatient gaze flicker to him across the room. She narrowed her eyes as if assessing Ezra and finding him inadequate, then gave her attention back to her employer. After another couple minutes, she calmed down, though it didn't appear as if Kirkwood had completely mollified her antagonism.

The bartender set a cup of coffee in front of Ezra and added a couple shots of whiskey to it. After laying two coins on the bar, Ezra carried the cup back to his table where the other four men had already returned to their places.

And the poker game resumed.

Chris lightly slapped Vin's boot. "Time for supper."

Vin opened his eyes and his startled gaze darted to Chris, but when Vin didn't see any danger, he commanded his muscles to relax. He swung his legs off the bed and planted his feet on the floor. Rubbing his grizzled face in his palms, he waited as his heart slowed its thunderous beat. The nightmare had come again, of Chris riding toward him in the night as the man next to Vin had aimed his rifle at Chris. In the dream, Vin stood up and shouted at his friend, but Chris couldn't see or hear him, and the man shot Vin in the gut, then turned the weapon back toward Chris, who was riding closer and closer to his death....

"Nightmare again?" Chris asked softly, uncannily guessing Vin's thoughts.

"Yep," Vin said simply and stood. In reality, Vin had been able to save Chris, but the nightmare taunted him with what might have been. And what might happen in the future. Talking to Chris about his fears would be useless-death wasn't a stranger to any of the six men he rode with, especially Chris Larabee. They all knew the risks, but balanced it against the good they could accomplish.

Vin stretched and bit back a grimace. His side remained stiff and sore. However, it was a tolerable ache and not worth mentioning. He glanced over at Chris to see him studying him with that closed-in expression that told everybody, Vin included, that there were some things the gunman didn't share.

"You ready to go get some grub?" Vin drawled.

Chris set his hat on his head and nodded curtly. Vin followed him, shaking his head slightly. Chris changed moods faster'n a rattler could strike.

As they went downstairs, Vin heard Buck's teasing voice and Mrs. O'Kelly's laughter.

"Sounds like Bucklin is workin' his animal magnetism on Mrs. O'Kelly," Vin said, a chuckle in his voice.

He was rewarded with a smile from the blond man. "Yep. Course, if he wasn't, we'd figger something had to be wrong with him."

"Ain't that the truth."

Vin and Chris joined the four men already seated around the oval oak table.

"Glad to see you boys made it. I was just about to sweet talk Buck into going up to check on you," Mrs. O'Kelly said, sending Chris and Vin a wink.

"I believe sweet talkin' is my job, ma'am," Buck said, a twinkle in his eyes.

She propped a hand on a generous hip. "Sure hope you're better at it than that prattling you've been doing."

Buck blinked and his expression faltered a moment, bringing a round of laughter from his friends. His confidence returned and he gave her his most charming smile. "Well, now, ma'am, I guess your beauty has just made me plumb tongue-tied."

Mrs. O'Kelly's eyes sparkled with humor. "You hold on now, Buck. I don't think I have a shovel big enough for all them horse apples."

Chris snorted with laughter and Vin found himself chuckling at both Buck's red face and Chris's amused reaction.

"I think she got your number there, Buck," Nathan said with a big grin.

"'Bout time, too," JD added, bubbling with mirth.

Vin's gaze caught the scar on the boy's cheek and his high spirits faded. The boy's tussle with the barbed wire had left other scars, but this one was the most obvious reminder of Vin's inability to protect his friends. Or leave them behind on his journey to Tascosa.

He glanced at Chris and found him smiling at Buck's sputtering reaction to the teasing. The words Chris had spoken to him by Jordan's corral came back to Vin: the bottom line is we're in this together until the way or another. And Vin believed him, but sometimes the full impact of those words tormented his conscience.

Mrs. O'Kelly set a huge platter with steaks on it in the center of the table. "Buck, JD, come help me with the rest of the victuals."

JD and Buck jumped to their feet, and Mrs. O'Kelly ordered them about like a good-natured cavalry sergeant. It took only two trips for each of the three to bring the rest of the food in from the kitchen. The table groaned under the abundance of food: mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, beans, slices of fresh bread, butter, pickled beets, deviled eggs, and applesauce.

She poured glasses of buttermilk for each of them, claiming it was good for 'growing boys' and that if they didn't drink it, they wouldn't get dessert. Vin managed to swallow the thick sour milk though he quickly washed it down with strong coffee. His gaze caught Chris's mirroring expression of distaste, but noticed his friend drank all his buttermilk, too. JD appeared to be the only one who liked it.

Silence was broken only by silverware against plates, requests for second and third helpings, and the unexpected belch from JD, who quickly excused himself with a guilty look at Mrs. O'Kelly.

She smiled at him. "Your ma raised you right, JD."

JD's cheeks flushed. "She tried, ma'am."

Mrs. O'Kelly returned to the kitchen and came back with a huge round cake with thick chocolate frosting. "Hope you boys saved a little room."

"Ezra's gonna be mighty upset he missed all this," Buck commented.

"Depends on if he's winnin' or losin'," Nathan said. "You know how he gets when he's winnin'."

Vin nodded. He'd seen Ezra go thirty-six hours without eating or sleeping while his luck was holding at the poker table. The gambler could survive on coffee and whiskey, a bad combination if it went on too long.

Mrs. O'Kelly cut thick slices of the rich chocolate dessert and placed them on plates which she passed around to the six men. Vin relished the treat, as did the others.

"I remember when Sarah used to-" Chris broke off as if suddenly realizing what he'd said. He took a deep breath and continued with a somewhat tremulous voice. "Sarah made this chocolate pudding that melted in your mouth, a lot like this cake, Mrs. O'Kelly."

"Why thank you, Chris," she said, but wisely refrained from pressing him.

"My ma used to sneak me this stuff from the kitchen called chocolate mousse," JD said. "The cook only made it when there were important folks visiting."

"Well, I don't think I ever ate anything this good," Nathan said, his dark eyes glittering with pleasure.

Vin had had chocolate cake before, but it didn't come close to Mrs. O'Kelly's. He cleaned his plate off and pushed it away. "You're gonna have to roll me outta here," he said and patted his belly. "I ain't ate that much good food in a long spell. Thanks."

The others echoed Vin's sentiments, and after each of them had another cup of coffee, they forced themselves up. With unspoken agreement, they headed to the door and across the street to the Barbary Coast to check on their compadre.

Vin walked beside Chris, sensing his thoughtfulness.

"That's the first time I ever said her name without rememberin' the fire first," Chris said quietly.

Vin sent him a sidelong glance and his gut clenched at the melancholy in his friend's face. "Maybe it's time you start rememberin' the good things first," Vin said carefully.

"Maybe." Chris's voice sounded...lost.

Vin paused on the boardwalk outside the saloon and Chris stopped beside him. The lamplight from the Barbary Coast's windows slanted across Chris's face, shading half of it in austere darkness and bathing the other half in muted light. "I won't pretend to know how you're feelin' since I ain't never been married or had a son," Vin began quietly, his throat tight with nervousness. "But seems to me Sarah woulda wanted you to remember the good times and try to forget the bad."

For a moment, Chris remained silent, then his jaw clenched. "You know what Hank Connelly said to me right before he died?"

Vin shook his head.

"'Remember not to forget,'" Chris quoted softly. He met Vin's questioning blue eyes. "I don't want to forget, Vin. I can't forget."

"And you won't," Vin reassured. "But you gotta remember the times before, too, or her life and your son's won't have meant a damn." Vin held his gaze for a long moment, then slapped Chris's shoulder. "C'mon, cowboy, I'll buy you a drink."

Vin led the way through the batwing doors and immediately spotted Ezra playing poker. The flush in the southerner's face and the too-wide smile worried Vin. It appeared Ezra had drunk his supper again, but it also looked like he was winning.

He and Chris grabbed chairs and joined Buck, JD, Josiah, and Nathan.

Vin motioned toward Ezra. "He looks happier'n a pig wallowin' in the mud."

Chris snorted and the others chuckled.

"He's doin' good," JD finally said. "He's won nearly every hand and that fella," he pointed to a bald man, "is losin' the most."

"He owns this place," Josiah said.

Chris narrowed his eyes. "I'm surprised he's losin' as bad as he is."

Vin glanced at Chris, but his attention was diverted by a woman--at least, he thought it was a woman--wearing a grimy buckskin jacket and trousers. Her hair, a few inches longer than his own, was in need of a washing, as was her face which was smudged with dirt. She stood by the bar with a mug of beer and when he caught her eye, she sent him a wink and a gap-toothed grin.

Buck punched his arm. "I think she likes ya, Vin."

"You can have her, Buck," Vin said with a shiver of revulsion and turned his attention to the poker game.

Suddenly Ezra whooped, startling everyone in the saloon. He turned to his six friends and his green eyes blazed with triumph. "You are looking at The Barbary Coast's new owner and proprietor."

Surprised, Vin exchanged a glance with Chris who was frowning.

JD leaned over to shake Ezra's hand. "Congratulations, Ezra."

"You finally won a saloon, just like Maude said you should," Buck added with a smile. He clapped his hands and headed for the bar. "Hot damn, Ezra, I'd say drinks are on you the rest of the night."

Ezra jumped to his feet and joined Buck. "Wait one moment there, Mister Wilmington. "

Nathan shook his head in disgust or practiced tolerance--Vin wasn't certain which. "Now what's Ezra gonna do with a saloon here?"

Josiah shrugged. "Maybe he's found a place where he'll finally feel like he belongs."

"I thought he already found that," JD said, his brow knitted.

"Hard to say what a man's searching for." Josiah settled a deliberate gaze on Chris. "And sometimes the man doesn't even know until it's right under his nose."

Chris eyed Josiah coolly from beneath his wide brim. "This is somethin' Ezra's always wanted." He downed a shot of whiskey, then refilled his glass. "Ain't a lot of us that can be so sure about things."

"Howdy there."

Vin turned around to see the buckskin-clad woman standing directly behind him. She smelled nearly as bad as she looked. "Howdy, ma'am," Vin managed to say politely.

She pulled a chair over beside him, then asked. "This chair taken?"

"Uh, I guess not," Vin stammered.

Though Chris wasn't smiling, his eyes were laughing as he withdrew a cheroot from his duster pocket.

"You got an extra one of those, mister?" the woman asked Chris.

He shrugged and passed her one, then lit it for her. She smoked the cigarillo like she'd been doing it all her life. And Vin wouldn't be surprised if she had been.

"I'm Martha Jane Cannary. What's your name?" she asked Vin.

"Vin, uh, Larabee, Miz Cannary," he replied helplessly.

She held out her hand which Vin took after a moment's hesitation. Her strong grip equaled a man's and Vin gritted his teeth as she shook his hand vehemently. "Nice to meet ya, Mister Vin Uh Larabee. Who're your friends?"

"I'm Josiah Sanchez, ma'am," Josiah introduced gallantly. "And this is Nathan Jackson, J.D. Dunne, and Chris Larabee."

She eyed Chris, then Vin as if trying to see any similarities. "You two kin?"

"Cousins," Chris said smoothly. "He took after the other side of the family--I got all the good looks."

Miss Cannary's gaze moved up and down Vin like she was buying a piece of horseflesh, and she licked her lips. "I ain't so sure about that."

Vin's cheeks heated with embarrassment. "Was there somethin' you wanted, Miz Cannary?"

"There was, but there ain't no more. You'll do just fine."

Vin swallowed hard-he didn't like that sound of that. "For what, ma'am?"

"My new boyfriend. My last one run off with a sportin' gal from Jake's Saloon a few days back."

Vin's mouth became as dry as a desert in the summer. "Now hold on there, Miz Cannary. I ain't--"

She patted the back of his hand and he jerked away. "You are a skittish one, ain't you? Don't worry, Vin, you and me is gonna get along jist fine."

"I don't think so," Vin said firmly, trying to regain control of a situation that had somehow spun completely out of control.

Buck returned to the table bearing a tray of beer mugs and a bottle of whiskey. "This is all I could get out of Ezra, so enjoy." He looked at the woman. "Hello there."

"That there is Buck Wilmington," Vin volunteered, and added hastily. "He's got something called animal magnetism that women can't resist."

She leaned close to Buck and sniffed, then wrinkled her nose. "He don't smell any different than any other drifter passin' through." She smiled coyly at Vin. "'Ceptin' you, a'course."

Vin glared at his friends, daring them to laugh. Although their mouths twitched, each of the men managed to stifle their amusement.

Buck sat down beside JD and took one of the mugs of beer. "Help yourself there, ma'am."

"Don't mind if I do." She poured herself a shot of whiskey and swallowed it in one gulp, not flinching at all. "How long you boys goin' to be in town?"

"Just a few days," Vin replied quickly.

"Could be a week, maybe more," Josiah refuted somberly, though Vin could see the twinkle in his blue eyes.

"All righty then, that'll give you and me some time to get to know each other a lot better." She slapped Vin's thigh.

Pushing back his chair, Vin scrambled to his feet. "'Scuse me, I gotta go use the privy." Then he was gone before the woman could offer to escort him.

"He shore seems jumpy. He ain't one of them sissy men, is he?" Martha Cannary asked. "Not that I got anythin' against them type. Why, I got me a few good friends like that. I was just hopin' that Vin wasn't taken by nobody yet."

"Don't you worry about Vin. He likes women just as much as the next man, and--" Buck leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial tone, "--I know for certain Vin ain't spoken for."

Chris rolled his eyes. Buck was asking for trouble if he kept goading the woman. Vin was easy-going to a certain degree, but even he had his limits. And Chris suspected Miss Cannary had pushed beyond all of them, which meant Vin was going to be ornerier than a two-headed bull.

"Who's that?" JD asked.

Chris drew his attention to a distinguished looking man entering the saloon. The stranger had white hair and a cane, though he carried himself like a younger man with pride in every muscle of his body. He wore a white shirt with a black and gray vest over it. Black trousers and boots lent the man a dangerous aura.

"That's Cap'n Ham Daniels, used to be a Texas Ranger until a bullet caught him in the back," Martha said.

"A Texas Ranger?" JD whispered in awe.

"One of the best. Single-handedly cleaned out a camp full of Commancheros 'bout five, six years back."

"Better shut your mouth, JD, afore one of them bugs fly right into it," Buck teased.

"But, Buck, he's a Texas Ranger." The way JD said it, he could've been talking about God.


JD leaned close to the mustached man. "Don't you see, Buck? He's what I been wantin' to be since I was in short pants."

"Which ain't been all that long," Buck said, his eyes twinkling.

JD glared at him. Buck could be so dense sometimes! Captain Ham Daniels had done all those things JD only dreamed. He looked back at the man who sat by himself, his back to the wall as he studied everyone in the bar. The Texas Ranger's gaze settled on JD and the young man managed a smile and nod. Daniels dipped his head slightly in reply.

This was JD's chance to talk to a real live Ranger...if he could work his nerve up to doing it. He grabbed a shot glass, filled it with whiskey and slammed it back. His eyes teared, but he managed not to cough at the burn all the way down his throat. He gripped the arms of his chair and took a deep breath, then pushed himself upright. Taking hold of his gunbelt, he shifted it on his hips and drew his shoulders back.

"Where ya goin' kid?" Buck asked.

"Gonna go talk to him," JD replied in a liquor-husky voice.

"Whatcha gonna do that for?"

JD rolled his eyes at Buck's puzzled expression. "'Cause he's a Texas Ranger."

"JD," Buck began.

But JD ignored him as he tried to walk casually to the captain's table. "Mind if I join you, sir?"

The man studied him and JD forced himself not to squirm beneath his perceptive gaze. "Be my guest."

JD smiled and quickly sat down. He couldn't believe how close he was to a genuine Texas Ranger....

"You're new in town," the Ranger commented.

"Yeah, that's right. My friends and me, we're just travelin' through," JD answered enthusiastically.

"I hope you're finding our little town accommodating."

"Oh, yes, sir, it's got real nice accommodations. We're stayin' at Mrs. O'Kelly's. She makes the best chocolate cake I ever had," JD rambled nervously.

The man smiled in amusement. "That she does." He paused. "My name's Ham Daniels."

"I know," JD blurted out. His face flamed with embarrassment. "I mean, that woman, Miz Cannary, she told us you were a captain with the Texas Rangers."

"Even though Martha hasn't been in town long, she knows everybody and isn't shy about sharing her knowledge. What's your name, son?"

"JD Dunne, sir."

"You don't have to keep calling me sir, JD. You can call me Ham or Captain, whichever you feel most comfortable doing."

"Okay, s-Captain." JD forced himself to casually lean back in his chair, tipping it back on two legs...and nearly falling over backwards. He regained his balance, humiliation making him clumsier than usual.

"Don't worry, JD, I don't bite," Daniels said with a smile.

JD attempted a nonchalant shrug. "How long were you with the Rangers?" he finally managed to ask.

"Joined in 1855, but fought in the War Between the States for four years. After the War, I came back to Texas and rejoined."

"You must've liked it."

Daniels nodded. "It was my life, JD. Tracking Commancheros and trying to keep the peace was all I knew." He smiled crookedly and shook his head. "I remember one time when me and my friend, Ben Thompson, went after these men who robbed a bank. We trailed them for a hundred miles, into Mexico to this whorehouse." He laughed. "You should've seen them, JD. Caught them with their pants down around their ankles."

JD imagined the two Rangers disturbing the robbers' fun and chuckled at the picture.

"So what do you think is so funny over there?" Buck asked, pointing toward JD and the Ranger.

"Probably telling the boy old war stories," Josiah said.

Buck snorted. "If he wants stories, he oughta come to me. Why, hell, I got a whole store of 'em."

"And he's heard 'em all a hundred times," Nathan added.

Chris chuckled at Buck's hurt expression. "Afraid you're gonna be replaced?"

The mustached man sent Chris a glare. "That ain't ever gonna happen. Why, JD thinks I can damn near walk on water. He looks up to me."

"Too bad that Chinese potion didn't work or you mighta been lookin' up to him," Nathan said, winking at Chris.

"I can't even get no respect from my friends," Buck groused. He shook his head and scanned the saloon for a more receptive companion.

"Vin's shore takin' his time," Martha Cannary commented with a frown. "You don't think somethin's happened to him, do ya?"

"He can take care of himself," Chris reassured.

"Unless he fell in or somethin'," Buck added with an artificial expression of concern.

"Maybe I'd best go check on him." Martha stood without looking and her shoulder crashed into tray of drinks one of the waitresses was carrying. The men cringed at the clatter when the tray fell and the glasses shattered.

Martha sighed. "You need some help cleanin' that up?"

The saloon girl shook her head without hesitation and with more than a little anxiety. "No. I can do it."

Martha shrugged and headed to the door.

Chris expected her to stumble around after three shots of whiskey and two beers, but she walked like she was stone cold sober.

"Think someone should go warn Vin?" Nathan asked, looking at Chris.

The blond man shook his head. "If he don't wanna be found, he won't be." He grinned. "And he don't wanna be found."

Buck spotted a woman needing some attention and pushed back his chair to stand. "Excuse me, boys."

He didn't look back as he headed toward the blonde wearing a knee-length sky blue dress. Leaning against the bar beside her, Buck flashed his ladykiller smile. "May I say that you're looking as lovely as a drop of morning dew on a rose petal?"

The woman stared at him like he was a few peaches short of a lug and shrugged. "You can say anything you want. Last I heard it's a free country."

Buck smile faltered only for a moment. "That's right and we're both free to do anything we want--" he winked, "--together."

"Or not," she quipped. She took two mugs of beer from the bartender and shook her head. "Sorry, mister, I'm not interested. Now if you'll excuse me, I have real customers."

She hurried away to a nearby table and set the drinks down in front of two dusty men who looked like they'd just come in off a trail drive. One of them pulled the woman into his lap and she giggled, then leaned over to whisper something in his ear. The man nearly split his face wide open with his grin.

Buck rubbed his brow. Why would a woman choose someone like that cowhand over Buck Wilmington? Could there be one or two women in the world who were immune to his animal magnetism? That had to be it--there couldn't be any other explanation.

He surveyed the room, looking for another companion. Spotting a redhead wearing a green dress, he headed in her direction and crossed her path. "Good evening, ma'am. Has anyone ever told you that your hair is like a crown of glory and your eyes gems of the rarest form?"

She shook her head impatiently. "Nope. And I hope no one ever does again." With a snort of disgust, she went around him and was caught in a bear hug by a grizzled man who looked like he'd been in the mountains for more than a few years. She laughed, took him by the hand and led him up the stairs.

"Son-of-a--" Buck began. He removed his hat and raked his fingers through his hair, leaving it standing on end. What the hell was going on? With something akin to desperation, he found another saloon gal and went up to her. "Evenin', ma'am. You could put a field of wildflowers to shame with your beauty and that's the honest-to-God truth."

The working girl narrowed her gaze. "You shouldn't be taking the Lord's name in vain."

Buck drew back as if slapped. "I didn't mean no disrespect, ma'am."

She planted her hands on her full hips. "The hell you didn't. Besides it ain't me you should be apologizing to." And with that, she flounced away to be caught by a beanpole of a man who swung her around to dance to the tinny piano music.

Buck swallowed hard. What was going on? Frantically, he sought out the remaining women separately and each one brushed him off like he was a snot-nosed kid. In a daze, he rejoined Chris, Nathan, and Josiah.

"What's wrong there, Buck?" Chris asked.

"I lost it," he murmured.

"Lost what?" Nathan asked.

Buck blinked and lifted his frantic gaze to the healer. "You gotta help me get it back, Nathan."

"What are you talkin' about?" Nathan repeated impatiently.

"My animal magnetism, it's gone!"

Chris covered his smile with his hand and Josiah managed to stifle the first chuckle, but not the second.

"I don't reckon I got a cure for that, Buck," the healer managed to say with a straight face, though his dark eyes danced mischievously.

Buck leaned across the table, desperation in his features. "But you gotta, Nathan. What am I gonna do?" His eyes widened. "Damn, I may even have to start payin' for it."

Chris, Josiah, and Nathan couldn't contain their laughter any longer.

Buck drew back, staring at them like he'd been betrayed. "It ain't funny. I've heard tell a man can damage himself bad if he don't, well, you know."

"You'll have to let us know, Buck," Chris said with a wicked wink. He stood and stretched. "I'm going to hit the sack. Been a long day."

Josiah and Nathan joined him.

"You comin' Buck?" Chris asked.

The mustached man shook his head. "I think I'll stay here a little longer and see if it comes back, y'know?"

Chris smiled crookedly and he, Josiah, and Nathan left the saloon. As they walked toward the boardinghouse, Chris spotted a shadowy figure in an alley across the street. The person was standing just inside the darkness, a dim silvery outline in the darkness. Unease washed across Chris.

"You go on boys, I'm gonna check on my horse," Chris said.

Josiah and Nathan nodded and continued on, while Chris strode across the street, his spurs jingling unnaturally loud in the night's quiet. He neared the alley and slowed as he put his hand on his revolver. But where he'd seen the person, the alley was empty. He narrowed his eyes, searching, but nothing moved.

An eerie sensation slid down Chris's spine. He didn't believe in ghosts, but whatever he'd seen had disappeared like a phantom.

"You okay?"

Chris spun around, palming his Colt as he turned.

"Whoa," Vin said, holding his hands in the air. "It's just me."

Chris shoved the weapon back in his holster, and forced himself to breathe slowly-in, out, in, out. "Damnit, Vin, you almost got your head blown off."

"What's got you jumpier'n a frog in a frying pan?"

Chris's heart slowed its rapid-fire beat, but his hands continued to tremble. "I thought I saw someone in the alley watchin' me."

Vin frowned and his gaze skipped to the dark corridor. "You wanna take a look?"

Chris shook his head. "If there was anyone there, he's long gone by now."

Vin studied him a moment. "You know anybody here in town?"

"Nope, but maybe someone knows me." He met Vin's eyes, and in them he saw mirroring concern. He shrugged. "But then, it could just be my imagination, too."

"You don't believe that." It wasn't a question.

The unease lingered in Chris, but he knew neither he nor Vin could do anything about it right now except worry. He forced a crooked smile. "Where's your new girlfriend?"

"That ain't funny, Chris," Vin said in a low voice. "She damn near tracked me down after I left. Would've too, if I hadn't slipped through the livery."

"Must be quite a burden to be plumb irresistible to the ladies," Chris said with a smirk. Vin glared at Chris, who slapped his shoulder slightly. "C'mon, pard. Let's get back to the boardinghouse before your paramour finds you."

"Damnit, Chris, you been spendin' too much time around Ezra," Vin growled. "Can't hardly understand what the hell you're sayin'."

Chris chuckled, and side by side, the two men returned to the boardinghouse.

Mrs. O'Kelly's breakfast was as delicious and filling as her supper had been: fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, ham, bacon, fluffy light biscuits with honey, and hominy porridge, plus strong hot coffee.

"Good thing we ain't gonna be here long. Sire'd end up with a swayed back for sure," Vin said as he sent Mrs. O'Kelly a wink. "Buck and JD are gonna be plumb disappointed they missed it."

"Where are those two boys?" Mrs. O'Kelly asked.

"Sound asleep," Nathan replied. "Heard 'em snorin' when we walked past their room."

"That was a mighty fine feed, ma'am," Josiah said with a smile.

"I gotta admit, I enjoy cooking. Me and my late husband had five strapping boys. Cooking for all of you reminds me of those days."

"Where are your sons now?" Nathan asked.

"Two oldest were killed in the war. My youngest two are in California and the middle one's in Colorado, all raisin' their own families now."

"Why aren't you livin' with one of them?" Vin asked.

"I couldn't live in a house with another woman. I'm too used to doing things my own way, and I like running a boardinghouse." She sighed. "There's just so many things to do, sometimes I despair of ever gettin' them all done."

"I ain't been one to just sit around twiddlin' my thumbs. Maybe I can give you a hand," Vin volunteered.

Mrs. O'Kelly waved a blue-veined hand. "I couldn't be havin' one of my guests working on the place."

Vin shrugged. "I don't mind. Fact is, I'd rather be doin' somethin' than not."

"I'd be willin' to lend a hand, too," Chris spoke up. He grinned self-consciously. "It's either that or spend my time in the saloon."

Mrs. O'Kelly studied the two of them for a moment. "I've been meanin' to whitewash the fence and house one of these days. If you'll do it in exchange for room and board, I'll show you where everything is."

Vin could see the woman's pride in her expression and he nodded somberly. "We could do that, ma'am."

She smiled widely and clapped her hands. "Then we have us a deal. The whitewash is in the shed out back. You and Chris can start whenever you'd like."

Chris glanced at Nathan and Josiah. "What about it, boys?"

Nathan smiled. "I'll give you a hand, but first I'd like to go see the doctor in town."

"You sick?" Mrs. O'Kelly asked.

He shook his head. "No, ma'am. I'm kinda what you'd call a healer. I ain't had no doctor learnin', but I picked up a few things during the war. I like to talk to real doctors 'bout things so's maybe I can learn more."

Mrs. O'Kelly's expression grew troubled. "Our doctor died about a year ago, but his widow took over."

"You got a woman doctor?" Nathan asked in amazement.

The older lady nodded reluctantly. "She took her test about six months back and got permission to hang out her doctor shingle, but she doesn't have many patients. Not many folks will talk to a woman about their ailments."

"I'd still like to visit her," Nathan said after a moment's hesitation.

"Her place is at the south end of town. Big house with a wide porch. Can't miss it."

"Thank you, ma'am." Nathan stood. "I think I'll head over there."

Josiah also got to his feet. "I'll walk with you, Brother Nate. I'd like to pay a visit to the Lord's house."

The two men said their good-byes and filed out of the dining room.

Nathan and Josiah walked side by side, observing the early morning traffic, both on the street and the boardwalk. Though it was barely eight a.m., people were bustling in and out of the shops and businesses. At the end of town, Nathan caught sight of a large house with a sign that swung gently with the breeze. As they grew closer, he could make out the lettering: Dr. Elise James, M.D.

"You want some company?" Josiah asked Nathan.

The healer shook his head. "Don't need any." He flashed Josiah a smile. "'Sides, I figger you're wantin' to get over to that church to visit with the preacher."

The large man grinned sheepishly. "I'm always interested in other shepherds of the flock."

"See you at lunch."

Josiah nodded and headed across the street toward the steepled building. Nathan climbed the stairs to the porch of the doctor's home and knocked on the door. A few moments later, it was swung open by a woman in her early thirties with dark hair knotted at the base of her neck.

"Yes?" she asked curiously.

Nathan removed his hat and held it in front of him. "Are you the doctor?"

She nodded. "Can I help you?"

"No, ma'am, I'm just travelin' through town. I'm a healer--just thought I'd stop by and maybe visit if you ain't too busy."

The woman studied him a moment, her hazel eyes curtained. She stepped back, opening the door further. "Come in, Mr.--"

"Nathan Jackson, ma'am. You can call me Nathan," he said, walking across the threshold.

A slight smile lifted her lips. "I'm Dr. Elise James."

"Yes, ma'am, I read your sign there."

Dr. James closed the door behind Nathan and motioned for him to follow her into the spacious kitchen. "Have a seat. Would you like a cup of coffee?"

"Thank you."

He remained standing as the doctor filled two cups with dark, rich-smelling coffee. She set one on the table in front of Nathan, then lowered herself to the chair across from him. Nathan sat down and took a sip of coffee.

"Were you curious about a woman doctor?" she asked, her caustic tone catching Nathan by surprise.

Nathan smiled self-consciously. "Fact is, I am, but I'm more curious about how you learned all your doctorin' skills."

She couldn't mask her own surprise. "So the fact that I'm a woman doesn't bother you?"

He shrugged. "I've learned that sick folks don't care if you're a man, woman, white, black, or purple. All they want to do is get to feelin' better."

Dr. James relaxed and leaned back in her chair. "You're an unusual man, Mr. Jackson."

"Nathan," he reminded. "No, Dr. James, I ain't that unusual. I just like to help people."

She studied him a moment, her expression thoughtful. "That's what I wanted to do, too, at one time."

Nathan tilted his head in question. "Not anymore?"

The bitterness returned to her features. "Nobody wants a woman doctor to help them, even when they're sick."

"Maybe they ain't been sick enough yet," Nathan said quietly.

"Maybe. Or maybe they'd rather go to a Negro healer than a woman doctor."

Nathan couldn't feel anger at her for her sharp remark because he heard the hurt in her voice.

She reached across the table and laid her hand on Nathan's forearm, startling him. "I'm sorry, Mist-Nathan. That was a petty and mean comment. It's just that I've tried so hard to get people to trust me and nothing has worked."

"Some people just don't understand, Doctor," Nathan said. "Iffen they'd been in the War, they'd be grateful to have a doctor."

"You fought in the War?"

He shook his head. "No, ma'am. I was a stretcher bearer, helped out the doctors and nurses, too. That's where I picked up most of what I know 'bout healin'."

"There's been many advances since then," Dr. James said.

Nathan leaned forward, excitement keening through him. "Could you tell me 'bout some of them? I try to keep up with things in them medical journals, but I don't get one very often."

The woman's expression grew more animated and her hazel eyes lit with a fire that told Nathan of her love of medicine. For the next couple hours, they shared knowledge, personal anecdotes, professional empathy, and the rest of the pot of coffee.

Josiah removed his hat as he entered the silent church. Though larger than the one he'd fixed up back in Four Corners, this house of God wasn't as well kept and the candles were unlit. The altar was bare except for a foot-tall crucifix that stood in the center of it.

Josiah walked halfway up the aisle between the pews, then paused and closed his eyes, trying to absorb this church's unique sanctity. The faint smell of beeswax and extinguished candle flames mixed with the scent of aged wood.

He opened his eyes and slipped into one of the pews, kneeling down and clasping his hands. Light seeped in through the colored glass, illuminating dust motes drifting lazily in the pale rays. The sounds from outside were muted, lending less importance to the matters of men than God's serenity inside.

Josiah rested his forehead on his folded hands and pondered the footsteps in his life that had led him to this place. The rebellion against his father, his guilt over his sister's insanity, the lives he'd taken in the name of God and man, and the six friends to whom he'd chosen to give his loyalty and, if required, his life.

He lost track of time in the contemplative silence, though with every passing minute, his mind shed more and more of its earthly burdens. Only in the Lord's house could he remove the mask he wore and be Josiah Sanchez, whoever that man was.


The low voice startled Josiah back to the mortal world and he looked up to see a man wearing a plain brown robe belted at the waist with a rope. "Hello, Father," Josiah greeted.

"You're new in town."

"Just a lost soul wandering through," Josiah said.

The bald priest smiled. "Not too lost -you found your way here."

Josiah chuckled softly. "Maybe you have a point, Father--?"

"Father Schyma." He sat down in the pew in front of Josiah and leaned across the backrest. The smell of stale liquor from the holy man made Josiah frown inwardly. "What brings you to Pocket?"

Josiah shifted to sit on the hard seat. "My horse threw a shoe. Maybe it was divine providence?"

"Sounds more like a case of bad luck," Father Schyma said dryly.

Josiah laughed. "One man's bad luck may be another's godsend." He paused. "How long have you been here?"

"Fifteen years."

"That's a long time."

The priest averted his gaze and nodded. "Perhaps too long."

Josiah kept his expression neutral and remained silent, hoping Father Schyma would continue on his own.

The priest sighed heavily, sending another wave of stale liquor breath across Josiah. "Folks come to expect so much from me. They forget I'm a man, too, and want me to perform miracles."

"Like what?" Josiah asked quietly.

"Tell them why their son or daughter was taken by God, or why an innocent babe was born without life." He rubbed his brow. "And why evil continues to flourish when they pray each day for it to leave their town."

"What evil is that?"

Father Schyma's Adam's apple bobbed up and down and a droplet of sweat rolled down his grizzled cheek. "Devils exist everywhere, Mr. Sanchez."

"And most of them are only mortal men who have become greedy in this life."

The priest chuckled, though it was a bitter sound. "Aren't they one and the same?"

Josiah leaned forward. "Let me help you."

"Do you truly want to help?"


"Then go to the saloon and buy a couple bottles of whiskey and bring them back here. I fear my faith needs to be fortified."

"Faith isn't found in the bottom of a whiskey bottle," Josiah said in a low voice.

Father Schyma pushed himself upright. "That's where you're wrong, my brother. Faith is where each of us finds it."

Josiah watched the priest shuffle to the front of the church and go through a doorway leading to his living quarters. He glanced at the crucifix on the altar. "I have a feeling You put that stone in my horse's hoof for a reason. But I'd appreciate it if You'd give me a little clue as to what I'm supposed to be doin' here, 'cause if it's helping this priest regain his faith, You've come to the wrong person. You know better'n anyone I'm lacking in that area myself."

A deafening silence filled Josiah's ears and he nodded reluctantly. "All right. I'll see what I can do, but I can't make any promises."

Then Josiah knelt back down and bowed his head.

"You got some more paint over there?" Chris asked.

Vin glanced over at his partner and noticed he'd removed his shirt, leaving him in his underwear top with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. Though it was hot, Vin preferred to work with his shirt on, keeping his scars hidden. He carried his pail over to Chris and poured some whitewash into his empty pail. He looked at the side of the house Chris had been working on. "You musta done this before, pard."

The blond man grinned. "Once or twice. How 'bout you?"

Vin shook his head. "Nope. Never stayed in one place long enough." He leaned over to dip his brush in the whitewash and grimaced.

Chris's smile faded and he placed his brush in his pail. "What do you say we take a break and drink some of that lemonade Mrs. O'Kelly left on the porch?"

Vin followed Chris around the house to the wide porch and up the stairs. Chris sat down in one of the rocking chairs and Vin settled in the other. He removed his hat and raked a hand through his long sweat-dampened hair as he watched Chris pour each of them a tall glass of the cool beverage.

The same comfortable silence the two men had been working in all day surrounded them as they drank their lemonade. Vin, however, was aware of Chris watching him through narrowed, concerned eyes. He knew his friend was worried about him--about the nightmares that had dogged Vin since his time with the outlaw gang and about his wound which still bothered him occasionally when he overdid it, like now.

"You all right with this waitin' around in Pocket?" Chris suddenly asked.

Vin understood the layered meaning to his question and he met Chris's narrowed gaze solidly. "I'm all right."

Chris's eyes warmed and he smiled slightly, then poured them each another glass of lemonade.

"There you are, Vin Larabee!"

Vin turned to find the source of the woman's voice and flinched when he spotted Martha Cannary crossing the street. "Aw, hell, now what?" he muttered.

Chris almost laughed but Vin's caged expression made him stifle his amusement and he watched the dread in Vin's face grow as Miss Cannary approached them.

"Afternoon, ma'am," Chris greeted, touching the brim of his hat with a finger. "You here to give us a hand?"

The woman's lovelorn gaze remained on Vin as she answered Chris. "Only if you got whiskey mixed in with that lemonade."

"Well, I guess you're plumb out of luck there," Vin said with forced cheer. "Don't you think we'd best get back to work, Chris?"

"Since when do Mrs. O'Kelly's payin' customers work for her?" Martha asked.

"When we volunteer," Vin said as he stood. "C'mon, Chris."

Drawing his hat brim lower to hide his smile, Chris followed Vin back to their pails of whitewash. And so did Martha.

"It ain't that I got anything against Mrs. O'Kelly. Fact is she's a right fine cook and a mighty good landlady," she said.

"You board here?" Chris asked curiously.

She wrapped her grimy fingers around her gunbelt that was strapped on over her greasy leather jacket. "Used to, 'til she made me leave."

"Why?" Vin asked.

"Sometimes things happen when I'm around a place too long," she replied vaguely.

"Like what kind of things?" Vin questioned, his paintbrush poised in the air.

"Oh, you know, just things."

Whitewash rolled down the brush on to Vin's arm and he took an involuntary step backward, his boot landing in his pail of paint. "Sonuva-"

"Things like that?" Chris asked, gazing innocently at Vin's whitewashed boot and trouser leg.

Martha nodded reluctantly, and laid a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Come on, Vin honey, let me go clean you up."

Vin jerked away from her like he'd been snakebit. "You just stay away from me, Miz Cannary." He tossed his brush in the pail his boot had just vacated and strode away.

"Looks like we had our first lover's quarrel," Martha said matter-of-factly. "Guess I'd best go see if I can smooth things out."

Chris grabbed her arm. "I don't think that'd be a good idea just now. I think he wants to be alone."

Martha thought for a moment. "All righty then. I'll come by later, see if he wants to take me out for dinner."

"Well, ma'am, I'd maybe leave him alone for the rest of the day. My cousin can be downright ornery when he wants to be."

Worry creased the woman's forehead. "Seems he ain't as sweet-tempered as I thought he was."

A genuine chuckle broke through Chris's lips. "I ain't ever heard him called sweet-tempered before."

Martha's shoulders rose and fell with a deep sigh. "You know him better'n me, so I'll take you on your word, and leave him alone for a time and hope he gets over his snit. See ya later, Chris."

He watched her walk away with a stride that would rival any man's. As she strode across the street, she sneezed so loudly Chris could hear it, and a nearby horse began to buck, throwing its rider onto the dusty street.

Chris frowned, remembering the accident Martha had with a tray in the saloon, then what had happened with Vin, and now the bucking horse. It seemed Miss Cannary was a walking calamity looking to happen.

And Chris was suddenly glad he wasn't Vin.

Buck leaned back in his chair, a mug half filled with beer cradled between his palms. He gazed at Ezra across the table from him, engrossed in the business books Kirkwood had left him. "It just ain't fair, Ezra."

"What isn't fair, Mister Wilmington?" Ezra asked without glancing up from the column of figures he was adding.

"Life," Buck replied morosely. "I mean, one minute I got the pick of the ladies, the next not a one of them will give me the time of day."

Ezra scribbled a number down on a sheet of paper on the table. "Perhaps you are being overly dramatic." He raised his eyes to Buck. "Have you perchance tried another establishment?"

"Hell, yes! In fact, I tried all of 'em in town. It's gone, Ezra."

"Your animal magnetism?" Ezra asked dryly.

Buck looked around the Barbary Coast, Ezra's new pride and joy, and nodded dejectedly. "What am I gonna do?"

Ezra clasped his hands together and laid them on the open accounting book. "Would you be interested in gainful employment as a bartender?"


"Of course, here. My bartender only recently informed me that he will not return to his position."

Buck narrowed his eyes. "What'd you do to him?"

Ezra scowled. "I assure you, his decision had nothing to do with me."

"Seems awfully funny that as soon as you win the place, he leaves."

"Purely coincidental." The gambler raised the bottle of scotch on the table. "Shall we drink to it?"

"Sure, what the hell. I got nothin' better to do."

Ezra poured them each a shot of scotch and raised his glass. "To a long and prosperous alliance."

"Why not?" They clinked glasses and downed the scotch.

"Have you seen JD around?" Buck asked.

Ezra, his attention back on his ledger, nodded. "He met his new hero in here around noon and the two of them meandered away together."

Buck felt a sharp twinge in his gut. "He say where they were goin'?"

"No and I did not inquire." Ezra raised his head and aimed his pencil at Buck. "Surely you cannot be concerned with his acquaintance with a man of such stellar proportions?"

Buck rubbed his forehead. "I s'pose you're right, but it just don't seem right, him wanderin' off like that without tellin' anyone." He picked up his mug, emptied it and raised it for another.

Ezra lowered Buck's arm. "You have imbibed all the liquor you will consume for the day. In fifteen minutes, you shall be working behind my bar. And as my employee, you will be completely sober. Is that understood, Mister Wilmington?"

Buck rolled his eyes heavenward. If it wasn't enough that he had lost his magnetism and his best friend, now Ezra was going to turn him into a bartender. A sober bartender.


The Barbary Coast boomed with business all evening as Ezra moved from table to table, acting like a politician, a position that seemed aptly fitting for the chameleon-like man.

Chris sat with Vin, Josiah, and Nathan in the darkest corner of the saloon. It had taken some serious cajoling and a couple near threats to get Vin to leave the sanctuary of his room. Martha Cannary had done something not even the most cold-hearted of killers had--scared the hell out of Vin. The ex-bounty hunter had stayed between the other three men as they entered the saloon and found a table nearly hidden in shadows. Fortunately, Martha hadn't shown up all night.

JD's laughter floated over to them and Chris eyed the table where the young man sat with Ham Daniels. JD had stuck to the Texas Ranger like a burr to a dog, but the former captain didn't seem to mind. In fact, the man appeared to be basking in JD's idolization.

"Never thought I'd see Bucklin behind a bar with an apron on," Vin commented.

Chris glanced over at their lanky companion who set two mugs of beer on the bar as he smiled at the redheaded barmaid. She took the beer and ignored Buck. "I wonder how long Buck's gonna go without a woman afore he blows up."

"I give him two days," Vin said with a crooked grin.

"One and a half," Josiah said, then turned to their thoughtful friend. "What do you think Nathan?"

The healer blinked. "What?"

"What's got you thinking so hard?"

Nathan sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I was just thinkin' about Dr. James and wonderin' how I could help her get folks to trust her."

"Ain't nothin' you can do, Nathan," Chris said quietly. "You can lead a horse to a water trough, but can't make him drink."

"I know that, but it just seems a shame folks can't see past their own noses."

"Fact of life, Brother Nate," Josiah said. "Take Father Schyma for instance, he's drowning his doubts in whiskey, not lookin' past his own pain to his flock's needs."

"Sounds like you two got your work cut out for ya," Vin commented. He finished his beer and glanced around at the nearly empty bar. "I s'pect it's about closin' time."

"I reckon," Chris said. He had nursed two beers all night, not even touching whiskey for the first time in months.

Captain Daniels limped out of the saloon and JD moved over to join them, pulling up a chair between Chris and Vin. His face was flushed and his eyes too bright. It appeared JD had imbibed more than his usual amount of alcohol. "That captain sure has been in a lot of fights."

Chris shrugged. "Any man worth his salt has."

"But not like him. Even when he was outnumbered by Commancheros and bandits, he always won," JD said enthusiastically.

Vin arched his eyebrow as he and Chris exchanged looks. "Maybe he just ain't tellin' you about the ones he lost."

"He never lost a battle."

"According to him," Josiah interjected. "I'd say he lost one when he was shot in the back."

JD's face reddened. "Well, maybe one, but that was all."

Ezra walked up to their table. "Shall I charge you overnight accommodations, gentlemen, or will you be leaving?"

"Looks like your first day of ownin' the Barbary Coast was a good one," Vin said.

"I believe so, Mister Tanner. I must admit I am enjoying being the owner and proprietor of this profitable establishment," Ezra said, a twinkle in his green eyes.

"One thing I don't understand," Chris began. "If it was so profitable, why did the owner risk losing it in a poker game?"

"One cannot question fate, but only welcome it when fortune smiles upon him."

"Something just don't feel right." Chris glanced around, noting they were the only ones left in the saloon and the door had been closed.

"What could be wrong, Mister Larabee? Certainly you don't believe that Mister Kirkwood intentionally lost such a lucrative business?"

The back of Chris's neck tingled, but just as before, he couldn't pinpoint the reason for his unease.

Buck hopped up onto the bar and swung his legs across the top, then jumped down on the other side. He removed his apron and tossed it onto a nearby table. "Looks like my job is done."

"Hardly," Ezra said dryly. "The floor is not swept."

Buck's lips thinned in irritation. "That wasn't part of our agreement."

"Being a bartender includes sweeping the floor and cleaning the glasses and emptying the cuspidors before retiring for the night," Ezra said firmly.

"Emptyin' the what?" Buck demanded, then shook his head. "It don't matter. You're just gonna have to hire a swamper for that, Ezra, 'cause I ain't gonna do it. Besides, I'm bone tired."

The gambler scowled. "If you insist on shirking your duties, I will have no choice but to hire another man to clean up at night."

Buck slapped Ezra's arm and grinned widely. "Now you're talkin'. Let's go, boys."

The men said their goodnights to Ezra and left, but Chris waited on the boardwalk until he heard Ezra lock the door behind them.

Josiah, Buck, JD, and Nathan had gone ahead, but Vin waited for Chris. "What're you thinkin'?" he asked softly.

"I'm thinkin' that I'm actin' like a she-grizzly protectin' her young," Chris replied in disgust.

Vin chuckled quietly. "Can't change your nature anymore'n I can."

"Reckon you're right."

The two men walked side by side across the dark street, their footsteps the only sound in the strangely ominous silence.

Until a gunshot broke the night and the bullet struck a post between Chris and Vin. The two men jumped off the boardwalk and rolled over to the water trough that offered them scant protection. Two more shots exploded, one of the shells plunked in the water while the other plowed into the wood, making a hole in the trough.

Chris and Vin leaned around the ends of the trough and fired a couple rounds in the direction of their ambusher. They ducked back behind the trough, back to back, breathing heavily. The sound of running footsteps on the boardwalk and more gunfire told the two men their friends had returned.

"Chris, Vin, you okay?" Buck called out.

"Yeah," Chris shouted back. "You see where he's at?"

There were a few moments of silence. "Nope."

"I believe he has departed," Ezra said, his voice coming from behind a barrel above them.

Chris rose slowly and Vin shadowed his motion. No more gunshots. Breathing easier, Chris holstered his revolver as he searched for a sign of the person who'd fired at them.

"What the hell was that all about?" Buck demanded as they all congregated around Chris and Vin.

"You have any enemies here, Vin?" Chris asked.

"None that I know of. How 'bout you?" Vin said.

Chris shrugged. "It's possible." Was that why his hair had bristled at the nape of his neck on more than one occasion? Was someone watching him even now? He looked around warily, almost fearfully. He wasn't scared to die, but he wanted to be looking in the eyes of the person who killed him. And this coward wasn't giving him that courtesy.

"Should we go look for him?" JD asked eagerly.

"We won't find him in the dark," Chris said.

"Maybe it was just some yahoo out to blow off some steam," Buck suggested.

"Maybe," Chris said, unconvinced.

"We'll find out if he tries again," Vin said matter-of-factly.

Chris glanced at the tracker, appreciating his practical nature--one of the things he admired most. "Guess we will. Let's go."

Ezra returned to his saloon while the other six men continued to the boardinghouse.

Ezra muttered aloud the entire time it took him to sweep up the old sawdust. An hour after everyone had left, he finally completed the chore and breathed a sigh of exhaustion. He'd hoped to finish going through the books that night, but he was much too tired to concentrate on numbers. His feather bed upstairs was summoning him.

A noise in the back room shoved aside his fatigue. He instinctively reached for his gun, then scowled, remembering he'd removed his coat and shoulder gun earlier and had laid them on the bar. Moving stealthily toward his weapon, he was caught off guard when four men burst out of the back room into the saloon. Each of the men wore masks and their clothes were dusty and plain, with no distinguishing features.

"The saloon is closed, gentlemen," Ezra stated, hiding his fear behind his characteristic aplomb.

"We ain't here for a drink," one of the men said, his voice muffled beneath the cloth mask.

"Then perhaps you should leave."

The four men drew closer and Ezra's heart thundered in his chest, but his voice didn't reveal his apprehension. "If it is money you are searching for, I am afraid there is little to be had."

"You'd best hope not," one of the faceless men said. "Mister Kirkwood had a deal with us, one which you're gonna honor."

"And what deal is that?"

"An insurance deal."

Ezra was beginning to get the picture in detail. He'd seen the same type of thing firsthand in Kansas City and Denver. "You are running a protection racket."

"Call it what you want. You don't pay us, you and your place have an accident."

Ezra's palms grew moist with perspiration. "How much will this protection cost me?"

"Fifty dollars a week. And since Mister Kirkwood was behind three weeks, you owe us two hundred dollars."

Ezra couldn't help it-he laughed. "You honestly expect me to pay you?"

Two of the men came up to flank him.

"Only if you expect to live," the seeming leader said.

Ezra's humor was short-lived as cold dread sent a shiver down his spine. "I am afraid I am short of cash at this moment. You see, I had to pay my employees or they would have walked out on me, and then where would we both be? Penniless, I assure you." Ezra knew he was rambling, but he had a tendency to do that when his life was threatened.

"Since this is your first day, we'll give you until the day after tomorrow to pay us."

Relief flooded Ezra. That gave him, with his companions' assistance, time to track down these men. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet." He sent a quick nod to his three lackeys, and the two men on either side of Ezra each grabbed an arm, effectively holding him prisoner. "We're gonna leave you with a little taste of what's gonna happen to you if you don't have our money next time we come calling."

Ezra sighed. "I was afraid of that." He tensed his stomach for the first blow.

The third man threw his fist into Ezra's belly, eliciting a groan from the gambler who would've fallen if he hadn't been held by the other two henchmen. Then he struck Ezra's left cheek with a bone-jarring thud and the gambler felt the wetness of blood running down his face. Another blow to his other cheek, then to his gut again and again. Agony crushed him as he endured each strike to his body which throbbed and ached from the merciless beating. Blood filled his mouth and a tooth was loosened by an exceptionally vicious punch. The room wavered in and out of focus as Ezra struggled to remain conscious.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, the two thugs released him. Ezra slumped to the floor, praying for unconsciousness, but the gods weren't so merciful.

"Remember, two hundred dollars in two days or you're dead."

"How original," Ezra murmured through swollen lips.

The men's footsteps faded away and Ezra heard the back door close behind them. He was alone.

Pain rose and fell through his body like an ocean's waves. Breathing was sheer torture and he wondered if one or more of his ribs had been broken. Blood pooled on the floor beneath his face from his cut cheek and split lips.

Nathan. He had to find the healer. Inch by inch, Ezra pushed himself up until he was on his hands and knees. The room tipped and Ezra's stomach rolled. Barely able to hold his head up, he vomited until he had nothing left inside to lose. Feeling weak as a newborn kitten, Ezra's chin rested against his chest as he gasped for air.

After a few minutes, he was able to struggle to his feet. He grimaced and wrapped an arm around his middle, and took the first step. The floor tilted and he fought to hold the nausea and dizziness at bay. He took another step, then another and another. He managed to unlock the front door and stumble onto the boardwalk. Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, Ezra made his way across the street to the boardinghouse where the rest of the Seven were staying.

Darkness danced on the periphery of his vision. All he wanted to do was make it to his friends. "My friends," he whispered hoarsely. A loner most of his life, Ezra found it odd to have men he could turn to for help.

He made it up the first and second steps, but stumbled on the third and pitched onto the porch. Ezra laid there gasping for air, then wished he could stop breathing. He'd gotten so close, but he'd failed. He hadn't gotten to Nathan and Chris and Buck and Vin and...

"Who's out there?" a woman's voice called out.

"H-help me," Ezra said weakly.

"What happened?" Her voice sounded closer.

"N-Nathan. G-Get Nathan and Ch-Chris," he managed to say.

The woman scurried away. Ezra remained where he was, curled up with his knees close to his chest and battling the agony that seared his insides.

Chris heard the knock on the door and rolled out of bed, grabbing his revolver from its holster. His bare feet moved soundlessly across the wood floor as he went to the door and he wasn't surprised when Vin sidled up beside him, his weapon also in hand. Vin gave him a nod and Chris opened the door a crack. Seeing Mrs. O'Kelly, he swung it open. "What's wrong?"

"There's a man on the porch. He's hurt bad. Asked me to get you and Nathan," the woman said.

Chris put a hand on her arm. "Get Nathan!"

She nodded and hurried down the hall. Chris and Vin quickly tugged on their trousers and boots, then strapped on their guns. They raced downstairs, arriving before Nathan. Seeing the figure curled up on the porch, Chris and Vin knelt down on either side of him.

"It's Ezra," Vin said, his voice low and angry.

"Sonuvabitch," Chris swore.

They eased him onto his back carefully and Ezra moaned.

"Ezra, it's me and Vin," Chris said quietly. "How ya doin', pard?"

Ezra's eyelids flickered open and his lips quirked upward. "M-Mister Lara...bee," he said with a raspy voice.

"What happened, Ezra?" Vin asked, laying a hand on Ezra's shoulder.

Ezra raised his hand weakly and after a moment's hesitation, Chris awkwardly took hold of it. There was little strength in the gambler's grasp. "S-some men ...came. Extortion. T-told them I d-didn't have . . . the money. D-did this."

Chris trembled with rage, but he kept his voice steady. "Who were they?"

"D-don't know. Wore m-masks." He began to shiver violently.

"We have to get him inside," Vin said, concern creasing his brow.

Chris nodded tersely. The long-haired man put his arms under Ezra's shoulders while Chris took the gambler's legs. Ezra moaned and lost consciousness as his head lolled against Vin's arm. Working together, Chris and Vin carried him into the parlor and laid him on the sofa. Vin placed a pillow beneath his head while Chris covered him with a blanket.

Nathan rushed in and knelt down beside the couch where Ezra lay. "Someone did a job on him," he said, his tone vibrating with fury.

Chris nodded and glanced up to see Josiah, Buck, and JD enter the room behind Mrs. O'Kelly. Buck's face paled when he caught sight of Ezra's battered body.

"God almighty, what happened?" Buck demanded.

"Some men came in askin' for money. Ezra said he didn't have it so they did this to him," Chris explained.

"Let's go find the bastards."

Chris grabbed Buck's arm. "Hold on, Buck. Ezra said they wore masks."

Helpless frustration made Buck spin about. "I shoulda stayed there, cleaned up like he asked."

"Then they just would've waited until you left," Josiah said softly.

"Who is he?" Mrs. O'Kelly asked.

"His name's Ezra Standish, a friend of ours," Chris replied.

"He must be the one Kirkwood tricked into takin' his place."

Everyone but Nathan turned their attention to the woman.

"What do you mean?" Chris asked.

Mrs. O'Kelly shrugged. "Everyone in town knew Kirkwood was trying to get rid of the Barbary Coast."


The woman looked away as if embarrassed or afraid she'd said too much. "He was going to lose it anyhow."

Chris took a step toward her, rage vibrating from his lean body. "Why?"

"It's not like it's a big secret. It's just that no one talks about it."

"Talks about what, ma'am?" Vin demanded.

"The insurance money people have to pay to stay in business," Mrs. O'Kelly admitted. She shrugged. "They don't bother me, but I guess I'm just small potatoes. But I hear tell all the saloon and store owners have to pay."

"How long has this been goin' on?" Chris asked.

"Close to six months now. When they first started, a lot of folks left, and those who stayed have barely been able to make their payments."

"They ever beat anyone like they did Ezra?" Buck asked.

She nodded reluctantly. "Killed a couple men, too, though Sheriff Lassiter could never prove anything. 'Course, I think he's being paid not to prove anything."

The men exchanged glances.

"Just a nice quiet little town," Vin commented wryly.

"I should go get the captain," JD said.

Chris grabbed his arm. "No. We'll take care of this ourselves," he said coldly.

JD frowned and opened his mouth to argue, but Buck shook his head, silencing him.

"How is he, Nathan?" Vin asked.

"Don't know yet," the healer replied. He raised Ezra's shirt to examine his ribs and abdomen. "Josiah, I need the doctor."

Josiah strode out of the parlor, while the remaining men hovered over Ezra's still body. Nathan cleaned the blood from the gambler's face and found those injuries weren't too serious. But it was the bruises on his chest and the possibility of cracked or broken ribs that concerned the healer.

Ten minutes later, Chris heard the front door open and he glanced up from where he sat. A woman carrying a doctor's bag hurried in. At her entrance, he came to his feet, as did Vin, Buck, and JD.

"What happened?" she demanded, kneeling beside Nathan.

"Beat up bad," he replied. "I took care of his cuts but I figgered you'd best check him for broken bones and internal injuries."

Dr. James nodded curtly and checked Ezra's eyes, and did a quick examination of Nathan's work. "You did a good job." She probed Ezra's chest and abdomen with her fingers. "Feels like there's no broken bones, but I'm sure the bruises are pretty deep. We should wrap him up tight in case he has a cracked rib. It'll keep it from breaking completely and puncturing a lung."

Working together, Nathan and Dr. James wrapped a wide cloth around Ezra's chest. Once they were done, the woman searched the faces surrounding her, lingering a moment on Chris's face.

"Who are all these men, Nathan?" she asked.

"We're friends of Ezra's," Buck replied. "He gonna be all right?"

"I think so. The beating was brutal but," she paused and bitterness filled her face. "But I've seen worse, and more than likely for the same reason."

"Protection money," Mrs. O'Kelly said.

Dr. James glanced at the older woman and nodded curtly. "That's right. I don't have enough business for them to bother me."

The older woman watched the doctor for a few moments. "It appears you know what you're doing."

"This may come as a surprise to you, but I passed my medical exam with flying colors."

Mrs. O'Kelly's face reddened, but she didn't make any comment.

"Is this Kirkwood still in town?" Chris asked tersely.

"I don't think so," Mrs. O'Kelly said. "I believe he caught yesterday's stage."

Chris swore. "Who in town might know where he's at?"

"Lily," Dr. James answered. "She and Mr. Kirkwood were more than employer and employee."

"She the one with the bright red hair?" Buck asked.

"That's her."

"Do you know where she lives?" Chris asked.

Dr. James nodded. "She's one of the few people who let me treat her." She gave them directions to Lily's place. "Are you going there now?"

Chris didn't answer her, but said to Nathan. "Stay here with Ezra."

Nathan shook his head. "Dr. James and Mrs. O'Kelly can watch him."

Chris glanced at the women who didn't protest and he nodded. "All right, let's go."

His step determined, Chris led the men down the two blocks to Lily's place, which turned out to be a small, but well-kept frame house, nicer than Chris had anticipated. He pounded on the door, but there was no answer. He tried again.

"Hold on, I'm comin'," a sleepy voice called from within. Two minutes passed before the door was swung open by the redhead from the Barbary Coast. Instead of her fancy dress, she wore a silk dressing gown. "Business hours are over, boys."

She began to close the door, but Chris stuck his boot against it. "We have some questions that need answers."

She narrowed her eyes. "What do I look like, some damned fountain of knowledge?"

"Where's Kirkwood?" Chris demanded.

"Gone, last I heard."


"How would I know, I just worked for him."

"That's not what we heard," Vin said, his quiet voice just as menacing as Chris's.

"Then you heard wrong."

"I don't think so," Chris said. "Why'd he let Ezra Standish win his saloon?"

Surprise flickered in her expression, but she quickly masked it. "What're you talkin' about?"

"You know damn good and well what we're talking about," Chris said, his voice dangerously low. He shoved the door wide open, slamming it against the wall behind it with a thunderous noise, and startling Lily. He took a step toward the woman and stared down at her. "Our friend just got beat up bad by some men wantin' money, and we think that Kirkwood tricked Ezra into takin' that place off his hands before he ended up like Ezra."

"And lady, we don't take kindly to folks usin' our friends," Vin added.

Her gaze hopped from Chris to Vin and the other four men. "Look, I didn't know your friend was gonna get hurt. Jameson told me he couldn't afford to pay the money anymore and that's why he wanted to get rid of it."

"So he used Ezra to take it off his hands," Nathan said.

"That's about it," Lily said with a shrug.

Chris knew she had more information than she was giving them, and he was going to get it from her one way or another. He continued to close in on her, forcing her to retreat farther into the house. The five men followed and Josiah closed the door behind them.

"You're gonna tell us where we can find Kirkwood," Chris said.

"Go to hell." Lily's words held more tremor than force.

Chris smiled coldly. "Only if we have to follow you there."

"If you don't leave, I'm gonna scream."

"Go ahead. Everybody knows what you do for a living--they'll just think you're workin' late."

The fear grew in her face. "If I tell you, he's gonna kill me."

"We'll protect you."

She laughed bitterly. "Like you protected your friend?"

"If we woulda known what was goin' on, we woulda protected him," Buck interjected. "But no one bothered to let us know what the hell was goin' on around here."

Lily planted her hands on her generous hips. "You come sashayin' into our town and figure you got the right to butt into our business."

Cold fury spilled through Chris and he leaned close to her, his face full of sharp angles and chiseled planes. "Our friend is lyin' unconscious because of your damned business, so it's our business now, too, lady."

"You don't know what'll happen if you go after those men," Lily said.

Another humorless smile touched Chris's lips. "I know exactly what's gonna happen to those men."

Lily spun around, giving her back to them and wrapped her arms around her waist. The silence was broken only by the ticking of the mantel clock. Chris exchanged a look with Vin, whose blue eyes had gone hard and frigid. The other men held themselves stiffly, tense and anxious to track down the bastards who'd beaten Ezra so badly.

"He bought another place in Rifle, about twenty miles north of here," she admitted.

"And here you said he didn't have any money left," Josiah said mildly, though there was no doubt he was banking his anger behind the quiet voice.

She turned to face them. "Jameson asked Lewis the bartender and me to come join him. I was gonna tell Mr. Standish I was quittin' tomorrow." She glanced at the clock which read three forty-five. "Today."

"Vin, JD, ride into Rifle and bring Kirkwood back," Chris ordered.

"We'll have him here afore noon," Vin assured.

He and JD left quickly.

"Do you know who's involved in this racket?" Chris asked Lily.

She shook her head. "No, and that's the honest-to-God truth. I don't know if anybody knows who they are."

Chris studied her a moment, then accepted her answer. "If you hear anything, you tell me, understand?"

"I ain't gonna be sticking around long enough to hear anything. When those two bring Jameson back, he's going to come looking for me." Lily shivered.

Chris's anger receded slightly. "All right, but if we find out you were hiding something, we'll find you no matter where you run."

"I just want to get out of this mess."

Chris granted her a quick nod, then without another word, he led Josiah, Buck, and Nathan out of the house.

"You think it's a good idea for her to be leavin'?" Buck asked.

"We got what we needed from her," Chris replied.

"Now what do we do?" Nathan asked.

"We wait until Ezra wakes up then see what else he knows. Maybe we can set a trap and catch some vermin."

The four men returned to the boardinghouse where Dr. James and Mrs. O'Kelly remained in the parlor beside Ezra.

"Any change?" Nathan asked.

Dr. James shook her head. "If he doesn't regain consciousness in the next twelve hours, come and get me." She stood.

"I'll walk you back, ma'am," Josiah volunteered.

"Thank you."

After the door closed behind Josiah and the doctor, Mrs. O'Kelly excused herself and returned to her room. Nathan, Buck and Chris remained in the parlor, settling in the chairs to watch over Ezra.

Ezra awakened slowly, his mind still locked in the nightmare he'd had. He opened his eyes, blinked a few times in the bright room, and looked around. He didn't recognize the place. Panic threatened to choke him and he drew long deep breaths to ease his alarm. His ribs throbbed and his face felt stiff and swollen.

Had the nightmare really happened?

Nathan's dark face came into focus above him. "You're awake."

"I-I had hoped I wasn't," Ezra said, not recognizing the weak voice as his.

"You remember what happened?"

Ezra stared at the ceiling, concentrating past the painful ache in his head. "I had hoped it was a nightmare."

Nathan shook his head. "Nope, it was real enough to give you some pretty nasty injuries." He lifted a cup of water to Ezra's lips. "Drink this."

The liquid stung his cut mouth but he swallowed it gratefully. "Thank you, Doctor Jackson."

"You can thank Doctor James next time you see her."

Though still groggy, Ezra caught the last word. "You said 'her'?"

"That's right. You got a problem with that?"

Ezra studied the man who he wouldn't have even associated with two years ago, yet today claimed as a good friend. Nathan had taught him not to judge a person merely by their external appearance, so who was he to take exception to a woman doctor?

"Not at all, Nathan," he said quietly. Weariness tugged at him, luring him back to its refuge. "I believe I shall...succumb to..." Ezra's eyes closed and his face relaxed in slumber.

Chris awakened with a start, and for a moment couldn't remember where he was. Then he saw Nathan leaning over Ezra and joined the healer. "He wake up?"

Nathan nodded. "Wasn't awake long, though. He needs to sleep now."

Chris sniffed the air and his stomach growled. "Smells like Mrs. O'Kelly's got breakfast on. We'll eat something then do a little askin' around town, see if we can find out anymore."

"I got a feelin' no one's gonna wanna tell us anything."

Chris ran an impatient hand through his hair. "More'n likely, but we got to try."

"What about Miz Cannary?" Buck asked. "She seems to know everyone's business."

Chris turned to look at the lanky man. "Good idea, Buck. Why don't you and Josiah see if you can find her after breakfast?"

"We can pay Father Schyma a visit, too. I have a feeling he knows more than he lets on," Josiah, who had slept in one of the crushed velvet wing chairs, spoke up.

"Do it," Chris said with a curt nod. "Me and Nathan'll check with other business owners, see if they'd be willin' to tell us anything."

"What about Ezra? He gonna be okay by himself?" Buck asked.

Mrs. O'Kelly stepped into the room. "I'll be in the house all day, and I've taken care of my share of hurt folks." She paused a moment, then added. "If he seems to be gettin' worse, I'll get Dr. James."

"Thanks, we appreciate it," Chris said.

Nathan gave her a kind smile. "Dr. James'll appreciate that, too."

She glanced down self-consciously, then announced, "Breakfast is ready."

Chris smiled for the first time since they'd found Ezra lying on the porch. "I think we could all use some of your cookin'."

The tension eased slightly, and the men walked into the dining room.

"We need to find out what's goin' on in this town, Miz Cannary," Buck began.

Josiah shifted on the hard chair, watching Martha's face closely. After checking ten other bars, they'd finally found her in the Lucky Chance Saloon.

She downed half a glass of beer and swiped her mouth with her arm. By the looks of the leather sleeve, she often used it as a napkin. "I heard about your friend, that fancy gambler fellah who won Kirkwood's place. How's he doin'?"

Josiah glanced at Buck, shrugged, and answered, "He's gonna be sore for awhile, but he'll be all right."

"Can you tell us who might've done that to Ezra?" Buck reiterated.

"Reckon it was probably some men lookin' for some easy money." She looked around. "Where's Vin?"

Buck's lips twitched. "He had to leave town."

Martha's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Just like that he left?"

"He'll be back," Josiah assured. "He went to get Kirkwood."

Relief covered Martha's expression. "That's right good to hear. But then I didn't figger he'd run out on a friend."

Josiah smiled. "You're right about that."

Martha stared into her empty mug. "I was real sorry to hear about your friend. He didn't seem a bad sort--maybe a little high-hat, but I seen worse. I been in this town a couple months now and I seen what's been goin' on. Nobody talks about it, but everyone knows."

"Knows what?" Josiah prompted gently.

"That there's someone gettin' rich off them, but everyone's too scared to find out who it is."

"Has anyone tried to stand up to them?" Buck asked.

"Two did and they're both dead."

Buck and Josiah exchanged somber looks. Dr. James had said the same thing.

"What about the men who do the dirty work? Any idea who any of them are?" Buck asked.

"They wear masks and nobody's been able to follow'em. Could be any one of a bunch of no-goods that hang around in this here town," Martha said grimly. "I been turnin' the other way for too long. I'll see what I can find out, boys."

"Thanks, Miz Cannary," Josiah said.

"Anyone ever tell you you got a nice smile, Josiah?" Martha asked.

"Thank you, ma'am."

Martha sighed. "Iffen I wasn't already Vin's girlfriend, I'd ask you to buy me a drink."

Josiah laid a coin on the table and said in a low voice, "We just won't tell Vin." He sent her a wink.

As he and Buck started to rise, one of Josiah's chair legs collapsed, sending the preacher to the floor in an undignified heap.

"You okay, Josiah?" Buck asked.

"I think so."

Buck offered Josiah a hand and helped the big man up. Josiah brushed his hand across his backside, wincing slightly.

"Sorry 'bout that, Josiah," Martha said sadly. "I just got no control over it."

Buck and Josiah exchanged puzzled looks then shrugged and left the saloon. They crossed the street and walked down a block to the church. Josiah paused by the door. "You mind waitin' out here, Buck? I might get more out of him alone."

Buck motioned for him to go ahead. "Give me a holler if you need help."

Josiah entered the church and walked down the aisle to the back room doorway. He paused to look inside the living quarters and saw Father Schyma lying on his cot, snoring loudly. Josiah crossed the floor and shook the priest's shoulder. The smell of stale whiskey emanating from Father Schyma told Josiah he'd drunk himself to sleep.

"Father, wake up," Josiah said.

The priest roused and sat up with Josiah's help. "What time is it?"

"Nearly ten thirty. We need your help Father."

"At this ungodly hour?" The priest glanced upward. "No offense intended."

"You said something to me about the evil in this town. I need to know what you meant."

Father Schyma pressed his hands to either side of his head and stared down at the floor. "Nothing."

Josiah frowned. "By lying you're breaking a commandment."

The priest laughed bitterly. "It wouldn't be the first I've broken."

"But it can be the last. Help yourself and help your flock, Father." Josiah paused, then said quietly, "Help us."

Father Schyma raised his head. "It's been a long time since anyone has asked for my assistance."

Josiah waited patiently as the priest pushed himself upright and shuffled around the small room. He prayed the man hadn't lost all his faith.

Father Schyma stopped beside the grimy window and peered out at the street . "When I helped build this church fifteen years ago, I was young and my convictions ran deep," he began. "I believed that as long as God was on my side, I could do anything.

"I held the first service when only the frame was standing. As I gave my sermon, I looked up at the blue sky and thanked God for giving me this home and a flock to lead."

"What happened?"

The priest rubbed his brow. "My first burial was a young woman who died in childbirth along with her baby. Her husband blamed me."


"He said if I'd prayed harder, they would've lived. I told him it didn't work that way. God was the only one who could give or take life." He turned to face Josiah, his face stricken. "But there was a tiny piece of me that wondered the same thing. Maybe if I had prayed harder. Then I began to question God, asking Him why He would take two innocent lives."

"Nobody but God knows why He does what He does," Josiah said quietly.

Father Schyma smiled bitterly. "I kept telling myself that as I went about my day-to-day duties, ministering to my parishioners. About five years ago, an influenza epidemic swept through town." He scrubbed his anguished face with his palms. "For over a month, I was burying someone every day, usually a child who had done nothing wrong in their short lives. And I saw greedy, selfish men continue to cheat and swindle decent folks. Nothing made sense to me any more, but I tried. I figured God was testing me."

"So what was the last straw?"

"A couple years ago, a poor family who had only the clothes upon their backs were passing through town. They had a little girl who needed to see a fancy doctor in St. Louis or she was going to die. I tried to help them by having a special collection during service, but there wasn't nearly enough. So I sold the gold chalice and cross, and gave them the money to save her life. They left right away." The priest took a deep breath. "Later I heard they'd done the same thing in five other towns. My parishioners blamed me." Father Schyma rubbed his eyes. "All I wanted to do was help."

"You can't be faulted for that, Father," Josiah said softly. "Folks should've understood."

He shrugged. "A few did, but most didn't. From over a hundred parishioners, I now have maybe twenty people who attend service."

Josiah's heart went out to the reverend, but pity was the last thing Father Schyma needed. "And when those few faithful came to you for help against the men who are holding your town hostage, you only crawled deeper into your bottle."

Fire flashed briefly in the priest's eyes. "What was I supposed to do? I'm only one man."

Josiah shook his head and moved to leave. He paused by the door. "Jesus was only one man," he said quietly, then turned and walked away.

Buck, feeling guilty for having left Ezra alone the night before, opened the Barbary Coast at its usual time. Only a few tables were taken by noon, and one of them was occupied by Chris and Josiah. Nathan had stayed at the boardinghouse, visiting with Dr. James quietly as they both watched over the still-sleeping Ezra.

Buck brought a couple beers over to Chris and Josiah, set them down, then wiped his hands on his apron. "Vin and JD ain't back yet?"

Chris shook his head. "Nope."

Buck understood his abruptness; he was worried, too. "Maybe you two should ride out to meet them."

"If they ain't back by one, we will," Chris said.

A scuffle on the boardwalk outside made the three men turn to the batwing doors. A moment later, a suited bald man was shoved inside followed by Vin and JD, both covered with dust.

"You have no right," Kirkwood shouted.

Chris pushed back his chair and stood, then stared at Kirkwood like he was something he didn't want to step in. Without warning, he punched Kirkwood, felling him like an oak tree. Chris smiled coldly. "That was for our friend, Ezra Standish."

Kirkwood stared at Chris as he lay on the floor, his hand pressed to his bleeding lip. "You're Chris Larabee."

Chris nodded. "That's right." He paused, letting Kirkwood sweat for a moment. "You're going to tell us everything you know about this protection racket--or you and me are going to have a little meeting in the middle of the street."

The bald man's face paled and he seemed to shrink into himself. "You'll kill me."

Chris tipped his head slightly. "Probably."

Kirkwood scrambled to his feet, only to find he was caught in the middle of a circle created by the five men. "I don't know anything."

"Hear that boys? He says he doesn't know anything," Chris said in a dangerously mocking voice.

"Maybe he just needs a little persuadin'," Buck added.

"And I'm in the mood to do a little persuadin'," Josiah commented.

Chris almost shivered at the cold look in the ex-preacher's eyes.

Kirkwood held his hands in front of him. "No, please, I swear I didn't recognize any of them."

"Who're they workin' for?" Vin demanded.

"I don't know."

Buck grabbed the bald man's arm and spun him around. "Who're they workin' for?"

"I don't know."

Then Chris jerked him around to face him. "Who are they?"

Kirkwood stumbled slightly, obviously getting dizzy. "I don't know. I swear it."

"Why'd you pick Ezra?" Josiah asked.

Kirkwood licked his dry lips. "When he said his friend was Chris Larabee, I figured you could get rid of whoever's running the racket."

"Why didn't you just ask for our help?" Buck demanded.

"I would've been killed. Anybody who talks is killed. Besides, why would you have helped me?"

Chris studied the slick gambler--he had a point. "So you threw Ezra to the wolves to save your own damned hide."

Kirkwood swallowed hard and looked away, unable to hold Chris's gaze. "I didn't think they'd hurt him."

Chris grabbed the man's lapels and jerked him close, until their faces were only a couple inches apart. "You sonuvabitch! You knew exactly what they were going to do when Ezra didn't have the money."

Kirkwood's face lost any color it had left. "There's one thing I remember."

"About what?"

"One of the men who collected the money."

Chris stared into Kirkwood's close-set eyes, then shoved him away. "What?"

"One of 'em wore those fancy spurs, big rowels. Made a lot of noise when he walked."

"Think you could identify them?"

Kirkwood nodded jerkily. "Yeah, I think so."

"All right, Mr. Kirkwood. Until we catch the men, you're going to jail," Chris said.

"You can't do that. I didn't break any laws."

"Sure you did." Chris's smile was anything but pleasant. "We'll figure out which ones after you're safely in a cell."

He grabbed the back of Kirkwood's jacket and shoved him toward the batwing doors. "Buck and Josiah, you two stay here, keep an eye on things. JD, go get some sleep."

Vin joined Chris as he escorted Kirkwood down the boardwalk toward the sheriff's office.

"Have any trouble findin' him?" Chris asked.

Vin shook his head. "Nope. Just asked someone and they pointed us in the right direction."

"What's going to happen to me?" Kirkwood asked.

"Depends on how much you cooperate," Chris said.

They entered the sheriff's office, pushing the gambler in ahead of them. Sheriff Lassiter looked up from behind his desk. "What's goin' on here?"

"We're makin' a citizen's arrest," Chris said.

Vin motioned for Kirkwood to enter one of the cells and locked the door behind him while Chris kept an eye on the lawman.

"I thought Kirkwood left town," Sheriff Lassiter said.

"He got homesick," Vin said innocently.

The sheriff stood. "What'd he do?"

Chris shrugged. "Haven't figured that out yet."

Lassiter's hand moved toward his revolver.

"I wouldn't," Chris said quietly.

The sheriff froze. "I seen you men when you came into town a few days ago, but figgered since you were stayin' at Mrs. O'Kelly's, that you weren't no troublemakers. Guess I shoulda known better when your friend won the Barbary Coast."

Vin wrapped his slender fingers around his gunbelt and leaned on his right leg. "How come you know so much about our business?"

Lassiter's face reddened. "It's my business to keep an eye on drifters. Make sure they don't cause any trouble."

"Seems to me you got all the trouble you need already," Chris said. "If you know so much, tell us about this protection racket."

The lawman's gaze flickered away. "I don't know where you're gettin' your information, but there's nothin' like that in Pocket."

Vin's jaw clenched. "Tell our friend that. He was beat up bad last night by these men that don't exist."

"You don't know that's what happened."

Chris took a step toward the sheriff, whose shoulders stiffened. "You tell those men who're payin' you that they made a big mistake hurtin' our friend. We're comin' after them and ain't nothin' gonna stop us, includin' a tin badge."

Lassiter's lips compressed in a tight line.

"And if somethin' happens to Kirkwood, we're comin' after you," Vin said, his voice low and deadly.

As Vin crossed the office, Chris kept his attention on the sheriff, then he backed to the door, never losing eye contact with Lassiter.

"You can't leave me here," Kirkwood called. "I got rights."

"You gave up your rights when you set up our friend," Chris said.

He and Vin stepped outside into the fresh air.

"They might try to kill Kirkwood," Vin said softly.

"I'm willin' to take that chance," Chris said, his voice almost feral.

Vin nodded. "Yeah, the bastard deserves it." He glanced around. "What's next?"

"You get some sleep. I'm gonna see if I can find some spurs."

Chris started across the street, but Vin grabbed his arm. "I ain't tired."

The blond man eyed him critically, noting the dark circles beneath Vin's eyes, and said gently, "If you were any more tired, you'd be sleepwalkin'. Besides, if you're in your room restin', Martha can't find you."

Vin scowled. "I ain't gonna leave you alone to be a target. What do ya got planned?"

Chris shook his head--he should have known he wouldn't be able to convince Vin to get some sleep when there was a possibility of gun trouble. In spite of his concern, Chris knew the long-haired man wouldn't appreciate his overprotectiveness. Although he and Vin had become good friends, there was still a line Vin didn't allow him to cross. It obviously came from the many years Vin had been on his own.

"See that store across the street?" Chris asked.

Vin glanced at the large mercantile. "Yep."

"I'm gonna sit down over there and listen to spurs."

Vin blinked, then grinned. "I'll do the same on this side of the street whilst I keep an eye on the jail, too."

"Sounds like a plan." Chris slapped his shoulder and strode across the street.

An hour later, Chris took a deep breath and shifted his numb buttocks on the hard chair. He'd hoped the man wearing the big spurs would walk past either him or Vin, so they wouldn't have to go chasing him, but so far they hadn't had any luck.

He looked across the street at Vin who sat in a chair in front of the sheriff's office. His legs were stretched out, crossed at the ankles and his hat was pulled low on his forehead. If Chris didn't know better, he'd figure Vin was sleeping.

A rifle boomed and Chris felt a burning pain in his temple. He tumbled to the boardwalk, vaguely aware of a woman screaming behind him. His head throbbed and he couldn't think beyond the blinding agony. Consciousness wavered, and Chris fought the temptation to give in to the calming darkness that beckoned.

Who the hell shot me?

Vin heard the rifle shot a split second before Chris was punched backward to the boardwalk. The tracker came to his feet, drawing out his sawed-off carbine in one smooth motion. He dashed out into the street, searching the rooftops and windows where a sniper would be. Nothing moved and there were no more shots.

He ran to Chris, his heart thundering against his ribs, and fell to his knees beside his friend. It was just like his nightmare, where Vin had been unable to save Chris's life and could only watch helplessly as he was shot down.

Blood pooled on the weathered boards, making the wood even darker. Fear made Vin's breath come in quick gasps. He set his weapon on the boardwalk and carefully turned Chris onto his back. On one side of Chris's head, his blond hair was matted with fresh scarlet blood.

Vin's throat tightened. "Chris. Chris, can you hear me?"

Chris's eyelids fluttered open and his mouth moved, but no words came out. At least he was still alive.

"Take it easy, pard." Vin lifted his gaze to the surrounding people and yelled, "Someone help me get him over to Mrs. O'Kelly's."

"Let me take a look at him."

Startled, Vin turned to see the proper looking doctor rushing toward them. Her face was pale, and he figured she wasn't used to seeing men shot down on the street.

"I heard the gunshot," the doctor said as she dabbed the blood from Chris's brow with trembling hands.

"D-Didn't see...who it was," Chris murmured.

"He's conscious and cognizant," Dr. James said with a slight tremor in her voice. "That's a good sign."

"I'll take your word on that, ma'am," Vin said absently, his attention focused on his wounded friend.

Chris's gaze settled on Vin. "D-Did you...see anyone?"

Vin shook his head impatiently. "Nope. Bastard got away." He looked at Dr. James. "He gonna be all right?"

She applied some smelly salve to the bullet gouge and Chris hissed in pain. "I think so. He was very lucky. An inch or two to the right and he'd have been dead." She brought out a roll of cloth from her bag. "Could you hold him up while I wrap his head?"

Vin nodded and raised Chris's shoulders then put an arm around him, holding him sheltered against his chest. Chris's jaw clenched and Vin knew his friend was hurting. Bad.

The blond man met Vin's gaze with his own pain-filled eyes. "I'm...all r-right."

"Sure you are, cowboy," Vin said. He looked up at the people gathered around them. "Go on about your business folks. Let the doctor do her job."

Martha Cannary pushed through the dispersing crowd. "Vin, honey, you all right?"

Vin wasn't in the mood for the aggravating woman and he didn't bother to hide his displeasure at seeing her. "It wasn't me who was shot."

She glanced at Chris and genuine concern crossed her face. "Was it them men you're after that done this?"

"We don't know," Vin said tersely, tightening his hold around Chris's shoulders as his friend stiffened.

Martha squatted down beside him and glanced around nervously. "I might have some information for you."

"What is it?"

"I was talkin' to Leo over at the Lucky Chance. He said that he was expectin' some company tomorrow night--the same type o' company your friend Standish got," Martha said in a low voice.

Surprised, Vin stared at the woman's dirty, but earnest face. "I thought nobody talked about it."

Martha shrugged. "Me and Leo is friends."

"Does he were gonna t-tell us?" Chris asked.

"Nope. Iffen I was you, I'd head them off after they leave the Lucky Chance."

Dr. James finished wrapping the bandage around Chris's head. "That ought to take care of you, Mister Larabee."

"Think you can stand?" Vin asked.

"Don't m-matter. I'm goin' to," Chris stated.

With Martha on one side and Vin on the other, they got Chris to his feet. Chris closed his eyes as he swayed a moment. They moved down the boardwalk slowly with the doctor walking closely behind them.

Five minutes later they arrived at the boardinghouse. Nathan came out of the parlor where he'd been watching Ezra and his mouth dropped open at the sight of Chris supported between Vin and Martha.

Nathan slipped in to take Martha's place beside Chris. "What happened?"

"Someone bushwhacked him right on the street in full light," Vin replied, fury and disgust layering his tone.

Nathan's jaw muscles clenched. "Could you sit with Ezra, Miz Cannary?" he asked over his shoulder.

Looking unsure of herself for the first time since Vin had met her, Martha nodded nervously.

Dr. James followed the three men upstairs and opened the door that Vin pointed out. Vin and Nathan made Chris comfortable on the bed, pulling off his jacket, gunbelt, and boots. The doctor, who'd carried his hat back, hung it on a wall peg.

Though Dr. James had taken care of Chris, Vin noticed that Nathan did a quick inspection of her work. He knew the healer trusted her abilities, but Nathan had been taking care of the Seven's wounds for so long, it was a tough habit to break. Besides that, it didn't matter if the doctor had been a man or woman, Vin felt better with Nathan looking Chris over.

The bandage about Chris's head was soaked with blood and Dr. James perched on the other side of the bed to remove it.

"It needs some stitches," she said. "Will you give me a hand, Nathan?"

Vin leaned against the doorjamb, his thumbs propped on his belt, as he watched the healer and the doctor work together. Nathan managed to keep Chris from moving too much while the doctor sewed up the wound. Vin gritted his teeth. He'd had a head wound a few weeks ago so he knew what Chris was going through and it was damned unpleasant. The only good thing was that Chris had lapsed into unconsciousness when they began so was spared the worst of the pain.

He should've tried to track down the bastard who'd shot at Chris the night before--was it only twelve hours ago? But after Ezra had been beaten, they'd all banded together to find the men who'd done it. In fact, Vin had almost forgotten about the gunshot that had sent him and Chris rolling for cover after they left the Barbary Coast. This time, though, Vin wasn't going to forget.

He didn't know if Chris's attacker and the men involved in the protection racket were related, but his gut told him they weren't. It didn't make any sense, but Vin couldn't ignore his instincts.

A floorboard creaked in the hall and Vin turned to see JD walking toward him. "What's goin' on?" he asked drowsily, pulling a hand through his dark, sleep-tousled hair.

"Someone shot Chris," Vin replied without embellishment.

His reply jolted JD wide awake. "How bad?"

"Took a chunk outta the side of his head."

JD's face paled. "Who did it?"

"We don't know. Might be the same people who hurt Ezra, but I ain't so sure."

Dr. James stood and washed her hands in the basin. "He's going to have a whale of a headache and he'll be more tired than usual for the next week or so. There's also a good chance his vision will be blurry and his stomach upset. If he has other symptoms like numbness or unusual clumsiness, come and get me."

Nathan nodded.

"Hey, get down here," Martha called from downstairs. "That Standish fellah is wakin' up."

"Will Chris be all right alone?" Vin asked the doctor.

"He'll just sleep now," she replied.

Dr. James led the way downstairs with Nathan and JD following closely. Vin took one last look at Chris's pale face and closed the door softly behind him, then went to join the others in the parlor.

The moment Vin entered the room, Ezra's gaze found him and the gambler sent him a swollen, lopsided smile. Despite his concern for Chris, the tracker couldn't help but smile in return. "Welcome back, Ezra. How ya doin'?"

"I have been better, Mister Tanner." Ezra's voice was so hoarse Vin could barely make it out.

"Drink some water, Ezra," Nathan said, tipping a cup up to his lips.

The gambler drank it all, then closed his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them, they were trained on Vin. "What happened?"

"You were beat up," Vin replied.

"You misunderstand. What recently transpired?"

JD shifted uncomfortably while Nathan and Vin exchanged grim expressions. Martha stood off by herself, watching and listening with narrowed eyes, while Dr. James hovered near the sofa where Ezra lay.

"Chris was shot," Vin said curtly.

"Badly?" Ezra asked, a slight tremor in his voice.

Vin looked to Nathan, who replied. "He'll live."

"Were they the same criminals who perpetrated the act of violence against me?"

"We don't know," Vin said. "Don't worry, we'll take care of 'em, Ezra." He smiled, though the expression was grim. "You can bet on it."

Ezra sat up and tried to swing his legs off the sofa, but Nathan pressed him back down firmly.

"Where do ya think you're goin'?" Nathan asked.

"I have a business to manage."

"Buck's over there watchin' it for you."

Alarm crossed Ezra's bruised features. "Then I surely must return to my establishment." With surprising strength, he pushed Nathan's hand away and sat up, planting his feet on the floor.

Dr. James propped her hands on her hips. "Mister Standish, you were badly injured and if you insist on moving about, you may cause further damage."

Ezra blinked, and his gaze roamed up and down the woman curiously. "Who, pray tell, are you?"

"Doctor Elise James," she replied defensively.

His smile was made crooked by his swollen lips. "So you are the angel of mercy Mister Jackson told me of. Thank you for your kind and knowledgeable assistance. However, I assure you, I have been maltreated worse than this and have survived."

He pushed himself upright and the room tilted. A strong, dark hand caught his arm and steadied him.

"See, you ain't ready to be up yet," Nathan chastised.

"Nathan's right, Ezra. You ain't in any condition to go gallivantin' about," Vin said.

Stubbornness hardened Ezra's usually impassive expression. "I was assaulted in my own establishment. I will not allow those Neanderthals to scare me away from my home. When they return tomorrow night, I shall be there to welcome them."

"Whoa there, pard," Vin soothed, laying a hand on the gambler's shoulder. "You ain't gonna welcome them alone. You said tomorrow night?"

"That's correct, Mister Tanner."

"That'll give us time to get a plan together," Vin said. He eyed Ezra closely. "You hellbent on gettin' back to your place?"

"Yes, sir, I most certainly am."

Vin sighed. "Aw, hell, me and Nathan'll help you back."

Resignation made Nathan shake his head, and he glanced at Dr. James. "You ever seen such a mule-stubborn patient?"

Dr. James smiled. "No, but I hope to see more of them."

A look of long-suffering crossed Nathan's face. "You will. In fact, real soon." He rolled his eyes upward to where Chris's room was.

Dr. James's smile faded and it seemed to Vin that her face paled a little. He shook his head-she probably wasn't used to folks getting shot right in front of her.

JD watched as Nathan and Vin got on either side of Ezra and helped him out of the boardinghouse. JD followed them to the porch then lowered himself to a chair and twirled his derby hat between his hands. He had to do something to help. With both Chris and Ezra hurt, they were down to five men and JD had an idea the group they were after far outnumbered them.

He wondered why Chris hadn't wanted Captain Daniels to help them. The man was a Texas Ranger and he'd lived in the town for over a year. He had to have some idea what was happening in Pocket.

He gazed down the street. A group of boys and girls played hoops; two men were filling a buckboard with supplies from the general store; a smithy's hammer rang in the clear air of the bustling town. JD half expected to see some sign of the town's corruption, but it lay hidden beneath the surface of the innocent, everyday activities.

Spotting a tall, familiar figure, JD knew what he had to do. He jumped to his feet and hurried down the street to meet Captain Daniels, who was strolling toward a Chinese laundry.

"Hi Cap'n," JD greeted.

Daniels smiled. "Hello, JD. I haven't seen you all day."

The two men continued to walk slowly side by side.

"Me and Vin went to Rifle to bring back Kirkwood," JD said.

"This have anything to do with Standish being hurt?"

"You heard about that?"

Daniels nodded. "Kind of hard not to. Everyone's been talking about it."

JD shoved his hands in his jacket pockets. "You hear about the protection racket, too?"

The captain looked straight ahead. "I'd have to be blind and deaf not to know about it."

Disappointment arrowed through JD. "Then why ain't you done anything?"

"I'm not a Texas Ranger anymore. I just want to live out my days nice and quiet-like."

"But those men who are doing this are criminals. They've hurt folks, including one of my friends, and they killed people, too."

Captain Daniels was silent for a long moment, then he stopped and faced JD. He kept his voice low. "You're right, son. I have been hiding my head in the sand for too long. Maybe it's time I strapped my gun back on and take on the bastards who are hurting the people in my town."

Elated, JD nodded enthusiastically. "If anyone can do it, you can, Cap'n."

Daniels rested his hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, JD, but even I can't do it alone. Do you and your friends have a plan?"

"Not yet, but as soon as we do, I'll let you know."

"Good. I'll be ready." Daniels turned to enter the laundry, then paused. "Don't tell them I said I'd help." He smiled. "The best defense is a surprise offense."

Although JD wasn't exactly sure what that meant, he trusted the Ranger. "You can count on me, sir."

Daniels held up a finger. "What did I say about calling me sir?"

"Sorry, si-Captain."

"I'll see you later at the Barbary Coast."


JD waited until Daniels disappeared into the building, then grinned. Captain Ham Daniels was going to help them! How could they lose with the help of a famous Texas Ranger?

With a newfound optimism, JD went in search of his friends.

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?"

"Like hell."

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.

A quiet knock made Vin jerk his head up and he groaned at the stiffness in his neck. Sleeping in a chair all night hadn't been the smartest thing to do. He glanced at Chris and was relieved to see he remained asleep. Standing, Vin padded to the door in his stocking feet, picking up his sawed-off carbine on the way. Hefting the familiar weight in his right hand, he cautiously opened the door with his other. The dark anxious face on the other side made him smile as he allowed Nathan in.

"How's he doin'?" the healer asked.

"Fine. Woke up around midnight, had some food and water, talked some. He's been asleep since then."

"He have any amnesia, numbness, anything like that?"

Vin shook his head. "Just a headache."

Nathan sighed in relief. "I'll sit with him while you get breakfast. I already ate."

The tracker's stomach growled and he smiled self-consciously. "Reckon I am kinda hungry."

Vin splashed water across his face, then ran his damp fingers through his hair to try to tame the unruly mess. Sitting on his bed, he tugged on his boots. "You seen Ezra yet?"

"When you get back from eatin', I'll go over and check on him. Ezra's a late sleeper and I'm probably gonna be wakin' him up the way it is."

Vin chuckled softly. "You'll probably be wakin' Bucklin, too."

Nathan scowled. "And that man's ornery when he's woke up." His eyes took on a twinkle. "'Specially if he's sleepin' alone."

Vin stood and slapped Nathan's shoulder lightly as he gave him a quick nod. Vin hurried downstairs, not wanting to be away from Chris for too long. He knew Nathan would take care of him, but if Chris's unknown attacker tried again, Vin wanted to be there.

"Sit down, Vin. I kept some victuals warm for you," Mrs. O'Kelly said as he entered the kitchen.

The "some victuals" turned out to be enough for three men, though Vin valiantly tried to finish it all in the shortest amount of time possible.

"Slow down there, son. This isn't a race," Mrs. O'Kelly scolded.

Sheepishly, Vin did as she said. She sat across from him, drinking a cup of coffee and watching him.

"You boys plannin' on stickin' around for Thanksgiving?" she asked.

"When is it?"

"Thursday-in five days. I'm hopin' you boys'll still be here. It'll give me a chance to show off some more of my cookin'." She paused. "You bring your friend Ezra, too. He looks like he could use some more meat on his bones."

"Yes, ma'am. I figger he and Chris is gonna need some extra time to heal, so's I think you can count on us bein' here." He arched an eyebrow. "I hope you know what you're gettin' into, with seven hungry men who can put away more food than a bear gettin' ready to sleep for the winter."

Mrs. O'Kelly eyes twinkled. "I tell you what. You get me some wild turkeys, and I promise you everyone'll get more than enough to eat."

"You got yourself a deal."

"Good." The sound of a bell drifted in, and Mrs. O'Kelly shook her head. "Would you listen to that? Father Schyma hasn't rung that bell in over two years." She closed her eyes and smiled. "Yep, that's sure a pretty sound."

For a moment, Vin could see himself and his ma walking to church hand in hand. She wore a threadbare scarf on her head and her best dress, which had only one patch on it. But she'd held her head high-she'd been proud and she'd passed that pride on to her only child. It was a bittersweet memory, one he hadn't thought of in years. "Yes, ma'am, that it is," Vin said, his voice husky.

Vin leisurely finished his meal, enjoying the silent companionship of the woman who reminded him of his mother and Nettie Wells.

Finally, he pushed his empty plate away. "Thank you, Mrs. O'Kelly. That was downright tasty."

"You're welcome, Vin. When Chris wakes up, you come on down and I'll fix him up some food."

"The stubborn fool will probably come down himself," Vin said with practiced tolerance.

"None of you boys are much for layin' around, are you?"

Vin chuckled. "I think Buck wouldn't mind bein' waited on."

"Maybe, but I got a feeling if any of you others were in danger, nobody'd be able to hold him down either."

"I s'pect you're right. We been watchin' out for each other for so long now, it's second nature."

She shook her head slowly, admiration and a touch of envy in her eyes. "Don't you ever take that kind of friendship for granted, Vin. You and your friends are a rare breed."

Vin thought about that for a moment, then nodded more to himself than the woman.

"You boys are going after them tonight, aren't you?" she suddenly asked.

Vin understood exactly what she meant. "We don't have a choice. We ain't gonna let them hurt or kill anybody else ever again."

She reached across the table and rested a work-worn hand on his forearm. "You boys be careful. I plan on having the best Thanksgiving spread you ever seen."

Vin smiled. "Don't forget the stuffing."

"I'll make extra just for you."

He stood and refilled his coffee cup. "I'm goin' back upstairs to sit with Chris so Nathan can go see Ezra."

"You might want to get some sleep yourself."

"Can't. Not until this is all over."

He mounted the stairs, exhaustion tugging at him. The last two nights he'd gotten little sleep, and his body and mind were starting to remind him of that. After tonight, after the protection racket was broken up, he would sleep. Unless Chris's attacker wasn't involved in the ring.

He opened the door to his room and entered, then found himself staring at the sharp tip of a knife.

Nathan quickly re-sheathed his weapon of choice. "You oughta be warnin' a body before you walk in."

"Sorry, Nathan," he said contritely, then glanced at Chris. "He okay?"

"Slept the whole time you was gone." Nathan picked up the medical bag he'd brought with him. "I'm goin' to see Ezra. You oughta get some sleep yourself."

Vin smiled wryly. "Mrs. O'Kelly already done told me that."

"Maybe you'll listen to her more'n you listen to me," Nathan groused. "Don't you run yourself down too much. You ain't all healed from that bullet wound."

"I'll be fine."

Nathan muttered something Vin didn't catch, but one look at the healer's stormy face, and Vin realized he probably didn't want to hear what he'd said.

"There anything you need me to do?" Nathan asked.

Vin shook his head. "There's nothin' to do until tonight, unless you want to make sure your knives is clean."

Nathan pressed his lips together and nodded, then left without another word.

Vin sat down in the chair he'd occupied all night. As he sipped his coffee he studied Chris's pale face and the white bandage around his head. Impressions left from his oft-repeated nightmare wrapped their wispy tentacles around him, making his heart pound and his breath come in short, shallow gasps.

The pain of losing Chris would come damned close to the sorrow he'd endured after his mother's death. Vin allowed very few people near him, but Chris Larabee, without even trying, and with only a single glance on a noisy street eighteen months ago, had managed to slip past Vin's defenses. Maybe it was the yearning for justice he saw in Chris's eyes that echoed Vin's own thirst for righteousness. Or maybe it was the recognition of solitary souls who didn't think they needed the friendship of another human being. Or maybe it was merely meant to be, that the two men would come together to become the cornerstone for a foundation of Seven.

Whatever it was, their two lives were inexorably tangled together. There was no doubt in Vin's mind that they were meant to die together, too. He had no idea of the time or place, but the certainty was there in his soul, just as he knew the sun would rise in the east tomorrow. He suspected Chris knew it, too, but neither man would speak of it to the other.

The words didn't need saying-that was just the way it was.

"You sure you're all right, Ezra?" Nathan asked, concern shading his words.

"I am fine, Mister Jackson," the gambler reassured.

Nathan heard the words, but Ezra's tone held something he hadn't heard before, and that worried the healer. Ezra kept too much bottled up inside of him, not sharing his pain with anybody. Nathan tried to tell himself Ezra didn't want his concern, but he couldn't convince himself.

He wondered how Ezra and Buck had gotten along overnight. After Buck had let him into the saloon, he'd left to find a bathhouse open on a Sunday morning, then a restaurant. Nathan promised he'd stay with Ezra until he returned.

As Nathan re-wrapped the wide bandage around Ezra's chest, he thought back to how far the two of them had come. Their relationship in the beginning had been that of mutual dislike and disrespect. But one day, a day like any other, the gradual change had begun. He could picture it clearly, Ezra and Buck in the church trying to teach prostitutes how to be ladies so Ezra could auction them off to men desperate for wives. He heard the conversation between himself and Ezra as if it had happened yesterday.

"Dignity?! You know it take a bold man to talk about dignity when he be tryin' to sell women off like they're cattle."

"I'll ignore that."

"You better do that. How else you gonna get some sleep tonight?"

"Anything else?"

"About makin' profit off the back of another human bein'? Hell, yeah, I got a lot to say. But it would just be wasted on you."

The expression in Ezra's face and the involuntary clenching of his jaw told Nathan more than any words could have...except Nathan had been so angry at the time, he hadn't understood that look until later that night as he lay in bed thinking about the confrontation. Ezra had been shamed by Nathan's words-that had been the first time somebody had actually taken the time to speak to Ezra of morality and respect for another human being.

And since that time, Nathan had tried to see the world through Ezra's eyes, especially after meeting his mother. She'd been kind enough to Nathan, but as a mother, she'd raised her son to take care of himself without regard to others.

Slowly, gradually, Nathan had seen the change come across Ezra. His total transformation had come with Li Pong, and to Nathan, it was nothing short of one of those miracles Josiah talked about. Still, the dapper gambler would wear shabby clothes rather than admit he cared about anyone but himself.

"Did you know that Kirkwood let me win this establishment?" Ezra suddenly asked quietly, his gaze aimed at the ceiling.

Nathan nodded. "I was there when Lily told us."

"Am I a fool, Nathan?"

He glanced up from his task to catch Ezra's intense green eyes on him. "You're a lot of things, Ezra, but a fool ain't one of 'em."

The gambler smiled, a hint of warmth in the expression. "I can always be assured you will be honest with me, and for that I am eternally grateful, Mister Jackson."

Nathan finished tying off the wide bandage. "I know how much ownin' a place like this means to you. As long as you didn't cheat anyone for it, I don't see why you can't jist be happy havin' it."

"I didn't win it fairly."

Surprise shot through Nathan. "Since when did you start thinkin' in terms of fairness?" The same type of expression Ezra had after Nathan's tirade in the church crossed his face, but this time Nathan saw it for what it was immediately. "Aw, hell, Ezra, I'm sorry. You ain't the same man you was when we met."

Ezra's hurt faded from his features. "You are correct, Mister Jackson. But is the man today better than that man was?"

Nathan laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Without a doubt, Ezra. Without a doubt," he answered fondly.

Although Ezra donned his characteristically aloof mask, Nathan could see the startled gratitude in his eyes.

The healer stood and gazed down at Ezra. "I ain't ever gonna understand you, but I am proud to call you my friend."

A corner of Ezra's lips lifted. "The feeling is mutual, Mister Jackson."

Nathan chuckled. "You stay in bed and rest today."

"I'm sorry, but I cannot follow those instructions. I am going to dress, then proceed downstairs into my office to do some work."

Nathan opened his mouth to argue, but Ezra raised his hand.

"There is no use in trying to dissuade me. I am feeling extraordinarily well and refuse to act as if I'm an invalid, when I am not."

"I don't know if you or Chris is the worst patient."

Ezra smiled rakishly. "Most assuredly, it is Mister Tanner."

Nathan laughed. He had a good point.

"All right, Ezra, but promise me you'll rest this afternoon for a couple hours. Tonight's gonna be busy."

"I will, and thank you."

"I'll be downstairs."

Nathan grabbed the bag with his supplies and left the private man alone to dress. Ezra's wounds were healing better than Nathan had expected. It seemed the men who administered the beating were somewhat professional about it, knowing where to hit and how hard without causing long term injuries.

Nathan was certain they'd been instructed to beat him that way so Ezra would be in decent shape to deliver the money. Not that that was any excuse for what the bastards did to Ezra.

Rage made Nathan's hands tremble. He hated men who used force to get their way. The whitish scars on his back from the overseer's whip at the plantation, as well as the newer, reddish scars from a month ago were Nathan's testimony to the savagery of men like that.

Nathan went to the small kitchen behind the bar and fired up the cookstove, then set a coffeepot on top of it. Buck should be back by the time the coffee was done, but Nathan had no intention of leaving the saloon for most of the day. Chris had Vin, but Ezra needed Nathan, whether he would admit it or not.

Chris cleaned off his plate and sent Mrs. O'Kelly a smile. "Thanks."

She merely shook her head. "You boys are a bunch of stubborn fools."

From across the table where he could watch Chris, Vin chuckled. "Looks like she knows us pretty well, pard."

"Only JD and Josiah showed up for lunch," Mrs. O'Kelly said. "Where's Buck and Nathan?"

"With Ezra," Chris replied without hesitation. He stood and perched his hat gingerly on his head. The hat sat at an odd angle because of his bandage. "I'm going to head over there myself."

Vin sent Mrs. O'Kelly a helpless shrug as he donned his own hat and followed Chris onto the porch. They both stood for a moment, letting their eyes adjust to the bright mid-afternoon sunlight. Chris's squint was so tight, Vin could barely see his green eyes.

"You sure you wanna do this?" Vin asked.

"I'll be fine. Just have to get used to the light."

Unobtrusively, Vin moved to stand in front of Chris. He waited patiently for his friend to grow accustomed to the blazing sunlight as his own gaze scoured the street and nearby building tops. He didn't want a repeat of yesterday's ambush, and if there was, Chris wasn't going to catch a bullet this time.

When Chris started walking cautiously down the steps and across the street, Vin stayed close beside him. His nerves tingled and he hoped it was only from the tension, rather than a premonition of another attack.

They stepped inside the Barbary Coast and Vin breathed a sigh of relief. Until he spotted Martha sitting with Nathan, Josiah, and JD.

"Aw, hell, what's she doin' here?" he muttered.

Chris slanted him a look. "I thought you said she wasn't so bad."

"I musta eaten some locoweed afore I said it." Vin sighed, accepting the inevitable. He wasn't about to leave Chris unprotected, even if it meant tolerating Martha's attentions.

The two men joined their friends. Vin took the chair as far away from the woman as he could, but that didn't stop her from reaching across the table to pat his arm.

"You get over your little snit?" she asked.

"Your snit?" Josiah asked, amusement dancing in his blue eyes.

Vin's face blossomed with heat. "I ain't one to hold grudges, Miz Cannary."

"What happened?" JD asked curiously.

"Nothin'," Vin replied quickly.

Martha pushed back her chair and leaned over to stick her head under the table. "Your boot's still looks kinda white," she said, her voice muffled. She sat up and her head hit the table, lifting it nearly a foot and sending the drinks sliding toward Vin.

Vin, Chris, and Nathan managed to catch all but one mug which was empty. The heavy glass, however, dropped into Vin's lap, eliciting an involuntary groan, then the mug fell to the floor, breaking into five pieces.

Josiah, JD, and Chris grimaced in empathy at Vin's discomfort.

"Damn," Nathan murmured. "You okay, Vin?"

The tracker gnashed his teeth and nodded, afraid to speak.

Martha's face crumpled. "I'm sorry, Vin. Seems that ev'rytime I start gettin' friendly with someone, things start happenin'."

"Maybe you're tryin' too hard, Martha," Josiah said gently. "Try goin' a little easier-like."

She switched her attention from Vin to the preacher. "Maybe you're right, Josiah. Maybe I do get a little pushy sometimes."

Sometimes? Vin had seen angry grizzlies less pushy than Martha Cannary.

She took a deep breath and stood. "I think I might just go for a little ride and do some thinkin'. You wanna come with me, Josiah?"

The surprise in Josiah's face was almost comical. "Ah, no thanks, Martha. My horse still ain't healed."

Martha put a hand on his shoulder. "Well, all right, but maybe later on we could do some talkin' 'bout things."

The strained smile on the big man's face didn't fool anybody, except maybe Martha. "We'll see."

With a last coquettish look at Josiah, she strode out of the saloon.

"What just happened there?" Ezra asked as he joined them, pointing at Martha's receding back.

"I ain't sure," JD said, confusion written in his young face.

"Iffen I was to guess, I'd say Martha just decided Josiah would make a better boyfriend than Vin," Nathan said, his dark eyes sparkling with mirth. He studied Ezra carefully. "You feelin' all right?"

"I would venture better than Mister Tanner," Ezra replied, with an sympathetic shake of his head. He carefully lowered himself to a chair between JD and Chris. "Are we ready for this evening's festivities?"

"We are," Chris replied. "How 'bout you?"

"I shall be ready and able."

"You and Chris still don't look so good," JD commented.

"We'll be fine," Chris assured.

Buck showed up at the table, rounding out the Seven. "Howdy, boys."

Ezra glanced behind the bar where the original bartender was working. "I see our absentee employee has shown up."

"Huh?" JD asked.

"With Kirkwood in jail, there's no bartender job in Rifle so he come back here with his tail tucked between his legs. Ezra was nice enough to give him his job back," Buck explained with a grin.

Ezra scowled. "Nice is not the word I would have used."

Dr. James entered the saloon, her bag in hand, and approached them. "I stopped by the boardinghouse and Mrs. O'Kelly told me you'd all be here." She sent a critical eye over Ezra, then Chris. "You two should be in bed."

"I checked them out, and they're doin' fine," Nathan reassured.

"But you're not a doctor," she said, a slight edge to her voice.

Nathan seemed taken aback and Vin's natural protectiveness for his friends rose within him.

"Nathan didn't mean no disrespect, ma'am. It's just that he's been takin' care of us for a long time now and we all trust him with our lives." Vin smiled, hoping to mollify her. "It's not that we got anythin' against you."

Her lips remained set in a firm line and her gaze flickered across the men, resting on Chris a second longer. Finally, she relented and nodded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so defensive."

Nathan smiled in relief. "That's all right, Doctor James."

She surveyed the men again, this time with an arched brow. "Since I'm not needed to perform any miraculous cures, I'll be on my way. Have a good day, gentlemen."

Vin frowned. There was something about the way she... He shook his head. No, he was just tired. Damn, he hoped he didn't make any stupid mistakes tonight.

"Anyone want another beer?" JD asked.

Josiah, Nathan, and Chris said they did, but Vin shook his head. The memory of that falling beer mug was still a little too painful.

"I'll help ya, kid," Buck volunteered.

JD shook his head. One of these days Buck would quit calling him kid. 'Course that'd probably happen when they were both dead and buried. JD swallowed hard at the disturbing image that evoked.

Buck called their order to the bartender then leaned against the bar. "So you still with us, JD?"

"I ain't ever left," he replied defensively.

"No?" Buck turned to peer at him and seemed to see straight into JD's soul. "Then where you been while we been watchin' out for Ezra and Chris?"

JD shifted uncomfortably. "I was around."

Buck shook his head slowly. "You ain't been with us since you set eyes on that Texas Ranger." He paused, his eyes filling with sadness. "It's like I don't even know you anymore, JD."

I'm the same person I always been, JD wanted to shout. Instead he only shrugged. "I can't help it if you can't see what's right in front of you."

"And what's that?" Buck asked quietly.

JD met his gaze squarely. "A man, not a kid."

A flush covered Buck's face. "I know that, JD. It's just that, well, hell, it's just that it's kinda like a nickname I have for you. It don't mean that I don't think you're a man." He studied JD silently, and the younger man forced himself not to squirm beneath his scrutiny. "I thought you knew that."

JD looked away. Maybe he had deep down, but he'd always dreamed of joining the Texas Rangers. Yet, what could he have with the Rangers that he didn't already have with these six men?

"Do one thing for me, ki-JD. Don't make your decision in anger. Think it out before you sign your name to some paper," Buck said, a hint of desperation and more than a little concern in his voice. "Chris, Vin, Ezra, Nathan, Josiah--they're all men to ride the river with and I'd be willing to bet the Rangers don't have men with half the loyalty as them."

JD glanced back at the five men sitting around the table, smiling and talking in relaxed camaraderie. He licked his dry lips. "All right."

Buck put an arm around his shoulder and gave it a slight squeeze. "Thanks, kid."

JD's gut tightened and his throat closed. Could he leave them? Especially the man beside him who treated him like a brother? He'd considered leaving them once for a ranch that he might have inherited someday, but that enticement hadn't been nearly as tempting as joining the Rangers.

They carried the beers back to the table and passed them around, joking about keeping them far from Vin's end of the table. Sitting beside the tracker, JD noticed he was quieter than usual and there were deep shadows beneath his eyes that hadn't been there two days ago. He suddenly realized how concerned Vin was about Chris and Ezra and what was going on in this town. Out of all his friends, Vin was the most conscientious and took the most responsibility on his shoulders, except for maybe Chris. But Chris was wounded and JD was certain Vin was feeling like he had to look out for everybody now.

"You okay, JD?" Vin asked softly.

Startled, JD nodded. "Just thinkin' is all."

"Did all them cuts heal from your tangle with the barbed wire?"

"They been healed for a while," JD replied in puzzlement. "Why you askin' now?"

Vin shrugged and his cheeks reddened. "I'm sorry I didn't come back like I said I would when you were hurtin' so bad."

"You couldn't. You were gettin' in with the hired killers to find out what was goin' on."

The long-haired man's face went hard and angry, but JD could tell the anger was directed at himself. "Don't matter. I made a promise and I broke it."

JD had never seen Vin like this before, and he sought to reassure him. "You don't got to apologize. I understood."

Vin's penetrating blue eyes caught JD and trapped him. "When I was just a tadpole, my ma told me that when I made a promise, I had to keep it, no matter what. It was a matter of honor and principle. She said a man was only as good as his word and iffen a man couldn't keep his word, he wasn't good for nothin'."

JD could feel the turmoil emanating from the wiry man. He suspected this had been gnawing at Vin for some time. Buck was right-Vin and the others were men to ride the river with and loyal almost to a fault.

He took a deep breath and spoke quietly. "My ma used to tell me the same thing, only as I got older, she added somethin'. She said that there might be a few times in a man's life when he has to break his word in order to do the right thing." JD paused and swallowed the nervousness in his throat. "And you did the right thing, Vin. You saved a lot of lives that woulda been lost iffen you'd kept that promise. I never once thought less of you 'cause of it." He smiled self-consciously. "Fact is, I felt pretty stupid for gettin' tangled in that wire in the first place, and I blamed myself for gettin' you and the others involved in that little war."

Vin's features relaxed and his easy smile returned. "Thanks, JD. I wish our Mas coulda met-I think they woulda gotten along like two peas in a pod."

Warmth filled JD. "I got a feelin' you're right, Vin."

JD sat back in his chair, unconsciously copying Vin's deceptively relaxed pose, and in that moment, he knew he couldn't leave these men. They were more than traveling companions-they were his family and they trusted one another with their lives.

And JD had handed over information to Captain Daniels that entrusted him with their lives. Chris hadn't wanted him to, yet he'd done it behind his back. JD squirmed in his seat, wishing he could go back in time and retract the words he'd spoken to the captain. If Chris said not to tell him, he had a good reason.

"You look like you just saw a spook, JD," Vin said quietly.

JD felt sick to his stomach, but he managed a weak smile. "Musta been somethin' I ate."

"Couldn't have been Mrs. O'Kelly's cookin'." Vin looked around at the other men. "Mrs. O'Kelly said she'd make Thanksgiving dinner for us iffen we're still in town come Thursday."

Buck grinned. "Just for that, I ain't leavin' until Friday."

Ezra merely smiled slightly, but JD saw the momentary sadness in his eyes. "I'm sure you're invited, too, Ezra," the young man said. "Right Vin?"

Vin turned to the gambler. "Yep, in fact she said you'd better come since you needed some more meat on your bones."

Ezra's eyes widened in mock indignation. "I'll have you know all of the Standishes were of somewhat slight stature, but were in perfectly good health as I myself am."

JD shook his head. "I don't know, Ezra. You don't look so good right now. In fact, you look kinda awful."

"To paraphrase a certain gentleman, that is highly improbable."

Buck's eyes twinkled with mischief, but his voice was serious. "I hate to say this, Ezra, but ain't nobody's ever gonna look as good as me even on their best day." Buck winked at JD.

Fondness flowed through JD as he and his friends chuckled. Even Ezra, who sometimes had trouble joining in with their teasing, smiled in good-natured acceptance. JD's gaze roamed across each man's face, coming to rest on Buck, who raised his mug of beer to him and nodded affectionately. JD lifted his own beer in the silent toast. The returning rapport between himself and Buck felt good, damned good.

The batwing doors opened and Captain Daniels stepped through them. His gaze settled on JD immediately and he sent him a slight nod and smile, then moved to his usual table.

Anxiety stabbed JD in the gut. For the first time, he didn't want to join the ex-Texas Ranger and hear about his exciting exploits. JD wanted to sit with his friends, be a part of the circle that they formed both physically and emotionally. Finally thinking with both his head and heart, JD realized he had everything he'd hoped to find with the Rangers with these six men.

And he'd broken a trust when he'd told Daniels about their plans for that night. Apprehension fought with logic as JD tried to tell himself that Daniels had been a Ranger and he would help them. But another part of him wondered why Chris didn't want Daniels to know. Was it that Larabee instinct that had saved all their lives more than once? Or was he jealous of Captain Daniels?

No, Chris had no reason to be jealous. JD listened to his friends' voices swirl around him, their tones comforting and reassuring. He wouldn't tell Daniels anything else, and would watch for the ex-Ranger that night. If Daniels truly wanted to help, there was no doubt they could use him. But if something else was going on...

"Ain't you goin' over to visit your friend?" Nathan asked JD.

JD shook his head. "I'm already with my friends."

He glanced up to catch Buck's eyes, and in them JD saw understanding and friendship. And JD knew without a doubt, this was where he belonged.

"I'm glad JD's back with us," Vin said in a hushed voice.

Chris shifted slightly in the dim hallway of the second floor of the locked-up saloon. "So's Buck. He can go back to mother hennin' the kid."

Vin chuckled quietly. "We all do."

Chris's white teeth flashed in the darkness. "Only Buck's better at it."

Chris leaned forward, glancing over the edge of the railing to check on Ezra. The gambler was cleaning tabletops, moving slower and stiffer than usual, but he'd assured them he was fine. Chris had accepted that. Ezra had a core of strength deep within him that had surprised Chris when he first met him. But it explained how the con man had stayed alive all these years on his own.

"Ezra okay?" Vin asked.

"I think so."

A pause.

"How 'bout you?"

Chris turned slightly to gaze at Vin, exasperated but grateful for the tracker's concern. "Talk about mother hennin'."

Vin shrugged innocently. "Must be rubbin' off."

Chris grinned, then the two men lapsed into expectant silence. The saloon had been closed for nearly an hour now. Chris and the others, except for Ezra, had left a few minutes before closing time, ensuring that if the Barbary Coast was being watched everything would appear normal. Ten minutes later, Chris and Vin had sneaked in the back door, while Buck and JD had hidden in the alley behind it. Josiah and Nathan had gone to keep a lookout at the Lucky Chance, where Martha had said the collectors were also going to show up that night.

Chris's head throbbed from the bullet wound, but he wasn't about to tell Vin-he'd probably order Chris back to the boardinghouse. The blond man had no intention of missing out on catching the sonsuvbitches who messed with Ezra, and who might've shot him.

JD shivered slightly in the cool air, but he was also sweating. Something didn't feel right and he had a damned strong suspicion what it was. He had to tell Buck. He had to admit his mistake and hope that no one was hurt because of his foolish naiveté.

"Buck," JD whispered.

"What?" Buck didn't shift his alert gaze from the entrance of the dead end alley.

There was no easy way to do it, so JD just blurted it out. "I told Captain Daniels all about our plan for tonight."

Buck swung around to face JD, fear and anger blazing in his expression and causing JD to flinch slightly. "After Chris told you not to?"

"Chris and Ezra was hurt," JD exclaimed, remembering to keep his voice down. "I figgered we needed all the help we could get."

"Didn't you ever wonder why Chris didn't want you to say anythin' to him?" Buck shot back.

"Not until this afternoon," JD replied, then added quietly. "I'm sorry, Buck. I was only tryin' to help."

Even in the darkness, JD could see the fury soften and disappear from Buck's face. The older man gave his shoulder a squeeze. "I know, kid. And maybe you did, except I'd feel better if Daniels had met up with us."

"Yeah, that's what's been botherin' me."

"Did he know about Josiah and Nathan?"

JD nodded. Buck's brows furrowed. "What is it, Buck?"

"He knew we was goin' to be hidin' in the alley?"

Again JD nodded, his gut coiling like a watchspring. "And that Vin and Chris would be inside."



Buck tugged JD's arm. "C'mon. We're gonna make some last-minute changes to the plan."

JD scurried after Buck as they slipped out of the alley onto the dark boardwalk. Acrid smoke curled from the street fires that had been extinguished earlier, making JD's nostrils twitch and he barely restrained a sneeze. They ran in a half-crouch down the boardwalk toward the Lucky Chance Saloon.

Suddenly Buck made a quick turn, grabbing JD's sleeve and pulling him into the alley with him. JD bumped against Buck's side, but recovered quickly and peered around the taller man. JD spotted a dozen men wearing masks and dark clothing headed their way.

There were two men in front of the group not wearing masks-Josiah and Nathan. And it looked like they were prisoners.

"Damn," Buck muttered, then instructed quickly in a hoarse whisper. "Listen close, JD. After they pass us, we knock out the last two and put on their masks and take their places. We have to do this fast and quiet, understand?"

JD's heart thumped against his breast, but he nodded. He would do it. He had to.

Fourteen men, including Josiah and Nathan, walked past them and JD heard the jingle of spurs. He glanced down and saw large rowels on one of the outlaws' boots. Then, before JD's anxiety could worsen, he and Buck jumped out and, using the butt of his gun, JD knocked out the collector with the noisy spurs. Buck wrapped his arm around the other man's throat and tightened until the man lost consciousness.

They each dragged their man into the alley, grabbed their masks and donned them.

"The spurs," JD whispered hoarsely to Buck.

The older man glanced down and smiled in satisfaction. "Good job, kid. That's the one Kirkwood told us about."

Buck quickly buttoned his dark jacket so his light shirt wouldn't be seen. Then Buck and JD ran to catch up to the group and fell into line behind them. Less than two minutes had elapsed since Buck had spotted them on the boardwalk, and JD's breathing and pulse had tripled in that short time.

"We play it by ear, kid," Buck said, his low voice muffled by his mask. "Follow my lead."

JD could only nod. A sickness settled in his belly as he realized what this meant: Captain Ham Daniels was involved up to his neck in this protection racket. If JD hadn't told Buck what he'd done ... A shiver of dread skimmed down his spine. It still wasn't over. One of his friends could lose his life because of JD's fascination with a man he believed to be a hero.

"I learned one thing. I ain't no hero."

"Just what do you think a hero is?"

"Well, it's someone who shoots straight. And true."

"Why, that's a good shot is all. It takes more than that to be a hero. It takes someone to sacrifice their life for the greater good. You proved that time and time again, John Dunne."

"I made a pretty bad mistake."

"I don't know anybody who hasn't. That's what makes us human."

Josiah's words still brought a shiver to JD's soul. And reminded him that the true heroes had been beside him the whole time and he hadn't even recognized them for what they truly were.

JD's shoulders stiffened. He wasn't going to make another bad mistake.

Chris stifled a yawn, knowing it was his head wound which made him so drowsy, but he couldn't afford to relax his guard for even a moment. He felt Vin's hand on his back.

"You still with me, pard?" the tracker asked in a low voice.

"I'm here."

Vin drew his hand away, but Chris could still feel his reassuring presence like a physical shield.

Suddenly the front door burst open, and Josiah and Nathan were shoved inside, followed by a group of masked men wearing nondescript dark clothes with their guns in hand. Chris's breath stuck in his throat and he had to remind himself to breathe. Either someone told them about their plans or they'd guessed that Ezra's companions wouldn't be far away.

"Get rid of the jacket, Standish. And no sudden moves," one of the men ordered.

Slowly, Ezra did as he was told though Chris could see his anger clear across the room. Another man came forward and removed Ezra's shoulder gun and the little derringer from his sleeve apparatus.

"Shit," Vin muttered behind him.

Chris glanced around, knowing something was wrong. Then it struck him-Buck and JD weren't there. If the collectors knew their plan, why hadn't they captured Buck and JD, too?

"You two Larabees, your turn," the man called out, looking straight up at their hiding place.

The two men stood slowly, raising their hands.

"Get down here," came the next command.

Chris and Vin descended slowly, and Chris was aware of Vin's protective stance beside him. At the bottom of the stairs, the two men were relieved of their weapons, including the knife Vin wore in a scabbard on his belt.

"You okay, Josiah?" Chris asked, noting the blood on Josiah's temple.

"I've cut myself worse shaving," the ex-preacher replied with a faint smile.

"I doubt it," Nathan murmured.

Though not completely reassured, Chris gave his attention back to their captors. "How'd you know?"

"A little birdie told us," the apparent leader said, then laughed at his own weak joke.

Chris tipped his head slightly. The man's muffled voice sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place it.

"Now what?" Vin asked, attacking the problem like he did any other-head-on.

"Kirkwood's gettin' kinda lonely in that jail by himself. Thought it might be a good idea if you boys would keep him company." The leader paused. "At least until we find the other two."

So they knew there were seven of them, too. Chris's pulse throbbed in unison with his head wound.

"Let's get goin'," the leader ordered, waving his gun toward the door.

The collectors herded the five men down the boardwalk to the jailhouse. No light spilled from the windows, but the leader of the masked men pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the sheriff's office.

Chris was shoved in the door, followed by his four companions. Once he regained his balance, he looked up to see a man sitting behind the sheriff's desk, his face illuminated by the lamp-Captain Ham Daniels. Surprised, he stared at the ex-Texas Ranger, then anger settled like a ball of ice in his belly.

"Why?" Chris demanded hoarsely. "You used to be a Texas Ranger!"

Daniels stood and, leaning heavily on his cane, he came around the desk to stand in front of Chris. His expression turned dark and ugly. "And all I got is a few medals not worth the money it'd take to melt them down. Nobody gives a damn about a crippled Ranger, except for a few that looked at me with pity." He shook his head. "I risked my life for all of them taming this territory to make it safe for them and their families, and all I get is pity!"

"So you come up with a protection racket to make them pay-to make them give you what you deserved," Vin said bitterly.

"That's right. And believe me, I deserve every single penny I get."

Chris shook his head in disgust. "You don't deserve anything but pity."

The ex-Ranger swung his cane, catching Chris behind the knees and knocking him to the floor. Vin clenched his fists and took a step toward Daniels, but a rifle butt shoved into his gut doubled him over.

Chris could feel the rage running between his companions, but they were powerless to do anything. He struggled to his feet and Nathan got a hand beneath his elbow to help him up. His legs trembling, Chris glared at Daniels, but he wisely kept silent. He glanced at Vin and the long-haired man sent him a terse nod, telling him he was okay...and mad as hell.

"You boys have made things difficult for me," Daniels said.

Ezra laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. "Difficult for you? What of all the people you have robbed, beaten, or killed?"

Daniels shrugged. "I killed more people while I was a Ranger than I can even remember."

His identity hidden behind his mask, JD could only stare at Daniels as if he was looking at a monster. He'd wanted to so badly to believe in the ex-Texas Ranger and Daniels turned out to be worse than the outlaws he'd killed or captured.

"What're you going to do with us?" Chris asked.

"For right now, you're going in jail. Buck and JD are still missing. As soon as they're found, Sheriff Lassiter will make sure the correct charges will be brought against you," Daniels said.

"What charges are those?" Vin growled.

The leader of the collectors removed his mask-it was Sheriff Lassiter. "The murder of Jameson Kirkwood, to start with."

JD's breath caught in his throat. The sheriff was in on it, too. He glanced over to see Kirkwood standing in one of the cells, his fingers wrapped around the bars. Kirkwood's face was pale, but the man was still alive.

JD had to do something. He glanced at the taller man next to him, and Buck caught his eye, shaking his head slowly.

Lassiter opened the three cell doors and the men were prodded into them. Josiah and Nathan in one, Chris and Vin in another, and Ezra joined Kirkwood. The two gamblers circled one another, glaring at each other like a couple tomcats.

"I would like to thank you for getting me into this intolerable mess," Ezra said, his voice as low and cold as JD had ever heard.

"You're not the only one in a mess." Kirkwood stared at him a moment longer, then sank onto a cot to bury his face in his palms. He didn't look like Lily would have to worry about him coming after her--he had too many troubles of his own.

Chris stared through the bars at Daniels, and JD could see the fury and loathing in his green eyes. JD couldn't help but shiver at the feral look.

"You won't get away with this," Chris said, his tone low and deadly.

"Who's going to stop me?" the ex-Ranger asked calmly and with too much certainty.

Me and Buck, JD thought savagely. Daniels would pay for what he did to Ezra and all the other folks he'd hurt or killed.

And for making a fool of me.

Daniels left the jailhouse with all his thugs but Lassiter filing out behind him, and JD and Buck didn't have any choice but to follow them.

"Find the other two men," Daniels commanded once they were outside. "I want them yesterday."

The masked men scattered to follow his orders.

Buck tugged on JD's shirtsleeve and led him around a corner into a dark alley. "We're gonna need some help gettin' them out," he said in a low voice.


Buck rubbed his brow, then glanced around. His gaze stopped on the moonlight-tinted church steeple. A slight smile touched his lips. "I know where we can start."

"You shoulda kept your nose out of it," Lassiter said, double-checking the cell doors to ensure they were locked. "Now all you're gonna do is end up dead."

"We ain't dead yet," Chris said with a cold smile.

Lassiter couldn't hold his gaze and went around the corner to where his desk stood.

Vin paced the cell, reminding Chris of the time the bogus federal marshal had thrown the tracker in jail. Watching him walk in circles was making Chris dizzy and he lowered himself to one of the cots, the metal creaking beneath his weight.

"You feelin' okay, Chris?" Nathan asked as he examined the gash in Josiah's temple.

"Fine," he reassured. "How's Josiah?"

"Other than being madder'n a rattler, I'm all right," the big man replied.

"We're damned lucky none of us was shot," Vin said.

"I have a feelin' JD was the one who told Daniels," Chris said softly.

Nobody spoke for a long moment.

"Even if he did, Daniels knew we was friends of Ezra's and that we weren't gonna let them men ride roughshod over him again," Vin said loyally.

"Mister Tanner is right," Ezra said. "Had JD not told the captain of our plans, he most certainly could have conjectured our strategy."

"Where do ya think JD and Buck are?" Nathan asked, keeping his voice low-pitched.

"Hopefully comin' up with a better plan," Chris said. He rubbed his brow, then grimaced when he got too close to his bullet wound.

"Get some sleep, cowboy," Vin said quietly. "There's nothin' you can do right now."

Chris wanted to argue with Vin but exhaustion was calling, making his eyelids heavy. He knew the head wound was the culprit, but it didn't make it any easier to swallow. He turned and drew his legs up onto the cot, drawing his knees into his chest. "Wake me in a couple of hours. Or when Buck and JD get here."

Vin nodded and Chris drifted off to sleep with almost frightening speed. Vin hunkered down beside him, apprehension in his face.

"Don't worry, Vin," Nathan said quietly. "That's only normal after a bad head wound like that." He looked at Ezra standing stiffly in his cell. "You oughta be gettin' some rest, too."

"I should argue, but I find my resources are a bit depleted at the moment. Perhaps a few hours of sleep would refresh me, also." He glanced at Kirkwood. "I would appreciate it if you gentlemen would keep an eye on my cell-mate and wake me if it appears he is going to stab me in the back again."

Nathan nodded, his dark features hard and unyielding. "I'll make sure he don't try nothin', Ezra."

"Thank you," Ezra said, then laid down and wrinkled his nose. "Too bad Sheriff Lassiter does not consider cleanliness next to godliness."

Josiah and Nathan shared an amused smile.

A few minutes passed in silence as Vin continued to pace quietly. Josiah and Nathan sat on their respective cots in thoughtful pensiveness as they watched Kirkwood.

"Other than JD and Buck, we have a few more allies on the outside," Josiah said in a low voice.

"Mrs. O'Kelly, for one," Vin said with a faint smile.

"Father Schyma," Josiah added. "And Martha Cannary."

"If she ain't too mad at you and Vin," Nathan said. "And don't forget Doctor James."

Josiah looked around at his companions, ignoring the throbbing from where one of the collectors had pistol-whipped him. He had faith that their friends would come through, but while he was waiting, it wouldn't be a bad idea to do a little praying.

The priest answered their summons almost immediately, making Buck wonder what the man had been doing.

"Come in," Father Schyma said, then smiled self-consciously. "I was catching up on some penance."

Buck and JD stepped into the church, noting the candle-lit interior. "Why'd you have the door locked?" Buck asked.

"Your friend, Josiah, told me there might be some trouble tonight." Father Schyma studied the two men for a moment, and his expression became somber. "Something did happen, and it wasn't good."

"Our friends are in jail," JD blurted. "Captain Daniels and Sheriff Lassiter are runnin' the protection racket."

The priest crossed himself. "It's worse than I imagined." He drew his shoulders back. "What can I do to help?"

"Do you know anybody in town who might be able to help us?" Buck asked.

Father Schyma thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I'm sorry. If Captain Daniels and Sheriff Lassiter are in on it, I'm afraid I don't know who I can trust."

A pounding on the door startled the three men.

"Open up, Father. We're lookin' for someone," a man bellowed from outside.

"Hide in the back room," the priest whispered hoarsely as he gave the Buck and JD a shove. "I'll get rid of them."

Buck didn't like leaving the priest alone to face the men, but maybe he and JD could use his diversion if there weren't too many of the collectors. The two men slipped into the room, leaving the door open a crack so they could see and hear what was going on.

"What's so important that you have to disturb the house of the Lord in the middle of the night?" Father Schyma asked, faking a yawn.

"We's lookin' for two men. One's tall with a mustache, the other's a kid, wears a funny hat."

JD muttered something Buck couldn't understand, but the older man suspected JD wasn't too happy that someone didn't like his Bat Masterson hat.

"I have been praying to God all night for peace to come to our town, and here you two men are, wearing masks and preaching violence." Father Schyma sighed. "Search it if you'd like, but I've been alone for a long time." He shrugged. "They're probably leaving town even as we speak."

The man's eyes flickered, but he didn't take the bait. "Check the back, I'll look around in here," he said to his partner.

"One's comin' this way," Buck whispered. "Get back of the door."

JD drew back with Buck right beside him. The door opened and one of the masked men came in. As Buck jumped the man, JD closed the door quietly. With surprise on his side, Buck had little trouble taking care of the outlaw. They found some rope and trussed him up snugly.

"What's takin' so long, Clem?" Footsteps told Buck and JD the partner was on his way.

"Stay here," Buck said to JD, propping him six feet into the room in direct line of the door. Buck quickly moved to the side where he wouldn't be seen.

The second man came through the doorway and halted. Drawing his gun, he aimed it at JD. "Don't move."

As JD slowly raised his hands, Buck stepped away from the wall and punched the man. The crack of bone told Buck he broke the masked man's nose. Another strike to his jaw, and the man fell to the ground, stunned.

"Let's get 'im tied up, JD."

Father Schyma hurried into the room. His worried frown disappeared. "Looks like my prayer was answered."

"Two down, ten to go," Buck said with a cocky grin. "We could use a few more prayers, Father."

"What else can I do besides pray?" the priest asked.

"We're going to need a diversion to get into the jail," Buck said. "You know Martha Cannary?"

The expression on Father Schyma's face was a cross between a grimace and a smile. "I know her."

"I think she'll help us. Can you bring her here?"

The priest nodded. "Is there anyone else?"

Buck thought for a moment. "How about Mrs. O'Kelly and Doctor James?"

Father Schyma grinned. "Perhaps not the best idea for a man to be visiting women in the middle of the night, but who better than a priest?"

Buck scowled. "A man who lost his animal magnetism."

JD put a hand to his mouth to hide his smile, but Buck caught it.

"It ain't gonna be so funny when you can't-"

"We're in a church, Buck," JD reminded firmly, his dark eyes twinkling.

The older man's face reddened and he glanced at the priest, unable to look him in the eye. "Uh, sorry, Father."

"You're forgiven, my son," Father Schyma said, his own lips twitching with laughter. He paused, and the amusement disappeared. "I'll go get the women. Do you have any idea what kind of diversion to use?"

Buck nodded, then said deliberately, "Not a clue."

Father Schyma gave the two men one last puzzled look, then hurried out the back door.

"Think we can trust him?" JD asked.

"He's a priest," Buck said.

JD's eyes became shadowed. "And Ham Daniels was a captain in the Texas Rangers. Didn't mean I could trust him, did it?"

Buck studied his young friend and laid a hand on his shoulder. "You listen to me, JD, everythin's gonna work out just fine."

"If I hadn't-"

Buck raised a hand to halt the rest of his self-accusation. "It don't matter anymore, JD. The others are countin' on us to get them out of this mess."

JD thought for a moment and Buck wondered what was going on behind his guilt-filled expression.

"What is it, JD?" he asked softly.

JD took a deep breath. "Was he right? Did Captain Daniels give everything he had to take care of folks, then got nothin' in return? Could I end up like him someday?"

Buck gazed down into JD's troubled features. "I think that Captain Daniels joined the Rangers for the wrong reason-he joined for the glory and when he didn't get it, he turned mean." Buck rested both his hands on JD's shoulders. "But down deep, you're gonna help folks whether you get that glory or not, 'cause that's the kind of man you are, JD."

His friend stared at him a moment, then said quietly, "You just called me a man."

"A man I'm proud to claim as my friend," Buck said with a husky voice.

"Thanks, Buck."

The older man grinned. "You're welcome, kid."

Buck moved to a window to keep watch for anyone else coming to the church, but he also kept an eye on JD who crossed to the other window.

"Makin' mistakes is all part of bein' a man, JD," Buck said. "It's how you handle them mistakes that tells what kind of man you're gonna be."

JD turned to study Buck for a long moment. He nodded solemnly, then gave his attention back to the darkened street.

Gunshots followed by a shrill scream brought Vin to his feet in one smooth motion and he stepped over to the small barred window. He could barely see out of it, much less spot anything that might have caused the ruckus.

Nathan and Josiah weren't having any better luck peering out their window.

Chris and Ezra both woke up and looked around blearily for a few moments. Then another scream split the night and they, too, came to their feet. Chris swayed a moment, and Vin caught his arm, steadying him. Chris's lips thinned and he nodded curtly. "I'm all right." The stubborn man drew away from Vin.

"What in God's name was that?" Ezra asked.

"Sounded like a woman bein' killed," Nathan said.

Voices drifted through the darkness, but they were too indistinct to make out. The only thing Vin could understand was the fear and shock in the tones. "Somethin' bad happened, that's for sure," he said.

Lassiter passed the cells as he headed to the door. He didn't say anything but his meaning was clear-don't try anything stupid. Then the lawman was out the front door, pausing long enough to lock it behind him.

"Damnit, I hate not knowin' what's happenin'," Chris growled.

Less than two minutes after Lassiter left, the window in the front door was broken with a muffled crash. The intruder slipped his hand in and unlocked the door, then opened it. He was followed closely by a second smaller man.

"Miss us?" Buck asked, cracking a wide grin.

"Where the hell have you been?" Chris demanded.

"Figgerin' out a way to get your sorry butts outta here," Buck replied, unfazed by Chris's testiness.

JD searched the desk for the keys and found them quickly. He unlocked the cell doors while Buck passed the men their weapons.

Kirkwood attempted to follow Ezra out, but Ezra blocked his exit. "You, Mister Kirkwood, will remain incarcerated so I may find you after this is all over."

The ominous gleam in Ezra's eyes told everyone, especially Kirkwood, that there was going to be a showdown between the two men later. Ezra locked the door, leaving Kirkwood behind the bars.

"What's goin' on out there?" Vin asked, checking over his sawed-off carbine.

"Martha pretended to shoot Mrs. O'Kelly and Doctor James is addin' fuel to the fire by demandin' Martha be arrested. But Martha is makin' like a crazy woman and wavin' her gun all around," Buck explained.

"Hope her gun don't go off accidental-like," Vin murmured, his shoulders tightening.

"Where's Daniels?" Chris asked.

Buck shook his head tersely. "Ain't seen him since he was here."

Chris's diamond-hard gaze found JD. "Where does he live?"

JD met the older man's eyes steadily. "He's got a place at the north end of town." JD's jaw clenched resolutely. "He's mine."

Chris shook his head. "You already had your chance."

Buck grabbed hold of Chris's arm and their obstinate gazes clashed. "Let JD take care of him," Buck said softly, but with an undercurrent of steel. "A man's gotta fix his own mistakes."

Chris peered at JD, who lifted his chin, daring Chris to stop him. Finally, the blond man nodded. "Daniels is yours."

"I'll go with him," Buck volunteered. He glanced at JD who looked like he was about to argue. "Every man needs a friend to back 'im up."

JD's expression eased and his dark eyes relayed his gratitude.

"All right. Let's go clean this town up," Chris stated, a savage smile curling his lips. He looked over at JD and Buck. "Meet you boys back at the boardinghouse for breakfast."

Vin opened the door a crack, checked the street and nodded. He led the six men out into the darkness. Buck and JD slipped away, while the five other men kept to the heavy shadows as they drew closer to the ruckus.

Chris stopped at the outer fringes of the crowd gathered around Martha, who waved her gun in the air. A few lanterns cast grotesquely dancing shadows across the woman's face and her eyes held a wild look.

"Damn, she does look crazy," Nathan whispered.

"How do we know which men we're after? No one's wearin' a mask anymore," Vin asked.

"Using deductive reasoning, I would say those who are fully attired are the men we're after," Ezra replied.

Chris looked around at the crowd. Since it wasn't even five a.m., women were wearing coats over their nightclothes and most of the men wore only their pants, boots, and undershirts. There were a handful of men completely dressed, including Sheriff Lassiter. "Ezra's right. We need to circle back of them. Josiah, Nathan, go to the right and take care of the men on that side. Me, Ezra, and Vin'll take this other side where Lassiter is."

Working as a team, the men moved into position. Josiah took out the first man, wrapping an arm around his neck and dragging him back out of the lanterns' light. Nathan had the next collector as he pressed his knife point against the man's back and wrapped a hand around his mouth. The healer quickly tied him up and gagged him.

Ezra came up behind another one, tapped his shoulder, and when he turned around, Ezra used his fist to knock him out. Vin helped him drag the unconscious outlaw into a nearby alley. Fortunately, Martha's performance was riveting enough that no one was noticing the other action going on at the fringes of the crowd.

Vin found another collector, jumped behind him and jerked his sawed-off carbine against the man's neck. As he lost consciousness, Vin hauled him back to join his equally oblivious companion.

Chris crept closer to Sheriff Lassiter who was at the front of the crowd, trying to talk Martha into giving up her gun. As Chris shouldered through the milling people, he could make out Mrs. O'Kelly on the ground, a red stain across her white blouse front. Doctor James was kneeling beside her, trying to examine the "wound". If Chris hadn't known it was staged, he would've believed Mrs. O'Kelly was near death.

Finally, Chris found himself a couple feet behind Lassiter. He eased his Colt out of its holster and moved a little closer, then pressed the barrel into the sheriff's back. "Hold it, Lassiter."

The lawman stiffened. "Larabee."

Doctor James looked over at them and Mrs. O'Kelly miraculously opened her eyes and sat up.

Martha holstered her revolver and sent Chris a gap-toothed grin. "'Bout time you got here, Chris. Was gettin' tired of holdin' that piece."

"This was a set-up?" Lassiter exclaimed.

"Yep," Chris replied. "It's over, Lassiter. Get rid of the gun."

The crowd muttered quietly among themselves and Chris heard the sound of a scuffle behind him, but he trusted his friends enough to know they were taking care of the opposition.

"You folks gonna let this gunslinger kill your sheriff?" Lassiter shouted.

"Sheriff Lassiter was part of the gang that was makin' you business people pay insurance," Chris countered. "He and Ham Daniels were behind the whole thing."

The muttering grew louder.

Doctor James helped Mrs. O'Kelly to her feet.

"You folks best listen to Mr. Larabee. He and his friends are tryin' to help us all by cleanin' up our town. It's high time we open our eyes to what's right in front of our noses," Mrs. O'Kelly spoke above the crowd.

Father Schyma stepped out of the throng. "Mrs. O'Kelly is right. I've also been guilty of not doing anything to stop these murderers and thieves. But now we have the chance to turn our town into a place we can feel good about again. A place where we don't have to fear walking after dark."

The priest's words affected the crowd, and the people nodded and began to shuffle about, drawing Chris's attention for a second.

Suddenly Lassiter spun around and knocked Chris's gun from his hand. Chris's hand went numb, long enough for Lassiter to deliver a punch to his jaw. Chris spun around, but didn't fall. His head felt like it was about to explode. An arm snaked around Chris's neck and a gun barrel pressed against his head wound. Through the blur of pain and helplessness, Chris spied Vin as he came around to face Lassiter, his mare's leg aimed at the sheriff.

Vin's lips curled into a savage snarl. "Let'im go, Lassiter, or I'll blow your goddamned head off!"

Lassiter shook his head. "Back off or so help me, I'll squeeze the trigger and scatter his brains all over the street."

Vin's face paled and he swallowed hard. Chris fought to remain conscious against the lack of air and the agony that gripped his insides. Through tunnel-like vision, he saw Vin lower his weapon.

A gunshot exploded and Chris slipped to the ground, wondering if Lassiter had shot him anyhow. Darkness beckoned, and he saw Sarah and Adam standing in front of him. He reached out to them, but they blurred and faded until there was nothing left but a faint outline of light where they'd been.

Arms came around his chest, lifting him to a sitting position. "Chris! C'mon, Larabee."


Chris dragged in air through his raw throat and forced his eyes open. The tracker's face was less than a foot from his. "I-I'm ...okay," he said hoarsely.

Vin's face sagged with relief. "Wish you'd stop scarin' the hell outta us, Larabee."

"How ya feelin'?" Nathan asked.

"I been better," Chris replied.

Nathan grunted. "Don't surprise me none. Looks like Lassiter didn't do no permanent damage. A few more days of rest and you'll be fine."

Chris looked around the dimly lit area and saw Lassiter on the ground ten feet away with Doctor James examining him. "What happened?"

"Martha shot Lassiter," Vin replied.

Nathan went to help Doctor James, while Martha Cannary knelt beside Chris and Vin. "I shot that good fer nothin' sheriff. Didn't kill him, though." She sounded disappointed.

"Thanks," Chris said.

"Couldn't let Vin lose his cousin. 'Sides, I figger I might get tired of Vin and give you a try."

A shiver of fear slid down Chris's spine. Yep, this was the kind of woman he was scared of.

She grinned and slapped his leg. "I was jist kiddin', Chris. Fact is, Josiah's more my kinda man."

Vin and Chris exchanged amused-and relieved-smiles.

"You ready to stand up, pard?" Vin asked Chris.

The blond man nodded and Vin helped him to his feet. He looked around and saw some of the townsmen, led by Father Schyma, gathering the unconscious collectors with Ezra and Josiah's help. The men herded the outlaws toward the jail.

"Looks like we got this part of the snake taken care of," Chris said grimly.

"Yep. Just hope JD and Buck got the head cut off," Vin said.

Chris slipped an arm over Vin's shoulder and leaned on the tracker as the two of them headed back to the boardinghouse.

Daniels' house was set apart from the rest of the town by a shrub-littered lot. JD and Buck used the cover of the bushes to work their way closer to the building and keep out of sight of the two guards on the porch. A light emanated from a lower floor window and that was Buck and JD's destination.

JD removed his hat and raised his head carefully to peer through a curtain's crack in the window. He spotted Daniels sitting behind a desk, his attention on an open ledger.

"Tallyin' his blood money," Buck commented dryly.

JD's mind raced. It looked like the window was locked from the inside and the two men at the front of the house ruled out the direct approach. There was probably a back door. "C'mon, we need to find another way in."

Buck followed JD around the corner of the house. JD spied a door, but no guard. He glanced at Buck, who nodded. A couple minutes later, they eased their way through the kitchen and down a dim hallway. Light peeping under a door told them they'd found the office where Daniels was.

Buck slipped to the other side of the closed door. JD's palms were moist and he wiped them on his trousers. He caught Buck's eye and swallowed his apprehension. It was time to rectify his mistake. JD wrapped his fingers around the doorknob then turned it and threw the door open, jumping into the room, his gun aimed at Daniels.

The ex-Texas Ranger jerked his head up sharply and his eyes widened. He quickly covered his surprise. "Nice of you to drop by, JD. Are you going to introduce me to your friend?"

JD shook his head angrily. "I trusted you, looked up to you."

Captain Daniels rested his fingers on the edge of the desktop. "Why don't you anymore?"

JD laughed bitterly. "As if you don't know. How did you change so much?"

All pretense of innocence disappeared from Daniels' face. "I didn't change at all, JD. While I was a Ranger, I made a few extra dollars by looking the other way. And if there wasn't any money to be made, I'd either kill him or take him in, whichever was easier."

The cold look in his eyes told JD he usually took the easiest route. How had he thought this man a hero?

"You're nothing but a cold-blooded murderer!" Fury made JD tighten his finger on the trigger.

"Easy, JD," Buck soothed. "He's not worth it."

JD's arm trembled with rage directed at Daniels and himself for being so green that he believed every word the man had said. He ached to pull the trigger, to punish the person who'd made a fool of him in front of his friends.

But what would that accomplish? To kill Daniels would make JD the same as him, the same as Achilles who'd killed without remorse. No, JD wasn't like either one. He sidled a glance at Buck-him and Chris and Vin and the others-that's who he wanted to be like. Slowly, his finger eased its pressure and his arm drooped, suddenly aching from holding the weapon.

Buck sent him a quick, approving nod which warmed JD clear through his chest.

Daniels raised his hand and in it was a revolver aimed at Buck. Instinctively, JD lifted his gun and squeezed the trigger. A blossom of red burst on Daniels' chest and his shocked eyes met JD's. The boy shivered as he watched Daniels slump forward, then flinched when the ex-Ranger's gun dropped to the floor with a loud thump.

The door behind them burst open and Buck spun around, his gun in hand. The two guards halted, stared at their boss, and looked back at Buck and JD.

"Lose the guns," Buck ordered.

The men allowed their weapons to slip to the floor and they raised their hands.

Buck kept his Colt trained on them as he moved to JD. He raised his free hand and gently lowered JD's arm, aiming the boy's gun at the floor. "You did what you had to, JD," he said, his voice low and full of empathy.

Dazed, JD turned to look at his friend. "I didn't want to be like him, Buck."

"You aren't, kid." Buck paused, then repeated softly, "You aren't."

Chris watched JD move his food around on his plate. The boy's pale face and unusual quietness told Chris more than the bare facts Buck had given them. JD had taken another step farther on a road where there was no turning back. Another death, another part of the soul torn out. Chris knew too much about that and wished JD could've been spared that same trail, but fate wasn't going to allow it.

"You should eat somethin', JD," Chris said, almost paternally.

"I ain't hungry," JD replied, not meeting Chris's gaze.

"Don't know how that can be," Buck said with forced cheer. "You ain't ate nothin' since last night."

JD shrugged, but didn't say anything.

Chris set his fork on his empty plate. In spite of the busy early morning, Mrs. O'Kelly had managed to throw together a huge breakfast. She called it a celebration. Chris wasn't so sure of that. Nobody had confessed to having shot him-Lassiter could be lying, but Chris didn't think so. The death of Ham Daniels had taken the wind out of the crooked lawman and he had made a full confession. There was no reason he wouldn't admit to shooting Chris, too, if it were true.

He glanced at JD, noting the boy's downcast expression. He'd been tough on the kid, but no tougher than he'd be on himself. JD had made a mistake and he'd learned from it. In fact, he'd learned more than Chris had expected.

"I'm proud of you, JD," Chris said with a husky voice.

That got JD's attention. "How can you be proud of me after I was so stupid?"

"You learned a hard lesson. Next time you'll be more careful."

"I almost got you all killed."

"But you didn't. You did good, kid."

JD blinked, then glanced at Buck who winked at him. Vin, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan all smiled. He turned back to Chris, his expression less dejected, and in his eyes, Chris read gratitude. JD turned his full attention to his breakfast and cleaned off his plate in record time.

Chris smiled to himself. JD would be okay. He took a deep breath, realizing how tired he suddenly was. He pushed back his chair and stood. "I think I'm gonna sleep for about twenty-four hours."

Nathan and JD rose, mumbling something about sleep, too.

"I'm gonna go check on Sire," Vin said. "Then I think I'll hit the sack, too."

"I feel the need to visit the house of the Lord," Josiah said with a mysterious smile.

"And I have a saloon to open," Ezra stated, setting his napkin on the table. He stood and bowed slightly at the waist to Mrs. O'Kelly. "Your culinary arts are exquisite, madam. Thank you for allowing me to partake in the fruits of your divine labors."

Mrs. O'Kelly waved a hand at him. "I'm not sure what you said, but thank you, Ezra."

"If you're headed to the saloon, I think I'll mosey on over, too," Buck said.

"You should be gettin' some rest, Ezra," Nathan chided. "You still got some healin' to do."

"And I shall rest." Ezra's eyes twinkled. "This evening."

Vin watched Chris, Nathan, and JD leave. He knew Nathan and JD would ensure Chris made it safely to his room. Vin needed to give Sire some exercise and with the protection racket broken up, he figured it was safe enough, though only for a short ride. The person who tried to kill Chris was still out there.

"Thanks for the fine victuals, ma'am," Vin said to Mrs. O'Kelly.

"You boys earned it and more."

"Seems to me you done a good job, too."

She laughed. "That was the most fun I had since my husband-God rest his soul-took me skinny dippin' twenty years ago."

Vin's face warmed with embarrassment, but he smiled at the woman, then followed Ezra, Josiah and Buck. As they went out, Vin almost bumped into Dr. James. He touched the brim of his hat with two fingers. "'Scuse me, ma'am."

"Is Chris inside?"

Vin nodded. "He went up to get some sleep."

"Oh. I was going to check his stitches."

"He just went up so he's probably still awake. Want me to go with?"

She shook her head. "That's all right. I know where his room is. Thank you."

Vin watched the doctor go into the boardinghouse. He frowned slightly, thinking she should've been pretty tired after caring for Lassiter. But, then, she had few patients and probably was glad for those she did have.

He veered toward the livery and entered, the redolent barn smells tickling his nose. Sire whinnied from his far stall and Vin smiled as he approached his horse. He picked up a curry and entered the small pen. After patting Sire's neck, he began to brush his coat.

"You gettin' tired of standin' around? How 'bout goin' for a ride?" Vin asked. Sire tossed his head and Vin smiled. "I'm gettin' a mite restless myself."

"Nice lookin' animal, Vin." Martha came out of a stall containing a handsome bay.

Though Vin was grateful for her help and for saving Chris's life, he still felt a bit skittish around her. "Thanks. Been with me about eight years now."

Martha came to stand by Sire's stall. "Where'd you say you were from?"

Vin shrugged. "Nowhere in particular. Lived in a place called Four Corners before comin' down here."

"Ain't that near Eagle Bend?"

"'Bout a day's ride. Why?"

"Doctor James told me she had family up there."

Unease chased through Vin. "Her husband from there?"

"Don't think so. Sounded like she was runnin' from somethin' when she married him 'bout eight, nine years back."

Chris had lived in Eagle Bend....

Vin dashed out of the stall and out of the livery, leaving a puzzled Martha in his wake.

Chris had just laid down when a soft knock on his door startled him. "Who is it?" he called.

"Doctor James. I'd like to check your wound."

Chris sighed. Sleep would have to wait a few more minutes. "Hold on."

Still wearing his trousers and shirt, he tugged on his boots but left his gunbelt on the dresser, and opened the door. Doctor James appeared a little nervous, but he figured it was just the excitement from the early morning.

"C'mon in," he said, stepping back.

Doctor James entered. "I'd like to check your wound."

"Sure." Chris lowered himself to the straight-backed chair and smiled faintly. "I don't need to be awake for this, do I?"

"Go ahead and rest."

He closed his eyes and listened to the doctor open her bag. She fumbled about for a moment, then there was silence followed by the recognizable click of a gun. His eyelids lifted and the first thing he saw was a two shot derringer aimed at his head.

"What's goin' on?" he demanded.

"You don't even remember me, do you?" she asked, her voice trembling.

Chris stared at her, trying to place her. "Should I?"

"My father was Rodney Stillwell."

"Stillwell?" Chris frowned, his memory taking him back over ten years. "He used to own the place I bought."

"The place you stole, you mean."

"I bought it from the bank. They foreclosed on it."

"No, my father said you stole it from him."

Chris remembered Stillwell, remembered how he was drunk more often than sober. "Your father lost the place because he spent more time in the saloon than at home."

She shook her head vehemently. "On his deathbed, he told me that Chris Larabee cheated him out of it." Tears filled the doctor's eyes.

"If you believed him, why did you wait until now to try to kill me?" Chris asked, trying to keep her talking.

"This is the first chance I had. Right after my father died, I met Doctor James. He asked me to marry him. I accepted and spent the last eight years with him, learning about medicine and healing." She took a deep breath. "Then I saw you come into town."

"And you decided taking a life was more important than saving a life," Chris said softly.

She blinked. "Only taking your life."

"You kill me and you're throwing away everything. My friends will make sure you hang or go to prison for the rest of your life."

Indecision flickered across her features. "It's your fault my father died."

Chris leaned forward. "Your father killed himself. He lost your home, then drank himself to death. You kill me and you lose everything you've worked for and believed in."

"He was all I had."

"I understand how losing someone you love can hurt and how much you want to blame someone. But sometimes there's no one to blame." Chris's throat tightened with helpless rage at the memory of Fowler's fiery death.

"You were married to Sarah Connelly," Elise James said as if reading Chris's mind.

The memory of Sarah and Adam's charred bodies made him look away, blinking rapidly. "She's dead. She and my son."

She remained silent for a long moment, as if contemplating his words. "How?"

"Murdered by someone after me." Chris's voice trembled, and he gazed at Dr. James through moisture-blurred eyes. "So you see, I know what it's like to want revenge."

"D-Did you find the person who did it?"

Chris nodded. "But he killed himself before telling me who hired him."

Dr. James' hand trembled and the derringer's barrel wavered. "When I saw you ride in, I knew I had to kill you. The first time I tried, I couldn't pull the trigger. The next night, I missed. When I finally shot you, I almost got sick."

"Yet you came over to help me," Chris said quietly. "You're not a killer. You're a doctor. Nathan says a good one. Don't throw that away."

He stood slowly and Dr. James' eyes widened. "Please, don't move."

"You can't murder me, Doctor James, because you know I'm telling the truth. You know how your father used to drink."

A tear rolled down her cheek. "He was a good man."

Chris took a step closer to her. "Yes, he was, and he wouldn't want you to do this. He was ashamed that he lost the farm." He held out his hand. "Give me the gun, Doctor James."

Chris remained motionless, staring into her eyes, willing her to believe him and surrender her gun. Finally, the woman lowered the derringer and placed it in Chris's palm. Sobs gripped her and her shoulders shook as she leaned forward against Chris's chest. He wrapped his arms around her.

The door burst open and Vin rushed in. He halted abruptly and his eyes widened. "What--?"

Chris met his gaze. "It's okay."

Vin spotted the derringer in Chris's hand and frowned in question.

"I'll explain later," Chris said quietly.

With a puzzled shrug, Vin backed out of the room and closed the door behind him.

Dr. James drew away from Chris, wiping her eyes. Her face was flushed and she couldn't meet his gaze. "I'm ready to go to jail."

"For what?"

"For attempted murder."

"This?" Chris pointed to his head wound. "That was an accident."

She finally looked at him. "I tried to kill you three times."

Chris shrugged. "I'm not going to press charges."


"Didn't you come in here to check my wound?"

Dr. James blushed. They both knew why she'd come there. "Do you trust a woman doctor?" she asked quietly.

The underlying question wasn't missed by Chris. "I trust you."

She managed a smile. "Then why don't you sit down while I remove those stitches?"

Chris lowered himself to the chair and held out his hand, revealing the derringer. "A woman alone needs to protect herself."

She stared at it as if it were a deadly spider, then gingerly took it from him and placed it in her bag. She unwrapped his bandage, carefully snipped the stitches, then dressed his wound with some diluted carbolic acid and re-covered it. "I remember Sarah."

Chris's breath caught in his throat.

"I didn't want to like her because she was married to you, but she always used to smile and talk to me. She was nice," Dr. James said.

The damnable emotion choked his throat again. "Yes, she was."

Dr. James tied off the bandage, then said quietly. "I'm sorry she and your son were killed."

Chris could only nod.

She closed her medical bag and straightened. "I don't know how to thank you, Mister Larabee."

"You don't have to, just don't give up on bein' a doctor."

Dr. James lent him a rueful smile. "I've lasted this long. I'm not about to quit now." She held out her hand and Chris shook it. "Good-bye."

Chris stood and gave her a nod. "Ma'am."

She left, quietly closing the door behind her. Chris flopped onto his bed and crossed his hands behind his head. He could vaguely recall Elise Stillwell, yet she'd hated him for ten years for something he hadn't done. He'd been guilty of many things, but Rodney Stillwell had brought on his own death. Maybe Elise had known that deep down, but hadn't wanted to believe it. It was easier to blame someone else rather than the person she'd loved.

Closing his eyes, Chris finally slept peacefully.

Josiah removed his hat as he entered the church. The smell of candlewax and incense tickled his nose, but the scent was a calming, pleasant one. He walked up the middle aisle, then stopped and closed his eyes, listening to the soothing silence. The sound of muffled footsteps made him open his eyes and he saw Father Schyma approaching him. There was a serenity about the priest that hadn't been there three days ago.

"Hello, Josiah," Father Schyma greeted.

Josiah tipped his head and smiled. "Father. I just wanted to stop by to thank you for your help."

The priest lowered his head, shaking it slowly. "No, it's I who must thank you for bringing me out of the darkness."

"You would've found your way out sooner or later."

Father Schyma's rueful gaze met Josiah's eyes. "I'm not so certain of that." He turned away and walked to the altar. He traced the crucifix with a reverent hand. "God knew what He was doing when He brought you to Pocket. You and your friends have brought all of us a new hope." He faced Josiah. "A new beginning."

A shiver slid down Josiah's spine. "You gave that to yourself. We only helped it along." He lifted his gaze to the cross. "Now Jesus, He was the one who gave us the new beginnin'. I only wish I could heed His call."

The priest joined Josiah. "The burden you carry can be shared."

Josiah smiled wryly. "It's my penance, Father. Penance for a decision that destroyed someone close to me."

"We all make mistakes."

Josiah recalled the words he'd used to try to console JD after he'd accidentally killed Annie. "That's what makes us human. But we have to live with those mistakes, too."

"My confessional is open," Father Schyma said softly.

Josiah's heart slammed against his ribs. Maybe it was time to speak the damning words and ask for forgiveness from God, although Josiah knew he could never grant himself forgiveness.

He nodded slowly. "I think I'll take you up on that."

"C'mon, Ezra," JD said. "Mrs. O'Kelly said she'd be serving Thanksgiving dinner at four o'clock."

Ezra spared a moment from his game to cast JD a quick look. "Once this hand is complete, I shall join you all."

Chris leaned back in his chair. "Relax, JD. We still got fifteen minutes."

Vin sipped his beer, watching Ezra and Kirkwood play the hand that would determine the ownership of the Barbary Coast. He'd followed their game closely for the past hour, wondering who'd be able to out-cheat the other. But now the papers for the saloon sat on the pile of chips in the center of the table. Vin wasn't sure what Ezra was doing. Vin glanced at his companions-Chris, JD, Nathan, and Josiah-and they all appeared as puzzled as him, except for Nathan. The healer was nodding and smiling slightly, as if he knew a secret.

Buck's boisterous laughter startled Vin and he spotted Buck entering the Barbary Coast with his arm around a blond barmaid. Buck looked...satisfied. The day after the men had rounded up the protection racket, Buck's animal magnetism had miraculously returned. Since then, they'd seen little of the mustached man. Even JD, who shared a room with him, hadn't seen much of him. It was good to see Bucklin back to normal.

Vin gave his attention back to the game and was just in time to hear Ezra's whoop of victory. Kirkwood didn't look too happy. As Vin watched, Kirkwood leaned forward and raked in the winnings.

Vin leaned over to Chris. "What happened?"

"I think Ezra just lost the Barbary Coast," Chris replied.

"Yep," Nathan interjected with a satisfied smile. "He sure did."

Ezra shook hands with Kirkwood and joined his friends. "I am a free man now, gentlemen."

Vin gazed at the fading yellowish bruises marring Ezra's face. "You wanted to lose it?"

"I acquired it under false pretenses. If I win a saloon, it shall be fairly."

Vin shook his head-he just didn't understand the gambler, and doubted if he ever would.

JD jumped to his feet. "Let's go eat."

The others rose more sedately, but each of them were looking forward to the big meal. Vin and JD had gone hunting and brought back four wild turkeys the day before. Mrs. O'Kelly had promised there'd be lots of stuffing, as well as seven pumpkin pies.

As they passed Buck and the saloon gal, JD grabbed his arm. "C'mon, Buck. Time to eat."

"Sorry, sweetheart, but I ain't gonna miss out on this." Buck managed to give the woman a quick kiss before JD dragged him away.

The seven men headed down the street toward Mrs. O'Kelly's. Martha Cannary, leading her bay, walked toward them. She waved and the seven men paused. "Howdy, boys."

They smiled and nodded at the odd woman who'd turned into an ally and friend.

"Goin' for a ride?" Vin asked, motioning to her horse.

"Nope. I'm movin' on. Already been here longer'n most places," she replied.

"Where you headed?" Josiah asked.

She shrugged. "North to Kansas, maybe Abilene. I'm gonna look for a new boyfriend, some man with nice long hair like yours." She winked at Vin.

The tracker's face heated. "Good luck, ma'am."

Martha leaned forward and hugged him, whispering close to his ear. "I ain't gonna tell anybody your secret, Vin Tanner. You ain't no murderer."

She stepped back and Vin stared at her in surprise. "How'd you find out?"

"I heard that fancy pants friend of yours call you Mister Tanner." Martha shrugged. "I done a little bounty huntin' in my time, and put two and two together." She raised her hand to the others, then mounted her bay. With a "yee haw," she trotted away down main street. As Martha rode past a man on a ladder, he slipped and fell eight feet, straight into a water trough.

"Calamity Martha," Josiah said with a grin.

The men chuckled and continued on to the boardinghouse. Buck wrapped a brotherly arm around JD's shoulders as they argued good-naturedly. Josiah, Nathan and Ezra debated the issue of cheating to lose, rather than cheating to win.

Vin and Chris walked side by side behind the group, enjoying the easy camaraderie flowing between the Seven.

"Doctor James should be in jail. She tried to kill you," Vin said softly.

Chris shook his head. "She's a doctor and a damned good one. This town needs her."

"You're more forgivin' than I'd be."

"You woulda done the same as me." Chris shrugged.

Vin smiled wryly. "I guess it's harder to see your friends hurt than gettin' hurt yourself."

Chris turned his head to search Vin's expression. "How have the nightmares been?"

"Ain't had one for the last coupla nights."

"Why's that?"

Vin met Chris's gaze. "Damned if I know. Maybe I been too tired to dream."

"More'n likely," Chris simply said.

Though each man knew there was more to the nightmares, neither one talked about it. For the moment, the Seven were safe and alive.

And for the moment, that was enough.


Stay tuned for The Trail to Tascosa #7

Historical note: Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane, met James Butler Hickok (better known as Wild Bill Hickok) in Abilene, Kansas circa 1860 and married him in a "flyleaf wedding". She followed him up to Deadwood in 1876, where Hickok was killed holding the now infamous "dead man's hand."

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