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.
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.
Go to part 11