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.
Go to part 12