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 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."
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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