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 end...one 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--3/4 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."
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.
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.
Go to part 3