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.
"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."
Go to part 5