His step determined, Chris led the men down the two blocks to Lily's place, which turned out to be a small, but well-kept frame house, nicer than Chris had anticipated. He pounded on the door, but there was no answer. He tried again.
"Hold on, I'm comin'," a sleepy voice called from within. Two minutes passed before the door was swung open by the redhead from the Barbary Coast. Instead of her fancy dress, she wore a silk dressing gown. "Business hours are over, boys."
She began to close the door, but Chris stuck his boot against it. "We have some questions that need answers."
She narrowed her eyes. "What do I look like, some damned fountain of knowledge?"
"Where's Kirkwood?" Chris demanded.
"Gone, last I heard."
"How would I know, I just worked for him."
"That's not what we heard," Vin said, his quiet voice just as menacing as Chris's.
"Then you heard wrong."
"I don't think so," Chris said. "Why'd he let Ezra Standish win his saloon?"
Surprise flickered in her expression, but she quickly masked it. "What're you talkin' about?"
"You know damn good and well what we're talking about," Chris said, his voice dangerously low. He shoved the door wide open, slamming it against the wall behind it with a thunderous noise, and startling Lily. He took a step toward the woman and stared down at her. "Our friend just got beat up bad by some men wantin' money, and we think that Kirkwood tricked Ezra into takin' that place off his hands before he ended up like Ezra."
"And lady, we don't take kindly to folks usin' our friends," Vin added.
Her gaze hopped from Chris to Vin and the other four men. "Look, I didn't know your friend was gonna get hurt. Jameson told me he couldn't afford to pay the money anymore and that's why he wanted to get rid of it."
"So he used Ezra to take it off his hands," Nathan said.
"That's about it," Lily said with a shrug.
Chris knew she had more information than she was giving them, and he was going to get it from her one way or another. He continued to close in on her, forcing her to retreat farther into the house. The five men followed and Josiah closed the door behind them.
"You're gonna tell us where we can find Kirkwood," Chris said.
"Go to hell." Lily's words held more tremor than force.
Chris smiled coldly. "Only if we have to follow you there."
"If you don't leave, I'm gonna scream."
"Go ahead. Everybody knows what you do for a living--they'll just think you're workin' late."
The fear grew in her face. "If I tell you, he's gonna kill me."
"We'll protect you."
She laughed bitterly. "Like you protected your friend?"
"If we woulda known what was goin' on, we woulda protected him," Buck interjected. "But no one bothered to let us know what the hell was goin' on around here."
Lily planted her hands on her generous hips. "You come sashayin' into our town and figure you got the right to butt into our business."
Cold fury spilled through Chris and he leaned close to her, his face full of sharp angles and chiseled planes. "Our friend is lyin' unconscious because of your damned business, so it's our business now, too, lady."
"You don't know what'll happen if you go after those men," Lily said.
Another humorless smile touched Chris's lips. "I know exactly what's gonna happen to those men."
Lily spun around, giving her back to them and wrapped her arms around her waist. The silence was broken only by the ticking of the mantel clock. Chris exchanged a look with Vin, whose blue eyes had gone hard and frigid. The other men held themselves stiffly, tense and anxious to track down the bastards who'd beaten Ezra so badly.
"He bought another place in Rifle, about twenty miles north of here," she admitted.
"And here you said he didn't have any money left," Josiah said mildly, though there was no doubt he was banking his anger behind the quiet voice.
She turned to face them. "Jameson asked Lewis the bartender and me to come join him. I was gonna tell Mr. Standish I was quittin' tomorrow." She glanced at the clock which read three forty-five. "Today."
"Vin, JD, ride into Rifle and bring Kirkwood back," Chris ordered.
"We'll have him here afore noon," Vin assured.
He and JD left quickly.
"Do you know who's involved in this racket?" Chris asked Lily.
She shook her head. "No, and that's the honest-to-God truth. I don't know if anybody knows who they are."
Chris studied her a moment, then accepted her answer. "If you hear anything, you tell me, understand?"
"I ain't gonna be sticking around long enough to hear anything. When those two bring Jameson back, he's going to come looking for me." Lily shivered.
Chris's anger receded slightly. "All right, but if we find out you were hiding something, we'll find you no matter where you run."
"I just want to get out of this mess."
Chris granted her a quick nod, then without another word, he led Josiah, Buck, and Nathan out of the house.
"You think it's a good idea for her to be leavin'?" Buck asked.
"We got what we needed from her," Chris replied.
"Now what do we do?" Nathan asked.
"We wait until Ezra wakes up then see what else he knows. Maybe we can set a trap and catch some vermin."
The four men returned to the boardinghouse where Dr. James and Mrs. O'Kelly remained in the parlor beside Ezra.
"Any change?" Nathan asked.
Dr. James shook her head. "If he doesn't regain consciousness in the next twelve hours, come and get me." She stood.
"I'll walk you back, ma'am," Josiah volunteered.
After the door closed behind Josiah and the doctor, Mrs. O'Kelly excused herself and returned to her room. Nathan, Buck and Chris remained in the parlor, settling in the chairs to watch over Ezra.
Ezra awakened slowly, his mind still locked in the nightmare he'd had. He opened his eyes, blinked a few times in the bright room, and looked around. He didn't recognize the place. Panic threatened to choke him and he drew long deep breaths to ease his alarm. His ribs throbbed and his face felt stiff and swollen.
Had the nightmare really happened?
Nathan's dark face came into focus above him. "You're awake."
"I-I had hoped I wasn't," Ezra said, not recognizing the weak voice as his.
"You remember what happened?"
Ezra stared at the ceiling, concentrating past the painful ache in his head. "I had hoped it was a nightmare."
Nathan shook his head. "Nope, it was real enough to give you some pretty nasty injuries." He lifted a cup of water to Ezra's lips. "Drink this."
The liquid stung his cut mouth but he swallowed it gratefully. "Thank you, Doctor Jackson."
"You can thank Doctor James next time you see her."
Though still groggy, Ezra caught the last word. "You said 'her'?"
"That's right. You got a problem with that?"
Ezra studied the man who he wouldn't have even associated with two years ago, yet today claimed as a good friend. Nathan had taught him not to judge a person merely by their external appearance, so who was he to take exception to a woman doctor?
"Not at all, Nathan," he said quietly. Weariness tugged at him, luring him back to its refuge. "I believe I shall...succumb to..." Ezra's eyes closed and his face relaxed in slumber.
Chris awakened with a start, and for a moment couldn't remember where he was. Then he saw Nathan leaning over Ezra and joined the healer. "He wake up?"
Nathan nodded. "Wasn't awake long, though. He needs to sleep now."
Chris sniffed the air and his stomach growled. "Smells like Mrs. O'Kelly's got breakfast on. We'll eat something then do a little askin' around town, see if we can find out anymore."
"I got a feelin' no one's gonna wanna tell us anything."
Chris ran an impatient hand through his hair. "More'n likely, but we got to try."
"What about Miz Cannary?" Buck asked. "She seems to know everyone's business."
Chris turned to look at the lanky man. "Good idea, Buck. Why don't you and Josiah see if you can find her after breakfast?"
"We can pay Father Schyma a visit, too. I have a feeling he knows more than he lets on," Josiah, who had slept in one of the crushed velvet wing chairs, spoke up.
"Do it," Chris said with a curt nod. "Me and Nathan'll check with other business owners, see if they'd be willin' to tell us anything."
"What about Ezra? He gonna be okay by himself?" Buck asked.
Mrs. O'Kelly stepped into the room. "I'll be in the house all day, and I've taken care of my share of hurt folks." She paused a moment, then added. "If he seems to be gettin' worse, I'll get Dr. James."
"Thanks, we appreciate it," Chris said.
Nathan gave her a kind smile. "Dr. James'll appreciate that, too."
She glanced down self-consciously, then announced, "Breakfast is ready."
Chris smiled for the first time since they'd found Ezra lying on the porch. "I think we could all use some of your cookin'."
The tension eased slightly, and the men walked into the dining room.
"We need to find out what's goin' on in this town, Miz Cannary," Buck began.
Josiah shifted on the hard chair, watching Martha's face closely. After checking ten other bars, they'd finally found her in the Lucky Chance Saloon.
She downed half a glass of beer and swiped her mouth with her arm. By the looks of the leather sleeve, she often used it as a napkin. "I heard about your friend, that fancy gambler fellah who won Kirkwood's place. How's he doin'?"
Josiah glanced at Buck, shrugged, and answered, "He's gonna be sore for awhile, but he'll be all right."
"Can you tell us who might've done that to Ezra?" Buck reiterated.
"Reckon it was probably some men lookin' for some easy money." She looked around. "Where's Vin?"
Buck's lips twitched. "He had to leave town."
Martha's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Just like that he left?"
"He'll be back," Josiah assured. "He went to get Kirkwood."
Relief covered Martha's expression. "That's right good to hear. But then I didn't figger he'd run out on a friend."
Josiah smiled. "You're right about that."
Martha stared into her empty mug. "I was real sorry to hear about your friend. He didn't seem a bad sort--maybe a little high-hat, but I seen worse. I been in this town a couple months now and I seen what's been goin' on. Nobody talks about it, but everyone knows."
"Knows what?" Josiah prompted gently.
"That there's someone gettin' rich off them, but everyone's too scared to find out who it is."
"Has anyone tried to stand up to them?" Buck asked.
"Two did and they're both dead."
Buck and Josiah exchanged somber looks. Dr. James had said the same thing.
"What about the men who do the dirty work? Any idea who any of them are?" Buck asked.
"They wear masks and nobody's been able to follow'em. Could be any one of a bunch of no-goods that hang around in this here town," Martha said grimly. "I been turnin' the other way for too long. I'll see what I can find out, boys."
"Thanks, Miz Cannary," Josiah said.
"Anyone ever tell you you got a nice smile, Josiah?" Martha asked.
"Thank you, ma'am."
Martha sighed. "Iffen I wasn't already Vin's girlfriend, I'd ask you to buy me a drink."
Josiah laid a coin on the table and said in a low voice, "We just won't tell Vin." He sent her a wink.
As he and Buck started to rise, one of Josiah's chair legs collapsed, sending the preacher to the floor in an undignified heap.
"You okay, Josiah?" Buck asked.
"I think so."
Buck offered Josiah a hand and helped the big man up. Josiah brushed his hand across his backside, wincing slightly.
"Sorry 'bout that, Josiah," Martha said sadly. "I just got no control over it."
Buck and Josiah exchanged puzzled looks then shrugged and left the saloon. They crossed the street and walked down a block to the church. Josiah paused by the door. "You mind waitin' out here, Buck? I might get more out of him alone."
Buck motioned for him to go ahead. "Give me a holler if you need help."
Josiah entered the church and walked down the aisle to the back room doorway. He paused to look inside the living quarters and saw Father Schyma lying on his cot, snoring loudly. Josiah crossed the floor and shook the priest's shoulder. The smell of stale whiskey emanating from Father Schyma told Josiah he'd drunk himself to sleep.
"Father, wake up," Josiah said.
The priest roused and sat up with Josiah's help. "What time is it?"
"Nearly ten thirty. We need your help Father."
"At this ungodly hour?" The priest glanced upward. "No offense intended."
"You said something to me about the evil in this town. I need to know what you meant."
Father Schyma pressed his hands to either side of his head and stared down at the floor. "Nothing."
Josiah frowned. "By lying you're breaking a commandment."
The priest laughed bitterly. "It wouldn't be the first I've broken."
"But it can be the last. Help yourself and help your flock, Father." Josiah paused, then said quietly, "Help us."
Father Schyma raised his head. "It's been a long time since anyone has asked for my assistance."
Josiah waited patiently as the priest pushed himself upright and shuffled around the small room. He prayed the man hadn't lost all his faith.
Father Schyma stopped beside the grimy window and peered out at the street . "When I helped build this church fifteen years ago, I was young and my convictions ran deep," he began. "I believed that as long as God was on my side, I could do anything.
"I held the first service when only the frame was standing. As I gave my sermon, I looked up at the blue sky and thanked God for giving me this home and a flock to lead."
The priest rubbed his brow. "My first burial was a young woman who died in childbirth along with her baby. Her husband blamed me."
"He said if I'd prayed harder, they would've lived. I told him it didn't work that way. God was the only one who could give or take life." He turned to face Josiah, his face stricken. "But there was a tiny piece of me that wondered the same thing. Maybe if I had prayed harder. Then I began to question God, asking Him why He would take two innocent lives."
"Nobody but God knows why He does what He does," Josiah said quietly.
Father Schyma smiled bitterly. "I kept telling myself that as I went about my day-to-day duties, ministering to my parishioners. About five years ago, an influenza epidemic swept through town." He scrubbed his anguished face with his palms. "For over a month, I was burying someone every day, usually a child who had done nothing wrong in their short lives. And I saw greedy, selfish men continue to cheat and swindle decent folks. Nothing made sense to me any more, but I tried. I figured God was testing me."
"So what was the last straw?"
"A couple years ago, a poor family who had only the clothes upon their backs were passing through town. They had a little girl who needed to see a fancy doctor in St. Louis or she was going to die. I tried to help them by having a special collection during service, but there wasn't nearly enough. So I sold the gold chalice and cross, and gave them the money to save her life. They left right away." The priest took a deep breath. "Later I heard they'd done the same thing in five other towns. My parishioners blamed me." Father Schyma rubbed his eyes. "All I wanted to do was help."
"You can't be faulted for that, Father," Josiah said softly. "Folks should've understood."
He shrugged. "A few did, but most didn't. From over a hundred parishioners, I now have maybe twenty people who attend service."
Josiah's heart went out to the reverend, but pity was the last thing Father Schyma needed. "And when those few faithful came to you for help against the men who are holding your town hostage, you only crawled deeper into your bottle."
Fire flashed briefly in the priest's eyes. "What was I supposed to do? I'm only one man."
Josiah shook his head and moved to leave. He paused by the door. "Jesus was only one man," he said quietly, then turned and walked away.
Buck, feeling guilty for having left Ezra alone the night before, opened the Barbary Coast at its usual time. Only a few tables were taken by noon, and one of them was occupied by Chris and Josiah. Nathan had stayed at the boardinghouse, visiting with Dr. James quietly as they both watched over the still-sleeping Ezra.
Buck brought a couple beers over to Chris and Josiah, set them down, then wiped his hands on his apron. "Vin and JD ain't back yet?"
Chris shook his head. "Nope."
Buck understood his abruptness; he was worried, too. "Maybe you two should ride out to meet them."
"If they ain't back by one, we will," Chris said.
A scuffle on the boardwalk outside made the three men turn to the batwing doors. A moment later, a suited bald man was shoved inside followed by Vin and JD, both covered with dust.
"You have no right," Kirkwood shouted.
Chris pushed back his chair and stood, then stared at Kirkwood like he was something he didn't want to step in. Without warning, he punched Kirkwood, felling him like an oak tree. Chris smiled coldly. "That was for our friend, Ezra Standish."
Kirkwood stared at Chris as he lay on the floor, his hand pressed to his bleeding lip. "You're Chris Larabee."
Chris nodded. "That's right." He paused, letting Kirkwood sweat for a moment. "You're going to tell us everything you know about this protection racket--or you and me are going to have a little meeting in the middle of the street."
The bald man's face paled and he seemed to shrink into himself. "You'll kill me."
Chris tipped his head slightly. "Probably."
Kirkwood scrambled to his feet, only to find he was caught in the middle of a circle created by the five men. "I don't know anything."
"Hear that boys? He says he doesn't know anything," Chris said in a dangerously mocking voice.
"Maybe he just needs a little persuadin'," Buck added.
"And I'm in the mood to do a little persuadin'," Josiah commented.
Chris almost shivered at the cold look in the ex-preacher's eyes.
Kirkwood held his hands in front of him. "No, please, I swear I didn't recognize any of them."
"Who're they workin' for?" Vin demanded.
"I don't know."
Buck grabbed the bald man's arm and spun him around. "Who're they workin' for?"
"I don't know."
Then Chris jerked him around to face him. "Who are they?"
Kirkwood stumbled slightly, obviously getting dizzy. "I don't know. I swear it."
"Why'd you pick Ezra?" Josiah asked.
Kirkwood licked his dry lips. "When he said his friend was Chris Larabee, I figured you could get rid of whoever's running the racket."
"Why didn't you just ask for our help?" Buck demanded.
"I would've been killed. Anybody who talks is killed. Besides, why would you have helped me?"
Chris studied the slick gambler--he had a point. "So you threw Ezra to the wolves to save your own damned hide."
Kirkwood swallowed hard and looked away, unable to hold Chris's gaze. "I didn't think they'd hurt him."
Chris grabbed the man's lapels and jerked him close, until their faces were only a couple inches apart. "You sonuvabitch! You knew exactly what they were going to do when Ezra didn't have the money."
Kirkwood's face lost any color it had left. "There's one thing I remember."
"One of the men who collected the money."
Chris stared into Kirkwood's close-set eyes, then shoved him away. "What?"
"One of 'em wore those fancy spurs, big rowels. Made a lot of noise when he walked."
"Think you could identify them?"
Kirkwood nodded jerkily. "Yeah, I think so."
"All right, Mr. Kirkwood. Until we catch the men, you're going to jail," Chris said.
"You can't do that. I didn't break any laws."
"Sure you did." Chris's smile was anything but pleasant. "We'll figure out which ones after you're safely in a cell."
He grabbed the back of Kirkwood's jacket and shoved him toward the batwing doors. "Buck and Josiah, you two stay here, keep an eye on things. JD, go get some sleep."
Go to part 6