Vin joined Chris as he escorted Kirkwood down the boardwalk toward the sheriff's office.
"Have any trouble findin' him?" Chris asked.
Vin shook his head. "Nope. Just asked someone and they pointed us in the right direction."
"What's going to happen to me?" Kirkwood asked.
"Depends on how much you cooperate," Chris said.
They entered the sheriff's office, pushing the gambler in ahead of them. Sheriff Lassiter looked up from behind his desk. "What's goin' on here?"
"We're makin' a citizen's arrest," Chris said.
Vin motioned for Kirkwood to enter one of the cells and locked the door behind him while Chris kept an eye on the lawman.
"I thought Kirkwood left town," Sheriff Lassiter said.
"He got homesick," Vin said innocently.
The sheriff stood. "What'd he do?"
Chris shrugged. "Haven't figured that out yet."
Lassiter's hand moved toward his revolver.
"I wouldn't," Chris said quietly.
The sheriff froze. "I seen you men when you came into town a few days ago, but figgered since you were stayin' at Mrs. O'Kelly's, that you weren't no troublemakers. Guess I shoulda known better when your friend won the Barbary Coast."
Vin wrapped his slender fingers around his gunbelt and leaned on his right leg. "How come you know so much about our business?"
Lassiter's face reddened. "It's my business to keep an eye on drifters. Make sure they don't cause any trouble."
"Seems to me you got all the trouble you need already," Chris said. "If you know so much, tell us about this protection racket."
The lawman's gaze flickered away. "I don't know where you're gettin' your information, but there's nothin' like that in Pocket."
Vin's jaw clenched. "Tell our friend that. He was beat up bad last night by these men that don't exist."
"You don't know that's what happened."
Chris took a step toward the sheriff, whose shoulders stiffened. "You tell those men who're payin' you that they made a big mistake hurtin' our friend. We're comin' after them and ain't nothin' gonna stop us, includin' a tin badge."
Lassiter's lips compressed in a tight line.
"And if somethin' happens to Kirkwood, we're comin' after you," Vin said, his voice low and deadly.
As Vin crossed the office, Chris kept his attention on the sheriff, then he backed to the door, never losing eye contact with Lassiter.
"You can't leave me here," Kirkwood called. "I got rights."
"You gave up your rights when you set up our friend," Chris said.
He and Vin stepped outside into the fresh air.
"They might try to kill Kirkwood," Vin said softly.
"I'm willin' to take that chance," Chris said, his voice almost feral.
Vin nodded. "Yeah, the bastard deserves it." He glanced around. "What's next?"
"You get some sleep. I'm gonna see if I can find some spurs."
Chris started across the street, but Vin grabbed his arm. "I ain't tired."
The blond man eyed him critically, noting the dark circles beneath Vin's eyes, and said gently, "If you were any more tired, you'd be sleepwalkin'. Besides, if you're in your room restin', Martha can't find you."
Vin scowled. "I ain't gonna leave you alone to be a target. What do ya got planned?"
Chris shook his head--he should have known he wouldn't be able to convince Vin to get some sleep when there was a possibility of gun trouble. In spite of his concern, Chris knew the long-haired man wouldn't appreciate his overprotectiveness. Although he and Vin had become good friends, there was still a line Vin didn't allow him to cross. It obviously came from the many years Vin had been on his own.
"See that store across the street?" Chris asked.
Vin glanced at the large mercantile. "Yep."
"I'm gonna sit down over there and listen to spurs."
Vin blinked, then grinned. "I'll do the same on this side of the street whilst I keep an eye on the jail, too."
"Sounds like a plan." Chris slapped his shoulder and strode across the street.
An hour later, Chris took a deep breath and shifted his numb buttocks on the hard chair. He'd hoped the man wearing the big spurs would walk past either him or Vin, so they wouldn't have to go chasing him, but so far they hadn't had any luck.
He looked across the street at Vin who sat in a chair in front of the sheriff's office. His legs were stretched out, crossed at the ankles and his hat was pulled low on his forehead. If Chris didn't know better, he'd figure Vin was sleeping.
A rifle boomed and Chris felt a burning pain in his temple. He tumbled to the boardwalk, vaguely aware of a woman screaming behind him. His head throbbed and he couldn't think beyond the blinding agony. Consciousness wavered, and Chris fought the temptation to give in to the calming darkness that beckoned.
Who the hell shot me?
Vin heard the rifle shot a split second before Chris was punched backward to the boardwalk. The tracker came to his feet, drawing out his sawed-off carbine in one smooth motion. He dashed out into the street, searching the rooftops and windows where a sniper would be. Nothing moved and there were no more shots.
He ran to Chris, his heart thundering against his ribs, and fell to his knees beside his friend. It was just like his nightmare, where Vin had been unable to save Chris's life and could only watch helplessly as he was shot down.
Blood pooled on the weathered boards, making the wood even darker. Fear made Vin's breath come in quick gasps. He set his weapon on the boardwalk and carefully turned Chris onto his back. On one side of Chris's head, his blond hair was matted with fresh scarlet blood.
Vin's throat tightened. "Chris. Chris, can you hear me?"
Chris's eyelids fluttered open and his mouth moved, but no words came out. At least he was still alive.
"Take it easy, pard." Vin lifted his gaze to the surrounding people and yelled, "Someone help me get him over to Mrs. O'Kelly's."
"Let me take a look at him."
Startled, Vin turned to see the proper looking doctor rushing toward them. Her face was pale, and he figured she wasn't used to seeing men shot down on the street.
"I heard the gunshot," the doctor said as she dabbed the blood from Chris's brow with trembling hands.
"D-Didn't see...who it was," Chris murmured.
"He's conscious and cognizant," Dr. James said with a slight tremor in her voice. "That's a good sign."
"I'll take your word on that, ma'am," Vin said absently, his attention focused on his wounded friend.
Chris's gaze settled on Vin. "D-Did you...see anyone?"
Vin shook his head impatiently. "Nope. Bastard got away." He looked at Dr. James. "He gonna be all right?"
She applied some smelly salve to the bullet gouge and Chris hissed in pain. "I think so. He was very lucky. An inch or two to the right and he'd have been dead." She brought out a roll of cloth from her bag. "Could you hold him up while I wrap his head?"
Vin nodded and raised Chris's shoulders then put an arm around him, holding him sheltered against his chest. Chris's jaw clenched and Vin knew his friend was hurting. Bad.
The blond man met Vin's gaze with his own pain-filled eyes. "I'm...all r-right."
"Sure you are, cowboy," Vin said. He looked up at the people gathered around them. "Go on about your business folks. Let the doctor do her job."
Martha Cannary pushed through the dispersing crowd. "Vin, honey, you all right?"
Vin wasn't in the mood for the aggravating woman and he didn't bother to hide his displeasure at seeing her. "It wasn't me who was shot."
She glanced at Chris and genuine concern crossed her face. "Was it them men you're after that done this?"
"We don't know," Vin said tersely, tightening his hold around Chris's shoulders as his friend stiffened.
Martha squatted down beside him and glanced around nervously. "I might have some information for you."
"What is it?"
"I was talkin' to Leo over at the Lucky Chance. He said that he was expectin' some company tomorrow night--the same type o' company your friend Standish got," Martha said in a low voice.
Surprised, Vin stared at the woman's dirty, but earnest face. "I thought nobody talked about it."
Martha shrugged. "Me and Leo is friends."
"Does he know...you were gonna t-tell us?" Chris asked.
"Nope. Iffen I was you, I'd head them off after they leave the Lucky Chance."
Dr. James finished wrapping the bandage around Chris's head. "That ought to take care of you, Mister Larabee."
"Think you can stand?" Vin asked.
"Don't m-matter. I'm goin' to," Chris stated.
With Martha on one side and Vin on the other, they got Chris to his feet. Chris closed his eyes as he swayed a moment. They moved down the boardwalk slowly with the doctor walking closely behind them.
Five minutes later they arrived at the boardinghouse. Nathan came out of the parlor where he'd been watching Ezra and his mouth dropped open at the sight of Chris supported between Vin and Martha.
Nathan slipped in to take Martha's place beside Chris. "What happened?"
"Someone bushwhacked him right on the street in full light," Vin replied, fury and disgust layering his tone.
Nathan's jaw muscles clenched. "Could you sit with Ezra, Miz Cannary?" he asked over his shoulder.
Looking unsure of herself for the first time since Vin had met her, Martha nodded nervously.
Dr. James followed the three men upstairs and opened the door that Vin pointed out. Vin and Nathan made Chris comfortable on the bed, pulling off his jacket, gunbelt, and boots. The doctor, who'd carried his hat back, hung it on a wall peg.
Though Dr. James had taken care of Chris, Vin noticed that Nathan did a quick inspection of her work. He knew the healer trusted her abilities, but Nathan had been taking care of the Seven's wounds for so long, it was a tough habit to break. Besides that, it didn't matter if the doctor had been a man or woman, Vin felt better with Nathan looking Chris over.
The bandage about Chris's head was soaked with blood and Dr. James perched on the other side of the bed to remove it.
"It needs some stitches," she said. "Will you give me a hand, Nathan?"
Vin leaned against the doorjamb, his thumbs propped on his belt, as he watched the healer and the doctor work together. Nathan managed to keep Chris from moving too much while the doctor sewed up the wound. Vin gritted his teeth. He'd had a head wound a few weeks ago so he knew what Chris was going through and it was damned unpleasant. The only good thing was that Chris had lapsed into unconsciousness when they began so was spared the worst of the pain.
He should've tried to track down the bastard who'd shot at Chris the night before--was it only twelve hours ago? But after Ezra had been beaten, they'd all banded together to find the men who'd done it. In fact, Vin had almost forgotten about the gunshot that had sent him and Chris rolling for cover after they left the Barbary Coast. This time, though, Vin wasn't going to forget.
He didn't know if Chris's attacker and the men involved in the protection racket were related, but his gut told him they weren't. It didn't make any sense, but Vin couldn't ignore his instincts.
A floorboard creaked in the hall and Vin turned to see JD walking toward him. "What's goin' on?" he asked drowsily, pulling a hand through his dark, sleep-tousled hair.
"Someone shot Chris," Vin replied without embellishment.
His reply jolted JD wide awake. "How bad?"
"Took a chunk outta the side of his head."
JD's face paled. "Who did it?"
"We don't know. Might be the same people who hurt Ezra, but I ain't so sure."
Dr. James stood and washed her hands in the basin. "He's going to have a whale of a headache and he'll be more tired than usual for the next week or so. There's also a good chance his vision will be blurry and his stomach upset. If he has other symptoms like numbness or unusual clumsiness, come and get me."
"Hey, get down here," Martha called from downstairs. "That Standish fellah is wakin' up."
"Will Chris be all right alone?" Vin asked the doctor.
"He'll just sleep now," she replied.
Dr. James led the way downstairs with Nathan and JD following closely. Vin took one last look at Chris's pale face and closed the door softly behind him, then went to join the others in the parlor.
The moment Vin entered the room, Ezra's gaze found him and the gambler sent him a swollen, lopsided smile. Despite his concern for Chris, the tracker couldn't help but smile in return. "Welcome back, Ezra. How ya doin'?"
"I have been better, Mister Tanner." Ezra's voice was so hoarse Vin could barely make it out.
"Drink some water, Ezra," Nathan said, tipping a cup up to his lips.
The gambler drank it all, then closed his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them, they were trained on Vin. "What happened?"
"You were beat up," Vin replied.
"You misunderstand. What recently transpired?"
JD shifted uncomfortably while Nathan and Vin exchanged grim expressions. Martha stood off by herself, watching and listening with narrowed eyes, while Dr. James hovered near the sofa where Ezra lay.
"Chris was shot," Vin said curtly.
"Badly?" Ezra asked, a slight tremor in his voice.
Vin looked to Nathan, who replied. "He'll live."
"Were they the same criminals who perpetrated the act of violence against me?"
"We don't know," Vin said. "Don't worry, we'll take care of 'em, Ezra." He smiled, though the expression was grim. "You can bet on it."
Ezra sat up and tried to swing his legs off the sofa, but Nathan pressed him back down firmly.
"Where do ya think you're goin'?" Nathan asked.
"I have a business to manage."
"Buck's over there watchin' it for you."
Alarm crossed Ezra's bruised features. "Then I surely must return to my establishment." With surprising strength, he pushed Nathan's hand away and sat up, planting his feet on the floor.
Dr. James propped her hands on her hips. "Mister Standish, you were badly injured and if you insist on moving about, you may cause further damage."
Ezra blinked, and his gaze roamed up and down the woman curiously. "Who, pray tell, are you?"
"Doctor Elise James," she replied defensively.
His smile was made crooked by his swollen lips. "So you are the angel of mercy Mister Jackson told me of. Thank you for your kind and knowledgeable assistance. However, I assure you, I have been maltreated worse than this and have survived."
He pushed himself upright and the room tilted. A strong, dark hand caught his arm and steadied him.
"See, you ain't ready to be up yet," Nathan chastised.
"Nathan's right, Ezra. You ain't in any condition to go gallivantin' about," Vin said.
Stubbornness hardened Ezra's usually impassive expression. "I was assaulted in my own establishment. I will not allow those Neanderthals to scare me away from my home. When they return tomorrow night, I shall be there to welcome them."
"Whoa there, pard," Vin soothed, laying a hand on the gambler's shoulder. "You ain't gonna welcome them alone. You said tomorrow night?"
"That's correct, Mister Tanner."
"That'll give us time to get a plan together," Vin said. He eyed Ezra closely. "You hellbent on gettin' back to your place?"
"Yes, sir, I most certainly am."
Vin sighed. "Aw, hell, me and Nathan'll help you back."
Resignation made Nathan shake his head, and he glanced at Dr. James. "You ever seen such a mule-stubborn patient?"
Dr. James smiled. "No, but I hope to see more of them."
A look of long-suffering crossed Nathan's face. "You will. In fact, real soon." He rolled his eyes upward to where Chris's room was.
Dr. James's smile faded and it seemed to Vin that her face paled a little. He shook his head-she probably wasn't used to folks getting shot right in front of her.
JD watched as Nathan and Vin got on either side of Ezra and helped him out of the boardinghouse. JD followed them to the porch then lowered himself to a chair and twirled his derby hat between his hands. He had to do something to help. With both Chris and Ezra hurt, they were down to five men and JD had an idea the group they were after far outnumbered them.
He wondered why Chris hadn't wanted Captain Daniels to help them. The man was a Texas Ranger and he'd lived in the town for over a year. He had to have some idea what was happening in Pocket.
He gazed down the street. A group of boys and girls played hoops; two men were filling a buckboard with supplies from the general store; a smithy's hammer rang in the clear air of the bustling town. JD half expected to see some sign of the town's corruption, but it lay hidden beneath the surface of the innocent, everyday activities.
Spotting a tall, familiar figure, JD knew what he had to do. He jumped to his feet and hurried down the street to meet Captain Daniels, who was strolling toward a Chinese laundry.
"Hi Cap'n," JD greeted.
Daniels smiled. "Hello, JD. I haven't seen you all day."
The two men continued to walk slowly side by side.
"Me and Vin went to Rifle to bring back Kirkwood," JD said.
"This have anything to do with Standish being hurt?"
"You heard about that?"
Daniels nodded. "Kind of hard not to. Everyone's been talking about it."
JD shoved his hands in his jacket pockets. "You hear about the protection racket, too?"
The captain looked straight ahead. "I'd have to be blind and deaf not to know about it."
Disappointment arrowed through JD. "Then why ain't you done anything?"
"I'm not a Texas Ranger anymore. I just want to live out my days nice and quiet-like."
"But those men who are doing this are criminals. They've hurt folks, including one of my friends, and they killed people, too."
Captain Daniels was silent for a long moment, then he stopped and faced JD. He kept his voice low. "You're right, son. I have been hiding my head in the sand for too long. Maybe it's time I strapped my gun back on and take on the bastards who are hurting the people in my town."
Elated, JD nodded enthusiastically. "If anyone can do it, you can, Cap'n."
Daniels rested his hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, JD, but even I can't do it alone. Do you and your friends have a plan?"
"Not yet, but as soon as we do, I'll let you know."
"Good. I'll be ready." Daniels turned to enter the laundry, then paused. "Don't tell them I said I'd help." He smiled. "The best defense is a surprise offense."
Although JD wasn't exactly sure what that meant, he trusted the Ranger. "You can count on me, sir."
Daniels held up a finger. "What did I say about calling me sir?"
"I'll see you later at the Barbary Coast."
JD waited until Daniels disappeared into the building, then grinned. Captain Ham Daniels was going to help them! How could they lose with the help of a famous Texas Ranger?
With a newfound optimism, JD went in search of his friends.
Go to part 7