A quiet knock made Vin jerk his head up and he groaned at the stiffness in his neck. Sleeping in a chair all night hadn't been the smartest thing to do. He glanced at Chris and was relieved to see he remained asleep. Standing, Vin padded to the door in his stocking feet, picking up his sawed-off carbine on the way. Hefting the familiar weight in his right hand, he cautiously opened the door with his other. The dark anxious face on the other side made him smile as he allowed Nathan in.
"How's he doin'?" the healer asked.
"Fine. Woke up around midnight, had some food and water, talked some. He's been asleep since then."
"He have any amnesia, numbness, anything like that?"
Vin shook his head. "Just a headache."
Nathan sighed in relief. "I'll sit with him while you get breakfast. I already ate."
The tracker's stomach growled and he smiled self-consciously. "Reckon I am kinda hungry."
Vin splashed water across his face, then ran his damp fingers through his hair to try to tame the unruly mess. Sitting on his bed, he tugged on his boots. "You seen Ezra yet?"
"When you get back from eatin', I'll go over and check on him. Ezra's a late sleeper and I'm probably gonna be wakin' him up the way it is."
Vin chuckled softly. "You'll probably be wakin' Bucklin, too."
Nathan scowled. "And that man's ornery when he's woke up." His eyes took on a twinkle. "'Specially if he's sleepin' alone."
Vin stood and slapped Nathan's shoulder lightly as he gave him a quick nod. Vin hurried downstairs, not wanting to be away from Chris for too long. He knew Nathan would take care of him, but if Chris's unknown attacker tried again, Vin wanted to be there.
"Sit down, Vin. I kept some victuals warm for you," Mrs. O'Kelly said as he entered the kitchen.
The "some victuals" turned out to be enough for three men, though Vin valiantly tried to finish it all in the shortest amount of time possible.
"Slow down there, son. This isn't a race," Mrs. O'Kelly scolded.
Sheepishly, Vin did as she said. She sat across from him, drinking a cup of coffee and watching him.
"You boys plannin' on stickin' around for Thanksgiving?" she asked.
"When is it?"
"Thursday-in five days. I'm hopin' you boys'll still be here. It'll give me a chance to show off some more of my cookin'." She paused. "You bring your friend Ezra, too. He looks like he could use some more meat on his bones."
"Yes, ma'am. I figger he and Chris is gonna need some extra time to heal, so's I think you can count on us bein' here." He arched an eyebrow. "I hope you know what you're gettin' into, with seven hungry men who can put away more food than a bear gettin' ready to sleep for the winter."
Mrs. O'Kelly eyes twinkled. "I tell you what. You get me some wild turkeys, and I promise you everyone'll get more than enough to eat."
"You got yourself a deal."
"Good." The sound of a bell drifted in, and Mrs. O'Kelly shook her head. "Would you listen to that? Father Schyma hasn't rung that bell in over two years." She closed her eyes and smiled. "Yep, that's sure a pretty sound."
For a moment, Vin could see himself and his ma walking to church hand in hand. She wore a threadbare scarf on her head and her best dress, which had only one patch on it. But she'd held her head high-she'd been proud and she'd passed that pride on to her only child. It was a bittersweet memory, one he hadn't thought of in years. "Yes, ma'am, that it is," Vin said, his voice husky.
Vin leisurely finished his meal, enjoying the silent companionship of the woman who reminded him of his mother and Nettie Wells.
Finally, he pushed his empty plate away. "Thank you, Mrs. O'Kelly. That was downright tasty."
"You're welcome, Vin. When Chris wakes up, you come on down and I'll fix him up some food."
"The stubborn fool will probably come down himself," Vin said with practiced tolerance.
"None of you boys are much for layin' around, are you?"
Vin chuckled. "I think Buck wouldn't mind bein' waited on."
"Maybe, but I got a feeling if any of you others were in danger, nobody'd be able to hold him down either."
"I s'pect you're right. We been watchin' out for each other for so long now, it's second nature."
She shook her head slowly, admiration and a touch of envy in her eyes. "Don't you ever take that kind of friendship for granted, Vin. You and your friends are a rare breed."
Vin thought about that for a moment, then nodded more to himself than the woman.
"You boys are going after them tonight, aren't you?" she suddenly asked.
Vin understood exactly what she meant. "We don't have a choice. We ain't gonna let them hurt or kill anybody else ever again."
She reached across the table and rested a work-worn hand on his forearm. "You boys be careful. I plan on having the best Thanksgiving spread you ever seen."
Vin smiled. "Don't forget the stuffing."
"I'll make extra just for you."
He stood and refilled his coffee cup. "I'm goin' back upstairs to sit with Chris so Nathan can go see Ezra."
"You might want to get some sleep yourself."
"Can't. Not until this is all over."
He mounted the stairs, exhaustion tugging at him. The last two nights he'd gotten little sleep, and his body and mind were starting to remind him of that. After tonight, after the protection racket was broken up, he would sleep. Unless Chris's attacker wasn't involved in the ring.
He opened the door to his room and entered, then found himself staring at the sharp tip of a knife.
Nathan quickly re-sheathed his weapon of choice. "You oughta be warnin' a body before you walk in."
"Sorry, Nathan," he said contritely, then glanced at Chris. "He okay?"
"Slept the whole time you was gone." Nathan picked up the medical bag he'd brought with him. "I'm goin' to see Ezra. You oughta get some sleep yourself."
Vin smiled wryly. "Mrs. O'Kelly already done told me that."
"Maybe you'll listen to her more'n you listen to me," Nathan groused. "Don't you run yourself down too much. You ain't all healed from that bullet wound."
"I'll be fine."
Nathan muttered something Vin didn't catch, but one look at the healer's stormy face, and Vin realized he probably didn't want to hear what he'd said.
"There anything you need me to do?" Nathan asked.
Vin shook his head. "There's nothin' to do until tonight, unless you want to make sure your knives is clean."
Nathan pressed his lips together and nodded, then left without another word.
Vin sat down in the chair he'd occupied all night. As he sipped his coffee he studied Chris's pale face and the white bandage around his head. Impressions left from his oft-repeated nightmare wrapped their wispy tentacles around him, making his heart pound and his breath come in short, shallow gasps.
The pain of losing Chris would come damned close to the sorrow he'd endured after his mother's death. Vin allowed very few people near him, but Chris Larabee, without even trying, and with only a single glance on a noisy street eighteen months ago, had managed to slip past Vin's defenses. Maybe it was the yearning for justice he saw in Chris's eyes that echoed Vin's own thirst for righteousness. Or maybe it was the recognition of solitary souls who didn't think they needed the friendship of another human being. Or maybe it was merely meant to be, that the two men would come together to become the cornerstone for a foundation of Seven.
Whatever it was, their two lives were inexorably tangled together. There was no doubt in Vin's mind that they were meant to die together, too. He had no idea of the time or place, but the certainty was there in his soul, just as he knew the sun would rise in the east tomorrow. He suspected Chris knew it, too, but neither man would speak of it to the other.
The words didn't need saying-that was just the way it was.
"You sure you're all right, Ezra?" Nathan asked, concern shading his words.
"I am fine, Mister Jackson," the gambler reassured.
Nathan heard the words, but Ezra's tone held something he hadn't heard before, and that worried the healer. Ezra kept too much bottled up inside of him, not sharing his pain with anybody. Nathan tried to tell himself Ezra didn't want his concern, but he couldn't convince himself.
He wondered how Ezra and Buck had gotten along overnight. After Buck had let him into the saloon, he'd left to find a bathhouse open on a Sunday morning, then a restaurant. Nathan promised he'd stay with Ezra until he returned.
As Nathan re-wrapped the wide bandage around Ezra's chest, he thought back to how far the two of them had come. Their relationship in the beginning had been that of mutual dislike and disrespect. But one day, a day like any other, the gradual change had begun. He could picture it clearly, Ezra and Buck in the church trying to teach prostitutes how to be ladies so Ezra could auction them off to men desperate for wives. He heard the conversation between himself and Ezra as if it had happened yesterday.
"Dignity?! You know it take a bold man to talk about dignity when he be tryin' to sell women off like they're cattle."
"I'll ignore that."
"You better do that. How else you gonna get some sleep tonight?"
"About makin' profit off the back of another human bein'? Hell, yeah, I got a lot to say. But it would just be wasted on you."
The expression in Ezra's face and the involuntary clenching of his jaw told Nathan more than any words could have...except Nathan had been so angry at the time, he hadn't understood that look until later that night as he lay in bed thinking about the confrontation. Ezra had been shamed by Nathan's words-that had been the first time somebody had actually taken the time to speak to Ezra of morality and respect for another human being.
And since that time, Nathan had tried to see the world through Ezra's eyes, especially after meeting his mother. She'd been kind enough to Nathan, but as a mother, she'd raised her son to take care of himself without regard to others.
Slowly, gradually, Nathan had seen the change come across Ezra. His total transformation had come with Li Pong, and to Nathan, it was nothing short of one of those miracles Josiah talked about. Still, the dapper gambler would wear shabby clothes rather than admit he cared about anyone but himself.
"Did you know that Kirkwood let me win this establishment?" Ezra suddenly asked quietly, his gaze aimed at the ceiling.
Nathan nodded. "I was there when Lily told us."
"Am I a fool, Nathan?"
He glanced up from his task to catch Ezra's intense green eyes on him. "You're a lot of things, Ezra, but a fool ain't one of 'em."
The gambler smiled, a hint of warmth in the expression. "I can always be assured you will be honest with me, and for that I am eternally grateful, Mister Jackson."
Nathan finished tying off the wide bandage. "I know how much ownin' a place like this means to you. As long as you didn't cheat anyone for it, I don't see why you can't jist be happy havin' it."
"I didn't win it fairly."
Surprise shot through Nathan. "Since when did you start thinkin' in terms of fairness?" The same type of expression Ezra had after Nathan's tirade in the church crossed his face, but this time Nathan saw it for what it was immediately. "Aw, hell, Ezra, I'm sorry. You ain't the same man you was when we met."
Ezra's hurt faded from his features. "You are correct, Mister Jackson. But is the man today better than that man was?"
Nathan laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Without a doubt, Ezra. Without a doubt," he answered fondly.
Although Ezra donned his characteristically aloof mask, Nathan could see the startled gratitude in his eyes.
The healer stood and gazed down at Ezra. "I ain't ever gonna understand you, but I am proud to call you my friend."
A corner of Ezra's lips lifted. "The feeling is mutual, Mister Jackson."
Nathan chuckled. "You stay in bed and rest today."
"I'm sorry, but I cannot follow those instructions. I am going to dress, then proceed downstairs into my office to do some work."
Nathan opened his mouth to argue, but Ezra raised his hand.
"There is no use in trying to dissuade me. I am feeling extraordinarily well and refuse to act as if I'm an invalid, when I am not."
"I don't know if you or Chris is the worst patient."
Ezra smiled rakishly. "Most assuredly, it is Mister Tanner."
Nathan laughed. He had a good point.
"All right, Ezra, but promise me you'll rest this afternoon for a couple hours. Tonight's gonna be busy."
"I will, and thank you."
"I'll be downstairs."
Nathan grabbed the bag with his supplies and left the private man alone to dress. Ezra's wounds were healing better than Nathan had expected. It seemed the men who administered the beating were somewhat professional about it, knowing where to hit and how hard without causing long term injuries.
Nathan was certain they'd been instructed to beat him that way so Ezra would be in decent shape to deliver the money. Not that that was any excuse for what the bastards did to Ezra.
Rage made Nathan's hands tremble. He hated men who used force to get their way. The whitish scars on his back from the overseer's whip at the plantation, as well as the newer, reddish scars from a month ago were Nathan's testimony to the savagery of men like that.
Nathan went to the small kitchen behind the bar and fired up the cookstove, then set a coffeepot on top of it. Buck should be back by the time the coffee was done, but Nathan had no intention of leaving the saloon for most of the day. Chris had Vin, but Ezra needed Nathan, whether he would admit it or not.
Chris cleaned off his plate and sent Mrs. O'Kelly a smile. "Thanks."
She merely shook her head. "You boys are a bunch of stubborn fools."
From across the table where he could watch Chris, Vin chuckled. "Looks like she knows us pretty well, pard."
"Only JD and Josiah showed up for lunch," Mrs. O'Kelly said. "Where's Buck and Nathan?"
"With Ezra," Chris replied without hesitation. He stood and perched his hat gingerly on his head. The hat sat at an odd angle because of his bandage. "I'm going to head over there myself."
Vin sent Mrs. O'Kelly a helpless shrug as he donned his own hat and followed Chris onto the porch. They both stood for a moment, letting their eyes adjust to the bright mid-afternoon sunlight. Chris's squint was so tight, Vin could barely see his green eyes.
"You sure you wanna do this?" Vin asked.
"I'll be fine. Just have to get used to the light."
Unobtrusively, Vin moved to stand in front of Chris. He waited patiently for his friend to grow accustomed to the blazing sunlight as his own gaze scoured the street and nearby building tops. He didn't want a repeat of yesterday's ambush, and if there was, Chris wasn't going to catch a bullet this time.
When Chris started walking cautiously down the steps and across the street, Vin stayed close beside him. His nerves tingled and he hoped it was only from the tension, rather than a premonition of another attack.
They stepped inside the Barbary Coast and Vin breathed a sigh of relief. Until he spotted Martha sitting with Nathan, Josiah, and JD.
"Aw, hell, what's she doin' here?" he muttered.
Chris slanted him a look. "I thought you said she wasn't so bad."
"I musta eaten some locoweed afore I said it." Vin sighed, accepting the inevitable. He wasn't about to leave Chris unprotected, even if it meant tolerating Martha's attentions.
The two men joined their friends. Vin took the chair as far away from the woman as he could, but that didn't stop her from reaching across the table to pat his arm.
"You get over your little snit?" she asked.
"Your snit?" Josiah asked, amusement dancing in his blue eyes.
Vin's face blossomed with heat. "I ain't one to hold grudges, Miz Cannary."
"What happened?" JD asked curiously.
"Nothin'," Vin replied quickly.
Martha pushed back her chair and leaned over to stick her head under the table. "Your boot's still looks kinda white," she said, her voice muffled. She sat up and her head hit the table, lifting it nearly a foot and sending the drinks sliding toward Vin.
Vin, Chris, and Nathan managed to catch all but one mug which was empty. The heavy glass, however, dropped into Vin's lap, eliciting an involuntary groan, then the mug fell to the floor, breaking into five pieces.
Josiah, JD, and Chris grimaced in empathy at Vin's discomfort.
"Damn," Nathan murmured. "You okay, Vin?"
The tracker gnashed his teeth and nodded, afraid to speak.
Martha's face crumpled. "I'm sorry, Vin. Seems that ev'rytime I start gettin' friendly with someone, things start happenin'."
"Maybe you're tryin' too hard, Martha," Josiah said gently. "Try goin' a little easier-like."
She switched her attention from Vin to the preacher. "Maybe you're right, Josiah. Maybe I do get a little pushy sometimes."
Sometimes? Vin had seen angry grizzlies less pushy than Martha Cannary.
She took a deep breath and stood. "I think I might just go for a little ride and do some thinkin'. You wanna come with me, Josiah?"
The surprise in Josiah's face was almost comical. "Ah, no thanks, Martha. My horse still ain't healed."
Martha put a hand on his shoulder. "Well, all right, but maybe later on we could do some talkin' 'bout things."
The strained smile on the big man's face didn't fool anybody, except maybe Martha. "We'll see."
With a last coquettish look at Josiah, she strode out of the saloon.
"What just happened there?" Ezra asked as he joined them, pointing at Martha's receding back.
"I ain't sure," JD said, confusion written in his young face.
"Iffen I was to guess, I'd say Martha just decided Josiah would make a better boyfriend than Vin," Nathan said, his dark eyes sparkling with mirth. He studied Ezra carefully. "You feelin' all right?"
"I would venture better than Mister Tanner," Ezra replied, with an sympathetic shake of his head. He carefully lowered himself to a chair between JD and Chris. "Are we ready for this evening's festivities?"
"We are," Chris replied. "How 'bout you?"
"I shall be ready and able."
"You and Chris still don't look so good," JD commented.
"We'll be fine," Chris assured.
Buck showed up at the table, rounding out the Seven. "Howdy, boys."
Ezra glanced behind the bar where the original bartender was working. "I see our absentee employee has shown up."
"Huh?" JD asked.
"With Kirkwood in jail, there's no bartender job in Rifle so he come back here with his tail tucked between his legs. Ezra was nice enough to give him his job back," Buck explained with a grin.
Ezra scowled. "Nice is not the word I would have used."
Dr. James entered the saloon, her bag in hand, and approached them. "I stopped by the boardinghouse and Mrs. O'Kelly told me you'd all be here." She sent a critical eye over Ezra, then Chris. "You two should be in bed."
"I checked them out, and they're doin' fine," Nathan reassured.
"But you're not a doctor," she said, a slight edge to her voice.
Nathan seemed taken aback and Vin's natural protectiveness for his friends rose within him.
"Nathan didn't mean no disrespect, ma'am. It's just that he's been takin' care of us for a long time now and we all trust him with our lives." Vin smiled, hoping to mollify her. "It's not that we got anythin' against you."
Her lips remained set in a firm line and her gaze flickered across the men, resting on Chris a second longer. Finally, she relented and nodded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so defensive."
Nathan smiled in relief. "That's all right, Doctor James."
She surveyed the men again, this time with an arched brow. "Since I'm not needed to perform any miraculous cures, I'll be on my way. Have a good day, gentlemen."
Vin frowned. There was something about the way she... He shook his head. No, he was just tired. Damn, he hoped he didn't make any stupid mistakes tonight.
Go to part 9