"Anyone want another beer?" JD asked.
Josiah, Nathan, and Chris said they did, but Vin shook his head. The memory of that falling beer mug was still a little too painful.
"I'll help ya, kid," Buck volunteered.
JD shook his head. One of these days Buck would quit calling him kid. 'Course that'd probably happen when they were both dead and buried. JD swallowed hard at the disturbing image that evoked.
Buck called their order to the bartender then leaned against the bar. "So you still with us, JD?"
"I ain't ever left," he replied defensively.
"No?" Buck turned to peer at him and seemed to see straight into JD's soul. "Then where you been while we been watchin' out for Ezra and Chris?"
JD shifted uncomfortably. "I was around."
Buck shook his head slowly. "You ain't been with us since you set eyes on that Texas Ranger." He paused, his eyes filling with sadness. "It's like I don't even know you anymore, JD."
I'm the same person I always been, JD wanted to shout. Instead he only shrugged. "I can't help it if you can't see what's right in front of you."
"And what's that?" Buck asked quietly.
JD met his gaze squarely. "A man, not a kid."
A flush covered Buck's face. "I know that, JD. It's just that, well, hell, it's just that it's kinda like a nickname I have for you. It don't mean that I don't think you're a man." He studied JD silently, and the younger man forced himself not to squirm beneath his scrutiny. "I thought you knew that."
JD looked away. Maybe he had deep down, but he'd always dreamed of joining the Texas Rangers. Yet, what could he have with the Rangers that he didn't already have with these six men?
"Do one thing for me, ki-JD. Don't make your decision in anger. Think it out before you sign your name to some paper," Buck said, a hint of desperation and more than a little concern in his voice. "Chris, Vin, Ezra, Nathan, Josiah--they're all men to ride the river with and I'd be willing to bet the Rangers don't have men with half the loyalty as them."
JD glanced back at the five men sitting around the table, smiling and talking in relaxed camaraderie. He licked his dry lips. "All right."
Buck put an arm around his shoulder and gave it a slight squeeze. "Thanks, kid."
JD's gut tightened and his throat closed. Could he leave them? Especially the man beside him who treated him like a brother? He'd considered leaving them once for a ranch that he might have inherited someday, but that enticement hadn't been nearly as tempting as joining the Rangers.
They carried the beers back to the table and passed them around, joking about keeping them far from Vin's end of the table. Sitting beside the tracker, JD noticed he was quieter than usual and there were deep shadows beneath his eyes that hadn't been there two days ago. He suddenly realized how concerned Vin was about Chris and Ezra and what was going on in this town. Out of all his friends, Vin was the most conscientious and took the most responsibility on his shoulders, except for maybe Chris. But Chris was wounded and JD was certain Vin was feeling like he had to look out for everybody now.
"You okay, JD?" Vin asked softly.
Startled, JD nodded. "Just thinkin' is all."
"Did all them cuts heal from your tangle with the barbed wire?"
"They been healed for a while," JD replied in puzzlement. "Why you askin' now?"
Vin shrugged and his cheeks reddened. "I'm sorry I didn't come back like I said I would when you were hurtin' so bad."
"You couldn't. You were gettin' in with the hired killers to find out what was goin' on."
The long-haired man's face went hard and angry, but JD could tell the anger was directed at himself. "Don't matter. I made a promise and I broke it."
JD had never seen Vin like this before, and he sought to reassure him. "You don't got to apologize. I understood."
Vin's penetrating blue eyes caught JD and trapped him. "When I was just a tadpole, my ma told me that when I made a promise, I had to keep it, no matter what. It was a matter of honor and principle. She said a man was only as good as his word and iffen a man couldn't keep his word, he wasn't good for nothin'."
JD could feel the turmoil emanating from the wiry man. He suspected this had been gnawing at Vin for some time. Buck was right-Vin and the others were men to ride the river with and loyal almost to a fault.
He took a deep breath and spoke quietly. "My ma used to tell me the same thing, only as I got older, she added somethin'. She said that there might be a few times in a man's life when he has to break his word in order to do the right thing." JD paused and swallowed the nervousness in his throat. "And you did the right thing, Vin. You saved a lot of lives that woulda been lost iffen you'd kept that promise. I never once thought less of you 'cause of it." He smiled self-consciously. "Fact is, I felt pretty stupid for gettin' tangled in that wire in the first place, and I blamed myself for gettin' you and the others involved in that little war."
Vin's features relaxed and his easy smile returned. "Thanks, JD. I wish our Mas coulda met-I think they woulda gotten along like two peas in a pod."
Warmth filled JD. "I got a feelin' you're right, Vin."
JD sat back in his chair, unconsciously copying Vin's deceptively relaxed pose, and in that moment, he knew he couldn't leave these men. They were more than traveling companions-they were his family and they trusted one another with their lives.
And JD had handed over information to Captain Daniels that entrusted him with their lives. Chris hadn't wanted him to, yet he'd done it behind his back. JD squirmed in his seat, wishing he could go back in time and retract the words he'd spoken to the captain. If Chris said not to tell him, he had a good reason.
"You look like you just saw a spook, JD," Vin said quietly.
JD felt sick to his stomach, but he managed a weak smile. "Musta been somethin' I ate."
"Couldn't have been Mrs. O'Kelly's cookin'." Vin looked around at the other men. "Mrs. O'Kelly said she'd make Thanksgiving dinner for us iffen we're still in town come Thursday."
Buck grinned. "Just for that, I ain't leavin' until Friday."
Ezra merely smiled slightly, but JD saw the momentary sadness in his eyes. "I'm sure you're invited, too, Ezra," the young man said. "Right Vin?"
Vin turned to the gambler. "Yep, in fact she said you'd better come since you needed some more meat on your bones."
Ezra's eyes widened in mock indignation. "I'll have you know all of the Standishes were of somewhat slight stature, but were in perfectly good health as I myself am."
JD shook his head. "I don't know, Ezra. You don't look so good right now. In fact, you look kinda awful."
"To paraphrase a certain gentleman, that is highly improbable."
Buck's eyes twinkled with mischief, but his voice was serious. "I hate to say this, Ezra, but ain't nobody's ever gonna look as good as me even on their best day." Buck winked at JD.
Fondness flowed through JD as he and his friends chuckled. Even Ezra, who sometimes had trouble joining in with their teasing, smiled in good-natured acceptance. JD's gaze roamed across each man's face, coming to rest on Buck, who raised his mug of beer to him and nodded affectionately. JD lifted his own beer in the silent toast. The returning rapport between himself and Buck felt good, damned good.
The batwing doors opened and Captain Daniels stepped through them. His gaze settled on JD immediately and he sent him a slight nod and smile, then moved to his usual table.
Anxiety stabbed JD in the gut. For the first time, he didn't want to join the ex-Texas Ranger and hear about his exciting exploits. JD wanted to sit with his friends, be a part of the circle that they formed both physically and emotionally. Finally thinking with both his head and heart, JD realized he had everything he'd hoped to find with the Rangers with these six men.
And he'd broken a trust when he'd told Daniels about their plans for that night. Apprehension fought with logic as JD tried to tell himself that Daniels had been a Ranger and he would help them. But another part of him wondered why Chris didn't want Daniels to know. Was it that Larabee instinct that had saved all their lives more than once? Or was he jealous of Captain Daniels?
No, Chris had no reason to be jealous. JD listened to his friends' voices swirl around him, their tones comforting and reassuring. He wouldn't tell Daniels anything else, and would watch for the ex-Ranger that night. If Daniels truly wanted to help, there was no doubt they could use him. But if something else was going on...
"Ain't you goin' over to visit your friend?" Nathan asked JD.
JD shook his head. "I'm already with my friends."
He glanced up to catch Buck's eyes, and in them JD saw understanding and friendship. And JD knew without a doubt, this was where he belonged.
"I'm glad JD's back with us," Vin said in a hushed voice.
Chris shifted slightly in the dim hallway of the second floor of the locked-up saloon. "So's Buck. He can go back to mother hennin' the kid."
Vin chuckled quietly. "We all do."
Chris's white teeth flashed in the darkness. "Only Buck's better at it."
Chris leaned forward, glancing over the edge of the railing to check on Ezra. The gambler was cleaning tabletops, moving slower and stiffer than usual, but he'd assured them he was fine. Chris had accepted that. Ezra had a core of strength deep within him that had surprised Chris when he first met him. But it explained how the con man had stayed alive all these years on his own.
"Ezra okay?" Vin asked.
"I think so."
"How 'bout you?"
Chris turned slightly to gaze at Vin, exasperated but grateful for the tracker's concern. "Talk about mother hennin'."
Vin shrugged innocently. "Must be rubbin' off."
Chris grinned, then the two men lapsed into expectant silence. The saloon had been closed for nearly an hour now. Chris and the others, except for Ezra, had left a few minutes before closing time, ensuring that if the Barbary Coast was being watched everything would appear normal. Ten minutes later, Chris and Vin had sneaked in the back door, while Buck and JD had hidden in the alley behind it. Josiah and Nathan had gone to keep a lookout at the Lucky Chance, where Martha had said the collectors were also going to show up that night.
Chris's head throbbed from the bullet wound, but he wasn't about to tell Vin-he'd probably order Chris back to the boardinghouse. The blond man had no intention of missing out on catching the sonsuvbitches who messed with Ezra, and who might've shot him.
JD shivered slightly in the cool air, but he was also sweating. Something didn't feel right and he had a damned strong suspicion what it was. He had to tell Buck. He had to admit his mistake and hope that no one was hurt because of his foolish naiveté.
"Buck," JD whispered.
"What?" Buck didn't shift his alert gaze from the entrance of the dead end alley.
There was no easy way to do it, so JD just blurted it out. "I told Captain Daniels all about our plan for tonight."
Buck swung around to face JD, fear and anger blazing in his expression and causing JD to flinch slightly. "After Chris told you not to?"
"Chris and Ezra was hurt," JD exclaimed, remembering to keep his voice down. "I figgered we needed all the help we could get."
"Didn't you ever wonder why Chris didn't want you to say anythin' to him?" Buck shot back.
"Not until this afternoon," JD replied, then added quietly. "I'm sorry, Buck. I was only tryin' to help."
Even in the darkness, JD could see the fury soften and disappear from Buck's face. The older man gave his shoulder a squeeze. "I know, kid. And maybe you did, except I'd feel better if Daniels had met up with us."
"Yeah, that's what's been botherin' me."
"Did he know about Josiah and Nathan?"
JD nodded. Buck's brows furrowed. "What is it, Buck?"
"He knew we was goin' to be hidin' in the alley?"
Again JD nodded, his gut coiling like a watchspring. "And that Vin and Chris would be inside."
Buck tugged JD's arm. "C'mon. We're gonna make some last-minute changes to the plan."
JD scurried after Buck as they slipped out of the alley onto the dark boardwalk. Acrid smoke curled from the street fires that had been extinguished earlier, making JD's nostrils twitch and he barely restrained a sneeze. They ran in a half-crouch down the boardwalk toward the Lucky Chance Saloon.
Suddenly Buck made a quick turn, grabbing JD's sleeve and pulling him into the alley with him. JD bumped against Buck's side, but recovered quickly and peered around the taller man. JD spotted a dozen men wearing masks and dark clothing headed their way.
There were two men in front of the group not wearing masks-Josiah and Nathan. And it looked like they were prisoners.
"Damn," Buck muttered, then instructed quickly in a hoarse whisper. "Listen close, JD. After they pass us, we knock out the last two and put on their masks and take their places. We have to do this fast and quiet, understand?"
JD's heart thumped against his breast, but he nodded. He would do it. He had to.
Fourteen men, including Josiah and Nathan, walked past them and JD heard the jingle of spurs. He glanced down and saw large rowels on one of the outlaws' boots. Then, before JD's anxiety could worsen, he and Buck jumped out and, using the butt of his gun, JD knocked out the collector with the noisy spurs. Buck wrapped his arm around the other man's throat and tightened until the man lost consciousness.
They each dragged their man into the alley, grabbed their masks and donned them.
"The spurs," JD whispered hoarsely to Buck.
The older man glanced down and smiled in satisfaction. "Good job, kid. That's the one Kirkwood told us about."
Buck quickly buttoned his dark jacket so his light shirt wouldn't be seen. Then Buck and JD ran to catch up to the group and fell into line behind them. Less than two minutes had elapsed since Buck had spotted them on the boardwalk, and JD's breathing and pulse had tripled in that short time.
"We play it by ear, kid," Buck said, his low voice muffled by his mask. "Follow my lead."
JD could only nod. A sickness settled in his belly as he realized what this meant: Captain Ham Daniels was involved up to his neck in this protection racket. If JD hadn't told Buck what he'd done ... A shiver of dread skimmed down his spine. It still wasn't over. One of his friends could lose his life because of JD's fascination with a man he believed to be a hero.
"I learned one thing. I ain't no hero."
"Just what do you think a hero is?"
"Well, it's someone who shoots straight. And true."
"Why, that's a good shot is all. It takes more than that to be a hero. It takes someone to sacrifice their life for the greater good. You proved that time and time again, John Dunne."
"I made a pretty bad mistake."
"I don't know anybody who hasn't. That's what makes us human."
Josiah's words still brought a shiver to JD's soul. And reminded him that the true heroes had been beside him the whole time and he hadn't even recognized them for what they truly were.
JD's shoulders stiffened. He wasn't going to make another bad mistake.
Chris stifled a yawn, knowing it was his head wound which made him so drowsy, but he couldn't afford to relax his guard for even a moment. He felt Vin's hand on his back.
"You still with me, pard?" the tracker asked in a low voice.
Vin drew his hand away, but Chris could still feel his reassuring presence like a physical shield.
Suddenly the front door burst open, and Josiah and Nathan were shoved inside, followed by a group of masked men wearing nondescript dark clothes with their guns in hand. Chris's breath stuck in his throat and he had to remind himself to breathe. Either someone told them about their plans or they'd guessed that Ezra's companions wouldn't be far away.
"Get rid of the jacket, Standish. And no sudden moves," one of the men ordered.
Slowly, Ezra did as he was told though Chris could see his anger clear across the room. Another man came forward and removed Ezra's shoulder gun and the little derringer from his sleeve apparatus.
"Shit," Vin muttered behind him.
Chris glanced around, knowing something was wrong. Then it struck him-Buck and JD weren't there. If the collectors knew their plan, why hadn't they captured Buck and JD, too?
"You two Larabees, your turn," the man called out, looking straight up at their hiding place.
The two men stood slowly, raising their hands.
"Get down here," came the next command.
Chris and Vin descended slowly, and Chris was aware of Vin's protective stance beside him. At the bottom of the stairs, the two men were relieved of their weapons, including the knife Vin wore in a scabbard on his belt.
"You okay, Josiah?" Chris asked, noting the blood on Josiah's temple.
"I've cut myself worse shaving," the ex-preacher replied with a faint smile.
"I doubt it," Nathan murmured.
Though not completely reassured, Chris gave his attention back to their captors. "How'd you know?"
"A little birdie told us," the apparent leader said, then laughed at his own weak joke.
Chris tipped his head slightly. The man's muffled voice sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place it.
"Now what?" Vin asked, attacking the problem like he did any other-head-on.
"Kirkwood's gettin' kinda lonely in that jail by himself. Thought it might be a good idea if you boys would keep him company." The leader paused. "At least until we find the other two."
So they knew there were seven of them, too. Chris's pulse throbbed in unison with his head wound.
"Let's get goin'," the leader ordered, waving his gun toward the door.
The collectors herded the five men down the boardwalk to the jailhouse. No light spilled from the windows, but the leader of the masked men pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the sheriff's office.
Chris was shoved in the door, followed by his four companions. Once he regained his balance, he looked up to see a man sitting behind the sheriff's desk, his face illuminated by the lamp-Captain Ham Daniels. Surprised, he stared at the ex-Texas Ranger, then anger settled like a ball of ice in his belly.
"Why?" Chris demanded hoarsely. "You used to be a Texas Ranger!"
Daniels stood and, leaning heavily on his cane, he came around the desk to stand in front of Chris. His expression turned dark and ugly. "And all I got is a few medals not worth the money it'd take to melt them down. Nobody gives a damn about a crippled Ranger, except for a few that looked at me with pity." He shook his head. "I risked my life for all of them taming this territory to make it safe for them and their families, and all I get is pity!"
"So you come up with a protection racket to make them pay-to make them give you what you deserved," Vin said bitterly.
"That's right. And believe me, I deserve every single penny I get."
Chris shook his head in disgust. "You don't deserve anything but pity."
The ex-Ranger swung his cane, catching Chris behind the knees and knocking him to the floor. Vin clenched his fists and took a step toward Daniels, but a rifle butt shoved into his gut doubled him over.
Chris could feel the rage running between his companions, but they were powerless to do anything. He struggled to his feet and Nathan got a hand beneath his elbow to help him up. His legs trembling, Chris glared at Daniels, but he wisely kept silent. He glanced at Vin and the long-haired man sent him a terse nod, telling him he was okay...and mad as hell.
"You boys have made things difficult for me," Daniels said.
Ezra laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. "Difficult for you? What of all the people you have robbed, beaten, or killed?"
Daniels shrugged. "I killed more people while I was a Ranger than I can even remember."
Go to part 10