Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Penance. Any part of this story which is not owned by those mentioned in the disclaimer belong to the author, C. Knox Binkley.
Ezra Standish galloped up to his friends, followed closely by Judge Orrin Travis. Josiah was holding Buck - who lay writhing in pain. Vin was sitting on the ground, exhausted.
And JD was alive . . . Oh, God - JD was alive. . .
The gambler jumped off his horse and ran to the kid. He slid to the ground next to him.
JD didn't know he was there. He was hugging a body - another kid's body. And he was staring straight ahead - eyes glassy and terrified.
"JD," Ezra began softly. But the boy was in some kind of shock. His battered body trembled violently and his mouth was open like he would scream, but no sound came. Tears streamed down the boy's bruised, broken face. Ezra would have held him if he could find a way to do so without hurting him.
"It's over, son." The gambler's voice was infinitely gentle.
But JD looked down at the blonde-haired boy he held in his arms - and Ezra realized it was the soldier who had hit JD with the butt of a rifle just the morning before. JD slowly looked at Ezra, almost saying his name, looking pleadingly at the gambler. Still dazed, he looked around. Vin was laying on the ground. And Buck. . .
Buck had been hurt.
God, no . . . not Buck . . .
JD looked up to heaven, then his gaze returned to the boy in his arms.
And he started to cry out, but it emerged a blood-curdling scream.
And he screamed.
Startled eyes looked to the kid. Buck tried to pull away from Josiah to go to him, but the preacher held him fast. Vin crawled to JD and Ezra, and Chris Larabee got to the kid's side at the same time. They tried to pull the soldier's body out of JD's arms, but the boy held on with an iron grasp. His horrific screams finally subsided, leaving him with not much more than a hoarse cry.
"You have to let him go, son," Chris's voice was firm, but kind. JD didn't seem to know that anyone was there.
"JD!" he said sternly. "Look at me, boy."
Ever so slowly, JD turned his head toward his leader, his mouth still gaping open, sobs and coughs racking his tired body. After an eternity, his eyes met Chris' and something seemed to connect if only for a moment.
"Let go, JD," Chris repeated, more softly. And he and Vin pulled the dead soldier out of the boy's arms. Chris glanced at the gambler, quickly assessing that he was ok, then nodded. There would be time to talk later.
JD didn't see where they took the body. He coughed violently and Ezra caught him as he collapsed. The gambler eased him to the ground on his stomach.
And saw the boy's injuries for the first time.
He'd never seen anything like this and for a moment he froze. But the touch of a hand brought him back. JD was reaching for the gambler - and Ezra held the boy's hand in a strong grasp. He cradled his head against his chest.
It was unusual for Ezra to be comforting somebody. But it felt right.
And as he held the boy, he realized with absolute certainty, that he was part of a family. And although he had tried not to let it happened, he had grown to care about these men - his friends - his brothers. He hurt when they hurt.
And he hurt for JD.
"We need help here!!" Ezra called and soon a man came running toward them.
With a medical bag.
Soldiers without a war. Yet following the letter of a law that no longer governed anybody.
These young soldiers with leaders too young to lead.
Or too old.
Oh, not too old in years, but too old in spirit. Years of living in an obselete world had hardened the fathers of the young soldiers. And fear of losing their way of life had caused them to fight desperately.
Even when there was no hope left.
A small band of renegade fighters, carrying on what their fathers and grandfathers had died to preserve. Boys who knew nothing of the world outside of their circle. And any information they encountered in their travels was suspect - the propoganda intended to delude them into giving up.
They would never give up.
And they would fight to regain their land and their way of life one battle at a time.
Righting one wrong at a time.
Returning property to the rightful owners . . .
One escaped slave at a time.
The mighty posse gathered the prisoners and tended to the injured. Chris Larabee searched the faces of the captured, looking for the hollowed features of the man who had orchestrated this travesty.
But Jacob Chiles wouldn't be anywhere near this place.
For he was a coward.
Chris Larabee's patience was wearing thin, when he did come across a familiar face.
A face that yesterday had squinted in the noonday heat, peering at his target, coiling a black whip with practiced hands. A face that had never changed expression. The face of a man who had exhausted himself by pouring all of his considerable strength into the back of kid.
Chris' eyes flashed with the maniacal anger that had startled his friends the day before, and in a split second, he had his knife in his hand.
But he didn't cut the man. Vin put an easy hand on Judge Travis' arm to keep him from intervening just yet.
Roughly, the gunfighter cut the bonds that bound the executioner's ankles, then jerking him to his feet, he cut the bonds on his wrists. Chris tossed the knife aside and, before the other man could get a foothold, Chris was fighting him with every fiber of his being.
The other man was decidedly stronger, but Chris was faster.
And he was furious.
Chris fought for JD.
For all of his wounded friends.
And he fought for himself. To regain something of the spirit that had nearly been driven from him.
He fought for Sarah.
For Adam . . .
All the evils one person could inflict on another found personification in the big muscle man Chiles had hired. And Chris Larabee would fight until one of them was dead.
Onlookers, both posse and captives alike, encircled the two.
And they damn near killed each other.
It didn't last long. When the other man lay unconscious, and Chris Larabee could barely hold his head up, the group started to disperse. Judge Travis and a couple of the men from the posse started to move the big man, and Vin and Josiah went to tend to their leader. Chris was on his knees, breathing heavily, mouth bleeding, but there was a look of unmitigated satisfaction on his face. He nodded to his friends.
"That felt great," he grinned. It didn't make up for the evils of the world. But it sure as hell made him feel better.
Josiah eased him to his feet.
And he promptly collapsed.
Easily, Josiah lifted the gunfighter and carried him to where the doctor was working on Buck Wilmington's ankle. The doctor had poor equipment, but he had come on board to catch one of the many criminals who seemed to have it in for the seven peacekeepers from Four Corners. He hadn't planned on doing surgery in the dusty wasteland.
He had done what he could to help the boy who'd been whipped. There was already so much infection, and such fever, that he didn't know if he'd helped him at all. And he couldn't do much for the broken ribs - they were making the boy's breathing so difficult.
No, the young man probably wouldn't make it. The doctor had admonished his friends to pray.
When JD had finally fallen asleep again, Ezra had gone to help wherever he was needed.
The doctor was digging his crude forceps into the wound to pull the ball out of Buck Wilmington's ankle. And Buck was yelling!
The doctor dropped the ball into a tray on the ground. He snorted.
"It missed the bone," he stated. "You're damn lucky."
"Oh yea, that's me," Buck said through clenched teeth. "Lucky."
He threw his head back and fought the pain as the doctor poured bourbon into the wound. "Oh, God . . ."
Neither of them had noticed JD.
He had only moved a few feet. He had crawled over on his stomach, pulling himself along slowly until he reached Buck. His friend's cries had scared him.
The doctor looked up in disbelief as the dying boy pulled himself up on his elbow, and gasping for breath, reached up to place a trembling hand on the side of Buck's face.
Buck turned his head and found himself looking into JD's worried eyes.
"Hold on, Buck. Please . . ."
The voice was little more than a whisper, and the breaths came in short gasps. But the kid was there.
And he knew him.
"You're gonna be . . ." JD struggled then he tried again. "You're gonna be ok." The effort left the boy winded, and he paused a moment, leaning the top of his head against Buck Wilmington's chest.
The big man's eyes brimmed with tears, and his face broke into a sad, sweet smile. He held the boy's neck and leaned his head down gently on top of JD's.
He held him for a moment. "Yea, I'll be ok." He turned the boy's face back toward him, and looked into his clear hazel eyes. "And you will be too, kid." He helped JD ease back down to the ground beside him and the boy promptly fell asleep at his side.
"You will be, too."