Disclaimer is fully stated in Part One. Any aspect of the story which does not belong to those mentioned in the disclaimer belong to the author, C. Knox Binkley.

Penance - Part Twelve

Nathan Jackson wasn't being mistreated, particularly - but he wasn't being treated well either. No one had beaten him. But no one had fed him that day either. He figured he hadn't eaten since. . . well, it had been the night before. They had fed him some supper and one of the adolescent soldiers had brought him a pillow and a blanket. He hadn't slept well. He had slept cautiously - the light sleep of the captive, ever ready to defend himself.

Or ready to try to, anyway.

This morning, breakfast rations had been low and feeding a prisoner was not a priority. He hated that empty stomach sensation that had been a part of his life before.

Maybe they'd feed him some supper again.

He closed his eyes and concentrated.

"I will find you." Well, Chris, I'm counting on it.

If anyone else had said it, he'd have been skeptical. He didn't know how Chris Larabee would do it under the present circumstances.

But Chris said he would find him.

And that was good enough for him.


Thank God the kid had passed out. With trembling hands, Buck finished securing him to the buckboard. JD would have made some stupid-ass joke about that. . . Buck and the buckboard. The gunslinger would have even liked to hear about the three-legged dog. That damned three-legged dog.

But the boy simply lay - spent.

A gentle voice.

"Let's get him home, Buck."

Vin Tanner was in the saddle of a big black stallion and he held the reins of another horse - saddled without a rider.

Buck's bewildered eyes scanned the faces around him for something. Comfort? Reassurance?

But his friends could offer neither. They were looking at the scene before them with different expressions - blistering anger - profound sadness -


But all with determination.

The doctor was kneeling on JD's other side, checking him out. Buck nodded at Vin. They did need to get the boy home. Buck tried to stand, but, with his hurt ankle, he couldn't pull himself up.

Strong arms gripped his shoulders and caught him before he could fall.

Chris Larabee had swung off his horse and beside his old friend. Now he pulled Buck's arm across his shoulders and gave him the leverage he needed to stand. Once they were on their feet, Buck practically fell into an embrace.

Chris would typically shrug him off with a quip. But he hung onto Buck. He felt like someone needed to. Buck was hanging by a thread.

Another strong arm of support.


Buck backed away from Chris and looked him square in the eye.

"Did you kill that son of a bitch that hurt him?"

"If he ain't dead, he will be . . ."

"Did you see the other one?"

Chris shook his head, no. Then a quick thought crossed his mind.

"Buck - listen to me. You cannot take these guys on right now. I don't care if Jacob Chiles himself shows up. You're in no condition for a fight. You understand me?"

Buck looked disoriented.

"Buck, I mean it now. We'll get every last one of them. But you can't do it yourself."

Chris put his hand on Buck's neck and he lowered his voice.

"The kid needs you, Buck. When he wakes up, you gotta be right there. If you get yourself killed . . . JD doesn't have the strength to deal with that right now."

Buck glanced at the wounded boy on the buckboard.

"You hear me?"

He didn't look up.

"Buck!! He needs you."

The big gunslinger turned weary eyes back to Chris Larabee.

"I hear you . . . He needs me." Buck's voice cracked. He angled his head slightly and looked at Chris and Josiah. "He needs all of us. You bring Nathan back to us, ok?"

Chris nodded. Together he and Josiah were able to get Buck on his horse. They watched as the buckboard was pulled forward a few feet, the doctor checking to be sure it would be relatively safe - as safe as it could be anyway.

Chris and Josiah mounted their horses and, with Judge Travis leading the posse to find Nathan, started off in the other direction. Vin led Buck's horse in the direction of Four Corners.

Ezra Standish waited a moment before joining the posse. He thought for a moment and then slowly eased his way to the buckboard. He spoke to the kid - who opened his eyes a bit - but didn't seem to really see the gambler.

Ezra closed his eyes tightly for a moment, tipped his hat in respect, and then galloped off, letting the wind dry any tears he may have shed.

A couple of the esteemed lawmen also delayed their departure. They were making sure everything was in order in the group heading for Four Corners. This part of the posse would be traveling with quite a number of prisoners - and once they left their wounded in Four Corners, they would take the outlaws on to Eagle Bend to stand trial. The three peacekeepers returning to Four Corners were injured and since half of the posse was going after Nathan, there was minimal manpower.

Either mission could wind up being a suicide mission.

But it had to be done. Justice had to be served. There had to be law in the land.

There were no guarantees. There weren't even great plans.

But there were good men.

And good men could overcome the most impossible odds.

Once the posse leaders were relatively satisfied that the transport of prisoners could make it back without incident, they rode on after the others.


Painfully he opened his eyes and saw a confusion of horses hooves and dust.

And he saw Chris Larabee riding away . . .

And . . .

Josiah . . .

They were riding away from him.

Somewhere in the distance he thought he heard Buck, but his mind was playing tricks on him.

He could barely see Buck riding away in the distance.

Buck moving away from him, too.

Or was he moving . . .


His voice wasn't working right. It felt raw and hoarse.

"Buck . . " Nobody could hear him. He couldn't hear himself.

Everything was slipping away.

Everything and everybody.

Slipping away.

"I trust that you will be resting comfortably when we meet again, my friend."

Ezra's voice floated through the haze.

Ezra on a horse, about to ride away.

He tipped his hat to JD then he slipped away, too.

Everything was slipping away.

The light, the sound, his friends. . .

Everything was slipping away.

Or maybe he was.

Maybe he was slipping away . . . or letting go . . .

That made sense.

He was dying.

So this was dying . . . JD was bewildered, but vaguely relieved.

Dying . . . somehow he thought it would be more horrible.

But dying was just slipping away.

He could just let go and die.

And if he died, the pain would end.

And he could finally see his Mama again . . . . .

His eyes fluttered and he began to drift away forever . . .

When he saw him.

It couldn't be.

The eyes that were about to succomb to a long sleep worked hard to focus. Who was . . .

The man on horseback following Ezra . . . was . . .

Was . . .


JD tried to make his voice work.

"Hey - " he croaked.


But the legend rode on . . .


Chris looked so tired to Josiah - haggard almost. He had borne the responsibility of leading the seven peacekeepers, his "Magnificent Seven." And they had been divided and broken and he hadn't been able to stop it.

He carried guilt heavily.

And that guilt, coupled with exhaustion, pulled at Chris' eyes and tried to pull at his shoulders.

But he rode with shoulders straight.

Nathan needed him.

And he would ride until he found him.

Josiah pulled up beside him and rode with him.

In silence.

Sometimes the best minister ministers best without words.

The mighty presence of Josiah Sanchez steadied him. The big, kind, tough-as-nails preacher would ride with him.

Stand by him.

Die with him.

And Chris Larabee began to let go of the responsibility. There were fine men riding with him. He could be part of the posse. He didn't have to lead it anymore - well, not now, at least.

Hoofbeats coming up behind them - fast.

Chris spun around, then relaxed.


Chris nodded toward him. Ezra didn't look either of his friends in the eye. He just rode with them. Silently.


"WAIT!" Buck Wilmington's voice halted the group just as it was pulling out toward Four Corners. He lead his horse back to the place he had been when the ambush started. Vin followed close on his heels.

He called a couple of the younger members of the posse and nodded toward a body on the ground. The body of a blonde-haired boy in a ratty gray uniform.

"Bring him." Buck said through tight lips.


"He deserves a proper burial."

One of the young men spat back at him. "He's a f***ing Reb." He kicked the body and it rolled over twice.

But before he could regain his balance, Buck had his gun trained on him.


Vin's voice.


A tall, formidable man with heavy gray whiskers rode up and addressed the young men standing beside the body.

"Wrap that body in a blanket and tie it on a horse. And never - never let me see you desecrate a body like you just did."

"Yes sir," the boy answered and the young men of the posse worked together to wrap the body.

Buck withdrew his gun - very slowly. Vin pulled up close and waited until he holstered his weapon.

"C'mon," Vin said, taking the reins of Buck's horse and leading him.

Buck let him. He was so tired. Tired of seeing death. Tired of seeing the people who mattered most to him suffer.

And the laudanum was starting to make him a little sick. He held on to the horn of the saddle, and let his head drop to his chest. Vin was glad his friend could sleep - if only for a little while.


He was starting to recognize the new terrain.

He had been here when he was a child.

Memories . . . his mother and father, brothers and sisters. Then being taken from them.

Working. Working hard.

The sweat. The empty stomach.

Memory mingled with reality and he felt himself become the man he used to be. The man who belonged to another person.

The slave.

He would have to work to hold on to the healer. The Peacekeeper.

One of the Seven.

Come on, Chris. I want to go home.

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