The disclaimer is fully stated in part one of Penance.
The encampment looked much smaller this trip - smaller and eerily desolate. Ghost-like, as though the horrors that had occurred there still lingered somehow. This time they wouldn't be staying. They'd just examine the premises for any clues they may have missed and then they would take off after Nathan Jackson.
Chris Larabee could hardly hold his head up. The exhaustion and his injuries were making him sick. But he insisted on searching the grounds anyway. Josiah followed him, waiting for the inevitable collapse. He knew Chris wouldn't stop of his own accord. So when his knees gave way, Josiah simply caught him and carried him into the officers' quarters, where Ezra was examining the room closely. Josiah laid Chris on the ancient cot and sat with him while he slept - if only for a few moments.
Ezra Standish was no tracker.
But he was a keen observer of details. He could read the slightest alteration in a card or facial expression. It was his business - his livelihood.
He knew, for instance, that the coffee remaining in the tin cup was not domestic, but European. And someone without his power of perception could tell that it was still warm.
"Sweet Jesus," he muttered.
"What?" Josiah asked.
"Someone has been here today." Ezra lifted the cup and waved it slowly in front of Josiah. "And from the hint of cinnamon and nutmeg, I would say it was someone of . . . nobility . . .or 'assumed' nobility. Someone who could afford to import his coffee."
"Chiles!" Chris Larabee was awake immediately. He stood up - more quickly than he should have. Josiah steadied him as he took the cup from Ezra. He smelled it and frowned.
"Jacob Chiles gets his coffee from a company in Vienna. I know because when they arrested him, the shipments kept coming."
"Well, if he were here . . ." Ezra began.
"He's backtracking," Josiah and Chris said at once.
They went out into the street and found Judge Travis barking orders. They had discovered tracks leading back toward Four Corners. These tracks, however, would go along the opposite side of the rock stand. But the distance was almost the same. Chiles would overtake the others soon.
"How many?" Chris asked, sick at the thought.
"Twenty, twenty-five. . ." The judge answered.
Chris ran his fingers through his hair. For a split second he realized how much longer it was. The thought distracted him for a moment - from a decision he couldn't make. For the first time since this ordeal began, Chris Larabee felt hopeless. Buck, Vin and, God help him, JD. . . They wouldn't make it through another ambush.
And Nathan . . . he'd promised. He'd promised.
Ezra's voice cut through the myriad of thoughts whirling through Chris' brain. "I have an idea. It's a long shot. But then again, long shots have always been my strong suit."
All Vin Tanner wanted was sleep.
But he needed to keep an eye on Buck. Buck was hell-bent on avenging JD that he was bound to get himself killed.
The sun that had so mercilessly beat them down over the last couple of days now slipped beautifully behind the horizon. A benediction. Four Corners was less than a full day's ride away. By the time the sun set tomorrow, they'd be home.
And they could begin to rebuild themselves.
Or could they?
From his vantage point above the camp, Vin sadly watched Buck sitting by the fire with JD and the doctor. JD had not been conscious since the posse split up. And now his soaring fever was vigorously fighting the infection that was taking over his battered body.
His chances of survival were diminishing with every passing hour.
The bounty hunter felt a weight on his heart as he watched the scene. Somehow watching Buck was harder than watching the kid. Buck kept talking to him. He'd occasionally put his hand up to the boy's brow. And he'd bow his head.
Vin leaned his head back. It was pounding again. But at least he didn't feel like his head was swimming. He could focus.
Buck Wilmington hadn't meant to fall asleep. He intended to stay awake until JD woke up. But the pain-killer overwhelmed his already weakened system and he slept.
And dreamed. Of a boy excitedly riding up and promptly falling off his horse. A boy wearing a stupid hat. A boy with a silver badge on his lapel - no, under it. He'd at least taken Buck's advice about that. A boy hanging in the noonday sun - whipped within an inch of his life.
A wounded boy crawling up to him - putting his hand on Buck's face when the big man had been hurt.
A boy clutching the dead body of another boy amid gunshots.
Gunshots . . .
Buck opened his laudanum-heavy eyes in time to see the doctor's shocked, dead eyes before he fell heavily across JD.
"Sweet mother of God," Buck breathed. For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, they were being ambushed. Like a drunkard who sobered immediately in an emergency, Buck became sharp quickly. He looked around, but could tell nothing in the dusk shadows. A gun battle raged all around him. He searched for cover, but nothing was close. If he carried JD to shelter, he would make him a target.
Buck did the only thing he could to protect JD. He pulled the lifeless body of the doctor around so it completely shielded JD.
And it sickened him.
Vin Tanner saw the doctor fall. He saw the camp spring to life. And he tried to lay cover as Buck scrambled to protect JD. Damn it, why couldn't he reload faster. He realized that there was no way Buck could get to cover, not with the ankle injury. Besides, he would never leave the kid alone in the middle of the melee. The dusk shadows made everything appear distorted and it took Vin twice as long to get a shot off for fear of hitting one of the peacekeepers.
Instinctively, Buck reached for the gun on his hip, but he realized he didn't have a weapon.
And Vin realized it, too. The sharpshooter assessed their surroundings - well, as much as he could at dusk. Could he protect his friends better from his perch on the side of the hill or did he need to join them in the pickle barrel.
He had to decide fast. The trained lawmen of the posse seemed to be holding their own. A quick glance to the two next to him, a shout of "Cover me," and he took off down the hill toward his friends.
His movement sparked a flurry of shots - the posse laying cover for him, the attackers trying to respond.
A shell whistled past his ear.
He dove behind the equipment cart where a couple of the younger ones were shielding themselves.
"You got an extra gun?" Vin asked breathlessly.
In response, a rifle was thrust into his hand. Again he eyed the situation. Well, there would never be a good time to bolt into the middle of it, but what choice did he have?
Buck was covering JD's head with his upper body, and he covered his own head with his arms.
Vin gathered both rifles and some ammo and he sprinted to his friends. He had to shake Buck to get his attention. Buck swung around with a fist, but Vin grabbed his wrist before it could connect.
"Easy, Buck," Vin said, and he handed his friend a rifle. "The enemy's out there. . . "
Clearly Buck was shaken. Shell shocked?
But his eyes met Vin's for a moment, and he seemed to become anchored.
"Fight them," Vin said.
And side by side they fought
And watched the tide turn in their favor.
Chris Larabee watched the mighty posse ride back toward Four Corners. He bit his lip and squinted at the late afternoon sun. They had maybe two more hours of daylight. Oh God, let them get there in time. Please God. . .
Josiah was examining the terrain. The soldiers were heading southeast and there must be thirty at least. Maybe five wagons? They hadn't tried to cover their tracks. That was certain. On the contrary. It was almost as though . . .
"Chris!" the preacher called. The man in black turned to him, startled. At the sight of the grin on Josiah's face, he raised an eyebrow. He joined him.
"Look," Josiah said, pointing to a shred of cloth on the ground. Chris felt a grin pull at the corner of his mouth. Ezra Standish had come over and was looking over Chris Larabee's shoulder.
"Well," he said. "I think our fortune may be changing."
Someone was helping them.
It ended as quickly as it started.
"You all right?"
Buck didn't answer. He was clutching the rifle and shaking all over.
"Hey!!" Vin's voice cut through the din. "Buck!!"
Buck turned weary eyes toward the sharpshooter. Vin smiled.
"You all right?" he asked, more softly now.
Buck nodded, but instead of answering, he looked down at JD. He could barely see the side of the boy's face. Ghostly pale.
Buck started to pull the body of the doctor away and realized how heavy the man was. Vin scooted around to help him.
JD didn't react to the movement at all.
Vin slipped a hand up to the kid's throat.
A pulse. Very weak.
"Stay with us, kid." Vin leaned close to his ear and whispered. "You gotta hold on."
He read the question in Buck's eyes and nodded. Buck again breathed a prayer of thanks, and he settled back onto the ground beside JD.
Vin rested his hand on Buck's shoulder and looked at the aftermath of the assault. There were more dead this time. The tired posse riders were gathering the new captives and they were tending to the wounded. Buck could feel the effects of the laudanum again and he was suddenly very tired. He felt his eyelids grow heavy and he could barely keep his eyes open.
Just before he faded completely, he noticed Vin straighten his shoulders. The tracker reached in his pocket and pulled out his eyeglass. He brought it to his eye.
His jaw dropped.
"What?" Buck asked.
Vin was watching an angular figure silhouetted against the late sun. He clenched his teeth and answered Buck in a hiss.
"Chiles . . . "
Without another word, the bounty hunter bolted. He easily swung up onto the nearest horse and took off after the man who had instigated the whole horrible incident.
Buck sat up on his elbow.
"Vin!!" his voice boomed.
But it was too late.
His friend was gone.