The disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Penance.


Penance - Part Fourteen

Buck Wilmington was lonesome.

He hurt. And he was lonesome.

But it wasn't lonesomeness like he had known before. That melancholy sense that occasionally swept over him when he was temporarily without female companionship. No, this was more akin to grief. Profound sadness. And the laudanum didn't help.

His ankle throbbed.

And there was no doctor to help him.

And there was no doctor to help JD.

Poor kid. Buck watched him sleep. A death sleep. He was watching his friend - his brother - slip away. . . JD had known him . . . for a moment, but he had known him. He had recognized him.

And he had worried about him. JD's one truly lucid moment was spent worrying about Buck.

And Buck was losing him.

Now Vin was gone. What the hell was he thinking, going after Chiles by himself?

Buck smiled sadly, and, for the millionth time, brushed the hair out of JD's battered face. He knew exactly what Vin was thinking. And if he'd been able to get to his feet on his own, he'd have taken off after that bastard himself. Buck's prayers were becoming instinctive. Where else could he turn? He was powerless.

Protect him, Lord. Protect them all.

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He was there. Land that belonged to a man he once belonged to. Land that he had been bound to. Beautiful land had it not been for the evil that lived there.

It was not beautiful to him.

It was not his home.

It was a place where Nathan Jackson was lost and a stranger was born. It had taken years to recover himself. And he was in danger of losing himself again.

He was beginning to lose hope of rescue as he retreated from his surroundings. He tried to hold on.

He tried to make himself think of the glory days of the Seven . . .

The Magnificent Seven . . .

But they weren't Seven any longer.

They never would be . . .

He was one man.

Alone.

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Judge Orrin Travis urged his horse onward. There was no time to lose. They were losing daylight and if they didn't catch up by nightfall, they may not be able to assist the travelers.

The old man was tired. But he set a pace that challenged the youngest of his crew. They were all weary, but there was work to be done.

"Rider!"

Judge Travis looked at the sentry and followed his gaze to the horizon. A big man framed against the sunset . . .

Riding like a bat out of hell . . .

Then he disappeared over the western hill.

Another rider. Faster. On a horse he knew.

One of his posse's horses.

"After them!!" Travis commanded, and the group divided, half of them taking off in pursuit.

Dust flew as horses thundered across the plain to the rise of a hill. On the crest, the sentry could see that the man giving chase was gaining on his quarry.

But there was another factor in the chase.

The train smoking through the valley.

The man in front was riding furiously toward the caboose of the train.

And he was going to reach it.

The man in pursuit wanted to raise the rifle he was carrying . . .

But he was traveling too fast, and if he stopped, he'd be out of range.

And as he watched the big man desperately dive toward the back rail of the caboose,

And haul himself awkwardly over to the other side,

As he watched the terrified horse peel away from the mechanical ship,

He cried out, "NOOOO!"

Jacob Chiles lay on the back of the caboose, breathing heavily.

Safely getting away.

And Vin Tanner hung his head

And wept.

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The trio was making excellent time. The clues were so clear that they could track even as they lost daylight. Someone was helping them.

Someone wearing the colors of the Confederacy.

With each indicator, their resolve grew. Ezra Standish had a plan.

And his companions marveled at the selflessness of it.

It had to work.

*********************************************************************

Nathan Jackson sat at the edge of the camp, eating the good meal the young soldier had brought him. This boy wasn't like the others. He didn't understand their mission. And he didn't relish taking this man back to a man he knew to be cruel.

But what could he do?

The sun hadn't quite dipped behind the trees. The boy sat near Nathan and ate his own meal. He was clearly troubled. The healer had to respond.

"You may feel better if you talk about it," Nathan's voice was low and warm.

The boy turned fearful eyes to the man who was eating his meal in shackles.

"I'm not supposed to talk to you." The boy's voice was little more than a whisper. Nathan respected the fear of a soldier who had seen another boy being whipped to death. He didn't speak to the kid again, but nodded his understanding. Tears filled the boy's eyes and he mouthed "thank you" to the captive.

Something in that exchange touched the healer.

And he felt strangely

Healed.

He could never lose himself again. He could not turn his back on the man he had become.

And even if they took away his liberty, they couldn't take away his soul.

He would always be free.

And he emancipated himself.

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The man who had so gallantly pursued his quarry, only to see him escape, lay his head on his horse's neck. God, he was tired. And his head hurt. And . . .

He slid off of his horse to the ground, unconscious.

In a matter of seconds, five men had gathered around him. And Judge Travis caught up in moments. He pushed his men away from the fallen rider.

"Sweet Jesus," he muttered. He knew the clothes of the bounty hunter. And he remembered how the young man had been deemed too weak to travel with Larabee and the others. What the hell was he doing tearing across the sunset plain after one man? "Mr. Tanner?" he said more loudly. He felt for a pulse. It was strong. Well, that was one thing. But he didn't wake up at the judge's voice.

And, for a man with a head injury, that was dangerous.

What had happened to the others?

This couldn't be good.

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"Requesting permission to approach the encampment . . ."

What a drawl! The voice of an aristocrat. A decidedly Southern aristocrat. Was it someone from the estate?

"You may approach." The general's voice boomed, his hand raised to calm the nervous young soldiers who had, by reflex drawn their weapons.

"We are unarmed." Ezra approached the general with his hands in the air. Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez followed on his heels, hands likewise in the air.

Nathan's eyes widened in shock - and relief.

"You boys got a death wish or something?" The big bearded general was intrigued.

"Actually, we came to discuss with you the possibility of a trade which would clearly stand you in good stead with the owner of this . . . fine . . . plantation."

"What could you possibly have to offer that would interest us? You don't think I have any interest in . . selling . . .Mr. Jackson back to you?"

Ezra's words were clipped and calculated. "I would not presume to make an offer on the life of my colleague. . ." The gambler nodded in respect to the healer who sat on the hard ground in shackles. "My friend."

Ezra took a step forward and didn't flinch at the sound of the click of guns at the ready. He faced the general and held his hands out, wrists together.

"I want to exchange my freedom for his."


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