Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Penance.

Penance - Part Fifteen

Mary Travis hadn't noticed how dark it was becoming. Her eyes had been watching the road all afternoon, pausing only to nod to passersby and to absently sip from her glass of iced tea. Her heart was heavy and she felt ashamed that she was losing hope. She should believe in them - in her father-in-law, in the star-studded posse . . .

In the men who had protected them for the last year.

But they hadn't been able to protect each other.

Oh, God, what had happened? Her pretty blue eyes filled again, and her thoughts went back to . . .


Chris, where are you?

God, help him. Let him be alive. Let him be ok.

Her hands clasped together desperately. Please, Lord, take care of him. Take care of them all.

A flicker of panic.


He wants to grow up so fast. Protect him. Please God . . . why was there so much blood in his room? Please let him be all right. A sob hitched in her throat.

And if he isn't, please . . .

Don't let him be alone.


The little camp was reeling from the assault. The lawmen were doing what they could to tend to the injured. Tough without the doctor. And they were rounding up the prisoners who had scrambled to take cover.

One of the young posse riders wandered over to where the doctor lay lifeless. He squatted beside the body and bit back the surge of emotion that threatened to erupt. Slowly, as if in a dream, he hooked his strong arms under the doctor's and dragged him away from the boy he'd been trying to help.

And he pulled off his shirt and lay it across the doctor's face - a face still frozen with the shock that had accompanied his death.

The young man sniffed and turned to the boy lying face-down in the same place they had lain him when they had stopped here for water. He didn't want to check on him. He didn't think he could handle finding another dead body.

But if the boy was alive, he would surely get cold during the night. The young man found the tattered blanket that had been long discarded in the heat of the late afternoon. He brushed the dust and tiny pebbles off of it, then shook it open like he had seen his mother do when he was a boy. The material caught the night air and floated down as light as a feather until it came to rest on the bandaged back of the black-haired kid.

The kid never moved.

Next to him lay the big moustached gunslinger. Didn't somebody say they were brothers? Even in the middle of the melee, the big man never left the boy's side.

Thank God he had finally fallen asleep. He had to be exhausted. Two battles in one day. A shot in the ankle.

He was sleeping heavily. The young man reacheed up and put his hand on the man's forehead. Good . . . he wasn't particularly feverish. There was no sign of infection. Well, the doctor had been able to treat the wound promptly.

The boy hadn't gotten immediate medical attention. He had been hurt so badly - but had to wait a day and a half before getting help from a doctor.

The young man's eyes drifted back to the doctor. His friend. His mentor. It seemed so unreal, and he couldn't get to his grief because his disbelief was overwhelming his thoughts.

He should check on the boy. But he couldn't. He just couldn't.

He stood up and went to his knapsack. He had a bedroll. Maybe he could do something to help make the gunslinger more comfortable. Why didn't he just go help the others? This was too sad.

But something compelled him. The doctor had instilled something in him that wouldn't let him leave them unattended. So, he made his way back to where the big man slept and covered him with his own blanket. He slipped a rolled up shirt under the man's head.

A groan. The gunslinger didn't wake up, but shifted his weight slightly.

It was then that the young man saw that the man had clasped the boy's hand in his strong hand.

And had fallen asleep that way.

He couldn't stay awake, but he couldn't let the boy wake up alone.


A light hand touched her shoulder, and she turned quickly, startled.

Casey Welles' anxious eyes looked into Mary's tear-filled ones. "I didn't mean to scare you, Mrs. Travis," she said quickly.

"It's all right." Mary's voice was so raspy.

"I was just thinkin' that, well, maybe you should come in. It's mighty dark, and it ain't really safe for a lady out by herself."

Mary didn't answer right away, but she reached up and squeezed the girl's hand. Casey had been a source of strength for her. For four days - that seemed like forever - they had maintained a vigil together, watching the horizon, praying, and trying to restore hope in the little town.

But Mary felt that she was failing the town. Her own hope was dwindling. How could she help them hold on when she was letting go?

Another sob. Casey knelt in front of her chair and took Mary's hands in hers, her own eyes stinging.

"It'll be all right." Casey nodded as the tears rolled down her face. "They'll be all right." Her lip quivered. "They have to be."

Casey suddenly felt very weak. Great! She had wanted to help Mrs. Travis, and here she was breaking down like a big baby. She ducked her head, embarrassed.

But Mary reached down and placed her soft hands on either side of the young girl's face, turning it toward her.

"It's ok to cry, sweetheart." Mary had comforted Billy many nights with that mothervoice.

She kissed Casey on the forehead - and suddenly Casey missed her mama very much.

Casey began to sob, and the two hugged each other - friends who had lost so much and were now losing so much more.

When their tears subsided, Casey confessed a fear that had been gnawing at her.

"JD . . ." she said. "I have an awful feeling. . ."

"No, shhh. . ." Mary leaned her cheek on the girl's head. She dared not make eye contact for fear that Casey would see the same dread there. Mary had felt great fear for the boy, but couldn't explain it.

"They won't let anything happen to him," Mary tried to assure her. If they could help him. Oh God . . .


Vin Tanner lay still. Judge Travis gently patted the sharpshooter's face.

His eyelids fluttered and he woke with a start. He balled his hand into a fist, but didn't have the strength to take a swing.

"Easy . . ." a voice said. A voice he knew.

As his eyes focussed, he recognized the judge. He put his hand to his pounding head.

And he remembered . . .

"Chiles . . ." he murmured, squeezing his eyes closed tightly.

Travis' eyes narrowed, and an oath slipped past his lips.

"A bunch of 'em ambushed us." Vin's breath became a bit shallow. "Lost some of your men . . . the doctor."

One of the men in the group gasped.

Vin continued. "We have more prisoners, but a few . . . got away." He grit his teeth. "Jacob Chiles." He clenched his fists tighter. "How could I let him. . ."

"Don't!" Travis' voice was stern. "You've done everything you could."

Wait! It dawned on him. Vin pulled himself up and leaned on his elbow.

"Why are you here? Where's Chris?"

"We saw that Chiles was backtracking. We hoped to intercept him." Travis swallowed. "But we were too late."

"But Chris? Josiah? Ez-"

"They've gone on to find Mr. Jackson." The judge interrupted.

"Not by themselves. . ." The sharpshooter felt a cold fear in the pit of his stomach.

"Their choice."

"Sweet Jesus. . ."


Ezra Standish spoke in his practiced voice - his negotiation tones. "I am proposing a fair trade." He ceremoniously rolled up his sleeves.

Nathan looked up - his beautiful eyes incredulous. He opened his mouth - but what could he say? These men had put their lives on the line for him before . . .

But this --

A friend sacrificing his freedom for him. He'd never experienced that before.

The man in charge chuckled. "Why the hell would I want to do that? Mr. Greeley wants his property returned to him. He may want to make . . . an example of him."

"But wouldn't he be happier --" Josiah stepped up. "--if he could double his investment?"

Ezra cut his eyes over to Josiah. He hadn't expected that.

"Or triple it," Chris said.

The commander looked confused. "You can't be serious." He laughed nervously. "He can't 'own' you."

"Why not?" Chris' lip curled slightly. He glanced at Nathan. "You say you can own him."

"You can't own a white man."

"You can't own Nathan Jackson either." Chris' words were clipped and the air was suddenly charged with hostility.

Ezra's easy voice soothed. "But since you clearly are governed by alternative legal strictures, we wish to appeal to Mr. Greeley's fiscal interests and compound the return on his initial investment."

"What the f*** did he just say?"

"Let Mr. Greeley decide." Josiah translated. "It may be financially valuable to consider this option."

"But he won't . . . own you."

Ezra smiled graciously. "Then let him accept our offer of service without pay - a reimbursement as it were for the loss incurred with Mr. Jackson's . . . " He chose the words carefully. "Change of circumstance."

A nervous man approached the Confederate leader. "If he hears about this and we DON'T let him decide . . ." The man didn't verbalize the consequence because he probably couldn't think one up.

"This is crazy," the leader said. Then he chuckled. "But hey, if you want to throw your lives away for a ni**"

Ezra's hand shot out and grabbed the gray uniform. "You will not refer to that gentleman with that word." Ezra's voice was venomous. His friends cringed as a rifle butt slammed into his stomach.

"Shackle them!!" the leader called.

And amid Nathan's protests, his three friends were put in chains.

It was odd. Ezra couldn't figure it out exactly. His abdomen ached, he was bound awkwardly, he was hungry

And he had a miserable itch.

But he'd never felt better in his life.

He liked being one of the good guys.

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