Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Penance.
The morning was ablaze with sun - but so much cooler. The heat wouldn't be oppressive today. It would be comfortable.
Comfortable. Vin Tanner hadn't been comfortable for a week. But it was different this morning. His body felt rested and his head didn't hurt. He lay - eyes closed - mind wandering. He almost felt good.
Where was he? Slowly he opened his eyes. He was outside. He turned his head slightly to the right. People were milling around, talking, shaving, eating off of tin plates.
"How are you, son?" Vin turned his head back the other way and saw Judge Travis silhouetted against the morning sun.
"OK. . ." The sharpshooter appeared to be disoriented. "Where are we?"
"We joined the rest of the posse - brought you here last night. You were exhausted, slept all the way."
Vin let that roll information roll around for a minute, then his eyes widened.
"He's holding on." Painfully the judge squatted down beside the bounty hunter. "He's getting much weaker, though." He paused a moment and his voice softened. "It doesn't look like he's gonna make it, son. His breathing is getting more difficult and he's got that high fever. The infection . . . he has no strength to fight it."
Vin was completely alert now, and he pulled himself up. "Let me ride on to Watertown and get a doctor to meet us in Four Corners."
"We've already sent someone." The judge put his hand on the young man's shoulder then stood up slowly.
"Judge?" Vin asked quickly. "What about the others?"
The judge nodded toward another part of the camp. "Your friend Mr. Wilmington is still sleeping. And we haven't heard anything from Mr. Larabee, yet."
Vin nodded his thanks and watched Travis walk away. He resisted the urge to go back to lie back down and return to the comfortable sleep he had enjoyed. He stood up and paused for the dizziness.
It didn't come.
He really was better. He walked across the camp, dreading what he would inevitably find.
Nobody was starstruck with the "famous" people who had been riding with them. They were up drinking out of tin cups just like the greenhorns were, and while the respect for them had only grown, they were just as human - maybe more so than the volunteers. Vin smiled sadly. JD would get such a kick out of the "legends" everywhere. He would be wide-eyed and excited.
But he lay still.
Vin saw him a few feet ahead of him.
The sharpshooter went over to him.
Buck was sleeping right beside the kid, and Vin felt a sense of . . . was it admiration? Sure, but he also was struck with the bonds these friends have made. Bonds he shared. In the course of the last year, these men who individually had been loners had become . . .
The events of the past week only served to underscore that metamorphosis. Vin ached for his friends, but for no one more than JD.
Vin reached up and touched the kid's throat. Oh, God, where was his pulse? He couldn't feel a pulse. No, he breathed, don't let him be dead. His own heart beat faster as he felt a surge of panic. He forced himself to close his eyes and concentrate.
There it was - faint, a bit irregular, but there. Vin nodded thanks to . . . God, he reckoned. He let his hand slide up into the boy's black hair and he pushed the long bangs out of his battered face.
His face looked so bad. The long gash where Chiles had cut him from cheek to jaw was covered with a bandage. Blood had soaked into the cloth a bit. Extending around the bandage, he could see that part of the bruise on his cheek was turning slightly yellow and he was swollen around his broken cheekbone. His eye had swollen shut.
The kid's breathing was wheezy and Vin remembered, heartsick, that he'd been beaten before he'd been whipped - with a rifle butt no less. He was bound to have busted ribs. He remembered that JD had been coughing blood before - - God, they were probably puncturing a lung or something.
-Oh, kid --
"I wish I . . . could have protected you from this." Vin's voice was very quiet. "I wish to God you weren't having to go through this, kid . . ."
His hand slid around to the back of the kid's neck, fingering the sweat-slick hair off of his skin. The fever-heat radiated from the boy. He needed to bring his fever down -- somebody had to . . .
It felt good to get the leg irons off. Nathan Jackson had had his first good night's sleep since the ordeal had started. His friends were watching his back.
Nathan was the only one of the seven who had been captive the entire time. And his friends insisted that he sleep - insisting that JD would be needing him . . .
JD. It had to be a miracle. How else could the kid have survived the atrocities he had suffered?
He prayed that the others were alive. But if Chiles had actually caught up with them. . .
Ezra Standish had slept well also. He had kept the first watch, Josiah the second. They had agreed that Chris Larabee needed sleep. Chris had fought the man who had beaten the kid. Fought with every bit of strength he had left. Then he turned around and headed back out to search for Nathan. He had to be exhausted.
Yet he was willing to be handcuffed and put in leg irons for the sake of a friend.
The power of friendship.
Ezra slept with an easy heart -- for the first time since he was a boy. He went to sleep last night . . . liking himself. He realized that he was indeed a changed man.
A better man.
And the others knew it. The others who had seen him as a cheat, a bigot and ultimately a coward could now count him among the brave and selfless. Chris Larabee could trust him - finally. And, even more important than that, he could trust himself. How strange, in the midst of this horrific experience, Ezra Standish was experiencing
As the group made their way across a forgotten field, they could make out the homestead in the distance. Nathan felt bile rise in his throat, but he choked it back. Josiah nodded. He understood.
Chris was close enough to talk quietly to Nathan. "Never could have found you so easily if you hadn't left that trail."
Nathan looked puzzled. "I never left a trail. What kind of trail?"
"Bits of cloth, utensils, every few yards."
Nathan studied the young man who had stayed close to him throughout their journey, now walking ahead of them, and realized that the tail of his shirt had been ripped erratically. Nathan nodded toward him.
"He's been taking good care of me. I think he's helped me more than I realized." Nathan had been talking softly, but lowered his voice more. "If we get out of here, let's give him the chance to break out of this outfit."
Chris nodded his assent.
Their conversation was interrupted when a scout returned, thundering toward them on his palomino mount. "Sir," he called,winded, face red. "There's something really wrong at the house. Mr. Greeley . . . well . . . "
"Spit it out, son," the commander growled.
"Mr. Greeley doesn't want us to come up there. He doesn't want his man back."
"Nonsense. He was funning with you." The commander chuckled uneasily. "He was the one who had the general issue the order to round up his escaped slaves. He's the one who financed our pursuit." A frightening wildness flickered across the commander's face.
The young scout came closer to his superior. "I don't think he was kid-----"
WHACK! The back of the commander's hand connected with the boy's face, and the four captives felt another rush of rage. It was one thing to call a man out and another thing to assault a boy over whom one had authority. Chris bit his lip to keep from speaking out, realizing that provoking the commander may only serve to make things more difficult for the young man. Nathan noticed that the young soldier who had befriended him began to hang back, further away from his superior. He stayed close to Josiah. The boy had been afraid, and seeing the commander's swift anger, he decided to distance himself from the madman.
"Let's move, men!!" The command was issued, and the captives were forced to break into a little jog to keep up with the men on horseback.
As they approached the homestead, it became evident that something was very wrong. Something was frighteningly amiss. The group, the ragtag remnant of the mighty Confederacy, halted a few yards away. The sight before them sickened them. Even Chris Larabee had to look away for a moment.
And they knew they would leave this place
Mary Travis had resumed her vigil early in the morning. She had wired Eagle Bend for more help, so that one way or another, she would get answers. If help was coming, it would be on tomorrow's stage. At least she would be doing something. Not just sitting here.
Today, Casey had camped out with her. Miss Nettie had proclaimed her neice no help at all, so distracted was she with worry, and relegated her to watching the road with Mrs. Travis. Casey was grateful.
But as the sun began to set, she felt her hope waning. She glanced at Mary. The pretty lady was staring down the road as though in a trance. Eyes frozen, trying to hope, but dazed. Until . . .
Casey watched, alarmed, as Mary's eyes widened in shock. Horror? What? Casey followed her gaze to where the road bent out of sight.
There she saw a large group making its way toward them. Mary stood slowly, for a moment not realizing what she was seeing. But she sprang to life when she saw Casey blur past her, running toward the caravan in a dead run. Mary gathered her skirts, and followed her.
In the dusk, Mary could make out Judge Travis leading a horse with a body tied across its back. There were riders, and men whose wrists were tied behind them who walked haltingly.
Vin Tanner. Praise God. Riding further back. Riding beside a buckboard. Buck Wilmington riding on the other side.
She couldn't see Chris. Where was Chris? Mary's tired eyes brimmed with remembered tears.
Oh God. Surely that wasn't Chris' body tied to the horse. Mary froze in fear.
When Vin saw Casey, he rode toward her and swung off his horse beside her, blocking her way.
"JD?" she asked, angry tears in her eyes as she fought the sharpshooter to get past him. She knew the black haired figure lying so still on the buckboard. Vin held her arms firmly. "He's hurt . . . really bad." Casey couldn't stop a sob as she watched the buckboard drag by.
"Oh, God." Casey said her eyes following it. JD didn't even look like himself. What she could see of his face was dirty, bruised, and strangely misshapen. Vin hadn't anticipated having to explain to other people the horrors of the past six days.
"Listen to me," Vin said, as the group cut its way around them. "Listen - Casey!"
"Huh?" She still couldn't take her eyes off of JD.
Gently, Vin turned her face toward him. "He's . . . dying, Casey. He shouldn't have survived this long."
"No," she sobbed.
"But listen to me." She stared at the ground, but he lifted her chin again. "He has made it this far. He is . . ." Vin searched for the right word. "willing himself to hold on. He is choosing to survive. And every time we thought he was gone, he rallied." Vin put his gentle hands on either side of the face of the young girl he had grown to love like a sister. "He's fighting for his life. He hasn't given up. And I'm not giving up on him either." Casey's voice hitched in another sob.
Vin gathered her into a hug and held her as she cried softly. But he realized she was working hard to pull herself together. And in a moment she took a step back, sniffed and spoke.
"I'm never giving up on him." Casey spoke with an authority that belied her youth.
Vin smiled. "That's probably why he's fighting so hard." He swung his arm around the girl. "C'mon." And he led her back to Four Corners.
The homestead was but a skeleton. Only the big stone outer walls stood. There was nothing inside. Nothing. And there was no roof. Only ashes and dirt
And a man sitting in a rocker on what had once been a veranda. His face was drawn and he was clearly emaciated. His hair was long and wiry gray. And lined up down the ancient porch were bodies. Skeletons, more accurately, still in tattered clothes, arms folded in death. A woman. Two smaller skeletons. Eight or nine more . . . wearing the faded gray uniform of the South.
"Hello! The house!" the commander called. But Greeley never looked at him.
"Go!" came the answer.
"We brung you your property." The commander swung down from his horse and ran back to Nathan. He dragged him toward the man in the rocking chair. "Here he is, like you wanted."
The man stood and faced them. And they could see for the first time that half of the man's face was burned beyond recognition. The one eye that worked studied the commander for a long time. Then he exploded.
"IT'S F***ING OVER!!!!!" the old man screamed. "He's not a slave any more than you are." The man had no voice but the high squeal of a man who had inhaled so much smoke that he'd destroyed his vocal cords. "Don't you know, you worthless bastard. . ." He laughed, convulsing his entire body. "There're no slaves anymore. There's no cause. There's no Confederacy. There's no South." Greeley drew close to the commander. "We failed our families." A bony finger poked at the gray uniform. "YOU failed our families. It's over. It's over. Go home." He wandered around the perimeter of the little group. "You're living a g**damn lie!! Don't you see??" He waved his arms. "Go home to your families." He walked back over to Nathan. "You don't belong to me anymore, Boy." Nathan didn't flinch at the name that used to infuriate him. In fact, the only feeling that came to him now was compassion. Compassion and pity. He nodded to Nathan. "Go home," he said softly. Then he backed up and made his way to his place on the veranda. "Let them all go home."
The commander froze for a full minute. Then he took a few steps away from Nathan - toward the shell of the house. And with his back to his men, and his eyes on Greeley, he put his pistol in his mouth
And blew his brains out.