Disclaimer is stated full in Part One of Penance.

Penance - Part Seventeen

Buck Wilmington nearly collapsed into the bed. Sheets, a blanket, soft pillows . . . He'd had a good hot meal, a strong dose of laudanum. His bandages had been changed and he'd had a bath. He should have felt better.

But nothing would be right as long as JD lay dying beside him.

Nettie Welles had helped Mary Travis bathe the boy who had been unconscious for two days now. They tended to most of his wounds, but were afraid to take the bandages off of his back. Oh, the bruises on his body - all over his body. What had they done to him? Why would anyone hurt him like that? What could anyone possibly gain by torturing a nineteen year old?

Gently they had washed his hair. It had gotten so long. Nettie had shaved his chin and his neck and the part of his face which wasn't cut.

His ashen face, so young, so hurt. . .

Mary felt a devastating sadness, but Nettie felt a blistering anger. Nettie had seen too many young lives needlessly and senselessly destroyed, in the War Between the States, in the journey westward, and now in the little town of Four Corners. And too often destroyed at the hands of the adults around them. Dear God, when would people learn? How many precious young lives would have to be lost before the atrocities would end?

She would be damned if they would lose this one.

Vin had insisted on carrying the kid when they took him to the bathhouse, and he had carried him back to the boarding house. Mary had cleared out the big room on the ground floor and the townspeople had brought beds from upstairs and linens from home. They had made the sickroom as comfortable as they could.

Once he was settled in the bed closest to Buck's, Nettie began to pull the first bandage off of the upper part of his back . . .

Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the torn flesh and she quickly replaced the bandage. "Mary!" she called sharply. Mary appeared at the door, an armload of clean sheets almost blocking her face.

"Boil as many bandages as you can and bring them here. Also get any whiskey you can find. We need to tend to the boy's back."

Something about Nettie's swift, sure actions were comforting to Buck. He lay on his side and watched, his eyes growing heavier. Nettie was talking constantly to JD - about ordinary things - the weather, the progress on Josiah's church, what Casey had made for supper the night before. She even fussed at the boy in a familiar motherly way - chastising him for never remembering to bring her his suit jacket to be mended, and for neglecting a haircut until the bangs covered his eyes.

"You have wonderful eyes, young man," she said. "I can see your soul in those hazel eyes. But I can't see anything but scraggly black hair if you insist on avoiding the barber. I've got a good mind to give you a haircut myself."

Buck's eyes closed slowly as he listened to the comfortable maternal litany. And he fell asleep.


Judge Travis shook the hand of his colleagues as they set out with the prisoners. With fresh horses, a hot meal in their bellies and a few hours of good sleep, they would make it to Eagle Bend quickly.

Mary, on the other hand, hadn't slept at all. She had been preparing bandages for JD and the other wounded men. She was glad to be busy - at least she was doing something useful. But she still felt like she should be watching the road for the others, as though somehow her watching would bring them home.

Silly, she knew, and yet she stole a glance everytime she went outside.

Vin Tanner needed rest, but he felt compelled to help. And to stay alert for fear that trouble could make its way into Four Corners. After too many ambushes in the past week, Vin was convinced that anything could happen, and with the posse gone, they were vulnerable again.

He wanted to help JD, but the best Nettie would allow was lying in a bed on the opposite side of JD from Buck - Buck who was finally snoring in a deep sleep.

Vin lay on the mountain of pillows. Oh, his head had missed real pillows. He knew if he got too comfortable, he would sleep for a week. So he insisted on remaining fully dressed with his rifle at his side. And he watched as Nettie and Mary pulled the layers of bandages off of JD's back.

Sweet Jesus . . .

Vin squeezed his eyes closed and tried to clear his mind of the image. Mary became nauseated, but Nettie spoke harshly.

"Get a hold of yourself, Mary. There's no time for falling apart. This boy needs help. and we're the only ones here who can help."

Mary bit her lip and nodded. Nettie patted her arm, and went back to the task at hand. She was glad she had not allowed Casey to come in to the sickroom. Casey was stationed outside watching for the stage. It should bring the help Mary had requested, and maybe the doctor. They had sent someone after a doctor. Why hadn't a doctor come?

Well, there was no doctor, but there was a dying boy.

And Nettie Welles would save him.


Casey was angry.

Angry and scared.

And that made her even angrier.

JD needed her. He was dying and he needed her. Why wouldn't they let her stay with him? She wasn't a baby. They didn't need to protect her. She'd seen people die before - even people she loved.

But it was Vin who had insisted that she stay outside. Vin - who had always been her ally. Why would he turn against her at a time like this? Didn't he understand anything?

He understood all too well. He had seen the horrors of war, and Indian attacks, and range wars.

But he had never seen anything like what had been inflicted on JD. He'd seen grown men tortured, but not like this. And he would carry this horror with him for the rest of his life.

Casey didn't need to carry this graphic evidence of man's evil around with her forever. She had had enough heartache in her young life. Losing JD would be bad enough. Watching him die was unthinkable.

Casey frowned as she watched the road. This was stupid. Anybody could tell the doctor where the injured folks were. She pulled a whittling knife out of her pocket and, with a practiced hand, whipped it into the wooden plank of the porch. Seeing the knife wobbling, the point buried in the wood grain, she felt a sudden rush of tears.

Why did she have to make JD feel bad by showing off? Why did she have to be better at this than he was? She had humiliated him. More than once. And now he was never gonna know she was sorry.

She was so sorry.


He didn't know how long he'd been asleep, but Nettie's harsh words startled him awake.

". . . no time for falling apart . . ."

Had something happened? God, why couldn't he open his eyes?

"What's hap . . ." Buck couldn't finish his question.

But he finally forced his eyes open, and watched the women peel back the dirty, saturated bandages - bandages that a couple of days before had been carefully placed across the boy's back by a good man - a good doctor.

The horrible infection was everywhere. No wonder the kid was burning with fever. Nettie worked efficiently, but she wasn't sure what to do next. Once JD's back was exposed completely, she looked around the room at the dear faces around her - caring, frightened faces watching. . .

"I am going to pray. And if any of you are praying folk, I suggest that you do the same." Nettie wasn't praying as a last resort,

But as a first one. She reached down and held the boy's limp hand. Mary took his other hand. Nettie closed her eyes and prayed her private prayer aloud. As she asked the Lord for direction, for healing, for help, and as she thanked Him for bringing the boy back to Four Corners alive, Vin Tanner slid out of his bed, and touched his young friend's arm.

And he saw Buck, lip trembling, put his good foot on the ground. And he half knelt, half fell at the boy's bedside. As Nettie talked to God, he did too. And again, his big hand stroked the soft black hair, continually brushing the bangs back out of his eyes. The big man leaned his forehead against the white bedsheet, tired tears wetting the linen. Mary was touched by the depth of feeling these men had for the boy - a bond that had been forged in struggle and pain,

And a bond that would last for the rest of their lives.

"Amen . . . " Nettie said, in a matter-of-fact way. Prayer was as sensible to her as boiling cloths for bandages. Vin admired her faith and was comforted by it. It reminded him, as did so many things about Nettie, of the faith of his mother. And as he climbed back into bed, he had a strange sense that the tide was about to turn.


Casey studied each face that emerged from the stage,

But there was no doctor.

And there were no lawmen.

And this infuriated her. She approached the driver.

"Did you leave anybody behind?" she asked accusingly.

The driver looked at her like she was crazy. "Why would I leave anybody behind?"

"There was supposed to be a doctor. . ."

"I pick up anyone waiting for the stage with a ticket."

"But . . . did you leave anyone behind because they didn't have a ticket?" she challenged.

The man was getting frustrated. "Listen, kid, I don't keep track of people who DON'T get on board. Now why don't you run along. I've got work to do."

"But . . ."

Casey jerked as she felt a strong hand on her shoulder. Judge Travis guided the girl away from the stage.

"Come on, Miss Welles. There'll be another stage tomorrow at noon. Right now, I could use a good supper, and I bet you could too."

"But tomorrow could be too late." Her eyes flashed in fear.

The judge faced the young girl and placed both hands on her shoulders. "I don't know much about these sorts of things, but I believe that boy has a guardian angel. It is a . . . miracle . . . that he is alive. He has survived more than one death. I cannot account for it. But something is keeping him alive." The judge smiled slightly. "It may just be sheer pigheadedness."

Casey felt a giggle bubble out, while tears rolled down her cheeks. "Now that sounds like JD."

The dapper gentleman put his arm around the girl, and, after stopping at the boarding house to report on the stage, the two went to the cafe for supper.


Buck stayed on the floor beside JD's bed, talking to him and stroking his hair. The women cleaned the wounds as best they could, and swabbed it with whiskey-soaked cloths. The boy never reacted to the painful treatment - and still his fever raged. Vin had finally fallen asleep, and Buck was glad. He needed it.

The ladies finished dressing JD's wounds, and Nettie patted Buck's shoulder.

"You need to get back in the bed," Nettie said.

"Give me a minute," Buck's voice was tight. Nettie smiled. "Just a minute. . ." Nettie guided Mary out of the sickroom, leaving Buck to talk to the boy for a little longer.

"OK, kid, you need to come back to us, you understand? We're home now. Nobody's gonna hurt you anymore. I'm right here, and I ain't goin' anywhere. Vin's here and Miss Mary, and that little Casey - she's worried to death about you."

Buck hadn't meant to cry - but he did. He folded his hands in his lap and leaned his head on the kid's bed. "Oh, God - JD. please. Please. I know you're hearing me. I know you are. . . For God's sake, wake up." He chanced a look at his friend's face, but his eyes were still closed.

"God . . ." Buck pleaded, and he ducked his head,

And sobbed.

He prayed like he had on the rock formation, like he had with his mother, and he prayed like he had never prayed. He no longer had words . . .

And he didn't need them.

Somebody had to hear him.

Somebody had to.


Mary was exhausted. She pushed the blonde hair back out of her eyes and kept her lips tightly closed. If she opened her mouth, she would surely scream . . . and never stop.

Her emotion boiled inside. Anger, fear, horror. She had never seen anything like this.

And she could only wonder what was happening to Chris. Or what had happened to him. How could he have escaped these horrors? Why weren't they back yet? Why weren't they home?

Nettie walked with her across the street, but Mary didn't go into the cafe with her. She tried to excuse herself, but no words would come. She was hanging by a thread. She was shaking, and turned to go to Josiah's church. Nettie watched her uncertain steps, and she went into the cafe.

"Casey," she said gently.

The girl bolted from the chair and asked breathlessly, "How is he?"

Nettie stroked her niece's hair. "No change, dear. But I have a job for you." She lowered her voice. "Mrs. Travis needs help. And I think you're the best person for her right now. She's going to the church. You must go to her." She reached for her hand. "Be strong, Casey."

The girl nodded and hurried out.


Mary entered the half constructed church, and looked around. Everywhere were reminders of the seven peacekeepers. She could see Josiah working in the rafters, and Nathan sanding the pews. Buck pulling his hat off and wiping the sweat off his brow with his shirtsleeve.

And JD mimicking the action.

Ezra leaning against the support beam, "supervising."

And Chris, working without speaking, intensely focused on the job at hand - hammering, sanding, lifting, aligning. . .

"God . . ." Mary began. Then her fury erupted.

"WHY DID YOU LET THIS HAPPEN???" She screamed. "Why? These are good men. And JD is just a boy. Why, God . . . Hasn't he been through enough?" She paced the unfinished aisle. "Haven't they all been through enough?"

She paused at the rough-hewn cross. "Chris as suffered so much. Why can't he have some peace? Please . . . " She sank to her knees. "Oh God, where is he? Please . . . let him be ok . . . let him be ok . . . please . . . please . . ."

She screamed and sobbed . . .


Nettie hoped that Buck had gone back to bed. But she would check on him to be sure. Judge Travis had finished his supper, but he sat at the table, waiting for Nettie's dinner to be brought.

He was suddenly painfully aware that he wasn't thirty anymore. This trip had worn him out. It had been physically exhausting, but it was the emotional strain that had drained him most. He wished he could sleep for three days straight.

But he wouldn't. He'd sleep tonight and then tomorrow, when the reinforcements arrived, he'd take his new posse and head out after Larabee and the others. Oh, he was getting too old for this.

"Whiskey!" he called. It was gonna be a long week.


Casey paused outside the church. Mary's cries scared her. What should she do? Why did her aunt send her?

The young lady bit her lip, tentatively, then, taking a deep breath, she walked in.

"Oh, Mrs. Travis . . ." she whispered. Her friend was kneeling on the dusty floor - skirts billowing around her - her face turned to heaven. Casey thought for a moment that she looked like an angel, or maybe like Jesus' mother might have looked when she cried over her son.

The spent tears still glistened on Mary's face. "Please God. . ." she was praying. "You've got to help us. You've got to hear us." Her voice grew weaker with each phrase, hoarse and tired. "Please . . ."

As naturally as if comforting a child, Casey knelt beside Mary, and put her arms around her, drawing her close. The last person to hold Mary while she cried

Had been Chris.

Mary let herself collapse in the young girl's arms. And as Casey rocked her gently and spoke words of comfort to her, Casey realized why her aunt had sent her to help Mary . . .

Because helping Mary was the only way to truly help herself. . .


Nettie paused in the doorway of the sickroom - but, she didn't go in. Her mouth opened slightly, but no words would come . . .

Buck Wilmington was sitting on the floor at JD's bedside, sobbing softly, his head hanging.

And slowly, weakly, shakily

A boy's hand slid out from under the sheet

And dropped onto the big man's shoulder.

Resting there while he wept.

Then reaching, with great effort, to stroke his hair . . .

It couldn't be . . , Buck thought. Oh, God . . .

Ever so slowly, Buck lifted his head and found himself looking into JD's eyes . . . his open, clear and very concerned eyes.

Buck reached up and caught JD's hand - and held it in both of his. His face broke into a relieved smile, while tears still streamed down his cheeks.

"Hey, kid . . ." Buck's voice was rough.

JD started to open his mouth, then squeezed his eyes in pain. It hurt to move. He gasped.

"Easy . . ." Buck breathed, and he pulled himself up. He reached up and put his hand on JD's forehead. It was still hot.

JD opened his eyes again.

And he was scared. . . but he couldn't tell Buck why . . .

His lip quivered, and his wide eyes filled. And he looked so young.

Buck could see the fear change to terror - suddenly

And he knew JD was remembering.

"You're home, son." Buck spoke with certainty. "You're alive. And I'm alive. And we're gonna make it." His eyebrow raised slightly. "They can't hurt you anymore."

JD was listening, but his eyes still searched Buck's for . . .

A reason?

Buck couldn't give him that. How could he explain abject evil to a boy who didn't have a mean bone in his body?

"JD . . . I am . . . so sorry they hurt you. God, I'm sorry." Buck leaned closer. "I wish I could make it go away, but I can't." JD closed his eyes and big tears rolled down the bandaged cheek. "I can't. . . But I promise you, son, I'll be right here, right with you. Whatever it takes to get you well." Buck smiled, a little sadly. "You're gonna be just fine." His voice cracked with emotion, and he spoke more softly. "You gotta be, kid. I need you. You're my family."

JD looked up. And he tried one more time to speak. He couldn't move his mouth much, but he tried nevertheless.

"You . . ." The effort was exhausting. "Hurt."

"A scratch, kid. It's nothing."

"No . . . I saw . . . him . . ." A sudden cough racked his body.

"JD . . ."

Nettie Welles was at the boy's side in an instant.

"Now, settle down, young man." She lay a cold cloth across his neck. JD pulled his hand away from Buck and tried to lift himself off of his ribs.

"Can't breathe," he said all at once, coughing again. "Oh, God. . ."

"Calm down, JD." Nettie spoke sternly. "And don't try to breathe so deeply."

But the movement had hurt him, and his breath caught in his throat.

"Buck . . ." he cried out. "God, it hurts . . ."

Buck found his hand again and squeezed it. "Send the pain to me, kid. I can handle it." JD's eyes met his, and he couldn't help but cry in front of him.

But Buck felt him tighten his grip on his hand. "That's it, kid. Ride it out. You can do it." JD was struggling, but he finally started to relax. "That's right. There you go." The boy was winded with the effort. And he lay very still again.

Buck was alarmed for a moment. But Nettie patted his arm. "He's all right. Let him settle back. And you. . ." She helped him stand up. "Back to bed."

They shared a relieved smile. "I'll get him some laudanum," she said.

"And water!" Buck added quickly. "He hasn't had water in a couple of days at least."

Nettie nodded. "We'll take the best care of him." She started out, then turned back. "He's gonna make it," she said softly.

Buck sighed and smiled. "Thank you, Miss Nettie."

His eye trailed back to JD who was sleeping again.

And he realized that Vin was awake - taking in everything, and, in a way, watching over them. Buck nodded at him and he smiled.

Words couldn't have said as much.

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