Disclaimer is fully stated in Part One of Penance.
Vin Tanner adjusted his hat, then stood in the doorway waiting as he reconsidered the benefits of wearing a hat on his still-tender head. But the sun was glaring. He decided he could stand the hat more than the blinding light.
He had declared himself well enough to stay out of the sickbed. He was going absolutely stir crazy. He needed to be doing something. Besides, he figured, the town needed him to keep an eye on things.
The town. He stepped into the street. Four Corners. His town.
And with half of his family still unaccounted for, it was a decidedly empty town.
He sighed and scanned the street with a practiced eye. Things looked normal enough. Well, too quiet, but there seemed to be no impending danger. He started over to the cafe, when he saw a swirl of blue skirts in his periphery. Casey Welles. Running off. Vin took a quick step in her direction and called her. She kept running. He'd have run after her if he could have, but he had no strength left.
A familiar hand took his arm. "She'll be all right." It was Miss Nettie. "We just have to let her be for a while."
"Did she see him?"
"Not up close." Nettie looked straight ahead. "He didn't want her to." For a moment she sounded apologetic. "And . . . I didn't want her to either." She looked at Vin intently. "I've seen a lot in my life. I've seen war and I've seen people die. But I've never . . ." Sudden tears rushed the old woman's eyes. "I've never seen anything like what has been done to that boy."
Nettie Welles drew herself up quickly and the tears left as suddenly as as they had arrived. "I can't think of how to explain this kind of violence to Casey."
They sat down together on a bench in front of the cafe. Nettie continued. "And what's worse -- what will be harder to explain --" She paused a moment. "Is how much . . . hate . . . I feel for the ones who did this. I want you boys to go out and kill every last one of them."
"That's understandable, Ma'am," Vin said. "And I aim to bring 'em to justice."
"Justice is one thing, son. But hate . . .that's something else entirely. Hate doesn't accomplish anything. It only hurts the one doing the hating."
Vin thought about this. An easy breeze drifted through. Nettie turned her face toward it.
"It isn't so much that she couldn't stomach seeing the extent of the boy's injuries. Not that it isn't a horrible thing to behold." The image intruded, and she paused. "If some horrible accident had happened, I could at least explain it. But, as taken as she is with him, I'm afraid she may never get over knowing how someone deliberately hurt him."
"I don't think any of us will."
Nettie looked at the wooden slats that comprised the porch. "I see a frightening hate in Mr. Wilmington's eyes."
"I think you'll see some in all our eyes. You can't witness something like that and let it go." Vin paused as the memory was suddenly and vividly resurrected. He hadn't talked about it since the day it happened. Nettie waited. They sat in silence for several long minutes.
"I was really . . . sick -- the heat -- my head -- I kept fading in and out. We were all lined up on the side of the road at this little army settlement. God, we hadn't all seen each other til then. Buck and Chris and I had been held in the same place, but we hadn't seen the others since . . . well, since we were captured."
Vin was lost in the recollection, Nettie's firm grip on his arm his only contact with the present. The woman who had become like a mother to him listened without comment, understanding that the bounty hunter needed to unload some of this burden.
"They'd brought Josiah and Ezra out. I don't remember much . . . Nobody knew for sure about Nathan and JD. Then, I saw this big . . . muscle man. And he pulled his shirt off . . . and I saw . . . that . . . whip. And I thought . . . they would make an example out of Chris." Vin shook his head. "Then, I heard that some guy had died - Nathan couldn't save him, and I figured they were gonna whip him." Vin's jaw tightened. "Then Chiles came out . . . and he walked over . . and he told Chris. . . that 'somebody didn't cooperate.'" The blistering anger was barely held in check, and Nettie felt the young man's arm flex as he spoke. "He said . . . 'you need to teach the boy better' . . . and we knew. We knew. Chiles was gonna get back at us . . . by hurting the kid. . . God, he's just a kid." Vin waited a long moment. "Chiles had pressed him for information about us, but he wouldn't talk. He knew they'd probably kill him for it, but he wouldn't talk. Chiles went across the street and got him. And some guy brought Nathan over." The voice quivered. "JD was limping. They'd already hurt him. Buck said they'd beaten him when they captured him . . . and Chris said he took a rifle butt in the face for yelling a warning to him." More quietly. "The kid looked so . . . dazed. And scared. Chiles kept pushing him." The mighty bounty hunter's eyes filled. "JD was tied up. He couldn't have gone anywhere. . .But the bastard kept pushing him. We couldn't do anything. We couldn't help him. . . JD . . .couldn't even stand up straight, and Ezra said that some kid soldier had hit him that morning and broken his ribs. Chiles dragged him right up into Chris' face . . . And put a knife to his throat." The words came harder now. "Buck said something . . . pissed him off, and so Chiles . . . cut the kid . . . across the face." A slight sob rose unchecked in Vin's throat. "They . . . tied his arms . . . over his head . . . to a wagon they'd . . . turned on its end." Vin struggled to catch his breath, his voice little more than a whisper. "Chiles . . . ripped . . . the back of his shirt . . . and they . . . whipped . . ."
He couldn't speak a moment. His shoulders shook. Nettie drew him to her, gently removing his hat, and holding his head against her heart, rocking a slight rhythm. He wasn't sobbing, but he was trembling. He held onto the dear woman's arm until his breathing settled.
It wasn't awkward. No, it felt as right as rain, letting Nettie hold him like his mama had. He pulled himself up and looked at her with sad eyes.
"They kept hitting him . . . and hitting him . . . and he tried so hard not to scream . . . but finally . . . he couldn't help it . . . and after a while . . . his body just . . . couldn't . . . Nathan said he was dead . . . and they still hit him. . . God . . ."
Vin looked at his feet. "Why did they have to hurt *him*? Why not one of us?"
"Because," Nettie observed, "by hurting him, they *did* hurt all of you."
Vin looked into her wise eyes. "And I let that son of a bitch get away . . ."
"No, son." The old woman brought her hand up and touched his face. "You and Mr. Wilmington saved the boy's life. That's all that really matters."
Vin tried to smile, and he nodded his thanks to her. He started to speak, but thought better of it and stood up. She handed him his hat, and he gingerly put it back on his head.
Then he tipped his hat to her, and walked away.
Nettie Welles sat and thought about what she'd heard,
Knowing she'd eased young Mr. Tanner's burden
But carrying a new burden of her own.
The noon sun gave way to a mass of gray clouds. Judge Travis was frustrated for a second time that day. First he had met the morning stage, only to find that there were no men aboard to help him. And there was no doctor. Now he was going to have to deal with rain. Rain that muddied tracks. He frowned at the sky, wondering why he couldn't catch a break. He would have to leave hours before he planned if he wanted to beat the storm. But if he left before the afternoon stage, he might miss the very help he needed.
And he was worried about Mary. He hated leaving her. Oh, she was a strong woman. He knew that. But somehow this was overwhelming her. And he was about to take off again, and add to her worries.
He squinted at the sun, which was being edged out of the sky.
Damn. Lousy timing. The afternoon stage wouldn't arrive for another two hours.
So he was on his own.
"Buck . . ." The voice was weak.
Buck opened his eyes and almost fell out of bed, he jumped so suddenly.
JD looked lost. Lost and scared. His eyes searched his friend's for . . . reassurance?
"Are you hurtin'?"
The boy didn't answer.
Why couldn't he move?
What had Buck asked him?
"Huh?" Why did he feel foggy?
"How do you feel?" Buck asked again.
JD had to think about that one for a while. He couldn't move. He closed his eyes again and tried to think. Buck watched him, not pressing him to talk.
"Where are we?"
"We're home, kid."
JD's eyes fluttered open again. He hadn't considered that possibility. "Oh."
He watched Buck with an easy familiar eye contact. To Buck, he looked like a sleepy child - black, too-long bangs hanging in his face. He probably looked even younger since only the side of his face was showing.
Those hazel eyes that had been so full of enthusiasm. Eyes that had trusted him.
Now were empty. Not even sad, really. Just empty.
But then his eyes clouded. He remembered . . .
Buck - screaming -
Shot? Had he been shot?
"You're all right, son." Buck kept his voice low and soothing. "Settle down." The kid was getting agitated.
"Are you all right?" JD asked, breathlessly.
"Sure, kid." Buck leaned forward, trying to get the boy's attention. "Look at me."
JD squeezed his eyes closed, breathlessly. "No, you were . . . shot."
"I got a flesh wound is all. Nicked my ankle. Didn't hit a bone or anything." Buck had to raise his voice. "JD - look at me."
He waited as JD turned scared eyes back to his friend. Buck's broad smile comforted him momentarily. The gunslicker pulled the blanket away from his leg to show him his bandaged ankle. "See? It's ok. But I'm gonna have to be laid up a while, so if you don't mind some company . . ."
JD nodded, a bit absently. He paused a moment. It took so long for a thought to form in his clouded mind. But he could remember, vaguely . . . "Vin?"
"He's doing so good he's out and about today."
"Good." JD seemed to doze a minute. Buck watched him closely. He wished he could spare him the remembering.
Gradually, the boy's brows furrowed and Buck couldn't tell if he was dreaming or in pain.
Suddenly, the boy gasped and his eyes shot open.
The question blindsided Buck. And he was about to answer when he realized that JD was trying to pull himself up.
JD's eyes reflected the horrific pain. His breath came in difficult gasps.
"My . . . side . . . hurts . . ."
He suddenly looked terrified, as the nerves throughout his body came alive.
"Just breathe easy, JD. You got a busted rib or two. You'll be ok."
JD struggled to get into a position that didn't make him feel like he was being stabbed in the side. But no sooner did the pain ease than he began to feel the sick burning in his back. He clenched his teeth. Maybe he could ride out the pain.
But he realized that something else was bothering him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
Oh yea. Where was Chris? Hadn't he asked Buck about it?
Buck must be hiding something from him.
"Where's Chris?" JD breathed.
"You know Chris. He's fine."
"Oh God, Buck. What?" JD was becoming more agitated. "Is he dead? He's dead, isn't he?"
"Now simmer down, son. He ain't dead. He and Josiah and Ezra went to fetch Nathan is all. They'll be back any time now. Hell, they'll probably be here by this afternoon."
JD didn't look convinced. His eyes grew wide. And he looked away. Far away. Like he was trying to remember something.
Or trying not to.
But he was remembering.
Ezra riding away.
That soldier - the blonde-headed one. That soldier had hit him.
Chris being dragged away.
Blindfolded. He'd been blindfolded, hadn't he"
Chris and Josiah and Buck and Ezra. Standing there in the sun. Waiting.
And Vin was sitting. Vin was hurt. He looked . . . sick.
Nathan saying it would kill him.
Buck . . . He was looking at Buck
And he felt the intense shock before he felt the pain. The cold blade had cut him. His face.
What were they gonna do to him? Why were they tying him up?
His shirt . . .
Oh, sweet Jesus . . .
A tear rolled down his cheek.
"What is it, son?" Buck's gentle voice belied his alarm. "Come on, JD. Come back, now. . ."
But the boy turned his bandaged face into his pillow and drew his hand up to cover his eyes.
And Buck recognized the light tremor in the boy's shoulders.
He was sobbing . . . silently.
Buck started to get up to go to him, but a muffled voice stopped him.
"Don't . . . " JD's voice was soft but emphatic. And he seemed almost to curl into himself. "Please . . ."
When he looked back on this moment, Buck would see this as the beginning of JD's withdrawal from him.
For the third time that day Judge Travis was perturbed. The stage brought no help for him. The rainclouds had obliterated any evidence of the sun. And now an injured sharpshooter was saddling up to ride out with him.
The Judge was working out a logical, persuasive argument against Vin Tanner's accompanying him, but his thoughts were jolted back to Four Corners when he heard the sound of people running down the street.
Vin was already clutching his carbine, running to the doorway, careful not to step out into some kind of ambush. The judge followed closely on his heels.
Vin peered around the corner.
And saw the four weary, dusty travellers --
His brothers --
Who had come home.