Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Penance.


Penance - Part Twenty


JD was about to swing his legs forward - but it was too much. He lay down on the pillow, exhausted. With one arm, he kept himself propped up on his side.

"Would you like more pillows?" Ezra asked.

It was a breathless minute before he could answer. "No - thanks -"

Ezra sat on the made-up bed that had been Buck's. The boy didn't look at him. For a while, he seemed to be trying to find a comfortable angle. But even that seemed to defeat him.

He lay . . .

Resigned.

"Ezra?"

"Hm?"

"You know about . . . legal stuff, don't you?"

"Enough to keep myself as far removed from it as is humanly possible."

JD didn't feel like responding to the gambler's attempt at levity.

"Can you help me make a will?"

Ezra's eyebrows shot up and he turned to the boy.

"Mr. Dunne, I hardly see the need . . . "

For an instant, JD's face clouded. "I know I don't have much, but . . ."

"Son, you miss my meaning. I didn't mean that you didn't have anything of value. I meant that your interest in a will is . . . premature, that's all."

"I could have used one a couple of weeks ago."

Ezra leaned closer. "But you survived, son. And you're gonna survive."

If JD were listening, it didn't deter him from his mission. "I just want to know that my mama's things . . ." Suddenly, as in a panic, the boy's hand went to his throat, searching.

"Mama's keepsake. . . " He looked to Ezra.

The gambler's expression remained kind, but his eyes flashed in anger. "Mr. Chiles . . . removed it from your neck when . . ."

He didn't have to finish. JD looked for a moment like he would weep, but then, closed his eyes and painfully, turned back onto his stomach.

Ezra hadn't become accustomed to the intense need he felt to offer comfort to another, and he found it frustrating. He couldn't make this right for the boy. And it pained him.

So any inclination he had toward comforting JD translated into a calculated hatred of Jacob Chiles - a hatred that would eat him up if he didn't do something about it.

He looked back at the boy, but the boy had withdrawn so completely that there was nothing he could do to help him.

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

The nightmares revisited him. Nathan Jackson woke up in a cold sweat, heart pounding, long buried memories resurging with vivid reality. And he cursed them.

"Nathan, are you all right?" JD was sitting up, trimming the lamp.

"Too much screaming. . ." Nathan said, his breath ragged, eyes focused somewhere far away from Four Corners. JD was alarmed. He looked around, trying to figure out a way to help. Then, stiffly, he stood and took a wobbly step toward Nathan. Another one. Then he awkwardly slid to his knees beside the healer's borrowed bed. And then he pulled himself up to look at his friend.

"Nathan . . ." JD's voice was so gentle. "'S all right. You're all right." The boy found Nathan's hand and held it in both of his. Nathan tightened his grip. How strong his hand was, JD thought. His gentle, healing hand . . . Gradually Nathan pulled himself out of his dream and opened his eyes.

"JD." Nathan was shocked to see that the boy had gotten out of bed. "How did you . . ."

JD shrugged. "I thought . . . you needed me." Nathan lay back and closed his eyes. He nodded. "I do need you."

He said nothing for a few moments. And JD grew anxious. "Nathan?"

"I know now."

"Know what?"

Nathan took a deep breath and sat up. "Let's get you back to bed." He climbed out of bed and pulled one of JD's arms across his shoulders. He hoisted the boy to his feet, and then, slowly, walked him back to bed.

It was frustrating to JD that such a simple move would so utterly exhaust him, but by the time he got back in the bed, he was winded. Nathan waited while he got settled.

JD lay on his side, a bewildered expression on his face. "What did you mean before-that you'know now'?"

Nathan sat in the chair beside the boy. He reached over and turned the lamplight up until it was very bright. "Lemme show you something."

The former slave stood up and pulled his shirt off. He knelt by JD, then turned his back to him.

And JD saw the long trailing scars. The kid had known that Nathan had been beaten, but he hadn't seen the scars.

"Go ahead," Nathan said. And the young man extended a pale hand and touched the brown skin, tracing the lines with a gentle finger. After he'd studied his friend's back, he let his hand rest on the man's shoulder.

"I am . . . so sorry, Nathan," JD said, and the healer turned back around.

"And I wish there had been a way I could have kept this from happening to you. But . . ."

"I know."

Nathan pulled the chair very close and sat beside him. "I've been worried about you, son. I know your body will heal, but I didn't know how to help your . . . heart."

JD was listening intently.

Nathan continued. "Josiah asked me how I got through it. And, for the life of me, I couldn't remember. I couldn't remember. And now, something you said. It all made sense. You said you thought I needed you."

"How did . . ."

"I remember feeling . . . useless. I hadn't been able to save my family. I hadn't been able to save myself. I thought I was no use to nobody. But then, I was working with the doctors, and this boy, oh, he was probably about your age, grabbed my hand and begged me for help. And I could help him. And I realized I could help other folks. I knew that I was needed. And if I was needed, there was a reason I was put here."

Nathan squeezed JD's hand. "We need you, boy. We aren't complete without you."

JD was listening, but Nathan still sensed a distance between them. "I know getting hurt like you did, it's humiliating. And if you feel shamed, just know it'll pass."

JD nodded, but Nathan realized that he couldn't tell JD how to get through this. He'd have to find his own way.

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

Casey Welles was sick of this. She sat across from Mary at the Clarion, fidgetting and heaving big impatient sighs. And it was getting on Mary's last nerve.

"Casey, why don't you go help your aunt?"

"Already have."

"Then why don't you see if Judge Travis needs anything?"

Casey exploded. "Why does everybody want to get rid of me? Why doesn't anybody see . . ." a great sob interrupted, "how hard this is for me?"

Mary was startled. She took a step toward her young friend. But Casey spun on her heel and walked to the window. "He's not the only one who's gotten hurt here," she continued. "He hurts . . . and I hurt for him." She turned back around to Mary, wringing her hands. "And it hurts worse that he won't let me help him." Tears rolled down her face and she almost wailed. "Why did this have to happen to him?"

Mary hugged her. "I don't know, Sweetheart." Casey had been remarkably strong throughout this ordeal. But now, she was at a loss.

"Go see him." A gravelly voice.

The women looked up to see Chris Larabee standing inside the doorway. He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorjamb. "Sometimes what's best for a person isn't always what he wants. He's been pulling away from all of us. It's time that we pull him back."

Casey hastily wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands and collected herself. "Are you sure, Mr Larabee?" The girl waited.

"Go ahead."

Casey ran to the door and paused long enough to impulsively kiss the gunslinger on the cheek. Then she ran across the street to the boarding house.

A smile tugged at his lips.

But Mary frowned. "Are you sure?" She challenged, hands on her hips.

"I'm not sure of anything right now. But I know we're losing him. Every day he has less to say."

"I thought Nathan said he was getting better."

"Oh he's healing. But there's something going on with him. Something . . ."

"Well, he's been through a trauma, Chris. Of course he's going to have trouble accepting what's happened."

"But there's more. And I can't figure out what."

Mary went to him, and touched his face. "You will."

"Somebody better. I've got a feeling we're running out of time."

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

Casey ran into the boarding house, but forced herself to slow down as she approached the sick room. She didn't want to startle JD. As it turned out, he wouldn't have noticed her entry, because Buck Wilmington was hollering at him. She waited outside, knowing she shouldn't eavesdrop. But, she so wanted to know what was going on.

"Why in thunder do you want to give 'em away?" The big man was yelling. "They mean a lot to you. And you're just gonna give 'em away. Just like that."

Why didn't JD answer him? Normally, that tone of voice alone would send him into a rage. But he just . . . took it. And that bugged Casey.

"What are you thinking?" Buck yelled. "You can't just give up on everything. You got to snap out of it."

Casey stepped inside and saw JD standing by the window, staring. His back was to her. He looked so thin, the long drapy painters' shirt swallowing him. The pants Aunt Nettie had made for him tied loosely around his narrow waist. Buck was pacing. He looked like he could strangle somebody.

"i just wanted you to have them." JD's voice was small. "I figured they might be special to you one day."

Buck stopped cold. He looked like someone had hit him. "JD," Buck said softly. "They're special to you and you're special to me. Keep them and give them to your own son someday." He walked over to put his hand on the kid's shoulders, but it didn't seem like the time.

Casey stepped further into the room. Buck looked at her, helplessly. Then he turned back to JD. "Thank you for thinking of me, kid. But I can't."

Buck left hurriedly.

Casey stood, frozen in place. JD looked so thin. His face was hidden by the long black hair. Really long hair, she thought.

"JD?" She felt like she was intruding on his isolation. But she'd come this far.

For a moment, he didn't move a muscle. Then painfully, he turned to her. She had to stifle a gasp. His face was gaunt and deathly pale. A long scar stretched from just under his eye to his jaw. And his cheek looked different somehow.

But his eyes scared her the most.

They were dead.

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

The next two weeks found Four Corners trying to resume something of its old rhythm. Ezra, Chris and Vin had been called away to Eagle Bend to offer testimony against the men who had been arrested for the atrocity. Upon their return, Nathan and Josiah and a reluctant Buck set out to do the same.

And JD's body continued to heal.

And his soul continued to struggle.

And Jacob Chiles was living large

In Mexico.

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