Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Penance. Anything in this story which is not owned by those listed in the disclaimer belongs to C. Knox Binkley.

Penance - Part Three

Mary Travis watched anxiously for the stagecoach. It had been two days since the little town of Four Corners had been upheaved, and the information she had been able to piece together offered her no comfort.

Boarding house residents had heard the sounds of a struggle, but the gunshot they heard prevented anyone from taking the initiative to help. Evidence of the struggle was everywhere - the broken lock at the front door, the stairwell where pictures had been knocked off the wall, the cracked rail of the back stairwell. Mary had found blood trailing out of young JD Dunne's room and both his room and Mr. Wilmington's bore evidence of even more violent struggles.

Hadn't anyone else heard anything? Please - you can talk about it, the danger has passed. Isn't there anybody?

One townsperson had heard shouts in the street sometime around three a.m.

But he had been afraid to look out the window.

When was the last time anyone saw one of them? Well, the bartender had entrusted his establishment to the big man who had been a preacher, as he had done so many nights when the gambler was on a roll. And no, he hadn't recognized the young men who were getting cleaned out at the poker table. No, the only other ones there were sitting at the corner table sleeping off the effects of too much whiskey. He hadn't seen their faces, but they seemed older. Probably ranchhands who were moving a herd - glad to find even the smallest vestige of civilization. Didn't seem like troublemakers.

It wasn't until the next morning that Mary realized that anything had happened. She had been staying with Miss Nettie, tending to her and her neice, Casey. They were finally recovering from a lingering case of the influenza. Mary had started back early, satisfied that her charges were well enough to take care of themselves.

The first indication that Mary had that there had been trouble was a horse wandering down the street - saddled but with no rider. Wasn't that Mr. Tanner's horse?

How could he have wandered off? Mr. Tanner was very conscientious. Something must've happened.

Mary had looped the reins over the hitching post outside the Clarion and then she'd hurried over to Nathan Jackson's. If Mr. Tanner had been hurt or taken ill, Mr. Jackson could help.

But she'd found the little makeshift clinic abandoned - sad embers glowing in the hearth and Mr. Jackson's knives on the bed. And that man with the fever was gone. What was happening? In a panic, she had sought Chris Larabee, but . . .

Thank God! The stage thundered into the town bringing help - bringing hope.


JD opened his eyes slowly. Well, he wasn't walking anymore. That was good. Oh, but every inch of his body was sore - and his face . . .

It was nighttime and he was in a - was it a tent? There was the sound of sleep-breathing, and light snoring. JD started to get up, but he was bound hand and foot. He groaned in spite of himself.

One of the bodies in the tent with him stirred and he was overcome with now-familiar fear. Would they kill him this time?

He bit his lip and made himself very small, curling up as far away from the others as he could. Like that would help anything.


It took a moment for the voice to register with him. "Josiah?"

At the sound the others woke from their light sleep.

"Thank God, he's awake," Josiah said, keeping his voice low, then he moved a bit closer to the boy. "How do you feel, son?"

JD didn't answer - his face hurt. He was disoriented. He tried to discern who was in the tent with him, but his eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark.

Maybe this was a trick. Maybe it was a trap. Maybe he just thought it was Josiah. He pulled away from the voice.

"It's ok, kid." Nathan worked his way closer, the effort difficult because of the ropes binding him. "Tell me where you hurt."

JD tried to move further away, but couldn't. He became completely paralyzed with fear. Josiah's eyes burned. Dear God, what had they done to the boy? Even the usually impervious Ezra Standish was affected. And a strange protectiveness came over him. Nathan and Josiah continued trying to calm JD, then Ezra took a shot.

"Mr. Dunne," Ezra said in his calculated molasses drawl. "You'd best let the surrogate doctor evaluate your injuries or you will not be in any condition to win back your substantial losses at the poker table." The boy was listening. There was no way this could be a trick. "Clearly, you have met with greater calamity than any of us have on this little adventure and if you are going to be of any value in effecting our escape, you must be in a more physically efficient state."

"Huh?" JD's typical answer to the gambler's ramblings was a source of relief to his friends.

"Ezra is worried about you, son," Josiah translated. "We all are. Now, where are you hurt?"

JD looked at the preacher with a tentative trust.

He started to answer when another thought interrupted and his face clouded. "They got Buck."

A palpable disappointment swept through the little tent as the other men realized that the ambush had been even more extensive than they'd thought.

"Have you seen him?" There was a heartbreaking plea in the kid's voice.

"'Fraid not," Nathan's answer was gentle. "But Buck can take care of himself. Try not to worry yourself about it."

JD squeezed his eyes closed. Buck, where are you?

"Kid," Nathan's pulled his thoughts back. "I need to know . . ."

"Chris - have you seen Chris?"

"Sweet Jesus . . ." Ezra breathed.

"No," Josiah masked his own sudden sense of hopelessness. "Did you see them take him, too?"

JD started to answer, but hot tears filled his eyes, and he could only nod, yes. He choked back a slight sob that caught in his throat and then he bit his lip. He looked searchingly into the faces of the more experienced gunmen.

"Well, I imagine Mr. Larabee has figured out a way to make his abduction work to everyone's advantage. He and Mr. Wilmington are probably biding their time until the perfect opportunity presents itself for overtaking these . . . hoodlums."

Ezra sounded so convincing that even Josiah and Nathan glanced over at him . . . then back at JD.

There was the faintest glimmer of hope in the boy's eyes.

Josiah tried a different approach. "What happened to your face?"

"Rifle butt . . . I warned Chris . . . they hit me . . ."

The men felt utter rage.

"I think . . ." JD searched for the rest of his thought. "I think my face is broken." A nervous chuckle escaped from his throat.

"What else, JD? Anything else broken?" Nathan asked.

"A rib maybe? A couple? I don't know," JD frowned. "I don't know."

"How about your breathing? Does it hurt?"

"Oh, I'm still breathing," he answered too quickly.

Nathan had to smile. "Yea, that's good. Does it hurt to breathe or is it hard to breathe?"

"It hurts . . ."

A thought suddenly occurred to him. "Are you guys all right? I didn't even ask you."

The others looked at one another. This was quite a kid.

"Well, I, for one, was relieved of very large winnings at the poker table - Mr. Sanchez can attest to that. But other than that - and I am in no way downplaying the negative effects of monetary loss - we are all faring surprisingly well."

Josiah's eyes twinkled. "That is not entirely true, Brother Standish."

Ezra grinned and he picked up Josiah's thought. "No - it seems that Mr. Sanchez and I share a common affliction as a result of our unfortunate ordeal." He leaned toward JD and spoke more softly. "I confess that it is a less than delicate irritation of the skin which has been caused by and aggrevated by the lack of variety in our apparrel." Ezra was having fun now. "This coupled with the unavoidable presence of perspiration has created a most uncomfortable situation."


"Chafing," Josiah translated.

"Oh." JD nodded.

"We're fine," Nathan said. "And I reckon Buck and Chris are, too."

JD began to relax a bit, talking more freely. Nathan was able to at least hazard a guess at the extent of the boy's injuries. He would recover if he could get some rest and stay off of his ankle. He had most likely sprained it. The ribs would heal and his face would heal. But the poor kid was exhausted. And he was scared. Whoever had kidnapped them seemed to have a personal vendetta against the boy and the hard truth was - they couldn't protect him. At least not the way things stood.

As a soft rain pattered against the heavy canvas, Ezra entertained him with lively conversation which was over JD's head. Once he was sure the kid was asleep, he leaned his head back and spoke to Josiah and Nathan, his voice frighteningly even. "As soon as we are out of this god-forsaken void, I am going to find Mr. Dunne's assailants and introduce them to my Derringer."

Josiah nodded. "I've got a couple of friends I'd like to introduce them to as well. I certainly do."


Mary finally could sleep. The wheels were in motion and tomorrow the posse would head out. And what a posse!

Judge Travis had arrived as promised on the four o'clock stage. He and Mary had seen each other through the hardest of times. He would get her through this. She had embraced her father-in-law for a long moment, her eyes glistening with tears. She had done everything she could do by herself, and thank God, now she had help.

Lots of help, she had realized as two vaguely familiar faces emerged from the coach. She'd looked at the Judge inquisitively.

"I've been investigating, and this thing is bigger than Four Corners." he'd told her as he put his arm around her and walked her to the Clarion. "And we've got more help coming." His voice was always a comfort to her. "It's gonna be all right."


"Get up!!"

Buck felt the hard toe of a boot in his side. A hell of a way to wake up.

"Damn!" he cried and he instinctively rolled into his assailant.

"Easy, Buck" Chris warned, and he winced as Buck took a harder kick in the stomach.

God, his ribs had had enough, but he bit his lip. Chris was right. Fighting right now could get him killed and this wasn't the hill he needed to die on.

"Hey!" Another man stood over Vin. The bounty hunter opened his eyes groggily, but evidently not fast enough, because the next thing he knew, he was hauled to his feet and slammed against the wall.

"You sonofabitch!!" Buck cried.

Chris got up. "Leave him alone," he said. "He's hurt. He won't give you any trouble."

The man spun on Chris, drawing his revolver and waving it at him. "You don't have any say in this, Larabee. You ain't in charge."

Chris wasn't intimidated. "Leave him alone." He stated it in the same tone of voice as he had before, but something in his eyes communicated a very real threat to the two-bit hood, and he backed off.

Buck had painfully stood up and he had made his way over to Vin. "Lean on me," he said and Vin balanced against Buck's shoulder.

"Where're we going?" Vin asked softly.

"Damned if I know," Buck answered and they were led out.


Sunrise came too early for the exhausted prisoners. Josiah awoke first and looked at his sleeping friends. There had to be a way out of this. All of their attempts to loosen each other's bonds had been futile. Their captors were pros.

The boy was sleeping well. How young he looked, with his beaten face, and his too-long black hair. He had finally shaved the non-commital facial hair that refused to grow evenly on his face. The fact that it had taken him so long to grow it had proven miserably frustrating. And he had taken all the ribbing he could stand about it. But when he shaved, he looked a couple of years younger yet. Too young to be involved in anything like this. Josiah wanted to get him out. Maybe they could work out some kind of deal, a trade of some sort - but what could they bargain with? Certainly not their lives - they were already in the hands of the enemy.

"'Scuse me . . ." a voice from outside the tent spoke quietly before the tent-flap was lifted. In walked a tow-headed boy just a few years older than JD, wearing what used to be a confederate uniform and wielding a military issue rifle. His expectant blue eyes were maybe a touch fearful.

"Mornin'" the greeting sounded trite, given the circumstances. At the noise, the others woke up.

"I got you breakfast. And I'll take you to the privy . . . one at a time, of course." He squatted beside JD and cut the ropes that bound his ankles.

JD looked at him quizzically. "Hey, I know you . . . your voice, I mean." He sat up a little. "You tried to help me. You tried to get them to let me rest." JD saw the red mark on the boy's face and knew he had gotten that because of his protest on JD's behalf.

The blonde boy looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, I didn't think what they was doin' was right. I don't care if you have been court-martialed - they got no cause to treat you like that."

"Court-martialed?" Josiah asked.

"Well, yea. Colonel said you been court-martialed and you're traveling with an escaped slave."

"Jesus Christ," Ezra uttered.

Josiah spoke gently. "Son, the war is over. General Lee surrendered. The slaves have been freed. Do you understand?"

The boy's eyes grew wide in disbelief. "What?" He shook his head and stood up. "No . . . no . . . you're . . . trying to get me mixed up." He became agitated and his grip tightened on his rifle. "Don't do that." He started to raise his voice. "It's like you Yanks to pull that kind of thing."

"Excuse me," Ezra drawled. "Do I sound like a 'Yank' to you? I am from the great state of South Carolina and I consider it a personal affront that anyone wearing the proud colors of the Confederacy would mistake me for one of those Northern traitors." He spoke the last words with dripping disdain . . . an indication that perhaps there was more truth in his little discourse than he would have his associates believe.

A wild look came into the boy's eyes. "Oh, no. You can't pull that. You're the one that was spying for them."

"I assure you . . . "

"He ain't a spy," JD's voice was surprisingly calm. "We haven't been court-martialed." JD used every ounce of strength he had to stand up and face the boy. "We were kidnapped." The boys' eyes connected. "Please, you gotta help us . . . and you gotta help the others."

"Others?" the boy said. "Ain't no others."

"Sure there are," JD said. "I saw them take . . ."

"NO!!" the young man's fear drove his anger. "Now, I don't want to hurt you. But I will. You quit talking crazy like this. Just eat your breakfast and SHUT UP!"

JD maintained a steady gaze with the frightened soldier. "I ain't lyin'"

The soldier waited a moment, then rammed the butt of his rifle into JD's torso, knocking him into Josiah. JD curled up and writhed in pain. His beaten body couldn't take much more.

"Oh God . . ." the soldier's eyes filled when he realized what he'd done. "Oh God, I'm so sorry . . . I'm . . ."

"Get out." Ezra's voice bore none of its former gentility. And the soldier left abruptly.


The twenty men Judge Travis had gathered pulled out of Four Corners at daybreak. Tracking would be more difficult because of the intermittent rain of the last three days. But the clouds had moved out and finally there would be sun. A humid sun, but sun nevertheless. It was a good start, anyway.

Mary watched them to the horizon, then she went to Josiah's church.

And prayed . . .


Damn these ropes!

Nobody could help him. They couldn't ease his pain. They couldn't do anything at all for him.

JD groaned and moved away from them . . . withdrawing into the shadows, making himself as small as he could.

"JD," Nathan tried. But the boy was unreachable.

Loud voices outside.

Two men with masks appeared in the tent. One grabbed Nathan and, amid protests from Josiah and Ezra, dragged him out of the tent. The other one went for the kid, turning him over and grabbing him by the collar.

He was met, not with fear, but with acquiescence. The kid had no fight left - like a puppy who had been kicked too often and couldn't fight back.

The masked man's anger was blistering. "You better pray that the doctor man can work a miracle. The man you shot . . . he's burning with fever. And if he dies, I swear to God, you'll follow him."

He threw the boy back to the ground and stormed out.

Josiah's eyes met the kid's, and he realized, heartsick, that the kid's spirit was already dying.

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