Disclaimer is presented in full in Part One-Penance.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is an intense part of the story. And remember - the story doesn't end here so don't give up on the kid . . .
They had been standing in the midday heat for almost an hour. The little grouping of tents and small buildings had, at some point in the distant past, constituted some kind of military installment. But beyond the boundaries of the makeshift town there was nothing but scrub brush as far as the eye could see.
They had been there at the end of the street waiting - but for what? The heat was becoming oppressive and Vin was wearing down fast. His dizziness had let up, but the combination of the concussion, poor sleep and almost no food or water had sapped his strength. Every so often, a blonde youth in a tattered gray uniform brought them water - carefully watching over his shoulder for his colonel. And seeing that Vin was weakening considerably, he finally brought a bench over and helped the bounty hunter sit down.
"Thanks, kid," Vin said in a voice that sounded strangely hoarse. The young soldier nodded nervously and walked back to the other side of the street.
"You ok?" Chris asked. Vin nodded. "Better now."
"Look," Buck nodded toward the other end of the town. Two figures were being led out of one of the tents. Their hands were bound and they moved with the stiffness of inactivity.
Josiah towered toward them and they quickly recognized the other man by the dichotomy of filth on finery. Ezra made no attempt to carry himself with his usual fluid grace. His entire body was taut with rage and, as he drew closer to his friends, they could see that his eyes were uncharacteristically cold. It was a startling transformation.
Josiah reached the others first and nodded toward Vin, whose head was hanging between his knees. "How is he?"
Chris spoke softly. "He'll be ok if he can get some food in him and get him out of this heat."
Buck looked very anxious. "JD?" he asked breathlessly.
"They kept him in the tent," Josiah answered soberly. "He's in bad shape."
Buck was about to come unglued. "How bad?"
"They broke his face." Ezra anger was reflected in his crisp, percussive words. "They broke his ribs, and that sorry excuse for a Southerner," he nodded toward the blonde-haired boy, "he . . . broke his spirit."
Chris was calculating retribution. And Buck . . .
"Nathan?" Chris interrupted his own thoughts.
"He's tending to the man JD shot," Josiah answered and filled them in on the court-martial story. They tried to piece together the events of the past three days. And they all knew that it wasn't close to over. Not by a long shot.
The waiting was wearing on them. "What do you reckon this little show is about?" Buck asked.
"Don't know. . ." Vin answered, but Ezra nodded at a strange wooden structure being brought out to the middle of the street. Chiles emerged from the livery and directed the placement of what appeared to be an upended wagon. Missing its wheels. A muscle-bound man followed, then he paused to pull his shirt off.
And they all saw the long, coiled, black whip in his thick hand.
"What the hell are they doing?" Buck asked, although it was sickeningly clear. They would exact retribution from Chris for setting Chiles up - or maybe from Nathan for letting the man die. . .
Chiles walked over to them, a strange grin curling his thin lips. He addressed them as though he were a sergeant briefing a platoon, strolling slowly in front of them.
"We need to make an example out of. . . somebody. You boys have been making life," he searched for a word, "difficult for folks in my profession. You cost me three years of my life and you cost me my brother. . ."
Vin spoke up. "Your brother was about to shoot a man in the back."
"So you decided to take the law into your own hands, Mr. Tanner." Chiles got in the bounty hunter's face. "Well, I'm taking it back."
He walked over to Ezra. "You have a few thousand dollars of mine. And I believe you owe Mr. Deveraux even more."
"I cannot owe what was willingly wagered," Ezra answered coldly.
"We'll see about that," Chiles kept walking.
"As of today you've cost me two more good men. That good-for-nothing doctor let them die."
"He never claimed to be a doctor," Chris countered.
"Be that as it may, I met up with a couple of other businessmen and military men that have similar complaints against your 'gang.' It seemed like a good idea to get together and, " he paused in front of Chris, "stop you."
"I knew there was no way in hell you could have pulled this off without help, Chiles."
The lanky man's fist barreled into Chris' jaw, knocking him to the ground. He waited while Chris slowly rose to his feet.
"As I was saying, we need to make an example out of somebody." Chiles continued his pacing. "And somebody didn't cooperate." He took his time getting back to Chris, then got in his face. His voice grew quieter. "You need to teach the boy better."
Buck exploded, "You son of a bitch!!" Chris blocked Buck with his body.
Chiles smiled and shook his head. "He would go to his grave to protect you. We couldn't make him talk for anything."
Buck seethed. "For God's sake - take me. You'll f--ing kill him!"
"That's the idea!" Chiles said as he walked over to the tent across the street. A long moment passed, then he brought the kid out. Another man led Nathan out as well. JD was limping and they could all see the bruises on his face. His jaw dropped slightly when he saw Buck.
Buck and Chris - alive!! Thank God.
The kid glanced around, disoriented - then he saw the whip and he stopped a moment and looked at it. Chiles pushed him and he stumbled. His friends felt rage. Nathan had seen the whip as well. He moved up behind Chiles. "Don't do this . . ."
"Fifty lashes!!" Chiles' voice rang out.
Nathan's eyes grew wide. He started to speak, but waited until he reached the others. He leaned over to Chris. "He won't survive this," Nathan said softly.
"You don't have to do this," Chris said.
"Don't have to?" Chiles led the boy over to him and pulled a knife from his hip. He brought the blade to JD's throat. The kid tried to keep the fear out of his eyes as he looked to Chris for help.
"I told you you need to teach him to . . . cooperate . . . or he's gonna get himself killed one of these days." He chuckled as he reached down and cut the ropes that bound the boy. "Maybe this day . . ."
"You do this," Buck breathed, "And I will f--ing kill you."
Chiles twisted JD's arm sharply behind his back. JD's breath caught in his throat and he felt the blade press against his bruised face. Chiles walked him over to Buck.
Slowly he pulled the tip of the blade down the boy's cheek, cutting him. JD squeezed his eyes closed against the pain and Buck screamed obsenities at Chiles.
"Not fifty," Nathan said.
"He ain't supposed to live through it," Chiles explained.
JD's voice was threadbare. "I'm going to . . ." he whispered to Buck, his lip quivering slightly - his earnest eyes meeting his friend's.
Chiles jerked the kid away and roughly led him to the structure. His men tied the boy's arms over his head and Chiles ripped the back of his shirt open.
"OK-" Chiles called out and everyone cleared out of the way.
The big man with the whip took his stance, Buck screamed in protest, Josiah muttered a prayer.
The first strike ripped through the boy's skin and he stifled a cry. Buck shuddered as though he himself had been hit and his blue eyes filled. Chris' face was hard. Vin and Ezra looked away. Nathan stared into another time and remembered . . .
He lasted until eighteen in relative silence, but nineteen brought forth a cry, twenty an agonizing scream.
By thirty-one, when the man with the whip handed it over to the next man, the kid was hanging by the ropes that bound his hands. His legs were limp. Buck's voice quivered with emotion as he leaned over to Chris. "I will kill Chiles and then I'll get the bastards whipping the kid, I swear I will."
Vin looked up. "I'll help you."
Most of the onlookers had left by the fortieth lash. Even Chiles went back into his room. The only ones left watching were his friends, the man with the whip and a young soldier who had hit him with the butt of a rifle that very morning - a young soldier who had begun to sob.
Nathan watched JD closely. He began to notice that the boy's body could no longer react to the blows.
"My God, he's dead . . ." Nathan said.
There was a moment of absolute silence - then the air was split with another crack of the whip.
"NO!!!!!" Buck screamed, hot tears rolling down his face. Vin hung his head and Chris - Chris' eyes narrowed, but he never took his eyes off of the boy who had wanted only to prove himself to a man he admired. Chris felt a rage he had not experienced since the fire. . .
And still the man whipped him.
It was over.
The man with the whip began to coil it up again. The blonde-haired boy stared - devastated.
And the six men standing together took a long look at the slight figure with blood covering his back, black hair hiding a bruised and bloody face, wrists bound over his head . . .
Hanging on a make-shift crucifix . . .
Their sacrificial lamb.
To be continued . . .