Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One. Any aspect of the story not owned by the persons mentioned in the disclaimer belong to author, C. Knox Binkley.
Maybe his head still wasn't clear. His vision was a bit blurred. And the heat . . . it encompassed him. He felt a nausea sweep over him and he fought to remain conscious. Surely the image in front of him was some kind of sick hallucination. He hadn't just witnessed the incremental execution of an innocent man - an innocent youth . . .
He felt himself slip away and in the distance, he heard a voice that used to be familiar.
"We're losin' Vin."
"Vin . . . come on, man." The voice got closer to his ear. "Don't let go now. We need you."
Did he have a choice? He wanted to tell the voice that he would hold on if he had a choice but . . .
The voice became suddenly very angry. "Leave him alone!" it cried just as he felt a hand jerk him up roughly.
For a moment, his vision cleared and he could see Nathan Jackson yelling. It occurred to the trapper that he was being dragged away from Nathan and the others.
Buck was shaking with rage. Josiah and Ezra were looking off into the vast wasteland that surrounded them. And Chris - he had a look on his face Vin had never seen. An almost maniacal glare . . . a focus on something terrible. Vin followed his gaze and that incredible weight returned to his chest . . .
It hadn't been an hallucination.
He took one long look at the body hanging on the upended wagon . . .
Then his head started swimming again and he let go . . .
Emil Deveraux was a sharp dresser. The beautifully tailored burgundy vest no doubt matched a jacket that would make an appearance on a less humid occasion. Tasteful jewelry and a flat-brimmed conquistador hat completed the ensemble. Even in this cultural vacuum, the French gambler (yes, with the Spanish hat) managed to be impeccably groomed. Under normal circumstances, Ezra would have been impressed. At one time, in fact, Emil had been as close to a gambling "friend" as Ezra had ever had. They enjoyed playing against one another because they were evenly matched challengers. Tough to find in the sparse West.
It all changed, though, when the stakes became outrageously high and Ezra made the bulk of his recent wealth at Emil's expense.
Emil Deveraux meant to get it back.
He elegantly strolled up to Ezra Standish, enjoying the disheveled appearance of his often arrogant associate. He pulled a flask out of his pocket. "Care for a drink?"
Ezra's hard stare didn't faze him.
"No??" He ceremoniously took a long drink and then put the cap back on and returned the flask to his pocket. "That's a shame - seein' as how we usually share a drink when we undertake a business negotiation."
Ezra didn't have the stomach for witty repartee at that moment.
"Mr. Chiles said he recovered his lost funds - plus interest - when he took stock of your 'person'. So I'm sure my portion is no longer in that boot." He expected some response from the gambler, but got nothing. "You will no doubt understand my need to escort you to the bank in Four Corners to recover my money."
He put an almost courteous hand on Ezra Standish's sleeve, startled by the taut coiled arm that jerked away violently.
"To put that young man through everything you have put him through for the sake of money," Ezra's voice was chilling, "is unconscienable."
"That was Chiles' thing. . ."
"You are here, are you not? You took part in his capture, you held him hostage, you as much as whipped him yourself."
"I had no part of that."
"YOU DID NOTHING TO STOP IT!!" Ezra paused a moment and lowered his voice. "You had best kill me, Mr. Deveraux, because I will make it my life's work to exact retribution from you in a manner commensurate with what you have inflicted on that boy."
It was odd. Deveraux actually seemed surprised that anyone would consider him responsible for anything other than kidnapping Ezra. And how strange it was that he felt so intimidated by Ezra Standish - charming, easy-going, "never make attachments anywhere" Ezra Standish. Somehow he knew beyond any doubt that Ezra would make good on his threat. Emil Deveraux resolved then and there to get the money and then bury the gambler who had bilked it from him.
Chris said nothing but noticed everything. And as his friends were systematically removed from him, his resolve to avenge everything that had happened grew stronger - it would become an obsession.
They had taken Vin - his poor, hurt friend
Who sat on a bench in the relentless heat, dying . . .
They had taken Ezra - the gambler who had overcome his own weakness to share in the mission of the Seven . . .
The Seven . . . why was that ever coined? When did this odd group of people transcend their individual personalities to become this entity? An entity that ended one boy's innocence . . .
Yes, they had taken JD.
And Chris didn't know if he could ever forgive himself for letting the kid get mixed up with them. He should have just put the boy on a stage back to Boston - or wherever it was he had come from. But he had let the boy ride with them, finding that the kid was tenacious and fiercely loyal. And possessed of true honor and a courage that belied his years. God, he didn't deserve this.
And although his oldest friend was standing right beside him, they had taken Buck as well.
Only Nathan and Josiah retained anything of themselves. Both knew a certain connection with things spiritual . . . and, while it would not always protect them from the horrors that surrounded them, it allowed them to stand strong in the face of them . . . and Chris wished he could find some vestige of comfort or hope for himself . . .
But that wish evaporated in the presence of the body before him. He didn't even respond when the soldiers came out and led him back to the little settlement. It was strange, but he noticed that the soldiers were kinder, as though the events of the past hour had sobered them in some way.
Nathan Jackson, however, did respond to being led away and the usually gentle healer launched into a blistering tirade to anyone who could hear him. He had resolved many years ago never to watch that type of punishment inflicted on another human being. He would die first.
That would have been easier.
Josiah Sanchez realized that the blonde youth had been charged with returning him and Buck to . . . wherever they were going to be returned to. Everyone else had cleared out and only the three of them remained - at the edge of town - by the upended wagon . . .
How strange that the world looked almost normal out here among the scrubbrush. The soft sounds of life going on - the quiet in the aftermath of everything that had happened.
The youth didn't seem to know what to do, so horrified was he at all he had seen. He kept staring at the body. Staring at it. . .
Josiah walked past Buck, whose rage had been supplanted by disbelief. Like the young soldier, Buck stood staring but not seeing.
Deliberately, Josiah kept his voice calm and he moved near the young man. "You've never seen anything like this, have you, son?"
The boy couldn't answer for a long moment.
"I never seen combat. My uncle used to tell us stories about the war and said it was up to us to keep fightin'" His voice broke. "Aw God, I swear I didn't mean to hurt him. I didn't know they was gonna kill him. He's younger than me even."
He fought to keep from sobbing. "I don't know why they had to kill him."
"They didn't have to," Josiah said. "He didn't do anything but defend his friends."
The blonde boy looked at the ground. "But I hurt him too. And he never done anything to me."
"That's what hate does to a man."
"But I didn't hate him. I just . . ."
"I know," Josiah answered softly.
He waited a moment before introducing another idea to the boy. "You can do one thing."
The soldier looked up, suspiciously at first, but he saw the truth in the preacher's eyes and listened.
"Let us bury him."
The kid thought a moment, then nodded, glad to have something to do which could redeem him, if even in the smallest way. He looked around, and, satisfied that his superiors were nowhere to be found, he left and went to find a shovel.
"Buck. . ."
It took Buck a moment to focus on his friend.
"We're gonna bury him."
Buck couldn't even answer. His eyes were searching for something from Josiah, but there was nothing the preacher could offer.
The soldier had returned quickly. He tucked his rifle under his arm, and then he cut the tight ropes that bound Josiah's hands. The young man's hand lingered for a moment on Josiah's as he studied the bruises and cuts on the gentle man's wrists. He turned bewildered eyes to the preacher. Then he handed Josiah the knife, and backed away so he could keep the weapon trained on them, though now his heart wasn't in it. But he had to stay alert, he told himself. God, if he screwed this up, the colonel could punish him like he had punished the black-haired boy.
Josiah carefully cut the ropes that had sliced into Buck's wrists, and in one sweeping gesture, he hugged his friend tightly. At first, Buck just stood limp, his heart empty, but in a moment, he returned the embrace, holding on to his friend as though his life depended it.
Maybe it did.
Buck almost sobbed, but he stopped himself. Not yet. There was work to be done. He backed away and looked at Josiah. And even though Buck had spent the last few minutes staring at JD's lifeless body, he couldn't bring himself to face it again. He stood - trembling for a moment.
Josiah touched his shoulder. "I'll do it," he said softly.
Tears filled Buck's eyes and he shook his head with a sad smile. "No, I have to do this."
Josiah's hand stayed on Buck's shoulder as he slowly turned around.
What he saw wasn't just a body anymore.
It was his friend.
It was his friend with that stupid hat, that damn stupid bowler hat - the kid who wanted to be just like Bat Masterson - who stepped up to become sherriff when no one in town would take the responsibility. The kid who could ride like the wind, but who could trip all over himself in the face of a young lady.
The friend who loved him enough to stand up to killers rather than betray him.
Buck took a shaky step toward the kid. He relived the ordeal as he drew closer and could see where the whip had torn the flesh from the boy's body. His back so ripped that Buck could see the bone in places. JD's head was hanging forward and his arms seemed strangely angled from the weight of the body hanging from them.
He got right next to the kid -
And froze for a moment.
Buck tentatively moved his hand toward his friend's face - still hidden by the too-long black hair.
He paused, lip quivering, tears rolling down his dusty cheeks. This was unbearable - how could he bury this boy who had become a brother to him. Josiah watched patiently, respectfully.
With a gentle hand, Buck brushed the bangs out of the boy's eyes, and he felt another wave of fury when he saw the long cut over the heavy bruises that covered one side of his face -
For a moment, Buck's hand rested on the kid's neck and he looked up at Josiah, almost pleadingly.
Josiah reached up and cut the rope binding JD's right hand. As the boy's arm fell, his body collapsed against Buck - hanging by only one hand now. Buck fell to his knees and pulled the kid to him, hooking his arm around his neck. Josiah cut the rope on the other side and the boy's other arm fell across Buck's shoulder. As it did, Buck heard it.
A moan . . .
But, this wasn't possible.
Feverishly, Buck put his hands on either side of the kid's face and looked closely - and he leaned his ear close to his mouth.
The boy was breathing. He was breathing - barely - but, Praise God, he was breathing.
"He's alive," Buck could hardly find his voice. He looked up at Josiah and tried to say those words again, but couldn't . . .
He pulled JD to his chest, hugging his neck as though he could somehow help the boy hold on to the thread of life that was left.
"I got you, kid," Buck held him, careful not to touch his back. The gunslinger felt a sob rise in his throat and a prayer rise in his heart. He looked at the dark head resting on his shoulder. The kid had suffered so much. . .
"They ain't gonna hurt you no more," Buck's voice strengthened. He would have to stay strong now. "It's gonna be ok, kid. I got you."