Disclaimer is fully stated in Part One.

Penance - Part Six

Evil would be easier to confront than abject delusion. Chiles was evil and he would deserve anything that came to him. But these soldiers -- these young, misled, yet fiercely dedicated soldiers. . .

They were as committed to an ideal as any lawman was. With all their hearts, they believed their cause was just, and somehow they had been shielded from the realities of Appamattox and the Emancipation Proclamation.

They did not see Nathan Jackson as Chris Larabee did. They did not see the man who had saved so many lives, the healer. They did not see the man JD Dunne admired and Josiah Sanchez respected, that Buck Wilmington would trust with his young friend's life. In truth, they did not even see the man at all. They saw him as Ezra Standish had seen him when he first met him - as a lesser being of some sort.

But over time, Ezra had developed an entirely different perspective. He quit seeing the stereotype that had been drilled into him from infancy. He started seeing Nathan Jackson - a good, decent, honorable man who had stood by him and risked his life for him. He came to recognize the man as an equal. And he gradually decided that Nathan was more than his equal . . . he was, indeed, a better man.

Ezra's heart had changed. He himself had become a better man for having known Nathan.

These soldiers however did not know Nathan Jackson. They didn't know this man at all.

But they thought they did.

And they treated him accordingly.


Chris Larabee's entire body was taut with fury. His eyes flashed and his lips were drawn in a tight line. But he said nothing as he was taken to a crude office and tied to a chair. He said nothing as he watched Nathan being roughly tossed to the floor. And when he was offered a meal and Nathan wasn't, Chris' protest was a silent refusal.

Nathan had always felt free to speak his mind among his friends. The healer had spoken of the ills of making a profit off of someone else's back. And Chris saw in Nathan a bravery - a quiet courage - which surpassed his own. Nathan had had nothing of his own except his soul. He had endured unspeakable humiliations and losses - experiences which Chris had only imagined . . .

Until today.

Chris had witnessed horrible gun battles and grisly deaths. But he had never seen a man whipped to death. The reality was far more devastating than the image he'd had in his mind - an image diluted by a lack of first-hand experience.

But everything changed that sweltering noon.


"We gotta get him out of here," Buck told Josiah. He was still holding JD, trying to ease him to the ground without hurting him - slowly, gently, until the boy was lying on his stomach.

Josiah glanced behind them at the young boy who'd been charged with guarding them. He had crossed to the other side of the street - where he had turned away and retched.

He was keeping the rifle trained on them, although it seemed as though he were merely going through the motions. His eyes seemed lost and his face was very pale.

Josiah knelt beside Buck and JD and he pulled off his overshirt to make a crude pillow. He slipped it under JD's face.

"Other way. . ." Buck said quickly and he carefully turned the boy's head so he would be lying on the side of his face that wasn't hurt so badly. Josiah reached up with his kind hand and fingered the hair off of JD's face. It was the first time he'd seen the long laceration that extended from the kid's cheek to his chin. The preacher's jaw tightened and his hand rested lightly on the back of the boy's head - almost as if to bless him. . .

Buck slid around beside the kid and started trying to pull remnants of his shirt away from his back, and he realized, with sinking heart, that he had no idea how to help him.

Josiah put his hand on Buck's shoulder, bracing himself to stand and he walked slowly over to the young soldier. . .


JD lay so still - dead still.

Buck suddenly felt panicked and he reached up to the boy's throat.

Yes, his heart was beating, but it was so weak.

Buck leaned over close to his ear. "Listen kid, you gotta hold on, ok? You're gonna be fine. But you've gotta stick with me. I'm gonna be right here. I ain't going anywhere." His eyes filled again, but he kept his voice steady. "I'm not gonna let anyone hurt you, JD. You hear me? They ain't gonna hurt you anymore."

He managed to pull the tattered shirt off, easing first one shoulder out of the sleeve then the other. JD's breath caught in his throat a moment as a wave of pain washed over him.

"It's ok, kid." Even though his words seemed hollow, he felt like he was, in some way, connecting with the boy. If he could only keep the connection going . . . "We'll get you home and get you some of that corn chowder you like so much." He continued to talk to him, in the easy conversation so familiar to both of them. As he kept up the light patter, he became more and more overwhelmed with the extent of the boy's injuries.

God, how could he survive this. . .

He felt a strong gentle hand on his shoulder and he looked up to see Josiah and the young soldier standing behind him.

"He's coming with us," Josiah said. "He's gonna help."

Buck nodded his appreciation and turned back to JD. "How the hell do we move him?" he muttered.

The soldier's blue eyes widened. "On a blanket," he suggested. "You could make a . . . hammock, and he could stay on his stomach."

"You got a blanket?" Buck asked.

The soldier started to answer, but something drew his attention back to the settlement. The little town was starting to come to life, late lunches over and the last cigar smoked. Clearly, there was no time to take precautions. Someone would realize soon that the little group wasn't where it was supposed to be.

"Jesus. . . " Buck almost prayed, and he glanced up at Josiah. Together they eased JD up over Buck's shoulder. The boy groaned.

"Sorry kid," Buck hated hurting him, but they had to move. If they didn't get away, JD didn't have a chance. . .


"How much will we get for him?"

"Hell, I don't know. After Chiles gets his cut. . . "

"I say we don't give him a cut. He didn't get Tanner. He ain't getting him to Tascosa. In fact, he hasn't done a damn thing to help us."

"Well, we couldn't have gotten him if Larabee and his men hadn't been taken out."

"The hell we couldn't have. Nobody even knew he was gone."

"Still. . ."

"'Still' nothing! I say we drop the body off and get on to Tuscon. Chiles can't do anything to us. We'll be halfway through Arizona by the time he makes it to Tascosa."

"I reckon you're right."

"Hell yea, I'm right. That body's gonna fetch us enough money to live like royalty for a year at least."

"Sounds good to me."


Buck hadn't realized how sore and stiff he was until he tried to run through the scrub brush with JD hoisted over his shoulder. The soldier was leading them. He was pretty sure no one in the town was planning to travel in this direction - well, at least no one that he knew of. Josiah was following, covering their tracks. There was a rock formation looming in the distance . . . they would go there.


They think I'm dead.

Maybe I am.

No, my head hurts too much to be dead. Dead would feel a hell of a lot better.

Vin Tanner slowly opened his eyes and became aware of a wave of nausea - aggrevated by the strong smell of . . . mildew? Was it mildew? He fought the sickness silently. . .

JD . . .

Every time Vin regained an uncertain consciousness, he had to remember all over again what they'd done to JD. And it was killing him.

Why was it black? Why was everything black?

His lucidity was clouded, but Vin realized he must've lost his sight. He'd heard that a head injury could result in blindness.

An ironic chuckle caught in his throat.

A blind sharpshooter . . .

He choked back the nervous laugh, and his eyes filled. He squeezed them tightly.

Damn, these guys were good. They'd figured out a way to break each one of them, but not before priming them by forcing them to watch as they whipped the life out of the kid.

Whipping the life out of all of them. . .

Now he would lose his honor in Tascosa.

Ezra would lose his money.

Buck would lose his love of life and his optimism - just as he had lost a little brother.

Nathan lost his hard-won freedom.

There was nothing left for Chris to lose.

Maybe Josiah would escape this without losing his soul.

A blind sharpshooter . . .

They really did think he was dead.

He moved his hands ever so slowly. He wasn't bound. And his feet?

They thought he was dead and so they had taken no precautions. He couldn't do anything for JD, but he could try to get back and help the others.


Ezra Standish, on the other hand, was bound. His "friend" had tied his fine hands behind his back. They were heading in the opposite direction of Vin Tanner and his non-observant bounty hunters. Ezra was going back to Four Corners. And he had sworn an oath to himself that when he got there, he would see to it that justice was done - no matter what it took. He'd start with this little weasel and work his way back to Chiles himself until he had exacted retribution from everyone responsible for the torture and slaying of his young friend.

He took a deep breath. How had he developed an affection for this reckless boy trying to be at once roguish and sophisticated? Why did he want to help him - to teach him - to protect him?

When had the boy become a friend . . .

For the first time in his life, Ezra felt utterly committed to a cause - and oddly, it was not a self-serving one. Maybe he was becoming worthy of his friends.


The craggy boulders provided a bit of relief from the relentless sun, and once they found a relatively secluded space, Buck and Josiah eased JD to the rock floor. The young soldier who was accompanying them climbed up to a point from which he could see the little settlement in the distance. He would keep watch.

JD was struggling to get his breath. Clearly he was in pain.

"This was too much for him," Buck breathed. After a moment, Josiah started to pull the boy up.

"What are you doing?"

"He's choking," Josiah answered and he braced the kid's body against his own to support him. Buck held JD's face as he started to cough, and he realized that he was coughing up blood.

"Dear God," Buck said.

JD's eyes fluttered open for a moment and he looked at Buck, tears rolling down his face, and his bloody mouth trying to form a word.

"Help. . . "

Buck stroked the black hair. "I'm gonna take care of you. You're gonna be fine." He tried to smile for the kid.

JD almost nodded, but then his battered body was racked with another cough. Josiah held him, and after a moment, the boy's head fell forward onto Buck's shoulder. Buck still stroked his hair, and he turned tearful eyes to the preacher, whose kind eyes were filled with tears as well.


It took a moment, but Chris Larabee determined that an exodus was about to occur. There were sounds of horses, wagons, packages being loaded and commands being called.

One of the voices he could hear was Chiles. And the voice grew nearer.

Nathan eyed his friend, alarmed at the glazed look in his eye - a look that could only be described as murderous . . .


The towering figure of Jacob Chiles hovered in the doorway. He looked at Chris from hollowed eyes and smiled - obviously pleased with himself.

"The kid lasted longer than I thought he would."

Chiles dramatically took a seat in the only decent chair in the little room, and both Chris and Nathan recognized the gold chain that had belonged to JD's mother, now being fingered in Chiles' bony hand.

"Cheap, but then I could maybe get a decent meal for it." He slipped the chain around his neck.

The kid's most precious keepsake had become his final humiliation. Chris' heart grew harder.

Nathan's ached.

"That body is no doubt attracting the buzzards by now." He paused. "How long before it starts to rot?" He turned to Nathan. "I'm sure you've had experience with this. Does it rot right away or does it take a few days?"

Nathan was beyond anger. He resumed the old, pitifully familiar detachment that had saved him when he was enslaved. He said nothing, but his eyes were defiant.

Chiles turned back to Chris.

"How old was the boy? Eighteen? Nineteen? Kind of a stupid kid. We told him . . ." Chiles laughed, again more for effect than anything, "that you'd gotten away. We pressed him for anything he knew about you or your other . . . friends. He wouldn't utter a word - about anybody. He must've thought he could . . . protect you." Chiles shook his head. "That stupid kid."

Why did Chiles think that needling Chris in some way asserted power over him? As well try to annoy a rattler while he is in a cage. His bite was still lethal and given any chance for freedom, he would strike hard. And fast.

Chris Larabee would end this man.

Part Seven
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