Disclaimer is fully stated in Part One. Anything in this story which does not belong to those named in the disclaimer belongs to C. Knox Binkley.

Penance - Part 7

You would think his first reaction would be relief.

But for Vin Tanner, it was embarrassment.

It took a few excruciatingly frightening minutes for him to understand. Vin was looking at the world with eyes that couldn't see. His fears were governed by a mind that had been clouded with injury and oppressive heat. So when his thoughts cleared and he realized that he was not blind, but that he had been covered with a heavy blanket, he chided himself for panicking.

Especially when there was work to be done.

First order of business - determine everything he could about his surroundings. He was in a wagon or cart of some kind. Traveling over rough terrain, although not steep. A poorly built wagon - the wheels were wobbly. Likely the owner was not wealthy.

That smell of mildew . . . the blanket.

Mildew and . . .

God, there was the nausea again. A hell of a lot of help he would be as sick as he was. Damn it Vin, pull yourself together. Chris needs you. Buck needs you. They all need you.

The tracker forced himself to breathe through his mouth so he couldn't smell the mildew and dank blood which saturated the blanket. He forced his nausea down, and began to focus on the voices.

He tried to remember - weren't there two voices before? Arguing over whether or not to give Chiles a cut of the bounty. That was it. Well, he'd be damned if that son of a bitch was gonna get a dime off of his head.

"Gimme some more of that." A low raspy voice. Probably in his fifties?

A moment passed. The same voice spoke. "How much we got left?"

"Not enough."

That voice was younger - and decidedly intoxicated. Vin listened to their inconsequential conversation that became less and less coherent as his captors emptied one whiskey bottle and started on another. As they drank, the sharpshooter took stock of his own condition.

He wasn't blind - well, that was one thing. A big thing. But his head still throbbed and Vin figured that when he sat up, dizziness would be a problem.

Damn. What was he thinking? He didn't even know where the hell he was. He had no idea where his friends were or even if they were alive. How the hell could he do anything for them? He was unarmed. He had a fever. He had a head injury. And there had been so many people involved in the capture of the Seven. How could he begin to change the course of events which had already been set in motion?

God, what they did to the kid. The bastards. He squeezed his eyes closed. Even the blanket couldn't block out the image of the boy, hanging lifeless with his hands tied over his head and his back ripped apart. The familiar black hair hiding the hurt face - his young friend's head hanging.

Vin's jaw tightened and his teeth clenched. He would avenge this. Whatever it took. He would get away, he would find every last one of the bastards that had hurt the kid - that had hurt his friends, and he would avenge all of them.

Vin Tanner didn't have his strength. He didn't have his rifle. He didn't have his bearings. And he didn't have his friends with him.

But now he had one thing going for him.


Intense, powerful, focused fury.

For the first time since this nightmare began, Vin felt a surge of energy. To hell with the odds. He had to try.

Keep drinkin', boys. I can wait. . .


He couldn't remember the last time he prayed.

Maybe he'd prayed for Chris when Sarah and Adam died. He wasn't sure. He knew he had prayed for his mother. And he had prayed with his mother all through his boyhood. Not in church, though. She had never been welcome in church. But she would kneel beside him at bedtime and together they would talk to God.

It had been a long time since Buck Wilmington had talked to God.

But he would today.

From his post as lookout, he could see Josiah gently spread the soldier's shirt over JD's back. It would be poor protection against infection, but he knew Josiah had to try. JD didn't react to the touch. He was fading.

The soldier was pacing nervously. Poor kid. He had gotten caught up in something he could never have imagined. And now he wanted to make it right. How odd that this young man felt so responsible for JD - such overwhelming remorse - while the men who had held the whip and beat the boy were probably getting drunk right then. And Chiles no doubt was proud of himself for pulling this atrocity off.

Damn them!!

Buck felt such rage, such hatred.

And such helplessness.

How could he pray with such anger in his heart?

He clutched the young soldier's rifle as he looked back toward the settlement. Where was Chris? No doubt he would face some hideous, torturous death.

And he would face it alone.

Buck felt so torn. He longed to make his way back to the settlement, sneak in and get Chris the hell out of there. He wanted to get Nathan. He wanted to find Vin. And Ezra. God, let them be alive. He wanted to help them.

But JD needed him.

There was no way Josiah and that young soldier could get him to a doctor by themselves. Not through this wasteland with outlaws on their tail.

Even with Buck's help, they probably wouldn't make it. Hell, they only had one gun. One old Confederate-issue rifle that had probably not been fired in years.

What was happening to Chris? It made Buck's heart hurt. He hated feeling helpless. Why had this happened? Why had Chris' life been dismantled? Why had Sarah and Adam died? Why would grown men take turns whipping a boy to death?

And why was he himself allowed to live while JD was dying?

Buck felt his lip quiver and, after a moment, the mighty gunslinger turned his eyes heavenward.

The first words wouldn't come out of his mouth. There was only an awkward rasp.

But somehow he knew God heard him. And he settled into his conversation with God as easily as a child settling back into his mama's lap. For the first time since this ordeal began, he gave himself fully over to his grief.

Weeping for his oldest friend.

And his youngest one.

Buck didn't have to put his heart into words. His Father knew.

His sobs finally subsided and he could speak.

"Please, he's such a good kid. He didn't deserve this, Lord."

Buck looked down at the still form and the two men kneeling beside it.

"Please Lord. Take care of him. We need him." He looked to the ground.

"I need him. . ."

The soft wind whispered through the craggy rocks and Buck listened for a while.

His Amen was silent.

And as he looked back over the scrub brush plain, he knew he had recovered something long lost.


Chiles didn't know when to quit. He kept describing JD's ordeal to Chris and Nathan - every detail about what they had told the kid and how he wouldn't talk - what they did to him . . .

Nathan withdrew further into the safety of detachment. Chris was alarmed at his friend's condition. He had seen this sort of thing after the war - men who had reached the threshhold of what they could tolerate. Men who had been strong in battle, so tortured now by the nightmares of what they had witnessed. Nathan had emerged from the horrors of his past gallantly. He had done such good for so many people. He had been able to let his suffering fuel his mission to make life better for others.

Of course, he thought he had left that other life behind forever. Oh, he had seen the evils people could do to one another. But that beating . . .

Somehow being surrounded by soldiers - young men who were fighting to restore a way of life which denied him his - and seeing the personification of evil in front of him - it was more than he wanted to fight.

So he withdrew.

It unnerved Chiles that Larabee would not talk at all. Gradually Chiles' glib, almost sarcastic diatribe gave way to playground jabs. Still, Chris would not grant him the victory of reacting to his taunts.

So Chiles kicked Nathan.

The hardest thing for Chris Larabee to do was to remain emotionless in the face of this abuse.

But Nathan's life could depend on it.

Chris would have to set aside his blistering rage and play the part of the apathetic gunslinger.

"You really have only one hand to play, don't you, Chiles," Chris' voice was lazy. "You won't call me out. You won't face me alone. You just keep going at the guys I ride with like that's gonna . . . punish me somehow." Chris' mouth slid into a sneer. "Chiles, you really are a f---ing coward. You think I give a damn about these guys? Christ! Why do you think I recruited them?" Chris now appeared almost maniacal. "They're expendable!" Chris laughed a sick laugh. "You CAN'T hurt me by hurting them. Don't you get it?"

Chiles was confused for a moment but he rallied. "You can't tell me you don't care about Buck Wilmington."

Chris' apathy turned. "My wife and son are dead because of Buck Wilmington."

"Then why on earth would you have him ride with you."

"Because he'll spend the rest of his life trying to shake off the guilt. He'll try to atone. And because of that, there is no one I'd rather have watching my back." Chris' strange grin returned. "But sooner or later, I'd have plugged him myself."

"You better watch your back, Larabee," Chiles had run out of tactics. "This ain't over. . ."

"I'm countin' on it."


"They're leavin'," Buck called down to Josiah. "Horses - wagons starting to move out."

"Soldiers?" the young Confederate asked.

"Hell, kid, I can't tell." Wish I had Vin's glass.

Josiah's voice boomed. "Which way they headed?"

"Some are headed South it looks like." Buck squinted, trying to get a better idea of the movement in the distance.

"Aw, shit!"

Josiah and the young man waited.

"Five or six are headed this way." Buck scrambled down the rock face to join them.

"They know we're gone. We've gotta hide. If I try to take a couple out, the rest will know where we are."

The young soldier was already scouting for a better place.

"How long til they get here?" Josiah's voice was low. Buck knelt beside JD.

"About twenty minutes. Maybe less." Buck pushed JD's hair back and let his hand linger on the kid's face. "Jesus, he's burning up."

Josiah nodded, wordlessly.

"I hate to move him."

"We don't have a choice."

"Hey," the young soldier ran back to them. "I found a cave. It's big enough once you get inside, but the opening could be a problem."

"We'll make it work," Buck said, and he and Josiah hoisted JD over Josiah's shoulder this time.

Still shielded from view by the craggy rock face, they made their way further into the rock formation. The path became narrower and negotiating the turns became more difficult. It was much harder to see now that the sun had begun to dip behind the horizon. Buck stayed close to Josiah so he could steady JD if necessary. The big man slowed as the surface became less of a path and more like the side of a mountain.

"Up there," their blonde-haired guide pointed.

About five yards up a treacherous slope, there was a small dark opening in the rock face.

"Damn kid, that ain't big enough for a gopher!" Buck said, but the young man scurried up and demonstrated that the space was just big enough for him. Part of the opening was concealed from the little path. That fact could save their lives.

"OK, let's do this."

Buck looked at Josiah and started up the slope a few steps. They wouldn't be able to carry JD the way they had been. Buck would have to pull him up.

Josiah turned around so Buck could reach the kid's head and shoulders. Carefully, Buck slipped his arms under JD's and slid him face-down toward him. He had to put his arms around the boy's back. The soldier's shirt which Josiah had lain over him was saturated with blood. It could not help protect JD from the pressure of Buck's grasp.

Slowly, Buck inched his way backward up toward the little cave. Josiah helped by lifting the boy's legs so his lower body wouldn't scrape against the rocks.

This was taking too long. Buck looked back over his shoulder to assess the distance. He would have to move faster.

"Talk to me," Buck called to the soldier waiting at the top. "I can't see where I'm going."

"Straight back," the boy called back and Buck made a mighty push upward, still holding JD's chest against his own.

"You gotta go a little to your left." Buck obeyed and made another strong move up the rock face. He was startled to feel hands behind him, helping him. And together the soldier, Buck and Josiah managed to get JD to the cave opening.

Buck pulled JD across his lap so he could balance the kid's body without having to keep such a tight grip across his back. Josiah crawled over them and tried to figure out how to best get JD into that cave.

Thundering hoofbeats . . . coming nearer. There were more than five or six guys.

Damn - they must have regrouped.

"Let's go," Buck breathed. The soldier crawled through the tight space, ready to receive their wounded friend. Josiah looked grim as he pulled JD up.

And his eyes filled as he turned the boy onto his back.

"You can't . . . " Buck watched in disbelief.

"We have to." There was no time to argue.

From inside the cave, the blonde haired boy grabbed the wrists of the black haired one, and pulled with all his strength.

If JD could have screamed, he would have. His protest emerged as a pitiful cry . . .

And still the other boy pulled.

The rocks pulled the thin shirt away from JD's back and suddenly he couldn't breathe. He gasped . . . and he cried.


Freedom . . .

Vin Tanner breathed in the fresh air. The sun had eased just below the rocky horizon and the cool of the early evening air made him feel so much better. His head still ached, but he could live with it.

His escape had been remarkably easy. One of his captors had taken a horse and ridden off for more whiskey. The other was passed out in the front of the wagon.

Vin made off with a couple of rifles, some food . . .

And a horse.

The tracker had disabled the makeshift wagon and then backtracked like a bat out of hell.

He managed to find his way back quickly. They couldn't have traveled far. Hell, with his head as messed up as it had been, he figured it had been days since they had left. But it was more likely a few hours.

He could track their path easily, and he felt a surge of hope. Finally, he could help someone. . .

But when he got within sight of the little settlement, his heart sank.

Abandoned? Vin reached down and laid his head beside his horse's neck. His tired eyes burned. He was too late. God help him, he was too late.

Where the hell were they?

He could make out the upturned wagon. But JD wasn't there. They must've cut him down.

Vin felt a hard lump rise in his throat and bit his lip. His grief battled with his anger, and he suddenly felt as though he would collapse at any moment.

Carefully, he slid off his horse. His feet hardly caught him when he landed. He squeezed his eyes closed and leaned his head against the saddle.

He had to decide what to do. His head pounded and his strength ebbed. He knew he would have to search the little town. He had to be sure they were gone, or he'd have to do the unthinkable.

Recover the bodies of his fallen friends.

He didn't know if he could. . .

Please let them be alive. . .

He watched for signs of life.

There were none.


Listening to Emil Devereaux's sappy sarcasm made Ezra begin to hate himself. He had always prized himself on the artistic way he could turn a phrase - his "elegant elocution" as it were. It had enabled him to baffle lesser minds and weasel his way out of any number of dangerous situations.

But now, words repulsed him. Emil's references to the "unfortunate lad" and the "beautifully executed retribution" made him physically ill. For once, Ezra had nothing to say. Words seemed foolish. He rode in silence.

At first this amused Emil, but as time wore on and the journey grew more tiring, it began to irritate him. By sunset, he was angry. Emil was about to lambaste his former gambling friend when they both heard a rumbling sound in the distance.


Emil looked at the sky - maybe there were clouds coming in. But it didn't seem like storm clouds.

Ezra looked in the direction of the sound.

And he saw it. And he screamed as loud as he could.


Nathan Jackson rode in the wagon in shackles.

He had been plunged back into another time - another experience. An experience he couldn't - wouldn't relive. The first chance he had, he would take his life. There was more honor in that.

He began to calculate ways he could do it. And he felt relief.

But in the midst of his fantasy, he recalled words he had heard. Words from a man he trusted. . .

"Hear me, Nathan . . ."

Nathan hadn't looked at Chris Larabee, but he had listened to him.

"I will find you." For all they had been through, Chris Larabee's voice was as clear and strong as it had ever been. "You have my word, Nathan. I will find you."

Maybe he would stay alive long enough to give Chris a chance to make good on his oath.

After all, the soldiers who came in to take Nathan

Had freed Chris Larabee.

"We got no gripe with you, Mr. Larabee," one of them had said. "We all know Anderson was . . . crazy. What he did to them Indians, well, it wasn't right."

"Then you have no gripe with this man either," Chris had said. "He's a free man, just like you or me."

"I'm sorry, sir, but we have orders to take him back and return him to his owners. If he is a free man, like you say he is, they'll straighten it out."

"Damn it boy, they'll lynch him before anyone ever has a chance to straighten it out."

The soldier had paused a moment, but then grew angry. He trained his rifle on Chris Larabee as the other soldier pulled Nathan to his feet.

"We're trying to do right by you, Mr. Larabee. We didn't want no part of that Chiles man's revenge. but we have a job to do. And we aim to do it."

With that they led Nathan out.

Chris' words stayed with him.

"You have my word. I will find you."


Buck Wilmington squeezed through the small rocky opening into the cave. The top of the opening cut his back, and he realized that JD would have been hurt worse if he had gone in on his stomach. Buck could hear the boy whimper and pulled even harder to get all the way into the cave. Josiah would never make it.

And he knew it.

"I'll keep watch," Josiah said.

"For God's sake, be careful."

Buck hated to leave him, but he knew they would be safer with a lookout.

The horses thundered nearer and Josiah made his way to a better vantage point. He checked out the rifle and grinned. He'd probably blow his hand off if he tried to use it.

Maybe it wouldn't come to that.


It was totally dark inside the cave, but the young soldier was right. There was plenty of room. Buck made his way over to JD, who was gasping for breath and trying to talk.

"Easy, kid," Buck said gently.

"Is he gonna be ok?" The soldier sounded much younger than he had outside.

"He's gonna be fine." Buck said it for JD's sake, but he could feel him slipping away. JD was still lying on his back. "Let's turn you over," Buck said.

The kid was trembling all over and struggling to breathe. When Buck started to move him, JD grabbed his shirt and held on.

"Can't . . . breathe," he gasped.

"Yes you can, JD. Calm down and breathe slowly."

The boy cried softly. "Can't . . ."

The young soldier scooted beside them. "I bet it's his ribs. He really can't breathe. I . . . hit him this morning," the soldier's voice cracked with emotion. "I broke his ribs I think . . . Oh God. . . When I pulled him into the cave, he started gasping."

Buck would have to kill this soldier later. Right now, he had to help JD breathe. The kid was doubled over. Buck lifted him slightly.

"God-noooo!!" JD cried. Buck's eyes filled. "You're ok, kid. Hold on to me." Buck propped him up against his own chest. His fever raged.

"Mama . . ." The voice sounded so weak. "I . . ." A wave of pain swept over him and he squeezed Buck's shirt as his breath caught in his throat.

"I got you, kid," Buck could hardly keep his own voice strong. He took the boy's hand and held it tightly. JD sobbed softly, but Buck noticed that his breathing was easier.

"You're gonna be fine." He spoke softly in his familiar patter, knowing full well all hell could be getting ready to break loose outside. JD settled down and seemed to have fallen asleep again. He was so hot. And would occasionally tremble with chills. Buck prayed for the second time that day.


The town had been cleaned out. The faded sunset offered little help in Vin Tanner's search, but he had to try. He moved stealthily as he had learned from the Indians. Maybe not finding anything was a good thing.

He stepped into the little office. Had it been Chiles'? But the click of a gun at the back of his neck halted him. His little run of luck had run out.

Or had it?


The tracker turned slowly and saw Chris Larabee holster his weapon.

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