Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Penance. Any aspect of the story which does not belong to those mentioned in the disclaimer belong the the author, C. Knox Binkley.

Penance - Part Eight

The thundering of horses hooves was deafening - so close - so many. Where had they all come from? Josiah watched as most rode right by, but kept a keen eye on the five men who were charged with combing the rocks for the escapees.

Inside the little cavern, the thundering was dulled - removed almost. It was like being underwater during a gunfight. Danger was everywhere, yet the listener was deceived into feeling he was insulated from it.

Buck Wilmington knew better.

He held JD, talking softly to him. The boy was so feverish; chills swept through him too frequently. He would cry out, then he would sob softly. He clutched Buck's hand, deliberately holding on to his life.

Buck choked back his own emotions, trying to keep his voice reassuring. In the blackness, he could not see the kid slipping away from him - he could not see the anguish on his young battered face.

But he could feel his struggle. Maybe that was worse . . .

The soldier hiding in the cave with them had retreated into the void, his guilt becoming heavier.

A wave of pain . . .

JD screamed.

If anyone found them, JD would have no chance at all. Buck immediately clamped his big hand over the boy's mouth. And it killed him to have to.

It scared JD and he tried to twist his head away from Buck's grip.

Buck bent over close to his young friend's ear. "It's ok, kid. I'm not gonna hurt you. You're ok. . . We're hiding from the bad guys. Don't want them to find us, do we?"

For a moment JD seemed to hear him - to know him. Slowly, Buck pulled his hand away and the boy summoned all of his strength. And he tried to speak.

"Please . . . " so weak, so tired, so young. "Don't . . . hurt . . ."

Buck stroked the boy's hair and murmured "shhh".

"No more," he managed to put the words together. His breathing grew more labored. Softly sobbing. . .

"Kill . . . " he took one more difficult breath. "Kill me. . ."

Buck couldn't stand this. He kept talking to JD, trying to convince him that he was not his enemy - but clearly the kid was afraid of him. He fought the restraint, he fought the pain, until he couldn't fight any longer. . .

Buck Wilmington felt the body in his arms go limp.

"No," he whispered. "Don't do this, JD." He tried to find a pulse, but he couldn't. "Come on, kid, please."

The panic rose in the gunslinger's throat. He opened his mouth . . .

And screamed - silently . . .


He knew the voice.

Vin Tanner turned slowly and faced . . .

Chris Larabee.

The tracker started to speak, but all the heat, the headache, the struggle, the sick . . . the grief

Left him speechless.

He couldn't move - he couldn't make his body move.

Chris walked up tentatively to his weary, wounded friend, and, in a rare expression of emotion, the feared gunfighter's eyes filled.

"God, Vin, I thought they killed you . . ."

Vin would've said "I thought they did, too," but he was suddenly so tired -- he looked up at his friend, bewildered.

Just as his knees started to give way, Chris caught him and steadied him. "Easy."

He helped the tracker sit down and went to find him some water. Vin leaned his head back, but as soon as it touched the wall, he winced. His head still hurt. And he was so tired. How was it that two minutes ago, he was searching the settlement, and now he felt like he couldn't go another step?

Chris returned immediately with a canteen of water. He handed it to Vin and watched him closely as he drank. "Not too fast," Chris cautioned.

Vin took one more sip, and handed it back to his friend. "Thanks." His throat hurt and his voice sounded husky. Chris was still watching him closely.

"How are you?" Chris asked him.

"I'm OK."

Chris tried to decide whether to believe him or not. He reached up and felt his head. He wasn't feverish. "They hurt you?" Vin asked.

Chris shook his head, no. But Vin knew that Chris carried everyone else's pain. They had hurt him - with every lash inflicted on the kid. With the dismantling of the Seven. By letting him live . . .

"The others?" Vin asked.

Chris looked at the ground. "Soldiers took Nathan. Some guy took Ezra back to Four Corners to clean him out." He looked back up at Vin, a look in his eyes that could only be called defeated. "I don't know what they did to Josiah . . ."

Chris' voice caught in his throat. "Or Buck."

Chris was grieving. That was clear. But now he didn't have to be alone. Vin needed him. Finally he could help one of his men.

Vin suddenly realized why he felt so utterly drained.

He now had someone to help him. It wasn't just up to him anymore. He could let his guard down, if only for a moment. He'd been at a loss to figure out how to find his friends, much less help them. But together . . .

Chris still watched him - his studied eye assessing Vin's condition. Well, he was much better than he'd been at noon. But then again, he'd been damn near dead at noon. But the tracker's eyes looked clear. He would be ok.

They stayed in the little cabin for a few minutes, telling each other what they knew about what had happened. Even comparing notes, they had precious little to go on. They covered almost every event of the day.

But neither had been able to talk about JD, even though both were replaying it over and over in their minds. Vin finally took the initiative and reached over and put his hand on Chris' neck.

"You couldn't have done anything," he said in his gentle way.

Chris didn't look at him, but his voice was thick with emotion. "Chiles destroyed that boy because of me."

"Chiles did what he did because he's evil, Chris. Not because of you."

"I should never have let him ride with us. He had no business out here. He should have been in school or working as a clerk somewhere. Not . . . gettin' the life beat out of him."

Thank God it was Vin sitting there. Chris wouldn't want anyone to see his tears. Vin wouldn't watch or even acknowledge that he noticed them.

"He didn't deserve that." Vin paused a moment. "But I think . . . he was happy - riding with us. And, from what little he's said, his life was hell back east. Even before his mama died."

Chris listened.

"He and his mama worked for some pretty sorry folks in his lifetime. I imagine there were times when his life wasn't much different from Nathan's." Vin kept his eyes on the floor. "It's sad, how some kids never catch a break." He started to get up and put his hand on Chris' shoulder, as much for leverage while standing as an expression of comfort. Vin would take another look outside and try to figure out their next step.


Judge Orrin Travis pulled his hat off for the hundredth time and wiped his sleeve across his forehead. At least it was starting to cool. But the heat had hung heavily in the air all day and the posse was wearing down.

The scream startled everyone.

The judge turned in time to see one man on a horse shoot another man and then ride away furiously. A seasoned voice shouted orders quickly and the posse divided and moved as if choreographed. The judge and two others rode to the injured man while the rest of the group pursued the shooter.

When he came within a few yards, Orrin Travis recognized the fallen man as the gambler Ezra Standish. He pulled up close and swung down from his horse. He knelt beside the man in the tattered finery.

"Mr. Standish . . ." he began, but Ezra was already pulling himself up.

"I'm not hit," Ezra said quickly, and the judge began to cut the bonds that bound the gambler. "I 'fell' off the horse when Mr. Devereaux pulled his gun on me."

Travis realized that Ezra Standish bore none of his usual affectations. He dispensed with the pleasantries and asked pointedly, "What happened?"

Ezra stood, with the help of his rescuers. He started to answer but the words wouldn't come.


"He ain't dead," the young soldier spoke breathlessly. He reached over and found Buck's hand then guided it to JD's throat. "Feel it? He's just passed out."

Before Buck could answer, Josiah called into the cave.

"They're gone."

"You sure?" A stupid question, Buck realized as it came out of his mouth. He still had his hand at JD's throat, reassured to feel the faint lifepulse under his fingers. "I don't think we can move him again." Buck spoke softly.

"But can you take care of him in there?" Josiah asked.

"No," Buck snapped, exasperated. His fear drove his frustration, and Josiah knew this.

"We can take it slow this time. That'll make it a lot easier."

"We hurt him last time," Buck's voice was scarcely more than a whisper.

"We won't. We'll take as long as we have to."

As long as we have to turned out to be about a half hour, but if they had hurt JD, he never knew it. He never regained consciousness. Josiah had pulled JD from outside the cave while Buck guided the boy from the inside. Once JD was safely through the small space, Buck turned his attention to the soldier.

"C'mon son."

Buck found the boy's arm in the dark and started to lead him. The soldier was trembling. "It's alright." Buck's voice was soothing, he put his strong hand on the scared boy's back.

The boy's voice quivered. "I am so sorry."

"It ain't your fault. You're a good kid. If it weren't for you, we wouldn't have a chance, and JD would be dead already."

"But I . . ."

"It's ok. C'mon. We stay in here too long, folks will start talking."

The boy chuckled in spite of himself.

"C'mon," Buck repeated.


Emil Devereaux was fighting fiercely when the rest of the posse returned with him to meet up with the judge and company. Ezra was struck by how small the gambler looked next to the other men. A big house of a man had the prisoner in an iron grip, and all he could do was wriggle and writhe like a disobedient child.

Ezra walked over deliberately and pulled Emil to the ground. Without a word, he dove on the man and fought like he never had before. The judge waited a moment before pulling Ezra off of him.

Ezra was out of breath. He pointed at Emil and spoke with blistering rage. "He . . . and his compatriots . . . tortured and killed JD Dunne."

Judge Travis' eyes flashed.

"I didn't . . ." Emil protested.

"YOU LET IT HAPPEN!!!" Ezra screamed. "You dragged him out of his bed. You beat him. You whipped him." Ezra's eyes were wild. "He was nineteen years old, you miserable bastard. He was a boy. He was just a boy." Tears were streaming down Ezra's face and he turned back to the judge.

"Jacob Chiles and his hired . . . goons got together with Mr. Devereaux," Ezra's voice dripped with disdain as he said the name. "It seems they encountered some renegade bounty hunters and some . . . deluded remnants of the Army of the Confederacy who are still loyal to the martyred Colonel Anderson. They conspired to ambush each of us individually and then take us down." Ezra seethed. "They were each seeking penance for some wrong done them. And they exacted their retribution lash by lash." Ezra leaned over and grabbed Devereaux by the starched collar. "That boy never did anything to you. He didn't hurt any of you. Why him?"

Ezra didn't expect an answer. He knew the answer. And after a long, frustrating moment, he threw Emil Devereaux back on the ground.

The judge put his hand on Ezra's shoulder, which was knotted with tension and fury. He guided the gambler away from the rest of the posse.

"Where are the others?" Orrin Travis asked evenly.

"God, I wish I knew."

Ezra related everything he could as Judge Travis got him some beef jerky and water. The gambler was famished. Once he started eating, he ate ravenously.

They sat in silence for a while - the judge overwhelmed with the story he'd just heard. He'd hired these men. He had a responsibility to them.

And he had the best help in the country. He looked up as some of that help approached, cautiously.

"How is he?" a mustached man asked, nodding toward Ezra.

"He'll be ok, but we've got our work cut out for us. You had it pegged. I'll fill you in and we can leave at daybreak."

Ezra looked up at the men who had joined them, and was about to speak when he realized who was standing before him.

And he dropped his jerky in the dirt.


Chris stood up stiffly. He felt so damn old. He stretched and rolled his shoulders. God, he needed sleep.

Vin reappeared in the doorway, looking more like himself.

"We can't stay here," he reported. "We're sittin' ducks if we do. There's a rock formation that's not too far. We can take cover for the night."

Chris grinned. "You actually got a horse."

Vin grinned back. "I got supper and blankets." He raised the rifle. "And I got more ammo. We're set."

Chris put his hand on the tracker's shoulder, and they left the little town.


There was a chill in the night air. The blonde-haired soldier was finally asleep. Buck's big heart went out to him. In a way, that young man was in more pain than anyone--feeling responsible for their suffering, yet himself a victim of men who abused their authority, endoctrinating the young ones into their twisted delusions. The soldier looked so young. Buck knelt beside him and pulled the makeshift blanket - his jacket - up over the boy's shoulder. As almost an afterthought, he patted his arm, then he stood up and went back to sit by JD.

Josiah and Buck had silently settled into their most comfortable roles - Josiah alone on lookout, perched on a higher part of the rock formation, the prophet listening on the mountain - and Buck taking care of the boys. They both needed sleep desperately. But neither would be able to sleep tonight.

JD lay on his stomach, but propped on his side slightly. this relieved his broken ribs, which in turn eased his breathing. Josiah and Buck had pulled off his ripped jeans and put Buck's shirt over the lower half of his body.

But not before they'd seen the boy's back and legs fully for the first time.

Long red stripes marked his body from his neck and shoulders all the way to the backs of his knees. Oh, God, his back . . .

Buck kept vigil over JD, occasionally stroking the boy's head - the only place he could be sure his touch wouldn't hurt.

He wished he could hope . . .

But JD's fever was raging - and he was dying - he shouldn't have survived the relentless whipping, much less being moved so much. JD had fought valiantly. He had protected his friends.

But he had no fight left.

And he wouldn't live 'til morning.

Buck wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his head on his wrists. His eyes were closed but his mind was racing, reliving.

A hand on his shoulder startled him and he jumped. Josiah had the rifle in hand and motioned for Buck to come with him.

"We've got company." Josiah's low voice mingled with the gentle night sounds.

"How many?"


"Did you get a good look?"

"No - they looked like a heavily armed Mary and Joseph - one riding a horse and the other leading it. They came from the direction of the military installment."

"Sweet Jesus . . ." Buck said and he glanced back at JD sadly. "We can't take him back to the cave." He took a heavy breath looked at Josiah. "We've gotta take these guys out."


Chris and Vin were cautious, but still didn't see the ambush awaiting them. Vin was slumping a little.

"We're almost there," Chris said. "Stay with me."

"Where would I go?"

Good - his humor was intact.

A big bright moon shone overhead. That would be of critical benefit as they made their way up into the shadows of the rocks. When they reached the edge of the rock stand, Chris helped Vin off the horse and they tied the animal out of sight with water and feed.

Chris draped Vin's arm across his neck and held him around the waist and together they started into the rock sanctuary. Chris never knew he was in a rifle site.

And Buck didn't know he was about to blow away his best friend.

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