Disclaimer: The characters of "The Magnificent Seven" belong to MGM, Trilogy, etc. and are used here without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: This was written as a birthday fic for Jeanne. Happy birthday! Many thanks go to KT for all her help with this story and for the amazing collage she made.
A soft groan escaped Josiah as oblivion swirled away, leaving in its place an increasing riot of pain.
"He's awake," a hard voice hissed.
From the sibilant tone, Josiah knew the man was hissing and quiet, but with the roiling pain washing over him, noises seemed louder, sharper. As he fought against the pain, he became aware of the rough surface of wooden planks beneath his knees and the bite of metal at his wrists.
With near-Herculean effort, he lifted his head and cracked his eyes open. The dim light of the fire to his left seemed more blinding than the noonday sun in the desert as shards of agony tore through his head causing his breath to stop until the pain lessened. Finally he was able to take in a shaking, raspy breath and open his eyes once more.
He was in small wooden room. There was a stone fireplace to his left, a table and chairs standing just before it. Another chair and what looked like a daybed were under the window to the right. The window itself was blanketed thickly enough there was no way for him to tell if it was day or night.
There was a door three feet to the side of him and another across the room. A flickering light came from under the door opposite, which he assumed was coming from a fire or a lantern, making that an interior room.
As he turned his head to the side to try and glimpse the door beside him, Josiah felt a pull on his wrist. Focusing on his own situation, he found himself kneeling on a wooden floor. There were manacles around each wrist that were attached to the wall behind him, keeping his hands out to the side and far enough away from him to be uncomfortable.
None of this made sense to him. The last thing he remembered was being outside in a clearing. Trying to think through the pain, the image a horse running at him appeared. He also recalled a sudden pain as the back of his head hit something hard. And then nothing until now.
Feeling the muscles in his legs cramping, he began to shift from kneeling to sitting, but the chains wouldn't allow enough downward give for him to complete the move.
A sigh of frustration escaped as he returned to his knees. With some effort he began to try standing up. This worked until he was most of the way to his feet, but again, the chains about his wrists kept him from gaining his full height. It appeared his options were to kneel, crouch or stoop.
"A penitent should be on his knees," a deep voice commanded from across the room.
His head snapping upward, Josiah was forced to close his eyes quickly and swallow hard as the room spun and his stomach rebelled. He fell to his knees as he tried to quell his rising nausea and avoid the darkness trying to catch him. He needed to stay awake and find out what was happening.
Once he felt he had himself under control, he opened his eyes and looked at the man who had spoken. As he took in his captor's appearance, his breathing stilled and his blood turned cold.
"I see you recognize me," the captor said, stepping forward to stare down at the captive peacekeeper.
"I recognize you," Sanchez replied softly, guilt and regret welling up within him, adding emotional pain to his physical.
"Good," the man said, his voice trembling slightly with suppressed emotion as tears formed in his eyes. "Then you remember what you took from me. But you can never know how I have suffered."
"You're right," Josiah agreed, "I can never know what I took from you, but I repent of my actions every day of my life and strive to ..."
"Shut up!" a younger man cried, stepping out of the shadows where he had been waiting. "You killed my brother! My ma died of a broken heart three months later! Don't you...."
"Enough!" the older man commanded, his voice gruff as he placed a hand in the center of his son's chest. "Enough," he repeated, his voice little more than a rough whisper.
Turning back to Josiah he explained, "You took two of the most precious things in the world from me. Not a day goes by that we don't suffer for their loss. Not a second goes by that the pain of not having them doesn't eat at my soul." As he regained control of his emotions, the man stepped forward and informed coldly, "When we saw you in town laughing with your friends, we knew you had forgotten what you did; and we knew we had to make sure you never forget the pain you inflicted on us."
New fear raced through Josiah as he thought of Vin being held captive, of what they might do to his young friend. "He has nothing to do with this," Josiah said, a note of panic and fear in his voice.
"No more than Robert had anything to do with that girl or your sister," the younger man spat out.
"Enough," the older man said. Turning he stared his son in the eye and then pulled out a large knife. "You know what to do. I'll stay here and explain to him exactly what will happen."
"Yes, Pa," the younger man said, taking a deep breath and heading toward the other room. The door was left slightly ajar so that sound would travel easily between the two rooms.
Turning back to Josiah, the other man drew over a chair and sat before the chained peacekeeper. "We won't kill you," he assured. "We don't want your death. We want you to remember, to hurt as you have hurt us."
"Not a day goes by..." Josiah began before the point of the knife was pressed against his throat.
"No," Josiah's captor said, his voice shaking. "No." he repeated, sitting back in his chair as he removed the knife from it's threatening position. "To you, it is a regretful accident. To us, you tore away half of our family, half of my soul. What you did when you took Robert's life killed my wife, the other half of me. I nearly lost Matthew as well. And then I see you with your friends, drinking and laughing as if you don't have a care in the world."
"It was ten years ago," Josiah said softly, aching for the man before him who had lived with his grief for so long.
"Ten years three months and two days," the man corrected, standing and walking over to the fire. He rested his forearm on the stone chimney and then rested his forehead on his arm.
"I'm sorry," Sanchez repeated softly, his physical pain reasserting itself as he shifted his stance, causing him to close his eyes. When he opened them again, he found Thomas Greene standing before him, the pain of loss and something more burning in his eyes.
"I'm sorry too," he said softly. "But I can't forget. I've tried. I've tried to forgive you, but I just can't. I need for you to understand that."
Madness. That was the other thing in his eyes. Just a hint of madness borne of extreme grief. Sanchez wondered if this is what Chris Larabee would have become if Buck hadn't been there, if the Seven hadn't met. He didn't think so. Larabee was angry at the world and, while it had eaten at his soul, the gunman had a mission. Greene knew what happened and had obsessed about one man, him, the one responsible for his son's death.
"What we're going to do is let you suffer as we have suffered," Greene informed him. "We want you to feel the pain we feel every day. And we will leave both you and your friend with reminders."
As Thomas finished speaking, the sound of a whip hitting flesh sounded from the other room.
"No," Josiah breathed, staring at the door in horror. "No!" he shouted turning his eyes toward Thomas. He opened his mouth to protest more, but Thomas held up a bandana.
"Don't make me gag you," he advised, tears shimmering in his eyes.
Josiah closed his mouth, having seen what this action was costing the man before him and aching for the hurting soul. Violence such as this was not naturally a part of Thomas Greene and Sanchez knew, once all this was over, the man would not find the peace he longed for, only more demons, more pain for what he had done.
To Josiah, it was a sad situation being made worse by the suffering of Vin Tanner, a man who had his own crosses to bear; a man wholly unrelated to what had happened so long ago. At least there was the hope Buck would find them before things went too far.
The three of them - Buck, Vin and Josiah - had been sent to River Ridge to help the local sheriff while his deputies were down with the fever that had been through. The previous evening had been their last in the strange town and they had gone to the saloon to celebrate their return home. As always, Buck had a few goodbyes to make and had told the others he would meet them on the trail the next day. Josiah and Vin had laughed as he disappeared with a very eager brunette.
The door to the other room opened and Matthew Greene stepped out. Josiah took in the young man's appearance, noting the nauseous look, pale face, and the whip he still held in his hand. The captive felt his stomach tighten as the end of the whip shimmered in the firelight. That shimmer meant the end of the whip was wet. The only thing it could be wet with was blood, Vin's blood.
Anguish such as he hadn't known washed over the large man as tears fell unchecked from his eyes. His head dropped back and he stared toward heaven, uttering every prayer that came to mind. He prayed for Vin, for Thomas, for Matthew, for peace and forgiveness, for deliverance, for those three men, but not once did he pray for himself. The weight of his sin was heavy upon him, a weight bearing down upon his soul until even his heart seemed to struggle to beat against it.
"It done?" the elder Greene asked.
Matthew nodded briefly, his jaw clenched tight.
"How many?" Thomas asked.
"Ten," came the choked reply.
Josiah watched as Thomas nodded and indicated for his son to leave the room. An order Matthew obeyed without question or hesitation. He watched the young man close the door fully behind him.
Light blue eyes turned to look at the father now that the son had gone. Sanchez saw the other man take a deep breath and steel himself for what he was about to do. Whatever it was, Josiah felt it no more than he deserved for bringing pain to so many lives.
Facing his captive, Thomas squared his shoulder. "So you will remember the pain you have caused, I'm going to leave one mark on you for each lash," he informed, stepping forward and off to the side. Without further word, he made a slow, shallow slice in Josiah's arm. It was done in such a way that the blood would flow, a scar would be made, but no permanent damage was done.
Nine more slices followed on that arm. By the fifth, Sanchez was hissing in pain, by the tenth, tears were running down his face, matching those streaking the face of Thomas Greene. "I'm sorry," Josiah whispered once more.
"I know," Greene replied just as softly. "But I have to do this. I have to make you remember," he informed, turning away and setting the knife on the table. He then picked up a bowl and turned back. Walking up to Josiah, he dipped his hand in the vessel to retrieve some of whatever was in it. In the next moment, there could be no doubt about the contents as the salt touched and was rubbed into the new wounds. In addition to the pain he had already been feeling, this new treatment drew forth a cry of anguish from the chained peacekeeper. By the time Thomas was done applying salt to each of the ten wounds, Sanchez had passed out.
When he next awoke, Josiah had no idea of how much time had passed. The father and son were sitting at the small table finishing their meal of stew.
"He's awake," Matthew informed his father.
Thomas turned and saw this to be true. Setting his own spoon in his bowl, he rose and went to Josiah. "Looks like your wounds have stopped bleeding," he informed. "I'll go ahead and wash them out now."
Josiah only nodded, glancing at his blood and salt covered arm. There was a small pool of almost dry blood beneath his arm where the liquid had dripped off. The salt still stung his wounds, but he knew it was nothing compared to the pain it had been or the newer pain he would suffer as it was washed off of him.
As Josiah finished his perusal of his wounded arm, he looked up to see Thomas standing nearby, a bowl of steaming water in one hand and a clean rag in the other. Matthew settled a chair nearby and the hot water was placed on it. Dipping the cloth in the clear liquid, Thomas wrung it out and began to clean Josiah's wounds.
Though the sting of the salt was not as intense as it had been at first, the addition of a gentle scrubbing motion over his wounds broke down the few defenses he had remaining, tearing a sob from the peacekeeper. Eventually, that gentle torture was done and his arm dried.
"Bring me the alcohol, Matthew," Thomas instructed. "And I'll need the needle and thread from the boiling water as well as some bandages."
Josiah lifted his tear-streaked face to look at the other man, wondering at what he was doing.
Feeling the eyes of the chained man upon him, Thomas refused to look, instead choosing to apply pressure to the two wounds that had started bleeding again. "Cut too deep in a few places, need to stitch you up," he informed, his voice gruff with emotion.
"Why?" Josiah managed to choke out. "Why are you doing this to yourself?" he asked. "What do you hope to gain?"
Greene took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Lifting his head, he met the anguished blue gaze with his own pained eyes. "I don't know," he admitted softly. "I don't know," he repeated, a sob chasing its way up from deep inside. "But I have to do this," he averred, obviously not understanding the compulsion.
Josiah held the other man's gaze until Matthew cleared his throat, handing his father the alcohol, needle and thread. He knew he should hate the man for what he was doing to him, to Vin, but Josiah couldn't feel anything but compassion, sorrow and pity for the broken, hurting soul. A soul he had broken and torn asunder with his temper and inability to turn the other cheek. "I understand," he said quietly, an admission which drew both Thomas' and Matthew's eyes to his face. Looking into the eyes of his captors, he reiterated. "I understand why you need to do this to me. But, please, don't hurt my friend any more than you have. Let him go. He doesn't understand, doesn't know what I've done."
Silence hung in the room for several minutes before Thomas finally replied, "Then you'll have to tell him when we're done." With that decided, he turned his attention to Josiah's wounds and began tending them.
Once his wounds had been tended, the father and son left the small dwelling through the door to the side of the prisoner.
Knowing he should try to escape, Josiah tried to gather himself for the effort, but found himself, instead, consumed by the pain that was becoming his fast friend. His head still ached from where he had, obviously, taken a hit to the head. If he moved too quickly the world would spin around him and darkness would try to consume his mind and body. If he bent or flexed his wounded arm, the four stitches pulled and the bandages rubbed against his injured skin, though no more than bandages applied by Nathan would have.
Realizing that he just didn't have the strength to try anything right now, he did the only thing he could think to do, he prayed.
He had no idea how long he had been pouring his heart out to God when the door opened again and father and son returned. Looking up, he saw the grim look on their faces and knew Vin's torture was about to continue. His suspicion was confirmed when Matthew picked up the whip and headed toward the door on the far side of the room. "Don't!" he cried out, aching for his young friend.
"It needs to be done," Thomas said, his voice cold and determined. There would be no swaying this man from his purpose.
The door to the other room was mostly closed, muffling all sound except for the sharp crack of the whip. With each sound, another piece of Josiah seemed to fall away. With each lash, another tear in his soul was created. "Forgive me," he whispered, his head dropping forward as his eyes closed.
"It's done." The emotionless voice penetrated Josiah's emotional haze.
Raising his head, he watched as the younger Greene walked across the room and threw the whip into the fire. Looking on as the father walked over and rested a hand on his son's shoulder, Josiah felt more tears prickle his eyes. He wondered at their existence, having thought he used all the tears he had.
"How many?" Thomas asked.
"Ten," came the tight reply.
The older Greene nodded his head and squeezed his boy's shoulder. "Go outside while I handle this," he instructed, walking the younger man to the door and closing it behind him.
Turning and walking toward the table, Thomas picked up the once more pristine knife and headed toward Josiah. "It's time," he informed as he reached the knife toward Sanchez' uninjured arm.
Once again ten slices were carved into the peacekeeper's arm and the blood allowed to flow. Each cut creating an untold emotional agony in the chained man as he thought of each lash of the whip Vin had suffered at the hand of the younger Greene. And with each cut, Josiah increasingly believed that he deserved each and every moment of pain he was suffering and would suffer was deserved. It was his fault and his fault alone that they were enduring this torture, his fault the father and son had lost half their family, his fault a husband had lost his wife, his fault a bright young life had been needlessly extinguished. And it was all because he couldn't follow the Savior's example, because he couldn't turn the other cheek.
When the first of the salt was applied to the open, bleeding wound on his arm, a great cry erupted from the peacekeeper as he felt something deep within his soul break.
He had no idea how much time had passed when he next became aware of his surroundings. The sharp pain he remembered seemed dulled and distant. The building itself seemed to have lost some of its color. His mind was foggy as he tried to recall what had passed before. As the memories returned, so did the pain and anguish that consumed his soul.
Vin was hurt, had been whipped because of him and the young man didn't even know why. Oh, he knew of Hannah, knew bout her wild past, but this secret was something else entirely, a different kind of secret, something he held even closer to his heart, than that. He had been unwilling to share his deepest shame with another. His pride had gotten in the way. He swore to himself that if they both survived this, he would tell Vin every shameful part of the incident that had sent Josiah into Hell and, eventually, penance.
The sounds of movement around him drew Josiah's attention away from his inner conflict and pain to the outside world. A chair was placed nearby along with a bowl of water, a clean cloth and some bandages. Thomas Greene was about to tend to the wounds on Josiah's arms.
This time, even the sting of salt didn't cause Sanchez to flinch, he was beyond caring what happened to his body. He noted idly that the cuts he had been given were more akin to skinning than cutting. That would probably explain the pain he was feeling and continued to feel, though everything seemed oddly disconnected as he struggled to focus through the throbbing in his head.
Watching the white bandages cover the scarlet blood, his mind went blank. It was several minutes before he noticed the older Greene was speaking to him.
"... almost over," the man informed him, tossing the rag into the fire that still burned and lifting the bowl to rid it of its bloody water.
The words echoed in Josiah's mind, "almost over". That was good, he decided. If it was almost over then he could go to sleep. There was no way he could hurt anyone else if he was asleep.
The door opening drew his attention outward once more. Matthew was walking around the room, gathering things into saddlebags as if preparing to leave. Thomas soon joined him.
As he watched the men collect their few possessions and prepare them to leave, the soft sounds they made faded away as an odd rushing noise seemed to fill his ears. The sound soon became too uncomfortable to ignore along with the throbbing in his skull. He closed his eyes against the onslaught, only to have the dull throbbing seem to centralize on the back of his head. The word concussion passed through his mind as he sank into unconsciousness.
When he next roused, he had to focus all of his energy and attention into opening his eyes. Once that task was successfully completed, he struggled to lift the leaden weight of his head. Eventually he won that battle as well. Taking in what he could, he noticed the Greenes were no longer in the room and neither were most of their belongings.
On the table, he could make out the form of a small pot. On the floor was a pail of water. In the fire were the handles to two pokers were sticking out. That seemed odd, but Sanchez wasn't sure why. Continuing his scan of the room, he found nothing else of interest.
The door across from him was slightly ajar. "Vin," he whispered, thinking of his young friend who had suffered so much because of him. Pulling on the shackles that held him, a cry of pain flew from him as his much-abused wrists protested.
A few seconds later, the door beside him opened and his captors stepped into the room. "You're awake," Thomas observed, his voice an odd mixture of relief and resignation. Moving across the room, he waited for Matthew to join him. When his son was standing beside him, the older man turned to face Josiah once more. "After this, it's over," he assured his captive. Turning toward his son, Thomas nodded and watched while the young man pulled out one of the pokers.
Sanchez watched as Matthew moved across the room, when he caught sight of the dull orange tip, he felt all of his horror at this situation begin to pour out of him. "No!" he cried, the word tearing from his soul. "NO!" he screamed again. Turning toward Thomas, he pleaded, "Vin didn't do anything! He doesn't deserve this! He doesn't even know what I did to you!"
Greene turned and met Josiah's eyes. What the peacekeeper saw there silenced him. There was so much anguish, so much pain in the old eyes that it stole Sanchez' breath. But Josiah wasn't there to offer comfort to the man or to offer apologies for what he had done in the past. Right now he had one purpose only, to keep Vin from suffering.
"Too late," the old man whispered, his voice regretful as the sound of hot metal searing flesh escaped from the other room only moments before the door was pulled closed and all sound was cut off.
All words escaped the shackled man as his head fell forward and tears of grief began to pour down his face. His heart and soul demanded he speak prayers for his friend, for these men and for himself, but, Josiah found, he no longer had voice to speak or the ability to form words.
Lifting his head at the sound of metal scraping stone, Sanchez turned and watched as Thomas Greene drew forth the second iron from the fire. His blue eyes grew wide in horror at the sight of the softly glowing cross shape on the end opposite his captor's hand.
As Thomas approached, Josiah could feel the heat from the poker drawing near and somehow knew he would become much more intimate with that heat before it dissipated.
Horror filled eyes lifted to meet those of his tormentor. Anguish was in the not-entirely sane eyes that met him. Josiah felt a sob well up from deep within as the elder Greene paused before him.
"I'm sorry," Greene whispered hoarsely, tears filling his eyes. "But I have to make sure you never forget what happened, never forget my Robert, never forget my wife, never forget how you failed more than your God the day you sought vengeance instead of forgiveness. Never forget," he whispered once more, bringing the burning brand forward.
As the hot metal inched closer to him, Josiah's eyes shifted from the brand to the anguished eyes behind it. In that moment, a revelation flashed through him and Sanchez knew what he had to do. How he had missed such a potent answer to the horrible situation he would never understand. Just before the metal touched his flesh he uttered three powerful words, "I forgive you."
A blood-curdling scream filled the cabin and surrounding area before fading into silence as the penance was finished.
Buck stared at the shack from a safe distance. He had shown up at the agreed upon meeting place quite a bit later than he had originally expected, but he knew his friends wouldn't mind.
Surprise had filled him when he approached and found the clearing empty. At first he had been a little disgruntled by the fact that they weren't there. It wasn't long, though, before he saw evidence of a struggle. Looking more closely, he cursed as he found a bloody spot on one of the tree trunks.
It hadn't taken him long to find the tracks that led away from the clearing and from the road. Following them he could see at least three and possibly four horses were involved. That Vin and Josiah could have been taken by one man was an almost laughable possibility. That they might willingly follow one man who claimed to be in trouble would be believable, but wouldn't explain the signs of struggle he found in the clearing.
As he followed the trail, he had grown concerned by the lack of effort to conceal it. His mind raced with possibilities. The last thing he had expected to find at the end of the trail was the peaceful scene awaiting him.
The door to the small building was closed and smoke curled out of the chimney. The windows were open and curtains rustled gently in the slight breeze. A short way away from the house Vin and Josiah's horses stood quietly munching on some hay that had been placed out for them.
There was no sign of anything awry, no glint of metal in the windows to indicate a waiting sniper, just a peaceful, inviting scene.
It set every one of the ladies' man's senses on high alert.
Drawing his weapon, he slowly made his way toward the dwelling.
The only thing that stirred as he crossed the small expanse of open ground was a faint breeze.
With a deep breath, he prepared himself for any opposition he might face as he entered the building.
As he stood next to the door frame, he reached over with his free hand and undid the latch on the door. With a quick movement, he threw it open and scanned the inside, his gun leading his eyes.
He found nothing.
There was no threat. There was, however, a faint smell. Something familiar that stirred dark memories in the back of his mind. Memories he would rather forget.
Stepping into the shack quickly, he kept his revolver at the ready as he looked for any threat. There was a door opposite him, but it was closed.
His eyes scanned the room once more, taking in details he had missed before. On a cot under the window were Vin and Josiah's saddles and gear. On the wall opposite him was the closed door. Opposite the window on the third wall was a fireplace with a small fire still burning. Before the fireplace was a sturdy table with what looked like healing supplies on it.
Then he moved to look at the final wall.
The sight that met him was so horrible, so ghastly that the hand holding his revolver actually shook from the sight. With great care, and using both hands, he managed to guide his gun back into its holster and move forward toward the apparition.
Finding himself finally standing before the specter, he recognized the abused form.
A gasp tore from his lungs as realization struck. Dropping to his knees, he reached out a hand as if to touch the phantom before him, but hesitated, not wanting to find out it was real.
His need to know eventually overwhelmed his trepidation, however, and the partially extended hand continued on its journey.
Buck could feel his heart beginning to race as he reached out toward the form before him. His heart pleaded with God to let it not be so, even as his mind continued to reject any rationalization other than the brutal truth.
As his hand came in contact with solid flesh, Wilmington's heart broke as the true horror of what he was witnessing washed over him. "J-Josiah," he choked out. Praying that somehow he was wrong. That he received no response was both a blessing and a curse.
Shaking himself from the fugue that had gripped him, he rose to his feet and began looking around for the key to the shackles that held his friend chained to the wall.
Just as the ladies' man vowed to shoot the locks, he spotted the metal key on the table near some bandages.
In seconds he had the item in his hand and in the lock.
Rationality took over just as he was about to release the first shackle. He could easily turn the key and free his friend, but Josiah was going to need somewhere to lay and, though he didn't doubt his own strength, Buck knew he wouldn't be able to carry Josiah far.
That was when he remembered the cot by the window. Quickly rising to his feet he strode across the room and quickly lifted the first saddle off of the cot. He turned back to lift the second saddle and froze.
There were two saddles. Two friends missing.
He had been so caught up in the horror that had befallen Josiah that he had completely forgotten about Vin. Closing his eyes and taking several deep breaths, he prepared himself to look behind the closed door; the only other place in the house Vin could be.
Stepping over to the closed portal, he took several deep breaths in preparation and turned the knob.
Clenching his teeth to help steel himself, he moved into the back room and stopped in his tracks, dumbfounded by what he found.
On the floor of the room, just opposite the door was the body of a dead pig. It looked like it had been whipped and branded.
Looking around the room, he spotted a second cot. On that cot was Vin Tanner, looking for all the world like he was taking a peaceful nap.
Many things about that scene struck Buck as unnatural, not the least of which was the fact that Vin hadn't stirred when he entered.
Moving toward the supine form, he called out Tanner's name. He received no response. Growing more concerned, he stepped up next to the bed and tapped his friend's face, growing worried when he felt how cool it was.
A quick scan of the small table beside the bed revealed a bottle of chloroform and a rag. Lifting the rag, Buck didn't even have to get it close before he smelled the distinctive odor.
Making sure the bottle was corked, he reached across the cot and opened the window there, tossing the rag outside.
He tried to remember what he knew about the drug, but couldn't quite recall everything. He had heard stories of men during the war who had been given chloroform and never woken up. He thought he remembered something about the men getting cold.
With a brief check to make sure Vin was breathing alright, Buck pulled the blanket from the end of the bed and covered the younger man. He wasn't sure what exactly to do, but airing the room and keeping Vin warm didn't seem like too bad an idea.
His second friend found, Buck exited to the main room.
The sight of Josiah, still chained to the wall, stopped him cold.
Swallowing back the bile that had risen, Wilmington quickly cleared the rest of the items off of the cot. It was short work to move the bed closer to the fire, closer to Josiah.
With the cot in place, Buck finished the job of unlocking the shackles, catching his friend as Sanchez slumped forward.
Though he knew he must have struggled with the dead weight of his friend, Wilmington couldn't recall much of anything between the time he got Josiah out of the shackles and onto the cot.
In fact, the next thing he clearly remembered was cleaning the cuts the cruel metal had left on Josiah's wrists.
With care, he finished his ministrations and braced himself to take a look under the bandages that swaddled Josiah's arms and chest.
It was the work of only a few seconds to remove the bandages. When the first were removed, Buck had to swallow against the nearly overwhelming nausea that assailed him. He had started with the Sanchez' right arm. If he had to guess, he would say someone had tried to skin his friend, or at least parts of his arm. The wounds themselves looked like they had been well tended, but that fact didn't make any sort of sense.
"What happened here?" Buck asked aloud.
A low moan from the other room drew his attention away from Josiah.
Rising from his position next to the cot, Buck headed toward the back room. Before he could reach the door, he was met by the sound of retching. With some effort, he overcame his natural desire to get away from the man being ill and continued forward.
As he entered the room, he sought out his friend and found Vin just settling back on the cot, his hands still gripping the windowsill. "Vin!" Wilmington called as he strode across the room.
In an unwise movement, Tanner tried to spin around from where he was kneeling on the cot. He lost his equilibrium, however and ended up collapsing upon the bed in an unceremonious heap. His eyes finally locked on the large body in the room with him. It took only a heartbeat for him to recognize his friend. "Bucklin," he sighed, relief evident in has voice.
A small smile to appear on the mustached man's face. "You're not looking so well there, Vin," he observed.
Rolling his eyes at the remark, Tanner asked, "Water?"
"I can get you some in the other room." Seeing the other man nod, Buck's small smile faded. "What happened here, Vin?" he asked softly.
Looking around the room, a frown appeared on the tracker's face. "Don't know," he admitted. "Not even sure where here is. Last I remember Josiah and I were in the clearing when this madman on a horse rode in. Someone got behind me and clamped something foul smelling over my nose and mouth and then nothing." Tanner's eyes rose to meet his friend's. "Where's Josiah? Is he alright?" he asked, panic beginning to creep into his voice.
"Let's get you up," Buck suggested, walking over the cot to offer Vin a hand. Seeing the tracker wasn't about to do anything until he had an answer, Wilmington sighed. "I'm not rightly sure how Josiah is," he admitted. "I was just looking him over when I heard you in here. Right now he's out cold. Why don't we get you up so we can both check on him?" The ladies' man was relieved when he received a nod of agreement. With some difficulty, the younger man regained his balance and kept his feet.
Reaching for his gun, Vin strapped it on and checked to make sure the weapon was still loaded. It was. "Left me a loaded gun," he puzzled.
"No harm in it," Buck replied, looking with distaste at the bottle on the nightstand. "They had you knocked out cold." Reading the question in the expressive blue eyes, he supplied, "Chloroform."
A shudder ran through Vin at the thought, not only of being drugged, but being so far under he didn't know what was happening to him. Taking a step toward the door, he paused as he caught sight of the dead pig. "What..."
"Don't know," Buck admitted. "Looks like we'll have to wait for Josiah to wake up before we get some answers."
"Let's go see him," Tanner suggested.
Wilmington reached out and placed a restraining hand on Vin's shoulder. "You need to know, he's been hurt bad," the mustached man cautioned, his face serious.
Taking in the seriousness of this friend's face, Vin nodded his understanding and continued toward the door. "We'll have to cart that out of here before too long," he said as he passed the carcass.
Stepping into the outer room, the two men made their way to the third. As he caught sight of the portion of Josiah's arm that had been uncovered, Tanner let out a low curse. "They tortured him," he observed, anger and self-reproach in his voice. "I was sleeping in the next room and they were torturing him out here."
"You were drugged, Vin," Buck reminded, his voice firm. "And who's to say you weren't next?"
The young man closed his eyes and released the feelings of failure. There were things to do, things that needed to be done. First they needed to evaluate what had been done to Josiah and what they had on-hand to use. "Let's get these bandages off," he commanded, stepping forward, next to his prone friend.
Buck watched the determined young man and moved to Josiah's right to finish what he'd started. "Reckon it's the pain keeping him unconscious?" he asked, not wanting to think about what he was uncovering.
Pausing in his ministrations, Vin had the nagging idea that he knew something about that. Slowly a hazy image formed in his mind. "Horse ran him into a tree," he informed, his voice distant as if trying to remember something more. All he could see was Josiah's eyes rolling up into his head and then the world go black. Shaking himself to bring his focus back to the present, he admitted, "Don't remember much more than that. It happened just about the same time I was blacking out."
"Good enough," Wilmington encouraged, setting aside the last of the bandages. Moving closer to Josiah's head, he asked, "You hold him for me while I check?"
With a quick, but gentle move, Vin finished removing the bandages that swathed Josiah's left arm and sat on the side of the cot. "Lean him forward onto me," Tanner instructed.
Buck nodded and did as instructed, making sure the weight of the unconscious man wasn't too much for the recovering tracker. Satisfied that both Josiah and Vin were alright for the moment, he examined the back of Sanchez' skull. "Looks like he has a good lump here. Doesn't look like any blood. Most likely be in and out of it for a while," Buck diagnosed, remembering more than one lump on the head he and Chris had experienced in their time together.
"Wait," Tanner cautioned as Buck was about to lay Josiah back down. "Let's get the bandage around his chest off before you lay him down again."
"Alright," Buck agreed, moving to find the end of the bandage. He located it in no time and began unwinding the long cloth, passing the bandage to Vin when it went around front.
They had removed about half the bandage when Tanner's hand froze, his eyes locked on Josiah's chest. A hard curse escaped him.
Looking up in shock, Buck asked, "What?"
With some effort, Vin tore his eyes away from the horrible sight and locked onto Buck. "They branded him," the tracker whispered, his voice tight with horror.
Wilmington stared at his friend, wanting to deny what he had been told; needing to forget what he knew to be true. About this, Vin would never lie.
Shaking himself, Vin passed the bandages around. In short order, they were completely gone and the two men gently eased Sanchez onto his back. Closely examining the burn, a sigh of relief escaped the younger man. "Could be a lot worse," he declared. "Only a couple of blisters; rest looks just red."
"A cross?" Buck asked, baffled. Meeting the questioning eyes across from him, the ladies' man reiterated the question that had been haunting him since he first arrived at the clearing. "What happened here?"
Vin shook his head, "Don't know. Reckon the only one who can tell us that is Josiah."
Buck just nodded in agreement.
Time had no meaning in the world where he existed. Neither did pain. Yes, there was discomfort, perhaps it would be pain eventually, but for now... for now there was no pain. There was only a peace and a word that echoed through him, through his essence, through his being, forgive.
Eventually, other thoughts, more instinct than anything definite began to draw him from the peaceful place. The discomfort became pain and the pain found focus. His arms hurt and his heart hurt. But, no, that wasn't quite right. His heart felt light, felt free, above his heart hurt.
Feeling his eyebrows draw down in query over this odd sensation, Josiah struggled to awaken enough to find out what the odd sensation was. Unfortunately, the closer he got to being awake, the less he was able to focus. A dull, throbbing ache began in his head, scattering each thought as it tried to form.
As the words to his latest question shattered and the pieces flew off in all directions, one word remained in his mind's eye. That word brought with it a different type of fear as well as other feelings, brotherhood, friendship, guilt. Struggling against the mounting pain and confusion, Josiah tried to remember why Vin brought guilt. As he fought to remember, pain flared on one of his arms and he remembered. "Vin!" he cried, eyes flying open. "Vin!" he called again, sitting bolt upright.
"Whoa, there, Josiah," a familiar voice soothed.
Turning to the voice, Josiah felt the color drain from his face. It couldn't be. There was only one way Vin could be sitting next to him unharmed. "Dead?" he asked as his heart broke.
"Not even close," Buck denied, settling on the other side of the former preacher.
"I'm right here and I'm just as real as you," Tanner assured, reaching out and squeezing his the injured man's shoulder.
"Not dead," Josiah sighed in relief, his eyes drooping closed as his head fell forward.
"They only drugged me," Vin assured. "Did some nasty things to a pig carcass," he added, bafflement in his voice.
Sanchez looked up, his face scrunched up in puzzlement. "Pig?" he asked.
"Don't worry about it," Buck soothed. Reaching over to the nearby table, he held up a mug. "Got you some water."
Nodding slightly, Josiah accepted the mug and the assistance in keeping it steady. Laying back down, he let out a sigh of relief as the pain in his head began to ease. His eyes never leaving Vin, he admitted, "I thought... I thought they..."
"Hush," Tanner denied. "No one did anything to me. They gave me some chloroform and kept me knocked out. Whatever it is they told you they did to me, they didn't do it," he finished with a wry smile.
"The pig, it sounds like human flesh when you whip it," Sanchez supplied, reaching up to rub his aching eyes, relieved beyond measure that his past hadn't caused his young friend any pain. His hand was about halfway to his face when he noticed the bandages on his arm. Taking a look at his other arm and chest, he turned puzzled eyes toward his friends. It took only a heartbeat for him to remember. The memories were enough to wring a groan from him.
"We'd like to understand what happened here and help," Buck assured.
"But not if you're not ready to tell us," Vin amended. "Whatever this was, these people harbored a powerful hate for you, Josiah Sanchez. You take whatever time you need."
A faint smile appeared on the pain-filled face. "'Preciate that, boys. More than you know," he admitted. "Need to sleep a bit," he added around a yawn, willing to darkness to help him escape the pain.
"Then you rest," Buck advised. "We'll be here when you wake up."
With another faint smile, Josiah allowed his eyes to slide shut. Sleep soon overtook him.
Vin startled awake. It took him a moment to figure out what had awoken him. A moment later, he knew. Rising from the chair in which he'd been dozing, he walked over to his injured friend.
Shaking the large man's shoulder, he called, "Wake up, Josiah." Not getting a response, he shook the shoulder again and encouraged, "Come on. Wake up."
He watched as the man's head turned from side to side, obviously struggling to overcome the strong grip of sleep. Debating briefly with himself, he tried to decide if he needed to get Buck or not. That decision was moot a moment later when he saw Sanchez begin to thrash his arms. The last thing they needed was for Josiah to injure himself more than he already was.
Deciding the time to be gentle had passed, Vin shouted, "Josiah! Wake up!" He was surprised when the order was almost immediately obeyed. Meeting his friend's blue eyes, Tanner waited until he saw recognition in them before releasing the larger man.
"Vin?" The newly awakened man asked.
"You looked like you were having something of a nightmare," Tanner informed, taking a step toward the table where he retrieved a cup of water. "Best take a drink," he encouraged.
Propping himself up on his elbows, the injured man let out a hiss of pain as he felt the skin on his chest pull.
"I have some more ointment for your burn," Vin informed, waiting for his friend to nod before releasing his hold on the cup. The younger man watched closely for a moment to make sure Josiah wasn't about to drop the vessel and then stood to retrieve the ointment he had mixed up earlier. Turning back, he took the cup from the ailing man and set it on the floor beside the cot. "Can you sit up on your own?" he asked.
"Like to try," Josiah admitted, doing his best to ignore all of his aches. Taking a deep breath, the former preacher struggled to push himself upward. Eventually, and with a little help, he was in a sitting position. Staring down at his bandaged arms and torso, he could only shake his head. The emotions he had expected to feel didn't come, no anger, no vengeance, nothing. He realized he had truly forgiven the Greenes and, by extension, himself. As he lifted his head, he found himself looking into Vin's worried eyes. Thankfulness lightened his heart at the knowledge that his mistake hadn't hurt his friend. He also realized he owed both of his friends and explanation. "Where's Buck?" he asked, as Vin reached out to begin removing the bandages from around his torso.
"Sleeping," Tanner informed.
"Not any more," a voice said from the doorway to the inner room.
Looking over, the two seated men saw their friend standing in the doorway rubbing a hand over his face and through his hair. "Nice of you to join us," Vin greeted. "Just in time to help with the burn."
"Oh," Buck replied, his voice lacking enthusiasm as he crossed the room. The kind light in his eyes belied his apparent reluctance to help, though.
"How bad is the burn?" Josiah asked, curious since he hadn't actually seen it.
"Not nearly as bad as it could be," Buck supplied.
"Dark red and a couple blisters. Looks like they couldn't carry through with the branding," Tanner explained, picking up the ointment he had set down. as Wilmington set aside the bandages. "Should fade to nothing in a few years," he decided.
Looking down at his chest, Josiah took in the damage for himself. Vin was right, it wasn't as bad as it could be, hardly more than a burn from touching a coffee pot too long on the trail. With a morbid curiosity, he reached his hand to touch the painful area, only to have his hand slapped away.
"Don't pick at it," Vin instructed.
Josiah's mouth lifted in a smile. "Sure thing, Doctor Tanner."
Vin's cheek's colored slightly as the comment caused Buck to chuckle. "Just know a bit about burns," he countered, using his fingers to scoop up a generous dose of the ointment he had made while Josiah slept. Reaching over, he slathered it onto the burned area.
Biting his lip against the pain as the sensitive skin was touched, the former preacher was pleased to find the ointment quickly cooled the burning sensation and dulled the ache. "What is that?" he asked, catching a whiff of something, though he wasn't sure what.
"Aloe and lavender," Vin replied, wiping the remnant on the side of the bowl he'd used to store it.
"Lavender?" Buck asked, puzzled.
Tanner shrugged. "Just the way I've seen it made. Seems to help."
"I'm grateful," Sanchez interjected, trying to sit still as his friends once more wrapped bandages around his chest.
"You up to eating anything?" Buck asked, rising and walking over to the fire. "Got some real fine stew going." Seeing the expression on the older man's face, he suggested. "Maybe some of the broth?"
"Might be best," Sanchez agreed. "If you'll help me get to the table, I'd be obliged," he prompted. He let out a groan as Vin helped him to his feet. The short distance to the table seemed an impossibly long journey as the world swirled around him, going black at the edges of his vision. He fought back, however, and before long was settled in a chair at the table.
Looking at Buck, Vin said, "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
Before Wilmington could reply, Sanchez interrupted, "No." Meeting the eyes of both of his friends, he insisted, "I need to tell you what happened." He waited until his friends assented and were seated before continuing with his tale.
Nodding his thanks as Buck settled the bowl of broth before him, Josiah sighed and tried to decide where to begin. "I suppose I should just begin at the beginning," he said, thankful for his friends' quiet presence and support. "About ten years ago I was the preacher in a small town quite a ways north of here. It was a busy town, bustling with people going here an there, most of them passing through on their way to somewhere better. One night I was headed back to the church from visiting a sick parishioner when I heard a woman cry out. Naturally, I did the only thing I could, I went to her aid."
He paused as he took a sip of his broth and gathered his courage to continue on with the story. "I recognized her," he admitted. "She was Hannah's best friend."
"Hannah?" Buck asked.
Josiah and Vin locked eyes for a moment, before Sanchez explained, "My sister."
Sensing that it was not only a sensitive topic, but also that there was a lot more to the story, Buck simply nodded and encouraged, "Alright."
"Her name was Esther and, like her biblical counterpart, she was a beautiful young girl. When I strode into that ally, there were three boys all over her. Her clothes were torn. It was obvious she was fighting them, but..." Taking a deep breath, he continued, "I yelled at them to stop. They told me to leave them be. I... I..."
"Got a little 'Old Testament' on them?" Buck supplied, trying to lighten the heavy atmosphere. His comment earned him a flash of a smile from the injured man.
"Guess you could put it that way," Sanchez admitted. "The sheriff showed up a few minutes later with his deputy. They took the boys in custody. I took the girl to her home and went to get the town doctor."
The injured man fell silent for several moments. Finally he continued. "They hadn't had time to... The doctor said she should be alright, she was just bruised and needed rest." Looking up, he met his friends' eyes. "That's not the story that went around town, however. Those... boys were bragging and telling a very different story. I overheard them. Unfortunately, I wasn't the only one. Word got back to the girl and she hung herself."
The curses falling from Buck and Vin's lips were reassuring. "I was asked to officiate the funeral several days later. Some folks believed that since she had taken her own life she didn't deserve a Christian burial. As for me... In my mind she was a murder victim and those boys killed her. I let that anger fester within me and turn to bitterness. On the way back to the church after the funeral, there was a group of people gathered on the street corner, waiting to pay their respects to the family. One of those boys was right on the edge of the boardwalk, taunting me and saying a whore like her didn't deserve a burial with decent folk.
"A rage like I'd never known overcame me and I hauled off and hit him. Hard. Hard enough to send him flying backward," Josiah admitted, staring at his hands as if wondering how he could have done that. "He went flying backward into another boy," he continued, anguish in his voice and tears in his eyes. "Robert Greene was an honorable young man. Someone a father would be proud of, the type of man this country needs. The sort of man who would make a good brother-in-law."
Vin and Buck exchanged a look. Josiah had fallen silent, his head bowed. Just as they were about to check and see if the former preacher had fallen asleep, Sanchez continued, "The boy I hit flew backwards into Robert, knocking him down. As he fell, Robert Greene hit his head on the corner of a crate that had been set on the boardwalk. The added weight of the other boy caused his neck to break. He was dead before he hit the boardwalk," Josiah finished, his voice little more than a whisper.
A heavy silence blanketed the room.
Uncomfortable in the silence, Buck began, "It wasn't..."
Josiah cut him off, a sad smile on his face. "It was," he countered. "If I'd forgiven that boy as I was meant to, if I'd turned the other cheek..."
Vin said nothing, just reached out and rested a hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Between the death of her friend and the death of her fiance at my hands, Hannah... Hannah retreated to somewhere safe within her own mind." Josiah raised his eyes and easily read the understanding in Tanner's. The younger man had seen Hannah and understood.
"So, after all this time Robert's family came after you?" Buck asked. He'd seen how grief could change a man, make him hard and cold, but what happened here was... was madness.
"A few months after Robert died, his mother died of a broken heart," Josiah informed. "By then I was long gone, lost in my own anguish and bitterness. I left town that same night with Hannah, too ashamed to show my face there ever again." Pausing to take some more broth, Josiah continued, "Thomas Greene, the boy's father, never forgot what I had cost him. His grief was slowly driving him mad. When he saw us in town laughing at the saloon, he thought I'd forgotten, that I didn't understand his pain..."
"And he decided to make you suffer, so you would never forget, so you would understand" Vin supplied. Seeing Josiah nod, he continued, "Part of that was to make you think they were hurting me as well."
Sanchez heard the anger underlying the tracker's soft voice and rested a hand on the young man's arm. "I forgave them for what they did to me," he said, locking eyes with Vin. "You can do no less."
"That's..." Buck began, his anger very evident in his voice.
Josiah reached out with his other hand clamping it down on Buck's forearm, cutting off the protest. Meeting the dark blue eyes, he commanded, "Both of you need to forgive them. They will carry the guilt of what happened here for their whole lives. There is nothing worse we can do to them than what they have already done to themselves, the blood they already have on their hands."
"Your blood," Vin stated, his voice and his eyes cold.
Turning toward the younger man, Sanchez looked into his eyes and read Tanner's soul. Nodding, he agreed, "My blood. And my call." He held the young man's gaze until he saw reluctant acceptance there. Turning, he met Wilmington's eyes and waited for the same acceptance. "Good," he said weakly. "Now if you don't mind, I think I could do with a nap."
Two days later the three men mounted their horses and took a last look at the small cabin. "You sure you're alright with this?" Buck asked, a portion of him longing to be able to go after the men who had hurt his friend.
A brilliant smile lit Josiah's face. As the dizziness had faded and the pain from the cuts and burn became less, he had reveled in his new found peace. The sharing of his darkest secret, a millstone to him for so many years, had been a liberating experience, the final part of the healing that began when he had found forgiveness for Thomas Greene. "Let's go home," he encouraged, clicking his tongue to get his horse moving.
Buck and Vin exchanged a look behind Josiah's back and joined the older man on the trail home.