by Limlaith

Warning: Chris has a dirty mouth, the rest of them are basically clean.

Notes: This is an Easter ficlet, and for those of you who don’t care for such things, turn back now. My first OW story, actually, and it turns out to be a contemplative one. Just my take on how I see the boys reacting to an invitation from Josiah. Probably ‘round end of the first season.

All I can say is, apparently, I have an affinity for beginning sentences with conjunctions.

Disclaimer: Characters from "The Magnificent Seven" were used without permission, no copyright infringement is intended. Blah, blah, blah I’m not gonna sell it.

Feedback: Very much appreciated.

Vin loved the sunrise, always had. Twilight too. Something about night and day sharing the same space, if only for a moment, occupying the same sphere, holding to one another even as one ended and the other began. Something about life’s cycle renewed, the promise that nature’s life goes on, as heedless of the scurrying business of humans as they are of it.

Yep. Deep down in his soul, Vin found that satisfying.

He smiled as he guided Peso across the uneven ground, listening to the leather creek and the steady footfalls on the hard-packed earth. To his left, the light of a sun not yet seen was lingering on the horizon, and for a little while, day and night were one.

There was reassurance, even encouragement, in the waking of the beasts and birds. They were what they were, as they were created, what they were supposed to be. Their lives were simple, uncomplicated, innocent. It didn’t matter to him the hand that made them, but whatever had, deserved at least this day to celebrate it, if not all the days in between. So Vin figured it wasn’t too great a sacrifice, to be out riding at this hour before dawn. He’d be up before first light most days anyway.

He loved to drink in the sounds of the wind tickling the tawny grasses, the greens shaking off their dew, the trees swaying and rustling as they warmed their limbs. Clovers blinking in the new light. Peso nickering. The last hoot of the sleepy owl, fat and happy on his nightly feeding of field mice.

Everything made sense at this hour; all was as it should be. It made a person feel very small to contemplate, the idea that life would continue as it always had, with or without man. Plants open toward the sun, springing new growth from old. Mice, those not busy making more mice, eat on the new green things, and in turn get eaten by the owl or the hawk. And when the birds of the sky fall at last, their spirits meet somewhere on some larger plane, gathered into the hands of the Spirit who made them all.

The mice’d be there too, he reckoned. And he bet they’d have a thing or two to say to the owl.

And then it would all start again.

His friends often teased him about the hours he spent alone, the restless need to get away from town and people and idle conversation, but he paid them no mind. Neither did he tell them what he did or thought sharing his mornings and evenings with only the sky as a blanket and his horse as company.

There was so much sky, no wonder the stars were loathe to give it up. A few always lingered, just like the moon sometimes snuck up on the day and clung to the sky while the sun was still in it. Vin understood that too. If he could, he’d spend as many hours as he could, up there in that big blue canopy - as many hours as his strength allowed.

Peso’s steps were sure, unhurried, as they wound their way towards the shelf of rock where he’s promised to meet Josiah and the others. Chuckling lightly, Vin wondered just how many of the others would be there.

Nathan would make it most likely. JD would go if Buck would go. Chris and Ezra, well, that was anybody’s guess.

He didn’t think he’d ever known Ezra to be up before ten, unless it was an emergency. And Chris wasn’t one who embraced either day or night with anything that could be called gladness.

Funny, as he thought about it - gladness. The state of being glad for something.

Vin was glad he knew these men, this place. He was glad of each day that dawned on him still a free man. He was glad for food and shelter and friendship. If nothing else on this day, he knew he could be thankful for those things. And if for no other reason, on this day, he would join them. Seemed wrong not to.

The world stretched wide about him illuminated slowly by the ever growing light. It appeared as though the edge of the known universe was on fire, reds and oranges licking the horizon, spreading in a glow behind and over rugged hills. Vin marveled at it every time he saw it, the sheer wonder of the turning earth. He knew that it spun, and not the sun, and yet everyone always called it sunrise.

Maybe that’s cause men give names to things the only way they know how. They explain things in the way they know how with the words they have at hand. Like the entire idea of God, a concept too vast for words, but needing one nonetheless. Like trying to come up with a word for the perfect miracle that is the dawn.

Vin shrugged to no one. He doubted that most people thought it was a miracle. But that didn’t make him enjoy it any less.

The air was cool and crisp, filling his nostrils with the scent of sagebrush and hawthorn. Vin tied his reins loosely around his saddle horn and spread his arms straight out as though in flight, face upturned toward the cresting sun.

In his mind, this day was no different than any other. Glorious.

+ + + + + + +

Rubbing sleep out of one eye, JD fought back a yawn and shifted in his saddle. This wasn’t the first time he’d been up at this hour, not by a long shot, but it was the first time he’d been up at this hour with Buck, riding side by side in the chill morning air, when both of them would rather be in bed.

Buck had a far better, or at least prettier, reason to stay in bed, but that didn’t mean JD hadn’t complained when the big man had pounded on his door and roused him from his perfectly happy dream.

Oh well. If Buck could do it, then he could do it.

They hadn’t said anything as they’d saddled up, hadn’t said anything the entire ride actually, and JD felt like he should say something. Anything. It was just too darned quiet. And yet, nothing seemed appropriate.

Buck was wearing a queer smile, most likely remembering the hours he’d spent in the arms of the lovely Miss Millie, so JD decided not to disturb him.

He’d never been one to take the time to appreciate this hour of morning. What sane person was? But somehow, this morning, he kept silent and took stock.

It was beautiful out, really. Not a cloud in the sky.

The earth was streaked with colors JD didn’t even have names for. He figured someone had names for them; he’d have to ask Ezra later. He wondered if Ezra would even be there.

They all knew that Josiah was the religious one, more than any of them, always reciting verses from the Bible at the oddest moments. But Josiah was also the one with the unpredictable temper, and JD wasn’t sure how those two things sat well together.

He imagined Nathan had his own religion, something he would have picked up from his people, maybe even before he was made a slave. Buck’s most religious experiences, to hear him tell it, certainly hadn’t happened in church. Or at least JD hoped not! Vin seemed far more spiritual than religious, but JD knew he’d already be awake and wouldn’t mind sharing the sunrise with his friends. Chris and Ezra were the two wildcards; JD wasn’t about to place odds on their arrival, or on their faith.

For his own part, JD hadn’t been to church since he left Boston. His last Easter service had been with his mother, sitting in the back pews, looking at all the rich folks dressed in their finest. His finest couldn’t begin to compete.

He didn’t understand that part of it – the getting dressed up to go to church. As he understood it, God knew what you looked like from the inside, so what did it matter what you wore? Seemed to him that people dressed to impress one another more than God, but his mother had insisted that they always look their best for Sunday services, and he had always done his best to please her. How she kept her faith, he never understood.

Right up to the very end, she never held a grudge, never blamed anyone for their circumstance, was always thankful for every little thing that came their way. And that was damned little enough. She had worked like a dog her entire life, and it still wasn’t enough to earn the kind of life she had wanted for him. All that work and sacrifice for nothing.

JD was sure Josiah would have something to say about that. He always did. Had something to say about everything, as if he had all the answers. Although, for a man who had studied God his entire life, it sure didn’t seem that he was any nearer to the answers than any of the rest of them.

Heck, JD wasn’t even certain of the questions.

His mother used to read to him from the Bible, the New Testament mostly, parables and miracles and whatnot. It all seemed so very far removed from the things he knew, the world he lived in. So, JD tried to live by principles of kindness and fairness, protecting the weak, upholding what was right, even if that was hard to determine at times. And wasn’t that what it was all about?

He knew there were people who looked down on them, on him and his friends, like he’d been looked down on his whole life, but JD couldn’t see how they way they were living was any worse than anyone else’s. Actually, come to think of it, he’d seen more genuine selflessness and honor among his six heathen friends than he’d ever seen from those rich people in their fancy costumes back home.

If being honest wasn’t good enough, then what was the point of it all?

He’d heard fire and brimstone preachers tell an entire congregation of people that they were all sinners, each and every one of them, surely doomed to hell unless they repented of their evil ways. JD had always listened, and had turned to look at the faces of those around him, wondering just what awful things they’d done in their lives to deserve surefire damnation.

If they lived lives anything like his, then he couldn’t begin to imagine how they could be called wicked. The poor lived day to day, struggling just to live, and the wealthy weren’t so much cruel to them as just indifferent. He imagined some were good Christians at heart, perhaps even most of them, but they moved in such different circles, he couldn’t really say.

And then there were the strange foreigners in their black suits and hats with the long curls by the sides of their faces. They always seemed so dour and removed. They were of another faith, his mother told him, an older one from Israel, and they pretty much kept to themselves. He’d read the Old Testament, so he understood the differences between Jews and Christians, and he knew they would be celebrating this day too. Doing things he’d never done, but that they seemed to think were just as important. Things they were as certain would lead them to salvation as those preachers were certain would lead them to damnation.

How was it that if the Jews came first, and Jesus was a Jew, that all those practicing Jews were going to Hell? And what about all the people’s that came before that, before Moses and Abraham, and then a whole lot of names begat by other people who begat more people. Dang, but that part of Scripture was boring.

It seemed to him that everybody he read about, and everybody he knew were all looking for the same thing. And if that was the case, then how was it that no one seemed to find it? Religion was a complicated thing.

Yet, here they were, on their horses at the crack of dawn, riding to some spot of land that Josiah had said was just right. Just right for what, he hadn’t said, but if everybody else was going, then JD would too. He owed them at least that. Besides, it wouldn’t be right to leave Josiah out there all by himself. And it really was a beautiful morning.

+ + + + + + +

Whoo-ee. Just look at that sunrise. That is a right beautiful sight. I know I don’t talk to you much, God. I figure you’ve got enough folks yammerin’ at ya without me joinin’ in, but I hope you won’t mind me talking for a little while.

Buck didn’t dislike mornings; he just preferred evenings. He preferred the company to be found at night, the entertainment. He loved the feeling of being able to put a day to bed, knowing that he’d done his job, and then being able to put other things to bed as well. But every now and then, he appreciated getting out of bed before dawn, taking in the world around as it started to stir.

Years past, he and Chris would be up before it was light, taking care of the horses, sharing a cup of coffee and the silence that came with not being quite awake. They’d sit and watch the dawn, bright and bellicose, and watch the last coyote jog a path across the land, rabbit hanging crooked in her jaws, going back to her little ones hidden somewhere safe. It was at those times that Buck truly felt blessed.

I ain’t spoke to ya much in a while. Got a lot on my mind this past year. Seeing Chris again and joinin’ up with these boys. Loco every one of ‘em. Surely your hand has to be in that, Lord, cause ain’t no way the seven of us could have found one another on our own. And if’n ya don’t mind, I’d like to thank you for helping Chris all you have. Specially sending Vin his way. Reckon you know what I mean, but I’d thought I’d mention it anyway.

He’d never say anything to either one of them, but Buck was sincerely thankful that he no longer had to deal with Larabee all by himself. Vin surely was a blessing, though a mite scruffy one, but he seemed to have a handle on Chris, and Chris was hard enough to handle during the best of times. Hard to understand, hard to get to know, and Buck knew him better than any of them. Chris had his own rules, his own way of living, a sort of warped ‘let others do unto themselves so that it saves me the trouble’ way of looking at life.

Buck’s outlook was simpler, more tolerant. Granted, his tolerance gave out when it came to those who’d take advantage of women, but otherwise, he knew a man was likely to catch more flies with honey then vinegar. Speak softly, wear a smile, and if that doesn’t work, then the gun on his hip would.

I take what ya throw at me, God, and try to make some good out of it one way or another. I try not to complain, try to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves, so I hope you can forgive me for all the extra attention I give the ladies. You made ‘em, after all, and I just can’t see letting all that beauty go to waste. I know there something written somewhere about God-given talents and using your gifts for good. No offense, but I always figure that’s exactly what I am doing.

This dawn now, this is something wonderful. But it ain’t got nothin’ on a beautiful woman and the feel of a warm … well, you get the picture. Hell, you made the picture. Oops, pardon my language. Don’t reckon it’s right to swear during prayer.

I know I don’t understand you most of the time, why you do what you do, why you let happen the things that happen, but I try to live according to the conscience you’ve given me, and I hope that’s good enough. Shit happens to people … Darnit, there I go again. Sorry, Lord. Stuff happens to people all the time that don’t have nothing to do with you or what you’ve got planned, I’m sure. So I’m not one to second guess you. I figure you can do your job better than I could, so I mostly try to stay out of your way.

Buck always looked at religion as something people did more than believed. He knew the basic tenants of faith, hope, and love, and figured those things were what people believed, with or without religion. He looked at faith as something people either lived or didn’t, more of a general guide than any hard and fast rule. Hope was a burden, mighty tough to carry at times, and sometimes damned elusive when a man was most looking for it. Love, however – he figured he had that one down good. He understood it, and hoped that what he lacked in the other two he made up for with the third.

There was plenty little of it to go around for most folks, so he reckoned he was picking up the slack. Josiah was right. Love should be a spiritual experience.

He looked across his shoulder at JD and smiled. Their fates were sealed the day Chris decided to let him stay on at the Indian village. Buck still bore the scar from that, but he didn’t regret it. The kid had sand, he’d give him that. More balls than brains most of the time, but heck, he’d been the same way at that age, only he’d had sense enough to dress better.

JD, now, he looks like he’s awful deep in thought over there. Don’t you go giving him more’n he can handle, you hear? He’s young and has a lot to learn, and I just ask that I can be there for him. I don’t have to tell you how much he means to me, and I’d appreciate it if you’d keep me around long enough to see him buy a new hat. Longer than that, if I can ask. He’s strong and has a good heart, so don’t you go about trying to break it. Let me carry him when he’s weak, Lord, and any time you need me to take a bullet for him, you just let me know.

Buck cleared his throat, and his mind of such sappy thoughts, and reached back for his canteen. Uncorking it with his thumb and taking a swallow, he nudged it into JD’s ribs, and with a nod of thanks, JD followed suit.

Buck was glad the kid wasn’t talking, seemed to be enjoying the morning for what it was, the stillness for being complete. This was how it should be, this morning. Calm, clear, just getting bright. A grouse got spooked from its bush and squawked away on their right, stirring up dust. JD handed back the canteen with another nod, and they picked up the pace, urging their mounts into a smooth trot.

And Buck smiled. The breeze across his skin, the new warmth of dawn on his face; it felt good to be alive.

+ + + + + + +

Chris glanced at his pocket watch then peeled back a corner of the curtains in his room. Town seemed quiet enough, as it should, at this hour. Still, somebody ought to stay, watch out in case something should happen. At least he used that as his excuse.

He knew what Josiah was doing, knew why he was doing it, and Chris wanted no part of it. But, damnit, it didn’t help that he had heard even Ezra get up and around and go downstairs about ten minutes earlier. Even Ezra.

He knew no one would say anything to him if he didn’t show, except maybe JD, but he could glare JD into silence, or get Buck to keep the kid out of his way. He knew he shouldn’t feel obligated to join them, but he did, and if nothing else, that was the reason he was still standing around shirtless in his sock feet.

Anger didn’t fit what he was feeling. Resentment was closer, but he didn’t want to think about it much.

Sarah was the one who made a habit of going to church, though it was more than just habit to her. She was the one who taught Adam his prayers, showed him how to fold his little hands. She hadn’t been raised in any kind of church, and yet it was vitally important to her that Adam experience what that was like. Chris had been raised in a big Protestant family, but he hadn’t darkened the door of a church in years before he met her. That changed, and he went to service regularly with her, admiring her unshakable faith, her simple conviction that there was loving God who watched out for all his children. Things that reminded him of home.

He had been so close to believing, so close to seeing in her and in their son proof of God’s love writ large.

Chris heaved a sigh and slumped back down on the bed, eventually reclining, one arm bent across his head, one leg hanging off the bed, foot flat on the floor.

He was too old to be swayed by religion, by the various conflicting, bickering arguments amongst people of ostensibly the same faith. People were people, and if life had taught him anything, it was that people will find a way to fight over anything with or without any good reason. They could all go kill each other off, and it wouldn’t do one damn thing to prove which side was right. And if God could allow that, then Chris didn’t have any use for Him or his devout followers.

If God could allow the innocent to die, then Chris figured he could do just as well without Him and His rules. Chris knew it wasn’t just about rules. There were more rules in the Bible about loving thy neighbor and not judging one another than any comments about the fiery hell that preachers so loved to shout about. So why was it that the two most loving, giving people he knew had been swallowed up in flames?

At first, he figured it was a punishment for him, for all the things he’d done when he was younger. Some sort of divine retribution. Time and anger and plenty of alcohol taught him that it didn’t have one damn thing to do with him or how he’d lived his life.

Either way, he decided that it was proof that God either didn’t give a shit or just didn’t exist.

His gun was the only truth he’d ever lived by or understood, and that suited him just fine. Strange then, that day Travis had been shot and asked him what he believed in. Telling him that getting shot gets your attention, makes you question what you believe. Strange that from Travis’ point of view, Chris believed in more than most people.

If he only knew.

Not letting the wicked go unpunished, protecting those who couldn’t protect themselves – these things had nothing to do with faith. He didn’t need God to know the difference between right and wrong. To know the difference in what it does to a man to see his family murdered. And where were all those good God-fearing people when Mrs. Potter’s husband was gunned down? That’s right, they were the ones telling him and his friends that they should stay out of it and let a murderer go free. Hypocrites.

Travis was wrong. Getting himself shot never made Chris question much. It was others getting shot that made him take action. It was these six other men in his life that made him take stock, their lives much more precious to him than his own. And to a man, they all regarded him as their leader; they looked to him, respected his judgment and his opinions. Wasn’t that just fucking hilarious.

Buck had always done that, been like that, but the others – there really wasn’t any logical explanation for that. Being fast with a gun and holding to the belief that you shouldn’t shoot no one in the back didn’t make him no saint. Didn’t make him fit to lead a group of peacekeepers, of all things, in this out-of-the-way nowhere that they called home. That he’d once embraced as home.

And yet, somehow, their trust in him, their faith in him kept him honest. Kept him sober more often than he would like. His responsibility to this town and these generally ungrateful, ignorant people made him a better person than he’d been in years. Maybe made him the person Sarah would have wanted him to be. Though he didn’t like to think about that.

The sun was coming up. Damnit.

He needed to be out there. He wouldn’t be welcoming the day with a glad cry, wouldn’t be giving thanks for the Son of God and His sacrifice on this day two thousand years ago. It wasn’t a sacrifice that he understood, that any father would have made willingly, not for any number of people. But Josiah seemed to understand it, and in his own way, Vin seemed to understand it too. Everything was so simple to Vin that most people thought he wasn’t very smart. And that worked so much in Vin’s favor that Chris never tried to convince anybody different. He just wished things were as straightforward for him.

Rolling himself off the mattress, he snatched a shirt from a chair and tossed it over his shoulder. Getting into his boots took seconds, buckling his gun to his hips took not much longer, and he left his room, shrugging into his shirt as he descended the steps.

Buck would be there, which meant so would JD. A stranger pairing he’d never found, but they were as close as any brothers, and Chris was happy to see them. He was happy that Buck was taking care of JD exactly as he had taken care of Adam. He was being big old lovable, ornery, predictable Buck, and Chris was glad the man had someone else to look after. At least the hole in Buck’s heart could be filled.

Josiah and Nathan would be there, of course. That was an unusual duo in its own right, and they’d known each other far longer than either was telling, but Chris let it lie. It was like him and Buck. They’d known each other forever, and it showed. Josiah had lost more faith than Chris had ever had, and Nathan never discussed it one way or the other. Maybe he went about it in private, the way it should be, whereas Josiah seemed to this that he owed God some sort of enormous apology. Maybe he did. He never talked about his past any more than the rest of them.

Therein lay their strength. It was like wiping the slate clean, the day the joined forces to save that Indian Village. And no one asked questions after that. Except of Ezra

There was a living contradiction in terms, and Chris still hadn’t quite forgiven him, though the others had. Evidently he was going to be there, though, and Chris couldn’t figure why. The only deity he openly acknowledged was money. But, as he’d said himself, he’s in it for the laughs if nothing else.

Yeah. Chris would like to use that excuse. He’d like to use that as an excuse why he found himself saddling his horse at this hour.

All excuses aside, it just felt wrong that he should shun them just because he was bitter. Chris had made enough stupid decisions in his life; this pettiness of spirit was beneath him. He shouldn’t shut them out just because they were trying to get in.

He rode off at a gallop.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra didn’t care what day it was, it was still on un-godly hour to be awake.

Yes, you heard me up there. Un-Godly. I know what day it is, but couldn’t you convince Josiah to celebrate it starting at noon? I know you talk to him, you ought to have some sway, some influence in his decision making.

Ezra tipped back a shot of whiskey from his flask and shuddered as it went down. He normally had coffee with his alcohol first thing in the morning, but if he was going to have to sit on a rock somewhere and listen to the sermon he was sure to have to endure, then he was not going to suffer it unfortified.

Beneath him, Chaucer tossed his head and complained. Even the horse was questioning the hour.

I know it is said that where two or three are gathered, there also shall you be. Won’t that be amusing, you in our midst. A former preacher and a former slave, an former bounty hunter and notorious gunslinger, a kid playing sheriff and the man playing his big brother, and then me. I’m sure the last of us are all former something, but I wouldn’t begin to hazard a guess. I’m certain that were you to appear suddenly in our midst, we would all spontaneously catch fire and be burned to a crisp. It is a wonder that our mere association doesn’t bring about this same effect, given our collective sins. No doubt, it doesn’t put me in your good graces that I swindled a large following of your faithful out of their hard-earned cash. A lot of it, I might add.

Ezra straightened his posture and checked the crease of his pants. He had taken time the previous evening to brush his jacket free of all traces of dust, and had polished his boots to a stiff shine. If he was being forced to participate in whatever Josiah had planned, then at the very least he would look the part. His part. He wasn’t sure what that part was, but he was going to do his best to be prepared, and a gentleman always looks his best.

That was circuitous logic at best, but semantics always had been his forte. He could recite scripture with the best of them, could use it to defend or rebuke any manner of actions, could talk his way into and out of any given religious argument, but was careful never to choose sides. There was safety in the middle, in being able to know how to defend yourself and emerge with a clear conscience.

My mother would faint to see me now, up at this hour, riding somewhere surely uncomfortable and barren, to share in stiff camaraderie with these men that I have grown to call friends. I know they won’t be expecting to see me, which is mostly why I am making certain that I appear. They have no need for me, I recognize, and I have no need for them. Not at all. So it will be amusing to see their faces light up in surprise that I have decided to join them.

He tried to laugh, but found he lacked the inspiration; his inner rationale wasn’t the least bit funny.

What was funny was how his notion of conscience had changed so drastically in the past year. He found himself much more solidified in his beliefs than he ever had. No one ever asked him, and he never shared, but he was starting to understand his friends a little better, and in so doing, understand himself, believe in himself.

It still irritated him to no end that they didn’t seem to trust him, didn’t believe that he was more than he appeared. That was his own fault, he knew, but shouldn’t his actions account for something?

Heh. After all, isn’t that what it reads in your Good Book? Faith, if it hath not works, is dead. Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Aren’t right actions proof of said faith? Not that I’ve ever been accused of being a believer. But haven’t I done enough yet to earn their trust?

He didn’t know what more he could do to prove them wrong, didn’t know how far he would be expected to go before they trusted him, and didn’t know why on earth it mattered. He had grown to accept that there wasn’t much more to him than the meticulous pretense he maintained, but at times, he wished for some small sign of appreciation, some tiny gesture of faith tossed his way.

Now, I know you and I are hardly what anyone would call on speaking terms, but you and I both know that I know you exist. In what form you exist is very much up for debate. We both know that I don’t pay any heed to the arguments of man, seeing as how I can out argue most of them. I know all the tricks and the loopholes. Hell, I invented some of them, and I’ve taken advantage of all the others. So, where precisely does that leave me in your grand scheme of things? It leaves me in this, this poor, struggling, dusty, uncivilized town associating with barbarians.

Grand schemes Ezra had many, and he did not suffer under the delusion that God had any part in them. The only thing he knew was that at some time during the past year he had grown fond of these ill-bred, even boorish - certainly boring – townsfolk, and he had grown even more fond of his friends. He kept thinking there was something in the water, other than dirt.

He had lived longer in Four Corners than anywhere in his adult life, and he had closer associations here than at any other time in his life, period. There must certainly be some magic at work there, something larger than himself that kept them together. It irked him that he no longer felt the urge to swindle them, to return to a way of life his mother still led. Lord only knew why at his age he was having a change of heart.

Yes, Lord, since according to Josiah, you seem to know everything, why is it that I find myself having regular crises of conscience for the first time in my life? Why do I invest all my time and energy protecting people who scorn me keeping company with those who mistrust me? If I am finally losing my mind, this is a cruel, cruel way of letting me know. Then again, it is better than weeping sores or rendering me blind, so I suppose I should be grateful. Is that the lesson? Gratitude? It doesn’t help that you are so damnably silent all the time. Most annoying.

Swallowing another mouthful of whiskey, he slid the flask back into his jacket pocket and smoothed the fabric to lie impeccably against his ribcage.

Whatever the purpose of this little sunrise get together, it was a most spectacular sunrise. He couldn’t remember the last time he chose to observe one voluntarily. And as he rounded a shoulder of rock, he spotted Buck and JD in the distance. He knew their hoses if nothing else, but he kept his pace, not hurrying to catch up. JD was probably talking non-stop, and Buck would no doubt make several well-earned jibes concerning Ezra’s getting out of bed before noon.

He wondered at Chris not riding with them. And then he wondered why it was suddenly very important whether Chris was coming. That gave him pause. He reined Chaucer to a halt and looked behind him.

Damnit all to hell. Why does any of this matter? It’s not like I celebrate Christmas or the Ascension, or the Assumption of the Virgin. It isn’t as if I attend a worship service, ever. It isn’t as though I haven’t spent my entire life on my own, taking care of myself, not having any ties to anyone or anything. Damnit.

He turned around and headed back toward town.

+ + + + + + +

“Sun’s almost up.” Nathan was sitting, back against an old weathered tooth of stone, crown filed smooth by wind and rain, his head turned toward the rising sun as he listened to Josiah move about beside him.

Shortly, the big man lowered himself to the ground and sat cross-legged in the center of the open shelf, his meditation ‘rock,’ an out-thrust lip of granite on the rim of a shallow valley. A gray rill scuttled across the pebbles on the stony floor, burbling between the reeds, winding its way to join a larger river out of sight beyond the horizon. It’s broken surface reflected dancing peaks of light and little cavities of darkness, wind agitating the water where the rocks failed to do so. Winter thaw had come and gone; soon Spring rains would fill the basin again, only to be emptied again by the heat of summer.

Such was the way of things.

A finch skimmed the surface and landed in the rushes. His fluttering, flutelike song made Josiah smile. “Yep,” he rumbled in response.

“Who do you think’ll show?”

“Not my place to say. I extended the invitation. It’s up to other hands than mine to guide the way.”

Nathan grinned and shook his head. As if God would have any better luck directing these men than Josiah did. Then again, there were many things about his friends that defied human rationale.

“You planning to give a sermon?”

“Nope. Reckon that’s the only preachin’ I need.” Josiah extended a large hand towards the fingernail of sun creeping over the brink of the earth. “The Heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament showeth the work of His hands. Psalm 19. I’ll save my preachin’ for later at church. Folks have asked, and I’ve agreed, and you’re welcome there, as always. But this, this is more eloquent than I could ever be. I wasn’t joking, you know.” He paused and directed his clear blue eyes on his friend, then reclined on his side, staring down into the valley. “I do look for the daily confirmation of the hand of God in all things.”

“And do you ever find it?” Nathan looked at him then, more than a touch of laugher in his voice.

“Ever, yes. Daily, no. Each man struggles, Nathan, but the way I see it, the whole point of the Gospel is that we don’t have to struggle alone. Guess this is my way of trying to tell that to the others, if they haven’t figured it out by now. And if we can break bread out here, just the seven of us, taking in the sunrise on the day the Son rose, then maybe they’ll know they ain’t alone.”

Nathan nodded. He understood.

He knew Josiah’s struggles were half of his own making, half of his father’s, and for a man who no longer professed belief in the Christian God, he sure went out of his way to live as if he did. And that was a damn sight better than those who professed the faith and never lived it. Nathan also understood that everyone probably thought he still believed, or did believe, or practiced some religion he’d learned as a child, but the truth of it was that he gave up long ago. Gave up on everything but what he could do with his own two hands.

Josiah prayed for him, told him he did, and for that Nathan was thankful. He was thankful for the friendships he’d made, for his contribution to the lives around him, but he’d long ago lost that childlike faith that Josiah still displayed from time to time. A trust in someone who wouldn’t let mankind struggle alone.

“You gone to see Hannah?”

“Will later. The sisters will see she’s included in their Matins. They still give her the Sacrament every day even though she doesn’t know what it is.”

“And you let ‘em?”

“Not my place to say what’s in her soul.” Josiah sat up, frowning at Nathan, then frowning at the stone beneath his feet. “I curse my father every day for what he did to her, and curse myself even more for letting it happen. But I won’t stand between her and God. And on the slim chance that God can be found in a small white wafer, I won’t stop them from giving it to her. I’ve seen proof of God in stranger places.”

“I’ve seen proof of the Devil in more.”

“So have I, brother,” he said quietly, a shadow edging into his voice, “In my own heart most of all.”

Nathan nodded again. He could see the worry creeping across Josiah’s face, and the sorrow that always followed. Of all their number, he was the only one who knew Josiah’s past, and he respected that the man’s demons were his own. Each man had them, and if rebuilding a church was his way of exorcising them, so be it.

Indeed, he had seen stranger things. He’d seen people die when they should have lived, and people live when they should have died. Nathan didn’t blame God for either. He simply understood that some men wanted to live more than others, and some continued to live even when they didn’t think they deserved it. Of those two, he knew Josiah was the latter.

A low whistle preceded the call, “Vin comin’ in.”

Nathan and Josiah smiled, but not to each other. They just smiled, and kept watching the sunrise. Vin joined them, sitting opposite Nathan on the other side of the flat rock. He placed his canteen beside him, nodding to each of them, each of them nodding in return.

“Buck and JD ain’t far behind. Case you were wonderin’.”

“Thank you brother Vin.”

“Welcome.” Vin stretched out his legs in front of him, crossing them at the ankles, and setting his hat on his knees. The breeze felt like fingers in his hair, the sound of the water like music. He’d be doing this on his own, most likely, but he was glad for the company. Mostly he was just glad.

Minutes later, Buck and JD could be heard coming up along the path, JD more than Buck. He was pointing out the other horses, as if Buck couldn’t see for himself, and asking why this rock was so special. Buck said he didn’t know, and JD asked why he didn’t know, and Buck said he wasn’t Josiah’s keeper, and Vin grinned. Yep, this morning was just like any other.

“Mornin’ Vin, Josiah, Nate.” JD took off his hat and settled down in the middle of them, looking at each of them expectantly. “So what’re we doin’?”

“We were enjoying peace and quiet,” Josiah replied, a wry smile creasing his face.

Nathan chuckled, and Vin kept grinning.

JD continued, either ignorant or just undeterred. “You know how many of the others are coming?”


“I didn’t see Chris around but I heard Ezra in his room. Do you think they’ll make it?”

“I don’t rightly know, son. But you talking about it won’t make it happen.”

“I think that’s his way of telling you to shut your trap, JD.” Buck elbowed JD as he sat down, and JD elbowed him back.

“I’m just askin’.”

“Yeah, I think we figured that much out for ourselves,” Buck whispered loud enough to scare the birds congregating on the water.

JD pouted as the others laughed quietly, Vin patting Buck on the shoulder by way of welcome, Buck tipping his hat at Josiah and Nathan who nodded in reply. They were still waiting, for what JD couldn’t reckon, and after about three minutes of silence, he whispered again.

“So, what’re we doin’?”

“Having our faith tested,” Nathan replied at the same time as Josiah could be heard muttering, “Learning patience and forbearance.”

“Ain’t ya supposed to sacrifice something on Easter,” Vin asked, tipping his head at JD, and Buck cuffed the kid with his hat.

Further discussion, and perhaps human sacrifice, was averted by the sound of horses approaching. As if on cue, Josiah unrolled the small cloth-bound parcel at his feet and began dividing the plain white loaf it contained. Vin grinned, understanding the symbolic gesture, and shut his eyes, relishing the feel of the climbing sun on his skin.

“You don’t actually expect me to sit on the ground do you?”

“Shoot, Ez, we didn’t expect you to show up.” Buck smiled angelically, looking over his shoulder.

Chris, still sullen, pushed past Ezra and took up position next to Vin, who scooted a little to make room. He didn’t even open his eyes, just knew Chris would be there, and moved accordingly. Ezra remained standing until it was obvious that no one cared whether he stood or sat, and he plopped down next to Buck, giving him the evil eye.

Josiah passed out portions of bread, nodding to each man, some of them muttering thanks, some of them just nodding and accepting what was offered.

And at last the deep hood of night drew back from the bald-headed sun, and long shadows leapt out of hiding, trees becoming sundials. Water becoming glass.

Somewhere in the distance, a hawk cried.

A few minutes passed, wind and water and bright sunshine, and Josiah finally said, “Thanks. Thanks for coming to church with me.”

Nathan reached over and patted him on the shoulder. Vin and Buck tipped hats they weren’t wearing, but the meaning was clear. Chris said nothing and continued to chew his bread in silence. JD, confused, said ‘you’re welcome,’ though he didn’t know for what. And Ezra looked like he was in on some secret that he wasn’t sharing.

“I ain’t been to church since I was a kid,” Vin spoke quietly, in between bites. “Reckon this is the best one I’ve ever seen. Thanks, ‘Siah. I appreciate the invitation.” He knew what Josiah was saying, knew that there were places all around that most people wouldn’t call holy because they were too busy to take the time and really look. Really listen. In his mind, no manmade sanctuary could compare. In this place, in this moment, maybe the Christian God and the Indian Spirit could nod to one another and agree to share the same space. Just like the sun and the moon. Just like these seven men.

“This is right beautiful, Josiah. I see why you come here.” Buck reached past JD to pat Josiah on the back. “And maybe, if you don’t mind, I could come here from time to time.”

“You’re welcome anytime, Buck. Long as you don’t bring any women,” he added slyly, knowing that even Buck wouldn’t go that far.

“So this is where you come to pray?” JD was blinking into the light, chewing slowly on more than just bread.

“Yes, son, it is.”

“Hmmmm. It feels right, you know? The seven of us coming here. Just us, and no one else. You know?” It made more sense to him than trying to fit in with all the other people in town, trying to say the right things and look the right way. “Yeah.” He finished eating and wiped his hands on his trousers, then leaning back on his elbows to watch the sun rise between his feet. “That was good bread Josiah.”

Things were simpler out here, like this. Just them. Like maybe knowing all the right answers wasn’t what it was all about after all. Maybe it was just the looking, and the being still enough to see.

“I must admit, it does imbue one with a sense of peace, so much so that I am not inclined to begrudge the loss of my feather bed. I wouldn’t do this often, mind you, but I, too, am thankful for the invitation. Next time I’ll bring more blankets.”

“Yeah, next time.” JD smiled, liking the sound of that. “Glad you came Ezra.”

“Yeah,” Buck agreed quietly.

Out of the corner of his eye, JD saw Vin wrap a long arm around Chris and squeeze his shoulder. “S’good to have ya here, Chris. Wouldn’t be the same without you.”

Chris said nothing, and Vin didn’t drop his arm. They just sat there, backs supporting that rock, staring off at the horizon and the glittering water.

Nathan’s eyes were closed and Josiah was just smiling, a distant, complacent smile like he was a million miles away. Soon Buck fell back on his elbows, and he too shut his eyes. Ezra folded his legs in front of him and rested his forearms on his knees, nodding about something he still wasn’t sharing.

JD figured that it was alright then to say a little prayer of thanks. He did it silently, of course. But he figured everyone else was talking to God in their own way. He figured maybe that was the point.

And it really was a beautiful sunrise.