(The next scene would probably be Fowler learning that his men got wiped out and only managed to take down one of the Seven. He would not be happy. Then would come the next scene with Josiah and Ezra...)
The night was growing chill as Josiah finished the small fire and leaned back against the rock behind him to watch the stars and wait. The moon had risen, full and bright; its soft glow illuminated the entire valley below. His eyes traveled to the shallow pit in which Fowler's men had been hastily interred; the graves, covered only with rocks and gravel, would not stand long against the predatory beasts of the desert. To which Josiah could only add, Good.
His gaze wandered up to the stars, which now blazed against the blackness of the desert sky. There seemed to be millions of them, adding their light to the silver glow of the moon. It was an inspiring sight, for any who cared to be inspired; but Josiah just felt tired and old. He closed his eyes and thought, Lord, give us the strength to do this one task, so that Chris can finally have peace. And a little for the rest of us wouldn't hurt either.
He looked over at Ezra, who still seemed to be asleep; the rhythmic motion of his chest gave evidence to the fact that he was still alive, if barely. The night's chill had led Josiah to cover his friend with a blanket; now he wondered absently if that had been necessary, as it looked like Ezra would never awake again to feel the cold.
But as Josiah watched, Ezra stirred, his eyes fluttering open and blinking against the fire's glow. The preacher rose and moved quickly to his side.
As Josiah crouched down, Ezra saw him and gave a weak, wry smile. "Still hovering by, I see."
"Like to be where I'm needed," Josiah replied. "Nathan left some of that medicine. Want it?"
Ezra's expression turned serious; he frowned, then shook his head.
"Not at this moment, I believe." He paused; something danced across his eyes as he looked at the ex-preacher.
"Is there something else you'd like?"
The other man gazed at him for a moment, took some deep breaths, then looked away. "Mr. Sanchez, as a man of the cloth, may I assume you are empowered to hear confessions?"
Josiah started a bit, surprised, then considered the question. "Well, I wasn't a Catholic priest, but I'm willin' to hear what you got to say, if it'll ease your mind any."
Ezra looked back at him, his face dubious.
"Man ought to die with an easy mind, Ezra," Josiah prodded; he could tell there was something on the dying man's soul.
Ezra eyed him keenly. "Do you swear these words shall reach your ears only?"
God, he's being dramatic, Josiah thought, but he nodded, wondering what could be bothering Ezra so much. He moved closer.
Ezra looked away, swallowed. "Mr. Sanchez, do you believe in Hell?"
The other man pursed his lips; it was an honest question, deserved an honest answer. "Frankly, Ezra, what I've seen on this earth makes it hard to believe there could be anything worse off of it. But I've seen men do things that make me wish awfully hard for divine justice somewhere, and if it doesn't happen here, I reckon it happens someplace else. I would hope so."
"Oh." Ezra's response was somewhat shaky; he seemed to be disquieted by this philosophy. He looked away again, formed his words with hesitation. "Well, you see, sir, I-" he stopped, swallowed again-"this...situation...has forced me to confront the possibility of spending eternity... in the place you've described."
Josiah digested this. Ezra was afraid he was going to Hell.
"Funny, Ezra, you never struck me as a religious man. I didn't think you believed in Hell."
"Yes, well," his companion said, his voice affecting a laugh," it's hard not to dwell on such matters when your demise is close by instead of years away."
Josiah put a comforting hand on Ezra's shoulder. "I wouldn't worry," he said calmly. "I haven't seen you do anything to earn the flames of the abyss."
Ezra turned his eyes back up to him, and Josiah was taken aback by their bitter gleam.
"That's true, my friend, you haven't," Ezra said, his expression grim, "but my life has been a fairly long and sinful one, the nature of which you men know nothing about. The deceit, the swindling, the pursuit of pleasure...all add up to a very long, black mark, which I''m afraid must be accounted for.'
The haunted look in his eyes had deepened to recognizable fear; it pained Josiah to see it in his friend's face, especially since there was so little time to erase it.
"I have even used the Lord's name in my quest for gain," Ezra continued, his tone increasingly anxious, and shook his head "The night before me looks very dark, my friend."
Josiah pursed his lips. "What if there is no hell, Ezra?"
Ezra laughed; it was an ugly, reproachful sound. "That, sir, would present me with a bleak picture as well. What earthly reward could I hope for, having spent my life attempting to profit noone but myself? Years spent at gambling tables and con games, and only $500 to show for it. One might even call it a waste of time."
Josiah cocked his head. "I sure hope you don't think the past three years were a waste of time, Ezra. I don't."
The dying man turned his face back to Josiah; its expression had softened to a more sincere form. "Mr. Sanchez, the past three years were the only period of my life that I didn't heed the devil's call. Well," he reconsidered," perhaps occasionally I paid him a visit, but if my misspent existence ever had any worth, it was during that time. But three years is a small spot against the much larger blot which stands against me."
Silence fell; Ezra had worn himself out with talking, and the pain from the wounds had increased sharply. He'd need the medicine soon, but desperately wanted to conclude this before slipping into the darkness for, probably, the last time.
"Well, Ezra," Josiah finally said, his voice soft and thoughtful, "I can't promise you there's no Hell, but I feel pretty safe in sayin' that if there is you aren't bound for it. The Lord forgave Matthew, who loved money 'bout as much as you did, and he turned his life around and gave it to the service of others as you did, so I reckon you got a pretty good shot at missin' the fiery pit."
Here Josiah gripped Ezra's shoulder again, looked into his eyes with all honesty, "I've seen enough bad men to know a good one when I see it, Ezra, and you're a good man. Just took you a while to find out, is all. And if I don't survive this ride either, I'll be happy to vouch for you in front of ol' St. Peter himself."
Ezra peered at Josiah intently throughout this exchange; he seemed to take the words to heart. Anyway, some of the fear seemed to leave his eyes.
"Thank you, my friend," Ezra finally said quietly, swallowing again; the pain was rising.
Josiah noticed his expression. "Want your medicine now?"
The other man nodded; he could face the darkness now. "Put a little brandy in it this time, if you'd be so kind. I refuse to die with a bad taste in my mouth."(I have no idea what would come next-if the previous scene were cut for some reason, this next scene would follow the Fowler scene. Otherwise, hmm, I dunno-maybe something back at Four Corners with Mary and Casey. Then would come the following scene with Josiah and Ezra...)
The first pink streaks of dawn were just beginning to cross the horizon as Josiah leaned forward and lazily poked the fire. It had been a long night, with too much time to think. After taking another dose of medicine, Ezra had dropped off quickly, and there seemed to be nothing to do now but wait and watch. The older man sighed, rubbed his head wearily; he'd thought about trying to catch a few winks himself, but didn't want to be unavailable should Ezra awaken and need him. He'd seen men die in the most unimaginable agony, and wanted to spare his friend that torment, if possible.
The fire responded sluggishly, spitting some glowing sparks into the sky; more wood would be needed soon. As he watched them swirl into the cool air, he heard a sudden, startled gasp, and glancing at Ezra saw that the dying man was awake, staring at the sky, an expression of surprise clearly lining his pale face.
Josiah leaned forward quickly, thinking perhaps his comrade was gripped by an hallucination, or had become delirious. Before he could speak, Ezra let out another breath and looked over at the preacher. He didn't appear to be out of his head; he looked - stunned?
Josiah placed a massive hand on his shoulder, hoping to keep him down should he begin thrashing.
"Take it easy," he soothed, his voice deep. Ezra continued to stare at him, eyes wide; one hand trailed up to rub his face as he smiled in what looked like embarrassment.
"My apologies, Josiah," he gasped, laughing a little. "I didn't mean to startle you."
His companion eyed him cautiously. There was something in his eyes that wasn't there before, and he couldn't recognize it.
"Takes a lot to startle me," Josiah said aloud, smiling a bit. "Just worried you'd gone off."
"Oh, no, no," Ezra replied, sighing deeply and stifling a cough. "I was just, um, dreaming."
"Must've been some dream," Josiah observed, reaching over for his canteen. When he looked back at Ezra, he could see the gambler staring at the sky, a puzzled look on his face; his hand was over his mouth, as if he were trying to figure out a deep mystery.
The other man started, looked over. "Hmm?"
Josiah didn't repeat the question, just poured some water into a cup and offered it to him. Ezra looked at it and shook his head. After eyeing him for a moment, Josiah raised an eyebrow and lifted the cup to his own lips.
"Brother, you got somethin' troublin' you."
Ezra didn't respond, still staring somewhere else.
"That wasn't a vision of Hell, was it?"
This got Ezra's attention. He looked at Josiah sharply, then licked his lips.
"Josiah, do you recall some time ago, when we were on the trail to Eagle Bend, and I told you about Golden Grove?"
Josiah cocked his head, knitted his brows in thought. "Yeah-your uncle's farm in the Shenandoah Valley?"
A distant look crept into Ezra's eyes as he nodded.
"Sure, I recollect you mentionin' it. Said you spent some time there as a kid."
"Yes," Ezra murmured, looking back at the lightening sky, trying to remember. "My parents lived there for a spell, before we moved to New Orleans. I swear to you, sir, the most beautiful place on Earth. Their apple orchards in the springtime were a sight to behold. My cousin Sophie and I used to play for hours in there; she was my best friend, the only one of my relations who seemed to give a damn about me. I spent the happiest days of my life on that farm, it broke my heart when we left."
"Hm," Josiah nodded, letting Ezra talk. "What happened to Golden Grove, anyway?"
Ezra took a deep breath. "It didn't survive the war," he said, his voice laden with regret. "My aunt and uncle moved to Richmond, and Sophie married badly-did I tell you her husband went to jail for her murder?"
Josiah shuddered. "Sorry to hear that, Ezra. Was that what you were dreamin' about?"
The other man didn't answer right away, bit his lip.
"It was very strange," he finally muttered, still confused. "It was as if I were there-on the farm, I mean, as it was when I was a child. It was springtime, and I could see Sophie standing on the porch of the house..." he trailed off, drew one hand weakly over his eyes, shook his head. "I can't imagine what made me dream about it, I haven't thought of the place in years."
Josiah shrugged. "Dyin' men often have visions, Ezra. Meanin's different for each."
Ezra looked at him, and said, "I think this one means I need another drink."
Josiah obligingly filled the cup with brandy, put in a little of Nathan's medicine, lifted Ezra up so he could drink it, then eased him back down. The haunted look was gone from his comrade's face, but something else had replaced it, a shadow Josiah knew too well; death was not far off.
"Thank you for staying, Josiah," Ezra finally murmured in the quiet; his eyes had closed again, the strength having poured out of him. "I do hope I have not deprived you of the chance to help Mr. Larabee bring Fowler and his men to justice."
"Don't you worry about that," Josiah replied, rearranging the blanket. "Go on back to dreamin', sounds like it was a pretty nice place to be. We'll take care of the rest."
Ezra didn't reply; he had paled considerably in the past few minutes, his breathing becoming ragged and shallow. Sensing that the death struggle had begun, Josiah placed his hand once more over Ezra's, and waited.
He was there again, standing in the orchard; the branches were bursting with the pink blossoms of springtime, the soft petals showering around him like snowflakes. It's so real, he mused, looking around; everything was the same, the valley stretched out below him, the air was warm and soft, heavily perfumed with country scents. Sunlight drenched the scene, permeating every object; he felt a curious joy, which only puzzled him further. This is one hell of a dream, he thought, touching a tree nearby and feeling its rough texture. The pain and weakness were gone, and he felt like a young man again.
He looked at the house; it was the same small farmhouse as before, and there was Sophie standing again on the porch, a beautiful young woman just as he remembered her, along with some others he didn't recognize, among them a short woman with long brown hair holding the hand of a young boy, another woman standing close by, slim, with thick curly black hair and hazel eyes who looked an awful lot like JD. They were watching him and smiling, waiting for something.
It was so strange, he still felt himself back at the cliff, could feel Josiah's hand on his own; but he was here, too, filled with an urgent expectation of something. As he pondered the question, a soft darkness enveloped him, masking the scene before his eyes. He could feel himself slipping away, it was very calm, rather pleasant really, nothing at all to be afraid of. He could see now that his real fear had been living and dying without purpose, and knew that he had done neither. It had taken a while, but he had managed to do at least a little good with his life. Maybe that would count for something, after all.
He shivered, feeling a sudden shudder run through his body; it was fighting back, a futile struggle, he knew. Josiah's grip on his hand tightened, but that was all he could feel; there was no pain, just a queer sinking feeling, everything slowly winding down. He lapsed into the void, felt a strange sensation of peace flood his body as the blackness grew softer and deeper. As he gently lost consciousness he thought he saw the shadows part far ahead of him, revealing a hint of green, the scent of spring...a remarkable dream indeed, he thought, and faded quietly into the darkness...
...The farm reappeared, seeming more real than before; now it was robed in a light which had no visible source but seemed to come from everywhere, including, oddly enough, himself. He looked up to see those on the porch, who were now coming towards him with smiles of welcome, and knew at once who the people with Sophie were: Sarah, Adam, JD's mother, relatives of the other men. A feeling of indescribable happiness surged through him as he realized that this was real, he was home, and he would never have to leave it again.
Sophie reached him first; they embraced tightly, kissed, she hadn't changed a bit. The others greeted him too; he could feel their gratitude for his friendship to their men. Ezra thought of the others, and his mother, but discovered that among the newfound knowledge he had gained was the realization that they would join him one day, when the violence and bloodshed was over.
He turned shining eyes to Sophie, who returned his smile, gently took her cousin's arm and , with the others following behind, led him into the house.
Josiah watched as the gambler's breathing slowed, grew uneven, eased; after a moment or two, the gentle motion of Ezra's chest slowed, stopped. A soft sigh escaped from Ezra's lips as the body relaxed completely. Josiah sat for a moment, hand still over the cold, motionless hand of his friend, as the soft purple light of morning settled around him.
A peaceful death. Thank you, Lord. He deserved it.
Then he rose to bury the body and follow the others.
+ + + + + + +
The early morning warmth had begun to hint of a hotter day ahead as the five men broke camp and prepared for another hard ride. After spending several hours tracking Fowler, Chris and the others had been forced by the darkness to stop, making their camp on a small flatland bordered by nondescript rocks and brush. Few words had been passed during the dark hours; often the only noise had been the crackle of the campfire and the occasional cries of the desert wildlife. Now the barren landscape was flooded with brilliant sunshine and the sounds of the day; but the men were no more talkative as they packed their gear and saddled up their mounts.
Chris sat apart from them, on a large rock overlooking the wide terrain. A whiskey bottle dangled from one hand; he had been saving it for emergencies, and he figured this sure as hell qualified. The smoke from his cheroot drifted aimlessly in the morning wind as he squinted into the sun, his eyes seeing more than the shimmering landscape.
God damn you, Fowler, he thought, as he took a long pull from the half-empty bottle. You're going to see Hell before you die, if I have anything to do with it.
For three years they had all ridden together, and Chris had unwillingly led them, knowing fully that at best they were hired guns sworn to protect a town from men little worse than themselves, for the most part. They had done it not for glory, or money, or bloodlust, had never even really stopped to find the reason. Maybe it was because none of them had really had anywhere else to go, even though this job seemed, at the most, like a good way to get killed. But they had done their duty, and never complained.
It had not always been easy, Chris mused darkly as he chewed on the cheroot; such a large group could never get along all the time. There had been fights, and disagreements, and the occasional brawl. But some time in those years of blood and lead, a bond had been forged, stronger than any Chris had seen in any group of men. It had not been created quickly or lightly, but through hard work and grit, painfully born of sweat and struggle. They still had their differences, but they also had their history, a long record they could look back on with pride. Even if they all perished on this journey, they would be remembered. Mary and Casey would see to that.
Now one of them was gone, and the tight bond that had been created was destroyed forever, even if the rest of them survived. Chris narrowed his eyes as he stared into the blazing sunshine, bitterly mourning the death of that bond and cursing himself for being so careless as to attach himself to anyone again. He thought of Ezra and felt a familiar burning in his soul, the galling ache of grief for which revenge was the only release. The image of Ezra's limp, blood-soaked body rose in his mind, and he felt the old sensation of rage boil through him, idly wondering how long he could live like this without burning himself alive.
He heard the soft crunch of bootsteps behind him, but didn't turn around; he knew who it was, and kept staring at the brightening desert in front of him.
Vin approached cautiously, although he seemed perfectly relaxed; but his brown eyes watched Chris carefully, hunting for any sign that his presence was not welcome. He detected none, moved closer, and finally perched himself beside the black-clad gunslinger, pulling his hat low against the climbing sun.
"Be ready to move in a coupla minutes," Vin said, scanning the desert. "Reckon we oughta keep headin' west, with the trail."
Chris nodded, following Vin's gaze. "Wait for Josiah. He should be back soon."
The meaning behind those words stabbed deep, and Vin ducked his head before raising his eyes to meet Chris'. "It ain't your fault. Ezra made his choice."
The other man took a deep breath, but didn't move. "I know that. Don't make it any easier." Chris took another pull from the whiskey bottle, the liquid sparkling golden in the radiant sunshine. "Seems I can't keep anybody close to me alive anymore."
Vin eyed him for a moment. Without looking at him Chris proffered him the whiskey bottle, which Vin accepted, taking a short drink from its diminishing contents. After wiping his lips on his sleeve, Vin shook his head.
"Don't reckon we oughta worry about Ezra, Chris. He knowed he wasn't comin' back, an' did what he wanted with the time he had left. Best we can do is make sure he didn't fall for nothin', an' see this through to the end like he wanted."
After a moment Chris looked at him, his eyes glittering in the glare of the sun.
"I don't want nobody else dyin' for me," he said finally, fixing his friend with a piercing stare as he took back the bottle. "Three souls over my head is enough."
Vin returned his look, understanding, his own eyes somber. "Can't make no promises, pard. Reckon we oughta just see what's down the road."
Chris looked away, nodding; there was really no way to predict what would happen, and if the others chose to put themselves in danger he couldn't prevent it. But the fact that they would do so only made the pain worse, and Chris saw nothing but darkness in the bright day growing before them.
After a few moments of silence, Vin rose, brushing the desert dust from his frayed breeches.
"Tell you what, Chris," he said, looking into the sunlight as the other man got to his feet, "I'm gonna kinda miss that ol' hustler."
Chris tugged at his hat, his expression dark, and took a deep breath, expelling it slowly as he gave a short nod. He hardly felt in the mood for eloquence, and the grief and rage inside him had robbed him of that talent anyway; so all he could do was swallow and say in a strangled voice, "Yeah. Me, too."
He began to make his way down the rocks. "Everybody ready to head out?"
"Pert near," Vin replied, following him. "Nathan's packin' up, an' Buck went to look for JD. Kid's takin' this real hard."
Chris nodded, remembering the first time he'd lost a friend. "I know."
+ + + + + + +
Buck sighed in frustration as he scanned the rough landscape, looking for JD. He'd had to trek some ways from camp, and he was beginning to grow nervous; not only might Fowler's men be lying in hiding waiting to ambush him, but also there was the disconcerting possibility that the kid had gotten injured, or attacked, or shot himself.
"JD!" he hollered, scanning the area and fighting the rising anxiety swelling in his gut. After parting with Ezra, the thought of losing JD as well almost caused Buck's heart to stop with dread, even though he'd never admit it to anyone. He had to be around here somewhere-"JD!!"
He stopped, looked around; some distance in front of him he saw a small, familiar figure sitting on a rock on the edge of a field of wildflowers. He sighed with relief and walked up to JD, uttering a silent prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening that the kid was still with them.
"JD, son, what the hell are you doin' out here?" he asked with a tone of irritated concern. "We gotta be movin' out!"
As he neared the young man, Buck could see that he was still plainly shaken by Ezra's death, and felt a pang of sympathy tweak his heart. JD regarded him with swollen hazel eyes and dragged his sleeve across his nose, sniffing loudly.
"'M sorry, Buck," he sighed, blinking. "I just had to think a bit, I guess. It helped when my ma died."
The older man stood for a moment, sad memories flooding his mind of when his own mother died. He'd been young then too, much younger than JD, and scared; he'd run away as well, trying to escape the pain. The anger fell away, and he plopped himself down next to JD, folding his hands and nodding his head.
"That's OK, kid, I understand. Just worried about ya, that's all. Don't take too long."
"Oh, I'm all right," JD said quickly, shaking his head as if to dispel the grief. "I think I got it all outta my system now."
"That's great, kid," Buck noted, not believing him for a second. He looked around. "Real pretty spot you picked."
JD regarded the colorful scene, pursing his lips. "Yeah, we had a field of wildflowers behind the mansion where I grew up. I used to pick them for my ma all the time, they were the only things I could give her. She used to say-" he stopped, bit his trembling lip, his voice becoming unsteady-"she used to say she hoped there was wildflowers in heaven, cause then she'd have something to remember me by until I saw her again."
He sniffed again, ashamed, and dried his eyes on his sleeve.
"Well, that's right pretty, JD," Buck softly assured him after a few moments, staring out over the gently waving field.
JD fell silent, then turned to his friend, an earnest look on his face.
"You believe in heaven, Buck?"
The older man gave him a slightly startled look, then shrugged a bit, scratching his chin as he contemplated the question.
"Good question, kid. Guess I never really thought about it much. Too busy bein' alive to worry about what happens after I'm dead, an' I can tell ya I don't intend to be dead for a long, long time."
JD fiddled with his bowler hat, staring at its battered shape as he turned it in his hands. "Well, you musta wondered. Like when your folks died."
Buck leaned back on his hands and sighed, looking into the sky. "Kid, I gotta honestly tell ya I can't say for certain if there's a heaven or not. I heard preachers talk about it, but I ain't seen too many of 'em doin' what it's s'posed to take to get there."
JD nodded, still examining his hat.
"But," Buck continued, still watching the sky, "I think if we can keep the memory of those we've lost with us, that's a way of seein' that they ain't forgotten, an' I reckon that's as much heaven as we can hope to have for sure."
He looked at JD with an expression far more serious and grave than usual. "You go on rememberin' your ma, an' Ezra, an' anyone else you hold dear who leaves you, kid. That can be their heaven, an' yours too. If there's anything else, well, I s'pose that's just gravy."
The sound of hoofbeats caught their attention; they both sat up and looked to the distance, watching as a lone rider on a dark horse approached the mesa.
"It's Josiah," Buck said, standing up. JD gave a short jump off of the rock, a terrible sadness welling up in his eyes as they remained glued to the lone galloping form. Buck looked at him and gave the boy a consoling pat on the back.
"C'mon, kid. Guess it's time to hit the trail and make Fowler and his boys explore this life after death stuff first hand."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had been stuffing the last of his saddlebags when he heard the pounding rhythm which heralded Josiah's approach. Now he stood, leaning slightly on his horse, watching as the small figure drew closer. If Josiah was coming back, then that would mean that Ezra was dead.
Nathan fought down the feeling of guilt that lapped at the edge of his mind, wishing he could have done more to save Ezra's life. He'd warned Ezra what would happen if he left Four Corners, and never in his life had Nathan been so sorry to be proven right. Still, he thought, at least the gambler had gone out in a blaze of glory, fighting to the bitter end just as he wanted. There was some small comfort in that, anyway, but it did little to ease Nathan's grief; heroic or not, Ezra was still dead, and Nathan could not dispel the foreboding that he would not be the only one of their number to fall.
As Josiah rode up, Nathan could see that he was exhausted; the huge man's eyes were puffy and pink, and his face drooped with weariness. but he still greeted Nathan with a grim smile and a tip of his wide-brimmed hat.
"Brother Nate," he said, nodding as the horse trotted to a stop. Nathan returned the nod, eyeing his friend with concern.
"Hey, Josiah. Get down off that horse an' get some rest now. You look powerful beat."
Josiah slid himself off the horse and thumped to the ground heavily, too tired to hold himself up. He gave the beast a few quick pats and turned to Nathan, his face sad.
"Only the dead may rest today, my friend," he rumbled, patting Nathan's shoulder with a heavy hand. "We have work to do."
Nathan regarded him. "You gonna be dead yourself, you don't at least get some coffee. The work can wait for that, I think."
Josiah nodded and dragged himself over to the smoking campfire, carefully lifting the steaming coffeepot from its battered grate and pouring its contents into a nearby tin. Nathan followed him, keeping a close eye on his friend's movement for any signs of weakness or severe fatigue.
Josiah replaced the pot and hunkered down on a rock, blowing on the hot liquid to cool it. His eyes were thoughtful as he stared over the brim into the desert.
"You OK?" Nathan asked, knowing how hard it must have been on Josiah to witness Ezra's death. The other man eyed him gratefully and nodded.
"I think we have cause to be thankful to the Lord this day, Brother Nate. He saw fit to give our friend a tranquil passing."
Nathan dipped his head, relieved. He'd seen men shot as Ezra had been die in horrible agony, and it eased his mind to know that the gambler hadn't suffered that way. He peered at Josiah.
"He say anythin'?"
The ex-preacher nodded a little, sipping at the cooling brew. "Asked me to write his mother, give her some money he had in his strongbox."
"Huh!" Nathan laughed slightly. "He's gonna be disappointed if there ain't no money in the hereafter. I can see 'im right now, playin' cards with St. Peter for the keys to the Pearly Gates."
His companion smiled at the image, swirling the tin cup in his hand as he talked.
"Yeah, said he had a dream before he died. Saw this farm he lived on as a boy, an' this cousin he was real close to who'd passed away. Sounded real nice."
Nathan pursed his lips, noting the echo of envy in Josiah's voice.
"Y'almost sound jealous," he chided gently, Josiah shrugged.
"Guess I am, in a way. Ezra knows now whether there's a God, an' the rest of us are still wonderin'." he shook his head, a bitter smile spreading across his face. "I was kinda hopin' to find out before I died."
The older man thought for a moment, then took a sharp breath, shaking off his contemplative mood, and drained the cup.
"Well, Nate," he said brightly as he rose from the rock, "While Ezra awaits us in Paradise, our earthly task remains before us, and I for one am itchin' to start it."
"Sounds good to me," Nathan agreed, looking up the hill to see the others coming down to meet them.
Chris arrived first, his face dark despite the brightness of the morning. He nodded at Josiah as Buck, JD and Vin came up quietly behind him.
"Everything taken care of?"
The other man nodded back. "Figured, when this is all over, we'd swing by and collect the body for Maude. She'll probably be wantin' it."
Chris gave a short, curt bob of his head in response, not wanting to surmise aloud what he thought their chances were of any of them surviving this ride. He could not think about the distant future, only what had to be done today.
"Fowler's tracks go west," Vin said, staring in that direction towards a mass of craggy rocks and cliffs. "Reckon that's the way we'll go, too."
Chris looked at them all, feeling that he ought to say something; but as they looked back at him, their faces drawn with grief in the growing daylight, Chris knew that words were useless now. A spirit flowed between them, an unseen connection which allowed them to understand what lay ahead and accept it without reservation, not only for Chris' sake, but for their own too, and Ezra's. As he gazed at his small group, Chris realized that the bond between them had not been destroyed but strengthened, nourished by the blood of their own into something which had become unbreakable. He felt a sense of gratitude to them flood his body, but said nothing, knowing that they all felt it too.
His eyes narrowed in the glare of the sunlight as he removed the cheroot from his mouth and swept their faces with a single gaze. They gazed back, strong in their sorrow, an unspoken vow written in the determined gleam of their eyes. They would end this soon, one way or the other.
Without another word, they mounted up and began riding the trail towards the west.
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