~ CHAPTER 1 ~
Judge Travis met the seven men in the jailhouse. They had asked for the private meeting; so, they could explain the events of the past few weeks. When the judge arrived, he interrupted an already interesting discussion.
"…there's no way the house could've been there," JD stated.
"I'm telling you it was," Chris persisted.
"I have to agree with Chris. I know where the house was located," Ezra insisted, too.
"I don't know, y'all, you were pretty messed up," Buck interjected.
Vin and Josiah remained silent. Josiah watched each man speak his opinion of events. He could not explain the course of the events over the past weeks either.
"I don't understand how any of you recovered from such mortal injuries," Nathan observed.
"It's a miracle," Josiah finally spoke up in a rather quiet tone.
"What are y'all talking about?" Judge Travis asked after standing just inside the doorway for a few minutes.
"Angels," Vin replied in a quiet whisper; it was the first word he uttered in a couple weeks.
"Angels?" Judge Travis questioned, interested at the response.
"Could be," Josiah concluded.
"It's a long story, Judge," Buck offered.
"So, humor me with the details," the judge requested.
"OK," Chris said adjusting himself in his chair, "it all started when Vin, Ezra and I took those six prisoners to the territorial prison like you asked us to. We were going along without any problems…"
~~Flashback to the actual events.~~
"You boys think you can handle them six?" Judge Travis asked Vin, Chris and Ezra.
"Don't worry, Judge, I think the three of us can handle them. For one, they're tied; they have no weapons, and we'll take turns sleeping in order to guard them. No one should have a problem with tiredness or anything," Chris eased the judge's mind.
"Yeah, well, just be careful of the other man we didn't catch," the judge warned.
"No problem, Judge."
They tied the six men to their horses. Vin, Chris and Ezra each took two reins and headed out of town. They traveled for several days without incident. Upon reaching a stream one day, they stopped to fill canteens and wash their hands and faces of the dirt from the trail. Vin looked into the stream as he cupped the water in his hands. He splashed the water on his face and stared in fright at the image reflecting back at him from the water. The image of a beautiful woman reflected back, instead of his own. He thrust his hand back and forth in the water to no avail. The image remained. Frozen in place, he then heard her words: "Beware, the road ahead is dark and deadly!". Vin nearly leaped forward into the stream as he felt a hand on his shoulder. Chris had seen the pale look of fear on his face.
"Are you OK?" Chris asked with concern in his voice and on his face.
'Yeah…yeah…I'm fine," Vin answered rather quickly as he rose and abruptly turned to his horse.
Vin never spoke of the incident, and Chris knew better than to ask. They continued on their way.
The next night they stopped to sleep each of the three men took turns at guarding the men as usual. Chris and Ezra slept first, leaving Vin to an uneventful watch. Next was Chris. He, too, had an uneventful night watching the prisoners. Ezra was last to watch. Everyone had fallen asleep. Ezra amused himself with a game of solitaire when he felt his face go ashen. His body was frozen in fear. The same fear that gripped Vin at the stream. For upon the Queen of Hearts was a Heavenly face of such beauty he had never seen. He instantly dropped the card, as the lovely queen spoke to him: "Beware, the road ahead is dark and deadly!". Sensing something dreadfully wrong, Chris and Vin awoke to find Ezra staring at the card. When the two approached and questioned Ezra, he quickly put the deck of cards away and walked off, saying nothing. None of the three men slept again that night.
After traveling all morning, the sun was high in the sky. The heat was playing tricks on the men's eyes. Hallucinations abounded. Chris decided to ride ahead a little ways to check on a mirage they thought they saw - a water hole desperately needed. Upon arriving at the spot where the water appeared to be, Chris, instead, saw the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He rubbed his eyes, but she remained. He felt himself become rigid with fear; his face long since gone pale. He tried to speak, but no words would come. Them, the woman spoke to him: "Beware, the road ahead is dark and deadly!".
By now, the others were beginning to worry. Vin instructed Ezra to stay behind with the prisoners. Vin went to check on Chris. He approached his friend and touched his shoulder, much as Chris had done to him earlier. Chris spun on his heels to look into the deep blue eyes of his friend. He glanced back to the woman, but she was gone. The two rode back to Ezra and the prisoners without saying a word. Later that evening, the three friends gathered for supper, as they kept watchful eyes on their prisoners.
"Vin, when I approached you at the stream, what did you see?" Chris asked.
Vin stared at Chris; then, he glanced over to Ezra.
"Ezra, when we approached you playing cards, what did you see?" Chris questioned, hoping to get an answer from him.
Ezra remained silent as he stared back at the blond man.
"I'll tell you what you both saw. You saw the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. She warned you of the road ahead. When you turned back to see if she were still there and if anyone else might have seen her, she was gone as if she were never there. Right?" Chris both informed and asked.
Vin and Ezra looked at Chris then each other, but they still remained silent.
"I think we should heed their warnings and try to be prepared," Chris finally said finishing his meal.
Not another word of it was spoken between the friends. They had no way of knowing there was no way to prepare for what was about to take place.
~ CHAPTER 2 ~
The following day the sun seemed to never rise. The day was darkened by the onset of torrential rain. The three escorts and their six prisoners were soaked to the bone. All three men remembered the words of the woman they each encountered previous to this day. Could this be the dark day they spoke of? They cautiously watched the six prisoners, expecting anything from them. Although the men were tied, they still felt leery of them.
A blast sounded from out of sight! Chris fell from his horse; his body hit the rain soaked ground hard. Ezra and Vin quickly dismounted, guns drawn, as they inspected Chris' wounded body.
"Where are they?" Chris asked as he attempted to catch his breath.
"I don't know; it's too dark to see…and the rain is pouring too hard. I can barely see our own horses," Vin answered him.
Ezra, who was holding Chris' head up, slowly lowered the injured man's head as he lost consciousness. He removed his hand and stared, frightened at the blood that soaked his hand. His eyes, now full of fear, stared into Vin's equally terrified eyes. The two quickly began firing into the darkness unknowing where to aim. The events of the previous days and the wounding of their usually fearless leader caused them to unusually panicked. In a split second, they were overcome by darkness and fear. Something they, individually, hadn't felt before. When they were alone, before they united for the better interests of Four Corners, they had no reason to care what became of themselves. But now, now they had people who cared. That made all the difference. The gunfire continued. Ezra felt his chest burn, as a blast exploded through him. He felt his heart grow weak. He struggled to breathe. Vin rushed to his side.
"Hang in there, Ezra!" Vin frantically begged.
"Can't," Ezra managed to breathe out before passing out.
Just as Vin sat back staring at his second fallen friend, he was grabbed from behind. Several thrusts were made at his chest. He could feel the blade repeatedly enter. As he gasped for air, the shadowy form that stood before him, aided by the one that held him, quickly sliced across his throat. Vin could feel the blood pour like the rain down from his throat and chest. He tried desperately to breathe, but he could only feel his eyes close. They each had felt the hands of death upon them, as they had struggled before losing consciousness. Their wounds were fatal. The three men lie unconscious where they fell, surrounded only by their horses. The rain stopped, and the sun emerged. The sun dried the ground about them; yet, the blood of their wounds remained upon the sand.
Chris awoke first, for he had been wounded first.
"Am I dead?" he asked the woman who stood over him.
He recognized her as the mirage he had seen in the desert. The one who had warned him.
She gently smiled at him, "No, you are not dead".
"My head aches," he groaned.
She spoke no more, but touched his aching head relieving the pain. He fell asleep.
Ezra awoke next, as expected for he was wounded second.
"Where might I be?" he inquired.
"You are safe," the response came from his Queen of Hearts image.
"Is this hell?" he questioned.
The woman smiled at him, "no, dear, it is not. Many people have done far more than you have done and hell was not their destination."
"Is this Heaven or am I still alive?" Ezra asked the lovely woman.
"My dear, you are very much alive," she replied.
"And my comrades?"
"They are down the hall being tended to. You are all safe."
"I do not understand; our wounds were mortal, were they not? I could feel the presence of death," Ezra stated as he watched her clean his wound, an ugly wound, and rebandage it.
"'T'was not meant to be. Now, get some rest. You will need your strength to heal," she quietly spoke as she left the room.
Ezra found himself slowly drifting off to sleep.
Last to awake was Vin. He attempted to speak to the woman of the stream, but she quickly aborted his efforts.
"Shhh," she said as she covered his mouth with her fingers.
Vin thought, Where am I? Who are you?
The fear Vin had previously felt in her presence at the stream was replaced with a peaceful feeling.
"You are here. Safe from those who harmed you. Who I am is not important," she answered his thoughts.
He again thought, How do you know what I'm thinking?
She smiled, "It is a gift."
She then began to answer several questions that flooded his mind. Questions of his friends, the extent of his injuries and why he could not speak. He could feel her gentle touch tending to the wounds in his chest and throat. He felt completely at ease with her. She stroked his hair away from his face as he drifted to sleep.
Later that evening, Chris had awakened again. This time he was much more alert.
"Ma'am," he began, "I was with two other men. Could you tell me if you know what happened to them?"
"They are here. Each has his own room," the woman answered.
"Then, they are alive?"
"Yes, they are being taken care of. They're in good hands."
"I need to get a message to the judge and some friends of mine," Chris stated to the woman.
"Do not worry. Those that need to find you, will," She calmed him.
"What kinds of wounds do the others have?"
"Ezra Standish suffers from a gunshot to the chest, and Vin Tanner suffers from multiple knife wounds to his chest and throat," she informed him.
"Can I see them?" Chris asked.
"No. You really need to rest," she cautioned him.
"I don't need to rest. I need to see Vin and Ezra," Chris insisted.
"Not yet; you must rest," the woman was more insistent than Chris.
She touched his cheek and gently combed his blond tresses with her fingers. The caressing had a calming effect on the gunfighter. He began to feel at ease losing himself in the wonderful beauty and peacefulness of the woman's soft features and warm eyes. Chris once again allowed himself to fall asleep.
Days had passed. The three men never saw or spoke to one another. They did, however, wake upon occasion, even if only for a moment, and speak with the women that tended their wounds. Vin, being the exception, conversed with the woman with only his thoughts. It amazed him how she knew everything he was thinking, and she attempted to answer all of his questions.
~ CHAPTER 3 ~
Back in Four Corners, Josiah had entered his church to pray for Vin, Ezra and Chris. They had been gone too long and were now presumed missing, since no one had heard from them or about them. He knelt in front of the altar and began to pray when a bright light shone upon him. When Josiah opened his eyes, he saw the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He, too, had attempted to speak to her, but found himself unable to do so.
The woman, however, did speak to Josiah, and she stated to him: "You need to take the other four and go into the desert. The three you are looking for you will find there on a hill in a house with a stable nearby. You must leave immediately; their lives depend on it."
Josiah finally regained his speech, "how will I find them?"
"Do not worry; you will know which way to go. Trust me," the glowing image answered him.
Josiah ran from the church and gathered Buck, JD and Nathan.
"We have to go in search of the others," Josiah informed them.
"Why?" JD asked.
"I can't explain it just yet, but they are in trouble and need our help," Josiah told them.
"Where are they?" Buck questioned.
"I don't know, but we will know when we get there," Josiah confided.
"Are you aw'ight, Josiah?" Nathan felt Josiah for a fever.
"I'm fine. I'm telling you we have to leave immediately," Josiah insisted.
Before leaving, a telegraph as received by Mary Travis.
"Josiah. Nathan. I received a wire from the judge. Chris and the others have not delivered the prisoners yet," the urgency in her voice evident.
"We know," Josiah answered.
"How do you know?" she asked.
"I can't explain right now, but we gotta go. Tell the judge we will be back as soon as we can," Josiah requested of her.
The search party - Josiah, Nathan, JD and Buck - traveled several days before reaching the desert with a lonely stream rushing through it. They thought it odd, but followed it. The stream led them to what appeared to be a fierce battle between unknown fighters and two of the prisoners. The bodies of the two that were killed lay completely untouched by animal scavengers. Nearby, they found blood soaked sand, still wet as if the blood were fresh.
"Looks like this just happened," Buck observed.
"Too much blood for anyone to walk away," Nathan explained.
JD had wandered a little further on down stream.
"Hey, guys, come here, quick!" he hollered with urgency.
The other three men ran to his side. Their eyes astonished at the sight. The other four prisoners plus another man. They thought they had staged their escape perfectly. They were wrong. For beside the stream, they died. Nathan examined the perfectly maintained bodies. Nothing had been disturbed, not even so much as a wild animal bite. There were no flies, no other predatory insects or animals, nothing.
"Can you tell how they died?" Josiah asked Nathan.
"As far as I can tell, I'd say dehydration or heatstroke," he answered a little puzzled with his own response.
"How can that be?" Buck asked, "There's a stream right here in front of them. You mean to tell us they got his far and died just a few feet from water?"
"That's what it appears," Nathan responded.
"Who's this guy?" JD asked pointing to the odd fifth man.
"I would presume the man who tried to free them from Chris, Ezra and Vin," Josiah answered.
The four men stared at the dead and each other in disbelief.
"So, where's Chris, Vin and Ezra?" JD asked breaking the silence.
"Good question," Buck answered him.
The men began to look around. They found nothing. The day soon became night, and the heat of the day cooled with the night breeze. The four men rested themselves on the hard ground near the stream. They chatted about the day's finds - how seven men could die and three others disappear. When it was time to call it a night and get some shuteye, they decided to have turns at staying watch. Nothing eventful happened during Buck and JD's watches, but when Josiah took over, he became entranced by a flickering light upon a hill in the distance. He patiently waited to see if it would come closer, in case it was a lantern or something similar; yet, it did not. Finally, curiosity won him over. He woke the others, and they rode toward the light. When they drew near, they abruptly pulled the reins of their horses to a halt. Before them stood a small house with a nearby stable. On the front porch of the house were three women dressed in what appeared to be their nightgowns. They were each waving an arm to greet the visitors. Each man tipped his hat to the ladies and then glanced over at one another in disbelief. When they refocused their eyes on the front porch, the three women were gone.
Josiah dismounted, followed by Buck, Nathan and JD. They tied their horses to the front porch, and they entered the house. The house smelled of home cooking which drew all four men to the kitchen. They found a pot of chicken soup over a small fire. The pot was full. Hungry; they helped themselves to a bowl each. Upon finishing the bowl of soup, they set out to investigate the house and search for the women. To their surprise, they did not find them, but instead, found Chris in one of the rooms.
Upon entering Chris' room, Nathan examined him.
"Amazing!" he exclaimed.
"What is it?" Buck asked.
"He has a severe wound to his head, probably mortal," Nathan observed.
"Mortal? He should be dead then. He's not; is he?" Josiah questioned.
"No, he's very much alive! That's what's so amazing," Nathan replied.
"Maybe Vin and Ezra are here, too," JD stated as he left the room to search.
The other three men followed. As they searched the rooms, they did indeed find Ezra and Vin. Each in his own room. When they found each one, Nathan examined him, concluding the wounds were mortal. Yet, neither of them were dead either. Baffled, the four men returned to the kitchen to discuss how they would return their friends to Four Corners. When at wits end, they found a spot in the house - extra beds or chairs - to rest for the night. They never found the women that greeted them at the door.
Josiah and Nathan awoke with dawn. Nathan checked on Chris, Ezra and Vin. They were all three still unconscious. He checked their wounds and changed their dressings. Josiah stepped outside to check on the horses. He ran back into the house to relate what he had found.
"The horses have all been tended to and placed in the stable. In addition to that, there's a wagon outside that we can probably attach their horses to and get them back to Four Corners," Josiah informed.
"A wagon? There was no wagon last night," Buck replied as he opened the front door to have a look see for himself.
He, JD and Nathan gasped at the sight of the wagon. None of them saw it the night before. In fact, it now rested where they had left their horses. The four men entered the kitchen again to have some more soup and discuss the strange happenings.
"Guys?" JD called in a strange voice.
"What is it, JD?" Buck answered him.
"Look," he responded as he showed them the pot of soup they had all eaten from the night before.
Nathan, buck and Josiah peered into the pot. To their surprise, the pot was again full. They chose not to question it, but decided to eat their full. They then placed the unconscious bodies of Chris, Ezra and Vin aboard the wagon. Josiah hooked up their horses and his own to the wagon. Nathan, JD and Buck rode along side Josiah, who led the team of horses and the wagon. They left the little house and stable, the mysterious - now missing - women that greeted them at the door, the six dead prisoners and the mysterious man, as they headed back to Four Corners.
~ CHAPTER 4 ~
A week had gone by since the four men retrieved their three friends. They wired Judge Travis that the six men prisoners were dead, but he would have to come in person for them to explain how it happened. He told them he'd be a couple of weeks.
Again, Chris was first to awake. Nathan was with him when he did. He noticed the gunfighter's eyes open.
"Good morning," Nathan greeted.
"Who were you expecting?"
"No one. I just thought…<he paused>…where am I?"
"How'd I get here?"
"Josiah, Buck, JD and I brought you back."
"Ezra and Vin?"
"They're here, too. They're in separate rooms. We decided to put y'all up here in the hotel; so, you'd have peace and quiet…and your own rooms to recover in," Nathan explained as Josiah walked in with Buck.
"So, how's our friend?" Josiah asked.
"Better," Nathan replied, "and awake."
"What happened out there?" Buck queried.
"I guess they managed to get the best of us," Chris answered.
"What happened to Ezra and Vin?" Nathan asked him.
"I don't know. I went down first. All I remember is the pouring rain and the explosion of pain in the back of my head. I thought I had died," Chris explained refraining from mentioning the mysterious woman for fear of ridicule unknowing they, too, had encountered them.
"Who were the women looking after the three of you," Josiah questioned.
Chris stared blankly at the preacher. In a quick moment, he glanced at the other two men who anxiously awaited his response.
"I don't know. You saw them?" Chris finally responded.
"They were standing on the front porch of the house when we approached, but were no where to be found once we entered," Nathan told him.
"They just vanished," Buck added.
"Yeah, they have a tendency of doing that," Chris smiled.
"So, you don't know who they were either?" Josiah again questioned.
"No. I saw one of them as a premonition when we were searching for water. I figured it was the heat causing a mirage at first, but when I mentioned it to Ezra and Vin, they had already seen the premonition. She warned me of an upcoming dark and deadly day. The day of the attack it rained hard. It was dark all day. I assume I should have died from my wound, but obviously, I didn't. Can't explain it," Chris related.
Silence filled the room. No one knew what to say; they were dumbfounded at the event Chris described.
Chris insisted on seeing Vin and Ezra. The three men took him to see Ezra. Upon entering the room, they joined up with JD. Ezra seemed to be still sleeping. When they ventured closer a familiar voice greeted them, as Ezra opened his eyes revealing the emerald green sparkling gems he was nearly as famous for as his infectious grin and ability with a deck of cards.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he greeted.
"Hey, Ezra, how ya feel?" Buck returned the greeting.
"How are ya feelin'?" Nathan, too, asked.
"Eh, I have felt better, but considering the circumstances which have placed me in the predicament for which I am currently, I would have to admit I am delighted to be conversing with all of you."
"I would say he's fine, judging by the words he chooses to say he's fine," Josiah quipped.
"How is your state of well being, Chris?" Ezra asked.
"OK, I guess. My head aches a little, but I'm still breathing."
"Do you know anything about the three women looking after the three of you?" Josiah asked Ezra hoping he knew more than Chris.
"The woman that appeared before me first appeared to me as the Queen of Hearts. She foretold a dark and deadly day. I did not bear witness to her again preceding my awakening in an abode of sorts. She tended a painful wound in my chest. My first encounter frightened me; I have to admit. However, in the house, her presence calmed me and eased my throbbing painful chest. I have not seen her since," he explained.
"Figures. No one knows anything of these women, it seems," Chris commented, echoing Josiah's sentiments.
"Perhaps Vin can enlighten us?" Ezra asked.
"I doubt it," Nathan began.
"He is still with us; is he not?" Ezra interrupted.
"Yeah, he's still alive, but speech will be difficult for him for a while," Nathan started to explain.
"Why?" Ezra questioned.
"Whoever attacked y'all, stabbed Vin in the chest a few times and then slit his throat," Nathan informed.
Ezra looked at Chris. Chris cast his eyes down to the floor hopelessly helpless.
"He will be alright," Ezra again turned his attention to Nathan.
By this time, the men had left Ezra's room and had gathered in Vin's room. Chris and Ezra needed help walking whenever they felt a little weak. Vin, awake, remained quiet.
"I believe so," Nathan answered Ezra's question. "I don't know who them women were, but they saved y'all from certain death. Not on eof you should've survived your wounds. Chris was shot in the back of the head. The blast should have destroyed his skull and blew away all or part of his brain; yet, he lives. You, Ezra, received a gunshot to the chest. Your heart and probably your lungs, as well, should have been obliterated. It seems you were shot at close range, but you seem like you are fine. Vin was, as I said, stabbed with a long blade knife. The blade could've very well punctured his heart. In addition, they slit his throat, severing his windpipe and vocal cords. I don't know if he'll speak again, but he seems to be healing well. He should've bled to death from such a grisly wound. I just can't figure out for the life of me how you three survived such a massacre," Nathan explained as he stared in disbelief at the men.
"I'm telling you; it's the women. You find out about them, and we'll have all the answers we need," Buck stated.
"Maybe so," Nathan answered.
Chris and Ezra returned to their rooms for more rest. Nathan stayed to comfort and watch over them. The other three men went about their duties of keeping a watchful eye on Four Corners.
~ CHAPTER 5 ~
When Chris, Vin and Ezra were well enough to ride, Chris decided he wanted to find the women that saved their lives and thank them. They set out with Josiah, Nathan, Buck and JD to find the little house and stable on a hill in the desert. The four friends that rescued them led the way.
"Stop!" Josiah demanded.
"What's the matter?" JD asked.
"Here. This is it," Josiah replied.
"That's ridiculous. There's no house or stable here," Buck condescended.
"I know, but this is it," Josiah insisted.
"He's right," Chris, Ezra and Vin agreed with Josiah simultaneously.
The area appeared to have never been touched by human hands or feet. How could this be the place? The stream was an old dried riverbed. Probably dry for a very long time - years, decades, possibly longer. The men dismounted and investigated on foot. Still no house, no stable, no women, and the hill was merely a sand dune. There was no indication anything had even happened here. The men gathered where they had left the horses; well, all of the men except Vin. Now, he vanished.
"Where's Vin," Chris asked everyone.
"I didn't see where he went," Buck responded.
"I believe he followed the riverbed south," JD announced.
They all looked in that direction and began to follow the dried bed, as well. Within ten minutes, they found Vin standing on the former bank of the stream staring at seven grave markers, leaning over and weather beaten in the desert sand. The men blankly stared at the markers and at each other. Josiah approached each and every marker, brushing off the dust. A name appeared on each one. The names of the six prisoners appeared on six of the seven markers. The seventh had the name of the member of the gang that had not been previously captured. A slight gasp could be heard by the men watching.
"Please, tell me y'all buried them?" Chris begged.
"We didn't. We left them here. Our obligation was to you, Vin and Ezra. We had to get y'all back to town," Nathan told him.
"Who do you suppose buried them?" JD asked.
"The women," Ezra replied.
Josiah removed his hat from his head, and the others followed suit. He uttered a small prayer for the men just in case it mattered. They all began to feel the spot where Josiah, Chris, Vin and Ezra said the house and stable was was just that. Where the house went bewildered them all. They could not comprehend the past weeks regardless of how hard they tried.
+ + + + + + +
~~Flashback to the present, where Chris was relating the story among the other six to Judge Travis.~~
"You see, judge, we have no idea really what happened," Chris finished the story.
"If you wish, we can escort you to the location these events played out," Ezra stated.
"Well, I would like to see these graves," Judge Travis admitted.
"Angels," Vin repeated in a soft voice.
"Yes, Vin, I believe you have the best explanation. The Lord does work in mysterious ways," Josiah smiled at Vin knowing at that moment he would be all right, and he would speak again.
The following morning, the seven men saddled up and rode in search of the graves along with Judge Travis.
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