Josiah slept for a few hours, then awoke, and lay in bed without moving,
his mind wrapped in thought.
The room was bathed in the silver light of a full moon, which sliced across
the darkness and illuminated the chamber with a gentle frosty glow. Josiah
turned his head a bit and gazed out at the sky, now pitch black and emblazoned
with millions of brilliant stars. He could see the gate, and the rocky desert
hills beyond, all awash in the same white aura. A warm gentle breeze wafted
in, carrying on it the soft song of the sisters at their evening worship.
Josiah could barely make out the tune; it was an old chant, familiar and
soothing in its tone. After a few moments of listening, the voices seemed
to grow louder, and Josiah relaxed, listening to the music as he contemplated
the night sky.
It all seemed so peaceful, and yet Josiah's soul was not at peace. Years
ago he was convinced he had made his peace with God, but now he was beginning
to wonder. All of his studying and traveling had convinced him that all men
of faith, no matter what religion, served God in their own way, and the good
works they did were still good, no matter in what tongue they prayed, or
the name of the deity they prayed to. He had seen the good that men did in
God's name, and been encouraged.
But he had seen plenty of evil too; his own father had been a man of God,
yet as brutal and unforgiving as any man Josiah had ever encountered. He
could still hear his father's curses, his sister Hannah's screams, feel the
burning guilt as he watched his family tear itself apart. He could hear his
father angrily curse his rebellious son, and Hannah's pitiful moans as she
descended into insanity. The poor girl had finally been taken to a mission
to live out her life, Josiah paying for her care; but the sight of his mad
sister, ravaged by the cruelties of her condition which he might have prevented
had he only taken the time to see it, drove him nearly insane himself with
remorse. Only the bottle seemed able to cure his anguish.
Josiah had found himself eager to search the world for the love he somehow
still believed existed. And so he had searched, and learned, and been
enlightened; but the demons still tortured his soul, and there was no peace.
"I'll never be free and clear", he had told Vin, and the undeniable truth
of those words burned deeply into his heart.
His mid drifted back; had there ever been a time when he wasn't alone and
searching? There were only a few times growing up when he wasn't afraid,
of God or his father or Hell. A dim memory stirred: a beautiful, secluded
place on the banks of the Missouri. How old had he been then? 13? And Hannah
had been 10. They'd been living near the Indians, preaching to them, and
every once in a while their father would fly into a rage. He and Hannah had
found this sanctuary by the river, a haven of moss-covered rocks and trees
where they would hide and comfort each other until it seemed safe to go back.
For some reason their father had never found them there, and Josiah was saddened
to think that it was the last place he'd truly felt safe. Time had undoubtedly
erased the place, just as it had erased the security from his life. Cast
out of the Garden to wander the earth accursed...
He sighed and stirred, his muscles sore from laying in one position for so
long. At least God had directed his path to cross that of Chris Larabee and
the others; there was that argument for His mercy. He had known Nathan first,
and it had refreshed him to know such an honest man still existed in the
world. Despite his hardships, Nathan bore little bitterness, and his steadying
influence had often saved him from drowning his sorrows too often.
It was right here, Josiah mused as he listened to the nuns singing their
prayers. If he'd had the strength he could have gone outside and found the
very spot where he was standing that day that Nate had brought them by.
Other memories had dimmed, but Josiah could still see Chris Larabee, tall
on his horse, dressed in black. Josiah had known, without asking, that Chris
would be their leader; he had also known that as many demons haunted Chris's
soul as his own. Had Chris found peace, once they had avenged the murder
of his family? In his dying moments, were his demons finally driven away?
Josiah could only wonder. He hoped so; Chris had earned it.
By contrast, Josiah knew at once that Vin Tanner carried no demons, or any
other ghosts from the past beyond the bounty on his head for a murder he
didn't commit. The buckskin-clad tracker's easy ways bespoke a man with no
concerns for the past or future; living for today was enough. Vin had been
an honest man, and loyal-when Josiah had been falsely accused of being a
killer, it was Vin who had been driven to prove his innocence. That was when
the tracker had found out about Hannah.
Josiah smiled; he had been so furious about that, but he knew he could trust
Vin to keep the information quiet. The tracker knew how painful a blighted
past could be, and Josiah never forgot his simple assurance that he would
never tell Josiah's secret. That confidence, and the ability to share his
burden a little, eased Josiah's heart to at least a small degree. That was
what made it so difficult when Vin disappeared after saving them all during
their flight from Purgatorio; if only they could have found him, known for
sure if he had died, or was alive and would one day return. Josiah had prayed
the tracker had survived, but eventually the prayers became more solemn,
changing to supplications that his death was mercifully quick.
Buck Wilmington had been there too, all easy smiles and friendly scrutiny.
He could remember the times they'd locked horns, mostly over the fact that
they were attracted to the same women, but it was hard to stay mad at someone
as cheerful and easy-going as Buck. Whether he was teasing JD or pursuing
the latest pretty girl in town, the man always made it clear that he took
nothing very seriously. But beneath that exterior lurked another soul that
Josiah had glimpsed, afraid and uncertain, and aware that the life he enjoyed
so much was in constant danger.
But he was never afraid to risk it for those he loved, Josiah mused, tucking
one hand behind his head. It always amazed him how serious the gunslinger
became when danger threatened any of them. Buck's loyalty was total, to the
point that he lost his life saving JD's wife Casey and their unborn child
from their burning home after it had been attacked by Fowler's men. That
act had earned Buck an eternal place in the hearts of the Dunne family; but,
Josiah wondered, had it earned him anything more, or was that too much to
expect from an indifferent God?
Then there had been Ezra Standish, the dapper Southern gambler who had claimed
to like Josiah but seemed to have little use for the morals he preached.
Josiah had disagreed with many of Ezra's actions; he had often believed the
man to simply be a self-absorbed, avaricious sort, ignoring God in favor
of mammon. But then there had been times-more frequently as their association
matured-when Josiah observed true flashes of nobility in Ezra's soul.
Knowing Ezra's mother Maude quite well-here Josiah smiled; she had been a
remarkable woman-Josiah came to understand that Ezra had been raised to believe
that people weren't to be trusted, that money was the only constant in life,
and that God was only useful as a tool to bilk people. Once he realized what
Ezra was fighting, Josiah came to be truly impressed at his ability to still
do the right thing-not always, but often enough to show that his was a soul
at war between the old way and the new, trying to decide its path. It was
a confusion Josiah could understand.
So Josiah had not hesitated to be the one at Ezra's side when the gambler
died, after giving his life to warn them all of an ambush by Fowler's men.
It was Josiah who heard Ezra's final words, and comforted him as he breathed
his last. Ezra had confessed to fear as well, convinced he was going to Hell
for his sins; Josiah had done his best to allay those fears, unwilling to
confess to his dying friend that he carried the same anxiety within his own
The gambler had died peacefully, speaking of heavenly visions which appeared
before him; but Josiah's soul still ached with doubt. What sins could Ezra
have committed, that Josiah was not also guilty of? Preaching God's word
to people when he himself doubted-wasn't that a con? Claiming to seek the
holy in life when he was torn with rage and bitterness-surely this too was
a grievous sin. If Ezra had earned the fires of Hell, surely Josiah had too.
But no, Josiah told himself firmly as he stared at the stars, surely Ezra
had not gone to Hell. Ezra had been often misguided, but he was not an evil
man. He had little knowledge if Chris or Vin or Buck had ever entertained
such fears, but he hoped that they, too, had escaped damnation. He wanted
to think that Ezra-that all of them-could look forward to some reward for
He had tried to tell that to Maude, Ezra's mother, a hard gambling woman
with little time for sentiment. She and Josiah had had some good times in
the past, but during that visit she was bitter and cold. She had been furious
with them for allowing Ezra to give his life for them, and with him for doing
something so foolishly selfless. Josiah had spent long hours with her, trying
to tell her how contented and at peace Ezra was at the end, and how he had
won a lasting place in their hearts by saving their lives.
After a while she seemed to begin to understand; ever since she had kept
in contact with them, writing letters and dropping by. Josiah had hoped to
see Maude one last time, but a letter from St. Louis doused that idea; Maude
was with one of Ezra's cousins and not doing too well herself. Josiah said
a silent prayer for her, hoping that maybe Ezra was watching her as well,
helping his mother on her final journey.
The not knowing was the hard part, he decided as he watched some silver-tinged
clouds scut across the ebony sky. Whenever he was feeling philosophical,
he often wondered if their fallen comrades were somewhere watching them.
It was heartening to think that Chris, Vin and Buck were, but Josiah particularly
hoped Ezra was, simply because he had been witness to the gambler's deepest
fears about Hell, and because of his regard for him, fervently wished that
they had been groundless. But there was no way to know besides faith, and
Josiah's faith was still a confused, searching entity.
Josiah sighed; he was starting to get a headache, and he didn't want to be
too ill to see JD tomorrow. He smiled a bit; whenever the kid crossed his
mind, he was always the eager 18-year-old, full of energy and ambition. Josiah
had been impatient with him at times; JD had so much to learn. But to his
amazement and pride, he was able to watch as JD actually did learn, becoming
their best legacy to the future. Chris, Vin, Buck, Ezra-the best of them,
of all of them, lived on in the young man, and was now living in his children.
Perhaps it would live forever.
Josiah's eyelids drooped; time to get back to sleep, he decided. There was
always the chance that he'd find the answers tomorrow. As he had once told
Vin, he would never be free and clear. But it would be nice, at last, to
know, he mused as he slipped back into the soft darkness of sleep. Even if
he didn't like what he found out.
The train station at Phoenix was full of rushing, shouting people, blaring
train whistles, the whoosh of steam and clank of iron. Nathan sat on a bench
in the middle of it all and waited, a calm figure among the human storm.
He checked his watch; almost noon, JD's train would be arriving any minute.
He sighed and wiped his brow; another warm day. Hope JD remembered to pack
some cool clothes, he thought with a smile. Arizona in February ain't quite
the same as Chicago.
There you go again, he chided himself as he pocketed his worn handkerchief;
thinkin' about JD like he's still a kid. He got older same as you an' Josiah.
Nathan looked at the train depot almost in dread, thinking about seeing JD
again. He wanted to see his young friend badly, but he knew it'd be a shock
to see JD get off that train. He'd be looking for the kid, but he'd find
a man instead. A reminder that time had gone on.
Nathan scanned the people in the crowd swirling around him in the hot sun,
studying them carefully. Mostly vacationers from the East and businessmen
on their way to and from San Francisco; few if any looked to be from the
area. Nathan smiled and shook his head; Chris would hate this, he thought.
Vin would too. He could hear Chris now: The West is gettin' too damn crowded,
the gunslinger would say.
Nathan eyed the crowd, and knew he'd agree.
His head snapped up, the keen eyes flying across the crowd. There, pushing
through the crowd, was a short, slender figure, clad in a white shirt and
dark pants, coat flung over one arm, toting a suitcase. It was JD, coming
towards him with that familiar smile on his still-young face, his thick black
hair blowing in the wind.
Nathan almost laughed out loud as he stepped forward to meet his old friend.
At 44, JD still looked like the kid, full of energy and youth. Buck would
be so proud.
If anyone in the bustling throng thought it odd how the old black man and
the young white man met in a tight embrace, tears in their eyes, in the middle
of the depot yard, none of them said anything. They had trains to catch and
more important matters to consider.
"You're lookin' mighty fine there, JD," Nathan laughed as he pulled away
and shook JD's hand.
"Rain must be takin' good care of you too, Doc," was JD's light reply, even
as he quickly wiped a tear out of the corner of his eye. "You haven't changed
a bit." he looked around. "is she here?"
"Naw," Nathan said as they began to walk away from the station, towards the
hitching area. "She stayed in the village. Said she knew we'd want this t'be
just between us."
JD sighed suddenly. "Yeah, Casey said the same thing. She's lookin' after
Chris, an' the house. I miss her, but-this feels right, somehow. Nathan?"
JD stopped; Nathan did, too. They were at the edge of the crowd, almost away
from it, and it was quiet there. Nathan knew what JD was going to say, but
looked at him anyway.
JD swallowed. "How...how is Josiah?"
Nathan took a deep breath, paused, then straightened and looked JD in the
eye. The man who stood before him was no callow youth, and he had every right
"It ain't good, JD," he replied quietly. "Two, three days, maybe."
JD pursed his lips and looked away, his hazel eyes anguished but accepting.
After a few silent moments he shook his head and looked back at his friend.
"It doesn't seem possible, Nate. He's lived this long I was startin' t'think
he'd live forever. He's stubborn enough."
"I know that," Nathan smiled as they resumed walking. "He was mighty surprised
t'hear you was comin' out after he told you not to. Hope you're ready t'explain
this to 'im."
JD smiled a bit, despite the pain in his eyes. "I never listened to 'im before,
I'd only disappoint 'im if I started to now."
Nathan laughed a little. By now they had reached the edge of the train station,
where various horses, carriages, and a few automobiles were waiting. JD looked
"Did you bring a wagon or a buckboard or...?"
His friend shook his head. "The quickest way to th' mission from here is
too rough for a wagon t'make it."
He nodded, and JD followed the direction of that nod to two horses tethered
at the end of the hitching posts. Nathan smiled at him. "Hope you ain't forgot
how to ride."
A look of pure delight crossed JD's face, dissolving the years until he looked
20 again. "I haven't set on a horse in years, Nate, but I've never forgotten.
I'll send my suitcase on to the hotel an' then..." he took a deep breath..."we
Ten minutes later, JD returned, looking a bit apprehensive as he approached
the horse. He rubbed his hands together and stared at the saddle. "Boy, Nate,
this is gonna be like old times."
Nathan smiled at him; he was already mounted up. "Go on, JD, I know you can
JD looked at him with mock indignation. "Hell, so do I, Nathan! Just watch
JD placed one foot in the stirrup and with easy grace lifted himself smoothly
into the saddle.
"Not bad for an old man, huh?" he laughed, picking up the reins and patting
the horse's neck. "What's her name?"
"Windsong," Nathan replied. "She's Rain's horse. Gentle but tough, just like
JD smiled, and without another word they set out into the desert.
For a long time they rode in silence, each man absorbed by his own thoughts.
A few times it was broken, with JD inquiring after Rain, and Nathan asking
how JD's kids were doing. But such small talk soon faded.
As they left the city behind and traveled into the vast, empty desert, all
traces of the modern world disappeared, and it was just the two lone men
and the wide open land. It was easy to believe, for just a moment, that time
had lost its power, and they were simply on a ride back to town after a mission.
The hot air, the silence broken only by the call of the carrion birds, the
slow but steady movement of the horses beneath them, all recalled the days
when they were together, and seemed destined to remain so forever. Both men
felt this keenly, and sensed the ghosts who rode unseen beside them.
Finally JD swallowed, his expression now sad. "I'll, uh, tell you what, Nathan.
I'm really gonna miss that ol' preacher."
Nathan's expression was almost of relief, that the words had at last been
voiced. He nodded, still looking ahead as they rode over the rough rocky
terrain. "Me, too, JD. But he had a damn good, long life. Got a lot to be
"Oh, yeah," JD replied. "I'll say. It's just-well, you know. I owe him, and
you, my life. It's going to be so hard not to have him around anymore."
"I know," Nathan said softly as they crossed a shallow river bed, now dry.
"But I reckon we got enough t'think back on that'll help when it gets too
JD smiled a little. "That's all I've been doin' the last few days. Feel like
a damn sentimental fool, as Ezra would say. Even went up to the attic and
went through the old stuff again, just before I left. It was-" JD broke off
and coughed, trying to clear the lump in his throat-"it was like bein' 18
again, Nate. Sounds crazy, but every time I hold Buck's hat, or Chris's
gun-belt-it's like they're alive again, right there with me."
Nathan smiled at him, his own expression thoughtful. "I 'spect they'll always
be with you, JD. You done a right good job takin' care of the things we managed
to save. That way they won't be forgotten."
JD chuckled. "Well, they better not be, I've talked to the kids about them
til I'm blue in the face. But they love it-can't believe ol' Dad used to
be a lawman in the Wild West, like Wyatt Earp. I think they're gonna sell
me to a museum soon."
"Well don't pack just yet," Nathan said with a laugh. "I'd kind of like you
to stay around a while."
JD nodded, his eyes growing reflective. "Yeah. After...soon, it'll be just
us, Nathan. You know? We'll be the only ones left who can tell what it was
Nathan pursed his lips as he looked over his horse's head towards the horizon.
"Yep," he sighed. "I been tellin' our kids too, so they'd know. But you're
right-it ain't the same as havin' lived it. Lord, we sure had a hell of a
"We sure did," JD nodded. "It was funny-half the time I was scared out of
my wits, an' it seemed we were always broke, an' dirty, an' gettin' shot
at. But I'd do it all again in a minute."
Nathan was silent for a few moments, then nodded.
"Yeah, JD, I know," he said quietly. "Me, too."
They rode the rest of the way in silence.