The children were skating now, venturing onto the ice with laughing voices, and their merriment seemed to help lighten Nathan's mood a bit. A sweet sadness settled over him as he watched them glide about on the ice, and idly wondered what it would have been like if they were all still here. What would they think of the way things were now? The country had gotten so much bigger, and smaller, and changes made that they never would have deemed possible.
Would they have believed that it would be possible to talk to someone on the other side of the country just by picking up a telephone, or light an entire house without candles or kerosene? he mused with a gentle smile. They had marveled at the train; but men were flying now, taking only hours to cross land that had taken days or weeks to traverse before. The stage once occupied by the likes of Emma Dubonnet now faded before the flickering lights of the movie house. There had been tragedy, and evil, and a great war fought by men to stop the evil. Just as they had done.
So much progress, Nathan thought as he sat up straighter. He recalled how Chris hated being hemmed in by the encroaching railroads and big cities. But you can't stop it, Chris, he thought. They'll just keep progressin' 'til there's nowhere else to go. Then, who knows? Out to the stars, maybe. Guess we'll just have to see. Maybe by then, there won't be no need to fight for justice. Maybe we'll have finally won that fight.
A nearby clock struck out the hour of nine, and Nathan stirred, slightly embarrassed at how lost he had been in his reverie. Nine o'clock; time to be heading back. He had promised Tom he'd meet him for lunch, and if he didn't hurry he was going to miss the bus downtown.
He stood, stretching and wincing again at the crick in his knee. The lake was full of skating kids now, and he smiled at them once more before turning to start the walk back to the house.
Before he had taken a step, a shrill scream split the cold morning air. Whirling back in surprise, Nathan saw several of the children trying to get off of the ice, while a few were struggling towards a point in the center, yelling for help. To his horror, he saw that a large part of the ice had disappeared, revealing frigid black water. And something was in that water, thrashing around-
Nathan ran as fast as he could to the edge of the frozen lake, his heart pounding. Two of the children, no more than eight years old, saw him and floundered across the ice towards him.
"Mister! Mister!" one of them, a young boy, shrieked as he pointed behind him. "She fell in!"
Piercing screams filled the air, and Nathan could make out a young girl splashing in the black water, trying to get back onto the ice. It kept breaking off, and the hole surrounding her seemed to be growing larger every second.
Nathan gasped and looked around. There were no other adults in the area, but he could see some through the trees at the other end of the park. It was too far for him to run quickly, but...
"Run an' tell them folks to get help," he said quickly, nodding towards the distant crowd as he pulled off his coat. The boys dashed off as Nathan tossed his coat into the snow and ventured onto the ice; by the time the adults came, it might be too late. The instinct to act had taken over, driving all other considerations far from his mind.
He didn't feel the cold as he made his way carefully over to the place where the girl was struggling and shrieking for help; his entire attention was given to the one in peril. She was no more than eight, dressed in a blue coat, and edging close to panic. The other kids were standing nearby, their eyes wide with helplessness and fear.
"Easy, now, just hold on," Nathan said loudly as he drew near. The children parted, revealing the size of the hole; it was almost nine feet across.
Nathan swallowed. "Okay, kids, you best get back now," he warned, as the ice made dangerous sounds. "Don't want none of you fallin' in too."
"Can you get Debby out of the water, sir?" one young girl squealed as they moved away.
"I'm sure gonna try," Nathan replied. He looked over to where the adults were; the boys were almost there. Turning his gaze back to the girl, he saw that she was quickly losing strength. She was bobbing in the center of the hole, choking and crying out as she tried to make it to the edge.
"Debby!" Nathan yelled as he pulled off his long scarf. It was a tightly knit woolen scarf, very strong, a Christmas gift from his youngest son Joe.
Debby looked over at him, her eyes huge.
"Hang on to this, an' I'll pull you out!" He tossed the end of the scarf to her and laid down, positioning himself so he could move without disturbing more of the ice. The end of the scarf landed in the water with a thick plop, and she floundered over to it, grabbing onto it with both hands.
"That's it, honey!" Nathan cried. "Hold on!"
The cold was getting to him now, without his coat and with the cold ice beneath him. He shivered but gritted his teeth, ignoring the biting air and the protests of his aged body. Surely he had enough strength in him to do this. Please, Lord...
He braced himself and pulled with all of his might, as fast as he could. "Hang on! Keep your head up!" he yelled, as she drew closer. She felt very heavy, and it seemed to take forever, her frightened cries filling the air with every inch.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, she was close enough for him to reach out and grab. He reached out, his numb fingers closing in around the child's sodden coat, and hauled her onto the ice as carefully as he could. She was coughing and sobbing, her little hands letting go of the scarf only to clutch wildly at his sleeve.
"Easy, now!" Nathan panted, looking the frightened child in the eyes and trying to convey as much calm to her as possible. "I got you! Just relax!"
She gurgled a little and obeyed, her large brown eyes never leaving his.
Every muscle strained within him as he pulled the soaking girl to safety; he was trembling almost as much as she was by the time they were both completely on the ice.
"Just take it easy," he murmured again as she clung to him tightly, and together they slowly inched backwards until the ice under them was thicker and better able to sustain their weight. Finally convinced that they were both safe, he looked down at the shaking girl in his arms and gave her an exhausted but reassuring smile. "It's okay, honey, you're safe now."
Debby peered up at him, amazed, and without a word gave him a very tight hug.
The sound of yelling, urgent voices reached his ears over the thumping of his heart, and he looked up to see the adults running cautiously over the ice towards them, their shouts mingling together. They were all from the neighborhood.
"Mr. Jackson! Thank God you were here!"
"Is she all right? Fred said she was drowning!"
Nathan coughed and pulled himself up a little, Debby still clinging tightly to him. "She's fine," he gasped, still out of breath. "Better get her to the hospital, though, she's chilled mighty bad an' shook up somethin' awful."
"Debby, child!" one of the women exclaimed, bending down and carefully picking the soaking wet little girl up in her arms. Tremendously relieved, Nathan stayed where he was, still catching his breath and wiping the sweat from his face.
As Debby was quickly whisked away, one of the men, a young fellow Nathan knew as Mark Taylor, peered closely at the older man and took his arm. "We'd better have you looked at too, Mr. Jackson! You're just as soaked as she is!"
Mark helped Nathan to his feet very slowly. Nathan was embarrassed at how tiring the whole thing had been; he felt as if he could barely stand up.
"Don't you fret, I'm just wore out," Nathan insisted between panting breaths. "Not as young as I used to be."
"I think Mark's right, Mr. Jackson," a young woman he recognized as a neighbor's daughter said as she draped Nathan's coat over the old man's shoulder. "You look downright exhausted!"
Nathan barely had the power to resist as they gently guided him to a nearby car. "Look, I don't want to cause y'all a fuss," he said anyway, pulling the coat tighter around him in an effort to stop his shivering. "I just need a good hot bath."
"I'm sure they'll be happy to give you one at the hospital," Mark said, opening the door of the car. "Please, sir, it's just a precaution."
Nathan sighed to himself; how often had he said *that* to people and been angry when his advice was ignored and they got sick anyway? Maybe this was for the best. At least he'd be close to the clinic, and wouldn't have to take the bus down there to meet Tom for lunch.
He slid into the back seat of the vehicle with the young woman as Mark jumped into the front and started it up.
"That was one hell of a brave thing you did, sir," Mark said as the car pulled away from the curb. "The Parkinsons are gonna be so grateful to you! Mr. Green and Mrs. Howe took Debby straight to the hospital, I'm sure she'll be just fine, thanks to you. You just relax now, and we'll get you taken care of, too."
Feeling somewhat foolish for causing such an uproar, Nathan obeyed and sat back against the cold leather of the car seat. A soothing rush of relief and gratitude swept over him that he'd had enough strength to pull the child from the freezing water. How he had managed it, he really wasn't sure; he felt completely drained now, and more than willing to rest during the drive to the hospital. Taking a deep breath, he settled in and closed his eyes, falling quickly into a deep and weary doze.
+ + + + + + +
The next thing Nathan knew, he was waking up in what felt like a very soft bed. As he slowly floated back into consciousness, he grew aware of the gently yielding surface beneath him.
'Aw shoot', he thought with embarrassment, 'I must've passed out or somethin' an' they put me in the hospital. Now Tom's gonna give me a big ol' lecture on how I should've been more careful about pushin' myself.'
At least he wasn't hurt, Nathan mused as he stirred in the bed. In fact, he felt better than he had in years. Come to think of it, he'd *never* felt so rested and refreshed. And this bed didn't feel like a hospital bed. It felt just like the one he'd had in the old house in Arizona, the one he shared with Rain for forty-two years so that he knew every spring and lump. But that was impossible...
Confused, Nathan opened his eyes, and his bewilderment grew when they met the light yellow stucco ceiling of their old bedroom. Startled, but for some reason not afraid, Nathan sat up quickly and looked down; he was in their old bed, covered by the quilt Rain had made in 1893. But that quilt was stored away now-
He turned his head, taking in his surroundings; yup, this was the old bedroom, there was the modest but tasteful oak furniture that Rain loved so much, the walls painted with that light green color, the bright morning sun streaming in through the gauzy white cotton curtains. A warm, gentle breeze wafted in through the window, gently stirring the curtains, and outside Nathan could see the bright green leaves and white spring flowers of the huge tree which always stood outside their window, until lightning killed it in 1912. But there it was, big as life.
He scanned the room, noticing everything, all the details he remembered and missed and many he'd forgotten. This was their house, but how could it look like this? Grace and Peter had changed all this, the tree was gone and the bedroom was blue now, they'd painted it soon after moving in. But here it was before his eyes, as real as anything, and just as he knew and loved it best.
Must be a dream, he thought, even though he knew for certain that it wasn't. But it had to be a dream. Had to be-
He hadn't even noticed someone sitting beside him on the bed. Recognizing that voice instantly, Nathan whipped his head around, amazement surging through him. It was Rain, her beautiful face beaming at him, her brilliant eyes fairly glowing with joy. But she was young again, looking just as she had on the day they met, the marks of age and illness gone. Deep emotion coursed through him, tears welling up in his eyes even as he told himself this couldn't be real.
"Rain!" he choked, feeling foolish but not knowing what else to say. Before another word escaped his lips, she let out a laugh full of happiness and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him with such ardor that they both fell back onto the bed.
For a brief second, Nathan was too dumbstruck to know what to do. How could this be real? But there was no denying the reality of the awesome joy now suffusing his soul, and he simply shrugged and gave in to it. Even if this was just a dream, he should relax and enjoy it before going back to the Minnesota winter.
He wrapped his arms around his wife, embracing her as tightly as he could as the tears spilled down his cheeks. God, how he'd missed her! He'd often dreamed of Rain at night, but it was never like this. He felt her soft arms around him, her lips on his, and it all seemed as real as when she was alive. He held her close, not wanting this dream to end, memorizing every happy moment before it disappeared. She was so warm, so strong, and as they kissed he felt such an overwhelming love for her that he could do nothing but weep from the sweet power of it.
Finally he felt her grasp loosen, and she sat up, laughing, her own face shining with tears. "I hope I did not startle you too much," she said in a cheerful voice as she wiped her face with one hand.
"Startle me!" Nathan repeated, sitting up, elated and confused. Dang, this *was* real, more real than anything he'd ever experienced before. He had no doubt of that now. He reached out and touched her face, feeling the dampness of her tears on his fingertips. "Rain, darlin'-what-how-" He choked, new tears springing to his eyes. "You look so beautiful!"
She giggled a bit and sat up, assuming a pose of mock haughtiness. "Why, thank you, my husband. You do not look so bad, yourself!"
Nathan laughed and swiped at the tears. "Not bad for an ol' man, I s'pose," he sniffed, then looked at his hand. Frowning, he pulled it away and stared at it. It had lost every mark of age; the lines and wrinkles were gone.
Puzzled, he lifted his eyes to the oak dresser which stood across from the bed. In the large mirror which spread nearly the whole width of the dresser, he could plainly see himself and Rain. A young face stared back at him, handsome and strong and completely bewildered.
Rain laughed again and slid one arm around him, leaning her chin on his shoulder and looking into the mirror with him. "Yes, not bad for an old man," she agreed, smiling at their reflection. "Or for a young one, either!"
Nathan could only shake his head. "Rain," he said in a voice barely above a whisper, still staring at his young reflection in the mirror, "how...how can this be happenin'? I know it's real, but..."
He felt her arms around him tighten a little as she laid her head on his shoulder. "Can you not guess, my love?" she asked quietly.
Nathan frowned, thinking. "I pulled Debby from the water, an' they were takin' me to the hospital. Guess I remember feelin' real tired an' not breathin' right, then fallin' asleep in the car." He stopped, slightly disappointed, yet knowing that the possibility he was considering wasn't true. But he voiced it anyway. "So, this is...a dream?"
Rain gave a small laugh and sat up, placing one graceful hand on her husband's shoulder. "Yes, Nathan, the very best kind of dream," she replied. "The kind that comes true, and never ends."
Something in her words made Nathan start, and the answer came to him with sudden crystal clarity. He looked at her, his eyes wide, the gentle thrill of joyful realization stealing over him. "Y'mean-I'm-this is-"
Rain smiled and leaned towards him, delighted. "I knew you would figure it out!"
For one long moment, Nathan couldn't move. So that was it, he thought simply, almost embarrassed that that possibility hadn't occurred to him. He was...well, no, he wasn't dead. He couldn't call something this glorious by so rude and final a term. The pains and weariness of old age were gone, the home he had loved and lost surrounded him once more, and the woman who had shared his soul for most of his life was once more at his side. A brilliant burst of elation surged through him, and with a buoyant shout he embraced his wife, tears streaming down his face as he sobbed onto her shoulder.
"Rain, darlin'," he choked, when he regained the ability to speak, "I...I don't know what to say, I..."
Rain stroked his head gently. "You do not need words, Nathan," she said softly, holding her husband as he wept. "I have been with you all this time, and know what you have been through."
Nathan coughed a bit and sat back, wiping at his damp face while looking into her eyes. "Y'know, I sometimes thought you was there, but I always told myself I was just goin' crazy from missin' you so much," he said with a hitching laugh.
Rain gently placed her hand against his face. "I have missed you as well, Nathan, but that time for us is forever past. I have been waiting for this day as much as you, and there is so much now that I must show you!"
As she took his hand and they stood, another thought struck him. He pulled away, looking out of the window, his expression anxious.
"Wait-wait a minute-" he breathed. "Tom-he's expectin' me-what's he gonna do when I don't show up? An' the other kids-"
Rain placed her hand on his shoulder, her soft voice soothing in his ear. "Our children are strong, Nathan; they will find a way to bear this."
He pursed his lips, still worried. "An' JD-how's he gonna feel? This...this means he's the last of us now." He turned sad eyes to his wife. "Didn't reckon on goin' so quick, without even sayin' goodbye."
Rain sighed and gently touched his cheek. "I know, Nathan, but JD is far from alone. He will have help as well, to carry the story for the rest of you."
Nathan thought of JD's family, of Casey and their children, and his heart eased a bit. That was true, JD still had shoulders to lean on. But...
He drew a long breath. "Still would've like to see him again."
A little smile touched Rain's lips. "You will. It is not so difficult. For now, we should go outside; there are many here who wish to see you, too."
She grasped his hand and led him out of the bedroom. Nathan followed, feeling his worry abate; somehow, he knew that his family and JD were all right, and that he should not worry about them for now. It was a puzzling feeling, but very strong, and he trusted his instinct and relaxed.
It amazed him how the old house looked as they went into the hallway and down the stairs. Every detail was exactly as it was when they had lived there, right down to the pictures on the walls, the soft gray carpeting on the stairway, and the wallpaper with its light rose-colored stripes. When Nathan had given the house to Grace and Peter, the carpeting was torn and stained, the wallpaper faded, the pictures taken down and packed away. Here, everything looked like new, and suffused him with the undeniable feeling of home.
They passed through the living room, with its inexpensive but tasteful Victorian furniture, and walked out onto the small porch. Nathan smiled as he saw the broad expanse of bright blue Arizona sky above them, and the surrounding houses of the neighborhood in Ridge City bathed in glorious sunshine. They were all small and simple dwellings, like theirs, and Nathan should not have been surprised to see many of his neighbors from the old days-all of whom had died years ago-out enjoying the sunshine, waving their greetings to him.
"Hey," he said, waving back and feeling somewhat awkward; he simply couldn't stop staring at everything. This neighborhood was all changed now, many of the houses were altered or gone, but here they all looked brand-new and well cared for. And the people! He recognized them all, despite the vast difference in their appearance. Men and women he had known only as old, or crippled from war or illness, now smiled back at him as the pictures of perfect health. Behind the houses loomed the mountains, shining in the distance as if they were made of gold.
For a moment, he could only stand on the porch and shake his head, utterly astounded. "I can't believe it," he finally whispered.
Rain smiled and took her husband's arm. "If you were incapable of believing it, I don't think you would be here," she replied in a light tone as she gently tugged him from the porch. He followed her, still staring out into the street, fascinated.
Behind the house stood a small stable, just as Nathan remembered it. It had been torn down to make way for a garage, yet here it was whole again, and as they neared it Nathan could catch the scent of hay and horses which hinted that the little building was occupied.
Rain gave him an expectant look as they got closer, and Nathan felt a shock of amazement go through him as he studied the animals more closely. His eyes flew wide.
"Moses!" he exclaimed in a shout of laughter, coming forward and rubbing the beautiful dark horse on the nose. The horse whinnied with delight and tossed its head in greeting, joy showing in its bright black eyes.
"He has been waiting for you a long time, Nathan," Rain said in a teasing voice as she opened the stall doors. "I hope you have not forgotten how to ride him."
Nathan chuckled as he patted the horse on the neck. "Let's get 'em saddled up, gal, an I'll show you how much I forgot!" he replied cheerfully. How long had it been since he had been on a horse? Fifteen years? Yet every instinct came flooding back as if it had only been yesterday, and he could hardly wait to climb into the saddle again on his favorite steed.
In no time, it seemed, the mounts were saddled and prepared, and soon Nathan and Rain trotted out of the stable and into the bright spring sunshine. Nathan was beside himself with excitement; it felt so good to be riding once more. Moses had all the vigor of a young horse, and as they went down the street and into the broad expanse of the open desert, the healer could not resist urging him into a full gallop. Together the two reunited partners tore across the sands, and Nathan whooped at the sheer exhilaration of it.
The town disappeared behind them, and as the houses were replaced by the towering plants and rocks of the desert, Nathan marveled at the glowing landscape now surrounding him. It was so much like the desert he knew, everything was the same, yet it now possessed a vitality which he could not really define. There was a shimmering sensation in the air, a hidden energy which seemed to touch everything around them. As he and Rain rode through the wide plains and down the rocky mountain paths in silence, he studied it all in subdued astonishment. There was nothing even in the darkest places that was ugly or unpleasant; everything had its beauty, and he felt as if he was seeing it all for the first time.
"I see you still know how to ride," Rain observed as they clopped down a stony road lined with thin trees.
Nathan laughed and said with all sincerity, "I think me an' ol' Moses could go to the ends of the earth, if we wanted."
His eyes fell on a tree by the side of the road. It was not a particularly remarkable tree, but a thrill went through Nathan as he looked at it. He knew this road, he realized; he'd traveled it a million times. This was the road to-
He glanced at Rain, almost afraid to ask. But of course he knew the answer. She smiled at him, delighted at his happiness, and threw a look up the road as if suggesting that he ride ahead.
Nathan needed no urging, and soon horse and rider were flying up the road, which grew wider as they sped along. Nathan's heart was pounding with every step as he remembered: He had visited the town years ago, or what was left of it. It was an abandoned ghost town full of nothing but dust and memories. Its inhabitants had relocated to a better spot closer to the railroad, but the old town was still there, a relic of the days before progress. A mere shell...
The road dipped before him, sloping down gently into a wide grassy plain. He drew his horse to a stop as he gazed at the scene before him now; a wide vista had opened in front of him, stretching all the way to the blue-gold mountains in the far distance. About a mile in front of him, down the sloping dirt road, lay a small town, its clapboard buildings and tall chimneys reaching into the brilliant azure sky. The town of Four Corners.
But even from this distance, Nathan could see that this town was no empty shadow of its former self. Smoke curled languidly from the chimneys; the wooden buildings all gleamed like new. He could hear the faint noise of music and laughter, the rattling of carriages and the thudding of hooves. There was a vibrancy to the place which charged the air around him like an electric shock, and he could barely see for the tears brimming in his eyes.
Then he saw, through his tears, five shapes moving down the road, trailing dust behind them as they rode. Nathan choked, feeling as if his heart would burst with emotion. Five horsemen. And he did not even have to think to know who they were.
He felt Rain's gentle touch on his shoulder. Knowing how well she understood, he spurred his horse forward, keeping his streaming eyes on those five familiar riders as he raced down the road to greet them.
Although they were still quite far away, he could see them all clearly. There was Chris, leading the ride as always, his hat hanging down his back, blonde hair shining in the bright sun. He no longer wore black, Nathan noticed, and hope soared in his heart that the man who had been so grievously wounded might have been healed at last.
And beside Chris, as always, clad in the familiar buckskin, his golden-brown hair flowing behind him in curling waves-who else but Vin, looking as fit and at ease in the saddle as ever. Nathan felt a charge of elation surge through him; how often had he wondered through the years what had happened to the brave tracker? To see his comrade coming towards him now, alive and well, seemed like something close to a miracle. Nathan could scarcely wait to talk to Vin again, to find out the truth and express his gratitude at how the valiant young man had saved them all at Purgatorio.
On Chris's other side was Buck, laughing and whooping as he waved his hat in the air. Nathan laughed back as he drew closer; you couldn't hold back Buck, especially here where everything seemed to radiate joy. How he wished JD could see Buck now, as full of spirit as ever, his handsome face aglow with pure and simple exhilaration. Nathan could do nothing but whip his own hat from his head and wave back, matching Buck shout for shout.
Next to Buck galloped Ezra, wearing a grin so wide Nathan could see his gold tooth glinting in a very distinct manner. Nathan could feel nothing but astonishment as he gazed on the southerner; he clearly recalled how the consumption had stolen the gambler's health, how he had suffered as much as Ezra when each day rendered his friend even more pale and thin. Yet the man he now saw was the picture of health, every trace of illness gone. And here, no less! The healer laughed even louder and shook his head; at one time he would have thought such a thing impossible, but now Ezra's spiritual salvation brought him nothing but relief.
The fifth rider pulled ahead of the others, reined in, and dismounted in the road, waiting for Nathan to arrive as the rest pulled in behind him. Nathan felt his heart fairly burst as he got closer, the desert wind cooling the tears now falling freely down his cheeks. The rider's face was wet as well, and he stood quietly beside the huge horse, holding the reins with a slight smile on his face.
"Josiah!" Nathan cried, waving his hat in greeting, beside himself with happiness. The long days before Josiah's death came back to his mind, when the old preacher had confessed to him his fears over dying and what the afterlife might reveal when he finally faced the Lord. And now-now to see his old friend restored to youth and health, surrounded by the peace he had struggled to find all of his life, the shadows of doubt and fear banished forever from his soul-well, Nathan had no power to describe it. It was almost too much to bear.
When he was close enough, Nathan reined in Moses and jumped off, the dust rising in golden clouds as he ran as fast as he could to greet his friends. With a shout he grabbed Josiah in a tight embrace, hardly daring to believe this was really happening, even as he pounded the preacher on the back and shouted with joy.
"Hey, you ol' sinner!" Nathan said with a sobbing laugh. "Sure am glad to see you made it!"
Josiah's grip was strong and calm, his face trembling with strong emotion. "I could say the same thing, brother," he said quietly. "Welcome to your new home, Nate. We've sure been waitin' for you."
Nathan could think of nothing else to do but laugh again as he stepped back, wiping his face as he looked once more at his old friend. He shook his head, amazed. "I can't believe it, Josiah, you look-" He choked, then turned his gaze to the others, who had all dismounted by now and were walking towards him. "You *all* look-I-I just ain't got the words!"
"Y'can always borrow a few of Ezra's," Vin said with a quiet smile, shooting the gambler a wry grin.
Ezra coughed and gave the tracker an expression of mock annoyance. "I believe you have most of my words at the moment, Mr. Tanner, in the form of all those books you've borrowed from my collection."
"Well, I got me a few words if nobody else does," Buck volunteered, stepping forward and grasping Nathan's shoulder. "Sure is mighty good t'see ya, Nathan," he continued in a serious tone. "Ain't seemed right without you around."
Nathan smiled and returned the gesture. "Sure have missed you all these years, Buck. JD'd be right glad t'see how well you're gettin' on."
A slight mist came over Buck's eyes, but he quickly sniffed in an attempt to hide it. "Yeah, well, I got a few words for that boy, takin' that job in Chicago an' lettin' the bad guys shoot at 'im all these years. You'd think he woulda listened to ol' Buck when I tried to warn 'im about bein' a lawman."
"He never listened to any of us, Buck, you know that," Nathan replied, smiling.
"Yeah, I know," Buck said quietly, his blue eyes becoming soft. "Look, Nathan, I can't tell you how much I appreciate what you did for that boy, savin' his life when he was shot full of holes. I can't ever repay you for it, but I can say I'm right grateful. If I didn't have no more time, I'm sure glad he did, an' he owes it all to you."
Nathan shrugged, embarrassed. "Josiah did as much as me, Buck, an' you know that kid. He was just too stubborn to die."
"You should not discount your talents, Nathan," Ezra advised him gently, coming up to stand next to Buck. "Were it not for your help, I doubt I could have survived long enough to assist Mr. Larabee in his ride."
Nathan looked at the dapper gambler and smiled, clasping him firmly by the arm. Now that he was close enough, he could see how fit his friend truly looked. But Ezra's transformation went deeper than that; there was a calm air of peace shining in his green eyes now, a profound contentment which hinted at matters which went beyond the removal of physical illness. There was no confusion in him now, no struggling between his old, sinful life and the new, selfless way. That war had finally ended, and Nathan felt honestly relieved that his friend had won the fight.
Nathan took a deep breath as he gripped the gambler's arm. "I see you found them words, Ezra," he said at length, in a voice breaking with emotion. "It's so good t'see you well again."
Ezra didn't seem to know what to say. He paused, his smooth face betraying a level of feeling at least as deep as Nathan's, and glanced at the healer once or twice with uncertainty before clearing his throat.
"I, ah..." He stopped, coughed, and apparently decided to give up all pretense of control. With a sigh, Ezra dropped his voice and said with complete sincerity, "Nathan, I fear that even with every word in my vocabulary at my disposal, I would be unable to express my gratitude to you for your help to me while I was in the grips of that accursed disease. Will you allow me to extend my hand to you in apology for all of our past disagreements, and in friendship for your assistance in my hour of need?"
He held out his hand and waited, a hopeful gleam in his eye.
Nathan was surprised, but showed not the slightest hesitation in accepting Ezra's hand. "Shoot, Ezra, you don't got to do that," he said in a hushed voice. "I was just thinkin' on how I should take back a lot of what I said back then. I know there was times when I coulda been a little more understandin'."
The southerner laughed just a little, the sound catching a bit in his throat as he warmly shook Nathan's hand. "In that case, sir, I suggest we accept our mutual contrition before we end up spending eternity standing in this dusty road apologizing to each other."
They chuckled at the thought as they clasped each other's shoulders, the profound light of true forgiveness and friendship evident in their eyes. Ezra and Nathan stood that way for just a moment until the rift between them was sealed forever, then they parted, a little embarrassed at the display perhaps but obviously relieved.
"Sure am glad you let him say his piece, Nathan, he's been practicin' that fer months now," Vin drawled with a smile as he stood beside Sire, one hand idly stroking the huge horse's neck.
Nathan looked at the tracker and grinned, his head shaking a little as he stepped over. "Vin!" he exclaimed joyously in greeting, grasping the younger man's hand and clapping him on the shoulder. "I got about a million questions to ask you!"
Vin's handsome face broke into a quiet smile as he nodded, shaking Nathan's hand. "Reckon I got the time to answer 'em," he replied in his usual soft voice. "Sure am glad to see ya again, Nathan."
"Not half as much as I am t'see you," was the excited response. "I owe you my life, Vin, an' then you up an' disappeared on us after that fire in Purgatorio before I could even thank you proper for it. Been wantin' t'know all this time what happened to you."
Vin shrugged, a little thrown by the heartfelt gratitude in Nathan's words. "Ain't too much t'tell, Nathan, an' after all the times you kept us from dyin', I don't see what I did fer you as too much t'fuss over. You was a good friend, an' I didn't have so much kindness in my life that I'd lose track of them who showed it to me."
Nathan smiled, touched, and nodded a little. Silence fell for a few moments as he waited. After a few more minutes of quiet, he laughed with impatience and said, "Well?"
The tracker laughed back, the enjoyment of the moment evident in his clear blue eyes. "Well what?"
"Aw, c'mon, Vin, you know what I'm askin'!" Nathan insisted. "What happened after Purgatorio? Where you been all these years? JD an' Josiah an' me never stopped hopin' you'd turn up, y'know. Figure you owe me a explanation for all that frustration you put me through."
"That I do, pard," Vin agreed, with a bob of his head. "But I thought I'd save all that talkin' for tonight."
Nathan's brow furrowed in genial confusion. "Tonight?"
"Get-together at the saloon, if you're interested," Chris said, coming forward with a small smile on his handsome face. "Think you'd better come, since you're the guest of honor."
Nathan looked at Chris and smiled, amazed at his friend's transformation. With the distance gone between them, Nathan could see how changed Chris truly was; an indefinable darkness had been lifted from him, and there were no longer any clouds masking his bright green eyes. Nathan had never forgotten the last sight he had of Chris, as the gunslinger lay in the desert dust fatally wounded and covered with blood; the sorrow of that time was far surpassed at the joy now flowing through him as he saw Chris standing before him, fully healed at last.
"Chris," he said quietly, looking the gunslinger up and down in delighted astonishment. "You sure look a far cry from the last time I saw you!"
Chris smiled and put a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Last time you saw me, I had a dozen bullets in my gut. Not too hard to improve on that."
"No, it ain't," Nathan said with a shake of his head. Then his brown eyes grew somber as he took a deep breath, his expression growing serious. "Means a lot to me to see you again, Chris. If you an' Vin hadn't stood against the town for me that day we met, I'da been lynched. Took guts to do that for a man you didn't know."
The gunslinger pursed his lips, his green eyes somber. "I know a good man when I see one, Nathan," he said, gripping the healer's shoulder. "With all the lead you dug out of me later on, I'd say we're about even."
Nathan laughed despite the lump in his throat and looked down.
The healer looked up, surprised at the sharp urgency in Chris's voice. His friend was looking keenly at him, his expression earnest.
"Just want you to know, I never blamed you for not bein' able to keep me from dying. I know you've felt bad about it, but you shouldn't. You did what you could, and I've always been grateful for that."
Nathan gasped a little, taken aback; how could Chris be so forgiving when Nathan had failed to save his life? He dropped his gaze, suddenly overcome with regret. "Look, Chris, you don't got to-"
"You bet I do," Chris said firmly, his grasp on Nathan's shoulder becoming so tight that Nathan looked up again in surprise. "Nathan, we all owe you too much to let you wallow in self-blame for things you couldn't prevent. You stitched us up, kept us whole, made sure we stayed breathin' no matter how tired or hurt you were yourself. That we all stayed kickin' as long as we did is pretty much your doin', and we're all too obliged to you to let you lose one second of your reward over mopin' on the past. You deserve this as much as anyone, and we're going to see that you enjoy it." Chris paused, then smiled a bit and leaned closer, his green eyes glinting with humor. "Whether you like it or not."
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