Nathan stared at his leader, unable to suppress a smile. "That an order?"
The blonde man shrugged, his mouth still twisted into a grin. "Shoot, Nathan, I ain't one for givin' orders. Never was." He stood back and regarded Nathan with quiet respect. "Call it a request, from a very grateful friend."
Nathan nodded, his own gaze serious as he studied the man who had led them through hell and back. "S'pose I'll take it, then," he murmured softly. "Thanks, Chris."
The single nod of deep admiration was the gunslinger's only reply.
"Well, now that that's all settled," Buck declared with a clap of his hands, "we can go on back an' get everything ready for the shindig tonight."
Nathan laughed in anticipation, glancing over at the shining town in the distance. "Can't believe that's ol' Four Corners over there," he proclaimed. "Last time I saw it, it was gettin' ready t'fall down."
"You'll find that the climate here has remarkable restorative properties, Mr. Jackson," Ezra assured him as he took hold of Chaucer's reins and led the animal forward, petting him gently on the nose. The other men were already climbing back into the saddle. "I'm pleased to say the quality of the food at the hotel has improved considerably."
"Now that's a miracle I got to see," the healer chuckled as he mounted Moses.
"So you will, brother," Josiah announced, riding up beside his old friend. "But I was hopin' you an' me could ride out for a while. If you're anything like I was, your head's spinnin' like a top right about now."
Nathan smiled, unable to deny the observation. "It's a lot to take in, that's for sure."
Rain rode up and touched Nathan's arm. "I have preparations of my own to make, Nathan. I will see you soon."
The healer looked at her, a request for her to stay springing to his lips. Then he checked himself; there was no need to fear losing her again, ever. Eternity spread before them. Surely he could spare her a few hours.
"All right," he said aloud, giving her a quick kiss and marveling again how wonderful it felt to touch her lips again.
The same sentiment gleamed in her expression as well as she pulled back with a warm smile. "Good-bye," she said, and turning her horse around rode over the hill and disappeared.
"We'll meet you back at the saloon," Chris called to Nathan and Josiah as he and the others prepared to return to town.
"Don't y'all start without me!" Nathan shouted back with a smile as he picked up his reins.
"Try not t'take too long," came Vin's drawled reply. "We done waited forty-eight years fer this already!"
The four remaining horsemen laughed, waved, then turned and galloped back to Four Corners, stirring the dust in great clouds as they rode away.
Nathan returned the wave with a wide grin, almost glad they couldn't see the tears starting again at the corners of his eyes as he watched his friends ride off. Four men he never expected to see again, yet now he was beholding them as plainly as when they rode together all those years ago. Finally he dropped his arm and let out a tremendous breath, shaking his head. It was all a bit overwhelming.
"Sure could do with that ride now, Josiah," he breathed.
His old friend smiled gently. "Thought you might. C'mon."
They turned their horses up the road and began a leisurely walk around the perimeter of the town.
Silence fell, and Nathan took a deep breath, trying to collect his whirling thoughts. The morning sun had moved to early afternoon, its warm rays dappling the dusty road as they moved onto the wooded path leading up through the mountains. The calm around them soothed Nathan's mind, and he felt himself relaxing as they eased along in no particular hurry.
He looked over at Josiah, able to study him more closely now that the excitement of their reunion had passed. In many ways he appeared to be the same Josiah that Nathan had always known, but there was a new vigor to his bearing, a new brightness to his blue eyes. Nathan's heart warmed at the sight; it relieved him no end to see Josiah so much at peace. He had looked for it long enough.
Finally Nathan sighed. "This place sure agrees with you, Josiah. You're lookin' mighty fit."
Josiah nodded, keeping his eyes on the road before them. "Losin' a world of troubles can do that to a man," he said quietly.
Nathan paused before asking the next question. But he had to know. "So...reckon you finally found them answers you was lookin' for?"
"Yep," Josiah replied, the corners of his lips turning up just a little as he looked over at his friend. "An' then some. Been havin' some mighty interesting conversations lately."
"Don't doubt that," Nathan smiled, looking around. The trees were becoming larger and more leafy, the sunlight brighter. "It all seems so...I didn't never expect it to be like this, Josiah."
"I know," his comrade said, as they began to climb a shallow hill. "I was mighty surprised myself, an' I'm supposed to be an expert on this subject."
"When I saw Rain lookin' at me, I felt sure it was just a dream or somethin'," Nathan confessed. "An' to see Chris, an' Vin an' Ezra an' Buck-an' you-" He hesitated, then broke out into a large grin. "Shoot, Josiah, we all made it! That's gotta be a miracle right there."
"We owe a lot of that to you, Nate," Josiah said as he reined in and looked at the healer with sober eyes. "You kept us alive an' goin', so we could keep pluggin' away at fixin' ourselves. If I'd died at the Seminole village when we first met, I don't guess I'd have made it this far. An' you're the one who saw to it that I'd survive."
Nathan halted as well, his own expression serious. "Wasn't gonna let you die, Josiah, you know that. Just did what I could t'keep everybody in one piece, that's all."
"It made more of a difference than you know, Nate," Josiah intoned, cocking his head. "Ezra was tellin' me how you fixed his arm back when we all first met, even after he made it plain he didn't want to ride with you 'cause you were black."
Nathan's eyebrows shot up. "He remembers that? I was just sore at him cause he wouldn't let me treat 'im. You know I don't hold with no stubborn patients."
Josiah chuckled. "Yeah, I seem to recall that. But Ezra never forgot what you did for him, Nathan, because it was a very compassionate thing for you to do. After the way he treated you, nobody would have blamed you if you'd just let him suffer. But you didn't, and I think it was for some reason other than you were just sore."
The other man shrugged and looked down. "Well..s'pose I just can't abide seein' folks in pain. Even stuck-up white folks."
Josiah was nodding slowly. "And it was that compassion, Nathan, that made our brother Ezra start to reconsider some things he'd always believed. If it hadn't been for that act, he may well have continued his ride out of the Seminole village when Anderson attacked, still mired in his old ways. And I'm pretty sure we would not have him with us today, had he done so."
Nathan regarded this idea with silent amazement.
"It takes a rare courage to show kindness to your enemies, Nathan," the preacher continued. "You've had that courage all your life, taught it to your children too, an' made more of a mark on folks' lives than you can imagine."
Nathan grinned with embarrassment, rubbing the back of his neck. "Huh! I'm right glad t'know that, Josiah, but...well, you know I ain't too keen on talkin' about myself a whole lot. Just how long am I gonna have t'listen to folks make a big ol' fuss over me?"
His old friend laughed. "Better get used to it, Nate. That's one of the drawbacks of being a decent man. An' I'm afraid, my friend, that it's not quite over yet."
They reached the crest of the hill, and Nathan's eyes grew large as they took in the sight before them. He and Josiah were standing before a large expanse of lush green grass and huge trees all leafed out in the full emerald glory of summer. The bend of a river ran nearby, its crystal waters sparkling in the bright afternoon sun. A large party seemed to be about to begin here; tables lined with all manner of food waited beneath the trees, and there were people everywhere, talking and laughing together, their voices rising on the warm air. They were all African-American, and clad in a variety of dress, a majority of it very old-fashioned.
Nathan blinked and looked again, scarcely trusting himself. He knew this place; it was in Georgia. The slaves on the plantation would hold their religious meetings here by the river every Sunday morning, amid the early songs of the birds, with the mist rising from the cool clear waters. His mother used to hold him while they sang their spirituals when they were all still together, a childhood memory he'd treasured all his life.
And the people-he knew many of them, they had been fellow slaves, not only there but on the Jackson plantation as well. His eyes darted through the crowds, joy growing in his heart as he recognized face after face. Gone were all signs of weariness, despair and suffering that Nathan recalled so well from that dark time; now the faces of his friends showed only peace, the horrible scars of bondage healed forever.
Nathan felt Josiah pat him on the shoulder. "Better go on down, brother. I think they're expectin' you."
The healer was almost afraid to move. "That's all for *me*?"
His friend tilted his head bit. "Don't be so surprised, Nate. They're just happy to finally see you again, is all. It has been a while, you know."
Nathan nodded slowly, feeling hot tears touch the corners of his eyes. "Yeah," he said in a low and choking voice as he studied the faces of the friends he had left behind so long ago. "I know."
They were waving to him now; a great excitement seemed to be stirring in the gathered throng at his arrival. Nathan waved back, his hand trembling just the slightest bit.
"See you back at the saloon tonight," he heard Josiah say. A reassuring pat on Nathan's shoulder, and the preacher was gone.
Nathan took up his reins again and rode down the hill slowly as many of his former comrades ran up to him with shouts of greeting. He returned the calls despite the lump in his throat, grasped the hands extended to him as the tide of memory swept warmly over him. He had thought for sure he'd lost them all forever when he left, his friends and fellow sufferers. Yet here he was, looking at them again, recalling every name and face without the slightest problem.
As soon as it was practical, he dismounted Moses and waded into the crowd of friends, trading embraces and clasping arms at every turn. They were all around him now, slapping his back, repeating his name, laughing and weeping as they joined in the celebration. Nathan was astounded at how completely the marks of pain and torment had been erased from their faces; men and women - and even children - he had seen killed or crippled beneath the lash now stood before him whole and strong. Families he knew to have been torn apart at the auction block now welcomed him together. Surrounded by the deluge, Nathan laughed and wept in turns, and felt truly home.
The crowd parted a little, and Nathan lifted his eyes to see a small group standing a short distance away, watching him with bright, expectant eyes. Three young men and two women, all young and strong, their faces lit up with excited smiles.
Nathan had to take a step back, almost too astonished to move, before letting out a shout and running into their arms. He felt foolish for being so surprised; after everything he had seen, why would it be so unlikely that he would see his brothers and sisters again, for the first time since his escape from the plantation?
There was a loud babble of laughing voices as the long-parted siblings greeted each other. Nathan embraced each one fiercely, a thousand questions on his lips as they gathered around him. Through the tears his brothers and sisters assured him that there would be plenty of time for stories, and that despite the separation they had kept Nathan in their hearts always, just as Nathan had kept them in his.
For Nathan, it was an astounding moment, to see the family he had left behind so long ago standing before him once more. He had never stopped wondering if they were alive, how they were doing, if they had suffered at all because of his flight, and where they had gone after the war scattered them across the country. No amount of searching had answered these questions, and he had assumed that part of him to be lost forever. Now as he touched his sister's hands and grasped his brother's shoulders, he felt deeply grateful that he had been granted the chance to see them again.
He felt the hand of one of his brothers settle on his shoulder, and Nathan turned to him, laughing at his own sentimentality as he wiped the tears from his face with one hand. The laughter faded when he lifted his eyes and saw what his brother had wanted him to see: another man, standing just a short distance away, waiting with a patient expression on his handsome face. He was a young man, tall and muscular, with a sharp face and keen eyes, appearing not at all as Nathan had last seen him. But the healer knew him at once all the same.
Nathan's eyes flew open, amazed, as he swallowed and whispered, "Daddy?"
The man's calm facade wavered, and Nathan heard him say in a clear but trembling voice, "'Bout time y'showed up, Nathan. Spent a powerful long time waitin' for ya."
Once before, a long time ago, Nathan had greeted his father after a long separation. Then, too, he had run to the man, thrown his arms tightly around him, and buried his face in his father's shoulder as tears spilled down his cheeks. But then Obediah Jackson had been old and ill, and Nathan's happiness mingled with unresolved feelings of anger and confusion. Now the man Nathan clasped to him was strong and free of illness, and the warm emotion overflowing Nathan's heart was nothing but joy.
"Daddy," he sobbed, scarcely believing that he was really feeling his father's arms around him once more, no longer weakened by age or disease.
Obediah patted his son on the back several times and held him close, his own smooth face just as stained with tears. "Sure good t'see ya again, son," he said softly and simply. "Thought you'd come by sooner or later."
Nathan spat out a coughing laugh, unable to do much else around the huge knot in his throat, and pulled away, wiping his face furiously on his sleeve. "S'pose I should apologize for livin' so long, but I ain't gonna do that," he said feebly, trying to chuckle as he gazed at the robust figure standing before him.
"Naw, don't you dare do that!" his father replied sternly, a smile lighting up his brown eyes. "I won't listen to no apologies for makin' me so proud an' givin' me such a fine bunch of grandchildren." His smile grew wider as he gently placed one hand on Nathan's cheek. "Can't tell ya what I'm feelin' right now, son. Wasn't never good with talkin'."
His son smiled through his tears and put one hand lightly on his father's outstretched arm, shaking his head. "You don't got to say anythin', Daddy," he replied in a low voice. "It's me who should do the talkin'. I got so much I've been wantin' to tell you..."
Obediah chuckled a little and patted his son's shoulder. "I know, Nathan, I know, an' we'll get to jawin' soon enough," he said with a nod. "Got one more person here wantin' to see you again, an' I'm mighty sure you want to see her too."
He turned his head, looking towards the river. Puzzled, Nathan followed Obediah's gaze, to see a young woman standing by the river watching them both. She was tall, with long curling black hair and a round, gentle face. She smiled, almost hesitantly, and took a step forward, her slender hands clutching nervously at the skirt of her long flowered dress.
Nathan stared, disbelieving.
"I know it's been a long time, son," Nathan heard his father say over the pounding of his heart, "but I surely hope you remember your mama."
Nathan found it impossible to reply. He could only stare at the lovely figure as he walked slowly across the velvety green grass, almost afraid that if he moved too fast the beautiful vision would disappear. He had only retained dim recollections of his mother, dulled further by the inescapable passage of time, but he had never forgotten her sweet smile, or how safe and loved he had felt whenever he was near her. The searing memory of the day they had been separated had stayed with him every hour of his life, but he had gotten used to the pain, convinced there was nothing that would ever soothe it away.
Yet as he drew near to the smiling young woman, the old familiar feeling swept over him once more, until he felt he was almost floating on it. He remembered her now with crystal clarity, every kind word and tender touch he had missed so sorely all his life. She had died insane and in anguish, but the person gazing at him showed no sign of her former agony. Her expression betrayed only quiet joy, coupled with the silent gravity acquired by those who had endured a great trial.
They met, and still Nathan could say nothing as he looked into his mother's eyes, as full of tears as his own. He swallowed, lifting up one trembling hand to touch his mother's cheek. How often had he yearned for this moment, when he was a child on a strange plantation sold away forever from his mother's arms? How many times had he dreamed he was with her again, only to have the cruel dawn rob him of this solitary comfort? Surely, this was a dream too, as real as it felt. Surely, this was too much to ask even of Paradise.
"Mama?" he breathed, the single word catching in his throat.
She laughed a little and took his face in her soft hands, her smile growing even wider. "Nathan, honey," she exclaimed happily, in a light voice he hadn't heard in almost seventy years, "you remember me!"
Nathan choked, and in one quick motion wrapped his strong arms around his mother, pulling her to him in as tight an embrace as he could manage. Words were impossible, thoughts jumbled with emotion as he felt her return the embrace, her sobs muffled in his ears and mingling with his own. Sweet rejoicing flooded his heart, deep and inexpressible, and he was content to simply stand folded in his mother's arms, and weep.
At length Nathan felt his mother loosen her hold on him, and he looked up, uncertain what he could possibly say next. They parted a little, each smiling and wiping at the bright tears sparkling on their cheeks.
"Well, now," she said with a self-conscious laugh as she dabbed at her face with the delicate fingers of one hand. "Reckon we just caused a fuss!"
Nathan laughed, drying his own eyes on one sleeve. "Been waitin' so long to make it, just wouldn't be right not to," he said in a voice still thick with tears. Taking a step back, he looked on her, shaking his head at how wonderful it was. "Mama, I missed you so much..."
She sighed and coughed, trying to compose herself. "Been missin' you too, son," she replied, taking his hand and looking up into his brown eyes, "'bout as much as a mama can miss her son, I 'spect. But I seen you growin' up tall an' smart, an' I been wantin' to tell you so bad how proud I was of you. I'm hopin' you felt it anyway, even if you couldn't hear me say it plain."
Nathan thought of the times he'd imagined feeling his mother near him, and nodded. "Think maybe I did, Mama," he said with a deep sigh, grasping her hand. His face grew serious. "Daddy told me what happened..."
"Hush, son," his mother said softly, her grip tightening. "Ain't no need to be thinkin' on that, it's all been settled an' put away."
He sighed, shaking his head as he gazed sadly into her sweet face. "You suffered so much for me, Mama...sure wish I could've helped you somehow."
His mother gently caressed his cheek. "You did help me, son, by not lettin' yourself get hard an' full of hate like you coulda done. You kept all the goodness I taught you an' used it to help folks, even them that turned their back on you, an' made sure them children of yours learned that kindness too. That made this mama's heart right glad, Nathan, an' helped me more'n anything else you could've done."
Relieved, he embraced her again, the strong rush of emotion replaced now by the soothing warmth of grateful acceptance. 'This truly is real', he thought with amazement as his family gathered around him once more. He met their eyes with a wide smile as they all laughed, the deeper emotion giving way to a lighter, more festive mood.
"Reckon it's time to get to celebratin'," Obediah declared, slapping one hand on his son's shoulder. "Hope you ain't in a shy mood, son, there's a heap of folks here who want to talk to you."
Nathan grinned, took his mother's hand and gazed at his father as they moved towards the tables of food set by the sparkling river. "That ain't too surprisin', Daddy. We all got 'bout fifty years of catchin' up to do."
This remark brought a burst of good-natured replies from his brothers and sisters, who all began to vie for the chance to tell Nathan their stories. Nathan laughed, thinking he had never heard any sound so glorious in his life, and putting his arms around his parents strode through the bright afternoon sunshine towards the feast.
+ + + + + + +
Night had fallen by the time Nathan began to make his way back to Four Corners, his mind still exhilarated from everything he had experienced that afternoon. His heart had never been so full.
Horse and rider moved slowly across the wide expanse. Nathan somehow knew the way, despite his recent arrival, just as he had somehow known that it was time to return to his friends. This time, however, there was no anxiety connected to the separation; his family would be there always, never more than an arm's reach away. It was an amazing thought, one Nathan was still adjusting to, so he was glad to have this quiet time to himself, to think about all that he had seen.
Overhead, the sky blazed with millions of brilliant stars. Around him waved a field of prairie wildflowers, their scent sweetly perfuming the evening air. All was still, save for the tranquil sounds of the Western night. Nathan looked around and smiled, drawing a deep breath and thinking, 'No preacher could ever do this justice.'
It had been incredible to sit and talk to his mother, to listen as his brothers and sisters revealed all they had done since their separation. Some had escaped as well, one had died before the war started, one brother had escaped and enlisted in one of the Union's black units. There was so much to hear, and Nathan thought for sure there would be no time for every story to be told before the day was gone. But somehow they were all able to tell him how they had spent their lives, and by the time he waved farewell and started back it felt as if they had never been parted.
But the whole celebration had been too remarkable for words, Nathan mused as he rode along. He had seen these people suffering horribly beneath slavery's cruel hand, seen many of them beaten and tortured and killed. He knew how they had all lived without hope, shadowed by the worst type of despair. To see them now, freed from that torment, the shadow gone forever, made his heart soar straight up to the stars, even more so than his own liberation. They were all free now.
He looked up and saw the glittering lantern lights of Four Corners beckoning in the distance. The scraping sound of hooves reached his ears, and he saw a large figure on horseback moving slowly towards him, riding with a relaxed, leisurely gait.
A grin spread across Nathan's face. "Hey, Josiah," he said in greeting as they met.
"Evenin', Nate," came the genial reply. "Thought you might like some company on the way back into town."
"Sure would," Nathan said with a nod as Josiah turned his horse around and came up beside him. "Been wantin' someone to pinch me an' prove this is all real."
Josiah chuckled softly. "Know what you mean," he sighed as they made their way down towards the town. "I take it the party went well."
Nathan nodded in the dark, growing misty at the memory. "It was...incredible," he murmured gently. "Like somethin' out of the best dream I ever coulda had."
His old friend looked over at him and smiled slightly. "You earned it, Nate. You really did." Josiah reached out and patted Nathan on the shoulder.
"Guess we all did, Josiah," Nathan said quietly, settling his gaze on the small town below them where the other men were waiting. "It's so amazin', t'see Vin alive again, an' Ezra all fit an' healthy. An' Chris looks like he done had the weight of the whole world taken right off his shoulders. It's..." His voice trailed off into silence as emotion overcame him, and he simply shook his head and looked down, unable to finish.
Josiah said nothing, merely smiling in understanding sympathy as he placed a hand on Nathan's shoulder. Embarrassed, Nathan finally looked up and sniffed.
"Sure wish JD could know, Josiah," he said in a faintly tremulous voice. "He's the last now, an' that's gonna lay mighty heavy on him."
Josiah grasped Nathan's shoulder a little, his deep voice soft. "It's a burden we'll help him carry, Nate," he assured his friend. "An' I think a part of him does know, even if he's not aware of it. He'll do just fine, an' be ridin' with us before you know it."
Nathan laughed, despite the tears in his eyes. "Can't wait for that!" he exclaimed. "It'll be just like the ol' days."
The other man laughed a little too. "It'll be new days then, Nate," he said in a jubilant voice. "Now let's get you to that saloon."
The laughter of the two friends blended together, and they rode at a joyous gallop the rest of the way into town.
+ + + + + + +
"..so after that big fire at Purgatorio, some passin' native folk found me. But I guess I was past savin', 'cause before long I woke up here."
Vin's voice rose above the celebratory din wafting through the air of the Four Corners saloon. The six friends sat at a large round table near the corner, surrounded by the flotsam of an evening's worth of poker, their eyes on the tracker as he sat slouched and relaxed in his chair.
Nathan nodded at Vin's words, fascinated. He had spent the entire evening listening to his friends recounting their activities since he had last seen them, and had yet to lose his sense of astonishment. The town, a relic the last time he had seen it, now bustled with activity and life; the saloon, once the half-lit haven for drunkards, now gleamed brightly, all traces of despair gone. People Nathan hadn't seen in years had swirled by the table all night, welcoming him with handshakes and embraces.
He was beginning to settle down, to become accustomed to the way things were now. It was so much like before, to be sitting with his friends, laughing and talking as the cards flew, but there were subtle differences. No money changed hands during the card game, there was no need for it now; the drink in his mug tasted finer than anything the old saloon had served, without the slightest intoxicating effect. It had taken him a while to notice that the saloon's old clock was missing, but that made perfect sense; with no time to worry about, what use was there for a clock?
"So that's what happened to you," Nathan said with wonder when Vin had finished. "JD said he saw you when he was recoverin'. We thought it was probably a dream or somethin'."
Vin sighed and sat up, glancing down at the cards in his hand. "I was tryin' t'let 'im know I was all right. Poor kid, he was sufferin' somethin' awful."
"We all went just about plum crazy watchin' out for that boy," Buck declared as he tossed down a card. "Don't think I left his bedside for pert near three months."
"It was quite a trying time, to be sure," Ezra added solemnly as he rearranged his hand. "Yet I daresay our young friend has amazed us all."
"He sure did," Nathan agreed softly, thinking about how relieved he and Josiah were when JD finally began to recover from his awful wounds. After a moment he looked up. "So-you all been keepin' an eye on things, all this time?"
"Well, not every minute," Buck replied, leaning back in his chair. "But there's ways to find out what's goin' on with those you care about, so you know when they need you around. You shoulda seen me when JD was a young lawman in Chicago. Woo! I was runnin' night an' day tryin' to keep up with that kid."
The men chuckled.
"JD's police department won't be the only place that throws a party when he finally retires," Chris said with a dry smile as he reached over and gave Buck a single heavy pat on the shoulder.
"And we did not neglect you either, my friend," Ezra noted, tilting his head as he leveled his clear green eyes at the healer. "There were times when we could not help standing by you as well, in good times and ill."
Nathan somehow didn't feel surprised when he considered this. "Gotta admit, I sometimes felt like that was true, even when I told myself it couldn't be," he said, his expression reflective as he remembered those instances, when the children were born, when Rain died. He swept them all with a grateful gaze. "Thanks."
Josiah smiled, then looked at Nathan. "You'll see how it's done, Nate. Then you can be close to your family whenever you want."
The healer sighed. "That'd be right nice," he confessed in a soft voice. "They must be pretty sad right now for me leavin'. It was kinda sudden, the way it happened."
The table fell silent as his friends gazed at him with sympathy.
Josiah placed one hand gently on his shoulder. "They got some wonderful memories to get 'em through this, Nate," he said in an encouraging tone. "Rest assured you'll have a place in all their hearts for the rest of their lives. An' they'll be with you again before you know it, believe me."
He squeezed Nathan's shoulder and gave it a pat before releasing his hold.
The healer smiled a little at the thought. "Now that's gonna be somethin'," he admitted, his mood lifting. "I'd sure like for the kids to meet their kin from the old days, they've asked so much about 'em."
"And so they shall," Ezra assured him, smiling over his cards, "and it will be a mutually satisfying encounter, I'm sure. You have raised a remarkably fine family, my friend, and I am certain you need have no fear for your posterity."
Nathan sat back, shrugging modestly at the praise. "Thanks, Ezra, I just did what I could. They got their own bad guys to face, just like we did, but I bet they'll come out all right."
"They'll do better than all right, with all of us keepin' an eye on them," Chris stated firmly.
A smile of appreciation crossed Nathan's face as he took a drink from his mug. A new thought crossed his mind as he set the glass down. "Now I guess we just got to wait til JD shows up," he exclaimed, looking around. "Can't wait for that, he's missed you all somethin' fierce."
Buck sighed. "We been missin' the boy too, Nathan, but I'm hopin' he an' Casey got some time left to 'em yet," he said, turning his blue eyes on the healer. "I know there's some things he wants t'do, an' he'll rest a mite easier if he gets the chance to do 'em."
Nathan thought a moment. "Yeah, he wanted to see about gettin' our story wrote down for his kids. Maybe when he retires, he can do it."
"Hope he cleans it up a bit, for Buck's sake," drawled Vin, shooting the black-haired man a wry glance from beneath his weathered wide-brimmed hat.
Buck chuckled. "Naw, he oughta leave that stuff in, it'll make it more interestin'," he said as he leaned back. "Long as he changes some names, o'course..."
"Gentlemen," Ezra interrupted as gentle laughter swept round the table, "I know that eternity stretches before us, but perhaps we should finish this hand before too many centuries elapse."
This was met with general agreement, and Chris was revealed as the winner. As Ezra gathered up the cards and reshuffled, Nathan sat back and eyed them all with a quiet smile. This could have been any evening during their time in Four Corners, except for JD's absence, it was all so real and natural. But JD would join them one day, and then it would be just like those days, when they were all young, and their destiny still lay before them.
Now destiny had come full circle, and here he was once more, surrounded by his friends beneath the golden light of the saloon lamps. Only this time, he would never again have to worry about seeing his friends in pain, never have to bend over their bleeding forms and pray for the skill to save them. After years of fighting and suffering for others, no suffering would ever trouble them again. The circle around the table would always remain whole, moving only to accept its last remaining member. It was an overwhelming thought, one Nathan knew he would never become jaded to, even after a hundred lifetimes.
As he sat contemplating these things, he looked up and saw Rain standing at the door, watching him with smiling eyes.
Ezra noticed this as well. "I believe you are being summoned, Mr. Jackson," he announced with a twinkle in his green eyes. "Perhaps we shall call it an evening, and reconvene tomorrow?"
Nathan could hardly argue, so overjoyed was he at seeing Rain again. He would never get tired of that, either. "Yeah, reckon so," he said, standing up and putting on his hat. "See you all tomorrow."
"We'll come by your place," Chris said as he got up, a smile on his face. "I've got a very excited little boy who's pretty anxious to meet you."
Nathan grinned at the gunslinger. "Sure am happy to hear that, Chris," he said sincerely; that would certainly explain the peace in Chris's green eyes. "I'm wantin' to meet him an' Sarah too."
"Tomorrow, then," Chris said with a slight nod, still smiling, and Nathan returned the gesture before heading for the door.
"Hey, Rain" he said, softly kissing his wife as he stepped outside into the warm evening.
"Nathan," she replied, putting one arm around his waist in greeting. "I trust you have had a very good day."
He laughed as they began to slowly walk towards the hitching post. "Good don't begin to describe it. You should've seen it, honey, I just can't put it into words."
"I hope they did not embarrass you," she said gently, taking his hand as they walked along. "But they have all been waiting for this day to come, as I have. So, you must not blame them too much!"
"Aw, I don't blame 'em at all," he confessed, looking up at the starlit sky. "I been wantin' this day to come too, just wasn't sure it ever would."
They arrived at the horses, Moses giving his master a welcoming snort as they walked up.
"My parents and the people of the Seminole village asked if we would stay with them tonight," Rain said, turning to her husband. "They all want to see you very much, since you were so kind to them. Our hut is there, where we lived those first few years, and is very comfortable."
Nathan burst into an anticipatory grin. "I'd love to, Rain! It'll be great to see ol' Eban an' Tastanagi again."
She laughed a little. "You may be surprised, Nathan. They are not quite as old as you remember them!"
He shrugged and untied Moses's reins. "After today, darlin', nothin's gonna surprise me again."
Rain smiled at him and gave him a kiss, rubbing his back a little before moving over to her own mount. He climbed up into the saddle, frowning a bit and shrugging his shoulders.
"What is the matter?" Rain asked as she settled into her seat.
"Oh," he replied in a slightly embarrassed tone, "I know it sounds kind of funny, but just now when you rubbed my back, it felt sorta different than it used to. The shirt against my back, I mean. Been noticin' it all day, just haven't had a chance to say it 'til now."
His wife picked up her reins and eyed him with a knowing smile. "The touch which has freed those you love from their pain would not ignore yours, Nathan. Should it be such a wonder that your scars are gone as well?"
Nathan's eyes widened a little, and he reached back, letting his fingertips feel around his back where the scars from his youthful whipping had marred him for most of his life. He felt only the soft cotton of his shirt, and-for the first time in over seventy years-nothing but smooth skin beneath the fabric.
He blinked, a little shocked, and looked at Rain with a bewildered grin on his face. She returned the smile, her eyes shining with quiet joy at her husband's healing, and they embraced for a moment in silent happiness, knowing that there could be no words.
After a few moments they parted, still smiling, and picking up the reins guided their mounts away from the saloon and down the street, towards the gentle silver beauty of the starlit desert.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Continues in Across The Divide: The Seven Ride Again