The Perfect Place
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters of "The Magnificent Seven." They are the property of CBS, Trilogy Entertainment, MGM, and The Mirisch Group. No infringement of copyrights is intended, and no profit is made from the writing of this story.
This story is written in the Old West, with a P.G. rating. This is in response to Melody's "Let's Hurt Josiah" challenge. Feedback is appreciated.
There is a Puff's warning for this story.
Josiah could tell by the look on the man's face that he wouldn't like the news. The telegraph operator usually ran whenever he received a message, eager to share the news. This time, however, he walked slowly, approaching the preacher with downcast eyes. He handed the slip of paper to Josiah, then quietly said "I'm sorry," before turning around. The preacher sighed, his blue eyes looking to the heavens. Before opening the note, he already knew what it said. There would only be one person who would send him a telegram. The Mother Superior at Vista City, and there could only be one message: Hannah was dead.
It took some time for him to finally read the message, which explained that Hannah died in her sleep, the cause unknown. A funeral had been arranged, but they would wait for his arrival. His arrival. How could he possibly attend her funeral? He had failed her completely in life, and now all he wanted to do was crawl inside a bottle. That he would fail her in death as well he was certain. He didn't realize how long he'd been sitting there, staring at the note. He finally became aware that a shadow had fallen across the paper. He looked up into the blue eyes of Vin Tanner, the only person in town who knew his secret in Vista City. Vin had been true to his word, and hadn't told any of their comrades about Hannah. Now they would all find out.
"Howdy, pard." Vin shifted his weight into his typical lean. "Y'all been sitting out in this blazin' sun for awhile. Everything okay?"
Josiah felt completely numb, but the words came from somewhere. "My sister's dead, Vin." His arm fell to his side, and the note fell to the ground.
"I'm real sorry, Josiah." Vin retrieved the note. "Guess you'll be leaving for Vista City soon?"
Josiah didn't answer. He still couldn't see how he could go to her funeral. All he could think to do was get drunk, as soon as his legs would allow his to stand. So far, they weren't cooperating.
Vin didn't like the fact that Josiah didn't answer. "Maybe you'd like some company on the way?" Still no answer. Vin sat next to Josiah, who was watching the dust blow down the street. "I remember my Mama's funeral. I was so young, I didn't really understand. All I saw was them putting a box in the ground. They were talking about Mama, but she wasn't there. At least I didn't think she was. But I know now, she saw everyone there, heard every word spoken."
"All I wanna do is get drunk."
Josiah closed his eyes. "I went to my mother's funeral, too. That's the only one I went to, and that's because my father dragged me. I wasn't around for his. He died over a year before I found out. And now, Hannah's gone. I wish it'd been me instead."
"Josiah, you gotta go. If you don't, you'll hate yourself even worse than you do now." Vin reached out and grabbed the big man's shoulder, spinning him so that their eyes met. "You didn't have a chance to be there for your father, but you do have a chance to be there for Hannah. And no matter how much you may want to hide in a bottle, you're not gonna miss this chance. If I have to tell Chris and all the others, you'll be there if we all have to drag you."
Josiah yanked free of Vin's grip. Now he was angry. "I'll go when I'm damn ready to go, Vin."
"Fine with me." Vin stood to leave. "I'll go get your horse. Shall I tell Chris, or you?" Josiah snatched the note back and turned angrily toward the saloon. He took a few steps, then stopped. He put his hand to his mouth, then turned back to Vin. His eyes were moist, but no tears came. Vin walked up to Josiah, and said, "Why don't we tell him together?"
Chris Larabee leaned against the hitching post, and struck a match against it to light his cheroot cigar. His black duster whipped around his legs, and the wind tugged at his hat. Normally, he would welcome a cool breeze, but this wind just kicked the dust around and felt too hot. He watched as Vin and Josiah approached, with Josiah faltering a bit. It didn't take killer instincts to know something was wrong. He decided to meet them halfway. "Vin, Josiah," he greeted them with a nod of the head. "Everything all right?"
Josiah didn't answer. Vin handed Chris the telegram. Chris read the note quickly, then looked to Josiah. "Sorry to hear this. Was she a friend of yours?"
"She was my sister," Josiah's voice cracked.
"Recon I ought to go with him." Vin pushed his hair out of his face, and continued. "If we leave within the hour, we'll be in Vista City late tomorrow evening. Should be back a few days after that."
Chris nodded. "Well, we'll look for you then. Anything I can do for you, Josiah?"
Although he felt weak, Josiah shook his head. "No, Brother Vin seems to have the situation in hand." With nothing further to say, the two men gathered their supplies and left town.
The trip to Vista City was long and quiet. Josiah didn't feel like talking, and Vin felt it best to just let him be. As he predicted, they arrived just at sundown. The Mother Superior allowed them to spend the night in the convent. She offered food, which Vin accepted, but Josiah refused to eat. The funeral was early the next morning. Vin stood by respectfully during the service. When it came time for the family to say a few words, Josiah couldn't bring himself to speak. Mother Superior said a few prayers, then it was all over.
The two men prepared to leave in silence. Before they could go, Mother Superior gave Josiah a parcel containing Hannah's personal effects, and a small pouch containing $50.00. This was money that he had sent for Hannah's care, which hadn't been spent. Mother Superior explained that Hannah had made it clear these were to go to Josiah. He took them reluctantly, stuffing the parcel in his saddlebag. He held the pouch, squeezing the contents between his fingers. He could hear the rustle of paper, and feel the solid coins. He had kept his emotions bottled up inside for too long, now they had to come out. And in his mind, the perfect place to do that was in a saloon.
Vin was a little perturbed by his friend. Josiah couldn't loosen his tongue at his sister's funeral, but he could sure put back the whiskey afterwards. There were just a few seedy looking hombres in the saloon, all of them eyeing the pouch Josiah waived around. Every one of them knew about the $50.00, and some of them might just kill a man to get it. He knew they needed to leave now, the problem was getting Josiah to agree to leave. Vin finally decided to wait until Josiah passed out, then drag him out of there. He only hoped it was not too late. It already was.
Most people in the town knew him as Paxton. Just Paxton, no first name. He looked as desperate as any other in the saloon, but he was a little sharper than they were. Of course, he was as aware as everyone else of the money in the pouch, and that a drunk man was easy to rob. The problem was his partner, a sharp-eyed man who would not be easy to get past. But Paxton had a plan for dealing with Vin Tanner, too. He left quietly, so as not to attract extra attention. Vin noticed him leaving, and felt a little relief. At least that was one less villain to worry about. He was wrong.
About ten minutes later, someone came rushing into the saloon reporting that the convent was on fire. The blaze had started in their barn, and the dry straw was turning into flames that threatened the livestock. Some men went to help put out the fire, most went just to watch. Vin shook Josiah, who had slid to the floor. He had to make a choice, either help the Mother Superior or protect his drunken friend. Josiah made it for him. "Go on, Vin. I'll be okay." He started to rise, then stumbled. Vin caught him, but Josiah pushed him away. "Go help those women!" he commanded. "I'll be right behind you." He stood slowly, and Vin believed Josiah would follow him. He ran out to help put out the fire. Josiah took a few more steps, then staggered and steadied himself against the wall. Paxton waited by the door, ready, and as Josiah stepped out he met him. Paxton's blade was only five inches, and Josiah wore his thick leather coat. Still, the blade slid between his ribs. Josiah was so drunk he really didn't feel any pain, and was only vaguely aware of the injury. As he stared at the seeping blood, Paxton relieved him of the pouch.
Josiah stumbled backwards, falling against the wall. He looked at the blood on his hands, and laughed at the irony of the situation. He felt responsible for Hannah being in the convent in the first place, now he would finally pay for his sins. Their horses were hitched outside the saloon. Josiah pushed off the wall, and mounted his horse. He had no intention of treating the wound, or of allowing Vin Tanner to stop him. He believed this was his fate, and he willingly accepted it. So, he turned his horse into the empty desert and rode off, not even knowing or caring about the direction.
About an hour later, the fire was finally put out. All the horses and other livestock had been moved and were safe. At this time, Vin looked around and realized Josiah wasn't there. Damn fool! Vin quickly apologized to God for swearing in the convent, but Josiah had obviously stayed in the saloon to drown his sorrows. Vin raced back, only to find the preacher and his horse missing. He noticed a small pool of blood in front of the saloon, and knew his friend was injured. A quick search of the town revealed no body. Vin figured someone might have thrown the big man across his horse and led them out of town. There was still plenty of daylight left. Problem was that strong wind had blown away whatever trail he might have followed. He whipped out the spyglass and scanned the horizon, but saw nothing. He then raced to the telegraph office and sent a wire to Chris Larabee. At least the others could cover the route between Four Corners and Vista City. He would have to cover the rest himself.
The hot sun baked down on the back of Josiah's head. The horse just kind of wandered around, not really taking any particular course. The blood had soaked through Josiah's clothing, and somewhat sealed the wound, but the slightest jarring would start fresh bleeding. Not that he cared. Finally, he would meet his maker. Finally he would pay for all his sins, his mistakes, his stubbornness and selfish behavior. He had run away from his father, unable to see the man as human and prone to mistakes. He'd made much worse mistakes himself. The biggest mistake was that he'd left Hannah behind. She had begged him to take her along, but he was so sure of himself. A woman didn't need to go where he was going, he told her. The truth was, he didn't want to bother with her. It was that truth that haunted him, made him feel responsible for Hannah's condition, and drove him to drink after every visit. If he'd just thought of someone besides himself, none of this would have happened. His father wouldn't have resorted to beating her and locking her up, and she wouldn't have lost her mind.
The horse was getting tired, and there was no sign of water. Josiah did remember he did have a canteen, so he pulled the reins until the horse stopped. He half slid, half fell off the horse, then fetched the canteen. He pushed the end into the horses' mouth, letting the water dribble to the ground. "You can lead a horse to water," he started to say, then laughed. "Go on, now." He slapped the horse, and the animal veered and ran in another direction. Josiah scanned the wide, empty expanse all around him. He felt the earth would open and swallow him whole, but nothing happened. Having nothing better to do, he started walking.
The telegraph operator couldn't have run faster if he tried. It took several stops to locate the leader of the Seven. First stop was the saloon, then the jail, then the Clarion News, where Mary mentioned he had gone riding. Finally he arrived at the livery stable, just in time to catch Chris and Buck as they returned from their foray. "Mr. Larabee," he puffed, "this looks important." Chris thanked the man before reading the note. "Dammit!" he exclaimed, then handed the note to Buck. "Got any idea where J.D. is?"
"Uh, he's supposed to be watching the town." Buck didn't bother unsaddling his horse, instead he led the animal to the water trough. "Drink up, we got more riding to do."
"Vin mentioned Vista City was about a day and a half's ride." Chris did the same with his horse. "We need to leave in twenty minutes. I'll get Nathan, you see if you can find the others." Nathan responded in a similar fashion to Chris, then gathered medical supplies as he ranted in a low tone. Chris would have laughed if the situation wasn't so serious. They knew how Josiah could be, sometimes they swore he had a death wish. Meanwhile, Buck found J.D. and Casey over at Mrs. Potter's, and they ran into Ezra on their way to the jail. He had been looking for anyone after hearing about Chris receiving an urgent telegram.
Larabee's original plan was to leave Ezra and J.D. to watch the town while he, Buck and Nathan caught up with the tracker. This was met with howls of protests from both men, who assured Chris they would be more successful if everyone joined in the search. "It's possible that Vin will have located Josiah before we arrive," he pointed out.
"True, that is a possibility," replied Ezra, "but the odds are not in his favor. May I remind you that Vista City is surrounded by miles of desert, and Vin, skillful as he may be, is only one man?"
"Hard to argue with that one," Buck pondered aloud. "We probably could use the help."
"And what about the town?" Chris looked at his four comrades, but none were eager to stay.
J.D. shrugged and answered, "Things have been real quiet, Chris. Besides, we've all left before. Remember the wagon train? We were gone for a few weeks, and this time it should only be a few days."
"Okay, you win." Chris shook his head. "We'll all need a few days supplies. Vin said he'd be in Vista City tomorrow evening, let us know what he's covered. Let's get going." With that, the five men prepared for their trip.
Vin wasn't having any luck finding Josiah, he might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack. He'd arced around Vista City, not more than a two-hour ride from the town, but hadn't found any sign of the preacher. He reasoned he would need to travel farther out, but not more than a few miles, as he told Chris he'd be back in Vista City next sundown. It was getting close to sundown now, and some decision would have to be made. The desert could get mighty cold at night, which would be bad for a wounded man. If Josiah should decide not to kill himself in the desert, he might seek shelter against the stone bluffs in the distance. Vin figured it would be a good plan for himself, at any rate. He scanned the horizon once more before daylight faded, and saw a horse trotting slowly by itself. It might be Josiah's horse, and there might even be something of a trail. Vin spurred his mount forward, eager to catch the wayward stallion.
The alcohol was beginning to wear off, which caused Josiah double discomfort. First, his head ached from the oncoming hangover. Second, feeling was returning to his wound, and the burning pain captured his attention most fiercely. He finally removed a neckerchief and shoved it against the wound, which still seeped blood. For the first time all day, Josiah thought that maybe he didn't want to die just yet. The sun was nearly gone, and the temperature would drop quickly. He scanned the horizon, locating the stone bluff just a short walk away. Maybe he could get there before it was too dark to see. Along the way he gathered firewood, hoping he would be able to get a fire started. He made it to the hill just as darkness fell. Too tired to light the fire, he collapsed in the most sheltered looking crevice of the hill.
Vin was having no luck catching the horse. He would get close, only to watch the animal scurry out of reach. This was like a cursed game to Vin. At one point, he considered shooting the horse in the leg, but he'd never really do that. "Come on, dammit!" he cried out. As if he understood, the stallion turned towards Vin with ears perked up. Finally Vin was able to secure the animal, and confirm it was Josiah's horse. By now the light was gone, and he had strayed so far from the original trail that there would be no point in looking now. He couldn't see the bluffs anymore, so he would have to find some other shelter for himself, and try again at first light.
The crevice kept the wind off Josiah, and the rocks on the hill stayed warm for some time, but eventually the cold settled, enough to inspire the preacher to attempt to light the firewood. The sky was clear and brilliant from the stars, but the moon was a thin sliver. Light was minimal, and the lack of cloud cover meant the ground would become very cold. Josiah's matches were in his saddlebag, but he did have his gunbelt. He pulled a few bullets apart, and poured the powder in a small pile under the firewood. He struck a rock against his knife blade again and again, until a spark finally ignited the powder and caught the kindlings on fire. Sitting back, he enjoyed what heat came from the small fire, and contemplated his situation. "Well, you dumb bastard," he said to himself, "you've really gone and done it now. Out here only God knows where, with a knife wound, no horse and no water. No one can hurt Josiah like Josiah can." He started laughing, a laugh that echoed across the desert to a sleeping tracker. He awoke with a start, certain he'd just heard Josiah, but all was quiet. Still, Vin had hope that he would find the big man, and find him alive.
The fire burned for less than an hour, but Josiah had piled stones around the blaze to warm them. This would have to be enough, as he had no blanket. His mind slipped in and out of consciousness until sunrise. As the scene filled with the gray light of dawn, Josiah thought he could see someone sitting near him. Someone with long, light colored hair blowing in the morning breeze. He blinked and squinted, trying to make out a face, when he heard a familiar voice ask, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Josiah sat up, startled by the voice. "Hannah?"
"Yes, it's me." He could see his sister, wearing the same dress she was buried in, just a few feet away. Josiah shook his head, but the image remained. "Josiah, stop that. You wanted to see me, and you thought the desert would be the perfect place for that to happen. Well, you were right."
Lack of water in the desert can make a man hallucinate, but the preacher believed his prayers had been answered. "Hannah, good Lord! It's so good to see you, all better. You're not really dead! It's a miracle. Oh, Hannah, there's so much I want to say to you."
"I know," she answered sadly. "But there's something I need to say to you, first." She took a deep breath, trying to gather her thoughts. "I know you blame yourself for what happened to me. You think if you'd taken me with you when I asked, things would have come out different. And maybe they would have."
"Hannah, I'm so sorry I left you." Josiah struggled to hold back the tears. "I was so selfish. I just didn't want to but it's all different now. The Lord has given me, given us another chance, and I swear I'll do it right this time."
"Don't swear to things you can't make happen," she cautioned. "Listen, just listen to me. Josiah, some people have a disease of the mind. This disease, or demon, whatever you want to call it, can destroy a person just as surely as consumption can. What happened to me, it wasn't your fault. Really, it wasn't Papa's, either."
"Ah," Josiah spit at the ground. "All he ever did was beat you. He sure didn't help your situation any."
"No," replied Hannah, "I don't suppose he did. But he did all he knew to do. Truth is, no one really knows how to help people like me. You didn't see what I was like back then. One day I'd be a raving maniac, trying to break everything in the house, screaming like a banshee, and sometimes I'd hit him first. Then the next day, I'd be in a blue mood, kind of like the way you were in the saloon. I didn't care if someone dragged me off and killed me. I think I'd have welcomed it."
Josiah was confused. "How did you know about the saloon?"
"I've been watching you, silly." She smiled, but then the smile faded. "I've been worried about you, too. Sometimes I see some of this disease in you. I don't want you to drink anymore."
"Hannah," he protested.
"I mean it!" She sighed, then leaned closer to her brother. "Josiah, the woman that was your sister died a long time ago. The woman you put in the convent was like an empty shell. There were so many times I wanted to tell you to quit blaming yourself for something that wasn't your fault, but I couldn't get the words out. Not any better than you could get the words out at the funeral."
"The funeral?" Josiah didn't want to hear what was coming next. "That was a mistake. You're not dead, Hannah, you're not!"
"Yes, I am." Hannah's face started to fade, but she was able to say one more thing. "Don't blame yourself anymore. And don't feel bad for me, either. I'm finally free of that disease. I can finally know some peace. Take care of yourself, Josiah. You've still got some years to go, and you've still got a mission to complete." With that, the sunlight pierced the gray dawn. Josiah reached out for Hannah, and she held out her hand to him. The bright light made him blink, and when he opened his eyes she was gone. His hand closed on empty air. "Hannah," he called out, standing and stumbling out of the crevice which sheltered him. "HANNAH!"
Vin turned quickly towards the sound of the preacher's anguished cry. He had resumed the search before the sun's rays hit the ground. Scanning the horizon with his spyglass, he watched as Josiah crumpled to the ground, screaming his sister's name. "Hang on, pard," Vin mumbled, "I'm coming."
A half day later, five tired men arrived in Vista City. They found the convent, not too badly damaged by the fire. Josiah was resting comfortably, and Mother Superior had cleaned and dressed the wound. Chris and Nathan decided to stay until the big man was able to return to Four Corners. The others had a meal and got some rest at the convent, then rose early to return home. Before leaving, Vin went to see Josiah. "Morning, pard. You look like you're feeling some better."
"Yes, I am, Brother Vin." The preacher smiled. "I found out a few things out there in the desert."
"That right?" asked the tracker.
"Yep." Josiah had a peaceful look about him. "Found out I ain't ready to die just yet."
"Well, that's a relief." Vin chuckled, then asked, "What else did you learn?"
Josiah turned to Vin and said, "I found out this was the perfect place for Hannah. She was happy here, and that goes a long way towards forgiveness."
"I don't think you need to worry about that." Vin smiled slightly. "I think Hannah forgave you a long time ago."
"That she did," Josiah said, nodding. "And maybe now I can forgive myself."
"I think she'd like that," Vin replied. "I really think she would."
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