They rode on for a while, silent as they passed through the woods. After
speaking for so long, Josiah felt the need to quiet his tongue and simply
try to absorb what he was seeing and feeling. It proved to be a daunting
As they moved through the forest and onto the wide desert plains, he was
struck once again at how beautiful everything was. Every object seemed suffused
with a spirit whose vibrant energy he could feel coursing through him. Its
radiance seemed to pour through him, balming his weary soul and restoring
it to vigorous new health. As Josiah looked around him, his mind pondered
everything he'd ever read, or discussed, about the concept of heaven, in
all of its religious manifestations. To actually be here, in a place so many
had sought to define for ages, was astounding. The fact was so much more
wonderful than the theory.
Even more astonishing to Josiah was how this place felt. The anger and bitterness
he had carried all his life was gone, replaced with a remarkable sense of
peace and satisfaction. He knew now that his struggles to overcome the demons
of doubt and despair which had so long plagued him were not in vain. But
there was also the instinct that his contributions to the cause were not
yet over. There was still work to do, he felt, and the larger fight was not
yet over. He still, however, felt certain of its outcome.
When the urge to talk returned, he looked over at Hannah with a smile. "Sure
wish you'd tell me where we're goin'."
She grinned, keeping her stare straight ahead. "You'll see, Josiah. You always
were an impatient one!"
Josiah chuckled and spurred Prophet on. He'd forgotten what a splendid horse
Prophet had been, how easy it was to ride him. Most religions held that animals
had no souls; he was glad to find that this was not true.
"Hard not t'be anxious t'see what's next," Josiah admitted, letting his gaze
travel over the majestic mountains and green forests before them. "I'd like
to go over every inch of the place, just t'see what's here."
Hannah laughed. "You'll have plenty of time for that, brother, though I'm
not sure even an eternity is enough to see everything. There are many rooms
to this mansion, as the Bible says."
"Fair enough," Josiah nodded, a subdued eagerness running through him as
he contemplated her words. If this place was only the beginning, what could
the rest of it be like?
They topped a small hill, and Hannah reined in her horse, saying with an
excited whisper, "We're here."
Josiah saw where they were, and felt something electric go through him. He'd
been here, many years before, and a feeling of recognition swept over him
as he took in the scene before him. But the ranch house, then burned to the
ground and in ruins, was now pristine, its porch wide and welcoming, smoke
drifting from the stone chimney. The corral, then in disrepair and empty,
was now the home to several beautiful trotting horses, their coats flashing
in the dazzling sunshine. Everything then had been dead and blighted, devoid
of life. This place overflowed with it.
And there had been two graves there, bearing only the names of Sarah and
Adam Larabee, and a grief-stricken man in black bent over their tombs with
eyes full of rage and sorrow. But now three figures came out on the porch,
a lovely woman with streaming brown hair holding the hand of an eagerly bouncing
four-year-old boy. Beside them both was a blonde-haired man whose eyes no
longer held the shadows of anguish. He looked up at Josiah and smiled, and
the preacher felt his heart almost burst with joy.
"Praise be," he whispered.
He looked at Hannah, unable to speak further, and she laughed. "Well, go
on-don't make them come up here after you!"
Josiah obeyed, shouting his glad greetings all the way down the hill.
"Chris!" he shouted, his booming voice laced with barely suppressed delight.
The last time he had seen Chris Larabee, the man was dying, pierced by several
bullets after the final confrontation with Fowler and his men. He had won
justice for his murdered family at the cost of his own life. To see Chris
now, healthy and at peace, filled Josiah with indescribable happiness, and
the bear hug he gave his former leader after leaping off of Prophet evoked
shouts of laughter from all who witnessed it.
After whirling Chris around a few times, Josiah set him down, a huge grin
brightening his face.
"Lord be praised, Chris!" he said, putting his hands on his hips and shaking
his head as he stepped back. "I almost didn't recognize you."
"Well, I sure couldn't miss you," was the dry reply, as Chris gazed fondly
at the older man. "Y'tore up half my front yard gettin' here."
"Oh, like it won't grow back," chided the brown-haired woman with a gently
teasing Irish accent. Chris threw her a loving grin and turned to Josiah,
his face beaming.
"Josiah, I'd like you to meet Sarah."
Josiah removed his wide-brimmed hat and took her hand. "Ma'am. I'm right
glad t'meet you. It's a great pleasure to see how happy he is with you now."
Sarah smiled, her brown eyes dancing. "And it was a pleasure t'me, Josiah,
t'know he had such men as yourself by his side when he most needed you. I
always felt he was in the best possible hands, an' I'd like t'thank you for
Josiah shrugged a bit, abashed at the praise. "Few men would have had the
strength to engage in the good fight after a loss like Chris's, ma'am. We
all just tried to follow his example."
Chris winced and gave his wife a wry look. "With that sort of stuff bein'
spread around here, now I know the yard'll grow back."
The little boy pushed forward. "Are you one of pa's friends?" he asked in
Josiah laughed and crouched down. "Yes, son, I am." he held out his hand.
"I'm Adam," the boy replied, shaking his hand with grave importance. "Your
horse is awful big! Can I ride him?"
"Maybe later," was the amused reply.
Laughter came from the porch. "That boy ain't changed a lick, Chris."
Josiah looked up, another grin threatening his face. leaning against one
of the posts was a familiar figure, last seen dying on the lawn of JD and
Casey's burning house after he had rescued Casey from the blazing structure.
The young man's black hair ruffled in the breeze, and a happy smile was evident
beneath the black mustache above his upper lip. His hands were hitched onto
his gunbelt in a very casual manner, but his blue eyes were snapping with
"Buck!" Josiah exclaimed, standing up and striding to the porch. Buck laughed,
stepped down and met him, the two men engulfing each other in a warm embrace.
"Hey there, Josiah," Buck said in a joyful voice. "Nice of ya t'finally get
your sorry butt over here."
"'Nice' don't begin to describe it, Buck," Josiah returned. "Have you been
here with Chris this whole time?"
"Among other things," Buck said with mock solemnity. "A body can stay pretty
busy around here, Josiah, believe me. There's an awful lot you preachers
missed about this place."
"Yeah, I'm findin; that out," Josiah grinned. "But I'm lookin' forward to
catchin' up on it all."
Footsteps sounded on the wooden porch again, and Vin ambled out, a quiet
grin on his face as he tipped his hat to Hannah. "See you two found each
Josiah grinned, looking back at his sister and taking her hand. "Yeah, we
did," he said softly, "after far too long."
Buck clapped his hands together and rubbed them. "Well then, I reckon it's
time t'get this party started. C'mon back, Josiah. there's a heap more folks
wantin' t'see you again and a barbecue you ain't gonna believe."
Josiah smiled and looked around him, unashamed of the strong emotions welling
"After today, Buck, I think I'm ready to believe just about anything," he
said, and followed Chris as he led them all around the house towards the
party in the back.
The party was still going strong when the sun began to set some time later.
Josiah had finally pulled himself away from the crowd and was sitting by
himself under one of the trees, trying to sort out everything that he had
It had been a remarkable gathering; he had forgotten he even knew this many
people. There were friends from Four Corners, folks they'd helped out, old
parishioners from his preaching days. He had been reunited with fellow students
and searchers of all faiths, even his friends from the Indian villages such
as Kojay and Tastanagi from the Seminole village.
But there was one face he didn't see, and it was threatening to break his
Ezra had still not appeared. Josiah had hoped he'd be here, at the party,
had turned around every minute thinking he'd see the Southerner easing his
way through the crowd, wearing that red jacket and warm, cocky smile. He'll
be here, Josiah assured himself, just give him time.
But time wore on, and Josiah's uneasy confidence gave way to genuine concern.
It became harder to convince himself that Ezra would indeed be there; surely
he would have shown up by now. Every hope had turned to disappointment so
far, until Josiah had begun to fear the worst.
Maybe Ezra hadn't made it after all.
That was nonsense, he kept telling himself all evening. He'd known Ezra was
a good man, and he had really tried to do what was right even when the wrong
way was so much easier. Ezra was a man who had loved ease and comfort, so
doing what was uncomfortable but right must have surely been difficult. That
must have been worth something. But, Josiah regretfully admitted to himself,
there was no way to really judge how Ezra had fared. He had no knowledge
of Ezra's life before they met; he may have been part of something truly
horrendous, something he'd never admitted to anyone and that could have
overwhelmed any good deeds he did later.
Josiah looked over at the other men, who were mingling with family members.
None of them had mentioned Ezra all day, and Josiah had been reluctant to
ask because of the answer he might receive. Perhaps it pained them to talk
about him. Or perhaps they had forgotten they ever knew him-Josiah really
couldn't say. It tore at his heart to imagine the gambler somewhere else,
unable to share in this peace, lost in the darkness for all of eternity.
Ezra had been so afraid of that; it almost sickened Josiah to think that
his terrors had come true.
Was it possible to pray for damned souls? Josiah wondered, loosely folding
his hands and frowning in thought. If he asked for Ezra to have just a little
of the peace Josiah had found, would it make any difference to the One making
the decisions? It was worth a try, at any rate. He closed his eyes.
The preacher blinked and looked up, startled. Vin was striding towards him
across the lawn, his hands on his belt, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"You okay?" the tracker asked, standing over him.
Josiah sighed. "Yeah, just-thinkin'. It's a lot to take in."
"Yep," Vin nodded, looking back to the crowd. "Reckon y'never guessed you
touched so many folks."
Josiah contemplated the party. "I admit I never would've thought my reach
was that long. But-it was just makin' my head spin."
His friend grinned and nodded. "Yeah, got me a little dizzy too. Let's take
a walk an' get our balance again. Nobody'll mind."
"Sounds good to me," Josiah agreed, and they stood and walked into the green
woods behind the house.
The forest was cool and quiet in the dusk sunlight, golden shafts of light
mingling with the dark greens and browns of the trees. The forest floor crunched
gently beneath their boots as the two men strolled under the emerald canopy
of the leaves.
"So, Vin," Josiah finally said, eager to distract himself from his brooding
thoughts, "y'ever gonna tell me what happened to you, all those years ago?"
The other man shrugged. "Not much t'tell. Got hurt real bad at Purgatorio,
some Seminoles found me an' did what they could. Next thing I know, here
Josiah smiled, despite the sadness in his soul. "Sure am glad for that, Vin.
You saved our lives that day."
His companion was quick to shake his head, an abashed look in his blue eyes.
"I just did what needed doin', was all." He turned a fond gaze towards his
friend. "Just like you."
Josiah chuckled and shook his head. "Don't go puttin' me up for sainthood,
Vin, I'd be a mighty sorry candidate," he said in an amused tone as they
as they climbed a small forest hillside covered with clover. "You know there
were times I turned more to the bottle than the Bible."
Vin shrugged. "That may be. But I also know you never turned out nobody that
needed your help, no matter how low you were feelin'. Takes a strong man
t'see t' the griefs of others when he's got a heap himself."
Vin reached the top of the hill first, his golden-brown hair stirring in
the gentle spring breeze, the pinkish-gold light of the setting sun bathing
him in a warm glow. He stood there, watching as Josiah slowly made his way
The preacher's expression was deeply thoughtful as he paused and looked up
at his friend. "I'm grateful for that, Vin." He sighed and looked away. "Have
t'admit, there've been times when I wondered if any of it made any difference."
Vin looked over the hill, smiled, and looked back down at Josiah. "I reckon
it did," he said softly. "To at least one of us."
Josiah frowned, puzzled, and climbed the rest of the way up the short hill.
At the crest he stopped and stared, an incredible feeling of recognition
sweeping over him.
They were at the edge of a mountain forest; the moist warm air told him they
were in a Southern state. To his left lay a magnificent green valley cut
through with a sparkling river far below, with more mountains on the other
side, their crests brilliantly gleaming in the twilight sun. Directly before
them was a small farm house, with its porch facing the valley and more woods
curving around the back. But the most striking feature of the landscape before
them was the beautiful apple orchard which stretched between them and the
house; their branches were bursting with fragrant pink-white spring blossoms,
their delicate perfume thickly scenting the air, their petals shimmering
in the sunlight.
Josiah stood still, amazed; he knew where he was, though he had never been
here before. An eager joy leapt into his heart and swelled through his soul
as he studied the scene, anticipating what it might hold. Then a movement
caught his eye; a slim figure at the far end of the orchard, rising from
where it had been sitting in contemplation and looking at Josiah with an
attitude almost of hesitation. A slender, brown-haired young man in a familiar
red jacket, holding a flat-topped black hat.
Josiah dimly heard Vin say he'd see him back at the party, but he did not
have the power to respond, his attention being wholly absorbed by the figure
now slowly walking towards him. Josiah's heart quickened as he too began
to walk into the orchard, his soul soaring with joy and relief. Ezra had
not been damned, was not suffering somewhere alone and separated forever
from those who cared for him. The memory of the long night in which Ezra
died, which had haunted Josiah for so long, was now answered with the welcome
knowledge that his friend's journey had brought him here, to the haven and
peace he had so bitterly struggled for all of his life. The dark, painful
battle had ended in triumph; Ezra had indeed found redemption.
A warm swell of emotion overcame Josiah as he saw how strong Ezra was again,
the touch of disease banished forever from his face. There was no fear or
pain in Ezra's clear green eyes now, only the currents of deep and unspeakable
They met beneath one of the apple trees. Josiah could only stand with tears
in his eyes, shaking his head as he gazed at his friend.
"Ezra," he said finally, his voice choking, "I'd about lost hope I'd see
Ezra looked into Josiah's face, his own eyes misty, his face reflecting a
struggle to voice what he was feeling. He opened his mouth a few times, trying
to speak, then stepped forward and without saying a word took Josiah into
a tight embrace as the sobs broke from his heart.
Josiah returned the embrace wordlessly, tears streaming down his own face
as he wrapped the gambler in his arms. Familiar words from the parable of
the Prodigal Son leapt to his mind and heart: "...rejoice, for your brother
was dead, and is alive again, and was lost and has been found."
Ezra's sobs faded away and he stood back a bit, laughing as he pulled a
handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his tear-streaked face.
"My apologies, Josiah," he said with a chuckle which threatened to turn into
another sob. "I am...quite overcome at the moment."
Josiah shook his head. "It's all right, Ezra, I ain't been too collected
Ezra sniffed and wiped his face one more time before stuffing the cloth back
into his jacket. "I can sympathize, believe me," he said, looking around
"It's all quite-astonishing."
"Mm hmm." Josiah nodded, then fixed Ezra with a friendly glare. "Were you
here all this time since I got here?"
The other man shifted and looked away, the emotional struggle appearing on
his face once more. "I had no desire to ruin your arrival with an...untoward
display, Josiah. It's just..." his voice trailed off and he took a deep breath,
turning his green eyes to meet Josiah's once more. "Ever since that long
night, Josiah, I have been waiting to express my thanks to you for your kindness
towards me in my dying hours. I cannot convey to you the horrors that time
might have held for me, if it had not been for your company and your words."
Josiah smiled, gazing on the gambler with warm blue eyes. "Glad t'know it
helped, Ezra." he looked around at the farm and the emerald valley beyond.
"An' t'see that your dream was real after all."
Ezra followed the preacher's gaze, nodding as his expression became thoughtful.
"It's what I've waited all this time to share with you, my friend. If anyone
deserves the peace of this place, it's one who had fought all of his life
to find it, and tried to help others on the same path, as you have. I am
quite-" here Ezra choked a bit, then recovered, "-quite pleased to see that
you have finally attained your reward."
Josiah smiled a bit and nodded, his face soft. "Yeah, guess I did, Ezra.
An' so did you."
Ezra's face became serious, his green eyes luminous with gratitude as he
saw what he had hoped to see in Josiah's face: an expression of perfect peace.
"Indeed I have, Josiah. Indeed I have."
The sun was setting, the sky ablaze with brilliant purples, pinks and blues.
Ezra glanced up at the changing sky and put on his hat.
"Well, my friend," he said softly, "we should probably return to the festivities.
My father and my cousin Sophie should be there, as well as my aunt and uncle,
and they will be most anxious to meet you."
"Same here," Josiah replied. "Say, you know, I've been tryin' t'keep an eye
on Maude. Last letter I got said she was in St. Louis, stayin' with one of
Ezra nodded, his eyes growing distant. "I'm grateful for your assistance
to my mother, Josiah; I know she depended on you a great deal after my departure.
She's had a hard time understanding why I chose the path I did."
The other man sighed. "Yeah, she did, Ezra, but I think she eventually accepted
it, at least a little, and maybe even learned something from it. I know lately
she's been gamblin' a lot less an' keepin' in touch with us more. She even
came out to the mission last year an' made a nice donation."
A chuckle escaped Ezra's lips. "It may be she is simply trying to even the
odds, my friend, but I do sincerely hope she is finally seeking to understand."
he looked out over the blooming valley. "I have missed her a great deal more
than I thought I would, and it would be a welcome miracle to be able to meet
her here as well."
"Well, we're in the right place for miracles," Josiah said firmly. "an' you
can bet Nathan an' JD will keep your ma goin' on the right path."
"Then I would say there is hope for my mother yet," Ezra said with a smile.
"Now I suggest we both make our way back to Chris's ranch. Someone must be
there with the proper knowledge to assist you in escorting the ladies."
Josiah's smile softened. "Only one lady I'd like t'escort, an' it might be
some time before I see her again."
"Ah yes, the fair Bright Dawn," Ezra remarked as they began to walk back
towards the forest. "Fear not, my friend, the time you're apart will seem
like nothing. And, I daresay, the same will hold true for our comrades Nathan
and JD as well."
Josiah felt a surge of elation at Ezra's words as he realized that one day
the Seven would, indeed, ride together again. The thought filled him with
such exhilaration that he almost gasped in surprise, and when he looked at
Ezra he saw the same thought reflected in the gambler's eyes.
Josiah laughed and clapped Ezra on the shoulder. "All of us poundin' down
the golden streets. Place ain't gonna be the same after that!"
"It is destiny's fault for bringing us together in the first place," was
Ezra's lighthearted reply. "And I for one am not about to argue with its
They had reached the edge of the woods, where Vin stood waiting for them,
his handsome face wreathed in a quiet smile.
"Reckon you fellers met up all right," he drawled, his blue eyes shining
in the twilight.
"Yeah, guess we did, Vin," Josiah said with a grin. "An' since all you sinners
made it here, looks like I'm out of a job."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Josiah," Ezra cautioned. "There is still quite
a bit of work to do, especially for a practiced man such as yourself. But
I propose we celebrate tonight, and concern ourselves with the serious matters
"Sounds good t'me," Vin said with a vigorous nod of his head, and they began
to walk back through the forest, the sky overhead now becoming sprinkled
with a multitude of radiant stars.
They had walked in silence, enjoying their reborn association, stronger now
than it had been before. Josiah marveled at the prospect of what lay ahead,
but even more exhilarating was the simple tranquility which now blanketed
his soul. He had seen his sister restored to herself, his friends who had
been lost now brought before him whole and well. It all seemed at once miraculous
and perfectly natural; this was the way things were, and would always be.
He could hardly wait to see what tomorrow held; perhaps he would finally
be able to talk a few things over with God. But for now, he was content to
walk with his friends, beneath the brilliance of the Lord's own sky. So this
is what it feels like, he mused as a golden glow in the trees ahead signaled
their approach to where they were waiting for him.
This is what it feels like to be free and clear.