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 task.

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 that."

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 aloud voice.

Josiah laughed and crouched down. "Yes, son, I am." he held out his hand. "Josiah."

"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 excitement.

"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 other."

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 in him.

"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 experienced.

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 heart.

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 I am."

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 up.

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 emotion.

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 you, brother."

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 myself lately."

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 your cousins."

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 author."

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 tomorrow."

"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.


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