Minneapolis, January 1927
The crowd in the small movie theater was in a boisterous mood as it watched the Western film unspool on the screen before it. As the piano player in the corner tried to keep up with the rambunctious action onscreen, dust filtered through the stale air to create a glowing shaft of light uniting the hidden projector to the silver screen. The brilliant beam mingled with the serpentine tendrils of rising cigar smoke and the occasional tossed popcorn kernel. Here and there on the floor lay a discarded handbill, advertising the venue as the Liberty Theater, Minneapolis' finest motion picture palace for the city's 'colored' inhabitants.
In the gathered throng, young couples proved unable to fully pay attention as the good guys galloped across the plains after the desperadoes, while children bounced eagerly in their seats for the next exciting scene. A few more fashionable women took advantage of the dark to check their marcelled hair in the small compact mirrors discreetly pulled from their purses. A few in the audience read the title cards aloud, heedless of the annoyed mutterings of those surrounding them.
Towards the back of the theater, seated with a handsome middle-aged man and his wife and two young children, sat an elderly gentleman whose main reaction to the spectacle before him seemed to be one of bemusement. His round, noble face was lined with age, his hair mostly turned white, but his soft brown eyes reflected the sharp intelligence which still burned despite his advanced years. As those around him cheered, or sighed, or gasped, this man simply chuckled a little and ever so slightly shook his head.
The climax neared, and the throng cheered and clapped as the heroes tore through the rocky terrain in the nick of time, saving the mayor's daughter and capturing the evil bandits. The piano roared to a crashing crescendo, its resounding tones mixed with the delighted applause of the crowd. A fancy title card flashed THE END on the screen, the lights came up, and the fantasy ended.
Many happy mutterings rose from the crowd as they rustled about for their coats in preparation to leave. The middle-aged couple worked to put the children into their winter clothes, with the assistance of the bemused elderly man.
"That was fun!" the little girl squealed as she jumped up and down, hampering all attempts by her grandmother to get her dressed. She was no more than six.
"I'm gonna be a cowboy when I grow up!" her eight-year-old brother announced; his grandfather was having the same amount of luck as the grandmother was. As he squirmed and jumped, he looked over to where the elderly man stood, smiling broadly at the scene. "Just like you, Great-Grandpa!"
The grandmother, a slender and handsome woman with bright eyes and a kind face, laughed. "Now, John, you know Great-Grandpa was a healer and lawkeeper when he lived in the West, not a cowboy," she said in a kindly tone, a smile on her lips as she looked at the elderly man. "I'm sorry, Nathan."
The man addressed as Nathan laughed and playfully rubbed the boy's head. "That's all right, Lila, it don't bother me none," he said in a strong, lighthearted voice. "Now hold still for your Grandpa Tom, so's he can get you bundled up good."
John settled down, still grinning at his Great-Grandfather, as Tom fastened up the little boy's coat.
"That's better, John," the grandfather said with a pleased expression as he quickly worked the buttons. "Your Ma and Pa are going to be very happy to hear how good you and Genie were when they get back from their trip."
"I'm so glad Chris and Fran were able to bring the kids up before they left," Lila said with a sigh as she pulled little Genie's knit cap onto the child's head. "Sometimes I sure wish that son of ours hadn't moved all the way to St. Louis. We hardly ever have a chance to spoil you grandkids!" She giggled at the girl and tapped her on the end of her nose. Genie giggled back.
"Did you like the movie, Dad?" Tom inquired as he finally finished getting the coat onto young John.
Nathan smiled as he pulled on his modest overcoat. "Yeah, it was pretty excitin'. "Cept I'm always wonderin' how them fellas stay so clean with all that ridin'."
"Did you chase bad guys just like the men on the screen, Great-Grandpa?" the little girl asked, her brown eyes wide.
"Yeah, Genie, we did a lot of that," Nathan said as he gently took her hand, leading her out into the aisle. They were followed by the rest of the family, their small number bringing up the back of the crowd. "Most of our time was spent helpin' folks in trouble, but we did do our share of chasin' after the bad guys. Caught a lot of 'em, too."
"Even more than Tom Mix?" John asked wide-eyed as they moved out of the theater, their shoes crunching on stale popcorn and dropped candy.
"Way more'n ol' Tom Mix," Nathan said with a proud, quiet smile. "An' we rode better, too!"
They stepped through the lobby and into the street, now dark and lit with electric lights beneath the clear January sky. The crowd was dispersing, sifting into cars and coffee shops and moving down towards the bus stop.
"I wish I'd been a cowboy in the West," little John declared as he hopped down the street in front of his family. "I'd catch all the bad guys!"
"Maybe you can be a policeman, like Nathan's friend JD," Tom suggested as he strolled down the street with his arm around his wife's shoulder.
"Now, Tom, that's so dangerous," fretted Lila as they walked along. "Hold onto Nathan's hand, Genie. Why can't he be a doctor, like you or Chris?"
"'Cause doctors don't catch bad guys!" the boy declared with an excited grin.
"Well, Great-Grandpa Nathan was a doctor, and he caught lots of bad guys," Tom pointed out as he took the boy's hand. Then he gave a thoughtful laugh. "But I guess things are a little different today, aren't they, Dad?"
"Yeah," Nathan replied, his voice becoming soft and thoughtful. "Yeah, they sure are."
+ + + + + + +
The kitchen of the small house was dark, lit only by the single light above the table. In the solitary glow from its round metal shade sat Nathan, now clad in a comfortable bathrobe, calmly reading a magazine and sipping a cup of milk.
Slipper-clad footsteps padded into the room, and Nathan looked up to see his son, also clothed in a bathrobe, stepping into the bright light and squinting at his father in concern.
"You all right, Dad? It's one o'clock," he stated, coming up to the table.
Nathan smiled a bit and tossed the magazine aside. "Yeah, guess I'm just as wound up as the kids. Had a little trouble sleepin'. Too many memories stirrin'."
Tom took the seat opposite Nathan, the padded yellow vinyl of the shallow seat squeaking slightly as he settled into the chair. "Thinking about your friends again, huh?" he said gently.
The old man drew a deep breath, a wistful expression crossing his handsome face. "Yeah, seein' it up there just made it all come back on me," he admitted, "even if it was all prettified. Made me wish I was up there ridin' with 'em, like we used to do. Lord, those were some times!" He bit his smiling lip and shook his head, his dark eyes distant.
"Yeah, I'll bet," Tom said sympathetically as he leaned forward, folding his hands. "Must be very odd to see something you lived through put in the flickers like that."
Nathan laughed a little as he lifted his cup. "They spend all that money on them movies an' they still don't get it right," he said with a shake of his head as he took a drink. "But I s'pose they'd think it was too borin', showin' what it was really like."
Tom chuckled and sat back. "I'll bet JD feels the same way. You fellas should write a book, tell them what the truth was."
His father raised one eyebrow at the idea. "Naw, son," Nathan said, setting down his cup. "I mean, JD an' I been talkin' about writin' it down for you kids, but I'm bettin' nobody else would want to read about it. Folks don't want the truth when they got the fairy tale. I don't reckon they'd want to see what a man really looks like when he gets shot, or how long it really takes to die with a bullet in you. I don't think they'd want to know them men who fought the bad guys was just regular folks, not shinin' heroes who always won an' never got dirty. Long as it sells tickets, that's all them movie folks is interested in."
"Well, I think John sees you as a shining hero," Tom said with a quiet laugh. "He was listening to your old stories all night!"
Nathan shrugged. "That don't bother me none," he confessed, slowly drawing one index finger around the rim of his cup in thought. "I never get tired of talkin' about them days, 'specially how we all met. 'Cause that's when I met your ma." He smiled. "Rain got me strung me up by the ankles, an' I was head over heels for her from that day on."
Tom laughed. "I remember you telling us that when we were kids! Knowin' Ma, I'd sure believe it. She never did like to hang back when there was something to be done."
"You kids don't know the half of it," his father replied, staring out of the dark window into the past. "I never saw another woman so strong, yet so gentle, in my whole life. Rain lived through some mighty tough times, helped build our house an' raised you kids, never turned away from hard work, an' put up with me workin' late helpin' out other folks." He drew a deep breath, his brown eyes turning misty.
Tom nodded in quiet agreement. "She was a wonderful woman, Dad. You know we'll never forget everything she, and you, did for us."
Nathan smiled, a little embarrassed at the open emotion threatening his composure, and smiled. "She'd appreciate that, son," he said. "Lord knows I do. That's why I never mind tellin' them old stories, so they don't fade away. It helps keep your Ma, an' all of 'em, alive, as long as we're all drawin' breath."
They sat in silence for a short while, each man wrapped in his own thoughts and memories. Then Nathan shook himself and sighed just a little, a wistful smile crossing his face as he leaned his head on one hand. "It's funny, you know, every time I see one of them movie Westerns, it's like bein' there again. 'Cept it sets me to thinkin', an' before long it ain't the movie I'm seein', it's us."
Tom shrugged, a sympathetic smile on his face. "That's not surprising-from what you've told me, they're a lot more interesting than these fake cowboys anyhow."
"Chris sure was," Nathan said with a laugh. "Had a bad reputation as a pretty mean gunslinger, but I never saw Chris do anythin' you could call cruel. Havin' his family killed mighta hardened him up inside, but he still cared about justice." He thought a moment, a bemused look in his eyes. "But did hate bein' called a cowboy. None of us ever called 'im that, you didn't want Chris Larabee gettin' riled at you." He paused, then grinned. "'Cept for Vin an' Buck, I guess."
Tom rose and opened the refrigerator, rifling for leftovers. "Now how did they get away with it?"
The older man tilted his head as old memories played before his mind's eye. "Ain't sure about Vin. But I know Chris trusted him, like we all did. Never knew a man who cared more about honor than Vin did, an' when he covered you with that ol' sawed-off rifle of his, well, you just stopped worryin' about gettin' shot."
"Well, he is the one who saved your life," Tom pointed out as he pulled out some cold cuts and bread.
"Yeah," Nathan said with a nod, biting his lip. "Deadliest man I ever saw with a rifle, guess he got that from huntin' buffalo an' bounties. But he weren't no cold-blooded killer. Vin lived a hard life, but didn't never let it freeze his soul."
"Hmm," Tom nodded, sitting down at the table once more. "And Buck?"
His father gave an amused grunt. "Hell, Buck knew Chris from way back. He knew all about Chris' darker side, just like Chris knew all about Buck's love for the ladies. S'pose they knew what they could say to each other an' live, though I seen 'em get into a fight or two."
Tom chuckled as he assembled a small sandwich. "I'll bet that was a sight."
Nathan laughed a bit, his eyes lit with a warm, soft glow. "Yeah, it was. But none of us ever stayed mad at each other. Josiah, he was a great one for fightin'-whenever things got tight, that ol' preacher would just wade in an' start bustin' heads. Then he'd go to that ol' church an' pray for the recovery of anyone who'd been in his way."
"Yeah, I remember Josiah," Tom said with a smile as he picked up his sandwich. "He was a great guy. Sometimes I thought he opened that mission in Arizona just so he'd have his own chapel to talk to God in and ask him all those questions he always had."
A thoughtful smile crossed Nathan's lips as he looked away. "Reckon he's talkin' to the Lord face to face now. Sure hope he finally found some answers."
Tom hesitated. "I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't mean to make you depressed."
"Aw, no," Nathan said with a small wave, smiling despite the tears glistening at the corners of his eyes. "I ain't sad, son. Does me good t'think about Josiah finally gettin' to jaw with the Lord." He picked up his cup of milk once more. "Course, if there was ever one for talkin', it was Ezra."
"Yeah, I remember," Tom said with a nod after swallowing the bite in his mouth. "You told me once he'd be able to sell matches to the devil himself."
"He sure could," Nathan laughed as he leaned back in his chair a little. "We had our differences, an' sometimes..." He dropped his gaze down to the table. "Sometimes I get to wishin' I could take back some of them fights we had. For a long time I thought he was just a no-account cardsharp lookin' to make a buck. But Ezra turned out to have a lot of courage under all them fancy duds he wore. Just took us both a while t'figure it out."
"But the important thing is, you both finally did," his son pointed out.
"Yeah," the old man nodded slowly, his face still wreathed in a slight, pensive smile. "It was sorta the same thing with JD. He jumped off that stagecoach in a suit an' bowler hat, an' we all thought he'd never last a week as a lawman in the West!" He laughed.
Tom joined in. "And look at him now! One of the highest ranking and most respected men on the Chicago detective squad."
"Downright amazin'," agreed Nathan. "Buck never woulda believed it, at least at first. But after a while, we all saw how much grit JD had, even for a kid." He grew somber and shook his head, staring off into a far distant scene. "Good thing he had that grit. He'd have died without it."
"And you, don't forget," Tom added, gently gripping his father's arm. "You did save his life, you know."
"Oh, I think Casey had a hand in that too," Nathan said, giving his son an appreciative smile. "An' Josiah. Never saw a man pray so hard in my life, an' I bet the Lord didn't sleep a wink that night for hearin' them pleas." He paused, then nodded slowly as he looked away. "We was all prayin' that night."
The younger man gave his father an understanding look. "The Lord must have figured he owed you boys a favor, after all the good work you'd done."
Nathan shrugged a little, a modest smile touching his lips. "Just doin' our jobs, son. None of us ever saw ourselves as heroes or nothin' like that." He sat quietly for a moment, looking down at his nearly-empty cup. "Even if I ever let my head get big over it, your ma never would let me get away with it for long."
Tom laughed softly. "Yeah, I'd believe that." He picked up the last bite of his sandwich. "Grace called the other day, wanted me to let you know the repairs on the old house in Arizona are comin' right along."
"That's good," Nathan said with a nod, the slightest flicker of regret in his eyes. "I was sure glad your sister an' her husband could take the ol' place. Woulda broke my heart t'sell it, after livin' there all these years."
"Well, we'd never let you sell the old house, you know," his son assured him. "Not after you an' ma built it an' raised us in it. Grace and Pete love it, and the kids do too."
"Glad t'hear that," Nathan sighed, folding his hands and leaning forward onto the table. "Place ought to have a young family in it, it was gettin' too big an' lonely with just me."
Tom stood and gathered up his dishes. "Grace would have let you stay if you wanted, Dad," he said.
"Naw," Nathan waved the suggestion away with a slight motion. "We talked about it, but that place ain't big enough for all of us. I'm just happy knowin' it's in the family an' bein' used. It's what Rain would have wanted."
"Ma would have 'wanted' you to be happy," Tom pointed out as he placed the dishes in the sink as quietly as he could.
"Heck, son, I *am* happy," Nathan insisted, his features soft in the dim kitchen light. "Had a nice long life, married a fine woman an' had you wonderful kids, an' now I can relax an' have fun with my great-grandkids without worries." He paused for a minute and sighed a bit. "I ain't gonna deny that I miss your ma somethin' awful, but it helps bein' with you kids an' seein' the family go on. Long as that happens, I don't think she's ever too far away."
Tom smiled and put a hand on his father's shoulder. "I'm sure glad to hear that, Dad," he said quietly. "Well, I'm going to bed. You want to come by the clinic tomorrow? We just got this new X-ray machine I'd like you to see. I could meet you for lunch at noon at Frank's."
"Sure," Nathan nodded. "You get on back to bed now, you need t'rest up."
Tom chuckled. "All right, Doc. You do the same."
"Soon's I finish this milk," Nathan promised.
"Okay," Tom gave a small wave. "'Night, Dad."
The footsteps died away, leaving the kitchen wreathed once more in silence, as Nathan sat quietly at the kitchen table, surrounded by memories and the gentle touch of friendly ghosts.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan stepped out into the biting air of a cold January morning, closed the door behind him, and sighed.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning, despite the bracing temperature. The sun was just up, painting the gray clouds that half-covered the sky a myriad of dazzling pinks and golds. Before him spread the park area of the Minneapolis suburb, the trees bare but still beautiful as they stood half-robed in the frosty whiteness of the recent snow. Few people were about yet, and as he made sure the door of the small, neat house was locked, he felt grateful for the quiet. He surely needed it.
He stepped slowly down the cleanly swept sidewalk, huddling in his long coat against the cold. Damn, he thought, there were times he wondered why he ever left Arizona. Never got this cold there, that's for sure.
He crossed the street carefully; it was sometimes busy even this early, with folks going to work in the city. He hurried across and winced as the old pain in his left knee twinged; he'd better have Tom look at that again. He hated to bother his son, especially after all the work he put in at the clinic, but he knew Tom didn't mind. It was part of the reason he'd insisted on Nathan moving in with him and his family.
A frown passed over his face as he began his routine route along the tree-lined pathway in the park, down towards the lake. He hated being fussed at, hated leaving the warm, familiar home he'd shared with Rain and the kids. He knew the house was being well looked after, and was glad it had stayed in the family, but he still missed it terribly, even after five years. Whenever he visited Grace and Peter there, things felt a little odd, almost as if it wasn't the same house he remembered. He knew it was all for the best, knew he shouldn't be alone at his age, and he loved being with Tom and Lila and visiting with the kids.
But he still hated being fussed over.
He chuckled to himself, despite his sad mood, remembering, as he so often did now, the old days back in the small frontier town of Four Corners. The other men he'd shared peacekeeping duties with, they'd never liked being fussed over either, did they? No matter how tore up they were, they shrugged off his medical advice and medicines and said they were fine. Nathan had gotten so frustrated at that; he was all they'd had for a doctor there, and they just plain wouldn't listen to him. Now he understood why; it was downright embarrassing, the way Tom and the kids fussed over him. I'm just old, he thought, not dyin'.
Or maybe, he mused as he walked towards a park bench overlooking the small lake, it was just that he didn't like the idea that he had lived past his usefulness. Aging had happened so gradually he hadn't even really noticed it; never a vain man, he'd never minded the increasing gray in his hair, the lines slowly forming on his once-smooth skin. He felt grateful to have lived so long, and see his family grow up around him; far too few of his old friends had been given the same blessing.
But, Nathan had to admit to himself, he wasn't too happy with the pains which slowed his walk. He didn't much relish the way he needed glasses to read now, or the fact that he couldn't run any more. Sometimes the old face in the mirror startled him; he still felt like a young man in his heart, and occasionally he forgot that his body disagreed with that idea.
Now, he mused as he strolled along, he could only watch as others did the running, satisfied at least with the knowledge that he had done all he could with his existence. He had spent his whole life, practically, helping other people, binding their wounds, setting their bones, and once in a while, saving their lives. It wasn't easy work, never, but it had to be done. Once he knew he had a talent for it, he had unflinchingly accepted the call.
Dark memories filtered through his mind, as fresh as if they'd happened yesterday, and he shuddered in a way which had nothing to do with the cold weather. It had been hard learning in those crowded, hot tents during the War, listening to the doctors' words over the screams of the mangled men in their care. The noise, the blood, the filth, the unimaginable horrors he'd seen as a stretcher bearer would have sent most men to the bottle, or the insane asylum.
But Nathan had endured such unbearable sights before as a slave, first in Georgia, then in Alabama. What most men regarded as horrific, he had already seen inflicted on his fellow men and women in bondage. He could tell of such brutality personally; as a slave, he had been savagely whipped, his back still bearing the old thick scars. Despite the passage of time, he could still feel the torturous pain of that beating, and the resolution that he would never be like the men who enjoyed inflicting such agony. He had been tough, even as a very young man, tough enough to bear the hellish scenes in the hospital tents. Something inside had told him that he would be able to help these men, if he would only stand and learn.
Nathan sighed to himself. Lord, how many nights had he told these old stories, first to his kids, then to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren? The hard days on the plantation, his days as a slave, and the day he'd finally escaped North. How he'd gone West after the War, and stayed with the Indians, and healed all who sought his help, no matter their color or creed. How he'd lived the life that now existed only in the history books, and in the movies that showed down at the nickelodeon.
And how he'd met six men who'd saved his life and helped change it forever.
He found a nice bench that faced the frozen lake and settled himself on it; here in the park, surrounded by the trees, you could barely even tell there was a huge city nearby. It was very quiet, and that suited him just fine.
He smiled as he settled back; but then, he rarely failed to smile when he thought about those days way back in Four Corners. When he told the old stories to the grandkids, it hardly seemed possible that he had done the things he was talking about. Or that men like his friends had actually lived and weren't made-up characters from a history book or movie show.
But he didn't tell the kids the whole story, at least not until they were old enough to understand it. The pain and abuse he'd suffered as a slave, the horror of being sold away from his mother when still a child. Nathan bit his lip; even after all these years, he still remembered the searing anguish of that separation. He'd heard lots of folks talk about the evils of slavery and knew they studied about it in big colleges, but he didn't think anyone could truly know its hell unless they'd lived through it. There were simply no words to describe it.
Tom had urged him to write down his memories of slavery, Nathan recalled as he gazed over the frozen lake, but he knew he could never convey the sheer agony of those days. The backbreaking labor, the constant fear, the whippings whose scars he still bore on his back nearly eighty years later. The way the masters treated you as if you were an object made for their abuse. He'd never forgotten how Mr. Jackson had used him as a fencing partner when he practiced swordplay, and how the blades were bare and sharp to enhance the combat. And how his master had laughed every time Nathan got cut, caring nothing for his suffering.
But worst of all was the knowledge that you were never safe, never free, that at any moment you could be beaten, or tortured, or sold away from everything you knew and loved, without the slightest warning.
Just as he had been, when he was seven years old.
The scene flashed through his mind as if it had happened yesterday; he and his brothers and sisters and father Obediah tossed into a cart like so much hay, carted down that long, dusty road away from the plantation-and his mother-forever. For years he had nightmares about that day, wondered about his mother's fate, and resented his father for putting up no fight to keep the family together, bowing to his master's will with no resistance at all.
Even years later, when he and Obediah had been reunited in Four Corners, the pain continued. Obediah had been on trial for killing their former overseer Jonah Catching after a chance encounter in nearby Eagle Bend, and Nathan's joy at seeing him again was tempered by his anger at the memories the reunion had stirred up.
But the truth came out at the trial-that Catching had forced himself on Nathan's mother, threatening to sell seven-year-old Nathan away if she refused. Soon thereafter she lost her sanity after learning that she was carrying the overseer's child. The river which ran next to the plantation provided the only release her fevered mind could grasp, and unknown to Nathan, she had thrown herself into its murky depths and drowned herself. The remnants of the family were sold away that very day, Obediah harboring the secret of his wife's tragic end until the day of the trial.
Some kids arrived to go skating on the small frozen lake, and Nathan watched them wistfully, still haunted by the dark memories. Obediah had been convicted of Catching's murder-he'd confessed to it, after all, after bravely telling the court of his family's sufferings-but Judge Travis had mercifully postponed the hanging indefinitely, knowing that Obediah was dying of consumption. Nathan had done all he could to ease his father's suffering, but their reunion was not long-lived. So much still remained to be said on that warm morning when Nathan held his father in his arms as Obediah died.
Why had he wasted so much of their precious time together in anger? he asked himself mournfully, his eyes no longer seeing the bright winter morning. His father had seemed contented at last, but there was little contentment in Nathan's heart then. He recalled the long hours spent with Josiah, trying to work out his rage, at his first master who had destroyed his family, at Catching who had ruined his mother, and at himself for feeling such outrage in his heart which had no living target to expend itself on. Eventually he learned to set aside the pain, but he had never stopped mourning the family he had lost so long ago.
And the loss of his other family still pained him too, as he knew it pained JD. The children and grandchildren were older when they were finally told what happened to those brave men from the old stories. How they had gone after Cletus Fowler and his men, the killers of Chris' family, in one last glorious ride.
How Ezra, ill with consumption himself but finding the courage to set thoughts of his own well-being aside to ride with his comrades, had warned his friends of an impending ambush by Fowler's men. He had saved them all that day, and paid for his selfless act with his life.
A warm, sorrowful feeling stole around Nathan's heart as he thought about Ezra. How often had he felt so sure that the gambler was little more than a cold-hearted opportunist, heedless of the suffering he caused in his pursuit of wealth? Perhaps there had been some justification in that judgment, but it was hard to not feel ashamed of himself whenever he recalled how selfless Ezra had been in the end. He could have stayed behind because of his health, but insisted on coming along; he had been under the guns of Fowler's men and known that any shouted warning would result in his death, but gave the shout anyway. Nathan could only marvel at his friend's courage and say a small prayer every day since that Ezra's heroic act had not gone unrewarded.
It was equally hard to tell the kids about Buck; he had never stopped missing the easygoing scoundrel's bright smile and good humor. But there was no smiling on the day they had all learned that Fowler's men had gone after JD's young wife Casey and her unborn child. They had rode like hell to get to the small farmhouse, only to find Fowler's men had already set fire to the place. Buck-perhaps thinking of the fire which had killed Chris' family, and determined not to let it happen again-had plunged into that inferno, rescuing Casey before turning to fight it out with the henchmen. None of Fowler's cronies survived that fight, but Buck fell with a bullet in him as well, living only long enough to know Casey was all right before dying with JD by his side.
Buck's death had hit Chris hard, giving a sharper edge to the vengeful gleam already burning in the gunslinger's green eyes. But that gleam turned to a raging fire when Vin was lost to them. The tracker had disappeared in the flames of Purgatorio after that bandit town had been set aflame by Fowler's men to prevent the Seven's escape. He could still see Vin, leaping across the burning rooftops to cover their escape, his long hair streaming behind him as he ran, finally blasting open the locked gate so they could all get free. Nathan still clearly remembered how they had all ridden out of the inferno, certain that Vin would follow, and the heavy sorrow they felt when the tracker failed to emerge from the town's smoldering ruins. They had never found a body and never learned the fate of their brave friend.
And the final days, when Chris and JD had taken their stand among the ruins of an abandoned mission and faced what was left of Fowler's gang. Chris achieved his justice, but at the cost of his own life, and very nearly JD's as well. The last gunfight had left the young man badly injured, and it had taken all of Nathan's skill to keep him alive until a doctor could be found.
Nathan took a deep breath, his eyes lighting on the children as they began to skate. Those days had been dreadful, until they knew that JD would recover. But the kid proved his grit; he had survived, and the three of them went forward with the memories of their absent friends and the deep bond they had shared kept close to their hearts.
And the years following the last great fight had certainly not been dull. JD had moved his family to Chicago and worked his way up the ladder of the city police department. He had never lost his zeal for the good fight, and was now one of the most respected lawmen in the whole city. But every time Nathan and JD got together or talked on the phone, Nathan couldn't help but think of him as 'the kid'. It was startling to see the once-raven hair turn gray, the quick gait slow just a little. But those hazel eyes still burned with the passion of youth, and seeing it made Nathan feel young again as well.
Josiah had married a beautiful Seminole woman named Bright Dawn and opened a mission for the forgotten children of the desert. Nathan had visited there very often, as he and Rain lived close by, and the two old friends never lost their close kinship as the years passed. Nathan had known Josiah long before the seven had been formed, and it was easy to pass the hours in debate, discussion, or just plain reminiscing.
Despite the turning of many years, Josiah's search for truth and peace had never stopped; his heart still questioned right up to the day when time and illness finally took their toll. Nathan and JD had both been there to bid farewell to their friend; then, only the two of them were left to keep the old days alive.
His heart filled as the events of the past forty years flew across his mind's eye. How had he ever been lucky enough to find a woman like Rain? he wondered. Her strength and courage had never wavered, and she had had a stubborn will which was the equal of his own. She had held him up through weariness and discouragement, been by his side through every trial, and even the pneumonia which finally took her had failed to dim the fire which had always burned in her eyes.
Nathan bit his lip as the dull, familiar pain gripped his heart; he would never stop missing her, never wake in the morning without reaching for the empty space beside him. It cut him to his soul that despite all the people in his life that his skills had saved, in the end, the most modern of medicines could not save her.
But she had asked him not to give in to the grief, he remembered. Before she had slipped away-at home, in his arms-she had used her final breaths to ask him to be grateful for the long years they had been given, and the children who still carried her light. "It will be through them, Nathan, that we will both live forever," she had whispered.
So, Nathan thought with a deep sigh as he roused himself, he would honor her wish and try not to feel the ache of loneliness too much. But Lord knew, it was hard...
His visions of Rain blended into the memory of the births of their lovely children, and the love and pride in which he had watched them grow into people of honor and integrity. His rewarding work at the small desert medical clinic, treating all who came to his door. The day Tom, his oldest, graduated medical school and became a real doctor had been the proudest of Nathan's life. Then, later, Tom's son Chris followed in his father's footsteps, amazing Nathan even more. But then, he was proud of all of his children, right down to the youngest great-grandchild. They had Rain's blood in them; how could they not be special?
He really couldn't complain, Nathan decided as he pondered the deep happiness which pervaded these glowing memories. The pain and dark moments of his life seemed to pale before the love he had found with Rain and his family; and if the family and friends of his past were not there to share it, he still carried them in his heart, determined that their life there would never be extinguished.
Now, he thought with a satisfied smile, the Lord had seen fit to bless him by allowing him to see three generations of his family born and sent on their way. It soothed his soul to look back on his long life, and see the good that had come out of their struggles and difficulties. Despite slavery, despite war, despite the hardships of the West, his family had endured. He felt sure they would continue to do so, and carry on the message of hope and strength gained from experience to all the generations to come.
Nathan sighed a little, thinking: If only all of the seven had all been able to experience this sort of happiness. He and Josiah and JD should not have been the only ones to enjoy life to a full old age. If only they had been able to know the good that came of their works, the peace which resulted from reflecting on a long, well-lived life.
Suddenly he missed his old comrades terribly. Nathan had made many new friends since that long-ago time in Four Corners, but none of them had gotten into his blood the way that Chris and the others had. The ties between himself, JD and Josiah reminded him of soldiers from the war, joined by the sort of brotherly bond only another soldier would understand. A bond born of blood and hardship, trials which only he and JD now remembered.
Strange, Nathan pondered, how one could long for a time so difficult to live through when it was actually happening. He clearly remembered the dirt and smell and gun battles which seemed endless. He could still feel the fear which never failed to grip his heart whenever one of them fell wounded, and it was up to him to keep their injured brother alive. Then the fear would be pushed aside, and he would simply get to work, but the anxiety never completely went away. Always the prayer would go up: Lord, please, help me save him.
Nathan looked down at his hands, the troubling scenes swirling before his eyes. Perhaps that was why he had been given this gift, so that when the time came he could save these men whom destiny had brought together in that small frontier town. Many of the hurts were minor, but there were too many times when he honestly thought one of them was about to be lost. The memory of those times danced before his eyes, the heart-wrenching sight of his friends shot up and in pain, with only Nathan's skill keeping them from the grave.
But then there came the quiet joy of seeing death staved off yet again, the satisfaction of seeing his friends recover and rise up well. That wonderful relief seemed to dispel the memories of fear, and he never failed to thank God that he had been given the ability to help his friends survive. Until...
Nathan pursed his lips tightly at the sudden surge of guilt which threatened to overcome him. No, he commanded himself, he wasn't going to fall into those dark thoughts again. There had been a long time, after Ezra, Buck and Chris had died, that Nathan could not shake the idea that if he had only been more skilled, he might have saved them. It was hard not to blame himself, when they had put their lives into his hands. He was their healer, yet when they needed his talents the most, he had failed them.
But, as Josiah had pointed out so often during the many long midnight talks which took place for months following that last battle, Nathan had done his best, and it was useless to waste time on blame. Each man had known the risks before him, yet took them anyway. The wounds they received as a result would have been beyond the most skilled doctor's abilities. Nathan should be thankful instead that he had been able to free them from pain during their last moments, and make their passing as comfortable as possible. God had decided it was their time, and the most powerful healer on earth could not have stopped that summons.
Nathan sighed, doing his best to fight back the guilt, remembering Josiah's gentle words; he could almost hear their soothing tones yet again, wafting in on the cold winter breeze. But there was always a small, aching corner of his heart that forever wished that he could have saved them.
If only he could see his friends again, he thought somberly, tell them how much their time together had meant to him. If only they could have all become old men, sharing the war stories and reliving the ancient battles together, in the warmth of the long golden twilight. Too many of them had died too young, leaving the rest of them behind to wonder if their fallen friends had found peace as well. Nathan certainly hoped they did.
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