Author's Note: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a deathfic, so if the thought of one of the boys dying disturbs you, please avert your eyes! The title makes reference to the final line in the Book of Job.
For Peggy, the first person to ever read this. Your comments & support have meant a lot, my friend.
September 17, 1929
The sunrise broke slowly over western Colorado, painting the rim of the sky with color. The eastern door of a lone cabin, which itself was half-hidden by forest and the rolling hills surrounding it, opened and an old man stepped out.
He moved still with some remains of an old fluid grace, though much of it was lost with age and arthritis. The sun-shot brown hair he'd always refused to cut had gone gray and thin, but he tied it back in an abbreviated ponytail, as much out of practicality as stubbornness; blue eyes still peered out alertly at the world from atop high, hawkish cheekbones. Scars marked his body, but he was proud that none of them came from the new-fangled surgeries he'd heard about on the radio one day in town- they'd come from guns and knives, arrows and falling rock, privations in the mountains and the deserts. Gaunt he'd always been, but age had stripped him of the muscle and sinew that had once made his body powerful. The people down the way had urged him to see a doctor, but they couldn't budge the old man for all their badgering and at length, they left him alone.
Not much of anything could move the old man from his isolation. He figured- and maybe rightly- that there wasn't much point in venturing beyond the confines of his small ranch; he had seen the automobiles with great trepidation at the turn of the century, and was even less enthusiastic about the aeroplanes in the Great War. No... his heart belonged to horses and the wide-open spaces, not to the runways and roadways that the children of today gloried in. His heart belonged to his memories, memories coated in the dust of the frontier and preserved carefully like good leather, or a creature in amber.
So many of them...
He had never figured on dying old- he'd always figured on dying forty years ago. Hell, forget forty- try sixty, or seventy, or eighty. He'd imagined being hung, being shot through the heart, falling off his horse, getting lost in the desert or having the whole of the Rockies for his tomb. He hadn't imagined dying old, in bed, with a priest... or nurses, if it came to that, which he fervently hoped it wouldn't.
God, he'd waited so long...
Nettie had told him on her deathbed that he would endure, because it was his nature to endure, and so far he had proved her right, out-enduring all his friends and even his favorite places. "Boy," she'd said- though at thirty-five he was hardly a boy- "Y'll last because you have to; God don't put strong, endurin' men on this good Earth t'git themselves hung by man's justice. Y'll be around long after I'm dust, boy, with y'r friends and your people strong around you. But boy," the old eyes had glinted with their customary fire, "don't you ever forget me."
He never had forgotten. In the face of a change that descended upon him like an avalanche, he remembered her. He remembered the town he was proud to call his home, the people who lived there, the six men he rode with, and the land he loved.
He had seen Four Corners slowly abandoned until it joined so many of its western sister-cities as a ghost town, a shell of wooden buildings that soon crumbled like snakeskin and rejoined the wilderness it was carved out of; the Exchange had lasted for a while until a demolitions team blew it up.
He had seen his bounty cleared, exonerated of the crime by the President himself- 1880 saw him in the clear, with no more running and no more hiding or looking over his shoulder.
He had seen the mountains and valleys of the West close off under the hands of ranchers and private industry, and the People pushed onto postage-stamp reservations- seeing these things with an impotent rage and spirit-deep loss that so few of the people he met today could understand.
He hadn't seen his friends die, though, and this grieved him; after Four Corners shut down, they drifted apart as much from their own, windblown natures as from need of work. He'd kept in touch as much as his writing skills would allow, though, and at last had gone to their funerals; Buck killed in a train wreck just past Salt Lake City, Nathan trying to save a small girl from cholera and catching it himself, Josiah from a sudden heart attack in San Francisco. Chris had moved back to Indiana, but died defending innocent civilians from a gunman during a bank robbery. He remembered receiving the death notice, thinking If'n I had been there, this wouldn'ta happened... I'd have saved him... I'da taken that bullet for him, and smiling to himself because Chris would have thought the same thing.
J.D. had been the first to leave, going to Texas and joining the Rangers there; he died in the line of duty. It hurt the old man a little, to remember how proud the others had been of their youngest, with Buck so near to exploding from satisfaction when they'd received the news. He had gotten the funeral invitation too late to go pay his respects; still, he took a train to Austin, braving the concrete jungles and strange noises of the city, to see Casey and her children anyway. Casey's lined face and red eyes struck him; awkwardly, he'd hugged her and murmured soothing words, heart aching to see the careworn face of the fresh girl who'd always been a friend and J.D.'s love.
And Ezra had gone to Europe, waiting out the war in England and dying five years ago in Paris. First he'd heard of it was from Ezra's lawyers, and came in the form of a trust check for $50,000.00. A note written in Ezra's immaculate hand and on old-fashioned stationery accompanied it. The check had since long gone to the bank, but the note remained, folded in the old man's jacket pocket.
If you're reading this, then I've died and gone on to perhaps better places (hopefully, the prospects for a good game of chance there will be quite nice.) You asked me that day before I left for New Orleans exactly what you should do with all that money from your bounty-hunting years. Invest it, I said- or better yet, let me invest it for you. Sadly, gambling is going the way of the riverboat, so an old con like myself needs to find titillation of the monetary type elsewhere. The check you have is twenty years' worth of speculation, risk, and strategic maneuvering- not much different than our days with the Seven down in Four Corners, although I have never yet been attacked, shot, or beaten by a posse of angry investors. I hope this note finds you well, sipping whiskey, maybe, or playing that wretched harmonica of yours. The world's moving too damn fast for me now.
Thoughtfully folding up the note, the old man turned back inside, bracing himself on the old Hepplewhite chair by the porch door, and made his way to the stairs leading to the cellar. He flicked on the light switch, and even now his heart gave a shudder at the sudden bursting of light- light that came without stoking a fire or putting a match to a lamp. Slowly, he descended the stairs and navigated his way through piles of old tack, boxes of clothes, and assorted odds-and-ends. He came at last to a small wooden trunk made of varnished oak, hinged now with brass though the originals had been rawhide. He bent to open the trunk and, cursing his forgetfulness, turned on the lamp next to him.
Light flooded the contents of the box; the old man sank to his haunches and began to go through the contents. Memories caught fire, separate sparks flaring in the darkness until they spread, melding together into a forest fire of remembrances.
A braided lariat, kept supple and smooth by countless oilings; feathered and beaded parfleches wrapped carefully in deerhide; a half-crumbled copy of The Clarion, with a long-ago-written poem printed in it. Old 'WANTED' posters- one with his name on it- and wooden trinkets carved over camp fires. An old bedroll, near gone to transparency and a carved silver nameplate with 'Peso' scribed on it. A spyglass and old compass, still perfectly polished; a long-bore Winchester 44.40 and its saddle carrier of oiled leather sat next to his mare's leg and its own hip sheath. A yellowed dime-store novel with his own picture and those of the others on the cover- he pulled that out and set it aside, along with the ancient Bible that sat atop it.
And underneath them all, a beat-up buffalo-hide coat and cavalry slouch hat, both brushed and kept free from insects, but obviously hard-used in their working life. A bright, true smile creased the old man's face; he placed the hat on his head, stood up and pulled the coat on, remembering with a sudden thrill the weight of it. Traces of dust and animal-smell clung to the coat, taking him back to days spent ranging the open reaches of his land, finding his soul's peace in the wild places, and then finally finding his honor with six other men who fought for justice and the same honor he himself sought after.
He felt a slight weight in the right pocket and hesitantly dipped a hand into it. His fingers brushed cold metal, a slender length of it, and he smiled. Taking up the books, the old man shut the trunk, turned off the lights, and made his painful way back upstairs.
The sun had risen slowly, pulling itself off the distant needle of the Rockies, its golden fire bleeding down the slopes of the peaks, and flooding with light the foothills that spread beneath it. The old man walked back outside into the glory of the sunrise, settling himself down on the old Hepplewhite, both books in his lap. He faced directly east, eyes half-shut in the brightness that bathed him, breathing deeply of the cold, clear air.
Almost unknowing of what he did, the old man pulled the harmonica out of his coat pocket. Old hands turned the tiny instrument over and over, fingers running up and down the delicate scroll-work etched into the frame. He lifted the harmonica to his lips and, summoning a strangely hesitant breath, blew into it.
The pure, haunting sound of it rolled through the air, unfurling and golden in the stillness of early dawn. One, single note hung in the air- the rich bugling of a trumpet sounding, the cry of the wind through a slot canyon, the fading whisper of a lover in the night, the ghost-echo of a long-ago calling he could never forget.
A distant movement caught his attention. Blinking, he passed his hands across his eyes and looked again.
Yes- there it was, off to the east.
Not so much seeing as registering a presence, he was, old instincts dying hard even as his own body did. Alert now, the old man tensed forward in his chair, hand up to shade his eyes.
Shapes appeared on the ridge, half-eclipsed by the sunlight behind them. Many figures were there, though- some looming large and bulking, others small and slight. He heard the beat of hoofs, a slow thundering that drew closer. The old man wanted to stand, but could not- even as his desire to see the newcomers increased, he felt his body relax, lowering back into his chair. He marveled that he was not alarmed.
Finally, they came close enough for him to see them, and his whole being contracted in a wave of wonder.
They were all there, exactly as they had always been.
Josiah in his serape, bearlike but with a deep gentleness in his soul, rode next to Nathan, whose kind smile lit up his face even as the sun shadowed it. J.D. and Casey sitting double, both of them young and clear-eyed and riding with all the ease he remembered of them. Ezra's gold incisor shone in the light; he fastidiously brushed traveling dust off his lapeled green coat and smiled as though at some private joke. Buck, grinning with the infectious enthusiasm of the young soul he'd always been at heart, turned to say something to J.D., who rolled his eyes and must have responded in kind, for Buck's smile faltered an instant before returning more hugely than before.
And Chris... he sat his horse tall and straight as he always had, black-clad as he'd always been, but the old man could see that his friend's green eyes shone with a deep happiness unremembered in their life together. And next to Chris' horse, a big, black, white-blazed head bobbed. Seeing the old man, the horse whickered and danced impatiently, striking out with a back foot.
Nettie walked before them, straight-shouldered and proud as she always was. Mary Travis, all delicate strength like wrought iron, strode arm-in-arm with her.
Next to her... a woman with long, light brown hair and blue eyes and he saw in those eyes a strength he knew because it existed in his own heart. A woman he remembered from a childhood lost long ago but preserved in the honor that a young boy believed he had to uphold, and the pride his mother had given him to outlast adversity.
First he thought they were figments of an old man's ailing mind, the sun playing tricks on an addled brain. But they drew closer and stopped not ten paces from his porch, the leather of the tack creaking and the horses' breath steaming in the cold morning air.
Something flickered through him- a sensation of weightlessness, of pure being, of flying.
He flowed to his feet and strode toward them, walking, now running to take his mother in his arms.
He felt life explode into him then, felt more than saw his body filling out, taking back all of its old strength, its old keenness. She pushed his slouch hat off his head to run her long fingers through the freed length of his brown hair, laughing at the golden stubble that covered his cheeks, teasing him about that "awful old coat" and marveling at the strength of his sinewy arms. He saw his reflection in his mother's eyes and laughed and cried, joy brimming over the rim of his heart and spilling over into tears.
Heard her whisper over and over, "Vin... Vincent... my boy... my little boy... Vin..."
He stood then, ringed with his friends and his family, taken into a warm embrace that washed away the myriad sufferings of his life, his pain, his loneliness, and his regret. Before they drew him off to the haven of the distant mountains, he turned to look back at the cabin and at the old man sitting there in the worn coat and hat with the two books clutched in his hands.
The old man smiled into the brightness of the coming dawn.
His eyes closed.
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