Reading from the Book of God: - Psalms 75We give thanks to you, O God,
we give thanks to you!
We proclaim how great you are
and tell of the wonderful things you
"I have set a time for judgement," says
"and I will judge with fairness.
Though every living creature tremble
and the earth itself be shaken,
I will keep its foundations firm.
I tell the wicked not to be arrogant;
I tell them to stop their boasting."
Judgement does not come from the east
or from the west,
from the north or from the south;
it is God who is the judge,
condemning some and acquitting
The Lord holds a cup in his hand,
filled with the strong wine of his
He pours it out, and all the wicked drink
>they drink it down to the last drop.
But I will never stop speaking of the
God of Jacob
or singing praises to him.
He will break the power of the wicked,
but the power of the righteous will
"Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. As the black shroud of death descends to claim its right to his mortal body let God make final judgement on his soul," the sombre words of the preacher rang hollow with grief and misery, devoid of emotion. Josiah felt the heavy weight of all his forty-nine years bear down on his broad shoulders. What had started as a tremble had escalated and his voice shook and finally faltered coming to a stop. Briefly glancing up into the sea of concerned faces that waited patiently for him to continue, he felt the understanding and shared grief that reflected his own. He closed his eyes for a moment, shielding himself from the harsh reality of life, and was willing to sink to the ground and offer himself as a replacement if only God was willing to accept.
If only that were possible.
Vaguely aware of the growing mutterings and hushed whispers Sanchez brought his attention back into focus. Rolling his shoulders back from the slumped position they'd assumed, he now stood more upright and he steeled himself to continue. Swallowing past the lump that had taken up residence in his throat and the misery that weighed heavy on his heart, he gathered his strength and continued in his baritone voice, knowing that his friend and brother at least deserved a proper burial.
Nathan shook his head, as he stared vacantly at the ground. How had he failed? Surely he could have done something to prevent this? But damned if he knew what that was. He was a healer, God damn it! Not a doctor! It wasn't as if he could've done anything to help anyhow. He was already dead before he got there! Even if he was a qualified doctor there was nought he could of done. He sniffed back the tears, and brushed his hand over the dampness on his cheek and prayed that some day the others would understand and forgive him. He hoped when that day arrived he would afford himself the same forgiveness.
The sharpshooter and tracker shuffled his worn boots in the hardpacked earth beneath his feet, stirring a plume of dust to rise. He tugged irritably at the borrowed suit, feeling mighty uncomfortable in it and hoping he could be rid of it quickly. He felt obliged to wear it, but it didn't make any sense to him if it made him uncomfortable. Vin Tanner was dumbfounded. He'd lost a good friend, and instinct told him that something about the whole affair was amiss, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Best think on it later, when the funeral was over, and things got back to normal. Normal?! Hell if that was ever gonna happen again! His sorrowful eyes drifted upwards and rested on the dark haired youth that openly showed his grief. A pain tore through Tanner's, gut twisting and turning and almost bringing him to his knees as he watched the boy lose control. Vin felt the comfort of an elderly hand on his shoulder, and knew without a doubt it was Nettie.
JD Dunne, the youngest of the seven and the last to join the group, stood, visibly shaking with tears streaming unashamedly down his face. Without looking up, he roughly rubbed the back of his hand over his tear stained face and wiped it on his shirt-front without caring. Wrinkling his nose and sniffing he rained in the dripping moisture that was on the verge of falling. He couldn't believe that this was really happening, it all seemed so surreal, like a dream. No... a nightmare!
Only the day before they had been laughing and talking together, planning revenge on an unaccounted slight that had occurred to the pair of them. Then within two hours of that time he was struck down. Damn! He didn't understand what had happened. Nathan tried but couldn't adequately explain it to him. He felt the tall man beside him offer a brotherly hug, and he leaned into it, and accepted it for what it was, a comfort to a stricken friend.
Buck Wilmington, Ladies man extraordinaire, gunslinger and town protector. He shifted his watery gaze from the wooden casket, that sat suspended above the hole it was soon to be lowered into, and scrutinised the kid that was shaking in his grief beside him. Sensing that the young man was going to totally lose control, he draped his arm around the smaller man's shoulders and squeezed. When JD didn't immediately distance himself from the offered contact, Buck let his arm remain. Feeling the tight strangle that was wrapped around his own heart at the scene that was being played out in front of him, he swelled with pride at how the younger man was coping. Wilmington knew that the pair had become close, their relationship was almost as close as the brotherly bond shared between the kid and himself.
Buck suspected JD was not going to recover overnight, and felt it his responsibility to help the kid through the days and weeks ahead. Buck pinned the gaze of his oldest friend and was gratified that he'd been there for Chris in his time of need when Sarah and Adam had been viciously taken from his life. Wilmington was aware of the different situation but still the pain would be there for them all.
Chris Larabee was a hardened gunslinger; grief and a burning desire for revenge ate away what little soul he had left after the murders of his wife and son in the fire that took their lives. This man was unusually affected by the sudden death of one of his fellow peacekeepers. Glad that he'd left on his hat, as its lowered brim shielded his glistening blue eyes. When he took on the job as leader of this mismatched group two years prior, he certainly didn't contemplate still being here in Four Corners this far down the track, and having bridged the gap, and bonded so well with this group of men. He tuned out, not listening to the words spoken by the preacher; instead he eyed the large gathering of townsfolk that had followed them from the church out to the cemetery for the graveside ceremony. A small sad smile touched the corners of his mouth. He was sure the outshowing of the entire town would have surprised and even shocked the debonair conman, had he known.
A surge of annoyance rose to the surface as he recalled the sharp and unfeeling wire that Maude had sent. Unfortunately previous engagements prevent me from attending Stop Please proceed without me Stop. Sighing audibly, he winced in sympathy at the upbringing the Southerner had to endue. He tightened his hold on the golden haired newspaperwoman, as she started once again to cry and mourn the loss of the southern gambler. He looked down at the growing wet spot that covered the front of his black shirt, and offered Mary a dry handkerchief as she burrowed her face further into his chest. He sighed again, totally confused by what had taken place.
JD was zealously striding up and down the boardwalk in nervous anticipation, the weathered grey hardwood boards beneath his feet taking a pounding. The overabundance of youthful exuberance had yet to diminish and be replaced by complacency that age brought forth. His hands were damp with sweat and he wiped the unwelcome moisture down the legs of his pants, as he stopped below the saloon's frontage. Counting to ten his pace slackened for a moment, then in anticipation his erratic movements began once more. He craned his neck and looked up at the window where the gambler's abode was as if glaring at it would entice the conman down into the land of wakefulness. "Come on, Ezra," the young man whined with impatience. "Get your ass down here!" A moments pause followed this entreaty with a "please?"
"You're requiring my presence for some reason?" A soft southern drawl reached the ears of the young man, causing the younger man to jump in surprise.
"Ezra!" JD hollered.
"Young man, I am standing not two feet from you. There is no need to bellow my name," the southerner remonstrated.
"Ah sorry, Ezra." He shrugged his shoulders in way of apology.
"Now..." with a delightedly devious grin the gambler first looked over his right shoulder and then his left before conspiritually lowering his voice. "Let's find a more secure location before discussing this further." Together the duo walked off towards the livery; heads lowered together scheming their retribution against a certain moustached ladies man.
Chris was lounging out front of the currently empty jail. His gaze lingered on Vin who was relaxed idly in companionable silence leaning back against a support post for the eves. Both lawmen had witnessed JD's erratic pacing and then the arrival of Ezra. Vin bit back a smile when JD jumped out of his skin. Chris laced his fingers together behind his head, tilting back the chair precariously on its two legs as he observed the joined forces of the kid and the gambler, and wondered what plan they where hatching. Larabee raised an eyebrow as he traced their journey to the livery. "Reckon they're up to somethin?" Vin's Texas drawl broke the silence.
"Without a doubt," Chris confirmed, with a flicker of interest lighting his eyes. "Just hope Buck don't shoot 'em for whatever they're about to do."
"Now I'm sure that both Misses Molly and Belle will be party to his charade." Standish tapped his boot in thought, with a stick he'd picked up, "I wonder if Inez... " then thinking better of it, decided not to involve the Mexican barmaid in their scheme. "JD, you'll have to inquire about Misses Rose and Lulu, as to whether they will be party to this farce. Then we'll have to work out a signal, that the ladies can give us... " Standish stopped revising the plan when he noticed the vacant look of the younger man, "Mr. Dunne... JD, are you listening?"
"Yeah... sure. Do ya really think we should do this?" JD questioned the viability of the plan, and his participation in it.
"Correct me if I am wrong, you requested my help to formulate a plan that has Mr. Wilmington on the hop, your words I recall. Now is it my understanding that you wish to terminate this prank before its fruition? And if so, may I remind you that I too have been maligned by him also, and as such intend to pay him back tenfold for his debauchery, with or without your involvement."
JD thought on the gambler's words, and sniggered as he recalled the incident of two weeks prior. Buck had lathered the seat and back of a chair in sticky congelation of molasses. The chair was literally dripping with the concoction. How he had managed to distract the gambler from checking the surface of the chair prior to sitting on it, JD wasn't to certain, but the ladies man had pushed the southerner into the seat. The look of horror that crossed the gambler's normally placid features, and the cussing that Standish bestowed on them, brought another chortle of laughter to the young man's face at the memory.
When Ezra had tried to stand up, the chair had stuck to him, his jacket and his pants, and if Josiah hadn't helped to pull the chair off the smaller man, who knows how long he'd a been stuck. As it was, not only was the entire group of Seven lawmen present at the time, but also a room filled to capacity. JD didn't realise that someone's face could turn so red. Then to his utter embarrassment, the gambler then had to cross the main street to reach the bathhouse, to the sniggering, hoots and jeers of the town folk.
Standish watched in awe, as Dunne's attention became preoccupied, and guessed accurately at the lapse in concentration. Folding his arms across his chest Ezra narrowed his stare, until JD acknowledged his scrutiny with flush of remorse.
" I ... Ah ... um... " the kid stuttered.
Ezra held his hand up to stop the explanation. "Not to worry, Mr. Dunne. I distinctly recall your own, rather... awkward mishap, with a certain young lady... " Standish didn't finish, as JD rushed in to correct the assumption that the gambler, and so many others, had made.
"You know, Casey thought... and everyone else too... but it's not like we, um... well we didn't really, ah... now everybody knows. Ah Hell!" Dunne watched Standish's grin grow, and felt the corners of his own mouth crease into a smile, until it matched the southerner's. Boyishly his eyes gleamed with mischief. And with a decidedly devilishly snicker he agreed. "Nah... Buck's really got this coming to him."
"Good man." Ezra confidently clapped JD on his shoulder, happy with the scheme they'd come up with, and ready to lay down the ground work for it to pay off, they headed out and proceeded to do just that.
Ezra Standish pushed through the batwing doors to the saloon, content with his part of the payback that was now set in motion. He looked forward to a pleasant afternoon's game of chance with some willing participants while he awaited the inevitable culmination of his cunning and ingenuity. Letting a grin form for a moment on his handsome features, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the dimmed interior of the saloon, after the brightness of the outdoors. The southerner remained stationary for a minute, scanning the tables for possible players, and his fellow lawmen.
He sidestepped as a man of medium height approached him, and proceeded past him and out through the doors. He felt a sharp sting of pain in his upper arm for a split second. Enough to know that something narrow and pointed had pierced into his arm. Standish's eyes apprehensively roved over the injured limb, expecting to find blood dripping down his sleeve, but he found nothing amiss. He looked up in confusion to his friends across the room. Sluggishly he tried to turn, and follow the path of his assailant, but already, the pain was pulsing down his arm to his fingertips, and numbness had settled over his clouded thoughts. He wanted to call out, but his chest tightened, making the simple task of breathing an enormous effort. He gasped audibly, panicking, and his eyes rolled heavenward as his legs weakened and crumpled, unable to sustain his weight any longer, he collapsed bonelessly to the floor.
Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez, Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee and Buck all sat at their proclaimed table. It was approaching midday and the beverages at the round table consisted of coffee, coffee and yet more black brewed coffee. They were yet to imbibe in the stronger drinks. In turn they all noticed the arrival of the southerner. The usually quiet tracker elbowed Chris in the ribs and shot him a wicked smile that was hastily covered, in expectation of some form of entertainment. Chris' only response was to raise his mug higher to cover his knowing smile.
What happened next was a puzzle of imminent proportions, as the apparently healthy southerner keeled over before their eyes. Vin frowned, as he watched the enigmatic man collapse before his eyes. He shared a look with Larabee, who was just as bewildered. Did this have something to do with what JD and Ezra have planned for Buck? Was this all part of the joke? They remained glued to their seats, waiting for the punch line, but none was forthcoming. As they were considering their options, Jackson's alarmed voice shattered the quiet of the room and filled them with dread.
"Ezra!!?" Nathan moved promptly with abruptness, knocking over his chair in his haste to reach the fallen man, calling out his name in desperation as he raced to his side. Standish lay on the floor lifelessly. The healer touched his fingers to Ezra's neck, and was stunned to find no pulse. Not trusting his unsteady hands he knelt lower and put his cheek against the gambler's nose, but no cool air touched his face. In utter disbelief he slapped the man on his face tossing the fallen man's head unbidden from one side to the other. Nathan then pulled the man into a sitting position and forcefully shook the unresponsive man, with no result.
The dark skinned man hadn't seen or heard the others approach, and huddle around the two men on the floor, until he felt the large hand of Josiah resting on his shoulder, telling him that it was okay and that he wasn't expected to perform miracles. Jackson looked up, tears running down his cheeks, into the wide eyed shock that each man held - and it bored into his soul accusing him of his ominous failure.
The four men stood shocked to the core, as they watched in horrified silence as Nathan valiantly tried to rouse the southerner. It all became too obvious though as the gambler's lips turned blue and his chest lay flat, not taking in that necessary oxygen to sustain life, that he was indeed dead.
Stunned did not describe the tumult of emotions that raged between these men.
One of the seven was gone! What happened to destiny and fate?
Josiah reached past Nathan and gently picked up the man who could have been his son, if only they'd had more time, and carried him out, letting a sole tear trickle down his face and fall onto the man he cradled in his arms.
Jackson remained kneeling on the floor where he'd tried to revive the southerner. Keeping his head bowed he felt the comfort offered by Chris and Vin as they patted his shoulder in sympathy and understanding before following Josiah out of the saloon. Buck stopped behind the former slave and pulled him to his feet, then throwing his arm across Nathan's shoulder he led him outside also.
JD Dunne whistled as he kicked the rock sending it flying down the road. He knew Ezra was gonna be proud of him, when he told the gambler what he'd achieved. Both Rose and Lulu, along with Molly and Belle agreed to participate in Ezra and JD's revenge on the ladies man. That they were so willing to be involved caused Dunne to skip with excitement. He knew Ezra had gone to the saloon, so he decided he'd meet him there.
The young man couldn't prevent the grin that reached from ear to ear, and he clapped his hands together in anticipation. Damn, did they really have to wait until tomorrow? His impatience was not going to interfere with the plan that the gambler had formulated. His sides already hurt, from laughing so much. He was going to be in agony when it actually happened.
JD bounced with enthusiasm, and hopped up the step and onto the boardwalk. Seeing Josiah exit the saloon, he raised his arm to draw the man's attention. "Hey, Josiah... " His eyes lowered to the bundle that the large man had cradled in his arms. He immediately recognised the familiar red jacket that was the gambler's trademark and he missed a step, stumbling, as he realised that it was Ezra, in the older man's arms. Had Ezra got hurt? Had there been a fight? He was so lifeless just hanging there. Where was Nathan?
"Josiah?!!" Confusion and uncertainty robbed the boy of further speech.
"Son... be best if you go in and talk to the others." The larger man offered in way of explanation, as he moved to walk around the young man.
Seeing the confirmation in the former preacher's eyes, that Ezra was indeed dead, JD began to protest, "No! It ain't true! It's some find of sick joke! Well ha ha. You can get up now Ezra!" The young man yelled at the limp form. When no response came from him, JD grabbed hold of the gambler's swinging arm and tried to pull him out of Josiah's arms.
"Son, that ain't gonna help. He's gone."
"But he can't be! We were only talking an hour or so ago... what we were gonna do to Buck... " JD's words trailed to a stop and the raw exposed confusion caused the older man to shake his head in sympathy. "He can't be dead?" The whispered plea fell from his lips.
"Son, it must have been his time." The defeated tone of the former preacher hit JD like a blow to the head, sending him reeling.
Great racking sobs escaped his mouth, and tears flowed freely as the reality of the situation finally sunk in. He turned on his heels to escape, and found himself being led away from the gathering crowd and to his room at the boarding house.
Vin and Chris then Buck and Nathan followed Sanchez and his burden outside. Moved by the display of brotherhood the young easterner showed towards the gambler, they remained virtually motionless while he urgently questioned Josiah. As the crowd of townspeople gathered around to get a last glimpse of the seventh, Buck came out of his own reverie long enough to realise that JD needed his support, and he went to help the man to some privacy.
No one blamed Nathan. But they were all totally stunned by what had happened.