You Never Can Tell

by Nancy W.

Author's Notes: This story takes place 15 years after the first episode. It is based on an outline conceived by Debbi K several years ago that I recently rediscovered on an old computer. I totally and completely give her all the credit for the basics. Unfortunately, she no longer writes in this fandom, and I have lost touch with her, so I can only hope she would not mind that I ran with her ideas. They were just too good to leave in fanfic limbo forever. Since it's a first-person account, I was going for a 19th Century feel to the prose. I don't know if that worked or not, but I hope it doesn't kick anyone out of the story.

Special Thanks: to Marnie, for her patience and encouragement.

Can it really be fifteen years since that day I first met Buck Wilmington? That day when he accused me of reading about the West in dime novels and having to see what it was like for myself?

I was angry at him for saying that, not so much because he was judging me without knowing me, but because he was right. I had promised mama I would go to college, but only because it was her dying wish. I knew the money she had saved wasn't anywhere near enough. I was pretty much making my own way by then, so that wasn't a problem. Being stuck in a big, dirty city working 14 hours a day at factory job was, though. So, I took mama's money, bought two new suits of clothes, a matched set of Colt Lightnings, and a ticket on the next train headed West.

That train took me to Santa Fe, which was nice enough. But Texas was where I wanted to be, so I took a stage headed South. I have never claimed to have a good sense of direction - not like Vin, who could find his way out of Hell itself. So, as it happened, I ended up on a stage bound for Tombstone, which, I later learned, was in the complete opposite direction of Texas. As luck would have it, I never got that far - at least not on that first stage. We were rolling through a little town in the New Mexico Territory called Four Corners - we didn't even stop - when there, lo and behold, was the very stuff of all those dime novels coming to life right before my eyes. I jumped off the stage - literally - because I had to be a part of that.

And become a part of it I did, riding with six of the best men I have ever known, and between us, becoming a legend in our own right. Los Magnificos, some call us, and to others we are The Magnificent Seven. It might surprise more than a few folks to know that I still enjoy those dime novels, except now, instead of reading them, I write them. Once a month or so, I send a little parcel off to a publisher in New York City, and, more often than not, I get a nice check in return. I'd like to say that I hate to think that some young lad back east might read one of them and decide to make his way out west like I did, but that would be a lie. I would not begrudge any young man the adventure these last fifteen years have brought me. Sure, I have been in bar fights, run from stampedes, watched hangings, been stabbed, and shot. But with the exception of the terrible, tragic death of Annie Neuhaus by my own hand, I wouldn't trade any of it for the life I would have had otherwise.

Fifteen years will change any man, though. When I was 17, I stepped up and pinned on that Sheriff's badge without batting an eye. You think you are invincible at that age. I still wear that same badge now, at 32, and fifteen years have taught me that pinning on a badge doesn't make you a lawman, any more than a fast gun makes you a gunslinger. A good lawman has to learn to temper justice with mercy and common sense, or else, he becomes no more than a bully. It was Buck Wilmington who taught me that.

So, anyway, here it is, fifteen years down the road. I married Casey Wells - much to absolutely no one's surprise - on my 21st birthday. We were blessed with three little girls (who more and more are ready to remind me that they are not so little any more). The oldest, Rachel, is named for my mother. Next comes Matilda, named for Casey's mother, and the youngest, Antoinette - who was given Aunt Nettie's real name, even though the old girl probably would have pulled out her Spencer carbine if you'd ever tried calling her that to her face. Then, two years ago, an "orphan train" stopped in town. Having made its way across the country, there were only a handful of children left by the time it got here. They were the ones that, for one reason or another, no one had chosen. The label "bastard" is enough to make a lot of otherwise good folk think badly of a child who had no part or blame in his own making. There was a small boy, four years of age, whose mother had died, having never married. I thought how I could have been that unfortunate child, and found I could do nothing else but take him in. Casey was against it, at first, telling me we had no way of knowing what kind of people he came from. I pointed out that she did not know that about me, nor did I know that about her - neither of us having ever met the kin of the other, except, in my case, for Nettie. I am a bastard, too. I made sure Casey knew this before she married me. She saw she was being foolish, and so, we came to have a son. His name is John Dunne, Jr. and no one had better dare say he has no father in my presence, because he is my son.

Nettie, God bless her soul, passed on just a year ago. She was spry as they come right up to the end. She passed peacefully in her sleep one night, no one is quite sure why. I suppose she figured she had done all she was put here on earth to do. It's like that sometimes with old folks. No one is exactly sure how old Miss Nettie was, but when Casey and I went through her meager belongings, we found a locket engraved with the words; "To my dearest Antoinette. 1818." We have no idea who gave it to her, but it wasn't a childish bauble. It was the kind of thing a man gives a woman when she means something special to him, and upon examination, Ezra determined it was quite valuable. The tiny portrait inside was of a young man decked out in finery that Ezra recognized as European. I reckon things had changed a lot for Miss Nettie, too, over the course of her long life.

Judge Travis - the man who brought the Seven of us together all those years ago - has gone on, too. We miss his visits, but his legacy has lived on in ways that none of us ever expected, a subject about which I will reveal more later. He touched all of our lives, that day on that dusty street when he offered us a dollar a day plus room and board for the chance of possibly getting killed. He was an educated man of refinement and culture - but he was also a man without fear of standing up for what he knew was right. That day that he faced down Lucas James after he killed poor Mrs. Potter's husband was a revelation to us all. I think he earned Chris Larabee's trust right at that moment, and Chris was not a man who trusted easily. The rest of us followed Chris's lead, and I can't help but think that had he been younger, the judge would have been one of us Los Magnificos.

But this story is not about those who are gone. It is about those who live on, whose lives have been changed by this once-dusty, insignificant spot on a territorial map, and who in turn have changed that town into the place that some of the more optimistic among us always knew it could be. As I said before, fifteen years changes any man, and I see proof of that every day, in this little town and in six men whom I still - and always will - call my friends. Once they were a gunfighter, gambler, bounty hunter, preacher, healer and... well, I never was quite sure what Buck was, even though he seemed to think he was my big brother back in those early days (sometimes, he still acts that way!). These past fifteen years have made them all who they are today.

I suppose the transition started when the Widow Alice Carr decided that trying to build and run a farm was not the existence she had envisioned it to be when she came west with Will Richmond's wagon train. It wasn't six months before she was on her way back to Ohio, and, planning on taking the stage from Four Corners, she arrived in town with her incorrigible son, Eugene. Upon taking Eugene to Mrs. Potter's store for candy (which, I would swear, was a staple of the child's diet), she overheard two townswomen discussing a dress pattern and the challenges it presented. As it turned out, the Widow Carr was a skilled and experienced seamstress, and the town had none since the horrific and tragic death of young Irene Dunlap at the hands of the vile Cyrus Poplar just weeks before. Mrs. Carr was  returning to Ohio not because there was anything for her there, but rather, because there was nothing for her here, or so she had thought. It wasn't long before, with some help from Ezra and Mary Travis, she had set up her own dressmaking shop and was turning a hearty profit.

Now, it was no secret that the widow had eyes for Josiah, and had ever since we guarded the wagon train from Dicky O'Shea and his henchmen. Josiah, at first, ran in the other direction, having no inclination towards marriage, which was what the widow had in mind. The problem was Eugene. More and more, it became apparent that the boy needed a strong hand if he was not to end up a slovenly lay about, or worse, embroiled in some sort of dishonest activity. Chris tried glaring at him, which only worked if Chris was actually there when his misbehavior occurred. Buck and Ezra resorted to bribery, while Nathan and Vin resorted to threats. Myself, I must confess that being not as long past Eugene's age as the others, I found him rather entertaining company, and taught him things a boy his age should know, such as where to find toads to put in people's hats.

After many discussions with the widow about Eugene's behavior, a change began to come over Josiah. He began to grow fond of her company, and, lo and behold, Eugene was actually pleased by this turn of events. The end of that chapter is that Josiah married the widow Carr, and he, along with Eugene's six "uncles," eventually set that boy on a path that would take a direction none of us ever anticipated. Chris taught him to handle a gun, and Vin taught him to shoot.  Nathan and Buck warned that gluttony was the path to neither vigorous manhood nor a woman's heart, respectively. Ezra taught him to comport himself as a gentlemen, and I taught him to ride. The little boy who didn't like horses and was frightened by guns outgrew his baby fat and eventually went on to become Lieutenant Eugene Carr Sanchez, United States Cavalry, having two years ago graduated (with honors) from West Point.

As for Josiah, he gave up his church when the town got a real preacher - and by "real" I mean one who had a true calling from the Lord, and about whom I will tell you more later. As the town began to grow, Josiah soon heard opportunity knocking and realized that he could put his skill with tools and the building trade to good use. He established a lumber yard, and quickly followed it with a hardware store. He figured Eugene would follow him into the business, which he still may, someday, but even if he does not, Josiah has a son of his own blood now, Ethan Emanuel, a handsome and strapping lad of twelve, who ironically was guided past his early years as a holy terror by Eugene. Josiah and Alice are proud as peacocks of both boys, and rightly so.

As unlikely a match as Josiah and the widow Carr had at first seemed, it was surpassed in the unforeseen pairing of hearts by two other townsfolk. Having had his taste of the West as it really was when he managed to not only ride brazenly into Purgatorio, and ingratiate himself to some of the territory's most depraved outlaws, but had lived to tell about it, novelist Jock Steele decided that the West was where he was meant to be. There were those of us who would (and did) argue the fact, but he would not be swayed. He built one of the first true permanent houses in Four Corners and from there continued to write tales of blazing guns and righteous vengeance. Often, he used us as his subjects, which is more or less how we came to be known as Los Magnificos or The Magnificent Seven. It would be untruthful for me to say that I did not relish this notoriety, for being young and impressionable, I most heartily did. And, sensationalism aside, Mr. Steele is a fine writer. While we pretended to scoff at this Easterner who would immortalize us in print, all of us, down to man, read every single one of his books.

Now, being a writer, it was only natural that he would gravitate towards the other person in town who made a living by the printed word, Mary Travis. It began with him writing articles for the Clarion on mundane subjects which he always managed to make interesting, such as the school's annual spell-down, or the weekly horned toad races. It wasn't long before Jock and Mary were a frequent sight at Miss Virginia's restaurant, often chatting and laughing well into the evening. Even though it was apparent to many that a spark was there, I don't think it occurred to either of them for quite some time. That the statuesque and lovely Mary Travis would become enamored of the diminutive and ebullient Mr. Steele, and he likewise, was just not something that seemed in the natural course of events. Most townsfolk had assumed that Mrs. Travis would find her way into the heart of Chris Larabee, but, in retrospect, I believe that was only because the handsome, dashing gunfighter and a maiden fair was the stuff of all of those dime novels most of us claimed not to read. Alas, life is rarely like a dime novel.

What finally opened their eyes was when Billy Travis, then a boisterous lad of eleven, in an inexplicable act of defiance ran off and joined the Pico Chavez gang, who did their dirty deeds along the strip of trail between Four Corners and Purgatorio. Chavez had shown his face in Four Corners before, at the behest of Inez's cruel and arrogant former employer, Don Paulo (who ended up dying at Buck's hand, and deservedly so) but he had eluded capture. Chavez lured young Billy with promises of riches and adventure, and sealed the deal by giving him his own gun. What Billy was too young to realize was that Chavez merely needed an agent who could move about and do his bidding in relative safety and anonymity. Mary was appalled, naturally, as well as terrified for Billy's safety. We all were. But us riding out to confront Chavez and his gang would have ended in bloodshed, with Billy likely being caught up in the crossfire. As we considered our options, Jock Steele, unbeknownst to us, mounted his mule and rode out to Chavez's camp. He was quite a sight, that little man on that little mule, and Chavez made the fatal mistake of underestimating both Mr. Steele's determination and his courage. There was no actual throw down. Chavez scoffingly told Jock all he had to do was shoot him, and he could take Billy home. The outlaw never thought he'd have to draw on the little man, so by the time he realized that Steele had taken him at his word, it was too late. Jock Steele shot him with a tiny derringer, which likely would have done little harm had the bullet hit him anywhere but squarely between the eyes. Jock rode back to town (he made Billy walk), and Mary fell into his arms and his heart.

Their wedding was a sight to behold, with Mary a whole head taller than her groom. She walked down the aisle with her head held high, though, proud of the man at her side. So sweet a sight was it that no one was moved to laugh, although had they been, I don't think Jock Steele would have cared. A tougher hide I have never seen on any man, big or small.

Billy was sent to spend some time with Judge Travis who quickly cured him of his outlaw ways. Mary had hoped that he would follow his late father into the newspaper business, but Billy never demonstrated an inclination or aptitude for writing, nor did he share his grandfather's interest in the law. Instead, he chose his own path and took on an apprenticeship with Yosemite, our town blacksmith. With a thriving livery and demands for wagon repair, he was seldom idle, but the call of the silver rush in Colorado was more temptation than such an intrepid lad could endure for long. He now applies himself to the mining trade in a little town called Aspen, which, I suppose, like most mining towns, will wither on the vine when the lode runs dry, and we'll see Billy returning home. As for Jock and Mary, they have two youngsters now, a boy and a girl. The girl is short of stature like Jock, and willowy of build like Mary, while the boy has Mary's height and Jock's robust constitution, which works out well. They are uncommonly beautiful children, too.

Of course, there were couples such as Casey and I that everyone just assumed were meant to be, and one such union was that of Nathan and Rain. Their marriage was far from unexpected, and in fact, seemed to one and all to be a given conclusion almost from the beginning that day at the Seminole camp when first they met. Rain became an asset to the community in her own right, having learned from Nathan the skills needed to heal wounds and set bones, skills that were to come in handy when we lost Nathan for almost three years, on a journey that began when Nathan became aware that one Doctor M. Quinn in Colorado Springs had begun giving lectures on anatomy, medicinal chemistry, diagnosis of disease - all things which Nathan (much to our benefit) found profoundly interesting. He would often travel the great distance to attend these lectures, after overcoming his initial shock at discovering that Dr. Quinn was a woman. Having encountered many of the same sorts of prejudices that Nathan was often confronted with, being a man of Color, Dr. Quinn eagerly and enthusiastically welcomed his presence at these lectures, even though others in attendance often did not.

After witnessing first hand Nathan's skill and determination, and discovering that, although self-educated, he was quite well versed in the healing arts, Dr. Quinn asked him to entertain the idea of attending an actual medical school. Through colleagues, she had learned of one in Washington, DC that had been founded specifically for the purpose of training Negro doctors. It would mean that Nathan would be gone from us for 6 months each year, for three years, but the reward was that the town would have in him a real doctor. The cost was not at issue, because Ezra offered to loan him the money. It was decided then, that our town's gentle healer would become Dr. Nathan Jackson, and so it came to be.

Rain managed to take his place during the times he was away, and she became an adept healer in her own right. I owe my own dear little Rachel's very life to her, Rain having seen her through the influenza when she was a mere babe of six months. And like Nathan, she would not take Vin at his word when he proclaimed that a festering wound on his leg was "fine," thereby saving not only his leg, but possibly his life. Even so, I must admit that we regarded with some degree of shock her revelation that she, too, was determined to follow Nathan and attend medical school. Women doctors are such a rarity, and Colored women doctors - well, none of us had ever heard of one, Dr. Quinn, included. Rain would not be deterred. As soon as Nathan completed his studies, she was off to become a doctor in her own right. She had even further to travel than Nathan did, however. In a bitter and perplexing irony, the Negro medical college that Nathan had attended did not accept women. However, much to our surprise and Rain's delight, there do exist medical colleges exclusively for women, and they did not hesitate to accept a woman of Color.

It was a long time in the making, but, eventually, Four Corners boasted not one, but two trained physicians, and the clinic evolved into a small infirmary. Our citizens are in more capable hands when illness or injury strikes than many folk in large cities. There are those new to town who take exception to us having Negro doctors, but most of us would (and do) trust Nathan and Rain with our lives, and feel blessed that they are in our presence.

Alas, they were not blessed with children, but between the two of them, they have birthed most everyone in Four Corners under the age of fifteen, and the way this town has grown, that's saying something. And, those orphan trains continued to come through town occasionally, so it happened that six years ago, there were two Negro orphans among the children needing homes. Everyone seemed to have abandoned all hope of them being taken in as anything other than servants, since that was often the fate of Colored children, even in this enlightened age. They were a boy of 12 and a girl of 4, and though they were not siblings, the boy had determined to protect the little girl as he would had he been her own brother. He had given notice that anyone who took him in without taking her, also, may as well not bother, as he would run away at the first opportunity. He'd received a couple of good beatings for that attitude, but Nathan admired his courage. Rain, of course, was immediately taken with the little girl, who was possessed of sparkling eyes and a charming dimpled smile. So, Nathan does have a family now, and this coming fall, Orpheus Jackson will matriculate at the same college Nathan attended. Little Priscilla may follow suit, although at present she seems more appropriately interested in her dolls and piano lessons than in surgery.

Now, sometimes, you have a good friend, and, you think you know everything there is to know about him, but, even those closest to you can surprise you. I give you Buck Wilmington as my example. No one, I don't think, ever seriously believed that his pursuit of Inez Recillos was in vain, or that she meant her repeated admonitions of "nunca" in response to Buck's advances. Buck just has this gift for making women like him, and even though Inez pretended not to, we could all see that she did. What neither I, nor anyone else, expected was that Buck would prove to be the kind of man who could settle down, secure respectable employment, and raise a family. I don't even think Buck saw himself in that light, until he met Inez, who was disinclined to entertain any notion he might have had of pursuing her simply for the challenge it presented. No, Inez wanted that home and that family. She is a fiercely independent woman - she has had to be - but, never one who was loose with her favors.

So, Buck courted her, as a gentleman should, with patience and respect, and eventually, he began to realize that maybe there were advantages to settling down. I think that perhaps I was part of that decision, since as I wrote previously, Buck felt it his responsibility to look out for my welfare, despite the fact that, although young, I was a grown man. He didn't want to leave me sheriff of this town absent his watchful eye and practiced tutelage. I will freely admit that I did not want that, either.

And so it was that Buck Wilmington - rogue, scoundrel, ladies' man - cast aside his rakish ways and married Inez. They built a house next to the Steeles and a year later he became the father of a sweet girl with the unlikely name of "Eudora." Inez insists the name was Buck's idea, and there is no telling what the man was thinking at the time. Eudora now shows every promise of growing into a beautiful woman, although any young man who would dare to contemplate courting her in anything less that the most gentlemanly manner had best make his peace with the Good Lord first. I found it quite liberating to no longer be the object of Buck's insistently protective nature, but I confess that I did miss it a bit, too. We are still best of friends, of course, Buck and I, only now it is as fathers and men, as equals.

But as I was saying, sometimes, even those you know well can surprise you. Seeing Buck now, as he strolls down the boardwalk in a fine suit and tie, complete with gold pocket watch, his dusty boots replaced by fine shoes made in New York City, one would scarcely recognize him for the man he was when first we met. The first time I saw Buck, he was tumbling out of a second story hotel window in his union suit - the story behind that incident having as many versions as the people telling it. Having decided once and for all on respectability, though, Buck found himself in need of a vocation which paid more than a dollar a day and which involved the possibility of being shot to a lesser degree. No one would have suspected that Buck had a head for figures, nor that he possessed true business acumen, until Ezra, for reasons I will go into shortly, decided that his talents and commitments lay elsewhere. At the time, Ezra owned and operated the local bank, and was forced to draw upon local resources when he decided it was time to move on from that endeavor. Unfortunately, his choices were few, as most educated people in the town already had occupations at which they were successful, and most of those who would jump at the chance to run the bank lacked the basic skills needed to do so. All save one - it was Buck who stepped forward to take the job. Ezra was incredulous - we all were, to be truthful - until Buck revealed that he did, in fact, have a head for figures. He and Inez had purchased the saloon from Ezra early on, and upon examining the books, Ezra discovered they were meticulously kept, the ledgers plainly written in Buck's own hand. Their profits had been prudently invested, and we were surprised to learn that Buck was a man of considerable means.

So, it came to pass that Buck Wilmington became a banker, and could, I suppose, have used that position to amass substantial wealth. But while being rich suits most people, Buck had spent so much of his early life as a "have-not" that I don't believe he could ever be truly comfortable as a "have." Deep down inside, he is still our Buck, and while he's never admitted it, most of us suspect that the town's school, library and orphanage, as well as Nathan's clinic, were funded at least in part by his investments. How much Buck actually kept for himself is his business and anyone's guess, but I doubt that he's a rich man, at least, not in terms of dollars and cents. His true wealth lies in the fact that there is not a soul in town whom he would turn his back on in time of need, and we all know this and love him for it.

I am sure it is also worth noting that Buck - that man who at one time was happy to shirk any form of serious responsibility - is now the Mayor of Four Corners, having been re-elected to that position three times as of this writing. (He's not impeded by the fact that most of the town council consists of the rest of the Seven, as well as Jock Steele.)

The town began to grow after the arrival of the railroad. Families settled the surrounding ranch country and supported the many businesses that began to spring up in the town itself. And, with folks marrying and starting families of their own, it was soon apparent that what the town needed was a school. Buck and Josiah set to work on the construction of a schoolhouse while Mary Travis and Jock Steele began the search for a teacher. The latter was not an easy task, for the qualifications were demanding. To be considered, a candidate for the position had to be able to read and write, obviously, but also needed to possess a sound knowledge of arithmetic and geometry as well as geography, history and Latin. Most truly qualified teachers preferred to secure positions in the larger cities, and were disinclined to venture into the wilds of the newly settled West.

The first teacher hired arrived in town in such a disheveled and besotted state that Jock Steele promptly directed him to remain at the station and await the next train headed in the direction from which he had come. The second teacher, a spinster of thirty years of age from Denver, had it in mind to find a husband, which she soon did in Yosemite the blacksmith, and thereafter resigned. Now mind you, the last nail had scarcely been driven into the school and already two teachers had come and gone. So, it was with some reticence that we welcomed the third, a stern widow woman who claimed to have taught the children of royalty in Europe. I am sure that story was a complete fabrication, but being as how I was still considered "the kid" at that time, no one cared to entertain my opinion on the matter. The long and short of it is, she took umbrage with the fact that the Four Corners school was to be open to any child who wanted to be there (as well as many who did not), and this included those who were Negro, or Mexican, or Indian. Her philosophy was that children were best served when educated among their "own kind," which of course meant that she only wished to have white children in her class. So, she was sent on her way, perhaps to return to those non-existent royal children in Europe.

It was with much sadness and disappointment that the decision was reached to not open the school, and that would have happened, too, had one voice not spoken up to stop it.

Though none of us knew for sure, since his past was a mystery to most of us, Buck included, even though he was his oldest friend, most of us suspected that Chris Larabee was an educated man. He was often seen with a book, and I do not mean the dime novels that the rest of us devoured. I am talking of the classics, such as Plato and Euclid and Shakespeare. He read these things for the pleasure of it, so it could be assumed that he had the mental aptitude to comprehend and appreciate them. Through twists and turns of cruel Fate, Chris had ended up a gunfighter, but times were changing and the day of the fast gun was mercifully drawing to a close. Chris was not unduly troubled by this, since living by the gun had only served to gain him a reputation that the occasional youngster looking to prove his manhood felt the need to challenge. Chris rarely accepted such challenges, preferring to smile condescendingly and simply walk away, which was often more withering to one's self-esteem than actually being shot. It came as no surprise that he was ready to close that chapter of his life. However, when he submitted himself for consideration as schoolmaster, I don't think there was a jaw in town that did not promptly fall open in gaping surprise (or horror, depending on how well you knew the man).

He announced his decision to us at our usual table at the saloon. Buck thought he was joking. Frankly, I did, too, except I didn't dare to laugh like Buck did. If Chris had suddenly sprouted fairy wings, I don't think Vin could have looked more surprised. Ezra actually fumbled the cards he was shuffling and they scattered across the table. Poor Nathan was caught by surprise in mid-sip and inhaled whisky up his nose. Only Josiah stroked his chin thoughtfully, then grinned and said, "That just might work."

The next school term opened with Chris, still dressed all in black, standing in front of a dozen children who regarded him with varying degrees of awe, fascination, or just plain abject terror. That steel-eyed glare that intimidated the most hardened of the criminal element was put to good use, and seldom was discipline meted out in Mr. Larabee's classroom, because no one dared to misbehave, ever. There were children, such as the recalcitrant Eugene Sanchez and the aspiring outlaw Billy Travis, whom I am sure applied themselves to their studies diligently for no other reason than they were afraid not to.

The second year, the class increased to fifteen, then twenty, then twenty-five, then forty. Eventually, another teacher was hired (successfully this time) and then another, and so on. Chris is now the headmaster of the Four Corners Consolidated School, and still teaches classic literature and Latin to the handful of students who aspire to attend college. The most amazing thing about that is that I believe he is happy with his job. Chris was never the kind of man who could be forced to do something he didn't want to do, but who would have ever dreamed that he would want to do this? I am still amazed by it all.

Chris never married again. I think his experience with Ella Gaines made him cautious of trusting anyone with his heart. In a display of audacity such as I have never witnessed, Ella came back to town a few days after she shot Chris. It was the dead of night, but I don't think that was more than a coincidence, because she was as bold as brass as I watched her ride down the street. Most of the town was asleep, but I saw her and so did Mary Travis, who was up late putting the finishing touches on that week's issue of the Clarion. I stepped into the street and asked her what she wanted, at the same time Mary emerged from the Clarion office to confront her, also. She ignored me and kept on riding so I stood in front of her horse. She looked down at me with that evil grin of hers, and I thought back to how she had killed Chris's wife and his innocent little boy, and how she had tried to burn five of us alive. I pulled her out of her saddle, and I was less gentle than I would have been with a man. She slapped me and told me she was Mrs. Chris Larabee, and I would do well to respect that. Then, she turned to Mary and in words which I cannot repeat here, promised that she and Billy would meet the same end as had Sara and Adam Larabee. I had no doubt she would follow through with this evil vow, so, I shot her. Even as life left them, her eyes burned with hate, such was the depth of her insanity.

 The town was still wild in those days, so a random gunshot in the middle of the night did not even awaken most people, let alone draw undue attention. Mary and I took Ella's body out beyond the outskirts of town and buried her in an unmarked grave. May God have mercy on me, I have no regrets about killing her.

Ezra Standish took over the bank after the third robbery in a year had our previous bank owner picking up stakes and heading for some place where he was not a habitual target. Now, most of us suspected that Stuart James and Guy Royal, the two most powerful ranchers in the region, were behind the robberies, hoping to demoralize newly arriving homesteaders by threatening them with the loss of their earnings and savings if they entrusted their money to the local bank. Of course, if they did not place it in the bank for safekeeping, they ran the risk of Royal and James sending their henchmen to rob them of their belongings at gunpoint. This intolerable situation culminated with Maude (who had henchmen of her own, as it turned out), buying out the bank and putting Ezra in charge. Royal and James were not as eager to take us on as they had been innocent farmers. For one thing, they knew we would not hesitate to dispatch either of them to Hell.

Ezra loved money, and I do not mean that wholly in an acquisitive fashion. He loved the way it looked, the way it smelled, the way it felt and the sound of jingling coins and ruffled bills. His eyes twinkled as brightly as his gold tooth at the sight of it. However, despite the fact that he was not above a sleight of hand in a card game, or conning the unscrupulous out of their usually misbegotten gains, Ezra did have his own code of honor. He never cheated anyone who could not afford to be cheated, and, when asked for financial advice, his counsel was honest and sound. He safeguarded the funds of his depositors as though they were his own (which Maude tried to persuade him they were, to no avail). But at heart, he was still a conman, and a gambler, and it was that which might have set him on the path to perdition had Fate not intervened.

It happened that Ezra was on his way back from Eagle Bend one day after riding there alone (against all of our advice) to conduct a business transaction. It was August, and at that time of year the weather in the desert can be fickle and deadly, with thunderstorms materializing out of nowhere in minutes and drenching the land with sheets of water, only to disappear as abruptly as they began.. His journey had him skirting the perimeter of Guy Royal's ranch and by mere coincidence, he encountered Royal himself who was inspecting an arroyo (or wash, as it is called in the East) that had formed as a result of recent rains. The sky was dark and dangerous and Ezra, at least, saw the folly in tarrying there, for occasionally, the water which came gushing down these arroyos came from upstream and arrived before the storm itself. But Royal, being himself and still vexed that we had put an end to his thieving ways, lingered to have words with Ezra. The exchange became heated and threats were being bandied about when both men heard cries in the distance.

Glancing upstream, they beheld the horrifying sight of a wagon being swept along by a wall of water, with a family of five in its bed, clinging to each other as the wagon threatened to overturn. The horse that had been pulling it was struggling to gain his footing in the deluge to no avail.

There are times when I believe the Hand of God reaches down and touches even those who are most unworthy of His grace (and by this I refer to Guy Royal, not Ezra). It was instantly apparent to both men that they were going to have to work together, or else watch those innocents perish. Each of them took an opposite side of the arroyo and waited for the wagon with ropes in hand. Their timing was perfect and each managed to lasso the horse, which Royal, being the more experienced in such endeavors, managed to pull up onto the bank while Ezra steadied it from his side. The wagon followed the horse, but just as the moment of victory over the elements approached, the wagon tipped over, in such a fashion that the violent current pinned the occupants to the bed, where they clung for dear life, the poor father using only one arm as he embraced his wife who in turn clung to the two youngest children. The third child was beyond their reach and surely would have been swept to his death had Ezra not dove into the torrent and pushed him into Royal's waiting arms. They repeated this process with the other children and the wife, and had just returned the husband to the safety of solid land when the wagon shifted and pinned Ezra in the roiling water, and he was certain he was doomed. The family was shaken with the terror of their ordeal and were of no help, so it was up to Royal to free Ezra from his predicament, and that is exactly what he attempted to do, except the wagon shifted again and overturned completely, trapping both men helplessly underneath with no hope of rescue.

Ezra would later recall what he thought were his final moments, when he realized that he was about to meet his Maker and have to explain a life of avarice and deception. It did not matter that in the opinion of most of us, the Good Lord probably would have just given Ezra a good scolding and then opened the Pearly Gates to him, anyway, because Ezra is not, and never was, truly evil (the same I cannot say for Guy Royal, but he has never shared what his thoughts were at that moment.)  Before either man drowned, however, the wagon broke apart (the yoke separated and thus spared the poor horse) and the debris was washed down stream along with Ezra and Royal. The storm had rolled in by this time and the skies were almost as dark as night, so only flashes of lightning offered any glimpse of their surroundings as they were swept along.

Now, this is where this rather long tale takes its most eventful turn, for suddenly, a bolt of lightning revealed that looming in the distance was a cross, upon which was clearly visible the figure of the crucified Christ. Ezra was certain that his spirit had crossed over into the next life and that this was some sort of test, and he reached out to the cross as he was washed towards it. Guy Royal did the same. As it was lodged firmly across the span of the arroyo, they were able to pull themselves out of the water. Ezra lay there, battered. bruised, half-drowned and completely spent for several minutes, as the thunder crashed and the lightning blazed, each flash illuminating the cross with an unearthly glow.

The passing of the storm revealed the cross to be pieces of the broken wagon, and the figure upon it nothing more than loose clothing, but it had served its purpose well. Ezra had gotten the message.

The following Sunday, he requested the pulpit from Josiah, a request that was joyfully granted, as we were all thankful to have Ezra still among us. Ezra is an eloquent speaker, and his humble and heartfelt recitation of how the Lord had touched his heart out there on that cruel mesa had soon moved many in the congregation to tears, Josiah and myself included. His poignant testimony was greeted with choruses of "Hallelujahs" and "Amens" and such enthusiasm as Josiah had never been able to muster with fire and brimstone. Sitting humbly in a back row, a Bible clutched close to his heart, was Guy Royal, who rose at the end of the service to confess his transgressions before the congregation (although he did swear on his Bible and before God that he never directed Top Hat Bob to kill Cody Porter). He then renounced his covetous ways  on the spot and has thus far never returned to them.

The end to this story is that Ezra became our preacher, a transition that sat well with Josiah who never really was comfortable in that role, it having been more or less thrust upon him in our early days. The small church that Josiah so painstakingly restored is now attached to a much larger structure that can (and usually does) seat five hundred people. Ezra preaches two services on Sunday, and Catholic Mass is said there as well. There is a Board of Directors who oversees the Christian works to which the church dedicates itself (and those are numerous) and it is headed by none other than Guy Royal.

The family Ezra and Guy Royal saved, the Loengards, now number eight children, all of whom know they would not be here were it not for Ezra, so he has a certain special fondness for them, even though he has no children of his own. The oldest boy, the first one pulled from the raging waters that day, is now sixteen and courting the lovely Emily Richmond, the thirteen-year-old daughter of Will and Charlotte Richmond. Emily looks a lot like Vin, but that is all I am ever going to say on that subject.

As one might guess, Maude was not entirely pleased by this turn of events in her son's life, until she realized that he was sincere in his convictions and was not about to abandon them. Eventually, she joined the congregation and now heads the Christian Ladies Committee for Widows and Orphans, joined in that noble cause by Gloria Potter, Mary Travis, my own beloved Casey, and Annabelle Loengard. Of course, respectability hasn't cured Maude entirely of her duplicitous tendencies, and as she became fond of Gloria Potter as a friend, it began to vex her no end that the man ultimately responsible for Mr. Potter's murder, Stuart James, had escaped justice. Maude hired a flimflam artist that she knew from her grifter days to convince James that there were oil deposits on his land. He exacted from James a substantial "fee," a healthy percentage of which went to Maude. James hastened to seek out investors so that he could begin the process of drilling for this oil, but of course, no one trusted him, which was what Maude had counted on. She agreed to loan him the money at a substantial interest rate, with the stipulation that his ranch would stand as collateral if his venture was unsuccessful. And so it came to be that Maude ended up with a ranch, and the town ended up free of Stuart James, and good riddance. James naturally vowed bloody revenge, but before he could exact his retribution, he was struck down by a fit of apoplexy and went on to his eternal reward. And, as only Maude's luck would have it, there did, in fact, turn out to be oil on the property, and natural gas, too. Maude saw to it that the widow Potter had a healthy endowment to see her through her later years, as she is now a wealthy woman in her own right, with no longer a need to resort to smoke and mirrors in order to earn a living. I do think she misses that life, though.

There are times when being in a certain place at a certain time, for a certain reason, can change the course of a man's life and set it in a direction that he never might have believed was possible. This is what happened with Vin Tanner. It started the day that a travelling salesman came to town with a wagon full of wares that were not easily obtainable in a small town such as ours. These entrepreneurs always did a lively business, because they always seemed to have something that you didn't know you needed until you saw it.

Though he was loathe to admit it, Josiah had come to an age where reading was becoming a chore, and Nathan had told him he needed spectacles. It happened that this salesman had a fine assortment of reading glasses, so, Josiah went to check them out. Vin and I, being at that time both young and inclined towards tomfoolery, followed him, having good-natured teasing in mind.

I knew Vin couldn't read. He had told me late one night as we sat at the jail going through wanted posters. He said Mary Travis had tried to teach him, but, he reckoned he was just too stupid to learn. He knew his letters, so that wasn't the problem, and he did recognize some words, but reading from a book was a skill he wasn't able to master. I felt bad for him, because I knew he was not stupid, and I also knew he had a poet's soul. Mary had printed several of his poems in the Clarion (which was one reason everyone assumed he could read) and they were astonishing in their depth and wisdom. I wondered sadly at what things he held inside that he would never be able to express in written words.

Josiah reluctantly began to try out the salesman's reading glasses, using a copy of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (I was buying that!). In jest, I took a pair of the reading glasses and put them on myself, and asked Vin how I looked. He told me I reminded him of his grandmother, which made me laugh, but only made Josiah look at us both in annoyance. Naturally, seeing this reaction from Josiah, I handed Vin the glasses to try on, too, which he did, and he further mimicked poor Josiah by picking up the book in a studious fashion and opening it to the first page.

Well, something happened right then, I could tell. The smile quickly faded from Vin's face and was replaced by a look of confusion, or perhaps it was awe, and he said one word, "Oh...." The tone of his voice was such that both Josiah and I turned to look at him. I thought perhaps he was enraptured by the pictures in the book, but that was not the case, as he was not looking at them. He started thumbing through the pages, and then, after a time of staring at one page for several seconds, he looked up at the salesman and paid him for the reading glasses and my book, and without another word, dashed off down the street, leaving Josiah and I to shrug at each other, perplexed.

It turned out that Vin's problem was what Nathan called "prezbiopea" (which he told me how to spell, but I have forgotten, so forgive me if it is incorrect), meaning that he had perfect eyesight (in Vin's case, better than perfect) for things that were far away, but things that were close up were less easy to bring into focus. Printed words most likely just looked like a meaningless blur to him, Nathan explained. Of course, Vin, figured books looked the same to everyone else as they did to him, so he didn't realize that there was no special "trick" to making sense of it all, until he put on those spectacles.

In a very short time, Vin learned to read, and he read everything. He would read the Clarion from beginning to end, every day. He read Josiah's Bible, and my dime novels, and all of the textbooks used at the school. He read Chris's classical books, and even Nathan's medical books (although he admitted that those left him feeling somewhat less enthusiastic about reading more). I imagine he also read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, even though I had to wait another eight months for my own copy. His hunger for knowledge seemed insatiable, and when he'd finished every book in town, he asked Judge Travis if he had any law books he could spare.

The irony in this was that at one time, when first the seven of us met, Vin had carried a bounty on his own head, having been framed by an outlaw named Eli Joe for the murder of an innocent farmer, Jess Kincaid. When the town had settled down a bit from its original "wild and wooly" state enough that two of us could be spared, Chris rode with Vin back to Tascosa and looked carefully into Jess Kincaid's murder. They discovered that Kincaid was last seen by several people in town the day before he turned up dead, so the timeframe of the crime was narrowed down to an exact date. Vin recalled that on that particular day, he was handing over a wanted fugitive by the name of Chester Gilroy in Red Stone City, which was a good fifty miles away. The sheriff's records in Red Stone proved this, and Gilroy himself (who had served his time and found honest work repairing saddles and boots) testified to this in a written affidavit. Furthermore, a local citizen of Tascosa had seen Eli Joe head out of town not an hour after Kincaid. He knew the outlaw because they'd had an altercation at the bar earlier that day, and was not likely to confuse him for Vin, even though both men had the same build and the same long, brown hair. This evidence was presented to Judge Travis who had all of the charges against Vin dropped. He was a free man once again.

So, having a somewhat vested interest in Vin Tanner, the Judge, while a bit amused by his request, was happy to indulge him. I don't think any of us, the Judge included, honestly believed that Vin had the patience and depth of understanding to comprehend those law books, but he was tenacious. He would ask Mary or Chris or Ezra (or sometimes me) to explain words he did not understand, and sometimes would read a page a hundred times until he knew what it said and what it meant. He began to ask Judge Travis questions about the law, and so impressed the Judge that he began to bring more law books each time he visited the town.

Vin's interest in the law did not escape anyone's notice, and townsfolk began to seek out his advice on legal matters such as water and grazing rights and homestead boundaries. Vin was happy - I would say even delighted - to oblige and offer counsel, for which he never charged, being as how he was not truly a lawyer.

Then, it happened that a cowboy passing through Four Corners shortly after the grisly discovery of the partially burned body of a local rancher was found to have in his possession a knife alleged to belong to the deceased. I had no choice but to lock him up, and the charge was murder. He asked for a lawyer, protesting his innocence and claiming he had come upon the knife lodged in a tree and had no knowledge of the dead rancher, and was not the cause of his demise. Vin was the closest thing to a lawyer we had, so, he agreed to hear the cowboy out. He called upon Nathan to examine not only the body of the rancher, but the location at which it was found. The seven of us rode out there, and what we found was evidence that the rancher had taken his own life.  He had apparently used the knife to pin a note to a tree, but the note had torn free and was found some distance away. He'd put a bullet into his own brain and had subsequently fallen into his own campfire. At the cowboy's trial, Vin cited this evidence, and also suggested to the jury that the cowboy would have made more of an effort to see the body had actually been consumed by the flames had he indeed attempted to dispose of it in that manner. The most convincing evidence was that of the rancher's brother, whom Vin had testify under oath that the suicide note was, in fact, penned in his brother's own hand.

So, now Vin was practicing law, and not only did Judge Travis not seem unduly perturbed by this, he suggested that Vin take an examination, to be administered by two judges, to determine his knowledge of the law and his fitness for the practice thereof. Vin fretted no end over that examination, but we all knew he'd pass it, which he did.

Josiah was kept busy in those days making shingles to hang everywhere in town, including those that reflected individual accomplishments, such as the one which read Dr. Nathan Jackson (and not long after, Dr. Rain Jackson) or the one on the door of the church rectory proclaiming Ezra Standish, Pastor. But, I don't think any of them were as impressive a sight as "K. Vinton Tanner, Attorney at Law" (Vin has never revealed to us what the "K" stands for). Our previously shy and somewhat disheveled ex-bounty hunter would stand calmly in front of a courtroom, clean-shaven and in a respectable suit, as if he was born to be there.

Vin practiced law for ten years. He still had that soft Texas drawl and that self-effacing manner of his, and he still got nervous in front of crowds, but all of this only served to cause his opponents to underestimate him. He was good at what he did, and everyone knew it.

One might think that practicing law would be the ultimate achievement for a man who once could not read, and who had a price on his head, to boot. But, Judge Travis was getting on in years and it was within his purview to appoint his successor, which he did on his deathbed, and that is how Vin Tanner became the district judge for this county.

And so it has come around that the town we defended from lawlessness and tyranny is now a fine community where peace and justice prevail. I like to think that we - The Magnificent Seven - played a part in that, and in so doing fulfilled a purpose that we were destined for, when Fate brought us together, all those years ago.

The End

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