Epilogue Epilogue

Teaspoon glanced up into the sky and sighed. The afternoon sun glared down through an unending field of blue, covering the Earth in a shimmering hot haze. The Marshal removed his hat and wiped his forehead as he looked out into the street. The townsfolk were beginning to gather. Children bounded through the town, weaving through the spectators, as friends and neighbors greeted one another—exchanging the day's news as they waited for the event to begin.

Teaspoon shook his head in disgust as a sick sensation rose up into his throat. You'd think the circus was comin' to town the way they're actin', he thought bitterly. Teaspoon gritted his teeth hard. He'd witnessed many a hanging in his day, but never before had he been assailed by the emotions that attacked him now.

His head knew it was right that Jake should pay for his crimes. But his old heart still clung desperately to the belief that, underneath it all, Jake Michaels was a good man. He'd just gone astray—as did so many men living in the untamed West. If he were given just a little more time, Jake would come to his senses and change his ways.

Oh, who was he kidding? Jake Michaels was out to please only one man—himself. He was a con-artist, a thief and a cold-blooded killer—plain and simple. Teaspoon kicked at the ground absent-mindedly. He knew well enough that Jake would never have 'come to his senses,' because he never had any to begin with. He was a man born without sense—without conscience.

The Marshal took a deep breath as a hot wave of shame crashed over him. He could

hardly admit to himself that he'd been duped by Michaels. He had actually allowed himself to believe that lair—against his better judgement—even to the point of endangering the lives of the boys he called his family. He had prided himself in his ability to teach those boys about the ways of the world. He even fancied himself something of a father figure to the unlikely group of orphans. But now, as he finally allowed himself to recognize how he'd been betrayed, he began to wonder if he had the right to lecture his riders about life. He had so much to learn, himself.

A hand rested gently on his shoulder, rousing the Marshal from his contemplation. He turned around to discover Buck standing before him.

"Are you all right?" Buck asked quietly.

Teaspoon took a good look at the young man. Of all people, Buck had the most right to feel hurt and betrayed. Through Teaspoon didn't know the whole story, he was fairly certain that Buck had known Michaels long before he had met him.

"I'm fine," Teaspoon answered.

"I'm sorry you had to learn about Michaels the hard way, Teaspoon," Buck admitted—his eyes trained on the gallows that loomed over the center of the now crowded street.

"It's better than not learnin' at all," Teaspoon replied as he eyed Buck closely. The rider's face was expressionless, but the Marshal was quick to notice how Buck's left hand moved up to stroke Ike's bandanna as he sought for some comfort from his dead friend. In his right hand, Buck gripped Jake's necklace tightly.

"You know," Teaspoon began, "you don't have to stay for this if you don't want to."

Buck turned toward the Marshal. "I'll be all right," he answered calmly.

"OK, then. We'd best get this over with." Teaspoon turned to Barnett, who'd been standing nearby, awaiting Teaspoon's instructions. "You and Mitchell go on in an' get the prisoner."

Teaspoon nodded toward the executioner who somberly donned his black hood and ascended the scaffold. A hush fell upon the crowd as Michaels was escorted from the jail. He squinted painfully in the bright light, then hurriedly sought out the Marshal. "I'll see you in Hell!" he screamed as the men led him away.

Buck lowered his head. The sound of Jake's footsteps knocked through his ears as the man climbed the last few feet to his death. Buck heard the preacher read from the Bible—something about green pastures and still waters. An anonymous man behind him mumbled, "kill the bastard, already!" while a woman tried to quiet her crying baby.

"God have mercy on your soul," the preacher finished.

Buck raised his eyes to find Jake staring at him. The hangman secured the noose in place. Buck gripped the necklace tighter in his fist as a final, bitter smile appeared on Jake's lips.

The trap door swung open. In an instant, it was over.

The crowd began to break up. Buck stood still for a moment, watching the lifeless body dangle before him as the townsfolk went about their business.

"Hey!" he heard Cody's voice as the rider limped up beside him. "Let's go back to the station. Rachel just made us one of her famous strawberry pies!"

Buck stared at the rider. Just what would it take to get Cody's mind OFF food? he wondered to himself. Then, suddenly, he felt a strange and welcome urge overpower him and he started to laugh. "Are you serious?" he asked as he felt a great weight of tension fall from his shoulders.

Cody's face went red. "I wasn't tryin' ta be funny, Buck. When the hell is anyone around here gonna take me seriously?" He turned around and wobbled off in a huff.

"You OK, son?" Teaspoon called as he walked up behind Buck.

"Yeah, Teaspoon," he replied as he finally composed himself. "I think maybe I just need to be alone for a minute."

The old man nodded, then motioned to the other riders who had gathered around to head out.

Buck drew a deep breath. The sun was hot, but he welcomed its light. He allowed it to penetrate deep into his spirit. It was the light of truth—a light that signaled a new era in his life.

Suddenly, he remembered Grace Soliel. He saw her deep brown eyes smiling at him—her body shimmering like a sunbeam. He glanced down at the necklace and rubbed his fingers gently over the stone. Then he heard Grace's voice call to him once more. "Find your strength in the rising sun," she said.

"Rising sun. . ." Buck repeated. Then his heart leapt up as he realized who the spirit woman really was.

THE END