"Lord, inasmuch as it hath pleased Thee to call Thy servant John Dunne to Thy bosom," Josiah intoned, "we commit his body to the earth, and commend his soul to Thee. 'Dust thou wert and to dust thou shalt return.' He was only a boy when he came to us, but we bury a man… a good man."
"One of the best," Buck interrupted quietly.
"We mourn not for the soul gone to glory, but for ourselves, Lord, left here to grieve for our lost brother, taken from us far too young." Josiah had to stop. The words were in his head, but he just couldn't seem to bring them down to his mouth.
Vin, sensing his distress, stepped forward. He pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and began playing a Civil War lament. After a moment, Chris and Ezra began singing; the song had been popular on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
We shall meet, but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him
When we breathe our evening prayer.*
First Buck, then Nathan, joined in. Josiah merely nodded his approval. He'd meant to sing Amazing Grace or Rock of Ages, but this fit just as well, maybe better.
When the song finished, Ezra placed his Stetson back on his head. "I don't know about y'all," he said, grief making his southern accent stronger than usual, "but I'm going to get drunk. If anyone cares to join me at the saloon, the first round is on me."
"Best idea I've heard all day." Buck reached down and scooped up a handful of soil. He dropped it into the open grave. "Good-bye, pardner." Tears blurring his vision, he followed Ezra out of the cemetery.
Three days after the funeral, the saloon was quiet. The townsfolk and ranch hands who had come in for a drink talked among themselves, but kept their voices down. The town's six surviving protectors were in no mood for gaiety, and the saloon's other customers were wise enough not to disturb them.
Buck touched the star on his shirt. "You should be wearin' this, Chris, not me."
The gunslinger shook his head. "I'm the sort of feller sheriffs run out of town, not the sort who becomes a sheriff." He remembered what he'd told Mary Travis when he first met her: "Lady, I am the bad element." He took another slug of whisky. It was foul stuff, rough on his tongue and his throat. He could afford better, but he wasn't in the mood. "Besides, I may be moving on myself."
Buck raised a dark eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Vin's decided to go back to Tascosa, take care of that false accusation and the price on his head." Chris drained his glass. "That's not a trip he should take alone."
Buck nodded. "If it weren't for this star, I'd go with you. Ezra, he's thinkin' of movin' on, too. Says he's homesick for the south – misses the hydrangea and crepe myrtle blooming in Memphis in the spring."
Chris harrumphed. "More likely misses the high stake games on Mississippi riverboats."
Buck nodded again, but he didn't believe it. He didn't think Chris did, either. Next to himself, Ezra had probably been the closest of all of six of them to JD.
"Prob'ly at the church, sleeping it off," Buck said.
Chris nodded. Josiah had spent damned little time sober since finding the body. "Ain't seen Nathan in a while." The healer had spent more time than not in the saloon himself, since JD's death.
"Up at the Henderson place," Buck explained. "Jimmy fell out of a tree, broke his arm."
Chris signaled to the bartender for another whisky. Jimmy Henderson's arm wasn't the only thing broken. With JD's loss, it seemed the men Jock Steele had named "the Magnificent Seven" were breaking apart.
They heard the whistle blow in the distance. The train should reach town in just a few minutes.
"You didn't need to see me off," Ezra said. Nonetheless, he was touched by his friends' gesture. He'd been run out of town more than once. Seldom had anyone cared enough to see him off when he'd left voluntarily.
"See you off, hell. Just making sure we're finally rid of you and your marked cards," Nathan teased. The ex-slave's brown eyes twinkled, belying his words.
"You be sure to send us a letter from Memphis," Buck ordered.
"I shall be happy to do so," Ezra agreed. He paused a moment, then asked innocently, "Who are you going to get to read it to you?"
"Why, you son of a—"
The noise of the train pulling into the station drowned out the rest of what Buck had to say.
"Thought I told you you'd better not run out on us again."
Ezra turned around, startled and delighted to see Chris, Vin, and a slightly hungover Josiah. It took the gambler a second to summon the necessary sang-froid to reply nonchalantly: "Hardly running out, sir. You were well aware of my plans. Besides, you and Mr. Tanner are yourself intending to make a peregrination to Texas."
"Four Corners! All out for Four Corners!" the conductor announced.
"Assuming you are successful in your endeavor, shall you be returning to this humble hamlet, or shall you return to your former career once there is no longer a bounty on your own head?" Ezra felt slightly guilty. He could have made these inquiries days ago. Had his friends not chosen to bid him adieu at the station, he would never have known Vin's plans. As wide as the wild west was, he might never have seen him again – an illiterate, unbarbered semi-savage whom he'd come to regard as a brother – just as he would never see JD again. Since the young easterner's death, the surviving six had kept to themselves, spending precious little time together.
Ezra sighed. Although he was homesick for the south, he'd never stayed in one place before as long as he had here. He'd never gotten to know anyone as well as he had the town's peacekeepers. He'd miss this place, and them, more than he cared to admit.
Josiah swore. "I must be drunker than I thought."
The six of them stared. JD disembarked from the train. He was wearing city slicker clothes – dark blue suit and a new derby hat – and looked nearly as much of a dandy as Ezra. He set his carpetbag on the platform, then turned to help a young woman down. With her brown hair neatly combed and pinned up, and clad in a lace-trimmed dress, it took them a moment to recognize Nettie Wells' tomboy niece, Casey.
"JD?" Nathan said.
"You're alive!" Buck rushed forward and swooped the smaller man into a bear hug.
"Of course I'm alive. Why wouldn't I be?" JD gingerly returned the embrace, then gently broke away from Buck's clutches.
"Well, fer one thing, we buried ya," Vin replied dryly.
"Buried me? What kind of joke is this?" JD asked, looking confused.
"If you ain't dead, where the hell have you been?" Buck demanded. "Don't you know we've been worried sick over you?"
"San Francisco, on my honeymoon, just like I told you in my telegram," JD replied.
"Honeymoon?" Chris repeated. All six men stared at Casey.
"The telegraph wires were cut a week and a half, two weeks ago," Ezra informed him.
Casey took a step forward. "Didn't the circuit preacher tell ya when he came to town?"
"Ain't been a circuit preacher through town in months," Josiah told her.
"Whadya mean the circuit preacher never made it to town? He borrowed my horse," JD complained.
His six friends exchanged glances.
"He borrowed your horse?" Nathan repeated.
"What did this preacher look like? 'Bout your height, short dark hair?" Chris asked.
JD nodded. "His horse went lame, so he borrowed Milagro to ride to town after he married us. He left his horse at Miss Net– Aunt Nettie's," he corrected himself, "to rest up. Y'know how the railroad runs through her south pasture? The storm knocked a tree down and blew it onto the tracks. After we helped 'em clear the tracks, we hopped on board and went up to San Francisco." The young sheriff stared at his six friends. "What's going on here?"
Buck laughed, joy and relief exploding from his body. "It's a long story."
"One best told over a drink," Chris suggested.
"Best idea I've heard in days. Let us repair to the saloon, and drink a toast to both JD's resurrection, and his nuptials." Ezra smiled at him, displaying his gold tooth. "The first round," he announced, "is on me."
Casey cleared her throat ostentatiously.
"Saloon ain't no place for a lady," Vin reminded the gambler.
Ezra touched his hat. "My apologies… Mrs. Dunne. The restaurant instead, then?"
"Sounds good to me," Josiah agreed, "especially if you're still buying."
"How much does a magnum of champagne cost, anyway?" Chris asked, deadpan.
Vin winked. He resolved to ask Chris privately later what a "magnum" was. "Cain't use nothin' but champagne t' salute a lady."
Ezra slowly lost his smile, as he realized what his impulsive burst of generosity was going to cost him.
"I'm glad to see you all, too, but is someone gonna tell me what's going on?" JD asked plaintively.
* "Vacant Chair," a popular Civil War era song, words by Henry Washburn, music by George F. Root. You can find it on YouTube; I recommend the Kathy Mattea version.