The Color that Divides
He was scared.
He had no trouble admitting it. With the cold biting into his hands, he knew had a touch of frostbite because he could not feel the rifle clutched in his hands. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he raised his eyes to sweep across the landscape before him. The snow had almost covered the bodies from the earlier skirmish but not quite. The plains before him looked like an uncovered graveyard and he wondered how much time would past before he found himself lying there amongst the dead. The idea frightened him so badly that he wanted to turn around and leave. But even as the thought passed through his mind, he knew he could not. He had sworn an oath when he put on the uniform and he had nothing more to his name then his honor. He would give that up for nothing.
Nathan Jackson was a free man and free men sometimes had to fight for their liberty.
He understood that more prolifically than most fighting this war because until recently, he had never known what it was to be a free man. The plantation and everything that came with it was a distant memory and when he had put on this uniform, it was more than just the need to be somewhere, it was the need to fight for those whose freedom had yet to come. Abraham Lincoln had promised that all Negroes would be free when the South fell and Nathan believed that was a cause worth the dying. If he were to die here on the battlefield, at least his death would mean something to the future generations that came after him.
Besides, in truth he really had nowhere else to go.
He had escaped from the plantation with only one thing in mind; to go north and be free. He did not realize until after he crossed the Mason Dixon line that it made very little difference whether he was free or not. To everyone who saw him, he was still black. Freedom and tolerance were still poles apart, whether one resided in the North or the South. He spend the first few days wandering about, trying to equate himself to this new concept of freedom and quickly learnt, he was just as out of place there as he was back on the plantation. The loneliness of his existence finally drove him to the army and he found himself in a Negro regiment, keeping company with slaves who were just as displaced as he.
Now they were standing in the cold, looking over a stretch of land where too many had already died. On the other side of the plain was the Confederate army and he and the others in his platoon were charged to hold the line. Reinforcements were coming but not soon enough and several skirmishes had already taken place throughout the day. Platoons had come and gone. Some made it off the field in one piece, while others were doomed to remain there forever. Blood seeped into the ground, staining the snow until it was covered in pink splotches. Despite the divisive nature of their conflict, in death such things were forgotten.
Those about to fight stood behind a ragged line of bayonets pointed in the direction of the enemy. Their faces all wore the same look: an acceptance of the death to come. Nathan had resigned himself to this fate as well even though he was frightened of dying and the trembling that appeared to be induced by the cold was in fact a symptom of his gnawing fear.
"Nathan," a voice spoke next to him, filled impossibly with even more terror than he was experiencing.
"What is it, Cal?" Nathan whispered, finding it inappropriate to speak when the cry to charge could come at any moment.
Cal was not more than seventeen. Like Nathan, he had fled north in search of paved streets of gold and freedom. What he had got in return was what they all found upon reaching the northern states: disillusionment. He had lied to get into the army and being lanky and tall for his age passed the bar, though Nathan suspected the recruiters did not look too closely. He was black and good for fodder whether he was seventeen or eighteen. Nathan had taken the boy under his wing, mostly because Cal seemed incapable of surviving on his own, in the army or out of it.
"I can't do it." Cal stared at Nathan. His fear was so thick in his eyes that Nathan doubted he could see anything else.
"It's too late to turn back now, Cal," Nathan said trying to keep the impatience from his voice. He was frightened enough without having to endure this conversation with Cal as well. "We got to go where they send us."
"But look at them all, Nathan," Cal whimpered. "They're all dead out there. I don't wanna be dead too."
"If you walk off the line, they'll shoot you," Nathan warned harshly. "You'll be just as dead."
"I don't want to die," he started to whimper pathetically.
Nathan wished that there was something he could say that would make this tolerable for Cal, but how could he convince this boy, when he could not even convince himself? He looked at the other soldiers holding the line with him, waiting for the order to come that would send them charging into the artillery and cannon fire, aware that casualty rates were going to be high. However, the reward for all their deaths would be to exhaust the Confederate supply of ammunition, leaving their defense crippled when Union reinforcements arrived. "I don't want to die neither but we ain't got no choice," Nathan replied, his eyes shifting between the path ahead and the friend next to him. "We got to show them that we are as good as they are. That this is our land too and we will fight for it and die for it just like any white man. If we turn tail and run, we'll just be proving every bad thing they ever said about us. I'm afraid too Cal, I'm so afraid I can't stand it but the only thing I can't stand more than dying is not knowing that they'd be right. That I was everything that they said I was. I won't let them have the satisfaction of knowing that."
Tears ran down Cal's face and he nodded, understanding the emotion even if the words did not quite make sense. He dried his eyes and faced front once more, his jaw setting determinedly as he stared at what lay ahead. "I don't want that either," he whispered. "My mama said that being free wasn't gonna be easy. I guess this is what she meant."
"Probably," Nathan answered, his voice choked with feeling as he saw Cal understand and embrace what he had said, even though it was almost assuredly a death warrant.
The order was like an explosion of artillery fire and when it swept through the ranks, calling those assembled to arms, the platoon shouted in similar exuberance as they started running through the snow, bayonets drawn. Nathan kept glancing sideways, ensuring that Cal was at his side until they neared the center of the plain and the uneven surface he was running and trying to avoid was actually, the bodies of the dead. He tried to ignore the uniforms he was stepping over or the faces of the dead staring through open eyes at nothingness. He heard Cal whimper even though artillery fire had broken out. Or perhaps he imagined it, Nathan would never really know.
Friend and comrades began falling around them as the Confederates rushed to meet them. A war cry tore across the landscape; primeval, visceral, all things violent and confrontational about war seemed to condense around him. Dirt and snow splattered around him as cannon balls struck the earth, tearing into its flesh and spraying its wounded soil in all directions. The order to charge still filled his ears even though everything around him had dwindled into chaos. New bodies were falling into the snow, more blood, more screams of pain. He saw the enemy and fired. He glanced sideways again. Cal was still there. The boy was terrified but he was there. Nathan felt his heart fill with pride a split second before Cal's was filled with lead.
The boy's chest through his uniform and suddenly, all sound drained out of Nathan's world and all he could do was scream, his bayonet rifle lowering as his hand stretched out to catch Cal just as he started to fall. The younger man turned frantic eyes at Nathan, as if Nathan could stop him from dying. He still thought he might survive even though the snow around him was covered in his blood and the front of his uniform was saturated in red fluid.
"CAL!" Nathan cried out as pain slammed into his ribs.
The bullet tore through skin, flesh, bone, organs and took the same grisly road out of him, but, of course, Nathan was past noticing by them. It felt as if the air had escaped him and he hit the floor about the same time as Cal did. He landed on top of Cal, the boy's blood intermingling with his own profuse flow. Nathan pulled himself off the young man, trailing blood in his already soaked uniform and the snow as he tried desperately to revive Cal. Tried desperately for hope in the middle of a battlefield. Despite his injuries, the irony did not lose itself upon him.
"CAL! You got to stay with me!" Nathan gasped, his own life draining away into the snow. He was hit bad and he knew it, but he was still in better shape than Cal.
Cal blinked once, his throat making a gurgling sound that sounded like water escaping a drain. It would be a sound that would always make Nathan shudder a little when he heard it. His pupils were dilating. He could probably hear, Nathan thought frantically but he was beyond seeing anything.
"Cal! Don't let him take ya! Stay with me!"
Another gurgle followed and then his head lopped sideways. Cal was gone.
"NO!" Nathan screamed angrily and started to weep. He cried with his cheek pressed against the snowy ground, warm tears that ate into the ice and vanished unlike the blood that was draining out of him. If Cal was going to die, he was going too. He was tired of living. It was time to stop.
Nathan Jackson closed his eyes and wished for death to come get him.
+ + + + + + +
When he opened his eyes, he found that he was not, in fact, dead.
He could have been mistaken, with all the wailing and weeping that bombarded his consciousness when he first woke up. Nathan took a breath and felt his chest ache. It was then he realized that not only was he alive, but he was in an army hospital - or as near as a soldier shot on the front lines could get to one. He had thought death united men as nothing had ever done before, but as his gaze swept across the bed, the faces before him displayed a different kind of unity comprised of wounded bodies and equally wounded souls. That was something surprisingly comforting in all that. He saw the doctors working tirelessly, desperately clinging to the shredded strands of life that passed before them and saw their anguish when they could not hold on. He spent weeks on that bed watching the doctors, listening to them. He felt somehow drawn to their power; they did had power, of that he had no doubt. It occurred to Nathan that when a doctor healed a man, it did not matter what color his skin was just the skill in his hands to do the work. The patient rarely noted the distinction, aware only that this was a being dispensing life and he had no face, no race, no creed. He was just a healer. For some reason, that word stuck in his mind, like a splinter driving deeper and deeper into place, refusing to let it go. After awhile, Nathan stopped fighting it and allowed it to change him.
He got better and started helping out when he could. The doctors and nurses appreciated it. He watched them, watched their hands perform magic, watched the compassion in their faces as they tended the sick and wounded, saw the sorrow when they crossed that all important line of professional detachment and started to care. He saw all that and felt their pain, understanding that they bore their ability to heal as not merely as a gift but also a curse when the patients before them were beyond hope. He saw them wipe away tears, trying to hide the gray despair that finally sunk into all their faces after their eyes had seen too much death.
It surprised him how easy it was to learn by simply watching and he liked to think they were surprised too. He supposed they must have been impressed with him on some level because when he was all healed, he was not sent back to the front but rather drafted as a stretcher-bearer. Nathan Jackson spent the rest of the great war of the states in this vocation, helping the doctors, comforting the sick and learning, always learning. When the war was over, he knew more than most doctors' knew about tending the ailing. He disappeared into the west and learnt other forms of healing, not all to do with the tried and true practices of modern healing.
He wandered for a time, looking for a home, finding none because before they knew he was a healer, they knew he was black. Nathan had almost started to believe that it would always be that way until one day, he came across an dusty, wind swept town in the heart of the Territory and found his life changed forever by the six men he met there.
The Gunslinger. The Tracker. The Scoundrel. The Gambler. The Preacher. The Kid.
And then there was him.
+ + + + + + +
There were times, that the Healer wished - with surprising intensity of feeling - that the Gambler would just shut up. It was a hot, summer's day. Not the kind that made you want to enjoy the sunshine but the humid, blistering heat that drove people indoors and under shade, or if Nathan Jackson had his way into the open arms of the nearest saloon. Unfortunately, a saloon was still more than an hour's ride away and like the rest of his companions, his patience was quickly wearing thin at being forced to travel in this weather. Of course, it did not help much that Ezra Standish had not stopped complaining since they had left Eagle Bend. The four riders, Ezra Standish, Vin Tanner, JD Dunne and himself, had been responsible for the delivery of some bandits to the larger town for various crimes committed in its locality. When they had set out yesterday, it had been balmy but nowhere as unpleasant as it was now.
"I cannot believe we are forced to travel in this weather," Ezra remarked for what had to be the hundredth time since they had left Eagle Bend. He tugged at his collar in exaggerated discomfort and ignored the collective groan from the rest of his companion. "Surely, this would constitute as hazard pay."
"Dream on, Ezra," JD retorted, the weather making his own temper a little short.
"We could have remained in Eagle Bend another day," Ezra continued, glaring at the sun from under the brim of his hat with just as much distaste as the solar body was glaring at him. "I do not think it would have been too much of a sin to indulge in cool shade until this hellish day passed by." "Chris wanted us back in Four Corners as soon as possible," Vin growled.
In truth, the tracker had more reason to be hot and miserable than Ezra in his thick jacket but Vin bore it stoically, as he did most things. However, Nathan could sense that Vin was fast reaching a point where his usual unflappable manner was going to rupture and no one wanted to be around when it did. Nathan decided that he had better say something to rein in Ezra's complaints before Vin knocked the gambler off his horse because he was in no mood to treat the bruises that came from that injury.
"Hey Ezra," Nathan looked over at the Southerner. "We'll be there in a hour. How about giving your mouth a rest?"
"Are you inferring that I am complaining too much?" Ezra looked back at him petulantly.
"HELL NO!" Both Vin and JD said in unison.
"Very amusing," Ezra gave them both a look and let out a deep breath. "Fine then," he said with a slight huff to his voice. "I shall say nothing more, not a word, not a syllable. You will hardly even be aware that I am here. After all, I do not speak to hear myself. I thought being my associates, you would at least be civil enough to indulge in conversation, but evidently I was wrong."
"Oh Christ," Vin grumbled and somewhere in the distance, Nathan heard a flap snapping. "That's it, I'm getting my gun. I'm already wanted - one more can't hurt." He reached for the sawn off rifle nestled in the special holster he had fashioned for the weapon.
"Ezra, do yourself a favor and shut up," Nathan barked.
"Hey, look!" JD broke through the 'adult' bantering of his companions and pointed toward the distance.
All eyes immediately shifted to the direction the youngest of them was indicating and saw a wagon in the distance. It sat in the field to the trail that the stagecoach took to Four Corners. There was no one about and the horse that was pulling the wagon was languidly feasting on the tall grass that surrounded it and the carriage. Immediately, the four men forgot about their bickering and dug their heels into their mounts, to cross the distance to the wagon. They had not ridden very far before a high pitched scream emanated from the covered wagon, across the plains like a banshee wailing in the dark. The cry hastened their pace and in a matter of minutes, the four men converged upon the wagon and dismounted.
A cry of pain ensured that Nathan was the first one off his horse and hurrying towards the back of the wagon to investigate. The screams became more desperate as he approached and there was no doubt in his mind that someone was in extreme pain. When he reached the wagon, Nathan quickly climbed into the tray and found himself facing a young woman who was heavily pregnant and appeared as if her time had come sooner than she had anticipated. She saw Nathan and immediately registered her fear. Whether or not it was because she was in no position to defend herself if he meant her harm or that she was simply terrified at her present situation, was anyone's guess but Nathan was not about to let her anxiety heighten and immediately responded to allay her concern.
"It's alright ma'am," he said gently. "I don't mean you no harm. Are you alone here?"
"Yes," she nodded mutely, tears staining her face. "Please, I need to get to a doctor," she begged desperately. "My baby....."
"It's okay," he said quickly as she started to descend into panic. "I've had to deliver a baby or two in my time. I think I can help you with yours."
"Are you a doctor?" she asked fearfully, uncertain whether or not she ought to be trusting him with her welfare and that of her unborn child but painfully aware that she was limited in her choices.
"Not exactly," Nathan replied. "I'm more of a healer than anything, but I promise I can help you and your baby. Now, how far apart are the contractions? I know your water's broke but the space of the contractions will give me a fair idea of how much time we have to work with."
"Nathan, what the hell is going on?" Vin asked, poking his head through the opening in the canvas before finding himself staring at a young woman in an extremely delicate state. If there was anything that could wipe that unflappable expression off the tracker's face, it was the sight of the young mother stretched out with her legs bent, clearly about to deliver. Without saying another word, Vin started retreating.
"Vin, get in here!" Nathan barked, not about to let him get out of it that easily.
"You don't need me!" Vin replied and Nathan heard the man squabbling with Ezra before the gambler suddenly fell through the canvas.
"Ma'am," Ezra swallowed and tipped his hat, trying to maintain some measure of dignity even though it was obvious that he was just as reluctant to play the part of midwife. "Nathan, am I to assume the lady is will not be able to wait until we arrive at Four Corners to deliver?"
Another cry of pain from the young woman answered that question rather succinctly.
"I guess not." Ezra sighed and turned to Nathan once more. "By the way, Mr. Tanner has just informed me that he will be glad to assist in the delivery in any way as long as it does not involve being inside this wagon."
"Oh, for Christ' sakes!" Nathan swore loudly. "Get those two idiots to boil some water!"
"I am certain they are capable of that," Ezra replied. "I will pass it along. I take it you will require your medical bag?"
"Yeah, and then I'll need you to come in here," Nathan said quickly as he started to make his patient more comfortable, showing her quickly, in between his conversation with Ezra, how to breathe in order to lessen the impact of the ordeal she was enduring.
"Dare I ask why?" Ezra looked at him suspiciously, as he stopped short in his tracks at hearing Nathan needed his assistance.
"Don't worry," Nathan said annoyed. "You won't be delivering the baby. I just need you to put your mouth to good use for once and take her mind off the pain."
"Oh, that I can do," Ezra replied enthusiastically, his face regaining some color. "Madam, I assure you that I will be at my most eloquent."
The young mother screamed again and Nathan could only sigh. "Yeah, that's how I feel about him talking too."
+ + + + + + +
After what seemed like hours later, Nathan found himself standing over the new mother and her infant, feeling a great sense of satisfaction despite the weariness he felt in his bones and the anxiety that he had felt earlier because the delivery seemed too much for Miss Rose. Rinsing his hands in the warm basin of water, he allowed a little smile to cross his lips at the obvious delight in the young lady's eyes at the arrival of her new daughter. Nathan had to confess that there was something especially heart warming about bringing new life into the world, even if one was merely a bystander. "Well, Madam," Ezra Standish made himself heard to the young woman, whose hand he had been clutching for most of her labor and to whom he had whispered sweet words of comfort. "I would like to thank you for allowing me to be a participant in a most extraordinary event." He smiled and his words had enough emotion in them to appear completely genuine.
"Thank you, Mr. Standish," Rose sniffled, just as overcome by sentiment now that she had her new baby in her arms. "I would not have done it without you." She smiled and then regarded Nathan. "And you too Mr. Jackson, I don't know what would have become of us if you hadn't found me. I knew it was foolish to try and reach my husband in Four Corners, but I just didn't want to be alone when the time came."
"You don't worry about it now, ma'am," Nathan said good-naturedly. "The main thing is that we found you and you're all right, you and your little girl."
"And pray tell what does your husband do that requires him to be so far from you while you are in such a delicate condition?" Ezra asked, moving towards the front of the wagon to disembark. Despite his outward display of southern equilibrium, after witnessing the wonderful process of life being born, he was severely in need of a stiff drink, not to mention his pound of flesh from a certain tracker who had fled the moment he had seen the lady in her condition.
"Oh, he works as a carpenter on the railway," she answered, cradling her baby in her arms and keeping her gaze solely fixed on the precious bundle.
"I'm sure he's going to be real proud when he sees his little girl," Nathan replied, not wishing to tax the lady with any more questions. Despite her happiness at the arrival of her child, she had still endured something of an ordeal and Nathan was not about to see her bothered with any more than she had already been. "Now you rest up," he instructed warmly. "We'll get you to Four Corners."
"Thank you, Nathan," she smiled at him again. "Thank you so much for coming to our help."
"Come on, Mr. Jackson," Ezra tugged at his shoulder. "I fear if I do not remove you from the company of this charming lady and her compliments, your head will not fit through the flap."
"Very funny, Ezra," Nathan retorted before turning to his patient. "Ma'am, you think you'll be all right for a while?"
"Yes," she nodded gratefully, still mesmerized by the new life in her arms. "We'll be fine."
Nathan and Ezra climbed out of the wagon, deciding that the young mother could stand some time alone with her newborn. Besides, they had things to do. Nathan had no idea how much time Miss Rose's labor had taken, but knew that it was a stretch of at least a couple of hours. When he emerged into the open, he realized that he had guessed correctly. He could see the sun withdrawing past the mountains in the distance and daylight was following its departure. They were still a good hour or two away from Four Corners and Nathan was not prepared to have either Rose or her baby spend the night out here. If they were to make it to town, they would have to leave fairly soon.
"Mr. Jackson," Ezra took a moment to remark as he saw the others noticing their presence. "Without sounding overtly sentimental, I feel I must say something to you."
"What?" Nathan's brow cocked in suspicion.
"You really are amazing," the southerner smiled and stared at Nathan in unmasked admiration.
For Nathan it was rather shocking to actually see because Ezra was always a collection of masks. This was probably the first time, Nathan had seen the man behind the illusion of self. "Thanks, Ezra," he said somewhat touched by the gestured.
"Tell anyone and I shall deny it until I die," Ezra retorted, flashing him that smile with a glint of gold.
"Nathan," Vin interrupted them and ended the moment. Vin and JD had been congregating around the fire they had built until they sighted the healer and the gambler emerging from the wagon. Originally, the fire had been lit to provide Nathan with the sterile conditions he always demanded whenever he treated a patient but later it became a source of heat for the rapidly dropping temperatures that came with dusk. With Nathan's emergence from the wagon, both men approached the healer quickly, eager to learn how mother and child were doing despite their inability to tolerate being in close proximity during the birthing process.
"How is she?" the tracker asked.
"Since you ran like a girl?" Ezra retorted with a smirk as he walked towards the fire, at the same time removing the flask that was secreted inside the folds of his jacket.
Vin's best efforts as a sharpshooter could not compare to the glare he threw in Ezra's direction. "I did not run like a girl. I'm just ain't good with women and babies," he said, trying not to appear as uncomfortable as he did discussing the subject.
"We noticed," Nathan remarked. "It's okay Vin," he said after a moment.
Both Vin and JD exhaled as collective sigh of relief at their absolution.
"Is she gonna be okay, Nathan? We heard the baby? What is it?" JD asked, managing to say all that without taking a breath.
"She's fine. She's resting at the moment. She gave birth to a fine little girl." Nathan found himself smiling with pride as he made that revelation.
"We should get her back to town," Vin commented. "This ain't the place for a new baby and her ma to be."
"That's what I was thinking," he agreed wholeheartedly. "I figure I'll take the wagon back. I can hitch my horse to it."
"We'll stay close by," Vin declared. His tone of voice indicated that it was not a suggestion but rather how things were going to be.
There were times when Nathan had a great deal of trouble trying to get inside the tracker's head. In some instances, he was harder to read than Chris Larabee. With Chris, it was simple. The man was marked by tragedy and had allowed sorrow and rage to permeate his soul like a stain that could never be removed. Vin however, was a paradox. Even though he was a little older than JD, his mindset had more in common with Chris than anyone else. He was marked by something that could be called tragic, but inside there was also an unswerving nobility that would not be denied. Nathan supposed he enjoyed Vin's company so much because they both had definitive notions of right and wrong though they expressed it differently at times.
"Thanks," Nathan said gratefully but could not resist the opportunity to tease the tracker just a little bit. "But I guess not close enough to be inside the wagon, huh?"
"You ain't never gonna let me forget that are you?" Vin growled.
"Not for at least a week or until the next time Buck braves trying to get Inez to go out with him." Nathan grinned as JD started to laugh.
"Thanks, pard," Vin grumbled. "You're all heart."
+ + + + + + +
It was well after dark before the four peacekeepers finally returned to town. After turning the young lady and her new charge over to Mary Travis, who was more than happy to give comfort to mother and child while inquiries were being made for Rose's husband, they headed to the tavern for a well deserved drink. As usual, the rest of the seven were already congregated inside the familiar surroundings of Standish Tavern. It was lively in the establishment at this time of night, with clunky music emanating from the out of tune harpsichord; played by an equally toneless musician, that stood in the corner of the room and the. Saloon girls were carousing with patrons and the sight of card tables being occupied whetted Ezra's appetite almost immediately.
Nevertheless, Ezra managed to curb his desire to fleece the locals long enough for the group to share a drink and recount their adventures of the day. Unlike Nathan's adventure on the prairie, as Ezra so eloquently put it, the rest of the seven remaining in town did not see much action. There were the usual disturbances, a drunk here, a misdemeanor there, but largely things had been peaceful. There were still a few rumblings of dissent left over from the entire statehood debate of a few months ago, but those were merely heated discussions, which fortunately did not degenerate into fisticuffs as most issues of conflict tended to do in the Territory.
Even now, they could hear the discussions in the background even though none of the seven seemed eager to take any active part in the discussion. Statehood seemed like one of those things worried about by respectable folk and although none of the seven were outlaws, it was undeniable they were unlike most of the residents of Four Corners.
"Well, it sure looks like you boys had an interesting day," Buck Wilmington remarked as he ran an appreciative eye over Inez as she brought them another round of drinks. The sultry barmaid merely rolled her eyes in contempt of his leer and gave him a look that said very clearly that it would be a cold day in hell before she considered him with anything else.
"If by interesting you mean offering comfort to a woman who is about to pass an object the size of a melon through an opening the size of grape fun, yes, I suppose you could call it that."
"Ouch." Chris Larabee winced noticeably, the alcohol in his system making him a great deal more tolerable than his normal grizzled sober self. "Makes me think I ought to be saying sorry to my mother."
"I thought you were raised by bears," Vin joked as Chris directed a gesture at him with his fingers that was not appropriate in polite company.
"I was getting kind of worried there," Nathan remarked once the moment between the two had passed. "I didn't think she was going to make it. She's a little thing. Women like that have real trouble during labor."
"The Lord acts in mysterious way Brother," Josiah smiled, having no doubt the young woman must have seen the healer as nothing less than a gift from the Almighty considering how Nathan had encountered her. By all rights, a woman had no business traveling in the Territory whilst in such delicate condition. The potential for danger in a landscape littered with Indians, outlaws and bandits was great. He wondered if Miss Rose understood how fortunate she was to be have been discovered by Nathan and the others rather than men who would care little that she was with child and would have inflicted their worst upon her.
"I'd call it luck," Chris grumbled. "Woman ought to have known better anyway."
Those at the table could see the gunslinger was in a dark mood despite the liquor taking the edge off his immediate anger. This was hardly surprising for Chris Larabee seemed to come in no other way. It was not difficult to guess what had made his mood so dark since there was only person who could drive the man to distraction and that was Mary Travis. Of course, what the latest point of contention between the two spirited people was something no one was brave enough to inquire after.
There was a period of silence between as six of the seven secretly debated whether or not it was wise to question Chris regarding what he and Mary had crossed swords about this time when suddenly, voices in the background captured their attention instead. Nathan set down his glass and looked over his shoulder in little more than detached interest since arguments in a crowded barroom were nothing new.
The loudest voice belonged to Bill Alderson. Alderson, a short, dour man with graying hair and equally graying disposition, ran a small homestead some miles out of town. He was a frequent visitor to the Standish Tavern and usually congregated with other local farmers. Nathan knew him only by his patronage of the saloon but had no reason to make any acquaintance beyond that. Besides, the healer had a feel about people and he sensed that any hand of friendship he extended in Alderson's direction would be summarily slapped back in return. Most of the time Alderson drank, talked to his friends and staggered out of the saloon in more or less that order, but on this occasion, the man seemed to have a bee in his bonnet and was not shy about making himself heard. Alderson glanced across the room, his eyes resting on Nathan briefly before continuing his sweep of faces. Once he had completed his visual activity, he faced his friends again and took another sip from his rapidly emptying glass.
"You know what the real problem with us not getting statehood?" he asked loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear. His words were slurred and he was almost certainly drunk but he intended to have his say. "Its gotta to do with that fact that no one in Washington wants us."
A rumble of question rippled through his comrades as they urged him to clarify that statement. "What you mean, Billy?" Walt Simonson asked.
"Well lookit at the Territory." Bill wiped his mouth with his sleeve and continued. "You know what we got more of than desert, buzzards and rattlesnakes?" He paused a moment and stared directly at Nathan before declaring. "Niggers, Spics and Injuns. We're outnumbered. They're more of them than there are of us!"
Chris was not impressed when Alderson's companions cheered his statement. Around him, the saloon fell silent as Chris Larabee rose to his feet and turned his powerful gaze at Alderson and his friends. There was not a man in Four Corners who did not feel in some way, a little intimidated by Chris - even when the gunslinger was not brandishing the infamous Larabee glare like a knife. However, when Chris did feel like making his presence known, the reaction from those around him was swift and immediate. Even Alderson had suddenly lost his vitriolic demeanor as he saw Chris glaring at him. Vin Tanner remained seated, however his blue eyes were fixed on the developing situation. Likewise with Ezra Standish, who was pretending to shuffle the cards in his hands but his focus was one of cautious observation. Buck had risen with Chris and where Buck went, JD was sure to follow. Josiah was not as overt, remaining seated with Vin and Ezra, even though his hand had shifted from the tabletop to rest in close proximity to his holstered gun. Only Nathan did not react. He did not look at Alderson. Instead his focus had turned inward, to the secret place inside of himself that not even his six friends could ever hope to breach because they simply could not understand. While they were probably thinking he was outraged at Alderson's words, it was not even that which was encompassing his thoughts so completely. It was something far worse.
He had forgotten.
He had actually forgotten. A part of him was still gripped in disbelief that he had allowed it to happen, that he had actually let down his guard to let it hit him with such surprise. It was not as if he had not been forced to live this all his life but until Alderson had spoken, Nathan had actually forgotten that he was not seen as a man exactly. It had been a long time since he had heard such contempt directed at him, not since his earliest days in Four Corners when Chris and Vin had intervened to save his life. He had thought being the only healer in Four Corners had earned him a certain amount of respect, not only from the people whose lives he saved but from the community in general. It was hard not feel this way when the people closest to him were six men who saw him not as a colored, but rather as a trusted friend and ally.
Chris Larabee was not focussed on what Nathan was feeling however. The man in black made his way across the saloon, with bodies stepping out of his way as he walked through them, black duster trailing behind him as his piercing green eyes bore down on Alderson. Buck and JD remained in flanking positions, prepared to react if the situation arose. Alderson stood with at least five other friends and though they were not normally the caliber of men the seven engaged, they were drunk and full of spit from whatever hardships it seemed easier to blame someone else for. That made for a dangerous combination.
Chris paused in front of Alderson and spoke, his voice a mere hiss. "Mister, your opinions are your own. I respect that even if I don't like it. If that's what you think about statehood, that's your business but you will keep those opinions to yourself when you're in public."
I can say any damn thing I want!" Alderson snapped, too drunk to know any better. "You gonna shoot me because I made fun of your pet nigger?"
Chris' hand lashed out before anyone could react and before Alderson could draw away. Instead of going for his gun, which would have fatal consequences for the man, Chris wrapped his fist around Alderson's throat. "I'm not going to shoot you," Chris said quietly. "Not yet. You're drunk and you're stupid. Go home and sleep it off."
"Ain't he man enough to defend himself?" Simonson demanded, outraged at the treatment of his friend.
Buck glanced sideways at the rotund farmer with no chin and remarked, "You really like poking sticks at bears don't ya?"
Chris silenced Simonson with a hard stare that made the man swallow visibly before he returned his attention to Alderson. "I don't want this to get out of hand. Go home and sleep it off. That's the best advice you're gonna get tonight and the only time you're gonna get it from me. We understand each other?"
Alderson nodded mutely and Chris lingered a few more seconds, making certain the fingers around his throat left a lasting impression before he release the man. Alderson fell back against the bar, coughing hard and clutching his throat as his the crimson hue on his face started to diminish. Simonson went to his side and poured him a drink quickly as Chris started to turn away, deciding that he had made his point. The man in black had his back turned and took the first tentative steps towards his friends when Alderson lashed out, sending the glass Simonson had offered him skittering across the bar before it rolled off the counter and shattered on the floor. Inez let out a soft gasp as she stepped out of the way and Alderson, angry at being so publicly humiliated, made a bad situation worse.
"CHRIS!" Nathan shouted as he saw the man pull out a gun from the folds of his clothes.
The gunslinger turned around and went for his gun. At the same time that Alderson had drawn his weapon, Simonson realizing what was going on, rushed at Buck and toppled the big man to the floor in a forceful tackle. Alderson's companions, who had been bystanders until this point, suddenly chose sides and rushed at JD. No sooner than Nathan had called out, Vin, Ezra and Josiah were on their feet rushing to join the fray. Nathan was not long after and arrived just as Chris pulled the trigger. The explosion of gunfire sent the other patrons running for cover, some leaving the saloon while others took refuge beneath the tables. Alderson fired a split second after Chris who was already stepping out of his trajectory but not enough to keep the bullet from grazing his shoulder. Chris had no intention of shooting to kill, having lodged the bullet into Alderson's thigh, bringing the instigator of this growing melee to his knees. Dropping his gun as he clutched his wounded leg, Alderson was hardly in a position to appreciate the chaos he had wrought.
The saloon was in a state of pandemonium. Some had no idea why they were fighting, as the violence swept them into the thrall. Nathan looked across the floor at Alderson as he side step a blow from an assailant. Even though Alderson's fiery words about his color had been the spark that set off this brawl, Nathan was more concerned with the fact that the man was bleeding profusely. Blood had saturated his trousers. While it was difficult to tell exactly where he had been hit, it was obvious that he was hit badly. Nathan fought his way through the fists being thrown and bodies flying across the room towards Alderson who was trying desperately to stem the tide of crimson flowing out of his leg.
A chair flew over his head and Nathan heard Buck telling him to duck. He dropped to the floor just in time to see JD scrambling from the grip of a man twice his size just before Josiah hauled the man to his feet and threw a punch in his face. A glass hurtled past his ear and shattered on the floor near him just before he heard Ezra's voice remark 'you do not want to do that' followed by the unmistakable sound of fist against flesh which meant someone obviously wanted to do that despite his entreaty. Nathan looked up to see Chris Larabee throwing a punch and then spinning around and barely keeping his fist from striking Vin, who had been attempting to watch his back during the fight.
Suddenly the sound of a double-barreled shotgun tore through the room like a clap of thunder and stopped everyone in their tracks. Even Nathan froze as he heard the deafening boom that echoed through the saloon. Everyone seemed to be trapped in amber, their eyes fixed on Inez who was brandishing the weapon, having fired it once into the air and successfully put a sizable hole in the ceiling.
"Gentlemen!" Inez said with ruthless command in her voice. "Behave yourselves or the next thing I shoot will not be the ceiling." She handled the weapon with enough determination to indicate to everyone present that she would make good on that threat, no matter who they were to her.
No one knew what to do until Chris Larabee added his voice in support of the lady's directive. "all right," the gunslinger sighed, deciding that enough was enough and that this had escalated far beyond what it ought to have already. "You heard the lady. Break it up. Let's not make this any worse than it already is."
As reason began to bleed into the faces of those in the room, Nathan got to his feet and hurried over to Alderson. The man's blood was a puddle around him and Nathan suddenly felt his stomach hollow because the wound he suspected Alderson of having may be beyond his ability to heal.
"I can't stop it!" Alderson said panicked. His body was trembling. His skin had become cold and all traces of hostility towards Nathan had gone.
"Take it easy there," Nathan ordered. "I need help here!"
"You get away from him nigger!" Simonson shouted from where he was. Ignoring him, Nathan tried to find the source of the bleeding that was the reason for so much blood loss.
"Shut up!" Buck roared at him and grabbed the man bodily as he advanced towards Nathan. Buck slammed him into the bar and bellowed angrily, "If you gave two bits worth about your friend, you'll see Nathan's the only chance he has!"
With that reality splashing into his face, Simonson withdrew his protests and remained still as Nathan quickly examined Alderson. It did not take long for the healer to discern the cause of the profuse bleeding and he could see Alderson sliding rapidly into shock. The blood loss was becoming more than the man's system could cope and Nathan was not even sure that it was in his power to save him.
"I need to get him to my infirmary!" Nathan called out as Chris and Buck closed in on him. Perhaps if he consulted his books there might be something in there. Nathan never felt more helpless than when he found himself facing the stone wall of his own lack of knowledge.
"I wasn't shooting to kill," Chris said somewhat dazed, genuinely intending to bring no permanent harm to Alderson but the sight of all that blood had made him realize that he had done far from that.
"He's been hit in an artery," Nathan quickly explained. "I've got to stop the bleeding or he'll die."
"Vin!" Chris called the tracker who was closest to him. "Help me get him to Nathan's infirmary!"
The statement did not need to be repeated because Vin was at his side in seconds and the trio of peacekeepers were carrying Alderson out of the saloon. Buck, Josiah, JD and Ezra remained in the saloon, keeping a close eye on Simonson and his companions, who had been part of the melee that allowed this tragedy to take place. Buck made sure that Simonson remained where he had left him. Something told the big man that Simonson had some fight in him and with Nathan being the only healer in town, was apprehensive of how he would handle Alderson's care.
Once Chris, Nathan and Vin had gone, Simonson turned to Buck with cold eyes and retorted. "You better pray my friend comes through this alive. Cause if he dies, everyone's gonna know it's because of that nigger."
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