The Color that Divides

by Linda T.

"I don't know what else to do," Nathan Jackson said helplessly to Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner a short time later within the confines of his infirmary.

Chris wished he knew what to say in response to Nathan's cry of defeat but nothing came to mind. Both he and Vin had watched as Nathan tried desperately to stem the bleeding from Alderson's wound. The healer had consulted his books and found no help there.

Nathan had tried sealing the torn artery but that kind of surgery was clearly beyond his ability and he did not have the knowledge to try anything else. He was like a man trying to fight the tide from coming into the shore and though Vin and Chris hated to see Nathan this way, there was nothing they could do to help him, no solution they could offer for they were as much in the dark as he. No matter what Nathan seemed to try, the bleeding simply would not stop. It continued to flow, saturating the bed where Alderson lay, spreading beneath him until he became weaker and weaker, his fear dissolving into unconsciousness, until finally he did not speak at all. "Maybe if I tried something else...." Nathan tried to walk past Chris who was standing near the table but the gunslinger put an arm on his shoulder and kept him from progressing any further.

"Nathan stop," Chris said quietly. Chris could tell that Nathan was no longer thinking straight. His determination to save his patient's life had robbed him of the ability to see reason.

"Chris, I've got to try something else," Nathan implored the gunslinger to be let go, refusing to believe what was evident to everyone else in the room.

"You done all you can," Vin added in that too soft voice, full of concern. "He's dead, Nathan."

"No, he's not," Nathan retorted. "I just haven't tried everything!" He was almost pleading for them to let him try. Didn't they understand what failure meant? It would mean that he was a failure!

"Nathan, he's gone," Chris said firmly. "I hate to be the one to tell you, but it's true, look at him."

Nathan blinked slowly and turned around to the man's still form on the bed. Alderson was not moving and his skin was pale, the parts of it that weren't soiled with blood that is. He did not move and he did not breathe. When Nathan gingerly placed a hand to his neck, the healer felt no pulse. Nathan stared at the man for a long time, saying nothing, hating the feeling that came with being unable to do anything - to have to simply stand by and watch someone die.

"You're right," Nathan conceded after awhile and looked at the blood on his hand and on his clothes. "He's dead. I failed him."

"You didn't fail him, Nathan," Vin continued to console him. The tracker could see how hard he was taking all this. "It wasn't your choice for him to get into a fight and it certainly wasn't your choice to pull the trigger on a man when his back was turned. Alderson did all that without any help from you so don't you think you failed him for cause he's lying here. The only person here who failed anyone, is Alderson."

Nathan raised his eyes to Vin and offered the tracker a smile of thanks for his efforts.

Chris did not speak, but the healer could tell that he had demons of his own to contend with. Chris had not intended to kill Alderson. No doubt, Chris was feeling his own share of guilt as well.

"Hey," Nathan said to Chris. "It ain't your fault either."

Chris exhaled loudly. "I pulled the trigger," he pointed out. "Only because the man drew when you had your back to him," Nathan reminded. "Like Vin said, Alderson made his own choices."

"Yeah," Chris drawled softly but somehow Nathan guessed it would never be that easy for Chris to absolve himself of responsibility. Nathan drew away from his two companions and pulled a sheet over Alderson's face, pausing long enough to close Alderson's eyes before covering the man completely. The healer let out another sigh wishing that he had been a real doctor because no doubt, a real doctor would have known what to do. However, for the moment, he was as good as Four Corners was going to get to a real physician and he had done his best.

That was enough, wasn't it?

+ + + + + + +

The trouble started a day later.

In retrospect, Chris Larabee supposed he should not have been surprised. The skepticism in which Walt Simonson had accepted Nathan's explanation that the bleeding was too profuse to stop was a clear indication of trouble brewing on the horizon. Chris had looked at the man and known instantly, that he was not going to let this go. Although Simonson had said nothing at the time to indicate that there would be retribution for Nathan's inability to save his friend, Chris knew it was coming. He could sense it as surely as he knew when there was danger coming and seeing Simonson's eyes as the man had stormed out of the saloon had surely convinced Chris that Alderson's death was going to have reaching consequences beyond the immediate moment.

When he saw Simonson leading a group of people through the main street of Four Corners towards the jailhouse, Chris knew that he was right. Immediately, he rose out of his chair and called for Ezra and Josiah who were inside the building. The two lawmen appeared almost a second later, their eyes searching the street and quickly ascertaining the situation when they found focus on the group that was approaching them. The group with Simonson was mostly composed of Alderson's friends who had been involved in the brawl where the man had sustained the injury. Leading Simonson's charge was a younger man that Chris did not recognize but looked familiar, even though he could not place the face.

"Who is that with him?" Chris asked after a moment.

The young man's eyes were filled with dark anger as he strode forward, wearing his guns around his hip in a clear challenge to anyone who got in his way. Chris did not recall seeing him around town before and wondered where he had come from when suddenly, he heard Josiah's answer.

"That's Alderson's oldest boy, Jason."

Hell, Chris swore under his breath. This was not going to be pleasant. "Ezra, where's Nathan?"

"At his infirmary," Ezra answered with his gaze just as fixed on the approaching group as Chris.

"Go find him," Chris ordered automatically. "Make sure he stays put. I don't want him getting his head shot off by these folk if they see him." Ezra nodded quietly and immediately hurried away to carry out that order. Once he was gone, Josiah stepped closer to Chris and whispered. "You think we're gonna have trouble?"

"Alderson's dead, his kin folk are looking for someone to blame and I'll stake my life that Simonson's given them Nathan," Chris declared without batting an eye as he stared at the collection coming towards them.

Chris brushed the flap of his duster aside, revealing his gun as a warning to those before him that if there were aiming to cause trouble then he was more than prepared to deal with it. Simonson was armed with a shotgun while the young man that Josiah identified as Alderson's son was also regarding his weapon with an eagerness to use it. The few people, who were on the streets, immediately thought it was a good idea to withdraw and from the corner of his eyes, Chris saw windows being closed and people disappearing indoors, anticipating a shootout. Predictably, the door to the Clarion Newspaper office swung open and Mary Travis peered outside; trying to ascertain what was about to take place. Chris looked straight past the crowd before him and gave a pointed glare at the newswoman to stay where she was. Whether or not she understood his meaning was another matter entirely.

"Where's that nigger?" Simonson demanded as soon as he reached the jailhouse with his companions.

"I am assuming you are referring to Brother Nathan," Josiah retorted, bristling with annoyance at the use of the word. He lowered his hand to his gun and began thumbing the polished wood of the Schofield revolver in its holster, preparing to draw if the situation called for it.

Chris could hardly blame the preacher for that, he did not think much of the word either and certainly not in reference to a close friend like Nathan. "What do you want with Nathan?" Chris asked Simonson.

"We just want him!" Jason spat out. "He killed my pa!" A chorus of angry voices shouted in agreement behind him. "Give him to us or we'll take him by force."

"He didn't kill your father," Chris spoke up quickly in Nathan's defense. "You want someone to lynch, lynch me. I shot him."

"He was alive when you shot him!" Simonson declared. "He wasn't after that nigger touched him."

"Walt," Josiah's voice rumbled. "You call my friend that one more time and I'll do more than touch you."

"We should have known that we couldn't get any justice with you men protecting him!" Jason shouted out to those with him and they hollered in agreement. "It ain't about justice," Chris retorted. "Nathan tried to save your father's life! I saw him! He did everything that he could possibly do for your father. It was just too late."

"How do you know?" Jason walked up the step towards Chris.

"I was there," Chris insisted, not seeing what this angry hellion was getting at. "I saw him!"

Jason glared at Chris in challenge. "How could you know what Jackson did? He could have been killing my pa and you wouldn't have the faintest idea what he was doing!"

"Nathan is no murderer!" Josiah bellowed in anger, unable to believe that these people could make such an accusation. Some of the faces he saw in the group were people the seven had seen every day since they began their peace keeping duties. They were townsfolk who ought to know by now that Nathan had spilled his blood in the defense of this town just like every one of the seven. It incensed the preacher to no end that they could suddenly find it so easy to believe that Nathan was a killer.

"What's the matter with you people?" Mary Travis' voice suddenly broke into the angry words being traded by both sides of this discussion. Her arrival brought some semblance of order into the rapidly declining situation. Mary hurried to the front of the crowd and stared at them with a mixture of disbelief and shock. "Some of you have lived here as long as I have and you know that Nathan has never done anything to harm any one of us! Four Corners is not the place that doctors want to practice and if it weren't for Nathan, we'd have to send for one from Eagle Bend or Sweet Water! How many of us who were sick could have afforded to wait? Jason," she looked at Alderson's oldest boy. "I'm sorry for your father's loss but if Nathan could not help him, then no one could."

"With all due respect, ma'am," Jason said not unkindly, "I don't believe that you're qualified to say."

"I beg your pardon?" Mary looked at him with confusion.

"Everyone knows that you got your reasons for siding with these men," Jason retorted, his eyes shifting in Chris' direction just enough to convey to those with him what he was implying.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Mary demanded, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment at this personal attack.

Jason never had a chance to answer because no sooner than his inflammatory words had escaped his lips, Chris was going for his gun. The gunslinger unsheathed his weapon and jammed it in the younger man's throat, causing the others around him to draw. Mary let out a small cry of fright as she saw Josiah's gun unholstered and then suddenly, from across the street at Gloria Potter's store, Vin Tanner emerged armed with his rifle. JD Dunne had also emerged from nowhere, taking point with both guns aimed at the thickest part of the crowd and Buck Wilmington rounded the corner, his own peacemaker drawn and ready to fire.

"Looks like we walked in on a little party," Buck said casually even though the situation was far from it. "You were planning on inviting us weren't you, Chris?"

"It wasn't that much of a party," Chris Larabee retorted, turning his steel gaze to the young man who was gulping visibly at the feel of the gun nestled firmly against his Adam's apple. "Now you listen to me," Chris said in a low voice full of predatory menace. "I'm sorry about your father. I didn't mean to kill him but when he pulled a gun on me when my back was to him, I didn't have much of a choice but to shoot. Nathan did everything that could have been humanly done for your pa. He did not murder anyone."

Jason swallowed, his fear evident but his love for his father would not allow him to back down, even if he was being subjected to the infamous Larabee glare that would send most men scurrying for cover by now. "Maybe you believe it but I don't," he said slowly. "You don't know whether or not Jackson murdered my pa. You're his friends and you won't let justice get done. You'll protect him even though you know he had every reason to let my pa die. Wasn't he the reason for the fight in the first place? How sure are you that he didn't do it?'

He was brave. Chris had to give him that. "Pretty sure," Chris said confidently. "Sure enough to know what you're accusing him of is bullshit."

"Then prove it," Jason retorted, his voice full of challenge. "You think he didn't do it, let us try him in a court of law."

"No," Chris said without even thinking.

"If you don't," Jason glared back at him, "then everyone will know that you'd be willing to protect a murderer!"

"He didn't do it!" Josiah roared, starting to come forward to beat some sense into the boy if that was what was required.

"Stand down!" Chris barked sharply and halted the preacher in his tracks before turning to Jason. "If you're looking to blame Nathan for your pa's death, it ain't gonna happen. Your pa died because he was past saving, nothing else."

"I only got your word for that and frankly, I don't think you have a right to be so sure. How do you know that Nathan wouldn't let my father die? How do you know what's in a man's heart? How would you know if he had let my pa die anyway? You ain't no doctor to tell the difference."

"I know Nathan," Chris stated. "He wouldn't harm anyone, least of all a patient."

"Then let him stand trial," Simonson echoed Jason's earliest demand. "If he's so innocent, why won't he allow himself to be judged in a court of law!"

"Forget it," Chris barked. "It ain't gonna happen! Now break it up, all of you!" he ordered, pulling his gun away from Jason and stepping back. "Go home!"

The crowd started to dissipate, surrendering for the moment but Chris knew he had accomplished nothing. As much as he hated to admit it, Jason had brought up a valid point and it had struck home with everyone who was present. Nathan was their friend and every man who was part of the Magnificent Seven felt inclined to protect him. However, had refusing Jason's demand for a trial shown everyone that the seven were willing to protect one of their own even to the point of denying justice be done? Chris was not certain but he knew that he was being forced into an uncomfortable situation if he tried to answer that question.

"So that's how law and order is taken care of in Four Corners?" Jason shouted out, not only to his immediate audience but also to anyone who might have been listening from indoors to the exchange taking place. "You're suppose to protect our town from the bad element, except your own."

"Boy, maybe I ought to just shoot you," Buck growled, feeling his anger escalate at the young man's inflammatory words.

"Sure why not?" Jason retorted venomously. "I'm sure your friends will cover that up, too. I'll bet it won't even make the papers." The boy glared at Mary as he made that statement.

"Get out of here before I shoot you," Chris warned. "I won't care whether or not I get hanged for it."

Jason merely smiled and turned away, content that he had spoken enough and perfectly acknowledging when it was time to make a strategic withdrawal. He beckoned Simonson to follow him and very soon, the two men were striding away from the jail house, taking the crowd with them and leaving the seven with an unmistakable feeling that this was far from over.

"Chris," Mary started to speak.

"What the hell were you doing out here, woman?" Chris barked before she could finish speaking. "Couldn't you see how dangerous that situation was getting?

"Someone had to do something!" Mary returned sharply somewhat hurt that he was dressing her down this way in front of everyone. "Something other than pulling a gun!" She glared at him with accusation.

"It handled things, didn't it?" he retorted, wondering why she was always in the middle of things like this. Didn't she know when to stay away? He did not want to see her get hurt in the crossfire of one of their gunfights. Considering how little she thought about her safety during this occasion, such an outcome was a very real possibility.

"It handled things for the moment," she declared, not about to be intimidated by that powerful stare that made most men back down from Chris in a debate such as this. "But I don't think this issue is going away. The boy wants justice and he has a right to it."

"A right to what?" JD burst out. "Nathan didn't do nothing!"

"I know that," Mary sighed and turned around so that she could make eye contact with those present as she stated her case. "However, we may need a court of law to prove it."

"Mary, I was there," Chris responded, his voice narrowed to a thin thread of tension. Discussing this with Mary was even worse than the heated melee that almost came about with Jason Alderson. "He did everything he could to save Alderson. Vin saw it too."

"Nathan tried to save his life," Vin took the opportunity to speak since Chris referred to him in corroboration. "He was just beyond help."

Mary shook her head, wishing that she had the words to put her next statement delicately but the truth was, she did not and it was best that she speak her mind because others would do it with no feeling for the seven. "I'm not doubting either of you," she looked at both men and hoped they knew she meant it. "It's just that your refusal to let it go to trial makes it look like Nathan did something wrong and you're protecting him."

"Are you telling me that our word that Nathan didn't do nothing, ain't good enough?" Buck demanded.

"It's not a question of word...," Mary started to say, seeing where this was going.

"I'm afraid it is," Chris said icily. "It's very much a question of word. We've done right by this town on every turn. When they need us, we're there. Before we came in here, every cowpoke, bandito and outlaw looking to cause a ruckus was choosing Four Corners for his own private shooting gallery. You're telling us after providing some semblance of law in this town for the last two years, our word on things ain't good enough?"

"It is to me," she responded meeting his eyes and for a brief instant of time, the barrier that existed between them lowered. Unfortunately, the nature of their argument ensured that it could not remain that way for long.

"But not to anyone else," he challenged, trampling the almost tender moment between them because he was angry and when Chris Larabee was mad, nothing else, no matter how fine, could remain unscathed for long.

"Chris, not all of us feel that way," Mary insisted, not wanting him to think that the whole of Four Corners felt this way. "But maybe we ought to think about giving Alderson what he wants to prove that you have nothing to hide."

"It all comes down to the same thing, not trusting our word," Chris returned. "I'm not about to ask Nathan to stand trial for doing what he's always done. Even the best doctor in the world doesn't save every patient. If anyone ought to be standing trial, it ought to be me. You know what this is about as well as I do and it ain't got nothing to do with Nathan being unable to save Alderson and everything to do with what color he is!"

No one spoke for a moment and even Mary seemed taken back by his statement but could think of nothing to say that would make Chris' statement untrue. "I'm sure that's not it," she found her voice after a moment but she was no longer as sure as she had been.

"Doesn't matter," Nathan Jackson's voice suddenly entered the fray.

The healer had arrived at the tail end of their conversation and stood behind them with Ezra Standish at his side, his expression clearly revealing that he had heard everything that had been discussed. Nathan tried not to show that the issues brought up had affected him on the most basic level but he was not that good an actor. If anything, he felt foolish for letting his guard down, for believing that people's tolerance to him had changed simply because he was a member of the seven. He should have known better. He should have known that he was different from the six men he rode with and no matter how much respect he had among the townspeople, they would never be able to see past the color of his skin.

"Nathan, this is all bullshit," Buck said quickly, seeing the hurt in Nathan's eyes quite clearly. "We're not going to let you stand any trial. You did nothing wrong."

"I know that," Nathan gave Buck a grateful smile. "But Mary's right."

"About what exactly?" Josiah looked at him in disbelief.

"There ought to be a trial," he stated firmly.

"Nathan, you're crazy," JD exclaimed. "Why should there be a trial for anything. Like Buck says, you didn't do anything."

"But none of you are really listening to Mary," Ezra spoke up. "Gentleman, trust me when I say that I have no wish to see Mr. Jackson endure the ordeal of a trial. However, if we are to remain this community's peacekeepers, we have to allow justice to prove itself. By denying Nathan a trial, you're also denying him the opportunity to be proven innocent."

Chris swore under his breath because Ezra was right and Chris really hated it when Ezra was right. "If it was just the matter of us remaining this town's peacekeepers, I'd say Four Corners can go to hell." He shifted his gaze sharply at Mary so that she would understand exactly what he meant by that. "But if it's a matter of Nathan's innocence then I'm willing to wire the judge for a trial. If that's acceptable to you, Nate."

"I say this is crazy," JD grumbled, shaking his head in disbelief. "It ain't right."

"I have to agree with JD," Vin said readily. Suddenly, Vin was remembering how the town had reacted when those marshals had come after him. Even though they were not really marshals but agents acting on the behalf of Eli Joe, none of the townsfolk had spoken up for him. He had been here almost a year by then and when it was time for him to be taken away, the only member of the community who had spoken out in his defense, other than the seven, was Mary. It was the same thing all over again with Nathan. The town was showing its true colors when the seven needed their support the most. It angered the tracker to no end and he understood all too well that the strained expression in Chris' eyes. "This ain't right Chris."

"But its gotta be done," Nathan reiterated, feeling some measure of pride knowing that his friends were standing up for him the way there were. "Wire the Judge Chris. I'll stand by whatever decision he makes."

Chris nodded slowly, having no alternative but to comply now that Nathan had given his consent. He hated having to do this and he hated the town for forcing Nathan into a position that required the healer to ask for this to be done in order to clear his name.

"All right Nathan," Chris finally conceded. "I'll do it. I just hope this is worth it."

"It's the right decision," Mary started to say when Chris shot her a look that killed any speech in her throat.

"It's a lot of things, Mary," his eyes bored into her mercilessly. "But right ain't one of them."

With that, he strode away from her, trusting himself to say nothing further. The rest of the seven lingered just a little longer but soon scattered to the winds, making no comment to Mary as they departed. The editor of the Clarion New stood where she was for a long while, shaken by what had happened and struck by the unmitigated fear that Four Corners might have lost its seven protectors.

+ + + + + + +

People were talking.

It was not even a day later and the chatter was moving through the town like wildfire. It swept into the saloons. It moved through the hotels, through the stores, spreading its seed in the most unlikeliest of places and thriving with each venomous word that was spoken. Though not all the townsfolk paid attention to the words being spoken, a good many did and after awhile it seemed like everyone in Four Corners had something to say on Nathan Jackson's innocence or guilt. It seemed to get worse as Alderson's funeral came and went. The funeral procession moving through the streets, under the watchful eye of the seven town peacekeepers seemed to deepen the town's division on this issue.

"We need real lawmen in town," Jonas Conklin grumbled. Predictably, the talk about Aldersons' death and Nathan's part in it had reached the saloon with the Four Corners hotel, where fortunately none of the seven were known to frequent with any regularity and discussion about the subject could be made without concerns of reproach.

"Real lawmen get killed really fast around here, Jonas," Mayor Weston pointed out quickly as he gestured to the bartender to bring him a drink. "Remember what happened the last time? We're lucky we still have a town."

"That don't mean it's still a good idea for us to have a bunch of gunfighters protecting our town," Conklin persisted. It was well known that Conklin was not a supporter of the seven's presence in Four Corners. Although no one at the bar voiced it, they knew that Conklin was the kind of man who liked to tolerate things no matter how bad they got for other people that is before he could inspired into any decent action. Everyone still remembered how he had protested when Judge Travis wanted 12 men to act as jury when Gloria Potter's husband had been brutally murdered by Stuart James' nephew in broad daylight.

"Hell, some of em' ain't even that," Hiram Neuhaus grunted, his speech slurred by too much liquor even though it was no later than noon. Unfortunately, this was Hiram's state of late ever since the passing of his wife Annie. Annie had been killed when JD Dunne, during a foiled bank robbery, had tragically shot her. It was common knowledge that Hiram blamed JD and felt that a young man his age had no business playing lawman in a town like Four Corners. Initially, his bitterness had only been restricted to J, but with the passing months, his enmity spread like a cancer to involve the rest of the seven collectively. No one could blame Neuhaus for this of course. He had been left a widower with two young children and there was not a person in town who did not think highly of Annie, including JD Dunne himself.

"JD's just a boy!" Neuhaus spat. "Strutting around town, wearing that goddamn tin star after what he did to my poor Annie......"

"Come on Hiram," Yosemite, the town blacksmith, immediately pushed himself of his bar stool and went to Neuhaus who had started to sob. "Maybe you've had enough."

"It ain't never gonna be enough!" Neuhaus swatted his arm away. "My Annie's gone and she ain't never coming back. Now Bill Alderson's gone too and it looks like its gonna go unanswered for too. Why should we wait and let them kill someone else?"

"Nothing is going unanswered for," Weston spoke up firmly. He had been a politician long enough to see an incendiary situation on the rise. "Judge Travis is on his way. I was told by Mary Travis herself that Chris Larabee sent a wire to the judge to come deal with this matter."

"Judge Travis isn't going to put that nigra away!" Conklin barked. "He hired those men! He ain't gonna make himself look the fool by finding Jackson guilty."

"Now I take offense at that." Weston glared at him. "I may not see eye to eye with the seven or the Judge, but Orin Travis has always been a fair man and I don't care whether or not Jackson is a 'nigra' as you put it, I want to see justice done. Are you actually interested in that Jonas?"

Jonas swallowed thickly feeling a little admonished by how Weston had come to the defense of justice as opposed to the men they were discussing. "Of course I do."

"Then perhaps we ought to leave it to the Judge to decide." Weston stared at everyone in the small saloon, whether or not they were supporters or detractors.

"Good idea," Yosemite retorted as he helped an almost comatose Hiram Neuhaus away from the bar and attempted to stand him up.

Conklin seethed and nodded in agreement. He downed his drink and made a rapid exit out of the saloon, an idea taking root in his head and refusing to let go until he had exploited it. As he let the batwing doors of the hotel saloon behind, Conklin made his way up the street, intending to find Jason Alderson. If they had to endure Judge Travis presiding over this case, that was fine with him. However, someone ought to ensure that the Judge made his decision fairly and there was no better way to do that then to hire a lawyer. When that overseer had been killed by Nathan Jackson's father in Eagle Bend, the family had hired a lawyer to ensure that the case was carried out fairly. That was what was needed here.

Conklin was certain that Jason Alderson would not mind the suggestion.

"Nathan, are you all right?"

Nathan looked up from the card in his hands into the face of Ezra Standish, feeling some measure of surprise because it was rare that Ezra called him by his first name. Usually it was Mr. Jackson, my esteemed associate or something just as equally exaggerated as that, but rarely by his given name. Nathan supposed it was Ezra's way of keeping them at arm's length because deep inside the gambler was still afraid of being hurt if he cared too much for the men he rode with. However, his tone now was not one of arm's length, but felt personal in a way Nathan could not define.

"I'm fine, Ezra," Nathan said quietly as he looked across the desk inside the jail house where they had been engaging in a game of poker for the last half hour. The jail house was empty and there was no reason to keep a vigil on the empty cells but Nathan did not feel like being around people at this time and the cool dimness of the building was a welcome respite against the afternoon heat. Besides, there was little for him to do at his infirmary. As he thought about his small clinic, he felt the unpleasant bitterness surface inside of him again.

"Your heart does not seem entirely engaged in this game," Ezra pointed out as his smooth manicured hands continuing to sort his cards while his cool gaze remained fixed on the suits before him. "Care to tell me what is?"

"What do you think?" Nathan almost barked with an uncharacteristic burst of temper. "I should be at my infirmary helping people. Mrs. Avery was meant to come in this morning to get Polly's teeth fixed. Mr. Wallis had some kind of rash he wanted me to look at and I was suppose to apply some fresh poultice to Jamie Swanson's foot. Instead, I'm here playing card with you about to lose what money I got. Why wouldn't my heart be in this?"

Ezra raised his sea colored eyes and stared at Nathan hard for only a second but it was all that was needed to discern what was at the heart of Nathan's anger. "How many of them chose not to appear for their appointments?" he asked quietly.

Nathan dropped his eyes to the table, feeling the anger rise up so suddenly that it almost choked him. "All of them."

'Bastards.' Ezra swore inwardly, feeling as if the insult was not given to Nathan but to all of them.

It was strange - this symbiotic existence that had been formed since they had first come together as seven. When Chris was feeling particularly sorrowful or somber about his wife and child, they all felt it in someway. When Vin decided that he had a point to argue, each one of them would argue it with the tracker, come hell or high water and when Buck feared for JD, they all worried too. If even one spark of innocence was taken from JD, they all felt its loss just as they felt the hidden pain that Josiah tried daily to forget by waiting for the crows to come claim him. It was an odd existence for a group of men who had lived their lives as loners. Now, Nathan's pain was tearing them all apart, Ezra in particular, because somewhere along the line, this man who he initially had not even deign to ride with had become one of his best friends. Nathan was his morale gyroscope. Whenever there was a question of ethics, Ezra could always count on Nathan to answer it.

"This will pass," Ezra responded. "Once the trial is done, no one will have any reason to doubt you. You did everything possible to help Alderson."

"No, I didn't!" He flung the cards on the table. "I did everything I could do, not everything that was possible!"

"That is all anyone can do, Nathan," Ezra answered, uncertain what the healer was getting at.

"Ever since I woke up in that army hospital, all I ever wanted to be was a doctor," Nathan whispered, his eyes closing as he remembered that day so filled with pain and blood. "I never knew where my place was until that day. I realized that to heal was my calling."

"We know that," Ezra agreed, quickly, grateful they were alone for this conversation. "You have proven yourself a capable healer more times than any of us can count. You should never doubt that about yourself."

"I accepted that being black meant being a doctor was impossible," Nathan continued, showing a vulnerable side to himself that Ezra had never seen before. He always seemed so sure of everything he did that Ezra was as much fascinated as he was worried by this sudden display. "I could live with that because no one could stop me from learning or helping, even if I didn't have the piece of paper. Until Alderson, I thought that was enough but it isn't. He died because I had no idea what to do!"

"That is not your fault," Ezra declared. "It is the luck of the draw. It was time for Alderson to go. It may not be the answer you wish to hear, but sometimes fate decides how things are going to be whether we like it or not."

"If there had been a doctor here, he would still be alive," Nathan said adamantly. "He wouldn't be dead. I failed him because I didn't know enough."

"Nathan," Ezra said firmly, refusing to let Nathan accept responsibility for Alderson's death. "You did not kill Alderson. He drew a gun on a man when his back was turned. What happened to him would have happened if he were anywhere in the Territory. The only difference is, you bothered enough to try and help him. You should not punish yourself for that one act of benevolence, no matter how it turned out in the end."

He opened his mouth to respond when suddenly the door knob twisted and Ezra prayed it was because they had to go and deal with some outlaw. Nathan simply did not look up for that at the moment. The door swung open and Chris Larabee stepped into the room. The expression on the gunslinger's face immediately put Ezra on alert. Something was wrong. Chris looked so mad that he was ready to spit. His eyes were like granite and the look that every member of the seven recognized as the side of Chris Larabee ready to kill was etched across his face.

"What has happened?" Ezra asked.

Chris' eyes shifted towards Nathan and his jaw tightened. "Jason Alderson has appointed a lawyer to represent the case to the Judge."

Ezra was almost afraid to ask. "Who?"

"James Lightfoot," Chris answered, barely managing to form the words as they escaped in a lowered hiss.

"Well, that seems right," Nathan leaned back into the seat. "He convicted my daddy, don't see no reason why we can't keep it in the family and have him send me away too."

"That's not funny," Chris barked at him. "Josiah will speak for you."

"Chris," Ezra immediately responded. "That is unwise. The community at large already believes that we are attempting to protect one of our own. We should attempt to have a legal mind represent Nathan in this instance. Someone who is impartial to everything except the judicial process."

"A lawyer costs money," Nathan pointed out. "I ain't got none."

Ezra took a deep breath and hoped that Mrs. Standish, wherever she was, had no idea what her little boy was about to do because it was quite possible that he would not live it down and she would die of a stroke. "I do. I have taken certain economy in my expenditure of late and a good run of luck at the tables. I have some money secreted away. Enough, at least, to provide a lawyer with a retainer."

"You would do that?" Nathan looked at him with surprise.

"Of course, I would," Ezra shrugged, feeling uncomfortable at the reaction his magnanimous act was garnering. "Let's just say that most it is yours anyway and, might I add, I do expect free medical services when all this is over."

Chris was still staring at him, but the corner of his lips had curled slightly upwards into the barest hint of a smile. "You getting soft on me, Ezra?" Chris asked.

"Now if you are going to be insulting about it," Ezra retorted, "I will excuse myself from your company."

"Ezra," Nathan swallowed. "Thank you."

"There are a dozen things that we have to do before this lawyer, whomever he is, even gets here, so I would not be too grateful just yet," Ezra pointed out.

"Mary might know someone," Chris added. "I've got a couple dollars in the bank left over from the sale of my ranch. Used enough to buy the land my shack is on but the rest of it is still there doing nothing. I think that could probably go some ways to making up that retainer for a lawyer." "I don't know what to say," Nathan stammered, feeling his emotions rise up from his insides to choke him with intensity.

"Don't say anything," Chris replied, realizing Ezra was even worse at such moments then he was. "We're your friends. You would do the same for us."

It was true, Nathan would but it was sure good hearing though.


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