Crosses to Bear
Warning: Some racial tension
It was late at night when JD Dunne, resident peacekeeper, returned from checking the outskirts of town, making sure all was quiet and safe as Four Corners nestled in for the evening. Taking his time in combing and graining his horse he was startled when hearing the sounds of running feet outside the entrance to the livery. A minute later silence returned.
It was then that he noticed a strange glow outside.
Running from the stable he saw something had been lit and was burning bright, like a beacon, in the middle of the street, not far from where he was. On instinct JD grabbed a bucket, then water from a trough in order to put it out. Returning quickly to the burning object, JD found Josiah Sanchez, fellow peacekeeper, already there, knocking the wooden structure to the ground, dousing the flames with dirt from the street. Dunne added his water to the now smoldering wreck, listening to the sizzle as the embers finally died out.
"What do you think this was about?" JD asked the ex-preacher, while looking around, squinting in the darkness, trying to see if anyone was lurking about.
Josiah turned his eyes upward just in time to hear the clinic door of Nathan Jackson, the town's healer, close softly. "Trouble," came the ominous reply. Sanchez was not happy at all and he took his frustration out by smashing the now-sodden mess to pieces with his boot heel. No one needed to see what had been there. No one.
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"You see anyone at all?"
JD shook his head. "Nobody. Not anyone, even when I rode into town," his hands flung wide as he answered the town's undisputed leader of the law, Chris Larabee. "Only heard someone running away and then I saw the fire," he added.
"Tell how many were running away?" this question from Vin Tanner, ex-bounty hunter and sharpshooter for the peacekeepers.
"More than one, I'm sure," the dark-haired Bostonian answered. "Sorry," he shrugged, disappointed he couldn't help more.
"Not your fault, kid," Dunne's good friend and local ladies' man told him. Buck Wilmington, another of the town's seven peacekeepers frowned under his moustache. "This could get ugly before it's over," he told his friends gathered at the jail, glancing at each one.
"You see anyone new in town, Ezra?" Larabee asked the impeccably- dressed gambler and peacekeeper. If there was anyone new in town, or anyone of questionable reputation, Standish would know.
"No," Ezra answered simply. The news of what had happened last night thoroughly disgusted him. Although Nathan and he were both from the south, one an ex-slave and himself the son of wealthy parentage, they had come to respect one another's lineage through trials and tribulation, but along with that had come some hard-fought trust and friendship. Jackson was not only an excellent healer, he was one hell of a peacekeeper too, in Ezra's opinion anyway.
"Anyone seen Nathan this morning?" Larabee asked of his assembled men.
"I believe I saw him head off to the east this morning," Ezra answered him. "He had his medical bag with him and I think I recall him saying last evening that he was going to check on the Randall family."
"You should have told someone," Buck said, ire in his voice, frowning at the conman.
"I have many admirable abilities, Mr. Wilmington, however, mind reading is not one of them. Had I known that..."
"Alright," Chris cut in, putting an effective stop to any more finger-pointing. "Just be on the lookout for anyone new in town or anything suspicious."
"I'll go snoop around the livery, maybe I can find something out of place around there," Wilmington said, heading out the door, hearing JD tell him he'd come along.
"Josiah? Maybe you want to..."
"Already on it," the big man knowing he was going to head out and meet Nathan even before Chris mentioned it.
"I'll go talk ta Mary. Maybe something like this has come up in other towns. Might be this person or persons is moving from town ta town." Larabee gave a nod to the two remaining peacekeepers and left.
"Well, Mr. Tanner. It appears you and I are left to forage for any information we can garner from the citizenry of this municipality.
Vin didn't have an answer for that so he opened the door and with a sweep of his hand invited Standish to exit the building. He heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes as he followed the man out.
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"I can't understand why people would be so against a church," JD told Buck as the two worked their way down the alleyway beside the livery, looking for any thing out of place.
Buck took a couple of long steps across the alley and stopped the younger man with a hand to his chest. "JD, this doesn't have anything ta do with the church. What made you think that?"
The young man shrugged. "Well why else would anyone burn a cross if they didn't have something against the church?"
"JD, this has ta do with Nathan, not the church." Buck could see the confusion written all over his young friend's face and knew there'd be more questions. "Have a seat," Buck lightly push Dunne towards an old crate to sit on.
"This has ta do with Nathan and people like him," Buck began.
Wilmington's head bowed and a light chuckle escaped him. Oh he did love JD. The kid was loyal, trustworthy and learned quick, but at times he was innocent and so naive and all those ingredients together made him one special young man. To him anyway.
Buck's tone was as light as the smile he gave JD. "No, I mean folks like Nathan and the Coopers and Trotters. Colored folks, in other words," he added to help clarify things.
"But why? What's the burning of the cross have to do with it?"
"Don't know," Buck answered honestly with a shrug. "See, after the war and the slaves were freed there were some groups that didn't like it, so they started terrorizing these people and one way they do it, is by burning crosses."
"But Nathan... he's never done anything to harm anyone, nor have those other people."
"Doesn't matter in some people's eyes, JD. All they see is hatred."
"So Nathan and the Coopers and Trotters could be in danger here?"
"Not if we can help it," Buck told him, determination in his voice and eyes. "So let's get back ta checkin' this alley," he added with a nod. "See if anyone left a clue."
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"No," the long-haired tracker said, with a shake of his head. Ezra and I've been out foragin'. Ain't found nothin'." He slid his eyes to Larabee's and knew that look; Chris didn't want to know.
"Mary know of anything?"
"Nothing from the surrounding areas. Might be this is just an isolated case."
"Might be," Vin agreed. "Maybe we should take a ride out to the Cooper's, check ta see if anyone's been around."
"Alright," Chris answered quietly. The two men headed to the livery where they ran across JD and Buck finishing up their search.
"Didn't find anything," Wilmington told them. "Too many tracks back there anyway. Can't imagine what people find ta do in a back alley." As soon as the words left his mouth, he found three sets of eyes looking at him with "yeah right" looks on their faces.
"What?" the ladies' man feigned surprise. "A dirty, dusty alley is no place for a lady... not when there are feather beds or hay..."
"Vin and I," Larabee interrupted "are headed out to the Coopers to ask them some questions. Maybe you two should talk to the Trotters."
"Alrighty, we'll do that. Do we know when Nathan is due back?"
"No," Chris answered his old friend, "but if he's not back by morning, we'll send a couple riders out that way."
The men split, going their respective ways, still hoping that someone, somewhere could shed some light on this situation.
+ + + + + + +
Mary's urgent call had Larabee and Tanner pulling their horses to a stop in front of the Clarion.
"What is it, Mary?" Chris asked as he and Vin dismounted quickly. Wasn't hard to tell something had upset the pretty newspaper woman.
Mary Travis took a deep breath, her journalism background made her stoic, but at times it was hard to control her emotions. Like now.
"Billy went up to Nathan's clinic a little while ago," she began, looking at the men, seeing the concern written on their faces. "He sometimes helps with, well... anyway," she stopped herself from rattling on, "he opened the door and someone had been there and everything was all torn up and on the floor." She looked from one man to the next, her feelings of helplessness growing more intense as she related the story.
"Billy alright?" Chris asked as soon as Mary took a breath. He felt a huge relief when she nodded yes.
"He see anyone?"
Her eyes moved to Vin's. "He said there were two men but when they heard the door open, they looked at him and then ran out the back. He said they had some kind of sacks over their heads with the eyes and mouth cut out. He's really scared," she added, her eyes pooling, remembering how frightened and shaken her son was when he came running to her after the encounter. She was sure he'd have nightmares.
Chris put a hand on her arm. "We'll check it out, Mary. You two okay?"
"Yes," she said, taking a big breath and pulling her shoulders back. "We'll be fine. I'm just upset and angry that this is happening."
Larabee nodded to her, then gave Vin a look and they headed over to the clinic.
"Billy should be okay since he didn't see their faces," Vin said, as they hustled crossed the street, knowing Chris was probably thinking the same thing, their concern now broadening even more.
Taking the steps to the clinic two at a time it didn't take them long to get where they were going, boot heels thumping loudly on the landing outside of Nathan's, a sense of urgency with every step.
The door Billy opened was still standing ajar and the two peacekeepers pulled their guns as they crossed the threshold. Vin and Chris' eyes scanned for any movement, not taking stock yet in the mess that was once the clinic.
Vin stepped through and around the chaos in order to check the back room and the steps leading down from there. He found nothing and no one. Returning the sawed-off to it's holster, only then did he look around. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. Everything was destroyed. Walking gingerly to the front room, he met his friend's eyes. Larabee had the same look of disbelief.
There wasn't an inch of the floor that didn't have something broken, torn up, spilled on or ripped apart on it. Larabee and Tanner stood stock still, taking it all in. One of the few times neither man knew what to do. Glancing at one another again, anger took over now where disbelief had been minutes ago.
More steps on the landing and Ezra was inside the door, eyes wide, mouth working and "good Lord" finally came out with a breath.
Then it was Josiah and Nathan returning from the Randall's place. Nathan's eyes shone with tears that threatened to fall and soon did. Surveying his clinic and home, it wasn't hard to tell as far as his practice was concerned, he was finished. As he gingerly picked up the ruined and torn-out pages of his medical journals, the four peacekeepers eyed one another. Even now, with all of them there, they still didn't know what to do, feeling helpless as their friend and compatriot sifted through what had been his work, his reason for staying in town. It was heartbreaking.
Buck and JD came next, Dunne's mouth hanging open as he surveyed the chaos and tears came to his eyes as he watched Nathan look around, more lost then he'd ever seen the man.
Wilmington handed a note to Larabee. He told him in a lowered voice, "Somebody killed all the Trotter's chickens last night and then tossed a rock with that attached," he pointed to the paper, "through the window. They're pretty scared."
Chris read the note then passed it on to Josiah. It was a threat for more harm to come if the Trotters didn't pack up and leave. Mrs. Trotter supplied fresh eggs to places of business in town. With the chickens dead, part of their livelihood would be gone and no doubt so might they. His thoughts were interrupted when Nathan spoke.
"Everything. Everything is gone," the healer said, eyes beseeching his friends, looking to them for answers. "Everything I've ever worked for...why? Who would do this?" He asked questions he knew no one had the answers too. Some people despised him for who he was, what he was, but he'd worked through that, won trust and respect in the town and surrounding areas and now this. He blinked his eyes of the tears.
"Nathan, I assure you," Ezra began, his voice gentle but strong.
"Assure me? Assure me of what? Catching who did this?" Nathan's voice rose with each word, anger now taking the lead. "What difference does it make? Look at this!" his arms flailed about him. He took a few steps, kicking at the broken furniture in his way. His once organized and clean office was destroyed. "My journals, medical books, medicine, everything is..." he faced his friends, tears of anger now coursed their way down his cheeks following the same tracks that had been made earlier by sorrow.
"We'll get who did this. You know we will." Buck's voice was soft, trying to dispel the anger he saw on the healer's face.
"We'll clean this up," JD said, finally finding his voice. "We'll help you start over, won't we fellas?" Dunne's head nodded up and down in positive assurance.
"You all don't get it. This is me," Nathan emphasized with his hands sweeping over the destruction. "This is who I am and it's destroyed! It's gone! I can't replace all this," his head moved in tiny back and forth movements and he a expelled a deep, heart-wrenching breath. "There's nothing here for me now."
They knew it. They had a feeling it would come to this. When a man's hopes and dreams were destroyed let alone his personal belongings, there was nothing left but to move on. But the six weren't willing to let the seventh man move on just yet.
"Let us help, my friend," Josiah told him, wanting Nathan to understand what the men were offering was so much more than just the cleaning of a couple of rooms.
"Do what? Make this right? Okay. Then what? Follow me around, watching what I do ta make sure this doesn't happen again? I won't live like that. I'm a free man. And I won't take advantage of you by asking ta watch my back. No sir. I won't live like that."
Josiah sucked in a breath at what Nathan had just said. He inwardly grimaced as he saw Vin duck his head and leave silently, then saw Chris do exactly the same thing and follow Tanner out the door, but not before sending a disapproving look at the distraught healer.
"You know... you're wrong, Nathan," Buck stated as JD crossed in front of him to head out the door. Pointing around the room, he added, "This ain't you. This... this is a bunch of stuff. It's what's in here," he jabbed at his own chest right over his heart, "that's really you." He gave his head a couple of bobs and then walked out, Dunne right beside him.
"You think he'll really leave?"
"Not sure, kid. He's got a lot ta think on. Let's find Chris and Vin."
Nathan eyes slid over to the gambler.
Ezra met the healer's look and gave a short non-humorous chuff of laughter. "Well, Mr. Jackson. It appears that you are not really who you claim to be after all. I, for one, am surprised that you'd be so easily scared off. You who always are talking of fair play and having dignity and fighting for the rights of others. I guess some things do only go skin deep. And such a self-righteous attitude too." He gave a finger tip salute to his hat and stepped over a few items then left, pulling the clinic door shut behind him with a resounding bang.
"Self-righteous?" Nathan fumed at the closed door, then looked over at Josiah who stood watching him. Jackson's shoulders slumped as he saw the deep concern and wrinkled brow. He waited for the chastisement he felt was coming. But instead, the big man moved to him and laid a strong, reassuring hand on his shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze.
"Buck is right, you know. There is much more to you than books and bottles and sticks of furniture."
"This is different, Josiah. This is about me." Nathan so wanted someone to believe and understand what he was saying.
"It always is, brother, it always is. It's always about us. We all have our crosses to bear. Oh, it might be a different cross for each of us, but it's still a cross to bear. Just think about that... and let us help." He gave Nathan's shoulder a final pat. "You aren't really any different than the rest of us. We all are one."
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After Josiah left, Nathan looked around the room. His room. His clinic. His work. How could someone do this? Well, he knew. Hate. Racial hate could do this and worse. He'd almost been a victim of it once before. Then Chris and Vin had intervened. He'd been given another chance.
Now his past had caught up with him again. His past. They all had pasts. Damn. What had he said? What had he done? Heaving a deep sigh he made his way over to the bed and sat down on the ripped-up mattress.
If he thought about it, it was true, what Josiah said; they all had crosses to bear. His thoughts went to Vin first; an innocent man wanted for murder. He had to watch his back all the time for bounty hunters. Tanner had even been taken from them once, trussed up, led away as a murderer for all the town to see. Nathan shook his head at the memory of that.
And Chris. He'd lost his wife and child in a fire. Murdered. And they knew who was behind it, but even if Ella Gaine's life was taken, Larabee's family was still dead. He knew the gunslinger carried a cross full of guilt for what had happened. Something that would always haunt the man in black.
JD had killed a young, innocent wife and mother. An accident, but what a cross for a young man to carry. They'd nearly lost JD in that situation, the young man giving up his dream of being in the West and heading back East.
And Buck. Who knew about Buck's crosses except that they more than likely had to do with husbands and ex-boyfriends. The big man had a soft spot for ladies with the likes he'd never seen before.
Ezra? Nathan huffed out a breath of air that sounded loud in the silent room. Ezra. Now he was a puzzlement. At times they got along so well, and other times... but still, they were the same weren't they? Ezra had his own crosses to bear, his mother always seemed to be vexing him and then there were his gambling ways... His thoughts moved on to his best friend, Josiah. Josiah had his own living hell. He was always doing penance, like he had a dozen crosses to bear.
All of them. All of them had crosses to bear, but none of them ever gave up. Just kept plowing ahead, righting the wrongs they saw, helping each other, watching each other's backs. They really were a force of one. And he was one of them. Nathan gave out a low groan and ran his hands over his face. What had he said about taking advantage? Vin had walked out, then Chris.
He shook his head and stood up, surveying the mess one more time. He had some apologies to make. Even if he didn't stay in Four Corners, he didn't want to leave with hard feelings between some of the best men he'd ever met.
Kicking a broken nightstand table aside, something caught his eye and a smile ghosted across his lips.
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"You know... I think maybe these might be men from around here. I mean, how else would they know when Yosemite leaves to eat? Be the only time to bust up Nathan's place without anyone hearing."
"Might be there was a third one keepin' watch."
"Oh yeah," JD's face deflated after coming up with what he thought might be an idea until Buck shot it down with a good point.
"We'll split up, take turns keeping an eye out on the Trotters and Coopers. If it's them they're targeting, then that's where we'll be," Larabee told his men as they sat around a saloon table. "Otherwise keep your eyes and ears open, somebody's bound to spill something."
"Loose lips will condemn the braggart," Josiah uttered sagely, downing his glass of whiskey, then looked over at the bat wing doors and saw Nathan peering inside as if looking for someone.
"Nathan's here," JD whispered, watching the healer walk confidently over to their table.
"Reckon I've got some apologizin' ta do, said some things I didn't mean back there. I just, just got caught up in it all, you know, seein' everythin' ruined and gone..." he shook his head. "I lost it."
"That mean you're gonna stay?" JD asked hopefully, when no one else said anything.
"Not sure 'bout that yet," Nathan answered honestly, "but I figure I can sure as hell help stop whoever's doing this."
"Here, here," Buck said, raising his beer mug into the air, the other men joining suit.
And just as quickly as the firestorm of heated words had come, it had been put out before any lasting damage had been done. A testimony to steady and lasting friendships of the west.
"Figure this might help, too," Nathan added, putting on the table the object he'd found in his room. "It ain't mine and it wasn't in the clinic when I left this morning. Might belong to whoever's responsible." He sat down in the chair Josiah had pulled up for him.
The six men eyed the bowie knife Nathan had put on the table, but Tanner was the one who picked it up and studied it.
"Recognize it?" Chris asked, knowing Vin was a man who didn't miss anything about another man especially when it came to weapons and horses.
Vin turned it over in his hands a couple of times. "Not exactly, but this ain't no business man's knife." He said that knowing they all probably figured the same thing. A bowie knife was bulky and heavy, usually men of the land wore one, not fancy-dressed bankers and such. "And the owner is left-handed."
"How you figure?" Larabee asked as he leaned forward, interested in hearing what the tracker had to say.
Vin pointed to the ridges on the left side of the bone handle. "See here, this side is worn a little more than the other side." He pulled out his own knife for comparison. "The right side of my handle is smoother since that's where it rests in my hand," he showed them and watched as heads bobbed in understanding. "So I reckon he's left-handed," he finished with while sheathing his own knife.
"Not that many left-handers in town," Buck reasoned.
"And the odds are lessened when it's a left-hander sporting an empty knife sheath." Standish added, knowing full well that it wouldn't be long before between the seven of them, they'd have the perpetrators figured out or have some kind of profile on them.
"He wouldn't just walk around with an empty holder, would he?" JD asked, wondering if anyone could be that stupid.
The table was quiet as each man pondered.
"Maybe only if he figured ta go back and get what he left behind," Buck reasoned, eyeing his tablemates.
"Anybody at the clinic when you left?" Chris asked Nathan, wanting to know if the place was empty and open for anyone to walk in unnoticed.
"Yosemite came up and that young helper of his, Ted. Said they'd watch ta make sure no one came back while I was gone."
"Here's what we'll do then," Chris spoke and a plan was hatched.
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The very next morning, early, there were three men sitting in jail. Three men who'd been found with damming evidence against them as the ones who'd ransacked the clinic, killed Trotter's chickens and set fire to a cross. Two were local, one was not. They had fallen for the ruse that the peacekeepers would be out protecting the Coopers and Trotters. The lawmen had made it a point to do enough advertising of that fact around town. Nathan had packed up what belongings he could find left unscathed and ridden out, looking like he was done with the town. Josiah rode beside him. But it had been a trap, pure and simple and one man had taken the bait... the one missing his knife. In the Seven's eyes, it was a cut and dried case. From there, it didn't take long for the guilty one to turn on his accomplices. The seven peacekeepers could be quite persuasive when necessary.
"Ezra! You're up early. Where you headed?" Buck quizzed as he finished buttoning his shirt, pulled on his jacket and buckled his gun belt all while catching up with the conman who was heading out of the saloon.
Standish gave him a once over with knowing eyes which got a smile out of the ladies' man and a waggle of the eyebrows. "I'm sending a wire to Judge Travis, per Mr. Larabee, to ascertain when he can arrive and try those incarcerated cretins. And maybe while I'm at it I'll send a note to the College of Dartmouth and tell them we found the missing links. What a trio of Neanderthals" he added, disgust in his voice.
"Missing links?" Buck asked, stopping the conman in his tracks, puzzled look on his face.
"Yes, you know," Ezra started, then gave a wave of his hand. "Never mind. It might hit too close to home."
Buck's moustache twitched and an eyebrow rose at the funny look the gambler had given to him before walking away. "Huh," he said under his breath, then turned to head to the jail where Tanner and Larabee were guarding the prisoners.
+ + + + + + +
"You know, I owe you my thanks," Nathan told Josiah, as the two worked on the roof of the church.
"Not necessary, my friend. We've all had trials in our lives and no doubt there'll be more to come. Main thing is that we're still here," Josiah paused, "you are going to stay, right?"
Nathan gave a little shake of his head. "Don't know. Truth is, I don't have the kind of money it'll take to replace all the..."
Nathan looked at Josiah and saw the questioning shrug he gave then bent down to look over the roof's edge to see what Standish wanted.
"Here. For you," Ezra said when he saw the healer's head pop over the edge, tossing a leather bag up to him.
Nathan caught it deftly and opened it up to find a stack of bills inside and some coins. He couldn't believe it. "Where'd this come from? I ain't takin' no charity from you, Ezra."
Sanchez cleared his throat loudly, bringing Nathan up short.
Turning back to Josiah, the healer whispered, "He'll probably charge me a hundred percent interest a day or somethin'. I'd be beholden ta him as long as I live."
"Ah, Mr. Jackson? Nathan!" Ezra called again after mumbling to himself about the man being as stubborn as a mule.
"Ezra," Nathan called down, his voice much gentler. "I do thank you, but..." he halted when Standish held up a hand.
"Mr. Tanner figured since the miscreants would have no use for their horses or weaponry he took the liberty of selling off, albeit prematurely, everything he could find that was worth anything. I should think that would cover some start-up costs," he added the last with a hopeful voice.
"Yeah. Yeah, it should," Nathan agreed, fingering the bills once more. The thought that Vin had done this for him warmed his heart because he knew what he'd said before about taking advantage of the others' protection hit his friend hard and he never meant to make anyone feel that way. Actually he'd said a lot of things he didn't mean, but they'd all shook his hand or patted him on the back, understanding his frustration and hurt.
"Thanks, Ezra. I appreciate it," Nathan said around the lump forming in his throat as he gave the gambler a nod when receiving a departing salute.
"Well, brother, it looks like you are on your way," Josiah grinned big.
"Might even be enough in here to help Mrs. Trotter buy some chickens. Maybe persuade them to stay around." His grin matched Josiah's. Lost in his thoughts for a moment, Nathan figured yes, they all did have their own crosses to bear, but having good friends to help lessen that burden sure made the struggle a whole lot easier.