Lessons Unlearned

by Tarlan

CONTENT WARNING: Some cussing and implied rape. If this isn't your scene then please don't read on - you know where the DELETE key is. You have been warned.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is just something that was inspired by a recent discussion on slavery.

COMMENTS: Any and all comments gratefully received - as long as they're constructive.

DISCLAIMER: Nathan Jackson and all other Magnificent Seven regulars belong to MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. No copyright infringement intended. Any characters you haven't heard of before, are copyrighted to me.

SUMMARY: Nathan reflects on the lessons of his past.

I can remember talking with my Mama one night as we huddled together in our shack. I could remember asking her why we was slaves, wanting to know what crimes we had done that we should be shackled, beaten, bought and sold. She had no answers but she did have lessons to give.

One: Never look a white man in the eyes.

Two: Never touch a white man.

The first was a lesson I had trouble learning, my pride running far too deep - and it was the cause of many a scar that lines my back. Yet, even as that whip descended in its self-appointed task of beating the defiance out of me, I could never yield. In the end, every time I looked into a white man's eyes I paid the price for my boldness until I stopped doing it out of self-preservation.

The second was a lesson I could not avoid breaking. I was a manservant to my master in every sense of the word, dressed and undressed, servicing all of his 'needs'. Despite this, I could not call my life all bad. In return for my loyalty, I had privileges unseen by many other slaves on the plantation. My master had a love of swords and he taught me how to fence, taught me how to throw a knife - taught me how to fall in love with the blade.

When the Civil War reached the boundaries of his estate he called upon me to protect him from the advancing Union Army, fearing the soldiers who were burning, killing and ransacking all before them like a plague of locusts slowly covering the land.

I remember breaking lesson number one that day. I raised my head in defiance, sending every little bit of hatred and contempt I could muster into those pale eyes and yet, to this day, I am still puzzled by his words.

'Ungrateful nigger'. That's what he called me. But ungrateful for what? Ungrateful for being whipped and chained? Ungrateful for watching my family torn apart at his whim, sold on to the highest bidder? Ungrateful for being raped whenever the mood took him? It was fortunate I learned to figure out his moods early on, applying oils to my own body afore he came for me, to ease his passage into my unwilling flesh.

No. There was only one thing he ever gave me that I was grateful for - my love and skill with a blade.

I joined the Union Army even though I was little more than a child and had no gun - couldn't have shot one if I did. Never been given no opportunity to learn how to fire a gun but then, many of those eastern boys never held no gun before neither. We was canon fodder - pure and simple. As to being a child, hell, I was no younger than many of those soldier boys, and slavery had given me a maturity far beyond my years.

I took up a gun, prised it from the cold fingers of a dead man but found, despite a lifetime of enslavement, that I had no real urge for killing. Eventually I found myself a place in that army, ferrying the injured off the battlefield to the makeshift hospital where a surgeon was forced to compromise his skills in the name of expediency, until all that remained of him was a sawbones. And yet I watched, amazed, as I used my strength to hold down a man while his leg or arm was sawed off. It pained me to know that limb might have been saved if he had been just one man rather than one of the hundreds of wounded soldiers waiting outside the tent flap.

I watched the sawbones dig out bullets, suture wounds and spread ointments that would stave off infection. I was fascinated by the innards I saw, wondering how all this gut, bone and blood made a man, discovering for myself what an incredible thing this frail human body was. I wanted to learn more and nobody minded when I took on the task of digging out bullets and stitching up wounds.

That second lesson, never touch a white man, fell by the wayside as I took up the role of healer, but I could never look them in the eyes as I worked on their damaged bodies.

When the war ended I moved around, ranging far and wide as I tried to bring together the scattered remnants of my family. I found my sister alive and well, scratching for a living on a small holding with her man and several fine looking children. I stayed a while, helped as well as I could but I felt no call to work the land, so I decided to move on. I carried on the search for my brother and father.

When I look back I realise now that, although I was free, my mind was still bound by those invisible shackles, bound by those lessons ground into me from childhood.

Never found my brother, though an former slave who said he knew him took me to a plot of land just outside of Atlanta, and pointed to a corner of a cotton field where the Estate owner had killed all his slaves rather than let them go free. Their bleached bones were still visible for no-one paid mind to give them a decent Christian burial. I knew from others that my brother had been a slave of this cruel man and felt obliged to do what others had balked at. I spent four days in that terrible place, collecting up and burying the bones of young and old alike - and that's where I met Josiah Sanchez.

It was the first time I'd seen a white man do something for a black. I watched him get down off his horse, take out a shovel and dig right alongside me, both of us labouring in the hot sun in silence - for three days - until the job was done. Then he made a crude cross and engraved upon it some fine words lest anyone forget what had happened there.

The first words I heard from him were a prayer said above that mass grave.

By some unspoken agreement, we rode along with each other after that. He would try to comfort the spiritually sick and the dying and I would try to heal those suffering with physical afflictions. All the while, I picked up medical journals wherever I found them, and devoured every page. We stayed awhile at a Comanche camp, and I listened as the medicine man described the natural remedies all around us that could take away pain and heal sickness.

When I think back to those early days I can remember that Josiah and I talked a lot - and yet we said nothing at all. Everything he said was cryptic, but I could feel the demons that consumed the man even as my own demons consumed me. He reckoned he had committed a great wrong that he needed to atone for, and me, well, let's just say I still carried those invisible shackles. One thing I did know, he was a good man, always willing to help those in need no matter the cost to himself and, although I admonished him on more than one occasion for giving away any money we earnt - even giving away the food off our plates if need be - I could not feel anything but respect for the man.

Josiah was the first white man I ever looked in the eye, in friendship, and in doing so, I felt the first of those shackles start to loosen.

The town we rode into that hot June was no different than many others. It didn't take long for word to spread that I was a healer and, despite a little prejudice 'cos of the colour of my skin, they were quick to take advantage. Those first weeks were like all the other first weeks in a new place, busy dealing with those who had put up with their sickness or pain because there was no-one else around to do anything about it. I lanced boils, pulled teeth, reset broken bones and applied poultices to sores that would not heal. Women came to me in secret to ask for help with their own problems, but I had learned very early on that a healer's greatest skill was his discretion.

Josiah was called upon to try and save souls and, in between, he found himself the ruins of an old church a mile or so beyond the town. I remember shaking my head as he outlined the self-appointed task he had taken upon himself. The ruin was, quite literally, a ruin. It needed rebuilding from the ground up and I wondered why he didn't choose to apply his skills to the less damaged building on the outskirts of the town which lay broken and unused at the end of the main street. It occurred to me that, just maybe, he needed to distance himself from people for the most part.

Josiah was working at that old ruin on the day the trail drive from Texas came into town with its boss, Fowlan, carried in the cook's wagon, his leg a festering mess of gangrene. Told them there and then that I couldn't save the man, that he was too far gone but they insisted I tried. I knew the gangrene had spread through his body, so I did what little I could, I gave him laudanum to ease the pain of his last hours. Meanwhile, those trail hands got themselves all liquored up, started racing their horses up and down the main street and shooting up the town. They weren't none too pleased when their boss died. Cain't say I blame them, but I knew there was nothing I could have done any different to save him.

I remember being dragged from the room I had taken above the livery, my hands bound in front of me. I was thrown onto the back of a buckboard and driven through the town. Of all the townsfolk, only Mary Travis stepped forward to save me, the rest too scared or indifferent to even try. I thought I was done for when they knocked her aside, drove me down to the cemetery and threw a noose around my neck. With my hands tied I could do nothing to save myself, and then I heard his voice for the first time.

"Cut him loose."

It was soft and yet gritty, like water flowing over gravel, and those green eyes were as hard as flint, taking in every detail without ever moving. By his side was another man who was only slightly less of a stranger. I recognised him from Virgil Potter's store and let my own prejudice decide there weren't gonna be too much aid coming from no floor sweeper.

It was all over in seconds, and yet those moments, dangling at the end of that rope, burned their way into my soul. That store sweeper proved himself a sharpshooter, severing the rope that strung me to that tree, but it was the blur of that agile hand as the gun was drawn with lightning speed from the black holster that is ingrained upon my memory.

It was the day I finally shook off the last shackle of my own slavery.

As I sat on the hard ground, still bound and with that noose still tight around my neck, I looked up into a green and then a blue pair of white man's eyes, and asked if either of them was gonna pull that knife from that dead fella and cut me loose.

The answering smiles melted what remained of my fear of white eyes, and I felt the first stirring of a magnificent friendship spring to life between us.


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