A Weight to Bear -
Thanks to Kelly A for the beta.
Nathan Jackson pointed his finger,
jabbing the Southerner in the chest with the digit. “I don’t know how
you can live with yourself, stealing money off of good folks,” he angrily
snarled at the smaller man.
Standish stood his ground, patiently
waiting for the healer’s tirade to end. “Have you anything else to say?”
What was the use attempting to explain to Jackson at the moment? He was
not in a receptive mood to listen to anything the gambler had to say, and would not
believe the word of a conman over that of the disgruntled party involved in any
case. Was Ezra to blame only because he’d won Joe Smithy’s money?
In a game where he didn’t cheat to win and in fact, persistently urged Smithy
to leave the table while he still held money in his pockets. The farmer
had obviously pored out his misfortune to the affable ear of Mr. Jackson.
“Hell yes!” he agreed. “But it
would be wasted on the likes of you,” Nathan declared and stormed out of the
saloon, barging through the swinging doors he left a coagulating mass of
malcontent between them.
Standish sighed, dropping his chin a
fraction before restoring the mask that had almost crumpled under Nathan’s
attack. He stood motionless, watching the retreating back of the
enraged healer leave the saloon. Ezra was unsettled by the furore of
Jackson’s tongue lashing.
Standish glanced quickly about the room,
eyes darting surreptitiously to ascertain how many patrons witnessed the
argument between Nathan and himself. Much to his relief, Ezra found the
saloon less than half empty and already most of the audience had gone back to
their business of drinking and not paying him any undue attention. He
forced a smile to his lips and resumed his seat, preparing to set out a game of
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up
on end and a shiver ran down his spine, but none of this betrayed itself
outwardly. His eyes continued to nervously flick while he shuffled the
cards with nimble fingers. Ezra lifted his gaze from the cards that were
spread across the green felt tabletop and he made another scan of the saloon.
Standish nodded a greeting to two
dark-skinned cowboys who leaned against the long bar. They both boldly
returned his gaze with derisive sneers. Hell, just what he needed, two of
Nathan’s ‘brothers’ to have witnessed the altercation.
He’d have to ensure that he stayed out of their way while they were in town.
There was a distinct hostility about the two strangers that seemed to be focused
in his direction. He warily tipped his head and resumed his game, though
his attention kept gravitating to the two men at the bar for the length of time
they stayed in the saloon.
Nathan closed his eyes and took in a deep
calming breath. He had said his piece to Standish and that was the last he
was going to commit to the problem at the present. He knew that the next
time he saw the gambler that it would come to a head again, but for now, if he
could concentrate on something else, anything else but Standish, his mood was
bound to improve.
The healer removed a bowl from the top
shelf and sat down at his small workbench. Dumping the clean bandages out
onto the table, Nathan set about the monotonous task of unravelling the strips
and rolling them into bandages. He just finished the forth roll when his
door rattled with a persistent knocking. “Come in,” Jackson welcomed
and stood to greet his guests or customers.
“Nathan Jackson,” the tall solidly
built black man smiled, holding out his hand to shake Nathan’s. “Doctor, no less.” He shook his head in awe, but the smile remained
“Hey Nate!” the younger man announced
his presence, pushing past his brother. Ned smiled broadly, pleased that
they’d found a friend in the western town.
“Oh my gosh!” Jackson stuttered,
looking from one man to the next. “Ambrose and Ned Palmer! What
cha doin’ here?” Nathan stepped forward and enveloped both men in a
hug. “Last I heard you were both going south ta look for yer folks.”
“That was a long time ago, Nate ole
man,” Ambrose affectionately returned the healer’s embrace. “Yep, a
lotta time. A lotta things happened since then.”
“Ma and Pa…we never did find ‘em,”
Ned admitted despondently.
“I’m sorry ta hear that,” Nathan
“Ain’t nothin’ you did, Nathan.
Was them Southern bastards what ruined their lives,” Ned shook his fist
angrily. “And it’s like everywhere ya go, there’s always at least
one that crawls out of the woodworks.”
Nathan frowned slightly at his friend’s
“Seems like you’re still fighting for
yer rights, Nathan,” Ambrose noted.
“Always something that ya need to stand
firm on,” Jackson agreed.
“We was over at the saloon earlier, and
saw ya arguing with that Southern dandy.”
“Who, Ezra?” Nathan shrugged,
not wanting to discuss his problems with Standish with these two men. “Nothin’ I can’t handle,” he dismissed eagerly, anxious to get the topic
of conversation off the gambler. The brothers still harboured a lot of
hatred toward Southerners. Probably best if he steered them clear of Ezra.
“So what you two boys doing this far west? And how long ya in town
“Just wanted a change,” Ambrose
answered rather obtusely, and Ned nodded agreement with his older brother from
behind his shoulder. “And we’ll be leaving in a day or so.”
“Well it’s great to see the both of
you. And yer looking healthy too,” Nathan appraised each man.
Ambrose chuckled heartily and slapped the
healer on the shoulder. “That’s the doctor in ya talking,” he
grinned amicably. “These folks let ya treat them?” he
“Most do,” the former slave confided.
“So what do you and Ned do for a dollar?”
“Me and the kid, hire on, do a few odd
jobs, then move on when the mood strikes. Do a bit of fossickin’ now and
again. Headin’ towards California as a matter of fact.”
“You could come with us,” Ned warmed to
the idea. “Just the three of us,” he enthused. “We’d show
those smartass Southerner’s a thing or two.”
“I’m happy right here in Four
Corners,” Nathan claimed. “I work with six other lawmen to protect the
town and I found somewhere that accepts me for who I am.”
“‘Cept that Reb, we saw ya spatting
with,” Ned snarled.
Jackson shrugged. He didn’t
know how to debate that point.
“Well, lookie here, Ned,” Ambrose
sneered. “Hey Reb, talkin’ to ya.”
Standish groaned. How had he let
these men corner him in the livery? “Gentlemen,” he delayed, backing
up a few paces he bumped into the stall behind him. Ezra ran through
several possible scenarios and all left him in dire need. He was uncertain
about drawing on these men, certain that Nathan would take such a deed as a
personal front against him. And he was positive that Jackson would somehow
find out about the incident. So if he could talk his way out of this,
maybe only acquiring a few bruises in the process, perhaps they would be happy
with the outcome.
“What'd ya know, we are gentlemen,” Ned
Ambrose stepped closer to the gambler.
“We don’t like your kind.”
Ezra attempted to get in a word, holding up
his hands in plain sight, not wanting either man to misinterpret any of his
actions. “I have no quarrel with either of you…” he persisted.
“You fight with our friend Nathan, that
makes it our fight too,” Ned bitterly spat, picking up a thick lump of wood
half buried under the straw and waving it back and forth threateningly.
Ezra gulped, trying to take another step
back, but found he couldn’t move in that direction. He eyed the timber
warily. “Perhaps we can come to an understanding…”
Ned growled, swinging the plank of wood at
the gambler, connecting with his chest and forcing the air from his lungs.
“We don’t make deals with the devil!”
“Oomph,” Standish moaned and doubled at
Ambrose reached over and snagged the
Remington from Ezra’s holster, tossing it out of reach. He had no use
for a Southerner’s choice of weapon.
Cursing under his breath at losing his main
gun, Ezra triggered the derringer, catching the small weapon in his hand.
Time for talking was over. Straightening, Ezra brought the gun up and pointed it
at Ned, who was the closest to him.
“Look out, Ned!” Ambrose shouted,
surprised by the disclosure of the small gun.
The younger brother lowered the plank and
slowly stepped back toward the door. “Low scum,” he snarled, “we
were just having a friendly chat.”
Standish sidestepped away from the pair,
hugging his left arm about his tender middle. “Far be it for me to
criticise, but I considered that we’d past the stage of…chatting.”
The two brothers barricaded the exit, their
large shoulders filling the opening.
“You gonna shoot us, white man?”
“If you step aside, I’m confident we
can all leave without further harm occurring.”
Ambrose crossed his arms over his chest and
his younger brother followed suit. “Gonna have to come through us ta get
out, Reb,” he grinned maliciously. “And ya ain’t gonna be able ta
use that popgun on both of us.”
One of the horses in the livery chose that
moment to whinny, and Standish, although he didn’t turn to investigate the
sound behind him, did drop his gaze from his two attackers for a fraction of a
second. In that instant, both Ned and Ambrose tackled the smaller man to
the ground, the derringer thrown from his hand in the fall and flying
harmlessly, landing inconspicuously in the hay. They rained blows on the
Southerner, swearing and cursing at Ezra when he kicked out at them and fought
back for all his worth, but the odds were against the gambler coming out on top.
Ambrose kicked Ezra in the abdomen and chest, while Ned used his fists.
Ezra curled up attempting to protect his front, but Ambrose moved behind him and
kicked at his back. A blow to the head sent the Southerner into darkness.
Panting, Ned bent at the waist and
administered another brutal kick to the unconscious Standish. He glanced
to his brother for direction. “What we gonna do with him now?”
The elder brother smiled sadistically down
at Ezra. “Wait an see,” he grinned up at Ned, smiling broadly.
Nathan Jackson stomped from the saloon and
stared with indecision up the length of the street. Which way should
he go? Where the hell was Standish? It was unusual not to find him
at the saloon. Perhaps the conman was on patrol? No, he shook his
head recalling that Josiah had mentioned that he was up for the next patrol.
He supposed that even Ezra needed time away from the saloon. Reckon he’d
find Ezra sooner or later.
He berated himself angrily as he
continued his search for the missing conman. When Josiah had informed the
healer of Ezra’s true actions, Nathan couldn’t help the groan that rose from
his chest. Ezra had taken the winnings from the game played with Joe
Smithy and deposited it in the bank against the farmer’s mortgage. Why
didn’t the damn Southerner just tell him? He would have listened.
Nathan chewed at his bottom lip, frowning at his errant thoughts. No, he
admitted, he probably wouldn’t have listened. Is that why Ezra didn’t
try and defend himself against his verbal assault? He admitted
that the Southerner very rarely came to his own defence. Why wouldn’t
Ezra want to be seen in a better light?
“Nathan,” the older Palmer Brother
greeted. “You look lost in thought, brother.”
“Ambrose,” Nathan nodded in return.
“Just hashing out an apology I need ta make to a friend.”
The dark ex-slave chuckled. “I know
just the thing that’ll make swallowing yer pride that much easier,” he
Nathan broadly smiled in return. “What’s that?” he asked in interest.
“Ya gotta come with me now,” he waved
his hand in a beckoning gesture. “Somethin’ you’ll want ta see.”
“”Now ya got me intrigued,” Nathan
stepped off the sidewalk and followed behind his old friend. He could find
Standish later, but Ambrose and Ned would be leaving soon so he wanted to spend
as much time as possible with the brothers. “Where’s Ned.”
“He’s already there waiting for us.”
Nathan and Ambrose rode at a casual pace,
keeping the horses at an even stride. “So where we going?” Jackson
“Just a little further,” Palmer
replied. He pointed to a grove of trees that bordered the raging river.
“Right over there.”
Nathan nodded; he could see another horse
tethered under the branches of the trees, and movement in the shadows. “So what ya got to show me?” he eagerly inquired.
“It’s a surprise, Nathan. Won’t
be long and you’ll see.”
The former slaves arrived five minutes
later, Jackson blinking his eyes to adjust to the dim light in the shade.
He smiled widely at Ned and reached over and shook his extended hand. He
glanced about the clearing, curious as to what the brothers had planned.
Nathan’s mouth dropped opened, the words
stuck in his throat when his gaze took in the battered and bruised body of Ezra
Standish. His arms were tired behind his back, his jacket was missing and
his shirt was ripped in numerous places. “Ezra!” He gaped in
confusion, jumping from his mount he quickly raced to the Southerner’s side.
Why was Standish here? He lifted the gambler’s head holding under his
chin and frowned with concern at the dazed look that met his own. “Ezra…” Jackson didn’t know what more to say. Instead he let his
hands assess the Southerner for injuries and pulled back his hand when Standish
gasped, his face contorting in pain and his knees trembled. “Hang on,
Ezra. I’ll get you out of this,” he reassured the swaying man.
Spinning angrily on his heels he glared
murderously at the brothers. “What have you done?”
Ned chuckled, unaware of Nathan’s
hostility. “Thought ya’d like to see him swing,” the dark skinned man
giggled, pointing to the prepared noose that hung from a large branch.
“What!” Jackson’s eyes bulged,
as they swung from the knotted rope and back to his supposed friends attempting
to ascertain if they were serious. “You can’t just hang a man for no
reason,” he implored. “That’s murder.”
“What do you care? He’s a
Southerner, Nathan,” Ambrose reminded. “Surely you remember all the
things done to you by his kind.”
“And because of that, it gives you the
right to murder him?” Nathan asked incredulously. “It wasn’t Ezra
that done those things to you, or me. You don’t even know him. Yer
taking the law into yer hands.”
“You sayin’ he don’t deserve this?”
the older brother frowned, shaking his head.
“He no more deserves this, than we did by
being slaves,” Nathan retorted.
“But you and he were fightin’…”
“And that ain’t none of yer business.
That’s atween me and Ezra, nobody else,” Jackson snarled stepping away from
Ambrose in disgust. How could he have thought they were his friends?
Ned ignored the argument between his
brother and the healer, stepping around Jackson with the intention of preparing
Standish for the hanging. He brought the grey horse over and
single-handedly managed to get Ezra into the saddle. Then he led the horse
and semi coherent rider under the noose.
Nathan turned and fired a single shot in
Ned Palmer’s direction. “Get away from him now!” he shouted the
“Calm down, Nathan,” Ambrose mockingly
soothed. “What’s one more Reb dying to ya?”
The horse shied away, nervously pawing at
the ground. Ned attempted to grab at the reins, but the frantic animal
snorted and pulled its head up and out of the Palmer’s grasp, continuing to
step around in small circles. Ezra clamped his legs about the mount’s
middle and sank low over the horse’s back.
“He’s my friend!” Nathan declared and
glanced over at the Southerner, trying to convey his support to Standish.
Ned made another snatch for the reins, but
Ezra kicked out at him, knocking him off his feet. The black man snarled
up from the ground and fired at the gambler, but missed and hit the horse.
The grey reared up in fright. Squealing in pain, the wounded mount tipped the
gambler from the saddle over the side of the embankment and into the rushing
“Oh God! Ezra!” Nathan
glared at the brothers. “Get the hell out of here! ‘Cause if you
don’t, I’ll be back to settle the score. And don’t think I
won’t!” he warned. Hissing with vehemence, Jackson snarled, “You
wanta pray that he don’t die.”
Nathan dropped the gun and dove straight
into the fast moving water. He tensed at the sudden impact of the cold
water and after he was splashed in the face by the white water he began swimming
instead of just being propelled along with the current. Nathan spotted the
struggling gambler and lost him just as quickly when a wave swept over him,
devouring him. God, hold on, Ezra, he pleaded.
Ezra panicked; he could swim quite well in
normal circumstances, but with his arms trapped behind him, broken ribs and
bruised anatomy, he struggled to keep his face above the surface. He
kicked and attempted to move out of the flow, but the current dragged him down,
slamming him against rocks and burying his head and suffocating the life from
him. When he surfaced again, Ezra gulped desperately, tipping back his
head, but the roaring torrent sucked him under and covered him again. He
felt the frantic grope of hands pull him back to the surface and hold tightly
about his middle.
“I got you, Ezra,” Jackson shouted over
the roar. “Don’t struggle, Ezra, I’m gonna get you out,” he
Standish coughed, choking on the inhaled
water. “Nathan?” the gambler whispered in astonishment.
The pair flowed down the river and were
rammed together into a hidden rock. The breath was forced from Ezra’s
lungs once more, but they were momentarily stopped and the current flowed past
them. Nathan managed to pull the Southerner toward the shore and out of
the river. He dropped down beside the injured man and collected his own
Standish needed to take the pressure off
his tied hands and rolled onto his side. His breaths came in ragged gasps
and a moan past his lips when his broken ribs reasserted themselves. He
felt the knife that sliced through the wet rope and with a sigh of relief
brought his arms round to the front. “Thank-you,” he rasped.
Nathan leaned over the gambler; concerned
that Standish laid so still. “You alright?”
“Fine,” he slurred through gritted
Jackson snorted; he should have expected
that response. “You oughta stay away from folks who want ta hang ya,”
Nathan reprimanded, though a smile softened the words.
Ezra blinked. “They are your
friends,” he simply replied.
“No friends of mine go round trying kill
my other friends,” he let his anger surface and show for the Southerner to
see. Nathan wasn’t going to let Ezra think that he was party to what had
happened, or that he approved of it.
Standish stared at the healer in confusion.
Did Nathan just refer to him as a friend? He attempted to sit up and bit
the inside of his cheek to stifle the cry of pain this action caused. God
Jackson gently pushed him back down and
unbuttoned the wet shirt. The dark bruises were vibrant against his torso
and Nathan winced in sympathy. “You’ve got a couple of broken ribs.”
He pressed around the bruises on his face and looked deeply into the green eyes.
“I know,” Ezra forced a smile to his
face, but the gesture was weak.
“You got a headache?”
“A little,” Ezra shrugged.
The healer nodded in understanding. “Think if I help
ya, ya can make it back to town?”
“What about your fr…”
Jackson interrupted, not wanting to hear
the word on the Southerner’s lips. “They’ll be gone,” he gruffly
The former slave lowered his head. “I know about the money.”
“What money?” Standish asked in
“Josiah told me what really happened.
I was coming to apologise when Ambrose sidetracked me.” He looked up and
gripped Ezra’s cold hand in his. “Kinda glad he found me, woulda hated
for ya to have entertained them on yer own.”
Ezra could see the sincerity in the brown
eyes and wearily nodded his head. “I’m relieved you could join the
“Yeah, so am I.”
Want to read more of this series?
A Weight to Bear - Series
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