The Color that Divides
As Four Corners awaited Judge Orin Travis to arrive in town to preside over the case of Bill Alderson's death, the whispers in town increased in their frequency and seemed to take on a life of its own. Rumors and innuendoes suddenly became tasty morsels for gossipmongers to pick at like carrion on the carcass of a rotting beast. Some of the whispers were about Mary Travis and her unnatural attachment to the seven men who defended the town but this tales were hardly new. The first time anyone had ever seen the lady together with Chris Larabee, the rumors had begun. However, on this occasion they seemed to be particularly venomous. Soon the tales began to escalate about how the seven brought more trouble to Four Corners than preventing it. How many times had the danger originated from one of their old foes drawn to Four Corners for one reason or another, ensuring that violence followed in their wake?
It was an issue that polarized the community because there were those who believed that the peacekeepers were a godsend and had justly earned their sobriquet of the 'Magnificent Seven.' These were folk who remembered what it was like to live in Four Corners when shootings, murders and all kinds of lawlessness plagued their lives on an almost daily basis. For these members of the community, the seven had been a stabilizing force in their turbulent lives. No matter what the trouble, they could always rely on Chris Larabee and his men to deal with it in some way, despite the fact that sometimes its went beyond their capacity as lawmen.
Most vocal of these were Virgil Watson, who for a time had Vin Tanner as an employee, though he often said that the man was better with a mare's leg than he was with a broom. Then there was Gloria Potter, whose husband had been gunned down mercilessly by Stuart James' nephew. The seven ensured justice was done. Nettie Wells, too, had brushed aside all talk about the seven being more trouble than they were worth, claiming that if it were not for them she would having been run off her farm by Guy Royal ages ago because he wanted her land to sell to the railroad. William Anderson, a carpenter who had settled in Four Corners only a fortnight ago had been fortunate enough that Nathan had come across his heavily pregnant wife Rose after she had unwisely left her parents to join him in Four Corners. Thanks to Nathan's abilities, Anderson was grateful that his wife and new child were around to being their new life in the town.
And so battle lines were drawn across Four Corners with the voices against and for the seven rallying to the cause with equal fervor. With Judge Travis' arrival approaching quickly, Four Corners became more and more gripped with the notion of the seven's presence in town rather than the question of Nathan's innocence or guilt.
It was in the midst of all that James Lightfoot, attorney at law, sat in his room and reviewed his notes on how he was going to fight this case. If it were anyone but Judge Travis presiding, Lightfoot could be convinced that the case would be won on Nathan's racial background alone. Still, there was a good chance that Lightfoot could push for a jury trial. In a matter as incendiary at this one, he was convinced Travis might acquiesce. If it did come to a jury trial then Lightfoot's chances of having Nathan convicted was good. No matter how enlightened people thought they were in this day and age, a black healer and gunfighter murdering a white farmer and family man was not going to sit well with them if Lightfoot presented it in the correct light.
However, it was not in Lightfoot's nature to simply take for granted that he might convict on those grounds alone. If he did not get his jury trial and Judge Travis had to hear the case, then Lightfoot would actually have to argue points of law instead of exploiting emotions of the twelve men in the jury box. Judging by the interviews he had with the townsfolk so far, it was evident that Nathan had been practicing medicine without a license. Even though there were numerous healers of the same type scattered across the Territory to make up for the lack of real doctors, the law had been rather lenient with them so far. Lightfoot realized that if he convicted Nathan for this crime, it could be the spark that ignited litigation and prosecution for all the would be physicians. Some of them were downright dangerous; performing surgery without even a working understanding of anatomy. Was Nathan Jackson one of those? If he came across Judge Travis, he would have to prove it.
Lightfoot was pondering all these thoughts and scribbling them across his lined notebook when he heard a knock on his door. He glanced at the clock and noted that it was scandalously late but deep into the night to warrant concern. At first he thought it might be one of the seven, come to frighten him with threats and violence but brushed the thought aside quickly. Larabee was a dangerous man, but he was by no means stupid. Lightfoot decided that it could be his client. Jason Alderson was rather passionate about seeing justice done and client's like that tended to have no sense of time when they wanted to say something to their lawyer. Tossing his notebook aside for the moment, Lightfoot decided to end his internal quizzing and simply answer the door. What would happen would happen.
Opening it, he found himself staring at the figure of a woman in the hallway outside his room. She was draped in a heavy cloak; a hood pulled over her head. Lightfoot could not imagine anyone being dressed like that in this heat but soon came to the conclusion that the heavy clothing was not because of weather but rather for the purpose of subterfuge. The woman kept her distance enough to ensure the shadows in the darkened hallway could not expose her face although Lightfoot's eyes glimpsed a thick lock of white gold hair.
"Mr. Lightfoot," she spoke finally, her voice soft and mysterious.
"Yes, can I help you?" He asked wondering what this was all about.
"I have some information for you," she answered and once again, Lightfoot clung to her voice trying to identify it. The inflections were familiar but he could not place it enough to recognize the speaker.
"Regarding?" he asked suspiciously, evidence delivered in this manner was usually difficult to corroborate let alone use in court.
"Nathan Jackson," she responded, her head tilting slightly enough for Lightfoot to realize that her eyes were examining each side of the corridor to ensure no one was coming. "I have news about Nathan Jackson."
"Would you like to come in?" Lightfoot inquired, certain such business would be best discussed indoors instead of in this corridor.
"I can't." She shook her head quickly. "I'm here because I want to see justice done."
"That's admirable but there is no danger," Lightfoot insisted. "I promise you'll be protected."
"I have a position in this community," she said firmly. "I need to remain impartial if I am to function here. I'm here because of justice."
"All right," Lightfoot sighed, starting to get very tired of this whole cloak and dagger business. "What is that you wish to tell me?"
The woman lowered her head and that long lock of gold hair spilled out beyond the hood of her cloak and Lightfoot caught a glimpse of alabaster skin. "Nathan Jackson was a stretcher bearer for the Union Army during the war."
"Go on," Lightfoot prodded his interest piqued.
"He learned most of what he knows there, but who knows how he used that talent," she replied suggestively.
"I don't follow you," he declared, wondering where she was going with this.
"What If he didn't like Bill Alderson and allowed Alderson to die when pretending to treat him? Who knows how many Confederate soldiers he might have done the same to during the war?"
Lightfoot began to understand. It was certainly not any tangible evidence but the innuendo alone would be enough to stick in the minds of the jury. He might even use it to turn public favor against Nathan before it even got to the trial. It would certainly make the public outcry loud enough that Travis would have no choice but to convene a jury trial. Lightfoot liked this idea a lot.
"Was Alderson a Confederate soldier?" He asked because the answer would make the innuendo all the more substantial.
"Yes," she nodded after a pause. "He was a cavalry man."
"Well thank you, Mrs. Travis," Lightfoot responded, not really thinking.
She reacted immediately, retreating back against the far wall as if the distance alone would shield her from his discovery.
"Mrs. Travis," Lightfoot said quickly, realizing what he had done. "I promise you, I'll not tell anyone about this. Like a journalist, I protect my sources."
"Thank you," she said clearly relieved. "I must go now." She started to turn away. "I hope what I gave you helps."
"It does," he answered with a little smile. "Thank you kindly."
With that, she swept down the hallway, her dark cloak trailing behind her as she disappeared into the shadows once more, leaving Lightfoot with a new avenue to pursue.
+ + + + + + +
Maybe it was time to leave.
For the first time since this had all began, Nathan Jackson began to seriously consider that possibility. Sure it was a coward's way out but was remaining in Four Corners where it was likely no one would ever trust him to heal them again, any better? And what about this trial? What if he were found guilty? At the very least, he would be jailed for the rest of his life. At the worst, they would hang him. Nathan knew he had done nothing wrong. It was his lack of ability that had killed Alderson, not any malicious intent. While he could accept punishment for not knowing enough, he would not be labeled a murderer for anything. If he remained in Four Corners and let himself be judged, that could very well happen. Nathan considered the idea of running and where he would go. Almost immediately, the Seminole village came to mind. He could finally settle with Rain and raise a family. The Seminoles needed his help and they wouldn't care what color he was.
But he was a member of the seven.
He could not just run out on the friends he had made here. Chris and the others were standing by him, refusing to let him be railroaded by Alderson's kin. Leaving Four Corners would mean leaving them and that was the part that Nathan could not stomach. He was not a superstitious man by any means but he recognized that seven was a number of power and that being a part of the fellowship protected him somehow. If he left, he would be breaking the circle not to mention leaving its safety. Nathan was not sure he was prepared to do that yet.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts on this subject and just as well too because Nathan was not eager to go down that track unless he really had to. Rising from the table where he had been rolling up bandage strips to keep himself busy, Nathan went to answer the door and found himself standing before an unfamiliar face. The man was in his mid thirties, wearing steel rimmed glasses and a tweed suit of gray. His arms were laden with books and he appeared rather nervous.
"Can I help you?" Nathan asked suspiciously.
"Mr. Jackson?" he asked in what was clearly an English accent and tried to shake Nathan's hand while carrying his books before succeeding in dropping them spectacularly around his feet. "Oh dear!" he muttered and immediately bent over to pick up his fallen cache.
"Let me help you there," Nathan offered and very soon they had gathered all the books off the floor of his doorway. Nathan glanced at one of the thick leather bound copies and realized that they were law books.
"You're a lawyer?" Nathan asked almost in disbelief.
"Well, yes," the man nodded, pushing his glasses further up his nose. "Your lawyer actually."
"My lawyer?" Nathan exclaimed, somehow finding it very hard to picture this blond man as his lawyer. He appeared more like a librarian. Still, he had a more pleasing disposition than Lightfoot so Nathan did not have reason to complain. Besides, he more than anyone else, knew what it was like to be judged on appearances and not on ability. He would not do the same thing to this man.
"Yes, I was contacted by Mrs. Travis and retained by Messrs. Standish and Larabee," the man responded reaching into his coat pocket to produce a folded telegram, which he handed to Nathan for confirmation. "My name is Winstanley. Garth Winstanley."
"Please to meet you, Mr. Winstanley," Nathan said, genuinely pleased to see the man. "Come on in."
For a few minutes the duo engaged in the usual banter of introduction. Nathan learned that Winstanley was from Bitter Creek and had only recently settled there. He had left his native England out of some strange fascination for the West and had set up a law practice. Nathan had the impression that Winstanley had not as much experience as he liked and while that should concern him, Nathan knew that sometimes all one needed was a chance to prove himself. Like others had given him the opportunity when they had entrusted him to help when they were hurt. After brewing coffee, both men sat down to discuss the matter at hand.
"Regarding your case, I am guessing that with Mr. Lightfoot's involvement, he will attempt to put into effect the legalities of practicing medicine without a license." Winstanley said getting down to business as he flipped open a note book and took up a sharpened pencil for his note taking. "Oh," Nathan said uncomfortably. "I didn't cut him open or nothing. I just couldn't stop the bleeding."
"I see," Winstanley nodded, scribbling that down on the crisp white paper. "Tell me about the injury itself."
"Not much to tell," Nathan replied, lowering his coffee mug after taking a sip. "He got shot in the femoral artery. The bullet went straight through it. The femoral artery is one of the main arteries from the heart. Each time his heart beat, more blood pumped out. I used a tourniquet to stop the bleeding but I couldn't do it for long. If there was a way of stopping it, I sure as hell didn't know how."
"Was there anyone else in town who might have been able to do this?" Winstanley asked, keeping a neutral expression as he asked his questions.
"No," Nathan said automatically. "I wish there was. Nearest doctor is in Bitter Creek."
"So you handle all of Four Corner's medical needs?" Winstanley looked at him with no small measure of shock.
"Most of the time," Nathan nodded. "I can't just sit by and let people go on hurting when I can do something to help. It wouldn't be right."
Winstanley smiled faintly and nodded. "No, it wouldn't be," his voice softened and suddenly, the lawyer felt a great deal of respect filtering into his opinion of Nathan Jackson. "So, you've never had any complaints until now?"
"No," the healer shook his head in response. "Not until now."
"Any idea why this is so different?" Winstanely asked, easing back into his chair.
Nathan knew exactly why this was so different. Alderson. It had everything to do with Alderson. He let out a sigh and began explaining the fight that had preceded Alderson's death. Winstanley listened intently, scribbling in his note pad, each time he heard something worth noting. For a long time, Nathan's words were punctuated by the sound of Winstanley's pencil scraping against the paper. Strangely enough, it felt good talking about things to a stranger, who was completely impartial to the situation and was willing to judge what had happened without any emotional involvement. Nathan also liked the way that Winstanley regarded him because the Englishman saw a client sitting across the table, not a black man or a white man, just a client. There was a purity in that simple classification that made Nathan feel more confident about having this man defend him in court.
"You think we can win?" Nathan asked Winstanley as they neared the end of the interview.
Winstanley removed his glasses and considered the question. "Yes, I think we can. I have a pretty good idea how Lightfoot is going to act. First of all, he will try to move for a jury trial and if he gets it will attempt to fill that jury with men who have slightly prejudicial views. I believe that our best chance is to keep it in the purview of Judge Travis. From all accounts, I have heard that Judge Travis is a honest and fair man, unlikely to be swayed by issues of colour."
"He is a very fair man," Nathan agreed.
"Lightfoot's case is based almost entirely on your colour. He will of course attempt to bring up the issue of you practicing medicine without a license but as I understand it, you are not the first in the Territory to call himself a healer. I see by the sign outside your door, you have made no claims to being a physician. Your patients came to you knowing full well that you were not a licensed practitioner and since you have made full disclosure of that fact, I see no reason to hold you entirely culpable of Alderson's death."
"That sounds pretty impressive," Nathan remarked, feeling somewhat better hearing all that legal jargon and knowing that the person who was saying it believed he was innocent.
"I hope it impresses the judge," Winstanley answered with a smile. "Now, if I need a list of names of people you've treated in the past. It will show the court that you are quite adept as a healer because I guarantee Lightfoot will attempt to assassinate your character in any way possible."
"With the way folks are acting," Nathan said bitterly. "I don't think he'll have much trouble doing that."
Winstanley could see that Nathan was hurting over this and offered gently. "Mr. Jackson, moments like this serve to remind us who our friends are. No doubt, the muckrakers always seem to make the loudest noises, but there are a good many people who will stand in your defense. If you have been the sole provider of medical services in this town, I cannot imagine it being any other way. While the occasion is rare, people can surprise you. I suggest you let you allow them the opportunity."
Nathan stared at the quiet and unassuming lawyer that had taken up his cause and supposed that the man was right. "Yeah," Nathan met his gaze. "I guess they can."
+ + + + + + +
The trial of Nathan Jackson began the day after Judge Orin Travis arrived in Four Corners. Since Four Corners was not large enough to warrant a courthouse, legal proceedings often took place within the confines of the town's grain exchange building. The appointed hour for the court to begin its session was nine o'clock but the case had captured the town's attention to such a state that people started gathering as early as seven. All were trying to get a seat in the makeshift courthouse in order to miss none of the deliberations for the day. There was almost a perverse sense of fanfare about the entire occasion that seemed to deepen as the hour to the courtroom proceedings neared.
"This looks like a goddamn town meeting," Chris growled as he approached the courtroom with Vin. The two gunslingers were less than happy at the number of people gathered outside the building and could tell as they approached the building that the interior was just as crowded. Once again, Chris started to feel his anger surface at how easy the folk of Four Corners found it to turn on his men. Why were they risking their lives for a community who thought so little of them?
"Yeah," Vin nodded, his cobalt colored eyes moving across the faces. Some where hostile and some were friendly enough but they were damned by simply being here. Shifting his gaze slightly, he noted Chris' expression and guessed immediately what was occupying the gunslinger's thought. It was what they had all been thinking since that ugly exchange where Nathan had agreed to all this.
"Mr. Larabee," James Lightfoot greeted as they reached the steps leading to the front entrance of the temporary courthouse. "How nice to see you again."
Chris averted his eyes in the direction of the lawyer and remarked shortly. "Pleasure's all yours."
Lightfoot chuckled, knowing that Chris' insult was just a sign of how helpless he felt in this situation. "Now, there's no need to get all testy now. I'm just here to see that justice get done."
"The hell you are," Vin snapped, disliking this smarmy man to no end. "You're here to lynch our friend for something he ain't done."
"That nigger's a murderer!" Jason Alderson who was next to Lightfoot exploded angrily. "When we're done here, we're going string em like all mongrel dogs out to be!"
"Jason shut up!" Lightfoot ordered, seeing no reason for things to degenerate to that level when they would make their case well enough in a court of law.
However, it was too late, Vin Tanner was already making his way to Jason and the young Alderson was surging forward to meet him head, on, unafraid of the tracker even though he ought to be. The crowd immediately smelled blood and pushed into view of the fight. Jason shoved Lightfoot, who was attempting to restrain him, out of the way and swung at Vin as the tracker came into reach. Vin ducked easily and slammed his fist into Jason's ribs when the younger man failed to connect. Jason uttered a cry of pain and stumbled to his side with Vin taking a step towards him prepared to hit again when Chris' hand caught his fist and stopped him from getting any further than that.
"Stand down Vin," Chris ordered sharply.
Vin saw Lightfoot picking himself off the dirt and Antoinette Alderson, Jason's mother and Aldersons' widow, running to her son's side as he clutched his ribs in pain. The tracker had no wish to brawl in the face of her presence and lowered his hand and shifted his attention to Chris long enough to apologize. "Sorry, Chris."
"Its alright," Chris muttered, glaring at Jason. "For what he said to Nathan, I wouldn't mind taking a piece out of his hide either but now's not the time."
"Keep your man under control!" Lightfoot shouted at Chris.
Chris shot him a look that would have frozen the air between them in its iciness. "Why don't you keep your client under control. Seems to me he swung first."
"Only under provocation!" Lightfoot returned.
"That's not how I see it," Chris replied wondering if Vin's approach to Jason Alderson would not work on Lightfoot as well. At the very least, Chris would feel a great deal better.
"That's enough!" Orin Travis boomed.
The Judge's voice silenced everyone concerned. Orin stood only a few feet away from the center of the skirmish but he had everyone's undivided attention. "There'll be no more of this foolishness," he said sharply. "One more incident like this and I'll have all of you in jail to cool off! That includes you Counselor. If your client cannot comport himself accordingly, I suggest you leave him at home." Travis stared at Lightfoot with a glacial expression on his face.
Lightfoot swallowed thickly, not liking being dressed down so publicly. "Yes Sir," he answered as if there were a bad taste in his mouth.
"Same goes for you two," Travis gave both Chris and Vin a hard stare, showing them that he was playing no favorites here. Chris nodded his compliance to the Judge's harsh but understandable demand.
"Sure," Vin responded, his eyes fixed on Jason Alderson even though he was listening to every word the Judge had spoken. Despite Lightfoot's assurance that Jason would behave, Vin had a sense that it would take more than a lawyer's word to restrain the hot headed young man filled with so much vengeance over his father's death. He was almost certain that no matter what the outcome, Jason would not rest until Nathan was lynched by his hand. Vin knew it and judging by the way he was observing the young man, Chris knew as it as well. Jason had trouble written all over him and it was only a matter of time before that thirsty need for vengeance would overcome him.
By now, Buck and Josiah had emerged from the makeshift courthouse to see what the commotion was outside. Chris had sent them in earlier to ensure the crowd inside the building did not get rowdy. With the way Four Corners was divided on this issue and the heated emotions involved, Chris had no mind to tolerate any outbreak of violence inside the courtroom. If he had his way he would have barred anyone except the people directly involved in the case from the vicinity. However, Nathan's trial had captured such public interest that Chris did not think such an action was possible without causing the same kind of violence he had hoped to avoid in the first place. Ezra and JD were already inside the courtroom with Nathan, in part to act as protection from anyone who wanted to take the law into their own hands. Aside from Alderson's immediate family, the deceased farmers had friends who were just as hungry for revenge as Jason himself.
"What's going on?" Buck asked Chris as the gunslinger made his way though the crowd towards the entrance with Vin and the Judge following closely.
"Nothing," Chris retorted glaring at Jason as he and his family began moving up the stairs towards them. Instead of dwelling too much on the uneasy feeling that Jason would not let this go despite the outcome of a trial, Chris reminded himself that there were other concerns he needed to focus on at this time. "How's it going in there?" he asked.
"Smoldering," came Josiah's short but descriptive reply. "Light a match in there and the whole place is likely to go up. I wonder if a closed court is not a bad idea. You've got people who are for Nathan feeling just as passionately about protecting him as those who want to lynch him."
Chris took this in, somewhat surprised. He supposed he had been rather harsh on the entire community of Four Corners, owing that amongst all the detractors that seemed to make themselves known in the last few days, their supporters had also emerged in force. Still, he could not help feeling bitter at how their services always seemed to fall into question whenever someone had a grievance with one or all of them. It was like the past two years of protecting Four Corners had never happened and they were being judged as the gunmen they were when they had first arrived in town. If it had been himself that was being publicly scrutinized this way, Chris supposed he would not have been as incensed as he was. He had a reputation and when it came down to it, he had been the one who had killed Alderson. However, Nathan had done nothing except try to save the man's life. He had been doing so ever since he arrived in town, well before the seven had come into being and as far as Chris was concerned, the only reason he found himself before a jury at this moment was because of the color of his skin.
Chris refused to accept that on any level, not for anyone and certainly not for one of his own. "How's Nathan holding up?" he asked quietly as Alderson's family brushed past them on their way into the building.
"He's trying not to get discouraged," Josiah answered honestly but the frown marking his face indicated there was more to it than just that. "He's hurt inside and he's trying hard not to show it."
"Yeah," Buck agreed on Josiah's assessment. "But you can still see it in his eyes."
"Why should he be hurt?" Vin demanded, this whole issue was hitting too close to home for Vin to keep his own emotions from spilling over his usual unflappable manner. "He's been helping folks in this town for two years, longer than anyone of us has even been here. All it takes is someone like Jason Alderson to make everyone turn on him?"
"Not everyone," Buck quickly pointed out. "They're folks out there who're standing up for him."
"Yeah, but they know him personally while others who don't know him but are aware of the good work he's done in this town who won't say nothing because of the color of his skin! I mean it's Nathan today, what about tomorrow? Hell, what happens when a Marshall comes after me, or someone comes for all those cons Ezra has done? What about you, Buck? One fine day an angry husband is going to show and they'll just serve you up like a free lunch."
"Okay, okay," Chris stepped in to diffuse the argument before it escalated any further. He understood Vin's feelings all too well but this was hardly the time and place for it. "We're not doing this. We're not going to get crazy when we need to focus. Vin, are you gonna be alright in there?" Chris asked firmly. He did not want the tracker to make any kind of outburst in the already tense atmosphere inside the courtroom.
"Yeah," Vin nodded with a shrug, feeling somewhat embarrassed at letting his emotions run away with him. "I reckon I will be."
"Good," Chris let out a heavy sigh, filled with reluctance. "Let's get this over and done with."
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