The Color that Divides
"Uh, Chris," Buck Wilmington, who happened to glance out the window of the Four Corner's jailhouse, said to the gunslinger who had taken refuge from the day's events inside the one place no one was likely to visit with any frequency.
"What?" Chris growled, already in a foul mood. At the moment, he had his bottle of whiskey and with any luck would be good and drunk before twilight.
"You do anything to tick Mary off?" Buck asked as he saw the widow storming across the street with hellfire in her eyes.
"Other than the usual?" Chris looked over his shoulder at his old friend. "Not much. Why?"
"Well she's coming over here and she looks really pissed off."
"Great," Chris rolled his eyes, hiding the bottle in the desk drawer for the time being. "A perfect end to the day."
"I'll leave you two to it then," Buck chuckled as he went towards the door. As much as he enjoyed watching the duo pretend to not have any feelings for each other, he had a date with a pretty saloon girl that was just not going to wait.
"Coward," Chris called out as Buck threw him a devilish grin upon opening the door, only to be greeted by Mary.
"Afternoon, Mary," Buck tipped his hat at her but she was fuming so visibly that it was permissible when she did not respond and barreled straight past him.
"Good luck," Buck mouthed quietly at Chris, earning him the gunslinger's narrowed gaze wishing him a slow death.
"Chris, you have to do something," she stated as she reached the desk. Her cheeks were flared pink with annoyance and Chris realized that Buck had not been remiss in his earlier observation regarding her state of mind. "Its unforgivable! I want whoever she is to be drawn and quartered!"
"She have a name?" He asked in perfect contrast to her frothing rage.
"Mary Travis!" Mary exploded. "She impersonated me to that vulture Lightfoot of all people! It was she who gave Lightfoot that disgusting idea that Nathan killed Alderson because he was a Confederate soldier!"
Chris sat up immediately, that little bit of information capturing his attention completely. "You're joking."
"Mr. Larabee," she rarely called him that unless she was about to strangle him or worse. "You know that I find what happened to Nathan today utterly appalling and to think that someone might have planted that loathsome suggestion in his head impersonating me makes me so mad I could...could....spit!"
Chris was suddenly glad he was armed.
"Just calm down," Chris told her gently, rising to his feet behind the desk. He placed his hand on her shoulder as if he were settling a particularly spirited horse. Truth be known, he sometimes wondered if there was any difference between the two. "We'll get to the bottom of this."
She gazed into his sea colored eyes and felt those faint stirrings deep inside she did not wish to acknowledge and brushed them away for the more immediate need to be comforted. "Thank you, Chris," she sighed with a little smile. "This frightens me."
Despite her anger, he could see that. "I won't let anyone hurt you Mary," he said in that silky voice of his that had so much power over her. "I promise."
When he said it, she could believe it because it was seldom untrue.
+ + + + + + +
Following the debacle of the day before, Judge Travis finally ordered the court cleared as the testimony of the final witness was heard. Outside the grain exchange, folks were gathered waiting for news as those who were allowed to be present emerged periodically to give reports on the progress of the case. Only Alderson's family, Mary Travis acting as the court reporter and the seven as Nathan's chosen supporters and the lawyers were allowed into the courtroom. Travis wanted this trial over and done with, refusing to tolerate any more grandstanding by Lightfoot to delay the proceedings.
The doctor's name was Richard Addison. He hailed from Sweetwater and had been a practicing physician for nearly ten years in that town. He was a respected member of the community and had been willing to testify when Lightfoot first approached him about participating in the case. Winstanley suspected that he was going to claim that it was Nathan's incompetence that had cost Alderson his life. When the arguments and the innuendoes were discarded with, that was all Lightfoot really had in the way of a case. It was Winstanley's opinion that this should never have gone to trial in the first place. There was no justification for it however, the family's concerns and public sentiment could not be ignored and so this farce had been allowed to continue, dragging a good man into the dirt needlessly.
Chris Larabee watched Winstanley and saw a man preparing to attack the way a hunter watched and stalked a prey before moving in for the kill. Winstanley did not appear predatory. The man did not look threatening. He did not look like a formidable presence which was why when he went for the jugular, those he was attacking were taken completely by surprise. Nathan could not have found a better man to defend him and Chris was actually grateful that Ezra suggested a lawyer instead of having Josiah speak for him because with all due respect the preacher, Chris could not say that he would have performed as well as Winstanley.
"Doctor Addison," Lightfoot asked, bringing Chris' attentions back to the proceedings. "Is there a treatment for repairing the kind of damage that Mr. Alderson suffered?"
"Yes," Addison said readily. He was a distinguished looking man with a heavy mustache and dressed in a dark suit that seemed to fit his persona of a professional man. "Usually, with the damage to a femoral artery, we would clamp both sides of the artery before the damaged section, which would create a back flow that will keep the patient from bleeding to death. After this is done, we would have time to repair the artery."
"I see," Lightfoot looked at the jury and then glanced disapprovingly at Nathan. "So you're saying he could have survived his injury."
"Yes," Addison replied. "This is the standard treatment performed by a qualified physician of course."
"Therefore, if Mr. Alderson had been in the care of a proper doctor, he would have lived?" Lightfoot asked once more, just to drive the point home.
"Almost certainly," the doctor nodded, not looking at Nathan as he answered.
"Thank you, doctor," Lightfoot replied. "No further questions."
The lawyer had retreated to his side of the room before Judge Travis regarded Winstanley. "Your witness, Mr. Winstanley."
"Thank you, your honor," the Englishman replied and stood up. He turned to Nathan and offered the greatly demoralized healer an encouraging smile. He hoped it would convince Nathan that things were not as bleak as they seemed. "Doctor Addison," Winstanley asked. "How was your trip here?"
The question took the doctor with just as much surprise as everyone else in the room. It took a second before his confused expression bled away and he answered with renewed confidence "It was fine. The weather was good so I was able to make good time."
"Really," Winstanley smiled. "How fortunate and exactly what would you call 'good time'?"
"Oh, a few hours," Addison replied, trying to see past the lawyer at Mr. Lightfoot.
Winstanley shifted slightly and ensured that his line of sight to the prosecuting attorney was obstructed. "A few hours. A nice day trip, you would say?"
"Yes," the doctor responded, a little uncertain regarding the relevance of the question.
"Now, in regards to this procedure that you have discussed with such detail under Mr. Lightfoot's questioning, I have a few questions." The lawyer's tone moved from amiable to serious in seconds, hardly allowing anyone but Chris to become accustomed to the change. "How long would it take for a man to bleed to death from a severed femoral artery if nothing was done?"
"Well, it is a major artery from the heart. It is an artery that controls the circulation," Addison answered, quick to show his acumen on the subject. "If it is severed, it would take three to five minutes for a man to lose more blood than is capable of sustaining life. He would die in less than ten minutes."
"That quickly?" Winstanley said with surprise. "So isn't it safe to say that even if my client had done nothing, Alderson would have died?"
"If there was a proper physician...," Addison started to stammer having fallen into the trap so perfectly set by Winstanley.
"If a proper physician were called, it would take almost a day for him to arrive in Four Corners to offer Mr. Alderson any treatment. That's half a day trip to reach a physician with the news of the injury and another half a day for that physician to get to the patient. What needed to be done, had to take place in a margin of ten minutes. My client has never claimed to be a certified doctor. The death of Mr. Alderson could not be prevented even if he had done nothing to help the man."
"Objection!" Lightfoot cried out on the defensive.
"Overruled," Travis said almost immediately in anticipation of this response.
"Your honor, members of the jury," Winstanley continued to speak. "We feel a great depth of sorrow for the death of Mr. Alderson. We grieve with his family and we empathize with their loss but a courtroom is a crucible in which we burn away the irrelevancies to deal with the truth, not the innuendoes of past deeds that never existed, but the truth, in its pure and simplest form. If Mr. Jackson was a physician trained in a medical school, he could have saved Mr. Alderson's life. The defense does not deny this. However, he is not a physician. He does what he can to help and as we have seen throughout this case from the testimony of numerous witnesses, he has helped many people in this community. However, if you think him liable for being unable to help Alderson, think of the outcome if he had done nothing. Someone would have made a futile effort to ride to Sweet Water for a trained physician, an exercise which would have taken a day at least before Alderson would even receive any treatment. In the meantime, he would have died ten minutes after being shot, having bled to death long before any doctor could reach him, let alone administer treatment."
Winstanley paused catching his breath. "Your honor, Nathan Jackson has done nothing wrong except try to help. There is no evidence he held any grudge against the man other than some opinions that are mostly prejudicial because of my client's color. All this has done is to make him question whether or not some people are worth helping if this is what he is going to be subjected to each time he tries to comes to someone's aid." He let his gaze sweep across the courtroom, not only to the faces of the jury but to the seven and Alderson's family.
"It is a tragedy for the next one of you that is hurt or in need of medical assistance and cannot afford to wait for it to come from Sweetwater. That will be the true crime in Bill Alderson's death. The defense rests."
Travis took a deep breath and released it after Winstanley's words had seeped into his audience and left its mark. "Since there are no more witnesses, the jury will be sequestered to make their deliberations. The court is adjourned for now."
As Judge Travis made that statement, Chris could not help noticing that Jason Alderson had left the room and that filled him with a great sense of foreboding.
The jury's deliberation did not last long.
An hour after delivering his final remarks, Winstanley and the seven found themselves inside the courtroom again. This time, Jason Alderson was present though his disappearance earlier had given Chris cause for concern and the gunslinger wondered how he was going to handle the decision whatever it was. The courtroom was filled with anticipation as all parties waited for the jury to return. Nathan was tense and Ezra who had been impeccable in providing moral support throughout all this remained faithfully at his side. Chris could not help seeing the irony of it, recalling a time when Ezra had refused to join them because Nathan, a black man, would be riding with them. Times had certainly changed, Chris thought.
"Nathan," Ezra whispered to the healer as the jury filed into the room. "I would like you to know that if this does not go the way we wish, I will be on hand to help you in any way possible to escape your unjust incarceration." "You'd break me out of a jail?" Nathan stared at the gambler with a little smile.
"Oh, it will be far more imaginative than a nail file in a pound cake I assure you, but yes," Ezra cracked a grin. "I would help you abscond. I hear Mexico is charming this time of the year."
"You'd do that wouldn't you?" Nathan met his eyes seriously. "You really would."
"Well, I cannot continue my journey to moral fortitude if you are not there can I?"
"Hey, Ezra," Nathan took the opportunity to speak before time ran out. "No matter how this does go, thank you for being here. I don't know if I could have managed it otherwise and I'm not just talking about paying Mr. Winstanley."
Ezra knew precisely what he meant and the gambler had to avert his eyes lest his true emotions come rushing to the surface and create all kinds of awkwardness. "You are my associate. What else could I have done?" he said softly and for a brief instance, Nathan caught a glimpse of the Ezra Standish beneath the mask of indifference he wore like a shield. Nathan hoped that he would see that person again soon.
He was someone worth knowing.
"Has the jury reached its verdict?" Orin Travis asked the jury a few seconds later. The room was charged with anticipation as everyone waited for the trial to come to its conclusion.
"Yes, your honor," the head juror remarked and handed the slip of paper that would decide Nathan's fate to the judge.
Travis studied its contents and then ordered Nathan to his feet before instructing the juror to announce their verdict.
Nathan took a deep breath, telling himself that if worse came to worse, he had options and friends who would help him. His heart was pounding in a mixture of terror, panic and resignation at what would come next. It was a heady feeling. Behind him, the rest of the seven were just as agitated. Each man was trying to decide how they would react if the verdict was not in their favor. Most had come to the conclusion that they would risk everything if it meant their friend would not hang. He was innocent and men who made laws and judgments could make mistake as this whole trial had proved in its very existence.
Everyone's breath stayed in their throats as the juror finally opened his mouth to speak. "We, the jury, find Nathan Jackson, innocent of murder."
The courtroom exploded with sounds of applause and approval at the decision, eclipsing Judge Travis dismissal of the jury and the voices of protest. Buck Wilmington threw his hat up in the air and crossed quickly to the table where Nathan was seated, embracing the man in a bear hug while Vin and JD patted him across the back and Ezra took the opportunity to shake Winstanley's hands as Josiah offered similar thanks. Nathan was soon surrounded by well wishers, with Mary in the lead. The lovely newspaperwoman found herself hugging the healer, caring little about how improper such an act probably was. However, in the euphoria of the moment no one seemed to notice its impropriety.
Although Chris Larabee was grateful for the verdict, he was far from ready to enjoy the moment. Following the delivery of the verdict and the pandemonium that ensued, the gunslinger had lost sight of Jason Alderson. The young man had left the courtroom the minute the jury had announced their decision, leaving his mother and sisters to lament the judgment. Simonson was also nowhere to be seen and suddenly Chris had a very bad feeling that something was in the wind that did not bode well for Nathan. He shifted through the group of well wishers around Nathan and tapped Vin's shoulder lightly. The tracker had only to make contact with his eyes to know that something was up and immediately pulled himself away from the others.
"What's up?" Vin asked.
"You see where Jason and Simonson went?" Chris inquired, knowing that there was very little that Vin did not notice although on this occasion it would be permissible if he left the duo slip past him.
"They stormed out of here the minute the verdict was read," Vin answered and saw the tension in Chris' jaw at that news. "You think there's trouble?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded looking around the rapidly emptying courtroom. Lightfoot was walking the Alderson women towards the door and Chris could hear the chatter of people outside who were told of the verdict. It was difficult to tell from in cacophony of voices whether the news as good or not. Chris looked at Vin and said in a low voice. "Take JD and get up high. I want you to keep an eye on things from above."
Vin's response was the barest hint of a nod before he disappeared out of the courtroom, taking JD with him. It was at this point that Chris went to Nathan. The somber expression on his face immediately dampened the light atmosphere but those who knew Chris also understood that it was usually displayed with good reason.
"Something wrong?" Nathan asked Chris.
"Mr. Winstanley, I think you and Mary ought to get out of here and indoors someplace else," Chris ordered. "Judge, you too."
"What's up Chris?" Buck asked automatically as Josiah took Chris' instruction to Winstanley, Mary and the Judge as his cue to usher them out of the building.
"I've got a bad feeling," Chris said simply.
"I hate those feelings," Buck grumbled. "Alderson's kid?"
Chris nodded in answer.
"I thought the boy seemed a might hot headed," his old friend sighed. "What do we do?"
"I want you to go around the back, see if we got any surprises coming our way," Chris ordered. "I've already got Vin and JD taking point so you'll have someone watching your back."
"You think he's going to try and shoot me?" Nathan looked at Chris.
"I think he's going to try and lynch you."
"He would be insane!" Ezra exclaimed.
"Boy's angry and he thinks that justice hasn't been done. He's liable to do something stupid so we're not taking any chances," Chris replied. "We're going out the front door. Ezra take flank."
"I can look after myself," Nathan declared, not about to let his friends be harmed because of him. They had already done enough for him.
"Learn to take your own advice Nathan," Chris replied crisply. By now, the courtroom was empty and they were the last ones in the room. Chris and Ezra took flanking positions next to the healer as they walked out the doorway.
Daylight hit their eyes as they emerged into the afternoon sun. There was still a large body of people on the street, some applauded upon seeing Nathan, while others jeered. It was hard to say who outnumbered who. Chris scoured the crowd and tried to spot Jason amongst the faces.
There were too many people on the street for his liking and Chris had no idea when Jason would strike since he only had this gut feeling to tell him that trouble was eminent. It was a feeling heavy on instinct but unfortunately short on detail.
They started down the steps when suddenly Chris saw doors swing open at the saloon directly across the street from the grain exchange and men appeared through the door, striding towards them at a brisk pace. Jason was in the lead and Simonson next to him. All were heavily armed. Some of the faces were men Chris recognized during the fight that saw Alderson killed. Others were people he saw around town but did not know personally. Chris assumed that Jason had rounded them up during the hiatus between the jury's deliberation and their eventual verdict.
Their appearance sent people scattering, creating a wide berth as they strode towards the three members of the seven. Chris looked around and saw no sign of Josiah, assuming the preacher was probably laying low and taking up an optimum firing position. Antoinette Alderson watched in horror as her boy strode forward and was held back by her daughter from running after him. Lightfoot was watching the proceedings from as far behind the remaining crowd as possible, while Mary, Winstanley and the Judge were predictably at the head of it.
"We want the nigger!" Jason shouted, his weapon drawn. "Give him to us!"
"Boy, you're walking into a world of trouble!" Judge Travis shouted and found Simonson double barrel aimed promptly at him. "The jury has made their decision!" Travis said nonetheless, afraid of nothing and proving it.
"Then they're wrong!" Jason shouted. "He killed my pa!"
"I killed you pa!" Chris shouted back. "I pulled the trigger."
"You just shot him!" the young man barked. "That nigger killed him!"
"You're right I did," Nathan declared suddenly, silencing everyone.
"There! You admit it!" Jason roared triumphantly. "Say it again!"
"Okay," Nathan nodded. "I killed him by being what I am. He hated me so much that he died for it so I suppose that kind of makes it my fault, doesn't it?"
"You're damn right it does," Jason snarled and raised his gun to fire. Chris reacted drawing his own gun with Ezra doing the same before someone else's voice spoke up and it was neither the seven's nor the judges.
"If you pull that trigger, you're going have to shoot me to get to him," Rose Anderson declared stepping in front of the boy's gun. The young woman was carrying her baby in her arms and following her was her husband.
"Get out of the way!" Jason shouted. "I'll kill you, don't think I won't!"
"You're going to have to shoot me because if it wasn't for Nathan, me and my baby would have died so I'm not letting you do it," Rose stated boldly. She was a petite thing but when she spoke, she commanded the attention of everyone who saw her. "I'm not letting you hurt him because you can't accept that your father was beyond help."
"Then you gonna have to shoot me," Anderson spoke up for his wife. "Because I owe Nathan Jackson a debt of thanks for saving her life and my little girl."
"Nathan's helped my son through measles, the chicken pox and just about every ailment he's had in the last four years," Mary said coolly and joined the young couple. "I guess you'll have to kill all three of us."
Suddenly, a most amazing thing happened that surprised even the jaded soul of Chris Larabee. Virgil Watson stepped forward and counted himself among the growing human shield willing to die to protect Nathan. Virgil was followed by Yosemite and then Mayor Weston. Next to him, holding her young niece's hand was Nettie Wells. Gloria Potter and Inez Rocillos stood next to them and suddenly, Jason could not even see Nathan anymore for the swelling ranks of faces who were refusing to let him lynch an innocent man.
"Enough Jason," The last voice to speak was the one who finally drove home the futility of this entire action. "Your father is gone and this man had nothing to do with it."
Jason Alderson stared at his mother in betrayal. "How can you say that?" he demanded. "He killed pa!"
"He didn't kill anyone." Antoinette shook her head, having no wish to bury a son so soon after his father. "Your father is dead because he was beyond help. Let it go son, for me."
"Listen to her Jason," Chris spoke sharply. "I don't want this to end bloody and you know it can happen that way. Your ma has suffered enough." Just to make his point, Chris glanced over his shoulder. The men with Jason followed his gaze around and saw Vin Tanner with his rifled aimed into the thickest part of their number and JD Dunne was primed with both guns drawn. With perfect line of sight to fire at them, Buck Wilmington and Josiah Sanchez were equally ready to cut them down.
"Please," Antoinette implored her oldest, placing her hands on the gun he would have used to kill Nathan and forcing him to lower it.
Jason met her gaze and felt his expression melt because Larabee was right, he could not make his ma suffer, no matter how much it hurt to lose his pa. "I'm sorry ma!" He cried out, dropping the weapon and allowing her to take him into his arms as he wept the first real tears he had shed since his father had died. "I just wanted to do right by him," he wept in her embrace. "I just wanted justice done."
"Justice got done, boy," Travis offered gently. "It's not easy to accept it sometimes, but it was done."
Chris glared at Simonson and hissed. "It's over, go home."
Simonson wanted to argue but like the rest of his companions saw that they were alone in their wish to prolong this incident and the accusing eyes of their neighbors was enough to convince them that it was time to withdraw. With a scowl, Simonson retreated, the others in his party following him. Antoinette Alderson drew her son away, the rest of the family following so that finally they could put this behind him.
"You see," Mary came up to Chris and remarked with a proud smile as she saw Nathan waving to the friends who had stood up for him and the townsfolk who had come through for him so valiantly and shown him that perhaps color did not always divide people. "We can surprise you."
"You're going to never let me live this down are you?" Chris grumbled.
A mischievous smile crossed her face and she replied with a thoroughly evil glint in her eyes. "Not if you live to be a hundred."
Chris glared at her and retorted. "Keep it up and you won't live that long."
+ + + + + + +
Two days later and things in Four Corners had pretty much returned to normal. The heat was still blistering and the talk had reverted to statehood and its pros and cons. Folk were hiding in the saloons and staying indoors to escape the warm temperatures and the seven found themselves in the Standish Tavern having an afternoon drink following a rather uneventful day. Gareth Winstanley had returned to Bitter Creek with the seven's thanks as well as a promise to refer any one who needed legal help to his door. After his performance in Nathan's defense, he was about the only lawyer that any of the seven could stomach.
Lightfoot, on the other hand, had slithered out of town quietly, tail tucked between his legs. Jason Alderson had taken up his father's farm and was more interested in looking after his family than stirring up any more trouble. Simonson was still around and Chris was certain that they would have to deal with the man at some point in the future but that could be dealt with another day.
The only thing the seven had in mind for this afternoon was beer and a card game.
"Any luck on that impostor?" Nathan asked as he sat around their usual table, playing cards with Buck, Ezra and Josiah.
"No luck at all," Chris muttered unhappily as he nursed his mug of beer. "Of course Lightfoot is the only one who saw her and after getting his ass kicked in court, he was not that eager to talk to us."
"Imagine that," Vin said sarcastically.
"Are you sure you won't join us Mr. Tanner?" Ezra looked in his direction, trying to entice him into playing since he had already cleaned out his present company of players. "I've taken all the money there is to be had on this table. I need fresh capital if I'm going to buy another saloon."
"Ezra, how many times do you need your fingers burnt?" Buck teased as he tossed his cards down on the table in defeat.
"You know, Ezra," Nathan spoke up. "I'm gonna pay you and Chris back every cent it cost you for Winstanley."
"Forget it," Chris said automatically. "My money's just sitting in the bank doing nothing."
"And exactly how much is that Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.
"Enough," Chris grinned at him, knowing the lack of an answer would drive the gambler crazy, especially where money was concerned.
"Seriously," Nathan refused to let his friends distract him from the point he was making. "I'm going to pay you both back, " he said firmly and then added in a slightly melancholic tone. "That is if people ever trust me as a healer again," he sighed gloomily.
"Give them time," Josiah replied automatically. "Once this business with Alderson gets forgotten, they'll be knocking on your door again."
"Yeah, Nathan," JD added. "I mean where else are they gonna go? You're all they've got!"
"Smooth JD," Buck rolled his eyes. "Real smooth."
Nathan frowned and realized that the two pair in his hand was not even that. "I hope you're right, it's been mighty quiet...."
The batwing doors swung open and suddenly young Donnie Collier ran through the door and headed straight for their table.
"Mr. Jackson, Mr. Jackson, you got to come quick! Pa came home drunk and fell over and broke his leg and ma can't get him to stop throwing up. There's puke everywhere!" The boy grabbed Nathan's hand and fairly yanked the healer out of his chair.
"You see, Nathan," Vin grinned. "You get to do all the fun stuff."
Nathan's reply was a universal gesture involving the middle finger but the rest of the seven could swear that as he was being dragged out of the saloon, the expression on his face was a smile.
Originally published as an episode of Peacekeeper Productions.
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