Author: LaraMee Deux
Nathan Jackson stood off to the side, watching the merriment that was taking place. The entire town seemed to be packed into the saloon, the only place in town large enough for such a gathering. Paper chains and pine boughs provided decoration, along with the ceiling tall pine tree that had been carried in that afternoon. There was piano music and dancing, food and drink, laughter and singing. It was one of the most entertaining gatherings the little town had seen as long as he had been living here. He only wished he felt more a part of it.
Jackson sighed. It wasn't that people treated him badly here; he had suffered much worse throughout most of his life. He never truly felt that he was accepted as a true member of the town however. The other six peacekeepers, the Travis family, some of the others, they didn't seem to consider his color anymore. Even Ezra Standish held him in some regard, just as he did the gambler, despite their frequent disagreements. But they were a minority. Others still tended to look down their noses at him, give him chilly looks and avoid him all together.
Taking his plate of food and cup of punch to a far table, he sat so he could watch the entire room. He laughed as he watched Buck and JD arguing over something or other. After what looked like a heated exchange on Dunne's part and a teasing one on Wilmington's, the bigger man walked away and quickly took up with a young woman on the other side of the room.
"Hello Nathan," a deep voice greeted him.
Looking up, Nathan saw Josiah Sanchez standing near his table.
"Howdy Josiah. Enjoyin' yourself?"
"Very much so, but I'm getting too old to keep up with these young folks." He smiled. "Mind if I join you for a few moments?"
Smiling, he nudged the other chair away from the table with a foot, "of course not."
Dropping into the chair, Josiah sat a plate of food on the table and dragged a sleeve across his forehead. "Think I'm gonna sit out the next few songs. Between Gloria Potter and Nettie Wells, I think I've danced a good three inches off my legs."
His deep laugh booming, Jackson said, "keep it up and you'll be lookin' up to JD and Ezra at that rate."
Affecting a shudder, the preacher said, "I get that short, my knuckles'll drag the ground." Looking at the dark man curiously, he continued, "so why are you hiding over here in the corner?"
Frowning, Nathan said, "I'm not hiding. Just watchin' the goin' ons."
"In the corner," Sanchez reasserted, staring pointedly at the wall behind the healer. Pointblank he asked, "are you uncomfortable here?"
With a sigh Jackson dropped his fork into his plate and sat back in his chair. "Guess I'm expectin' too much, Josiah. Folks are only folks, they ain't perfect."
"And if they were perfect?"
Smiling self-consciously, Jackson said, "I'd be a part of th' town."
"You are part of the town, Nathan. You're a very important part of it."
"Sure, if someone's hurt or sick or birthin'. The rest a th' time, they," he nodded toward the filled room, "treat me like I've got something catchin' or like I ain't quite human. Don't reckon many of 'm would miss me if I wasn't here. Just like it's been most a my life."
"Brother, it takes a long time for prejudices to disappear.
You're right…they ain't perfect; they're only human."
"And so am I," Jackson said softly.
Nodding, Sanchez said, "so you are, Brother. So you are." He sighed, adding, "I wish I could stay and talk some more Nathan. But I promised Mary I'd play Santa Claus for Billy and the other children. I could -"
Waving him off before he could finish, the healer said, "I'm fine, Josiah, really. You go get dressed and entertain the children."
Pushing himself from the chair, the big man said, "meet me for breakfast in the morning, Nathan. Let's talk some more?"
Nodding, he said, "I'll see y' then." He watched as Josiah went to meet Mary Travis, who would help him get dressed for his performance as Father Christmas. With another sigh, Nathan considered staying to watch his friend come in to surprise the youngest members of the town.
Then he decided that he had had enough excitement for the evening. Quietly he left the saloon, stopping on the boardwalk. He considered stopping in to see Ezra, who was missing the festivities thanks to a bad cold. The gambler's mother had surprised them with a visit, though, and had uncharacteristically foregone attending the party and any chances to make a quick buck, and was tending her son. She'd let him know if the ailing man needed him, as unlikely as that was. Feeling completely useless, he moved through the town and went to his room. Leaving the lamp unlit, he took off his dress clothes and slipped into bed. Folding his arms beneath his head, he stared into the darkness above him. He wondered, not for the first time, what it was that kept him here. He could live with greater acceptance in the Seminole village, and lord knew he wanted to be with Rain. If he were at the village, he would have the respect due him. He wouldn't have to continue to prove himself a worthy member of the village as he had to in the town. It wasn't fair. He didn't expect to be held in the same esteem as a true doctor; he was always the first to point out the fact that he was only a healer. But he felt that he deserved some respect for his devotion to keeping the members of the town in good health. His dark eyes drooped closed slowly and Nathan dropped off to sleep…
He opened his eyes, staring around the darkened room. He had locked the door, hadn't he?
"Get up Nathan."
"I said, who's there?"
"My name is Samuel. I have come to show you something."
"Something wrong? You hurt…sick?" Nathan rubbed his eyes, trying to wake up. For some reason he did not fear the intruder.
"I am in no need for your ministrations, Nathan."
"Then what do you need me for?"
"I am not the one in need. It is you who has need of my ministrations."
Sitting up in the bed, the healer said, "look, did Buck put you up to this? Josiah?"
"No one put me up to anything, Nathan. Why do you not believe what I am telling you?"
"You ain't hardly told me nothin' yet. And I can't say that I appreciate you just walkin' in to my room without an invitation."
"You did invite me, Nathan. You are in need of guidance…reassurance. You may not believe that you've made an impact on this town; that you are truly a part of this town, but I am here to show you that you do in fact have an important place here. Your presence is indeed quite pivotal to this town's very existence. If it were not for you, we would be standing in the midst of a ghost town. Now, get your clothes on and come with me."
For some reason, Jackson decided to play along with his visitor's whims. Dressing hurriedly in the darkness, he stepped to the door.
"All right, where are we goin'?"
"Only to the landing outside," Samuel said. He led the way, seeming to drift and float along.
Nathan followed, and joined the strange man at the railing. They looked out upon the little town without speaking for some time. Then Jackson realized that there was something different about the town.
"Where is everyone?"
"Gone," Samuel said quietly.
"Gone where? They were all at the saloon just a while ago."
"No, that was in another time. We're no longer in the town that you knew, but in the town that would have been had you not been a part of it."
"Mister, did you hurt your head?"
Laughing, Samuel said, "no, Nathan Jackson, I did not hurt my head. But if I had, I would trust you to heal me. Now, observe what I am about to show you." With a wave of his hand, the visitor seemed to bring dawn to the town.
Nathan looked in shock at the buildings below them. They were boarded up, broken down, long unused. Not a single person could be found walking about. "Where are they all?" He asked in stricken awe.
"Gone…moved away or dead. Lawlessness…illness…fear and disillusionment. It all took its toll. The town is just another ghost town; one of those places of broken dreams and ruined futures."
"All because I didn't come here?"
"You're crazy, Mister. Think maybe I should wire th' Judge about havin' you put away."
"In this reality the Judge is dead."
"Yes. Murdered by Lucas James. The Judge had no one to back him up when he attempted to try the young murderer. When James was freed by his uncle's hired men, Judge Travis was shot. There was no one there to remove the bullet. He bled to death in his daughter-in-law's arms."
"No…" Nathan whispered.
"Nathan, I am not insane. If you search your heart, you will know that I am as sane as you are. I speak the truth…the truth of what could have been."
Slumping to the bench nearby, Nathan covered his face with his hands. "My God, I must be as crazy as you I reckon. I do believe you."
With a smile, Samuel simply continued. "The Judge's death was only a single event that destroyed the town. Billy Travis was killed when he ran into the path of a wagon. Mary Travis nearly went insane after that, and became obsessed with her work. She was killed by young Stutz while she heralded statehood.
"Gloria Potter left town right after her husband was murdered.
She had no reason to feel that she and her children would be safe. And she was right. Rape, murder, wanton acts of violence, they all became commonplace occurrences. Every day saw another family leave, another family killed, another family ruined. There was no one willing to stand up for them, to protect them, to care about them."
"You seem to think I could have kept all this from happening. I was only one of seven men takin' care a things around here."
"Exactly my point, Mr. Jackson. Perhaps not everything you have contributed to this town's existence has been due to your medical expertise. While that in itself is estimable, you have contributed much to this town, sir."
"But there are six other men - "
"What brought them together, Nathan?"
"What?" He looked in confusion at the man. "The first time we were all together was when we went to help the Seminole village fight off those renegade rebs."
"Yes, but how did they get together in the first place?"
Nathan frowned, trying to understand what the other man was telling him. Finally he said, "reckon it started when Vin and Chris ran off those fellas that were fixing to hang me."
"EXACTLY!" Samuel shouted, clapping his hands. "You were the catalyst Nathan. If it had not been for your willingness to treat that man, although you knew he was dying, none of the rest would have happened. As strange as it may sound, your desire to heal others also kept this town alive. Your compassion and humanity helped to make this little collection of storefronts and houses a home for those brave enough to leave man's so-called civilized world behind."
"You make me sound awful noble, sir, I think maybe you've got th' wrong man."
"Nathan," his visitor said with a sigh, "what must I do to make you understand. Without you, nothing good would happen here. Nothing.
Why can't you understand this?"
"'Cause I'm only one man. There's Chris, Josiah, Vin, Buck, JD, Ezra…lots a folks have been fightin' hard to make this town what it is…or was…or would have been…" he rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on.
"All right. What of the others…the rest of what has been described as "the Magnificent Seven"? Shall we see where they are right now?"
"I can tell you where they are right now…or…" his headache pounded harder.
"In the world that was, you know where they are. In the world that is, you do not know them, and they do not know you. Indeed, only Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington have ever shared an association.
Would you like to see what has become of the other six?"
"Why not?" Nathan wondered aloud.
"Very well," Samuel reached out and placed a hand on Nathan's forehead. "Let them come to your mind, one by one, and you will see the men they are now."
Sinking back against the railing Nathan felt a warmth, almost like a swallow of whiskey on a cold night, spread through him. His mind began to drift, and visions began to form in his mind…
Vin. The first to come to his aid after Mary Travis. Tanner had watched the drunken cowboys carry him off to hang, and picked up a rifle to make things right. He was bothered to see darkness engulf the vision of the young tracker. A new vision took his place. A simple cross pounded into the ground.
"He had no one to call friend…" came Samuel's voice, "no one to watch his back. Eli Joe had framed him, and without anyone to care, he was returned to Tascosa and hanged."
"Ah, damn…Vin…" Jackson said mournfully. "I'm sorry Vin. We should'a been there." Darkness came once more, and Nathan felt himself drift away. Then a second face came to his mind's eye.
Chris. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Vin as they entered the graveyard to rescue him. Chris Larabee, who had quickly become the leader of the little mismatched group. Then a different Chris. Thin, haggard, beaten down. He was huddled over a table, a near-empty bottle of red eye before him. He coughed often, the sound harsh and painful to hear.
"He has no one to care for…no one to care for him. Everyday finds him sinking deeper and deeper into the depths of despair. He can barely lift his gun now, let alone fire it. He has consumption; it's eating him up from the inside."
"Chris…you've got too much to offer the world to go out like this," Nathan sighed.
Josiah. The man he had known for some time before the others.
They had never forged a strong bond before going to the village, but he and the preacher had spent a few hours in one another's company from time to time. Then, Josiah sitting in the midst of the broken down little church. Oblivious to the fact that someone had entered, slipping into the shadows. A muzzle flash, and the big man fell soundlessly forward.
"He tried to stand against Guy Royal when he threatened Nettie Wells. He was only one man, though. Royal sent one of his hired men to town to take care of what he saw as a minor nuisance. The next day, when Josiah had promised to come and help Nettie and Casey face the man down, Royal went to the Wells place. The women did not die easily."
Nathan felt hot tears well up beneath his closed lids at the thought of the senseless deaths caused in the name of money and land.
Ezra. The man he still had trouble trusting, no matter what happened. There would always be too much of the grifter in the man for Jackson to trust him. But he had shown his own brand of courage many times. The healer saw in his mind's eye the outherner put aside lifelong prejudices and ask if he minded riding with an "old southern boy." The picture changed; Standish sitting at a felt covered poker table. It seemed like so many other times, Ezra engaging in the games of chance he swore that he abhorred. Nathan decided that perhaps he hadn't had any sort of impact on this man. And then he really looked at the other man. Standish was playing with a cutthroat attitude, uncaring of his opponent. He was taking the last sent of a poor farmer who had come to town seeking money to save his land, and he was loving every minute of it.
"No one has ever cared about Ezra Standish, he has never known a friend other than a deck of cards. Humanity has given up on Ezra, and he has given up on it."
JD. The boy who had begun his journey toward manhood in the dusty little Seminole village. The young man who had tried time and time again to prove himself. Nathan watched as Dunne argued with and struggled against him to go help the others. Blood from the knife wound he had just stitched up in the boy's shoulder was still damp on the Kid's shirt as he staggered from the church. Rifle in hand he had gone to help stand against the men who had kidnapped Olivia and robbed the bank.
But then a new JD took his place. This one was cold and hard, his eyes devoid of any hint of boyishness. He sat with three other men in a tiny shack, glaring at one of his companions. Harsh words, their meaning lost to Nathan, were exchanged. Suddenly JD pulled his gun and shot the other man in the head. He laughed as the man's lifeless body collapsed to the ground.
"He didn't stop here, but continued on West. He had intended to join the Rangers, but they wouldn't even consider accepting a greenhorn in their ranks. He found himself penniless, homeless, and hopeless when a young gang of thugs coaxed him into their midst. It took a surprisingly short time for them to turn his idealism into cynicism, his integrity into deviousness. He'll live a short life and condemn many others to shorter ones."
Nathan was beyond words now. JD a killer? It was impossible.
The Kid had more heart than brains sometimes, but he was nothing if not compassionate and willing to put his life on the line for anyone who fell into his circle on friends and acquaintances.
Buck. The final member of their brotherhood of the gun. Quick with a joke or a jest, and just as quick with a helping hand or a strong back. He watched Buck as the big man jumped in front of JD, taking Colonel Riley Anderson's saber across his chest. The Wilmington that took his place rode slowly into a new town. He looked warily and wearily around before dismounting and entering the little broken down saloon. Inside, he looked at the house ladies with a bored expression, finally settling on a young girl who barely seemed old enough to be away from her mother's bosom. Nathan saw the man's eyes and wanted to cringe. They seemed lifeless and cold. There was no sparkle in the dark blue depths.
"He left the town without ever even knowing Chris was there. He became more and more jaded, saw far too much ugliness in the world. Buck finds nothing to laugh about now, and has no one to care about…or to care about him."
"This is insane," Nathan said in a strangled whisper. "This can't be right. All of these men are strong, good, decent men. How could they end up like this?"
"Yes, they are strong, good, decent men, but it is the strength of the union you all share that will build the life you know. And none of it can be without you, Nathan. Do you understand now? Your life is no less valuable than any of the others. Whether they know it or not, the people of this town owe their lives to you. Because of your compassion, they may very well manage to bring this town to prosperity. "
Looking up at the man, Nathan was shocked to see that he was looking into his own face. "But…what…who…"
Avoiding an answer, Samuel said, "no matter how others perceive you, Nathan Jackson, you only have to believe in yourself and your abilities. The most important opinion is your own." And with that, the man disappeared.
Nathan opened his eyes to find himself in his own room and his own bed. The sun was shinning brightly through the windows, letting him know that he had slept far later than he had intended to. Sitting up, he leaned back against the headboard, pondering the dream he had had. If it was a dream…how could he be certain? Then he realized that it didn't matter. His own mind, an angel, a madman, it didn't matter. What did matter was that he felt much better about life than he had when he had retired the night before.
Jumping up, he hurried to the nearest window and peered out.
With a smile, he saw townspeople on the boardwalk and heard children's laughter somewhere below him. The town had not disappeared…or it had been returned…or he had been returned from wherever he had been taken…he sighed and pushed those thoughts into a far corner of his mind. If he thought about it too long he'd be the one in need of hospitalization. And the specifics didn't really matter anyway. The only thing that mattered was that he knew that he did deserve a place in the town.
Hurriedly dressing, the healer left his room to find Josiah. He had a lot to talk about now.