CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: December 2001 Magnificent 7 Challenge, offered by TwylaJane: “A seed of doubt once planted, sown deep had begun to grow and crack the very foundation that united them.”  Nathan has to be one of the main players and mind you not just as a healer.  So here's my response.  
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:  Kristin supplied the name of Ezra's horse.  I created Nathan's.
DATE: December 19, 2001 

Shaking the Dust
By NotTasha...who gets a bit dusty at times

Part 1:

Nathan waited alongside the dusty road as Ezra had instructed him.  He and the gambler had traveled to Sweet Haven that morning and Standish had gone on ahead to make preparations for their arrival.  They had a job to do, to gain information and return to Four Corners the following evening.  A drifter by the name of John Biggums had been accused of cattle rustling and was currently locked up in the Four Corner's jail.  Biggums swore to his innocence, fingering the well-off Mortimer Tork instead.  So, the two of them, healer and gambler, were given the job of investigating the charges before the trial.

Leaning back against the fence rail, Nathan pulled at the brim of his hat.  His horse bit lazily at the low grass that grew along side the quiet trail.  Usually, Jackson wasn't included in such missions, finding that his work in town too valuable to be interrupted.  But this time, he'd volunteered for the job. He knew that the others didn't begrudge his important work and they all realized that it was best that he stayed near home in case someone needed doctoring, but he wanted to do something else for a change.  When this chance presented itself, he'd stepped forward readily.  It had surprised Chris, especially since Ezra had already nominated himself, but Ezra didn't seemed too startled to learn who his partner would be.

They'd enjoyed a companionable journey to the bustling town.  Nathan honestly liked the southerner, in spite of what had often come between them, and Ezra seemed to appreciate the healer's company as well. They'd chatted amicably along the way and the trip was quickly passed.  Then, about ten minutes outside of town, Ezra asked that they stop, saying that he would continue on alone to gather some basic information -- test the waters, he'd said -- and come back with a plan.

Ezra had been gone for almost an hour and Nathan was growing bored as he waited.  He sighed and slouched further against the fence.  He hadn't realized that being a peacekeeper could be so dull.  Often, he'd spent long evenings at the bedsides of the sick, but there was something different to this type of waiting.  This was just plain dull.

Nathan straightened when he heard the quick clip of a horse approaching and relaxed when he recognized the gambler's blue jacket as he emerged from around a rocky bank.   "Mr. Jackson," Ezra greeted with a smile.  "I believe I've garnered what we need to know in order to best utilize our limited time."

"Glad to hear it," Nathan responded.  "Let's get movin' then."

Stepping down from his horse, Ezra slapped at his dust-covered jacket, grimacing as he raised a cloud. "Lord, I hate this filth," he muttered.  "It seems I can never keep myself clean in this dreadful land.  Look at this!  How can such fine material be treated like this?"  He slapped again, coughing at the dust.  "It's deplorable.  I really don't understand how I can put up with this.  It's pure stamina and perseverance, I must say."

"What'd you come up with?" Nathan prompted, knowing that the fastidious gambler would just keep going if he were allowed to continue his complaints.

Ezra rolled his eyes, giving up on trying to slap clean his jacket and fished a key out of his pocket.  "I believe it would be best, considerin' the restricted time available, if we split up.  Divide and conquer, so they say."  Holding the key to Nathan, he continued, "Room 7 at Rosalie's Hotel. You'll be sharin' the room with a Mr. Coleman.  He promises to hold a wealth of knowledge as he is on Mr. Tork's payroll.  You can ply him for information."

Jackson nodded, eyeing the extended key and smiled thinly. "I'll do what I can, but I don't know how to 'ply'."

"Just get him to talk about himself, his work, his experiences…"

"Yeah, but how do I get him to do that?"

Ezra raised an eyebrow.  "You are a fine conversationalist, Mr. Jackson.  Just talk about yourself and your excellent work in Four Corners.  I would leave out the details that concern your work as lawman though.  No need to muddy the waters with that."

"Don’t know if I can lie."

With an astonished look, Ezra said, "I never said that you should lie.  Simply don't say what you wish to remain hidden.  It couldn't be simpler."

"I 'spect I could do that   I think I can find out what he knows. " Nathan finally took the key from Standish. "And what about you?  Where you stayin'?"

Ezra sighed and shook his head. "It seems that I'll be abidin' at the Pemberton Inn.  Mr. Tork is currently in residence there.  I was able to have a short conversation with him during my expedition to town. And, since I'm expected immediately at his table for lunch and a few rounds of poker, I believe I should be goin'." With a nod, he extended his hand. "Good luck, Mr. Jackson."

"Same to you, Ezra," Nathan said as he pocketed the key to free his hand.  They shook.

"I would suggest that we don't converse in town.  It seems that it might be best, considerin' the current atmosphere about the place.  Be on guard, Mr. Jackson.  There's an unhappy element about.  You'd best stay near the Rosalie."

Jackson furrowed his brow.  "What do you mean by that?"

Ezra licked his lips and pulled his watch from his vest pocket.  "There are factions and divisions.  It's not a very welcoming town, if you know what I mean."  He gave Nathan a knowing glance.  "We'll meet here again at this same time tomorrow. High noon?"

"See you then," Nathan responded.

With a nod and a smile, Standish mounted and turned his gelding around and headed back into town.  Nathan watched him go, and waited a few minutes more before he continued into town after him at a slower pace.

Part 2:

The Rosalie Hotel was a rundown and dusty building.  It was small and old, and had probably hadn't been painted since it first had been clapped together.  Nathan stood at the main door for a moment, taking in the musty ambiance until a hefty woman, who may have been the famed Rosalie, pointed him to the stairs and his awaiting room.  She smiled at him and told him when dinner and breakfast were to be served.

Jackson sighed as he treaded up the stairs and down the short hall to unlock the door at #7.  He pushed it open with trepidation, not sure about what he was going to see when he opened it.

"Who's there?" a low voice called before Nathan even had a chance to take in the scene.  Startled, Nathan stepped back to see a man was stretched out on one of the narrow beds.

The man sat up quickly, shoving a book under the covers as Jackson finally entered the room.  He was dark skinned, with close-cut curly hair, simply dressed, and lean.  His skin was weathered, and his hands -- even from this short distance -- looked callused and worn.

"Hello," Jackson responded, holding up the hand that clenched the key as he moved slowly into the room.  His other hand held the saddlebags away from his body.  He tried to look non-threatening.  "Looks like we're sharin' the space."

The thin man smiled as he took in his roommate and pulled the book out of hiding as he stood.  Secreting the book hadn't surprised Nathan, it was a reaction that he expected, borne of slavery, when Blacks weren't supposed to read -- weren't supposed to have any learning.

The man stood and introduced himself. "Andy Coleman."

"Nathan Jackson."  The healer smiled as he pocketed the key and extended a hand.  "You from around here?"

Andy jerked his head toward the west as he shook Nathan's hand. "I work a ranch out there a piece. Come to town with the owner to get some goods.  You new here?"

"Meeting someone," Nathan responded.  It wasn't a lie.  He was planning to meet Ezra the following day.  He glanced at the book that Andy held so carefully in his hands.  "What're you readin' about?"

Coleman smiled shyly.  "Engineerin'.  Buildin' bridges and such.  Lots of math."  He shrugged as he held the book, rubbing his thumb along the spine and looking self-conscious.  "Just a dream of mine.  I like numbers and buildin'."

Jackson smiled as he set his saddlebags down on the other small bed in the sparse little room.  He opened the flap and pulled out of book of his own.  "I study medicine and healin'," he said, showing off his latest acquisition.

Coleman smiled broadly.  "Well, looks like we'll get along fine then."

Part 3:

Jackson spent the day in the Rosalie Hotel.  He and Andy had lunch together in its little restaurant.  They chatted together, and got along so well that Nathan almost forgot he was on a mission.  The information just seemed to flow from Andy Coleman without any prompting.

He told Nathan that, after reaching town and completing their purchases, Andy had meant to spend the day quietly in the hotel room, reading, but had abandoned that for the companionship of Nathan.  It seemed that Andy yearned to have someone to talk to, someone like himself who wanted to better himself -- to learn and enrich his knowledge -- someone that understood the life he had come from. Jackson had to admit that he appreciated the like company as well.  They spent the afternoon on the front porch of the hotel, chatting quietly.

When they returned to the room the conversation continued. Coleman knew a little about everything that went on at Tork's ranch, had seen peculiar dealings and the unexplained multiplication of cattle, brandings at odd times and other suspicious things.

He was a moral and upstanding fellow who didn't want to believe his employer was doing anything underhanded, but still suspicion crept into his descriptions and Nathan had little doubt that Tork was up to his neck in illegal activities.

It wasn't until the next morning, as they were dressing to meet the new day, that Coleman finally said, "Mr. Tork just doesn't treat folk right. Seems to me that he feels that folks such as you and me ain't good enough.  He'd prefer us as slaves 'stead of free men."

Nathan nodded, knowing exactly what Andy was feeling.  "Lots of folks feel that way I figure.  But most of the white men I know aren't like that.  The men I work with treat me like one of them."

"That'd be a fine thing," Coleman agreed.  "Don’t know exactly what that'd feel like.  There's many that treat us like different creatures."

"He strike any of you?"

Coleman bit his lip.  "Can't say he's ever had reason to raise his hand, but sometimes I think it's because he just can't stand the idea of touchin' me.  It's like he don't like my smell.  I get the feelin' that I just stepped in dog dirt, the way he curls up his lip and rubs his nose.  He just kinda steps back like he can't abide bein' near one of us.  When I drove the wagon here, he had to ride a few lengths ahead so that he wouldn't be caught in my wind."

Nathan furrowed his brow.

"Had a new well dug for us to use so that we wouldn't be dirtying his water by comin' near it.  Got a brand new privy dug for us too.  Don't mind havin' our own so much.  They're cleaner and newer than what they use."  Coleman smiled at this small victory. 

"The man's a fool.  Why don't you leave?"  Nathan asked.  "You're free to go."

Coleman looked wistful and then said, "War was fought to prove that, but it ain't always so simple.  Ain't much work around here for folks with our skin.  I got a good enough place.  He pays us well.   It could be worse."

"It's not so bad in Four Corners."

Coleman didn't look impressed.  "Things go on everywhere.  No place is perfect."

Nathan nodded, remembering when he'd almost been strung up in that town; he remembered when Ezra had stated that he refused to ride with him.  Those words still bit.

"I get along well enough," Coleman continued.  "Just doin' my best to make Mr. Tork richer."

"Got lots of money, huh?"

"He owns a pretty good spread, plus there's the Pemberton."

"The Pemberton Inn?"

"Yeah, he's a part owner," Coleman responded.  "One of the best places in town.  Real nice, they say.  It's got feather beds in all the rooms and a mighty fine restaurant and saloon down below."

"Feather beds?" Nathan asked, rubbing the sore spot on his back, caused by his awkward bed.  He'd slept curled up on his side due to the too short length.  The thing was hard as a rock and the sheets looked as if they hadn't been cleaned in a week.  He glowered, thinking that Ezra had slept well.  "Bet those feather beds are a lot more comfortable then these."

Coleman laughed. "I'm sure they are, but there's no way of us knowin'."

"Why's that?"

Andy shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "Mr. Tork don't allow our kind in there."

Nathan sat back on the bed, not knowing what to think. He'd lived all his life under the prejudice of slavery, he'd gone through a war, and still such things were allowed?  Weren't they free to do whatever they wanted?  Didn't Mr. Lincoln declare the black man equal to any white man?

"We ain't allowed?"  Nathan questioned.

"Got a big sign up front," Coleman said with a nod.

Abruptly, Nathan pulled on his boots and hat, then started down the stairs. He had to see this for himself.

Within a few moments, he was standing in front of the hotel. He stared at the grand place, taking in the carefully painted trim, the shutters and clean windows.  It was a lovely building, painted white, and edged in blue.  It looked so perfect on that dirt street.

But, what truly held his attention was the sign above the door. Printed in large block letters were the words, "No Coloreds, Mexicans, or Chinese Allowed.  This is a Clean House".

Nathan felt as if he'd been socked in the gut.  He wasn't sure if his mouth dropped open or not, but he stood in front of that hotel for several moments in utter astonishment.

Andy, who'd followed him, nodded at the window of the hotel and said, "That's Mr. Tork."

Nathan finally tore his attention away from the sign and looked through the window and into the first-floor saloon.  It was easy to find Ezra, dressed in the same blue jacket he'd worn the day before.  The gambler was plying his trade, sitting at a table with a well-dressed man -- the man that Andy had just indicated.

It seemed to be an aberration to see Standish there, inside the hotel with the odious sign.  Ezra was laughing as he dealt the cards.  He tilted his head at Tork as he picked up his hand, chuckling to himself.  He grinned merrily as he toasted the man beside him.  The man slapped him on the back and Ezra nodded at a comment.  The two looked as thick as thieves.  Ezra seemed totally at ease with the disgusting man.

"Figures," Nathan said with a sigh.  He felt his shoulders slump as Ezra chatted happily with Tork. They were playing cards at that early hour and seemed to be enjoying each other's company enormously.  How could Ezra do that?  Nathan wondered.  The healer felt sick just thinking about it.

Nathan turned on his heel and headed back the way he come.  "Should 'ave figured it," he muttered.  "Should 'ave known he'd fit right nicely with that man."

Andy caught up with him, asking him what was going on, and Nathan just shook his head abruptly.  Suddenly, he wanted to leave, to put Sweet Haven behind him.

"Gotta be goin'," he said aloud, making his way quickly toward the Rosalie.

"What about the man you were goin' to meet?"

"Don't need to anymore."

Part 4:

Nathan waited at the same place where he had waited the day before. It was only ten o'clock, two full hours before their appointed meeting time, but Nathan didn't want to stay another minute in that town.

He patted his horse, Badger, and glanced back toward town. Honestly, he didn't want to wait for that southerner.  He truly didn't want to see Ezra, not have to face him, didn't want to confront him about his behavior in town, didn't want to ride home with him. How could Ezra sit with that man?  How could he seem so at ease, so comfortable beside him?  How could he stomach the man?

Nathan kicked at the dust.  Badger raised his eyes to watch, but the patient horse just lowered his head again.

Nathan's blood boiled, recalling that sign on the door, seeing Ezra so comfortable within that building. If he truly was a friend, he wouldn't have stepped foot in that building.  A friend would have said 'No, sir!' and turned around, but what exactly was Ezra anyway?  A friend? 

"I should just go," Nathan mumbled.  "I got all the news we need.  Don't need to wait for him.  He can make his way back just fine without me."  Damn it!  Nathan couldn't abide being near that southerner.  

He was startled by the sound of an approaching horse.  He stepped clear of his mount and felt for the hilt of one of his throwing knives, ready to fight if needed.  He stiffened, alert and ready.  Badger recognized the approaching horse first and snorted happily, knowing his companion.  Nathan relaxed as Ezra appeared on Chaucer, clipping toward them as he had the day before.

The gambler smiled, looking surprised.  "Nathan!  I didn't expect to see you here yet."  Apparently the possibility of being knifed didn't bother him and Nathan relaxed the weapon into its sheath.

"Well," the healer replied glumly.  He gave his attention to his horse so he could ignore the gambler.  "Got here a bit early."

"And I'm glad of it.  Lord, I'm happy to be done with that town.  I'm in desperate need of a bath."

"Didn't your friend Tork have a bathhouse at his fancy hotel?"

"If he did, I didn't see it."

"It was a hell of a lot nicer at that place than where I stayed."

Again Ezra smiled.  "Yes, but the Rosalie has a better ambiance and is preferable in many respects."

Nathan was silent, trying to think of a response.  How could Ezra possibly equate the plush and lovely Pemberton to the run-down Rosalie?  Still, instead of lighting into him, Nathan decided to give Standish the benefit of the doubt, let him speak first, then -- once Standish had had his say -- Nathan could let Ezra know exactly what he thought. 

Making use of the quiet, Ezra continued,  "Were you able to accomplish your task with Mr. Coleman?"

"Yeah, he told me plenty.  Looks like Tork was the one behind that rustlin'."  Nathan combed his horse's mane, not looking at Ezra.

"Excellent," Ezra responded.  "I was able to confirm much of the same, but less clearly.  Mr. Tork can be quite opaque when he chooses.  It seems you were much more successful than I.  I knew you'd be up to the task."

"I think we'd better get the others.  We'll bring him back to Four Corners in chains."  Nathan couldn't hide the anger in his voice.  "Seems to me that he should be locked up for more than just his cattle rustlin'."

"Indeed," Ezra replied.  "It's a pity we can't have him jailed his unbalanced sensibilities."  He shook his head.  "I have learned far more than I wanted from Mr. Tork. He seems quite content with his unpleasant behavior and saw nothing wrong with speaking his mind. I never had a chance to be free of the reptile while I was there. It makes me wonder why the good Lord allows such as him to survive in this world. You should count yourself lucky that you were nowhere near him."

Nathan looked toward Ezra finally.  Standish gazed off into the distance, a disquieted look on his face. "The vile utterances that escaped his lips were akin to pig manure."  He shuddered.  "And to think, the man touched me.  Good God, I'm in need of a bath."

Ezra's eyes were distant and troubled, making Nathan glad that he'd held his tongue before.  With a smile, Nathan mounted and brought Badger alongside Ezra and Chaucer.  "I think we can make a stop at Skunkwater.  It'll just take us a bit off schedule.  They got a nice bathhouse there, I hear."

"Skunkwater?" Ezra looked skeptical… very skeptical.

"They call it that 'cause it's got a mineral spring.  Smells funny, but they say it's good for the skin.  You ain't heard of it b'fore?"

"I'm afraid I was always rather turned off by the name," Ezra said rubbing his chin.  "Mineral spring you say?"  He pulled his canteen from his saddle and took a drink.  "Might be worth the change in our travel plans."  He handed the canteen to Nathan. "We're ahead of schedule at this moment and I'm more than willin' to shake the dust of this town from my feet.  What do you say we go there immediately?  I'm sure the healin' waters would be of benefit to you, too?"

Nathan took a drink and handed the canteen back to Ezra.  He watched as Ezra took another sip before stowing the vessel again.  "Sure," Nathan responded.  "I'm ready."

They rode off, side-by-side, leaving Sweet Haven behind.


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