Spoiling For A Fight

by Farad
For the Daybook prompt: Nathan, OW, 'They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.' -Thelonious Monk
Also for the first Bingo prompt "Present Tense". A special thanks to the wonderful people at WEC for their help with the story, especially with the verbs.

The rope is tight around Nathan's neck, his skin scraped and bruised from the fingers of the man who had forced it into place.

Nathan tries again, desperate to make them understand. "I tried to save him! But the gangrene - it was too far gone - "

"Save it for your maker," the man snarls, but his attention is on his boss, the man who's talking to the dead man in the coffin, the man Nathan couldn't save.

It wasn't his fault and he's tried to explain it - hell, he'd explained it when they'd brought their damned boss in, already so far on the way to dead that the best Nathan could do was try to help with the pain. He'd told them then that there wasn't much he could do - but he was black, and they were white, and no matter how far west Nathan goes, that fact never changes. He might be out of slavery, he might even be out of the South, but the opinions of white men still carry the day - and he ain't never going to be white.

He opens his mouth to try again, not ready to die. He still has to find his pa, his brother and sisters -

"Reckon you'd all be happier if you just rode away." The voice is clear and easy, as if he is talking about the weather - as if Nathan isn't about to hang. He looks to the voice, not sure what he's seeing. Though after a second, he knows the 'who': Virgil Watson's new hire, the long-haired, soft-voiced man with eyes as sharp as a cat's.

What the hell is he doing here - and what the hell is he doing with -

"Not a chance, boys," the leader of these murderers laughs, and Nathan's hands twitch with frustration. He reaches up, thinking to claw at the noose, but as he does, he realizes that no one's paying attention to him - or to the man next to him, the man who has a knife just close enough for Nathan to grab.

But even as he does, the shots start and he flinches, trying to avoid getting hit. That worry leaves him, though, as the wagon lurches under his feet. Before he can say a prayer, he's hanging by his throat. Part of him is grateful that his neck doesn't snap right away - he's seen enough hangings to know what the order of things should be. But he can feel the air building in his lungs, wanting out, and at the same time, he can feel the need for new air growing. His head starts to pound, the sounds of the shooting getting quieter and quieter as his ears slowly stop working. His vision is getting dark at the edges, and he's barely paying attention but his eyes register the motion as Virgil's new hire rises up quickly from behind a tombstone, the barrel of his long rifle pointed to the side. There's no one there, Nathan knows that, and he wonders if his last thought is going to be what this crazy man is shooting at.

Then he's falling, and better, the constriction of his throat isn't as bad. He's barely aware of hitting the ground, just of reaching up and pulling at what's left of the noose. Fuzzily, he thinks that Virgil got a sharpshooter for his pay, and he thinks again that the white man is crazy. But at least his craziness helped Nathan.

That's his thought as he watches one of the cowboys rise from the dug-out grave, pointing his gun at the two men who have saved Nathan. He doesn't even think as he flips the knife in his hand, the blade coming to rest at exactly the right place for the throw that will pay back some of his debt to the sharpshooter and his friend.

" . . .and I ain't sorry they're dead." Nathan rubs at his throat again, feeling the bruise from the rope that had been wrapped around it until that sharpshooter had managed to shoot it down. Damned lucky shot.

"No, you shouldn't be," Josiah says tiredly. "Sorry I wasn't there."

Nathan looks over to the other man. Josiah stands with his hands on his hips, his hat pushed back. He's stripped down to his long-john top, the cloth so worn and faded that it barely looks pink in the few places where it isn't wet with sweat.

"You don't look like you're making a lot of progress," Nathan says. It's an old church, so old that Nathan can't read the writing on the few gravestones that still stand.

Josiah shakes his head then, but there's a smile playing at his lips. "The Lord works in his own time." He leans down and picks up another rock, carrying it carefully over to the low wall he's been working for days now to rebuild.

"Well, the Lord probably wants some help with those Seminoles," Nathan says, returning to the reason he's here. "You can be there for them."

Josiah grunts as he hefts the rock where he wants it. It sits for a few seconds then shifts, sliding out of alignment.

Josiah curses. It isn't a new thing; Nathan has heard the man do it enough times that he wonders if the rumors are true, if Josiah really has been a preacher. Can't tell it now.

"We need your help," he says as Josiah reaches down and tries to pull the rock back into place. "They need your help."

Josiah curses again as the rock refuses to stay where he puts it. "I failed you today, Nathan. Don't see how I can be much good to anyone else if I can't help a friend."

Nathan sighs and rubs at his throat. It's hard to find an answer to that.

"Well. How many of you humanitarians are there?" The son of a bitch says it as if it were a bad thing, as if helping people who need it is a bad thing. Nathan grips his revolver, wishing for a rifle, wishing he'd put himself up on the hill, where he can shoot the son of a bitch.

But as the fury floods him, the bullets start flying, and he starts shooting.

And then it's over and there are wounded to tend to and blood everywhere. But Rain is there beside him, calm, patient, not always knowing what he means, but never snapping back at him when he's too short-tempered to explain.

Then the cheater is there - helping to haul in someone wounded even though it's clear that he's injured too.

"It's fine. I just bruised it when I fell." Sharp, condescending, proud. Too proud. For a second Nathan hesitates. This proud white man doesn't want his help and maybe he shouldn't give it - maybe hurting a little might take this one down a peg or two. Or keep him from his gambling for a day or too.

But even as he's thinking, his hands, damn them, reach right out and do what needs doing.

For a second, he sees the fist coming at him. Then - then the cheater's eyes go wide and he realizes that he's fine, that the pain is going away.

It's worth it, then, that look of surprise, and for an instant, the thanks.

"Or three, we can mount up and we can ride the hell out of here!" Rain draws in a sharp breath that Nathan feels as he holds her against him. "Go, then!" she snaps, her body vibrating with anger. But it's better than the grief of losing her father mere minutes before. "But with my last breath, I will fight these men."

Nathan glares at the tall man - he'd known better than to trust this man, he'd seen the way Buck looks at the women, the way he looks at Rain. And now, his true colors show. A womanizer and a coward.

"Them's Rebs up there," Nathan snarls. "That makes it my fight."

"Hell, I'm not going anywhere," the kid announces, as if he has some stake in this. "I haven't shot anyone yet."

The stupidity of it adds to Nathan's anger - this coward, Buck, has also dragged this kid along into this. If anything happens to JD, it's Buck's fault. "They'll see us before we get five paces, and that gun is gonna cut us to pieces!" Buck yells, still arguing to run away, to abandon these people.

Before Nathan can tell him to leave, to get the hell out if he's that afraid, the whistle of a cannon ball echoes around them. He pulls Rain against him, covering her head with his arm. It explodes close by, too close. "There's got to be another way up there!" Chris calls in the ringing silence. Nathan wonders for a second if Chris is talking about getting out. His anger has given way just a little to fear at the sound of the cannon ball, but the thought of Chris being just as cowardly as Buck brings it back to a simmer.

"There is," a new voice says calmly. Imala comes in and like the others, Nathan turns to look at him. "We climb."

Nathan stares, trying to make sense of the words. In his arms, Rain is still stiff, angry, hurting. He knows the signs well, knows the way grief makes a body ache.

Then Chris nods, the motion sharp but clear. "Let's go."

Nathan's not quite sure what's happening as Chris steps toward Imala then ducks as another cannonball whistles overhead. Children scream, Rain clutches at Nathan - but Chris walks, Vin right behind. Buck, the coward, curses, but he trots along next, followed by JD.

Not running away, not turning his back on the people he promised to protect. Nathan's anger leeches away.

Josiah - damn the man, Josiah looks at Nathan as if he knows what Nathan's thinking. Then he smiles, that big toothy, horse-grin of his. "Let's go," he says, and Nathan wonders if Josiah's crows really do speak the truth.

But Rain draws in a breath and when Nathan looks at her, she nods to him. Her jaw is set and there is fire in her dark eyes. "Go," she says, staring into his eyes. "Go, and make those damned ghosts pay."

As they start the climb up the steep hill, he sees the same fire in Larabee's eyes.

"Whoa! You can't kill me."

Nathan stares up at Anderson on his horse. Around them, the gunfire is so loud that he's not sure he hears the actual words. But the way Anderson grins, like death himself, Nathan knows.

"I'm a ghost of the Confederacy and I will not die." The son of a bitch laughs as he pulls something from inside his coat - a bottle, brown and worn -

And Nathan understands.

"He's so pumped full of laudanum, someone could chop off his head and he wouldn't feel it." It's part of why he's so hateful, so determined to get his way, no matter who he hurts.

Well, part of the reason, anyway.

But it's no excuse for the pain and the misery this son of a bitch has caused. Nathan is more than willing to put him in the ground, to end this whole damned thing -

But it's JD who's there, this kid with the heart of a lion and the brain of a firefly. Nathan doesn't have time to draw breath before this kid, this idiot kid from somewhere back East, is firing at Anderson, drawing his attention and -

"I'll wait for you." Nathan meets her eyes. He could stay here, he should stay here, he knows. No white men here, not now. The Ghosts are gone, their dead buried, their wounded gone with them. As soon as these six men leave, there will be no more white men here, no men to hate him because he's black.

He glances to where Josiah is riding off, toward the others. Josiah has been his friend for a while now, despite the fact that he's white. And so it seems are the others, even the cheater - Ezra. He had tried to make a peace between them, asking if Nathan would ride with him.

He should stay here, settle down with the woman he's coming to love, stay with these people who need him.

But as Josiah nears the other five white men, Chris turns back, looking to the village. Looking at Nathan. He nods, and Nathan knows it for what it is.

He kisses Rain on the cheek then runs to get his horse.