Nathan realized he was probably spending more time than necessary in brushing out Newton. Not that the horse seemed to mind. Newton was contently standing in the stall seemingly enjoying the process.
Nathan had hoped doing his rounds would help him clear his mind. However, while it was good to have had a day that felt normal and ordinary when it came to his job, that routine had done nothing to calm his mind and emotions. After they had done the investigation into the shooting, Nathan had expected things to calm down and they had for a little while. Then Dylan had showed up in Hope Valley. Swallowing his pride, he had gone to Lucas for help in handling that situation. A situation that had thankfully been solved with just a few bruises. For now, Ally was safe. As soon as Bill could get the adoption finalized, he wouldn't need to worry about his brother-in-law any longer, even after the man got out of jail.
Putting his good for nothing brother-in-law behind bars had been a relief. Nathan had thought perhaps things would start to get better. He felt ready to finally leave his past in the past and move on with his life.
However, others had other plans.
First Elizabeth had rejected him. Even when he had offered to leave the Mounties for her, she had still ran from him. Perhaps he had been wrong about her having feelings for him? Or maybe she wasn't over Jack yet? He wasn't sure but whatever the case was, Elizabeth had avoided him since then. That fact he had been certain of.
Then Andrew Hargraves had made his way into town. The moment he had seen him, Nathan knew he wasn't bearing good news. He also knew that Hargraves wasn't really interested in the prisoner transfer from last fall. That shooting simply gave Hargraves a chance to do what he had failed to do three years ago - have him dismissed from the force. The questions that the superintendent had asked during the inquiry had proven that.
Nathan's hope was that he hadn't been the only one to notice it. Not that he wished Hargraves any ill will. The man was a good officer. He had simply let his pride and personal feelings interfere with his job. Everyone made mistakes.
All Nathan wanted was for this all to finally be over with. He wanted to move on and put the past to rest.
Finishing with Newton, Nathan gave the horse a final pat before turning from him. After putting the grooming tools away, Nathan left the livery.
After a couple of steps, Nathan stopped. He looked around the small town. The town that had seemed like a punishment when he had been sent here but had somehow become his home. He had been able to find himself again. He had allowed himself to move beyond the pain and regrets of Fort Clay and start to live again.
When he had come to Hope Valley he had intended to stay only long enough so that he could put in for another transfer. After requesting to leave Fort Clay, he knew a refusal to take the assignment or another transfer request would be frowned upon. It may have even been denied. So despite the fear of ghosts from the past haunting him, Nathan had accepted the assignment to Hope Valley. He intended to do his job but keep his distance from the townsfolk. To keep a certain amount of detachment between himself and the place and people that Jack Thornton had left behind.
At first he had been able to do that but little by little, this town and its people had gotten through his walls. Perhaps it never would have happened if it hadn't been for Ally. However, Ally had started to make friends here. She had started to blossom with Elizabeth as her teacher. Seeing Ally happy again had been a balm to his wounded soul. It was then that he had let his guard down. He had started to let people in. First it was Bill. Then it was Elizabeth and then the others had followed one by one.
The promotion to Inspector that he had been offered almost seemed like a lifetime ago. That promotion had been what he wanted. It had been his ticket away from the specters of the past that still followed him.
Except that he hadn't been able to pull Ally away from the happiness that she had found here in Hope Valley. His little girl had opened up. She had made connections with someone other than him. She had been enjoying life again.
Sometimes Nathan wondered what life would have been if he had taken that promotion. Would Elizabeth already be happily settled again with Lucas without him being around to confuse her? Had his presence made the healing process harder on her? Would Constable Novak still be alive just like Jack Thornton might have been if he had made a different choice three years ago?
Nathan started walking toward the main road through Hope Valley. He needed to stop by the office briefly before heading home. Perhaps at home he would be able to escape the questions that he simply had no answers for.
As he walked though, Nathan felt a tightening in his chest. He tried to ignore it, certain that it was just his troubled mind manifesting its worries in another way. He took a deep breath and tried to push those worries aside as he did at other times. However, the feeling in his chest didn't go away and he felt as if he couldn't take a deep breath.
Reaching out, Nathan's hand found the hitching rail outside the saloon. Using it to help support himself, Nathan struggled for each breath. Feeling as though he couldn't breath only added to the anxiety he felt.
"Nathan are you okay?" a voice asked. The voice belonged to one of the last people in town he wanted to see. Given where he was though, Nathan supposed he shouldn't be surprised.
Nathan tried to speak. Tried to tell Lucas that he was fine. The words wouldn't come though.
"I got this, Lucas," Bill said, his voice right next to Nathan.
Nathan felt a supporting hand go around him and knew that it was Bill.
"Let's get you somewhere where you can sit down and you are away from prying eyes," Bill told him, guiding Nathan away from the hitching post and down the street.
"Should I alert Carson?" Lucas asked.
"I got this," Bill told him again. "If I need Carson, I'll get him."
Struggling to breath with the tightness in his chest and leaning on Bill for support, Nathan let the older man guide him away from the saloon.
"Try to take slow, deep breaths, Nathan," Bill said as he led the man toward the Mounted Police office. The judge knew it would be better if Nathan were sitting already but he also knew they would attract attention outside. A crowd would only make the situation worse. It would also mean that he wouldn't have any chance of getting the younger man to talk to him. As it was, getting Nathan to talk wasn't going to be easy.
With Nathan leaning heavily on him, Bill kept them going toward the office. He kept repeating the reminder every few steps. Bill was hoping he could get Nathan to the office without the younger man passing out on him.
Finally reaching the office, Bill guided Nathan inside and to the closest chair.
"You're going to be fine," Bill told his friend as Nathan leaned forward. Bill managed to undo the top button of the uniform jacket as he continued speaking. "Slow, deep breaths," he reminded again, reaching for Nathan's wrist to check the man's pulse.
Bill remained at Nathan's side, trying to be a calming presence until the episode had past. As the minutes past and Carson didn't show up, Bill figured Lucas, and anyone else nearby, had listened to him. He was thankful for that. Nathan wasn't in any immediate danger and Bill felt that getting the man to talk would be more beneficial than the doctor hovering around at this time.
Eventually, Nathan's breathing became less labored and the beat of his heart under Bill's fingers began to slow.
"Feeling better?" Bill asked as Nathan sat up straighter. He let got of Nathan's wrist as the other man nodded in reply.
Getting to his feet Bill got a cup of water for Nathan. Handing it to the Mountie, the judge then retrieved another chair. Placing it next to Nathan's, Bill sat down.
"I suppose after the last few weeks you've been having, a panic attack isn't all that surprising," Bill commented. He knew he had to ease into the conversation if he had any chance of getting Nathan to talk instead of closing himself off like he had the other day.
"I'll be fine now if you want to go, Bill," Nathan said, taking another sip of water before lowering the cup.
Bill shook his head. "There is nowhere I need to be," he replied casually.
"Of course not," Nathan commented, reaching up and undoing another button on his jacket.
"Given how the inquiry turned out, one might think you would be feeling relieved. However, if I were a betting man, I would say the outcome of this inquiry is not the only thing weighing on your mind."
"That would probably be a safe bet," Nathan commented.
"When I told Hargraves that you had told me what happened at Fort Clay, he implied that you might not have told me the whole story. I told him that didn't matter to me and it doesn't," Bill said. "I've gotten to know you these past two years Nathan, and I know what kind of person you are. Hope Valley is lucky you were given this assignment. We're better for it and I would wager to say you're a better man for it as well. What happened in that past won't change my opinion of you. However, getting it out in the open may take a little weight off your shoulders. Maybe even off your heart," Bill ventured.
Bill watched Nathan's reaction. He could see the same guarded look on Nathan's face that the man had worn when asked if he had served with Jack Thornton.
"It's something to do with Jack, isn't it?"
Beside him, Nathan sighed. "I didn't serve with him, Bill. I didn't meet him either. I would not lie to you or Elizabeth."
"I never said you did," Bill told him. "However, I'd wager that you know something more about Jack's last assignment or his death that the rest of us don't."
Nathan looked up at the ceiling. Bill could see the man was wrestling with his emotions. Giving him time, Bill sat quietly beside him.
"Jack Thornton was not suppose to have that assignment at Fort Clay three years ago. It should have been mine," Nathan said, his voice wavering.
The admission surprised and confused Bill. "You mean you turned the assignment down?"
Nathan shook his head. "After the incident with the cattle rustlers I was suspended pending the outcome of an inquiry into my actions. Because of that suspension, another Constable had to brought in to cover my next assignment."
Bill knew where this was going. "You were suppose to take the assignment training the new recruits that Jack was asked to take at the last minute."
Nathan nodded. He took a sip from the cup he held and then sat looking down into it.
"Like you said, I disobeyed orders even though I caught those cattle rustlers before they crossed the border. The suspension and the inquiry into that choice, I have no issues with those actions. I have no problem facing the consequences of the choices I make. The fact that another officer, a husband, died because of that choice, well that is something I do regret."
"Jack's death was not your fault Nathan," Bill stated.
"Wasn't it?" Nathan said, turning his head to look at the older man. Tears glistened in his eyes. "I should have been out on that training mission. Jack Thornton should have never had to leave Hope Valley. If I had not been suspended, he would have not been at Fort Clay. Elizabeth would still have her husband. Little Jack would have grown up knowing his father."
"And Ally would have lost another parental figure."
"I know," Nathan whispered. "Every time I was thankful that I was still able to be there for Ally, I feel guilty that it is at the cost of another man's life."
"So how does Hargraves fit into all of this?" Bill asked, sensing there was more.
"The inquiry board dismissed Hargraves disciplinary action against me. They felt that I had simply made a choice based on information that I had gathered while on the assignment that Hargraves didn't have when he gave the orders. The cattle rustlers had been arrested and the situation resolved. Hargraves was not happy with the verdict. He felt as if I had gotten away with undermining his orders."
"That would explain why he had an axe to grind with you," Bill commented.
Nathan nodded. He continued to stare at the cup of water as he began to slowly turn the cup in his hands. Bill noticed a slight shake to those hands.
"Keep going," Bill instructed, sensing that there was still more to the story.
"After I was reinstated, Hargraves told me to join up with the training mission. His intention was for me to take Constable Thornton's place and let him come home to his wife. I rode out and . . ."
Nathan got choked up. Reaching up he wiped at a few stray tears as he tried to get his emotions under control.
Bill waited silently, though he had an inclination that he knew where this story was going.
"I was close enough to them when the landslide occurred that I heard it. When I reached the group, some of the recruits were standing around in shock. A few others were helping the other instructor in a rescue effort. I joined them. I was . . ."
Nathan's words trailed off as the man broke down in tears. Taking the cup from Nathan's trembling hands, Bill placed it on the floor even as he reached out to put his arms around the younger man. For one of the few times in his life, Bill was at a loss for words. It was already a heavy burden to bear, and then Nathan had been assigned to Hope Valley. Assigned to take the place of the man whose death he felt responsible for. He couldn't help but wonder if Hargraves had somehow played a role in that decision as a way to further punish Nathan for avoiding the original punishment.
Bill recalled the professional but aloof manner Nathan had when he had first arrived in Hope Valley. He had seemed uneasy. At the time, Bill had simply assumed it was because of the response his presence was making with the town folks. Hope Valley hadn't been very welcoming to Jack's replacement. Nathan hadn't really relaxed until Ally had joined him here.
Bill understood Nathan's behavior in those early days better now.
"I found him, Bill," Nathan managed to get out through his tears. "I was the one who pulled Constable Thornton's lifeless body out of the dirt. I remember just looking down at him and thinking that it should have been me."
"You don't know that," Bill told him, an arm still around Nathan's shaking shoulders as the younger man continued to cry. Bill didn't bother to try to put an end to the tears. He had a feeling the tears were probably something Nathan had needed to release for the last few years. "You don't know what changes your presence with the recruits would have made. Perhaps you all would have been further on or maybe you would not have reached that point yet? Maybe your efforts would have kept all three of you safe? You don't know what would have happened Nathan. Nor was it your fault that Jack was there. You didn't select him to take your place. Nor did you force Jack to take that assignment. That was his choice. The simple fact is Nathan, it wasn't your time. God had other plans for you, even if those plans were simply for you to be there for Ally."
"But Little Jack grows up not knowing his father. How is that fair?"
"Life isn't fair. I would think of all people, you would have learned that. However, Little Jack has other people in his life to help him navigate growing up. He has Elizabeth. He has me. He has Rosemary and Lee. Who would Ally have had if you had died that day? You are that girl's world, as everyone in that room yesterday saw. Do what you said you would do yesterday, Nathan. Honor Jack's sacrifice by continuing to serve honorably and by being the father that Ally needs."
Bill hoped his words would bring Nathan some kind of comfort. He knew it was a heavy burden that Nathan carried with him. He knew that the weight of that burden wouldn't simply disappear overnight. However, Bill also hoped that by sharing that burden with him that Nathan might finally be able to find some semblance of peace over the situation.