Alternate "Old West" Universe
Disclaimer: I know, they arent mine
Thanks: A big, grateful thank to my amazing beta reader Laurie Anne. Girl you are simply great!
Well Id better explain this: in this tale I describe a little, old church in South Tyrol, and my wonderful "beta" was able in an odd way to "see" it!
Note: Tammy this is for you!
Feedback: Yes, thanks!
"Arent you hungry?" Father Josiah Sanchez asked in a stern tone, as he looked down at the boys plate and the half eaten peach cobbler, Vin Tanner shook his head of unruly locks in response.
"You havent eaten your dessert."
"I dont want it," the child answered, wondering if the huge man could read his mind as well as the Holy books he had on his worktable.
"Thats not like you," the priest pointed out with concern, "Mrs. Morris cooked it just for you."
Vin blushed guiltily, looking down at his wrists. He did not like his wrists; they were the thinnest in his schoolroom and reminded him painfully of his small frame among the other boys. Right now, he did not know where else to look. The laughter of the fat, little man sitting with them caused Vins cheeks to burn. He did not like this visitor. Watching the man's thick fingers clutching a big slice of bread to butter it, a deep sense of revulsion raised in the boys stomach as the intruder devoured the food greedily. Black edged fingernails gave the man a less then tidy appearance, and his cold eyes made Vin suspect the guest was here for some reason, some bad reason.
It had started a week ago, when a man came to the rectory. He was thickly built, with greasy, short hair and a round, too white of a face. Calling himself OBrien he told them he just arrived in town and needed work and shelter. There was something sinister in his smile, as the man glanced furtively around the room. Vin felt a shiver run down his spine while he scrutinized the man warily. Father Sanchez arranged for the traveler to do some small repairs around the church, and the boy tried to convince himself that the man was in need. Maybe coming here to receive a special blessing as most people did. Still, his sharpened instincts warned him that something wasnt right about this fellow.
But as usual he didnt say anything
"Im going to do my homework," Vin murmured rising from his seat to avoid the scrutiny of Josiah's sharp eyes. Quickly he climbed the stairs that led to his room and then closed the door, looking affectionately around. He had never had a room of his own at the orphanage or even a decent bed. Stretching out upon the warm, cozy bed he allowed the face of the stranger to pass from his mind, the fear fading as he stared up at the ceiling, turning the rectory into whatever he whished it to be. Scrambling under the covers after he had finished his schoolwork Vin prayed not to be taken away from his dream, the little paradise he found in this little peaceful room and closing his eyes slipped into a restless sleep.
All was silent in the house when Vin awoke after a dream. Realising he was thirsty, the boy paddled down the stairs in his bare feet, not making a sound.
In the kitchen, he reached for the teapot on the stove, pouring himself a cold drink of tea, savouring the bitter taste on his lips.
His thirst satisfied, he felt the urge to visit the statue he often referred to as "his mother." Going past the tiny orchard, he slipped into the darkened church. Adjusting his eyes to the darkness he saw a movement in the transept and with a sudden turn he eased himself into the little space beneath the wooden seats where the choir sat, holding his breath while he waited. Harsh voices echoed clearly in the empty church and Vin felt a sense of fear clutch at his heart.
"Did you find it? "
"Yes, its in the little chapel on the left and its pure gold! Its not heavy so we'll be able to lift it easy."
"Good, Lets get it."
"This is an old church and I need more time, to see if there is anything else of value worth taking. A place like this should have more relics than that one."
"Youre right. How long do you plan on hanging around?"
"A couple of days should do it."
"What about the preacher?"
"That huge fool is so eager to help a poor Irishman down in his luck that we wont need to worry about him. I guess his wife was from Cork, so he automatically has a weakness for one of her fellow compatriots." A muffled chuckle came from O Brien as he led his cohort out of the church.
Vin waited until the sound of their footsteps faded, then rushed from his hiding place to the statue of Holy Mary, kneeling before her as the preacher has instructed him to do. With wide, pleading eyes he glanced upon the peaceful face and asked in a soft whisper,
"Mother, will you help us?"
He stayed in the dark church for a while, his mind racing as fast as his little heart was beating. Again, he looked up at the statue, her sweet smile illuminated by the moonbeams that shone in from a stained glass window.
Vin felt comforted by her presence.
Youre a Tanner, remember that, a gentle voice from long ago, urged him.
Vin looked upon the statue. "Ill protect father Sanchez, Mama, be sure of that!"
Walking slowly to the little wooden door hidden next to the altar , he turned the doorknob. He had been inside this room many times with Josiah. The priest had called it the "treasure room." Dark ebony furniture decorated the chamber and old books adorned in gold letters with yellowed pages lined the shelves painted with various pictures of animals, flowers, and Saints all over the covers. Colourful effigies of polished wood and embroidered vestments sat alongside golden chalices. However, there was one piece that was older than all of them all.
Vin cautiously lighted a couple of candles, the soft glow spreading over the pure gold reliquary on the small altar in the middle of the narrow room, Josiah had told him that this was an ancient piece all the way from Ireland. There was also a strict order to never touch it without permission, a fact that caused fear in the young boy. However, it had to be done.
With great care he took it from the altar and holding it tightly against him, he searched for the secret passage of stairs that led to his refuge.
In his wanderings, he had found the forgotten compartment, a little square room, with low ceilings, just under the tower bell. It had once been white, but time and weather had yellowed the paint to a dull hue.
Vin would often hide himself in here to escape the noisy streets and the people who walked them, looking out through a narrow window that allowed the wind and sun to comfort him.
Life had made him very wary about strangers and as usual, he was right about this so-called "poor Irishman." He had proved to be nothing more than a liar and a thief.
Vin put the reliquary on the wooden floor and sat back against the wall.
You did right, Son , the same, gentle voice called from the past. Vin smiled at the thought and allowed the tension to ease in his body, soon falling asleep.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah Sanchez became alarmed when a teacher from the local school known as Miss Nettie came to visit him. The widow sat silently in the parlour, her whitened hair pulled backed tidily, complementing her crisp, plain blue dress. Her piercing eyes held a wary look as she waited on the priest.
"Whats wrong, mam? " the priest asked as he looked up from the sermon he was writing.
"Its Vin, today at school he seemed to me a bit pale and shaky, Father Sanchez, "Miz Nettie explained. She liked the little, shy, blue-eyed boy and cared a great deal about himt.
"Well, he did appear to be in a rather strange mood this morning," Josiah admitted as he thought back to the start of the day. "He refused his breakfast, but I didnt figure he was ill. He doesnt eat much sometimes."
"Did he seem okay to you?"
The priest shrugged."It's hard to say with Vin. he doesnt talk too much."
"Where is Vin now? "
"Hes around the church somewhere, Miz Nettie."
Nettie Wells rose from her seat and straightened her dress. "Id like to speak to him, if you dont mind "
Sanchez sadly nodded, "Do you think he has been having problems living with me?" he asked guardedly.
"No, father Vin loves you but he is a loner and with some extra care and love, hell turn out fine," the widow answered.
"Lets go, then, " Josiah offered with a cheerless smile.
+ + + + + + +
At first O Brien took little notice of the footprints as he tended to the various flowerbeds around the church. The evidence of small bare feet in the once soaked earth wasnt that unusual. Kids enjoyed running around with no shoes on. But a nagging doubt had been troubling him since last night, causing a sudden urge to check the area. It was something he couldnt explain. Studying the ground around him, his anxiety rose. No, he was being too nervous. Vin was constantly going to the church with Father Sanchez . Looking at the ground again, he noted there was only his and Vins footprints heading towards the church.
He straightened and pursued his lips. Last night. there had been a light shower before his meeting with his cohort, thus making the ground soft enough to make prints
Had Vin been prowling around the church during that time?.
O Brien scrutinized the path the footprints made, following them to the northern side of the building. Staring at the chapel 's little back door. The troubling suspicion became stronger . Ever since he had arrived here, the boy had been observing him like some sort of silent shadow ..
Had that little bastard been in the church last night? the fake Irishman thought to himself. Did the boy discover anything about his plans? In a few steps, he was at the door and quickly stepping inside, he hurried for the room that held the reliquary. Upon entering the small sanctuary, he saw that his prize was gone.
"Damn!" he uttered in frustration. He'd tear the room apart for the ancient treasure if he didnt find that reliquary . . The frantic searching led to the discovery of the hidden staircase . Cautiously OBrien climbed the steps and found himself in the bell tower. He glanced around noticing a tiny crack against one of the walls. Upon further inspection, it revealed a secret doorway that led to a cramped room. Regardless of the dim lighting, he could make out Vins figure sitting against the the farthest wall. The boy's face was expressionless but the shallow, fast breathing told the con man he was afraid, trapped and helpless. He took a step closer to the child and Vin raised his head slightly to keep his eyes on the man.
The man took notice of the deep blue eyes of the boy as a stray strand of sunlight hit upon them , sharply contrasting with the pale skin. "I see you," OBrien taunted. "Youve stolen the reliquary and you wont get away with it, you little thief. Come out of there, now!" Receiving no response, the con man took the remaining few steps, and was inside the room, grabbing Vin under the arms to force him up.
"Noo!" Vin shouted out, shuddering violently .He fought to escape the vice-like grip on his arms, gazing up in fear at the mad look in the strangers eyes.
Cornered and unable to free himself, Vin screamed as loud as he could, but was immediately silenced by OBriens hand over his mouth.
"Aint no use in yelling, boy!" O Brien whispered in the frightened youths ear.
"Aint no one going to listen to a thief." He dragged and pushed Vin's resisting body towards the stairs. Again, Vin made a desperate attempt to free himself. With a sharp twist, he managed to wrest himself loose, only to sway dangerously at the top of the narrow staircase.
OBrien made a grab for the boy, but it was too late. Vin tumbled down the stairs hitting his forehead hard on the bottom wooden step
The con man hurried down the stairs, leaning over the fallen boy. At that moment, Father Sanchez and miss Nettle rushed into the room, having heard the sound of screams and the horrific noise of something or someone falling down the steps.
"Vin! " the priest cried out when he saw the body, sprawled on the floor. Angrily turning to the guest, he demanded, "What did you do to him? "
Miss Nettie hurried to the child 's side, her trembling hand reaching for Vins throat. She sighed in relief . "Hes still with us, Father. His heart is beating strong! "
"What happened? Tell me!" Sanchez shouted at the man again.
"Hes a thief, father Sanchez, he stole the gold reliquary and hid it in a room up in the bell tower. When I found him up there, he got frightened and tried to escape. Thats when he fell down the steps, "OBrien tried to explain . "Im sorry , but it all happened so fast , I couldnt stop him."
"I cant believe that!" Mrs. Nettle cried out in protest.
"Ive got proof , I found the reliquary in his possession . He must've done it last night, because you can see his footprints around the church and it did rain earlier in the evening," the man said smugly, momentary forgetting his own set of prints.
Father Josiah Sanchez nodded briefly at the guest . "Mr. O Brien," he said calmly, "Id like to tend to Vin now and talk with Mrs. Wells. Would you mind leaving us?"
"Sure, Father, Id better to get back and finish my gardening before dark," the con man agreed, quietly exiting the room.
Carefully Josiah shifted Vins body around so he could cradle it in his arms, holding the battered child close against his broad chest.
"Hes light as a feather, " he whispered as he turned to look back at the older woman..
"He needs you, Father," Nettie said, her heart beating faster as her wise, old eyes filled with tears.
Josiah carried the child into the house and placed him on a couch..
"Would you get me an extra blanket, Miz Nettie?" he asked/ "Hes freezing."
The boy moaned softly when the priest probed his forehead lightly. A bulge the size of a nut was just under the hairline of the matted, curly head.. Thankfully, the breath and the heartbeat remained steady.
Nettie began to spread the blanket over the little body when she noticed four, thin, parallel scratches on Vins left forearm one of them seeping blood.
."Did you see these?" she asked the priest. "There s also some bruising under them .. like someone was holding onto the boy.".
Giving the arm a cursory examination, Sanchez nodded in agreement . "Theres bruising on the right arm in the same area as well, but none of the scratches are too deep. "
"I think we need a doctor," Nettie suggested, "and maybe Id better have a talk with the Sheriff. Who is that man who was here? Ive never seen him before."
"He is a good man, an Irishman who settled with us last week," Father Sanchez replied.
"Im not so sure of that," Miz Nettie murmured. "Vin started this unusual behavior about that time. Do you think that this man could have done some harm to him? Did you notice how Vin reacted to him?"
Pondering the school teacher squestion , Sanchez pulled the cover higher on the quivering childs body.
"Well, Vin didnt like Mr. OBrien too much, but he is a very shy boy and so I thought it was a normal reaction. Nevertheless, I think you are right;.. Vin has been acting strange these past days .. He's been overly quiet , neglecting his chores and has been even avoiding me," he remembered with a sigh. "Sometimes I think that he is a wild creature lost in the world of man."
"I see, Father," Nettie nodded thoughtfully. "I ll be back soon with the doctor and the sheriff, just keep your eye on the child."
+ + + + + + +
Mrs. Wells resolutely headed to the sheriffs office and pushed the door open, The strong smell of cigars and cheap whiskey assaulted her nose as she entered the room and approached the man slumped in the chair,
"Mr. Larabee?" she called out in a sharp tone.
The blonde man in the chair shuddered and opened his blurry eyes. "Miss Nettie?" he slurred in response.
"Yes, its me, you are drunk Marshal, and thats a real shame," she added in disapproval.
The man managed to raise his heavy head. "Can I help you, Mam?" he asked .
"Not in the shape you are," Miz Nettie scolded . "I think you need a cup of coffee, and a strong one . Where's the kitchen?"
"No kitchen , but what youre looking for is over there," the drunken sheriff uttered, pointing at an adjoining room.
Miz Nettie made her way to the untidy area, finding a potbellied stove with a tin coffee pot sitting on it. Beside the stove, she found some cabinets filled with coffee, grounds and other food related items. Soon she had made a steaming pot of coffee, and brought out a cup full of the hot liquid to the sheriff.
"Drink it down, Sheriff Larabee," she ordered.
Obediently, Chris drank down three cups of the hot , bitter brew before looking up at the older woman. "Whats going on, miss Nettie? "
"Your help is needed at the parish. Ive already alerted the doctor, and he should be able to tell you more. You ready?"
"Damn!" the sheriff uttered, raising his head with a big effort. Slowly rising from his seat, he reached out to steady himself against the wall as he managed to follow the spirited woman down the street.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah Sanchez heard a low moan from the child, and he leaned in closer, placing a comforting hand on the boy's slight shoulder. Vin shuddered violently causing the priest to question how much reassurance he was giving to cause such a bad reaction.
"Lemme out, please, dont shut the door. Its so dark I caint breathe. Ill be good lemme out .. lemme out please? .," the semi-conscious boy pleaded in a pitiful whisper, the slight touch on his arm making him whimper in fear.
"Poor little thing," he thought as he gazed down at Vin. The large, blue eyes where lightly closed, while the boys narrow chest moved almost imperceptibly at every rhythmic breath. The priest found himself thankful that the boy wasnt hurt worse. According to the doctor, Vin had only sustained minor injuries from the fall.
"Vin, relax," Josiah coaxed softly, again trying to put his hand on the child. The action caused another episode of violent shuddering.. "Come on, son, why dont you relax?"
Slowly Vin opened his eyes and stared up at Josiah He sighed deeply, closing his eyes again, afraid to gaze upon the face of the gentle man With all the evidence of stealing against him he was going to be sent back to the orphanage.
How could he explain to Father Sanchez his bad feelings towards the stranger or why he didnt tell him of the conversation he overheard in the church?
OBrien was an adult, and could persuade the Padre that he was a thief and a bad boy.
When Miss Nettle came back with a dark clad man Van felt he was lost. He didnt dare beg for mercy, knowing none would be wasted on the likes of him, so he stared at the group of people in the nearby room with wide, frightened eyes, unable to lift his aching body from the couch.
After talking to the doctor who was leaving to get some extra supplies to treat Vin, Miz Nettie turned to the man in black .
"So, Marshal, heres the boy I told you about . Mr.OBrien is in the garden , would you like to talk with him first?"
Vin's body began to shudder and he burst in bitter sobs, curling himself into a ball and shutting his eyes. The Sheriff? Was he going to be sent to jail?
"This kids scared," the sheriff murmured, watching the terrified boy 's reaction. Booted footsteps thundered softly across the oak floor as Larabee quickly stepped into the room.. He leaned in closer and placed a hand on the youths forearm ."Whats wrong, young man?" he asked gently.. "Are you in pain?" The child responded to the very soft pressure of his hands.
"Head hurts," Vin whispered in reply.
"Im sure it does," Chris agreed, "Im here to help you," he added when he saw the fear in the boys eyes. "Mind if I sit beside you?"
Vin looked up and saw two concerned green eyes, staring at him as a strong hand stroked his damp cheek and he nuzzled trustingly against it with a sigh.
"Do you want to talk about what happened?" Larabee asked.
"No, head hurts," the boy repeated, trying to touch his aching forehead with an unsteady hand.
Chris grasped a hold of the tiny wrist and gently pulled the hand down."Easy there , young man, lay still," he soothed, coaxing the boy to rest up beside him. Vin nodded slightly and snuggled up against the black coat, his senses telling him he was safe now.
Miss Nettie looked on in amazement. "Where did you learn to deal with children in such a way, Marshal?"
"I was married once, had a boy bout his age . " Larabee said abruptly, his gaze on Vin all the while. His face was blank except for the shadow of a smile on his severe, handsome features.
Shaking her head in wonder, Miz Nettie saw Larabee changing before her eyes. She always viewed him as an untidy drunkard but now she beheld someone different in front of her.
Sheriff Larabee took the square chin of the child in his hand and turned the little face towards him. "Son, look at me. We need to talk man to man, all right?" he asked in a kind tone.
"Yes, Mister, " the little soft voice replied.
"My names Chris and since we are friend now, you can call me that, understood?"
"Yes Chris, " the tiny voice said again hesitantly as the big, blue eyes looked up at his new friend with confidence.
"Tell me the truth, now, did you steel the reliquary?"
"No, I only tried to hide it cause he wanted to " the boy began.
"Whom are you talking about?" Chris interrupted.
"OBrien. .. he wanted to steal it."
"Did you hear him say that? "
Vin nodded. "Ise in the church last night and Mr. OBrien was talking to another bad man bout stealin it, so I took it and I brought it in the little room by the bells "
"What happened then?"
"He found me there and he said I was a little thief, he grabbed me but I got away and then I fell," Vin answered.
"Why didnt you tell Father Sanchez about the man?"
The boys head fell to his chest. "I couldnt, Father Sanchez thought Mr. OBrien was a good man .. an', I didnt want to upset him. I like it here. I dont want to go back to the orphanage .but I had to. help, so I promised Mama .. " the child explained , a big, lonely tear, sliding down his reddened cheek.
"Its all right, young man, its all right," Chris said in a reassuring tone, holding the boys trembling hand inside his larger one. "Ill take care of that bad man out there, be sure of that," he stated as he rose slowly from the couch..
Larabee had just cleared the steps to the front door when the doctor met him.
"Howdy, marshal, howd it go with the boy?"
"I know what happened now, Doc. The hard part is over, so Im off to take care of the easier end of this mess." Chris smiled and tipped his hat politely. "I'm handing Vin over to you. Do your best with him."
The doctor watched as the sheriff walked around the church to the back, then shook his head in disbelief. He couldnt remember ever seeing the lawman with a smile in his face.
+ + + + + + +
An hour later, the doctor was conversing with Father Sanchez and Miz Nettle, while Vin rested peacefully on the couch his, wounds salved and dressed.
"He's going to be just fine. Keep him warm and in bed for a couple of days and hell heal without further complication. Despite his frail appearance, Vin is a strong boy, I can assure you of that."
With a smile, the kind doctor patted Vin on the head. To the child he added, "And you, Mr. Tanner ... behave yourself and rest. "
"Kay Doc," Vin agreed sleepily
"Ill come to check on him tomorrow," the doctor said to Josiah in parting.
Father Sanchez sighted in relief and leaned on the couch, "Im taking you to your bed, Vin," he said.
The little boy looked up at him. "Can I stay at the parish, father? " he asked in a little shaky voice.
"You belong here, son," the preacher whispered in his deep, low voice. He carefully shifted the frail body into his arms and gently carried him to the bedroom, easing the boy tenderly into the mattress.
Miss Nettie moved closer to the bed. "How do you feel, Vin?"
"Im fine, Miz Nettie, can you stay for a spell?"
"Of course, son"
"Yes, Vin?" Nettie Wells wrapped an arm around the small shoulders and grinned.
"Is that man in the black clothes the marshal?"
"Yes he is."
"Do you think he will come to visit me too?" Vin yawned. "He said we are friends now."
"I think he will. Do you like him because he is a real cowboy?"
"No, Miss Nettie, I like him cause hes a . Dad," Vin said with a broad, sweet smile.