What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
"I'm tellin' you, boy, you gotta lose that stupid hat! You look like a damn tenderfoot! Nobody'd ever believe you spent six years growin' up on a horse ranch. I don't mind about the suit, but that hat makes me ashamed to be related to you."
"Buck, I told you I spent eleven and a half dollars on this hat--out of the clothing allowance you set up for me--and it's got a lotta wear left in it. And anyhow Bat Masterson wears one just like it."
"Bat Masterson," Buck Wilmington bit out, "happens not to be my kid brother! And it won't have much wear left in it if I ask Vin to put a bullet through it."
Chris Larabee grinned tightly to himself at the sound of raised voices on the other side of the street. In the chair alongside his, a seemingly dozing Vin Tanner, perhaps because he had heard his name mentioned, pushed his hat up off his face and opened one eye. "They always carry on like that?" he asked.
"Actually," Chris mused, "back before JD went East to school, he worshipped Buck. Couldn't bear to hurt him or disappoint him. Can't say I ever heard him argue back like that, when he was younger."
"Sounds like Buck hadn't oughtta sent him," Vin observed with a soft snort. "Why did he?"
"Oh, their ma told him that JD's pa was a 'real gentleman,' schooled and a good talker, and Buck persuaded the kid that she'd want him to be like the man. He always brought JD up to revere their ma's memory, and the kid figured he owed her that."
Vin winced as if something in the words had brought up a painful memory, put his hat down again and returned to whatever state he'd been in before. Chris watched the two half-brothers arguing and smiled tightly again. He'd felt almost as angry as Buck had when JD dropped off that stage and made it plain he wanted to be a part of their fight. It wasn't that he didn't respect the kid's abilities or his grit. As far back as Chris had known him, JD had had a warrior's spirit, though he'd never been able (or perhaps the word should be willing) to stand up to Buck when he started to bellow; Chris wondered just what JD had learned in that academy back East that had changed him. And who should know better than Chris that the boy could handle a long gun (he had, after all, helped teach him), or that he was one of the best in the saddle the gunfighter had ever seen? It was more that JD was so young. No, that wasn't it either. This was a country for young men. Chris himself had killed his first man at sixteen and been earning a man's wages as a shotgun guard a year later. Buck had worked his way to California on a wagon train when he was only fifteen and been wearing a badge in Grass Valley within a year. That kid Billy Bonney down in Lincoln County wasn't any older than JD. No, Chris decided, it wasn't his youth so much. It was, at least partly, the fact that he'd spent most of the last four years--years critical to the process of learning how to deal with adults--in an Eastern academic setting; Chris just wasn't sure he would really know, or remember, how to conduct himself around the kind of men he was likely to run up against, riding with the rest of them. And even more than that, it was that he'd been a part of Chris's family, as Sarah and Adam had been--as Buck had been--and Chris didn't want to think that a decision of his might lead to the kid being hurt, or worse.
He watched Buck. He knew his oldest friend blamed himself for the deaths. He remembered what Buck had said to him when they were first trying to catch the murderers, just before they parted near Deming. "I know you blame me, and it don't surprise me. It's my fault. I admit that. If you want to kill me for it I won't try and stop you." Buck had been perfectly willing--even knowing that he still had a little brother depending on him--to offer his life as a sacrifice, in xpiation for Sarah and Adam. Chris was well aware of where Buck was coming from. Buck believed that if he hadn't persuaded Chris to stay over the night in Juarez, they'd have gotten home in time to be there when the killers came. Maybe they could have fought them off.
The fact was that Chris didn't really blame Buck, at least not anywhere near as much as Buck blamed himself. They weren't joined at the hip, after all. Chris could have refused his entreaties and insisted that they go on, or he could have ridden ahead and let Buck catch up later. He could have been there. More to the point, the six murderers would never have struck at his wife and son if not for something in Chris's own past. It was he who had put them in danger, by being what he'd been before he married. That was why he had made up his mind never to let anybody get so close to his heart again. He couldn't deal with the guilt of knowing that others were being used to hurt or punish him, and he didn't think he could survive another such loss as that one had been.
He wondered why he'd never told Buck this. They used to be able to talk about anything. They used to almost read each other's minds. Buck didn't deserve to be still beating himself up about what he saw as his part in the murders of their family.
But he knew. It wasn't that he didn't trust Buck in a fight. He knew he could depend on Buck to watch his back--or his front--as long as there was breath in Buck's body. It was just that Buck's boisterous personality wasn't something Chris Larabee could deal with any more. On one level Chris knew that at least part of that noise and bluffness was a defense mechanism, something Buck used to cover the hurt in his heart. But equally as much of it was simply the way Buck was, the way he'd always been. Chris smothered a sigh. He'd loved life like that himself, once.
No--and he slid his eyes toward the dozing young man in the other chair--he'd grown away from Buck. Vin--quiet, even-tempered Vin, whose eyes held a pain as deep as his own and much older--was the man best suited to be his partner now. Chris examined their still-developing relationship. What did he really know of Vin? Mostly that there was a bounty on him in Tascosa, that he'd been a buffalo hunter and a manhunter, that he was the best tracker and long-range shot Chris had ever seen. Of course there were a lot of men, partners, who went through much longer relationships than theirs had been to date without learning much more than that about each other. And yet...
Chris thought about that first day, about the way his eyes had met Vin's across the breadth of the street, about how he had known, sudden and sure, what Vin was going to do--and how he was going to do it, and even, somehow, a little of why. Known it sure in his skin, the way a Baptist knows Jesus. The gunfighter had never had an experience like that before, not even with Buck. What had it been, that flash that had leaped between them? What had bonded them? Chris wasn't a man accustomed to self-analysis, but in his line it was important that a man understand the motives of those around him. Buck he knew: payback for what he saw as a debt. JD, well, he'd follow Buck to hell and back, simply because Buck was the only person he had left of even half his own blood, and because, too, Buck had been as close to a father as he'd ever known. Nathan had experienced injustice enough in his life to want to fight it whenever he could, and he was, in any case, a healer: healing the woes of the larger society was only one step up from healing the ills and injuries of its individual members. Josiah was doing penance, like Buck but on a deeper level. Ezra...Chris didn't quite have a handle on Ezra yet; he'd worked out the month he'd agreed to in order to have Travis "forget" about that outstanding warrant on him, and still he stayed on. Chris remembered the way he'd tried to train the Wickesville girls to be mail-order brides. Ezra was a con man and an opportunist. Maybe he saw something in Four Corners that the rest of them didn't, the prospect of chances for moneymaking; maybe he figured that as long as he remained a member of the resident corps of peacekeepers, he'd be less likely to get into official trouble. But Vin, now...why Vin? Hell, the man was a Texan; why had he taken a Negro's part to begin with? Or had it been the lynching? Maybe it was just that Vin didn't like the idea of seeing any man hanged unjustly, as he would be if he went back to Tascosa. That might explain it.
Still didn't explain the bond, though.
JD and Buck, still arguing, had vanished into the jail. Chris watched them go, grimly amused. JD. Who'd have thought, even knowing him as Chris did, that he'd have stood up and volunteered to be sheriff? Hell, who'd have thought that he'd have learned to use a handgun so well without hardly ever leaving Illinois? Still, Chris had his reservations about the kid. He wasn't yet eighteen, and that could be a dangerous age. Chris had seen too many such boys get themselves killed, or go down the wrong trail out of inexperience and impulsiveness.
On the other hand, you couldn't get experience unless somebody offered you the chance. And if JD couldn't be with Buck and Chris, he might well go down the wrong trail out of sheer anger. And it was good for Buck to have him around again. Hell, Buck had just about raised the boy. He's got guts, and ethics, and he wants to learn. Maybe I should go on givin' him a chance. Buck will look out for him, I know that.
He eyed Vin. Vin was a puzzle. Chris had been so determined never to let anyone in again. How in less than two months had this scruffy young man gotten so thoroughly under his skin? They weren't even near of an age, like he and Buck were; Vin had to be, what, ten years younger? Fifteen? Almost like JD, who'd been born when Buck was twenty. And yet Chris thought that Vin would have been just as thoroughly at a loss for a reason, had he been asked, as Chris was.
One thing he knew. Vin would never betray him. It had nothing to do with the promise Chris had made, that they would go to Tascosa together. It was something deeper, something that went to the very roots of who each man was. He frowned. That still didn't answer the central question: why? And why was it that, when he looked at Vin, he felt that he'd seen him somewhere before?
In the other chair, Vin Tanner's own thoughts moved in similar tracks. But he didn't worry at it the way Chris did. That had never been Vin's way. Vin had spent six critical years of his boyhood with the Comanches, which was one of the things he hadn't told Chris yet, and he had absorbed a good deal of the mysticism peculiar to the Indian soul. Whatever this was that had sprung into being between himself and Chris, it was a good thing. It was something the spirits approved, something Vin's own guardians had wanted for him. Maybe it had been they who had led him to Four Corners and that completely atypical job at the store. Maybe they had needed him to be here when Chris Larabee arrived, when Nathan Jackson--and the Seminoles--stood in peril. Maybe this was where he was supposed to be, what he was supposed to do with his life. He did wonder, a little, as to why Comanche spirits would care about five white men (even if one of them did have Comanche beadwork on his vest), a Negro, and a village of other-than-Comanche redskins, quite apart from a townful of white men and women and children. Several times since that first fight he'd thought about going out somewhere and seeking a vision. Maybe that would give him the answers. But, on the other hand, he hadn't experienced a dream or vision sent from his guardians in a long, long time. It had always been known that when red children were taken into the white world, they no longer heard the voices of the spirits--just as, when white children were taken as he had been into the red world, they gained the ability to do so. It had nothing to do with blood; it had to do with the road you chose, and he had chosen to go back to the road of his true mother and father.
Although Josiah talked of visions and voices--didn't he see crows? Special crows, apparently, not the ordinary kind of crow that anyone might notice squabbling in a cornfield, just like, say, Vin's guardian, the spirit-wolf, wasn't the same as an ordinary wolf. And it seemed he wasn't the only one with that kind of gift. He and Vin had been coming back from an errand in Eagle Bend about three weeks back, and Josiah had told Vin a story of a young girl 'way over in Europe who had lived and died before most white folks even knew there was such a place as America or such people as Indians, a girl named Joan who had claimed to hear "voices"--from God, she'd said, or maybe angels--that had given her advice to help her lead a holy life, and later to aid her country and her king in a time of troubles. Vin hadn't said much, but he had found the whole thing fascinating. It had made him feel like maybe the red and white worlds weren't as far apart as he'd thought, like maybe it was possible to bring the two halves of himself back together into a single man.
Vin sighed quietly to himself and squirmed into a more comfortable position. It didn't matter why, in the end. It mattered that it was. It mattered that, for the first time in far too long, he felt like he belonged, like he was surrounded by people--even Ezra--whom he could, on the most basic level, trust to watch out for him, believe in his innocence, not betray him.
What troubled him far more than any question of "why" was the feeling growing in him, that he had found something important, something he didn't want to lose. It was that feeling that had inspired him to stay on after the passing of the month for which he'd given his word. On one level he hadn't wanted to. There was Tascosa; he had to get right with the law--what kind of peacekeeper would he be when there was a bounty on his head, what kind of danger might he put the others in by being wanted? And he had Chris now, someone who had agreed to help him prove his innocence. It wasn't just him anymore, and he'd wondered how he would clear his name when he didn't dare show his face in Tascosa for fear of being lynched. There was also the sheer mental and emotional pressure of living in town. For almost a decade Vin had lived as a hunter--first of buffalo, then of men--and hadn't set foot in any community for any longer than it took him to renew his supplies, get paid, and maybe get some drinks and a woman. He had never felt very happy even during those brief intervals: after the long winds of the plains and hills, he could hear every human movement in two blocks of street, and it made him flinchy and nervous. And now here he was living in town, a town he'd promised to help defend. Not that he couldn't take some time off when he wanted to, go out into the wilderness and get his head straight again. Chris seemed to understand that need, and so, surprisingly, did Josiah; when he made it plain that he had to have some time alone, they granted it freely, never saying anything that would make him feel he was running out on them.
All his life, or at least almost all of it, he had either lived in the wild or turned to it for comfort. It was the only thing that didn't change, the only thing he knew without question that he could depend on to be there for him and to work its special healing magic whenever he chose to turn to it. It astonished him to find that, after these two months, he was actually beginning to feel he could relax around the others. And it scared him. Not that he believed any of them would ever fail to stand at his side in a fight, or turn him in for the bounty--even Ezra, as much as he loved money, Vin somehow knew would never stoop to that. No, it was just the idea of being connected to people again. Would they leave him in the end, as his mother had? Or would they try to turn him into something he didn't want to be, like--
Don't think of them.
And yet on another level he knew he needed it. What was it Ezra had said a couple of weeks ago? He'd had a tad too much to drink, and Vin being the only other one of the Seven still present had taken it on himself to get the gambler up to his room. Ezra had been quoting tags of poetry half the night, in a disjointed way, and one of them had hit Vin hard as the two of them lurched up the stairs. "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main..." Vin had never heard it before, but he understood what it meant.
Vin knew that human critters were social animals, just like buffalo or wolves. He knew, on the deepest level, that nobody could function all alone. He'd taken pride in his own apparent ability to do so, had felt a certain sense of superiority on account of it. Now he found himself not only relying on others out of necessity, but actually wanting them to be there, wanting to be with them.
It scared him half to death.
And he didn't fully understand it, even yet. Why them? Why this odd assemblage of men? Why had they come together in just this place and time? Why had they all--even Chris and him--agreed to serve even so much as that first month? And why did he feel this connection to them? He hadn't felt its like since Ma. Not even the Comanches who had taken him in, and for whom he had grieved when he was torn away from them, had grasped hold of his soul the way these six had done.
It was possible to be aware of someone without really seeing him. A person could be like the grass under your feet. You knew it was there, you took it in, but you didn't examine it closely unless you had a reason. As the first month gave way to the second and he saw that they were all staying on even after their bargain with Judge Travis ran its course, he had suddenly discovered that he had a reason, and had set himself to try to figure out why. Vin had always been curious, and the life he'd lived had taught him keen powers of observation. He watched and he listened, and he thought that now, slowly, he was coming to understand. It was, at least partly, that all of them had been wounded in their souls, deeply, as he had. For Chris it was, of course, the loss of his family. For Buck and JD, the same, plus their illegitimacy and the loss of him and their mother. For Nathan, slavery. For Josiah, the doubts that had lost him his faith. For Ezra, Maude and all the things she'd taught him, the strange rootless life he'd been forced to live and the profession into which she had indoctrinated him. These things had made the other six the men they now were, just as Vin's own past had him. And it had made them alike. They were all looking for something--roots, revenge, peace, faith, whatever. That similarity was something each of them, on some unspoken level, could sense in the others, and it drew them together, because each of them knew that the others knew what it was like to search.
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