What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Oddly enough it had been Buck, in an uncharacteristically philosophical mood, who had expressed it, one night late in the saloon just before the first month expired. "Any man who's worth a God damn has a dream," he'd said. "Some call it ambition, or a goal in life. The words don't matter. They mean the same thing."
"So what's yours?" Nathan had asked. "Tallyin' a thousand women for your life?"
And Buck had looked at him levelly and said, "No. It's seein' JD grow up to the man I know he can be, and seein' Chris come back up out of the hell he's been livin' in these three years. The women are just...just somethin' to pass the time and make it bearable while I try to help them two be what I know they can." With a shake of his head: "I abandoned 'em once, I won't do it again."
Hearing that, Vin had suddenly understood that when he and Chris finally found the opportunity to head out for Tascosa, they would be four, not two. Buck wouldn't abandon Chris again, and JD would go with Buck.
A goal in life. Vin could understand that. His was to clear his name. Chris's was to find a way to deal with his loss. Josiah's was to balance the scales for what he saw as a long career of sin. Nathan's was to heal others, and the larger society around him, and in so doing heal the wounds in his own spirit by proving to himself that he didn't hate any more, that he wasn't going to let his past eat him up from the inside out. JD's was to stick with Buck, to not let himself lose the only family he had ever again. Ezra's...Vin still wasn't quite sure about Ezra. To hear the gambler talk, his only goal was to make enough money for a fine saloon. And yet Vin thought there was more to it. In an odd way, something in him resonated to something in Ezra, almost as he and Chris had formed that instant, inexplicable bond. Vin had never had anyone to depend on before; it had always been just him. Ezra was the same way. Both of them were at once warmed and abashed by what was happening inside them, by the feelings of sympathy and unity that were growing between them and the others.
Half teasing, Ezra had said to him just last week, "If Mr. Larabee told you to go to Hell to fetch a coal to light his cookstove, you would set off without any thought past that fact."
"Likely I would," Vin agreed. "But I trust I'd return with that coal, or at least give Old Nick a fight for it worth his rememberin'."
Yes, he would. But not just for Chris.
He felt a sudden powerful need to at least begin to let the others see what was happening in him. Not Chris; he and Chris already knew all they needed to about each other. But Buck, JD, Nathan, Josiah...he thought none of them was really sure he wouldn't just take off someday and not come back. Not that he could be sure he would come back, even with Chris to stand beside him; they'd have a whole town to deal with, after all. Still...for the first time in his life Vin felt he wanted to leave some kind of legacy, even if it was only a memory.
He considered who to approach first, and in that consideration found himself thinking about the similarities between himself and them. Josiah's mysticism pulled at his soul, and Ezra's solitude and his well-hidden despair in it, the difficulty the gambler had with the whole concept of trust, made him feel that on some deep inner level the two of them were far more alike than their speech and clothes would warrant, or than anyone looking just at the surface would ever believe. But Josiah and Ezra were both so well-educated, they made Vin feel shy and inadequate. He felt that he needed someone to practise on. And gradually he realized who the natural choice had to be: the only one younger than himself, the one who was frankly seeking acceptance just as Vin was doing more quietly. JD.
He came out of his reverie at the deep growl of thunder--not the dissonant echoing crash that was ordinarily typical of Western thunderstorms--and realized for the first time that it was raining. And had been raining, from the look of the street, for a while. He glanced up and down the length of the thoroughfare and spotted a couple of storekeepers putting out planks, walking along one to lay the next, providing crossings for pedestrians.
"Welcome back," said Chris.
"Seemed like you was about a million miles away, is all," the gunfighter observed. "You okay?"
"Nothin' I can't figure a way to deal with," Vin said, and eyed a puddle in the street beside the hitching rail. The rain was falling hard enough to make bubbles in it, which he knew to be a sign that the weather would keep on like this all day. "When's Buck'n'JD comin' off duty at the jail?"
"S'posed to give over to Josiah around noon," Chris replied, "though he might relieve 'em earlier; he won't be able to do a lot of work on the church in the rain."
Vin nodded. "Wanta go inside? Gettin' kinda damp'n'cold out here. An old man like you needs to keep out'a this kind'a weather, else he's like to come down with rheumatics."
"I can still beat you to the draw any day you name," growled Chris, though they both knew neither of them meant it.
A couple of hours later, leaning on the batwing doors with a cup of coffee in one hand, Vin watched as Josiah came down the boardwalk, slope-shouldered in his serape against the rain, and disappeared into the jail. A few minutes thereafter, Buck and JD came out, drawing their jackets closer as the chill air hit them.
"Where you wanta go for dinner, Buck?" JD asked. "Hotel, restaurant, boardinghouse...?" It didn't matter which they chose, of course. As long as they ate in town, their meals were covered under their board package with Judge Travis.
"Well, kid, the fact is I got me a dinner engagement. With Miss Flora," Buck told him.
"Oh. Okay. Have a good time, then, and I'll see you later."
Buck knocked his brother's bowler askew and tousled his hair. "I always have a good time, and so does the lady." He set off, whistling cheerfully, while JD stood in place and watched him go.
JD jumped at the raspy drawl behind him. "For Pete's sake, Vin, don't do that! Think a fella your age'd know better'n to creep up behind a man wearin' guns!"
"Sorry." Vin actually looked abashed, as if he thought he'd spoiled something. His boots and the cuffs of his pants were spattered with fresh mud where he'd crossed on the nearest planks. "Reckon you wouldn't care t'eat with me, then."
"I didn't say that," JD replied quickly. "I'd like it. I was thinkin' of goin' back to the boardinghouse. Today's the day Mrs. Martin serves lentil soup, and baked spareribs with fruit stuffing."
"Sounds real good. You don't reckon she'd mind I don't live there?"
"Naw, why should she? She always has more folks at table than she rents rooms to. Let's go."
Mrs. Martin, as he'd implied she would, welcomed Vin graciously. The food was as good as he'd hoped, though he paid little heed to the other diners and their talk of weather, gossip, and the morning's business activity. He needed time to think out what he was going to say before he said it. He'd never been good at spontaneously spitting out what was on his mind; he had to sort it out so it would make as much sense coming off his tongue as it sounded to inside his head. Sometimes he wished he had more schooling, like Josiah with his straight, sensible, almost poetic way of talking, or even Chris or Buck or JD. More schoolin', he thought sarcastically. Don't you mean any schoolin', Tanner? It made him sad and bitter that he didn't. His mother had had schooling, she'd been able to read and write. He thought she would have been disappointed in him that he couldn't. But it hadn't been his choice. Their fault. They never thought I was good enough to send to school. That was perhaps one reason he liked being around the others. Even the least educated of them--Nathan--had more schooling than he did; Nathan could read. He found he learned a lot by being with them, talking with them or just listening to them talk to one another. Even JD had had things to teach him. He was a smart kid, a good kid. Vin understood why Buck was so proud of him--which Buck was, regardless of how he baited the boy. You could feel it in him, hear it in the tone he used, see it in the warmth and protectiveness he showed toward his brother. Would'a' been nice to've had somebody like Buck when I's a kid. Or even somebody like JD.
At last the dessert plates were cleaned and the diners began scraping their chairs back and taking their leave of Mrs. Martin and one another, getting ready to go back to their jobs or businesses for the afternoon. "Where you headed now, JD?" Vin asked.
"Figured to go up to my room and do a little readin'," the kid replied. "Too nasty out to be wanderin' around town, and I don't reckon anybody much is gonna kick up a ruckus. Anyhow Josiah's at the jail, he can knock their heads together if they do."
Vin snorted in amusement. "Yeah." Then he sobered. "I's wonderin' would you mind if I come up with you and we talked."
JD cocked his head. "You're welcome any time, Vin. I like talkin' with you. Even growin' up on the ranch with Chris and Buck to teach me, there was lots I didn't learn, and I got a notion you're the man can help me with that."
They climbed the stairs to the kid's small, cozy room, where JD lit a lamp against the storm's gloom and started a fire going in the little heater. "You can have the good chair if you want to, bein' the guest," he said.
Vin eyed the big green easy chair and shook his head dubiously. "Too soft for me, thanks just the same. I spent too many years sleepin' and sittin' on the ground to take to all that cushioning." He pulled out the reed-bottomed chair that stood next to the washstand and slacked into it. "That was mighty fine grub. Maybe I sh'd come here'n'eat more often."
"Buck and me'll be glad to have you anytime you want," JD assured him.
JD pulled himself up onto the bed and crossed his legs Indian-style. He was the only one of the Seven Vin had seen do that on a regular basis except when they were on the trail. Realization of that fact seemed almost like a sign. Might's well get it said. "I hear tell you lost your mamma," Vin observed.
JD winced and sighed. "Yeah."
"You 'member her special good?"
The kid seemed to think about the question. "No, not really. I was awful little. Most of what I know about her is what Buck's told me. I 'member she always smelled good, and she had a nice voice, but that's about it."
"How old was you when you lost her?"
"Goin' on five. It was April."
It was Vin's turn to sigh. "I think I was maybe five and a half, but I ain't sure. I don't recall what month it was."
"Your mamma died too?"
"Uh-huh. What was it took yourn?"
"Pneumonia. Buck was away at the war, and she wanted to live to see him come home, and she fought and fought for ten days, but she just wasn't strong enough, I guess."
"Mine died of putrid fever. Nathan'd call it typhoid, I reckon."
JD tilted his head. "You got any memories of her?"
A softness stole over the tracker's face and he leaned back in the chair. "I 'member she was pretty. Her hair was like mine, light brown and wavy, and her eyes was blue. I 'member her hands was rough from workin', but always gentle when she touched me, and she always smelled of Pear's soap all over. I 'member her readin' to me, poems, and fairy stories by a man name of Andersen--"
"I know those."
Vin lifted an eyebrow. "Your ma read 'em?"
"I think so. I know Buck did. What else you 'member?"
"I 'member her tellin' me stories out of the Bible. Joseph and his bad brothers, and Moses in the bulrushes, and Joshua and all them. And about Jesus and all the wonderful things he done. I 'member us catchin' tadpoles in the creek--Ma would hike her skirts up and tuck 'em into her belt and wade around with me gettin' her drawers wet and laughin' fit to bust. I 'member the cornbread she'd bake, and how I'd wake up at night sometimes and see her sittin' by the fire, sewin' or just rockin'. I 'member a song she used to sing me to make me go to sleep--" He cleared his throat self-consciously and began half-singing, half-reciting in a throaty baritone:Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall, my son?
Where have you been, oh my pretty one?
I've been to my sweetheart, mother,
I've been to my sweetheart, mother.
Make my bed soon for I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down.
"What was her name?" JD asked.
"Don't know. All I ever knew her by was Ma. I was awful little."
"You got any pictures of her?"
An inexpressible sadness came into Vin's eyes. "No, I reckon she could never afford to get one made."
"I got one of mine, you want to see?"
"Sure." Vin watched as the kid removed a cowhide folder from his bedstand, then sat forward a bit as JD offered it. One side was occupied by a hand-colored daguerrotype of a dark-haired woman in a red-and-white-striped silk day dress, its deep, wide, low neck framed with a bertha and trimmed with ribbon and ruching, garnished with a set of brooch, bracelets, and very long earrings in coral and pearl, hair drawn away from her ears with curls at the back, held by tortoise combs and draped over with a black lace head scarf. The other showed a recognizable Buck, even to the mustache, posed in front of a photographer's painted forest backdrop and mock stone wall, face half shaded by the downturned brim of his felt hat, modified by a crease down the length of the crown and the removal of the right-side turnup and left-side ostrich plumes that were standard for Union cavalry. He wore sky-blue breeches with boots lifting in a curved shield over the knee, and a short uniform jacket with nonregulation trefoils of gold braid adorning its cuffs, buttoned like a civilian sack coat, top two buttons only, to show the vest underneath and the watch chain draped across, saber belt and sash cinching his lean waist, with holster, cartridge box, and percussion-cap pouch threaded to it and gauntlets tucked underneath.
"Her name was Rosalie," JD said. "That was taken about five years before I was born, she gave it to Buck when he first went West. And on the other side, that's Buck when he joined up. He was with Martinez' Militia, the First New Mexico."
"Ain't changed much," Vin observed. "You look a lot like your mamma, JD."
"I know, Buck told me." JD put the picture back, hesitated a moment and then said, "Was you like Buck and me, Vin? Did you have a pa?"
"I reckon I must'a' done," Vin agreed slowly. "I know when Ma was dyin', the last thing she ever said to me was, 'Be brave--remember, you're a Tanner.' But I don't remember him real good. I reckon he must'a' died when I was just tiny. Ma didn't talk about him much, I reckon it hurt her, the way talkin' about Sarah hurts Chris." A faintly puzzled expression clouded his features. "Mostly nowadays I only see Ma when I'm dreamin', and it's like she's right there with me. But...it's a funny thing...I think I 'member my pa, and that's a memory that comes to me when I'm awake. It's all cloudy like and distant, but it seems like I've hurt myself somehow and I'm screamin' and bleedin', and then somebody takes hold of me and puts his hand over the wound and talks to me, quiet and soft, and I feel safe, and it don't hurt near so much no more. And he keeps on holdin' me, and then Ma's there, so I reckon he must'a' been my pa. He was a tall man, I think, and blond."
"Like Chris," JD observed suprisingly.
Vin caught his breath an instant. "I hadn't thought of that. But, yeah, like him." Was that one reason he had bonded so powerfully with the older man? Was he looking for a father figure? No. He rejected the idea almost as soon as it was born. The relationship they had was one of equals, not of a father and son. More like, perhaps, Buck and JD, much younger and much older brothers, but without so much teasing and overbearing advice.
The kid seemed to be thinking over what Vin had already said. "If you was so little when your mamma died, who raised you? I mean like Buck raised me?"
Vin's face tightened and he heard the thinness come into his voice. "Kin of my pa's," he answered meagerly. "Till I was ten, anyhow. Then I left out on my own."
"So early?" asked JD in surprise. "Buck's always on me about bein' a kid, but at least I'm seventeen."
"It was time," was all Vin told him. "And anyhow, I--" He stopped as ingrained caution sounded its warning. It was so easy, looking at the way the kid insisted on dressing, to forget that he'd spent half a dozen years of his life growing up on a horse ranch outside Eagle Bend, and three before that being raised by a man who'd passed a decade of his youth in the west, being exposed to all its folk attitudes and prejudices. Sure, Vin trusted JD in a fight, trusted him not to turn him in for the reward. But dared he trust him--dare he trust any of them, even Josiah who had lived among Indians--with this? He had learned, painfully, how strongly most whites felt that becoming "Indianized" was a retrograde step. It was perhaps one reason he had taken a stand on Nathan's side: not merely the lynching, but the fact that he, though white, had tasted something of race prejudice. He stood abruptly. "This was a fool idea," he muttered. At JD's stricken expression: "It ain't your fault, it ain't nothin' you done. It's me, it's always me." He turned toward the door.
"Vin? You ever talk to Chris about...about whatever's chewin' at you right now?"
"Naw," Vin replied, not turning. "Chris'n'me, we already know everythin' that matters about each other."
"Buck says he's awful glad Chris found you," JD observed quietly.
That got Vin's attention, and this time he did turn. "He does?"
"I 'member when Sarah'n'Adam was alive," JD reminded him, "and how Chris was back then. He was a lot more like Buck still is. Now he's like you, kinda closed off. Buck says, he don't mind that he can't be Chris's best friend no more, on account of he's got me, and now that I'm growin' up we can be best friends. But he says, it's good for Chris to have you. He says you can give Chris somethin' he needs."
"What would that be?" Vin asked.
"Buck don't say. He says you know, and Chris knows too, somewhere deep inside of him, and that's what matters." A pause, then: "Maybe you'd oughtta do some thinkin' about that, Vin."
How's a kid get to be so wise at his age? Vin wondered, and then he thought about it again and realized, I keep forgettin' he lost folks he cared about too. "Maybe," was all he said. "I'll see you later." And he walked out of the room and closed the door quietly behind him.
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