What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Jarrod Banneker was half Pawnee, but he didn't look it: his squarish hard-angled face, sharp high cheekbones and arching hawk nose might have been a strong hint to many people, but those who did suspect were thrown off guard by his pale coffee-colored skin (not the usual copperish tint), curly chestnut hair, and blue-green eyes. He used his looks to good advantage. Many saloons, to take one example, wouldn't serve halfbreeds, but Jarrod looked white enough that bartenders usually chose not to take the chance of offending him by accusing him of being one and refusing him service. And saloons were where a man in his line of work was most likely to get word of the people he wanted to find.
Jarrod had early on recognized that the natural trailing bent inherited from his mother's people could be turned to profit. With the hatred of the powerful Sioux that came naturally to a member, even by half-blood, of one of the minority tribes, he had spent several years as a scout for the Army before deciding that the pay and the discipline weren't worth it. So he turned to hunting other men--men with bounties on their heads. He was good at it.
In his more philosophical moments he sometimes reflected on how like his quarry he often had to behave. A wanted man, if he ventured into a town at all--and generally, sooner or later, they all did--would be even more alert than he would out in the open, simply because there was more concealment for a hunter to take advantage of. So Banneker had to act in ways that would allow him to blend in. Ordinarily he didn't enter a new town by the main street; instead he turned aside, drifted into a side alley, and tied his horse there--not so much, as an outlaw would, so that later no one could say how or when he'd come in or what way he'd be likely to go out, as simply so he wouldn't attract anyone's attention, including that of whoever he happened to be looking for, in case that man providentially happened to be in that town at the time. He'd walk out of the alley onto the main street, slouching along just as if he belonged there, keeping his eyes incurious, and looking as if he knew what he wanted and didn't care to waste time about it. By this behavior he avoided drawing stares; people would look at him, think they'd seen him or somebody like him before (especially if he looked dusty and run-down, like about half the men he'd pass), and go on about their business. He didn't ask too many questions, and he window-shopped a little, especially around saddle and gun shops like a young cowboy. If, in the darkness of a store, somebody murmured to him that the owner was "a blamed robber" or the like, he'd say, "I always did think so." If, on the street, somebody cocked his head sideways as if recognizing the hunter, Banneker would raise his hand in acknowledgment, which would satisfy the other person that he was right in thinking he knew him; he'd return the gesture and go on. A fugitive, if he spotted Banneker at all, would observe his interaction with the townsfolk and dismiss him as being part of the scenery. Meanwhile Banneker could get a feel for the town and maybe catch sight of someone he knew there was paper on. If he saw or heard anything that made him think it would be worth his while to stay on, he could always go back, get his horse, and put it in a stable somewhere.
He hadn't been looking specifically for Vin Tanner; in fact, he would have been surprised if anyone had told him the man was loitering around as near to the Panhandle as Four Corners was. Of course, being a bounty hunter himself--and a highly successful one--Tanner would have learned a lot from the men he hunted, as Banneker himself had done, and one of the things Banneker knew about outlaws was that they seldom, if ever, retreated in a straight line after the initial dash--they shifted, halted, doubled from point to point, and they liked home soil best of all. Tanner was a Texan; maybe he just didn't like getting far from his home state.
Banneker had only recently concluded a successful hunt, and he didn't really need money yet. Tanner wasn't even worth all that much. But the halfbreed knew his reputation and couldn't help thinking what a feather in his cap it would be if he could bring in someone who'd gained such a name.
He'd been in Four Corners, now, for almost three days, and so far nobody seemed to have noticed him particularly. That was good, because it was beginning to look as if Tanner had acquired some friends. Banneker had seen him several times sitting outside the saloon, or at night in it, with a cold-eyed man in black, the kind of man you didn't intrude on unless it was with his consent. What was more, he had seen Tanner go freely into the local sheriff's office at least twice. That meant either the law in this town was incredibly lax, or it was on the take. Banneker couldn't quite figure out what kind of bribe Tanner would have to offer--he was wanted for murder, not for robbery or anything else that might improve a man's financial situation--but if corruption was the case, he didn't dare make an open move on the man. And he couldn't risk it not being the case. So there was only one thing to do: take Tanner while he was alone and get him out of town quietly, without shooting. Once they were out of earshot of the townspeople, if Tanner made a break, Banneker wouldn't hesitate to cut him down; the reward was "dead or alive." But a reward wouldn't do him much good if he wasn't free, or alive, to spend it.
Today's rain seemed almost a sign to his half-Indian soul. It would make travel uncomfortable and perhaps somewhat slower than it might otherwise have been, but it would also keep Tanner's friends indoors and obscure or obliterate the trail as it was made. This was the day. Today he would do it.
It was past three o'clock when Mary Travis drew her buggy up before the stable and fumbled with her black cotton umbrella. She hesitated, not wanting to raise it until there was someone around to hold the horse: capable as it was of seeing even a little behind, it might spook at the sudden opening of the device. Suddenly out of nowhere Buck Wilmington was there, taking the animal's bit and hanging on while Mary cautiously poked her rubbers-clad feet out onto the hanging step, followed them with the umbrella, and slid out underneath it, holding onto the supports of the buggy's top with one hand. She shivered a bit; even with a three-quarter-length wool paletot under her Stewart's scarlet waterproof cloak, the damp weather filtered all the way through to her bones. She couldn't wait to get back to the Clarion office where she could enjoy a good warm stove and a cup of hot tea, with maybe a little whiskey in it.
It was unusual to have more than a few inches of precipitation this early in the year: most of it fell in July and August. "This rain should bring a foot of grass, so we can't complain," Mary observed.
"No, ma'am, but you best stick to the planks crossin' the street or we're apt to lose you," Buck told her. "This mud is downright bottomless, I come near to losin' a boot in it just this mornin'."
Mary couldn't help but smile. Of all the Seven, though it was Nathan she'd known the longest, somehow it was Buck with whom she always felt easiest. His ready smile, his unfailing respect and good manners, the sparkle in his dark eyes, were only part of it. Since that first day when he'd told her about Chris Larabee's family, she had understood that he, like herself, had old griefs he'd learned to hide so he could go on functioning, looking after his little brother and trying to find a way to help his bereaved partner.
"I don't rightly know where Yosemite's got to," he went on, "but if you'll give me a minute I'll get your buggy under cover, and then I'll walk you down to the office. That boot I told you about? I was on the planks too, and some rider come close to knockin' me off. I see you got some things here want carryin', you'd be liker to run that risk than me."
"I shouldn't have gone," Mary admitted, "but I didn't realize this storm was going to settle in like this. I needed to talk to some of the cattlemen about their advertisements, and since I was out that way I stopped to drop off papers and pick up subscription pay at a couple of places--Nathan's probably told you that Bob Crenshaw's got a broken leg, he won't be able to get into town much for a while, and Frank Hobson's being run ragged, what with his wife being so near her time and two of the children down with scarlet fever. The only one who hasn't got it is the older girl, she had it when she was four, before the others were born."
"Bet you took 'em somethin' to eat," Buck observed.
Mary sighed. "I wish I could have. With the paper I barely have time to cook decent meals for myself."
Buck's face sobered an instant. "I know a little of what that's like, tryin' to be two halves of a pair when there ain't but the one of you. It's hard. And it don't ever really get easier. But you get to where you kinda work out shortcuts, and that helps a little."
"At least you had JD," Mary observed softly. "I miss Billy so much..."
"He'll come home someday," Buck assured her. "You wait and see, it'll happen. These things take time, but life works out like it's s'posed to. I wasn't sure of that for a while after Chris lost his family--our family--but I know now it's true. I can see it happening right in front of me, every day that passes." He snorted softly in amusement. "It scares the liver out of him, but he can't help it: he's healin'. And about damn time. Uh, sorry, Miz Travis."
She smiled as much at his embarrassment as at the content of the words. "It's all right, really. I've heard much worse from Steven, when the press got balky." She watched as he led her horse into the barn, gathered up the things from the bonnet and floor, and arranged them in his arms for easiest carrying. "Shall we go?"
"Absolutely," he agreed with a grin, lifting one elbow so she could slip her hand through it. "Let's cross here while nobody's comin'."
Saloons had been a big part of his life, these last three years.
To an extent, they still were. There were still many days and nights when his grief and guilt haunted him so badly that he could only deal with them if he had help from a bottle. And it had to be a bottle consumed in a saloon, where, even if his forbidding air warned off anyone who might think they wanted to share his table, he knew he wasn't alone. Wasn't shut up in some room with just the memories to keep him company.
But something had changed. He had found Buck again, and JD had--somehow--found them. He had met Josiah, who knew what it was to lose faith in everything. And Ezra, who was a confessed con man but still could find it in him to fight for people unable to help themselves. And Nathan, who hadn't let his past embitter him.
And while he still didn't know why, he knew that somehow these men, and this town, and Judge Travis, and the job, were changing him.
Or maybe it was just that they were resurrecting the man he had been three years ago. And that was a man who drank socially, as most men did, but who didn't try to hide in the bottle.
Suddenly saloons didn't seem as attractive as they once had. And Chris was getting weary of spending the whole day in this one without anyone to talk to.
Ezra was there, of course, playing one of his endless games of solitaire. But Chris and Ezra still had at best an uneasy armed truce. There was so much about the gambler that still rubbed the gunfighter's fur the wrong way. Not just that he'd run out, but his whole personality, his airs and graces and flowery language. Chris wasn't used to it, and like anything new, he needed time to adjust.
Come to that, it wasn't really talk that he wanted. After all, he and Vin could sit for hours side by side without saying more than ten words each.
Chris frowned. Something was troubling him.
Eleven years of his life (counting the War), from the age of seventeen to almost twenty-eight, he had lived by his gun and his wits. Three more since his family was lost to him he had lived on whiskey and cordite fumes. Fourteen years, more than a third of his life. And he had learned to listen to his instincts. Something was wrong.
He stood and prowled restlessly to the doors, pulled the glass storm door aside and looked out over the batwing at the rainy street. And almost the first thing his gaze lit on, as it tracked up and down the gray scene, was Vin.
There he was, with his hat pulled down low and his warm woollen poncho covering him against the rain. On the other side of the street, walking slowly, casually, completely at his ease. Hell, Chris told himself, what was I gettin' so worked up about? Look at him. He's fine. I'm gettin' as bad about him as Buck is about JD.
Vin drew even with the saloon, paused just long enough to glance his way and lift his hand in a little half-wave, and went on. He ain't due for jail duty yet, he must be goin' down to check on Peso.
/Damn, you'd never think it was May, it's so damp and cold. I need some hot coffee, or some whiskey.
He was just pulling back, his hand was on the edge of the storm door to draw it closed, when he saw the second man. A stranger in a dark corduroy coat and a battered Army-issue hat, walking along the boardwalk just about fifteen yards behind Vin, matching his pace stride for stride. And his alarms went off full-blast.
Of course it was a public street, and anybody had a right to walk down it. He remembered seeing the man before, though he couldn't place him exactly; his dress suggested he wasn't a town-dweller, but he might be one of Stuart James's boys. That he happened to be going the same way as Vin didn't necessarily mean Vin was in any danger.
On the other hand, it didn't mean he wasn't, either.
If he was, it would be well to find it out. For that reason Chris decided not to intercept Vin and warn him. For one thing, there was a very good chance Vin already knew somebody was back there. For another, if the man really was up to no good, finding himself with two men rather than one to face might scare him off, and then he might try again when Chris wasn't around.
Chris let both of them get a little ahead, then idled slowly after them, matching their pace to maintain a constant distance. Men don't expect to be followed sideways; Vin's pursuer, if he was that, wasn't likely to think to glance across the street. It soon became apparent that Vin was indeed, as Chris had guessed, heading for the stable, no doubt to check on his horse. Maybe if this other fellow was one of James's, he had a horse there too; maybe he was going to get it and head home. Any cowboy who planned to be in town for a while would put his mount up before he set to doing whatever he'd come in for; that was the only time, except in winter, that his horse saw the inside of a barn. Still, why head out now, in this persistent unpleasant rain? Why not wait a while and see if it quit? The more he thought about it, the nearer Chris came to the conclusion that something about this situation wasn't right.
Vin reached the stable, paused to open the small man-door set into the big sliding leaf, and stepped inside. Seconds later, the other man did the same. His hand was hanging over the butt of his gun now. There was no doubt remaining in Chris's mind. This guy was planning something.
Looking back later, Vin decided it must have been partly the weather itself and partly the drum of the raindrops on the awnings over his head and the occasional rumble of thunder, drowning out the following footsteps, that had thrown him off guard. And maybe, too, living in town was making him slack, though he rather doubted that--least of all in this town. He heard the barn door open, but didn't think much of it at first; he was hardly the only man with a horse here. Then he heard the ominous click of a hammer being cocked and froze where he stood, just outside Peso's stall.
"Stand where you are, Tanner," said a voice he didn't know, "and keep lookin' at your horse's tail. Now get your hands up over your head."
Vin obeyed without comment. Only a fool would make a play without knowing something of the odds he faced; just because he'd only heard one gun and one voice didn't mean a second might not have come in. He sensed someone moving up behind him and felt the mare's leg being pulled out of the rig at his side. Before the man spoke again he moved back; Vin could tell that by the sound of his voice. "Now you can turn," he said.
Vin did. There was only one, at least that he could see: a long-legged man with the squarish hard-angled face, sharp high cheekbones and arching hawk nose that suggested Indian blood, but a white man's curly chestnut hair and blue-green eyes, teamed with pale coffee-colored skin. He wore a corduroy coat, its dark color darkened still more over the shoulders by the rain, and duck trousers tucked into supple soft-leather riding boots. His 1871 Model Colt .45 was pointed at Vin's belt buckle.
"Don't reckon it'd do no good if I told you I ain't this Tanner you're lookin' for," Vin observed.
"No, it wouldn't. Now let me tell you how it is, Tanner. We can do this the easy way, or we can do it hard. With this rain just about everybody's indoors, and if I have to shoot you there's a fair chance a lot of folks won't even hear it; those that do will still have to get outside and figure out where the sound came from, and that'll give me time enough to get your body hid where I can come back for it after the excitement dies down, slip out the back and blend in with the crowd. You'll still be dead and I'll still get my five hundred. But it's a long way to Tascosa and I'd rather not have to haul a dead body that far, seein' that it ain't cold weather. So it's up to you."
Can't find a chance to escape if I'm dead, Vin told himself. This hunter, which he obviously was or he'd identify himself as a lawman, hadn't bothered to do a thorough search, and like any man who had spent time with Indians or hunted buffalo, Vin wasn't shy about knives; he had two of them hid out on his person. Apart from that, if he vanished, one of the others would miss him, though following wouldn't be easy in this rain. "I ain't fightin' you," he said. Not now, anyhow.
"Smart man." The other reached into the left pocket of his coat and pulled out a set of manacles, which he tossed across toward Vin; Vin reflexively put out his hand to catch them before they could hit his face. "You used to hunt men for a living, so you know what to do with those."
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