What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
"Ain't had nobody most of my life," Vin whispered. "Ain't been let to expect nothin' from nobody. Ain't dared but to be suspicious of kindness. Ain't been able to figure why nobody don't like me, what's wrong with me that nobody wants to be friends with me. If I knowed, don't you reckon I'd change it, if I could? But I can't figure it out. And then, that day, I looked acrost that street at Chris and I seen--I seen--"
"What was it you seen, Vin?" JD again, so soft, so gentle, that Buck's heart almost broke at the sound of that voice, so like their dead mother's.
"Somebody that felt as alone as me," said Vin, so faintly that the others could barely hear it. "Somebody that knowed nobody else had no idea what it was like. Somebody that was all the time sayin' to hisself, 'You ain't me and you ain't got no notion what bein' me is like, so don't try and tell me you understand.' " He shook his head back and forth despairingly. "Injuns say, don't judge a man till you've walked a moon in his moccasins. Ain't never met nobody that'd walked in mine. Till Chris. If I lose him now--"
"Son, now you listen to ol' Buck," the gunslinger put in quietly, seeing that Vin was about to give way completely. "You know I'm 'most as old as Chris, don't you? Older'n you? Seen more, fought in a war you wasn't much more'n a baby when it was goin' on, raised me a little brother? Know that, don't you?"
Vin's eyes were squeezed shut as if that were the only way he could keep the tears back. He nodded. "Know that," he agreed in a sort of strangled gasp.
"Then you believe me when I tell you this," Buck went on. "Ain't no man ever knows just what it is to be another. Me'n'JD, when Chris lost his family, we lost people we loved too, but we still don't know what it felt like for him. He lost his ma when he wasn't a lot older'n what JD was when it happened to him, but he don't know what JD went through when his died. Ain't nobody ever knows what you feel, what you suffer through, 'cept you. And ain't nobody can help you through it if you don't first let 'em in. You'n'Chris might be a lot alike, but you ain't the same man, and all you can do for each other is that. I ain't sayin' whatever you been through wasn't real or didn't hurt. I see it was and it did. But the one thing belongs to us and us only is our own souls and what's inside of 'em. Chris didn't mean to burden you by what he done. You ever heard that sayin' about not seein' the forest for the trees? That's you, and that's what he sees in you. He wants you to have the time you need to find out what that forest's like, and that's why he saved you. Not 'cause he wanted you to tear yourself apart with guilt over it. That's the last thing on God's good earth Chris would want of anybody. I know, 'cause I offered him my guilt when we lost Sarah and Adam, offered him my life, and he wouldn't take 'em." Tentatively, knowing that Vin sometimes reacted badly to being touched, he put his hand lightly on the younger man's tense, quivering shoulder. "'Member what you said a little while back, Vin? 'You ain't me and you ain't got no notion what bein' me is like, so don't try and tell me you understand.' Fact is, don't nobody got no notion, not even Chris. We'll help you through it if you let us, but we ain't you and no more's he. It don't mean you gotta be alone, unless you choose to be. It don't mean there ain't nobody wants to be your friend. All it means is you ain't found the right folks before now."
"Injuns train their young'uns not to show they're hurt or scared," Vin said. "It's a pride kinda thing, that they gotta not disgrace the people if ever they get took by the enemy. Me, I knowed it long afore I ever met me a Injun. Learned it hard and quick, why show I'm in pain if there's nobody willin' to give comfort? Why cry if nobody ever wipes the tears away? Why show the world you're bleedin' away inside, when ain't nobody gives a damn? For all the folks I've knowed in my life, seems like Chris was the first one ever seen how I was bleedin'. I can't lose him, Buck. I can't. I can't go through all them years of searchin' again."
"You don't got to, Vin," Buck told him softly. "Ain't one of us others don't know what it is to be searchin' for somethin', and we'll help, if you let us. But don't you bury Chris yet, 'cause he's a long ways from bein' dead."
"We got a sayin' down Texas," Vin observed, his voice a little stronger now, and with a note in it that suggested Buck's words had recalled something to him. "We say you can't be sure you've killed a Texan till you got him buried, and even then he's like to climb up the handle of the shovel'n'clout you one."
Buck let out a short burst of laughter. "I heard that one. Yeah, that's Chris, even if he ain't Texan. Hell, I wouldn't be s'prised was he to bust right out of the mound after it 's smoothed."
"Ain't nobody tougher'n Texans, 'less it's Comanche, and they's Texans too," said Vin, and now he was definitely playing along, leaving that moment of terrible despair behind him.
Ezra cleared his throat. "Far be it from me to cast a shadow on this moment, but it occurs to me that where one finds a coyote there is often another close at hand. Has anyone ascertained the identity of the miscreant responsible for our leader's situation?"
"JD'n'me searched the body," Buck admitted. "Seems his name was Jarrod Banneker and he's got a wife somewheres in th'Indian Territory, so we got somebody to telegraph to. We asked around and found out he's been stayin' at the hotel. Found one of Vin's Wanted posters in his room, in his saddlebag. Reckon he was a bounty hunter."
"Was he travelling alone?" the gambler asked.
"Far as anybody could tell us, yeah, it looked so."
"Bounty hunters mostly does," Vin put in. "Times it's a long dry spell 'twixt captures, and you got to live on the last bounty till you make a new one. Can't afford no pardners."
"Must be a awful lonely way to live," JD murmured, and looked at his big brother as if with new eyes.
"Always suited me. Till now," Vin told him.
The door to the back bedroom opened suddenly, and all four heads jerked around as if pulled on the same string. A weary-looking Nathan emerged, followed by Josiah, whom he'd kept with him for the sake of his great strength, in case Chris began moving around under the knife. JD and Buck moved closer together in an automatic search for mutual support. Ezra gathered his cards, squared them, and tucked them back inside his coat. Vin didn't move or speak, but anyone who happened to be looking his way would have seen how visibly he reached for strength and calm.
Nobody wanted to be the first to ask, and Nathan knew it, so he spared them the agony. "Well, he made it through the surgery," he began. "I got the bullet out, and it didn't touch the spine. Come close, but close don't count 'cept in horseshoes."
"He gonna make it?" Buck asked.
"That I don't know," Nathan admitted. "Thank God I was just studyin' up on spinal injury the other day. Right now I can't tell much on account Chris is still unconscious and can't answer my questions. When he wakes up I'll see if he can feel or move below the spot the bullet went in at. If he does, likest he'll recover good as new, provided he don't pick up an infection."
"And if he does not?" Ezra prompted gently.
The healer sighed and slumped into a chair. "If he doesn't, it might be on account of a swellin' inside, tissue or fluid puttin' pressure on the spinal cord. Or it might mean the bullet hit a bone that knocked bits off it or chipped off a fragment or two, and those might be up against the backbone. Either way, if I can relieve that someways, quick enough that there ain't total destruction of the nerves, then he's got a good chance of comin' back. If I can't..." A long painful hesitation, and then, softly: "If I can't, he'll prob'ly be paralyzed."
JD leaned into his brother's strength, not objecting to the arm that went around his shoulders and drew him close. Vin slumped back into the wall, eyes squeezing shut. "Good Lord," said Ezra quietly. "You might as well pronounce a death sentence. For a man like Mr. Larabee, to be paralyzed is worse than loss of life."
"When'll you know, Nate?" Buck asked.
"That's pretty much up to Chris. He's breathin' easy, which cuts way down on the possibility of the paralysis, if there is any, bein' the kind that can kill. His pupils are equal and react to light, so he ain't concussed. He don't seem to've lost a lot of blood; the bullet was off to the side a bit and didn't go in too awful far, so it didn't cut the aorta or the inferior vena cava--them's the two big blood vessels that runs up and down the length of the trunk. Com'ere, Josiah, and let me show 'em." The big man moved up alongside him and turned to present his broad back to the other four. "There's a muscle, more like a whole batch of 'em, runs from the spine up and out in a kinda broad V shape," Nathan explained, gesturing across Josiah's back to illustrate. "What I could tell, the bullet went in here, what the book calls the lumbar region," and he tapped his forefinger against a spot about midway between the waist and the tip of the breastbone, on the left side. "It slipped plumb between two back ribs and got lodged in the fibers of that muscle I mentioned; might've cut one of the spinal nerves, but that ain't the same as the spinal cord; if it was a nerve in his arm or leg, that'd be a worry, but there's thirty more of them spinals on that side to take up the slack, worst that'd happen is he'd lose a bit of sensation in that part of his back. He's unconscious now. It's a mild form of shock, almost like a faint, most likely from the pain. He'll need to have somebody sit with him till he comes out of it and I can examine him; if there's a fragment and he moves around, he could hurt hisself worse, so it's important that we keep him still till he's got sense enough to heed instructions. Six of us, we can take two-hour tricks, twice a day each. And I'll sleep in there, on the cot."
"I think," Josiah put in, "that it might be a good idea for you to take an hour or two and do exactly that, Brother Nate. You've been through a rough spell, pulling that lead out of Chris's hide, taking care not to damage him worse. Take a cup of one of your own teas and lie down a spell, and the rest of us will arrange a schedule amongst ourselves."
Seeing agreement in the grateful eyes of the others, Nathan gave in gracefully. After he was down and asleep, Josiah went on, "Now, I'm goin' over to the church and have a word with the Lord about our brother. Would anyone care to come along?"
"I will," said JD.
"Me and the kid, we go together. I'm with you," Buck added.
"I believe I shall take first watch," Ezra decided. "I admit to skepticism that any petition of mine would lend weight to yours. Perhaps, Mr. Tanner, you would care to relieve me when two hours have passed?"
Vin threw him a thankful look, as if he understood that the gambler was according him some time to get his emotional equilibrium back. "Sure. I ain't got a watch, but I'll come up when the sun's two hands along."
"Agreed." Ezra drew from his pocket a copy of Moore's Lalla Rookh bound in limp morocco and lifted two fingers to his hatbrim as he put his hand on the doorknob. "Gentlemen."
Josiah led off through the ongoing rain toward the church, like a big mother swan sure in her knowledge that the cygnets will be close after her. Buck and JD were, but Vin lagged farther and farther behind the nearer they got to the building, until by the time Buck put his foot on the bottom step the tracker was a full twenty yards in the rear. The gunslinger sent JD on ahead with a gentle nudge to the boy's back and paused, waiting, to see if Vin would catch up. "You comin'?"
Vin stopped fifteen feet short of him, looking up at the steeple with an air of--what? uncertainty? fear? disgust? Buck frowned, not sure what he was seeing. "No."
Buck tilted his head. "Why not? Ain't you the one sayin' you can't lose him?"
"Ain't goin' in yonder," Vin insisted. "Can't make me." And there was a new note in his voice, one Buck had to listen close to define. Like the kind he used to hear, sometimes, when JD was little and not wanting to do something his brother thought was good for him, like take syrups and infusions and castor oil when he had a cold.
"Ain't tryin' to make you," Buck reminded him. "How come you to think I am?"
Vin didn't seem to hear the reassurance. "Ain't doin' it. Got nothin' to say to no god like lives in there." And then, as if he thought he'd said too much, he shook his head violently and added: "Most like Miz Travis done heard 'bout the shootin' by now. Best I go tell her what happened lest she go up'n'wake Nathan askin' questions for the paper."
Buck realized the younger man was very close to bolting or losing control again. "All right," he agreed gently, "you go on and do that, and we'll see you later. You want me'n'JD should send up a supper tray for you? Time you take over from Ezra it'll be close on seven."
"Yeah." The word came out breathy and short. "That'd be good." And Vin turned on his heel and all but fled from the vicinity of the church.
Gotta have me a long talk with that boy, Buck told himself again. Somethin' more chewin' on him than just Chris bein' hurt. And he removed his hat, smoothed back his unruly wavy hair, and stepped inside.
When Vin made his way back up to the clinic to take over from Ezra, he was surprised to hear, as he stepped through the door, the gambler's soft cultivated drawl from the back room where Chris lay, its rhythms suggesting poetry read aloud. For a moment he thought Chris had regained consciousness, but then he asked himself why, if Chris had, Nathan hadn't let the rest of them know. Pausing in the opening, he found Ezra indeed reading from the book he'd taken out of his pocket before going in:'Tis moonlight over Oman's Sea;
Her banks of pearl and balmy isles
Bask in the night-beam beauteously,
And her blue waters sleep in smiles.
'Tis moonlight in Harmozia's walls,
And through her Emir's porphyry halls,
Where, some hours since, was heard the swell
Of trumpet and the clash of zel,
Bidding the bright-eyed sun farewell;--
The peaceful sun, whom better suits
The music of the bulbul's nest,
Or the light touch of lovers' lutes,
To sing him to his golden rest.
All hush'd--there's not a breeze in motion;
The shore is silent as the ocean.
If zephyrs come, so light they come,
Nor leaf is stirr'd nor wave is driven;--
Ezra stopped with a sort of embarrassed cough. "Mr. Tanner. I apologize, I didn't realize you had arrived."
"Needn't quit on my account," Vin told him. "That's right purty. But how come you're readin' it out? Chris ain't woke up, has he?"
"No, he's stirred not at all since I assumed this duty," the gambler replied. "I was--merely endeavorin' to keep myself company in the silent watches of dusk. As you're aware, I'm not accustomed to silence; the good cheer of the barroom and gamin' chamber are the natural environment of such as myself." But Vin caught a note in his voice that told him this was only an excuse, and his heart warmed toward the Southerner. "Now, as you're here, I shall betake myself to my accustomed haunts and bend my efforts once more to the amplification of the impecunious income that is mine by the dubious virtue of bein' a peacekeeper in this benighted community."
Vin stood aside to let him pass. "Thanks, Ez," he said softly as the gambler drew even with him.
For an instant startled emerald eyes met his, and he saw in them that Ezra, if he was about to protest that he'd done nothing to be thanked for, knew he had, and knew Vin knew it. Then Ezra swallowed the words unsaid and touched the brim of his hat. "Mr. Jackson has departed to seek sustenance and take his turn at patrollin' the streets. I don't doubt but that he'll strive to return as quickly as he may. Meanwhile, watchman, the duty is thine." And he went out.
Vin settled into the chair that was still warm from Ezra's body heat and slouched back tiredly in it, listening to the slowing patter of rain against the roof. For himself, he hadn't eaten, hadn't been sure he'd be able to keep anything down. He'd spent the last couple of hours, after reporting Chris's injury to Mary, roaming aimlessly around the town or sitting under the canvas tilt of his wagon, seeking solitude as his habit was whenever his body or soul was wounded. As it had been so very often in his life.
At some point he had found himself reliving the past, examining the chain of events that had brought him to this place and time, to this town and to the man who still lay senseless on the bed, a warm quilt drawn over him against the chills that could be so perilous. And now, lacking the ability to read, he had little else with which to occupy his mind, unless he wanted to keep on reliving that moment in the stable when Chris had taken the bullet--and that he refused to do.
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