What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
When Vin's mother died, she and the boy were living in the Red River Valley, where settlement in many places dated back to the 1820's. Their house was in Sherman, which was a sort of geographical division point: in the Blacklands Belt between it and Paris, cotton was the money crop, while to the west it alternated with wheat. As early as 1845, it rejoiced in a population of 357 souls. For most of 1858, the year Vin's mother died, it was a pleasant little village of 600 persons, including 163 Negroes--the population doubled after September, with the arrival of the first Butterfield Overland stage--on the edge of a fine rolling prairie, covered with grass but with no trees and scarcely a shrub. Between it and El Paso was not a single fixed human habitation, except for stage stations and a few military posts, and little to see but dry rolling plains, rugged escarpments, cedar breaks, and prickly pear. It was officially a county seat, but the old log courthouse had been torn down the year before to settle a bet as to whether or not an old gray duck had her nest under it. When the sheriff arrived next morning with a legal notice he found only a pile of debri, but with typical frontier creativity, he dug a door out of it, propped it up, and nailed the notice to it. The town consisted of some ninety-odd houses and a score of commercial buildings, located in some barns and log cabins and a few clapboarded houses, the wide whipsawed boards cleated on over the original logs and whitewashed. Some stores were ranked out of alignment; the most elaborate building was Baxter's Saloon and Billiard Parlors, a rambling unpainted structure with a false front. Patient horses stood on three legs in front of it; elsewhere, dejected mules and phlegmatic oxen labored through the mud, drawing high-slung wagons. Like every town of any size to which farmers and country people came to trade, shop, or tarry for the night, it had a wagonyard, where stock could be fed, watered, and bedded down, and the family, after visiting the stores, could establish a base, meeting old friends, making new ones, often sleeping in its wagon. There was one church, a blacksmith, a barber, and a pool hall. There was a cotton shed and a platform handy to the river, but the steelyards over the weighing stand hung rusty on a rusty wire. Eventually both the Methodists and the Presbyterians chartered universities there, but of course there weren't enough students for either. The rivalry between them grew so hot that the Presbyterians' president was shot down in the street. Finally they sold their buildings to the Masons, who established a Masonic Institute, using one three-storey edifice for boys and the other, farther out, for girls. Even so, there were only enough boys to occupy a single floor. Razorback hogs moved importantly across the road, or stood to scratch their ticks against the corner posts of the buildings. Unlike many towns of the Texas interior, it was able to obtain many commodities of civilization. It lay only 165 miles, on a straight line (if over execrable roads), from Fort Smith, to which freight could be brought by Arkansas riverboat; and that 165 miles was over friendly territory, since it was the country of the Five Civilized Tribes. Just north lay Fort Towson, and across the river from it the little settlement of Clarksville.
Vin's father had left his mother some land and cattle--he had been a Ranger, and the Rangers of pre-War days were routinely paid off with land grants--and while she had chosen not to live alone on the ranch with just her small son, she was able to sell off beef in little dribs and drabs as money was needed, working out a percentage deal with one of her neighbors to work and drive them. She only needed to dispose of half a dozen or so a month, even at the prevailing in-state price of twelve dollars a head, to give herself and her boy a comfortable income, enough to rent an unfurnished five-room house in town for fifteen dollars a month, keep them in food and clothes and put something away for when Vin was old enough to go to the town's little school. She kept herself busy with sewing, her garden and poultry, and play with her son; it was said around Sherman that she was almost as young in spirit as he was in years.
Very different was the place to which Vin was sent afterward. The sheriff and the doctor took it on themselves to look through his mother's things, hoping to learn whether she had any kin who might be willing to take in her orphaned boy, and eventually discovered some old letters to her deceased husband from his sister, the most recent of them close to a decade old. Though understandably not at all sure the writer was still alive, the men took the chance and sent word to the address specified, explaining the situation, and after the inevitable delay (for mail moved slowly in Texas in those days), a cousin came up from the South to take charge of the boy, who until then had been put with the local preacher and his family, and after a succession of stagecoaches they arrived in San Antonio.
At that time the town had very few Anglo citizens; indeed, by 1850, the European immigrants, mostly Germans, outnumbered both the Mexicans and the Anglos. Many of these were of middle-class origin, and they originated and founded most of the town's business enterprises, from banks to lumberyards. It was the jumping-off place for Mexico and California, and had counted not quite 5000 permanent settlers in 1850. It supported itself almost entirely through California travel and supplying the Army garrisons that were scattered along the border river and the Comanche West, and was a center for stage lines and freighting companies. It was also the location of the justly famed Menger Hotel, two-and-a-half storeys of stone construction next door to the Alamo. The Menger's furnishings were hauled in from the coast at the enormous expense of $16,000, including purchase price. Here Army officers, California travellers, and hacendados up from Mexico could and did bathe, dine, and drink in solid Victorian splendor. Though almost anything, useful or luxurious, could be bought in San Antonio--ice, jewelry, finely made guns, drugs, clothing, cosmetics, good liquors--it all arrived out of Europe or the North, usually via New Orleans, and with heavy mark-ups. The trade was limited to a tiny, affluent class. The hilly region roundabout--the ruggedly beautiful central-Texas hill country--was covered with mesquite, pecan, redbud, and peach trees, caliche and cactus; the rugged slopes grew thick with small, gnarled varieties of oak and cedar, while mesquite and buffalo grass covered the valleys and plains. South of that region, extending to the Rio Grande, was a flat and monotonous country covered with mesquite, catclaw, huisache, cenizo, huajillo, and other varieties of bush and cactus.
Outside the municipal limits, however, "Texians" and their native-born descendants were fairly common. Myra Nealy was Vin's father's much older sister, well into her forties when Vin met her. She and her husband, Vin's Uncle Jesse, lived on a tract of land about five miles out, where they raised the "three C's"--cotton, corn, and cattle--that were the backbone of Texas agriculture. They had four sons, Jacob, Paul, Daniel, and Johnny, who were then twenty-three, twenty-one, going-on-seventeen, and six, and a nine-year-old daughter, Kate. The family had a good log house, of the kind typical of the South, one and a half storeys high, each room--two upstairs and two down in a time and place when two-storey houses were unusual--sixteen and a half feet long and thirteen wide, besides a kitchen, sixteen feet square, in an ell at the back to increase living space (and, incidentally, insure plenty of air and ventilation when cooking was going on). The main downstairs rooms were divided by a "dog run" or "dog trot," which was an open hall, nine feet high and twenty wide, used to store saddles and other equipment and as a dining room in summer, and a deep porch ran all around the building, under whose shelter tools, kegs, harness, and more saddles could be kept. It was a house, not a cabin, the distinction being that the logs (oak, pine, or cedar, depending on the region) of a house weren't left round, but hewn flat with chisel-edged broadaxes and split with a froe, and were sawn to exact lengths so they didn't project beyond the corners. Such logs made a closer fit, and the house was more permanent and weatherproof than a cabin, needing only a minimal chinking of mud or mortar. The doors hung on wooden or rawhide hinges, with no locks, but stout bars in case of Indian attack; the roof was of hand-rived oak shakes, held in place with the aid of boards, and the floors were puncheon, of split oak logs with the flat side up. There was a fireplace at each end, made of local limestone and homemade brick, and later a shed room added on at the side of one "pen," with a back-to-back fireplace, making a total of six rooms counting the kitchen ell. The upstairs rooms had a rise of six and a half feet from floor to eaves line, and were eleven and a half feet high at the roof peak. It stood in a grove of moss-draped oaks, with a clear spring about two hundred yards from the door. The view was pleasing, but the nearest neighbors were ten miles up the river.
Spring brought the scent of apple and locust blossoms. Through the year the big smokehouse held home-cured hams and bacon, and there was an abundance of potatoes, dried fruit, and crocks of fresh buttermilk stored near the walled spring. The family grew most of the food it needed, buying only coffee, tea, spices, and a few other items. Although the house was made of split logs, it had early on been covered outside with clapboards and had plastered inside walls, and a walnut staircase. House and outbuildings were smartly whitewashed, and chickens and turkeys scratched in the yard. The children slept in simple bunks softened with featherbeds or cornshuck mattresses, depending upon the season, and often under buffalo robes in winter. Guests could always count on the finest goose feathers under elegant eiderdown quilts.
Horses, oxen, and mules were used for transportation, hauling, and farm labor. Cattle--native Spanish ones and British breeds brought in by later settlers--provided beef, milk, butter, and hides. Chickens, ducks, and geese supplied feathers for bedding as well as eggs and many delicious dishes for the table. Hogs yielded bacon, sausage, hams, and the all-important lard; they foraged in the woods and in the oat, pea, and clover lots in succession, then were gotten up and turned into the harvested cornfields in the fall to fatten up. Sheep and goats gave wool and meat. Dogs were kept for hunting, herding, and protection, and cats helped keep the rodent population under control. Bees made superb brush honey.
Corn was the staff of life. Humans enjoyed it first as a vegetable in May, cooking it in boiling water or roasting it in hot ashes while still in the shuck. Later it was made into hominy or ground into a coarse meal, which was boiled as mush, mixed in a batter and roasted on live coals as "johnnycake," or baked in an oven as "cornpone," either of which could be flavored with eggs, honey, molasses, soda, or spices if available. It also provided bread, grits, succotash, chowder, pudding, porridge, corn-fed pork and chicken, and corn whiskey. Green ears could be eaten boiled or roasted, and the ripe kernels, grated, furnished a sweet sort of bread, or the makings of a porridge. The pitch of the stalk produced "cornstalk molasses," which could be used to sweeten cornmeal mush if no honey was available. Livestock ate shelled kernels and dry shucks as well as fodder corn. Shucks were used to fill mattresses, weave chair bottoms, and make braided horse harness, cobs as fuel, fertilizer, bottle stoppers, corncob pipes, and checkerboard men, besides being sliced to make knife handles. Corn could also be used to make starch, and it could be traded or sold. Like most farmers, Uncle Jesse harvested between forty and eighty bushels of it per acre, though some, in richer lands, could grow as much as a hundred. Sweet potatoes--the inevitable vegetable after corn--grew well in the sandy soil and could be boiled, baked, fried, made into bread, brewed into beer, or eaten raw. Pumpkins, melons, cabbages, peas, and okra grew with ease. Wild fruit, such as peaches, berries, plums, persimmons, and grapes, abounded in the woods, though there was stiff competition from the 'coons and 'possums. In the fields grew barley, oats, and wheat, the latter especially in demand as the source of flour for bread and biscuits that provided a welcome change from the ever-present corn bread. White bread, sugar, and coffee were considered luxuries even in the cities.
The abundance of wild game provided the settlers with great quantities of fresh meat; in fact, game was preferred to beef as long as it remained plentiful. Wild turkey, goose, duck, and pigen, prairie hen, venison, buffalo, antelope, painted grouse, dove, partridge, quail, rabbits like chickens, and from the streams great buffalo and perch, catfish, bass, green trout, alligator gar, and gasperoo, were on the table at almost every meal. Wolves were so plentiful that they were said to account for a hundred head of cattle every year. Black bears were often found in dense cane brakes, and since bears ate pigs, East Texas farmers didn't dare raise hogs in the unfenced woods country until after they had got rid of the bears; they hunted them with dogs and rifles, and gained from the experience not only unmolested swine, but skins, hams to cure and smoke like those of pigs, and valuable oil. The fat was rendered into lard, which wouldn't congeal even in cold weather, and the carcasses were useful to feed the bears' erstwhile prey.
All over the eastern half of Texas, to the verge of the Great Plains, the passenger pigeons crossed in their season, assembling in flocks of almost unbelievable size. Settlers with their wives and children gathered with rifles, scatter-guns, and poles for the slaughter. Some blinded the pigeons at night with lanterns or bonfires. They sold the birds commercially, for they were easy to preserve: you roasted them, then packed them in casks and covered them with melted fat, which kept out the air; or you salted the meat down and stored it in barrels, like fish; or you pickled the birds, especially the breasts--breast of pigeon pickled in spiced apple cider was considered a delicacy. They saved some of the down for use in pillows, fed some of the carcasses to the hogs, and left many of the birds to rot.
Deer were stalked, ambushed at a salt lick, or "fire-hunted" by night. Another common prey was the javelina, peccary, or Mexican hog, the small wild pig that roamed the woods or hid in the hollows of trees. They were similar to tame hogs except for their small, short legs and very long canine teeth (they had no tusks), which meshed closely and were as sharp as razors. They could take a man's leg off with one bite, and many a hunter had to climb the nearest tree--and sometimes stay there for hours--after wounding a javelina. One had to kill twenty-six besiegers before he dared slide down. They were also known to chase humans in the woods at no provocation. The only sure shot was behind the shoulder, where the blade joined the neck. Usually that broke the backbone, and if not, it broke the legs and kept the animal from either charging or running away. The razorbacks, on the other hand, were thin-bodied, long-legged descendants of the better breeds originally introduced into the country by the Spanish, and often they were hunted like any other game. Communities held fox, wolf, coyote, 'coon, and rattlesnake hunts in an effort to protect their livestock and cornfields and prevent their freely running children from being bitten.
Buckskin, durable and plentiful, served for everyday wear, along with homespun--cotton, woollen, or linsey-woolsey, hand-carded, hand-spun, and often, in the case of the cotton, picked of its seed by hand--which wouldn't rip any more than the buckskin would, and fine clothes were saved for "best." Store-bought dyes were scarce and expensive, but many colors could be made from handy organic sources--oak bark for yellow, Spanish moss for blue, oak leaves for green, pokeberries, blackberries, or clay for red. For trips to church or town a woman ordinarily had walking shoes, hand-knit stockings, and a dress or two of gingham and calico cut from a bolt at the store, and maybe a treasured black silk for very special occasions like weddings. Men made their "overcoats" of a horse blanket, bearskin, or buffalo hide slit to make a poncho, but a decorative Mexican blanket was considered the height of rural fashion.
In the days before the Revolution, Mexico had passed laws decreeing the establishment of schools, but they were paper laws; not till annexation was provision made for two kinds of schools, "public" and "free," with ten per cent of the state's revenues set aside for the latter. It took till 1854 for a school fund to be established and local districts drawn up, and up to the turn of the century the state would be split by factionalism over education, with attendance at a free school having the stigma of taking charity. Meanwhile, wealthier citizens sent their children to schools in the States, or to the privately financed "public" schools, which were supported by subscription and occasionally subsidized by local funds. Children in the rural areas had little opportunity for formal schooling unless their families could afford private tutors. Textbooks, other than a Bible, a Blue-Backed Speller, and the McGuffey Readers, were scarce. Terms rarely extended beyond two or three months each year, depending on the weather, the Indians, the condition of the crops, and how long the itinerant teacher remained in the neighborhood. Sometimes they were staggered so girls and boys could attend separately. Moreover, as in the South from which so many of them had come, many small farmers--even though they were mostly members of the evangelistic churches, which emphasized the Bible as the authoritative word of God and encouraged their members to read it, meaning that all men needed to have the rudiments of an education--had no appreciation of "book learning" and didn't demand schooling for their children. In a rural region where people were scattered, good roads not always present, and demand unspectacular, the difficulties of establishing a school system were compounded. In consequence people had to teach their young at home or send them back to "the States."
Even if schools had been readily available to them, though, it was debatable whether the Nealy children would have been permitted to go at all, for their mother's gloomy theology made all children out to be a swarm of little vipers, and held that they contaminated one another. Indeed, they had very little recreation with other children. And once she got Vin to raise, Aunt Myra followed the same precepts with him that had served her with his older cousins.
In few minds of that day was there any doubt that God really existed and that He exercised a fatherly care over His children. Every event of human life was determined by the direct will of God. It was God Who sent you children, made the potatoes turn out well, put the blight on the orchard trees, and caused the roan mare to sicken and die. Likewise if one of the family was sick it wasn't because some physical law had been violated, but a dispensation of Providence. People followed literally the text of the Bible, which they considered inspired, and supplemented their beliefs with all sorts of odd notions gathered from pagan rites and superstitions. The religious reawakening that had succeeded the skepticism and apathy of the late eighteenth century had made this a time of intense religious interest, and nowhere was it more strongly manifest than in its influence on recreation. A new generation of spiritual leaders took up arms against any broadening whatsoever of the field of amusements. They preached the sinfulness of idle pleasure with a fierce intolerance. The old issue of Sabbath observance was revived: at the close of the last century a marked weakening of Puritan restrictions had taken place, but now many of the old bans were reapplied. According to the sermons of Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and other such Protestant pastors, it was a sin to drink, dance, or play cards at any time, and doubly wicked to do so on Sunday. No sports or games (not even hunting or fishing) were allowed on the Lord's Day, let alone public amusements. Exaggerated fears of breaking the Third Commandment made people afraid to speak of God; more and more they referred to Providence, or perhaps Heaven, giving it human passions and exalting it until they had plainly broken the Second Commandment if not the First.
Methodism dominated Anglo-Texan religious thought, with more than half of the population being of that persuasion, and Baptists ranking next. Presbyterians stood in third place, but as elsewhere in the nation were considered the richest and most influential of the denominations, and more powerful than their numbers would have indicated. Quick to scent heresy and to eject the unorthodox, they were constantly fissioning into dissident groups. Earliest were the Reformed, who had left Scotland for America (with no stopoff in Ulster) because the state church seemed to them too lax and then split, during the Great Revival of the 1730's, into the conservative "Old Light" or "Old Side" and revivalist, innovator "New Side" or "New Light" (a free-will branch) Covenanters. The church had further split in 1837, the more traditionalist Scotch-Irish forming an "Old School" body while the Yankees worked through the more modern, reformist branch calling itself the "New School." There were also the Associate, the Seceders (formerly Associate Reformed), and the United, the strictest of all. Their church, with the Congregationalist, had been the elite of New England, and considered the souls of Methodists and Baptists as much in peril as those of the heathen Indians. Their Calvinist doctrine held that man was born to depravity; only by rejoicing in his utter damnation could he hope to be one of the foreordained few elected to enjoy life eternal. It was largely for this reason that their doctrine seemed undemocratic to backwoods folk; most frontier preachers maintained that any repentant soul could enter Heaven. o Presbyterians, asll men were damned by the original sin of Adam; the sacrifice of Christ made possible their redemption by faith, but the experience of faith was open only to those who had been elected by God and thus predestined to salvation from the beginning of time. The outward sign of true faith was correct behavior, and while a moral life didn't prove that one was of the elect, an immoral life clearly proved the opposite. Strict morality and hard work were therefore required. By about 1840, indeed, only a modicum of Calvinists still held to a doctrine of arbitrary predestination, but those who did remained very traditional and hidebound. Concern with their souls made them introspective and future-oriented. As the intensity of religious experience diminished, they clung to their negative injunctions and became increasingly repressive; "thou shalt not," without the counterpoise of love and saving grace, was often harsh and life-denying. As secular society developed alternatives to the narrow social life of the churches, they in turn fought stubbornly to preserve their control. Many of them stuck to a rigid fundamentalism that made the literal interpretation of the Bible the principal test of faith. They attempted to maintain an ethic of asceticism and self-denial in the midst of an increasingly sensate and consumption-oriented society.
As Calvinists, descendants of the Puritan Separatists who had joined the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, they disapproved powerfully of the candles, incense, prayer books, and ceremony of the "official" Anglican Church. They believed that a church service should be very simple, with only Bible readings, prayers not taken from a prayer book, and a sermon by the minister. Although they were early innovators of the camp-meeting phenomenon, the "Old Light" Calvinists argued that the passionate enthusiasm inspired by the revivalists could neither induce nor guarantee salvation, and even the less conservative groups found that the excessive enthusiasms of the converts and the attendant extracurricular romances put them off, so that by 1825 it was an almost exclusively Methodist institution. They were firmly convicted that they were the chosen of God; in fact any non-Calvinist was presumably unsaved. Moreover, in accord with Calvinist doctrine, they admitted into full communion only those who had experienced divine grace, the reception of which supposedly so altered a man's nature that other gracious men could tell by visible signs that he was very probably saved--one of the "visible saints." Moral behavior was construed as a sign of one's standing among the spiritually elect. Salvation involved a direct, mystical experience of God, but in practise this was far from sufficient proof of sanctity; rather the candidate for admission had to undergo an obstacle course of rigid tests of faith, including the obligatory confession of sins before the congregation, or, among the Presbyterians, the elders of the church. He had to offer sufficient evidence that he had truly experienced divine grace, submit to the congregation's or elders' questions, and be voted upon; if he had any enemies, he could expect his affront to that person to be avenged, and no right of a hearing was accorded. Uncle Jesse read a chapter of the Bible aloud twice a day and led his family in prayers. He was very active in church affairs, on committees, and a staunch supporter financially. When there were services to go to, he attended them twice every Sunday. But he never joined the church, for membership was limited to those who could show evidence of conversion.
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