What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Presbyterianism's Calvinist creed emphasized the virtues of diligence, thrift, and sobriety to such a degree that extravagance became a cardinal sin and work was regarded as a worthy end in itself. In addition, it taught that all men, before birth, were divided into the blessed, destined for Heaven, and the damned. Nothing a man could accomplish during his life on earth would move him one step nearer either eternal reward or punishment. The aim of life, therefore, was not salvation, but the glorification of God. And if good deeds and self-sacrifice would carry one's soul no nearer Heaven, worldly wealth became a sign of God's felicity. Men felt justified in devoting themselves solely to the concerns of this world. Having foresworn waste of either time or money, and having made a virtue of unceasing diligence in his calling, a Puritan, unless he had phenomenally bad luck, could hardly escape material success. The world of strife and labor, dedicated to God, became sanctified, as did the means to worldly success, pursued for the sake of God, so it wasn't surprising that Jesse Nealy's farm should be so prosperous, its livestock so well cared for, its buildings so spruce. But the idea that pleasure was a desireable end in itself was one which had not yet taken root among Presbyterians, and those of their neighbors who took life gaily and were always quick to laugh seemed to them "godless." With their morbid preoccupations about sin, the Last Judgment, and eternal punishment, they often seemed rather lugubrious even to their fellow Christians. They piled moral on morality, and seemed to be more troubled by the latter than anyone else was--at least they talked more about it, though they were otherwise indistinguishable from their neighbors except by their hard efficiency, the men being leaders in industry and commerce, the women founts of social service. They were notoriously good, and far more effective in preserving a high moral tone than the Methodists or Baptists. But with all their serviceability to the community, their piety often tended to be that of the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not a sinner as other men are, and their families to be hard within. The parents often dominated the children and were in turn coldly used in old age; brothers seldom liked brothers; houses were austere and uncomfortable, and Duty was the word used oftenest.
Being of the elect, they had definite obligations. They had, for example, to make themselves worthy of the honor bestowed upon them; they had to see that the forces of evil were kept underfoot, and they had to keep an eye on their neighbors' business to make sure that their neighbors were having no traffic with sin. They believed that godly people must live under the constant surveillance of their neighbors if they were to remain godly. Humanity was incorrigibly sinful; the pastor was "watchman in this place," and his flock spies of God assisting him in rooting out secret transgressions. They had the reputation of being very strictly pious, but their piety was along Calvinist lines, and confusing to an outsider; it consisted mainly of adherence to the first four Commandments, and most particularly the fourth. Certain sins it frowned upon--sins against man--but was prone to commit: theft, for example, in strictly legal ways from the widow and orphan, or in less law-abiding fashion from the county or the state; the thief in such cases was seldom punished or even ostracized, but must be aware of the contempt felt for him. Sins of the flesh which Moses and the prophets forbade--adultery, fornication, looking on the wine when it was red--were regarded more leninently, and if the sinner contrived in their commission to make such a fool of himself that his fellows rocked with laughter, the affection they felt for him might even be increased.
The United Presbyterians enjoyed (if that was the word) a discipline strong enough to prevent all participation in the amusements of Society. The UP's were the strictest of all the branches; they solemnly "tithed" (even the children) instead of putting pennies in the collection plate, considered celebration of Christmas and Easter "popish," and believed so firmly in the divine inspiration of the Bible and the immediate cessation of same upon the recording of the last word of Revelations that they would sing only Psalms. They neither danced, played cards, went to the theater, or drank (however moderately), and on Sunday they could neither travel nor play games nor read anything but the Bible, the catechism, and the Sunday-school paper. Their preparations for "Sabbath" (a word they invariably used instead of "Sunday")--the strict Pilgrim Sabbath, lasting from sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday--began on with the setting of Saturday's sun. At that hour, the house must be swept and garnished, the lamps trimmed, and Sunday's meals ready in the pantry. There was no cooking in a Calvinist kitchen. on Sunday. Every task which could be done ahead was done on Saturday, even to getting out the children's Sunday clothes. All dolls and toys and weekday storybooks must be put away till Monday. Strict Presbyterian families fetched cold lunches with them to service and sat beneath the trees that shaded their church, eating them, between morning and afternoon preaching.
Aunt Myra's father had been one of the more ascetic preachers of the sect, the sort who taught that "the intrigues, vanities, and luxuries of the world" opposed a right relationship with God, and religious persons were distinguished less by faith or works than by "uniform avoidance of...'worldly amusements.' " The racecourse, the stage, the concert hall, the circus, and all games of chance were severely disapproved. His theology allowed no neutral ground between God's work and the devil's pastimes, and indeed demanded greater ascetiscism than most of its adherents were willing to grant, but his daughter, thoroughly steeped in it from infancy and denied the scope for rebellion that was available to her brothers (they were, after all, boys, who grew into men, and were capable of making their own way in the world), swallowed it unadulterated and in turn regurgitated it for the children whose young lives and characters were hers to mold. He brought his children up with Bible-readings and prayers and warnings against sin, especially the theater, which to him was the doorway to Hell, and his wife was little better: she was a morbid, melancholy mother who had a contempt for good health, happiness, and success. God's ways were sad ways. Between them, they raised their family in the atmosphere of a moral pressure cooker in which early contact with death and the early introduction of piety and religious anxiety marked the childhood years with sobering preoccupations that frequently climaxed in a religious crisis during adolescence. From early youth Myra Tanner had the puritanical feeling that enjoying oneself too much was "frivolous," and would scold her less orthodox friends for their innocent pleasure in clothes and parties and urge them to turn their thoughts "from earthly vanitiesH" In adulthood, tormented by feelings of guilt and inadequacy, she alternately subjected herself to self-blame and self-punishment and resorted to various concealment devices--hypochondria, malicious gossip, chronic irritability and suspicion. In addition, like many an unscrupulous woman of the day, denied suffrage and divorce and sometimes even the right of property, she found weapons of her own to gain what she wanted in life. She was a puritanical lady obsessed with her personal virtue and her staunch republicanism. She learned to faint at will and to summon to her aid the most spectacular hysterics. She was not above the most petty intrigues, even to setting her husband and children against one another. She was capable of raising a hurricane of emotion which wore the nerves of others to rags and filled the whole house with unhappiness for days but somehow left her miraculously untouched, standing in the center of the storm, a martyr and a saint. There could be a hardness of soul in her, an ability to cripple the most masculine of men using only words, looks, and demeanor. So life in that bleak house was far from amusing.
To Vin, pitchforked without warning into its midst after five years spent with a mother whose Christianity was of a much gentler and more optimistic cast, there was a nightmare quality to the system. His kinfolk seemed stiff-necked and ungracious, their churches little comfort to mortal man, their sermons too full of the wrath of God, their terrible hymns--"That awful day will surely come," "One more day's work for Jesus, one less of life for me," "When this poor, lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave"--depressing, and their catechism very gloomy and complicated. "What is man's chief end? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. What is God? A spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable...The decrees of God are His eternal purpose according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass...The sinfulness of that estate whereunto man fell consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of Original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature (which is commonly called 'Original Sin') together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it...God having out of His good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a redeemer...Effectual Calling is the work of God's spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel...No mere man since the fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the Commandments of God, but daily breaks them in thought, word, and deed." Not only were lust, profanity, vanity, murder, robbery, adultery, forgery, considered sins; so were gambling and gaming, intemperance (which meant, in practise, drinking anything even remotely alcoholic), hypocrisy, duelling, fighting, cheating. And for reasons that remained unclear to him, it seemed to Vin that his aunt was even more strict with him than she was with his only slightly older cousin Johnny. From the first she introduced him to Hell and its terrors for the good of his soul, filling him with Calvinistic superstitions regarding Heaven and Hell and predestination and original sin, and morbid horrors of divine revenge or a jealous and vindictive God. An unexplained smile could be cause for punishment--and punishment was harsh: once, after a flogging, he was confined to his room for five days, except at evening prayers (when he was required to keep off by himself near the door) and half an hour for walking about in the garden each morning. He learned to notice moods, tempers, discrepancies between speech and action; he was always wary, observant, suspicious of sudden favors. He learned to be careful, to hide his thoughts and moods, to read Aunt Myra's moods (for Uncle Jesse was both less severe and less involved with matters of day-to-day discipline, being usually at work in the fields or out on the range with the cattle) and anticipate her wants and dislikes. He learned to swallow his words and keep his silence, though he seethed at the injustices he felt he was suffering, because he wasn't big enough to make his arguments stick, and all they got him was lashings.
Like any child, his natural assumption was that the grownups knew what they were talking about regardless of how it contradicted his mother's teachings, so he suffered terrible pangs and guilt because he had offended (or so he was constantly told) an omniscient and implacable God. Even then, such instants of truly religious emotion as he experienced wouldn't have been called by that name at all, least of all by Aunt Myra, and few of those sudden and brief apprehensions of the Infinite and the Eternal had anything to do with church. Certain passages read from the pulpit Bible had, sometimes, the power to sweep the mind out of itself: "The heavens declare the glory of God...Let not your heart be troubled...For I am persuaded that neither death nor life...Remember now thy Creator..." But most of his breathtaking revelations of that unnameable experience which later, looking back, he might call knowledge of the immanence of God, came out of doors, and were a compound of awe, ecstasy, and terror: when the depths of the summer sky, with a swallow circling almost out of sight in the late dusk, or the brilliance of a winter night, with the stars hanging low and Orion climbing aslant from the east, proved to him, once and forever, infinity and eternity and his own oneness with them--and made him feel, when he jolted back to earth, the burden of separation, and rebellion at having to be a person bound and limited by a name for however-many years.
Aunt Myra was true to her responsibilities, but Vin always sensed somehow that he was nothing more than a Duty, not loved as his Ma had loved him. He had decent clothes (though, with four older boys in the family, they were naturally hand-me-downs) and a warm bed; he ate the same food as the rest of the family, and there was plenty of it, Uncle Jesse being a very good farmer and his land rich; on the rare occasions when he was ill, his aunt plied him with the same home remedies she used on his cousins. But in every emotional sense theirs was a comfortless house, no family warmth, no shared laughter, no real sense of home such as he'd had in Sherman. Poetry and fiction were forbidden, color and pattern looked on with suspicion, celebrations of almost any kind denied.
It was probably only the good foundation his mother had given Vin that kept him from a life of either rebellion or fear, anxiety, and passivity. With his Ma, he had been "good" because he wanted her to approve and be proud of him. With Aunt Myra, he obeyed because he was afraid. Even so, it had its effects. He learned that trust was dangerous, that the people who were supposed to love you and take care of you couldn't be counted on to do it. He learned that people were basically bad--or, at least, that his aunt thought they were. He learned to be afraid of God, not to love and trust in Him.
Long before he was old enough for his aunt to even consider teaching him his letters, he was spending as much time as he could away from the farm. It was this as much as anything that was responsible for his illiteracy, for he did it at all seasons, and by the time he came back at night--if he came back--Aunt Myra was usually too worn out from a day's work to go back over the same lessons she had already taught Kate and Johnny earlier that day. In self-defense he spent as much time as he could away from home, accepting the thrashings he got when he returned and going out again as soon as opportunity offered. He would do his chores, which involved working outdoors or in the barn, and then slip away before he could be summoned back into the house. By the time he was nine he knew more about the countryside than anyone, where everything grew, all about the little animals. He was still short for his age, but his shoulders were beginning to broaden and his chest to fill out, and the life he had lived had made him tough as a hickory sapling. He could guess close to the time of the year, even the week of the month, by the way the leaves and branches looked. He could make better willow whistles than any of his cousins. He ranged all over the district, mostly on foot, swimming, fishing, snaring rabbits and squirrels and woodchucks, catching bullfrogs with a red flannel rag, hunting wild plums, berries, pawpaws, nuts, 'simmons, and grapes, harvesting the plants his aunt used to make dyes and medicines and thereby, at least sometimes, diverting the worst of her wrath. He fashioned a bow and arrows and practised with them till he was skillful enough to shoot birds. He explored every cave he found and climbed every tree he could scramble up into. He picked wild berries, came home with honey, crabapples, pawpaws and haws, all according to season. He learned to catch crayfish and to snare rabbits, quail, and grouse in homemade traps; he fished with string and a bent pin, or sometimes even "tickled" the fish out of the water with his bare hands. He learned the ways and tracks of the animals, the pictures the stars made in the sky, the herbs and the minerals, where the deer hid by day, how the foxes taught their young to hunt, and what the warning cries of the birds meant. He grew silent with the silent things of the wild, and because no shout for help would be heard in his solitary wanderings, he learned to take all things in silence. He became as stoical as an Indian; when he was whipped he wouldn't say a word, wouldn't yell or cry or try to get out of it, just fixed his mind on the wilderness he loved, the open country that gave him the only real comfort he knew, and projected himself into the future, to the next day he would be there, finding solace for the wounds of his battered soul. He liked to be in the open, for there he could think his own thoughts, even and regular, all strung together like the links of a chain; he could breathe the sweet of wildflowers into his lungs, or look for animal sign or pretty stones, or stop and admire things that caught his eye without anyone interfering.
For all that, he understood on some fundamental level that there was a basic unfairness and wrongness about the way he was treated. And a child's suffering can be very real and very deep--all the more because a child lacks the wisdom and resources of a grown person. His misery fills his whole world, leaving no space for other things. He has only emotions with no reason, no cynicism or resignation to dull the edges of his feelings. Vin bore it for five years after his mother died, but there came a day when he knew he had to leave or die. It was early May of 1863, and the War was raging. Not for another two months would the capture of Vicksburg sever the Confederacy along the Mississippi River, and most ranchers were selling cattle to the Secessionist government, driving great herds eastwards to Matagordas; everyone was shorthanded, but Richmond routinely detached Texan soldiers to go home and serve as trailhands. Other herds went to JB Dunn's packing plant in Jefferson, which had a contract to slaughter and pack 150 beef a day, and their owners received as much as twenty dollars a head, a price unheard of below the Red in pre-War days. The Yankee blockade was never extended to the Rio Grande, and incoming ships could bring in all manner of foodstuffs, medicines, and luxuries. The boatmen had no use for Confederate money, but it wasn't hard to change to British gold, and the gold into Federal notes, if you had connections in San Francisco or Denver. And gold wasn't hard to come by along the Border, where trade was heavy, and everyone took it when they could get it, at the rate of two dollars Confederate paper for one. Cotton too flowed out freely, shipping through Brownsville or Mexico, especially Matamoras, to England. If you had cattle, cotton, or other goods to trade (such as buffalo hides, for which a market continued to exist), you didn't suffer much. But there was widespread Indian trouble, and most outfits weren't even branding calves: they were just hanging on, holding back the redskins, trying to keep themselves together till better times.
Uncle Jesse, with Jacob, Paul, and Daniel, had enlisted in the Confederate forces and ridden off to fight for their state and their rights, leaving only Vin, Aunt Myra, fourteen-year-old Kate, and eleven-year-old Johnny to tend the farm. Johnny had learned to shoot when he was only nine, so he'd be able to protect his family and provide food. Powder and lead being among the few things Texas settlers couldn't produce or improvise on their own, Aunt Myra would give him four or five rounds, and he was expected to bring back some game for each, or get tanned for being wasteful. That taught him to shoot only when he was sure of his target and to make sure he didn't miss, and he'd taught Vin, but already Vin, barely turned ten, outstripped him in steadiness of nerve and accuracy of eye. The practise had been common throughout the district even before hostilities broke out: men were usually busy with farm work or whatever, so if a family ate meat it was usually shot by the boys--or sometimes the girls. There was a neighbor girl who could outshoot even Vin with a rifle, though a pistol was too heavy for her. His flight wasn't really planned; maybe if it had been, he would have made better preparations for it. It just seemed that one day something broke inside him and he couldn't stay any longer. Aunt Myra had given him another lashing, he forgot now for what, and he finally accepted the fact that this would never really be his home, that he wasn't loved or wanted and that he had to find someplace where he would be. Sent to bed without supper, he lay awake until the house grew quiet, then rolled out of bed, stripped the quilt off, and folded and rolled it into a cylinder, which he tied up with some of the string he always kept in his pockets. He removed the case from his pillow and stuffed into it a clean shirt, a set of longjohns and a few pairs of socks. Then he crept down to the kitchen and stole a cold joint of roast beef, a summer sausage put up the year before, half a dozen potatoes, a loaf of salt-rising bread, a quart jar of canned tomatoes from the preserve cellar, some of the raisins he passionately loved, a big wedge of rat-trap cheese, a knife and some precious matches which he stuffed into the pillowcase. He jammed his broken-brimmed hat on his head, slung the pillowcase and rolled quilt over his shoulder, took a canteen, slipped out the door and started walking. He'd thought of taking a horse or mule, but he figured they'd let him go easier if he didn't make a horsethief of himself. It was clear to him that they didn't want him, never had. His best chance to get free lay in that, and in the fact that people tended to concentrate in and around the towns and cities and do little travelling, the war having taken so many men.
Just west and north of San Antonio lay the rolling, cedar-covered hills where the Edwards Plateau, the southernmost tip of the Great Plains, broke sharply at the Balcones Escarpment. This was beautiful country, with a band of tall cypresses rising along the clear Medina, and stretches of fertile, river-valley soils, much like the area immediately surrounding the town. Juniper and cedar grew on the heights, cypress, pecan, and scrubby hardwoods in the valleys and canyons, and mesquite and prairie grasses on the flats. It lacked the flat prairies and blinding dust of most of the rest of Texas, and because of its elevation, rising two to three thousand feet above sea level, even the climate was different. Unfortunately the general tenor of the landscape was rock and brush, a dry, mountainous land of granite outcrops, chalky cliffs, and thin rocky limestone soils cut by cold spring-fed streams, and what was worse, it lay in the path of the Comanche raiding trail to Mexico. The eastern part of this plateau was loosely called the Hill Country by its inhabitants, largely Germans who had begun filtering in around 1845, to become farmers and small ranchers, raising chiefly sheep and goats, and founding by the way a series of communities in a long, fragmented stream reaching west from New Braunfels: first Fredericksburg, and later Sisterdale, Boerne, Comfort, and several others. They laid out towns foursquare with Teutonic efficiency, built stone houses of quaintly German architecture with narrow windows, gingerbread frescoes, outside stairways, and handkerchief-sized front yards, and stubbornly continued to speak their native tongue. They were a thrifty and industrious people, intent on minding their own business, and settled into harness side by side with the Americans, though they were, like any tightly knit alien group, subject to suspicion and a certain degree of persecution. With its timber, water, and fine green grassland, to say nothing of its hard-to-get-at character, the country had been a favorite retreat of the Comanches, who had fought long and hard to keep it. All that had saved the earliest Germans from wholesale slaughter had been their leaders' wisdom in seeking out the Peneteka band of the tribe, whose range this was, and making the great point that their people were neither Texans nor Mexicans, two tribes the Comanches hated. The Indians, seeing the light, recognized los Alemanes as a separate tribe of whites and agreed to share their hunting grounds with them. This treaty, made in March of 1847, was never broken, but in more recent years the Indians, embittered by other white aggressions, couldn't easily distinguish between one kind of Caucasian and another, and already much German hair adorned Comanche lodgepoles. Still, north was about the only place Vin could figure to go. South was Mexico, the enemy of Texas; west was empty wilderness; east was more settlement, more people, ultimately Yankee armies. So, following the Big Dipper like the runaway slave he somewhat resembled, he took his path that way.
His experiences over the past five years had made him wary of people, and in any case he feared the possibility of being sent back if he made himself known to anyone close to home, so he avoided the German settlements and farms, sleeping out as he had done before. Four days later, footsore, ragged, dirty, almost out of food, he struggled up out of a pecan-choked river bottom to find himself confronted with the silhouettes of the Blue Mountains, and distant beyond that the Bradys. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. For a long moment he stood, all else forgotten, drinking in the vista that lay before him. And then, out of nowhere, hoofbeats, and he was surrounded by half a dozen young Indians on horseback. They weren't wearing paint or leading extra horses, so he figured they weren't a raiding party, but they were all armed and all warriors, each with one or two eagle feathers in his hair.
Outnumbered though he was, it never occurred to Vin to give up. He remembered what Ma had told him: Be brave...remember, you're a Tanner. He put down his pillowcase (not that it had very much in it any more) and drew the knife that was thrust through his belt. He figured they'd have his scalp before an hour was out, but they'd know they'd been in a fight. And maybe, being small, he could find an opening and slip free of their ring.
One of them pointed at him and said something he couldn't understand, and the others laughed. Vin had never thought of Indians as laughing. Then the one directly in front of him held up his hand, and the others shut up right away. Vin squinted at this one, guessing immediately that he was the leader. He was maybe eighteen or nineteen, mounted on a bright bay-and-white pinto gelding of the classic Mexican breed said to have begun with the horses of the Conquistadores, with short back, long pasterns, and firm joints. A small silver bell hung in one ear as an ornament, and his hair was studded with silver discs. His moccasins were ornamented with black beads and shiny Mexican jinglers.
He slipped down off his bearskin saddlepad and walked slowly toward Vin, the pony following on its halter of braided horsehair. A buffalo-hide quiver was hung over his right shoulder, bristling with arrows with the bright red and white tribal feathering. A skinning knife with an eight-inch blade hung at his waist. He carried a double-barrelled shotgun, a short buffalo lance, and an orangewood bow. He stopped about three feet from the boy and spoke, to Vin's astonishment, in English. "You are very young, and far from the lodges of your people. What do you do in this place? Where is your family?"
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