What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
At last a little smoke curled up from the edges of the hole, and finally the tinder caught. Instantly he removed the drill, scooped up the burning moss with his bare hand, and tucked it into the pipe bowl. He puffed carefully on the stem till the tobacco caught, then offered the pipe to the sky-beings, to Mother Earth, and to the four directions. He would smoke and pray until the tobacco in the bowl gave out.
He was about to begin when a prickling at the back of his neck told him he was no longer alone. He flung himself sideways and around in a roll, his knife leaping into his hand. Against the stars a massive shape bulked black, its contours half obscured by the draping of the serape it wore. But the voice that spoke from it was one Vin knew, and it spoke in the Comanche tongue. "Wolf medicine is good," it said. "No bullet can harm the man who is guarded by the wolf; only an arrow can be dangerous."
Vin slowly pushed himself up, trying consciously to slow the hammering beat of his heart. He was already thinking in the language of the People and at first couldn't call to mind the name that went with the voice. Even if he had, it hadn't occurred to him that the man would know enough of them to speak their language so well--or to know even this much of medicine and its powers. He had recognized the Comanche beadwork on the man's vest from the very first, but that could have been the result of a simple trade. He slowly sheathed the knife, hoping the unsteadiness of his hand would be hidden by the darkness. Clearly the speaker had seen his white clay paint, heard him singing to himself in Comanche, and made the obvious connection. "Who has told you this?" he demanded in the same tongue.
A hint of a smile sounded in the reply, though the darkness and the broad shading hatbrim prevented Vin from making out the face. "Among the Nemmena I was called Singing Bear. I lived half a turn of seasons in the lodges of the T'ou Tsei, the Water Horses, talking with their wise ones, seeking knowledge of puha and Ka-Dih and To-bicke, Our-Sure-Enough-Father the Sun."
Vin sat up, brushing dirt from his painted body. "Come and smoke with me, then," he said, half challengingly.
Josiah stepped forward, flipping his hat back off his head to hang down his back by the jaw strap. With the grace that so often surprised Vin in a man of his size, he settled down on the south side of the fire so that the pipe, when passed sunwise, would come naturally to him. Vin recovered the pipe, whispering an apology to the spirits for having dropped it in his haste to defend himself. He made sure the tobacco was still burning and reseated himself before handing the pipe to the older man. He watched narrowly, all his old suspicions at full tension, until he saw with what genuine reverence Josiah handled it, how he offered smoke in the proper way before taking a puff for himself.
Vin relaxed a bit and decided that, although he couldn't admit in so many words what his medicine was, there was nothing to prevent his responding to the implications of what Josiah had said. "The wolf is more than an animal," he observed. "All the People know that the wolf is their brother. He is a deeper and more mysterious kinsman than the trickster coyote. There have always been close ties between the wolf and the Nemmena. To be singled out for his protection is a great honor."
"The wolf is a clever hunter and has great endurance," Josiah agreed. "He moves with silence, and his senses are keen. I should have guessed long ago that he watched over you, seeing the gifts he had given you." A pause, then: "Do you come to this place often?"
"Never before to do what I plan for this night," Vin told him. He eyed the big man warily, still uncertain, remembering the diatribes of the Presbyterian circuit-riders against the "heathen." "You serve the white man's god," he said. "How is it that you sought Comanche wisdom? How can you hold respect for the red man's beliefs also?"
Josiah heard the edge in the soft voice and smothered a sigh. "Once, on the other side of the great salt water, there was a man named Blake who saw visions and spoke to spirits. One of his sayings was, 'All religions are one.' I have spent many winters in search of truth, and I believe he spoke wisely. The yellow-skinned people who live in the country of the setting sun say Light is common to all religions. Whether it comes from the sun, or a fire, or a white man's oil lamp, it is still light, and we can still see by it on the darkest night. I do not scorn the beliefs of any honest searcher."
Vin let out his breath in a slow sigh. He didn't know why, but he suddenly felt safe, felt he wouldn't be rebuked for what he had come here to do. "Stay, then," he invited. "I will talk to my guardians."
Power came, ordinarily, from a fast, or, if one could afford to, it was purchased from a medicine man. Most of it came with restrictions, often having to do with diet; the small powers might only forbid foods that were taboo to Comanches anyway. The greater it was, the more responsibilities and restrictions hedged it about; it took a young man of alert mind to live with the restrictions of the greatest medicines and not violate them, for if he offended his medicine, his power would punish him, and usually that punishment was death. Thus men might give away some or all of their power to younger ones as they got old enough not to need it any more: power was most useful to young men, strong men, who went hunting and raiding and catching wild horses, and the elders who passed their time within the circle of the camp, telling stories and making arrows and the like, had less use for it.
No man ever told any of the secrets of his power unless his guardians first gave their permission; he could say that it would protect him, because all power did that, but not in what way, or whether it would protect certain aspects of his being and not others. Power was based on honor and integrity; to lie or make false accusations would offend many if not all of a man's medicines. And sometimes a man's power was stronger than it was at other times.
Every boy knew there was only one way to go if he wanted to become a man, a man with horses of his own, and a wife, and the respect of the People. And he had to do it before he went to war, which he usually did somewhere between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, because it was easier to be brave after he had the medicine that would protect him and shield him from harm. He went unaccompanied except for the pony he rode, and stayed out four days, never more, taking neither food nor water, and if he saw no sign he had to go home and try again later. But if he did, it would usually come in the form of an animal which spoke, not aloud, but in the seeker's head, not loudly but with every word clear. The animal would tell the seeker what things to put into his medicine pouch and what song to sing when he needed help.
Some Comanches, like some white men, were more superstitious than others. Goes Ahead had been like that, always wearing little amulets on his arms or tying charms in his hair to ward off this or that. If he came home in daytime he didn't like to go into his lodge alone. He would call to some other member of the family, and if none was there, he would sit outside till someone returned.
Josiah's presence all but forgotten, Vin made medicine in the Comanche fashion, praying to his guardian spirits and askng if they would help. "Hear me, my brothers. It is many seasons since I have come before you, yet I know you will not have forgotten me. I am He-Tans-Skins, son of Eagle-That-Sees-Afar. Hear me, my heart is sore and crying.
"When I was still a young boy, unblooded and without war honors, my father dreamed dreams of me. He saw me standing beside a length of shadow that bore the shape of a man. That man has come into my life now, as my father told me he would do. He has been sorely wounded in saving me from one who was my enemy. He lies now in a medicine sleep, halfway between life and death. The healer who tends him says he may live or he may die, and if he lives, it may be that he will not walk again.
"My brothers, this man is the brother of my heart. There is nothing I can do to help him, that power is not mine. But you have the power to save his life and to restore him to strength and health. Hear me, I cry to you. Do not take this man, my brother, from me, or condemn him to a cripple's life. Lend him your strength, give the skill of your medicine to the healer who works to help him. Bring his wandering spirit back to his body and make him well and whole. You can do these things if you will. He is not of your people, yet I know you have led me to him for a purpose; my father dreamed that he would be a part of the hidden and powerful things of which I was to know. My father said I would have my own good life in time. This man is a part of that life; it begins with him, and if he ends it will end. Do not leave me forsaken and alone, with no people and no family. Make my brother well again."
Josiah listened to the note that rang under the words and felt an ache in his heart for the loneliness that echoed there. Vin had kept himself to himself so determinedly over the last couple of months that the ex-preacher had never realized how much it meant to him to have found the rest of them. He wondered, too, at the bitterness and suspicion that sounded in Vin's words when he spoke of "the white man's god" as if of some unbelievably alien being. May the full wrath of the Lord fall upon every man who has the arrogance to claim he knows what God thinks! the big man told himself angrily. It's caused more grief to Christians and others than anything else could possibly do, and put more doubts and fears into the hearts of decent men like this one than anyone has a right to. How could anyone listen to these prayers of his and doubt his need and sincerity? If he were a Catholic, he'd probably be begging a saint or the Virgin Mary to intercede for him on Chris's behalf. Does it matter that he's begging a wolf-spirit to do it? His petition is just as heartfelt--and if it's less than totally unselfish, what of that? If his prayer is granted it will still be good for Chris, to say nothing of the rest of us. Vin's right. If Chris ends, everything we're working toward becoming, everything we've done for Four Corners so far and may do in the future, will end. And Vin will lose something he's obviously been searching for far too long.
When the pipe was smoked out, Vin carefully laid it aside on the parfleche and sat quietly, his eyes half closed, breathing much as Josiah had seen certain Eastern mystics do, in a slow controlled way intended to bestow calm and maintain balance. He seemed to be listening, but whether it was for something within himself or without Josiah wasn't sure--until, somewhere off in the hills farther west, something gave tongue in a long throbbing baying. It was a wolf, not a coyote; Josiah could tell that from the voice, which had more throat and power than any coyote's, and was heavy with basso and contralto. Vin's eyelids flipped open, his eyes intense blue coals of fire, his breathing suddenly hushed. He listened eagerly, as if the wolf's howl was a language he understood as readily as he did that of the Comanche, and Josiah saw the tension flow out of his shoulders as the animal called again, then a third time, and at last a fourth--four, a powerful number in most Indian thinking.
"Is the word good, grandson?" Josiah asked quietly.
"I do not know yet," Vin admitted. "But at least I know that I am not forgotten. I do not believe the spirits are against me. No. My brother is watching over me. He calls to me to tell me I am still his, that he does not begrudge me the seasons that lie between us. The wolf knows everything. He knows about the man whose heart has touched mine, the man who is my brother. He is helping me. I am not alone. It is not easy to have faith now, not easy to believe. But this is a deeper thing than the words of any man. The wolf cannot lie. A man cannot doubt the things that are certain, the things that have always been true." He said it almost as if he expected Josiah to deny the idea, but Josiah didn't rise to the bait. "I will wait, and maybe my brother will send me a dream and reply to me."
He reached over to the parfleche and picked up a small decorated bag not unlike the medicine pouch that hung around his neck. Nudging it open, he shook it out over his palm, then held out his hand in the faint firelight. Josiah saw several firm gray buttons, cactus without spines.
"Peyote," Vin said--surprisingly in English, his voice deeper than it had been before, sounding rough after the easy ripple of Comanche. "It don't hurt you. Makes you feel good. Unstrings you. See some pretty sights you never get to see any other way. Helps make medicine, too." His eyes met Josiah's, bright and challenging. He held one of the buttons up to the western sky and cast it into the fire. Then he took another portion, bit into it, chewed for a moment, spat it out into his hand, held it to the fire, popped it back into his mouth, and swallowed it. "Said you're a seeker of truth," he drawled. "You game to seek it this way?" And he held the peyote out again, invitingly.
Josiah grinned slyly. "Won't be the first time," he said, and selected one button, copying Vin's manner of consuming it, remembering other times in the lodge of the Water Horse shaman, Hears Twice, who had instructed him in the beliefs and rituals of the Nemmena. He knew he was committing to something that would probably take the rest of the night and prevent him from taking his agreed-upon turn at Chris's side, but saving Vin was more important.
They sat for hours drugged and dreaming, Vin sometimes chanting, sometimes silent. The peyote went around a second time, then a third. An observer, had there been one, would have marvelled at the lack of guardedness on Vin's face, at how positively benign Josiah looked, caught in the grip of the visions it induced. Then, in the chill of pre-dawn, the effects began to wear off, and the beautiful color patterns and spiritual insights Vin was experiencing gave way to a sense of anxiety. Suddenly he was a scared seven-year-old boy again, listening as a monstrously distorted version of the Presbyterian circuit-rider launched upon his discourse, giving none of his listeners a ray of hope. Not only could they do no good, he told them, but if they did contrive to, it wouldn't help them. Not only did honest deeds avail them nothing, but even if they accepted the speaker's own creed, which was being explained to them as necessary to salvation, still it might not save them. Their sin was the cause of their damnation, yet keeping from sin they might nevertheless be lost. It had all been settled for them not only before they were born, but before Adam was shaped. He dwelt almost sadistically on the depravity of his congregation, their utter worthlessness, the blackness of their hearts, tainted as they were from birth with original sin. They were worms, they were gall, they were abject, contemptible, and black as the night with sin. Sin was everywhere; no one, not the least little child, could go a day without being in sin. And having told them this, he invited them to glorify the Creator of this scheme. Even if damned, they must praise the Being who had made them expressly for damnation. He ended on so deep a note of despair that Vin felt only anguish. It was quite possible--no, it was more than likely--that of his entire congregation not a single soul would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Many were called, but few were chosen. The number and identity of the elect was God's own secret, guarded from before the beginning of time, which Man should not even try to unravel, for that would be pride and presumption. His eternal fate was settled, and nothing, not good works or contrition, not piety nor merit nor the most ardent prayers, could change by as much as one iota the immutability of the divine decree...
Josiah surfaced from the pleasant trance of the peyote's fading influence to hear Vin moaning softly in English. "No. No. Ain't neither no worm. Ma said...Ma said...no! No! Don't--don't--" He was beginning to gasp, as if he were terrified, or not getting enough air. "Don't take him! No! Come back! Chris!"
Josiah came up out of his cross-legged position in one long surge and wrapped his arms around Vin's shaking half-naked body. "Vin! Vin, listen to me! You're dreamin'. Nobody's takin' Chris from you. Nobody's callin' you a worm. Wake up, son. Wake up!"
Vin's body heaved once in a huge convulsive surge, and the breath exploded out of him; his eyes flew open, wild and vivid in his white-clay-painted face. "Jo...Josiah? What...?"
The big man could feel Vin's heart hammering till it shook his entire slight form. "Easy, son. Easy. Deep breaths. You had a bad vision from the peyote, that's all."
"No," Vin whimpered. "No. Wasn't no vision. Happened. 'Member...'s gonna punish me, I know it...'s gonna take Chris...'n'I wasn't there...my fault...failed him..." He gasped and began sobbing incoherently in Comanche. Josiah could pick out only a word or two: "Ka-dih, Tai-me...kay' chart...nibabi...quas'ick..." Great Spirit, Grandfather God, it's no good...my brother...end it here, which could mean a command to someone else to kill, or a petition that the speaker himself be killed.
"Tua," Josiah said sharply, "son! Ma-woon'ie! Look at me!" He clamped his hand firmly under Vin's jaw, turning the younger man's head by main force as his other arm cradled Vin's trembling body. "Who told you you were a worm? Who made you think you were gonna be punished?"
"Everybody," the tracker whispered. "Aunt Myra, the preacher...no good...I..."
A lot of things were suddenly becoming clear to the older man. "Vin, is this why you never come inside the church? Why you wouldn't join Buck and JD and me when we went to ask the Lord to bring Chris back to us?"
Vin nodded weakly, too spent to speak. The ancient pain that always lurked in the back of his eyes was overwhelming all his face now. "No good," he got out after a moment. "White man's god don't care...all set'n'decided... what's the good prayin' to'm? Do what he wants anyhow...no good..."
"Your mother didn't believe that," Josiah said, taking a chance.
The blue eyes widened still further. "How ya know she di'n't?"
"'Cause you said she didn't. You kept saying 'Ma said,' like it was a denial of what others had taught you. Think about your mother, son. What did she say?"
Vin's eyelids drifted shut and he breathed deeply, gathering his resources. "She said...said...Jesus taught...God was good, 'n' kind, 'n' suffer the little children...but..." He looked up into Josiah's face again, bewildered and confused. "But Aunt Myra and Uncle Jesse...and all them preachers, they all said...I don't understand. If it's all the same God, how's come they believed so diff'rent? Was Ma wrong?"
"Not about what Jesus had to say, she wasn't, son," Josiah told him. "Nobody really knows about God. Religion is all about believin', about takin' things on faith--just like you believe the wolf will help you. There's far too many men who claim to speak for God in good but dreadful faith, with all the virtuous narrowness and pitilessness of minds deaf and blind to the infinite variety of Creation and humankind, its failings and aspirations and needs, and forgetful of all the Gospel reminders includin' publicans and sinners." He sighed and shook his head. "Better to take your hand from the plow early and put it to other decent use, than to persist and take to plowin' narrower and narrower furrows, till everything secular is anathema, and everything human doomed to reprobation."
"That...what you done?"
"Yes, and I went searchin' the world for truth. And you know what I found out? Doctrines like the existence of God, the freedom of the will, and the livin' of a moral life can be found in lots of other religions besides Christianity. The details differ, but those things are constant, and I think they're the only ones that really matter. As for sin, God understands the nature of human beings, because it's a nature He created. He doesn't expect us to be perfect, or free of sin, or be able to totally resist all temptation. He sent Jesus to us to provide a goal we should strive toward, but He knew most of us will fall short and He accepts that. We talk of God as a loving Father--well, do you think a loving father would condemn all his children out of hand for the sins of one or two?"
"Don't know," Vin admitted. "Never had none till I went to the People."
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