What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Chris blinked rapidly, frowning in puzzlement. "Thought I heard...where am I? What happened?"
"You're in Four Corners--remember? In Nathan's clinic?--Don't move, now," and a strong hand came down on his shoulder. "You took a bullet in the back and he wants to take a look at you and ask you some of them questions of his."
The memories of twenty years past shredded like torn scarves as the newer picture of Vin, about to be spirited out of town at the point of a bounty hunter's gun, shocked back into Chris's mind, jolting him emotionally and physically. "You--that hunter--"
"It's all right, cowboy," Vin assured him, his drawl at once gentle and passionate. "Buck killed him. Undertaker put him in the ground this mornin'. You saved my neck again. Now settle down, a'right? I gotta find Nathan and tell him you're awake, but I don't wanta leave if you ain't gonna lay still. You do that for me?"
To his discomfiture Chris found that even the reflexive surge of nervous energy had left him breathless and drained. "Yeah," he gasped, "all right, I'll lay still."
Vin seemed content with that, and he rose and went out, moving more quickly than Chris usually saw him do except in emergencies. The gunfighter willed himself to be still and thought about what had just happened. It can't be. Can it?
/But he's about the right age, and he's got Emma's coloring--is that why I felt like I'd seen him before, that first day? And he's from Texas--she left California with a Ranger, or at least on the same stage as one. What would it be from Frisco to Texas? Eight, nine days? Long enough to fall in love, even if they hadn't met before that, which likely they did; why would she bother to go to Texas, a woman alone, with no family there? She'd have been a lot likelier to find work in the city, if she didn't want to go home to her folks. Hell, it didn't take Sarah and me no longer. We knew within five, it was mostly Hank bein' so damn obstinate that kept us from admittin' it to ourselves, or each other.
/Emma dropped her first name to make it harder for Pa to find her, why couldn't she done the same with her son? Vin, for Vincent...she might've taken the Ranger's family name, lived with him as his wife...easier to tell the boy he was a Tanner than try to explain why she'd run off from his real pa...anyhow she might've resented Pa so much she didn't wanta be reminded of him.
/Hell, I'm dreamin'. It's too much of a coincidence. Couldn't happen.
/And yet JD found us without even tryin'...
Footsteps thundered on the outer stairs, and suddenly Nathan was there and the outer room was filled with Chris's compatriots--Buck with teeth flashing white in a broad grin under the black bar of his mustache, JD looking half loopy with relief, Josiah apparently carrying on a conversation with unseen personages, Ezra, his emerald eyes sparkling, lifting two fingers to his hatbrim. Nathan shut the door firmly in their faces. "Don't need no distractions from that lot," he muttered. "All right, Chris, I need you to see if you can wiggle your toes..."
"Well, we ain't out of the woods yet," Nathan announced. "There's some kind of damage in there, ain't no doubt. I got a notion it's a swelling--the spinal cord ain't cut; Chris can feel and move pretty good on the right side, but on the left he's got loss of sensation and muscle control and his reflexes ain't normal. That says there's likely somethin' on that side, where he took the bullet, that's puttin' pressure on the spine and compressin' the cord inside."
JD edged close to his brother as if seeking reassurance; Josiah closed his eyes a moment in prayer. Vin's face shuttered off, but he said nothing. "What treatment do you propose?" Ezra inquired.
"If it's what I think, I gotta reduce the swelling," Nathan replied, "and I'd a lot sooner do it without goin' in, if I can; I just don't know enough to be comfortable hackin' around in there, I'm like to finish what that other fool started. I figure to start off same as I would with any other internal inflammation, like stomach cramps or rheumatism--hot table-salt compresses, vinegar poultices. If it's just a mild injury, kinda like a sprain, it'll resolve on its own when the swelling goes down. If he don't start showin' improvement in two or three days, I'll have to try surgery, but at least he'll have a little time to build up his strength. I wish to God he'd been conscious right after he's shot--if I could'a' seen that the symptoms come on him gradual, I'd know it was a fluid accumulation, not a fragment. And the sooner after the injury you can start treatment, in cases like this one, the likelier the patient can make a full recovery."
"Not your fault, Nate," Buck assured him, though his indigo eyes were sad and worried. "You can't see inside of Chris's back and tell what's wrong. You gotta go by what's outside and what he can tell you."
"Is there anything we can do to help, Brother Nate?" Josiah asked.
"Keep him hopeful, don't let him give up on himself," Nathan replied. "See he gets plenty of good food. Anything else pretty much depends on just what's wrong."
"Come on, kid," Buck said to JD. "Let's you and me go talk to the hotel and the restaurant about meals. And maybe Mary and Mrs. Potter can chip in too. Home cookin'll prob'ly do Chris the most good."
"Can we see him?" Vin wanted to know.
"Better to let him rest a little while," Nathan advised. "He still ain't too strong, and the examination took a lot out of him. Come back in an hour or so."
"All right," Vin agreed, and trailed out after JD and his brother.
Josiah hesitated, then followed him. "Tua," he said quietly in Comanche, as they reached the deck, "did your guardians tell you of this?"
"After the moon was down, after we took the peyote, they came to me in a dream," Vin told him. "They said conditions were not good for achieving my desire at this time, but might become so later. So I knew that my brother would live, but that his recovery might take some time. Why do you ask this?"
Josiah shrugged. "It only seemed that you were not as surprised or grieved as I had expected."
Vin turned away a moment. "I am grieved," he admitted softly. "My heart is sore for him, and I worry--my guardians said only 'might,' not 'would.' But I have done all I can for him now."
Josiah changed back to English. "I don't figure that's quite true. He'll need your help, Vin. No matter how it turns out, he'll need you more than ever now."
"If there was any way I could go back, if I could take the bullet myself--" Vin began, his voice unsteady and his eyes too bright.
"You'd die if you couldn't move freely, if you couldn't walk and ride and bound over the roofs like a goat. You know that's true," Josiah pointed out. "With Chris, there's at least some chance he can learn to live with it. He saw enough men get crippled in the War to be able to imagine the possibility for himself, to think about how he'd react if it happened to him. And hard as it would be for him to lose any of his powers, mobility and freedom aren't as central to his picture of himself as they are to yours. He's got money put away; he can make arrangements, work around it." In Comanche: "And your guardians said 'might,' so it is a knife that cuts two ways, tua. You have said it: you knew by their words that his recovery might take some time. The healer spoke truly: none of us must allow ourselves to lose hope, or allow him to lose it."
Vin inhaled deeply. "Hah," he whispered. "Yes, I must be strong for him. I must not let him think I regret the gift he has given me."
Josiah glanced down a moment in thought, then up to meet those blue eyes, behind which pain and secrets lurked, and went back to English again. "I know I don't have much to go on, but...this aunt you mentioned...whatever she did to you, that wasn't God, and you shouldn't blame Him for it. Women, like men, have free will, and in the exercise of it can fall into sin--or error. You being caught on the receiving end of that was misfortune, not punishment."
Vin's sandy eyebrows climbed. "What, you think...oh. I ain't blamin' God. It's just...them ways don't work too good amongst Peneteka lodges. So I took to the ones that did. 'Sides, they was ways they made better sense, to me, anyhow." Long pause, then: "Josiah?"
"What is it, son?"
"Sometime...could I come and talk? There's so much I can't get straight in my head..."
"Door's always open, Vin. Mine as well as God's, if goin' in the church makes you edgy."
It was Vin's turn to duck his head in embarrassment and confusion. He found himself suddenly thinking of his Comanche father, Eagle-That-Sees-Afar. The man had been a warrior, unashamedly so, and had spent his adult life fighting Texans as well as Mexicans and other Indians; his short lance had been hung with a dozen scalps, including a white woman's, long and wavy and deep red-bronze, which his wives kept brushed and oiled so it glistened in the light of the lodgefire. Yet from the first moment they met, Vin had never feared him, never doubted him, never felt other than total trust. In his reflective moments he wondered that a race and culture so alien, a people of whom for ten years of his life he had heard little but scare-tales, had been the ones to offer him a solace and acceptance such as he had known from none of his own race since his Ma--none till Chris and the five men whom Chris had in turn brought into his world. What he found within himself now was akin to that, and he looked on it in amazement and smiled weakly. "When my ma died...I's such a little feller, I di'n't rightly understand what'd happened. All I knowed was they took her away from me, and next I knowed I's all dressed up in my best standin' next to a big hole in the ground. Took me a long time to figure it out...kept thinkin' she'd come back for me, sayin' it and gettin' licked...'n'en for a spell after I figured I must'a' done somethin' awful to make her quit lovin' me 'n' go away forever..."
Josiah felt the same burning surge of anger he'd known last night. How can people do such unthinking hurt to tender young souls? After all this boy has suffered, I can't understand how he's grown to be such a basically decent man. It's a testament to his strength, for most of it must have come straight out of his own resolve to survive. "I'm sure she's been at your side many times in your life, Vin."
The tracker looked up, a shy glint of hope in his eyes. "I always kinda thought so," he agreed. "Times I still dream about her, you know that? After that bounty was put out on me I's kinda hidin' out, livin' up in the hills, duckin' anyplace folks might be at...then I started runnin' out'a coffee'n'shells'n'wonderin' if I dast go somewheres I weren't knowed...seemed like I seen her one of them nights. Seemed like she told me I sh'd go to Four Corners...find me a job..." He sighed. "All's was open was that clerkin' place, but I trusted Ma and I took it. I's near onto dyin' from bein' so cooped up, and then I met Chris...I reckon Ma knowed what she's talkin' about, don't you?"
"She knows all the great secrets now," Josiah agreed. "And who'd be a more natural choice for the Lord to give you as a guardian angel?"
Vin cocked his head. "Wonder if Buck'n'JD's ma, or Chris's wife, watch over them? You reckon maybe they do?"
"I'd like to think that something drew us all together," Josiah told him. "That there was a reason we were all in this one place at the very time we were needed most. It makes me feel that even my many sins were to some purpose, that God wanted me to have all the experiences that made me who I am."
"Reckon that'd be true about me too?" Vin asked softly. "That he wanted me to go to the Peneteka so's I could learn about critters and trackin' and all?"
"That learnin' certainly made you a very special man, very valuable to us," Josiah pointed out. "If He did, would it make everything else easier to bear?"
"Knowin' Chris'd be worth a awful lot to me," Vin confessed. "Ain't sure if I'd count Aunt Myra in that. But if she had to be a part of it, well, I reckon that's what they mean when they say every cloud's got a silver linin'." He sighed. "I reckon I best go get me somethin' to eat, ain't had none since dinner yesterday."
Later that afternoon Vin returned to the clinic. Nathan had gotten Chris propped into a half-reclining position in the bed, well padded with pillows to ease the healing wound in his back, and Josiah had been over to his room at the boardinghouse and fetched a couple of books for him to read. "Hey, cowboy," Vin said softly, "how you feelin'?"
"Better than I figured I would," Chris admitted. "Just hate bein' laid up. But Nathan seems to think there's a chance the problem could heal on its own. He just packed a hot salt compress under there a few minutes ago."
"Make you drink any of his ditch water yet, did he?"
The gunfighter grimaced. "Yeah. Black cohosh and wild yam for the inflammation, and rosemary for the pain. Don't half blame you for not likin' 'em."
"I always figured, if you're hurtin' you know you're alive." Vin sobered an instant. "I was scared you'd die on me, cowboy. And I never wanted that."
"Don't figure to die before we get your name cleared," Chris told him. But if I'm right, if you really are Alec Larabee...brothers die for each other all the time. Buck would without a minute's hesitation, if it was JD in danger. He hesitated for a moment, planning his campaign, then asked: "Just before I woke up...were you here?"
"None of the others? I thought I heard your voice...you were sort of half singin'..."
Vin snorted. "Ain't ever had much voice for music."
"That's not what I meant. It seemed like it was a song I knew...about Lord Randall?"
"Yeah, that was me." Vin tilted his head, intrigued. "You know that'n?"
"Not exactly know it, but I recognized it. I used to know somebody who sang it. My stepmother." He watched Vin carefully.
"My ma used to sing it to me nights. Reckon she figured all that repeatin'd make me go to sleep, and mostly it did."
Emma used to sing it to Alec, that's where I heard it, Chris thought. He said nothing for a little while, then: "What's your birthday, Vin?"
The tracker blinked. "How come you to ask?"
Chris shrugged uncomfortably. "Just curious, I guess. If you don't want to tell me, that's all right."
"Ain't I don't want to. Mostly it's I ain't sure. After my ma died...the kin I went to, they didn't believe in celebratin' birthdays none. Thought it 's frivolous." He considered the question. "Ma always liked to celebrate it, though. 'Course I's too little to know how to read then, but I 'member the day she done it was the first one on that page of the calendar."
"You must've noticed what season it was, though," Chris observed casually. "I mean whether it was winter, or summer...?"
"Oh, it 's spring," Vin said at once. "I'm plumb sure of that. Seemed like they's always a mist down on the river in the mornin', and the flowers was off the apple trees..."
"May," Chris guessed. "Apples blossom in April, mostly." Again a pause. "Where was it the two of you lived?"
"Sherman. I know 'cause years later, when I's maybe eighteen, I passed through there'n'I seen some things I recollected. Even found the house we lived in. It 's deserted and fallin' to pieces, but out in the barn I found me a little broomhandle pony I used to have." He smiled softly, but there was a glimmer in his eye that hinted of unshed tears. "I 'member I set there with the pony's head on my knee and I just cried like a baby. I'd 'most forgot all about him, but soon's I seen him it all come back. I called him Ranger, on account Ma said my pa was one."
"So you didn't grow up in Sherman, then."
"Naw, I got sent down to my pa's sister outside Santone. Got to see the Alamo when we'd go into town for supplies and such, I 'member that. Always felt kinda special that I could live somewheres'd let me see it so often." He snorted wryly. "'Bout the only thing special there was about livin' there, I reckon."
Chris was perceptive enough toward Vin's moods to be able to guess at what lay behind the bland words. She neglected him, or mistreated him, or both. It would explain a lot of how he came to be the kind of man he is. Well, if she knew, or guessed, that he wasn't really her brother's son, and especially if she knew his ma had lived with her brother when they weren't married, she might've resented bein' saddled with him, or looked on him as somehow corrupt or sinful. Not that a five-year-old would've had any choice in the matter, but some people don't think that far. He decided not to push any farther; not only did he dislike reminding his friend of the unpleasant past, he didn't want to arouse Vin's suspicions and get him asking questions of his own, questions Chris wasn't yet prepared to answer. I need some more information before I try to explain to him what I think is true. "Hope you and the others ain't been neglectin' the town while I been asleep."
"I just done a patrol 'fore I come up," Vin told him, and proceeded to deliver himself of a terse report on his observations.
Chris listened attentively and nodded. "Good. You know I'm countin' on you and Buck to keep things in hand till I can get back in harness again. I know I can trust the two of you best of all, so the job's yours."
"I'll have a talk with Bucklin tonight and work out how we'll handle it," Vin promised.
He had been only about twenty minutes gone when the outer door opened and Chris looked up from his book to hear a familiar voice calling: "Nathan?"
"In here, Mary."
Mary Travis's blonde head appeared around the door. "Isn't Nathan here?"
"No, he had to go see about some fool who fell out of a hayloft," Chris told her. "He shouldn't be too long, it was right in town."
"That's all right, it wasn't really Nathan I needed to see." Mary stepped into the room and he saw that she was carrying a woven willow basket with a tea towel spread over the top. "Buck told me you needed lots of good food, so I got together with some of the other ladies and we made up this basket for you. I thought I'd bring it up and ask how you were doing, since that's very much the kind of news people want to read." She set the basket on the bedside chair and flipped the towel back so he could see the contents. "There's cold boiled ham, and Mrs. Butler sent cold smothered chicken, and Mrs. Martin at the boardinghouse sent a quart jar of her lentil soup--all Nathan has to do is pour it in a saucepan and heat it up--and a loaf of baking-powder bread, and Mrs. Potter sent dried-peach fritters and plum jam and mustard pickles and green tomato relish, and I made an apple-and-berry pie, it's Billy's favorite, and there are oatmeal cookies--"
"How long do you expect me to be laid up?" Chris interrupted, and felt strangely ashamed of himself when he saw how her face fell. "I'm sorry, that was a fool thing to say."
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