What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...


(Variation Two)

by Sevenstars

"I don't blame you for it. It must be the first thing on your mind every minute of the day." Mary replaced the towel and set the basket in the corner. "Just be sure to tell Nathan it's there, and tell him the basket is Mrs. Martin's and she'd like to have it back."

"I will," Chris promised. Then: "Mary, I need you to do me a favor, and I'd like you not to tell the boys you're doin' it. Would you?"

She eyed him dubiously. "I'd rather not say until I know what the favor is."

"Yeah, I guess I deserved that," he admitted. "What I need is for you to telegraph Texas Ranger Headquarters, in San Antonio I think it is, and ask for any information they can give you about a man who was in the outfit in 1856. His name may have been Tanner, I don't know what the first name would be, but I know he was sent to San Francisco that year as escort on an extradition matter."

"Tanner?" Mary repeated. "Vin's father?"

"Maybe," was all Chris said. "I need to know everything they have about him. What became of him, who his family was."

"I don't see any reason I can't do that," Mary observed thoughtfully. "But why don't you want the others to know about it?"

"That's too long a story for right now," Chris told her. His pale eyes met hers gravely. "I think you know I wouldn't do anything I thought would hurt Vin or endanger him. Will you trust me on this?"

She hesitated a moment, and then said, simply, "Yes."


That evening, after supper, Vin found Buck in the saloon and lured him away from Ezra's table for a conference. They spent half an hour or so realigning the duty roster, trying to anticipate what kind of trouble might be ordinarily expected over the next ten days. Presently Vin said: "Chris's wife...her name was Sarah, wasn't it?"

"Sarah Connelly, that's right. Why you askin'?"

There was a puzzled note in Vin's reply. "Just when he first come to...he looked straight at me and said, 'Emma.' Like he thought I's some woman he knowed."

Buck's dark brows drew together in a frown of concentration. "Emma? No, I can't say's he ever mentioned no Emma to me. 'Most got himself married to a lady named Ella, 'fore he met Sarah...you sure that ain't the name you heard?"

Vin's lips shaped the two names as he tested the sound of them inside his head. "Might been, I reckon. Funny he'd think I's her, 's all I'm sayin'...you know her?"

"Never met her. Me'n'JD was livin' in Kansas City then. Time we come out here she was long out've Chris's life."

Vin seemed to accept this. "Well," he said, pushing his chair back, "I reckon I'll take me a turn around the town, then go up and look in on Chris, and then I'll be at the jail if you need me. Don't look like things is gonna get too rough in here tonight, 'course it might be different down at the Jacks Up or the Demon Rum."

"Me'n'JD'll take second patrol," Buck agreed. "Best he don't have to handle it all alone at that hour yet a spell, even if he is sheriff, the damn knot-head kid. What the exact hell that boy thought he was doin' I'll never know--I swear I sometimes wonder where his mind's at--sure don't get his practicality from Ma and me, what there is of it--"

Vin hid a grin at the big gunslinger's familiar ranting, knowing full well that under that mask of irritation and disgust Buck was tremendously proud of his kid brother's courage and devotion to justice, and headed for the door.


The next day's stage brought Judge Orin Travis for his regular visit. He went up to the clinic and spoke with Chris, consulted with Nathan, and came away apparently satisfied with the way the situation was developing, at least for the present. Then he asked the other five to join him at the saloon and queried them about affairs around town. At last he said, "Well, gentlemen, it seems you have things well in hand. Now, I understand that with Mr. Larabee out of action, you're somewhat short-handed, but I must ask for a volunteer to ride down to Corona. I have some legal documents which must be delivered to a fellow jurist, Judge Elliott, in whose circuit the town is. They must reach there no later than two days hence, when he is due to arrive and convene court, and they must be placed directly in his hands."

"Nathan has to stay here with Chris," Josiah pointed out at once, "and Vin won't leave him, we all know that. That puts it up to me, Ezra, Buck, or JD."

"I'll go," said Buck. "I feel damn useless hangin' around here knowin' there ain't nothin' I can do to help. At least if I'm out on the trail a few days, I'll have somethin' to keep my mind busy." He thought for a minute. "Corona's about eighty miles south. I can make that in two days, Judge, no problem."

"Excellent. Come over to the Clarion in half an hour and I'll have the papers ready for you. Gentlemen," Travis finished, and went out.

"I want to go with you, Buck," JD declared when they were alone.

"Don't take two to deliver some papers, kid," Buck pointed out. "You're sheriff, don't you figure you ought to stay here?"

"If I'm sheriff, that makes me the Judge's official representative, and the papers should technically be in my care," JD replied. "You ain't exactly a deputy, you know. Anyhow," he added as Buck took breath, "it ain't about papers and I guess you know that. It's...I just--" He paused as if confused or embarrassed, and Buck stepped in to rescue him.

"All right, if Vin thinks him and the others can handle things here for a few days, I reckon it'll be okay. Why don't you go down to the store and pick up the supplies we'll need? I'll stop by our rooms and get our gear together, drop it off at the stable and go over to get the papers, and then meet you back at the livery."

"I'm on it," JD agreed at once, and hurried out.

Buck met Vin's easy gaze across the table. "I'll make him stay if you think you'll need him, Vin. But it'll be good for him to get away and just be with me for a few days. What happened to Chris hit him kinda hard, he had a bad dream last night. And I got a notion he's ashamed he didn't pick up on Banneker before the man made a try for you. I'd like some time to help him work through it all, and it'll go easier if he ain't got the distractions of the town on his mind as well."

"Naw, you go on and take him," Vin replied. "James and his boys seem to be layin' pretty low, a lot of 'em's off movin' beef to market and the rest is workin' on the range. Ain't been no word of no big gangs roamin' the territory, and if we hear anythin' new we can message you in Corona."

"We'll stop at Nate's place and tell him and Chris where we're goin'," Buck said. "You boys watch your backs."

On hearing their plans Nathan requested a favor. "I'm usin' two kinds of black cohosh tea for Chris's inflammation," he said, "and I'm a little worried about how my supply's gonna hold out; I ain't due to get a new shipment for another two weeks. There's a botanic doctor down in Corona name of Holland; me and him are old friends, he taught me a lot of what I know about herbs and such, and we trade things back and forth when we get short. I'll be obliged if you'll stop by his house and ask him can he spare me some cohosh. And maybe some selfheal and woundwort while you're there."

"Sure, we can do that," Buck agreed. "Write it down so we don't forget nothin' important."


Corona was just beginning to wind up for a good Saturday night's action when Buck and JD rode into town the next evening, though the sun had two hours yet above the horizon. The brothers left their two mares, JD's little bay Seven and Buck's long-legged, kind-hearted gray Plata, at a stable, checked into the hotel and dropped their gear in the room, made themselves known to the local sheriff and learned that Judge Elliott was due in on the morning stage, got cleaned up and found a place to eat. As Buck had hoped, the easy ride south and the sympathetic, understanding company had gone a long way toward easing JD's heart. He'd confided his fears for Chris--"Just two months and I come close to losin' both of you"--and listened as Buck pointed out that that was the risk of the deal they made by doing what they did. "If it's more'n you can take," he'd said, "you can leave. You can turn in that badge and go anywhere--even back to college. But I hope you won't. Runnin' away is a rotten habit for any man to get into--that's why Chris got in Ezra's face at the village like he done--and most of all in this business. And the plain fact is, kid, I don't wanta have to choose between havin' you with me and stayin' with Chris. He's got Vin now and that's a big help to him, but I still wanta be there when he heals, and he's doin' it, an inch at a time."

"I wouldn't want to leave you either, Buck," JD admitted. "You're all I got, you and Chris and the others. But it ain't just the risk, it's--I don't know if I can do my share. I thought I could, but after that Banneker slipped into town and followed Vin around for three whole days right under my nose--"

"JD," Buck interrupted patiently, "you gotta think that through. Banneker was a bounty hunter, like Vin used to be. He made his livin' runnin' down men a lot more experienced and suspicious than you, men whose lives depended on stayin' uncaught. He had to know how to blend into the woodwork so they wouldn't spot him. Yeah, it's true, a man that wears a badge has to be alert to everything that's goin' on in his town. But you ain't God, kid. You can't watch everywhere at once, and if a man ain't actin' suspicious you got every reason to think he's no threat. Now there's plenty times Vin can go wherever he wants without you noticin' him, ain't there? So why shouldn't another man in his line be able to do the same?"

JD considered that and a little of the tension went out of his shoulders. "Yeah. Just around noontime the day Chris was shot, he came up behind me and about scared me out of my skin." He frowned thoughtfully. "He acted kinda...I don't know, not strange exactly, just...well, he wanted to go eat with me, and he mostly don't eat but with Chris. And afterward he asked to go up to my room and talk. He said he'd heard about Mamma dyin', I guess Chris must've told him, and he wanted to know about her. He said he lost his too, about the same age as me, and he talked a little about what he remembers of her. It ain't much, I guess on account he didn't have nobody like you that knew her well enough to tell him stories about her, but when he looks back, it's...like he's a whole different man. He gets kinda sad and dreamy and all that wolf look goes out of him, and he don't look a lot older'n me."

"Likely he ain't," Buck agreed. "Look at his skin and the way he stands and moves, instead of at his eyes all the time, and you'll know. What'd he say?"

JD recounted the little Vin had claimed to be able to remember, and the abrupt way their conversation had terminated. Buck nodded thoughtfully. "Always did think that boy had him a tough row to hoe," he mused. "Just goes to show, though, if you put your mind to it you can rise above 'most anything. You just gotta be strong and brave."

"Strong enough and brave enough to face up to the chance of things like happened with Chris, or like you at the village when that Reb hit you with the saber," JD finished, seeing where his brother was heading.

Buck grinned. "Know me too good, don't you, kid? Yeah, that's part of it. We got somethin' out here, west of the Missouri, that's like nothin' there's ever been before, not even in this country. Miz Travis wants it safe, Chris and Vin want it free, but there's no reason it can't be both, and it's up to men like you and me to see it gets there. And there ain't all that many of us that's up to the challenge, that's got the skills and the character it takes to do the job. We can't afford to lose any of us short of death." His good-humored face became sober. "I know I get on your back a lot, but I see somethin' in you that tells me you could be one of the best. I don't want you givin' up, and it ain't just on account you're all the blood kin I got. I want you to stay so Chris and the others and me can go on teachin' you what you need to become the man that's waitin' inside you. But it's gotta be your choice. A man can't do his job if it's a job he hates--that's why Josiah quit preachin'."

"I don't hate the job, Buck. It makes me feel useful and worthwhile and I don't want to give up on it. I just sometimes think about losin' you or Chris or even Vin or Josiah or Nathan or Ezra and it scares me right down to the marrow."

"Scares me too, kid," Buck admitted. "Scares all of us. You saw Vin the other day. That's why we all gotta look out for one another. And that's why bein' so many gives us an advantage, 'cause we can. We're a team, same as a squad of soldiers or a company of Rangers or an Indian war party, and together we can do things one or two of us never could."

"I never thought I could feel the way I do, bein' part of what we've started," JD agreed. "It's...it's just so special, you know?" Then his expression firmed. "I won't be leavin', Buck. I guess sometimes I'll doubt myself, I guess I wouldn't be human if I didn't, but I'll try to do better and be strong like you said."

Buck reached across and gave him a light affectionate swat that tilted his bowler forward over his nose and fetched an indignant yelp. "That's the scrappy little brother I know," he laughed.


Late that same day, at a stagecoach way station just north of Tularosa, a dozen-odd weatherbeaten men in well-worn range clothing rode up and turned their horses over to the stablehands with the request that they be well grained, along with a five-dollar gold piece to facilitate it. Their dress was unspectacular, but all were well and heavily armed, and their horses, uniformly dark in color--black, seal-brown, a deep liver chestnut, various bays, a dapple gray so deep as to be almost black, a blaze-faced charcoal--bore good saddles and, to the experienced eyes of the hostlers, the marks of speed and bottom. The two men didn't say anything, but the look they exchanged was eloquent of their mutual realization that the newcomers were almost certainly outlaws. Still, a way station seldom offered anything of value or interest to bandits--even the horses, being big stage animals rather than saddle stock, were comparitively difficult to dispose of--and had too many witnesses about for the ordinary gang to consider using it as an ambush point for an incoming coach. In any case, the southbound stage had been an hour gone, and the northbound wasn't due till tomorrow.

The leader of the visitors was a big, muscular man of about forty, with a red, beefy face and black hair combed back in waves from his temples. He wore age-rusty blue Army trousers with part of the faded yellow stripe of the U.S. Cavalry still along the outseams, a red Mexican sash finely embroidered with needlework about his hips, and a short tight jacket, also Mexican, of shiny worn leather with big horn buttons over a black-and-white-checked woollen shirt and green silk bandanna, incongruously topped off by a wide-brimmed, flat-topped planter's hat. His followers included a wiry, bandy-legged redhead with a tough, rugged Irish face disfigured by a saber cut, a young man in a smoked deerskin Comanche jacket with cold agate eyes and long blond hair, and a mixed Negro-Indian with rich copper-brown skin, straight black hair, almond-shaped eyes, a narrow head and a rather humped thin nose, a silver ring in one ear after a frequent Cherokee style. The party tramped inside in a jingle of spurs, several at once making for the twenty-foot bar that was a general feature of stage stations, the rest quickly occupying one of the three long deal tables, each set about with half a dozen chairs, which took up most of the main expanse of floor. The stationkeeper's women scurried to set out plates and put a meal together while he went to pour drinks for the group at the bar.

Stage-station meals were ordinarily only fifty cents, but the ten riders apparently had money to spare and handed over enough pesos to equal ten times that in bullion value--for Mexican pesos were nearly pure silver, and actually worth more north of the Border than their face value. "Will you boys be wanting beds?" the stationkeeper inquired.

"No, but we'll sleep in your hayloft if you don't object," the big man replied. "Just remind us to hand over our matches before we turn in."

The Irishman had recovered a discarded newspaper from a neighboring table and shaken it out, briefly scanning its masthead--The Four Corners Clarion, bearing that day's date--before turning his attention to the front-page articles. "Howly Mither of God!" he exclaimed. "Virgil, would ye be lookin' at this, now. Here's a name that does be makin' me face draw up wid the mem'ry of the day I was gettin' this scar upon it." He passed the paper across to his chief, pointing to a headline near the middle of the page: LARABEE RECOVERING.

"Larabee!" Virgil hissed, and scanned the article keenly.

/Christopher Larabee, chief of our community's peacekeeper corps, continues to regain health and strength following the removal of a bullet from his back two days ago. Attending healer Nathan Jackson advises the Clarion that, while Mr. Larabee has suffered a partial loss of sensation and muscular control in his left leg, a gradual improvement in both is distinctly visible, and Mr. Jackson proposes to persist in his current course of treatment, in hopes that he will be enabled to avoid further surgery.

/Mr. Larabee himself is conscious and alert, taking a major role in directing the duties of his followers, albeit from the comfort of his bed, while seconds in command Vincent Tanner and Bucklin Wilmington provide moment-to-moment superintendency of town affairs.

/Mr. Larabee's injury occurred on Wednesday afternoon when he intervened to prevent possible harm to Mr. Tanner at the hands of a stranger identified by Sheriff JD Dunne as Jarrod Banneker, believed to be a resident of Skenee, Indian Territory. Banneker was subsequently slain by Mr. Wilmington, who had been drawn to the scene by the sound of gunfire...

"Larabee and Wilmington," Virgil whispered tightly. "One name might be a coincidence, but not two of them."

"I'm after bein' satisfied," the Irishman observed, "that you'll be wishin' to have a talk with these lads as soon as ever you can find your way to this Four Corners."

"Aren't you?" retorted Virgil. He eyed his followers, who were listening with a uniformly dubious air. Most outlaws lived for cold cash, and were little inclined to risk themselves for revenge unless it was something personal to them. The big man glanced around quickly to make sure none of the station staff was near enough to hear. "All right, listen. Devin and I have an old score to settle with the man in this article. But it talks about 'peacekeepers,' and mentions what looks like at least three of them besides Larabee. Think about that a minute. Why would a town bother to pay a lot of peacekeepers unless it thought it had something our sort would be interested in? A nice fat bank, say. You help us get Larabee and you can have whatever you can take out of the place, our shares included."


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