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


(Variation Two)

by Sevenstars

Old West Alternate Universe

The young man in the Comanche jacket reached down to fondle the hardwood handle of the knife sheath-sewn into his trousers at his left hip. The Negro partblood looked thoughtful. A dark lantern-jawed man who carried a Confederate Leach & Rigdon .44 spoke in a Missouri hill drawl: "What about them other peacekeepers?"

Virgil glanced at the young man. "I'm only interested in Larabee. You do what you like about the rest." He left them to confer and went over to the bar, where he held out the paper for the stationkeeper to see. "You know how to get to this Four Corners?"

"Well, I can't say I do, exactly, but I did notice the feller that left that paper came in on today's southbound stage. So I reckon if you was to head north you'd come on it sooner or later. Maybe somebody up the line could tell you more."

"Obliged," said Virgil. "We'll be staying the night like I said, and we'd appreciate a good breakfast before we pull out."


The stage with Judge Elliott aboard rolled into Corona just as the Sunday-school bell was ringing about nine o'clock. Buck and JD were there to meet it, as was the local sheriff. They watched as he greeted the Judge, then gave the man a couple of hours to rest and eat before going up to his room at the hotel and making themselves known to him. He inquired as to Judge Travis's welfare and accepted the documents they had brought, and their official business was done.

Church began at ten-thirty and went for a couple of hours, and Nathan's friend Dr. Holland turned out to be an attendee, so Buck and JD had to wait till he got home before they could pass on the healer's request for herbs. They checked on their horses and got some dinner, and as the saloons were just beginning to open up by the time they were finished, Buck decided to go get a post-prandial drink and perhaps renew his acquaintance with a pretty saloon girl he'd met the night before, while JD visited the doctor.

Buck was still a couple of hundred feet from the town's best saloon, a corner building located where the road up from Tularosa and Carrizozo met the east-west principal street, when he saw a dozen or so riders sweep up the former to the tie rack outside it, swinging out abreast like well-trained cavalry, and leave their horses loosely tethered while they stomped in, pushing past the swamper who was just hooking the storm doors back. He paused, watching them, and then turned his attention to the horses, suspicion rankling within him. The animals were 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--and of a far higher quality than you might expect common cowboys to ride, carrying the marks of speed and bottom as well as notably good saddles and tack. As Buck idled nearer, the closest of them lifted their heads, ears pricking forward, to see what he was about. Sixty-dollar horses--Buck had seen enough of them, as Chris's partner in horse-breeding, to know--and well cared for too, glossy with grain feeding. He frowned. Drifters wouldn't have such mounts and wouldn't ride in such a big pack, and men employed all at the same ranch would have come in, at the very latest, last night, Saturday, not today. Corona wasn't Buck's town, and even if it had been he had no evidence to suggest that the newcomers meant it any harm, but he knew himself well enough to know that if trouble did erupt he would run toward it rather than away, so he wanted to know just who these riders were and what they intended.

Buck moved up to the corner-set doorway and slipped quietly in, knowing he wouldn't have much prayer of seeing clearly from sunlight into the cool gloom of the interior. The newcomers had appropriated one of the score of four-foot-across tables, topped with red-checkered linoleum, that occupied the biggest part of the room, with the roulette wheel, blackjack layouts, chuck-a-luck cage, keno goose, chusas games, and monte, red-dog, and pedro tables spaced along the edges. Tucked under the stair was a small raised stage with three steps up to it, a piano prominently positioned, and a dance floor directly in front. The bar ran along the south wall, with five oval-shaped mirrors in elaborate ormolu frames mounted end-to-end over the backbar. The bartender, whom Buck knew to be the owner as well, had just barely come in from church and hadn't even had time to put his apron on; he was quickly setting out shot glasses on a tole tray while the swamper waited to take them to the table. The girls hadn't come down, and there were no other customers yet, though that might not last: there were always men who'd hit the saloon after a brief interval following services. Buck drifted up to the end of the bar, as far away from the table as he could get, and leaned casually against it, pulling his hat down to conceal his face while he peered out from under it. Some of the newcomers of necessity had their backs to him, but their partners on the other side of the table were positioned to cover them. One, Buck observed, had rich copper-brown skin, straight black hair, almond-shaped eyes, a narrow head and a rather humped thin nose, with a silver ring in one ear; he'd seen similar types in his boyhood in Kansas City, men up out of the Nations, children of matches between emancipated (or not) slaves and members of the Five Civilized Tribes. Another had long blond hair and cold agate eyes not unlike Chris's, and wore a smoked deerskin Comanche jacket. But it was the two facing away from him that drew Buck's attention. One was a big muscular man, over six feet and a good 180 pounds, but with the narrow hips and flat-muscled legs of a cavalryman--probably a veteran, since the new regulations of four years ago had imposed size limits on recruits, five feet five to ten inches and not over 150. He wore a short tight Mexican jacket of shiny worn leather above age-rusty blue Army trousers with part of the faded yellow stripe of the horse soldiers still along the outseams, a green silk bandanna close-tied at his throat; Buck couldn't see his face, but his wide-brimmed, flat-topped planter's hat was tipped down off his head to show black hair combed back in waves from his temples. Sitting next to him was a much smaller man, wiry, bandy-legged, with red hair showing under a faded, battered Federal forage cap cocked down over one eye, antelope-faced trousers and deep-rowelled Mexican spurs with tiny bells and tooled leathers. He was just at the right angle for Buck to see part of the side of his face and mark the age-blued scar that disfigured it. The gunslinger's eyes darted back to the big man and he felt his heartbeat pick up. It might be coincidence--certainly there must be more than one big, tall, muscular man with wavy black hair in the world--but there was a feeling in the pit of Buck's belly that told him it wasn't.

The bartender, having placed a bottle on the tray and sent the swamper over to deliver it, arrived to ask his pleasure. Buck ordered a beer and turned to face the mirror, in which he could keep an eye on the group, while memory swept him back to a time long past.

When the Union forces under Sherman entered Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Buck was already a three-year veteran who had seen his baptism of fire in the campaigns to clean up organized Confederate resistance in Missouri and capture Forts Henry and Donelson. Tough and experienced after half a dozen years in the West, he'd made a good soldier--canny on the trail, hardened to the weather and unlikely to be fooled by its transitory niceness, a dead shot and a rider far better than most early Union recruits. He'd been elected first lieutenant of his company in the First New Mexico, then been merged with Chris Larabee's Nevada volunteer cavalry around the New Year, after both outfits suffered too many casualties to function as independent units any longer.

Under the Union tables of organization, each Volunteer cavalry regiment numbered 1200 men and was evenly divided into twelve companies (alternately known as squadrons or troops). Ideally a company was supposed to consist of a captain, a first and second lieutenant, eight sergeants including the master and commissary sergeants, eight corporals, two buglers, a blacksmith, farrier, saddler, and wagoner, and seventy-five privates, but after the first few months it, like the infantry unit of the same name, rarely approached full strength. Even with incoming recruits, sickness and battle casualties reduced the overall infantry average, though supposed to number seventy-eight to ninety-six officers and men, to probably forty to sixty, with some entire regiments dropping to as few as 300, and by '64 many Confederate and some Union companies had dwindled to a score of men under a lieutenant or sergeant. By the early fall of of that year, Phil Sheridan, to take one example, had 173,264 men subject to call under his authority, but only 94,026 of these--slightly more than 54%--were present for duty. Chris and Buck, captain and first lieutenant, at the end of the Atlanta campaign could count only fifty-five men plus themselves. But these were Westerners to a man, tested products of the mining and ranching frontier already well developed in Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, and hardened veterans of almost three years of fighting. They worked well together, and their leaders knew they could be depended on.

Many a Union war correspondent, from the very beginning, wrote false accounts of Confederate "atrocities" against civilians that never really happened, simply because it was what the public wanted to read. But their own side was far from stainless, and Union soldiers were sometimes known to practise assorted outrages on the noncombatant population of the other, burning homes and torturing, ravaging, and killing women and children. Looking back, Buck thought it was these two facts as much as official policy that were responsible for the lingering bitterness of the South after the conflict.

By January of 1863 thoughtful men realized that Lincoln was being pushed by the radicals, and Northern newspapers reflected the attitude of a war of conquest against the Southern states; clamoring for "a more vigorous prosecution of the war," they showed that the end of preserving the Union had been totally forgotten in favor of making its invasion of the South successful. The men in the Union army showed a new attitude too. They began to regard the citizens of the South as objects of their antislavery crusade, whom it was "their right to despoil." Thievery and personalized destruction had until then come from individual hooliganism and uninhibited animal spirits, but now the Northern armies became almost systematic in terrorism and despoliation.

Another contributing factor almost certainly lay in the Federal conscription law: after it was enacted in March, the quality of enlistees fell off notably. There were still rising young boys who signed up out of patriotism or a desire for adventure, but the paid substitute, who received $300 to take the place of someone selected in the draft lot, appeared for the first time; by '64 some men were paying as much as $1100 to anyone willing to fight in their stead. A good many of these were recent immigrants, criminals, and drifters who'd desert at the first opportunity; some were city toughs like the gangmembers of New York City, and others had taken part in the draft riots there and in Boston and been obliged to leave home in self-defense. Brokerage rings quickly came into being to supply substitutes, and some of these engaged in kidnap, drugging, and other crimes in order to produce marketable "warm bodies" for delivery to the army. The ordinary soldier had only contempt for such men, and the earlier he had enlisted the greater his scorn. There were also the "bounty jumpers" who took cheerful advantage of the steadily rising enlistment bounties paid to attract volunteers: by the end of 1863 some brigades and regiments were offering $302 to a first-time signup, a hundred dollars more to a veteran, while states, counties, and towns sweetened the pot still more, and by early the following year some re-enlistees could get as much as $800. Men would enlist at recruiting offices in several towns in succession, deserting in between, until the Army took to sending new troops to their destination under guard, with any who tried to run off being shot. Of course, once they were in the field, they often bolted anyway and went back to their old tricks.

By the time of the Atlanta campaign, in which Sherman's avowed objective was to impress on civilians the meaning of war and to weaken their desire and power to sustain the armies, foraging was developed to its highest point of proficiency. The General held that such living on the countryside was as old as war itself. He also articulated the destruction of shops, factories, tanneries, and blacksmithies as army policy. But foragers under officer command were forbidden to enter private homes. Sometimes they obeyed, sometimes they didn't. "Sherman's bummers" were something else again. They deserted the line of march to form illicit roaming bands, and sometimes the Confederate cavalry caught a few and left them with slit throats by the side of the road for the Federal columns to find.

Up until then, the more wanton acts--desecration of graves and tombs in search of loot, personal menace to unprotected families--had come mostly from the deserters who made a constant drain on the army. True, despite orders from above, a house standing empty, an open pantry or liquor closet, or a lone horse presented irresistible temptation to soldiers on the move. But once the government released its powers of destruction on the subjugation of a people, the policy inevitably bred the type of man who was affected by unrestrained power as were the barbarous rulers of old. In such men violence was self-feeding, and they regarded Southern families as no more than helpless victims. "Rebels have no rights," was said to a thousand defenseless women who protested at having their personal belongings plundered from them.

Sherman wasn't totally callous. Indeed, he recognized that the more his armies robbed the countryside, the more civilians followed his columns begging for food for themselves and their children. He put out an order to stop the pillaging, saying that any man caught straggling in the rear on the march or in battle would be shot or given hard labor. It was a logical response to the problem: detached cavalry commands might commit the greatest thievery, but most of the vandalism could be laid at the doors of the stragglers and "bummers" who formed only a small percentage of the army, and was perpetrated in violation of orders.

Like all cavalry, the units in which Chris and Buck served did their share of foraging, killing cattle and bringing in the quarters, "jerking" sheep, hogs, and honey, raiding orchards and poultry-yards. But that was in the nature of survival, government rations being undependable at best (thanks in part to Rebel raiding) and frequently unpalatable at worst. They regarded the products of Secesh fields and gardens as rightful spoils of war, though they admitted it was tough lines to deprive families of their hard-earned living. Still, it was Southern civilians, not Northern soldiers, who had begun the war, and they justified their actions that way. Yet from the beginning both men did their fighting according to the same lines as McClellan--those which Lincoln had said the war was about. They fought to suppress the armed forces of dissident fellow-countrymen whom it was their duty and desire to return to a common Union. They didn't consider it their duty, and it certainly wasn't their desire, to make war on those civilians among their countrymen who differed from them on the interpretation of the Constitution--wasn't freedom of opinion guaranteed by that very document? They fought without hate, without cruelty, as if it were indeed a rebellion to suppress and not an alien people to conquer and despoil.

Much could be said against Chris Larabee, then as later, but never could anyone maintain that he had ever done hurt to a woman or child. Hurting civilians violated his ideas about protecting the innocent and about the high and virtuous role of a Union volunteer. And no purpose of uniting a people, white and colored, in one common country could be served by making the soldiers who represented this goal objects of loathing and bitter contempt, and the names of their commanders dirty epithets forever. Instead of resolving the inherent duality within the nation, such a tactic would only strike the heaviest and most lasting blow for continued division--perhaps not the actual political kind, but certainly psychological. Chris resolved early on that while he would do as much damage to railroads, bridges, and other strategic targets as he possibly could, looting citizens' property and threatening their lives was disgraceful. He never made war on civilians, never conceived of himself as a god of vengeance or directed his men toward purposeless destruction of personal property. Burning crops, destroying homes, and inflicting suffering on women and children might be standard practise in wars between white and Indian, but it disgusted Chris that such war could be made on whites--fellow Americans. Buck, of course, could never condone cruelty of any kind even if it was supposedly for a larger good; his attitudes ran smoothly in double harness beside his captain's.

The Confederate General Hood had evacuated out of Atlanta on September 1. He knew that Sherman's lines of communication reached to Chattanooga and on northward to Nashville, and reasoned that if he could break this long link, Sherman would be isolated. He hoped to sidle westward across northern Alabama and strike into middle Tennessee. That would finish Sherman's supplies. But the plan was doomed. Winter was coming on, and Hood's men were poorly clothed and fed. The Tennessee River, which they had to cross, was high. Supplies they had counted on proved unobtainable. Forrest failed to meet them where he was supposed to. They kept shifting on westward until they at last met Forrest, crossed the river, and, hungry and barefoot, shivered north in a sleet storm. By that time Sherman had long since ceased chasing them. He simply directed Major-General George H. Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," who had been placed in command of 60,000 men at Nashville, to "take care of Hood in Tennessee." Thomas did, assisted by, among others, Chris and Buck's unit, which had been sent back as part of Schofield's two corps. On December 15-16 the two forces met south of the city, and Hood was overwhelmingly smashed. The Confederates retreated to Mississippi and didn't threaten the bluegrass again.

Tennessee was a cornerstone of strategy for both sides, and more battles were fought in that state than any other except Virginia. Like Kentucky, it was a state divided, and for much the same reason: while the eastern mountain regions were pro-Union, the flatter country in the west was more likely to be secessionist, and dominating the government as it did, pushed the state into the Confederacy. And, as in Kentucky, this borderline sympathy inspired the springing up of guerrilla bands who changed loyalties overnight, switching from blue to gray and back again and raiding as immediate profit demanded. In addition, as the war ground on into its latter stages, little bands of "bushwhackers" came into being--deserters from both armies who wandered about attacking civilian and military, Union and Confederate, with a fine impartiality, killing, burning, and plundering. Wearing bits of Confederate uniforms on one occasion and dressing as Feds the next, they'd strike out of nowhere, murdering, torturing, raping, and burning, then vanish into the mountains or swamps. Along with the "partisans," or guerrilla companies loosely associated with the South, they also ran a profitable sideline in holding for ransom such prisoners as they thought were wealthy enough to pay, including enemy officers. And while those "partisan rangers" led by duly commissioned officers of the Confederate forces were, by the decree of the Adjutant-General, to be treated as legitimate prisoners of war if captured--they were subject to exchange as long as the system held together--the bushwhackers were a different case altogether. These formed no part of the organized army, took up arms at intervals to commit devastation, rapine, and destruction, and gave no quarter; even Southern officers held them as liable to treatment as brigands, outside the usages of war.

In towns where the occupying troops exercised actual control there was little real oppression. The six companies of which Chris's was one, headquartered chiefly some sixty miles southeast of Nashville at Manchester, were commanded by a scholarly and devout general by the name of Mills, whom the local newspaper later described as "a kind and conciliatory enemy" who, rather than "seeking to crush us with his heel, sought to bring us back to the flag we had once loved. The names of some Union commanders may be anathema in Tennessee, but that of Randolph Mills is not."

Middle Tennessee was a land of fertile soil, mild climate, and a gently rolling topography. Livestock flourished on the bluegrass pastures, and the houses and farm buildings were spacious and in good repair, thanks in large part to the presence of blacks, which had allowed almost every able-bodied white male to assume the uniform of his choice without fearing that his dependents would be left without strong backs and hands. On the rich limestone soil grew the money crops of corn, cotton, and tobacco, as well as some oats, hay, and wheat, and greater amounts of peas, beans, rye, and barley. Most farms also grew for home consumption buckwheat, flaxseed, sugar, molasses, beeswax and honey, sweet and Irish potatoes, and orchard fruits.

Chris, Buck, and their fifty-five spent most of the autumn of 1864 patrolling the roads and countryside round about, striving to bring order to a war-torn land deprived of most of its native-born adult males, chasing ghostly bands of guerrillas and bushwhackers. At an early point it became clear to them that they had at least one very active group of enemies of this kind, and the raiders seemed uncannily aware of where Chris's "Sagebrush Rangers" were likely to be at any given time. Again and again the outfit missed them by barely a day or two, and the repeated sight of once-fair houses smouldering, fences and forests burned, wagons chopped to pieces, slaughtered pigs and cattle left by the roadside, helpless women and children stripped of their last bushel of meal and pound of meat, steadily heated the ire of officers and men alike. Most of the latter had had experience, first- or secondhand, of Indian raids; they looked upon the destruction and thought of their own families in similar case. Within the company the sentiment became unanimous: "Let's stay out till we lay our hands on 'em."

That resolve eventually had its reward. On a crisp November day the advance scouts sighted smoke, and Chris ordered the company "forward, at the canter!" They turned down a shaded lane and found a big brick house that must have been seventy years old, one wing of it afire. The picket gate was closed, but Chris didn't let that stop him; he simply lifted his big sorrel horse Carbine over it, and the rest of the men went over the fence to either side, a waterfall of grain-fed animals and blue-clad soldiers, many with dark Mexican faces. A man of sixty or so appeared from within the house, carrying a great big gold-framed portrait which he tilted against a tree. A woman who was standing by turned at the thunder of hoofbeats and snatched up a long light rifle, lifting it to her shoulder and training it on Chris with the air of one who could bark a squirrel at twenty yards.


Comments to: sevenstars39@hotmail.com