What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Chris checked, flung up his hand in an order to halt, and by some trick of his leg brought Carbine low at his right shoulder, sweeping his hat along the animal's withers to the ground. Buck, hanging close at his side, marked how the green fire showed in his eyes as he swept his gaze around at the place. The scene was familiar enough: splashes of blood in the dirt showing where pigs and poultry had been shot down and the bodies loaded for transport; a confused pattern of hoof- and bootprints fresh underneath; eight cotton bales in the carriage house thrown onto a large jointed-hooded landau and set afire, though only burning over after the nature of cotton, which took an almighty time to catch; a little Negro boy lying under an apple tree with two women wailing and sobbing over him; a white boy, maybe fifteen, propped against a woodpile with an older sister working over his bleeding leg; a stream of black men and boys passing in and out of the house saving whatever they could, while the white gentleman paused in his work to stare at the company with hard eyes. "What happened here?" Chris demanded.
"What do you think happened, sir!" the white man retorted. "My cousin's home--" he tipped his head toward the woman with the squirrel gun-- "invaded, looted, and set ablaze, her Nigras driven from their cabins at gunpoint and taken away, their cabins ransacked and the occupants despoiled of their meager possessions, livestock slaughtered or driven off, one inoffensive child shot out of a tree like a brute 'possum and another fired upon for merely watchin' the plunderers pass! Had it not been for one of my people sightin' the column and carryin' word to me so that my family and servants might come over, there would have been no chance of savin' anythin' at all!"
"Buck," Chris snapped, "see if you can quench that cotton. Lieutenant Wallace--" he had read medicine for a year and a half before enlisting, and though it hadn't been sufficient to get him a medical license, it had often meant the difference between life and death for members of his company-- "do what you can for the wounded boy. Sir," addressing the gentleman, "we've been tryin' to put our hands on these bandits for the last two months. If you'll tell us which way they went, there's a fair chance we'll be in time to recover your property."
"Bluebellies!" the woman jeered. "You expect us to believe you'll take back our goods from your own kind?"
Buck saw Chris come to full attention. "You say Union soldiers did this?"
"I say it, and I'll cry it to Heaven and Mr. Lincoln! Do you think I don't know Union blue when I see it?"
A flush came and went in Chris's cheek. "How many were there? Which way did they go?"
For the first time the woman seemed nonplussed. "Twenty, maybe twenty-five--are you serious?"
A black ancient standing by was more practical. Leaning on his sturdy stick, he raised a gnarled hand and pointed. "Dey done tuk off dataway, suh, straight down de road. But dey got wagons an' plunder what'll hol' dem back. If you-uns rides yo' hosses 'crost dat wheatfiel' yonder, fords de crick by de ol' mill an' keeps on due eas', you-all kin git to de crossroads ahaid of 'em."
"Sergeant Rivera!" Chris shouted. "Pick ten men and stay here to help these people with their goods and injured. The rest of you, with me!" And they tore across the yard, over the fence and through the stubble of the cut wheat, while the victims of the raid gaped in astonishment at their retreating backs and Sergeant Rivera began barking orders to his ten to help contain the fires.
The old Negro's directions, while simple, were good, and the designated crossroads, when reached, showed no sign of recent passage by man or beast. Chris sent his horses back into a little copse where they could be quickly brought up if there was need, and positioned his forty-three remaining men on either side of the road, some hidden by a field of shocked corn, others behind a stone wall. A wiry Mexican private scrambled up a tree and shouted down that he could see a small dust cloud approaching. He had scarcely rejoined his mates in concealment when a couple of advance scouts came jogging down the road, riding with silk dresses under their saddles. Buck heard the men on either side of him grit their teeth and swear softly in English and Spanish. A whisper of orders ran down the line from Chris: "Let them go. Wait till the main unit comes up."
The scouts paused to consult the signboard at the fork, then turned up the north branch and cantered out of sight. Soon their companions came into view--cavalry by the yellow trim of their uniforms, though some were mounted on horses with civilian saddles. Folded within their cordon rolled a carriage and an old rockaway drawn by plow mules and piled high with plunder, an old buggy behind a single horse, a little chaise; at the end of the procession the rear guard urged along a cluster of frightened Negroes, about twenty of them. No unit banners were displayed, which made sense: without them, victims would see only the uniforms and have no way to testify to the exact origin of their despoilers even if they'd thought it would do any good.
Buck drew his big Walker Colt--nonregulation, but it had been with him ever since Virgil Day taught him to shoot when he was fourteen--and squeezed the trigger as he pulled the hammer back, to prevent a telltale click, though the rumble and rattle of the loaded vehicles, the jingle of accoutrements, the shuffle of feet and the coarse jests and laughter of the victorious plunderers drowned out most sound. Then out of the woods Chris appeared on Carbine and Buck clenched his teeth. Damn you, Chris, ain't you got better sense? But the raiders, seeing the blue uniform, were thrown off guard, which was probably just what Chris had been hoping for. Their leader, a big, muscular first lieutenant of perhaps twenty-five, with a red, beefy face and black hair combed back in waves from his temples, dressed in a regulation double-breasted frock coat and blue trousers topped off with a wide-brimmed, flat-topped planter's hat, signalled a halt and jogged his horse forward. "Well, brother," said he, "where'd you spring from? Get separated from your outfit?"
Chris looked him over, and Buck saw the feral grin slide onto his face, the one that usually meant something was about to get broken. "Not very far," he said, and drew his sidearm. "You're all under arrest."
The other officer goggled at him a moment, and then a look of infuriated comprehension appeared on his beefy face as he realized, or thought he did, what he was dealing with. "The hell we are!" With a speed that both surprised and dismayed the watching Buck, he swirled his basket-hilted sword out of the scabbard and aimed a cut at Chris's head.
"Take 'em, boys!" Buck bellowed, and stood up from behind the stone wall with the big Walker level and ready. Chris swayed down and sideways in his saddle like an Indian, firing up at the descending blade as he moved; the shot struck the sword about halfway down and it broke in two, half of it tumbling harmlessly off to one side, the other half continuing its downward sweep but too truncated to do him any harm, and its owner, reflexively leaning forward in an effort to compensate, lost his balance and toppled out of his saddle with a jingling yelp that left him half stunned. Before he could recover Chris was dismounted too, and kneeling over him with a cocked sixgun at his temple and Carbine's rein tight in his hand. The raiders meanwhile grabbed for whatever weapons they could, and a small-scale battle erupted.
One raider corporal, mounted on a freckled gray that had almost certainly been illegitimately obtained--as a rule grays were ridden by buglers, so their officers could easily find them in the press of battle when they needed a signal blown, and this man bore neither a bugle nor the sleeve insignia that suggested he ever had--wrenched his horse to the side and drove it straight at the stone wall; Buck let him come, then threw himself to one side, rolling, and fired up into his body as the horse came soaring over. The big Walker blasted with a bellow like a miniature cannon's and the corporal, a look of astonishment on his hard face, toppled sideways, his foot catching in the stirrup and turning. The horse touched ground off balance, skidded, fell, and went down, thrashing, rolling over its rider, and then scrambling to its feet again, trembling but apparently unhurt. A wiry, bandy-legged redheaded sergeant with a tough, rugged Irish face, riding close behind his commanding officer, made a rush for the north branch of the crossroads and found his way blocked by a mounted corporal with a heavy 1840 Dragoon saber drawn and waiting for him. The sergeant drew his own blade and they duelled briefly in a scraping shower of sparks until the corporal's "Old Wristbreaker" beat the Irishman's lighter cavalry sword aside and slashed his face bloodily open. Enfilading fire from the two detachments on either side of the road raked the hapless bummers with hot lead. The Negroes, fortunately, had the good sense to throw themselves flat and hug the road. In less than ten minutes seven of the pillagers were dead and the remainder, not one unmarked, were being mopped up with rough efficiency by the Sagebrushers.
Chris ordered that the recaptured plunder be tallied and listed so its amount and character could be testified to before a military tribunal. Meat, loaf sugar, brown sugar, soap, candles, flour, lard, butter, eggs, dried fruits and vegetables had been taken. Turkeys, chickens, and young pigs hung from the saddles of the horses, still warm with life. A brood mare and her colt followed the chaise, and several horses were being led by individual men. China, carpets, men's clothing, ladies' dresses, bedclothes, books, jewelry, even rings off the wearers' fingers; Dutch ovens, skillets, a coffee mill and coffeepots, silks, painted windowshades, damask curtains, linen, blankets, family portraits in gilt wood frames, two great silver candelabra with glass prisms, a French mantel clock, Sevres dinner china and an entire set of Dresden plates, bottles of wine and brandy--everything that took their fancy, whether intrinsically valuable or not, had been stolen. The lieutenant, who was apparently a particularly efficient fellow, had contrived to get the piano out of the house and loaded into a wagon they must have brought with them, since it bore corps markings; his pockets proved to be stuffed with lace handkerchiefs, and his sergeant upon being searched gave up a lady's watch. Several of the prisoners had scarves and mantles thrown over their shoulders. As for the Negroes, the raiders claimed they'd been liberating them, "because the Negroes want to fight for the Union," but Chris found it noteworthy that they had bothered only with the able-bodied adults; he had heard of Yanks stealing Negroes to sell.
Buck, checking out the man he'd killed, took a handful of jewelry from his pocket, and tied to the saddle of his horse were two bolts of cloth, lace curtains, women's clothing, blankets, sheets, and two bottles of wine. That night, going through the man's papers, he and Chris found a letter from a girl. In it, along with the customary terms of endearment, she requested that she be sent some of the things her lover captured from the houses of Rebels he passed.
An hour before sunset the pursuing party brought their prisoners and the recovered goods back to the victimized farm, where they found that Sergeant Rivera and his men had put the house fire out, though not before it had inflicted serious damage on the wing where it had been set. The old white gentleman, whose name turned out to be Lewis Crenshaw, and his hard-working Negroes had preferred not to bank on their success, but had managed to get a good many things out, including a big black-walnut bed and a number of items which had been too large or cumbersome for the raiders to carry but which bore the signs of their attentions--a black table whose mother-of-pearl inlay of flowers and birds had been dug out with a saber point, trunks that had been knocked to pieces with muskets while women stood by offering the keys, bureaus with drawers pulled out, the contents turned on the floor, and the drawers thrown through the windows, a Benjamin West painting of a glowering ancestor with his small son and daughter defaced by two saber slashes crosswise and obscenities written on the man's shirtfront. The cotton bales had only burned over, and the fire had simmered out without spreading. Lieutenant Wallace reported that the wounded boy would live but would be a cripple for life.
Mr. Crenshaw's cousin, whose name was Ophelia Parkinson and who was the boy's mother, insisted upon feeding Chris, Buck, and their unit a good meal made up in part of the slaughtered farm stock, even though it had of necessity to be served in the yard. Her astonishment that Yankees would battle their own for the sake of her property was as plainly marked as her gratitude. When the outfit pulled out the following morning, it carried her promise that she wouldn't forget.
Units recruited in the East were usually shipped to Virginia, Western ones to Missouri, Kentucky, or Tennessee. But this was by no means a hard-and-fast rule, and even when it was, troops were constantly being reshuffled, with whole regiments being transferred from one command to another, and in later days depleted ones often consolidated--which inspired howls of protest from the soldiers involved, since unit pride was a very real thing, and every outfit dreaded "losing our name and number." Northern men enlisted with their neighbors in companies and regiments, and usually elected their own lieutenants and captains, who in turn elected the majors and lieutenant-colonels. Each state was called upon to raise a number of regiments in proportion to its population; it then assigned quotas to its counties, and the governor authorized certain individuals to recruit these regiments, appointing them colonels when the job was done. All too often he was moved in his choice by politics or personal friendship. And while Confederate officers were chosen solely on merit, Union generals, appointed by the President, were frequently ambitious men without military experience, commissioned to reward loyal Republicans, attract Democratic support, or appease powerful groups such as the Midwest Germans.
The raider band turned out to be what was left of a New York company, chiefly conscripts from the city streets, led by Lieutenant Virgil Sablett and Sergeant Devin Crowley; it was their Union affiliation which had been in part responsible for their apparent clairvoyance with regard to patrols by Chris's company and others. When the Sagebrush Rangers brought them into Manchester as prisoners, a regular hornet's nest was stirred up. General Mills knew Chris and backed him staunchly in his attempt to get the men's previous activities investigated and all of them court-martialed, but Sablett turned out to have some pull with a couple of political higher-ups. While the subsequent wrangling was under way, he, Crowley, and three other survivors staged an escape from the stockade. Two were killed, but Sablett and Crowley got away. The rest of the band, angry at having been left behind, gave evidence against their erstwhile leaders, who, they testified, had been the instigators of not only two months' worth of organized plundering in Tennessee, but in Mississippi and Arkansas and even among the Unionists of western North Carolina. A fair-minded correspondent got hold of the story and splashed it all over the Northern newspapers, making the great point that the victims--and there had been no less than twenty killed--had been almost all women, children, and loyal blacks attempting to defend their white folks. The unpleasant publicity gave the Army no choice but to court-martial and cashier Sablett in absentia and offer a five-hundred-dollar reward for his person, plus two hundred for Crowley's, although as far as Buck had ever heard no one ever claimed either. As the war ground on to its close he had picked up occasional rumors that hinted they had made their way west and there resumed their past ways in Arkansas and Missouri, but after the peace was signed and the men who'd been in the two armies began filtering home, they'd no longer been reported in those regions. Might've guessed they'd head out this way, Buck thought, watching the pair through slitted eyes. Might not be as many private citizens to plunder, but with mines and stagecoaches and such they could likely make more. Looks like they've spent some time below the Border.
Lost in his reverie, he hadn't noticed the young man in the Comanche jacket marking what his friends didn't, that the schooner of beer in front of him never went near his lips. And just as Buck could keep track of the men in the mirror, they could see him in it too. His instincts went off like a fire alarm just as someone stepped up to the bar alongside him. "Well, Lieutenant Wilmington," Sablett greeted him smoothly. "What a surprise! I hadn't figured on having a word with you till I got to Four Corners."
Damn, Bucklin, you're gettin' slack, the gunslinger rebuked himself, but his expression was mild and unreadable as he pushed back off the lip of the counter and turned easily to face the former Cavalryman. And behind it he was thinking with lightning speed. Sablett had spoken of him and Four Corners in a single breath, which meant that he had somehow found out about Buck's association with the town--and probably Chris's too. He had spoken of getting there, which meant he and his were on their way, probably to settle his old score with Chris and Buck. Ten of them against five, one of whom was laid up in bed and none of whom would be expecting them--
"Goes to show you never know where you'll run into old friends, don't it?" Buck replied. "Well, I'm here. You got anything to say to me, I'm listening." He knew JD would be coming here to meet him as soon as he'd concluded Nathan's business with Dr. Holland. I gotta keep him clear of them, he won't have a chance in hell, walkin' in on this without knowin' what's goin' on. And I gotta cut the odds for Chris and the others.
"You're looking prosperous enough," Sablett proceeded, and then a gleeful light came into his eyes. "Better than Larabee from what I hear. Saw by the paper he took a bullet. Can't get around like he should."
I knew it, I knew it... "Don't surprise me you'd wait till somethin' like that happened to come calling, Sablett," Buck said flatly. "Just about what I'd expect of a man who lined his pockets by killing women and kids and little slave boys." He saw the flush come up in Sablett's cheeks and pressed harder. "And I ain't surprised you'd lay it at Chris's door, either, even if it was your choice to abuse your rank. If you hadn't decided plunderin' was easier and more attractive than fightin' armed men, you'd likely been discharged a hero."
"That might be," Sablett observed, "but if you and Larabee and that damn bulldog outfit of yours hadn't made it your personal crusade to catch me, no one would ever have had to know. So it comes down to you in the end."
Buck knew exactly what he was going to do now, he'd been planning his moves almost from the moment he began to speak. He shot a quick glance past Sablett's shoulder, noticing that Crowley had scraped his chair around to watch the exchange and the others were listening with a predatory attention that reminded him of a pack of hungry wolves. "Like I said, it don't surprise me. You ain't got the sand to face Chris or me one-on-one. You gotta wait till he can't stand on his own and you gotta bring your dogs along with you. You're a coward, Sablett, you always were and you always will be." He said it loudly enough for the bartender and Sablett's followers to hear, knowing that a gang leader couldn't allow any doubt to arise about his fitness to be boss.
Sablett turned deep crimson and grabbed for his gun. Buck swept out his left hand, snatched up his untouched beer and hurled it into the big man's face. As Sablett stumbled back, coughing and swiping at his eyes, the gunslinger drew his own Colt and simultaneously gave a jump and a roll and threw himself in a tumbling somersault over the zinc bartop and down behind the thick solid cherrywood counter.
It saved his life, as he had figured it would. Crowley and several of the others were only a blink behind their boss in throwing their chairs back and pulling their guns, but Buck's unexpected movement threw their aim off. He felt one bullet sear along his side just above the waist, but knew it was only a flesh wound. He hit the floor behind the bar with a gasp, the impact jolting the wounded side, and found himself staring straight at the bartender's sawed-off shotgun. A feral grin that would have done Chris Larabee proud lit his indigo eyes. A sawed-off was something he knew well; he owned one of his own and had used it many times in close fights.
The outlaws (as Buck was certain they were), taken by surprise at his maneuver, hadn't been able to adjust in time; he heard a scream from the swamper as a stray bullet caught him, saw the mirror disintegrate in a shower of shards and the bartender fall heavily backward, blood on his white Sunday shirt and fancy waistcoat, bringing down bottles and pyramided glasses which cascaded down over him as he collapsed to the narrow strip of floor behind the counter. Sablett was shouting orders, chief among them a repeated profane admonition to "get him!" Buck knew the racket erupting against the Sunday quiet would be bound to fetch someone, and he figured Sablett would know it too, which gave them a very restricted window of opportunity to cope with him. He glanced left, toward the end of the bar nearest the gang's table, and saw two of them appear there, throwing back the dropleaf. He grabbed for the shotgun and swung it into line, thumbing the hammers back as he did. The sawed-off bellowed and the two outlaws fell back screaming.
Yells could be heard outside, and Sablett understood that he'd blown his chance. "Out!" he bellowed. "Get to the horses!" As boots thundered against the floor, Buck threw the empty shotgun aside and scrabbled for the opening beneath the dropleaf on this end of the bar. Two down, but that still left ten or more--
JD had passed Nathan's request on to Dr. Holland, who proved to be a pleasant gentleman of middle age and quite willing to help his friend out. He'd received the selfheal, woundwort, and black cohosh and started toward the saloon to meet Buck, the herb packets securely tucked away in the inside pockets of his suit jacket. He was just coming up on the other side of the street, smiling and touching his hat to the ladies he passed, when he heard the gunfire. No one needed to tell him Buck was in trouble; he knew it, just the way Chris had known Vin was about to take a hand in Nathan's trouble.
He throttled his reflexive surge of panic, remembering Buck's stringent lessons: never give in to first impulse; think, be aware, know what you're getting into. Flipping his suit-coat back, he drew both his Lightnings and threw himself down behind a convenient watering trough directly opposite the saloon, just as a small crowd of men burst through the batwing doors and scattered along the tie racks to mount the horses waiting there. JD bobbed up fast and squeezed off a shot with his right-hand Colt, hearing a howl of pain and the rising whinny of a startled horse as he dropped down behind shelter again, then scrambled forward, belly-down, to flick out low down at the end of the trough instead of over the top of it as a hail of bullets cut the air where his bowler had been a second before.
One of the men was down, an empty-saddled horse racing away from him with stirrups flopping. The others were getting up, some covering for slower companions, a swirl of confused activity filling the middle of the street. JD caught a glimpse of the sheriff racing toward the scene from the east end of the street as he extended his arm and fired around the end of the trough. A horse rose up, screaming and fighting its bit, and JD threw himself back with a gasp as a bullet kicked sand into his face.
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