What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Chris had seen Vin enter the barn, and when the other man went to the door behind him he had had to make a quick decision. He could make his move now, come up behind the unknown and get the drop on him--but if he turned out to be just an innocent (more or less) cowboy on legitimate business of his own, it wouldn't look good. He could give the other time to get inside, then follow--but if the man meant Vin any harm, he'd pull his gun as soon as he passed through the door and probably cock it immediately; even if Chris shot him in the back, which Chris wasn't about to do, the spasming of his muscles could still set the weapon off, and Vin might get hurt. Chris figured he could count on Vin to stall a little while he tried to get a handle on who the guy was and just how dangerous and well-prepared he might be. He let the man get inside, then crossed the street in a quick dash, paused long enough to remove a match from his vest pocket, break it in two, and wedge the bits behind the rowels of his spurs so they wouldn't give warning, and then began climbing the ladder of wooden slats nailed to the outside of the barn. The loft loading door had been left partway open to allow some circulation of air--hay that wasn't ventilated could get moldy very fast, and sometimes it caught fire spontaneously--and Chris quietly inserted his body into the crack and slid through without causing any betraying hinge-creaks.
Near the midpoint of the centerway, where a hay wagon would be parked if for some reason it had to be brought inside, an opening had been left in the loft floor, a sort of square hatch. Through this a voice filtered upward: "...We can do this the easy way, or we can do it hard. With this rain just about everybody's indoors, and if I have to shoot you there's a fair chance a lot of folks won't even hear it..."
It was all Chris needed to know. He'd been right: Vin was in danger. This was clearly a bounty hunter who'd either happened into town by sheer chance or come looking a-purpose, and whichever was the case he meant to take Vin back to Tascosa. Think again, friend, the gunfighter told himself. He knew that men wearing broad-brimmed Western-style hats customarily bend their gazes at a level, to the front or sides, and seldom look up unless some sound from above alerts them. Counting on the cushioning hay to conceal any such sound he might make, he moved toward the trap. He tossed his hat back off his head to hang by the jaw strap and lowered himself to his heels just a little back from the opening and to one side. He could make out Vin's foreshortened figure to his right, toward the back of the barn, which he had expected since that was where Peso's stall was, and to his left, about ten feet from the ex-buffalo hunter, the stranger with a gun in his hand. As Chris watched, he reached into the left pocket of his coat and pulled out a set of manacles, which he tossed across toward Vin; Vin reflexively put out his hand to catch them before they could hit his face. "You used to hunt men for a living, so you know what to do with those."
Chris barely noticed as Vin slowly clinched the manacles into place around his wrists, making sure to snap them down hard enough to make an audible click. He had to make a move, now, while the hunter was out in the open. To take Vin out of town, the man would need to saddle Peso. He would almost certainly force Vin into the stall ahead of him and make him sit down in the corner while he did this; it was what Chris would have done in a similar situation. That would mean Chris would have to come up behind him, but if Chris did that, the hunter would still be able to cover Vin, knowing that if Chris shot him he could still get off a round that would have a very good chance of taking Vin down. The foreshortened angle would make a front shot chancy at best. There was only one thing to do, one way of protecting Vin. And Chris did it, without even thinking about his own odds.
Clutching his Colt in his right hand, he carefully eased himself down to a heel-crouch at the edge of the hatchway, just above the hunter's head, facing toward Vin. He saw the tracker pick up the flash of movement in the opening, saw him glance up, saw the comprehension wash over his face and fill his blue eyes with horror. And he leaned forward, clamped his left hand onto the coping of the hatch, and swung down.
Chris's legs swung out in a circular scything motion, the angle precisely calculated in his mind. The part of his foot that marked its junction with his leg--not his toe in its hard-pointed boot--caught Vin along the left ribs and knocked him sideways as Chris's body dropped down in front of the hunter.
Jarrod Banneker was, for once in his life, caught completely flat-footed. For a moment he didn't even realize what he was seeing. All he saw was a black form, with swirling edges like the wings of a bat, and his superstitious Indian half thought he was looking at a spirit. He backpedalled frantically, and as he did his finger tightened convulsively on the trigger. The gunshot roared in the enclosed barn like a cannon going off.
Vin, sprawled on the packed surface of the centerway, saw Chris's body jerk and heard the strangled grunt of pain and escaping breath that meant he'd been hit. And for just a moment, the older man's eyes met his, and what the tracker saw there was...peace. Satisfaction. The look of a man who felt he had just done something extremely worthwhile, something that made up for many past errors.
A man who had known he was risking death, and accepted that risk, because taking it would mean he saved a friend.
No! Damn you! No! You ain't givin' up your life for me, Chris Larabee! You ain't usin' me as an excuse to join your wife and your boy! No! We need you here. Four Corners needs you. Buck and JD need you. Mary Travis needs you. Ezra and Josiah and Nathan need you.
/I need you...
/I ain't needed nobody in such a long time. But I need you.
Three hundred feet up-street, Buck Wilmington was just stepping out of the Clarion office after accepting and finishing the cup of coffee Mary had pressed upon him. The enclosing walls of the barn muffled the shot, but he still heard it. And in the line he had followed for as many years as Chris had, you didn't live long without developing the ability to tell where a sound was coming from. He pulled his Colt and set off at a run, his heels thundering hollowly on the planks, spurs ringing wildly.
Vin was held a moment in shock, staring at Chris's crumpled form. Then he lunged, scrambling around on his hip, for the gun that still lay in the older man's slack fingers, cradled against his palm.
Banneker's .45 cocked. "Don't try it!"
"Damn you," Vin gasped, "you shot him in the back! In the back, you bastard! Do you think I care what you do?"
The barn door suddenly crashed open and Buck Wilmington's lean form filled the opening, bringing with it a blast of chill, moist air. Banneker whirled reflexively.
Buck didn't even know who he was facing; all he knew was that he saw the racing gleam of light reflecting off a gun barrel, a barrel that was raised toward him. His gunfighter's instincts took over and he threw himself to one side even as he squeezed the trigger of his own blued Colt. He didn't even think about where he wanted the bullet to go; he just shot by feel, aiming an inch above the belt buckle, the good shot, the safety shot, the one every gunfighter knows, the one to use when he's in a terrible rush or can't risk not taking his enemy down for good. The other man was hurled backward, off his feet, as the slug took him full under the heart. Buck rolled twice and came up, one leg thrown out as a brace, eyes already adjusting to the dimness inside the barn. He made out a tumbled dark shape just beyond where his target had stood, and a lighter-colored moving blur close beside it. "Don't move!" he barked.
"Vin?" Buck blinked and straightened, letting his gun's barrel depress a bit. "What's goin' on here, boy? I heard a gun go off--was that you?"
"No. Not me. It's Chris...oh, shit, Buck, he's been shot in the back!"
"What?!" Buck pushed up off his knee and hurtled across the intervening space. Vin was crouched over what he now realized was Chris's body in its trademark black duster and pants, struggling to turn the older man's greater weight. Buck caught the glint and jingle of metal and realized the tracker was wearing wrist shackles. Suddenly it all came together for him. Some bounty hunter had found Vin and tried to take him, and somehow or other Chris had contrived to intervene. And been shot for his trouble...
Buck leaned over his old friend, still clutching his Colt in his right hand while with his left he reached out to feel under the jawbone for the pulsebeat in the throat. "He's alive," he whispered hoarsely.
Vin made a soft wordless sound. "We gotta get him to Nathan."
"Yeah." Buck glanced toward the tumbled figure of the man he had shot, pushed up and strode quickly to toe the man's gun away from his open hand, then cautiously knelt to turn him. The wide-eyed stare that greeted him told him all he needed to know. He reached inside the man's corduroy coat, to the buckskin vest underneath, and searched deftly through the pockets until his fingers closed on a small cold length of metal. He returned to Vin, who was crouched still over Chris's body, wide-eyed and beginning to tremble. I gotta get him away from this. Make him feel like there's somethin' he can do to help. "Lemme get them shackles off you. You're a faster runner than me. I'll stay with Chris, you fetch Nathan and Josiah."
Vin bit his lip as the hunter's key sank into the manacles' lock and turned. "Yeah. Okay. I'll get 'em."
There were only four men in the front room of Nathan Jackson's clinic, but the place seemed bursting at the seams from the nervous energy they generated. Buck, who had never been a patient man except with regard to his brother, was unable to keep still. He paced steadily from one side of the room to the other, saying nothing, just keeping constantly in motion. At intervals he would stop long enough to sit down next to JD, who was poised stiffly in one of Nathan's kitchen chairs looking pale and scared, his bowler held on his knees, fingers clenched so hard on the brim that the bones of his knuckles stood out in white relief. Buck would try to comfort or reassure the kid, but always, within five minutes, he would be up again and pacing as restlessly as before.
Ezra sat across the worktable from JD, slowly and silently turning his cards through his fingers, one after the other, in the exercise Maude had taught him in boyhood to keep his hands supple. "Mr. Wilmington," he said at length, in a quiet, even, unthreatening tone, "if you do not cease and desist from that interminable distractin' movement, I shall be forced to shoot the heels off your boots."
"Huh?!" Buck jerked to a stop, not sure he'd heard what he thought he had.
"That," said Ezra, "is a distinct improvement. Surely you are aware that such activity will do nothin' whatsoever to improve Mr. Larabee's chances of survival, or to assist those in whose care he is."
"Yeah, I know it," Buck breathed. "But, damnit, Ezra, I can't help it! I served over a year with that man in some of the roughest fightin' in the War. I was his partner for seven more years. If I don't do somethin' to work the tension off while I wait, I'm gonna go crazy, or blow up like a high-pressure boiler." He whirled and stalked over to the front window, leaning his palm against the frame, every line of his body proclaiming his dejection and despair. "When I landed at his feet that first day and realized who I was lookin' at, I couldn't believe I could be so lucky. When he asked me if I wanted to ride along, I thought I hadta be dreamin'. And then JD came, and I started darin' to think we could go back to bein' a family again. I been so hopin' the day would come when Chris'd be able to look at us without the first thing he'd see bein' everythin' he lost, when he could see what he managed to hold onto instead. I hoped he'd come to understand that we lost somethin' too, and that we care about him and wanta help. I hoped he'd find a reason for livin' again. I thought this town and us might be it. Damnit, I don't wanta lose him when I've just started findin' my balance with the man he's become! I don't want JD to lose the next best thing he's got to another brother. I don't want Chris dyin' before he's found a way to pull himself up out of the pit. And I don't want him dyin' from the kind of shot he'd never inflict on another human being. He deserves better!"
"I hardly think it was his choice," murmured Ezra.
"Yeah," came the hoarse whisper from the fourth man present. "Yeah, it was."
Buck turned sharply. It was the first time Vin had spoken since he'd come running back to the barn, with Nathan and Josiah in close pursuit, and dropped to his knees beside his fallen friend to ask, "Is he still--?" At Buck's nod, he had squeezed his eyes shut and reached out with one shaking hand to touch Chris's shoulder, then scrambled aside to give way to the healer and the ex-preacher. After Nathan had concluded his initial examination, and Buck and Josiah had found a sturdy plank and gently edged the gunfighter's unresponsive form onto it, he had hung close beside Chris as he was carried to the clinic and up the stairs, his eyes fixed helplessly on the motionless man--only to be firmly ejected, with Buck, from the back room, and have the door shut in his face. Ever since then he had been leaning up in the corner, half obscured by the shadow of the big cabinet where Nathan kept his jars of herbal medicines. He hadn't stirred, hadn't spoken, hadn't even lifted his head from a steady regard of his scuffed boot-toes. Till now.
With an immense effort Buck kept his voice quiet and steady. Whatever had happened, he knew it hadn't been Vin's fault; Vin had been shackled, unarmed. But he knew enough about men to know that the tracker was teetering on the very edge of--something--and he didn't dare give Vin a reason to tumble over. If by the grace of God Chris made it through this, Buck didn't propose to be the one to tell him that Vin had...
"What did happen, Vin? How did Chris get it? You ain't said. It ain't like him to turn his back on a man with a gun in his hand."
"He...he 's up...in the loft," Vin explained slowly, his voice taut and frail. "Don't know how...'r when...first I knowed 's...I seen this flicker...somebody movin' just th'other side that hatch in the centerway ceilin'...I looked up...'n'I seen Chris...'n'I knowed, I knowed what he 's gonna do...I screamed to him not to, but he...he swung down out'a there...right in 'twixt me and that other feller...'n'he knocked me out'a line with the gun...he hadta knowed that feller'd fire, just on reflex...hadta knowed...'n'he done it anyways, he jumped down plumb in front of him'n'knocked me out'a line...'n'he took the bullet...he hadta knowed, he hadta...when he fell...I seen his eyes...it was like he said it was okay...he didn't mind...he 's ready'n'it 's okay...'n'he'd sooner it 's him than me...don't he know I didn't never want nobody buyin' my life at the cost of theirs? Don't he know I can't stand to live knowin' he give his life for mine?!"
There was a raw note in his voice, a sound like a sob caught under the words, and Buck thought despairingly, My God, this is worse'n I figured. So many times he had seen Vin take stillness into himself--the tense stillness of Chris Larabee, the hushed stillness of dawn or sundown, the stillness of horses contentedly munching their feed--and somehow transform it into something greater and more beautiful and more soothing. He had envied Vin the peace, the serenity, the stability, the deep abiding calm that seemed as much a part of him as his blue eyes or long sandy-brown hair or slouching silent stride, knowing that it was something Chris needed and something he himself could never supply. He had never yet seen this strong, quiet, intensely private young man, this self-possessed, self-contained, self-reliant hunter of man and beast, so close to the breaking point; hadn't figured he ever would. He didn't know what to do, what to say.
Someone else did. "But if it was his choice, Vin..."
Both men looked around. JD was on his feet, his hat lain on the tabletop. "If it was his choice, you gotta respect that, 'cause otherwise it makes his sacrifice not mean anything. You and Chris was willin' to risk your lives to save Nathan, wasn't you? You think Nathan don't respect and appreciate that?"
"That ain't the same," said Vin.
"How ain't it? Just that you didn't die? But you could'a' done. Or Buck in the Seminole village when he took that saber cut for me--he knew what he was riskin' and he done it anyhow. 'Cause we're brothers, and that's what brothers do. I'd done it for him, if it been th'other way hindmost. You'd done it for Chris if he'd been in a situation like you was--wouldn't you? You wouldn't thought about it no more'n what he done, you'd just done what it was right for you to do."
Vin was shaking his head, his eyes wide and scared and full of pain. "Ain't the same. Ain't the same," he insisted.
"How ain't it?" JD demanded again. And Buck saw suddenly what the kid was trying to do--the same thing he had done with JD a hundred times when JD was just a littl'un: trying to get Vin to say the words out, to speak his fears and force himself to look them in the face, to express what he was feeling in words rather than acting it out in some way that might be self-destructive. Ezra was watching with emerald eyes wide and fascinated and full of a new respect for their youngest, their youngest trying to comfort their next youngest as, perhaps, only he could.
Vin looked a little like a startled deer, ready to bolt. I keep forgettin' he ain't such a lot older'n what JD is, Buck told himself. And he ain't comfortable around people, which means he likely ain't had a lotta experience talkin' about what chews on him. He met JD's eyes a moment. You're doin' fine, boy, just don't give up now. Make him say it, make him face up to the thing he's scaredest of, like I used to do you when you had a nightmare, 'cause I got a notion that to Vin that's just what this is, what's goin' on in his life just now.
And it worked. "Ain't the same!" Vin cried, his voice ragged and tearing in his throat. "I don't wanta be his excuse! If he hurts so bad he wants to die, I understand that, but I won't have him layin' guilt on me for bein' the one that lives so he can go out in a blaze of glory like some damn hero!"
"Now hold on, son," Buck said quietly. He didn't want to interrupt JD when the kid was on a roll--at seventeen JD deserved at least the courtesy of not having people butt in on him--but this was a subject he knew more about than his brother did. "Maybe to you that's what it looked like, but I can tell you, the last thing Chris has ever wanted as long as I've known him is to be a hero. He don't think of himself that way. I watched him in the War and I know. What matters to him ain't what others think of him; it's that he can live with himself on account he's done what he feels is right." As he spoke he made a mental note to find a chance to talk at greater length with the tracker, or get JD or Josiah to do it. "If he hurts so bad he wants to die, I understand that..." Did that mean Vin too had courted death in his time? How could someone as young as Vin know that kind of despair?
"Ain't nobody else got no right to live with theirselves, then?" Vin demanded. "How's he 'spect me to do it, knowin' what he give up for me? I ain't worth it!"
"You are to him," Buck insisted gently. "Just like I hope me'n'JD still are. Just like savin' Nathan was. Just like protectin' that village was, or bringin' order to this town. If it was just plain death he was lookin' for, Vin, he's had three years to choose it. And he ain't, 'cause he don't feel it's right. Man like Chris has gotta make his livin' and dyin' count for somethin', but heroin'? Naw. That ain't it."
"Mr. Wilmington expresses his sentiments crudely," Ezra put in, "but they are no less accurate for all that. The mere fact that you hold your own existence of little worth, Mr. Tanner, does not mean that others cannot place a higher value upon it. Mr. Larabee has lived longer than yourself and known many more men. It may be that he discerns in you some potential which remains hidden from your own perception, and holds it important that you should survive long enough to realize that potential."
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