What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Vin shook his head, unable to think of anything to say. The young man squatted down on his heels, bringing his own eyes to a level with Vin's. Two of his friends got down too and came up behind him, flanking, and one of them spoke to the other. This set off a rattle of a response from the one addressed, and both his friends laughed. Then the English-speaker said to Vin: "Low Horns says you have the heart of a warrior. Day-Rider says your skin is pale and you have pieces of the sky in your eyes, but you are red inside. What is your name? Where is your home?"
"Ain't got none," Vin told him. "Ain't got no family neither. Had some that said they was, but they didn't want me."
"So you come to Peneteka country? Why? Do you think we will want you?"
"Don't know what I was thinkin'. Just hadta get away." Then he added: "My name's Vin, Vin Tanner."
The young man spoke over his shoulder to his friends, presumably translating what Vin had said. There was an exchange of talk, and Vin waited for the knives to come out. Then the young man said: "I am Goes Ahead. My father is Eagle-That-Sees-Afar. Do you want to come to our lodges and be a Peneteka? My mother and father will make you their son too, and we will teach you to ride and hunt and fight."
Vin frowned. "Ain't you gonna scalp me?"
"Comanches do not scalp Comanches. You are Comanche inside already. Courage like yours should not be wasted."
"I ain't kin of yours," Vin protested. "How can you want me when my own blood don't?"
Goes Ahead snorted. "White people are blind and stupid. That is why Comanches ride rings around them. If they do not see what you are made of, all the better for the People. We have better uses for a spirit like yours. And your sky-eyes are puha--power. To have you as one of our band will bring us good luck." He spoke to Low Horns and Day-Rider and they got up onto their ponies and pulled back, and the others did too, opening the ring, leaving Vin free to go in whatever direction he preferred. Then Goes Ahead jumped onto his pinto and held out his hand and one moccasined foot. "Come, nibabi." It was, as Vin would learn, the Comanche word for "my brother."
Vin suddenly knew what he wanted--knew he was wanted, just as Goes Ahead insisted. He reached up, put his hand in the warrior's and stretched, using Goes Ahead's moccasin for a mounting step as the young Comanche pulled him up. He settled on astride the pinto's loins, his arms circling Goes Ahead's waist.
The hunting party was kind to him from the first. They shared the fresh meat of their kills freely with him, as well as the Mexican panola of which Comanches were very fond, and the mesquite-bean meal and pemmican they used as trail rations. At night Goes Ahead wrapped him warmly in a buffalo robe and slept with his own back pressed against Vin's, sharing his body heat. To Vin it was all a blessed unbelievable relief from the tyranny he had known at home. Still, he wasn't used to long journeys ahorseback, least of all without a saddle, and he was stiff and sore by the time their journey ended in the Indian village. People came running at sight of the white boy clinging to his escort, jabbering in astonishment, wondering at the unexpected fact of what had announced itself as a hunting party coming home with a child of alien blood, and one moreover who was neither treated nor behaving like a captive.
Goes Ahead regally ignored them all, letting his pinto pick its way through the village until he pulled up before a double lodge of two tipis, each with a separate door flap, one for the owner, his senior wife, and her minor children, the other for the younger wives and theirs. Both were painted with spidery decorations and had two encircling stripes of orange painted entirely around the buff-colored exterior. Rows of animal hooves hung down the outside, feathers fluttered in the wind and a buffalo tail was tied to one of the poles. The main lodge was fully eighteen feet across, larger than many cabins Vin had seen, its inside walls painted in designs of queer characters and of Comanches hunting and fighting. Iron pots and brass kettles, rawhide parfleche boxes for clothing and other goods, wooden bowls and utensils were just a few of the things Vin made out in the uncertain light of the central fire. At the back, Goes Ahead's father waited in dignity for his son's return.
Eagle-That-Sees-Afar was a mature man of fifty or so, his braids wrapped in rich beaver fur, two strings of bear claws hanging down on his chest. He was, as Vin learned later, an important man in the band; not a chief, but the owner of many horses, more than four hundred, and with many strong medicines. Goes Ahead's mother, Water Star, who had Mexican blood, was only his second wife, but she was his favorite--that she wore white buckskin, which among the Comanches was a luxury item and rare, proved this. She had rings on every finger, copper-wire bracelets around her arms, a silver necklace with turquoise set in each link, jingling silver earrings and bells on her moccasins. As Goes Ahead had predicted, she took to Vin right away. After exclaiming a while over his soft wavy hair and sky-colored eyes, she fed him a sweet mush of honey and mesquite-bean meal and put him to bed in a heap of buffalo robes and Three Point blankets elevated six inches off the ground by rawhide slats laid across two short cedarwood legs, with a buckskin pillow stuffed with long, soft buffalo hair mixed with feathers of wild gamebirds. In the morning there were ashcakes and steaming broth, and then Water Star and her oldest daughter, much to Vin's embarrassment, took off his tattered clothes and burned them and spent a couple of hours holding tanned skins up to his body, measuring and chattering to each other and trimming off pieces. Goes Ahead gave him a length of blue cloth for a breechclout until his new clothes should be ready, which took less than a day, and translated for him while Eagle-That-Sees-Afar gently questioned him about his family and journey. Both men looked grim when he spoke of the floggings he'd experienced as if they were the most ordinary thing in the world, which, of course, they were to him, but not to Indians, who never beat their children.
Vin's hair wasn't long enough to dress in any acceptable Comanche fashion, but the women parted it halfway down the center and painted the part red, and Goes Ahead fashioned a short braid of the rear lock and tied a single blue feather in it. At last, his face painted in red, green, and yellow, dressed in leggings ornamented with beads and glass and red lattice designs, his moccasins decorated with skunktails, strings of blue beads, and small metal jinglets sewn onto the heels, strings of beads and a necklace of abalone shells looped around his throat, a beaded headband fastened around his brow to hold his hair back, and a cut-down yellow-painted buffalo robe with border and center-back designs in red, black, and white slung over his shoulder, Vin was brought out of the lodge and introduced to his new people. His ears were pierced, a feast was served, and Eagle-That-Sees-Afar, wearing his medicine headdress of a wolf-head with grinning teeth combined with feathers, presented him with two ponies to be his own, a buckskin and a piebald, as well as giving gifts in quantity to the guests in honor of his newfound son. Because Vin insisted that he must never forget he was "a Tanner," he was given a Comanche name that meant He-Tans-Skins.
He lived as a Comanche for the next half-dozen years, learning their language and customs, hunting and catching and taming wild horses with Goes Ahead and his other "brothers," even raiding, though somehow or other he was never invited on any war parties whose intended target was whites. He took part in their feasts and dances and learned to paint his face, not only for war, but for special occasions and when guests came. He absorbed the Indian reverence for the land and its creatures, the belief that people should live in harmony with nature and never take more of its bounty than they needed to survive. He learned to know and love good horseflesh: though horseracing was by far the most popular sport and pastime in white Texas, and a good horse could earn considerable money (or other valuables) for its owner, Uncle Jesse had never succumbed to the temptation to have, or acquire, horses he couldn't really afford; while not as strict in his Presbyterianism as Aunt Myra, he had held gambling and wagering a sin, and preferred not to have stock on his farm which might lead him into it. And he learned to admire Nature, to see it as a force to which he should attune himself, not an obstacle as did most white frontiersmen. In the process of so attuning himself, he discovered a deep peace and serenity that Aunt Myra's stern, forbidding Christianity had never given him, a calm and stability that became an inextricable part of his soul.
His early wanderings had given him a knowledge of the wild and its ways which many white boys his age couldn't match, and a leg up on the lessons the Comanches had to teach him. And although Indians rarely had the ammunition to waste in target practise, he didn't need it: he had already developed a keen eye and steady nerves from using his homemade bow, and with a gun had learned not to miss, just as his cousin Johnny had. The Comanches found him an apt pupil and as ready to bear discomfort in silence--another lesson learned in Aunt Myra's house--as any of their own boys. They taught him to ride, to use a knife for both fighting and throwing, to stalk and track beyond anything he had figured out for himself, and to take care of himself when he was alone in any kind of extremity.
Although a knowledge of Spanish was widespread among Comanches, Eagle-That-Sees-Afar encouraged his white son to keep his English, practising it by using that language whenever he was alone with Goes Ahead. "It is good for the People to have some among them who speak the white language," Eagle told him. "Already we have made more treaties with the whites than ever we did with the Mexicans. In the future, we will probably make more. It will be good not to have to depend on interpreters who may mangle the words that are said, out of error or malice. If the young men of the People can speak the white tongue, our interests will be well served."
He was comfortable with Indian ways as he had somehow never been with whites. He respected them, he felt at home in their world, and he found comfort in their beliefs. But deep inside, where it mattered, he wasn't one of them, and never would be, and he knew it. And yet when, in the end, he returned to the ones who called themselves "your own people," he found he understood them even less well than he had before he left. He couldn't accept lying, which seemed to come so easily in white society, because Indians didn't lie: they had nothing to lie about, naturally. Their problems were all environmental--weather, hunger, enemies, predators, disease, the land itself. You can't lie to your environment, or lie to yourself about it. If you try, it kills you. That was one lesson Vin had learned early and well, and it was one of the things that made him so good at what he did. And by much the same token, he couldn't understand how people could say they believed something, and then not live by it. Indians always lived their beliefs. Yes, they killed their enemies, sometimes in very protracted ways, but they were quite frank to admit that that was what one was supposed to do with enemies. None of this business of forgiving, or of turning the other cheek, or of walking two miles with a man who forced you to walk one.
He was never treated as other than a full member of the tribe, one of the People, yet he was too old when he came to them to forget his past, and at first this had caused him much unhappiness. It was not easy to be different, and the choice had not been his. But he remembered something Eagle-That-Sees-Afar had told him. "My son, I would not have wished this for you, but I can see the signs in your eyes. Your road will be long and hard. You will know how it is to live in two worlds. You will know great sadness. But you will also know of things others cannot--hidden things, powerful things. It is a fair bargain. Learn to walk your own path wherever it leads, and be unafraid."
"What things do you speak of, Father?" Vin had asked.
"That is not yet clear to me," the man replied. "My guardians have told me that in you I raise a son who will see and know more than most boys of the People see and know. They have told me that it is my task to make you ready for the things that lie before you, to teach you the skills you will need. One night in a dream they showed me a young wolf who sat in the midst of a circle of crows, six crows black as night. 'This is your son,' they said to me, 'with those who will defend him, those for whom his sky-eyes will be long and keen.' Another time I saw you grown to a man, not a tall man but slender and strong, with your hair long about your shoulders and a rifle resting on the ground before you, your hands crossed on the muzzle. Beside you I saw a length of shadow with the shape of a man. I could not see a face, but I knew without being told it that this was a living man, one who lives today as we speak, who will walk into your life one day and bring you comfort. And in yet another dream I saw you grown again, with a young boy sitting at your feet, a boy with hair as black and sleek as a Comanche's, listening as you spoke of the animals and their ways. I saw you standing with a white man whose eyes were green and quick like the eyes of a fox, and who held fire and smoke in the palm of his hand. I saw you laughing with yet another white man, a long man who smiled easily but whose heart was filled with a power that made him fight for those who were weak and used unjustly. You will have your own good life in time. Do not despair."
It was a long time since Vin had remembered Eagle's words, but now, alone in the silent clinic, keeping watch over the man who had inexplicably become his closest friend, he realized that his Indian father's dream had been true. Somehow Eagle had seen Chris, JD, Ezra, Buck; there was no mistaking the descriptions. Why didn't I know it when I first seen 'em? he wondered.
Maybe, he reflected, he just hadn't dared to hope that the dream had been true. Maybe he'd been too long back among whites to accept that dreams could foretell the future. Or maybe it was just that he had learned, upon his return to white society, to erect a shell around his heart. All you got out of trusting folks, it seemed, was hurt. They turned on you, or used you, or scorned you for being what they and your past had made of you--or else they were taken from you, as Ma had been, or you from them, as he had been from the People. Most of his life he had walked alone, and he had come to the conclusion that being alone was just the way a man was supposed to be. He stood or fell on his own, lived or died on his own, alone, without warmth or comfort to make the cold hard world an easier place. Finding six men who were willing to offer that warmth and comfort, to share their strength with him, and to give their total trust and acceptance, had shaken him, left him bewildered and disoriented, certain for the first month or so that it was some kind of dream or trick, that this couldn't be real, couldn't be what it felt like, what he suddenly realized he desperately needed it to be. Friendship. He had heard the word spoken in four different languages and had wondered if it described a reality that existed in the world, had wondered what it would feel like to have some.
And it all began with Chris; if Chris hadn't been there that first day, if they hadn't gone to Nathan's aid together, he would never have known any of it. How would he be able to bear Four Corners if Chris wasn't there any more? He would have to leave, have to give up this wondrous nourishing thing that had given his life a richness he had never suspected it could have. Chris must not die. Nathan would do the best he knew, Vin never doubted that, but surely it wouldn't hurt to recruit him some help.
/So how come you didn't go in the church with Josiah'n'them? It's Chris's God they was talkin' to. Wouldn't his own God be liker to help him?
/But it ain't your God no more. Ain't been in a long spell. You lost all your faith in that notion a long time ago. And you won't be a hypocrite and pray to somethin' you don't believe in.
/Long time since you talked to your guardians too, but leastways they never turned on you. Done you some right good, back then. Cared about you some, seemed like. More'n the white man's god would, to hear Aunt Myra talk about him. Hell, you ain't altogether a white man yourself no more.
/Wonder if you know what you are. Not a white man, not a Comanche, not even a halfbreed. Nothin'. Nowhere.
/Nowhere but here. This here's home. This man in the bed is home.
/And you gotta do whatever you can to save him. Like he done you.
When JD came to relieve him at nine, grumbling softly about his big brother's insistence that he take an early watch so he could get a decent night's sleep, Vin went down to the stable and put the bridle on Peso, not troubling with the saddle. He borrowed one of the stable lanterns and led the horse to his wagon, where he spent a few minutes rooting around in his packs until he found the one he wanted. It had been a long time since he had needed it, and he took the time to assure himself it still contained everything he would need. When he was sure, he threw it over Peso's back and mounted, turning the gelding's head toward the mountains.
Buck had volunteered to take the bedside watch after JD, leaving the wee hours, when a man's energy was likeliest to falter, to Nathan and Josiah. The ex-preacher had prudently decided to get some sleep while he could, and had just blown out the lamp in his room at the back of the church when he heard the soft, steady clop-clop-clop of a horse's hooves passing by outside. He frowned to himself. It was early for any rider to pull out of town, even if this had been Saturday night, which it wasn't, and late for a family, even if the horse had been drawing a buggy or wagon, which it obviously wasn't. Peering out his window, he was just in time to make out Peso, with Vin sitting up bareback, hatless, his shirt and buckskin jacket stripped off even though the mercury was already no higher than sixty, and what looked like a small parfleche--the decorated skin envelopes Indians used to carry their personal belongings--slung across the brown's withers.
Josiah watched the horse blend into the darkness and wondered where Vin was going and why. He'd already gotten an earful from Buck about Vin's behavior earlier today--his near-breakdown in the clinic, the peculiar way he'd refused to enter the church. (And now that Josiah thought about it, he couldn't recall Vin ever coming into the building since the day they'd met.) And it bothered him that Vin wasn't staying in town; how did he expect the others to find him if Chris's condition changed? Something decidedly odd was happening, and Josiah found himself genuinely worried for Vin's emotional health.
He quickly put his shirt and vest back on, grabbed his hat and serape, and made his way to the stable to get his horse. The rain had ended about an hour ago, leaving a kind of glaze on the surface of the narrow, little-used trail that wound past the church and headed up into the foothills behind the town, and although the trail usually showed almost no detail of tracks, tonight Peso's hoofprints were cleanly cut into that glaze. No other fresh tracks competed with them, and the moon, which was only a day or two short of full, gave ample light by which Josiah could see to follow them.
Vin was out of sight and earshot alike by the time Josiah got after him, but he wasn't making any effort to hide his trail. The depth and spacing of the tracks told the big man that he was holding an easy pace, a steady jog that any healthy horse could keep up all night. The road, which led only to a few small homesteads, swung out after about ten miles to avoid having to climb a ridge, and here Peso's tracks left it. Josiah checked and climbed down, eyeing the sign. He could see where the hooves had dug in at the bottom of the slope, where stones had been disturbed from their beds and sent tumbling down the pitch. He squinted up toward the spine of the ridge and nodded thoughtfully to himself, then tied his horse at the foot and started up, knowing he could make the climb more quietly that way. He was beginning to think he knew what Vin was doing, and if he was right, the last thing he wanted to do was spook the boy.
Vin had guided Peso to the top of the ridge, clinging tight with thighs and knees and a hand twisted through the gelding's mane as he grunted and scrambled up the steep, rocky pitch, until he came to the place Vin had remembered, a sort of hollow surrounded by boulders and brush, screened and hidden from anything except a bird or a bat. He slid down and set to work gathering twigs for a fire, laying them out neatly with the lightest pieces underneath, leaving an easy access where he could thrust a flaming stick in and light the pile when he was ready. He laid his parfleche out on the bare ground and removed the things he needed, arranging them carefully on the buffalo-hide surface. Choosing some small clay containers from the assortment of items, he coaxed the stoppers from their mouths with deft fingers and settled himself comfortably cross-legged, facing west over the waiting pile of fuel.
He painted his face and chest with white clay, the paint of a man who had wolf medicine. Then, to remind the spirits that he had served the People as a warrior, he painted his hands red from fingertips to wrists, the sign that he had touched a living enemy in battle, and laid slanted stripes of black and red across his face. Carefully stoppering his paint pots so the contents wouldn't dry out, he lifted reverently from the parfleche's surface a small pouch of beautifully worked deerskin which he hung about his neck. This was his medicine; in it were the things of power his dream had instructed him to find--the fresh-cast skin of a snake, a blue stone of the same color as his eyes, the claws of a hawk, pinches of earth from a riverbank and a mountain, and the gift his guardian had left for him after revealing itself, the one that had been there when his dream ended, the one that could not have been on the hilltop before, because he would have seen it when he first got there: the two velvety ears of a yearling wolf.
He looked up at the sky, where the clouds had all but cleared away completely, revealing the face of Mother Moon, the guardian of warriors. Her light was cool and soft and silver; she eased the hurt of his heart. "Look down on me, Mother Moon. Hear me, my heart is crying..." he whispered in the Comanche tongue.
He filled his bone pipe with dust-dry tobacco. He took out his hardwood fire drill and tamped dry Spanish moss into the hole in its wooden block. He inserted the tip of the drill in the hole and began twirling it between the palms of his hands. It was a slow process and he sang to himself as he worked, thinking how he had done this same thing when he first went up onto a high place to seek his power. There were easier ways of making a fire, of course, but the old ways were best when a man was seeking spirit help.
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