What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
"There are far too many people in this world of ours," Josiah told him "who find something uneasily sinful in pure delights. But the manifold gifts of God are there to be delighted in; to fall short of joy would be ingratitude. In spite of generations of preachers, the business of life is living, not dying. And there's a fallacy in all attempts to maintain that eternity is infinitely more important than time--which is, at least, the way to eternity; and it's never been shown--to my satisfaction, at least--that there can be any better preparation for it than doing what our hand finds to do here and now. The Quest is proper for men like Galahad or Percival, for those in whom saintliness is inborn. It's a mere misleading will-o'-the-wisp to the ordinary stained and spotted man, sinful perhaps, yet capable of work useful to the world--the ones Tennyson describes as
With strength and will to right the wrong'd, of power
To lay the sudden heads of violence flat.
The evil of the Quest is that it takes such men from the work they can do and leads them to attempt, needlessly and fruitlessly, what they can't."
Vin said nothing, but his eyes said he was taking it all in, trying to understand. "Newman asserts that it's better the whole world should go to ruin than that the most venial sin should be committed, or that anything should be done that would lead to the commission of such sin. And there's many a sensible and excellent clergyman who might hesitate to contradict him, if he is a Papist, for theology has always been tempted to extravagance on that point. But if we're to refrain not only from doing what is sinful, but from what will produce sin, we must refrain from action altogether--and then we'll never succeed.
"Carlyle taught that a man should be measured, not by a negative standard--absence of fault, error, sin--but by a far nobler standard, the presence of good. The proper question to ask isn't, How few sins has this man committed?, but, How much good has he accomplished? To Browning, too, the world 'means intensely, and means good;' his David in Saul cries, 'How good is man's life, the mere living' --yet David is called one of the greatest heroes of God's army."
Vin's brow creased. Did he recognize any of these names? Probably not. "God understands our difficulties, son, and He's tryin' to help us, not standing around with coals of fire in His hand, waitin' to catch us out. That's why He offers us the promise of repentance. You asked how, if it's all the same God, people can believe so differently. Well, that's all it is, belief. One church, the Unitarians, believes that Adam and Eve made a choice, but that choice was theirs alone, and each of us must make his own choices all through his lifetime, based on the circumstances he finds himself in. And even if we make a bad choice or two, God still loves us, just as a parent still loves his child when it misbehaves. He created us imperfect, gave us intelligence and free will, and wants our allegiance not because of His power and commands, but out of our free choice, as a result of the free will He gives us. Isn't it just as likely they're right, as your aunt was? The apostle James tells us, 'You must perceive that a person is justified by his works and not by faith alone...Be assured then, that faith without works is as dead as a body without breath.' "
Vin shook his head tiredly. "Don't make no sense," he muttered. "'S'all mixed up. Better get it in the neck after a good run than a poor one. Why not just quit fleein' from temptation? If there ain't but one way and most of us is condemned anyhow, why not go heathen?"
Josiah sighed. "You still don't understand, do you? The principles of Christ's teachings are accessible to anyone, and easy to understand. He made a special point of workin' among people His society rejected, like the lepers, who were more feared than, say, folks with smallpox today. He blessed prostitutes and protected the rights of adulterers, sayin' of one, 'He that is without sin amongst you, let him first cast a stone.' He taught forgiveness, tolerance, and charity. The only people He got angry with were the money-changers in the temple. Condemnation of the suffering was no part of His doctrine."
"Then how come God took Ma from me, and then sent me to Aunt Myra afterward?" Vin demanded. "How come he put me with them people that didn't care two cents for me, till I had to run away and find a place with the Peneteka? How come he led me to where Chris was, let us become friends, and then made it so Chris'd near die savin' my life?"
"We live in an imperfect world, Vin, and that's because sin has corrupted things. The world isn't what God intended it to be, and that means innocent people sometimes suffer. But they don't die, or lose friends, or get tyrannized, because God is displeased with them. God doesn't work that way. He doesn't mastermind individual lives. It's health and happiness that He wants for His people. Sickness and sorrow aren't part of His plan. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming them, precisely because we can tell ourselves that He's as outraged by them as we are. Meanwhile, you have a conscience, which is God's voice speakin' inside you. You know what's right in the world. Stand for it, and others will stand with you."
"Like Chris," Vin said, his voice a little steadier now, his shaking less.
"Chris, and me, and Buck, and all of us. A good man is always a good man, no matter what he believes or doesn't. You don't have to accept anything your aunt said--or anything I've said. You'll still be the same man regardless--and I know your heart is good."
Vin put his face down in his hands, his long brown hair falling in a curtain about it. He breathed in and out deeply several times, then tilted his head back for a look at the sky. "Comin' up dawn," he said. "Been out here all night. Best we get back and see how Chris is doin'."
"You want to wash that paint off first?" Josiah asked easily. "I got a canteen--you don't want somebody shootin' you before he notices you're too light to be an Indian, do you?"
Vin sighed. "Reckon I done all I can with it," he said with a shrug. "Up to somethin' bigger'n me now, don't matter what I call it. Let's go."
"Damn, Josiah, where you been all night?" Nathan demanded when the two of them entered the clinic. "Make me take a nap, then don't show up when you's s'posed to so I lose all the good of it--"
"Don't holler at Josiah none, Nathan," Vin interrupted. "Was my fault, not his. I hadta do some talkin' to--to God about Chris, but I don't talk good in church. Josiah done spent the night helpin' me."
"No harm," Nathan grudged. "Ezra came over and stood in for you, said things at the saloon was slower'n cold molasses. He just took off for bed a little while back."
"Chris any better?" Josiah asked.
A hint of hope showed itself in the chocolate eyes. "Seems he's gettin' a tad restless. That means he's workin' his way back to consciousness. Might take him a few hours yet, but he's comin' back to us. No fever yet, and his pulse is better."
"I'll set with him," Vin said. "You all go get some breakfast, maybe sleep a little."
Nathan peered sharply at him. "You eat anythin' since he got hurt? You look kinda pale."
"Buck'n'JD sent me up a supper tray last night," Vin told him, not troubling to mention that his stomach had rebelled after the first two bites and he'd emptied the food out the back window into the alley for anything that might feel like eating it. "I c'n eat anytime. Done my share of fastin', one way or another."
Eventually they agreed, and he got them out the door and walked back to the bedroom. He stood beside the bed and looked down at his wounded friend. Even to his admittedly unschooled eye Chris looked better, his color coming back, his head stirring occasionally on the pillow. "Hey, cowboy," Vin said quietly, "you doin' any better? Don't you reckon you done fretted us long enough? S'pose you could open them eyes and glare at me for gettin' into that spot with Banneker? Buck says that's what his name was." He slacked into the chair with a soft snort. "Funny thing, ain't it? Used to be I's counted one of the best bounty hunters in the business. Now--" and he shrugged. "Comes of stayin' in one spot too damn long, 's what it is. You'n'me, we need to go to Tascosa and get things settled, get this paper off me."
No response. "Hey, what you think of that poetry Ezra was readin' last night? I gotta see can I figure a way to get him to read more of it 'thout lettin' him know I can't hardly tell one letter from another. That's one of them things I ain't told you yet, like bein' Comanche all them years.
"Reckon it ain't all bad, though," he added thoughtfully. "Comanche don't read or write neither, keep all their songs'n'stories'n'traditions just by passin' 'em down by word of mouth. Man can't read none, gets to where his mem'ry holds onto things better. Like I can remember so much of what Ma told me and sung me even though it's twenty year she's been gone. There's a song she used to sing me to help me fall asleep...kinda a strange song to sing a little feller like I was, but I liked it. I's tellin' JD a little of it just yesterday. You ever hear it?" And he began reciting huskily:Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall, my son?
Where have you been, oh my pretty one?
I've been to my sweetheart, mother,
I've been to my sweetheart, mother.
Make my bed soon for I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down...
Chris was dreaming.
If he'd thought about it, it would have seemed more like seeing his life--or at least a significant portion of it--pass before his eyes, but the thinking part of his mind had shut down, leaving only sense and memory and the autonomic workings of his wounded body. So it didn't seem odd to him that he should, on some level, be hearing a familiar raspy Texas drawl half-sing a song he hadn't heard in almost a quarter of a century, or that the words should open the door of memory's vault and lead the pictures of his past forth...Oh, what did you have for your supper, my son?
What did you have, oh my pretty one?
A cup of cold poison, mother,
A cup of cold poison, mother.
Make my bed soon for I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down...
He'd spent the first eight years of his life on a farm in Indiana, though his father had come originally from New York; his grandfather had been a volunteer fifer in the Revolution at the age of thirteen, and at the close of the war received a grant of land in Oswego County, then almost a wilderness. Pa's family were good and honest people, but not at all grand, and his prospects were no more than modest. He was brought up on a farm, but as a boy he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker. By the time he was thirty he was in business for himself, and his business soon improved to the point that he could give up crawling around on other people's roofs and specialize in what he could build at home, in his shop. Beds and trunks and cradles, chairs and tables, occasionally a wagon and cart, and a lot of repairs, chiefly wheels. And his devotion to Ma had few parallels. They used to ride about the countryside together laughing and talking like young lovers, exclaiming about the fields of corn and oats and the songs of the meadowlarks.
Pa had learned his trade well, but he always dreamed of a farm of his own. By the time he'd put away enough money to make a proper start, his boyhood neighborhood was pretty well filled up, and he began to bethink him of the things he'd heard of the varied countryside of western Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois--forest parkland, with scattered trees and patches of open woods, separated by bands of grassland. In 1820 he made his way west, to the so-called New Purchase of central Indiana, an area gained from the Indians two years before. He took up land and met Ma; her father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been born in Virginia, but Grandpa hated slavery, and on coming to Indiana he emancipated his single bondsman. On the way there he had paused in Tennessee, and there Ma had been born. She was nineteen and Josh Larabee thirty-five when they married, but their marriage was happy and harmonious. They raised five daughters and four sons, a couple of the lot being adopted orphans. Chris was the youngest of the "old-fashioned" kids, with one adopted brother who was three years younger.
The Indians knew the fertility of the prairie, and the white settler, seeing no forest to clear, knew it for God's gift to the pioneer. True, the sod was tough, springs were scarce, there was too little timber and no acorns to fatten hogs; but once the sod was broken, the soil grew fabulous corn that fattened them faster than acorns if not better. And so the rich land of the midgrass prairie drew people from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. It got as much as twenty to forty inches of rain a year, the soil was rich humus, and there was considerable sun. Grass grew as high as nine feet, and corn flourished. In summer the grass was spangled with wild roses, bluebells, cornflowers, sunflowers, and shooting star. Sometimes an early frost killed it and only a flash of lightning was needed to start a prairie fire that roared on with tornado force and lit up the sky at night.
The river valleys were filled with tall pecans, hickories, and cottonwoods draped with grapevines. Along the prairie edges plum, persimmon, and crabapple trees grew thick. The meadows were bright with cowslip, Johnny-jump-up, cyclamen and Indian paintbrush, lilies, yellow daisies, and purple mint. In the spring the swamps and woods were lavishly lit by crimson daisies, purple foxglove, red columbine, snowy lily-of-the-valley, mauve adder's-tongue and brilliant fireweed, and the prairie grass exploded with purple coneflower, orange and scarlet lily, shooting star, phlox, rosinweed, oxeye daisies, Indian dyeflower, cowslips, gentian, bluebells, and pink prairie roses. If you took time to loiter in the woods you could find May apples, wood violets, spring beauties, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wake-robin and lady's-slipper.
The Larabee farmstead was located in Rush County, which, with Shelby, was the most prosperous for farming in the entire state. It lay across the Flatrock River, where woods and prairie met, so they could have a good corn patch just by turning the sod, and some woods to hunt in and get rails from. Along the river shores for a mile or two back, the land was hilly and broken, covered with heavy timber, chiefly walnut and beech; beyond that the undulating expanse of the prairies began, and stretched in every direction, dotted by groves, many of them large enough to have names of their own. These were packed with great trees: black, spotted, burr, white, and pin oak, elm, ash, walnut, hard and soft maples, sycamore, linden, several varieties of hickory, cottonwood, black and honey locust, pecan, cherry, and mulberry. On the forest-edged hillsides grazed cattle, sheep, and goats, while hogs snouted in the woods and grunted in the wagon ruts. With stock grazing around they had to fence their corn in, but Pa always said he'd never seen such pasture for cows, and corn grew tall and beautiful; oats and wheat flourished too. The house itself sat out on the prairie, but there were clumps of trees near it, rich fields about it, flowers, strawberries, and running water at hand. The children could take fruit from crab-apple, cherry, plum, and black and white haw trees, besides gooseberry bushes. The bottomlands were full of pecans, pawpaws, and persimmons every fall; hickory nuts and hazelnuts were plentiful, and ducks and geese abounded for the shooting on the nearby pond; once a swan sailed down out of the sky and lived for a time among the rushes of the muddy shore. Fish could be had there too, and in every stream however small, even if only small crappies and mudcats; bluegill, bass, pike, carp and sunfish, suckers, blue and channel cat rewarded the more fortunate angler. Canvasback, mallard, teal, wood duck, brant and goose came and went in great flocks, and the fields and open country were full of quail and prairie chicken. In the bottoms were foxes and panthers, wildcats, rabbits and wild turkeys and squirrels, deer, raccoons, and opossums; occasionally a bear might be met with. But prairie wolves, small as foxes and as quick, watched the sheep and took what they could, and wolves and rattlesnakes still infested the buffalo grass; the former were numerous, very destructive to sheep, pigs, calves and poultry, and even to young colts, and sometimes when driven by hunger they would go into the very villages and snatch their prey from under the eyes of the residents, so that community wolf-hunts would be organized. The children watched their father at work in his carpenter's shop, they had their own riding horses, and in the pasture they flew kites and scanned the distant hills.
Pa was a Jeffersonian Democrat all his life, and a devoted adherent to the causes of Jackson. He hated war and believed it unnecessary; he hated oppression and cruelty, whether to human beings or to animals. He was a man of great charity, and abounding generosities and kindnesses. He spent money generously for magnanimous causes and to help those in misfortune. He was opposed--to the point sometimes of impatience--to all forms of dishonesty, falsehood, thriftlessness and drink. He was a member of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, having reversed the usual custom by joining the group his wife belonged to--it had been founded in her native Tennessee in 1810, as a protest against the cold formalism into which the mother church had fallen--and his religion was so simple and tender and loving that even scoffers who knew him said that if religion was like his it was a good thing. He could tolerate no kind of vulgarity or profanity, and never heard it without giving reproof; he detested the chewing of tobacco, though he smoked a pipe with pleasure. He read and admired Burns, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron; his heroes included Lord Nelson, Adams, Henry Clay, and Jackson; Washington he admired above all others.
Ma's family had known better days, and in Chris's boyhood she still cherished the things that had come from her girlhood years of affluence--her elaborate bombazine and serge gowns, her sealskin sacque, her long Paisley shawl, her black silk shawl with the embroidery and jet beads, the bracelets and exquisite brooches and heavy silk dresses. She didn't have much occasion to wear them, but she always insisted that it was important to remember who you were and where you came from. She had breeding and was known as a person of excellent character; her face was dignified, but not without a certain charm. Her quiet dignity and the faded elegance of her dresses were recognizeable, to their few neighbors, as belonging to "quality;" but she wasn't proud, and she welcomed visitors. When guests appeared, she invariably set a table of fried chicken, boiled ham and boiled beef, potatoes, cabbage, rutabagas, carrots, and onions; hot biscuits and corn bread, wild honey and every variety of preserves and canned berries; tomato pickle, watermelon-rind pickle, pickled cucumbers; berry pie and many kinds of cake, milk and rich cream, and excellent coffee. She never seemed to stop: baking thirty-four loaves of bread for thirteen people (counting the hired man and girl) one day, doing a huge washing the next, weaving carpets and making rag rugs, putting up curtains, spinning and cooking and sewing, churning, ironing, dish-washing, planting, hoeing, weeding, scrubbing, sweeping, dusting, caring for the cows, chickens, and vegetable garden, even mending and varnishing old furniture.
When trouble began to seethe along the Mexican border, Pa saw it as a harbinger of worse things. The annexation of Texas was an issue that aroused many responses. Pa agreed with Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who, though he was a Westerner and a staunch Democrat, one of the party that labelled annexation "expansion," not "aggression" as New Englanders did, considered the whole agitation to be motivated by land speculators, and saw annexation as of benefit chiefly to planter expansionists. He also knew the Texan developments were enormously interesting and encouraging to the slave states, especially the western ones where large-scale plantation operation was reaching its zenith. He decided that the best way to avoid getting entangled in the disputes he was sure would come was to remove himself and his family as far from slavery as he could. That meant the Pacific Ocean, since you couldn't go any further and stay in American territory, and specifically Oregon, where the institution would never be a question. So, in the spring of 1846, before war was even officially declared, the Larabees set out for the Willamette Valley. Pa said they should take only the things they couldn't live without. For him, that meant the plow, the ax, adze, auger, and hammer, all his fine cabinetmaker's tools, the old German cuckoo clock that had hung in the farmhouse where he was born, harness, a grindstone, a crate of chickens, window glass, guns and ammunition, seed corn and seed potatoes and vegetable seed for the garden, the cows, his books, and his precious Amati fiddle. For Chris's oldest sisters--Virginia, Lucy, and Grace, aged twenty, eighteen, and fifteen--it included the coffee mill and candle mold, the butter churn, and a set of six bright-colored Dutch plates, dark blue on white, with a gaudy design of pink flowers, which Grace sewed into her feather bed so they wouldn't be broken. The "little girls," Jenny and Mary, who were ten, meant to take their two penny dolls--only three inches high, with arms and legs that moved, and so certainly not space-takers--the dolls' clothes and beds and quilts and sheets and pillows, their books and their kittens, their hoops and sticks, and their Sunday coral necklaces. The boys thought mostly in terms of livestock, rifles, and their dogs. Ma said they must take clothes, needles and thread, yard goods, pots and pans, dishes, cutlery, the kitchen stove, the spinning wheel, the quilts and sheets and blankets, cuttings from the lilac and the rosebushes, and plenty of flower seeds--delphiniums, candytuft, sweet William, phlox, larkspur, hollyhock, pansies, mignonette, and Canterbury bells. All this Pa agreed they could take. And somehow Ma also got her way about a lot of other things: the Sheraton-type four-poster cherry wedding bed with its tall graceful fluted posts and urn finials, which had been her grandmother's and had been brought all the way from "down East"; the bureau that matched it; the tall clock with her wool yarns packed inside it, the family china wrapped carefully in her quilt pieces, her wedding china and her twelve silver spoons, the canary in his cage slung from the rear wagon bow where he took up no room, the round braided rug, the horsehair love seat, the claw-footed table, the Franklin stove, the cradle that had rocked each infant Larabee in succession, the square rosewood piano, heavy walnut dresser, inlaid wardrobe and music box, the big copper preserving kettles, pewter porringers, the family Bible, a large dictionary, the worn schoolbooks and Noah Webster's Blue-Backed Speller, her damask napkins, her silverware, her secretary with all her best-loved books in it--the gift annuals, the bound volumes of Blackwood's, Don Juan, The Ancient Mariner, the plays of Shakespeare, the novels and epic poems of Scott; the China plate, the old Dutch clock, the figurines and silver candelabras, the old family portrait, the beautiful glass bowl, Grandmother Chaney's rocking chair and the cherry table that went alongside it, her beautiful Paisley shawl from Scotland, and her teakwood chest from India, her grandmother's six fine Chippendale chairs, and her husband's old sea chest packed with Ma's painting box, embroidery silks, crochet hooks, knitting needles, the hair wreath and red plush photograph album, camomile for tea, roots of medicinal herbs--sage, mint, rosemary, thyme, sweet marjoram, pennyroyal, lavender, mint, and catnip--to plant, a young rose tree cut short and tied in a small burlap bundle, her cookie cutters, her pink parasol, the steel knives and forks, the Belleek tea set, and the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, which she spread every night for them to eat from. "We've got to have a home," Ma said. There were four quarts of seed wheat in one of the bureau drawers, too. They had to put a trailer on the wagon, but they took all of it.
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