What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
It was only in 1856 that a broadly-based Republican party finally emerged. It was a sectional, geographic party, with virtually no support in the Southern states. It glorified the middle class as the backbone of the nation, looking down on the permanently poor (who, it thought, were so because of their own failings of character) and distrusting the aristocratic and wealthy. Its strength was greatest in rural areas and small towns; the large cities, with their concentrations of immigrant voters, tended to remain Democratic. But the new party, as it campaigned for power in the '50's, contributed tirelessly to a critique of the South as a land and society both decadent and threatening. This, quite naturally, exacerbated existing tensions, Southerners not being inclined to take such insults lying down.
1856 was a year of almost unprecedented prosperity. Expansion and speculation, particularly over the question of a Pacific railroad, were almost universal. Traditional political differences over economic issues such as the tariff and Federal sponsorship of internal improvements were temporarily engulfed. Thus, the civil war in Kansas came to dominate the Presidential campaign. That spring, about 5,100,000 citizens were eligible to cast a ballot. Two million of them didn't. One observer noted: "It was not an uncommon thing to hear people say--that one party was as good as another...Others, again, disgusted by the low tone of political life--the abuse and vulgarity in which it abounds...do not so much as cast their ballots." By now the national political system had been shattered. In place of two national parties, whose very presence had helped hold an increasingly divided nation together, there existed an increasingly pro-Southern Democratic party, a declining Know-Nothing party, and a sectional Republican party that was on its way to becoming the most formidable political force in the nation. The bonds of Union seemed to have worn very thin. Churches had fragmented along sectional lines. Southerners had withdrawn in increasing numbers from Northern educational institutions. In place of sectional good will, attacks and recriminations filled the air. The one remaining major national institution, the Democratic party, was increasingly subjected to sectional pressures. If this last bond between the sections shattered, could the Union survive it for very long?
In mid-June, the new Republican party held its first national convention in Philadelphia's Musical Fund Hall. It attracted no Southern delegates and only a handful from the border states. The attendees were a mix of old-line Whigs, dissident Democrats, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, and abolitionists. They condemned the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Democratic policy of expansion, and called for "the saving of Cuba" for the United States, a railroad to the Pacific by "the most central and practical route," and the barring in the territories of "those twin relics of barbarism--Polygamy and Slavery." Passing over their leading figure, William H. Seward, who was awaiting a better chance in 1860, they nominated, in Whig tradition, a military hero, the young and dashing John C. Fremont, the "Pathfinder" of the West and leader in the conquest of California--a moderate, an ex-Democrat, and a free-soiler who at the same time had never said anything to alarm the South. He was nominated on the first ballot, though the Whigs would have preferred the more conservative John McLean, an associate justice of the Supreme Court from Ohio. Abraham Lincoln, who at first had held back from the rapidly growing party, now threw in his lot with it, got 110 votes for its vice-presidential nomination (though he didn't win), and gave some fifty speeches for its ticket in Illinois and nearby states.
The Democrats, who had met in Cincinnati two weeks earlier, were riven by dissension, with the Soft-Shells, who opposed the extension of slavery, and the Hard-Shells, or Southern faction (which had many adherents in the North as well), ready to slug each other at the drop of an innuendo. They had rejected Pierce, the hapless victim of so much turmoil. Douglas too was left out because of the damage done by his Kansas-Nebraska Act. The party therefore turned to its old wheel horse, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, who had long sought the nomination. The party condemned nativism and endorsed religious liberty, but it also endorsed Douglas's Act (if not himself) and nonintervention--Congress, it said, should not interfere with slavery in either states or territories. Buchanan favored the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, and believed that only through consideration for the South could the party and the Union be held together.
Southern extremists viewed Fremont's nomination with alarm and foresaw the ruin of their region if he were elected. They expressed fears that the Missouri Compromise would be restored, Kansas become a free state, the Fugitive Slave Law repealed, insurrection and war be kindled in the South, and the amalgamation of the races permitted. Some voiced the belief that a Republican victory would result in the burning of Southern homes and the slitting of Southern throats. Faced with these misgivings, the South could say but one thing: if Fremont should be elected President, honor and interest would demand that the South withdraw from the Union and establish an independent confederacy. To make the situation worse for Oregonians, the Democratic machine in Salem, which had lost the territorial capitol to Oregon City in 1850, was working hard, for the third year in a row, to push through a vote in favor of a constitutional convention and statehood--a measure that caused editors to attack each other's policies and personalities in venomous prose and split the citizenry into hostile factions.Oh, what will you leave your sister, my son?
What will you leave her, my pretty one?
The rings on my fingers, mother.
Make my bed soon for I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down...
Lom Gibbs regarded himself, not without some justification, as a loyal American patriot: he had been with Doniphan's First Missourians in Mexico, and he'd lost a brother fighting with Scott. He'd been a good neighbor to the Larabees till all the trouble about states going out of the Union came up. Lom called Josh a black Republican and a nigger lover, and Josh called him a damned dirty Nullifier and a Copperhead. There were a lot of Democrats of Southern leaning in the state--Breckenridge and Lane were to come mighty close to carrying it in 1860--and Josh felt he was sitting in the middle of the biggest nest of disunionists in it--not just the Gibbses, but Frank McBride and the Sutton family and the rest of them. What was worse, it had an agent of fiery persuasion and agile tongue in his house and indeed his very bed.
It was in the midst of this acrimony that Chris Larabee came home for a visit. He was a month short of eighteen, a young lath of a man with his full adult height but not yet all the spread of shoulders that would be his a few years hence. His eyes shifted from blue to green according to his mood, but there was a warmth in them that Four Corners would seldom see, even though he already had a name as a quick gun, a cool head, and a dogged pursuer; in the last year and a half he had killed six men, five in the line of duty as a shotgun rider for one of the little stagecoach lines that served the Mother Lode country. The most noticeable effect this experience had had on him to date was a wary, all-encompassing awareness of his surroundings and an almost disconcerting grace of movement, for he'd learned enough to know that his youth wouldn't preserve him from reputation-seekers.
Josh and Emma Rose had been married not quite four and a half years, and their son had turned three at the end of April. Emma Rose was twenty-five, a generous, friendly woman known for her hospitality and the pride she took in her home, but given to stubborn wilfullness, gifted with the ability to cut others down to size with words, and inclined to be coldhearted when hurt. Chris vaguely remembered seeing her at church before he left Oregon six years before, but then he'd still been a boy, little inclined to notice the opposite sex. Looking at her with the eyes of experienced youth, he realized that she was very pretty indeed, with vivid blue eyes like chips of the sky, and wavy light brown hair which she scorned to wad up in a net or bun as most grown women did; instead she let it hang loose, tied at the nape with a ribbon like a girl's. She welcomed her stepson warmly and made up a bed for him in the room used by his adopted brother John, who at almost fifteen was the last of the older children remaining at home. But it didn't take Chris very long to realize how tense relations were between her family and his father--or, for that matter, between her and her husband. The election was little more than six weeks away, and the neighborhood was all but split into two armed camps.
John was off with the team, chopping down trees to be hauled in for seasoning before they were split and sectioned, when Chris rode in late one afternoon with a turkey he'd shot. He never did get the straight of what had set Emma Rose off--possibly a visit by her father or one of her brothers--but he could hear her rising tirade from inside the house, and the deeper rumble of his father's voice as he tried to reason with her. He looked around for his half-brother Alec and saw him playing quietly in the dirt with the corncobs that were the almost universal toy of farm children, stacking them like logs to make a crude cabin. Chris shook his head admiringly. It always amazed him how serene the little boy seemed to be, regardless of how his parents clashed; how he was apparently able to withdraw off into his own private little world and ignore everything he didn't understand or wasn't equipped to deal with.
Chris didn't really notice the sickle his father had been sharpening and had carelessly left by the grindstone in his haste to cope with Emma Rose's latest explosion. He was stripping his horse when he heard Alec's wail of pain. He threw the saddle down and ran. About a quarter of the way down from Alec's left knee, bright red blood spurted from a nasty slice on his leg. All farm dwellers had to know something of emergency first aid, simply because there was seldom anyone but themselves to serve as the first line of treatment, and Chris had learned the skills at an early age. Gotta stop that, he thought, and dropped to his knees beside the child. "Okay, sprout," he said, his voice shaky but even and strong. "Take it easy, now. I'm here. Lay still, now, and let me take care of everythin'."
He reached into his pocket for a clean bandanna and laid it over the wound, pressing down on top of it, elevating the leg as he did. Alec was crying in pain and panic. Chris kept on talking to him, applying pressure, hardly noticing when the boy's screams drew Josh and Emma Rose from the house, until his stepmother arrived at his side in a flurry of skirts. "Keep him still, Emma," Chris told her. And she did, soothing and comforting her son as the blood flow slowed and stopped.
"He'll be all right, I think," Chris decided at last, "but he's gonna have to be stitched up. "Run in the house, Emma, and fix up some soapy warm water so we can wash the cut good. And we'll need some iodine and salve if you've got any, and some stout linen thread boiled in a pan of water for the stitches. I can do those."
The woman fled without a word. Chris scooped the little boy up in his arms and strode after her, scarcely aware of his father's stricken look.
An hour or so later he lifted the drowsy Alec into his little trundle bed and stood back for Emma Rose to draw the lightweight crazy quilt up over him and tuck it in with a kiss and quiet words. "I'm grateful to you, Chris," she said softly as she stood. "If you hadn't been there so close by-- I can't believe Josh would just leave a new-sharpened sickle where his son could fall on it."
"Wasn't all his fault, maybe," Chris replied. "Might've had somethin' on his mind."
"Yes, his precious Union!" the woman snapped bitterly. "It's all he thinks of, the Union and the election! Alec and I don't mean a thing beside them. Oh--" and suddenly she was giving way to the tears she had held in check throughout the emergency, sobbing uncontrollably as it hit her full force how close she had come to losing her son. Chris reacted without thinking about it, putting his arms around her and drawing her shaking body against his own, letting her lean into his strength, murmuring soothingly as he had to Alec. The warmth of her, the clean smell of Pear's soap that always hung about her, the way her head fit under his chin and the softness of her hair against his skin, at once disconcerted him and set his heart racing. When she drew back to accept the handkerchief he offered, their two gazes locked. There is a moment in all such relationships when eyes look into eyes and suddenly the world and time no longer exist, only hushed breath and pounding hearts and the awareness of the other person. The blue of Emma's eyes grew incandescant, and Chris's shifted through the spectrum to fire-green.
It was Chris who broke the spell, tearing his gaze from hers. "That wasn't what it felt like," he said.
"Are you sure?" she responded quietly.
"I gotta be sure," he told her, almost curtly. "We can't, Emma. You're Pa's wife."
"And what are you going to do?" she challenged. "Tell him? Set off for California at this hour? I shouldn't ever have married him, Chris, I know that now."
"Well, I ain't something for you to make up your mistakes with," he snapped, and left the room.
But the new awareness they had of each other couldn't be forgotten so easily. Chris did his best, but he was a young man at the height of his potency, and Emma Rose was angry and desperately unhappy. With her advantage in age, it wasn't hard for her to convince him that his father didn't understand or care for her, was cold to her and wouldn't talk to her. The scar into which Alec's wound healed seemed graved as surely on her soul as it was on his leg. Within a week they came together in the hayloft. Afterward Chris was sick at the betrayal of his father, but he could think of no plausible excuse to leave. They had three more encounters before he heard that a deputy was needed down in Stockton, and that gave him the opportunity he was looking for. He said goodbye to Josh and Emma Rose and John and took a mail coach south, bought a horse at Sacramento and was wearing the badge in four days.
Two weeks before the election he got a letter from John. Emma Rose had packed a couple of carpetbags, taken the buckboard and her stash of butter-and-egg money (which, by country tradition, was always the wife's to do with as she pleased), driven herself and Alec down to Eugene City, and bought stage passage south. Her father swore up and down he didn't know where she'd gone, or why, if she wanted to leave her husband, she hadn't simply "come home." Josh was devastated--he'd had what the doctor described as "a mild coronary occlusion"--and John didn't dare leave him alone. He begged his older brother to find the runaways. Chris, who had a terrible suspicion he knew what she'd had in mind, turned in his badge and saddled his horse. He picked up her trail in Sacramento, but not without finding out she was calling herself Rose Gibbs. To his surprise, she'd stayed there only three days, then taken another coach the hundred miles down to San Francisco. He followed, but three weeks' searching produced no solid leads: his stepmother had apparently understood instinctively that the best way to lose yourself is in a large, busy town. In the meantime, of course, the election took place, and Buchanan received 174 electoral votes; Fremont came in second with 114. Millard Fillmore, running on the American Party ticket, did badly, carrying only Maryland. The South wasn't required to make good its threats, but fire-eating Southerners vowed that if a purely Northern party ever elected a President, the South would have no alternative but to leave the Union. Yet the significance of the new party became clear with the demonstration of its power in the election: with Fremont as its candidate and the prohibition of the extension of slavery into the territories as the main plank in its platform, it missed winning a majority by only half a million votes, carrying eleven of the sixteen free states; only in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were Democratic victories achieved, and those only by unspectacular margins. To many it seemed that the party of Jefferson and Jackson had become Buchanan's party, servile to the South and favoring slavery and disunion. Many a man had been an ardent Jacksonian as long as the true line of democracy lay with Old Hickory's party; but when the Jacksonians entangled themselves with the Southern slaveholders, they flocked to Fremont.
Chris did manage, eventually, to learn that a woman and child fitting the descriptions of Emma and Alec had boarded the Butterfield Overland Mail south, in company with a man whom he discovered was a Texas Ranger; he'd come to California as escort for a multiple murderer being extradited home for trial--long-distance interstate extradition wasn't common, but this fellow had apparently massacred two families, including the women and children, and the State was eager to make an example of him. Everyone was much more interested in him than in his escort, and Chris wasn't able to find out the latter's name. He was about to set out in pursuit when he got another letter from John. Their father had had a second heart attack and was dead. By the time Chris could make it back to Oregon he was long since buried, and all that was left for the young man was to accept his share of Josh's estate and make arrangements for John to live with one of their sisters. The trail was cold by then, and in any case there was no husband to bring Emma back to. It wasn't till Chris was helping clean out the house that he came upon the family Bible with the register of Josh and Emma's marriage and their son's birth in it. Curious to see whether any of his siblings had scratched out the runaway's name in entering their father's death, he discovered for the first time his brother's exact birthdate--May 1, 1853--and full baptismal name, which was Alexander Vincent Larabee.Oh, what will you leave your sweetheart, my son?
What will you leave her, my pretty one?
A rope that will hang her, mother,
A rope that will hang her, mother.
Make my bed soon for I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down.
The song drew Chris upward through the layered years of memory, until he found himself blinking his way back to awareness, looking into a pair of blue eyes incandescant with emotion and framed by wavy light-brown hair. "Emma?" he mumbled.
"Naw, cowboy, it's Vin." The young man grinned. "You had us some worried for a spell."
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