What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Chris was lying back against his stacked pillows, looking worn out; he opened his eyes at her entrance. "Nathan got somebody out there?" he asked.
"Yes, two men. He said one had a bullet crease. How are you feeling?"
"Tired," the gunfighter admitted. "Nathan's had me movin' my leg, tryin' to put a little weight on it; he says he thinks the swelling's goin' down, but I can't just start walkin' around on it all at once." He glared at a sturdy Mexican cane of an ocotillo cactus stick that leaned against the wall next to the bedstand. "God, I hate this. I don't regret savin' Vin for one minute, but bein' helpless just gravels the livin' hell out of me."
"Speaking of Vin," Mary observed, ignoring the language, "I got a reply back from San Antonio."
Instantly Chris was alert. "That was fast. You only sent the message on Friday, and this is Monday."
"Maybe there was someone at Ranger Headquarters who knew the man you were looking for, or knew where to find his records." Mary drew a familiar envelope from her sleeve. "I haven't opened it yet, since technically it's an answer to your question, not mine. Do you want to read it or shall I?"
"Go ahead," Chris invited. "Can't see any reason you shouldn't know what's in it."
The woman slit the flap with her thumbnail and pulled out the flimsy. Chris listened closely as she read aloud:
"John Will Tanner, Sergeant, Texas Rangers, born 1829, enlisted 1854, promoted 1855, assigned extradition escort duty to San Francisco 1856. Retired upon return from California to land grant in Red River Valley. Volunteered to assist his former Captain in dealing with bandit raids near Laredo--" Chris nodded thoughtfully; he had heard that the Rangers were known for sticking together, and often returned to help one another even after they'd left the service-- "and vanished while scouting for the enemy, September, 1857." Less than a year, Chris thought. I hope she figured it was worth it. "Notice of presumptive death sent to widow, Rose Tanner, Sherman, Texas. Records indicate brothers, Malcolm, Jake, and Barnaby, domiciled respectively in Nacogdoches, Parker County, and Palo Pinto County, and sister, Myra Nealy, living with husband outside San Antonio. Served throughout enlistment gallantly and courageously."
"It doesn't mention Vin," Mary pointed out.
"It wouldn't," Chris replied. "I figure he was only about five in '58; the Rangers would contact his mother, or his guardian. But he told me they lived in Sherman, and he mentioned an aunt in San Antonio, so this must be the right man." A land grant, he was thinking. Even if he and Emma weren't legally married, he could still have left her the land in his will, and as her son by blood, Vin would inherit it after she died. It would've had to be administered for him by the court till he turned twenty-one, but legally it's probably still his. By now the stock's likely been run off or absorbed by the neighbors' herds, but it could be restocked, or the land could be used as collateral to get him a good lawyer for Tascosa. It'll be worth lookin' into. And it's not likely there were two Rangers sent to San Francisco in the same year, so this almost has to be the one Emma left California with.
Mary was watching him with a blend of patience and newshound curiosity. "Why did you want to know about him?" she asked. "Vin didn't ask you to find out, or you wouldn't have wanted me not to let anyone know about the telegram."
"It's a long story," he reiterated, "and I don't figure I got the right to tell it to you before I talk to Vin. And I'm not gonna do that till I see whether my back's gonna heal up on its own--I don't want to put any more burdens on him just now. But I'm obliged to you for getting the information."
She was silent a moment, watching his hard face, thinking not for the first time how much he must hide behind it, thinking of what Buck had told her the day he was shot, that his old friend was healing. She wondered if whatever had moved him to ask this favor of her had anything to do with that healing process. But she remembered his clipped response to her overtures after she'd learned of his family's deaths, and knew better than to ask. "I'll leave it here," she said, "and get back to the office. I'm glad I was able to help, even if I don't know why."
For an instant she thought he was embarrassed at his own taciturnity, but habit was strong, and he nodded a thanks-and-goodbye as she turned toward the door again.
To her relief, the two men were gone when she stepped out into the examining room, and Nathan was cleaning things up. "Was it what you thought?" she asked him.
"Yeah, a bullet crease, no mistakin' it," he agreed. "Other fella said it was a huntin' accident, he mistook his partner for a deer. I told 'em it could heal up in a week if he kept it clean and wrapped up."
"That will be worth a few lines in the next edition," Mary observed. "How is--Chris doing?"
The healer straightened from his task. "A lot better than I'd dared hope," he confessed. "He's recoverin' movement and sensation and it ain't even been a week yet; the books say that's usually an indication of eventual recovery of most function, though it may take him six months or more to get back to optimum. A lot depends on just how much damage was done, though I'd put his comin' back on the 'way low side of that figure, seein' how good he's doin'. One thing I'm sure of is that it wasn't a direct cut to the spinal cord itself; it could've been a swelling, like an internal inflammation, and the poultices and teas I been usin' were enough to reduce it. Or maybe it was a tiny spinal fracture pinchin' on a nerve, and now it's healin'; I ain't seen that before, but I read about it."
"How much longer do you think he'll need to stay in bed?"
Nathan shrugged. "Depends on which thing was causin' the problem. I can't honestly say; we'll just have to wait and see. But I think I can predict that he'll recover fully, judgin' by the progress he's made so far--if he listens to me and takes care of himself."
She smiled. "I imagine he's a terrible patient."
"You got no idea, Miz Travis. Good thing that Larabee glare don't no more work on me than it does on Vin."
Mary laughed and went out, much heartened by the news. She would have to tell her father-in-law that his chief regulator would be able to return to duty in time. He would be pleased to hear it.
Four Corners was primarily a cowtown, and any cowtown would, as a rule, have at least two saloons: one for businessmen, drummers, ranch owners, Army officers, and the better class of gamblers, the other, tougher and less pretentious, for working stiffs and drifters. The latter was also likely to be somewhat hostile to law and order, since the men who visited it had often been wanted for something or other. It didn't take Lance and Sahoni too often to find that there were actually two of the type, the Jacks Up and the Demon Rum, and the third was the kind of place they wanted. The weekend crowds had gone, leaving unmistakeable signs of their presence which the owner and swamper were still cleaning up, but business was business, and the two outlaws were able to get a bottle of whiskey without waiting more than a minute. Knowing as they did that Larabee was laid up and Wilmington back in Corona, dead or injured, their next care was to find out whatever they could about the two other peacekeepers specifically mentioned in the newspaper article. "Hear you got a sheriff in this town name of JD Dunne?" Lance asked the Rum's owner.
"Yeah, that's right, but he's out of town just now." The man eyed his questioner with a sort of predatory anticipation. "You boys got...business with him?"
"Naw," Lance replied with a shrug. "We knew a feller by that name up in Montana a few years back. Thought this might be him."
The owner laughed. "Not likely. Our JD Dunne come out here straight from the East not three months ago. Hell, he's just a kid. Wears a stupid hat like a drummer's. But he does know how to shoot. Got two ivory-handled Lightnings and uses 'em both by turns."
"No, that don't sound like our friend," Lance decided, and poured himself a drink. The owner went off about his business, and the two outlaws exchanged satisfied looks. Larabee down, Wilmington and Dunne both out of town; that just left Tanner. He'd be outnumbered ten to one. They could take him as soon as he showed himself in response to their threat, then Virg could go on to deal with Larabee while the rest of them helped themselves to the portable valuables.
The two men had a couple of drinks, spacing them carefully--in their line you couldn't afford to get drunk in a strange town--and then paid their score and went out for a casual stroll around, locating promising targets like the bank, express office, and best saloon, studying the people on the boardwalks, noticing whether any of them appeared to be likely to present a spontaneous threat to anyone not directly confronting them. Given that it was Monday, the general impression they got was negative. Women, children, shopkeepers and clerks was what they saw the most of. They didn't even catch a further sight of the long-haired man in the buckskin jacket whom Lance had noticed in front of the big saloon, though that one they felt sure might pose a threat.
What they didn't know was that Vin had anticipated they might be on watch for him. He'd watched from a distance as they went from the stable to Nathan's clinic, waited under the stairs until they (and Mary) had left, and gone up to quiz the healer about them. Dissatisfied with what little he learned, he'd checked around town until, by cautiously peering in past the doorframe of the Demon Rum, he got them located, and then had taken to the roofs, a favorite tactic of his. He'd waited behind the Rum's false front until he saw them emerge, and had been tracking them ever since, leaping lightly from one building to another, never touching ground. They didn't seem to be doing anything that could be construed as sinister, but Vin didn't like the smell of them.
The legitimate businesses had closed down, the sun was no more than forty minutes or so above the horizon, and Vin was beginning to want something to eat when the pair finally turned toward Yosemite's as if to reclaim their horses. The stable was on the side of the street opposite him, which meant he'd have to descend to firm ground and circle around if he wanted to keep them in sight and make sure they were leaving town. He ran lightly down the backslope of the roof he was on (it was the cafe's), swung himself down onto the ell at the back where the kitchen was, and dropped from there to the packed earth. It was thus that he missed seeing the two horses, one ridden, one on lead, appear just down the south trail.
Lance and Sahoni had just gone into the barn to saddle up when JD reached the doors, and Yosemite, who had been engaged in lighting the overdoor lantern and hauling it up on its rope, hastily tied it off and hurried to take Seven's bit as the young sheriff, his body fallen into the hunched unconcern that indicated a long ride, slid wearily out of the saddle and clutched momentarily at the stirrup leather for support, unsteady on his feet. Both mares were blowing heavily and streaked with lather. "Sheriff Dunne!" the stable owner exclaimed. "What happened to you? Where's Mr. Wilmington?"
His voice carried clearly to the two outlaws inside the barn, and they exchanged quick looks, each knowing what the other was thinking. Clearly, if Wilmington and Dunne were coupled in the stableman's mind, they'd been together--which meant in Corona--and Dunne had just come from there. Wilmington knew the gang had been heading for Four Corners and why; he must have lived at least long enough to pass the news to Dunne and urge him to return with the word. It was imperative that Dunne not be given the opportunity to find Tanner and share his news. The men sidled swiftly toward the rear door.
JD leaned against his little bay, summoning his reserves. "It's--a long story--Yosemite. You seen Vin?"
"Not since he come by to check on Peso, about two," the older man admitted. "But Peso's still in his stall, so Mr. Tanner's likely around town somewheres."
"I'll--find him--then," JD said. He patted the two horses, whispering praise to them. "Take care of these ladies, okay? They done a real good job for me."
"You can count on it," Yosemite promised, and took the weary horses' reins to lead them into the barn.
JD paused a moment or two to stretch his back and rub some of the stiffness out of his thigh muscles before starting slowly down the street. At this hour Four Corners was in a hushed stage of transition: the shops and stores had all closed around six and the owners and help headed home for supper, while those citizens likely to patronize the various resorts weren't yet on their way there. The streets were all but deserted, and no one saw the two lurking figures in the alley beside the barn, or saw them pounce upon JD and haul him back into the shadows, a hand clapped over his mouth.
JD tried reflexively to fight, but he was exhausted and outnumbered as well as outweighed. There were apparently at least two of the muggers, for when he reached for a Colt a strong hand captured his wrist and twisted his arm painfully up behind his back, tearing a sharp gasp from him which was muffled by the palm across his face. He twisted wildly and caught a glimpse of dark skin, the glint of a silver earring, a mane of long creamy hair and a light-colored fringed jacket. He knew from Buck's descriptions that he was in the hands of two of Sablett's men.
"What do we do with him?" hissed a voice, apparently that of the dark-skinned man. "Kill him here?"
"No," came the measured, thoughtful reply. "Stableman saw him come in, saw us too. His dead body turns up so close, there'll be questions asked. Maybe better we take him with us. Maybe we can use him as a hostage. Besides," and the other voice became a sinister purr, "I ain't had any good fun since them two rurales outside Cananea."
"He won't last you near as long as they done," was the other's observation, and JD's heart lurched--were they contemplating torture?
"Man has to make do with what comes to hand," the second outlaw said lightly. "Let's tie and gag him, then you hold him while I fetch the horses."
"How about not," suggested a soft raspy drawl a little farther down the alley, and a sharp ratcheting sound betrayed a lever-action firearm being cocked.
JD's captors whirled, pulling him with them. The shadows were thickening by the minute, but there was just enough light for the young man to pick out the familiar stance, the blurring outline of a loose jacket, the hair falling long and unbound under the dipped brim of a light-colored hat. Vin, thank God!
Steel whispered against leather, and with a bright flash a knife blade appeared in the blond outlaw's hand, the edge close against JD's throat. "Back off," the man ordered, "or I'll kill him."
"You do that and I'll shoot you where you stand," Vin said quietly. "He won't do you no more good if he's dead."
"There's still two of us," was the reply, as the dark-skinned man drew a cherry-butted handgun from his cross-draw holster. "Give it up, tiebo." JD didn't recognize the word and found himself, to his astonishment, wondering what language it was and what it meant.
Twenty feet down the alley, Vin's heart skipped a beat at the Comanche word for "white man." He took a long careful breath and replied in the language of the Nemmena. //"I am Peneteka, and tsukup--an experienced warrior. Are you afraid to face me as a man, that you hide behind a young boy, wa-ai'h [maggot]?"//
The blond exhaled in a short, harsh, angry breath. //"I will have your scalp for that, nah-ro-eep [horse droppings],"// he growled, and shoved JD into his partner's arms. //"Come and die."// He moved forward, crouching, his knife at waist level, cutting edge up, the blade flat to his fingers, thumb held under the guard, bracing the handle and pressing it into his palm.
Vin moved swiftly to respond, setting his mare's leg against the stable wall and drawing his own Bowie from his boot-top. He had hoped, by appealing to warrior pride, to prod this man, obviously like himself reared in a Comanche lodge, into losing caution, and it had worked, but he knew he had to finish it quickly. A knife could be terribly effective in a saloon encounter, but in the dark alley neither of them could see to fight well. In any case, many knife fighters used a tactic of shallow, flicking slashes with the point of the blade, never getting too close, until in a matter of minutes their man was bleeding from perhaps two dozen gashes and growing steadily weaker; by the time he realized what he was facing it was too late for him to have much hope of winning.
So Vin went in fast and low, his blade almost at ground level, and struck upward at the softer part of his foe's body, where no bones would deflect the blow. He drove the blade in by an underhand thrust, edge-up, at the abdomen; Lance tried to parry, but succeeded only in deflecting the blade a little to the side, the tip cutting a long slanting gouge before it caught on his hipbone and tore out. The wound wasn't deep, but the pain and blood loss shocked the man, throwing him off his game. Vin had recoiled like a snake when he saw he'd missed his target; now he went in again, weaving, crouching, and a quick upthrust under the ribs finished the job as the ten-inch blade probed upward into the heart. It happened so fast that JD, good as his eyes were, hardly understood what was happening: he saw the flash of the knives, saw Lance's uneven backstep as the first blow caught him, then a fast scuffle and the blond fell back, with blood blackening the front of his jacket. Vin knew he was out of play and he dropped, rolling, tumbling back toward the waiting mare's leg. Sahoni for his part was experienced enough to know he'd lost his partner. He literally threw JD at Vin's moving form, spinning away himself as soon as he let the boy go. The tactic succeeded beyond even his best expectations: JD collided heavily with his friend, they both somersaulted and Vin's flailing legs propelled JD headfirst into the nearby wall. Vin heard the crash and came up, hesitating for one vital instant before he turned to see whether JD was injured. Sahoni bolted down the alley, back the way he'd come, and vanished into the stable; a moment later he came roaring out again, mounted, and tore off at full gallop. In that tricksy light Vin hadn't a prayer of hitting him even if he'd had the time to try--and he didn't. JD's body turned limply under his hands, head lolling; the kid was unresponsive, apparently knocked cold.
"Who's there?" a deep voice challenged from the street end of the alley, and Vin looked up.
"Josiah? I need help here. JD's back, but he's hurt."
"JD?" the preacher echoed, moving closer. "Where's Buck? Who hurt the boy?"
"Ain't plumb sure, but watch where you step, there's a dead body about ten feet your side of me. Two fellers was holdin' the kid and one pulled a knife. T'other got away just now. We gotta get JD to Nathan, he ain't conscious."
"I'll take him," Josiah offered at once, and knelt to scoop the young sheriff's slight body into his arms.
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