What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Chris Larabee had begun the day in a thunderous mood. His oldest friend and former partner was somewhere between here and Corona in a condition of unknown seriousness, the boy he'd helped raise was in a coma, and now his men were to be forced to deal with the threat of an unknown number of outlaw raiders without him. Nathan and Vin's making away with his clothes and the healer's Spencer hadn't improved his attitude. He hadn't gone looking for this job or these men, but both were his responsibility now. He lay against his stacked pillows, fuming, until the first shots sounded. That was the trigger. With a furious swipe of his arm he threw the quilt back and dropped his right leg over the edge of the bed, slewing his body sideways and reaching for the ocotillo-stick cane with which Nathan had had him practising. JD, in the cot across the room, didn't stir. His twin Colt Lightnings in their harness hung over the back of the chair, on top of the clothes Nathan had removed before putting him to bed. Teeth clenched, Chris used the cane to lever himself erect, shifted it to his left side where it could literally stand in for his weakened leg, and began forcing himself across the room. The bad leg wouldn't fully obey his mind's commands, and the healing wound in his back shot fire all the way up to his shoulders, but he ignored them. It was only two or three hitching steps to the chair. He couldn't strap the harness around his waist with only one free hand, but he could heave it over his shoulder and turn toward the door. The open deck outside the clinic would offer him a steady firing platform and an advantage of height.
Out in the street, a full-scale gun battle had erupted as surviving outlaws took cover in any promising spot they could find. Ezra from behind his watering trough, Josiah from beneath one front window of the sturdy bank building, Nathan from around the express-office doorway, and Vin from the hotel roof laid down a net of hot lead that made the open street itself uninhabitable. The outlaws' horses, tethered close by their individual targets for quick and easy flight, had been chosen, as outlaw horses always were, for quietness and well-brokenness: no man on the wrong side of the law could afford a flighty high-strung mount that might jump at a sudden gunshot or run away on some real or imagined fright. But the sustained fire of the duel was enough to unstring even the steadiest of them, and one or two had been clipped painfully by stray bullets. Other horses, those belonging to random civilians, weren't so phlegmatic. Several had broken their reins, and one even the rack it was tied to, and were racing about in a panic. The few townspeople who had still been out on the streets had taken cover wherever they could. From the Clarion office the roar of a shotgun sounded as fiery Mary Travis took a hand in the fighting; perhaps some desperate outlaw had tried to break in there.
Vin paused to reload his Winchester and something up the street caught the corner of his eye. His head whipped around that way. Two men--a big fellow in a planter's hat and what looked like a short Mexican jacket, a shorter, bandy-legged one wearing a blue forage cap--had tethered their horses at the foot of Nathan's stairs and were scuttling up the flight. The tracker's heart lurched. Why were any of the outlaws heading there? Surely the scout who'd gotten away had told them where the good targets were, and the clinic wasn't one of them.
Then he realized. Chris. Chris was up there. This whole raid had been a diversion, intended to provide cover for the two men who were now making their way toward the bed where Vin's best friend--almost the first friend he'd had since he left the Comanches--lay crippled and unarmed.
Vin didn't even stop to think of what he had to do. Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra had good positions and plenty of ammo; they could carry on without him. Leaving his Winchester, which was empty anyway, he took off over the roofs, bounding across alleys like a mountain lion leaping from one rock ledge to another.
Chris had been forced to toss JD's rig across his left shoulder with the back of the belt lying over his clavicle and the left-hand Colt's butt turned toward his unencumbered right hand, the weapon itself upside down in the holster. He was halfway across the front room of the clinic when the door burst open. He reacted without thinking about it, without even seeing who was there. He whipped his right hand up and back, turning the back of it toward his body as he used to do when he was in the Army and carrying a reversed holster, grasping the gun's ivory parrot-bill butt and corkscrewing the weapon out of its sheath with a lifting, twisting motion that brought the muzzle sweeping an arc out and down. Most men would have found the maneuver awkward and slow, but Chris was fast enough on a conventional draw that even this one was quicker than an ordinary gunman could equal. Crowley, who was smaller and less massive, had been first off his horse and first up the steps. Chris's first shot took him through the heart. Unfortunately the room was so small, and Chris so slow on his feet in his recovering state, that when he fell the Irishman knocked over one of Nathan's kitchen chairs and Chris wasn't able to throw himself back in time to avoid getting tangled up in it. He hit the floor with a painful crash that knocked the air out of his lungs and transformed his healing back to a sheet of fire. JD's Colt flew out of his hand, skittered across the floor and caromed off the baseboard. Its mate lay trapped beneath him, butt digging into his upper back.
Sablett stepped astride his twisted body, the seven-and-a-half-inch barrel of his Cavalry-model Colt aimed at the bridge of Chris's nose. "Hello, Captain Larabee," he said silkily. "Long time no see. Remember me?"
"Sablett," Chris gasped after a disorganized moment. "I'll--be damned. You're about--the last man I--expected to have come after me. Why?"
Sablett seemed to understand what lay behind the question: there was, after all, no blood-debt between them, and he had already been acting unlawfully when he and Chris first met; it wasn't as if their encounter had actually been responsible for pushing him over the edge. "Because if you and your damned sanctimonious outfit hadn't taken me in," he grated, "I could've transferred to the Regulars and gotten myself a nice position with the Reconstruction and gone on looting Johnny Rebs almost legally, instead of spending a dozen years out here in the back end of nowhere having to shoot it out with lawmen and rurales and hired guards and come up with plans to stop stagecoaches and payroll wagons and deal with banks. And I'd probably have made a lot more money at it, too, what with tax takeovers and bribes and what have you. Plus I had my share of what we'd already taken tucked away safe, waiting for me to smuggle it North, and when I broke out of the stockade I had to leave it behind." He grinned. "The boys and I already took care of Wilmington down in Corona. Now it's your turn."
"Let me get on my feet, you son of a bitch," Chris growled, "and we'll see whose damn turn it is."
Sablett laughed. "Oh, no," he said. "I've heard about you. Hell, I've seen you. The way you took Devin down just now, with that twist-hand draw and stove up the way you are--I've never met anyone who could have done that." He eared the hammer back with the quadruple click that was said to spell the gun's name, C-O-L-T.
"Might've expected," Chris snarled, "a man who got his start looting women wouldn't have the guts to face me in anything like a fair fight. You're a coward, Sablett, you always were."
"That's just what Wilmington said," Sablett told him, "and I let it get to me. But I learn from my mistakes, Larabee." He squinted down the barrel, taking his time.
Vin knew better than to go up by the stairs; if the two unknown outlaws had anything like a warning, they might contrive to use Chris or JD as hostages. He scrambled up the corner drainpipe, clawed his way up by the railing of the deck and headed for the back window, drawing his mare's leg. Just as he tumbled over the rail he heard the sharp, light explosion of one of JD's Lightnings, followed by a crash which he immediately localized as coming from the front room. The window was open, Nathan being (like most botanic physicians) a strong believer in the benefits of fresh air, and a quick glance through showed the tracker that the room was empty except for JD. He swung in, one hand on the sash, and padded toward the half-open communicating door, using it as a screen. He could hear Chris's voice, tight and breathless: "--have the guts to face me in anything like a fair fight. You're a coward, Sablett, you always were."
"That's just what Wilmington said," responded a voice Vin didn't know, "and I let it get to me. But I learn from my mistakes, Larabee."
Vin caught hold of the edge of the door with his left hand and threw it back, coming around fast with the sawed-off carbine levelled one-handed. "Drop it!" he yelled.
The big man in the planter's hat jerked his head up, his Colt reflexively lifting too, away from its dead line on Chris's face. Chris was white with pain, but with almost the last of his strength he lifted his cane and struck the inside of his enemy's knee a short, quick blow that jolted him off balance. The big man's Colt fired, but the bullet passed over Chris's head and buried itself in the clinic floor. Vin, his face grim and eyes ablaze, didn't wait for the fellow to recover. The mare's leg cut loose with a whiplash crack and the man went over backward, landing on a fallen chair and splintering it with his weight, then sprawling across the unmoving body of the man in the blue forage cap.
Vin didn't trouble himself further about his victim: when he aimed there, at that range, there was no more to be said. He knelt quickly to lift Chris's upper body off the floor. "You all right, cowboy?"
Chris made a hissing sound through clenched teeth. "Think I...broke the damn wound open."
Vin peered down the length of his friend's back, which was covered with what had recently been a clean undershirt. "Yeah, you did. Got a spot of blood down there. Nathan ain't gonna be happy with you, pard." He met Chris's pale eyes. "Reckon this makes us even for that damnfool stunt you pulled in the stable."
The gunfighter seemed to search Vin's face and hesitate as if about to speak, but a drowsy voice from the back room furnished an interruption. "Nathan?"
Both men swivelled their heads to the sound. "JD?" Vin responded.
"Vin?" The voice was a little stronger now, and they could hear the frame of the cot creak as the kid's weight shifted. "Chris? Where is everybody?" A moment later JD himself appeared in the open door, stripped like Chris to his longjohns, blinking and holding his bandaged head. "Chris? You okay? What happened? I thought I heard shootin'--what am I doin' here?"
It suddenly registered on Vin that the roar of gunfire from the street had faded to silence. "You 'member how you got hurt, JD?" he asked.
The kid frowned as if searching his memory. "No...I 'member Corona...and..." Sudden panicked realization flooded his face. "Oh, God, Buck--he was hit--he told me to come back and warn you--Sablett--"
"It's okay, JD," Chris told him. "Sablett's finished. Vin took him down." He gestured with his cane, and JD took an unsteady step or two further into the room, supporting himself with a hand on the doorframe. "Is Buck hurt bad?"
"No," JD replied slowly, "I left him at Dr. Holland's office down there." He blinked in bewilderment. "How'd I get back here? What happened?" And then: "Chris, I don't feel too good," and he sank dizzily to the floor.
"Better get Nathan," Chris suggested, and Vin nodded and took off.
Vin had been right: Nathan wasn't happy--with either of his patients, though it was Chris who came in for the biggest share of his ire. As for JD, the healer was more relieved than anything to find that he had regained consciousness on his own. He said that the gap in JD's memory was quite normal in concussion cases, and that the missing parts of his past might return on their own as his bruised brain healed. What was important was that he was alert, on the road to recovery, and had been able to tell them where Buck was and how he was hurt. Josiah rented a buckboard from Yosemite and drove down to get him.
Of Sablett's gang, besides himself, Crowley, and the three killed in Corona, four were dead, and the rest had been taken in, not one unmarked. Two townsfolk had also been injured in the melee, but Nathan asserted that both would recover. JD's first act, upon returning to duty at the jail, was to go through the poster file and send out a batch of telegrams. The total of rewards due on the gang came to nearly twelve thousand dollars--enough, even split equally between the seven regulators, to give each a nice nest egg.
Chris's attempt to join in the fight had set his recovery back by a good two days, but only outwardly: the interior damage continued to heal steadily, and within ten days he was up and moving about town, though still limping a bit. And even Nathan was forced to admit that if he hadn't gotten up and armed himself, Crowley or Sablett would probably have shot him dead in his bed before Vin could get there--"so it all worked out for the best."
Not until he was fully healed did Chris invite Vin to join him on patrol. He led the way to a shady streambank which the Seven had early discovered was a good spot for fishing, got down, tethered his horse and eased the cinches, and pulled a bottle out of his saddlebag. "You better get comfortable, cowboy," he suggested. "I got somethin' I need to tell you."
Puzzled, Vin joined him on a sun-warmed rock, his feet hanging loosely over the edge. Chris poured whiskey into a couple of tin coffee cups and produced a creased telegraph flimsy from his vest pocket. "I had Mary message Ranger headquarters in San Antonio," he began, "and this is what she got." He read the telegram aloud while Vin listened in fascination.
"That was my pa?" he guessed when Chris was finished.
The gunfighter hesitated. "There's part of me that'd like to tell you he was," he answered slowly. "I know your ma always led you to believe so. But I don't think he was. Remember I told you about my stepmother, the one who used to sing that song you lined out for me while I was unconscious?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah, I 'member."
"Her maiden name was Emma Rose Gibbs," Chris told him, "and she sang it to her son, my little half-brother. He was only three the last time I saw him." And he told the Texan the rest of the story.
Vin listened without a word, his eyes fixed on Chris's face, wide and incandescant. Chris met that searching gaze without a flinch, desperately needing Vin to believe he was sincere. When he had finished speaking he gave the tracker time to think about what he'd said. "You mean...me and you got the same pa?" Vin asked slowly. "You mean I ain't really a Tanner?"
"That's what I've got every reason to believe," Chris agreed. "As far as your ma could know, Pa was still living, and she couldn't legally marry John Will Tanner unless she got a divorce from him, which I never heard of her tryin' to do. She lived as his common-law wife and had the right to use his name if she wanted to, but from anything I know right now he never adopted you legally, and you're no blood of his."
Vin was silent for several moments. "Did you know 'bout this when you took that bullet for me?" was his next query.
"No. I didn't really guess till I heard you sayin' the words of 'Lord Randall' in my sleep. I should have: your hair is just like hers, and you've got the same color eyes, and you're the right age. But it was the song that cinched it, and you sayin' your ma used it as a lullaby."
"That's what I done told JD," Vin observed softly. "That her hair and eyes was like mine, I mean." He looked down. "So my name's Alec Larabee, not Vin Tanner," he mused quietly. "That's gonna take some gettin' used to."
"You don't have to call yourself by it, if you don't want to," Chris told him. "We've already got three other brothers carryin' the name on, and they've all got families growin'. I just thought..." he hesitated, suddenly almost shy-- "I thought you'd like it, knowin' you had family."
"I ain't had none in a long spell," Vin admitted. "Ain't had no white kin in an even longer spell." Chris's brows rose inquiringly, but Vin didn't amplify. "I reckon now I know why Aunt Myra acted like she done with me," he went on thoughtfully. "If she knowed I wasn't no blood of hers--"
"That was the aunt you went to after your ma died?" Chris guessed.
"Yeah." In a hushed voice Vin went on to describe as best he could the conditions under which he had been reared, how he had finally come to the end of his endurance and left, and what had happened afterward. "Bein' as we're brothers," he finished, "I reckon there ain't no reason for you not to know. Hell, any man who'd hire hisself out to protect a Seminole village ain't like to hold it against me that I was fetched up Comanche."
"I don't," Chris agreed at once. "Shit, Vin, if you hadn't gone to them you might never have ended up in Four Corners, and I'd never have known you were even still alive. That means a lot to me."
"Reckon it goes a long way to explainin' how it's been between us from the first day," Vin observed.
"I thought so too."
"Brothers," Vin repeated. "Like Buck'n'JD, and not a whole lot less years atwixt us. If that don't beat hell with a stick." He flashed a sidelong glance at the older man. "After you 's wounded...afore you woke up, I mean...I went up to a high place'n'talked to my guardians for you. Told 'em you was my brother. Never guessed it might be blood-true."
"It's enough to almost make you believe in some of the things Josiah says," Chris mused.
"You honest don't mind if I go on callin' myself Vin Tanner?" the tracker asked.
"I don't mind," Chris assured him. "Name's just a handle, is all. What matters is what you know about yourself inside."
"Like I know I didn't do that murder in Tascosa? Even if they think I did?"
"Yeah. Like that." Chris hesitated a moment. "One day after we get the black mark off your name, we'll go around by Sherman and find your Ma's grave. Maybe bring her back here if you want." There was an unasked question in the suggestion: Is this home, is this the place you want to stay, or at least not go far away from?
Vin shook his head. "Ain't no need of that," he said, and Chris's heart constricted, until the tracker went on: "I don't need for her to be by me in a hole dug for her; I got her in my heart, and I reckon times at my shoulder--Josiah thinks so. She's been comfortable where she's at these twenty years, no point disturbin' her sleep now. Might wanta see she gets a good marker, see somebody'll give her flowers now and again, but that's all."
"I'll drink to that," the gunfighter told him, and picked up one of the as-yet untouched tin cups.
Vin hesitated again. "You don't hold it against her none, what she done?"
Chris shrugged, wincing a bit at the tug on the half-forgotten scar on his back. "I got no kick comin'. I betrayed Pa just as bad as she done. Hell, she had more guts than me, takin' off like that, makin' it clear she couldn't live with him no more, takin' the chance she'd be able to find some way to support herself and you 'stead of goin' back to her family. Reckon we'll never know just why she left--whether it was politics, or tryin' to find me, or both."
"If you'd of found us," said Vin-- "if you'd of gone on to Texas like you 's plannin' to, what'd you of done? Seein' our pa 's dead and she 's free, I mean. Would you of took her to wife?"
Chris sighed. "I don't know," he admitted. "I guess in a way I loved her; she wasn't my first woman, but there was a connection between us. Still, I was awful young, only eighteen. She was better off with Tanner even if he didn't live long. And that land grant of his, comin' through her, is your legal property now. Mary can check with the county authorities in Sherman and see if there's any way we can get it transferred without anybody findin' out where you are."
"If you'd of married her," Vin said slowly, "I likely wouldn't of went to the People, and you'd never of met Sarah. That means wouldn't neither of us come here in time to help them Seminoles or get hired by Judge Travis--or meet Buck and the others." For the first time he smiled. "I kinda like it that we done that. I got a notion we got somethin' growin', the seven of us, that's a lot bigger'n we know. I's thinkin' on that the day you got shot. I's thinkin' maybe this's where my guardians needed me to be, that this's what I's s'posed to do with my life. I like that--knowin' I got somethin' important to do and pardners to cover my back whilst I do it." He picked up the other cup. "And I'll drink to that."
"Here's to your ma, then," Chris offered, "and to finding a man's proper place in the world."
"And to findin' long-lost brothers," Vin finished with a rare genuine grin.
To be concluded...
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