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Eighteen-Hundred-and-SIxty

This bingo is a series of vignettes that take place in the year 1860 in the Supermagnificent AU

1860: Vin Tanner (prompt: wings)

He was seven or eight years old when the pain started. Subtle at first—a vague ache in his back like he’d taken a hard fall playing with his friends, but constant, and nothing brought relief. After a while it was more a burning, like coals under his skin, and the medicine man, Quiet Flame,  said there was a power in him, fighting to get out. Sahpooly, his Indian mother—the woman who had taken him in when he came to the People—told him not to be afraid, but he was. All the time. His real mama had died in pain before his eyes, long and lingering, and somewhere in his little mind, he figured he was going to do the same.

It was weeks later when it happened, when the bones first started punching through his skin, bleeding and aching and setting him to pray to the God that hadn’t saved his mama and probably wouldn’t save him.

Seemed like a cruel joke, all of it. He should have died when that stagecoach crashed into the river months and months ago, but the Kiowa had saved him, saved him and Jerusha and others besides. And now he was going to die anyway, though of what, he wasn’t clear. Something horrific and inhuman, that was certain.

Sahpooly and Quiet Flame and Mammedaty all prayed for him, told him not to worry. He wasn’t dying and he wasn’t evil and he was theirs regardless and they loved him. They didn’t speak English too good, and while Vin spoke Kiowa as well as any young child not born to the language could, the promise that “the wind was calling him” sounded too much like he should go ahead and get ready to die. Jerusha, his sister in everything but blood, was as scared as him but fascinated, too. She drew pictures for him so he could see what she saw: arms sprouting from his back like bird wings, fuzzed with a baby’s growth.

In quiet times, when the pain wasn’t much, when he and Jerusha sat quiet by the river and nobody was watching, he was as curious as any young boy might be. He stretched the wings that had no feathers and bent them forward to look at them. The wings were strangely light, like the rest of him—a strangeness that he’d never really thought on before now, though he had always been so much lighter than other boys his age. The wings weren’t bones alone, of course—there was skin and membranes like a bat and the fuzz that said that maybe, maybe, one day he’d have feathers.

At eight, that should have been amazing, but Vin was cannier than most children his age and he’d seen how the white men treated the Indians, how they treated anyone who wasn’t like them. He’d lived that before he ever even met the tribe, watched the overseers treat him and the other orphans like garbage and worse. He only let himself feel the wonder of it for a briefest second when it welled up, before reminding himself that he’d never live a normal life. Even at that tender age, Vin Tanner knew that people were supposed to fit in, no matter what his Indian family tried to teach him.

His mama could have told him, had she lived, that he was exactly nine years old the day he woke from another daze in the sweat lodge to find the first of his pin feathers coming in and the pain of transformation easing. Mammedaty, the Indian chief who had always called him Lallo, or “little boy,” now called him Kudo-ee, “baby bird”. Sahpooly, whose name meant “owl,” helped him learn to preen the wings as they grew. She tried to help him understand that he was safe, he was home, he was human, but he wasn’t really sure that any of those things were true anymore.

He tried to grow, adapt, survive, but he never really lived

Until the day he turned ten and launched himself into the air and flew, his hollow bones explained as his wings bore his weight, his jet black pin feathers catching the wind and twisting him unexpectedly. In the second of falling before the updraft lifted him back into the air and the wind blew through his feathers like a nearly-forgotten motherly embrace, he knew that, human or not, safe or not, in the air above his village, he truly was home.


**********

1860: Nathan Jackson (prompt: minor illness/injury)

He was twelve and his sister had fallen from a tree during a rare moment of play. They didn’t have many times like that during harvest season, but their owner was better than most, usually giving the children Sunday after church to run crazy, even if their parents had to go back to the fields.

Esther came to him, blood on her arm and crying a river as only an eight-year-old could.

“Fix me, Nathan!” she screamed.

“Essie, hush up!” Ruth growled low, sounding more like a mama than any girl of fourteen had a right to. She looked sharply at the field manager who stood overseeing the adults in the cotton field nearby. “That ain’t something you need to go blabbing about!”

No, Nathan’s healing was a secret. Always had been. Whatever kindnesses Master Jackson saw fit to give them all, the fact was that they were slaves, pure and simple. If he learned what Nathan could do then suddenly, the power wouldn’t be for Nathan and his kind, but for Jackson and however he might want to see it used.

“But it hurts Ruthie!” Esther sobbed, reaching for her big brother and letting Nathan enfold her in a hug than did more to fix her than the power in his hands likely could. “Jeremiah threw me out of the tree, Nathan,” she told him, hiccuping her outrage and fear. “It’s real far.”

Nathan grinned gently. “It is real far, Essie,” he agreed softly, though the highest branch you could climb to weren’t more than five or six feet off the ground. “You calm down now and tell me what you said to him.”

“Didn’t get no chance to say anything to him,” Esther said, calming already. “Stupid Miah went running off. Figure he’s afraid you’ll come beat him up.” She looked up at him hopefully. “You will beat him up, right?”

That got both him and Ruth chuckling. “Reckon he’s more afraid Ruth’ll come after him, honey,” Nathan told her. “You know I ain’t one for solving problems with my fists.”

Esther grinned, taking hold of one of his hands and laying it flat on the long scrape that ran her whole arm from shoulder to wrist. “No. You solve ‘em with your hands, right?”

Nathan focused himself and moved his hand to the top of the scrape, feeling the energy move from him to her as the scrape began disappearing as he watched. “That’s right, honey,” he told her, a contentment welling up as he healed, fixed, made a body whole that weren’t whole before. He wasn’t sure why God above had gone and given something like this to a slave like him, but there was something real and pure and satisfying about it. “So let me just solve this one with my hands, okay? Be real still.”

It took a while to heal the whole long thing, and Esther was squirming with impatience by the time he was done. Ruth had sat by, looking like she was just resting and watching after the children, but really making sure nobody who shouldn’t know about this could surprise Nathan while he worked. She was even more afraid of him being found out than he was, but then, she’d been older when they lost Mama, so maybe she knew more things they should be afraid of. She wouldn’t tell him what she’d seen, but there was something there, some hurt that his touch couldn’t fix, no matter how much he wanted it to.

“I love you,” Esther told him simply, hugging him tight with a smile on her face. “You’re the best brother ever!”

As she scampered off, Ruth got to her feet, using Nathan’s shoulder as a place to push up from. That she could give him a loving squeeze while she did it was surely unintentional. “She ain’t wrong, little brother,” she murmured warmly.

Nathan all but glowed.

“Don’t mean I want that going to your head, now,” she warned him. She looked out over the orchard and the mess of children. “You look out for them for me for a while?” She asked.

He nodded. “Where you going?” As if he didn’t already know.

Ruth gave him a tiny grin that boded no good. “Figure I better go find Miah. Make sure he don’t fall out of a tree himself.”

Nathan smirked as she walked away, knowing that, undeserving or not, he’d fix whatever happened to Jeremiah, too.

God wouldn’t want him to do anything less.


***********

1860: Buck Wilmington (prompt: depression)

He was twenty-five before he accepted that there was nothing he could do for her. The sadness, the horror, the damn endless driving hell of her life had never been something he could fix.

Not that he hadn’t tried. God, Buck Wilmington was nothing if not a helper, or so his mama said, and he’d done everything he could for sweet Joanna from the day he’d met her.

Joanna was fifteen and Buck only a year older when she’d shown up in town for the first time. Frail and wasted and strung out by the trial of just getting there, she’d been met at the stagecoach by one of the other ladies in the house and taken in. She was Miss Hallie’s niece, and her mama had gone out of the business years ago. Married “respectable.”

Not that Joanna’s stepfather had been respectable at all, of course. Buck had absorbed the pain and anguish and soul-deep broken that was Joanna’s mind and wished the man was still alive. Even at twelve, Buck was big for his age, strong. He’d survived being a whorehouse bastard in a town full of sometimes hateful children, and he could beat a boy bloody if he had to.

He’d’ve beaten Maurice Rackman bloody if Joanna hadn’t already shot him.

Not that anyone knew she had, of course, except Buck and her. He’d felt it in her the very first time she told her story.

“Mama and him were fighting again,” she told her mama’s sister and the other women in the house. She wrapped her shawl tighter around herself, and he resisted the urge to hug her against the pain she radiated. “He went at her with the knife, and I… guess she got hold of the iron somehow. I don’t know,” she lied, her voice desperate to be believed and her heart more desperate still. “I was hiding, like I always did when he got like that.” She let the tears fall, but he felt the guilt where others saw the sorrow. “She hit him… hard. She kept hitting him, and... “ She caught her breath and he felt the memory of an iron in her hand overwhelm her. “He’d cut her too bad, though. She…”

Buck’s mama hugged her warmly and shushed her sobbing into silence. “Now, now, Joanna,” she whispered. “You’re safe here, darling. We’ll take care of you.”

And they did—or they wanted to.

Joanna didn’t take to a bed for a year. The ladies were determined not to let her. She was fragile and her mama had left the life, so she’d never want her daughter back in it. But slowly, like a slide into a melting creek, she started in. And she was good. Better than a girl like her should have been.

Well, that’s what they all thought, anyway, but Buck knew better. There was a flush of shame and horror when she mentioned her stepfather that made Buck’s fists curl. Buck knew Rackman wasn’t the first parent to take his child to his bed, stepfather or no, but it was clear he’d done his worst to poor Joanna.

Buck had to leave the building when Joanna had a suitor. He got to where he couldn’t stand the feel of her shame against the passion and lust of the man above her. Didn’t matter how tender the client was, Joanna lived every night as her stepfather’s whipping child. She couldn’t see past it, but she couldn’t see any other way to be, either.

And so Buck would sneak into her room once her nightly torture was done, once she was alone with her thoughts. He’d bedded women before, but he never tried to bed her. Not Joanna. She hurt too much to fix. He just sat with her, talked with her, played cards with her when the fancy struck them both. Anything to keep her from thinking any more than she had to.

Buck’s mama died when he was eighteen, and it took him a while to track down the man who killed her. After that, he had no stomach for returning home, afraid to see the women and have them know what he’d done. Instead, he travelled the state, worked where he could, flirted with the idea of the army, and wished he had had a chance to get real book learning done as he visited saloons and restaurants in Dallas where erudite men expounded on theories he almost understood.

And no matter where he went, he asked after Joanna when he wrote her aunt Hallie, who never lost touch with him. The answer was always the same: Poor Joanna is as blue as always, my boy. Seems there’s no way to cheer the child. She’s just been through too much.

Way too much, he thought sadly, looking at the new tombstone in the beggar’s field—the only place the women of the house were allowed to rest eternal in this town. In the last letter from Hallie, the answer had been different, both worse and better. He didn’t reply by mail, just took off for the town he hadn’t set foot in since he killed the man who’d killed his mother.

They were the same, he and she, though she’d killed Rackman as he was doing the deed and he had hunted his man down and killed him a whole lot slower than she had. It hadn’t been pretty, and Buck had been too much of a coward to come back and face her, knowing how much more she’d been through. He wondered if it might have made a difference to her. Maybe she wouldn’t have not done what she did at the end, if he’d just shown her that she wasn’t the only one to seek that kind of justice. That it weren’t the sin and horror she thought it was.

Or that it was, but if he could survive it, so could she.

But the tombstone was kind of inescapable; clean and simple and as much as Hallie and the girls could afford:

Joanna Leary
Flights of Angels Sing You to Your Rest

He prayed they would. God knew she’d never gotten rest in this life.

Buck walked silently to his horse and rode out of town, past the whorehouse where he grew up, without ever looking back.


***********

1860: Chris Larabee (Prompt: drowning)

He was forty-eight and for the first time in a long time, he was pretty sure he was finally going to die.

The rock on top of him was just a few pounds more than he could lift, from the way it shuddered just a little when he shoved at it. The surface of the water was just a few feet above his head, looking at the eddies of light that teased him with freedom. The air in his lungs was just a few minutes too rank, judging by the way his head rang and his vision faded in and out.

The funny thing was that he really didn't think he'd make it out this time. He survived more in the last fifteen years than almost anyone: mortars, muskets, falls, and bayonets. He'd nearly lost a leg, nearly bled to death a few times, but amazingly enough, he'd never drowned.

Never came even close, in fact. He'd always been a good swimmer, growing up near one of the largest rivers in the country. He'd never had any reason to believe he'd ever plunge into a lake and end up with a half-ton rock holding him down. Wasn't something a man contemplated.

Course he had the time now, as his lungs screamed for fresh air and his body twitched in exhaustion from trying to move what couldn't be moved.

Death was something he'd thought about a lot, mostly because he should have died years ago. He'd been bleeding to death, the damage to his pelvis and hip too much for any doctor. Any doctor but Erskine, of course. The crazy little man from Germany had laid out the deal in simple terms.

"You can die, and we will let you, or you can agree to help us with one of the greatest experiments in human history."

"And probably still die," he'd replied, seeing the writing on the wall damn clearly in his final hours.

Erskine had smiled, almost kindly. "Probably. Yes." He'd leaned forward, a shine of genius or madness in his eyes. "But what if you don't?"

And yet, Chris thought wryly, here I am. Dying.

Something kicked in in his brain and he focused every ounce of strength he had left.

To Hell with that.

His arm muscles bunched and he slid his hands under the giant rock as far as they would go. One tremendous shove, and he felt his muscles and ligaments shred as the rock gave way.

The density of his reengineered bones was a hindrance, but he fought against the weight to claw his way to the surface, breaking out into fresh air before he lost that last whiff of consciousness.

A hook caught him around the middle and dragged him, face up, to the edge of the lake.

"Twelve minutes, Chris," a cheery, accented voice greeted him as he sucked in air and tried to force ruined muscles to pull him to dry land. "I knew, eventually, you would realize that your desire to survive could outweigh your body's desire to give up."

Chris looked up at Erskine in annoyance, and the crazy old man grinned. "Mind over matter, Mr. Larabee."

Yeah. More madness than genius, that was for damn sure.


*************

1860: Ezra Standish (prompt: isolation)

He was thirteen and he’d finally perfected the art of not caring that he couldn’t fit in. He could stand in the middle of a room and be completely alone and look completely at ease with it. He could sit at a poker table, astounding the adults around him with his playing and his patter, and never even blink.

Schools, when he could attend them, were more difficult. Little Ezra Standish was hardly a specimen of budding manhood. He was short and slight, the only thing remarkable about him, the green eyes that flashed with an intelligence more children envied than admired. Still, he could charm those he wanted to and confront those he had to.

Because Ezra could fight as well, of course. At first, it was simply the boxing he’d learned as a child, encouraged by his mother’s memories of his dead father’s pugilistic endeavours, but eventually, after a few hard knocks to the head, technique had to give way to common brawling. He’d perfected that, too, of course, because Ezra Standish had always been a student of something. Of everything, if he needed to be.

So at eleven, he’d begun to study how people fit in. It was the one thing he couldn’t seem to master, after all, so he watched. He wrapped himself in silver and glided invisibly into the saloons where his mother plied her trade, watching the woman who could simultaneously fit in and stand out in any environment. Maude Standish (at that point she’d been Maude Hillerton, but that hadn’t lasted long, as the rich old man was ancient and doddering when she married him) managed to be at home in any room. It was uncanny, and he was jealous and proud in equal measure.

Maude would throw herself into the fray—that was her trick. Walk in as if you owned the place, and people would just naturally assume you belonged. Ezra’s biggest problem was that he knew he didn’t. He knew what he was, in a way that few boys his age did. He was a grifter of distinction, an uneducated orphan, a freak of nature who could turn himself invisible at will. He was not normal.

He did not belong. Anywhere, really.

But, as his mother said so many times, they didn’t need to know what didn’t benefit you.

He first tried his mother’s trick when he turned twelve and they moved to Mobile, Alabama, with Maude hot on the trail of another rich man to take in a grieving widow. He strode confidently into the boarding school where she’d finagled a place for him, smiling that smile of his, courteous and happy and sly.

The silver that hid him from view helped in the charade. Though he shared a room with an evil young man from one of the surrounding plantations, the boy never saw Ezra stand at the window in the middle of the night and yearn for just one of these children to help him fit in. No one knew that he stood to the side while they talked about that “uppity Carolina boy,” who was too smart and too cocky.

Apparently, walking in as if you belonged worked better in a saloon than a schooyardl.

So Ezra made a decision, late one night as he rambled invisible through the school. He would just not care. It wasn’t so difficult, really. After all, he’d long since learned not to care when his mother failed to come for him when she said she would. He’d learned not to care about the beatings and teasing and mistreatment he’d received at the hands of his so-called relatives.

He took a deep breath, settled his shoulders, and walked out into the grounds surrounding the old manor. The moon shone on the fields around him and let his own silver fall, only to be bathed in the silver of that shining orb.

He was a student of all things, Ezra Standish.

But there were some lessons it had simply taken him longer to learn.


*************

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