Magnificent Seven Slash, The Runaway by Raven Davies

Chapter IX

"Hurry, Vin, we're here." Chris was off his horse in seconds, to whip his reins around the hitching post, and then run around his stallion to pull the tracker down and help him to the church. A loud, "STOP", reverberated in their ears, jostling their worried thoughts into reality. Both recognized the familiar voice, and looked up to see a jubilant Ezra Standish, dressed in a new green jacket and gold vest. Upon a quick wave, he sprinted into the church, and the music suddenly changed to a happy rendition of 'Oh, Susanna'. Ezra, in his fanciest attire, dashed back out through the door, heading straight for them.

"Gentlemen, you are just in time. We are all so pleased you made it. Hurry, as the bride is exceedingly excited, unable to stop jumping for joy on hearing of your arrival. The groom is also ready to fly down the aisle without her, just to see you both. Mr. Wilmington has a firm grip of both his shoulders." Standish, completely in a dither of elation, dropped his overly embellished speech to greet his friends.

"Good to see you too, Ezra. Can you give us a minute?" Chris threw Peso's reins around the rail and returned to his business with Tanner, while the unusually excited gambler quietly scrutinized both men.

"Of course, Mr. Larabee. Can I be of assistance?" One look at Vin, and the fancy gambler's heart sank. Their young tracker appeared very, very ill.

"You bet. Secure our horses, and then take Vin's canteen, while I help him down."

"Are you injured, Mr. Tanner?" The gambler's hands were quick, taking care of the black steeds, and then hurrying to accept the container from a shaking tracker.

"Nope." Vin winced in pain, too scared and embarrassed to look at Standish. Old wounds of mistrust and disloyalty filled his reeling head, and he had no words to express how he felt. A quick glance acknowledged Ezra Standish stood on Chris' right, looking very worried. The sight of the man had his mind in a quandary of questions; and he started pondering endlessly on new concerns not yet brought up in his conversations with Larabee. He had tried to convince the hardened gunslinger that the gambler had a heart, but he had no basis for proving it. Now, remembering Ezra's firm, but gentle support when he lifted him off the ground, after a horse and rider crashed him against a hitching rail, he should have told Chris and mocked him for not being there. The tracker had been in agony after that strange day when the lady bounty hunters came to town, but Ezra and Nathan stood by to help him, while the gunslinger vanished in the chase, unconcerned of possible disabling injuries to his best friend. Larabee simply ignored him, with no inquiry about his injured ribs and shoulder, not even after the gunman's return upon finding the women bloodhounds and the man they hunted. JD had been shot during the ruckus, and all attention lay on the kid. The answer hit him, knowing the reason for his lover's lack of concern. Vin sucked in his breath, and blew it out slowly. Of course, the injury to Dunne deemed far more serious than his strapped up shooting arm. Back to teetering on the edge of no-man's land, the tracker wondered why he had returned just to please the gunslinger, attempting to believe, in his heart, that the past was the past. The message had been reiterated numerous times, over the six-week journey to Four Corners, only to spin his head in a whirling motion, unable to tell up from down.

Chris quietly reached up and placed his hands around Vin's hips. The smaller man literally collapsed around his neck, and the astute gambler noticed the discreet, but intimate contact. With great care and tenderness, the gunslinger set the smaller man on his feet, helped remove the serape and beaten up jacket, and straighten the young man into a semi-standing position. Another surprising action, Ezra Standish watched as Larabee pulled out a brush, raked it though his own blond hair, then removed and handed Vin his hat, to brush the very long, luxurious mane of cascading, silken waves. The taller man used his hand to sweep the dust from his black pants, and did the same to the tracker's tan ones. Ezra stood astounded, acknowledging that Larabee had changed to a gentle human being, very unlike the dangerous man the gambler thought he knew. Their lost tracker had to be very ill for this kind of attention, and accepting it readily. With a quick grab of a bandana, Larabee also surprised the gambler, by dipping it into the water trough, and wiping Vin's face clean of what appeared as milk.

"We made it, Vin. Feeling up to this, or should I take you home?"

"Nope, I'm fine, but where are we?" Only a whispered gasp and a raspy, breathless one at that, the ailing man tried pulling his fragile mind into some order that this old reality demanded, and what had gone before. Chris had explained everything, and it sounded correct, but fear in his mind just would not leave. His only understanding came from his belief that death would be better than life, and he fell into a fog of depression.

"Josiah finished the church while we've been gone, that's why you don't recognize it. You sure you can handle going inside and seeing your friends?" Chris saw and heard the change, but had only comforting words to help the disturbed young man. It would be a long day.

"Yeah, never been better. Sanchez is a heck of a builder." Vin stared at the new stucco covering of the stone structure in wonderment, still uncertain of his location, although starting to remember.

"Yes he is. Now, best we not let Casey down." Larabee cupped the tracker's chin and gently let his thumb glide over the clenching lips. "It's okay. Relax. Take another deep breath." The habitual touch calmed Tanner slightly. He opened his eyes and let Chris put an arm around his back, holding both of his upper arms firmly with his hands for extra support.

"Are we too late, Ezra?" Vin quietly asked, still not making eye contact.

"You are just in time, Mr. Tanner, and it is so very good to see you. I personally have been very troubled as to why you left, and dare I ask that you forgive me, if anything I said, or did in the past, may have caused your unexpected departure?"

Vin finally looked at Ezra, but could not bring himself to say yes or no. A slight shaking started from the tension building in the thin body, and Chris could feel the panic rising. He held him tighter, feeling the shoulders start to heave slightly, and he knew the tracker grew dangerously close to breaking down.

The gambler looked into the big, blue, sad eyes, then up at Chris who immediately shook his head to back off. The fancy dude complied. The tears welling in the tracker's eyes upset Standish, and he desperately wanted to add a comforting word or hand, but with Larabee's warning, he stepped back and made a sweeping grandiose gesture to both of them, welcoming them to enter the church. Chris warmly smiled and sighed thankfully in relief, as the gambler acknowledged the situation with a nod. He suddenly stopped them with a hand to Larabee's arm, insisting they remain hidden between the two horses. "I would suggest you gather yourselves for a few more minutes, while I expedite the final arrival of Mother. Trust her to be late and make a grand entrance when this day belongs to Miss Welles. Now, stay here, and I shall be back to help you."

"Thanks, Ezra. So, Maude's here! This should be interesting." Chris chuckled lightly at the flustered man, knowing the son seemed just in awe of the beautiful but conniving woman as the rest of them.

Mrs. Standish came in at a gallop, snapping the reins against the horses that pulled her overly adorned carriage. Always one to make an impression, the elegant woman came to a halt, and reached down for her son's arms to attend to her dismount. "I am truly sorry, Ezra. My intentions were to behave in a manner accustomed to the people in this horrid little town."

"Mother, please, shut up and hurry."

"Ezra, that is no way to speak to your mother. I told you I am truly aware of my erroneous miscalculation of time. Why has the music changed? I hope I have not caused this delay." Ezra had her up the stairs and in the foyer of the church before she had a chance to continue a lengthy and unwanted conversation. They immediately ran into the wedding party, all of whom smiled uncommonly bright, as if waiting for someone. "What is going on? Oh, Casey, you look wonderful, darlin', as do the rest of you. I believe we made the right choices for your frocks."

Again, Ezra pushed her through the excited group, and ushered her to a seat beside the aisle. "Behave, Mother, or so help me, I will throw you out myself. I have others to help, so please, sit here and do not get up until the bride enters." The fastidious gambler aided the woman into her spot on the bench, gathering layers of blue satin under her and out of the aisle. Immediately turning, he ran back, passing the bridal party, but he did notice the expectant faces of all in the church, which he exited as quickly as he had entered, just to find and allow the last and most honored two guests to enter. "Be prepared, Gentlemen, for you are about to be mesmerized by the distinguished and delightfully dressed ladies waiting to make their way down the aisle. Let's hurry you along." On instinct and habit, Standish took one of Vin's arms and put it over his shoulder, as did the gunman. He felt the instant alarm in Tanner's body, but they reached the top of the stairs, and entered the church, where he left the nervous, ailing tracker to the one who had found their runaway.

Vin would have landed on the floor, if he had not been secured in Chris' two-handed grip. Casey let out a high-pitched squeal of his name, and threw herself around his neck, hanging on with her feet off the floor. It scared the reclusive Tanner half to death and too weak to hold her.

"Hi, Casey." Vin choked out the words, strangling under the pressure of Miss Welles' tight clench. Unable to break the hug, it had him rattled; and he willed his knees to stop from giving way, and both of them landing on the floor.

"We're so glad you're here! Wouldn't have meant nothing to neither JD, or me, if you and Chris didn't make it! I'm so excited to see you; and I just know JD wants to come running down the aisle to greet you too, but Buck grabbed him before he tried!" Casey cried and rambled with excitement, her face aglow with an even brighter smile than usual, until Nathan came to the rescue. He lifted her, off the pale, thin man, by her tiny waist; and took her diminutive shoulders in his extremely large hands to release Vin to fall into Chris' waiting arms.

"Good to see you two. We knew you'd be here, although you cut it a might close. As soon as I get this little girl down the aisle and married, I'm going to hug each of you, so be prepared. Come on, Casey." Nathan pulled her back to the waiting area, a huge, relieved grin on his face, and his soft brown eyes ready to rain down in pure joy of this eventful day.

"Breathe, Vin. You're doing fine." Chris whispered into his ear, inaudible to those surrounding them; but the small group, waiting to make their entrance, could not help see the quiet contact between the two men, and the nervousness of Vin Tanner. Ezra, Mary, and Nettie saw the tracker falter, and the affectionate way the ruggedly handsome older man handled him. All had the same question on their minds, wondering what had changed. Larabee acted like a concerned brother, or perhaps, with the ailing figure they saw before them, he had become a surrogate father. None had witnessed such caring and concern from the gunslinger, particularly displaying such a close intimacy with another man. It had them confused.

Mary tried to catch Chris' eye, but his soothing and consoling of Vin did not stop, until Nettie approached the two. She placed her hand on the young man's face and stroked it gently. "We need you in the church, son. Go with Ezra, and he'll take you to your seats. Go now. We'll talk later."

"Thanks, Nettie." Chris smiled at her. He felt Vin relax slightly to her touch, and the younger man closed his eyes, drifting away somewhere unreachable to his lover.

"I have two seats saved for you in the front pew. If you Gentlemen would be so inclined as to follow me..."

"...No, Ezra, but thanks. Put us at the very back, and if possible, alone. Let's hurry."

"As you wish, Mr. Larabee."

Entering the church, with more than a hundred people, dazed Tanner further. He saw JD and Buck at the end of a long aisle, and they both looked concerned, as was Josiah, standing behind a table covered with flowers and a single white candle. A remembered dream of red and yellow flowers, dancing to a strange gurgling sound, his head reeled from the sight and the scent, trying to figure out where he was. Perhaps he was home, back in his desert. Music suddenly switched rhythm, and he jumped at the first loud cord of 'Here Comes the Bride', and the sudden whispers of the invited guests who turned to stare. His mind and senses overloaded, and he released himself completely to Chris' care, ushered onto a hard surface with an equally hard back-support. The gunslinger's hands never let go, and they were the only things holding him together. Accustomed to silence and isolation, he scrambled to get his mind back into Josiah's church, and more importantly, to JD's wedding.

Glued to the distressed tracker, the gunslinger discretely soothed him as best he could in a crowd of acquaintances. He continued to whisper softly in his ear, easing the heavy drone of the wedding march that had Vin cringing at the cacophonous sound. They stood, side-by-side, for the entrance of the ladies, with the tall blond supporting the full weight of the smaller man. The women, donned in their new finery for this special occasion, demurely marched single file down the narrow aisle, while a distraught gunslinger continually whispered questions to his failing tracker, keeping the man's mind alert and focused.

"Look, Vin. Here comes Mary. What color is she wearing?"

"Golden-yellow, like the evening sun."

"Good. Okay, who's coming next?"

Vin's eyes blinked several times to focus, and his near swoon ebbed. "Miss Nettie."

"She looks nice in blue, doesn't she?"

"She's wearing green, Chris, same as pine trees in the spring. Like that color."

"You're right. Sorry, I meant to say green. Here comes Casey and Nathan. Our little girl has grown into a fine looking woman, and look: she's waving at you. Raise your hand, Vin, and smile."

Tanner managed to lift his hand and shyly smiled at the recognition bestowed by the tiniest woman in the town. "She sure looks pretty and happy, don't she?"

"Yes, she does. Pretty as a picture, and she sure was happy to see you."

The tracker flushed and nodded his head. The congregation finally sat down, and Vin settled, seeming to enjoy the rest of the ceremony. The colors and the flowers still mystified him, but he could now see Nathan handing Casey over to JD. The kid glowed as brightly as his bride, but Vin could see him shaking. "He's scared, Chris."

"The nature of young grooms, but they all survive. Never seen him happier." Chris continued to whisper about anything that would keep the tracker focused.

"Buck keeps looking at us, and he's crying. Something's wrong?" Vin's focus returned, noting the details of everything and every person in the room.

"Think we surprised everybody."

"Reckon we did, but why's he crying?" Vin continued, squinting to understand the emotional wreck that stood beside the groom.

"Buck shows his feelings, unlike the two of us, and I think those tears are for JD and Casey. Weddings make him cry, and he looks upon JD as a son. Ever since you've known him, he's adopted you as a younger brother. Now, don't take that literally, Vin; remember what we talked about." Chris chuckled softly at the surprised expression, which soon relaxed into a smile that melted his heart. It remained on Vin's face as he turned his gaze to Josiah who started to speak. The strange ritual words recited and the loving vows exchanged baffled him. Although not understanding the spiritual significance of his first white-man's wedding, the tracker always enjoyed listening to the preacher's resonant, yet dolcet tones that sounded like music on the wind rustling through the trees. Hauntingly beautiful, the words flowed with the flowers, and once again, it sent him adrift to his desert hideout.

When Josiah asked JD if he would take Casey for his wife and to seal it by putting a ring on her finger, all alone in the back pew, Chris took Vin's hand. He slipped a decoratively carved, silver band, embedded with small turquoise stones, onto one of the tracker's fingers and smiled into the shocked face. The big blue eyes widened in their surprise, and Vin's mouth opened in bewilderment. His handsome lover handed him a second ring, and looking down, the tracker took the band in his trembling fingers and put it on Chris. The gunslinger leaned over and whispered, "I'll always love you, Vin Tanner."

Silently the young man crumbled, but his lover paternally pulled him down, hiding him from view. Curling up to make himself as small as possible, with his back to the rest of the church, he laid his head on Chris' lap, and his face nestled close to the man's crotch. Uncontrollably shaking, the only thing felt was the gentle hand stroking his hair and another hand easing the pain of his aching back. With the official introduction of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Dunne, in the back row, a silent vow of eternity was also sealed.

The entire church evacuated quickly to cheer on the excited couple as the newly-weds ran under dozens of floating petals to their waiting carriage. JD quickly put the single horse into a full gallop, speeding the excited pair away, in their gaily decorated buggy, for a few minutes of alone time. They would soon head for the homestead, where the guests would gather to greet them and the festivities would begin. Hands of all shapes, colors, and sizes waved them good luck. Giving them a head start, the invited guests lingered a while, to discuss the wedding, and to gossip about the two men who entered late. They certainly caused a stir amongst the members of the wedding party.

Chris sat quietly, protecting his lover, while waiting for the church to empty. The gunslinger smiled and nodded hello to those he knew as they passed by, while keeping his hat over Vin's head and shoulders, shielding him from the curious. Concerned looks came from the wedding party, as they had paraded down the aisle, first JD and Casey, then Nathan with Nettie, next Buck and Mary, then Ezra and Maude, finally followed by Josiah.

Vin clutched Chris' thigh, still trying to retain partial control, while the gunman silently cursed himself for springing something, so unlike Vin, onto the already fragile man. He had thought it would be a nice gesture, but after no sleep, an ailing stomach, nervous, scared, and in pain, it had been the worst possible thing he could do to his life partner. The doors finally closed, and Chris pulled Vin up.

"Sorry, Vin."

"Why? The ring's real nice, and it looks like yours. Just surprised me; not sure what we were doing. Love you too, Chris Larabee, on occasion." The humor returned and a wry smile lit up the gaunt face.

"I know, Button. Thought it would be special to put a ring on your finger in a church, but I just upset you."

"Reckon it did, but I'm fine now. What's it mean? Are we hitched?"

Chris laughed and rubbed the new ring he had on his finger, then the one on Vin's. "No, but it means I plan on staying by your side for as long as you'll have me."

"Like that, and all these surprises. Don't know what to say, but you're the first person that's ever told me the truth and showed me any affection. Want to thank you for that."

"It's my pleasure, but I bet there's a lot of people who love you. You just never let anyone get close enough to give them a chance."

"Don't know about that. Let's just sit here for a while. Sure wasn't ready for all this. Even the church confused me. Looks like the desert when eating peyote, with all these bright colors and the smell of this garden of flowers. It sent me back there, and all that was once so pretty. I'm the one who should be sorry, embarrassing you and falling apart in front of everybody. Feel like a jackass."

"Don't think people noticed; probably thought you've been ill since your absence. You'll never embarrass me, Vin. My heart's too hard to feel shame."

"No it ain't. You've proved to me that your heart is pure mush."

"Guess that makes us two romantic fools." Both men smiled and snickered, much to the delight of Buck who just walked back into the church. The remark had been mistaken for the few tears seen in both men's eyes, presumably over the wedding.

"Hey, pards. Damn your evil hides for taking so long, but it's good to see you, even if you do look like a scarecrow, Tanner." The comment was directed at Vin who did not look up. Buck eyed Chris who again gave a warning with a quick dart of the eyes and a shake of his head.

"Good to see you, Chris. You two have missed much of the excitement happening in our small town, as you've just witnessed." Buck continued to ignore the tight clutch Chris had on Vin. "Are you ready for the party? JD sure wants to see Vin, almost as much as he wants to run away with Casey." Buck and Chris laughed, while the tracker remained cold stone silent, not moving, until he suddenly lurched forward, almost knocking himself out when he hit his head against the bench in front of them.

"Chris, it's starting again! Not now! No, not now! Need to get outside." Vin's face once again contorted in pain.

"Hurry, Buck. Pick him up, carry him out the back way, and then set him on his knees."

The very much bigger man did not hesitate, plucking the thin figure off the bench as if he would a child, and hustling him out the backdoor. He set Vin down in the dirt, and once again, the tracker commenced heaving.

"Chris, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Quietly spoken, interspersed with gagging and vomiting, the gunslinger squatted beside him, again cupping his forehead in his hand.

"Nothing to be sorry about. Doesn't look too bad, Vin. Not much blood this time."

"Blood! God Almighty, you are sick, little pard. What can I do, Chris?" Visibly shaken by what he saw and heard, Buck's knees had started wobbling at the altar when the two men entered. Vin Tanner looked like a pitchfork, not to mention walking in a trance-like state. It scared and upset the tall man immediately, and it certainly frightened him now.

"Just give me a hand. We'll lean him against the church wall over there. Have to wait for his stomach to settle." Chris and his old friend had the ailing tracker against the back wall of the church in a matter of seconds, allowing the younger man time to recover. It took less than a minute for Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah to join them.

"Can you get his canteen, Ezra?"

"Certainly, Mr. Larabee." The gambler rushed away and returned before anyone could speak.

"Can you hang onto it, Vin?" Chris took the container and lifted it to Tanner's mouth.

"Yup, think so."

"Keep drinking, but not so fast this time." Larabee allowed him a few gulps, stopped him, and then let him swallow a few more.

Shaking his head, that he could not drink another sip of the ghastly white substance he hated, Vin arched his neck to allow the walls of the church to act as a resting place for his head. "Feel real bad, Larabee, but you can stop fussing now."

Nathan bent down and looked questioningly at Chris, then felt Vin's forehead. He did not have to check anything else, hearing for himself the raspy, rattle of his breathing. "Think you two have something to tell me." He stood up and loomed over the tracker and the gunman.

"Later, Nate. Right now, the milk will help. I'm taking you home, Vin."

The tracker still had not looked at anyone, solely concentrating on settling his stomach, trying to find a comfortable position for his back, and desperately coming to terms with four men who terrified him. "No. Promised Miss Nettie I'd be there. Best we get going."

"Vin, look at me. Look at me. You're feeling poorly. Don't think you could stand the ride." Chris could not believe that once again he had treated this man cruelly. Exchanging rings had been a bad idea, and bringing him into a church full of the townsfolk and friends made it worse.

"I'm better. Just need to stretch out."

Chris knew what that meant, and he smiled an evil grin back at his lover.

"You're thinking up something, Cowboy; something I ain't going to like, am I?" Vin squinted menacingly from under his dark lashes.

"Know what might help that pain, besides flipping you over Peso's back the wrong way up."

"What?" Vin forgot his stomach for the moment, and wondered what Chris planned to do.

"On your feet, Tanner." Chris pulled a weakened Vin up and chortled smugly. "Buck, Nathan, got an odd request. I'll handle his upper body, if you two each grab one of his ankles. Keep them close together, and as high above your heads as you can. Hold him upside down, and for God's sake, don't let him slip out of his boots. He doesn't weigh more than a feather, so it shouldn't be difficult." Chris issued the orders, and Buck and Nathan assumed a position to negotiate the task.

"No they ain't." Vin tried to squirm from Chris' tight hold.

"This will work. Bet you a sawbuck."

"Ain't got one, and that's two weeks pay. This ain't fair. You're picking on me."

"You bet we are. Now, stop squirming or it won't work."

"I'll start puking again." Vin tried, but an alternative or rescue did not come forth.

"Was that a threat or the truth?" Chris chuckled at the wildcat he clung to. Vin Tanner was coming alive.

Stunned, with a quick exchange of glances, Buck and Nathan took their cue, each taking an ankle and slowly raising Vin until he hung straight down, his hair dusting the ground and his arms swinging as the gunslinger chuckled. Being exceedingly tall men, they were the perfect pair to attempt an experiment. Chris pushed the tracker's head down to alleviate the straining of a neck to look up. With Vin now under control, he grasped both of Tanner's upper arms. "Ready, Button? Let yourself go loose."

"No, and stop calling me that. So help me, I'll kill you for this." Vin yelled and quickly started coughing due to his precarious body position.

"Too late. On the count of three, Buck, Nathan, hold him firm and yank him upward, while I pull down. One... two... three..." Chris gave Vin a good yank downward by his upper arms, and everyone heard the sharp crack and the yelp from the man hanging upside down. The gunman grinned ear-to-ear when he lifted Vin up under his arms and slowly raised him, while the two, much taller men gently lowered his legs.

"What the heck did we just do?" Buck questioned, hands on his hips, looking annoyed at possibly hurting the young man.

"Think we just straightened out his crooked spine." Jackson looked at the sharpshooter in wide-eyed wonder.

"That you did, boys. It doesn't last long, but it helps. You okay, Vin?" Chris again straightened out the man's clothes and handed him his hat.

"Think so. Sure am dizzy. The world's spinning around too fast. Feeling real sick, and it ain't no threat, Larabee." With a distinct change in his posture, he pushed back against Chris' hand, which habitually massaged the small of his back to relieve the trauma of a jarring adjustment.

"Best thank your new back stretchers." The gunslinger could feel Vin instantly tense.

"Thanks, Doc, Buck." Simply stated, and though the help was appreciated, he looked at neither man. Unable to face Wilmington eye-to-eye, when he thanked the big man for handing him his horse after the Mosely incident, he certainly could not look at him now.

Suddenly wrapped in a bear hug, his face jammed into a broad chest, he heard the smooth, quieting voice that had helped him sleep through the nights of a cold, wet winter. It dissipated the bad memories, but increased the guilt of something new. "You're back, son, and you're safe. May God be praised for returning one of our lambs."

"Sure ain't one of your lambs, Josiah; I'm a heathen, remember? Thought you were too, until I seen you in those robes." Vin pulled away and tried to smile for the very strong man, his one friend he trusted, along with the healer. He turned to smile sheepishly at Jackson who he discarded when the man had helped him moments before. More guilt and shame mounted astronomically.

"That's a happier look, Vin. Real glad you're back. We're all concerned about you, son." Nathan beamed with pleasure, having both men, who had saved him, home safe.

"Was doing just fine, until Larabee rode in and scared the heck out of me." The tracker continued to smile shyly. The gunman would tell them the full story later, even though Vin thought it no one's business.

"Fine? Reckon I have another version of that yarn." Chris relaxed slightly, now enjoying the interaction between two of their friends and the tense tracker.

"So, do I get a smile, or not?" Adamant, and shuffling his feet like a clown, Buck made Vin laugh, a better surprise; and a friendly hug confirmed it. "You ornery little cuss, you scared the dickens out of me when I saw you in the church. Looks like you need some patching up, pard." Again, Chris waited for a reaction from the tracker, but the young man proved his grit and stood firmly in front of Wilmington, flirting with disaster as he could only stare at his clean boots. The awkward moment passed with a needed interruption.

Ezra had picked up Vin's canteen and held it out for him. The tracker hesitantly reached for it and started pulling it toward him, but the gambler held fast, forcing Vin to meet his eyes. "Mr. Tanner, I have missed you."

"Missed you too, Ezra." The blue eyes finally met the concerned green crystals of the gambler's, and remained staring into the abyss of his exact opposite. "Nice to have Maude here, or has she been treating you unkindly again."

"Mother constantly amazes me, my friend, if I may assume we still remain as such. She has been a handful for Mrs. Welles and Mrs. Travis to handle; but I did come to their rescue to negotiate certain aspects of the festivities. There is something we must speak of concerning my mother, but we can wait until you are fully capable of standing straight without assistance."

"He's not good with surprises, Mr. Standish, but we'll speak of it in time." Larabee smiled broadly, worried about the venture the seven had invested in. This was certainly not the place or time for such detailed information; the tracker would be lost in a maze of Ezra's eloquent speech patterns.

"Can't take no more surprises, Ezra. Doctor in El Paso told me to stay calm; and it's getting real hard with y'all around me." Vin accepted his canteen, as Chris inched closer to his lover. It took very little to upset the man emotionally; and his conversation with the gambler, although short, seemed too intense. Fences were slowly mending, with the natural caring of their close friends, and Vin responded appropriately. Still looking squarely at Standish, however, Tanner decided to continue with the admittance of the most important of truths. "Don't know why I got so upset with y'all in the first place. Sorry I worried you; you're my friend, and I've had your back when others didn't."

"I know you have, Mr. Tanner, and I have never thanked you for your subtle efforts. You simply squint at this humble personage when I have given you grief, and I immediately understand that you know what I am attempting to say, and how I react to the many dishonorable remarks I receive, although sometimes exceedingly humorous. Because of you, my friend, I am attempting to dismantle the walls I have built around myself as protection. I am learning to take insults as critiques to be taken seriously, to change into an honest man such as you, and to stop hurting people with my words, although I admit to the love of satirical wit and terminology. I hate to say this, but there is another revelation to reveal, for I have something of a personal nature to discuss with you alone." The gambler's eyes softened, as did Vin's, and the two smiled genuinely at each other.

"Not more canon fire, and only for me. Sounds like one of your cons." A nervous smile ensued, and Larabee's supporting arm gave the young man hope he could survive this day of dynamite explosions.

"I simply require your advice from the one who holds my secret. Nothing more I assure you, Mr. Tanner." The gambler calmed the edgy tracker and shook his hand. Time to carry out further wedding duties, Standish turned away, to scurry away to the front of the church.

"Wait, Ezra, and I'll join you. Stay here with Josiah, Vin, and I'll bring the horses around back?"

"Thanks. I'll make it now."

"I'm counting on it." Chris caught up with the always well-dressed man, leaving Vin with Josiah; and departing with the others to get their own mounts. It was party time to celebrate a wedding and a reunion.

Josiah cleaned up the ailing tracker, brushing off the dirt and handing him the worst possible thing for his ailment: a mint candy for his breath and his delight. They waited for what seemed more than the appropriate amount of time, while smiling and conversing cordially about the latest events in Four Corners. Deciding Chris had run off, or was delayed by someone he knew, they made their way into the church, down the aisle, and out onto the porch. Ezra, Buck, and Nathan sat mounted and ready, waiting impatiently for the other three.

Vin stopped so abruptly, Josiah almost knocked him down the stairs. A picture of happy bliss confronted him, with Chris holding Billy on his hip while chatting happily to Mary. Seeming a lovely homecoming scene, and with Vin already lost in a fog of hidden insecurities and mistaken nightmares, he went berserk. Sanchez reached out a hand to stop him, not understanding what could be wrong. It set the preacher back when the tracker turned to attack, yelling directly at him in a raging fit. "Don't touch me. Don't ever touch me again. Leave me be. Thought I could trust y'all, but you held me back so Chris could... Don't ever need any of y'all, especially that traitorous, gun-slinging son-of-bitch."

Larabee turned immediately toward the church, to see his lover screaming in wild fury, jumping off the porch in a leap and stumbling awkwardly on landing. Regaining his balance, Vin pulled off his ring and the silver bracelet, throwing them into the dirt, and grinding them into the ground with the heel of his boot. He looked up to glare at Chris who could only stare back with his mouth open in shock and surprise. Tanner marched straight toward him and continued his tirade of violent, hurtful words, not caring who was there or in sight. "You got me back, but I ain't staying. You stole my alma, you son-of-a-bitch, by tricking me with promises. Go straight to hell, or wherever it is y'all are heading for, and if you come after me, know this Larabee; I'll shoot you're damn head off before you see me."

Chris saw the same tantrum building that he had witnessed with the Kiowa, and he calmly set Billy in Mary's wagon. As he turned to meet the hostile sharpshooter, a firm fist landed squarely in his face, knocking him off his feet. All over him in a frenzied attempt to knock the gunman senseless, Vin swung wildly, scratching, kicking, and shouting obscenities even Larabee had not heard before. Josiah finally pulled the snarling wildcat away, but the adept, native-trained tracker easily slipped out of the preacher's grasp and ran for his horse. Managing to scramble to his feet, Chris yelled for Buck to stop the rampaging madman. One quick maneuver, the bigger man had him trapped, and Vin went crazy, squirming to get free, yelling hoarsely in Comanche, and whipping his hair in hurting slashes to the tall man's face.

Josiah stopped and picked up the too magnificent pieces of jewelry and read the engraving inside the bracelet. His heart broke. The tiny inscription in the ring said it all: 'Button, I love you, Cowboy'. Looking up, he whispered sadly at the sight of his young friend, "My God, I know, Vin. I know, son. I should have guessed and been there for you." The preacher walked over to a shocked Mrs. Travis and her crying son, suggesting they leave immediately for the party. Mary refused, wanting to run to Chris, believing he had returned to ask for her hand in marriage. They had grown close and all her attempts at seduction were finally coming together, until that fateful day he left to find a friend. Quickly stopped by Josiah and guided back to her wagon, the Widow Travis was unceremoniously lifted into the seat and handed the reins of her wagon, while the child called out for the defeated gunman's attention. The boy did not receive a glance. With a smack on the rump of her horse by Josiah, Mary did not look back and dashed to the Welles' farm, hoping for consolation from Nettie or Maude.

"Drop him, Buck, and all of you high-tail it out of here. We'll see you when we see you." Determined but not angry, he strode over until reaching and towering over Vin where he had just been dropped in the middle of the dusty road. The four bewildered men headed out, but they all looked back at Chris who remained calm, and at Vin who continued to scream angrily at their leader in black. Things had changed for their tracker, and they were horrified. Obviously ill physically, and now sounding mentally deranged, the young man would meet his fate with the gunslinger; and the four older men silently rode away, hoping for good-news answers.

Chris let the banshee shriek in the near empty town, until the voice cracked and turned into a raspy whisper. As was the tracker's way, no tears of despair coursed down the face, just anger and hate filled the blue eyes. The gunslinger had lost everything he had regained with Vin, and then some. An innocent gesture to a friend turned into a raging torrent of unkind words and hostility that may not be reconcilable. How long could he live with this, and how long would these emotional outbursts last, Larabee wondered. Besides the incident with the Kiowa, this sudden violent fury had been seen once many months before the man went missing. In the outlying area around Four Corners, Larabee had witnessed the tracker near beat a man to death; a man pretending to be Eli Joe, but it could not compare with the ferocity of today's actions. Another of Vin's contradictions, he was a gentle, sweet man, with a jealous, angry child hidden deep inside. Thinking back, Chris realized it had been the first reason given for Vin's running away; perhaps he should have stayed with him in the desert hideout, safe from civilized man and its cruelty. In truth, Larabee did not need anyone either, except for this man screeching like a wounded animal, while writhing in the dirt.

One step forward, and Larabee grabbed the man kneeling and yelling, securing the thin shoulders and giving them a shake. With a voice as soft and calm as a whisper, he readied himself for a battle. His words had to make sense to a man insane by something he witnessed. "Stop this, Vin, and I ain't going to say this again. That damn peyote and poison in your body has made you completely irrational, and I'm tired of it. I told you before we sat down in the church to remember everything you see and hear, and if you don't understand something, you tell me. You promised, Vin, and now look at you. Start talking Mister."

The tracker did not answer, but started to regain some control. He pulled himself up, shoving away any help offered by the taller man. "Get away from me, you lying bastard. You sure ain't leaving this dirt-water town. That's a plain enough fact." Vin turned on his heels and headed for his horse.

"Where you going, Vin?" Chris remained motionless, waiting for a chance to settle the man down. This would take time.

"Don't much matter. Just getting out of this hellhole. Nothing good comes from this place. It's always a trap."

Chris grabbed him by the shoulder, creating a polar reaction, with Vin spinning around in another attempt at a physical attack. Ready for the eventuality, the gunslinger fended it off and held the arm firm. "That's enough," he yelled. "You're not listening again. Now stop, and think about what I'm trying to say."

"Ain't playing your games no more; now let me go."

"Can't do that. Made a vow a couple of days ago and again today. What more can I do?"

"This amante is leaving, and he's taking back his heart and his soul. Adiós."

"Not so fast, Tanner. Now, tell me what you thought you saw."

Vin calmed slightly, but seemed unnaturally sweating and agitated, shifting from foot to foot, trying to release Chris' grasp on his arm. "Saw everything I needed to see--a family--something I can't give you."

Chris melted in sorrow and grief. His heart could not take anymore, and it shattered like crystal into fragments that he could almost see fall out of his chest, sprinkled on the ground, sparkling like tears in the sun. "You are my family, Vin. Just you and me. Let me prove it, or hasn't the last months meant anything? What about your vision quest and your bracelet? Have you forgotten it all?"

Vin teetered slightly, and his anger dissipated into utter sadness. He gently pushed Chris aside, walked over to the church steps, and slumped down, face in his hands. Silently, Larabee followed and quietly sat beside him, cautiously placing his hand on the tracker's head, stroking it tenderly.

"Just been having a real bad day." Vin sighed in resignation, and Chris thought it one of the biggest understatements he had ever heard.

"It's the poison, Button. You're not yourself." Chris softly caressed the hair, gently coming down to rub the man's back.

"Can't blame everything on that."

"Well, I can, after watching you before eating the peyote and smoking the weed; and how both changed your natural quiet ways."

"Feel real bad. Spoiled JD's wedding day, and I reckon ours, if that's what the rings mean."

"You didn't ruin anything, and yes, the rings meant a commitment of sorts. Men don't marry each other, but there isn't any reason to make a secret vow to stay together. Now tell me, are you feeling bad because you're sick, upset, or jealous?"

"Just sad. Couldn't get much sadder, even though the secret pact we made meant a lot to me, and it sure made me happy when I said it, but then I came out of the church and you're standing there holding Billy and..."

"...Reckon what you're feeling is jealousy, Vin; and you're fighting over something you have already won: my heart. Isn't that enough?"

"Does it belong to me alone, or do others have a share?" Vin could not understand a concept as simple as a male and female platonic friendship.

Chris settled back against the step and tried again. "Mrs. Travis is only a friend, and Billy is just a child who needs a man's guidance. We'll be running into them from time-to-time, so you better get used to the fact and start behaving politely. Can you do that for me?"

Vin nodded his head in agreement, because he could not say the words, but he believed Larabee still misunderstood Mary's intentions. "Never felt so angry, Chris. Think I'm best on my own and should head back south. If I can't control whatever this is, I'm no use to anyone."

"That's what the doctor said would happen. Until all the poison's gone, your emotions are going to swing up and down. They might last longer than we want them to, but we know that isn't you, Button. Just hope your curendara's potions help."

"Hate feeling like I've got sticks of dynamite in my head, and I don't know when they'll go off. You're right; this ain't me, and I don't like it." Vin choked back his frustrations. He exposed enough of his problems this day for public viewing, and he clenched his jaw, determined not to repeat such a dishonorable mistake.

"Once we're settled in, where you can remain stable enough to fix your belly, then we'll start mending all those broken fences in your head."

"Don't have fences in my head. What kind of crazy notion is that?" Vin leaned against Chris, his head on the gunslinger's shoulder, as his eyes wandered over the vacant, peaceful town.

"Broken fences are... let's call them a metaphor... of all the things that upset you, or have in the past that we have to straighten out. Maybe you won't be so unhappy, and you'll start seeing things the way they really are and have always been. You've spent a long time alone, Button. Even in Four Corners, you hid from us, creating things in your head that were never real. Now, here's the strange part: when you do tell someone something, they keep your secret as well. It's a peculiar gift you have there, Vin, and you're still doing it. You'll probably never tell me about you and Ezra, and why you two seem so distant yet intense."

"A metaphor, hunh, you'll have to explain that one to me. As for Ezra, we're opposites, and nothing's going to change that, but I told you about all the others only a few days ago. You didn't listen. I feel bad for Ezra, because no one seems to like him, but he's smart, funny, and will do whatever you ask, all the while rolling his eyes and shaking his head as if we're all loco. You don't trust him because of one mistake and don't understand his comments, which you think are disrespectful and full of lies, but it's the only way he can express himself."

"Reckon you're right, considering he sent all my telegrams and letters, trying to find you; worried as much as I was. If you had looked at him, when he first came running up to us today, his eyes were glistening with tears. Just shows his worry, wishing to know if you were sick or hurt."

"He'd do that, because he has a bigger heart than I can say. Can't tell you the secrets we share. Think we should get out of this place, Larabee, and move on."

"You'd be running away again. The moment I put that bracelet on your arm, we decided to make plans while you heal. Think it best, Vin, because I sure can't continue fighting emotional battles while straddling a horse."

"Reckon so. Hate it when you're right. Who made you so damn smart?" Vin twisted his head to look up at Chris and gave him a soft, forlorn smile.

Chuckling softly, the gunslinger pointed to his own face. "See this line, and this one, and don't forget this one; each is a result of some stupid thing I've done over the years, and I learned a lesson from every single line, particularly from you."

"If that's so, I'm going to look older than Miss Nettie before the days out."

Both men laughed in a quiet, but sad way. Chris lifted the boyish face, watching for any possible onlookers before kissing the forehead and nuzzling the sweet smell of long hair. "Know you never wished to return, but it's probably for the best, Button."

"I came up with our first plan, and you figured a way to start. Should ride out as soon as possible, although Ella's had time to be anywhere in the world if she sold her ranch and business. Reckon a few months ain't going to find her any sooner." Vin reconciled his dismay of staying, by giving the gunslinger a time limit.

"Seems fair, as long as you behave like the doctor explained. How did you get so smart, thinking up a time frame that would suit us both?"

"Listening to you." Vin's blue eyes finally met the green ones, welling up with the compliment never heard before.

"Okay, Mr. Tanner, it's party time, and we better go before you have me bawling. But the second you start to fade or feel bad, you find me."

"I'm sticking to you for the rest of the day."

"Fine with me. The closer you are; the happier I am." Chris let go, and Vin sat upright, stretching out his back again.

"Sorry I hit you. Your jaws a bit swollen."

"Just glad you're not quite as strong as you were seven months ago, or we wouldn't be having this chat."

"Now I feel bad about something else." The tracker's head dropped, and a hand pulled up his chin, softly stroking the tremor of the bottom lip.

"You didn't even leave a bruise, Vin. Stop feeling sorry for everything. It's not necessary. Now, let's hit the road for Nettie's place."

"Better get my bracelet and ring. Feel real bad about throwing them away, as if they meant nothing. Promised never to take them off." Vin got up and headed to the exact spot the jewelry should have been. "They're gone, Chris! I can't find them! They're gone!" Instantly on all fours, Vin shuffled madly through the sand, desperate to find his lover's vows.

"Steady, Vin, we'll find them. Think I know where they are."


"During the free-for-all, I think I saw Josiah pick them up."

"Hope so, and if I ever take them off again, shoot me." Vin stood up, brushed himself off, and looked up into wary green eyes.

"He probably read the inscriptions, Vin. Josiah will know." Chris contemplated on their dire situation, while the ailing man gulped down another nervous outbreak. "Our preacher man will understand, but you have to remember that in this community, they could put us in prison for the way we love each other."

"Just can't understand the white-man's ways. The different bands I lived with never cared. It's natural for some, and you don't pay them no mind. Guess I shouldn't stand so close to you. Maybe we should reconsider leaving immediately." Disappointment filled the sad eyes, and the strain mounted, showing in the young man's deeply furrowed brow.

"Stand as close as you want; we just have to be careful. Don't want you fussing about this, you hearing me? Just follow my lead when we're speaking to folks."

Vin nodded, took several deep breaths, and stood calming himself, while once again Chris finished brushing them both of dust. Now looking presentable, but a little bedraggled, they mounted up and headed for the party. During the ride, a concerned Larabee remained vigilant, watching his chosen partner closely and praying the younger man could deal with the many more surprises ahead.


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