"Hold still, JD. Damn it, boy, if you don't stop fidgeting I'll never get this tied." Dressed to the nines, Buck Wilmington took the responsibility as best man, holding the prestigious duty of caring for the groom, which turned out to be a wicked chore.
"Are you sure that's what I'm supposed to do, Buck? I've seen how you treat women; and it's different from the way you treat a wife. I ain't sure if Casey would be happy about the things you're saying. She ain't like your whores. Wish Chris were here. He's the only one who's been married."
"Working girls, JD, working girls; be respectful. Just remember, women are women: soft, delicate little creatures to be treated sweetly and kindly; and men need to take real good care of them, making them feel special. All women love that ooey-gooey stuff." The very tall man bent down to fumble with the tie, almost complete with one last loop to go.
"Casey don't need me to take care of her. She's done a darn good job helping Nettie run the farm." JD snapped back nervously, for this was his special day and his very special bride, but waiting for word, of his friends, warranted a little ranting.
"Damn, look what you made me do?" Buck's large fingers lost the hold on the intricate knot; and he threw his hands up in despair; an appropriate time for Ezra to slip into the small room at the back of the church, which Josiah used as his own quarters. The fancy gambler took one look at the pair and shook his head.
"Mr. Wilmington, please step aside that I may attend to this matter. I dare say that I have tied sufficient numbers of these knots as not to be a problem of this magnitude. I do hope, Mr. Dunne, you have not been listening to a word of the instructions and orchestrations Mr. Wilmington has been offering. I further suggest you follow your own instincts when it comes to your most beautiful and delicate of flowers, one Miss Casey Welles, soon to be Mrs. JD Dunne." Ezra smiled at the kid, turning him around to view a perfect bow tie reflected in the mirror.
"Thanks, Ezra. Has anybody seen them?"
"Your bride and her party? Yes, I have, and they continue to busily primp and preen; very much like yourself and this crude personage standing beside you, attempting valiantly, but failing miserably, to make you presentable for public viewing."
"Did you just insult me, Ezra?" Buck looked sternly at the man, also clad in his finest attire.
"Would never have crossed my mind." The handsome gambler looked at JD and rolled his eyes skyward, making the kid laugh for a short respite from his worst fears. "Your bride shall arrive soon; a picture of innocence and charm in her angelic white gown, literally lighting up the church with her radiance in anticipation of her wedding day, including the promises you both shall now be encumbered with, I regret to say."
"That ain't the kind of talk a groom should be hearing right about now." Wilmington chided the man who shrugged his shoulders.
"Excuse the offensive remark, Mr. Dunne, but I do have my reasons for being dubious about the particular institution of matrimony, and its accompanying blissful family oriented augmentations. I shall, however, one day take this trip down the aisle, praying I shall not be encumbered with the likes of my mother."
"You two drive me crazy. I meant Chris and Vin." The kid looked down and scuffed at something unseen on the floor with his shiny new boots.
"No, Mr. Dunne, no one has heard or seen either of them." Ezra's cheerful face saddened and his big green eyes sorrowfully looked down into JD's soft disappointed brown ones.
"Chris promised. Something must have happened. They wired from El Paso, but they might have captured Vin in Texas. What if they hung him while we all stood here fussing about a tie?"
"Slow down, kid. We would've heard if something happened to either of them. Let's stay positive here, and have a little faith they're just behind schedule. It's a hell of a ride between here and El Paso." Buck took him by the shoulders, and bent down to stare at the troubled young groom. Reassurance deemed a necessity, and the best man was there. None of the three wanted to consider the many misfortunes that may impede the progress of the two missing men.
JD reached for the telegram and silently reread the short message: NETTIE WELLES STOP JD DUNNE STOP FOUND HIM STOP WILL ARRIVE FOR OCT THIRTY ONE WEDDING STOP CL STOP. The note held no clues as to Vin's well-being, or whether he would return with Larabee. The tracker could be sick, injured, insane, or disabled; worse yet, Chris may force him to come back, and the notorious gunslinger was quite capable of doing so. JD did not want any of these possibilities to befall his friend; the only one he truly looked up to and took advice from, no matter the situation or the chaos. Relatively close in age, the kid certainly knew it, although the tracker would never let on. The astute Mr. Dunne, however, could tell by various conversations that Vin, the man who seldom spoke and never admitted to anything, appeared as much in the dark about the many things discussed by the older members of the group of seven.
"Casey wanted Vin to give her away, or Chris." JD murmured softly.
"Nathan's the perfect choice for the job, and she'll never regret her decision. You hearing me, kid? We don't know Vin's current state of mind, and you know he ain't good in front of crowds unless he's threatening them. Otherwise, he gets all nervous and tongue-tied. He loves Casey like a younger sister, but the way he was acting before he left... well... we just don't know what he might say or do. Chris would have been a real good choice, but ever since Vin left, he's only had one thing on his mind and that's Tanner. Besides, I don't think the ladies would have cared for cheroot smoke filling their preening room. That leaves Josiah, but who would perform the ceremony? Ezra would have done a fine job and look real good, if he could keep his mouth shut. He'd have Casey so confused with instructions; she'd be in a fine state to march down the aisle. Handling Mrs. Travis wouldn't have been a problem for him, but the Welles' women… Lordy, someone would have got hurt… and most likely Ezra, considering his mother walks amongst us."
"I resent your insinuation, Mr. Wilmington, of such erroneous insight into my impeccable character when it comes to women. I assure you, I would have handled the ladies with great care, inspecting every ribbon and curled lock hanging out of place, including my mother." Again, the gambler rolled his eyes at the thought of Maude arriving several weeks before the wedding and taking the entire event into her hands. A few snappy words from Mrs. Welles, however, did not deter the flamboyant woman from planning and purchasing the dresses and the flowers.
"Exactly my point, Ezra. You'd have driven them crazy. Now, me... can you imagine me amongst all those beautiful women? I'd be..."
"...you, Mr. Wilmington, would be incapable of accomplishing anything constructive amongst a bevy of women, except to bestow countless compliments instead of perfecting their beauty."
"Exactly, now let's give Nathan credit for being the best choice." Buck stepped back to survey their ensembles, another credit to Maude's exquisite taste.
"You're right. Nathan looks real good too. I saw him when he left for Mrs. Travis' place to escort the ladies over here to the church." JD brightened a little. Although two were missing, four of his friends stood beside him.
"There you go then, pard. Feeling better already." A playful pat to the small man's chest confirmed an end to further conversation.
"Reckon so. I'm sure they'll make it, and Nathan will keep Casey calm with all the excitement."
"If anyone can do it, Mr. Dunne, it surely would be Mr. Jackson. He does have a miracle touch in soothing and comforting the sorely injured and the very ill." The gambler agreed with Buck for possibly the first time since meeting, and it surprised them both.
"You should know, Ezra. Think you've been in his care a few more times than the rest of us, possibly excluding JD here." Wilmington laughed at the two, as they both stared at each other, then glared menacingly back at the tallest man in the room.
"Only my shoulder and a few well connected strikes to my nose. I have always been grateful for his services. Now, I must return to my insurmountable duties accorded to me by Mrs. Welles and my darling Mother, as well as ensuring Mr. Sanchez has everything he needs. On this special day, the church requires perfection of its decor. Good luck, Mr. Dunne, we shall see you at the appointed hour." Standish smiled broadly at the groom, and then disappeared out the door.
The gambler surveyed his handiwork, checked every possible detail, and walked through the newly restored chapel, satisfied it looked magical for the young couple. With Maude, Mary, and Nettie's help, they had filled the entire room with flowers in a splendid array of fall colors. The last day of October--a day of yellow, gold, orange, green, and red--although too far south for a season change, they created the illusion. Even Josiah's regalia and awesome presence blended into the splendid display; magnificent in every choice, the church and decoration blossomed in a fiesta of colors, flowers, and pretty ribbons. With everything complete, and the tolling of a bell expected in thirty minutes, the entire town would soon arrive to witness the vows between the happy-go-lucky Mr. Dunne and the lovely, diminutive Miss Casey Welles. A tear hit his cheek, and Ezra choked back the emotion, not of wedded bliss and the ceremony, but the distinct loss of two men who should be there. Wiping his emotions away, he heard a quiet knock on the main front doors of the chapel, and quickly helped Nathan scurry the bridal party into the holding vestibule, hiding the bride from view. The three women entered excitedly into the waiting area with nervous giggles and a few misty tears. While the ladies finished fussing with lace and bows, five men waited nervously. Little did they know their wishes would come true, and two long lost friends were primping a few miles out of town.
With forty-five minutes before the wedding, the tracker remained coiled in his bedroll, after spending a good portion of the night throwing up blood and groaning in pain. At his side, throughout the torturous ordeal, Chris held a cold compress to his face, wiped the sweating brow, and cooled and soothed the anxiety that continued to build in the younger man.
"Didn't realize how tough this would be for you, Vin. Should've just told them to go ahead, and we'd be there when we could." The long furrows running across the gunslinger's forehead did not ease; the strain increasing each time his lover moaned. Although the worst he had seen of Vin's suffering, the tracker seemed to take it in stride, seldom complaining.
"No, we'll make. Just help me up, so I can take a bath and dress."
"You can't even stand, let alone ride."
"Yup, we're going. Can't break a promise; and some of these potions are working better than others."
"Unfortunately, the ones that keep you the calmest upset your stomach."
"Life's like that, Cowboy?" Vin feigned a smile, trying to erase the worry on the gunslinger's paling face.
"Reckon so; with the good comes the bad." Chris helped him up, stripped him down, and walked him over to the familiar river, which the community used as a swimming hole. Secretly, Vin used it only at dawn, just as the sun came up, to ease his sorry spirit and wash away the dust and grime accumulated over twenty-four hours. No one knew, and he may again need its security. His reverie ended as Larabee announced, "Since I found you, Tanner, I've taken more baths than I have in my life. Think I like the idea of diving into a cold river to wake me up."
"Can't understand why white folk smell bad and don't care."
"Bath houses and tubs are rare. Everyone does their best, but boiling water, just to bathe an entire household, would take all day. It's hard enough for folks just to do their laundry."
"Don't understand when cold water works just as well. By the way, when you were talking about good and bad, which one am I? Probably the bad." Vin pondered aloud.
"So that's what this is about. You think you've made a mistake the rest of us might disapprove of. You're scared the others will feel less of you for running away." Chris could only surmise over Vin's troubled spirit.
"Didn't run away. Went on a vision quest."
"Bull. Your feelings were hurt, and you let them grow inside, until, like some damn kid, you ran away from home. Admit it, and you'll probably feel a hundred percent better. You know they'll all be glad to see you."
"That's just perfect, Larabee, now you're calling me a little kid. Didn't run away from home, which ain't never been my home anyway. Ran away from you, or haven't you figured that out yet? Wanted you since our eyes first met, and you just kept teasing me, until I couldn't take anymore." The tirade stopped as the tracker groaned and fell to his knees, heaving up nothing but choking sounds.
Chris knelt down as quickly, his hand cupping the feverish forehead, while pulling the long hair away and back. A familiar position, it reminded the gunman of the first day he found his partner, but instead of convulsions, the younger man now squirmed in agony. "Sorry, Vin, I didn't put it together, but we've been through this, talking at length about my stupidity. Reckon I did set a trap, not realizing how it would affect you. Honestly didn't think you were interested in a beaten-up, wreck-of-a-man like me. Easy now." The gunman had the tracker on his feet, but Larabee took one look at the ailing man and shook his head. How many other things, besides the large emotional battles admitted to, continued to fester in Vin's mind? Tanner's youth showed distinctly, believing everything literally, and responding accordingly. It should not have surprised Larabee, as he thought back to the stories told to him on their long journey home. A man, completely ignorant of double-entendres and innuendoes, had misinterpreted innocent remarks and actions. Vin had not lived the life of an average white child; Larabee finally realized the fact. Cultural differences taught the tracker to speak the truth and to trust his friends to do the same. Although the natives that he had met seemed to speak in riddles as a teaching method, verbal teasing was not their way, and certainly not a game. They had all failed him.
"Yeah, think I'll live. Just get me into the river. I'm starting to figure out how things get mixed up, but it's over. You gave me this bracelet to prove it, and I'm thankful you finally noticed me, you old wreck." A humorous comeback and a smile attempted to end further conversation.
Larabee missed the cue to stop and continued, "Messed up badly, Vin, and I'm sorry about that; but it's a new day, and we're starting over. Steady enough to take a step? I'll join you for a quick bath, get our duds on, and head for that wedding. Should have time to stop and get you a glass of milk before we arrive at the church."
"Good idea. Milk helps the best. Wish it tasted better."
"Too bad it doesn't help that nervous condition of yours. Sink down here in the shallow part, and I'll be right back with what we need." Chris hurried away, striding out quickly to save time, while Vin submerged into the cool water. An instant shiver ran from his toes to his nose, as Vin refreshed his slightly fevered body. Another treat waited upon opening his eyes; a naked gunman joined him, filling his sense of sight with wonder and excitement; and he thanked his spirits the water was mountain cold.
"Feel better already, Chris, and just what nervous condition are you talking about?"
"Oh, that condition. You know the one that causes your ulcers to flare up. You remember that one, don't you?" Chris laughed, happy his partner could find some merriment in his delicate state. "We must hurry, Vin. We have very little time."
"We got time."
"No we don't. Besides you're sick."
"Want you riding me before we go, Cowboy, or I ain't moving."
"Sorry, Mr. Tanner, but we can't break a promise." Chris' words and actions, in time, would heal the man of his anxiety, and only this one day stood in their way. If they made it through the wedding, the meeting with friends, and the party, Vin would heal. The gunslinger understood that the others shared his deep concern for his Peyote Button, and would rally to his aid.
With no gratification this important morning, Vin expediously soaped down Chris, while the gunman hurried to do likewise to his partner; they were running out of time. With the tracker's hair finally washed, the two plunged into the deeper depths, racing from one side of the river to the other, just for one last thrill. Both fresh and clean, they emerged to scramble out, laughing and playing like kids, as they dried and dressed.
"We're going to be late. How are you feeling, and no lying, Button?"
"Nothing makes me feel better than you, Cowboy." Vin chuckled, but the expression on his face said something else. The gunslinger raised his eyebrows, and from under his long blond lashes, he puzzled at the younger man who busily dried the long tangles. The tracker was not better, but still slightly bent over in pain. Well-hidden, Chris wondered how long he could withstand this day and all its events. "Hurry up, Vin. It's going to be a fast gallop into town. Leave your hat off, and your hair will dry in the wind."
"Sounds like a plan." The voice said the words, but lacked the normal enthusiasm. Chris would keep his eye on him, and would notice anything that may end up with a quick ditch into the dirt to be sick, or the rise of another depressive, anxious state.
Spotless in his clean black clothes, a silver buckle sparkling in the sun, and the tiny metal buttons on his shirt reflecting the golden rays, sent little starbursts into the air. His spurs glistened, as did his highly polished boots. A freshly brushed hat and his long black duster finished him off. With a shock of white teeth smiling brightly from a healthy tanned face, and his sun-bleached blond hair falling down the back of his neck, it made an already attractive man bedazzling. He looked up eagerly to study his partner who seemed transfixed, staring at him in unadulterated adoration.
"Looking mighty handsome, Cowboy. My stomach ain't the only thing that's going to make it a might troublesome to ride. The cold water didn't do a damn thing." Vin turned his look from Chris' eyes to his crotch, watching it expand and move beneath the black trousers, pressing against the man uncomfortably.
Larabee chuckled, noticing a similar bulge pushing against Vin's soft tan pants. His tracker always intoxicated him after a bath, and the feeling appeared mutual, in the very visible arousal and the beaming face with no hint of facial hair. The boyishness became one of Larabee's delights, reaching out, and touching the radiance of youthful skin. Vin's hair continued drying in the sun, and glittered in the natural colors that a northern autumn displayed. He wore his blue shirt, which enhanced his intense eyes that now seldom squinted, but remained in childish, wide-eyed innocence. Those overly large irises of cobalt were all one could see in his natural state of being. No longer hiding his youth by looking sinister and dangerous, this relaxed side of Vin intoxicated the taller man, just seeing him smile when those perfect white teeth would suddenly appear, even for a fleeting moment. The gunslinger quaked thinking about his lover's barely noticeable overbite, and the sensation of those two front teeth gliding down his manhood. He sucked in his breath at the thought, and he heard Vin laugh.
"Too bad, Cowboy. Looks like we're both in trouble."
"Getting to this wedding will be pure hell." Shaking out his earth-toned serape, the gunman threw it over Vin's head to ease the shivering of a body too thin, and to keep the dust off the freshly cleaned apparel.
"You started it. Ready to ride?"
"Ready for a re-ride, Button, but it ain't my horse I'm thinking about." Chris groaned as he swung up on his black and adjusted himself as comfortably as he could. Having the same problem kept a grin on Vin's ashen face. The man looked gaunt and fragile, yet stood proudly and erect, as he too mounted up with a little less ease than usual.
The two men, both troubled over different problems, headed for Four Corners as promised. Each time the tracker slowed Peso and Chico in hesitation, Chris would slow in stride to ride along beside him, taking Vin's hand, and then urging all four horses forward into an easy, but steady lope. Digging his nails into the gunman's offered hand, anxiety mounted steadily, and Larabee did not need to sense it; he could physically feel and see it. "Steady, Vin. We're almost there."
"You'll be okay. I'll be right beside you."
"Wasn't questioning you; it's just my back's hurting real bad again." No longer any hesitation in revealing his inadequacies to his partner, Vin knew it best to tell the gunslinger the problems he might be having, before they escalated into something he could not handle on his own.
"Tonight, I'll give you the best backrub you'll ever have and in our bed."
"Sounds good, but damn it hurts, and your bed ain't big enough to do nothing. Reckon we'll be sleeping outside." Vin endured back problems his entire life with a slight curvature of his spine, making it difficult to sit, stand, walk, or ride for any length of time, without continually changing positions. He learned to deal with it by slouching, leaning, and generally hanging onto anything to relieve his back from his own body weight. Something he did unconsciously, it remained his secret from the others until this long ride back from Mexico. Chris finally noticed the seriousness of the situation, and discovered very quickly how to ease the pain and help his young lover get some relief.
It had been a bad few days for Vin: lacking sleep, his 'ulcers' flaring, his stomach cramping from the strain of being so sick, his back aching from a night of heaving, and the last draw, enduring the long, hard ride for weeks to where he wished not to return. Mentally broken, all he wished for was to get off Peso, lie flat on the ground, and stretch his arms over his head; his only remedy when riding alone. His aroused state quickly diminished; at least disappearing before it could not be held back; but there lay ahead something more fearful--five men waited--creating more tension and pressure to behave correctly and to forgive. Vin thought he could withstand anything, but facing these men terrified him, and forgiving them seemed doubtful in his blocked heart. Once again, he reached out a hand for Chris to hold firmly. A simple touch was a constant reassurance.
Four Corners came into view, and they heard the distinct sound of a bell. They pushed their horses into a winning gallop, racing down the main street directly to the saloon. Chris did not hesitate to jump off his horse in one fluid motion while both his horses came to a sliding halt. He took his canteen and ran straight into the bar, returning within seconds. The only place open this special day and at this time, Larabee's relief came when the bartender poured fresh milk into Vin's canteen. Expecting to hurriedly scavenge for the coating liquid, the saloon surprised the gunman by always making milk available for early breakfast eaters.
Vin had been tossed the black's reins, and he held the sweating gelding attached with a rope to Larabee's second horse. All the while, he leaned over Peso, holding his stomach and resting his head on the horse's neck, while Chico stepped up to instinctively nuzzle the man who needed comforting. Tanner waited for what seemed an eternity, until Chris appeared, helping him to sit erect, and affix the canteen in his trembling hands. The unsteady tracker swallowed the thick liquid gulp after necessary gulp, while the worried gunman drew in his own breath, detached the two extra steeds, tied them to the railing, and took a flying leap onto his favorite horse. With Peso in tow, Larabee urged the two black horses forward, but continued to look backward to ensure the ailing man could handle the pace. They hurried toward the church, with Vin desperately swallowing and gagging on the fresh milk, while Chris handled two horses and a man about to fall off one of them. As they pulled up to the hitching post, the wedding march sounded. Larabee cringed, hoping he had fulfilled his promise in time.