Two men pulled up and looked through the familiar trees onto the Welles' homestead. To the runaway, who had returned, it seemed hundreds of people milled about, most of them unrecognizable. Not nearly that large, the scene appeared bigger and grander than his pounding heart could fathom.
"What do you see, Vin?"
"Too many people. I can't do this." Sucking in his breath did not help the paling face his partner saw. Chris took his hand and squeezed it hard, taking a moment to gaze at his young lover. Seeing him for the first time as the others did, he realized the shock they hid at the sight of him. Delicately thin, his cheekbones stuck out of a gaunt but truly handsome face, making his eyes appear larger. The dark hollows around those remarkable eyes exaggerated them as well, truly making the man look ill. With an accentuated drawl that seemed forced whenever he spoke, the voice sounded extremely raspy, with little scratches making any speech barely audible. Difficult now to breathe, the hesitant and shallow tone could signify either excitement, or a bad case of nervousness. His throat constricted saying only a handful of words, and at this stage, even a scream would not be loud enough to wake a person.
Vin's mangy head of hair had grown longer and uncommonly luxurious, and would create envy amongst many women of his acquaintance. Waves of soft, rich-brown hair, sun glazed to perfection, cascaded half way down his back, making the man look smaller, frailer, tired, and frightened; the fragile appearance tempted Chris to take him directly home to bed. Their friends noticed the physical change, and giving the others all due respect, the gunman thought they recovered from their shock extremely well. Even Buck called him a scarecrow in fun, but the description was true. Chris hoped Vin's looks, although extremely beautiful and vulnerable (a dangerous combination for attracting both men and women) would not warrant further comments from the others, particularly this special, but already disastrous day.
"Look again, Vin; carefully this time. There are lots of horses and wagons; don't muddle them with the people."
"There's JD and Casey." Vin pointed with a shaking arm and hand toward the dancing couple, whirling gaily amidst the happy gathering.
"Casey's easy to spot in all her white lace and bright yellow bows." The gunslinger saw the young couple, both laughing too hard to keep up with the fiddler's wild polka. Delighted for JD, and always having a soft spot in his heart for Casey, Larabee smiled wistfully, while admiring their exuberance. Happiness flooded over him, to see a perfect picture of two kids frolicking in love and life; he would remember the image as an enduring memory.
"Can see Nathan and Josiah. Most of them I've seen before, I think."
"Just like any other day in Four Corners, right?"
"If you say so, Cowboy." Vin boldly headed for the corral, and Chris continued to grin. "One more fence rebuilt", he whispered quietly.
They stripped down their horses and placed their equipment just outside the enclosure, releasing the two trail-weary blacks into the small fenced area to stretch, water, and feed. It had been a long day for their animals; and they had left their other two important secondary horses in the care of one lone stable boy at the Livery. With that needed chore accomplished, they turned to see JD and Casey running full speed toward them, hand-in-hand, and the biggest, excited smiles on their faces. The groom grabbed Vin in a tight hug, and Chris, with great ease and merriment, swung the tiniest bride he ever saw off her feet and spun her happily off the ground a half-dozen times.
"Vin, where you been? I've missed you. It's good to see you. Nathan and Buck told me you weren't feeling good at the church. Are you better? Hope so, because Casey and I sure have a big party waiting for you." The youngest of the seven friends had finally won his prize, after a strange on-and-off again romance. Larabee had plans for the two, but Tanner simply enjoyed the reunion.
"I'm fine, JD. Nice wedding, Casey, and you sure do look pretty." Vin bashfully smiled and inched closer to Chris who set the bubbling bride down.
"Thanks. Never, even in my dreams, expected such a beautiful dress, but thanks to Mrs. Standish, she brought yards and yards of material with her from New Orleans. She near drove the dressmaker crazy, making the four dresses for us." Casey giggled and continued to shine.
"I bet she did, but it was very nice of her. Didn't expect to see her here." Chris chimed in, wondering what the flamboyant woman, now firmly established in Louisiana, would say to Vin. He would have to stop her, unless her son had mentioned to keep her condescending tone at bay.
After the initial greeting by the newly-weds, the other 'couple' headed into the crowd to find Josiah. He could not be located immediately; perfect for Larabee whose hunger craved civilized food; and there before him, spread tables of more appetizing delights than he had seen in five months. "Come on, Vin, let's eat. There has to be something here for you to enjoy."
Staying close to the handsome gunslinger, with too many people jarring him, someone handed Vin a plate. He could not see anything that would remain in his stomach, and even the temptation to try gave him a twinge of a flare-up. His companion loaded his own plate, walking from table-to-table, while Vin followed, attempting to ignore his favorite foods spread out in great quantities. He did not know what to do, and he had never seen so many goodies displayed in one place. Suddenly, Nettie came to his rescue, and took the tin plate from his hand. Walking together over to the veranda, she made him sit beside her.
"I insisted Nathan tell me what's ailing you, son, but he couldn't give me an answer. You're as peaked as they come, and you're just skin and bone. He tells me you had a bad bout after the wedding. Reckon you're having a little trouble with all this food, if your belly's upset."
"I'm fine, Miss Nettie." With the standard answer spoken, Vin did not fool the elderly woman he loved as if family.
"Of course you are, and I know there's something we can find for you to eat. You're hungry, ain't you? Just tell me what I should look for."
"Just simple things, Ma'am, and some milk. Can't eat too much at a time."
"Promise me you'll stay right here, and I'll find something that won't upset that ailing tummy of yours." Nettie put her hand on his face, and then patted the delicate, sunken stomach gently. "We best start filling that hole up. I'll be right back."
"Thanks, I'd appreciate it." Happy knowing he did not have to push his way through the crowd, Vin trusted Miss Nettie to help him. He loved her for it, and she loved him back. The feisty, elderly woman, who Tanner had initiated a plan to save her ranch from an uncompromising rancher, left in search of food she thought Vin could manage with a bleeding stomach, but her first stop enlisted the healer's help. Vin wondered what Nathan told her, as he lazily looked about, becoming more comfortable within the familiar surroundings, and knowing he safely slouched in a chair on the Welles' porch. He felt better than he had for a long time, especially when Chris joined him, sitting down with a huge plateful of fried chicken, chili, rolls, sausages, beans, and on, and on.
"Damn, Larabee, you're going to be useless tonight if you eat all that. You'll be asleep before I get that backrub."
"Always keep my promises."
"Don't think so."
"Don't start, Vin. We've already discussed Tascosa, and me leaving you behind. I can't say sorry enough. Promise me that you'll stop looking back at the mistakes we all made, and start looking forward to a great massage. Plan on doing things to you tonight that you'll fall asleep giggling." Chris gave him a wicked smirk, tossed his hat to the ground, and dug into his lunch.
"Yeah, but give me a little time, Chris. Makes me sicker and sadder when I think of those things. Best keep thinking about the good things we're going to do, right?"
"You bet. Now, we just need to find some grub you can eat?"
"Nettie's getting something. She doesn't know what to choose, but I saw her speaking with Nathan. He doesn't know yet neither." Vin just watched the swarm of people enjoying the meal and the music, feeling an empty stomach felt better than a full one. The two men fell into silence to allow Chris to satisfy his hunger, but soon Mrs. Welles appeared with a plate just the right size for Vin and a glass of fresh milk.
"Sorry, son, it don't look like much, but I think it will taste better than what you've been eating on the trail."
Vin looked down and saw mashed potatoes, mashed squash, a few tiny pieces of white meat off a chicken, with a fresh, warm biscuit. "Thanks, Miss Nettie. Looks mighty tasty; lots better than mush and oatmeal."
"You're going to put some meat on those bones, if I have anything to say about the matter. I expect you'll be staying with Mr. Larabee a while, until you feel better; and I'd be willing to take care of you both. Don't think our favorite gunman can cook, except trail food, but maybe he'll surprise us."
Vin flushed and shyly confirmed the facts. "Yes, Ma'am, he's invited me to stay a few months until I'm better, and he's not a bad cook, willing to try to add a few things to foods I can eat so they taste better. Besides, I ain't a bad cook either."
"That makes me happy, but when the time comes, if you need a place to stay, I now have an extra room as of today. You're welcome to it any time."
Smiling with a blush reddening his cheeks further, and a thankful nod accepting her gracious invitation if needed, the tracker started to poke at his food, now more embarrassed than hungry. Chris winked at Nettie who smiled back at him with a knowing nod; and the woman left them alone to eat in peace. "Go slow, Vin."
"Think I know how to eat, after you yelling at me for weeks, but did you see all them pies, cakes, and things with sweet whipped cream? Could eat everything on that one table."
"Then who's going to be useless tonight." Chris nudged him with his shoulder, and Vin shoved back slightly, still staring at and craving what he could not have. He finally started on his small, delicious, mildly spiced meal, satisfying both men that it would not make him sick.
Finished and satiated, Larabee took their plates away as his lover stretched and started to walk off his lunch. His stomach felt slightly strained, but his hunger had disappeared. Feeling quite comfortable for a change, he looked out toward the trees, listening to them sing softly in the light breeze of a beautiful day. He turned to see his forever partner approach with Josiah and Nathan, merrily chatting to their long lost leader. Everyone seemed gladdened with Chris' return, shaking his hand, patting him on the back, as if he had done something important. Vin shied away from such acknowledgments, unable to recognize what they meant, but hoping those closest to him were happy to see him as well.
"Sorry for yelling at you, Josiah. Didn't mean those words, but you won't hear them again."
"I understand, son, and I think you're missing these." The preacher handed the jewelry back to its grateful owner, watching for any facial expression that could spin the younger man around.
"Thanks, these are real special. Promised never to take them off, and look what I did. Ain't disappointed in me, are you, preacher man?"
"No reason to be upset with you; we'll talk about everything later." Sanchez looked at Larabee and dipped his head slightly in understanding. The gunslinger knew nothing had been said, or would be, to anyone about the engraving. Thanking the preacher several more times, Tanner finally returned Chris' vows to his wrist and finger. They remained undamaged in his attempt to turn them into dust; and his friend had polished them sparkling new.
"Got a surprise for you, Vin." Nathan exclaimed, suddenly beaming as bright as the day, along with the preacher.
"What? Don't know if I can take another surprise." Immediately on guard, the tracker tensed and waited for the worst; surprises were always the worst.
"What is it, Nathan? Don't want to upset him again." Chris looked at the tracker, who stepped closer to him, and that habitual cupping of the chin came into play, startling both Nathan and Josiah; but they saw how relaxed the smaller man became with the intimate stroke across his lips. "Sorry, boys, but it's just a gesture to calm further agitation. Seems the only thing that keeps his mouth closed when confronted with something he may not understand."
"At least you found a natural calming method, Chris, but we need to talk about your illness, Vin, and what the doctor, who you mentioned, said. Perhaps tomorrow, I'll ride out and we can talk." Nathan's face did not change from its usual surprised look, which gave the tracker hope that the healer would not press for answers this day.
"Thanks, Doc. Reckon tomorrow afternoon would be best, and as for telling you what's wrong with me, Chris can answer better than me. So, what bad news have y'all got for me? I'm ready." Tanner pulled back his shoulders, steadied himself on his feet, and readied himself for disaster.
"Well, we waited a couple of weeks before all the banks sent your money to the Four Corners' account, and because of what we found, we did some checking on your behalf to make sure all was accounted for." Josiah sounded intense, but the smile never faded.
"No money, hunh? They never wired my bounties." Not surprised, the former bounty hunter had expected as much.
"On the contrary. You were one busy man, and you sure started at an early age." The smile on the preacher grew bigger.
"So? Don't matter when I started hunting for bounty dollars." Vin hated questions regarding his age, and this sounded like a calculated effort to extort the years he had lived. Younger than they thought, his former disguise had helped: the stubble, the clothes, the squint, the menacing stare, and the deadly aim, all which had disappeared when he went on his vision quest.
"You've been collecting money for years, not spending a dime. You only went after large bounties, probably not even knowing it. Josiah and me figured the meaner the hombre, the more interesting the hunt." The healer's bright countenance disguised his worry over the very ill, yet determined man; and he still had trouble believing what they uncovered on the young man's behalf.
"Yeah, so?" Confused by the many words not telling him anything, Vin slipped slightly behind Chris, wondering how he could escape from things he knew nothing about. He learned his way around by instinct and eavesdropping to hide his inability to read. Never concerned about money, until recently, it meant nothing when you did not have any to spend.
"You're a rich man, Vin Tanner." Nathan smiled even brighter with their life-altering news.
"What's that mean? How rich, and in what way?" The meaning of the word had no comparison for the tracker; and he did not understand the concept. He had seen and met some of the rich, and entangled himself rarely with their comings and goings. They appeared more interested in their fine boots rather than the hapless poor whom they kicked with their pointed toes.
"According to the Bank Manager, you brought in at least five or six $500 bounties a year. Taking those amounts and adding a few smaller ones, then multiplying by the six-years you've been a bounty hunter, you have a grand total of over $50,000 in your account." Josiah added to the healer's sunshine, barely able to constrain his eagerness to hug the boy he loved and admired.
"How can that be?" Chris asked, shocked to the core. His eyes looked panicked and exhilarated at the same time, as they darted from Josiah to Nathan and back again.
"Not many people average a $750 deposit per month for years. Vin was very successful at his job; considered one of the best, until his incident with Eli Joe. He brought in several gangs single-handed, as well as some very notorious outlaws. A very rare talent you have there, son, and because of those skills, you earned a tremendous amount of money. You can afford anything your heart desires." The preacher calmly placed a firm hand on the former bounty hunter's upper arm to make sure the smaller man did not fall over. Frightfully pale and getting paler, Tanner did not know what to do, except stare back and forth between his bankers.
"Are... are you sure? What do I do now?"
"It's all true, and besides that, it's been gathering interest. Josiah and me looked over everything more than once, just to make sure."
"Don't know what that means?" Vin swayed slightly and started to shiver. He pulled even closer to Chris who stood too stunned to notice.
"We'll explain it further when you're over the surprise." The healer saw the symptoms and also tried to reassure him with a touch to his arm.
Vin stepped away in disbelief, as Chris turned to face him. The gunman's easing expression and assurance did not relieve the shock, and only a few sad words came from a very confused man. "What do I do with it?"
The preacher stepped in closer, seeing the disbelief in the dark blue eyes and ashen face. "When you're ready, Vin, we can discuss investing your money in something safe, so you don't have to worry about working again."
"Don't understand?" Now looking at Chris for answers, Vin felt himself slipping into an abyss of darkness. Bafflement, misunderstanding, and new words toppled over him, crushing his weary body.
Larabee immediately saw the man falter and quickly made a suggestion, praying it would help the tracker acknowledge what needed doing and the success of such a venture. "Josiah, find Ezra and Maude. Maybe they can explain what we've already done regarding the investing portion of your statement. Nate, I need your help to keep Vin upright."
The preacher ran with speed to find the gambler and his mother, while Nathan reached and grabbed the tracker, as the young man's knees buckled and he headed for a fall. Before his face ended in the dirt, the two men lifted him, to stand erect, but unable to support himself. Vin stared blankly, not realizing someone turned him araound to face the house, protecting him from view. A quiet utterance came from the shaking man, "Think I need to go home." Now fully in shock, Tanner's head whirled, still not comprehending the magnitude of his new position in life.
"Maybe we should leave immediately. You've had a long day, Vin, and this is just a little too much excitement for you to handle. Are you sure about this amount of cash, Nate?" Green eyes darted from his ailing friend to the worried one.
"We're very sure, Chris. This ain't no joke, and neither is Vin. Look at me, son; look at me." The healer convinced the young man to look into his eyes, which were studied in haste. "He's not with us, Chris." The pronouncement of Tanner's ailment did not surprise the gunslinger, but before further words came forth, the two older men attempted to move the uncooperative body onto the veranda, to await Ezra, his mother, and Josiah. They all arrived in a flurry of distress. The preacher had warned them, and now it was up to the gambler to explain a little banking business.
"Mr. Tanner, I understand you wish to know how to double, triple, perhaps quadruple your money; and it can be accomplishment in what we call investing." Standish held his ground, attempting to get a reaction. With nothing but glazed-over eyes staring at him, he had to bring the tracker back. "Take my arm, Mr. Tanner, and let's talk about the advice I require from you. You're the only one who knows my secret; therefore, it would behoove me to contemplate the possibilities with someone who knows my heart. It has nothing to do with money, I assure you."
Ezra beamed at Vin who surprisingly responded, "I'd like that, Ezra." The two men walked away and around to the back of the house, to sit precariously on a couple of large cut logs. Once settled, the younger man tried to focus on his friend, rather befuddled about a secret. The change in conversation broke his shock, allowing him to forget what had just happened.
"I have a confession, Mr. Tanner, and I do hope you approve of my proposal. Do you remember Lee Pong, the young Chinese women who I met during the fuss with that absurdly greedy rail boss, Mr. Browner?" The gambler hedged his bet, waiting for a signal or a word from Vin. He received only a nod, but the blue eyes had returned to life and looked straight at him. "From your nod, I assume you will believe what I am about to explain. I have been writing and receiving mail from the beautiful woman since she left for San Francisco to rejoin her family. Having grown very fond of her and missing her sweet presence, I..."
"Vin stopped him with a hand gesture and spoke softly. "Know you didn't touch her, Ezra. Talked to her after you gave her the package of money and the coach ticket. Thought right then that you two would make a good couple." A slight smile, of knowing more than the tracker should, caught Standish off stride.
"You see and observe too much, Mr. Tanner. I appreciate your faith in my ethics and morality, but I also have my ways of finding out what you know. Lee Pong told me in her letters that you had been very kind to her, after she received the package, making sure she packed immediately and left on the back of your horse. You safely, and without fuss, secured her on the stagecoach. I shall always be grateful for your insight and sensibility." Standish wiped away a small tear forming in one of his eyes, as he glanced up to see a shy smile from someone he may have hurt without regard or remembrance.
"Just something I do. Don't mean to spy on people, but you're easy to read, and I just wanted to help. Have you told Maude yet? What's going to happen next and will you stay in Four Corners?" Justifiable questions from the tracker who had returned to the caring man Ezra remembered. Vin felt better helping the gambler, and he wished upon the blazing sun he could retain his composure, but something else lurked in Standish's mind.
"You have hit upon my dilemma, Mr. Tanner, but it leads to another matter, which has you confused. A simple explanation first, and this does not mean you are stupid, but just a man who has never heard the term. A marriage proposal is like an investment, Vin, without the exchange of money, but of one's future. Marriage is a risk that two people take to make their lives happier and build a family. Does that make sense to you?" Ezra waited and received a nod. He continued, "Do you remember when we found the $10,000 and our friends did not think it wise for yours truly to keep it safe? After days of pondering on the part of Mr. Larabee, Josiah grew tired of my incessant badgering, and threw the pouch at me in disgust. Having the money gave me pause for thought, and once again, I had to prove myself worthy of the company of six friends." The gambler stopped, having difficulty with his emotions; just touching the enormous amount of cash had almost buried him in thoughts of thievery.
"Yeah, I remember. Thought you'd gained some weight when I saw you in the street. Knew you had it strapped to your chest, and I reckon it was a good idea. The money saved your sorry hide when the assassin's bullet hit you. You were a hero, Ezra, saving Mrs. Travis; although I'd be lying if I said I wished the one-eyed gunman had struck her down." Tanner's feelings toward his rival continued unabated, and he seethed under his stoic face.
Ezra was shocked, but regained his composure quickly, as not to set off the volatile man who sat beside him. He continued, "Since the money was never claimed, the six of us decided on a plan, as we had become the inheritors of the vast amount of money. Now, this is where my mother comes into play, and the decision on the part of the six, which included your share. If you recall, I had received a telegram, from my mother, requesting $2,000 to purchase a hotel and gambling establishment in New Orleans. Amongst the six of us, we decided to check the potential of the deal; and after many long trips to the beautiful but dangerous city, we all concurred that it would be a fine investment. As of today, and with yours truly and Josiah continuing to take trips to make sure my mother does not abscond with our funds, we invested $1,000 dollars each, a great sum for all of us, but with $7,000 dollars invested, we have all the power. In short, we have all made substantial profits, and will continue to do so. Splitting the last $3,000 dollars by seven, the extra money has changed many things for each of us. Mr. Sanchez helped his sister and finished his church. Mr. Jackson found a larger space for an infirmary and purchased more books and supplies. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington have not yet made a decision; and of course, Mr. Dunne is saving for his future children and a house with the new Mrs. Dunne. As for me personally, I plan to marry my beloved Lee Pong. Your $450 sits in the bank, waiting upon a decision to spend it anyway you desire. What is your opinion on this matter, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra held his breath, praying the result of his monologue would not create a vomiting attack for the tracker.
"Like the idea, and I'm glad Josiah told you about his sister. He said he'd kill me if I told anyone. Kept the secret a long time and couldn't even help him, knowing where he'd been while the murders of the women in Four Corners took place." Vin shook his head, but now realized he had another secret and more money in the bank. Breathing deeply, he had to ask the question. "Can we trust Maude?"
"Truly unexplainable, but my mother has the business under tight control. We, that is Josiah and I, audit her books every few months. She even tracked down Inez to help manage the establishment, as well as hiring that Mexican gunman, Raphael Martinez who required a place to hide from Don Paulo's devious family. I must admit, however, my services are needed in New Orleans, and Lee Pong is willing to move. She's very used to large cities, and can find her way amongst the many streets, always with an escort of course." Standish paused, waiting for the next question to arise.
"So you're moving then, Ezra. Congratulations about your engagement. Does anyone else know?"
"Not yet. I require assurance from Mother that we have a place to live along with a job requiring my expertise. We shall be happy, and if anything goes wrong, I shall be packing for San Francisco to assist Lee Pong's father to expand his business, which is doing very well. As a tailor, with access to very exquisite material from China, and a new location closer to wealthier cliental, he can keep his large household fed and educated. As you can see from my new suit, he is a wonder at fitting his apparel on anyone with the correct measurements."
"Sounds like you've made up your mind," Vin asked rather sullenly.
"Yes I have, Mr. Tanner, but I wait, with great urgency, for a telegram from her father to give his blessing. I am confident he will agree, and send Lee Pong's arrival date in Four Corners. He would certainly entertain the thought of Lee Pong being amongst friends and her saviors, who also aided in his own family's good fortune."
"Wish you luck, Ezra. Guess everything and everyone is changing and moving on with their lives. Four Corners has even changed to a bigger town. Guess they don't need us anymore."
"Yes it has, Mr. Tanner, and I expect you and Mr. Larabee will be leaving as well, after you've regained your health."
"What makes you say that? Larabee has property here and ties to two graves he tends." Vin's smile disappeared, falling again into a void of uncertainty.
"You are my one friend, and you can beat me to death, if I am mistaken in my judgment over the matter. You and Larabee need each other, and whatever happens, you must be extremely careful, as all those people in the yard are already whispering. I can only assume that you have discussed your predicament thoroughly and understand the dangers of your relationship." The gambler leaned over and placed a hand over the two wringing in agitation. "I'm sorry to have upset you, but we will protect you."
"I'll keep your secret, Ezra. You know I will, but I ain't feeling too good. Best get back to the others. I'm real happy for you though, and I'll miss you." The eyes that had focused on the conversation returned to a glassy stare and the wringing hands now clasped over a sunken stomach.
"Of course. Inundated with news, good and bad, you require a little support, therefore, take my arm this time, to ensure I get you back safely to Mr. Larabee. Be assured Mr. Tanner that we shall all be together from time to time, as we own a prosperous hotel together, making the seven of us, along with my mother, members of the Board of Directors." The gambler held out an arm and the younger man latched onto it for support. Unable to concentrate, the only thing he needed was rest and in the arms of his lover, but his return to the front porch hit him with another jolt to his psyche.
In the midst of a serious conversation, Larabee had been discussing his money; and Josiah seemed to be answering one of his questions. "It's all there for you both to look at. I'm sure Vin will need your guidance, Chris. No one knows except the four of us, and the manager who won't say a word. Have a feeling Ezra has smelled the scent of the money, considering the Bank of Four Corners has suddenly become quite prosperous." Overjoyed over Vin's success as a bounty hunter, the preacher believed his two friends required a chance for happiness, releasing them from their self-imposed miseries. A male couple, committing sodomy, deemed fair game for the worst of humankind.
"Is it safe?" Chris asked, as he reached out a supporting arm for his returned partner.
"As long as we're the law in town. We took the liberty of taking some of Vin's cash to buy the bank a more sophisticated vault, just to protect his assets. I'm sure you'll want to make other arrangements, as soon as you can, perhaps placing the large sum in a bank of a larger, more secure city, like San Francisco, Boston, or New Orleans." The look on Josiah's face immediately informed Chris just how much Vin had accumulated.
"That leads us to another problem. I'm sure the vault can secure the money as it stands, but it does not discount the fact that Vin Tanner is their main contributor. Picking up our trail could be easy, just by snooping around bank records for names. We need to find a way to hide his fortune; and as you suggested, perhaps his money should be transferred to a larger bank that has a reputation for being well guarded twenty-four hours a day." Chris remembered the conversation that had upset the tracker when they decided to search for Ella Gaines via the bank. Although the tracker would seldom be in Four Corners, his name could be readily traced by any resourceful sleuth, including the murderer of his family.
"Thanks for helping him out, both of you. Once it sinks in, Vin will be thanking you too." Chris felt the knowing quiver and asked quietly, "You okay, Button?"
"Don't know. Never been rich before. Don't feel no different." Vin looked up in complete trust, and the other three fell into fits of laughter with the response. Sweet innocence turned into sadness, sadness into depression, depression into physical pain, while the others continued to laugh. The former bounty hunter, lost in a wave of emotions he could not understand, did not know what to do, to feel, to think. The snickering continued, and he exploded in a frenzy of sheer terror and panic. "Stop laughing at me! I don't know what to do! Stop!"
Four men abruptly halted their merriment and immediately went into a formation, protecting the youngest from anyone close by. The man shook so severely, he started to shiver and sweat at the same time.
"Okay, Vin, shoosh now. Ain't laughing at you; we're just happy for you." Chris stayed calm and steady, as he put his arm around the thin shoulders.
"You knew about it, didn't you? That's why you came for me: my money."
Josiah immediately stood his ground, taking the young man by his shoulders and looking squarely into frightened eyes. "No, Vin, Chris didn't know. He went after you, son, for all the reasons in your bracelet and ring. No one else is aware of your earnings, except your worth protecting the town and being our friend." Josiah spoke as sedately as Chris, and sadly watched one of his children falling apart, piece by piece. He had never seen Vin peak and valley with his emotions like he had in the last few hours. Naturally easy-going and good-natured, this wreck was not the same Vin Tanner they knew.
Nathan stepped forward with the same thoughts that Joseph puzzled over, and abruptly asked Chris, "You best tell me what's wrong, besides his bleeding belly. Right now, Chris. This ain't normal."
"Let's get him into the house first," Larabee responded with urgency, while staring only at Vin, trying to gauge whether another fit of anger would explode in his face. "Easy, Vin; we're all going to sit in Nettie's parlor."
"Want to go home."
"We will. Just want you to rest for a minute. Ezra, did you say something to upset him?" Chris glared at the man who still could anger him with a word.
"No, in fact, Mr. Tanner and I enjoyed a very nice conversation, including our investment in New Orleans. He seemed very pleased with the many things we discussed." Standish stood with the others, including his mother who stood by, waiting for her son's return to the party. She had enough of the conversation regarding money, considering her financial success, and that which she had brought to others. The look of the disheveled tracker and his vacant stare, however, piqued her interest. One of her investors, Vin Tanner appeared more deranged than ill.
The gambler's explanation sounded trustworthy, but Vin heard only the words that they would go home. "Want to get back to Mexico right away."
Chris stopped short, put his forehead on Tanner's shoulder, and sighed. The others saw defeat and complete frustration in the gunslinger's action, as the younger man, in a strange twist, tried to comfort him. "It'll be a good life, Cowboy. We'll be free there."
"Vin, you're in shock. Come with me. Come on, son. I'll help." With Chris close to tears, the healer took over, quietly guiding the hapless tracker and the distraught gunslinger into Nettie's small home. Josiah, Ezra, and Maude followed close behind, wondering what had become of two proud and dangerous men. "Sit here, Vin." Nathan tried to ease the man onto a chair, but Tanner stood firm.
"No. Want to sit with Chris by the campfire, like always."
"Let's try chairs in a house for a change, Vin." Larabee felt cold and damp, shivering in his own shock, but knowing his partner's mental state came first. Finally getting Tanner settled, the gunslinger sat in a chair directly across from him. Staring into a sea of blue, looking into those liquid pools, straight into his sworn lover's soul, Larabee was as much adrift as his tracker.
"What happened, Chris?" Nettie walked in, coming directly over to kneel beside Vin's chair, holding one of his hands, while Larabee caressed the other.
"He's real sick from eating peyote for seven straight months and great quantities daily. By smoking jimsonweed, he enhanced the effects, just like Sha-nu said. His body's full of the poison, along with sniffing sophora blossoms to help him sleep. Their scent is deadlier than the jimson. A doctor in El Paso told us he'd be a little confused, and probably stay depressed for a very long time, but he's eaten so much of the plant, in such a short space of time, the man compared Vin's problems to those of an elderly Shaman. Doesn't seem to need or want the plant, but he's overwrought with sadness and easily agitated; and the god-awful flare-ups in his stomach." Chris kept his eyes on Vin, trying to see if the young man would react to becoming the subject matter of a harsh reality. There seemed only shocked silence, and the younger man heard nothing while watching someone stroke his hand.
"Heard stories about folks who eat peyote. Tried it myself a few times, and certainly understand how Vin could lose himself in the experience. But, as you stated, his symptoms occur in much older men, like the Shaman you mentioned, and this doctor figures our boy is in the last stages of the condition? Lord save him, if this is true." Josiah's consternation grew. "Is it the peyote or the poison rotting his stomach?"
"The peyote. The disease is still being studied, and the only term that comes close is 'ulcers'. That's what the doc said; wasn't it Vin?" Chris did not want to exclude the subject of their worry from the conversation any longer.
"Yup." Tanner had been listening.
Nathan again quickly jumped in for reassurance. "This doctor you spoke to, where did he get his education, and please don't tell me from a one-year course taught in a no-name college of physicians?"
"He was a real doctor, Nate, one with so many certificates on his walls; I couldn't read them all. One's I do remember were the University of Mexico, the most prestigious school in all of the Americas and the oldest, and then there was Oxford in London, the Sorbonne in Paris, and I think he had a notation on his wall from Harvard."
"He certainly was a doctor then. How did he end up in El Paso with those credentials?" The preacher asked, considering Mr. Jackson stood completely tongue-tied.
"Do you want to tell them, Vin?" Larabee questioned the one still in shock. A back and forth movement of the head concluded his part in the conversation, and the gunslinger sighed and continued, "Dr. Pasquel's father owned land around the town, and it extended far into Mexico. Very successful, he raised his second son to be a useful member of society, and thus educated him as such. Sent him to schools all over the world to become the best, but El Paso felt like home to the doctor; and he believed, helping his people, the natives, as well as the white-folk in the area, his life's work. He even explained the death of Vin's mother to us, considering putrid fever usually causes massive deaths through plague. The doctor told us there was a... what did he call it... a strain that was particular to Mexico, which did not spread so readily, and that's why Vin and his father survived. Ain't that right, Vin?"
"Reckon so." Vin stumbled over two words, but remained clearly part of the conversation.
Chris recognized the oncoming depression, as the tracker seemed far away, and finally posed a question that would give them an excuse to leave. "Feeling any better?"
"Don't feel nothing. Is this what dead feels like, Chris?"
Every heart broke, and tears filled the corners of each eye, except for the one too numb and too sad to feel anything. Nettie reached up and touched his cheek. "You know we're all here for you, son. We'll fix your bellyache."
"We have lots to do to get you healthy, Vin, but we need your help. You have to stay calm and quiet. Remember your quest, your bracelet, and the dream of traveling in search of a certain party. Do you recall how happy you were about each one, and how good you felt?" Chris held Vin's chin in his hand, the thumb immediately caressing the lips, trying to ease the inner struggle, or lack of it. Omitting the name, Ella Gaines, and what they planned for the murderous woman, seemed appropriate, for revealing their plan of a murderous revenge would not bode well amongst the group.
"Well, keep thinking about them. Touch the bracelet and rub it, remembering what it says and means, whenever something starts to upset you. Can you do that?" Larabee begged, taking the blame for the emotional battle the young man seemed to be losing. If he could turn back time, just one day, the gunman would have kept the troubled Vin Tanner in camp another day, and then have headed directly home. Instead, he had selfishly insisted on riding into a town, offering only bad memories, walking into a church where the tracker had once slept during his worst and loneliest nights, and finally sending him into a tornado whirling with too much food, too much noise, and too many people. Only Josiah's hand on his shoulder held any comfort for the gunslinger.
Slowly looking down, their returned runaway started rubbing the blue stones of his bracelet, feeling their texture and seeing his reflection in their matted sheen. His eyes filled with tears, and he reached out for Chris. The gunslinger without hesitation pulled him onto his lap, and let Vin hide in his neck. "Come on, Button. We have lots of fun things to plan with all those dreams stuffed in your head."
The tracker stopped the sob that choked him and pulled away, but still sat on Chris. "What's the matter with me? I'm sorry."
"Think, Vin. You see or hear something you don't fully understand, and instead of asking about it, you become agitated, angry, and then depressed. Next thing you're doing is spewing blood and squirming around in pain. We have to stop it somehow. Can you try for me? Try to stop and think about what you're really seeing and hearing. Can you do that?" Larabee held a grip on him so tight; he could have caused a bone to break. He could not say the words any clearer than he had hundreds of times since seeing the doctor.
Vin put his hands over his face and rubbed it hard, then pulled his fingers through his hair. He opened his eyes clearly for the first time, suddenly realizing there were more people in the room than just he and Chris. He immediately jumped off his lover, wobbling a little as he tried to stand.
"What's wrong? You moved so quick, you scared the hell out of me." Chris tried to sound calm, but his heart had skipped a couple of beats.
"Ain't supposed to get close."
Chris leaned down, his elbows on his knees, his face in this hands, thinking to himself, 'Here we go again. How do I deal with this?' He pulled himself together, stood up warily, and looked at each face: Josiah, Nathan, Nettie, Ezra, and Maude. Each one gave him a sign of approval, and he stepped over to Vin who remained motionless. The gunslinger put his arms around the fragile figure and pulled him into a full body press. Tilting the boyish face up with a gentle hand, Chris kissed him, softly and intimately, and the gesture was returned with closed eyes, melting lips, and a pleasurable moan. Vin fell adrift, back into his desert of fiesta dancing flowers, and a naked apparition of his gunslinger. A voice in the distance startled the tracker from his reverie; and he cried out to stop, but the words went unheard, muffled in his lover's chest.
"We can stay close among friends, and most of your best ones are right here."
"We're happy for you, Vin, and whenever anyone of us are around, you and Chris can be as close as you want. We'll tell no one." The strongest, calmest man of the group came over and wrapped his arms around both men. "Your secret is safe, son, and that's exactly how I feel about you: my son. I grieved when you left, so please tell me you'll stay, and I can rejoice that you've found someone to care for you the way you deserve."
"Thanks, Josiah. Always considered you my father, ever since the day we met, and you said that the blackbirds flying overhead meant death. Knew you had some understanding of wild creatures, but blackbirds bring magic." Vin smiled sheepishly, not wishing to correct an elder, but the truth deemed necessary.
"Good, then you'll stay."
"Only a short spell, preacher man. In a couple of months, Vin should be ready to ride the long journey we've planned. Don't know where we'll be going, but we're on a hunt. You'll see us again, but in the meantime, we have to feel safe and use Vin's illness as a reason he's staying with me."
Without warning, Maude found her voice and sweetness dripped like honey. "A very sound rouse to cover your relationship, is that not so, Ezra?"
"Very sound, and to make it more acceptable, for the people of Four Corners, perhaps Nathan or I could stay and visit regularly, one as a friend and the other as his healer. What do you say, Mr. Larabee."
"You're all welcome anytime."
"Now, my dear, child, while you and Mr. Larabee are on this journey, remember that you shall always have a room at the hotel of which you both own shares; and since Ezra told you, it should not come as a surprise. My son has also informed me that he may be moving to New Orleans as well. Please, do not hesitate to come, without the obligatory invitation or reservations required. You are my son's friends; how could I possibly turn you away." The beautiful Mrs. Standish shone her brightest, and even Nettie Welles seemed impressed with the offer, as she turned her lips upward slightly in a knowing smile. She had come to like the fancy woman, although many words had been bantered about concerning the wedding.
"Thanks, Maude; we may take you up on your offer. Another home, Vin, along with the non-obligatory invitation from the Kiowa warrior who has already signed the treaty and settled on the land granted to him by the government." Chris smiled, and they all laughed, more in relief than amusement.
"But Mr. Larabee, Geronimo's warriors continue to attack, making the crossing into Kiowa, Comanche, or Apache land exceedingly dangerous." Mrs. Standish feared for her life, while on every stagecoach that passed through or close to the still warring splinter group.
"We've been given a free pass of sorts, Maude, thanks to Vin's connection with both the Comanche and Kiowa. The man we met in Mexico assured me that there would be no problems, and his band would watch for us when the time came. Think he just wants advice on how to work his land, since forced into farming or ranching. Even if we could find water for he and his band, the man would be happy."
"Well that's settled, and I think it best, Chris, that you take this young man home to rest." Nettie tried to smile her most comforting and gave both men a squeeze.
Nathan joined in, assuring them he would help Vin return to his natural state of well-being, and would stay overnight on occasion to ensure the whispers did not turn into a hanging party. Since Vin's rapid departure, and the quarrels between the tracker and the gunslinger before leaving, he had surmised correctly that the two men were more than friends, at least on the part of the younger man. Every word had sounded like a lover's spat to the former slave; and he seemed the only one to connect the actions of each and the significance of a touch or word. The young man's quest had ended happily, but the healer knew the dangers of such a coupling. He had been a witness to the atrocities inflicted upon those who committed sodomy while working for the Union Army and during his days as a slave.
Chris inhaled deeply, relieved that their friends now understood his relationship with the tracker and the ailment with which the young man suffered. No one appeared shocked, but he had yet to meet with Buck, and he had business with his old friend. With acceptance came relief; the people standing in the parlor would give his lover support if something fatal happened to the gunman. Watching his back meant something very different to Larabee than it did to the tracker. Now, very afraid for Vin's safety, if word got out about his new found wealth, his relationship with a man, plus the hefty bounty on his head, Larabee may be the one who needed the others' support. He would guard the man with his life, however, and hid his sudden panic with his contagious smile. "You ready to go home; and it ain't in Mexico?"
"Home sounds good."
"We have to say good-bye to people on the way out. Can you deal with it?"
"Reckon I have to."
"And if we run into Mrs. Travis and her son?"
Vin suddenly hesitated, and the question surprised those looking on. The tracker's face filled with uncertainty. "I... I... don't know."
"If we do, can you promise me you won't panic, and you'll listen to what is said and done, without making something up that isn't true in that wicked head of yours?"
"Keep rubbing your bracelet, and we'll get through the crowd. We're off then. See you all soon, and the wedding was beautiful, Nettie. Thanks for everything. Hope we haven't ruined your day?" Larabee was eager to get the runaway home immediately, but the throng outside could cause a massive attack of anxiety for thte tracker. Wishing to sneak out the back way, his plan could not be implemented with so many farewells to express and congratulatory utterances to a special young couple.
"Nonsense, Chris. Besides, seeing my niece happily getting hitched has made my day, and I guess my heart-adopted son did too." Mrs. Welles hugged them both, hiding her worry, as did they all.
"Thanks, Miss Nettie." Extremely embarrassed, Vin grinned bashfully, and everyone saw the face they remembered.