St. Valentine Got It Wrong
Disclaimer: None of the characters are mine. You know the rest.
Summary: A different take on Valentine's Day.
Challenge: The February 2005 Challenge by Helen Adams - Since February is the month of Valentine's Day, let us play with the theme of love. Not the happily-ever-after variety, though. We've seen that cupid is not exactly kind to these guys, so write a story featuring one of the following (or mix them all if you're feeling ambitious!): An unrequited love or secret crush, a jealous suitor out for one of the guys' blood, or one or more of the Seven playing match-maker for one of the others. Bonus points if Josiah plays an important role. That poor guy just does not get enough to do!
It was a mild day, warmer than anyone expected for early February, and the small town of Four Corners was unusually busy. When Mary Travis suggested in the paper that there wasn't enough communal spirit, an anonymous reader came back with the idea that the town should have a party. A look at the calendar showed that the next big occasion was St. Valentine's Day and Mary took it upon herself to organise a romantically themed event.
With the help of several townspeople, the whole place was cleaned up and decorations hung from every available space. While several of the local men could be heard sitting in the saloon muttering about the "damn pinkness of it all", the women all loved the idea. It was an excuse to get dressed up in newly purchased dresses, and for everyone, young or old, to be courted. For weeks the preparations had been underway and still every conversation in Four Corners seemed to begin with the question "So, who are you going with?". The children who were too young to appreciate the romance were dutifully employed to hang bunting and cut hundreds of hearts out of coloured paper. Inez took it upon herself to arrange all the food and, with the help of Millie, Annabelle and Casey, she prepared enough food to last a wagon train for more than a year, including a selection of cakes that she had somehow managed to make pink in colour. Mrs. Potter especially got caught up in the excitement, decorating every inch of the general store with coloured hearts and flowers from her own small garden. She had arranged for a special delivery of chocolates to the store and, if it had been possible, she would have swept the dust from the street itself.
As for the Seven, even in the face of a visit from St Valentine, they were still kept busy. It seemed that petty criminals from miles around decided that this would be the week to try and get one over on the Seven. One of the regular attempts on the bank was easily thwarted when the three idiots realised that their guns were completely out of bullets. All three of them were now sitting in the jail, along with a horse rustler who had tried to steal a half dozen horses from one of the homesteads outside of town. Vin had successfully tracked him down, not a hard feat considering that the rustler had managed to lead the horses through every section of mud in the area, leaving clear hoofprints everywhere they went.
In between times, the Seven tried to get into the Valentine spirit. Buck was trying to decide which of the lucky women of the town would be his date for the evening, finally narrowing it down to just three. Or four. Every time he walked through the town, the objects of his affection would 'conveniently' drop a handkerchief or twist an ankle in order to gain his attention. Miss Emily was especially creative in her attempt - although the patrons of the bathhouse may not have been as amused as Buck was.
JD spent most of the week pacing up and down the saloon, trying to pluck up the courage to ask Casey to go with him. Every member of the Seven tried to avoid him, knowing that he would, sure a clockwork, as for their advice on asking her out and then decide to completely ignore it. Casey, in turn, was storming around town cursing JD to everyone she could find for not having the courage to ask her out. Not that she would even want to go to the stupid party with him, she insisted, all the while watching out the corner of her eye for any sign that her possible suitor would come to his senses.
Nathan told the others that he was riding out to the village for a few days to spend some time with Rain. He felt guilty for not having seen her for a few weeks and wanted to make it up to her. He took a basket full of food and a bunch of wildflowers, hoping to surprise her with a picnic. Mary had assured him that Rain would be as welcome at the party, as would any of the other villagers, so Nathan intended to invite her along as his date.
Vin had chuckled when he found out about the whole event. There weren't any women in town he was interested in romantically, but JD kept asking him who he was taking - everyone was expected to have a date. Frustrated with the constant questioning, he jumped on Peso and rode out to Nettie's place for some peace and quiet. After spending an afternoon with Nettie and realising that he enjoyed her company as a friend, he invited her to join him at the party. Nettie was thrilled to be invited, and had actually blushed like a young girl.
To Buck's eternal horror and suspicion, Ezra announced that Inez was to be his date for the party, although the gambler quietly admitted to Vin that he had offered Inez some "monetary compensation" for her company. Whether Ezra had asked her out because he was interested in her, or whether it was just to irritate Buck was something that no-one was quite sure of. Inez seemed to be genuinely excited about the party, so it was possible that there was actually something brewing between the gambler and the hot-headed young woman.
Even Chris had plans for the evening, intending to spend some time with Billy and Mary - trying not to think about Sarah for a while. He enjoyed Mary's company and loved being around Billy, but he couldn't bring himself to see Mary in a romantic light. They were friends, close friends, but he suspected sometimes that he would never fall in love again.
The only one with not even the prospect of a date was the one man who had more love inside him than any other. Josiah sat in the church alone, avoiding the excitement that bubbled outside. A part of him had hoped that Maude Standish might have been visiting, but according to Ezra, she was currently "somewhere in the sun, fleecing a group of rich businessmen". There was no-one else in town that Josiah was interested in spending St. Valentine's with. He had never been a hearts and flowers man, but he believed deeply in love.
As a young man he often believed that he was in love, although the knowledge and understanding that comes with hindsight assured him that it wasn't so. He had always envisioned himself married with children by this time in his life, but the fates had conspired against him, it seemed. But, he told himself, even if he was missing the love of a woman, there was no shortage of love in his life. His sister Hannah was the dearest person to him. He would give his life for her - if that wasn't love, what was? And if that is truly a measure of love, then it must expand to the six men who had become such an integral part of his life. Every one of those six would give their lives willingly for him, and he in turn for them.
He considered his understanding of St. Valentine. Although commonly perceived to be the patron saint of romance, the truth is that he is also the patron saint of love. Why couldn't Valentine's day be a celebration of love for your friends? For a long while, the preacher sat and contemplated.
Nathan was the first one to have his Valentine's plans ruined. Rain had adored the wildflowers, her eyes welling with tears when Nathan said how they reminded him of her - full of untamed beauty - but she had shaken her head when he invited her to the party.
"Why should we celebrate our love on one specific day because someone decided so?"
Nathan had been unable to answer her. He tried reassuring her that he loved her, but she said that wasn't the point.
"I'm not going to dress up in fancy clothes and do stupid dances just to prove to the world that I love you. My love for you is all year round, not just one day in February. Don't you understand that?"
Of course Nathan had to agree with her and so he rode alone back into town, no longer looking forward to the party.
JD made the mistake of actually listening to Buck's advice. From past experience, he should have known better, but it was the day before the party and he was feeling at a loss. Eventually, under Buck's watchful eye, he strode up to Casey in the middle of the saloon and announced "Congratulations! You're the lucky girl who has been chosen to be my date." Her response had been to punch him in the stomach and storm out, muttering something about men, idiots and never in a million years.
To be fair, in turn, Buck's plans went awry aswell. By the time he had made his choice, every one of the young women had been approached by other suitors, choosing the security of a guaranteed date rather than waiting for the possibility of being chosen. In desperation, Buck had taken to walking around the town asking any woman who passed if they had a date, but it seemed that the renowned ladies man may have left things a little too late.
Even Ezra, who had indeed paid the lovely Inez to accompany him, was left dateless. Chuck, the young man who had been employed to help behind the bar in the saloon, turned out to be the inexperienced rustler now sitting in the jail. With no-one else to tend bar, it was down to Inez as manager to stay behind.
Nettie, who felt twenty years old again, had managed to fall and twist her ankle while dancing around the house in her new dress. A message sent back into town with Casey apologised to Vin for her having to let him down. She was sure that the tracker would be able to find someone else to take - all the young women of Four Corners seemed to be attracted to him - but Vin had no interest in asking anyone else.
Only Chris' plans seemed unchanged. But at the last moment, he sent a message to Mary informing her that he wouldn't be at the party. He offered no excuse, unwilling to even admit the truth to himself. He fully intended to spend the evening out at the cabin, drinking the cheapest whiskey he could find and thinking about Sarah and Adam.
Finally the evening of the St. Valentines party arrived. Josiah sat on one of the hard wooden pews, staring at the six wrapped packages that sat next to him. After hours of contemplation, he had decided to break with tradition and give gifts to all the people he loved.
He had spent most of the day with Hannah. They connected in the silent way they had for years, both saying without words the things that they wanted. Eventually, he stood to leave. From a pocket, he pulled a small box and held it out to her. Silently she accepted it. She opened the box and removed the necklace that was inside. It was a simple gold chain that Josiah had purchased many years ago. His intention had always been to present it to his future wife. He finally realised that he had someone much more important already in his life. Taking the chain from Hannah's hands, he fastened it around her pale neck. She turned to face him and held out her hands to him. As he placed his larger hands in her petite ones, she looked deeply into his eyes. "Thank you," she said - the first words she had spoken in years. With tears spilling down his face, Josiah reminded his sister that he would always love her.
Recalling the look of love in her eyes, Josiah smiled to himself, knowing without a doubt that he had made the correct decision.
Somehow Josiah had known that the others would congregate on the church. Under normal circumstances it would have been the saloon, but as Inez was currently playing host to a selection of the evening's festivities, this would likely be their only sanctuary.
Sure enough, JD and Buck were the first two to push open the heavy wooden doors and slump into pews. JD was obviously still not speaking to Buck, who was trying his best to apologise - although his apologies mainly consisted of sentences such as "well, who'd have known she'd have done that" and "just goes to show you never can tell with women". JD sat with his arms crossed, not looking at the older man. He had given Josiah a nod when he walked in, but that was the limit of his interaction. Josiah gave a silent sigh.
Nathan, Ezra and Vin had met up earlier, standing together uncomfortably outside the saloon. None of the three had spoken, but it was clear to anyone looking at them that they would rather be out chasing a pack of wild buffalo than be involved in the Most Romantic Man competition that Mary had just announced. With a look of silent agreement, the three walked, as one, across the street to the church. Without even a greeting, Buck tried to get them to back him up.
"Boys! Tell JD here that Casey will come to her senses, will ya?"
"Don't ask me about women, Buck. I don't understand them at all," replied Nathan.
"I ain't much good with knowin' women neither," said Vin.
Ezra took a look at the glare that JD was giving Buck before he answered. "I strongly recommend that you cease your present line of discourse before our youngest companion shoots you."
Puzzled, Buck looked at JD and noticed the red-hot pokers that seemed to be shooting from his eyes. Prudently, he took Ezra's advice and returned to his seat in silence.
Each one of the six men gathered sat, lost in their own thoughts. While none of them had expected the celebration of a lifetime, they had hoped that the evening would be at least enjoyable. Now they were stuck here, without dates, and without any prospect of any fun.
Chris was the final one to join them. From his slightly disheveled look, they all knew he had been drinking, but he was surprisingly steady on his feet, indicating that he had not drunk excessively. While they all suspected the reason for his drinking, as usual, it was only Buck who truly understood how deep Chris' feelings of loss went. Any of the holidays were difficult for him, and one where the emphasis was on love would be harder than most. Chris sat alone in one of the pews towards the back of the church. He needed to be near his friends, but simultaneously, he wanted to be alone. Just one more contradiction in a man full of them.
Josiah cleared his throat. "I'm glad you all came here."
One by one, six faces looked up at him as he stood up and walked out to stand in front of them all.
"I've been doing some thinking on the true meaning of the holiday and I believe I have discovered something that has long been overlooked."
He picked up the six packages, each wrapped in identical brown paper with the recipients name written in Josiah's bold hand.
"I was wondering why a celebration of love should only revolve around romantic love. I, for one, have no-one I am romantically interested in, but didn't want to miss out on the joy of sharing that love. So, instead, I have decided to celebrate the love I have for my family and friends."
He walked over to JD first and handed him the first package. JD tore open the paper quickly, not quite understanding, but not willing to look a gift-horse in the mouth. With the paper removed, he held a book in his hands.
"The Oddessy?" He looked up at Josiah, a million questions in his eyes.
"A story about adventure - something which I know you crave in your life. Perhaps reading about someone else's adventures will prevent you from getting yourself into the type of messes that involve Nathan's help to recover from."
They all smiled. JD was so excitable that he had a habit of jumping into situations he wasn't prepared for. They all knew it, but they also understood that the young man would never change, so rather than try and alter him, they simply tried to protect him.
"Wow." For once, JD was speechless. He had never received many presents at all, even on his birthday or Christmas, and no-one had ever given him a proper book before. He ran his fingers over the embossed leather cover, feeling the title as well as reading it.
"In addition, it has long been one of my favourite stories, and I hoped that you would enjoy it as much as I do."
While JD was still fingering the gold edged pages, Josiah handed the next package to Buck, who ripped the paper off in as much eagerness as JD had. He may be at least ten years older than their young companion, but he was as much of a child at times.
"The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. Hey, I've heard of this one."
Buck didn't read much, but even he had heard of this story. It was one of the few books that he had always wanted to read. He remembered wanting to become a Musketeer, wondering what it would be like to dress up in those fancy clothes and carry a sword. At least now he knew what the sword felt like - a few of his scars started to tingle at the memory.
"I believe that the nobility and romance of the era would appeal to your sensitivities."
But Buck wasn't listening. He had already opened the book and started reading. Josiah smiled to himself - he obviously chose well for the ladies man.
Nathan was next. His book was Robinson Crusoe. He looked at Josiah, confusion clear in his expression. He had never read the book, but he knew the vague storyline of a man stranded on a desert island.
"Crusoe was separated from everyone he loved and everything he knew, but still managed to use his God-given skills to survive and create a better life," explained Josiah. He had known Nathan a lot longer than the others, but this was still one of the hardest books to select. In the end, he realised that what he respected about Nathan more than anything was his ability to make the best of a bad situation - exactly what Crusoe did.
Nathan nodded at his friend, unable to express in words the feelings of love and gratitude he had inside. A nod in reply told Nathan that Josiah understood without the words.
As Josiah turned to Vin, the younger man could feel himself start to panic. He had never told the others of his inability to read. Josiah had no idea and would expect him to be able to read the title of the book at least. Part of him knew that he shouldn't feel ashamed, especially not in front of these men who were his family, but he couldn't help it. Josiah held the package out to him and Vin took it. He slowly tore the paper, stalling the embarrassment for as long as possible. At the moment the book was finally exposed, he felt Ezra slide along the pew to sit closer to him.
Before Vin could say anything, Ezra looked over at the book and exclaimed "A collection of popular poetry. Very impressive, Mr. Tanner." Vin looked at Ezra, remembering that he was the only person, other than Mary, who knew his secret. He also understood that Ezra was saving him from having reveal his biggest secret to the others. An almost imperceptible nod reassured Ezra that Vin understood his actions.
"Poetry, huh?" Vin said to Josiah, opening the book and pretending to read some of the words.
"I recalled your own poem and thought that you might enjoy reading other people's efforts."
"Sure will. Thanks 'Siah."
Vin had never been a man of many words, but Josiah felt that something was wrong. Perhaps he had chosen poorly. He would discuss it with Vin later.
Turning to Ezra, he silently handed over the book he had chosen for the man he understood less than any other. He had changed his mind hundreds of times when it came to selecting this gift. He had almost given up when he suddenly recalled the perfect story.
With his usual pedantry, Ezra slipped his fingers under the paper, carefully removing it He folded it neatly, as though he would be using it to wrap a gift in return, and placed it on the seat beside him before he even looked at the book in his hands.
He smiled when he read the title. He had read this book once before, many years ago, and believed he understood exactly why Josiah had chosen it for him.
"Around the World In 80 Days by the very talented Jules Verne. Am I to assume that there is a morality lesson involved for me here?"
Josiah let out a soft chuckle. He should have guessed that Ezra would understand.
"Phileas Fogg - the man who realises that winning a bet is less important than true love. I thank you, Josiah, for your concern for my moral well-being." The genuine smile that Ezra gave Josiah softened the words and Josiah knew that Ezra was pleased with his gift. A trademark Ezra two-fingered salute followed.
"And finally, our industrious leader." Josiah walked over to Chris at the back of the church. The man in black had sat silently through the gift-giving ceremony and was now wondering what Josiah was going to give him.
He removed the paper and looked at the well-worn book he held. Where the others had all received brand new copies of books, the one he had was obviously one from Josiah's own collection. He looked at the title. La Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Mallory.
"Don't worry, Chris, it's an English translation."
No more explanation was needed. It was the classic story of King Arthur - High King of Britain and leader of the Knights of the Round Table. A hero who leads heroes. And it was more personal than that. Arthur was a man who was alone even when surrounded by others. He had lost the one woman he loved and died fighting for what he believed in. The fact that it was one of Josiah's own possessions made it more special and Chris knew that although he didn't read very often, this would be one book that he would read over and over again. Wordlessly, Chris extended his hand to Josiah. The other man gripped his forearm in return and they remained like that for a few moments, both relishing the friendship and the love that they shared.
The moment was ruined by JD, of course, who suddenly exclaimed, "But we never got you anything, Josiah."
The ex-preacher looked around at the six men who had become his family. Every one of them held their gifts tightly in their hands and Josiah could see his own love for them reflected back in their eyes. He thought of a quote he had read. "When I find myself fading, I close my eyes and realize my friends are my energy." That was how he felt.
"Yes you did, JD. You gave me the love of a family. That is all I need."
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