Let the wedding festivities continue!
"By the power vested in me by the Divine Spirit, I now pronounce you joined in the union of holy matrimony. You may kiss your husband."
Joe held back a grin as he and Candy leaned in for the first kiss of their married life. Unendingly entertained by how chaste it was compared to the ones they'd shared just earlier, around the side of the house. Him pushing Candy against the wall and enjoying the feeling of having him close.
The two of them moved apart with a blush as they realized it had also been their first public kiss. As they turned toward the crowd of seated guests, Joe didn't let himself get melancholy over the thought that it would also have to be one of the very, very rare ones, if they didn't want to draw unwanted attention. After all, who ever heard of a man kissing another man? Or a girl kissing another girl for that matter, Joe wondered with an oversized smile as he caught sight of Jody Freeman dipping Regina Rossi from their seats at the back of the crowd. Sharing in a celebratory kiss of their own.
Joe'd have to remember to rib Jody about it the next time he went to the mercantile. And maybe congratulate her too.
Shifting his gaze to the front seats, Joe's smile grew impossibly wider at the sight of not one, but four parents dabbing at their eyes in what appeared to be overwhelming happiness.
Ben and Hop Sing to one side, and Giorgio and Maria Rossi hugging each other on the other.
A row behind them, Dr. Rosebaum handed her husband a kerchief to blow his nose, and a teary eyed Hoss clapped loud enough for him and their oldest brother, who was sitting there with his arms and legs crossed in a lounging, self satisfied sort of 'told you so'.
Lorenzo and Amos looked happy too. Where they were seated and sharing meatballs from a plate the Rossi boy had brought from the food table.
And Coffee was still happy as a pig in... Well, the sheriff was content sitting over in the shade of the back porch in that rocking chair he'd only stood from to grab some food earlier.
He gave a wave when he noticed Joe looking at him.
With a chuckle, Joe looked back to his newly minted husband in his smart suit, wearing a ring that matched the one the Texan ranch hand had slipped on his own ungloved hand, and smiled almost painfully bigger when he saw just how happy Candy was.
"Give 'im another kiss! Don't be shy!" Shouted an overexcited Jody, who Joe was pretty sure just wanted an excuse to kiss Miss Regina again. But when Hoss and even their pa insisted on the same, Candy turned to him with a shrug and a wry smirk.
"Better give the people what they want," suggested the man Joe figured he'd never mind kissing a second time.
As he leaned in, Joe let the reality sink in that this was real. The wedding, the guests, the priest, his husband kissing him for all the world to see? All real.
And as Joe pulled back to look his future in the beaming face, he knew his ma would have been proud. If only she'd... If only she could have been there to share in the celebrat-
He and Candy and probably the entire congregation gave a start when a call went above the cheers and jeers of the seated crowd.
It sounded almost like the scream of a wildcat. If a wildcat could manage sounding enthused as well as bloodcurdling.
"Now this is what I call a wedding!" Shouted a figure standing shrouded in the shade of the house, holding the reigns of a sweat lathered horse and breathing heavily.
"Mister, this here's a private get-together," said the only person at the party packing heat as he jumped from his rocking chair and put a hand near his service pistol. Spooking both the interloper and the played out mount well enough that the reigns got dropped and the exhausted animal bolted off.
Was this the exact reason Coffee'd decided to sit apart from everyone else? Joe wondered in that moment of frozen silence where he could see the whites of just about everyone's eyes.
Roy'd elected himself security for the party? Had he been expecting uninviteds? Who in the world even was that sweat drenched-
"Clay? I was wondering when you'd show up!" Proclaimed an Adam it sounded like was trying to de-escalate a potentially explosive- Wait. Had he said-
"Clay?!" I-it's not possible," argued Joe as he squinted to make out a face beneath the stranger's black hat brim.
"Oh, it's plenty possible, Little Joe," said the man Coffee was still primed to do something about if he turned out unfriendly. Right before he stepped into the full light of the warm sunshine and gave a bashful though unrestrained smile.
"You know this varmint?" Asked the sheriff who's hand hadn't backed an inch farther from his pistol. Though, to his credit, neither had it moved closer.
"Yes, Roy, he's family," assured Ben from where he was levering himself from his seat. Perhaps with the intention of welcoming their new guest.
Something that Joe was already way ahead of him for.
"It is you!" Joe declared as he came within spitting distance, making sure not to slam right into the man as he pulled him into a tight embrace.
"Yes, it is." The surprise guest agreed with a chuckle, as he returned the hug. "But I'm not sure it's really you, Little Joe. Weren't you about knee-high to a grasshopper last time I blew through?"
"No, your memory must be getting foggy in your old age," Joe said as he gave a chuckle of his own and let himself be held out at arms length.
"Let me get a good look at you," Clay asked as he scrutinized the man between his hands. "Yep. Same goofy smile. This most certainly is my Little-" The clearing of a throat from one side cut off the rest.
"Uh, Joe, ain't ya gonna introduce us?"
"Oh, r-right! I got a little carried away- Uh, Candy, this here is Clay Stafford. My-my older brother by my- our mother. And Clay, this here is my best friend- my husband, Candy Canaday." Joe barely got through the introductions. Halfway through he'd started to shake as he watched the two being introduced size each other up. Like professional boxers about to enter the ring, each aware there was a hefty purse on the line.
After a protracted moment, both assessing faces broke into matching grins. "Well, I'll be," said the ranch hand as he offered their newest guest a welcoming handshake, "I'd heard tell of a long lost brother, but I never thought we'd have the pleasure of meetin'."
"I'm sorry to hear it; I'd plans to swing by again to chew the fat with my closest living kin sooner," Clay said as he accepted the offered hand. "Guess it just took a wedding to get my sorry self out here," he added, with more than a hint of contrition.
"Well, sometimes that's just how life works," Candy said with a crinkle to his eyes as he eased over a step to sling an arm around his newly wed. "What matters most is that you made it when it really matters."
"Thanks, Mr. Canaday. That means a lot coming from my Little brother's... husband- It's hard to believe you're married already!" Clay exclaimed with a shake of his head. "The youngest on any side of the family, no matter how you slice it, and still married first. Wow."
Joe did his best not to squirm as the brother he hadn't seen in what felt like half a lifetime just stood there and... looked at him. Like he really couldn't believe it was him standing there.
Hm. Maybe it was the fancy duds. Or the husband draped over his shoulders. After all, Clay'd never met Candy before and Joe was pretty sure he hadn't mentioned him in any of the sparse letters he and his older brother had exchanged over the years. Especially since he'd been particularly hard to find an address to send a letter to for the last few.
Joe looked to his side when the arm around his shoulders tightened in a sort of one armed hug.
"Well, looks like the two of you have some catching up to do," Candy started as he disentangled himself from the newlywed Cartwright. "I think I'll go help the other brothers bring out the cake." Before he made to leave though, the ranch hand in the brand spanking new suit reached out and shook his groom's half brother's hand a second time.
"Again, Mr. Stafford, thank you for bein' here."
Joe watched with a sort of fondness he'd never known before meeting the man, as Candy, a big smile on his face when he took a backwards glance, walked off for the kitchen's rear entrance.
"I only just met him, but it looks like you snagged yourself a keeper, Little Joe." The arm Clay then settled across the shorter man's shoulders helped Joe miss the presence of Candy's a little less.
"This doesn't... upset you?" Joe asked, finally looking back at his brother as his best friend disappeared inside the ranch house. Realizing as he did that he'd been worried about what exactly the 'stranger' with the horse thought since Clay'd loosed that introductory wildcat scream.
"Oh, I grew up in the French quarter, mon Petit Joseph," Clay said, affecting a Cajun accent. "Anything you can do, they can do louder. Streamers, a parade, kissing in the streets and... well, 'pub crawls' until the constabulary have to help them on their merry ways home."
The two of them shared a laugh at the image that conjured.
"So, you're happy about... all this?" Joe asked, gesturing around at all the friends, family, and guests laughing and tossing horse shoes or dunking their heads for apples. Back to merry making now that the quiet part of the party was over.
"Well, Joe, the only one you need to worry about being happy at this soirée is you." The man- brother Joe'd never thought he'd see again assured with a familiar pat to the shoulder. "And that dandy of a husband you got yourself, of course," Clay added with a pointed, wry smile. "Family and friends being happy is a bonus," he tacked on as the afterthought he insisted it was. But when Joe kept up the expectant look, the brother in the black hat started once more. "Of course I'm happy for you, mon petit frère. I'm only unhappy that I didn't darken your doorstep sooner."
"How did you-"
"Get here?" Clay finished for the groom. "Oh, hopped a train, soon as I got the invitation. Had a little business to wrap up first, I must admit," he said with a sour face. "Otherwise I'd'a gotten here 'bout this time yesterday. Would'a made it for the vows and ceremony, if I had my way. But I s'pose I should be thankful I saw the 'I do's' and the kissin'." A smile brightened up his face then and he chuckled with a shake of his head. "Some of your guests got in the kissin' spirit too. Was quite the sight for travel weary eyes."
The two chuckled and cut twin glances over to the pair settled at either end of a checker board at a table set aside for such games. The youngster in the suit reaching one, casual hand under the table and acting surprised when it 'happened' to bump into the corresponding, unoccupied one belonging to Miss Regina Rossi.
There was nothing premeditated though about the look of surprise that overtook Jody's face when her opponent took the hand in her own with a quirk of the brow and a coquettish smile.
The way the young Italian made the hard working, no nonsense manager of their local mid-sized mercantile blush... well, Joe'd never thought he'd see the day.
He'd have to congratulate Regina about it sometime.
"Bet you never see anything like that in your French Quarter," Joe said with a prideful smirk.
"Oh, I'll have you know it was two ladies just like them that gave me the majority of my formal education," Clay said with a voice matching Joe's smirk in pridefulness. "You would be surprised what you see on any given Sunday, just strolling through town."
"Sounds like something you'd read in a fantasy novel," Joe said. Words coming out in a bit of a wistful sigh.
"I'd love to take you there sometime. Show you the sights; introduce you to some old friends. Some of whom... knew our mother." Joe's eyes went wide at the mere prospect. The thought of traveling somewhere so far from home with this brother that he'd only really met for a few weeks those several years before, to the birthplace that his ma had spent so many an evening telling him fanciful stories of-
"That is," Clay continued, cutting off Joe's racing imagination, "if it was alright with that new husband of yours."
"With Candy? Why wouldn't it be?" Joe asked as his older brother moved the arm down from around his shoulders to around his back. Making it feel more like a hug as he gripped his opposite arm in a genial way. And chuckled.
"You don't know much about married life, do you, mon petit, petit frère?" But before Joe could ask what on earth he was even being teased about, Clay went on. Tone much closer to serious. "No, I suppose you wouldn't. You were so young when Marie left you." Then the man let his arm drop from his younger brother's back altogether.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Little Joe. I'm not sure I've said that before. And... I may not have known her, but I do know that she'd have been proud of you. It's not everybody finds love in this life." He cut Joe an almost calculating, assessing look which turned warm before he moved to continue. "It's fewer still who have the courage to reach out and grab it and never let go. I hear Marie was that way. In every aspect of her life."
The older brother took a moment to tow the dirt, and when Clay looked back up, Joe noticed his eyes were soft. And just a hint sad. "It's a good thing too. If she'd been any less the free spirit than she was, I don't think she'd'a moved out here... and made you. You two are a lot alike; you and Marie."
Joe didn't know what to say to that, considering 'thanks' just seemed... insufficient. So he let that settle while they stood in companionable quiet. Until he glanced up once more and the look on the taller man's face reminded his emotions what they'd been wanting to say since they'd realized just who the interloper in black really was.
"I... I'm real glad you're here Clay. Now it-it almost feels like Ma's here with us. All of her boys bein' here. Together."
"Y'know," Clay asked as he moved to put his arm around the newly married man once more, "I was thinking the same thing. Brother."
"Alright, you two," came a call which broke up the private, fraternal moment with a start. "Cake's ready for dishin' up! Hurry or the first bite ain't gonna be for the groom and groom!" Came a call in the unmistakable boom belonging to the biggest party goer. The one in the ten gallon hat. Holding the big gleaming serving knife.
"Better listen to Hoss. Can't break with tradition, now can we?" Clay asked with a more than wry grin.
"Not where we don't have to!" Chortled Joe as the two of them started off in a half jog for the table covered in the biggest chocolate cake either of them had ever seen.
For anyone who isn't familiar with the character Clay Stafford, he is canonically Joe's older half brother from his mom's side and shows up in the Bonanza episode The First Born, season 4, episode 1. It is the only episode he ever showed up in but, even so, I felt that he made such a meaningful impression on Little Joe that I just had to include him.
I hope y'all enjoyed that little surprise and if you haven't seen Clay's episode, I do recommend it! Lots of fun! :D