Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Whole Truth: Speak Now

Lou jerked back, nearly pulling her hand out of Kid’s and succeeding in stopping his forward motion.
“What?!” she squeaked.  Clearing her throat, she tried again.  “What are you talkin’ ‘bout, Kid?  Why are we goin’ ta find a preacher?”
Deep inside, she knew the answer, but she couldn’t really believe it and needed Kid to say the words out loud.
“You say yer not the kind of woman a man would marry,” Kid sighed, exasperated.  “Well, I aim ta prove ya wrong.”  He started moving toward the barn, pulling her along behind him, as he continued to talk.  “I never would’ve brought ya here and done what we did if I didn’t figure eventually we’d be gettin’ married.  You say you love me.”  He stopped and sighed as he turned to face her.  Yanking on the hand clasped tightly in his, he pulled her tight into his embrace and leaned his forehead against hers again.  “Well, I love you, too, Lou.  I think I have since the moment I discovered your secret. I know I have since I watched how hard you fought for yer brother and sister.”
“But…. but… I can’t get married,” Lou protested, fighting the melting in her chest with every fiber of her being.  Feeling the urge to take a swing at him for making it happen in the first place.  “I’ve got a job.  I need that job.  I’ve gotta build a grub stake so’s I can get my brother--”
Kid shook his head and pressed a finger to her lips, interrupting her. 
“You think I don’t know all that?” he asked, sighing.  “It ain’t like we ride through this town on our regular runs.  And we’ve never been into town here.  Us gettin’ married don’t change yer job.  This just means we’ll be workin’ on yer grubstake, our grubstake, together and should get it faster.” 
He leaned forward and pressed a reassuring kiss to her forehead.  “But this?  Tonight?  This is about us, and only us.  It’s none of the boys’ business, none of Rachel’s, none of Teaspoon’s or anyone else’s.  Just us.  Alright?”
Lou spent several long moments searching the Kid’s big, blue eyes, looking for she knew not what.   Eventually she found it, whatever it was, and she relaxed and smiled slowly. 
“Alright,” she nodded, shakily.
“Alright, what?” Kid asked, determined to make her say it, now that the word was out there, hanging in the air between them.
“Alright,” she smiled a little more confidently.  “I’ll marry you.  ‘Though, you never really did ask me properly.”  Her grin turned mischievous as she continued. “Where I was raised, I was taught a man did his proposin’ on his knees.”
Giggling suddenly, she pulled away from him and ducked quickly into the barn.
“Why you little vixen,” Kid muttered, chasing after her with a growing smile of his own.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“What the…”  The marshal rolled over and pulled a pillow over his head, trying to ignore the noise.  But the banging continued.  Finally, he gave in and threw the pillow across the room where it harmlessly plopped to the floor. 
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he grumbled, sitting up and crawling out of the bed.  Shuffling across the room, he muttered, “Better be a damned bank robbery or murder, to be waking me up at this hour of the morning.”
He grabbed the door’s handle, released the lock and jerked it open.
“What?!” he demanded irritably.
“Sir,” the sandy-haired young man said urgently, “we’re tryin’ ta find the preacher.  Do ya know where he is?”
The marshal shook his head, confused.  Why would this young man need a preacher so bad he’d come searching for him in the middle of the night?  “Uh, he ain’t here this week.  We only got him one week a month.  He’s a couple towns over ‘bout now. Might be able ta catch him up in a couple days hard ridin’.  If he ain’t already moved on by then.”
The young man’s shoulders slumped slightly, letting the marshal catch a glimpse of a smaller boy tucked in close behind him.  This confused the sleep befuddled man even more.
The taller of the pair looked back at the smaller one for a moment, then turned back to the marshal and asked in sudden inspiration, “What about a Justice of the Peace?  Got one of those?”
The marshal scratched his head as he answered, “Well, I think they got one of those over to Big Gulch.  That’s probably the closest one.”
“How far’s that?” asked the smaller boy, peeking around the taller one’s shoulder.
“A few hours ride, I’d guess.”
The two looked at each other for a moment, then nodded.  The taller one smiled at the marshal and said, “Thank you, Sir.  Sorry fer wakin’ ya up.”
“Uh, no problem, son,” the marshal said.  But his comment went unheard as the duo had already turned and headed back toward their horses.  The marshal’s eyes widened as he saw the smaller one’s hand was tightly clasped in the taller boy’s, the affectionate way the bigger one helped the smaller up on one of the horses, and patted his knee.  “Don’t know why they bothered looking for a preacher,” he muttered as he closed his door, shaking his head in disbelief. “Wouldn’t have done them anymore good than a Justice of the Peace would’ve done.”
“Lou... Lou…,” Kid nudged her head gently, trying to wake her up.  They’d been riding for several hours, through the night and well into the morning, with no sleep before they’d left.
 It turned out the Justice of the Peace in Big Gulch was out of town, too.  The good folks there had sent them on to some little village with the big name of Truth or Consequences*.  So they’d moved on. 
Shortly after dawn, Kid had noticed Lightning lagging behind Katy and had looked over to see what was wrong.  He’d turned just in time to watch Lou start listing to the side.  She’d fallen asleep in the saddle.  Rather than wake her then, he’d pulled her carefully onto the saddle in front of him, grabbed Lightning’s reins and kept on riding.
But now they were just outside the town of Truth or Consequences and he didn’t think she’d want to arrive in the middle of the day, riding along in front of him, sound asleep.
“Lou,” he said, a little louder this time, brushing her hair off her face, then lightly tapping her cheek with the cupped palm of his hand.  “Time to wake up, Lou.”
She jerked upright in sudden wakefulness, almost falling off the horse beneath them.
“Whoa!” Kid called.  “It’s alright.  Relax, Lou.  I’ve got you.”
“What happened?” she mumbled, rubbing her eyes with her fisted hands.  “Where are we?”
“You fell asleep,” he smiled.  “And we’re just outside town.  Figured you’d want ta ride in ta meet the Justice of the Peace on yer own horse.”
“Mmmmm,” she murmured, snuggling her head into the hollow where his chest met his shoulder. 
“Well, I’m ridin’ on into town,” he smiled, looking down at her.  “I s’pose if ya want a few more minutes sleep ya can stay where yer at.”
Lou sighed and straightened her back again, then agilely slid off Katy’s side. 
“No, I’ll ride,” she muttered as she unwrapped Lightning’s reins from Katy’s saddlehorn, where Kid had secured them earlier.
Moments later the pair rode into the small, one street town with the big name.
“Over there,” Kid gestured toward the door with a sign reading Marshal hanging in front of it.  There was no obvious church, not unexpected since Truth or Consequences didn’t yet boast a preacher.  So the Marshal’s office was the best place to start looking for the Justice.
A quick stop and they learned the Justice was out on a neighboring farm, performing a wedding, but expected back in town by supper.  He was staying in the town’s small combination restaurant/boarding house. 
“Listen,” Kid suggested, “I don’t know ‘bout you, but I’m wiped.  Why don’t ya go get us a room while I put the horses up.  We can get some sleep, then meet the Justice when he gets back.”
Lou nodded in weary agreement and the two headed off in opposite directions. 
She wondered idly if this difficulty finding a preacher was God’s way of telling her she’d been right before, that she wasn’t good marriage material.  Heck, she didn’t even have a dress to wear to her own wedding.  She frowned.  Her only options were her boy’s work clothes or the nightgown Rachel’d pressed on her the previous day.   Had that really only been 24 hours ago?
Lou shook her head at her rambling thoughts.  Evidence, she thought, yawning, of her exhaustion.
Kid smothered a yawn as he walked through the front door of the boarding house.  He tugged at the collar of his brand new shirt and grimaced at the uncomfortable fit.  He hadn’t exactly left the station expecting to be getting married.  So, when he’d noticed a Chinese Bath & Laundry on his way to the livery, he’d taken the opportunity presented to get spiffed up and purchase some dress clothes.  Lou deserved to have some sort of proper wedding, even if it wasn’t much. 
He’d even bought her a dress.  He knew she didn’t have one with her.  It was blue, her favorite color, with little brown flowers scattered across it, trimmed in a fine white lace. Between his clothes and the dress, he’d spent every last cent he had on him.   But it would be worth it, he thought.
“Um,” he cleared his throat, stepping up to the desk a clerk sat behind in a rigidly erect position.  “I’m with Lou McCloud.  What room is.. he in?”  He gulped.  It had been a long time since he’d stumbled over referring to Lou as ‘he’.  It must be what they had planned for the day.
“I’m sorry, he’s not here,” the clerk said.  “He left, said he had something he needed to do.”   He pulled a sealed sheet of paper out of a drawer in the desk and slid it across to Kid.  “He left this note for you, though.  Said it would explain everything.”
Kid took the note, almost fearfully.  He had a feeling he knew exactly what it would say.  Stepping back out on the boardwalk, he took a seat on the nearest bench, resting the package with Lou’s wedding dress on one knee while he broke the wax sealing the note closed.
            Dear Kid,
            I’m sorry.  I love you more than I can say.  But this wasn’t meant to be.  God’s been speaking loud and clear, waiting for one of us to come to our senses.  Please, don’t follow me.  By the time you get back to the station, I’ll be gone.  I see now it’s the only way. 
                        Louise McCloud
“Damn yer stubborn hide, Louise McCloud,” Kid growled, crumpling the sheet of paper in one fist.  Jumping to his feet, he rushed back down the boardwalk toward the livery.
Lou wiped the tears off her cheeks for the hundredth time.  She rode mindlessly, letting Lightning have his head.  He headed unerringly toward home while she mourned what she’d given up.  So lost was she in her own misery, she never heard the sound of a horse galloping up behind her.
The body slamming into hers pushed her off Lightning’s back and landed on top of her in the prairie dirt, pushing all the air out of her lungs in one violent compression.
She gasped for breath, eyes closed for a moment, then suddenly realized the other body was still lying on top of her, as if the person had no intention of moving.  And, she noted in sudden fear, it was starting to react to being so close to her.
Her eyes flew open in stark fear as she began to struggle to free herself.
“Hey, calm down,” a familiar voice demanded.
“K…Ki….Kid?” she finally managed to gasp, stilling as her brain caught up with what her eyes were seeing and her ears hearing.  “Where’d you come from?”
“Truth or Consequences,” he grunted, pushing himself up on his elbows so he could better see her face, but otherwise not letting her up.  “And you didn’t want ta tell me all the truth, so now yer payin’ the consequences.”
“Oh, very funny,” she grunted, punching him in the upper arm.  “Now let me up.”
“No, I don’t think so,” he shook his head.  “Not until you explain yerself to me.  Why’d ya run away, Lou?”
“Didn’t ya get my note?” she asked in a suddenly chastened voice, refusing to meet Kid’s eyes.
“Yeah, I got yer damned note,” he huffed.  “Didn’t tell me nothin’.  I thought we’d settled all that.”
Lou shrugged, head still turned to the side.
Exasperated, Kid reached down and grabbed her chin with one hand, forcibly turning her to look at him.  She closed her eyes at the pain she saw on his face.  She’d never wanted to hurt him, too.
“I even bought ya a dress, so’s ya wouldn’t have to get married in yer work duds,” he muttered.
Oh, God, Lou screamed from deep inside.  There was nothing she wanted more than to marry Kid, spend her life with him, raise a family with him.  And he’d even thought so far as to get her a dress?  While she was leaving?
Kid closed his eyes as she burst into tears, burying her face in the coarse material of his blue shirt.  Damn, he thought.  He’d known ever since her big confession this wouldn’t be easy.  But he hadn’t expected it to be so hard just to get her to the altar.
Unable to watch her in pain, he wrapped his arms tightly around her and sat up, pulling her into his lap as he rocked her gently back and forth, making soft, cooing sounds to her.
Eventually, she quieted and pulled a little back from him to brusquely scrub the tears from her face.  She looked up at him, her big brown eyes still swimming in the moisture of her earlier tears.  Kid couldn’t help himself. He knew there was so much they hadn’t settled, but right then, at that moment, he needed to feel her lips under his.
Lou inhaled sharply as Kid’s mouth covered hers, giving him the opening he hadn’t asked for but was happy to take advantage of, deepening the kiss.  One hand came up to caress her cheek, then slip into the silky strands of her lengthening hair, as their tongues and lips entwined in an age-old battle.
“Excuse me, are you two alri--” an unfamiliar voice broke through their growing passion, bringing them abruptly back to earth.  “Oh, hey, you shouldn’t be doing that.”  What had started as concern ended in scandalized objection.
Kid stood up rapidly and pulled Lou up with him.  “We’re alright, Sir,” he said simply.  “Just had an ah…. a disagreement to settle.”
“And just what sort of disagreement is settled with a kiss like that?  In public!”
“Whether we should get married or not,” Kid smiled gently down at Lou, who hadn’t said a word.  She appeared to be at least slightly poleaxed at the moment.
“You do realize it isn’t legal for you two to marry?” the man questioned.  Now that Kid was paying attention he noted the fine, though dust covered, suit and bowler hat the man was wearing and the beautifully tacked horse he was riding.
“I told you this wouldn’t work,” Lou muttered, trying to jerk her hand out of Kid’s.
“I… ah… don’t think you understand,” Kid answered, laughing slightly while ignoring Lou’s commentary.  “Let me introduce you to my fiancĂ©e, Miss Louise McCloud.”
Miss Louise?” the other man squeaked in surprise, turning his head sharply to take another, much closer look at Lou.  “Ah,” he murmured, relaxing back in the saddle, “I see.”  He looked back and forth between the two young people.  “And judging by what I just saw, you should be married right soon.”
“We’ve been tryin’, Sir,” Kid said.  “But we couldn’t find a preacher, and we’ve been chasin’ the Justice of the Peace from one town to the next for what seems like forever now.”
A broad smile brightened the other man’s face. “Well, your chase is over, young man,” he said lightly as he dapperly dismounted.  Walking toward the couple, the reins of his horse held lightly in one hand, the other hand outstretched in greeting, he said, “Let me introduce myself… Zachary Lawson, territorial Justice of the Peace.”
“Am I ever glad to meet you,” Kid gushed, shaking Lawson’s hand with zeal.  “I’m the Kid.”
“Just… the Kid?” 
Kid shrugged. 
“Well, the name’s that important, though it can affect how legal a marriage is,” Lawson warned genially.  “You aren’t married to someone else under another name, are you young man?”
“Uh, no,” Kid shook his head in negation, blushing. 
Lawson turned to Lou, “And you, young lady? Are you free to marry?”
Lou glared at him, finally yanking her hand free of Kid’s to shove her glasses up on her nose and cross both arms over her chest.
“Do I look like the kind of woman who’d be kissin’ one man in public when married ta another?” she growled, insulted.
Lawson looked her up and down pensively.  “No, I can’t say as you do.  So, do you wish to marry now?  Here?  Or would you like to ride on to Truth or Consequences, my next stop, together and have the ceremony there?”
“Now,” Kid answered promptly.
“In town,” Lou answered simultaneously.
Lawson laughed slightly. 
“Why don’t I go water my horse while you two decide,” he suggested.
As Lawson turned his back on the pair, leading his horse toward the nearby stream neither Kid nor Lou had noticed, the two turned to face each other.
Lou opened her mouth to protest, yet again, that they shouldn’t get married.  Reading her intent in her eyes, Kid pressed a finger over her lips and spoke first.
“Do you love me?” he asked, repeating his question from the night before, emphasizing each individual word.
Lou’s shoulders slumped and she nodded slowly.  She could run from Kid and her feelings for him, she could argue with him, she could fight him on anything and everything, but she could not lie to him.
“Then the only thing I want to hear from you is whether you want to get married dressed in your trousers, or if you want five minutes to go change into yer weddin’ dress,” he said softly.
“Weddin’ dress?” Lou asked, startled.  “Where’d ya get a weddin’ dress?”
“Same place I got this suit,” Kid said, stepping back so she could see what he wore, brushing ineffectively at the dust that had covered it in his race after her.  “Didn’t figger you’d want ta get married dressed like a boy.”
He turned and untied his saddlebags, pulling out the dress, still wrapped in brown packing paper, and handed it over to Lou, almost reverently.
“It’s blue,” he apologized.  “They didn’t have any white dresses already made.”
“I don’t deserve ta wear white, anyway,” Lou mumbled under her breath, taking the package from Kid.   She turned and walked toward a nearby clump of bushes.  Reaching the edge, she stopped and turned to look back at him.  “Thank you,” she said softly, before disappearing into the foliage.
The late afternoon sun brought a rosy glow to Lou’s face as she stood at Kid’s side, clutching a posy of wild flowers he’d picked for her tight to her chest with both hands.  Kid stood with one arm wrapped tightly around her waist, as if he were afraid she still might try to run for it. 
Which, if she let herself think she might.  But, every time she felt her thoughts slipping in that direction, she looked up into the face of the man at her side, the gentle confidence and abiding love written across his features as he listened to the Justice of the Peace begin the wedding ceremony.
The words floated over Lou and around her in a surrealistic haze.  She couldn’t quite believe this moment was happening.  But then one sentence broke through her daze, bringing her back to harsh reality.
“If any person can show just cause why this couple may not be lawfully joined, speak now or forever hold your peace,” Lawson said, then looked from Lou to Kid and back again in question.
Lou opened her mouth to speak. There were so many reasons why they shouldn’t marry… but, none of them had to do with the law, she thought as she felt Kid’s arm tense around her waist in fear of what she might say.  No, she’d gone too far, it was too late to stop this train now.
A few more minutes and the short ceremony was over.  Lou didn’t remember saying, ‘I do,’ or even being asked if she did.  But she must have because Kid was leaning forward to kiss her softly, the passion she could feel vibrating through his arm about her waist carefully restrained in deference to Lawson’s presence.  Then the justice was heartily congratulating them.
She hadn’t spoken now.  Should she have?  She didn’t know.  Only time would tell.

*There is an actual town named Truth or Consequences.  It’s in New Mexico.  I moved it into Nebraska for this story because the name fit the concept so well. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Whole Truth: The Confession

Author’s Note: This is the first in a new series of shorts I’m calling The Whole Truth.  It was originally supposed to be a novella, inspired by the Writers Ranch's WhatMight Have Been Challenge.  But I just didn’t have time to put it together that way.  This first piece starts in the second half of Requiem for a Hero, just after Lou and Kid consummated their relationship.  What if Lou’s answer to Kid’s, “You alright, Lou?” had been different?

“You alright, Lou?”
No, she wanted to scream.  No, she wasn’t alright.  She hadn’t been alright for years now.  She’d thought she was getting close to alright, that this.. whatever this was she had with Kid… was the next step toward alright.  Now she knew it was a step in the other direction.  And it was a step she couldn’t un-take.  But how could she tell him that?  How could she break his heart by telling him she regretted what they’d just done?
She opened her mouth to say something, but no sound came out.
“Lou?” he asked again, worried.  He sat up and scooted across the bed to where she huddled at the foot, wrapped in the sheet.  He reached out one hand to tentatively stroke it across her bare shoulders.  “What is it?  What’s wrong?  Did I… did I hurt you?”
“I… I don’t know,” she whispered, raising her tear streaked face to meet his eyes.
“I tried ta be gentle, honest,” he murmured soothingly, as if trying to calm a skittish mare.  He reached out and pulled her into his arms, hugging her close.  She rested her cheek against the warmth and strength of his chest, relaxed into the up and down motion of his breathing, savored the feeling of safety she always got when he held her tight like this.  But then she stiffened as voices from the past once again invaded her present peace.
“Don’t worry,” he taunted as he slammed against her frail, young body, tearing her open.  “You’ll like it, eventually.  I can tell.  I can always pick out the ones who will enjoy this someday.”
“A couple hours ago, the most important thing on my mind was gettin’ on with… what we’d been puttin’ off fer so long,” Kid said softly against the top of her head, rocking her back and forth gently. 
She half-laughed at that, trying not to cry.  He’d been right, that bastardHe’d been right.  She’d been so focused on how good Kid made her feel, safe and… and loved, she’d forgotten about what was right, and proper.  She’d forgotten not to be a whore.  She’d… she’d enjoyed it. 
“Talk to me, Lou… Louise,” Kid pleaded.  “Tell me I… I didn’t ruin things fer you.”
Ruin things for her?  He’d been a virgin, that much had been obvious.  She’d been nothing but a loose woman, a tart, enjoying a man’s attentions.  She wondered if she’d enjoy it as much if Jimmy or Ike or Buck started kissing her, too.  Would she want to do this with them, as well?  That’s what he’d said, when he’d promised to train her for her new career.  That she’d like it with any man.
The last, agonized plea finally broke through her inner ramblings.
“You didn’t do nothin’ wrong, Kid,” she said hoarsely, pushing away from the comfort he offered and climbing off the bed.  She let the sheet she’d wrapped around herself, after, fall to the floor as she moved.  What use did a whore have for modesty, anyway?  “I did.  I should never have come here.”
She walked over to where she’d left her saddlebags, shoulders hunched against the world, and began digging out her clothes.
Kid watched her for a moment, confused. Then, realizing she was getting dressed to leave, he leapt off the bed and rushed to her side.
“What do you think yer doin’?” he demanded, grabbing her arm to stop her motions and make her look at him.  “I know maybe I fumbled things, didn’t know quite what ta do ta… ta make things right fer ya, but… but that ain’t no reason ta leave.”
Tears gathered once more in Lou’s eyes and she reached up to press the palm of one hand to his cheek.  “I tol’ ya, it ain’t you, Kid.”
“Than what?  What is it, Lou?  Talk to me!”  He shook with his distress.
“Yer good, Kid.  Pure.  I could tell that tonight.  Heck, I could tell that from the first time we met.  But  the fact ya couldn’t tell I wasn’t… that was the final nail.  Ya deserve someone better’n me, someone as good as you.  I ain’t been good in a… long, long time.”
She pulled away from him and, turning her back on him, rapidly finished buttoning her shirt, her shoulders hunched defensively, hair swinging forward to hide her now tear streaked face.
“Like hell!  I don’t know what yer talkin’ ‘bout, Lou, but ain’t no one more right fer me,” Kid shouted in a hoarse, fearful whisper, staring at her shoulder blades, poking sharply out through the fabric of her thin shirt as she seemed to quail away from his gaze..  “Yer the best thing in my life.  Ever.”  He paused to consider what she’d said once more.  In a calmer, more quiet, almost frightened tone, he asked, “What do you mean by ‘the fact I couldn’t tell’?  Tell what?”
Lou took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders.  She stepped farther away from him, as if afraid of his reaction, but turned to face him. “I weren’t no virgin, Kid.”
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout, Lou?  You knew about as much about what we were doin’ here as I did,” Kid spluttered in confusion.  “Believe me, even I can tell the difference there.”
Lou wildly whipped her head from side to side in denial, sending her lengthening curls flying out about her face.
“And it ain’t like ya exactly had the chance ta go playin’ round, what with pretendin’ ta be a boy and all,” he continued, unfazed by her physical denial.
“Stop,” she whispered fiercely.  “It was… before.”
“But….” he paused, looking sharply at her as tears continued to trickle from the corner of her eyes.  “Before?  You were just a child.”
“Twelve,” she admitted in a small voice.  “I was twelve.  It… it was my birthday.”
And that’s when he knew what he’d feared hearing her say was true.
“You… you didn’t want it, did ya?  You were…. were… forced,” he gulped.
She nodded jerkily, looking away from him, unable to meet his concerned gaze.  She crossed and re-crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself tightly, as if afraid she might fly to pieces if she let go.
Kid took a small, hesitant step toward her, raising one hand to tentatively brush the strands of hair that had caught on her eyelashes and wet cheeks back behind an ear.  His thumb trailed the rest of his fingers and gently wiped away the tears dripping.
“It weren’t yer choice, Lou, that don’t make you…. bad… or nothin’,” he whispered.
She raised her head to glare at him.  “He said… he said he picked me over the other laundry girl ‘cause he knew I’d enjoy it!  That… that I had what it took ta be a real workin’ girl.”  She stumbled over the words, stuttering through the explanation.  Then intense pain flashed across her gamine features.  The last sentence came out like a soft exhalation, barely audible, but indelibly heard.  “And I did!”
“I can’t believe a twelve-year-old would know enough about what was goin’ on ta truly like it,” Kid muttered, disconcerted but trying not to frighten the already skittish woman before him.
Lou frowned sharply at him.  “Not then. He only… hurt me.  Now.  Here.”  She waved a hand toward the bed they’d just left behind.  “This.  Us.  I liked it.”
A small, shy smile cleared Kid’s features.  “So did I.”
“Yer a man,” she muttered.  “Men always like it.  He tol’ me that, too.”
A scoffing sound erupted from Kid’s throat at that, but this time she was the one who continued without waiting for him to say anything more.
“Ya deserve a woman ya can love, a woman who can stand at yer side, be yer wife, have yer kids,” she whispered painfully.  “That woman ain’t me.”  Lou forcefully gulped back sobs as she imagined Kid’s future, a future she no longer could be a part of.
“But… but I love you, Lou,” he whispered, pulling her close to him and resting his forehead against hers, his eyes boring into hers.  “I don’t want some other woman.  I want you.”
“You don’t know what yer sayin’, Kid,” she muttered.  “Good girls, the kind ya marry, they don’t like… that… the way I did.  They don’t enjoy it.”
“Just how would you know that?   You ever been married?” Kid asked shortly.
Lou turned her face away from him, breaking eye contact.  “My… my Ma tol’ me how it was, between a husband and a wife.  A wife don’t enjoy it, she just…. just endures it so’s there can be little ones.  A man goes ta the saloon and workin’ girls fer the fun stuff.”
Kid chuffed a laugh.  “That ain’t what my Ma said,” he scoffed lightly.  Now it was his turn to blush.  “And I seen enough ta know she enjoyed relations with Pa just fine.” Then he added in sudden inspiration, “And did ya ever watch Emma with Sam?  They sure enjoyed kissin’ each other just fine.  And the way she was smilin’ the day after the weddin’? And blushin’?  That ain’t the look of a woman who’s just endurin’ somethin’.”
Lou remained silent, unresponsive.
Kid suddenly straightened to his full height.  “I know exactly what I’m sayin’, Lou.  You may not be like Emma, or Abigail or any of the other ladies in town, but yer the most kind, loving and pure soul I’ve ever met.  And I’ve only got one question for you.”
Kid paused to catch his breath, not quite believing what he was about to say, but sure it was the right time and place, deep down inside, where it mattered.
“What’s that, Kid?” Lou asked, a little uncomfortable as his silence lengthened.
“Do you love me?”
She stared at him for a long moment then jerkily nodded her head.
“Then get yer stuff,” he said briskly, turning to where his own clothes lay in a jumbled pile near the bed.  “And pack up.”
“What?  Why?  Where are we goin’?” she asked in confusion, watching him dress even more quickly then she had.
Kid grabbed his hat and plopped it on his head before taking her hand in his and holding on for dear life. 
“We’re headed into town ta find the preacher.”

Speak Now

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Courtship of James H. McCloud, chapter 6

Chapter 6
He never saw the fist come flying toward his face, but he felt the meaty impact as the knuckles dug into the sensitive flesh around his left eye, the painful twisting of his neck as his head snapped backward and toward the side at the same time and the crunching of his skull as it hit the knobby wood of the barn door.  He knew better than to fight back and simply let himself slide down the door until he was sitting in the dirt and straw, full of horse urine and other nasty smelling detritus spilling out of the entrance of the rarely cleaned barn.
“What’d ya do that fer,” he moaned, while almost automatically curling in on himself to protect the more tender portions of his anatomy from the next attack he knew was coming.
“Fer makin’ a fool of yerself over that Red Whore at the church today.”  The older man spat contemptuously.  The dark chunk of spittle mixed with day old tobacco chewings landed on the toe of Carl’s boot.  But he made no move to clean it off.  “First ya waste yer time gettin’ in a biddin’ war, and LOSING!, with that McCloud boy over her.  Then ya spend all o’ Sunday services makin’ eyes at her.  I couldn’t show my face fer the shame of it.”
“But, Pa…” Carl started to protest that he hadn’t done more than look her direction once or twice.  A vicious kick from his father’s boot to his ribs ended the protest in a painful ‘Ooomf’ of exhaled breath instead.
“Don’t give me no buts,” the old man grunted, reaching up to resettle the grimy hat that rested precariously on his unwashed black hair.  “I didn’t raise ya ta be dippin’ yer wick in no disease ridden injun gal.  Leastwise, not where’s others can see ya and laugh at ya fer it.  Ya hear me?  Ya got a hankerin’ fer some red meat, by all means, take care of it.  But don’t go makin’ yerself and the rest of this family lookin’ like a fool while ya do it!”
Without another word to his whimpering offspring, he turned toward the house.  Sniffing, he reached up and wiped the back of his hand across his upper lip to clear away the moisture trickling out of his bulbous nose.
“I’m hungry, woman,” he shouted out as he trudged toward the house.  “Ya’d better have dinner ready and it better be hot!”
“Oh, I can’t believe you’re here,” Julia gushed, pulling out of the tight embrace she’d wrapped around him.  “What are you doin’ here?  You’re supposed to be in Sioux City, being a fancy City Manager and all.”
Johnson grinned down at her, his teeth a brilliant white slash across the dark skin of his face, and shrugged.  “Looks like they didn’t trust a ‘nigga’ to handle the town’s finances.”
“Oh, no!”
“That’s alright,” he went on.  “We knew at graduation it wouldn’t be easy.  That, as soon as they saw me, most places would send me packing, despite my recommendations and school record.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ve got a lead on another job with a town called Plum Creek, out by Fort Kearney.”  His smile grew even broader, if that were possible, and he added, “The stage came right through Rock Creek, so I figured I’d take a break from the trip and stop by to visit.”
“I’m so glad you did,” Julia squealed in her excitement.  “I can’t wait to introduce you to my family.”  She grabbed his hand and turned toward the house, pulling him along behind her.
Practically tripping over her own feet in her excitement, she almost missed seeing Jamie as she rushed toward the porch.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, skidding to a halt.  “Abe, this is Jamie McCloud.  His family owns the ranch with mine, remember?  Jamie,” she gestured vaguely between the men, “this is Abraham Lincoln Johnson.  He and I went to school together at Iowa State College.”
As if it could’ve been any other place, Jamie mentally groused, even as he forced himself to smile welcomingly and held out his hand in greeting.
Johnson seemed a little taken aback at first by the apparently unexpected offer, but then stepped forward and shook Jamie’s hand firmly.  The two barely had a chance to nod in greeting and let go of each other’s hand before Julia resumed dragging the newcomer into the house.
“Ma!  Pa!  Come look who’s come for a visit!”
Jamie watched her go on her exuberantly joyful way with a strange sense of loss he wasn’t quite sure he understood.
Julia looked around the crowded family table in what had once been a fancy, formal dining room.  It had long since degenerated into simply a large room with a big, scarred table and a happy, noisy group sitting at it while shoveling in as much food as possible.  She liked it much better this way.
Looking down at her plate, Julia sighed in contentment.  Dawn Star had made all of her favorite foods for this celebratory family dinner.  There was a succulent roast pig, a beef and vegetable pot pie, fry bread with honey, applesauce and corn pudding.  And she knew there were at least three pies, huckleberry, dried apple and sweet potato, sitting on the cooling rack in the kitchen, waiting for dessert time.  She still wasn’t sure which one she wanted.
And all of her favorite people were here, her brothers and sisters, the McClouds, Jamie, and the one person she’d ever truly considered a friend at school.
“Is it always this….” Abe waved his hand a bit helplessly to indicate the rowdiness that was ‘this’.
Julia nodded.   “I warned you,” she smiled.  “Of course, it’s not quite this bad every week.  The two families only eat all together like this once a month, so that cuts down on it.  And several of the older boys often head off visiting, courting, you know, on a Sunday afternoon.”
“So, how’d you two meet?” Harry interrupted, reaching across the table for the platter of biscuits resting in front of Abe, ignoring his mother’s and Lou’s glares at his lack of table manners.
“I didn’t know there were any coloreds at Iowa State,” Jed added between bites of corn pudding.
“There aren’t many of us,” Abe smiled.  It was obvious from the reception he’d received the question was truly simple curiosity, nothing more ominous.  “I’m only the second Negro to graduate.  Our biology instructor, George Washington Carver, he was the first.  He’s just finished up his Master’s degree.”
“I heard he was leaving,” Julia said.  “Going to some new school out East, specifically for Coloreds.”
“That’s the rumor,” Abe said.
Julia shook her head.  “I still can’t believe he gave up painting to become a biologist.  Did you get the chance to see any of his work?”
Chewing industriously, Abe just nodded.
“They’re great, aren’t they?  I particularly like his painting of Lake Laverne,” she continued. “Makes me want to just dive in!”
“You’re the only person who’s ever seen that lake who’d say that,” Abe laughed.
Julia shrugged, slinging a sidelong glance at a silent Jamie.  “What can I say?  It reminds me of the swimming hole here.  I’ve made a lot of great memories at that swimming hole.”
Jamie glanced down, remembering some of those hot, sultry, summer days they’d spent together cooling off in the waters of the swimming hole, she in her chemise and pantalettes, he in his longjohns.  By high school though, he’d started avoiding those days.  The temptation to see and do just a little more, a little too much, too soon, had become almost overwhelming.
 “Yeah, like the time you--” Rose started in.  But Harry interrupted her with a glare.
“Hey, don’t interrupt them,” he growled, half playfully.  “They still haven’t answered my question.”  He turned back to Julia.  “How’d you meet?”
Julia ignored the slightly suspicious tone in her over-protective brother’s voice.
Jamie watched Julia as she spoke animatedly with her friend, Abe, as she called him so easily.  He wanted to feel mad, angry, furious.  Mostly he just felt sick to his stomach at the ease with which she related to the other man.  She never relaxed that much with him!
“Didn’t you write once that you’d met over a game of some sort?” Dawn Star put in from several seats down the table.
“Croquet,” Abe smiled, nodding.  “We met over a game of croquet.”
“What’s croquet?” nine-year-old Mary Margaret asked.
“It’s a game where you use a big… hammer-type bat called a mallet to hit balls on the ground through a series of hoops,” Julia explained.  “I don’t see the fascination in it.  Baseball and tennis are much more fun.  But it was all the rage on campus.”
“You couldn’t walk five feet without stumbling over someone’s game,” Abe laughed.  “And that’s precisely how we met.”
“We weren’t playing, we were just headed to our classes, in opposite directions,” Julia added. 
“When I tripped over a wicket I hadn’t seen lying right in the middle of the walkway.  Tumbled head over teakettle, right through Miss Julia here, taking her down with me.”
“It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to get out of his way and he took my legs right out from under me.”
Jamie had to look away from the couple seated across from him at that.  Now he was feeling jealousy.  It was obvious Abe had had the sort of contact with Julia that Jamie had longed for for years, even if it had started out as an accident.
“Once the dust settled, we introduced ourselves,” Abe finished the explanation.
“Of course, that’s not when we became friends,” Julia added softly.  “That wasn’t until a few days later.”  She blushed at the memory.  “Rather, I should say mornings later.”
Jamie stiffened.  If something had happened to make her blush… he couldn’t even allow himself to complete the thought.  Although it was obvious he wasn’t the only one having it, judging but the sudden change in his uncle’s countenance.
“What do you mean?” Buck asked, a father’s concern coloring his voice as he eyed Julia’s obvious discomfort.
Julia’s blush deepened and her mouth open and closed twice while she tried to figure out how to phrase things.  “Well, it was the time of the Sun Dance,” she finally said.  “I couldn’t come home ‘cause it was mid-term but I didn’t want to miss out on everything.   So, I headed out to Skunk Creek over the weekend and built a small sweatlodge.”
“I was still exploring the area and had decided to hike down along the creek toward town and just as I rounded a bend in the creekbed, she comes bursting out of the lodge, whooping like a… well,” he paused and laughed, taking in the rambunctious crowd about him, then shrugged and continued, “like a wild Indian as she ran straight toward the creek and dove in.  I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”
“I didn’t know he was there, of course,” Julia muttered, unable to meet anyone’s eyes as her family laughed at her humiliation.
“When she surfaced, she was singing some sort of haunting song in a language I’d never heard before, arms raised toward the early morning sun,” Abe smiled, eyes raised toward the ceiling as he lost himself in the memory.  With a quick shake, he brought himself back to the present moment and looked about the table again.  “Anyway, that’s when I realized she was no more a fine white lady than I was.”
Abe had seen Julia in the all-together? Jamie fumed.  What liberties hadn’t she allowed him to take?  He didn’t know how much more of this conversation he could withstand.
“But he was a gentleman about things,” Julia smiled, getting over her embarrassment quickly.  “He turned his back and didn’t even peek while I dressed.  Then, we talked.”
“A lot,” Abe laughed.  “We almost missed curfew at the dormitories that night.  But we came out of it the best of friends.  We were the only two there who truly knew what it was like not to belong.  Any time we had a problem, we could take it to the other, for a sympathetic ear, maybe even an offered solution.  I don’t know that I’d have managed to finish without Miss Julia’s support.”
Julia punched him roughly in the shoulder.  “Oh, you’d have finished with flying colors,” she mocked.  “I’m the one who’d have flunked out of my math classes and been sent back to study Domestic Economy with the other ‘ladies’.” 
She shuddered in mock horror.
Jamie watched the couple with a desperate, growing fear that he’d waited too long and lost what he most desired in this world before he’d even tried to reach out for it.  The delicious food turned to sawdust in his mouth and he could barely swallow.
“So, Willy, how’s school?” Dawn Star asked, mercifully turning the conversation away from Julia.
Willy shrugged.  “It is.  I don’t know if I want ta go back.  The classes just don’t seem worth it.  I can learn more from reading and being stuck in a classroom all the time just don’t sit right with me.  I’m thinkin’ ‘bout joinin’ Uncle Billy’s Wild West Show.  He was in Kansas City this last winter and took me out ta dinner.  He said I’d be welcome anytime.”
“I don’t know if I like the idea of you gallivanting all over the country at your age, son,” Kid said reprovingly.
“Oh, Pa, please,” Willy scoffed.  “You were younger ‘n me when ya took off from Virginia on yer own.  Ma was my age when ya both started ridin’ fer the Express.  I don’t see how me joining Uncle Billy’s Wild West Show could be more dangerous than that.”
Jamie relaxed as his father and brother picked up a long-standing argument.  This he could handle, he thought, quickly shoveling food into his mouth while he could stomach it.
“Times were different then, son,” Kid started to huff.  “We grew up faster, we had to.  You--”  He stopped in mid-sentence to look down at Lou, who had placed a staying hand on his arm and was shaking her head.
“Let him be,” she smiled.  “He just got home.  You’ve got plenty of time to start yelling at each other.  Let’s just enjoy this reunion meal, alright.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kid smiled, nodding to her while patting her hand gently.
“Well, I’m thinkin’ ‘bout continuin’ my studies after I graduate,” Jed put in.
“What do you mean?” Julia asked.
“I graduate next year,” he shrugged, slathering a generous helping of butter on his biscuit.  “But the University of Nebraska is starting a new School of Veterinary Medicine.  I’d really like to go.”
“If you’re interested in veterinary medicine, you should really consider Iowa State College,” Abe suggested. “They just built a brand new Veterinary Hospital, with all the latest equipment for treating diseased animals.  And the school is much better established.”
Jamie glared silently at Abe through his eyelashes.  How dare he interfere in family business?  Who did he think he was, anyway, trying to lure his most reckless brother away? 
“I don’t know….” Jed murmured. “Ames is an awful long way away.”
“You always said you wanted to see more of the world,” Buck said. 
“You could certainly do that at Iowa State College,” Abe smiled.  “I’ll have the sweet potato, Mrs. Cross,” he nodded at Dawn Star as she began dishing out the desserts.  “Why I haven’t had a good sweet potato pie since I left home five years ago.”
“Oh, you’ll love my Ma’s,” Julia gushed.  “It’s the best.  I think I’ll have it, too.”
The food Jamie had managed to swallow turned to poison in his stomach and began to make a  bid for freedom in a most unpleasant manner as he watched and listened to Julia fawning over Abe.
“Anyway,” Abe continued.  “I was saying, you would certainly have the chance to see the world from Ames.  Why, just last year the college sent a delegation to Russia to study trees and bushes.”
“Russia?  Imagine that,” Willy exhaled in awe.  “Maybe I just need ta change colleges.”
“Sweet potato pie, Jamie?  I know it’s your favorite,” Dawn Star offered.
Jamie jerked as if he’d been struck with a branding iron.  “Uh, no thanks, ma’am.  I ain’t hungry.  If y’all’ll excuse me,” he said gruffly, wiping his mouth hurriedly with his napkin and setting it neatly next to his plate, then rising to his feet.  “I’ve got chores ta see to.”
Without another word, or look at the supremely well suited young couple sitting side by side across from him at the table, he ducked out the door and leapt off the edge of the porch, breaking into a fast trot across the yard to the blessed dark protection of barn.  He didn’t know what he was doing or where he was going, really.  He just knew he had to get away from the biggest, harshest loss of his life.
Julia watched him escape out the door with a worried frown.  What was going on?  Why was he taking off again?  She turned to look her questions at Lou, who shook her head in a ‘Not now’ gesture.

Chapter 7