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.
“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.
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.
“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 fiancée, 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?”
“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.