The photographer looked more than a bit nervous. Sure, heís photographed hundreds of people, but I donít think his hand shook that much before. Iíll be surprised if the photograph is even recognizable.
The little man began to clear his throat for what must have been the hundredth time, "Alright now, this may take a minute... but..but.."
She saved us both from his stammering apologies, "We understand Mr. Redmond, weíve had our pictures taken before."
I love the sound of her voice. She squeezes my shoulder and I try not to grin like an idiot as the photographer disappears under the black cloth behind the camera, love does that to a man.
"I canít imagine why heíd be so nervous," she whispers and I can smell just the hint of lilacs as she leans closer. "I mean, imagine the bragging rights for taking ĎWild Billís wedding photo... heíll be talking about it for years."
I kept my eyes focused forward when all I wanted to do was pull her into my arms and make her pay for that little comment, but if I ruin this picture Iíll be the one paying tonight, with empty arms.
Determined to avoid that punishment I hold my breath even as I feel a smile pulling up the corners of my mouth and I know sheís doing the same. Itís like I can feel it, that smile on her face, itís there in my mind even though the room has no mirror. When you know someone as well as we know each other, you donít need to see them to know what theyíre doing.
The photographer reappears but Iím lost in thought, my mind on whatís ahead in the day.
I feel her hand on my arm and I stand, taking her hand in mine. The nature of the touch is intimate even in these modern times, but I donít care who sees it.
I can hear the little man mumbling something about having it ready in a few hours but itís lost on me. The picture doesnít matter as much as vows weíll take. The day is filled with important events, like heading to the bank for my appointment. Pulling my pocket watch up by itís chain I pop open the top and stare down at the tiny moving hands, so much to do. The picture will be here when we return from our wedding trip, weíll find a frame for it and itíll sit there on our wall to remind us of this day.
Jimmyís been inside for a long time and thereís still no sign of the stage. Not even a cloud of dust to give me hope. I know Jimmy wanted me to go in there with him, but I wasnít needed to sign to the papers and heavens knows what trouble Teaspoon and the other boys could get into if Iím not here to meet them.
The stage should be pulling in soon, weighed down with our family. Weíve waited for this dayÖeven though weíd considered getting married before everyone arrived, the need to have our family with us was something weíd both agreed on.
Mrs. Shuler from the dress stop commands my attention with her fluttering fan and her endless barrage of questions and while I answer each and every one, my mind is on other things. The fit of my dress is the least of my concerns.
The whole event is completed with a minimal of fanfare and since Iíve always liked keeping things simple, this suits me. Mr. Ellis, the head of the bank, insisted on doing everything himself and when I arrived today it was only the matter of signing the papers and a handshake. Thereís an empty chair beside me and for a moment I consider making her come in, but once sheís made up her mind Ė thereís no changing it, and she has her mind set on being the first to greet Teaspoon.
"Mr. Hickok?" Answering Ellisís smile with one of my own, I pull the papers closer and sign at the bottom. A no-nonsense signature that says James B Hickok. Thatís me. Tonight though, tonight... Iíll be a new man. Iíll be the mister to a missus.
"Thatís quite a smile Mr. Hickok. I can understand, buying land is a big step in a persons life."
I could tell him that the real reason for my smile was standing outside in the sun waiting for me, but all I can think of is finishing up my business. Thereís still so much to do today.
"So, the town has been talking about this for days, dear. The Justice of the Peace wasnít even in the Saloon last night, he was home getting a good restful night of sleep... just for the two of you."
"Iím honored, really, but weĎve got a dear friend coming into town to perform..." Two men brush rudely past me and before I can turn to see who it is, Mrs. Shuler launches into a new set of questions, something concerning the location of our wedding trip. "Mrs. Shuler, if youíll excuse me, I really need to see whatís keeping Jimm- Marshal Hickok.
She titters at the mention of his name, the fan in her hands has almost taken on a life of its own. Like a humming bird trapped in the jaws of a cantankerous old cat, it flaps itís Ďwingsí in desperation. Itís not that I canít understand the reaction, the whole town canít seem to get used to the thought of having him around. Just saying the name ĎJimmyí sends women into vapors, so I guess Iíll have to call him Mr. Hickok for now. I only hope it doesnít last too long, Iím not that patient.
I give my excuses and hope for a quick escape. Fortunately, she has a fitting in a few minutes and takes her leave. Mrs. Shuler steps off into the street and into a puddle of what is hopefully rain water, but Iíve already set my hand onto the doorís handle and her out of my mind.
I stuff the deed in my left hand when I shake Mr. Ellisís hand with the other and finally turn toward the door. No use standing around jawing, once the stage comes in Iím getting married and itís about damn time too. God, I love that woman.
"Thank you again, Marshal Hickok. Weíre just thankful that you picked our little town to settle in."
I nod, tryiní to be patient, "Yes. Well, thank you again... I must be-"
I opened the door and step out without a look, there are just too many things on my mind. So, I see it, but itís like Iím not really there.
Two men, masks barely in place, stand in the center of the room with their guns drawn.
It takes less than a minute and all they see is the metal star on my jacket.
I see the flash before my ears register the explosion. I know itís going to hurt but what breaks my heart is the site of the woman coming in the door.
The moments grind by and it almost seems like Iím the only one still moving. In the back of my mind I know I should feel the warmth of blood slicking down my chest, even though I canít see it. I know he hit me square and itís all but over.
Falling to my knees I drop the deed and feel the crack of bone against wood.
I canít see the men but I donít care, I just want her.
I feel her hands on my shoulders, lowering me down to the floor and her hands pressing against the hole in my chest. A vain attempt, but somehow comfortingÖand still, not enough. "Lou?"
She gasps out a cry and tears flow down her face, "Oh God, Jimmy, hold on."
"No good... you should know that." Every word is such an effort.
Her voice calls out to me, a long way offÖ miles away. "Shh... you just keep quiet and hold on, the doctor will come and-"
We see the truth in each otherís eyes and I try to reach my arms around her. Only the right will move and I am content, just touching her cheek. "Love.. you."
"I told you to be quiet, help is on its way." Empty words, but I canít argueÖ itís just not important.
Around us, the townsfolk pace and stir, each helpless to understand what theyíre seeing.
My thumb hooks into the collar of her shirt and I pull her closer. Unable to make sound, I form my last words on my lips like a silent prayer.
itís ours... the land... you and me, sweetheart... love you...... always
I think sheís talking to me and holding onto my shoulders probably trying to get me help, but itís all past me.
I can see it all, the years had stretched ahead. The dreams weíd planned to live. There was always time laterÖ laterÖ laterÖ there has to be a later.
I see her face above me and somewhere inside I feel her voice. I can see myself walking beside her, slipping a ring on her finger and holding her close.. so ... really, how can I be dead?
Someone pulled me to my feet and someone else walked me outside. Familiar hands and words soothed my tears and I was enveloped in circle after circle of warm loving arms, but I am still empty. When had the stage arrivedÖ when had my life fallen apartÖ when did I lose my Öhusband?
Sitting here, hours and days later, I listen as Teaspoon reads some words out of the Bible and Buck squeezes my shoulder, perhaps wondering if Iím still alive. You know, Iíve been wondering the same thing. Thereís not much I can do now. Even the act of putting one foot in front of the other drains every ounce of energy within me.
When did I stop breathing?
It took days for everyone to leave, their caution and worry almost driving me over the edge.
One a lucky day, the streets being empty, I was able to venture out without the onslaught of sympathy. Before I could run away and find a place to hide, Mr. Redmond from the Photography Studio runs up to me and instantly, my legs waver like a new foal. He stammers out a shaky greeting. "Mrs... Miss.. ah-"
He looks so desperate that I canít ignore his effort. "Ms. McCloud."
He shakes his head and extends his hand in a gentlemanly gesture, "Mrs. Hickok, I wanted you to have this."
I take the paper wrapped parcel and tuck it under my arm, my heart still reeling from his words. I see his disappointment, but I canít bring myself to look at it, not yet. ĎLater,í I tell myself, Ďmuch later.í
I whisper a thank you and hope that the look in my eyes is enough to put aside the look of hurt in his.
He turns away and I continue down the walk, ignoring the looks and comments from the people around me. Their words are meant to comfort me, but thereís nothing that can do that except for you... your arms around me, your breath - warm against my skin, your hands in my hair ... your love.
Later tonight, across the table from Teaspoon and Buck Iíll do my best to smile and make them believe that Iíll be all right. Iíll hear sage words and endure the worried looks and warm consolations and then Iíll escape back to our room and pack my things.
We would have owned that land, built a house, raised a family... and someday, be buried by your side. I canít imagine where Iíll go but anywhere is better than this town. I need to go somewhere where my life wonít be as cold as the ground youíre lying in.
Morning comes too soon and I roll over into the empty half of the bed, a shallow bend that holds the impression of your body, and the tears threaten my sanity again. I sit up in bed and Mr. Redmondís little parcel slips free of the bedcovers. It sits there, a challenge to my will. Bracing myself against the brass headboard I take it into my hands and hear the paper rustling under my quivering hands.
String snaps and paper is thrown aside before my heart begins to beat again.
There you are, that lovely half smile you have when weíre alone, coloring this half-tone picture. My own image, back where it is behind you is forgotten as my eyes scour over the picture, looking for any hint of life: the furrow of a brow, the quirk of a smile, the rise and fall of a breath in your chest.
My hand moves and my fingers feel the solid wall of the picture over your heart, the way things should have been.
A crumpled letter on the table beside the window tells me my destination. Emmaís sent word that Iím welcome with her and I think Iíll head there first, sheíll need the comfort more than I will. I can feel my lips turning up at the corners and warmth returning to my hands. Itís a welcome sensation flooding through me, one that I canít fight, as it has nothing to do with me. Deep down inside, were I am just a woman, I feel the stirring of hope... of future... the existence of another day beyond the hell Iíve ridden through.. and itís all because of you.
I set the picture down and start to dress. Iíll leave as soon I have a ticket in my hand and after I finish one last errand. McNallyís still has that lumber you ordered. Even though he says heíll sell to someone else, Iíll buy some of it and ask him to make a frame, something simple and strong to travel across the miles and through the years. Iíll be taking you with me and when I find a place of my own, youíll be there on my wall as well as in my heart.