"Where is he?" demanded Lou, her knuckles as white as the handkerchief she twisted in her hands. Nobody answered. She was stalking back and forth across the church floor and her temper was building by the minute.
Kid took her gently by the shoulders. "Honey, we'll find him; I'm sure it's just a misunderstanding."
"Then you go tell that to your daughter!" Lou shrieked back and wrenching herself from his hands kept on pacing. Her eyes landed on Buck, standing pensively in a corner with his wife, Faith, both of them murmuring in low worried tones. "Don't just stand there gabbing, Buck." Lou suddenly barreled down on him, her eyes ablaze. "He's your son, you best go find him or I'll be takin' my daughter's hurt out of your hide."
Buck put up his hands as if to surrender to her anger, but his voice was firm. "Lou, I don't know where he is, but I know Sam wouldn't ever hurt Katie. Something must have happened. Just calm down and wait for Jimmy and Cody to get back; they're probably bringing him here right now."
"They better be," Lou muttered and she resumed her walking. At the back of the church a door slammed and Teaspoon came walking up the aisle, looking ready to skin someone alive. Lou stopped pacing. "How is she Teaspoon? Maybe I should go talk to her."
She started forward and Teaspoon put out a hand, stopping her. "She don't care to see anyone right now. Girl's shamed right down to her toes and madder than a coyote with a tooth-ache. And I'd say she's got every right to be. Now, I wanna know, which of you lovely ladies had the bright idea of dressin' my favorite granddaughter in that ridiculous dress?" He darted his eyes from Lou to Rachel in accusation.
"It's a beautiful dress, Teaspoon! She looks lovely in it - " Lou protested.
Teaspoon silenced her with a glare. "Louise, you ought to know better. You got her all flounced up and decked out and so many ribbons…why it ain't no wonder her groom ain't here, caught one look at her and probably didn't recognize the bride! And you was gonna have her walk up the aisle in front of the whole damn town, when the girl ain't never cared for people, always been the shyest thing, in that foolishness? She was already cryin' a'fore she found out Sam'd gone missin'."
"Every girl likes to dress up nice, Teaspoon, and it's her wedding," Lou said quickly, trying to defend herself. "She never once complained when Rachel and I were working on it."
"Well she's complainin' now. Done tore most of it off and asked that somebody go fetch her some trousers and her horse."
Lou sighed, the day was a complete disaster. "Kid, go fetch Katie's things," she sighed resignedly. "I'll go talk with her."
Teaspoon stopped her again. "No, you won't. She don't want to talk to anybody; she just wants to get out of here and have a little time to herself."
"But Teaspoon - " Lou was interrupted as the door open and shut again and Jimmy and Cody crept into the church. Sam wasn't with them.
Sweaty and breathless in their uncomfortable suits, the two men kept their eyes on the ground and shifted their weight guiltily. Jimmy cleared his throat and with one sheepish glance at Lou forced himself to speak. "Can't find him anywhere and his horse is missing."
"Oh, God, Buck, something really must have happened to him. It isn't like Sam to run from something, even if he was having cold feet or second thoughts."
Lou narrowed her eyes at Faith. "And why would he have second thoughts? Katie's a good girl, she loves him. If he left her, then he's just a no-good, lying - "
Kid tugged gently at her elbow. "Lou, you know Sam ain't any of those things. Faith's right, something's wrong. Anyone see him at all this morning?"
All eyes turned to Buck, who gnawed on his lip anxiously and shook his head. "He didn't come back to our place last night. Thought maybe he decided to stay out at the place they built." He shrugged nonchalantly and turned to squint out the window as though maybe he'd spot his son across the street.
"What do you mean he didn't come back?" Faith asked suspiciously, folding her arms over her chest and looking at Buck pointedly. "When I went to bed you and he and Jimmy were still talking out on the porch. Just where did he go?"
Buck ran a hand nervously through his hair. "The two bachelors over there," he gestured vaguely in Cody and Jimmy's direction, "wanted to treat him to a last night of freedom."
"You what?" Lou shouted, turning on Jimmy and Cody with frightening speed.
Jimmy took a half step back. "Hold on now, Lou, it wasn't my idea. Cody came by Buck's place and insisted on it. I just went to make sure he didn't get Sam into too much trouble."
Slowly, Cody raised his head to face Lou's furious stare. "It was innocent fun, now, Lou. You know I didn't intend for none of this to happen."
Teaspoon snapped his suspenders loudly. "What did happen, precisely, Cody?"
"Well, nothin', Teaspoon. I'd gone to all this trouble settin' things up at the saloon, we get there and Sam wouldn't even have more'n one drink. Now, there was more than one girl disappointed by that turn of events not to mention the barkeep, so bein' gentlemen, Jimmy and I took part in the celebration - them folks had gone to a lot of trouble and it was only right to appreciate their hospitality. But don't worry, I wasn't careless. I asked around before I left there this mornin' and the bartender assured me Sam slipped out before it got too late." He looked at Jimmy and grinned. "Said he left just before that redhead lost that last hand of poker and finally took off her - "
"Cody!" Buck interrupted, "The bartender know where he went?"
"No, he didn't."
"Let's go, Buck," Kid said quickly. "Maybe we can still track him."
"He just better hope he can't be found," yelled Lou, stomping her foot. "There ain't no excuse for doin' this to Katie…"
"Well, I'll be damned," murmured Rachel from the window and waved at someone through the glass. Nobody heard her, and the rafters rang with the sounds of squabbling voices, accusations and apologies.
A few minutes earlier, Katie had been sitting quietly in the room at the back of the church. It was a tiny space, crowded by her giant dress, a chair, and a wavering mirror. She'd tipped the chair over in anger almost an hour ago. Next she'd torn the flowers out of her hair, which was nothing now but a messy blonde tangle atop her head. The ribbons and flounces of her dress had been ripped off next and thrown across the room with fury, some right into Teaspoon's face. She'd stopped crying after that, resigned to the fact that she'd let herself be played a fool. Her stomach growled loudly. She'd been too nervous to eat breakfast and last night's supper was a long time gone.
She heard a tapping on the door. "Teaspoon, if you don't got some decent clothes for me and a horse then go away!" she shouted.
"I'm not Teaspoon," a gentle voice answered. "I want to talk to you."
"You don't have to," she answered angrily, tipping her head back in an effort to keep the tears in her eyes from actually falling. "I understand. You thought it over, you don't want to get married. That's fine. Suits me just as much as anything."
"Katie," the voice pleaded, "That isn't it at all. Let me in please."
"Let yourself in, door ain't locked," she snapped back, taking one look in the mirror and deciding there was nothing to be done about the sorry state of her looks. Sam opened the door and slipped in, quickly closing it behind him. He was dusty and looked exhausted, but he couldn't hide the grin on his face as he looked at her. Katie smoothed her hands over her skirt. "It don't look like much now, but this dress was somethin' to see earlier."
He stared at her with dumb, goofy eyes and standing too close to her slipped his hand behind her neck. "I know it was, Katie." His thumb rested against her pulse.
She tried to pull away. "You wouldn't know nothin' about it. You weren't here."
He pulled her in closer. "I'm sorry, I tried to get back earlier. Been ridin' all day. I stopped by your place last night, just wanted to see you. And I saw you through the window, with your mom and Rachel still sewing on that dress." He laughed, even in memory the sight was ridiculous, his Katie done up in something so elaborate.
She didn't relax in his arms and she pouted when he laughed. "Mama said I looked pretty."
"You did, Katie," he assured her. "You always do. But you didn't look like yourself. I don't want to marry you like that, Katie. I promised you that you didn't have to change for me but this big wedding, the parties, that dress - you don't have to do that for me."
"But you still want to marry me, right?" she asked cautiously.
Sam laughed again. "More than anything. I rode out to Blue Creek last night, and the preacher there is waiting for us. We can be there by sunset if we ride hard enough and he'll marry us in his parlor, just us and two witnesses he said he'd provide. No dresses and parties and," he paused for a moment so they could hear their family's shouting from inside the church and rolled his eyes, "and none of that."
She kissed him and smiled. "Let's go," she said, "before someone comes out to check on me and catches us." He took her hand and led her out the door to where his horse, tired but willing, waited. He swung her up behind him and she held onto him tightly as they started away, letting go only long enough to wave goodbye to Rachel as they passed.