Doc, who had been quietly sitting in his chair beside Louie's bed, finally spoke.
"Louie, do you need to take a break now? You don't have to tell us anymore now, or ever." He was concerned at how tired and upset Louie was looking.
"NO, Doc! I NEED to make you all understand what happened…what I did…what can't be undone. Just give me a little water, please."
Kitty immediately filled a cup from the pitcher on the nightstand, carefully raised his head, and held the cup to Louie's dry lips.
"That's enough. Thank you, Miss Kitty." He tried to smile but failed.
"I lived with my parents, taught at their school, eventually running it, and worked on my father's lifelong research for a multi-volume history of the United States. Annie had stayed on, buying a small bookstore with her Aunt's help. I would sometimes see her in town, and we would politely nod and pass. Over the years she became old before her time. Her once glossy chestnut hair faded and greyed, her loud laugh disappeared, and, worst of all, when I looked into those once sparkling, clear hazel eyes, once so full of the joy of living, I saw nothing. We both tried to avoid each other, crossing the street to not have to meet."
"I was so weak! So afraid! So cruel! " Louie openly sobbed now, and Kitty tried to hug him, but he waved her away. "No, Miss Kitty, I don't deserve your kindness. Please, don't anyone say anything until I finish," he gasped.
"I lived in the same house I was born in, helping with my father's research, dead inside, for forty one years. My mother died from influenza, and then my father five years later from a heart problem. I felt no sadness for them. The night after my father died, his hold over me finally broken, I threw down my pen, and decided to go see Annie the next morning."
Matt and Kitty's eyes met, each hoping for a better ending than they knew possible.
" During that night, the little bookstore that Annie owned caught fire and burned to the ground. Her body was found inside at her desk. A note for me was on her small bed in her rented room." Louie paused and took in a ragged breath, his already pale, yellow-tinged face growing paler.
He closed his eyes and recited the words seared into his heart:
Please forgive me, my darling. I understand the hold you couldn't break. I never stopped loving only you. I will wait for you.
"I went home, got all twelve boxes of my father's research, brought it back to town and threw in on the still glowing embers of Annie's store. I was forty one years old and my life was over. I left that house forever, went out West and began to drink, only stopping a week or so ago. I wandered from Texas to Colorado to Kansas for four years, drinking to forget, and ended up in Dodge, too beat to go anywhere else. You three are the only real friends I have ever had. Now you know what I am.
The silence in the room lengthened, only pierced by the faint sounds from the saloon downstairs.
Kitty, Matt, and Doc didn't know what to say, if anything, to try to comfort their friend.
Doc cleared his throat, stood up, took Louie's right hand, and looked down into his tear-filled eyes. "Louie, this may be useless to hear, but please believe me that ALL honest, humans have flaws and have made mistakes. It's the acknowledgement of them, and the learning to be a better person from them that counts. There are cracks in all of our facades."
Louie looked up at Doc, weakly squeezed his hand, and nodded. "Thanks, Doc."
The slight man looked over at Kitty, who was holding Matt's hand tightly. "Miss Kitty, will you please read a poem to me, now? If you have it, it is "For Annie," by Edgar Allan Poe. Just the last stanza, please."
Nodding, Kitty dabbed at her eyes with her hankie, sniffed, and found the poem in the second book. Using her finger to find the lines, she began to read:
"But my heart is brighter
Than all of the many
Stars in the sky,
For it sparkles with Annie-
It glows with the light
Of the love of my Annie-
With the thought of the light
Of the eyes of my Annie."
Louie smiled, the furrows in his weathered old face softened, and he closed his faded blue eyes for the last time.
Taking in one last, shallow breath, Louie exhaled "Oh, Annie."
Doc checked for a pulse, looked at Louie's eyes, and shook his head at Matt and Kitty, who were standing close together, Matt's arms around her as she softly cried.
Putting his stethoscope in his bag, Doc snapped the bag shut, picked it up and slowly shuffled towards the door, followed by Matt and Kitty, now with one arm around each other's waist.
At the head of the stairs down to the still-noisy saloon, Doc stopped and looked back at his friends, now standing close together, but with arms no longer around each other.
"Matt, Kitty. I sure use a drink! My treat."
"No, Doc, it's on the house, in honor of Louie. In fact, everyone's next drink is on the house!"
Halfway down the stairs, Kitty raised her voice. "All right everyone! Our good friend Louie has just died. In his honor, drinks are on the house!"
A loud chorus of happy yells went up, and the cowboys, gamblers, farmers, and saloon girls headed to the bar, where Sam was busily pouring drink after drink.
After everyone in the saloon had a drink, Matt stood up tall with his drink in hand.
"HOLD IT!" his deep voice reverberated off the ceiling and the din died down as all eyes looked towards their Marshal. Matt raised his glass high. "TO LOUIE!"
"TO LOUIE!" echoed through the room as the glasses were raised high and emptied.
Later that night, with the saloon closed, Matt held Kitty close to his chest in the big bed in Kitty's room. She had cried for a while, but was quiet now, having said a silent prayer of gratitude for sharing love with Matt. Matt tenderly turned her lovely face up towards him, seeing his own face reflected in her luminous blue eyes.
"Kitty, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about resigning my badge. Hearing Louie's story has made me see it is the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. I love you with all of my heart and the thought of losing you through my death or yours, breaks my heart. Darlin', would you please marry me?"
Hearing what she had prayed for the past seventeen years, Kitty's heart sent a "thank you!" to God, put her fingers in Matt's curls, and pulled his mouth down to hers. In tears again, but this time tears of joy, she kissed Matt deeply, looked into his beautiful pale blue eyes so full of love, and whispered "Oh, YES, Cowboy, YES!"
They both also sent a quiet "thank you!" up to Louie, for letting in the light.
"Ring the bells that still can
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in
That's how the light gets in."