Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

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I wiped Gabriel’s sweaty forehead with a cool cloth as the doctor prepared to perform a life saving intervention. A portion of his intestines poked out from the gaping wound. I looked away. My old labrador once had his gut ripped open by a wild boar and my father was able to save his life. Gabriel was strong and passionate. He would survive. He had to.

“You will survive this, my love,” I said softly. “I love you.”

I took his hand and he squeezed it weakly. He was drifting away into unconsciousness, but the set of his jaw told me that he was determined to fight.

Jeremiah stood by us shifting uncomfortably. “That was mighty bad luck, Gabby, but you’ll pull through this. We gotta still do our hunting trip to The Ozarks.”

I swallowed past the lump in my throat and held Gabriel’s hand tighter.

“Do you have morphine?” I whispered to the doctor as he washed his hands.

He shook his head. “I save that for amputations. Hold him down. I need to clean that wound before infection sets in. Then I’ll stitch him up.”

Jeremiah and I held down my groaning, pleading husband as the doctor ruthlessly cleaned out the wound. My distress for his discomfort evolved into anger. Something was out to get me and those whom I loved and it needed to end, whatever it was. Exhausted and agonized, Gabriel finally fainted as the doctor placed his innards back where they belonged and stitched him up.

I wept quietly as I kept my eyes on my unconscious young husband.

“He’s gonna be just fine, Mary,” said Jeremiah.

“He will. Thank you. I suppose you should return to Sally before she thinks the worse.”

Jeremiah scoffed. “She already has. I’ll have to do some damage control when I get back home. I wish Gabriel a speedy recovery. I’ll visit when I can.”

“Thank you for being a good friend,” I said.

“Yeah. See ya.”

I ached everywhere as the doctor bandaged Gabriel up and got ready to leave. I would spend the next several hours wide awake waiting for Gabriel to wake up.

“He will be all right,” I said.

The doctor nodded, but refused to look me in the eye. “He’s young and we caught it not too long after he was trampled. Make sure the boy rests and don’t let him exert himself for a few weeks. Heaven forbid he gets ripped open again.”

“I will make sure that he rests.”

“Thank you. Good day, Mrs. Thomas.”

He opened the door and a soft breeze rustled Gabriel’s hair. A cheerful chorus of birds chirping brought my attention outside. It was only then that I realized we had been up all night and the sun had long since rose.

“Good day, Doctor.”

I sat next to Gabriel for the rest of the day drifting in and out of sleep. I prayed he wouldn’t wake up until the evening. I was all too aware of the need to sleep off pain. As the hours merged together and brought me back into the darkness of the night, I stood to light a candle. He breathed deeply, lying there like a handsome god subjected to a sleeping curse. Terrifying thoughts nagged at me that something would one day tear us apart. I refused to give in and started to wash up for the night to keep myself busy.

The next morning, I awoke to Gabriel’s struggle to awaken. I sat next to him holding his hand.

“I’m here,” I whispered. “Don’t push yourself. Rest if you need to.”

His eyelids fluttered open and I met his beautiful brown eyes. The corner of his mouth upturned into a weak smile.

“Hello.”

“I’ll get you some water,” I said quickly.

I gently lifted his head and let him drink his fill before he was lost to me again. The day outside was brisk, but sunny. When I stood, stars filled my vision and I realized I hadn’t eaten in over a day. I kissed his damp forehead and decided it was best to step outside for just a little while.

I ventured to our apple tree behind the stable first to pick a few apples. The shiny red fruit always made me think of the first day Gabriel stepped into my life. I was wandering along the outskirts of hell and Gabriel appeared to me like an angel. I missed him so much. He was very far away from me at the moment and the only light in me was the light that was given to me from him. Taking a deep breath, I inhaled the fresh, spicy scents of autumn and reminded myself that the worst was over.

I finished the juicy red apple and made my way over to the stable. A petite, skirted figure emerged from the cornfield. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and instead forced a smile.

“Why hello, Sally!” I called.

“False sincerity gets you nowhere, Mary Thomas!”

“What is the matter, Sally?”

She stopped roughly six feet away from me and crossed her arms. Trouble watched us, stretching his head over the top of the fence. I envied his oblivious disposition at that moment.

“You know exactly what is the matter! You willingly rode away into the night with my husband and now I have a bone to pick with you.”

“My husband lies on our bed healing from what could have been mortal wounds. I do not have time for your childish grousing today.”

“Excuse me?” she cried.

I stomped my foot. Despite her spoiled upbringing, she should have known better than to harass a wife longing for her husband to be well. They could accuse me of anything they wished to, but everyone knew how much I loved Gabriel. My heart sank at her lack of empathy and unending need to cause trouble.

“Why do you dislike me so much?” I asked, taking a step forward.

“Do not pretend for one second you are innocent. I have heard the stories.”

“Stories?”

Sally stomped her foot this time. “If I ever catch Jeremiah alone with you again, I will see to it that both you and your so-called preacher husband are thrown out of this town.”

“You really know how to make a newcomer feel welcome, don’t you?”

Her jaw dropped as rage changed her cat-like eyes into monstrous green orbs.

“Get off my property. Now.”

With a high-pitched shriek, she spun around and fled back into the field of corn where she seems to sprout from like an evil little nymph. Jeremiah was in for a long life of misery if she didn’t die young. The chances of that were probably high considering that she would likely have her first child before the age of nineteen. Her life would be a long road of childbearing and hard work with little joy as a reprieve.

I bit my lip and started toward the fence where my horse waited. I knew better than to wish harm on someone else no matter how disagreeable they were. Sally was just young and ill-adjusted to being a child bride. There was no going back to the way thing used to be and she knew it. I could relate to that. Perhaps once she simmered down, I could speak with her. Still, her family held a great deal of influence over the town. Her father ran the mercantile and her mother played the piano at church. If Sally were to ever start a nasty rumour about me, it could hurt Gabriel’s chances at being a pastor.

I fed the horses their apples and led them into the field for the day. I held my stomach as despicable loneliness returned. I was still new to the ways of love and our temporary separation was very painful.

Trouble whinnied at me from the middle of the field. It was the tone he used when he wanted me to saddle him up and go for a ride. I shook my head at the silly animal.

“No ride today, Trouble. I’m sorry.”

I stepped back inside of the house and my heart fluttered at the sight of Gabriel looking at me.

“Thank God you are awake,” I breathed.

He threw me a weak smile. “How are you holding up?”

I sat next to him on the bed. “I cannot wait for you to feel better.”

“Time heals all wounds, Mary.”

He took my hand in his. The warmth from his grasp sent a beautiful wave of ease over me.

“Are you adjusting well to being a preacher’s wife? You’ve been cooped up lately.”

I rested my free hand gently on his chest. While I did not care very much for most of the strict folks at the church, I was willing to follow Gabriel wherever he went at any cost. That was what love did to people. It was why Gabriel travelled with me all the way to the Kansas border without any guarantee that he would win me over. He risked comfort, security, and rejection for the sake of protecting me on my journey.

“I have never been happier, Gabriel.”

He smiled and closed his eyes.

“I’ll take you on some adventures when I am well again,” he said.

“I will love that very much, but for now, rest easy and don’t push yourself.”

The beginnings of a rakish grin formed on his mouth before sleep stole him away from me again. My imagination ran wild with all the things he might do to me when he regained his strength. I fell asleep next to him. Rather than being tormented by vicious nightmares, I dreamed of the places we would go to when he healed.

The Dreams

Norwegian Dream.

She had a dream, too. Of Canada. Now, I long to be close to where she was born. In a way, it will feel like she is still alive. Young and alive in Scandinavia and playing her banjo.

Goodbye, Grandma.

Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Twenty-Six

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Part Two

Six Months Later

His hands wrapped around my waist as I finished peeling the potatoes.

“Can I have a kiss before I go find us a big stag for the winter?” Gabriel whispered in my ear.

I laughed at the tickling sensation his whisper gave me and twirled around to kiss his soft lips.

“Don’t be gone too long. I have plans for you tonight,” I said with a wink.

His boyish smile made my stomach flutter.

“I will be back for you tonight.”

I bit my lip and went to the window to watch him leave. When I was finished with the meal preparation and dish washing, I wiped my soapy hands on my apron. Grateful to have finished up the drudgery for the day, I stepped out of the cozy farmhouse that Gabriel and I had built together. The refreshing evening air caressed my dewey face. I gazed proudly out at our small, but flourishing farm. Gabriel promised me that we would have the time of our lives and we were having just that. I missed him every time he went hunting for it was the longest amount of time we were forced to spend apart since our wedding. I rolled up my dress’s sleeves and strode toward the fence to greet my horse. I caressed his soft muzzle before giving him an apple that I kept in my pocket. He and I were beginning to warm up to one another.

“Hi, Trouble,” I said with smile.

It had been a week already since I last went riding. Managing a farm along with all the housework was hard, but it made the quiet moments alone with Gabriel completely magical. I had not been hunting or fishing in months, but I felt a great need to go play for a little while. I pulled up my skirts, climbed onto the fence, and mounted Trouble bareback. I directed him over to the gate, reached over and opened the latch. He broke into a gallop and we flew over the long grass like freed birds. Losing track of time as I escaped deep into my thoughts, I ended up on the edge of town. I slowed Trouble to a walk and gave his neck a good pat.

“Mrs. Thomas?”

Startled at the unexpected, but familiar voice, I sat straight up and met the eyes of Pastor Scottson and his wife. Their unmasked disapproval brought a blush to my cheeks.

“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Scottson,” I said with a polite nod.

“Thought you would go out for a ride?” asked Mrs. Scottson with the slightest hint of a smirk.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Where is your husband? It is rather late for you to be off riding alone, is it not?” asked Pastor Scottson.

“Oh, he’s out hunting and I thought I would go for a ride and stretch my horse’s legs.”

I forced a smile, but the words that I longed to fire at them burned the tip of my tongue.

“Our new young pastor in training needs a wife who is willing to stay at home and support him no matter what time of the day it is, young lady,” said Mrs. Scottson. “My husband and your Pastor would agree.”

My jaw dropped at her unabashed command. I bit my tongue for Gabriel’s sake. He was working very hard to be the assistant pastor at Stone Ridge Baptist Church while managing a farm. One snarky remark from me could hurt his chances. It was an unspoken rule in Puritan societies that a pastor was only as reputable as his wife. Dejected, I only nodded. The pastor took a step in front of his wife. His beady blue eyes bore into me.

“I expect you to let Gabriel know that you were out riding on the edge of town alone this evening. Doing things in secrecy – no matter how seemingly innocent – can break a marriage.”

“Yes, of course, Pastor Scottson. Good night to you both.”

Neither of them replied. As I turned Trouble around to ride home, I sighed heavily. Darkness slowly covered the countryside when I reached the farm. Gabriel’s horse was not in the field. I swallowed back my worry as I brought Trouble into the stable for the evening. He had been out hunting until sunset before, but he never stayed out later than that. A strange uneasiness settled over me as I walked back to the empty house. I brewed a pot of tea and sat at the table waiting for the kettle to scream.

“Where are you, Gabriel?” I whispered.

It was pitch black outside when I started to tap my fingers nervously on the table. I put on my coat, loaded my rifle, and strode out toward the stable. I should have gone out sooner, but I worried about seeming like an overprotective ninny. My hands trembled as I saddled Trouble again. Something was very wrong.

“We’ve got to find Gabriel,” I said.

Hearing the panic in my own voice heightened my unease. I rode to our neighbour’s house and pounded on their front door. Jeremiah, one of Gabriel’s oldest friends, opened the door.

“Mary,” he said in surprise.

His young wife, Sally, rose from the table with a less than pleased expression on her face.

“Mary, what ever is amiss?” she called.

“Gabriel. He went out hunting this afternoon and he hasn’t yet returned.”

“I’ll help you find him,” said Jeremiah.

“Thank you,” I breathed.

He grabbed his shot gun and strode out the door to follow me.

“What about your coat, Jeremy?” cried Sally. “And what about me? I have to sit here and wait while the two of you go find that Gabriel?”

I hated the way she emphasized my husband’s name.

“Well, you can certainly come with us,” I said.

Crossing her arms, she strode to the doorway in her usual seventeen-year-old defiance. Her wide green eyes narrowed at the sight of my rifle strapped to my back.

“You own a gun?”

Jeremy shook his head and threw me a helpless look.

“Yes,” I said in exasperation. “Look, I need to find my husband. Whoever wants to help me can come, but I am riding off now to go look for him.”

“Fine,” she said and slammed the door.

“I’m sorry about Sally. She’s been having trouble adjusting to leaving her parents,” said Jeremiah. “I’ve gotta get my horse saddled. Can ya wait five minutes?”

“Of course.”

I caught Sally staring out the window at me. I looked away. It seemed as though no one in Gabriel’s community liked me other than Jeremiah, but I think he only tolerated me for Gabriel’s sake. We rode out for the forest in search of Gabriel.

“Gabriel!” I called repeatedly.

“I wonder if he got into a fight with an animal,” said Jeremiah as we entered into the thick maze of trees.

“Thanks a lot for giving me that terrible image for the ride,” I said in disgust.

“Sorry! I wish we had more daylight.”

“You think?” I snapped.

Jeremiah had a good heart, but he often said the stupidest things. I stopped the curse words that threatened to spew out. A terrible, familiar pain sliced into my chest.

“Hey, Mary!” called Jeremiah. “I think that I hear something.”

Unbelieving at first that Jeremiah heard a sign of Gabriel before me, I held my breath and heard the unmistakable sound of a man groaning.

“Gabriel!” I cried.

Crying and wiping my eyes, I guided Trouble closer to the source of the sound. I made out the shadowy form of my love lying on the forest floor in the fetal position.

“Gabriel, I’m here,” I called. “Jeremiah is here, too.”

I slipped off my horse and ran to my husband’s side.

“I’m here. You will be okay,” I said softly.

I held his freezing hand. He was so cold and his skin took on a ghostly blue shade. It was then that I saw the terrible wound. His stomach had been ripped open. I fought against the urge to break down and weep. I choked back a sob.

“Jeremiah, help us,” I pleaded.

Gabriel’s friend got down from his horse and stepped over to us.

“I was trampled,” whispered Gabriel. “I shot at the buck… and it sent the whole herd down the hill… toward me.”

“You’ll be all right. I’m here now,” I said soothingly.

Jeremiah began to wrap a blanket tightly around Gabriel’s torso. I cringed, but Gabriel seemed to be wandering in and out of a fitful sleep. I begged for God to relieve his pain. Jeremiah picked him up and carried him over to his horse.

“Let’s get him back to your place, Mary.”

“I’ll go for the doctor,” I said. “There is no time to lose.”

Trouble ran for the doctor’s home under my relentless command. The doctor was not very far of a ride, but it felt as though he lived a world away at the moment. I started calling for him as I rode up to his modest home. The kindly middle-aged man opened his bedroom window with a look of trepidation.

“Forgive me, Doctor, but it’s Gabriel. He was trampled by a herd of deer!”

“I’m on my way, Mary,” he called.

I rode back for home, forcing Trouble into another run.

“God, you can’t have him!” I shouted. “He’s doing your work! He needs to stay here!”

Even as my demand screamed out of my mouth and ripped the night air, hopelessness closed in on me.

Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Twenty-Five

Gabriel and I created a series of whirlwinds as we rode into the next town. We stopped our horses abruptly in front of the stables; a cloud of dust and annoyed glares from some of the townsfolk followed. He jumped off his saddle and helped me down from mine. My head spun as we held one another. Gabriel gently ended the embrace so he could look at me.

“Are you all right with this, Mary?”

“Yes,” I said with a wide smile. “I am very happy.”

His warm eyes glowed.

“I love you, Mary.”

“I love you, too, Gabriel.”

Someone behind Gabriel cleared his throat loudly. Startled, Gabriel spun around to face the smirking stablemate.

“We’re here to keep our horses for the night.”

“You want to make that two nights?” asked the stablemate with a wry grin.

“Yes,” I said quickly.

“Two nights it is,” agreed Gabriel.

My laugh echoed down the street. Gabriel took my hand and we jogged down the dusty road together toward the chapel.

“What if the minister’s not there?” I asked, breathless and energized all at once.

“He had better be!”

I slowed down and pulled on Gabriel’s hand.

“Gabriel, wait. We need to do this right. It’s our wedding day and I want to wear a dress and take a bath and do all of this proper.”

He ran a hand through his brown hair.

“Oh. You’re right,” he said, appearing aghast with himself. “Forgive me, Mary. I am just so happy that I forgot about all the finer points.”

I touched his chest lightly. “I am happy, too. I was about to run into the chapel with you, but why don’t we take our time to prepare for our special moment? We only get one wedding day.”

“When I see you in your dress, I will engrave the beautiful image in my memory forever.”

We kissed and I blinked back threatening tears. My knees weakened and I leaned against him. So unaccustomed was I to incandescence, I lost my balance every time he brought me close. We walked into the tavern to purchase a room for two nights along with baths and then we walked over to the general store. The selection for ready to wear dresses was small, but were all lovely.

“Which one of these do you like?” I asked Gabriel.

He blushed and shrugged. “They would all look lovely on you.”

I examined a russet coloured one. The style was pretty, but it was made for a much shorter woman. I set it aside and looked at the other one. It was longer, but a little on the plain side. It was something that a mother providing for her family on the prairies would wear. I shuddered and put it back.

Light footsteps sounded behind me. I turned around and met the sharp eyes of a store clerk. She wore her brown hair in a tight bun. My skull felt tight just looking at it. She smiled and I chastised myself for pre-judging her.

“I can help you find a dress,” she suggested. “I couldn’t help over hearing.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“I have a small collection of wedding dresses in the back. We can’t let him see it until your ceremony. Follow me.”

I threw Gabriel an over the shoulder smile and followed the lady to a small room full of boxes, clothes, and trinkets. She held up a light pink dress with intricate lace detailing.

“This is not the latest style by any means, but it will fit you nicely lengthwise. The lady who brought it in here was also quite slim. It might be a step out of your comfort zone, though.”

I laughed. She was right.

“Thank you, Ma’am. May I consign it out? I can drop it off later tomorrow.”

“That would be fine, Miss.”

She proceeded to help me pick out the appropriate undergarments and a pair of simple, but elegant dress shoes. The clerk placed all of the items, including the dress, in a sturdy box for me to carry back to the inn. We stepped out of the stifling room and Gabriel greeted me at the front counter as I paid. He held up a new set of black trousers and a white shirt.

“Sorry if I took forever,” I said with a shy laugh.

“A bride need not apologize for anything on her wedding day,” said the clerk in mock sternness.

Gabriel nodded in agreement and I shared a smile with the clerk. He bought his new clothes and then took the package from my hands. We walked back toward the inn with the sun shining down on us.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” he asked.

“Yes, very much. I only wish that my parents and my sister could be here. Samantha, too. And Angel. He was my horse that I lost in a fire.”

“I wish they could be here, too. And my parents. They passed away when I was nine. My aunt and uncle took me in, but no one can ever replace your Ma and Pa.”

“I am very sorry about your parents. You were so young to lose them. I should have asked you about them. We have spent many quiet days together, but we have the rest of our lives to get to know one another.”

“I look forward to that, Mary.”

“Me too, Gabriel. Do you wish that your aunt and uncle were here with us today?”

“I do,” he admitted. “At the same time, I am happy to be able to spend the rest of this day with only you.”

We stepped into the inn and made our way up the stairs. I swallowed hard, feeling excited and nervous all at once. My life was about to change forever and yet that was exactly what I wanted. Gabriel set the package down into our room. We kissed once more before he stepped out into the hall to go to his temporary room so I could prepare in privacy.

“I will see you soon, Mary,” he called. “I am going to walk over to the chapel and ask the minister to meet us here.”

“See you soon, Gabriel.”

My stomach began to ache in his absence. Even though I knew he close by, the thought of being separated from him nearly made me panic. I took a deep breath and paced the room to calm my nerves. He was not going anywhere. We were getting married and we were going to start a new life together. I stepped into the warm bath water and savoured the calming effect. I scrubbed myself off with the sponge and then closed my eyes to submerge myself beneath the water’s surface.

After I dried the lavender-scented water off of my skin, I opened the package and stared at the lacy dress and starched white undergarments. The late afternoon light streamed in through the large window and highlighted the beautiful materials. It mattered not that they were hand-me-downs. I closed the drapes and laced up my corset as best I could. My waist was already small, but the lightly boned contraception accentuated my youthful curves all the more. I slipped into the soft, floor length dress and admired myself in the mirror. The flowy sleeves fell to my elbows and my damp hair poured down to my waist in gentle waves. My exposed arms, neck, and decollete were pale in comparison to my sun-kissed face, but I doubted Gabriel would mind very much.

I twirled my hair into a simple chignon to complete the elegant look. My eyes were warm and devoid of the hardness I saw in them the last time I stared into a mirror. I was a girl in love on her wedding day. Once that would have scared me, but as I turned the doorknob to wait in the hallway for Gabriel, I could not imagine being anywhere else. The dreamy farm girl rose from the dead.

I sighed and leaned against the wall, feeling a little ridiculous in love, but happy nevertheless. The door to his room opened and there stood the handsomest man I had ever seen. He froze at the sight of me, staring down the length of my body in unmasked awe. It must have been a shock for him to at last see the femininity that my riding clothes hid away.

“You are so beautiful.”

I walked over to him and wrapped my arms around his neck. His kiss made my lower abdomen flutter and I lost my breath. We stepped downstairs together and met a minister at the base of the staircase. He looked less than pleased to be standing inside of a tavern, but once he laid eyes on us, he smiled and nodded pleasantly.

“Good afternoon,” said the minister. “Shall we step outside? I know of the perfect spot to seal your marriage covenant.”

I held Gabriel’s hand with both of mine and we followed him out of the tavern and down the street. We stopped beneath an old willow tree that shaded a bed of violets. Beneath the shadow of the great tree, Gabriel took both of my hands into his and we repeated our vows after the minister. A soft breeze whispered over us and I imagined my family there. The sun descended below the horizon as I stared deeply into Gabriel’s soft, healing eyes.

I felt weightless as we walked back to our room as husband and wife. When we reached the door to our room, he pressed me against it and kissed me deeply. Out of breath, I stared at him in a glorious daze.

“I suppose I had better let us inside,” he said with sly grin.

He unlocked the door, gathered me in his arms, and carried me to our bed.

Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Twenty-Four

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Our silence created a thick weight that rested heavily on my shoulders. We stole glances at one another every so often as we rode. Every time we stopped to rest for the night, we sat by the fire and had our stream of consciousness conversations followed by long moments of quiet contemplation. Perhaps that was why I was beginning to care for him. Other people annoyed me easily, but I found myself beginning to fear losing him. It was almost eerie how calming his presence was. I had not wanted to admit it to myself earlier, but the sight of the bandit threatening Gabriel by the creek had struck a terrible slice of terror over me.

We sat one night watching the crackling fire. The horses grazed nearby; the sunset cast a spell on their smooth, brown coats.

“We should reach Kansas in two more days,” said Gabriel.

His voice was thick with meaning. I fidgeted, unwilling to speak in case my voice cracked. I turned the logs with the long stick in my hand. Some things were only meant to be temporary and that was what made them special.

“You’re still going to kill him?” asked Gabriel.

“Yes.”

“I hoped that our conversation might have had some sort of an effect on you.”

“My resolve cannot be easily broken, Gabriel.”

I stood and walked away, reaching out to the darkness for a reprieve from the terrible grief that resurfaced and ate away at my stomach like poison. He was just a boy with a dream to be a healer of the sick and mentally wounded. I was bound for hell. I was unable to be saved.

“Mary, I’m sorry.”

I nearly jumped at how close his voiced sounded. I had to catch my breath.

“For what?” I asked.

“I never meant to make you feel worse. I came here hoping to help you heal.”

“I can’t heal from this. Some people are beyond repair.”

I walked away from him, but his words echoed in my mind and broke the silence. Outlawing was my identity. I would be lost without it. I would be vulnerable like the dreamy farm girl who stepped into Max’s saloon years ago. I was the disturbed, ghostly form of the person I used to be.

Later on that evening, I huddled in my blanket unable to sleep. In the morning, I awoke after the sunrise to Gabriel singing a hymn. His baritone voice mingled with the chirping birds in the trees. I lay there and savoured the calming sounds. It was our second last morning together and soon he would be nothing more than a distant memory. I stretched and then finger combed my hair as best I could before saddling up and mounting my horse. I was sure that I caught Gabriel smiling at my vain attempt to look presentable.

We rode until we reached a swollen creek. The little rapids sang a rather obnoxious song as our unspoken words bounced about in our minds. When we met the setting sun once again, my insides ached. Gabriel brought me to enjoy the beautiful, natural occurrence again. I winced at the terrible pain that his departure would bring.

We carried out our nightly ritual of cooling down the horses and starting up a fire. We took turns hunting for rabbits and that night it was Gabriel’s turn. He ventured off to find us dinner while I tended to the fire in misery. When his rapid footsteps sounded above the crackling flames, butterflies fluttered in my stomach.

“I caught dinner,” he announced.

“Good. I’m starved,” I lied.

Eating was the last thing that I wanted to do. I helped him skin and clean the rabbit. The uncertainty of how the rest of the night would go caused my stomach to churn. When the rabbit roasted over the fire, I eased up a little with Gabriel sitting at my side.

“You are so many people wrapped into one amazing existence, Mary.”

My breath caught in my throat. His blunt statements were always laced with some sort of strange magic.

“I never asked to be this way,” I said softly. “I simply am.”

I watched the shadows dance along his angular face. I wanted to tell him so many things, but my strength to do so wavered. Some things were better off being felt rather than said. Once words were uttered, they could not be taken back. We ate the roasted rabbit in our usual silence.

“Make sure you eat all of that,” said Gabriel.

“I will.”

My stomach protested, but I forced the meat down. I would wilt away and die without Gabriel ensuring that I ate properly. If he only knew how small I really was beneath the layers of my clothes.

“I’m about to turn in for the night. Do you want me to put out the fire?”

“I’ll do it,” I said with a sad smile. “I want to sit up for a little while longer.”

He stood and stared down at me.

“Good night, Mary.”

“Good night, Gabriel.”

After allowing myself to merge with the darkness and think of the many ways I would be able to finish off Max, I put the fire out. I shivered under my blanket as loneliness settled over me. Sleep took me away from my mental torture, but then my dreams seeped into the comforting black to haunt me. I dreamed of Becky’s sad, brown eyes searching for me in the darkness. I heard Max’s angry voice and then I heard her screams. I was frozen in place as sickening demoniac laughter encircled me. I was unable to save her.

I awoke abruptly to the darkness. I sat up with a soft cry and threw my blanket off.  The cool night air was only a slight comfort to my warm, clammy skin.

“Mary?”

I made out Gabriel’s shadowy form as he rose from his blankets and made his way toward me. Shaking, I covered my mouth to stop myself from crying.

“Mary?”

“I had a nightmare.”

I watched his slow approach with a racing heart.

“Will you be all right?” he asked softly.

“I had a dream about my baby sister. Max, the man I want to kill, murdered her! He is the one I am going to kill in Kansas!”

I was not accustomed to showing weakness, but I was too exhausted to feign strength as grief smashed into me like a running wild horse.

“Dear God, I am so very sorry about your sister, Mary. May she rest in peace. She is with God now free from-”

“He killed my friend Samantha, too! They were both innocent. They were never like me. Why do the evil live on?”

All the grief I had ever felt in my life returned to haunt me. I hugged my knees as he sat next to me. When he was gone, I would face my nightmares alone under the vast starry skies.

“I am very sorry to hear about the pain you have gone through. Mary, I had no idea you have been hurting so much. My heart goes out to your little sister and to your friend. God will have his judgement on Max. He truly will. He will pay one day for what he did. You don’t need to be the one to finish him off, Mary.”

I shook my head. God hadn’t done anything to Max. The man was living the high life in Dodge City of all places while a young girl and a young woman decayed a few feet down in the earth’s crust. I wiped my tears and brought myself to look at him. The sun began to rise and the new colours of the day transformed his dark irises into honey.

“Gabriel, I don’t want you to go.”

I bit my lip in a helpless attempt to hold back the immense emotions that shook me to the core. His stare entranced me and I found myself barely able to breathe.

“I don’t want you to go, either, Mary,” he said quietly. “But you said yourself that you have a mission to complete.”

I leaned close to him.

“Ask me, Gabriel. Ask me to stay with you.”

As he stared at me in silence, I wondered if I had dreamed up our growing connection. Maybe it was all in my head and I was the crazy one. He was so young with a bright, reputable future. I wondered why I ever thought he would be interested in a twenty-three year old outlaw who had slept with more men than he could count on two hands. I took in a pained breath of air as I realized my delusion. It sent another slice of pain through my core. I was a fool for asking him to do such a thing. He was only my guide.

I moved away from him and slapped my forehead.

“Forget everything I just said,” I mumbled.

Gabriel moved closer and wrapped his arm around me. I leaned against him without hesitating. It was strange and frightening to put myself in such a position. His beautiful, strong heartbeat thundered against my ear. He gently lifted my chin so I could look into his eyes. Our lips were close, but not quite touching. As he stared deep into my eyes, I nearly forgot about my pain.

“Will you marry me, Mary?”

I blinked, unsure if I had heard him correctly. Marry. My mind quickly travelled to horrific images of me washing dishes all day with a house full of yelling children. I buried my face into his shoulder.

“I… I just don’t know if I could ever be a good wife. Look at me!”

He held me tighter.

“I look at you quite a lot and I like what I see. There is nothing to worry about. I love you, Mary.”

Shaking, I lifted my head so I could find his eyes. They were wide and misty, but his hopeful smile demonstrated his sincerity. He really said it. I swallowed hard.

“I love you, too.”

I half expected the dream to end, but he did not fade away. He was there with me and he was asking me to marry him. I did not want to think anymore; I did not want to hurt anymore. I took his hand with both of mine. His hopeful gaze tickled my senses before a wave of euphoria swept over me. I bit my lip and smiled.

“Yes. I will marry you, Gabriel.”

He gathered me in his arms. “Oh, Mary, you make me so happy.”

I laughed as fresh tears spilled down my face. I traced his tanned face with my fingers and then kissed his wonderfully soft lips. He returned the kiss, holding me close to him. When we broke away to catch our breaths, he pulled the blanket over both of us. I drifted away into a peaceful, dreamless sleep as he held me close.

Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Twenty-Three

41ce040e46765136c24504303122c331

As the days blended into the evenings, they took on a certain rhythm. A strange sense of contentment washed over me when we tended to the horses and the fire. It was comforting that neither of us felt the need to break the silence, yet I wondered if I was carrying a false sense of ease. My mind wandered to far off places as we travelled. The days were warmer and longer, but the heat agitated me at times. We stopped mid-day one Sunday afternoon at a creek to allow our horses to drink and rest. I splashed water on my face and then drank from the pool of water in the bowl of my hands.

“I think we’ll need to go hunt for something tonight,” I said. “Those sandwiches we’ve been rationing are mighty stale.”

Gabriel nodded. “Tonight’s the night. We should let the horses wade into the water so they can cool off. I’ll do that if you want.”

“Want me to catch us some frogs? I used to be a quick frog catcher.”

His eyes lit up as he looked at me. “If you want to. I’m not sure if I’d want to eat those.”

I bit my lip to hide my growing smile. “They’re better than you think.”

I strode down the creek away from Gabriel and the horses as they stirred up the water. My stomach rumbled at the thought of eating fresh meat even if it came from a big old bull frog. One sunned itself on a rock. I crouched down in hopes that it hadn’t noticed me. Frogs were quick jumpers, but the fatter they were, the easier they were to catch. I held my breath with my haunches taut, ready to pounce on my unsuspecting prey.

A man’s shout startled me as well as the frog. She leaped into the water with a loud splash. I crept back toward Gabriel and the horses. I imagined some bandit bastard harassing him. My limbs shook with anger as I grabbed my pistol and my knife. I held my breath as I peered through the cattails at Gabriel and a lanky stranger. He was facing Gabriel, but he held only a dagger.

Gabriel’s hands were in the air as he attempted to fend off the intruder with his fancy preacher words. His rifle was strapped uselessly to his back. I could smell the stranger’s disgusting body odour from where I stood and my desire to kill him intensified. Gabriel’s eyes did not travel to mine as I inched closer to the unsuspecting thief. Even in his panic, the kid was smart enough to know not to bring attention to me. I breathed a quick thank you to God that he wasn’t an idiot.

“Tell me where the other one is or I’ll slice you to ribbons,” snarled the bandit.

“That’s all the money we have, Sir,” said Gabriel.

“Liar!”

I put my pistol back in its holster as anger powered my limbs. I kicked the intruder’s hand, sending the knife out of his hand and into the water. I brought the blade of my dagger to his throat.

“What the hell?” cried the thief.

He lifted his hands into the air.

“Why, hello there,” I said. “What was it you were saying that you were going to do to my friend?”

“Mary, let him go,” said Gabriel.

The command in Gabriel’s voice made me want to undermine it.

“No,” I replied.

I glared at him before I slit the thief’s throat. He fell at my feet and breathed his last breath. I knew how to kill quickly and I took a great deal of pride in that. I knelt down and cleaned my blade in the water. The small victory heightened my mood.

“What did you just do to him?” cried Gabriel from behind me.

“I thought you weren’t stupid.”

“I asked you not to kill him! There was no need to kill him.”

“Oh, sorry,” I said, rolling my eyes. “He was going to kill you as well as I once he found me.”

I turned around and stepped away from the creek to catch my breath. I had risked my life to save Gabriel and all that he could give me was a judgemental scold. Two hands grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around. I gasped and stared at him in confusion.

The two of us were way too close.

“You said you weren’t going to touch me.”

“That was before I knew you were a murderer! Are you an outlaw on the run? Answer me, Mary. Who are you?”

“I kill those who kill, but as far as I know there aren’t any “Wanted” signs made for me yet.”

“Oh my God.”

We stared at one another with a new level of understanding surging through us. I was not sure at that moment if he wanted to save my soul or if he wanted to kill me. I could hardly breathe as I waited for him to say something. I wanted to run, but my feet were frozen in place as though his hard glare held some sort of a spell over me.

“Do you want to kill me?” I asked.

His jaw dropped open.

“Of course I don’t want to kill you. Why-what made you think that?”

“Why are you staring at me that way?”

I hated how unnaturally high my voice sounded. He placed his hands on my waist and pulled me toward him. In shock, I asked myself if it was really happening or if my overactive imagination was toying with me. Before I could wrap my head around what was happening, he brought his soft lips to mine. They were warm like his touch that tightened around my midsection. I drew my chin back before he could deepen the kiss.

He let go and I backed away.

“Forgive me, Mary. I…”

“Why did you do that?”

He shrugged. “You’re a beautiful girl.”

I sensed a like-minded insanity hidden inside of him as he stared from my eyes to my lips and then back again. I did not want to look away, even though I should have. No one besides the saloon’s paying customers had ever called me beautiful. I blinked and looked down at the browning grass.

“Will you still be my guide?” I asked.

“Yes. So long as you want me to go with you.”

“Well, I’d rather not waste time getting lost.”

My skin still tingled from where he touched me.

“I haven’t thanked you yet for saving my life. So, thank you, Mary.”

I shrugged as a blush warmed my cheeks. “I was worried he’d cut you up before I got to you. I guess God wants me to reach Kansas, after all.”

He chuckled. I couldn’t bring myself to laugh with him.

“Why are you going to Kansas?” he asked.

“I’m going to kill a man.”

He cleared his throat, finally taking his mesmerizing gaze off of me.

“What will happen after you kill him?”

His question nearly made my heart drop into my stomach.

“I’ve already told you too much. I’m surprised you are still here with me to be honest.”

His eyes flashed. “That day I caught you stealing apples from my uncle’s orchard, I knew there had to be a good reason why I happened to see you. Mary, I’ve been called by God to help you stop this.”

My light-headed rush from being touched by him diminished as my resolve returned.

“I will not be at peace until this man is dead, Gabriel.”

He stepped toward me and I backed away with my hand stretched out in front of me.

“I’m a murderer, a thief, and I was once a prostitute. I don’t want to ruin your life with my damaged one. I will handle it one day and on my own. I just need you to please step away.”

“I am just a fool, Mary. I should have handled this better.”

I shrugged. “I think you’ve handled this just fine. I just need you to keep your hands to yourself.”

He nodded and placed his hands in his pockets. I looked away as my heart lurched.

“I suppose we should be on our way again,” I said. “By the way, if I didn’t kill the intruder, he would have followed us down the way and finished us off in our sleep. Trust me, I know how these people are.”

Gabriel removed his hat and ran a hand through his dark hair.

“May God forgive me, but I will take your word for it.”

We remounted and rode onward. I would have normally ran away from a man after he tried to kiss me; it scared me a little that I did not want him to leave me yet. I supposed that after losing so many people, it would do me good to hold on to my guide for as long as I could. Once he was gone, my final few days would stretch before me and lead me to my fatal destiny.

Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Twenty-Two

sunset

When Gabriel and I stopped to rest one evening, I switched between organizing the saddle bags and chewing absently on my sandwich while I contemplated cleaning the boots. We rarely spoke, much to my relief, but it was still draining to have another human so close to me day in and day out. What began as a nice gesture evolved into irritation.

“Mary, you ought to take a look at this sunset,” said Gabriel.

He stood staring out at the flaming horizon like a sentimental fool. A part of me despised him for his gift of wonder. I, too, once held a love for natural beauty, but that love died along with my sister.

“I,er, would rather not,” I said quietly.

“It’s magnificent. Maybe it will help you sleep better.”

“What do you mean?” I snapped.

“I hear you toss and turn a lot of nights. I don’t mean to step on your toes, though. Do as you wish.”

I stood with a huff. “Fine. Let’s see what is so special about this damned sunset.”

I joined him and dared to look out at the collage of colours. Though I had seen many grand sunsets in my day, a pleased sigh escaped from my lips. The setting sun painted the sky a soft pink, while fiery orange stained the horizon. As I stared out at the natural wonder, my thoughts ceased and I allowed myself to be lost in its magic. I closed my eyes as uncontrollable tears streamed down my face.

“Are you all right, Mary?”

“This is why I didn’t want to see it.”

I stepped away from him.

“Please accept my apologies.”

“Stop apologizing. This is not your fault.”

The silence that followed was strained and it irritated me. I wanted to pretend that he wasn’t really there, but it was impossible to do so after he asked me such a personal question. He prepared a fire while I cleaned off my mud-caked boots. When I was finished, I joined him at the small fire.

“You asked me if I was all right,” I said. “You are a kind person, I can see, but I want to warn you it is best not to dig too deeply when it comes to me. You will not like what you find.”

“I did not mean to pry. I was only concerned for you. We will be spending the next few weeks together and … well, it does not matter, I suppose. I am your guide and this is your journey.”

Disappointment etched his tone. As much as I hated small talk, sitting next to him staring at the flames piqued my curiosity. He was right. We were going to spend the next few weeks together. He was neither idiotic nor overly assumptive. I had to be grateful for that.

“Well, fair’s fair. I’ll ask you a question, too.”

He chuckled and leaned forward. “Ask away.”

“Why do you want to be a preacher?”

“I’ve been a God-fearin’, Jesus lovin’ boy since I can recall. I love helping people and no other job seems to suit me. I’ll own a farm and teach people in the evenings and preach at church on Sundays. It’s something that makes my heart soar just thinking of the idea.”

“Well, that’s an impressive life goal. I think it would suit you well.”

“I am drawn to broken things. My aunt and I always doctor sick people and animals. The loss I have experienced over the past few years of my townsfolk took a toll on me, but I suppose life deals you with both joy and grief.”

“Indeed.”

“Are you a Christian?”

“I was raised Christian, but I don’t know what I believe. I used to be an avid reader of books, including The Bible. That was what made my heart soar, as you say. Then farming became my life’s dream.”

“Now you are a traveller.”

“Yes. Thank you, by the way, for offering to show me the way to Kansas. I think I might have taken twice as long to get there on my own.”

Gabriel nodded. “My pleasure.”

I wondered how anything about my company could be a pleasure for anyone.

“It’s been an easy going journey aside from that downpour a few days ago,” he said.

“So far. I am not all that worried about danger, though. I’m a good shot and I’m sure you’ve done your share of hunting.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Funny, you struck me as a fearless type from the first moment I saw you.”

I sensed some sort of implication in his statement. I stood and stretched, unwilling to play mind games at the moment.

“Well, I am off to get some sleep,” I said. “If we can, let’s leave before dawn tomorrow.”

“Good plan.”

“Perfect.”

I settled myself under my blanket while Gabriel put out the fire. I stared up at the inky sky as stars began to appear. I wanted to close my eyes, but I submitted to the self indulgence. Gabriel’s distant, steady breathing was comforting in a strange way. I thought back to my saloon days. The men I slept with always passed out after spewing forth their seed. Sometimes I would be covered with it. Their deep breathing as they slept in satisfaction next to me was what led me to eventually make my first kill. I studied Gabriel’s resting form under the blanket close to the fire pit before turning away from him.

My days as a prostitute were long behind me, but some memories were so vivid. Max ruined the lives of other girls and he was still doing so in that fancy big city in Kansas. I would be the one to put an end to the misery that he caused the world. I would save other young women from a harsh life that would forever infect their memories.

“I hope after I kill him that you might be able to forgive me, Becky,” I whispered.

I covered my mouth and wept quietly as grief stabbed me deep. I reached out one of my hands and imagined Becky’s hand taking it into hers.

“Please, please forgive me, Becky.”

Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Twenty-One

barn

Rain once calmed me and inspired me to dream, but as I rode through the downpour with Gabriel following, I had never felt more miserable. I was cold, wet, and all that I could think about was death. Death of my loved ones, of Angel, and soon, of me. I fought to remind myself that I had to stay alive for the purpose of finishing Max off. We had only just begun our journey and it felt as though we were merely crawling across the countryside. Riding at a faster pace in the slippery mud would put the horses at risk for a broken leg, but all I wanted to do was run for Kansas. I hated being stuck, especially when every ounce of my purpose rested in Dodge City, Kansas. A frustrated scream shot out from my throat.

“Mary?” called Gabriel.

His voice sounded distant as the wind whistled over the grasslands and sent a chill over my damp flesh. I slowed my horse to a walk as he brought his horse next to mine.

“We need to stop somewhere or we’ll catch our deaths.”

He was right, but I wanted to know where in the world he expected us to stop.

“You have any place in mind?” I asked in annoyance.

“Follow me. I know of a place where we could stay until this weather passes!”

I nodded and gestured for him to ride ahead. Relief calmed much of my rage as I followed him across the fields until a barn on the edge of what appeared to be an abandoned farm came into view. The thought of being alone with him sent another shiver over me. I made an attempt to not think too much about the potentially awkward encounter. It was a barn, after all. We could sleep on different ends of the thing and being a future preacher, surely he wouldn’t try to touch me.

When we reached the old barn, Gabriel got down from his mount and opened the door. It was pitch black inside and I wished that I had brought matches with me before trashing the old saloon. At least we would be able to hang our coats to dry and be relatively warmer. We brought our horses inside and removed their saddles promptly. We then took the blankets out of the saddle bags and covered them up.

“You think they will be all right?” I asked.

“I’m sure they will be. We didn’t ride in the rain for all that long.”

“I hope it lets up soon,” I sighed, staring out into the darkness. “We don’t have time to hide out in barns.”

“I am sure that it will, Mary. You in a rush to get to Kansas?”

Again, I was surprised that his question did not bring about the usual defensiveness I normally felt when men questioned me. His sincere curiosity was disarming.

“You could say that,” I said.

“It is a little early, but we could try and get some sleep so we can get a head start the next morning.”

“Assuming that cursed rain stops.”

“Assuming.”

I thought I heard a hint of a smile as he said the word.

“Well, there’s a heap of straw over there that I saw before we closed ourselves in here. We ought to make ourselves comfortable. Far away from one another, of course,” he said.

“Right. Of course.”

“If it would make you feel more comfortable, I can go to the other end of the barn.”

I laughed despite myself, immediately regretting the action. It had not been very long since I discovered the deaths of Becky and Samantha, but there I was laughing like a fool at a stranger’s stupid comment.

“That would be best,” I muttered. “By the way, did you used to live here?”

“I knew an older couple a few years ago who farmed this land. They died from pneumonia. My aunt and I… we tried to nurse them back to health, but God wanted them.”

I hated the way his sad voice hung in the air.

“You really believe that people die because God wants to bring them home?”

I had to calm the anger that threatened to spew out into a yell. He was just my guide and I had to remember that. I did not care what the boy thought of me, but I had heard of preacher men picking off outlaws now and again claiming that it was God’s will. I would need to step cautiously.

“Well, yes, I do,” said Gabriel. “Even if it might not make sense to us, we need to trust that He knows best.”

“Well, I’m exhausted and ready to sleep now.”

“Good night, then, Mary.”

I tensed up and did not reply. It was presumptuous to say such a thing to a stranger in the darkness. It was what families said to one another before walking off to their rooms with a candle lighting their way. The rustling of straw and dirt on the other side of the barn signalled to me where Gabriel was and I relaxed a little. He seemed to know his place.

I closed my eyes and hoped for sleep to take me away before my mind started to ruminate about too many things. For a girl of twenty-three, I had already experienced a wealth of remarkable things, but I had lost a great deal more. I felt like a soldier who wandered away from a brutal battle, forever a lost in his own nightmarish world. I drifted into a fitful sleep as the rain poured down on the barn. I tossed and turned until the pouring lessened to mere pattering. My consciousness at last escaped away into its favourite hiding place. Sleep.

A loud snort and a squeaking door awakened me the next day. I stretched and peered over to the bright doorway where Gabriel stood.

“The rain stopped,” I said with a yawn.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

I forced myself to stand and I saddled up my horse. Gabriel brought me over a cheese sandwich.

“You should eat this before we ride again.”

“Thank you. This actually looks delicious. Did your aunt make it?”

“I did.”

I wolfed down the bread, meat, and cheese while Gabriel waited outside. I joined him under the warm sun wiping my mouth with my hands. I could not help feeling a little sloppy.

“That was a great sandwich.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said with a small smile.

I remounted with a renewed vigour for the journey. I followed Gabriel’s lead this time with the assumption that he knew the best way to Kansas. I could only hope that my trust in him was not misguided.

Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Twenty

Morning sky

I awoke before the sun’s rays pierced the navy skies. Becky’s face appeared to me in the darkness. The vision of her mirrored the expression she wore on the last day that we saw one another – before I left to ask Max for a job. She smiled at me as I mounted my horse because I told her that I would bring home some lemon drops after my visit in town. The terrible reality of her death closed in on me as the cool room sharpened my awareness. My soul would forever mourn for her.

I moaned and pulled myself away from the warm mattress and soft blankets. The fear of being caught by Gabriel or his aunt and uncle drove me to move quickly. I picked up my coat and held my breath as I slowly opened the bedroom door. I padded over to the front entrance and cringed as the heavy door protested with a screech against my pushing hands. I reached back inside and picked up my boots; I ran barefoot to my horse before slipping my feet into my wool socks. My racing heart thundered in my ears as I untied the lead rope while attempting to put my boots on at the same time. I could have used a good cup of coffee before starting the day’s journey, but such a luxury would not be available until I dared to ride into another town.

My heart nearly halted at the sound of rustling grass. I gasped audibly, bracing myself for either a predatory animal or a human. I preferred to see the beast.

“Why are you leaving so early, Mary?”

I froze at the sound of Gabriel’s voice. I made out his lean form in the darkness. He was already fully dressed with his hat on. My mind travelled back to my last moment with George and I begged God to spare me from another standoff. I did not possess the strength to fight this time.

“I, er, woke up early and I did not want to disturb you,” I said as calmly as possible.

“I had a feeling that you might sneak away. I didn’t sleep a wink.”

“I’m not sneaking away. I’m a lone traveller, Gabriel.”

“I didn’t come out to interrogate you. I want to offer you my guidance for your journey to Kansas.”

“Oh.”

I was grateful for the darkness that hid my stupefied facial response. Gabriel placed his hands in his pockets. It was a gesture that I found endearing. My Papa often did so when he was about to say something important to me when I was growing up. I inhaled a helpless breath as I waited for Gabriel to elaborate.

“I do not mean to hijack your journey. I realize your independence must be important to you, as it is for every wanderer. I will take you as far as Kansas… if you agree.”

“What will your aunt and uncle think? What about your pastoral training?”

It was not exactly proper for a man and a woman to travel together across the country without an escort. I cared nothing for social expectations, but Gabriel had to.

“I want to help you find your way to a far off place. This will be my last chance to go on a journey before I start to preach at Tall Oaks Baptist.”

His sincerity drove a chill down my spine and I cleared my throat to fight another urge to cry.

“You promise to not talk incessantly?” I asked skeptically.

He took a small step forward. “I’m an introspective man. I promise. I don’t talk much.”

Man. He was hardly more than a boy, really. Nineteen at the most. The rising sun behind me highlighted the high points on his face. His unadulterated youth radiated from his warm eyes and pulled at my conscience. Though I was only a few years older than he was, I felt a sense of responsibility over him. I worried that he would be caught up in the violence that always seemed to find me; he did not deserve a fate that should only be reserved for outlaws.

“I just worry…” I began.

“You do not strike me as someone who worries often,” he said thoughtfully.

“I suppose not. I worry for you, though.”

“Why?”

“You are still very young.”

“I have been to Kansas and back on a cattle drive already. Trust me, you are not the only seasoned traveller here. Besides, I am nineteen years old. I’m not a child.”

I felt a little ridiculous underestimating his ability, especially after my own experience of being patronized for being a young woman. He had no idea who I was yet, but he did not ever need to know. Assuming that other dangers laid low until I reached Kansas, my true intentions would only be known once I met Max. Gabriel would be long gone by then.

“Very well,” I said quietly. “Shall I wait while you go tell your family about your decision?”

“They already know.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. We spoke of it last night. They are worried about you, too.”

“Why are you being so kind to a stranger you know nothing about?”

He shrugged. “I suppose we’re just good judges of character.”

I cringed.

As Gabriel left to saddle up his horse, I mounted my horse and stared at the apple trees. In the darkness, their branches seemed sinister. Though the family’s act of kindness sent a ripple of hope through me, the true purpose of my mission remained at the forefront of my mind. I had to kill a man and I would not rest until his blood soaked the earth. I also had a price to pay for leaving Becky and Samantha for dead. I would pay that price in due time.

“I packed us some bread and cheese,” called Gabriel as he rode up to where I waited.

I gritted my teeth at the thought of his escalated voice waking up his uncle or aunt. If they came outside, it would waste time. I inhaled deeply and reminded myself that I should be grateful for Gabriel’s kindness.

“Well, I thank you for thinking ahead. We can put off hunting for a while.”

Gabriel paused for a moment to watch the sunrise. I ignored it as I always did, but his silent appreciation of the natural wonder put me at ease. Only time would tell how we would get along as travelling companions. His brown eyes rested on mine for a moment. I stared down at my hands resting on the horn of my saddle. I hoped that he handn’t sensed the darkness in my eyes. He likely would in time.

“Shall we ride?” I asked.

“You’re the leader, Mary.”

His comment forced the corners of my mouth upward. We flew across the countryside on our horses with Kansas waiting for us in the far distance. Having someone to ride along with me felt strangely grounding even if it was only temporary.

Mary The Outlaw: Chapter Nineteen

apple

I rode down the quiet street the next morning flinching under the already bright light. Thoughts of Becky’s death brought terrible imagery to my mind’s eye. I was unable to escape. I choked back a sob.

I stopped my horse in front of the saloon. The empty building had once held so much power over my life. It ravaged my soul so much that I had become my own breed of monster.

I got down from my horse and stepped up into the disgusting place. I sensed evil hovering over me like a demon. Like the town, the once thriving saloon was slowly dying. I stepped behind the bar and bashed in the glass-doored cabinet that held the liquor with the butt of my rifle. I poured out every bottle and found a book of matches under the bar counter. I stepped away from the wet floor and lit a match. I tossed it to the floor. I ran away from the hungry flames and remounted my fidgety horse. I pulled sharply on the reins when he attempted to break into a run. He hesitated before obeying me. I made him stand there to show him that I was not going to allow his impulsive movements any longer. When he stopped pawing the ground, I dug my heels into his sides and we flew out of the town like the wind.

My stomach growled as the sun rose higher in the blue sky. Too much sun made me cranky. I scanned the crops as we rode across the countryside in agitation. My mouth watered at the mere idea of eating fresh fruit. As much as I deserved to starve, I’d need enough sustenance to keep me healthy on my journey to find Max. I stopped at last at the edge of an apple orchard; the red apples and healthy green leaves were one of the most beautiful things I had seen in a while. I picked one and ate it ravenously. The horse tore at the branches like a madman and one branch flung back, slapping me in the face.

“Ouch!” I cried.

The horse was going to be the death of me.

“Hello?”

Startled by the sudden male voice, I rested my hand on the pistol at my hip. I was on his land stealing his apples and he had every right to shoot me. The best way to diffuse the situation was to be personable. How I hated being personable to strangers.

“Hello!” I called back.

Emerging from the thick of the apple trees was a young man with brown eyes so warm that he had to be hiding something terrible behind them.

“Fancied some apples for yourselves?” he asked with a crooked grin.

“I… well… yes. I am sorry. It’s a day’s ride until I reach the next town and…”

He broke into a laugh that jarred both me and my horse.

“My Aunt’s cooking up a storm back at the farmhouse if you want to help us polish off some food.”

His genuine smile tugged at my heartstrings and I wanted to hate him for being inexplicably kind. My heart was raw from the great pain of my losses and the last thing I expected was generosity from a stranger. My tired eyes watered and I looked away from him. For all I knew, he was going to lead me to some deserted cabin and slit my throat. Or worse.

“Th-that is nice of you,” I stuttered.

“My name’s Gabriel. I’m studying to be a preacher so you need not worry about what will happen to you if you follow me back home.”

“I wasn’t worried at all.”

I cursed under my breath. The last person that I wanted to be around was a man of God, but hunger was eating away at my stomach. The temptation of a home cooked meal was too tempting to pass up. It was only dinner.

“Good,” he smiled. “Now, what might your name be?”

“Mary.”

“Nice to meet you, Mary.”

“Likewise, Gabriel.”

He outstretched his hand and I shook it. His handshake was warm and sturdy. I stared at my hand in a daze until he cleared his throat.

“I barely slept last night,” I blurted. “That is why I seem a little daft right now.”

It felt strange divulging such a thing to a stranger.

“A hearty meal is in order. Follow me,” he said.

I dismounted so we would be on equal footing. I caught him gazing at the length of my body as I jumped down.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Kansas.”

I wanted to hit myself for telling him that. He wouldn’t understand my mission and I silently pleaded for him to stop asking questions.

“Well now, that’s quite a trek.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Hm,” he muttered thoughtfully.

He seemed to sense that I had something to hide, but he would never be able to imagine how many ugly things were hidden just below the surface. He prudently changed the subject to the orchards. I felt myself relaxing a little more as we walked and talked about fruit farming.

“Thank you for asking me to dine with you and your family,” I said when the farmhouse came into view. “I don’t see that sort of kindness often.”

“Lord only knows when you’ll eat your next decent meal. It’s the least I can do.”

I tied my horse securely to the fence post where he could graze.

“I’ll bring out a pail of water for him to drink once we get you settled inside,” said Gabriel.

“Thank you.”

When we reached the house, Gabriel opened the front door and stepped aside for me to go in first. I met his soft gaze and gave him a grateful smile. As the intoxicating aroma of cooking meat wafted into my nostrils and my eyes wandered over the homey scene, so many emotions flooded through me. Gabriel’s aunt, who was busy slaving away in the kitchen, heard us removing our boots and turned around to face us. The expression on her face made me wonder if I had made a grave mistake. Her kind expression sent a wave of familiarity over me. She reminded me of my mother and for a moment, I nearly wondered if she had returned to watch over me. I sucked in a quick breath of air.

“Gabriel, who have you found here?” asked the woman.

“My name is Mary and I am a traveller,” I said, forcing a smile.

“She’s off to Kansas,” said Gabriel, removing his hat to reveal wavy, dark brown hair.

“That so?”

“Yes’m,” I said, quickly removing my hat.

A large man whom I presumed to be Gabriel’s uncle strode into the room.

“Well, I’m hungrier than a bear today. Nice to meet you, little lady,” he said with a quick nod. “But let’s save the formalities for after we eat.”

“Jonathan,” Gabriel’s aunt scolded.

“I might just be as hungry as him,” I said with a shrug.

“That’s my girl,” said Jonathan with a wink.

We seated ourselves at the table while Gabriel’s aunt brought over the pot of roast venison with potatoes and gravy. I let out a sigh as I bit into the most exquisite tasting slab of meat coated with delicious gravy. Gabriel stifled a laugh while his aunt watched me in unmasked curiosity.

“Sorry,” I said between bites. “It’s been ages since I’ve had a sit down meal like this. I’ve hunted game while living in the Ozarks, but it was rather bland as you might imagine.”

“You’re a hunter too, huh?” asked Jonathan. “She looks like a girl, but she might just be a man on the inside.”

I was too famished to care what they thought of me. I devoured all the food on my plate, losing myself in the sensory experience. For a few blessed moments, it gave me something to think about besides how much I missed Becky. I leaned back as my food digested. My eyelids fluttered closed and it was not until a gentle hand squeezed my arm that I realized I had fallen asleep. I sat straight up and stared into the tender eyes of Gabriel’s aunt.

“Forgive me. I didn’t mean to just walk in here, eat your food, and fall asleep like some drunkard,” I said abashedly.

“Hush now,” she said with a soft smile. “I’ve already prepared a bed for you. Gabriel’s offered to sleep on the rocking chair for tonight.”

“It’s very kind of you, but I couldn’t accept…”

“Nonsense. You need a decent night’s sleep, girl.”

I nodded with a tired smile. I could not argue with that.

“Thank you. I suppose that running on no sleep isn’t the best way to start a long journey.”

“Precisely.”

The older woman’s look of concern struck a chord of agitation in me before Gabriel and his uncle stepped through the front door. Staring at them, I wondered how long I really had been sleeping. They appeared to have been working outside for a while.

“Are you all right?” asked Gabriel.

I looked away from his oddly kind eyes.

“Yes. Just tired.”

The whole family was almost too much for me to handle. They seemed kinder to a complete stranger than was natural. I imagined that they held an ulterior motive of some kind. I wouldn’t stay around long enough to find out what that was. After a long sleep, I would be happy to be out of there and back on my mission. I stood and nodded to all three of them.

“Thank you all very much for your kindness to me. I should go rest now.”

“Sleep well, Mary,” called Gabriel.

“Good night,” I called back, feeling foolish.

I stepped into the little room and fell onto the soft bed. The tornado of emotions encircling my tormented soul ceased when I closed my eyes and surrendered to sleep.