Rain used to calm and inspire me as a young girl, but as I rode through the downpour with Gabriel following, I had never felt more miserable. I was cold, drenched, and all that I could think about was killing. Horrifying, moving images of Becky and Samantha being murdered by Max flashed across my mind as we crawled across the countryside about to catch our deaths in the downpour. It was impossible to blot them out, so I wept in silence.
Riding at a faster pace in the slippery mud would have put the horses at risk of slipping and breaking a leg.
I hated being stuck, especially when every fragment of my purpose rested in Dodge City. My warm tears mingled with the cold rain. I would have given anything to escape from the present situation.
My horse slipped down a bluff and I screamed. Steadying my mount, I caught my breath.
“Mary?” called Gabriel.
He brought his mount next to mine. I stared at him with stinging eyes.
“We need to stop somewhere, or we’ll catch a bad cold,” he said.
“You got a place in mind?”
“Follow me! I know of a place where we could stay until this weather passes.”
I nodded and gestured for him to ride ahead. A barn appeared on the edge of an old farm. Gabriel guided his horse toward it.
The thought of being alone with him sent another shiver over me. At least it was a big barn. We could sleep on opposite ends of the thing.
“Let’s just make sure the place isn’t filled with rats,” said Gabriel.
“Right. Of course.”
We searched the dark perimeters of the place, kicking the straw and banging the walls to make sure we weren’t accompanied by an army of pests.
He proved to be both cautious and caring on the ride so far, but I did not want to risk anything untoward happening. If the kid tried to touch me, I would have to kill him. My pistol was ready and loaded.
“At least we’re out of the rain,” I sighed.
We unsaddled the horses and took the blankets out of the saddlebags, covering their wet coats.
“You think they will be all right?” I asked.
“I’m sure of it. We didn’t ride in the rain for that long and they’ll warm up under the blankets.”
“I suppose we’ll have to settle for beds of straw.”
“We don’t have time to hide away in barns. This rain is terrible.”
“I am sure it will clear up by tomorrow. You in a rush to get to Kansas?”
His question did not bring about the usual defensiveness that I normally felt when men questioned me. His sincere curiosity reminded me of myself when I was around that age. Perhaps I would still be that way had hard times not destroyed my sense of wonder.
“You could say that,” I replied.
“It is a little early, but we could try and get some sleep now so we can get a head start on the next morning.”
“Assuming this blasted rain stops.”
I thought I heard a hint of amusement as he said the word. I cleared my throat and removed my drenched coat.
“You didn’t happen to bring coffee in your saddlebag, did you?” I asked.
The thought of the hot, bitter liquid warming me up from the inside made me crave it more. My cravings for indulgences had intensified since leaving The Ozarks.
“I wondered if you’d ask. I brought some, but I think we ought to save it for the morning. We can start the day off right.”
“Well, there’s a heap of straw over there. We ought to make ourselves comfortable. Far away from one another, of course.”
“If it would make you feel more comfortable, I can go to the other end of the barn.”
Despite my horrid shivering, I laughed. I’m not sure if it was because of the way he said it, but I immediately regretted my action. It had not been very long since I discovered the deaths of Becky and Samantha, but there I was laughing like a fool.
“You don’t have to go quite that far,” I muttered. “By the way, did you used to live around here?”
“I knew an older couple a few years ago who farmed this land. They both died from pneumonia. My aunt and I… we tried to nurse them back to health, but God wanted them in his kingdom.”
I hated the way his sad words hung in the air.
“Well, that’s bleak,” I sighed.
“They are at peace now.”
“You really believe that people die because God wants to bring them ‘home’?”
I had to calm the anger that threatened to spew out of me. He was just my guide and I had to remember that. I did not need to care what the boy thought about life and religion, but it bothered me all the same.
“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. Saying such a thing to a stranger in the darkness was presumptuous. He was just another transient person on my bitter journey.
The rustling of straw and dirt on the other side of the barn signaled to me where he was and I relaxed a little. He did not seem to have any plans to step out of place. I closed my eyes and waited for sleep to take me away before my mind wandered to too many things.
I felt like a wounded soldier who had wandered away from a brutal battle, forever lost in his own nightmarish world without hope of finding peace. I felt so old for a girl of twenty-three.
At last, I drifted into a fitful sleep as the pattering rain taunted me.
I stretched as warm light hit my face. My eyes wandered over to Gabriel, who stood in the doorway.
“Looks like the rain stopped,” I said with a yawn.
“It has. Did you sleep well?” he asked.
I forced myself to stand and brushed the pieces of straw off my wrinkled, damp clothing. I removed the thicker blanket from my horse, folded it, and replaced it with the lighter saddle blanket before saddling him up.
“Good boy,” I cooed, taking a moment to rub his smooth neck.
Gabriel brought me over a cheese sandwich.
“You should eat this before we ride again.”
“This looks delicious. Did your aunt make it?”
“Nice work,” I said with a grin.
I wolfed down the bread and cheese while Gabriel waited for me to finish. I joined him under the warm sun and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. I could not help feeling a little sloppy.
“That was a great sandwich. You’ll make a good wife for someone one day.”
His smirk was almost catching.
“We can stop in town when we run out of sandwiches.”
I shook my head.
“Towns are trouble. Trust me on this one. We’d be better off hunting unless we’re in dire need of buying something.”
“I was hoping to make things easier, but if you’d rather hunt, we’ll hunt.”
I forgot my need for coffee with my renewed vigor for my journey ahead. My mood heightened considerably with a full belly and a rested mind, but I longed for the sadness to return. The last thing I deserved was to feel good about anything.
I followed Gabriel’s lead this time. He apparently knew the best way to Kansas. I could only hope that my trust in him was not misguided. He played the part of a respectful guide, but men had a knack for showing me their true colours once my guard was down.
When Gabriel and I stopped to rest and set up camp later that evening, I switched between organizing the saddlebags and chewing absently on my second sandwich. I contemplated cleaning my boots to keep my hands busy. The two of us rarely spoke, much to my relief, but it was still draining to have another human so close to me day in and day out. Something about his presence began to irritate me, but I could not quite put my finger on what it was.
“Mary, you ought to see this sunset,” he called.
He stood staring out at the flaming horizon like a sentimental fool. I, too, recently held a love for such natural beauty, but it died along with my sister.
“I would rather not,” I said quietly.
“It’s amazing. Maybe it will help you sleep better.”
“What do you mean?” I snapped.
“I heard you toss and turn a lot last night. Beholding nature’s beauty can really help calm a troubled spirit.”
“I know that!” I snapped.
I stood up with a huff and walked past him.
“Fine. Let me see what is so special about this damned sunset.”
I dared to look out at the mosaic of intense colours. Though I had seen many grand sunsets in my day, a pleased sigh escaped from my lips as I beheld that one. The setting sun painted the clouds soft pink as they hovered above a fiery orange horizon.
As I stared out at the natural wonder, my thoughts stilled. I allowed myself to become lost in its magic. I closed my eyes as tears streamed down my face.
Gabriel stood at my side.
“Are you alright, Mary?” he asked.
I crossed my arms and walked away from him.
“I told you I didn’t want to see it.”
“You were trying to be nice, I guess.”
Strained silence followed our brief exchange as darkness covered the countryside. He irritated me because he showed me everything that I had once been and could never be again.
He prepared a fire while I cleaned off my mud-caked boots. When I was finished with my chore, I joined him on the log that he was sitting on.
“You asked me earlier if I was all right,” I said. “You are kind, but I want to warn you that it is best not to dig too deeply when it comes to me. You won’t like what you’ll 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 what I think, 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 neither idiotic nor presumptuous. I had to be grateful for that. Perhaps conversing with him could be satisfactory.
“Well, fair’s fair. I’ll ask you a question, too.”
He chuckled and leaned forward.
“And I feel the light when you tell me it’s okay…”
– You’re so Great by Blur
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