Parm left Gin and I sheltered by shadow and brush at the far side of the Mesa, "keep an eye on things and if appears happenstance has gone sour, get the hell out a here and don't look back."
As he turned his horse to ride back to the burning building the sidewall gave way. Fire and smoke plumed in the air. Gin and I didn't say a word but sat on our horses watching the firestorm and wondering if our hearts were burning with it. Gin nudged her mount a little closer and her hand reached out to cover mine which had a death grip on the pommel. Away from the blaze the outlaws were being restrained with their hands tied behind their backs. Someone was tending to the wounded while the dead were dragged a distance away and covered with blankets. I was aware of all this activity in the periphery of my line of vision. My concentration however, rested on the fire as I willed Matt to emerge from the building.
I could hear Gin chanting in a soft voice, which grew more Irish with every word she spoke, "Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art though among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus, Holy Mary Mother of God …"
From the flames two figures appeared, the smaller one half dragging half carrying the larger, the smoke obscured their identities at first and lifted for only a blink before a blast ripped through what was left of Spencer's Nest. That brief moment was long enough for me to see Parm had Matt flung over his shoulder. I cried my words of thanksgiving out loud, "its Matt, thank God; thank God he's safe…." Gin's hand over mine tightened as she finished the prayer, "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
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Ahead of us lay a vast expanse of sagebrush, bunch grass and trail dust, interspersed across the region were cacti; some short and squatty others taller than a man with giant prickly fingers pointing at the blazing sun as if cussing an oath for the ceaseless unforgiving heat. Beyond, as behind, stood the purple hued Black Mesa Mountain Range. Like a watchman of the land, the monuments of the arid plains stood in unchanging guard over Texas as they had for millions of years, as they had yesterday as they would tomorrow. But for those of us journeying back to Rubicon, the world, as we knew it was forever changed. For what we'd lost at Spencer's Nest would alter our lives inexorably.
Matt was lying in the wagon along with several other Rubicon men. The space was cramped and their bodies over lapped. A canvas shade of sorts had been rigged over the wagon bed, so they were protected against the hottest of the sun's rays. I'd done my best to make him comfortable but I didn't know if he was aware of my efforts.
"It's just as well, Cassie girl." In the driver's seat, Parm had turned to say. "He's strong and young and if we can get him back to town alive he should come out of this just fine." I attempted a smile but the best I managed was a slight lifting to the corners of my mouth.
A smaller wagon had also been commandeered from the supplies at Spencer's Nest. In this vehicle were transported the remains of the men from Rubicon. In the death wagon sat Gin Sasse, next to Charlie who was doing the driving. She could have been made of stone for the emotion she was showing and I understood her motive. Any crack in the façade would have caused her to crumble in front of us and she could not do that, she would not do that to the memory of Gabriel Maxwell. Had Matt been the one who died in the fire I'd have been the same way.
It had been hours after the fire that Parm and Charlie had scoured through the ashes of the burnt out building. They had come across some charred remains with a badge resting where a heart should have been; very carefully they had moved the body to a blanket and carried it from the building. With badge in hand Parm had walked to Gin. "I reckon you should have this Mrs. Sasse, Gabriel would a wanted it that way." He took her hand, opened the fingers and placed the scarred metal in her palm. She dropped her eyes to study the lawman's star before bringing it to her breast and nodding.
Rubicon was a good three days away traveling as we were, and every bump in the road rocked my heart. We stopped frequently to attend to our injured; I'd apply compresses to Matt's forehead and change the dressing on his wound. On the morning of the third day we stopped at a small green river valley that I recognized as the place where Gabe and Parm had taken Flossie and I on our picnic.
The heat of the season had changed it some from the verdant paradise it had been on that spring day, but the Rubicon River which flowed through this basin had kept it green and early summer daisies, coneflowers, square bud primrose and Mexican Hat had altered the hues of the landscape tapestry. It was quiet too, almost reverent with only the sounds of the river and the quacks of the small flock of Hooded Mergansers who made their home near the water's edge. In the stillness, I could almost hear Gabe's voice as he'd shared his thoughts of how treasured this place was to him, "It puts me to mind how the Garden of Eden must have been. This here is a special place for me. I'm glad you be liking it." Parm must have been doing some remembering too for he walked over to Gin, "I think this should be where we plant Gabe, he'd be right happy here."
With Parm's help she got down from the buckboard and walked over to the river's edge, she seemed to be searching the water for an answer, "This was a dear plot of earth to Gabriel, but I'm thinking there's an even better place for him to be resting."
I'd been standing back from her, but now I moved closer. It had come to me suddenly and the thought brought a measure of ease for my grief, "next to wee Patty?" I asked.
She nodded "I'm thinking the two of them belong together until it be my time to join them."
And so it was on our arrival back in Rubicon later that day. The dead were laid to rest, most next to their kin with quiet prayers and gentle weeping. I had slipped from Matt's bedside to be with Virginia Sasse. I felt a powerful bond tied us together in the shared knowledge that a badge was our strongest rival. "It's not right." I said after the last 'amen'.
"What's not right?" Gin asked and I was a little annoyed with her for not seeing the obvious.
"Gabe is gone, he should be here with you." I noticed in her hand she held Gabe's badge next to her Rosary beads.
"Damn the badge." I cursed.
She looked at me with surprise in her expression, "It weren't the badge what took him, Cassie Girl - good fights evil and Gabriel was a good and brave man, he died as he lived, a body can't ask for more than that."
She knelt down to a knee and patted the freshly filled grave and then gave a glance to the smaller mound beside it before crossing herself and folding her hands to pray. I stood there for a moment wanting to share the sorrow and seeking to comfort. When it was clear she'd found her own form of solace, which didn't include me, I left her to return to Matt.
Two of the large bedrooms on the upper floor of the boarding house had been turned into a makeshift hospital. Helmut Kraemer devoted himself to caring for the wounded, it wasn't until the last of his patients was buried or out of danger that he again allowed himself the luxury of a bottle of Gold Barrel.
Matt had lost a lot of blood, he was weak and it seemed an effort for him to stay awake, much less talk for the first few days after we got back to Rubicon. For my part, I was healing physically from the bullet wound and various cuts and scrapes. My grief over Gabriel's death was a different matter, the unfairness of it haunted my thoughts, and I fluctuated between anger at God, Verdon Spencer and the badge, which I felt had forced the showdown.
A week to the day after we returned to Rubicon, Flossie and Parm were married in Gin Sasse's front parlor. A small group of us including a gaunt and pale Matt Dillon attended the ceremony. Parm's daughters still weren't happy about the union or sharing their father with a saloon gal, but they'd learned a thing or two about Miss Flossie, which had formed the basis for respect. Parm and Flossie had decided to stay on at the boarding house for a time longer figuring Mrs. Sasse could use the support and the girls could get to know their future teacher, Miss Yolanda Boman.
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Matt's buckskin was tied to the back of the stage. The big gelding was restless and stomping his hooves impatiently on the hard baked Texas soil. He tossed his head against the pull of the reins and whinnied loudly. Charlie stood at attention holding the coach door open for us. But Matt and I held back, reluctant to leave, hard pressed to find the words to say, `good bye.'
Flossie moved forward and wrapped her arms around me. "Just remember Sweetie, there's always a home for you here in Rubicon. You're part of the family you know." The two little girls flanking her sides looked up at their new mother, and I judged my friend had a few adventures of her own awaiting her in the rearing of Parm's young daughters.
Matt looked to Parm, "I owe you a debt I can never repay."
The tough rancher chewed a bit on the cigar sticking out of his mouth. "What goes around comes around Matt."
Georgie Potter pushed his way through the throng; he stood for a moment than gave me a shy five finger wave. I moved away from Matt and Flossie, "I must be doing something wrong." He declared, "I just keep losing one beautiful woman after another."
I ran my fingers along his stubbled cheek, "Oh Georgie, maybe you should stop searching in someone else's bed and start looking in your own."
He smiled back, "Ol' Irmagaard … she's not much to look at, and Lord knows she's got the coldest feet this side of boot hill, but … there's something to be said for the having as opposed to the wanting."
I replaced my hand with my lips and gave him a soft peck on the cheek. "I'll never forget you Georgie, you are my hero." The old fellow blushed at my praise.
"You take care of yourself Miss Cassie."
Charlie checked his pocket watch, and shifted his feet. "Um Marshal Dillon," he said, "We really should get rolling if we're gonna make Lebanon by dark."
"Kitty?" Matt asked.
I nodded taking one last look to the Boarding House porch where Gin Sasse stood next to the little girl who had lost her mother to Verdon Spencer's men. The child's hand was locked in hers. I focused on their hands for a moment and couldn't be sure whose grasp was tighter. I looked up and our eyes met. "Just a minute please Charlie."
I didn't wait for his answer but walked through the crowd to Gin, with Matt following behind me. In the weeks since Gabe's death the Widow Sasse had kept her sorrow to herself, seeking the comfort of no one as she tended to those who had been injured at Black Mesa and the little girl who'd suffered so severely under Spencer's rule. There had been no relatives to claim a right to the orphan and I had to reckon this was God's way of making amends.
I bit my lip as I stood before her; I guess I'd hoped for some magic words to say which would lessen the hurt I knew she was feeling. Instead it was she who reached out to me. "Gabe thought the world of you Cassie, I guess I should have been a little jealous at times, but I wasn't."
"Why not?" I asked.
"I think you be knowing that … what you and Matthew have … it's not so different from what Gabe and I had … it's a feeling that the other is always there, even though we may have been separated by miles and miles, I always knew a part of him was here," her hand let go of mine to pat her chest, "locked in my heart."
I nodded because my throat was too tight for words to find their way out.
"You and Matthew must cherish each other, tis a gift you are the one for the other."
I looked down at my feet so she wouldn't see the tears I was blinking back. Matt leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug. I heard the words he whispered for her ears. "He's still there you know, he always will be..."
Behind us Charlie cleared his throat loudly, "Either you leave with me now, or save the trip for tomorrow …"
"Off with you then - God's speed and God's Blessings be to you both."
With his hand to my back Matt guided me to the waiting coach, he gave me a hand up and then climbed in behind me.
"So long…" They called. "Adios."
I leaned over Matt and waved as Charlie released the break and cracked the whip. The coach moved with a jerk. I continued watching out the window until Rubicon was nothing more than a speck silhouetted against the Texas horizon.