The Soldier and the Bandit – Extended Epilogue

Two Months Later

“Can you believe this day has come? I can scarcely believe it’s real!” Mary gushed as she hurried out of the church.

Xavier laughed at her excitement, following closely behind her with his palm pressed in her own. She was truly beautiful, dressed in a bold green dress for the wedding, the color of her eyes. He had not stopped staring at her in the gown since she had appeared at the church that morning, ahead of the ceremony. The smile on her face lifted her full cheekbones, and her excitement was as palpable as his own.

“It has happened. Should I prove it to you?” he asked and pulled on her hand. Their guests were leaving the church slowly, but they hovered a short way behind, giving Xavier the minute alone that he wished for with his bride.

Pulling on her hand, he drew her into a kiss. Mary turned her face up toward him, and as his lips pressed to hers, he felt his heart thud hard in his chest. He was reminded of the first day they had met, when she had nursed him. That day, she had promised him someday the war would be a thing of the past, and the hurt would be gone. Now, he saw how right she was.

Unlike the war, the adventure he’d experienced with Albert was fresh in his mind. He didn’t doubt that some of the darkest moments from both experiences would haunt him, and still come back to him in his most lonesome moments. Yet these days those memories felt more like scars upon his skin. They no longer felt like deep wounds.

As Mary stepped back from him, she giggled with delight, and he smiled.

I wouldn’t take back that experience for the world.

The hunt with Albert had changed a lot. Not only had Xavier met a man who truly needed a helping hand, but he had everything he ever wanted because of it. The money from the bounties had gone toward paying off his father’s mortgage, investing in the farm, and also introducing some changes to the house, ready for Mary’s arrival. With so much money left over, he was able to pay for a nice wedding, keep some savings for their future, and also buy a present for Mary. A present she did not yet know about.

“Xavier!” a voice called to him.

He tilted his head away from Mary, just as her arm threaded through his own. Completely distracted by her and that touch, it was with some difficulty that Xavier shifted his focus toward the voice calling to him.

Sheriff Barker hurried out of the church. Dressed well, the former soldier was almost unrecognizable without his broad white hat and the gun holsters at his hips.

“Congratulations, son, I just had to shake your hand.” He stepped forward and offer his hand. “I wish you happiness to you both.”

“Thank you, sir, and thank you so much for coming,” Xavier said, surprised the sheriff had come all the way from his hometown just to see Xavier get married.

“Glad to see you so happy.” Barker stepped back, lowering his hand. “I have my thanks to give you too.”

“Thanks? What for?” Xavier asked.

“That little favor you did me,” Barker lowered his voice. “Seems I’m going up in the world. Got me more respect now my town is the one that caught those thieves. Thanks to you, Ashby, the law is giving me more men, a bigger budget, and some better marshals.”

“It was nothing, sir, really.” Xavier was eager to walk away with his bride. He’d waited so long to begin his life with Mary.

“Oh, one more thing before you go. This arrived for you.” Barker pushed a hand in his jacket and pulled out a letter. “Thought you might like to read it today.” He winked and patted Xavier on the shoulder. “Congratulation to you both.”

Xavier turned his eyes to the lettering on the envelope, not recognizing it.

“Come on, Xavier, or do I have to drag you to the wagon?” Mary pleaded with him, whispering in his ear.

“No dragging necessary.” He laughed and pocketed the letter before hurrying with her to the wagon and helping her up. She stood tall and threw the bouquet in the air, as other ladies hurried around her, each one trying to catch the bouquet. Xavier sat beside her, reaching into his pocket to pull out the letter again. As Mary busied herself talking to the ladies, Xavier took the opportunity to tear open the letter and peer inside.

At first, the writing meant nothing to him, though as he began the letter, the contents revealed just who had written to him.

Dear Xavier,

I suppose it will surprise you to receive a letter from me, especially as the last time we met I was put behind bars. Sheriff Barker told me of the good news, that you were to be married, and was kind enough to lend me some paper and ink to write this letter.

I just wanted to offer my congratulations for this happy occasion. From what I remember of that house of yours, though I may not have had the fairest view of it as I was tied to the table for so long, it needed some money to be spent on it. I hope you make it a fine place for you and your wife, a place to truly call a home.

I wanted you to know that I’ve had my sentence from the courts. I expect Barker has told you as much himself. In a few weeks, they’ll be transferring me to a jail up north. Fortunately, they’re separating Roger and me. Thank the Lord. I don’t think I could spend the next few years staring at his vengeful face. 

What’s strange is I feel a sense of calmness of what is to come. I don’t fear the time in prison and accept it’s what I owe for the crimes I’ve done. I wanted you to be the first to know that when I do finally get out of here, I’m not planning to return to my old ways. Believe me, I’m going to run from any gang I meet as fast as I can! I picture a quiet life now, maybe even on a farm someday. You showed me a different way to live life since the war, Xavier, and I thank you for that, as much as for your help with finding Duncan and Roger. It changed a lot for me.

Well, I should sign off. Barker is upset at how much of his ink I have been using.

Let me wish you the best of happiness. I hope you have a good life with your wife, Xavier, and the farm prospers.

Thanks again. For everything.

Albert.

Smiling Xavier closed up the letter and put it in his pocket, just as Mary sat down beside him. Taking the harnesses of the horses, he flicked the reins and urged them on their way. The wagon set off and Mary laughed as she fell back into the seat, her shoulder colliding with his own.

“What did you letter say?” she asked as she leaned into him.

“I’ll show it to you later. It’s from Albert.”

“Albert? The thief you went hunting with?” she murmured in surprise. “What can he have to say?”

“The soldier I went hunting with,” Xavier said with a smile. “From now on, I will call him that. It’s how I should remember him, rather than the thief he was. He was writing to congratulate us.”

Mary smiled warmly before resting her head on her shoulder.

“I still can scarcely believe we are married.” Her voice pitched high. 

“Well, there is something else you won’t be able to believe soon.” Xavier reached into a different pocket of his jacket and pulled out another slip of paper that he handed to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Read it.”

She sat up in the seat as he turned the wagon down the track road which led to the farm. Shifting the paper in her hands, she raised it closer to her eyes, the better to read it.

“A boat trip? We are going on a boat trip?” she asked, her eyes growing so wide that the green irises were plainly visible.

“We go in two days, love,” he declared and sat taller in the seat. “Our honeymoon, Mary. Somewhere away from here.”

“A honeymoon!” She wrapped her arms around him with so much vigor that he was nearly knocked from the seat. He laughed and turned to kiss her, then flicked his eyes back to the road and took control of the horses that were in danger of going off the track.

***

“Do you like your present, love?” Xavier asked as he laid flat on the bed, with Mary’s head resting on his shoulder. Her long arm wrapped around his chest, as he bent his chin toward her, kissing her on the temple.

“I love it. I’ve never been on a boat such as this before. It’s vast. So full of people too. It feels as if we are drifting away from the world we know.” She sighed with happiness, closing her eyes as she pressed herself against him.

“Maybe we are,” he whispered, feeling there was some truth in her words. Something about the honeymoon made him feel as if they were sailing far away from reality, into some great distance. When he came home, it wouldn’t exactly be like coming back down to earth with a bump. After all, the farm was vastly different these days. He had more animals, and farmhands to help look after the place. The house had new furnishings, and he was even thinking of putting in a new kitchen.

It is like living a dream.

With the thought, Xavier’s eyes drifted closed. At first, he fell into a happy dream. He and Mary were somewhere, in a building he didn’t recognize, dancing together. Then a crack came from the other side of the room, something so loud that they froze in their dancing, turning to statues.

Mary asked him what was happening, but he didn’t have an answer. 

The dream became tarnished with a memory. The vivid recollection of a grenade that had half blown, and was thrown over his head, alight with flames passed by them. He’d seen that grenade, but it was back in the war, a long time ago.

Xavier sat up in the bed, so abruptly that Mary fell off from where she had been embracing him. The dream slipped away. 

“Xavier? What’s wrong?” she asked, but he didn’t answer.

It had been a while since he’d suffered such dreams that reminded him of the war.

What had caused it? Was there a sound? 

“Did you hear anything?” 

Yet before Mary could answer him, more sounds followed beyond the door of their cabin. The sound of wood cracking, and people running along the deck. There were shouts too and calls for help.

“Something’s happening.” Xavier leapt to his feet, just as Mary did. She hastened to grab a gown and pull it over her nightdress, as Xavier reached for the door and flung it open. Poking his head through the gap, he looked down the corridor to see people running, fleeing for the edge of the deck.

“Run, run!”

“Jump!” 

A multitude of cries filled the air.

“The fire – it’s out of control.”

“Fire,” Xavier repeated, then turned back to face Mary. “Fire, Mary! Don’t grab anything, let’s just go.” He only turned to grab his shirt, and some boots, then reached for Mary’s hand. She had somehow found time to grab a bag, despite his words, but he didn’t argue with her.

“Someone might be hurt in the fire,” she explained. Any other time, he would have smiled. Even now Mary was thinking of her duties as a nurse, wishing to help others, more than herself.

He drew her down the corridor between the cabins, toward where a crowd had gathered at the end of the hall. There were cries, even someone yelping, as if in pain.

“Don’t open that door!” one person called, but they were too late. The door was flung open, and the heat emanating from it was instant. The flames raged high over their heads.

“Get back.” Xavier pulled Mary back as far as possible, then some others, drawing them away from the flames, then he kicked the door shut. It would hold the flames for a few minutes, but nothing more. “Find another way to the deck. Go!”

He took Mary’s hand and the two of them ran together, sprinting as fast as they could through the hallway, but they were hampered by the others that ran around them. Each person was so desperate to escape that they began to elbow others out of the way. When one plump man elbowed Mary in the side to get past her, Xavier snatched her out of harm’s way, so she ran alongside the wall instead.

They burst through a door at the other end of the corridor, and clambered upstairs. Mary slipped more than once on the hem of her gown, but Xavier pushed her forward. She never gave up, not once. If anything, she was more concerned about him, as was usual, constantly looking at him.

He was reminded of the war, all too vividly. How many times had he seen men fleeing a place, trying to escape with their lives? How many times had he seen fire as the cause of that fear? This would be another memory to add to the scars…

“Don’t stop,” Xavier called to Mary, pushing her ahead of him. “Just keep running.”

At the top of the stairs, Mary burst through a closed door, with Xavier close behind her. They stumbled out onto the deck, when Mary grabbed his arm and pointed a tremulous hand back at the main body of the ship.

Where the steam pipes usually sat, pumping smoke into the air, there were now flames. The smoke still hovered, but it was high overhead #, the black color mixing with the dark sky and hiding any chance of glimpsing the stars.

“I have never seen a fire like it,” Mary whispered in horror.

“I have. It won’t stop, Mary. This whole ship is doomed.” He’d seen it once in the war. A whole campsite was torn down in minutes by a fire. 

There was no chance they could stay here.

“We have to get off this ship.” He drew Mary toward the edge of the ship, where others were climbing the railings, vaulting into the sea. He helped Mary climb up first, so that she stood on the other side of the rails, then climbed over himself. They reached for one another’s hand, clinging tight.

“Xavier… I can’t swim,” Mary said, her voice barely audible at all.

“I won’t let you fall, alright? When we hit the water, just hold onto me.” He nodded at her, showing he had no intention of letting her go. She nodded too, in agreement, chewing her lip. He could see the fear, evident on her face, though she didn’t give way to it as many had behind them on the deck, screaming as if they had lost their minds.

“Now!” Xavier called. The two of them leapt into the air and plummeted toward the water.

When his feet hit the water, he plunged into the cold. There wasn’t a place the water did not reach and envelop, soaking him through, as though it reached his very bones. Under the water, he reached for Mary, for their hands had lost one another as they jumped. He could just about see her silhouette through the water, backed by the orange light of the fire overhead. He took hold of her waist, pulling her toward him. Her face appeared through the murky water, her eyes squinted, and her red hair in tendrils, hanging in the water.

Swimming upward, he gathered her to his side and reached for the surface, pushing their heads through the surface. They both took big gulps of air, breathing in deeply.

“The riverbank,” Mary said, between spluttering coughs. “Xavier, it’s not far.” He turned, seeing where she was pointing. Others who had jumped from the ship were now clambering out onto the earth nearby.

They swam together, with Mary struggling to kick and follow his movements. When they reached the shallows, he urged her to put her feet down, and they climbed out of the water. As their feet stepped onto dry land, they fell into a bundle together, with Mary sitting in his lap. His arms wrapped tightly around her waist, and she clung around his neck.

“That was… too close,” she murmured. “We might have slept through the fire. We could have died!”

“But we didn’t,” he said, and smiled. Feeling a strange sort of happiness overtaking him, he reached for Mary’s chin and urged her to look at him. “All we’ve lost is clothes, Mary. Nothing more. Everything we’ve got that matters is here, isn’t it?”

“Very true,” she whispered and held up her hand, revealing that she had gone to bed wearing her wedding ring. Reaching up, he kissed her on the cheek, realizing just how much had changed since he had met Mary.

There was a time when the nightmares he lived felt like they could tear him apart, just as they tore other soldiers apart, but not anymore. Where Albert was still haunted by his memories at night, Xavier was not controlled by them.

Someday, I hope Albert finds his reason to live freely, without being haunted, just as I have. 

“We’re alive, Mary, and that is all that matters,” he whispered to her, sitting there calmly as they watched the fire burn.

“Well, we certainly won’t forget this trip, will we?” she said, startling him enough to make him laugh.

“We certainly won’t!”

THE END


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26 thoughts on “The Soldier and the Bandit – Extended Epilogue”

    1. Thank you for a wonderful book it was great with lots of adventures waiting on a new book you are such a great western writer. Jim

  1. I loved the book. It had all the action and suspense that I have come to expect. I look forward to your next book.

  2. The characters were very human they experienced lots of human frailty it had hero’s that were realistic and still very human ,Thank you Derek

  3. It was an unusual story. Well written and enjoyable as well as very interesting. Good bunch of characters even the bad were really bad but glad Albert was really not really bad. Thank you for a good read.

  4. Enjoyed your book.
    Maybe you will write about Albert..
    Letting us know how his life finished.
    Thank you for excellent stories.

  5. The extended epilogue was just wonderful, the excitement didn’t end, but continued! What’d book, lots of action and lots of drama! So don’t miss this one, this could mean a new book in the making! 🌬📚🎭🤠🐝🎶

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